"What do you mean 'exploded!'"
Clint leaned around the doorframe. "Stark? Did you blow something up again?"
"No! Why does everyone always blame me for these—no, I'm still here, I'm listening, I just don't like what I'm hearing. For what I'm paying you…no, I don't want a refund, I want…did you hang up on me!" Tony touched his earpiece, briefly and atypically wishing for an old-fashioned hand-held phone so he could slam it into the cradle and appropriately express his frustration with the rest of humanity. And non-human sentient beings. Tony Stark could spew p.c.-ness with the best of them.
Tony started—he'd forgotten Clint was there. "That was the catering company."
"And, there was an explosion in their kitchen and they won't be making any deliveries for the foreseeable future! You know what that means? No dinner!"
"No dinner?" Thor bellowed from the other room.
Both men winced; Thor was still working on the whole 'indoor voice' concept.
"What was that about dinner?" Steve asked, striding into the room in full take-charge mode. Natasha slunk in a few steps behind him.
Tony paused, just in case Bruce was going to randomly appear as well, but an awkwardly-long moment later they were still scruffy, absent-minded professor-free. "The one catering company that's still open in the whole damn city just blew up their kitchen so we are officially screwed."
"I'm still not clear how that relates to us having dinner tonight," Steve ventured.
"How is that not clear? The caterer is where the food comes from. No caterer, ergo, no food," Tony said with exaggerated slowness.
Steve frowned at him. "Do you no longer have greengrocers?"
'Greengrocers?' Tony mouthed.
"Or kitchens?" Natasha asked dryly.
"How about restaurants?" Clint volunteered.
Everyone waited for Thor to begin waxing lyrical on the great hunting parties of Asgard, but he was uncharacteristically silent.
"No!" Tony shouted, resisting the urge to stomp his foot childishly. Not that there was any doubt that he could be that childish, he just didn't want to ruin his shoes. "This is the first time since the invasion that all of the Avengers—"
"Who came up with that name anyway?" Clint interrupted.
"—are under one roof," Tony continued, ignoring Clint. "Thor's back from outer space, you and Natasha are back from whatever top secret SHIELD thing you were doing, Steve's back from kissing babies and rescuing stranded kittens, and we are going to share a meal together—it's important team bonding."
"What now?" Clint asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
"Think of it! Literally the only time we weren't fighting in the entire time we've all known each other is when we were getting Shawarma. Clearly, our significant team moments are destined to revolve around food," Tony insisted.
"That doesn't follow at all," Natasha said bluntly.
"No, I think this is a good idea," Steve volunteered—unsurprisingly coming down on the side of team bonding. "Sharing meals with your comrades is an invaluable experience."
"Ease up, Cap, still not soldiers here," Tony said. "But since you're telling everyone to do the thing I want I'll let it slide just this once."
"Thank you," Steve said, in a passable imitation of sarcasm.
"I still think the 'bonding' idea is stupid, but since I would like to eat at some point can we revisit my point about the restaurants?" Clint said. "I realize this might be a novel concept, but some of them deliver."
"No," Natasha said immediately.
The boys turned to stare at her.
"See, I knew it—she only eats the soulless bodies of her victims," Tony quipped.
Natasha completely ignored him. "We can't order from any random restaurant. Do you know how many background checks SHIELD ran on that catering company? We can't risk the whole team being assassinated when the city is still recovering from the invasion."
"…are you serious?" Tony asked after a lengthy pause. "You think someone is conspiring to poison the team using the local Qdoba?"
"I don't like Mexican," Clint chimed in immediately.
"Why do you even know what Qdoba is?" Natasha wanted to know. "I wouldn't think that was really your style."
"Pepper, well, it's kind of a long story. Surprised you haven't heard it what with your spying on me and all. And anyway, you went with the rest of us to the Shawarma place without pitching a fit, what gives?"
Natasha rolled her eyes. "Given the facts of the Invasion and the newness of the Avengers, chances were extremely low that any assassins could have infiltrated the restaurant and organized a hit subtle enough that I wouldn't notice. That's completely different than placing an order with the delivery address 'Avengers Tower.' And anyway, I tested all my food for poison before I ate it. Didn't you?"
Tony opened his mouth to say something that probably would have gotten him shot, but he was interrupted by Thor, er, thundering down the stairs. Well, that explained why he'd been so quiet—he'd left.
Thor paused in his sprint—though not soon enough to keep a priceless antique vase from wavering dangerously on its stand with the force of his steps impacting the ground—and eased through the doorway, his massive frame filling it completely. Tony made a mental note to expand the doorframes. And send everything breakable to Malibu. Why was that vase even here, anyway?
"I have secured us provisions!" Thor announced, dropping his bundle on the table.
The others looked.
"Um," Tony said. "Why are there dead pigeons on my table?"
"Man of Iron, I regret that I had not previously offered my contribution to our table and instead relied most selfishly entirely upon your hospitality. While I am honored by your generosity, please accept both my apologies and my gifts."
"Right, but…why are there dead pigeons on my table?"
