It's possible, Tony decides, that Captain America has more than one birthday. Like, a real one -- Steve Rogers' birthday -- and an official one, where they have a public holiday and everyone is allowed not to eat fried Spam for a whole day. (Steve actually claims to like fried Spam. Tony can't decide whether he's stoically lying because he thinks it's patriotic in some twisted way, or whether he had his tastebuds surgically removed during the war as some kind of experiment to see how bad they could make the food before even the most loyal troops rebelled and started murdering the chefs, or whoever it is that makes food in the army.) Normally, the two-birthdays thing wouldn't have even occurred to Tony -- it's not like Steve's the Queen of England, after all, even if he is pretty much the American equivalent without the hats and the corgis and the ugly kids (Tony once again regrets the impossibility of getting Cap drunk, because some of those hats would look pretty damn fetching on his ridiculous manly head, but hey, that's what Photoshop is for, right? (Also, he supposes it's possible that Steve does have ugly (and geriatric) kids, but that would require some serious hideous genes from the other parent and now Tony's imagining Captain America banging the Elephant Man, which is really unnecessary this soon after breakfast)) -- except that Captain America's birthday is listed as July 4th in all the official sources, and that is honestly just implausible. So there's two possible explanations: the first is that the American American-ness of Captain America is so American that it warped the American laws of American physics so that Lady Liberty herself could reach backward through time and make Steve's parents have highly-fecund American nooky at exactly the right time that the future embodiment of all things Stars and Stripes would share a birthday with the country herself; the second is that the army lied about when Steve was born because they didn't consider September 18th or March 6th to be patriotic enough. And it's not that Tony's against the whole changing-the-laws-of-physics thing, but he also generally defaults to this is rational and not unlikely over this is ridiculous and also stupid when he's coming up with explanations for things.
“Happy birthday,” says Tony on September 18th, flinging the door to the communal kitchen open with a flourish.
Steve, sitting alone at the counter, looks up from the paper and then around at the empty seats surrounding him.
“It's not my birthday,” he says. “You're up early.”
“Haven't been to bed,” Tony says. “I made you a cake.”
Steve frowns at him. “It's not my birthday. It's September.”
“Your birthday's in September?” Tony says innocently, making a show of rummaging through the pile of bagels next to Steve's elbow.
“No, it's September now,” says Steve. “My birthday's July 4th.”
Tony narrows his eyes. “My mistake,” he says. It shouldn't come as a surprise: Rogers must have been trained to resist psychological and physical torture with nothing but name, rank and serial number. Tony's going to have to find another way to get the information out of him.
“Did you really make a cake?” Steve says. “I didn't know you knew how to turn the oven on.”
“Cakes are just chemistry,” Tony says. “Chemistry is easy. Now, making a cake that could have custom-messages flashed across it in frosting while still being edible, that would be a challenge.”
Steve says something else, but Tony doesn't hear it. Frosting is just essentially recrystallised sugar, but if it was possible to include some kind of biodegradable magnetic element, maybe nutritional iron, it might not actually be an impossible task. You'd need a pretty strong magnet. It would be important not to stand by it with your black AMEX card in your pocket. Tony's learned that lesson before.
Tony's in his lab working on distributing minute amounts of iron evenly through a sugar slurry when Steve comes in.
“You didn't actually make a cake, did you?” he says.
“Hm?” says Tony.
Next time he looks up, Steve's gone.
“Do you think truth serum works on Captain America?” Tony asks.
Bruce looks up from where he's checking something under a microscope. “What?”
“You know.” Tony gestures. “I mean, he can't get drunk. Doesn't do anaesthetic. That one time you filled the entire communal floor with pot fumes and everyone else was sinking through the carpet, he didn't even notice until Clint attacked that houseplant for looking at him funny. So: truth serum. How would you go about making Cap sing like a canary?”
Bruce looks confused.
“By the way, Pepper says you still owe me a thousand dollars for steam-cleaning the carpets to get the smell out,” Tony says.
“A thousand?” says Bruce.
“Might have been a hundred,” Tony says. “Or ten. Don't change the subject.”
“Why would you want to give Steve truth serum?” Bruce asks. “Just ask him whatever it is you want to know.”
“I'm not talking about Steve,” says Tony. “I'm talking about Captain America. He's been trained to withstand torture, you know.”
Bruce stares at him for a moment, then turns off the microscope and turns to fully face him.
“Tony,” he says. “You know Steve is Captain America, right?”
“Right,” says Tony. “That is exactly the problem.”
