Title: An Ever Fixed Mark
Pairings/Characters: Steve/Tony, Jan, Hank, Wanda, assorted other Avengers
Warnings: This is a warning that is also a spoiler. Click to read.
A/N:† The Avengers line-up in the late 80s (post Armor Wars) was insane and totally inconsistent, and tended to involve random non-Avengers people like Sue Storm and Reed Richards, and to change literally from issue to issue. Therefore, we have imposed order on it by choosing an East Coast Avengers line-up of People We Like because going with exact canon would have given us something random like "Hercules, the Black Knight, Moondragon, and Sue Storm". We're also setting this now instead of in the 80s, in total defiance of all timeline logic. Because everyone gets one Timeline, What Timeline? fic, and we figured that if there was ever a place to play fast and loose with canon or outright ignore it, it was genderswap crackfic.
Summary: Loki accidentally turns Tony into a woman.† Steve is less than thrilled.† Hijinks ensue.
An Ever Fixed Mark
"I cannot apologize deeply enough, Iron Man.† My kinsman has done thee a great wrong."
Hank looked up from his mass-spectrometer results with relief as Thor's voice echoed through the building; they were back.
He knew why the team left him behind, out of the action; he was the one who had insisted on it, in the face of Clint's earnest and well-meaning attempts to get him back into costume.† Being Yellowjacket again would make it too easy to fall back into old, bad habits.† In costume, in the field, he'd be a liability.† Back in the lab, as support staff, he could be an asset.
None of that made waiting uselessly every time the others went out to fight something any less nerve-wracking.
"The spell was intended for myself," Thor went on, sounding more apologetic than Hank had ever heard him, and that included the time the Enchantress had brainwashed him into attacking them all.† "I am deeply grieved to have-"
"For the love of--" Iron Man interrupted, just as Hank reached the front hall, the print out of his test results still absently clutched in one hand.† "Will you stop apologizing, Thor?† It's not your fault.† You didn't mean for this to happen."† His electronically-modified voice sounded odd, off in some subtle way that Hank couldn't pin down.
"Are you all right, Tony?" he asked.† "Were you guys able to stop Loki?"† Tony looked unhurt, his armor undamaged, but that didn't always mean anything.
Clint, Bobbi, Wanda, and Tigra looked unscathed, though Bobbi's costume was missing a sleeve, the trailing fabric torn away.† Hank wasn't surprised; as long and full as her sleeves were, they were bound to get caught on things.
"Yeah," Clint said, his voice strained.† "We stopped Loki."† He looked and sounded as if he were trying not to laugh, and kept darting little glances at Tony.
"I'm fine," Tony said shortly.† "Well, I'm not hurt, anyway."
"The blame lies on my head," Thor said, drowning out Tony's protests, "I taunted Loki with the memory of an incident wherein he was greatly shamed and mortified.† Iron Man was the unfortunate victim of his retaliation."
"In the future, maybe we should avoid taunting supervillains," Tigra suggested, her tail swishing gently back and forth.
"That would take all the fun out of it,"
"Hawkeye wouldn't know what to do with himself if he couldn't pretend to engage in witty banter,"
Clint and Wanda spoke simultaneously, then Clint glared at her through his mask.
The team was standing in a loose huddle, everyone staring at Tony, who had turned away from them and wrapped his arms around himself.† It was a very vulnerable, human gesture that should have looked odd in the armor, but Hank had seen him do it often enough before that any oddness had long since worn off.
"Are you sure you're all right?' he asked, taking a step closer to Tony.† Tony had been on edge lately, unpredictable, and there was clearly something very wrong here no matter how fine he insisted he was.
"Off for God's sake."† Bobbi rolled her eyes.† "Just take the damn helmet off.† We all know what happened; it's not like you're hiding anything."
Hank was about to point out that no, they did not in fact "all know what happened," when Tony reached up and, with obvious reluctance, pulled his helmet off.
"Oh my God, you're a girl," Hank blurted out.
Tony glared at him, his face thinner and visibly more delicate, narrowed eyes thickly fringed in black lashes -- which were no longer or thicker than they had been before, but seemed more striking now.† "Thank you for pointing out the obvious, Hank," he said, in a husky mezzo-soprano that didn't sound remotely like his voice.
That was when Clint lost it and finally started laughing.
"It's not just a superficial alteration," Hank was saying, for the third time.† "It goes all the way down to your DNA.† You don't have a Y chromosome anymore."
"I don't care how thorough it is," Tony snapped, glaring up at Hank.† "I just want you to undo it."† He was used to having to look up at Hank, but never when Hank was normal-sized.† It was a new and not particularly pleasant experience.
"We know, Tony," Wanda sighed.† "Trust me, we know."† She gave Tony an apologetic little half-smile.† He didn't smile back.
Wanda was eye to eye with him.† It was disconcerting to be this small; he hadn't been this short since he was fifteen.† And his balance was all wrong; he'd had to constantly watch himself to keep from falling over before he taken the armor off.
He was very carefully avoiding thinking about the body parts he was missing; he wasnít ready to deal with that yet.† He was that never going to be ready to deal with that.
"I hate this," he muttered.† "These stupid breasts move whenever I move."† He nodded at Wanda's chest.† "Yours are at least a cup size larger.† How do you stand them?"
"I wear a bra," she said, dryly.
Tony shuddered.† "I wore something across my chest for long enough as it is.† Surely there's some spell you haven't tried."
There was, he reflected, a reason he hated magic.
Hank, at least, could explain why his various attempts to turn Tony back over the past twelve hours had failed, and every failure gave them more information on Tony's condition, and hopefully brought them closer to fixing it.† Wanda, on the other hand, just frowned, stared at him, and performed a series of incomprehensible hand gestures, accompanied by muttered comments in English and Transian.† Then nothing would happen, and she would do it again, with slightly different gestures and occasional flickers of pink light.
"I've tried everything I can think of," she said now.† "Spells to dispel enchantments, hexes to disrupt other people's magic, even healing spells, though my powers don't exactly lend themselves to that.† If I don't take a break soon, I'm going to start accidentally frying lab equipment.† Or you."