Clint snorted. "What, haven't you ever been hunting before?"
"Of course!" Tony retorted, offended.
Clint gave him an arch look. "Oh, right, you've probably been on those safaris they use in PETA commercials or climb mountains to throw boomerangs at American Bald Eagles. I meant real hunting, where you actually bring it home and eat it."
Tony started to be offended by Clint's condescending account of his experience, but, as it was mostly accurate, he decided to let it go. This time. Besides: "That's just gross. Why would I do that?"
Stormclouds gathered on Thor's brow. "Do you find my gift wanting?"
Natasha stomped on Tony's foot with a spiky heel before he could reply, leaving him to hop about awkwardly and curse not-quite-under-his breath.
"I'm sure Tony's very honored," Clint said placatingly. "He just has trouble showing it. You know how he is."
"Ah," Thor said, face clearing up. "I do indeed."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Tony demanded.
Natasha sidled closer to him, managing to make even that look threatening.
"And by that I mean, thank you, Thor, but, erm, we usually have more than just, uh, wild fowl for a meal. I mean, there are a lot of us."
"I understand, Man of Iron. I, Thor, shall procure more of these beasts. They are called 'pigeons,' you say?"
Some unidentified body fluid leaked onto one of the AI display boards embedded in the table. Tony looked like he might cry.
Fun as that would be, Clint—who had no Asgardian honor to speak of—had every intention of mooching off Tony Stark's hospitality until he was physically thrown out. So, damage control. "Like Tony said, we should procure some…bread and…mead, to round out the meal."
"And maybe a vegetable?" Natasha muttered.
"I'm not sure…" Tony began.
"To the kitchen!" Thor declared, whirling around and knocking over the long-suffering vase with his cape.
Tony gave up and followed the others into the kitchen. The state-of-the-art refrigerator was, as he'd suspected, pristinely clean—and completely empty.
Steve raised an eyebrow at him.
"I'm not much of a chef," Tony said defensively.
A survey of the cabinets revealed top-of-line pots, pans, tongs and many things he had no name for—and six empty packs of energy bars and half a bag of moldy bread.
"Stark, you are ridiculous," Clint said, deadpan.
"Hey, I've got plenty of mead," Tony said. "Where's your contribution, Legolas?" He ushered them all to the well-equipped bar, which had miraculously avoided most of the damage. They all made a point to step in the Loki-shaped dent in the floor, well, except Thor. "Voila."
There was an impressive array of different types of liquor in worryingly vast quantities. There were also six different kinds of olives, imported at great cost from various parts of the world.
"What's with the olives?" Clint asked.
"Pepper," Tony said shortly.
"You know, that's the second time you've used her as an explanation for your irrational behavior in this conversation."
"Hey, didn't you have fruit slices last night?" Steve interrupted hastily. "Because I'm sure I remember seeing that."
"You mean when I was doing tequila shots off Pepper's chest and you blushed and stammered and ran away? Why yes, I do remember that."
Steve's cheeks turned pink but he forged valiantly on like the soldier he was. "So maybe you have more food at this bar than you think you do."
"Nah, used up all the lemons last night. Nothing there but a bin full of peels, see?" Tony opened a refrigerator and pointed. "Or…not. Maybe there isn't even that. You didn't sneak back here and clean up after me, did you?"
"That was my fault," Bruce said from behind them, making them all jump—except Natasha, who'd undoubtedly noticed he was there from two rooms away.
"Why are you lurking here in the dark?" Tony demanded, pretending that he hadn't just about jumped out of his skin.
"No reason," Bruce said shiftily, which was Bruce-speak for 'standing here surrounded by things I destroyed while I was the Hulk and brooding about it.'
"Hey, you're eating a sandwich!" Steve announced, apparently feeling compelled to point out the perfectly obvious.
"Where did you get that?" Clint asked—there genuinely seemed to be no food at all in this house.
"I made it," Bruce said. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have taken anything without asking…"
"Would you relax?" Tony growled, reminded afresh how annoying he found Bruce's determination to be invisible and make as small an impact as humanly possible with his presence. "You can eat whatever you want. We were just wondering where you found anything edible in this place, seeing as all of us together couldn't come up with more than a bunch of olives."
"Oh, well, I used a couple olives and some of the lemon peels," Bruce volunteered.
Tony stared at him.
"Lemons and their peels are highly nutritious," Steve volunteered. "It's one of things we were encouraged to buy during the Depression."
"They're highly valued among the impoverished," Bruce confirmed. "I've often lived on rice and limes during my travels, but lemons are almost as good."
Tony looked horrified.
"But…where did you find the bread?" Clint asked, which seemed the more pertinent question.
"In the cabinet."
"What, that moldy stuff?" Tony demanded.
"I cut off the worst of it, then I irradiated the rest to kill off any bacteria." Bruce took a bite.
Everyone stared at him.
He fidgeted under the scrutiny, but chewed and swallowed before opening his mouth. "What? It's not like I can do more damage to myself with gamma exposure."
Tony snatched the sandwich and threw it out the window. "Okay, we're going to the greengrocer, getting some actual bread."
