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sambar and scaffolding

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They were two minutes past the hour, and the instructor was ready to begin, when the door chimed open one last time. Steve turned around, unwillingly, to see who it was that he’d be sharing a skillet with.

Oh, wow, he thought, pure wonder and delight, and then the familiarity hit him: This wasn’t just a handsome guy with the exact kind of cocky twist to his walk that made Steve’s stomach act funny. This was Howard Stark’s kid. Tony. The engineer, the one who had a suit and flew around saving people.

“Hope I’m not too late,” said Howard Stark’s kid.

Steve looked down. It had been Stark money, he knew, that pulled him out of the ice, and he had to figure Stark money was behind whoever was searching for him now—if anyone still was. And somehow Tony Damn Stark walked into Steve’s cooking class that he could barely afford in the first place, and everything Steve had done to keep a low profile would be out the window in a second.

Underneath all that, he was still thinking, Oh wow, and when Tony Stark sat down next to him—even though there was nowhere else to sit—he found himself feeling oddly nervous.

“Hey there,” said Tony Stark. His smile was cocky like Howard’s but—Steve didn’t know what the second half of the sentence was. Why there was a but. He was sure there was one, though. He smiled exactly like Howard, if Howard had been—

Steve couldn’t put his finger on it. If Howard had been, fundamentally, different. He said, “Hi. I guess we’re skillet partners.”

“Don’t sound so thrilled about it,” Tony said lightly.

Steve blushed, which didn’t mean much. Everything made him blush these days. He felt perpetually wrong-footed in this century, always in someone’s way or saying the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing while getting in someone’s way.

Tony Stark leaned in and said confidentially, “If you’re worried about whether I’m going to fuck up and burn the bottom of your skillet, the answer is absolutely definitely. Butter it well.”

So that was a difference: Howard wouldn’t have noticed Steve’s discomfiture, and if he had, he wouldn’t have cared, and if he had, he wouldn’t have figured out a way to lightly, casually fix it.

Steve smiled. “It’s cast iron, I don’t think you can burn it. Anyway, I’m not worried about you messing up,” he said, and he was going to go on and say that if he had to share a skillet with anyone, an internationally famous engineer was probably a good choice, but the woman running the class started talking, so Steve shut up and paid attention. He thought she was good—he’d taken a few classes here before, when he could spare the money, and some of the teachers were great at what they taught but struggled to get the class started. This teacher, Chitra, had a nice smile and she talked fast and laughed a lot.

They went around and introduced themselves. When it got to him, Tony said, “I’m Tony, and uh, my roommate says that if I don’t get out of her hair at least one night a week she’ll kill me.” Everyone laughed—Steve, too. He hadn’t expected to laugh at all, tonight. “So this is an experiment for me. Try new things!”

Tony smiled again and then turned to Steve expectantly, like he’d just been waiting for whatever Steve was going to say.

“Um,” said Steve. (He had a beard, nobody ever recognized him in his beard.) (But this was Howard’s son, Howard’s boy.) (But he had a really good beard, and he’d had so little sun that his hair had darkened a lot and anyway Steve Rogers was gone.) “I’m Grant, and I—wanted to try something new, I guess. Um, too. Like Tony said.”

“Wonderful,” said Chitra. “Wonderful, fantastic. Okay! Well, we’re going to start out today with what’s called sambar, and I’m going to let you all watch me make it. Once we’ve done that, you’ll get to try a second dish on your own, and we’ll eat them both together. Sound good?”

She was a good teacher, Steve found right away. She let them watch—Steve put on his glasses to do it, as if plain-glass spectacles and a beard would stop, Jesus Christ, Howard Stark’s kid from recognizing him—and then did the whole thing again, so they could get a better idea.

“Tadka,” said Tony, as Chitra dismissed them to try it themselves.

Steve glanced at him. “Sorry?”

“I think the word for it is tadka? Tempering the mustardseeds. Or any spices, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve been to India a few times but to be perfectly honest I wasn’t paying that much attention. Madripoor’s kind of been a—wow, yeah, okay, that’d be a hell of a lot of too much information. Sorry, you said—it’s Grant, right?”

Steve came so close to telling his real name that he actually bit his tongue trying to keep it in. “Um. Yeah. And, so you’re, you’re Tony, right?” He thought: I knew your dad. He thought: Your dad helped me save my best friend from being tortured by the Nazis, and then he died anyway, and I couldn’t save him.

“Yeah,” said Tony, and he smiled ruefully, like they were both in on a slightly embarrassing joke. It was—God, it was seductive, or maybe Steve was just messed up in the head, taking everything like a flirtation when really it was just your garden-variety charm. The same thing that Howard had, but, but, but different. More—something. Kinder, Steve thought maybe. Or smarter, maybe.

