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Winter Dreams

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"Dear, St. Nicholas J. Fury. There's only one thing I want for Christmas," Tony randomly interrupts the debriefing in a clipped tone as full of cynicism as it is humor. He leans back in his chair and props his feet up against the assembly table on board the Hellicarrier just because he wants to irritate the man. Natasha, Steve and Clint turn their heads to look at him.

"I'm not telling you where your man crush is, Stark," Fury clips back, sounding even more unamused than usual. He rolls his eye and attempts to return to the boring details about how they managed to save the day again from the half-baked villain of the month. Well, villains. Serpent Society? Really? Whatever. It would have at least been worth it if they'd had to call in Banner.

"I'm sorry," Tony interrupts again and sits up in a show of the indignation boiling just beneath his flippant veneer. "Did you just say man crush?" He looks around the room as if looking for affirmation that nobody is going to give. "Man crush. Man crush!?" He barks out a laugh. "Where's your Christmas spirit, Fury? Where's your sense of romance?"

"Yes, man crush," Fury fires back with a heated glare. "You can stop pretending like you're in love with the man now, Stark. We both know you. Hell, the whole world knows you. If you had managed to get whatever it is you wanted from him, you would have thrown him away like everyone else."

"I technically didn't throw Pepper away," Tony points out.

"As if you could," Natasha chimes in with a snort. She's not wrong.

"That's because Ms. Potts is smart enough to get while the getting is good. Just like Dr. Banner."

The veneer is suddenly stripped away like it had been subjected to an unexpected hurricane. "That's a damn lie and you know it." The entire bridge goes still. The only sound is the atmospheric sound of machinery and technology. It would almost sound like a symphony if Tony wasn't finally at his boiling point.

"If you're suggesting something let's hear it so we can move on," Fury challenges.

Tony rises to that challenge because it's been four months since Bruce disappeared. It's been four months of maintaining his promise not to track him down all the while suspecting foul play. He doesn't have proof, but it's almost Christmas and he'd been looking forward to spending it with his 'man crush' so he's done playing defense.

"I'm suggesting you scared him off somehow," he says and he doesn't miss the way his present and accounted for team mates look at him as if they're just as surprised by the accusation.

"Why would I do that?" Fury asks with no small amount of incredulity. It would be convincing only Tony stopped trusting anything the man says for face value after the Natalie Rushman stunt. The weapons of mass destruction only sealed that fate.

"I don't know. You tell me, Nick." Tony raises his hands and lets them fall again just as quickly. "But if I had to venture a guess or a couple of guesses it's that one, Bruce Banner has always been a liability in your book - one who just happened to come in handy a few times our of pure, dumb luck. And two, you think exactly what you just told me - that I was going to screw everything up, make Banner angry and poof! Bye bye Manhattan. Sound about right?"

"Sure, sounds right," Fury replies breezily. "I thought those things. If he were still around I would still think those things. But thinking that and playing operation break up, or whatever it is you're implying, are so far apart it's ridiculous even for you, Stark."

Tony bristles. "Uh huh. And it's just a coincidence that a day after you and Brucey-babe have a little heart to heart he decides to leave with a pathetic excuse of needing some time to think? Even though two days before that he was considering finally coming to a Stark gala with me? He knew there was no pressure. He didn't seem like he needed time to think. Unless somebody gave him something to think about."

Tony stands up and looks at Fury with as much intensity as he can humanly muster. "What did you say to him, hmm? Why is it that he's not here where he damn well belongs, Fury? You know what? Why do I even expect you to answer?"

He moves toward the exit, no longer caring about any obligations he supposedly has as an Avenger. "You really believe all that, Stark?" Fury's question trails after him and Tony stops in his tracks, listening against his better judgment. "You really need to believe Banner couldn't figure it out for himself and make that call? Wake up one morning and move on without prompting?"

Tony spins back around and he must look as vehement as he feels because Fury actually startles minutely. "Do you believe that I was in love with him? That I'm still in love with him?" Fury doesn't look like he's going to dignify that with an answer any time soon and it's the last bit of reassurance Tony needs. "Right. That's how I know you're wrong about Bruce too."

He only barely registers how Fury's poker face falls for half a second before turning again to leave. He hears a round of "Sir?" from his teammates, but at the moment he can't be bothered to care which of them they're apt to believe in the end.

 


 

Christmas Eve at the Tower is cold just like the world outside. He would have thrown a grand party, and he’s well aware that there’s a Stark Industries staff party going on somewhere downstairs, but he doesn’t feel much like celebrating. It’s easier to sulk at the bar in the communal lounge where there would have been a celebration, a small one for obvious reasons with probably just the team, had the holiday season panned out differently. He’s not drowning himself in alcohol, which reminds him again how wrong Fury is, but there’s still something nicely self-pitying about sitting alone in a dim room with only the neon lights of the ginormous tree he had picked out just in case.

