Hope for the Holidays
Tony hovered in front of the wine racks longer than he probably should have. If he was called on it, though, he would contend that it wasn’t his fault. Jarvis preferred white dessert wines, even had a brand of Riesling he bought exclusively. Ana, on the other hand, preferred a good dry red, like a Merlot or a Pinot Noir. The last time he’d just decided ‘fuck it’ and bought them each a bottle, they’d scolded him for bringing too much. Normally he wouldn’t care, but Jarvis and Ana were basically the only family he had besides the Rhodes, and he wanted to show he respected them. So he had to get the right thing.
His phone pinged, and he looked down at it worriedly. Dinner with Jarvis and Ana at seven, it reminded him. Then, as he watched, the phone pinged again. This is your warning text idiot if you don’t pick a wine you WILL be late and Jarvis WILL frown at you.
“Fuck,” Tony sighed, and hastily snatched up a rosé. They could always “dump it in the sink” if it turned out to be too shitty. With the Jarvises, it was always about the thought and not the actual gift. Also he knew that Ana liked to make sangria out of wine she didn’t like because it was an excuse to get drunk on Saturday mornings when Jarvis was out running errands.
“FRIDAY,” Tony said once he was back in the car. “How are the misfit toys doing?”
“Agent Barton accidentally set his rum punch on fire, but Captain Rogers and Agent Romanov put it out,” FRIDAY replied promptly from the car’s speakers. “I’ve taken the liberty of adding a protocol where I page the other Avengers when Agent Barton is about to make rum punch.”
“Jesus,” Tony breathed, and then sighed. “Actually, that sounds exactly like Clint. Good job making your own protocol, honey. I’m proud of you. That’s, what, your third one?”
“Fourth,” FRIDAY informed him proudly. “The third one was this morning after you left for your last meeting, and I added a protocol to warn Agent Romanov when Thor and Captain Rogers are passed out naked in the common room!”
Tony nearly crashed the car laughing. “Why were Steve and Thor naked?!”
“Thor convinced Captain Rogers to indulge in some Asgardian mead and things got… exciting,” FRIDAY said after a moment. “I have video. They’re in the common room so it’s allowed for you to watch it.”
“And watch it I will. When I get home,” he added thoughtfully. Christmas was for the Jarvises.
He was honestly surprised that Steve was even in the tower. He’d been pretty maudlin ever since he’d realized that his friend Barnes was still alive. Then again, it made sense that he’d stay, taking comfort in the rest of the team, especially when only a couple weeks ago Tony had had to tell him that he hadn’t been able to find a trace of Barnes. Steve had just grimly asked if they could start looking again after the holidays. Tony had agreed, of course, but he’d… sort of worried about him. It was nice to hear that Steve was getting comfort from… uh… the rest of the team.
Maybe he should send Natasha a fruit basket.
Someone had put the lights up at the mansion. Tony peered through the window of the car, frowning.
Jarvis hadn’t had the lights put up since Tony was twenty-nine and fell off the roof trying to do it himself. Tony had tried to put the lights up the next year, but Jarvis had very sternly looked at him and Ana had idly asked, ‘Doesn’t your leg still hurt when it rains?’ And they never would have accepted him hiring someone to do something ‘so frivolous,’ so he’d given it up as a fight he never would have won anyway and just accepted the fairy lights that Ana put up in the front windows for him.
“Maybe Jarvis found a homeless guy who wanted some work,” Tony mused.
There wasn’t much work to do around the Stark Estate in winter, after all; Tony paid a very skilled gardening service to wrap up the plants for hibernation, and Jarvis and Ana closed the rest of the mansion off so only the places they really lived in needed to be cleaned, which Jarvis kept on top of. Still, Jarvis had a soft spot for homeless people, and if one had offered to put the lights up, he probably could have been guilted into it. Tony would eat his shirt if Jarvis hadn’t also sent the guy off with a hot meal and bits of cash hidden in whatever pockets he had.
Maybe he’d try to convince Jarvis and Ana to let him hire a service to put up the lights next year, he mused, climbing out of his car with the bottle of wine. It really did make the mansion look warmer. Friendlier, even. Not like the dreary estate he always came home to when he was a kid.
Then he sprinted for the front door.
“Good evening, sir,” Jarvis said, opening it before his fingers could even touch the knob. “Right on time.”
“One of these days I’m gonna get to this door first,” Tony warned as he stepped inside.
Jarvis raised an eyebrow, amused. “Certainly, sir,” he agreed amiably.
Tony pointed in his face, insisting, “I will!”
“Quite frankly, sir, I’m pretty sure I’ll be dead when that happens,” Jarvis replied wryly.
“One day you’re gonna be in a wheelchair, old man,” Tony threatened playfully, but didn’t get much time to enjoy it because familiar fingers were suddenly brushing the back of his neck. He yelped and whipped around, free hand going back to guard his neck from any other attacks.
“Sassy boy,” Ana teased, instead moving to tickle his side, and took the bottle of wine from his hand while he squealed and jerked away from her. “Stop teasing my husband. He’s worked very hard to make a nice dinner around chasing us out of the kitchen.”
“Crusty rolls!” Tony cheered, before suddenly what she’d said registered. He turned to look at her in confusion. “‘Us?’”
Ana paused, then turned to examine the bottle of wine almost too carefully. “Yes, well, we—do have a guest. Yes.”
“Oh,” Tony said. He suddenly didn’t know what to do with his hands. He stuck them in his pockets, but Jarvis frowned at him, because that would wear out his pants. He pulled them out and let them hang at his sides, but that felt wrong too, so he finally tucked his hands under his arms, crossing his arms in front of him. “Oh,” he said again.
Christmases had been just the three of them since his parents had died. Obie had even tried to horn in on it and failed, instead catching Tony after Christmas, during the lead up to New Year festivities. Tony had never dated anyone long enough to bring them to Christmas. Even Rhodey had given them space, instead spending time with his own family and Skyping after brunch on Christmas, but even then, it was only for a few minutes.
Who had the Jarvises invited to stay for Christmas, Tony wondered, feeling oddly like he was being replaced, even though he knew they would never.
“It’s not my fault,” Jarvis said abruptly, and power-walked away to the kitchen.
“Did you just,” Ana gasped, glaring after him in disbelief. Then she turned back to Tony, putting her hand on his stiff shoulder gently. “Honey, these are extenuating circumstances, okay? It’s not something we planned, and if everything works out, it’s not something that would happen again. We had no idea what was going to happen when we hired him.”
Tony frowned down at his feet, then looked up at her again. “You can invite whoever you want. It’s your house too.”
“Tony, it’s Christmas,” Ana deadpanned. “We never invite anyone on Christmas.”
“One year you invited your yoga teacher’s son,” Tony muttered mulishly.
“I was trying to get you a date,” Ana sighed, rolling her eyes, and used the hand on his shoulder to wheel him around and march him toward the dining room. “And like I said, he was supposed to show up on Boxing Day. He crashed Christmas dinner. I was not pleased when he showed up either. On the bright side, I didn’t have to suffer through sweet potatoes that year.”
Tony couldn’t help a smile. That had been a good year for him, too, technically—what other person could say that their former butler had decked someone with a tureen of sweet potatoes for calling one of their ideas ‘stupid and short-sighted?’ The tureen still had a dent in it. Tony and Ana wouldn’t allow Jarvis to get it fixed because it had delighted them so much and also he looked vaguely pained whenever he saw it, as if he knew he should be ashamed of throwing it at someone and denting it but not regretting it at all, except for the constant reminders of his loss of control.
“And you know, we couldn’t let him stay out in the cold,” Ana continued. “It’s harder for men to get assistance, you know, and Jarvis is always a sucker for a guy with a sob story.”
“He is not,” Tony squawked, because Jarvis was one of the sternest people he knew.
Ana paused, considering, then sighed, but it didn’t cover the mischievous twinkle in her eye. “Alright, he found the guy grabbing food out of the Davenports’ garbage and was offended that he didn’t think our garbage was good enough.” She smiled. “Don’t tell Edwin I told you that.”
“I always knew he hated the Davenports,” Tony whispered gleefully.
“Ever since Edwin and the Davenports’ driver got into a fender bender in nineteen sixty-two, and the Davenports wouldn’t admit they were at fault,” Ana replied, giggling a little.
“Do I hear laughter at my expense?” Jarvis called from the kitchen. “Am I to understand that you don’t actually want these roasted fingerling potatoes?”
Ana and Tony yelped and scurried to the dining room, because Jarvis’s roasted fingerling potatoes were way better than his sweet potatoes and he’d taken to making them so he didn’t have to keep looking at the dented tureen. Ana had to swerve back into the kitchen to set the wine to chilling, so Tony gleefully got into the dining room first so he could pick his seat. He liked the one in front of the cranberry sauce because that way he could hog it.
Then he saw who was already sat at the table and he fell ass over teakettle trying to stop himself. “Fuck!”
When he finally looked up, Barnes was halfway out of his chair. His expression, under any other circumstances, would have been hilarious; he seemed torn on whether to hurry to help him up, or whether to spring out the window and escape into the night.
