Light-colored stone or sleek burnished wood covered nearly every flat surface in the lobby of Stark Tower, and a gentle waterfall all along the back wall drowned out the racket of traffic, leaving Steve with the odd impression that he'd traveled hundreds of miles rather than taking a single step off the street. "All sustainable or recycled materials, and easy to heat and cool," Tony had bragged, the first time he had shown Steve around. "The water feature alone saves us thousands on the air conditioning." It was attractive, too, if somewhat simple in comparison to the Art Deco interiors that Steve remembered filling Manhattan seventy years ago. Tony let his flamboyant side show in other parts of the design.
"Good morning, Captain Rogers," said the doorman. One of the elevator doors slid open, as if by magic, but supposedly he had called the elevator with the discrete press of a button behind the desk. "Will you be going to your floor, or the central meeting area?"
"My floor, Emilio, thanks." Steve stepped into the elevator, and the doors closed behind him. Then, without pause, the elevator shot up eighty-eight floors to the one that Tony had designated for Steve's personal use. SHIELD had provided Steve with an apartment in Brooklyn, not far from his old neighborhood, but he found himself less and less inclined to spend time there. Brooklyn had changed, even more than Manhattan, and he was tired of turning half-familiar corners just to end up in a totally alien place. It was like trying to wear shoes that didn't fit -- one too small, one too large, each leaving blisters in different spots. He felt out of place in Manhattan, too, but at least the feeling of being surrounded by tall buildings hadn't changed, the comforting illusion that he was small and insignificant. Here, out of uniform, he could almost blend into the crowd.
"Steve!" It was Pepper, sitting on the beige couch, watching something on TV; she snapped it off with some handheld device before turning around to smile at him. "You ready to see how it all came together?"
"Ready and eager," he replied, smiling in return. Pepper Potts had been a pleasant surprise, the only person he'd met so far who could reign in Tony's excesses with just a word or a look. She had welcomed him to Stark Tower with open arms, and she was always ready with a helpful suggestion, or to provide what he needed before he could even ask. Steve found her efficiency almost frightening. Sometimes he wondered how she managed to keep Tony's life in order, help him and the rest of the team, and run Stark Industries with so little apparent effort.
"Great. The kitchen is done, and so is the bedroom; the second bath still needs a little work, but it should be done tomorrow, and of course the gym is ready -- we gave that top priority, after the bedroom."
"Lead the way." Steve followed Pepper through the cream and beige living room, past the kitchen and into the hall. "Is anyone else here?"
"Just Bruce," she said, over her shoulder. "They're in the lab, as usual."
"As usual," Steve repeated, shaking his head. "Do they ever emerge from there?"
"Sometimes," Pepper replied with a grin. "Tony, at least, does need to sleep. And they do eat, although if I didn't sent meals up they might not remember. Here, check out the studio. We told the designer to work with the natural light, but you'll have to let me know what you think." She pushed the door open to reveal a cozy room with huge east-facing windows, a computer desk on one side and a drafting table on the other, bookshelves and an armchair in the corner by the door, a cheery blue and yellow throw rug in the middle to tie it all together. Steve could only stare, dumbfounded; when was the last time he'd had more than a sketchpad to work with? Since before the war, at least -- maybe not since art school.
"It's perfect," he managed to say, looking back at Pepper to see the obvious pride in her work written on her face. "I'll have to find supplies good enough to deserve this space. Not that my chicken scratchings are up to it."
"Oh, don't be so modest." Pepper poked him with her elbow. "I saw that sketch you did of Bruce and Tasha the other day. Even Tony was admiring it. And the cartoon of Director Fury-- you might not want to show that to him, though."
Steve forced himself not to blush. "Done in a weak moment," he said, and Pepper laughed. "Thank you, again."
"As always, don't hesitate to ask for anything," Pepper said. "Just call Jarvis, and someone will take care of it. Should we call to the art supply store?"
