"So yeah," Tony said, giving the sonic autoclave a loving pat, "Patent is still out on this bad boy, but it definitely works -- perfect sterilization through the power of phat beats."
Bruce chuckled, shaking his head. "You do know that most modern dishwashers can serve as an autoclave, right?" he said.
"Ah, but most modern dishwashers do not accomplish sterility via Black Sabbath, Dr. Banner," he said, "Trust me, this is much cooler."
"Excuse me, Sir," Jarvis cut in, "Captain Rogers would like to speak to you."
"Does he sound pissed?" Tony turned at Bruce's snort. "What? I just started rebuilding this place! I don't want Captain Constipation putting holes in the drywall."
"Yeah, that's about as likely as the Other Guy serving tea to the Queen in a frilly apron," Bruce answered, his lips pursed up all wry in that way of his that meant he thought he was smiling. "I'm more likely to take out a wall than Steve is. And anyway, why should he be pissed at you now? He seemed fine last Monday when we left the Park."
Only a lot could happen in four days. Tony had fucked up massively, epically, spectacularly in half that time without meaning to, trying overly hard, or even knowing he'd done so until afterward. Often. Pepper swore that she had a list. "I have no idea," Tony said, and picked up a tablet to scribble out the formula for a polymer chain he thought might be spinnable, stable, almost stretchy enough, and quite possibly purple. He really wasn't ready for playtime to crash and burn into the swamps of obligation just yet. He figured with enough caffeine he'd be good for a solid thirty six hours of binge-tinkering if he could just get a good head start on it. "It's a strange character phenomenon among humorless people. They don't seem to like me."
Bruce made that snorting noise again and folded his arms. "I'm sure you're just misunderstood, really."
Ah, sarcasm. Familiar ground at last. "Constantly," Tony agreed, and took off across the lab. "Hey, wanna see my particle accelerator? What?" he asked, upon realizing that Bruce was not following after him.
"Tony, are you going to take Steve's call, or leave the poor guy on hold forever?"
"Actually, Dr. Banner," Jarvis cut in before Tony had enough time to weigh the merits of each choice, "Captain Rogers is not on hold at the moment."
"See?" Tony said, "It couldn't have been all that important if he hung up already."
"He's not on the phone at all, sir," Jarvis answered, sounding just about as peeved as his parameters allowed, "He's waiting in the first floor elevator lobby at present."
"Wait, he's here? Right now? Hasn't he ever-"
"I'll patch through the video link now, sir."
"-Heard of calling ahead?" Steve's face popped up into the nearest monitor, like a bored, blue eyed prairie dog with excellent bone structure and a disapproving wrinkle between its eyebrows. Tony flashed a grin and fell into deflective bullshit mode while silently promising Jarvis a crowbar upgrade at his earliest convenience. "Hey, Cap! What's chillin?" Yeah, that joke just didn't get old, did it?
Aaaand neither did that settling of restraint over what had been a relatively open expression just a second ago. Except for how it totally did, every damned time it happened. "Stark," Steve said with that crisp little nod of his. Then, "Dr. Banner."
"I can't help feeling like you're talking about my father when you call me that," Bruce said coming around to face the monitor with a smile. "I'd rather you called me Bruce."
"I vote for you calling him Darling," Tony said before he could stop himself. And sure enough, that restraint clicked down a notch tighter between Steve's eyebrows. "What can we do for you today, Captain?" he asked in an effort not to actually make anything worse. Maybe if he played this straight Steve would bail before Tony could make a bigger ass of himself, and he'd be able to lure Bruce back into the planned Mad Scientist playtime for the rest of the afternoon.
"I'd like to ask you a favor," Steve said, and whoa did that ever look uncomfortable.
"What do you need?" Bruce went over all concerned and earnest, and it was a little heartbreaking, really. Made Tony wonder briefly if being helpful could be classified as an addictive personality disorder. And that wasn't hypocritical at all, damn it.
Steve's smile thawed, and he flicked a glance at Tony. "Thanks, Bruce. But it's actually Stark's help that I need with this, and I'd really rather not discuss it over the… over a…"
"Com feed," Tony supplied, wondering idly why he didn't get a 'Mr.' with his name. "It's a com feed, and it's more secure than any phone, radio, or satellite uplink you're gonna find these days. Why, you got a top secret mission on the line or something? Because I gotta tell you, my consulting fees are a bit out of your price range for matters of mortal danger these days."