“No wonder Jarvis was pissed that you chose the Davenports’ garbage instead of ours,” Tony said.
“They had more food,” Barnes replied, looking bewildered. He sat back down in his seat, then squawked and jumped to his feet again, rushing around the table to help him up.
Tony couldn’t help but fall back on old habits in the face of his awkwardness, leering up at Barnes and purring, “I didn’t expect you to be such a gentleman, considering you dropped Steve in the Potomac.”
“I pulled him back out,” Barnes said irritably, rolling his eyes. “It’s not my fault he’s a dumbass.”
Tony blinked up at him, stunned, then couldn’t help a bark of laughter. Barnes eased him into a seat. It wasn’t in front of the cranberry sauce, regrettably, but he was right in front of the crusty rolls and clotted cream. He reached out for a roll.
“Anthony Edward Stark!” Jarvis bellowed from the kitchen.
Tony pulled his hand back, bottom lip jutting out into a pout as he crossed his arms over his chest.
Barnes sat in the chair across from him, looking both mildly amused and completely perplexed. “You don’t strike me as the kind of fella to be cowed that easy.”
“Jarvis could take away my dessert privileges,” Tony explained morosely.
Barnes laughed. Tony continued to pout, though, so his laugh quieted gradually until he was staring at him again. “…For real?”
“One year I didn’t get trifle,” Tony said, and sank down in his seat.
Ana reached around the chair to pinch his cheek. “Oh, you got trifle, you big baby,” she teased as he yelped and jerked away. “Edwin just didn’t give you your serving until you’d pouted properly.” She turned a fond gaze on Barnes. “He’s got such pretty doe eyes, Edwin never actually stood a chance.”
“They are certainly pretty,” Barnes agreed.
Tony turned to blink at him, surprised, even opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Jarvis was setting a platter of moist, fragrant turkey on the table and sitting down beside him. Then he immediately began vibrating in his seat, because now Ana was also bringing out the large gravy boat, full of thick, steamy gravy, and if Tony got the heart, he got to open the first gift on Christmas morning.
“…Is he okay?” Barnes asked after a moment, concerned.
“He’s fine,” Jarvis assured. “He just hasn’t realized he’s not actually six years old anymore and we’re no longer trying to trick him into eating things that sounds icky.”
“Organs are icky,” Tony argued, as if he did not regularly eat pâté because he enjoyed it. “And if I eat the heart, I get to open the first present for Christmas.”
Barnes squinted at him. “Really?”
“Provided he actually gets the heart,” Ana added, raising her eyebrows at him. “Maybe someone else will get the heart this year.”
Tony stuck his tongue out at her. Jarvis had been sneaking the heart onto his plate for years, and if Ana got it, she usually let him open the first present anyway. He’d only be in trouble if Barnes got the heart. But that should be okay, too, because why would Barnes have presents here?
Tony froze, tongue still stuck out. Oh God. What if Barnes didn’t have any presents. He must have, though? If the Jarvises were allowing him to stay? They wouldn’t let him stay for the holiday and not have presents. So, he must have at least one. Shit, what had he bought for the Jarvises? Could he swap out a name-tag for Barnes?
“Tony,” Ana said in concern.
Jarvis reached out to casually pinch Tony’s knee so he yelped and stopped sticking his tongue out at her. “Oh, are you volunteering to say grace, sir?”
“I am not,” Tony answered immediately, because he was startled but he wasn’t gonna let them shoehorn him into prayer when he wasn’t ready.
“Perhaps our guest would like to lead prayer,” Ana suggested, turning toward him instead.
Tony felt vindicated when Barnes turned a terrified look on her and shook his head frantically.
“Well then I guess it falls on you, dear,” Ana said airily, turning to her husband. “Since you’re the only man left to take up the job.”
“You have a mouth you could lead prayer with,” Jarvis pointed out, raising his eyebrows at her. “And don’t tell me the cat’s got your tongue, because no one has ever had ownership of your tongue but you in our entire lives.”
“My family,” Barnes began, and then fell silent, ducking his head, when they all turned their attention to him.
Tony remembered, abruptly, what Steve had told him—Barnes hadn’t had any memory of him at first, and what memories he did have seemed to trickle back in pieces that didn’t always stay, and he easily got frustrated when they slipped between his fingers. If he remembered something, Tony decided, it should really be celebrated. So he gently asked, “What did your family do?”
Barnes tipped his head back to look up at the ceiling, scratching his chin nervously as he considered answering. Finally, he said, “Well, we didn’t… pray, exactly. There were so many of us kids, and we were all wiggly, wanting to eat. So Ma and Da had us all involved, had us go around in a circle and… share a hope for the holiday. When we were kids we hoped for toys and stuff, you know, normal kid things. Then when we got older we hoped for snow, or that the neighbor’s family could make it for a visit. I remember… Ma and Da always hoped for a letter from their family ‘back in the old country,’” he added thoughtfully. “They were the only ones whose hopes came true every year.”
Tony and the Jarvises stared at him for a moment, stunned, before Ana got her bearings and said, “That sounds lovely, Mr. Barnes.” She turned back to Tony and Jarvis. “Let’s do that this year instead, hmm?”
“Yeah, okay,” they agreed hurriedly, and didn’t mention the way Barnes smiled down at his plate, a small, fragile thing.
They looked between each other for a moment, trying to see who would go first, when Jarvis finally shrugged, saying, “I hope that my roses turn out well this year so I can enter them into the flower show.”
“…You really hate the Davenports, don’t you?” Tony asked.
“Their roses are hideous,” Jarvis replied immediately.
“They are,” Ana agreed, nodding sharply. She looked at Jarvis, eyes going soft and sweet. “I hope I’m there when your roses beat the Davenports’ so we can rub it in their faces.”
Jarvis smiled and reached out for her hand. She took it and continued to give him that same soft, loving look. Tony wondered if anyone would ever look at him like that. Sometimes he doubted it.
It took him a moment to realize that they were all looking at him. “Uh,” Tony said, and wondered if he was visibly sweating. He kinda felt like it. “Uh, um. I. I hope. That no one else starts a fire in the tower before I get back,” he finally managed.
Jarvis nodded along sympathetically. Ana began to nod along as well, but then she seemed to realize what he’d said and squawked, “What?!”
“Clint was making—there was a—things are fine,” Tony answered hastily. “Don’t worry about it.”
“What,” Barnes said, looking equally as concerned as Ana.
Tony waved it away. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I have never worried more in my life,” Ana said solemnly.
“Everything’s fine,” Tony assured, and then was offended that even Barnes was giving him a skeptical look. “It’s fine!”
“Okaaay,” Ana agreed reluctantly, skeptical. Then she turned to Barnes. “So, what do you hope for, Mr. Barnes?”
Barnes looked surprised, as if he’d never expected to be included in the act. It sort of made Tony’s heart hurt, how awed and wanting Barnes looked, along with anxious and sad. Sometimes Steve looked like that, too, when he remembered something from his past that hurt, that left him aching and empty and adrift. He couldn’t imagine the added pain of not having memories to fall back on when it happened.
“I… hope Stevie has a nice Christmas,” he finally said, halting and unsure. “Since he’s been so stubborn ‘bout lookin’ for me.”
“Well, he’s already gotten drunk and naked so it’s already going pretty well, if that helps,” Tony replied.
Jarvis, Ana, and Barnes all swiveled to stare at him. Tony wondered if he had helped or just made Barnes more concerned. Jarvis and Ana were looking pretty appalled, but he had no idea how this was worse than Clint starting a fire.
“…Thanks,” Barnes said after a moment. “I think.”
“I’m making sure you don’t get the heart,” Ana cut in before Tony could feel too proud of himself.
Tony whined and sank down in his chair.
“Tony!” Jarvis barked, reaching down to drag him back upright, but Tony had already slithered onto the floor.
Tony figured it was worth it, since the laugh it startled out of Barnes sounded genuine.
“If you want me to leave, I will,” Barnes said quietly.
Tony continued scowling down at the plate he was scrubbing. “You’re a guest of the Jarvises so I can’t just kick you out, and what kind of asshole would I be if I did that anyway? It’s three days before Christmas and these leftovers aren’t gonna eat themselves.”
“I mean… Steve said he told you what I did,” Barnes began awkwardly.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Uh, yeah, but I’m blocking that out until I’m ready to deal with it. Right now I just wanna focus on Christmas with the Jarvises and maybe convincing Jarvis to make fudge. It’s not like you had any choice in the matter, either, so I’m just… working on focusing my anger on the people who deserve it. Hey, why isn’t this cranberry sauce coming off?!”
Barnes leaned over to look at the plate and frowned, concerned. “Because that’s not cranberry sauce. It’s blood. And it’s coming from your hand.”
“What?!” Tony exclaimed, then held up his hand, brows furrowing together when he saw the slice over his thumb. “Oh, when I almost dropped the knife earlier…”
“Scoot,” Barnes said, bumping hips with him.