"No, I'd rather go myself. Picking out of a catalog is never the same as putting my hands on the stuff." As he said it, Steve realized he was itching to pick up a pencil and some pastels and start drawing. He could feel his fingers gripping the wood, running down a crisp, clean sheet of paper taped the drafting table. The urge to create, rather than destroy: yes, that would be a fine way to spend an afternoon. He'd check out the new gym another time.
"Thanks, Pepper," he said again, and somehow she was pressing a sheet of paper into his hands: a list of the ten nearest art stores.
"Have fun shopping," she said; he grinned at her, and was out the door.
As it happened, Tony and Bruce weren't in the lab, but elsewhere in Stark Tower: the fourth floor. "Home sweet home," Tony said, sweeping his arm outward to encompass the whole space. "An open plan, just like we decided, and floor to ceiling windows in every room in case you need to step out on short notice." He turned to Bruce and wagged his finger. "Although if you could keep enough presence of mind to use the sliding door instead, I'd appreciate it. Otherwise we might as well keep a glass company on retainer."
Bruce hitched his satchel up higher on his shoulder. "Probably not a bad idea to keep one on speed dial, at least."
Tony chuckled. "Just in case you're inclined to take the elevator instead, I've had it programmed to let you directly into the lab, no separate clearance required. You're on the permanent access list, my friend."
"Thanks." Bruce wandered into the center of the large living room that seemed to take up half the floor, the other rooms arranged like spokes on a wheel, coming off a central core. He knew, from looking at the plans, that there would be a small bedroom, an office with plenty of room for his research equipment -- once he got some research equipment. Along the core was a kitchenette with the heaviest duty appliances they could find, not because Bruce was any kind of gourmet chef, but in hopes that The Other Guy might not crush them into scrap the first time he had a cooking accident. And there it was, as promised: one row of windows replaced by a metal door that wouldn't look out of place on a two-bit self-storage unit. "Don't suppose there's any way to set that to open automatically."
"Not a bad idea." Tony narrowed his eyes in thought. "Some kind of remote, maybe? Or a sensor that can detect your adrenaline levels and predict an imminent Hulking? We'll have to look into it."
Bruce dropped the satchel on the ottoman and then himself on the couch, leaning back and kicking up his feet. "Home", Tony had said, and maybe it was. What was the old saying: "Home is the place where they have to take you in"? Bruce hadn't had a place like that in a long while. Only time would tell whether Stark Tower and the Avengers could be that for him, but he had a good feeling. Optimism was a strange thing; he wasn't quite comfortable with it yet.
This couch, on the other hand…. Bruce settled back into the cushions, but just as he started to relax, his hand brushed against something hard and metallic, and he fished out a tiny allen wrench. He looked at the sofa more carefully, then stood up, brandishing his find in Tony's face.
Tony shrugged, his expression a picture of innocence.
Bruce shook his head. "Don't tell me billionaire genius media darling Tony Stark spends his weekends assembling Swedish furniture."
"What?" Tony plucked the wrench from Bruce's fingers. "It's relaxing. Like doing a puzzle. Especially when you need to figure out where that screw goes, you know, the one that's inevitably left over, no matter how well you followed the directions."
Bruce raised an eyebrow and cleared his throat.
"Okay, fine, you got me." Tony held up his hands in mock surrender. "I never follow the directions. They're terrible. I don't know how anyone without several PhDs manages to build these things."
It was a struggle not to laugh, but Bruce managed. "Tony…"
Finally Tony relented, pocketing the wrench with an embarrassed look. "And, yes, they're cheap and easy to replace in case you decide to go in for some violent disassembly. Pepper's idea, not mine; I would have furnished the place in Versace if you wanted it."
Bruce spread his hands and smiled. "An honest answer. Now that, I like."
"I was serious about the puzzle thing, though. Nothing like getting in there and building something with my hands. And also, the directions." Tony drummed his fingers against the arc reactor. "Have you ever tried to build anything from Ikea? Hopeless. But at least I came up with several improvements while I was working. Here, let me show you how I shored up the bed frame."
"A whole floor for each of us." Natasha walked a slow circle around her new living room, which consisted of three couches arranged around an indoor fire pit. It was noon, and she and Clint had come straight here from SHIELD's morning briefing, ready to see their new spaces. "I still think that's a little excessive."
