12 Feb 2013: Separated into chapters upon request. I've gotten too used to AO3.

Canon: The Avengers 2012 (MCU)
Pairing: Steve/Tony
Rating: (very) Mature
Warnings: referenced past child abuse; some disturbing and violent imagery; a very small amount of subtextual internalized homophobia; a few mentions of anti-Semitism, racism, and political extremism.
Summary: New York City is still rebuilding in the wake of the Chitauri army when the biotech virus Extremis is released, upgrading a lone domestic terrorist into a posthuman threat. Tony would've been happy to keep going on playing with alien tech in his lab, saving average citizens as Iron Man, and pretending not to notice these other people moving into his tower, but sometimes a person just can't have nice things.

Notes:

1. Written for Cap/IM Big Bang 2012 challenge on LJ.
2. Movie-verse with the substantial use and abuse of 616 canon. Questionable use of science, programming, a couple non-English phrases, and too many references to pop culture, science fiction, and tabletop gaming. See my LJ post for more rambling on disclaimers (because fandom is not an island), canon used, translations, and yet more rambling.
3. Some characters get little to no face-time because I ran out of time and, since this is technically for the Cap and Iron Man community, I wanted to stay focused. I'm working on companion bits for Rhodey, Natasha, and Pepper in particular.
4. fucked up some HTML that I can't fix when it comes to the story's coding bits.


Dreaming Electric
jukeboxhound

When we happen upon a technology such as stem cell regenerative therapy,
we experience hope. But we also immediately ask how natural this technology
is. And so we are caught between two huge and unconscious forces: Our deepest
hope as humans lies in technology; but our deepest trust lies in nature. These forces
are like tectonic plates grinding inexorably into each other in one long, slow collision.

—W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology


1.


"Can artificers even be chaotic evil?"

"Of course we can, we're flexible that way, especially after a couple rounds of mead flavored with the blood of innocents." Tony picks up a die, rolls it around in his hands a few times, and then places it carefully in DUM-E's three fingers. "All right, Dummy, make Daddy proud."

DUM-E drops the die straight to the floor. It comes up with a two and Tony curses, demands a second roll, but when Bruce just gives him a flat look over the top of his glasses from the other side of the workshop Tony grudgingly writes it in.

"Wait, you're using Wisdom as a dump stat?"

"Who needs it when you've got legs like this? I'm a half-elf chick named Elq'uerex, but you can call me Lady Candi."

Bruce peers at the character sheet done up in bright blues and greens with JARVIS' holograms, the name lit in yellow. "Are you trying to make up an Elvish dialect or just mashing the keyboard?"

"I don't know, let me check my English-to-oh-wait-I-don't-speak-the-fucking-language dictionary. Anyway this is a fantasy game about dragons and people who sometimes find themselves in dungeons, what matters is that there's at least one apostrophe and an abundance of Es and awkward letters. This is how names work in the fantasy genre. Your turn, Sesame Street."

While Bruce rolls dice to determine his future, Tony goes back to the three-dimensional armor schematics that stand taller than he does, flicking his fingers to move pieces around, to zoom in on the circuitry in the helmet (should replace some of those connections with silicon, what was he thinking before, except that that wouldn't quite...) and then zoom out. He thinks about head size and then brain size and then, huh, maybe he should try incorporating sodium. Sodium's great for the human brain, well, it's actually pretty necessary –

"Dwarf, chaotic neutral," Bruce announces. "At least our characters will be able to function in a group."

"Can you imagine playing with Cap? He'd probably end up a lawful good paladin with a sword of divine light and unicorns," because if you listen to everyone else then Steve Rogers is practically the Second Coming, a saint with a talent for finding exactly the weakest point in your armor. One of the reasons Tony has always made a point of not listening to everyone else. Nothing good ever comes from listening to everyone else.

"I'd be more concerned about Clint."

"What's up with Robin Hood?" Tony asks distractedly.

"He's not the type to miss anything on a mission. Imagine what it'd be like trying to Bluff him."

"Well, that's not creepy at all." Note to self: increase security around vents, find and eliminate blind corners. Come to think of it, the guy might appreciate a smaller quiver, something less conspicuously-sticking-over-his-shoulder. "JARVIS, new entry for the Badassery folder: miniaturized quiver. Somehow. Make sure it's all on my personal server, I don't need Fury getting his paws on it."

"Entry added, sir."

"She also speaks Infernal, because I said so. And now, inventory. I want a warship."

"Tony, we're starting the campaign in a barren mountain region."

"I'll hire some locals to pull it along on a rope."

"You do realize your character isn't a billionaire, right?"

"Use some imagination, darling. I'll promise them starting shares in my future alchemy corporation, get them in on the ground floor, and watch the enterprise take off. Don't look at me like that. Why are you looking at me like that?"

But Bruce is also smiling a little, so another step in the ongoing mission of Keeping Bruce from Thinking About His Issues is accomplished. Plus-five Awesome. "By the way, I'd like to announce that JARVIS' seventh birthday is coming up less than two months from now. My little baby's growing up. I might even shed a tear."

"Congratulations, JARVIS," Bruce says dutifully. "I'd offer to get you a present, but I have a feeling that a gift certificate to Best Buy isn't going to cut it."

"Thank you, Dr. Banner," says JARVIS solemnly. "It's the thought that counts, after all."

"I wonder what counts as AI porn?" Tony wonders out loud. "Shoving a plug into a socket? Siri and her filthy little dirty-talk?"

"Perhaps a gift certificate to Best Buy would be appropriate after all," says JARVIS, and Bruce actually laughs.

Stark Tower. Status: 75% repaired. Regular occupants: three.

New York City. Status: 38% reconstruction complete. Casualties: still uncertain. Alien tech: loads, most of it in SHIELD custody, which means Tony gets to steal some and Fury acts like that hadn't been his plan the whole time by turning one blind eye.

"Are you supposed to have that?" Pepper asks in a way that already predicts an answer.

"Ye of little faith, Pep, I mean really. SHIELD used its evil spy powers to collect all the alien remains it could and turned to me when its own scientists couldn't figure out how these things work." The bulky exterior of those clunky energy-based gun-type things belies some of the most elegant internal engineering Tony's ever seen, somewhere between half-machine and half-organic. "You should see this, it makes the The Vitruvian Man look like something off an Etch-A-Sketch. JARVIS' preliminary readings say some of this stuff is actual tissue, like, living tissue. It's like half this thing was grown instead of made."

"That's…disgusting, actually."

