In the end they decided that ultimately what happened was one-third Bruce's fault, two-thirds Loki's fault. Which, really, wasn't that bad, all things considered.
Not to mention the part where Tony wanted to send Bruce a muffin basket with a card attached that said, "Thanks-for-this-cause-yeah-otherwise-it-would-have-taken-ages-for-this-to-happen-so-in-spite-of-all-the-sucky-parts-this-is-me-saying-thank-you." Not that they made greeting cards with such an expression. Or that Tony would have bought one even if they had. But still, points for effort and it's the thought that counts and all that.
And at the end of the day, he had Steve, and really, that was all that mattered.
Not how they got there.
SHIELD was keeping tight wraps on the tech they had salvaged from the battle. Which Tony really couldn't blame them for – while simultaneously taking every chance he could to scoff at their security measures and annoying red tape bureaucracy that made even getting in to look at their stuff incredibly difficult.
Not that he needed to look at SHIELD's tech, of course. He had his own salvage, thank you very much. What he didn't have, though, was Loki's scepter. That little shiny remained the property of the US Government.
It took some finagling to get in to take a look at the thing. Patience was not Tony's strong suit, and by the time he was granted permission to even enter the lab, he was full to bursting with irritated snark, snapping his fingers and his chewing gum in syncopated rhythm, already mentally rolling up his sleeves and getting to work.
So he was just the tiniest bit surprised when he walked in and found a) Bruce Banner already hard at work, and b) Captain Annoying standing across from him.
Bruce looked up. "Hey."
"Um," Tony said.
Steve turned and looked at him. "Stark."
"Er," Tony said.
Bruce frowned slightly. "Yes?"
"I was led to—" Tony stopped right there. Led to believe I would be the only one working on this, he wanted to say, but that would be not very wise. He was realistic enough to know that he could use Bruce's help, and in fact might even enjoy the company and assistance.
No, Bruce was not the problem.
He looked at Cap. "What are you doing here? I would've expected to find you holed up somewhere with a set of dusty encyclopedias."
Steve scowled, somehow managing to look perfect even then. "Actually I'm here on Dr. Banner's request."
Shocked by this revelation, Tony turned to Bruce. "Request?"
"Yes," Bruce said. "There's definitely something funky about this thing, and I wanted a second opinion."
Tony opened his mouth, and Bruce hurried to clarify, "A non-scientist opinion."
"Oh," Tony said dismissively. "A layman."
Bruce glanced briefly at Steve, then lifted one shoulder in a sort-of shrug. "Sure. If you want to call it that."
Feeling better about the whole situation, confident that he hadn't been usurped after all, Tony relaxed and began heading toward Bruce and the scepter. "So define 'funky.'"
He had just reached Steve's location when Bruce began to speak. "Well," he said. "There's some kind of strange particle emission going on here I can't quite wrap my head around." He lifted the scepter from its cradle and made a vague circular gesture with it.
And the scepter came to life.
For a moment nothing happened. The three of them just stood there in shock, Bruce still holding the scepter – which was now glowing a bright green color – and Tony and Steve, standing next to each other, frozen in disbelief. Then a beam of purest jade shot forth from the scepter and struck Tony and Steve.
The green light was actually kind of pretty. That was about all the rational thought Tony had time for. Then the light enveloped him, and the whole world did this strange little wiggly sideways thing, and he was gone.
"Steve. Steve, can you hear me?" A hand touched his face, then was removed.
"Tony? Mr. Stark?" Another voice, a little further away.
Abruptly Tony remembered what had happened, and he opened his eyes.
A bland white ceiling met his gaze. An instant later, a young man wearing a doctor's white coat and a very worried expression came into view. "I think he's awake."
Tony blinked. For being hit square in the face with an alien green laser beam, he felt surprisingly fine. No headache, no nausea, no pain of any kind. In truth, he felt perfectly healthy and strong.
Which was…kind of nice, to be honest. It made for a refreshing change from how these things usually went down.
He sat up, and only then noticed that he had been lying on the floor of the lab. The doctor was hovering on his left, and Bruce Banner was on his right. "Sir, are you all right?"
"Yeah," Tony said – and froze.
He looked down and his brain finally caught up to what his eyes had already registered – that he was not wearing his clothes anymore. Instead he was wearing khaki pants and the kind of blue chambray shirt that would never dare show itself inside his closet.
"Captain?" The doctor sounded very worried now. On his right, Bruce turned toward him. "Steve?"
Not panicking, definitely not panicking, Tony clutched at his chest with both hands. There was no light, no shiny metal disc. No arc reactor. "Shit, oh shit," he babbled.
The doctor and Bruce exchanged a look over his head.
He reached out with one arm – and that was not his watch and most definitely not his blond arm hair – and pushed the doctor to one side.