Clint shrugged. "It's Tony; he doesn't do anything by half measures."
"No kidding." Natasha ran her finger along the edge of the fire pit, which was trimmed in brass; the touch didn't even leave a smudge. "It's tasteful, at least. That must be Pepper's influence." She wandered to the windows and contemplated the view from this, the 86th floor -- she had asked for the lowest of the floors allotted to the Avengers (except for Bruce, closer to ground level for safety reasons), and the request had been accommodated, along with every other she'd made. That was a little unnerving, too. "You're upstairs, I assume?"
"Top floor, where else?
She glanced over her shoulder at him; he stood next to her, arms crossed. "Making yourself a nest?"
"Yep." He flashed a quick grin at her. "Want to check it out? I've been promised a shooting range to die for."
"Maybe later." Natasha turned around, her back to the windows, and tilted her head backwards, trying to see up the side of the building. "Pretty different from bunking at SHIELD. I'm not sure I like it."
"Would you rather be back on the helicarrier, where they can track our every move?"
She snorted. "Like they aren't tracking us here."
"Doubt they are, actually." Clint glanced over at the wall, and Natasha followed his eyes to the dark blue panel that meant Jarvis. "They couldn't put in a spy program without Tony knowing about it, and I can't imagine him inviting them in."
"So instead of being spied on by SHIELD, we're being watched by Tony Stark?" Natasha crossed her arms and tilted her head. "I'm not convinced that's an improvement."
Clint laughed. "Fair enough." He made his way to the elevator and jabbed at the UP button. "Well, I'll let you settle in. If you get tired of rattling around on your giant floor, you know where to find me." He stepped inside the elevator with a wave; she shook her head as the doors hid him from view, then returned to prowling around the floor. She wandered through the kitchenette, down the hall, past the workout room and into the bedroom -- a master suite with a queen bed, three dressers, a walk-in closet, a full bath. It was almost obscene, the amount of space she had here. Not that this particular obscenity was rare in America, but Tony Stark struck her particularly good at it. She thought about the other spaces she had lived -- the apartments, the cubicles, her berth on the helicarrier, her studio near SHIELD's downside headquarters…. Natasha would bet a significant amount of money that they'd all fit inside this one bedroom suite. She sat down on the bed and ran her hands over the bedspread Pepper had almost certainly picked out and wondered if she could ever feel at home here.
"Only one way to find out," she muttered, and went into the closet to change. Time to check out that workout space.
He rested his hand on the table and wondered how it would feel to live in such a large place all alone: no family, no Sif or Warriors Three, his near-constant companions for so long. Most of the living spaces in Asgard were communal; he had a small sleeping chamber there, but in truth he had rarely been alone there either. The other Avengers were fine comrades in arms, to be certain, but they had their own living spaces, both here and out in the world. Thor had no other place to call home in all of Midgard, and no one with whom to share these quarters.
Or… perhaps there was one other. Thor sat down at the shiny black table -- the one that Tony had called a "console" -- and he punched up the buttons that called the only person Thor knew how to call. The image changed from a silver "A" turning in circles on a black background into an odd configuration of colored stripes, and then resolved into the pleasant, no-nonsense face of Agent Maria Hill. "Thor? I didn't know you were back."
"Greetings, my lady," Thor replied. "I hope you are well?"
"Everything's fine, thanks." Hill crossed her arms. "Is there something I can do for you?"
Thor hesitated, and wondered why he was nervous. "Now that the crisis my brother created has passed, if you believe it safe to do so, I wish to contact the scientist Jane Foster."
"Ah." Thor thought he saw the corner of Hill's mouth turn upward, just for a second. "I'll see if I can get that cleared for you. She's still on our no-contact list, but I suspect Director Fury would be willing to loosen that up now. I'll check with him and get back to you." As she stepped out of the frame, the screen switched over to SHIELD's eagle logo. Thor laid his hands on either side of the console and waited. He had not seen or even spoken to Jane since parting from her in New Mexico, nearly a year ago. Several times, Heimdall had assured him that she still thought of him, that her research had become a quest to repair the Bifrost. Would she be pleased to see him, or angry that he had not sought her out earlier? He had only wished to shield her from Loki and his schemes, as he had not been able to protect Solvig.
