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Like Christmas, But With More You

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It’s official. Tony’s life’s work has been an entirely wasted effort. What exactly is the point, he asks himself for the third time, in spending an hour choosing the playlist for the night and setting up a dozen security barriers to stop it getting meddled with, only to have it all unwritten in a matter of seconds in the most irritating possible-

“JARVIS, could you please play White Christmas?” Steve calls out, so very politely that it would take someone with a heart of stone to deny him - or, quite possibly, a robot with no heart at all. If Tony had managed to program him right, that is.

Of course he’s ended up coding an AI with a soft spot for Captain America. He has more of his father in him than he thought.

“Is there anyone who doesn’t take orders from you?” He grumbles as he slips past Steve in the crowd, heading to the bar for maybe the fifth time to the soft crooning of Bing Crosby (it should really be killing the party, but plenty of people have paired off to slow dance and everyone else is busy photobombing their romantic little bubbles. It helps that someone else is jazzing it up by playing a loud dubstep beat on their Stark Industries phone. 1-1 equalizer to Tony.)

“Sometimes. They usually come around pretty quick, though,” Steve jokes, with his wicked little innocent smile. His face quickly clouds. “What is this, your seventh drink? Tony, it’s barely eleven.”

“I’m still on five, not that it’s any of your business.”

“I think I can count better than a man who’s had seven drinks.”

The crowd sweeps him along on his way, and Tony lifts a hand with fingers splayed out. “Five,” he mouths energetically. Steve laughs, shakes his head, and disappears behind yet another dozen people who weren’t invited, for the love of…

“I can’t not throw a party,” was his excuse, though he was only talking aloud to himself, so who was he trying to fool? “I’ll just make it a quiet little affair – no tacky Christmas music, no flashing lights or press releases…” The warning sign was how much that thought made him shudder. “It might even be fun,” he muttered to JARVIS as he scanned three light blue, holographic address books. “I’ll just invite a few close friends.”

About fifteen minutes later, Tony realized he didn’t have any close friends.

Stumped and nursing a whisky, Tony mulled over the thought that maybe, just maybe, this sort of thing was part of the reason she’d gone. He didn’t throw mature, modest little parties. He didn’t chat quietly over a glass of champagne and greet people delightedly by their first names when they walked in the door. Hell, he hadn’t even known Phil was called “Phil”.

And maybe it was for the best that she was moving on, he tried to tell himself again. She could have quiet, sophisticated parties with what-was-his-name-again the singer, and she wouldn’t have to worry about her new boyfriend getting drunk and hitting his head on the top left corner of the Empire State Building and briefly losing consciousness and getting carried almost to Brooklyn on top of a taxi cab if the driver hadn’t swerved hard enough when he broke out of the traffic, and oh my god, Pepper, that was one time, and one time hardly necessitated three shouting matches and at least half a dozen snide comments, especially when it proved beyond reasonable doubt that JARVIS’ new F-DAP 4 (Freefall Detection and Prevention) worked. Well, better than the first three had, anyway.

Eventually Tony decides to run his favorite Arbitrary Decision Algorithm through JARVIS and comes out with a reasonably-sized list. He briefly considers sending out paper invites, but he’s not quite sure where he’d begin with that, and there’s no way they could look as nice; even if he is trying to avoid the snazzy approach.

That’s when he realizes, sad as it may be, that the Avengers are the closest thing he has to real friends and family. Tragic, really. He’s inviting his colleagues. (And this way he can pretend it’s sappy and sentimental, which Pepper would just love. Which Pepper is going to love, when she reads about it. Little by little, he’s going to change her mind. Still, the reality is, there’s nothing as much fun as Natasha and Thor when they’re drunk, and no better opportunity to poke at Bruce, see if it all ends up in a deliciously hefty repairs bill again. They’ll be the guests of honor.)

He certainly didn’t expect this kind of show based on how they helped decorate the tree.

Well, okay, Steve helped decorate the tree. Natasha necked shots and told them they’d missed a spot. Bruce had politely declined with the excuse that tinsel made him irrationally angry. Thor got very excited by the concept of decoration, but for some reason seemed keen to sacrifice a goat, so Tony had banned him from the Tree Committee. And as for Clint…well, he’d spent so much time artlessly draping the whole box of decorations about, intermittently exclaiming “Wow,” “Such chic,” “Very tree” and “Hashtag Swagmas” that Tony had ended up banning him, too.

Steve decorated beautifully, chatting and laughing quietly with Tony, getting the high branches he couldn’t reach. Everything he picked out was red or gold.

At that point, at least, everything had been nice and calm. It felt almost like a quiet night in.

