“I need Steve's address.”
Tony frowned at the bubbling contents of the test tube. “Check the database,” he said, making a minute adjustment to the flame.
Pepper leaned over the prep station. “The database,” she repeated.
“Yes.” Tony reached for a glass stirring rod.
Pepper straightened back up, hovering a fingertip over the gleaming surface of her tablet. “Check the database.”
“Am I missing something here, because I'm kind of in the middle of this, and database management isn't really my area of specialization, so-”
“Yes, but it is mine,” Pepper said, her voice unnaturally chipper. Tony paused, his fingers hovering over his notes. He looked up to find Pepper staring at him, a wide, toothy grin plastered on her face. “So. If I'm asking you this question, do you really think that the answer would be found in the database?”
Tony kept eye contact with her as he reached for a petri dish. “I'm guessing the answer to that would be a solid no.”
Pepper threw her hands in the air. “He's a genius!”
“First of all, yes, I am, I have a good dozen magazines that I subscribe to simply because at one point or another they did, in fact, put that in print, and second of all, this is more sarcasm than I'm used to handling from you on the average day,” Tony said. The gel inside the test tube threatened to boil over, and he fumbled for a pair of tongs.
Pepper got there first, handing them over with a flick of her fingers. “It's not an average day,” she said. “In that my boss is determined to throw a party and somehow that has become my problem.”
“I'm an idea man,” Tony said, waving the tongs in her general direction. “Full of ideas. I leave the execution to other people.” Pepper's eyes narrowed at him, and he pasted a bright smile on his face. “Brilliant, organized people. Who I value very highly.”
“And I'm sure such people will see that regard in their upcoming bonus checks,” Pepper said.
“Do we do bonus checks?” Tony asked.
“We sure as hell do now, if I'm expected to be a party planner as well as running your restaurant,” Pepper said. “Especially if your guest list has this many holes in it.”
“Invite people.” Tony sniffed cautiously at the test tube, then thrust it in Pepper's direction. “Does this smell like raspberries to you?”
She gave him a suspicious look, but leaned over to take a quick smell. Her nose wrinkled. “More... Citrusy?” Pepper straightened up. “It's raspberry puree?”
“Cranberry,” Tony said. He tipped the test tube to the side, watching the gel coat the inside of the test tube. “Maybe less ghost pepper...”
Pepper took a delicate step backwards, well out of range. “Please tell me that this doesn't have anything to do with the new dessert menu.”
“I promise nothing,” Tony said. He dropped the test tube into the rack. “Pep. Seriously. Invite whoever you want. You know the ratios we're looking for.”
“Forty percent money, twenty-five percent celebrities, fifteen percent politicians, ten percent press and critics, five percent ridiculous flash in the pan tabloid fodder of the minute to draw the paparazzi coverage from everyone else, and five percent people we can actually stand,” Pepper said.
“How did I ever live without you?”
“I wonder that every single day.” Pepper's fingernail clicked against the tablet's surface. “So, may I have your boyfriend's address so that I'm not forced to spend the entire night distracting you from clubbing Bobby Flay over the head with an ice sculpture again?”
“Do not invite-”
“Do you really want to start up the 'food feud' coverage again?” Pepper asked. Tony considered that. “Because if you enjoyed that coverage, you were the only one who did. No one else did. No one.”
“Fine, we'll skip him and ask Tiberius.”
“I don't think that Steve likes Ty.”
“Fancy that,” Pepper said. “Steve doesn't like your ex. Your scummy, manipulative, exploitative-”
Tony grinned down at his notes. “You don't like ANY of my exes.”
“I like me. Then again, I'm the only decent ex you've got,” Pepper said. “And I'd prefer we keep your current relationship from becoming an 'ex' situation, so can I please-”
“He's at the curb,” Tony said, flapping a hand in the general direction of the front of the restaurant. “Maybe if I added some basil smoke to this, it'd be a stronger impression on the palate, there's just so few ways to make that effective without adding the sulfurous elements and-”
As usual, he became aware of the deafening silence from the other side of his prep station just a little too late. He paused, looking up to find Pepper staring at him, her face unreadable. He pointed at her. “This face. I don't like it. It's a-” He leaned in, his eyes narrowing. “It looks like disapproval.”
“Do you not know where Steve lives?”
Tony opened his mouth. Closed it. “Fourteen hours a day, he lives on the curb outside my restaurant,” he said, and that sounded more defensive than he'd intended it to. “Which, you know, seems adequate, so-”
“You don't know where your boyfriend lives.”
“Yes, well, neither do you, so I don't know why we're focusing on me here, we both know I'm a disaster, so-” He turned off the flame with a flick of his wrist. “I'll text him, and then you can go guilt him into actually showing up, because you know he's not going to do it for me, he hates these kind of things.”
“And he loves you, so, he'll show up,” Pepper said. She set the tablet down, resting her hands on either side of it. “Tony. Please don't take this the wrong way-”
“Let's just assume that I will, in fact, take it the wrong way, because if history has taught us nothing, it's that I am incapable of taking things the right way,” Tony pointed out, “and therefore just not say it.”
Pepper arched an eyebrow at him, a faint smile twitching at the corners of her lips. “I can't stop talking to you entirely, Tony.”
“I don't see why not, a lot of people have, and their lives are probably better because of it,” Tony said. He reached for a tray of fresh herbs. “This was a good talk, this was good for us, I think we both understand everything that's happening, so-” He gave her a bright, toothy smile. “Good talk. Let's never do it again.”
“Does that ever work?” Pepper asked him.
“It only has to work once, honestly, so-”
Pepper's fingers brushed the line of his jaw, catching his chin and turning Tony's head back towards her. “Hi,” she said, with a smile. “Go ask Steve where he lives.”
“Brooklyn,” Tony said.
“Let's narrow it down, it's a big borough, Tony.”
“The USPS wants us to do everything now,” Tony said. “I mean. Pure laziness.”
“Right,” Pepper said. “Tony, can we-”
“Morning, Chef!” Peter came bouncing through the kitchen door, fastening his jacket as he skidded across the floor. He grinned at them, his brown hair flopping over his forehead. “Bruce said to check with you for prep today?”
“Right,” Tony said. “Is Steve outside?”
Pepper frowned at him. “Tony.”
Peter blinked. “Yes. He just-”
“Good, go ask him where he lives.”
Peter blinked again. “Where he lives?”
“Where he lives,” Tony repeated. “Get his address.”
“You don't know-” Peter started and Tony turned a gimlet gaze on him, and he swallowed the word mid-syllable. “Right, Chef. I'll just-” He waved at the door, his feet tangling as he scrambled in that direction. “I'll just go and, and do that, I'll be-”
And then he was gone. Pepper stared after him, and then turned to stare at Tony. “That was shameless.”
“Yeah, that's, that's kind of my modus operendi,” Tony pointed out. “You should be used to that by now, Pep.”
“Why haven't you gone to-”
“Because I haven't receive an invitation,” Tony said, and it came out sharp and hard, sharper and harder than he'd intended, and Pepper fell silent. Tony managed a tight smile. “I haven't been asked. All right?” He picked up a tray at random. “Now, if you're done, I need to get these into the deep freeze before I start losing my work, so, thanks, good talk.”
“Pepper, seriously, can we just-”
“Have you asked?” she asked, skittering along in his wake, her heels clicking rapidly against the gleaming kitchen tile. “Have you just-”
Tony stopped, turning back to face her. “Pep,” he said, his voice gentle. “I want you to think back over your entire life, right back to your earliest times in trying to make friends. When you were a tiny, adorable-”
“I was an awkward, bony child with bad hair and a serious overbite,” Pepper said.
“And you were still adorable,” Tony said, because he was sure of that. “But still. When you asked the cool kids if you could come over to play, did that ever work out well for you?”
Pepper fell silent for a second. “You're not nine, Tony,” she said at last.
“Have human relations really changed that much since we were nine?” Tony shot back. She sighed, and he smiled. “Yeah, that's what I thought.” He shook his head. “Leave it alone, Pepper. It's-” He struggled to find the right word. Not 'okay.' It wasn't okay. He didn't know when, exactly, it had gone from being okay to being extremely not okay, but he supposed it didn't really matter.
“It is what it is,” he said at last. There. That sounded mature.
“So you're just going to date a man and not know where he lives?” she asked.
“No, Peter's finding out where he lives,” Tony said. “And I'm going to go make some pâte à choux.”
Pepper paused, blinking at him in confusion. “Okay, but... Why?”
“Because maybe you're right, and it's time to start asking questions,” Tony said, shifting the tray in his hands. “But I'll be damned if I do it blind.”
“Right, but how will choux help?”
Tony grinned at her. “If you're going to be playing in the black market, Pep, better know what brings in the clientele you want.” He gave a sharp nod. “And I know just what this clientele will show up for.”
“It's not personal. No one goes to Steve's place.” Bucky paused, just long enough to cram most of a cream puff into his mouth. His cheeks bulging like a chipmunk's, he reached for another one. “No body.”
Tony stared at him, one hand braced on the counter. He reached out, placing a single finger on the edge of the plate, dragging it out of Bucky's reach. “You do,” he said, stating the obvious, and Bucky gave a one armed shrug.
“Eh, I'm nobody,” he said, licking cream from his thumb. “Besides, I know where he lives an' we've known each other too long to bother with manners.” He folded his arms on the opposite side of the counter, keeping an eagle eye on the rest of the pastries. “Mostly 'cause his couch is more comfortable than my bed.”
“So someone goes over,” Tony said. Another shrug. “You do.” His jaw tight, he added, “Sam does.”
One of Bucky's eyebrows arched. “Okay, so this is, what, jealousy?”
“Not-” Tony's mouth worked. “I don't think that Steve's cheating on me or- I don't think Sam's making a play for him, it's not like that, I just-” He stopped. “Why does he get an invitation and I don't?” He sounded petulant, even to his own ears, so he added, “I'm not jealous.”
“Yeah, 'course not,” Bucky said. He leaned his chin on one fisted hand. “You're just upset that someone's getting something from Steve that you're not.” He blew a strand of hair out of his face and smirked at Tony. “Huh. Not sure what you'd call that.”
“You will never get another morsel of food out of my kitchen,” Tony told him.
Bucky did not seem concerned. “Yeah, I'd, I'd be worried about that, except your partner's a real soft touch, and everyone else thinks I'm cute.”
“I don't think you're cute at all,” Tony told him. Bucky made kissy faces at him. “Right, now, now you're actively freaking me out.”
“I can work from that, honestly,” Bucky said. He reached for the cream puffs. “Like I sad, it's nothing personal, Stark, Steve's just a private sort of person, and you take up a lot of room.”
Tony slapped his knuckles with a wooden spoon. “Excuse me?” he asked, indignant. “You- I do not take up a lot of room. I'm practically pocket sized for his convenience!”
Bucky stared at him. “I do not know what to say to that.”
“Shut up,” Tony told him, then shoved the cream puffs towards him. “Eat something and shut up.”
“Now I feel like they're booby trapped, or maybe poisoned,” Bucky said. He picked up the biggest one on the plate and took a huge bite.
“But not enough to stop you from eating them,” Tony said.
Bucky paused mid-chew, considered the cream puff, and gave another shrug before taking a second bite. “Honestly, if I'm gonna go out, doing it with a mouthful of pastry is how I'd want to go,” he said. “You might kill me, but you've got standards, you'll make sure I die happy.”
“Damn straight,” Tony said. “So, you're not planning on helping me at all, are you? You're just here to mooch on my pastry.”
Bucky wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “See, the way I see it? You've got two options.”
Tony waited, but Bucky just went back to eating the cream puff. “Yes?” he prompted.
“One,” Bucky said, “ask if you can come hang out. Watch a movie. Have some pizza, or something.”
“Right, that seems like a risk I'm not going to be willing to take,” Tony said.
“Or two, have a frank discussion as to why he hasn't invited you over,” Bucky said.
Tony stared at him. “That's worse.”
“Yeah, it's gonna suck, either way,” Bucky agreed. He didn't sound particularly sympathetic. He nudged his stool away from the counter. “Can I get a to-go box for the rest of these?”
Tony gave him a hard look. Bucky shrugged and reached for the plate. “Okay, I'll just balance 'em on the handlebars.”
“How are you like this?” Tony asked, his fingers steepled in front of his face. “How are you-” He squinted at Bucky. “You?”
“My ma raised me right, I guess,” Bucky said. He balanced the plate on his hip. “Look, Stark? You have this weird thing going where you seem to think that you're the only one who's trying to figure out the whole relationship thing.”
Tony considered him. “You're getting cryptic again.”
“For a smart man, you can be awfully obtuse when you want to be.” Bucky snagged a cloth napkin from a nearby cart, tossing the remaining cream puffs into it and tying it up into a neat bundle. “Just ask him. It's not that fucking hard.”
“Sam admitting the two of you are dating yet?” Tony asked.
“I'm working on it,” Bucky said. He scowled at nothing in particular. “I'm pretty sure he knows we're dating. I just don't know if he thinks Misty's dating both of us, too.”
Tony's eyebrows arched. “You... Okay with that?” he asked.
“She's terrifying and I'm finding I'm okay with that,” he said. He looked down at the napkin wrapped bundle. “Wonder if she likes cream puffs.”
“I'll get you a to-go box.”
"It's the ugliest color I've ever seen."
Steve's eyes rolled up towards the dark night sky. "Really," he said, his voice flat. "The worst color you've ever seen."
"Didn't say worst." Sam tried to reach around Steve for another bag of trash, and Steve got there first, snagging a bag in each hand. Sam gave him a look. "You gonna let me help?"
"Nope." Steve tossed the bags into the dumpster, one after the other. Clean-up had gone well, for once, and if Sam was with him, he'd look less pathetic if caught hanging around TOBRU's back door like a damn groupie. “Just give me that bag.”
"Fine, you want to deal with my trash, I'm okay with that," Sam said, handing it over. He leaned one shoulder against the stairway railing. "I'm good like that. I'll let you."
"You are good like that,” Steve agreed, tossing the rest of the trash. “You can make it up to me by coming over on Friday morning and help me fix my color problems.” He grinned at Sam, cheerful about his manipulation.
Sam groaned. "No. Absolutely not. I'm not-" He shook his head. "I'm not painting."
"But you clearly have such excellent taste in colors," Steve said, dusting his hands off on his hips. "How could I possibly do this without you?"
"I'll buy you a gallon of paint and a drop cloth if it results in me getting to sleep in on Friday morning," Sam said.
"But if I do that, how will you possibly learn to keep your opinions to yourself?" Steve told him. "You're going to come over and help me paint."
"I'd love to see you make me," Sam said.
"I mean, I can't make you,” Steve mused. “I can, however, ask Buck to-"
Sam threw his hands in the air. "No. Absolutely not. I barely got him off my couch last week, you are not-"
"Then be an adult and show up to help me paint," Steve told him.
"What're we painting?"
Steve glanced back over his shoulder, his face splitting in a grin as Tony leaned out the kitchen door, a cup of water in one hand and his chef's jacket unbuttoned to the waist. "Hey," Steve said, and he sounded lovesick, he knew he sounded lovesick. "Good night?"
