It figured that two months after the Avengers separated following the battle of New York, the reason they would come back together would be Loki. Not that any of them aside from Tony knew that was the reason, of course.
They hadn’t all separated. Bruce had gone back with Tony to geek out in his tower, taking him up on his offer to share lab space (though Bruce had his own lab). Barton and Romanov were doubtlessly doing their own thing with S.H.I.E.L.D. But Thor had gone off to Asgard, and Rogers was somewhere in New York after riding off on that motorcycle of his.
The tower was still in the process of being repaired, though Tony and Pepper had made sure the windows were replaced and any sign that the roof had been used to make an alien portal was gone. But as every other scrap of manpower was devoted to rebuilding the city, Tony could do the rest himself.
When the tower would eventually be finished, Tony toyed with idea of inviting the Avengers to live there. He had the space, and there was no reason for a superhero team to be so firmly under the thumb of a government organization that had partly been responsible for the invasion because they’d messed with things beyond their comprehension (coughTesseractcough). It wasn’t set in stone, and that was because Tony had no idea about what was going on with the other team members. Would they be willing to move in? Did they want to?
Tony didn’t know, though he did have a chance to at least ask Barton and Romanov about a week after renovations were finished. JARVIS had picked up some strange energy readings by Central Park, so Tony had suited up and gone to check it out. S.H.I.E.L.D. arrived shortly after he did, and they didn’t find anything aside from one homeless guy who swore up and down the river that he’d seen a vibrantly purple pony that had set a tree on fire.
They found a charred tree, but they didn’t find a pony. Tony chalked it up to deliria, and Barton and Romanov actually agreed. They also gave him the cold shoulder when he tried to talk to them about possibly relocating to the really cool floors he’d built him.
Knowing when he was beat, Tony had let the matter drop. He did try to seek out Rogers, but Rogers was surprisingly good at giving him the slip when Tony wore the suit and then couldn’t be found at all when Tony went out as himself. It was aggravating and led to Tony putting JARVIS on the task of compiling together information as to Rogers’s habits so that he could eventually corner the man and offer him a place to stay that wasn’t some crappy apartment S.H.I.E.L.D. had thrown together. (And, no, this wasn’t stalker-y behavior, whatever you say, Pepper.)
But it all turned out to be moot anyway because of that damn Loki.
Tony hadn’t expected anything unusual to happen. JARVIS had finally put together enough information for Tony to track down Rogers at a coffee shop he usually frequented at a certain time of day. So one nice, sunny morning, Tony went out incognito wearing sunglasses, a baseball cap, and a dark hoodie. The disguise seemed to work since no one recognized him.
Then, after a good twenty minutes of just standing around for nothing because Rogers wasn’t showing up, Tony gave it up for lost and headed back to the tower, wondering if JARVIS had somehow made a mistake (but JARVIS didn’t make mistakes). Or maybe Rogers had suddenly decided to change up his routine (unlikely as that was as JARVIS had calculated the probability of that happening as being less than one percent). Tony had no idea except for the faint inkling that just maybe Rogers was avoiding him.
Disgruntled and also vaguely hurt because he’d hoped that he and Rogers would at least be on speaking terms after that handshake following Thor’s and Loki’s sendoff, Tony resigned himself to being the only one who really wanted this team to work. Aside from the imaginary pony incident, he hadn’t seen hide or hair of Romanov and Barton. He’d only seen brief glimpses of Rogers before the man gave him the slip. And Bruce didn’t count because the guy actually lived and worked with Tony.
Disappointment souring his mouth, Tony had made it into the elevator and pressed the button when he realized he wasn’t alone. The fact that he hadn’t noticed the guy was immediately less worrying than the fact it was Loki.
“You!” Tony yelped, pressing himself back against the wall. “I thought you were in Asgard!”
“I left,” Loki said, his green eyes piercing. He was wearing what looked like a classic rock band shirt under his Asgardian clothes, and it was so off-putting that Tony took a moment too long to think of a savvy response.
“I can see that.”
Loki’s lips curled in what could have been amusement but didn’t quite fit. “I am sure you will figure it out eventually,” he said seemingly sincerely. “You are quite brilliant.”
Tony eyeballed him skeptically, carefully inching towards where he could hit the emergency stop button and hopefully alert JARVIS that something wasn’t right.
“You’ll thank me for this later,” Loki said, reaching out a long-fingered hand to rest it against the arc reactor and oh fuck no!
Tony tried to push his hand away before it could come too close. “Get away—”
With a brush of Loki’s finger against the blue light of the reactor, Tony’s world went black.
People were panicking around him and someone was pressing fingers to his neck.
His head pounded uncomfortably for several seconds before the pain unexpectedly receded. Slapping the fingers away from his neck and hearing a pained “ow” as he did, Tony’s eyes flew open to meet the concerned brown eyes of a young woman.
“Sir?” she asked worriedly. “Are you all right? You just collapsed…”
Tony pushed himself up into a sitting position, confused when he realized these weren’t the clothes he’d been wearing earlier and that he was back outside.
“I’m fine,” he said abruptly, and then paused because that was not his voice. He hurriedly stood despite the protestations of the woman who’d been attending to him, and he nearly tipped over again when he noticed how weird he felt.
There was no obstruction in his chest, and patting a panicked hand over his sternum revealed that there had never been anything in there. Looking down showed his skin to be paler than usual and those were definitely not his hands. Or arms.
The shirt was S.H.I.E.L.D.-issued and sticking tightly to his skin; the pants weren’t much better.
“Oh shit,” Tony said, turning his hands around to stare at the back of them. So not his hands.
“Sir?” the woman repeated, tentatively touching his arm.
Tony whipped his head around, trying to find a reflective surface but failing because he was in the middle of what looked like Central Park.
“I’m good,” Tony told the woman, brushing her hand off. “Thanks for the concern.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yep, absolutely.” His new voice was so damn familiar…”Have a great day!”
He ran off before the confused woman could say anything else, pushing through the small crowd that had formed to gawk.
Facts, get the facts together. Loki had shown up and obviously done something. Tony wasn’t in his body, but the voice was familiar enough that he knew the guy he was currently walking around in, although he couldn’t immediately place it.
And he was without a phone.
What kind of idiot went out without a phone?
Grumbling, Tony continued patting his pant pockets until he found a wallet. Then, as he was now out of the park and in the city, he sidled over to a window to get a look at who he was in.
He almost dropped the wallet when he saw his reflection.
He was Steve Rogers. He was inside Steve Rogers.
“Oh shit.” Tony saw Rogers’s lips move with the words and wasn’t that hilarious? Captain America swearing.
It would explain the lack of a phone.
But if he was Rogers, then where was Rogers? In his body?
He needed a phone. Now.
And ten minutes later he had one thanks to super soldier speed and a handy debit card that had apparently never been used judging from how shiny it was. Tony didn’t splurge – because it wasn’t his money and he wasn’t that much of an ass – but he also didn’t skimp, getting one of the better Stark models out there – not that he made bad phones, mind.
Frowning slightly at the rather sluggish pace of his thoughts, Tony put it off to Loki’s goddamn magic and dialed Pepper’s number, power walking to his tower as he did.
As an unknown number dialing Pepper Potts’s personal line, the call was answered quickly with a brisk “Who is this?”
“Pepper,” Tony said, “it’s Tony.”
There was a short pause. Then she spoke, voice deadly quiet. “Is this a joke?”
“No joke, honest.” Tony gave his passing reflection another glance, the unexpected image still throwing him off. “I’m guessing my body is freaking you out? Has it woken up yet?”
“Give me something,” Pepper demanded, brilliant woman she was.
“His first name is Agent,” Tony said without missing a beat, “and you get twelve percent of the credit. You were also the first to help me with the reactor after I came back,” he added in a softer tone.
“What – I don’t…” Pepper sounded utterly lost. “Tony?”
“I’m in Captain America,” Tony said. “Literally and not in the Biblical sense. And, man, this guy has some serious pecs.”
“What do you mean you’re in Captain America?”
“I mean I’m walking around in Captain America’s body. I woke up in Central Park, and I’m getting closer to the tower now.”
There was silence for a few seconds. Then Pepper whispered, “Then who do we have here?”
“I would hope the guy who’s supposed to be in this body,” Tony said. “I’m not surprised he hasn’t woken up yet.”
“How far away are you?”
“Close enough,” Tony said, picking up his pace. “Give me a few minutes. And if the guy wakes up while I’m not there, for the love of God please ask him why he would go out without a phone.”
“Did you buy a phone?”
“Of course I bought a phone!”
“Of course you did.” Pepper sounded both amused and resigned – probably planning to pay Rogers back. Her next words were slightly panicked. “Oh God, he’s waking up!”
“No problem.” Tony could see the tower’s base about two blocks away. “Give me five.”
“Done.” And Pepper hung up.
Now that his concentration was off the phone, Tony could pay more attention to how amazing this body was. Seriously, it was absolutely fantastic how quickly he could go from Point A to point B without even trying.
The only downside was how hungry he seemed to be at the moment, and it was becoming more urgent as time passed.
Well, he’d be in his penthouse soon enough. Then he could see who was in his body and also get a bite to eat.
His head was pounding and he was having trouble breathing. It felt like there was something sitting on his chest, preventing him from properly expanding his lungs and getting enough air. Pain also radiated out from around the general area.
Had he gotten shot? If so, why wasn’t he dead? Because the pain was situated right over his heart, and superhuman or not, he wasn’t bulletproof.
Steve groaned lightly, flinching when the sound only worsened his headache. He pressed his palms into his eyes, hoping the pressure would alleviate the ache. He’d thought he was done with these sorts of things after the serum. He definitely hadn’t gotten a headache since (or been sick at all).
Steve registered quiet breathing at his side and stiffened immediately. How come he hadn’t heard it before? Come to think of it, why was he lying on something soft and not on the pavement in Central Park?
His eyes snapped open, and he instantly regretted the action when the world swirled despite him not even having moved beyond that.
The ceiling looked kind of familiar, but not so much that Steve could place it. He turned his head, surprised to see Pepper Potts standing several feet away and staring down at him with wide eyes.
For a brief moment he considered the wild notion that maybe Stark had finally found him and drugged him to drag him back to his tower. Then Steve instantly told himself not to be silly because he’d seen Stark at the coffee shop Steve usually liked to stop by during his jog, and he knew for a fact that Stark hadn’t seen him.
He felt vaguely guilty for continually avoiding Stark, but the fact was that he had no idea how to act around the other man, and avoiding him was the best way to handle matters. At least until he figured out how to deal with it. (Bucky would be cursing him out about now and telling him to just man up, Rogers, and Steve had no doubt that Bucky and Stark would probably get along brilliantly.)
Glancing around the room, Steve saw that Stark was nowhere to be seen, and Ms. Potts was still eyeing him suspiciously (he didn’t really know why).
He carefully pushed himself partly upright, noting that his arms felt rather like limp noodles. “Ms. Potts,” he started, and then stopped upon hearing his voice. He tried again, “What—” No, that wasn’t his voice at all.
“Who are you?” Ms. Potts asked.
Steve latched onto the question like it was a lifeline. “Steve Rogers.”
Ms. Potts nodded as if she had expected that. “Would you like a mirror?” she asked cordially, sounding entirely too calm.
She didn’t wait for an answer, holding up a small compact mirror so Steve could see his reflection.
The wide brown eyes of Tony Stark stared back at him.
Recoiling in shock, Steve’s eyes flew up to meet Ms. Potts, and he was completely prepared to ask if this was a joke when he heard a dinging sound. He turned his head too fast, regretting it when his world went topsy-turvy for a few seconds.
When his vision cleared, Steve’s mouth dropped open upon seeing himself walk out of the elevator.
The copy of himself walked over to the couch where Steve was laid out, giving him a cursory look-over and a raised eyebrow that just looked odd on his face (but the gesture was pretty damn familiar on the face Steve was apparently wearing). “I’ve gotta say, I don’t look like how I usually do.”
“It’s been said that if you were to meet yourself without mirrors or photographs, you wouldn’t recognize yourself,” Ms. Potts said.
Steve gaped as Stark (because who else was it?) frowned down at him. “I need to sleep more.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you for the last so many years,” Ms. Potts said dryly.
“So who is it?” Stark asked, turning his back and walking over to a mini-fridge.
Ms. Potts answered before Steve could, “Steve Rogers.”
“Hallelujah,” Stark said, ripping open a yogurt. He looked at Steve. “Why were you out without a phone? What kind of genius does that in the twenty-first century?”
He didn’t give Steve a chance to answer. “That’s not important now. We need to figure out what happened beyond ‘oh, it’s magic’“—he wiggled his fingers—“and find a way to reverse it.” He looked at Ms. Potts. “Where’s Bruce?”
“Wasn’t he with you?” She waved to Steve.
“He said you wanted him to sign stuff!” Stark looked injured (Steve had never realized how potent his face was when it came to looking hurt).
“I had nothing for him,” Ms. Potts said. “He might’ve forgotten. You do it often enough.”
Stark shot Steve a not-so-surreptitious look. “We had plans.”
“Dr. Banner is currently unconscious in his lab,” a strange voice said, making Steve jump and press himself into the cushions. “He does not look green.”
Stark blinked, spoon in his mouth. “Unconscious?”
“Well, crap.” Stark frowned, tossing the yogurt container out of view. “Get me down there, JARVIS.”
“What’s going on?” Steve demanded. It was surreal hearing Stark’s voice coming from his lips.
“Found your voice now, eh?” Stark gave him a wry grin. “How you feeling?” His eyes were too knowing.
Steve narrowed his own, setting his jaw obstinately. “Fine.” He was not letting Stark know that his chest was on fire, he couldn’t breathe properly, and his head was hurting. It would pass eventually, and he’d never been one to complain.
“Okay.” Stark shrugged, grabbing a banana and heading to the elevator. “Then stay up here while I get Bruce. We’ll be back quickly.”
“Tony, are you sure?” Ms. Potts asked.
“I’m the one with the codes, Pepper.”
“We’ll be down if there’s any trouble at all,” Steve said firmly (it was much more threatening than he would’ve figured with Stark’s voice).
“Whatever suits you, Rogers,” Stark said, stepping inside the elevator and giving him a smooth grin that was too out of place on his face.
His heart pounding painfully at their brief interaction, Steve looked over at Ms. Potts, who was just beginning to look like someone had hit her over the head with a sledgehammer. “Are you all right, ma’am?”
Ms. Potts blinked disconcertedly, glancing over at Steve in trepidation. “It’s really odd to see Tony’s face addressing me so formally.”
“Try being inside him,” Steve said dryly (that tone was unsurprisingly well suited for this voice).
“Point,” Ms. Potts said. “You should call me Pepper, Captain. I have a feeling we’ll be getting to know each other quite well.”
“Then call me Steve.”
Pepper inclined her head. “To answer your question, Steve, we don’t know. Tony called me about ten minutes ago to let me know what had happened, and I found you in the elevator several minutes before that.”
Steve wondered for all of a second how Tony had called Pepper until realizing that the man had probably bought a phone using Steve’s debit card.
“That voice who spoke earlier,” Steve said instead, “who is he?”
Pepper’s lips quirked into a smile.”That’s JARVIS, Tony’s butler. He’s an artificial intelligence,” she clarified. “Tony can tell you more than I can about him.”
Steve wasn’t even surprised anymore. Tony was a genius, so it was no wonder that he could make an intelligent computer.
He ran fingers over the unfamiliar feel of hair on his face, wondering how long he would have to stay in this body (his heart skipped a painful beat). He took a breath, wincing slightly when the slight expansion of his lungs intensified the pain in his chest. The headache had still not gone, and the pain in his chest hadn’t abated at all. Steve was beginning to wonder if this wasn’t the norm for Stark.
Pepper’s strange face had him notice that he was unconsciously tapping his fingers against a glass case in his chest. He looked down, unnerved to see the glow of that arc reactor. Forcing his hand down before it continued a tic that wasn’t even Steve’s, he wondered what else had changed.
And if Banner would be himself.
The fact that Rogers was in his body was oddly comforting for Tony. At least his body would be in good hands considering that Rogers was the epitome of responsible. He couldn’t say the same for Rogers’s body, but at least it wasn’t as breakable as a normal human’s.
Smirking to himself, Tony walked out of the elevator once the doors opened and headed towards Bruce’s lab. The lab itself was partitioned off from the elevator by glass in case of anything dangerous happening – like poison gas – but Tony could instantly see Bruce’s feet poking out from behind a table, and it made him type in his access code just a little bit faster. He shot a glance to the door off to the side that led to the Hulk room Bruce had insisted on before agreeing to stay. Hopefully it wouldn’t be needed, but the option was there.
Crouching down besides Bruce and marveling at the limberness of Rogers’s body, Tony rested a gentle hand on Bruce’s shoulder, shaking him lightly. He kept a mental note on the amount of strength he used, not wanting to hurt his friend.
“Bruce?” he asked quietly.
“His heart rate is increasing, sir,” JARVIS cautioned.
“Got it.” Tony carefully peeled an eyelid back, not at all reassured when he saw the faintest hints of green in the irises. If Hulk got loose in here, Bruce would have some serious issues.
“Bruce, buddy, are you in there?” Tony tried again. “It’s me. Not Rogers, I mean, but Tony. Bit of a story there, but I think it would be better told if you were awake, right?”
“Sir,” JARVIS warned.
“Shit,” Tony muttered, seeing Bruce throw his head back and forth and mutter under his breath. It took him a beat too long to make his decision.
It also took him too long to remember he had super strength and could easily carry Bruce instead of half dragging him into the Hulk room.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Tony smoothly lifted Bruce into a fireman’s carry, quickly went over to the door to key in his access code, and hurried into the hallway leading to the actual room itself.
It was based on the cage S.H.I.E.L.D. had built, but it was more open and had things in it for Hulk to occupy himself with. It was also equipped with a gas that could knock Hulk out if need be.
Tony opened the door to the room and closed it behind him, setting Bruce down on the cot before hastily backing up to give the other guy some room.
“Lock down, JARVIS,” Tony said, ready to leave if he absolutely had to. This wasn’t his body after all.
“As you wish, sir,” JARVIS said, sounding a bit disapproving of his lifestyle choices.
Bruce’s muttering had turned into thrashing and growling by now, and his skin was taking on a green hue. The seams of his shirt were tearing apart, bulging with the increased mass of turning into Hulk. His pants remained safe, courtesy of a new material Tony had made for Hulk-outs.
With a loud roar, Bruce’s small body exploded into Hulk’s enormous one. The big guy blinked, shaking his head; his mouth curled into a snarl. He was about to smash his fist into the floor when Tony decided to intervene.
“Whoa, easy there.” His voice instantly attracted Hulk’s attention.
Hulk’s green eyes snapped to Tony’s, and his eyes narrowed. That reminded Tony that Hulk had no clue what had happened.
“It’s all right,” Tony said, keeping his voice calm. “It’s me – Tony. Metal Man?” Hulk’s preferred nickname for him was rather childish, but if it would work Tony would use it.
Hulk huffed, the gesture telling enough of what he thought of that claim.
“No, really, I am.” Tony put his hands up to show he was unarmed.
“Different,” Hulk grunted.
“I know,” Tony said. “I wanted to talk to Bruce about that. I switched with Steve Rogers.” He slowly pointed to his chest. “This body.”
He heard Pepper and Rogers rush into the room, and he flicked his eyes upward in silent reprimand.
“Tony!” Pepper hissed in alarm.
“Don’t come in,” Tony said sharply, his tone still calm. “I’ve got it.”
Hulk’s gaze was fixed on Tony’s actual body.
“That’s Rogers,” Tony said, getting Hulk’s attention again. “He’s me right now. Do you remember him?”
“Hulk smash,” Hulk grunted, lips curling into a grin.
“That’s right.” Tony grinned back.
Hulk loomed closer, eyes fixed on Tony’s face. “Not scared?”
“Nope.” Tony’s grin softened into a smile. He stretched his hand out. “We good, big guy?”
Hulk’s large hand extended, too, and it wrapped itself around Tony’s hand with a gentleness not usually used. Tony heard repressed gasps from Pepper and Rogers that he ignored.
“Good,” Hulk grunted, shaking Tony’s entire arm once before letting go. He took one large step back, collapsing into a sitting position that shook the floor with minute vibrations.
“Okay, great.” Tony clapped once before letting his hands drop to his sides. “So I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind letting Bruce out? Because we’re gonna need him with this.”
