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Table 8

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Riri looked up from her pile of napkin-calculations as the bell above the door chimed. 3 am. Right on time.

“How’s my favorite couple doing tonight?” She led them to their table, the poorly-lit back corner near the kitchen. “Want your usual?”

The grumpy-faced man that Riri had dubbed McBrooderson nodded. “Add in an order of crepes?” He sunk heavily into the decaying pleather of the booth seat, Stark sliding in opposite him.

“Sure thing.” As Riri walked off to put in their order, she heard Stark start to tease McBrooderson about his sweet tooth.

“Here you go, gentlemen,” Riri set down two mugs of dark roast, pointedly sliding a container of sugar packets towards Stark. A bowl of creamer cups followed.

“Let me know if you need anything else, Sweetie,” Riri said to Stark with wide-eyed innocence.

“I’m honestly feeling so attacked right now,” Stark said, deadpan. Riri shook her head with a laugh and wandered off, pretty sure she figured out how to fix her high impedance air-gap problem. Crepes cooked fast, but she should have enough time to make it through a few more napkins of work before then. Riri was thankful that she was no longer so starstruck by The Tony Stark regularly visiting the diner she worked at. It made it much easier to focus on work now that she knew how much of a dork he was.

- - -

10 Nights Ago

“Hey Williams — I seated a two top in your section. Table 8. Don’t be so late coming back from break next time.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Riri turned the corner out of the kitchen, tucking a few ink-scrawled napkins into her apron.

“Good evening-slash-morning,” Riri recited, jotting calculations in the margins of her order pad, “What can I get you to drink? Coffee, juice, tea...” She finally looked up and trailed off, eyes going wide.

What. The hell. was The Tony Stark doing in her greasy-spoon diner at 3 am?

Breathe, Riri.

“Well, I’ll have coffee, black as my soul. Snowflake?” The Tony Stark looked to his friend across the table, resting a hand on the other man’s wrist.

Said man had resting murder face, wore a leather jacket in May, and one glove like he impersonated Michael Jackson as a side job. He didn’t have the hair for it. Riri dubbed him “Scruffy McBrooderson.”

“...Same. Please.”

“Coming right up!” she squeaked, and managed to make it all the way back to the kitchen before allowing herself a mental breakdown. Stark had shaved off his trademark goatee and was sporting a ridiculous hat/hoodie combo. He was probably looking to stay incognito on his trip out. She could totally play it cool. She peeked out the window of the kitchen door, seeing the back of Stark’s head. McBrooderson looked up, feeling her eyes on him. Riri ducked down, and moved over to the dishrack to pick out the least-chipped mugs she could find. If she took a minute to mentally blue-screen while gathering supplies... well, that was no one’s business but hers. She added a container of sugar packets to her tray, took a deep breath, and headed out.

“Thanks,” Stark said absentmindedly, gulping at the steaming drink. Riri stared in shock. “Lovely. Does your creamer come in jugs or those little single-serve cups?”

“The cups.”

“Excellent. Could we have a bowl? And a refill?” He shook his mug. McBrooderson had yet to even touch his cup.

“Of course; coming right up.”

By the time Riri made it back from the kitchen, creamer and pot of coffee in hand, Stark had finished his coffee and was eying McBrooderson’s mug. Riri made a mental note to increase the frequency of her coffee runs to this table.

“Great, awesome, thanks,” Stark shoved the bowl of creamer to McBrooderson’s side of the table. “Stack those for me, would you, Snowflake? Right here,” he tapped the center of the table.

“This your idea of a date?”

“I can multitask. Ah ah ah — other hand and you know it.”

Weird. Riri thought. She made herself move off to bus table 3. A few minutes later, she snuck a look back just in time to see McBrooderson’s gloved hand jerk, scattering creamer cups. Two of the cups rolled off the table and landed on the floor with a soft crinkling noise.

“Again.” Stark said, patiently. He glanced out the windows into the pre-dawn darkness. McBrooderson gave a huff, but started gathering up the cups, leaning sideways out of the booth to scoop up the ones that had fallen. This time he got five stacked before another twitch sent the tower toppling. He let out an annoyed grunt, repeatedly curling his fingers into a fist as though they were cramping. Stark reached over and put a hand over the fist, running a thumb over the knuckles.

A rush of late night college students came in just then, breaking Riri’s focus. They demanded her attention for the next hour with orders for food and endless coffee to supply an all-nighter study session. Riri empathized. End-of-term exams sucked. Every time she was able to peek over at Stark and McBrooderson’s table, they were repetitively stacking and knocking over those creamer cups. She made sure to run by periodically to top off their coffees, but the two otherwise didn’t need anything from her.

