It starts on December first. Tony knows this because he’s just trying to go to his workshop to do minor repairs on the armour. It should be an easy trip, mostly something he could do in his sleep: down the hall, past the piano, down the stairs, through the doors. It’s four steps, and despite all of his shortcomings as an organized individual, he knows he can do this, because he does it all the time.
After seventeen straight hours of sleep (what feels like a useless result of an all-nighter that lasts closer to three days), he grabs a mug of coffee (with an extra sugar, because he can), and starts the trek. After he makes it down the stairs, he stops. There’s a brief period where his mind doesn’t exactly match up with his body, and he’s not moving forward even though he knows that his head thinks he is. Tony blinks a little, clutches the coffee cup in his hand, and tries again. His feet move, and his body is attacked by bits of paper that hang from the ceiling.
He stares up at them curiously. They’re circular in shape, no bigger than a CD, and they’re cut in intricate, delicate shapes, nice sharp lines and loopy circles, none of them the same as the other. He frowns and sips on his coffee. They’re snowflakes.
Bruce is in the lab working on some calculations, and once Tony escapes from the forest of hanging computer paper, he pushes the glass door open and steps inside. The scientist looks up and offers him a small smile, something very Bruce and a little (a lot) endearing.
“There is paper hanging from my ceiling,” Tony says, mostly because he doesn’t know what else to say.
“Wha—Oh,” Bruce looks confused for a moment, but then he smiles again, a nicer smile, a soft one that makes Tony think very briefly of his mother, “Right. They’re snowflakes.”
Something falls from above Tony and lands on the floor. He follows the path with narrowed eyes and brings his coffee to his lips. Another sip. It burns his tongue and also his throat on the way down, but he doesn’t seem to notice much. He listens to Dummy chirp as the robot rushes over, and hits the corner of a table, almost knocking himself over. Tony would offer up a snarky comment, but he’s a little too transfixed with watching Dummy pick the snowflake up and hanging it over his own arm by the string.
The robot turns to Tony, clearly looking for approval. Tony nods.
Dummy chirps and rolls away. His arm catches a pile of clutter, and it falls to the floor noisily. Bruce cringes. Tony nods, because expecting any less would be silly of him. He sets the coffee mug down and stands next to Bruce, looking over his shoulder at one of the holographic screens. There’s an equation on it that his mind absorbs immediately, and he’s doing the math in his head quietly when he looks up.
The whole ceiling is covered in these little snowflakes, hanging from thin ribbons and covered in glitter. He tries to count them, but there’s a lot there, maybe over a hundred, all at different lengths. Tony bats at one that’s right over his head, and it swings back and forth.
So there’s paper decorations in his workspace. This is now a thing. He accepts it calmly, because he has had a very long and stressful week, and at this point the snowflakes defy explanation. He nods again, this time to no one in particular, and grabs the coffee again. A coffee pot in the workshop would be nice, maybe one of those little machines that does all the work for you, like the one that scans the barcode, and yes, Tony could definitely make some much needed improvements on those—
“You’re not mad?”
He looks up to the sound of Bruce’s voice, tentative and quiet. The scientist is peering over the frames of his glasses with dark eyes. Tony blinks owlishly.
“Mad about paper?” He asks, because it is much too early for this, and he would like to go back to bed, “Why would I be mad about paper?”
“You’re not exactly one to be enthusiastic about the holidays, Tony.” Bruce reminds him, and the corners of his mouth tilt up in a smile.
Tony frowns, and his eyes narrow and his brow furrows, and he looks around wildly, wondering why he doesn’t keep a calendar in this workshop, because what day is it? There is something significant missing from this conversation.
“It is November,” Tony says confidently, setting the coffee mug down again, “It is November, and Christmas is not for another month at least, and I—I don’t understand?”
It comes out as more of a question, and Bruce stands up and sets down the pen he’s fiddling with. He does that a lot, Tony notices, because Tony notices the details that usually aren’t important. Habits and tones and mannerisms, but never things like words, or dates, or Very Important Board Meetings.
“It’s December first. Clint and I made snowflakes last night to hang around; I thought it would be a nice touch. I just forgot about you and your, uh, holiday thing.”
That makes sense, Tony thinks. He nods slowly.
“Why did you make snowflakes?”
Bruce blinks, and he looks a little confused, like Tony is missing out on some very, very serious Christmas tradition. He reaches up and bats at the same snowflake Tony had pushed around earlier. A little bit of glitter drifts from the paper and collects on the floor. Tony can see a fleck of it on the side of his nose, just in the very edge of his vision. He swats at it.
“For decorations,” Bruce says, sort of like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, “You know. Christmas time. Trees and garland and that fake snow stuff. You know. You know?”
Bruce is such a lovely person, Tony reminds himself in the back of his mind. He likes him the most, all nervous tics and soft glances, quiet tones and gentle smiles. Of course he likes all of the team, in their own special ways (very, very special ways), but Bruce, he thinks, might be the most well-adjusted out of all of them.
But Tony is lost. There are paper snowflakes in his workspace.
“How did you get them on the ceiling?” He asks, because asking about anything else would probably lead to a conversation he’s not interested in dealing with at this moment in time.
