He'd honestly forgotten a couple of birthdays over in India. Or, well, maybe he'd lost months in India, and if one of those months happened to be the one in which he was born, more than one year in a row, it didn't really matter. It seemed farcical, in any case, to have a singular birthday, when Bruce was not just Bruce anymore, and he was hardly going to celebrate the birth of the Other Guy. In any case, it was easiest to just tell himself he'd forgotten.
Bruce should have known that was never going to fly with Tony, but truth be told, he'd been focusing on more interesting things, thermonuclear physics and the like. Tony should have understood that.
In hindsight, Bruce thought maybe Tony did. Why else would he have planned the surprise party--no actual jumping out and surprising, everyone was pretty clear on why that was a Piss Fucking Poor Idea, but a surprise nonetheless in that it blindsided Bruce--in the lab, flown Jane in from New Mexico, had Clint "appropriate" (steal) toys from SHIELD? Bruce hadn't particularly wanted to celebrate his birthday, but if Tony was going to press the point--and of course he was, he was Tony--then a nice little science party was something Bruce could appreciate.
Coulson made the cake. Coulson stress-baked--nobody would dare say it aloud, but it was true, all the same--and he was good at it, so good, that for a while, Tony had considered the possibility Coulson was lulling them into a false sense of security with baked goods, but Natasha ate them, and Natasha was a fairly sensible act to follow in most things. Specifically, Coulson made an angel food cake with caramel buttercream frosting, which was Bruce's favorite.
Bruce asked, "How'd you know?"
Coulson said, "Natasha," and Bruce was almost positive he'd never talked with Natasha about his preference in cakes, but he didn't doubt it, either.
Steve had evidently ventured bravely onto the internet to order Bruce the Chaplin films they liked to watch together, and Tony had designed Hulk-proof trousers, because Clint, having done the heavy lifting, had claimed the SHIELD property as his gift.
Pepper gave him a code that would keep Tony out of his lab for at least a month. She'd had JARVIS cook it up in a moment of wild renegade cooperation between the two and behind Tony's back. Tony would figure it out, of course, but until then it would be appreciated in the bits of time when Bruce simply needed to be alone.
Natasha gave him a battered paperback of Wilde's prison writings and inside she had written, It was the first thing Clint ever gave me. He met her gaze across the room and nodded, knowing it was something he'd never be able to say thank you for.
Thor brought Asgardian writings on the tesseract, which Bruce had to promise to share with Jane and not, under any circumstance to give to SHIELD. Neither condition bothered him; waiting to start in on reading did.
By Bruce's estimate, the party lasted less than two hours before they left him and Jane with their heads together, poring over their new treat. At some point, someone brought them dinner, and leftover cake. Jane let him have her piece.
Bruce figured he might bother to remember his birthday now and then from now on. Maybe.
On the day Bruce generally most wanted to curl up and sleep all the way through, he woke to the smell of something delicious--quiche, as it turned out--and noticed a full tray breakfast.
There was a card on the tray. It was green. Bruce sighed and reached out. On the front were the words, "Thanks for always saving our asses."
Inside, there were probably a hundred names squeezed into every available space. In the center, Thor, Steve, Tony, Coulson, Clint, Pepper, Jane and Natasha had all signed in permanent marker, big enough to stand out from all the rest of the names.
On the back was written, "Take the day off."
Bruce laughed and reached for his breakfast in bed.
Birthdays weren't really a thing on Asgard, so it took Thor a while to comprehend them. A while, and Jane cocking her head and saying, "We don't live to see worlds die, Thor. We live for seventy, eighty, ninety years if we're lucky. Each one counts."
Thor had nodded a bit, trying not to think about what that meant for Jane and she had smiled. "Plus, they're fun."
That was something Thor could easily appreciate. The fact remained, though, that Thor didn't have a birthday. Oh, there probably had been a particular formation of stars at the moment of his birth or some other indicia of the event, but time on Asgard was not marked in similar ways to Midgard, and even if it were, birth times would not have been recorded.