And sure enough. There was Tony Stark, lying flat on his back on the floor, the arc reactor present and accounted for. Still out cold, and why shouldn't he be, because this was the body that had the super soldier serum, the body that could quickly overcome things like alien green laser beams to the face. This was the body of Captain America, strong and muscled, the perfect specimen of the male human body.
And he, Anthony Edward Stark, was inhabiting it.
"Holy shit," he breathed.
Both the doctor and Bruce gave him a sharp look. "Captain, are you all right?" the doctor asked.
Bruce saw the direction of his gaze, though, and reached an entirely different conclusion. "It's okay," he said. "He seems fine. It's just going to take him a little longer to wake up, that’s all."
Of course. The real Steve Rogers would be concerned about Tony Stark. But he wasn't Steve Rogers, was he?
"What the hell was that?" He pointed accusingly at the scepter, which was lying innocently on the lab table. It was not glowing anymore. "What happened?"
"I don't know," Bruce said carefully. A faint frown line had appeared between his brows, most likely at hearing the holier-than-thou Steve Rogers swearing. "We're working on figuring that out."
Even as he said it, more people came running into the lab. Most of them were wearing lab coats. Three of them were not.
"Oh great," Tony said. "Here comes the peanut gallery." He got to his feet. No swaying, no staggering, still no headache. He looked down at his unconscious body, noting with annoyance the way his shirt was riding up, giving everyone a view of his slightly-less-than-flat stomach. Was no one going to give him some dignity, jeez?
Then he remembered. He was Steve now. The legendary hero. Steve would do it.
He dropped down to one knee next to his body – Christ, this was just weird – and tugged down the T-shirt. "Quit staring," he snapped. "Everybody just back off."
He stood up again, and stopped. They were all staring at him now – Bruce, the lab guys, the doctors, Clint Barton, Natasha Romanoff, and one very pissed-off Nick Fury.
"Someone mind telling me what exactly happened in here?" Fury ordered.
"It wasn't me," Tony said immediately. "It was Bruce's fault."
In unison, the stares directed his way switched from slightly-worried concern to wary did-you-really-just-say-that bewilderment. It was the kind of look Tony had been getting pretty much all his life, but he was willing to bet this was the first time it had been leveled at this particular face.
"Care to explain that, Cap?" Natasha said.
He was saved from having to answer by a deep groan emanating from the floor. All eyes dropped then, as Tony Stark stirred and came to life.
"Well, this should be good," Tony said, and folded his arms.
The Tony on the floor squinched his eyes shut and made another one of those pained little groaning noises. It sounded absolutely pathetic.
Standing there watching, Tony made a mental note to never do that again.
Steve – for of course that's who it was – opened his eyes. Slowly he started to sit up. Halfway there he froze, wide-eyed with shock. He slapped one hand at his chest, then clawed at the collar of his T-shirt, yanking it down so he could see better.
"It's called an arc reactor," Tony said. "And you better take damn good care of it, otherwise I'm gonna kick your ass just as soon as I get back in a position to be able to do that."
Steve-as-Tony looked up at him. His eyes got even wider. "Tony? Is that you?" he gasped.
He got points for figuring it out so fast. Tony wasn't sure many people in his situation would have done the same. He smiled grimly. "In the flesh. So to speak." He held out a hand. "Come on. Get off the floor. It's driving me crazy to see you treating my body this way. And I don't mean that in an emo song lyric fashion, either."
"Would someone tell me what the hell is going on?" Fury demanded stridently.
"I'm not sure I can," Bruce said. He sounded dazed.
"Try to keep up," Tony said. He pointed at Loki's scepter. "That thing turned green. It shot a laser beam at us. And now it's Freaky Friday. I'm in Cap's body, he's in mine, and can we just skip to the part where we figure out how to fix this?"
"Freaky Friday?" Clint said.
"But it's Tuesday," Steve-as-Tony said. And he might have figured things out quick enough, but now he looked like he was about one step away from pure panic. It was definitely not an expression Tony enjoyed seeing on his own face, and he made yet another mental note never to indulge in such a weakness. At least, not where other people could see.
"Figure of speech," he said dismissively. He turned toward Bruce. "You can, right? Fix this?"
"Er," Bruce said.
"Wait," Clint said. "Steve is Stark and Stark is Steve?" An expression of absolute delight came over his face. "It hasn't even been two weeks since Loki!" He nudged Natasha in the arm. "That means you owe me a hundred bucks!"
Tony was outraged. "You bet a hundred dollars that we would swap bodies?"
"Well, no," Clint said. "Just that something strange would happen involving one or the both of you." He was grinning.
