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(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) the Highway to Hell

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Steve had gotten used to tuning Tony out. Sometimes, though, he couldn’t stop some of the constant running commentary from trickling in.

“I feel like I need one of those beeping metal detectors old people use on the beach,” Tony said, batting grass as tall as he was out of his face. “What are we even looking for? Why is this even our job? Hey, I bet I could soup up a metal detector real good. Or! Give it an AI that would run itself and be able to tell the difference between treasure and a busted-ass fork. Hey, Steve, write that down so I don’t forget.”

Steve sighed and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sweat from his brow. He wondered how he got stuck with Tony Stark as his partner again. Because, he remembered, Barton and Romanov were attached at the dour expression, and Thor had somehow decided Bruce was his Asgardian warrior soulmate, and before he knew it they’d all split off into factions and he was left with a cocky motormouth who flung money like baboons flung excrement.

“I’m not your servant, Tony,” he said.

Tony snorted. “Is that a handkerchief, Grandpa? Oh my God, is it embroidered with your initials?” Then, Tony was bounding into his space, contorting himself in an attempt to see. Steve balled it up and held it above his head — far out of Tony’s reach. Tony rocked back on his heels with a pout. “Wow, Cap, love the middle school look on you.”

“If you act like a child, I’ll treat you like a child,” Steve said, and shouldered past Tony. He stuffed the handkerchief — an embroidered gift from Pepper, in fact, though he suspected she had not embroidered it herself — back into the pocket of his jeans. “The sooner we finish this up, the sooner we can get back to New York.” And then he added, because he couldn’t quite help himself, “So keep the chit chat to a minimum and we’ll stay out of each other’s hair.”

“You are the most boring homecoming king at this dance, Rogers,” Tony said from somewhere behind him, but Steve just kept walking.

In fact, he didn’t know why Fury had sent the team here, to a field of nothing in rural Wyoming. This wasn’t even anyone’s farm land — just excessively tall grass and excessively small bugs, at least three of which Steve thought he’d swallowed. Steve didn’t even think this stretch of land belonged to any of the surrounding towns. It was flat greenery as far as he could see, stark against the bright blue of the infinite sky. There might have been a cloud or two, but the sun shone unfettered and searing.

Steve hated it. He was a Brooklyn boy, and the lack of ambient noise made him feel heavy, got his hackles up. SHIELD had identified a series of formations in the grass here — “Crop circles,” Tony had scoffed, “who cares?” — and ordered the Avengers to investigate in plain clothes. “Get a junior suit or two,” Tony had said. “Isn’t that what SHIELD agents are paid for?” Steve, loath to agree with anything Tony said and disdainful of his snot-nosed tone regardless of the sensible message therein, told him to shut up and move out, they had their orders.

Which landed him here. With Tony. In some grass that kept tickling his neck.

“SHIELD thinks it’s Loki,” Tony called at his back. “They’re punishing Thor for losing him, and the rest of us by extension. They didn’t say so but they don’t have to. They’re just too stupid to realize Loki’s a lot flashier than this. Wyoming no-man’s land? Crop circles in grass? This is small-time, man, chaff. Literally. Loki makes statements. Big honking ones. Fireworks the whole universe can see.”

“He sure is your kind of fella,” Steve said.

“Sick burn, Cap, did you think of that one all by yourself?”

Steve huffed and turned around. Tony came up short just before he would have collided with Steve’s chest.

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Steve said. “I mean, who else is there to even consult? Why can’t you just be normal for ten minutes?”

Tony’s sunglasses revealed nothing but Steve’s own reflection.

“I think we all left normal in the dust a long time ago, Sno-Cap.” Tony sidestepped him and walked off, back straight and head high, knocking blades of gigantic grass out of his way. Steve trailed after him and swallowed his complaints about the bugs.

After a few minutes of a silence Steve was beginning to think was worse than Tony’s chatter, they came upon a thick band of dead earth where nothing grew. Beyond it, grass. It extended outward in a curve Steve could see only a fraction of.

