"I cannot apologize deeply enough, Iron Man. My kinsman has done thee a great wrong."
Hank looked up from his mass-spectrometer results with relief as Thor's voice echoed through the building; they were back.
He knew why the team left him behind, out of the action; he was the one who had insisted on it, in the face of Clint's earnest and well-meaning attempts to get him back into costume. Being Yellowjacket again would make it too easy to fall back into old, bad habits. In costume, in the field, he'd be a liability. Back in the lab, as support staff, he could be an asset.
None of that made waiting uselessly every time the others went out to fight something any less nerve-wracking.
"The spell was intended for myself," Thor went on, sounding more apologetic than Hank had ever heard him, and that included the time the Enchantress had brainwashed him into attacking them all. "I am deeply grieved to have-"
"For the love of-" Iron Man interrupted, just as Hank reached the front hall, the print out of his test results still absently clutched in one hand. "Will you stop apologizing, Thor? It's not your fault. You didn't mean for this to happen." His electronically-modified voice sounded odd, off in some subtle way that Hank couldn't pin down.
"Are you all right, Tony?" he asked. "Were you guys able to stop Loki?" Tony looked unhurt, his armor undamaged, but that didn't always mean anything.
Clint, Bobbi, Wanda, and Tigra looked unscathed, though Bobbi's costume was missing a sleeve, the trailing fabric torn away. Hank wasn't surprised; as long and full as her sleeves were, they were bound to get caught on things.
"Yeah," Clint said, his voice strained. "We stopped Loki." He looked and sounded as if he were trying not to laugh, and kept darting little glances at Tony.
"I'm fine," Tony said shortly. "Well, I'm not hurt, anyway."
"The blame lies on my head," Thor said, drowning out Tony's protests, "I taunted Loki with the memory of an incident wherein he was greatly shamed and mortified. Iron Man was the unfortunate victim of his retaliation."
"In the future, maybe we should avoid taunting supervillains," Tigra suggested, her tail swishing gently back and forth.
"That would take all the fun out of it,"
"Hawkeye wouldn't know what to do with himself if he couldn't pretend to engage in witty banter,"
Clint and Wanda spoke simultaneously, then Clint glared at her through his mask.
The team was standing in a loose huddle, everyone staring at Tony, who had turned away from them and wrapped his arms around himself. It was a very vulnerable, human gesture that should have looked odd in the armor, but Hank had seen him do it often enough before that any oddness had long since worn off.
"Are you sure you're all right?' he asked, taking a step closer to Tony. Tony had been on edge lately, unpredictable, and there was clearly something very wrong here no matter how fine he insisted he was.
"Off for God's sake." Bobbi rolled her eyes. "Just take the damn helmet off. We all know what happened; it's not like you're hiding anything."
Hank was about to point out that no, they did not in fact "all know what happened," when Tony reached up and, with obvious reluctance, pulled his helmet off.
"Oh my God, you're a girl," Hank blurted out.
Tony glared at him, his face thinner and visibly more delicate, narrowed eyes thickly fringed in black lashes - which were no longer or thicker than they had been before, but seemed more striking now. "Thank you for pointing out the obvious, Hank," he said, in a husky mezzo-soprano that didn't sound remotely like his voice.
That was when Clint lost it and finally started laughing.
"It's not just a superficial alteration," Hank was saying, for the third time. "It goes all the way down to your DNA. You don't have a Y chromosome anymore."
"I don't care how thorough it is," Tony snapped, glaring up at Hank. "I just want you to undo it." He was used to having to look up at Hank, but never when Hank was normal-sized. It was a new and not particularly pleasant experience.
"We know, Tony," Wanda sighed. "Trust me, we know." She gave Tony an apologetic little half-smile. He didn't smile back.
Wanda was eye to eye with him. It was disconcerting to be this small; he hadn't been this short since he was fifteen. And his balance was all wrong; he'd had to constantly watch himself to keep from falling over before he taken the armor off.
He was very carefully avoiding thinking about the body parts he was missing; he wasn't ready to deal with that yet. He was that never going to be ready to deal with that.
"I hate this," he muttered. "These stupid breasts move whenever I move." He nodded at Wanda's chest. "Yours are at least a cup size larger. How do you stand them?"
"I wear a bra," she said, dryly.
Tony shuddered. "I wore something across my chest for long enough as it is. Surely there's some spell you haven't tried."
There was, he reflected, a reason he hated magic.
Hank, at least, could explain why his various attempts to turn Tony back over the past twelve hours had failed, and every failure gave them more information on Tony's condition, and hopefully brought them closer to fixing it. Wanda, on the other hand, just frowned, stared at him, and performed a series of incomprehensible hand gestures, accompanied by muttered comments in English and Transian. Then nothing would happen, and she would do it again, with slightly different gestures and occasional flickers of pink light.
"I've tried everything I can think of," she said now. "Spells to dispel enchantments, hexes to disrupt other people's magic, even healing spells, though my powers don't exactly lend themselves to that. If I don't take a break soon, I'm going to start accidentally frying lab equipment. Or you."
Tony started to protest - every hour not spent working on this was another hour that he spent trapped in this alien body, not to mention that Clint has given them forty-eight hours to fix this before he called Steve and the other Avengers on the East Coast, and had them bring Strange in on it - but Wanda over-rode him.
"I've spent all last night and half this morning trying to undo the work of a god. I need to rest. And so do both of you."
"I've worked on things for longer," Hank volunteered.
"Hank," Tony pointed out, "when you work on things for days on end without taking breaks, they tend to gain sentience and try to kill you."
Hank flinched, and looked away, suddenly seeming to find the computer screen he was standing next to utterly fascinating, and Tony winced inwardly. Ultron was not something to joke about with Hank.
"Sorry," he said. "Thank you, both of you. I know you're trying."
"We'll start again in the morning," Wanda told him. "We will fix this. I promise."
Tony nodded, and did his best to squash the panicked little part of his mind that was already wondering what he was going to do if they couldn't. How was he going to explain this to the media? To Pepper and Happy and Rhodey? To his date tomorrow night?
He was going to have to call and cancel. As far as he knew, Rae was not into other women.
And all this because Thor couldn't resist the impulse to mock Loki over embarrassing incidents that had happened millennia ago.
