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Warm on the Inside

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Tony Stark woke up cold.

This wasn’t altogether unusual; of the three people who usually slept in his bed, he was both the one with the lowest average body temperature and the one most likely to oversleep. He was used to waking up chilly at nine or even ten in the morning some days, depending on how many hours he’d been awake the day before, to find that his lovers had been up since six to go running in Central Park or wherever their chosen route for the day happened to be. And honestly, most days Tony didn’t mind waking up last, because it meant that one or the other of his boyfriends would have the coffee already brewed in the kitchen by the time he trudged out to kiss them good morning.

Today, though, he felt the chill of being alone in a way he usually didn’t. It was disappointing, though Tony immediately chided himself for having expectations in the first place. His pervasive good mood this holiday season should have registered as the outlier, not this abrupt discomfort. It was just that he’d been having such a good week, with just the right balance of work and Avenging and kisses that tasted like spiced cider—

Oh. The registered ambient temperature of the room was eight degrees too low where it was projected on the wall. So Tony was literally cold. That was surprisingly reassuring, though the confusion made him wish for caffeine a little more strongly.

“JARVIS, what’s up with the thermostat in here?” Tony wondered as he stumbled into the bathroom and reached for his toothbrush. Minty morning kisses were some of the nicest, in his humble opinion, fresh and cool and just a little sweet. They did make the first cup of coffee taste awful, but sometimes, sacrifices were necessary in the name of starting the day right.

“I am endeavoring to diagnose the problem now, Sir,” JARVIS replied, sounding ever so slightly frustrated. “So far I have not been able to isolate any problems in the penthouse wiring or computer systems.”

“’ell, suhthin’s up,” Tony said around his toothbrush. “’s cold.”

“Indeed, Sir,” said JARVIS. “I am still troubleshooting. However, you may find that the rest of the penthouse has been less affected by this issue, and will be quite comfortable once you are fully dressed. Perhaps a sweater, Sir?”

Tony spat into the sink and made a face.

“Do I strike you as the sweater-wearing sort, J?”

“I believe you’ll find that the sweater in your drawer is the product of Sergeant Barnes’ attempts at therapeutic crochet, Sir.”

“I am indeed the sweater-wearing sort,” Tony said, and he shrugged into the thick wool layer. It had a big star on the front that would be liable to provoke possessive feelings from both of his boyfriends; on further reflection, Tony decided it would’ve been worth wearing for that alone. By the time he was dressed and cleaned up for the day, he had almost forgotten the cold when he’d woken up, and he was feeling… actually pretty good.

Well, he still knew precisely how long it would take him to get to the nearest liquor store, but the urge to actually go there wasn’t nearly as strong as it usually was, this time of year.

Tony shook himself and headed out to the penthouse kitchen, hoping a good cup of coffee or four would clear his head properly and get him ready for the day. He had a few armor repairs to take care of, he remembered, and then there was something else he was supposed to do—with his boyfriends, or the team maybe? Something that had to be done today, while he had free time, he was sure, though he couldn’t put his finger on it. God, he hoped it wasn’t too important.

“Good morning, Tony,” Steve said, pulling back from where he’d been kissing Bucky lazily at the counter. “You ready to start cooking?”

“So that’s what it was,” Tony said to himself. He remembered now; he’d promised to contribute to the preparations for the team’s group dinner—not an actual Christmas dinner, because that would just be tempting fate, but it was the spirit of the thing that counted. It was important, and he should’ve remembered. Ugh, this was why he needed coffee in the morning, he thought as he poured. “No, no, definitely not.”

“But you said you’d help,” Steve said.

“I said I’d help,” Tony agreed. “I never said I’d give you all food poisoning, and you know that’s what’d happen if I actually cooked. Hey, what’s up with this coffee?”

“I made it just the way you showed me to, and JARVIS confirmed,” Bucky said. “Has it gone bad or something?”

“No, not bad.” Tony frowned. “It just feels… wrong. I don’t know if I can drink it.”

“Mark your calendars,” Bucky said with a smirk, but there was something off about it, and Tony couldn’t put his finger on that either. Clearly he hadn’t had enough caffeine. He took another sip, and still it failed to taste like the lifeblood it normally was to him. Instead, he felt sort of… wistful, if he could call it that.

