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Charles Courtland's annual holiday party was a snoozefest. Tony had never bothered going before since most of the guest list were either twice his age or incredibly boring or both. But this year he was giving it some serious consideration.

He leaned back on his hands and eyed the various invitations scattered on the floor around him. Most of them were just pro forma – events or gatherings he was invited to just to avoid any offense, parties he didn't want to attend and which no one would care if he skipped. Some of them were earnest invitations from people Tony'd rather hang himself than spend his free time with. There were polite invitations from the occasional business partner or employee, official invitations from the board members, local politicians and charity fundraisers. Some not-so-local politicians were mixed in there, too, but considering his recent experiences with various US Senators, he should probably politely decline.

The problem was, while there were many invitations he could, and had in the past, easily decline, there were more than a few that he was expected to attend. Parties he had happily attended in the past. Parties where he had thoroughly enjoyed himself, occasionally to the delight of the press and Pepper's utter frustration. A party in Dubai that had lasted until several days after New Year's the previous year. One of his major investors held a party on a yacht every year and the last time Tony had attended they'd ended up in the Virgin Islands with no one, including the ship captain, entirely sure how. Pepper hadn't liked that one much, either. And then there were the parties back in California, with the Hollywood crowd, that were entirely in a class by themselves and which he was flat out forbidden to attend on pain of Pepper-induced death.

In short, nowhere a guy experimenting with sobriety should go anywhere near.

He could attend the annual VanDyne Christmas Charity Dinner. Fifty-five hundred dollars a plate, an orchestra, a lot of slow dancing with polite society ladies. Well, Jan VanDyne would be there at least, and could be counted upon to rescue Tony from the worst of it. But there was always an elaborate wine tasting and waiters who would bring you any drink you asked for (even a six-pack and some bourbon from the liquor store if you slipped them a couple of hundreds in between courses).

Anywhere he went, there would be alcohol. If not wine, then eggnog with rum, cocktails, those god-awful Polar Bear shooters that Rhodey liked. If there were no waiters to bring him booze, there would be open bars where he could damned well get it himself. Tony didn't trust anyone there to cut him off and he didn't trust himself to resist temptation when he surrounded himself with it.

There was nothing else to it. He could either stay at home alone – which was its own special brand of dangerous – or he could throw his own party, where he controlled exactly what he could and couldn't get his hands on.

And he had just the idea.

"Who are you," Fury demanded, "and what have you done with the real Stark?"

Tony slouched in his chair and scowled at the ceiling, ignoring the two armed SHIELD agents who immediately drew their guns on him. Fury leaned across his desk, fists planted firmly on the desktop as he glared at Tony with his one good eye.

Captain America hesitated in the doorway, taking in the scene with an air of resigned confusion. "I'm interrupting."

Tony rolled his eyes. "And this is why we knock in this century. It's very rude to interrupt a man when he's being interrogated."

"I – why are you being interrogated?" Cap frowned at Tony, which Tony ignored, then leveled a dark look on the SHIELD agents that actually had them shuffling uncomfortably. "Does SHIELD make a habit of drawing weapons on its own people? What are the charges here? And why wasn't I informed?"

"I'm a shape-shifter," Tony said. "Or a clone? Or a robot, maybe, I don't know. Fury wasn't offering any suggestions before he set off Frick and Frack."

"Why are you a shape-shifter?" Cap asked, apparently willing to roll with the punches.

"I offered to do something nice," Tony said.

"Okay," Cap said. "Yeah, I can see why Fury might have come to that conclusion."

Tony might have said something impolite at that point.

"Both of you get out of my office," Fury said. "Stark, do whatever you want, but if it comes back to bite anyone on the ass, it's going to be you. And you two," he snapped, "put your damned weapons away. He's not actually an imposter. Do you threaten to shoot everyone who does something unexpected? Because this might be a really bad line of work for you."

Cap eyed Tony suspiciously. "So what's this nice thing you've offered to do?"

"He's throwing the first annual Avengers/SHIELD holiday party," Fury said. "And you just volunteered to help him."

"I'm pretty sure he didn't," Tony said indignantly as Captain America sputtered surprised denials.

"Everyone out," Fury said.

It was possible Tony hadn't really thought this through. Parties were things that just happened, usually at someone else's behest. On the rare occasions that he'd been the one instigating things, Pepper was the one to handle the details. But Pepper was busy running his company and Steve felt it would be unfair to burden her with such frivolities. That left the two of them to try and plan the party together, an idea that would go down in history as one of Fury's worst.

Because Steve was taking it all seriously and Tony – Tony honestly had no idea what to do with that. He wasn't used to people taking his whims seriously without getting paid to do so.

So mostly he let Steve do whatever he wanted, putting his foot down on occasion – "We don't need a live band, Rogers, it's not the prom." – and mostly just forking over the money for caterers, decorations and whatever the hell else they were doing.

The only thing Tony cared about, in all honesty, was the bar.

The bartenders supplied by the caterer were younger than Tony could remember being, most days. College-age, probably working their way through school, or doing this part-time to make the rent. Either way, their eyes widened ridiculously when Tony set the cash down in front of them.

"Two thousand dollars," he said, tossing a thin strap of hundreds at each of them. "And I'll match it after the party, if you do your job well enough."

The girl was looking back and forth between him and the money like she just knew there had to be a horrible catch in there somewhere. The guy was all but drooling. "Yeah, sure," he said. "What do you need? I've never killed anyone before, but I learn fast."

