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I Walked A Thousand Miles Just To Slip This Skin

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I've gotten too complacent, is what Tony thinks when he's bailed up in a side street. He's become so used to being Iron Man and an Avenger, to battling Doombots and aliens and evil scientists trying to take over the world, that he'd forgotten that sometimes people want to do harm to you, personally, when you've just snuck out of the Tower to get mid-afternoon doughnuts.

But it's not even some big tough guy, it's some little punk with acne and awkward, gangly limbs, and Tony can't resist the reflex to laugh and mock.

“You and whose army?” he asks, before he thinks.

The kid gets mad, and Tony is suddenly very aware of the gun the kid is now holding, especially when it glows a weird purple colour and there's a strong smell of ozone.

“Fucking magic,” Tony says vehemently, and legs it. He doesn't get far.

*

When he first wakes, he's only aware of how much he aches. Not that he ever gets out of a battle in the suit without bruises, but this is an all-over, pervasive hurt, like he's gone on a three day endurance hike then had a bout of the flu on top of that. He's groggy and weak, and it's a struggle to get his eyes pointed in the right direction, let alone focussed.

Pepper's smiling down at him like she's trying not to cry. That can only mean badness.

“'m I dying?” he asks, and his voice sounds all weird. Maybe he is ill.

Pepper shakes her head slowly and smiles a little wider. “No,” she says.

“Good,” he says. “Dying sucks. You get really mad at me when I do that.”

“You're fine. I'm not mad at you,” she reassures him, petting his hand gently.

“Well, now I know you're lying to make me feel better,” he argues. “You're always mad at me for something.”

He drifts back to sleep before he hears her reply.

*

The second time he wakes, he's alone. He's alert enough to sit up a bit, and to check under the blanket for signs of major injury, because his body feels weirdly misshapen, like sneaky SHIELD doctors rummaged around and put everything back slightly out-of-place.

“Um,” he hears himself say aloud, because really, screaming isn't his style, and he's a bit too shocked to think to do it.

“Ah,” Pepper says. She's standing in the doorway with some kind of soy chai thing in her hand; he can smell the spice. “About that.”

“You said I was fine,” he accuses.

“Well, they've run a bunch of tests and you're healthy, physically, and-”

Fine implies situation normal, Pepper. Nothing about this is normal-

“- apart from sleeping for about thirty hours, and a slightly elevated heart-rate for a little while -”

Breasts, Pepper. I have a rack that did not come as standard, and though I haven't checked yet, I can tell that there have been some modifications down in the plumbing department that I really did not ask for-”

“-you're a perfectly healthy woman,” Pepper finishes.

Silence falls, and Pepper hovers, like she's not sure she'd be welcomed closer. Tony heaves a heavy, frustrated sigh, and sees his breasts rise and fall on the edge of his peripheral vision.

“This is bullshit,” he pronounces.

*

He checks himself out, though he's sure that SHIELD's doctors would love to have him around longer to poke and prod at. When he's convincing them to let him go, he's careful to be loud and obnoxious with a heavy side of charming, because he wants to go home, but he doesn't want to antagonise them enough to hate him, just in case he starts growing horns or something and has to come back.

After he has his release papers in hand, he focuses his skills of persuasion on convincing Pepper that as much as she'd like for him to drive home with Happy in the limo, the suit is the best option.

“Sure, by all means, I'll walk out right into the arms of the paps and get labelled as 'mystery woman in Tony Stark's life', and they can all speculate about how knocked up I am. Feel free to spend the next however long putting out the fires from that.”

It's far from subtle, but the frown line between Pepper's brow deepens, and the next time she appears, she's got his suitcase armour. He's already shrugged out of the hospital gown and into the street clothes he'd been wearing before his unpleasant journey into the world of non-consensual body modification. They don't feel as comfortable as he remembered. His t-shirt is tight across his chest, and his boxer briefs in particular are a bit saggy and empty in the front in a way he doesn't care to dwell on.

“We'll have to talk to your stylist,” she says.

“No,” he says.

“We could just-”

“No.”

“But it could be-”

“Not interested.”

“You can't keep wearing those,” she says, and she's sort of right; he at least needs to get a belt or something.

“Just get my new measurements from JARVIS when he bioscans me,” Tony says, and then he's running through a checklist of Things To Do in his mind. Getting JARVIS to recognise him is going to be a number one priority, primarily because everything sensitive is biometrically locked to him, and man, that is going to be a pain in the ass to circumvent.

“If we spin this right, it could be really good PR,” Pepper says.

“This is temporary,” he says firmly, though he doesn't know that, and knows that she knows he doesn't know that. “I don't want to look cute, I don't want to rock a pantsuit or a power jacket, and I don't want to learn to walk in heels. Just get me what I like to wear, in the right sizes.”

“Fine. I'll order you some new clothes and talk to your tailor about alterations. Will you at least shave-”

“What are you, the lady-shaver crusader?” he snaps.

“-the goatee, Tony. You should probably think about getting rid of the beard.”

There's a joke somewhere in the back of his brain that fails to form enough to say aloud. He rubs at the bristle on his chin. It's comfortingly familiar, but Pepper's right, it probably looks weird on him right now.

“Right, yeah. I'll do that.”

*

He takes off from the roof of the hospital after having gone through half a dozen code verifications and explanations and a DNA swab to prove he's himself to the HUD and JARVIS. Ten minutes later, he's staring at his face in his bathroom mirror. It's the same, but somehow different, like someone's taken his features and tweaked them in Photoshop. He doesn't look below the shoulders. He saw plenty when he was changing in the hospital room, and right now he's got enough to process.

He cuts himself twice before switching to the electric shaver he hardly ever uses. It's a lot more forgiving when he forgets and slips into muscle memory, trying to shave a jawline that's subtly different from the one he's been grooming since he was fourteen.

It's not a pretty face, he decides. His chin and brow and nose are still too strong, his hair too short, his skin not fine enough. His jaw is clenched tight; he looks stubborn and pissed off and punchy. Feisty, he would have drawled before, if met with such a face, which just sort of makes him want to punch himself, and that really isn't helping with the level of confusion he's feeling.

“Man up,” he murmurs to himself, and though his voice is a deep alto, it's not deep enough, and the joke falls flat.

*

He decides to avoid the communal areas and goes straight down to the workshop. JARVIS is his usual competent self, but the bots are in a bit of a tizzy. Dummy, in particular, seems perplexed by his new Sir-But-Not-Sir designation.

“I swear to God, if you poke me one more time, I'm giving you to Clint to use for target practice,” Tony says, when he sees Dummy's arm creeping up slowly, out of the corner of his eye. “Just go make a smoothie or something.”

“He's just worried about you,” Steve says, and Tony jumps, because someone should teach that man how to make more noise when he walks.

He must have said some of that aloud, because Steve frowns and even glances down at his feet.

“He's not worried, he hasn't got the programming to worry,” Tony says, because sure, he talks to his bots, but he never makes the mistake of assuming they think and emote the same way he does. “He is curious. He's a learning bot, he learns, it's what he's made for. This,” he gestures down at his body without looking, “is outside of his experience. So he wants to learn all about it. I give him an inch and he'll be goosing me every time I bend over.” He almost says and who could blame him out of habit, but bites his tongue.

“We're worried about you,” Steve counters, and it's earnest enough to make Tony throw on his widest, most camera-friendly smile.

“I've been told by a variety of reliable medical professionals that I'm fine.”

“You don't look fine,” Steve replies, then obviously realises what he just said, and flushes a deep pink. “I didn't... I mean, you do, obviously, very... You just don't seem-”

Tony raises a sarcastic eyebrow. Steve's blush spreads down his throat and across the tips of his ears. It's kind of mesmerising.

“You can talk to me, you know. About anything. I'll be a gent... I mean, I'll be professional,” Steve doggedly continues.

“Oh, my God, you're hopeless. Adorable, but really, seriously, terrible. Is it the girl thing, or the emotions thing? Or do I just represent some perfect storm of both?”

“I mean it. You're one of my men... um? Team. You're part of my team.”

“Rogers, you do know that underneath this... temporary packaging,” he waves his hand over his chest; Steve very obviously concentrates on not looking below Tony's eyes, “I'm still the same guy you regularly want to punch in the face, right?”

“I'm getting that,” Steve says, tensely.

*

Late in the evening, Pepper sweeps into the workshop like a very organised tornado.

“Okay, your new wardrobe's been delivered, only casual clothing so far. I brought a change down with me, just in case.” She hands him a garment bag. “The new measurements have been sent to Andre for your emergency suit, fitting on Friday, that's the soonest he can get it ready, but there aren't any events that you can't politely decline happening in the next few days anyway, so that should be fine.

“Shoes, we should probably handle in person,” she says next, and he can't help rolling his eyes. “I know, but your size has changed enough that you need new shoes. All the measurements in the world won't tell you if they're comfortable, and my time is too valuable to waste ordering half a dozen pairs in different sizes and widths hoping that one of them will fit and that you'll actually deign to wear them. A pair of Converse, a pair of running shoes, black and brown dress shoes and maybe a pair of slippers and I promise that will be all.”

“My slippers still fit; they're lambswool boots,” he says as he divests the garment bag of its contents.

Pepper fiddles with her phone, obviously ticking 'slippers' off the list, but then she murmurs maybe some loafers, too, under her breath.

“That's... a lot of underwear,” says Tony, having gotten deep enough into the bag to see them.

“The lower half; there's a pair of your regular boxer briefs, if they're comfortable enough, but there are a couple of other options just in case they're not. The upper half...there are a few different styles of bra because I didn't know what would work with the arc reactor.”

“...right. Thanks. I'll just- ”

“Okay, if you need anything-”

“- I'll call you,” he says, then darts into the bathroom to spend twenty awkward minutes wrestling with tiny hooks and eyelets.

Tony's pretty good at compartmentalisation, never mind what a mental health professional might say. He's faced down terrorists, his board of directors, the United States government, and his psychopathic father-figure, all without showing fear. He just has to get this done, as fast as he possibly can, so he breathes deep and builds a careful, emotional barricade between himself and the body he's wrangling into submission. It's not mine, they're not real, he tells himself on a loop, pushing down the feelings of alienness and repulsion, even. He flew a nuke into an alien wormhole; if he talks himself up enough, he can do anything.

He very quickly ends up tossing aside everything but the sports bra. All of the others are uncomfortable in some way or another, most of which have nothing to do with unexpectedly itchy lace or startling (unwanted) cleavage, but everything to do with the night light in his chest. The sports bra is made of elastic, is easily pulled on over his head, and has no boning to scratch unpleasantly on the reactor or rub on the scar tissue around the housing.

It also flattens his bust out to a degree that he can finally look himself in the mirror without flinching.

Pepper is gone when he emerges, but there's a small white box of pills on his desk and an explanatory note as to why. Because of course, right now, he's a perfectly healthy woman. Apparently if he takes them, one white pill per day, and ignores the red pills, he won't have to deal with it, which is just fine by him, but at the end, there's a just in case postscript telling him that there's Kotex and a heat pack in his medicine cabinet and a box of chocolate truffles in his snack cupboard.

Tony takes his first pill with a slug of scotch, which he's certain is against the advice of doctors and pharmacists everywhere, but he's had a day, and he's got to the point where the glass in his hand is the only thing stopping him putting his fist through a wall.