“I think I want something else,” he said. He wouldn’t worry about it on a morning that had started as nicely as the sight of his two boyfriends kissing each other, so he lowered his lashes and waggled his eyebrows. “Either of you two want to be something else?”

“Sure, Tony,” Steve said indulgently, and pulled him in for a deep kiss. He tasted like toothpaste, too, and like himself, and like Bucky, which was one of Tony’s favorite combinations. It was no caffeine, but the way it brought Tony gently to full alertness was almost better.

Then Tony turned to give Bucky a kiss too, and Bucky froze under his lips so suddenly and so completely that it was like kissing a statue.

“What’s wrong?” Tony asked, pulling back to get a good look at Bucky’s face, but he wouldn’t meet Tony’s eyes.

“You don’t remember?”

“What don’t I remember?”

Bucky growled and turned further away so that Tony couldn’t see his expression any longer. Had something happened in the night? It had to be pretty awful for Bucky to be closing himself off like this again.

“You had a nightmare last night,” Steve told Tony softly, as though that could keep Bucky from hearing it at all. “He tried to help, but it was, you know…”

“My parents,” Tony finished. He sighed deeply, not surprised it had happened only a few days after the anniversary, but very, very glad he couldn’t remember it. “James Buchanan Barnes, you look right here,” he demanded, and Bucky did, reluctantly. “I’ve told you a thousand times, we’re good, you’re good, it’s already forgotten and I love you. Now c’mere and let me kiss you proper, okay?”

“Obviously it’s not forgotten,” Bucky snapped. “You say everything’s okay between us but those nightmares are your subconscious, the part you can’t control, and I’m not an idiot, okay? I know that I make them worse for you. I remind you of what happened.”

“Bucky—“

“I don’t think I should stay in bed with you tonight.”

“Buck, don’t you think you should think about this a little more,” Steve interjected, putting one hand on each of their shoulders in a calming sort of way. It worked, surprisingly; Bucky’s breaths started to come more slowly and evenly, and the feeling of helplessness in Tony’s chest started to recede.

“I just…” Bucky said quietly, his icy eyes shuttered, “I can’t bear to see you hurting ‘cause of me.”

“I love you,” was all Tony could say in reply, and Bucky’s expression sharpened.

“Don’t you dare think for a second that I don’t love you just as much, Tony,” he insisted. “If I did sleep on the couch, it would only be to keep you safe, sweetheart. I know how much I hurt you in the past. And shut up, Steve, I know it wasn’t my fault, but it was my hands. I know it, and you know it, and Tony’s subconscious sure as hell knows it.” Bucky walked out before they could answer, visibly tense all along his spine. It had been a long while since Bucky had had a day this bad.

“This is more serious than I thought,” Tony said as the elevator closed.

“Don’t worry about it,” Steve said gently, kissing him again. “We’ll get him to come around, you’ll see. How about you go down and do those repairs you were talking about and join us in the communal kitchen when you’re ready?”

The unease loosened in Tony’s mind, and he nodded. All three of them had bad days, all the time, and they always made it through. They’d be fine.

 

*

 

Work in the lab went better than Tony was expecting it to. The last time they’d gone out to fight, Tony had swooped in to take a hit for Bucky, and it had felt like a hell of a collision right in the chest plating, but now that he saw the damage under the impartial lab lights, it didn't look so bad. Adrenaline and fear had probably been a good forty percent of the impact he’d felt. Tony spent an hour or so painstakingly rewiring the places that needed it, and then moved on to mindlessly banging out the dents in the plating.

While he worked, Tony was surrounded by the quiet whirring sounds of his bots, as Butterfingers and You eagerly polished every scrap of metal Tony had finished straightening, and Dummy—getting into the holiday spirit—had developed a new flavor of smoothie that seemed to be about half chocolate.

The other half was still motor oil, but it was the spirit of the thing, Tony figured. He gave Dummy an affectionate pat to the claw and tried to dump out the concoction as surreptitiously as possible.