“FUCK! FUCK YEAH! YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH GET SOME!”

To be fair, this did sound like a Stark night in.

It just wasn’t normally followed by Tony yelling “Barton! Don’t make me tell you twice what I’ll do to your arrows!”

Natasha smiled at him wryly. Somehow, in the middle of the crowd upon which Clint was surfing, she had claimed an entire sofa and was lounging across it. Actually, it was probably the small clearing of admirers surrounding her that had gained her the peace and quiet of that spot. “Did I ever tell you about the time I was taught the English phrase ‘lost cause’?”

And that was at the point where Tony could still hear people who weren’t right next to his ear.

The partial deafness is something of a blessing by now, though (and not just for White Christmas). It’s just a shame Thor has a voice which resounds throughout the seven realms, because Tony is growing steadily more resigned and piss-drunk, and the kaleidoscope of wordless noise and toasts to Midgard is really throwing off his system.

Oh god, he realizes suddenly, and it’s taken him a while, but there are kids here?!

He’s a genius, and it wouldn’t have taken him to work out what was going on there: however it had gotten out that it was open bar at Stark tower, the news had clearly hit home for everyone stuck babysitting over the holidays. Apparently, a few of them were so depressed by their predicament they’d taken some sort of hallucinogen that informed them it was a good idea to bring the infants along to meet Iron Man (and his vintage whisky).

Alcohol, he tells himself; alcohol is probably what you’re thinking of there. And, having reminded himself, he mutters “Don’t mind if I do,” and sets off to the other side of the room to get another, resolving not to talk to his misguided Asgardian colleague even if he can’t help hearing him.

“What is your name, young warrior?” Thor asks.

“Jake,” the boy says back to him loudly. “Of Midgard,” he adds. Kid knows all the right terms, the little charmer.

“Well, Jake of Midgard,” Thor announces, “It is high time for you to witness your surroundings from a height which befits your courage.” Totally smitten. He picks up the kid and sits him on Mjolnir, kid looking like he’s about to wet his pants with joy, and Tony can see where this is going – he claps and rubs his hands together, which reminds him he isn’t holding a drink in either of them. Back to the bar for him, right after he’s done letting the image of a screeching child, whirling round Stark Towers at a hundred miles an hour atop the hammer of Thor, burn into his eyes - for reference during future periods of depression.

And boy, is he ever screeching. It soon turns to huge, wracking sobs, and Thor slows down with a look of concern heavy on his strong features. He sets Jake and Mjolnir on the floor, and Jake cries loudly for a good few seconds.

Then, little shoulders still heaving, his face splits into a grin and he screams “Again!”

Steve is looking a little bemused by it all. Tony sidles over to him and they both gaze out into the party from the edge for a minute or so. Tony tilts his head towards Cap a little for audibility; letting his natural distaste and irritability shine through his best Lindsey Lohan impression, he says, “OK, so I got enough cheese and crackers for eight people – do you think that’s enough?”

“What?” Steve says.

Tony sighs. “Remind me to make you watch that film at the next available opportunity.”

Steve quirks an eyebrow. “Having fun?” He asks, voice raised loud over the music.

“Don’t look at my drinks when you say that, you rapscallion.”

“You are holding one in each hand.”

“Want one?”

Steve scoffs good-naturedly.

“Suit yourself,” Tony says, and downs the one on the right. It’s delicious. Too sweet to be one of his own.

Steve snatches the left and does the same. Tony’s caught off-guard for a moment – his head flicks back round to watch him swallow it all down, and it’s the longest someone’s held the conversational stick around Tony Stark without actually talking for quite some time.

Finally he pulls off the glass, breathing out hard and wiping the glisten off his top lip. Tony’s eyes follow it all with a typically tipsy, grasping instability.

“You’re drunk.”

“Am I,” Tony says, voice oozing sarcasm. Or maybe just excess alcohol. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Wouldn’t be surprised. How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Do I count the ones in your butt?”

Steve snorted. “Did that make sense in your head?”

“Yeah. ‘Cause you have a stick up your butt. ‘Cause you’re a prude.”

“A prude who likes anal play?” Steve joked before Tony could add “Captain Prudemerica”, and okay, he is drunk, but did this conversation just get sexual? And did he make it that way, or did Steve?

“I’m drunk,” he admits whole-heartedly.

“Thank you,” Steve says to that, taking the other glass. His voice suddenly goes low – more concerned than jovial. “Look, Tony, it’s not that I don’t want you to have a good time, but – and, well, I don’t know exactly where you are with…well, relationship-wise…”

Ouch. More Pepper feels. Hang on, is Steve coming onto him? Tony blinks woozily at the crowd. He might need to throw up if he wants more drinks, because he has to be seriously stonkered if that’s what this seems like.

