Steve was the first one to come back to the tower. It was December 12th, or at least, that was when Tony noticed, as he schlepped himself into the communal kitchen for a 3 am breakfast that was not liquid. Steve could have been there for a couple of days already, as far as Tony knew, the last 72 hours were a bit of a blur, to be honest. Steve wasn't alone. He and a dude that Tony could only assume to be Falcon, judging by the wings he was sporting, were bent over a bunch of papers and in the middle of a heated discussion. Tony blinked in confusion. The hell was Steve doing here? S.H.I.E.LD. was dead. Steve had killed S.H.I.E.L.D. last summer. Didn't that mean the Avengers were dead too? Despite the apartments Tony had had built for them in the tower back in happier days, Bruce was the only one that used his.
Tony decided to go with sarcasm rather than outrage. “Gentlemen! Welcome to my humble abode! To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Steve's head shot up. “Stark. Hi. Um. My security code still worked? So I hoped I was still welcome?” He had the grace to look a little embarrassed.
“Yeah, it's fine.” Because it was fine, really. Let it not be said that Tony was obstructing Freedom, Justice and the Captain American Way. And the man did have a suite of rooms here, even if he'd never used them.
“I asked your robot butler to ask you, but he said you didn't want to be disturbed when you were working on the armor.”
“To be specific,” J.A.R.V.I.S. piped up, “Sir said he would electrocute the next person who so much as dared to breathe in his general vicinity. I deemed announcing your presence to be potentially detrimental to your health, Captain Rogers.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “And America thanks you for saving her favorite son from my wrath, J.A.R.V.I.S., well done, you.”
“I thought I'd heard you retired, though, and had destroyed the armor last year?” Steve inquired.
“I did. I had. Until S.H.I.E.L.D. cacked. And nobody seemed to have a fucking clue what would happen if we happened to have another alien invasion. Remember that nuke I flew through that portal last year, because WSC thought the most elegant solution would be to just nuke Manhattan to stop Loki? I saw the fucking mothership, Cap, and it made the stuff they sent down here look like blow darts. And now S.H.I.E.L.D is gone. Fury's gone. Coulson is gone. You and Natasha disappeared. Thor is canoodling with his girlfriend. Or his brother, who the fuck knows? And I haven't seen Barton since we had Shawarma. In the meantime, I still had nightmares about those fucking Chitauri and I realized I'd sleep marginally better if stopped sitting on my ass drinking fruity cocktails at the beach with my girlfriend and made sure I could give the Hulk some back up if the fuckers came back. So I unretired.”
“Hydra had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. It had to go.” Steve's expression made it clear he wasn't apologizing for causing Tony's misery.
“I'm aware. Ungrateful bastards. Putting me on top of the hit list after I built them those helicarriers. That was before I was aware, of course.” Tony shrugged. “I'm not blaming you. I'm just hoping to make Hydra pay some day for costing me my girlfriend.”
“Ms. Potts... Is she...?” Now Steve looked a little stricken.
“She's fine. Well, maybe not fine, per se. Not as bad as she was after she dumped me for breaking my promise by unretiring and breaking her heart in the process, though. That was six months ago, she's probably alright by now.” Better than Tony, anyway. He was also better than he had been, but he wouldn't call himself fine yet. Comfortably numb, maybe. Which was a whole lot better than hurting like hell.
“It's just Bruce and me here now. Sciencing in peace. Together. Well, with a thick wall between us, because he doesn't appreciate the subtleties of Death Metal and I hate sitars.”
Steve nodded in acknowledgment, but wisely decided not to pursue that line of questioning. He turned towards his companion, who was watching Tony with amused fascination.
“Tony, this is Sam Wilson, also known as Falcon. Sam, this is Tony Stark..."
Sam came forward to shake Tony's hand and gave him a much more genuine smile than Steve had. Having overseen the introductions, Steve continued: "We're looking for my old friend Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier. We tracked him to New York, but we seem to have lost him. We were hoping J.A.R.V.I.S. would be able to run some data for us. Bucky may have a chance of regaining his memory now that Hydra is more or less defunct and..."
