Tony’s in London when he sees it—the most horrifying plush he’s ever had the misfortune of laying eyes on, worse than that disastrous Hulk plushie from marketing last year, more terrifying than that weird purple dinosaur plush Clint found in a dumpster a couple months back, worse even than the Captain America doll he’d adored as a child but as an adult can admit looked a little like a constipated egg. He must have it.
He swerves out of his security retinue without so much as a by-your-leave, sweeps into the souvenir shop just by the check-in gate and points. “I need one of those. Immediately.”
The girl behind the counter blinks at him, gapes like a fish for a moment, and then manages to squeak, “Yes sir, Mr. Stark.” He feels a little bad as she stumbles around him and his grumbling detail, so as he’s checking out, he folds a 50 pound note into his receipt and hands it to her. “For your trouble,” he says, and then strolls away whistling, purchase securely in hand.
It’s only once he’s halfway across the Atlantic that he begins staring at the little monster with second thoughts. He’s not really sure what he was thinking; he’s been working on his impulse control for the sake of Steve’s sanity, but apparently he’s not doing as well as he thought he was. Steve…that’s a thought.
By the time they touch down in New York, Tony’s plan is firmly set. He sweeps up the plastic bag and heads out through the private gates, to where Happy is waiting with the car. A hop, skip, and two conference calls later and Tony’s ready to crash, jetlag swinging into him with the weight of a Chitauri dreadnaught. He nearly stumbles straight into Steve when he spills out of the elevator into the penthouse.
“Tony?” Steve says, hands reaching out to his shoulders to steady him. “Are you alright?”
Tony blinks blearily and looks Steve up and down. He’s dressed in sweats and one of his criminally tight T-shirts. “Fine,” Tony mumbles, listing forward. “Sleep now. Happy holidays.” He slips the plastic bag onto Steve’s hand and stumbles away, barely processing that it must be early morning, Steve’s run.
“But it’s not…” he glances down at the plastic sack and back and Tony “…December,” he finishes lamely. Tony’s clearly not listening, already deep down the hallway, his gait nearly drunken with his exhaustion. Steve watches him for a moment, just to make sure he makes it to his own bedroom, and then looks down at the sack again.
Carefully, he peels it open and draws the little plush out. It’s…it’s…Steve frowns at it for a moment, reaching up to feel the soft texture of the bristly black hat. He’s not quite sure what to make of it. It appears to be a little gray Cyclops done up as a Queen’s Guard. On the bristly black hat and fire red coat, there’s some kind of logo, but Steve’s caught by the massive googly eye. It’s simultaneously disconcerting and cute. And it makes him think of his own time in London—on leave with the Howlies, drinking second-rate whiskey and making eyes at Peggy, trading jabs with Bucky. Steve blinks hard a few times, holds the little doll to his chest, and then he heads for the kitchen to free it of its tags and cardboard stand.
Tony’s sleeping and Steve doesn’t want to disturb him, so he grabs his post-it pad and does a quick sketch: Iron Man with the bristly black hat, standing straight at attention. Tony, he writes, thank you for the little Queen’s Guard. I love him. S
Steve rides the elevator down to the workshop level and pastes the post-it on the door, hopefully right where Tony will notice it. “JARVIS, could you make sure Tony gets this when he comes down?”
“Of course, Captain.”
Steve grins, thanks him, and then heads off on his run, mind on the happy times that had sandwiched themselves between the tougher times during the war, and on Tony’s jetlagged shoulders. Maybe Steve can do something nice for him when he wakes up.
“Tony,” Steve calls from the shop door. Tony doesn’t look up, so Steve steps in, careful not to upset the plate of sandwiches and coffee he’s carrying. The smell must hit Tony because he perks up and looks around.
“Steve,” he says, grinning hugely, and Steve fights the urge to blush, “what can I do for you?”
“Oh, I don’t…I brought you lunch. Figured you might be hungry. JARVIS says you’ve been going for six hours. And I wanted to thank you again. For the little Queen’s Guard.”
Tony frowns as Steve draws closer, and then he gestures to one of his desktop monitors where the post-it is pasted, garishly incongruent against the black and blue and mint green of Tony’s custom operating system. “But you already thanked me. And it was just a stupid little souvenir, you don’t have to—“
“It wasn’t ‘stupid’ to me. I, I really like it. So thank you.”
Tony gives Steve a look, brows slightly furrowed, eyes inscrutable. Then he shrugs and picks up the coffee, downing half of it in one swig. “If it gets me coffee,” he says with a grin and a sidelong glance, “I’ll get you all the souvenirs you could ever want.”