Tony snorted. "Nothing as bad as that. Or whatever you're thinking," he told the girl, who promptly gave him a look suggesting that her thoughts had just found something even worse for him to be asking them. "No. That's a bribe. You keep the drinks flowing and my friends happy tonight. But I'm cut off. If either one of you serve me so much as a little paper umbrella, you both forfeit the cash, plus I'll get your asses fired before the sun comes up. Deal?"

"What if you make a scene?" the guy asked. He still hadn't looked up from the bundle of hundreds he was counting for the third time.

"I won't," Tony said. He wouldn't. He knew himself that well at least. He wasn't above sneaking drinks if he thought he could get away with it, but he'd made his newfound sobriety common knowledge very much on purpose. No way in hell he'd let everyone know he'd fallen off the wagon so quickly. That meant no begging someone else to order drinks on his behalf, and no scenes.

He'd be the epitome of self-restraint at this party if it fucking killed him. "So do we have a deal?"

Captain America wandered over from wherever he'd been – he'd been safely distracted supervising the hanging of icicle lights a few minutes ago, when Tony had started this conversation. He took in the money, the two bartenders, and offered Tony a raised eyebrow. "Exactly how much alcohol are you ordering?"

Tony could feel the smirk that crossed his face go cold and hard a second before Steve's expression flickered slightly. "Well, you know me, Cap. It's not a party unless I'm exercising terrible judgment." He waved a careless hand at the bartenders. "So, do we have a deal?"

Both of them, perhaps sensing that the moment was about to go south, grabbed the money and nodded. "Yeah, sure," the guy said. "There's more after the party's over, right?"

"If you do your job properly," Tony told him. "Carry on." He turned away, content to ignore them all for the moment and thinking that if he couldn't have a fucking drink then he was damned well going to go down to the training room and beat the holy hell out of a punching bag.

Tony dragged himself out of the showers three hours later, dead on his feet and just high enough on endorphins that he wasn't even thinking about a drink for the moment. He dried himself off, contemplated ditching his own party, then reluctantly conceded defeat on the grounds that Fury'd never let him live it down and Coulson and Clint would probably just come get him, or worse, they'd send Natasha.

He dragged on a black suit and a red silk shirt – his one concession to the holiday spirit – and was finger-combing the tangles out of his hair and debating whether it was too late to call his stylist when someone knocked on his bedroom door.

There were only so many people it could be. Sure the entire Avengers roster, the Fantastic Four, select members of the X-Men and half of SHIELD were currently occupying his mansion, but they would mostly be confined to the first floor and few of them would know which room was Tony's.

On the other hand, he'd paid for a really good bar and they'd had – he checked his watch – more than an hour now – to get well and truly smashed. Maybe someone was just looking for an empty bedroom to get lucky in.

Feeling emboldened by this unprecedented optimism, Tony opened the bedroom door. Steve Rogers stood there, in khakis and a red sweater that looked like it had come straight off the rack at the Big & Tall store, one hand raised to knock again.

"Fuck," Tony said.

"I'm… sorry?" Steve said, looking a little affronted.

Tony debated telling him that it was just a natural response to a sweater that cheap, but he was being good, he was behaving, he was going to shoot himself before the night was over. "Nothing. What do you need?"

The question seemed to take Steve by surprise, because he blinked a couple of times before he said, "I was looking for you? I mean, I was looking for you. To make sure you were coming to the party."

"Do I have to?" Tony asked and it was supposed to be – well, something snarkier than that, something witty and biting and instead he just ended up sounding… plaintive. Whiny.

Steve, damn him, grinned at him. "Well, it is your party, Tony. People might expect you to put in an appearance."

He'd known he was going to regret this, this, could it even be called a good deed if he did it for selfish reasons? Probably not. "Tell me they're not trashing the mansion."

"They're not trashing the mansion," Steve said, but he might have winced a little as he said it.

"God, you're a shitty liar," Tony said.

He let Steve lead him back down to the party, which had spilled out of the ballroom and was well on its way to taking over the entire first floor. The music was loud and pounding, but the conversation was worse, dozens of people who were used to shouting orders in combat situations all using the same skill set that let them yell strategy over machine gun fire and explosions to make themselves heard over – "Nickelback?" he said, horrified. "Rogers, you son of a bitch."

"Hey," Steve said.

Tony was already taking it back. "Not literally, I mean, obviously, the modern usage, by which I mean what the hell is this noise you are polluting my home with?"

Chad Kroeger was calling down the next contestant over Tony's beyond-state-of-the-art sound system. It was an abomination.

"Clint said it was too early in the evening for the Christmas music," Steve said, like he had no fucking idea what he'd done wrong.

"Christmas music?" Tony might have flailed a little, standing at the foot of the stairs and fighting back the urge to twitch.

"It's a Christmas party," Steve said.

"It's a non-denominational winter holiday party," Tony said automatically, because it made Fury roll his eye and sigh every time and that never got old. "And no one listens to Christmas music at a non-denominational winter holiday party. Rogers. Steve. No one listens to Christmas music at all unless they're putting on a Christmas pageant. Or hipsters. Do I look like a hipster? Does anyone here look like a hipster?"

"I don't know what that word means," Steve said, and the jackass was grinning, he was, he was smirking right in Tony's face.

"You are a hopeless cause," Tony told him. "There's no fixing you. You're just going to have to accept that you will never be cool and make the most of your life."

"I like Christmas music," Steve said, because obviously that was the important part of the conversation.

