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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

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Tony had never been particularly fond of December. Even when he had lived in California the weather hadn't been the greatest, and in New York it was downright horrible, the snow and ice and freezing cold temperatures driving everyone indoors.

Worse than the weather, though, was his mounting dread for the inevitable arrival of the 17th. For a few days before and after that day, he was surrounded by well-meaning sympathy from the people around him, along with a rather morbid curiosity over his thoughts about his parents' death. As though he would ever have anything to say except for the official party line, words of fond sorrow so bland and well-rehearsed by now that he could say them in his sleep. And on the 17th itself, he tried his hardest to bury himself in work so he wouldn't have to think about what day it was, and the loss that still haunted him twenty years later.

So yeah, all that was bad enough, but after the anniversary he would have preferred to forget about altogether, came another one right around the corner.

Christmas.

Holidays had never been a big deal in the Stark household. If it weren't for his mother, Tony would never have even believed in Santa at all. He would never know, of course, but he strongly suspected a huge argument had raged between his parents on that score. His mother had won that one, but her victory had been short-lived – by the time he was five, Tony had no longer believed in Christmas magic of any kind.

As a younger man, the holiday had never been about family, or gift-giving, or even the turkey dinner. It had been about crass commercialism, about finding a way to take the general love of humanity that briefly overcame much of the world for a few short weeks and twisting it to his advantage. After all, what better way to protect your loved ones than by buying some of Stark Industries' latest weaponry?

Fortunately he couldn't say he felt that way anymore, although old habits died hard, he had found. Even now, with his years of weapon-making behind him, Tony had no real love of the holiday season. And as Pepper had once told him, correct as always, he most definitely did not share in the Christmas spirit.

Still, this year he had told himself that he would at least try. Because of Steve.

Some days Tony still couldn't believe what he had with Steve. It had been eleven months since they had finally stopped dancing around the issue and admitted that they were in love. And for most of that time, Tony had found himself waiting to wake up from this marvelous dream, because things like this just did not happen to him. He had always felt like the poster child for unrequited pining, believing that he would spend his days helplessly, hopelessly in love with someone who would never think of him in the same way. Only to find out one starry winter night that Steve did feel the same way.

Every day since that one had been incredible. No matter how grumpy he was, no matter how tired he got, Steve could always make him feel better. And for his part, Tony would never stop wanting to make Steve smile.

Which was why he had been trying so hard this December to get into the holiday spirit. Because Steve, of course, was all about Christmas. Maybe because he had lost so many years to the ice and he felt he had time to make up for. Or maybe because he was just one of those people who really got into the spirit of the season. Whatever the reason, lately everything he wanted to do seemed to involve the holiday in some way or another.

And so, because Tony loved Steve more than he would ever have thought it possible to love someone, he pretended. He was good at pretending, having done it for most of his life for one reason or another – and quite often doing it on camera for the whole world to see. He knew perfectly well how to put on an act that was so sincere no one would know the truth behind the lie.

For Steve's sake, he had acted like he cared about getting the enormous tree for the lobby of Avengers Tower. He had even showed up for that tree-lighting ceremony, and he had smiled a lot, too. He had instructed JARVIS to play Christmas carols in the Tower a few times a day, and he had given – and received – his fair share of kisses when he got caught beneath the holographic mistletoe that JARVIS randomly displayed in various rooms.

But none of it meant anything. He was only going through the motions, just trying to make it to December 26th, when life could get back to normal.

So when he came back to the Tower on the evening of the 23rd, the last thing Tony expected, and the absolute last thing he wanted, was a Christmas party.

****

It was snowing outside, and bitterly cold. Tony walked into the Tower wearing a thick black coat over his suit. Snow was melting on the shoulders and lapels of the coat, and he knew he had it in his hair. In one gloved hand he carried a white bag from a bakery not far from here; picking something up from there was one of the few errands he never minded doing himself instead of having a secretary do it for him. He had been going to that bakery since he was a kid growing up in the mansion on Fifth that he liked to pretend he didn't now own. He had taken Steve there a few months after they began dating, strangely shy about it, hoping anxiously that Steve would like it. And Steve had, declaring that everything was delicious, talking to the employees like they were old friends, and giving Tony the rare feeling of pride and contentment that had nothing to do with himself and his own accomplishments.