He had though the blast Loki had aimed at Thor was an attack, some kind of sorcerous lightening bolt that the armor would harmlessly deflect. Instead, he had ended up like this, after throwing himself directly into the path of a petty Asgardian attempt at revenge.
Tony really, really hated magic.
"I'll see you in the morning." Wanda turned to go, then hesitated, adding, "Between myself and Bobbi, we should be able to put together a full set of clothes for you. I'll leave them outside the door to your room."
Tony nodded tiredly, then watched in silence as she left the lab. He didn't want to think about wearing women's clothing yet. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to take the dress shirt and trousers he currently had on off; the body underneath wasn't his anymore. Admittedly, his body was on the battered side, even attractive as it was, but he'd rather have his own damaged heart and liver and shrapnel scars than some strange woman's body, even if it was genetically identical to his own save for a single chromosome.
"What about my heart?" he asked Hank. "And, well, everything else."
"The X-rays are developing." Hank tapped a few keys, then studied the computer screen again. "If you give me a few minutes, I should have the results of the second round of bloodwork, too. I'll be able to tell you more then."
Tony stared down at his hands for a moment, wishing there were some meaningful way he could contribute. Biology had never been his field. Machines were much easier to work with than living things - more stable, more predictable. Biological systems existed in a state of constant flux.
His hands looked small now, delicate, with long, thin fingers that didn't look like they belonged to him. The tiny red burn he'd given himself last week welding a new faceplate onto his helmet was still there, though, halfway down the length of his left index finger.
The scars and calluses from years of metal working were still there, too. He didn't have to wait for Hank's most recent round of test results to confirm that all the wear and tear on his body was still there; if he still had the small scars, he would still have the big ones.
Curiosity finally overcame dread, and he unbuttoned the top three buttons of his shirt and made himself look. The breasts were small, probably only A cups, but they were, undeniably, breasts. Nestled between them, in the center of his chest, was the same ragged mass of scar tissue he'd had for the past five years; if anything, the breasts made it stand out more. One of the longer shrapnel scars carved a thin, white line along the inside of his right breast, reaching halfway to his nipple.
"That's interesting." The words made him look up, and he discovered that Hank was now standing just a few feet away from him, staring intently at his exposed chest. "You can see that the scars and the breasts didn't originally belong together. If you'd had them when you were injured, this scar," his reached out and lightly tapped the long scar on Tony's right breast, "wouldn't be at the same angle. It would have cut into the side of your breast this way-" He traced his finger sideways, the touch feather-light, and Tony's skin tingled in a way that was both unfamiliar and strangely pleasant. His nipples tightened up in a way that he'd seen on any of a dozen former dates, the skin there suddenly oversensitive, like he had gained extra nerve endings.
"Huh," he said. "I never realized how much more sensitive women's breast are. Or, well, I knew, but I never really thought about what it would be like."
Hank snatched his hand back as if Tony's skin were covered in something caustic. "Oh God," he blurted out. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"
"No, it's all right," Tony interrupted. "I don't mind. Since I'm stuck with this body at least until morning, I might as well start figuring out how it works."
"I didn't think," Hank was stammering. "I just, um, maybe you can just button your shirt back up and we can forget this ever happened?"
"Or," Tony said, tilting his head to look up at Hank - the through-the-lashes seductive look was much easier to pull off at this height, it seemed - and taking a step closer to him, "you could do it again."
Hank made a small, strangled sound.
What Tony really, really wanted, if he were completely honest with himself, was a drink - preferably a lot of drinks, so that he could forget for a few hours at least that his body had been taken from him and warped into someone else's - but that would be an incredibly bad idea. If he ever started drinking again, he would never be able to stop; it let him relax, made everything that hurt go away - or almost go away, enough that he knew that just one or two more drinks would be able to fix it - and if he ever let himself have that again, he wouldn't be able to make himself stop, to give it up and go back to sobriety.
Alcohol, however, wasn't the only way to make things easier to handle for at least a little while. And Hank was still staring at his half-exposed breasts, albeit with a slightly wild-eyed expression, as if he truly wanted to look away, but couldn't.
Tony rose up onto the balls of his feet, grabbed Hank by the shoulders, and pulled him forward into a kiss.
Hank went stiff, making another little strangled sound in the back of his throat as Tony ran his tongue across Hank's lower lip, trying to coax him into opening his mouth.
Hank turned his face away, breaking the kiss. "Tony, stop that! I'm married!"
"Not anymore," Tony purred, and wrapped his arms around Hank's neck, the way Indres always had when she was trying to be seductive - the memory of her was almost enough to completely kill the tingling in his chest and groin, and he quickly pressed another kiss to the side of Hank's jaw, feeling rough blond stubble scrape across his lips and erase the lingering ghosts of her touch.
"Hank!" Clint yelped from somewhere behind them, his voice actually cracking, "I thought you liked women!"
"I do!" Hank jerked his face away again, and began pulling Tony's arms loose from his neck. Tony let himself be manhandled into letting go, suddenly and acutely conscious that he'd been all but forcing himself onto a less-than-willing Hank. "Tony is a woman right now. But it wasn't-"
"He might have breasts, but he's still Tony." Clint sounded mildly horrified; Tony might have been offended if he hadn't known him so well. "I mean, not that it isn't about time you displayed interest in a human being who wasn't Jan, but Tony? There aren't enough words in the dictionary for how bad an idea that is."
Tony took a slow step back from Hank, who was holding himself rigid, as if expecting Tony to throw himself at him and tear his clothes off at any second. "It was my idea," Tony said. "I'm sorry, Hank, it was a stupid idea."
Hank nodded slowly. "You're my teammate," he said, voice stiff and hesitant. "And you're not- I'm still- I can't-" he gestured jerkily with both hands, clearly struggling for words. "You wouldn't want to do that with me anyway. I'd end up hurting you."
Tony shook his head. "You wouldn't have, but you're right. It would have been a bad idea. For all we know, having sex in this body could lock me into it permanently or something." He paused. "I've mentioned that I hate magic, right?"
"Repeatedly," Clint said, "and then you said that you, Hank, and Wanda were going to get to work undoing the magic, which was apparently code for 'I'm going to take my new girl body for a test drive.'" He frowned slightly, and then his eyes widened and he started to grin. "You didn't try the kissing thing on Wanda, did you?"
"No. I didn't think of it until after she'd left."