Tony snorts derisively at himself and takes another swig of his drink. Maybe this is what he gets for letting himself go soft. Maybe this is why his father had been cold and distant. It’s empty and it sucks, he knows that from past experience, but this feels worse. Getting close to something only to have it plucked away again is a different kind of empty.

He takes his last drink and resolves not to pour another. Instead he turns and looks at the tree. There are some presents underneath it because all of the Avengers are a little messed up and lonely in different ways and this is good for them. This, well, it isn’t normalcy exactly, but it's still better than what most of them have ever had and it seems like a good idea to make the most of it should it all fall apart in the future.Tony just hadn’t realized what he had hoped for would fall apart first.

He continues to stare long and hard at the gifts and realizes that it’s all pointless. What he wants isn’t there. Who knows where Bruce is.

Shaking his head he decides to call it a night. His teammates are nowhere to be found, probably downstairs at the party enjoying themselves - more than they would at his pity party, Tony muses. And, honestly, that’s okay. He probably couldn’t even put on his media smile at the moment and bullshit his way through it. Then again, maybe he should go downstairs and try. Bruce hasn’t even had the decency to send a Christmas greeting and that makes him shiver even more. No amount of alcohol can warm the chill it sends through him.

But after a few more moments of deliberation, he just can’t find it in himself to be angry enough to do that. He can’t be angry at Bruce because he’s still sure that somewhere the physicist is as miserable as he is. He’s become so certain of it now after his confrontation with Fury that he doesn’t think he can resist breaking his promise and flying to the ends of the Earth to find Bruce himself. And if he has any Christmas wishes left to make it’s that his desperation won’t be the thing that really pushes Bruce away for good.

 


 

“Good morning, sir. It is 9:22 a.m. and the weather is--”

“Cold,” Tony grumbles before JARVIS can finish. He opens his eyes, looks around and contemplates pulling his duvet tighter and sleeping for another three hours.

“Yes sir, cold weather is typical in New York on Christmas morning.”

Tony blinks as his mind catches up. “Are the others already awake?” He recalls Steve making a big deal about wanting to make Christmas breakfast for the team and as much as he’s really not interested, he has enough self-awareness to know that would be too Ebenezer even for him.

“Yes, sir. You are expected downstairs as promptly as you can manage this morning.”

Tony snorts. “Please, I didn’t even make a dent in the alcohol. The kind of hangover I have isn’t that, J.”

“Yes, sir. I am well aware. And if I may say, I do believe the others are also.”

He frowns, but says nothing to that as he pads to the restroom and then to change into something appropriate for Christmas morning. Whatever the hell that is. In the end he decides it’s a pair of nice sweatpants, not the kind that make him look like a sweaty jogger, and a ridiculous Christmas sweater Clint got him as a joke just because he’s pretty sure the archer thinks he’ll never wear it - and he probably won’t after this; in fact he thinks he’ll take another shirt with him to change into after the shock wears off and the gag isn’t funny anymore.

Tony moves along then to the elevator and snorts a little in displeasure at the holiday music - he had had all of the elevators in the building to play Christmas music 24/7 one day when he was still in good humor right after Thanksgiving - that is delightfully cheery and the complete opposite of how he feels at the moment. The torment doesn't last too long though as soon the elevator pings open onto the common floor. Then again, he realizes maybe he's only escaping one torment to be trapped by another.

Only, when he steps out of the elevator, it's unusually quiet. In fact, as he begins to look around, the team isn't there. "JARVIS?" He asks suspiciously as he wanders in further. He heads toward the lounge and stops in his tracks when line of sight falls on the Christmas tree. He rubs his eyes and then looks around. He's pretty certain he's not dreaming.

Standing several feet in front of him, in front of the tree, looking like he's waiting with fond amusement for Tony to react, is Bruce. "You're really here?" Tony doesn't trust himself because never before has he literally felt like the metaphorical child on Christmas morning.

Bruce's thin smile widens. "I'm really here," he says, just above a whisper.

It's all Tony needs to to hear to cross the distance that's left between them and take Bruce's face into his hands and kiss him with all the need that's been building up inside over the past four months. Bruce clutches at him and kisses him back with just as much need that he can't help but wonder why the other man stayed away for so long. How could either of them have that much fortitude?

When they're forced to break apart, Tony immediately rests his forehead against Bruce's. He closes his eyes and shakes his head minutely against him. "I've missed you. Four months, Bruce. Four months." He knows it sounds ridiculous because he'd gone forty years without even knowing the man at all and that he's lucky it wasn't six months or a year or four or forty more.

"I'm sorry," Bruce apologizes and Tony moves back just enough to meet his gaze. It's then he realizes they both have tears in their eyes. "I never should have listened to him."

Tony feels his face darken. "Him? Fury?"

