Steve had done a lot of stupid things in his life.
He’d made a lot of bad decisions, based on gut reactions, poor judgement, and a keen sense of justice. Bucky always said, he never remembered to look before he lept, and sometimes forgot to correct that error even long after his feet had hit the ground.
He’d done a lot of stupid things in his life. This, however, might’ve been the stupidest.
Tony’s bed was the biggest piece of furniture that Steve had ever seen. It seemed, at first glance, to be bigger than any rooms he’d ever rented, and for the first time in years, he could stretch out to his full height, his full reach. When his fingers clawed at the linens, desperate for something to hold onto when his head was swimming with pleasure, he hadn’t even come close to finding the edge. His heels digging into the mattress, his back arching, his face buried in pillows, trying to hide the flush he was sure was visible in his cheeks, he never found anything but more space. More room.
For the most part, however, he didn’t really try. Tony held him like an anchor, the only thing that seemed to make sense in a world turned on its head.
He had no idea when he’d fallen asleep. But when he drifted back to consciousness, it was still dark outside; the grand windows that ringed Tony’s bedroom had the curtains drawn, but here and there, there were gaps in the heavy velvet, showing only a hint of moonlight. Everything was still and quiet, and Steve permitted himself a moment of weakness, of stupidity, studying the lines and planes of Tony’s face as he slept. That face was rapidly becoming familiar, becoming beloved, in a way that Steve didn’t understand, that he was almost afraid of.
But Tony was smiling in his sleep, just a little, those beautiful lips curled up at the corners. His long, dark lashes were still, one hand resting on the pillow beside his cheek. His fingers were lax, and Steve found himself fascinated by their almost elegant structure, an anatomical study that he wanted to which he could’ve dedicated dozens of pages, and hours of his time.
Without thinking, he reached out, his fingertips just brushing against the hollow of Tony’s palm. Against the pad of his thumb. Against the hard angle of his wristbone and the rough, calloused skin of his fingers. There was a scar on the side of his hand, invisible to the eye but obvious to the touch.
Tony shifted, his hand flexing under Steve’s. Before Steve could pull away, Tony’s fingers tangled with his. In the low light, Steve saw his smile stretch, warm and sweet. “Too early,” he mumbled, his voice rough. “Go back to sleep, Steve.”
“I-” Steve’s thumb swept over the back of Tony’s hand, unable to resist one more small, intimate touch. “I should get back to my room. Before morning.”
Tony made a disapproving sound under his breath. He rolled over, onto his uninjured side, but he kept hold of Steve’s hand, dragging him along with him. Startled, Steve allowed himself to be tugged into place, and when the settled, he found himself tucked up against Tony’s back, his arm resting on Tony’s waist, just below his bandages.
“Go back to sleep, Steve,” Tony said, burrowing down into the pillows. A moment later, he was still, his breathing smoothing out into a slow, easy rhythm. But his fingers were still tangled in Steve’s, his calloused fingertips rough against Steve’s skin.
He should go. He knew he should.
Instead, he shifted closer, his legs sliding across the fine linen of the sheets as he curled against Tony’s back. He was warm and solid, the rise and fall of his ribs beneath Steve’s arm comforting. For the first time, one of these beds, too big and too soft and too foreign, seemed almost comfortable. Cautious, wary of going too far or doing the wrong thing, Steve moved a little closer, his feet bumping against Tony’s, his face buried in the nape of Tony’s neck. He let his eyes slide shut, inhaling the scent of Tony’s skin.
Steve had made a lot of bad decisions in his life. And a few really good ones.
And God help him, right now, he had no idea which this was.
“Good morning, sir.”
Tony groaned, his whole body aching. “It absolutely is not,” he said, and was that really his voice? He coughed, rubbing a hand over his face. “When did the party end? Or start?”
“I’m certain I don’t know, sir,” Jarvis said, and Tony braced himself for the familiar sound of his curtains being drawn back, and the painful flood of light that was sure to follow. “I’ve brought your-”
There was a sudden, scrambling motion behind him, the covers pulling away with a sharp yank. Surprised, Tony fumbled himself into a sitting position just in time to see a pale blonde head disappear under the covers. Legs hit his under the cover of the quilt and Tony realized, just a second too late, that Steve was absolutely making a break for it.
He lunged out with one arm, ignoring the stab of pain that shot through his side as he threw his weight against Steve’s, pinning him to the bed. For an instant, he was sure Steve was going to throw him off and crash out of bed and to the floor.
Jarvis, standing at the foot of the bed, considered this with a faintly perplexed expression on his face. “I’ve brought your breakfast,” he said, holding the tray up. “Your…” His head tipped to the side. “Your usual two plates. As is common. For you.”
Tony sank his fingers into the quilt, and what he thought was Steve’s shoulder underneath. ‘Thank you. I’ll… Eat those. Both of those. You can-” Steve shifted, and Tony was dragged across the bed with him. “You can leave it.”
Jarvis lowered the tray down to the bedside table. “Shall I lay out your clothes for the day?” he asked. Tony got the impression that he was enjoying this situation.
“While I appreciate your dedication to your duty,” Tony said from between clenched teeth, “I do believe that I can manage.” He arched his eyebrows. “Thank you.”
‘Not helping,’ Tony mouthed at him. And then, out loud, “No. Thank you.”
“Of course, sir. My only concern is your well being and safety, not to mention your happiness,” Jarvis said, and if Tony could’ve gotten a hand free, he would’ve thrown a pillow at him. “Do ring if you need more coffee, I should be happy to return with another pot once you’ve-” His eyebrows rose and fell, a slight, puckish smile on his face. “Handled your breakfast.”
Tony told himself he absolutely wasn’t blushing. “Thank you,” he repeated, and mouthed, ‘get out.’
“You are quite welcome, sir,” Jarvis said, slipping out of the room.
Tony waited until the bedroom door closed behind Jarvis with a firm click before he pushed the blanket back. Steve glared up at him, his face flushed, his mouth a hard, tight line. Tony struggled against an entirely unreasonable wave of affection. “Just curious,” he said, flopping back against the pillows. “What was your plan there, officer? Running stark naked across the bedroom to the closet?”
“No.” Steve sat up, and god, Tony had never seen anything as beautiful as this man, all broad shoulders and sleek, firm muscle. “My plan was to grab all the linens and run for the closet, leaving you stark naked.”
Tony grinned as he reached for the pot of coffee on the tray. “How ungentlemanly,” he said, pouring a cup. He held it out to Steve. “And unnecessary.”
Steve was still for an instant, looking at Tony and then the cup, and then back at Tony. Tony just sat there, the cup extended to him. He arched an eyebrow. “Not to play on your sympathies,” he said, with a slight smile, “but this is my injured side, and it’s starting to remind me of that.”
Steve took the cup from him. “Sorry,” he said. He reached out with his free hand, his fingers hovering over the bandage. “Are you- Did I-”
Tony poured himself a cup of coffee. “I’m fine,” he said, but he raised his arm so Steve could see for himself. “Hurts like hell, if I’m being honest, and I’m sure it’s turning six shades of purple today, but Bruce knows not to trust me with weak sutures.”
Steve’s fingers brushed across the bandage, and the skin above, and Tony sucked in a breath. Steve snatched his hand back. “Sorry, I-”
“That wasn’t pain,” Tony said, his voice a bit raw, and Steve flushed again, a wave of pink sweeping up his neck and across his cheeks. Tony, unable to resist, leaned in, brushing a gentle kiss against Steve’s soft lips. Steve, to his credit, kissed him back, his mouth parting under Tony’s, a soft sigh shuddering through him.
