His first year out of the ice, Steve Rogers spent Christmas on a SHIELD mission in Pakistan, and returned to New York just in time to discover that Tony Stark had gotten himself blown up by terrorists. By the time Tony turned up alive again (and saving the President's life while he was at it, as if all the giant explosions weren't enough excitement), it was way past the time to think about holidays. Steve didn't even really notice that he'd missed Christmas until after the New Year had passed.
By spring of next year, Steve was living in Washington DC, which he wasn't at all sure he liked. Sure, the Smithsonian was fascinating, and the cherry trees were amazing when they bloomed, and the metro (much as Steve hated to admit it) was newer and shinier than the New York City subway, but the move left him feeling even more lost and disconnected than before. It might've been bad in Brooklyn, seeing the old and the familiar crowding side-by-side with the alien and new, but not as bad as living in a city where the only things he recognized were things he'd seen in picture postcards. Natasha liked to insist that it was better that way, starting over from scratch in a place with no ties to the past -- "no baggage," as she put it -- but it was different for Natasha. She'd left her past behind on purpose, and didn't want it back. Steve couldn't make that kind of a clean break, even though he knew he should.
The other Avengers sent housewarming presents after he moved. A toaster oven from Clint, a set of enameled cookware from Natasha, a pair of hand-painted coffee mugs from Bruce. There was no word from Thor, but he was still on Asgard as far as anyone knew, and Steve wasn't sure he wanted to know what constituted a traditional Asgardian housewarming gift. He suspected it might involve livestock, which probably wouldn't go over well in the metropolitan DC area.
Tony Stark sent a Chagall. Not a poster or even a limited-edition print, but an actual original Chagall, Steve damn well knew the real thing when he saw it. It was delivered by messenger, and Steve peeled away the layers of cardboard and bubble wrap and then just stood there and boggled at it for a couple of minutes before fishing out his phone and dialing Tony's number.
"Hey, Cap, did you get it? Do you like it?"
"It's a Chagall, Tony."
"You don't sound pleased. Don't tell me it clashes with your couch or something. Do you want a different one? I have five more sitting in the attic. What's your color scheme?"
"The color scheme is not the issue."
"So what's the issue? You don't like it, right? Too modern art for you? Not wholesome enough for an American Icon?" There was an odd note to Tony's voice, as if he was forcing himself to be amused at his own quips. " Should I have looked for a nice Norman Rockwell instead?"
Steve looked down at the painting and sighed. It was a small still life, a wine glass and a stack of books on a sunlit table. The colors looked like stained glass.
"Of course I like it, it's gorgeous. But I can't accept something like that, it's much too--"
"Please don't finish that sentence."
"Come on, Tony, what am I supposed to do with a Chagall?:
"I believe hanging it on your wall is the traditional approach."
"You know some of us don't live in mansions, right?"
There was a long pause after that, during which Steve had plenty of time to remember that Tony Stark's mansion was now a pile of bombed-out rubble off the Malibu coast. He was trying to decide if this warranted an apology when Tony spoke again.
"Look, Cap, if you really don't want it, just say so and I'll take it back and send you a blender or something. Just be honest about it, okay? Take a deep breath, count to three, and tell me you'd rather have a blender."
Steve took a deep breath and counted to three. "Thank you for the painting, Tony, I love it."
"There, that wasn't so hard, was it? You're welcome, now run along and do something patriotic, I gotta go, bye."
"Bye," Steve said to the silent phone, and went to hang the Chagall in his bedroom next to the Smithsonian baby panda calendar.
Brooding alone at home was unhealthy, or so everyone told him, so Steve made an effort to get out and do things. He ran every morning. He volunteered at a local soup kitchen. He got a library card and a Smithsonian membership. He gave a talk to a group of World War II veterans, and another one to a Boy Scout troop. He visited Peggy at the rest home, and looked at pictures of her grandchildren, and held her hand when she cried to realize he was alive, over and over and over again. He reported all these activities to his SHIELD-appointed therapist, who seemed pleased with his progress.
"How are you settling in?" Natasha asked.
"Fine," Steve said.
Natasha gave him a narrow-eyed look, and tried to set him up with the new girl in Cryptography.