Tony stumbled and nearly fell over again. “Ack!”
“Sit down, put some pressure on it,” Barnes added. “And if you’re good I’ll get you a peanut chew.”
Tony paused halfway onto one of the bar stools, napkin wrapped around his thumb. “Peanut chew?”
Barnes paused in rinsing the dishes, then placed his hands on the counter and leaned on them with a deep, heavy sigh. Tony frowned at his back, brows furrowing together. He looked like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and no idea how to get any respite from it. Tony chewed on his bottom lip, wondering what he could do to help. This was out of his depth. He had the thought that he should call Steve and get him to come over, but… Barnes clearly didn’t want to see Steve if he was avoiding being found. Wouldn’t it hurt more if he brought Steve here and blindsided Barnes with him?
“I guess… I guess peanut chews aren’t a thing anymore,” Barnes said quietly.
“I don’t really like peanuts,” Tony offered.
Barnes went back to rinsing dishes and putting them in the dishwasher, silent. Tony continued to frown at him, wondering if he was awful for not knowing what to say. He normally didn’t, when people were upset. He’d been told it was a shortcoming, but he didn’t know how to fix it, because every time he started talking without knowing what to say, all of his words came out wrong and made the other person feel worse.
Barnes slowed to a stop, slack hands dipping back into the sink. Then he turned, looking at Tony in confusion. “Mr. Jarvis and I just made like… ten pounds of peanut brittle yesterday. He said it was for you.”
Tony blinked at him, perplexed. “And I will eat it.” When Barnes only continued to stare at him, dumbfounded, he added a hesitant, “Thanks for helping Jarvis?”
“You just said you didn’t really like peanuts,” Barnes said slowly.
Tony blinked at him again, unsure what that had to do with anything. “Howard liked peanut brittle, and he always said Jarvis made the best. He actually did eat Jarvis’s peanut brittle by the pound during the holidays,” he said after a moment. “After my parents died, Jarvis and Ana wanted to keep what they could the same. So Jarvis made peanut brittle. And since I was the only Stark left, I ate it. I love Jarvis more than I dislike peanuts.”
“Oh,” Barnes said, and then sank down onto hands and knees.
“Barnes?!” Tony called, alarmed, and then turned. “Ana! Jarvis! Something’s wrong with Barnes!”
“Just leave me here,” Barnes wheezed. “I can’t go on.”
Jarvis and Ana stumbled in, took in the scene, and then gave Tony a very unimpressed frown. “Tony,” Jarvis said.
Tony whined preemptively. “I didn’t even do anything!”
“You know what? I believe you,” Ana said, placing her hands on her hips. “I’ve seen people do this before.”
“Mr. Barnes,” Jarvis said, trying to help him to his feet.
Barnes made a noise like a beached whale. He did not help Jarvis in trying to get himself off the floor.
Barnes looked better in the morning. Jarvis and Ana told him so. Tony mostly just tried to become one with his mug of coffee.
“You don’t have to call me Mr. Barnes,” Barnes said. “You could call me… Um. Not Bucky, but… maybe… maybe James?”
“Thank you, James,” Jarvis said kindly.
Ana nodded agreeably. “Tony will not call you that,” she added, just as kind.
Barnes—James—stared at her, uncomprehending. Finally, he said, “What?”
“Come on, Winter Smolder, we gotta go get a tree,” Tony said, standing. He held up his hand, bandaged thumb up front and center. “I’m injured so I need your muscles. I can’t possibly carry a tree in this condition.”
“You don’t have a tree?” James asked, surprised.
Tony scoffed at him. “I’ve already bought, like, a dozen trees. I just haven’t bought one for the mansion yet because I haven’t been here to help decorate.”
“You haven’t posted the pictures from the children’s hospital yet,” Ana scolded.
“I’m still waiting for permission from three more parents,” Tony replied. “Otherwise I need to do some clever editing first. How big do we want this year? Ten-footer? Twelve?”
“I can’t carry a twelve-foot tree by myself,” James said.
Tony turned and patted his shoulder. “I believe in you, bud.”
“Six feet or less is fine,” Jarvis cut in before James could actually consider whether he could lift an entire goddamn twelve-foot tree by himself—and also whether he should try just to see.
“Boo,” Tony said, pouting, but it was probably for the best. He wrapped his arm around James’s and began towing him toward the door. “Come on, buttercup, tree time! Hopefully when we get back it’ll be teatime and Jarvis will make cherry almond scones!”
James looked at him in wonder. “You really aren’t gonna call me by my name at all, are you?”
“I have to know you for like… twenty years,” Tony admitted. “And sometimes not even then. Jarvis and Ana helped raise me so I don’t really know what else to call them.”
“You could call him Edwin,” Ana called after them.
“…No,” Tony and Jarvis said at the same time, and she laughed so hard she had to sit on the chair Jarvis offered her or risk falling down.
“So why don’t you call him Edwin?” James asked as Tony frowned severely at a tree.
Tony did not turn away from trying to judge the tree in front of him. “It’s his name.”
“You call his wife by her first name,” James pointed out.
Mostly he just sounded curious, not judgmental, so Tony figured he couldn’t fault him for wanting to know. “Jarvis and Ana are… different,” he said after a moment.
James couldn’t help but nod. “Yeah, I noticed,” he admitted.
“Lots of people think they wouldn’t… ‘go’ together,” Tony added, crossing his arms. “Even Aunt Peggy said before she met Ana that she’d sort of just expected a female Jarvis. But that’s the thing—she is. They’re both brave and smart and sassy, but it’s in their own ways. Jarvis was a soldier, and he risked everything to protect Ana, and so Howard went in and saved them both. They stuck around because Jarvis felt like they owed him, and then Mom had me, and…” He blushed a little and lifted his hand to scratch his chin, suddenly feeling bashful. He’d never really had to tell anyone this part. It seemed like people looked at the three of them together and just… knew.
But Ba—James didn’t know any of that, was looking at the world with eyes that were simultaneously fresh and old, and often had no idea what to think of it because of it.
“Jarvis and Ana couldn’t have kids of their own, and they were okay with it, they say,” Tony finally continued. “But Ana also says that the day I was brought home, Mama begged them to watch me so she could take a quick shower, and she put me in Jarvis’s arms before he could change his mind, and… they fell in love.” He cleared his throat, smiling awkwardly. “But what can I say? I was a cute baby.”
“I bet you were,” James agreed, looking at him with soft eyes.
Tony cleared his throat again and circled the tree he was looking at hastily to get away from him, suddenly feeling too exposed, like he’d cracked his ribs apart and let James look into the cavity where his heart was beating. “Well, the Starks and Carbonells had good genes.”
“As good as the tree you’re lookin’ at?” James asked hopefully.
Tony leaned around the tree to give him his best bitch-face. “This is the worst tree I’ve ever seen.”
“You’ve said that about the last dozen trees can we please just pick one and go,” James moaned.
Tony sniffed at him in disdain. “Just because you don’t know a good tree when you see one—”
“I’m begging you—” James grabbed the tree beside him without looking. “What about this one?” Then he saw the price tag and nearly pitched the tree in horror. “Never mind!”
“Oh, honey,” Tony said pityingly.
James spun back to him, terrified. “What? What?!”
“Don’t look at anymore price tags on these trees,” Tony continued, just as pitying.
By the time Tony finally found a tree he liked and James had hiked it up on his shoulder to carry it to the car, James was muttering some pretty colorful swears about the future and everything wrong with it. He didn’t even want to know how much the twelve-foot tree Tony had been eyeballing had been. When he’d been growing up, trees were pennies. Pennies. Especially if you got them this late in the game. Hell, one year they’d gotten their tree for free because his parents had been working up to Christmas day. Unbelievable.
Tony enjoyed listening to him mutter. It was kinda like listening to Jarvis mutter about how his favorite butcher had sold his business and the new owners had no idea what they were doing, or Ana complaining about her favorite lipstick not being made anymore, or even Steve muttering about how before he’d gone into the ice there wasn’t a coffee shop on every corner and if another man with his hair in a bun snidely told him that ‘venti wasn’t a size there’ he was going to seriously consider taking control of the Twitter account Tony had made for him and blasting every single one of those shops for being impatient when he was just trying to order the biggest cup of coffee they had.
He was also kind of afraid to break up James’s tirade, anyway; he seemed to be remembering quite a lot about himself in that moment, and he didn’t want to interrupt him and make him lose that train of thought.
“Woulda thought you’d have red and gold baubles,” James admitted as he watched Ana and Tony trim the tree.
“Iron Man is a relatively recent development in my life,” Tony said, holding up the garland he was lacing around the tree so Ana could duck under it and put up a bauble just-so. “And it’s not just my tree, so.”
“Tony’s always gotten us an ornament from every city he’s visited!” Ana added, smiling up at him. She turned and showed James a particularly delicate one he’d gotten, eggshell-thin porcelain with blush-pink cherry blossoms hand-painted on one side, the other boasting a bold black outline of Mt. Fuji. “My favorite is the one from Budapest because it reminds me of home, but this one takes a close second. Can you believe this boy took me to Hungary for my birthday? So sweet!”
