“What did you do?” Natasha asks when she walks into the kitchen and almost walks right back out, because Tony is smirking into his coffee mug. Nothing good ever comes out of Tony smirking into a coffee mug, much less the oversized monstrosity he’s cradling in his hands.
She’s ignoring the bright red letters that declare I’m not bossy, I just have better ideas than you across white ceramic, because she’s very certain that whatever is about to come out of his mouth is, in fact, not a good idea.
"Nothing," he says innocently. It doesn't make her feel any better.
She's about to push him on it – it's much too early for anything that makes Tony Stark smirk at 6am – but Clint rolls out of the ceiling and that catches her attention. How many times has she told him to not sleep in the air ducts? It was at least twelve. This week .
"Mornin'," Clint yawns. "Is there coffee?"
Tony lifts his own in response and Clint flashes him a thumbs up and a signed thanks as he ambles over to grab his purple mug. What he pours himself is more sugar than coffee and she pointedly doesn’t look so she doesn’t have to yell at him for it.
“Tony,” she says again once Clint’s settled back against the counter, “what did you do?”
“Nothing,” he insists again, but there’s a glint in his eye that makes Clint perk up and reminds her that their emotional maturity is about the same. Tony just ends up in fewer dumpsters than Clint does.
“Stark-” she starts at the same moment Steve wanders in, still dressed in his workout clothes. The t-shirt – too tight for someone as bashful as he gets sometimes – is wet with sweat, but he doesn’t seem to pay it any mind as he greets them all and grabs a water from the fridge. He signs a sloppy hey, how are you to Clint that she appreciates as much as her partner does. Unless they’re on-call, Clint likes to joke that he doesn’t turn his ears on until noon, so the rest of the team’s been working on learning without trying to turn Clint into their tutor. Bruce had already known the basics when they met and Allspeak doesn’t seem to translate sign language, so Thor’s been having a rough time as he bounces back and forth between worlds. She’s pretty sure Tony’s mostly learning through JARVIS and YouTube videos.
Steve had mentioned once how he hadn’t learned back in the forties – and that it probably would have helped him out with his own hearing problems – but she’s seen the ASL books scattered around his floor, so she knows he’s at least trying now, even if his search for Barnes took the majority of his focus for a while.
Clint still has to sign relatively slowly with everyone but her, but there’s effort she hasn’t seen since Coulson became her and Clint’s handler.
She buries that memory down before the others can resurface and focuses back in as Clint responds back to Steve and steps out of the way so the younger – older? – man can get at the cabinet.
Which is full of the same box of brightly colored-
“Star Spangled Ding Dongs,” Steve says slowly as he pulls one box down from what used to be their cereal cabinet. The box has animated fireworks all over it, a garish display of patriotism for little cakes that none of them actually eat.
Clint lets out a surprised laugh when he sees the box, but Tony erupts into laughter like the joke is funnier than it really is.
“Happy birthday, Cap!” Tony crows and doesn’t even try to hide the manic grin behind his mug. “You should have told us even your ding dong is stars and stripes.”
“Your father knew,” Steve says with a complete deadpan as he flips the box over to look at the back.
Tony gives an undignified squawk. “No! No sex jokes about my dad!” he protests, looking every bit like he’s picturing it, and regretting it . “You’re ninety-”
“No, I’m not.”
“-you’re too old to make sex jokes!”
“Sex existed in the forties,” Steve reminds him with a weariness that says he’s told Tony this before.
“Not for you!”
There’s a muffled snort from somewhere above them, but she looks at Clint instead of upwards towards the vents. He signs B with his right hand and brings it down to tap against his left forearm. Barnes . “Again?” she signs, but Clint just grins and rolls his eyes.
Steve seems to have heard the snort too, because he actually looks up with a fond expression that reminds her that, right, he thinks it’s sweet that Barnes stalks him sometimes. They still aren’t sure how exactly the man is getting around JARVIS’ security for the bursts of time he decides to shadow Steve between destinations on his Revenge Murder Road Trip against Hydra. Steve’s sworn he hasn’t given Bucky any special allowances to bypass security. He just does it .
