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Cold Making Warmth

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Steve doesn't really know the protocol for this kind of thing – it's not as if the team stands around between battling evil and discusses religion, or religious traditions, or traditions of any kind (save Thor bellowing with laughter when he smacks evil in the face with his hammer, a tradition everyone can get behind). The world beyond SHIELD and the mansion and Stark Tower is no help at all – if Steve were to judge what's proper by the window displays on Fifth Avenue and the commercials on TV and the lights on every street corner, he'd assume everyone celebrates Christmas in 2012. But he knows that's not true – there are synagogues and temples all over the city, a tiny shrine in one of his favorite Chinese restaurants; he's seen monks in orange robes and been accosted by an earnest woman in Central Park who gave him a pamphlet about loving trees. The whole thing is confusing, and he wishes there were a report he could read, something that explains what's okay and what's not. In its absence, he settles upon the few things he knows for sure: that the days are short, and it's cold, and he doesn't mind looking dumb for making the effort. So screw the protocol, whether it exists or not – he's giving gifts; he'll make it random, a celebration of December if anyone asks, and he'll make sure Santa doesn't show up on the wrapping paper.

He buys Clint's first – a Koosh-ball dartboard, since Tony's decreed that no one (but him) can hurl sharp projectiles in the house. Steve figures it'll provide the requisite 'launch things at other things' entertainment that Clint's been lacking, as well as expand his aim and fire skill-set, and if he can't quite meet Clint's eye when Clint opens the gift and asks "are you mocking me, Rogers?" he can't hide his grin when he hears "KING OF KOOSH" waft up from the first-floor living room ten minutes later.

(Steve leaves a second gift in a bag he hooks over the handle of Clint's bedroom door. It's a blanket made from the softest material Steve's ever touched, and the feel of it against his fingers made something ache deep inside. Steve knows a little about how Clint grew up, has a feeling Clint knows something about those kinds of aches – loss and isolation and comfort postponed – so he buys it, and has the guy in the store wrap it in muted colors, and leaves it with a tag that doesn't explain anything, since Steve's not sure he could. Clint doesn't mention it that night, just comes into the kitchen the next morning and punches Steve in the arm, so Steve knows he liked it.)

It takes a while to find Natasha's gift, to track down exactly the right bone-thin china, strong enough to carry a dozen unspoken stories. Steve grows familiar with antiques stores across the city, learns where he's welcome, and who'll help, who'll freeze him out with an eyebrow raised for reasons that are never easy to understand. It takes almost three weeks to track it down, a tea set in white and blue, limned with gold – nothing anyone would imagine Black Widow would want or need. But this isn't about the figure she cuts when she's dangerous and armed – it's about survival, stillness, history cupped by slow-warmed hands. Steve lingers in McNulty's, buys three pounds of Black Russian tea and a handful of others – Darjeeling, Assam, Pi Lo Chun – enjoys the faint smoke-scent that clings to his skin. He finds a carpenter in Brooklyn, sketches out a design for the box he imagines with a thick, cushioned lining and quick, tight locks. It's not impossible to imagine circumstances where they'll grab what they can, leave the city quickly to realize some other aim, and he'll make it as hard as he can for her to leave this behind.

(She touches each cup with the tip of one finger, and Steve's never seen such an expression of wonder on her face before.)

Coulson's easy – an industrial-grade set of frosting tips, piping bags, and bakeware. Steve's heard about the flour incident; he's personally witnessed Coulson take down an assassin with a bag of brown sugar and a perfectly aimed tube of parchment paper, still in the box. Steve reasons that necessity has to be the mother of this invention, that Coulson's readiest defense has been baking powder and nonpareils one too many times, and while he'd like to provide him with a life where assassins don't try to take him down while he's crafting a meringue, he can at least upgrade his cookie sheets in the interim.

(The bath bombs are a complete accident. No one called anything a bomb that wasn't a bomb back in the day, and the idea that a store was offering munitions for sale where children could access them was more than Steve could stand. Admittedly, in retrospect, the store did smell wildly of flowers and spices and coconut oil, a radical departure from the usual scent of weaponry, but it's not like Steve can be blamed for being confused. He buys two bath bombs to make up for the commotion, figures no one needs a long, hot soak like Coulson does, and it's worth it for the look on Tony's face when Coulson shows up to work a week later covered with a fine sheen of glitter.

