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The Age Of Alton

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It started because it was cold in New York, too cold to have post-closing dinner outside, so they'd moved indoors to Mjolnir. They'd moved indoors to Mjolnir, and Thor had a new beer that was 10% alcohol by volume, and only Steve had noticed the high alcohol content before everyone drank several of them.

"Why did you not tell us this beer was half gin?" Tony groaned, head resting on the polished-wood surface of Mjolnir's bar. It was two in the morning, and only Thor still looked like he could go another eight hours.

"I thought you knew," Steve said. He'd only had one beer, but he didn't often drink, so he was pleasantly relaxed.

"How would we know?" Sam asked. His head was mostly resting on Tony's shoulder.

"Can't you taste it?" Steve asked. He made a face. "It's all I can taste."

"Because you have superhuman tastebuds," Tony grumbled.

"I like it," Natasha said. She looked entirely sober, but Natasha drank flaming vodka shots for fun. Clint was leaning around her, chin resting on her shoulder. Behind the bar, Thor put out another plateful of crispy crab things, and Tony groped blindly for them, stuffing a few in his mouth.

"I don't think you're in a position to appreciate those properly," Steve told Tony.

"I don't think I have to take that sass from you," Tony retorted. "Thor. Thor, spill. What do you fry these in. I have to know."

"It is a secret passed down to me from my Norwegian forefathers who settled the wilds of Minnesota," Thor said.

"I bet Loki knows," Clint suggested. "Better watch out, he'll open a chain of Crispy Crab Thing restaurants."

"He wouldn't dare," Thor growled.

"You know, I looked into the Asgard Grill," Natasha said. Thor frowned. "It's a brewpub in Minneapolis. Your dad has the most popular burger stand at the Minnesota State Fair."

"Am I to be ashamed of this? His hamburgers have won blue ribbons from Minneapolis to -- "

"Eastern Minneapolis?" Clint suggested. Thor boomed a laugh.

"You know what makes a great burger, you gotta grind the meat yourself, fresh, and you need oxtail," Tony said.

"Are you kidding me with this?" Sam asked.

"Nope. Gotta have oxtail."

"Explain why smashburgers are so popular, then," Steve said.

"Because the American public has no sense of taste, smell, dignity, or beauty," Tony replied.

"Snob," Steve said.

"Hipster! Smashburgers are hockey pucks."

"Delicious, delicious hockey pucks," Clint moaned.

"All right, smart guy, you explain it," Tony challenged.

Steve rolled his eyes. "A hamburger is never just a hamburger. It's an American experience. No, I'm serious," he said, as Sam began to laugh at him. "Hamburgers are comfort food but they're also a cultural commodity, they represent something deeply ingrained in American childhood. Cookouts and camping and -- and trips to McDonalds after Christmas shopping."

"What," Natasha said.

"That's a weirdly specific cultural experience," Sam agreed.

"You guys didn't do that?" Clint asked. Natasha shook her head, bumping her nose against his cheek briefly. Sam shrugged. Clint frowned. "I totally did that. You too, Steve?"

"Yeah, it was a treat for being good," Steve said. "Good hot food. Salt and fat and beef. I mean, it's totally a destructive capitalist mechanism for denuding the midwest of good growing crops and it encourages factory farming and they profit obscenely from potato subsidies -- "

"Dear lord," Thor interrupted. "Not tonight, Steven."

"Fine," Steve said. "My point is, a hamburger is a shape that represents an experience. If it's edible, it doesn't need to taste good. Tasting good is just a bonus."

"So what do you like on your burger?" Natasha asked, waving as Bruce and Peter arrived.

"TOBRU's closed up," Bruce reported. Tony acknowledged it with a flop of his hand. "I see Thor's introduced you to the Viking Funeral IPA," he added, sipping from Tony's half-finished beer.

"You knew about the beer?" Tony asked.

"Yeah, who do you think turned Thor on to it?"

"Peter," Clint said. "Taking a poll. Did your parents take you to McDonalds after Christmas shopping?"

