"Yes, Tony?" Maria glanced down at her young son, tugging on the sleeve of her shirt.
"Will Daddy be back in time for my birthday?" Tony asked. Maria frowned and put down the bowl of cake batter she was mixing. She picked up a pan and began to pour.
"He said he'd do his best, dear. But it's a long flight from New York to California, and he said his meetings might go long."
"Oh." Tony frowned and turned to leave the kitchen.
"But, Tony," she called after him, wanting to somehow make things better. Tony turned. "He told me he was bringing you something special." She winked and he smiled, and ran out the room.
"You missed it." Maria said, standing in the dining room as Howard walked through the door. He set down his briefcase and draped his coat over the arm of the sofa.
"I know. I tried, Maria, but no one could agree on anything." He explained. She didn't answer, but picked up another plate and walked into the kitchen again. He could practically feel the anger rolling off of her. "I'll be there for the next one." He offered.
"That's what you said last year!" Maria shouted, practically throwing the dishes into the water-filled sink. She sighed and took a deep breath. "We only get so many birthdays with him, Howard. And he's growing up so fast…
Howard didn't say anything but turned away, picking up his coat again.
"I told Tony that you were bringing him something special."
Howard looked to his wife. "I didn't bring-"
"I know." She turned away from Howard. "I saved one gift behind. It's on the counter."
Howard picked up the box and left the kitchen. He quietly pushed open the door and tripped over a train that had been left scattered across the floor in pieces. No doubt part of one of Tony's 'inventions'.
Howard picked his way through the minefield and set the box on Tony's nightstand, where he would be sure to see it the moment he woke up. Howard paused for a moment and reached down to smooth Tony's hair. A strange feeling of pride arose and he quickly leaned down to place a kiss on his cheek. Howard watched his son for another minute, then carefully left the room.
"Mom! Mommy! Mom!" Tony yelled, running through the Stark household the next morning.
"In the den, Tony!" Maria answered. Tony ran into the room, still in his pajamas.
"Look what Daddy brought me from New York!" He held out the box proudly.
"A Captain America action figure!" Maria feigned surprise. Tony quickly opened the box and extracted the miniature superhero. "Now that is special. You know, your daddy got to work with Captain America."
Tony's eyes grew wide. "He did?" He looked down at the patriotic warrior in his hand with a new level of reverence. "Do you think Daddy will play with me when he gets home from work?"
Maria paused, she knew that Howard was not one for playing, but the sheer excitement in Tony's eyes made her say, "You'll have to ask him when he gets home."
-One Year Later-
"One final present." Howard said, pulling out a simple brown bag. Maria paused as he brandished a Captain America action figure box.
"Tony already has one of those."
"No, this one is different." He opened the box and pulled out the toy. "He talks." Howard pushed a button.
"I'm Captain America."
He pushed the button again.
"Liberty and Justice for all."
"See?" Howard said, putting the Captain back in his box. "Sounds nothing like Steve, but it talks."
"You do know that Tony's already asleep?" Maria asked.
"I know, but last year, Tony woke up to a final gift."
"That was because you missed his birthday last year."
"I know." Howard said, a little gruffly. He avoided her gaze and quickly left for Tony's room. Maria watched him go and smiled a little.
The tradition continued every year, even the birthdays that Tony was MIT. Always a Captain America action figure on his nightstand the morning after his birthday. Always.
At least till his 18th, the birthday after both of his parents were dead.
It had been a hard year, certainly. Tony almost felt strange, grieving for a man he hardly knew.
In an attempt to raise his spirits, Obadiah had spared no expense when it came to Tony's birthday party. But as he went to bed that night, it hadn't really felt like his birthday at all. He looked at the shelf of all the Captain Americas. Some small part of him hoped that somehow, there would be another one waiting for him when he woke up. If anyone could do it, his dad certainly could. He drifted off to sleep hoping, and hating himself for it.
In the morning, the stand was empty.
-Many Years Later-
It had been a quieter birthday, arranged courtesy of Pepper, but a pleasant one. At least Tony would remember this entire one. Bruce was the only Avenger who had come, but that was okay, Tony told himself. Some were in other galaxies, a little too busy to be bothered for a birthday party; but others were somewhere in the same continent, who could have at least sent a card. Or an action figure.
"It won't be there. Hasn't been there for over thirty years, so stop." Tony told himself as he lay in the dark room, Pepper by his side. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
"Good morning, sir. The temperature is 57 degrees." Jarvis began.
"Shut up, Jarvis." Tony mumbled sleepily. He rubbed a hand over his face and surveyed his surroundings. Pepper was gone, no surprise there, but, surprisingly, there was a box on his nightstand. Tony blinked a few times, as if waiting for the box to disappear. He grabbed it, sloppily opening it as he sat up. Inside was a Captain America action figure. Tony frowned and rushed out of the room.
"Pepper? Pepper?" he yelled.
"She's not here, Stark." A male voice answered. Tony entered the kitchen to find Steve, cooking. "She left early this morning. Said something about Milan…Monaco? Maybe Madrid. Anyway, she said you could call her if you wanted, but she'd be back tomorrow. Do you like mushrooms on your omelets?"
Tony held up the miniature Captain America. "What the hell is this?"
"I believe it's an action figure." Steve dropped some mushrooms into a searing frying pan.
"Who's it from?"
"Well, from all of us. Natasha, Clint, Bruce, myself, Fury and Thor, though we just assumed he'd like to join in with us. Sorry about missing the party last night, traffic in Brooklyn is worse than I remember it."
"What is it doing on my nightstand?" Tony practically accused.
"Hey, the Captain America part was Fury's idea. The rest of us thought you'd be happiest with the action figure version of yourself."
Tony paused. "How'd Fury get the idea?"
Steve shrugged, continuing to cook. "He said it was something your Dad did for you on your birthdays. He said he found that one in Mr. Stark's office at S.H.I.E.L.D., when they were cleaning it out after he…died. Thought it would be a nice birthday present." Steve expertly plated an omelet, and set it down in front of one of the chairs at the bar. He looked up to see Tony staring down at the action figure, a strange expression on his face. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Tony said after a moment. "Fine." Tony paused again. "Uh, thanks. It…well, it means a lot."
"Our pleasure, Mr. Stark."