Disclaimer: Not mine.
The birth of the Avengers Tower was a halting and laborious process, much like the initiative that had brought them together in the first place. The others would later accuse Tony of being the mastermind behind the plot, but he insisted that the idea came from Clint Barton, of all people. Returning to the tower to regroup after a simple recon mission had turned into a massive firefight, Clint, concussed and dazed from blood loss, had glanced at his surroundings and muttered "Home sweet home" before passing out on the marble floor.
At the time, the other Avengers were obviously more concerned with tending his injuries than paying attention to his morphine-induced blathering, but Clint's words nestled deep within Tony's subconscious. They floated around the back of Tony's mind for days, waiting for the right moment to push their way to the front. The moment came late one night while Pepper was in D.C. and Tony was left alone in the tower, noticing for the first time how large and silent the building was when all of his employees had returned to their own homes. Even his banter with Jarvis seemed empty.
He mulled over the idea that had struck him like a bolt of Thor's lightning for all of ten seconds—which, as Steve would undoubtedly have pointed out had he been there, was the equivalent of a full-fledged, eight-day long war council for Tony Stark. He peered at the idea from all angles, weighed the pros and cons, calculated the renovations that would need to be done, and determined that, yes, this was the responsible, logical step, and, no, it had nothing to do with Tony wanting to keep the closest thing he had to friends and family around him at all times.
In fact, the idea made perfect sense. He should have thought of it weeks ago, when the Avengers first began to trust each other as a team. Of course, Tony couldn't pinpoint the exact moment when that had happened.
It might have been when Clint and Natasha's covers were blown in Beijing and he and Steve had flown in to haul their sorry asses out. That was a fun trip, giving Captain America a lesson on "How to Fly a Jet in Five Minutes or Less." They'd all been deeply relieved when Clint regained consciousness and took over the controls.
Or possibly it was that one time when the Hulk had saved the other five Avengers from the biochemical-weaponry lab in Afghanistan. Bruce had spent the next week nursing them back to health after they had been exposed to a new strand of influenza that had been chemically-engineered to affect even super-soldiers and demigods—but not Hulks. The flu had included nightmarishly realistic hallucinations and impressive Linda Blair impersonations. They had been in Bruce's debt for a long time after that particular mess.
Or maybe it was when Tony, Thor, and Steve had taken out one of the Russians' secret nuclear missile bases in the Arctic Circle. The three men had found themselves huddling in a cave as a blizzard roared outside, Thor and Tony sandwiching a freezing Steve between them upon the discovery that Steve's suit was not, in fact, weather- or water-proof—an oversight that would have caused the late Agent Coulson to come down on the head of the responsible party like the Wrath of God.
No, Tony couldn't say exactly when they had become a team, but they had, and that was really all that mattered. And, as everyone who had ever read comic books as a child knew, every team needed a base. Stark Tower was already the unofficial regrouping center (mostly because there was no way in hell he was letting Thor near the glass walls of his Malibu mansion), located conveniently close to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters and with all the toys, equipment, vehicles, medical wards, and weapons the Avengers would ever need. Really, Tony was just making things official with this idea. Living in one building would make them even more effective as a crime- and alien-fighting force, cutting down on the initial assembly time that preceded their current missions. It was a very good idea.
It was such a good idea that he went ahead and texted the scattered Avengers, calling them to the tower for a meeting and ignoring the fact that it was three in the morning. He sent the text on the special emergency channel he had built into each of their StarkPhones. He was able to access this channel at all times just in case he needed to contact them even if they were currently preoccupied with a mission (Clint and Natasha) or a woman (Thor), meditating in some monkish temple in the eastern hemisphere (Bruce), or dumb enough to think that turning his phone off at night would prevent the genius that was Tony Stark from contacting him at ungodly hours (Steve). He did it to prove his point, of course, timing each of their arrivals to the tower, though his point would have been more effective had they not all been in New York City at the same time for the first time since ever. His fellow Avengers arrived within minutes in varying states of panic and concern that evolved quickly into irritation and a general aura of pissed-offness.