"Uncle Ben took me to Burger King when we went shopping," Peter said. "Aunt May's a health nut. If I was good, after we went shopping she'd buy me the special granola with the chocolate chips in it."

Tony sat up, looked in horror at Peter, and then pulled him into a hug. Peter whimpered, confused, the noise muffled by Tony's shoulder.

"Thor, make him a hamburger," Tony commanded.

"I turned off the grill," Thor said. "But someday, Peter, I will make for you the hamburger of my ancestors."

"I thought you said your ancestors were Norwegian," Sam said.

"Norwegians invented the hamburger," Thor informed him.

"That is 100% not true," Steve said.

"So what's the deal with hamburgers?" Peter asked.

"Steve insists that hamburgers are a cultural avatar," Natasha said. "And it doesn't matter if they taste good or not."

"Obviously they should taste good, but I bet if you ask any number of people, they'd say that the experience of eating one is more important," Steve protested. "I bet if Sam and Tony and me all cooked our best idea of a hamburger, nobody would be able to say which one was the best."

It got a little hazy after that, even for Steve.

***

The next morning, however, Steve woke to find he'd tweeted, at three am, that he and Tony Stark of TOBRU and Sam Wilson of Sam's Cheap Eats and Potato Rescue would be engaging in IRON CHEF: HAMBURGER. To be held at Mjolnir with tasting samples for all, time TBD, check back to buy tickets.

"How is it Iron Chef if we know what the ingredient is ahead of time?" he called, leaning over the edge of his loft bed to peer down at Tony, who was in the kitchen, baking something.

"Well, the TOBRU website says we'll have a surprise additional ingredient to incorporate into the burgers," Tony said, leaning back to look up at him. "I think Bruce updated the website, he's that kind of sadist."

"What are you baking?"

"Chocolate granola muffins, because Peter breaks my heart," Tony said.

"Granola in muffins?"

"That's the glory of these chocolate granola muffins. They have no granola in them," Tony informed him.

***

By the time Steve opened the truck that afternoon, Bucky's fanatically dedicated network of bike messengers had spread the news of Iron Chef Hamburger across the city, and Bucky had in fact done a decent business selling ticket futures: a guaranteed ticket to the event, nonrefundable, at a fixed price well above what Steve had intended to sell them for.

"They don't even know when it's going to be yet," Steve said, as Bucky handed him the list of ticket buyers and a wad of cash.

"They don't care," Bucky replied. "They know they're overpaying, they wanted to lock in tickets. It's gonna be the foodie event of the season. Women are shopping for dresses. The rest of the ticket sale money is in your Paypal."

"Ninety bucks a ticket's a lot of money," Sam said.

"Not for them. And it's goin' to a good cause, right?" Bucky said. "I told people it was going to that kids cooking workshop thingy you keep talking about doing," he added to Sam. "Hey, we came up with a name for it, by the way."

"We?" Sam asked.

"The other messengers and me. We think you oughta call it Allowance Cooking, 'cause you can feed people on your allowance money," Bucky said.

Sam crossed his arms. "I don't hate it," he admitted.

"Hey, big spender," Tony said, breath puffing in the air as he clambered from the cold into the cab of Steve's truck. "Drug deal?"

"Bucky sold tickets to the burger contest," Steve said, counting the cash and locking it in the little register behind the service window, passing Bucky's cut back to him in twenties.

"You are wasted as a bike messenger," Tony told Bucky. "When are you going to start a hedge fund, Barnes?"

"Weather keeps up like this, I might consider it," Bucky replied. "One-Armed Bandit Holdings Limited."

"Bucky!" Steve said, appalled.

"What? It's my one arm, I'm allowed," Bucky said.

"Thor says he had a private event booked for next Sunday and they cancelled, he's fine with us holding the competition then if it works for you guys," Tony interrupted. "He'll set up the cooktops and ventilation and handle the fries and other ingredients, we just bring our own meat blends and knives and any special tools we might need. I talked to Pepper, she'll run the house and TOBRU staff will work the floor. Bruce is gonna run a stripped-down seating that night, we're calling it Minimalist Cuisine Rethought."

