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Two major purchases had fallen through, a stock buyout was going poorly, and a third purchase was on the rocks, that December. Tony was used to this; people got squirrelly around the holidays, personal assistants left for vacation, offices shut down, lawyers were out of town, and nothing got done. He didn't know why the entire capitalist system didn't just up and fuck off for the month, but he supposed retail had to march onwards. Still, it was irksome that Stark Industries, his betrothed since childhood, was not performing up to par.

"Look, Cassidy," he said into the phone, as Steve let himself silently into his office. He held up a hand to acknowledge Steve's arrival. "Cassidy, no, I'm not -- I'm not trying to pressure you, I'm -- okay a little, but. Okay. You own a microelectronics company that is maybe going to do a million dollars next year. If you let me help you, I can add a zero onto that. None of your employees get fired, you maintain control of R&D, Stark Industries gets the bounty of your ingenuity, this is a win for everyone. You've seen the contract, I can't -- yes," he sighed, as Jack Cassidy, CEO of MicroCasm Technologies, demurred yet again on the buyout that would literally make him a billionaire in ten years.

Tony listened patiently to Cassidy's uncharacteristic waffling, making small noises not so much of agreement (because he didn't agree) as of acknowledgement, and then cleared his throat.

"Okay. I understand you're anxious about this. The deal's on the table, right? Think about it over the holidays, god knows why you'd want to, but please, please don't look at any other offers until you give me a crack again in January. Yeah. Okay," he said, and hung up the phone, bowing his head to rub his temples. "Steve, tell me there's a call to Assemble, I could really do with punching something right now."

"World superpowers of evil all took the month off," Steve replied. "Unless you want to go spar. What's up?"

"Little guy chickening out on a deal because he's afraid of Ebeneezer Stark," Tony answered. "I don't know, I've always had a good reputation, but it's his first really big-time business deal, he doesn't normally travel in my circles. Fuck it. Ugh, fuck this holiday too, do you know how much work I'm not getting done?"

Steve leaned against the desk. "So come play some pool with Clint or watch a movie or something."

"I have paperwork, Christ knows why, since after tomorrow everyone's gone. But it has to be in tomorrow, so." Tony tapped his stylus on his StarkPad. "Sorry. Time to be boring Adult Tony tonight."

"Oh, I don't know, that can't possibly take you that long," Steve said. He had his phone out and was tapping away with his thumbs, just like Tony had taught him, pained by watching him hunt and peck for letters with a single forefinger. "I can wait."

"For what?"

"For you to be finished. Whaddaya think? You're a speed reader, after all."

Tony looked down at the half-dozen files awaiting him. "Thirty, maybe forty minutes. Seriously, Steve -- "

"Nah, it's no problem. Work," Steve said, waving a too-casual dismissive hand at the Pad. Tony squinted.

"What are you doing?" he asked, as Steve resumed tap-tapping.

"Texting," Steve replied, not looking up from his screen.

"Not just texting," Tony said. "You're plotting. I can smell it."

"Oh yeah?" Steve asked, as the phone made a little whoosh sound to send the text. "What does me plotting smell like?"

"Apple pie."

"You think everything I do smells like apple pie," Steve said, rolling his eyes.

"Well, whose fault is that, Captain America?" Tony asked. "Seriously, what are you up to?"

"Puzzle game," Steve said, showing him the screen, which was lit up with the addictive-game-of-the-moment. Tony snorted. "Do you work, don't mind me."

He hitched himself up on the corner of the long, fairly sturdy desk, crossing his legs on the smooth surface and twitching his sock-clad toes as he played. Tony watched him suspiciously for a minute, then went back to the files he was meant to review and sign-off on.

About two minutes later, the door opened and Clint arrived, carrying a six-pack of Dos Equis in a bucket of ice. He set it down on the desk, nodded to Steve, and went over to the corner of the office, where there were a couple of leather sofas arranged around an informal meeting table.

"What is this?" Tony asked, waving his hand at Clint and the beer.

"It's a party," Steve said, still not looking up from his phone.

"Clint and a six pack is not a party," Tony pointed out. "It's like, a Tuesday night."

"Wait for it," Clint called, rearranging the sofas.

