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Christmas Eve Will Find Me

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Steve walked into his apartment to find Tony sitting on his kitchen counter, cross-legged, facing the door and flicking his thumbs against the screen of his futuristic phone in a way that meant he was either playing a game or hacking the security of some undoubtedly highly dangerous and deeply hostile organization.

 

"Hi, Honey!" Tony trilled without looking up. "Welcome back!"

 

Steve'd been gone long enough that a layer of dust had accumulated over everything. He should probably look into a cleaning agency, he mused, brushing his fingers over the ceramic bowl Bruce had acquired from somewhere exotic, and that Steve guiltily used to house his keys when he actually lived at his apartment.

 

"How did you know I was going to be home?"

 

Tony scoffed. "Please."

 

"How did you even get in here?"

 

Tony scoffed louder. "Please."

 

"That's not an actual answer."

 

Tony's phone went from translucent blue light to opaque darkness with a touch of gloved hands as Tony finally looked up at him, eyes sparkling with a kind of aggressive good cheer.

 

"I was ordered to deliver these to you safely, upon pain of death." He tucked his phone away and handed over a bulky but neatly wrapped package that had been sitting by his hip.

 

Steve turned it over in his hands, gently testing the squishiness (significant) and looking at the paper (classy) until he could read the gift tag. "'To: Captain Hotstuff, From: Team Awesome Redheads Who Are Better Than Everyone'." He raised eyebrows at Tony.

 

Tony lifted his hands in a surrendering gesture. "They wrote that themselves."

 

Steve could actually tell that by the fluid, feminine script, recognizing Pepper's hand from all the little notes she'd written him over the last two years--thank you letters and extremely polite but nevertheless eviscerating reprimands, quiet requests to help Tony with this, or check on Natasha for that, would Steve mind signing something for Phil (and Colonel Rhodes, and Rachel down in Engineering and--with much less frequency--Tony).

 

"Well? Open it." Tony braced his hands on the counter, his expression as rapt as if he was the one receiving the gift.

 

"It isn't Christmas, yet."

 

"Oh my god."

 

"Language," Steve murmured, just to see Tony almost come off the countertop from the force of his eyerolling. He flipped the package carefully and began to work at the tape, ignoring Tony's expressive sigh and dramatic flop that rapped his head against Steve's cupboards.

 

When the paper finally came apart in his hands, he discovered a lovely, thick pair of knitted gloves and the longest scarf he had ever seen.

 

Tony hopped to the ground and came over to inspect them. "Hey, nice! Mine were in red and gold." Steve noticed the colors tucked into Tony's collar. This close, he could smell winter still lingering on Tony's coat and in the wild wealth of his hair. He'd really timed Steve's arrival down to the second. Steve was going to have to check his apartment and the surrounding area for spy cameras. Maybe Phil would agree to do it.

 

Tony touched the detail of concentric circles on the back of the gloves, star in the center, making approving noises. The scarf carried the same red-white-and-blue theme. Steve looped the scarf loosely around his neck and put the gloves in his pockets before carefully folding and preserving the paper.

 

"Okay, this one next." Tony offered him a opaque garment bag with a red bow tied at the top, an eager expression on his face.

 

Steve eyed it without taking it. "Is that the very expensive coat that I very specifically told you not to buy for me?"

 

Tony's look turned furtive. "No? Come on, it's not even from me. Pepper picked it out. You don't want to disappoint Pepper, do you? Besides, you told me you don't like the cold. This is way warmer than the coat you've got."

 

"Miss Potts would know better than to buy that for me. There's only one person in my life that has so little sense of boundaries that they would think something I could easily buy myself if I wanted to and have expressly said I don't want would make a good gift."

 

Tony winced, but did his best to keep up pretenses. "...Clint?"

 

"Mm. Close." Steve offered his arm. "Come on."

 

Tony hesitated, searching Steve's face for--well, disapproval, probably, Steve could admit to himself, because it was a look he gave Tony more than he'd have liked to. But Steve kept his expression placidly neutral, standing with the patience of a career military man. Finally, Tony grumbled and tossed the garment bag onto the back of one of Steve's kitchen chairs, waving Steve's arm away as he stepped out into the hallway. Steve put his new gloves on, picked up the gift and followed him out.

 

The wind was bitterly cold, but the street was just warm enough to turn last night's snow into gray slush that stuck to everything and turned buildings, shoes, the rush of last-minute shoppers, wet and dirty. Tony tucked himself deep into his coat and collar, though it couldn't completely muffle his complaining or hide his wounded scowl.

 

Steve felt a twinge--not at the whining, but at the look of hurt Tony tried to hide under standoffish grouchiness--but resisted the urge to apologize. Instead, he stopped for a brief conversation with the homeless man he usually gave five dollars to every day, and walked away one gift coat lighter.

 

Tony had turned back toward him, waiting a little up the street, and was considering the man's toothless grin of joy, the chagrin in his expression smoothing away. He fell into step as Steve passed him.

 

"It was a nice gift," Tony said with a muted belligerence still in his voice.

 

"It was," Steve agreed. "It just wasn't a very thoughtful one."

 

Tony went quiet for all of two seconds before offering, "It wasn't a marching band."

 

Steve blinked, thinking of his birthday fiasco. "True."

 

"So...improvement?"

 

"I'm a little bit sad to say that is also true."

 

Steve swept Tony into his favorite local coffee shop, looming near him as they shuffled through the long line, blocking as many people as he could from Tony's personal space. After a few minutes, Tony tugged his scarf down far enough to see the beginnings of his trademark beard and be heard over the loud murmur of a lot of people talking to one another as they waited.

 

"I think I lost significant, important parts of myself to the icy fingers of wintery death out there; explain to me why you want to drag us through the city when it's this cold?" He addressed his complaints to Steve, even though he was looking at the line ahead of them like he was wondering if he could bribe people out of the way.

 

Steve buried his smile in his own scarf and then pulled off his gloves so he could clasp his relatively warmer hands over the admittedly freezing tips of Tony's ears, using the leverage to pull Tony back a few steps until he bumped into Steve's chest.

 

Steve dipped his head lower, nearly brushing cheeks with Tony so that he could speak quietly and still be heard. "Get us a table. I'll order."

 

Tony shivered, twisting a little, and Steve loosened his hold enough that Tony could turn his head and glare. "Ew, no, we're not staying here. There are, like, people here. They could touch me. It's flu season, Steve."

 

"It's warm here," Steve pointed out patiently, using his continued hold on Tony's head to turn him toward the seating area. "I like the ceramic mugs and they don't let you take those outside."

 

"Okay, I hear your reasons and I raise you 'there's much nicer places we could go where I could rent out a whole banquet room.'"

 

"I don't want a whole banquet room," Steve said.

 

Tony studied him for a few moments and then sighed gustily, "If you get me something with seven pumps of flavored sugar in what is ninety-percent frothy milk, we will no longer be friends."