Hulk wrinkled his nose. “Not here.”
Tony paused, brow furrowing. “Could you clarify? Do you mean he’s unconscious? Or swapped out like us?” He gestured between Rogers and himself.
“Not here,” Hulk repeated, scowling blackly. “Gone. New man scared.”
“Shit,” Rogers said from behind Tony.
Tony allowed himself a second to be surprised at the sound of Rogers swearing without a moment’s hesitation. Then he refocused on Hulk. “You think you can let the new guy out? We’ll need to find out who it is. I know you probably want Bruce back.”
“Scared,” Hulk insisted.
“I know he is,” Tony said, “but we can help with that. If it doesn’t work out, you can swap again.”
“Tony,” Rogers hissed disapprovingly.
Tony flapped a hand in his direction, not bothering to look over. “Trust me,” he said, looking Hulk in the eye. “We’re going to get Bruce back where he belongs, but we’ll need the new guy’s help for that.”
Hulk stared Tony down for a long minute. Then, finally, he snorted once and closed his eyes.
Tony waited as his large green form turned pinker and smaller, gradually shifting to the familiar form of Bruce Banner – though it wasn’t exactly Bruce anymore, was it…
Waving to the cameras to let JARVIS know that he could let the others in, Tony went over to the unknown person’s side and shook him by the shoulder. It could be anyone, but if Tony had to guess it was probably someone from the Avengers. It just seemed like Loki’s style.
The thought had him glancing at an approaching Rogers. He had yet to mention who he suspected – knew – was the cause of this body swap thing, but that could wait until they figured out who else had been affected.
“Yo, new guy,” Tony said, bopping Bruce’s body on the nose. “Wake up.”
“Tony,” Rogers sighed, the exasperated tone sounding odd with Tony’s voice.
“Rogers,” Tony mimicked, imitating his tone but carrying it much better. He looked up, raising an eyebrow. “Got something to say?”
Rogers looked deeply disapproving, his eyebrows set in a firm line that made Tony’s body’s face look rather mad. “You could’ve gotten hurt,” he said.
“I didn’t,” Tony said casually, glancing back down at Bruce’s body, which was now beginning to show signs of waking up. “I knew he wouldn’t hurt me. We’ve been working with the big guy for a while now.”
“You don’t look like yourself,” Rogers pointed out.
“I talk like myself,” Tony fired back, sitting back on his heels as Bruce’s body’s eyes snapped open far too fast for anyone normal.
“What the fuck?” Bruce’s body said. The crass words and the tone sounded completely wrong coming from the usually mild-mannered doctor. His eyes snapped over to Tony, and widened in confusion. “Captain?”
“Sorry, peach,” Tony said. “That’ll be him you’re looking for.” He jabbed a thumb back at Rogers. “Who are you?”
Bruce’s face now looked thoroughly perplexed, and he sat up, wariness etched in every muscle. “Hawkeye,” he answered cautiously.
“Oh snap.” Tony made a clicking sound with his tongue. “JARVIS, you got that?”
“Indeed, sir. I am already accessing S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mainframe in search for Agent Barton’s body.”
“What’s going on?” the now-identified Barton demanded. His eyes widened, hands flying to his throat. “What’s wrong with my voice?” It was now hilariously high-pitched.
“Would you like a mirror?” Pepper asked politely, holding a handy compact mirror over Tony’s shoulder.
Barton looked over into it, flinching when he caught sight of his reflection. “What the fuck! I’m Banner?”
“Yep.” Tony patted him on the knee, caught the death glare Barton shot his way, and retracted his hand. “And you might want to calm down there before the big guy comes out again.”
“Oh shit.” Barton paled drastically, eyes squeezing shut. “I…I can feel him.”
“Don’t worry,” Tony said. “He won’t cause any problems if you remain relatively calm and we find Bruce, who’s probably in your body right now. Think you can help us out with the location?”
“The Helicarrier,” Barton responded promptly, sounding rather dazed. “Natasha was there, too.”
“I have located them, sir,” JARVIS said. “S.H.I.E.L.D. is rather perplexed as both of them have yet to regain consciousness.”
“Contact them and let them know we’ll be up as soon as we get this sorted out,” Tony said.
Barton sounded notably more composed as he said, “I’m gonna take a wild shot and say that’s you, Stark.”
“You’d be right,” Tony said, smirking.
“And that’s the Captain?” Barton asked, pointing to Rogers.
“Hi,” Rogers said dryly.
Barton stroked the rough stubble of his new face, grimacing slightly. “This is so fucking weird,” he muttered, making to stand. He accepted Tony’s helping hand, wincing as he was pulled upright. “Ugh, God. Is this how Banner feels whenever he turns back?” He looked down, frowning. “My pants are surprisingly in one piece.”
“The wonders of stretchy fabric,” Tony said, patting him on the shoulder. “Why don’t we get you a shirt and then we’ll be off to HQ?”
“Sounds good,” Rogers said before Barton could. “I’d like to be back to normal now.”
Tony shot him a knowing look. “Missing the appetite? I’ve gotta say that you eat a lot.”
“I’ll make sure nothing pressing comes up,” Pepper said, squeezing Tony’s very muscular shoulder. “You do what you have to in order to figure this out. Let me know if you need anything, all right?”
“I will,” Tony promised, smiling at her. He almost leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek, but remembered that using someone else’s body for that might not be considered proper. So he settled for very lightly squeezing her fingers. Time was that he would have gone for the mouth, but he’d lost that right months ago.
His stomach chose that moment to growl angrily, obviously done with the yogurt and banana Tony had fed it.
“I suppose this is the part where I mention that you’re going to need a lot more food?” Rogers said, grinning. “That little bit you had before wasn’t enough.”
“Speaking of food,” Barton said, “when was the last time Banner ate? Or slept? I’m feeling a bit off.”
“Er…” Considering Tony could be just as bad, he had no idea. He looked up at JARVIS for help.
“Forty-eight hours ago,” JARVIS said without prompting. “Might I advise some tea before you leave? Dr. Banner finds it most soothing.”
“Ten minutes,” Pepper said. “Then go before something bad happens that will inevitably be blamed on you.”
“Hey!” Tony cried indignantly.
“She’s got a point,” Barton said. “Ninety percent of what happens somehow gets pinned on you in S.H.I.E.L.D. paperwork, including the times the coffee machines don’t work.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” Rogers said, sounding perturbed.
“People love to hate me,” Tony said wryly.
Barton blinked, squinting as he glanced askance at Tony. “So fucking weird,” he muttered again.
Given that S.H.I.E.L.D. was really worried about their unconscious assassins-slash-agents, the Quinjet they sent to pick them up arrived quickly and carted them to the Helicarrier even faster. Tony managed to keep a lid on his snarkiness and pass as Rogers with only a few strange looks, while Barton just twiddled his thumbs and Rogers glared at everyone in his pitiful attempt at being Tony.
They were greeted on the Helicarrier deck by Fury and his deputy director Maria Hill, and they headed inside out of the cold, thin air before saying anything.
“Do I want to know how you found out?” Fury asked, glaring at Rogers.
“It’s quite a story,” Rogers answered evenly. “Maybe we could see the others first?”
The lack of a joke had Fury narrowing his eye in suspicion, but Tony clearing his throat and looking officially disapproving had Fury bustling them along in no time. Definitely an advantage of wearing Captain America’s face, but Tony dearly wished he could mouth off now, although it would be okay to do so once they were in the same room as Romanov’s and Barton’s bodies.
“They just dropped,” Fury said once they were outside the door. “They’ve been coming close to consciousness in the last several minutes.”
“Then we’ll be there when they wake,” Tony said, opening the door and stepping through.
“Oh, thank God,” Barton blurted out upon landing eyes on his unharmed body.
Fury and Hill looked at him strangely.
“They’re unhurt?” Barton looked unsure of himself.
“They are,” Hill confirmed, eyeing him suspiciously.
Tony walked over to Barton’s body, where presumably Bruce was now. He stared down at him, but didn’t have to wait long before Bruce shook his head, groaned, and opened his eyes, squinting in the bright lights.
“Captain?” he asked fuzzily. “Is there a reason you’re here?”
“By the Norns!” Romanov’s voice came, sounding startled. “I am female!”
That answered that question.
“Thor?” Rogers asked tentatively.
“Yes, indeed!” Thor’s formal speech patterns sounded ridiculous in Natasha’s voice. “It is good to see you, Anthony.”
For his part, Bruce stared down at his hands and back up at Tony. “Who am I?” He sounded remarkably calm.
“You’re me,” Barton said, appearing at Tony’s shoulder.
“Yes, that’s quite clear,” Bruce said, squinting up at his body. “But I don’t know who you are.”
“Clint,” Barton said. “The guy who shoots stuff.”
“What the hell is going on here?” Fury shouted, sounding absolutely furious.
“Director!” Thor boomed, though it wasn’t very loud. “Where is my body?”
Fury looked like he was getting a migraine. “Thor?”
Hill glanced at Bruce. “Dr. Banner?”
“Hi.” Bruce smiled wanly. “This is a first.”
“Hawkeye here,” Barton said. “He and I switched bodies.”
“And you two?” Fury demanded, glancing between Tony and Rogers.
“Yo,” Tony said. “Whassup.”
“Tony,” Rogers sighed.
“Are you telling me that none of you are in the right bodies?”
“Since we’re short one because Romanov’s wherever Thor’s body is,” Tony said, “I’m gonna jump the gun and say yes. Thor, where were you before?”
“I was in New Mexico,” Thor said. “Jane must be concerned.”
“She’s probably already awake,” Tony said, “what with being in a god’s body. I woke up before the Captain there.”
“Call her,” Fury ordered Hill. “We need to get this straightened out.”
Thor swept his blankets off and stood, peering down his new body. Romanov had been wearing casual clothes, but they were flattering enough that nothing was left to the imagination. She carried purple off very well.
“Did you have any problems?” Bruce asked Barton.
“With the other guy?” Barton shrugged, looking like he was searching for words.
“It worked out,” Tony said before Barton could put his foot in his mouth. “He knew what was going on before we did.”
“No one’s pissing anyone off,” Fury snapped.
“I didn’t say anything,” Tony objected.
“I like this,” Thor proclaimed, bouncing. “It reminds me of when Loki and I dressed as maidens to trick the Frost Giants.”
Everyone was silent, absorbing the implications of that statement.
“I did not need to know that,” Tony said finally.
“Blackmail,” Barton said with vindictive glee.
“Loki cares not for blackmail,” Thor said. “He shifts often into the shape of a woman.”
“Really?” Bruce sounded fascinated.
“It has served many uses over the years,” Thor confirmed.
“That’s lovely,” Fury said. “Now why don’t we pull ourselves together – don’t, Stark – and figure out how to fix this?”
“How did it happen?” Rogers wondered, fingers tapping away at the arc reactor. It was a tic Tony indulged in when by himself; he was far too self-conscious to do it in public. But Rogers apparently wasn’t aware enough of his new body to realize he was doing it.
“The million dollar question, isn’t it?” Tony asked, not feeling at all guilty for withholding the statement “It was Loki.” He was going to wait for Romanov and another room before saying anything of the sort.
It would probably result in something painful if anyone found out that he’d known about it from the beginning but never said anything to anyone, but like hell was he going to say that Loki had tricked him and gotten them all into this mess in the first place. Because it was Tony’s fault here; if Loki hadn’t found him and done something – no wait. If not Tony, then Loki would have found someone else and pulled this same shit.
Tony was definitely well-adjusted and not blaming himself for every single misfortune. So it wasn’t his fault that this had happened; he was just the unlucky schmuck who got shafted this time.
A hard poke in his unusually meaty bicep had him jolting out of his thoughts and shooting a glare at the person who’d done it. Rogers looked faintly perturbed to be on the receiving end of a glare from his own face, but he recovered admirably quickly to fold his arms across his chest and return it with a pinched look on his face that made it look constipated.
If that was how Tony normally looked when angry, he was never doing so again.
“I asked,” Rogers said slowly, evidently repeating what he’d been saying while Tony was lost in his thoughts, “if you’d seen anything weird going on. Anything that could explain something like this happening.”
Welllll, Loki had snuck into the elevator with him, but Tony wasn’t going to tell him that. Not now anyway. “Nope.” He popped the ‘p,’ smiling brightly.
“Wowww,” Barton whistled lowly, squinting at Tony. “That’s quite a smile you got there, Cap.”
Rogers flushed, eyes skittering to a corner of the room and refusing to meet anyone’s eyes. His shoulders hunched slightly, his fingers coming up to tap against the arc reactor casing in an uneven staccato beat.
There was a reason Tony had squashed all his blushing impulses, and this was why.
“Oh my God, you’re blushing.” Barton sounded gleeful. “I’ve never seen Stark blush before.”
“There’s a reason for that,” Tony snapped, waving a dismissive hand and frowning as his stomach made its displeasure known. Ugh, again? “Anyone got a granola bar or something?”
Hill rolled her eyes but said nothing, only reaching into her pouch and pulling out what looked to be a protein bar and handing it over.
“I shouldn’t worry about poison, should I?” Tony asked, waving the little bar around.
“She wouldn’t poison herself,” Rogers protested, looking absolutely scandalized. It was all Tony could do to stop himself from telling him to please not give him any more frown lines.
“As lovely as it is to see you all getting along,” Fury said, sounding unimpressed, “why don’t we save the theatrics for after we get Agent Romanov back?”
“I would prefer to see my body in good health,” Thor said, using the reflection of the windows to peer at his new visage. He squinted slightly, rubbing a thumb under his jawline.
“So are we doing it here or what?” Tony asked Fury, raising his eyebrows pointedly as he took a large bite of the protein bar. A second later he had to resist spitting it out. Ugh, what did they put in that? Cement?
“Let’s not tempt fate,” Fury said dryly, giving Barton a wary look before he went over to a screen and turned it on.
Still chewing through the disgusting protein bar, Tony turned to Rogers. “How do you manage the appetite?”
Rogers’s mouth was twisted slightly, and he took a moment to breathe, wincing, before he answered. “Just used to it.”
Tony didn’t say anything else, eyes sweeping over Rogers’s form. It was so odd seeing himself stand there, though it was pretty clear that it wasn’t him standing there upon closer inspection. Tony had gotten used to the pain of the arc reactor and the limitations it put on his breathing; Rogers evidently was not used to it, and it showed in the way his shoulders remained slightly hunched over and his too-shallow breathing and the lines of pain around his eyes. Tony would have to give him some advice sooner or later, but he’d rather do it later because if he did it now, then everyone would know.
And Tony didn’t need anyone’s pity.
So he turned away from Rogers and to where Fury had been put through to a rather frazzled Jane Foster, the physical body of Thor hovering in the background and looking as implacable as Romanov usually did.
“She woke up about an hour ago like this,” Foster was telling Fury. “It took us a little bit of time to figure out what had happened.” She looked faintly embarrassed as she said this, and Tony wondered what they had gotten up to – maybe some kissing? “But she said to wait until we got your call, and I didn’t have your number to begin with,” she added irritably, scowling now.
“We change numbers,” Fury answered calmly. “Agent Romanov, are you in good condition to travel?”
Romanov came up to stand right by Foster. “Yes. Although someone will have to pick up Thor’s hammer; I can’t lift it.” It was startling hearing Romanov’s cadences and accent in Thor’s deep voice; Tony could see Bruce furrowing his brow in curiosity, although in Barton’s body it just looked like he was getting mad.
“Not to worry,” Thor reassured her, smiling gently. It looked really strange on Romanov’s face. “I can call for her from here.”
“And have a hammer flying through the air?” Fury waved a dismissive hand. “You’re going there in person to get it; we don’t need more attention as is, and a magical hammer soaring through the skies and taking out planes is going to attract it.”
“I would not destroy any of your aircrafts,” Thor protested indignantly.
“There’s a Quinjet prepped to go,” Hill told Thor unsympathetically. “They’re waiting on you.”
Thor seemed like he wanted to roll his eyes but refrained. “Very well,” he conceded, nodding at Fury. Looking down at the screen, he smiled gently at Foster. “I shall see you momentarily, Jane.” Then, with a sweep that couldn’t have been more regal than if he had an actual cape, Thor departed the room with Hill in tow.
Tony took a moment to choke down the last of his protein bar while Fury closed the call and Rogers and everyone else just sat around looking pretty.
“How long do you think it’ll take you to fix this?” Rogers asked, looking up from his feet.
It took Tony a moment to realize that Rogers was talking to him, and that simultaneously puzzled and warmed him from the inside out. “No idea,” he answered truthfully. He knew it had been Loki, and that meant magic was involved in this, but other than that he hadn’t the faintest idea what to do.
“You said it was magic,” Rogers persisted.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I know how it works.” Tony made a face that said exactly what he thought of the affair. He wadded up the wrapper he was still holding and threw it towards the trash can, but he overestimated the amount of strength to use and it hit the rim, bowling the entire thing over and spilling the contents on the floor.
Bruce hid his face in his hands, Barton sighed and flopped back dramatically, Rogers frowned and his mouth did a funny twitching thing that Tony almost recognized as a smile, and Fury just looked completely aggrieved.
“I meant to do that,” Tony offered a moment later, feeling his cheeks warm slightly. He took a breath and thought about something else – namely Fury in a bathing suit. The warmth in his cheeks faded as quickly as it had come, and he sighed in relief.
“How’d you do that?” Rogers blurted out, blinking.
Tony feigned ignorance. “Throw something? It’s pretty easy, Cap; most of the power comes from the wrist and not the elbow so what you really want to do is use your arm as a fulcrum and—”
“No physics,” Barton groaned from the bed. “Just no.”
Bruce moved as if to push his glasses up his nose, but his finger slid across bare skin instead. Twitching slightly, he instead moved to rubbing his forehead, a nervous tic he had picked up from Tony two days into their partnership in the tower.
“I know how to throw things,” Rogers said indignantly, straightening up.
“Good for you,” Tony responded, nodding once.
Rogers narrowed his eyes, opened his mouth as if to say something else, but then shut it with an audible clack of teeth that almost had Tony wincing because those were his teeth damn it. Then, shaking his head, Rogers inhaled deeply through his nose, and promptly let it out in an anguished wheeze.
Of course Bruce noticed. “Captain?”
“I’m fine,” Rogers said rather breathlessly, shaking his head as Bruce made to go to him. “Just…got a bit dizzy there. I don’t think this body’s eaten lately.”
“If it’s anything like the last time this body ate,” Barton said to the ceiling, “then that was probably two days ago.”
“I’m pretty sure I had a doughnut sometime in that time frame,” Tony protested.
“The height of nutrition,” Fury remarked dryly. “Get something to eat, Rogers. We’ll pick this up when Thor and Romanov return. There’s nothing we can do about this problem now.”
“And while you’re at it,” Tony said, refusing to feel the slightest bit guilty about what Rogers was going through now, “could you get something for me, too?” His stomach was still grumbling.
Fury looked between Rogers and Tony and nodded. “Both of you go and grab lunch from the cafeteria.” He ignored Tony’s noise of indignation. “Stark, I know you know where it is so don’t give me that bullshit. I advise against the meatloaf; you never know what they put into that.”
And before Tony could protest, Rogers had grabbed him by the waist, whirled him around, and then pushed him out.
The fact that he did all this while in Tony’s body was quite a feat; Tony made a mental note to ask him about it later.
For now he really should get food before Rogers’s body staged a full-scale rebellion.
Steve really didn’t want to say anything, but Stark’s body was in terrible shape. His headache hadn’t gotten any better since arriving on the Helicarrier, and the pulsing pain in his chest hadn’t decreased either. He would manage to forget about it for a short time, his senses becoming somewhat desensitized to it, but then he’d do something wrong (like move weirdly or breathe too deeply) and then his ribs would hurt and he’d be acutely reminded of the fact that he had a giant metal obstruction in his chest.
The not-breathing part was something he could deal with after having grown up with acute asthma, and so was the pain because of his numerous other physical ailments. But Steve hadn’t missed them after he’d gotten the serum, and he’d just gotten used being able to breathe like a normal human being and move without fear of being hurt, so this was really pissing him off.
And he had the faint suspicion that the headache he was nursing was thanks to a chronic lack of oxygen since he couldn’t breathe properly.
He winced again as he tried to pull in too deep a breath, his lungs unable to expand properly with the arc reactor sitting on top of them. Jesus, how did Stark manage this day in and day out?