Tony smiled down at him, folding his arms on the railing of the stairs. "Tolerable," he said. He looked tired, dark circles under his eyes and lines bracketing his mouth. But when he smiled, it seemed to fade, his brown eyes warm. "How was the curb traffic?"
"Mostly they seemed drunk." Steve reached up, his fingers catching on the hand towel that was thrown over one of Tony's shoulders. "Drunk and confused."
Tony's smile stretched wide. "I did good, then."
"You did good," Steve agreed. "I saved you some hush puppies and a couple of brisket sliders."
Tony's eyes fluttered shut. "God, I love you," he said, and Steve felt his face flush.
"This is some Romeo and Juliet style shit right here," Sam said from behind him, and Tony flipped him off without even straightening up. Sam laughed. "Right back at you."
"What're we painting?" Tony repeated to Steve.
"My door," Steve said. "I finally got permission from my landlord, so I can finally get rid of the green."
"It's less of a color and more of a species of mold," Sam said. “It's-” He shook his head. “Objectively, purely objectively? It's hideous. I get dizzy every time I knock.”
Steve's eyes rolled up towards the sky. “We're going to make it go away, okay?” he said, his lips twitching. “We'll get a nice-”
“Cool,” Tony said, his feet shifting on the steps. “When? I'll bring a dropcloth.”
Steve blinked at him. “It's a door, Tony. I don't think we need an entire crew. I wouldn't even need him if I didn't have to take it off the hinges.”
Tony's nose wrinkled. “Uh-huh,” he said. He took a sip of his water. Steve caught himself staring at Tony's mouth, and tore his gaze away before he ended up embarrassing them all. “Still. I could come provide moral support or-”
“Tony.” Steve shook his head. “I have to do it on Friday, and you're booked up for all your seatings all weekend, and you have two catering events. You have enough problems without wasting Friday morning dealing with primer.”
“Right. Logic,” Tony said, his voice tight. Steve frowned, but before he could say anything, Tony continued. “My favorite thing. Logic.”
“If you want to help, you can help sweep the curb,” Sam said. “That needs doing right now.”
"I think you can handle that yourself, Elisabeth Tuber-Ross," Tony said to Sam, his voice cutting.
Sam stared at him. "What does that even mean?" he asked, spreading his hands wide. "C'mon, man, I can't even react to your insults if they're completely nonsensical."
"Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the groundbreaking book 'On Death and Dying,' where she outlines the five primary stages of grief," Steve said, because he liked being helpful, and he also got far more pleasure out of watching Tony and Sam bicker than was probably healthy.
"Yeah, I got the reference, I'm aware, it just, the insult makes no sense," Sam said to Steve. "He just took a name, and jammed something about potatoes into it."
"You do realize that's what he usually does, right?" Steve told him.
"Slander and lies," Tony said. "And I'm grieving, there's grief involved, Tater Tots, because I'll never get to see Steve's door in its current state.”
“You're better off,” Steve said, grinning.
“So do I get to see the new color?” Tony asked.
“Sure, I've got the color swatch in the truck, wanna come see?” Steve asked.
Tony opened his mouth. Closed it. “Sure.” He drained the rest of his water and leaned over, setting the glass on the steps. “But I'm not sweeping.”
“I think that's fair.”
“Let's go to your place.”
Steve made an inarticulate sound, his mouth pressed hard against the skin of Tony's throat. Tony slid his fingers through Steve's hair, pleasure sizzling over his nerve endings. Steve was heavy and hard against him, the weight of his body pressing Tony back against the wall, his hands everywhere at once. Tony grinned at nothing in particular, or everything at once. He wasn't sure. Or maybe he didn't care.
He arched away from the wall, his hips grinding against Steve's. “Let's go back to your place,” he said, his voice throaty and low.
Steve's head came up, and his eyes were wide and unfocused, his cheeks flushed. “What?” he managed, before he went hard for Tony's mouth, the kiss stealing the breath from both of them.
Tony's nails scraped through the short hair at the nape of Steve's neck, making him shudder and groan against Tony's lips. Tony grinned into the kiss, filing that tidbit away for future study. “Your place,” he whispered, nipping at Steve's jawline. “Let's go.”
For the first time, the words seemed to sink in for Steve, his eyes blinking. “Your place,” he corrected, his fingertips dipping beneath the waistband of Tony's pants, his rough fingertips coaxing Tony closer. “Mine is all the way out in Brooklyn and yours is-” He sucked in a slow, heavy breath, and he was a mess already, his hair tumbled over his forehead, his shirt askew. “Yours is right there.”
“I haven't cleaned,” Tony said, leaning forward at Steve's collarbone. “It's a pit.”
“I'll remake the bed in the morning,” Steve said, his head falling back. “I'll load the dishwasher and vacuum. I don't care.”
Tony would've laughed, but there was nothing funny about this. “That doesn't change the fact that it's a pit right now,” he pointed out, and God, Steve smelled good. He nuzzled at Steve's neck, breathing in the scent of skin and soap and... “Did you make spaghetti sauce today?”
Steve laughed. “Garlic bread,” he said, the words breathy. “Che-” Tony's thigh slid between his, and the word died with a stutter of breath. His hips jerked forward, and he tried again. “Cheesy garlic bread.”
“Mmmm.” Tony was thinking about pasta now, garlic and onion, the heavy acidic bite of the tomato, mellowed with the earthiness of fresh Parmesan. Maybe gnocci...
Steve was kissing him, and Tony felt like he was drowning, like he was slipping under for the last time. Steve's tongue coaxed the last of his breath from his lungs, and he sank into it, not caring if he was going to make it back to the surface.
Maybe this was worth it. Worth anything.
“Your place,” he said, because he was stubborn, if nothing else.
Steve groaned. “Tony. I don't care about the state of your kitchen floor, and I'm not going to make it back to my place.”
Tony grinned at him. “What, you can't make it back to Brooklyn? Am I that irresistible?” he whispered.
Steve leaned in, his eyes dark. “Stark. At this point, I can't promise you that we'll make it to your CAR. If we try to make it back to Brooklyn, you're likely going to have to pull over so I can have you in the back seat.”
Tony swayed on his feet. “Okay,” he managed. “That's possibly the hottest thing I've ever heard.” He managed to suck in a breath. “Except, you know. I don't have a backseat.”
“I can make it work,” Steve said, and it was ridiculous, it was impossible, but his voice was hard and determined and Tony found himself believing he could.
“If we go back to my place, you're making it worth my while,” Tony said, and Steve's teeth flashed in a sharp, beautiful smile.
“Let's go,” he said, and Tony went.
“So, you coming back tonight?”
Steve leaned back against the side of his truck, trying to take some of the pressure off of his aching feet. “God, I wish,” he said, exhausted. He leaned his head back, squinting up at the pale blue sky. The sun was barely up, the skyline lit with a golden glow, and he tried to take pleasure in that.
But he was so tired he hurt.
On the other end of the line, Tony was silent for a long moment. “Is it at least going well?” he asked at last.
Steve smiled. “Yeah, it's-” He shook his head. “It's going so well, Tony.”
“Told you,” Tony said, and he sounded so smug that Steve couldn't hold back a laugh.
“Yeah, you told me all right,” he said. He pushed himself upright. “In my defense-” He paused. “Atlantic City.”
“That's your defense? For avoiding something that would definitely improve your business? Something easy and close and barely costing you anything in time, effort, or money? Your defense is simply 'Atlantic City?'”
“Yep,” Steve agreed.
“Okay, admittedly, that's a pretty good defense,” Tony said, making Steve laugh. “Atlantic City.”
“Atlantic City,” Steve said. He made a deliberate effort not to look back towards the strip. “Boardwalk's nice, but the rest of it...”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “And in the off season, it's nothing but 'rest of it.'” Steve heard him shift, the chair in his office squeaking as he leaned forward. Steve let his eyes close, wishing he was there, sprawled out on Tony's couch, bathed in the warm scent of bread baking and Bruce's herbal experiments. He loved the battered leather couch, loved the way that Tony muttered to himself as he scowled at his invoices, loved the soft sound of the eighties radio station that the prep team played before the rest of the staff came in.
If he was lucky, he'd be there when Sue brought in a sample of the day's bread for Tony to approve. Tony's would always be plain, so he could judge the texture and taste and look of it. But the slices that Sue slipped to Steve were slathered with fresh herb butter, or topped with pickled vegetables, crunchy and sweet beneath the biting tang of the vinegar and salt. When it was cold and icy out, the streets of New York gray in the early mornings, she would give him lemon curd, so perfect that even the smell of it was enough to make him remember summer evenings and sunshine.
When she left, Tony would lick Steve's fingers clean, his tongue lingering against the skin to make Steve shiver.
“We've got two days left,” he said. “And as much as I'd like to come back to the city...” He let his voice trail away, and Tony picked up where he left off.
“Doesn't make any sense if you've just got to drive back tomorrow,” he agreed. “Hotel okay?”
“Well, it's packed with food truck chefs, so...” Steve rolled his head on his neck. “I've slept in quieter places.”
“Yeah, well, that's what conventions are like,” Tony said, and Steve could hear the laughter in his voice. “Spend the day meeting, greeting, networking and hustling. Then spend the night getting drunk and showing off your stupidest kitchen tricks.”
“Wait, you have stupid kitchen tricks?” Steve asked.
“All of my cooking falls under the category of 'stupid kitchen tricks,'” Tony said, and Steve laughed. “Did you get drunk? Are you hungover right now? I've never seen you hungover. I want pictures. Send me a selfie.”
“I'm not hungover,” Steve said. “I had a beer and then stumbled to bed. I think I was asleep before I hit the pillow.” A few other people had stumbled into the parking lot where the trucks were parked, and he shifted around to the back of War on Hunger. “I wasn't awake enough to drink.”
“Disappointing,” Tony said. “Send me a selfie anyway.”
Laughing, Steve held up his phone, taking a quick shot and sending it on its way. “What, do you miss me or something?” he asked, tucking the phone back against his cheek.
“Of course. The patrons are confused by the lack of food options at my curb,” Tony said. “It's a scandal.” Another creak as he leaned back in his chair. “You're already dressed. That's disappointing.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “I've got a long day of serving and schmoozing,” he said. “And there's a lot of friendly competition here, I think wearing pants is a good first step to keeping myself afloat.”
“Speaking of wearing pants, is Sam hungover?” Tony asked.
Steve winced. “I don't think he's feeling 100% this morning,” he said. “I'm going to make him some oatmeal and toast, see if that helps.”
“It won't,” Tony said. “But it's nice of you to try.” In the background of the call, Steve heard a knock on Tony's office door. “Stay out of the casinos, okay? I've got prep work to do.”
Steve nodded, even if Tony couldn't see it. “Tony? What's the bread today?”
“Hmmm? Oh. Brioche.” There was a murmur in the background. “And Sue says she's got a jar of cranberry orange chutney for you to try when you get back.” To Sue, he said, “Why does he get these things and not me?”
Steve waited, but he couldn't hear the response. “What did she say?”
“She likes you more than me,” Tony said, and Steve laughed.
“She's lying,” he said. He rolled his shoulders. “Say hi to DJ for me, okay? Tell him I found him a souvenir.” It was a giant stuffed turtle with big, sleepy eyes and a dopey grin. Steve loved it.
“What do I get?” Tony asked.
Steve closed his eyes, memories of Tony, grinning down at him as he straddled Steve's hips on the office couch, his fingers sliding under Steve's clothes to find his skin washing over him. He took a deep breath, and it shuddered through him, pleasure and need rolling heavy in his gut. “I'll give it to you when I get back on Tuesday,” he said, and it came out throaty and low, full of an erotic sort of promise.
There was a beat of silence. Then, “I'm going to talk you into phone sex one of these days.”
Steve grinned. “No, you're not. And please tell me that Sue left before you-”
“No, she's giving me such a disapproving look right now,” Tony said. More murmurs. “She says that you don't have to do anything you're not comfortable with, and I'm an ass for pressuring you.”
“Tell her that you're a charming ass, and you can take 'no' for an answer,” Steve said. The door to the hotel flew open, and Sam stumbled out, swaying on his feet as he glared at the sunny sky. Steve waved to him. “Sam's alive.”
“Good to know. Next time, schedule your food truck festival when I don't have DJ for the weekend and I'll come with you.”
“I'll bring that up with the organizers,” Steve said. “I love you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said. “I'm stealing your chutney.”
“And I'll still love you.” Steve hung up, grinning at Sam as he wobbled his way across the parking lot. “Wow. You're looking...” He shook his head. “Rough.”
“Yeah, well, I feel worse,” Sam said. “Can we go home?”
Steve took a deep breath. “I wish. Come on. We've got prep work to do.”
Tony poured the sauce with hands that shook, his fingers white knuckled on the bottle. “Plates up,” he said, ignoring the way that the words burned their way out of his throat, all sharp edges and painful pressure. He struggled against the need to cough.
He looked up, too fast, way too fast, and the room spun around him, color and light and heat, so much heat. He grabbed for the edge of the prep station, using it like an anchor. The sauce bottle hit the gleaming silver counter and bounced to the floor, splattering bright red ichor with each impact.
Tony's head came up, and he struggled to focus on Bruce, who was staring at him with a face like a thundercloud. Tony took a breath, and another, his chest aching. “Plates. UP,” he said, and someone took the plates away from him, whisking them out of reach before he could fuck them up even more. Tony was grateful for that much, at least.
Bruce was still working, his hands fast and steady, the movements practiced, almost unconscious. “You need to go home.”
That wasn't happening. Tony reached for the sous vide machine. “Let's just through this, first.”
“There's no 'getting through this,'” Bruce said, his voice hard. “You look like death warmed over and I can hear you breathing over here. Get out of my kitchen.”
“Excuse me, it's our kitchen, and we have two more seatings, so-”
“Three,” Bruce corrected. Tony stared at him, not quite able to make sense of that. “We have three seatings left, Tony, do you even know what time it is?”
“Not late enough, apparently,” Tony said. Someone darted behind him, and it was everything he could do not to flinch. He couldn't quite focus on anything, no matter how hard he stared at the readout of the cooker, he couldn't make it make sense. “Let's just get through this.”
“I'm done discussing this,” Tony said, and for a second, the kitchen went still, every head swinging in his direction.
Bruce stared at him, his eyes narrowed, his mouth tight. “So, you've got no intention of showing sense, do you?”
“I'm doing my job here, I don't know what you expect from me, Banner, but-”
“Right. Peter.” Bruce jerked his chin towards the door. “Go.”
“Go? Go where?” Tony asked, but the timer went off, and he couldn't think about that now. He couldn't think of anything now. He had six more courses to go.
And three more seatings after that. He gritted his teeth and did his best to focus.
Steve handed over a paper boat. “Hot sauce is on the counter,” he said, to the extremely well dressed woman who took it. “And Potato Rescue's got a special on Potato Nachos.”