Bruce blinks. “No,” he says. “I don't think truth serum would work.”
“That's what I thought,” Tony mutters. Back to the drawing board.
Natasha's birthday is in October. They celebrate by going to the ballet. Swan Lake. Thor cries. Tony falls asleep.
Clint and Bruce both have birthdays in January. Clint's out of town for his, and stumbles back, head bleeding and arm at a bizarre angle, just in time for Bruce to spend his own birthday fixing him up. Steve makes cake and declines Tony's offer of magnetism-infused frosting, and they watch the entire original Star Wars trilogy, Clint dropping cake crumbs all over the couch, Steve glued to the screen even though he's already seen all the movies three times, which is three times more than he's seen almost any other movie made after 1945. Thor cries. Tony schemes.
Tony's birthday is in April. Given the way his last one went, he considers not telling anyone about it. Apparently, though, Pepper and Rhodey somehow already know (Tony has no idea how they remember all this shit). There's a party which includes exactly zero strippers, a lot of beer but no vodka, and a complete lack of fights between men in armoured suits. By two a.m., Bruce is high as a kite and smiling beatifically at everyone and everything, Clint (lightweight) is explaining to Rhodey that this thing between him and Natasha is just because they have all this history, you know?, Natasha is teaching Thor some kind of Russian drinking game (and Tony actually thinks that the reason there's no vodka might not be because Pepper didn't order any but because Natasha has drunk all of it -- seriously, all the vodka -- and is still clear-eyed and lucid), and Pepper is trying to persuade Steve that they can leave the clean-up for the robots. Later on, they listen to the complete works of ABBA (Thor cries), and Tony decides that all in all, it's probably the best birthday he's ever had.
Thor doesn't understand what a birthday is. “Every day is a celebration of my life,” he says when they try to explain it to him. Later on, Bruce finds out that a year in Asgard lasts thirty-two Earth years. At least they've got plenty of time to figure out what to buy the mythological alien who has everything.
In late June, eleven months after the Avengers first meet each other, Pepper hands Tony a card to sign.
“You got him a first edition Walt Whitman,” she says.
“Who?” says Tony.
“Steve,” Pepper says. “It's his birthday in a few days.”
Tony shakes his head. “Come on,” he says. “Steve Rogers was not born on the 4th of July. He doesn't even look like Tom Cruise.”
“You're being ridiculous,” says Pepper, but Tony hasn't finished talking.
“We must have missed it,” he says. “Unless -- maybe it's in July but it's a different day? Maybe he doesn't even know when it is. Did they record birth dates in the Depression? Maybe they couldn't afford enough ink.”
“Tony,” says Pepper, and shoves the card in his face.
“Fine. Fine,” says Tony. Happy birthday, Captain America, he writes. Your pal Tony Stark. He draws a little smiley face, but the ink runs in one eye so it looks like it's crying.
“Thank you,” says Pepper, and turns to head out.
“Does he even like Walt Whitman?” Tony calls after her, but she pretends not to hear. But then, of course Captain America likes Walt Whitman. There's nothing more American than liking Walt Whitman, and there's nothing more American than being born on the fourth of July.
There's nothing more American than Captain America, that's for damn sure.
Tony is an expert at ignoring things. His phone, his AI (well, he's more muted JARVIS than ignored him, because he hates when he gets all hurt and clipped in that British way of his), the nagging feeling in his gut that there's something he's supposed to be doing. Fireworks, though. They're kind of hard to ignore. Not that Tony doesn't do his best, and Tony has been practising ignoring things since he was old enough to realise that most things in this world (housework, feelings, meetings with the President) are unutterably boring and a waste of time. When he was fourteen, he calculated how much more he could have got done if he hadn't spent so much time in useless activities, and he realised he could have invented a rudimentary cloaking device that would allow him to sneak hard liquor past his father's freakishly accurate detection system. After that, he never paid attention when he didn't need to again (the cloaking device worked, by the way -- ten years later, the government used a modified version to smuggle weapons into various classified locations, which, if you ask Tony (not that the government ever does), is a far less useful and noble purpose than the one he originally built it for). But the thing is, fireworks aren't just noise, they're flashing lights as well, and after a while flashing lights start to get incredibly distracting.
Eventually, Tony goes to the window and stares out over the city. There's fireworks going off everywhere. You'd think it was the fourth of--
By the time Tony gets from his lab to the Avengers Tower, the party's over. Actually, given that it took Tony 2.5 minutes to fly to the tower in his suit, the party must have been over before he even set off. Given that it's four in the morning, he supposes that isn't really a surprise.