 

A few minutes later, Steve sat down across from Tony at a small, round table, setting a mug of black coffee and an almond biscotti in front of Tony and a peppermint mocha piled high with whipped cream and candy cane sprinkles at his own seat, ignoring the faces Tony made at it. Steve was also gracious enough not to mention when Tony used his biscotti to swipe whipped cream off Steve's drink and stir into his own.

 

"I thought you didn't do crowds," Tony said after they sipped at their respective drinks for a few minutes of companionable silence.

 

"I'm getting better," Steve said with a small shrug, making little swirls in his foam with his spoon. "I'm acclimatizing. Can't do that if I hide from it all."

 

"And the long vanishing acts? That's 'acclimatizing', too?"

 

There was a challenge in Tony's tone, and Steve felt himself prickle automatically, but he swallowed that reaction down and answered evenly. "In a way. New York is just one small part of the world, and it's sort of a bubble, somewhat removed from the rest of the country. It was that way in the forties, too. I didn't realize that until the war bonds tour. So I thought I should go see what the rest of the country's doing. Eventually, I might branch out to other parts of the world."

 

"SHIELD airdrops not doing much for cultural exchange?"

 

"Not usually. Sometimes you meet very interesting people, though."

 

"Sometimes you punch those interesting people in the face repeatedly."

 

"Only if they really deserve it."

 

Tony turned his coffee cup in his hands. His fingers were long and tapered, as beautiful as Steve remembered, though without gloves Steve could see that each fingernail was bitten off down to nubs.

 

"Your road trips teach you anything?"

 

"For as many times as I think 'everything's changed' I spend an equal amount of time thinking 'everything's stayed the same'. I've found that there's a balance. It's comforting."

 

"You could write Hallmark cards. Really apathetic ones, but still."

 

Steve grinned. "It's fascinating, actually, but probably not in a way that anyone would care about except me. This place, for instance. It reminds me of a cafe that used to be around here. And it also reminds me a little bit of Paris, even though neither of those places ever had anything as fancy as this." He tilted his coffee toward Tony, the tiny candy cane bits mostly melted away.

 

"You know, if you wanted to go to actual Paris..." Tony took out his phone and woke it up with a little shake.

 

"No," Steve said. "Not the point. At least, not yet. Maybe, someday. And if that day comes, I'll let you know, okay?" He watched Tony continue to fiddle with his phone for a few minutes, letting the silence stretch. "It wasn't about you, you know that, right?"

 

"I asked you to stay and you left," Tony said, the words low enough that Steve may have missed them if not for enhanced hearing. Tony didn't raise his eyes from his phone. "Kinda hard to misinterpret that."

 

"Tony." Steve finally gave into the urge to fold his hands over Tony's restless fingers, catching them up with the phone and rubbing the pads of his thumbs over Tony's knuckles until Tony looked at him. "It wasn't you. It was a reaction to what you said, sure, but the panic--that was all me." Steve had practiced saying it and the shame of it still made him flush. Running away had never been his first response, before the ice.

 

After a moment, Tony broke eye contact with an exaggerated huff. "Well, you know I don't believe that. Everything is always about me, clearly."

 

A fond smile threatened to betray Steve's solemn look. "You're the only one allowed to have things they need to work through, is that it?"

 

"Of course," Tony said, loftily. "Supporting cast isn't supposed to have character development that overshadows the protagonist. I'm the main character of the drama that is my life, so stop stealing my spotlight and get your shit together already."

 

"What do you think I've been trying to do for the last six months?"

 

The surprised look said that Tony hadn't even considered that angle, but he recovered quickly, putting his phone down, turning his hands over to lace their fingers together and propping the toes of his expensive Italian loafers on Steve's steel-toed workman's boots under the table before leaning forward.

 

"Okay, look, I had some other things planned for you today, but I think you're not going to like them, and in retrospect, I don't know what I was thinking."

 

"I'm hard to shop for," Steve said, apologetically. "I've been reliably informed. Have you figured out what you're getting everyone else?"

 

"God, no. I've been reliably informed that I have poor taste in gifts. Well, poorer than Pepper's, anyway. She does most of the shopping, and then puts my name on some stuff. Plus, I've been busy trying to help the Big Guy get something for everyone."

 

Steve blinked. "Hulk? Not Bruce?"

 

"Bruce does alright on his own, except that actually shopping in stores stresses him out. He generally keeps it online."

 

"Ah."

 

"Jolly Green's been loose enough to realize it's Christmas and wanted to participate."

 

"How's that been?" There hadn't been any reports of recent Hulk rampages in the debriefing files that SHIELD had given him upon his return, so it couldn't have gone too badly.

 

The grin Tony flashed at him was far too gleeful in the face of possible disaster, in Steve's opinion. "Much more fun than I thought it would be. You wouldn't believe how quickly people clear out of lines when a human-shaped tank rolls into the store."

 

"Isn't part of your job improving our public image?"

 

"First of all," Tony said, freeing one hand so he could point emphatically. "No it is not, because they never officially hired me for that job. Secondly," he used his free hand to pick up his biscotti and dunk it in his coffee, "it was fine. Hulk's great with kids. We just put a Santa hat on him and called him Superhero Santa. Fury loved it. I mean, he scowled a lot, but it was his 'I'm lovin' this' scowl. I volunteered you for helper elf next year. I think you'd look hot in those tights." He leered at Steve, who felt his face settle into a look of abject horror.

 

"No," Steve said.

 

"What, like it's worse than your war bond days?" Tony asked, finishing off his biscotti with a gulp of coffee.

 

"No, and that's the point. It would feel like backsliding." The shudder that went through Steve was only a little bit exaggerated.

 

"Fine, your loss. Or my loss, really. The world's loss." Tony blinked and sat up. "Oh! I almost forgot! I hire a stripper for Rhodey every year, all on my own without any adult supervision. Mostly because Pepper refuses to help me."

 

"A stripper?"

 

"It's tradition. It's a college thing." Tony pulled out of Steve's grip and picked up his phone again, so Steve just dropped his hands over Tony's wrists and studied him unabashedly while he was busy. Tony had remained mostly bundled in a perfectly tailored black coat, red-and-gold scarf loose at the throat and gloves tucked away, hair a wild mess, tiredness marked with purple bruising under his eyes.

 

"Have you been sleeping?"

 

"Did Pepper put you up to that question?"

 

"No. But Pepper did say that Christmases are hard for you."

 

"Steve, oh my god , you can't just say things like that. We have to manfully ignore our mutual emotional baggage, that's how society functions. Well, that's how Starks function anyway."

 

That was probably true. Steve had never been one to mince words, however, and he'd found that the direct approach worked best on Tony, anyway.

 

"Christmases are hard for me too."

 

"Okay." Tony put down his phone and turned his full attention toward Steve, which would have been thrilling except that he was very obviously gearing up for a massive redirect of the conversation. "I don't want to talk about this. You don't want to talk about this. We don't want to talk about this. Let's not talk about this. Right now, my plans for the day are starting to sound a lot better than whatever it is you're trying to do. So, let's go ice skating."

 

"Ice skating?"

