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Pumping Iron

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Tony’s heart pounds in his chest. He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, smearing the sweat that’s accumulated. He looks around the gym; thankfully, no one’s paying much attention to his pathetic showing.

Though that might just be because there’s no one around to see it. Tony’s gotten into the habit of coming to the gym around midnight, after even the late crowd has gone home. At this hour, only the true workaholics or the insomniacs, like Tony, are usually hanging around. Tony likes it better that way.

When his heart rate has settled a bit, he turns back to the bar. Once upon a time, he could have squatted three times as much weight as he’s loaded onto it now. The comparison makes him scowl, but he steps up for his next set anyway.

Tony’s doctor says it’s not healthy to compare his fitness before and after the accident. That doesn’t make his weakened state any easier on the ol’ ego.

He hunches under the bar and lifts with his legs, easily slipping into the practiced form. Feet just past shoulder-width apart, knees over feet. He examines his form in the walls of mirrors, and corrects himself. Back arched, chest up. That part’s the hardest, now. Tony prefered front squats, before, with the bar resting on his collarbone. Now, his chest might fucking break if he taps it the wrong way.

He resettles the weight on the back of his shoulders and glares at himself in the mirror. It was a miracle that he survived, and another miracle that enough of his sternum could be salvaged that he didn’t need a complete replacement. No way in hell is he gonna be a crybaby about his physical therapy.

Even if it hurts just to look at himself. Tony has to look in the mirror to monitor his form, but it hurts. He’s barely twenty minutes into a light workout and he’s already sweated through his t-shirt, under his arms and down his chest. His face is wet, his hair a mess. Worse than that, he’s thin, years of hard work and carefully-maintained musculature gone in six months of bed-ridden agony, surgery, and treatment. He looks like a stick-figure, now. The haunted, red-rimmed eyes and gray pallor just complete the image.

Actually, he’s not normally that gray. Tony sets the bar down and stumbles to sit on the bench a few feet behind him, gasping for air. His throat has closed up and his heart is pounding like he’s OD’d.

Tony presses one hand down on his chest, hard; far enough above the damaged bone that the spread-out pressure can’t upset the repairs, but enough to let him take a breath. His other hand grips the bench, white-knuckled. He’s gotten used to this, and can stay calm, but it hasn’t yet gotten easier to bear.

And it certainly doesn't help when other people see it.

“Are you alright?”

The speaker is clearly a gym fanatic; it’s obvious both from his body and from his presence at this late hour. His too-tight white shirt is made of breathable fabric for exertion, and it’s sweated through similar to Tony’s, though it probably took Tall-Blonde-and-Juiced-Up longer to accomplish. He’s kneeling before Tony the way you’d offer to help a scared child.

Tony presses down extra hard on his chest, hard enough that his sensitive ribs protest, and takes as deep a breath as he’s capable. He needs it, so that he can retort in his most caustic tone, “I’m fine,” with the implied 'What's your problem?'

Blondie recoils a bit, but gets his game face on, like he’s determined to help no matter what. ‘Just what I need,’ Tony thinks. ‘A Good Samaritan who can’t take a fucking hint.’

“Do you have an inhaler?” the man asks.

Tony scowls with all of the rage very much at his disposal, nowadays. Even Rhodey has learned to back away when Tony really doesn’t want to talk. However, at this point, he’s wheezing too much to manage a good retort.

“Fuck. Off,” he manages. It doesn’t sound very threatening.

The man only looks more concerned, but he stands up slowly. “I’ll be by the dumbbell racks if you need anything.”

Tony glares at the floor as the man withdraws.

It takes a good ten minutes to get his breathing under control. By that point, his body has tired itself out with adrenaline, and Tony knows he won’t be able to do any more work without triggering another attack. What’s worse, having that do-gooder come weep pity all over him just made him angrier, and stress is a big secondary trigger for his brand-new exercise-induced asthma.

He forces himself to his feet to remove his weights and wipe down the surfaces, then drags his feet to the locker room for a quick shower. Drying off and tugging his clothes on is a battle against rubbery limbs, and Tony’s fighting a yawn by the time he heads out the door.

Of course, the world just had to shit on him a little more.

“You went too hard, too fast,” Mr. Pumped-Up declares arrogantly.

Tony glares again, over his shoulder this time as he walks toward his car. “Is that so.”

“You have to give yourself a longer warm-up,” the man continues, following a few steps behind Tony. “You went straight for running, then started too heavy with the weights.”

“I’m not some weakling,” Tony spits.

“Neither was I,” his stalker replies quickly. “I had an attack a day before I learned how to compensate for it. And look at me now.”

Tony spins on his heel to cut the man down with his gaze, and ends up distracted by… looking at him now. He overcomes the moment of libido with a scornful look. “That your advice to me? Got some magic pills that’ll make my issues go away?”

The man clenches his jaw. “I don’t use steroids. Well, none that aren’t prescribed and used through an inhaler.” He looks at Tony expectantly.

“That was a joke,” Tony says slowly. “A… very bad joke.” He’s actually stunned by how terrible that was.

The man shrugs, smiling. “I had to get your attention somehow.”

“Fine. Hit me with your pitch.” Tony switches his gym back to the other shoulder and crosses his arms, wearing his low expectations on his sleeve.

“How often do you work out, twice a week?”

“Three times,” Tony says, a little defensively.

“Okay then.” The man nods. “I’ll meet you here and we can work out together- the right way, no jumping into the deep end. I believe you know what you’re doing-” he says over the beginnings of Tony’s protest. “I could see it in your form. But you clearly don’t know how to accommodate your health requirements.”

Tony squints. “How long were you watching me?”

And that’s when he discovers that in addition to being a beefcake (and all natural, apparently), Tall-Blonde-and-Delectable blushes like a maiden on her wedding night. “I was inspecting your form?”

“Oh yeah?” Tony starts to grin. They’re playing his game, now. “And what did you think about my form?” Even if he’s got less to work with nowadays, he knows how to play up his body.

The man gives Tony a once-over, blushing harder. “Well, not that you need it, but I could give you some hands-on coaching.”

An awkward flirt, God help him. Tony smolders. “You got a tip for me, soldier?”

Blondie turns bright red and coughs. “Uh, it’s Steve.”

“Tony,” Tony practically purrs. “So it’s a date?”

“Uh- yes,” Steve says, surprised. “So- you want my help?”

'Oh yes, I’ve got a terrible itch I need scratched,' Tony thinks. But he remembers Rhodey’s gruff concern, and Pepper’s quiet, worried looks, and the shaking in his limbs after that farce of a workout, and sighs. “Yeah, sure. I guess I need it.”

Steve smiles gently. “Hey, you’ve got a good foundation to work with. It won’t take long before you can go as long or hard as you like.”

Tony doesn’t even need to reply. He just raises one eyebrow, slowly, and lets Steve figure it out all by himself.

As he wheezes through a long laugh and a tomato-red Steve tries to get him to breathe through his nose, Tony decides that maybe his life is looking up after all.