Clint made a face. "Don't sound so regretful. Also, can we change the subject? I really don't need sexual fantasies with you in them."
"You asked," Tony pointed out. He felt exposed and cold in his unbuttoned shirt, now that there were two people here to stare at him - not that Hank was looking, anymore - and began buttoning it up again. He didn't need to stand around looking like he'd just finished a night of debauchery and then decided to put on his male lover's clothing.
Clint ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. "Oh man, I am really not prepared to deal with this. Forget forty-eight hours; I'm calling Cap now."
"You said we had two days," Hank protested.
"No!" Tony blurted out, speaking over him. "Don't!" He knew even as the panic flooded him that it was completely irrational, but the idea of Steve seeing him this way was so utterly humiliating that he couldn't help it. "We're going to figure this out. We just need a little more time." Steve had been very clear that their friendship was over, the last time they'd met. He'd given back the shield Tony had made him, and walked away, shoulders stiff and angry. And he'd ignored every call Tony had made or email he'd sent since, which might have been Steve's dislike of email and voicemail, but was probably proof that Steve had meant exactly what he had said - that Tony had lost his trust and respect, and he was done with him.
After that... he couldn't go crawling back to Steve, back to New York, the first time he needed help with something. Not after what he'd done. It had made sense at the time, been necessary, but he'd still... he'd knocked Steve unconscious and temporarily paralyzed him to keep him from stopping Tony from recovering his stolen tech. Steve wouldn't - didn't - care what the tech was going to be used for, or how dangerous Tony's designs were in the wrong hands. He just cared that Tony had broken the law to get it back, and hurt him in the process.
He deserved Steve's anger and contempt, but that didn't make the thought of facing it again less painful. If anything, it made it worse.
"I was going to give you time," Clint said, "but then I was scarred for life by the sight of you and Hank making out, so now your time is up. If I give you much more time, you'll probably do something really stupid, like run off and have sex with War Machine."
"I'd try that, but Rhodey's still mad at me, too." The words emerged almost without conscious intent, and Tony could see both Clint and Hank twitch. It was true, though - he might otherwise have actually had a chance with Rhodey now that he was temporarily female, but not after forcing Rhodey to pick up his slack and clean up his messes for months until the stress practically drove him into a nervous breakdown, getting Morley and Clytemnestra killed, taking the Iron Man armor away from him, and otherwise treating him like dirt. The War Machine armor had made up for a lot, but hardly everything.
"What time is it in New York?" Clint asked Hank. "Nevermind, I don't care. I'm calling Cap now."
Tony groaned, and buried his face in his hands, digging his fingers into his hair. At least he'd been able to make some kind of gesture of apology, with Rhodey. Tony had been afraid Rhodey would throw the new armor back in his face, like Steve had the shield, but Rhodey had, thankfully, been willing to try and work things out again.
Steve, he was pretty sure, wasn't.
And now Tony was going to have to ask him for help.
Stopping Doom from turning half of Lower Manhattan into a flood basin as part of some dark ritual sacrifice - Steve still wasn't clear to whom, or what exactly Doom had intended to gain from it - had taken the entire day. Namor had grudgingly lent a hand, mostly because the resultant underwater earthquake when half of Manhattan caved into a vast sinkhole would have caused secondary tremors as far away as Atlantis. But as much as Steve enjoyed working with Namor occasionally, his presence tended to be as much a hindrance as a help. All these years later, and he still hadn't grasped how to work with a team.
And now, it was now eight o'clock at night and no one had eaten dinner yet. And since it was Jarvis's day off, it was Steve and Jan's responsibility to make dinner.
"Let's just order pizza," Jan suggested. She was sitting at the kitchen table, regarding the array of cookbooks spread across it with disdain. She tapped a thin, hardcover volume with one finger. "This one is nothing but different manly things you can sear to death on a grill. Why do we still have John Walker's things?"
"He left that here the first time he went out to the West Coast. I doubt he even remembers that it exists. And we can't always order pizza when Jarvis isn't here. He'll think we don't know how to take care of ourselves."
"And he'd be right," Jan said, leaning her chin on one hand and looking up at Steve with a little smirk. "Which pizza place do you want me to call?"
Steve sighed. He really would have liked a home-cooked meal, but not enough to go through the effort of cooking it. Not when he still ached all over from getting tossed around by Doom's magically augmented laser blasts. "Call whichever one you want. I want pepperoni - Sam will, too - and Jen will want a meatless one with mushrooms and peppers. Actually, you'd better make that two with mushrooms and peppers."
"Be glad Thor's still on the West Coast, or it would be six with pepperoni," Jan said, reaching for the phone.
It rang just as she touched it, and she scooped it up quickly. "Avengers Mansion. Janet Van Dyne speaking." Her voice was surprisingly bright, considering the day they'd all had.
"Clint," she said after a moment. "Can you slow down, I can't-" a pause, presumably caused by him interrupting her. "I can't understand you." As Steve watched, Jan's eyebrows drew together in a frown. Then she sat bolt upright in her chair, her eyes going wide. "Wait, Tony and Hankwhat? Why?" She shook her head, waving one hand in a negative motion as if Clint could see her. "Okay, you know what, I'm giving the phone to Cap now."
She stood, holding the phone away from her ear and pulling a wry face. "Loki cast some kind of lust spell and made Tony and Hank have sex," she said flatly, thrusting the phone in Steve's general direction. "As this week's chairperson, I am officially making it your problem and not mine."
Tony and Hank had... okay, Steve could have lived the rest of his life quite happily never having known that, or experiencing the mental images the knowledge conjured up. The fact that the mental image of Tony and Hank entwined in one another's arms, naked and sweaty and writhing, was not actually unpleasant, just made it worse. Steve forced the thought away and took the phone gingerly, and Jan turned on her heel and left the kitchen as quickly as she could without seeming to flee.
"Oh, thanks!" Steve called after her. The he brought the phone to his ear. Clint was still speaking - he had, Steve guessed, not stopped since Jan had picked the phone up, and probably didn't realize that she was no longer on the line. "Clint," Steve said loudly, cutting across the incomprehensible babble, "why are you bothering us with this? I thought we had all agreed that SOP for sex pollen, alien pheromones, and lust spells was to tell no one, never speak of it again, and pretend it didn't happen. Or, if necessary, get counseling."
