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Dangerous Kitchen Tools

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Steve’s phone chimed and he looked up from his drafting table, pulling the pen away from the page. The clock ticked steadily toward five and he’d been hunched over the table since sometime after lunch. His low back gave an unhappy pulse as he sat upright, so Steve reluctantly set the pen aside. His latest comic was spread out around him in carefully inked pages, sticky note tabs clearly making the page numbers. All of the major shapes had been outlined and he was just going back in for the detail work and cleaning up the pencil marks, but he still had six pages to finish and only a week to do it before sending them off to his colorist.

Stepping carefully around the pages, Steve snagged his phone off the kitchen table and thumbed it on. He folded over to touch his toes, laying the phone on the tile and scrolling through the notifications. Three missed calls from Bucky and one playfully rude text warning Steve that he was coming over with a firehose if Steve didn’t peel himself away from his desk by five, several notifications on his social media sites, and one text from Bruce.

Sorry, you guys, but I’m going to be trapped at the lab all night. My friend is going to take over class. Same place. See you next week.

“Crap,” Steve breathed with a wince. It was Thursday, which meant that he had a cooking class in… less than an hour. “Crap,” he said again, looking over at his still unfinished pages. He wanted to complete page 22 before he went to bed, but he’d promised Bucky that he would stick to the cooking classes. Cooking was something he enjoyed, but the only reason he took the class was because Bucky thought he was turning into a hermit and he needed something scheduled to get him out of the loft at least once a week.

no need for firehoses. out of the chair. off to class in 20.

C U there punk :P, Bucky responded immediately, so Steve imagined he’d been ready to go with another death threat.

Pushing the phone away, Steve braced his hands on the floor and walked himself out into downward-facing dog, peddled his feet to stretch out his calves, and then folded through his arms into upward-facing dog. The stretch on his back felt amazing after hours bent over the desk, and he went through the transition a few times, counted out fifteen push-ups, and headed for the shower.

~*~

Bruce Banner’s gourmet cooking class was held in his large studio apartment ten blocks from Steve’s much smaller studio apartment. He adjusted the strap of his bag over one shoulder and climbed the exterior stairs to the double-wide metal door. He and Bucky had been attending the classes for six months, so Steve no longer felt awkward about pushing the door open and letting himself in. The majority of the apartment was lit with low track lights that provided just enough illumination to keep from tripping over anything, but the kitchen was an island awash in beckoning gold. Clint, facing the door, saw him first and lifted his beer in greeting, prompting Bucky to turn around.

“You’re late,” Bucky chastised.

“Teacher isn’t here, so I’m safe,” Steve replied with a laugh.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “At least I didn’t have to let you in through the window this time.”

Looking in between them, Clint asked, “Window?”

Steve groaned, but Bucky lit up. He set his beer down so he could lean on the counter and explain, “We had this asshole English teacher our first year in college. This guy would wander into class pretty much whenever the fuck he wanted, so the rule was that as long as you beat him to class, you were good. But he’d lock the door as soon as he got there.”

“Anyone who tried to come in after him would have to recite Shakespeare through the door before he would let them in,” Steve broke in, shaking his head. He’d recited “Full of Vexation Come I,” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream the only time he’d been locked out, and had stood in the doorway shouting the lines even after Mr. Hauser opened the door.

“So this punk,” Bucky said with a giant grin, pointing at Steve with one thumb, “Waits outside the English building until he sees Hauser coming, and just lets him walk right by. As soon as Hauser is through the door, he climbs up the outside of the building, six freaking floors, and knocks on the window.”

Clint reached across Bucky to give Steve a high five, grinning brightly. It would be exactly the kind of thing Clint would like. Steve’s face felt warm under the bright lights, but he smacked his palm against Clint’s.

“I scared some poor girl half to death,” Steve said. “I felt so bad.”

Bucky waved him off. “She got over it. But fuckin’ Hauser walks in, locks the goddamn door and then turns around and just freezes. Steve is sitting in the front row like he didn’t just roll through the window, and Hauser stares at him for like… a minute and a half, and then he opens the door and looks down the hallway like he’s hallucinating. Never locked the door again.”