Tony, for reasons that no doubt made sense to him, took to sending him messages at random intervals. Music files, bad jokes, links to a website that posted pictures of people's pets dressed up as Avengers. Once, for an entire week, it was photos of Hong Kong, where Tony was supposedly attending a conference on clean energy. Once it was a list of restaurant recommendations for DC. Steve checked it out, curious to see what sort of restaurants a billionaire would recommend, and was surprised to find that none of them were fancy or expensive. There were a couple of Italian joints, a sushi place, and a bunch of diners, one of which claimed to serve ninety-nine different kinds of pie. The pie place was within walking distance of Steve's apartment, so he went out to try it, and the lemon meringue slice they gave him was bigger than his head. On impulse, Steve snapped a photo of it with his phone and sent it to Tony.
A minute later, he got back a picture of a glass filled with pale green, viscous-looking liquid, sitting on a pitted work surface next to a soldering iron and something that Steve thought might be a circuit board.
Mine looks better, he texted.
Yeah, Tony texted back, but I bet mine cost more.
It became something of a ritual after that -- every few days, one of them would send the other a photo of where they were and what they were doing. Steve quickly discovered that, week in Hong Kong notwithstanding, Tony didn't seem to get out much. Most of his photos were of his workshop, and displayed things that were probably very exciting and technologically advanced but looked mostly like random bits of metal and wire to Steve.
Don't you ever go outside? Steve texted once, and got a snapshot of Bryant Park twenty minutes later.
The Chagall kept making Steve stop and stare for a moment every time he walked into the bedroom, even after he'd had it for months. Part of him felt guilty for keeping something like that all to himself, but another, more selfish part, quietly gloated an having something so beautiful. Steve made vague notes to himself about contacting the National Gallery about loaning the painting for an exhibit., but never got around to following up on the idea. Sometimes, looking at the stained-glass colors and the perfectly balanced composition, he thought he should take up drawing again, but, like the museum exhibit,but the thought never seemed to make it into action.
The summer went by peacefully enough. Steve spent a lot of time outdoors, had Sunday brunch with Natasha during intervals between missions, and helped the soup kitchen renovate its dining space. It felt good to get out and keep busy, and Steve began to think that his therapist was right about his "encouraging progress."
He sent Tony a picture of himself whitewater kayaking on the Potomac, and got back a picture of Tony sprawled on a lounge chair next to an indoor swimming pool, holding a martini glass in one hand, and wearing a pair of red swimming trunks the size of a postage stamp. There was a towel draped around his neck, one end arranged to hide the spot on his chest where the arc reactor used to be.
Steve stared at the picture for a long time, wondering what (if anything) he was supposed to read into it. It was certainly nice to look at, but it also seemed oddly personal compared to most of Tony's photos, most of which didn't have Tony in it at all. In public, Tony's image was everywhere -- on magazine covers, TV screens, billboards, celebrity websites -- but in private, Tony seemed more interested in photographing his gadgets than himself. Steve had a folder on his computer with several dozen pictures of a cute but awkward contraption apparently named Dummy, but only a handful of shots of Tony himself. And those were all candids, usually taken in the workshop by Tony's AI. This new one was obviously posed, and obviously meant as a response to Steve's kayaking photo in some way that presumably made sense in Tony's head.
Steve was still trying to figure it out when Tony's follow-up text arrived.
Don't tell me, let me guess. You think yours looks better.
That, at least, Steve new how to respond to, even if he still wasn't entirely sure what they were talking about.
Damn right it does, he typed. But I’m sure yours cost more.
In November it rained. And rained. And then rained some more. The wettest autumn in fifty years, the newscasters said; Steve supposed he'd have to take their word for it.
He tried to keep up with his morning runs, but gave up after three days, and switched to doing pushups in the morning. Which was all well and good as far as keeping him in shape went, but didn't do much for his mood. Being stuck indoors all day made him restless and antsy, his mind endlessly buzzing with the nagging insistence that he should be doing something, though he didn't know what. It was a relief when Nick Fury sent him to Bogota to help extract a pair of field agents from an undercover mission gone bad. It rained in Bogota too, but at least he got to punch some people.
"Are you all right?" Natasha asked him in the helicopter on the way back. "You seemed a little unfocused back there."
"Got the job done, didn't I?" Steve snapped.
"That's not what I asked," Natasha said, but she didn't press him any further.
It wasn't until after he got back to his damp-smelling apartment that Steve realized he'd missed Thanksgiving.
I'm forgetting what the sun looks like, he complained to Tony, and was amused but not especially surprised to get back a high-res photo of the sun taken from space.
He thought that was the end of the exchange, but a minute later his phone buzzed again.
I have an island in the South Pacific, want to come? Guaranteed sunshine.