The fact that she still hasn’t figured out how to do the same frustrates her to no end.
She’s going to have to text Sam and let him know Barnes is back. Sam and Bruce are at least on her side that, no, Barnes’ occasional stalking is not a sign of affection and, yes, Steve probably needs to talk to a SHIELD shrink again. Just...as soon as they find one they know isn’t Hydra. They haven’t managed that part yet.
“You don’t get to talk!” Tony shouts at the ceiling. “Ghost assassins hiding in air ducts don’t get sex lives either! Steve, tell your murder boyfriend to get out of the ceiling if he wants to have an opinion.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Steve sighs as he sets the box down and moves another couple out of the way. “Did you fill the entire cabinet?”
Steve mutters something under his breath that she thinks might be wasteful and goes to the next cabinet.
Which is also stuffed full of Star Spangled Ding Dongs.
Steve turns back to Tony who grins back at him, unrepentant, and declares, “I bought one for every year you’ve been alive.”
“The ice doesn’t count, Tony,” Steve reminds him and moves on, but the next cabinet only yields the same result; shelves packed tight with bright blue Hostess boxes. And the next. And the next. And the next. Steve goes through each one as Clint starts to laugh even harder and actually reaches over to shake Tony’s hand, because they’re both children .
“What did you do with all the pots and pans?” Steve asks him when even those cabinets are stuffed full of little cakes. “And all the dishes?”
“There are disposable plates on the counter,” Tony assures him without actually answering Steve’s first question. “They’re biodegradable.”
“Check the pantry,” she tells Steve and idly wonders if she should be making her coffee Irish if this is how the morning is shaping up.
The pantry, however, is stuffed so full of boxes that stepping in is impossible.
Steve stops, drops his head back, and breathes so slowly, the intent is audible across the room. Calm. Breathe.
Tony looks like Christmas came early.
“Tony,” he says after a minute, “how many boxes are there?”
“Ten thousand,” he says as if this is the best idea he’s ever had. “I rounded up your birthday-”
“That’s not how it works .”
“-to a hundred and decided to times that buy another hundred. So for every year of your centurion life, you get one hundred boxes of Ding Dongs.”
“ Tony .”
“There are ten cakes per box,” she says as Steve buries his face in his hands. “That’s a hundred thousand cakes, Stark.”
Tony lifts his mug in salute. “God bless America.”
Steve groans .
Approximately ten minutes later, Bruce drags himself out of the lab, looks at the sea of blue boxes and walks right back out.
Natasha trades out her coffee for vodka.
Stark has made a mistake, the Asset thinks as it – he – watches from the air duct.
Steve Rogers is not to be underestimated. Steve Rogers is why the Asset is now a he instead of an it – most of the time – and why the Asset thinks it might have a real name,
Steve Rogers is a stubborn little shit, something in his head whispers and the Asset thinks he can hear Brooklyn in its tone. Stark doesn’t stand a chance .
Clint, although not part of the original plan, dives into the chaos with a childlike glee that might be partially because of the concussion or it might just be him. Either option is entirely possible, really, but he had hit his head pretty hard when he fell into that last dumpster.
Sixty Ding Dongs later, he’s managed to stack them like an elaborate cake and he’s about to stick a candle at the top when the entire thing collapses.
“Aw, cake,” he groans mournfully, “no.”
Lucky dives in and more or less swallows one of the fallen cakes whole off the floor, but he figures Steve won’t notice one missing.
He starts building the cake again.
“Do I want to know?” Bruce asks Pepper warily when he finally resurfaces again.
Hands on her hips and staring out at what’s become of the kitchen on the common floor, Pepper sighs. “Tony,” she says as if that’s an answer on its own.
“I’m going back to the lab.”