"Sometimes," Steve said, "I wonder if I have control over any part of my life anymore."

Tony stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the forehead. "At least you're having fun."

"And that's my cue to get back to the truck," Sam said, pulling his hat on. "Come on, salesman of the year, I'll feed you a croquette and you can help me strategize about the burgers."

"Yep, I got some good ideas," Bucky agreed, following him out.

"Bucky! Betrayer!" Steve yelped.

"You ain't got croquettes!" Bucky replied. "Don't worry, Stevie, when Sam wins I'll be there to console you!"

***

The Sunday of Iron Chef Hamburger was chilly but clear, and the proud ticketholders lined the bar at Mjolnir ahead of the event, while staff ran around in the event room, setting out fixings and hamburger buns, arranging kegs and fryers. Steve had opted for a flat-top electric griddle, but Sam and Tony had grills set up in the little outdoor courtyard, Sam with charcoal and Tony with a special proprietary propane mix. The event room was dominated, at the center, by a tall round table with the secret additional ingredient under a silver cover.

Steve had just finished laying out his toppings and arranging the bin full of beef when the doors opened and the guests were allowed inside. They streamed in, heading not for the tables where the chefs were prepping but for the stage at the far end, where Thor was decked out in a jolly red sweater and a sparkly silver apron.

"Welcome, welcome everyone," Thor boomed into the microphone. "Thank you all for coming to this legendary battle of hamburger prowess. We hope you will help us to establish, once and for all, who is the hamburger king. Sam Wilson, prince of french fries!"

There was applause, and a few whistles from some of Sam's regulars. Sam and Bucky did an end-zone dance.

"Anthony Stark, master of molecules!"

Tony made a flourishing bow, almost smacking Peter, who he'd tapped as sous-chef, in the face.

"Or Steve Rogers, the hip hamburger philosopher!"

Steve rolled his eyes, but he gave the crowd a thumbs-up while Kamala gestured for them to cheer louder.

"And because this is such a gathering of wise chefs," Thor said, "I used the power of Mjolnir for good. I have for you all a special guest judge and emcee to narrate today's competition. Mr. Brown?"

A bespectacled, slightly wild-haired man stepped up onto the stage, beaming at the roar of applause. Steve caught Sam's eye and saw an echo of his own panic there. Kamala clutched Steve's arm.

"Is that Alton Brown?" she squeaked.

"I'm gonna kill Thor," Steve said. "Oh my god, I'm gonna die of stress, come back to life, and kill Thor."

"Steve!" Sam hissed, darting across to his table. "That's Alton Brown, man!"

"I know! I know!"

Steve watched in horror as Tony bounded up to greet Alton in a hug, saying something in his ear that made the other man laugh.

"Of course he knows Alton Brown," Sam muttered. "They probably roasted goat on a radiator together or something."

"Tony was on both Iron Chefs, I think he met him on America," Steve replied absently.

"Steve, I gotta make hamburgers with Alton Brown watching me, this is not cool."

"We all have to make hamburgers with Alton Brown watching us!" Peter put in. "I'm too young to die of shame at the hands of a Food Network grand master!"

"Shoulders back, chin up, here they come," Steve hissed, and Peter and Kamala shot to attention. Thor and Alton were making their way to the central table, followed by the crowd. Cameraphones snapped as Thor rested his hand on the silver cover.

"Allez cuisine!" Alton called, as Thor whipped the cover off.

"What is that?" Bucky asked.

***

"So, what I'm told is that this throwdown began because of a theory that Chef Rogers has about hamburgers," Alton Brown was saying, as the chefs rushed to get their food started. Steve switched on the big vent hood over his flat-top as Kamala started furiously shaping patties. He wanted to focus on the food, but he'd watched Good Eats as a kid and then Iron Chef America; he'd been in France when Feasting On Asphalt aired, but he'd seen it on Netflix eventually. It was a little hardwired into his brain: when Alton Brown spoke, you listened.