Tony started to protest -- every hour not spent working on this was another hour that he spent trapped in this alien body, not to mention that Clint has given them forty-eight hours to fix this before he called Steve and the other Avengers on the East Coast, and had them bring Strange in on it -- but Wanda over-rode him.
"I've spent all last night and half this morning trying to undo the work of a god.† I need to rest.† And so do both of you."
"I've worked on things for longer," Hank volunteered.
"Hank," Tony pointed out, "when you work on things for days on end without taking breaks, they tend to gain sentience and try to kill you."
Hank flinched, and looked away, suddenly seeming to find the computer screen he was standing next to utterly fascinating, and Tony winced inwardly.† Ultron was not something to joke about with Hank.
"Sorry," he said.† "Thank you, both of you.† I know you're trying."
"We'll start again in the morning," Wanda told him.† "We will fix this. I promise."
Tony nodded, and did his best to squash the panicked little part of his mind that was already wondering what he was going to do if they couldn't.† How was he going to explain this to the media?† To Pepper and Happy and Rhodey?† To his date tomorrow night?
He was going to have to call and cancel.† As far as he knew, Rae was not into other women.
And all this because Thor couldn't resist the impulse to mock Loki over embarrassing incidents that had happened millennia ago.
He had though the blast Loki had aimed at Thor was an attack, some kind of sorcerous lightening bolt that the armor would harmlessly deflect.† Instead, he had ended up like this, after throwing himself directly into the path of a petty Asgardian attempt at revenge.
Tony really, really hated magic.
"I'll see you in the morning."† Wanda turned to go, then hesitated, adding, "Between myself and Bobbi, we should be able to put together a full set of clothes for you.† I'll leave them outside the door to your room."
Tony nodded tiredly, then watched in silence as she left the lab.† He didn't want to think about wearing women's clothing yet.† He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to take the dress shirt and trousers he currently had on off; the body underneath wasn't his anymore.† Admittedly, his body was on the battered side, even attractive as it was, but he'd rather have his own damaged heart and liver and shrapnel scars than some strange woman's body, even if it was genetically identical to his own save for a single chromosome.
"What about my heart?" he asked Hank.† "And, well, everything else."
"The X-rays are developing."† Hank tapped a few keys, then studied the computer screen again.† "If you give me a few minutes, I should have the results of the second round of bloodwork, too.† I'll be able to tell you more then."
Tony stared down at his hands for a moment, wishing there were some meaningful way he could contribute.† Biology had never been his field.† Machines were much easier to work with than living things -- more stable, more predictable.† Biological systems existed in a state of constant flux.
His hands looked small now, delicate, with long, thin fingers that didn't look like they belonged to him.† The tiny red burn he'd given himself last week welding a new faceplate onto his helmet was still there, though, halfway down the length of his left index finger.
The scars and calluses from years of metal working were still there, too.† He didn't have to wait for Hank's most recent round of test results to confirm that all the wear and tear on his body was still there; if he still had the small scars, he would still have the big ones.
Curiosity finally overcame dread, and he unbuttoned the top three buttons of his shirt and made himself look.† The breasts were small, probably only A cups, but they were, undeniably, breasts.† Nestled between them, in the center of his chest, was the same ragged mass of scar tissue he'd had for the past five years; if anything, the breasts made it stand out more.† One of the longer shrapnel scars carved a thin, white line along the inside of his right breast, reaching halfway to his nipple.
"That's interesting."† The words made him look up, and he discovered that Hank was now standing just a few feet away from him, staring intently at his exposed chest.† "You can see that the scars and the breasts didn't originally belong together.† If you'd had them when you were injured, this scar," his reached out and lightly tapped the long scar on Tony's right breast, "wouldn't be at the same angle.† It would have cut into the side of your breast this way-" He traced his finger sideways, the touch feather-light, and Tony's skin tingled in a way that was both unfamiliar and strangely pleasant.† His nipples tightened up in a way that he'd seen on any of a dozen former dates, the skin there suddenly oversensitive, like he had gained extra nerve endings.
"Huh," he said.† "I never realized how much more sensitive women's breast are.† Or, well, I knew, but I never really thought about what it would be like."
Hank snatched his hand back as if Tony's skin were covered in something caustic.† "Oh God," he blurted out.† "I'm sorry.† I didn't mean-"
"No, it's all right," Tony interrupted.† "I don't mind.† Since I'm stuck with this body at least until morning, I might as well start figuring out how it works."
"I didn't think," Hank was stammering.† "I just, um, maybe you can just button your shirt back up and we can forget this ever happened?"
"Or," Tony said, tilting his head to look up at Hank -- the through-the-lashes seductive look was much easier to pull off at this height, it seemed -- and taking a step closer to him, "you could do it again."
Hank made a small, strangled sound.
What Tony really, really wanted, if he were completely honest with himself, was a drink -- preferably a lot of drinks, so that he could forget for a few hours at least that his body had been taken from him and warped into someone else's -- but that would be an incredibly bad idea.† If he ever started drinking again, he would never be able to stop; it let him relax, made everything that hurt go away -- or almost go away, enough that he knew that just one or two more drinks would be able to fix it -- and if he ever let himself have that again, he wouldn't be able to make himself stop, to give it up and go back to sobriety.
Alcohol, however, wasn't the only way to make things easier to handle for at least a little while.† And Hank was still staring at his half-exposed breasts, albeit with a slightly wild-eyed expression, as if he truly wanted to look away, but couldn't.
Tony rose up onto the balls of his feet, grabbed Hank by the shoulders, and pulled him forward into a kiss.
Hank went stiff, making another little strangled sound in the back of his throat as Tony ran his tongue across Hank's lower lip, trying to coax him into opening his mouth.
Hank turned his face away, breaking the kiss.† "Tony, stop that!† I'm married!"
"Not anymore," Tony purred, and wrapped his arms around Hank's neck, the way Indres always had when she was trying to be seductive -- the memory of her was almost enough to completely kill the tingling in his chest and groin, and he quickly pressed another kiss to the side of Hank's jaw, feeling rough blond stubble scrape across his lips and erase the lingering ghosts of her touch.
"Hank!" Clint yelped from somewhere behind them, his voice actually cracking, "I thought you liked women!"