"Wait for what?" Tony inquired, starting to grow alarmed. Just then, Natasha strolled in. She had a basket of electronics: a Wii and at least three controllers, an Xbox, the edge of a StarkPod speaker system, and a lava lamp.

"The lamp is Barnes'," she said, before Tony could make a crack. She set it on the meeting table, which Clint had shifted to behind one of the couches. "Steve?"

"Yes?" Steve asked. Tony stared at them all, mouth gaping.

"Tell Thor we need a coffee table."

"On it," Steve replied.

"Why are you doing this to me?" Tony asked him.

"Builds character," Steve replied. Tony tried to ignore Natasha and Clint as they set up a sound system and hooked the game console into the TV that normally was reserved for very serious and important teleconferences.

Ten minutes later, Rhodey landed on the balcony of his office in War Machine, carrying two pre-chilled bottles of vodka, which he put next to the beer as he climbed out of the suit.

"Okay, now it's a party," Tony said, reaching for one of the bottles. Steve brushed his hand aside.

"Finish your paperwork," he said.

"I do some of my best work hammered," Tony reminded him.

"Patently untrue. I've seen your best work, you're much better when you're sleep-deprived," Steve informed him.

"This is creepy," Tony announced.

"Shut up and finish so we can have our party," Clint yelled, head and shoulders behind the TV as he tried to figure out how to hook everything together.

"Plug the blue cable into the red port labeled HDMI," Tony told him.

"Yeah, we're the creepy ones," Natasha said drily, as Clint let out an A-HA and the Nintendo logo appeared on the screen.

Thor arrived with a basket of snacks under one arm and a coffee table under the other, and laid out a spread of cheese and crackers while Bruce investigated the "hospitality nook" of the office, piling popcorn envelopes next to the microwave for later. Steve passed Tony crackers with cheese on them, and Tony ate them distractedly as he worked on the last file.

He signed the last page and locked the file down on the secure server just as Sam showed up with pizza and Bucky, whose perpetual grumpy-cat scowl was hidden behind a heap of blankets and pillows. Steve beat Clint to the pizza, lifting it up over his head to keep it away from them, and deposited one box into Tony's hands, setting the others on the coffee table.

Natasha, who Tony would admit was both cunning and highly aware of his weakness for redheads, grabbed him by the wrist, hauled him over to the ring of sofas Clint had arranged, and tucked herself into a corner with Tony next to her, so that she could snake pepperoni from him. Clint had an entire slice of ham-and-pineapple clenched between his teeth as he navigated the Nintendo's menu.

"What is it to be tonight?" Thor asked, as Rhodey poured out glasses of vodka, handing them around to those who didn't have beer. Steve settled on Tony's other side, arm along the back of the couch, and took the crust of the pizza slice when Tony put it down, gnawing cheerfully on it. Steve, and Tony knew nobody outside the Avengers would fully grasp this, was weird.

"Clint's going to try to break his own speed record for Twilight Princess," Natasha said. "And when we get bored, Steve's gonna break his carnage record on Grand Theft Auto."

"He has to do a shot every time he swears," Bruce added.

"That's why bottle number two is for Steve," Rhodey added. Sam clambered over the back of the couch behind Natasha, and she slipped to the floor so he could take her place and begin braiding her hair. Thor patted Bucky's as if he'd like to do likewise, and a metal arm swatted his hand away irritably. Steve gave Bucky a gentle kick in the leg.

"We are literally braiding each others' hair," Tony said. "What next, do we talk about boys?"

"If you're not careful," Natasha told him, "I will get you drunk and do your nails in no-chip glitter polish."

"I have acetone."

"You've never tried to get glitter polish off, have you?" she asked, amused. Tony saw Thor's hand creeping back towards Bucky's head. Rhodey did too; Tony held up two fingers. Twenty bucks says he lets Thor do it.

Rhodey shook his head and made a stabbing motion. Bet he stabs him first.

Tony mouthed you're on.

By the time Clint gave up in disgust, four attempts into the Carriage Ride Challenge, Tony was warm and buzzy from the vodka, Natasha had three french braids, and Rhodey was telling them a story about the time he and Tony crashed a Hasty Pudding Club party when they were students at MIT.