*

Day two, and Tony peels himself off the workshop sofa and stumbles towards the coffee machine. His mouth tastes like alcoholic regret and old socks. The lingering hangover is slightly more substantial than he would have expected, given the amount he drank, so he drowns his traitorous liver in blessed java until his eyes focus properly.

He may be upright, but he doesn't have the brain for invention and innovation yet, so he turns to his comfort engineering of choice – tinkering with the hot rod.

After the fourth nut that he has to gasp and struggle to undo, he calls Dummy over and spends the afternoon souping up his servos instead, improving his grip strength, precision, and overall lifting and pulling power.

“Pinch my ass, or any other part of me, now, and I really will break you down and make you into a windmill for the miniature golf course,” Tony warns when he reboots him, shaking a socket wrench in front of Dummy's viewing lens. “You've got some serious juice, buddy, and you'll hurt me.”

He throws together a quick drill and simulation program for Dummy to run to get him acquainted with his new upgrades, and puts a series of strength and dexterity tasks on a few different surfaces for him to play with when he's up to speed.

“JARVIS?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Record how Dummy does, make a list of weak spots and possible improvements. I'll watch the playback later. I'm going to the gym.”

Because although he's in a share-house with an Asgardian god and a super soldier, he'll be damned if he's going to be calling on them to loosen things for him.

*

By the time he's worked out for about two hours, he feels almost human. He's sweaty and hot and aching. He's also determined that the sports bra is hideously misnamed. Sure, it keeps them from bouncing as much as they would if untethered, but even just while he was warming up he lost count of the amount of times he elbowed them or knocked them, or that they just plain got in the damn way. They move, all the time, and if he's not concentrating on not letting them interfere, they're enough of an unpleasant, disorienting distraction that he's almost a danger to himself. He lasts all of thirty seconds on the treadmill before he nearly falls on his face. He'd been so abruptly aware of the sensation of his new (wrong) flesh in motion, that he'd stopped in shock, and forgotten to grab the rail to steady himself. This happens about four times in a row, before he gives it up as a loss. The weights, he dismisses without even trying them. He eventually settles on the exercise bike because he can keep his body leaning forward, his arms braced on the crossbar, and his upper body barely moves at all.

He's stretching, cooling down, when Coulson walks in, so Tony takes a break and chugs water while Coulson talks. Two bottles later, he's rehydrated enough to cut in.

“How hard can it be to find a kid running around mugging people with magical weaponry in New York?”

“Hard,” answers Coulson.

“There's CCTV in every shop and on every fucking corner. You can't tell me you've got nothing,” Tony says, and hates how much it sounds like he's whining.

“He used some kind of electrical field generator to distort the input. We're working on it, but right now all we've got is snow. It's possible there's something to find; if that's the case, we'll find it, but if the device was magical...” he shrugs slightly, his meaning clear.

There might be nothing to find. Fucking magic.

“Right now, we're monitoring emergency services for reports of similar incidents.”

“What, no nice, shiny, magic-detecting toys? What are you, the NYPD, now? That must bite.”

Coulson just smiles his placid little smile. “Flag your credit cards. You never know, he might get greedy and buy a flatscreen.”

*

I'm cooking dinner. Be there or answer to The Other Guy.

After Steve's awkward attempt at caring and sharing the night before, the team had very pointedly given him some space, probably on Cap's orders. Barring Avenging or hospital stays, he couldn't remember such a prolonged period of time without social interaction since they'd all moved in. There was always someone turning up with something for repair, an ongoing text conversation on his phone, or, at the very least, an email full of cat gifs from Thor in his inbox.

Bruce is clearly less inclined to let him hide away in his Science Cave, which smacks of hypocrisy, or possibly treason. Surely there's some kind of Anti-Social Science-Bros Code that applies here.

Tony is tempted to message back, Can't make it, still have boobs, but he has the feeling that the reply would be something along the lines of Cry harder, come back when you've trashed multiple cities on four different continents. I'm plating up in 20 mins.

He debates showering but doesn't think he can take that in addition to socialisation, so he just deodorises profusely and layers on an under-shirt, a t-shirt and an enormous, long-sleeved, quilted plaid thing that wound up in his laundry bag by accident. He's pretty sure it belongs to Thor. He folds the cuffs up about three times before his hands are visible, pulls on his (red exterior, bright yellow interior) lambswool slippers and mashes the elevator button for the communal living space.

Tony's timed it perfectly; he's arrived after the food has finished cooking but before the dinner's started, so there's no awkward waiting around and he's not barging in to find everyone sitting down. He grabs a plate and loads it up with curry, daal, and naan, then scoots off to the closest thing to a corner the open living area has, where he can be as far from the focal point of the gathering as possible but still see the TV. The menu screen for Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey is looping, which is just adorable because it means that someone actually bought a physical copy, and it looks like DVD quality, not even Blu-ray. He didn't realise he even had a DVD player still hooked up to the home theatre system.

“Whose night is it?” he mumbles through a mouthful.

“Mine,” says Clint, from his perch on the back of the frankly enormous sofa.

Tony supposes he should be grateful Clint didn't choose Mulan, or something. That's just the kind of smart-ass thing Clint would do.

Actually, come to think of it, Tony might have been more comfortable if he had. The ongoing trolling war is something he's come to rely on as a constant. If Clint, of all people, is going to try and be nice to him, he'll be tempted to lock himself in the workshop permanently, even at the sacrifice of really good Indian food.

“I'm sure I can dig up Pretty In Pink, though, if this is too butch for you,” Clint cracks, and Tony can't help but smile. He's certain that somewhere behind them Steve is on the verge of losing his shit. It's perfect.

“I'm more a Sixteen Candles kinda guy,” he replies, and hears Steve make a tiny choked sound right on cue. Everyone's got their food and wandered in, now, so he leans forward, snags a giant bottle of Mountain Dew from Thor, and tells JARVIS to roll it.

*

Days three, four and five pass in a kind of blur. There are no more magical muggings and there's no movement on his stolen cards, so law enforcement, and SHIELD, by extension, are utterly useless. On the plus side, there's nothing to Avenge, so he doesn't have to have the 'you're not fucking benching me' argument with Steve that he fears will be inevitable should anything actually arise. He's had the fight so many times in his head now that he's actually designed a points system for it.

Tony gives himself points every time he gets Steve to euphemistically refer to the boobs.

He gives Steve points every time Steve retains his dignity and Tony gives in to the urge to pull out the 'you're just threatened by me because your penis is tiny' argument. It's a cheap and nasty shot, and he knows from JARVIS's bioscans of the team that it's patently untrue.

The hypothetical arguing is also channelling some of the anger and frustration he's very legitimately feeling into non-workshop-smashing avenues, which he thinks means he's being particularly mature and sensible (for him), even while he's mentally losing points for deciding to get JARVIS to prank Steve as petty revenge for losing the latest round. Using JARVIS always counts as a forfeit, but there's something immensely satisfying in imagining using him for evil. Maybe that makes his morality a few shades darker than is strictly appropriate for a superhero, but Tony figures that so long as he doesn't actually follow through, he's not in grave danger of slipping over to the Dark Side.

The part of his brain that isn't waging war on Steve is inventing stuff, because that's what Tony does when he's running away from things he'd rather not deal with and Pepper's not there to redirect him into being social. (She's off doing mystical CEO things that he probably should have been doing when he was CEO, but didn't.) There are five new patent applications ready to go, including one for awesome, self-maintaining water pumps for developing countries, and one for a kind of super elastic fabric. He hasn't got a catchy name for it yet, but he hopes Bruce will consent to wear the next time he Hulks out to test its stretchiness. Anything that keeps The Other Guy's little guy under wraps is a good thing for public decency and Bruce's self-esteem, and while Tony generally doesn't give a shit about public decency, Bruce's self-esteem is a fragile flower that he's been nurturing in his own dysfunctional way. If the fabric works, it'll make the folks on the fyeahhulkpeen Tumblr sad, but Tony figures they'll find something new to be pervy about pretty quickly.

The armour doesn't need any changes, because if it was too rigid to accommodate fluctuations in body mass, he'd have to mod it every time he ate a whole pizza by himself or went without eating solid food for a week while hyper-focusing on coding or design. He ends up playing with it anyway, because the armour is never finished, and there's always a new model with better everything to be made and used and probably trashed and then replaced with another, newer, shinier model. He puts the latest design on, and from the outside, reflected in the glass of the wall, he looks just the same as he always does. There are no unexpected curves that still shock him every fucking morning, and it's an almost dizzying relief.

Maybe I should just stay like this, stay in the armour, he thinks, and it's tempting, it's so tempting, like that one more drink, just one, that he works on resisting every day with mixed success, and he has to take the suit off, right then, or he won't have the strength to keep walking around without it.

Dummy rolls up with a smoothie, and it's a distraction - not a big one, but enough that he's grateful - so he stands there petting that stupid robot arm for ages, his own arm straight out to the side so that he doesn't brush the side of his breast with his inner arm with every movement.

*

Natasha is perched on Tony’s workbench when he stumbles out of the elevator, half-awake, hoping JARVIS has set the coffee to percolate.

“No,” he says, even though she hasn't said a word.

There's a tiny, steaming cup of espresso waiting for him. He downs it like a shot, then pushes the button for another.

Two shots later, when he feels more human, he turns back around, his fourth cup cradled in his slightly-too-small hand.

“You're still here,” he says. “Why are you still here?”

“Your body,” she begins, and he flinches, he can't help it.

His desk is still the right height for him, but his favourite jeans which he pulled on this morning out of habit don't fit him like a denim hug like they used to. He's pretty much given up on footwear altogether for the time being, since he's been dodging Pepper's shoe shopping appointments, and she hasn't been on the east coast to reprimand him. Last night he showered only because he'd left it long enough that he smelled unwashed to his own nose. He spent ten minutes standing nude in front of the mirror, staring at his new shape, trying (failing) to accept it as his, no matter how temporarily. He's curious about his body (he can't help it, he's a scientist), but every time he gets up the balls to look at it head on, his brain just shies away.

“It's a weapon,” she continues. “I can show you how to use it.”

She's a carefully-crafted sculpture, from the loose curls spilling over her shoulder to the Prada heels on her feet. She's come dressed as Natalie for this conversation, and he understands the point she's trying to make.

He tentatively speculates, just teases out the idea in his mind, thinks about what saying yes would mean. About making this alien form into a doll, to be dressed up and primped and curled and painted into something he could wield against others. It's enough to make him feel ill, like the blood has blanched from his cheeks just from the very thought.

“I- I can't – no,” he stammers, turning away again.

There's a reflection in the chrome of the coffee maker, and he can see her nod, like she's confirming something she already knew.

“I can teach you how to fight,” she offers.

Steve's been avoiding sparring with him, even when Tony's wearing the suit. Happy's developed a condescending habit of going easy (easier) on him, and Clint, who used to fight Tony with the right combination of good-natured competition and nasty underhanded tactics just seems to be able to brush all of Tony's attacks aside now while barely breaking a sweat. Natasha, naturally, would have noticed all of this.

“Think about it,” Natasha says, before sashaying out to the elevator.

*

The first time they spar together, Natasha deliberately elbows him right in the boob. It's not the same flavour of pain as being kicked in the balls, but it's a special kind of hell, all the same.