“But there are a lot of girls here who seem to be interested in you,” Steve goes on, “And I just thought you’d like to know, since a lot of them seem to be...what’s the word…well, not wielding as such, but they do have mistletoe. And they nearly got you a few times already. And the crowd…really likes mistletoe.”

Well, isn’t that perfect and fine and dandy. Tony has a vision of himself being chanted at by a room full of people, screaming “KISS” at him and some devious young vixen, shouting “BLOW IT UP” because that was what people usually chanted at him, yelling “TAKE IT OFF” because that was what he usually chanted at people, and boy was beer ever good at awakening all your interconnected chanting memories…

“Thanks for the heads up,” he mutters, patting Steve on the arm and moving along.

He doesn’t notice any of the Avengers for at least an hour or so after that, but the party is weaving itself ever thicker, ever more riotous, a waxy tapestry folding in on itself in looped up layers. There’s a formula to be found there. X = a*b^2, where a is the number of people and b the number of drinks consumed…

He doesn’t have any himself for that hour, since he’s spotted at least two girls with mistletoe, the crafty things, just like Steve warned him. At least that’s at least one unit out of his system. Maybe in another hour he’ll sip on something else. For now, at least, he can keep his head when all around him are losing theirs, and blaming it on him…

Kipling quotes. Drastic. Tragic, Stark. He’s getting emotional. Again. Steve hadn’t actually even mentioned Pepper.

But there’s this little nugget of ice in Tony’s chest. Most of the time it doesn’t bother him at all, but then sometimes something will nudge it just right, which seems to complete a circuit inside him and leave his body cold and aching. When next he finds his friends, Steve has popped out to get some cheap toys as gifts for the kids, and one of the teddy bears he brings back reminds him so much of one he once got for her that he has to look away.

His life is honestly a shambles. Most people would be warmed, watching Captain America give a teddy to a wide-eyed eight-year-old girl. It’s nothing short of selfish to be thinking of her now. But what’s new there?

Tony suddenly gets a horrible, wide feeling of dread. It’s not a panic attack, not this time – even weirder, it seems to be precognition. When he turns round, a brunette drops her hands behind her back and completely fails to appear nonchalant.

Tony steps up to her, smiles, yanks the mistletoe out of her grip and heads to flush it down the toilet or someplace else Barton won’t find it.

He’s feeling almost sober when he stumbles, rather than falls, back downstairs, so he accepts the drink and well-wishes Thor presents him with.

“Interesting,” Tony says slowly, inspecting the sick on the walls. Projectile vomit. “I reckon I could work out a maximum angular velocity for a ride on Thor’s Hammer of Fun – just for future reference, you know – from this section over the door.” He’s seen that type of puke before, too. “And who brought caterpillar cake? Is there any left for me?”

“I’ve got something for you,” someone calls to him, and they’re climbing up on a chair, and it’s a guy so Tony only just manages to properly register in time to snatch it away from him.

He lifts up the fat green sprig. “Uh, okay, everyone? Mistletoe is hereby banned. Repeat, no more mistletoe - find some other excuse to ram it down each other’s throats, thank you.”

“Forgive me, friend,” Thor said, “But what is this toe of missile of which you speak?”

“Apology not accepted,” Tony says sharply, and wheels round, the room already blurring around him – wow, this drink packs a punch – and nearly walks straight into Steve, who catches him by the wrists. So much for sobriety.

“You sure know how to throw a party.”

“Conceded,” Tony concedes, “But I didn’t throw this one.” He shakes his head. “Well, at least the kids are loving it. We should start up a kindergarten.”

“That’s actually not a bad idea. Are you sure you’re drunk?”

Tony gives one humorless wheeze of laughter. “I stopped for a whole hour. It’s not my fault that this…this…well, Thor gave it to me,” he says by way of explanation.

“Ah,” Steve says, looking at the glass with new respect and trepidation.

“KISS!” Someone screams, and Tony jumps, but it isn’t aimed at him.

Steve’s smiling at him. “They not got you yet?”

Tony suddenly realizes he’s still holding the latest sprig of mistletoe. “I have to go finish confiscating this,” he announces, waving it. If only he had some way of hiding it en route.

The crowd breaks up a little around somebody – so quickly that it must be an Avenger – as he’s on his way out. The music thumps against Tony’s head; he doesn’t turn back to check until it’s confirmed on his behalf.

“Hey, Tony-“ Clint says, dancing over. “The line for the bathroom’s real long,” he says, and then, “Can I go in one of your suits?”

Tony stops stock-still. “What? No!” He lets the full shock filter through, then adds a more appropriately adamant “No!”