"I do!" Hank jerked his face away again, and began pulling Tony's arms loose from his neck.† Tony let himself be manhandled into letting go, suddenly and acutely conscious that he'd been all but forcing himself onto a less-than-willing Hank.† "Tony is a woman right now.† But it wasn't-"
"He might have breasts, but he's still Tony."† Clint sounded mildly horrified; Tony might have been offended if he hadn't known him so well.† "I mean, not that it isnít about time you displayed interest in a human being who wasn't Jan, but Tony?† There aren't enough words in the dictionary for how bad an idea that is."
Tony took a slow step back from Hank, who was holding himself rigid, as if expecting Tony to throw himself at him and tear his clothes off at any second.† "It was my idea," Tony said.† "I'm sorry, Hank, it was a stupid idea."
Hank nodded slowly.† "You're my teammate," he said, voice stiff and hesitant.† "And you're not-† I'm still-† I can't-" he gestured jerkily with both hands, clearly struggling for words.† "You wouldn't want to do that with† me anyway.† I'd end up hurting you."
Tony shook his head. "You wouldn't have, but you're right.† It would have been a bad idea.† For all we know, having sex in this body could lock me into it permanently or something."† He paused.† "I've mentioned that I hate magic, right?"
"Repeatedly," Clint said, "and then you said that you, Hank, and Wanda were going to get to work undoing the magic, which was apparently code for 'I'm going to take my new girl body for a test drive.'"† He frowned slightly, and then his eyes widened and he started to grin.† "You didnít try the kissing thing on Wanda, did you?"
"No.† I didn't think of it until after she'd left."
Clint made a face.† "Don't sound so regretful.† Also, can we change the subject?† I really don't need sexual fantasies with you in them."
"You asked," Tony pointed out.† He felt exposed and cold in his unbuttoned shirt, now that there were two people here to stare at him -- not that Hank was looking, anymore -- and began buttoning it up again.† He didn't need to stand around looking like he'd just finished a night of debauchery and then decided to put on his male lover's clothing.
Clint ran a hand through his hair and shook his head.† "Oh man, I am really not prepared to deal with this.† Forget forty-eight hours; I'm calling Cap now."
"You said we had two days," Hank protested.
"No!" Tony blurted out, speaking over him.† "Don't!"† He knew even as the panic flooded him that it was completely irrational, but the idea of Steve seeing him this way was so utterly humiliating that he couldn't help it.† "We're going to figure this out.† We just need a little more time."† Steve had been very clear that their friendship was over, the last time they'd met.† He'd given back the shield Tony had made him, and walked away, shoulders stiff and angry.† And he'd ignored every call Tony had made or email he'd sent since, which might have been Steve's dislike of email and voicemail, but was probably proof that Steve had meant exactly what he had said -- that Tony had lost his trust and respect, and he was done with him.
After that... he couldn't go crawling back to Steve, back to New York, the first time he needed help with something.† Not after what he'd done.† It had made sense at the time, been necessary, but he'd still... he'd knocked Steve unconscious and temporarily paralyzed him to keep him from stopping Tony from recovering his stolen tech.† Steve wouldn't -- didn't -- care what the tech was going to be used for, or how dangerous Tony's designs were in the wrong hands.† He just cared that Tony had broken the law to get it back, and hurt him in the process.
He deserved Steve's anger and contempt, but that didn't make the thought of facing it again less painful.† If anything, it made it worse.
"I was going to give you time," Clint said, "but then I was scarred for life by the sight of you and Hank making out, so now your time is up.† If I give you much more time, you'll probably do something really stupid, like run off and have sex with War Machine."
"I'd try that, but Rhodey's still mad at me, too."† The words emerged almost without conscious intent, and Tony could see both Clint and Hank twitch.† It was true, though -- he might otherwise have actually had a chance with Rhodey now that he was temporarily female, but not after forcing Rhodey to pick up his slack and clean up his messes for months until the stress practically drove him into a nervous breakdown, getting Morley and Clytemnestra killed, taking the Iron Man armor away from him, and otherwise treating him like dirt. The War Machine armor had made up for a lot, but hardly everything.
"What time is it in New York?" Clint asked Hank.† "Nevermind, I don't care.† I'm calling Cap now."
Tony groaned, and buried his face in his hands, digging his fingers into his hair.† At least he'd been able to make some kind of gesture of apology, with Rhodey.† Tony had been afraid Rhodey would throw the new armor back in his face, like Steve had the shield, but Rhodey had, thankfully, been willing to try and work things out again.
Steve, he was pretty sure, wasn't.
And now Tony was going to have to ask him for help.
Stopping Doom from turning half of Lower Manhattan into a flood basin as part of some dark ritual sacrifice -- Steve still wasn't clear to whom, or what exactly Doom had intended to gain from it -- had taken the entire day.† Namor had grudgingly lent a hand, mostly because the resultant underwater earthquake when half of Manhattan caved into a vast sinkhole would have caused secondary tremors as far away as Atlantis.† But as much as Steve enjoyed working with Namor occasionally, his presence tended to be as much a hindrance as a help.† All these years later, and he still hadn't grasped how to work with a team.
And now, it was now eight o'clock at night and no one had eaten dinner yet.† And since it was Jarvis's day off, it was Steve and Jan's responsibility to make dinner.
"Let's just order pizza," Jan suggested.† She was sitting at the kitchen table, regarding the array of cookbooks spread across it with disdain.† She tapped a thin, hardcover volume with one finger.† "This one is nothing but different manly things you can sear to death on a grill.† Why do we still have John Walker's things?"
"He left that here the first time he went out to the West Coast.† I doubt he even remembers that it exists.† And we can't always order pizza when Jarvis isn't here.† He'll think we don't know how to take care of ourselves."
"And he'd be right," Jan said, leaning her chin on one hand and looking up at Steve with a little smirk.† "Which pizza place do you want me to call?"
Steve sighed.† He really would have liked a home-cooked meal, but not enough to go through the effort of cooking it.† Not when he still ached all over from getting tossed around by Doom's magically augmented laser blasts.† "Call whichever one you want.† I want pepperoni -- Sam will, too -- and Jen will want a meatless one with mushrooms and peppers.† Actually, you'd better make that two with mushrooms and peppers."