“And you were the class hero,” Clint concluded.

“They still tell stories about this guy on campus,” Bucky said, “Crusader for justice!” He made a fist with his bionic prosthetic and struck a heroic pose until Steve hip checked him right out of the kitchen. He stumbled down the stair that separated the kitchen from the living room while Clint laughed.

“He just really irritated me. I hate bullies,” Steve said finally.

“I always said that he was going to grow up to be superman, some kind of white knight,” Bucky said, hopping back into the kitchen and nudging his shoulder gently into Steve’s. “Was almost right.”

“Drawing superheroes and being a superhero are very different.”

Bucky shrugged noncommittally, a shadow creeping into his eyes that read to Steve as easily as words flashing over his head: falling, blood, years of physical therapy and counselors. He banished the shadow like it had never been, face lighting up with a smile that Clint would probably never realize was a ghost compared to his glowing grins before he joined the Rangers. Bucky climbed back onto his stool and twisted the top off a chilled Angry Amel Dunkelweizen. He handed the bottle over by the neck, and then grabbed his own so they could clink the edges together, turning to tap Clint’s bottle just as the other man was taking a drink. Clint choked on the beer and reached for a napkin. He crumpled it up and threw it at Bucky’s face once he’d soaked up the spilled beer, both of them laughing. The door opened again and Steve twisted with the beer held to his lips as Donald and Jane walked in with Darcy clattering up the stairs behind them.

“Heya, Thor,” Clint greeted, getting a laugh from Darcy and Jane, and a smug smile from Dr. Blake, who apparently lived in the gym when wasn’t at an operating table.

“Little bird,” Thor responded, inclining his head with smirk firmly in place. Clint stuck his tongue out and opened his arms for Darcy. Thor dropped all three of the bags at the bar and reached out to pound Steve on the back as he slung an arm around Bucky’s shoulders. “How fares your evening, my friends?” he boomed.

Thor was ridiculous, but his personality was so bright and infectious that Steve couldn’t help but like him. He’d learned over the months of interaction that Thor wasn’t going to let him go until Steve responded to his particular brand of physical affection, so he patted him on the back and squeezed his shoulder. Bucky just elbowed him in the gut, and Thor dragged him away for a bout of play wrestling that always made Steve nervous for Bruce’s expensive furniture.

Jane slid into the bar at Steve’s side with a smile. Steve leaned over the counter to grab a hard apple cider for her, and she twisted the top off with the help of her plaid shirt’s hem. “How’s the new comic coming?” she asked.

“Great,” Steve said, pulling his eyes away from Bucky, “Just a few more pages and I’ll send the second batch off to be colored. Thanks again for the help with the astrophysics.”

“Anytime,” she said, “I’m excited to see how it all turns out. I might include a few pages in my next paper.”

They shared a smile, but it wasn’t far off. As soon as he’d learned she was an astrophysicist, he’d quickly cornered her for help with the science behind his stories, and ended up with more information than he’d bargained for. He could probably write a paper on string theory after their coffee dates that had quickly turned into astrophysics crash courses. After the first one, Jane moved their meetings to her lab and came prepared with diagrams and equations that Steve included in the background of his panels. The majority of readers would never know that they were looking at actual math, but a few readers would peer at his panels and recognize the equation for isotropic coordinates. They would appreciate it, and that mattered to him.

The door opened again, and an unfamiliar man in a ragged hoodie and cargo pants strolled in with a large bag slung across his back and his thumbs flying over his phone’s screen. He used his shoulder to shut the door so he wouldn’t have to take his hand off the phone, and navigated around the furniture with such ease that he was obviously familiar with the apartment.

Without looking up, he directed one forefinger at Thor and Bucky. “Feel free to break that lamp. It’s horrible and I can’t get Bruce to trash it.” He flicked his eyes at them. “Seriously, I will pay you to accidentally throw it out the window.”  When Bucky took his arm off Thor’s neck and Thor stopped punching Bucky in the side, the man just shrugged. “Your loss.”