It had been a very, very long day. Why couldn't Clint have picked a different night to have one of his periodic crises of confidence over his leadership abilities or perceived lack thereof? And why did the lust spell have to involve Tony? He'd been trying hard to avoid thinking of Tony since Tony's apparent complete lapse of sanity - and that was if Steve was being charitable - over his stolen technology. He'd especially tried to avoid thinking of Tony in this kind of context, because musing about Tony's lean, cleanly defined muscles and husky voice made staying angry with him more difficult than Steve wanted it to be.
"What sex pollen?" said Clint, loudly enough that Steve winced and pulled the phone an inch or so further away from his ear. "Are you even listening to me?"
"The sex pollen Loki used to make Hank and Tony... do whatever it is they did." To his embarrassment, Steve found himself unable to actually say it.
"They didn't make out because of Loki. They made out because they're both idiots."
Steve let out a breath, torn between relief that his former teammates hadn't actually had borderline consensual sex under the influence of magic and utter bafflement that they'd apparently engaged in completely consensual kissing. Or groping. Or however exactly Clint defined making out.
Very little that Tony got up to when it came to romance surprised him anymore, but with Hank? After Steve had torn him a new one over how stupid getting involved with an emotionally fragile teammate was during his brief fling with Jan, he'd decided to move on to Hank? Hank, who'd never shown an interest in men, or even an interest in any woman other than Jan? Hank, who was less than stable at the best of times these days?
"What exactly did Loki have to do with it, then?" he asked.
"You aren't listening," Clint said, with a kind of accusatory triumph. "Loki's the one who turned Tony into a girl."
"You have pictures, right?" Steve blurted out, before rationality kicked in and reminded him that deriving petty amusement from Tony's humiliation was not the mature or right thing to do. He couldn't help but wonder what a female Tony would look like. The same coloring, obviously, and the same angular bone structure - 'she' would probably have cheekbones that could cut glass - but would Tony be tall or short as a woman? Thin, or curvaceous? Tall, probably, he decided. Like Sharon or Rachel. And curvy, probably a classic hourglass figure like movie stars had had back before all the women in movies had gotten so thin. Tony was an extremely attractive man, and that was bound to translate over.
"Well, obviously," Clint was saying, "but now Wanda and Hank can't figure out how to change him back, and it's not funny anymore. And I had to watch him and Hank-"
"Yes, Clint," Steve cut him off quickly before he could mention Hank and Tony making out again. "I got that part already. Hasn't Wanda tried-"
"It's been almost a day and a half," Clint interrupted miserably. "We thought it would wear off, but it hasn't. And it turns out Wanda's chaos magic isn't exactly up to breaking spells cast by a god of chaos."
That sounded reasonable. Wanda was a powerful mutant, but Loki was a god, with millennia of experience at this kind of thing. And he was much more powerful than the Enchantress, whom Wanda had defeated several times in the past; her spells only worked within a fairly limited range.
"Tony is... all right, isn't he?" Steve asked, as it belatedly occurred to him that he hadn't even stopped to wonder about Tony's wellbeing in all this. Who knew what kind of effects a physical change that drastic could have on someone?
"He's fine, unless you count the part where he's a girl."
"That's good, I guess." Very good, actually. He might still be angry with Tony, and disappointed that his friend had turned out to be not quite the man Steve had thought he was, but he never wanted to repeat that horrible week the year before last, after Tony had disappeared for nearly a month and then turned up again in St. Vincent's hospital, half-dead of hypothermia, malnutrition, and a raging case of pneumonia.
Tony had been his closest friend, once. He still couldn't stand the idea of seeing him suffer. And having his body altered this drastically against his will... knowing Tony, he couldn't possibly be handling this well. The man who had angrily defended his illegal actions to Steve last month had been an entirely different person from the broken, borderline suicidal drunk Steve had narrowly saved from death in a burning hotel, or the unconscious, fever-stricken wreck he had visited in the hospital, but that had been just under two years ago, and who knew what it might take to make Tony start drinking again. Not everyone was able to stay on the wagon, after all.
And damnit, he'd thought he was over Tony.
"Is there anything we can do to help you guys out?" he heard himself asking. "I'm guessing you didn't call just to share gossip."
"Well, no. Do you think you could get Dr. Strange to come help us out?"
Steve began pacing back and forth from the massive black gas range to the table, still strewn with cookbooks. John Walker's book of manly grilling recipes had been relegated to the far corner of the table, along with a vegetarian cookbook that he was pretty sure belonged to Wonder Man - Simon went through periodic health-nut phases that only ever lasted until the next time Beast showed up bearing grocery bags full of Twinkies and potato chips. "Strange doesn't like to leave the Village, unless it's to visit other dimensions. Maybe you'd better send Tony here. Wanda, too. She'll be able to give Strange a rundown on what happened." And, Loki or no, she was still the Avengers' expert on chaos magic.
And had he just effectively invited Tony to rejoin the East Coast team?
It was one thing running into Iron Man during an Avengers' priority alert every so often. Living under the same roof with Tony Stark again, however, would be another matter entirely.
"That would be great!" Clint said, in a relieved tone that implied that this had been exactly the result he'd been hoping for. "I'll go tell everyone. They can be on a quinjet by this afternoon. Or, well, seeing as it's nighttime there, they can be on a quinjet tomorrow morning!" and he hung up the phone, cutting off Steve's strangled,
"Clint!" as he tried to protest the utter lack of any time to plan, warn his teammates, or ask Strange if he was, in fact, willing to help. And he probably ought to give Vision a heads up before his rather uncomfortably ex wife arrived. "Some time to get ready would have been nice," he finished, to the hollow sound of the empty line.
Jan, he realized belatedly, still thought that Tony and her ex-husband had had non-consensual gay sex. That was going to be a fun conversation.
Tony was going to be here tomorrow. And that conversation was going to be anything but fun.
Steve hung up the phone in its cradle and sat down in the chair Jan had vacated, resting his head in his hands - one of his elbows was on top of The Joy of Snacks - and tried to figure out what he was going to do.
The quinjet arrived at ten in the morning, which mean that it had to have left LA at five a.m. Which meant that Tony and Wanda had probably gotten up at four.