"Be glad Thor's still on the West Coast, or it would be six with pepperoni," Jan said, reaching for the phone.
It rang just as she touched it, and she scooped it up quickly.† "Avengers Mansion.† Janet Van Dyne speaking."† Her voice was surprisingly bright, considering the day they'd all had.
"Clint," she said after a moment.† "Can you slow down, I can't--" a pause, presumably caused by him interrupting her.† "I can't understand you."† As Steve watched, Jan's eyebrows drew together in a frown.† Then she sat bolt upright in her chair, her eyes going wide.† "Wait, Tony and Hank what?† Why?"† She shook her head, waving one hand in a negative motion as if Clint could see her.† "Okay, you know what, I'm giving the phone to Cap now."
She stood, holding the phone away from her ear and pulling a wry face.† "Loki cast some kind of lust spell and made Tony and Hank have sex," she said flatly, thrusting the phone in Steve's general direction.† "As this week's chairperson, I am officially making it your problem and not mine."
Tony and Hank had... okay, Steve could have lived the rest of his life quite happily never having known that, or experiencing the mental images the knowledge conjured up.† The fact that the mental image of Tony and Hank entwined in one another's arms, naked and sweaty and writhing, was not actually unpleasant, just made it worse.† Steve forced the thought away and took the phone gingerly, and Jan turned on her heel and left the kitchen as quickly as she could without seeming to flee.
"Oh, thanks!" Steve called after her.† The he brought the phone to his ear.† Clint was still speaking -- he had, Steve guessed, not stopped since Jan had picked the phone up, and probably didn't realize that she was no longer on the line.† "Clint," Steve said loudly, cutting across the incomprehensible babble, "why are you bothering us with this? I thought we had all agreed that SOP for sex pollen, alien pheromones, and lust spells was to tell no one, never speak of it again, and pretend it didn't happen.† Or, if necessary, get counseling."
It had been a very, very long day.† Why couldn't Clint have picked a different night to have one of his periodic crises of confidence over his leadership abilities or perceived lack thereof?† And why did the lust spell have to involve Tony?† He'd been trying hard to avoid thinking of Tony since Tony's apparent complete lapse of sanity -- and that was if Steve was being charitable -- over his stolen technology.† He'd especially tried to avoid thinking of Tony in this kind of context, because musing about Tony's lean, cleanly defined muscles and husky voice made staying angry with him more difficult than Steve wanted it to be.
"What sex pollen?" said Clint, loudly enough that Steve winced and pulled the phone an inch or so further away from his ear. †"Are you even listening to me?"
"The sex pollen Loki used to make Hank and Tony... do whatever it is they did." To his embarrassment, Steve found himself unable to actually say it.
"They didn't make out because of Loki.† They made out because they're both idiots."
Steve let out a breath, torn between relief that his former teammates hadn't actually had borderline consensual sex under the influence of magic and utter bafflement that they'd apparently engaged in completely consensual kissing.† Or groping.† Or however exactly Clint defined making out.
Very little that Tony got up to when it came to romance surprised him anymore, but with Hank?† After Steve had torn him a new one over how stupid getting involved with an emotionally fragile teammate was during his brief fling with Jan, he'd decided to move on to Hank?† Hank, who'd never shown an interest in men, or even an interest in any woman other than Jan?† Hank, who was less than stable at the best of times these days?
"What exactly did Loki have to do with it, then?" he asked.
"You aren't listening," Clint said, with a kind of accusatory triumph.† "Loki's the one who turned Tony into a girl."
"You have pictures, right?" Steve blurted out, before rationality kicked in and reminded him that deriving petty amusement from Tony's humiliation was not the mature or right thing to do.† He couldn't help but wonder what a female Tony would look like.† The same coloring, obviously, and the same angular bone structure -- 'she' would probably have cheekbones that could cut glass -- but would Tony be tall or short as a woman?† Thin, or curvaceous?† Tall, probably, he decided.† Like Sharon or Rachel.† And curvy, probably a classic hourglass figure like movie stars had had back before all the women in movies had gotten so thin.† Tony was an extremely attractive man, and that was bound to translate over.
"Well, obviously," Clint was saying, "but now Wanda and Hank can't figure out how to change him back, and it's not funny anymore.† And I had to watch him and Hank-"
"Yes, Clint," Steve cut him off quickly before he could mention Hank and Tony making out again.† "I got that part already.† Hasn't Wanda tried-"
"It's been almost a day and a half," Clint interrupted miserably. "We thought it would wear off, but it hasn't. And it turns out Wanda's chaos magic isn't exactly up to breaking spells cast by a god of chaos."
That sounded reasonable.† Wanda was a powerful mutant, but Loki was a god, with millennia of experience at this kind of thing.† And he was much more powerful than the Enchantress, whom Wanda had defeated several times in the past; her spells only worked within a fairly limited range.
"Tony is... all right, isnít he?" Steve asked, as it belatedly occurred to him that he hadn't even stopped to wonder about Tony's wellbeing in all this.† Who knew what kind of effects a physical change that drastic could have on someone?
"He's fine, unless you count the part where he's a girl."
"That's good, I guess."† Very good, actually.† He might still be angry with Tony, and disappointed that his friend had turned out to be not quite the man Steve had thought he was, but he never wanted to repeat that horrible week the year before last, after Tony had disappeared for nearly a month and then turned up again in St. Vincent's hospital, half-dead of hypothermia, malnutrition, and a raging case of pneumonia.
Tony had been his closest friend, once.† He still couldn't stand the idea of seeing him suffer.† And having his body altered this drastically against his will... knowing Tony, he couldn't possibly be handling this well.† The man who had angrily defended his illegal actions to Steve last month had been an entirely different person from the broken, borderline suicidal drunk Steve had narrowly saved from death in a burning hotel, or the unconscious, fever-stricken wreck he had visited in the hospital, but that had been just under two years ago, and who knew what it might take to make Tony start drinking again.† Not everyone was able to stay on the wagon, after all.
And damnit, he'd thought he was over Tony.
"Is there anything we can do to help you guys out?" he heard himself asking.† "I'm guessing you didn't call just to share gossip."
"Well, no.† Do you think you could get Dr. Strange to come help us out?"