After what seemed like an age, Agent Hill reappeared. "Okay, I can put you through. Hold on."
The image of Hill's station was replaced by the logo again, and then by Jane's face, distracted, looking into the distance, before she turned to focus on the screen. Her eyes went wide, and her hand flew up to cover her mouth. "Thor?!"
"Jane?" Thor started to reach for the screen as if to stroke her cheek, and then pulled back. Too much, too much, he could not make assumptions; but at least she seemed pleased… "Jane."
"Oh my god," Jane whispered. "It's-- it's really you. I mean, I saw you. On the news, from New York? I thought that was you, and then the news reporters talked about SHIELD, and… but I didn't know what to think. And then I didn't hear from you, or Erik, or anyone, and--" She cut herself off and sat back, almost out of Thor's view. "That was you, wasn't it?"
"It is-- was. And is. I have returned to Midgard, and I have, what do they say, a place? I have a place in New York. And I would be honored if you were to choose to visit me here." Thor swallowed back his insecurities, and looked straight at her. "If you accept my apologies for not contacting you earlier."
Jane laughed, and her whole face lit as if by the sun. "Are you kidding? I'll be on the next plane there, so you can apologize in person."
Thor leaned forward, unable to resist laying his hand on the screen. "What makes you think you need a plane to fly?"
Jane reached her hand out and laid the palm flat against the image of his. "I'm pretty far from New York."
"Never fear, my lady. I know a shortcut."
She giggled, and Thor's heart stopped. Perhaps this apartment would not be so empty after all. "I can't wait."
He was on a team -- that was a strange thought. It hadn't seemed strange at all while he'd been drawing up the plans for each floor with Pepper: debating whose rooms should be located where, who needed the most space and why, what special accommodations could be made for Clint's view, Thor's flight, Natasha's privacy, Steve's acclimation, Bruce's Hulking. But now that they were all here, the reality of their presence threw him off. Tony had never been a team player: he worked alone, he fought alone, and although he'd often had a woman on each arm and an entourage behind him, ultimately he played alone, too. But that was all slowly changing, first because of Pepper and now these guys, these threats and misfits, these people out of place and time.
Maybe that was why he liked them all so much. Even Steve, that old stick-in-the mud, he thought with a grin.
The glass door opened behind him. He didn't turn around; he didn't need to. "Come back inside," she said.
Tony turned around and let his hands fall on Pepper's waist. "Just admiring the view."
Pepper sipped from the beer she was carrying, then rested her hands around his neck; the cold glass of the bottle was a refreshing shock against his back. "You'd think I'd be tired of this view by now, but it's still a surprise, every time."
He drew her closer and touched his lips to hers. She tasted like pizza and beer and every teenaged-boy dream he'd ever had. "It's even better from higher up."
She laughed at the implied invitation, the sound vibrating against his chest. "We can't leave, Tony, we have guests."
"No we don't. They live here now, remember?"
Pepper glanced over her shoulder. "So they do." He followed her gaze through the window that framed the scene at the table -- Bruce and Jane deep in debate about the latest controversy in cosmic ray research, Thor laughing at Clint's jokes while Natasha shook her head in tolerant amusement, Steve leaning back in his chair, drinking what had to be his fifth glass of Coke. A very different scene from the last time the Avengers had dined together, half-dead of exhaustion in a trashed schwarma joint. It was cozy and homey, everything Tony thought he would never have. And never knew he wanted, until now.
"If they live here, they aren't guests. Which means we can leave any time we want."
She smiled again and looked back up at him. "Do you really want to?"
Tony looked at them again; Steve looked up from his glass, raised an eyebrow as if to ask what was going on. After lifting a hand in acknowledgement, Tony looked back at Pepper with a shrug.
"Nah," he said.
"Then let's go back inside. I think there's a chocolate cake in the fridge with someone's name on it."
"Sounds perfect." They went inside and the door closed behind them.