So he had gone there on his way back from meeting with a group of conservation lobbyists at their four-star hotel all the way across town. The meeting had run late, and it hadn't gone well; they wanted more of the arc reactor technology for their green buildings than he was willing to give, ever mindful that it could become a weapon in the wrong hands. By the time one of them had looked at their watch and realized it was nearly past the dinner hour, Tony was hungry, tired, and well on his way toward being in a bad mood.

Stopping at the bakery had helped a little. He figured he would go upstairs and change into something more comfortable, then find Steve and together they could demolish the pastries that were even now cooling off in their little bag. Then later he would head down to his lab and work on his own projects for a bit with JARVIS, then go to bed, where he would shift around restlessly until Steve got the hint and those strong hands gave his aching shoulders a massage that eventually turned into incredible sex.

It was warm inside the Tower, and as he crossed the lobby, Tony took off his gloves and began to shrug out of his heavy winter coat. He clamped the bakery bag between his teeth so he would have both hands free, then stepped inside the elevator. With the bag obstructing his speech, as soon as he had one arm out of its sleeve, he reached out and keyed in the numbers for his private floor, where his bedroom awaited.

And from a speaker above him, JARVIS said smoothly, "I'm sorry, access to that floor is restricted."

Shocked, Tony opened his jaws and let the bakery bag drop. He caught it before it hit the ground and then just stood there, his coat still hanging off one arm, cold water trickling down his scalp from melting snow. "Seriously? Is that any way to greet your old man?"

In the single second of silence that fell, he could almost imagine the flurry of signals rushing through JARVIS's servers. "I am sorry, sir. Without your usual spoken command, I was unaware it was you. The elevators are on lockdown tonight due to the party, and guests have access to only the floor they need."

Now it was Tony's turn to feel a rush of unwelcome adrenaline. "Party? Guests? JARVIS, have you been conspiring behind my back?"

"I wouldn't exactly call it a conspiracy, sir," JARVIS said. "However there is indeed a party taking place within the penthouse. Sending visuals to you now."

One half of the elevator panel became transparent, turning into a screen. As Tony watched, an image appeared there, a live feed of what was happening some eighty floors up.

It was definitely a Christmas party. There was no sound to the image, but none was needed; he knew there was Christmas music playing. There were gaudily decorated Christmas trees and fake snow and lights everywhere, the penthouse of the Tower transformed into an honest-to-goodness winter wonderland. Facing one wall of windows was the longest buffet table Tony had seen in a long time, and two men in tuxedos were serving liquor from Tony's own bar.

Everyone seemed to be having a good time. Clint was dancing with a tall woman Tony vaguely remembered as being named Bobbi, or maybe Barbara, something like that. Carol and Rhodey were sitting together on one of the sofas, laughing at something Janet Van Dyne was saying. Natasha stood off to one side with Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson, her head bent so she could better hear what Sam was telling her. Thor and Jane Foster were cozied up on another chair, while Darcy was flirting with everyone, and looking good while doing it. Bruce and Pepper were talking while they made their way down the buffet line, and Johnny Storm stood at the bar, two glasses in his hand.

Tony stared at it all and felt a sense of doom closing in around him. "Yeah," he heard himself say, "that's definitely a party." He finally finished taking his coat off, and draped it across his free arm. The weight of it felt exactly like the rock that now sat in his stomach.

The elevator doors opened; he had been traveling upward without knowing it. His own floor was blissfully silent; no one was allowed here except himself and the other Avengers, and they would have no reason to come here tonight.

With a heavy sigh, Tony stepped out of the elevator. His plans for the night were now shot to hell, and he had to admit, if only to himself, that he was a little bit pissed off about it.

He had to go to the party, that much was obvious. If he didn't show, it would be a cause for speculation. He had started this whole charade at the start of December, and now he had to see it through. He had nobody but himself to blame for it, though, and he knew it. He had done such a good job of pretending that no one suspected how much he hated Christmas parties.

The worst part was, he thought as he walked down the hall toward his room, that he couldn't even claim that he hadn't known about the party. He had known – kind of. It was just that every time Steve or Rhodey or Sam started talking about Christmas, he tuned them all out, just nodding occasionally and making non-committal noises of agreement, like he was totally on board with whatever they were saying. And now that the day was finally here, he could remember at least two conversations where one of them had begun by saying, "Okay, so on the 23rd…" before he had stopped listening.

So he had known. Or rather, he should have known. And that sense of doom felt much closer now.