Steve began pacing back and forth from the massive black gas range to the table, still strewn with cookbooks.† John Walker's book of manly grilling recipes had been relegated to the far corner of the table, along with a vegetarian cookbook that he was pretty sure belonged to Wonder Man -- Simon went through periodic health-nut phases that only ever lasted until the next time Beast showed up bearing grocery bags full of Twinkies and potato chips.† "Strange doesn't like to leave the Village, unless it's to visit other dimensions.† Maybe you'd better send Tony here.† Wanda, too.† She'll be able to give Strange a rundown on what happened."† And, Loki or no, she was still the Avengers' expert on chaos magic.
And had he just effectively invited Tony to rejoin the East Coast team?
It was one thing running into Iron Man during an Avengers' priority alert every so often.† Living under the same roof with Tony Stark again, however, would be another matter entirely.
"That would be great!" Clint said, in a relieved tone that implied that this had been exactly the result he'd been hoping for.† "I'll go tell everyone.† They can be on a quinjet by this afternoon.† Or, well, seeing as it's nighttime there, they can be on a quinjet tomorrow morning!" and he hung up the phone, cutting off Steve's strangled,
"Clint!" as he tried to protest the utter lack of any time to plan, warn his teammates, or ask Strange if he was, in fact, willing to help.† And he probably ought to give Vision a heads up before his rather uncomfortably ex wife arrived.† "Some time to get ready would have been nice," he finished, to the hollow sound of the empty line.
Jan, he realized belatedly, still thought that Tony and her ex-husband had had non-consensual gay sex. †That was going to be a fun conversation.
Tony was going to be here tomorrow.† And that conversation was going to be anything but fun.
Steve hung up the phone in its cradle and sat down in the chair Jan had vacated, resting his head in his hands -- one of his elbows was on top of The Joy of Snacks -- and tried to figure out what he was going to do.
The quinjet arrived at ten in the morning, which mean that it had to have left LA at five a.m.† Which meant that Tony and Wanda had probably gotten up at four.
Wanda, at least, was an early riser, either by nature or from prolonged exposure to Steve, who was such an aggressively cheerful morning person that Jan preferred to avoid him before nine a.m. whenever possible.† Four a.m. however, would have been early even for Steve.† It was occasionally when Tony went to bed.
Either Tony had been desperate to get to New York as soon as possible, in order to spend as little time as possible as a woman, or Clint had been really, really desperate to get rid of them.† Or both.
"Remember," She-Hulk called over the scream of jet noise, as the quinjet redirected its thrust and went into hover mode directly overhead, coming slowly down for a landing, "when Tony gets off the plane, whatever you do, don't laugh."
"Not even a little?" Jan asked.† Any male teammate being transformed into a temporary girl would have been at least amusing, but in Tony's case, it was like some grand example of cosmic justice.
Considering the number of women he had dated, slept with, and then moved on from -- and Jan, moving in the same social circles, had heard stories long before she ever experienced his talents in bed for herself, some of them accompanied by satisfied smirks, and some full of justified outrage at being abandoned mid-date because of 'company emergencies' that Jan suspected had involved a pressing need to don armor and jet boots -- it could hardly have happened to a more deserving member of the Avengers.
Well, possibly U.S. Agent.
"Okay," She-Hulk conceded, "maybe a little."
Jan grasped her sweater tightly as the wash of air from the quinjet's landing tore at them, and wondered, not for the first time, how the other woman could stand to wear what was essentially a bathing suit in forty-five-degree weather.
She could just hear Steve and the Falcon over the engine noise, arguing about whether this was going to screw up the East and West Coast team line-up.† Vision loomed colorfully behind them, silently listening to their conversation.
Jan wondered how he felt about the fact that Wanda was about to get off that plane.† Things had been awkward with them, since Vision had been disassembled and rebuilt, so awkward that their marriage had fallen apart, and even though Vision had regained the ability to feel emotion, he had claimed that he was over Wanda, that their marriage was a thing of the past.† Jan sincerely doubted that was actually true, but with Vision, it was sometimes hard to tell.† He had the best poker face of anyone she had ever met.
The quinjet's engine cut off, and the door opened, revealing Wanda, dressed in costume and with a duffle bag in one hand.† Next to her was Hank.
Jan blinked, trying to make the sight go away.† When it failed to, she turned to Steve. "You didn't tell me he was coming," she hissed.
"I didn't know he was coming," Steve muttered back.† "Don't you think I would have asked your permission first?"
"I'm going to kill Clint," Jan said calmly, plastering a stiff but blandly pleasant smile onto her face.
Steve didn't say anything, but his jaw tightened a little; Clint wasn't exactly his favorite person at the moment, either, though knowing Steve and Clint and the way their perpetual contest of friendly one-up-man-ship worked, he'd get over being annoyed fairly quickly.
Tony appeared behind Hank and Wanda, his altered appearance completely concealed inside the Iron Man armor -- Jan was too busy trying desperately to think of what on Earth she was going to say to Hank to even be disappointed.
"Wanda," Steve said.† "Iron Man.† And Hank.† Clint didnít mention that you wee coming."
Hank flushed, staring at his feet, and Jan refused to let herself feel sorry for him.† "I'm the one who took all the preliminary readings on Tony's condition, and performed all the scientific tests.† I thought it would... I know more about the situation than anyone else except Wanda.† I thought I ought to come.† You know, just in case.† I'm sure we'll fix this very quickly, and then we can leave again."
"We better," Tony said.† The armor's mechanically synthesized voice sounded nearly the same as always, but not quite.† Jan wasn't sure she would have noticed it if she hadn't been on a team with Tony for years, but it sounded slightly lighter, as if the voice it was distorting were higher pitched than before.† "I have a board meeting next Tuesday."
"When are we meeting with Strange?" Wanda asked.† She hadn't so much as glanced at Vision yet.† Jan knew how she felt; she wished she could make herself not look at Hank, but she couldn't seem to pull her eyes away.
He looked, well, not good exactly, but definitely better than he had the last time she'd seen him, when the jail and trial mess had still been going on.† More like himself.† He'd clearly shaved recently, washed his hair, wasn't wearing wrinkled, days-old clothing, and he was standing up straight, despite not meeting anyone's eyes.