"I . . . ?" Tony manages.

"Didn't get a chance to shower after my night shift at Miss Kitty's Swinging House of Pole," Coulson says.

Tony chokes.)

Thor gets a pony, except it's not a pony, and it's on a trial basis at first. With Darcy's help, Steve finds a rescue stable in New Jersey and takes a clandestine day-trip to scout the place, to peer in the stalls and walk the trails. He might not know much about horses, but he's a good judge of people, and the owners are smart and decent and kind. They help him pick out Clifford, a chestnut gelding who's taller than Steve by more than he wants to think about, who likes to be outside, and who seems like a horse who could carry a god. Steve works out a year's worth of feed and care and the cost of mucking out the stall, pays up front with an agreement to buy the horse if he and Thor are well matched. It's a nerve-wrecking proposition to try and predict how man and horse will get along, but he hadn't counted on the All Speak, or the lengthy conversation Clifford has with Thor, or the way Thor bows to the horse and says, "I am honored that you would select me," before clapping Steve on the back. "He is a mighty steed!" Thor tells him, and Steve grins, and then Thor's asking Clifford the kind of bridle he prefers, and whether a cloak would disturb him, and this is Steve's life.

(Steve has Tony hack Darcy's laptop and retrieve her playlist. Whenever her favorite bands are in town, two tickets mysteriously show up in her inter-office mail. She never figures it out.)

When it comes down to it, it's a bad idea to give Bruce things that are breakable, that involve competition, or that elicit strong, negative feelings, which – given Bruce's propensity toward hair-trigger guilt – means almost every movie, theater experience, song, or household object imaginable. Steve's reduced to the prospect of buying the man socks when he realizes that what Bruce needs more than anything is friendship. He feels a little stupid for not thinking of it sooner, spends an afternoon on the roof thinking of things they could do together that don't involve wrangling sentient, evil garbage cans or criminally unethical Californians, settles on a meditation retreat that he books via iPhone as dusk begins to fall. The whole thing's very businesslike – nothing Steve can show Bruce, particularly, save an electronic receipt – so instead he holes up in his room for the evening, pulls out the good paper, his favorite drafting pencils, and hand-draws a gift certificate that tells Bruce the where and the when. In the spot where a store would add all the fine print that itemizes the ways the gift can't be used, Steve adds his own line of text – I'm coming, too; if anything happens, I'll be there.

(Bruce looks at the certificate, then at his feet, looks up almost bashfully. "Thank you," he says, and he laughs a little, shakes his head as if he's having trouble taking everything in, then wanders off to his lab, tapping the paper against his thigh.)

Steve gives Fury his gift toward the end of December, right after a briefing, the chaos of the previous day's assignment still a live charge in the air. Fury doesn't say a word, just rips the plain brown paper from the package and looks the thing over in his own good time. Steve refuses to be cowed, to second-guess himself even when Fury looks up, his expression the usual, day-to-day variety of menacing. "Elvis," Fury says. "Painted on velvet." And then he cracks into a grin, begins to laugh, sits down in his chair and cackles delightedly.

"Can you read minds?" Tony asks as they leave, tugging on Steve's sleeve as if he needs to get his attention. "That's it, isn't it? You can read minds. That's the only explanation."

Steve looks at him, schools his expression to be perfectly bland. "Yes. We need lube. Sure, both ways, why not."

Tony startles in shock, points a finger at him. "How did you know that was what I was thinking?" he hisses, looking up and down the corridor.

Steve snorts and keeps walking, Tony spluttering in his wake.


It snows on Christmas Eve, and Steve wakes Christmas morning to a luminous quiet. Tony's sprawled across him – no matter how they fall asleep, no matter how they arrange themselves in the night, this is how they wake, with Tony's head on Steve's shoulder and Steve's arm snug around his waist – breathing slowly, deeply asleep. Steve hums contentedly, shifts just enough to be able to sweep his hand down the length of Tony's spine, and turns his face to press a kiss into Tony's sleep-mussed hair.