She blinked at him, her big brown eyes framed by truly impressive fake lashes. “What... Are potato nachos?” she asked, the fur stole around her shoulders slipping down her arms.
Steve folded his arms on the edge of the counter, leaning into them. “Spicy waffle fries, tossed with taco seasoning, then broiled under a blanket of cheese before being topped with jalapenos, sour cream and pork carnitas.”
She stared at him. “I want that,” she said at last. She sounded a little drunk, but people often sounded a little drunk when Steve was describing food to them.
“We all want that,” Steve said, grinning at her. He handed her a stack of napkins. “Tell him I sent you and he'll give you some extra guac.”
“I love you,” she said. Her teeth dug into her lower lip. “I love you so much.”
“Yeah, that's the number one Yelp review I get,” Steve said. Just in case it was more booze and less food, he fished a bottle of water from the cooler under the counter. “Here. On the house.”
She took it. “Marry me.”
“That's just the fried chicken talking,” Steve told her with a grin. The waffle maker timer went off, and he straightened up. “And as nice as you seem, I've got a boyfriend.”
“Of course you do,” she said, but she was smiling as she took a bite of her sandwich. Her eyes fluttered shut, her cheeks flushing as she chewed. “Of course you do.”
Shaking his head, Steve popped open the waffle iron. “I'd say sorry,” he said. “But I'm not.”
She nodded. “I'm gonna get some fries.”
“You do that,” Steve said, his eye caught by a familiar form cutting his way across the parking lot at a hard jog, his kitchen whites bright in the low light of the streetlamps. As the woman wandered away, Peter darted up to Steve's window, his breath coming in quick bursts.
“Hey, Pete. You keep sneaking out during the rush and Tony's going to have your head.” Steve popped the waffle, crusted with sugar crystals and perfectly browned, into the warming oven. “You hungry? Special tonight's chicken fried in panko and tossed in a pepper and maple glaze and served between two Belgian waffles, with arugula and pickled vegetables.”
“That sounds great, but-” Peter sucked in a breath. “Bruce sent me. Tony's sick, and he's not, uh-” He rubbed a hand on the back of his neck. “He's not listening to reason?”
Steve paused, the pitcher of batter hovering over the hissing waffle iron. He set it down. “How sick?” he asked, but he was already shrugging out of his apron, tossing it towards the hook next to the window.
“Bruce removed all the knives from his station and says anyone who gives him anything sharper than a spoon is going to be fired immediately,” Peter said.
“Right,” Steve said. “Can you-”
“I'll watch the truck,” Peter said.
“Thank you,” Steve popped the back door, switching places with Peter. “Shouldn't be much, you're in the middle of a seating, but-”
“I know where you keep stuff, and the drunks'll wait for you,” Peter said. He braced his arms on the counter. “I'm really good at distracting drunks.”
“Right.” Steve set off across the parking lot at a quick lope, his feet chewing up the distance in a controlled rush.
One glance was all he really needed.
Tony looked like he was asleep on his feet, his eyes glassy and unfocused, his skin a pasty grayish-white. His hands shook, his breath coming in raspy, uneven bursts. Steve glanced across the kitchen, catching Bruce's eye. Bruce shook his head, his mouth tight. Steve gestured in Tony's direction, his eyebrows arching.
“Please,” Bruce mouthed, before wrenching the beater free from the massive, industrial mixer next to his station.
Steve took a deep breath, stalking through the chaos, heading straight for Tony. Everyone gave way, getting out of his way with looks that ranged from pitying to grateful. Steve wasn't sure which one worried him more. "Who's taking your station?"
Tony's head came up, his eyes struggling to focus on Steve. He swayed on his feet, blinking at Steve, and Steve grabbed him by the arm, trying to steady him. "Who's taking your station?" he repeated.
"I'm fine." The words were forced out from pale, cracked lips, the sounds slurring into each other. "I'm-" His head lolled forward, just for a second, but long enough. Steve gave him a tiny shake, just jostling his arm, and Tony's head snapped back up. "I'm fine," he repeated, and it was stronger this time. But no more sure.
Steve leaned in. "You look like death, you're clearly unwell. You should not be handling food right now. So.” He paused, letting that sink in before he repeated, “Who's taking your station?"
Tony's body swayed against his, and Steve took his weight easily, his free hand coming up to brush Tony's hair away from his forehead. His skin was hot and dry, and Steve shook his head. "C'mon, Typhoid Tony. Time to go home."
"I'm fine," Tony bit out, and Steve was abruptly, suddenly done with this conversation.
"If anyone else in this kitchen had showed up looking like you, you would've expelled them immediately," Steve said. "They wouldn't have made it past the threshold." His head tipped to the side, trying to catch Tony's eyes. "You are sick. You should not be handling food. So. Who's taking your station?"
Tony took a deep breath, and it came out in a cough, hard and heavy, and he buried his face in Steve's shoulder. Steve waited for it to pass, his teeth gritted in sympathetic pain. But when Tony finally raised his head, he looked resigned. "Riri."
On the other end of the kitchen, Riri's head came up, her eyes going wide. "Chef?"
Tony didn't even look. "Let's go, Williams, I don't have time for backtalk."
Riri's head swung towards Bruce. Bruce never looked up from his work, his big hands manipulating strands of sugar as thin as a hair with speed and accuracy. "Ms. Williams, in this kitchen, when you are given an assignment, what do you say?"
Her mouth worked. "Yes, Chef."
"Exactly." Bruce's hand snapped up, pointing at Tony's station. "Plating six is in four minutes, take over."
She was moving already, her sneakers flying over the polished tile of the kitchen floor. "Yes, Chef."
"What do you need?" Steve asked her as she slid into place.
"She knows what she's doing," Tony said, his head resting on Steve's shoulder. He looked up, just far enough to meet her eyes. "You know what you're doing."
For an instant, she was still, her mouth pursed tight, her chin up. "Yes, Chef."
"Good." Tony nodded, his head bobbing drunkenly. "Make me proud, kid."
"Yes, Chef." And just like that, she was working, her hands flying over the station, so fast that they were almost a blur.
Steve kept an eye on her, even as he called to Bruce, "I'm going to have to leave his car."
Bruce nodded. "Won't be the first time it's been out back all night, won't be the last." His eyes cut up, meeting Steve's for a moment. "You okay with him?"
"I hate everyone in this room," Tony said, through clenched teeth.
"We'll be fine," Steve said, wrapping his arm snuggly around Tony's waist. He tucked Tony up close to his side, and started muscling him towards the door. "I'll keep you updated."
"You do that. He's not allowed back through that door until his temperature is back to a strict 98.6 degrees,” Bruce said. “And now that the excitement is done for the night, everyone back to work.” He glared at the kitchen at large. “Now. We're in the weeds here, people.”
“Yes, Chef!” everyone chorused, and Steve hustled Tony back to the coat room.
It took far longer than he'd expected to wrestle Tony into his coat, and it wasn't even because he was resisting. Instead, he seemed almost unresponsive, staring blankly at the far wall as Steve managed to shove his arms into his coat. By the time they stepped out into the cold night air, they were as prepared as Steve could get him.
Despite that, Tony started coughing the moment they stepped outside. Steve's chest ached, and he wrapped his arm around Tony's waist, pulling him in close. “Come on,” he said. “Let's get you home.”
Tony's head bobbed, the barest hint of a nod, and he allowed Steve to muscle him across the parking lot towards his truck.
Peter leaned out of the service window. "He okay?" he asked, his brow furrowed.
"You're a traitor, Queens," Tony muttered into Steve's shoulder. "Back in the day, I could've had you killed for this."
Peter blinked. "That seems harsh," he said. "Can't you just fire me?"
"Tried," Tony said, as Steve wrestled the passenger side door open. "You keep coming back. Like..." He glared in Peter's general direction. "Like the cat."
"He's small and wily, it's true," Steve said, half coaxing and half lifting Tony into the seat. "Sit here until I get things secured."
Tony stared at him. "Make me."
Steve huffed out a breath. "Right." He grabbed the seatbelt and buckled Tony in, and gave the belt a pat. "There. Let's see you get out of that."
Tony immediately started fumbling at the buckle, first with one hand and then with both, pawing at it with far more energy than focus. Steve watched him for a bit, amused despite himself. "I can do this," Tony said, frowning down at the seatbelt. "I can-" His head lolled forward. "You're a bastard, Rogers."
Steve leaned forward, pressing a kiss to Tony's hair. "Love you," he said, hopping down and pulling the door shut. "Peter, can you lock down the cabinets and-"
"Already done." Peter's voice echoed out of the depths of the truck. His head popped out, blinking owlishly at Steve. "When I saw you coming. With him. Figured you'd be going. Batter's in the cold case, cabinets are secured and the fryer's sealed, so you should be almost good to go."
"Thank you," Steve said, jogging around to the back. Peter was fast, fast and efficient. And he'd been trained in Tony's kitchen, everything was done with precision, and everything was done right. Even as he climbed up into the truck, Peter was wiping down the counters, a bucket of bleach water steaming next to his elbow. Steve exhaled, some of the strain going out of his shoulders. "Really. Thank you."
"He's going to fire me," Peter said. He didn't sound especially bothered by that.
"It's okay, Bruce will rehire you," Steve said, as Peter tossed him the rag.
"Probably," Peter said, wiping his hands on his apron before he pulled it off. He hopped out the back of the truck and turned back to peer up at Steve. "Hope the food truck fest went well, but glad you're back, Steve!”
“Uh-huh.” Steve slammed the last cabinet door. “Because you missed me, or because I have a slim chance of controlling your boss?”
“Can I go with both?” Peter said. “Because, yeah, both. Both.” He raised his voice. "Get some sleep, Chef!"
"You're on mop bucket duty for the rest of your life," Tony mumbled
"Better than expected," Peter said. He gave Steve a wave and headed back to the kitchen door at a quick, loose jog. Steve watched him go, trying not to smile.
“You shouldn't pick on him,” Steve said, closing the service window and securing it. A moment later, he opened the driver's side door and slipped into his seat. “He's good at his job.” He gave Tony a look. “And it's a horrible job. With a very demanding boss.”
Tony was huddled against the door, his body tucked up as tight as he could make it. “I'm a fucking joy,” he said, his voice flat, and Steve bit his lip to keep from smiling.
“Oh, clearly,” he said, starting the truck. “Obviously, I was talking about Bruce.”
"Why is your name not Scott?" Tony said, staring at the roof with glazed eyes.
Steve glanced at him, not sure how to handle that question. "Because my Ma liked Steve?" he managed at last, his lips twitching.
"If your name was Scott," Tony said, the words very serious, "our portmandeau in the society pages would be Scony."
"Okay," Steve said, because Tony seemed to be waiting for a response. "Why would we be in the-"
"Like SCONES," Tony said, thrusting his hands out. "But with a y!"
"Right, I got that, but-" Steve shook his head. "By that logic, if I was named Earl, our portmondeau would be Tea."
Tony stared at him. "That's stupid."
Steve bit his lip, struggling to keep a straight face. "Right."
"Earl is a horrible name, that's-" Tony swayed in his seat. "I wouldn't have dated you if your name was Earl."
"Really?" Steve asked him.
"Okay, I would've, but I would've called you something else." Tony blinked at him. "Like 'Sport.'"
"Very Great Gatsby of you," Steve said. "Don't do that."
"You look like a Sport." Tony's head tipped to the side, his eyes narrowing. His nose was bright red and it was somehow endearing. "Old-fashioned. I should get you a straw boater."
"Don't do that, either," Steve said, shaking his head. "Tony, I think maybe you should just get some rest, we'll be home soon, and-"
"Also tea is horrible," Tony said. He shifted in the seat, curling into the heavy weight of his jacket. His eyes blinked, his gaze unfocused. "Leaf juice."
"And as soon as we get home, we'll be pouring that into you," Steve said. Tony glared at him, dark eyes malevolent over the collar of his coat. Steve grinned at him. "Yay!"
"Fuck you," Tony grumbled, but held no heat. He slumped against the door, his head braced against the window. He sniffed, scrubbing at his nose with the back of one hand. "Fucking leaf juice."
“Uh-huh, well, guess what, we're going to-” His phone vibrated in his pocket, and he fumbled for it with one hand. “Hold on.” Tony made a grumbling noise, his eyes fluttering shut. Steve found himself smiling at Tony, even as he answered his phone. “Hey.”
“He's definitely got a cold, probably got the flu,” Steve said. He glanced towards Tony, who stuck his tongue out in Steve's general direction. Steve smiled, feeling better already. “News travels fast.”
“Peter's pretty easy to bribe,” Sam said. “I pretty much just have to wave something fried in his general direction. You need any help with Tony?”
“I've got it. Sorry to leave you to handle the hordes alone.” Steve took a turn, squinting up at the stoplight.
“Yeah, money's horrible, just...” Sam made a scoffing sound. “It's lucky for you that I don't hold a grudge..”
“You are a man of even temperment and a forgiving nature,” Steve agreed.
“Damn straight. So, you bringing him back to your place?”
Steve winced, trying not to think about the last time he'd done laundry. “No, his place is closer, and I'm sure he'll be more comfortable there.”
There was a long moment of silence. “So you're taking him to his place?” Sam asked at last.
“Yes?” Steve said, and that should not be a question, really, he knew what he was doing. “Yes. Obviously.”
“Obviously,” Sam repeated. “And what are you planning on doing with the truck? Cause there's no fucking way you're finding street parking for it, and it won't fit in Tony's spot in the parking garage.”
Steve's head fell forward, a curse pushing hard against his gritted teeth. “Right,” he said. “Right. The truck. Right. I...” His voice trailed away. He didn't know where he was going with this anymore.
“So, you're taking him back to your place?” Sam asked, his voice angelic.
“I'm taking him to my place,” Steve agreed, resigned. “And I can hear you smirking.”
“Hey, man, don't hate me because I'm practical,” Sam said. “Hate me because I'm handsome, clever and suave.”
“Right.” Steve did his best not to smile. “So you're okay with being hated, as long as it's for the right reasons.”
“I'm resigned to it, yes,” Sam said. “I'll swing by tomorrow with some matzoh soup for him, okay?”
“I can make him soup,” Steve said. “And my soup's better than yours.”
“It's less about the soup and more about wanting to mess with him while he's too feverish to fight back.”
Steve shook his head. “Good-bye, Sam.”
“Hey, I think-”
Steve hung up on him, which was rude, but Sam would count it as a win. He glanced over towards the passenger seat, where Tony had gone still and quiet, his head tucked down into the bulk of his coat. Steve could hear him breathing, the sound slow and raspy. He reached over, his fingers ghosting over Tony's hair. “Hey, we're going to go back to my place. Okay?”
Tony mumbled something that sounded both annoyed and sleepy, and Steve turned his attention back to the road.
By the time he pulled into his usual parking spot behind his building, Tony was snoring, soft and gentle. Steve put the truck in park, bracing his hands on the steering wheel. He could probably get Tony inside without waking him. It might be easier, but knowing Tony, he'd wake up at exactly the wrong time.
“Hey,” he said, his voice soft. “We're here. You gonna wake up?”