Bruce nods with no small amount of guilt on his face. "He said I was just fooling myself if I thought it could last. I... You know I already had my doubts. I was trying to get over them, but he just..." Bruce sighs and shakes his head. "I know it's not fair. It's not an excuse, but I didn't want to wake up one morning and find out you weren't really serious or that you'd moved on. I expect that sort of thing, but it doesn't mean I deal with it well. I didn't want a reason to be angry with you. I'm angry at a lot of things and a lot of people, Tony," he says soberly, looking him squarely in the eyes. "But I never want one of them to be you. So I thought it might be best not to risk that. Not when I had already fallen as hard as I had."

"Then it's just as much my fault for not making it clearer sooner," Tony says and Bruce's face scrunches up quixotically. "I love you." He lets the words linger just long enough to make a point. "I love you and I should have chased you down the moment I suspected Fury had said something to make you doubt that. I... I don't care who believes me, but it's the truth. I want you to believe me at least."

Bruce searches his eyes. "I do," he says evenly and Tony knows him well enough to know when he's telling the truth no matter how hard it is for him. "I believe you," he says again and it's sealed with another deep kiss. "And I love you too," Bruce says, pulling away just enough for the words to be comprehensible. "I love you and I never should have run. Or I should have come back sooner or at least let you know where I was at." They kiss again and now it's hunger for the contact that they've not had since he left. "Incidentally..." Bruce says between kisses, "...I was miserable... and kept hoping..." He gives up for a moment as they get lost in each other until they need to breathe again. "I kept hoping you'd break your promise and come find me," Bruce finally finishes.

"Well, damn it, that would have been helpful information three and a half months ago," Tony says with a shaky laugh as his lungs refill with oxygen. "But you probably would have been contrary just for the hell of it if I had," he adds teasingly.

"I can see myself doing that, yes," Bruce admits with his own breathy laugh that Tony wants to swallow and make a part of himself, so he does.

This kiss is even more desperate than the last and Tony has to wonder if he they won't just have their way with each other right there, underneath the tree. The idea even seems almost appropriate since Bruce is better than anything else that he could unwrap. He makes a note to buy another Christmas tree for the penthouse even as their bodies press impossibly closer together and their hands seem to start a race to see who can touch the other more intimately first. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, there's an ahem behind them which forces them to call it a draw and break apart.

"See, I told you we would want to give them some time alone to talk," Clint says with a knowing smirk and Natasha's lips quirk upward.

Steve shakes his head. "Please tell me you two actually got in a little bit of talking first. Because you realize that's part of a healthy relationship?"

Tony looks at Bruce and they share a small laugh. "We've got it settled now, thanks," Bruce says, still amused. Then before Tony can ask what's happening, their teammates walk over and stick three gift bows on Bruce's shirt and he laughs again, more openly, head falling back on his shoulders. "Oh god. This doesn't feel like objectification at all."

"I'm inclined to agree that Bruce Banner is a gift, but this might be taking it a little far," Tony says with a confused smirk as he looks at the others.

"Oh, so you guys didn't get to the part of the conversation where he tells you we're the ones who tracked him down and set the story straight with Fury," Clint states, because it's not a question. Tony's relatively certain the archer knows it's a miracle they got anywhere in the conversation at all after four months apart.

"You guys did that?" Tony wills away a disbelieving expression so as not to seem like the jerk who doesn't trust his teammates, but after Fury's little mind game a little part of him is disbelieving.

"Well," Steve shrugs, "we didn't know what else to get you for Christmas."

"Seriously, we've been trying to figure it out since Halloween," Clint adds.

Natasha rolls her eyes. "What they mean is, Fury had no right to do what he did. If we had known sooner we would have supported you in finding Bruce." She then gives them a calculating look. "Fury's wrong about you two. So Merry Christmas, Stark." She then tilts her head and moves one of the bows from Bruce over to Tony's forehead. "Merry Christmas, Dr. Banner."

Tony laughs and looks at Bruce, eyes taking in all of him at once. "It is now," he says warmly.

"It is now," Bruce agrees and they share another quick kiss.

"Good," Steve says as he turns in the direction of the kitchen. "I'm going to go get started on Christmas brunch so if you two were planning on unwrapping your gifts, make it quick."

Tony's eyes widen slightly and he looks to see that Bruce is pointedly not looking at anyone, Natasha seems impressed, and Clint is looking at him with a slight look of disgust. "Dude," Clint says, "if you do, at least change your shirt first. Please."

Tony looks down and snorts. When he looks up again he meets with Bruce's wry expression. Tony winks and pulls off the sweater in a deft move, leaving him in a thermal undershirt, and throws it at the archer. "Merry Christmas, Birdbrain."

"No fair," Bruce joins in on his humor as they head for the elevator, "now there's less to unwrap." Amused and turned on both, Tony ignores the groans behind them and all but tackles Bruce into the elevator.

As they head for the penthouse, Tony thinks it's amazing how much his attitude toward Christmas music changes for the better when making out with the man he loves.