Still, the smell of chocolate and motor oil lingered as Tony picked up his hammer again. If he were one to analyze such things—and he definitely wasn’t—he might’ve guessed that what he felt then was some combination of sense memory and the nightmare he had the night before, but it wasn’t a nightmare. It was about the furthest possible thing from one, in fact; it was one of the few truly happy memories Tony had from when he was young.

Tesoro,” his mother had called him, when he was barely old enough to come up to her knee but already old enough to understand engines. She’d set him on the counter and let him watch while she made cioccolata calda the way her own Mamma had, and it had been thick and bittersweet, like drinking a dark chocolate bar. The first sip had been a surprise, but it hadn’t taken Tony long to love it, the way he loved all of the little Italian things his Mamma made for him when it was only the two of them. They’d drunk it together in the kitchen while Mamma sang quiet lullabies that Tony could only halfway understand until he started to fall asleep sitting up.

He remembered being cradled against Mamma’s shoulder and he figured she must’ve carried him to bed, but the old, soft-edged memory really ended there, in the warm kitchen with the smell of chocolate and the sound of his mother’s voice.

Tony finished banging out the last of the dents in the chestplate and passed it over to Butterfingers, and he considered checking to see if his mother’s recipe had been left among the rest of her things. It would be nice to get that little piece of his childhood back, he thought, even if he wasn’t really that little boy anymore. It was kind of a coin flip though, this time of year, whether doing that would make him feel closer to his Mamma or just depressed that she was gone, so he decided against it. And anyway, he had a new family now, and they’d make new memories. Being with the team made him happy in a whole other way, but it was just as good.

The memory had made him thirsty, and Tony reached for his coffee—only to spit it out immediately, because it tasted as wrong as it had that morning, if not worse.

First the heating, now the coffee. If this kept up, Tony’d be scanning the Tower for the Grinch by sundown.

 

*

 

When Tony got to the kitchen, he was immediately met with a swirl of warm air and bustling movement. Steve and Bucky were there—standing by the stove and sitting at the island to do prep, respectively—and so was Natasha—busy rifling through the fridge contents—and so was Thor—doing something to an enormous slab of meat on the counter—and he counted for about five people all on his own, and what had been a large, space-age kitchen was transformed into something smaller and cozier. The pile of washed dishes by the sink said that Bruce had been there not long ago, though he had probably retreated to the quieter space of his own suites once he was done with whatever dish he’d made.

“Good morning, shield brother!” Thor boomed from across the kitchen.

“It’s still morning?” Tony asked. He craned his neck to get a look at the microwave clock around Thor’s bulk; he’d been in the workshop for a few hours at least, and morning seemed rather unlikely.

“By about two minutes,” Natasha said, pulling her head out of the fridge. “Hey, do you know what happened to the sparkling cider?”

“Last I heard, Clint was planning some kind of accuracy training with the corks,” Steve supplied, and for the first time Tony got a whiff of what he was doing.

As much as Steve had claimed to be able to cook, and as much as Bucky insisted that Steve had in fact done most of their cooking back in the dark ages, Tony had never really believed it. It wasn’t so much a lack of faith in his boyfriend, but rather a safe projection based on previous results. A lot of previous results, if they were being honest. Steve’s undiscerning palate had been a downright menace to the culinary staff nearly every time Tony had tried to take him out to eat someplace nice, and he’d never been able to tell his pastries apart.

Apparently, Steve’s palate was plenty discerning if you restricted his ingredients to whatever he could get from the supermarket a couple blocks over; whatever he was working on in the big pot on the stove smelled divine.

“Need any help?” Tony asked, hoping for something that would not lead to food poisoning. Steve gave Tony a sly look out of the corner of his eye that said he knew exactly what Tony was thinking.

“How about you help Bucky with the chopping,” he said innocently.

“Sure,” Tony replied, equally innocent, and he plopped himself right down in Bucky’s lap. There was a rather enormous knife in Bucky’s left hand, but it seemed to vanish the moment Tony came within reach of it, only reappearing once Tony had settled himself firmly in place against Bucky’s chest.

“I’m not sure you know what helping looks like,” Bucky grunted, leaning around Tony to continue cutting up something that looked like—parsley, maybe? Tony wasn’t really an herbs-and-spices kind of guy.