Tony stirred, his head coming up for a second before subsiding back down to his chest. He mumbled something under his breath, and Steve caught himself smiling at him, affection sweeping over him. “You're going to make this as difficult as possible, aren't you?” he asked.
Tony said something that was probably obscene, and Steve grinned. “Right,” he said, pulling his keys from the ignition and slipping them into his pocket. He pushed the driver's side door open and slid out. “Stay put.”
It took him thirty seconds or less to walk around the front of the truck, and by the time he got there, Tony was already fumbling at the door handle. “Hey!” Steve grabbed for him. “Can you try to be less of a problem, Stark?”
Tony blinked at him, his eyes unfocused. “Alarm,” he said.
“No alarms,” Steve told him. He unbuckled Tony's seat belt and slipped an arm around his back. “Here we go.” He boosted Tony out, trying to set him on his feet, but Tony slumped against his chest, his face buried in Steve's shoulder. Steve smoothed a hand over his hair. “Yeah, I think you're going to be sleeping in tomorrow.”
Tony's head came up, squinting at Steve. “Alarm,” he said, and it was adament. “Al-” The word trailed away, and Steve pressed a kiss to his forehead.
“Right. Let's get you to bed.”
“Yep.” Steve boosted Tony over the threshold. “I don't need much room.” It was true, really. The kitchen was all that mattered, and he'd made the kitchen into exactly what he wanted it to be. Everything else had been secondary, to the point where he'd spent years sleeping on a couch or a broken futon rather than waste money on a proper bed.
His apartment was small, tucked in an awkward corner of an old building, in an unfashionable neighborhood. He was proud of it, because it was his, he'd earned it, and he'd built it into exactly what he wanted it to be.
But it wasn't like Tony's sleek and modern midtown penthouse, or his warm and cozy Queens house. It wasn't much, and caught himself wondering what Tony would think of his worn, paint stained wood floors and his framed mass market posters.
He shook off the thought. It was ridiculous. He was being ridiculous, and he knew it, but suddenly, he wished he'd spent a little more on his bed frame, or that he owned more than two kitchen chairs that matched.
“Doesn't have to be big,” he said, trying to sound confident. “It's just me, after all.”
Tony let himself be steered towards the bathroom. “You're big.”
Steve smiled. “Not that big, buddy.” He wrestled Tony's jacket off and tossed it towards the breakfast bar. “Go get cleaned up, I'm going to make you some tea and toast, then it's straight to bed.”
“Ugh,” Tony said, wandering into the bathroom. “Tea.”
It was said with such disgust that Steve burst out laughing. “Your life is very hard,” he said, setting the kettle on the stove. “I know it's not what you want, but it'll help your throat.” He opened the cabinet, squinting at the spice shelf. “I think I have some better stuff in here, but right now, maybe just some herbal tea. What do you think?”
There was no reply, and Steve looked towards the bathroom. 'Tony? Do you-”
The sound of a phone alarm cut him off, almost mid-word. Startled, he looked over to the counter, where he'd thrown Tony's jacket. He grabbed it, pulling Tony's phone out of the pocket. He frowned down at the face of it. “Fifteen Minute Warning,” it read, and he canceled the alarm with a flick of his thumb. “Hey, Tony, what is the alarm for?”
From the bathroom, there was silence, and then the rattle of the shower starting up. Steve's eyes flicked up towards the ceiling. “Do you need help?” he called, dropping the phone back onto Tony's jacket.
There was another long moment of silence, and then, “No.”
“That did not sound confident at all,” Steve said. He glanced back towards the range, where the kettle was barely starting to steam, before he headed to the bathroom. “Are you-” He poked his head into the bathroom and found Tony struggling to get his shirt off. Smiling, he leaned a shoulder on the doorframe, his hands in the pockets of his pants. “Need help?” he asked again.
Tony considered his shoes. “Yes,” he said, resigned.
Laughing, Steve pushed himself upright. “Luckily,” he said, grabbing the hem of Tony's shirt, “I'm a pro at getting you naked. Arms up.”
It took Steve the better part of an hour to get Tony washed and dried, then to steer him up the narrow, steep set of stairs to the bedroom. Once he'd wrestled Tony into a pair of his pajama pants and one of his t-shirts, he coaxed him into swallowing half a cup of sugary tea and some cold medicine, and put him to bed.
Exhausted and wired in equal parts, he headed back downstairs to get cleaned up. His shower, while usually reliable, wasn't big enough for two, another reason to prefer Tony's apartment to his. And tonight, he probably needed one.
He was halfway to the bathroom when he realized that Tony's phone was still vibrating, the buzzing almost lost in the fabric of his coat. Frowning, Steve reached for it, suddenly worried if there was a problem back at TOBRU. But the number on the face wasn't Bruce or the restaurant. Instead, the lock screen said “DJ.”
“Oh, dammit,” Steve said, his stomach bottoming out. Six missed calls. All from the same number. He scrambled for his own phone, Tony's tumbling back to the counter. “Dammit, dammit, dammit. The alarm. Of course, that's why-”
Hitomi's number was in his phone, and he took a moment to thank God for whenever Tony had given that to him as he hit the dial button. She picked up on the second ring. “Hello?”
“It's Steve,” he said. And then, just in case, “Steve Rogers?”
“Yes, I know,” she said, her voice strained. “Is something wrong? Tony does not miss DJ's calls.”
“He's got the flu,” Steve said. “He's asleep, I'm sorry. When I brought him home, he tried to warn me, he tried to say something about an alarm, and I didn't understand.” He took a breath. “He sets an alarm so he remembers to call DJ, doesn't he?”
“We let DJ call, with the Facetime. It gives him control. We called, because I thought, maybe, the app was not working,” she said.
“Right.” Steve shoved a hand through his hair. “He's going to be fine, Hitomi, but he's really out of it right now. I can wake him, if you-”
“No, it is fine.” She paused. “Would you explain to DJ? He is... He is upset. He has a hard time, when his schedule changes without warning. Do you have the Facetime?”
“I can open it on Tony's phone, I think, I-” He grabbed Tony's phone, checking if the password Tony had given him still worked. It did, and he let out a relieved breath. “Yes. I can open it up. Have him call again?”
“Yes. Thank you.” He heard her put down the phone, then the muffled sound of her speaking. A moment later, she picked up the phone again. “All right. He will call now.”
“Thank you,” Steve said, sinking down at the kitchen table. Tony's phone vibrated. “I've got it.” He punched the app, and the video screen popped up. DJ stared out at him, his eyes huge behind the lenses of his glasses. He was perched at the kitchen table at the farm, his knees drawn up against his chest and his bare feet braced on the edge of the kitchen chair. Behind him, Steve could see Hitomi put her phone down and go back to her cutting board. There was a pile of big, round pears stacked in easy reach, and a bowl of peeled, sliced pear sitting next to DJ on the table.
“Hi,” Steve said.
DJ rocked a bit forward, his fingers digging into the fabric of his pants. “Hi,” he said, the word a bare whisper of sound. His big eyes blinked, studying Steve with his usual concentration. “Dad?”
Steve took a deep breath. “He's sick,” he said, because DJ needed the facts most of all. He needed calm. As long as Steve stayed calm, hopefully DJ would stay calm. “He's at my place, because he's sick. I'm going to take care of him until he feels better, so he's not alone. He's going to be fine. But right now?” He gave DJ a smile. “He's sick, and he fell asleep.”
DJ nodded. “Early,” he said, one finger sliding back and forth, scratching across the fabric of his pants. His shoulders were tense.
“Yes,” Steve agreed. “It's very early. Usually, he would still be at the restaurant, right?” DJ nodded again. “But he's sick. So today, he had to go to bed early.” Another nod, but DJ was avoiding his eyes now, staring down at the tabletop. Steve cast about, trying to find something comforting to say. “Want to see?”
DJ looked up. Steve smiled at him. “He's asleep. But you're a quiet kid. I can bring the phone upstairs, and you can see that he's just asleep. Sick, but okay.” He studied DJ. “Would you like that?”
For a long moment, DJ was silent. Then, he nodded again. And more than that, his arms relaxed, his feet shifting on the chair in front of him. “Yes,” he said.
Steve grinned. “Okay,” he said, pushing himself to his feet. “I hung your picture up on the fridge. Do you want to see?” DJ shook his head, but he was smiling. “Gonna trust me? Okay. I like it, you used my favorite color this time.”
“Blue,” DJ said.
“Lots and lots of blues,” Steve agreed. “Your dad tried to claim it was for him, but I saw the blue and knew that one was mine.” He started up the stairs. “Did you get my postcard?”
“Coney Island,” DJ said. “Yes.”
“I sent you another one from Atlantic City, you should get it this week,” Steve said. “Wanna guess what's on it?”
DJ's eyes narrowed. “Octopus.”
Steve stifled a laugh. “Mermaid. I'll find an octopus for you next time.” He peeked over the top of the stairs, but there was no movement from the bed. “Okay, I'm going to be quiet now. So I don't wake your dad.” DJ nodded, his face going serious.
There was a small lamp on the bedside table, one he'd picked up at a street fair a few years back. Steve flicked it on, and crouched down beside the bed, aiming the phone in Tony's direction. He was snoring quietly now, his face flushed, his damp hair flopped over his forehead and his arms wrapped tight around a pillow. Steve smiled at him, his chest aching. He reached down, tugging the blankets up over Tony's shoulder, and Tony mumbled into his pillow, his nose wrinkling.
Steve looked down at the phone. “Did you see?” he asked, his voice quiet.
DJ had his face buried in his folded arms, his eyes bright over the tops. “Snores,” he whispered back, sounding pleased.
“Yeah, he's snoring,” Steve agreed, grinning at him. “Lots of snores.” He reached for the light. “Do you feel better? Is it okay if I turn off the light again?” DJ nodded, and Steve turned it off. “Okay, let's go back downstairs.”
Once he was back on the main floor, Steve settled down into one of the more stable kitchen chairs, ignoring the way it creaked under his weight. "I've never seen your dad when he's sick before. I made him some tea and toast." DJ nodded, and Steve smiled at him. ""What do you think? Tea and toast? Is that what you have when you're sick?"
DJ blinked at him, and then twisted around, looking back towards Hitomi. She didn't look up from her peeling. "What?" she asked, a smile hovering around her mouth. "If you tell him, you tell him." She rolled the pear against her palm, the blade of her knife sliding neatly under the peel. "I think he can be trusted. Do you?"
DJ looked back at Steve, his eyes narrowed. Steve did his best to look trustworthy. DJ gave a quick, sharp nod, and leaned in. "Ramen," he said, in the tones of someone conveying a very important piece of information.
Steve opened his mouth, and closed it, unsure what to say. "Oh, soup is good, everyone likes soup when they're not feeling well, but-"
Behind DJ, Hitomi was laughing, her shoulders shaking. "Bad ramen. Instant ramen," she said, and Steve stopped dead.
"Oh," he said. And then, again. "Ooooooh." He leaned back in his chair. "And your dad-"
"We do not tell him," Hitomi said. She glanced in Steve's direction, a puckish smile curving her lips. "Let him think we have only organic juice and fresh vegetables here." She stood, wiping her hands on a tea towel. "When we are sick, sometimes the things that are good for us, are not-" She stopped, her eyes narrowing. "Not good for us."
“My ma used to give me Jell-O when I was sick,” Steve said. “But she wouldn't, it wouldn't be solidified.” Hitomi's eyebrows arched, and Steve grinned. “When I've got a cold, drinking liquid lime Jell-O is still my comfort food.”
“Tony would probably drink this,” Hitomi said. She paused next to DJ, her hand smoothing over his hair. He glanced up at her, his face adoring. “Maybe we can show Steve how to make okayu, then he can make it for your father,” she said. “Much better, when you are sick.”
DJ looked at Steve, and Steve smiled at him. “Will you teach me?” he asked.
“Secret?” DJ asked.
Steve laughed. “I promise. I won't tell your dad.”
DJ nodded, his eyes bright. “I can teach you.”
The crash woke him up.
Steve was upright before he was fully awake, his heart in his throat as his brain tried desperately to catch up with his body. “What the-”
In the dim light of the bedroom, he realized that Tony was stumbling, his hands gripping the railing of the loft, towards the stairs. “Hey!” He flung himself out of bed, nearly ending up on his face as his feet tangled in blankets. “Tony! No, no, no-”
Somehow, he reached Tony before Tony reached the stairs, his arms wrapping around Tony's chest. “Hey! Stop, wait, you're going to break your neck,” he managed, dragging Tony to a stop. “What's wrong? Do you need something?”
Tony's head lolled forward, his bare feet sliding across the floor as he tried to keep moving towards the stairs. Steve braced a hand against the railing and wrapped his other around Tony's waist, dragging him back. “Tony!”
For the first time, Tony seemed to hear him, his steps staggering to a halt. Steve let out a frustrated breath. “You are going to be a handful, aren't you?” he said, steering Tony back towards the bed. “It's the middle of the night, what are you doing?”
It took a few tries, but he managed to get Tony to sit down on the side of the bed, Steve's hands braced on his shoulders to keep him from getting back up. “Do you need something to drink? An aspirin?”
Tony blinked at him, his face pasty and strained. “Sick,” he said, and Steve stroked his hair away from his damp forehead.
“Yeah, you're sick, it's fine, it's just fine,” he said, trying to sound soothing and not exhausted. “You're going to make it worse if you don't get some rest, Tony, so-”
Tony was shivering now. “Can't be here,” he mumbled. “Sick. Can't be-”
“Okay, you're fine, we're fine, I'll-”
Steve blinked at him. “Bucky? What about Bucky?”
Tony tried to get up again, and Steve caught him. “Stop,” he said, his voice sharp. “For once in your life, can you not be like-”
“Can't get you sick.”
Steve's words died in his throat. “What?”
Tony struggled to take a breath, and it came out in a cough. “Bad lungs. Bucky said-”
Steve's eyes slid shut. “Buck says a lot of things,” he said, his voice gentle now. He lowered Tony back to the bed, and crouched down in front of him. “When I was a kid, yeah, I had bad lungs. I had bad everything.” He tried to smile. “I got sick a lot. But I'm not a kid anymore” He spread his arms wide. “I got better. Look at me, Tony. I'm fine.”
He cupped Tony's face in his hands, forcing Tony to meet his eyes. “I love you, and I got my flu shot.”
Tony nodded, his face sad. “I didn't.”
“Yeah, I figured that out,” Steve said. He arched up, pressing a gentle kiss to Tony's forehead. “If you need to go downstairs, I'll come with you. But no sneaking off in the middle of the night, okay?” He rocked back to his feet. “If I have to chase you down and haul you back to bed, I'm going to be annoyed.”
Tony let himself be tumbled back into bed, curling into Steve's pillow. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Sorry.”
Steve picked the blankets up off the floor, shaking them out. “Nothing to be sorry about,” he said, covering Tony back up before heading back around to the other side of the bed.
“Not up for sex,” Tony mumbled into his pillow, and Steve choked on a laugh.
