Tony Stark does not, as a rule, like Christmas.
See, it goes like this: once, there was Tony and his parents and this huge mansion that never was home. There was six, seven, ten, twelve year old Tony, waking up early and rushing downstairs in the hope of finding his parents downstairs, sitting around the Christmas tree with hot cocoa and telling him to open the presents. It would always be the same. Six, seven, ten, twelve year old Tony would rush downstairs to find the place empty, to find a note on the table and maybe a credit card, too if he was lucky. Buy yourself something nice.
Apparently nobody told Tony’s parents that you can’t buy a childhood.
Slowly, as the years wore on, Tony stopped going to the effort of putting up the Christmas tree on his own. The decorations were forced back into their boxes, smashing as they went, and thrust to the back of the garage. The beautiful fake Christmas tree Maria had bought Tony as an apology one Christmas slowly rotted away in its box, falling to pieces, forgotten.
So, no, Tony Stark did not like Christmas. But this particular one just seemed to be getting worse and worse.
He’s staring at these plans for the arc reactor, see, just staring at these fucking plans, and the diagrams are shifting before his eyes and Baby It’s Cold Outside is playing over the coffee shop speakers and Tony is going to have a breakdown at this rate. Like maybe he’s just going to dive to his feet, using his coffee cup as a weapon, and shout for nobody to move. But then he would surrender the ability to come to this coffee shop, and this coffee shop has fucking great coffee. So maybe that’s not such a great idea.
“Hello, how can I help you?”
Tony blinks. There’s somebody in the coffee shop. In his coffee shop. At 3AM in the morning, no less. He’s not sure whether to be territorial or impressed, but when he looks up with tired eyes, he finds himself staring at a six feet of pure muscle.
“Jesus,” Tony breathes.
“I’d like a coffee please. Plain and black.” The man – or boy; he’s in that stage between manhood and boyhood, early twenties, Tony guesses – rubs a hand over his face wearily, then forces a tight-looking smile at the cashier. “Strong, please. Really strong.”
Tony recognises a kindred spirit when he sees one.
When the man props himself against the counter whilst he waits for his coffee to be made, he spots Tony. He takes in Tony, his plans, and the bags beneath Tony’s eyes in a split second, smiles, and says, “Med?”
“Electrical engineering at MIT. I’m working on my master’s, well, I’ve nearly got it – it’s just a matter of – ” God, he’s rambling. He’s rambling and he doesn’t even know why, he thought he’d grown out of this ages ago, he thought – Fuck. He didn’t know what he thought. He doesn’t even know how to think at all right now, his mind is that cloudy. He throws the man’s papers a glance. “Art?”
The stranger smiles. When he smiles, Tony feels something strange inside him, something he has not felt for a long, long time: warmth. Like the man’s smile has ignited some match inside of him that’s melting away the ice. It’s stupid, it’s so stupid. But Tony grabs onto it. He’s so tired.
“Yep. Boston.” The man accepts his coffee from the cashier with a smile. Then he moves over to Tony’s booth. “Mind if I sit here?”
Yeah. I do, actually. “No, of course not,” Tony says, and damn him if it isn’t the truest thing he’s said all day. He takes a swig of his own coffee. The bitter taste in his mouth tells him that no, this is not a hallucination, and there actually is a god-like figure of a man sitting in the seat across from him.
“So what brings you to New York?”
Tony smiles tightly. “Business stuff.” He rubs a hand over his face. “I’m the CEO of – my parents’ company now, so… I’m kind of backwards and forwards between MIT and New York.” He raises his eyebrows at the stranger. “You?”
“Visiting my mother,” the man says, “for Christmas. You know.”
Tony doesn’t, but he doesn’t say that out loud. The man smiles. “Steve Rogers,” he greets.
Tony is genuinely about to say ‘No, that’s not my name’ when he realises that the man’s introducing himself. He fidgets with his pencil, hands twitching, needing to do something, anything. “Tony Stark,” he says.
Steve’s eyebrows raise, but that’s all. There’s no screaming or crying or even muttering. He just raises his goddamned eyebrows. “As in, the Tony Stark?”