Was he on any kind of medication?† Getting any kind of treatment?† She hadn't asked.† She'd been careful to learn as little about what Hank was doing or not doing as possible.† It wasn't her problem anymore.† Wasn't her problem anymore.† He'd lost any right to her concern and support when he'd hit her.
"Strange is coming over some time tomorrow," Steve was saying.† "I managed to use the generous amount of lead time you three and Clint gave me on this to call him and fill him in on the situation, and once he finished laughing, he agreed to help."
"He didn't actually laugh," Wanda said, smiling a little.† "Laughing would ruin his image."
"Well, no," Steve admitted, "but there was a long, telling silence during which I could feel him smirking at me."
She-Hulk took a step forward, placing herself between Wanda and the pointedly-not-looking-at-Wanda form of Vision.† "Speaking of which, Tony, I think we're all curious about what you look like under that helmet.† Do you mind taking it off and giving us a show, so we can get all the snickering out of our systems now?"
Tony shook his head.† "Inside.† I don't need to give those people on the internet who are convinced that Iron Man is my secret kept woman any more ammunition."
"People on the internet think what?" the Falcon asked, raising his eyebrows in open skepticism.† "Ignore it.† People will say anything on the internet."
"There's a facebook group and a twitter hashtag dedicated to it, and sometimes people write NC-17-rated fiction about it."† There was a pause just long enough for Jan to begin to seriously wonder how and why Tony knew this, and then he added, "Pepper emails it to me."
"And you read it?" Wanda asked, staring at him in mild astonishment.
"It's like a trainwreck," Tony said, after what might have been a small, embarrassed pause.† "I can't look away."
The Falcon shook his head slightly.† "Of course you can't."
"That's arguably libel, you know."† She-Hulk shrugged, tossing her hair back over one shoulder.† "I could sue them for you, if you want, but it's not really worth the effort.† You would probably lose, anyway.† The last three lawsuits I was hired to bring against the Daily Bugle did."† She grinned.† "Just be glad it's not a porn site dedicated to you."
"Admit it," Tony said, as Steve made a small, strangled sound, "you're proud of that website."
"Well, it's flattering, in a weird kind of way.† I'll give them that."
And just like that, Jan realized, the painful, frozen tension in the air was gone.† Well, if you ignored the fact that Hank was still staring at his feet and hadn't spoken since apologizing for being here, Vision was still pretending to be incapable of speech at all, and Tony was doing the bantering thing with everyone but Steve.
"Let's move this inside, people," Steve said now, nodding at the mansion's back entrance.† "The sooner we get all of this over with, the sooner you three can go home."
There was an awkward pause, during which Tony did not point out that the Avengers Mansion was, technically speaking, his house.
The silence hung there for a moment, leaden and accusing, though Jan wasn't sure who was accusing who.† "Your old rooms are still open," she said to Wanda.† "You didn't bring much luggage; I guess you're not planning to stay long?"
Wanda blinked.† "You're joking, right?† This bag has half the clothes I own in it." She hefted the duffle bag, which was, admittedly, large, but still barely big enough to contain a week's worth of clothing, when you added shoes, and offered Jan a wry smile.† "I usually try to travel light, but we didn't know how long this would take."
"She-Hulk and I will take you shopping tomorrow," Jan promised.† "As soon as Strange is done fixing Tony."
The moment the mansion's door closed behind them all, Vision turned to Tony and said, "I'm sure this is but a temporary inconvenience for you.† Strange will probably repair it tomorrow, but if I can be of any assistance..."
"We'll call you down to the lab if we need you," Hank said.
Vision nodded solemnly, and faded into transparency, floating away through the ceiling.† Wanda stared after him, her features set in a blank expression that Jan could tell took effort to maintain.† "I'll go unpack," she said, and walked off in the direction of the back staircase, shoulders stiff.
Tony had beat a hasty retreat as well, declining the offer to remove the armor or even just take off his helmet, and the Falcon had pulled Steve aside for a low-voiced conversation that involved lots of emphatic hand gestures, which left Jan staring at Hank.
"I..." he started, then hesitated.† "I can go back to LA if, um, if you really want me to," he blurted out, after the pause had grown just long enough to feel unnatural.
'Yes' Jan wanted to say.† 'I want you to.'† But solving Tony's problem was more important than her personal feelings; it was time to be an adult about things.† She could handle having Hank around for a few days; it wasn't as if they would actually have to spend any time together.† He was just here to help Tony.† So she shook her head, and said, "No.† Tony might need you.† You're right; you're the one who's run all the tests on this.† And you're a good scientist, everything else aside.† You always have been."
"Yes," Hank said, "but I -- I'll just, just go set up the lab."† He fled the hallway so quickly that Jan almost called him back, old instinct temporarily overwhelming good sense.
"Well," She-Hulk said, "I can see that the next couple of days are going to be fun."
Steve had spent the past twenty-four hours doing his level best to stay out of Tony's way.† It wasn't exactly that he was avoiding him, it was just that... okay, he was avoiding him.† Tony hadn't exactly made it difficult; he had spent most of the previous day hiding in either his room or the lab, presumably either running more tests on himself, or trying to run Stark Industries long-distance via the internet.† The handful of times Steve had passed him in the hallway, he'd been wearing the armor, they way he had before the rest of them had learned his identity.
Which was not an experience Steve was going to forget any time soon.† The memory of Tony's nearly naked body made it much more difficult not to forgive him, but after everything that had happened... Tony could have the physique of a Greek god, and it still would have had no impact on Steve's ability to trust him, which he couldn't do anymore.† Not now that he knew the lengths to which Tony was prepared to go to accomplish a goal.† At least not until Tony explained why, exactly, he felt those lengths were necessary.
And it had better be a damn good explanation.
The Mansion was full of high-tech training apparatus, but Steve had always found beating the daylights of out a traditional, low-tech heavy bag to be the most therapeutic way to spend an hour or so, when he couldn't get someone else to spar with him (Sam would never agree to do it any time Steve was visibly annoyed or upset about something.† "It's supposed to be fun," he'd said, when Steve had asked him.† "Not an excuse to find yourself a human punching bag.").
