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Six Meetings Before Lunch

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One.

Steve finds the basketball in the fourth floor gym. He'd never been particularly good at basketball--as a kid, stickball was the only game he'd been able to manage, because sewer to sewer was about as far as he could run without wheezing--but it's pouring out and he's bored. Bruce and Tony are cooped up in the lab, Natasha is off being dangerous somewhere, and Pepper is working, so he'll have to entertain himself.

Steve bounces the ball and then tosses it at the basket. It circles the rim and falls through.

"It does not seem a very challenging game."

Steve turns to find Thor hovering in the doorway. "There are usually people defending the basket," he says, brushing his hair off his forehead. "Typically, five of them. But we can play one on one."

"You will explain the rules?"

"Put the ball in the basket."

"Yes, I had figured that one out," Thor says wryly.

Steve looks up and grins. Sometimes he forgets that Thor isn't just a giant Labrador puppy of a man, and that just because he doesn't know a lot about things like basketball doesn't mean he's stupid. Steve should know better; he hates it when the others treat him that way because of some future thing he hasn't gotten the hang of yet.

"Okay," he says. "If you make a basket from inside this line," he taps the three-point line with his toe, "it's one point. If you make it from beyond that line, it's two. Whoever reaches twenty-one points first, wins, but you have to win by two points." The rules aren't exactly what they were when he was a kid, but since he's been back, he's played in a couple of pickup games in the park near his apartment, and it's not like Thor's going to be a stickler about it if he gets something wrong. "You can use your hands to try to steal the ball and to block it but you can't sweep it out of the basket--that's called goaltending and is a foul." Thor cocks his head curiously, but thankfully, no cock jokes are forthcoming, so Steve continues. "Since there are no refs here, we'll call our own fouls. After you score, I get the ball, and vice versa. Once you get it, you have to take the ball out to half-court before you can try to score."

"It seems simple enough. Let us play."

Steve bounces the ball once and then, because he's a good guy, he tosses it to Thor, who barrels over him to the basket and sinks it.

It's been a while since anyone took a run at Steve like that who wasn't trying to kill him, and even longer since someone did who could actually knock him over. He hits the hardwood floor and winces. "Okay, big guy, that's a charging foul. You're technically not supposed make contact."

Thor grunts and tosses him the ball. "Let us begin again."

Thor picks up the game pretty quickly, and it's a lot of fun to play against someone he doesn't have to hold back against. Steve's pretty aware of his own strength, and he's good at harnessing it, but sometimes it's nice to be able to just throw an elbow without worrying about breaking somebody's ribs.

Clint, Darcy, and Jane show up when the score is fourteen-twelve in Thor's favor. They're eating red vines and cheering for Thor.

"Clint's got winner," Darcy says.

"No, no, that's okay," Clint says when Steve goes skidding across the floor after Thor drives to the net. "I don't need any more broken bones."

"We will go gentle on you," Thor says. "Since you are so tiny."

Clint looks like he wants to argue, but Steve distracts Thor and Darcy distracts Clint.

It turns out Thor is a trash-talker, though Steve only understands about half the references he makes. But he doesn't have to know what a bilgesnipe is to get it when Thor says, "Your mother lies with bilgesnipe."

"Ooh, Cap, you gonna let him get away with that?" Clint calls.

Steve elbows Thor in the ribs, steals the ball, and goes in for the layup. "I guess they play the dozens even in Asgard," he says, laughing and tossing the ball back. "That's nineteen-seventeen for me."

"You refer to my insult to your parentage?"

"Yes."

"Then yes, we do play these dozens, but I spoke in jest. I'm sure your mother was a fierce and lovely woman, to have produced such a warrior as you."

"She was," Steve says, but doesn't let nostalgia stop him from blocking Thor's two-point shot attempt. He takes the ball out to half-court and sinks it. "That's game."

"You are a formidable opponent, but I will get the best of you eventually," Thor says, slinging an arm around Steve's shoulders. "Now let us celebrate with red vines and pop tarts."