Thor hadn’t been sure he’d make it back to Earth in time for Steve’s birthday. Between his duties in Asgard and some continued problems with the Bifrost, he’d been hopeful, but not optimistic. It’s near sundown when his feet hit the roof of the Tower, though, and he gives the sky a grateful look before he shuffles inside.
“Welcome back to Earth,” JARVIS greets him and Thor has to control his instinct to throw Mjölnir at the closest wall.
He still hasn’t completely adjusted to JARVIS. He wonders if he’d be as accustomed to their wall friend if he was around more. Steve seems to have adjusted and, once, the two of them had felt equally out of place in this world. The idea of naming something with no face, however, still grates at him in ways he can’t put into words.
“Thank you,” he says and undoes the latch of his travelling cloak as he lets the elevator take him down to the common floor. “Am I late?”
“The rest of the team is, unfortunately,” the AI reports. “They received a call to Queens, but they’re on their way back now.”
Thor nods and sets the bulky bottle of mead on the table beside a few other presents before he goes to get a snack.
“You can join us for the party, Buck,” Steve says when he gets out of his post-mission shower. “Tony got hotdogs from Nathan’s. We’ll have plenty.”
The room is empty, but he knows the air ducts aren’t. Even if he hadn’t heard the muffled snort earlier, he knows when Bucky’s around. He’s learned how to tell when the thing watching him from the walls isn’t JARVIS or Clint. Bucky’s already been here for two days and he thinks Clint knows, if only because Bucky’s taking up residence in the archer’s favorite place to hide from people.
It makes him smile, the idea that Bucky is Bucky enough to come back around for his birthday. Bucky might not be letting Steve see him , but his presence means something. It means there’s enough of Bucky in there to know the date and care about it and it’s just another hint on top of a dozen others that make Steve hopeful that, maybe, the next time Bucky comes by the Tower, it will be through the door.
For now, though, he’s been able to take the little wins and let that give him the peace of mind to step away from chasing Bucky across the globe. Sam, he’s sure, is relieved that he doesn’t have to hole up with Steve in rundown motel rooms anymore. He’s also pretty sure Sam doesn’t approve of Bucky’s new habit of watching Steve, but he hasn’t been able to make Sam – or Natasha and Bruce – understand that watching him closely is part of how Steve knows Bucky is getting better. Bucky has always watched him – always kept an eye on him, whether they were in back alleys in Brooklyn or at war – and there’s no threat. Bucky’s been doing this for months. If he’d wanted Steve dead, he’d have made a move by now.
He gets dressed and he’s halfway out the door when he realizes his throat is bare and goes back to get his dog tags. He doesn’t always wear them when he’s not in uniform – mostly only when the nightmares get bad and he needs something to hold onto – but the day feels significant in more ways than it just being his birthday. Besides, the fireworks will be starting soon and even with the way Tony’s soundproofed the Tower, the thought of the noise still makes something in his chest go tight.
“I’ll save you a hot dog,” he says to the empty room as he tucks his dog tags under his t-shirt.
No reply comes, but he didn’t expect one, anyway.
The others are already there when he makes it to the common floor. Bruce is tucked into a corner with one of the teas he likes to settle himself with after the big guy comes out. He’ll be good to join the party in full once the mug is drained, Steve knows, so he leaves Bruce to his own devices for now. Natasha’s on the floor with Lucky’s head in her lap while she talks to Sam and Steve grins. He hadn’t been sure if Sam would be able to make it up from DC.
Tony and Pepper are bent in close to each other at the kitchen island as she seems to chastise him and Steve is pretty sure it’s because of the thousands of Hostess cakes.
Speaking of the cakes, he’s pretty sure Clint just put half of one into his hot dog.
He tells himself not to be offended at the idea of Nathan’s being disrespected like that.
“Ah, Steven!” Thor greets with a big grin when he sees him. “Your Ding Dongs are delicious!”
Tony makes a choking noise as Pepper covers a laugh with her hand.
“His what is what ?” Sam sputters at the same time Clint gives into hysterics and Natasha sighs.