A grin splits Bruce’s face, “Clint. Dummy helped us pile up a bunch of boxes and I held them steady, which maybe wasn’t so smart in hindsight, but it was quite fun. Clint is very nimble.”
And yes, of course it would be Clint, that idiot, balancing on metal boxes and tables, hanging at least a solid hundred paper decorations to the ceiling for his and Bruce’s own amusement. Tony bites his lip, not sure if he’s about to laugh or if he’s just finally losing his mind (he’s sure Pepper would vie for the latter).
“All right, well, I feel a little like Thor, I mean, I really just do not understand this concept at all,” Tony says, and he twirls a snowflake around on its string, “Help me out here, Bruce, because at this point I want to know why paper decorations are a thing, and I’m going to regret this immediately.”
Bruce fumbles around on the workshop’s table, looking under papers and pieces of electronics and even a clipboard or two. He pulls out the little paper circles and hands one to Tony.
“I’ll assume you’ve never made decorations for fun? Like a tradition?”
Oh, Bruce. Sweet, sweet Bruce. Tony would like to sit him down gently in a lovely, ergonomic desk chair and explain to him that no, he did not do these things as a child, and no, Howard Stark did not settle him down at the kitchen table and instruct him on how to make snowflakes, of all things. He flashes Bruce one of those smiles, kind of like his public smile, but with a little more warmth, and pats him on the shoulder.
“Congratulations,” he says, and squeezes the muscles between neck and collarbone, “I am out of my league, Brucey.”
Bruce gives him a smile that would warm even the darkest of hearts, and grabs a pair of scissors.
“This is an ordeal now,” Tony says, and he says it very calmly and with zero anger, “This is—Bruce, why did you let this happen?”
He’s laughing, full on laughing, which is nice, because Bruce is usually very uptight and tense, always worried about the other guy. But Tony is sitting at the work bench, scissors in one hand, with a very, very mangled snowflake balanced delicately in the other.
“I—” Bruce starts, but he has to stop, because he’s choking on another laugh, “I did not think this was going to happen.”
This is the situation, and Tony will concede that yes, it is a little funny – he is sitting, patiently and calmly, holding his scissors and his snowflake, and wondering where he went wrong. Dummy is there too, moving, reaching out with his arm for the bits of paper that are under Tony’s hands, but he keeps missing. The snowflake has a lot of holes in it, more holes than there probably should be in a snowflake, and there are broken spots where the paper has ripped.
Okay. So he’s going to cut his losses and say that maybe this did not work out the way that any of them were hoping. That’s fine.
“I don’t understand,” Tony says, and he doesn’t, because this should have been simple, “This is a child’s game.”
Bruce is going to say something, but the workshop door slips open, and Tony cringes. He can tell by the footsteps how this particular interaction is going to go down.
“Something funny, Banner?” Clint says, and his voice has a hint of something in it that Tony can’t place exactly, “Whatcha doin’ there, Stark?”
He crumples the snowflake up. To avoid embarrassment. He tosses it somewhere in the direction of the wall, and watches as Dummy races towards it. He can hear You and Butterfingers in the corner at their charging stations, chirping and whirring. Clint is dressed in jeans and a ripped up red t-shirt (very festive, Tony thinks), and he skips over towards the wad of paper. Dummy picks it up and turns to meet him.
“Dummy,” Tony warns, and his voice is low.
“Dummy,” Clint says, and his voice is kind, and sweet.
Dummy hands the paper to Clint.
Tony glowers, and stands up, and moves for the door. He can hear the sound of the paper being uncrumpled, and there’s a half second of silence before Clint is full on laughing, maybe even hyperventilating, and leaning up against the work bench for support.
“Is this—” Tony hears him stop to breathe, and when he looks back at them, even Bruce is trying not to laugh. Traitors, “Did you try to make a snowflake?”
“I will have you know,” Tony starts, and yes, that is his defense mechanism flaring up again, “That is just, that is just a prototype, and they will be better and more elegant and beautiful than your snowflakes, Barton.”
Clint is laughing again, eyes red rimmed and watering, and he fingers a torn piece of the snowflake’s paper.
“You are the greatest mind of this generation,” Clint reminds him, and that really grinds Tony’s gears, because he knows this, Clint, “You created the Iron Man armour and the most advanced artificial intelligence system on this planet and you cannot make a paper snowflake.”
Here’s the thing: Tony does not like being bad at things. He is not bad at things, ever, because he is supremely intelligent and he can make anything work for him, anything. So this is a bit of a setback. He thinks that maybe, perhaps, he would have been wise to stay in his room all day.
“Okay, but consider this,” Tony says, “No.”
Yeah, maybe not his best argument.
Steve is the one that is lucky enough to find them. He’s mind his own business, doing his thing in the gym, when JARVIS speaks to him. There is something in his tone that screams ‘Tony’, and Steve wonders just exactly what Tony is up to now.
“Captain Rogers,” his voice is tinny, but it is loud in the gym, bouncing off the walls, “It appears that I require your assistance in the workshop.”