 

"Yeah. I know just the place. You'll love it." Tony's manic enthusiasm said a lot about how much he didn't want to talk about it, and also about how little sleep he'd had. Experience had taught Steve that not much could reach Tony when he was like this. So he swallowed his sigh and stood up to take their empty dishes over to the designated dirty dish area near the trashcans. When he came back, the phone was put away and Tony was tugging his gloves on. Steve offered his arm and Tony waved it off.

 

"Who are you--Clark Gable, with this? Come on."

 

So Steve followed Tony back into the cold where a driver was waiting for them with a car whose interior was almost swelteringly hot. Tony breathed a sigh of relief and Steve contemplated protesting, but he didn't much like the cold, either. It had been that way since he'd been a kid, and it had been worse since he'd come back, so he kept his mouth shut and enjoyed the ride for the ridiculous expense it was. He recognized the neighborhood even before the car pulled up to the Rockefeller Center.

 

It was gorgeous, with its giant, iconic Christmas tree, fountains and golden sculpture and high walls, ringed in multicolored flags that unfurled and snapped in the brisk wind that was stifled down to a mild breeze at rink level. It was also empty.

 

"Tony."

 

"Hm?" Tony leaned against the railing beside him, surveying the ice.

 

"Did you rent out the Rockefeller Center?"

 

"Just The Rink." Tony had the audacity to look offended. "What do you take me for?"

 

Several uncomplimentary things came to mind, but Steve swallowed them all back because, really, this was rather restrained for Tony. Plus, Steve actually liked ice skating, though he hadn't tried it since the serum.

 

"All right. This looks like it might be fun."

 

"Don't kill yourself with enthusiasm or anything," Tony said, dryly.

 

"No, I mean--oh, thanks." Steve took the duffel bag Tony handed him, wondering when he'd gotten it. It had probably been in the car. Inside was a pristine set of skates, nicer than any he'd been able to afford as a kid. "Wow, these are nice! Are they my size? How do you know my shoe size?"

 

"Forethought." Tony tapped his forehead. "Thinking ahead. It's what I do." At Steve's continued skeptical expression, he added, "Would it be creepier to say that I also know your pants size, your shirt size and the length of your inseam?"

 

Steve raised an eyebrow. "Yes."

 

"I won't mention it, then."

 

Tony stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels as Steve tried the skates on. They were a perfect fit, which was a little creepy, but mostly it was convenient, so Steve decided not to dwell on it too much. He looked over at Tony.

 

"What about you?"

 

"Oh, no, I don't--" Tony gestured at the rink with a look on his face that he reserved for particularly incompetent interns or slanderous reporters.

 

"Wait." Steve stared at him. "You wanted to take me ice skating but you're not going to skate?"

 

"Well, yeah. Ice is tricky and not to be trusted. But don't worry. I called for backup." Tony jerked his thumb over his shoulder, which was all the warning Steve got before there was a rumble of thunder, a gust of wind and a blinding flash of lightning. By the time the afterimage faded enough for Steve to see again, he had only a second to realize Thor was striding toward him and then he was caught up in a giant bear hug, Thor being one of the few people who could still make Steve feel small.

 

Steve hugged back, grinning, and only wobbling slightly on the skates. Then they spent a few minutes cheerfully thumping each other on the back in lieu of a verbal greeting. Beside them, Tony was speaking to Bruce, who looked distinctly windblown, hair such a wild mess that it made Tony's look tame by comparison. He looked as if he'd been physically dragged from his lab, as well as driven through a tornado in a convertible with its top down. He was still wearing his lab coat, singed at the sleeves, well worn slacks with bleach stains at the cuffs and dotting one thigh.

 

"You actually flew with Thor?"

 

"It's more relaxing than I expected."

 

"Good to see you, Thor," Steve said when they finally broke apart. "I didn't know you were back on Earth."

 

"I'm only recently returned. Trouble in Nidavellir has kept me occupied of late."

 

"Anything we can help with?"

 

"Nay, do not trouble yourself. The Warrior's Three and Lady Sif might take exception were you to encroach upon their fun."

 

"Asgardians get testy if you diminish the number of heads they get to knock in," Tony concluded.

 

"Indeed," Thor rumbled with humor twinkling in his eyes despite the serious tone, and then he turned and engulfed Tony in a hug as well.

 

"Gah!" Tony's flailing was only barely visible around Thor's bulk before his hands settled tentatively around broad shoulders, disappearing under the dramatic fall of bright red cape. "Okay, hey, hi, hugs, I can do this, sure."

 

"I've been informed mine are quite excellent."

 

"Oh, no, I'm not encouraging that smug attitude, you smooth fuck."

 

"I am also quite good at that."

 

"Okay!" Steve said a little too loudly, just as Bruce glanced up and said, "Is that a quinjet?"

 

Then Natasha and Clint were dropped in on ziplines, which somehow managed to look amazingly badass, despite the fact that they were in civies, bundled in warm coats, handmade scarves and hats and gloves bright splashes of color in their otherwise black ensemble, except for Natasha's red boots with white fur trim on the tops, both of them weighed down with duffel bags that looked too full to be carrying only skates.

 

"I think we should revoke your 'Team Stealth' title," Steve said as they came within hearing distance and the quinjet flew off.

 

"That's fine," Clint said, grinning. "We can be 'Team Murder'."

 

"Not better," Bruce said.

 

Thor released Tony as he moved to clasp Natasha's forearm in greeting, offering, "Team Tiny but Deadly."

 

"Team Outdated Weapons and Medieval Tactics," Tony muttered, skittering back to Steve's side when both Natasha and Clint gave him that black look that meant they were thinking of various ways to maim someone and make it look like an accident. Steve was slightly alarmed that he knew that look on sight. He also knew that if Natasha or Clint were going to do Tony actual harm they'd have done it long ago, but he put himself in front of Tony anyway, and glared at them until Natasha shrugged and Clint grinned, heading toward Thor and subsequently swept into a hug.

 

Clint gave a muffled "Yay!" into Thor's shoulder and hugged back. The last of the hard edge in Natasha's expression softened as she looked on fondly. Then she busied herself with her bag, producing a set of skates, well loved but in good shape.

 

After a beat, Steve suggested, "Team Death From Above?"

 

The look Bruce turned on him with full of sad disappointment. "Steve, no, you're not supposed to encourage them."

 

Natasha paused to consider it, before nodding. "I like it."

 

"Well met, Team Death From Above," Thor said to Clint as the other man stepped back and set down his own duffel bag, unzipping it. "Now that we have exchanged salutations, we should proceed without further delay to our planned revelries."

 

"Shut up and skate!" Tony summarized with the kind of enthusiasm that could only come from someone who wasn't going to have to be on the ice.

 

"Good idea," Clint said, "Should we make this a competition? I mean, ice dancing is fun and all," his tone indicating that anyone who agreed with that statement would be judged unkindly, "but we've got the ice to ourselves, no chance we could hurt any innocent bystanders. I say we take advantage of it."

 

"Aye, an excellent suggestion! I have not played such games since I was a youth, but I believe I will be up to the challenge."

 

"Aw, we'll go easy on you, big guy."