"Of course you do," Tony said. "It's all new to you. But those of us who haven't been taking the world's longest catnap have heard it all roughly seven trillion times. Steve. Oh, god, Steve, you don't like Happy Birthday Jesus, do you?" He stared at Steve with a feeling of horror that was only slightly faked. "All I Want For Christmas? Feliz Navidad? Steve. Steve. The people who sang Feliz Navidad don't like it. It was the seventies, Steve, nothing good came out of the seventies except the ERA and bra-burning and that's not really anything to do with Christmas, but the seventies, Steve."

Steve grinned at him, bright and genuinely amused, which was a look Tony could get used to on him, he really could. "You know, I used to think you rambled because you were trying to bullshit me."

"I am not bullshitting you," Tony said with all the dignity he could muster. "The seventies were horrible and the music was worse. And no one comes to a Christmas party to listen to Christmas music."

Steve caught Tony by the lapel of his jacket and tugged him toward the ballroom. Tony would like to pretend that he went along willingly, but the fact of the matter was that Steve was basically dragging him. Tony'd gone to torture sessions in a fucking Afghanistan cave more willingly than he was going into that teeming morass of celebratory super-heroes.

"Oh god," Tony said, "what is this, is this the Beatles?"

"I like the Beatles," Steve said and Tony was sensing a theme there.

"Do you like Nickelback?" Tony asked suspiciously because Steve was a pompous asshole who thought Tony was a bum, but that was forgivable.

"Not especially?" Steve said, an apologetic note to his voice. "I'm sure I'm not – maybe after I get more exposure to modern – no. I don't."

"Thank god," Tony said. "I take it back. You aren't entirely hopeless."

"Flattering," Steve said. "Coming from you."

"And I should know," Tony said. He tugged his jacket back from Steve's grip and smoothed the wrinkles out as he surveyed the room. He recognized more faces than he'd expected to, which meant he'd been spending way too much time on the Helicarrier lately. Pepper and Natasha were leaning against a wall on the opposite side of the room, holding drinks and engaged in conversation that looked entirely too animated to Tony's eyes. There was a conspicuous empty space around them, which meant Natasha was being scary again.

Pepper's Tony-sense kicked in and she looked up and smiled at him. It kicked him in the teeth a little, the way it always did when he was reminded that for some reason she still liked him despite the veritable plethora of disasters he'd caused over the years. He shrugged off the heavy, warm feeling and returned her smile with a leer, taking elaborate pains to notice exactly how well her dress hugged every curve. Pepper grinned and wiggled her fingers at him. Natasha rolled her eyes at them both. Tony suspected this was not how ex-lovers were supposed to act. He'd never had an ex that hadn't hated him afterwards so he was mostly making this up as he went along.

"Tell me everything's under control and I can find a-" he had to actually stop and think about it, because the closest thing to a party he'd attended since he'd stopped drinking was the wedding they'd thrown for Coulson and his job and Bruce, bless his nerdy heart, had made sure there was sparkling cider to go with the champagne and hadn't even acted like it was a thing. "What the hell do people drink at these things when they aren't drinking?" he asked over the music. "Like, fucking soda? I hate soda."

"Thor made cider," Steve said.

Tony felt his eyebrows trying to crawl over the top of his head. "Thor made cider? Thor who set my kitchen on fire? Three times?"

Steve shrugged. "Well, Thor brought cider. He said it was Asgardian. It was pretty good." He grabbed Tony by the lapels again – what was with that anyway? Tony gave Pepper a look that was meant to say you see what I put up with here? and apparently said something else entirely because Pepper was giving him that one-eyebrow look she'd mastered sometime on the second day she'd worked for him. He didn't have time to think about that because Steve was leading him to the tables the caterer had set up at the back of the ballroom. Tony, well aware of what super-hero appetites could be like, and even more aware of what SHIELD agent appetites were like – bottomless fucking pits, every one of them, Clint ate like it was going out of style – had ordered enough food to feed half of Manhattan, but the tables already looked like a swarm of locusts had passed by.

There was a rough wooden cask that Tony hadn't arranged for sitting at the end of one of the tables next to a stack of plastic cups with little reindeer on them that Tony definitely hadn't arranged for. Steve grabbed two cups and handed one back to Tony full of something more or less golden colored that smelled vaguely of honey and apples. He didn't smell anything like alcohol – and he didn't actually think Steve disliked him that much, Steve wouldn't do that to anyone, but mistakes happen and who the hell knew what Asgardians considered intoxicating? But it seemed all right and he took an experimental sip while Steve gulped down half his cup and poured himself a refill on the spot. "Good?"

It was, actually, though Tony thought it would be about twenty percent better out of a cup that wasn't a hideous abomination. He swallowed a mouthful of cider and leaned against the wall, surveying the room.

Bruce was over by the windows with Reed Richards and Hank McCoy, which Tony made a mental note to keep an eye on. Bruce and Reed had gone to college together and even at another school Tony had heard about their epic laboratory showdowns. The last thing he needed tonight was Reed pissing Bruce off until he Hulked out and turned Reed into a breathing Stretch Armstrong.

There were a handful of X-Men lingering by the dessert table and keeping mostly to themselves, which was awkward but not unexpected – Fury and Xavier were rarely on good terms, politically or socially, and their various soldiers spent as much time clashing with each other as with the enemy. But Wolverine had brought that kid of his and she was busy talking Clint's ear off while Logan smirked at Clint's increasingly desperate attempts to break away. Thor was – nowhere to be seen, actually, and neither was Johnny Storm or Ben Grimm which didn't bode terribly well. "Did we stock up on fire extinguishers?"

"No," Steve said, browsing the finger foods and studying a pig in a blanket like he expected it to come to life at any moment. "You said the mansion's fire prevention was state of the art and then you accused me of calling you a bad scientist. Why?"