He wheels round and finally makes it to the empty arch of the doorway, or almost, though he feels a little like he might throw up or fall over, on second thoughts, in spite of his earlier hopes – and that’s when he notices even more goddamned mistletoe hanging there in the archway, and a girl with short red hair approaches him and says “Merry Christmas, Mr Stark” silkily like this is actually about to happen and he holds up his hand and she has his hands on his arms and she’s leaning in and then he sees Steve’s face as he emerges from the crowd looking sweaty like he’s been dancing and having fun for once and good for him and then it brushes his hair and

BLAM

And half the wall is gone, well, not gone, but not-where-it-should-be class gone, and crumbling, and maybe a little on fire, and hey, his repulsors are good for nothing if not blowing up mistletoe. He didn’t even miss.

The girl is gaping at him. So are quite a few others. It’s gone a bit quiet, and she backs away.

The party being a party, things gradually kick in again.

Has Tony fallen over or puked yet? He might do those things now.

Suddenly Steve’s there, so any attempts at the former will certainly fail. “Quick question – are you out of your mind?”

“Oh, hey, Pepper did come,” Tony slurs wryly. Wryslur. Slurry.

“Maybe you misheard. They were shouting ‘KISS’, not ‘BLOW IT UP’”, Steve remarks.

“Take it off,” Tony completes absently, and it’s not until Steve pardons himself in confusion that Tony realizes he’s holding onto the front of his tight white t-shirt.

He lets it go, but his un-repulsor-covered hand is flat and steady against him as he turns to look out on the chaos. There’s a queue of at least ten kids waiting for a go on Thor’s Hammer of Fun-der, and the room is pulsing, swinging and swaying around him. Tony’s starting to feel like he’s just had a spin on Mjolnir himself.

“Gotta get out of here,” he mutters to Steve. “Don’t wanna blow anything else up. Christ. A+ for effort, right? Of course she wasn’t ever gonna come,” he slurs.

Steve fixes him with a look, understanding the foundations of his rambling without another word. “Let’s get you somewhere quiet.”

“Yeah,” Tony agrees. “Let’s go back to my place. I mean, the quiet bit. We’re already in my place. It’s all my place. You know what I mean. The good part.”

Steve knows what he means. He leads him through the corridors, one hand on his back, and up the stairs, to his quiet little lounge-come-lair.

It’s such a little boys’ den, guilty pleasure, bachelor’s pad. The staircase – stepladder? – leading up to it folds down like it’s an attic. It kind of is. When the windows aren’t at full opacity, you can see the whole city over the top curve of a giant ‘S’.
Tony heads up first. Behind him, unless he’s very much mistaken – or, more likely, very much drunk - Steve stumbles on the rungs and laughs at himself softly.

“Steve?” Tony can’t believe he’s even about to ask this. “Are you drunk?

“No!” Steve exclaims. Then, “Thor may have brought Asgardian mead,” he admits in a quieter voice.

Of course he’s not drunk, Tony tells himself two seconds later, but yes, makes sense that the stuff of the gods can knock him sideways into tipsy street. He shakes his head. This party. This goddamn party. The one time it’s meant to be low-key, even Captain America gets his booze on.

“So,” Captain America says, as he collapses onto the sofa next to Tony. “Talk to me.”

“I don’t like talking.”

Steve raises an eyebrow perfectly. He’s learned from the master, after all.

“I miss Pepper,” Tony whines instantly. “And life sucks. Also, life sucks. Did I mention that? And this was gonna be a great little sophisticated party and then she would come back for more great little sophisticated parties…and…and." He says. "And.”

Steve stares at him for a long, long moment, then bites his lip. He leans towards Tony - then his shoulders heave.

He rocks backwards against the arm of the sofa, nearly choking with the effort of holding in his laughter.

Tony gapes. “This – hey!” He whacks his arm. “This is not funny, you asshole!”

“Sorry!” He splutters. “I’m not laughing at you!”

“Oh, then someone give this man an Oscar,” Tony implores the room loudly, arms outstretched. Dummy and You come wheeling through the door, beeping inquisitively.

“But Tony!” He goes on, nearly weeping. “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry, but ‘little sophisticated party’?”

“I know,” he says, voice flat as asphalt.

“I think I saw half the Red Sox here.”

“I know.”

“Natasha sent someone away in an ambulance.”

“I know.”

“Thor swung children around till they puked.”

“I know.”

“Not to mention the fact you blew up your own wall…”

“I kn--”

“…And one guy apparently ate his own arm.”

“I – okay, now you’re just fucking with me.”