Steve grins back and leans his hip against the metal work table, watching as Tony turns back to the screen, fingers flying over an equation that Steve can only begin to guess at. He gazes his fill as Tony’s attention strays, and then nudges the sandwiches until they’re nearly under Tony’s wrist.
“Not just the coffee,” he says with a gentle smile, and then freezes, eyes flickering. Tony doesn’t notice, though. Just takes up a sandwich and goes back to his math. Steve blinks a little and then flees.
On his next business trip, Tony is in Dubai and he’s thinking about Steve and coffee and and nice smiles and not really thinking about the investors he’s supposed to be charming in twenty minutes’ time. He’d like to see that nice smile from Steve again, but now he’s thinking about it, and that almost makes it worse. The little Cyclops Guard had been a fluke, an impulse. Tony’s good at those. He’s not so good at the long-term emotional scaffolding.
Through his sunglasses, he glares at a souvenir stand and contemplates all the little tchotchkes and knickknacks and how horrible they’d all be as gifts for Steve. Shiny as it is, Tony doesn’t think Steve would much care for a solid gold camel statue. Nor a painted one, nor one made with real fur. And cute as the chocolate is, that’s not gonna last five seconds in the penthouse. If Steve doesn’t inhale it, Barton’ll steal it by the end of the day.
But then Tony sees it, and he remembers that not too long ago, Steve appeared on a talk show wearing a Pride pin. And he’d been making rumblings about appearing at next year’s Pride parade. Maybe…
Tony leaps up and leaves his security in the dust, not the least bit repentant as he slips into the shop. He feels a little glee, buying the souvenir in a country notorious for its intolerance, and he thinks Steve might appreciate that gesture too.
The cashier barely blinks as Tony hands over his credit card—he imagines celebrity sightings aren’t all that much to sneeze about in this airport—but then his security guard is standing uncomfortably close, crowding him in. “Mr. Stark, you’re due at your meeting and Ms. Potts was quite adamant that—“
“I know what Ms. Potts said. Just give me a minute. I’ve got a…a thing,” he says gesturing to his souvenir.
The guard raises an eyebrow (Tony really should learn his name, since Happy went through the trouble of screening all the applicants about a billion times) and glances down at the plushie. “A thing, sir,” he says, and then stands at parade rest. Tony can’t actually see his eyes through his sunglasses, but he’s pretty sure the guard (Jerome? Jalil? It started with a J…) is judging him.
The cashier finishes ringing him up and he snatches up the plush, holding it to his chest with an air of superiority. “I’m finished now. We can go.”
“I’m sure those investors will find that stuffed camel very persuasive, sir.”
“You’re damn right they will,” he says and marches off through the airport to find his snobby investors. They don’t even blink at the plush, having seen Tony in far more compromising situations, and so the little camel oversees the meeting with an air of sleepy-eyed jolly.
When Tony gets home, he’s reeling from the jetlag, but his first priority isn’t bed this time. “JARVIS? Where’s Steve?”
“Captain Rogers is currently at SHIELD New York satellite office. I believe he had a teleconference with Director Fury and Agent Coulson.”
Tony sighs and looks down at his gift, now wrapped up in a little bit of parchment paper. With a slump in his shoulders, he shuffles down to Steve’s suite and slips inside, setting the plush on the coffee table. “Let him know this is here, will you? I’m gonna catch a little shuteye.”
“Of course, sir,” JARVIS says, not unkindly, and Tony shuffles out again, giving one last glance to the table. He goes to bed and tries to key down his mind, tries not think of what Steve might think of the little plush, but it’s only after an hour of tossing and turning that he manages to finally nod off.
Steve steps into his suite and immediately begins shedding his uniform. He’ll always dress to inspection to do his duty, but he was never much of one for monkey suits, even the military kind. Just as he’s slipping his tie from his neck, JARVIS chimes. “If I may direct your attention to your coffee table, Captain.”
He turns and freezes, seeing the little paper parcel. It’s completely unassuming and he’s immediately wary. “Is that…”
“Sir left it for you. I would hazard it may be a small token from Dubai.”
Steve approaches the table and picks up the package. The paper is soft beneath his fingers, giving way as the thing inside shifts around. After a moment gauging its weight (surprisingly heavy given its size and softness) Steve peels the paper away to reveal a little plush camel. Not just any camel though. This one is sleepy-eyed and sporting a little tuft of hair that nearly looks like a Mohawk. Its hump is done up in the colors of the rainbow and there’s more rainbow colored handprints on its side, plus a little inscription that reads Dubai City both in Arabic and in English.