Steve shot Stark a glance, still extremely off put by seeing his own body in front of him. Stark wasn’t even looking at him right now, instead frowning slightly and chewing on his bottom lip, a nervous tic that Steve had (so muscle memory transferred over).
Taking a small breath and letting it out slowly, Steve rubbed a hand through his hair, ruffling it up and pressing down on his scalp as he did. The pressure did nothing to alleviate his headache, and Steve made a mental note to look for some headache pills when he could. They would at least have an effect on him now, so why not use them?
Or maybe they’d figure out this whole thing quickly and Steve would be back in his body before he even needed to bother with anything of the sort (yeah, right, when was his luck ever so good?).
All else aside, Steve did need to get something to eat. His stomach had been grumbling rather unpleasantly, and he had the faint feeling that was associated with low blood sugar (something he was now uncomfortably familiar with thanks to his higher metabolism).
“Think you can act like me long enough to put off suspicion?” Stark asked him out of the blue.
Steve blinked. “Wha – yeah. Yeah, I can.” He nodded once in response to Stark’s rather skeptical eyebrow raise. “Yes,” he added more firmly.
“This should be fun,” Stark muttered, lips twitching into a small grin before it faded and his face blanked out (Steve didn’t look like that all the time, did he?).
“Act normal,” Steve hissed, poking him in the side. Stark flinched back from it, hand slapping Steve’s away (shit, he should’ve remembered his reflexes). He withdrew his hand, flexing the smarting fingers and making a mental note to avoid startling Stark again (he still refused to apologize).
Stark didn’t apologize either, simply walking into the cafeteria and picking up a tray. Steve followed quickly, doing his best to appear completely and utterly bored like he assumed Stark would act.
“Add some twitching, will you,” Stark muttered while he got some pasta from the grim-faced man spooning it out. He smiled brightly at the man, who only blinked in response.
Steve just rolled his eyes, plastering the smarmiest grin he could muster on his face as he got his own serving of pasta. This time the man did react, only to give Steve a rather lascivious wink.
Stark made a strange noise that sounded rather like a dying cat from next to Steve and bailed the moment he got past the suspicious looking meatloaf and grabbed a dessert. He headed to an empty table far away from any other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and sat down, taking a large forkful of cheesy pasta and stuffing it into his mouth as Steve sat down more leisurely.
“You’re not doing any flirting while in my body,” Stark said aggressively, stabbing a piece of broccoli like he wanted to murder it.
“You always flirt,” Steve pointed out, twirling a strand of spaghetti (why was there a spaghetti strand in a bowl of fettuccine pasta?) on his fork. “Wouldn’t it seem weird if I don’t?”
After a brief period of silence, Stark made a pained face and a huffing sound, grabbing the salt and showering it over his food. “Then don’t hook up with anyone.”
“I wouldn’t,” Steve protested indignantly. “This isn’t my body.” He speared a carrot and immediately regretted popping it into his mouth when it turned out it had all the consistency of paper and tasted like cardboard. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” he asked after managing to swallow the vile thing.
Stark had very wisely moved the carrots to the edge of his plate after watching Steve choke on his (shouldn’t he be more concerned with Steve potentially choking to death in his body?). “Despite what some people may think, I do have a modicum of decency in me,” he said dismissively, cutting the fried fish into smaller pieces. “Your virtue is safe with me.”
“I feel really reassured now,” Steve said. It was only a second later that he realized that yes, he was reassured. Despite his crass nature, Stark was inherently good, and Steve could trust him. Any man who had befriended the Hulk was doubtlessly trustworthy, and Steve had fought alongside Stark without trouble.
Stark was giving him an amused look, no doubt understanding exactly what was going through Steve’s mind because he knew his body better than Steve. All Steve did was give him an unimpressed look and refocus on his food.
“So what’ve you been doing post-Chitauri?” Stark asked a few minutes later.
Avoiding Stark because he don’t know how to deal with their confusing relationship. He did feel rather guilty about giving him the slip every time he’d seen Stark pop up in the vicinity.
Steve shrugged, only mildly confused at the question given that Stark knew full well what Steve had been doing, especially if he’d been practically stalking him for whatever reason. “Volunteering, researching stuff…” He was rather ashamed to admit that he hadn’t actually done all that much, still a bit overwhelmed at the transition from his time to now. It wasn’t like the technology was all that confusing to him anymore, but it was the social changes and other little aspects that continued to overwhelm him.
More than anything, he was just so alone. Maybe he should have talked with Stark when he tried to get to Steve, but then he would have to deal with other things he wasn’t fully prepared to handle.
“How’s adjusting going?” Stark asked, actually sounding curious.
Steve shrugged again, looking down at the rather unpalatable fish and the disgusting carrot bits left on his plate. Then, because he really did want to talk about it (and why not Stark since he was here?), he said quietly, “Good mostly.” He gave a small half-smile. “It’s just…really weird.”
Stark had fixed him with a piercing look that was making Steve feel rather uncomfortable. “You having any problems?”
Steve picked at a tissue, chewing the inside of his mouth as he considered the question. He couldn’t really talk about anything here in the S.H.I.E.L.D. cafeteria, and he kind of just wanted to go back and see if Thor had come back with Romanov.
Stark hummed thoughtfully, polishing off the last of the yogurt he’d grabbed for dessert and stacking it on top of his plate. “I get it. We’re not going to stay here, though, if I have anything to say about it.”
“I’d hope not,” Steve said, rather thankful that he’d stopped for the meantime.
“I meant on the Helicarrier, but that also goes for getting back to where we should be,” Stark said, smirking. The sight of a smirk that Steve usually associated with Stark’s face (and only then in pictures and videos) was strange, but stranger still was the fact that the smirk seemed genuine. And Steve would know; he’d seen his own insincere smiles often enough while on that horrible USO tour.
Because he could, Steve smiled back, feeling his eyes crinkle at the corners (no wonder Stark had so many laugh lines). “That sounds good.” And he meant that in more ways than one.
It took about half an hour after Tony and Rogers left the cafeteria and the really bad food behind before Romanov and Thor came back, Thor carrying Mjölnir over his shoulder. It was really weird seeing Romanov’s smaller frame carry the hammer instead of Thor’s much larger one, but that was nothing compared to seeing Thor’s mannerisms in Romanov’s body and Romanov’s catlike grace in Thor’s much larger and bulkier body.
Not for the first time, Tony wondered if his own mannerisms were so apparent in Rogers’s body.
Probably. He had a lot of tics, especially if he didn’t pay attention.
But most of his usual tics seemed to have transferred over to Rogers, since he was the one twiddling with random objects and occasionally sticking things in his mouth, often without noticing that he was doing so until five minutes after the fact. And then he was adorably – no, not adorably, stop it, Stark – confused about how that pencil had gotten into his mouth.
Instead, Tony found himself able to sit still without the slightest inclination to fidget, although he occasionally found himself picking at his fingernails without thinking. The fact that Rogers was a guy who picked at his fingernails was either really adorable or mortifying depending on which way Tony looked at it.
And it wasn’t just Rogers and Tony. Barton ended up playing with Bruce’s glasses more often than not and one time almost poked himself in the eye because he wasn’t paying attention. Bruce didn’t blink as often as he should, and it was really disconcerting to be carrying on a conversation with a man who didn’t blink but just stared right at you.
Tony hadn’t had an opportunity to observe Thor and Romanov, but he had no doubt that the same thing was going on with them.
In any case, by the time Thor and Romanov joined them in an empty room that only contained the Avengers, Fury, Hill, a gigantic table, and a bunch of chairs, Tony was thoroughly sick of being on the Helicarrier and just wanted off. He also wanted out of Rogers’s body because watching the other man inside his body was hurting his soul; he was feeling guiltier and guiltier about not telling Rogers all the little tips and tricks he’d amassed over the last several years as to how to deal with a heavy arc reactor in his chest.
His new breathing patterns probably weren’t ingrained enough in his bodily habits for Rogers to unconsciously pick up on them, especially if he wasn’t concentrating on something. It seemed easier for him if he was talking with someone, since he wasn’t concentrating on breathing or moving, so Tony tried to involve him in the conversation with Bruce as much as he could. Rogers looked surprised at this, but didn’t hesitate and slipped relatively easily into the conversation, only occasionally stumbling over the subject matter when it became too technical.
The fact that Rogers was cute and smart should not have been as hot as it was. But it was probably mostly Tony’s own brain that was backing him up there, because Tony knew better than anyone how quickly his brain worked. And Rogers’s brain wasn’t anywhere as quick as his own; Tony had noticed that after losing his train of thought twice while talking with Bruce and Rogers. It was aggravating, but he could only hope that no one had noticed; Bruce seemed to be suffering the same problem if the way he was talking was any indicator because he kept trailing off and frowning as if trying to get his thoughts in order.
So the arrival of Thor and Romanov was entirely welcome, and they took their seats upon entering. It was pretty strange seeing Thor’s body next to Bruce’s and Romanov’s several chairs apart from everyone else’s. But it was nowhere near as weird as sitting next to his own body and with Barton’s on his right.
Fury took one look at the room on a whole before sighing and looking aggrieved. “Now that we’re all in the same room, why don’t we figure out what the hell happened?”
Arms folded across his chest, Tony chewed the inside of his mouth, stomach churning nervously. They were all in the same room, so… “Loki,” he said before anyone else could speak.
Thor frowned, mouth twisting unhappily in a way that looked foreign on Romanov’s face. “Do not speak ill of my brother because of what he did.”
“No, I mean it was Loki,” Tony insisted, feeling Fury glare holes in the side of his head.
“Impossible,” Thor protested. “Loki is in Asgard.”
“Funny, so I must have seen another black-haired green-eyed guy who speaks like a pretentious Norse god in my elevator this morning.” Tony raised an eyebrow.
“You couldn’t have told us this before?” Fury demanded angrily.
Tony shrugged, keeping a blank poker face on. “I didn’t want to say it more than once,” he said offhandedly. “‘Sides, all traces of Loki disappeared, so there’s nothing you could’ve done. Because magic,” he added, wiggling his fingers demonstratively. He thought he heard a snort from Rogers.
“Let’s not get into that,” Bruce interrupted, shooting Fury a look. He turned to Thor. “Can your brother do that?”
Thor didn’t respond immediately, brow furrowed thoughtfully. “Loki is well versed in the skills of magic,” he conceded eventually. “Even I do not know the full extent of his abilities, but a little trick such as this would not be beyond them.”
“Little?” Barton spluttered indignantly. “He body-swapped us! How is that little?”
“It is a small thing in Asgard,” Thor said mysteriously, not elaborating any further.
“So can it be reversed?” Fury asked, pinning Thor with a hard stare.
“Of course,” Thor said. “Nearly all magic can be reversed.”
“Then take them to Asgard and get it fixed,” Fury ordered much to nobody’s surprise.
Thor grimaced apologetically. “I am afraid it will not be that simple. If it was truly Loki’s work, then he is no longer in Asgard, and only Loki’s magic will reverse this spell. It is one of the caveats of magic,” he added.
“Oh fuck,” Tony groaned, rubbing his face in his hands. “So we’re stuck like this?”
“Until Loki’s spell runs its course or he decides to reverse it,” Thor confirmed.
“Knowing him, that’s never,” Tony muttered, face still buried in his hands and they weren’t even his hands.
“He has to have a point to this,” Romanov said thoughtfully. “He doesn’t seem the kind to play pointless pranks.”
“This is true,” Thor agreed slowly. “Loki has often played pranks – it is his nature as a trickster – but his pranks have always served some sort of purpose. But for the life of me, I cannot see what the purpose for this spell is.”
“See how the other side lives?” Barton suggested, making a face that looked really odd with Bruce’s features. “Isn’t that usually the point in all the body-swap stories out there?”
“The only body-swap story I’ve seen is the movie Freaky Friday,” Rogers said, confused. “Are there more?”
“So much more,” Barton assured him, grinning kind of crazily. “It’ll blow your mind.”
“I’d recommend not reading any of it,” Romanov said immediately, giving Barton a quelling look. “Most of it is probably porn.”
Rogers flushed deeply, and ugh. Now the entire room had seen what Tony’s body looked like when it was blushing.
Romanov peered at Rogers. “So that’s why you don’t blush.”
“I will ruin your credit scores,” Tony said incredibly mildly, “don’t think I won’t.”
“He definitely will,” Bruce said very helpfully, fixing everyone with a blank stare from Barton’s emotive face – which wasn’t at all emotive really.
“Do you think we can leave?” Rogers asked before it could turn into a full-on fight. “I think I want to scream into my pillow like a teenager.”
Rogers’s statement was surprising enough that Tony had hauled Bruce and Rogers out of their chairs and out of the room before anyone else reacted.
And even then Fury couldn’t keep them detained because Rogers really managed to make Tony’s face look pathetically adorable in a way that Tony had never really mastered except in the bedroom. Tony heard Barton whispering to Romanov that it was like a secret weapon; who knew Stark could be so adorable?
That was when Tony tuned out, not needing to hear more.
They made it back to his tower in the evening, S.H.I.E.L.D. detaining them for a bit longer just to be sure that there weren’t any negative ramifications from having all swapped bodies. They’d all rather impressively stonewalled the organization, only for Bruce to later tell everyone in the Quinjet that he expected a full gamut of tests done in the privacy of his lab in Stark Tower.
And his rather terrifying stare in Barton’s body quelled any arguments that would’ve risen.
Besides, Rogers had then said that it was probably a good idea to know what exactly was going to happen now that they were all in different bodies. Even Tony had to admit that he kinda wanted to know what was what.
But it was too late to do anything at the moment, so they just all convened in the penthouse for a few hours, milling about and generally looking rather uncomfortable. Pepper seemed rather taken aback at the sight by the time she finished up her work and joined them.
“I suppose it was a team thing then?” she asked Tony by the time she joined him on the couch.
“Yes,” Tony groaned, head resting against the back of the couch. He’d already gone and eaten another full meal, desperately needing the calories even though he’d done virtually nothing other than sit on his ass. Rogers’s metabolism sucked.
“So who’s who?” Pepper probably thought she was being discreet by peering at everyone, but it was painfully obvious.
“Bruce’s over there,” Tony said, gesturing to where Bruce was talking with Barton about keeping Hulk on a leash. “And Romanov’s in Thor.”
“Wow, really?” Pepper looked startled, twisting around to look at Romanov and Thor, both of whom were behind the bar and apparently trying to outdrink each other because that was a thing now. “I wouldn’t have pictured that.”
“She’s the only woman on a superhero team of men; there are only men for her to get swapped into,” Tony grumbled, sliding down further on the couch and leaning slightly into Rogers, who was sitting right next to Tony. “Speaking of which, we need more women.”
“They’re not there for you to ogle,” Rogers muttered under his breath, squinting down at the tablet Tony had given him when they’d arrived. He’d taken to the drawing app like a fish to water.
“That’s not it,” Tony said dismissively. “But women bring something else to the table that men don’t, and we could use that.”
“Learned this from experience, have you?” Pepper asked wryly.
“So much experience,” Tony agreed, recalling each and every single bright female scientist, businesswoman, engineer, etc. he’d met during his career.
“I’ll see what S.H.I.E.L.D. can do about that,” Rogers said after a moment, tapping against the screen with the pencil.
“We should totally do our own thing,” Tony said, smushing himself further into Rogers’s side to see what he was drawing. It seemed to be the view outside the windows. “Too much control from a governmental organization is never good.”
“That’s actually one of the best points he’s ever made,” Pepper informed a very amused Rogers.
“Shut up,” Tony muttered, shooting Pepper a peeved glare. “I have good points.”
“Only when you think about it,” Pepper said. “All the blackmail I’ve accumulated over the years clearly says otherwise.”
“She has no blackmail,” Tony told Rogers. “None at all. Ignore whatever she says.”
“That’s nice,” Pepper said in a dangerously sweet tone that had alarm bells ringing in Tony’s head. “Does that mean that I can show everyone those pictures I collected of you—”
Tony flailed threateningly, nearly smacking Pepper in the face as he straightened up. “Don’t you dare.”
“Not that it matters,” Pepper said, grinning rather evilly. “I think this episode has enough blackmail for the next ten years.”
“Rogers isn’t doing anything incriminating,” Tony pointed out.
“Not now,” Pepper said, still grinning.
“You’re not allowed to talk to him,” Tony told her. “I refuse to let you.”
“I might let her if you don’t start calling me Steve,” Rogers said mildly, mouth twitching slightly at the corners.
“Foul!” Thor shouted from the bar. “This drink is too sweet! Would you have me cheat?”
“Then call me Tony,” Tony said, only slightly taken aback at Rog – Steve’s sudden demand. He then promptly wanted to smack himself because Steve had been calling him Tony; he really hated this brain.
Steve very kindly didn’t point out that he’d pretty much already been doing that whenever he’d said Tony’s name. “Thanks,” he responded softly, smiling a sweet smile that seemed at odds on Tony’s face simply because he didn’t really smile like that.
Pepper made a strange sound that sounded a bit like a gasp, but when Tony turned to look questioningly at her, she’d recovered and was looking through something on her phone. Her lips were pressed together.
“I can move some of the meetings for this week around,” Pepper said before Tony could ask what was wrong, “but there’s a meeting with R&D that you need to go to next week that can’t be rescheduled. And if you’re not back to normal…” She looked helplessly between Steve and Tony.
“I’m sure we can get the Captain here trained up to act like me,” Tony said, squeezing Steve’s shoulder in camaraderie.
He apparently did it too tightly, because Steve ended up wincing and pulling away from him, saying, “Ease up, Tony.”
Tony did, mortified. “Sorry.”
Steve had a rather pained smile on his face and rolled his shoulder. Damn, Tony hoped he hadn’t injured his body’s shoulder; that would suck when he got back into it. “It’s okay,” he insisted, shaking his head. “Happened to me a lot after…after the procedure.” He had an uncomfortable look on his face that Tony distinctly recognized as being his “oh God, I’m in emotional pain and trying to hide it” mask.
He rushed to get it off. “And then you were on that tour – I’ve seen the tapes – and you’re not a half-bad actor actually”—it was a lie, but who cared?—“so I’m sure that you could totally pass as me if Loki’s spell hasn’t worn off before then.”
“Your body is highly resilient to this brew!” Thor was telling Romanov in a very loud voice.
“I’m not very good with science,” Steve said slowly.
“Not much science with R&D,” Tony said. “Just blather on about how incompetent they all are and you’ll be good.”
“I wish I could say don’t do that, but that’s actually true,” Pepper said long-sufferingly.
Steve actually looked appalled. “I can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can.” Tony almost went for the shoulder, reconsidered, and instead patted Steve on the hand. “You’ll learn all about being me before that point.”
“But the priority is getting you all sorted out,” Pepper said disapprovingly.
“Yes, that’s the priority,” Tony agreed, not looking back at her. He was too busy watching Steve stare at the hand on his own.
Before Tony or Steve could say anything else, there was a loud shattering noise from the vicinity of the bar and a triumphant cry of “Another!” from Thor.
Everyone stopped what they were doing to look over and see Thor completely flush with alcohol and rather hazy-eyed, clinging onto a rather smug-looking Romanov. She didn’t even look fazed after all the alcohol she’d doubtlessly consumed, which begged the question as to whether Asgardians could even get drunk on the alcohol of Earth.
“I think we should take this somewhere else,” Tony heard Barton saying, which was quickly followed Bruce’s agreement. The two left quickly afterwards.
“I’ll be heading off, too,” Pepper said, now watching Thor rhapsodize about something or another – it sounded like Romanov’s eyes, and wasn’t that narcissistic, “so why don’t you two do something about that.” She gestured with her phone towards Thor and Romanov and ruffled Tony’s hair before he could protest. Then she left without another word.
Tony was silent for a moment, watching as Romanov took Thor by the arm and carefully maneuvered them both out from behind the bar. “Should we?” he asked finally.
“I think she has it handled,” Steve said, both eyebrows raised.
“Yeah,” Tony conceded when Romanov and Thor were at the elevator so JARVIS could lead them to some bedrooms. “I suppose she does.”
By the time the elevator doors had closed on Romanov and Thor, Tony and Steve had fallen into a stilted silence, one which Tony didn’t know how to break.
Steve shifted from beside him, clearing his throat awkwardly. “Do you think we could talk?” he asked softly.
Tony knew exactly what he wanted to talk about. “I need a lot of alcohol for this.”
Steve’s lips curled into a small smile. “Alcohol doesn’t affect me – that body.” He gestured with a pen.