Steve’s eyes twinkle. He puts down his drink. “Tony. Tony, Tony, Tony.”

Tony closes his eyes and hums his dissatisfaction with that fact.

Steve’s shaking his head. “What am I going to do with you,” he mutters. “Okay – for starters, are you really trying to change yourself to make someone else like you? Because that’s just not the Tony Stark I know – and besides, I hear it doesn’t actually work.”

Tony blanches. “Oh my god. I hate to say it, but you may be right.”

Steve looks startled. Maybe a little pleased with himself.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he backpedals. “I really do hate to say it. I think I have to go make myself throw up now.”

Steve laughs. “Let’s aim for word vomit rather than actual vomit.”

Tony stares at him. “You…” Steve stares back. “You?”

Steve’s smiling at his hands, sat fidgeting in his lap. “It was on TV,” he admits, “And that was pretty much the first line I heard when I walked in. Bruce made me watch some. Still haven’t seen the start or the end.”

“That bastard,” Tony swears. Steve is laughing hard again. “I’ll kill him. I will kill him. I’m going to kill him. That was my job.”

“Yes, sadly, my Mean Girls virginity has been taken,” Steve smirks. He opens his mouth again, then clears his throat, laughs and shakes his head. “So, Pepper.”

Tony sighs. “Pepper.” The name leaves him feeling hollow every time. “Are you done laughing?”

“Sorry.” He looks so guilty at that, Tony nearly apologizes himself. “Yes.”

“I thought all this might be why she left me,” Tony says, gesturing vaguely downstairs.

Steve nods carefully. “So it guess we got lucky she didn’t make it.”

“Yeah, real lucky coincidence,” he says, “But also possibly because I didn’t send her an e-vite.”

He takes a long drink.

Steve watches him penetratingly. “So.” He’s working it through in his mind, that famous analytical brain whirring into full efficiency. “You decided you would throw a low-key party to impress Pepper, show her you’ve matured.” He doesn’t laugh at that, and Tony thanks him silently a thousand times. “And then you didn’t invite Pepper?”

“She wouldn’t have come,” Tony explains. It’s not much of an explanation, really, but if he goes any further he’s worried about that little nugget of ice in his chest starting to connect.

Steve – even more silent credit in his direction – just nods his head again. He brushes some dirt off his knee before looking back up. “Have you made any progress getting her back?”

“Well, I, you know, I…” Tony searches for some quantifiable data, then remembers Steve’s a 40s man and he can probably fudge the details a little. “It’s really more of a gut feeling…”

Steve’s eyebrow is arched. He shouldn’t give Tony that look, he knows he shouldn’t. Tony slumps.

“Okay. No. Not really. Not even close, actually,” he realizes, because part of his plan to win her back has been acting sensibly by never actually going to see her (as she’d requested), apart from the usual old business-as-usual, when they act the same with each other as they do with everyone else: and that’s a terrifying situation, one that Tony always tries to pull back from, but when he does it’s like it’s all in freefall around him, with him panicking and everyone else still laughing and joking.

Steve has him fixed with a stare. “Do you want to get her back?” He asks.

Tony feels himself freeze. It’s not the chill of missing Pepper; just his muscles, suddenly arrested, and his mouth a little open, because that…of all things, that was not a question he was expecting.

He’s Tony Stark. He always gets what he wants. If not, he can always buy it. So how come he doesn’t have Pepper? Of course he wants her back – he misses her like crazy, after all. And besides – if he weren’t working on the full-time job of trying to win her round, what else was he supposed to be doing with his love life?

Steve is staring at him, waiting, patient as ever, with those big puppy eyes.

Tony stares back, takes a very deep, long breath, and turns to pour them another drink. “You know what?” He says to nobody in particular. “Now is a perfectly good opportunity to watch Mean Girls. Why not embrace the now? Let’s embrace the now. Now is fetch.”

Steve accepts the drink and settles back on the couch, though he looks a tad on edge. “Where do you keep your DVDs?”

Tony feels like he’s been smacked in the face. “You did not just say that. Who’s been telling you we still use DVDs? I swear, I’ll kill them—“

“Well, Natasha certainly gave that impression...”

“…Swear, I will give them such a talking-to…”

They look at each other for a minute then duck away, laughing. Tony gets to his feet and claps. “We’ve got it all up here. JARVIS, screen down.”

Down it goes. It’s big and shiny. Obviously. It’s like a sheet of glass, but razor-thin and without one speck of glare. It’s almost invisible, but when this bad boy gets going, it’s entirely opaque – like you just walked straight into the film.

Steve raises his eyebrows. “Am I supposed to be impressed?”

Tony scowls. “Well, yes. That is the whole point of this place.”

