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Cardamom is the perfect spice

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Steve hasn't felt this tired in a long time; he'd thought, after sleeping for more than sixty years, that he would never be tired again. Natasha's mouth and forehead are bloody, and Dr. Banner has some nice gentleman's flannel buttondown tied around his waist like a loincloth because otherwise he'd have nothing on, but the – well, the Avengers, Steve guesses he should call them now – go for shawarma anyway, leaving Loki bound and gagged and at the tender mercy of Director Fury.

Steve's own forearm is still bleeding sluggishly, but he's not too worried about it. The cut will be closed in a few hours. Probably wouldn't be a bad idea to clean it, though, not with all the dust and debris that's floating through the air of New York City right now. Dust catches the sun, surrounding everything with pale and hazy aureoles, and it would be beautiful if he weren't so terribly aware of the human cost.

Barton and Natasha keep exchanging glances and then bursting into smothered giggles, and Steve hears the note of threatening hysteria in their laughter but doesn't say anything – it's good to know that Barton can smile, that there's still lightness and humor left in him. Steve knows better than to undervalue humor in a war zone, even humor edging toward exhaustion and despair.

He'd thought they'd brought him back to be a soldier. That's what Fury had said – that they would win because of the bravery of soldiers. But Steve thinks of Tony Stark on the Helicarrier, eyes dark and sparking with – with something Steve couldn't name – insisting that he wasn't a soldier, that Steve wasn't either.

It had all happened so quickly that Steve was still struggling to get his head around Stark soaring up into that portal, wrapped around a warhead like a lover.

Steve had given the command to effectively end Stark's life, but Stark hadn't died. Steve hadn't considered, back on the Helicarrier, that you could get killed just as easily cutting the wire as you could shielding a comrade with your body. Steve had always thought of those things as opposites: sacrifice or desertion, looking for a way out or facing up to the fact that sometimes someone had to die and sometimes it ought to be you. Stark had found a way to do both at once; his sacrifice was the way out, cutting the wire in an act of self-abegnation, self-destruction.

If Steve had been so wrong about him – what else could he be wrong about? He remembers Loki's pale bloodless face, his cultured voice sneering that human beings were meant to be led. Loki had called him a soldier, too. He'd like to think it was Loki's influence, that he wouldn't have said those horrible things, have accused Stark of being a gutless gloryhound who was unwilling to make sacrifices, if he'd been in his own right mind. But he isn't sure.

Stark leads them to an old brick building with a deep red awning, and inside things are still pretty chaotic but there's still a bunch of food ready for the lunch rush that never came, diverted by alien invasion, and the shaken waiter claps him on the shoulder, pours water from a carafe that tinkles icily against the glass of the tumblers on the table, tells him that their meal will be on the house. “Pay you back some of what we owe you,” he says, and Steve just smiles a little, not sure if he's supposed to refuse and so hungry that he can't bring himself to care all that much. Fighting like that – all out, no holds barred, running in the red – always leaves him ravenous. He wishes that the waiter wasn't treating him like he was in command, in charge.

The interior of the restaurant is all warm gold and wood and earth tones, and Steve lets himself relax into the soft upholstery of the booth, leaning his head back. “So what is shawarma?” he asks no one in particular, and Natasha answers. “Technically, any of a variety of meats prepared on a spit. Practically, a Levantine Arab dish comprised of spiced meat, tabbouleh, tomato, cucumber, and pita bread, sometimes including tahini or hummus. A fast-food staple across the Middle East.” Stark rolls his eyes at her, but Steve likes the way she delivers information, clear and no-nonsense. It's refreshingly efficient.

Thor frowns at her. “Your words offer me no illumination,” he says.

Stark grins up at him, flashing and crooked. He punches Thor's armored shoulder gently, and the chime of metal on metal resounds for a long moment. “Don't worry about it, big guy,” he says. “If you don't like it I promise to buy you a pizza. Or six. You look like the kind of guy who could handle six.”

“Your offer is kind,” Thor booms, accepting it like it's his birthright, and really Steve has no idea at all what to make of Thor.

“It's really good,” Banner assures everyone, his voice once again gentle and ever so slightly disinterested. He's acquired a white t-shirt, several sizes too big for his human body, with “I <3 NY” lettered across the front. It's remarkably hideous.