He set the bakery bag down on his dresser, then tossed his coat onto a nearby armchair. His tie shortly followed, but Tony didn't feel able to breathe properly again until he had also undone several buttons of his dress shirt. He was just starting to take off his suit coat when he heard footsteps approaching.

"Hey," said a voice from the doorway. "When did you get back?"

In spite of himself, Tony couldn't help smiling when he heard that voice. "Hey, Steve." He turned around.

Steve was wearing black dress pants and one of the most god-awful Christmas sweaters Tony had ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. Elves and reindeer cavorted together on the sweater, their bodies contorted in positions that he was pretty sure were anatomically impossible. Big snowflakes ringed the collar and wrists, adding to the general sense of chaos and horror.

All that was bad enough. Worse than the sweater, though, was the Santa hat perched rakishly on Steve's head. Just the sight of it made Tony's fingers itch to yank it off and throw it to the floor. He hated the thing on sight, an unreasoning hatred that he knew was mostly due to his irritable mood and his annoyance at his willful ignorance about the party.

But still. He hated it.

"How did the meeting go?" Steve asked. He came inside and gave Tony a quick kiss.

"About the same as they all go," Tony said shortly. He clasped his hands behind his back to keep from scooping the Santa hat off Steve's head.

Steve gave him a long look, not smiling anymore. For an awful moment Tony thought the game was up, and Steve was going to call him out on his attitude about Christmas. But all Steve said was, "Okay, come with me."

So it was time to pretend again. "Sure," he said lightly. Maybe if he was lucky Doombots would attack the city or something, and he could escape the party early. "Okay. Let's go."

Steve glanced around. "Did you want to…" He spied the bakery bag sitting on the dresser. "Oh."

"Yeah," Tony said. He summoned a smile, and was pleased by how normal it felt. "I stopped off on the way home."

Steve gazed at the bag for a long moment, then he looked back at Tony. Although he wasn't moving, he seemed full of restless energy, like he couldn't wait to break into action of some kind. "Did you want to change first?" he asked.

Tony shrugged. He figured he was already dressed for a fancy party; he'd have to button his shirt back up, which was fine, but there was no way he was going to put his tie back on. "I'm good. Let's just go." It came out sounding rather curt, though, and he made himself smile again. "Liking the hat, Cap. It's definitely you."

Steve smirked. "You think so?"

Valiantly fighting the urge to grab that stupid hat right off his head, Tony just nodded. "You bet. Now come on. The party awaits." He led the way out of his room and down the hall toward the elevator.

Steve followed close behind. When they got into the elevator, though, before Tony could say anything, Steve said, "My floor, please, JARVIS."

Surprised, Tony looked over at him. "We're not going to the party?"

"You'll see," Steve said. A smile curved his lips, and his eyes were full of bright promise. He was happy, Tony realized. Steve was happy on this night, and that meant he had better put on a good show, because he would do anything to make sure Steve stayed happy.

"JARVIS gave me a sneak peek on the way up," he said. "It looks like a good party. And I should know."

"It is," Steve said. "I can't take credit for most of it, but it's been a lot of fun so far."

The elevator stopped and Steve got out. With a light smile and a heavy heart, Tony followed Steve down the hall.

He was only somewhat surprised when Steve led him into the large room that the Avengers – only half-jokingly – called Steve's art studio. With its floor-to-ceiling windows, the room had plenty of light, and enough space for Steve to have set up half a dozen easels where his current projects were on display. A long, comfortable couch was set at one end of the room; opposite that was a small private kitchen, well-stocked with everything Steve liked to eat.

Right now all the lights were on, bathing the room in artificial light. In spite of all that brilliance, though, nothing outshone the Christmas tree in the corner.

The tree was six feet high, and Tony himself had helped Steve to decorate it. He hadn't particularly wanted to, but Steve had been so enthusiastic that it had been impossible to say no to him. In the end, it had taken them over seven hours to finish the job, because Tony had done his absolute best to distract Steve by kissing him in between hanging up ornaments, or deliberately bending over in a provocative way to pick up a new strand of lights. Twice during that long afternoon his strategy had even worked, and they had temporarily abandoned decorating the tree, and decorated each other instead. Despite the whole Christmas tree thing, Tony would always remember that day fondly, now that he knew what a very naked, very aroused Steve Rogers looked like with a candy cane hooked over his dick.