When he gets his breath back, Natasha's just watching him with an impassive expression.

“Right, I get it, 'The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.' No?”

Natasha just shakes her head slightly, before taking a swallow of water.

Lawrence of Arabia. Going on the list,” Tony says. “Top of the list, next time it's my turn to pick the movie. Thor'll love it.”

In the Avengers, they have an alien god, a super soldier who took an ice nap for the better part of a century, an incredibly gifted scientist who was indifferent to social trends and memes even before becoming a part-time rage monster and going on the lam, and an ex-Russian superspy who spent her formative years in some kind of diabolical blend of experimental testing lab and The Hunger Games. The considerable length of the list reflects this. Even Tony knows it's a sad state of affairs when the former carny, the paper-pusher (and not-so-secret comics nerd), and the billionaire boy genius are the resident fonts of knowledge for all things pop culture.

The sharp pain has levelled out to a dull thudding ache that's probably colouring into a bruise already. Tony brings his hands back up, and this time he's almost ready for the attack when it comes.

*

He hurts a lot, that evening, but it's in a sort-of-good way. He'd always been a scrappy, mouthy kid that was way smaller and younger than his academic peers, so he'd taken his fair share of beatings, but Natasha is some kind of master in using an opponent's momentum and force against them. She slaps him down on the canvas more times than he can count, but then she shows him how she did it, walks him through slowly, like they're rehearsing for a dance, then at half-speed, and then at full.

“Good,” she says finally, when Tony's winded. “Better.”

Tony downs a couple of Advil, then surprises himself by voluntarily going to the communal living area and curling up in his usual place on the sofa to nurse his hurt. It's not a movie night, but most of the team drifts in and out over the next couple of hours, mainly to snark at Coulson's taste in reality shows, since he'd called the remote. Tony could override him with JARVIS, but doesn't. Instead he sticks around, mostly because the banter is soothing, and Steve's increasingly horrified expression at what constitutes twenty-first century entertainment is priceless, as always.

He switches out his ice packs now and again for fresh ones, and he's sure he'll be one big, barely-moving pile of stiff muscles in the morning, but Natasha has a bruise on the edge of one cheekbone that he'll claim he put there deliberately, if asked, and that makes it worth it.

*

It's been ten days, and finally, SHIELD's big-shot magic expert flies in from parts unknown and looks Tony over, hemming and hawing and every now and again prodding him with a crystal that looks like it's come straight from from a New Age shop. The only comment the guy makes is 'very interesting', with no forthcoming information about how, and, more importantly, no details, or plan of attack, or projected time frame for turning Tony back, if such a thing is even possible.

So Tony's given himself a pass to be maudlin this evening. He's stayed down in his workshop, only emerging for the pizza delivery guy with his large pepperoni, and to retrieve the chocolate Pepper had left him in case the anti-menstruation plan failed. Now he's very full, feeling greasy and a little sick and more than a little drunk. He's chewing on yet another truffle when he types I wish I didn't have boobs into Google, which nets him thousands of hits, pretty much none of which are helpful and most of which are some kind of horrific insight into the false standards of female beauty in Western society, and man, he does not have the energy to deal with that right now.

Hiding my breasts is the next thing he tries. It's more calculated and less emo, and the results are more the kind of thing he's looking for. There are bunch of forum posts about being trans or a tomboy or nonbinary gender. He follows user recommendations from there to websites for binders, and after looking at catalogues and sizing charts for an hour or so, he orders half a dozen in a couple of different styles and colours.

When the order verification turn up in his inbox, Tony looks down at his chest directly for the first time and pokes at one of his boobs with a finger. “If I'm stuck with you for the foreseeable future, it's gonna be on my terms,” he says, then takes his woe chocolate with him up to bed.

*

“My brother has changed gender and form many times,” Thor announces, though it's not at his usual level of volume, so it probably counts as a discreet whisper.

They've been watching the Dodgers playing... some other team, but it's an ad break. Tony doesn't care about baseball. Thor is fascinated by it, but hasn't quite got a grasp of the rules yet. Steve watches baseball like he loves it, but with a kind of wince that suggests that in its modern form it regularly causes him great pain. Tony thinks that is fascinatingly masochistic behaviour from a national icon of purity and patriotism, and wonders if Steve's hiding some kind of kinky centre under all that red, white and blue bunting.

“I'm guessing that in his case it was voluntary,” Tony replies. It's not that he thinks that there's anything wrong with changing gender if you want to; he just thinks that if Loki did it, there'd be some sneaky, devious reason for it.

“Most times,” Thor agrees. “Such things seem to be much more inflexible, here in Midgard.”

“Yeah, usually, that kind of change requires a lifetime of hormone treatments and invasive surgery,” Tony says. He only did a cursory amount of Googling on transitioning, and promptly decided that he was really not ready emotionally to connect that with himself, no matter how alien he feels in his skin right now. Maybe he'll feel differently if this stretches out for months or years without a solution, but at this moment all he can bring himself think is that they're going to find the kid; they have to.

Thor nods, though Tony's not sure how much of that makes sense to a god. “Those who embark on such a voyage must consider the labours worth the final reward,” he remarks, and wow, that's much more profound and insightful than Tony had expected.

“You're right, they really must,” Tony agrees.

The game's back on again, so Thor subsides back into enthusiastic cheering on of both sides. Tony lets out a little sigh of relief, pushing all thoughts of an indefinite future stuck like this into a steel box in his head and very firmly welding it shut. He can have a proportionally appropriate (very large) drink later, when he doesn't have an audience to witness how very not okay he is with even the vaguest concept of that potential existence.

Instead of openly freaking out, he follows the plays on the screen, idly eating popcorn because it's there in front of him. He can't swear to it, because he never catches him out, but he thinks he feels Steve's eyes on him several times during the rest of the game. Not glaring, but thoughtful, like Tony's shifted his world view in some small but significant way.

*

“Thought you'd curled up in one of your cars and died of self-pity,” Bruce says, without looking up from the samples he's running.

“Don't sound so upset, Bruce. I'll start thinking you don't care,” Tony replies automatically, hopping up on a stool next to an empty bench.

“Well, I have to say, there's been a distinct lack of explosions in my life since you started being even more of a diva than usual,” Bruce says, pushing a sequence of buttons and watching the machine come to life with a whirr.

“What, even with Thor and Clint around?”

Bruce points to a little sign at the door: No weaponry past this point. “I'm house-training them,” he says.

“Harsh. And can't superspy assassins make weapons from anything? There's this rumour about Coulson and a paperclip that's either a lie or an epically terrifying truth, and Natasha won't tell me which.”

“Also, every day without something going boom, I bake cookies.”

“Congratulations, you've become a parent to an alien god and a circus performer. Also, you're like the opposite of fun.”

“Things that startle me are bad for the architecture,” Bruce says, though it's not like Tony's forgotten.

“And how is your rage-ier self?” Tony asks, leaning in to peer at a holoscreen, trying to make sense of the results without any context. He knows Bruce will explain it if he asks, but he kind of likes the challenge.

Bruce's tone, when he replies, is suspiciously light and casual. “I think he's sulking. He ran out of things to smash in his playroom last week, and there haven't been any missions, so he's not had much front time.”

There's a fairly long, pregnant pause while Tony digests that information.

“I am an asshole,” he states, slowly and precisely.

“The first step is admitting it,” Bruce says, and Tony abruptly realises that the whole time he's been here, Bruce hasn't looked at him properly once. Bruce isn't the most comfortable guy, socially, but even for him, that's unusual.

“You're mad at me.”

“Trust me, if I was mad, you'd know about it.”

“No, you're hurt. Shit.”

Tony scrubs his (too smooth, God, he hates shaving) face with his hands, tugs on his hair. Pulls out his phone and orders a whole bunch of junk for the playroom; car and truck bodies, tyres, recycled masonry, rebar and girders, and a dozen or so ethically farmed plantation pine trees in varying sizes. Schedules the cleaning crew to come in right now to sweep out the detritus of the last load of Hulk toys, and Christ, that stuff must be sawdust, powder and shrapnel by now. Bruce likely hasn't had a pressure release in days, and if the Hulk's been unhappy for longer than that, then he's got to be wired. Living in Manhattan, in a share-house with a bunch of other intense personalities, the playroom isn't a novelty, it's a necessity.

“Should have made all this automatic from the start, damn it, you shouldn't have to be relying on me to be here and be aware, I'm terrible at that, just ask Rhodey, I'm completely unreliable and an utterly unworthy friend,” Tony murmurs in a rush, under his breath.

It's not just empty words; he genuinely feels terrible. Bruce is dreadful at asking for what he needs; doesn't feel he has a right to, even when it's something critical to his well-being. Tony wonders how close Bruce had come this week to just quietly packing a bag and slipping out, vanishing for parts unknown.

He wonders how long it would have taken any of the rest of them to notice.

The playroom will take at least half a day to get ready; there's no way to physically clean it out and set it up any faster. Too many workers, and they all just get in each other's way in the fixed, subterranean space. And the trees can't be rushed; even if they're being lopped right this second, they've got to be loaded onto a truck and driven down from up-state.

“Right, okay, it's on its way, it's sorted, but now, right now, are you busy?” Tony asks.

“I'm always busy.”

“Think you can handle a flight?”

Bruce snorts. “Are you serious?”

“Not a plane, on the suit. We'll strap you in a harness on my back, so you don't have to stress about falling,” Tony says, then waggles his phone. “I shoot a message to a buddy of mine, we can get access to a proving ground not far from here.”

Bruce has actually turned to look at Tony, and underneath the tension, Tony can see the angle of his shoulders has loosened a little.

“How green you feeling?”

Bruce tilts his hand from side to side. “I've held him back in worse places,” he says.

“Afraid of heights? We could take one of the cars.”

Bruce actually cracks a smile. “I've seen you drive. And I once stepped out of a helicopter without a chute.”

“I'm sure I should be horrified right now, but I have a similar track record for personal health and safety,” Tony says.

*

Tony turns up for breakfast because he's got a craving for pancakes. Though it's technically almost time for lunch, Clint can be easily blackmailed to make pancakes and waffles at any hour. He sings a constant stream of country and western while he's doing it, but Tony's not one to criticise another's methods, especially not when they result in a stack of syrup-drenched goodness.

Tony's demolished about half of his frankly enormous serving by the time Steve wanders in. For a moment, he just stands and watches; Clint is flipping pancakes just using the pan because he's a tremendous show-off. Clint breaks off from his whistled harmonica solo to tell Steve to sit your ass down, you're always hungry, so Steve does, and that's when he looks at Tony properly for the first time.

“Your... um... have they... changed?” Steve asks. He's impressively red, but he's holding Tony's gaze.

Tony awards himself a point.

“No, they're still there. It's a binder. Like a girdle, but for the upper half,” Tony says, not mocking, because he honestly didn't think Steve would be this straightforward about it, and he respects bluntness. “You've got questions, Cap, I can see it. You're practically vibrating in your seat. Consider this your free pass; ask away.”

“Isn't it uncomfortable?”

Clint shoves a stack of pancakes in front of Steve, nudges the condiments closer, and shuffles back to make more. Steve snags two bananas and starts slicing them neatly with the edge of his spoon onto his plate.