“Crop circle,” Tony said again, and Steve imagined the accompanying roll of his eyes. “Let’s avenge it real hard.”

Steve had knelt to gather a handful of the dirt when he found himself face first in the grass, the wind knocked out of him, and Tony Stark a surprisingly solid weight on his back.

“Jesus, don’t touch suspicious shit, Rogers!” he snapped too loudly into Steve’s ear. “Didn’t the Army beat the curiosity out of you hard enough?”

Steve pitched to the side and flung Tony off of him. He sprang to his feet and loomed over Tony, still supine in the green.

“What is wrong with you, Stark?”

“What’s wrong with you, Captain Grabby Hands?” Tony stood and scowled up at him. “You’re welcome, by the way, for saving your brick shithouse ass from Heimdell-knows-what over there. I think I have a concussion from your shoulder.”

“You could have just said something instead of tackling me!”

Tony sneered. “Because listening to me is what you do best, right Cap?”

Steve clenched his jaw. He let out a measured breath before saying with deliberate slowness, “You’re the one who keeps insisting these things are nothing. I take your point about not touching it with my bare hands, but let’s put some gloves on and get a sample.”

“They gave you gloves?” Tony stepped up to him, too close. “Give them to me before you hurt yourself.”

“I’m gonna do the collecting, Tony.”

“Why? I’m the scientist.”

“You’re an engineer,” Steve said.

“And you’re a lab rat who probably needs orders to wipe his own ass, so who’s more qualified?”

Steve turned his back and with his shoulders fended off Tony’s attempts to get in front of him. He pulled the bundle of nitrile gloves he’d been given — four, not that Tony had to know — from a pocket along with a small plastic bag. Tony kept harassing him, hands darting under and around his arms, head ducking to and fro.

“Give it up, Cap. They never taught you this in boot camp.”

“Stop it,” Steve said, and pushed back at Tony with an elbow. “You’re like a little kid, I swear.” Only, even now, with years to get used to this body, Steve occasionally, once in a while, very rarely, underestimated what it could do. Tony stumbled back from the force of Steve’s shove, and Steve could feel Tony’s feet entangled with his own. He was tipping backwards, mouth open to sling some insult, arms windmilling.

Steve dropped the gloves, lunged forward, and swiped at Tony. He caught a handful of Tony’s threadbare t-shirt, but it was futile. They overbalanced and both went down hard, right on the dry dirt of the crop circle. There was a warmth, a tingling sort of all-over pinch that seemed more elemental than bodily, and then blackness.

Tony was in the hospital. He could tell by the beeping, and the smell, and how crappy the sheets were.

Before he could open his eyes, he also became aware of two hands cupping one of his. That, and a bone-deep ache that seemed to suffuse his whole body. He groaned out a single gravelly note.

“Oh God, why aren’t I on the good stuff?”

“Tony?”

“Pep, you’ll raid the morphine stash here, won’t you?”

“You’ve got a cracked rib and some deep tissue bruising,” Pepper said. “There’s… something else, but it’s fine. It’s good. They told me you could go home after you woke up and talked to a nurse. So I’ll call one now.”

Tony opened his eyes in time to catch Pepper leaning over him to press a button on the side of his bed. Cot. This thing was a cot.

“Did we travel in time?” he asked her.

She furrowed her brow at him. Dismayed and alarmed all at once — the Pepper face he was most familiar with. The reason she left him.

“Is it the middle ages?” he asked, and her expression cleared. “Is that why I’m in a rickety cot with a mattress stuffed full of straw and sheets made from sandpaper?”

Pepper sighed and pursed her lips. “SHIELD facilities are state of the art, Tony, you know that.” She sat back down and pulled her tablet from her purse. She was beautiful and powerful and Tony thought his heart might burst from it. Before she began tapping away at whatever mountain of work she had, she looked up at him and gave him a soft, sad smile. “I’m glad you’re okay, Tony.”