He'd only just managed to break a sweat, knuckles not even sore yet, when the gym door opened and Hank ducked in.
Steve ignored him, continuing to throw hard right and left jabs at the bag, putting his entire bodyweight behind them.† If Hank was here for a reason, he'd tell Steve, but chances were good he was just trying to stay out of Jan's sight, which Steve supposed was fair; Jan hadn't exactly agreed to having him back here.
"Strange is just about finished with his examination," Hank said, after a moment.† "He wants to talk to you about his results."
"Has he figured out how to turn Iron Man back yet?" Steve asked, though Hank's less-than-enthusiastic demeanor had already told him the answer.
"That's what he wants to talk to you about."
"And he sent you to fetch me?"
"I needed an excuse to leave the room anyway.† He had Tony take his shirt off so he could get a better read on... something.† I don't know.† It apparently required bare skin."† He paused, making a wry face, and added, "Tony makes a disturbingly attractive woman."
Of course he did.
Steve sighed, and went to put his own shirt back on.
Tony was buttoning his own shirt back up when Steve arrived, fingers on the button one down from the top.† He was a lot... smaller.
He didn't look as different as Steve had expected.† His nose was a fraction more delicate, his chin a little more pointed, but he still had the same angular cheekbones and full lips, the same slightly-wavy dark hair, cut just a tiny bit too long in a way that looked too careless not to be expensively deliberate.† Now, though, the same cut had suddenly become very short.† It gave him -- her? -- a faintly gamine look.
He did not in the slightest live up to the fantasies Steve had been guiltily trying to suppress -- too thin, the small waist and gently rounded hips that ought have been part of a lush, hourglass figure accompanied instead by breasts small enough that they were barely visible under the oversized man's shirt that was clearly one of Tony's own.
"Ah.† Captain America," Strange said.† "I'm glad you could join us."
"He can't change me back," Tony interjected, with no preamble.† "Tuesday is going to suck."
"I can't change you back yet."† Strange held up a single finger.† "Don't be so quick to give up hope.† You've been placed under an extremely complex and powerful spell, by a being of incredible power, and I will need to study the magics used on you further before I can safely unravel them."
"It looks like you'll be staying longer than just a few days, then," Steve said, coming further into the room.† He loomed over Tony now by over half a foot; it was disconcerting.
Tony shook his head, and started to pace, hands linked behind his back.† It was a familiar motion, something Steve had seen him do before when planning something.† "I'll need to call a press conference as soon as possible.† I have to put my own spin on this before the Bugle or one of my competitors gets ahold of it."† He turned on his heel, facing Steve again, and sighed, shoulders slumping slightly.† "Once I've taken care of that, I'll go back to my apartment at SI and get out of your hair."
Steve shook his head.† "This is your house," he said, more stiffly than he'd intended to.† "If you think you'd be more comfortable, or safer here... you're still an Avenger."
Tony blinked.† "I'm still- Of course.† You have a full line-up here already, Cap.† I can just... stay out of your hair."
"Actually," Wanda said, "I'm staying, too.† Or at least, I was thinking of staying, if it won't cause too much trouble, to keep working on this.† I'm sorry, Tony.† I've been studying chaos magic on my own, but I havenít had anyone to teach me since Agnes.† I have much better control over my powers than I used to, but I know I'm not doing as much as I could.† I should be able to fix you."
Strange raised an eyebrow.† "Chaos magic can't be used to restore order to a disordered system."
Wanda shook her head, wisps of hair flying around her face.† "No, but I ought to be able to use it to disrupt the spell."
"That's a very astute point, Ms. Maximoff," Strange allowed.† "As long as we're working together to attempt to restore your teammate to his usual self, I suppose I could instruct you in the ways of magic.† Youíre nowhere near as far advanced as Clea, but you have managed to make a considerable amount of progress on your own, already."
"Oh, thank you," Wanda said dryly.
Did Strange pick up on her sarcasm, Steve wondered, or was his arrogance too impenetrable for that?† He was, admittedly, very good at what he did, but he also was very, very aware of exactly how good at it he was.
"I'm glad I'm proving to be such a learning experience for everyone," Tony said.† His newly husky voice was unfamiliar, but the sharp sarcasm in it was not.
"Sorry," Wanda said again.† "This has just made me realize how much I have left to learn."
Tony sighed, and turned away a little, wrapping his arms around his torso.† With his face turned away, he barely even looked like Tony anymore, but that bit of body language was also familiar; Steve had seem him fold his arms defensively like that even in the armor.
"If you both are staying, I really ought to go back," Hank said.† He had been lurking in the doorway, so quiet that Steve had almost forgotten he was there.† "I... probably should anyway."
Strange frowned.† "I might have further tests I'd like your assistance with."† He shrugged, the frown replaced by a slightly self-deprecating smile, and added, "I never did get the hang of doing my own labwork, back in medical school."
"I can fly back out on the quinjet if you need me," Hank said firmly.
Strange raised an eyebrow again, but thankfully let it go at that.† Steve felt a brief flash of relief that he wasn't pushing further -- everyone knew about the trial, and Hank nearly being sent to jail after being used as a pawn by Egghead, but the exact nature of what had happened between Hank and Jan was Jan's secret to tell, and not something Steve would have been comfortable sharing with anyone outside the Avengers.† Even most of the current team didn't know exactly why their marriage had ended, just that it had.
"You don't have to leave," Tony said, still not looking at the rest of them.† "No one's kicking you out."
That wasn't entirely true -- they weren't going to kick Hank out, but his staying wasn't a good idea, and Steve doubted Jan would welcome his presence as a longterm thing.† And to his credit, Hank clearly knew that.
"Yes I do," Hank said.† "Otherwise, Tigra, Bobbi, and Clint will be holding down the fort in LA by themselves."
Tony's lips twitched.† "Good point.† Clint and Bobbi would probably kill each other before the three of us got back."
There was a momentary pause, while Hank and Wanda both looked at Tony with raised eyebrows.† "You know," Hank said, "you're a lot meaner as a woman."
"You try losing key body parts and see if it puts you in a good mood," Tony muttered.† "And I wasn't exactly a nice guy before."