Oddly enough, they weren't very impressed with his idea.
Thor, to everyone's surprise, was the first to jump on the bandwagon.
Due to his ability to travel via storm clouds, Thor was not overly concerned about having a centralized location for the Avengers. It didn't matter if the other Avengers were halfway across Midgard; he could be by their side in a matter of minutes. Besides, Stark Tower held dark memories for him, the ghosts of his brother's hatred and envy haunting his steps each time he saw the building.
So when he had first returned to Midgard, he had assured them that should they call for his aid he would return immediately—but until then he would be staying with Jane Foster.
Each day he spent with Jane passed like a happy dream. She took a leave of absence from her position at the observatory in order to help him acclimate to Midgard. He looked forward to spending an uninterrupted month in her presence. Unfortunately, Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. had other plans for him. One short mission turned into two, then five, and with a speed that astounded Thor Jane's month of freedom was up and she had to return to work while he was on the other side of the world trying to prevent the human nations from blowing their own realm to pieces.
He came back to Jane's apartment from the frozen wasteland in the far north to find a handwritten note on the kitchen table telling him she was at work and the Pop-Tarts were in the cabinet over the sink. She loved him and she would be back the next morning; she was tracking a comet that night.
Thor had never been one for patience. During the long hours he had spent in that cave with his arms wrapped tight around Steve's shivering body he had desired nothing more than to be back on the roof of Jane's apartment building, cuddling the human woman he was falling more and more in love with. He had caused a small cyclone in Indiana from the speed with which he flew back to Jane's apartment, intent on his need to hold her. To find her gone was a blow that left him staggering in the doorway.
So he went after her. Jane had been very firm in her resolution to not let him get involved with her work life—something about protecting him from her fellow astrophysicists who would be interested in him only as a science project—but he believed he knew enough about Midgard culture to pass as a regular human by now. He donned the soft clothes she had bought for him, carefully locked the apartment door behind him, and walked the seven miles to the observatory like any normal human being. He told the security guard that his name was Donald Blake and he was here to see the beautiful Dr. Jane Foster. Jane met him in the lobby, delight and surprise winning out over worry.
They walked side by side through the observatory, their arms intertwined as if they could never let go. He tried to listen as Jane gave him the grand tour, but he was distracted by the scent of her hair and the way her eyelashes brushed against her cheek when she blinked.
Then Jane made the drastic mistake of leaving him alone while she ran off to deal with an erring assistant. Without her warmth pressed against his side to focus on, Thor found himself distracted by his surroundings. She had left him in a large, open room, surrounded on all sides by the strange computers that seemed to rule life on Midgard. In many ways the room reminded him of the bridge of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s floating fortress. He wandered curiously over to one of the panels.
Seven button pushes and one pulled lever later, the main satellite dish lay off-kilter on the mountainside, smoking heavily. Thor was highly entertained when it imploded, but Jane, sadly, was not.
They were back in the apartment three hours later, Jane shoving a suitcase packed with Pop-Tarts and cashmere sweaters into his hand as she kissed his cheek. She explained that she loved him—really, she did—but having to bail your boyfriend out of jail for causing $500,000 worth of damage to a specially-calibrated satellite dish that had taken months to build, and having to convince the authorities that said boyfriend was not, in fact, a spy sent by a rival research center to sabotage their project, and almost losing her job for being involved with said boyfriend/spy was just too much. She needed a little space. Just for a little while. She would call him when it was safe for him to visit her again.
Jane suggested that maybe it was time to take Tony Stark up on his offer.
When Tony had first proposed his scheme, Bruce had to fight the urge to giggle. Have the Other Guy live in an eighty-floor tower in the middle of Manhattan? Steve was right; Tony Stark was nuts.
Still, though, it was a…nice idea. Bruce craved the company of other human beings. It was the traditional moral paradox: desiring the one thing that you shouldn't. He was dangerous, a liability. He had hurt—sometimes even killed—everyone who had ever cared for him. Nightmares of the Other Guy ripping the Avengers to shreds haunted his sleep, making his temper even shorter than it already was.