"Actually, greengrocers only serve produce," Steve informed him.
Tony glared the supersoldier into silence. "The supermarket. Whatever. Now."
Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner walked into a Whole Foods.
It sounded like the start of a bad joke.
The team decided that Thor should stay in the Tower, ostensibly to prepare his "contribution" for consumption, but actually because there was no way he could possibly be mistaken for anyone else and they wanted to keep this low profile. Clint was drafted into helping, since Tony didn't trust Thor not to make a bonfire in the middle of his kitchen and Clint actually seemed excited at the prospect of turning a whole bird into food. Not that he really trusted Clint either, so he'd made the ultimate sacrifice and brought DUM-E upstairs for fire safety. And put JARVIS on standby to take pictures. Natasha refused to go shopping, and no one quite dared argue with her.
Not that the rest of them were low profile, except maybe Bruce. He was convinced that everyone knew his face and only agreed to accompany them after Tony hacked the FBI database and showed him that he was nowhere on it. Just the Hulk, which wasn't as reassuring as Tony had been aiming for, but at least it got him out of the house. Steve was wearing a ball cap and khakis in an effort to look less like 'Captain America.' He'd succeeded in that, though the cashiers all gave him the stink-eye because he looked like a skater punk. Not that he understood that reference. And Tony was there because no one else had any money. Maybe no one would recognize him outside his natural environment.
So far, so good. They hailed a cab, then drove around randomly until they found a store that had food displayed in the windows.
Steve looked completely overwhelmed by the rows upon rows of food products.
"Well, let's go, team," Tony announced, injecting false cheer into his voice.
They all hovered near the entrance, more than a little overwhelmed.
A young employee made her way over to them, smiling the wide smile of a customer service representative while her blond ponytail swished determinedly. Steve looked kind of like he wanted to cower behind Tony. Bruce actually did. Tony plastered a smile on his face and regretted wearing one of his signature band t-shirts. He didn't usually go out in public in less than a full suit, but he did often enough that the tabloids had pictures of it.
"Can I help you gentlemen?" the girl asked, turning the smile up another few notches as Steve gave in and sidled away to look at a display, ducking his head and generally giving the impression of a highly suspicious character. Bruce cowered a little more.
"Actually, perhaps you could," Tony said, offering her his most charming smile. Which was wasted, since she was eyeing Steve suspiciously. Or, rather…checking him out?
"Oh. My. Gawd! You're Captain America!" she squealed, loud enough to attract the attention of the entire store, if not the entire block. Now it was Tony's turn to cringe.
They were immediately mobbed, borne out into the street by the crush of people wanting to see or talk to or touch The Captain America. It only took another three seconds before Tony was also recognized, and people were extending books, grocery receipts or broad expanses of skin and begging for autographs. They seemed to think Bruce was a driver and mostly left him alone, which was probably for the best. He retreated to a nearby alley and concentrated on not freaking out.
Since their covert operation was pretty much shot to hell, Tony had JARVIS call the other Avengers and tell them they might as well make the acquisition of food a part of the team bonding activity. Thor was useful for clearing a path—not as useful as Bruce, but Tony didn't think he would go for that—and Tony desperately wanted someone to appreciate the fact that they'd been discovered because some random teenager recognized Steve's ass. Clint was appropriately amused.
They signed autographs until the others arrived, then insisted on the store manager letting them have the store to themselves for twenty minutes so they could buy groceries. With all the free publicity they were giving the man he should just let them have the food for free, but Steve put his foot down.
The six of them trooped inside the store—the manager actually gave Bruce a hard time about only being support staff, not a real Avenger, somehow failing to make the obvious connection—and pretended not to notice as the excited employees peered at them around the aisles.
"Let's move out, people," Steve said, Captain America voice in full force.
They dispersed, agreeing to meet up at the cash register with their own choices for dinner.
Mindful of the time limit, the Avengers used their abilities to locate and acquire the appropriate items and arrive at the meet-up point with superhuman speed. Everyone, of course, except Tony.
He sauntered over twenty-two minutes after they entered the store, clutching a stack of narrow boxes. "What? It's not like I have superspeed or ninja skills at my disposal!"
"You're just lazy," Natasha informed him repressively. "You didn't see Bruce using his superpowers, and he was the first one back."
The Avengers spared a moment to imagine the Hulk shopping. They shared a collective shudder.
"Rogers, tell me you you're joking with that," Tony groaned.
Steve, who was holding two 24-packs of hot dogs, three loaves of white bread and a pound of American cheese, clutched his packages defensively. "I miss this stuff," he mumbled.
"You are so All-American it's not even funny. Is your birthday really on the fourth of July?"
"It's not like you've done so much better," Natasha said, eyeing Tony's stack of instant frozen dinners. "Do you know how much MSG those things have? Besides, it's like eating in the SHIELD cafeteria."
Tony cradled them protectively. "But how else would you get a whole meal? See, they already have everything."
Natasha continued to glare at him, trying to ascertain if he was being serious or not. It was at this point they all became aware of an unpleasant smell.