Stark's taken off his helmet altogether, useless after Thor had ripped the faceplate off. There's a deep blue-purple bruise on his left cheek, a cut slashed across the center of the contusion, and without thinking Steve leans across the table, raises a hand to gently touch the injury. Stark flinches back, and in that unguarded moment his eyes are huge and dark and fathomless, and again Steve wonders what he's getting wrong, because none of these pieces fit together.

The Avengers. Even the name is different, not the Howling Commandos or even the US Army, but something that sounds both more legendary and more desperate.

Stark's eyes are still wide, and Steve notices the scars and dents and scrapes that cover his armor, bluely lit by the flickering triangle of brightness centered on Stark's chest. His power source, worn on the surface for all to see, beautiful and flaunted. “Stark,” he says, and Stark flinches again, like the word is a barb or a whip or a projectile.

“Jesus, Cap, that's my old man's name. Tony, please.”

Steve inclines his head. “Tony,” he says, and then forgets what else he meant to say, as if Tony's name were enough. He hasn't said it before, he realizes.

“You never asked me to call you by your first name,” Natasha notes with a pout, and Stark – Tony – holds up a defensive hand.

“Look, you know, let's not even get started with names, Ms. Romanov, I don't really think you have a leg to stand on there. Although, actually, after watching you fight I'm pretty sure you don't need a leg to stand on, so trash that metaphor.”

Barton shakes his head. “Yeah, no, you've got that one right,” he says, and Natasha curls closer to him, amusement tugging at the upturned corners of her mouth.

“Jerk,” she says. “You ever pull another stunt like this one and you'll find out exactly how many legs I need to beat the shit out of you.”

“Deal,” Barton answers with a weary smile. “No more mind control, Nat, I promise.”

The shawarma comes, spiced meat and vegetables wrapped in flat bread, and Steve picks his up and takes a trepidatious bite. Flavor floods his mouth, sweet and sour and savory all at once, cardamom and cumin and garlic and yoghurt combining through culinary alchemy into something complex and delicious. “Wow,” he says, chewing and swallowing, surprised with the intensity and pleasure of the sensation, “this is great!”

Stark – Tony – looks over at him and smiles, and there's something so sweet in that smile that Steve feels sucker-punched, feels like he can't breathe, can't think, because who knew that Tony Stark could smile like that, open and amused and affectionate? “Yeah?” Tony says, teasing, and Natasha cuffs the back of his head.

“Let the man enjoy his food,” she says, and then leans over to help Thor make sense of his wrap, peeling back the greasy paper and showing him how to hold it all together. Sauce and onions still end up on the tablecloth, but at least Thor seems to like his meal. Steve looks at them all, a motley crew of bedraggled fools, and something cracks and thaws in his chest – some last vestige of ice, gone now forever. The future is confusing and off-putting and he doesn't know if he's ever going to stop feeling like he doesn't belong there, but this – this he knows, being a part of a unit, being a part of a family.

Not a unit of soldiers this time, but still a family all the same.

They eat their shawarma and Thor also chugs a tall glass of something called lassi that's cold and thick and has way too much taste for Steve to handle. Bruce, bags under his eyes and a general air of exhaustion surrounding him like an Asgardian's cape, leans his cheek on one arm, slowly sinking closer and closer to the tabletop as he begins to fall asleep.

Tony pokes him with an armored finger. “Come on, big guy, no crashing on the table. I've got a car coming, you can invade Stark Tower for the night. The part of it that's not wrecked. I need to stop trashing properties, seriously, this is getting ridiculous, first Malibu and now -” and he trails off into what Steve's starting to recognize as his customary rambling, meaningless and rhythmic and oddly soothing. It turns out that he likes listening to Tony talk.

Bruce perks up when they all stand, and they all walk out together. It feels like they should all be headed to the same place, even though they're not.

Barton and Natasha pile into a taxi together, Natasha laughing as Barton manhandles her long legs up into his lap. Thor says he's going to walk; Steve doesn't ask him where to. Somehow he thinks that would be presumptuous. Thor's a god, he can walk to wherever he wants.