Steve grins. “Yeah, it’s a nice screen,” he admits, but he doesn’t so much as glance back across at it.

Tony continues to scowl. “Fury has ruined you for me,” he grumbles. “Why’d he have to bring out the helicarrier? I’ve got nothing on that. Well, not nothing, I definitely wouldn’t say nothing, but…”

Steve smiles at the floor. “You don’t need shiny toys to impress me, Tony,” he says.

Tony doesn’t know what to say to that. He decides to bring out more shiny toys. “JARVIS. Mean Girls, por favor.”

Silence.

Tony gives Steve a tight smile. Not looking away, he says “JARVIS,” in a very don’t embarrass me in front of my friend you little shit tone.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” the ceiling grovels. “We’re going to have to allocate less power to other areas of the tower to maintain our sustainable levels.”

Tony bites the inside of his cheek. “Banner’s explaining the circuitry of fairy lights to children again, isn’t he.”

“Affirmative, sir.”

“He brought his fairy lights, didn’t he.”

“There do seem to be rather a few abnormally large sets. It also appears we are approaching the point in the night you call ‘Toast Time’.”

“Can’t take them anywhere…” Tony mutters. “Alright, dim the lights. Everywhere.”

The lights go down, right down, soft shadows everywhere and a soft, caramel glow everywhere else. Tony spends a moment admiring exactly how wonderfully he calibrated those settings.

“Tony,” Steve says.

He looks at him. “Hm?”

Steve sips at the last of his mead, swirling it in his glass. “I…” He frowns at his hands and finally looks up at Tony. “I wanted – well, I, I wanted to s-“

An outrageously loud clunking makes Tony jump half out of his skin. “Jesus – Dummy? You? What the hell is going on in here?”

“Apologies,” JARVIS says. “Doctor Banner heard news of a power cut in Queens. He has demonstrated how to reroute our electricity. By doing so.”

“Do you know how done I am,” Tony says, entirely without question mark.

“If only sass could be expressed as a number…” Steve says with a long sigh, perfectly long, yes, Tony agrees with that sigh length.

“Sadly not. Much like alcohol, it’s a continuous variable.”

“It’s possible for you to be a little more discrete.”

“Is that more stuff Bruce has been teaching you?” Tony peers at him.

“One part Google mixed with two parts brilliant punning ability and a dash of lime,” Steve grins.

“I like that cocktail,” Tony says, toasting to puns. “Come on – let’s at least play table tennis. Or poke Dummy.”

“Why am I friends with you, again?” Steve grins.

In the next room – did they walk all the way there? – Tony demonstrates his answer.

“I thought I told you I don’t like bullies.”

“This isn’t bullying! It’s training!”

Dummy fails to dodge him.

“Ooh, too slow. See? He won’t make the same mistake again.”

Dummy makes the same mistake again.

“Okay, now you’re just slapping robots. Nobody has ever been that bored.” Steve leans back against the counter, looking so relaxed and so amused. “You’ll only rile them up before bedtime.”

As if in response, You comes wheeling through in small circles.

Tony’s eyes widen. “I swear, I did not program him to play Nikki Minaj.”

“Another toast,” Steve announces, “To drunken, gatecrashing hackers.”

They clink and drink. “Even the robots are drunk. Just about perfect. Well – something more fun to fix when the hangover passes, I guess.”

They play a couple of rounds of table tennis, and Steve doesn’t let Tony win, but he does let him ramble more about Pepper. It’s good to get it out.

“She was so mad. I mean, I think she saw the funny side in the end.” He pauses. “Actually, no, she never saw the funny side of F-DAP trials…”

He feels another twinge when he realizes he’s talking about it all so casually, almost as if it’s open in a new tab elsewhere instead of burning through the main processors.

But the twinge is only in the realization. With practice, it could easily become an incognito window.

Steve might be brilliant.

The robots are definitely not. Dummy is squawking like he’s just had a diode flipped round, the whinger – or maybe it’s You. He can’t differentiate their complaints, these days.

“How long’s it gonna take to clean up downstairs?” Steve asks.

“Your guess is as good as mine. But multiply it by ten if Clint is involved.”

You crashes into a wall – a box falls off the end of a shelf as he speeds away guiltily.

“Still,” Tony says, voice full of dry irony as he motionlessly stares after him, “I hold out high hopes that Pepper will return…”

Steve smirks at the joke but catches onto the tone that still hasn’t left it. “Your expectations are too high,” he observes.

“I resent that,” Tony says, wheeling round on him. “I’m Iron Man. The sky’s the limit, baby.”

Steve is smiling his little smile again, shaking his head. “Have you ever even tried to just be happy with what you’ve got?”