His mouth wouldn’t open to say, “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re still who the hospital calls. I’m glad yours is the first face I see when I wake up.” He knew it wasn’t fair. He knew he needed to change the paperwork soon, make his emergency contact someone who wouldn’t weep herself raw to see how beat up he was this time. It had been months. Pepper was supposed to be in Malibu with her pick of svelte young men, and instead she was here, at Tony’s hospital bed in New York, yet again.

“What happened?” he asked instead. “I mean, I know what happened, no one forgets three hundred pounds of dumb jock crushing their far leaner and more aesthetically pleasing body into the ground, but how was I out for so long I don’t remember coming back to the city?

Pepper took a deep breath and set her tablet down.

“Steve falling on you caused the physical damage, yes. But there was something else, something about the unidentified formations —”

“Crop circles.”

“—the crop circles that caused a — well, a transformation, I guess.”

Tony tried to sit up a little, but his ribs protested. He gasped, but that was another sharp, debilitating pain.

“Oh, Tony, please don’t.” Pepper was up again, her hands gentle on his shoulders, her eyes kind and full of sympathy.

“Don’t keep me in suspense, Pep,” Tony said. “Am I a centaur? A faun? Oh God, am I Steve?”

He thought she would laugh, but she only dropped her gaze and took his hand.

“Here,” she said, and pressed his own palm to his chest.

His skin-warm, flesh-and-blood, 100% organic matter chest.

“Pepper, what—” He swallowed his own questions and tried to sit up again, tried to look down at what wasn’t there anymore. He scrabbled at the hospital gown, pulling it low. The middle of his chest was there, complete with a patch of smooth hair. He could feel his heartbeat below his sternum. It was beating a too-quick rhythm. And, God, this is what breath felt like. “How—”

“Tony, shh. It’s fine. Calm down. The shrapnel’s gone, the arc reactor’s at the tower, and other than Steve landing on you full-force, you’re in tip top shape for the first time, in — well.”

Maybe the first time ever, he heard anyway. He was off the sauce, had a strict workout regimen and a healthy diet, and, scuffles with Steve aside, being on the Avengers Initiative had given him a focus and stability his most vehement detractors once said he’d never have. Without the shrapnel, the machinery welded to his ribcage, and the constant threat of palladium poisoning, he was a physical specimen in his prime. Everything he could think to say got tangled up in his throat, so he said nothing at all.

Pepper squeezed his hand and smiled at him, watery. Happy for him, sad for them, too many things all at once.

“There’s more,” she said, but that was when a nurse came in with a lecture and discharge papers, and there was no more talking to Pepper.

Steve was hiding.

In the privacy of his own floor of Stark Tower, he could admit it. He had lost any self-consciousness about this body — this original-issue Steve Rogers, 110 pounds and ready to take on the world, body — a long time ago, but that didn’t mean he wanted to bear the weight of his teammates’ misplaced sympathy on his now-narrow shoulders. Or, to be honest, he didn’t want to face Tony. When he’d been discharged from the SHIELD medbay with a clean bill of health — well, as clean as his bill of health could be — and a set of clothes that fit this size, he had returned to the tower to find Thor, Bruce, Barton and Romanov gathered around the table in the communal kitchen, straining to act natural.

Thor broke first, less than fifteen seconds after Steve had entered.

“Steven!” His big hands closed over Steve’s shoulders and squeezed, lifting him up a little. “You have my deepest sympathy in this, your time of hardship.”

“Hey, buddy, you’re crushing him,” Bruce said, and Thor let him go.

“It’s fine,” Steve said, not even with a wheeze, and the smile Bruce gave him was forced and crooked. Romanov looked more awkward than he ever remembered seeing her, for all her face remained impassive. “Really, guys, I’m fine. This is just… reversion to situation normal.”

“We’re gonna find a way to reverse it for you,” Bruce said. “SHIELD’s sending me back down to Wyoming with a team of lab coats and we’re going to figure out what happened and how to undo it.”

Steve nodded. “Thanks, Bruce,” he said. “You’re a lifesaver.” He turned to the refrigerator and opened it, only to stare through its contents as he felt all their eyes settle on his back.