I, Steve typed, and then stopped and stared at the screen, because he honestly had no idea how to answer that. He wasn't even sure if it was a serious offer or just Tony fooling around. It was hard to tell these things, when dealing with a man who'd give a Chagall as a housewarming gift. Maybe for Tony, inviting someone to private island was no different than anyone else inviting a neighbor for dinner. Not that Steve had invited anyone over for dinner recently, but he was pretty sure people still did that sort of thing in the twenty-first century.
He was still trying to come up with an answer when his phone rang.
"Hey. You didn't answer. Did I just make things weird?"
"No weirder than usual," Steve assured him. "Do you really have an island?"
"I think I have several, actually. It's hard to keep track of these things. But there's definitely at least one, and it's near Fiji. Are you interested?"
All right, so it was a serious offer.
"I can't just take off for Fiji at a moment's notice, Tony."
"Why not? Don't tell me SHIELD doesn't give you vacation time."
"That's not the issue." Steve looked out at the steady grey drizzle outside his window and fought down a sigh. If he was honest with himself, Fiji sounded pretty tempting, and spending some time with Tony in person sounded even more tempting. There would be a beach, and Tony might wear that tiny red swimsuit from his poolside photo... Steve shook his head to dispel the mental image, and sternly reminded himself to be sensible. He had a strong suspicion that if he said yes now, he'd find himself a few months down the line, fighting to turn down a Beverly Hills mansion or a gold-plated yacht. "Look, how about if the next time you're in DC or I'm in New York, we get together like norm-- like regular people? I know you like grand gestures, but…"
"Not your style?" Tony prompted after a few moments.
"Right," Steve said. "Not my style."
"All right, Eeyore," Tony drawled, and Steve got a vivid mental image of him smirking and rolling his eyes. "Let me know if you change your mind, and I'll send a jet."
"I won't change my mind," Steve said, "but thank you for the offer."
Over the next couple of weeks, as November turned to December and constant rain turned to constant slush, Steve sometimes wished he could've taken up Tony up on his offer. DC made an effort to doll up for Christmas, with a nice tree in front of the Capitol and festive decorations all along the Mall, but it was hard to get into the holiday spirit when the icy gray slush clung to everything, dampening the colors and making the ribboned garlands droop. Steve couldn't even bring himself to respond to Tony's photo of the enormous Christmas tree in the Stark Tower lobby, all decked out in Avengers-themed ornaments. There was no tree in his apartment; he'd have to go outside in order to get one, and he was avoiding the outside at all costs.
He felt guiltily relieved when Natasha disappeared on a solo mission Fury wouldn't talk about, because it meant she wasn't around to try and nudge him into being social for the holidays. Steve didn't feel social. He felt cold and miserable and permanently tired, even though he went for days at a time without doing anything that could actually justify the tiredness. Sometimes he wished he could just stay in bed and hibernate for the rest of the winter, but he supposed SHIELD would get antsy if he didn't check in from time to time.
He was stretched out on his living room couch, reading the same page over and over without absorbing a single word, when his doorbell buzzed. The sound was enough to snap Steve out of his stupor and into something approaching full alertness; the only person who ever showed up at his door unannounced was Natasha, and she was still out of the country as far as he knew.
"Who is it?" He called out as he reached across for his shield. Not that anyone who meant harm was likely to replyu. Then again, anyone who meant harm wouldn't have rung the doorbell.
"Strip-o-gram!" a familiar voice announced from the other side of the door, and Steve stopped mid-reach.
"Tony?" He got up from the couch and went over to look through the peep hole in the door. Sure enough, that was Tony Stark standing in the hallway. Wearing a tuxedo.
"Are you going to let me in or what? It's raining out."
"You're indoors," Steve pointed out, but he did open the door and stepped aside so Tony could come in. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
"I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd drop in," Tony told him cheerfully. Despite the downpour outside, he had only a few drops of water in his hair and a couple of damp spots on this jacket. Steve wondered if he had a limo waiting right outside the front door. "Figured I'd wish you a merry Christmas in person." He glanced around the room with a faint frown. "You do remember it's Christmas Eve, right?"
"Yes." Steve decided not to mention that he'd forgotten until this morning. It was kind of embarrassing to lose track of Christmas two years in a row, and this year he didn't even have Pakistan as an excuse. "That still doesn't explain you showing up on my doorstep in a monkey suit."