“Depends what kind of comfort you're talking about. It's a little warmer than just wearing a regular undershirt, but the fabric breathes enough that I'm not sweating too badly. It's tight, so it restricts my breathing a little. My lung capacity is decreased anyway because the reactor takes up room in my chest cavity, so I can't wear it if I'm going to be exerting myself, unless I want to faint like a tight-laced Victorian maiden. I've got a couple of handkerchiefs down the front to stop the edges of the reactor housing digging in me, but I think I'm going to have to try medical tape or something, because they keep shifting when I move. I can only have it on for a few hours at a time without it getting seriously painful, so I can't go out anywhere with it on unless I'm going to be back home fairly soon or I take something less restrictive to change into with me. So, physically, it's going to take some getting used to.”

“Then, why? If it hurts you, why not just, um, leave it the way it is?” Steve's finished cutting his bananas, but he hasn't started eating, even though he burns through calories at a ridiculous rate that puts teenagers the world over to shame.

“Emotionally and psychologically, it's a godsend.” Tony cuts off another mouthful, chews it, swallows. “I can move my arms pretty much the way I used to, so I'm not knocking them against my chest all the time, which really hurts, by the way. I can fit into most of my shirts again. I still don't look like me, but I'm not flinching every time I see my chest out of the corner of my eye like I was. I don't hate myself as much.”

Tony abruptly shuts up, then, because he's veering close to issues he'd really rather not talk about with Captain America, over pancakes, while Clint wails Jolene in the background. He's still angry, of course he's angry, but for once, he's not angry at himself. He's angry at that kid, at SHIELD for being useless, at magic itself for existing in the face of science, and if he starts venting his spleen about that, he might never stop. He can't fix any of that, but engineering a solution to a problem is something he's been doing since he could walk, and that's precisely why the binder appeals to him.

Steve doesn't push him for more, just reaches over to grab the syrup.

*

Tony has three pairs of shoes in carry-bags. They're not the half-dozen or so pairs that Pepper was nudging him to buy, but he now has Converse and trainers and a pair of black Italian leather dress shoes that will match the suit he finally went to get measured for. With the addition of the binder, his upper measurements aren't hugely different, so it's just minor adjustments to the trousers and around the waist and hips of the jacket, and he'll look as close to himself as he can get without a system restore to his previous version.

The Converse are Iron Man branded; he couldn't help himself.

He parks and gets out, claps for the big lights and his music to come on, high-fives Dummy when he walks past just because he's feeling okay with the world right now, and stops, abruptly, when he sees the super soldier sitting on his couch.

“JARVIS said you were almost home, that I could wait,” Steve explains, and he sounds... odd.

“Yeah, you're fine, what's up?” Tony dumps the bags, pokes a little at the coding he'd left running, then grabs a bottle of water from the mini-fridge.

“I'm not a bigot,” Steve says, suddenly.

“I never said you were,” Tony immediately replies, because it's true. Backwards, and full of antiquated morality, yes, bigoted, no.

“I went on Google?” Steve says, like it's a question. “I wanted to understand better. And there was this picture people said was really good, and I found it on Netflix. About this guy called Brandon.”

Suddenly, the frayed-around-the-edges look makes a hell of a lot of sense.

Jesus, Cap,” Tony says. “You really went and jumped in the deep end, there, buddy.” Because, of course, Steve just goes looking for the basics on gender and identity in the twenty-first century on the internet and ends up watching Boys Don't Cry by accident.

Tony grabs another bottle of water, then digs in the cupboard next to it for the box of chocolate truffles he bought when he ate his way through the one Pepper gave him. They're French, delicious, surprisingly cheap, and come in a convenient one kilogram box, which Tony thinks is probably going to be needed right now. “Here.”

Steve takes them, digs into the box and comes out with a few that he eats, neatly, one at a time, licking the cocoa powder from his fingertips.

Tony slouches down on the sofa next to him and sighs. “I can't claim to be an expert, this isn't something I've had to live with my whole life or anything, but there are people out there that just want to hurt people who are different, and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't seriously thought about that over the last few weeks.” He snags a handful of truffles, pops a few in his mouth, talks while he's chewing even though he knows it drives Steve crazy. Maybe because it does. “There's a reason I've stayed in here, up till now, stuck around you guys. You're a known quantity.”

“I went to war,” Steve says, finally. “I saw things, heard about things, later. Men didn't tend to tell me, but I'd hear anyway, I've got ears. There was this village in France, we went through a day after another Allied troop. I saw the face of this girl, when we arrived...” Steve stops, swallows water. “War makes some men into animals. Changes them in ways you can't expect. This... this wasn't like that.”

“No.” Tony eats another truffle, dips his hand into the box for more. “But it's just as ugly, just as horrific. You look at the worst sins of humanity, and it's like holding up a dark mirror, showing you the potential for evil in yourself. I used to make weapons,” Tony says, and for a moment he's back in the desert, bleeding out through an armoured vest into the dust, “and I didn't know what that meant until I saw it in person, until I met people who were killed by them in front of me. I've got things I can't atone for, no matter how hard I try. But this isn't your sin, Cap, no matter what you saw in the war. It isn't your burden to take.”

“I had to stop, a few times,” Steve admits, “but I watched it all.”

“You didn't have to do that,” Tony says.

Steve shakes his head a little, still staring straight forward. “I felt like I had to. It wasn't about me. It's bigger than that. I knew that, long before the end; that I had to witness it.” His voice is shaky, like he's just holding on to his composure.

“Punishing yourself doesn't make you a better person. Believe me, I've tried,” Tony says.

“But how can I say I fight for every American, if I don't even know what that means?” Steve asks, and Tony really doesn't have an answer for that. He steals a truffle or two, then slips the hand closest to Steve into one of Steve's own, and squeezes gently.

“I'm not saying you should shut your eyes to bad things that happen in this world. But you're allowed to protect yourself,” Tony says.

Steve lets his eyes slide closed and exhales deeply, like he's bone tired.

They sit there for the better part of an hour. They don't talk much, but Steve's head ends up on Tony's shoulder, and he doesn't let go of Tony's hand.

*

“I want a party,” Tony begins, without so much as a hello. He's not even really looking at the video call – he's twiddling with design for Hulk's panties instead. The test run on the proving ground had been a roaring success; the fabric had held up beautifully, and shrunk back down without visible tensile exhaustion when Hulk had smashed enough to satisfy himself. What had given in places were the seams, so Tony's designing a circular loom that can work the fibre in the round rather than flat. When it's built, Bruce will have the smoothest and stretchiest seamless modesty garment ever created, based on his own exact measurements.

“It's not your birthday for another five months,” Pepper says.

“In just under a week it'll have been a month since this happened,” Tony says, gesturing at himself. “I deserve a party.”

“We literally just finished the restoration work on the Tower-”

“I know, it looks great in here. You can barely see where all the holes in the floor were.”

“- and I'm not sure that that kind of expense is the right sort of message to be sending out when the city is still rebuilding-”

“Not that kind of party, Jesus, Pep. Just some food, some booze, maybe karaoke-”

“- plus, we haven't really gone public on your current condition, and that's going to make the invite list difficult-”

“No list, Pepper. Just you, and me, and Rhodey, and the team, and maybe a handful of the Men in Black. I promise. Just a small private party so we can let our hair down. No invite list, no press, no dress code. Oooh, unless we make it a slumber party. Everyone in pyjamas. Though that'll be awkward for Coulson, because I'm pretty sure all his pyjamas have Captain America on them. And I think Thor sleeps in the buff, so we might have to at least make him put on a robe.”

“No pyjamas.”

“Wow, ever better,” Tony smirks. “Good thing it's summer, or we might get cold on the balcony. It's breezy out there.”

“No slumber party,” Pepper says firmly, but he can see the smile dancing around the edges of her mouth.

“I know you're just saying that to dash my hopes of seeing you and Natasha having a pillow fight. I will pay you both money to see that.”

“Maybe I should ask her what she thinks about that,” Pepper says, like she's pondering it.

“Please don't. In fact, forget I ever said that. I value my limbs,” Tony says quickly. “You should value my limbs, too, I'm technically your employer. Do you think Fury has pyjamas? I think they're leather.”

“I think you're thinking too much about it. What's this about a new charity?” Pepper holds up a print-out in front of the camera.

“It's Steve's idea. Well, I say that, I mentioned the possibility of it, and his face lit up like I'd offered him a puppy of his very own. Could you say no to that face? I couldn't. You dash Captain America's hopes and dreams, and the terrorists have already won.”

“I don't know that the Board-”

“Screw the Board. This is a personal thing, not a Stark Industries thing. I'm a billionaire, and Steve's got seventy years worth of back pay, and he doesn't want to spend it on caviar and fast cars like a normal person. There are whole trading communities that have evolved online for guys to pass on their old binders to other guys that need them, because they can't afford to buy them, and that pisses me off. They're a fucking necessity.

“And Steve, he had a rude introduction to transgender issues the other day, blame Netflix, not me, I had nothing to do with it.” Tony waggles a finger in the direction of the feed, to emphasise his innocence, though he probably doesn't so much as dent Pepper's suspicion that he's traumatising a national icon. “He did some poking around online after and got het up and annoyed about the red tape and expenses for gender affirmation surgery. He's been Captain Bitchy ever since; all 'this is an injustice' and 'we have a duty to do something'. It's beautiful. The GOP should totally get him on board promoting health care reform; all those entitled assholes would end up opening their wallets to pay for it themselves. So, do I get my party?”

“Fine, yes. You can have a party.”

Yes,” Tony says, reaching out a fist for Dummy to bump.

“No suits; I remember That Birthday Party-”

“I thought we agreed never to bring that up again. I was dying, I was distraught.”

“No strippers-”

“Spoilsport.”

“No nudity whatsoever.”

“Fine. Are you going to come?”

“Yes, I'll come. Will that be all, Mr Stark?” she asks, but it's teasing, rather than strictly formal.

“That will be all, Miss Potts. Go run my company so I don't have to,” Tony says with a smile and a little wave.

“I always do,” Pepper says, and closes the link.

*

There's some kind of energy monster attacking the electronic billboards in Times Square. Tony braces and digs his heels in for the fight with Steve, and instead gets a cursory, “Suit up, we're moving out in five minutes.”

Tony takes a moment to gape and blink at Steve's retreating back before doing just that.

*

The energy monster is a bastard. Clint and Natasha have to keep their distance because nothing in their standard SHIELD-issue catsuits protects them from electrocution. Steve is similarly hampered and has resorted to throwing the shield a lot from a sheltered position behind a municipal van. His efforts are shepherding the monster from moving out of the square but don't actually appear to do be doing it any damage.

Tony would be running with ideas for armour improvements for the three of them if he wasn't having to spend a worrying amount of his attention focussed on keeping out of the monster's grasp. He'd made upgrades to the suit against electrical attacks after Whiplash, but apparently this thing likes to suck energy like a leech as well as striking out with it, and the first time it grabbed Tony it sapped the suit of about forty percent of its juice. He's fought with far less battery than that; that's not the problem. The problem is that it'd only take a couple more tastes like that before it killed the suit altogether. Then, he'd be literally powerless, unable to move, when the monster switched to draining the reactor protecting his heart, like a vampire. Tony's attached enough to being alive to know when he's outgunned and back off.