Wanda, at least, was an early riser, either by nature or from prolonged exposure to Steve, who was such an aggressively cheerful morning person that Jan preferred to avoid him before nine a.m. whenever possible. Four a.m. however, would have been early even for Steve. It was occasionally when Tony went to bed.
Either Tony had been desperate to get to New York as soon as possible, in order to spend as little time as possible as a woman, or Clint had been really, really desperate to get rid of them. Or both.
"Remember," She-Hulk called over the scream of jet noise, as the quinjet redirected its thrust and went into hover mode directly overhead, coming slowly down for a landing, "when Tony gets off the plane, whatever you do, don't laugh."
"Not even a little?" Jan asked. Any male teammate being transformed into a temporary girl would have been at least amusing, but in Tony's case, it was like some grand example of cosmic justice.
Considering the number of women he had dated, slept with, and then moved on from - and Jan, moving in the same social circles, had heard stories long before she ever experienced his talents in bed for herself, some of them accompanied by satisfied smirks, and some full of justified outrage at being abandoned mid-date because of 'company emergencies' that Jan suspected had involved a pressing need to don armor and jet boots - it could hardly have happened to a more deserving member of the Avengers.
Well, possibly U.S. Agent.
"Okay," She-Hulk conceded, "maybe a little."
Jan grasped her sweater tightly as the wash of air from the quinjet's landing tore at them, and wondered, not for the first time, how the other woman could stand to wear what was essentially a bathing suit in forty-five-degree weather.
She could just hear Steve and the Falcon over the engine noise, arguing about whether this was going to screw up the East and West Coast team line-up. Vision loomed colorfully behind them, silently listening to their conversation.
Jan wondered how he felt about the fact that Wanda was about to get off that plane. Things had been awkward with them, since Vision had been disassembled and rebuilt, so awkward that their marriage had fallen apart, and even though Vision had regained the ability to feel emotion, he had claimed that he was over Wanda, that their marriage was a thing of the past. Jan sincerely doubted that was actually true, but with Vision, it was sometimes hard to tell. He had the best poker face of anyone she had ever met.
The quinjet's engine cut off, and the door opened, revealing Wanda, dressed in costume and with a duffle bag in one hand. Next to her was Hank.
Jan blinked, trying to make the sight go away. When it failed to, she turned to Steve. "You didn't tell me he was coming," she hissed.
"I didn't know he was coming," Steve muttered back. "Don't you think I would have asked your permission first?"
"I'm going to kill Clint," Jan said calmly, plastering a stiff but blandly pleasant smile onto her face.
Steve didn't say anything, but his jaw tightened a little; Clint wasn't exactly his favorite person at the moment, either, though knowing Steve and Clint and the way their perpetual contest of friendly one-up-man-ship worked, he'd get over being annoyed fairly quickly.
Tony appeared behind Hank and Wanda, his altered appearance completely concealed inside the Iron Man armor - Jan was too busy trying desperately to think of what on Earth she was going to say to Hank to even be disappointed.
"Wanda," Steve said. "Iron Man. And Hank. Clint didn't mention that you wee coming."
Hank flushed, staring at his feet, and Jan refused to let herself feel sorry for him. "I'm the one who took all the preliminary readings on Tony's condition, and performed all the scientific tests. I thought it would... I know more about the situation than anyone else except Wanda. I thought I ought to come. You know, just in case. I'm sure we'll fix this very quickly, and then we can leave again."
"We better," Tony said. The armor's mechanically synthesized voice sounded nearly the same as always, but not quite. Jan wasn't sure she would have noticed it if she hadn't been on a team with Tony for years, but it sounded slightly lighter, as if the voice it was distorting were higher pitched than before. "I have a board meeting next Tuesday."
"When are we meeting with Strange?" Wanda asked. She hadn't so much as glanced at Vision yet. Jan knew how she felt; she wished she could make herself not look at Hank, but she couldn't seem to pull her eyes away.
He looked, well, not good exactly, but definitely better than he had the last time she'd seen him, when the jail and trial mess had still been going on. More like himself. He'd clearly shaved recently, washed his hair, wasn't wearing wrinkled, days-old clothing, and he was standing up straight, despite not meeting anyone's eyes.
Was he on any kind of medication? Getting any kind of treatment? She hadn't asked. She'd been careful to learn as little about what Hank was doing or not doing as possible. It wasn't her problem anymore. Wasn't her problem anymore. He'd lost any right to her concern and support when he'd hit her.
"Strange is coming over some time tomorrow," Steve was saying. "I managed to use the generous amount of lead time you three and Clint gave me on this to call him and fill him in on the situation, and once he finished laughing, he agreed to help."
"He didn't actually laugh," Wanda said, smiling a little. "Laughing would ruin his image."
"Well, no," Steve admitted, "but there was a long, telling silence during which I could feel him smirking at me."
She-Hulk took a step forward, placing herself between Wanda and the pointedly-not-looking-at-Wanda form of Vision. "Speaking of which, Tony, I think we're all curious about what you look like under that helmet. Do you mind taking it off and giving us a show, so we can get all the snickering out of our systems now?"
Tony shook his head. "Inside. I don't need to give those people on the internet who are convinced that Iron Man is my secret kept woman any more ammunition."
"People on the internet think what?" the Falcon asked, raising his eyebrows in open skepticism. "Ignore it. People will say anything on the internet."
"There's a facebook group and a twitter hashtag dedicated to it, and sometimes people write NC-17-rated fiction about it." There was a pause just long enough for Jan to begin to seriously wonder how and why Tony knew this, and then he added, "Pepper emails it to me."
"And you read it?" Wanda asked, staring at him in mild astonishment.
"It's like a trainwreck," Tony said, after what might have been a small, embarrassed pause. "I can't look away."
The Falcon shook his head slightly. "Of course you can't."
"That's arguably libel, you know." She-Hulk shrugged, tossing her hair back over one shoulder. "I could sue them for you, if you want, but it's not really worth the effort. You would probably lose, anyway. The last three lawsuits I was hired to bring against the Daily Bugle did." She grinned. "Just be glad it's not a porn site dedicated to you."
"Admit it," Tony said, as Steve made a small, strangled sound, "you're proud of that website."
"Well, it's flattering, in a weird kind of way. I'll give them that."