Bruce is still up, eating cookie dough at the kitchen counter. He raises his eyebrows as Tony comes in.
“Pepper's gonna kill you,” he says.
“It's not even his real birthday,” says Tony, slumping into a chair. “Anyway, it's not like the whole city wasn't celebrating.” Which is stupid, because they don't even know Steve.
“She's gonna kill you,” Bruce says again, and claps a hand on Tony's shoulder. “It's been fun, though. And I bet the afterlife has amazing tech.”
Tony shakes his head. “They're all sleeping, then?” he says.
“I think Steve's on the roof,” Bruce says. “Said he wasn't tired.”
The roof. OK. The roof, Tony can do.
Tony lands a bit more heavily than he'd intended, but Steve doesn't even look up. He's reading a book -- the Whitman, Tony realises -- by the light of the poisonous orange glow that reflects off the clouds. Apparently, being a super-soldier gives you amazing night vision. Tony sits down and lifts the face-plate.
“So I heard you had a party,” he says.
“Sure did,” says Steve.
Tony sits for a minute, but Steve's doing his stoic silence thing, and Tony is basically physically incapable of not opening his mouth for more than half a minute, so he powers on.
“It's not really your birthday, though, is it?” he asks. “I mean, come on, Steve.”
Steve marks his place in the book and closes it deliberately, carefully setting it to one side, then turns to Tony.
“Why is it so hard to believe that it's my real birthday?” he asks.
“Because it's ridiculous,” says Tony. “It's America's birthday.”
Steve shrugs. “Seems pretty appropriate to me,” he says.
“Sure,” says Tony. “Appropriate for Captain America, whatever. But not for you.”
“I am Captain America,” says Steve, brow furrowing.
“Yeah, but that's not the only thing you are,” Tony says. He shakes his head. “Don't you ever want something that doesn't belong to America? That just belongs to Steve Rogers?”
Steve blinks, and then turns to stare out over the city. A few fireworks are still going off, here and there. He's quiet for so long that Tony starts to think he's really fucked up this time. How do you miss Captain America's birthday? It probably counts as treason. Is treason a capital offence? Tony wonders if it's possible to get clemency by making, like, a dozen cakes, all spelling out USA! USA! in scrolling frosting.
“I don't really get Walt Whitman,” says Steve.
“What?” says Tony.
Steve half-smiles, wry. “Don't tell Pepper,” he says. “It was very thoughtful of her.”
Tony opens his mouth to claim that it was his idea, then remembers that Steve's just said he doesn't like it. It's not like Steve to lay such a cunning trap. Tony would be proud, except he suspects Steve didn't mean it as a trap at all.
“Yeah, well,” he says, and then can't think of anything to say after that.
Steve gets to his feet, picking up his book and holding it as if it's a precious treasure. “I'm going to bed,” he says, clapping Tony on the shoulder. “Night, Tony.”
“Night,” says Tony, still a little bemused by the whole exchange. “Oh, and happy birthday,” he says.
But Steve's already gone.
Pepper refuses to speak to Tony for a week. On the one hand, that completely sucks. On the other hand, it does allow Tony time to come up with and begin implementing a new plan.
“I'm not sure this is a good idea,” says Natasha when he tells her about it.
“Since when have I cared whether something's a good idea or not?” says Tony. “Listen, Natasha, you're the most devious person I know. I need you on this.”
He thinks for a minute she's going to refuse -- and that's going to be a problem, because he knows he can trust Natasha to take a secret to her grave if she wants to keep it, but he also knows she's not above selling him out to the enemy if she decides to, and he's just starting to consider how possible it might be to keep her incapacitated somewhere for the next two weeks (basement? Meat locker? Some kind of nuclear bunker built to withstand several kilotons of explosive power or one angry Russian spy?) when she nods her head.
“OK,” she says. “But if you're just doing this to make yourself feel less guilty--”
“I'm not,” says Tony. Natasha stares at him, and Tony raises his hands. “OK, a little,” he says, “but mostly not.”
Natasha nods, and Tony lets out his breath.
“OK, then,” he says, bringing up the plans in front of them. “Let's get started.”
Two weeks later, Tony glares down at the impulse magnetiser.
“Look,” he says, pointing at it with a screwdriver (which promptly jerks out of his hand and attaches itself to the steel frame of the table, because apparently everything is magnetised except the things he wants to be magnetised), “one tesla isn't going to cut it. I don't think you understand the concentrations of iron I'm talking about here. We're going to need at least three if we're going to get anywhere.”