Coming back to the front of the house from yet another coffee run - she had to brew some fresh, as the heavy demands of Stark and the students knocked out their entire supply — Riri noticed table 8 was empty. She was more bemused than annoyed; she didn’t think Stark would be one to walk on her. At least she was only out the price of a couple of coffees. She sighed at the sight of the mess on the table. Creamer cups were scattered all over, but at least someone had made an attempt to scoop the spilled sugar into a single pile. Looking at the sugar packet container, Riri noticed that it was in need of a refill; most of the packets had been used (by Stark, judging by the residual sludge of undissolved sugar in the bottom of his mug).

Riri placed the empty coffee mugs into a half-full dishpan and gathered the floor-creamers to throw them away. Upon flipping the upside-down creamer bowl, she discovered a note and a couple of folded bills. The note simply said “Sorry! :(” in a precise, blocky script, and Riri was amused at the thought of Stark using emoticons. Her eyes widened and she almost dropped the dishpan when she realized Stark had left her two one-hundred dollar bills.

- - -

7 Nights Ago

Riri was sure that the magical night where she served coffee to Tony Stark was a fever dream (or at least a one-off, since the $200 padding her bank account was pretty solid evidence it had happened). She was proven wrong when the bell above the diner door chimed at 2:58 am.

“Hi. Could we get the same table as last time?” McBrooderson asked.

“Sure thing! Two black coffees again?” Riri was better prepared this time, and only slightly rushed through her words as she led them to the table.

“Tha’d be great,” Stark said, sliding into the booth.

“Anything to eat, this time?”

“Just the coffee for me,” Stark pulled out a tablet and started tapping away. “I don’t have time for food; these calculations are way overdue.”

“I’ll have whatever’s the house special,” McBrooderson said.

“Coming right up.”

Without looking up from his work, Stark added, “Oh, and another bowl of those creamers, please.”

“Again?” McBrooderson started complaining as Riri walked away.

She returned to a quiet table, Stark having moved on to multitasking on two tablets and McBrooderson rhythmically tapping his gloved fingers on the table.

“Food should be out shortly,” she told McBrooderson as she set down their coffee mugs and bowl of creamers. McBrooderson began to stare down the bowl like it had personally insulted him, so with a quick smile Riri made her escape to wait on table 5 in the corner.

By the time she made it back to table 8 with the house special (flapjacks, toast, eggs, and bacon), the creamer tower had grown into a creamer pyramid, and Stark’s two tablets had been joined by a stack of papers and a ballpoint pen.

“Thanks,” McBrooderson said, wincing as his inattention caused his tower to fall. Stark said nothing, just brushed the cups off of his tablet as he continued to type.

“Any time now,” McBrooderson muttered as he cast a searching look out the window. He took a big bite of his eggs before getting started on another tower.

“Well, let me know if you need anything else!” Riri’s mind was already back on the half-finished equations she left at the hostess station. She figured she had a solid ten minutes of work before anyone would need a coffee top-up.

Damn electromagnets. When Riri looked up from her scribbles, frustrated by the way the math wasn’t cooperating, she had to hide a laugh. McBrooderson had inched his bread plate over to Stark’s side of the table, and Stark was absentmindedly munching on the buttered triangles. Slight smears of grease gleamed on the tablet screens.

McBrooderson caught her eye, winked, and gestured to Stark and the plate.

“More?” Riri mouthed, and McBrooderson nodded gratefully.

The next time Riri refilled their coffees, she also set down a plate of toast, this time with an added selection of fruit jams. McBrooderson smiled his silent thank-you, and got to work spreading strawberry jam on one slice and sneaking it onto Stark’s plate. The way McBrooderson seamlessly went back to stacking, Riri wouldn’t have known the drop happened if she hadn’t been watching. She left before she could blow the mission.

On her next swing through the kitchen, she grabbed a small cup of mixed fruit. She was able to land it on table 8 without a sound as she walked by with food for another table. She glanced over from the hostess stand and saw three of the berries had landed on Stark’s bread plate — and a few more had already ended up eaten, judging by the red stain on Stark’s mouth.

When Stark’s furious tapping began to be interrupted by tugging at his hair, McBrooderson caught Riri’s eye and gestured once again, this time to the lone slice of bacon he had left. Riri helpfully brought out a double rasher on a small plate.