Tony pointed out that he already spent most of his free time at the tower, puttering around the R&D labs before going back to his hotel room on the outskirts of the city. That was different, Bruce tried to explain. When he was working on his latest experiment, he could lose himself in the fine mechanics of an atom brushing against an atom, become absorbed in the spiral of a chemical reaction. The Other Guy had no power over him then—but outside of the laboratory? He loved them all too much to risk it.
So when he found himself beginning to yield to the siren song of having a home again, he did the best thing for all of them and disappeared. He mailed his StarkPhone to Steve—hoping the super-soldier would be able to understand his decision—with a sticky note that said It's been fun, kids, but the party's over.
He chose his place of exile carefully. Clint and Thor were the kind of men to let a guy make his own decisions without trying to change his mind and Natasha was still terrified of the Other Guy—he could see it in her eyes—so he didn't worry about them coming after him. He knew Steve would understand why he was leaving, but he also knew that Steve wouldn't let him go without a fight. Tony would be the worst, though. Therefore it was of Steve and of Tony that he thought when he selected his hermitage, a chain of caverns high in the Himalayas. Tony hated being in caves; he'd been a nervous wreck after the Arctic incident. And even with his new suit, Steve was still painfully susceptible to cold weather—and still tormented by dreams of ice.
Bruce felt terrible, preying on his friends' weaknesses like this, but he had to, to keep them safe and away from him.
It was the height of winter when he first made his home in the caverns. It was also far colder than he had ever imagined it could be. Despite all of the precautions he had taken, he still couldn't stave off hypothermia. It didn't matter, though; whenever he slipped too close to the sleep that meant death in these conditions the Other Guy would break free, pulling them both back from oblivion.
The Other Guy never left the caverns, though. Bruce was surprised at first, but as the days passed he got the impression that the Other Guy was waiting for something.
He spent two weeks like this, awake and freezing during the day, the Other Guy waiting out the night. Then one day he heard shouting at the mouth of his cavern. At first his cold-fogged brain didn't process the sound and he didn't try to move from his huddled place by the campfire. He closed his eyes; when he opened them, they were standing before him—all five of them. Pepper, Tony said, was waiting on the jet one valley over with hot chocolate at the ready.
Their arrival startled him so badly that it caught the Other Guy's attention; Bruce could feel him in the back of his mind, and he was too tired and cold to control him. He panicked, screaming at them to get out before it was too late.
Natasha, to his surprise, screamed back. Hers was a cry of fury, though, with her face turning as red as her hair. She demanded to know what in the hell he was doing—did he have any idea what they went through trying to find him? How worried they were? Did he even care that Clint broke his ribs in an avalanche on the way up and that Steve broke his arm trying to save Clint and didn't even realize it because he was too cold and numb to feel the pain until Thor noticed that he was bleeding? Did he even care that none of them had slept for two weeks because they were terrified he was doing something stupid? And if he ever—ever—did anything this selfish again, she'd ram her guns so far up his— She slipped into her native Russian at that point, but Bruce got the picture.
Tony heaved him to his feet, holding him steady when his knees buckled and telling him it was time to come home. Bruce clung to him desperately, his emotions spilling over as his tears froze against the metal plating of Tony's suit.
The Hulk was humming contentedly in the back of his mind. They came for us. He couldn't even tell which of them formed the thought.
The Hulk ended up carrying Steve and the two assassins down the mountain while Tony and Thor flew overhead. He cradled Clint and Steve in his massive arms as Natasha rode piggyback, her slender arms tight around his neck. Bruce sat in the back of the Hulk's mind, making sure he didn't hold the injured men too tightly or jar them too much.
On the flight home, Steve drove the final nail into the coffin of his protests as he splinted the soldier's arm. It made sense for Bruce to live in the tower, Steve pointed out, trying to sound logical and reasonable and failing because of his chattering teeth. He was the closest thing to a resident doctor that they had. Since they apparently couldn't walk to the grocery store without getting hurt, sick, or kidnapped, they could really use him nearby at all times.