He hopped up the step and finished whatever he was doing on his phone with a flourish. The phone went to the counter, the bag went to the floor, and he pushed the hood of his sweater back to give them a sweeping once over.

“Hi, kiddies,” he said, pulling out a dazzling smile. “I would write my name on the chalkboard, but Bruce said he would cut my fingers off if I wrote on his cabinet doors again. I’m Tony, and I will be your substitute teacher for the night. Not as cool as Brucey, but we’ll get by somehow.” He dropped his elbows to the counter and looked across the bar at them, clapping his hands together. “So…this is cozy.”

“Tony Stark?” Darcy after a moment of staring. 

“One and the same!” Tony said, obviously thrilled that she’d recognized him.

Darcy gave him a narrow-eyed look. “You gave a lecture to my high school culinary class about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

“Was it good?” Tony asked curiously.

“I think you were drunk. And you told us to wear safety gear if we were going to use blow torches on our sandwiches.”

“Might have been drunk, but that’s still good advice.” Tony shrugged, unconcerned, and Steve finally recognized him. An engineering prodigy, billionaire, the heir to the Stark Industries empire, and he’d turned the business world upside-down by opening a restaurant and burying himself in the kitchen instead of going into the family business. He’d been in the textbook for the culinary class Steve took as a college elective, and his architecture instructor waxed poetic on him for half a semester.

“Are you going to teach us to make PB&J?” Darcy continued, arching an eyebrow. Steve stifled a smile, watching her. He could tell that she was awed by him, but Darcy had strange ways of showing interest.

“PB&J with a blowtorch sounds pretty fun to me,” Tony said musingly.  He tapped his hands on the counter and twisted around, looking for something. Snagging a piece of paper held to the fridge with a you wouldn’t like me without my coffeemagnet, he hummed to himself. “Wow. Is this what you guys do every week?” he asked, waving the paper at them. “Chicken kiev, scallops with apple pan sauce, double chocolate mousse.” Hiking an eyebrow at them, he declared, “Booorring. Feel like having some fun instead?”

“Depends on your definition of fun,” Bucky said, giving Tony a speculative look. Steve recognized the look right away and elbowed him in the ribs. When Bucky just widened his eyes and gave Steve a look of innocent confusion, Steve pointed a finger at his nose and shook his head.

“Do I need to separate you two?” Tony asked.

Bucky gave Steve a wicked smile. “Fun sounds good.”   

“Right.” Pulling a drafting pencil out of his hoodie pocket, Tony flipped the page over and jotted down a few notes. Steve peered over the counter to see what he was writing and was impressed by his penmanship. He would have expected someone as messy and flippant as Tony Stark to write like a doctor, but his handwriting was neat and tidy. He wrote in all capital letters, each one formed by precise angles and even spaces. Steve would love that quality of lettering in his comic and gave Tony a speculative look of his own.

Arugula spaghetti, condiment pearls, invis ravioli, coconut bun, mojito, the list read. Tony peered at it, caught Steve looking, and dramatically snatched the paper away to hide it with his body. Steve sat back down and Bucky nudged him with two fingers. He gestured a thumb over at Tony and wiggled his eyebrows. Steve shook his head sharply and tried to give him a stern look. Bucky grinned and nodded. Steve pinched his side. Bucky batted as his hand.

“Seriously, are you two lovers or just secretly seven years old?” Tony asked curiously. Steve jerked away from Bucky and felt a flush of embarrassment like getting caught red handed with a skin mag.

“Steve wishes I swung his way,” Bucky teased.

Thor leaned around Bucky to give Steve a firm slap to the shoulder. “Most would swing the direction of our fair friend.”

“I sure would,” Darcy muttered.

Ignoring them all, Steve turned his attention to Tony and asked, “What exactly are condiment pearls?”