“Yeah, I know,” Tony sighed, rubbing his temples. “And I don’t think there’s any left thanks to Asgardian and Russian metabolisms.”
“We don’t have to talk,” Steve started, sounding so unsure that Tony wanted to rush to reassure him.
“No, we should,” Tony said, sighing again. “We really should. Come on. I’ll get us some coffee while we do it.”
“Okay,” Steve said quietly, turning the tablet off. “Where’s your kitchen?”
“This floor’s a lot bigger than what you’ve just seen at the moment,” Tony said, mustering up the ability to smirk at him.
“No kidding?” Steve smirked back, sounding extraordinarily pleased with himself at the comeback.
“Witty.” Tony nudged him slightly in reprimand, making sure to keep the strength toned down.
He led Steve to the kitchen, making a direct beeline for the coffee machine as he heard Steve pull a chair back and sit down. It was a bit late for coffee, and Steve’s body wouldn’t feel the caffeine anyway, but he knew his own body, and his body was probably suffering a caffeine headache after the day.
Tony was really asking for some pain after not having given Steve any coffee at all.
“You’ve got a headache, haven’t you?” Tony asked, unable to look back at Steve.
There was a short, surprised silence. “Yeah,” Steve said eventually.
“Caffeine headache,” Tony explained, taking down two mugs and also the milk and sugar that Steve might want. “You haven’t had any coffee, have you?”
“No.” Steve was silent again, and Tony chanced a glance over his shoulder to see Steve staring down at the tabletop. “I thought,” he started softly, “that it might’ve been something else.” His shoulders hunched tellingly, and Tony hid a wince.
“Could be,” Tony managed in an even tone, quieting the beeping of the machine. He didn’t bother with the milk and sugar, uncertain as to how Steve would take it. He liked it black and occasionally with milk if he wanted something sweeter, but he had no idea how Steve would take to his taste buds.
“How do you usually drink it?” Steve asked, thoughts evidently running along the same lines as Tony.
“Black,” Tony said truthfully, “but sometimes I take milk. You?”
“I don’t,” Steve answered, blowing across the top of the drink before chancing a sip. He made a strange face at the taste, eyebrows scrunching up. “Not as strong as I expected,” he judged.
“Shouldn’t be considering how often I drink it.” Tony took his own small sip, and then immediately choked when his taste buds burned in protest. “Oh Jesus.”
“Yeah, I think my taste buds are a bit stronger than average,” Steve said wryly, pouring some milk into his coffee.
“How do you manage spices?” Tony grimaced, dumping a spoonful of sugar and as much milk as he could into the mug without having it overflow.
“That depends on the spice,” Steve admitted, “but I can manage just about anything.”
Tony highly doubted that if the way the coffee had tasted was any indication, but he kept quiet, taste testing the coffee before putting in another spoonful of sugar.
He didn’t know how to start the discussion, and regret was already smoldering in his chest.
Steve was staring into his coffee, the blue light of the arc reactor casting shadows on his face that made him seem older. It was also pretty damn creepy from this end. “Is this how it always is for you?” he blurted out, eyes flying up to Tony’s.
Tony kept still, very carefully not squeezing the mug he was holding. “The pain, you mean?” he asked slowly, gently setting the mug down on the table so he wasn’t liable to shatter it in his hands. “It’s…you get used to it. I have,” he added when Steve didn’t look convinced.
“It hurts to breathe,” Steve said roughly, eyes pinched. “All the time.”
“There’s a certain trick to it,” Tony said, unconsciously taking a deeper breath and holding it for a few seconds. Just because he could. “Shallow. Don’t expand your rib cage. And stand straight; it gives you more leeway.” He tapped a finger against the ceramic of the mug. “There are meds you can take if gets too much,” he admitted. “I haven’t needed them for a while, but JARVIS knows where they are.”
Steve shook his head. “I can do this,” he insisted, and Tony was struck with the realization that this was the same man who had gone through the incredibly painful procedure to get the serum, and he’d succeeded.
“But you don’t need to.” Tony didn’t quite meet Steve’s eyes, keeping his gaze on the light of the reactor.
“I will.” Steve’s tone forbade further argument. “But…” He slowly straightened, taking that slow, careful deep breath that Tony recognized as his own. “I didn’t know,” he said eventually.
Tony offered a small shrug, drinking some coffee to avoid answering immediately. When he couldn’t get around it anymore, he confessed quietly, “No one did.”
“I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want me to,” Steve offered.
“That…” Tony nodded, ducking his head slightly to hide a swallow. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” The ease with which Steve said it really did make it seem like it was no problem for him to keep it quiet that Tony’s body was literally in pain every second of the day.
Tony took a breath, fingers itching to reach for something that wasn’t there. He settled for wrapping them around the now lukewarm coffee.
“Adjusting hasn’t been too hard,” Steve said suddenly, surprising Tony.
Tony’s head jerked up, his eyes meeting Steve’s. “Really?”
“Yeah.” Steve slowly circled a finger in the direction of the ceiling, still speaking. “The tech was easy enough for me to get used to; I really like the Internet. It’s helped a lot. But it’s more the…the people that keep catching me off guard.” He took a slow steady breath. “That’s what I’m having trouble with,” he admitted.
“I bet they’ve changed a lot,” Tony said, thinking about all the wars and civil rights movements that had taken place after Steve had gone down.
“Fundamentally, I think it’s the same.” Steve’s smile was rather hollow. “But it’s everything else… Flash and glamour and shine, and no one seems to care. And I…” He took another breath, ducking his head and voice dropping to a whisper that Tony’s new ears picked up easily. “I don’t have anyone,” he confessed. “Sometimes I turn and look for someone who isn’t there, and it hits me all over again that they’re all dead or moved on with their lives. I went to see Peggy; she keeps forgetting things – dementia.” His voice cracked halfway through, and he had to clear his throat. “And I – I couldn’t talk with the person S.H.I.E.L.D. gave me at the beginning; she didn’t understand. So I’m here, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I…I’m just really…” He trailed off, unable to finish.
Tony heard the word that Steve couldn’t say: alone. And wasn’t that just the kicker? The man that most of America loved was one of the loneliest men in the country. The man that Tony had grown up looking up to as an inspirational model was just as lost and floundering as Tony.
Tony really didn’t know what to say. Emotional situations were not his forte, and nine times out of ten he put his foot in his mouth, and then everyone went away unhappy and hating the other person.
Hesitatingly, remembering what Pepper and Rhodey did when he was having a bad day, Tony reached out to touch the back of Steve’s hand, fingers gently brushing the skin. “You don’t have to be alone,” he said carefully, desperately floundering for something better to say than that. It sounded so pretentious, like Steve wanted to be alone. “I mean,” he continued hastily, “you’ve got people to talk to. If you want, that is.” He shrugged, trying to make the movement casual and probably failing. “I’m here.”Damn it, why’d he have to go and say that?
Thankfully Steve seemed oblivious to his inner confusion. “I know,” he said, smiling softly. “And thanks. I know…I know we didn’t get off on the right foot. And I’m sorry about that; it was partially my fault. I was wrong about everything I said to you.”
“You think I wasn’t?” Tony managed to crack a grin. “I was wrong, too. I’m not usually that mean.”
Steve was silent for a moment, head tilting forward in a slight nod. Then, “The room of people you called ‘ass-clowns’ will disagree with you.”
“They deserved that, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, Steve, lying,” Tony started indignantly, only to stop when he noticed Steve desperately trying to stifle his laughter. “You stop it,” he demanded.
“I can’t help it,” Steve choked out, shoulders shuddering in silent laughter. “You’re fun to mess with.”
Tony’s mouth dropped open in stunned shock. Who knew Steve Rogers had a wicked sense of humor? That definitely had not been in any of the movies or files he’d looked at. “You sure you want to do this?” he asked, voice low in warning.
Steve’s eyes were bright with laughter as he met Tony’s, teeth flashing in a grin. “So very sure.”
“Okay then.” Tony made a clicking sound with his tongue and sat back in his chair. “Okay,” he repeated, cackling inwardly as Steve’s eyes turned slightly wary.
“Nothing dangerous,” Steve warned.
“I just got this place fixed. You think I’ll wreck it again?” Tony protested.
“You wreck a lot of things,” Steve pointed out easily.
“Yeah, well, I’m gonna come in like a wrecking ball, and smash all that.” Tony gestured vaguely in Steve’s direction, mentally wincing at his reference.
Luckily Steve didn’t seem to have gotten up to date on that reference. “This is your body; please don’t wreck it.”
“I think I know the limitations of my body better than you,” Tony shot back, grinning widely. “And I know that you should probably go to sleep; I don’t know when I last slept.”
Steve glanced down in confusion at the coffee. “But the caffeine?”
“Too little of a dose considering how much I usually drink.” Tony stood, taking the mug away from Steve before he could protest. “So go on; JARVIS will show you to your bedroom. I’ll see you in the morning in Bruce’s lab.”
“You’ll need to eat breakfast,” Steve said.
Tony mentally groaned at the reminder of his new metabolism. “Yeah, I know. Join me for it if you want.”
Steve’s answering smile was shy but sweet, a strange sight considering it was one that Tony didn’t usually use because of how vulnerable it made him feel. “I think I will.”
The soft voice and the warm undercurrent to the words had Tony’s stomach flip-flopping strangely for an indiscernible reason, and he ducked his head, feeling his cheeks warm. He waved Steve off, turning his attention to pouring out the cold coffee into the sink and putting the mugs away.
Hearing Steve walk off, Tony leaned against the counter and rubbed his forehead.
He could breathe and there was no pain, a giddy experience after the last several years. He hoped for his sake that they got this straightened out soon, because readjusting to his own body was going to be troublesome.
“Making pancakes should not be this difficult, JARVIS.”
“I did suggest otherwise, sir.”
“You know how well I do with suggestions, JARVIS. …Damn it!”
“The instructions advised using the lowest setting.”
“You’re telling me this now? Oh, screw it. Where are the eggs? I’ll just make an omelet.”
Standing just outside the kitchen at seven-thirty in the morning in clothes that were decidedly not his but the only ones that fit considering his current body, Steve found himself restraining snickers at Tony’s plight inside the kitchen. He hadn’t yet looked, but he had the feeling it would probably be epic.
He stepped inside the kitchen just as Tony was asking, “Is Steve up yet?”
Steve had all of a second to take in the sight of Tony completely splattered with pancake batter and flour in his hair before he couldn’t help it anymore and burst into unrestrained laughter, clutching onto a chair to keep his balance.
“Steve!” Tony sounded so horrified that Steve lost it in another fit, not even the pain of the arc reactor hindering him.
“You’ve”—Steve gestured up at his face—“got some batter.” He couldn’t speak anymore, wheezing with laughter.
Looking utterly mortified, Tony swiped at his face, only to smear more batter over his face. “Shit!” he cursed, whirling to the sink and turning it on.
Laughter still bubbling up in him, Steve fought to regain control of himself. Chuckles were still shaking his torso, but he’d managed to stop the worst of the laughter and catch his breath. He sat down heavily in a chair while he still could, shoulders heaving with the aftereffects of the laughing fit.
“How did it get in my hair?” Tony muttered aggressively from the sink, scrubbing vigorously at his skin.
“It’s not too bad,” Steve managed, sounding rather breathless.
“I am literally covered with the entirety of the pancake batter I made this morning,” Tony said, dunking his head under the faucet.
“Okay, it is that bad,” Steve agreed, grinning helplessly.
“Yeah, exactly.” Dripping wet, Tony reached for a towel and rubbed it over his hair and face. He still had batter all over his front and arms, but at least his face was clean and looking rather pink. Steve was rather pleased that Tony hadn’t gotten the hang of his blushing reflex.
“Need any help with the omelets?” Steve asked teasingly.
“For your information, I can make omelets,” Tony said, grabbing the carton of eggs at his elbow.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Steve said.
Tony narrowed his eyes at Steve, the look fitting surprisingly well on Steve’s face. “What do you want in it?” he demanded, brandishing a whipping spoon threateningly.
“Just about anything’s fine.”
“Just about anything,” Tony muttered, turning to the fridge and hauling out what seemed like half the contents. “Okay, I can do that.”
Fifteen rather traumatizing minutes later, Steve had something that barely resembled an omelet on his plate. There were only vague yellowy bits scattered through the bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, cheese, and tomatoes Tony had somehow managed to throw in it without burning anything.
Poking rather tentatively at the mishmash on his plate, Steve wondered if he should really risk his taste buds for this.
“Well?” Tony asked pointedly, setting his own plate down as he sat. His own omelet actually looked like an omelet, containing only onions and mushrooms.
Steve made a face at him, forcing himself to take a forkful of the food and chewing it. Ugh, God. There were reasons he didn’t eat salads in the morning. Especially salads that weren’t adequately salted. “Absolutely awesome,” he lied, viciously stabbing a tomato. He missed and it went flying off the plate and disappeared somewhere under a cabinet.
Tony raised an eyebrow, taking a bite of his own omelet. A second later found him gagging. “Oh God, that’s disgusting.”
“Really,” Steve said, pushing his plate away. He hated wasting food, but there was no way he was eating that.
“I give up,” Tony said after forcing down the one bite he’d taken. He looked rather disappointed. “I wanted to make something good,” he admitted.
Steve took pity on him. “Not everyone’s good at cooking,” he said, taking Tony’s plate and his own to trash the inedible omelets. Then he took the eggs left over from Tony’s attempts and started making two new omelets.
“No, but of course you’re good at cooking,” Tony groaned from the table.
“I wasn’t always,” Steve said. “But I needed something to do here, so I looked up new cooking recipes. A lot’s changed.” Including how a lot of things tasted, like butter and milk and cheese and even the vegetables. Steve had needed to do a lot of adjusting when it came to his diet after waking up.
Tony was silent for a moment. “They didn’t have pizza back then, did they?”
“We did, actually,” Steve answered, checking the heat on the pan. “There were a lot of little shops selling them on Coney. But I found it a bit greasy, and the milk didn’t really agree with me either.”
“Blasphemy,” Tony said, sounding like he was only half joking. “Seriously, pizza over in Italy is a hell of a lot better than what you can get here, though a great New York pizza can compare.”
“And this is going to be a lot better than what you just made,” Steve said, unable to resist the dig at Tony’s cooking skills (or lack of).
“Shut up,” Tony grumbled.
Steve found himself smiling and didn’t bother wiping it off his face. Tony couldn’t see it anyway, so it didn’t matter. Besides, this was the first time in a long time he had felt somewhat whole since waking up in the twenty-first century. Something about talking to Tony just made things easier to deal with, which Steve couldn’t have anticipated all those months ago when first meeting him.
“When are we due in the lab?” Steve asked, finishing up the first omelet.
“Nine, or thereabouts,” Tony said. “Bruce needs to get everything set up, especially since none of his instruments are going to react to his bio-signature. JARVIS will let us know if we’re late.”
“What’s the use anyway?” Steve started on the second omelet, mentally biting back all the words that he wanted to say instead (what was the use of checking up on everything if it was only going to be temporary? If it was all due to magic? How was science going to help?).
“We need to know what to expect,” Tony explained (it was so damn weird hearing what he recognized as his own voice but a timbre higher coming from behind him). “If anything’s changed with the swapping. Besides, magic leaves trace energies behind, so it’s always possible that we can figure out a way to reverse it without Loki. Dr. Foster wrote a really interesting paper on it.”
Steve couldn’t resist. “She wrote a really interesting paper on how to reverse spells without Loki?”
“No, she wrote a paper on science and magic and how they’re actually closer than most people think,” Tony said snappishly. It was only a moment later that he groaned and there was a thump that sounded like Tony had slammed his head against the table. “Shut up, I’m hungry.”
“Omelets are done,” Steve said, taking pity on Tony. “You want both?” He turned around with both plates on hand to see Tony indeed performing an epic face-plant on the table.
“Yes, please,” Tony said quickly, looking up with large eyes that had Steve blinking in surprise (no wonder Bucky had accused him of using “the eyes, Steve, the eyes!”).
Hiding a smile, Steve turned away as Tony dug into the omelets. He focused on making some coffee for the caffeine headache that was starting up again. He was thankful that the headache he’d been nursing yesterday wasn’t due to lack of oxygen, but he still on occasion had to stop talking or moving just to breathe because he wasn’t getting enough of it. Still, Tony hadn’t wanted him saying anything about it, so Steve was going to keep quiet (wasn’t Banner going to find out anyway?).
Tony was almost done wolfing down the omelets (it made Steve wince just looking at him eat) when JARVIS announced, “Dr. Banner requests your presence in the lab.”
“Ah crap, what time is it?” Tony glanced down at his wrist, frowned, and then looked behind Steve for the time. “It’s nine already?”
“Cooking takes a lot out of you,” Steve said smartly, plastering a sweet smile on his face when Tony looked at him suspiciously.
“Not buying that,” Tony said eventually, shaking his head and finishing his last omelet. “So not – no, wait. There was that one time I took two hours to make Pepper that thing…”
“For her sake, I hope it was a soufflé.”
“It was a kickass omelet.”
Steve flashed back to the “omelet” Tony had made him and grimaced.
“Hey, I know that look,” Tony accused, poking Steve in the bicep and making what would probably be a nice bruise. Steve barely stopped the pained wince. “That’s my ‘I’m feeling sick but don’t want anyone to know about it’ look.”
“Then you probably don’t want to know what I was thinking about.”
“No, I know.” Tony rolled his eyes, gesturing in the direction of the ceiling as they waited in front of the elevator. A blue light turned on next to the elevator and started showing floor numbers counting up. “And your omelets were good,” he admitted grudgingly.
“That could’ve sounded a bit more sincere.”
“Fine, they were absolutely fantastic and I want to marry your cooking skills.”
Steve flushed just as the elevator doors opened, and he got a look in the reflection of the metal as to how Tony’s face looked when blushing (and oh). If that was how Tony looked when blushing (sweet and vulnerable and not as crass as he made himself out to be), no wonder he tried to hide it.
“Tip for blushing: think of something horrifying,” Tony advised him. “My go to is Fury in a bathing suit.”
The image flashed through Steve’s mind before he could stop it and now he was screwing his face up in disgust. “Really, Tony?”
“A pink tutu is another option.”
“I’m not going to be able to look Fury in the eye next time I see him,” Steve groaned, hiding his face as the elevator beeped and the doors slid open.
“I would really like to know what was going on in there,” Barton said from inside the lab, “but I don’t think I want to know.”
“Probably not,” Banner agreed, a bunch of scientific paraphernalia set out in front of him. “Steve, Tony, I’m gonna have you guys go last. Clint, I need you to sit still while I have you fill this out.”
“What – again?” Barton groaned in dismay, taking hold of the pad Banner handed him.
Steve shot Tony an amused look and settled down in a chair next to something that looked like a robot that was wearing a dunce hat. The robot brightened up upon seeing Steve and started poking him excitedly.
Tony was too busy fluttering around Banner to rescue Steve, so he just resigned himself to amusing a strange robot while he waited for his own turn.
Off in a corner, Natasha and Thor had holed themselves up and were poking at some floating blue lights, both looking extremely engrossed in whatever they were doing. Steve just hoped they weren’t up to anything bad.
It took roughly three hours for Bruce to be done testing all of them. He skipped past the usual blood tests, only doing a general markup for each of them to see if they were all as healthy as before the body-swapping incident before moving on to other body scans and paper tests to check what their knowledge base was.
There was also some testing of the physical kind, mainly involving reflexes. That involved a lot of pain and tears – or not really tears because none of them was the crying kind – because Thor actually tried to pin Bruce to the ground when Bruce tested him, only for Bruce’s own reflexes to kick in and the two ended up knocking over a table before stopping. Tony’s reaction was less dramatic because he was already prepared for it, but he did accidentally break the hammer Bruce had used. Steve didn’t react much at all considering Tony’s reflexes weren’t as hyped up as the others’, and Romanov broke a table by “accident,” seeming completely unapologetic about it. Barton just looked rather nervous, clearly uncomfortable with the possibility of letting Hulk out, but Bruce seemed to have a handle on what would trigger a green episode, so all was clear there.
Bruce apparently thought it was hilarious to give Tony an exam on the finer details of life pre-War World II, so Tony just went all out and answered the questions as ridiculously as he could. A short distance away he saw Steve looking really confused and like his brain was hurting, so Bruce had probably given him a lot of math.