The sun had gone down while they ate, and the harsh glare of the streetlights glances off the battered surface of Tony's armor and gleams in Tony's eyes when Tony looks up at him.

Steve reaches out again, runs a testing finger over the bruise, and Tony holds still and suffers his touch. It looks nasty, but it doesn't feel like the bone beneath the bruised flesh is damaged. The skin beneath his fingertips is hot to the touch, inflamed and fevered, but Steve also can't help noticing the contrast between its silken softness and the rough stubble on Tony's cheek that catches and snags at him.

Tony's breathing is quick and shallow, and Steve hopes that he's all right, that he hasn't hurt his lungs or his ribs, that he isn't have some sort of delayed stress reaction. His own heart is beating in short staccato bursts, strange and syncopated and painful.

He doesn't know why he feels so dizzy. Stark has a girlfriend, and anyway Steve doesn't – Steve doesn't -

He leans down, slowly, unstoppably, and kisses Tony's mouth. Tony tastes of cardamom and onion and mangoes, sweet and sour and bitter all together, and the press of his lips against Steve's is heated and somehow the most intense thing he's ever felt.

The biggest difference, he's found, between the past and the future, is that everything feels so much more here. He wonders, dizzy, if his heart is going to be able to handle it. Tony almost died today, and Steve was the one who'd given the order to cut him off permanently, and had that been the right thing to do, was he going to be compromised now by his hopeless desire to keep Tony's vital presence at his side?

Bruce coughs politely and Steve starts, reminded that he and Tony aren't in fact the only living beings in New York, that streams of traffic and pedestrians are pouring by around them, that a public street corner might not be the best place for him to keep kissing Tony Stark if kissing Tony is going to make him feel like this. Steve pulls back, averts his eyes, suddenly shy of so much sensation, not sure that he really even wants to feel that much, so soon after -

Tony just looks up at him with wide dark eyes, says nothing, and the lines of his face aren't giving anything away. “I'll, um,” Steve says, stammering, “I think I'll take Thor's example and, um, walk back to SHIELD HQ, I've got a room there, I can just -”

One corner of Tony's mouth turns up. “Fury would kill me if I let you go wandering off across New York alone,” he says. “Happy'll be here in just a sec, we'll give you a lift. It's not that far out of our way, Happy likes driving, it'll be cool.” Steve wishes he'd say something about the fact that Steve had just kissed him and was now in the process of mildly freaking out over it, but Tony's voice gave nothing away, and the dark glitter of his eyes in the streetlights was enigmatical and sphinx-like.

A sleek black car pulls up, long and elegant, and Tony shoves Bruce in before swinging into his seat. “Happy, Cap's going to sit up front for a minute, we're dropping him by SHIELD,” Tony says, and the big bullish guy at the wheel grins and flashes a thumbs-up.

When the car comes to a stop Steve fumbles with the door handle, stumbling out in an unexpectedly graceless tumble. Well, he's tired too, and dizzy, and disoriented, and anxious.

The back window rolls down, and he can see Bruce asleep on Tony's shoulder, the “I <3 NY”> tshirt wadded up against the armor like a pillow.

“Steve,” Tony says, which – he hasn't said Steve's name before, just Captain or Cap or Capsicle, and it sounds so good on his lips. Something hot and sweet and bitter washes over Steve and he just stands there with absolutely no idea what he's supposed to do or say. The bruises on Tony's face are livid now, standing out in harsh contrast against his grey and weary face. “It's going to be okay,” Tony says, very gently, and Steve sways a little. “Get some sleep, Star-Spangled Man, and I'll call you in the morning.”

“Promise?” Steve says, unable to keep his voice from cracking a little.

Tony's grin flashes through the dark like a firework. “Yeah,” he says. “Someone's going to have to introduce you to sushi. And tapas, we should totally do tapas. It'll be awesome.”

Steve nods. “Good night,” he says.”

Tony's eyes are very dark, his lashes sweeping his cheek and when he looks back up Steve catches his breath with something like pain. “Sleep tight,” Tony says, low and soft and gentle, and then the window rolls back up and the car pulls away, vanishing into the night like a dream, although Steve knows that he's going to dream of something very different as soon as he lays down his head.