“Okay, you can be a little sorry about that,” he said, settling down and tugging Tony into the shelter of his body. Tony twisted in his arms. “Okay?”
“Wanna be the big spoon,” Tony grumbled.
Steve kissed the nape of his neck. “We tried that, and you tried to sneak out in the middle of the night. Stealing my pants,” he whispered. “So now you get to be the small spoon.”
There was a long pause. “Fair enough,” Tony said.
Smiling, Steve stroked a hand up and down along the length of Tony's breastbone, waiting for his labored breathing to smooth out before he closed his eyes. “I think I'm going to need some help.”
He was warm.
Tony staggered towards consciousness, reluctantly, so reluctantly, because everything hurt. He breathed, and his chest ached, his throat ached, his head ached. Everything hurt, and he resented it.
But he was warm.
Light pressed against his eyelids, and he shifted, burying his face in the pillow. It smelled good. Everything smelled good, even through his stuffed up nose. Coffee. Bread. Bacon. Something sweet, and sharp, the citrus tang catching on his tongue every time he inhaled.
Tony rolled over, pulling the blankets with him, jerking them up over his shoulder as he went. Soft. Heavy. Warm. He curled up, his legs folding up towards his chest, and concentrated on breathing.
He wanted coffee so bad he could cheerfully have killed someone.
It took him two tries, three, four, but he managed to open his eyes, blinking hard to clear them. He didn't recognize the bed he was in, he didn't recognize the tumble of blankets and the fluffy folds of the comforter. He didn't recognize the sheets or pillows, both in almost painful shade of blue. The walls, brick and adorned with only a couple of framed vintage posters and a few pieces of art, could've been anywhere, any one of a thousand converted factories or warehouses scattered throughout the city.
He definitely didn't recognize the giant gray cat that was sprawled out over his legs, purring up a storm.
He pushed himself up, his arms shaking, and he stared down at the unfamiliar shirt he wearing. It took him a couple of tries to read the writing, upside down as it appeared to him. 'New York Original: Made in Brooklyn.'
Tony caught himself grinning at it. Right. Steve.
His head cleared in an instant, so fast that he was almost dizzy with it. Steve. Steve's. He blinked at the walls, at the bed. Steve's.
Steve's bed. Steve's apartment.
Someone was talking, voices low, and strangely, they seemed like they were a very long way away. Tony squinted in that direction, trying to get his eyes to focus. There was a low railing just to his right, and he realized that the apartment had been broken into two levels, the bedroom on a platform somewhere above the main floor of the apartment. It took him a painfully long time, but he managed to push himself to the edge of the bed, far enough that he could get a better look.
The apartment had an awkward layout, long and narrow, with a set of steep stairs against the wall leading up to the loft, like it had been carved out of space leftover when bigger and better floorplans had been completed around it. From his vantage point, he could see only the edge of some that might've been a living room, the back of a couch and kitchen table pushed up against the wall, directly below the skylights, where it'd get the most sunlight.
And every other inch of space was kitchen. It was sunny and bright and he'd lay good money that everything was just a little bit untidy, except the kitchen. The kitchen would be pristine. Tony caught himself grinning, despite the way his head ached. Definitely Steve's place.
At the front door, Steve was talking in hushed tones with an older black man. The old man leaned heavily on a cane, his broad shoulders hunched a bit with age. His head was bare, showing off his close cropped, bright white hair, but a red, white and blue scarf was tied in a jaunty knot at his throat. Behind him, a young man, probably barely out of his teens, was leaning up against the doorframe, his arms crossed over his chest, a faint smile creasing his wide, handsome face. He was wearing a matching scarf, but his was just thrown over his shoulders, the ends trailing down over his chest.
Tony shifted, and the teenager glanced up, his dark eyes sharp. His smile stretched. “Hey, man,” he said, catching Steve's attention. “Think your boyfriend's awake.”
Steve's head swung around, his gaze locking on Tony. “Don't move,” he said, and he was already moving towards the stairs, his long legs eating up the distance in seconds.
“Wasn't planning on making a run for it,” Tony said, because he might be on death's door, his throat might be on fire, but he still couldn't keep his mouth shut. He scrubbed a hand over his face. “What time is it?”
Steve jogged to the top of the stairs. “Almost noon.” Tony mumbled a curse, and Steve smiled, his eyes warm. “Yeah. Pretty much.” He leaned over, pressing a broad, cool hand against Tony's forehead. “How're you feeling?”
“I hate everything and everyone,” Tony told him. He leaned into Steve's palm, a soft sound of pleasure slipping from his lips.
“Right,” Steve said, but he was smiling. “Think you've still got a fever.”
“Think I'm dying,” Tony said, and Steve leaned over to press a kiss to his head. Tony tried to fend him off with one hand. “Get off, Rogers, I'm filthy.”
“Don't care, and you're not dying. You might have the flu, though,” Steve said. Tony groaned, and it ended in a hard, painful cough. Steve grabbed for the box of tissues that were sitting beside the bed, holding them out to Tony. “Pretty sure you've got the flu.”
“Pretty sure you're right,” Tony rasped, coughing into a tissue. His nose was running, and he mopped at it. Steve tried to push his hair back, and Tony twitched away. “Don't, I'm going to be-”
Steve sighed. “There's zero chance that I haven't already been exposed, so just-”
On the end of the bed, the cat stood and stretched, its back arching as it yawned. Tony squinted at it. “You have a cat?” he asked.
“What?” Steve followed his gaze. “Oh. No, he belongs to one of my neighbors, he's just very good at sneaking in whenever a door is opened. Sorry, he must've gotten past us when-”
Down below, the oven timer went off with an insistent beep. Tony waved Steve off. “You need to-”
“Don't worry! I got this!” Down below them, the older man was already stomping his way across the apartment floor, his cane thumping hard on the wood floor with every step.
“Grandpa, don't mess with another man's oven,” the teenager said. “Really. What are you doing?”
The older man pointed a finger in his direction. “You wanna stand there and be useless, you do that, but I'm not letting anything burn out of politeness.” He disappeared from sight, his voice echoing up to them. “Besides, Steve never puts his breads in for long enough.”
“Yes, I do,” Steve called over his shoulder. “Just because you like a crust that you could kill a man with-”
“I knew you were going to be trouble, all those years ago. I told Abe, I told him, that boy's got no patience.” There was a clatter of pans and oven doors, and the beeping cut out. “I took one look at you, Rogers, and I knew. No patience, and I told Abe just that.”
Steve grinned at Tony. “That's the least of what you said about me.”
The teenager looked up at them, his face pained. “Sorry about this.”
“Don't you apologize for me,” the old man grumbled, and there was another clatter, of racks and pans and god only knew what else. “Eli, get over here and stir this glaze for me.”
The boy groaned, but he headed for the kitchen with a heavy tread. “We're here to pick up bread, Gramps.”
“Oh, so the boy who spends all his time talkin' about his muscles is suddenly too weak to stir some sugar? Interesting. Maybe I should have you unload the canned good delivery alone this week.”
“I'm coming, I'm coming!”
“I have no idea what's going on,” Tony admitted, as Steve smoothed his hair back. Giving up, Tony leaned into the contact, needing the support more than he liked to admit. “What's going on?”
“You sound horrible,” Steve said. “Lie back down, I'm going to get the thermometer and a cup of tea.”
Tony stared at him. “No,” he said.
Steve's lips twitched. “Tony-”
“Absolutely not,” Tony said, throwing back the blankets before Steve could stop him. He was wearing a pair of unfamiliar flannel pajama pants, but they fit him better than the shirt did. He stared down at his legs until his head started spinning. “Tell me these were a gift.”
“They were on sale,” Steve said. “Lie back down.”
“Dear God.” Tony poked at the fabric. “Purple and green. It's...” He squinted down at it, his head spinning. “It's just so ugly.”
“And yet, warm and cheap,” Steve said. “Lie back down, you need-”
“Hahahhaha no,” Tony said, and he heaved himself to his feet. He was barely upright before the world seemed to drop out from around him, sending him stumbling backwards. Steve caught him before he could end up on his ass. “Okay. That's.” He swallowed. “Good, that's good, thank you, can we go downstairs now?”
Steve heaved a sigh. “You're not giving up on this, are you?” he asked, and he sounded tired.
“No. Who're your friends?” Tony twisted around, trying to figure out what was happening. The smell of baked pastry was stronger now, and he took a deep breath. “What're you baking?”
“Right.” Steve wrapped an arm around Tony's waist and steered him towards the stairs. “Let's go. Try not to fall down the stairs.”
Tony focused on making his legs work, Steve taking a lot of his weight. He decided he was okay with that. “Fuck, did I miss work yesterday?” Everything was a hazy fog, and he was too tired to feel worried about that. “What day is it?”
“It's Friday, and you were expelled from work,” Steve said. “I talked to DJ and-”
“Fuck,” Tony said, with more feeling this time. “Fuck, I missed-”
“It's okay, I explained, he knows you're sick, and I told him you'd talk to him tonight for sure,” Steve said. He went down the stairs first, hands braced on the wall and the railing. Tony fell into step behind him, ignoring his wobbly knees.
“Thanks,” Tony said. He coughed, and Steve stopped, waiting for him to catch his breath. Tony clutched at the banister. “Thank you, really, I don't-”
“It happens,” Steve said. He glanced over his shoulder. “He knows it happens. He's going to teach me how to make rice porridge for you.”
“Good?” Tony said, and Steve laughed, reaching the bottom of the stairs and turning to wrap his hands around Tony's waist. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Steve said. “Couch time.”
“Let's not,” Tony said, even as Steve force marched him in that direction. Giving up on moving under his own steam, he turned his focus on being nosy.
The kitchen took up most of the main floor, filled with gleaming, professional grade appliances, a huge double fridge and gas stove, surrounded by well-scrubbed counters. A breakfast bar separated it from the rest of the room, a set of mismatched kitchen chairs and stools clustered along its short length. On the butcher block island, the older man was setting out trays of massive, golden brown cinnamon rolls. The younger man gave Tony a wry smile. “Hey,” he said. “How're you feeling?”
“I want to die,” Tony said, as Steve wrapped a blanket around his shoulders. “Hey, I-” Steve took hold of his shoulders, pushing him down onto the couch. “I'll fight you, Rogers. I will fucking fight you.”
“I'm very intimidated,” Steve told him. “Lie down, please.”
Tony grumbled under his breath, but he sank back onto the comfortably shabby couch. It was one of the few pieces of furniture in the main part of the apartment, that and a battered chair, a tv mounted on the wall nearby. A lamp. Something that might've passed as a coffee table, and some well stocked bookshelves along the wall in what space was left, books clustered around their bases, the shelves overflowing to the floor.
It wasn't what he'd expected, but seeing Steve here, in the midst of it, seemed perfectly natural. Perfectly comfortable.
The older man turned from counter, a massive mixing bowl cradled in the crook of his elbow. “This your boy?” he asked Steve, giving Tony a steely look.
Steve grinned at him. “Yeah. Isaiah, Eli, this is Tony. Tony, this is Isaiah Bradley, and his grandson Eli. Isaiah was a friend of Chef Erskine's.”
“And I knew the moment that Abe dragged this kid into his kitchen that he was going to be nothing but trouble,” Isaiah said, with a firm nod. He gave the bowl a stir with a silicone pastry brush and started sweeping the glaze over the cinnamon rolls with a quick, heavy hand. “All piss and vinegar, trying to bite everything that got in reach.”
“I've mellowed,” Steve said, smoothing Tony's hair away from his face.
“It's cute that you think that,” Tony said, trying to shoo him away. “Get off, he has information. I want it.”
Steve laughed. “Isaiah ran the best kitchen in the city, and then he ran the best food truck in the city.” He headed for the bathroom. “The original War on Hunger. He and Eli are going to take the truck out for the next few days, so I can take a break and watch you.”
“Looking forward to hitting the streets again. Back then, I was a radical with a spatula and a knife, and I did more damage with the spatula,” Isaiah said. He sounded gleeful, and considering the way he was handling the pastry brush, Tony was inclined to believe him. “Now I'm just old.”
“Yeah, now he's retired to just heading like, six different charity boards and running one of the biggest soup kitchens in the city, pretty much single handedly,” Eli said, turning the tray without being asked so his grandfather could reach them all without effort. “Don't make eye contact with him, or you'll end up helping out there, too.”
“Eli thinks that just 'cause he's going to culinary school, he's too good to do the grunt work,” Isaiah said. His teeth flashed in a bright, hard smile. “I don't put up with that in my kitchen.”
“He doesn't,” Eli said. He rolled his eyes, but he and his grandfather moved as a single unit, smooth and practiced. “I get to wash dishes. I get to wash a lot of dishes.”
“I come to drop off donations and I get to wash dishes,” Steve said, emerging from the bathroom with a thermometer in one hand. “So I don't want to hear it from you, buddy.” To Tony, he said, “Open up.”
“I'll wash dishes if you'll give me one of those,” Tony said, because the citrus smell was intoxicating now, cutting through his stuffed sinuses and his foggy head. He licked his lips, suddenly aware of just how empty his stomach was.
“You'll have tea and toast,” Steve said, and Tony stared at him, betrayed. Steve smiled. “Keep that down and we'll see if you can have one.”
“I'm seriously questioning this relationship right now,” Tony said.
“Only now? I must be doing something right.” He tapped Tony on the nose with the thermometer. “Open. Up.”
With a melodramatic sigh, Tony opened his mouth, letting Steve tuck the thermometer under his tongue. “Thank you.” Steve glanced over his shoulder. “Eli, any chance you can throw the kettle onto the stove for me? I have to keep him from...” Steve waved a hand at the trays of cinnamon rolls. “Gorging.”
Eli eyed Tony, a faint smile on his face. “Yeah, think you're going to have your hands full with that one.” He grabbed the kettle and crossed to the sink, filling it with the ease of someone who knew the layout.
Tony switched his betrayal to the horrible child who was undermining him. He kept staring, his eyes narrowed, until the thermometer beeped. He pulled it out. “We've just met, this is... This is... Unacceptable.”
“Dude, I've heard a lot about you, and you seem sketchy, honestly.” Eli dug a mug out of the cabinet next to the gleaming, massive fridge. “'Sides, I don't trust any man around Steve's pastry.”
Tony relaxed back into the couch as Steve frowned down at the thermometer. “Ah, I've seen you've met Bucky,” he said to Eli, who burst out laughing.
“Okay, you're okay,” he said, grinning at Tony. “Steve, we doing decaf or-”
“If you decaffinate me, my heart will stop,” Tony said.
“There's an herbal blend in the cabinet,” Steve said, ignoring Tony entirely. Tony hissed at him, and Steve tugged the blanket up over his head like a hood. “It's good. I got it from Strange's Van of Sketchiness.”
“I love that weird little man,” Isaiah said, sliding rows of cinnamon rolls onto gleaming racks. “His garlic bread mix should be illegal.”
“It might be,” Steve said. “You need help with-” Isaiah's head shot up, his black eyes locking on Steve with laser-like focus, and Steve's hands went up in an immediate pose of surrender. “Right. Nope. You don't. Sorry I asked. I'll just be over here. Hiding.”