Tony heard the clink of a teacup hitting its saucer before a murmured, “Are you sure we shouldn’t help?”
“Staying out of their way is helping,” Jarvis replied, just as quiet. “Our job is to put up the tree and then get out of the way. They have a vision.”
“Oh. A vision,” James said, sounding mighty skeptical for a man who hadn’t known what the perfect tree looked like.
Tony glanced over his shoulder at him sourly. “Like you would know what a good tree looks like. What did your trees look like growing up? A flaming deathtrap?”
“Tony!” Jarvis barked. He was doing that a lot lately.
“Whaaat,” Tony whined immediately.
“Are you aware that trees from ‘James’s time’ are also trees from our time?” Ana asked, raising an eyebrow at him as she affixed the ornament right where she wanted it.
Tony frowned at her, unimpressed. “Yeah? But I already know you’re old.”
Ana gasped at him in mock affront as Jarvis spit out his tea. “Anthony Edward Stark!” she began, drawing herself up straight.
“Bet the dinosaurs liked looking at your tree too,” Tony continued.
“Tony!” Ana screeched, obviously trying not to look delighted and failing as she reached out to tickle him.
Tony squawked and jumped off the step ladder to run around the tree, because he knew she’d tickle him until he begged for mercy if she caught him, and maybe not even then.
They didn’t get the tree finished until well after teatime, but luckily James had saved them each a cherry almond scone.
Dinner that night was open-faced turkey sandwiches, spread out over sliced crusty rolls. Gravy soaked into the stale bread, as steaming hot and fragrant as the night before.
“Tony!” Jarvis barked when he noticed Tony was licking his plate clean.
“But gravy,” Tony whined.
Jarvis frowned at him severely. “You’re not an animal. Use another roll.” He turned. “Can you believe I raised this boy to—Ana!” he gasped, appalled, when he saw her licking the gravy from her plate as well. “How could you! What sort of role model are you being?!”
“Tony’s forty,” Ana replied, unimpressed. “That ship has sailed.”
“…I’m not licking my plate,” Barnes murmured.
Jarvis turned an approving gaze on him. “Yes, that’s true. Thank you, James. It’s nice to sit with at least one civilized person.”
“He threw Steve in the Potomac!” Tony exclaimed, aghast.
“Well, I’m sure he deserved it then,” Jarvis reasoned, apparently completely willing to believe James, a rogue assassin, over Tony, a man who he had watched grow up.
Tony actually couldn’t fault him on this logic. He also sometimes wanted to throw Steve in the river.
They watched It’s a Wonderful Life after dinner. It was one of Ana’s favorite movies. Jarvis had once admitted to Tony that he hated it, because it was basically the only Christmas movie on for several years, but he loved Ana more than he hated watching Potter not getting his comeuppance. He watched Ana’s face more often than he watched the movie, anyway.
Tony had watched It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas for forty years (and actually already seen it this year, because Bruce liked it), so he decided to take a page out of Jarvis’s book and just watch James’s face.
James had never seen it. Had fallen from a train years before the film had come out. Tony wonder if this was what he’d looked like the first time he’d watched it, settled on his mother’s lap in front of the TV, Howard munching on peanut brittle as he went over some contracts with the movie as background noise.
James had gasped when Harry fell through the ice, and looked endlessly relieved when George rescued him, even at the cost of the hearing in his left ear. He’d leaned forward in his seat as George tried to figure out what to do with the pills Mr. Gower had accidentally botched, sagged with relief when George promised not to tell anybody about it. He held his breath with hope each time it seemed like George would get out of Bedford Falls, and just as quickly let it out in defeat every time he failed. He hugged a pillow anxiously as the Building and Loan office weathered the storm of a run on the bank, then chuckled quietly over the honeymoon Mary cobbled together with the help of George’s friends.
James reached out for his hand when the movie talked about the war, and Tony gripped back tightly, wishing that James had had a happy ending like Ernie, or Bert, or Harry. Instead he’d fallen from a train, reaching desperately for his friend who still blamed himself for it. Tony thought about offering him an out, asking him if he wanted seconds on dessert, or a walk outside to admire the handiwork he’d done putting the lights up.
But then James gasped in outrage when Potter stole the money for the Building and Loan, and actually whispered, “That dirty bastard! That immoral rat. He’s stealing! What the fuck?!”
“They said he was the meanest man in town,” Tony offered quietly, smiling a little.
“George should punch him in the throat,” James hissed, watching as George walked out of the bank in a daze.
Tony turned to watch James more comfortably, even tucking his toes under his thigh. James lifted his leg accommodatingly, releasing Tony’s hand to instead gently caress the delicate bone on the outside of his ankle. Tony leaned his head against the back of the couch, going back to watching James watch the movie. He didn’t think anyone could look as relieved as James did when the town came together to donate money to the Building and Loan to make up its deficit. James even ducked his head and swallowed thickly when Harry said, “To my brother, George, the richest man in town!” And he let out a startled laugh when a bell rang, and a well-loved copy of Tom Sawyer showed up on the Bailey’s tree.
“I think it’s unfair that Potter got away with it,” James said mulishly as he helped Tony gather up the dishes from dessert to take into the kitchen. “Rat bastard stole eight thousand dollars! Do you know how much eight thousand dollars was back then?!”
“A little over a hundred grand,” Tony offered.
James looked even more offended with an actual comparison. “This rich asshole stole a hundred grand and he got away with it?!” he howled. “I cannot believe. Just a second,” he said, handing the plates to Tony. “I just gotta…”
Tony watched James sink down onto the floor and curl up on his side, looking so angry it was pure luck he didn’t just combust on the spot. “I understand,” he said after a moment. “It always made me really angry, too.”
James made a long, low frustrated sound. He also somehow made it sound like a swear.
Tony would never tell him how impressed he was by that fact and instead just said, “Okay,” and continued to the kitchen. He set the dishes to soak for a moment, wondering if he should go out and offer James some tea or something. He seemed pretty upset by it all, and Bruce always looked better after a cup of tea, but he didn’t really know anything about it. What if he offered the wrong type of tea? Could tea hurt someone? Was that a risk he was willing to take to get something warm and comforting in James’s hand?
“Fuck!” Tony exclaimed as James used his hip to bump him to the side again.
“You already cut your thumb once, doll,” James teased. “You’ve still got another day before Christmas. Be a shame if you spent the entire day in the hospital getting stitches.”
“I guess,” Tony mumbled, going to sit on one of the bar stools again so he could watch James do the dishes. “What do you have planned for tomorrow?”
James paused before going back to putting the dishes in the dishwasher once he’d rinsed them. “I don’t… really have plans. Mostly take it one day at a time.”
“Boring,” Tony complained, kicking his feet back and forth idly. He let himself admire the muscles in James’s shoulders as he scrubbed dried cream and berries off the plates. He didn’t have Steve’s shoulder to waist ratio, but he was still plenty muscular. And he had really nice thighs, too. “Well, I’m going to go shopping tomorrow. I could do with a man your size bulldozing the way for me.”
James turned to raise an eyebrow at him over his shoulder. “Oh?”
“Yeah, you’re like a brick house and you have a resting bitch face,” Tony explained. “People are sure as hell gonna get out of your way. I’ll even buy you something for your trouble.”
“Oh, uh,” James began, looking uncomfortable.
Tony lifted his hands to frame James’s face, closing one eye to get a more concentrated look. “Yeah, you’d look good in a blue turtleneck. It would make your eyes pop.”
“…You want to buy me a turtleneck,” James deadpanned, unimpressed.
“A blue one,” Tony affirmed, and then made a popping sound with his lips. “Your eyes will be killer. Trust me. I know about making myself look edible.”
James frowned, brows furrowing together. “I don’t want to look edible.”
“Fine, you can just wear the turtleneck here,” Tony sighed, rolling his eyes.
“Or you could just not buy me a turtleneck,” James suggested.
Tony scowled at him, and continued scowling at him until James sighed, shoulders sagging in defeat, and turned back to rinsing the dishes.
“Oh my God,” James sputtered as soon as they stepped into the mall. He stuttered to a stop, head jerking back and forth, as if he didn’t know where to look. Maybe he didn’t. Tony didn’t know when malls started existing.
Tony pressed up against James’s back, fingers curling into his hoodie so they wouldn’t get separated. “Keep moving or we’ll be trampled.”
“Fuck this,” James said. “I’m definitely gonna lose you like this.” He turned and wrapped an arm around Tony’s waist, pulling him up against his body, then began pushing his way through the crowds. “Only a crazy-ass billionaire would want to go shopping on Christmas Eve!”
“Excuse you! You’re not crazy when you’re a billionaire,” Tony sniffed, offended, even as he clung to him like a baby koala. “You’re eccentric. Oh, Le Creuset! Jarvis needs a new Dutch oven. That way!”
James veered over in the direction Tony had indicated. “You’re only getting your gifts for him now?” he couldn’t help but ask, irritated.