“Good morning to me,” Tony whispered against Steve’s mouth, and he was sure that he felt Steve smile. “Now, what-”
The knock at the door sent Steve scrambling backwards, his coffee cup slipping out of his hand and onto the quilt. Biting back a curse, Tony leaned forward, his arms folded on his knee. “Yes?” he called.
“Miss Potts wanted me to remind you that you have a meeting this morning,” Jarvis called. He paused. “Perhaps I should run your bath?”
“This is my punishment,” Tony said to the ceiling. He shoved back the blankets, rolling to his feet. “For all my sins, this is how I am humbled.” He snagged his dressing gown from the foot of the bed and shrugged into it as he headed for the door. “Because who can complain?” Tying his robe shut with a sharp yank of his hands, he wrenched the door open. “You are my penance and my punishment, all at once, you know that, don’t you?”
Jarvis was very definitely not smirking at him. “Sir,” he said, his tone holding just the tiniest hint of censure, “I am hurt by that implication. When have I ever done anything other than my utmost for you?”
Tony braced a shoulder against the doorframe. “I’m going to stop you right there-”
“Never have I spoken a cross word to you, not when you set the drapes on the third floor on fire,” Jarvis pointed out. “Not when you knocked over the crystal punchbowl less than an hour before the largest party your parents ever threw, shattering it across two separate carpets. Not when you lost all of the French linens to a hurricane and the lake.”
Tony pressed a hand to his face. “This is about the frogs, isn’t it?”
“I had quite forgotten about the time you chose to raise bullfrogs in your mother’s fountain,” Jarvis said. “And the night when they escaped into the great hall and then down into the kitchens, causing half the maids to quit in less than an hour.” He paused. “Including the chef and the entire kitchen staff.”
Tony peeked out from between his fingers to find Jarvis smiling at him, his expression benign. “Shall I draw your bath, sir?” he asked.
“I believe I can manage,” Tony said. Jarvis arched his eyebrows. “I can manage, Jarvis.”
“Oh, I’m sure you can, sir, it’s just that you never have, and so-”
“Not helping,” Tony told him, stomping down on the bubble of laughter that threatened to escape. “You insubordinate wiseass.”
Jarvis’ eyebrows bounced up again. “Sir. I’m quite hurt. All I want for you is-”
“I’m living my best life, Jarvis, I promise I’ll bathe, and I’m firing you tomorrow, I’d do it today, but I’m too busy, I’ve got things to do, so many-” There was a sound of clattering china from behind him. He smiled. “So many wonderful things to do, so… If you’ll excuse me.”
Jarvis inclined his head. “Of course, sir. Enjoy your breakfast.” He paused, pulling a flower out of his lapel and handing it to Tony. “Good day, sir.”
Tony gave him a look. “Not helping,” he sing-songed, and shut the door. He was fairly certain he heard Jarvis chuckling on the other side of the panel. Rolling his eyes, he headed back to the bed, twirling the stem of the blossom between his fingers.
Steve was blotting at the coffee that had spilled on the sheets, his face tense. “Leave it, it’s fine,” Tony said, tossing the flower onto the breakfast tray. Steve gave him a look, and Tony couldn’t quite manage to hide his smile.
Steve scowled at him, his face wary. “Something funny?” he asked, and there was a tension in his voice that Tony didn’t quite understand.
“Your hair’s sticking up all over,” Tony said, crossing back to the bed. “You look like a dandelion about to go to seed. Come here.” Without thinking, he reached out, smoothing Steve’s hair down with a gentle hand.
Steve froze, his face going blank. Tony, with no graceful way to withdraw, just doubled down on the contact, cradling Steve’s head between his palms. To his surprise, instead of pulling away, Steve leaned into the contact, like a child seeking comfort. Ignoring the uncomfortable ache in his chest, Tony leaned forward, pressing a soft kiss to Steve’s unruly locks.
“There,” he said, straightening up. “That’ll do, until we can find you a comb.”
Steve looked up, his blue eyes bright below the straight line of his brows, his high cheekbones pink, and Tony’s chest contracted, something he refused to acknowledge making his breath catch in his throat. “Yours isn’t much better,” Steve said, even as he swiped a hand at his hair, undoing Tony’s efforts in a single move.
Tony gave his head a toss. “Yes, but on me, it looks wildly romantic. The papers all say so,” he said, and Steve laughed, the sound muffled behind his fingers. Tony grinned at him. “However, your point is taken. I’ll draw us a bath. I’m going to regret telling Jarvis I can do it, now he’s going to make me handle it for myself from now on. And it’s not that I can’t, it’s just he does it better.”
“Does it better?” Steve repeated. “It’s… Filling a tub with water, isn’t it? How can he be better than you at turning a tap?”
“He fills it up and waits for the tub to absorb the heat, then drains it and refills it with fresh hot water,” Tony said. “And that’s when he adds the bath salts and anything else, so-” Steve was staring at him, a frankly pitying look on his face. Tony sighed. “Fine, I’ll do it myself. Eat.”
Steve’s legs shifted under the covers, one knee coming up against his chest. He braced his arm on it. “I should go,” he said, but he didn’t sound sure, and he didn’t move.
Tony pointed at the tray. “Eat your breakfast. I’ll draw a bath.” If he was lucky, he could coax Steve into the tub with him; heaven knew it was large enough.
Steve looked at the tray. He reached out, lifting the cloche to peek at the plate underneath and releasing a fragrant cloud of warm air, heavily scented with bacon and warm syrup. “You’re awful bossy, anyone ever tell you that?”
“If they have, I haven’t listened,” Tony said, but Steve was still in his bed, bare and beautiful and getting toast crumbs in Tony’s sheets. Satisfied, Tony headed for the door.
All of a sudden, he was feeling very lucky indeed.
Steve walked around the full perimeter of the grounds twice. The second loop had been necessary, because after the first one, he realized he had no memory of anything he’d just done.
Apparently, sex made him stupid.
The second sweep, he’d try to keep focused, despite the way his brain kept trying to wander back to last night. And this morning. And the possibility of later on today.
He was in a lot of trouble.
By the time he returned to the laundry yard, he’d gotten a good idea of where the guards had been posted, where they patrolled, and which ones were actually paying attention. The man by the kitchn door was tall and broad, with a nose that had been broken a few times, and a sharp look in his eye. The first time he’d seen Steve emerge from the house, he’d straightened up, hand going to the nightstick hanging from his belt. Unlike some of the men posted out by the walls, it was clear this one took his task seriously.
There were an unfamiliar truck in the driveway now, and as Steve approached the kitchen door, a delivery man came out, his cap tucked under his arm, a sweet roll in one hand and a steaming tin cup in the other. He gave the guard a nod, gripping the bun in his teeth as he put his cap on.
Steve watched him go. “Deliveries?” he asked the guard.
“Forth one this mornin’,” the man said. “The cook told us which ones he was expectin’, and thems got a list out at the gate. If someone ain’t on it, they ain’t gettin’ in.”
Steve nodded. “That the last one?”
The man shrugged. “Kid came with some paperwork, his bicycle’s out front. Guess he’s waiting for a reply before he can take off back to the office what sent him.” He leaned back against the side of the house, his arms crossed over his chest. His nightstick swung back, banging against the house with a dull thud. “They’ll be keeping an eye on him down in the kitchen.”
“Right.” Steve gave him a nod, and headed inside.
Clint was at the stove, an apron tied around his waist, and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The air was heavy was the scent of garlic and onion, and fresh baked bread. Clint glanced over as Steve walked in. “Coffee’s on the hob,” he said, snagging a jar of some unidentified spice from a high shelf. “Mrs. Parker’s made some fresh apple turnovers, they’re in the basket on the sideboard.”
He walked across the kitchen, sliding a knife out of the block as he passed. “You.” He waved it in the direction of the boy hovering by the table, his hat in his hands. “Sit and eat. Jarvis’ll bring Mr. Stark’s reply as soon as it’s ready, and in the meantime, you’re getting in my way.”