The squeaks and whirs grow louder, and Tony spins around. “What? Which one of you is it this time? What do you want?” And then there’s a beep, practically a coquettish little chirrup, from above his head, and he looks up to see three shiny metal pincers staring down at him with a handsome sprig of mistletoe pinched between them.

Dummy,” Tony exclaims, absolutely scandalized, while Steve laughs warmly, tipsily absent. “Where did you get that? Put it down!”

Dummy simply shakes it at him. Tony tries to reach up, but Dummy recoils by the necessary two inches easily enough.

Steve’s still laughing, and Tony looks across at him. He’s not all the way to drunk, that much is clear. Not even magical Norse-god dancing juice could get him thoroughly sloshed. But his cheeks are flushed, and his hair is, for want of a better word, messy, and he’s leaning back against the long desk with his hands braced against it and his thighs slightly spread and staring across at Tony with darkened eyes through lazy lids, and he looks, even more than usual, beautiful.

Tony’s not sure how he ends up between those thighs but it’s the next thing he’s aware of, right before Steve’s hands on his back and their lips mashed together.

For a few minutes nothing else gets in except the sound of their breathing and the kissing Steve. The biting his lips, tongues brushing and the low sound Steve makes when their bodies align. Tony can still hear the music from downstairs, even though this is the quietest spot by design, and Dummy is going crazy whirring and chirping above their heads.

It takes a while, because the kissing Steve is really good, but the thought what the fuck are you doing finally starts to sound in his head.

Tony pulls back, temples pounding, blood thudding through his body, and he thinks that the ice is about to connect, but he manages to hold it off. Instead he breathes hard, heavy, and puts one hand on the desk and the other on his face, trying to stave off a bout of hyperventilation.

“Tony?” Steve takes hold of his arms so gently, stroking them soothingly. “It’s okay. Breathe. I’m right here.”

“Yeah,” Tony replies, panic making it come out irritable. “I think that’s what’s causing it.”

Steve folds his arms. “You sure that’s not the last ten drinks talking?”

“I think it was more like seven…” But he’s right, damn him, because the room is spinning and he really, really, really hopes he isn’t about to throw up all over Captain America’s nice shiny shoes, because Captain America isn’t very likely to make out with him again if that happens.

“Dummy, could you get Tony a glass of water?”

He hears Steve asking it as though they’re both teachers and he’s a little boy in the infirmary. Next thing he knows he’s sipping it, and it’s cool and clear, and Steve is mopping his brow with something cool and damp and soft, which is really nice, but not exactly what he had in mind.

Maybe there was something in it when Pepper said he needed to slow down.

Oh, Christ, Pepper.

Tony buries his face in the sofa cushion. (How did he get there? Did Steve lead him over? Did Steve carry him?) He shouldn’t have spent so much time worrying about throwing up, he realizes, because there was a much more serious issue on the offing.

He starts to cry.

Only very quietly, obviously, and it’s not so much a sad, pouring-out-his-heart, woe-is-me kind of a cry; more of a cathartic kind. A your-relationship-has-been-over-for-six-months, if-not-more, you-idiot, and-you-wasted-a-good-six-months-of-brilliantly-meaningless-rebound-sex-with-models-before-getting-into-this. That kind of a cry. And Steve is saying his name softly, over and over, and his hand is making circles on Tony’s back, and it’s all kind of nice.

So, let’s just get it straight, he thinks. You were just kissing Steve Rogers like it was as natural as mom’s apple pie. You stopped. You’re having a bit of a crisis, okay, we can deal with that. He’s probably waiting for an explanation. You can probably either back out now or try and apologize for having a panic attack while his tongue was in your mouth. And it had better be good if so, because you’re getting his jeans kinda damp. And it really would be a crying shame not to get back to that tongue.

“She’s not coming back, is she,” Tony mumbles, but it’s barely a question anymore. He’s telling himself straight.

But Steve doesn’t take it that way, and Tony can almost hear him battling with the question. “You said it yourself,” he says eventually. “She wouldn’t have come if you’d invited her.”

He nods into the cushions, face smushed up against them, and sighs deeply into the foam.

“So why did you even bother?”

“Th’ss what’m trrn’t fggr’t,” he says, through sofa.