Natasha did not look pleased. "We need to initiate lockdown on this room. Get that spear into isolation. And we need to have Stark and Rogers examined."
Tony glanced down at his amazing new body. "I'm cool with that." He looked over at Steve, who was predictably running his fingers over the rim of the arc reactor. "And you. Quit playing with that, or you'll go blind."
Steve jerked his hand away as though he had been burned. He flushed, and whoa that was not something Tony saw every day, a blush of embarrassment on his face. He couldn't even remember the last time he had done that, come to think of it.
Fury sighed loudly. "Can't we have just one normal day around here?"
Two doctors decked out in full radiation suits examined them both. The results were pretty much what Tony had expected. Physically there was nothing wrong either one of them. Their bodies were just fine. It was only their conscious minds that were, well, wrong.
As the doctors and Bruce consulted over the results, Tony and Steve sat behind a curtained-off area in the corner of the lab. Except for the occasional puzzled glance thrown their way, everyone seemed to have almost forgotten all about them. Only Natasha remained vigilant, standing with her feet spread and her arms crossed as she stood watch over them.
"I still can't believe this," Steve-as-Tony said. "No one knew the scepter could do that. Did you know that?"
"Did you miss the part where I came here today to study it?" Tony said in irritation. "Of course I didn't know."
Steve was silent for a while. Then he said, "Are you all right?"
Tony looked over at him. He did not do this often; it was too bizarre to sit here and actually look at himself. It wasn't like looking into a mirror, or even watching himself on TV. This was "coming to you live" footage, right here and now, and it made him stupidly uneasy, almost self-conscious. Looking at himself made him aware of all his shortcomings, the gray hair at his temples, the slight paunch, the frustrating lack of height. And that wasn't even taking into account his wonderfully charming personality.
"I'm fine," he said curtly, looking away again. "Hell, I'm more than fine. I'm currently residing in the perfect specimen of the male human body. Why wouldn't I be fine?"
"I have a headache," Steve said. "Or, I guess, you do. Your body does."
"Well, yeah," Tony said. "No serum there."
"I'd kind of forgotten," Steve said, "what that felt like."
Intrigued in spite of himself, Tony glanced at him again. "You don't get headaches anymore?"
"No," Steve said. "Or muscle aches. Or sick." He shrugged.
"Must be nice," Tony said – and he meant it. Not that he was jealous. Not one bit.
"It has its benefits," Steve said, with exactly the kind of twisted little smile Tony was used to making.
"That it does," Tony said. He ran his hands down his chest, trying not to dwell on the smoothness there, the line of his shirt unbroken by any device. He was actually kind of enjoying this. It had been a long time since he had taken such pride in his body, or felt so young and strong. "In fact, I'm kind of hoping something big and ugly attacks the city while we're like this."
A few feet away, Natasha scowled, but said nothing.
"What?" Steve sounded shocked. "Why would you say that?"
"I'm thinking it could be kinda cool," Tony said. He struck a pose, one fist raised, the other held out as though he were hoisting a shield. "Whaddaya think?"
"I think you look ridiculous," Steve snapped, and it sounded so much like himself that Tony couldn't help bursting into laughter.
"You've just summed up my entire view of your existence," he grinned. "I guess something of me must linger in that body after all."
Realizing the trap he had just walked into, Steve glowered at him. "Very funny."
Tony just chuckled.
Silence fell over them. Bored and restless, he walked toward the curtain that marked the limit of their designated area. As he drew near, Natasha's back stiffened, but she still did not speak.
Apparently the super-soldier serum had done some amazing things to Steve's senses. Standing there, Tony could hear perfectly clearly what they were saying all the way across the room. Which was actually pretty damn cool.
Right now Bruce was arguing that they needed to contact Thor before they delved into studying the scepter any further. "He can make Loki tell us about this thing. We need to know more."
"All I need to know is how to undo what it already did," Fury said. "I need this fixed, Dr. Banner."
"I'm not a magician!" Bruce protested furiously, but quietly. "I don't know what you expect me to do."
"I expect you to do whatever it takes," Fury said. "Am I making myself clear?"
Exasperated at the interruption, he barely glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah?"
"Can I ask you something?"
"Um, no?" he tried.
Sighing, he turned around and headed back toward the corner. "This better be good."
"I think I figured out why I have a headache," Steve said.
Tony looked at him, and sure enough, he could see the little lines of pain on his forehead and around his eyes. And that was unfortunately a sight he was well accustomed to seeing. "What, the alien green laser beam to the face wasn't enough?"
Steve gazed back at him, and God this was just too weird, staring at his own face. "I'm not getting enough air," he said quietly.
It was like getting punched in the gut. "Oh," Tony said. He sank onto the nearest lab stool.