Thor had his arms full—and for Thor that was a considerable amount of food—of meat. The whole pigeons were unpleasant enough, but he must have raided the entire butcher's section.
"How is that so much worse than my box of frozen steak?" Tony demanded, waving one box and managing to drop all the rest on his foot. "Ow."
"Are you sure we need all of that?" Bruce asked, frowning myopically as he tried to see what everyone else was carrying.
Tony scoffed. The man was carrying a bag of limes and a sack of—"What is that stuff?"
Bruce turned the frown on him. "Lentils, obviously."
"Well, at least someone cares about a balanced meal, even if that's not quite everything you need," Natasha said, before Tony could add anything.
"Are you sure that's food?" Steve asked skeptically. She was carrying a 24-pack of Luna bars, a jar of protein powder and two bottles of multivitamins.
"Of course. And I checked that all the seals and packaging are intact. I have testing equipment for poisons at home if anyone would like to borrow it."
"What the hell is wrong with all of you," Clint said flatly. The rest of the team stopped sniping at each other to stare at him. "Has a single one of you ever actually made a meal for yourself?"
"I have!" Bruce said indignantly.
"I think you are officially disqualified from answering this question by the fact that you were eating irradiated mold with lemon peels rescued from a trash can."
"And my imported olives," Tony added. "Just saying."
"I confess that it is usually the women on Asgard who actually prepare the meals," Thor began, somehow failing to notice Natasha's lethal stare. "Although one time my brother and I—"
"Can we get back on track here?" Steve implored. "Clint is trying to tell us something."
"Yes, I am. All of you are idiots. You can't just pick things randomly off the shelves, you have to decide what you want for the meal and gather the appropriate ingredients. Shut up, Banner. Now, I have enough pasta and sauce here to feed a small country. Why don't the rest of you go and pick one fruit and one vegetable, preferably something that actually goes with spaghetti. Thor, do you have any chicken in that pile?"
"I am not certain what that is, but it is difficult to identify these meats because they are all shaped and packaged the same. In Asgard, one knows when boar is served because it looks like a boar. Only dead. And cooked."
"Well, I suppose we can't really give any of that back at this point so we'll just take all of it. Avengers, you have your assignments. Disassemble!"
Many glares were directed his way but they all went, leaving their offerings in a pile on the floor. It was another half hour before they regrouped.
"Show me what you found," Clint ordered. "We're not leaving until I approve it."
The others wanted to protest, but really, at this point they were just hungry.
"I have found something not unlike a childhood favorite of mine on Asgard," Thor boomed, depositing the largest rutabaga any of them had ever seen in the basket Clint had located just for this purpose.
"Oookay. That's good, Thor. I'm…sure we can find a recipe on the internet or something. What about a fruit?"
Thor produced a bizarre-looking…something. "I have never seen the like, but this is called a 'Dragon Fruit.' I didn't realize you had dragons here on Midgard!"
The Avengers unanimously decided to let that one go.
"I have two vegetables, is that okay?" Bruce asked, sounding ridiculously apologetic.
"Do they actually go with pasta?"
"I'm not sure about spaghetti, but when I was in India there was a little Chinese restaurant down the road that did amazing things with noodles, shiitake mushrooms and bok choy."
"I don't know what half those things are, but I am impressed that you still managed to work fungus, if not mold, into the meal," Clint said dryly.
Bruce made that peculiar, twisty face that meant he was thinking about getting annoyed but knew it would terrify everyone around him so was restraining himself. It was a face that all the Avengers were coming to recognize.
"Relax, I'm sure this is fine. You have to cook these, though."
"Fine. Good. Umm…'Tasha, what about you?"
She produced a bag of dried apricots and a sealed jar of organic beets. Both were fortified with a day's supply of vitamins and minerals, and both had clearly been checked for tampering.
"Uh…very good." Clint eyed his two remaining options. "Steve."
Steve sheepishly produced two dozen ears of corn and a massive bottle of ketchup.
"I don't see why we can't just have an old-fashioned barbeque!"
"He did technically fulfill the rules," Tony pointed out cheerfully. "Ketchup is made from tomatoes, and tomatoes are a fruit."
"I thought tomatoes were a vegetable?" Steve asked.
"Nope, one of those things you missed during your long sleep, princess. Only eight planets, tomatoes are a vegetable—didn't they cover that in the SHIELD briefing?" Tony supplied.
Steve glared at him.
"And what about you, Tony?" Clint asked, not expecting much.
"I brought squash and zucchini," Tony answered. "No fruit, but I did get some frozen garlic bread. I know you don't approve of my pre-prepared foods, but perhaps we could make an exception this one time?"
Clint joined Steve in glaring at Tony. "Stop being so smug, Stark."
After Tony paid for the entire pile of food and they ordered three taxis to carry it all, the Avengers re-assembled in the kitchen of Stark—now Avengers—Tower.
"Well…now what?" Tony asked, poking the uncooked pasta liked he'd never seen it before.