Steve stops punching the punching bag, and stands, stretching his arms. His breathing is hardly quickened from the exercise, but he takes a nice deep breath anyway, like it’ll preserve his sanity. Steve picks up his gym bag quietly and politely.
The AI makes a sound a little like a sigh, and then speaks.
“I—” He starts, and then he stops again, and Steve thinks that this is the first time he’s ever heard JARVIS search for the right thing to say, “It appears that I am at a loss for words.”
“Is it Tony?” Steve asks, and he knows resignation colors his tone, and that’s not nice of him maybe.
“I would not normally intervene in the wishes of Sir,” JARVIS says hesitantly, “But I am concerned that his mental condition is perhaps no longer at optimal levels of stability.”
No. He’s not surprised.
Steve makes his way from the gym, down the hall, and jogs down the stairs to the workshop. He opens the door, takes a look, and sighs. Okay. He can handle this. This is a thing that is okay.
Clint and Bruce are hunched over the work bench with scissors in hand, cutting tiny shapes into folded triangles of paper. They look very intense. Clint has steady hands, and he manoeuvers the scissors like a professional, back and forth, up and down. It’s really great to watch, but he’s not exactly sure why he’s watching it.
Tony is another story, entirely, which is normal. He’s standing up, shirt sleeves pushed back up to his biceps, scribbling on a piece of thick graph paper with a pencil. His hair is mussed and parted the wrong way, and in his eyes Steve can see the wild look that burrows its way in when Tony is feeling particularly creative (and destructive).
There are snowflakes everywhere. The ceiling, the work benches, Steve is pretty sure Tony’s even got one taped on his back.
“Why is there paper hanging from the ceilings,” Steve says, and it’s not a question, just a resigned statement.
“Decorations,” he hears from three different mouths, all simultaneously.
He nods, “Right.”
Tony looks up then, and he blinks those massive eyes a couple times before he breaks out into a grin.
“Cap! Yes, just the man I wanted to see,” he says, and he’s talking quickly, just like he’s had a lot of coffee, “Look at this.”
Tony holds up the schematics that he’s working on, long pencil lines and science and math that Steve just literally does not understand, but he nods kindly and offers Tony half a smile. He steps forward and gently places a hand on the genius’ arm.
“What’s that, Tony?” Steve knows he’s talking to him like a child. Sometimes, it’s the only way.
“Well, it started out as an AI integrated paper snowflake…well, I don’t exactly know at this juncture, but it is definitely a thing, that is certain, and maybe it will make coffee? I’m not sure yet. But let me tell you, Steven G. Rogers, this will make snowflakes with a work ethic to rival the fuckin’ Amish.”
Okay. He can handle this. He can.
“I do not think the Amish made paper snowflakes, Tony.” Steve says, choosing his words carefully.
Tony grins, “Right, well, figure of speech and all.”
The schematics are dangling from Tony’s hand, and Steve reaches out and takes them calmly, gently, and rolls them up. He puts the roll down on the work bench and grabs Tony’s arm. Tony looks up, and he’s more than a little out of it, and Steve directs him to the door of the workshop, saying nothing at all.
“Where are we going?” Tony asks after a while, and he turns his head around and looks at Clint and Bruce, who are still making snowflakes.
“I think,” Steve says, pulling him up the stairs two at a time, “I think perhaps you need a break from Christmas.”
Tony looks up at him with wide, glassy eyes, “It’s Christmas?”
Okay, Steve thinks, maybe a nap.
“Nope. But once you get some more sleep in you, we’ll come back down here and you can get right back to the snow…thing.”
And to Tony’s brain, of course this sounds like the perfect idea, “Okay,” he says, and he lets Steve pull him along, up the stairs, down the hall, towards his room, “All right. That’s a thing.”
Steve’s opening the door to Tony’s room when something falls from the ceiling. It’s glittery and papery and delicate, and it lands on Tony’s head, right in the middle. Glitter flutters from the paper and lands on Tony’s nose, between his eyes, and his nose twitches up.
“Snowflake?” He asks, with wide, brown eyes.
Laughing, Steve leans over and flicks some of the glitter off of Tony’s nose. He scrunches his eyes up like it hurts, which is a thing that Steve notices Tony does when someone offers him physical affection. Steve doesn’t like it, mostly because Tony deserves a lot better than that.
He doesn’t dwell on it. Not today. Instead, he leans forward and pecks Tony on the mouth. It’s a little kiss, loving and soft and gentle, and nothing like their other kisses, but Tony reacts just the same, a little smile and a kiss back.
“Bed,” Steve whispers, and he kisses Tony again, on the corner of his mouth, “Snowflakes later,”
Tony nods, blinks slowly, and stares back at Steve, eyes wide.
“Right,” he says, and he marches in the opposite direction of the door, “Merry Christmas.”
Steve grabs his shoulders and spins him, and Tony carries on like nothing ever even happened. When the door closes, Steve picks up the snowflake that’s fallen on the hardwood and inspects it closely. It’s nice, he thinks, how they can all be so unique, so beautiful. Makes sense why Bruce and Clint would like making them.
He looks at the door and leans his head against it. “Merry Christmas, Tony.”