Steve grins. "Sounds good to me."

*

Two.

Tony has a copy of The Wizard of Oz on DVD, and there's a small theater in the tower (forty-third floor), so Steve watches it one afternoon, but it's not the same as watching it in a theater with other people. With coming attractions and hot buttered popcorn and people.

"There's a theater down in the East Village that does a midnight show," Darcy tells him when he mentions it. "People dress up as the characters and sing along with the songs. Every Friday in May."

Thor perks up at the mention of people dressing up and singing. "This is the epic of the flying monkeys I have heard so much about?"

Steve smiles. "That's the one."

"You wish to see it, though you've seen it already?"

"Yes." He shrugs. "It sounds like fun." It sounds like the kind of thing Bucky would have dragged him to, probably dressing up as the Tin Man and insisting Steve go as the Scarecrow in the bargain.

Thor grunts in what might be agreement.

There's a lot of talk of making a night of it--Darcy of course wants to dress up and she almost convinces Steve to be the Scarecrow to her Dorothy, but Avengers business keeps them occupied on the first three Fridays, and then it's the holiday weekend. Tony and Pepper are off to the Hamptons, Bruce in tow, Jane and Darcy have a wedding to go to in Puente Antigua, and Steve's given up trying to figure out what Clint and Natasha get up to when they're not around.

He dithers about going by himself--normally, it's no big deal, he's done it before, many times. But this seemed like it was going to be a fun group thing and Steve is a lot of things but he's not really the type to go out alone and attach himself to a fun group. Especially when he's still not sure what fun actually is in this day and age.

He finds Thor on the couch in the living room, watching television.

"I don't suppose you want to go see The Wizard of Oz with me," Steve says.

Thor doesn't look away from the TV. "After my program is complete."

Steve huffs a soft laugh. "Of course."

The movie is fantastic, of course, big and bright and a reminder of everything Steve's lost and everything he still has, though it turns out that Thor doesn't have what Darcy calls an inside voice, but it's okay because everybody's talking back to the screen, and for once, Steve doesn't even mind.

Afterwards, they wander into a hookah lounge where there's some sort of after hours poetry reading happening, and Steve isn't sure how it happens, but suddenly he's listening to Thor recite The Lay of Thrym to thunderous applause.

Thor doesn't want to talk about Loki, so Steve doesn't ask. They all have secrets and sore spots and Loki is one for all of them now. Instead, he orders another round of drinks and hands Thor a glass when he comes back to the table, gaggle of girls dressed in black in tow.

Some of Thor's newfound fans are art students, and Steve finds that he can still talk to people about things that aren't SHIELD or war-related, even if he still has almost seventy years of art history to catch up on. He goes home with several names and numbers jotted down on napkins, and while Darcy teases him about his ability to hook up, they're all for art supply stores and galleries.

Maybe it's time to try his hand at painting again, now that he can afford oils and canvas. He knows portraits aren't popular in this day and age, but he's always done well with life drawing, so his first subject is Thor, microphone in one hand, beer stein in the other, reciting the story of how Mjolnir was stolen from him and how he and Loki tricked the Frost Giants into giving it back.

*

Three.

Thor bangs his shot glass down on the bar and yells, "Another!" and one of the Yankee-cap-wearing young men calls out, "I'll have what he's having!" and the bartender pours out two more shots of Wild Turkey.

"I like this game," Thor says after they both down their shots. "My friend Steven and I will match you and your friends drink for drink."

Yankee-cap-wearing guy--his name turns out to be Tyler--says, "Awesome! We accept your challenge. Losers pay the tab."

Later, Steve is pretty sure this is where the night spins out of control, but at the moment he simply leans over and says, "Trust me, son, you don't want to do that."

"Don't worry, old man," one of Tyler's friends--this one is named Griffin, and Steve wonders when everybody started having last names as first names--says, "we'll put you in a cab when you pass out."