Except the fusion of organic and metallic materials is flawless. It makes a little more sense when he considers the Chitauri themselves, who for all intents and purposes looked like fleshly humanoid aliens but still all dropped dead when their mothership was destroyed, according to the other Avengers. (Tony very carefully takes the memory of a silent supernova and tucks it into the Let's Never Think About This Again box.) Puppets with their strings cut and all that jazz, something hive-mind, or maybe remote receivers that suddenly lost the signal. None of the weapons had shown any sign of life since then, suggesting they'd been wired into the mothership's network, but practically anything's possible at this point.

Like that shiny round thing on the side. It could do anything.

"Oh my god! Tony!"

The far side of the workshop goes up like someone's detonated some C4, flames and smoke and the works, and Tony somehow finds himself going from standing up in a comfortable slouch to half-buried in coils of unused cables. The Chitauri gun he'd been aiming has slid several feet away, and triumph roars through him like a tiger at the end of a training montage in a kung fu movie.

"Tony, say something!" he hears Pepper yelling through the ringing in his ears, her hands shaking his shoulders, even though he's pretty sure you aren't supposed to do that to people with possible concussions or broken things on the inside.

"Something," he manages fuzzily.

"You and big red buttons, Tony, I swear to god," Pepper sighs in irritation-fondness-worry.

"I agree with Miss Potts, sir."

"You're all against me," he mutters as he gets up, kicking off a length of cable and leaning harder on Pepper than he actually needs to. She's wearing that perfume he bought her for her birthday. He'd even picked it out himself, armed with nothing more than the very specific instructions she'd written down for him.

"Pepper, Pep, I'm fine," he says as Pepper gently dumps him on the cot he keeps in a corner of the workshop, her hands fluttering around him anxiously. "No, I'm a genius, did you see that? Suck it, Fury."

"You're an idiot," she retorts, and Tony grabs her hands so he can pull her onto the cot and sneakily wrap his arms around her shoulders. His ass and back ache like a bitch. The bruises are going to be fantastic in a few hours.

"I'm a genius, even my unanticipated explosions are revolutionary." Pepper's warm against him (kind of bony, he wonders if she's naturally so thin, high metabolism maybe, or if she's pulling a Tony Stark and forgetting that food is necessary even for brilliant amazing people with a lot of stuff to do, he should look at her medical records and actually remember what they say this time) and he unashamedly soaks up that warmth like a cat. (Bruce would know, he's got like two or three doctorates in the wet sciences.)

"Bruce would know," Tony says out loud.

"What?"

"The gun thing, the Chitauri thing? I need to know how the mechanics work with the – "

"Tony," Pepper interrupts patiently, and though Tony has to bite the inside of his cheek he manages to shelve the thought and take a few more minutes to listen to Pepper's heartbeat. "Is this a project for you or for Fury?"

"Fury knows I can do a far better job than the idiots that SHIELD employs, but he insists on keeping his one eye on me. It's almost like he doesn't trust me." Pepper runs her fingers through his hair, long nails scratching at his scalp, and oh god seriously she has a touch to make Midas feel inadequate. It takes him a minute to remember that happy groans aren't actually words. "I know that he knows that I know that SHIELD wants to get its hands on shiny new alien tech for shady reasons, because that went so well last time. Fortunately for me and probably the rest of mankind, the whole Loki thing means Fury is being less of a manipulative asshole about all this than usual and isn't actively trying to keep me and Bruce in the dark."

"Is Bruce working on the same thing?"

"He inherited Selvig's notes, the lucky asshole, but with the Tesseract currently incommunicado there isn't exactly much he can do. Seriously, first encounter and it's an aborted New York remake of Independence Day. Did you know the dragon things, they're called leviathans by the way, aren't Chitauri? Totally different species."

"At least it wasn't quite War of the Worlds," says Pepper, who is secretly a nerd. Tony squeezes her briefly.

"So, tell me how my company is doing."

"My company is populated by irritable old men who are trying to use Loki's alien invasion as proof that we need to return to weapon production – "

"Does no one remember that one nuclear missile, not like it was a big deal – "

" – and that contracting with SHIELD would bring up stock value – "

" – we have contracts, have they also forgotten that security program I designed that's only the most advanced in the world and which has got the French and British giving us the bedroom eyes – "

" – and I don't think telling them that their head of R&D would rather play tabletop games with his new friend would go down very well – "

" – shouldn't underestimate how badass Bruce's dwarf is, that lich never stood a chance – "

" – like I can tell you what to do, it's like herding a spoiled housecat, a Siamese – "

Tony kisses her even though it's a little awkward because Pepper's still trying to scold him and he's trying not to laugh and failing, and there's this lightness in his chest like the arc reactor's operating above 100% capacity again.

He wakes up stiff the next morning, his back as fabulously black-and-blue as he'd predicted. But, hey, he'd already rolled the dice and come up human, so, what do you do except just make do.

It's hard to go anywhere in the city and not see some sign of Tony Stark's existence: Starkphones, Stark Industries tablets, Iron Man shirts, advertisements, and that's just the beginning of the list. He's one of those guys you either love or hate, the guy working a newsstand said when he caught Steve looking at the tabloids. Hey, wait, aren't you…?

The second worst thing about Tony Stark is his bark, and what a bark it is. Snake oil salesmen aren't exactly new to Steve, whether it'd been the hawkers on the street as a kid or the politicians and officers he'd met post-serum, and bullies aren't a new invention either, but Steve had learned quickly how to push back and undermine that sort of authority. No, the absolute worst thing about Tony Stark isn't just the bark; it's the fact that he really is as brilliant as he thinks he is.

"How long have there been helicarriers, sir?" he'd asked Fury.

"There's just the one right now, Captain, and Stark built it. Even I have to admit he has a use besides pissing off all the right people."

"He built it?"

"Designed, technically, although I know for a fact he got his hands dirty during construction. It's no coincidence that the radios in all the common areas get perfect reception for rock stations anywhere in the world and absolutely none that play Katy Perry."

It's baffling, but mostly he'd thought it infuriating that so much talent has come paired with a morality of convenience. Then Stark had flown a nuclear warhead into space knowing his own survival had slim to none chances, and now it's a week later and Steve has no idea what to believe anymore. He'd thought he was painting one kind of picture and now it's turned out to be something completely different and unexpected, quite possibly in oil when he thought he'd been using watercolors, and as long as he's going to abuse metaphors then his derivative Lichtenstein has become an early Picasso.

"You all right, Cap?" asks Natasha quietly, well aware of how public they are in the middle of the Metropolitan Museum of Art even if no one's recognized them yet out of uniform. A billboard plastered with Tony's Hollywood-handsome face and smirk is visible through one of the lobby's enormous windows.