In short, Steve concluded, stuttering and shivering, they needed him. All of him.
Clint moved into the tower a week later.
He had thought all along that Tony's idea was a good one. He knew from his years as a mercenary and in S.H.I.E.L.D. that units who housed together fought better together. He would have moved in weeks ago when Tony first invited them—mostly because Tony's pad was a hell of a lot nicer than the cubbyhole apartments S.H.I.E.L.D. provided its operatives—but he had been painfully uncertain of his position on the team.
He'd been their enemy for most of the fight against Loki—their screwed-up version of orientation, so to speak—and although he knew none of them blamed him for his actions, he couldn't quite accept that. Not while he still blamed himself, anyway.
Besides that, for a long time he hadn't been sure whether he was an Avenger or a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who happened to be assigned to work with the Avengers. It didn't help that Steve, Tony, and Bruce all hated S.H.I.E.L.D.—personified by Fury—and Thor was, at best, ambivalent towards the organization. During their first few missions together, he had gotten the strong impression that the others weren't quite sure what to make of him, either. Would he follow their plans or Fury's?
Clint himself hadn't been able to answer that for a long time.
Over and above the ambiguity of his role was the certain knowledge that he was different from the other Avengers. He had been called many things in his life—circus freak, archer, assassin, agent—but at the core of his being he was a survivor. Surviving was what he did best. If he saw a bullet coming his way, he got out of the way fast, and tough shit to whatever poor bastard was standing behind him. That's how he had caught Loki's attention in the first place: he dove aside and let Agent Marks get vaporized by the Death Stick instead. Loki had called it "heart," but he wasn't sure that was the proper term for it.
Four days after Bruce moved into the tower, Fury assigned Clint to be Tony's bodyguard at a controversial energy summit in Geneva. S.H.I.E.L.D. had gotten a tip off about an underworld terrorist group that was planning a hit on the billionaire—whether in an attempt to use him as a hostage in exchange for the Iron Man suit or to get rid of Iron Man once and for all was unknown. The terrorists turned out to be better equipped than reported, and Tony's Humvee was blasted apart by an RPG, leaving Clint and Tony stranded in the middle of Cold-as-Balls, Switzerland, with a broken bow, two guns, five arrows, six bullet clips, and no suit, waiting for the extraction team—namely Thor—to arrive.
Clint took out half a dozen hostiles and injured twice as many—and Tony proved to be no mean shot, either—but the terrorists had them vastly outgunned and outnumbered. Pretty soon Clint was chucking the broken pieces of his bow at them as he and Tony tried to outrun them. He barely caught the flash of sunlight reflecting off the terrorist's gun in the trees to their left before he dove to the side. But he didn't dive away from the bullet—no, he dove right in front of it, shoving Tony out of the way and feeling the impact of the bullet between his shoulder blades.
He wasn't certain who was more surprised: Tony, the terrorist, or Clint himself.
Luckily Thor chose that moment of confusion to make his appearance, and the terrorists quickly became the ones running away. Tony used the distraction to rip off Clint's jacket, yelling at him to wake up and talk to him, what the hell was he thinking, getting shot? Then Tony was cussing like a sailor and Clint was laughing as Tony took in the sight of Clint's Kevlar vest. Sure, it hurt like a bitch and he would have a bruise the size of an apple for a week, but he was alive and laughing because Tony was nearly hysterical and did Tony really think Clint would take a bullet for him? Clint?
And Clint kept laughing because he was terrified—because he had completely forgotten that he was wearing a bulletproof vest and holy shit he thought he was going to die and he didn't even like the man that much.
Three days later when he found himself waiting for confirmation from Steve about an order that Fury had given him, Clint gave up the ghost.
He wasn't the one who had changed, he decided, walking into Tony's penthouse and dropping his duffel by the couch. He was still a survivor. He just had other people he wanted to survive with him now. And he knew Natasha wanted to move in, too, but she would never make the first move without him.