He had no idea what Romanov, Barton, and Thor were answering on their pads, but Thor frowned a lot and Barton just looked a bit like he wanted to cry. Romanov seemed completely unimpressed, but Tony had the feeling by now that that was her default expression when she was uncomfortable. And this was definitely an uncomfortable situation for her.
At the end of it, Bruce determined that none of the bodies’ skill sets save for the muscle memory had stayed. So that meant he gave them all quick and dirty exams on their specialized skill sets, which went a lot better for everyone involved.
It wasn’t that he didn’t know the information. He did. He knew math like it was the back of his hand – better in some cases, actually; he could manipulate variables on the fly better than a pro and easily calculate outcomes of situations in a span of a few seconds. That’s how good he was at math.
But for whatever reason, it just. Wasn’t. Working.
He knew the answers, but his brain took forever to come up with the appropriate equation that he needed to get to the answer because he couldn’t just calculate it on the fly like he usually would. There was no unlimited mental table that he could reach into and just pluck the answer out of. He actually had to crack the numbers to get the answers, and he hadn’t had to do that in years.
Tony’d known that his brain wasn’t working like it usually did. He’d fouled up slightly in some of his interactions with Steve – which had actually worked out, but not without some panicking on his end – because he couldn’t think and figure out what to do. It was a bit like wading through molasses; he could manage it, but it was really difficult and annoying and he just couldn’t get his brain to clear up.
He took the longest to finish his exam, brow pinching more and more in annoyance as he tediously worked through all the problems slowly to be sure that he got it right. He didn’t have to double check his work – there was a gut feeling when he had the right answer even if he couldn’t get it quickly – but it took ages just to get there. And Steve had finished his work first, followed closely by Barton. Thor and Romanov didn’t take much longer with their own work.
So it was just Tony in the end, and he rushed through the last problem with a simmering pit of annoyance and anger at himself brimming in his stomach as he handed the pad to Bruce. He ended up snapping the pencil he’d been using in two, which was when he really almost lost it and had to walk off to a corner and pull open some work to cool himself off.
Even then it wasn’t helping because he was just…so slow. Eventually he gave up with it all, saving everything he’d managed to do and vindictively crumpling up the floating holograph and throwing it into a trash can.
The lack of pain and breathing perks weren’t anything special if he couldn’t think.
Steve noticed – of course he did; it was his body that Tony was in and he knew his body’s tics inside and out. He came over, looking rather concerned. “Tony?” He kept his voice thankfully low, and it was all Tony could do not to snap at him. It wasn’t Steve’s fault.
No, it was Tony’s for letting Loki trick him in the first place. “It’s fine,” he said in a clipped tone.
“You don’t seem fine,” Steve said gently. He slowly rested a hand on Tony’s shoulder, grip tentative.
Unwilling to be touched at the moment with his irritation boiling in him, Tony shrugged it off, unable to look a hurt Steve in the eye – because he recognized that face, all right, and it was just a kick in the gut. “It’s nothing,” he insisted. “Leave it, Steve.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Romanov and Barton looking their way, both with curious expressions. He gave them a quirked eyebrow, practically daring them to say something. Barton had the decency to look away, his hand coming up in Bruce’s nervous tic to push his glasses up his nose, but Romanov just gave Tony an unimpressed look before turning her attention back to what Bruce was doing. She obviously didn’t care.
Steve was still studying him, just waiting patiently for Tony to turn his attention back to him. “It’s okay,” he told Tony softly, hands in his pockets and looking nothing at all like Tony and every bit like the Captain he was. “We’ll figure this out.”
Tony bit back a harsh smirk because – again – it wasn’t Steve’s fault. And Tony shouldn’t take this out on Steve, not while he could still think about it and not hurt him. Steve had been hurt enough – soft words exchanged last night had told Tony that much. “Yeah,” he managed a minute later, able to soften his smirk to a smile that was probably not as neutral as he tried to make it judging from Steve’s reaction.
Steve had his brain. How fast was it working in there? Tony knew how quickly his brain could work at times, especially if he was in a manic phase when it came to his work. Things that would take other people minutes took him seconds to work through. Except that wasn’t the case now.
Pepper could never complain that Tony didn’t understand what it was like. He knew now all too well.
“I’m pretty sure I’m done,” Bruce announced a few minutes later, distracting Tony from Steve’s face. “I’m not sure if I covered everything, but it’s all I could think of at the moment.” He grimaced slightly, scratching the back of his head in a tic that was all Barton. “My brain’s not what I’m used to.”
“Oh, thank fuck,” Barton blurted, looking utterly relieved. “I thought it was just me.”
“Not just you,” Bruce said, shooting a glance at Tony before flicking his eyes back to Barton. “Our minds might’ve switched around, but our brains stayed in our bodies. So while we’re mentally the same, we’re dealing with different physical limitations. Biology doesn’t change even if we’re psychologically different.” He made another face that said exactly what he thought of that.
“Tell me about it,” Tony muttered darkly. It garnered him sharp looks from Steve and Romanov, but he ignored them.
“What does that mean for us?” Steve asked, eyes gradually leaving Tony’s face to look at Bruce.
“Nothing, really.” Bruce shrugged, putting the pad he’d been writing on down. “We’re all perfectly healthy”—his eyes flicked up and down Steve, lingering on the arc reactor—“but there’s really nothing to say about what made us like this. The scans on you, Steve, were a bit unclear because of the arc reactor, but JARVIS cleared up most of it.” He flicked open a holograph to show the two different scans. The first had a bright light blurring out Steve’s torso and face; the second had the light gone, although the torso and face were still a bit blurry. There was only so much JARVIS could do.
Tony swallowed upon remembering the way Loki had reached out to touch his arc reactor, but it was already clear that magic didn’t affect his reactor. The Chitauri invasion had shown that pretty clearly when Loki had tried and failed to brainwash him like he had Barton.
“It was unlikely that your machines would show us the solution,” Thor said, probably trying to be reassuring but falling flat.
“Might’ve been a long shot,” Bruce conceded, “but I’ve still got valuable data anyway. I mean, it’s not anything that’s scientifically sound by any means because I put it all together last night, but it works in a pinch.”
“Are you going to send this data to S.H.I.E.L.D.?” Romanov asked.
“No,” was Bruce’s instant response. “I’m sure that they’d find this data absolutely fascinating”—his voice had gone bone dry there—“but there’s a lot they can do with this that I don’t feel comfortable with them seeing.”
“I see the point,” Barton agreed, not looking at all upset by Bruce’s insinuation that S.H.I.E.L.D. was an organization of liars that lied and couldn’t keep their noses out of other people’s business.
“And you don’t want us going back to S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Romanov noted wryly.
“I’ve got space here,” Tony said, shrugging as everyone looked at him. “It was in the plans anyway,” he admitted. “This’ll just move up the move-in date.” Not that he’d had a move-in date to begin with.
“So that’s why you had a bunch of empty floors lying around,” Barton said, nodding. He reached up to finger the frames of the glasses, squinting slightly.
“They were empty anyway,” Tony said, shifting uncomfortably.
Steve touched his elbow reassuringly. “Thanks, Tony. I’m sure none of us will have a problem with staying here.”
“No problems,” Barton said, tilting his head back. “But I’m a slob, just warning you.”
“We should treat our borrowed hosts with the utmost respect,” Thor said warningly. “This is simply temporary.”
“I’ve gotta admit,” Tony said, “going to the bathroom’s kinda awkward.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Romanov scoffed, rolling her eyes. “You’re in a man’s body, and you’re a man. Loki didn’t even have the decency to put me in a woman’s body. Penises are not as awesome as you think they are.”
There was an uncomfortable silence from the men, and Romanov seemed distinctly satisfied with what she had wrought.
“Here’s a question,” Tony said, unable to keep quiet even in the most awkward of situations and desperately wanting to change the subject from penises. “How come Romanov’s not speaking the way Thor usually does?” He gestured at Thor. “And he’s got his own accent, which is all kinds of weird in Romanov’s voice.”
“It is the Allspeak,” Thor answered with a small smile. “You hear me speak the language you are most familiar with. ‘Swapping bodies,’ as you have said, does not grant me the ability to use the knowledge of the previous mind. Natasha knows English, and thus she is able to speak English. I do not, and the Allspeak transcends biology.”
“That’s amazing,” Bruce said, sounding absolutely fascinated. It sounded really strange in Barton’s voice. “Do you mind going over it with me?”
“I am afraid that Jane has already ‘called dibs’ as you Midgardians would say.” Thor smiled apologetically, eyes crinkling warmly. It was really freaky seeing such a genuine smile on Romanov’s face.
“I’ll just call her then,” Bruce said easily, also smiling. The sight transformed Barton’s usually sour face, making it soft.
“Going off to dance with Dr. Foster, Bruce?” Tony asked lightly, managing a casual grin. “Careful there. You might make a guy jealous.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Bruce’s grin turned slightly wicked. “This place is literally candy land; I’m not leaving it.”
Tony’s grin turned more genuine. “I told you.”
Steve’s gaze flickered between the two of them, his face slightly confused.
“If the scientists are done patting themselves on the back,” Romanov said dryly, “are we free to go? My plans for the day didn’t involve spending the entire time in a very shiny lab that could quite possibly blind me if I’m not careful.”
“No, don’t leave me,” Barton whined, literally draping himself over Romanov. “I can’t even spar with you in this body. Bruce’s forbidden me from doing anything more strenuous than yoga.”
“Don’t be a baby,” Romanov scoffed, very obviously not shrugging Barton off. “You can watch while I kick Thor’s ass.”
“I think not,” Thor said, mouth twitching. “Let us see which of us will be triumphant before boasting.”
“Okay, this I gotta watch,” Tony said, rocking back on his heels.
“You might want to join, too,” Steve pointed out, sidling closer to him. “Just to be sure that nothing will take you off guard.”
Tony only too clearly remembered when his reflexes in this body had taken him off guard and slapped his own body’s hand away. “I think that regardless of what body I’m in, Romanov and Thor are both liable to kick my ass.”
“As long as you know,” Romanov said sweetly, having overheard.
The superiority in her tone had Tony narrowing his eyes at her. Just for that, Tony was going to do his best to knock her down at least once.
“Oh God, whose bright idea was it to spar,” Tony groaned, collapsing face first on the couch in the privacy of his penthouse.
“No one asked you, JARVIS.”
“My apologies, sir. The question sounded like it sought an answer.”
“I regret ever programming snark into you.”
“My condolences, sir.”
“No, shut up.” Tony waved up feebly at the ceiling. “My brain isn’t physically capable of handling this.” In more ways than one much to his considerable distress.
“Shall I download a book of witty repartees for you, sir?” JARVIS offered without a hint of empathy in his tone.
Tony glared at the nearest camera. “I will chuck my shoe at you.”
“I tremble in fear,” JARVIS said dryly as Steve entered the penthouse, concern written all over his face.
Tony made an effort to try and sit up, wincing when the bruises Romanov had slammed into his back made their presence known. “You okay?”
“Just checking on you,” Steve answered, eyes sweeping up Tony’s form.
“Your body’s fine,” Tony reassured him, rolling his shoulders. He winced when the wrenched muscle he’d gotten from Thor expressed its displeasure. “Or it will be anyway.”
“It should be by tomorrow,” Steve said, hovering anxiously right by the couch. “But ice’ll help.”
“Why didn’t I think of that?” Tony wondered, staring up at the ceiling. Because his damn brain wasn’t working.
“I’ll get you some.” Steve disappeared to the kitchen, reappearing with several pea bags in hand.
“That’s not ice,” Tony was unable to resist pointing out.
“It’s still cold.” Steve offered the bags to him.
Heaving out a put-on sigh, Tony accepted them, stuffing one under his back against the worst of the bruises and another on his head. The last went on his stomach, which was where both Thor and Romanov had ended up kneeing him. Though Thor’s had probably been an accident since Tony had actually managed to knock him to the mat, and then get the breath knocked out of him by a very painful knee to the gut. He was lucky it hadn’t been to the balls.
Taking a seat on the edge of the couch, Steve was silent for a few minute, just twiddling his fingers and looking off to the distance, biting his lower lip. It was pretty damn distracting, especially since Tony was looking at his own face doing that.
“I didn’t just come up here to check on you,” Steve blurted out eventually, looking at Tony.
“No, really?” Tony couldn’t be bothered to muster up any indignation at this point.
“The others were wondering if they could also come up here,” Steve continued rather nervously.
Tony didn’t really think about it. Likelihood was that they wouldn’t listen to him anyway. “Yeah, why not. JARVIS, let them know, will you?”
Steve slumped in relief against the couch, sighing long and slow. He closed his eyes, pushing his thumbs into the space between his eyebrows.
Tony studied him wordlessly for a moment. After another moment’s consideration during which he knew he hadn’t considered all the variables but really couldn’t considering his brain, he nudged Steve’s thigh with his foot. “I’m not a grumpy monster,” he said, a corner of his mouth lifting in a lazy smile. “You don’t have to be scared about asking me for stuff.”
“I didn’t think that,” Steve answered too quickly. “It’s just…I know what it’s like to want to be alone. And this situation is pretty damn weird,” he added with a small grimace.
Tony snorted, rolling his eyes. “You can say that again.” He shifted, the icy water from the melting pea bags causing unpleasant goose-bumps, and pulled in a deep breath, relishing the oxygen.
He noticed too late that Steve had been watching him, a sad look in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said, glancing down at his hands.
“For what?” Tony snapped, vulnerability curling in his chest.
Steve shrugged, not answering. It was at that point that the others spilled into the room, chatting amongst themselves. Only Bruce was engrossed in his pad and almost walked into Romanov’s back because he didn’t notice them stopping.
“Hurting, Stark?” Romanov drawled, obviously having seen Tony on the couch.
“Just bruised thanks to your expertise,” Tony fired back, not bothering to look over at her.
“And thanks for that,” Steve quipped, a rather shit-eating grin on his face.
Romanov had the decency to look just a bit chagrined, but she didn’t apologize.
Thor shared no such qualms. “I apologize, Steven. I had not intended on being so rough.”
“Tell me how it really is,” Steve said, his tone one that Tony was intimately familiar with: Steve was desperately trying not to laugh.
It gave the others pause, and Romanov and Thor stared at him suspiciously. But apparently Steve had a really good poker face because they didn’t get anything incriminating from him. Tony kept his gaze firmly fixed on the ceiling, inwardly cackling.
“I’m going to make some food,” Steve said after another minute, his tone carefully modulated so as not to give anything away. “Tony, you want anything?”
“Anything you’re making is fine,” Tony said, keeping his tone just as carefully modulated. “If you can’t find something, JARVIS can help you.”
Steve patted Tony’s knee and stood, walking past the others to the kitchen. Romanov watched him go with narrowed eyes, the shifty look not fitting at all on Thor’s expressive face.
“Talk science to me, Brucie,” Tony said to Bruce, making grabby hands for the tablet. “What’ve you got?”
Bruce had no qualms about handing the tablet over to Tony to look over and quietly going over the details with him. Though that only lasted about five minutes before Barton drew him into a conversation on the finer details of controlling the Hulk and what other things he could do that wouldn’t induce a Hulk-out but still allow him to exercise.
Tony didn’t really pay attention to it – couldn’t pay attention to it – and so just scrolled through the scientific jargon on the screen.
He was only dimly aware of the din around him and the way his teammates walked around, jostling each other and chatting. Eventually the smell of food – pasta apparently – joined it. Tony ignored it all, too busy trying to keep all the science straight and make sure that it was all in order and made sense.
So it came as a surprise to him when Steve jolted him out of his concentration with a warm hand on his shoulder.
“Food’s ready,” Steve said gently, smiling warmly. His eyes were crinkled, and Tony was just abruptly taken aback by the fact that Steve liked him. Steve honest-to-God liked him. How had that happened? “I’ve told the others not to start, but I don’t know well they’ll listen.”
Tony was suddenly aware that he was starving. And considering this body’s metabolism, that was probably more literal than usual. “Can’t have that,” he said, shutting the tablet off and setting it down on the couch for later. He still hadn’t gone through everything, although luckily Steve’s memory was really something else and he hadn’t had to reread anything.
As he joined the others in the rowdy kitchen, Tony was almost bowled over by the feeling of warmth that the sight gave him. He’d never had such a full kitchen before, and never with people that he could call a team. He wasn’t on good terms with all of them, but he wanted to be. He wanted this team to work, and it kind of peeved him that it was only thanks to Loki that they were together like this now.
Months of work, and he hadn’t even gotten close to pulling this together. And Loki had managed it in less than twelve hours with a simple body-swapping spell.
The fact that he felt the warmth and camaraderie from having a team with him now was startling to say the least. Because it hadn’t seemed like it would work, not with no one else interested in keeping it together.
It wasn’t a good thing to be attached so quickly. Especially since the situation that they were all in – no matter how strange – was only temporary.
After their rather late lunch, they ended up reconvening in the living room, though Tony had forbidden Romanov and Thor access to the bar. In light of what had happened the previous night, Steve thought this a wise decision. Additionally, they shouldn’t drink all of Tony’s alcohol, especially since it wasn’t even theirs.
Steve had grabbed a sketchbook and pencils for now, needing to do something to keep his hands busy. He had no idea how his artistic skills would work in Tony’s body, but he needed to do something. Tony was busy scowling at Banner’s pad, so Steve had no conversation there. And Banner and Barton were conversing with each other while Thor and Romanov started doing things with some books, strings, empty bottles, and paper that Steve didn’t want to look at too closely.
It was really strange how the lines had been drawn since this whole thing had started. They’d all become closer to one another, but at the same time they were still disjointed. And as a tactician, Steve couldn’t help but wonder what this would mean for their team.
Barton and Romanov had been the closest on the team from the beginning. That had been obvious even during the invasion. Tony and Banner had hit it off pretty spectacularly, and the relationship had held strong. Thor hadn’t been close to anyone in particular, but he was a jovial man (Asgardian? Alien?) who got along with everyone as long as they didn’t piss him off or insult Loki (Steve had definitely noticed the sore spot there).
Well, the less said there, the better.
But obviously that had changed now. Barton and Romanov were still close, but now they were also close to Banner and Thor respectively. Time would tell if the relationships stuck even after this problem was fixed, but Steve thought they would (adversity bred familiarity and also fondness, after all).
And now Steve had a friend. A friend that S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn’t assigned and that he hadn’t lied to (like all his failed relationships so far). He was pretty damn sure at this point that he could call Tony a friend, and he was so glad about it (because Tony was honestly a lot more amazing than Steve had thought he was). He regretted not meeting up with Tony when the man had tried to hunt him down earlier.
So although Steve still wasn’t close to the other members on his team, he could make plans to change that now that he had a solid foot and most of his body in the door. He was friends with Tony, and that already went a long way in assuaging in the loneliness in his heart. Tony knew, and that made a big difference in how Steve felt. Now someone else knew; someone who wasn’t going to psychoanalyze Steve and try to get him out there into the world.
It was a weight off Steve’s shoulders, and he was so glad that he’d confided in Tony. He shouldn’t have worried about his relationship with Tony; it was the easiest thing in the world in the end.
Hell, he might even need to send Loki a fruit basket (that was the customary form of thanks now, wasn’t it?) when this was over. This most likely wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Loki’s interference, and Steve was shamefully glad for that. The Avengers would somehow have found their way back to each other, but at what cost? And how bad would it have been in the meantime?
No, Steve was glad it had happened this way. No matter how strange it was not to be in his own body. And at least he could relieve Tony of the aching pain that he was in every day. No matter how temporary it was, Tony deserved that at least, and Steve had dealt with his fair share of pain in his life. An arc reactor in his chest and limited breathing weren’t the worst of the pains that Steve had to deal with before he’d gotten the serum.
Taking the slow breath that had become his substitution for the deep ones he’d gotten used to in his new body, Steve focused on what he’d been drawing while lost in his thoughts. Tony’s hands weren’t bad at drawing, actually. Steady and sure, the lines were dark. Admittedly, the lines were more geometric in shape than Steve was used to, but it was still undeniably artistic.
Steve really shouldn’t be surprised. Tony was an engineer after all, and engineers did have to draw blueprints (even if Tony did most of it on his fancy tech).
But what was really jarring for Steve was what he’d drawn. In geometric circles and squares, Steve had quite undeniably captured Tony’s likeness. And not Tony in Steve’s body, but Tony as he usually was – vivid and bright and alive. Steve had only seen Tony for a short time in person before spending the rest of it with Tony in a different body, but he’d still captured what seemed to be Tony’s essence.
