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So This Is Christmas

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Natasha stared at the multitude of boxes with tinsel spilling out it, multi-coloured lights and ornaments that were waiting for some unsuspecting sot to step on them.

‘It looks like Father Christmas was killed in here and this is what came out of his body.’

Steve sent her a disapproving glance, but it didn’t last long, melting away into a fond expression at Tony’s happy grin as the engineer stood in the centre of the disaster zone, a gigantic pine tree behind him, somehow standing.

‘You always know what to say to make it feel more Christmas-y,’ he said blithely, waving his arms around in general to encompass everything. His attention was quickly drawn elsewhere as he grabbed some tinsel which was about as long and wide as an anaconda. He cocked his head to the side, squinting, taking it in from all angles. ‘Do you think this is too small?’

The comment made Natasha remember Pepper passing on a story about a gigantic stuffed bunny with exasperated amusement. The CEO had explained that with Tony’s limited experience with traditional Christmases, he still didn’t understand that the best Christmas ever didn’t translate into the biggest Christmas ever.

‘Does Pepper know you’re doing this?’ Steve asked, voice going a little higher towards the end of the sentence in curiosity.

Tony snorted. ‘Why do you think she made me bring you all up here?’

Natasha and Steve shared a secret smile at that comment; both were under no illusion it was Tony who had invited them up to his penthouse level to help decorate, under no orders whatsoever from Pepper. Though Natasha could imagine Pepper would be grateful for Tony to have the supervision all the same while she was away in Amsterdam for a big SI meeting, not able to make it back until the day before Christmas Eve.

No, the truth of it was that Tony wanted the company of everyone, enjoying this thing that had turned into some sort of whacked-out family but was still too self-conscious to admit it outright, always trying to protect himself from being hurt.

By the look on Steve’s face, he would have wrapped Tony up in a hug if the engineer would have allowed it. Instead, he strode forward and clapped Tony on the shoulder, smiling down at the smaller man.

‘What’s the first order of business, buddy?’

Tony didn’t appear to notice Steve’s affectionate slip-up, instead, grinning widely when he realised he’d roped them in and Natasha understood Steve’s softness there and then because she felt a real warmth towards the smaller man’s youthful playfulness at times, sometimes finding what most would consider mundane to be wonderful. Probably because Tony never had this sort of company at Christmas or he’d never gotten a chance to do the decorating himself, so found it a wondrous event. It definitely made Natasha bubble with some enthusiasm at an activity she didn’t really get into unless it was with Cooper and Lila.

‘I just want to set everything out,’ Tony said, sweeping his hands out, sending bits of glitter everywhere and Natasha realised it was all through his hair. ‘Really set the mood, you know? I don’t want to start actually decorating until Brucie gets back.’

Natasha hid the hopeful smile wanting to spring forth at just the mention of the soft-talking physicist. It was happening a lot these days.

‘Where is he?’

‘Sent him out to get some random stuff.’ Tony fluttered his hands vaguely in the air. ‘Wanted to surprise him with all of this.’ He spun around on his heels to take it all in, looking questioningly at Natasha, gaze completely genuine. ‘Do you think I got enough?’

She smiled in open amusement at him. ‘I thought Father Christmas was murdered in here, Tony. It’s fine.’

Steve rolled his eyes at her dark sense of humour where Tony looked reassured, before chucking a box to the super soldier.

‘Start untangling the tinsel and spread it over the couch, Sister Teresa,’ he instructed, Steve good-humouredly following his orders, walking over to the couch to begin sorting the enormous amount of tinsel just in that single box.

Shall I start the mood music, sir?’ JARVIS asked, sounding more cheerful than usual.

‘I’m hurt you have to ask, J,’ Tony said, pausing in going to the tree, hands raising above his head, staying there for a brief second, before they clapped together in perfect time to when What Christmas Means to Me by Hanson started. Natasha hadn’t known the band, but Clint had become well accustomed to them through Cooper, who adored the group, so therefore, Natasha had to learn as well.

‘Hanson?’ Natasha smirked at the engineer, Steve glancing upwards at the ceiling in amusement before going back to his job of untangling the tinsel. ‘Really?’

Tony grinned, completely unperturbed, as he swayed his hips a little to the music, leg extending out in a hammed up version of the twist. ‘Any song’s amazing with me dancing to it.’ He waggled his eyebrows at her as he gave an exaggerated jut to the side, again, perfectly in tune to the music, all the while balancing on one leg. ‘Currently, would you rate me as a too-sexy-for-my-body sexy or just Tom Jones sexy? Spoiler alert: either answer is correct.’