“Wait,” Tony said, squinting at Isaiah. “You can control him. You-” He stabbed a finger at Isaiah. “You can make him STOP.”
“Damn straight,” Isaiah grumbled. He slammed the bowl into the sink with a pleased nod. “Boy still knows his damn place.”
“Teach me your ways,” Tony said.
“You are enough trouble already,” Steve told him. “Keep this up, and you'll have nothing but tea and broth today.”
“Worth it,” Tony said.
Steve took a step towards the kitchen, then stopped, looking suspiciously in Tony's direction. “Eli, can you-” He waved a hand towards the couch. “Keep him out of trouble?”
Eli gave Tony a look. “I doubt it. You got a bat or something?”
“You can borrow my rolling pin.” Steve kissed Tony on the top of the head. “He's sick, so you've got a chance.”
Tony made a half-hearted swipe in Steve's direction. “Pastry.”
“Toast,” Steve countered. “Eli.”
“I'm on it.” Eli dropped into the arm chair across from Tony. Tony glared at him, and Eli grinned. “Sorry, man, I owe him, so... Just sit your ass down, okay?”
Tony considered getting up, just to spite the horrible child, but it seemed like far too much work. “So. Culinary school,” he said instead. Eli nodded, his face amused by the effort at small talk. “You going the French route?”
Eli laughed. “No, thanks.” He slid down in the chair, his hands folded over his stomach. “Following these two losers into the food truck business.”
“Watch your mouth,” Isaiah said, pointing a spatula at Eli, who just grinned. Isaiah shook his head. “Food truck business isn't what it used to be.” He handed the platter to Steve, and wandered into the living room. “Used to be for the poor folk, you know. The ones who couldn't afford to eat at a proper restaurant, or couldn't leave the job site long enough to have sit down meal.” He leaned on his cane. “Trucks like mine, we went to the blue collar workers, driving down to the docks or setting up in the alleys down by the factories. Served simple fare for a fair price, hot and fast.
“It was a stepping stone, back then. For the cooks who couldn't afford a real place, or couldn't find a landlord willing to rent to them. You drove a truck to save up for a proper place.” Isaiah shook his head. “Now we got a bunch of white boys serving ramen tacos to stockbrokers for twice the price you'd pay for a whole meal at a proper diner.”
Tony considered them, his lips pursed. “They're not going to approve of my cuisine, are they?” he stage whispered to Steve.
“You're fine,” Steve said, emerging from the kitchen with a plate of toast and a steaming cup.
“How would we know until we try it?” Isaiah asked. “Where's your place?”
“I think-” Tony started, as Steve handed him the plate. “Maybe we should just focus on the toast right now, it's, it's a good piece of toast, and-”
“You old faker, you know exactly where his place is,” Steve said to Isaiah. “Stop angling for a free meal.”
Isaiah clutched at his chest. “This is the way you talk to an old man?” he asked, and Eli was trying not to laugh, a hand clamped over his mouth as his grandfather staggered, his face shocked. “I'm trying to make nice with your boy, and this is how you-”
“How do you deal with this?” Steve asked Eli. “How do you deal with the guilt trips?”
“I live in the dorms, man,” Eli said. “Distance is the best way to handle it.” He spread his hands wide. “A lot of distance.”
“You're both ungrateful, you know that?” Isaiah asked.
Tony chomped his way through the toast. “You want to come to dinner?” he asked Isaiah, gesturing with the crust. “I can fit you in. When's good for you?”
Isaiah gave Steve a look of such triumph that it was all that Tony could do to keep from laughing. “I'll check my calendar,” Isaiah said. “And get back to you.”
“You do that,” Tony said. He reached for the tea, resigned. “Tell me about your kitchen.”
“You sure you don't need anything?”
Tony sipped his coffee, letting the warmth curl through him. “I'm fine, Steve,” he said, and he sounded like he'd swallowed a frog. He tried to clear his throat, which was never going to work, but he was stubborn and stupid. “Stop asking.”
Steve grinned down at his bread dough, his hands working with practiced speed. There was flour dusting his apron and his bare arms, swirling through the late afternoon sunlight air around him. Tony watched him work, snuggled down on the couch under a half dozen blankets. It was calming, and somehow intimate, to watch him go about his baking with his usual care and patience.
The way his shoulders and arms flexed when he slung the massive piles of dough certainly didn't hurt Tony's mood either.
“Do you want to go back upstairs and take a nap?”
“Oh, yes, very different from two or three naps I took here on the couch,” Tony said. He'd spent all day sleeping, and despite that, he still felt exhausted. But the tea was helping his throat, and Steve was helping with everything else.
“I can put a movie on-”
“I'm fine,” Tony said. “I've got-” He held up his cup. “All I need.”
“It's decaf, you know that, right?”
“I'm aware, but I'm ignoring this betrayal,” Tony said. He took a deep breath, and it came out in a cough. “Our relationship depends on it.”
Steve was forming loaves on the board now, big, round domes of pale dough. “You didn't eat much.”
Tony made a face. “I love you, but that cinnamon roll was the size of my head. If I finished it, I'd be a lot sicker than I am now.” He squinted in the general direction of the oven. “I'd take a slice of bread when it's done, though.”
“I suppose I could spare a slice or two,” Steve agreed, covering the loaves with a cloth and setting the dough to rise near the warmth of the oven. “I've got cherry and raspberry preserves.”
“Acceptable,” Tony said, with a slight smile. He snuggled back into the pillows behind him. God, he ached. His book slid off his knee, and he made a grab for it before he could lose his place. Not that it'd be hard to find it again. He'd managed about four pages in the last hour. “Until I walked into your apartment, Steve, I had no idea that there were this many books on Brooklyn history in the world.”
“Hey, some of them are general New York history,” Steve said, grinning. He headed for the sink. “And I've got other books.”
“Sure,” Tony said. His head rolled to the side, studying the pile of books on the table next to him. “Let's see. History of New York. History of Brooklyn. History of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bread cookbook. Another bread cookbook. Pastry cookbook.”
“That's more of a cultural history, actually.”
Tony gave him a look. “Does it have recipes?”
“It's a cookbook with fluff pieces,” Tony said, from behind his coffee cup. “Then there's the porn.”
“Wait, what-” Steve, caught in the act of drying his hands on a kitchen towel, stared at him. “What porn?” Tony held up the slim volume, and Steve grinned at him. “Okay, 'Leaves of Grass' has some erotic leanings, but-”
“Vintage porn,” Tony said, thumbing through it. “I feel like I'm learning something about your tastes in men as well as literature.” He grinned. “Can I seduce you by reading Whitman?”
“You can seduce me pretty much by breathing, but I wouldn't object some poetry thrown in there,” Steve said. He leaned a shoulder against the wall, his smile warm as he looked at Tony. “It couldn't hurt.”
“I refuse to add to the hipster aesthetic of this scene,” Tony asked, waving a hand at the room at large. “Your converted warehouse Brooklyn apartment. Your secondhand couch. Your sourdough bread and handmade preserves and your books of 19th century poetry and your-” He plucked at the blanket that was draped over his hips. “Your vintage afghan.”
“Hey, now,” Steve said, an easy smile creasing his cheeks. “That's not vintage, Isaiah's wife Cora made that for me last Christmas.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Right, right, of course, an honest-to-God Grandma afghan, why didn't I see that coming?”
Steve crossed the room, untying his apron as he did. “And my boyfriend, wearing my old flannel shirt and-” His eyes narrowed. “And sporting the beginning of a very fine beard.”
Tony struggled against a grin. “I always a very fine beard,” he pointed out. “Now I'm just scruffy.”
Steve leaned over, his fingers gentle on the line of Tony's jaw. “On you, it works,” he said, making Tony laugh. “Here. Sit up.”
“No.” Tony tried to glare at him, but it was hard, it was so hard, because it was Steve, smiling down at him like Tony was something remarkable. It was Steve, with his laughing blue eyes and his flushed cheeks and a dusting of flour across his skin. It was Steve and that was all that mattered. Tony pushed himself upright.
Steve caught his shoulder, supporting him easily as he slid behind Tony's back. He took a seat against the arm of the couch, and tugged Tony back into the shelter of his chest. Tony leaned back, his breath leaving him in a cough. Steve rubbed a comforting hand over his breastbone. “You okay?”
Tony waved him off. “Fine,” he managed, but his head fell back against Steve's shoulder. “I might not be well, but I'm well medicated.” He took a deep breath. “Seriously. Hipster porn. This whole thing is like catnip to your people. I'm going to take pictures of the kitchen and make an absolute killing.”
He felt Steve laughing behind him, as much as he heard it. “Oh, really? What do you think is going to get the trend setters hot and bothered? Is it my mismatched kitchen chairs?” His fingers smoothed over Tony's hair, playing with the strands. “The chipped egg cups? The novelty coffee cup full of kitchen utensils?”
“You, your sleeves rolled up, your hands buried in bread dough,” Tony said, leaning into Steve's touch. “Barefoot. Singing along to a song no one remembers-”
“It's a jazz standard,” Steve told him, his voice amused.
“Mmmm,” Tony said, neither agreement or disagreement. “You're a menace.” He yawned. “I could take a half dozen pictures and send my kid to college with the proceeds.” He grinned. “You're that dangerous.”
“Don't even start with me, Stark.” Steve's arms wrapped around Tony's waist, his fingers tangling in the fabric. “I spent six months hovering in the background of every party and gathering that happened on that damn street, nursing a drink and watching half the people there try to get your attention.”
Tony choked on a laugh. “Oh, you did not,” he said, but it was a nice thought. He grinned at nothing in particular. “Let's not pretend you were a wallflower.”
Steve kissed his temple, his cheekbone, his lips tickling Tony's skin. “I found a corner and watched you mingle, feeling pathetic and trying to remind myself I didn't stand a chance.”
Tony reached back, his fingers sliding into Steve's hair. “You weren't paying attention,” he said. “You're the one everyone wanted to date.” His throat ached, his head ached, and he wondered if Steve was planning on staying with him on the couch. “Flowers and poetry and warm Sunday mornings on your couch with eggs and croissants.”
Behind him, Steve was silent, and Tony shifted, twisting in his arms. “Me, they just wanted to sleep with.” He grinned. “Bit different.”
Steve's arms tightened. “Do you want flowers and poetry?” he asked, and Tony shrugged.
“What would I do with that?” he asked. “I mean.” He grinned. “Can you imagine me getting a posy, Steve?”
Steve smoothed a hand over his head. “Would you blush and stammer like a schoolboy?” he asked, and there was laughter in his voice.
Tony grinned. “Love letters and construction paper hearts and wearing my boyfriend's letterman jacket,” he agreed.
“I don't have a letterman jacket, sorry.”
Tony groaned. “Well, that's the last time I tell you my fantasies.”
Steve reached around him, picking up the book of poetry, and thumbing through it. “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” he read aloud, and Tony glanced back over his shoulder at him. Steve was smiling, a slight curve of his lips, the long dark sweep of his lashes hiding his eyes, his face flushed with warmth. Tony opened his mouth to say something, and Steve kissed his temple. “Hush and listen,” he whispered.
Tony opened his mouth. Closed it. Reached for his coffee cup and settled back against Steve's chest. “Well?” he said with a ghost of a smile.
Another kiss, Steve's lips lingering against his skin, and then he started reading.
“Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.”
There was an aching note to Steve's voice, words full of yearning, of memory. Tony let his eyes slip shut, let the vibration of Steve's voice slide over his skin, into his very bones.
“The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,
The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.”
Steve's free hand swept up and down the plane of Tony's stomach, his touch familiar and comforting, slipping beneath the fabric of his shirt to settle against Tony's skin.
“Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.”
His voice trailed away, and Tony shifted in his arms, tucking his head under Steve's chin. “You're leaving me for a bearded, melancholic poet, aren't you?” he mumbled.
“My crush on Whitman is, sadly, going to go unrequited,” Steve said, amusement running through the words. His fingers smoothed over Tony's hair, and Tony leaned into the contact. “But if I end up with a time machine, you might have something to worry about, mister.”
Tony grinned, his eyes falling shut again. “I'll live for today, then,” he said. “Read me a porny one.”
“What qualifies as a 'porny' one, Tony?”
“Just... Just replace random nouns with dirty words and I'll take it,” Tony said, just to hear him laugh.
“I'd say Whitman might object to that, but-” Steve made a humming noise. “Actually? Probably not.”
Tony grinned. “Porn it up, Rogers.”
“If that drier eats one more of my shirts, I'm going to shove it off the loading dock myself,” Steve said, shoving the apartment door open with his hip, a laundry basket balanced on his other side. “This is the sixth time that I've-”
He stopped dead, just inside the door. The couch was empty, the blankets trailing across the floor. “Tony?” Steve shoved the door closed with a foot. He glanced at the bathroom, but the door was open. “Tony?”
“I'm fine.” The words floated out of the kitchen, and Steve sprinted in that direction, the laundry basket tumbling from suddenly numb fingers.
He skidded around the corner, only to stop short, his heart in his throat. Tony was sprawled out on the floor, his shoulders braced against a cabinet, his face pale and damp with sweat. A glass lay on the floor, just out of reach, water splashed across the tile.
“What happened?” Steve asked. “Are you hurt? Are you-”
Tony made a face. “I'm fine. I wanted a glass of water. I got a glass of water.” He stopped. “Then I decided to, you know, sit down for a second.”
Steve crouched down next to him. “For God's sake, Tony.”
“I'm fine, I'm-”
"I was gone for fifteen minutes." Steve glanced back at the apartment door. “I left for fifteen minutes to get my laundry, and-”
"Eighteen, actually." Tony made a vain attempt to fend him off, his hands fluttering in the air in Steve's general direction. "Get off, I can do it."
"Okay." Steve braced his hands on his thighs. Tony slumped back against the cabinets, his chest heaving with the force of his breathing. Other than that, there was no indication of movement. Steve sighed. "We have a timeline for when you're going to do it?"
Tony glared at him, his eyes narrowed into sharp slits. "If I'm holding you up from a more pressing appointment, you can feel free to just-"
"You can't get up, can you?" Steve asked him.
"I don't see any reason to get up," Tony said, his eyes sliding closed. "The floor is my-" He waved a hand through the air. "This is a good floor. It's cool here. Comfortable."
"You're lying on my kitchen floor," Steve said. "How comfortable can that be?"
"Comfortable enough, and just, it's your kitchen floor, so I know it's clean, so, right, it's fine. Fine." He exhaled, and it rattled through him, his face twisting with the force of it. "Fine."
"Yeah, the flu's a bitch, isn't it?" Steve said. He slid his arms under Tony's arms, and braced his feet. "Okay, up we go."
"I can do it," Tony said, even as Steve pried him off the floor. Tony swayed on his feet, his head wobbling on his neck. "See? I told you I could-" That was as far as he got before his knees buckled, his body tipping forward. Steve wrapped his arms around Tony's waist, pinning Tony to his chest.
