Tony was four years old the first time he watched Ana cook. He had been spending the afternoon hiding in his room, curled up under the bed and trying desperately not to cry when the smell of apples and cinnamon slowly drew him out.
It had started off as a good day. It was meant to be a good day. Tony had barely slept the night before, he’d been so excited; today was the day Father would teach him how to build a circuit board. Today was the day Father would let him into the workshop, would teach him, would spend time with him. Tony had jumped out of bed, buzzing with excitement, and bounced on the balls of his feet all through breakfast, unable to stay sitting on the chair.
And to begin with, it was just as fun as he’d imagined. He got to play with Father’s tools, and he was learning so much, and Father was looking at him. Looking at him and smiling.
But Tony had not learned fast enough, and the smile had soon morphed into an impatient scowl. Tony had tried, he really had. But he just wasn’t smart enough. He wasn’t smart like his dad. And eventually Father had kicked him out, his angry voice following Tony all the way through the door and up the stairs.
It hurt. It made his chest burn and his eyes sting, knowing that he’d disappointed Father. But he wouldn’t cry. It would just disappoint him more. So he had hidden away, covered his red face, and wished and wished with all he had that he could start the day over again. That he could get a second chance.
He didn’t get that chance, of course – at least not that day – but what he got instead, as he followed the smell through to the large and stiflingly hot kitchen, was something he’d grow to cherish and rely upon on his hardest days.
Ana’s apple torte.
Ana had turned to smile at him, even though he’d worked extra hard not to make any loud noise and disturb her, and beckoned him over. “What are you doing here, Tony? Aren’t you supposed to be working with your dad today?”
Tony’s lip trembled and he wrung his hands together. He looked down at his shoes in sadness and shame. “I wasn’ good enough,” he muttered quietly.
“Oh, hon,” and suddenly Tony was being enveloped in a warm, floury hug. The flour and cinnamon tickled his nose but he buried his face into her apron all the same. He had not yet learned why hugging was Wrong, and enjoyed them every chance he could. “Of course you’re good enough,” Ana said into his hair. She sounded sad. “You can do anything you set your mind to.”
Tony shook his head wildly but didn’t let go. “I can’t!” he wailed, the tears finally starting to fall. “I’m not smart enough! I’m not like Father.”
Ana kneeled down properly to look him in the eye, and gave him her Serious Look. You always had to listen extra hard when she gave you that look. “I’m going to tell you a secret, that you can’t tell anyone, okay?”
Tony nodded, eyes wide.
She leaned in close and whispered in his ear. “Your father wasn’t as smart as you at your age.”
Tony gasped and leaned back, staring at her in shock. “But he always says – “
“Hon, would I lie to you?” Tony shook his head. No way. “Well there you go. He wasn’t always so smart. Sometimes he just forgets.”
Tony studied her face for a long time. He was already beginning to learn to read people’s faces. But he couldn’t see a trace of a lie in Ana’s expression. Finally, he whispered, as if Father would walk in any second, “really?”
Ana nodded. “Really. So don’t you worry. One day you’ll probably be twice as smart as him.”
Tony couldn’t imagine being that clever. But the idea excited him. The things he could do if he was that smart! He could help Father with his inventions! He could help Father save lives! Father would be so proud of him!
The oven dinged and Ana pulled out a cake with apple slices on top. It smelled delicious. Ana looked down to see Tony’s mouth practically watering and laughed. “Do you want to try the first piece?”
“Sure hon. Come here.” Tony was lifted onto the bench beside the cake. “You’ll have to let it cool first though.”
Tony nodded, still staring at the cake. It had apples and cinnamon on top. And Ana was a great cook. It would probably taste amazing. He could be patient.
Later, as he was munching on apple torte for the first time, he nodded determinedly to himself. One day he would be smarter than Father. He would do brilliant things. He would make Ana proud.
Tony was six when Ana let him help make apple torte for the first time. It was late – well past Tony’s bedtime – but Howard and Maria were entertaining guests. They were all loud and smelt funny and it was a big enough house that Tony couldn’t hear them from his bedroom but he was always anxious when his father smelt like that. He couldn’t sleep, scared the door would crash open at any moment, or he’d hear banging and yelling in the hallway.
So eventually, long after Jarvis had put him to bed, Tony snuck back through the house until he found himself in the kitchen, where Jarvis was putting dark coloured drinks on a tray and Ana was arranging different cheeses on a plate.
Jarvis spotted him first. “Anthony! What are you doing out of bed?”