Hulk is having a good solid go at smashing it, but even he doesn't seem to be doing much more than distracting it. Every so often he lets out a wounded bellow when he gets zapped particularly hard. His hair's standing on end with the static, but the new pants seem to be staying in place. When Tony's catching his breath, he makes sure to take a picture with the HUD of a slightly pissy-looking student with a smartphone standing a bit too close to the action. He'll think of a witty caption for it when he gets home, then print it out to make Bruce smile. Avengers = 1, Tumblr = 0.

Thor, meanwhile, has been hanging back more than usual, and right now is actually muttering to his hammer under his breath in a sing-song rhythm, almost like he's chanting. It's been going on for a long time; Tony's starting to wonder if Thor is actually doing anything, or if he's just having some crisis of Hammer-confidence. It's startling, then, when he moves into action almost in a blur, superhumanly fast, and grabs the energy monster round what might be its throat, if it even has one. There's some kind of backwards explosion, which doesn't even make sense, and what feels like only a moment later, Steve is peering down at Tony, tapping on the face plate.

Tony opens it up. “I'm okay,” he says.

“Power at thirty percent,” the HUD intones.

“Shut up,” Tony replies. “Not you,” he says to Steve.

Steve holds out his hand and pulls Tony to his feet, which is always kind of impressive and frightening, given what the suit weighs even without him inside it.

Across the square, there's no sign of the monster. Hulk reaches out to crumple a drunkenly-leaning street sign, and yelps a bit when the static build-up in his body discharges with a flick of light and an audible snapping sound.

Thor is standing in the centre of a recognisable blast pattern, visibly glowing slightly like he's lit from within. Tony's sure his eyes have never been so incandescently blue, and when he gets a little closer there's a faint, almost inaudible hum that Tony can feel in his back teeth, like he's standing under high voltage power lines.

“I negotiated with Mjolnir, and convinced it to temporarily conduct energy in an inward rather than an outward direction,” Thor explains.

Tony bursts out laughing. “You're telling me that you literally reversed the polarity of the neutron flow.”

Though he hears a little huff of mirth from Coulson through the comm channel, Tony is otherwise surrounded by a sea of blank faces.

“Oh, come on, even Bruce would have known that one,” Tony bemoans. Unfortunately, Hulk is sitting on the curb, sucking on his stung fingers and casually vandalising a parking meter with the other hand. “So going on the list.”

Thor smiles sunnily, then slaps a broad hand on the shoulder of the suit. “I look forward to viewing this tale of the mastery of thunder from your world's legends,” he declares.

“Charging,” the HUD informs Tony.

*

“I thought I'd miss my penis more,” Tony says bluntly.

“Are we really talking about this?” Rhodey asks, looking uncomfortable. He takes a large swallow of whatever's in his hand. Tony can't quite remember what's in it; he thinks it might be some kind of fruit-flavoured-tini thing. It's got a little plastic monkey hanging from the side.

“Uh huh,” Tony says, mixing up something new and bright pink. It's got pomegranate and coconut rum in it and a few other things. It looks like an accident but it tastes pretty good, so he beckons Steve over and presses it into his hand. Steve can't get drunk, but his experiences involving alcohol were pretty limited before the serum, so Tony is using his mixology skills to make all of the most ridiculous cocktails he's ever heard of, plus a few that he's not sure have been invented before. He's not really making drinks for himself, but his taste-testing is getting him there, sip by fruity sip. Because of that, it's probably the most protracted time from sober to drunk that he's had at a party that he can remember.

Cap salutes him with the glass, then shuffles back to playing darts with Natasha and Clint. (Clint is playing blindfolded. Natasha is taking her shots hanging upside down from Clint's shoulders.)

“But seriously,” Tony continues. “Everyone goes on about dick; men talk it up and guard it like it's more important than any other limb. Psychiatry argues that women want one of their own, whether they know it or not. We wave it around like it's what makes us real men, but it's total BS. I'm just as comfortable right now with a pair of socks down my pants as I was with my majestic eight and a half inches.”

Rhodey seems unconvinced. “Whatever you say, man.”

“You think I'm shitting you, but I'm not. I mean, mechanically, right now, I can still get off; I tested it. I had to. I mean what kind of a scientist would I be if I didn't? And multiple orgasms are awesome; I totally agree that women get the good side of the deal with that. But, you know, sitting down to pee is fine. I miss being able to just shake and walk away, but that's what the paper's for, right?”

“I can never unhear that,” Rhodey bitches.

“Hey, I've got boobs right now, I'm officially genetically programmed to talk about all this shit. We've got, like, nearly thirty years of over-sharing to catch up on.”

“Can't you wait until I'm more drunk?”

“Nope. Awkward confessions now, Dance Dance Revolution later.”

“Noooo,” Rhodey moans, burying his face in his hands.

“Don't be like that, honey bear. You'll love it. With Thor and Clint, it's like a full-contact sport; it's hilarious. Last time, we broke about three pieces of furniture and someone went through a wall. That's when we made the 'No Mjolnir' rule.”

“I hate you,” Rhodey groans from behind his hands.

“That hurts me, sweetie, right here,” Tony says, pressing a hand over the arc reactor. “Here, drink up.” He passes over an immaculately measured Fruit Tingle.

“It's blue,” Rhodey says, looking at Tony like that's a deal breaker.

“It's purple, it's delicious. Don't be such a spoilsport. What, am I supposed to be just making Long Island Iced Teas and G&Ts all night? I'd get bored.”

“I don't drink blue.”

Tony rolls his eyes. “Fine, be that way.”

Clint chooses that moment to rock up for a refill. “Oooh! Blue!” he exclaims.

“All yours, William Tell,” Tony says, mixing up an ironic Cosmopolitan for Rhodey instead.

*

Natasha is disgustingly on the ball for someone who drank about a vat of spirits last night. She's not giving him an inch of leeway, and Tony's gasping into the mat again, when he'd only just got back up on his feet.

“If I say you're the best, can I just lie here a while?” Tony asks, pathetically.

“Are you dying?” Natasha asks.

“Debatable,” Tony replies, “but really, I'm more worried that I'm going to ralph all over your feet next time you flip me like that.”

Natasha's nose wrinkles. She doesn't start going any easier on him, but she doesn't flip him again.

*

“Hah!” Tony says loudly, pointing a finger with glee.

Coulson goes a little paler. He's wearing sunglasses, indoors, and even for him that's a little too much of a caricature to be anything but a necessity.

“You're hungover,” Tony singsongs.

“I blame the bartender,” Coulson says. “Also, I doubt I'm alone.”

Tony flaps a hand. “I had a Bloody Mary for breakfast, after I let Natasha kick the crap out of me for an hour. That's pretty much situation normal.”

“You're like a yardstick of inappropriate life choices. If my head didn't hurt so much, I'd be feeling superior right about now,” Coulson gripes, and that's a serious crack in the bland, unflappable armour he wears by habit. Tony takes a little sympathy on him and lowers the lights by about twenty percent.

Coulson smiles a little, like he's grateful, then says, “We might have a lead.”

Tony actually drops what he's holding; it clatters on the desk and then the floor, but he doesn't think it's broken. Whatever it is.

“Don't get too excited,” Coulson warns. “This isn't a 'wheels up in ten' situation, it's just a connection, but I think it's a solid one.”

Tony makes sure to sit down, anyway. “I'm listening.”

“That incident in Times Square. The field the hostile generated; the signatures are a match to whatever messed with the cameras when you got mugged.”

“Nuh uh. I know I got knocked out and all, but I think I would have noticed an energy monster the size of a Hummer. I told you, it was some kid with a glowing purple gun.”

Coulson's smile, that smug one he pulls out when he knows something other people don't (which, let's face it, is pretty much always) is on his face. “Oh, Times Square was bigger, much bigger. But it's the same signature, in a city full of millions of electro-magnetic signals. And it leaves a residue.”

Tony catches up. Last night really did do a number on him, apparently. “Oh. Oh, right.”

“We're thinking that between SHIELD, Doctor Banner, and yourself, we'll have a trail to follow within the next twelve hours. At the very least, it'll give us a list of names to chase up.”

Tony's kind of glad he's sitting down. “Good. That's really good.”

“It's a start,” Coulson says, with a little shrug. Then he jumps when Dummy nudges him, a smoothie clutched in his claw.

Tony lets a laugh bubble up out of his mouth. “Drink it, Coulson. You look like shit.”

“I'm not the one with ink on my cheek, motor oil in my hair, and a black eye.”

“I can shower. And Clint uses his elbows far more than is normally allowed by the rules of fair play.”

“Clint was limping this morning,” Coulson observes, before taking a mouthful of green gloop. He grimaces.

“He had his foot in my way.”

“You are not well people,” Coulson declares.

“Hush, Agent Fanboy, no throwing stones,” Tony says, smirking. “Hey, I've seen you in casual clothing, now. I mean, it was a polo neck and I think you'd starched and ironed it, which is weird, but I had honestly started to wonder if you slept in the suit.”

“It'd get creased,” Coulson replies.

Tony smirks. “And for someone who seems determined to go through life with a stick up his ass, you have some moves.”

“I'm a person of many layers. Also, I'm never drinking with you again,” Coulson says, finishing his smoothie with an expression of determination, like it's medicine.

“Your loss,” Tony replies, with a cheeky grin.

*

For all that he was able to shrug it off and tease Coulson, the possibility, the promise, of the lead nags at him, itches and itches until it's all he can think about. JARVIS is hooked into all kinds of weather stations and satellites and cell phone towers, and he's scanning and compiling as fast as he can while being scrupulously thorough, but Tony can't stand still. He knows that SHIELD are doing the same kind of thing with their (vastly inferior) tech, and Bruce is being clever up in his own lab, modifying some sort of antenna that'll be more sensitive and pick up the little pings they miss on the big sweep, but it just doesn't feel like enough. Coulson had said twelve hours but it had been three days since then, and they were still scanning, still crunching numbers, still working algorithms to try and map things out.

He'd take the suit out, let off some steam, but then he might not be close enough when (if) they find something. He'd open the liquor cabinet, but then he might (will) be drunk when (if) they find something. He'd go up to the gym and get Natasha to smack him around a bit, but she's off doing mysterious SHIELD things. He'd go up to the living room, but he's so on edge he's liable to start a fight just to relieve the tension and give himself something predictable to do, and that is not best-practice for achieving share-house harmony.

He nearly walks into Steve, because that man is like a cat, and Tony's just pacing frenetically and not really watching where he's going.

“Easy,” Steve says, catching Tony when he stumbles back. He's got his hands right around Tony's upper arms. Though Tony still has nice biceps in this body, Steve's hands are freakishly huge. Tony suspects Steve's thumb and fingertips are touching, and that bothers him enormously. He knows he's not a big guy, in either body, but he doesn't like feeling delicate. Steve's like a mountain of muscle, and even without the Super Soldier strength, he could probably just swat Tony like a fly. He doesn't think he's ever been as aware of that as he is, right in this moment.

“Easy,” Steve repeats, and folds Tony into a hug. Tony's so startled, he just stands still and allows it.