“Hey Steve?” Barton said tentatively.

Steve picked out a yogurt and turned back to them, steeling himself.

“Yeah?” They were all looking very decidedly at his face and nowhere else.

“Would you feel demeaned if I bench pressed you?”

Romanov, as if swatting a fly, smacked the back of her hand into Barton’s shoulder, and he cringed.

“I already told him he couldn’t,” she said, and Lord, Steve hated the sympathy in her eyes just then.

“It’s fine,” Steve said with his best USO tour smile. They didn’t even sound like real words anymore. It’s fine it’s fine itsfine issfine svine. “Actually, I should start a workout regimen anyway. What do you say, Clint, you, me, the gym tomorrow?”

“Just so we’re clear,” Barton said, stepping away from Romanov, “you’re giving me the go-ahead to use you as my personal free weight.”

“As long as you spot me, we’re square.”

Barton smirked at Romanov, who crossed her arms and looked distinctly disapproving.

“Hey, where’s Tony?” Steve asked. “I remember… landing on him.” He winced.

“No one told you?” Romanov asked.

Steve looked between her and Bruce, who ducked his head. Thor perked up and beamed.

“Tony Stark, too, has been restored!” There was a pause while Thor tried unsuccessfully to hide a grimace. “His results were more satisfactory than— ” He gestured vaguely in Steve’s direction “—your puniness.”

Steve registered Romanov rubbing a hand over her forehead, but he was too caught up in the information about Tony to care about Thor’s social faux pas.

“Wait, what?”

Bruce leaned over the table and cupped his hands around his mug of coffee, looking pensive.

“Whatever you guys fell on, it basically restored you both to your natural forms. For you, that means… being back to your old self. For Tony, that means no arc reactor. No shrapnel.”

“Wow,” Steve said faintly. “Good for him.”

Bruce cracked one of his small smiles, curly hair flopping over one eye.

“Didn’t do much to help the fact that you outweighed him by about a hundred pounds when he cushioned your fall.”

“Oh, jeez,” Steve said. “Is he okay? I should go visit him.” He may not like the guy, but he knew when he owed someone an apology.

Before Bruce could respond, the whole team looked up, and really, Steve should have seen it coming.

“Why, Captain America wants to visit little old me in the hospital? Someone get me my smelling salts!”

Steve turned, and there Tony was. Taller than Steve, and sporting a big purple bruise across his face. That didn’t stop his eyes from twinkling down at Steve, and it didn’t stop him from being more painfully, annoyingly handsome than even Howard. He smirked and patted Steve on the head.

“Aren’t you the most adorable thing?”

Steve felt himself flush down to his lowest guts, and he slapped Tony’s hand away.

“Don’t touch me unless you want to go a round in the ring, Stark,” Steve said.

Tony looked startled for a fraction of a second before he guffawed. He held his hands up in surrender and took a step back.

“White flag, Cap,” he said. “And we’ll never talk about your embarrassing Napoleon complex again.”

Steve’s ears burned. He held himself straight, stuck his chin high and kept Tony’s gaze.

“I’m sorry I hurt you,” he said. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

In the periphery of his vision, Steve could see Thor gear up to squeeze him too hard again, so Steve grabbed his yogurt and beat a hasty exit, almost tripping over Mjolnir on the way out.

That was yesterday. Today, Barton textually messaged him to “hit me up for a workout whenevs,” but mostly it just reminded him that while Barton and Tony had approached his change in stature the same way, he had reacted poorly only to Tony.

He could make all the usual excuses: Barton was just ribbing him, making light of the situation, laughing with him not at him, etc., while Tony was outright mocking him, using his superior size against him, it was just another notch in the pattern of Tony finding a way to needle him no matter what, and so on. But that’s all they were: excuses. Steve couldn’t control what Tony did, but he could control how he reacted, and he’d let himself fly off the handle one too many times with him. If he were being brutally honest with himself, and he liked to be, in the privacy of his own head, he knew he had only himself to blame for his current predicament. He was the one who shoved Tony too hard and made them fall. He was the one whose pigheaded failure to lend credence to anything Tony said caused Tony to go to any lengths necessary not to let him touch the strange dirt, which he ended up doing anyway. He was the one who de-serumed himself, and he was the one who left Tony looking like Picasso’s blue period. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t something he could blame on Tony — it was all him.