One of Steve's hands drifted upward to touch the arc reactor through his T-shirt. "It's kind of like having asthma all over again," he said. "I can't seem to breathe right." He looked at Tony with baffled wonder. "Is that what it's like for you?"
Tony pursed his lips and sighed. "Not exactly. You just…" God. He had been too wrapped up in the unexpected joy of being in this body, young and strong and healthy all over again. Selfishly pleased with his new situation, he hadn't really thought about what it would be like for someone else to reside within his aching, rundown body.
He glanced over at Natasha, who was studiously pretending she was not listening, then he moved over to sit on the stool next to himself. "You have to learn how to breathe all over again. Just…take it slow. One at a time. Shoulders back a little. Expand your rib cage as much as you can. You don't have as much lung capacity as you're used to, so you gotta do what you can to help yourself out. Okay?"
Steve nodded, then began following his instructions. He looked scared, and that was, God, that was not good. Seeing that look on his own face, deep within his own eyes… it freaked Tony out more than he wanted to admit. It was like being back in the cave, only this time he got to play the part of Yinsen, and be the wise mentor passing on instructions for living.
And that was…yeah. Did that also mean he got to be the one to die a hero's death at the end of all this?
A shudder worked through him. Steve saw it and his eyes narrowed. "Tony? You all right?"
"Sure," Tony said. "Yeah." He had to look away again. "Just concentrate on breathing, okay? I don't want to come back to my body to find you've given me a whole new set of issues."
"I'm sorry," Steve said. "I didn't know—"
"Less talk," Tony snapped. "More breathing."
Unfortunately, Steve did not shut up. He just kept right at it, touching the arc reactor again, making a face. "Does it always hurt like this?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Natasha shift her stance a little. He ignored her and focused on Steve. "No," he said. "Well, maybe. I don't know. I don't even really notice it anymore." That was a lie, though, and he prayed Steve would not realize it.
Of course he noticed it. Not the pain – in truth he had long since grown used to that – but the arc reactor's presence itself. There was no escaping its reality, an immovable object not only lodged within his chest, but a part of it now, firmly attached to what bone and muscle remained. It was always there, its status always lurking in the back of his mind, always the first thing he thought of when he encountered a new situation, wondering what effect it would have on the reactor and how he could best protect it.
And there was no denying that it bothered the hell out of him to see Steve messing with it. Never mind that Steve was doing it with his own hands. It was still someone else screwing around with the arc reactor, and the last time that had happened, he had nearly died, and the urge now to grab Steve's hands and physically prevent him from fucking around with the reactor was nearly overwhelming.
He could do it, too. In this body, with Steve's strength, he could easily overpower his own weaker self. He could forcibly hold his hands back, squeezing thinner wrists until he felt the give of bone, until Steve gasped with the pain and bruises formed. It would be so simple. So easy.
He glanced up again, and saw with relief that Steve was no longer touching the arc reactor. Steve was in fact just looking at him. And it wasn't pity or even sympathy he saw in those dark eyes. It was respect.
Tony didn't know what to do with that. It wasn't just the strangeness of seeing that expression on his own face – God knew he'd had little enough cause for it over the years – but it was seeing it directed at himself that put him on edge. Because while he was accustomed to seeing other people look at him with respect, it was usually offered only grudgingly, after he had just proven himself worthy of it, most often with a high degree of snark and condescension involved. But not this time. This was just plain respect, freely accorded to him by the one person whom he most desperately wanted it from – although that was something he would die rather than admit.
"I was wrong about you," Steve said, and held out his hand.
They were all looking now, Fury and Bruce and the doctors in their little huddle; even Natasha had given up pretending she wasn't listening. There was nothing he could do except take Steve's hand – his hand, calloused and scarred – and shake it.
But just to keep it from turning into a Hallmark moment, Tony said, "For the record, I stand by what I said. I'm not afraid to hit an old man. But yeah, I may have been a bit hasty about you, too." He paused. "Capsicle."
Steve stared back at him over their clasped hands. Then he smiled.
Tony smiled back.
Twelve hours later, the novelty of being in Captain America's body was only just starting to wear off. Tony was actually more worried about how long it was taking for Bruce to figure out how to reverse the effects of the scepter – and even more irritated that they would not let him help. Something to do with extremely low levels of particle emission from their swapped bodies, said particles being the same as those coming from the scepter. Bruce didn't want to mix their particles with those from the scepter, and in fact was the most vocal proponent of keeping him and Steve quarantined until the whole mess could be sorted out.
"Just so you know," Tony said, "I'm having Pepper take you off my Christmas card list."
"I don't celebrate Christmas anyway," Bruce said mildly. "It's too commercial."
Tony rolled his eyes.
"Leave him alone," Steve said. "Just let him work."