Natasha had to chuckle deeply at that. Between her and Tony, there was just no attraction there whatsoever, Natasha seeing him too much as a little brother and while she couldn’t be sure what Tony exactly classified her as, she could see a lot that he saw her the same way, just with the way he would often present an invention to her first, trying to hide his hopeful expression that she would like it.

The engineer brightened even more at hearing her laughter. It was something Natasha discovered a long time ago that he loved to be able to make her laugh and she was attached to him too for being able to do it.

Despite the ridiculous, exaggerated dance moves though, Natasha recognised the rhythm underneath it and the good balance. Even Tony’s shoulders were in the right posture.

He sensed she was seeing something more and paused in mid-twist, frowning a little in curiosity. ‘What’s up, Red?’

‘You can actually dance,’ she said softly in amazed amusement. How had she not noticed before?

Tony stopped immediately, straightening up, and appeared highly affronted at the compliment. ‘No, I can’t.’

Natasha raised a knowing eyebrow. ‘Yes,’ she said slowly, pointedly, ‘you can.’

The genius stared at her for a brief moment, expression perfectly blank, before he made a childish face at her and gave a huff. ‘If you’re going to be all eerie and observant, I’m going to wait for Tweety-Bird. I can always depend on him to make fun of me when he should.’

Natasha could only shake her head, filled with a peaceful feeling, the ice being the furthest thing from her chest. She simply leaned up, placing a hand on Tony’s cheek, ignoring his bewildered look, before placing a kiss to his cheek.

‘You do just that, darlin’,’ she murmured fondly, giving his cheek a clap, before brushing past him to check out the tree.

She could feel his wide eyes on her and smiled softly to herself, which only grew as he called out to Steve in as whiny voice as possible.

‘Red’s freaking me out on purpose, Cap.’

‘Leave him alone, Natasha,’ Steve said with no heat whatsoever.

Tony scowled, already going towards Steve to better get into it with him. ‘You’re not taking this seriously.’

Rolling her eyes in fondness, Natasha worked on spreading out the branches to better be able to decorate the tree when the time came.

The sound of Tony and Steve bickering was broken as Thor and Clint arrived, two huge bags in each of their arms.

Steve sent Tony a disapproving glare. ‘You sent them out to get more?’

‘Not more,’ Tony mimicked him right back. ‘Part of what was meant to be here.

‘Tony …’

‘Steve …’

The captain was distracted from continuing on in the losing fight as Clint swore and looked at the ceiling.

‘Is that Hanson?’

Tony grinned smugly at him. ‘So you’re familiar with them?’

Clint shrugged amicably. ‘Seriously, who hasn’t heard of Mmmbop?’

‘What is Mmmbop?’ Thor asked curiously.

‘Correction: what human hasn’t heard of Mmmbop?’ Clint rectified.

The engineer opened his mouth, wide grin already saying what he was about to suggest, when Natasha interrupted him.

‘Get that song stuck in my head and there will be bloodshed,’ she called over her shoulder from by the tree.

Clint poked out his tongue, saying, ‘Party pooper,’ while Tony muttered, ‘You’d be a riot to take to karaoke.’

‘I like karaoke,’ Thor said cheerfully, coming over to sit a bag down in front of Tony on the couch. ‘Are these the products you desired?’

Forgetting about Natasha’s threat, Tony dug through the bag with gleefulness akin to a child discovering Santa Claus’s sack. He soon produced an array of ornaments, which were actually all of Iron Man in several different poses.

‘You didn’t,’ Natasha said dryly with no hint of question whatsoever.

‘If you don’t have to ask then I shouldn’t have to answer,’ Tony threw out easily, grabbing another couple of products out of the bag, holding them up. The strong overhead lights showed a figurine of Hawkeye about to let loose an arrow while another had Thor summoning lightning, tiny little lightning bolts even moulded into it. ‘Cool or what?’

‘Awesome!’ Clint dropped his bags and was by Tony’s side in an instant, snatching his own figurine out of the other’s hands. ‘Damn, that’s realistic.’

‘The ugliness could have been toned down, but I guess accuracy is important too,’ Tony taunted, earning himself a flick to his ear from Clint. ‘Cap! Angry Bird hit me!’