Besides, "Avenger" was by far the coolest name he'd ever been called.
Natasha moved in the following night.
Fury had needed a message to be delivered to Tony that morning—the kind of message that needed some serious threat-power behind it—namely, for him to stop hacking into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mainframe. Clint was nowhere to be found, so Fury volunteered Natasha instead.
Natasha wasn't surprised when she walked into the penthouse to find Clint eating Lucky Charms and Pop-Tarts with Tony, Bruce, and Thor. She'd been expecting it for a while. There was some secret part of Clint even he wasn't aware of that yearned for that feeling of family he had lost when his brother died. She'd seen it in his eyes one day as they walked by a small family in Kyoto, the parents swinging their toddler son between them by the hands.
She never mentioned it, though. They all had their own weaknesses.
Tony began to nag her to join the party as soon as she walked in. He was like a child collecting toys, she decided. He wanted the whole set, even if he didn't like each individual toy, just so he could say he had the set.
Well, she wasn't something to be collected. Besides, she had no desire to join Tony's dysfunctional sleepover. She liked her private life to be private, thank you, and living with at least four other people would make that extremely difficult, even if they each took twenty floors to themselves.
Besides, while she wasn't uncomfortable with the fact that she and Tony had met under false pretenses, she wasn't exactly comfortable with it, either. She was used to lying to people; most of her life was a lie. But that was the good thing about being a spy: you lied to someone and you moved on. You never had to face the consequences of that lie. But she had tricked Tony and he had forced her to face the consequences of that. It had taken a botched mission in Beijing to make the two of them realize that they cared about whether or not the other one was still alive.
She doubted Pepper would be happy with her living in the tower, anyway.
She left after delivering her message, only to be sent back again that night by an irate Fury. Tony had downloaded a virus into the mainframe that overrode the PA system and played "It's a Small World" on repeat. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s best hackers couldn't figure out how to get rid of the music, short of shooting the stereos out, which Fury had already done in his office.
Natasha walked into the penthouse in the middle of a drinking competition. Clint and Tony, Pepper informed her from her hiding spot behind the bar counter, had decided that the two of them—alternating drinks—could outdrink Thor and were attempting to prove it. Bruce was busy drunk-proofing the tower, locking up all explosives, weapons, chemicals, and otherwise hazardous materials on one of the lower levels. Tony had Hulk-proofed the windows weeks earlier, so at least they didn't have to worry about one of the men taking a nosedive down eighty floors.
Natasha had to hand it to the two human men. Thor did look a little flushed. Of course, Tony was on his back on the coffee table looking like an upended turtle and Clint was puddled on the floor, murmuring sadly to an empty whiskey bottle, so she was pretty certain Thor would win this particular bet.
She turned to leave but Pepper stopped her, informing her in no uncertain terms that if she left Pepper alone to deal with the drunken idiots, Pepper would hunt her down and leave her body for the wolves. Or something along those lines.
Pepper dragged her over to the sitting area, surveying the scene like a general planning an attack strategy. She told Natasha to take Clint while she took Tony—Bruce would have to deal with Thor later on, when the demigod got tired of stacking beer cans into fantastical shapes. As Pepper pulled Tony to his feet and Natasha wrenched the empty bottle from Clint's grasp—and at 95% proof, he was going to be sorry in the morning—Pepper glanced at Natasha and commented that between the two of them, they could handle anything the boys dished out.
Then she told Natasha that she really hoped she didn't mind that she'd sent Happy over to her apartment an hour ago to pack up her things and bring them to the tower. It was time to get the family all together, Pepper said firmly. There'd be no peace in the house until then.
Natasha smiled, feeling suddenly shy. She thanked Pepper, saying she didn't mind at all.
And it was the truth.
Maybe she was more like Clint than she had realized.