“You’re Tony Stark,” Steve goes on, as if Tony hadn’t spoken. To be fair to him, Tony had been a fair few vowels short of speech. His hand stops moving, but stays on Tony’s back. “If you wanted to, you could just fly right up to her and bring her back. That’s your style. That’s you. But you knew it would just make her more mad at you if you did. So you went for an understated approach. Only it didn’t work, because it’s not really you. And because she’d stopped listening. And you know that, but it’s breaking your heart to see it. So you distance yourself from it by pretending what you’re doing is slowly working, just to stop yourself from facing the facts, because you feel like it was a perfect relationship. And it was, for you. But there’s nothing to stop you having that again with someone who needs you as much as you need them. And this party, especially – part of you knew it would go wrong, surely, and it’s just another way of telling yourself that this is who you are and that’s okay. Kind of a sneaky way of telling yourself that, by pretending that you’re still trying to win her back, but haven’t all of your attempts ended this way?”

This is nice. It’s honestly nice. It’s nice to have Steve here, going through this with him; it’s as though, just for a moment, he’s got the ice from Tony’s chest and is holding it up with some forceps and examining it. Tony was always too close to it to do that; but at least if someone else takes it out to have a look at, it gets it out of his body for a while. Still, he grumbles, “I hope you’re not right. I don’t think I can handle you being right. Not on top of everything else, tonight.”

Steve just chuckles. “Only you,” he mutters, looking off to the side, and that’s when Tony finally realizes.

Steve isn’t right. At least, not entirely. He’s been trying to get Pepper back, yes, sort of – but not just so he could get Pepper back, as if it ever would have worked; so that he could run away from what was staring him in the face, helping him decorate the tree, hacking into his playlist and kissing him like he’s been thinking about it for the best part of a year. Maybe more. God, what if it’s more?

This is exactly the sort of thing he would do. Try and cling onto a relationship he basically sabotaged himself, even though everyone and their blind brother could see he was getting nowhere with it, just to avoid admitting to himself that he might be more than a bit gay for his teammate.

It’s Steve.

Of course it’s Steve.

He sits up, wincing at his head, stops Steve from holding him steady, looks him straight in the eye and says “I’ve been a grade A jackass” by way of an apology, then kisses him quick before he can say anything else stupid, or drink anything else stupid, or cry again, or something stupid.

He’s so glad to be conscious of starting it this time. Steve’s lips are so warm, and so are his cheeks, and his hands on Tony’s face. He’s warm like he’s blushing, loudly blushing, like he hasn’t been kissed in seventy years. Tony has a lot of time to make up for.

Tony’s chest is warm when he pulls back. Steve is breathless, restless, eyes out of focus. His lips are red and he tries to kiss him again, but Tony presses a hand to his chest and says, “You don’t care if I nearly kill myself every other day?”
Steve stares so hard and soft at him then breathes, “Of course I do,” with his lips against his jaw, a sensation which sends a shiver up Tony’s spine. “But that’s more than a bit hypocritical.”

Tony laughs at that, and then they’re kissing again, and he’s loving it, this chance to finally do something reckless and silly and fun, grabbing handfuls of Steve’s strong, supple back and fistfuls of golden-blond hair until he ends up in his lap, and isn’t that something else…

Steve’s hands are all over him and he can’t get too deep into a kiss; he’s too busy breathing, drinking him in. “Are you sure about this?” He’s asking, and Tony is nodding and kissing almost at the same time, but Steve is still trying to make sure. “I didn’t want to say anything.” He swallows. “I wanted to…to respect your relationship and…and give you time to…” He leans back, waves his hand to fill another breathless pause. “But I’ve liked you for a really long time, Tony.”

Tony tries to say that he knows that, he knows it all. That Steve’s right, that he could have gone to Pepper if he wanted, could have spoken to her directly. But that would have meant moving on. And Tony’s not too good with emotions. But that honestly, Steve is the best thing in his life, and that terrifies him so much that of course he’s been trying to run away from it. And nothing could take away the hurt that Pepper left inside him; Tony isn’t sure if it’ll ever go away. But when he’s with Steve, the ice isn’t cold. And there’s a very real chance that he loves him, stupid and terrifying as that may be, for all the thrills it’s sending through his heart right now.

But it’s Christmas, after all, so all that sentimental crap can wait.

“JARVIS?” he murmurs. They have a lot of catching up to do.

“Yes, sir?”

“Could you please recite evacuation procedure 22-B?”

“Sir?” JARVIS replies. “The lights and lifts are still fully functioning, sir.” He speaks slowly, sounding slightly confused. “In fact, there’s no fire at all.”

“Then start one,” Tony says, lips closing around Steve’s again.

There’s a pause where JARVIS might have cleared his throat, if he’d had one.

“Very well, sir.”

His voice echoes through the building, not just their little den. “Please follow the glowing lines to your nearest emergency exit. Please remain calm. This is not a drill…”

And over the sounds of JARVIS’ apologetic instructions, from the attic rooms to the beginnings of an after party in the basement, the whole of Stark Tower fades to black.