"Chef Rogers believes that hamburgers are so essential to American culture that flavor is secondary to the concept of the hamburger, and he might have a point. Americans will argue about a lot of things when it comes to food, like barbecue sauce or pizza toppings, but there are actually very few arguments about the platonic ideal of a hamburger, even though everyone has their own. Now, Chef Odinson, explain to me how that plays into the choice of secret ingredient for this competition."

"Happy to," Thor said, leaning into the microphone.

"Are they recording this?" Kamala asked.

"I think it's gonna be a podcast," Steve said. "Thor keeps talking about doing a food podcast. The Odinsons are apparently big NPR supporters."

"I thought it would be interesting to see how chefs would combine the comfort food of two regions of the world," Thor continued. "My family comes from Norway, and when I was studying the culinary arts I spent a lot of time there, learning about my heritage. And despite many jokes about smorgastarta and lutefisk, I knew in my heart that if I wanted to share a comfort food with the American public, it had to be Brunost -- Norwegian brown cheese."

"Well, that sounds appetizing," Alton said, as the audience laughed. Steve saw Sam running out into the cold to throw his first burgers on the grill. "I'm given to understand it's not actually a true cheese at all? In fact, my research tells me that some people have called it, uh," he checked a cue card ostentatiously. "Salty goat fudge."

Thor laughed. "I suppose that's not inaccurate!"

"It's essentially caramelized whey, is that right?"

"What do we do with this?" Kamala asked, sniffing a slice of the brunost carefully. She licked it, made a thoughtful face, then bit into it. "Definitely doesn't taste like cheddar."

"I'm not sure yet," Steve said.

"It looks, incidentally, like Chef Stark -- who has been on the televised Iron Chef before -- is planning a very traditional cheeseburger style topping with the brunost," Alton said. "Chef Stark?"

"Pretty much!" Tony called cheerfully. "I'm thinking some red onion relish to cut the sweetness, and caraway seeds to get that real rye-and-cheese kick."

"Chef Wilson?"

"Brunost sauce!" Sam yelled, coming back inside. "Gonna make a nice crusty burger with a tomato-brunost basting sauce."

"What about you, Chef Rogers?"

Steve, who had been in the middle of licking a slice, hurriedly took a bite in order to look less weird. A sweet, creamy caramel flavor rolled over his tongue, and he took a moment to savor it, trying to pull out all the different notes and undertones, the way Erskine had taught him. There was a cheese flavor to it, deep down, under the sweetness and salt, but...

"I don't know," he said thoughtfully. There was a hint of something, something he couldn't quite chase.

"Clock's ticking, chef!" Alton teased.

"Hit me back in a few, I'll do my best to impress your tastebuds," Steve said with a grin. He turned to Kamala as the crowd moved back to watch Sam prepare his sauce. "Tony and Sam have covered a lot of ground, I want to be original."

"Toast it on the bread, maybe?" Kamala suggested. "Like a garlic roll, or an asiago bagel."

"We could," Steve agreed, and Kamala looked pleased. "But I'm thinking...I was going to do smashburgers just to prove to Tony that they're more than hockey pucks. Now..."

He bit into the brunost again, narrowing his eyes. Outside, Tony was firing up the Ultron 5000, his big propane grill.

"We're hipsters, right?" he said to Kamala, who grinned and nodded. "Okay, well, let's be hipsters, then. I want you to whip up a sweet barbecue sauce, molasses and tomatoes. No salt, sweet sweet, like Kansas City sweet."

"I can do that -- got a recipe or should I wing it?"

"Wing it. Have some fun, do something new, just make it sweet."

"Can I use the pomegranate molasses?"

"Sure, why not. Once you've got that on the simmer, run to the bar, get some spare shot glasses, and get them to give you a big pitcher of Dos Equis, nothing fancy, the cheap stuff."

"How are you seasoning the burgers?" Kamala asked, as she started throwing ingredients into a small saucepan.