Steve fingers the surprisingly soft fur of the plush for a moment, tracing the rings of the rainbow. Then he glances over his shoulder up to one of JARVIS’ cameras. “Did…did Tony mean for this to be a Pride camel?”
“I cannot speak to Sir’s intentions, but he did make comment on the pin you wore for Mr. O’Brien’s show the other evening.”
“He seemed quite pleased, Captain.”
“Huh,” Steve says and turns back to the camel, tracing the rainbow stripes again. “JARVIS, does the UAE support gay rights?”
“Regrettably, Captain, like many countries in the Middle East, the UAE treats homosexuality as a crime punishable by death.”
Steve shudders in his half-unbuttoned coat and clutches the little camel more tightly. “Well, I suppose we oughta show ‘em what we think about that,” he murmurs, his Brooklyn burr becoming more pronounced. “When’s my next talk show appearance, JARVIS?”
“I believe you’ll be seeing Mr. Noah some time in early December. Will your camel be accompanying you?”
“I think he will, yeah. Needs a name.”
“I’m sure Sir will have many suggestions.”
Steve brightened at that, hurrying to shed the rest of his clothes. “Speakin’ of, where is Tony?”
“Sir is currently sleeping, though previous data indicates he’ll likely wake in the next hour.”
“Perfect,” says Steve, getting down to his boxers and undershirt. He hangs his uniform with care and then changes into jeans and a Henley, snatching his post-its from his desk as he passes. With an array of Sharpies, he sets to work, sketching out his idea with thick confident strokes.
When he’s finished, he’s got Iron Man next to the Burj Al Arab. Steve has made the tower even more suggestive than it already is, and there’s something of a smirk in the tilt of Iron Man’s helmet. He finishes off with a little Pride flag flying from the top of the “tower.” With a flourish and a swoop, he signs an “S” and stands to deliver his post-it.
“Is he up yet?”
“I’m sorry, Captain, but no.”
“No, actually, that’s…that’s good,” Steve says, blushing from cheekbone to collar. Now that it’s down on paper, he can hardly believe he drew it, but he’s not about to take it back. He just can’t imagine Tony’s face on handing it to him. That’s the part that really gets him. So instead, he jogs down to the workshop and plasters the post-it on the door in the same place it was last time. Then he retreats to his room to do SHIELD paperwork.
Forty-five minutes later, JARVIS chimes. “Captain, I believe you’ll want to see this,” he says, and then opens a security feed of the shop. Tony’s approaching the door, bleary-eyed and coffee in hand, but he pauses at the entrance and Steve can see him plucking the post-it off the glass. Tony stares for a moment, blinking widely, and then he bursts into laughter, his expression a near explosion of hilarity and pleasure. His coffee goes flying through the air as he bends at the waste, giggling madly. “Oh my god,” he’s saying over and over, voice high with glee.
“Priceless,” he huffs finally, and straightens, staring down at his now half-empty mug. He’s still grinning, and Steve feels something in his chest turn a tiny flip, a resolute flutter that zings through his ribs and lands warm in his belly. Tony huffs again, a residual guffaw, and then slips into the shop. JARVIS cuts the feed, but not before Steve hears Tony say, “Now he just owes me the coffee.”
Tony is packing up his carry-on for yet another trip to assuage the paranoid investors in Berlin, but he’s not really thinking about his presentation or the all the words Pepper has forbidden him from using when speaking with their “co-workers.” He’s mostly trying to remember what sorts of souvenirs he saw the last time he was in Berlin Brandenburg Airport and which of them would be best for Steve. Beer steins are so painfully obvious Tony discards them with barely a second thought. One of those funny hats with the feather? Would Steve wear it? Does it even matter?
As if on cue, JARVIS chimes at him. “Sir, Captain Rogers is requesting entrance.”
“Let him in,” Tony says with a grin. Talking to Steve is infinitely more fun than packing and it means Tony can stop agonizing over what to buy.
“Tony,” Steve says, and he’s smiling hugely, his eyes lit up and the lines around his mouth deep. “I was just wondering...oh. Do you have another business trip?”
“Yep. Off to Germany. Hopefully with less evil Asgardian than last time.”
“Oh. I guess, I guess it wasn’t important then.”
He makes to leave and Tony suddenly realizes he’d very much like for him to stay. “What kind of souvenir would you like this time?” he blurts, the words tripping over themselves a little in his haste.
Steve turns back with an inquisitive look. “You don’t have to, I mean, you’re busy enough as is. I don’t–”
“I know I don’t have to,” Tony says, “but I want to. It’s...It gets me away from the investors.”