“The one and only,” Tony says bitterly. He stares down at his papers instead of meeting this kind stranger’s gaze.
Steve doesn’t really say anything else. He just brings out his notebook and begins to draw. Beautiful things. Christmas lights over old houses; a woman’s face; eyes, like Tony’s, but softer, warmer, like a glimpse of a different Tony, a different life.
Tony presses his fingers gently, more gentle than he’s ever been, to the drawing of the woman. “Your girlfriend?” he questions softly.
Steve smiles, but the smile shakes, like an earthquake is quivering behind those lips. “Kind of,” he says. “Not anymore.”
“Dead,” Steve says, not unkindly.
Oh. Tony nods, turning his gaze back to his papers. He can’t even concentrate in the slightest now, though: the writing shakes before his vision and the ink bleeds across the page. Then he looks up to find Steve staring very, very hard at his sketchbook and blurts out, “So tell me about yourself.”
Steve stares at Tony for a long moment. Then he says, “My name is Steve Rogers, I’m 21, I go to art college, and I can’t sleep.”
It’s 3AM, six days before Christmas, in a tiny coffee shop on a side road of New York. Some people search for sleep in different ways. But as Tony Stark looks across the table at Steve Rogers, at the curve of his wry smile, at the way his hands shake when he draws, Tony can’t help but laugh a little. Because Tony Stark, as a rule, hates Christmas, but when he looks at Steve Rogers at that moment, Christmas lights flickering in Steve’s eyes, he thinks that he is quite possibly the most beautiful thing that Tony has ever seen.
This is not Tony Stark’s story to tell. This will always be Steve’s. But as the two men sat across from each other, Tony Stark could never have guessed that Steve was thinking exactly the same thing about him.
Bucky meets Steve outside Steve’s mother’s apartment, bundled up in a thick parka and a woolen hat with snowflakes decorating it. Real snowflakes are beginning to drift down, covering the ground in a light sheen of snow. Steve can’t hold back a grin at the sight. “Ready for Christmas, Bucky?”
Bucky’s answering grin is blinding. “Am I ever.” He passes one of the cups in his hand to Steve. Coffee. Steve nearly cries with relief. “Christmas is the best time of the year,” Bucky sighs.
“You are a walking talking Hallmark card quoter, I swear to God,” Steve laughs. He takes a sip from his coffee, wishes it was stronger. “Bucky, you know some of the guys at MIT, right?”
Bucky, who has already set off down the path, tugs Steve along with him. “If we want to get those Christmas presents, we’re going to need to move quickly before the rush starts.”
“The rush never ends,” Steve says wryly. He, in fact, did his Christmas shopping about three months ago, and Bucky just dragged him along for gift ideas, because, as he says, ‘you’re better than my Christmas gift ideas app, Steve. I would make good money for you’.
Bucky laughs. “MIT? Yeah, I do.” He eyes Steve. “Why?”
“Do you know Tony Stark?”
Bucky stops so suddenly that Steve nearly thumps into the back of him, just short of knocking them both into headfirst into the snow. “Why?”
Steve blinks at Bucky’s sudden vehemence. “Well, I was at my local coffee shop last night, and he was there…” Steve trails off, a little concerned that Bucky’s face will get permanently stuck that way if he scowls any deeper. “We got talking. He gave me his number. I was just wondering if you could tell me much about him. I mean, I don’t keep up with the news much. And I could Google him, but.” The last time Steve tried to Google something he ended up with a virus and had to get a new computer. He kind of suspects that technology is out to get him.
Bucky grips Steve’s shoulders, suddenly more serious than Steve has seen him since Peggy’s funeral. “Steve, you don’t want to get involved with that.”
Steve blinks. “What? He seemed like a nice guy. I mean,” he says, “a little bit of a rambler, but it’s cute.”
Bucky groans despairingly. “No, Steve. You really – I say this as your friend.” He takes a deep breath and maintains eye contact with Steve. “Tony Stark is fucked up. I’m talking psycho levels of fucked up. The guy lost his parents, like, two years ago and he’s still a fucking mess. That guy is a train wreck, Steve. You don’t want to get involved in that.”