"I'm fine," he replies, automatically pairing it with a smile, but her gaze doesn't waver.

"The construction crews can manage without you for a few hours. You're allowed to take an afternoon off."

Which was exactly what she'd said when she appeared at the reconstruction site where Steve was lifting fallen steel I-beams singlehandedly, dressed in slim-fitting jeans, a modest silk blouse, and enough stubbornness to drag him away. They're not going to replace you in a single afternoon, Steve, but you are still human and thus requiring of sleep, food, and rest. Don't make me find someone with the rank to order you around.

"Where is the city getting its power right now?" he asks. The museum has turned off its usual recessed lighting in deference to the power shortage, which has the side effect of altering the familiar images just enough to make them new and strange.

"A large part of it is coming from Stark Tower. Tony patched the grid into the arc reactor the day after the attack."

"That's mighty big of him," Steve says neutrally. Natasha pretends to look closely at the Picasso in front of them, taking a few minutes of silence, and when she speaks there's an undertone that Steve can't quite interpret.

"He says it's good PR for the company. Apparently he's also been bitching at Bruce about how it's going to shorten the reactor's lifespan by a good four months and that the mayor's still going to find a way to be ungrateful for it."

"Is that all he says?"

Natasha snorts inelegantly. "He's very good at saying a lot without actually meaning anything."

"Didn't you work for him for a while?"

"Yes. He was rude, borderline sexist, and got in the way more often than not. On the other hand, he's rather adamant about rewarding the real merits of his employees regardless of gender, race, or orientation and spoiling them with generous benefits. Something like that isn't very common among men in power."

"I guess that hasn't changed a whole lot," Steve says wryly, thinking of Peggy and closed doors. Then he firmly (a little desperately) pushes that thought aside. "I admit I'm rather surprised that Bruce accepted his offer to work in his labs so quickly."

"Bruce has learned the hard way to take advantage of any opportunity. Tony is predictable, in his own way, and Bruce can trust that. Besides, it isn't often you find someone willing to accept the worst monster in you without forgetting that it isn't necessarily all you are."

Steve thinks of the way she and Clint look at each other and decides he isn't going to touch that particular topic with a ten-foot pole. "And you? Do you have ulterior motives?"

She smiles faintly as she looks over her shoulder at him. "Who doesn't, Steve? That certainly hasn't changed either. Even Thor has his own agenda, admittedly a pretty straightforward one."

"Comforting. Now I can sleep easy tonight."

Natasha laughs softly.

"Thor still in Asgard?"

"As far as SHIELD knows. I imagine he'll be there for a while."

"I've been thinking about going for a drive," Steve blurts out. "Once the construction crews have got things more settled. Just to…see." See what America's like now, if the people are the same, how they might have changed.

"No one's keeping you here," she says carefully. "Everyone's pretty much of the opinion that you've earned yourself a break from saving the world again."

Being of the opinion that a leader needs to understand the men – and women – under his command, Steve had read the files on all the other Avengers. He wonders if Natasha, being Russian, ever feels out of place when living in, and working for, another country. Another culture. A people who know almost nothing about where you come from. "Yeah, I reckon we all have."

"Did Tony give you a cell phone?"

"Yes." When they'd shaken hands, before Tony practically herded Bruce like a possessive mother into the car and took off.

"Don't hesitate to call, Cap," says Natasha gently. "We're not going anywhere you can't find us."

His hands clench into fists before he can stop himself. "Yeah."

After the sky split open and half of New York City was returned to its basic building materials, the people with whom he'd fought alongside all scattered in different directions and, in one case, to another dimension. Planet. Realm. (Tony's still working on that part, starting with the material Dr. Jane Foster had published before SHIELD showed up and all the material after that, which might have required a bit of poking around in laughably-secure government databases and a brush-up in more astrophysics and quantum theory. He used to roll his eyes at all the multiverse hypotheses, but then Loki ripped a wormhole in the universe and suddenly it didn't seem so tinhat-crazy.) In any case, Tony isn't entirely sure that the Loki-Chitauri thing wasn't just a one-time show and the Avengers Initiative a one-hit wonder, but at least he managed to bring home a Bruce Banner and Pepper let him keep him.

And it's weird. Tony hasn't really lived with anyone since he was old enough to go to boarding school and spend summers going from one party to another, from Italian villa to Chicago penthouse to luxury cabins in the Alps, inventing enough to keep Stark Industries at the top of the food chain before drowning himself in booze and sex again. But now he sees at least one of the same two people nearly every morning, and it's weird for how weird it isn't. For how bored he isn't, and hasn't been since his heart became a battery.

"JARVIS, am I asleep?"

"According to your brainwaves, sir, no, although I imagine that that would be the sort of thing I would say in your dream."

"I love it when you get all existentially creepy," he says, standing at the newly replaced floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking his kingdom.

"I live to be your voice of reason, sir."

"Not the angel on my shoulder?"

"I thought I would leave that responsibility to Miss Potts."

It should be illegal to have emotions so early in the morning before coffee, especially twice, since he'd left Pepper asleep in his white thousand-count sheets and thought she looked like she'd always belonged there.

"Jesus, where's Bruce, I need some cold hard science to regain my Vulcan objectivity here." Except he's already caught sight of the edge of the lone letter remaining on the side of the Tower reflecting the morning sunlight, starts mentally fitting it like a puzzle piece amid the floor plans he's been tweaking. He's thinking about load-bearing walls, floors reinforced for a training gym and shooting range, whether JARVIS would like some sort of automaton he could use to physically interact with the world (he's refused the offer before but even AIs can change their minds), if he should expand his knowledge of Latin beyond taxonomy and Catullus. Take that, Miss Natalie Rushman.

"Dr. Banner is in lab two, sir."

"Awesome." His coffee's already cooling and he idly considers the logistics of heating filaments in ceramic as he flops unceremoniously onto a sofa. "Pull up Project Big Brother, if you don't mind."

The coffee table immediately lights up with a menu, and a light tap has five sub-files neatly layering themselves open in tabs showing off symbols in each corner: a shield, an hourglass, a hammer, a bow, a strand of DNA.

"Each floor is between seventy-five and ninety-three percent complete."

Everything has a price, but half the city's been destroyed and the construction crews are already working overtime, so Tony's been taking advantage of the delay to do some practical experimentation. He's particularly proud of the ceiling arrays that'll collect steam from showers and use it to augment the Tower's energy independence, which admittedly sounds kind of stupid in the grand scheme of things, but whatever, it was entertaining at four in the morning, and some of the most useful technology has humble beginnings. Like the flashlight. Flashlights are awesome and they came from flowerpots.