Steve frowns a little and swivels until he’s facing Tony square-on. He’s got his ‘Captain America’s ready for a fight face’ and Tony suddenly feels a zing of panic. “You’ve been going on a lot of these trips lately, even though you don’t seem to like them much. Is something wrong?”
“Wrong? No! No, nothing’s wrong, I just...I’m making it up to Pepper, you know? Thirteen years of being a fuck-up, two years of being a crappy boyfriend, and now I’m just the R&D guy who had six designs due and turned in one. I owe her.”
“I don’t think she’d want you to be working yourself to the bone.”
“Pssh! I’m fine. I’ve worked longer hours than these.”
“While superheroing on the side?”
Tony blinks and suddenly turns back to suitcase. “You never answered my question. What would you like?”
Steve sighs and slips over to the bed, watching as Tony neatly folds up a pair of slacks. “Whatever you’d like to bring me, Tony. I’m sure I’ll like it, whatever it is.”
“Even if it’s a–”
“Yes, even then.”
“You don’t know what I was going to say.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Steve says with a small smile. He glances up and catches Tony’s eye. “I trust you.”
Tony freezes and swallows hard around the sudden lump in his throat. Steve holds his gaze for minute and then gives him a friendly pat on the shoulder. Tony’s still frozen when Steve turns away and slips out of the bedroom the way he came, and even then it takes a minute for Tony to regain his composure. He stares down at the slacks in his hand and then murmurs, “Well, shit.”
The souvenir from Germany turns out to be an apron, which in and of itself is useful because Steve’s been making team breakfasts most mornings after his run and he’s tired of getting flour all over himself. But it is also an apron that makes Steve blush when he unwraps it, standing across from a Tony who looks about ten seconds from nodding off where he’s standing.
It’s emblazoned with a mostly naked male torso, physique not too far off from Steve’s own. There are tiny brown shorts embroidered like lederhosen and behind the torso is a field of flowers with distant snowcapped mountains.
Steve blinks down at the apron and finally says, “That’s, um...huh. That’s something Tony.”
From his stupor, Tony slowly blinks and blinks again. “You don’t like it,” he says finally. “I can take it back. Give it to Clint or somethi–”
“No!” Steve says, using a little more force than he intended. “No, I...I actually think it’s kind of funny. I just, you remember the Dubai picture I drew you?”
“You mean the hilarious one with the tower as a–”
“Yes! Yes, that one. I get embarrassed just thinking about it.”
Tony’s expression slides from zonked to gleeful in under two seconds. “Oh my god, you’re blushing.”
“You are. It’s adorable. I should have JARVIS take a photo.”
“My point is,” Steve hurries on, hoping to redirect Tony’s attention, “if I wear this apron around the tower, I’m probably going to be red as a tomato.”
Tony hums for a moment, glancing down at the picture across the fabric. “I suppose you are rather lacking an exhibitionist streak. Alright. Fair enough. This can be for your private collection. I’ll get you a ‘Kiss the Cook’ apron or something the next time I think of it.”
Steve has to refrain from blurting out “please do,” but he nods, glad he’s already blushing so he doesn’t have to explain why his ears are burning.
“In the meantime...” Tony snatches the apron from Steve’s hands and tosses the neck loop over his head, a move which Steve is almost certainly fast enough to stop but doesn’t. He freezes as the apron settles against him, staring down at the stupid little scarf around the picture’s neck. Across from him he hears a snort and then a giggle.
“Looks as good as I was expecting,” Tony declares with mock solemnity, though his eyes are twinkling and there’s a smile pulling at the edges of his mouth. “My work here is done. I’m going to catch some shuteye and then it’s off to a board meeting with the New York investors. It will be wonderful.”
He ambles away with an easy gait that gradually becomes slower and heavier the farther he gets from Steve. Steve remains where he is, staring back down at the hideous apron and plucking fondly at the hem right up until Clint appears.
He gives Steve a once over, wolf whistles, and then says, “Are you the dessert, Cap?”
That gets Steve moving. He beats a hasty retreat to his room where he folds the apron and sets it on the same dresser that’s already holding the Guard and the Camel (now named Argus and Rainbow respectively) and steps back, staring down at it.
He then turns and sits down at his desk to doodle Iron Man, sans the chest plate and arm pieces, with beer stein in hand. The musculature ends up being less cartoony and more realistic than he intended, and he stares down at the glimmering arc reactor with fondness and dread warring in his stomach. He may have a problem.