Darcy had asked him – Bruce, too – if there was something he needed, some gift he'd been wishing for that they could supply. But Steve's happy, has everything he's ever wanted – people to care for; others who care about him. His heart still twists when he thinks of Peggy, when he dreams about catching Bucky's hand before he fell, but that ache's not accompanied by fear anymore, by the awful suspicion that it's his lot to be alone. Howard rescued him from the ice, years after his death; SHIELD pulled him from his sleep, offered him purpose, if not peace. But it's his team who steadies him, their lives meshed with his until he can't imagine how things could be different, that there was ever any possibility of anything but this, any chance that he wasn't meant for 2012 with these allies, these friends, this man.

Tony snuffles against him.

Steve smiles. "It's Christmas," he murmurs. "You should wake up."

Tony grumbles and burrows in closer against him, flapping a hand against the mattress.

"Tony," Steve chides, grinning. "Come on. You know you're awake."

"Nnnnnnnngh," Tony whines. "Not."

"Are too," Steve says, carding his fingers through Tony's hair. "There are presents."

Tony lifts his head, blinks at him, considering. "Presents?"

"Mmmmhmmm." Steve nods toward the fireplace. "Stocking. Look."

Tony closes one eye and keeps peering at Steve, then twists to look over his shoulder. "Huh. You got me a stocking?"

"I realize you're probably more familiar with the silk kind, the kind in pairs, usually on some dame's . . . "

"Shuddup," Tony grumbles, and pushes himself up, leverages himself clumsily out of bed to retrieve the stocking, stumbles back. He sits cross-legged on top of the blankets, scrubbing at his face with one hand while he empties the contents of the stocking onto the bed. He looks at the pile of presents, at the stocking, then at Steve. "No coal?" he asks.

"Hey – "

"Kidding, kidding," Tony mumbles, and paws through the pile. "Orange." He sniffs it. "That's cute. What are – nuts?" He shakes the mesh bag, studying it intently. "Walnuts. You got me walnuts." He blinks at them, sets them down. "Wrapped stuff, there's – I need – " Tony flexes his fingers, as if to remind himself he's dexterous, and rips into a thin, flat package, shaking the contents onto the bed. ". . . handkerchiefs?" he asks, picking one up.

Steve grins, pleased with himself. "What do you get the man who has everything?"

Tony laughs, picks up another gift and rips it open. "A jar of ink. What the hell is – wait . . . " More ripping of paper. "A real pen. You bought me a jar of ink and a real pen. What does a person even do with – "

"Write thank you notes?" Steve offers.

Tony narrows his eyes. "Sure, you look innocent," he says, waving a hand at Steve. "But I know you're laughing at me."

"Maybe a little," Steve agrees, grinning helplessly.

Tony opens the rest of his packages – penny candy, a wooden yo-yo, a tiny game of checkers that would fit in someone's pocket – and when he's done, he climbs over everything, crawls up the bed, pauses over Steve, balanced on all fours. "You," he says, "are – I." He grimaces, blows out a breath. "I never had a stocking," he confesses.

"Never had me, before," Steve says, reaching up to run his hands down Tony's sides.

Tony shivers. "True, true, and you are quite – " He leans in and kisses him. "Something." He kisses him again. "Merry Christmas to me," he breathes against Steve's lips, laughing quietly when Steve pulls him down so they're pressed together, so that the kisses can spin out longer, become more promising. "Um," he manages, pulling away just enough to paw at the sheets still tangled around Steve's waist. "I built you a new motorbike?"

Steve flips Tony over, drags the sheets from between them, rocks his hips down and makes Tony swear. "Thank you," he confesses to the damp skin below Tony's ear, kissing a path to lick at his jaw.

Tony groans, and hooks a knee around Steve's thigh. "Yes, yes, as I said, Merry Christmas, now can we get on with the – "

And Steve laughs against his temple, finds the gentle curve of Tony's mouth, loses himself in the act of being found, being touched, being held together, until Tony coaxes him to fly apart.