"Sir, Director Fury is attempting to contact you."

"It's only nine o'clock, tell him to go away."

"You said the same thing yesterday. I believe his patience is wearing thin."

Tony shifts around the dimensions of what might one day be Clint's bedroom and the attached bathroom, debating whether or not he should sacrifice some measure of security for larger observation windows looking out over the city. "I'm on vacation, JARVIS. I'm horribly traumatized and I need time and distance before I can look at his eyepatch again."

A pause, then, "He's threatening to send in an extraction team."

"Good, his agents could use some exercise."

"He says that some red, white, and blue might be able to change your mind."

Tony groans. "I'll have to put on pants," he whines.

"He appears oddly unsympathetic to your plight."

"What's he want, anyway? We saved the world, we made the Council look like the militaristic idiots they are – "

"It's in regards to the funeral for Agent Coulson."

Tony stares out the window, contemplating the angle of sunlight falling over skyscrapers, the prominence of scaffolding latticework and the bright orange of construction equipment interrupting the landscape.

"Yeah, thought so," he says quietly.

Carpooling with Bruce means Tony shows up only ten minutes late. It's the first time he's seen Steve, Clint, and Natasha since their shawarma dinner date, and they're already seated at the same round table that'd once had blood-smeared trading cards strewn across its surface.

"Hey, kids," he announces, "the smart people have arrived, you can start the meeting now."

"Well, now that we have Stark's permission," Fury says slowly, dry as burnt toast.

Tony ends up sitting across from Steve, which is pretty damn awkward when it comes to avoiding gazes and whatnot because, yeah, maybe they shook hands but he's also shaken hands with Justin Hammer. Then Bruce sits next to him and that's not so bad.

"Where's Thor?" asks Bruce. "I notice there's been a lack of Asgardian crop circles showing up."

"I'm assuming he's still in Asgard." Probably meaning that Jane Foster hasn't heard from him or has been clever in hiding it from the SHIELD agents no doubt keeping track of her. "There's nothing to make this easier, so I'll just get right to the point. We're planning the funeral for five days from now in Portland. The flight for anyone who wishes to attend will leave the day before at eleven-hundred hours."

"Wardrobes have already been taken care of," Tony tosses out, carefully casual as he taps his fingers on the tabletop.

"By whom?" asks Steve, momentarily distracting Tony with his unusually correct prepositional grammar.

"Me. Well, Pepper, technically. We both figured a certain director would try to make it political if a certain covert government organization took over. Smear more blood on the cards, so to speak."

There's a distinctly heavy silence as the implication of that makes its way around a table full of not-actually-stupid people. It's a passive-aggressive move, possibly the wrong time to bring it up, but Tony's been picking at it for almost a week now, graduating from a sick sense of realization to the kind of rage he honestly doesn't have that often to feeling like an absolute idiot. It's rare that he ever feels like an absolute idiot, Obie, no, Stane notwithstanding, and he's not above making the person responsible for it share the pain. Perception, Pepper once said, only came when it was convenient for him or awkward for everyone else.

"What?" Steve finally says softly.

"Didn't you know? Fury played us like a beautiful symphony. Like 'Bohemian Rhapsody.'"

"How do you know that?" demands Natasha. She looks, huh, she has an actual expression on her face of distinct unhappiness.

"The science of deduction, my dear Watson." Tony leans back in his chair, crossing one leg over the other at the knee. "Observe that for all the times Coulson talked about getting Steve to sign his cards he never actually produced them, suggesting that he rarely, if ever, carried them around on his person on a daily basis. That he spent several years and not a small amount of cash on them supports this hypothesis, as well as the fact that he was such a hardcore fan and worked a profession that involves a high probability of bullet holes and flamethrowers. You don't see me walking around with my model of the Enterprise signed by the entire cast of the original Star Trek series, do you?"

"Nice name-drop," Bruce says quietly, because he totally gets it, how to soften the blow of reality with badly-timed humor.

"So," Tony continues, holding Fury's stare, "if Coulson didn't carry the cards with him, then he probably kept them in a cool, dry, safe place like a proper obsessed fanboy. He might've sent them to Portland, but I doubt it, and since he basically lived on the helicarrier, they were probably kept in some sort of container that everyone knew was off-limits on pain of death. I'm guessing some sort of military footlocker. A safety-deposit box is possible, but Coulson would know exactly how insecure the banks actually are and would trust himself to be the better guard dog. My second guess is an environment-controlled humidor. Either way, the logical conclusion is that Fury realized we needed a catalyst to make us get our shit together as a team and used the cards as a particularly effective plot device, bloodstains added at no extra charge." He points a finger at Fury childishly. "I knew there was something off about the whole thing."

That silence comes back to hang over them like an impending storm front. Fury looks inscrutable.

"Is this true?" Steve asks.

"Yes, Captain." But he doesn't apologize, which Tony honestly respects underneath the outrage of being both outmaneuvered and manipulated with the death of a rare, decent man. Likely no one would have believed it at the time anyway, too much stress and blood and fighting and sometimes you just need to put your trust in something to keep going, even if it's a lie.

"Told you, a beautiful symphony. I claim Freddie Mercury."

"It was necessary," says Fury.

"I don't think anyone's arguing that we needed something to make us get our act together," Bruce replies, expression mild. "The question is whether or not the ends justify the means."

"Of course not," Steve says harshly. "If we start believing that, then we start on a road that only gets darker."

"Unless you bring a light," Tony can't help pointing out. Kneejerk reflex to play Devil's Advocate. "Oh, Christ, don't look at me like that, Cap."

"How far would you take it, Stark?" Ouch, Captain Rogers is serious. "What if we sent a nuclear bomb to destroy all of Manhattan to contain an alien threat because it's possible that the aliens will get out to the rest of the world? Are the deaths of more than one and a half million innocent people justified when you might be saving everyone else?"

Strange sentiment from a guy who'd led campaigns in fucking World War II. "What about you, Rogers? Are you so incapable of compromise that you'd, I don't know, let a civilian hostage die because America has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists? I'm not saying Fury isn't an asshole and what he did was morally sound, believe me when I say I've already lined up my payback, but If you're going to let your idealism override basic common sense, if you won't even consider alternatives – "

"It's a matter of doing what's right – "

"According to whom? We don't all have the Constitution tattooed on the backs of our eyelids – "

"That's not what I – "

"You should see the mess Congress has made of it anyway, and seriously, it's not like I don't agree with you about Fury's dickishness, it's that you're looking at this from the wrong angle, so wrong – "

"Shut up, both you," snaps Clint, tense and probably itching for his bow. "This isn't about you or your political bullshit, pack it away and stop being assholes."