 

Tony looked to Thor. "Do you need some skates? I could probably have someone bring over--"

 

"No need!" Thor made a gesture toward his feet, and suddenly he was wearing skates, intricate leather detailing to match the rest of his outfit, the blades gleaming--possibly even glowing?--and when Thor hit the ice they seemed to sing, faintly. Not choirs-of-angels type singing, but the sound of razor blades on piano strings, metallic and dangerous.

 

The Asgardian cut a strong, smooth arc around the rink and then summoned a gunmetal gray hockey stick with a gesture. It was wrapped in leather and gleamed with runes. He spun and stopped precisely, facing the rest of the team, stick gripped two-handed, held low and sure. Thor's cape was a red blaze and his grin a cheerfully vicious slice of white.

 

"We're all going to die," Bruce said faintly.

 

Tony patted him on the shoulder. "Have fun! I'll keep score."

 

Thor destroyed them, equal parts brutal and friendly about it. The teams started out Thor-and-Bruce against Steve-Natasha-Clint and then just became Thor versus everybody and it still didn't seem to make any difference against the unmovable wall that Thor presented.

 

"He's just so fucking--casual about it," Clint panted, hands on his knees, head bowed as they powwowed in a group, trying to figure out a game plan. "It's like we're not even winding him."

 

"We're probably not," Bruce said from the ground where he lay flat on his back, glasses askew.

 

"He must have a weakness," Natasha said in a vicious, low voice, eyeing Thor as he skated figure eights with a serene expression. Her hair was slightly mussed and her stockings had a run in them, but otherwise she looked the most put together out of any of them.

 

Steve had taken a hit to the face early on that had nearly knocked him through a wall. Thor had apologized thoroughly, and Steve was mostly healed, but he was still wet from his skid across the ice, and everything ached like Steve was the old man he should've been.

 

"If you would just let me--" she began.

 

"No knives," Steve said firmly.

 

"Team Thor: ALL THE POINTS!" Tony called from the sidelines. "Team Not Thor: NONE of the points!"

 

Steve gritted his teeth and thought about punching Thor in his stupid smug mouth and maybe tipping Tony into the fountain. Natasha glared at Steve, a mulish stubbornness tightening her mouth.

 

"Yet," Steve amended.

 

She cracked her knuckles and smirked in a way that was, frankly, unsettling.

 

"You can do it Team Not Thor!" Tony called. "Wooo! Go underdogs! Turn it around in the last quarter!"

 

"Rooting for the underdog doesn't automatically make us win, despite what movies have told you," Bruce called back.

 

"Steve's practically a Disney princess. There's gotta be some kind of luck in that."

 

"Is that your official theory? What's your evidence?"

 

Steve couldn't help but smile as Tony and Bruce began debating the science behind Hollywood-contrived miracles at top volume across the ice.

 

"He's having fun," Steve said.

 

"Yeah, I'm kinda surprised." Clint straightened from his slouch and then started doing leg stretches. "I didn't think he'd actually stick it out this long, considering that they're throwing a party in his honor right up the street."

 

Steve blinked. "What?"

 

Clint raised an eyebrow. "It's Christmas Eve and he's Tony Stark. Of course he was gonna throw a big party."

 

"So why isn't he...?"

 

"He heard you were coming back," Bruce said, having finished yelling at Tony. "So he decided not to go." He made a spirited effort to get back to his feet on his own, but failed to make progress until Natasha grabbed one arm, Clint the other and Steve his shirt to pull him upright and help stabilize him. "Thanks."

 

"He tried to cancel it outright, but Pepper talked him out of it," Natasha said.

 

"So it's happening somewhere in very-expensive-ville Manhattan and he's here with us," Clint concluded.

 

"Did you really think this is what Tony had been planning to do for Christmas before you came back?" Bruce asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

Steve turned his head and considered Tony, who was leaning against the barrier, shouting cheerful insults at Thor every time the Asgardian skated close to him. Something in Steve, something that had been clenched like a fist, braced to return the punch he'd been waiting for, began to loosen.

 

"He's been waiting for a while, Steve," Natasha added quietly. Steve looked at her and tried to pretend that the heat he felt rise to his cheeks was due to the windchill that had turned the tips of his ears pink.

 

"Okay, so that's great and all, but can we get our heads back in the game? What are we going to do against Wonderkid the God of Hockey and, apparently, Looking Cool In a Cape Which Is A Lot Harder Than It Looks, I Know, I've Tried It?"

 

Steve gave Natasha a curious look, wondering why he'd never heard that story. She gave a small shake of her head in a "I'll tell you later; it's gonna need visual aids" kinda way.

 

Bruce straightened. "Don't worry, guys. I got this one."

 

The Hulk evened things out surprisingly well. Steve hadn't thought to use him before because he hadn't wanted to spend Christmas cleaning up the crater where the Rockefeller Center had once stood. But apparently shopping really had been good for the Big Guy, because he seemed to be much more conscious of the force of his strength.

 

He and Thor were evenly matched, at least insofar as they weren't going to level the city trying to defeat one another, and with the other teammates helping, they managed to dogpile Thor into submission.

 

When Steve was sure no one was hurt and Thor had said "uncle" with no chance of take-backsies, he extricated himself and skated back to Tony, who was now sitting on the barrier, laughing so hard he had folded into it, barely keeping hold of his phone. Steve leaned on his arms next to him, grinning and enjoying the sight: Tony relaxed, the perpetual tension clinging to his shoulders and the corners of his mouth easing, the shadows under his eyes seeming less dark.

 

"Good job, old sport," Tony managed after a few moments, still chuckling. "That's one point to Thor's eleventy-million. A-plus-plus teamwork. Everyone deserves a gold star. Do you have gold stars? It seems like something you should carry around with you, and hand them out to people for good behavior."

 

Steve gave him his most earnest smile. "So, tie?"

 

Tony snorted, but fiddled with his phone, which he'd been using to project the scoreboard. "Sure, Steve. For you, I'll call that a tie." The final score flashed "TIE."

 

Steve waited until he put the phone down again to catch him around the waist and haul him onto the ice. Tony yelped, and then dissolved into incoherent death threats that got more shrill the further away form the safety railing they got.

 

"Steve, I'll kill you. Steve . I have assassins on speed dial, Steve."

 

"I got you," Steve said steadily. "It's okay."

 

And it was. Steve had had enough practice by now that his feet were sure and his grip was steady. Super-strength helped to correct for any slips Tony had, until Tony stopped fighting him and relaxed into the rhythm of it.

 

"Besides, all the assassins you know are here already," Steve pointed out as he skated them in a slow circle close to the outside of the rink.

 

"You're right, damn, and they like you better than me, so that's probably a no-go." Tony was a little wobbly on the turns, but otherwise kept up pretty well considering that he wasn't wearing skates. "I have to diversify my resource base of deadly people who don't know you."

 

Steve thought about the gentle but pointed lecture he'd just received and said, "I don't think they like me better than you. It seems pretty equal, actually."

 

Tony snorted. "Yeah, right."