“Tony,” says Natasha from the doorway. “Steve's on his way.”
“Shit,” says Tony, and cranks the magnetiser up to eight tesla. “Fine,” he says to it. “But if this blows up in my face, I'm blaming you.”
Upstairs, the Avengers are -- for the most part -- assembled. Clint looks skeptical. Bruce looks amused. Thor looks cheerful.
“How many of these birthdays does a mortal have?” he asks.
“One a year,” says Bruce. “Unless you're Captain America.”
“Or the Queen of England,” says Clint.
“Is she also a great hero?” Thor asks.
“She's a hero to the hat-makers of London,” says Tony, and then the door swings open.
“Surprise!” Tony yells, and throws a handful of streamers. The others follow suit in a ragged chorus (Tony regrets standing so close to Thor), and Steve stands in the doorway, brushing crepe paper out of his hair and looking confused.
“It's, uh,” he says. “It's not my birthday.”
“Nope,” says Tony, stepping forward and grabbing his arm. “Today, my friend, is the first annual Official Steve Rogers Day!” He makes a grand gesture at the table, where his first ever attempt at making a cake stands in all its glory, Steve Rgers foreve scrolling across it half-heartedly, followed by a portrait of Steve in civvies painting a picture. Well, it looks more like a deformed golden retriever than Steve, but Tony figures it's the thought that counts.
Steve stares. The others shuffle their feet and look slightly embarrassed. No-one says anything.
“So, uh,” says Tony. “The cake didn't turn out quite the way I--”
“Thank you,” says Steve, then clears his throat, swiping a hand quickly across his eyes. “It's amazing.”
“Would've been more amazing if Tony could tell the difference between salt and sugar,” says Clint, and then grunts as Natasha kicks him. “I'm just saying we probably shouldn't eat it, is all,” he mutters.
“Captain,” says Thor, “this tradition of many birthdays is an excellent one. Shall we adjourn to a beer-hall?”
Tony opens his mouth -- because come on, if ever there was a time for a sarcastic comeback, it's now -- but Steve gets in before him.
“You know what?” he says. “That sounds swell.”
Tony has no idea what time it is -- or even what day it is -- when they finally make it back to Avengers Tower. He'd probably be able to do a better job at figuring it out if he could open his eyes without the whole world spinning round, but that's pretty much a pipe dream right now.
“You know what?” he says to Steve's arm, which is currently engaged in propping up his head. “It is totally ridiculous that out of all of us, it's your birthday that turns into an alcoholic clusterfuck.”
“It's not my birthday,” says Steve somewhere above his head.
“Well, then, it's your Official Steve Rogers Day that turns into an alcoholic clusterfuck.”
“I'm the only one that has an Official Steve Rogers Day,” says Steve, sounding like he's grinning.
“Beside the point,” Tony says, waving a hand in the air without opening his eyes. “You're Captain freaking America.”
“That's not all I am,” says Steve, and Tony suddenly feels a lot more sober. OK, a little more sober.
“Where are we?” he says, trying to unstick his eyes. He can feel air moving on his skin and the light on the other side of his eyelids is dim but growing.
“The roof,” says Steve. “Pepper'll kill me if I let you puke in your room.”
“Not gonna puke,” says Tony, trying to sit up. Steve holds him down, hands gentle.
“Better safe than sorry,” he says.
Tony dry heaves a couple of times. “Next year I'm gonna train for this puppy,” he mutters. “Oh, hey. I got you a gift.” He tries to unbutton his inside jacket pocket, but Steve moves his hand away and does it for him. “Forgot to give it to you earlier, sorry.”
“Steve,” Steve reads. “This guy's almost as old as you are. Tony.” There's the sound of paper being carefully, methodically removed, and then he hears Steve opening the CD case. CDs are retro, but somehow giving someone a USB stick full of music isn't the same. He should've got a record, he thinks. Stupid.
“Leonard Cohen,” says Steve. “I haven't heard of him.”
“You haven't heard of anyone,” says Tony. “He's Canadian.”
Steve is quiet for a moment. “Canadian, huh?” he says.
“Think there's a Captain Canadia?” Tony asks. “Sounds like some kind of ointment for a yeast infection.”
“You never know when to shut up, do you?” says Steve.
“And you are a remarkably astute judge of character,” says Tony. “Now, if you don't mind, I think I am gonna puke after all.”
Steve snorts, and Tony grins in the general direction of the sound.
Somewhere beyond his closed eyelids, he thinks the sun's coming up.