Thankfully though, the Christmas tree was the only concession to the holiday. Everything else in the room could have been the set up for a small, intimate dinner. Between two of the larger easels was a table covered by a white linen cloth and place settings for two. Tall white candles stood sentinel beside a pair of delicate champagne flutes. The champagne bottle itself was not on the table, but rather on a small rolling cart that had been placed strategically nearby. Even covered with another white linen cloth, Tony recognized it; usually Steve placed his pencils and paints on it as he worked. Tonight, though, it held only a silver bucket and a bottle of champagne.

"What is all this?" Tony asked in bewilderment. He stared at that bottle, studying the label for a long moment before reassuring himself that yes, it was alcohol-free.

"It's for you," Steve said. "For us." He smiled.

Tony stared at him. He still didn't get it. "But…why?"

"I wanted to do something for you," Steve said. "Something for just the two of us."

"And you thought you would do this on the night of the Avengers big Christmas party?" Tony asked. He felt small and ashamed then, because quite obviously Steve had known all along that he was only pretending to be in the Christmas spirit. Yet Steve hadn't called him out on it. Instead he had just been his usual thoughtful and considerate self, and quietly made his own plans.

"It seemed like a good time," Steve said. He was smiling again, the way he had in the elevator. Only this time there was something secretive about that smile. Like he knew something Tony did not.

Instantly Tony was suspicious. He looked around, trying to find the catch. It wasn't like Steve to be so sneaky, and the sight of that smile, combined with the obviously premeditated visit to the studio, set off all kinds of alarm bells in the back of his head.

Steve set the bag of pastries on the cart beside the champagne bucket, then took them out and began arranging them on the plates. "This is actually perfect," he said. "I'm glad you thought of it." He laid the empty bag off to one side, then gestured for Tony to sit.

Tony's first instinct was to bolt for the door. But since that was hardly an option, he looked around, trying one last time to spot the trap he had so blindly walked into, then sat down.

Steve opened the bottle of champagne with a lot more finesse than Tony would have expected from someone who didn't even really drink much. There was no loud pop, and no sudden rush of foamy bubbles all over the place. It was almost a letdown, actually.

"Where did you learn to do that?" he asked.

Steve lifted one shoulder in a self-deprecating shrug as he poured the champagne. "There's a how-to video out there for everything," he said.

Tony said nothing. He was ridiculously touched that Steve had researched the best way to open a bottle of champagne, and all for him.

One thing was for certain, he would have to put on an amazing act at the party upstairs. After all this, there was no way in hell he was going to ruin Steve's evening.

The champagne poured, Steve lit the candles next. He set the lighter aside, then walked over to the door and hit the light switches.

Every light went out at once, leaving the room illuminated solely by the candles and the Christmas tree in the corner. The large studio normally so full of light became a place of soft shadow then, making Tony feel like they were in a much smaller, more intimate room.

Steve looked over at him. He hesitated, then began walking back toward the table where Tony still sat.

Something in the way Steve was looking at him made Tony's heart start to race. A sudden, horrible suspicion bloomed in the back of his mind, and he froze in terror.

Steve walked right up to the table. Then he reached up and swept the Santa hat off his head and set it on the cart beside the champagne bucket. He gripped the hem of his hideous Christmas sweater and smoothly pulled it over his head.

Beneath the sweater, Steve had on a white dress shirt and tie. And that was when Tony knew for certain what was coming.

It was also right around the time that he forgot to breathe.

Steve took a deep breath. In one motion he reached into his pocket and went down to one knee.

Frozen in shock, Tony couldn't move. He could only stare.

Steve smiled, anxious and hopeful. He slid open the black velvet box that had been hiding inside his pocket all this time.

Candlelight reflected off the band nestled within the box. Titanium-gold alloy, of course, Tony would recognize that metal anywhere. It crossed his mind to wonder just how Steve had gotten hold of that scrap and where he had taken it to be fashioned into a ring. And then he forgot to think anything at all as Steve asked the question.

"Tony Stark, will you marry me?"

There was no way this was happening. Things like this didn't happen to him. This was the stuff of fairy tales, which he had stopped believing in even before he could read them for himself.

But it was happening, it was actually happening. Steve was down there on one knee, Steve was looking up at him with so much hope and love, and Tony knew right then and there that he would do anything to be allowed to love this man for the rest of his life.

"Yes," he breathed. "God yes, now get up, I can't, yes, just get up, get up," and he was shoving back from the table and standing up, unable to stay still a moment longer.