After that, it becomes a regular thing. Steve accrues a tiny collection of souvenirs from nearly every locale Tony visits. A yodeling cow keychain from Switzerland, Russian nesting dolls painted like panda bears (Steve’s still not entirely sure if they came from Russia or China, since Tony stopped in both on that trip), a pillow that reads “I <3 Australia” with a koala sticking out of the top, a matching pillow from Canada with and mother and baby moose (“What good is one pillow, Steve? You need two!”), and perhaps the strangest souvenir of all—a free-standing melon with the face and legs of a bear eating a salmon. Steve blinks at that one for a long time before looking at Tony expectantly.
Tony shrugs and says, “Japan. Sleep now,” and clearly expects that to be enough of an explanation. Steve Googles it on his own later and falls down a strange internet rabbit hole of foodstuffs with bear faces and $25,000 melon.
For each souvenir, he carefully crafts a thank you note. Iron Man is lovingly rendered in lederhosen yodeling from the top of the Matterhorn. All of the Avengers are depicted as nesting dolls and Steve thinks long and hard about the order of largest to smallest. He finally decides on Hulk, Thor, himself, Clint, Nat, and Iron Man, and inside Iron Man, Tony. Steve made JARVIS save the footage of Tony discovering that—the indignant squeak at being labeled the smallest had been priceless. After that is Iron Man poking out from a Koala’s pouch (“Is there a theme with stuffing me in things here, Rogers?”) and then Iron Man holding on to a moose’s antlers as the moose tries to buck him off. The melon bear stumps Steve for a while, but finally he renders Iron Man’s helmet as a doughnut and then draws DUM-E sticking his claw through. Both he and Tony decide, after much staring, that this is a thought best left in the cobwebby corners of their minds, but the next time Steve’s down in the workshop, Doughnut Man is there with all the other post-its, even if he is slightly behind the yodeling one.
Steve likes drawing the post-its—it’s fun and it's a creative muscle he doesn’t often get to stretch anymore. But at the end of the day, he’s much happier for the excuse to bring coffee down to Tony and then loiter and occasionally lift heavy objects while Tony works. These are the times when he feels that little tickle of warmth growing in his belly, sweet and curling like hot apple cider in November, and he tries to stomp it down because Tony’s already too busy as is, and it’s not like these souvenirs mean anything anyway.
“Please tell me you didn’t eat the $25,000 melon,” he says on his coffee run after Japan.
“Are you kidding?” Steve laughs a little, half relieved because he’s not sure he can take the idea of fruit that costs as much as a car. And then Tony continues. “Some chef from Tsukiji outbid me. I ended up eating $300 melon.” Tony glances at Steve from the corner of his eye, a smirk dancing on his lips, and Steve can’t tell if Tony is joking or serious, but either way, he has to hide his face for a moment.
“No,” Steve says for a moment, hand over his eyes. “Of course. I suppose I should be grateful it wasn’t a $10,000 melon.”
“They had those too. Would that have been a better souvenir?”
“No!” Steve says a little too quickly, his hand dropping from his eyes. “I…I like the melon bear.”
Tony scoffs and goes back to his soldering. “Honestly. No taste, Rogers. First the apron, now this. Next time I’ll bring back Iron Man merch. Much more high brow.”
Steve silently agrees that he might like the Iron Man merch much more, but out loud he says, “Do you ever see the sights on these business trips? It seems like you go to meetings, grab me something in the airport, and then come right back to Avenging. Do you ever just do anything for you?”
Tony seems to consider that for a moment and shrugs. “Could you hold down these wires for me?” he says, and Steve thinks he’s not going to get an answer, but eventually Tony speaks, solder smoke curling around his face. “I guess I never think of it that way. It’s business, not pleasure. And since the whole…”—he wiggles his fingers vaguely without looking up—”I’ve tried not to mix the two. And it’s not like picking up souvenirs costs any extra time. Just a way to pass the wait in the airport.”
Steve’s stomach does something funny at that, and it’s not the usual warm apple cider twist. This time, it’s a little more like taking a gut punch from Thor in sparring, and Steve doesn’t enjoy it nearly as much.
As if to prove how much of a non-thing the souvenirs are, the next time he comes home, Tony’s brought a whole bunch of goodies.
He calls all the Avengers into the kitchen and sets a box before them, grinning like a madman. There are deep shadows under his eyes, that contrast with the tan he’s cultivated on his last business trip, and Steve glances at them worriedly as they wait for Clint and Thor to appear.
“What gives, Tony? I was busy beating my own high score on the shooting range,” Clint complains as he slips into the kitchen.
“Well, if you’re going to be mean to me, maybe there are no presents for you.”
“Presents?” Clint leans toward the box, suddenly looking eager, but Natasha smacks his hands and makes him sit back.