“I just…” Steve stares. Bucky isn’t really one for monologues, so he must be pretty serious about this. “He just seems like he needs a friend, you know? What’s wrong with that?”
Bucky sighs, turning away from Steve and setting off down the path, Steve trailing after him. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing, Rogers. You’ve got that look that you get when you find a wounded animal that you want to bring home. You think you can fix him.” He turns to meet Steve’s gaze then, just for a second. “Listen to me now, Steve. Nobody can fix Tony Stark.”
When Steve gets home that night, the first thing he does is Google Tony Stark. He figures it’s worth the risk to his computer and, perhaps, to his insanity. Because Bucky will tell him nothing and Steve is going to go mad if he doesn’t find out just what exactly is so wrong with Tony Stark.
The headlines of the articles should say enough: Stark Golden Boy Left Alone with Biggest Company in the World, and then, as time goes on, Playboy Tony Stark Shuts Down Weapons Manufacturing, then finally, The Ultimate Technician Tony Stark Unable To Fix Himself?
“God,” Steve breathes. He shuts the pages and shuts his laptop, resting his chin on it. “Bucky was right.”
You think you can fix him.
He should leave this alone. Walk away. He has enough problems of his own, with the nightmares, with the guilt, with the ghost that haunts him. But then he looks to the side of his desk and sees Tony’s number and before he knows what he’s doing, Steve’s got his mobile out and he’s dialing.
“Stark? Yeah, it’s me. Steve Rogers. You still want to meet up for dinner?”
What Steve did not know that Tony had a very loose definition of the word ‘dinner’, so when Steve arrives at Stark Tower at seven PM that night, he finds Tony sprawled across the sofa with a whole Chinese restaurant’s worth of food around him.
“You like Chinese, right?” Tony asks, and that’s that.
They watch one of the Batman movies, Steve isn’t sure which one; he has trouble watching with the TV blurring before him. He’s so tired, and so comfortable next to Tony, and he just wants to sleep.
“You can sleep if you want,” Tony says as if he’s read Steve’s mind. “I won’t take advantage of you in your slumber or anything.”
Steve snorts, leans a little further into Tony. It’s nice. Steve is still not entirely sure whether this is just a meeting between friends or a date, but either way he’s content to roll with it. He sighs. “If I sleep I might dream,” he mutters, as if that even makes sense.
But Tony takes the words as if they make complete sense to him. “It’s fine,” he says, and smiles. “Sleep, Rogers.”
Steve does, for the next fourteen hours.
He doesn’t dream once.
Steve wakes alone, feeling more contented than he has in years. He blinks at the unfamiliar ceiling, has a brief moment to panic before he rolls over quickly, jumping to his feet and looking around. Where is he? He tries to remember. It’s always the same: when he didn’t sleep for long periods of time, trying to go through his memory was like wading through knee-deep mud.
“So I was thinking –”
Steve spins around, nearly knocking the coffee out of Tony’s hands. Tony’s eyebrows shoot right up. “Whoa there, soldier. It’s just me. You alright?”
Then he remembers. It was just a movie night. God. Steve sits back down on the sofa and rests his head in his hands. “I slept for a long time,” he says, a little dazed.
Tony nods slowly. “I hope I didn’t wake you, I mean, I’ve been awake for hours. I don’t sleep much, don’t need it, mind moves too fast, but.” He shrugs, passes Steve a mug. Steve accepts it gratefully. “But you looked like you did need it.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. Then a thought occurs to him. “Did I talk in my sleep?”
“Yep,” Tony says, and Steve’s gut twists unpleasantly. Then the other man adds, “You waxed poetic all night about my stunning good looks, my incredible figure, my taste in movies.” Tony grins.
Steve rolls his eyes. “Of course I did.” He pauses. “Hey, Tony. Last night – we didn’t. Um.” He shrugs helplessly. “Right?”
Tony raises his eyebrows. Steve thinks that they might get stuck up there if he does that anymore. “We didn’t have sex, if that’s what you saying.” He looks a little offended. “I did mean it when I said that I wouldn’t take advantage of you in your delightful slumber. Admittedly…” he trails off. “Admittedly, I thought that was what you wanted. When you called, I mean. I thought it was a –”
Steve stares at him. “You thought I rang you for a booty call?”