The corner of the lab had been temporarily transformed into a sort of living quarters for them. Two beds had been brought down from the infirmary, along with other practical things like toothbrushes and changes of clothing. No one had been allowed in to see them, and they had not been allowed to make any calls. This did not sit well with Tony, who was desperate to get JARVIS working on the case. He was fairly certain JARVIS was aware of what was going on anyway – SHIELD's techs hadn't even come close yet to removing the AI from their network – but without Bruce's further input and cooperation, there wasn't much JARVIS could do on his own.
Also, he was pretty sure Pepper was going to kick his ass for this.
Although it was well past midnight, he was too wired to sleep. He noticed the same could be said for Steve – and that was fairly impressive, given that Steve was currently residing inside an older body that had not actually slept in two days. Not that Steve was complaining about feeling tired. He just sat there on his government-issued bed and leafed through one of the magazines Clint had brought them a few hours ago. From the looks of it, he was prepared to patiently wait for as long as it took.
Tony paced their small area, growing more and more restless. This body demanded that he burn off the excess energy created by his increased metabolism. More than that, he ached with the need to be out there doing something, anything. He needed to be using his mind and his hands, focused on solving the problem, working toward finding a solution. Sitting around on his ass waiting for other people to come up with answers had never been his style. Even when that ass was an especially fine specimen.
(Please. Like he hadn't checked it out in the bathroom mirror the first chance he got. Along with…other things.)
"Tony, would you please sit down? You're driving me crazy."
He stopped pacing, but only so he could fix Steve – himself – whatever – with a disbelieving glare. "And you're driving me crazy! How can you just sit there and do nothing?"
"Because I trust that Dr. Banner will come up with an answer," Steve said.
"Oh, and I don't?" Tony snapped.
Steve set his magazine aside. "That's not what I'm saying."
"Really? Then what are you saying?" Tony demanded.
And that was when the alarms began to go off.
It was hard to get any information; everyone on the helicarrier had a job to do, and none of those jobs included filling in anybody who happened to be body-swapped and stuck in quarantine. But at last Maria Hill took pity on them and told them what had happened.
Tony just stared. "Are you serious? Thor to the rescue…and he brought a nasty-ass Asgard serpent with him?"
"Not deliberately!" Hill retorted. "Well, that we know of anyway. That's not the point." She glared at him. "Right now the Avengers are working with Thor to bring it down."
"The Avengers," Tony said flatly. "You mean, two SHIELD agents and the Hulk."
"I think they can handle it," she returned coolly, and left them.
"Damnit!" Tony swore. He wanted to slam his fist into something. That kind of melodramatic move could do an awful lot of damage now, though, and he had to restrain himself.
"I'm sure they'll be fine," Steve said.
Tony just gritted his teeth and huffed in anger.
Exactly sixteen minutes later, Fury came in. His eye was sparking with anger. He glared at them both.
On instinct, Tony headed for the sublevel where he kept the Iron Man suit. It wasn't until he was nearly there, Steve hot on his heels, that he realized what he was doing. "Oh crap."
Steve stopped dead. "What?"
"I can't…" He made an impotent gesture of frustration. "I can't wear the suit. Not like this." Why in God's name had he ever thought having a muscle-bound body was so great? "I won't fit."
Steve's eyes widened. "Oh." He blinked rapidly. "Does that mean I…?"
"Yeah," Tony said heavily. "Just…let JARVIS do it all, okay? He pretty much does, anyway. Tell him what you need and he'll take care of it."
Steve nodded. "Okay." Then he frowned. "Um, who's JARVIS?"
Tony could have kicked himself. "When you get into the suit, he's the crisp English butler voice you'll hear. Just let him do his thing, and you'll be fine." JARVIS was programmed to lock anyone except himself (and Rhodey, but that was his little secret) out of the suit, but the AI would have no reason to suspect that it wasn't the real Tony Stark. His voice, his biorhythms, everything would be just the same as it always was. Unless, of course, Steve screwed the pooch by admitting he wasn't actually Tony. Then all bets were off.
"Don't say anything about who you really are," he cautioned. "Just let JARVIS take over and you'll be fine."
Steve nodded again. Anyone else would have been freaking out right about then, but he just took it all in stride. Either getting into a flying suit of armor run by an English butler was no stranger than anything else he had encountered since waking up from the ice, or else he had an amazingly high tolerance for the bizarre. "All right. And you'll be okay?"
Tony blinked. It hit him for the first time just what exactly he was about to do. "Suuuure," he said with exaggerated confidence. He was about to go out there and face down not just one, but two highly pissed-off, fire-breathing, flying serpents. With nothing but a spangly outfit and a shield. Of course he would be okay.
Steve took a deep breath. "Right. I'll see you out there."