Clint laughed at that while Steve gave an absent ‘Behave, the both of you,’ while he curiously looked through the bag.

‘He used to be so much easier to ruffle,’ Tony said with a melodramatic sigh, handing the Thor ornament off to the real demigod, who turned it gently over in his hands with a large smile.

Natasha smirked at the lot of them, before turning back to her task of fluffing out the branches. She had no intentions of going over; she already knew how she hardly had any merchandise in general, let alone have something as rare as a Christmas ornament made of her.

It was why she didn’t expect to feel a gentle tap to her shoulder and she turned to see Tony standing behind her, hands behind his back. He was trying to give his usual cocksure grin but there was something much sweeter in it that he didn’t realise he was revealing.

‘Did you know that so many replications of females in whatever form are just like copies of gamer girls that teenage boys would create?’

It seemed like a non-sequitur but Natasha had been around Tony long enough to know how he didn’t just go straight to the point, but danced around the subject until one could become a bit dizzy.

She nodded to his observation; on more than one occasion, she had been offended of how no one seemed to value her for her contribution to the team through intelligence recon or stealth fighting but instead, was only recognised when it was meant to be eye candy. Still though, she wasn’t quite sure where he was going with this.

He continued and appeared as close to nervous as Tony Stark got, which was that the way he moved his body was a little bit jerky, rather than smooth. ‘Kind of turns out the outlets do the same thing for Black Widow Christmas ornaments.’

Turning down her lips in a ‘What do you know?’ expression, she said, ‘I didn’t think they would even have any.’

This time, his mouth turned down in a disgusted expression. ‘None worth dropping a dollar for.’ His arms shifted, showing how much he wanted to move them like he always did, but they stayed behind his back. ‘So …’

Instead of saying anything, he produced an object from behind his back, holding his hand up, palm out flat, while he gestured to it with his other hand. It wasn’t with as near as much flourish as he usually would have done it, unwittingly showing again how self-conscious he was feeling.

‘Ta-da?’

The sweet way he inadvertently made it into a question distracted Natasha for a moment from seeing what he was showing. When it finally did filter in, a crooked smile spread across her face as she cocked her head to the side in helpless wonder.

‘Tony,’ she murmured, reaching to gently run a finger over the smooth glass of the Black Widow ornament.

It was about six inches tall, actually bigger than all the other ornaments. Rather than her being dressed in her skin-tight outfit she wore to fight because it was so much easier to move in it, the figure was depicted as wearing a pretty green dress, basically a replica of the unique colour pigmenting her eyes. What really stood out though was how the hair was done. The ornament had the red hair longer than what she had it at now, with a slight curl through it. Exactly as she had it when she first met Tony, showing it was really only him who could have made it.

She didn’t bother trying to hide her full, open smile from him as she looked up, eyes twinkling softly.

She could see he was one step away from making some sarcastic comment. When he saw the openness in her face though, his own wariness melted away to be replaced with an easy, cheeky smile, glitter coming down into his goatee.

‘I made Brucie one too,’ he said, by way of distraction, trying to make her not look too deep into his kindness; like he could trick her into thinking he wasn’t a sweet, mischievous person who continually tried to hide behind an acerbic attitude or downplay any selflessly kind deed he did.

He seemed to take her soft look for okay to continue because he began gesturing to different parts of the ornament as he spoke. ‘The fingers are the hardest part to do. You don’t want to make it look like some of those cartoon characters that just have a thumb then fingers all mashed together in one, you know? So, what you do is—’

The explanation, which was just winding up, cut off as she simply curled into him, giving him a tight hug. He held his arms out, away from himself, like he was afraid if he touched her, he would hurt her.

So, she just stayed there, enjoying the strong beat of his heart, no longer hard to define because of the absence of the buzz of the arc reactor, which had been a constant reminder that his life could be taken away so easy. There wasn’t a day she wasn’t grateful that she didn’t have to worry about the technology in his chest being uncomfortable and pressing on his lungs, causing it to be harder for him to breathe in general or making dangerous infections so much easier to contract.

Tentatively, a pair of hands rested against her back, larger than what she realised, and it felt so much more comfortable then she expected. He didn’t say a word and neither did she. He’d kind of said it all with that gift, showing how he valued her … just her.

She really didn’t know how to verbally thank him for that without it sounding weak compared to his solid gesture, not just words. So, all she could do was hug him, relishing in the knowledge he didn’t see her body as a weapon, but realised, it was simply her.