Who knows, maybe he hadn't.
"I used to cook for myself all the time before I joined the Army," Steve volunteered, eyeing Tony's state-of-the-art appliances with visible trepidation.
"Yeah, no," Tony said flatly. "Didn't they still have wood-burning stoves back in your day?"
"I, Thor, could—"
"Hell, no. I saw that firepit in my living room. The only reason I'm not saying anything else about that is because the pigeons appear to have conveniently disappeared."
"Don't look at me, I'm not really the domestic type," Natasha said.
"I don't know what half this stuff is," Clint added.
The team turned as one to look at Bruce, who cringed under so much attention. "I—um, we didn't, there wasn't really anything like this in Calcutta." He paused, wringing his hands. "But, I mean…if this is supposed to be a team bonding activity, maybe we should at least try?"
"You heard the doctor, let's make this happen!" Tony exclaimed, clapping his hands together loudly. He looked at Clint.
Heaving a sigh, Clint resigned himself to being in charge of this merry group of clueless idiots.
"Tony, you're supposed to be this crackshot engineer, right? Well, you're in charge of figuring out how your oven works. Steve—"
"I do know what an oven is," Steve insisted, sounding very annoyed. "We had cars and movies, then, too."
"Great, well, why don't you help me sort out what foods we're actually making tonight and which should be put away. The hot dogs, at least, should be refrigerated."
Steve looked crestfallen.
"Hey, I'm not a woman, those puppy eyes won't work on me. Besides, if we're all here in the Tower now, eating meals together is going to be kind of thing, right? We can have hot dogs tomorrow."
"I'm not eating that," Natasha said briskly, brushing past them and stealing a zucchini. "I'm a vegetarian." She produced a knife from somewhere on her person and began efficiently decimating the poor vegetable.
Clint blinked. "Good Natasha, you can slice the vegetables…er, the idea is really more 'slice' and not 'puree'…or whatever you want. Uh, who's left?"
"Is not this a device for roasting meat?" Thor asked, his large frame contorted as he peered into the biggest of Tony's three ovens.
Clint squatted down so he could see, too. "Huh, that does look like a spit. I haven't seen ovens with built-in spits since my circus days, but this is Stark Tower, so I really don't know why I'm surprised by any level of decadence anymore."
"So when you think circus, the next word that comes to mind is 'decadence?'" Tony teased, his voice muffled since he was half inside the medium-sized oven.
"You realize that if I could just kick you into the oven right now," Clint said pleasantly.
Tony jerked upright so fast he banged his head, and for a time the only sound in the room was his muttered cursing.
"Well Doc, I guess that leaves you and me to sort out the rest of it," Clint said finally, determined to be cheerful about this. If they burned the Tower down, Stark could just build another one.
Bruce and Clint worked together to try and decipher the range, but there were too damn many buttons. Clint was on the verge of trying to convince the others that spaghetti was better al dente when Bruce disappeared, only to return with three Bunsen burners. Five minutes later they had two massive pots of water on to boil and another pot to heat up the sauce.
Thor had surprised everyone by being the first to get the oven working. He just ignored all the special settings and turned the heat up until it was comparable to the heat of a fire—no one was sure what that was as he'd accidentally damaged the display while pressing buttons. He'd also dented the door a bit, but was now being almost comically delicate with the equipment. But he'd stuck all the chicken cutlets (well, the white meat that they were hoping was chicken) onto the spit and was manually turning it, having shattered the machinery that was supposed to do it automatically. The other Avengers kept casting him sideways glances, but apparently one of the Asgardian superpowers was not getting burned when sitting directly in front of an open oven.
Every single vegetable was diced within an inch of its life, and Bruce was attempting to make a sort of stir-fry out of it. Clint had successfully cooked the spaghetti and sauce and was smugly surveying his domain. Steve had obediently put all the groceries away and now he and Tony were fighting about the best way to cook the garlic bread. Steve was delighted to learn that there were specific instructions right on the packaging, but Tony was certain that he knew better, and was pulling up recipes online to support his theory.
"I thought it was usually spaghetti and meatballs, not spaghetti and chicken slabs," Natasha observed.
"Well, meatballs kind of take work, and besides, people eat chicken parmesan on spaghetti all the time," Clint said, a little sulky that no one appreciated his genius. "Although we did forget to pick up cheese."
"I'm lactose intolerant," Steve said. "Or, rather, I was. I'm actually not sure if the serum fixed that. And we didn't call it 'lactose intolerant' back then."
"I am finished!" Thor declared. "Perhaps I could prepare these 'meatballs' for you?"
"Um, that's ok…"
Thor seized the nearest piece of meat, about half a pound of pork, and crushed it into a half-inch ball. "How is this?"
"Umm…you know what? Why not? Sure, Thor, go ahead. Does anyone know how to cook meatballs?" Clint asked.
"In Malaysia they cook meat by rolling it into large leaves and placing it among the coals of a fire," Bruce volunteered.
"Well I'm fresh out of leaves," Tony said.
"Actually, there are some plants in the lobby," Natasha said, smirking.