 

Since Tony was stable, and Steve didn't know how to address Tony's insecurity without shaking him a little, he guided them to a slightly faster speed and into a figure eight, which set Tony off again. "We're going to die."

 

"No we're not."

 

"Fine, I'm going to die and the rest of you are going to stand over my corpse laughing."

 

"You're right. Clint would pose you in the most undignified way possible and then take pictures and post them on the Internet."

 

"He'd sell them to The Superhero Star."

 

"I guess you'll just have to do your best not to die, then."

 

Tony lurched into the turn a little sharply, and Steve pulled him closer and neither of them perished in the attempted move. Not that that stopped Tony from grumbling. "You're cold. And wet. And cold and I hate you."

 

"No you don't," Steve said, and kept to easy, gliding steps even as Tony tensed a little. "You bought me that coat."

 

Tony managed to stifle his eyeroll down to something that wouldn't knock him off balance, but only just. "You hated that coat."

 

"But it wasn't a yacht. Or a private jet. Or a stripper."

 

"I said that was a college thing. Rhodey understands."

 

"You got me the coat because you know I don't like the cold."

 

"Well, yeah. Who likes the cold? I am with you one-hundred-percent on that one, and I didn't spend seventy years frozen in an iceberg."

 

Steve put his hand on the small of Tony's back and, with the other hand gripping Tony's arm firmly, swung him around. There was a little stumble, and Tony clutched his jacket, but after a minute they settled and Steve held Tony like they were slow dancing, front to front.

 

"And the ice skating?"

 

Tony studied him for a moment, bemused and trying not to show it. Casual as could be, except for his tight grip on Steve and the little wrinkle between his eyebrows. "You said it was one of the only things that you could remember being consistently fun back in ye olden times, but you weren't sure you could deal with the crowds anymore."

 

Steve felt a smile tug at his lips, and he worried that maybe his eyes gave away too much, so he buried his head against Tony's shoulder, squeezing him gently and they coasted to a stop.

 

"Steve?" Now Tony sounded alarmed. Hands loosened their death grip from his coat and found their way to his hair, petting lightly. "I really suck at emotional support, so if that's something you need you should skate us back to Thor. Or Clint--he's weirdly good at that sort of thing. You wouldn't think so, but it's true. I mean, his solution is, like, twenty percent heartfelt talking and eighty percent alcohol and ice cream, but still." Tony's fingertips were making panicked little circles against his scalp. "Or I could call Pepper. Rhodey, even. Steve? Seriously, I don't think I can get us back to the sidelines without crawling. We're pretty much in the middle of the rink. I mean, I'll crawl if I have to, but I'm blaming you if TMZ hears about it--"

 

Then Steve kissed him. It took a second for Tony to stop talking, and another second for him to register what was happening. Steve held steady against two little flails, feet braced and hands gently cupping Tony's face, and then Tony surged up and kissed him back.

 

Tony's hands gripped his wrists as he tried to gain control, but Steve kept it gentle, pulling back a little every time Tony pushed forward, keeping it to soft, savoring kisses, rubbing his mouth along Tony's beard a little, less prickly than it looked. His thumbs rubbed circles on Tony's cheekbones, and Tony could probably feel, with his fingertips on Steve's pulsepoints, how Steve's heart was threatening to beat right through his ribs.

 

Tony made a small sound, one that Steve chased with his mouth, down the column of Tony's throat pressing kisses to the hollow points, lingering on the quick-strong pulse and feeling the vibration of quiet, choked-off whimpers against the tip of his tongue. Then Tony shivered, and surrendered, melting into Steve's touch, hands loosening their hold on Steve's wrists. Steve made a pleased noise that had Tony nipping his lower lip in retaliation, even as Steve changed his grip, one hand sliding around to cup the back of Tony's head, his hand large enough to span almost the breadth of it, his arm slipping around Tony's waist to press him closer.

 

It actually took a few minutes for Steve to realize that the exuberant yelling wasn't all in his head.

 

Steve broke the kiss, to Tony's indignant protest, to look toward the sound and saw the rest of his team lined up on the side of the rink, holding up scorecards, ranging from Hulk's scribbled smiley face to Thor's 10, and cheering. Natasha had commandeered Tony's phone and changed the graphic text from "TIE" to "FINALLY." Steve was far too warm and happy to feel anything but fondness, but Tony thumped his head against Steve's shoulder and made a gesture at the others behind Steve's back that Steve couldn't see and probably didn't want to.

 

"I hate them all. Also, I'm am impressed by our sheer inability to be anything like normal. Where did they even get the paper for that? And Clint, come on. An eight? Are you kidding me with this?"

 

"It's an eight-point-six!" Clint protested.

 

Steve grinned and eased Tony back just enough to get some breathing room. "You wouldn't like normal," he said sneaking in for another kiss. And then Tony pulled him back in for another and--

 

"Come on, love birds!" Clint shouted. "I'm cold and hungry and want presents!"

 

"Coal," Tony yelled back. "Coal for everyone."

 

Steve tugged on Tony's hand to get his attention and said, in a slightly nervous rush, "Come with me."

 

It was a small thrill when Tony squeezed Steve's fingers back as he gave Steve a curious look. "Uh, sure? I think Clint will cry if we miss the gift exchange, though."

 

"Just for a little while. We'll get back in time."

 

"All right. Let's go tell the others."

 

Steve got them off the ice and explained the plan--meet up at The Avengers Tower later for food and gifts--while Tony praised the solid ground dramatically and wrestled his phone back from Natasha. Steve took off his skates and handed them over to Thor to deliver back to the Tower, then went to rescue Tony from the headlock Natasha had trapped him in.

 

"That woman is a menace," Tony muttered. The sounds of the city slowly reasserted themselves as they climbed the steps back onto street level.

 

"Good thing she's on our side," he said and then squinted against the sudden onslaught of camera bulbs.

 

Tony did his good-PR thing--talking, making the crowd laugh, wowing children with Avengers' merchandise he pulled from somewhere. Steve just tried to smile and wave and not walk into lampposts--which was more difficult than it sounded, as blinded as he was by the cameras--until they got into the car Tony had waiting.

 

"Where to?" Tony's driver asked.

 

Steve gave him the address, the car pulled away, and Steve laced his fingers with Tony's as the crowd was replaced by regular New York traffic. Tony slumped easily against Steve's side, relinquishing the use of one hand with more grace than Steve expected, balancing his phone in his lap and flicking through images with his free hand.

 

The car dropped them off in front of a community center in Brooklyn. Steve was surprised to see that the sign was new and the steps had been fixed and a wheelchair access had been added since he'd last been here. He looked at Tony, who bristled.

 

"I know your wrist size and the ring size of every finger--or at least I have that information on file somewhere--and you don't think I'd know about this place? You can't get mad at me for donating to them. They needed it, and I made sure everything was legit. I talked to lawyers, even. It was awful."

 

"I'm not mad."

