The apartment was on the Upper West Side, amid the rubble of what had once been 110th and Amsterdam, and was situated on the top floor of a five-story brownstone. Natasha Romanoff stood in the splintered, filthy doorway armed with a basket of assorted goodies from Zabar's and a rapidly fading, fixed and rather horrified smile. Bruce Banner emerged from the bathroom, looked decidedly sympathetic... He was dressed from neck to toe in workman's coveralls and looked even greener than was his occasional and unnatural wont. Steve Rogers glanced over from where he was filling yet another bucket with hot water and bleach.
"Hey, Agent Romanoff. You alright there, Doc? he asked.
"No,' Banner said. "I am not.' He sank down on a rickety chair, peeling off his hot pink, elbow length rubber gloves. "Fortunately for you, neither are the varied species and subspecies of... things... that lived in there. Now, anyway.'
'Hulk smash,' a third male voice said as its owner emerged from a doorway on the left. "Hey, babe. Ooh. Is that peppered lox I smell?'
"Um,' Natasha Romanoff said. 'Yes, but... Cap?'
"Don't ask,' Banner said in a pained, hollow voice from his chair. "Just... don't. He's a simple man with simple tastes, and likes to fix things besides.'
"We all like to fix things,' Clint Barton offered his professional-and-now-officially-acknowledged-extremely-personal-associate a lingering kiss, swiping one of the bags she was carrying as he did so. "That's why we do what we do. That being said, every field has its experts, and the economy is terrible besides. Didn't the head of housekeeping over the base grow up in Yonkers, Cap? I'd've thought she'd have given you the names of all of her local and domestic contacts before you moved out.'
"She did, yes.' Rogers snapped on a pair of fresh rubber gloves and reached for the wired sponge- brush he'd been using to exfoliate the cupboards. "But making the place livable is part of the fun.'
"For you, maybe,' Banner's normally sweet-and-saintly, somewhat befuddled expression was definitely bordering on humanly sour. "I've worked in leper colonies that sported less deadly bacteria than this place.'
'You don't have to do any more, Doc. The bathroom was more than enough, really.'
"Yes,' Banner said. "Yes it was.' He heaved a small, sad sigh. 'But no. We're friends. And I'm immune to death and disease besides, so it's my duty. What's next?'
"Refrigerator,' Clint said with his mouth full, albeit of Agent Romanoff's tongue this time.
'Put a ring on it, you two,' Captain America said. "Seriously. The refrigerator doesn't need cleaning. Fury took one look inside when we were here signing the lease and said that it'd be the perfect basis for Lieutenant Hill's nephew's science fair project. He's sending a hazmat team to pick it up in a couple of hours.'
"Put a ring on it?' Natasha pried herself loose and stared at the man opposite. "I beg your pardon?'
"We're not allowed to canoodle under his roof,' Clint informed her. 'Such as it is. It's not the American way.'
"I'm not American. I'm Russian, and I know that he grew up in the thirties, but he doesn't honestly think that people never had sex back then without benefit of the matrimonial bond, does he?'
"I am standing,' Captain America said, 'Right here. And of course I don't. That's beside the point.' He applied the brush vigorously to a particularly stubborn corner of the cupboard. Bruce rolled his eyes at the bemused couple opposite as he mouthed along. "The specific or general failure of citizens to uphold the essential moral values of civilization should never be interpreted as licence to to redefine morality itself. Be right back. I left my mop in 2A.' He disappeared out the bullet-ridden door, whistling. The Black Widow craned her neck after him.
"What's with him?' she asked Banner. 'I'm all for a nice tight ass on a man, but he's really carrying it to extremes these days.'
"He's regressing,' Banner said. "The changes that the world has undergone since he went on ice might as well have placed him in an alternate universe, and he's overcompensating, psychologically speaking. His America wasn't really any more pure and innocent than this one, but he's doing his damndest to recreate his idealized version. The Chitauri invasion provided him with a singularly unique opportunity there; as the entire city – his city – is in a condition that physically reflects his traumatized state of mind, he's decided to start rebuilding it – from the ground up and with his own hands.'
"The entire city?'
"The particular apartment block, anyway. He bought out the entire brownstone."
"So what are you doing here? Supervising his occupational therapy?'
"We're friends,like I said.' Banner heaved himself to his feet. "And every now and again, he's needed a wall knocked down or a mutant horde of man-eating spores eliminated. I don't suppose you have any potato and onion knishes in there, Agent Romanoff?'
'Mm. Knishes.' Rogers reappeared, mop in hand. "We might want to take them up to the roof. It's a lot more hygeinic up there than it is in here.'
"HO!' voice boomed from above them. "FRIENDS! I HAVE ARRIVED! HAVE YOU LEFT ME ANY WALLS TO DEMOLISH OR MICROSCOPIC FIENDS TO SLAY, OH FEARFUL AND VERDANT PHYSICIAN?!'
"I think we got them all,vthanks, Thor,' Banner called. "Did you bring the mead you promised?'