Glancing furtively over to where Tony was looking thoroughly irritated with himself and the pad, Steve swallowed reflexively, wetting his lips unconsciously before he could think the better of it.
He’d always been one to fall fast and hard (and he’d known from the get-go that he could fall so quickly and easily for Tony; it was why he’d avoided Tony for so long).
The worst part… The worst part of it all was that he didn’t even have Bucky to talk to about this. With Peggy, Steve knew that he’d at least had a shot. But with Tony?
Being in a romantic relationship with a man was more accepted now than it had been back in Steve’s time, but that still didn’t tell him if Tony was interested in guys like that. Steve knew he was for sure (this attraction was irrefutable evidence), but he had no way of telling if Tony was.
There were small signs, things like Tony smiling and on one occasion even blushing, but that could just as well have been Tony being nice. Steve hadn’t had any obvious signs of Tony flirting, and judging from what the Internet said, he would know if Tony was flirting with him.
Tony was many things, but subtle was not one of them.
Sighing, Steve fingered the edges of the paper he’d been drawing on, studying the figure of Tony surrounded by floating holographic screens. It was beautiful, and Steve didn’t even have any colors to bring out the light in Tony’s eyes or the way the light of the reactor would play on his skin.
Probably for the best, otherwise everyone would know.
Steve had just moved to the next page to start on another drawing, this one hopefully of Romanov and Thor bickering mildly over what they should do with their mishmash of objects, when there was a loud crack next to him, causing him to flinch and score a dark line across the paper.
Whipping his head to the side, Steve gaped upon seeing that Tony had snapped the tablet in two and was now glaring at the mess. Judging from the furious set of his jaw and the annoyed twitch in his eyes, Tony hadn’t meant to do it.
“Fuck,” Tony snarled, throwing both pieces of the tablet away. They flew across the room, shattering into pieces upon hitting the wall on the far side and also scoring two deep scratches in the paint. “Fuck it all,” he snapped again, rubbing his face furiously.
The outburst had the others watching him warily, Romanov’s muscles coiling.
“Tony?” Banner asked cautiously.
“I can’t fucking think!” Tony sprang to his feet, stalking fiercely to the windows and staying there, vibrating with anger.
“Maybe just calm down,” Banner started, voice soothing.
“I’ve tried!” Tony whirled, eyes flashing. Steve had never seen himself this angry before, and to be quite honest, it was terrifying. “I’ve tried calming down and just thinking, but it’s like moving through fucking molasses. My brain just won’t work!” The last word was a shout. His hands had come up to fist his hair, knuckles white. “I know the information – I know I know it – but I just can’t bring it up! It’s like it’s constantly on the tip of my tongue but it’s just not coming!”
Banner glanced over to where Steve was still sitting on the couch, absolutely frozen in place with shock. Then he looked back over to Tony and stood, hands out. “You’re using a different brain right now, Tony. It’s not going to work the same as yours usually does.” He managed a small grin. “My thoughts haven’t been quite the same either.”
“Does your life hinge on whether you can calculate a bunch of variables really quickly at the right moment?” Tony asked acerbically. “Because I can’t. Fucking. Do it. I’m flying blind.” His jaw visibly tensed as he looked away, refusing to meet anyone’s eyes.
It took Steve only a second to realize what Tony meant by that. They hadn’t been in a fight, only talking and hanging out, and Tony said he was “flying blind”? So that meant that he calculated variables all the time?
Steve couldn’t imagine living like that.
He’d noticed that his thoughts were running just a bit quicker and that he seemed to be a bit more scatterbrained with more trains of thoughts running than usual, but he hadn’t thought that was because of Tony’s brain.
“It’ll be all right, Tony,” Banner was saying calmly, having made his way to Tony’s side and laid a calming hand on his arm. The rest of what he said was too quiet for Steve to hear without his normal hearing, but it certainly seemed to be having a soothing effect on Tony, who’d closed his eyes and dropped his chin, mouth pressed tightly together. He no longer seemed to be vibrating in place anyway.
“Jesus,” Steve heard Barton sigh. Barton looked tired, his eyes slightly pinched in a manner that suggested a headache (what was it like, containing the Hulk with so little training?).
Steve looked down at the dark line he’d accidentally scored across the blank page of the sketchbook. It struck him that this was what could happen with his relationship with Tony, which was essentially a blank slate at the moment; if he wasn’t careful, he could ruin it like he had just done with the paper.
Considering what he’d just learned about how Tony usually went about his everyday interactions with people, Steve couldn’t do that to Tony. He couldn’t approach the possibility of a relationship with Tony while he wasn’t operating at full capacity. He couldn’t put Tony on the spot like that, make him panic about something that he shouldn’t have to panic about.
No, he wouldn’t do that. Steve could wait. He could wait until they had this situation sorted out.
Once everybody was back where they belonged, then Steve could think about a relationship with Tony (friendship or more, it didn’t matter).
He’d waited seventy years and lost everything once. Steve could afford to be patient.
Following Tony’s rather embarrassing outburst, the others left him alone. Pepper ended up joining them in the evening for an update; she noticed the awkward tension but thankfully said nothing.
She also kept shooting Steve rather speculative looks, but Tony didn’t know what was up with that. Nor did he care to guess what either, too busy sulking and fighting down Steve’s blush reflex because he was embarrassed.
He hadn’t meant to break down like that, but the tablet breaking had been the last straw. He was sick and tired of not feeling like himself, pain and all. He just wanted it to be over, and he’d gladly travel to Asgard for that.
Only they couldn’t. Because Loki wasn’t in Asgard anymore since he’d broken out. Thor hadn’t wanted to waste resources reporting Loki’s breakout because Asgard would doubtlessly have noticed it anyway. So they were stuck on Earth in the wrong bodies until the spell wore off or Loki decided enough was enough.
Tony thought the former was more likely than the latter, although if he got his hands on Loki, the god would have worse things coming to him than a Hulk smash.
Tony might not be very good at physical fighting outside of his suit, but he was a beast at psychological warfare. Not as good as Romanov, but still able to hold his own.
And he’d pull out all the stops if it meant getting back to his own body.
But it was all moot anyway since they had no idea where Loki was and he could use magic.
So when Rhodey called halfway through the evening because he just had to see if it was true, Tony gladly dropped his train of thought in favor of teasing his best friend because Tony now wore the face of Captain America and Rhodey had always idolized the man.
It was even worth Steve blushing and hiding his face behind a book.
The next morning, Tony found himself awake unseasonably early, Steve’s body alert and chipper after only five hours of sleep. It was annoying, especially since the sun wasn’t even up. Tony had better things to do than lie around in bed, staring at the ceiling in increasing annoyance while his body thrummed with energy. He would much rather sleep, for instance.
Finally giving sleep up for a lost cause, Tony threw back the blankets and went to shower, turning the water to a much higher temperature than what he usually had it. It wouldn’t burn him, and this body loved the heat and hated the cold.
By the time Tony was done, the entire bathroom was steamy with heat and the mirror so foggy that he could only make out his silhouette. Tightening the towel around his waist, Tony reached out to wipe the fog off, needing to see if he had to shave or if there was still zero hair growth. He would’ve figured that with Steve’s advanced metabolism the man would have four times the hair growth, but miraculously enough that wasn’t the case.
Tony thumbed his jawline in the still misty mirror, eyes narrowing as he closely inspected it. It still looked smooth and flawless from a distance, but his thumb could feel the start of some growth. It really wasn’t worth shaving it then, especially since he wouldn’t even be able to see if he was getting it right.
“He is a handsome man, is he not?”
The unexpected voice had Tony yelping, banging his knee on the cabinet under the sink, and then nearly slipping on the tiles when he whirled to face the intruder. He would have face-planted if it were not for a strong hand hauling him to his feet and pushing him back against the sink.
Blinking, Tony found himself staring into Loki’s highly amused face. He opened his mouth to shout for JARVIS only for Loki to cover it with a hand.
“There is no need for that,” Loki chastised him. “It wouldn’t do you any good anyhow; I placed a silencing barrier around the room.”
Wrenching Loki’s hand off his mouth, Tony glared at him. “What are you doing here?”
“Admiring your physique.”
Spluttering, Tony pushed Loki back, pleased when the other was actually forced a step away. “What the hell is your play, Loki?”
Loki seemed unruffled at Tony’s anger. “Have you not yet guessed?” He tilted his head to the side. “I think Steven must have some idea by now; he certainly did look thoughtful last night.”
“Were you spying on us?” Tony demanded, horrified at the implications.
“Spying, schmying,” Loki said dismissively, sounding eerily like Tony there for a second. “I was curious to see how you were handling it.”
“Change us back,” Tony snapped, pushing right up into Loki’s space and fisting that damn shirt that could’ve just as well belonged in Tony’s closet considering the band it was advertising.
Loki didn’t seem worried at Tony’s anger. “But the game has only just begun,” he said, smirking. “Why would I stop now?”
“What game, Loki?”
“You’ll figure it out,” Loki assured Tony. “Now, would you like a hug or are you going to step back?”
The sheer ridiculousness of Loki suggesting a hug had Tony’s grip slackening enough that Loki was able to step back out of his reach, still with that damnable smirk on his face, before he raised his eyebrows, snapping his fingers and disappearing in a green haze.
Tony was left standing there angry and very, very confused.
Steve hadn’t anticipated a message from Pepper asking him to meet her in her office. It meant leaving the privacy of his floor and going on a public level of the tower. And that was nerve-wracking in this body; he only hoped that no one was around.
To his discomfort, there was a secretary in front of the office who gave him a beaming smile and fluttery eyes. Steve had no idea how to react beyond flashing an uncomfortable smile and walking straight into the office because Tony would do that and Steve needed to act like Tony.
“Close the door behind you,” Pepper said, not looking away from her computer.
Steve did, and then he was left at a loss for what to do and simply hovered around her desk uncertainly. There were chairs, but he didn’t want to be presumptuous and sit. He had no idea what Pepper wanted him for, and some conversations were better held while standing.
After a few more minutes, Pepper finished up what she had been doing and looked at Steve, only to blink in startled surprise. “You have no idea how strange it is to see you standing there like that when Tony would’ve just sat down and started talking my ear off.” She gestured to the chair directly in front of her. “Please sit, Steve.”
Relieved and slightly more at ease now, Steve leaned against one armrest, only a bit perturbed at how comfortable the chair was.
Pepper seemed to understand. “I know, right? But Tony insisted, and this really wasn’t any trouble.” She shrugged, clasping her hands together on top of the desk.
“I’m not sure why you wanted me,” Steve admitted after another few seconds of anxious fidgeting. “Shouldn’t Tony be here?”
“It’s not anything related to the company,” Pepper assured him. “I can easily call Tony or have JARVIS make a note if I need to. I wanted to talk to you.”
This did not make Steve feel better. “Okay?”
Pepper’s eyes sharpened, although her face didn’t change in any noticeable way. “You’ve not spent a lot of time with Tony.” It wasn’t a question.
“Not really.” Steve warily wondered where this train of questioning was going to lead him.
“Then you probably don’t know that up to a few months ago, Tony and I were in a relationship,” Pepper said, taking Steve aback.
“There might have been stuff in some papers,” Steve admitted, mind flashing back to the lurid magazines dotting every single street vendor and grocery store checkout aisle (he really didn’t like this new trend in society).
Pepper rolled her eyes. “Tabloids are garbage, but I suppose I should be thankful in this case. In any case, Tony and I broke up a few months ago because I couldn’t handle it and he was too high-maintenance.”
Steve was about to protest indignantly on Tony’s behalf, only to realize that he really couldn’t give an accurate judgment on Tony’s character since he honestly hadn’t known the man that long (and it had nothing to do with his feelings), and he’d spent the last several months actively avoiding him for personal reasons that turned out to be moot.
Giving him an all too knowing look that was mixed with pity, Pepper smiled gently. “Tony is high-maintenance,” she repeated. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it didn’t work for us. He needed things I couldn’t give him and he couldn’t give me what I needed either.”
Steve was really uncomfortable now. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I know Tony,” Pepper said, “and even though it’s you right now and not Tony I’m talking to, I know how Tony looks when he’s in love. I should, considering that he gave me that look during our relationship.”
For one wild moment Steve thought she was talking about Tony, but then he realized that Tony was right now in Steve’s body and Pepper had never even met Steve before this entire fiasco. That meant she had read Steve’s body language and realized how hopelessly gone he was.
“Oh,” was all he could manage.
“Tony doesn’t know, I’m sure,” Pepper said reassuringly. “He’s not the most emotionally aware person, even though he does try.”
“I…” Steve shifted anxiously, scratching his neck. “It’s new,” he admitted finally. “It… I always did fall too fast.”
“Tony does have that impression on people,” Pepper said, sighing. She sobered quickly, leaning forward over the desk. “Are you going to do anything about it?”
“Not right now,” Steve said truthfully. “Not… Tony didn’t tell you, but yesterday he had a little…thing. And I realized that he’s not really thinking normally.” He shrugged. “I don’t really want to spring this on him while he’s not himself.”
Pepper snorted, then looked rather mortified. “Oh, I’m sorry. It’s just that none of you are yourself at the moment.” She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, composing herself. “Would I be right in assuming that the reason he’s not himself is because his brain isn’t quite up to par?”
Steve stared. “How’d you know?”
“I’ve known the man for over a decade,” Pepper said. “I’ve walked in on him countless times multitasking on something or another. He’s carried on two or more conversations at once – which is really aggravating if you’re one of those conversations – and he’s pulled together complicated math equations while sitting in on board meetings and following every single word. So I do have some idea of how Tony’s brain works, enough to know that it is absolutely unique.”
She paused, looking down at her hands. “But that’s been a problem,” she continued slowly. “It’s something Rhodey and I have both noticed. Tony has an unfortunate tendency to overthink things. It’s worked wonders in board meetings and his fights as Iron Man, but when it comes to personal relationships, it’s caused me no end of grief. It’s hard to have a relationship with a man who calculates every variable to a t and is too scared of screwing things up to actually do anything.”
Steve swallowed, remembering all too clearly Tony’s frustration from the previous day. “What does this have to do with me?”
Pepper met his eyes calmly. “I’m saying that you should talk to Tony now. It means that you’re far more likely to get an honest answer than when you’re back to normal. Tony being who he is, he’s unlikely to consider a relationship with you when in full possession of his faculties. He’ll think about all the ways a relationship can go wrong and refuse it immediately because he doesn’t think it’s worth the risk. Right now he won’t be able to do that, so he’ll agree to a relationship like a normal person would.”
Steve frowned, feeling distinctly uncomfortable with this underhanded suggestion. “I don’t feel comfortable with that,” he said. “When – if I talk to Tony about this, I want him to agree to something when he’s able to think the way he’s used to.”
“He probably won’t agree to anything,” Pepper warned him.
“Then that’s something I’ll have to work past,” Steve said, determined.
“That could very well take months, if not longer.”
“I’m not one for instant gratification,” Steve said firmly, his tone steely. “I can wait if I need to, especially if it makes Tony more comfortable. Besides,” he added, gentling his tone, “I’ve only known him a short time. It might be good if I get to know him better before pursuing anything.”
Pepper’s eyes were piercing as she studied his face. Steve didn’t relax, staring right back at her, his jaw set.
He’d made up his mind, and Steve was nothing but stubborn (much to Bucky’s considerable dismay in their formative years).
Finally, Pepper nodded, eyes gentling and a soft smile gracing her lips. “I understand,” she said. “So with that said…” Her smile turned mischievous, taking Steve aback with the sudden change to her features. “Here are some helpful tips I’ve gathered for how to woo a genius.”
“I’m sorry?” Steve sounded faint to his own ears.
“I approve,” Pepper assured him, though Steve hadn’t really been worrying about that, actually. “So I’m going to give you some tips. Tony likes flowers, but only occasionally. Make him coffee the way he likes it; you can’t go wrong there. Listen to his rambling; he likes that.”
“Okay,” Steve agreed weakly, wondering if he’d been dumped into a different dimension without anyone noticing.
“If there’s anything else you need, just come talk to me,” she continued, still smiling at him. She handed him a business card that he took after a moment’s hesitation. “I hope it works out for you, Steve.”
“Thanks,” Steve answered automatically, mind whirring over the info dump and surprise that had been foisted on him.
“Great.” Her phone rang. “Now if you excuse me, I have to get back to work. Keep an eye out on the way back; if you do bump into someone, just grin smarmily and blabber something about math. It’ll work in a pinch.”
“I was never any good at math,” Steve said, earning a small laugh from Pepper as she answered the call.
Having been dismissed, Steve stood, opening the door when Pepper said in a peeved tone, “What do you mean there’s something in the vents? Has there been any screaming?”
Not sure if he wanted to know what was going on, Steve left and plastered on a really broad grin at the secretary. Then he walked as fast as he could to the elevator, relieved when he stepped inside and no one else had accosted him. Just about the only thing he remembered from math was how to do basic algebra.
The elevator didn’t seem to be going as fast as it usually did. In fact, it wasn’t even moving.
Steve barely had time to become nervous before JARVIS spoke into the small space. “I apologize for startling you, Captain, but I felt privacy would be best for this conversation.”
Steve swallowed, looking up into the one camera the elevator had. “Yeah?”
“Not everyone in Mr. Stark’s life has had his best interests at heart.” JARVIS’s words were soft. “Thank you for being one of the few who does.”
Any words he could have spoken were stuck in his throat, and Steve had to breathe in as deeply as he could to get past them. “I want to be one of them,” he whispered, not managing anything louder.
JARVIS said nothing else, and the elevator whirred back into life, bringing Steve to his destination in no time.
Steve was still jittery and dazed from the conversation with both Pepper and JARVIS (who was actually so much more alive than he had ever thought), so he was relieved to see that nothing bad was happening when he entered the living room. The only noteworthy thing was that Romanov, Barton, and Tony were all standing around a glowing screen on a window and groaning.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, resolving to put his discomfort in the back of his mind and focus on what was happening. If nothing else, he could enjoy being with his team.
“It’s not what’s wrong, it’s what going right,” Tony said, grinning widely.
“No, it’s what’s going wrong,” Romanov disagreed, scowling. She jabbed a finger on the window, pointing at a red dot on what looked like a very convoluted map of cylinders.
“Do I want to know?” Steve was only vaguely alarmed, which probably went a long way in saying just how used he had gotten to his team’s hijinks.
“Thor and Bruce are in the vents,” Barton explained, tapping at a second red dot that seemed to be at the bottom of the map.
“Why – why are they in the vents?”
“Because we like to have access points mapped out,” Romanov said, “and Clint and I can’t do that in these bodies. Bruce is concerned about an incidence in the vents if he gets hurt, and Thor’s body is too large.”
Now Pepper’s phone call made sense. “I heard there’s been screaming.”
“No screaming,” Tony said, still grinning and looking like he was enjoying this far too much for a man whose vents were being invaded by two human beings. Steve wanted to kiss his smile, but that was probably really narcissistic considering their circumstances. “Except from my employees, maybe.”
“Bruce’s having a tough time of it,” Barton remarked, eyes on the second dot. “He slid down the wrong vent.”
“Thor got stuck,” Romanov said, sighing.
“I gave them earpieces,” Tony told Steve, “but they haven’t really been using them.”
“But you have a map,” Steve said, frowning. “Why do you need to physically go through the vents if there’s a map of them?”
“It’s also fun,” Barton said shamelessly. “Many a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent has quit because they heard something in the vents and no one believed them.”
“I think we’re responsible for half of Coulson’s hair loss,” Romanov said thoughtfully, a shit-eating grin on her face.
“I can definitely see that,” Tony said. “Ooh, Thor’s gotten out.” The red dot that was apparently Thor had gone around a bend, only to fall headlong into what looked like a vertical pipe.
“That’s going to hurt,” Romanov said mildly, not at all worried as the dot plummeted down.
“I’m probably going to get a call from Pepper soon,” Tony said ruefully, palming his phone.
“She already got a call,” Steve said.
Tony shot him a curious look. “What did she want anyway?”
Steve almost froze, but thankfully Tony’s quick brain worked in his favor here since he recovered quickly enough that he could smile and shrug casually. “Making sure everything was fine. I am in your body after all.”
“Anything she tells you is nothing but lies and slander.”
“That means you don’t snore?”
Tony narrowed his eyes. “You know I don’t snore. Ask JARVIS.”