And just like that, Jan realized, the painful, frozen tension in the air was gone. Well, if you ignored the fact that Hank was still staring at his feet and hadn't spoken since apologizing for being here, Vision was still pretending to be incapable of speech at all, and Tony was doing the bantering thing with everyone but Steve.
"Let's move this inside, people," Steve said now, nodding at the mansion's back entrance. "The sooner we get all of this over with, the sooner you three can go home."
There was an awkward pause, during which Tony did not point out that the Avengers Mansion was, technically speaking, his house.
The silence hung there for a moment, leaden and accusing, though Jan wasn't sure who was accusing who. "Your old rooms are still open," she said to Wanda. "You didn't bring much luggage; I guess you're not planning to stay long?"
Wanda blinked. "You're joking, right? This bag has half the clothes I own in it." She hefted the duffle bag, which was, admittedly, large, but still barely big enough to contain a week's worth of clothing, when you added shoes, and offered Jan a wry smile. "I usually try to travel light, but we didn't know how long this would take."
"She-Hulk and I will take you shopping tomorrow," Jan promised. "As soon as Strange is done fixing Tony."
The moment the mansion's door closed behind them all, Vision turned to Tony and said, "I'm sure this is but a temporary inconvenience for you. Strange will probably repair it tomorrow, but if I can be of any assistance..."
"We'll call you down to the lab if we need you," Hank said.
Vision nodded solemnly, and faded into transparency, floating away through the ceiling. Wanda stared after him, her features set in a blank expression that Jan could tell took effort to maintain. "I'll go unpack," she said, and walked off in the direction of the back staircase, shoulders stiff.
Tony had beat a hasty retreat as well, declining the offer to remove the armor or even just take off his helmet, and the Falcon had pulled Steve aside for a low-voiced conversation that involved lots of emphatic hand gestures, which left Jan staring at Hank.
"I..." he started, then hesitated. "I can go back to LA if, um, if you really want me to," he blurted out, after the pause had grown just long enough to feel unnatural.
'Yes' Jan wanted to say. 'I want you to.' But solving Tony's problem was more important than her personal feelings; it was time to be an adult about things. She could handle having Hank around for a few days; it wasn't as if they would actually have to spend any time together. He was just here to help Tony. So she shook her head, and said, "No. Tony might need you. You're right; you're the one who's run all the tests on this. And you're a good scientist, everything else aside. You always have been."
"Yes," Hank said, "but I - I'll just, just go set up the lab." He fled the hallway so quickly that Jan almost called him back, old instinct temporarily overwhelming good sense.
"Well," She-Hulk said, "I can see that the next couple of days are going to be fun."
Steve had spent the past twenty-four hours doing his level best to stay out of Tony's way. It wasn't exactly that he was avoiding him, it was just that... okay, he was avoiding him. Tony hadn't exactly made it difficult; he had spent most of the previous day hiding in either his room or the lab, presumably either running more tests on himself, or trying to run Stark Industries long-distance via the internet. The handful of times Steve had passed him in the hallway, he'd been wearing the armor, they way he had before the rest of them had learned his identity.
Which was not an experience Steve was going to forget any time soon. The memory of Tony's nearly naked body made it much more difficult not to forgive him, but after everything that had happened... Tony could have the physique of a Greek god, and it still would have had no impact on Steve's ability to trust him, which he couldn't do anymore. Not now that he knew the lengths to which Tony was prepared to go to accomplish a goal. At least not until Tony explained why, exactly, he felt those lengths were necessary.
And it had better be a damn good explanation.
The Mansion was full of high-tech training apparatus, but Steve had always found beating the daylights of out a traditional, low-tech heavy bag to be the most therapeutic way to spend an hour or so, when he couldn't get someone else to spar with him (Sam would never agree to do it any time Steve was visibly annoyed or upset about something. "It's supposed to be fun," he'd said, when Steve had asked him. "Not an excuse to find yourself a human punching bag.").
He'd only just managed to break a sweat, knuckles not even sore yet, when the gym door opened and Hank ducked in.
Steve ignored him, continuing to throw hard right and left jabs at the bag, putting his entire bodyweight behind them. If Hank was here for a reason, he'd tell Steve, but chances were good he was just trying to stay out of Jan's sight, which Steve supposed was fair; Jan hadn't exactly agreed to having him back here.
"Strange is just about finished with his examination," Hank said, after a moment. "He wants to talk to you about his results."
"Has he figured out how to turn Iron Man back yet?" Steve asked, though Hank's less-than-enthusiastic demeanor had already told him the answer.
"That's what he wants to talk to you about."
"And he sent you to fetch me?"
"I needed an excuse to leave the room anyway. He had Tony take his shirt off so he could get a better read on... something. I don't know. It apparently required bare skin." He paused, making a wry face, and added, "Tony makes a disturbingly attractive woman."
Of course he did.
Steve sighed, and went to put his own shirt back on.
Tony was buttoning his own shirt back up when Steve arrived, fingers on the button one down from the top. He was a lot... smaller.
He didn't look as different as Steve had expected. His nose was a fraction more delicate, his chin a little more pointed, but he still had the same angular cheekbones and full lips, the same slightly-wavy dark hair, cut just a tiny bit too long in a way that looked too careless not to be expensively deliberate. Now, though, the same cut had suddenly become very short. It gave him - her? - a faintly gamine look.
He did not in the slightest live up to the fantasies Steve had been guiltily trying to suppress - too thin, the small waist and gently rounded hips that ought have been part of a lush, hourglass figure accompanied instead by breasts small enough that they were barely visible under the oversized man's shirt that was clearly one of Tony's own.
"Ah. Captain America," Strange said. "I'm glad you could join us."
"He can't change me back," Tony interjected, with no preamble. "Tuesday is going to suck."
"I can't change you back yet." Strange held up a single finger. "Don't be so quick to give up hope. You've been placed under an extremely complex and powerful spell, by a being of incredible power, and I will need to study the magics used on you further before I can safely unravel them."
"It looks like you'll be staying longer than just a few days, then," Steve said, coming further into the room. He loomed over Tony now by over half a foot; it was disconcerting.
Tony shook his head, and started to pace, hands linked behind his back. It was a familiar motion, something Steve had seen him do before when planning something. "I'll need to call a press conference as soon as possible. I have to put my own spin on this before the Bugle or one of my competitors gets ahold of it." He turned on his heel, facing Steve again, and sighed, shoulders slumping slightly. "Once I've taken care of that, I'll go back to my apartment at SI and get out of your hair."