Wait, was that a snicker? Almost a snicker? No, probably his nose just itched. "Call it a personal favor then," Steve said, "but it's still not something I want to discuss in a public lobby. I won't take up much of your time, but I'd really appreciate your help."
"Come on up then, Steve," Bruce said, totally cockblocking Tony from his duly appointed host duties. Jarvis, the traitor, opened the elevator doors without a further word. On the far wall above the sliding doors, numbers began to climb.
"Another damned security breach," Tony grumbled, heading for the stairs. "This one's on you, Bruce. Jarvis, penthouse level. I don’t want him in here."
"Seriously, Tony?" Bruce asked, right behind him. For a guy with such short little legs, he was surprisingly quick.
"What? Last time we were in a lab together, he threatened to beat me up!"
"I think we can call extenuating circumstances on that one," Bruce said as they came out amid the sheets of plastic and walls of pitted granite where Loki's bid for world domination had met its unfortunate end face first in the floor. Repeatedly. "And anyway, that was the same time when I picked up a magical radioactive poking stick with the clear intent of impaling everyone in the room on it like shish kebab, if I remember correctly."
"Shish kebab?" Tony asked, a little hurt, "Really? Cause I was in that room too."
That won a shrug. "Like I said; extenuating circumstances. And yet somehow you don't have a problem with me being in your lab."
"That's because you're a researcher, not the experi- Captain!" he called as the doors slid open with a ding, "Sorry about the mess. Union contractors, you know."
Steve stepped out of the elevator and accepted Tony's hand to shake as he said with a slight frown, "What about them?"
"They take really long lunchbreaks?" Oh, awesome, that wrinkle was back again; it cut in deep this time, because Steve was like a hundred years old, and he'd probably gone to school with Emma Goldman or something, hadn't he? Oh, well done, Tony! "Place should be back together in a couple of days, they tell me," he said, and led Steve toward the bar. Maybe the Super Soldier didn't need a slug, but from where Tony sat, he could hardly do any worse with a hit of scotch in him. He'd have preferred bourbon, but he'd emptied the decanter over Loki's head last week, and hadn't had time to resupply yet.
"It looks fine," Steve said, shaking his head when Tony held up a tumbler in his direction. "Farther along than a lot of the city. At least Jarvis is intact."
"Thank you, Captain Rogers. I am indeed unharmed. My servers and relays are shielded to withstand heat, shock, temperature fluctuations and electromagnetic pulses equivalent to that produced by a direct-"
"Jarvis! Family secrets! Also, flirting with the guests on first visit is totally not cool!"
"It's okay," Steve laughed, "Jarvis and I introduced ourselves downstairs while you were busy. We're practically friends now."
Well damn. Tony had been looking forward to showing Jarvis off himself. Because not only was he looking forward to watching Steve realize that Tony's toys were unilaterally cooler than anything SHIELD had to play with, he kind of suspected Steve would be hilarious until he figured out that Jarvis wasn't actually a physical person hiding in the room with them.
Tony's expression must have given him away, because Steve just laughed again. "What? I read Buck Rogers when I was a kid, you know. None of this modern miracle science is all that unheard of."
"Whoa now," Tony said, coming out from behind the bar, "Let's not get insulting here!"
One eyebrow went up, which was a bit better than the disapproval crease thing. "Stark, have you even read Buck Rogers?"
"No, but the show sucked! Twiki needed to be put through a damned shredder, am I right, Bruce?"
"I wouldn't know." Which wasn't even a very good lie, because seriously, nobody didn't hate fucking Twiki. Even people who hadn't seen the show hated that stupid excuse for robotics just on principle.
Tony let it slide though, and stuck to the insult that counted here. "Anyway, we're not just talking about a clunky mainframe with flashing lights and a fuzzy monitor here you know. Jarvis is an artificial intelligence. A real one, that actually thinks, and reasons, and solves complex problems! For real!"