“’Course I do,” Tony said. “You were about to fall asleep from boredom, super-soldier like you just plain chopping vegetables like that, and that’s very poor precaution with an edged tool, don’t you think, Nat?”

“Very unsafe,” she said evenly, but her eyes were sparkling.

“See, I’m doing you a favor,” explained Tony. “It’s much more interesting now.”

There was a visible struggle on Bucky’s face as his bad mood fought with the fact that Tony was sitting in his lap and wisecracking, but the smile won out after a few seconds and spread over his face like paper unfolding, the crease between his brows melting away. His right arm adjusted Tony slightly on his lap, making sure that he could at least see what his knife was doing—that really would have been unsafe—and started chopping again. Tony was pleased to see that the cuts were finer and more evenly spaced, though admittedly a little slower now that Tony had to be the one holding the cutting board still for him.

“James, would you pass the thyme?” Thor asked, and Tony was very confused for a moment, until Bucky lifted the cutting board so that Thor could scrape the chopped herbs off of it and onto the meat he was dressing. So it wasn’t parsley, after all. “It is not quite like what our kitchens use at home, but I have found it equally effective in preparing the wild boar.”

“We’re having wild boar for dinner,” Tony repeated. “How about that.”

It didn’t take much longer for Thor to finish rubbing the side of meat with spices, and then he slid it into the oven and left it to cook for a few hours. Natasha was gone a little while later, ostensibly to check that Clint hadn’t used up all the sparkling cider in firing the corks, and then it was just Tony and his boyfriends and the smell of roasting boar and stewing vegetables. It was… nice. It was perfect, really, except for the nagging worry in Tony’s mind.

“Hey,” he said, tugging Bucky’s hair lightly to get him to turn his head.

“Yeah, doll?”

“I love you,” Tony said. “It makes me… happier than you can know, that you love me back, so unconditionally and selflessly. But I do love you, you know? Do you really think waking up without you could ever be better than waking up to find you still there with me, helping me get past the nightmares?”

Steve walked over from the stove and pressed himself against the two of them, holding them both in the same tight and reassuring way he had that morning. He had them, that grip said, he had them and he was never letting them go, and they were safe, here. Safe with him, and safe with each other.

“The whole point of being together is that none of us have to do life on our own, Buck,” he said. Bucky was leaning into them, but his eyes were wide.

“I’ll think about it,” Bucky promised, and he kissed them both.

 

*

 

When a beeping noise announced that whatever Steve had been cooking was done stewing, Tony decided to go up and check on Hawkeye’s floor. It had been more than an hour and Natasha still hadn’t returned, which couldn’t be a good sign. He spent the whole elevator ride cooking up disaster scenarios in his mind, but it wasn’t enough to prepare him for what was actually going on.

Natasha had found Clint and the sparkling cider bottles, sure enough, but far from bringing them back down, she’d apparently joined in the cork-firing game. A dozen bottles in various states of fullness were sitting open on the counter, matching a dozen cork-sized holes in a paper target that looked like it had been stolen directly from the firing range. Well, that wouldn’t exactly be a surprise, coming from Clint—but next to him, and appearing to be enjoying herself just as much, was—

“Nat? I thought you were the mature adult one,” Tony said, feeling rather as though the world had turned upside down.

“What on earth gave you that impression?” Natasha asked. She gave a sharp tug and the cork of her bottle flew in a neat arc, right through the paper man’s middle, and she punched the air. “I need to know so that I can stop doing it immediately.” Tony wasn’t sure what to do with that statement, though it was oddly reassuring to see that she was still dangerous with party drinks.

“I think you’ve been spending too much time with us hooligans,” he said.

“Or,” she said slyly, “I’ve been spending exactly the right amount of time with you, and when you met me I’d been spending too much time with Fury.”

“Huh.”

There was an odd silence, which Clint obligingly filled with the sound of another loud pop and a spray of cider as he sent his cork right through the target’s head, giving him a left eye to match the right one already there, above the dark streak where the cider itself seemed to have gotten on the paper.

“Smiley face!” he crowed. Natasha’s next shot gave the face a nose, and Tony looked at the growing collection of bottles a little despairingly. Thank God Thor would be with them for this dinner; otherwise it’d be impossible to drink all of these before they went flat. Although, since coffee didn’t seem to be doing it for him today…

“Do you mind if I—?” he asked, waving a hand at the bottles.