McBrooderson munched on one of the slices while he carefully slid two pieces onto Stark’s plate. A small smile played on his lips as Stark once again ate the food in front of him without realizing it. Riri grinned.

Once again, the two managed to sneak out while Riri was in the kitchen. She tried not to feel greedy as she flipped over the creamer bowl first, finding another pair of hundred-dollar bills. Those two were definitely her favorite diners, even if they did leave her with a messy table. No sugar this time, but one of the creamers had managed to skip through a pile of syrup at some point. Riri left to dump the floor-creamers and get the towel and sanitizer.

- - -

4 Nights Ago

“Damn it,” McBrooderson muttered as his arm twitched, creamer cup flying across the table from loose fingers. Stark caught it before it hit the floor.

“Sorry, that one’s on me,” He dropped the cup into McBrooderson’s hand. “Response time’s still laggy since I switched out the actuator. We’ll swap out when we get back; new one should be fabricated by now.”

McBrooderson just flexed his fingers a few times, and slowly nudged a line of cups into a row, aided this time by Stark, who passed him more cups from the bowl.

“Still nothing?” Stark glanced at the windows.

“Nope, not yet.”

Riri finished refilling their coffees and went back to her hostess podium. Hopefully that would last them for a few minutes while she caught up with some new engineering literature.

“Williams! Go bus some tables — I’m not paying you to read.”

Riri looked up from the notes she was scribbling in the margins (she already spotted two errors in this damn text), chagrined. She quickly tucked the book into the hostess podium, and grabbed a nearby dishpan.

“Sure thing!”

She went from table to table, piling the dirty dishes high, determined to make it to the kitchen in one trip so she could get back to her book. On her way past table 8, Riri’s foot managed to find one of the floor-creamers, sending her — and the full dishpan — to the ground.

Crash went the dishes (and Riri’s pride).

Smooth.

Before Riri even had time to feel properly embarrassed, McBrooderson had ducked under the table, eyes wide and eerily silent. He quickly reached out and clutched a handful of Stark’s shirt, roughly pulling him under the table to join him. McBrooderson had a butter knife clutched in his other hand in a guarding position as he stared, unblinking, at the windows. Riri stayed motionless on the floor, and tried not to draw any attention to herself.

“Hey, Snowflake, check in,” Tony crouched under the table, staying behind McBrooderson where he had been shoved. “We’re in a greasy-spoon diner, it’s,” a glance at his watch, “half past 3 in the morning, and hopefully the coffee is okay, because I think we’re both gonna need the caffeine.”

Stark put a gentle hand on McBrooderson’s shoulder, causing a full-body flinch, but the contact seemed to help.

“Just breathe. No danger out there, just a bunch of broken dishes.” Stark soothed, “It’s okay. Can our poor waitress get off the floor safely? She’s not a threat.”

McBrooderson’s breathing started to calm, and the arm with the knife lowered to the floor. He gave a jerky nod, and Stark nodded to Riri in turn.

“It’s cool. We can stay here as long as you need, big guy. Just keep breathing for me,” Stark continued, as Riri pushed herself off the floor and began to collect the broken shards with shaking hands. Thankfully, most of them had stayed in the dishpan.She tried to be as quiet as possible bringing the dishpan into the kitchen, and when her heart calmed down enough, she came back out with the broom and dustpan. The two men were already off of the floor. Riri tried to keep focused on her broom, but couldn’t manage to block out the gentle susurrus of whispers between the two. They were on the same side of the table now, Stark’s arm around McBrooderson’s back. She came back to refill their coffees, bringing them two slices of pie in apology.

“Sorry for the crash,” She said as she set the food down.

“Not your fault,” McBrooderson mumbled. “I should probably apologize for the tripping hazard.”

“Hey, I’m not gonna say no to pie,” Stark reached for the pie without removing his arm from around McBrooderson’s shoulders, eating left-handedly. “Thanks.”

After they left, Riri collected the couple’s floor-creamers into a bowl and set them in the hostess podium.

- - -

Now

“Here’s your crepes,” Riri set them down in front of McBrooderson.

“Thanks,” he replied with a small smile, grabbing a fork.

She shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversation as she cleaned the nearby tables.

“Oh, here, before I forget,” Stark slid a pair of chopsticks over.

“I am not eating crepes with chopsticks.”

“They’re for the creamer stacking. You’ve gotten too good at it; we need to up the ante.”

“Remind me why we’re doing this again?” McBrooderson huffed. “You know my strength’s already up to par, compared to the previous version.”