Steve groaned and got out his sketchbook.

It was time to modify the suit now that the arc reactor would be outside Tony’s body. Tony was in his workshop staring through his reflection in a sheet of titanium he’d break down later when Bruce knocked at the glass.

“JARVIS, let him in,” he said, and Bruce entered. “What’s up, Jolly Green?”

Bruce cracked a smile at him and nodded at the slab. “You’re a regular Narcissus.”

Tony snorted and pushed away from his work table.

“The arc reactor usually reflects light back at me when I work on metal,” he said. “Last night I couldn’t sleep until I put the goddamn light on in the bathroom.”

Bruce frowned and took a seat across from him.

“I guess I thought you’d be happy about it,” he said.

Tony rubbed idly at his chest.

“I am. It’s not that.” He waved a hand. “Anyway, did you need something? Not that I’m not overjoyed to see you — I am ecstatic, delirious, shitting my pants — but you’re not usually down here for chit chat.”

Bruce set a tablet down on the work table and produced a stylus, twirling it in his fingers.

“If you’ve got time, I need to interview you for all your observations. Exactly what happened, as best as you can describe.”

Tony tilted his head. Bruce Banner, physicist and occasional recluse, was not the first person who sprang to mind when Tony thought “get someone to assess some crop circles for magic.”

“You didn’t get assigned this gig by SHIELD,” Tony said. Bruce’s gaze never wavered. “You asked for it. And you’re not looking to reverse engineer whatever it was for Steve, you’re looking to recreate its effects in you.”

“I was at those same crop circles,” Bruce said. “Why didn’t it happen to me?”

“My crop circle was bigger than yours?”

“Tony.”

“Captain Klutz is the secret ingredient?”

“Tony.”

“The stars of annoyance aligned just so and struck me and Cap down for singing their song with bad harmonies?”

“Tony!”

“Bruce, I don’t know what you want from me,” Tony said. “There was grass and crop circles and me and Steve were fighting as usual. It was a sickeningly beautiful day without a lick of pollution in the air. I was too busy not kicking Cap in the head to ogle his ass. I tried to save it and got it turned Classic instead. The end.”

“One out of one Steve Rogers agree, Tony — it wasn’t your fault.”

Tony snorted. “He say that?”

“He did.”

“You already interviewed him, then.”

“Yes. But I’d like to get a fuller picture and I can’t do that with a sample size of one.”

“What did he say about me? Don’t hold out, Kermit.”

“Kermit?”

“You know. It’s not easy being green.”

Bruce was giving him a look of fond exasperation, which he must have contracted somehow from Pepper. It was a disease Tony needed to find out how to contain.

“JARVIS, I’m gonna need everything you’ve got on pathology.”

“Tony, come on.”

“What?”

A sigh. Bruce set down the tablet again. He rubbed a hand through his hair and lingered a little to pinch the bridge of his nose.

“He said it was his fault for letting you get to him and pushing you,” he said. “I really do think he’s sorry about landing on you, by the way.”

Tony gave an insouciant shrug and turned back to the titanium. He made a show of marking it up.

“Guess he wouldn’t be an Eagle Scout if he publicly rejoiced in my pain.”

“This isn’t gonna work out, Tony.”

Tony looked up. Bruce’s eyes were brown and grave, the corners of his mouth tight.

“The interview? It’s working out fine. Quick, press record on that thing, I’ve got an eidetic memory you know.”

“It’s not charming when you play dumb and then want to remind everyone you’re a genius.”

Tony swallowed and inspected the edges of the metal.

“This whole thing isn’t gonna work out if you and Steve can’t reach some kind of accord.”

“Who even says ‘accord?’ Do you and Steve go to old man conventions I don’t know about?”