Rubbing a hand on his chest, a comforting gesture she automatically did to him, she pushed back, hand coming up to rest on his cheek again, looking warmly at him.

He smiled back, trying to come across as blasé and confident, but she could see how not-so-secretly pleased he was to get such a warm reception from her.

‘Would you like to hang it?’ he asked, holding the ornament up by the golden string he had attached to it.

Nodding, she gently took the gift from his grasp, stroked her thumb along the side of his face and gave him another kiss on the cheek before leaving him more flabbergasted then she had before. Grateful everyone just kept talking around them, knowing when it was right to tease and when it was too special a moment to make fun off.

Slowly, Tony joined back in the festivities again, shooting little, indescribable looks her way now and then. He was unsure and fascinated by the affection, as he often was when someone outside of Pepper, Rhodey or Bruce did anything, and that hurt more each day she saw that look on him. It was nice when he settled again, convincing Thor to wear a Santa Claus hat and trying to devise some sort of strange Christmas Cluedo game with Clint, obviously pushed on by her comment of the death of Father Christmas in the room earlier.

The ding of the elevators caused that flutter of her heart and she kind of wanted to push it aside, feeling foolish at feeling like this without even seeing the man, but couldn’t make herself. She loved the sensation of happiness permeating her chest too much in the most jittery, but beautiful way. She wasn’t prepared to let it go.

Bruce froze, not quite making it out of the elevators, as he took in the lounge room which currently looked like Christmas had vomited all over it. His face appeared blank while his honeyed brown eyes were huge with shock or wonder, Natasha couldn’t quite tell at the moment.

Tony spotted him as soon as Natasha did.

‘Grinchy!’ he greeted, holding his hands out wide in a grand gesture of the entire area. ‘Ready to bring back Christmas to the Whos?’

The others all called out their own greetings, but Bruce was too struck to really respond, just making soft sounds while gaping slightly.

Finally, the physicist turned to Tony, eyes still just as huge. ‘We’re … decorating?’

This time, Natasha could pick what his tone meant. Bruce was completely full of hope and almost scared to believe this was true.

Tony softened, the way he only did with Bruce.

Striding forward, he wrapped his arm firmly around the smaller man, gently pulling him into the penthouse lounge room. ‘Yep! The whole works, short stuff. JARVIS has even ordered in non-alcoholic eggnog.’

‘Really?’ Bruce’s voice was a little weak with being overwhelmed.

‘Foul stuff, do not try it. Just an overall horrible beverage. Seriously, who drinks eggs unless the purpose is to get drunk?’

As always, Tony’s chatter brought Bruce around and Natasha got to see one of his brilliant smiles, the one that made all his years fade away to show this beauty there that she was adoring more and more every day.

Smiling adoringly up at Tony, Bruce turned and wrapped his arms around the billionaire’s waist, curling into the slightly older man and appearing smaller, looking every bit the little brother he claimed he wasn’t.

She could see Clint practically choking on an ‘Aw’, Steve and Thor not faring much better, all pretending to be working on sorting the decorations but not doing a hugely awesome job on the acting or the sorting either.

It hit Natasha at that moment how alike she and Bruce could be, valuing actions more than words, even though she had learnt how to use words for her benefit. Personally though, a gesture meant so much to her, just as it did to Bruce, whose smile was looking a little watery around the edges.

A happy jolt zapped through her at the thought she had a similarity to who inadvertently made her feel that bit more normal the more time she spent with him.

Tony chuckled fondly, not hesitating giving Bruce an all-encompassing hug back before lovingly ruffling the curls.

Laughing, Bruce pulled back and pushed away the hair that fell into his face. But he didn’t completely extricate himself from Tony’s hold, staying tucked up underneath the engineer’s arm, looking safe and happy there.

Skin crinkling prominently around Tony’s twinkling eyes, he tightened his hold protectively on the smaller man. He led Bruce into the lounge room, pointing out each and every thing to him like the most doting big brother ever, saying, ‘Here, big man, we’ve got enough tinsel to decorate Times Square, any colour you want, bud,’ then, ‘Would you like lights around the outside of the tower as well as inside? Because I can do that if you want.’

The whole time, Bruce just smiled in complete adoration at Tony, but stopped dead when they got near the Christmas tree.

‘Is that … is that a real Christmas tree?’ he whispered, hand reaching out tentatively, as though to touch it, but he pulled back at the last second.