Thor made sure to find out the date of Jane's birth, and to inquire as to what, precisely, was appropriate behavior by one courting another on such a date. Then, he mostly put it out of his mind.
On the day of the month Thor first fell to earth, Jane threw a party, one that Clint referred to with a smirk as a, "Good ol' fashioned kegger. Didn't know she had it in her."
Thor had no idea what was old-fashioned about the party, but there was a keg--several, in fact--and every flavor of pop-tart ever created, according to Pepper, who had been assigned the job of making sure they didn't miss anything. Solemnly, Thor told her, "Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough is my favorite."
She nodded. "Jane mentioned. I ordered a crate."
The next morning, Thor came to the kitchen in the Tower to find Coulson making hangover antidotes and breakfast. Coulson threw him a box of poptarts and said, "Happy birthday."
Looking up from where he had faceplanted at the kitchen table, Tony said, "Let's do this again next year."
In late May, Tony herded Steve, Natasha, Clint, Bruce, Coulson, Pepper, Steve and himself on his jet, flew them across the country to California, and had a limo whisk them away to Dodger Stadium. Steve was still pretty disoriented by his team having up and deserted his city, but he couldn't quite convince himself it wasn't his team, so he appreciated the gesture.
And, in fairness, Dodger Stadium was something to see. Tony, of course, had gotten them seats behind the pitching mound, and three minutes into the game it was easy to forget all the ways in which the world didn't make sense anymore.
Admittedly, a person could buy a lot more food than Steve remembered being at ballparks. There were still the traditional hot dogs--although, the Dodger Dog was bigger and less likely to contain animal products best not thought about than the ones Steve remembered--and sodas, but any time Steve so much as eyed a vendor, Tony was waving the poor guy over, and then Steve could hardly say no, so he ended up eating a large pretzel, nachos, popcorn, ice cream and a piece of pizza. Luckily, Clint, Bruce and Pepper tagged in at times, because high metabolism rate or no, there was only so much food Steve could put away over a period of two hours.
The Dodgers won, which was good for crowd morale and pleased Steve in the pit of his stomach, where little things still meant more than they should. A couple of the players popped over the top of the dugout and asked Tony and Steve earnestly for their autographs.
Steve, who normally hated this feeling, the way it reminded him of his time schilling bonds, made him feel as though the things he did were still for show, but nonetheless usually signed without hesitation, said, "Sure, if you'll sign a ball for me."
"Write happy birthday on it," Pepper called to them.
Steve blinked. "It's not my birthday, ma'am."
Coulson's expression was suggestive of a smile, even if it couldn't precisely be described that way. He said, "For us it is."
Steve thought about what day it was--had to check his watch for the actual number--and realized, "Oh."
It was the day he'd woken up. One of the ballplayers raised an eyebrow and asked, "So is it your birthday, or not?"
Steve scribbled his name on the jersey he'd been handed, and gave it over to Tony. "Yeah. Yeah,I guess it is."
On the date of the day he'd been born the first time around, Steve woke up to the sensation of-- "Is something licking my face, Jarvis?"
"The others felt you were the kind of person who likely desired a dog as a child, sir."
Steve opened his eyes, and sure enough, a puppy was sitting on his chest, nosing at his chin. It was clearly a mutt, some kind of retriever-hound mix. There was a red, white and blue ribbon around its neck that held a card.
It read, Happy technical, biological birthday. She's yours.
In Clint's handwriting, there was a P.S.: Please don't name her anything stupid.
Steve scratched behind the puppy's--his puppy's--ears, and grinned.
Almost two years after the Chitauri invasion, Tony walked out of his lab one day, into the communal living room, where Tasha and Clint were engaged in a winner-take-all game of Chinese checkers, Coulson and Pepper were actually doing work, and Steve and Bruce were playing a fairly lazy game of fetch with the now-full-sized puppy, Ruthie, and pointed at Tasha, "We've missed your birthday. Probably twice now."
Tasha blinked at him, then went back to her game. "No, you haven't. I don't have a birthday."
Tony was evidently thrown for a moment, because it took him longer than it usually would have to say, "You have a birthday. Things that are hatched have birthdays--"
"Stark," Clint warned, but Tony just kept going.