“Wow, manners and everything. Now who’s the mature adult one,” Natasha smirked. “Go ahead.”

Tony took the bottle nearest him and sniffed at the top, more out of habit than anything. His teammates had been—well, they’d been unexpectedly but so wonderfully sweet to him since he’d quit drinking: for a year now, the whole Tower had been completely dry. Everything in it was safe for him to drink. Tony took a swig and his eyes widened at the sharp, bubbly taste.

“You got the good stuff,” he said approvingly.

“Sure,” Natasha said, setting aside her next sealed bottle in favor of drinking from the one she’d just opened. “When Tony Stark gives you a credit card and tells you to go buy something nice for yourself, what else are you supposed to do?”

“Pretend like you’re in Pretty Woman,” Clint said immediately. “Which I did, and it was beautiful, you should have seen my acting—“

“We did,” Tony and Natasha said together, both amused but neither particularly impressed. Clint looked hurt.

“And then I did go buy something nice for myself. And everyone else! I’m generous like that.”

“Yeah, you are,” Natasha said, warm and serious this time. Tony couldn’t help smiling. “What?” she demanded.

“Nothing,” Tony said quietly. He took another drink of cider and savored it slowly. It still didn’t taste right, but it was nice all the same. “Nothing at all.”

In the privacy of his own mind, he remembered another holiday season, one that, like this one, had not been nearly so awful as he had expected it to be. He had planned to go out and get wasted for the anniversary, but instead Jarvis had brought him down to the servants’ kitchen, a smaller room than the big flashy one upstairs, but more lived-in and warm. Jarvis hadn’t been much of a talker, but he’d been such a good listener, his face attentive and kind and open, that the words had been all but pulled out of Tony. He’d talked for hours, about his mother, about his father, about everything, and when he’d finally run out of words, that had been okay, too.

Jarvis had just pushed a mug of hot cocoa into Tony’s hands and let him rest against his thin shoulder while he sipped it. Most of that night was a blur for Tony, pain and catharsis and a thousand half-forgotten words all jumbled together, but he remembered the first touch of that drink to his tongue; it had been spiced and full of cinnamon, almost like cider, but in a way that only made the cocoa taste richer, fuller. He remembered thinking that it was a thousand times better than any row of shots could have been, just to sit there drinking slowly and feeling calm and understood for the first time since the crash.

The magic of that night hadn’t held, of course, but now that he was older, and maybe wiser, Tony just felt grateful for those quiet hours.

And besides, now that he had his two lovely boyfriends and his wonderful team—his family—he liked to think that he was a little more hopeful, too. He couldn’t get back a charmed evening with Jarvis any more than he could his childhood, but he was happy right where he was. That had been a slow lesson, and one he and Steve had both had difficulty learning: how to move forward, even when the past kept coming back to bite; how to miss the past, without wanting to leave the present. It wasn’t perfect, but it was home.

All he could wish for was to be able to share that happiness with Bucky.

 

*

 

Surprisingly, dinner went off without a hitch.

Thor’s giant side of boar meat—which turned out to be only a small cutlet from a giant Asgardian boar—was delicious and savory. There would have been enough of it for another half-dozen people, except that Thor ate enough for all of them and then some. Steve’s final product was a stew made seemingly of whatever he could fit into the pot, and it was good enough to make Tony take back all of his doubts about Steve’s cooking. Bruce emerged from his reticent position in his lab to bring a truly massive salad to all the carnivores, and Natasha had fun mixing them all colorful drinks from a dozen different kinds of soda. Even Clint showed up with an attempt at mashed potatoes, which, if a little flavorless, at least thoroughly covered the “mashed” qualification.

The only problem, really, was that by this point it was positively freezing in the penthouse, and so all of them were in sweaters. Steve and Tony, the most prone to chills, had added hats on top of those—though it was Steve, already decked out in an enthusiastic Christmas tree-patterned sweater, who wore the Santa hat unabashedly, and tried to persuade reindeer antlers onto Bucky’s head for at least ten minutes straight.