Natasha dug her fingernails into her palms at the open wonder in Bruce’s voice, so fascinated by something he had obviously never experienced before in his life. At the lounges, Steve and Clint’s expressions had darkened considerably. While Thor’s back was turned to her, getting something off the kitchen island, the distant thunder let her know his feelings too.

Amazingly though, with Tony, he had that never-ending strength and knew just what to say not to make Bruce feel self-conscious for accidentally revealing such an intimate detail on himself, which he would be horrified to realise.

‘Nothing but the best for my little science bro,’ Tony grinned, ruffling Bruce’s curls for the second time, thankfully making that hurtfully wondrous look disappear to be replaced with a bashful grin at the other’s words. Seeing what Bruce had almost done, the engineer reached out and tugged at one of the branches. ‘Yep, strong enough to hold one of my ornaments. Lord knows the ego can get kind of heavy.’

Steve simply walked by and gave the back of Tony’s neck an affectionate squeeze before continuing on his way.

Tony blinked over his shoulder, raising an amused, slightly bewildered eyebrow, obviously not understanding why Steve did what he did. However, the engineer forgot about that when Bruce reached out again, copying his adopted older brother.

The little, amazed smile that spread over Bruce’s face as he felt the real pine needles for obviously his first Christmas ever was, without a doubt, one of the most special moments Natasha had experienced with the team as a whole. Thor was now openingly watching the happenings with the warmest grin. Steve watched the two scientists with his most mother-hen expression while Clint’s smile was inexplicably proud and Natasha understood why.

They had all come a long way, not just from last year, but the very first time they’d ever met each other. Steve was no longer afraid of going against the picture-perfect image created for him and was happy to show mischievous side; Thor now moved comfortably amongst all of them, trusting them completely to guide him in the world when it sometimes presented something foreign, a much rarer occurrence these days; Clint let his fatherly side shine through now, content in the knowledge that no one was going to judge it as an incompetence in the field; Tony, while still afraid to show how much he cared, still somehow fearing he was going to be abandoned, at least wasn’t pushing them away all the time and was letting his masks fall more and more, as shown today.

For Natasha, she no longer felt she was ineligible to find somewhere to belong and now thought she was worthy to be a part of something as wonderful as what had formed amongst this messed-up, special people.

However, to her, the person who had come so far since the first meeting was Bruce. The man wouldn’t even laugh audibly in front of them to begin with, let alone willingly join a group festivity rather than trying to find a thousand reasons why he shouldn’t be included. While he was more often than not always at Tony’s side, it now wasn’t a necessity to interact with the rest of them and instead, he had formed a connection with all of them. And, Natasha thought, maybe a bit of a special one with her as well. She never would have been so audacious to think such a thing before but the formation of the lullaby had given her a quantity of an emotion she normally didn’t have in droves: hope.

So, as she watched the group gather around Bruce, gently introducing him to other objects, making Bruce gasp in child-like wonder, running his fingers reverently over ornaments and tinsel, Tony not having to lead him into it anymore, her chest was filled with warmth, not an ounce of ice inside. And when Tony presented Bruce with his own ornament, not of the Hulk but of Bruce Banner, with his button-down shirt and slightly crooked set of glasses, if she felt a tightness in her throat at how his eyes glistened, she was confident in the knowledge she wasn’t the only one affected, particularly when Steve turned away for a moment, trying to wipe inconspicuously at his eyes.

Evidence of why Steve had earned the nickname of Wendy from Peter Pan. Though, Clint was a bit of a contender at the moment with the way he was showing Bruce how to wrap tinsel around the tree, giving gentle touches to guide him, as loving as if he was teaching his own child.

It didn’t take them long to decorate every surface and wall with some sort of Christmas decoration; Natasha had to admit, while there was a plethora of glittering colours everywhere, they didn’t look gaudy because as with everything, Tony didn’t go on the cheap side.

Finally, after a good three hours and a massive dose of Christmas music from Hanson, Michael Buble, Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, Pentatonix and Michael Bolton, there was only the star left on the couch, with the sounds of So This Is Christmas crooning in the background.

