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not the protocol

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Tony looks at his phone after he ends the call. There's a picture of the Avengers from a few years back on it. The screen goes dark as he looks and he sighs.

So Pepper's delayed. It's better for her, really. He has the table set for two people already, but it's nothing he can't change. She'll have a better time sitting in the airport than she would putting up with his poor company.

He goes into the kitchen and starts hiding the plates. He can't cancel the food order now, so he'll just put everything in the fridge when it arrives.

It's not like—

He'll have more time to work on the armour this way.

And it's not like he deserves friends, anyway.

***

He's elbows deep in the armour when the doorbell rings. He looks at the hour and frowns. He didn't notice it got this late.

He puts the parts he was holding away, and catches a screw before it manages to fall off the table. The doorbell rings again. Tony wipes his hands over his tank top and goes to answer.

It's the delivery guy, of course, and Tony doesn't feel disappointment. It's not like he should've expected anyone else. He gives him a tip and takes the plates from him, a full Christmas Eve dinner that there's no one here to eat.

He puts the main dishes in the fridge and regrets not ordering wine. He shakes his head almost immediately. He's not going to think about that. The memories are too fresh; Extremis in his head and alcohol running through his veins.

He pokes at the cake with a fork. He's not even sure if he wants to eat it now, and he stares at it for a moment.

Another doorbell makes him move. He wonders if the delivery guy forgot about something, and he doesn't check who it is before opening.

Then he's face to face with Steve.

“Hey,” Steve says, and Tony just stares at him. Steve shifts on his legs. “Can I come in?”

Tony moves aside to let him in without a word.

“Are you going to say something?” Steve asks.

“What are you doing here?” Tony says, because he can't pretend it's normal anymore for Steve to visit him.

Steve sighs. “It's Christmas,” he says as if it explains anything.

“I noticed,” Tony says.

“Carol said you weren't coming.”

Tony just looks at him.

“I thought I'd—”

“Steve,” Tony cuts in. “We're barely talking. You—you don't want me anywhere near yourself. Not that I blame you, after everything. So what are you doing here?”

“Forgiveness time?” Steve offers, and Tony laughs mirthlessly.

“Try again.”

“I mean it,” Steve says. “I thought of spending another year without you, and—I'll go, if you want me to. But I'd rather stay.”

“You can't mean it,” Tony says. “Remember last Christmas? I was lying to you all that time.”

Steve exhales. He briefly closes his hands into fists. “And I want to move on,” he says.

“Yeah, no,” Tony says. “You hate me. I don't believe in miracles.”

“I have a gift for you,” Steve blurts out.

Tony blinks. “Excuse me?”

“It's not—I didn't hit myself on the head in the morning; I planned to come, I knew you would just ignore invitations to the Tower—Tony, let me in.”

“I already have,” Tony notices, gesturing around, even as he knows that's not what Steve meant at all.

Tony,” Steve says, and there's everything in his voice; forgiveness and demand.

“I suppose I have dinner ready,” Tony says.

Steve smiles at him brightly like sun.

It's awkward.

Tony has no idea how to act around Steve, and Steve seems very unsure too, but they make it work. Steve prepares coffee as Tony sets the plates, and they never needed much words.

(Words were what broke them, was it worth it and you used me and I'm sorry, Steve.)

They eat in silence.

Tony isn't really hungry, but Steve can eat enough for the both of them with his metabolism. The coffee Steve made is delicious, as usual—

But it hasn't been usual for months.

Tony finishes his cup and just looks at Steve.

He should be among his friends, the other Avengers, and instead he's wasting his time with Tony Stark. Tony doesn't know what it means, but he can't deny being so glad Steve is here.

When he's finished, Steve looks up and smiles at Tony again. It's weird, it's wrong; Tony doesn't deserve it and Steve should know it—knows it. Why is he here?

“So,” Steve says, reaching into his pocket. “Your gift.”

“Isn't it too early for this?” Tony asks quickly. He's not trying to make Steve stay longer, he's not.

Steve cocks his head. “It is. But I want you to have it now. We can eat cakes later.”

“Did you really—” Tony's not sure what to say. He laughs, more carelessly than he did in months. “I don't have anything for you.”

“That's not true,” Steve says in a soft voice. He finally takes his hand out of his pocket and gives Tony a small packet.

It's no bigger than a credit card, and wrapped in red and gold paper. “Nice,” Tony says.

“Open it.” Steve's look is intense.

Tony tears the paper, and then freezes.

He's not sure what to say.

He's holding an Avengers card, Tony Stark written on it, his picture in the corner.

He's—

“Steve,” he says finally. “That's not the protocol.”

“Well, I know what you'd say if I wrote Iron Man instead,” Steve says. “It's for you, Shellhead. In all of your identities.”

Tony can't breathe.

“Will you take it?” Steve asks.

“I—”

Tony only realises he's shaking when Steve gets up, takes the two steps to him and wraps him in his arms. “A gift is supposed to make you happy, you know,” he whispers into Tony's ear.

Tony's still clutching the card.

“Take it, Avenger,” Steve says quietly.

Tony nods, very slowly. “Okay,” he says. He can't get more words out.

“Told you you were wrong,” Steve says. He sounds like he's smiling again. “That's the best gift you could give me,” he explains.

Tony closes his eyes, pulls Steve closer with his free hand and breathes him in.

Avenger.

He can do it, if Steve's asking.