"We cannot let this insult to our honor stand," Thor insists, and really, Steve thinks, the only way these kids will learn is through experience. The experience of terrible, terrible hangovers.

"Okay," he says, "but I hope you boys understand that this is one competition you're not going to win." The kid rolls his eyes and Steve wonders if he was ever that young and arrogant.

Five shots later, he feels a slight buzz behind his eyes that clears almost instantly, Thor has started dropping his shots into his (apparently magically-refilling) beer mug and yelling, "Boilermaker!" and the four young men (Tyler and Griffin introduced them to Dale and Cooper in between rounds of shots) are listing to the left, their eyes glassy and their faces flushed. After shot number six, Griffin is the first to put his head down on the bar. Cooper tries to shake him awake but he just mumbles something about bananas and goes back to kissing the copper.

"Let him be," Steve says. The last thing he wants is to have to call an ambulance and have the kid's stomach pumped. "A man's got to know his limitations." He's just watched three Dirty Harry movies in a row and can't help himself. It occurs to him that maybe the alcohol is having a slight effect on him, because he should be way more worried about this kid passing out than he actually is.

"Do you yield?" Thor demands. Tyler, Cooper, and Dale nod. Thor knocks back the rest of his beer, and then raises his hands above his head as if he's just scored a touchdown. "We are the champions," he says, then he slaps Steve on the back so hard it stings and nearly knocks him off his barstool. The sensation is ridiculously familiar and yet alien at the same time, and maybe Steve used to be a maudlin drunk but he isn't drunk now so he's not going to let himself be maudlin, especially not when Thor's still proclaiming their completely unfair and yet strangely satisfying victory to everyone within earshot. "Let us escort our adversaries to their chariot and send them home to sleep away their shame."

Steve waves at the bartender for the check, the total of which makes his blood run cold. He has a platinum card--Tony gave one to all of the Avengers, and Steve has never pursued how it gets paid, though he know that it does on the rare occasions he's used it--and he's still drawing pay from both the Army and SHIELD, but he forgets sometimes that it's not ten cent beers and quarter shots anymore. Still, he signs off on it--the kids are in no condition to pay even if those were the terms of the contest.

They get the kids into a cab and Steve hands the driver a hundred and says, "Make sure they get home." The cabbie looks at him and Thor, eyes rolling white a little in fearful recognition, and nods his agreement.

When they head back into the bar--Steve needs to take a leak and Thor wants another boilermaker--the speakers are blaring "We Are the Champions," and Thor says, "We were triumphant this night, Steven. Hear how they sing of our deeds."

Steve doesn't have the heart to tell him that he's heard the song at at least three different sporting events since he's been back. He simply claps Thor on the shoulder and smiles.

*

Four.

Steve decides to walk back to the tower after the brunch for the FDNY widows and orphans finally winds down. Thor falls into step beside him, a smile creasing his face--he likes brunch and they don't have it in Asgard, apparently. "We do have elevenses," he says, "but there is a sad lack of mimosas. I like mimosas."

Steve likes mimosas, too, and eggs benedict and French toast and bacon, but the speeches came after the food and there were a lot of speeches.

They hit Fourteenth Street, and Second Avenue is roped off for ten or twelve blocks, as far as Steve can tell, and if the delicious smells of grilled meat and fried dough weren't enough of a hint, the big balloon archway with the sign that says Second Avenue Street Fair would do it.

"Come on," he says, "I think you're gonna like this."

Their first stop is the souvlaki truck, because Thor always appreciates grilled meat, and also it's the first food stand they come to.

"Don't fill up on this, though," Steve says. "There's ten whole blocks of food to get through."

They buy large cups of lemonade to wash the souvlaki down, and Thor pauses to look at the caricatures an artist has pasted up on a board. There are the usual pictures of famous actors, and then there are caricatures of the Avengers.