Steve is warm and solid and hugs like he's got a degree in Awesome Comforting Hugs. Tony gradually relaxes, just a fraction, lets his forehead drop to Steve's shoulder. Steve strokes from between his shoulder blades up to the nape of his neck, over and over again. It's hypnotic, and, weirdly, not at all sexual. Tony loses track of time a little, and when he comes back to himself, he's got his hands on Steve's hips like that's the only thing keeping him upright.

“Um,” he says, because his brain seems to have checked out.

“Pepper said you'd be freaking out,” Steve murmurs into Tony's hair.

“Look at you talking like the young kids these days. Well, the young kids fifty years ago, but it's still part of contemporary slang, so it totally counts,” Tony replies, his voice coming out oddly hushed. The music's off and the bots are in their charging stations, so the only sounds are the hum of electrical devices and them; their clothes, their breath, Steve's hand moving slowly against cloth, against Tony's skin, and back over cloth again.

“I'm cool; I'm down with it,” Steve says, and Tony can hear the self-mocking smile, can't help but snort.

“That's it, you're officially banned from playing with Clint, he's a terrible influence.”

Steve laughs aloud and squeezes him a little closer. Tony's suddenly very conscious of the fact that he's not wearing the binder right now; that his chest is all crushed up against Steve's in a weird, squishy way.

“You've been awake for about seventy hours,” Steve says, his voice a gentle reprimand.

It's closer to eighty, but Tony isn't going to correct him. “So?”

“So, you need to sleep,” Steve says, like Tony's trailing behind him in comprehension. Maybe Tony would be, if he was a normal person who kept normal hours that weren't dictated by science, his enormous intellect, and a steady flow of espresso.

“Can't do that. I need to be ready,” Tony says, and that's that, as far as he's concerned. If Pepper hasn't yet been able to guilt him into regular sleep, then Steve doesn't stand a chance. Those weapons-grade puppy eyes Steve deploys don't tend to make him feel like behaving himself - quite the reverse.

Steve's hand tickles slightly up into Tony's hair, his nails lightly scratching, and that's wrong, that's good, Tony's always had a bit of an erogenous zone there. Somehow, with that touch, they've jumped the rails from friendly embrace to intimate, at least, from Tony's point of view, and Tony doesn't know what to do with that, how to deal with the fact that he can feel his nipples tightening, oh shit. He doesn't know how to back out quickly without showing Steve how spooked he is, how wrong his body feels, how betrayed he feels by it. Steve doesn't know what he's done, and Tony doesn't want to hurt his feelings. It's not Steve's fault that he's inadvertently bumping into a whole bunch of Tony's new and previously unrecognised do not want limits.

“Did you bring me dinner?” he finds himself blurting out, because underneath the clean-skin scent of American hero, he can smell some kind of food stuff that's not smoothie or scotch-on-the-rocks.

Steve, mercifully, untangles them from their (increasingly inappropriate) embrace, and picks up something in a cardboard box from the nearest surface. “Dessert, actually. Pepper said it was your favourite.”

It's a slice of pie, full of berry fruits, sitting in a puddle of its own juices and semi-melted ice cream. There's some disposable cutlery tucked in with it.

Tony doesn't feel hungry, but his stomach rumbles loudly, so he picks up the fork and starts to demolish it without any further prodding needed on Steve's part. It is, genuinely, very good pie.

Steve raids Tony's fridge, sits a bottle of water at his elbow. Tony cracks it and drinks deeply, and realises that he doesn't remember when he last ate or drank, or even if he had at all since the hair-of-the-dog the morning after the party.

Still, skimping on sustenance shouldn't have made him this tired, so suddenly.

“You bastard,” he slurs, when he drops his fork.

Tony pushes himself to his feet, gripping the edge of the bench hard when his knees wobble.

“...sneaky, trusted you, and you were just... manipulating me into eating your... your Trojan pie.”

Tony falls, just a little bit, because Steve catches him before he falls all the way with his stupidly big hands, and gathers him in.

Off!” Tony bellows, slapping ineffectively at any bits of Steve he can reach. “No more hugs for you.”

“I'm not going to let you just sleep on the floor, Tony,” Steve says gently. Tony can feel the buzz of his words through his cheek, where it's resting on Steve's chest. There's a great, swooping shift in gravity, and Tony's body's all confused about which way is up until he realises that the firm line behind his knees is Steve's other arm. That means that Steve is effortlessly carrying him out of the workshop and into the elevator like a child. It automatically ranks pretty highly on the list of embarrassing and invasive things to have happened to him this month.

“...hate you now. When'd you get so mean...” Tony mumbles, whapping Steve once again, clumsily, with the heel of his hand.

“I've been playing with bad influences,” Steve says.

It's the last thing Tony's really aware of; everything sort of descends into a disorienting fuzz. He feels the rhythm of Steve walking, hears a low rumble of voices. He's gently shifted onto something horizontal and squishy; someone slides a pillow under his head and covers him with a blanket.

Sweet dreams, he thinks he hears someone say, but he's too far gone by that point to know what's real, and what is a phantom, conjured by his sleeping mind.

*

Bright is his first thought. So thirsty his second.

“This isn't my bed,” is his third. He's stretched out on the sofa in the main living area. He's drooled a bit on the cushion that his face had been mashed into a second ago. The mid-morning sun is streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Bruce is sprawled on a floor cushion a couple of feet away, poking at a tablet computer. His hair is a riotous nest of curls, and he's wearing pyjamas.

“You went down pretty fast,” Bruce says. “We weren't sure if we'd misjudged the dosage. We've been watching you in shifts, making sure you kept breathing.”

“What's all this 'we'? This is a conspiracy, now? You're ganging up on me, for the greater good?”

“We're a team, that's what this means. When one of us is doing something stupid, we act,” Bruce says, and Tony knows those aren't his words; that he's parroting their fearless leader.

“That's nice, really nice sentiment. Teamwork, Rohypnol and the American Way. It's catchy; someone should write a jingle.”

Tony sits up and his head whirls. His stomach churns in sympathy. He swallows hard.

“Where's Steve?” he asks.

“He took first shift. He thought you wouldn't want him here when you woke.”

“Well, he thought wrong,” Tony says, and embraces his anger, lets it fill him up.

“It wasn't his idea,” Bruce says.

Tony's heard enough. He doesn't care whose idea it was; he just wants to drink about a gallon of water and punch the shit out of somebody, and he can't achieve either of those sitting here. Bruce is still talking but Tony's tuned him out and is walking under his own steam to the elevator, a hand trailing the wall to assist his shaky balance. He's still wearing all his clothing, thank God, nothing's been removed or unbuttoned, but he still feels like burying himself in that enormous shirt of Thor's, and maybe a parka or three.

The suit, he needs the suit, right now.

“He said if you blamed anyone for this, it should be him, but I don't think you should,” Bruce calls after him, and it penetrates.

Tony lets the PR walls slam down, and laughs, mirthlessly. “You know, what's funny about all this? It's that any of you think that you have a right to dictate what I think or what I do,” Tony says, and the elevator doors close between him and Bruce's stricken face.

*

“Sir, there is a call for you from Miss Potts on line three.”

“I'm not available,” Tony replies. “I'm not available for anyone. Just keep kicking everything to voicemail.”

“Director Fury is still on hold on line two.”

“Yeah, let him sweat. I've got a bet going with myself about how long he can stand the hold music before he hangs up on his own.”

“Very well, sir,” says JARVIS.

The Malibu house is like a show home. It's clean and full of furniture, but nearly all of his most comfortable things, his favourite cars, and his most used tools are in New York. His three main bots are all in the Avengers Tower workshop, so there's nothing to make him eat or to break things but himself.

What it has going in its favour is that it's familiar, it's secure, and it doesn't have anyone in it who has ever drugged him into insensibility. Apart from himself, of course, but right now, he's the only person he trusts, so that's okay.

It's been a week. A week that started out with him being so mad he could spit, but then, that fell away abruptly, and he's been left by the tide of his rage in an empty house, with nothing but JARVIS and his tools for company. It's like his life after Pepper became CEO, minus the dying and the self-destructive behaviour. He hadn't fled without thought, but he didn't wait for the jet or drive a car away, either. He'd brought nothing with him but the essentials that he could fit in the suit – a binder, and his prescription for the pill. He doesn't know his social security number, and he still can't make an omelette, but he can call for food delivery, and send his clothes out for dry-cleaning when his closet starts to look a bit bare. It's practically self-sufficiency.

“Perimeter br-” JARVIS breaks off abruptly, and the lights dim for a moment as they switch to backup power. Tony grabs the suitcase armour, activates it, and is turning to fly out to find whichever bastard is attacking him now, when Natasha steps out of the shadows.

“Just me,” she says, holding up her hands, showing that they're empty.

It's not like Natasha's ever actually unarmed, but Tony appreciates the gesture. He raises the face plate.

“I thought I fixed that loophole,” Tony says. In fact, he's certain he did. “Fury got sick of The Piña Colada Song, huh?”

“Something like that,” she says.

“You here for the welfare check?” He deactivates the suit, snaps the Case shut and stashes it again. Then he does a little turn on the spot. “As you can see, I'm alive, I'm sober, I'm in my right mind, and I showered this morning. I got six hours' sleep last night, which is a lot for me. I ate at least two vegetables at dinner, I've been keeping up with my prototype development work for Stark Industries, and I've left my Batphone on, in case of supervillains. Satisfied?”

Natasha doesn't reply, but Tony's used to that. She doesn't talk unless she has something to say, and Tony can talk enough for the pair of them.

“So, you're here to convince me to come back, right? Stop sulking, slink back with my tail between my legs, admit that they were right to do what they did, that I was a danger to myself and others, and wouldn't have listened to anyone who told me 'no'. I say sorry, and they smile, and I tell them I'll be a good boy in the future. I'm the bad guy, Captain America stops crying guilty tears into his oatmeal, and the team wins. Game over.”

“I told them that they were morons, and that they should have known better.”

Tony stops moving for a beat, rolls that sentence around in his mind, feels out the edges of it.

“I told them that you'd had patterns of this behaviour before, that they're well-documented in your file, and that most of the time it hasn't resulted in serious injury or property damage.” Natasha moves closer, hops up on a stool, folding one leg over the other neatly. “Also, if they'd waited another day, I could have drugged you myself and we wouldn't have ended up in this situation.”

“You sure about that?” Tony asks, because it seems a bit of an assumption.

“Yes. When we first met, I spent a significant amount of time in your life under an alias. I lied to your face, every day, and then, within a minute of you finding out my true objective, I injected you with an unknown chemical without prior consent or warning. You still trust me; as much as you trust anyone on the team.”

“You may have a point,” Tony concedes.

“Also, I'm a woman,” Natasha says. “I'm less of a threat.”

“You terrify me and hurt me on a regular basis. There is nothing not threatening about you, and that includes that ridiculous trick with the bottle that you did at the party.”

“Whatever you are inside, right now, you're living in a woman's body, and you're hyper-aware of the physical differences and limitations of that body,” Natasha says bluntly. “A man you're friends with, that you trusted, drugged that body. He then carried it from the place you feel safest to another area, where he and a handful of other men watched you sleep for sixteen hours.”

Tony swallows. “Well, when you put it like that,” he says.

“You did exactly what your brain told you that you needed to do to feel safe again. You didn't hurt anyone, including yourself. You didn't go out of your way to sow discord in the team or single anyone out. You just took the suit and came here, your old sanctuary.”