"--you just don't know when it is."
Tasha shrugged. "Very well."
"A date is not a problem," Tony kept at it. "In case you haven't noticed, we like to celebrate all kinds of random ass dates around here."
Tasha looked up then, starting to feel somewhat distracted, which was annoying. "I don't need one, Tony. I get older without marking the passage of time."
To her surprise, it was Clint who asked softly, "But would you like one?"
She turned her gaze to him, sharp, and asked, "Would you?"
Clint didn't answer, but she knew him, sometimes better than she knew herself, and it was written all over his deceptively blank face. She felt taken aback. "Oh."
She found herself looking over at Coulson without meaning to. He was in charge of this sort of thing, this being real, and human. He tilted his head and asked her, "November 17th?"
She smiled slowly, even as the sense memory of an arrow burrowing itself in her dominant arm flared. She turned back to Clint, who was pretending to pay attention to the game. She lifted up his chin and said, "November 17th. Make it good."
November 17th of 2002, Natasha'd been pinned down by three arrows, all of them in non-fatal spots, all of them agonizing. Clint Barton had looked at her, bow still drawn and said, "Fuck," before knocking her out with one end of the bow.
She'd woken up two hours later or so, on a ship, drugged to the gills, arrows removed. Barton had been sitting by her bed.
"Jailor?" she asked.
"Just until I can convince you to play nice," he said, and smiled, all teeth and strange, broken sincerity.
"I'm not the kind of girl you bring home," she told him.
"I think you are," he disagreed.
And though she hadn't known it then, she'd evidently awoken new, reborn, into the kind of person who could at least be expected to protect mom and dad, if not eat politely at a dinner table with them. It was as good a day for a birthday as any.
Tasha had never been to Palau; it was too inconsequential for there ever to have been any reason to send her there. She wasn't sure how Coulson had known that, but she didn't question that Clint had chosen it because it was new, because there was nothing there that might hurt, or if there was, at least it would be a new pain.
He put her on Tony's jet November 16th, her and Pepper, and gave her a Visa card that had her name on it, but Tony said, "Don't think, just charge."
When it was just the two of them on the plane, Pepper asked, "Would you have rather gone by yourself?"
Tasha said, "If I would have, Clint wouldn't have asked you to come along."
"You're not the easiest read," Pepper said.
Tasha took it as a compliment.
The sand in Palau was white, clean and warm and white.
Tasha buried her toes in it and thought she might not mind this birthday thing, after all.
Occasionally, rarely--every four, five years or so--Phil was able to get back to Connecticut to see his mom and dad, sister, brother-in-law and nephew for his birthday. His mom would make way too much food, and his brother-in-law, who had grown up in rural New Hampshire and could can anything that stayed still long enough, would make two or more pies with preserves of local fruit. Phil'd get attacked by his sister's ancient tabby who showed her love by way of sneak-pouncing, wear jeans and old sweaters and spend a couple of days not being an Agent.
He wasn't sure how he ended up taking Clint and Natasha home for his fifty-first birthday, except that after cluing into the fact that neither of them were celebrating theirs, at all, he thought it might explain certain things to them, without having to sit down and verbally explain them. Not once, in his entire relationship with the two of them, had that ever gone well.
The rest of the team was told they were out on missions, mostly because Phil was terrified Stark would crash the party. He didn't mind Tony half so much as he pretended to most days, but Phil's home was one of the few places left where he could feel like something other than a professional cat herder, and he wanted to keep that feeling intact.
He didn't explore the fact that he felt bringing his two assets wouldn't interfere with that at all.
In a sadistic sense, watching Tasha and Clint be parented by his parents was the best birthday present Phil had ever given himself. They were both so amazingly bad at it, and also, a little heartbreakingly eager for it, in the moments when they thought nobody was watching.
He gave up his old bed for Tasha, and the guestroom bed for Clint and spent his nights on the couch, which was epic and inviting and not as much of a hardship as sleeping on a couch at his age should have been.