Grinning, Tony grabbed his bag from the floor and flopped it onto the counter. “Science!” he declared, and started taking out what look like chemistry equipment. Jane made a happy noise and rushed around the island to look over the equipment, taking a canister right out of Tony’s hands and digging through the bag to come up with a handful of packets.

Tony gave her a startled look, but Thor boomed out a laugh at her giant smile and reached across the island to take one of the little packets. “Agar-agar,” he read, and then looked up at Jane questioningly.

“It’s a thickening agent,” she explained, exploring through the rest of the supplies while Tony looked on in bemusement. She rounded on Tony excitedly, holding up the packets. “These are for your condiment pearls, aren’t they? What are you using to set them? Vegetable oil, maybe? Shouldn’t it be in the freezer?”

“Do you want to teach class?” Tony asked, but he sounded sincere, his head tipped to the left while he watched her.

She recoiled, drawing the agar-agar packets to her chest, a blush staining her cheeks. “Sorry.”

Tony shrugged one shoulder and gestured to freezer with a single finger. “Want to get the vegetable oil out of the freezer? Should be ready.”

Bucky nudged him again, and Steve brushed him off, but his chest warmed despite himself as he watched Jane and Tony sort through all the equipment and ingredients. He could hear Clint and Bucky talking, the occasional interjection of Darcy’s voice or Thor’s boom, but he wasn’t paying attention to the conversation. His eyes kept getting drawn to Tony’s hands as he set out ingredients in neat rows, he and Jane moving around each other like long-time lab partners, Jane’s face lit up with excitement as the conversation shifted from molecular gastronomy to theoretical zero-point energy as an alternative power source.

“I could do it if I wanted to,” Tony said offhandedly.

“Oh, if you wanted to-” Sputtering, Jane let go of a jar of mustard to make a wide gesture with both hands. Tony reached out in a flash and caught the jar with his fingertips. He juggled the jar up while Jane fumbled to save it from the floor. They both laughed as Jane unintentionally knocked it out of his hands and it skittered to the counter, unharmed.

“Success!” Tony declared and Jane covered her eyes with one hand, still laughing.

“Maybe you should be jealous, buddy,” Bucky suggested to Thor, giving Tony a calculating look.

“I am not concerned,” Thor rumbled. He nearly glowed as he watched his girlfriend, and when his eyes transferred to Tony, it was like the sun had risen on the man’s shoulder. Steve looked in between them, but he knew the feeling. Jane was brilliant, but only barely more socially aware than a houseplant. She was uncomfortable in crowds, and while she could verbally take a man out at the knees if he threatened her research, she usually closed up around strangers. That Tony made her comfortable enough to open up so quickly had to be amazing to Thor.

Bucky’s recovery had been horrible enough, but Steve had never wanted to murder anyone as much as he did those first few times in public before Bucky had gotten his prosthetic. People refusing to look at him, or, worse, looking at him with disgust or pity. Watching Bucky lose every shred of the self-confidence he’d always worn around his shoulders like a cape was heart-wrenching, and Steve had all but worshipped those few strangers who’d actually treated Bucky like he was still a person.

Giving Bucky a flirtatious wink over his shoulder, Tony noted, “Sounds like you’re jealous, buddy.”

“Hey, anytime you want to come discuss quantum physics with me, just let me know,” Bucky bluffed. Steve stifled a smile, but Darcy snorted.

“What are you going to do?” Darcy asked, “Open a Wikipedia page?”

Bucky help one finger up to his lips. “Shhhhhh.”

“More likely he’d just open one of Steve’s comics,” Clint corrected.

Pushing him off his stool, Bucky warned, “Stop giving away all my secrets.”

“Comics?” Tony asked, retrieving the recently-saved jar of mustard and arranging it exactly next to the ketchup. He glanced up at Steve curiously, and then tipped his head to give him a considering look. His eyebrows went up in surprise. “I thought I recognized you from somewhere.”

Startled, Steve just blinked at him. He’d been illustrating for over a decade, but it was only in the last few years that he’d started to gain any popularity. He was still shocked when anyone recognized him, even when he was standing right next to his display. “You’ve read my comic?”