"I could—" Thor began.
"Or how about tinfoil?" Bruce interrupted, half-throwing the package at Thor. "You know, as an alternative to stealing the plastic plants?"
Thor cheerfully acquiesced and began making the world's densest meatballs, poorly wrapped in jagged pieces of tinfoil (it tore easily).
"Since we're going all out, maybe we should put some spices on them or something," Clint said. "Tony?"
There was an awkward pause.
"I have some basil growing in the lab," Bruce volunteered.
"Have you been soaking that in gamma radiation, too?" Tony asked sarcastically.
"That was just to kill the bacteria!"
"Tony, shut up. Bruce, if you wouldn't mind sharing, that sounds great. Everyone else, we're just about done here. See if you can rustle up some plates and utensils," Clint instructed.
"Aye, sir!" Tony said, snapping a mock salute.
Steve frowned at him.
As it turned out, there were two full sets of exquisitely hand-painted fine china, two plastic tv trays and a small shop's worth of coffee mugs. Everyone agreed that the china was a bad idea, so they filled the mugs with spaghetti and put the meat and slightly burned bread on pieces of tinfoil.
"Tony, you are a ridiculous person," Clint said, summarizing what they were all thinking. "How can you have this enormous empire, probably a dozen houses and fifty yachts and whatever the hell else, and you don't have a speck of food or a usable utensil in this entire skyscraper of a Tower?"
"Are you done?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"Good, because I found a pile of disposable chopsticks that we can use instead of the silver."
"Well, let's eat, then."
They decided to eat around a pool table, because according to Tony it was the only surface that didn't have a link to JARVIS and it would be cheaper to replace the pool table than the computer equipment.
Bruce showed Steve how to use chopsticks and the two of them were methodically eating, mixing some of the vegetable matter stuff in with their spaghetti and even eating trying Thor's Industrial Sized Meatballs of Undetermined Makeup.
Tony, finicky eater that he was, was picking at his spaghetti—plain, no sauce. Mostly he sat and watched Thor eat with the expression of someone watching a car accident in progress.
"You know—" Tony began.
"Remember the rules!" Steve interrupted. "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all!"
"Steve, that's only the rule on Sesame Street. And it's the reason we've been sitting here in silence for the last ten minutes."
"It's a good rule!" Steve insisted.
"Besides, how do you know I wasn't going to say something nice? Why does everyone always make that assumption?"
"I wonder," Bruce muttered, then looked shocked at his own daring.
Tony didn't even bat an eye. "I was just wondering where he puts all that food."
"I was wondering that, too," Natasha said. "Sorry, Steve."
"Seriously, he must have eaten like five pounds of meat, and that's not even counting the pasta and vegetables," Tony elaborated, seizing onto the conversation like a lifeline.
"Tony, it's kind of rude to talk about that," Steve said.
"I do not mind," Thor said—with his mouth full.
Several people redirected their attention to their plates.
Thor frowned at the top of their heads, considered, and swallowed his mouthful. "I apologize, your Midgardian customs are still largely unknown to me. On Asgard feasting is a time of great merriment and conversation."
"Well, it's supposed to be that way on Midgard—Earth—as well," Steve told him. "I remember back in the war we would always take the time to eat together, even if it was just ration bars in an active combat zone." He looked off into the distance, obviously remembering.
"It's still that way," Clint told him. "The SHIELD HQ cafeteria makes some of the worst food I've ever tasted, but it's still a time to hang out, unwind, and see who has the most ridiculous story."
"I always win," Natasha said with a smirk. "Ever since that undercover mission to Stark Industries."
"Hey!" Tony protested.
"But this meal certainly has better vegetarian options," Natasha continued, ignoring Tony. She'd measured out exactly one mug of spaghetti and smothered it in the vegetable mix, eating it with apparent relish and obvious experience with chopsticks.
"What are you talking about, this, this—" Tony gestured wildly at the massive pot of vegetable matter.
"Pureed Every Vegetable Ever?" Clint suggested.
"Yes, that. That is the weirdest thing I've ever tasted. It's like eating squash-flavored yogurt with a funky aftertaste."
"I knew I put too much squash in," Bruce fretted. "I knew the proportions were too high compared to the other vegetables but I didn't want to waste it."
"Try putting ketchup on it," Steve suggested, putting actions to words as he smothered his own helping with what looked like half the bottle.
"I should have known you'd be one of those kids," Tony said, giving him a look. "Some people will eat anything if they can put ketchup on it."
"I didn't see you helping out there," Clint accused. "At least we made something."
"Yeah, something with more kickback than half the contents of my liquor cabinet!"
"I think that's the dragon fruit," Bruce volunteered. "The aftertaste, I mean. I'm not sure what that was doing in our vegetable stir fry, anyway…" he trailed off as Tony glared at him.
"I'm ranting here, stop with all that logic," Tony complained.
"As an Asgardian, my muscles and bones are denser than a mortal's," Thor boomed, returning to an earlier topic. "I therefore require more sustenance."