"Just black pepper. This'll work," Steve said confidently. "This'll be great, oh my god, it's going to be terrible and great."

***

Half an hour into the competition, Ultron 5000 exploded.

Kamala had just taken the sauce off the cooktop and Steve was starting to put the burger patties on when he happened to look up right as Tony opened the grill. There was a flare of fire and a loud whoomph, and Tony staggered backwards into the snow. Sam, who was at the other, smaller, normal charcoal grill, slammed it shut and ran to help.

"Stay there, mind the beef," Steve said, already on the move.

"What do I do if the -- "

"Pink in the middle!" Steve yelled, diving through the door. Tony was already standing up, dusting himself down, looking stunned and singed.

"What the hell happened?" Sam asked.

Which was when the lid burst off Sam's grill. Everyone ducked; Steve, who hadn't tied his apron, whipped it off and around his hand, catching the overheated lid right before it could land on Alton Brown.

"Scuse me, Mr. Brown," Steve heard himself say, and tossed the lid into the snow, where it hissed.

"By all means," Alton replied, eyes huge.

"Ah," Thor said from behind them. Everyone looked at him. "Brunost has a very low melting point and is...flammable."

"YOU THINK?" Tony yelled, as Mjolnir staff began spraying down the grills and Steve patted him down to make sure he wasn't burned. "Holy napalm, Batman, how do you eat this stuff."

"It looks like with thirty minutes to go, two of our competitors no longer have cooking equipment..." Alton managed, as Thor thrust a microphone under his mouth.

"Come on in, fellas, my grill's hot," Steve said.

"Steve, we can't all three cook burgers on your grill," Tony said.

"Sure you can. You're doing normal burgers with your weird oxtail blend and cheese slices, and Sam's basting, we can fit enough on the grill without getting mixed up. There's no open flame, it'll be fine," Steve said. "I'm not gonna win this contest just because you two didn't know that Brunost could be weaponized."

Inside, Kamala was nervously huddled over the burger patties; she scooted over so Peter could thunk down Tony's beef blend, and Bucky brought over the basting sauce Sam had been working on.

"See, team work makes the dream work," Steve said.

"He's not even ironic about that," Tony said to Sam.

"Don't hassle the man heating your beef," Sam replied.

"Was that innuendo? I don't have to take that from you," Tony replied.

"Literally heating your hamburgers," Sam said, deadpan.

"Steve, you haven't done anything with the brunost," Bucky said. "What're you up to, man?"

"Yes, Chef Rogers," Alton Brown said, as Thor held the mic between them. "Have you decided how to make use of the brunost?"

"Well..." Steve looked down at the little brick of brown cheese on a plate next to Kamala's barbecue sauce. Then he looked up, and the crowd held its breath. "We came up with a little something I'm calling Burgerita Sliders."

"Oh, they are gonna have to make a sequel to that documentary about you," Sam said. "They didn't get enough hipster in the first one."

***

"Chef Rogers," Alton Brown said, once the time had ended, the burgers had been plated, and the judges had assembled -- Thor, Alton, Natasha, and a young woman who had won a lottery (run by Bucky) to be the fourth judge. "We've tasted Chef Stark's Classic Cheese-And-Onion Burger, and we've tasted Chef Wilson's Crusty Brunost Basted Burger on Potato Buns. Now you have for us what looks like a very complicated dish."

"What I thought when I tried the brunost was that it had a series of flavors," Steve said. "It was sweet at first, but then the salt came through, and you only taste cheese right at the end. I thought about salt, and sequences, and I decided I wanted to use the brunost to accentuate the flavor of the beef."

"So how do we eat it?" Natasha asked, eyeing the three small plates in front of her -- one with cubes of brunost sprinkled with chive, one with a shot glass of Dos Equis on it, and one with a quarter of a hamburger, lightly sauced, with a decorative toothpick stuck through it with a white star on top.

"It's a hamburger margarita," Steve said. "May I...?"