“Tony,” Natasha explains with a long suffering sigh. “Go look in the cabinets.”
Sam does and tosses an incredulous look at Tony. “There’s something wrong with you.”
“That what you tell all your patients?” Tony shoots back, grinning.
“Just you guys,” Sam says without shame. He’s told Steve nearly a hundred times already how done he is with the whole lot of them. Steve’s still trying to fully wrap his head around the term. “Do I wanna know how many boxes you bought?”
“No,” Steve tells him as he comes around to give Sam a quick hug. “But they’re going to eat them all.”
“ What ?” comes the scattered response from everyone else in the room.
“Depression kid,” Steve reminds them as he goes to give Thor a proper hello too. “Tony bought them and it was his week to get the groceries. Nothing goes to waste.”
“We’re going to end up with diabetes,” Tony argues. “I already have heart problems.” They all level Tony with a look and he sinks down in his seat. “Well, I do .”
“Lucky for you, it looks like Thor’s already eaten a couple boxes,” he says as he catches sight of a few empties on a table.
“They’ll pair well with the mead I got you,” Thor says brightly.
“ No ,” everyone says quickly and, this time, it’s Steve that looks embarrassed. The last time Thor had brought mead, it had been part of Tony’s Can Steve Get Drunk experiment. The answer, it turned out, had been yes , but only on Asgardian mead. It had hit him about as hard as alcohol had before the serum. By the end of the night, he’d thrown up twice and – as they told him later – had spent an hour blubbering about Bucky. He still isn’t sure exactly what he said that night, but even Tony had been oddly nice to him for a week afterwards.
“We’ll share a glass later,” he promises Thor when the man starts to look a little uncertain of his gift.
“Yes,” Thor agrees as his shoulders relax, “and we can enjoy your Ding Dongs.”
He can hear Bruce sigh clear on the other side of the room.
By the time he makes it back to his floor that night, it’s with a pleasant buzz from the one glass of mead he’d allowed himself and a still-present grin from Clint’s Ding Dong cake monstrosity. Completely ridiculous, he thinks, but it had gotten a laugh out of the whole room when Clint unveiled it.
He’s about to head to his room, though, when he pauses.
There’s a Star Spangled Ding Dong on his kitchen island, a single candle pressed into the middle as the flame flickers in the dim light coming in from the windows. He glances towards the air vents with a soft smile and sucks in a sharp breath when he gets close enough to see what’s beside the cake.
Bucky’s dog tags.
They’re his original set, he knows – God , he knows – knows those tags like the back of his own hand. After Azanno, so many soldiers had lost theirs that the army had needed to issue new ones to the whole lot of survivors. Bucky had managed to hold onto his the entire time he was captive, but he’d been given new ones all the same. He’d worn the new ones until he fell. Steve’s sure those were gone forever, lost somewhere in the shuffle if they weren’t destroyed outright.
The original ones, though… Those, Bucky had given to him. Pressed them into Steve’s hand in a dark tent with a deliberate look and words they could never say. The dog tags had been in his gear when he went into the ice and, eventually, handed off and added to the Smithsonian exhibit before they defrosted him. He’d never managed to find the words to ask for them back after he woke up.
He’s sure someone will be in a lot of trouble come morning, but as he picks them up and feels the familiar weight of them in his hand, he can’t bring himself to care. A weight comes off his shoulders and he breathes a thank you before he leans down to blow out the candle.
Bucky doesn’t join him that night, but the feeling of Bucky’s eyes on him is still present when he wakes up in the morning, so he figures his wish came true, even if it was only a little bit.
The dog tags get added to the chain along with his own.
“You don’t think he was serious about making us eat all of them, do you?” Tony asks as he sips his coffee, casting nervous glances towards the cabinets. No one is looking at the pantry. No one wants to look at the pantry or think about where Tony’s stashed the boxes he couldn’t fit in the kitchen.
“Have you met Steve?” Sam asks flatly. “Of course he was serious.”