Tony takes a deep breath and a moment to switch tracks. "Point is, whoever's going," and he has no doubt that'd be everyone here, "everything's taken care of. Just show up at Stark Tower beforehand."

He tries not to look at Steve, he really does, because there's something fundamentally wrong with that weariness on Captain America's face even if he is a naïve idiot. Steve Rogers, now there was a real man, Dad told him, but Tony cynically reminds himself that he makes a point of not listening to people.

Tony meets everyone in the penthouse living room. Pepper let him empty one martini glass before deftly plucking the second one out of his hands and replacing it with an espresso. He feels like he should say something to mark the occasion, but he only gets as far as, "Hey, team," before the words dry up like desert sand. Pepper puts a discrete, slightly shaky hand on his arm and takes over, possibly acting a little more brisk than usual as she hustles everyone into cars aimed for the airport.

It's a drizzly, overcast day, of course, because this is Oregon and what else would it be. The cemetery is painted in shades of grey and washed-out green, populated by black shadows in suits and modest dresses. The minister's sermon is brief, thank god, Tony isn't sure how much longer he's going to be able to stand here while a cellist has tears rolling down her cheeks and Natasha and Clint lean on each other, their mutual stoicism only highlighting the little signs of grief that manage to crack through their armor. The arc reactor sits heavily in his chest today even though he hasn't changed it at all, even though all its parts are still ticking away endlessly without weakness or vulnerability. Bleeding-edge tech, pun intended, had saved his own heart but shredded Coulson's, and ain't that just a pretty thought.

Pepper's eyes are red but she's composed and solemn at Tony's side, right where she always is, propping him up. Bruce is on his other side doing that thing mixing world-weariness with the constant undercurrent of rage and self-loathing, like he's torn between people die, it's what they do and I should've been able to stop this anyway. Steve's in full Captain America regalia, shield slung over his back and expression blank, and Tony has an uncomfortable moment of insight: waking up with everyone dead, making new friends, still losing them, loneliness as the only real constant.

At one point, Pepper goes to talk to the cellist. Tony turns away.

Afterwards, when the hollow sounds of dirt hitting a coffin have faded and people begun drifting away, Tony goes to stand beside Steve. His head is bowed, expression distant, and Tony doesn't think before his hand is diving into one of those many pockets and fishing out Steve's cell phone.

"Tony, what – " Steve starts, startled and irritated.

Tony's fingers fly over the touch screen before he tosses the phone back. "There's a bed for you back at the Tower if you need a place to crash."

"I already have a place."

"You haven't had a place until you've had a Stark place." Tony thinks about that sentence for a moment. "Anyway, not a big deal, you've got my number now, and by my number I mean Pep's. Just think about it."

Steve nods and turns back to the gravesite. After a moment, Tony leaves him be.

"It's too bad Thor wasn't here," Pepper says softly as they head back to the jet.

"I'm sure he would if he could," says Bruce, because Thor is the type of guy who makes doing the honorable thing look easy, which Tony sort of both hates and envies, "but with his brother…"

"Bag of cats," Tony mutters. He's about to say something about familial responsibility, not that he knows much about that, or at least nothing he actually wants to know, but suddenly he's just too tired. "Let's stop over in Chicago, I need me a deep-dish pizza."

Tony stands on the penthouse balcony and leans over the edge, foot braced against the giant letter A, thinking about freefall and terminal velocity.

At one point Iron Man has to stop a couple of civilians, husband and wife, from holding up a bank with a Chitauri weapon that managed to slip through SHIELD's fingers. A bank, seriously, it's a bad Bonnie and Clyde adaptation, but the couple eventually confess in the interrogation room that with their combined student loans and their apartment's increasing rent and the husband getting laid off from work that, well, what else could they do? No one was killed, and at least prison provides health insurance. There'd been that old man not too long ago who'd robbed a bank for one dollar because he couldn't afford his hospital bills.

Tony hears the report from a SHIELD agent while standing in his multibillion-dollar armor. There are times when he feels like he's on top of the world, and other times when he remembers that in the grand scheme of things he's just one man.

(SHIELD ends up hiring the husband and wife, though. Apparently the husband had managed to get the Chitauri weapon working all by himself, and Tony makes a mental note to pick the guy's brain. Later.)

Tony splits his time between deconstructing alien technology and trying to break past the plateau he's reached on the armor. Pepper keeps his company running, then comes home and keeps Tony running. One morning they wake up to find that Bruce disappeared (willingly) during the night, and during the two weeks he's gone Tony resists the urge to track him down. It's not like he doesn't understand the need to sometimes just get away, to make sure that if it ever became necessary that it would be possible to do so, but Tony can't run a campaign by himself, so his half-elf chick with high Charisma and Bluff ends up in limbo, waiting for something to happen.

When Bruce comes back, Tony lifts his chin haughtily to hide the desperate relief. "You didn't even send me a postcard, asshole."

"You really wouldn't have wished you were there," Bruce replies, and that's all they ever say about it.

Sixteen days after they bury Coulson, Steve shows up.

"Sir, it appears that Captain Rogers is at the front door."

It's so unexpected that Tony turns down the music in the workshop himself. "Does he look homicidal? Angrily constipated?"

"Charming as that image is, no."

It takes a moment to switch tracks from trying to translate neurobiology into armor-friendly programming using completely alien technology to oh, hey, social interaction with squishy humans.

"Eh, let him in," says Tony as he takes the stairs up to the penthouse, totally not playing for time until he hears Cap's steady, solid footsteps. The man is in khakis and a plaid button-down over a white undershirt, good god, someone needs to update that wardrobe a good seventy years (although to be fair he pulls off the look pretty well; add some sweaty workman muscles and Pepper the Occasional Traitor would cheerfully repeat that security SNAFU).

Tony wanders nonchalantly towards the bar. "Afternoon. Drink?"

"No, thank you. I spoke with Miss Potts and she let me in, but if I'm interrupting anything – "

"People are always interrupting, every moment of my time is valuable, but I'm willing to make an exception." There's a large, square art portfolio peeking over Steve's shoulder – the shield, no doubt, clever disguise right there – and a messenger bag slung over the other. "Welcome to Torre de Stark, ma maison est votre maison and all that jazz. Happen to have a room we just finished fixing after the whole thing with an alien invasion, JARVIS can show you where it is."