Steve shook his head. "This is your house," he said, more stiffly than he'd intended to. "If you think you'd be more comfortable, or safer here... you're still an Avenger."
Tony blinked. "I'm still- Of course. You have a full line-up here already, Cap. I can just... stay out of your hair."
"Actually," Wanda said, "I'm staying, too. Or at least, I was thinking of staying, if it won't cause too much trouble, to keep working on this. I'm sorry, Tony. I've been studying chaos magic on my own, but I haven't had anyone to teach me since Agnes. I have much better control over my powers than I used to, but I know I'm not doing as much as I could. I should be able to fix you."
Strange raised an eyebrow. "Chaos magic can't be used to restore order to a disordered system."
Wanda shook her head, wisps of hair flying around her face. "No, but I ought to be able to use it to disrupt the spell."
"That's a very astute point, Ms. Maximoff," Strange allowed. "As long as we're working together to attempt to restore your teammate to his usual self, I suppose I could instruct you in the ways of magic. You're nowhere near as far advanced as Clea, but you have managed to make a considerable amount of progress on your own, already."
"Oh, thank you," Wanda said dryly.
Did Strange pick up on her sarcasm, Steve wondered, or was his arrogance too impenetrable for that? He was, admittedly, very good at what he did, but he also was very, very aware of exactly how good at it he was.
"I'm glad I'm proving to be such a learning experience for everyone," Tony said. His newly husky voice was unfamiliar, but the sharp sarcasm in it was not.
"Sorry," Wanda said again. "This has just made me realize how much I have left to learn."
Tony sighed, and turned away a little, wrapping his arms around his torso. With his face turned away, he barely even looked like Tony anymore, but that bit of body language was also familiar; Steve had seem him fold his arms defensively like that even in the armor.
"If you both are staying, I really ought to go back," Hank said. He had been lurking in the doorway, so quiet that Steve had almost forgotten he was there. "I... probably should anyway."
Strange frowned. "I might have further tests I'd like your assistance with." He shrugged, the frown replaced by a slightly self-deprecating smile, and added, "I never did get the hang of doing my own labwork, back in medical school."
"I can fly back out on the quinjet if you need me," Hank said firmly.
Strange raised an eyebrow again, but thankfully let it go at that. Steve felt a brief flash of relief that he wasn't pushing further - everyone knew about the trial, and Hank nearly being sent to jail after being used as a pawn by Egghead, but the exact nature of what had happened between Hank and Jan was Jan's secret to tell, and not something Steve would have been comfortable sharing with anyone outside the Avengers. Even most of the current team didn't know exactly why their marriage had ended, just that it had.
"You don't have to leave," Tony said, still not looking at the rest of them. "No one's kicking you out."
That wasn't entirely true - they weren't going to kick Hank out, but his staying wasn't a good idea, and Steve doubted Jan would welcome his presence as a longterm thing. And to his credit, Hank clearly knew that.
"Yes I do," Hank said. "Otherwise, Tigra, Bobbi, and Clint will be holding down the fort in LA by themselves."
Tony's lips twitched. "Good point. Clint and Bobbi would probably kill each other before the three of us got back."
There was a momentary pause, while Hank and Wanda both looked at Tony with raised eyebrows. "You know," Hank said, "you're a lot meaner as a woman."
"You try losing key body parts and see if it puts you in a good mood," Tony muttered. "And I wasn't exactly a nice guy before."
"If this goes on too long, it's going to throw the team line-ups off balance," Steve pointed out, trying to bring the topic back to the matter at hand. "We're going to have to do something about that."
Tony waved a hand. "If I have to, I can go back to the West Coast and fly back any time they have a new spell to try on me. I actually had to be in New York this week anyway, for a board meeting." He made a wry face, and added, "I'm running a lot of SI's R&D department from the West Coast now, but most of my board don't want to go any further from Wall Street than you have to go in order to go antiquing in Connecticut. Not unless it's to Europe."
"All right," Steve said, "I think we can make that work." He hesitated, and then, unable to resist asking, "How are you going to explain this," he gestured vaguely at Tony's altered body, "to the board members?"
"I'm trying not to think about that." Tony sighed. "Let's just go tell everyone else that I'm stuck like this and get that fun experience over with."
-forward the schematics to me and I'll take a look at them. I think the tolerance margins may be too narrow; remember, the computer can calculate things more exactly than our machining tools can reproduce.
Tony hit send, not bother to type a closing or signature - everyone at SI recognized his email address - and opened the next message in his inbox. He'd tried to put it off as long as possible, dealing with all the messages from the engineering and manufacturing departments first, but the red-flagged "important" emails from the accounting and marketing guys might actually be important.
Thank God for the internet; he could do a good two-third of the work he usually did in his office while sitting right here in his lab at the Avengers Mansion. Some of the board members and prospective large-scale customers might be irritated that he'd emailed them back instead of calling their cell phones or secretaries as requested, but an email was vastly preferably to no response at all, and he hadn't been off the radar for long enough for people to get suspicious yet.
He couldn't stay away from the office forever, though. There was the board meeting the day after tomorrow, and...
Maybe he could have Iron Man show up and inform people that Tony Stark was sick, and couldn't come.
No. Tony shook his head, and viciously deleted an email nagging him to set up an appointment to discuss his recent re-acquisition of his technology with SHIELD. If Fury wanted to come yell at him, let him track Tony down personally first.
No, claiming to be sick wouldn't work. Everyone would assume "sick" was a euphemism for "drunk." It didn't matter that his heart surgery was public knowledge; he'd forfeited the benefit of the doubt with his recent behavior, and any failure to appear at a scheduled meeting would only strengthen the prevailing opinion in the business world that he was unreliable.
At least the other Avengers didn't and wouldn't blame him for being turned into a girl, despite the headaches reshuffling team membership so that he and Wanda could stay on the East Coast and concealing Iron Man's temporary transformation into "Iron Woman" was going to cause them. And they'd mostly stopped snickering.