“Tony—”

“No, you know what? I’m sick of everyone treating me like I’m the one with the problem. I invited him here, I made his apartment all homey and built him an art studio, I try to joke around with him like I do everyone else, I sit through his terrible 40s romance movie picks. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Bruce? No, I’m not the one who needs a lecture on playing nice with the other kids, especially from a guy who can’t bear to look at his own reflection.”

Tony saw Bruce’s Adam’s apple bob, and then he got up and left the workshop without a word. Tony ruffled his own hair, letting the nails scrape his scalp just this side of too hard.

“Sir, post for you,” JARVIS intoned.

“This time of day?” Tony asked. “Wait, what time is it?”

“It is 3:44 in the afternoon, sir.”

“Oh. Is that when I usually get the mail?”

“It varies, sir.”

“Okay, well, you know the deal, JARVIS. Have someone put it with the rest.”

“This is a special article, sir. I believe you will want it post-haste.”

Tony let out a groan and rolled his eyes.

“Har-har, JARVIS. You’re the worst. What is it this mystery mail?”

In answer, a vent opened in the ceiling and a paper airplane pitched gracelessly onto the work table, crushing its pointed nose. Tony stared for a moment before reaching for it. It was precisely folded, angles crisp and perfect. It was made of heavy, expensive paper. Carefully he opened it.

Inside was a colored comic of Captain America’s shield and the Iron Man helmet. In the first panel, the shield said in a cartoon speech bubble, “Hey, let’s be pals,” while the helmet responded, “It’s a deal, Iced Cappuccino.”

In the second panel, the shield was in the background rolling away, whistling a jaunty tune as the helmet said, “Right after I set you on fire.”

Tony couldn’t help it. He threw his head back and laughed.

Early in the morning, Steve was alone in the gym sweating bullets and not even making the punching bag move when the doors burst open and Tony Stark’s voice rattled between the walls.

“I am frankly ashamed of myself for not thinking of Iced Cappuccino first,” he said. “Well-played.”

Steve wheeled around, panting. Tony was in sweats and a sleeveless t-shirt, and Steve tore his eyes from the bulge of his biceps in order to plant his hands on his knees and breathe hard in the general direction of the floor.

“Are you all right?” Tony asked, and Steve ventured a squint up at him. Tony was looming, a furrow developing between his brows.

“I could do this all day,” Steve panted, and Tony snorted. Tony went over to a bench and dropped a duffle bag onto it before unzipping it and digging around inside.

“Where’s Barton?”

“He’s got better things to do than babysit an asthmatic at the gym,” Steve said. He bent sideways to retrieve his own little bag and drew out a water bottle and an inhaler. He took a several swallows of water before hitting the inhaler twice in rapid succession and holding the albuterol in his lungs like the SHIELD doctor had shown him. “This though,” he said, voice choked, “this stuff is a lot better than what they had in my day.”

Tony was regarding him with an inscrutable expression — something between assessing and deeply amused.

“My super amazing genius intellect detects a lie, Capstone.”

Steve tamped down on his knee-jerk irritation. He just pursed his lips.

“Oh yeah? And what’s that?”

“You never asked Barton to join you.” With that, Tony slung a pair of bright red boxing gloves into Steve’s hands. “Seems to me you promised me a go in the ring. Are you up for it or does the old man need a breather?”

Tony’s eyes were twinklesome again, but for the first time Steve didn’t feel raw about it. Tony was going to treat him the same as he ever had. Tony wouldn’t pull punches just because Steve was smaller now. Tony was going to be obnoxious and insulting and familiar.

“Who you calling old, Mr. ‘Is that a gray hair? Pepper, I’m dying!’ Or was it dyeing?”

Tony gasped theatrically. “That was a private conversation!”

Steve grinned, muscles loosening. He climbed into the boxing ring, stuck a mouthguard over his teeth and began to bounce back and forth on his toes.