Tony scowled at him. “Of course I’ve gotten Jarvis and Ana gifts already! I’m not an idiot! This is your gift for Jarvis!”
James stopped immediately, and the people around them squawked in affront and glared at them. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care, instead turning his head to gape down at him. “What?”
“…Well, I mean, unless you have something else in mind for him?” Tony said hesitantly. “Did he mention needing something else?”
“You—” James began, then stopped again. He swallowed thickly. “What are you doing?”
Tony frowned up at him, brows furrowing together in confusion. He’d thought he’d answered that already, but maybe he’d said it in a way James hadn’t understood? That happened sometimes. His mouth got ahead of his brain and sometimes the words came out all wrong. “Buying your presents for Jarvis and Ana?” he repeated slowly.
“Why would you do that?” James asked sharply.
Tony set his feet on the ground, even more confused than before. He got the feeling he’d done something wrong, but he couldn’t figure out what. “I thought it would be nice if they had presents from you.”
“Are you seriously forgetting who I am? What I am?” James spat. “What I did? Tony, if they’d been in the car, I would have killed them too. They have no idea I killed their friends. Although maybe I should tell them, because they, at least, seem to have proper heads on their shoulders—”
“No!” Tony said immediately, frantic.
“Why? Are you scared of how they’ll react?” James asked, and he sounded so mean as he said it. “Scared of what they’ll think of the killer they let into their home, who they fed and clothed? Someone who killed their friends?”
“Please,” Tony began helplessly, and suddenly he realized how Steve must have felt that night so long ago, when he’d come into the workshop and asked Tony to sit down, so he could tell him about the Winter Soldier.
He knew Jarvis and Ana would eventually need to be told, but he didn’t want it to be today, or this week, or even this year. He wanted to hold this Christmas in a bubble and keep it safe, cling to it because he knew it would be the last before everything changed. Selfishly, he didn’t want James to spoil it, because they were having fun and enjoying themselves. He… he didn’t want it to end.
James opened his mouth to say something else, but then he just closed it and shook his head, turning to walk away.
Tony tried to follow him, but he quickly lost sight of him in the crowd, and the other shoppers were merciless anyway, dragging him in the other direction. He wondered if he’d have to go home and tell Jarvis and Ana everything anyway, since James would probably sneak in, grab what few belongings he had, and then disappear into the night.
Tony finally escaped the crowd on the other side of the mall, where he huddled against the wall, trying to see if he could spot James. But he couldn’t.
He didn’t even really know what he’d done wrong.
Tony was crouched down in front of the Dutch ovens, frowning over whether to get Jarvis the really big one because he liked to make things and freeze them or the small one because he typically only cooked for he and Ana, when he noticed the shadow falling over him. He hopped to the side so whoever it was could view the Dutch ovens without him in the way.
He wondered if he should even be getting more gifts (Jarvis and Ana did get sort of upset when he brought too many, after all) but he also didn’t feel like going home yet. He didn’t want to have to tell them that James wasn’t coming back, or why. He knew he’d probably be able to keep them quiet until after Christmas, but it would still put a pall on the holiday. He didn’t know how to keep that from happening, but he wanted to. James had put up the Christmas lights, and helped get the tree, and watched movies with them. He’d been so… so nice to spend time with.
The person standing behind him sighed and then squatted down beside him. “Hey,” James said quietly.
Tony turned to look up at him, frowning. He desperately didn’t want to say the wrong thing again, but he didn’t even know what he’d said wrong the first time. He looked back down at the box he’d been reading instead, at a loss.
James was quiet for a few minutes, but then he finally put his hand on Tony’s back. “I think he’d like the red one.”
Tony frowned down at the white Dutch oven he’d been considering. “You think so?”
“Yeah,” James assured him, then pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed softly. “I’m sorry.”
Tony looked back up at him, confused. “What for?”
“What I said… How I reacted… You were just trying to be kind,” James explained with another sigh. “It’s… been a long time since people were kind to me without any hidden agenda. I reacted badly. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault that you’re not used to kindness,” Tony began, frowning at him.
James covered his hand with his own to quiet him. “I’m sorry,” he repeated gently.
Tony tried not to squirm. Apologies always made him uncomfortable, especially sincere ones; like James, he had not often been on the receiving end of them without a hidden agenda. He finally looked back down at the Dutch oven he’d been considering, asking, “Should we get him the three and a half quart or the nine quart?”
“Let’s split the difference and get him the five and a half,” James suggested, then reached out and grabbed one of the red ones.
Tony remembered the grumbling James had done over the tree and made sure to distract him from the transaction as it occurred so he wouldn’t know how much the Dutch oven cost. In a mall on Christmas Eve was no place to have an existential crisis over the price of cookware.
James picked him up like he was a baby koala again as soon as they went to leave.
“You could just hold my hand, if you were that worried,” Tony teased.
“I turned around to find you when I realized what an ass I was and I literally could not see you in the sea of people,” James admitted.
“Ah,” Tony said, suddenly understanding. Yeah. That was why Steve and Thor had instituted the ‘cling to the back of my hoodie’ rule, after all—Tony and Natasha had wandered off to get soft pretzels and the two giants had become distressed when they’d realized they’d ‘lost’ them. They’d looked so distressed that Natasha and Tony had reluctantly agreed to holding onto them, if only to avoid Steve climbing Thor and mournfully calling out their names.
This was much more comfortable, anyway, Tony thought, tucking his nose against James’s neck.
Tony had been considering getting Ana a new perfume, but James found a very nice, simple bracelet instead, along with a couple of silk bandannas.
“I noticed she puts a bandanna on whenever she’s goin’ driving,” he admitted as the saleslady carefully boxed them up. “Kinda liked seein’ it. Reminds me of… back then.”
“Some things back then were good,” Tony agreed, remembering the way his mother had put on her string of pearls every morning, the way she put the necklace away at night. Not many women wore pearls these days. Howard had once bought her a diamond necklace for Christmas, and she’d worn it once for the Christmas gala, but the next morning found her boxing it up and sending it to the bank with all of her other jewelry that she didn’t wear regularly, pearls back in their proper place at her throat.
“Just feel kinda bad,” James added, breaking him from his thoughts. “I’m gonna have these nice gifts for them, and they’re not gonna have anything for me. Not that I’m not grateful for everything, understand,” he added hastily when Tony raised an eyebrow at him. “But you know, you always feel a little shitty when someone gives you a gift and you don’t have one for them.”
“Uh huh,” Tony said, raising his other eyebrow at him. “Sure.”
James frowned at him. “Come on, you know what I mean.”
Tony shrugged flippantly. “Actually, not really. I don’t actually get presents outside of my birthday or Christmas, and usually only from Jarvis, Ana, and a couple of my other friends, so that never really happens to me.”
James stared at him for a very long time, silent, before beginning to slowly sink down onto the floor.
“Not in the middle of a crowded mall on Christmas Eve!” Tony squawked, grabbing his arm to try and tug him back up.
“It’s happening,” James informed him, and then rested his elbows on his knees and focused on breathing.
Tony sprang for the gifts to be wrapped professionally. James looked glad.
“The last time I got anyone presents, this… wasn’t a thing,” he explained, waving at the brightly colored wrapping, the sharp, professional bows. “And I’m not sure I could get it lookin’ this nice anyway.”
“Of course not,” Tony scoffed. “That’s why they’re professionals.”
James frowned down at the packages. “Mr. Jarvis’s presents look like this.”
“Everything Jarvis does is perfect,” Tony scoffed again. “The only thing he can’t do is make Kraft macaroni.”
“…The instructions are on the box,” James began, bewildered, because apparently even assassins ate Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Tony shrugged. “The powdered cheese freaks him out.”
James opened his mouth, then closed it again and shrugged, conceding.
They got Chinese food for dinner that night, and they ate it out of the cartons as they watched Miracle on 34th Street and Home Alone. James fell off the couch laughing the first time Kevin put on aftershave and screamed.
Then Ana put on Christmas in Connecticut and Tony turned his gaze from the TV to James again.
James’s face just sorta… softened as he watched the movie, all yearning and sad. Even at the funny parts, he only managed a smile instead of the laughs he had before. Tony could guess why—Jefferson Jones seemed like the sort of person the old Bucky Barnes had been, if Howard and Aunt Peggy’s stories were to be believed, suave, and sweet, and funny. Earnest. A dancer. He could imagine Bucky in Dennis Morgan’s role, charming women off their feet. Even now, Tony could see glimpses of the man James had once been.
Jarvis and Ana decided to go to bed after the movie, and Tony and James said their goodnights quietly.
“I guess we should head to bed, too,” Tony mused. “It’s getting late.”
“Yeah,” James agreed quietly. He fussed with throw pillows on the couch for a moment, then let his arms drop to his sides. “…Thanks,” he added after a moment. “For letting me intrude on your Christmas.”
Tony looked down at his hands. “It’s nothi—okay, it’s not nothing,” he admitted when James raised an eyebrow at him. “But, I… I don’t think you’re a bad person. You were forced to do bad things to protect yourself, but that’s not who you are. I know what it’s like to be under duress, so I can’t blame you for doing what you had to do. I’m not gonna lie and say it doesn’t hurt,” he added. “But I can understand it. And I don’t blame you for it.”