Steve knew the others were placing bets on how long he'd last before he caved in. At the last count he'd heard, Tony gave him three hours, Natasha and Clint two days, Thor a week, and Bruce gave him two weeks. Pepper didn't make a bet because Pepper was their secret weapon. Steve had been forced to carry his duffel with him at all times lest Pepper send one of her minions to his apartment to pack up his few belongings and give him a helpful nudge in making the final decision. He knew that was how she had snagged Natasha.
They all lost the bet in the end. One week stretched into two weeks, then three weeks, then a month, and finally six weeks, and Steve held firm against all of them. He didn't try to avoid the tower; on the contrary, he spent most of his time there, eating lunch and dinner—and sometimes breakfast—with his team, relaxing after missions, watching movies, whatever. But no matter how late it was or how tired he felt, he always made the lonely walk back to his apartment. He'd have to be in no less than a coma before agreeing to stay the night in the tower.
He successfully ignored Tony's texts—sent religiously once an hour every hour on the emergency channel—for three weeks before he snapped, breaking his StarkPhone in half at four in the morning, not realizing that Tony had installed a locator in the phone that was set to go off if the phone was damaged. The other Avengers knocked down his door five minutes later, expecting to find him incapacitated or kidnapped rather than bleary-eyed and furious. When Steve explained why he had broken his phone, Bruce chastised both him and Tony severely, the former for purposefully destroying his method of communication with the rest of the team (what if something had been wrong with him?), and the latter for using the emergency channel for childish pranks (and, no, Steve being a stubborn jackass did not count as an emergency).
The others returned to the tower after Tony had equipped Steve with a new phone. Bruce lingered for a moment, commenting that this embarrassing little episode wouldn't have happened if Steve would surrender gracefully. Besides, Bruce added, echoing Steve's own words to him from weeks earlier, it made sense for Steve to live in the tower—he was their leader, after all. They needed him.
Steve still refused, though. When the others asked him why, he couldn't tell them, because his reasons were a tangled mess in his own mind.
It wasn't that he didn't want to live at the tower; he wasn't emotionally attached to his apartment by any means. In fact, he agreed with Tony that it was actually pretty creepy. S.H.I.E.L.D. had given it to him—just like they had given him clothes and money and food—and had carefully furnished and decorated it to look like an apartment he might have lived in before the war. Except for the telephone, even the appliances were from the 1940s. He knew it was supposed to make him feel better—be some kind of oasis in the sea of modernity he had found himself drowning in—but the problem was that even though the furniture and the pictures and the curtains all looked normal to him, they all smelled old, that musty scent that made him think of antique stores. It left him feeling like he was living in a mausoleum.
But living in the tower was out of the question. For one thing, Bruce and Pepper had the terrible habit of mothering him. He knew they meant well, and he didn't even mind it when Bruce called him "kid"—he knew Bruce thought of all of them as his kids, despite the fact that Tony, at least, was easily the same age. No, the problem wasn't so much the mothering as it was his fear of being seen as a child. The constant bombardment of geriatric jokes from Tony was bad enough, but if the billionaire were to suddenly realize that he was taking orders from a twenty-three year old kid who had never led so much as a school club before volunteering to become a lab rat?
Nope. Not going to happen.
Not to mention trying to explain his nightmares to the others. Bruce seemed to be the only one who understood that the war that had ended decades before they were even born was still raging around Steve less than six months ago. The funny thing was that Steve had never dreamed during the war itself. He and his soldiers had always been too busy, too damn exhausted to do anything other than sleep like the dead in between routs and attacks.
But in this world he had a surprising amount of free time on his hands, despite what sometimes seemed like back-to-back missions. And the dreams were getting worse. It wasn't just visions of the war, now—those had been bad enough, memories of shattered limbs, bullet holes, screams and explosions that made his head and heart ache. No, some of his more recent missions had triggered even worse things. Almost crashing the jet in Beijing? Crashing Red Skull's plane while Peggy begged him to come back. Clint returning to the tower and passing out in his arms, bleeding all over the place? Private Jacobson walking into camp and dropping dead, a bullet blown clean through his head. Nearly freezing to death in Russia? The ice dreams.