"I was at a party," Tony said. Which at least explained the tuxedo. "And it was the most boring party ever. I only went because I'd promised my CEO I'd schmooze some congress people about the new clean energy bill, and I did, I schmoozed like a champ, but there's only so much idiocy I can handle in one night. So I asked myself, is there anyone in DC I would actually enjoy spending Christmas Eve with? And here I am."
"Here you are," Steve agreed. "What would you have done if I wasn't home?"
"Gone back to New York, I guess." Tony shrugged. "Or found another party, but that's a depressing thought. You're not planning a party, are you? I don't see any party decorations. Or a tree." He turned in a circle, taking in the unfestive state of Steve's tiny apartment. "Or much of anything, really. "
"There's a Chagall in the bedroom," Steve said.
"Chagall, yes, Christmas tree, no." Tony gave Steve a narrow-eyed look. "Okay, Cap, out with it. What's wrong? Did the Grinch steal your Christmas?"
"I don't know that reference," Steve said. "And nothing's wrong. I just wanted a quiet holiday at home, that's all."
"Uh-huh." Tony managed to convey an amazing degree of skepticism with just a grunt and a tiny quirk of his left eyebrow. "You know, there's a difference between having a quiet holiday and sitting alone in an apartment that looks like a barrack, reading--" he looked down at the novel Steve had abandoned on the couch -- "Kurt Vonnegut. Seriously, you look like you're having a worse time than I had last year, and that was the year I lost my house, had open-heart surgery and broke up with my girlfriend. It's tragic. Captain America should not look like that on Christmas Eve."
"Look who's talking." Steve rolled his eyes. "The guy who spent the past year sitting in his basement drinking green goo."
"Yes you did, I have pictures. And now you've ducked out on a fancy party to come here and insult my interior decorating, which is apparently your idea of a good holiday time. I don't think you have much room to criticize."
Tony stared at him for a few seconds, long enough for Steve to wonder if he was actually upset at the teasing, then grinned and smacked Steve on the shoulder. "See, I knew I was right to come here. This is the best conversation I've had all night."
"That's tragic," Steve said. Tony just kept grinning.
"Fine, we'll be tragic together. Do you like Chinese?" He had his cell phone out before Steve could answer, pulling up menus on the little screen. "Here, this place is good. You want potstickers?"
Now that he'd mentioned it, Chinese sounded a lot better than the leftover pizza in Steve's fridge. "Are they going to deliver on Christmas Eve?"
"Not an issue." Tony tapped another button on the screen. "Hey, Happy, I'm about to send you a food order. Pick it up, then take the rest of the night off."
"Got it, boss," a cheerful voice replied.
Twenty minutes later, Steve's coffee table was groaning under the weight of enough food to feed an army, and Tony was plugging a flash drive into Steve's TV so that they could watch Die Hard which, according to Tony, was definitely a Christmas movie. Steve thought that was stretching the definition a bit, but he'd liked the movie well enough the last time he saw it, and had no objection to seeing it again, especially when he had a bucket of Kung-Pao chicken in front of him and Tony Stark was sprawled on his couch, bow tie undone, eating potstickers from the carton with his fingers. The couch was big enough to let them both have plenty of personal space, but Tony was sitting close enough for their shoulders to touch, and for Tony's knee to bump Steve's whenever he leaned forward to grab a spring roll from the table.
Tony looked good, Steve thought. The tux made him look like a Hollywood star from Steve's era, Gable or Powell maybe. And yet, he didn't seem at all out of place eating take-out on Steve's shabby couch. Steve found him a lot more fascinating to watch than the movie, but he didn't want to be caught staring, so he kept his eyes fixed on the screen and only tilted his head occasionally to catch a glimpse of Tony at the edge of his peripheral vision.
He thought he was being pretty subtle about it, but apparently he was wrong, because John McClaine had just dropped a body out of a skyscraper onto a police car when Tony abruptly turned toward Steve and blurted out ,"Okay, what?"
"Uhm." Steve blinked. "Can you clarify the question?"
"You've been side-eyeing me ever since we sit down. Do I have something in my teeth? Is my hair bad? What's the deal?"
"I'm not side-eyeing you," Steve said, "I'm just wondering why you're really here, that's all."
"I told you." Tony let out a long-suffering and entirely unconvincing sigh. "I was in the--"
"In the neighborhood, yes, you told me." Steve shook his head. "For future reference, when you want somebody to believe you dropped by on impulse, don't show up with a pre-selected movie and a local take-out menu loaded onto your phone."
It was actually kind of funny, watching Tony open his mouth and close it again, over and over, as he discarded whatever excuses he was trying to come up with.