That reminded Steve of the conversation he’d had with JARVIS in the elevator, and he flushed warmly, eyes dropping to his feet.
“Oh God,” Barton groaned, “stop flirting and do something already!”
Steve stiffened, head jerking up in time to catch Romanov punch Barton in the shoulder. Horror rose in him. Had he really been so obvious all this time?
“I’ll have you know that flirting’s my second nature,” Tony said offhandedly, shouldering Steve casually. “Better get used to it, Katniss.”
“I think I liked Legolas more,” Barton said, making a face.
“There something wrong with being likened to a female archer?” Romanov asked sweetly.
“Nah, but Legolas is more my gig, what with him being an elf and all.”
“I didn’t know you were harboring a secret desire to be an elf,” Tony said.
“I like the pointy ears.” Barton gave Tony a piercing look. “And this isn’t flirting. You flirt all the time, but you don’t do it seriously.” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
Tony stiffened next to Steve. “You saying I’m flirting seriously?” The words were clipped.
“If the shoe fits,” Barton fired back calmly.
Tony inhaled sharply, eyes pinching. He withdrew slightly from Barton, eyes flicking over to Steve and back. Steve could practically taste the fear from the man, and he hated it.
“That’s enough,” Steve warned Barton quietly.
“I have enough UST around S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Barton said snappishly (what the hell was UST?). “I’m not dealing with it here as well.”
“Yeah, well, nothing’s happening unless we’re all back in our proper places,” Steve said sharply, unthinkingly edging in front of Tony protectively. “I thought you would’ve understood, being in Dr. Banner’s body.”
Barton stiffened, eyes narrowing at Steve. “What’s that supposed to mean?” There was no flicker of green in his irises, so Steve felt relatively confident in pursuing his current line of conversation.
“Different brains, different thinking processes,” Steve said. “Or weren’t you paying attention yesterday? None of us are thinking the same way because our brains literally aren’t working the way we’re used to and it can be really confusing and no one’s doing anything because we’re not all there. I can’t stop thinking because everything’s too fast and there’s too much going on that I usually don’t notice but I can’t help noticing now since there’s too little for me to focus on to keep me occupied. Thor’s crawling his way back up to the top floor, Dr. Banner’s not on the grid anymore, Agent Romanov is seriously considering stopping me right now, and I just can’t seem to shut up.” He jerked his head back, embarrassment burning through him and causing his cheeks to heat up.
More words were burning on his tongue, but he’d said his piece and more, literally unable to stop talking once he’d started, so he kept his mouth tightly shut and refused to look away from Barton’s startled eyes.
From behind Barton, Romanov had relaxed and rolled her shoulders, sighing. “I think it’s about time that you call me Natasha, Captain. We’ve all become uncomfortably familiar with each other by now.”
“Then call me Steve,” Steve said, which was a kneejerk reflex to whenever someone said that now.
Tony had relaxed slightly beside Steve, and his voice was amused as he asked, “Think I can swing Nat?”
“If you fancy another round of bruises,” Natasha said, raising a thick eyebrow.
“Okay, Natasha it is,” Tony agreed easily, only the tension in his shoulders speaking for how uncomfortable he was.
Barton snorted, shaking his head. “Considering you just reamed my ass out, call me Clint. And definitely not Clinton; that’s reserved for Thor ’cause the jackass refuses anything else.”
There was a beeping sound that was definitely not any of them, and Tony checked his phone, an amused smirk crossing his face. “Okay, Pepper just texted me asking why Bruce was in the vents because we didn’t hire a maintenance crew and he’s covered in dust bunnies.” He showed them the screen, where a picture of a very dusty and disgruntled looking Banner could be seen.
There was a rattling sound from above them, and a sudden metallic clatter as the vent above the entryway fell to the floor and Thor tumbled out, landing lightly on his feet in a crouch.
“Points for style,” Tony said, “but you’re fixing that.”
Natasha sighed in disgust, dismissing the entire map so that the window was clear. “That was a complete and utter failure.”
“My apologies,” Thor said, looking and sounding abashed. “It was much more difficult than I had anticipated. I have the utmost respect for your duties, Natasha. It is not something I could do.”
“Obviously not,” Natasha said teasingly. “Especially since you didn’t even make it the whole way through.”
“And Bruce got caught,” Clint added, rolling his eyes.
“He’s apparently refusing to speak,” Tony said after another beep from his phone. “Pepper’s having too much fun to send him back up, especially since the ladies and gents are loving him.” He showed them another picture, this one with Banner surrounded by several people of either gender that were looking at him rather sultrily.
“I didn’t need to see that,” Clint said, closing his eyes.
“He shouldn’t be down there,” Steve said, unthinkingly pressing close to Tony to look down at whatever he was texting Pepper.
Tony didn’t seem to notice Steve’s proximity. “Yeah, I know. I’m telling her that. He should be up in about fifteen minutes or so. I know from experience that people can be handsy if they’re interested.”
Natasha snorted. “Indeed.”
“Fun times all around, sweetheart,” Tony drawled, smiling lazily and putting his phone back in his pocket. “And always consensual.”
Natasha actually didn’t say anything to this, only studying Tony thoughtfully.
Steve looked away, Clint’s earlier words still ringing in his ears. That was also the point where he noticed how close he was standing to Tony and moved away, already missing the heat of his body.
Clint caught his eye and gave him a meaningful eyebrow waggle that did absolutely nothing but tell Steve that Banner’s face really shouldn’t be making that kind of an eyebrow waggle. Thor just looked slightly confused, gaze flickering between Steve and Tony and the two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.
By the time Banner entered the living room and tripped over the metal frame lying on the floor because he didn’t see it, they’d all fallen into a sort of mutual silence where they all agreed that nothing that had been discussed earlier should be brought up again on pain of Steve reaming them out or Natasha inflicting painful bruises.
“Never again,” Banner told Clint, rubbing at his cheek and smearing a line of dust all over it. “I really need a shower right now.”
“I don’t know.” Tony gave Banner a casual glance over and grinned. “Dust suits you, Brucie.”
“If you don’t want me to make you really sick, then you will let me take a shower,” Banner said calmly.
“Steve’s body can’t get sick.”
“I do know where to get to your supply of coffee.”
Tony threw up his hands. “Okay, point made! Take a shower and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. The rest of us will stay up here and play strip poker.”
“I’m not playing any game that involves probability with you,” Natasha said.
“I don’t have my mathematically fantastic brain,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “I think you’re safe.”
“I do not know how to play this strip poker,” Thor said, sounding confused. “Does this involve poking?”
Tony laughed, head thrown back (the arch of his neck was particularly attractive, even though it was his own neck that Steve was ogling), reaching out to clasp Thor on the shoulder. “Thor, buddy, let me teach you the ways of strip poker.”
Natasha narrowed her eyes, poking Tony hard in the chest judging from his wince. “You are not teaching Thor strip poker just to see me naked, Stark.”
“Your modeling pictures have already shown me enough,” Tony answered easily, pushing her hand away. “But it’s a crime that Thor doesn’t know one of the best pastimes of humanity.”
Natasha pursed her lips, eyes still narrowed. “Point,” she eventually conceded. She turned to Thor. “Get ready for some of the hardest game play you’ve seen in your life.”
Banner had already made his way off to the bathroom at this point, hands up in the air to show just how done he was with it all. Thor had a very bemused but accepting expression on his face and was simply nodding.
“We can’t do strip poker without cards,” Clint said. “Where’s your deck, Tony?”
Five minutes later, Tony had ferreted a deck out from somewhere and started teaching Thor (and Steve, to be quite honest, because strip poker had not been something the Howling Commandos had played) the basics of strip poker. Natasha and Clint provided side commentary but allowed Tony to do most of the speaking.
It was probably an odd sight to anyone walking in on them, but Steve was too engrossed in watching Tony’s mouth move and his hands gesture expressively (it was his own body but it was Tony doing the moving and that was really all that counted) to really think on the matter.
Still, by the time they’d actually started a game, they were all pretty damn startled when a call came in through JARVIS and Fury’s voice tersely announced, “I don’t care if you’re still all swapped around, there’s a fucking squid and sparkly ponies out there so you’ve all been assembled. Quinjet is en route with your supplies, Agents. Captain, your shield and uniform are both on board.”
“Oh shit.” Tony’s eyes had widened.
“What?” Steve demanded.
“The suit’s not going to fit me!” Tony gestured at his entire body. “You’re about a billion times bulkier than me and a little taller.”
Steve’s own eyes widened now as the realization practically bowled him over. “But I don’t know how to fly it!”
“Crash course!” Tony grabbed hold of Steve’s arm and hauled him upright, practically wrenching Steve’s arm out of his socket. He noticed and instantly let go. “Fuck, sorry!”
“No, it’s fine.” Steve rolled the shoulder, relieved that it was still in one piece even if sore. “Come on; show me how it works before the jet gets here. You’ve got my suit and shield to deal with.”
The fact that Tony didn’t seem to know whether to geek out or go white from horror should not have been as funny as it was.
But then Banner stumbled into the room, still wet with a towel wrapped around his waist, and Steve lost it.
To put it simply, Tony was panicking. Or, well, he wasn’t really panicking more so than he was really, really anxious because his suit was going to be flown by Steve and he would have to handle a freaking shield while running around in nothing more than a skin-tight uniform.
It was nerve wracking.
To be fair, Steve had picked up on the directions Tony had given him for the suit remarkably quickly. Tony had already said that JARVIS would do whatever he could, but there were a lot of functions in the suit that weren’t run by JARVIS. The HUD was one of them, and thankfully Steve had managed to remember all the instructions. Whether he could remember them in the heat of battle was another thing.
JARVIS dealt with the power, targeting systems, and the weapons, but Steve would have to deal with flying and aiming and just generally not crashing into things. And although Tony had upgraded his suits since the Mark II, that wasn’t to say that flying an Iron Man suit was easy. Because it wasn’t, not for someone unused to it. Rhodey had only known how to operate his because Tony had given him lessons.
That said, Steve hadn’t had as much luck with teaching Tony how to throw a shield because by the time the shield actually arrived, they had all of five minutes to pull on their uniforms and get out there.
“You’re wearing that,” Natasha was telling Thor firmly, her own outfit being Thor’s usual battle regalia sans cape.
“I will not be fighting on the ground,” Thor protested, tapping the handle of Mjölnir pointedly.
“And my body isn’t as resilient as yours, so wear the damn suit.”
“I have no idea how to shoot a bow,” Bruce told Clint worriedly, peering down at the quiver and arrows.
“Just aim and let go,” Clint said, not seeming too bothered. “How do I do it?” He’d taken off his shirt already in preparation of unleashing Hulk. “Just get mad?”
“You’re not usually mad,” Bruce said, “but you can feel him. Just pull him out and he’ll do the rest.”
Tony already had his hands on the shield and was looking down at the shiny surface in trepidation. “This is literally a dream come true, and I can’t even enjoy this,” he said, thumbs stroking over the curvature of the shield.
“You’ll do fine,” Steve reassured him, clapping him on the shoulder. The faceplate came down a second later, and Steve’s voice came out, modulated through the voice synthesizer. “Ready to go?”
“Yep.” Tony shot a glance at the others; Thor was preparing to launch with Mjölnir, and Natasha and Bruce were going with the Quinjet. Reports had already filtered in with the devastation that the giant squid and sparkly ponies Fury had described were causing. He couldn’t help but wonder if these sparkly ponies were in anyway related to the one that the homeless dude had been ranting about.
A moment later, and Steve hesitantly asked, “How did you want to do this?”
Tony restrained a smile because there really wasn’t anything to smile about other than Steve being cute and whoa, where had that come from? Still, not the time to think about stuff like that. “Like this.” He knew exactly where the best spots to hold onto the suit were, and he clung to the front like a limpet, making sure to hook his hands around the neck and loop his ankles around the thighs. Doubtlessly it looked ridiculous, but Tony hadn’t designed the suit with a clingy passenger in mind.
Something that would have to be rectified, because he wanted to do this a lot more. He really wanted to keep this team now that they were all assembled.
“Okay.” Even through the synthesizer Steve sounded rather high-pitched. “Let’s see how this – oh, right.” The repulsors started, and Steve jerked off the floor abruptly, wobbling slightly before he steadied.
“Let’s go before Fury decides to get on our case,” Tony urged, ducking his face against the cool metal.
“I don’t really like flying,” was all Steve said before he took off, leaving the others behind.
It was the worst flight Tony had ever experienced, and that was saying something considering that his first ever flight had been in Afghanistan. But Steve had the best flight system in the world and he was spinning in circles because he couldn’t fly in a straight line.
Tony was thankful that Steve’s body didn’t get sick. “Get JARVIS to help!” he gasped, trusting in his mike to transmit his voice to Steve.
“No, I’ve got it,” Steve said. Then, “Oh shit, no, how do I go back?”
Tony felt the shoulder missiles begin to disengage under his arms. “Steve!”
JARVIS thankfully took care of it a few seconds later, and Tony didn’t have to worry about his arms being blown off.
“Okay, we’re almost there,” Steve said after another traumatizing minute of rough flying. “Should I let you go or…?”
Tony twisted around to see the bay and the ponies and squid that Fury had talked about. Only that wasn’t a squid – that was a kraken, Jesus Christ. And the ponies could fly and were in all the colors of the rainbow. They were also very sparkly and breathed fire. That homeless guy had been right after all.
“Closer to the street and drop me,” Tony decided, eyes scanning the street and taking the entirety of the scene in. “Then get back up in the air and concentrate your fire on the kraken.” Thor had arrived and was already making good work of the ponies with bursts of lightning and well-aimed hammer strikes.
There was a brief moment of panic where Steve actually cut the repulsors entirely instead of powering them down, and they plummeted a couple dozen feet before he managed to get them back on. Tony had let go by this time, having had quite enough of being touted around like a handbag. Steve would be perfectly safe inside that suit as long as he didn’t do anything silly like get himself crushed with force greater than the metal could withstand.
This body knew exactly what to do as he landed on the asphalt, tumbling smoothly into a soft roll that absorbed all shock and transitioned it into pure kinetic motion. By the time he’d gotten back on his feet, his hands had already taken the shield off his back and he was gearing up to throw it.
Naturally, as per his rotten luck, that was when his brain decided to kick into gear and he was left wondering just how to throw the damn thing. Was it like a Frisbee? Or a plate? An unbreakable plate? A Frisbee that could take his head off if he wasn’t careful?
He remembered how Steve threw it, of course. He’d seen a lot of videos as to the movement, and he could mimic it appropriately.
So…should he aim for the group of ponies that were crowded around the base of the kraken?
Since he didn’t really have anything lose, Tony decided to go for the ponies. If he was lucky, then he could also chop off a tentacle as well.
His enhanced hearing caught the signs of the Quinjet arriving. Only moments later, Natasha bounded into view, muscles rippling threateningly. Clint had already hulked out, as Tony heard a menacing roar before a green figure jumped onto the kraken and started punching.
“So, I suppose that man wasn’t delusional after all,” Natasha said noncommittally, taking down several ponies at once with a crazy show of gymnastics that shouldn’t have been possible with Thor’s larger body.
“Sadly,” Tony agreed. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, he reared back and then let the shield go. It spun out of his hand far faster than anticipated and then went careening to the left and through a window. It didn’t make a reappearance.
“Aw fuck it.” Tony ducked a fiery blast from a purple pony and then punched it out before vaulting over it and sprinting to the broken window.
“I don’t know how to fly this thing,” Steve said, sounding rather high-pitched. Tony spared a glance to the kraken, saw Steve slam face-first into a stray tentacle and get whacked into the water, and winced.
“Quick tutorial from JARVIS,” Tony said, leaping through the broken glass fragments and pinpointing the shield. “He knows all the details. You’ve got it.”
“Okay, okay, I – no, shit, that’s the wrong thing—”
“I really hope no one’s filming this right now,” Natasha said, taking down several ponies with a cleverly executed maneuver that Tony caught the tail-end of as he left the empty store.
An arrow fired rather poorly by Bruce went flying over their heads and hit a building, exploding a moment later. “I think I’m gonna sit this out,” Bruce said a second later. “Just watch and see what I can do.”
“That’ll be a lost hope,” Tony said to Natasha, making sure the shield was securely locked onto his arm so he could start punching out some ponies. He wasn’t going to use it like a Frisbee until he could get it to rebound and not just fly off through a random window.
Now that he wasn’t throwing it around, it was actually pretty easy to use the shield to take down pony after brightly colored pony. It was instinctual the way his body would smoothly move between ponies, interchanging punches with kicks with thrusts and slices from the shield. He almost didn’t have to think about it unless Natasha almost beaned him in the head or Steve cursed in his ear because he’d fouled something up.
By the time Steve had accidentally fired the entire array of weapons missiles on the kraken and almost hit Hulk, Tony had had enough. “It should be muscle memory by now, Steve. Just react and don’t overthink.”
“Easier said than done,” Steve said in Tony’s voice, which did remind Tony that Steve had gotten the short end of the stick with the hyperactive brain.
There was an almighty crash of thunder from above their heads, and then Thor’s lightning rained down on the street and killed a dozen ponies. More fell down from the skies, having been flying around and causing general havoc that Tony couldn’t take care of.
It did give Tony an idea for how to take care of the kraken, which was fending off Hulk’s attempts at bashing it into a pulp rather admirably. “Steve, can you get Thor to do that same trick with the kraken? And aim it towards the eyes?”
“I’m also flying up here,” Steve said.
“It’ll be fine – the electricity’ll just charge the reactor and give you a boost. The only thing you’ll feel are a bunch of vibrations.”
“We need to get the situation down here handled,” Natasha reminded Tony, punching down a stray pony that got too close.
“From what I can see up here, it looks like the ponies and the kraken are working together,” Bruce said. “The kraken got kind of agitated when Thor did that.”
“All right, got it,” Steve answered. “I’ll see what Thor can do about it. And, Tony, the same thing applies for the shield. Just don’t think.”
Easier said than done, and Tony didn’t particularly want to go chasing after it if he messed up. Still, he used it to bash a red pony in the face before kicking a blue one in the chest. He had a very strong feeling that Loki was behind this little thing because of course the crazy Norse god would think it absolutely hilarious to have the Avengers fight a kraken and ponies right out of My Little Pony while body-swapped.
He kind of wished he’d told someone else about Loki appearing in his bathroom that morning, but he hadn’t really had any idea what to say beyond “Loki creeped on me in the bathroom and said you look cute, Steve,” because A) Steve was cute and B) there was nothing anyone could do about a Norse god with magic.
The light dimmed as Thor summoned storm clouds, and thunder rumbled threateningly, vague crackles of lightning setting the hairs on Tony’s nape upright. He chanced a glance up, momentarily stunned when he saw the delicate tendrils of lightning dancing across the clouds and centering to where Thor was hovering midair, hammer held out like a lightning rod. Steve flitted about below him, having gotten the hang of firing repulsor blasts at the kraken and dodging the retaliating strike.
Several breathless seconds later, Thor unleashed the full force of the lightning he had amassed, bringing it all down on the witless head of the kraken floundering in the bay.
“I hope he realizes my body isn’t as hardy as his,” Natasha muttered, motionless next to Tony.
There was static crackle in the earpiece, so loud that Tony was forced to rip it out at the same time that a crackling Iron Man suit hurtled over their heads and crushed an empty bus.
“I thought you said he’d be fine?” Natasha sounded very unimpressed.
“He will be,” Tony asserted, sparing only a brief glance back at where Steve was lying. He was too busy worrying about the fact that the ponies had become absolutely bat-shit crazy thanks to the attack Thor had unleashed on the kraken, which was looking entirely roasted and not at all alive.
He felt the attack coming before he saw it, body reacting instinctively to defend itself. Before Tony knew it, the shield had left his hands and gone flying, bouncing off pony after pony in an intricate dance before hitting a lamppost and then whirling back to him.
It was by this time that Tony realized he had absolutely no idea how to catch the stupid thing, his mind having caught up with his body by now.
Since he didn’t really feel like being decapitated or badly bruised, Tony did the only thing he could think of: he dropped to the ground, letting the shield fly harmlessly over his head and imbed itself in an unlucky car.
“Okay, that’s impressive,” Natasha said, sounding darkly amused. Tony lifted his head to shoot her a glare.
Over by the bus, Steve had managed to pry himself free and was now heading to the shield to pull it out. He tromped over to where Tony was picking himself up, the suit managing to convey a distinct air of grumpiness that was impressive.