Those were the worst. He was frozen, dying, unable to move, unable to help as some unseen force ripped apart everyone he had ever cared about. He'd seen the Avengers die violently in his mind so many times that he could feel himself going insane. The dreams waited for him whenever he closed his eyes.
So Steve stopped sleeping.
That was why he couldn't live at the tower. Captain America was their leader, and Captain America didn't fall apart. The kid from Brooklyn, on the other hand? He was a mess. The first month of insomnia wasn't bad. What with the extra stress-relief sessions in the gym, he had never been in better physical condition.
This second month of insomnia was starting to take its toll, though.
His reactions were slowing down—not to the point of being a problem, but he was starting to take hits that he used to be able to block or avoid. Luckily, the other Avengers hadn't noticed yet; otherwise he'd be in for an earful. He was starting to black out, too, huge sections of days nothing but voids in his memory. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten something, although he was certain that Bruce and Pepper were still feeding him at least once a day.
One early morning he woke up in the gym, sprawled on the floor with the owner splashing water on his face. He was alarmed when he couldn't remember the twenty-minute motorcycle ride he must have taken to get there—or punching out the three broken bags that lay scattered around him. The owner sent him home with instructions to get some rest, and he walked back to his apartment, scared to drive in his current state.
He spent the rest of the day lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and warding off demons.
Pepper called him that evening to invite him to movie night and dinner at the tower. When he hesitated, she promised him that no one would try to convince him to stay the night. She would even keep Tony under control.
He spent dinner trying to hide the trembling in his hands and downing cup after cup of the strong coffee that Tony lived on and he usually avoided. The movie was a confused blur of colors on the television—which was really saying something, since the screen was almost as large as the wall. He couldn't hear the dialogue over the ringing in his ears.
Steve somehow ended up in his normal spot on the center sectional of the half-moon-shaped couch, wedged in between Natasha and Clint. Tony and Pepper were curled up together to the left while Bruce explained cultural references to Thor in the right-hand corner. Clint was little more than a solid presence to Steve's foggy mind, and Natasha's head was warm on his shoulder and Steve's own head was so heavy…
He had a vague impression of voices murmuring over his head, of being shifted gently. Not enough for him to care, though. He was warm and comfortable and there was something soft cradling his head, a heart beating close to his. There was no war, no attack, no reason for him to open his eyes.
It was dawn when he woke up, the light of the rising sun streaming through the balcony windows. He lay in a tangle of limbs with the two master assassins. His head was cushioned on Natasha's stomach and his legs were stretched out across Clint's lap; Clint was using his bent knees as a headrest. Thor sprawled over a good quarter of the massive couch, with one arm dangling over the side and snoring so loudly that Steve was surprised the noise hadn't woken him earlier. Bruce looked completely at peace with his legs propped up on the coffee table and his arms folded loosely over his stomach, his glasses still perched on the end of his nose. Tony had his arms wrapped around Pepper as she lay on top of him, her head resting over his heart. It looked like they had all simply fallen asleep during the movie.
Steve wasn't fooled, though. The blankets and throws were a dead giveaway, for one thing. Each Avenger had been carefully covered; there were at least three draped over Steve, heavy enough to be comforting but loose enough to avoid reminding him of the feeling of entrapment. And the television had been muted instead of turned off, even though Steve knew that Jarvis was programmed to switch it off after a certain period if it were left on accidently. He wondered idly if this was some kind of group mothering conspiracy. A way to let him be vulnerable in front of them without injuring his pride.
Natasha tugged gently on his hair. Judging by the way his head rose and fell in time with her deep, even breaths, she was still asleep and unconsciously running her fingers through his hair. He smiled, being careful not to move so he wouldn't wake her or Clint. Now he knew why Clint always looked so ruffled early in the morning.
Maybe moving into the tower was what he needed after all. Maybe being around living, breathing men and women would keep the dead ones away. After all, he'd just slept through the night for the first time in six months. And he hadn't had a single dream.
First, though, he'd make Tony change the sign. There was no way he was living in "Stark Tower."