Tony said, “What?”

Steve said, “Hmm?”

“No, you’re just—you were looking at me kind of—” Tony put out a cautious hand, as if he were going to touch Steve’s arm.

Steve was wearing a short-sleeved Henley, in spite of the weather. Nobody had touched him since he’d run, not on purpose. The idea of it made him shiver.

The first of their mustardseeds popped in their cast-iron skillet, drawing Tony’s attention away from whatever weird way Steve had been looking at him.

“Hey!” said Steve. He was glad of the distraction, but he was also kind of delighted that the tempering had worked, exactly the way Chitra had shown them. As easy as it had been, he couldn’t help grinning triumphantly at Tony. This was what he had wanted when he’d signed up for the class, this—the brightness of doing something right, in a world that often felt dull.

Tony smiled back at him. He had gorgeous eyes. Bottomless eyes.

“Don’t let it burn!” shrieked the woman in front of them (she had already decanted her spices into her raita and was clear to watch what everyone else was doing).

“Oh yeah!” Steve grabbed the handle of the skillet and tossed the mustardseed, curry leaf, and red chili all into their yogurt concoction. As he replaced the pan on the hotplate, he found Tony was looking at him strangely. Must be the night for it.

“What?” he said, and he smiled at Tony again, because it felt good, making something, and Tony was ridiculously handsome and hadn’t recognized him (yet) (this was so stupid).

“Nothing. Uh—thanks. For doing that. You’ve got a hell of a smile.”

Steve blushed again, and when he looked up from that, the strangeness had smoothed itself out of Tony’s face. He leaned in slightly and said, close to Steve’s cheek, “You’re really sexy when you blush. You want to watch out for that when you’re deploying it against unarmed civilians. Weaponized embarrassment-cum-cuteness.”

“Oh, unarmed, really? With the—that suit, and eyes like that?” Steve teased.

“Eyes,” scoffed Tony. He pressed two fingers into the inside of Steve’s wrist and slid them upward. “Look at your ridiculous fucking forearms, Brooklyn. I never had a chance.”

Keep touching me, Steve thought, but Tony took his fingers away.

Chitra said, “And—there we are! That’s the last of you, and nobody burned anything. Congratulations, you are all experts now at tempering spices. And you can do this with lots of different spices, if you want to, although our recipes are only going to call for what we’ve just done. Does anyone have questions?”

Nobody did, and Chitra went on to the next thing, which involved a fair bit of chopping. Without discussing it, Steve took the carrots for shredding and Tony began cutting up cucumber, tomato, and cilantro. He diced very fine. He did not look at his hands. “Eyes like what,” he said, fixing them on Steve.

“Watch what you’re—” Steve gestured at the knife. “It’s sharp.”

“Oh, is it, Mom?” Tony was smiling at him too broadly for the sarcasm to bite. “With the suit, and eyes like what?”

“Leave me alone,” said Steve. He focused on the carrots he was grating, to set a good example, but his face kept breaking into a grin to answer Tony’s.

“Oh yeah, I definitely will. I’ll absolutely leave you alone, I’m going to start in thirty seconds, right after you tell me eyes like what so I can know—and this isn’t about you, of course, the handsomest hipster lumberjack in all of Brooklyn, this is purely a matter of personal ego—how flattered or insulted I should be.”

Steve laughed. “I’m not a lumberjack.”

“Oh yeah?” Tony finished cutting their cucumber and set the knife down with a flourish. “Wait, I’ve definitely got a wood joke for this occasion. I absolutely have one. Just you keep doing what you’re doing, and by the time you’ve finished with that carrot, I am going to have a stunner of a wood joke to dazzle you with.”

“Looking forward to it.” Steve grated the carrot a little slower, just enough to be noticeable, and Tony laughed out loud.

“I’m hurt!” he said. “I’m deeply hurt that you don’t want to hear my timber-related comedic stylings.”

“Yeah, timber jokes don’t do it for me. Now if you were going to make a dick joke—”

That sent Tony into a coughing fit that nearly made him cut off his thumb. Steve rescued the knife and put it on the other side of their workstation, just to be on the safe side. Fairly quickly, Chitra noticed and came over to their table, making a pretend-stern face at both of them.

“Everything all right over here?” she said.

“Swallowed funny,” Steve explained, and Tony laughed even harder, wiping tears from his eyes as he tried to return to his dicing.

“Hey!” he said, noticing the knife was gone.

“I judged you to be a danger to yourself and others.” Steve reached for Tony’s cutting board.