He'd expected them - Steve especially - to be annoyed at the very least, especially given how utterly he'd failed to fulfill his responsibilities to the team last year, but in retrospect, he realized, it had been a silly fear. The drinking, losing the company, having to hand the armor off to Rhodey, had all been his fault. His current transformation wasn't. And if they'd been willing to take him back after the months he'd spent as an unreliable alcoholic mess, then the team wasn't going to withdraw their support because he'd come out the loser in a fight with Loki.
The sound of voices in the hall pulled his attention away from his email.
"I know he's here, Jarvis. I traced the IP address he sent the last thirty emails SI's gotten from him to the mansion."
Pepper. Tony winced, suddenly regretting the fact that he'd taught her how to do that little trick, which she'd apparently learned well enough that the measures he'd taken to hide the location of the computer he was using hadn't stopped her.
He resisted the impulse to hide behind a piece of equipment and made himself stay put, bracing himself for her reaction; she would have to find out eventually, and everyone would know after Tuesday. Better to get it over with now.
"Mr. Stark doesn't wish to be disturbed-" Jarvis was saying.
"Too bad." Pepper cut him off ruthlessly. "He hasn't been in the office in four days. Bambi Arbogast is at her wits end. You know what happened the last time he disappeared. I know you're in there, Tony," she called, as the door swung open, "don't bother hiding."
Pepper froze in the doorway, a PDA in one hand and a stylus in the other. "Who are-" she broke off, staring at him. "Tony?"
"Yes," he sighed. "It's me. It's a very, very long story."
Then she started to laugh. "A woman," she managed, after a moment. "You've been turned into a woman. Tony Stark, world famous billionaire industrialist playboy, is a woman."
Did every woman he knew other than Wanda have to sound so gleeful? He wasn't that bad, surely. Tony buried his face in his hands, closing his eyes; it felt strange to rub his hands over his face and not feel the slight rough catch of facial hair, another reminder that his body wasn't his own anymore. "I hate my life," he muttered.
"So," Pepper said, her voice serious and businesslike, "do you want me to call a press conference for tomorrow, or do you just want to walk into the meeting Tuesday unannounced and break the news then? And if you're going to do that, can I watch?"
Tony looked up again, to find her visibly struggling to suppress a smile. "You don't seem very surprised by any of this."
Pepper raised her eyebrows. "After six years of working for you, it takes a lot to surprise me," she said dryly.
Tony lowered his head into his hands again, digging his fingers into his hair. "I bet the board's going to be surprised, though. Half of them have been looking for an excuse to get rid of me again, not that I blame them."
"They can't get rid of you for being a girl, Tony. New York has several nice laws forbidding that kind of thing."
"Oh, it won't be because I'm a woman." If there was one thing his fellow businessmen excelled at, it was finding justifications for not hiring or promoting women or minorities that didn't actually involve their being women and minorities. Tony had used it to his advantage before; people who'd been unjustly passed over for promotion three times tended to jump at the chance to leave their current place of employ and come and work for him, especially when he offered them the higher paying job with greater responsibility that they should have already had. "It will be because they 'don't believe' I'm really Tony Stark, or because being transformed into a woman has clearly unhinged my mind, or they're concerned for my health, or something."
Pepper snorted. "Concerned for your health? I'd like to see them try that one."
"Well, yeah," Tony admitted, "if booting me out over concern for my health didn't work when I was having open heart surgery, I doubt it will work now, but that's not going to stop them from trying."
"How thoroughly, um, feminine are you? Could you pass a DNA test?"
"One chromosome different, according to Hank Pym, which is enough to convince the Avengers that I'm Tony Stark, but isn't going to fly with the business world. They won't see anything beyond the fact that it's not an exact match." He held up one hand and wriggled his fingers. "My fingerprints are the same, though. And I still have all the same scars and other identifying marks."
"Who knew your checkered medical history would turn out to be so useful?"
Tony glared up at her. He would have stood, but he had a nasty suspicion that Pepper, in her customary three-inch heels, would turn out to be taller than he currently was. "I'm glad this is so amusing for you," he said.
Pepper lips twitched. "I'm sorry, Tony," she said gravely, though from the look on her face, she was only barely keeping her mirth contained. As apologies went, it wasn't particularly convincing. But then, Thor had already apologized enough for everybody, before running off to personally hunt down Loki for vengeance.
"Suggestions for ways to make Tuesday turn out to be something less than a total disaster would be appreciated," he muttered. Today's meeting with the rest of the team had gone better than he'd expected - the rest of the Avengers had taken the news that they were stuck with a female Iron Man for the foreseeable future in stride, and Jen and Vision had offered to take his and Wanda's places in California, Vision in a transparent attempt to not have to be where Wanda was, and Jen because she'd apparently been nursing either a deep-seated desire to go be on the same team as Clint so she could throw him into walls again, or a deep-seated desire to force Tony and Steve to have to work together once more, something she'd already informed him would be good for the Avengers as a whole - but he doubted he'd be so lucky with the board.
"Clothing that actually fits would be a start." Pepper gestured at Tony's dress shirt, now over-sized and hanging off his shoulders. "So would a bra. We wear them for a reason, you know."
Mentioning that he'd been down in the lab in the first place so that he could avoid Jan and Wanda's attempts to make him come along on the shopping expedition they'd left for this morning would get him nowhere, Tony knew. "I'm not wearing a skirt," he said. "Or heels. I'm not actually a woman."
"It's the twenty-first century, Tony. You can wear exactly the same thing as you always do, just in a size and cut that doesn't make it look like you're wearing your boyfriend's clothing."
"If I hadn't said anything, you'd have arranged for me to wear one of those Businesswoman Barbie suits that have a miniskirt instead of pants."
Pepper didn't even bother trying to deny it. "You'd be cute in a miniskirt, sir. The board would love it."
Tony shuddered. "Please don't say that." At least one or two of them would, he suspected. Some, like Layton and Shooter, had been on the board of directors since his father had been his age, and he'd once seen Shooter pat a secretary on the ass.
Flirting with one's co-workers and subordinates was one thing. Actually touching them crossed the line from harmless fun into outright harassment.
Tony sighed, and cast a wistful glance at the schematics for the Mansion's security system, which he'd had spread out across the workbench beside his laptop, waiting until he finished answering his email, and the armor sitting patiently in the middle of the lab, awaiting the modifications that would compensate for his new lower bodyweight, smaller size, and altered center of gravity. "You're right. We'd better go get me something to wear. I'm going to need it before you call that press conference."