“Indeed. I had a little extra time in the airport, so I figured…” Tony opens the box like he brought back Tut’s own treasure, and the goods glitter up at them all. There are little glass votive holders in each of the Avenger’s color schemes and little soapstone scarabs as well. And of course there’s a little golden pyramid and sphinx for everyone, because Tony was in Cairo and what else would he get. There are also huge boxes of candied dates and a special hibiscus tea that Bruce gushes over.
Steve receives his gifts with a quiet thanks, but mostly he’s trying to shut up his inner self. He’s most certainly not jealous. He shouldn’t be. That would be silly. It’s not as though it was written in stone that the souvenirs were going to be a thing between just Tony and him. And for all he knows, the others have been getting souvenirs all along anyway. But he can’t help the little darts of doubt he feels when Tony benevolently hands out the scarabs like St. Nick come a month early.
“Don’t say I never did anything for you,” Tony says as the last of the tea is divvied up. He closes the box with a sharp smack of the wood and takes it under his arm. “I’m going to go sleep now. Nobody disturb me for a at least four hours, or Steve’ll make you do early morning sparring.”
“He will, will he?” says Natasha with a smirk, glancing over at Steve, who’s still staring determinedly down at his little soapstone scarab and trying not to let his jaw clench.
“Yes,” he says, glancing up, and the entire table goes quiet, all of them staring at him. He’s not doing as good a job of hiding his emotions as he thought, so he presses a hand over his eyes and says, “Sorry. I wasn’t...don’t bug Tony.”
He stands before he can dig himself deeper and walks away, souvenirs carefully cradled to his chest. It’s stupid. It really is. He shouldn’t be so torn up over this.
Behind him there are quiet murmurs, but he walks more quickly, not wanting to hear his team speculate over what’s got his goat. He’s almost sprinting by the time he reaches his room, and JARVIS opens the door for him unasked. He freezes just inside, feeling like a fool, and looks down at the trinkets in his hand. The cobalt scarab is beautiful, details picked out in deep red. He didn’t even say thank you.
Just as he’s turning to go back and apologize again, something catches his eye. Carefully, he sets all the souvenirs down on his coffee table and slips into his bedroom. The lights have been artificially dimmed, and on his bedside table, there’s a huge brass lamp. A design has been picked out in its metal skin with hundreds of tiny dots, and the looping curves project up onto the ceiling.
Steve stares at the glittering light and feels something loosen in his chest, work into a tight knot in his throat. Just as he’s getting ready to start crying, someone clears their throat behind him. Tony’s standing there, looking sheepish and even more exhausted than usual.
“Sorry I didn’t say anything at the table. I was just picking this up and my new security guy, he said it wasn’t fair I only ever got you souvenirs and no one else and I just wanted to show him up so I went a little overboard.”
Steve didn’t say anything, trapped in the threshold of his bedroom door, and Tony took a step closer. “You do...do you like it?”
“Yeah, Tony,” Steve manages, though he knows his voice doesn’t sound normal. “I like it a lot. It’s…” he glances back into his room and feels a twist in his belly, stronger than ever before, and he doesn’t know what he’s going to do because it’s Tony and it seems so impossible. “It’s beautiful,” he finishes, still looking at the glittering light.
He turns back finally and finds that Tony’s much closer than he’d anticipated, only a foot between them.
“That’s good,” Tony says, nodding and looking down. “I didn’t want another apron fiasco.”
Steve snorts and is horrified at how wet it sounds. He must be so transparent. “I still have the apron on my souvenir shelf,” he says, gesturing with his hand. “It hasn’t been hidden away.”
“Oh yeah?” Tony glances left, but quickly returns to Steve, licking his lips. “Well, I’m glad it was a success.”
“Yeah,” Steve murmurs.
There’s something here, something he’s missing. He can feel it between them, solidifying and growing. Just as he’s about to ask a question, his bedroom door opens.
“JARVIS said Steve’s interrupting your sleep, so does that mean Steve has to spar himself?” Clint asks, leaning in. He looks around until he finds them and then makes a little sound, a little “oh.”
“Uh, sorry I interrupted. I’ll just...go about my business. Pretend you didn’t see me. Bye.” He slips out the door before either of them can say anything, but the moment is already broken. Tony yawns hugely, and Steve can hear his jaw pop.
“Get some sleep, Iron Man,” he says, not even trying to hide the fondness in his voice. Tony nods and turns around, but he pauses at the entrance, glancing back at Steve.
“I’m glad you like the lantern.”
“Thank you for the gift, Tony,” Steve says, and now he’s smiling like a sap. “It means a lot to me.”