The boy shifted his weight, his feet shuffling awkwardly on the polished stone floor. “‘Bout that,” he said, his voice shaking at the edges. “Wonderin’ if I could just take a turnover, or maybe two? And eat ‘em later?”
“You can have one after you’ve had some real food.” Clint moved so fast at the cutting board that the blade of his knife was just a blur. “Sit.”
The boy opened his mouth, and Clint shook his head. “Sit. Not gonna say it again.”
Steve watched, curious now, as the boy glanced at Clint, and then at the basket of turnovers. There was a pinched tension around his mouth, his knuckles white as he gripped his cap. He was perhaps fourteen, or fifteen at most, and his sleeves were just an inch too short for his arms. His wrists were all bone, and Steve wondered if the rest of him was as skinny beneath the weight of his uniform.
The boy’s eyes darted towards the stack of folded napkins piled up on the sideboard, and he reached out, keeping a careful eye on Clint.
“How many siblings do you have?” Steve asked, and the boy jumped.
He took a step away from the sideboard, his hands locked on his cap again. “Uh, that is to say, it’s-” He blinked up at Steve, his face pale. “Three. Three, sir. All sisters.”
Steve nodded. “All younger,” he guessed. “You must be working to help support your family, then.”
The boy shifted his weight. “I don’t mind, sir. I’m used to working, and I’ve got no head for schooling.” He gave the basket a look. “I wasn’t trying to take more than I always have, I swear, I just thought…”
His voice trailed away, and Steve nodded. “Thought you could take one home for them.”
Clint was still now, and the boy shrugged. “It’s all the same to you,” he said, his voice quiet, “but having something sweet would be a real treat for them.” His throat worked as he swallowed. “If I could.”
Clint set his knife down. “When’s the last time they ate?” he asked. The boy’s shoulders went straight and tight, his chin coming up, and Clint let out a sigh. “Right. Right.” He reached for a pot on the stove. “Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to sit, and eat a proper meal.” He took the lid off, releasing a wave of fragrant, spicy steam, and reached for a ladle. “And I’ll make up some things for you.”
He set down a bowl, heaped high with rice, filled with chunks of sausage, peppers and celery, smelling of onions and garlic. Clint looked up, meeting the boy’s eyes. “Eat. You’re not taking it out of your sisters’ mouths, I promise.”
For a minute, Steve thought the kid would balk. But pride was hard to maintain on an empty stomach, and the lure of a hot meal won out. Cautiously, carefully, he lowered himself onto a stool, and took the fork that Clint pushed across the counter to him. Clint picked up another bowl from the stack. Without asking, he filled it, and handed it to Steve. “Keep him company,” he said, and Steve nodded, taking a seat at the counter.
The boy was eating with the quick, almost desperate movements of someone who’d been hungry for a long time. His eyes came up, catching Steve’s, and he made a deliberate effort to slow down, chewing carefully. Steve gave him a smile. “I’m Steve,” he said.
The boy nodded. “Mickey,” he said, wiping his mouth on the back of his wrist. “You’re new here.”
“There’s been some trouble.” Steve dug his fork into the bowl. He’d never seen a dish quite like it, but the memory of an empty belly was a constant companion, and he’d never been a picky eater. The rice was spicy and sweet, all at once, an unfamiliar tang that bit against his tongue and the back of his throat. But rice mellowed it, and the thick rounds of sausage were delicious. He dug in, taking another few bites before he looked up again. “It’s steady work. Which is hard to find these days.”
Mickey snorted. “Ain’t that the truth. I do my best, and my ma takes what she can find, but it ain’t much these days.” He shoveled another heaping spoonful of rice into his mouth. “I keep a roof over our heads, but sometimes, it don’t stretch as far as it could, you know?”
“Oh, I know.” Steve watched as Clint loaded a canvas sack with potatoes and dried beans. He added a bag of rice, and another of onions. He disappeared back into the pantry, and Steve looked back at Mickey. “You’re not on the support rolls? Three little girls, you should-”
Another shrug, but Mickey’s face was set in a sharp frown. “They told ma we don’t qualify.” He turned his head, his lips pursing as if he was going to spit, but he caught himself in time. His shoulders hunched as he went back to his meal. “Whatta they know?”
Steve nodded. “With just you-”
“Yeah, ma told ‘em that our da’s out, looking for work.” Mickey licked his thumb. “Which, he might be, who knows?” He looked up, and his jaw was a hard line. “He didn’t want us before the world fell to pieces, why’d he want to come back now?” He bent over his bowl, his arms wrapped around it almost protectively. “Ma says he was here, couple months ago, but none of us saw him.” He let out an ugly bark of laughter. “We pretend, cause she wants us to. But he’s not coming back, that’s just the way of it.”
Clint was wrapping up a joint of ham, the butcher paper tied neatly into place. It went into the bag, along with a packet that Steve was pretty sure contained a couple of pounds of dried sausage, and a jar of gleaming red jam.
Steve waited until he disappeared back into the pantry before he continued. “Where do you live?” he asked, his voice low. Mickey gave him a look, and Steve struggled against a smile. “I’m just hired help, too. I’m betting my address isn’t any more sophisticated.”
That won him a smile. Mickey mumbled a street, between bites of rice and sausage, and Steve leaned back in his seat, relief flooding over him. “That makes it easy,” he said. There was a small notebook on the counter, a pencil tied to the spine. Steve scribbled a quick note, and ripped it out, folding it in quarters. “Give this to your ma.” He handed it over. “Tell her to go down to the precinct on down by the old bank building. She needs to ask for Sgt. Dionne, and give him that note.”
Mickey studied the page. “What’s that gonna do?”
“He’ll get you on the relief rolls,” Steve said. He went back to his food. “He owes me a favor, a big one.” He shot Mickey a smile. “And he’s rather desperate not to. Told him in that note, he did this, we’re even.”
Mickey looked at the note, then back at him, then back at the paper. His fingers closed over it, his fingers going tight. “What d’ you want in exchange?”
Steve focused on eating for a moment. “When you’ve got a little to spare, give it to someone who needs it,” he said. He looked up, meeting the boy’s eyes. “And take care of your sisters.”
Mickey nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I can do that.”
The kitchen door opened, and Jarvis slipped in, an envelope in his hand. “Thank you for waiting. Your reply,” he said, holding it out to Mickey, who scrambled up so fast that he almost overturned his stool. “Please take care returning to the office.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Jarvis.” Mickey took the envelope, and picked up his cap from the sideboard. “I will, sir.”
Jarvis disappeared back up to the house, and Clint put a jar of pickles into the bag, then handed it over. “Can you strap that-”
“I can, yes, there’s a- A box for delivering packages on the back of my bicycle,” Mickey said. His thin arms went around it in a hug. “Thank you, Mr. Barton. I really-” His throat worked. “Thank you.”
“Don’t forget the turnovers,” Steve said, and Clint laughed.
“Right.” He stacked up half a dozen of them in the butcher paper, and folded it up around them. He handed the packet over. “One for each of you, and an extra one for you.”
Mickey nodded. “Thank you.” He looked at Steve. “Thank you, sir.”
“Steve,” Steve said.
“Right. Sure. Steve.” He backed out of the kitchen, his head still bobbing in a nod the entire way.
Clint watched him go, and shut the door behind him. “Well, that was a dent in the pantry,” he said.
“I’ll pay you for the-” Steve started.
“It’s fine,” Clint said. He squinted at the menu that was pinned to the board beside the pantry. “Mrs. Parker keeps us stocked with the basics. A coin or two is well appreciated, but that’s not the first workman who’s taken his bonus in rice and flour.”