"Wait a minute," interrupted Tony, "Back up for a sec. The Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes? As in 'died tragically in WWII' Bucky Barnes? Holy fuck... Did Hydra catch him?"
Ten minutes later Tony had an entirely new appreciation of what had gone down in Washington last summer and a new found need to go point out a few holes in the story Maria Hill had told him when she came to work for him. The woman probably couldn't help keeping secrets, though, spending that much time with Nick Fury was bound to have left scars, but it was the principle of the thing. He made a mental note to sic J.A.R.V.I.S. on her to see what else she was hiding, First though... He pointed at Sam's wings.
Sam looked dubious. "I don't know man, they're working pretty good right now, I'm not sure I want you to mess with them. They're a bit delicate."
Unable to decide between laughing derisively or cursing indignantly, Tony ended up with a indelicate splutter. Steve smiled at him, an actual smile this time, and turned to Sam. "I think you're safe letting him look at them. I heard he did good work on the helicarriers."
"The work was excellent, fuck you very much! All my work is excellent."
Sam started laughing at him. "I know, man. I know who you are. I am just messing with you. I'd love for you to take a look at the wings. They're a little temperamental, actually." And with that Sam was Tony's new best friend. He happily trotted off to his workshop with his prize, breakfast forgotten.
When Tony resurfaced a little later, December 13th or 14th or so, he was met with pretty much the same scene, only Bruce was frowning at the paperwork now too, mug of green tea in hand.
"He's gone to ground," Bruce intoned a little morosely while pointing at one of the papers, "He's purchased enough food to lay low for weeks if he stretches it and he is physically capable of putting a lot of distance between himself and his last point of purchase within a short time. He doesn't want to be found right now. Believe me, I know the feeling. With a little luck he'll do a lot of thinking though and hopefully chisel away at the Hydra conditioning?" He looked at Steve, who was frowning too.
"I know you want to help him," Bruce continued, "but I think the best thing you can do right now is let him be for a bit. Have J.A.R.V.I.S. help you monitor any tracks he leaves and be ready when he pops back up among the living."
Steve sighed heavily and looked at Sam. "What do you think?"
"I think the man is right. The fact that Bucky's a managed to hold onto even a shred of humanity after all that's been done to him tells me he's a stubborn motherfucker. If he doesn't want be social right now, he's not going to be social. Let's keep an eye out for signs that he does, though, and be ready to go then."
"Fair enough, " Steve nodded unhappily. "I guess we can take a break for the holidays, huh?" He managed a wry smile.
"Exactly," Sam beamed. "Like all the normal people do. Remember it's important to make an effort to do the normal things that normal people do, Steve. Fitting back in, my man, can't slack off on the fitting in."
"Yeah?" Steve asked, "What normal holiday things are you going to do, then?"
"I think I'll go spend some time with my aunt down south. She's always on my case about spending the holidays with them. She is still pissed I missed Thanksgiving. Wanna come?"
Steve looked around pensively and spotted Tony holding Sam's wings. He shook his head.
"Nah, thanks. I think I want to spend some time in the city. I haven't done Christmas here in decades.” He smiled wryly. “I'd like to see how she does it these days. If that's okay with you, Stark?"
"It's a bit late to change the security codes now, isn't it? No, this was always meant to be the Avengers' home base. Consider yourself home." Tony couldn't read Steve's expression, but apparently the word 'home' was a bit of a sensitive issue. He turned to Sam.
"Hey man, before you go: I got your wings. There is absolutely nothing delicate or temperamental about these babies now. Merry Christmas. Ho Ho Ho. Care to take them up for a spin?"
And that was how three Avengers ended up freezing their asses off on the top of Stark tower watching Falcon whooping and doing loop-de-loops over the city's Christmas light displays. It was the weirdest start of the holiday season that Tony could remember. Not the worst, though. Not the worst.