Tony shrugged, suddenly nervous. He wasn’t sure what had led him to the kitchen. He’d just felt lonely and scared and thought of apple and cinnamon and his feet had led him here. “Couldn’t sleep,” he finally mumbled.
Jarvis and Ana shared a look, one that was broken when someone’s voice rose from another room. Jarvis grimaced and said “I’ll bring you back to your room soon, okay Anthony? We can read a story together.”
Tony nodded gratefully as he left the room, drinks in hand, and Ana smiled gently at him. “Would you like to help me while you’re waiting, Tony?” Curious, Tony nodded again and hopped on the seat closest to Ana so he could see the plate properly. “See this one here? Do you know what kind of cheese that is?”
“Parmigiano reggiano,” Tony answered, the accent natural on his tongue. It was his mother’s favourite. He’d know it anywhere.
Ana smiled proudly and said “that’s right. I need some more of that one. Could you check the fridge for me?” As Tony searched first one large fridge, then the other for the right cheese, the voices got louder. It sounded like they were having fun. Tony couldn’t understand why it made him feel so on edge.
Soon Jarvis returned and gave Tony a tired smile. He picked up the cheese plate. “Not long now, okay Tony?”
Tony tried to offer a happy smile in return, but he didn’t feel very happy. He felt tired and anxious.
He was waiting with Ana a long time. They played a game of cards (Tony let Ana win in case she got annoyed and stopped playing) but Jarvis didn’t return. There was a loud crash, a sound of breaking glass that made Tony jump, but Ana just sighed and put the cards down.
“Would you like to make something with me, Tony?”
Tony looked up at her with wonder in his eyes. She’d never let him help her cook before. “Yes, please.”
She smiled and stood up, looking through the pantry. “How about apple torte. Do you remember that? It was the apple cake you tried a couple of years ago.”
Tony did remember it. He’d loved that cake. He nodded enthusiastically and Ana laughed.
“Okay. I’ll tell you what ingredients we need and you find them for me, alright hon?”
When Jarvis finally returned from calming Howard, from seeing off the guests and helping Maria to bed, it was to see Tony slumped over the table fast asleep, Ana running a hand through his hair as she watched the oven. Apple and cinnamon filled the air.
It became a tradition for Tony and Ana. On Tony’s hardest days, whether he was six or sixteen and home on holidays, he would find himself in the kitchen and they’d bake apple torte together. On rare occasions – possibly three times in Tony’s whole life – Ana would actually seek him out to make the cake. She never talked about what was bothering her, but by the time they were finished her face was relaxed, the frown lines were gone and she was calling him hon like he was four years old again.
Now, at fourty three, Tony found himself wrapped up in those memories of baking with Ana, the smell of apple and cinnamon warming him like a soft blanket.
It was a different life for him now. It was practically a different world. There he sat, surrounded by a demigod, a supersoldier, a couple of assassins and a shrunken Hulk, in the communal area of Avengers Tower. He was a billionaire. A genius. A philanthropist. He helped to save the world on a monthly basis.
But still, all he could think of was Ana’s apple torte.
The mission had gone sideways. Then it had turned on its head, done a couple of flips and crash landed right into Central Park. They hadn’t expected the battle to reach that far. They hadn’t had time to evacuate everyone.
They hadn’t been able to save everyone.
The team was sat in various stages of rumpled and undressed around the TV, but no one had switched it on. They already knew what would be playing. Looping footage of the explosion and someone with perfect hair and makeup listing every way in which the Avengers had fucked up. The room was heavy with silence. No one knew what to say. No one had the energy to figure it out.
It was one of those moments where, as a kid, Tony would have gone to Ana and asked if they had all the ingredients for an apple torte. She would have said yes, of course – she always had the ingredients on standby – and they would have spent a happy hour in the warm kitchen, thinking only of the measurements and the stirring and the peace that would settle over them as they worked.
Without ever making a conscious decision, Tony found himself in the Avengers kitchen. It was clean in a way most of the top floors never were; none of them bothered to cook much. Quietly, Tony listed off a bunch of ingredients to JARVIS, and asked that they be delivered immediately. For the first time in over twenty years, Tony was going to do some baking.
Two hours later, Steve was stepping out of the elevator in clean clothes, his hair freshly washed. The team had slowly peeled off after Tony’s abrupt departure, to shower or sleep. But from asking JARVIS, it turned out Tony had done neither, so Steve was preparing to drag Tony away from whatever he’d decided to distract himself with and make sure he got some proper rest.
Steve dearly hoped it wasn’t alcohol. Tony had been getting better since everyone had moved in, and he hated to think Tony might backslide.