Tony shrugs nonchalantly. “I could count on zero hands the amount of people who would voluntarily spent a night with me just watching a movie,” he says, laughing. His eyes aren’t smiling, though.
“Look,” Steve says on impulse. “Mom wanted me to cook some biscuits for family friends and that and, uh. I was wondering if you wanted to…” Oh God, the words sound worse than they did in his head.
“Steven Rogers,” Tony says, grinning, “are you seriously asking me to cook Christmas biscuits with you? For your mother, no less?”
Well, when you put it like that. “Um.” Steve shrugs. “Maybe?”
“I hate Christmas.” Tony is smiling as he says it, though, so Steve takes that as a ‘yes’.
“No, you don’t put the flour in there, Tony, oh my Go –”
“It’s got a perfect hole. Why shouldn’t the flour go in there? You know what I say; if there’s a hole, there’s a way.”
“Tony, can you please stop sexualising my kitchen utensils?”
“But they’re so…beautiful.”
“So are your eyes, but I don’t go trying to get it on with them.”
“No, Stark, I didn’t mean it like that, that came out wrong. Stop staring at me. Are you crying? God, you’re crying – Tony I didn’t mean – stop laughing, you bastard.”
“Hey, this one kind of looks like you.”
“It’s a cookie, Tony.”
“It has your eyes.”
“My eyes look like melted smarties?”
“They do.” Tony presses his hands to his heart. “Oh, they do, Steve. Let me look at those precious eyes of yours.” He leans forward, and Steve stares at him, frozen. Then Tony lifts up his hands and blows two handfuls of flour into Steve’s face.
“I am so going to get you for that, Stark.” Steve drops his spoon and sets off after Tony, leaving a cloud of flour in his wake. Tony ducks out of Steve’s mother’s kitchen and runs through the living room, yelling ‘YOU WILL NEVER CATCH ME, STEVIE’
Steve laughs loudly, catching Tony by the sleeve and rubbing chocolate sauce on his nose. Suddenly, he’s got Tony pressed up against the wall, and their faces are close, too close, and Steve leans forward, just infinitesimally –
“Steve, I’m home!”
Steve wrenches himself away from Tony, smiling innocently at his mother. “Hi, Mum.”
Sarah looks at Tony, and then at Steve, and then back at Tony again. Steve can only imagine what they look like, Steve coated in flour, Tony with chocolate sauce smeared over his face. His mother looks at them for a long moment and then shrugs, offers her hand to Tony. “I’m Sarah, Steve’s mother. And you are…?”
Tony smiles. It’s a smile that Steve has only seen on pictures on the internet, transforming his face, making him appear a different person; it’s his publicity smile. “Tony Stark, ma’am.”
Sarah raises her eyebrows, but doesn’t comment on the fact that they have an international celebrity in their house baking cookies. “Cooking?”
Steve nods solemnly. “We’ve made lots of cookies.” He shoots Tony a glance. “What was the last count?”
“One hundred and fifty-seven,” Tony answers promptly. He pauses. “We, uh, may have gotten a bit carried away.”
Sarah looks at them both for a moment, hands on her hips. Then she lunges forward – literally lunges – and pulls Tony into a hug. Tony looks terrified. “Welcome to the Rogers residence, Tony,” she says wryly, like he’s doomed for life, and then walks off into the kitchen, smiling to herself.
“Uh,” Tony says.
“I think,” Steve says, grinning, “she likes you.”
Steve spends that evening at the Stark Tower. It's a good evening, until Steve decides to open his mouth. See, Tony refuses to put up any Christmas lights, anything even the slightest bit Christmas-y, and they get into a bit of an argument about it, which leads to Tony yelling at Steve that his parents never celebrated Christmas, that his father thought it was a stupid occasion. The words fall from Tony’s mouth in a flood, and Steve can do nothing but stand and stare.
Then he leans forward to catch Tony's hand and squeezes it.
“Your father…” Steve trails off. “I thought he was a good man.” He knows he shouldn’t bring it up, knows he’s verging into dangerous territory, but the words slip from his lips anyway: “If he was so bad to you, then why did you let his – and your mother’s – deaths affect you so much?”