He disappeared into the pantry. “Mr. Stark always says, pay a man a fair wage and reward loyalty and hard work, and they’ll repay the favor.” A moment later, he emerged, a sack of potatoes braced on one muscular shoulder. “You want some more?”
Steve looked down at the bowl, surprised to find it empty. “No, I’m full.” He picked it up both bowls and carried them to the sink. “It was good, though.” He glanced at Clint. “What was it?”
Clint grinned. “Jambalaya,” he said, the word rolling off his tongue. “An old recipe from my last…” He paused. “My last job.”
“Right,” Steve said, reaching for the coffee pot. “Your last job. Your last… Job as what, exactly?”
“Jack of all trades, really.” Without being asked, Clint handed over the cream pot before he tossed a heavy cast iron skillet onto the stove. It hit like a brick, rattling the huge range. He didn’t seem to notice. “I have a lot of skills, and most of them…” He spun a knife between his fingers, the blade a flash of metal and light. “Come in useful here.”
Steve finished pouring himself a cup of coffee, and returned the pot to its spot on the stove. He turned back to Clint. “You aren’t French.”
Clint let out a bark of laughter. “My ancestors weren’t even French,” he said, his chin bobbing in a nod. He diced an onion, the blade still moving with dizzying speed, and reached for another one.
“You don’t speak French.”
“Not a lick,” Clint agreed.
“You’re not a French chef,” Steve said.
“Well, that depends on who you ask,” Clint pointed out. Steve stared at him, and Clint grinned. “Did you ask Mr. Stark? Because he seems to think-”
“Can anyone in this place answer a damn simple question?” Steve asked, tossing himself back into his seat at the counter. “It shouldn’t be so much to ask, so-”
Clint was laughing now, his shoulders shaking. “You’re not asking the right questions,” he said, and Steve gave him a look. “The question you should be asking is, why are you a French Chef, despite being neither French, nor a chef?”
“I’ll bite,” Steve said. “Why?”
“Because that’s what Mr. Stark needed.” Clint tossed an onion in the air and caught it, rolling it around his hand and across his wrist. “And that’s what he got.”
Steve nodded. “And where did he find you?”
Clint leaned back against the counter next to the range, his arms crossed over his broad chest. “What, the boss?” His teeth flashed in a grin. “In his library, actually. Holding something valuable. That definitely didn’t belong to me.”
Steve nodded again, strangely resigned. “You were robbing him,” he said.
Clint rubbed his chin. Steve was almost certain he was trying to hide a smile. “In a manner of speaking.”
“You were robbing him,” Steve repeated, more amused by this than he should’ve been. “And how, exactly, did that result in-” He waved a hand at the kitchen. “This?”
“Well.” Clint pushed away from the counter, his head swinging back towards the stove. “You gotta understand, Nat’s never been one to go down without a fight.
He tossed some butter in the hot skillet, swirling it back and forth as it melted with a hiss. “We’d been working together for a while. She found the jobs. Did the planning. I was the muscle, not the brains, but I trusted her, so…” One shoulder rose and fell in a half shrug, and he reached for the cutting board, scraping the chopped onions and garlic into the hot butter. “When she found a client who wanted a trinket from the Stark Mansion, and was willing to pay handsomely for it? I was on board.”
Clint reached for the pepper mill. “Why wouldn’t I be? Everyone knew Stark was a drunk, and the place barely had any staff. What’d we have to get past? A fence and an elderly family retainer? It was an easy job. Get in, get to the second floor, snag the ugliest vase I’ve ever seen from a shelf behind a door, and get back out.”
He paused. “Who does that, ya know? Who pays that much money to get a dusty, ugly vase from a top shelf in a room no one seemed to go into? I figured it was perfect. Might be days, or even weeks, before anyone even noticed it was gone. If we were careful, if no one saw us?” He tossed the pepper mill in a high, controlled arc, sending it flipping end over end through the air before he snagged it with one hand. “Easy money.”
Steve took a sip of his coffee. “Thing I’ve learned about easy money,” he said, “is that the two words don’t go together as often as we think.”
“You-” Clint pointed the mill at Steve. “Are a wise man.” He gave the mill a couple of quick twists, and tossed it back onto the counter. “I hadn’t learned that particular lesson yet.”
“‘Yet?’” Steve repeated.
“I wised up at some point over the past few years. Getting in was the early part.” Clint tossed salt into the pan, and dusted off his fingers. “Getting into the grounds, and getting into the house. You might’ve noticed earlier, I don’t mind heights and I’m a pretty good climber. Nat’s faster than me, and lighter on her feet. Took us less than ten minutes by my watch, and we were in the library and she was halfway up the shelves. Tossed the vase down to me just as the door opened.
He paused. “Not many people living here, then, but know what? Three or four people seem like a lot when they’re all armed.”
Steve stared at him, and Clint grinned. “Three doors, three people. Rhodes, Miss Potts, and Mr. Stark himself, all standing in one of them, all of them holding guns in what could only be called a professional manner.”
“Oh God,” Steve mumbled into his cup.
“He wasn’t around, not that he’d be much help. But there I am,” Clint said, waving a hand through the air. “Standing in the middle of the library, holding a vase that definitely did not belong to me, with three guns pointed right at my face. Far as I could see, I had three choices, and I didn’t like any of them.”
“And what would those be?” Steve asked.
Clint held up three fingers. “One, jail. Two, running at the guns and hoping I didn’t get shot. And three, jumping out the window and hoping I didn’t break a leg AND get shot,” Clint said. “Of the three, jail was probably the best of them, but like I said, I wasn’t the brains of the outfit. And Nat’s never met a situation she hasn’t tried to talk her way out of.”
“Imagine the scene,” Clint said, his head tipping in Steve’s direction. “Me. Standing there like a wax dummy, hugging a vase, looking every inch like the idiot I am. Nat, clinging to the shelves about eight feet off the floor. Stark and Rhodes and Potts all standing at different doors, guns cocked and ready to fire. And Nat goes-” He paused, his lips twitching. “‘It seems like you could use some additional staff. We should never have gotten this far.’”
Steve realized his mouth was hanging open. “You’re lying,” he said, flat out, and Clint burst into laughter.
“Could I make up something that makes me look that bad?” he managed. “I mean, I could, but why would I?” He glanced up, his eyes dancing. “Nope, that’s word for word what she said, cool as anything.
“And Stark being Stark, he just kind of stopped. Because I don’t know if you’ve figure this out yet,” Clint said. “But he likes a puzzle. He likes things he doesn’t understand. Most people as smart as he is, they don’t like to acknowledge anything or anyone that challenges their standing as the smartest guy in the room. But Stark…”
Clint braced his hands on the counter, leaning into them. “Stark is bored by anything he understands. He’s bored by almost everything, so if you can just… Make him think, even for a minute, even for a second, you’ve got an in. He’ll look at you different. You’re… Interesting.” He rocked back on his heels. “If you can get his attention, he’s-”
He shook his head. “Anyway, he looked at Nat, who, again, still hanging off the side of the library shelves like a cobweb, and goes, ‘how nice of you to offer, but really, I’m all full up. The only open job offer I have is for a chef.’” Clint stopped. “Offhand thing. She’s gorgeous, and he flirts, just, you know, as a matter of course, smooth talk comes natural.”
Steve took a sip of coffee, nodding. “At what point did Pepper shoot him?”
“She definitely looked like she was considering taking the butt of that pistol to the back of his head, I’m not going to lie,” Clint said, giving the pan a shake. “And Rhodes just looked resigned. Like he’d been here before, and he knew where it was going to end, and he didn’t like it, but he was sick of fighting it.”
Steve tapped the rim of his coffee cup with one finger, grinning at Clint. “Didn’t stop him, I take it?”