Tony slapped his knuckles. “Hands to yourself, Brooklyn. I’m not letting you dice these tomatoes, you’ll mess them up and our salad won’t come out nice. Gimme the knife.”

From the next table over, Chitra said, “Am I going to have to separate you two?”

Steve giggled and gave the knife back to Tony. It was kind of hypnotizing, watching him cut vegetables. Almost enough to make Steve forget that of all the people he might have befriended and sat next to and made timber jokes with, Tony Stark was probably the very worst one. Or, well, he guessed Nick Fury would be worse. Maybe. At least Nick Fury wouldn’t be distractingly gorgeous; at least Nick Fury wouldn’t touch his skin and call him sexy and smile at him like that.

They had to temper more spices to finish off the salad before they could eat it. “You do it,” offered Tony. “I like watching you.”

Steve did it, blushing terribly. He watched the mustardseeds too closely, and one of them popped up and got him in the nose, which made Tony laugh and put a hand to his mouth to hide that he was laughing, which honestly—he was a supersoldier and the mustardseed didn’t hurt but even if it had, it would have been worth it.

This is stupid, he told himself. You are being so stupid. You are being stupidly reckless.

The sambar was good with raita. All of it was good, and even though being shown how to make a thing and making it yourself weren’t the same, Steve still felt as warm and smug as if he’d accomplished something special.

As they wrapped up the class and passed around hard copies of all the recipes they’d just made, Steve thought of how much he didn’t want this to be over. This stupid piece of recklessness. People began filing out, and Steve tidied up after them, partly because it was a nice thing to do to save Chitra some time, and partly because he didn’t want to watch Tony walk out of his life.

To his surprise, Tony stayed. He checked with Chitra: “You feel comfortable about us sticking around to help you clean up, or would you rather not have two strange men in your hair for another twenty minutes?” With her okay, he wiped off all the workstations while Steve scrubbed dishes in the industrial-sized sink in the back and Chitra collected bowls and knives and measuring spoons. He hummed while he cleaned.

He hummed while he cleaned, Howard’s kid did. Steve couldn’t see him again.

It wasn’t that he was lonely. He wasn’t lonely. Only, he didn’t meet people, very often, who spoke to him the way Tony did, not intimidated and not contemptuous. Like Steve was worth the time it took to make him laugh.

“Stupid,” he muttered.

They finished everything and thanked Chitra, and Steve thought he saw Tony slip her some money, and they walked out together like—

Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, but actually the most stupid thing was that when Tony swung himself around to Steve and said, “Well, I got bullied into doing that and I fully expected it to be a nightmare but you made it way less catastrophically miserable than I was imagining, so. Can I buy you a pizza as a thank-you?”, Steve said “Yes” almost before the sentence was all the way out of Tony’s mouth.

Tony smiled. “Okay, Brooklyn, let’s do it. There’s a place near here that has a damn good white pizza, if you’re not too wedded to tomato sauce.”

“Oh, there’s a place near here?” said Steve, teasing, tucking his hands into his jeans pockets to keep them warm. “You spend a lot of time here in Brooklyn, know all the pizza places?”

“For your information—” Tony reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and produced a phone that looked even more space age than the ones Steve normally saw. “I looked it up on my phone so I could impress the hell out of you, and I consider it very poor form that you’re forcing me to admit that.”

Steve wanted to bump his shoulder against Tony’s, to show it was all in good fun. He was also painfully aware of how easy it would be to bump him too hard and give everything away. In the old days, he was always slamming into things with more force than he intended, and it was, it was, the way people looked at him was—real damn familiar, truth be told. Not in a good way. The look people gave you when you weren’t what they had wanted.

The look Tony would give him if he ever—

Tony’s fingers, now encased in gloves that looked very warm, tapped Steve’s cheekbone. “Hey. Hey, Brooklyn, what—what’d I say, hm?”

“Nothing. Um. Nothing.”

“Nothing.” Tony was giving him an uncomfortably shrewd look, his head tilted to one side like a curious cat. “I guess unfathomably sad is a default for you, huh?”

Steve’s throat caught. The answer wasn’t no, but he wished that he had hidden it better. What was the point of any of this, having fun with someone he shouldn’t, if he wasn’t being fun back? “You don’t, um. You don’t have to. The pizza.”

Something flickered in Tony’s face, and he backed up a step. If Steve hadn’t known better (known damn well he was nobody), he’d have thought that Tony was hurt. He did know better, but he said, anyway, “I mean, I’m—having a lot of fun with you, but um, I was going to, I have to buy some stationery, and—and the shop closes pretty soon so—”

Tony’s face shuttered still more. “Sure,” he said, but there was a hardness to his voice that hadn’t been there before. “Yeah. Sure thing. Got it. You don’t have to continue with this ass-awkward brush-off, I get the picture. My fault, I read the situation wrong.”