Still, despite the cold, the team’s non-Christmas dinner was as lively and bright as they had ever been together, if not more.

About halfway through the meal—or at least, when the boar meat was halfway gone—JARVIS interrupted them.

“Master Barton, might I be correct in assuming that you produced your contributions to the meal in the communal floor’s microwave?” he asked, though it didn’t really sound like a question.

“Yeah, mine wasn’t working,” said Clint, around a bite of the same.

“Sir, I have found the source of the temperature disruptions,” JARVIS announced. “I believe you will find that Master Barton’s microwave is not functioning because his attempts to cook with it earlier this morning caused an explosion—”

“It was a small explosion!”

“—which damaged the heating ducts between your floors. Shall I call a contractor to repair the damage?”

Wow, Clint,” Tony said, doing his best to sound scandalized. “Nah, I think we’ll be okay for tonight. It’s almost Christmas, you know. Let the heating-duct-makers stay in with their families for tonight, we’ll get it fixed in the morning. I don’t have state-of-the-art insulation for nothing, you know. Also Christmas sweaters.”

“Very good, sir,” JARVIS said. When dinner resumed a minute later, there was only a little more good-natured ribbing in Clint’s direction than usual. Even Bucky was hard pressed to hold any kind of grudge when his belly was full of good food, and he was surrounded by good friends. Tony smiled at him hopefully, wondering if his mood was improved enough that he might be persuaded into bed with them that night, but Bucky didn’t respond either way; his expression said something more like we’ll talk later.

Well, that wasn’t as good as Tony was hoping for, but it wasn’t as bad as he feared, either.

When they’d all stuffed themselves as full as they could manage, they traded the dining table for the card table, and Tony bet against himself wondering how many hands it would take for the rest of them to notice that he was counting cards. It was immensely entertaining, and somewhere between the sixth and seventh hands, Tony lost track of time.

The next time he looked up, Bucky had disappeared.

 

*

 

Even with Steve by his side, Tony couldn’t help but feel a little defeated as they trudged up to their bedroom. He knew last night had been bad, but he’d thought, between their talk in the kitchen and the warm ambiance at dinner, maybe Bucky would’ve changed his mind.

Maybe that was where he went wrong, hoping for too much. Stubbornness was a major trait with all three of them, and Tony shouldn’t have underestimated it.

Next time, he thought as he opened the bedroom door, if he and Steve tried harder to plan, they might be able to convince—

Tony’s train of thought was stopped dead as he took in the sight in front of him. Sitting on the edge of their bed, dressed not only in his Christmas sweater but also those damn antlers, was Bucky Barnes, with a sheepish but pleased little smile on his face. There was a mug in his left hand, and Tony could smell sweet, sweet hot chocolate wafting from inside it even from halfway across the room.

“Merry Christmas,” he said quietly. Tony just stared.

“Honey,” he said, and he couldn’t seem to find any more words. He was grateful, surprised, beyond pleased that Bucky had come around after all, but it all tripped and tangled together on the way to his throat.

“Hey, doll,” Bucky said. He seemed to be having the same problem.

“Can I ask what changed your mind?” Steve said, and thank God at least one of them was able to string a sentence together. Instead of answering, Bucky stood up and handed the steaming mug over to Tony. It was a clear stalling tactic, but Tony obliged him and took a drink, and oh

That was what he’d been missing all day. It was full of peppermint and had about a dozen tiny marshmallows floating at the top because of Bucky’s ridiculous sweet tooth, a far cry from Maria’s bittersweet cioccolata and Jarvis’ spiced cocoa, but there was more than one way to be perfect. Tony had never told Bucky just how much this drink tasted like home to him, but Bucky just looked at him hopefully, like he knew anyway.

“I realized… the best way to move forward was to keep going,” Bucky said with a soft smile, and Tony gave him a sticky-sweet kiss that tasted like hot chocolate.

The three of them climbed into bed, still in sweaters to ward off the chilly air of the penthouse. Steve took his usual spot in the middle and pulled them both in close to his chest with a pleased sound, happy to have all three of them in agreement and in one place again, the way they should be. Together like this, the cold air didn’t matter even one bit.

They were warm on the inside.