“...You think he’ll accept a doctor’s note?” Tony asks before he seems to remember that it’s Steve and when Steve hears doctor’s orders , he acts like they’ve personally offended him. “Never mind.”
Sam can’t help the snicker that comes out as he dips half of a cake into his coffee. “You made your bed. Now, you gotta lie in it. Your star spangled, sponge cake bed.”
“What if we send them to Hydra bases. We can give the Nazis diabetes instead.”
“He’d rather feed them a bullet than cakes,” Natasha says simply, because Natasha has literally murdered people in her sleep before. Out of all of them, she’s the least disturbed when Steve goes a little off the reservation. He thinks it’s because she didn’t grow up with the Captain America propaganda. Still, it doesn’t change that Steve’s gotten a little more ruthless against Hydra since SHIELD fell.
Sam still worries about what happens when Steve reaches the end of that road.
“We can try feeding them to the big guy the next time,” Clint suggests, hands moving through the signs even as he speaks the words.
“You want to give him sugar?” Bruce asks, incredulous.
“Maybe he’s angry because he wants snacks.”
Bruce sighs in a way that Sam’s pretty sure is Bruce wondering why he ever leaves his lab. Coming to the common floor never seems to do good things to his stress levels. “Don’t feed him sugar, Clint.”
Clint does , in fact, feed the Hulk something like two hundred Ding Dongs after a mission that afternoon. Not only does it actually seem to settle the guy, Bruce isn’t in a diabetic coma when he comes back around.
Bruce and Tony go science crazy, muttering about metabolisms and separate functions or if Bruce is just immune .
They don’t come out of the lab for four days after that, but Natasha’s whiteboard counter of how many boxes are left to eat goes down by about six hundred.
“We can’t eat anymore Ding Dongs,” Tony pleads three weeks later. “We’ve gone through a thousand boxes and that’s just because Thor’s here.”
“And because you went mad scientist with Bruce,” Clint adds and pulls one of his hearing aids off with a grimace when it screeches with a weird feedback. “Can you take a look at this thing? I think I broke it in the dumpster.”
“Stop hanging out in dumpsters, Clint,” Steve says dutifully without looking up from his drawing. “And, no, Tony. You bought them. They’re getting eaten.”
“I’m dying .”
“If multiple bombs couldn’t kill you, I doubt Hostess can.”
“Wanna bet?” Tony mutters as he takes the hearing aid from Clint. “Some of us don’t have serums to let us keep our stupid abs.”
“You want that, you can try my workout routine. I run fifteen miles every morning.”
“I have a heart condition .”
Tony tries to sneak some of the unopened boxes out with the next batch of food donations.
Steve buys twenty boxes to replace the ten Tony had gotten rid of.
“I think he finds it funny,” Steve says idly one day as a Ding Dong wrapper flutters down from the ceiling. “He doesn’t usually stay around this long.”
“JARVIS’ cameras haven’t even been able to see him,” Tony mutters, glaring at the air vent. “Do you know how many times I’ve gone over the footage? Do you?”
“At least he’s helping you find the blind spots,” Clint offers with a shrug. He’s still the only one that’s actually seen Barnes at all and even that has only been in passing. It’s only been a handful of times and one of them had involved some growling and a knife, so… Honestly, Clint’s just as happy to stay in separate air ducts while Barnes does his little stalking thing.
Though, he’s been up there for three months now. Clint is starting to wonder if he’s actually moved into the air ducts.
“I don’t have blind spots,” Tony sniffs, offended.
“Then, how is he getting into the kitchen? Or the Hostess storage room?” Natasha asks. There is a room – a literal room – filled to the ceiling with the boxes they still have to eat. Steve, at least, is managing about ten a day with his metabolism, so they’ve had that on their side. Bruce has started to get creative and has been incorporating them into recipes.
Only about a third of them haven’t ended in disaster.
“I don’t know .”
“One of my ASL books disappeared, too,” Steve adds as an afterthought when Tony starts muttering to himself about Russian ghosts that aren’t even Russian.