"Plus you're like, seven feet tall," Tony commented, letting himself be distracted.
"I have to watch my diet carefully," Natasha supplied. "Part of the SHIELD training. Clint is supposed to do the same."
Clint elbowed her good-naturedly. "Hey, don't be jealous."
She smiled and pinned his sleeve to the table with one of her chopsticks.
"You're just mad because I wouldn't share my Tasty Cake with you on our last mission…"
"I think we all know how Tony eats," Natasha said, cutting off the rest of that story.
"Mostly coffee," Tony said. "And pizza. And those 5-hour energy drinks."
Steve winced. "Don't worry, Tony, now that we're all here I will personally guarantee that you get at least one home-cooked meal a day. You need to develop a healthier relationship with food."
Tony's face suggested that this was taken more as a threat than a reassurance.
"Let's talk about Thor again," Clint suggested, dodging another fight before it could start. "Did you really eat five pounds of meat?"
"Well, if each of those meatballs is half a pound, and the chicken slices are a quarter pound each, that's five and a quarter pounds," Natasha said.
The others looked at her.
"What, I'm an observant person, that's kind of my job!"
"According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average American eats half a pound of meat per day," Tony announced, reading off his phone. "So does that mean Thor is eleven times more powerful than the average American?"
"I don't know, why don't you arm wrestle him and find out?" Natasha asked sweetly.
"What, why me?"
"I'm Russian," she said, like it was obvious. Which it was. "So I couldn't be 'the average American.'"
"My country of origin is classified," Clint said.
"Liar," Tony accused. "I read your file."
Bruce took his glasses out of his pocket and began polishing them on his shirt. "I'm not arm-wrestling anyone."
"Fine, Steve then! He's as American as apple pie!"
"Tony, Steve is hardly your 'average' American," Clint reminded him. "That would totally ruin the test."
"Actually, do you have to eat more now that you're all 'roided up?" Tony asked.
Steve blushed. "I don't totally understand that sentence, but that's probably for the best. I do eat more now, though not quite as much as Thor. N-not that there's anything wrong with that."
"So, what, two pounds of meat?" Tony pressed.
"Well, uh, more like three," Steve mumbled.
"This is perfect," Clint said, a frightening glint in his eye. "We'll have Tony arm wrestle both of them, and if the statistic is correct it should take Thor half as long to utterly crush him as Steve."
Tony winced. "That…your math is wrong…"
"I'm game," Natasha said.
"What? Why does your opinion matter? You're not the one about to get mauled by superbeings!"
"Don't be such a baby, Stark."
The food was cleared to one side to give the contestants room to maneuver.
"Bruce, you're a scientist, you can conduct the experiment," Clint said.
"Don't I get a say in this?" Tony asked.
"No," both assassins told him simultaneously.
"Can I at least put on the suit? And hey, who are you calling 'average?'"
They all ignored Tony's protests, and his arm wrestling competition came to a decisive end after 0.67 seconds when Thor slammed his arm down hard enough to break the table.
There was a brief scramble as everyone rescued the food—except Tony, who was cradling his arm.
"I vote that we not do that again," Tony moaned, once they'd reassembled on the on the floor.
"Stop being such a baby," Natasha told him, socking him in his sore arm.
"Should we maybe call this dinner on account of injury?" Steve asked, concerned.
"I suppose we're all about done eating…" Clint said slowly, surprisingly reluctant to break up this get-together. They weren't friends, not by a longshot, but it was still better than sitting in his room alone. Marginally.
"I'm going to find an ice pack," Tony said.
"No, wait, we can't go yet!" Steve cried.
"Uh, I think the bonding moment is kind of over," Clint said, gingerly patting Steve on the shoulder.
"I apologize," Thor said, very carefully patting Tony on the head.
Tony snapped at his hand. "I'm not a dog."
"Could have fooled me," Natasha said tartly.
"No, seriously, we can't leave yet," Steve said in his in-charge voice.
"Okay, I'll bite…why can't we leave?" Clint asked.
"If you like, you can strike me in recompense," Thor offered. "I have behaved dishonorably by exceeding the rules of this 'arm wrestling' competition."
Tony looked he was seriously considering it. "Nah, I'd just break my hand. Anyway, it's cool. Table got the worst of it."
"We can't let all this food go to waste," Steve said firmly.
Tony raised an eyebrow. "You have got to be kidding me. There has to be ten pounds of meat on this table, plus at least half of that Pureed Crap!"
"There's also some spaghetti," Natasha said, peering into another pot. "Not a lot, but if we're taking inventory I felt I should mention it."
"The point is, there's no way we can eat all of this," Tony insisted. "I'm full. Who else is full?"
"I do not waste food," Steve said, tone uncompromising. "It's a Depression thing."
"Can't we just put it in the refrigerator?" Natasha asked. "I hate to agree with Tony about anything, but I'm also full."
Steve crossed his arms over his chest. "I don't think anyone is actually going to eat it if we store it. That's still a waste."
Tony rolled his eyes. "We'll explode if we try to eat all this! Bruce, back me up here."