“No!” Steve caught at Tony’s wrist as he made to turn away. He meant it to be very light, but from Tony’s wince, it wasn’t anywhere close. Steve let go. “Sorry, just—it wasn’t a brush-off. I do have to buy some stationery but maybe you—um. Could come with me? And then we could get pizza?”

“Come with you.”

“Yeah.”

“To get stationery.” There was a hint of laughter in Tony’s voice, now, again.

“I need a birthday card. There’s a place—not exactly on the way, but it’s pretty close, I mean, if it’s too inconvenient I can—” Steve didn’t know exactly what he could do. Peggy’s birthday was tomorrow, and he had to go over early. Maybe she wouldn’t notice if he missed it, or he could make his own card, he guessed.

“It’s not inconvenient.” Tony withdrew a balaclava from his jacket pocket and put it on Steve, carefully pulling it down over the tips of his ears. “You’re making me cold just looking at you. Okay, Brooklyn, let’s go.”

The hat was warm. Steve tried not to think about it. They stopped in to get the card, which took longer than it needed to because it turned out that Tony was charmed by letterpress stationery and had to spend two minutes closely inspecting each individual card on the racks and announcing his opinion (invariably high) of the craftsmanship that had produced it.

“I bet the Brainery has a class in making your own,” Steve offered, as they were walking out. He had bought a good card for Peggy, and Tony had bought half the merchandise in the store.

“My own,” scoffed Tony. “Look at these perfect cards. Do you need to look at them again to understand that I am in no way capable of producing this kind of perfection? I am admittedly a genius but—”

Steve laughed, because God, that was Howard through and through, and then, as they walked, Tony laced his gloved fingers through Steve’s bare ones. So casually it might have been an accident. Steve squeezed his hand to check that it wasn’t, and Tony angled his head sideways and up. “Yes?” he said.

“Hi,” said Steve. “I like you.”

Tony grinned at him. “Hi. I like you too. Once we get to that scaffolding, I’m going to spirit you behind it (so to speak) and push you up against the wall of that church and kiss you.”

“Sounds like blasphemy to me.”

“You can let me know once we’ve tried it.”

Steve’s stomach was doing funny things, again. Tell him, he thought. Tell him before he kisses you or it won’t be fair. But he found that he badly wanted to be kissed. The thought of gloved fingers pulling his head down made him dizzy with want, and the scaffolding was close, too close to give him enough time to think about it.

(It was a Catholic church, so Steve thought that would be all right. It wouldn’t be fair to do possibly blasphemy on someone else’s church, but he felt he had a right to decide on behalf of his own church what did and did not count as blasphemy, and he had had this talk with Bucky back when he’d first realized he was queer.)

With a wicked, curved smile, Tony tugged Steve sideways and back. Leaned up against each other, their mouths were still too far apart, separated by the puffiness of Tony’s winter coat. The coat looked very warm and comfortable and also Steve wanted Tony out of it in a protective, possessive way, as if Tony were his to keep warm in the first place.

“Any objections to register?” Tony said. His voice was soft, hoarse with it in the cold.

Steve shook his head. (Tell him.)

“Good, then,” said Tony. He flicked his eyes down to Steve’s mouth, and swallowed visibly. “Okay, then—then good.”

He was nervous, Steve realized. It tugged at his heart. “Good,” he said back, and leaned down and kissed Tony first.

Tony made a small, hungry noise against Steve’s lips, which was good, God it was good, and his own lips were parted but Steve liked, he had always liked, the way a first kiss could linger like a question, so he held them still for a moment, then pulled back a fraction. And this, this about first kisses as well, he had nearly forgotten it, the sleepy, happy way a person looked who wanted more. It was a good damn look, on Tony Stark.

“Hey,” Steve whispered. “I need—I have something to tell you. About, um, about me.”

Tony opened his eyes and smiled again. His nose pink from the cold. He said, “Oh, really, you don’t say” and kissed Steve again, bracing his fingers at the back of Steve’s neck and pulling him in tight, his body a warm, hard line against Steve’s. He tasted like cinnamon, and Steve was drowning in him, but he couldn’t drown, because he had to—

“No, I,” he pulled away to say. “I do, I—”

Brooklyn,” said Tony, laughing. “Do I strike you as a very stupid person?”

“No.” Did he mean, did he mean—

“Then shut up,” said Tony, “and kiss me.”