He woke up the night before his actual birthday to the feeling of someone else being in the room. It took a second, but he looked up at the loft and noticed Clint, curled behind the bars of the bannister.
Phil motioned for him to come down, and he did, taking the stairs most likely out of respect for the fact that this was Phil's parents' house. Phil had seen him jump greater distances.
Clint sat down on the couch next to Phil, tucking his legs into a pretzel. Phil wrapped the end of a blanket around Clint's shoulders and asked, "Can't sleep?"
Clint shrugged. "New places."
"Doing the whole a-spy-must-be-able-to-sleep-anywhere thing."
Phil smiled. Clint blinked. Phil told him, "You can go home, you know. SHIELD could get you on a commercial flight in the morning."
"I thought I was invited for your birthday," Clint's tone managed to be smart and uncertain all at once.
"The invitation wasn't meant to make you uncomfortable." Phil wasn't wholly sure that wasn't a lie, but he meant it then, which he figured was what mattered.
"I'm kind of glad it does," Clint said eventually. "If your home life felt familiar to me, well. I wouldn't want that."
Phil swallowed. "You've got two people who've got your back in this house. Try to get some sleep."
"Sure thing, Boss." He stood up, then paused. "Phil."
Todd, the brother-in-law, made four pies, which was extensive, but he was showing off. It ended up being a good thing, since Clint polished off the boisenberry, and Phil did a pretty strong job on the rhubarb.
Clint said, "How much would it take to get you to quit your job, move to New York and make pies year round? Because I'm pretty sure I can convince Tony."
Tasha, who would normally be the voice of reason at this moment, just listened politely, working on her second helping of the black cherry pie.
Todd laughed and said, "Then it wouldn't be special for Phil's birthday."
Clint thought about that for a moment and said, "Good point, I rescind the offer."
Phil, who was never too full for more pie, stole a piece of the peach, and used digging in as a way to hide his smile.
For most of her adult life, Pepper spent her birthdays in a predictable, comfortable way: she booked herself tickets to an opera or play or symphony performance she wanted to see, had a nice dinner with one or two friends, and ate as many scones and muffins as she wanted to all day long. She had loved it.
And the thing was, she didn't want Tony thinking it was a bad thing that he'd programmed Jarvis to remind Tony of her birthday in advance and help him brainstorm for it, but Tony's idea of birthday fun and Pepper's idea were not terribly in alignment; which meant that for the past few years, while they'd been together, she'd ended up having large society parties, or doing whirlwind tours of Saint Kitt's. It was nice, and generous, and so many of the other things she loved Tony for, it just wasn't her, not in this particular instance.
She didn't have the heart to tell him, though, so often she just gave herself a raincheck birthday and did whatever Tony's heart desired on her actual birthday.
Pepper was starting to think Tony had somehow managed to miss Jarvis' reminder, or just forget about it in the face of the other work he'd been engaged in, when her birthday rolled around and he woke her with a kiss and a, "Come on, you're going to need something to wear tonight."
Pepper closed her eyes, wondering if she could beg off, plead exhaustion, the wish to sleep in. Instead she asked, "Where's the party?"
"Surprise," Tony said softly, sounding pensive. "I think you'll like it."
That made her open her eyes, because it was rare that Tony admitted to being uncertain. She smiled at him, and meant it when she said, "I always like it when you pay attention to me."
Tony's smile was muted. "That's because you're under the illusion I'm ever doing anything else."
She liked modeling dresses for him. He made wisecracks, of course, while she did so, but he also watched her in a way that made her feel powerful entirely apart from the fact that she ran a Fortune 100 company.
She said, "The Dior, I think."
He said, "And the Saab."
She rolled her eyes. "For what occasion, Tony?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Are you intimating I can't dream something up?"
She handed over the dresses.
They had dinner, just the two of them, at Imperial No. Nine, and then Happy drove them up to the Met. Pepper, who'd been delighted by the intimacy of the day, pleasantly surprised, asked, "Did you use my birthday to raise money for the Met?"
She knew there wasn't anything showing at the moment, she was a season ticket holder. But this was the kind of party she could appreciate, understand the logic that had brought Tony to the choice.