"I know that," Steve replied, soothing, damn him, "And he is pretty darned slick. I'm just saying that even in my time we had geniuses playing around with the concept of a machine that could think. And with ray guns and jetpacks too. Even if it was only in the funnybooks."
"I have a jet pack," Tony said, because he did, and it needed saying, damn it.
"But you don't have a ray gun." Thank you, Bruce. Smug little fucker.
"That's in prototype, and before anybody gets all accusing, it's for my personal entertainment only. SO THEN," Tony manhandled the conversation away from the rocks, hopping over the back of the sunken sofa ring and plopping himself down into its creamy leather embrace, "What can I help you with, Captain America?"
Steve winced like Tony expected him to, but came obediently around to the right side of the sofa all the same. "Steve, please. I left the uniform at home for a reason."
"And indulge you in what is a clear disparity of name/title segregation?" Tony tutted. "Rogers, I wouldn't dream of such disrespect."
He could see Steve remembering Tony's 'Capscicle' comment as clearly as if it was scrolling in LED's across his high, wide forehead, but Tony refused to let a twinge of it show. Cocksure was his trademark, and by God, he meant to ride it until it crashed. Which, luckily, this time it didn't. Steve's full lips pulled to the side, and sort of quirked up for a second. Then he sat down.
"Fine then. Tony." Tony accepted his triumph with a single, gracious nod, wholly unprepared for the next words, which would shortly be kicking him in the nuts. "I'd like to go to Agent Coulson's memorial service."
The arc reactor vibrated, cycling faster to keep up with the sudden clench of his heart. He stared at Steve's face, suddenly abstract and nonsensical under the rush of angershameragedisgustlosspainguilt that pounded in his temples and clogged his throat. He wasn't ready for this. Damn it, this was for later. Much later, maybe never, but not now. Not now!
"When is it?" he heard Bruce asking, and Steve's too-blue eyes turned away.
"I don't know, that's the problem. I don't know, and I can't find out. I've been asking around SHIELD headquarters, but all the ranking agents are busy with damage control of one kind or another, and nobody who's got time to talk to me can actually tell me anything about it." He sighed, and maybe this time the wrinkle between his eyebrows wasn't exactly disapproval, so much as disappointment, which would be so much worse, except this time it didn't seem to be about Tony. "I wondered if you could tell me."
No. He couldn't. Of course he couldn't, why would he know a thing like that to tell? Tony took a sip of his scotch to be sure none of that would actually come out of his mouth. It was gone too fast, so he took another. Then he said, "Wouldn't Barton or Romanov be more logical sources of information? I mean they worked for him, right?"
Steve's nod was slow and grudging. "Maybe it would, but I haven't been able to find either of them since we saw Thor off to Asgard with Loki. Once they were cleared from Medical, they both-"
"Wait, they were in Medical?"
Bruce answered that one, coming around the sofa to join them. "Yeah, remember Clint's ribs? Natasha though…" He looked questioningly at Steve.
"She cracked a tooth and broke a finger when she hit the roof of the tower," he answered. Because of course he'd know the minute injuries of each and every one of his team, what Captain wouldn't? Every spider that falls, and all that. "I doubt she cared much about either one, but since she brought Clint in, the doctors got a scan on her while she was distracted. The nurse said Director Fury made her stay, but they'd both been released and disappeared into debriefing by the time I'd tracked them down that far." Then he sighed, and his face took on a distant, worried look. "But the fact remains that they're SHIELD agents, and asking them to divulge what might be confidential information isn't fair. They might not agree with SHIELD hiding those details, if it is hiding them, and not just losing them in the shuffle, but orders are orders, and I won't ask them to break one. I won't put them into that kind of position."
"But you don't mind putting me there?"
It was meant to piss him off. It was meant to push him back, embarrass him, and make him quit poking around that spot in Tony's chest that still hurt so much. All it did, though, was win Tony a level stare of arclight blue, and one eyebrow ticked up higher than the other.
"You're a SHIELD agent, Tony?"
"Consultant," he bluffed.
The eyebrow went up a little higher. "And yet when you were having Jarvis break into the Helicarrier's computer system for classified information, you didn't seem conflicted about stealing from your employer at all." Tony didn't know what this face meant, this steady, unflinching face with the eyebrow thing going on, but it felt a lot like a double dog dare to him. "So I didn't think your loyalty to SHIELD would be much conflicted by finding out a little less explosive information now. Especially since Agent Coulson was clearly your friend."