“Didn’t even slow him down,” Clint said. “Especially since Nat just pointed at me, and went, cool as you please, ‘What do you know. He’s a chef.’ And Stark just stared at her, just, I guess awed is the best way to put it. That she’s really going with this. He looked at me and smiled, and said, ‘I just bet you are, but I need a French chef. They’re the best, and we hire only the best. It’s a requirement around here.’”
“And so Natasha said you were,” Steve said.
“‘He’s French,’ was her exact words, and Stark was laughing by now, just laughing out loud, and he said to me, ‘Really. You’re French,’ and it wasn’t really a question, but now I had four options,” Clint explained.
“Jail, shot, going out the window which results in you breaking your leg and also getting shot, and…” Steve prompted.
“And the new option: Natasha kills me in the back of a paddy wagon.”
Steve tried to muffle his laughter behind a hand. “And you choose…”
“I looked Stark dead in the eye and said-” Clint straightened up, and pressed his fingers to his chest in a theatrical gesture. “‘Oui.’”
Steve buried his head in his arms, laughing so hard that he felt like he was going to cry. It took him three tries to get himself under control enough to ask, “Why am I not surprised?”
“‘Cause you’ve started to figure this place out,” Clint said. “Anyway, so Stark just stared at me, this amused, perplexed look on his face, and then he walks across the room, reaches out-” Clint picked up Steve’s coffee cup, his fingers light and delicate on handle. “And takes the vase from me. He smiled. He nods. And he started talking to me in French.”
“Of course he did,” Steve said. He propped his chin on one hand. “So. You had no idea what he was saying.”
“Didn’t have a clue,” Clint agreed. “But he gestured at the door, and Nat got off of the shelves, and we were force marched out of the library, down the main stairs, down the back stairs, and into the kitchen. Stark’s got the vase in the crook of one arm and the gun in the other, and he’s chattering away in French the entire time.
“So we get to the kitchen, and Jarvis beat us there somehow, and none of this appeared to bother him, like intruders were force marched through the house at gunpoint all the time.” Clint paused in the act of pouring Steve another cup of coffee. “In retrospect, that might be the case.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Steve said. He took the cup with a nod and a smile.
“Anyway, he was locking every door in that kitchen, the butler’s pantry, the cabinets with the cutlery, just… Everything.” Clint went back to his pan, giving the contents a quick turn. “And Stark waved a hand at the kitchen, said something pleasant sounding in French, and they all trooped back up the stairs. First Miss Potts, then Jarvis, then Stark, and Rhodes last of all. The door up to the house closed, and-” He snapped his fingers. “Click. One last key turning in one last lock.
“And I’m standing there, not having any clue what the hell is going on, but I don’t have any bullet holes in me, I’m not in handcuffs, and Nat isn’t trying to bludgeon me, so… I mean, all things considered, that’s about the best I could hope for. So I look at Nat, and she shrugs, and says, ‘he wants you to make breakfast.’”
Steve’s mouth opened. Closed. Clint smiled at him. “Yeah, see-” He pointed a spoon in Steve’s direction. “That’s what I did, too. So there we were. In the kitchen. In the middle of the night. And Nat’s prowling around, the way she does, trying everything. I mean, she could’ve picked any of the locks in here, but she was just tugging on drawer handles and doors and we found out Jarvis left two things unlocked.
“One, the door to the yard. And two, the door to the pantry.” Clint snagged a heavy earthenware jar from a shelf, flipping the cover into the air and digging out a scoop of flour before catching it. “Message was pretty clear. Take some food. And get out.”
“It could’ve been a trap,” Steve mused. “If you were running across the grounds-”
“They coulda shot us, sure,” Clint said. The jar went back on the shelf. “But they could’ve done that in the library.” He gave Steve a look. “You think the police would’ve done more than nod approvingly if Stark had called them up and told them that he’d heroically shot two thieves that broke into his house and were caught red handed?”
Steve huffed out a sigh. “Probably not,” he admitted.
“Right. So the only reason to try to trick us into running is if he wanted to keep the blood off of the carpet.” Clint paused. “If we’d had any sense, we would’ve gone. Hopped a train with the down payment our client gave us to get that vase, moved on. For a complete failure, it was the best we could’ve hoped for.”
He lapsed into silence, and Steve waited, sipping his coffee. “You didn’t,” he said at last.
“I was always even dumber than I look,” Clint said. “I just-” He shook his head. “I was sick of running. And I can cook. Nothing fancy, but breakfast doesn't have to be fancy, does it?” He kicked the range with the side of one foot. “Took me a bit to figure this thing out. To find the baking powder and the lard in the pantry. And Nat hung back for a while. Just watched me. Because just because I was going to try this, didn’t mean she had to.
“I think that Rhodes sat at the top of the stairs until morning, with a gun, just in case we went back up. But he was the first one to come down.” Clint took the lid off of a jar. “To find I’d made biscuits and sausage gravy, bacon and fried potatoes, a pan of scrambled eggs and a pot of beans. He stood there, staring at the two of us, because Nat was elbow deep in a pile of bread dough, and I was stirring porridge over at the stove.”
“Whatever that man’s paid, it’s not enough,” Steve said.
“Yeah, that’s probably the truth.” Clint said. “But he just kind of nodded, and went back upstairs. Came back fifteen minutes later with Miss Potts and Mr. Stark. And all three of them stared at us.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “So I pick up a biscuit, and I cut it in half, put it on two plates and cover both of ‘em with gravy. Then I sit down, and start eating.
“It takes Stark a minute, but finally, he picks up the other plate, and sits down across the counter from me, and he eats.” Clint glanced over at the pan. “And when he finished, he stood up, and nodded, and said something in French, and left.”
“And that’s how you got hired,” Steve said. Clint spread his arms wide. “That’s insanity. You know that.”
“I’ve never claimed otherwise,” Clint said.
“So.” Steve propped his cheek on one hand. “He knows you’re not French.”
“Oh, of course,” Clint said. “And I know that he knows I’m not French. And he knows that I know that he knows-”
“Right, I got it,” Steve said. “But if that’s the case, why do you still pretend?”
“Because we’re both waiting for the other person to break first,” Clint said. Steve stared at him. Clint shrugged. “If I admit it first, he wins.”
“Wins WHAT?” Steve asked him.
“Wins,” Clint repeated. He picked up his spoon. “And you’re still not asking the important question.”
“What, what was in the vase?” Steve asked, his head in his hands. That was met with silence, and he looked up to find Clint watching him, his eyes narrowed. Steve rocked back in his chair. “Oh, was I not supposed to figure that one out?”
He reached for his coffee cup. “If you got that far, that easily, and then got caught in a pincer movement, then that means that they’d set a trap, and you were not who they were hoping to catch.” Steve took a sip. “So let me guess, he set someone up, letting them know that something was hidden in a seemingly worthless vase, and part of your employment agreement was to let him know who hired you?”
Slowly, deliberately, Clint smiled. “Well, that’s a fascinating question,” he drawled. “But still not the right one. The one you should be asking is that first one. Go back to asking what my last job was.”
“Thief,” Steve said.
“Less a job and more a hobby,” Clint said.
“This house is a mess of riddles and contradictions,” Steve said to no one in particular, just as Bruce pushed the back door open, stepping in from the laundry yard.
“You have no idea,” he said, with a wry smile. “Clint, do we have-”
“Hey, Doc,” Clint said, already pouring a cup of coffee. “You want to tell the copper where Nat found me?”
Bruce took it from him, a very tired look on his face. “Really,” he said, and there was a pleading note to the single word. “Really, we’re telling the nice police officer, uh, how you-” His eyes flicked towards Steve, his expression wary. “How you got your job?”
“Already told him,” Clint said, balancing a bowl of eggs in the palm of one hand. “So Stark found me in the library, robbing him. The question is, where did Nat find me?”