It was nearly three o'clock in the morning. Against the night sky, the fires in the city were almost pretty, burning intensely red-hot. The twin serpents were flying lazily around each other, hissing and spitting flames. One of them looked rather singed; Tony guessed that was Mjolnir's doing.
"What have we got?" he asked over the comms.
"Cap? Is that you?" Clint sounded harried; he was on a rooftop somewhere, doing his best to find a place on the serpents' crimson scales that his arrows could penetrate. Thor and the Black Widow stood on the street corner, Thor looking anxiously at the destruction he had unwittingly caused, Natasha looking supremely unconcerned – which was merely her way of hiding just how worried she truly was.
"Um, not exactly," Tony admitted. He was torn between absurd pride at being able to wear this skintight costume so well, incredibly inopportune lustful thoughts, and something he was forced to label as fear. Without the suit he felt almost naked out here. Even holding the shield didn't help. In his hands it had looked large – until he realized that he couldn't figure how he was supposed to protect his entire body with something that was, in fact, proportionately quite small.
"Great," Clint sighed. "We are all gonna die."
"Shut it," Tony snapped.
"Hey!" Steve sounded ticked off. His voice was electronically distorted a little, in a way Tony recognized from hundreds of hours of flight tests and recordings. Yet he still had not showed up, and that worried him. "Can we quit bickering long enough to take these things down?"
"You got it," he said. "So what's the plan?"
"What have we got?" Despite the fact that his voice was that of Iron Man, there was no mistaking just who was Captain right now. "What have we tried so far?"
"They are impervious to fire," Thor said. "Mjolnir's lightning will slow them down, but not for long. We must act quickly, or they will divide again."
"You mean there could be four of these things flying around?" Clint did not sound impressed.
In the distance, the Hulk roared as he leapt off a skyscraper, trying to pull one of the serpents to the ground. It coiled and twisted in mid-air as it evaded that flying leap, shooting flames at the Hulk.
"So what aren't they impervious to?" Steve asked, just as Iron Man came into sight for the first time.
Tony could only gawk. He had watched hours of video footage of himself in the suit, all in an effort to improve it, and he knew he had never been this bad, not even on that first experimental flight.
It was excruciating. The suit hovered in mid-air, then the thrusters stalled out and it dropped a few feet, then regained altitude, the repulsors firing aimlessly. It was clear that Steve was uncomfortable letting JARVIS handle everything, and that he kept trying to take over manually.
And that was not going to end well for him.
"So do we know what it's not impervious to?" Steve asked again. "If fire can't hurt it, what about ice?"
"We already know that," Clint said, right as Thor said, "That is its weakness, yes."
"But where are we going to find enough ice in the middle of July to kill these things?" Natasha asked.
A few blocks over, the Hulk roared out his rage and began scaling another skyscraper, ready to make a second attempt on the serpents circling overhead.
Maybe it was because he had just thought of that first flight, but Tony knew right away. "Up," he said urgently. "Fly them up, high enough for ice to form."
"Won't that affect the suit?" Steve asked.
"No," Tony said without thinking. "I took care of that after my first flight."
Almost immediately, the suit dropped again – and this time the thrusters did not fire back up again. Steve let out an alarmed yell over the comm. "Tony! I can't--!"
Too late, he realized what he had done, alerting JARVIS to the fact that it was not actually Tony Stark inside the suit. Cursing his own stupidity, he hurried to fix his mistake before Steve hit the ground in a red-gold splatter. "JARVIS! It's me! Override code Gulmira! Stop it! Don't let him fall!"
Another two seconds and it would have been too late. The suit came to an abrupt halt just four feet above the ground, then hovered there uncertainly. They all heard it as Steve spoke to JARVIS, not yet knowing how to change channels within the suit. "Thank you, JARVIS. Can we not do that again?"
Tony couldn't hear JARVIS's response, but they all heard Steve's answer. "It's kind of a long story. We switched bodies. Loki's scepter did it somehow. We can discuss it later. Right now we've got to stop those serpents."
Evidently JARVIS accepted this, because Steve no longer had issues with the suit. He pointed at Thor. "Can you handle one of them by yourself?"
Thor hefted Mjolnir. "You can count on me," he promised. "But you will need aid. I can distract mine with lightning. Yours will turn on you without something to keep its attention off you."
"I can do it," Natasha said.
"No," Tony said. "You can't survive going up that high." He looked at Steve. "But I can."
Despite the tension of the battle, for a moment everything seemed suspended as they stared at each other. Nothing else existed. There was only the two of them facing each other across the burning night sky. Then Steve nodded, the movement exaggerated behind the helmet so it would be visible. "Okay."
Thor began to whirl Mjolnir about so he could rise in flight. Tony raised his shield. "Bring it down."