Tony made a careless gesture. “Sure,” he said, but clapped his hands together before Steve could ask what he’d thought of them. “Alright everyone, grab your partners and pick a workstation. We’ll make the condiment pearls for our burgers before the vegetable oil warms up.”

Steve slipped off the barstool and claimed his usual space at one end of the island-stove, a monstrosity of twelve burners boarded on two sides by wide working spaces. He automatically rearranged the ingredients and tools the way he liked them while Bucky finished his beer at the bar and took his sweet time collecting their bags. Steve flickered a quick glance at Tony and looked away. He wanted badly to know what Tony thought of his comics, and if he’d enjoyed the work that Steve had put into making the science as realistic as possible, and what he’d liked about them – if he’d liked them all – but he didn’t know how to bring it back up with the subject changed. It was going to gnaw at him, but he’d never been good about asking for feedback in person.

“He reads your comics,” Bucky hissed in an undertone, stepping close to Steve’s side and setting their knife sets out where Steve would have put them himself, easily accessible and out of the way. Steve glared at him to shut up, but Bucky just shoved their shoulders together. “He reads your comics, and he’s hot, and he keeps staring at you.”

“Is not,” Steve muttered under his breath.

Is.”

“What are we? Five?” Steve poked him. “Leave it alone.”

Bucky nudged him again and leaned closer to his side. “Ask for his number.”

“I’m not asking Tony Stark for his phone number. Put your hair up.” Steve ordered at a normal speaking volume, realizing that while the kitchen was big, but it wasn’t that big, and Tony was bound to overhear them as soon as he stepped up to the island.

Bucky checked his wrists, both pockets, and patted his chest even though he wasn’t wearing a pocketed shirt. He cursed, pushing his hair back behind his ears. Steve moved to get one of the hair ties out of his gear bag, but Clint held out his arm with a roll of his eyes. He had two hair ties wrapped around his wrist, one black and one a dark purple. Bucky stuck his tongue out at Clint, but pulled the purple tie off his wrist and held it between his teeth while he gathered his hair into his hand. Steve looked in between them, feeling an unexpected and irrational spike of jealousy. Clint and Bucky worked together, they spent more time together than Steve and Bucky did these days. It made sense that they would have little things like this between them. Steve recognized how dangerous his reaction to the scene was, but he’d gotten so used to taking care of Bucky since his injury that he sometimes had to remind himself that Bucky was allowed to have other people who cared for him.

“I’ll as’th for you if you wan’,” Bucky said around the tie. He arched an eyebrow at Steve while Steve glared, took the tie out of his mouth and put his hair into a messy bun on the top of his head.

Steve was stopped from answering by Tony leaving Jane’s side to drop a pair of agar-agar packets at each station.

“These are easy,” Tony said, leaning in between Bucky and Steve to set two packets down, and then moving on to Clint and Darcy. “Quarter-cup of water, two-thirds cup mustard, one packet of the agar-agar, stir and bring to a boil. Go! Happy boiling!” He made a shooing gesture with both hands and stopped at his own burner, grabbing a deep sauce pan and leaning back to turn the burner on.

“This is like chemistry class,” Bucky observed, measuring the mustard into a glass cup and tapping it to level it out. He slid the jar across the counter to Clint, who stood ready with a flexible spatula.

Steve dumped in the water and scooped the mustard into the sauce pot. “Hopefully with fewer explosions.”

Leaning around Steve with the agar-agar, Bucky snorted a laugh. “What fun is it without explosions?”

“You two are the explosions types, hm?” Tony asked. He tipped his pot to stir the contents and peered into the living room. “Need more light over there? I know of at least one lamp in the apartment that we can happily move over to your station.”

“I like that lamp,” Clint said.

Tony pointed at him. “That’s why we’re not friends.”

“If not being friends still gets me free food at your restaurants, I’m okay with that.” Clint shrugged, grinning. Next to him, Darcy dumped the agar-agar into their pot and hipchecked him out of the way, appropriating the wooden spoon he was not stirring with.