"This does not look like you at all," Thor says, pointing at the Captain America sketch. He's not very good at keeping quiet about their identities. Of course, after having been on television without his helmet the first time the Avengers were in action, Steve's identity isn't much of a secret, though most people in the city are pretty good about not bothering him in public.

"If you don't like it, you don't have to buy it," the artist snaps, and then she looks up and her jaw drops. "I, um, didn't realize--I mean, can you sign it for me?"

Steve smiles and autographs the picture even though it's fairly awful. "It's a caricature. It's not supposed to look realistic." He wrinkles his nose. "My ears don't stick out like that, do they?"

The artist is too starstruck to answer.

With a shrug, Steve keeps walking. There's a stand selling hotdogs and hamburgers nearby, and they both eat one of each before moving on. Kids run back and forth, dragging parents or siblings or friends along in their wake, the music is loud but far enough away to be nothing but a jumble of bass, and the sky is bright and blue overhead. Steve feels more at home right now than he has anywhere but on the Helicarrier.

The smell of sausage and peppers entices them onward, and Thor says, "This moveable feast is ingenious. I will have to suggest it to my lady mother when next I return home to Asgard. Though I think Volstagg might object to having to walk while he eats."

There are booths selling all manner of knickknacks and trinkets, and Steve buys a painted silk fan for Pepper and a Hello Kitty makeup bag for Darcy. He hesitates over a pair of lacquered hair sticks with brilliant teal and purple peacocks painted on them, and then buys them for Natasha. She can always stab him with them if he's out of line.

When Thor realizes what he's doing, he starts picking out gifts for the ladies, as well, and soon they have a shopping bag full of tiny items for Thor's mother and Jane and the Lady Sif. They find a Legolas action figure for Clint and Gandalf one for Bruce (or possibly it's Dumbledore? Steve still isn't sure they're not the same character, but he's got a big pile of books back at his apartment, waiting to be read) and a set of Batman magnets for Tony (Steve spends about ten minutes trying to explain Batman to Thor, and he's still not sure Thor understands he's fictional and not one of their colleagues at SHIELD). It makes juggling food and drinks a little more difficult, but Steve thinks it'll be worth it.

"Ooh," he says, catching sight of the next delicacy he wants to try, "funnel cake."

They're both sticky with powdered sugar and warm grease when they hear the shrieking, loud even over the endless blaring music. They set off at a run through the crowd and push their way past the teenage girls who are insisting, "No adults and no shoes in the moon bounce!"

"What is this sorcery?" Thor says as they stumble around, the floor bouncing beneath a group of jumping kids.

The screaming quiets as the kids stop jumping to stare at Steve and Thor. Steve can feel the tips of his ears burning.

"I think we've made a mistake," Steve says, backing away as recognition dawns in the kids' eyes.

"It's Captain America," one kid shouts and they all start bouncing closer, flinging themselves at Steve and Thor, who can't do anything but bounce and catch them.

"This is a merry game," Thor says, tossing one little curly-haired girl up in the air and catching her while she shrieks with laughter.

They play with all the children and sign some autographs for starry-eyed parents, one of whom has even managed to gather up their abandoned shopping bag of gifts, so they don't have to head back to the tower empty-handed.

"I want a snow cone," says the little girl who's attached herself to Steve's left hand.

"Snow cones for everyone," Thor booms, delighted, and the children cheer.

"Luckily," Steve says later, as he's telling the story to everyone gathered in the living room at the tower, "we had enough cash to cover snow cones for all the children."

"They are most wondrous," Thor says, sticking out his tongue. "See how my tongue has been turned purple by the grape flavored ice?" Jane, seated in his lap, playfully slaps his shoulder, and everyone laughs.

Steve's tongue is, of course, blue, and he pretends not to be just as pleased about it as Thor.

*

Five.

"My friend, why so melancholy?" Thor asks during their morning spar, when he gets three shots in under Steve's guard and Steve doesn't retaliate.

He shrugs. The weather's warm enough now that he gets the old familiar itch under his skin for the boardwalk and the ocean and hotdogs from Nathan's.