Tony’s laugh is harsh and bitter. For a long moment, Steve thinks that Tony isn't going to answer him at all, maybe even kick him out. But then. “My father was not a good person,” he says. “My father was a shit person. But he was my dad, Steve.” He presses his eyes tightly together. “And I let him die.
The day they went off to that goddamn benefit I’d been messing around with the brakes of the car, trying to fix them up – the company, the shit ass company, had made a total mess of them. But they were working, at least. And I completely wrecked them. I didn’t think that Mum and Dad would be taking that car, of all the cars we had.” Tony swallows, then meets Steve’s questioning glance with a sardonic smile. “Don’t you get it, Steve? Don’t you get it? It’s like some sort of twisted metaphor, like. No matter how much scrap metal I make into something good, no matter how many things I fix, I can never go back and fix my problems. I can never fix myself. My whole life is a fucking metaphor, Steve.”
Steve has spent a lot of time thinking about breaking. About porcelain and cracks in the roadside and shattering to pieces. About the look on the nurse’s face when she said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Rogers, but your friend is gone.” Now he’s sitting here and he’s gripping Tony Stark like maybe if he holds on tight enough he can hold the broken pieces of his friend together.
Steve has spent a lot of time thinking about breaking, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less when Tony Stark shatters to pieces beneath his fingers.
The thing about Tony Stark is that once he climbs into your body, buries himself in your bones, you can’t shake him. It’s not even that he’s particularly clingy – if anything, Steve would have to say that he’s the exact opposite. But after spending virtually two days non-stop with Tony, Tony leaving to return to his apartment feels like a gush of emptiness to Steve.
Steve doesn’t dream at all for the next two nights. He spends the 21st doing last minute Christmas shopping; the 22nd visiting Peggy’s grave. That’s the bit that hurt the most, seeing the beautiful writing on her gravestone:
DAUGHTER, SISTER AND BEST FRIEND
JUNE 1989 – OCTOBER 2010
He sits by her grave for hours and hours before Bucky finds him there and takes him home. “Two years,” Steve chokes out, and the words taste like poison in his mouth. They’re sitting in traffic, but Steve needs to move. His legs shake beneath his hands. “Two whole years.”
“Steve,” Bucky begins, but Steve has already pushed open the door of the taxi. He runs through the traffic, ignoring the screeching of cars and the bellowing horns that follow him. It’s snowing now, verging on a blizzard, but Steve ignores the weather, pressing on, slowly becoming soaked to the bone.
He runs until his legs ache and he has to stop. When he does, he finds himself staring up at the building before him. He had not consciously decided to come here, but it was where his feet led him to. It was where his ghosts lie.
“Peggy,” he breathes, and it’s so fucking stupid, apologising to a house, but he says the words anyway. “I’m so sorry.”
He kicks open the door of the abandoned house, takes in the shattered frames, the old furniture. It’s a ghost house. When Peggy had died, he’d been too distraught, too buried in his own grief, to come and clear her things away. Her family had come to take the important things, things important to them, and tried to sell the house, but nobody would buy it. Not after a girl had been murdered there.
He crumbles to the ground as if shielding himself from a physical blow. After Peggy’s death, he had made a point of becoming stronger, working out more, losing himself in the movements, letting his anger out on gym equipment. It was easier; safer. Now, he felt like he had not grown in the slightest as he curled in on himself like a child, his back pressed against the wall.
That’s how Tony finds him ten minutes later, clutching his knees, shaking, tears soaking his face an shirt. Tony stands there for a minute in the doorway, just watching Steve. His gaze is not patronizing or judgmental. It’s just – calm. Patient.
Steve opens his mouth, swallows, tastes blood. He tries again. “I –” The words are ripped from him, choked and too raw and broken. “I killed her, Tony. I killed Peggy.”