As Natasha picked it delicately up in her hands, she was amazed to see it actually wasn’t just a golden star with large multi-coloured spots as she thought, but it was actually decorated with photos of the team. One was of Clint and her during a sparring session, both sets of eyes just alive, bodies tense but their tight friendship was somehow so obvious; Steve was smiling into the distance in another, fond sideways smile on his face showing he had to be watching Tony, because it was the special smile only reserved for the engineer; Thor grinned broadly in another, attention on the game of pool he was playing, leaning on the pool cue like a regular human and not the basically indestructible God of Thunder; Rhodey was saluting the camera proudly in another, a bit of cheeky glint in his eyes, contradicting his serious expression; Pepper glowed in another, right hand spread over her mouth in a poor attempt to hide an exuberant smile while her pretty blue eyes were as bright as her stunning, silver dress. The final one was of Tony and Bruce together, the former doing his patented peace sign at the camera while his left arm was wrapped faithfully around the smaller man’s shoulders. Bruce wasn’t looking at the camera, eyes downcast, hiding the cheeky glint Natasha knew was within them just by the way he was smiling.

‘Where did you get this designed, Tony?’ Steve asked, staring in amazement over Natasha’s shoulder. ‘It’s beautiful!’

Clint whistled when he saw it too while Thor got closer, expression nostalgic as he examined the pictures.

‘Um …’ Tony actually scratched the back of his head and Natasha paused, the movement so familiar but not of Tony. For some reason though, she couldn’t quite place it. ‘I actually did.’

‘You have truly done things to make this occasion special,’ Thor said, looking up at Tony with bright eyes. ‘I genuinely thank you, friend Tony.’

Thor’s earnestness was hard to brush off and Tony blinked at the demigod, slightly nonplussed at the comment before giving an unsure smile back.

‘Pretty awesome, Tony,’ Clint agreed, sharing a look with Natasha when he spotted the picture of them that illuminated the seamless way they worked together, so in tune and the best of friends shown in just that brief shot.

Bruce was leaning over from his position next to the engineer. ‘Everything Tones makes is special,’ he said, almost absently, completely sincerely, not realising how special what it was he was saying as he examined the star closely in Natasha’s hands.

Natasha wasn’t the only one who heard it because everyone glanced subtly at Tony, who was looking at Bruce with a disbelievingly fond smile, like he truly couldn’t comprehend how Bruce was just that special. Unable to help himself, he slung an arm around Bruce’s neck, pulling him close so his head tucked underneath Tony’s chin as Tony give him a tight hug.

Bruce blinked up in confusion. ‘What?’ he asked with a self-conscious laugh but Tony just shook his head, soft smile on his lips, so different from his exuberant expressions of joy, but this one held such a brotherly note it.

‘Nothing,’ he said simply before loosening his grip, but only minutely. ‘What gladiator battle are we holding to get to see who puts up the star?’

Natasha was sure she wasn’t the only one who felt like rolling her eyes in fond amusement; for someone who was meant to be egotistical, Tony really didn’t understand his true value on this team.

She didn’t even think; she just held out the star to Tony.

The engineer blinked blandly at her, as though tacitly asking, ‘No, seriously, who?’ while Clint simply called, ‘Thank you!’ for pointing out the obvious. Thor chuckled at the archer’s sense of humour and Steve smiled his special sideways smile as he looked at Tony.

However, it was the way Bruce looked at her, honeyed brown eyes glinting beautifully in the Christmas lights, which really caught her attention. His smile was different from its usual gratefulness, something else in it, something that made her want to curl her toes while her heart did one of the happiest flutters to date caused by Bruce.

When it clicked with the engineer she wasn’t joking, he took a minute step back, and began to babble slightly.

‘No, no, I was thinking more like a fight to the death. In Pictionary or something. Who wants to play Pictionary and decide—’

‘Tony,’ Natasha interrupted gently with amused raised eyebrows, simply placing the star in his madly gesticulating hands. Again, she chose not to use words to express herself but instead, gave his forearm a subtle squeeze as she extracted her hands.

Despite Tony’s limited experience with traditional Christmases, he obviously knew what the gesture meant for all of them to want him to put up the star. She got to see what it was for Tony to be as shy as he got, dropping his head to the floor, fiddling with the star absently, actually too self-conscious to look at their kind expressions. She was sure there was even something close to a blush there, especially when Tony caught a glimpse of Steve’s openly prideful and soft expression, looking one step away from wanting to give him a hug.

And for one of the first times, he didn’t try to brush off his feelings immediately. Instead, he just mumbled, voice soft but no less full of its characteristic light, ‘Thanks, guys.’

Before anyone could reply though, he looked back up, insouciant grin back on his face. ‘So … use my repulsor boots to get to the top of the tree?’