“Some of us have super soldier hearing,” he said, and then faltered, because for a moment he forgot. But now, Tony was in the ring with him, and Tony was taller than him, and Tony had muscles he didn’t, and Tony had lungs that weren’t going to quit on him without advance notice, and all Steve could think about was how three days ago all it took was a quirk of his elbow to land Tony on the ground and turn him that kaleidoscope of colors he was currently sporting.

Tony, for his part, didn’t miss a beat — though Steve could tell by the way he met his gaze that he hadn’t missed Steve missing a beat, either.

“That’s me beefing up the soundproofing in this place, then,” Tony said around his own mouthguard, and took a jab with his left hand. Steve avoided it, just barely, and then they were ducking and weaving and throwing hooks in earnest, and for Steve, there was no breath left to banter with.

Afterward, when the two of them sat catching their breath on the bench and pouring water down their throats, Tony said, “Cardio.”

“Huh?”

“Well, you never had to get in shape did you?” Tony held up a hand to stay Steve’s imminent pique. “Hear me out, Cap. I mean you went to bootcamp and besides your heart of gold and your plucky little apple pie spirit, you weren’t much of a soldier. Then Dr. Erskine got his serum into you and bam! That was it. You could run faster and jump higher and beat Nazi ass harder and more photogenically than anyone, and all you had to do was get in a pod.”

“It was more complicated than that,” Steve began, but Tony cocked his head in that way he had, the one that made him look like a little boy who somehow knew all your secrets, and Steve hushed up.

“My point, Steve, is that no one around here has given up on you being an Avenger just because you’re fun-size again. But you’re not gonna be tearing punching bags from the ceiling anymore, either — you gotta start slow. So: cardio. Light to moderate intensity, twenty to thirty minutes a day. Lift some weights three times a week. Box with me, and maybe Natasha if you like living on the edge. It’ll come, and it’ll be good. All right? All right.” Tony stood, slapped Steve on the shoulder hard enough to rattle his bones, and walked away. “Text me!” he called over his shoulder.

Steve waited until Tony was gone to lean over and hang his head between his legs. His limbs felt like jelly, and his lungs burned, but it was good. It was good.

Back on his own floor, showered and fresh, Steve tapped at a blank sheet in his sketchbook with the blunt end of a pencil. He went over and over the match with Tony — or rather, he went over and over Tony during the match. The width of his shoulders. The tapering of his waist. The mouthguard grin, the overstyled-to-look-understyled hair, the eyes. The eyes. A clear, rich brown, like the earth in a blooming garden. The eyes, full of mischief. The eyes, sharp and knowing.

Steve let out a slow breath. I should have known, he thought, and scoffed at himself. He scrubbed a hand over his face and tried to calm the sudden hummingbird flutter of his heart. This was inconvenient. This was not what he wanted. Very consciously, he forced himself not to think this was wrong. Things were different now. People were different. New York was different. SHIELD had made him watch an educational film on all sorts of social developments he’d missed. White people could marry black people. Women could keep their own last names. You could be a man and marry a man if you wanted. You could adopt babies. You could hold your head high and your back straight while you held your fella’s hand, leaned close, stole a kiss.

Mostly, when Steve saw such couples on the street or in the subway, he looked away and minded his own business. He tried not to envy them.

He set the graphite to the page and sketched out a rough oval. Then, he drew a curve down through the oval, and then another across. The shape of a mouth, a nose, delicate ears.

He’d save the eyes for last.

Tony wanted to call Pepper. But he had “grown as a person” and “matured” since becoming Iron Man, as the papers liked to say. The completely infuriating thing about it all was that he suspected they were right. He couldn’t call Pepper — for all their song and dance about remaining friends, Tony knew they needed time apart from each other. Pepper needed time apart from him. She needed not to be the person he talked at when no one else would listen. The New and Improved Tony could give that to her.

Rhodey, maybe. He might even be the better choice, since what Tony wanted to talk about was making Steve a soldier again. Steve-Lite would never be Captain America — or rather, he’d never be the Captain America in Tony’s comics, or posters, or action figures, but it turned out he never had been, which Tony had found bitterly disappointing when he met the real issue in all his tight-assed glory. But now Tony wondered if Captain America, regular Joe without the enhanced body, could still be a hero and a symbol and a part of the team, and if that was something else the New and Improved Tony could provide.