"Here," Clint said, handing the Xbox controller to Steve as Rhodey admitted that Tony looked a lot better in makeup than he did. Natasha got up to switch the cables from Wii to Xbox, and Steve settled closer to Tony as he leaned forward. On her way back, Natasha tapped the music player to life, and the mournful strains of a country-western violin emerged over the sound of Steve killing everything in a ten mile radius.

Well I can't go back to Nashville, Tennessee
Cause it's somewhere I've never been...

"How do you even know country western music exists?" Tony asked Natasha, who was opening the last beer.

"Clint," she said.

"The student has become the master," Clint said, from where he was shoving his way in between Bucky and Thor. Thor was amiably moving aside; Bucky was not, eyes narrowed and suspicious. "I played her like, three honky tonk albums and created a monster."

"Only Russians can truly appreciate country music," she declared. "The pathos of loss is wasted on you Western philistines."

I'm roundly convinced
It's gonna take me a long time
To get over what I've been through
So I'm going back to Dallas, Texas
To see if anything could be worse than losing you

"This is a nightmare," Tony said, as Steve led thirteen cop cars on a high-speed chase along the coast.

"Relax, Stark, we'll play some Dad Rock for you when this is over," Natasha said.

"Dad rock!" Tony cried, outraged.

"It's okay that you're old and you like old music," Steve told him.

"You are ninety years old and you like Benny Goodman!"

"And Taylor Swift," Steve said.

"Oh my God."

"She's cute as a button," Steve informed him.

"Who taught you Taylor Swift?" Tony demanded, and Sam raised his hand.

"What? I made him a breakup mix after he dumped SHIELD," Sam said, when everyone looked at him in surprise. "I put the Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together song on it."

"What else did you put on your Breaking Up With a Major Intelligence Organization mix?" Tony asked, distracted completely by the idea.

"Um. Staple Singers, I'll Take You There," Sam recited. "Ray Charles, Compared to What."

"Bonnie Raitt," Steve reminded him. "Have a Heart. I liked that one."

"I'm surrounded by country fans," Tony lamented.

"Hey, unless you can produce Joe & Eddie's Freedom Calling on command, you don't get to bitch about my breakup mix," Sam told him.

"Testify," Steve said, with a sidelong grin at Sam, who shot him the bird.

Tony was about to ask if Sam had included the greatest breakup song of all time, to wit Led Zeppelin's Heartbreaker, but Rhodey caught his eye and tipped his head to one side. Tony followed his gaze and saw Clint calmly, carefully weaving little braids into Bucky's hair. Bucky had his eyes closed and was leaning into Clint's hands, so Clint had to keep leaning back into Thor, who was looking bemused by the whole situation.

"so, why are we all dogpiled in your office, anyway?" Natasha asked, as Sam got up to fiddle with the music system and plug Steve's phone in so he could play them the SHIELD Breakup Mix. "Are you traumatized? Should I be worried you and Rhodes are gonna kick the shit out of each other again?"

"We do that for fun," Rhodey said.

"Thank you," Tony told him.

"Got your back," Rhodey replied.

"December is a terrible time to do business and Tony was angry at the world," Steve added.

"Why would you tell people who seek out weaknesses for a living what my trauma is?" Tony asked him.

"Well, in their off time, they're your friends, so." Steve shrugged and robbed a gun store.

"You're always angry at the world, that's not new," Bucky said, startling all of them. "It's because the world's a terrible place full of evil people."

"Uh. Good job, Zen Horrible," Tony replied. "No, it's just, I'm trying to get this guy to sell me his company, it's in both our best interests, and he's playing hard to get."

"Why?" Sam asked. "You trying to buy him cheap?"

"I honestly don't think he wants more money," Tony said. "And if he did, we could make that work, I'd still see returns inside of a year. He's an idealist, that's why I like him. He's just making things goddamn difficult for me."

"He doesn't trust him," Steve said.

"Which if he knew me at all is ridiculous because I have always been as scrupulous as it is possible to be in my business practices, whenever I haven't had a murderous double-dealing actual facts Hydra agent for a business partner," Tony spat.

"Maybe I should go into business with you. I got a trustworthy face," Steve said, spraying several cars with bullets.