"No reason." He'd ordered Jarvis to seal his workshop, his office and the library, the three rooms he felt could least survive encounters with drunken superheroes. "So, is it just me or did Storm paint that dress on?"

Steve didn't even look. "Tony. Be nice."

"I am being nice," Tony said. "That is a really nice dress."

"Could you be less awkward?" Steve asked. "I mean, if you tried? Are you trying? Is this you trying?"

Tony glared at him over the rim of his hideous reindeer cup. "What? What the hell am I doing now, Captain Asshole? You wanted me to come to the party, I came to the party. I am even making fucking small-talk with you. Tell me what I'm doing wrong here."

"Do you even want to be here?" Steve demanded. "Because you don't act like it."

Tony had something dry and scathing to respond to that, really he did, because of course he didn't want to be here. There were a thousand places he'd rather be than here, places he was fantasizing about as they spoke and he couldn't go to any of them.

But his sharp retort never saw the light of day because Jarvis chose that moment to interrupt. "Excuse me, sir. We appear to have unauthorized activity on the roof."

Thor, or the Human Torch, was Tony's first thought. But Thor was authorized and Jarvis knew Johnny Storm well enough to have ratted him out by name. "What are we looking at?"

Steve came to stand at his side, licking the last bits of cranberry brie off his thumb and Tony found himself staring a little as Jarvis said, "Uncertain, sir."

"Bring up the security cameras," Tony said, flipping open his phone and Steve shifted to block the rest of the room as a hologram of the roof flickered and glowed in front of them. "Jarvis. I don't see anything."

"Yes, sir. Cameras are clear. However, the motion detectors are being tripped repeatedly in multiple areas."

"At once?" Steve asked.

Jarvis hesitated just long enough in his reply to make it clear he didn't appreciate the interruption. Tony loved him, he did. "As I was saying, Captain. The sensors seem to indicate one presence, moving somewhat aimlessly."

Tony waved his hand at the hologram. "Gimme the alarms, the – yeah, that's great, you're a mind reader," he said as a blue line began crossing back and forth across the roof, tracking the order the sensors were being tripped in. "No pattern to the movement?"


"I'm going to have to go up on the roof, aren't I?" Tony asked. It was still better than standing here, sniping back and forth at Steve and listening to – whatever this was. Did Steve really say Clint had been involved in the music selection? "All right. Gimme ten and I'll get back to you – probably a couple of baby SHIELDs or whatever the X-Men call their munchkin brigade, trying to be ninjas or something."

"I'm coming with you," Steve said in that leader voice he used in combat and meetings, the one that meant listen to me for I can save you from getting yourself killed in a spectacularly stupid way or for god's sake Tony, stop tweeting during the briefing depending on the situation. "If there's something up there-"

"If there is, I'll let you know and you can rally the reinforcements," Tony said. "But honestly, it's probably-"

Steve ignored him and started walking toward the door. "Half the superheroes on the planet are here right now, Tony, we're a tempting target. I know you realize that because we discussed it right before the thing with the fire extinguishers."

Tony resisted the urge to point out that he hadn't actually remembered the thing with the fire extinguishers, so what made Steve think he'd remember any other part of that conversation. "Fine. But if it's a bunch of mini-mutants you get to corral them all."

"Don't be ridiculous, Tony," Steve said. "If it's a bunch of kid mutants, we'll make the X-Men do it. The invitations specifically said no guests under 21, after all."

"Occasionally," Tony said, "just occasionally, I like the way your mind works."

"Thanks," Steve said, like that had been anything close to a compliment. "Grab your coat. I don't want you to freeze up there."

"Yes, Mom."

They were trudging up the third floor staircase, having stopped for coats and Cap's shield, in no particular hurry because they both knew it probably was just mini-mutants or Johnny Storm or a drunk SHIELD agent, when Steve said, "I didn't mean it, you know."

"Mean what?" Tony asked without thinking about it.

"Before. Earlier today." Steve looked embarrassed when Tony glanced his way. "When you were talking to the bartenders? I didn't mean that the way it sounded."

"Fine," Tony said.

Steve sighed. "Tony. It was – it was just a joke. About the money and how much our teammates can drink. I wasn't trying to say that you – but it was crossing a line and I'm sorry."

"I was bribing them so they wouldn't serve me," Tony said and immediately felt his eyes widen in vague horror because holy shit of all the things he'd never planned to admit to Steve fucking Rogers – he had a whole list and that was near the top.

"Oh," Steve said, like it had never occurred to him, and the worst part was it probably never had. "You didn't have to do that."

Tony snorted. "Hello, I'm Tony Stark. Have we even met?"

"You've been really good, though," Steve said and the tone in his voice was earnest and sincere and something that sounded a little like fucking pride except that was the second craziest thing Tony had thought up all day. "It's been months."

"Months is nothing," Tony said, embarrassment making him harsh. "I've been a drunk for a couple of decades, Cap. I know all the tricks. Hell I made half of them up and the rest I learned from my old man. Months is nothing."

"Howard?" Steve asked and there was honest surprise in his voice. "I didn't know Howard had a drinking problem-"

"If you talk about him right now I will punch you in the mouth, so help me god," Tony said, almost shaking with a sudden rush of fury. "And I'll probably do more damage to my hand than you, yeah, but not for lack of trying, understand?"

Steve fell silent and Tony forced himself to breathe normally, to swallow the irrational fight or flight response that always surged up in his blood when Captain America started talking about his dad. He knew they'd been friends. God knew Howard had mentioned it often enough before he'd died. Hell, he had the transcripts of Steve's first few conversations out of the ice and after a woman a named Peggy Carter and his partner, Bucky Barnes, Howard had been the first person Steve asked about. So, yeah. It went a long way to explaining why Steve had never cared for him. Howard had never really been Tony's biggest fan, either.