James swallowed thickly. “Tony…”
“Also you stirred up Jarvis’s hate for the Davenports and any fuel for his vendetta is a welcome one,” Tony added thoughtfully. “It brings me great joy to see him lose his cool.”
James nodded a little, then frowned, turning to look at him. “You guys were serious about that?”
Tony turned to blink up at him, guileless as ever. “Jarvis doesn’t hold grudges over many things, but he’s hated the Davenports ever since Mr. Davenport said he wasn’t surprised Howard got himself killed.”
“…What,” James said after a moment.
Tony patted his shoulder. “It happens. Well, goodnight!”
“I’m going to just lie on the floor for a minute, so go ahead and just turn the light off,” James said, sinking onto the floor.
Tony grabbed his arm to pull him up, squawking, “You can lament how sad my life is in bed as well as you can on the floor, James! Steve wallows in bed because I make him sad all the time!”
“You are just giving me more reasons to curl up where I am,” James insisted.
“Ana can’t sneak down and put an orange in our stockings if you’re awake and moping!” Tony barked. “It’s really important to her so move your ass!”
“Well, if it’s important to her,” James reluctantly agreed, and allowed Tony to haul him back to his feet, and then was promptly ushered back to the guest room where he could wallow on the bed.
Tony was already carefully peeling his orange when James stumbled down the next morning.
“What the fuck,” James said blearily, rubbing one eye. “It’s six in the morning.”
“Jarvis and Ana get up at seven on holidays, so like… I’m not up that early,” Tony said.
James gave him a flat look, unimpressed. “Mr. Jarvis had to drag you kicking and screaming out of bed at nine the last few mornings.”
Tony looked up at him and opened his mouth. Then he closed it again, conceding, and returned to his orange. “Your stocking is over there,” he said instead, pointing to the armchair.
“My stocking?” James repeated, surprised.
Tony turned to glare at him. “Of course your stocking. What sort of people do you think Jarvis and Ana are?”
James, wisely, did not answer. Instead he sat down and opened his stocking, pulling out an orange and then several pairs of wool socks that made him look a little choked up. Tony did not comment on it because he was a kind, considerate person. Actually it was only because it was Christmas, but James didn’t need to know that.
Tony got up and started coffee at a quarter to seven and put the cinnamon buns that Jarvis had made the night before in the oven so that it was all ready when Jarvis and Ana finally arrived. Then he sat and vibrated with excitement on the couch.
“Are you okay?” James asked, concerned.
“I think I truly outdid myself on presents this year and I want to see Jarvis and Ana try and fail not to be pleased because they’re so used to having to pretend they’re just my employees instead of my remaining family,” Tony replied. “I got Jarvis a mug with my face on it.”
James stared at him, shocked silent. Finally, though, he managed to ask, “…And he’ll like that?”
“He loves my stupid face,” Tony informed him seriously.
James didn’t look like he believed him. Tony couldn’t blame him. It sounded weird even to him, now that he thought about it. He decided not to think about it though because Jarvis would definitely like it.
Jarvis and Ana always insisted on eating before opening presents. Tony hated this, and always tried to insist that his orange was enough, but Jarvis and Ana always gave him a look when he did, so he squirmed at the table even as he wolfed down three cinnamon rolls. Jarvis looked smug. Tony didn’t give him the satisfaction of letting him know he’d been right, and an orange wasn’t enough.
Eventually, though, breakfast was finished, and he got to usher Jarvis and Ana back into the living room.
“Are you playing Santa this year?” Ana asked, amused, as she curled her hands around her cup of tea and sipped at it.
“I’m Santa every year,” Tony scoffed, and then scampered for the tree.
“You seem very assured of your gifts this year,” Jarvis mused.
Tony scowled at him, clutching a gift to his chest. “Are you saying you don’t like my gifts? Because I can take them back.”
“Don’t be a brat,” Ana scolded fondly. “James, Tony is actually very nice. This isn’t really indicative of who he is as a person.”
“Yes it is,” Jarvis said immediately. “He’s a disaster.”
“I’m taking the presents back,” Tony threatened.
James took the package from his arms, and Tony let it go easily. “Don’t be a Scrooge.” He handed the package to Jarvis, who took it with a polite ‘thank you’ and began peeling the tape off because he liked to open presents like a man about to reuse the paper.
“Too late, I’m already a billionaire, what are you gonna do about it?” Tony replied without heat. He grabbed a present for Ana and chucked it at her. “For you!”
“This must be from you,” she surmised after she’d caught it.
James turned and raised an eyebrow at Tony. Tony shrugged. “I only had to be scolded by Jarvis once to keep from yeeting his presents.”
“To keep from whatting his presents?” James exclaimed, but Tony was already stuffing a package into his arms.
“You’ll have to brush up on today’s slang if you ever hope to get along in this day and age,” Tony told him imperiously, then continued passing out presents.
It hurt, a little, how awed James looked every time he put a package in his arms, as if he’d never expected that they might get him a present. Tony tried not to think about that in conjunction with the surprise on James’s face when he’d seen the quickly-cobbled-together stocking Jarvis had made, or soft, disbelieving hurt when he found the orange and socks Ana had left him, as if he’d really expected to just sit there and watch as the three of them opened their presents, an outsider looking in, too afraid to be pushed away to press for more.
“Told you that you wouldn’t be making them feel awkward,” Tony said, setting one last package beside him.
James squinted at him. “Um. You actually didn’t.”
“…I’m pretty sure I did,” Tony insisted after a moment.
“No, you said you’d never felt awkward because people rarely had gifts for you and I curled up in the middle of the mall on Christmas Eve thinking about it,” James said.
Tony opened his mouth, then closed it again. He eventually conceded. He’d thought he’d been hinting, but he could understand why James might not have picked up on it. People were usually too distressed to pick up on his hints when he gave them, after all.
Instead of telling him that, though, he went back to his own presents, pleased with himself when Jarvis and Ana thanked him for the mug and infinity cowl he’d gotten for them, respectively.
“You really like the mug with his face on it?” James asked skeptically.
Jarvis frowned at him severely. “Of course. I always enjoy seeing his face. And I’m too picky for most other things.”
“I’m not,” Ana said, admiring the way the emerald on the ring Tony had bought her shined in the light.
Tony preened, because he’d thought long and hard before settling on the emerald.
“Of course, I do appreciate the Dutch oven you got me, James,” Jarvis added. “I do like the red. It reminds me of someone I know.”
Tony looked up from the box of candies Jarvis had made him, carefully picking around the peanut brittle. “Santa?” Jarvis gave him a look of such contempt that he backpedaled immediately. “Just kidding. I know you mean me. I’m a joy and delight.”
“Well you are certainly something,” Jarvis agreed, still narrowing his eyes at him.
“Thank you for the bracelet and bandannas, James,” Ana added, already tying one around her head. She turned and looked at Jarvis, batting her eyes at him. “Edwin, how do I look?”
“As beautiful as you always have,” Jarvis answered immediately eyes going soft and sweet.
“Gross,” Tony mumbled under his breath, and it was definitely because it was gross and not because he was hideously jealous and sometimes feared that no one would ever love him enough to want to grow old with him and find him attractive even in his later years.
Instead he turned his attention to his other presents, a few nice shirts that Jarvis would doubtlessly press before he returned to the tower; a hot water bottle with a handmade cozy, which looked incredibly like the Iron Man armor; a gift card to a spa so he could get a massage. Tony thought that despite their gifts being much cheaper than the ones he’d gotten for them, they were also much nicer.
“Oh,” James said, sounding choked up, and Tony had to look up at that. “Thank you,” he said, holding the clothes he’d gotten close to him.
They weren’t much, though Tony had done his best to fill in the gaps without making things too expensive. Jarvis and Ana had gotten James pants and sweaters on top of the socks they’d put in his stocking, along with a nice pair of wool mittens. Tony had sprung for a heavy jacket filled with down, dark enough that most people wouldn’t give it a second glance, even though it was probably worth more than some cars. He'd put the blue turtleneck on top to show that he hadn't forgotten his promise from before though.
He’d also sprung for a silly stocking cap in a hideous blue with a red pompom and a shield patch sewn to the front. He’d thought it had been funny at the time, but watching James turn it in his hands, eyes damp and expression grateful, he thought it was a bit cruel now. James hadn’t wanted to see Steve, so the hat was honestly in poor taste. He’d look through his closet and see if there was something more muted, not as eye-catching.
“You’re welcome, James,” Jarvis told James kindly, then stood up, mug in hand. “Well, I’ll go test this mug out and start on lunch. Hope it’s up to snuff!”
“He’s going to be so annoyed when he sees my real gift to him,” Tony lamented.
Ana blinked at him, confused. “Dear, what on earth could you possibly have gotten him that would annoy him on Christmas day?”