"Good afternoon, Captain," JARVIS interrupts. Steve's met JARVIS before, not long after that disastrous first meeting between Captain America and Howard Stark's son that nearly resulted in the helicarrier's destruction.

"Nice to hear you again," says Steve politely. Tony magnanimously awards him a few brownie points.

"And you, Captain."

"I gotta admit, Rogers, I wasn't expecting to see you so soon. Figured you'd still be doing the sight-seeing thing, driving around the country to see what deplorable thing she's become, that sort of thing."

Steve's quiet as Tony stands behind the bar, making himself a drink not because he actually wants one right now but just to keep his hands busy. "It was rather inconvenient trying to haul a duffel bag on a bike for extended periods of time," Steve eventually says, startling a laugh out of Tony.

"So now the most advanced Tower of Babel in architectural engineering and clean energy is reduced to a glorified storage depot. I see what you did there, Rogers, very sneaky."

Hey, look at that, an entirely civil exchange. He thinks about harsh words but then a respectful handshake after Thor took Loki away, and Tony admits that he isn't quite sure where he and Captain America stand.

"So, what's on your mind? The American Dream?" Not his wittiest, but whatever, shut up.

Steve visibly bites back a retort (pity, that, at least that'd be familiar) and paces around the penthouse a bit, taking it in. The glass windows have been replaced, but there's still a half-repaired divot in the floor where Hulk had some fun with Loki. "I thought it was time that I get my head back in the game. Are you planning to invite the rest of the team?"

"Think I should?" Tony prevaricates.

"I think you're already planning to. It'd be good to have a central location for the team independent from SHIELD."

Now, isn't that interesting, Steve finally accepting the politics and implications of the Avengers associating so closely with that shadowy international spy organization. "What, don't you trust Fury anymore?"

"I never did, but he's necessary. However, you know as well as I do that the Avengers shouldn't be completely reliant on a council that would prefer we didn't exist. Unless you're not the futurist you claim to be."

"Is that cynicism I hear in Captain America's voice? Quick, hold me, my paradigm is violently shifting." Before Steve can say something insulting or decide he made a mistake in coming over, Tony goes on, "There's a reason I've been graciously extending invitations for you people to invade my private space. JARVIS?"

"If you're ready, Captain, I would be happy to guide you to your quarters."

Steve looks thrown by the sudden turn in conversation. "Um, all right. Thanks."

Tony waves a hand dismissively. "Just keep your hair out of the drain and the toilet seat down and you'll keep Pepper off the warpath."

Steve gives him a look that might be exasperated or might be considering in some way that'll come back to bite Tony in the ass later, but he downs half his brandy and pretends not to notice.

Steve's expecting something upscale but impersonal, like an expensive hotel room, but as soon as he steps out of the elevator he's faced with an entire apartment done up in light hardwoods and brass fixtures, the late sun reflecting in a warm glow of natural light. It isn't nearly as sleek and minimalistic as the main penthouse, but it doesn't pretend to be decades out of date either; there are steel appliances and a wide flat television on the wall, albeit one bracketed by Rosie the Riveter and a pin-up lady painted in front of a jet fighter. Hilarious.

"Welcome, Captain Rogers. Please make yourself at home for as long you like."

There's a side room off the living area with mats, a punching bag, and reinforced steel bars just above his head level. There's a space of tiled floor, an easel, and a stainless-steel bench under the length of a full window facing the eastern sun. In the bedroom, the contemporary elegance is immediately upended by a duvet spangled red, white, and blue.

"Just happened to have a spare room, huh?" murmurs Steve. He thinks he should annoyed by the mocking pieces of decoration, but it's overshadowed by the fact that a considerable amount of planning obviously went into the design of this place, and that it was offered so offhandedly, like it wasn't anything more than politics, like Tony's trying to downplay the generosity for some reason.

"I have no idea what you are implying, Captain," JARVIS deadpans.

Steve drops his shield and bag on the garish duvet. "JARVIS, is anyone else here?"

"Dr. Banner has been living here for three of the last five weeks in his own quarters, or, perhaps more accurately, in the biochemistry research lab. Besides him, Mr. Stark, and Ms. Potts, there are no other permanent residents."

"What happened to those other two weeks?"

"I believe he decided that he needed to some time away from the Tower for personal reasons."

Steve looks around, thinking, This is your life now, and lets out a long breath. At least there's a simple navy-blue comforter hiding in the closet.

Tony isn't entirely sure when Natasha and Clint move in. He rarely sees them, since they still have their spying assassin day jobs and are usually gone on missions for SHIELD, but every so often he'll find dishes in the sink he knows that neither he, Bruce, or Steve used, or what looks suspiciously like arrow holes and knife marks in the drywall. Otherwise, nothing really changes except that he starts watching the vents with a little more paranoia and the sense that he might be getting in over his head.

(He can't help wondering why they'd bother using the Tower when they have private quarters on the helicarrier, but then he thinks about Bruce and those two weeks in which he disappeared, Steve and his little roadtrip, Tony's own cabins and private estates hidden around America and a few other countries, and figures he knows the answer after all.)

Thoughts like these are sometimes the things that keep him up at night – could be worse, could be buckets of water and dead bodies – and which drive him out of Pepper's arms into the steel and oil of his workshop.

"Talk sweet to me, honey, we've got important things to do, you know."

"Your heart rate indicates a moderate level of stress, sir."

"Okay, not quite what I was going for. I'm fine."

"Does it concern the presence of the other Avengers?"

"I said I was fine, JARVIS, let's focus up here."

"With the damage left from the palladium poisoning – "

"JARVIS," Tony snaps. "Drop it. Now run a simulation with sodium on the connectors and let me know when you're done."

After a pause, JARVIS says, "Of course, sir."

Tony idly taps on the arc reactor's surface, mulling over the armor's internal programming to see where corners could be cut and lag times streamlined to near nonexistence, wondering if Natasha appreciates the small room stuffed with hidden compartments for guns and knives, if Clint appreciates the bird's-eye view. Another part is calculating what sort of security upgrades he's going to have to make and if he's left out anything embarrassing that someone could find, he'll have to start randomizing his workshop passcodes more often so that Fury doesn't reach inside through his two pet agents.

"Bruce, you understand, right?" asks Tony when Bruce appears an hour or three later. Bruce is the only other person besides Pepper with unrestricted access and who also shares Tony's restless habit, never failing to waft in with the distinct scent of Buddhist existentialism.