"Mm, something like that."
She turned a quizzical expression to him, but he just ushered her into the building, where there was a regular show crowd, milling about. He escorted her to the box he'd upgraded her tickets to when they'd begun dating, and handed her the program.
It was a one-night-only performance of Pelleas et Mellisande, which was one of her favorites, and rarely performed. The leads were all up and coming opera singers she'd shown interest in in one way or another, whether through scholarships or repeatedly going to see them perform. Pepper blinked. "Did you...did you make me an opera?"
Tony ducked his head. "Natasha was around when Jarvis mentioned your birthday this year. She, uh, she said maybe I should stop giving into my selfish desire to show you off and think about what you might actually want for the day. I kinda...compromised."
"Tony," Pepper said, bringing her palm to his cheek.
He said, "You'd show you off too, if you were engaged to you."
She laughed, and kissed him, quick and sweet. "Your brand of selfishness is quite alright with me, you know that."
"But you liked tonight better," he said, knowingly.
"I got to have you all to myself," she responded.
Tony blinked at her. He still looked confused when the lights went down. She took his hand in the darkness. He squeezed it. "Happy birthday."
Natasha, to her credit, waited until it was just the two of them to ask, "If you want to celebrate your birthday, then why have we never done it?"
Clint shrugged. "I didn't know to ask anymore than you did."
Clint didn't really remember much about his parents outside of his father's explosive episodes of violence. He wasn't sure if there just wasn't much else to remember, or if the terror of those moments had driven everything else out as a kid. Either way, if he'd had birthdays at home, the memories were lost to him.
At the orphanage they’d had "month" parties, with dry sheet cake listing the names of all the kids with birthdays at a lunch one day of the week. Clint didn't like sheet cake, not even when it was good, so that hadn't made much of an impression on him, either.
In the circus, people had celebrated birthdays, but Clint had long forgotten when his actually was, and the Swordsman wasn't the kind of mentor a kid went to with concerns over a birthday party.
After that, Clint had spent so much time on his own, there wouldn't have been anyone to have the party with even if he'd planned one, and by the time he got to SHIELD he'd just written off the importance of the day.
His first birthday after being assigned to Coulson, Clint was given the day off and Coulson found him in the mess at dinner, ate with him and gave him a cupcake, a really good lemon cupcake with raspberry buttercream frosting. Clint hadn't known what day it was, and asked, "Did I get promoted, sir?"
Coulson had raised an eyebrow, but simply said, "Happy birthday, Barton," and Clint had said, "Oh. Um. Thanks."
And really, he'd figured that was as good as it got until Tony got all het up about Bruce's birthday, and it turned out Natasha didn't have one, and they had to teach Thor all about them, and Coulson, Coulson took Natasha and him to fucking Connecticut, of all places, and shared pie. Then he'd started thinking maybe he wouldn't mind a little bit more.
But Clint knew what happened in his life when he started getting greedy, so instead of thinking big thoughts, he sent evites for a dinner at his favorite restaurant in the city--a hole in the wall Nepalese place in Chinatown--and left it at that.
Clint tried not to be too surprised when everyone he'd invited, Pepper and Jane included, actually showed up to the "party." What was more, they brought gifts.
"Oh," Clint said, "Gifts weren't necessary."
Natasha rolled her eyes at him. Tony smacked him on the back of the head and said, "We're going to have to work on the meaning of birthday with you, I can see."
Thor hugged him and said, "I am glad you are alive to celebrate another year, friend Clint."
"Me too, buddy," Clint told him, a little breathless from the intensity of Thor's grip.
Jane said, "I'm hungry," and Thor let go to see that they were seated, and Jane could get food. Clint mouthed, "Thanks," and she grinned.
Bruce looked at the menu and asked, "How have I not known about this place?"
"Clint's a food ninja," Coulson said, very matter-of-factly.
"Watch it, or I'll order for you," Clint warned. Coulson shut his menu. The rest followed.