The news makes Clint grin.
Christmas rolls around that year with a snowstorm that drops almost three feet of snow in New York, so Tony and Pepper’s plan to visit her parents for the holiday falls through because of whiteout conditions not even Tony’s tech can beat.
The snow, however, doesn’t prove to be a problem for Heimdall, so Thor and the Warrior’s Three he’s talked about for years now join them in the Tower on Christmas Eve.
Steve doesn’t remember much after the mead gets involved, but when he wakes up in the morning, it’s to a vague memory of a metal hand rubbing his back while he puked and Tony weeping in relief, because the Asgardians had managed to plow through two thousand boxes.
“How many do we have left?” Tony asks one day in January when he opens a cake cabinet and closes it right back up. He needs a vegetable. If he looks at one more cake, he might buy out Hostess just to close it down and that would cause a whole other kind of insanity, because the world loves its Twinkies.
Now, though, just the sight of the Hostess logo fills him with dread.
It’s been six months .
Clint’s answer doesn’t come and he remembers that there’s still another hour before Clint will even consider reaching for his hearing aids. Instead of signing the question to ask it again, he just looks at the little whiteboard Natasha had set up in the early days.
Boxes Left To Eat: 5,282
He sighs and taps the counter to get Clint’s attention. “A-S-G-A-R-D party?” he signs, spelling out what he has to, before he gestures back at the sign. “Let them eat cake?”
“Cheater,” Clint signs back.
“Yes,” he agrees, because he is and he’d like to finish these goddamn cakes before he’s a senior citizen. Even as he says it, though, he knows Steve – paragon of good, his ass – will just replace whatever the Asgardians eat. The only reason he hadn’t on Christmas was because it was his gift to Tony.
Tony had accepted the gift.
Tony was very grateful for the gift.
He also hopes Steve will give him the same gift when his birthday comes around in May.
He hopes they don’t still have Ding Dongs by then, but he is not optimistic.
With a heavy sigh, he goes back to the cake cabinet and pulls out a package.
Sam might be starting to regret moving into the Tower. When the offer had originally come, he’d thought it made sense. Tony was making him new wings and demanded that Sam be around for any and all fittings. Sometimes, those fittings were at two in the morning when Tony had been running on so much caffeine that Sam was pretty sure the man bled coffee.
At the time, moving in was the easier option.
It also, however, fully included him in Ding Dong Hell.
He’s starting to think that’s why Tony demanded he move in.
“There’s no way this place is going to finish another five thousand boxes,” he tells Steve one day while he watches the man toss a box up towards an air vent. A metal arm shoots out lightning fast to snatch it out of the air before it and the box disappears back into the wall. “The only reason you’ve even made it halfway through is because of the Asgardians and Hulk.”
“Mostly Hulk,” Steve corrects. “The Warriors only visited once and Thor is only here part-time.”
Sam concedes the point, because… Well, fair. The big guy’s obsessed with Hostess these days and Thor can plow through a good chunk of the boxes during his visits. Sadly, he consistently does it while praising Steve’s exquisite Ding Dong and waxing on about how much he enjoys having Steve’s Ding Dong in his mouth.
At first, he’d thought Thor didn’t realize what he was saying.
Very quickly, he realized that Thor knew exactly what he was saying and that he generally only did it when Tony or Clint were there to react.
Thor, he knows now, is as much of a goddamn troll as Steve.
“You’re just doing this to drive Tony crazy, right?” he asks when Steve goes to open a fresh box for himself. “You’re not actually going to make them eat the rest?”
Steve doesn’t actually say anything, but the look he gives Sam says everything. Yes, he will make them eat every last cake. Yes, he’s enjoying winning this ongoing battle with Tony. Yes, he knows he’s an absolute asshole .
Sam sighs. “Hand me a damn Ding Dong.”
Steve does , in fact, allow Tony to invite the Asgardians to his birthday party in May, so Tony tells Thor to make sure he and his friends come hungry .