“I keep telling my managers not to serve you, but they seem think you’re some kind of mascot or something.”

“Being cute has its perks,” Clint said smugly.

“Doesn’t hurt that you’ve got the pitiful puppy-dog eyes down,” Jane teased from her station across the island. Clint shrugged, but his grin didn’t fade in the slightest.

“Pour the mixture out into a glass dish once you’ve got it up to a boil.” Tony leaned over to peer into Jane and Thor’s pot. He made a stirring gesture with two fingers and Thor, distracted by the strange canister at their station, quickly set to stirring again. “Non-stirrers, fill up a big glass mixing bowl with cold water, and set it aside.”  

Bucky stepped away with their mixing bowl to jostle with Clint at the sink, and came back sloshing water all over the floor. Steve pulled back on the impulse to hand Bucky the spoon and clean up the mess himself, and threw a towel at Bucky’s face instead. Bucky promptly dropped the towel on the floor, stepped on it with both boots, and shuffled his way over the polished laminate. Steve shook his head, but didn’t say anything as he poured the boiling mustard mixture into a glass dish. Across the island, Thor held the pot up while Jane scooped theirs out.

“Take your eyedropper,” Tony instructed, holding his own up, “And squeeze drops into the vegetable oil. The pearls should sink to the bottom.” He squeezed the end of his eyedropper and set it into his container of mustard to demonstrate.

“That is fucking cool,” Bucky said, stopping his progress with the towel to lean down at Tony’s side and watch the mustard pearls sink through the oil.

Ignoring him, Steve grabbed his own eyedropper, filled it, and squeezed it into the mason jar of chilled vegetable oil. Rather than getting pearls, a half dozen misshapen noodles of mustard wound down to the bottom of the jar. He glared at it, and then at the eyedropper.

“Don’t squeeze it all out at once,” Tony said. Steve jumped, not expecting to find him only a foot away. Tony gave him a strange look, and then held his hand out for the eyedropper. Steve set it in his palm and Tony’s lips twisted briefly in a grimace that Steve couldn’t figure out, but he filled the eyedropper, and squeezed a single drop into the oil. Steve watched a perfect pearl spiral down through the oil, and then reached out thoughtlessly to take the eyedropper. Their fingers met briefly, but Tony pulled his hand away and took a half step back to watch as Steve repeated the process. It was almost relaxing to watch the pearls form, and he shortly had an inch of tiny mustard globes at the bottom of the jar.

“Once you’ve got all the mustard you want, just scoop them out and into the water bath,” Tony said from Thor’s side. The surgeon was crouched down level with the counter, watching the little balls form in the oil while Jane dropped the mustard in. “Same process with the ketchup. Whoever’s not working on that, come over here and we’ll put together the best damn hamburgers you’ll ever eat.”

The kitchen was strangely quiet while they worked. Tony must have agreed, because music blared out of Bruce’s Bluetooth speakers only moments after Steve noticed the lack of noise.

~*~

They sat around the remains of one of the oddest and most fun meals Steve had ever encountered. The appetizer was ravioli in clear wrappers, paired with “noodles” made from an arugula pesto, followed by what really was the best burger he’d ever tasted. The mustard and ketchup pearls gave it a strange texture that he wasn’t sure he’d like every time he ordered a burger, but they were fun for novelty. Dessert was a coconut foam steamed into a bun, and they had mojito spheres to go with the meal. The perfect bubbles of rum and mint were almost too pretty to break open, but Bucky helpfully punctured all of his spheres on his behalf.

“Is this what you serve in your restaurant?” Steve asked, taking a forkful of the coconut bun and letting it dissolve on his tongue.

“One of them,” Tony answered. He broke his last mojito sphere and tipped it into his mouth. “The Lab serves this kind of dinner entertainment, but I let Bruce do whatever he wants.”

Steve decided not to admit that he’d had no idea Bruce worked at a restaurant. He knew Bruce was a chemist and a medical doctor, so whenever he said ‘the lab,’ Steve always assumed he meant an actual lab. “How many restaurants do you have?”