Thor waved for him to go on, then whispered, "Narrate it for the podcast!"

"So you take the brunost, make sure you get a little chive on it, and you eat a cube of it -- this is not how Norwegians do it, so my research assistant says," Steve added. "Usually it's sliced thin. But you need a nice big chunk of saltiness, really coat the tongue," he said, around his bite of brunost. "Then, you take your burger in one hand, and your shot of beer in the other. Beer goes down in one, swallow -- " he shot the beer down, "take one breath, and then bite into the burger."

He popped the quarter of the burger into his mouth. He'd tested it, but by the time he'd run the test it was too late to do anything else -- it would have to sink or swim on theory.

Just as it had the first time, the sweetness of Kamala's barbecue sauce, the pepper, and the rich beef flavor rolled across his tongue, and he beamed as he swallowed.

"All right," Thor said. "Ready?"

Everyone in the room had their cellphones out, and Steve watched, arm over Kamala's shoulders, as they chewed the brunost, shot back the beer, and bit into their hamburger quarters. Thor slapped the table approvingly (but then he'd also done that over Sam's potato rolls). Alton was chewing thoughtfully, taking his time. Natasha grinned at Steve, and the young woman on the end rolled her eyes happily.

"The burgerita," Steve announced. The audience applauded politely.

"You know, this is the kind of thing I'd expect to see at TOBRU," Alton said. "And the very traditional cheeseburger Chef Stark did, I'd expect that from what I've heard of War On Hunger, or even 107 when you were chef there."

"Well," Steve said, shooting a grin at Tony. "I think when you spend as much time together as Chef Stark and I do, you start to influence the cuisine."

"Chef Stark, would you say that's fair?" Thor asked, eyes gleaming.

"Yeah, we rub off on each other," Tony said with a laugh. Peter covered his eyes with one hand.

"Well, let's let the judges confer. In the meantime, Chefs, please return to your stations to offer samples to the guests," Alton said, and Steve hurried back to his table. The others had carried their finished burgers away once they were cooked, so at least the crowd wasn't overwhelming now -- which was just as well, since Kamala started to run out of sauce after people began asking for extra.

"Shoulda put more on the burgers, Chef," she told him, as she spooned sauce into a sample cup for another attendee.

"Nope, it's not that the burgers are dry," Steve said. "You, my sous chef, are about to be Discovered."

"What?" she asked, alarmed.

"Half of Manhattan foodie society is here," Steve said. "They all know the kid Steve Rogers took on as his apprentice made that sauce. They're trying to figure out what you did. Watch out, someone's gonna offer you a job as a saucier."

"I'm fifteen!"

"Which is why you politely say no, and inform them that you'll be attending culinary school before you're available," Steve said. "Nothing wrong with being a saucier, you could do all right with that now and work your way into a good kitchen on sauces, but you've got the skills to have your own place someday, or at least run someone else's kitchen. Heck, open a Pakistani-fusion barbecue joint."

"I could call it Halal In A Handbasket," Kamala laughed.

"No Pork, No Problems," Steve replied.

"Fellow hamburger lovers," Thor boomed from the stage. "The judges have made their decision. Please, gather around, gather around for the crowning of Iron Chef Hamburger!"

"We've had some fantastic burgers this afternoon," Alton Brown said. "All three of you should consider adding your brunost-inspired creations to your menus. And in terms of flavor and use of the secret ingredient, it's true what Chef Rogers says -- there is no single perfect hamburger. Which is why we had to use one scoring criteria to break a three-way tie."

"Based on flavor, skill of execution, incorporation of the secret ingredient, and -- the tiebreaker, presentation -- second place in Iron Chef Hamburger goes to Sam Wilson's Brunost-Baste," Natasha said.

"And the winner of Iron Chef Hamburger is," Alton announced, "definitely not just because he saved my life, though probably because of that a little bit, Chef Steve Rogers of War on Hunger!"