"Well, how'd that go?" Steve said.
"I'm upright," Tony mumbled into Steve's chest, his arms hanging limply at his sides. "I win."
Laughing, Steve dragged him a bit further up his chest with a firm grip on his waistband. "Well, you're more or less upright. Which is better than being on the floor." He shifted Tony's weight, wrapping an arm around his waist. "Arm over my shoulders, let's get you back to the couch."
"I hate the fucking couch," Tony said, with such bile that Steve couldn't quite hold back a laugh.
"It's not so fond of you, either, buddy," he said. He maneuvered Tony onto the couch. "But I love you both, so guess what?"
Tony slumped back into the cushions. "I can't light it on fire?"
"I would very much prefer if you didn't light any of my meager positions on fire," Steve said. "Especially not while it's still in my apartment. My landlord is absolutely going to notice that." He picked up the blanket from the floor, shaking it out. "Lie back down, and I'll get you something to drink."
"Tequila?" Tony asked. Steve gave him a look, and he subsided back onto the couch with a resigned sigh. He accepted the blanket with a resigned look. "A man can hope."
"Right. Because tequila and cold medicine mixes so well," Steve said, shaking his head. He looked down at Tony, trying to look stern. It was a losing proposition. "Tea or juice."
Tony made a hissing noise, burrowing down into his blankets. "Just water."
Steve huffed out a breath. "You know, I figured you'd be high maintenance when you were sick, but this wasn't what I had in mind."
Tony rolled over, dragging the blankets up over his shoulder. "That's cute," he said, grinning. "I mean, I know I grew up with money, Rogers, but my father had a company to run, and my mother had her own work taking up most of her attention. And my father chose my childcare providers more on 'do I want to sleep with her' questionnaire rather than due to any real qualifications. I was not ringing my little silver bell and having my brow mopped with a cool cloth, let me tel you that much."
Steve paused. "No one made you cocoa and put you to bed?" he asked.
"I knew how to use a microwave and Swiss Miss was good to me," Tony said, and Steve's chest clenched. Tony glanced up at him, a wry smile on his lips. "Wipe that look off your face, Rogers, I'm fine." He reached for his phone. "I don't get sick."
"Yeah, that's why you were lying on my kitchen floor a few minutes ago," Steve said. He caught Tony's face between his palms, and leaned over to press a kiss to his forehead.
Laughing, Tony pushed at his shoulder. "Get off. I know you're only trying to check my temperature."
"That's just a bonus." Steve pushed back, stroking his fingers across Tony's cheek as he pulled away. "You're getting some cold meds."
"Yeah, don't... Don't need that," Tony said. He ruined his front by immediately coughing.
"We have a fundamental difference of opinion on this," Steve said. "And since I'm rational and you're not, I guess I'm gonna win." He threw his hands in the air in celebration. "Had to happen at some point in this relationship!"
“I'm going to let you have this one,” Tony agreed, squinting down at his phone. He stopped. “Goddamn it.”
“You didn't get your water,” Steve said, heading back to the kitchen.
“I didn't get the goddamn water,” Tony agreed. He struggled into a sitting position. “I hate-”
Steve picked up the glass from the floor and dropped it into the sink. “I swear to god if your ass moves one inch off of that couch, Stark, we are going to be having a discussion that you will not enjoy. Stay. Still. I will bring you some water, okay?”
From the living room, there was silence. Then, “I'd argue, but I find this dominating side of you to be very attractive for some reason.”
Steve's eyes rolled up towards the ceiling. “I don't know what to do with that information.” He grabbed a clean glass from the cabinet and filled it.
“File it away to use against me later.” A pause. “Unless you want to have sex now.”
Steve turned back towards the couch, a glass of water in one hand and a bottle of pills in the other. “Tony.”
Tony gave him a hopeful smile. “Yes?”
“No.” Steve handed him the cup. “Want some tea?”
Tony took the pills with a swig of water. “I'd prefer to have sex, honestly.”
“Yes, well, five minutes ago, you were on the floor of my kitchen, so I'm thinking you aren't up for that right now,” Steve pointed out. Tony pouted at him, and Steve shook his head, trying to hide a smile. "Do you want to watch something? A movie?”
Tony was already shaking his head. "I'm fine," he said, fumbling for his phone again. "I have a, I don't know, it's a farm thing, on my phone. DJ plays it. I just unlocked goats." He paused, squinting down at the screen. "I'm not sure I want to invest in goats. They're very expensive. It's... I have a budget here."
"I'm sure the game appreciates your financial responsibility," Steve said, heading back towards the kitchen. He stepped over the laundry basket and started shoving everything back into it. A few wrinkles wouldn't hurt anything he owned.
"The game does not. It would like me to buy 'farmbucks' with my real bucks, and let me tell you, it's not happening." He stabbed at his phone, his face intense, and Steve bit back a laugh.
“I'm going to put my laundry away,” he said, hefting the basket up onto his hip. “I'm going to go upstairs and put this on my bureau.” He arched his eyebrows. “Can I trust you to stay still for the three minutes that will take?”
“I make no promises,” Tony said, snuggling down into the couch with a cough. “I'd move fast, if I were you.”
“Know what? I'm going to lock the front door,” Steve said. “Just in case.”
“Might not be a bad idea, honestly.”
"You're on my couch."
Tony pried open one eyelid, glaring at the blurry, dark form that loomed over him, blocking out the light. "Steve's couch, actually," he said, yanking the blankets higher up over his shoulder. "And it's currently in use. Fuck off."
Bucky stared down at him, his brow furrowed. "But it's my couch," he repeated, bracing an elbow on the back of the couch. He seemed confused by the situation. "This.” He tapped the back of the couch. “This is where I sleep."
"And I'm dying, so..." Tony rolled over, burying his face in his pillow. "Again. Fuck. Off."
There was a long moment of silence, and then the rustle of a paper bag. "Where's Steve?"
"Went to try to recover his truck," Tony said. "Since, you know, he forgot Kamala is a force of nature and now she's met Isaiah, which went far too well, so now they're plotting some sort of takeover of something, it might be the US Government, and Steve is absolutely fucked."
"Wow." More rustling. "Yeah. That's... That was not a smart move on his part."
Tony's nose wrinkled, the smell of roasted peppers and spicy meat hitting him with enough force to bring his head up. "What do you-"
Bucky blinked at him, his mouth stretched wide over the end of an enormous burrito. He made a noise, a rumble of sound that might've been a word.
Tony rolled onto his back. "Is that..." He sniffed the air. "Carnitas?"
Bucky nodded, looking like half-starved hamster, his cheeks bulging as he shoved another bite into his mouth. "Mmmshszh," he said.
Tony's stomach growled. "I haven't had anything but toast in two days," he said. It was a lie, but it was a lie that Bucky would appreciate.
Bucky considered him, one eyebrow arched. "'S a shame," he said, licking some bright green guacamole off of his thumb. "I haven't slept in, like, seventy hours, and I've got an hour 'til my next pickup." He balanced the burrito on one palm, holding it aloft like a holy relic. "So. Not really feeling much sympathy for you."
Tony licked his lips, his stomach growling. “I'll give you this couch for that burrito.”
Bucky choked on a laugh. “Ain't happening, I've got all night deliveries, and I'm not doing it on no food AND no sleep.” He eyed the couch. “You're small.”
“Excuse me?” Tony sputtered.
Bucky ignored him. "Half a burrito for half the couch?"
Tony dragged his feet up, giving Bucky access to the cushions. “Get a knife.”
There was a familiar pair of boots tossed haphazardly in the middle of the welcome mat.
Steve hung his keys on the hook beside the door, already too tired for this. “I thought we agreed you'd go bother Sam until Tony's feeling better,” he said, kicking his own shoes off. “There's really not-”
“I can explain,” Tony said, and Steve headed across the living room to look over the back of the couch.
Steve was silent for a long moment, just taking in the full ridiculousness of the situation. "I don't even know where to start with this," he said, bracing his hands on the back. "I don't... I don't even."
Bucky was sprawled over one end of the couch, draped over the arm, his hand trailing down to the ground. His face was mostly hidden under his hair, but he was snoring, the sound echoing out from under the strands. One of his legs was stretched along the back of the couch, his bare foot resting on Tony's hip, and the other was folded under him at an awkward angle.
Tony, for his part, was curled up against the other end, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders and head, scraps of tin foil and white butcher's paper scattered around the floor next to him. There was a smear of what appeared to salsa on his neck and he was wearing socks that Steve were pretty sure belonged to Bucky.
Tony considered Steve with one bloodshot eye. "This isn't what it looks like," he said.
"Really." Steve reached down, picking a shred of cheese out of Tony's hair. A crumpled up bag with a familiar logo was on the coffee table, along with a couple of dirty plates and a tipped over soda can. Steve eyed the mess, amused despite himself. "'Cause it looks like you scammed a burrito off of Bucky and the two of you passed out in my couch."
Tony made a face. "It was half a burrito."
"But otherwise, spot on," Steve said.
"But otherwise, spot on," Tony agreed. He tried to roll over, batting ineffectively at Bucky's leg. "God, stay on your own side, you-"
Steve fished his phone out of his pocket. "Right," he said. "Are those your socks, Bucky?"
"He would not shut up about how cold his damn feet were," Bucky mumbled. He rolled over, throwing a leg over the back of the couch and almost kicking Steve in the shoulder. "Had to shut him up somehow."
"You took my blanket," Tony said, and Bucky made an inarticulate sound. Tony's head tipped in Steve's direction. "He took my blanket."
"Yes, I got that. I just don't..." Steve shook his head. "Right. First thing's first." He pulled up the camera on his phone and took a shot. Sam would pay him good money for that one. "Bucky, go home."
Bucky peered out at Steve from under the curtain of his hair. "Rude," he said at last, and Steve grabbed a pillow, smacking him on the head with it. "Ow!" Bucky rubbed his head. "Jesus.” He scowled up at Steve. “What the hell?"
"Yes, that must've hurt," Steve said, his voice wry. He walked around the far side of the couch. "C'mon, Tony." He tucked his phone away and reached for Tony's hands. "Bedtime."
"Couch," Tony said, clinging to the cushions. "I like the couch. The couch likes me."
"The couch has an infestation," Steve said. He ducked as Bucky tried to kick him in the head. "Getting slow, buddy." He caught hold of Tony's arms and pulled him to his feet. Tony rocked forward, swaying into the shelter of Steve's body. Steve wrapped his arms around Tony's waist. "Hi."
Tony mumbled something against his shoulder, his breath hot through Steve's shirt. Steve pushed his hair back from his forehead. "How're we feeling?"
Tony lifted his head, just far enough to glare at Steve with one eye. Steve bit back a smile. "Right. Bed."
"I have done nothing but sleep," Tony said, and Steve pressed a kiss to his forehead. His skin was dry and warm, but no longer painfully hot.
"Yep, and we're going to do some more. You might not need it, but I do." Steve smoothed his hands down Tony's back. “Upstairs.”
Tony blinked at him. “It's not that I don't want to get into bed with you,” he said. “It's more that I do not want him to win, and by letting him have the couch, he wins.”
Steve nodded. “You realize that's insane, right?”
“No, he's right, he abdicated the couch, I win,” Bucky mumbled into the cushions. He was now flopped out, face down, along the full length of the couch, one leg trailing to the floor, the other propped on the far armrest. “Want my socks back.”
“I think we're going to consider them as part of the terms of surrender,” Steve said, steering Tony towards the stairs. “You can keep the couch, he keeps the socks.”
“I gotta delivery tonight, and-”
“Should've thought of that before you came in here and slept on my boyfriend,” Steve called over his shoulder.
“That... Sounds worse than what happened,” Tony said. He peered up at Steve. “I'm sensing history.”
“There's no history,” Steve said, his tone dire.
“Oh my God, it was ONE TIME and I was RIGHT,” Bucky yelled into the couch cushion.
Tony's eyebrows arched. “Now I want to know what-”
“No,” Steve told him, lowering him down onto the bed.
Tony stared up at him, his hair a tangled mess, his jaw rough with beard stubble, and so handsome it made Steve's chest ache. “You realize if you don't tell me, I'm going to buy him with a plate of french fries and get the whole story, but it'll be from his point of view, so maybe it's better if you-”
“I liked a fella, Bucky didn't, Bucky showed up at a party in his tightest leather pants, kissed him, and then broke his nose,” Steve said.
“I knew he was going to cheat on you, I just gave him the opportunity, and he took it with both hands and a tongue,” Bucky yelled from down below. “Asshole's lucky I didn't toss him out the nearest window.”
“You nearly ended up in jail,” Steve said, shaking his head. “So... Not sure you made the best choice there, pal.”
Tony's chin dipped in a slow, deliberate nod. “I'm not saying Bucky's right about this-”
“He kissed my boyfriend,” Steve said, grinning down at Tony.
“Sounds like your boyfriend kissed him,” Tony said.
“Thank you!” Bucky yelled.
“Whose side are you on here?” Steve asked. He leaned in, his fingers cradling Tony's jaw, tipping his face up. “I mean, I come home, you're sleeping with my best friend, now you're taking his side?”
Tony arched an eyebrow. “I mean, you left me to freeze to death, cold and hungry, and he fed me and gave me socks, so-” His lips curled up in a wicked smile. “He's looking pretty attractive right now.”
Laughing, Steve kissed him. He felt Tony's hands slip around his waist, reaching down to cup his ass.
“And furthermore-” There was the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs, then, “Aw, c'mon! Ugh, I don't wanna see that, what the hell, right in front of me?”
Steve raised his head, letting Tony bury his face in his shoulder. “Bucky,” Steve said, smoothing a hand over Tony's head, “go home!”
“Were you really going to have sex with me down there?” Bucky asked. “I mean, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I was right down there, Steve, can't you keep your pants on for five minutes?”
Incredulous, Steve looked over his shoulder. Bucky was peering over the top of the staircase, a malevolent presence, glaring across the floor at him. “This is my apartment,” Steve pointed out. “This is-” He shook his head. “Go home, Buck, you pay rent somewhere, can you put that to good use and actually go home?”
“He's still groping you,” Bucky pointed out.
“Yeah, that's not going to stop,” Tony said against Steve's shoulder. He raised his head, just far enough to smirk at Bucky. “His ass is a work of art. I can't be expected to keep my hands to myself.”
“Thank you,” Steve told him, feeling his face heat. “I like yours, too.”
“Know what this is?” Bucky said. “This is the fact that you spent your entire life being incapable of getting laid, and now that you've managed it, you're-”
Steve's head fell forward. “Bucky, you have five minutes to get out of here, or I swear I'm going to start stripping and throwing every single piece of clothing at you.”
“I sense I've hit a nerve,” Bucky said, and Tony was laughing against Steve's shoulder, his fingers clinging to Steve's shirt.
“Change the locks,” Tony said, the words broken up by giggles. “Steve. Just-” He lost it again, laughing so hard that he was struggling to breathe.
“I wouldn't do that, I got a set of lockpicks, and-”
“I swear to god, Buck-”
“If I give you your socks back, will you leave us in peace?” Tony asked him.