“Six now, I think?” Tony answered, counting on his fingers.

“Seven,” Darcy corrected, “There’s that Black Out place in Manhattan.”

Tony gave her a look that hovered between amused, impressed, and a little concerned. Darcy blushed bright red.

“Technically it’s not open yet,” she finished, ducking into her seat and hiding behind her cocktail.

“Seven,” Tony amended, taking his attention off Darcy, much to her obvious relief. “That one we’re having some trouble with the lawyers. All the dinner guests will probably have to sign waivers so they don’t sue us if they trip in the dark. Which is just what everyone wants to do before sitting down for a meal.”  

“Your guests eat in the dark?” Thor asked for clarification, frowning.

Tony nodded. “Not completely pitch black, but pretty close. There will be some candlelight at the table, and the waiters will have night-vision goggles. The idea is to deprive your sense of sight so you pay more attention to the taste. And it’s kind of fun to eat in the dark – feels like sneaking into the kitchen when mom and dad are asleep. If we can get it past the lawyers.”

“Steve can write a comic about the restaurant where someone gets murdered in the dark and the dashing detective superhero has to solve the crime and save the day,” Bucky suggested with a sideways glance at Steve.

Steve gave him a withering look in return, but Tony just smiled and said, “Sounds like publicity to me.” He took a bite of his bun and then gestured to Bucky with his fork. “Who put that together for you?”

Bucky tilted his head briefly, but followed Tony’s gaze to his prosthetic arm. He turned his left hand over and curled his fingers. “It’s a prototype,” he said finally, “My employer took care of it. I didn’t ask.”

Tony made a humming noise low in his throat, eyes locked onto the metal hand as Bucky moved his fingers. “Bionic?”

“Yeah.” Bucky gave him a speculative look, but then surprised the breath out of Steve by taking his shirt off right at the table. He sat there in his white tank top and held his arm out invitingly. Tony didn’t need it spelled out for him. He scooted his chair around the table in a clatter of scrapping that made Steve wince on behalf of Bruce’s nice floors, but he was too shocked to say anything. He caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye and looked over to see Clint with a similarly thunderstruck look on his face, his fork suspended halfway to his mouth.

Bucky was completely oblivious to the attention. He twisted his arm obligingly and just nodded when Tony glanced up at him for permission to touch. Tony’s hands were professional as they followed the grooves of the prosthetic. He grabbed Bucky’s wrist in one hand and rotated his arm, bending the prosthetic at the wrist, and then at the elbow while everyone else just watched. The panels along the arm opened to mimic flexing muscles, the joints concealed so cleverly that they were invisible beneath the interlocking sheets of polished metal.

“Fantastic work,” Tony said finally, standing to pull Bucky’s arm straight up, testing his range of motion. Bucky let him do it, and Steve didn’t know if he felt more concern or pride considering that Bucky still gave out deathglares to anyone over the age of 18 who tried to touch the prosthetic. Tony finally let him go and sat back down. “Let me look at it closer and I can improve it for you.”

“Not sure I want a stranger experimenting on my arm,” Bucky said, pulling his shirt back on. “My boss would murder me if it stopped working in the middle of an assignment.”

Tony affected an affronted air as he moved his chair back to his place at one end of the table. “I’m not a stranger. I’ll have you know that I’m the foremost robotics engineer in the world. Bionics are my thing.”

Bucky snorted, but Thor unexpectedly confirmed, “It is nothing less than the truth, my friend. I frequently send amputee patients to Dr. Stark for prosthetics.”

“Dr. Stark?” Bucky asked.

“I have three Ph.D’s. You wouldn’t think so since no one ever calls me ‘doctor’ anything, but what can you do?” He shrugged dismissively, but he seemed pleased by Thor’s support. He didn’t push Bucky to agree to a closer examination, and Bucky didn’t bring it up again. The conversation shifted gradually to Jane’s work on the Einstein-Rosen Bridge. She mentioned Steve’s upcoming comic, and Tony’s eyes flicked to him, but he didn’t say anything. Steve lost the opportunity again to get his opinion, and started thinking up excuses to get him alone long enough to see if he’d been interested in doing some lettering.