Grinning now, Steve shot up to his feet, and Tony rushed toward him. An instant later Steve was in his arms, and if this was a fairy tale, then Tony never wanted to rejoin reality ever again.

"I love you," Steve said. "God, I love you."

"Don't," Tony said, and he didn't know why he said it. "Just shut up and kiss me again, okay?" Before Steve could say anything else and possibly ruin the greatest moment of his life, he closed one hand over the back of Steve's neck and drew him down for a searing kiss.

Steve tasted like the buttered rum he had apparently been drinking before this, maybe trying to bolster his courage for what he had planned for tonight. The thought of him standing there alone amidst the bright cheer of the Christmas party going on right above their heads made Tony's heart clench up in sudden pain. It struck him then that when JARVIS had showed him the scene of the party, he hadn't seen Steve at all.

He lifted his head and stared into Steve's eyes. "You are amazing," he said. "And I love you. Also, you are the biggest dork in the world. Wearing a Santa hat to your proposal. What were you thinking?"

For a split second Steve looked almost wounded. Then he suddenly laughed. "I guess I wasn't," he admitted. "I kind of forgot I was even wearing it."

Tony reached up and smoothed back Steve's hair. "It's okay," he said. "I kind of like that you had hat head when you proposed."

"Well, you know me," Steve said dryly. "Always trying to keep up with the times."

It was unreal how much he loved this man, Tony thought. He held up a left hand that was trembling just a little. "Are you going to do the honors, or what?"

The ring was a perfect fit, as Tony had known it would be. The metal was cool against his skin. He stared down at it in wonder, needing a moment to collect himself.

"No one else knows," Steve said. "Except for Sam. I had to tell someone. Oh, and Pepper, because she knows your ring size."

Tony nodded. He felt stupidly close to tears.

"Are you okay?" Steve asked, anxious again. Probably wondering what he had done wrong.

In answer, Tony leaned in and kissed him again. "I love you," he said. "I don't know what I ever did to deserve you, but I'm damn glad I did it."

"Me too," Steve said. He wrapped both arms around Tony and hugged him close.

Tony wouldn't have had a problem standing there all night, just holding Steve and being held in return, but his eye fell on that damn Santa hat, reminding him of what else was happening tonight.

"So," he said. "Back to the party?"

"Whenever you're ready," Steve said. He let go of Tony with one arm so he could gesture to the glasses of champagne and the pastries that were probably cold by now. "But we could stay here for a little bit first."

If they did that, they wouldn't leave again until morning, Tony thought. And he had no issues with that, except he figured that Steve probably wanted to get back upstairs at some point.

Standing there with Steve's right arm still wrapped around him, he said, "We should probably go."

"Okay," Steve said.

"Just promise me one thing," Tony said.

"What's that?" Steve asked.

"Don't ever wear that sweater again." He gave the heap of horrible wool on the floor a dirty look.

"Hey," Steve protested. "I like that sweater."

"Steve, honey," Tony said, "I love you, but unless you say yes, I'm going to have to insist on drawing up a pre-nup banning you from wearing any more ugly Christmas sweaters. And I should warn you, I have an entire army of attorneys just waiting for me to give them the go-ahead." He pointed at the hat. "And by the way, it goes double for that thing."

Steve dropped his head as he chuckled. "Okay," he said. "You got me. No more Santa hats. But I reserve the right to wear not-ugly Christmas sweaters."

Tony thought it over. "Fine," he said. "As long as I get the final stamp of approval."

"Deal," Steve said. He pulled Tony in close and gave him a kiss.

It would be off to the party after this, but Tony found that he no longer minded. It might even be fun, he thought. He hadn't had an excuse to show off in ages. And it would be interesting to see who noticed the ring first. His money was on Natasha.

He looked up at Steve. "Ready?"

He wasn't lying anymore, he realized. He actually wanted to go. He wanted to make the rounds and talk to everyone, wish them a Merry Christmas and eat Christmas cookies with them. The holiday was no longer a chore to be gotten through as quickly as possible, or something to be endured until it was over.

He had Steve, and he could never want anything more.

Together they left the studio and took the elevator up several floors to the penthouse, where the Christmas party was still going strong. They stepped out into the music and lights, and instantly several people called out greetings, smiling to see them.

Tony smiled back.

No question about it. December was officially his favorite month.