Steve picked Kamala up in a hug, laughing, then set her down and went up to the stage to accept his prize -- according to Thor, the "Coveted Golden Hamburger Goblet" which was clearly a hamburger-shaped squeaky dog toy that had been spray-painted gold and glued to the bottom of a pint glass. It was full of Dos Equis. Steve toasted the judges with it, took a sip, and then wandered over to Tony and Sam as the crowd began to spread out once more.

"Second place! I'm not complaining," Sam was saying. "I could kill with this brunost sauce on french fries. I'm gonna make Thor show me how to make this cheese because I checked, it's imported, it's like eight bucks at Whole Foods and I got no time for Whole Paycheck."

"Sorry about beating you so thoroughly," Steve said to Tony with a grin.

"Are you kidding? Check this out," Tony said, holding up his phone. "The footage of the Ultron 5000 exploding is going viral. Nobody's even gonna remember who won. I blew up a grill using cheese, TOBRU's going to have to extend our booking time to handle all the new reservations. By the way, tell Kamala if she wants to actually get paid for her work, TOBRU could use a trainee saucier."

"Thief," Steve said affectionately. "Also, no."

"Probably just as well, Bucky's helping her get a start on a culinary school fund," Sam said, nodding in the direction of their table. Bucky was standing next to Kamala, holding out Steve's iPad to someone.

"What's he doing?" Steve asked, alarmed.

"He's on the hustle, man, it's what he does," Sam said. "He's taking orders for bottles of Khan's Sweet Star Barbecue Sauce."

"He branded my apprentice," Steve said.

"Branded and is currently marketing," Tony agreed. "Seriously. Hedge funds in his future."

"I fear for the economy," Steve replied. "I'm going to go make sure nobody's exploiting anyone."

"Get the recipe, tell her I'll pay her royalties!" Tony called after him.

***

Later, after they'd broken down the event and retreated back to their kitchens and trucks for the evening rush, they re-assembled in the TOBRU kitchen, snacking on leftovers from Potato Rescue while Bucky worked over several pounds of ground beef in a huge cast iron pan on the stove top.

"You never did tell us how you like your burgers, Steve," Natasha said.

"Well, I was a pretty picky kid," Steve said.

"Yeah, we know," Bruce agreed.

"I liked bland food, because..." Steve gestured at his tongue. "And we were pretty poor so we didn't eat out much anyway. I really did like McDonalds, but I got the kids' burgers, you know, the really plain ones, and no onions."

"Not even onions," Natasha said.

"Nope. Just ketchup and mustard. But the best burger is the one we're about to receive," Steve said. Bucky produced a bottle of Heinz ketchup and one of French's yellow mustard from his bag. "The Bucky Barnes sloppy joe."

"My soul hurts at this," Bruce said, as Bucky drained the fat off the ground beef in the pan, then dumped a big splotch of ketchup and a few squirts of mustard in. He added a sprinkle of powdered garlic from a little shaker, then gave it a few more stirs to heat it up and spooned a generous helping into a hot dog bun.

"Here ya go, kid," Bucky said, offering the plate to Steve. Steve took the plate, lifted the bun, and took a huge bite, savoring it.

"Best as ever, Buck," he said, as Bucky passed around buns stuffed with the garish orange mixture to the others. Tony grunted and muttered "Pretty good" around his; Sam rolled his eyes, but polished his off as fast as the others. Bruce insisted on wrapping his in some lettuce instead of a bun, but even he didn't complain too much.

"Musta eaten this twice a week at least, growing up," Bucky said, eating his straight from the pan with a spoon. "Ground beef was cheap, and Steve's ma said half the time it was the only protein he got. You know, Kamala's sauce would go nice on it, with some spicy mustard and a little roasted garlic," he suggested.

"Sure. Might put that on the War On Hunger menu, it's a good hot-tray dish," Steve agreed. "But for me, this'll do just fine. It's my perfect burger, Buck."

"This is why I can't ever open a restaurant, I'd whup all your butts," Bucky said, and in the clamor of bickering that followed, Steve stole the last of the sloppy joe out of the pan.