Bruce met Steve’s eyes. Steve sighed. “Where did Natasha find him?” he asked.
Bruce saluted him with his coffee cup. “Carson’s Carnival of Wonders,” he said.
Steve looked at him. Looked at Clint. Clint tossed the bowl up and tipped forward, doing a swift, fluid flip, regaining his feet and straightening back up in the blink of an eye. The bowl fell neatly back into his hand, the eggs barely rattling against the china. Steve realized his mouth was hanging open. “The circus,” he said at last.
Clint took a deep, broad bow. “The circus,” he agreed. “The perfect place for a runaway from Iowa to pick up a bit of everything. A bit of wire walking. A bit of trapeze artistry. A bit of juggling, and knife throwing and animal training and contortion work.”
“And a lot of cooking,” Steve said, putting the pieces together.
“A lot of cooking for a lot of people from a lot of places,” Clint said with a grin. “A show like that picks up people as it moves, and all of them want out of where they are, but all of them sort of miss the place they left.” He tapped the spoon against the side of the pan, the sound like a gong. “And families from all over Europe, bringing their own dishes. Jambalaya. Fried chicken and catfish. Pot roast and chicken and dumplings. Macaroni and red beans and rice. The things people want to take with them. The things they want to remember.”
He tossed Bruce a turnover, and Bruce managed to catch it. “The rest, I picked up as I went. Jarvis helped, with the things Mr. Stark particularly liked, and staff were hired for the big house parties and the like, and I learn a lot by watching someone else do their thing. But mostly, I fumbled through, learning as I went.”
“And throwing knives at anyone who didn’t move out of the way fast enough,” Bruce mumbled into his pastry.
“Never hit anyone, did I?” Clint asked.
Steve looked at him. “So where did Natasha-”
“The Russian Ballet,” Clint said. Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. Clint laughed. “She can still pirouette like a champ.”
“So,” Steve said, drawing the word out. “You’re from the circus. She’s from the ballet.” He looked at Bruce. “Where did Stark find you, in the Ziegfeld Follies?”
Bruce stopped, his eyes blinking rapidly. He brushed the crumbs of the pastry off of his hands, and nodded. He looked up, meeting Steve’s eyes. “In a grave,” he said, his smile never wavering. He nodded at Clint. “Save me some, uh, something for lunch? I’ve got to weed the back garden, and-”
“I’ll make sure it’s still warm for you,” Clint said, and with another grateful nod, Bruce slipped back out the door and out of sight.
Steve watched him go. “Why is it,” he mused, “that every question I ask make things even more confusing?”
Without looking up from his pan, Clint snagged a turnover and tossed it to Steve, who snagged it one handed out of the air. “Because you’re finally making progress.”
Steve broke the pastry in half, revealing the hidden cache of golden brown apples, dripping with cinnamon syrup. “Right,” he said, wishing he believed that.
“You’re being inflexible, and that disappoints me. The way you’re-” Tony made a gesture at Peter’s face. “This face displeases me.”
Peter took a deep breath. “You can’t just START him on advanced calculus, Mr. Stark. You-” His pencil beat a rapid tattoo on the paper. “We need to make sure he has a solid grounding in the basics, otherwise-” His eyes narrowed. “Chaos.”
Tony leaned his hands on the workbench. “Math is best when it’s chaos, Parker.”
“That is absolutely incorrect,” Rhodey said, flipping through one of Peter’s old school books. “Multiplication-”
“Is boring, and so is math,” Tony said, just to see the scandalized look that crossed Peter’s face. He hid a smile behind his coffee cup. “Boring, Parker. You’re boring the child. He could be building something now. He could be DESTROYING something now, and instead-” Tony picked up a piece of paper at random and threw it in the air. It was more satisfying than it should’ve been. “Math.”
Peter snagged the page out of the air. “Don’t listen to him,” he said to DJ, who was watching the whole exchange, a grin on his face. “Math is very interesting. Not as interesting as science-”
“Blasphemy!” Tony told him.
“But still, I like math, and I bet you like math,” Peter said to DJ. “Once you learn the rules, it’s very logical and that’s nice. It’s nice for things to occasionally make sense, and you not a lot of things do in this world.”
Rhodey looked over the top of the book at him, one eyebrow arched. “How old are you again?” he asked.
“He’s twelve,” Tony said. Peter opened his mouth and Tony kept going without a hint of shame. “You’re twelve, I got you to twelve, and then I stopped paying attention to any numbers that happened after that, and do you know why?”
“Because you’re an ass?” Rhodey asked.
“Because you can’t remember, and it’s easier to pretend that you’re doing that deliberately?” Peter asked, and Rhodey let out a low, admiring whistle.
Tony stared them down. “Because it’s a number, and numbers-” He tossed some more pages, because it made DJ laugh. “Are boring.”
“You love numbers,” Rhodey said, as Peter heaved a very long-suffering sigh, pushing himself off of his stool to go and collect the papers. DJ was there before him, snatching them up and darting around Tony’s legs.
“I love engineering, and numbers are an unfortunate part of engineering,” Tony told him. “And really-”
The door to the workshop swung open and Pepper strode in, her shoulders squared, her heels snapping against the floor. “A week,” she said. “You couldn’t even make it a week. I asked one thing from you, just one thing, and-”
Tony considered her over the rim of his cup. “That-” he said, pointing it at her. “Is a lie.”
She came to a stop in front of him, her arms crossed over her chest, her chin up, her cheeks flushed. “I asked one thing of you recently,” she corrected herself. She leaned in, and Tony leaned back, all the way back. “I asked you, very politely, not to seduce our guest.”
Everyone went still. Tony pointed at Peter, never breaking eye contact with Pepper. “Parker. Earmuffs.”
Peter obligingly put his hands over his ears, and Tony’s eyes rolled up towards the ceiling. “Parker. Not you.” He pointed at DJ, who was taking in this new development with his usual wide eyed curiosity. “DJ.”
Peter blinked at him. “Oh,” he said at last. “Because, when Aunt May says ‘earmuffs,’ she wants me to cover my ears, mostly so she can yell at you and I thought that was what-”
“Yes, and you are no longer the smallest and most impressionable person in the room,” Tony said. He pointed at DJ again. “Earmuffs.”
Peter covered DJ’s ears. DJ frowned, his head tipping back to look up at him, his expression betrayed. “Sorry,” Peter told him.
Tony looked back at Pepper and immediately regretted it. “What makes you think-” he started.
“Because this morning, Jarvis made up a tray with two plates,” Peter said. Tony’s eyes squeezed shut. “And he was singing opera. And he went to put a flower in a bud vase on the tray, and then he said that was probably too much and put the flower in his lapel instead.”
Tony glared in Peter’s direction. Peter didn’t seem to notice. “Right, and maybe it was for them,” Tony said, gesturing between Rhodey and Pepper. “Did you ever-”
“We were in the kitchen,” Rhodey said, scribbling some notes in the margins of one of the textbooks. “I don’t think they did this formula right, let me just-”
“That doesn’t mean-” Tony started.
“We were all there,” Pepper said, her voice flat.
Tony paused. “Everyone?”
Her teeth flashed in a dangerous sort of smile. “With two very notable exceptions.”
“And after Jarvis left, Clint gave Natasha money,” Peter said. DJ pushed at his hands. “Can I stop-”
“No,” everyone said in unison.
Peter sighed “And anyway, Natasha’d never bet on anything involving Miss Potts.”
“But she’d bet on her employer?” Tony asked, trying to work up some indignation about that..
“All the damn time,” Rhodey muttered. “It’s the number one form of entertainment in this house.” He flipped a page. “Sometimes it’s not even for money. Just bragging rights. Or chores.”