Tony pauses in the door, and Steve nearly goes to him, but then he slips out and it’s too late. For a long moment, Steve just stands on the threshold of his bedroom, caught between glittering darkness and waning afternoon light, and then he goes to his desk. This time, he doesn’t take out a post-it. He grabs a sheet from his sketchbook and begins to rough in forms. Five hours later, he deposits his offering at the workshop door: Tony in the armor, helmet under one arm. His other arm is up, fingers spread wide, and glittering stars spread from his palm over the Egyptian sky. He’s smiling.
Normally Tony loves Brazil. He likes the food and the dancing and the color of the city. But this visit, he’s not feeling it. The proposal he’s listening too seems insufferably long, and there’s a headache throbbing just behind his left eye. The AC in the place seems busted, because he can feel the sweat trickling down his temple, and while the design specs they’re listing seem promising, he can’t quite focus on the presenter’s lilting accent. By the time the meeting lets out, Tony’s got two things on his mind: picking up Steve’s souvenir and crashing on the plane for ten hours of sleep.
The drive to the airport feels insufferably long, Sao Paulo’s streets crowd with a never ending parade of traffic. It fades into the background as Tony’s headache worsens, and he slowly undoes his tie and the first two buttons of his shirt. Maybe he should take a break like Steve mentioned a while back, stop and see the sights instead of hiding inside of office buildings and airports. Pep would understand. He slips into a daze, thinking about spending some time on a quiet beach in Porta Vallarta, maybe Steve next to him, burning to a crisp with his Irish skin. There could be drinks in coconuts. Or something. And Steve smiling. Always Steve smiling.
Somehow, they arrive at the airport without Tony even noticing and Jalil (Tony’s remembered his name! At last!) opens the door with a wry smile tipping his lips. “Right this way, Mr. Stark,” he says, not unfondly, and Tony stumbles out onto the boiling pavement. The heat is really getting to him, and he undoes another button as they slip into the terminal. They pick up their boarding passes for the private jet, but Tony spends most of his time staring at the lines of souvenirs over Jalil’s shoulders. They’ve made it a game between the two of them—how long can Jalil manage to keep Tony from running off before Tony gives him the slip?—and right now Jalil is winning. He’s just spotted a promising wallet (he’s pretty sure Steve needs a new one) when a pain suddenly shoots through his abdomen. He’s had indigestion before but he barely touched breakfast and he can’t remember eating lunch. This...this doesn’t feel right.
“Mr. Stark?” says Jalil, and he sounds disturbingly far away. “Mr. Stark, are you feeling alright?”
“Of course,” Tony mumbles, absently pressing a hand to his stomach. He’s felt worse than this. It’s nothing. Probably a cramp. A cramp the size of a small bear.
“Mr. Stark, you really don’t look well. Should I—”
“Don’t be silly, Jalil. I’m doing just fine. I’m just going to...to…” Tony begins a sad attempt at slipping around Jalil, but halfway there, his toe catches on something and he stumbles. There are strong arms around him, and he quietly mumbles “Steve”, and then there’s nothing at all.
Tony wakes to the steady beeping of a heart monitor and quietly wonders which super villain knocked him out this week. But then his memory clears a little, though still hazed by what feels like a pretty heavy duty dose of painkillers. “Hrrmph,” he says, and suddenly Pepper’s there at his side, holding a cup with a bendy straw.
“Hey Tony. Do you remember what happened?”
Since there’s a straw in his mouth, Tony can’t immediately answer, but when she pulls the cup away, Tony’s tongue doesn’t feel like it’s made of glue anymore. “Stomach hurt?” he says intelligently, and Pepper smiles a little.
“Acute appendicitis. You’re still in Sao Paulo.”
Tony moves to say something, but Pepper shoves the straw back between his lips; she’s always known how best to shut him up. “The team knows. Steve and Natasha came down. Bruce sends his love and says he’s not to be held responsible for any lab accidents, Hulk-related or otherwise. Clint and Thor are there too, making sure New York doesn’t get blown up in your absence.”
Tony’s mouth puckers around the straw and he pouts as best he can past it. “Great. Fantastic. Can I go home now?”
“You most certainly cannot. How did you not notice the fever Tony? 101 degrees. The doctors were panicking. You’re lucky your appendix didn’t burst.”
His pout, if anything, worsens, and he pointedly does not look in Pepper’s direction. “It didn’t seem like much. I’ve had worse.”
Pepper sighs and presses the straw to his lips again. “Steve talked to me, you know.”
Tony glances up at that, trying not to give anything away. Pepper’s eyebrow is already raised, though; she knows all his tells.