 

Tony, who'd obviously been gearing up to defend himself further, shut his mouth and stared for a moment, studying Steve's expression. For his part, Steve tried to keep his face and body language open, holding still for scrutiny until Tony said, "Oh," and then shrugged like he was dismissing the whole thing, taking the lead as they jogged up the steps and slipped inside the building.

 

Despite the late-ish hour and the holiday, the doors were opened and there were people inside. A lot of them greeted Steve by name, and a few of them Tony, which made Steve smile and Tony look a little hunted until he seemed to realize that Steve didn't mind.

 

When they reached the little chapel at the back of the building--more of a spare room with cheep, fold-out seats and a podium, non-denominational-specific star burst hung on the wall behind it, though the rest of the decoration had a distinctly Christian feel to it--Steve was a little relieved to see it was empty. He wasn't sure if he wanted an audience for this.

 

Tony hesitated on the threshold of the doorway, head tilted. "This all seems very sudden, Steve. You haven't even proposed."

 

It was Steve's turn to roll his eyes a little as he caught Tony's hand and drew him inside, toward the back and off in a little alcove where an altar had been placed, filled with rows of votive candles, many of them burning. With quick, practiced movements, he picked up one of the lighting sticks, touched it to a lit candle and then to an unlit candle.

 

Then he watched the little flame flicker for a moment, composing sentences in his head. Beside him, tethered by Steve's hand, Tony fidgeted a little but eventually quieted, fingers curling against Steve's, breathing to Steve's rhythm.

 

"Ma," Steve said, finally. Tony startled, sucking in a quick breath. "This is Tony." He lifted their hands to show how they were intertwined, and Tony made a small sound in the back of his throat, not quite protest, a little like dismay, but Steve pressed on. "You would've liked him. He's a firecracker. You would've liked each other, I think. I'm sorry you two will never get to meet. I miss you." It was harder to say out loud. Usually he only said it in his head, and that was difficult enough. "I miss everyone." Steve took a breath and let it out again, feeling the clenched anxiety in his chest loosen even further. "But I'm doing better. A lot better. This fella's a big part of the reason." Steve smiled at Tony, whose wide-eyed panic had eased some into a respectful--if still nervous--quiet. He smiled back at Steve, though, even if it was a bit tense around the edges. "So don't worry about me. The furture's a weird place, but I've got good people to help me muddle through. Merry Christmas, Ma. I love you."

 

The silence held for two beats, and then, "You brought me here to introduce me to your mother ? With no warning? And you didn't even let me change clothes or anything!" Tony finger combed his hair with hasty movements that only made the locks wilder. "You're an asshole. Sorry, Ma'am," he said to the candles. "But he kinda is. Just in this instance. I think you'd agree."

 

"She probably would," Steve said with a grin, and then looked back to the votives as Tony continued to grumble and try to spruce up his rumpled edges. "I used to try and light one for every name I could remember. But then I, sort of, almost, burned the place down, so I stopped."

 

"That's terrible, Steve." Even though his tone was a little mocking, the way he wrapped his hands around Steve's bicep and squeezed was full of sincere compassion. "That's terrible on so many levels. I can't even process that."

 

"Also," Steve hesitated and thought very carefully about whether or not it was a good idea to say the rest of it, but he'd already started so he might as well finish, "I thought it might help."

 

Tony made an inquiring sound in the back of his throat.

 

"To light some for your parents," Steve clarified, and tried not to wince at the way Tony went utterly still next to him. "I'm sorry if I overstepped, it's just, it's something that helps me, and I thought it might help you. I'd like to help you, if I can." Steve bit his tongue to keep the rest of the ramble from spilling out, instinctive as it was to fill the silence that Tony's blank expression and shadowed eyes left in the conversation.

 

After a moment, Tony stirred, looking tired but wry. "Jeez, Steve, what did I tell you about ignoring our emotional baggage for some nice, healthy repression as is the holiday tradition the world over?"

 

Steve's grin was mostly relief. If Tony could joke, then Steve probably hadn't ruined everything. "You don't really seem like the traditional kind of guy."

 

"Only for selective reasons." Tony sighed and let go of Steve's arm to run both hands through his hair. "Look, I appreciate the sentiment, but the situation's not really the same. What do I have to be sad about? I mean, in comparison. You lost your whole world. I just lost two people who didn't even like me very much."

 

"They were the whole world to you." Tony jerked, like he was absorbing a blow, and Steve swallowed, but pushed on. "Besides, I don't think grief works like that, a set system of measurements, an equation. A dozen isn't necessarily greater than one."

 

"It was ages ago. You'd think I'd be over it."

 

"No one gets to say when we're done grieving."

 

Tony breathed out, put his hands on his hips and considered the candles like they were a particularly tricky bit of broken machinery. Then he shrugged, said something that sounded like "Fuck it" and grabbed a lighting stick in a determined fist.

 

"Mom," Tony said as he lit the first candle, "this is Steve. You probably would've tried your best to seduce him and I wouldn't have blamed you at all because he is hot stuff."

 

Steve felt his eyes go wide, blush crawling up his throat. "Tony--"

 

"But, uh, just so you know, he's great," Tony said, a little more loudly to override Steve's protest. Steve felt the rest of his words catch in his throat, and Tony's voice gentled as he continued. "He's really great. Not just his fine ass and ridiculous shoulders--but everything. Like, everything, it's really disgusting how awesome this guy is." And now Steve's blush was half in pleasure and half in painful embarrassment.

 

Tony lit the next candle, his hand a little unsteady and his tone just a touch sharper. "Dad, I don't usually have much to say to you that's fit for public spaces but, uh, thanks for helping keep this guy safe, I guess. I appreciate it." He grinned, suddenly, all teeth. "We're going to have sex later and you would've totally hated that so ha! Merry Christmas, you asshole."

 

Steve dropped his head into his hands and tried not to explode from the force of his blood trying to rush to his head and his cock at the same time, so he completely missed when Tony lit the third candle.

 

"Obie, thanks for doing the whole mentor-Dad thing right up until you did the whole murderous bastard thing." He spoke in such a rush that by the time Steve lifted his head in surprise, he was finished lighting a fourth candle without saying anything and tossing the lighting stick into the little water pail under the altar with more force than was really necessary. "Okay, wow, that was great. I feel spiritually healed. Can we leave now?"

 

"Yes."

 

Steve offered his arm, and even though Tony was still obviously feeling prickly all over, he took it, and leaned into Steve a little as Steve lead them into the deepening evening.

 

In the car on the way back to the Tower, Tony's agitation wound down faster than usual. He commanded that the driver put on Christmas music and then promptly fell asleep on Steve's shoulder while Bing Crosby crooned on the speakers. Steve was almost loathe to wake him when they reached their destination, but he couldn't let Tony sleep in the car forever. So he prodded Tony awake and on his feet and they spent the elevator ride slowly debulking from winter layers. Steve was folding his scarf carefully as the doors dinged and he followed Tony out.

 

"Oh my god." Tony stopped in horror as they stepped into the penthouse common area of Avengers Tower and Natasha walked up to greet them. "Are you wearing a hideous Christmas sweater? Are you all wearing hideous Christmas sweaters?"