"I DID. I HAVE THREE KEGS HERE, AND A SIDE OF ROASTED ICE BEAR TO GO WITH THEM! COME, GIVE OVER THE LABORS OF THE DAY, GOOD HEROES! IT IS TIME TO FEAST!'
"Mm,' Barton said. "Beer, bagels, bear, and brie. Does it get any more deliciously alliterative?' He heaved the window up and slid out deftly onto the fire-escape. Captain America stowed his mop in his bucket of bleach and moved politely to the side as Natasha slithered out behind him.
"Are Tony and Pepper coming too?' she asked, poking her head back in. Even as she spoke, a mighty crash sounded from above, and an avalanche of dust shivered down around them. A deep, feminine sigh of exasperation sounded.
"Sorry, Cap,' Pepper Potts' voice called. "I told him the elevator shaft was on the left side of the building when we were coming in, and his GPS, but it's just as male as he is. Neither of them listened.'
"Art well down there, friend Stark?' Thor's voice said solicitously.
"I'm fine,' Tony Stark's own voice echoed rather hollowly. 'Really. Are you okay, sweetie?'
"I am fine, friend Stark, though may I say that was most churlish of you to drop your lady like that, ten feet up yet?'
"He didn't drop me,' Pepper said. "I let go. He was veering too far left. Again, and I knew you'd catch me besides. Either that or I'd land on the bear. Hey, Steve.' She offered the man in question a dainty kiss on the cheek as he swung over from the fire-escape. "Sorry about your elevator shaft.'
"You are not,' Stark informed the god of thunder as he popped out of said shaft, 'my sweetie. Nor will you ever be, no matter how hard I hit my head rocketing through a rift in time and space. Speaking of which... Hey, Rogers. Where's Bruce?'
"Downstairs. And the shaft has to be replaced anyway,' Steve said happily. "Along with everything else. Hey, Tarzan. Where's Jane?'
"Must I remind you again that my name is Thor, Captain Rogers, not Tarzan. And Jane is yet at work. She sends her regards.' Thor paused. "If I may ask... Who is this Tarzan you speak of so frequently? An acquaintance of yours, perhaps, from your fondly remembered past?'
"Something like that.' He sat on a pile of rubble, his smile abruptly gone, and looked at the sky as the god handed around red plastic cups of mead. As he did so, Bruce Banner flipped over the fire-escape, landing neatly on his feet and coming to sit beside him. His coverall was gone; in its place was a faded pair of jeans, and a short-sleeved checked shirt. He wore no shoes, and his tousled black hair was white with drywall dust.
'You okay, man?' he asked.
"Mm?' Rogers shook himself lightly. "Just thinking.'
"Looks painful. Care to share?'
"I don't know, I...' He sighed, looking up at the stars again. "They're the only things now that are remotely familiar. And once the electric grids are all back online... I won't even have them.'
"They'll still be there, Steve,' Pepper said gently into the silence that followed. Thor, of all people, came to sit beside him, on his other side.
"Perhaps one day I will be allowed to bring you to my land,' he said "And show you the view from the highest peaks of Asgard itself.'
How will that help?' Stark said, not a little snidely. "He's looking for the familiar, and if the stars there are in any way as strange as you are...'
Thor looked at him curiously, even as Pepper elbowed him. Hard.
"You speak as does a child, Man of Iron,' he said. "With a child's understanding.'
"I do not!'
'You do,' the god (small g, Steve Rogers couldn't help but think) said. "For there are no stars from that vantage point. Those who stand above all else shine brighter than any mortal eye can ever process; shining pearls amid their fellows, and are labeled as the stars themselves, for all time.'
Banner smiled to himself, looking down at his bare feet as Barton looked up from where he was hacking off hunks of roasted bear.
"Sounds nice,' he said. "You up for leading a group tour sometime?'
"It was a metaphorical offer,' Thor said with a smile of his own. 'I do not think that Father would allow such an expedition. Still, stranger things have happened. One never knows what the future will bring.'
"I do,' Natasha examined her hunk of bear in revulsion. "Salmonella. Did you not cook this poor creature at all after you killed it? It's still bleeding!'
'I'm going to go downstairs and work awhile longer, I think.' Rogers got to his feet abruptly. "Holler if you need me.'
He disappeared over the side of the building. The gathered company looked at each other worriedly. Tony Stark bit savagely into a knish and chewed. Pepper leaned against him.
"It's going to take him awhile, Tony,' she said. "You read the psychologists' reports; we just can't expect miracles there. He's a super soldier, but he's still human, for all of that. He needs to feel relevant and constructive on the personal level, not just the professional. Really, this...' She waved a hand around. "Is his best bet. You know. On that metaphorical level Thor just mentioned.'
"I know,' Tony said morosely. "I just want to fix him. Now, if only so he won't' keep wittering on at me about proposing to you. It's getting really, really old.'
Even the Black Widow winced at that.