Tony opened his mouth to inform her, but was cut off by a shouted, “WHERE DID THIS LATTE MACHINE COME FROM?!”
“Goodbye forever,” Tony told Ana, and then grabbed his box of candy and bolted for the stairs. People might accuse him of having no sense of self-preservation, but he had a healthy fear of Jarvis. Then again, most people had never suffered a scolding from Jarvis like he had. Besides, this way he could pack some of the peanut brittle so he could foist it on the other Avengers. He’d seen Steve eat an entire jar of peanut butter once. He could probably eat a couple pounds of peanut brittle.
“I’m sorry,” James said, standing in the doorway.
Tony yelped and chucked the package of peanut brittle he’d been wrapping across the room and into his laundry basket.
“…I thought you knew I was here,” James began.
“You don’t make any noise when you move why would I know you were there!” Tony thundered at him, then stomped over to his laundry basket to retrieve the peanut brittle. “All these fucking spies in my life, trying to give me heart attacks before I can die in battle like a proper idiot, God damn.” He turned back to James grumpily. “What are you sorry for anyway?”
James shuffled his feet, looking more sheepish than a man built like a tank had the right to, Tony thought. “I… I didn’t get you a gift,” he finally admitted after a moment.
Tony squinted at him. When he realized that yes, that was really all James had to say, he replied, “You put the lights up? And helped Jarvis make peanut brittle?”
James stared back at him, stunned silent. Finally, though, he managed, “The lights were because I didn’t feel right just accepting food for free and I heal quickly so if I fell it wasn’t a big deal. And you’ve admitted that you don’t even like peanuts.”
“In moderation I do,” Tony argued immediately.
James stared at him again, then wordlessly motioned at the peanut brittle he was packaging up.
“Wh—I—This is fifteen pounds of peanut brittle,” Tony sputtered. “Who would even—You—What wou—The canker sores alone—I can’t be faulted for trying to divvy this up!”
“You don’t like it,” James cut in.
Tony closed his mouth to frown at him severely. He would have kept talking, but he figured the frown would hold more weight. James didn’t look moved, though, so he just sighed and rolled his eyes. “Is this that thing you were talking about? Where you got a gift from me and felt awkward because I didn’t get one from you? I’ve told you already that I don’t actually care. Honestly, it was nice just not being Jarvis and Ana’s third wheel.
“Don’t feel bad because you didn’t get me a gift,” he added, returning his attention back to the package. “Like I said. I’m used to it. Also I’m busy, so can you go collapse in despair somewhere else? You helped Jarvis really outdo himself with the brittle this year so I need to spread it out properly because Clint will complain if Bruce gets more than him.”
He heard James moving but didn’t look up. The sooner he could get the peanut brittle divvied up, the sooner he could hide it in his car and let Jarvis believe he’d eaten it. Maybe next year he could convince them to let him bring one of the Avengers as a ‘date.’ Having someone else to pair off with had actually been really nice, and—
“Oh,” Tony gasped, as if it had been punched out of him, when he felt arms wrapping around his chest. He allowed James to pull him in close, away from the candy, looking over his shoulder at him in concern. “James?”
“Tony,” James said, and then buried his face in Tony’s shoulder, as if he couldn’t bear to say anything more—maybe couldn’t even figure out the words to say to him.
Tony decided to just allow James to hold him. He hoped that James didn’t blame himself for the way that Tony had turned out; he was fucked up long before his parents’ car had driven into Hydra’s ambush, after all.
Dinner that night was the best meal of the entire season, in Tony’s opinion.
Jarvis shredded up the remaining turkey and put it in a stew with carrots, and celery, and thick egg noodles. He boiled dumplings in the broth until they were cooked through and then stirred them in so that they’d soak through with it. He put two dumplings in a bowl and served the stew on top of it.
Tony was practically vibrating by the time Jarvis had put the bowl in front of him. “Smells good,” he managed, instead of crowing ‘dumplings!’ over and over like he had when he was younger. …And last year.
“Should we share our hopes again like we did the first night Tony was home? It’s Christmas,” Ana mused. “It should be special.”
“That sounds lovely, dear,” Jarvis agreed, and then turned toward her, smiling. “Ladies first!”
Ana gaped at him, then huffed, reluctantly amused. “I should have made you say a prayer.”
“Share your hope, dear,” Jarvis said, patting her hand.
Tony rolled his eyes fondly, then paused when he noticed James was looking at him. He raised his eyebrows inquisitively, but James just dropped his gaze to the table instead. Tony blinked at him in surprise before shrugging and turning his attention back to Ana and Jarvis.
Ana was still thoughtfully tapping her lip, clearly thinking much harder than last time. Finally, she turned to smile at Jarvis. “I hope for many more warm Christmases with you, Edwin.”
Jarvis smiled back at her, besotted. “My dear, there is nothing else I could hope for but to happily spend the rest of my life with you.”
Tony covered his face with his hands before he could stop himself, embarrassed. His parents had never talked to each other like that. Sometimes he wondered if they even really loved each other, or if they’d fallen out of love and were just going through the motions, too set in their ways to try and change. Seeing Ana and Jarvis made him feel all squirmy inside—they’d never once hesitated to tell the other ‘I love you’ or reach out to touch each other.
Tony had never really understood who to emulate in his relationships. It seemed he was always too aloof or too clingy, unable to find a middle ground to stand on and try to make things work. It was only later that he realized he wanted a relationship like the one Jarvis and Ana had, and he was constantly reminded that his time for that was running out.
“What do you hope for, dear?” Ana asked him kindly.
“I,” Tony began, and looked down at his bowl. He swallowed thickly, then sighed. It was Christmas. Everyone was happy. He shouldn’t bring everyone down with ‘I hope that someday, someone will love me as much as you love each other.’ “I hope next year will be good,” he said lamely.
Jarvis and Ana were frowning at him, he could tell. He kept his attention on his bowl instead, watching as a bubble came up from around one of the dumplings. At least he’d have a whole year to come up with nice, innocuous things to hope for next time.
“I hope it is, too,” James said.
Tony lifted his head to look at him in surprise. “Huh?”
“I hope next year will be good for you, too,” James repeated, smiling at him.
Tony opened his mouth, but he couldn’t think of how to respond at all. Anything he came up with felt too trite. Finally, he managed to croak out, “Thanks. I hope it’s good for you, too.”
He managed to peek at Jarvis and Ana and swallowed thickly when he saw that they were looking at him with soft eyes, jerking his gaze back down to his bowl. “Smells good,” he managed, and picked up his spoon. “Bet it’s as good as always.”
“Thank you, Tony,” Jarvis said kindly, and Tony nodded, trying to swallow his food around the lump in his throat.
They watched A Christmas Carol after dinner, the one from nineteen-thirty-eight, because Jarvis liked Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, and Ana liked Reginald Owen. Tony preferred the one with Alastair Sim, but he figured he could ask one of the other Avengers if they wanted to watch it with him when he got back to the tower.
Besides, he was hard-pressed to argue about it when James had turned from slicing pie, eyes wide and bright, and said, “I know those names!”
He knew the movie by heart, anyway, so Tony simply curled his arms around a throw pillow and turned his gaze on James to watch him instead. It was nice, seeing James so relaxed and pleased. He’d recognized some of the other actors in the previous movies, but he looked like an excited child now, pointing at the TV whenever he saw someone he knew and turning to look at Tony, whispering, “I saw him in His Girl Friday,” and, “Oh, she was in the Kildare movies! Wonder if they ever made more…” and, “He was Sherlock Holmes!” Tony smiled into his pillow every time it happened, feeling like he was getting to see something sweet and private.
“We’ll let you boys pick a movie now,” Ana said slyly. “Jarvis and I are old and should go to bed. Lots of excitement today, you know.”
“You’re the worst liar,” Tony informed her.
“I thought it might be rude to say I was going to go bone my husband in front of a guest,” Ana retorted as she grabbed Jarvis’s arm to help him up, causing Jarvis to drop the teacup and saucer he’d been holding in shock.
Tony clutched his chest, offended. “Wh—oh my God, ew!”
Jarvis turned to frown at him, more offended than embarrassed now. “‘Ew?!’”
“Gross!” Tony continued, covering his face. “It’s like listening to my parents-!” He paused, then uncovered his face, frowning. “Actually, I doubt my parents ever actually touched each other once I was born.”
“Well,” Jarvis and Ana said, and then Ana continued, “Not it!” and bolted out of the room.
“Ana!” Jarvis gasped, offended, then looked back at Tony. “I patently refuse to tell you anything,” he said sternly, pointing at him, before power-walking from the room as well.
Tony stared after them, nonplussed, then turned back to James, who looked a little shell-shocked. “I assumed this based on the fact that I was an only child.”
James stared at him for a moment longer before he chuckled, still looking vaguely bewildered.
Tony got up to pick out another movie and settled on The Polar Express. It was a cute enough movie, but not enough that he felt too invested in it. He came back to the couch and sat down, letting out a bone-deep sigh.
“Long day hidin’ peanut brittle, doll?” James teased.