 

"We brought enough for everyone," Natasha said, holding up two bundles in alarming shades of red and green. Steve hadn't even been aware that red could be neon until this moment.

 

"I will murder you," Tony declared, skittering around the edge of the room, trying to avoid an advancing Natasha, only to be cut off and herded back toward Steve by Clint. "I will murder you with these skates." He grabbed Steve's new skates from where someone had tossed them onto a chair and held them up threateningly. "Those edges, those look deadly enough to kill a man."

 

"They are," Natasha said with the confidence of first-hand knowledge.

 

Steve blinked and Tony eased a little closer to him before continuing, "Er, yeah. So, in conclusion, I say 'no' to hideous Christmas sweaters."

 

Clint looked at Steve. "Do your thing, Cap."

 

"It doesn't seem fair," Steve protested.

 

"It's not," Natasha agreed. "Do it anyway."

 

"Don't," Tony pleaded.

 

"For team unity," Steve said and turned the saddest puppy eyes he could muster in Tony's direction. "Please?"

 

Tony stared at him, doing his best to remain unaffected, but in the end he heaved a giant, long-suffering sigh and dropped the skates, letting Natasha approach and strip his coat off with military efficiency.

 

"You did maintain your resolve for an admirable amount of time in the face of the good Captain's most potent of weapons," Thor said from the couch. "A timespan nearly the length of a windsprite's wingbeat."

 

"You can shut your face, Thor. I see you're wearing a sweater, too."

 

Thor stroked his hand over the felted applique with a smug look. "It is warm and the sparkles please me."

 

Tony made a face at him, then glanced around. "Why are there arrows in my wall?"

 

"I was trying to put up decorations," Clint said unapologetically.

 

Tony stared at him. "What is wrong with you?"

 

Clint shrugged, patiently standing by with Steve's sweater and taking Tony's coat from Natasha as she handed it off.

 

"There," Natasha said when she tugged the sweater into place. "Good."

 

Then she turned to Steve as Tony sulked off to inspect the damage on his walls. She let Steve dress himself, for which he was grateful. Once he was finished pulling the sweater--lime green with dancing elves--over his flannel button-down, he followed Thor into the kitchen where Bruce all ready had three of the four ovens filled and a half dozen saucepans going.

 

"May we assist you, my friend?" Thor asked in an eager rumble.

 

"Yes, please." He'd apparently not finished changing before starting dinner, standing at the stove in his Stark-made Hulk-Proof boxers (patent pending), socks and a blue sweater with purple stars knitted into the design.

 

Steve thought about saying something, then shrugged and found a few spare aprons in the pantry, handing one off to Thor.

 

"What's your cooking level?" Bruce asked when they reemerged.

 

"Prep work and assembly line is probably my forte," said Steve.

 

"I make excellent foods for breaking morning fast."

 

"Okay. Steve you're on vegetables. Thor, whisk this. I need stiff peaks."

 

"That's what she said," Clint called from the living room.

 

"Natasha, if you would, please," Bruce answered.

 

There was a yelp and then Clint said, "What--since when have you been on his side?"

 

Whatever Natasha said in answer was too soft to hear, and Bruce just smirked into a boiling pot of yams without further comment.

 

It was soothing to chop carrots, celery, fennel, cucumbers, grating cheese, pulverizing walnuts, falling into the rhythm of cooking.

 

Bruce and Thor both seemed competent, familiar enough with this kitchen that they worked in smooth concert, opening cupboards for supplies without needing to search through them, handing things off to one another, and when had that happen? It was obviously Thor's job to reach things on high shelves and for Bruce to do the fine measurements, and Steve felt a little pang for the bonding he had missed while he was gone. Steve did his best to be useful and not in the way as the two of them stirred and added spices and made each other try what the other had made, heads bowed together in serious conference over gravy fixings and pie filling.

 

Natasha poked her head in and got to taste Bruce's cranberry sauce. "Needs vodka," she advised, and Bruce looked vaguely pained but Thor brightened and began picking through the substantial alcohol collection he'd amassed by his station.

 

Clint darted in a few minutes later and attempted to steal one of the already-skinned potatoes next to the pile that Steve was steadily peeling, but Steve defended them long enough for Thor to get Clint into a headlock. Natasha joined in and a few seconds of chaos resolved into Clint subdued in the cinch of a scarf that Natasha had pulled from somewhere.

 

"Wait," Clint gasped. "You don't understand--!"

 

Which was when Tony rounded the corner, safety goggles on, grin manic, wielding bright, plastic rifles in each hand, which he leveled at Clint with a loud cackle. It took Steve a moment to realize that the little white pebbles that pelted Clint were actually tiny marshmallows. Clint yowled and struggled as Natasha did an unnecessary but neatly executed backflip to cover.

 

"Natasha, avenge meeee," Clint choked out and then gave up dramatically.

 

Almost too quickly to follow, Natasha slid-rolled out from behind the kitchen island and was up on her feet, armed with a potato and another colorful toy gun that she must have taken off of Clint, though Steve had missed seeing it on him at the start.

 

She darted behind Steve for cover, which made Tony yelp, "Cheat!"

 

Steve, sitting on a stool with a large bowl between his feet to catch the potato skin, peeler in one hand and half-peeled potato in the other, could only say, "Um."

 

Ignoring them both, she loaded her gun by stabbing a bit of it into the potato and carving out a bullet-sized chunk with the quick, efficient movements, taking aim over Steve's shoulder.

 

Tony yelled something about "against the rules, Romanoff!" and then beat a hasty retreat, disappearing around the corner. Natasha vaulted effortlessly over Steve's head and chased after him. There was a crash, a high-pitched scream that sounded like Tony, and another crash followed by a suspicious silence.

 

"No killing teammates on the holidays!" Steve felt the need to call after them, feeling as if he'd lost control of the situation, if he'd ever had it to begin with, but still needing to say something.

 

"No one's dead!" Natasha called back.

 

"And definitely nothing is broken!" Tony answered, which didn't sound like a good thing.

 

But Thor let out a hearty laugh, and it was difficult to hold on to any kind of worry at the sound. Steve grinned and helped Bruce help Clint off the floor. Bruce used a combination of stern looks and puppy dog eyes to wrangle Clint into cleanup, starting with the marshmallows scattered over the floor, and the kitchen settled back into an efficient rhythm.

 

Eventually, Steve ran out of things to do, so Bruce sent him out with appetizers and bottles of sparkling cider. He wasn't sure what he'd find, but the common area wasn't on fire--though the fireplace had been lit--and Natasha sat buttressed against Tony at one end of the giant white couch. Her fingers were swiftly nimble on the knitting needles while Tony carefully unraveled her yarn into a loop around one hand.

 

"You survived," Steve said to Tony, setting a plastic champagne glass next to his elbow and another next to Natasha, before reaching out and dusting potato bits out of Tony's dark locks, maybe taking a moment to enjoy the cool slide of them through his fingertips, and then ducking his head a little at Natasha's knowing look.

 

"He surrendered," Natasha explained with a subtle smile in Tony's direction that was downright smug.