She gestures with a hand at the workshop, and she's right, and he feels it down to his bones in some kind of profound way that he's never going to be able to forget; the certainty of it. And she's holding his gaze, firm and resolute, like she's making sure he understands before she continues.

“You don't have to apologise for anything,” Natasha says.

Tony's breath leaves him in a rush, like he's been holding it for eight days.

“Drink?” he offers, after he's regained some of his composure.

Natasha smiles. “Please.”

*

“Oh, we found something, by the way,” Natasha says, casually, when Tony's well over the 'flying the suit' limit.

“You bitch,” he says, stunned and hurt, pushing to stand. “How am I supposed to... I have to go...

Natasha grabs his arm and yanks him back down to sitting.

“It'll still be there in the morning. This was more important. Drink up,” she says, tapping the rim of Tony's shot glass with a fingertip. Tony's well into the suggestible stage, so he does, grimacing.

“More important, my ass. I need new friends,” Tony grumbles.

“No, you don't. You need to catch up,” Natasha says, pouring more.

“How is getting me disgustingly drunk more important?”

Natasha shrugs. “I figure, this way, you'll be so hungover when I pour you into your jet to go home, you won't have the brainpower to stress about walking back into the Tower. You'll just be overwhelmingly grateful to the first person who brings you an Advil and a cold compress.”

Tony drinks his shot and tries to think through the logic of that. “You're terrifying.”

“You're still behind,” Natasha says, and Tony kind of wishes that at some time in his misspent youth he'd learned to back down from a challenge.

*

Tony spends most of the flight home wanting to die. Natasha keeps handing him bottles of water, and grabs him a sick bag once, when he didn't think he could navigate the walkway to the toilet. She doesn't hold his hand or try to make him feel better, but she also doesn't mock him for being so ill.

Coulson is another matter.

“You're hungover,” he sings under his breath, when he meets Tony on the runway. Natasha had vanished immediately upon landing, in that sneaky-ninja-like way that made Tony suspect her of having supernatural powers, or some kind of teleportation device.

“I hate everything,” Tony mutters from behind his sunglasses. “Especially vodka.”

“Serves you right for trying to out-drink a Russian,” Coulson says unsympathetically.

“I swear, she's not human,” Tony moans.

“Oh, she is, more or less,” Coulson smiles. “She does, however, have fantastic sleight-of-hand.”

“Great,” Tony bitches, “that's just great. Can we get to the point, before I fall over? I have a date with my bed and about eighteen hours of sleep interspersed with self-pity.”

Coulson holds out a file. Tony opens it, blinks at the mugshot inside. “That's... that's not a guy. What- Oh, seriously?”

“Grabbed the gun when we raided the place, but it misfired when he picked it up,” Coulson confirms. Smug doesn't even begin to describe his smile.

“What an asshole,” Tony says.

“He woke up yesterday, and I can state for a fact that he's a lot whinier than you were. You're miles ahead on dignity, which I think might be a first for you.”

“You're a cruel man; you're being mean and complimentary at the same time while I'm mentally incompetent. You're taking the worst kind of advantage of me in my weakened state.”

“You know what they say, never miss an opportunity. Our tech and magic divisions are brainstorming; they're going to study the gun, work out if it's possible to reverse its effects, or if they'll need to build a device to do that. It might take a while, but I think you'd agree that it's better for them to do this by the book rather than rushing.”

Tony's never been one for patience at the best of times, but magic. Just the lack of predictable cause and effect alone is enough to make his skin crawl.

“Of course, catching the guy, rather than just recovering the weapon does give us one very big bonus,” Coulson continues.

“What's that? Is he talking?”

“Not so much, unless complaining eighteen hours a day is counted as a bonus. No, what we have is a test subject. We've got someone we can try a reversal device on who isn't an important member of our team of superheroes.”

“That's incredibly flattering and chilling at the same time. I don't know whether to hide from you or bat my eyelashes.”

“Let's face it, nobody likes a whiner.”

*

Tony doesn't see anyone when he gets to the Tower. He makes no effort to sneak in or anything; just strolls in like he owns the place (after all, he does) and takes the elevator up to his personal floor.

He strips off, one item of clothing at a time, dropping everything on the floor and letting it lie. The binder comes off last, and the release from constriction is a relief that almost tempers the oh God, breasts why that's never lessened or gotten any easier to deal with since this whole mess started. He holds an arm across his chest, pressing them flat and obscuring them from his peripheral vision, while he shuffles to the bed, peels back the sheets and climbs in.

He's worried that he might stay awake, chewing the developments over in his mind, but sleep comes mercifully easily.

*

I want quesadillas.

There's a long pause, maybe about three minutes, before Bruce replies.

There's this new invention called manners.

Tony laughs at that; at least Bruce won't be tiptoeing around him.

Proper corn tortillas, none of that wheat flour shit. Chicken. Squash blossoms, too, I know you like those, don't fight it.

Another delay, Bruce is thinking hard about what to say this time. Tony knows he's being difficult, but he doesn't really care. If Bruce didn't want Tony imperiously demanding fantastic ethnic food with quirky ingredients, he shouldn't have started cooking it for him in the first place.

What makes you think I have half a day to spare to shop and cook?

I haven't eaten anything but delivered food and coffee in nine days, Tony replies, and that's enough, he knows it, because if Bruce shrinks from anything, these days, it's the idea of a diet full of nothing but sodium, MSG and processed sugars.

You're a statistic waiting to happen, Bruce replies.

*

“Captain Rogers is outside, sir,” JARVIS informs Tony an hour or so later.

“Since when does he knock?” Tony asks, poking inside the armour boot he's working on. Maybe he's crazy, but he's thinking some kind of retractable blade or wheels would be awesome, so that he can skate places rather than run if he's on a smooth surface like a highway, or on ice. But maybe he's just watched Airborne one too many times, or had so many little shits wearing Heelys glide past him during that craze a few years ago that he's been brainwashed into thinking why don't I have that; who knows. “Let him in.”

Steve strides into the workshop, carriage erect and parade perfect, face grimly determined, like he's reporting for his own execution.

“Your code still works, you know,” Tony says, because something about Steve waiting outside on the doorstep like an uncertain suitor rather than just strolling in like he always does really annoys him.

“It does?” Steve asks, like he's not sure if Tony's being serious.

“Sure. Why not?”

“But...”

“Look, do you want to do this? Be guilty and self-flagelating, grovel for forgiveness? Because, honestly, it's boring. I mean, you've obviously got some kind of kink for humiliation or masochism or something, but that aside, do you really want to spend the next however long hating yourself?”

Steve blinks, confused and stunned and a bit lost. “I'm... not really sure what any of that means,” he says finally, but the pinking tips of his ears tell a different story. “Don't you want me to apologise?”

“Not really,” Tony says, and he's being completely truthful. “You made a call, you made the wrong call, and that bites. As a master of poor life-choices and decision-making, your error doesn't even rank in the top hundred of mine. I mean, you didn't even draw on my face, or put my hand in a jug of warm water.”

“Why would I do that?” Steve asks, baffled.

“Because it's cruel. And you're not cruel. You don't do things because they're hurtful. You don't even do it when there's playfulness behind it. You're confused by my sarcastic conversations with Bruce. You watch the prank war between Clint and the rest of us but you don't participate, even if you laugh at us sometimes. You've got some pretty clearly defined boundaries in your head, and you don't step over them.”

“I do sometimes,” Steve corrects.

“You do in battle. Not at home. Not with me.”

“No,” Steve finally agrees, and he looks like there's a storm going on inside his head that he's only just weathering.

“Movie night tonight. My turn to choose,” Tony says, even though it isn't, but he's totally calling it anyway. He's not letting the emotional leverage he holds go completely to waste. “See you there.”

Tony turns away from Steve, back to the boot, grabs his soldering iron and picks up where he left off.

Steve hovers for a minute or so behind him, before Tony hears his carefully-audible footsteps move away and leave the workshop, the door shutting behind him.

*

Tony goes upstairs early, with the express purpose of hanging around the kitchen to annoy Bruce. Providing he doesn't actually interfere with the cooking process, Bruce tolerates his intrusion pretty well. He even gives Tony some vegetables to chop.

“So long as you don't lose a finger, you can't really mess it up. It just has to be in bits about so-big,” Bruce says, holding up thumb and finger about half an inch apart.

“I can see why they pay you the big science-bucks,” Tony says.

“They don't,” Bruce replies. “Something about being chased by the Army for about eight years makes it difficult to get tenure.”

“I suppose I'll have to be greedy and keep you all to myself for a bit longer, then. I do happen to have better toys; that's not bragging, that's just the truth. Did I ever tell you about the particle accelerator I built from junk in my workshop in Malibu? Good times.”

“You're like the beginning of some horrific cautionary tale in a Health and Safety seminar,” Bruce says, but he's smiling.

“You love it,” Tony says, grinning big. “You'd be bored without the occasional evacuation to a safe distance.”

“I could do with it being less often than once a month,” Bruce says with a grimace.

“Oooh, is this the bribery section of the operant conditioning approach? Do I get cookies, too?”

“No, I think you're beyond help,” Bruce declares, but his smile is fond and he's cooking the chicken for the quesadilla filling just the way he knows Tony likes, so Tony thinks they're okay.

*

“Dig in or miss out, people,” Tony hollers, and the rest of the team ambles in to grab themselves a serving of dinner. Thor and Steve have a whole platter to themselves.

Tony takes his time; washing his hands, drying them, pouring a glass of juice for himself. He strolls out to the living area when everyone else is just about settled, and very deliberately sits right next to Steve.

Tony had determined that he wanted a stupid move to watch, but one that wasn't too stupid to be watchable, so he'd gone for Robin Hood: Men In Tights. Thor's laugh is soon booming out through the room between bites, and Clint's ridiculous giggle isn't far behind it.

Steve is awkward and stiff next to Tony for a long time, but gradually, he starts to unwind. There's a blush across the tops of his cheeks that he always gets when he watches comedy that's a bit blue, but he starts to eat his pile of quesadillas, and he even chokes out a little embarrassed laugh now and again, often when the slapstick is at its broadest.

About an hour in, Tony feels the inadvisable drinking session with Natasha, the red-eye flight, and the weird, through-the-day sleep catch up to him. He puts his empty plate on the coffee table, slumps back deep into the sofa and yawns.

And it might not be the right thing to do, but Steve's just right there, and he's warm and he smells good and he's comfortable, and Tony is bad at resisting the things he wants, so he gives in and leans up against Steve, resting his head on Steve's shoulder.

“Okay?” he asks quietly, when Steve freezes up.

“Yeah, okay,” Steve sighs, and relaxes, and that's that.

*

“You were a little light on the details, Agent,” Tony says. He's got Coulson on speaker, but he's focussed fairly heavily on the armour boots, which are nearly ready for testing. Dummy is whirling around the workshop excitedly, the fire extinguisher in his claw. Tony just knows he's going to be washing fire-retardant powder out of his hair later. “How exactly did you find this kid?”

“We followed the energy residue. There were traces concentrated around student accommodation near a city college. We narrowed the radius as much as we could with mapping, then took Doctor Banner's antenna for a little drive and narrowed it even further. After that, it was just a matter of some old-fashioned recon and a heavily armoured SWAT team.”