“I’m so pleased I can entertain,” Tony said, his voice withering. To Pepper, he said, “You never specifically asked me not to-”
“It was heavily implied,” she said.
“I understand this isn’t ideal, based on the circumstances, but I want it known, I didn’t seduce him, he seduced me.”
Pepper considered him, her mouth a flat line. “I don’t believe you.”
Tony opened his mouth, and she held up a finger in front of his face, a very clear warning sign. Tony took a step back. “Well, he kissed me first, that should count for something, and besides-”
“Tony.” Pepper pressed a hand to her eyes. “Are you out of your mind?”
“It’s possible,” Tony said. “I’m not certain why you’re acting surprised at this late date, Pepper, it’s just, it smacks of a certain lack of understanding of the situation, and really, you should be beyond that by this point, it’s not-”
“Did he tell you where he went yesterday?” she asked, cutting him off with ruthless efficiency. “After-” her eyes flicked towards Peter and DJ, and then back to Tony. “When Happy went back to the theater, he couldn’t find him, did you find out where he went?”
Tony took a deep breath. “It didn’t come up,” he said.
“Because something else was up?” Pepper asked. Peter uncovered DJ’s ears and covered his own. Pepper gave him a sideways look. “Sorry, Peter.”
“I’m just, I’m more comfortable like this,” Peter said, and DJ, freed, dragged a book across the workbench and went back to reading it. “I’ll just… Earmuffs.”
“I feel like joining you,” Tony said. “Pepper-”
“Do you know where he’s gone today, at least?” Pepper asked Tony.
Tony’s stomach iced over. “Today?”
“He left. Half an hour ago,” Pepper said. “I placed a call to his precinct, asking if they’d be needing him back today, or in the immediate future.” She exhaled. “The response I received was that they had no plans to reassign him.”
The rush of relief that flooded over him caught him by surprise. He did not want to think too much about that. “So just ask Happy where-”
“He didn’t take a car,” Pepper said. “Happy didn’t even know he was gone until I told him.” Her lips were set in a tight line. “He just walked out the front gate, and-” She shook her head.
“And now no one knows.” Tony rubbed his forehead. “Fine. All right. Fine.”
“Really,” Pepper said, her voice tired. “Fine?”
Tony’s hand dropped back to his side. “All right, it’s not fine, but what else am I supposed to say?” he asked. And that came out sharper than he intended. Pepper just arched an eyebrow at him, and he took a deep breath. “It’s not fine. But it’s…” His mouth worked. “I’ll handle it.”
Everyone looked at him. Including DJ. Tony raised a beseeching look towards the ceiling. “Does anyone else have demands they’d like to make of me right now?”
“I’m starting to feel like I should be asking for a raise, honestly,” Rhodey said.
“You’re all getting fed today and you’re going to be happy with that,” Tony told him. “Now-”
Everyone stopped, and Tony looked at DJ, who was still studiously copying strings of figures. Tony leaned in. “What?”
“Shield,” DJ repeated. One leg swung back and forth, bouncing against the rungs of his stool. “That’s where.”
The workshop door flew open. “TONY.”
He barely had a chance to brace himself before he was hit sideways. He staggered, grabbing for the workbench to keep himself upright. “I’m injured,” he pointed out, not that he expected that to change anything.
Jan stared up at him from under her perfectly smooth bangs, her eyes huge and full of tears. “And I had to find out from the NEWSPAPER,” she said.
“I was going to call you, but you cry about these things,” Tony said. “Which, I’ll admit, makes me quite uncomfortable.”
“That’s why I do it,” Jan said, still hugging his arm. She sniffled, and, with a sigh, Tony pulled a handkerchief from his vest pocket. She took it, dabbing at her eyes with a dainty touch. “You’re a cad, Anthony Edward Stark. A horrible cad.”
“So I’ve been told.” But Tony brushed a kiss on her head. “I’m fine, the bullet merely grazed me, my crack team of operatives spirited me away in a matter of moments, DJ has forgiven me for ruining his first time at the picture show, and I’ve been told that I’m being indulged with all my favorite foods at dinner, if you’d care to stay.”
She gave his arm one last squeeze, and stepped back. “Pepper, how do you LIVE with him?” she asked.
“Many, many stiff cups of tea,” Pepper said. “And the occasional box of Swiss chocolates.”
DJ looked up at ‘chocolate,’ showing interest in the conversation for the first time since it had started. Pepper smiled at him. “In fact, I’m sure I’ve still got a few, secreted away. What do you say, boys? Would you like to join Miss Van Dyne and myself for a cup of tea and a bit of chocolate?”
“Yes,” DJ said, his voice firm, and Peter nodded.
“Are we invited?” Rhodey asked, shutting the notebook.
“I suppose so, but you’re responsible for keeping Tony from taking more than two pieces of chocolate,” she said.
“I’ll use the small child to wheedle additional pieces,” Tony said, holding his hands out to DJ, who took them and swung down to the ground, his feet kicking for an instant. It was enough to make Tony ignore the spike of pain from his side. “Right?”
“Any additional pieces he steals, he’s keeping,” Rhodey told Tony. “He’s crafty.”
“And he likes chocolate,” Peter said.
“Right,” Tony said. But DJ was still there, grinning up at him, and Tony shook his head. “I’ll just have to suffer.” Which,honestly, was starting to sound prophetic. He managed a smile. “How about Miss Potts and I meet everyone in the parlor?”
Rhodey stood, as Peter held out hand to DJ. “How long do you need?” Rhodey asked.
“Just… Give us a minute?”
Rhodey nodded, and offered Jan his elbow. “I think we can suffer through without you.”
“But do hurry, darling,” Jan said, taking Rhodey’s arm. “Or I’ll have eaten all the sweets.”
“A risk I’m willing to take,” Tony said. He waited until the were all gone, and turned to Pepper. “Do you really think he’s a threat?”
She bit her lower lip. “If I did,” she said at last, “He wouldn’t still be in his house, Tony. But…”
Her voice trailed away, and Tony nodded. “But,” he agreed. “I’ve placed a lot of trust in someone I barely know.” He pushed his hair back. “Haven’t I.”
“We trust you.” Pepper pulled his hand away from his hair. “Stop it, you’re making a mess. We do trust you. And I find-” She exhaled. “I want to trust him. More than I feel I should. Hill’s never steered us wrong, but she’s never kept us in the dark this long, either.”
“Right. Mistakes. Mistakes were made.” Tony took a deep breath. “Won’t be made again.”
Pepper turned towards the door. “You can lie to me, Tony, but don’t start believing it. That’s… That’s when we’re in trouble.”
Tony followed after her. As if they weren’t already in trouble.
And he was absolutely not doing that again. No matter how much he wanted to, and oh, God, did he want to.
He could learn from his mistakes, for once.
The house was quiet.
Steve paused on the second floor landing, looking out across the rolling grounds. Here and there, he could see men patrolling, their positions marked by the glow of lanterns and flashlights. The walls appeared through the gloom, caught in slim circles of light. He looked down, beside the gardens, but the greenhouse was exempt from the nocturnal movements. It was as still and silent as the house, the windows gleaming in the pale moonlight.
Shaking his head, Steve headed up the hall to his room. A few hours of sleep, and then he could head back out, before anyone even knew he was back.
His hands flexed at his side, trying to work the ache out of his bones, out of his knuckles. He probably should’ve gone back to his flat, instead of here. It would’ve been faster. And safer. But something drew him back to this house, something that he needed to start fighting. But tonight, he was tired, and he craved silence.
He shook his head. “Right,” he muttered under his breath. “Silence. That’s what you’re after, Rogers. Right. Pull the other one.”