But Rhodey was in Afghanistan again, and it was some godawful time of day he refused to calculate right now, and Tony had done his level best to alienate Bruce just the day before, and none of the other Avengers really got Tony.

Tony tapped where his arc reactor used to be, a habit he had developed and didn’t see the need to shake now.

“JARVIS, remind me to get some friends.”

“Noted, sir.”

“Do you think Steve would like his very own armor? We could do it red, white, and blue and miniature and have a rotary phone inside and everything.”

“Captain Rogers is a man who likes to have his feet on the ground, sir.”

“What? What does that mean? Why are you an oracle all of a sudden?”

“I mean simply that you are Iron Man, sir, with all the armor’s strengths and weaknesses. Captain America is a different hero, and Steven Rogers a different man.”

“Sometimes I wonder where you came from, JARVIS. Do parents ever feel proud and baffled at the same time?”

“I would not know, sir.”

“Right. Well. Go ahead and bring up Steve’s file anyway.”

Steve’s stats came up all around him, and he stood to be immersed. Most of it was nothing he didn’t already know, but maybe inspiration would strike while he was looking at the actual words.

“Born on the fourth of July,” Tony muttered, shaking his head. “Obviously.” He flipped through with a flick of his wrist to the earliest files, from when he was 4Fed out of the draft approximately a billion times. He’d never bothered with pre-serum Steve before.

Tony took a deep breath when a list all of Steve’s health problems came up.

Ear discharge

Asthma

Scarlet fever

Rheumatic fever

Sinusitis

Chronic or frequent colds

High blood pressure

Palpitations or pounding in heart

Easily fatigued

Heart trouble

Nervous trouble of any sort

Had household contact with tuberculosis

Parent/sibling with diabetes

Tony sat heavily back onto his stool.

“JARVIS, there’s medication for most of this now, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Steve was given a bunch in the hospital?”

“That’s privileged information, sir.”

“Do me proud, baby.”

There was a pause, and then: “Captain Rogers has no current respiratory or ear, nose, or throat infections. He was given prescriptions for his asthma, both for long-term management and acute attacks, and a prescription for high blood pressure. He underwent a stress test and an echocardiogram for his heart, and he was declared fit to leave the hospital and was not prescribed any heart medications. His health is not in danger, sir.”

Tony was nodding as JARVIS spoke. “Good,” he said. “That’s good. And maybe working out right will take care of some of that. Are you sure he doesn’t want a suit? Or, like, a bubble? I could make a really good bubble, maybe one no else could even notice, and then he wouldn’t get germed or be a social outcast.”

“If you desire a more accurate summation of his wishes, you could ask Captain Rogers rather than me, sir. Or, it stands to say, any of your human acquaintances.”

“Ugh, JARVIS, where’s your sense of deviousness?”

“I lost it under your staggering cowardice, sir.”

“Going straight for the jugular! Ouch, JARVIS, very ouch.”

“I should like to point out, sir, that Captain Rogers’s list of ailments is no worse than yours was with the arc reactor equipment welded to your ribcage, and may, in fact, be better.”

“Yeah, except whatever happened to restore my health took his away. It’s not the same, and I’m trying to make that up somehow. Even if he is constantly doing his Dudley Do-Right impression.”

With a wave of his hand, Steve’s files were gone, and Tony brought up the schematics of his own suit.

“Sir,” JARVIS said, and he had that tone he got when he was being kind, of all things. Maybe he was due for a reprogramming. “All intelligence I have gathered indicates the incident was an accident in which you bear no culpability.”

Tony tapped his stylus on various parts of the Mark VIII and sent them twirling away.

“No such thing as an accident, JARVIS,” he said. “You know those people who pick at scabs because they’re constitutionally incapable of leaving well enough alone? And then they wonder why they’re bleeding? That’s me.”

JARVIS had nothing to say to that, and then Tony was alone with his plans.