"Fine," he muttered finally, "you got me, I planned this. Sorry?"
"I don't mind," Steve said. "I just don't understand why you didn't simply call and come over like people normally do."
"Oh really?" Tony did that skeptical thing with his eyebrow again. "And how many people have been calling you and coming over lately?"
"That's not the point," Steve said.
Tony glared at him. "That's exactly the point. I was worried about you, and I thought that if I called first you'd blow me off."
"Worried?" Steve tried to remember if he'd done anything particularly public and worrisome lately, but couldn't think of a thing. "Why would you be worried about me?"
"You haven't sent me a ridiculous selfie in weeks." Tony sounded genuinely affronted by this. "You haven't answered your e-mail, or your texts. SHIELD has no record of you being out on a mission, yet you didn't seem to be anywhere else either. I called Romanoff, and she--"
"You called Natasha?" Steve gaped at him. "I thought she was out of the country on a mission."
"She is." Tony looked pleased with himself. "I had to hack SHIELD comms for the third time this month. Fury really should start paying me an extra consulting fee for finding all his security holes. Anyhow, I called Romanoff, and once she finished teaching me some very exciting new Russian swear words, she said that she wasn't your nanny and that if I wanted to know what's going on with you, I should damn well find out for myself."
"And you decided that was your cue to put on a tux and come over?"
"Yep." Tony nodded. "I wasn't lying about the shitty party, though. It really did suck. This is a lot more fun." He waved his arm in the general direction of the TV and the food, then gave Steve an anxious look. "You are having fun, aren't you?"
Steve let out a soft laugh. "Yes, Tony, I'm having fun."
It was true, too. He hadn't wanted company before, or at least hadn't thought he wanted it, but now that company was here -- now that Tony was here -- it was amazing how much better he felt.
"Great!" Tony said, and actually did a little victory fist pump, as if cheering up Steve had been a major goal in his life. "Okay, let's watch the rest of the movie, it's just getting to the good parts."
The good parts involved a lot of shoot-outs and explosions. Steve was just starting to really get into it when Tony let out an exaggerated yawn, raised his arms to stretch, and then oh-so-casually let them fall again so that his right arm stretched across the back of the couch, almost but not quite draped around Steve's shoulders. It was so blatant that Steve had to bite his lip to keep from laughing.
"Was that supposed to be subtle?"
"…No?" Tony looked uncertain. "Subtle isn't really my thing, to be honest."
"I've noticed," Steve said dryly.
"Okay. Sorry." Tony edged away a little and started to pull his arm back, but Steve grabbed his wrist and pulled it back into place.
"It's all right, I don't mind."
"Uhm." Tony still looked uncertain. "Is that 'I don't mind' as in 'I'm willing to tolerate it,' or 'I don't mind' as in 'I actually like it?' "
"What do you think?" Steve asked, and leaned in to kiss him.
He wasn't at all surprised to discover that Tony Stark was an excellent kisser. Not that Steve had a wide basis for comparison, but he knew how appreciate sincere enthusiasm, and Tony was very, very enthusiastic. And he smelled good, and his hands were warm on Steve's face, and his hair was soft beneath Steve's fingers. The kiss lingered much longer than Steve was expecting but that was fine, it was more than fine, really, why hadn't they done this sooner, Tony didn't have to wait until Christmas to come over…
"Wow," Tony breathed when they finally pulled back. His eyes were unfocused, and his face was slightly flushed. Steve couldn't stop staring at his mouth. "That went even better than I expected."
"Was that part your plan?" Steve asked. "Along with the dinner and the movie?"
"Not… really." Tony sounded a little breathless. Steve knew exactly how he felt. "I mean, sure, a man can dream, and you did send me that awesome selfie in the wet t-shirt--"
"I did?" Steve tried to remember all the photos he'd sent Tony in the past year. It was hard to focus, what with the way Tony kept licking his lower lip. "You mean that kayaking picture?"
"Is that what it was? My brain didn't process much beyond 'wet t-shirt' and 'pectoral muscles the size of a football field'. The point is, I can't say I haven't thought about it. But I came here to stage an intervention, and interventions, in my experience, don't usually lead to makeouts. Clearly, everyone I know has been doing it wrong."
"I don't think I needed an intervention," Steve said. "I was just sulking, that's all. "
"And now you're not."
"And now I'm not," Steve said, and kissed him again.
"So," Tony said when they came up for air again a few minutes later, "Does this mean you're willing to reconsider Fiji?"