Tony shot him a look from the corner of his eye, crossing his arms defensively. “Christmas is always hard.” He turned and frowned at the TV, shoulders sagging. “I’m always told I should be somewhere else, like hosting a charity gala, or going to holiday shows, or packing even more visits to hospitals into my already tight schedule. No one really believes that I have a family I want to see for Christmas. They always say, ‘but your parents are dead,’ as if I could never make a new family. As if Jarvis and Ana would have given me the choice.” He sighed again. “I turned my phone off as soon as I got here because people were still trying to schedule interviews with me even as I was walking to the door. And I enjoy my time with them, but I also always feel guilty about not doing more.”
James frowned at him, looking much more sympathetic than anyone had been for him in a long time. “You can’t pour from an empty cup, Tony.”
Tony sighed one last time, sinking back in his seat. He knew that. Logically. But that didn’t seem to matter to anyone else, not really. So he was either seen as an asshole who didn’t want to help people or he was seen as an asshole who would rather go home and nap. He couldn’t win, and he knew that, but sometimes the unfairness really settled on his shoulders and hung there like a weight.
He twitched a little when a different weight fell over his shoulders, looking up in surprise to find that James had wrapped his arm around his shoulders. It felt… nice. Warm. Tony leaned into him, letting his eyes drift shut for a moment before he turned his gaze back on the TV. “It was really nice, having you for Christmas,” he admitted softly.
“It was really nice, being invited,” James replied, just as quiet, as if there was a spell over them that might break if he didn’t. “Thank you.”
“You don’t have to leave, you know. Jarvis and Ana wouldn’t mind having you, I’m sure of it,” Tony began, but James just shushed him, quiet but firm, so he fell silent, instead watching as a train pulled up outside a boy’s house.
James was gone when they got up the next morning, as if he’d never been there at all.
“I hope he’s safe,” Jarvis said solemnly.
Tony took a deep breath, then let it back out slowly. “I have to tell you guys something.”
Ana reached out to grab his hand. “Honey, we know.”
Tony looked down at her hand, then looked up at her, confused. “What?” Ana cupped his cheek with one hand and smiled sadly before she turned and left the room. Tony watched her go, frowning, then looked up at Jarvis, heart dropping to his feet. “You know? You’ve known this whole time?”
“Tony,” Jarvis said quietly, reaching out to grab his shoulders. “I was in the army during the war. I knew the moment I saw your parents that it wasn’t a car crash. But no one would believe me. And I couldn’t go to you and tell you what I thought without proof.”
“You were guessing,” Tony whispered. “You had to be.”
Jarvis cupped his cheek, smiling sadly. “Perhaps. Maybe I was angry and wanted to see what wasn’t an accident, to be able to have someone to be angry at. But I don’t think that’s what it was, Tony. And I think you know that too.”
Tony stared up at him, frowning, then dipped his head to stare down at his feet. “I miss them.”
“I do, too,” Jarvis said softly.
“James didn’t want to do it,” Tony added, though he didn’t know who he was trying to remind.
Jarvis patted his back and gave him one last squeeze before he leaned back, smiling down at him sadly. “I would never begrudge a prisoner of war doing what they have to do to survive.”
Tony opened his mouth, then closed it again. There really wasn’t anything he could say. So he just put his head on Jarvis’s shoulder and sniffled.
The Tower was still in relatively one piece when he returned. He was kind of disappointed by it. He felt jittery, like he needed something to do. Because he knew as soon as the they passed into the new year, Steve would ask him to help track James down again.
Tony had no idea how to tell him that oh, yeah, Barnes had spent Christmas with him at the mansion, where everyone had apparently known he’d killed his parents and yet hadn’t cared to bring it up, because he was like a scared animal. He had no idea how to tell Steve to just stop, to let James have the time alone he so obviously desired. He had no idea how to tell Steve that sometimes, even though you wanted to help, it could do more harm than good.
And he had no idea how to tell him that he didn’t want to look for James anymore. He wanted to give James time to rest, to—to heal. He wanted James to be able to settle somewhere and just breathe, without worrying if someone was going to break in his door and insist he come with them, no matter how good their intentions. Because yes, Steve’s intentions were good, but intent didn’t matter when the action was hurting someone. James didn’t want to be found, and even if it hurt, Steve should still respect it.
“Boss,” FRIDAY said as he stepped into the elevator. “You have a guest. I’ve taken the liberty of allowing him to wait for you in the penthouse.”
Tony fought not to groan. He’d just gotten back. Couldn’t the others give him at least a half an hour to relax and decompress? “Thanks, Fri,” he said, instead of pouting like he wanted to. “I appreciate it.” Well, at least this way he could get rid of the peanut brittle faster.
“Listen,” Tony began as he stepped off the elevator. “I’ll give you your presents now, but I’d really like to take a nice long soak in the FUCK!” he shouted when he realized who his ‘guest’ actually was.
“Hi,” James said, turning from examining the movies on his shelf.
“James!” Tony barked, rushing over to him and grabbing his arm. He looked around suspiciously, but there was no Steve in sight, so he figured it was safe to assume that Steve didn’t know Bucky was there. Still, he looked back up at James, scowling at him as he whispered, “What are you doing here? Does Steve know?”
James raised an eyebrow, smiling a little. “Well, considering Steve would be up my ass if he did know I was here, I think we can safely say that no, he doesn’t know,” he replied, amused.
“I thought you wanted to be—” Tony began, then frowned. Maybe he was a little too like Steve in that aspect, always making assumptions for other people. He sighed softly and looked down his feet, then looked back up at James, concerned. “Do you need something?”
“I’ve been thinking,” James admitted, putting his hand on top of Tony’s.
Tony stared up at him, concerned. “Oh?”
“…It’s tiring, running all the time,” James said softly. “And this Christmas… this Christmas was so nice, Tony. The best one I’ve ever had in a long time. And it’s all because of you. So I thought… what if I could spend every other holiday with you, too?”
“Jarvis and Ana go to Florida for the winter months,” Tony began, but he couldn’t help the hope welling in him.
James smiled at him gently. “I said that it was all because of you, doll.”
Tony stared up at him, breathlessly managing, “I like when you call me ‘doll.’”
“Guess I’ll just hafta keep callin’ you that, then, huh?” James asked, then pulled him a hug. “Please let me stay.”
“I was always going to let you,” Tony said, but then frowned again. “But, James… Things are going to be difficult for a while. You know that, right? You might have been a prisoner of war, but people are still going to want you to face consequences, and—”
James turned toward him fully and cupped his cheeks. “But you’ll help me, right?”
“Of course,” Tony answered immediately, surprised. He lifted his hands to put over James’s.
James smiled at him. “Then I’m willing to do it. I can’t move toward the future if I keep running from the past. Just, ah, one thing…”
Tony blinked up at him, concerned now. “Yes?”
“Can we just… not tell Steve yet?” James asked, wincing a little. “Just a couple days. I know he cares, but… man. I thought throwing him in the river would help him understand I just want to be left alone for a while.”
“Maybe you were too subtle, because you also dragged him back out,” Tony suggested seriously, and then laughed, unable to keep a straight face even for a second.
James laughed too. “Maybe so!” Then he leered at Tony playfully. “Now what’s this I hear about a nice long soak?”
“Easy, cowboy,” Tony teased, putting his hands on his shoulders to ease him away. “Let’s take it slow. After all once Steve learns you’re here, we probably won’t have any time alone together for months.”
“Steve always was a dumbass when it came to me dating. It’s why I always got double dates—he had no idea he was horning in on my dates,” James said flatly.
Tony laughed. “Guess you’ll just have to find someone to distract him then, won’t you? Just like old times.”
“Fucking asshole can outgrow his pants but not his dating idiocy why me,” James complained, ushering Tony to the couch. “God made him my best friend to test me specifically.”
“I wasn’t actually kidding about a long soak,” Tony admitted, even as he allowed himself to be stuffed onto the couch.
“If you feed me peanut brittle by hand, I’ll rub your feet,” James offered, and then yelped and jerked backward, just barely dodging Tony’s shoe as he shoved his foot in his face insistently. “Oh! So that’s a thing you like, okay.”
Tony ended up feeding him a whole pound of peanut brittle before James climbed onto the couch to cuddle him. He figured it could be from Steve’s amount. James asked FRIDAY to play Three Godfathers for them, because it was one he’d remembered watching, before the war.
Tony only realized that James had been watching him instead of the movie when he turned to ask if he’d liked Walter Brennan in other movies until to find James looking at him with soft eyes. The question left his head immediately as he looked back at him, suddenly feeling bashful.
“Next year is gonna be hard,” James finally said after a few moments, smiling. “But it’s gonna be good, too.”
Tony swallowed the lump suddenly filling is throat and nodded, quietly agreeing, “Yeah, it is.” He decided not to worry about how hard it was going to be for the moment. He just wanted to enjoy the movie and James’s company as long as he could before he had to share him again.
He'd have to remember to text Ana and Jarvis that James was definitely safe, Tony thought, as James pulled him close again, almost entirely in his lap. Maybe even more than that, too.