"Yes. Unless it pertains to your relationship with your armor, in which case the answer is 'no' and 'I don't want to know.'"

"Right in the heart, baby," Tony grins, distracted by a weight ratio in the circuitry that he needs to reduce but can't, damn it, shit, crap, motherfucker.

"Trouble?"

Did Tony say that last part out loud? "Nope, I'm fine, I make it a regular habit to stare at the same goddamn equations for at least twenty-six minutes. It's a mental exercise for geniuses, I'm surprised you've never heard of it."

The backwards compliment earns an amused huff. Normally having Bruce around would be an excuse to start talking at someone that isn't made of ones and zeros, but with the itchy feeling that Bruce isn't here for the sake of awesome interdisciplinary scientific advancements Tony grabs the bull, no, minotaur by the horns. "How're our new roomies settling in?"

"Fine, as far as I know." Bruce comes around the side of the worktable and leans against it, hands in his pockets as he watches Tony restlessly flip through a series of projected notes. Tony glances sidelong at him.

"Disturbance in the force over there, padawan?"

Bruce is paler and scruffier than usual. "It's nothing."

"Which means it's something." Tony snaps his fingers, making the holographic diagrams of armor disappear, and turns to give Bruce his full attention. "Existential or circumstantial?"

Bruce starts wringing his hands, unable to meet Tony's eyes, and smiles that smile that Tony absolutely hates, all full of terrible self-knowledge. "Sometimes it's…hard, seeing what you could've been if you were a better person."

It takes a moment of blankness until it suddenly clicks. Steve and his super-soldierness, his inherent courage and determination to do good even if he's kind of a dick in person, now walking openly around the Tower like a free-range chicken. "Says the guy who hit rock bottom and then made the choice to do his damned best anyway. Says the guy who's seen the worst in people but keeps trying anyway." Tony doesn't think he'd have done the same if their places were switched.

"You mean the guy who's killed hundreds of people and tried to put a bullet in his mouth."

"I mean the guy who saved my life and billions of others," Tony snaps. "You're not the villain here. Neither is the big guy."

"I've got a lot of red on my hands," Bruce murmurs.

"Yeah? So do I. So does Steve, or do you think he hugged those Nazis into submission? Thor comes from a planet where you prove your honor in freaking battle, and let's not even get into two certain spy assassins." Tony tosses an arm around Bruce, who tenses because he's touch-deprived, all about the self-denial, and people are too stupid to see beyond the Hulk. "You're not alone, Jolly Green, and you're not the next Sauron, and the sooner your genius brain understands that the sooner we can get to inventing cold fusion."

Bruce eventually twitches out from under Tony's arm. "And people think you're a cynic."

"I'm a realist, Bruce, I mean really, what kind of scientist would I be if I ignored the empirical evidence right in front of my face? Back me up here, JARVIS."

"Mr. Stark is indeed correct, Dr. Banner."

"Can't argue with Skynet," Tony adds, and Bruce laughs a little, and Tony later realizes that he'd almost completely forgotten the original reason he'd run away to his lab in the first place.

Tony takes his duties of being an eccentric billionaire genius very seriously, at least according to Pepper, who said no one could possibly that eccentric without actually trying. When she'd declared this, Tony had said, "Yes, you're right," (because he's learning how to listen, no, really, he's trying to be a very good boy this year, even if he's not always sure where the line actually gets drawn in these sorts of things) and added, "but that doesn't answer my question on whether or not your little black dress makes my ass look fat."

Well, Steve doesn't actually know that part of the story, but Pepper had told him the day she let him into the Tower that there's plenty of room, please make yourself completely at home, I insist, and oh, yes, if Tony seems to be acting strangely then he's actually not and I'll take care of it when I get back.

Thing is, Steve's seen a lot of strange things, so this doesn't really tell him what to expect at five in the morning. He's sitting at the glass-and-steel kitchen table, cooling mug of coffee cradled in his hands, when he hears approaching voices.

"You can't spontaneously produce those potions just because you forgot to include their ingredients in your beginning inventory," Bruce is saying, and Tony shoots back, "Don't make me try to Bluff you, big guy, I'll have you convinced you're a little girl wearing a pinafore."

"Do you even know what a pinafore is?"

"Of course I do. It's something little girls wear."

They pause when they see Steve already in the kitchen. He quietly says, "Good morning," which Bruce returns before heading for the cupboard and pulling out a battered tin of what looks like authentically Indian chai. Tony, on the other hand, keeps staring at him.

"You're in my kitchen," he says accusingly.

"…Yes?"

"Why are you in my kitchen?"

It's on the tip of Steve's tongue to either apologize or snap back that he lives here now, does he need special permission to use the communal kitchen, but Bruce jumps in first. "What Tony means is that he's surprised to see you sitting here alone, at five AM, in the penthouse, and he's not sure how to ask what's wrong."

"You traitor, get out of my head," Tony grumbles, scrubbing a hand through his hair and mussing it up into impressive spikes as he drops into the chair opposite Steve. There's possibly some motor oil in there.

"Couldn't sleep," Steve replies neutrally, absently tilting his mug around and around and wondering if he should admit that he'd been half-hoping to run into someone. Like Pepper, friendly and whip-smart, who politely pretends not to notice when he trips over his tongue around her and shares his love of art. Even Tony. Anyone, as long as it means he doesn't have to see the aftermath of dropped bombs and barbed wire whenever he closes his eyes, or hear the held-back sobs in Peggy's voice over a radio in the quiet of his unfamiliar bedroom.

"Join the club," Tony mutters. "Hey, now there's an idea. We've already got a clubhouse and everything."

"You could have Dummy fabricate the decoder rings. Then the cipher would be impossible to break," Bruce tosses out.

Tony points an accusatory finger at him. "I'm the only one that gets to diss my robots, Banner."

"I'm sure it'd only tell you to drink your Ovaltine anyway," Bruce mutters, which makes absolutely no sense but sends Tony's forehead thumping onto the tabletop with uncontrolled snickering. Steve sips his cold coffee and wonders if he'll ever pick up the nuances of contemporary life. It's like being the awkward tagalong in a group of old friends who share all these inside jokes. It's like the first time he went to England, where the people all spoke the same language he did but with slang he didn't understand and references he didn't know, just unfamiliar enough that it was more frustrating than an actual language barrier.

At five in the morning in the most technologically advanced tower in the twenty-first century, however, Steve can't even muster the energy to get frustrated. Bruce must notice, since he brings two cups of chai with him to the table and pushes one towards Steve. "Anything you want to talk about?"