“I'll consider it,” Bucky said, holding up a hand.
Tony flopped back onto the bed, raising one foot to brace it on Steve's shoulder. “Strip me down, big boy,” he said, his voice husky. “Be gentle. I'm...” He threw a hand over his eyes. “I'm delicate.”
Bucky made a pained noise. “This is going to haunt my nightmares.”
Steve stripped the sock off of Tony's foot and tossed it at Bucky's head. “Thank god I've finally got that foot fetish under control,” he said, reaching for Tony's other foot. Bucky made an inarticulate noise of pain and disappeared back down the stairs. Grinning down at Tony, Steve peeled off his other sock and tossed it over the top of the railing.
He paused a moment, and Tony grinned at him. “Do it,” he said.
“You're a bad influence,” Steve said, even as he stripped his shirt over his head. With a flick of his hand, he sent it tumbling down to the main floor of his apartment.
“I hate you both,” Bucky yelled up to them, and Steve shimmied out of his pants. He tossed them over his shoulder, grinning at Tony as he did it.
Tony folded his hands on his stomach. “Please, stick around,” he called back. “I'm enjoying the show.”
The only reply was the sound of the front door slamming shut, and Steve collapsed on the bed next to Tony, laughing out loud. Tony's head tipped in his direction, grinning at him. “That's your best friend,” he said, his eyes dancing.
“That's my oldest friend,” Steve said, rolling onto his stomach. Naked except for his socks and shorts, he folded his arms under his chin, grinning at Tony. “I'm going to consider Sam my 'best friend.'”
“Really,” Tony said. He arched an eyebrow. “So... That's who your best friend is sleeping with.”
Steve groaned, burying his face in his arms. “Right.”
Laughing, Tony stroked a hand over his head, playing with his hair. “How old were you? When he decked your boyfriend?”
Steve leaned into his touch. “I don't know, nineteen, I think?” He smiled at Tony. “He was right. Guy was more than willing to play me along, but wasn't... Honest.”
“Shocking,” Tony said. He was smiling at Steve now, his eyes dark and warm. “Bucky sorted him out for you.”
Steve smiled. “He was always a little more overprotective than was strictly necessary,” he said.
“Right,” Tony drawled. He kicked the blankets out of the way. “So. You recover your truck?”
Steve squeezed his eyes shut. “Kamala brought her friend Sam down,” he said, his voice dire. “Between them and Eli, Isaiah seems to think that he's got the makings of a great new kitchen staff. Or army.” He pushed himself up, rubbing his forehead. “With Isaiah, it could be either. Or both.”
“I'd worry about her stealing your truck, but she doesn't have a driver's license yet,” Tony said. He patted the bed next to him. “Get your fine ass up here and we can watch something on your laptop.”
Steve smiled at nothing in particular. “You going to be trying to seduce me?”
“I mean, you are nearly naked, if I don't at least make a try, I'll never forgive myself,” Tony said, holding out a hand. “You understand.”
Steve took it and let himself be dragged up against the pillows. “Fine, but I get to choose the movie.”
“Fine with me.” Tony grinned at him. “I'm not going to be watching it anyway.”
“Look, I know what it seems like, but Steve does not actually have a cat.”
DJ considered Tony, his lips a thin line, his eyes narrowed. Tony pushed the cat off of his lap, nudging it gently down to the floor. It hopped right back up, purring up a storm, and rubbing its cheek against the edge of his tablet. DJ stared at the cat, then gave Tony a very suspicious look. “This is a borrowed cat,” Tony said, giving up as the animal rubbed against his jaw. “It does not belong here.”
“He visits a lot, though!” Steve called from the kitchen. Tony gave him a look over the top of the tablet. Steve, unrepentant, grinned at him. “Such a nice cat. Friendly. Likes kids.”
“Hush, you,” Tony mouthed at him, and Steve went back to stirring his stewpot, still laughing. Tony went back to the video. “Steve can't have a cat, just like I can't have a cat, because we work too much.”
DJ rested his chin on the kitchen table, staring morosely at the cat. “I could.”
Tony smiled at him. “I'm going to leave that to your aunt.”
“But if you ever visit, I'll ask Bernie if we can borrow her cat,” Steve called.
“I'm going to hit your mute button now,” Tony said. “Before you get me in trouble.”
Steve came around the back of the couch, leaning in so he could see DJ on the tablet screen. “Do you want to come visit?” he asked, reaching over Tony's shoulder to scratch the cat behind the ear. It arched up, purring against Steve's palm.
DJ watched the cat paw at Tony's cheek. “Yes,” he said.
“Because of Steve, or because of the cat?” Tony asked, and Steve switched over to petting his hair. Tony batted at his hand. “If you start scratching me on the back of the neck-”
“It's okay if DJ only loves me for my borrowed cat,” Steve said, laughing. “I understand.”
“Like Steve,” DJ said, grinning at him.
“Thank you,” Steve told him. “I like you, too.” He leaned over, pressing a kiss to the top of Tony's head. “Let me know when you're ready for dinner.”
“Is it time for dinner?” Tony asked. He looked at DJ. “Ready for dinner?”
“Yes,” DJ said, he held up a hand towards the screen, and Tony tapped his hand against DJ's on the screen. DJ grinned. “Feel better?”
“I feel better,” Tony agreed. “Send me an email tonight?”
DJ nodded. “Bye, Steve!”
“Bye, Deej!” Steve called back.
“I love you, I love you, I love you,” Tony said, repeating it until DJ cut the connection. He let the tablet fall into his lap. “Thanks a lot, Doctor Doolittle.”
Steve laughed. “I have to work with what I've got, Stark.” He turned down the heat on the soup pot and wiped his hands on a dish towel. “Seriously, though. How're you feeling?”
Tony set the cat on the floor. “I'd be better if I had some coffee,” he said, his tone wheedling.
Shaking his head, Steve reached for the coffee pot. “What makes you think-”
“You made a pot, there was zero chance that I wasn't going to get a cup,” Tony pointed out. He sat up and made grabby motions in Steve's general direction. “So let's stop pretending here.”
“I like to maintain an illusion of free will,” Steve said. But he was already pouring the coffee. “Soup's almost done, you want some?”
“Coffee,” Tony repeated.
“Coffee,” Tony said, his voice stern, and laughing, Steve crossed the floor to hand him the cup. Tony took it with a pleased sound. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Steve said. He picked up the cat, holding it in front of him. “Hi there. You need to go home. Your mom's going to be missing you.”
“She's probably glad you're dumb enough to watch her pet,” Tony said, sipping his coffee. It wasn't quite as strong as he liked it, but it was good enough. His fingers tapped on the side of the cup. “Did you mean it?”
Steve set the cat in the hallway. “Mean what?” he asked, shutting the door behind the cat.
“Inviting DJ over,” Tony said.
Steve shrugged. “Sure, for an afternoon, but this place would require a lot of childproofing before that happened. I mean, the stairs alone.” He headed back to the kitchen.
Tony watched him go. “Just out of curiosity,” he said, and his throat ached on the words. “If I hadn't gotten sick, would you ever have had me over?”
Steve blinked at him, his brows drawing up tight. “What?” he asked. “Of course I would.”
Tony nodded. He looked down into his coffee, the cup clasped between tense fingers. He took a deep breath. “You're everywhere,” he said, his voice strange to his own ears. Still and strange. “You're so deeply embedded in my life at this point, and I don't know how that happened.” His lips twitched into something approaching a smile. “I'm usually more careful than this.”
He looked up. Steve was staring at him, his face unreadable, and Tony shifted in his seat, throwing his legs out in front of him. “Half the time, you're there in my bed in the morning,” he said. “And when you're not, your razor's on my sink and your shirts are on my bureau. If I'm in Queens, I know I'm going to find your goddamn banana breads cluttering up my freezer, your tea on my counter.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “And in midtown, it's your dry cleaning mixed in with mine, your shampoo in my shower, your socks under my bed.”
“I wondered where those went,” Steve said, his voice amused.
Tony smiled back at him. “Your truck my curb, your recipes sneaking into my rotation. I look up and you're doing prep work with my staff, I go out for a drink at night and you're holding a stool for me over at Mjolnir.”
He glanced into the kitchen. “Then I come here. My kid's artwork's on your fridge,” he said. “And that's it.” He looked back at Steve. “If we break up, it'd leave such a-” He shook his head. “A hole in my world. You're so deeply embedded in my life, that if you leave, it'll just leave this gaping empty space and I don't know if I can fill that again, because you're everywhere, you're part of my life, a big part of it.”
Tony smiled at Steve. “I stand here, and I wonder. If we break up, Steve, you'll leave a massive hole in my life, and I'm starting to think it would even scratch the surface of yours.”
For a long, still moment, Steve just studied him, his face unreadable. Then his lips twitched up in a lopsided smile. “Tony, if we were to break up, I don't know how much of a life I'd have left.”
He took a seat in the armchair next to Tony. “This is really bothering you, isn't it?” he asked, his voice quiet.
“It's fine, it's-” Tony waved a hand through the air. “It's fine.”
“It's not, and I'm sorry, I should've-” Steve shook his head. “I should've realized. But I never-” He rubbed a hand over his head. “Your place was closer and better and-”
He stopped, and braced his hands on his knees. “I don't know if I know how to explain this,” he said at last.
This whole thing suddenly felt so stupid that Tony wasn't sure why he was willing to ruin one of the best things he'd ever found over it. “Look, forget I said-”
“When I left my old life, Tony, I walked away from something that very few people ever manage to achieve,” Steve said. “I rejected something that a lot of other people desperately want, and will never manage to get, because the deck is stacked against them, because they don't get lucky, because they don't have the advantages I have.
“They'll work just as hard as I did, be just as talented as I am, and they'll never make it, because they don't get the break they need. Because something, or someone, holds them back.” Steve's fingers tapped lightly on the polished wood of the counter. “And I walked away from that, from a thing a lot of people want and will never get. I rejected that.
“It was the right choice for me. I wasn't happy, I wasn't-” His head dipped in a slight nod. “I could've stayed there, Tony, in a five star restaurant, being a head chef. As a rising star of a cuisine I barely liked. Maybe even operating my own place someday. I could've had, I don't know, a cooking show or a cookbook or a line of fancy pans that are absolutely over priced and sold to people who don't know any better.”
Tony took a sip of coffee. “You would've died. Or killed someone.”
Steve chuckled. “Maybe,” he allowed. He glanced at Tony. “I certainly wouldn't have been happy, Tony. I wouldn't have been...” He shrugged. “Me.”
“No, you wouldn't,” Tony agreed.
“So I left that world, I left that position, and I left a lot of things behind. I don't regret it, I kept what mattered. A purpose, Bucky, my sense of self. I got the truck, I got-” He waved a hand around. “I got this place. But for a lot of people, what I did was a comedown, or an insult to what they'd achieved, and...”
His voice trailed away, and Tony shifted in his seat. “And you had to accept that,” he said. “That there were people who wouldn't understand it, or who resented it. There were people you were absolutely going to lose over this, and you still had to do it, because it was the best thing for you. It was the only thing for you.” Steve's eyes shot to his, and Tony gave him a wry smile before taking a sip of coffee. “For me, it was getting out of pizza town. I might've gone the other way, but I think I know what you mean.”
Steve nodded. “Yes. You do, don't you?” He smiled at Tony. “Maybe that's why you were so willing to take in a stray when you found one.”
Tony gave him a look. “You were no stray.”
“Maybe not, but I was...” He frowned. “At loose ends, Tony. I had Bucky and the truck and this place and that was it. I had the work with the soup kitchens, I knew a lot of people, but I missed the rush. I missed a restaurant kitchen, I missed the people, I missed the pressure and the madness and the personalities. I missed a lot.”
He smiled at Tony, his head shaking from side to side. “You showed up at my window that day, and you basically said, 'follow me home,' and I did. Even before we were this, when we were just meeting, just friends, it was-” His eyes closed. “You just cleared a spot for me, and everyone accepted it. You brought me to parties and said, 'he's Steve,' and that was it. No one wanted anything more from me. You walked me into the kitchen and said, 'he's Steve, what're we doing for lunch?' and someone handed me a plate. No one questioned it. I was with you and that was all that mattered.”
Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “You said, 'he's Steve,' and just like that, I was home.”
He looked up. “You gave me a home. It sounds strange, it sounds stupid, but I was...” He smiled. “I was looking for something, and if it wasn't you, Tony, it was everything you brought along with you.”
Tony's throat worked, but he couldn't quite manage the words. Instead, he just took another sip of his coffee.
“You're not my whole world, Tony, but you've made my world a lot better. You've made my life better. And every time you smile at me, every time you hand me a spoon to taste your latest ridiculous concoction-”
“Excuse me, my concoctions are not 'ridiculous,'” Tony said.
“Every time you walk up to my window and make that face, the one you make when you're trying to figure out the whole menu just by the scent-”
“This is less flattering than I was hoping.”
“Every time I open my eyes and you're there, next to me, sleeping or reading or scowling at your phone because some vendor got above himself-”
“I'm going to leave,” Tony said, gesturing behind him. “I'm just going to, you don't need me here for this, I don't think I have to-”
“Every time,” Steve said. He smiled, his eyes bright, his cheeks flushed. “I'm home.”
Tony struggled to swallow around the lump in his throat. “So. That's a 'no' on inviting me to your apartment?”
Steve's eyes rolled up towards the ceiling. “I tried to invite you over the first night that we got together, Stark, you were the one who decided we'd be better off going back to your place.”
Tony opened his mouth. Closed it. Reached for his coffee. “In my defense, I have a root cellar, and I was trying to impress you.”
“And in my defense, my entire apartment would fit in your penthouse bathroom, and maybe that's a little bit intimidating?” Steve pointed out.
“Do you think I care?” Tony asked.
“I think that I wanted to impress you, rather badly, and this place is unlikely to do the job.”
Tony's head tipped back. “Don't know about that,” he said. He sniffed the air. “Does it always smell this good?”
Steve pointed at him. “See? That's the face.”
“I am never smelling anything again,” Tony told him. He smiled at Steve. “You didn't ask my opinion, but-” He patted the couch. “I like your place.”
Steve smiled back. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Tony nodded. “Burning your couch, though.”
“Hmmm.” Steve pretended to consider that. “I'm going to have to veto.”
“Can I buy you a new couch for your birthday?”
“Arrange a convenient break-in? Pay Bucky to haul it away?”
“No, Tony.” Steve stood up. “Want some soup?”
“Can I 'accidentally' spill it on your couch?”
“Do you really think a soup stain on this couch will slow Bucky down at all?”
“We could have sex on it.”
Steve paused halfway to the kitchen. “I don't know if it would survive anything that... Energetic.”
Tony smirked into his coffee cup. “Oh, that would be a shame. If something were to... Happen to it.”
“How about I give you a bowl of soup and join you on the couch and we can try to improve your opinion of it?”
Tony nodded, very slowly. “Take your shirt off?”
He grinned. “We can start with the soup.” He leaned back on the couch. "And move on from there."