It didn't mean Tony had to like it, though. Steve was kind of arrogant sometimes, acting like he knew best all the time, but he was a good guy, one of the best and it stung that he'd been able to see through Tony so completely on such short acquaintance.

"Well," Steve said finally as they tromped up to the roof access and Tony pulled the door open. "I'm still sorry. It was an even more inconsiderate thing to say now that I know what you were talking about. So I'm sorry. And I'll-" His eyes flickered to Tony briefly and there was something there, that sense of being seen that had struck Tony the first time they'd met, when Steve had instantly disliked him. "I'll try to be more supportive. I didn't realize you felt that way."

"Felt what way?" Tony demanded irritably, because he was apparently a glutton for punishment that day and had never, ever been good at just leaving things alone.

"That you were worried," Steve told him earnestly. "About being sober. You just jumped on the wagon and I haven't seen you stumble at all. I guess it's easier from the outside. But I'll try to be more supportive-"

"Oh my god," Tony said and he was dragging in breath, ready to yell or push Steve down the stairs or just throw himself off the roof, he honestly didn't know, because the last thing he needed was Steve Rogers trying to be his fucking life coach.

And that's when the creature melted out of the shadows.

"Shit," Tony said, and whatever else Rogers was, he was good at picking up non-verbal cues. He was spinning to face the threat, whipping out the shield, almost before Tony was done speaking.

It was a horse. A big horse. Its shoulders came up to Tony's head and its hooves were huge. It was a dark gray with a silver mane and tail that draped to the ground. It also had eight legs, which was a new one on Tony.

"How the hell did a horse get up here?" he asked the world at large. "This is – This is it, isn't it? This is my life now. Pushy super-heroes and stealth ninja assassins and giant green monsters and eight-legged horses that can climb up walls. Why is this my life now?"

"Says the guy who fights terrorists in a shiny metal suit," Steve said. "And we don't know it climbed up the walls. Maybe it can fly?"

They both studied the horse with the curiosity of the truly hard to shock. "No," Tony said firmly. "Anything with that many legs is going to be good at climbing. It's probably part spider."

"The things you come up with worry me sometimes," Steve said with disarming sincerity.

"You can scoff all you want, but there's precedent."

"There is not."

"Spider-Man," Tony said.

"What? That is not a real thing."

"Baby super-hero. Just came on the radar a few months ago. Fury's been stalking him."

"And you've been hacking SHIELD's computers. Tony. If Fury catches you again-"

"He never caught me, he just suspected-"

"- he's going to kick you off the team. War Machine's great and all but I'd rather not have to break in a new teammate." Steve gave him a stern look that was probably meant to make Tony feel all chastised.

"Can we discuss this after dealing with the eight-legged horse-spider?" Tony asked.

The horse-thing snorted and it might have been its breath fogging in the cold. It might have, but that wasn't how their luck usually ran.

"For the record, I am completely unprepared for fire-breathing horse-monsters."

"I told you we needed more fire extinguishers," Steve said. He had one arm held out in front of Tony like a shield and was totally trying to nudge Tony back down the stairs.

Tony dealt with that by side-stepping him entirely. "Maybe it belongs to one of the guests? Who do we know who might have arrived on an eight-legged horse spider that climbs walls and possibly breaths fire?"

There was a pause, just a heartbeat, wherein the utter obviousness of the answer made itself apparent to both of them. "Thor," they chorused.

"Get him on the communicator," Steve said. "Just in case." He edged out of the doorway a little, taking a half-step sideways to put himself back between Tony and the horse-thing.

"Thor doesn't answer his communicator," Tony reminded him. "He pretends he doesn't know what the flashing light and beeping are about, but I've got his number."

Steve took a careful step forward, braced to move if the horse reacted badly. But the horse just lowered its head a little and snorted again. "Okay, then go back downstairs and get him up here."

"He wasn't downstairs," Tony said. "He wasn't at the party, I looked for him. And hey, thanks for suggesting I run away like a weak little mortal, good to know your first instinct in a potential combat situation is to not trust me to watch my own back."

"Oh my god," Steve said. "Are we having this fight again? In front of the horse-spider?"

"Hey, it's not like I blame you," Tony said. "I mean, we both know I'm nothing without my shiny metal suit."

The horse-spider snorted and pawed the ground with two of its front hooves and Tony could see the way Steve was braced to move, the way the muscles in his shoulders and legs tensed in the second before the creature charged. Tony dodged, or tried to, because Steve had him by the arm and was dragging him in the opposite direction. They lost precious seconds scrabbling with each other before Steve gave a heave that dragged Tony out of the creature's path and left him stumbling against Steve. "For fuck's sake," Tony spat. "I wasn't being serious about being helpless, you - Jumping! It jumps!" He planted both hands on Steve's chest and shoved, knocking them apart.

The creature hit the roof where they'd been standing a moment earlier and spun around, mane and tail flying and reflecting the moonlight. It pawed at the ground and whinnied, an eerie, resonating sound that Tony could feel in his bones. Its eyes were silver-grey and they focused on Tony with a strangely familiar intensity.

"Hell," he said and he flung himself to the side just as the creature charged at him. He hit the tiles hard and started to slide. He grabbed at the roof, the edges of the tiles cutting at his palms, and dug his heels in, trying to get his footing back.