They cleaned up the kitchen once yawns started running around the table and said their goodbyes, Darcy using Thor as a shield to get out of the apartment unseen. Steve was the last to pick up his bag and head for the door while Tony packed up his equipment, but stopped short when his phone went off in his pocket. Frowning, he paused to dig it out, not sure who would be texting him at eleven o’clock except for Bucky, who’d walked out the door only a minute before. He didn’t recognize the number from the notification, so he typed in his pin and opened the message.

This is Stark’s #. Txt him back and ask him out.

Steve stared in horror at the screen, eyes so wide it was almost painful, heart squeezing in his chest while his stomach dropped to hang somewhere around his knees. He quickly scrolled down and realized with an internal scream of denial that Bucky had set a timed text to Tony’s phone. His fingers weren’t quite quick enough and the message sent a moment later. Tony’s text message notification was a Pac-Man sound effect, and it sounded in the quiet room like the ring of a gong.

Steve stood rooted in place, the silence following the message notification so thick that he could feel it on the back of his neck. Sucking in a deep breath, he slowly turned around to see Tony looking at his phone with one eyebrow hiked up his forehead.

This is Steve’s number. Hes prob too chickenshit, so ask him out. I will castrate u if yr a dick to him, swear2god.

Tony’s eyes lifted from the screen and he met Steve’s gaze, expression neutral, but the corners of his eyes were lined gently under the bright lights.

“Please ignore him,” Steve said miserably. “He’s my best friend, but sometimes he can also be a jerk.”

“Most best friends are,” Tony responded. He tapped his fingers on the counter in a quick rhythm and stepped out of the kitchen, approaching Steve with his head tipped like he was solving a puzzle. The height difference between them was more noticeable with nothing distracting Steve from Tony, and he might as well have been back in high school, suddenly tall and gangly with no idea where his elbows and knees were most of the time, staring down at Peggy Carter and feeling like an ogre.

“Running the risk of being castrated by your friend’s magnificent prosthetic, how does dinner sound?”

“Yes,” Steve answered immediately, too quickly. He winced and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I mean… well, yes. That sounds good. Not right now because it’s eleven o’clock and we just ate, but maybe later?”

Tony’s smile didn’t show his teeth, but it lit up his face. “We close early on Sundays if you want to come by the restaurant after closing. Maybe eight?”

“Which one?” Steve asked ruefully.

Not quite meeting his eyes, Tony answered, “Carbonell’s is the only one I really think of as mine. I’ll text you the address.”

“And I will –” be late on my deadline, “See you then.”

They might have stood silently across from each other all night, but the door opening nearly made Steve jump out of his skin. He turned quickly to see Bruce in the doorway looking curiously in between them. “Was just headed out,” Steve said quickly, adjusting the strap of his bag on his shoulder. He pulled up a smile for Tony and said, “See you Sunday.”

“How was class?” Bruce asked as Steve headed for the door.

“Great! Fun, you should teach us more of the science food,” Steve said, but he didn’t stop. If he stopped, he would end up in a conversation, and Tony would be right there and Steve wouldn’t be able to concentrate, and it would be a mess. “Have a good night,” he said on his way out the door. He closed it behind him and took several slow breaths with his back pressed against the wall.

The screen of his phone was damp from being squeezed in his palm. He wiped it off on one thigh and flipped through his contacts.

Jerk, he texted quickly.

Bucky responded two minutes later with, U never said not 2

You stole his phone!

He left it unlocked on the counter. His own fault. Did he ask u out??

Steve typed in yes, but then paused and erased it. He gave the phone a satisfied look and clicked the display off. He felt it buzzing in his pocket all the way home, counting twenty-three messages, and knew that Bucky would be going out of his mind with curiosity, but it served him right.