“Banner thinks everything’s done,” Steve said, not giving the shield over to Tony.
Making a face at Steve’s refusal, Tony looked around at the devastation that the ponies had caused. None of them were moving and all of them seemed rather dead.
“We’re going to have a legion of traumatized kids, I just know it,” Tony said, sighing.
“No, we won’t,” Steve said, “because we’re cleaning this up.”
With an earth-shattering roar, Hulk landed next to them, snorting derisively. He picked up a pony and sniffed it, only to make a disgusted face and drop it.
Thor landed moments later, red hair sticking up in all directions. He wore a blinding grin. “That was most invigorating!” he enthused.
“I’m glad you think so,” Steve said dryly.
Bruce joined them, quiver and arrows in hand and looking rather sheepish. “Well, that was something.” He looked up at Hulk, eyes scanning the green behemoth. “Hey,” he breathed.
Hulk didn’t seem impressed with Bruce, sniffing imperiously before turning to Tony and grinning. Then, unexpectedly, he began shrinking back down to a small human.
That left Clint sitting there stark naked and rather confused, as he’d evidently forgotten to pull on Bruce’s stretchy pants that morning.
“Oh God,” Natasha said. “Someone get him clothes before we’re sued for public indecency.”
After cleaning the streets of the carcasses of brightly colored ponies, they’d been called in for a quick debriefing that luckily didn’t take place on the Helicarrier since it seemed that Fury didn’t trust them on it after the disaster that had been them fighting. There was enough speculation going on the news as they continued to replay the footage of Tony throwing the shield like a complete amateur, Steve flying like a drunk loon, and Thor flying around in a distinctly feminine body that none of them wanted to show their faces in public until the whole affair was done with.
Tony really wanted to be back in his body now; the novelty had thoroughly worn off. He also didn’t want to make his suit bigger in case of another little disaster because there was no way that Steve was pulling on the Captain America uniform and punching out ponies in Tony’s body.
Fortunately for them all, they encountered no one as they landed the Quinjet on the landing pad. It was one of the perks of having a private one, although Tony would bet most of his fortune that there was a hell of a lot of gossiping going on right now on the lower levels as his employees discussed just what had been going on with him.
Or maybe he was being egoistical. It was definitely a possibility.
He just needed to get Steve to do the walk to get the suit off before he could focus on anything else, like damage control.
“So I just walk?” Steve sounded disbelieving.
“Yep.” Tony gestured to the path. “JARVIS will take care of anything else. Have at it!”
Still with a faint air of disbelief, Steve did just that, the mechanical arms doing their job and expertly dismantling the suit. The boots were a tad tricky as Steve didn’t quite step right, but JARVIS was adaptive.
The others had convened in the kitchen by the time Tony and Steve joined them, and Bruce was already putting a pizza in the oven while a pot of water sat on the stove.
“Let’s never do that again,” Clint grunted, head pillowed on his arms. He sounded exhausted.
“It was an interesting experience,” Natasha said noncommittally.
Thor beamed, his hair still sticking up in all directions; the static electricity had yet to disperse. “I must agree!”
“Let’s still not do that again,” Steve said, sitting with a relieved sigh. “Your suit’s more complicated than I thought, Tony.”
“You did about as well as I did the first time I went out,” Tony assured him. “It takes some getting used to.”
Bruce set down a banana and yogurt for Clint. “You should eat something.”
The sight of food reminded Tony’s body that it was rather hungry, too, having burned a lot of energy fighting. Not wanting to wait until the food Bruce was making was done, he went and picked out a power bar.
The snack tided him over until the food was done, but then he had to elbow past Natasha and Clint to get to it. Thankfully Bruce made enough for three people with super metabolisms because there was still food left over for Steve and Bruce.
They ate in relative silence, each one of them probably feeling rather uncomfortable considering the cluster fuck that had happened out there. Tony, for one, was pitifully embarrassed since he was supposed to be a genius and he couldn’t even figure out a freaking shield. Then again…from the stories he’d heard, Steve hadn’t been all that good with a shield either the first time he’d started out.
Tony snorted quietly to himself at the thought, earning a curious look from Steve that he waved off in favor of getting some more bread. He’ll be reeking of garlic, but he didn’t really care. It wasn’t like he was going to be kissing anybody.
That was where that thought stuttered to a halt since Steve smiled at him as he gave Tony another serving of pasta. Did people usually smile if they were forking out food?
Tony wasn’t sure what was up, but Steve had been acting weirder since Clint had pointed out the whole flirting thing. To be fair, Tony hadn’t even noticed he was doing it. Flirting was like breathing for him, but he never actually tried to do it seriously with the intention of hooking someone for something other than a one-night stand.
And there was no way he’d pull Steve into something like that. Fury would kill him and then resurrect him only to let Coulson kill him again – and Tony knew the guy was alive because there was only so much Fury could hide, ha – and it would also completely fuck up the dynamics of the team. The team was a good thing so far, so Tony wasn’t going to fuck that up.
No matter how much he might want Steve and the possibility of a stable relationship.
Thankfully Steve didn’t do anything else weird, allowing Tony to focus on polishing off his plate and then move on to helping clean up the dishes and pots. Okay, well, he carried them but then he didn’t do anything else because he was more likely to accidentally break something than clean it. Natasha suffered the same problem even though she had better muscle control than Tony; she’d already broken a vase because she’d fucked up her sense of space and gestured too broadly.
Considering that he was then nigh useless in the kitchen after cleaning the table, Tony headed back to the living room with the intention of either sleeping off the meal he’d eaten or trying to get some work done for R&D.
That was until he saw the Norse god casually drinking something at his bar.
Tony did not jump a foot in the air; nor did he shriek. But he did point an accusing finger at Loki and shout, “You!”
Loki gave him an unimpressed eyebrow raise, taking another sip of his drink, which looked like bourbon. “Me.”
“What are you doing here again?” Tony demanded, very carefully not approaching the bar. JARVIS hadn’t said a thing, but Loki could have shielded himself from the cameras. Again.
The only response was a dismissive flick of eyes as Loki turned his attention back to his drink. “Don’t ask stupid questions, Anthony. It doesn’t become you.”
“Considering you body-swapped us, it’s a perfectly legit question! And the creepiness last time!” Tony accused loudly, already hearing the pattering footsteps of his team as they rushed to the same room.
Loki seemed completely unperturbed as all the Avengers assembled in the room to face him. He inclined his head in Thor’s direction, the movement seeming ridiculously regal even with the mini umbrella he plopped into his drink.
“Thor, you are looking particularly divine,” Loki drawled, lips curling into an amused smirk.
Thor frowned disapprovingly, Mjölnir in his hand. “I did not think you would show your face, Loki.”
Loki waved a dismissive hand, the umbrella twirling in his fingers. “You know me, brother,” he said idly. “I tend to dance on the riskier side of life.”
Thor’s frown became slightly confused, but no trace of it showed in his voice. “Undo your magic, Loki.”
Loki’s mouth twisted slightly, something that seemed eerily like disappointment flashing through his eyes. He sighed then, tucking the pink umbrella behind his ear and finishing his glass. “You have not heard word from Asgard, have you, brother?”
Thor shifted uncomfortably, his discomfort apparent even from where he was standing next to Steve. “I have not,” he answered carefully.
“They would have contacted you if anything were amiss,” Loki pointed out calmly, one foot perched on the base of the bar and spinning the chair he was sitting on back and forth. “You are the prince.”
“You are crafty with illusions, as you have oft boasted,” Thor said.
“Illusions only go so far,” Loki said, “particularly if the caster is not present to keep them stable. I would say that the average illusion would only last about twenty-four Midgardian hours without my presence.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Natasha asked, voice wary. Her eyes were narrowed calculatingly, and she’d situated herself in front of Clint protectively.
Loki’s smile widened. “You know yourself, Natasha. From what I understand, you have quite an inside knowledge into my mind.”
“You’re saying that you’re still in Asgard,” Steve said evenly, surprising everyone. “Is this the illusion?”
“Astute, Steven, but still incorrect. Illusions that traverse worlds without some kind of object to focus on are impossible.” Loki’s eyes were fixed on Tony and had been for the last minute. It was beginning to make him uncomfortable. “Nor can illusions cast spells.”
“That’s definitely the real Loki,” Clint said quietly. “Something about him is rubbing the Hulk the wrong way.”
“The Other Guy can smell him,” Bruce said. “Last time he smelled like a bag of cats.”
“I don’t know what that smells like, but he doesn’t smell like that now.”
Tony’s mind was running over what he remembered from his brief encounters with Loki in the elevator and the bathroom. He hadn’t sensed any menace from the god then, especially compared to his previous encounter with him. In fact, Loki had seemed entirely neutral, only a faint hint of amusement coming off him.
And the bathroom thing… Loki had seemed friendly then, joking with him and everything. It wasn’t something that Loki would seem to do, especially after he’d tried to wipe New York City off the face of the Earth.
If Asgard had no need to send Thor a message, and the Loki here obviously wasn’t an illusion, then the only solution that remained was…
“You’re another Loki,” he blurted out.
Loki’s eyes brightened, and he beamed, which was an absolutely surreal sight.
“Parallel universes?” Bruce asked.
“Very good,” Loki purred, grinning in a manner befitting that of a cat that had caught the canary.
“So what are you doing here?” Steve demanded.
“I was taking a trip,” Loki said unhelpfully. “This little universe caught my attention, and I…” He smiled, shrugging as he smoothly slid off the stool to stand. “Well, I decided to lend a helping hand.”
“How was this helping?” Tony couldn’t stop the disbelief from saturating his tone if he’d tried.
Loki rolled his eyes, sighing in aggravation. “You were all divided – scattered. Nothing like a true team. I provided the means to reunite you and enable some ‘team bonding time’ as my friend would name it.” He’d even provided the air quotation marks.
“You have friends?” Tony couldn’t help but ask, only to get poked in the bicep by Steve. “Ow!”
But Loki didn’t seem irritated; in fact, Tony’s remark seemed to have tickled him judging by the gleeful and almost…fond – really? – grin he was sporting. “Oh yes,” he said, and that was definitely a fond tone; Tony was sufficiently creeped out by now. “You are indeed him.”
Everyone was staring at Tony weirdly now.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tony said, taking a cautious step back to distance himself from the still potentially crazy Norse god.
“Consider this a gift,” Loki told him, definitely not helping with Tony’s creep meter – which was now in the red zone. “You remind me of a very dear friend.”
Thor looked completely bemused now, but he still wasn’t saying anything.
“You know what I’d consider a gift?” Tony eventually ventured to say. “You swapping us back. That would be totally awesome if you get my drift.”
Loki studied him for a moment, face blank. “The sense of humor is slightly lacking,” he finally decided much to Tony’s indignation.
“I’ll have you know I’m witty,” Tony protested.
“Extraordinarily witty,” Loki agreed dryly. “I wish you the best of luck, Anthony. And, Steven…” He gave the other man a hard stare. “I do know where you live if you hurt him.”
With that parting sally, Loki waved a hand in their general direction.
Tony had all of a second to register that Loki had apparently just given Steve the equivalent of a shovel talk before he blacked out.
There was no pain. That was the first thing Steve registered. The second was that he could breathe without feeling like something was digging into his lungs.
He heard the sounds of several other people breathing nearby, along with some rustling as someone moved. Opening his eyes, Steve saw Natasha stand, frowning in the direction of the bar. Then she reached over to pick up Mjölnir and Steve realized it was Thor.
Sitting up, Steve looked down at his familiar hands. Only a few feet away from him lay Tony. He was face-down, and Steve knew from unfortunate experience how uncomfortable that was with the arc reactor. Reaching over, Steve carefully moved Tony to his back and lifted him up, carrying him over to the couch even as Thor walked to the bar and pondered the chair Loki had been sitting on.
That reminded Steve of what Loki had said before reversing the spell. It was so unbelievable that Steve half-thought he’d imagined it.
“Did your brother just threaten me if I hurt Tony?” Steve needed to ask, glancing over at Thor.
Thor returned his gaze, smiling ruefully. “He did.”
“Huh.” Steve wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he just sat down on the couch by Tony’s feet, one hand coming to rest on an ankle.
Thor came over to stand by Steve, facing their other unconscious teammates. “I do not think they will be unconscious for long.”
“Banner should be up first,” Steve said. “That’s if nothing happens.”
“I think not,” Thor said. “He is back where he should be; the Hulk then has nothing to fear.”
“Maybe.” Steve looked down at where his thumb was gently stroking Tony’s skin.
“I think that if they wake in their current positions and find us here, they will be most displeased with us,” Thor said thoughtfully.
The way Clint and Natasha had dropped to the floor didn’t look very comfortable at all, so Steve definitely had to agree with that. He helped Thor pull them to the carpet and laid them out on their backs. Then he returned to Tony’s side.
Thor studied him. “This is new, is it not?”
Steve startled for a moment, hesitating only briefly before meeting his eyes. “Yeah. I need to talk with him about it.”
“Surprising that Loki would have known,” Thor noted. “Or perhaps not, considering that he is friends with an Anthony in his universe.”
“That Loki wasn’t the same,” Steve said cautiously.
Thor’s face darkened in grief. “No,” he agreed quietly. “He was not. He is what my brother could have been had he come home.”
“I wonder what changed there,” Steve mused.
Shrugging, Thor took a seat on the end of the couch. “There is no way of telling. It does not do to dwell on impossibilities. That way leads to madness.”
There was truth to that, so Steve said nothing more, instead turning his focus to Tony. He had no idea how long he’d be out, but he hoped it wasn’t for much longer. Now that he was back in his original body and Tony had his brain back, he really wanted to talk and see what could happen.
Pepper’s warnings flitted through his mind, but Steve didn’t care. He had the patience, and he was willing to wait for however long it took Tony to decide that a relationship was worth it. Besides, there was also that wooing advice she’d given him, and Steve was definitely going to be putting that to good use.
All the reasons he’d had at the beginning – or lack of reasons, really – for avoiding Tony like the plague were gone. He could nurse this affection he had for Tony; he didn’t need to worry about it because Tony was a good man. A great one. One that Steve would be proud to love.
Eventually he’d have to tell Tony that he’d been avoiding him, but he’d leave that for later.
His thumb returned to stroking Tony’s warm skin, and Steve wasn’t interested in moving anytime soon.
Ten minutes later, Steve almost didn’t notice the shift in Tony’s breathing. When he did notice, it was too late to pull his hand away because Tony was already awake and staring at him with wide eyes filled with confusion.
Suddenly filled with trepidation, Steve swallowed and very carefully didn’t move his hand from Tony’s ankle. He had a point to make here and was going to make it.
“You feeling all right?” Steve asked, which was as good a starting point as any.
Tony blinked rapidly, shifting only slightly so that he was propped up against the arm rest. “Back to normal,” he answered slowly, taking a cautious breath that Steve recognized as one he’d gotten used to taking.
It hurt Steve that Tony was hurting. He didn’t deserve that, and Steve wished there was something he could do so Tony would stop being in pain.
“Don’t give me that look,” Tony said irritably, pushing his toes into Steve’s stomach. “I already said I’m used to it, remember?”
Steve shot a glance at Thor, who was carefully not looking in their direction. “Doesn’t mean I can’t worry.”
Tony shrugged, eyes flickering down to where Steve’s thumb was still stroking the skin. “Is there…” He swallowed visibly. “Is there a reason you’re doing that?”
Steve took a shallow breath and bit the bullet. “I like you.”
“I like you, too?” Tony seemed to be purposefully obtuse.
“No, I mean I like you.” Steve kept his tone carefully even, making sure no hint of his nervousness seeped through. “As in, I want – I want to try a relationship with you.”
Tony didn’t respond immediately, and even then he pulled his feet out from Steve’s lap so he could curl up into a ball. Steve let him, disliking it all the while.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Tony finally said, not meeting Steve’s eyes.
Steve’d expected this. “Why not?”
Tony blinked, evidently surprised. “Because it isn’t. You’re you and I’m—”
“You,” Steve interrupted, not wanting to hear how that sentence finished. “And I happen to like you.”
Tony threw a panicked look over Steve’s shoulder to where Thor was sitting, but the other was very clearly not paying attention to them as he’d procured a phone and was talking to Jane Foster.
“It doesn’t have to be anything serious immediately,” Steve said, instantly hating the words even as he spoke them. “But can we just…try? Because I want to, Tony.”
“Relationships with me generally aren’t a good idea,” Tony said, but there was a hint of something that Steve dared to hope was longing in his voice.
“I know we can do it,” Steve insisted. “We’ve literally been inside each other; I think we can do anything.”
Tony kept his face blank for all of a second before he broke down in hysterical giggles, hiding his face as the laughter rolled through him. “Please tell me you did that on purpose,” he choked out.
“Did what?” Steve didn’t give anything away.
Tony stretched a leg out to push Steve’s thigh. “No, I know you now, Sass and Spangles. You have a dastardly sense of humor lying under that exterior.”
“And you’re really sweet,” Steve said softly, smiling.
“Sweet? I’m not sweet.”
Steve reached out to touch Tony’s leg, squeezing gently. “No, you are. You’re the first person who’s made this time feel remotely like home. And I don’t want to lose that – you.”
Tony didn’t respond immediately, eyes flickering back and forth the room as he obviously thought. “It’s probably not going to work out,” he warned finally, shoulders hunching, but there was a faint edge of hope in his voice that had Steve’s heart thumping in his chest.
“I don’t know that,” Steve said, putting in all his hope and longing in his voice and trusting that Tony would hear it. “I’m thinking it will. All I really want is someone to step out with, someone I like, and someone I want to spend time with. You meet all of those qualifications.”
Tony’s smile was weak. “Not hard to.”
“I’ve been out for a while, Tony. I haven’t found anyone I’d like to do that with yet.” Steve smiled gently. “Until you.”
Tony fell into another considering silence. Eventually he said, “This is going to be slow.”
Relief suffused Steve, along with a slow blooming happiness that he didn’t want to let go; it had been so long since he’d felt happy. “Slow’s fine,” he assured Tony. “Slow’s perfect. I just want you.”
“You always that sappy?”
“I could do more,” Steve said seriously, leaning towards Tony. “I really like your smile, never mind that I’ve only seen it in mirrors. I like how you care about other people, even though you try to hide that you don’t. I even like that you’re rude, because I can be rude, too.”
“Captain America, rude?” Tony murmured. “Say it isn’t so.”
“I wasn’t always Captain America. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn, and this kid got into a lot of back alley fights.”
“And this kid is looking for a serious relationship?” Tony asked, serious now.
Steve had said it didn’t have to be serious, but he didn’t have it in him to lie again. “I am.”
After a minute of silence, Tony finally gave a small smile. “What the hell. I’ve done crazier things. Sure. Why not?” He pulled down his legs to lean forward to Steve. “Let’s try it.”
Steve was unable to resist smiling, too happy to bother stifling it. It had only taken about fifteen minutes, but Steve would’ve been willing to wait months if Tony had needed it. He’d tell Tony as much later, but for now all he really wanted to do was intertwine his fingers with Tony’s.
So he did as much, only for Clint’s voice to startle him when he asked, “You guys aren’t kissing now, right?”
“Oh God,” Tony said, sounding mortified. “How much of that did you hear?”
Natasha smoothly sat up, pinning Steve with a gleeful smile. “You’re incredibly sappy, Rogers.”
Banner sat up more slowly, offering Tony a tentative smile. “I’m glad for you two.”
“I’m not speaking to any of you,” Tony declared.
“We didn’t want to interrupt,” Natasha said.
“So you just eavesdropped.”
“Not our fault if you chose to have the conversation in the open.” Natasha shrugged, clearly uncaring save for the amusement in her eyes.
Tony turned to Steve. “This is your fault.”
“I don’t know,” Steve said, ears burning red. “I hear it takes two to tango.”
“You know what,” Rhodey said from the entryway, Pepper standing next to him, “I really don’t want to know.”
“I want you to know that I find you incredibly attractive right now,” Tony informed Steve shamelessly.
“Can we kiss?” Steve suggested, feeling brash enough to push his luck even though they hadn’t even gone on a date. Didn’t being inside each other’s bodies count?
“I’d be a fool to say no,” Tony said, ignoring the groans from Rhodey and Clint.
Of course, by the time Tony scooted down the couch to gently kiss Steve, he didn’t really care about that at all.
Maybe he would send Loki a fruit basket.