Steve ran across the tiles and flung out a hand for him to grab. Tony really thought about just going over the edge, he did, but only for a second. He latched onto Steve's wrist and let himself be dragged to his feet. "You and I need to schedule a few training sessions," Steve said. "We're not anticipating each other at all."

"I anticipated you saying that," Tony said, sourly.

The horse-spider was racing back and forth across the top of the roof, ignoring them for the moment. "I think it's playing," Tony said. "It doesn't look like it has a diabolical plan."

The creature skidded to a halt, hooves rasping against the tiles. It paused on the roof above them, breathing heavily.

"You were saying?" Steve said, raising the shield as if he intended to meet the creature head-on. Possibly he did. Tony wouldn't put it past him.

"I'm going to get trampled by a horse on the roof of my own house," Tony said. "The tabloids are gonna love this. What do you think they'll put on my tombstone? 'Here lies Tony Stark whose life could not get any more ridiculous'?"

"I'm not going to let you die," Steve said, oddly fierce.

The horse-thing made a sound Tony didn't have a word for, though if he had to describe it, he'd go with ominous. And the tiles on the roof began to slide loose.

"Well of course," Tony said, as he began to slide toward the edge of the roof.

Steve wrapped his hand in Tony's coat and literally tossed Tony a few feet away onto a part of the roof that wasn't coming apart. Tony staggered a little but caught his footing, then Steve was flinging himself across the roof to land beside Tony – much more gracefully, it should be noted. The creature snorted again, rough and angry and leapt at them. Steve shoved Tony down and they hit the tiles in a tangle of limbs and shield as the creature landed and spun on them, stomping its feet.

"Oh, come on!" Tony yelled. "The roof is not made for this! You're going to go plunging right through to the attic and see if I help you get out again."

Steve huffed against the back of his neck, still crouched over Tony, the shield raised defensively. "Something tells me this thing isn't worried about structural integrity."

The creature tossed its head and the whole roof shook. Tony stumbled, felt Steve start to slip and then the creature reared up into the air and brought all four of its front hooves down with a sound like a thunderclap. Tony hit the tiles hard and he was moving, the tiles sliding underneath him. He flung a hand out, trying to grab the edge of the roof and he caught Steve's hand instead.

Steve grabbed his hand and jerked hard enough to make Tony's shoulder burn, pulling him in close. Then they were falling.

Tony had just enough time to think that falling off the roof of a four story mansion was going to hurt like a son of a bitch before Steve's arms closed around him and they twisted in midair.

No, Tony thought, panic rising like bile in his throat but by then they'd already hit the ground.

Steve hit first, taking the impact on his back, Tony clutched against his chest. Tony sprawled there for a moment, the air knocked out of him, trying suck in oxygen and squirm free of Steve's grip without hurting either of them.

The window above them opened and Clint stuck his head out. "Should I even ask?" he asked, raising an eyebrow at the sight of them sprawled on the grass, Steve's hands still clutching at Tony's back. "Or would you two like to be left alone?"

Tony wheezed and Steve groaned, stirring beneath him.

"Are you guys all right?" Clint asked.

The sound came again – the ominous one – and Tony snapped his head back to stare up at the roof, vaguely aware of Clint doing the same. A pile of ceiling tiles broke over the edge of the roof like a freaking tsunami and plummeted toward the ground. Tony sucked in one panicked breath and twisted in Steve's grip, threw his arms over Steve's head and ducked his own against Steve's shoulder. It wasn't enough, but they couldn't move in time and Steve – Steve was a superhuman, if Tony could shield him from the worst he'd have a chance.

He felt Steve's heart beating against his chest. He could feel Steve's breath on his ear, quickening as he realized what was happening. He tried to twist out of Tony's grip, but Tony held on and he could feel the moment Steve ducked his head against Tony's and waited for impact.

"Tony," Steve said, strained and breathless and then the tiles hit with a clatter and the sound of smashing ceramic.

But no pain of impact, not even the near miss of a tile hitting the ground beside them. Tony risked raising his head and found the tiles smashing into dust and shards against a clear force field just a few inches above his head.

Sue Richards stood a few feet away, one hand outstretched, her eyes sharp as she focused on the shield. Behind her Thor, Johnny and Ben were gathered like schoolboys being dragged home by their big sister.

Tony exhaled a breath he hadn't intentionally been holding and lowered his head to rest against Steve's shoulder for a minute. "That would have been embarrassing," he said.

"It kind of still is," Steve said ruefully, his voice still tight after having the breath knocked out of him. He shifted slightly, rolled them both to the side so Tony could slide off his chest. "You're all right?"

"I'm fine," Tony said, hands hovering over Steve, uncertain what to do. And then, because he was never good at anything that could be termed a moment, "Are you crazy? Don't move, you're lucky you didn't break your back landing like that."

"I could take the impact better," Steve said, pushing himself up to a sitting position as Sue's shield slipped away, leaving them in a circle of clean grass surrounded by the remnants of what looked like close to a hundred heavy tiles. "And even if I did get hurt, I heal faster. It was the only thing to do, Tony."

"It was stupid-"

"And I wasn't going to let that thing hurt you if I could help it." His voice lowered. "I'll never let anything hurt you if I can help it."

Tony thought about Steve's arms against his back and the way Steve had said his name just before the tiles hit and though maybe he and Steve were having two different conversations.

And maybe had been for a while.

"You're crazy," Tony said. "But thanks."

"Are you two all right?" Sue asked and then everyone was moving and talking at once. Thor was pulling Tony to his feet while Johnny and Ben hauled Steve up. Clint had climbed out the window at some point and had his bow out, aimed at the roof. "What happened? Are we under attack?"

"There's a-" Tony gestured at the roof.