Tony sits beside Steve for a long time, not saying anything at all, before he finally speaks. “So –” His voice cracks a little. “When you say ‘killed her’, are we talking metaphorically or? Like, you didn’t actually kill the girl, right? Because I really, really can’t picture you doing that but –”
Steve stares at him for a long moment. Then he looks away, out the window. Outside, it’s growing dark, and the Christmas lights are beginning to shine out down the street. “On the day she was murdered, I got a call from her,” Steve says. He’s never said the words to anyone before, never explained his ghosts in sentences, in a way that others could understand, would try to understand. “I was at a party – and, well, there was this guy, and –” Steve swallows. “I ignored the call. If I hadn’t ignored the call, Tony –”
Tony is already shaking his head. “No, Steve,” he says firmly. His hands go to Steve’s shoulder, as if keeping him grounded. “You didn’t. Even if you had tried, she lives in New York, Rogers. How did you think you could get here before she was killed?”
The words are blunt, not carved so they won’t offend like others’ are, and Steve appreciates it more than anything.
“I could have called the police,” Steve says weakly.
“You could have,” Tony concedes, “but there’s so many ways that could have not worked out. What was the likeliness of the police getting there when Peggy already was having suspicions, Steve? You say she was killed in a random burglary?” Steve nods. “Then there was nobody who could have gotten there in time. Not even you, Captain America. Not even you.”
Steve is silent for a long time. Tony is patient, more patient than Steve would have ever thought that the man could be. When Steve finally speaks, what he blurts out is, of all things, “’Captain America’?”
Tony grins. “I thought it was fitting, you know. With your patriotism and determinedness to do what’s right by everybody. You’re the superhero from Brooklyn, Steve.”
Steve laughs, a sudden sound, surprising them both. “I’ve never saved anyone, though, Tony.”
Tony’s smile is gentle. “Well,” he says, “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
And then Tony kisses him.
Tony spends Christmas with Steve’s family.
“Just for the record,” Tony babbles as he’s pulled through the house by Sarah, “I don’t like Christmas. Like, at all. I don’t think I’ve ever even celebrated. In fact, if there was a Christmas club, I would be so far kicked out of it I was never even in it in the first place.”
Sarah turns to Tony. “You can cut carrots, yes?” She doesn’t wait for his answer before shoving a carrot and a knife in his hands, shuffling off to tell Steve’s cousins to stop arguing over who gets to fold the napkins.
Steve looks over at Tony, who’s still standing there with a carrot in one hand and a knife in the other, and laughs so hard he can’t breathe.
“This,” Tony says, grabbing a board and setting to work, “is so not funny, Rogers.”
Steve comes up behind him, wrapping his arms around Tony’s waist and grinning into his shoulder. He’s feeling quite homely there when a thought suddenly occurs to him. “Hey, Tony,” he says, “who told you where I would be? When you came to Peggy’s house?” The name still makes his gut twist, just a little, but it’s not as bad as it was before now that he’s made a strange peace with Peggy’s death.
Tony pauses. “Uh. A friend of yours called me. James Barnes.”
Steve pulls away, incredulous. “Bucky? Are you sure?”
“Yep,” Tony says. He winces a little. “I wish I wasn’t so sure. You have good friends, Steve. Good, emphatic friends, who make it very clear what’s going to happen if somebody besmirches your honour.”
Steve raises his eyebrows. “Right.” He’s going to kill Bucky. “Well, he’s got to tolerate you at least a bit if he went so far as to call you instead of going himself.”
Tony flashes him a smile. “What can I say? I won him over with my stunning looks and charm.”
Steve rolls his eyes, laughing, and leans forward again, resting his chin on Tony’s shoulder. Tony, who never really was one for silence, is off now, talking a million miles a year. “By the way, Pep and Rhodey want to meet you, which is only fair, really, since I had to be submitted to the wrath of Bucky Barnes, which, can I just say, not fun, so not fun at all.”
“I’d be happy to meet your friends. In fact," he added, looking thoughtful, "why not invite them for dinner? The more, the merrier."
This is not Tony’s story. It will always be Steve’s to tell. But that night, watching Steve with his family, with Tony's friends, laughing and joking, having Steve’s cousins pull at him and beg for his opinion on their lego structures, Tony feels lighter than he had in years.
Tony Stark does not, as a rule, like Christmas. He has, after all, no family to spend it with.
But sitting there in the Rogers' front room, Steve catches his eye and smiles, as if to say 'I beg to differ.'