Steve went straight up, arcing toward one of the serpents. Above his head, Thor reached his serpent and began spearing it with lightning. It roared and spit fire at him, which he dodged nimbly. With a mighty roar of his own, he crashed into the beast and sat atop its neck like he was riding a huge, scaly horse. Immediately it began to twist and writhe, its long neck bending as it reached behind it, trying to sink its fiery jaws into its attacker.
Tony stared at all this with a horror he hoped didn't show on his face. "Well, that looks like fun."
Steve blasted his chosen serpent with a repulsor to the face. It bellowed in fury and shot fire at him. He accelerated quickly, diving through the air, leading the serpent down as it chased him.
Tony crouched low, praying he would time it right. He trusted Steve's body to know what it was doing, but this kind of gymnastic stuff was all new to him, and he didn't trust himself.
Steve, bless him, gave him a hand. Just as the serpent twined down low enough, he shouted, "Now!"
He landed on the beast's back, which had not been his intention at all – but it was far too late now to do anything about it. He just dug in with his knees and set about slamming the shield down onto the hard, crimson scales.
Sparks flew as the rim of the shield made contact with the scales. It screeched in pain and rage, its long neck twisting around. It stared at him with one enormous eye, then screamed again and opened its jaws.
Before it could spew fire on him, though, Steve had collided with it, wrapping both arms about the beast's neck. Its head snapped to one side, and the fire died in a little puff of smoke.
Steve shouted out loud. The boot jets burst into greater power, and then they were rocketing upward.
Tony did not miss a beat. Again and again he lifted the shield high, then brought it down. He wasn't really trying to hurt the thing – although he had to admit that the vibranium was doing an admirable job of digging a trough in the serpent's scaled hide. He just wanted to keep its attention off Steve.
The shield finally breached the scales. Blood spurted, thick and black and reeking. The serpent shrieked in agony and whipped its head around, dragging Steve with it, momentarily stalling their upward flight. It screamed again, and fire sprayed from its mouth.
Yelling wildly, Tony raised the shield above him. He could feel the tremendous heat battering the air about him, but the shield held it at bay, preventing him from being burned. Then the fire disappeared as Steve gave the serpent's head a gigantic wrench and put on still more power.
At this rate he risked draining the arc reactor, but that was the least of Tony's worries right now. They were high enough up that ice was beginning to form on his costume and the metal of the shield. The air up here was incredibly cold, almost painfully so, and it hurt to breathe. Still, he knew this body could endure more, and he shouted, "Keep going!"
Steve probably couldn't hear him over the rushing sound of their flight and the serpent's screaming, but just one look would have told him they needed to go higher still. He flew straight up, taking the thrashing beast with him while Tony just clung to its back and did everything he could to widen the gash he had opened in its scales.
There was ice in his hair. Ice coated the serpent's body, slowing its frantic flight. It tried one last time to blast him with fire. Tony was so cold that all his movements were sluggish. He barely got the shield up in time to protect himself – just as he lost his grip on the scales from the slick ice. He felt himself start to slide and he shouted in fear, then he was falling, as high above him, lightning seared the skies and the serpent screeched one final time.
Silently, Tony fell.
Panicking, his first thought was for JARVIS, why wasn't JARVIS slowing his flight, what had happened to JARVIS? Then he remembered. He wasn't Iron Man anymore. He was Captain America. All he had was a shield and a spangly outfit – and he was falling to his death.
Two brilliant streaks of light lit up the night. There was just enough time for him to recognize the contrails from the boot jets, then Steve was there, catching him neatly in both arms. "Tony!"
"Nice catch," he managed.
Steve laughed. "Not bad, huh?"
Tony let himself go completely limp. "Not bad at all," he said.
Just before dawn, the scepter glowed brilliantly green again, and all was right with the world.
Not, Tony reflected several hours later, that it was ever that easy. Especially considering that this was himself they were talking about. And Steve Rogers.
At least the transfer had gone well, even painlessly. Except for the part where he had woken up with a pounding headache and a throbbing pressure in his chest. Still, the alien green laser beam itself hadn't been so bad.
"I knew there was a reason I liked you best," he had told Thor, slurring a little, like he had just finished half a bottle of bourbon.
Thor had looked somberly at them both. "I must apologize for Loki's trickery. He was aware of what the scepter might do, but did not see fit to warn anyone."
"Well, why should he?" Tony had muttered. "Practical jokes are fun for the whole family."
Predictably, Thor had not been amused. "I did not think it very funny. Nor will our father, when he hears of this."
Now Thor was gone, back in Asgard, with yet one more crime to be laid at Loki's feet, although he had already announced his intention of accepting full responsibility for the latest round of destruction to befall New York, thanks to the serpent that had followed him down to Earth. "Though I think my brother might have had something to do with that as well."