"If you're volunteering to be Stark Industries spokescelebrity -- " Tony said, and then stopped, struck by a thought.

"Is the pay any good? I gotta think about my retirement," Steve said, unheeding.

"I need you for a minute," Tony said, reaching around Steve to tap pause on the controller. "Barnes, take over."

"Can't," Bucky said. "I'm having my hair done."

"For the love of God. Rhodey?"

"Don't mind if I do," Rhodey replied, sliding into Steve's spot as Tony dragged him up off the couch and away from the party, out into the darkened receptionist's office.

"You are gonna sell some bonds one last time," Tony told Steve, who looked baffled. "I'm calling Cassidy and I'm gonna put him on the phone with you, just vouch for me, okay?"

"Tony, I don't know anything about -- "

"Cassidy," Tony said, as the other end of the line clicked up. "It's Tony again."

"Look, Tony, if you're trying to be hands off about this, you're not doing so hot," Cassidy said, but he sounded amused. "You have two minutes, I'm about to sit down with my kids for dinner."

"Swear it'll only take one, thank you for your indulgence. I'm putting someone on the phone," Tony said, and handed it to Steve. Steve took it with a stern look and then said, "Mr. Cassidy, this is Steve Rogers, I'm a friend of T -- um, yes. Yes, Captain Rogers. Well, it's a pleasure to speak to you too, I've heard a lot of good things about your business ethics from Tony." He laughed, and Tony made an encouraging gesture. "Yeah, okay, frustrating things too, but it sounds like you have good reason. No, I think he's using me as a character witness, actually. Mmh. Uh huh. No, I can see how that would be a concern. Last thing I want is Americans losing their jobs. I understand this is a big leap. Lemme tell you, working with him was a leap for me, too. No, I think -- yeah. Yeah, I do. Well, I don't know the details, but Tony's word is as good as a contract if you ask me. Okay." He offered the phone back. "Don't screw it up, now."

"Your confidence in me is appalling," Tony told him, and put the phone to his ear. "Sorry, using Captain America's a low blow."

"It's all right," Cassidy said. "If he's willing to vouch for you, then I guess either you're desperate or you're good as your word. I'll get the papers notarized tomorrow morning, if you'll cut the check tomorrow afternoon."

"You won't regret this," Tony said.

"Better not, or Captain America owes me a new company," Cassidy said, and hung up. Tony lowered the phone and grinned.

"Got him," he said, and startled himself by throwing his arms around Steve's shoulders, hugging him. "Thank you."

He kissed him, really just an innocent, celebratory kiss, and then said, "You have no idea how much this takes off my mind, it's a goddamn relief."

Steve was staring at him, perplexed, and his cheeks were red; Tony stopped, replayed the last ten seconds, and realized he still had his arms around Steve's shoulders, and Steve's arms were looped under his.

"Okay, I did not necessarily mean to do that," he said, but Steve wasn't letting go of him.

"Can we pretend?" Steve asked.

"Pretend?" Tony repeated.

"That you meant to do that. It was nice."

Tony blinked at him. "I'm sorry, because...you want me to do it again?"

Steve nodded shyly. Tony eased forward a little and kissed him again, less innocent if no less celebratory this time.

"Okay, so," he said, while Steve's eyes were still closed. "Let's uh. Go back in and tell everyone the good business news and then in like, an hour, you say you're tired and we'll break the party up and meet somewhere private for a drink and more of this, yes?"

"Yes," Steve agreed, and brushed his hair back, kissing his forehead. "Glad I could help."

Inside, Sam gave them both the most knowing look Tony had ever seen on a human being, but he didn't say anything as Steve took the controller back from Rhodey, who had managed to blow up an airplane around himself without dying.

Tony settled in next to Steve, announcing the good news. Natasha put country western back on to "celebrate", and Tony let himself sink low in the couch, warmed by Steve (swearing and murdering on one side) and Rhodey on the other, while Clint and Natasha both set to work on Thor's hair now that Bucky was satisfied, shaking his head occasionally to watch the thick shiny braids bounce around.

Steve elbowed him, grinned at him sidelong, and then promptly grenade-bombed a police helicopter. Outside it started to snow, gently.

It wasn't so bad, December. Tony could get used to this.