Between the team, the Asgardians, and the handful of extra people Tony manages to invite, they manage to get through another four thousand boxes.
It takes their boxes-remaining count down to 981 and Tony is so relieved, he cries real tears.
To be quite honest, the Ding Dongs haven’t really fazed Natasha.
Over the years, she’s become too used to simply eating what’s there, because some missions don’t allow a person to be picky. Clint is much the same and, health risks of a Ding Dong-only diet aside, she knows Bruce has traveled to enough struggling countries that he’s not especially picky either. Sam complains, but he eats them, anyway, and just mutters about them being better than MRE’s.
Steve, meanwhile, is a human garbage disposal who could survive solely on Ding Dongs from now until the next century without losing even a bit of definition in his abs.
She thinks Barnes might be similar, but not even she has managed to see him during the months he’s taken up residence in the ceilings.
Tony, however, has been slowly losing his mind for almost a year.
Had she known he was planning the prank in the first place, she probably would have told him not to. She and Sam alike had been with Steve while he chased Barnes from country to country. They’d seen him latch onto the need to take SHIELD down. They’ve all seen Steve order t-shirts that were three sizes too small – because he’s somehow still not used to his size now – and wear them until they’re threadbare and falling apart so they don’t go to waste.
Actually, she amends, even when they are threadbare and falling apart, he’s continued to wear them. Their laundry services are just under orders to throw them out when they see holes.
Steve may brush it off as a byproduct of him living through the Depression, but she suspects at least half of it is that Steve is just stubborn.
She finds Steve on his floor when she lets herself in and wonders if it bothers her that Steve has become so accustomed to it that he doesn’t even look up from what he’s drawing. He tosses her a Ding Dong without looking up and she decides that the familiarity – while still off putting at times – feels nice.
“Does he know you’re slipping new boxes into the supply?”
Steve doesn’t look up, but he’s not good enough to hide the way his lips twitch with the want to smirk. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says easily as he sketches out the curve of what is probably Barnes’ jawline.
She raises an eyebrow and looks down at the blanket he has draped across his lap. The soft fleece is too warm for the summer months, but in all the time she’s known him, Steve would rather be hot than cold. It’s not the presence of the blanket itself that catches her attention, though. It’s the familiar blue of the Hostess box and the image of animated fireworks laid into the fleece. She lifts a corner of it to smooth out the folds so she can get a better look.
“You have a Star Spangled Ding Dong blanket,” she notes. He hums in agreement and smudges a line on the page. “Where did you get it?”
“From who?” she asks, because they’d opened presents together that day and it’s the first time she’s seen this.
Steve looks up from his drawing – that is definitely Barnes – to glance at the ceiling and back down.
Although, now, she’s curious how Barnes got it.
“They have no nutritional value,” the… Bucky says, voice soft and a little rough from disuse. Bucky. His name is Bucky. He is a him, not an it, and he has a real name, not a designation. The idea is still hard to comprehend some days, but today is a good day. Words work and he feels halfway to human, which is miles better than some days.
Steve looks up from the report he’s reading, muscles tensing for two-point-eight seconds before he forces himself to relax and stay where he is. The self-control is surprising, because the voice in his head says Steve Rogers has never had a lick of self-control in his life, but the voice knew the little Steve Rogers. The Steve Rogers in front of him is big, healthy, and seems to have settled more in recent months. He even let a Hydra operate live long enough to question him.
Steve also promptly beheaded the prisoner with his shield afterwards – to the horror of some of his team – but detached heads and blood smeared across the shield is a familiar image. It makes him think of half-fuzzy faces and the touch of a flesh and blood left arm he hasn’t had in decades.
The look this Steve gives him is surprised, though. Surprised. Happy. Cautious. It takes him long seconds to reply, but he nods. “Not a bit,” he agrees.
“But you make them eat them,” he points out. “It can damage their health.”