"Thing," Steve finished, and yeah, that about summed it up.

The horse-thing whinnied, loud and clear and Tony looked up in time to see it leap off the edge of the roof. He shoved Thor back – which did absolutely nothing, but never let it be said he didn't at least try – and grabbed Steve's sleeve, pulling him against the side of the mansion.

The creature hit the ground with an impact that sent tremors thought the earth and made Tony stumble. He kept his grip on Steve's arm, though, and pushed Steve behind him even as the creature turned to glare at them. Clint shoved Tony back and put himself and his bow between them and the horse-thing.

Sue was yelling something toward the open window, calling for reinforcements most likely, even as she raised her hand again and a force field shimmered into place around the creature. Ben Grimm was stalking toward it, and Johnny was rising up off the ground, flames starting to lick at the ends of his hair and tips of his fingers.

And then Natasha was crouched in the window with her knives drawn and Bruce was running around the side of the building, pulling off his tie and unbuttoning his shirt, followed by Coulson and a solid dozen SHIELD agents, guns drawn.

Thor stepped forward, arms flung wide and a big stupid grin on his face. "Sleipnir! What brings you to Midguard?"

"Called it," Steve and Tony chorused and everything ground to a slightly confused halt.

"I can't believe we got our asses kicked by Thor's pet."

Tony was sprawled on the couch in the rec room, surrounded by the remnants the party he had thrown. There were icicle lights twinkling on the ceiling, and somewhere someone had left a radio on because he could hear the distant sound of someone singing Silent Night in a sweet voice.

"I think it was Thor's nephew, actually." Steve leaned over the back of the couch and offered Tony a rueful smile.

Gods were weird, Tony thought, and he really didn't want to know the events that had led to Thor being related to a horse that may or may not have been part spider. "I don't know if that makes it better."

"My vote is no," Steve said.

"Could have been worse," Tony said. "I mean, it could have been Thor's niece."

"That would have been worse," Steve said. "Although, it was pretty bad anyway. The part where we fell off the roof was kind of the worst."

"Ow," Tony said, because his ribs still ached from impact and Steve was already fully recovered. Stupid super soldier serum.

"Sorry," Steve said.

Tony shrugged as well as he could while lying down. "It would have been worse if I'd hit the ground, you were right about that."

"Can I ask you a question?" Steve asked.

Tony considered all the things Steve could ask him that he really didn't want to have to answer. "Yeah."

"I was going to ask why you're always so quick to assume the worst of me. But you don't, do you? You treat me just like everyone else."

"I have bad news for you, Rogers," Tony said. "But I treat almost everyone better than I treat you."

Steve chuckled. "No, you don't. I mean, you're rude to Fury, and you ignore most of your teammates and you make most of the SHIELD scientists cry – and some of the agents, too. I saw one of your bodyguards trying to cry on Natasha's shoulder the other day-"

"Did that end well?" Tony asked, unable to completely hide the sheer fascination he felt at the thought. The mental images he was entertaining were all truly amazing and involved Natasha giving his bodyguard something to really cry over.

"She told him to 'sack up'" Steve said and he even used figure quotes. "He cried harder."

God, Tony probably shouldn't find Natasha's ability to make grown men sob to be such a turn on.

Unfortunately Steve didn't seem to be nearly as fascinated. "But the point is, you don't treat me that differently from anyone else who isn't Pepper or Happy or Rhodes. You don't think the worst of me." He narrowed his eyes and pinned Tony with a stare that had probably quelled Hitler at one point. Tony, not being a genocidal maniac (though he had been their go-to guy for weapons supply at one point), still found it terribly effective. "You just expect me to think the worst of you."

That was too close to the truth, too close to something that felt like Steve ripping his skin off.

"I don't, you know," Steve said. "Whatever you want me to think of you, I don't."

Tony scrubbed a hand over his face. "Do you want to know the real reason I stopped drinking?"

Steve looked down at him for a moment and Tony just met his gaze and waited. "Yeah. I really do."

"The real reason I stopped drinking," Tony said, staring past Steve at the ceiling, "is because this house has six full bars. The dining room, the sitting room, the den, the home theatre, my office and my bedroom. Six full bars. And a wine cellar. Plus beer in the fridge and some really terrifying daiquiri mix an ex-girlfriend left here. And that wasn't the bad part. No, I had six full bars and a wine cellar and beer in the fridge and I was stashing alcohol. I had a flask hidden in the library and a bottle of whisky in my desk drawer and brandy in the bedroom. How fucking bad did I let it get, that in a house full of booze, I was so terrified of going without a drink that I had to have a stash?" He could see Steve's brow furrow slightly, the way he got when he was concerned about something, and plowed ahead before Steve could say something and Tony wouldn't be able to bring himself to continue. "I don't know even now that I found everything when we cleaned out the house. Some days the only thing that keeps me from tearing the whole damn mansion apart looking for a drink is knowing you'd know what I was doing and would think less of me for it. So I don't look. I pretend it's gone and sometimes I even believe it. But that's not enough. Because there's a dozen other ways and places and means. I could walk out of here and be blind drunk by morning and I could do it any of a thousand ways. And I think about it all the time, Steve. Every day."

"But then why-" Steve waved a hand in the general direction of the ballroom. "Why invite it in? We didn't need to have an open bar tonight, Tony, people would have understood."

"Because if it's easy it doesn't count." Tony scrubbed a hand over his eyes. "There's always going to be something. A hotel bar, or a restaurant with a wine cellar or a friend who keeps beer in the fridge. A thousand somethings, everyday. Avoiding temptation isn't going to get me through this, Steve. I have to beat it. And that means facing it. Besides, can you imagine this crowd trying to party on diet soda and potato chips?"