Tony pokes a relay, watches the repulsor-blade housing flick out and snap back. He lubricates one joint, tightens another, make sure the whole thing slides like silk. “SWAT team's a little overkill, isn't it?”

“The kid attacked one of the Avengers. Plus, he loosed an energy monster on Manhattan, that's domestic terrorism just to start with. Getting SWAT involved in the take-down was following basic procedure,” Coulson says smoothly.

“Admit it, you just wanted to scare the crap out of him because he eluded you for over a month.”

“I acted with the full support of Director Fury,” Coulson says, and Tony can hear him smiling with satisfaction.

“Oh, I totally believe you, there. He must have been pissed. Has he threatened him with keelhauling, yet? Does that work on a flying aircraft carrier?”

“I think we'd have to be be down at sea level, and moving,” Coulson says, as if he's actually pondering the logistics of it. “Also, lacking a keel, he'd probably just end up in the turbines.”

“Shame,” Tony says, meaning anything but. “So, the energy thing. Connected to the gun?”

“Only through the idiot down in the brig,” Coulson says. “You know how when someone gets hold of a genie or a tinder box or something in fairy tales, they always wish for one of the big three?”

“Sure. Money, sex, or power.”

“Well, this kid found some kind of grimoire that promised power, but he didn't double-check his translation.”

Tony actually stops what he's doing. “This kid wished for power, and conjured a giant sentient ball of electricity?”

“Apparently it started out smaller.”

“Hang on, I thought he wasn't talking,” Tony says.

“He wasn't. I let Natasha take him his dinner last night.”

“Is he still in one piece?”

“Coulson huffs a laugh. “You say that like you think she needs to do major bodily harm to change someone's mind.”

“No, you're right, I forgot who we were talking about. So, ravening energy monsters, cuter when they're little, right? Like tigers.”

“And less hungry. Started out just blowing out his light bulbs. Didn't stay that way. It sucked down so much electricity before it went on its little rampage that by the time we showed up, the kid was facing eviction.”

“So, why the gun? Why me, for that matter? I didn't force him to conjure a really ill-advised pet and ruin his life.”

“The kid had debts, and he didn't want to clear them bussing tables. The gun, it looks like he might have stolen it from one of his occult buddies. Now there's a sketchy crowd. We're keeping a close eye on them from now on. As for you, well, it sounds like you looked rich enough to have a heavy wallet.”

Tony actually splutters. “I was just a mark?” he asks, indignantly. “But I'm world famous. I'm Iron Man. I'm an Avenger! I privatised world peace.

“Well, next time you walk down the street for doughnuts, don't wear thousand-dollar handmade shoes and designer shades, you should be fine.”

Tony's still choking on his pride when Coulson hangs up, having had the last word.

“Don't even think about it, I'm fine, do I look on fire to you?” he manages, when he sees Dummy swivelling towards him, extinguisher poised and ready.

*

“Are you okay?” Steve sounds concerned.

“Totally fine. Repulsor blades, for the record, are awesome.”

“Like, knives? Have you been baking?” Steve reaches out to brush some of the white dust off Tony's shoulder.

“It's from the fire extinguisher.”

Steve's eyebrows shoot up. “You were on fire?

“No,” Tony says quickly.

“This is a scorch mark,” Steve says, fingering Tony's hem.

“Not for long. I barely smouldered. And the test run was great.”

“You're bleeding,” Steve sighs, reaching out a hand to Tony's forehead.

“Ouch, hey, what gives?”

“See?” Steve says, waving a red-stained thumb in Tony's face. “What are you looking for, anyway?”

“Uh,” Tony says, looking down. He's standing in the open freezer door, holding a microwave dinner and a carton of frozen spinach. “I ran out of ice. I think?”

“Sit,” Steve says, taking the stuff from Tony's hands, manoeuvring him gently to a kitchen chair, then moving off with purpose to gather things like a wash cloth, disinfectant and band aids.

“You'd love the boots now, they're so much fun,” Tony sighs, letting Steve dab at his forehead with a wet cloth to remove the worst of the dirt.

“I thought we were taking about cooking,” Steve replies, perplexed. He catches his lip between his teeth now and again in concentration as he wrestles with cotton balls and antiseptic cream.

“No, no, blades, like ice skates, only with repulsor energy rather than physical runners. They're perfect.”

“You have open wounds,” Steve points out.

Tony flaps an unconcerned hand. “Fine-tuning.”

Steve gets up really close and gazes into Tony's eyes for a minute. “I don't think you're concussed, but you're getting quite a lot of swelling.”

“That's what she said,” Tony cracks, and Steve blushes deep crimson.

“I'll get you that ice,” he murmurs.

“You going to tell me to stop playing because I fell down and done hurt myself?” Tony asks.

Steve comes back with a frosty gel pack. He wraps it in a dish towel, puts it in Tony's hand and guides Tony gently to place it on his head. “Would you listen?”

“Not a chance.”

“Then I'll save my breath,” Steve says with a smile.

*

“Are you busy for the next few days?” Coulson's voice is unconcerned, casual. Tony is instantly suspicious.

“Are you asking what I think you're asking? Because on one hand, fuck, it took you long enough, but on the other, I am seriously pissed at being left out of the loop.”

“Gratitude doesn't even rate?”

“It's coming a distant third. Why didn't you tell me?”

Coulson scoffs. “And have you hovering around all week, making the techs nervous?”

“It's been a week?” Tony fumes.

“We tested it on some roosters on Sunday. Tuesday, I had eggs for breakfast. Wednesday, we turned them back again. I think someone in the science labs wants to keep them; her sister has some kind of ecofarm in Idaho.”

“And Whiny Guy?”

“Woke up yesterday. Still whining, just about different things. I think Fury's debating the merits of taping his mouth closed.”

“Not making him walk the plank?”

“He's booked out on a flight to the mainland; they're going to be putting him in a deep, dark hole for a few years. If we drop him in the ocean first, he'll ruin the upholstery.”

There's a pause, and Tony feels the weight of it fill him up. “When do you want me?” he asks, aiming for casual and falling short.

“If you're ready, a car will be arriving in the next twenty minutes to take you to the airfield.”

“I'm ready,” Tony says, but his throat is dry.

*

Ow,” Tony moans when he starts to wake, and his voice rumbles out of his chest like an idling motor.

“Hey,” says Steve.

“Seriously, ow,” Tony replies. His eyes are open, but they're not properly focussing.

“What hurts?” Steve asks, fiddling with some kind of button to Tony's right.

Everything,” Tony says feelingly.

“It's going to be okay,” Steve says, and he's petting Tony's hair, that's nice. “Pepper says feel better soon; she's stuck in Prague.”

“It worked, right?” Tony manages to ask. “I feel... I hurt, but I feel... like, right?”

“It worked,” Steve says, nodding.

“Good,” Tony replies, and falls back asleep.

*

There's no Steve or Pepper when Tony wakes up and checks out. He fills out about a billion forms, sits through a tedious debrief with Agent Hill, and finally escapes with his girl clothes in a bag and a raging appetite.

It's probably misuse of government resources to make the SHIELD driver detour for doughnuts, but he does it anyway. Tony splits the box with the guy, so if he did get reamed by his superior after, he at least got free baked goods for his trouble.

Tony's just spent two days asleep while his body fixes itself, so he's kind of walking the line between needing more rest and having an over-sleeping hangover. He's never been a guy who needs more than about four hours a night, which is something that made studying in college easier, and meant he was able to party harder and longer than most of the other pretty people. Sometimes, he combined the two.

Right now though, there's an anti-gravity device that's calling to him with a siren's song, and spending about a day and a half poking at something that would be impossible, except it's not, because, science, sounds like exactly the kind of thing he needs to do to clear his head and re-establish his sense of self.

He's maybe four hours in when Steve appears at his shoulder, watching avidly as Tony flicks a switch and levitates a screwdriver.

“Howard was making a flying car back in the forties,” Steve says.

“Completely different; his design used very early repulsor technology, the great grandaddy of what's in the suit. Like how a stick with a burnt end is the antecedent of the fountain pen. This, on the other hand, uses magnetic fields. Things stay up because the force of the magnetism holds them there.”

“Like a bird riding a thermal,” Steve murmurs.

“Not really, but I'd need a day to explain the theory to a novice, so yeah, we'll go with that. What's up? Apart from this,” Tony asks, poking the screwdriver to make it spin.

Steve shrugs.

“You're checking up on me,” Tony sighs.

“I can't just be bored?” Steve asks.

“I hate to disappoint you, but I haven't blown myself up all morning.”

Steve smiles. “Well, you're about due, then.”

“Is Bruce using you as part of his sneaky campaign against things that go boom? Because I'm still demanding cookies, no matter how much you pout.”

Steve pouts ridiculously, and Tony giggles, he can't help it. “No, put that away, that's like a lethal weapon of cute. You're impossible.”

Steve grins, then says, “I'm not here for Bruce.”

“I know that, dumbass. You're here to make sure I'm not sobbing in a corner or something. I'm not. I'm fine. I'm finer than I've been in, like, two months.”

“You look good,” Steve says, kind of shyly, then reaches out a hand to run a thumb across Tony's jawline. “Well, apart from this.”

Tony twitches back a little; it tickles. He takes Steve's enormous hand in his own and tugs it down, giving in to the urge to squeeze it gently before releasing it. “Hey, lay off. I'm letting it lie fallow for a while before I shape it. Iconic sculpted facial hair doesn't happen overnight, you know.”

“Doesn't it itch?”

“Of course it itches. It's like I've got a face full of stinging nettles; it's fantastic.”

“You're a strange man,” Steve says.

“I spent the first half-hour down here shirtless, just because I could. But my nipples got cold, so I had to put my undershirt back on. Hey, I was thinking, at the charity launch, we could auction off my binders. It'd be great.”

“But.. they're, you know, um, underthings,” Steve chokes.

“You've obviously not found the darker side of eBay, yet, my friend. This isn't even close to the first time there's been a bunch of people bidding for something that's been nestled against my privates. Possibly the first time it's been autographed, but maybe not. There are some vaguer moments in my past; I couldn't swear to it.”

“That doesn't bother you?” Steve asks. He looks like the very idea of autographed underwear makes him want to hide under a blanket somewhere.

“Not at all, and this time, the money'll be going to something worthwhile, not just into the bank account of someone I hooked up with while wasted,” Tony says pragmatically.

“That happen often?” Steve asks carefully.

“Not any more,” Tony says, “but the past doesn't just go away, just because you've changed the course you're taking. The tabloids make sure of it.”

“You're a good man,” Steve says.

“I'm getting there,” Tony says, shrugging.

Steve squeezes Tony's shoulder. It's not a hug, but it feels like one, and Tony lets the warmth he feels inside tilt his mouth into a smile.

“Coming to dinner? It's pizzas tonight,” Steve says.

“Sure. I'll be there. Don't start without me,” Tony warns.

“Well, don't be late,” Steve replies, with a cheeky grin.

Tony salutes Steve with two fingers as Steve strolls back to the elevator.

*

When he's alone again, he just takes a moment to breathe, to feel, and to connect with the skin he's in. It feels like coming home.

Then he goes to wash up, because though he loves his house-mates, he doesn't trust them not to steal his pepperoni if he drags his feet.