But Tony was likely already asleep, and even if he wasn’t, there was no chance that Steve was going to go looking for him. He reached for his doorknob, sparing one last glance over his shoulder. He wasn’t surprised to find that he was still alone.
He opened the door to his room and stopped short.
Tony was seated at the desk next to the bed, his jacket hanging from the chair behind him. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows, his vest unbuttoned. His dark hair was rumpled, showing clear furrows where his fingers had dug through the locks. The lamp cast the planes of his face in stark relief, accenting the high arch of his cheekbones and sweep of his lips.
Steve stood, frozen in the door, watching in stunned silence as Tony pushed the blueprints flat with one quick sweep of his hand, the tip of his pencil darting over the paper.
“Welcome home,” Tony said, not even looking up from his work. “How was your day?”
Steve swayed on his feet, not sure why his heart was pounding so hard in his chest. “What are you…”
His voice trailed away, and he didn’t know what he’d been trying to say. Tony glanced up at him, his dark brows arched. “Well, it’s my house,” he said, his tone wry. “But I do usually respect a closed door.” His head tipped to the side. “But I followed the other intruder in.”
Steve looked past him. There, at the foot of the bed, DJ was curled into a loose ball of limbs around Furbro, one bare foot trailing across the quilt, and one hand resting gently on Furbro’s flank. The cat was purring, a low sustained rumble, and DJ was snoring along with him.
“He was a bit worried when you didn’t show up for dinner,” Tony said. He pushed the chair back, standing up with a slight groan. He braced his hands on the small of his back, arching backwards. “Remind me to have that chair burned.”
He crossed to the bed, and reached out, one hand brushing gently over DJ’s head. When his eyes fluttered open, Tony smiled down at him, his expression warm and open for an instant. “Wake up, sleepyhead,” he said, his voice soft. “He’s back.”
DJ squinted up at Tony, who stepped back, tucking his hands in his pockets. Steve struggled to smile. “Hi,” he whispered. “Why aren’t you in bed?”
DJ yawned. “Waiting,” he said, and yawned again. He blinked, slow and sleepy. “Late.”
“I know,” Steve reached out, stroking Furbro’s head. The cat arched into his fingers, his purring ratcheting up a notch. “You should be used to that.”
“Still bad,” DJ said, sitting up.
“Still very bad,” Tony agreed. “But he’s back now, safe and sound.” His eyes slid in Steve’s direction, his face unreadable. “But time to ring for-”
There was a slight tap on the door, and then Mrs. Parker bustled in, a covered plate in one hand. “I’m here,” she said. “DJ, go wash your face and put on your pajamas. Peter can’t go to bed until you’re tucked in as well. Mr. Stark, you can help him.” She pushed Tony’s paperwork to the side and set the plate down. “Officer Rogers, sit and eat.”
Everyone stood there, staring at her, and she clapped her hands. “It’s late, and I’m quite tired, and you’re keeping me from my bed.”
“Right, I can-” Steve said, and she pointed at the desk. “I can sit.”
“That’s right, you can.” She smiled at DJ. “Go on, now.”
He slid off the bed, and wandered in the direction of his own room, rubbing at his eyes as he went. Tony followed behind him, his hands still held loosely in his pockets. “First thing we’re going to do,” he said, “is teach you how to wash your own face, because this seems a less efficient use of my time.”
Steve watched them go. “He can get himself ready for bed,” he said to Mrs. Parker. “He’s been doing it for years.”
She smiled. “This isn’t for him,” she said. “It’s for Mr. Stark. If DJ is going to stay, then it will be his responsibility to make sure that DJ is taken care of. He needs to get used to that sooner, rather than later.” She tipped her head forward, peering at Steve over the rims of her glasses. “And you need to learn that if you’re not going to be here for dinner, you need to tell us.”
Steve sank into the chair. “I’m not used to-” He shook his head. “I didn’t figure anyone would notice.”
Mrs. Parker made a disapproving sound under her breath. “Officer Rogers, I think it’s time you realized that we notice everything.” She lifted the lid. “Such as tonight. Bobbi was on watch, and while she noticed you coming in, I suspect you didn’t notice her. She notified Clint, who made up a plate and rang me and here we all are.”
She pointed at the plate. “Now, eat.”
Steve did as he was told. Satisfied, Mrs. Parker headed over to the bed. “Will you be joining us as well?” she asked Furbro, scratching the cat behind the ear. “Or will you be keeping the good Officer company tonight?”
“He comes and goes as he pleases,” Steve said. The meal was a simple one, cold roast chicken, thick slices of bread with cheese, and a variety of pickled vegetables. But he was grateful for every bite.
“As is his right, as the house’s cat,” Mrs. Parker said. She fluffed Steve’s pillows. “I’ve always wanted one. But Mr. Stark seemed quite set against animals.” She straightened up. “I find I’m quite pleased with the changes DJ has made to the household already.”
Smiling, Steve smoothed down the blueprints next to his plate. He didn’t know what they were for, he didn’t have the technical background to figure that out. But he could see the artistry in them, the beauty of the lines, the smooth, steady hand that had gone into the work. He reached out, tracing a fingertip along one arch.
God, he was in deep already.
“All right, one small child, freshly scrubbed and pressed,” Tony said, ushering DJ back into the room. “I even combed his hair.”
“I’m quite impressed,” Mrs. Parker said, holding her hands out to DJ. “Can you say good night?” she asked.
“Night,” DJ said.
“Night,” Steve said. Other words, words that weren’t his right to say, stuck in his throat, and he managed a smile. “I’ll be here for breakfast tomorrow.”
DJ nodded. “Promise?”
“Promise,” Steve said.
Seemingly satisfied with that, DJ took Mrs. Parker’s hand and gave them both a wave. A moment after they left the room, Furbro stood, stretched, and jumped down off the bed, padding after them with a flick of his tail.
“Was that the truth?”
He looked back to find Tony sitting on the edge of his bed, one hand braced beside him on the mattress. Steve’s heartbeat accelerated, and he shifted in his seat, trying to ignore the way his body tightened at the sight. “Yes.”
Tony nodded. “Where did you go today?”
“I had work to do,” Steve said. He took the last bite of chicken, and dropped his fork to the plate.
“And here I thought you’d been assigned to me for the duration,” Tony said.
“I am,” Steve said. “And I was looking into something.”
“Want to tell me what that might be?” Tony asked.
For some reason, Steve found himself smiling. “What, are you the only one allowed to have secrets?” He stood.
“Yes,” Tony said, and it sounded so petulant that Steve nearly burst out laughing. Instead, he found himself moving towards the bed. Tony looked up at him. “That is absolutely-”
“Stay,” Steve breathed, and leaned over, his mouth catching Tony’s just as his lips parted. From there, it was an easy thing to maneuver him back onto the bed, until he was sprawled out under Steve, his hands tangled in Steve’s hair.
“I dislike your secrets,” Tony said, the words muffled in the side of Steve’s throat, and he shuddered.
“Yeah, well, I hate yours, and you’ve been teasing me along for a week,” Steve said, the words almost a growl. He pulled back, just far enough to see Tony’s face. “A bit of payback, Mr. Stark.”
Tony was breathing hard, his lips swollen, his eyes huge and dark. “The we’re operating under the same rules?” he asked, and his voice sent a shudder along Steve’s skin. “As long as the door’s unlocked, nothing’s off limits?”
Getting into a battle of wits with this man was not a good idea. He wasn’t going to win. He might not even survive. But he was so aroused that it hurt, and somehow, that just seemed right. “Stay with me tonight,” he whispered. “And you can ask whatever questions you want.”
Tony’s smile was sharp and deadly and Steve loved it. “I still have you in check,” he whispered. “And you don’t have many pieces left on the board.”
“Only need one,” Steve whispered.
It might've been a bad choice. And he didn't even care.