"Let's go to Coney Island," he says before he can think better of it.

The ride out to Brooklyn is almost too much adventure in and of itself--he hadn't realized Thor hadn't been on the subway before, or he would have insisted on taking one of Tony's cars, but now they're on a first-name basis with a number of second shift workers who happened to be riding the D train home, and if Steve understood the conversation correctly (not always a given these days), they're scheduled to play some two-on-two basketball in Prospect Park on Sunday with Jamal and Derek.

"If you don't gotta go save the world," Jamal says.

Thor nods. "Yes. If you give me your digits, I will text you should an incident arise to make us cancel the game."

The exchange of phone numbers complete, Jamal holds out his fist and Thor bumps it enthusiastically with his own (though not hard enough to inflict damage; at least, Jamal doesn't wince) before they get off the train at Fort Hamilton Parkway.

"Settle down," Steve says. "We've still got a ways to go."

The neighborhood looks shabby and small to Steve now, and every dilapidated building looks like it might hold memories or ghosts, but the ocean doesn't change--it's still vast and blue and rough, and the Cyclone still looms over everything. They're too big to fit in a car together, and Steve has no desire to ride it anyway, but the booming music from one of the other rides attracts Thor's attention, and he can't help but go along when Thor suggests they get tickets.

It's been a long time since Steve folded himself into the seat of a bumper car, and never after he became Captain America, and if it's a tight fit for him, it can't be any more comfortable for Thor, but Thor's beaming.

"Come, Steven, let us bump cars."

The ride starts up and the music with it, vaguely familiar from the music mixes that Tony and Darcy keep making for him.

"This is my jam," Thor exclaims, and starts singing along, though his singing is more like bellowing half a second behind the beat. "They see me rollin', they hatin'."

Steve nearly doubles over with laughter, and Thor bumps his car repeatedly before he can get himself under enough control to bump back.

After the first ride, he holds his fist out, and Thor bounces his fist off it with a gleeful grin.

They spend more time than two adults probably should riding around in bumper cars, but at the end of the day, Steve is glad he went, and glad that he took Thor with him. He's learning that the best way to lay his ghosts to rest is to make new memories with new friends.

*

Six.

Steve's too keyed up to sleep after spending the night fighting the Serpent Society; he always sleeps badly after big fights anyway, his mind too full of memories and nightmares masquerading as memories to let him find peace.

After a hot shower, he makes his way to the living room and finds he's not the only one still up. The blue light of the television flickers and he can make out soft murmurs in a language he doesn't understand.

"So," he says, sitting down next to Thor on the couch. Steve had expected him to be tucked away with Jane, but now he remembers that she's at a conference in Melbourne and Thor's on his own, as much as any of them ever are when they're staying at the tower.

"Shh," Thor says, holding a finger to his lips. "Jerzy has just discovered that Agnieszka is pregnant with Piotr's baby."

Steve glances at the television. A pregnant woman is crying while a tall blond man yells at her in Polish. Steve knows a handful of words in Polish--enough to identify the language, but that's all. Gabe had handled most of the translations when they were in Europe, and since he's been out of the ice, he's spent most of his time trying to learn Spanish, because it's what a lot of his neighbors in Brooklyn speak. But Thor doesn't seem to have any difficulty following along.

Finally, after a tearful embrace, the show cuts to commercial and Thor turns his attention to Steve. "Yes, my friend?"

"I think I'm going to have some pop tarts. Do you want any?"

"Yes," Thor says. "And some red vines."

Armed with a couple of boxes of cinnamon sugar pop tarts (they both know better than to eat Jane's chocolate ones) and a bag of red vines, they settle down on the couch to watch a week's worth of recordings of Thor's program, while he earnestly tries to explain the plots and characters to Steve, who loses track after the first evil twin returns from the dead.

Steve falls asleep with the taste of cinnamon on his tongue, his clothes covered in crumbs, and a smile on his face. He doesn't dream.

end

~*~