“Why didn’t you say you were overworked, Tony?”
“Because I’m not. I’ve worked harder than this. I’ve been doing just fine. I catch a few hours right when I get home. Fixes the jetlag like a charm. Absolutely right as rain.”
“I wanted your help with the company, Tony, but I didn’t want you to run yourself into the ground. You’re doing two full time jobs now. You need to be smart about it. And part of being smart is telling me when I’ve asked too much of you.”
“You didn’t. Haven’t. You’re CEO, and it’s bad enough you have to wrangle the assholes in New York. I can do the international pitches no sweat.”
“America is one country Tony.”
“Yeah. One really big country.”
“You’ve been to ten different countries in the past three months. On top of Avenging and R&D and your duties as Majority Stockholder. That’s insane.”
Tony pouts around his straw again and doesn’t meet Pepper’s eyes.
She sighs and rubs at her temple. "Leave it to you to act more like a CEO once you've already given up the role." Through her fingers, she peeks at him with a wry smile. “I’ve giving you a one month break from all SI duties effective the moment you’re back on American soil. You are going to have a semi-normal Christmas with your semi-normal team and recover from your surgery.”
“Do I have to?”
“Steve’s going to make sure you do.”
“I am,” Steve says as he steps around the door into the hospital room. “Pepper, I brought your coffee.”
“Thank you, Steve,” she says, taking the cup from him with a fond smile. “Now, Steve has something he’d like to talk about with you–” she says this while giving Steve the kind of stern look she usually saves for Tony when he’s blown up a development lab “–so I’m just going to step out and get some work done. You two play nice.”
Steve takes her seat at Tony’s bedside and waits until the door clicks behind her to look up at Tony.
“How are you feeling?”
“Not the worst I’ve ever felt,” says Tony, which is honestly true. He can feel the painkillers fuzzing his brain and calling him back to sleep already. The dull ache in his abdomen barely registers on the radar, though he suspects if he were to move around, he’d feel differently.
Steve smiles and reaches out, pressing a warm hand to Tony’s cheek. For a moment, Tony revels in the feeling, and then he freezes, realizing what’s just happened. “There...was a thing?” he says after a moment, looking up at Steve.
But Steve doesn’t elaborate. He just stares down at Tony, a tiny smile at the corners of his lips, his thumb ghosting over Tony’s cheekbone.
“Your security guard,” Steve finally says, “thinks you’re a huge idiot.”
“I knew that already.”
“He says you should just ask me out already instead of buying me all these souvenirs.”
“He would say that,” Tony grumbles, glancing down. And then it registers. He hears the words that just came out of Steve’s mouth. “Wait, what?”
Steve’s smile grows and his eyes crinkle at the edges. “And Pepper thinks I’m a huge idiot.”
“She...does?” The drugs must really be affecting Tony because he should not be having this much difficulty following a damn conversation.
“Because I chewed her out for not taking care of you, but never bothered to ask you out so I could take care of you myself.”
Tony blinks stupidly, and glances over at his IV to make sure the medication hasn’t been ticked up too high. But he doesn’t know what too high would even be, so he looks back to Steve and raises his eyebrows.
“We’ll talk again when you’re not gummed to the gills,” Steve says, and his hand is so warm and sweet against Tony’s cheek, “but would you like to go on a date with me? When we get back to the States and you can eat like a normal person again. They put the tree up in Rockefeller. We could go watch the skaters.”
Tony opens and closes his mouth a few times, and Steve’s face falls a little, his hand slipping away. “Or we could not. We can just–”
Tony snatches his hand before it can slip any further and clutches at his fingers. “No. I mean yes. Yes to the date. No to the not. Rockefeller. Yes, good.”
“Yes, good.” Steve’s grin is like hot cocoa and a roaring fireplace, and Tony melts into it a little. He tugs on the hand he’s captured and Steve, surprised by the suddenness of it, rocks down close enough that Tony can slip up and kiss him. It makes the surgical sites on his stomach scream in momentary pain, but it’s totally worth it for the sappy grin Steve gives him after.
“Will you snuggle with me?”
“Will we fit?” Steve says, dubiously eyeing the bed.
“We’ll make it work.”
After a bit of clambering and shuffling and rearranging, Steve manages to slot in next to Tony, propped on his side with his bicep as Tony’s pillow.
“I never got you a souvenir here,” Tony murmurs, already drifting off.
“Sure you did. Got me your appendix. It’s in a little jar waiting for you.”
Tony groans and smacks Steve in the chest, but then his eyes drift more and more closed and he drifts off listening to Steve’s heartbeat.