Science let me fight for my country and save lives, he thinks, but it also abandoned me here. Most of the time I'm selfish enough to wonder if the benefits were worth the cost and I can't even bring myself to feel guilty about that.

"I wanted a flying car," he says. Bruce blinks, but Tony lifts his head and grins, somewhat manically.

"You're talking to the right engineer, Cap. If the future ain't shiny enough for you, I'll fix it, I'll pimp that ride with so much bling it'll make Jules Verne novels look unimaginative."

"Will it come with a dictionary?" Steve asks dryly, making Bruce smile into his mug and Tony's grin widen.

"It'll be color-coded and everything. JARVIS, make a note, Urban Dictionary."

Steve quirks a smile. "How could I say no."

Around six o'clock a bleary-eyed Pepper appears, unselfconsciously wearing one of Tony's button-downs and little else, and maneuvers Tony out of his chair. "He has a meeting he can't skip tomorrow, boys, I'm sorry – "

"Of course I can, can't you use your CEO powers – "

" – those powers aren't to be used for evil, Tony – "

" – then what's the point of – "

" – need to suck it up and play nice for the investors, or did you forget it's your name on the letterhead – "

" – we could replace it with Potts, y'know – "

" – no, that's not how these things work, and it's the next lease that – "

" – Pep, pepper-pot, have mercy – "

"Tony, it is six in the morning, I've slept maybe three hours, and I have to spend the morning making sure you don't sneak out of the goddamn conference room, I am about as prepared to show mercy as a Spanish inquisitor."

Steve takes some comfort in the fact that Bruce looks about as uncomfortable as he feels while Pepper herds Tony out of the kitchen. There's tension in the lines of Bruce's features once Tony's gone, and Steve is trying to figure out how someone scarred so deeply with rage can find refuge in the company of someone like Tony Stark. Steve still isn't sure how to act around Bruce; it has nothing to do with the Hulk, but Clint and Natasha are professionals and therefore familiar, and Tony is…Tony, and Steve suspects that without the specter of his brother hanging over him that Thor would be all earnest enthusiasm and kindness. But Bruce is very good at deflecting attention and making himself invisible.

"Couldn't sleep either?" Steve ventures.

Bruce shrugs a little. "You know how it is when someone gets caught up in a project or a book. Can't put it down."

"The scientists I knew were like that. Tony must have gotten it from Howard."

Bruce sips his tea and meets his eyes over the rim. "I know you didn't ask for my advice, but when you look at Tony, stop expecting to see his father."

"I don't – "

"You do. Tony told me a little about the first time you two met and, ah, I'll just say that you chose exactly the wrong topic to break the ice."

"I don't understand," Steve says, frustrated. "I admit I didn't know Howard that well since he was usually in a lab and I was on the front lines, but he seemed to be a good man."

"Maybe he was when you knew him. I don't know about that. But people change, Steve. The Howard you apparently knew isn't the one Tony remembers, and until you let it go, Tony will keep fighting you and you'll keep looking for someone that doesn't exist."

"Seems like that's true for everything, now." And he hadn't known how truly bitter he is about that until he hears the tone in his own voice.

"Do you regret it?" Bruce asks softly, now very determinedly not meeting Steve's eyes.

"No. Sometimes. Not always, no, but then I hear about those protests at soldiers' funerals or the drone strikes against civilians in the Middle East, or I meet the fellas down at the soup kitchen and find out half of them are veterans. Lord, some of them are still practically boys. Everything's changed except the things that actually matter."

"There's always been suffering, Steve. I don't think that's ever going to change, no matter how far into the future you go."

That's the problem right there, isn't it. Maybe they aren't speaking German now and wearing red armbands, but what's he supposed to think when he learns about the Manhattan Project, Vietnam and Agent Orange, Korea, the Gulf War, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan, America's illegal and often horrific espionage in other nations –

"You just have to keep going," Bruce says into his cup. "You're a good man, Steve."

He doesn't feel like it, though, and there's an odd note in Bruce's voice he doesn't think he's imagining. "Something on your mind, Dr. Banner?"

Bruce looks torn. "You know my work with gamma radiation was about trying to recreate the super-soldier serum?"

"I do." SHIELD's file on him is very thorough.

"No one's succeeded in recreating it, obviously, but I was the closest. All the tests that came back were promising, but – well, you've seen for yourself what happened." Bruce gets up and takes his cup to the sink. "The real mystery that remains, besides any possibility of a cure, is why the other guy manifested as he did."

"I don't understand."

Bruce is meticulously washing the mug, and what Steve can see of his profile is shuttered. "How much of the other guy is the result of the gamma and how much because of the individual subject itself?"

"Bruce," Steve says carefully, "if there's anything I've learned, it's that where a man comes from or what he's done in the past matters less than what he does in the present."

"That sounds nice. It really does. Maybe it's something all of us can learn. Including you."

Maybe Bruce has more in common with Tony Stark than he'd initially believed, Steve thinks dryly. "Maybe you're right, Doctor."

"Guess we'll see, Captain."

That isn't the only time Tony encounters Steve at odd hours, usually in the kitchen, suggesting that the good captain is discretely looking for human company. Sometimes they needle each other until one storms out in a fit of temper, and sometimes they sit in complete silence that, as time passes, gets less and less uncomfortable. Occasionally Bruce joins them, which usually results in science-y things getting scrawled over a variety of surfaces that exasperate Pepper in the morning, and on one memorable occasion Clint and Natasha are both there, the former with dark circles under his eyes and the latter pretending that her ribs aren't tightly wrapped following her last SHIELD-related mission. Tony can kinda-sorta admit to himself that it might be nice to have Thor around, but the absence just means he has more time to work on the uppermost apartment with all the skylights and grounding rods built into the walls.

They only talk about Coulson once. Most of the stuff from his Malibu lab has finally arrived, so one night Tony shows up to find Steve sitting alone at the kitchen table and hands something over. Steve takes it, bemused.

"What is this?"

"Prototype of your shield, if you couldn't tell by the red, white, and blue roundness. Dad built it after your time, think I was off at boarding school, I usually was – yeah, so, there's that. You can do whatever with it, I don't care, found a replacement thing to hold up the particle accelerator."

Big, callused fingers trace the half-finished star carefully. "Howard, why did he – "

"Don't know, don't care, this wasn't an invitation for show-and-tell. Anyway, I was gonna give it to Coulson, but I figure it's yours now."

"Thank you, Tony," Steve says quietly, and Tony shrugs before going back to the workshop and pretending his heart isn't beating a little faster than usual.