“Well, better, actually, if you compare the metrics. But what’s the point of brute force if there’s no finesse? I’m not trusting you with a…" he glanced around, "paintball rifle with those big punching mitts of yours. Now get stacking.”

McBrooderson pointedly took a huge bite of his crepes, cheeks puffing out, before he picked up the chopsticks. Riri was treated to muttered curses as McBrooderson struggled to get traction on the slippery plastic. The creamer cups kept scooting across the table, as Stark tried to provide helpful commentary.

Shaking her head, Riri headed to the back to drop off her trash. While she was back there, she grabbed the coffee carafe (those two were caffeine fiends).

“Um,” Riri stopped short. She had come back to find Stark laughing uproariously, liquid creamer dripping down McBrooderson’s face.

“Fine, laugh it up.” McBrooderson said, tolerantly. “Get it out of your system.”

“I can’t breathe!” Stark wheezed. “Your face.”

“I may have been a bit heavy-handed with the chopsticks,” McBrooderson explained to Riri, gesturing with said chopsticks, which were still clutching an exploded creamer cup. He dropped the creamer cup, which splattered its few remaining drops across the table. “Sorry for the mess. Could we get a couple of napkins or —”

The window to the street exploded, glass shards flying as a metal trash can smashed into the diner.

“Shit!” Riri yelped.

Stark and McBrooderson shared a tense look, before McBrooderson nodded.

Stark grabbed Riri’s arm and ducked them both under the table. At the same time, as though they had rehearsed it, McBrooderson stood up from the table to confront the two men in tracksuits that had jumped in through the window. Thankfully, it was a slow night and the dining room was otherwise empty.

“It’s fine, James has it under control,” Stark soothed. “Don’t panic.”

“Who’s panicking? I’m not panicking,” Riri said in a breathless tone. “Don’t they know that the front door’s unlocked?”

Stark just grinned at her. He turned to watch McBrooderson’s — James’ — progress, making sure to keep his body between Riri and the tracksuits.

“Freeze, Bro,” one of the tracksuits yelled, waving a machine gun menacingly. His accent was vaguely Eastern-European.

“You’re coming with us, Bro,” the other growled. He was wearing sunglasses and holding a baseball bat.

“This is Barton’s tracksuit mafia?” Stark muttered to himself. “Why didn’t he handle this on his own? He’s never living this down.”

“Well,” James said as he flung the chopsticks at the gun-wielding tracksuit, “he is recovering from that busted ankle.” The chopsticks managed to startle the man long enough for James to move in and sweep his legs, grabbing his neck to pin him facedown on the floor. “And we did get some nice diner food out of it, while we were waiting.”

“Doesn’t matter, this is just sad.”

The other goon swung his bat into James’ head, quickly jumping back to stay out of reach. James grunted, shook his head in annoyance, and pulled out a butter knife.

A flick of James’ wrist and second guy went down with a yelp as the knife sank into his shoulder.

“Did you seriously just take someone out with a butter knife?” Stark asked, amused. James gave a quiet huff of a laugh.

“C’mon, Bro, lemme up,” the first guy whined, scrabbling at the floor. The second was still sitting on the floor in shock, staring at the knife sticking out of him and whimpering (“Bro?”).

“Well, that was anticlimactic. Hey,” Tony turned to Riri, who was frozen in shock. “You okay?”

Riri managed to nod. How was this her life? The entire encounter was over in the space of a minute.

“All clear,” James called over, having zip-tied the mafia goons, “You two good?”

Stark helped Riri out from under the table, brushing dust off of her shoulders. “Yeah, we’re both peachy.”

Riri sat down heavily in the booth seat, trying to calm her racing pulse. She saw the cook calling the cops through the kitchen window.

Screw it. She downed the coffee nearest to her (her teeth ached at the sugar content).

“I can’t believe you took that guy out with a butter knife,” Stark crowed. “And covered in non-dairy creamer, to boot.”

Stark crossed over to James, gently touching the side of his head and looking into his eyes. “You’re okay though, right? You took a pretty hard hit, there.”

James clutched one of Stark’s shoulders and stared into his eyes for a long moment. Stark’s cheek was bleeding where a stray piece of flying glass had managed to nick him. James huffed out a shaky breath, then leaned in for a gentle kiss. It was adorable and competed with the coffee for sweetest thing in the room. Riri couldn’t handle it.

“Your face tastes like vanilla,” Tony grinned. “Does this mean you’re gonna take me on a real date now?”

James just smiled at him; McBrooderson no more.

“So, uh,” Riri stammered. “You guys want any coffees to-go?”