The doctors had run about fifty zillion more tests, and finally concluded that they were fine. There seemed to be no side effects from their little adventure, and they were free to go.
At least, Tony was free to go. He still wasn't sure where Steve was staying.
"Well, partner, I'm glad it all came out in the wash," Steve said with a smile. They were still in their little corner of the lab, having just been granted their freedom. "No hard feelings?" He held out his hand.
And damned if Tony didn't shake his hand. Although why he should do so was beyond him. "Of course not, Cap!" he said with a too-hearty smile and a pump of Steve's hand.
He let go. "Are you serious with this?"
Steve blinked. "With what?"
"The ra-ra cheerleader crap," Tony said. "We just spent a day in each other's bodies. And you want to act like that never happened?"
"I—" Steve looked flummoxed. "That's not what I meant."
"Then what did you mean?" Tony asked.
"I just…" Steve shook his head. "Why do you have to make everything so difficult?"
"I don't make things difficult," Tony said. "I make them realistic. 'Cause that's the world I live in, Cap. Cold, hard reality."
"And you think I don't," Steve said flatly.
"You're living proof of the fairy tale," Tony said. "Asleep for seventy years? Brought back to life? Yeah, I think you're—"
"And I think you're an idiot," Steve interrupted, although not unkindly.
"Excuse me?" he said. Surely he hadn't heard that right.
"If you'd just shut up for five seconds and let me talk," Steve said. He glanced around the lab, which was slowly emptying out now that there was nothing more exciting to do in here. Only Bruce lingered, fussing over the now-dormant scepter in its cradle.
"Tell you what," Tony said. "I'll give you ten seconds."
"That's more than enough," Steve said.
"Ten," Tony said. "Nine."
"I'm trying to tell you that I like you," Steve said. "That I want us to be friends. I think we can. But I guess that all depends on you."
Tony stopped his countdown.
Steve took a single step toward him. "I learned a lot about you today, Tony. But mostly what I learned is that I'm proud to have you on my team, and I'm proud to know you. There's a lot of things I said, a lot of things I jumped to conclusions about, that I was wrong about. You're brave, you're brilliant, you're the guy I want to have at my back. And I want to learn more about you. I want us to be friends."
Tony just stared. He had the stupidest urge to look over his shoulder and make sure Steve wasn't talking to someone else, some stranger who just happened to share his name. Because this was…Steve wasn't talking about him. He couldn't be.
Steve was done talking, though. Now he just looked at Tony expectantly, obviously waiting for him to say something, and yeah, it was now his turn to say nice things. To say that Steve was smart too, and brave, and pretty amazing for not flipping out over having to wear the suit and JARVIS trying to kill him. To say that Steve had an incredibly nice ass and a great body. To say that the way Steve was looking at him right now was going right to his—
"Um," he said. "Yeah."
Steve just continued to look at him, waiting.
Ah, to hell with it. Tony smiled. "Yeah," he said. "I think we can be friends." He let some of his thoughts show in that smile, imbuing it with far-from-innocent properties. "Maybe even more. But I guess that all depends on you."
And to his utter shock, Steve smiled back. "I'd say you have a deal."
Tony's smile vanished. "Seriously?"
Steve gave him an innocent look – but amusement sparkled in his eyes. "Why not?"
"I can think of half a dozen reasons why not," Tony said. "Not that I'm stupid enough to say any of them out loud. Because, brilliant, you know."
"Of course," Steve said.
"So," he said. "Huh. I guess what I meant to say, that first day, was that I wasn't afraid to hit on an old man."
"I guess so," Steve said with a faint chuckle. "That's not how I heard it, of course, but maybe I need to get my hearing checked?"
"I can help you with that," Tony said immediately.
Steve laughed for real that time. "That's kind of a weird first date."
Tony nearly choked. He wasn't sure if he was thrilled or appalled at how fast things seemed to be moving here. Part of him wanted to check to make sure that was really Steve in there – but the rest of him simply didn't care.
"I got a better idea," he said. "How about we do lunch?"
"As long as it's not shawarma, I'm in," Steve replied.
"Nope," Tony said. "I know just the place. Little Italian joint, total dive, debris-free. You'll love it."
Steve smiled. "You're on."
Together they headed out of the lab, Steve leading the way. As they walked by the station where Bruce was still examining the scepter, Tony reached into his pocket. He tossed the silver dollar in Bruce's direction, and winked.
"Thanks," he mouthed.
Bruce caught the coin and shook his head, a reluctant smile on his face.
Steve had paused in the doorway. "Tony?"
Tony smiled at him. "Come on," he said. "Let's get this party started."