"I don’t think quite as many people would have come," Steve admitted. He sounded like he thought that might have been a good thing and Tony huffed, amused.

"Maybe next year," he told him.

"So this party was your way of controlling temptation?"

"Any party I went to would have had something," Tony said. "Here, I could control it. I could make a decision and force myself to abide by it. I'm not there yet, Steve. I don't know when I will be."

"Nothing you've just said is convincing me I'm wrong about you. I think what you've done is brave," Steve said. "Most people can't do this, you know."

Tony didn't know if brave was the word he'd have used. He had felt a lot of things the day he stared at himself in the mirror and thought this has to stop but none of them had been brave. Now he mostly just felt wrung out. "Anyway. It worked. I'll have to make sure the bartenders get their bonus."

"Next year maybe you can have them cut off some other people, too," Steve said, eyeing some of the wreckage around them. "By the way, if you see any glowing playing cards, don't touch them."

Tony laughed. "I'm almost positive Natasha left a few booby-traps lying around, too."

Steve pulled a face. "Coulson left a few of his agents. I found one of them passed out on the diving board in the pool and had to drag him somewhere he wouldn't drown. And I keep hearing snoring, but I can't place it."

"I think someone's up in the ceiling," Tony said.

They both stopped to consider that for a moment. "Not the worst party I've ever been to," Tony decided. He stretched, groaning again as his chest ached dully.

"We should do this again next year," Steve said.

"Which part?" Tony asked. "The party or the part where we got our asses kicked by Thor's pet?"

Steve grinned. "Honestly, I'm not sure which would be more painful to repeat. But everyone seemed to enjoy the party. We could make it an Avengers tradition."

"I could get into that," Tony said, settling into the couch cushions. "We didn't have a lot of Christmas traditions when I was growing up. The servants would put up a tree and bake dinner and buy us all presents that we could pretend to give each other. And then after dinner Mom and I would play our favorite game, Don't Make Dad Mad When He's Drinking. And then we'd all go to bed."

Steve didn't say anything for a long time and Tony felt a little bad for badmouthing Steve's friend in front of him, even if he was Tony's father. "We had a lot of traditions," Steve said finally, a wistful note in his voice. "We didn't have a lot of things, so my mother tried to make up for it. We'd stay up late and go to Midnight Mass. And on Christmas morning she'd always pretend to sleep in so I could run in and wake her up. We'd take down the stockings together and empty them one item at a time." Steve smiled a little, and if his eyes were misty, Tony would never hold it against him. "There was always an orange, even if it was a small one. And hard candies and walnuts and cashews. Ribbon candy! I don't know if they even have that any more. Sometimes, if work had been good, there'd be a new pencil or some blank paper for drawing. One year there was a box of crayons hidden all the way down in the toe." He smiled, obviously still holding that memory close. "Then we'd eat breakfast and start cooking dinner. Parsnips and carrot pudding, mystery cake for dessert. A green salad if we had the money. Fruit salad sometimes, if Mom had been able to get enough fruit canned that summer and there was some left. And after dinner we'd go ice skating – we didn't have skates but she'd bring her knitting or sewing with her and I'd slide around in the ice in my socks until I couldn't feel my toes anymore. Then we'd go home and listen to the radio while I thawed out until it was time for bed."

Tony tipped his head back and watched the way Steve's throat worked. "That sounds really good, Steve. Think we could come up with a couple traditions to carry on?"

Steve smiled down at him. "I think we can come up with something."

"My turn to ask a question," Tony said and Steve stilled, watching Tony with serious eyes. "Are we friends, Steve?"

There was a moment when Tony wasn't sure Steve was going to answer. Then Steve seemed to deflate slightly, slumping against the back of the couch. "I thought we were. Or getting there, at least."

"I'm not good at that," Tony said quickly. "I suck at it. A lot. Ask Rhodey. Or, well, don't ask Rhodey because I kind of want you to like me and Rhodey knows too much. But I'm really not good at this."

"I might have noticed some hints of that," Steve said.

"You're the best person I know," Tony said. He kind of wanted to shut up but he knew, the same way he'd known when he stared at himself in the mirror four months ago, that if he backed down now he might never get here again. "I am such a fuck-up. I don't know how to be in the same room as you sometimes."

Steve reached down and wrapped his fingers around one of Tony's wrists. "I don't think you're a fuck-up, Tony." He lifted Tony's hand to his lips, pressed a kiss against the palm. "You're kind and brave. I never know what I'm doing anymore, and you walk through this world and nothing fazes you. I used to envy that about you, until I realized you were trying to teach me how to do the same thing."

"This century needs more men like you," Tony told him, curling his fingers slightly to brush against Steve's cheek.

"And you," Steve said quietly, but fiercely. "The world would be a better place if there were a few more Tony Starks in it."

Tony closed his eyes. He wanted – he didn't even know anymore. He wanted to brush Steve off and end the painfully open moment. He wanted to push for more, to make Steve tell him things Tony wasn't sure he was ready to hear. He wanted to wrap his hands in Steve's hair and see if the kiss Steve had pressed into his palm would be as sweet against his lips or if Steve would turn hot for him.

"Come on." Steve brushed his hair away from his eyes. "Let's head upstairs. You look bushed and I know your ribs are bothering you. Sleeping on this couch won't help."

Tony opened his eyes and made his choice. "Come with me?" he asked, brushing his fingers against Steve's cheek.

Steve smiled at him, his eyes bright in the lamplight. "I was hoping you'd ask."