"Phil!" Damn it, Tony hadn't meant to shout. "His name is Phil." He finished his drink and crushed an ice cube between his teeth. "Anyway, SHIELD has locked me out of its system now. When Dark Barton fried the carrier's mainframe, it took that remote upload of Jarvis with it. I haven't got a beachhead anymore." But he could get back in. Jarvis could get into anything, and he didn't have to sleep or take toilet breaks, so of course he could get back in, no matter what Jarvis-related countermeasures the little SHIELD coding drones tried to throw at him. But Tony's throat was tight and sore, and god damn it, if Captain Boyscout wanted him to break the law, he'd better be ready to grovel better than this.
Steve's disappointed face came back and did a special encore for him alone. Not didn't-get-his-way disappointed, oh no. This was full on 'I'd-hoped-for-better' disappointment, and it made Tony feel about two inches tall, but also entirely willing to punch Steve in the nose to try and wipe it right off his face. Except that would probably only make that look settle down and hang curtains of course, so Tony just chewed on more ice instead.
"Oh," Steve said, and looked away, like that disappointment wasn't still dripping off him, "All right then. Thank you anyway." He braced his hands on his knees to push up to his feet.
"What, that's it?" Tony asked, offended. "You're giving up now?" What about the begging? Steve knew damned good and well that Tony deserved at least a little grovel for being made to feel this way, damn it! Rhodey would have groveled. Pepper would have… ok, Pepper wouldn't have, but still!
All Steve did was offer one rueful smile, and stand. "If you can't do it, then you can't do it. There's no point in arguing over things." He turned to look at the city through the glass wall, the light catching his face like a hundred mint condition trading cards as he said, "Anyway, his won't be the first funeral I couldn't make it to. Nor the last, I expect." He excused himself with a crisp nod to them both and headed for the elevators.
God damn it.
"Steve, wait," Bruce got the words out first, which was kind of a shock to Tony, since he hadn't realized they were racing for it. He stood, dusting his hands and looking uncomfortable. "I've missed more than my fair share of them too. I'll… I'll go to Fury and find out about Coulson's. Phil's."
Steve half-turned as Bruce came up alongside him. "I don't mean to offend, Bruce, but it seemed to me as though you and Fury weren't exactly on the best terms."
Bruce nodded. "Which is exactly why he'll tell me what I want to know. He owes me for this, and he knows it. And he knows what playing headgames with me will cost him. I'll find out for you." How could a mild mannered ball of well-firing synapses like him make that sound like impending Armageddon without even being remotely green, anyway?
The elevator dinged, and Tony thrust out of the sofa. "Bruce, did you even meet Phil Coulson?" he asked.
"No, I didn't." He shrugged and didn't seem overly bothered. "But that doesn't mean he doesn't deserve my respect for believing in the team. And for his sacrifice."
"You should go, Tony," Steve said, earnest as a war bonds poster, "When we find out, I mean."
"Sure, because that sounds like a blast," he answered before he could stop himself. But dammit, Tony had a policy about funerals! As in, his dad's was the last one of the goddamned things he ever meant to put himself through. It had been cloying, claustrophobic. Surrounded by strangers who expected him to give them a pitiful show over his father's coffin, when really there'd been just… emptiness. Not enough liquor in the world could fill that kind of thing up.
Steve put his hand on Tony's arm, gentle for all that his palm was blazing hot. "It doesn't ever get easier, losing them," he said, staring down Tony's affronted glance, "Paying your respects to their memory is sometimes the only thing that helps you get through it the next time you have to suit up with them and fight."
And with that, Tony's head was full of Coulson's blood, smeared down the wall because they didn't have time to clean it up properly, and Steve saying 'Is this the first time you've lost a soldier?', and the way that call to Pepper just didn't go through, and then Jarvis cut out on him when the missile carried him too far up that wormhole for any blast of signal to reach, and how alone in the darkness of the suit, with no air and no vision, he was sure he was going to die, and Steve… he would now be demanding to know when and where Tony's service was if that had happened, wouldn't he? If Tony had died, Steve would be breaking the rules to be there, even though they never really liked each other.