Steve’s strict ‘Don’t you dare!’ had Thor and Clint laughing while Natasha and Bruce shared an amused look over everyone.

‘No sense of adventure,’ Tony clicked his tonge but his eyes were twinkling mischievously, obviously only making the suggestion to get a rise out of Steve. ‘So what’s the plan then, Capsicle? Other than building a star-placing robot.’ Tony lit up. ‘Ooh, that could be—’

‘No,’ Steve firmly shook his head before stepping over to Tony’s side, holding his arms out. ‘Come ‘ere, buddy.’

This time, Tony took note of the term of endearment and was too side-tracked to try to stop Steve as he simply wound an arm around the engineer’s waist and heaved him up on the super soldier’s shoulder, one hand still firmly on his side while the other held Tony’s left hip in a gentle but secure hold.

‘What the hell, Rogers?’ Tony snapped, fingers automatically clutching into Steve’s shirt.

Clint laughed, shouting, ‘Now do a pirouette and don’t forget to extend those toes.’

Rolling his eyes, Steve simply patted Tony comfortingly on the hip. ‘Relax …’ again, the brief stumble there as he was about to address Tony with something but didn’t, ‘relax, Tony, I’ve got you, all right?’

Huffing out a sigh through his nose, Tony grumbled, ‘No respect for billionaires/geniuses with the no-touchy twenty-foot radius around them’. All the same, he didn’t try to escape. And on top of that, Tony let go of Steve’s shirt, completely putting his trust in the super soldier.

Steve’s smile was blinding, no matter how much he tried to contain it, as he gently manoeuvred Tony over to the tree, keeping up a comforting pat to Tony’s hip, something Natasha was sure he didn’t even realise he was doing.

While Tony tried to place the star, Clint began directing him how to straighten it in the exact opposite way it was supposed to go. Catching on to the archer’s game, Thor joined in, calling out equally unhelpful suggestions. Steve’s reprimand of, ‘Leave him alone, guys’ was almost drowned out by Tony’s adamant, ‘You both suck.’

Natasha didn’t bother pushing down the chuckle wanting to burst through her chest, flopping down on the now mostly empty couch, save for a few light boxes and how it was kind of covered with tinsel and ornament glitter. Kind of like if the Tooth Fairy exploded.

These thoughts here were why she wasn’t really permitted to tell Cooper and Lila bedtime stories.

She was pleasantly surprised when Bruce sat down next to her and actually didn’t leave several feet of space between them but instead, if she reached out a hand, she would be able to touch his knee. Her lips quirked as he gave a little wave, still so awkward around her sometimes, yet, it never stopped him from staying in her company.

A zap of warmth accompanied the flutter of tingles through her heart.

‘Tired of the festivities yet, Doc?’ she threw out easily, no longer forming her words so carefully around Bruce, like she always used to. It had been a long time since she had.

He smiled softly, turning to look as Tony placed the star, Clint and Thor now doing overreacted polite clapping, Clint even going so far as to say, ‘Here, here.’

Steve completely ignored them while Tony blissfully called, ‘Screw you, Legolas,’ before Steve lowered him to the ground with brutal care.

Tony settled on his feet then spun around to face Steve, arms spread out wide in a ‘Ta-da’ gesture.

‘This is where you courtesy, Rogers,’ he was saying, Steve’s sideways smile back in full force as the engineer chattered away happily to him, Tony in too good a mood to be trying to get a rise out of him.

Bruce turned back to her, crossing his arms as he leaned back into the couch cushions, giving a completely, contented sigh, one she had never heard from Bruce.

‘Never,’ he murmured softly, musical lilt singing in his voice.

Suddenly, she felt a want to be able to just lean her head on his shoulder, something so simple to most people but to her, it was an extremely intimate, trusting gesture.

However, she did decide to shift inconspicuously closer so their shoulders brushed together now and then. She would never not relish in the humanising emotions of a want to touch and a sense of belonging that Bruce somehow brought to her.

She curled into the couch, swapping between watching her teammates goofing off and the twinkling Christmas light all around her, now complete with a star glittering atop the tree, heart giving content flutters that Bruce was doing the exact same thing beside her.

Though, she was sure his honeyed brown eyes lingered on her now and then, that smile glinting across his face which made her want to curl her toes again.

Trying not to think about the meaning behind it too much but deciding to just enjoy for now, she just satisfied herself with how this group of people kept the ice at bay, relishing in the warmth in her chest and around her.