And that should have been that--nice meal, friends being friends, or, in Tony's case, mild dicks, some wine, thoughtful gifts, all of which he would actually use--the perfect birthday.
Only, when they got back to the tower, there was a literal cupcake tree waiting for him, with cupcakes in every flavor he could imagine. Clint didn't even bother to hold back his, "Wow."
Tony said, "I designed the structure."
Steve and Bruce chimed in with, "Coulson made the cupcakes."
Clint blinked. "All of them?"
Pepper walked around the tree. "I requested key lime. It's somewhere in here."
Clint said, "Holy shit."
Tony clapped him on the back and said, "Next year, I'm working on a cupcake tree you can actually climb into, but I was working on limited warning, here."
"So sorry to stunt your genius," Clint told him, completely insincerely.
Tony smiled his most threatening smile and said, "Next year, Barton."
Clint wasn't threatened. Not at all.
Four months before Tony's fiftieth birthday, Pepper asked, "Is there a reason you're keeping me completely out of your party planning?"
Tony tilted his head. "I'm keeping you out of plans?"
Pepper gave him her very best bitch, please expression. "Fifty is not only traditionally considered a big birthday, but it is divisible by both five and two, so I know you're planning something."
Those were fair points. Even so, "I'm not keeping you from anything."
"I haven't heard word one--"
"I started planning something. This big," Tony gestured with his hands, "it was epic, believe me."
"I do," Pepper said.
"And then I just...didn't."
Pepper frowned. "Are you having a midlife crisis?"
Tony smirked. "No. Well, probably not."
"Because the Tony Stark I've known for, what, thirty years, almost, he--"
"Wouldn't want to take his jet to Vegas with the first real friends he's had his whole life, and spend a week there being an idiot with them?" Tony asked softly, feeling just a little bit unsure as to the answer.
Pepper opened her mouth, shut it, and then opened it again to say, "No, actually, that's exactly the Tony Stark I've always known. I'm just a little surprised you figured it out, is all."
Tony shrugged. "Learning curve. Also, you have to admit, the thought of Thor in Vegas is hilarious."
Pepper's grin was admission enough.
Within three hours of having landed in Vegas, taken over every available top floor suite of the Bellagio, and hit the casinos for a little bit of pre-dinner amusement, Steve had managed to get himself not just lost, but accosted by three separate showgirls, and Thor had gotten kicked off of four different tables for inadvertantly breaking the rules.
Bruce told Tony, "It's a good thing the casinos can't afford to lose your custom."
Natasha, somewhat predictably, had worked her way into the high stakes poker room by the time Tony was ready for dinner. Clint was cleaning up at blackjack, Jane was attempting to help Thor in his study of Midgardian culture by way of the roulette tables, and Pepper and Phil had gone off to attempt to find Steve.
Once Tony had rescued Phil from the rescue mission and put him on the job of herding the proverbial cats so that they could actually make their reservations within, oh, two hours of when Tony had set them for--the restaurant would hold them--Tony watched Natasha, aware she was aware he was watching, and pleasantly aware she didn't mind.
Steve refused to go anywhere alone after dinner, so Phil and Clint introduced him to the world of modern 21. He was still playing when Tony went to bed.
Tony told Clint, "I think we might have broken Captain America."
Clint, who had been matching Thor drink for drink, told Tony solemnly, "That's on you, man. Allll you."
On his actual birthday, Tony woke up at two in the afternoon, and sauntered into the common area of his suite. He'd gotten keys for all the others.
There was lunch waiting, clearly compliments of Pepper, who was organized in that way. Natasha was attempting to teach Thor poker. Thor, unshockingly, sucked, given his tendency toward honesty. Clint was overlooking the city, Steve by him, still looking fairly impressed by its sheer...Tony realized he didn't actually have a word for Vegas.
Bruce and Phil were watching crap television, and Pepper was chatting with Jane. Tony yawned and said, "Good morning."
Natasha rolled her eyes, but didn't say anything, which was sort of like a birthday present by itself. Thor said, "Excellent, we can begin the birthday feast!"
Tony grinned. "Good idea, big guy," and went to go join the party.