He watched them walk into the elevator together, watched them turn around and watch him as the doors slid closed and Jarvis took them down to the street. By then he'd thought of a hundred things he could have said, but he didn't really want to say any of them. He didn't really want to say anything at all. What he wanted to do was get back down to his lab and do some maintenance on the arc reactor because its cycle rate was seriously all fucked up right then.
He dumped the polymer sketch and schematics for the Hulk Proof Pants to the server and called up the reactor plans. He'd almost got the data memorized of course, but Tony's arc-reactor policy was simple: when you're tinkering with the thing that keeps you alive, redundancy is really the way to go.
"Sir," Jarvis put in, sounding almost gentle as Tony got himself another drink and settled in to work, "Dr. Banner and Captain Rogers have left now. May I be of assistance to you?"
"Sure," Tony answered, savagely poking the screen with his fingertips and then flinging the data out to the holographic projectors around him. The room lit up with math and physics, and suddenly Tony could breathe again. "I've got a quest for you, noble knight; bring me the most recent SHIELD Personnel file of Agent Phil Coulson."
Bruce was back two hours later, alone.
Apparently when told that Director Fury was in an all day meeting, he'd declared that they would wait, pulled out his Stark phone, and begun to watch Fox News in the receptionist's lobby. With the volume on and everything.
Fury had miraculously found time enough in his busy schedule to tell them that in accordance with the living will which all SHIELD agents are required to submit to the records department, Agent Phil Coulson did not want an official memorial service. His remains were to be donated for research purposes, and he had no living family to whom condolences could be sent, and no, Captain Rogers, he did not know who Coulson's cellist in Portland might have been. Agents were allowed some secrets, after all.
Whereupon Steve had, apparently, marched himself down to the corner store, bought every beer in the coolers, brought it all back to the commissary in SHIELD headquarters, and proceeded to tell everyone he met that he was holding a wake for Phil Coulson right goddamned there.
"And you left early because?" Tony asked. The arc reactor was better balanced now, and glowing like the cockles of his heart but he didn't let it show.
Bruce gave him a grin that would have looked more natural in green, snatched the tablet out of Tony's one hand and the scotch out of his other, and said "Because, genius, you weren't answering your phone, and he couldn't very well come and get you himself, could he?" He hauled Tony to his feet then, and how did a little fireplug like him get that kind of leverage, anyway? Tony wasn't even that drunk!
"I'll summon a taxi and have a crate of whiskey delivered to the commissary, Sir," Jarvis the traitor chimed in as Bruce dragged him to the elevator.
It took Tony the better part of a week to sober up after that night.
Then Pepper hit him with a shareholder's meeting, three charity functions, and an R&D love-in over a few of the Chitauri flyers that Tony was damned good and sure they could get aloft again if they just put their synapses to it. Two days later, SHIELD sent him to Bogota on a consulting gig that kept him there for a month. Shortly after that, the Great Idea kicked Tony's metaphorical ass, and he had to scrap the rebuild on Stark Tower for a month while he made the architect add six more apartments, two more hard rooms for second gym and target range, a second pool, a much larger home theater/gaming pit, and a landing bay for a potentially-flying motorcycle into it. Then he had to argue with the Union rep over whether it was safe for the contractors to work that close to an active supercollider, and also, why did he have Geiger counters all over the place anyway?
And so in the end, Tony never did wind up opening and reading Phil's records.
He told himself that just this once, Fury had told them the truth. The manipulative cocksucking bastard truth that happened to get them to do exactly what he wanted done, and yeah that happened to be saving the world, but still. Truth. Phil probably had remanded his body to the SHIELD researchers, and so he was probably even now being robocopped out to the nines before Doctors West and Drowne had Igor throw the switch and turn him back on. That seemed a bit like SHIELD's speed, really, but with Pepper still so broken up over it all, he decided to just keep that opinion to himself.
However that did mean he was the only one not completely floored when it was Agent Phil Goddamned Coulson; stoic, aggravating, and completely, smugly not-dead, who called them all back together when the Inter-dimensional Space Yetis tried to colonize the New York subway system later that spring.