“The normal ones on the team aren’t actually eating that much,” Steve explains as he pulls a little cake out of its bright blue box. “I mean, Clint might be, but it’s Clint . He might just be feeding half of them to Lucky. Thor, Hulk, and I are the ones eating most of them.” He tilts his head towards Bucky. “And you.”
An alien – or god, Bucky isn’t sure – and serum-enhanced individuals who aren’t at risk for health issues.
Not like Steve had been once.
A thin body. A crooked spine. Shoulders shaking with the force of the coughs-
“You buy more,” he says and pushes those ghosts to a back corner of his mind to parse out later.
“Because it’s fun to drive Tony crazy,” Steve points out and the voice in the back of Bucky’s head reminds him that Steve Rogers is a punk. “He hasn’t figured out why the count is off.”
Why do you do it , he almost asks, but stops before he can. There isn’t a specific memory to grab onto, but there is a familiar feeling that Steve has done this before. Someone else starts a battle, but Steve starts a war he’ll win.
“Punk,” he says, because he can forget every piece of himself and have a brain like Swiss cheese, but that singular fact will always ring true.
“Jerk,” Steve chuckles and tosses him a Ding Dong.
He doesn’t go back to the air ducts.
“I’m inviting the Asgardians to your birthday,” Tony tells him one week before the day. “We’re finishing this.” They have to. They have to finish it. Hulk’s managed to get sick of Ding Dongs, so he’s refusing to eat them, Thor’s been with Jane since Tony’s birthday party, and Steve’s slowed down with his own Ding Dong consumption. Even Barnes isn’t eating them anymore that Tony’s seen.
Their countdown has been in the six hundreds for the last month and he’s been having nightmares about the Hostess logo coming for him for the last five.
He doesn’t understand .
“If that’s what you want,” Steve says peacefully. “It’ll be nice to see them again.”
“Yeah, yeah. That’ll be great. The point is that they’ll eat the damn Ding Dongs.”
Barnes snorts from where he’s sitting on the floor while Natasha braids his hair. Tony is not asking. Barnes might finally have come out from his air duct cave a few weeks ago and seems to be at least seventy-percent functioning human, but Steve is still as fiercely protective of him as ever. Tony’s not getting involved in whatever weird they’re-not-together-but-totally-are thing they’ve got going on, even if they’re definitely together and just not saying it.
He has JARVIS .
JARVIS, thankfully, does not record bedroom footage.
Tony – with a dusty Captain America lunchbox shut away in the attic of an old vacation house – doesn’t think he could handle the knowledge if there was a senior citizen super soldier sex tape somewhere on his servers.
“Will you let it end?” Bucky asks him the night before the party. Stark’s got Clint crawling through the air ducts to make sure there aren’t any forgotten boxes somewhere and said he was having JARVIS scan the rest of the Tower to make sure every last box was in the common room for Asgardian consumption. If Steve wants to continue the ruse, he’ll have to get creative.
Steve hums, thoughtful and considering, as he drags the razor up his neck. “I think so,” he says eventually. “I think he’s learned his lesson about waste.”
“That’s all this was?”
Steve rinses off the razor and taps it against the lip of the sink. “No,” he allows. “Mostly, it was just fun.”
The Asgardians finish the Ding Dongs just before Steve’s real cake comes out.
Tony is so relieved, he doesn’t even care that some asshole ordered a cake that was decorated like a giant goddamn Star Spangled Ding Dong.
A year after they finish the last box, Tony’s more or less taken Peter Parker under his wing and they’ve got an overly excited kid hanging from the ceiling every weekend. It’s fine. He’s a nice kid, Steve thinks, even if he is from Queens.
“Oh! I got something cool!” Peter announces when he comes by on Friday, one hand buried in his backpack before he pulls out a bright blue box. “Look at these! Star Spangled Ding Dongs!”
“ No ,” Tony says firmly as he plucks the box right out of Peter’s hand and drops it in the trash. “No. Those aren’t welcome here. We don’t even think about Hostess here. Banned, do you hear me? Those things are banned . All Hostess products, but especially those.”
Steve grins behind his coffee cup.