But what he found wasn’t a drunken Tony, trying to hide himself behind booze and cheap smiles. What he walked in on, after JARVIS directed him to the kitchen, was in fact a Tony glaring at the oven – an oven Steve was fairly sure had never actually been used before – in a novelty apron and with flour in his hair.
“What – “ was all Steve managed. He had never seen Tony cook before. In fact, he was fairly certain Tony had said, loudly and on multiple occasions, that cooking was a waste of time, that with takeaway all you had to do was eat the damn stuff and not worry about cleaning up afterwards, and if he was ever found cooking he should be shot because he had clearly been replaced by an imposter.
So Steve felt he was justified when all he could do was stare in shock as Tony glanced up at him and smiled. Because, okay, he probably wasn’t actually an imposter, but there was definitely something Steve was missing here.
“Hey. You’re looking better,” said Tony. His voice was surprisingly soft, as if he was trying not to disturb the quiet of the room, and that soft, relaxed smile was still on his face. And momentarily, Steve was lost for words. Because, like this, Tony was… beautiful.
Steve cleared his throat and ignored the slight blush he knew was filling his cheeks. “What are you doing?”
“Baking,” Tony replied casually. As if this was an every day thing for him. Apparently misreading Steve’s confusion, he elaborated. “Apple torte. I’ve found it a good pick me up in the past. Thought maybe the team might want some.” He grimaced and looked back at the oven. “Probably stupid, I dunno, but – “
“No,” Steve said quickly. “No, it’s not stupid.” He thought of his mother’s soup she would make for him on his worst sick days and added “it’s been too long since I’ve had something homemade.”
The oven dinged and Tony opened the door. Apple and cinnamon flew out on a wave of heat and Steve breathed in appreciatively. Unfortunately, he was too distracted to stop Tony from reaching for the pan before he let out a pained yell.
“Tony!” Steve shouted, grabbing his arm and pulling him over to the sink. He shoved Tony’s hand under the cold water and turned to face him, momentarily thrown off by how close they suddenly were. “You idiot,” he said, but his voice was soft, barely more than a whisper, and he knew it wasn’t admonishment on his face.
Lucky for him, Tony actually could be a bit of an idiot about some things, and simply grinned in a self-deprecating sort of way. “Genius,” he corrected, just as quietly.
Taking a deep breath, Steve stepped back and went searching for something to pull the tray out with. Finding a tea towel buried deep in one of the bottom drawers he turned to pull it out and saw Tony sitting at the table, waiting patiently. His hand very clearly not still under cold water. He grinned again at Steve’s raised eyebrows. “What, you think after fourty years working with a blowtorch one little burn’s gonna bother me?”
“What, you started welding things together when you were three?” Steve asked mockingly as he finally pulled the cake out of the oven. He placed it carefully on the bench, once again inhaling the mouth-watering smell. Some detached part of his mind was still trying to process the fact that Tony made this. He wondered if it tasted as good as it smelled.
He turned to see Tony watching him with a smile. “More or less.”
Steve frowned but didn’t push. He’d learned not discuss Howard long ago. Instead he suggested “should we assemble the others?” When Tony looked at him blankly, he said slowly, “for the cake?”
Tony looked surprised. “Oh! Yeah, right.”
"What, you changed your mind? Gonna eat it all yourself?"
“Please, not everyone gets supersoldier hungry,” snorted Tony. For a man with seemingly limitless amounts of energy, he ate very little. It was a habit Steve had slowly been trying to break him out of. "Alright, let's call them out of their hidey holes. If they hate it at least we'll have something normal to argue about."
It took some time but eventually they were all sitting around the table as Steve cut up and passed out slices of the cake. They had all come in with varying degrees of confusion and shock at the summons of “if you’re hungry, Tony baked a cake”, and Bruce seemed especially sceptical.
“I’ve seen what you put in your smoothies,” he said accusingly to Tony.
But the strong smell of apple and cinnamon had them intrigued and, as Tony watched while desperately trying to pretend he wasn’t watching, they all tried his apple torte for the first time.
Steve turned to Tony, his eyes wide. “Tony. This is amazing.”
Tony’s eyebrows went up. He hadn’t touched his piece yet. “Oh. Oh, well…” he cleared his throat, waved his hand distractedly, averted Steve’s eyes. Steve smiled at the rare bashfulness before Tony pulled himself together. He drew his shoulders up, donned the cocky grin he was known for and said “well. I did learn from the best.”
The team spent the rest of the evening in the kitchen, their bodies slowly relaxing, their moods lightening. Conversation gradually filled the air, warm and flavoured with apple and cinnamon.