"I ate," Bruce said quietly.
"See? Now…" Tony paused, zooming in on Bruce like a hawk sighting prey. "'You ate?' That's not the same thing as being full."
Bruce flinched with his whole body, hunching his shoulders like he could disappear. "That's, um, that's what I meant."
"Oh no, I've been lied to by the best, and you are not the best, not by a longshot," Tony said, forgetting to be dramatic about his arm as he prowled closer to Bruce, trapping him in his corner of the room.
"Don't worry about me," Bruce pleaded.
"Am I not feeding you enough?" Tony demanded. "Why did I not know about this? You've been living here for almost a month!"
"You aren't neglecting me, Tony, I am an adult. Besides, I can go for almost two months without eating."
"Let's move right on past why you even know that and get to how that is not in the least bit reassuring."
"What happens after two months?" Natasha asked.
Tony directed a furious look her way.
"What? Obviously he didn't die, I think this is something we should know."
"I, uh, 'hulk out,'" Bruce said miserably. "And he feeds, er, us. Woke up with wool between my teeth. Not an experience I ever want to repeat."
"Okay, I didn't want to know that," Natasha admitted, looking ill.
"I'd been wondering where all that mass goes…" Tony thought aloud, refusing to be distracted. "I didn't want to pry and have you sneaking off to Nowhereistan again, but now I think maybe I should have."
"Are you like Thor? Or Steve? I never even thought to ask you how the accident affects you when you're still…Bruce-shaped. I thought that weren't any effects." Tony blinked, a thought suddenly occurring to him. "Do you still have to eat as if you're…Hulk-sized?"
Bruce flushed and began fidgeting with his glasses. "I, uh…no, of course not."
"Bruce, if you're having a problem, we want to help," Steve said, making his Sincere Face.
Tony rolled his eyes as Bruce, predictably, tried even harder to become invisible. You couldn't give him any room to weasel out of a tough conversation because he would always, always find it. Tony should know, he was pretty good at that himself. "Seriously, have you ever tried just…eating until you can't eat anymore? Not, you know, until you explode and die, I mean, I totally saw that on tv once…would the Hulk protect you from that?...but undo your top button and take an afternoon nap full."
"Uh…no? It's really not necessary, Tony. Like I said, I can go for weeks without suffering any ill effects from not eating. I haven't eaten every day like this in…I don't know how long. Years."
The other Avengers were staring.
"That is the most screwed thing I've ever heard," Clint said, voicing what they were all thinking.
"There's no need to waste good food on me when there are people who actually need it," Bruce insisted.
The rest of the team didn't know how to counter such obvious lunacy. Well, most of the rest of the team.
"Okay," Tony said, setting the entire remainder of the meat in front of Bruce. "I'll make you a deal. We'll finish the spaghetti, but not this vegetable crap, that's yours, too."
Bruce's eyes widened. "Tony, you could feed a family of ten with all this. I'll just waste it."
"No, you won't, and you know why? If you can actually finish all of that in one sitting I will donate $100,000 to a charity of your choice."
"Completely serious. Want me to sign a contract? I could call Pepper, have her draft a contract. JARVIS, call—"
"No, no that…that won't be necessary." Bruce eyed the formidable mound of food like he was the one about to get eaten.
"Think of all the starving orphans you could be helping right now," Tony prodded.
Bruce sighed and picked up a slice of chicken. "I thought I left the part of my life behind where I ate with my hands," he joked weakly.
There wasn't anything else pressing to do, so the rest of the team dutifully ate one fifth of the remaining spaghetti and cleaned up the rest of the dishes. Then they abandoned the pretense of doing anything else and just sat and watched Bruce eat. For an hour.
He cringed under their combined stares at first, but eventually he seemed to resign himself to it.
"Well," Tony said at last. "Holy shit."
Bruce wiped his mouth self-consciously.
"Seriously, where did you put all that?"
Bruce shrugged. "Like you said, where does any of the other guy's mass go? There are many things I still don't understand about the science behind the Hulk."
"Well, now that that's settled, I'm going to bed," Natasha announced.
The others murmured similar sentiments and drifted away, leaving Tony and Bruce alone to finish clearing up. Well, Bruce was clearing up.
"You do your research," Tony was saying, tagging along while Bruce threw out the last of the tinfoil. "Let me know which one's your favorite charity. And I'll be sure to order extra food if the catering company ever gets their act together again. Or maybe I'll find a new one. I'll notify Fury to start the background checks."
"Tony, this really isn't necessary…"
"Hey, if I have to donate to a different charity for every meal I'll totally do that. Stop selling yourself short like this."
Bruce made a face like he wasn't giving in but he was done arguing for the moment, which Tony counted as a win.
"Oh hey!" Tony exclaimed, bouncing on his toes.
"We are totally entering you in an eating contest."
A/N: My sister commented that our Avengers stories always seem to involve people eating in every other scene. And then I felt compelled to write a story that revolves entirely around eating and preparing to eat. So that's sort of like filling a prompt? And rendering that observation a self-fulfilling prophecy...