 

"Excuse you, I negotiated a mutually beneficial treaty."

 

"You help Natasha with her knitting and she doesn't stab you repeatedly with her needles?" Steve guessed.

 

"No," Tony said with a scowl.

 

"Yes," Natasha said a the same time. Tony shot her a dirty look and she ignored it, except that the smile deepened into a grin.

 

Steve's hand drifted to the color of Tony's Christmas sweater, and he smiled softly at the way Tony relaxed into his touch, despite his prickly words. "This is a perfect fit. I'm impressed, Nat."

 

"Impressed is not the word I would use," Tony grumbled.

 

"Pepper is easily bribed with peppermint schnapps and gingerbread cookies," said Natasha.

 

"I don't know why I put up with any of you. I deserve a reward of some sort."

 

"I agree. How about a gold star?" Steve put his hand in his pocket and then and pressed his thumb to Tony's forehead, just to the left of center.

 

Tony startled, reaching up to feel the edge of the star sticker now stuck there. "What the--do you actually carry these around with you?"

 

Steve tried very hard to look sincere and not smug, even though he felt very smug. "Forethought," he said, and then headed back to the kitchen.

 

"You're not allowed to be the smart ass!" Tony protested to his back. "That position is already filled. By me!"

 

"And me!"

 

"And Clint," Tony amended. "Me and Clint. No one else!"

 

Steve didn't bother answering, and waited until he was out of Tony's line of sight to high-five Bruce and fist-bump Thor.

 

Dinner almost but not quite resulted in a food fight, and Steve spent a while being proud of his team for keeping it relatively civilized before being a little bit depressed at the things he was proud of his team for. The gift exchange wouldn't happen until a minute after midnight, because Clint had demanded it take place on actual Christmas day.

 

Until then there was cookie-making--frosting on every surface, which was a shame because most of the room was decorated in white--and Foosball, until Steve knocked the little ball right out of the table and almost took Thor's tooth out with it. Thor was amused by the whole thing, but Steve decided to quit while he was ahead.

 

Then there was a very ill advised game of poker, which somehow devolved into strip poker, except that Natasha wouldn't let anyone take off their sweaters and Bruce had never gotten around to putting on pants, so it was decided that if there wasn't an article of clothing to take off, a person would just have to put something ridiculous on, which is how Steve came to be wearing reindeer antlers, and Bruce elf slippers and a Santa hat with a pompom that lit up.

 

"No," Tony said.

 

"You agreed on the rules when we started," Natasha insisted.

 

"No I didn't! You stuffed a marshmallow in my mouth when we voted! I'm not wearing that!"

 

She narrowed her eyes, Rudolph nose in hand, and Steve recognized that look. It was the look she got right before hitting some impossible target with a throwing dagger. Tony must have seen it, too, because he stood up so hastily that he knocked his chair over.

 

"Don't you dare--"

 

Which was when Clint's watch alarm went off. The arrival of Christmas and gift-giving seemingly gave Tony a reprieve as everyone broke from the game to start handing out presents.

 

Steve went over to the pile of gifts that were from him, and decided not to question how they even got here from his apartment, and started handing them out, everyone else following suit and for several minutes it was chaos, people either handing over or tearing open gifts, exclaiming over what they'd gotten.

 

Clint crowed over his rapid reload wrist crossbow from Tony. Natasha's eyes got very soft as her fingers traced the old music box from Clint. Steve found himself smiling over the box of replica vintage candies from Bruce, and Thor seemed deeply pleased with the several pairs of jeans and t-shirts from Natasha, enough so that he immediately stripped down and tried them on, to catcalls from the rest of the team.

 

Once Thor was dressed and preoccupied with Bruce's new tablet, as Bruce showed him one of the video communication programs and they woke up a groggy-looking Jane Foster, who was considerably more pleased after Thor did a little turn for her in his new clothes, Tony dropped into Steve's lap.

 

"You got me a 'get out of this awkward conversation free' card."

 

"Yes," Steve said, a little worried about the seriousness of Tony's expression. "And a 'Let's drop the argument for now and reconvene when we're both feeling more reasonable' card, because I couldn't think of anything you could need that you wouldn't just buy, and I thought--"

 

Tony's solemn air cracked and he grinned. "You're cute when you babble."

 

"You jerk."

 

"Language, Captain."

 

Steve squeezed Tony gently. "It's good?" he asked, indicating the envelope that held the two cards.

 

"It's perfect." The grin softened into an actual smile. "You know me so well." Then he kissed Steve, and Steve couldn't hold on to his consternation after that. He was, however, up to a little retaliation.

 

"Boop," he said and neatly slipped the Rudolph nose over Tony's.

 

Tony stared at him incredulously, but before he could say anything, Bruce said, "Heads up, Hulk alert."

 

Everyone cleared to make space, and then it was the Big Guy's turn to hand out presents. The theme seemed to be soft and fluffy--a black-and-red teddy bear for Natasha, a fuzzy purple blanket for Clint, a throw pillow for Steve with the Captain America shield pattern on it and furry slippers for Thor. For Tony there was a coffee maker.

 

"Thanks, buddy," Tony said, enthusiastic but a little bewildered.

 

"FOR KITCHEN."

 

"I already have a coffee maker for the kitchen, though."

 

Hulk scowled at him, and then lumbered into the kitchen. After a moment there was a loud crashing sound and the Hulk reemerged.

 

"NO MORE."

 

"...right. I probably should have expected that. Well," Tony looked at the machine. "I guess Bruce never did like it. So this might be more Hulk's gift to Bruce than to me." He looked pleased about it, so Steve let the lecture for Hulk die before it began.

 

Then Hulk insisted on hot chocolate and classic Christmas movies, so they piled up in front of the television that was almost as large as a movie screen, Clint and Natasha sprawled out on Hulk, Thor on the ground in front of them, Steve with Tony on the couch, and it took about two movies for everyone to doze off, Natasha singing along with the Grinch very softly into Clint's ear as she stroked fingers through Hulk's hair.

 

Steve woke up when Bruce came back, dumping Clint into a pile of wrapping paper. Natasha landed neatly and then kicked Thor lightly in the side until the Asgardian woke up and helped her carry a drowsy Clint and completely knocked out Bruce off to, presumably, some actual beds. He and Tony should get to actual beds, too.

 

He looked down at Tony, who'd wrapped himself around Steve like a limpet, arms squeezing Steve's waist, face pressed against Steve's stomach. At some point, he'd decided to try and wear every bow he could find, which meant there were ribbons wrapping his wrists, and a chain of them around his neck and one in his hair. At some point, the Rudolph nose had attached to his ear.

 

The panoramic view this room had of New York showed lightening sky over a still-sleeping city, snow gleaming on rooftops, the sky clear.

 

Steve tugged the bow out of Tony's hair so he could pet through the soft locks uninhibited, and Tony stirred, pressing closer, nuzzling against the fuzziness of Steve's sweater.

 

"Stay," Tony murmured.

 

"Yes," Steve said as the sun rose over the city.