"If this goes on too long, it's going to throw the team line-ups off balance," Steve pointed out, trying to bring the topic back to the matter at hand.† "We're going to have to do something about that."
Tony waved a hand.† "If I have to, I can go back to the West Coast and fly back any time they have a new spell to try on me.† I actually had to be in New York this week anyway, for a board meeting."† He made a wry face, and added, "I'm running a lot of SI's R&D department from the West Coast now, but most of my board don't want to go any further from Wall Street than you have to go in order to go antiquing in Connecticut.† Not unless it's to Europe."
"All right," Steve said, "I think we can make that work."† He hesitated, and then, unable to resist asking, "How are you going to explain this," he gestured vaguely at Tony's altered body, "to the board members?"
"I'm trying not to think about that."† Tony sighed.† "Let's just go tell everyone else that I'm stuck like this and get that fun experience over with."
--forward the schematics to me and I'll take a look at them.† I think the tolerance margins may be too narrow; remember, the computer can calculate things more exactly than our machining tools can reproduce.
Tony hit send, not bother to type a closing or signature -- everyone at SI recognized his email address -- and opened the next message in his inbox.† He'd tried to put it off as long as possible, dealing with all the messages from the engineering and manufacturing departments first, but the red-flagged "important" emails from the accounting and marketing guys might actually be important.
Thank God for the internet; he could do a good two-third of the work he usually did in his office while sitting right here in his lab at the Avengers Mansion.† Some of the board members and prospective large-scale customers might be irritated that he'd emailed them back instead of calling their cell phones or secretaries as requested, but an email was vastly preferably to no response at all, and he hadn't been off the radar for long enough for people to get suspicious yet.
He couldn't stay away from the office forever, though.† There was the board meeting the day after tomorrow, and...
Maybe he could have Iron Man show up and inform people that Tony Stark was sick, and couldn't come.
No.† Tony shook his head, and viciously deleted an email nagging him to set up an appointment to discuss his recent re-acquisition of his technology with SHIELD.† If Fury wanted to come yell at him, let him track Tony down personally first.
No, claiming to be sick wouldn't work.† Everyone would assume "sick" was a euphemism for "drunk."† It didn't matter that his heart surgery was public knowledge; he'd forfeited the benefit of the doubt with his recent behavior, and any failure to appear at a scheduled meeting would only strengthen the prevailing opinion in the business world that he was unreliable.
At least the other Avengers didn't and wouldn't blame him for being turned into a girl, despite the headaches reshuffling team membership so that he and Wanda could stay on the East Coast and concealing Iron Man's temporary transformation into "Iron Woman" was going to cause them.† And they'd mostly stopped snickering.
He'd expected them -- Steve especially -- to be annoyed at the very least, especially given how utterly he'd failed to fulfill his responsibilities to the team last year, but in retrospect, he realized, it had been a silly fear.† The drinking, losing the company, having to hand the armor off to Rhodey, had all been his fault.† His current transformation wasn't.† And if they'd been willing to take him back after the months he'd spent as an unreliable alcoholic mess, then the team wasn't going to withdraw their support because he'd come out the loser in a fight with Loki.
The sound of voices in the hall pulled his attention away from his email.
"I know he's here, Jarvis.† I traced the IP address he sent the last thirty emails SI's gotten from him to the mansion."
Pepper.† Tony winced, suddenly regretting the fact that he'd taught her how to do that little trick, which she'd apparently learned well enough that the measures he'd taken to hide the location of the computer he was using hadn't stopped her.
He resisted the impulse to hide behind a piece of equipment and made himself stay put, bracing himself for her reaction; she would have to find out eventually, and everyone would know after Tuesday.† Better to get it over with now.
"Mr. Stark doesn't wish to be disturbed-" Jarvis was saying.
"Too bad."† Pepper cut him off ruthlessly.† "He hasn't been in the office in four days.† Bambi Arbogast is at her wits end.† You know what happened the last time he disappeared.† I know you're in there, Tony," she called, as the door swung open, "don't bother hiding."
Pepper froze in the doorway, a PDA in one hand and a stylus in the other.† "Who are-" she broke off, staring at him.† "Tony?!"
"Yes," he sighed.† "It's me.† It's a very, very long story."
Then she started to laugh.† "A woman," she managed, after a moment.† "You've been turned into a woman.† Tony Stark, world famous billionaire industrialist playboy, is a woman."
Did every woman he knew other than Wanda have to sound so gleeful?† He wasn't that bad, surely.† Tony buried his face in his hands, closing his eyes; it felt strange to rub his hands over his face and not feel the slight rough catch of facial hair, another reminder that his body wasn't his own anymore.† "I hate my life," he muttered.
"So," Pepper said, her voice serious and businesslike, "do you want me to call a press conference for tomorrow, or do you just want to walk into the meeting Tuesday unannounced and break the news then?† And if you're going to do that, can I watch?"
Tony looked up again, to find her visibly struggling to suppress a smile.† "You don't seem very surprised by any of this."
Pepper raised her eyebrows. "After six years of working for you, it takes a lot to surprise me," she said dryly.
Tony lowered his head into his hands again, digging his fingers into his hair.† "I bet the board's going to be surprised, though.† Half of them have been looking for an excuse to get rid of me again, not that I blame them."
"They can't get rid of you for being a girl, Tony.† New York has several nice laws forbidding that kind of thing."
"Oh, it won't be because I'm a woman."† If there was one thing his fellow businessmen excelled at, it was finding justifications for not hiring or promoting women or minorities that didn't actually involve their being women and minorities.† Tony had used it to his advantage before; people who'd been unjustly passed over for promotion three times tended to jump at the chance to leave their current place of employ and come and work for him, especially when he offered them the higher paying job with greater responsibility that they should have already had.† "It will be because they 'don't believe' I'm really Tony Stark, or because being transformed into a woman has clearly unhinged my mind, or they're concerned for my health, or something."
Pepper snorted.† "Concerned for your health?† I'd like to see them try that one."
"Well, yeah," Tony admitted, "if booting me out over concern for my health didn't work when I was having open heart surgery, I doubt it will work now, but that's not going to stop them from trying."
"How thoroughly, um, feminine are you?† Could you pass a DNA test?"
"One chromosome different, according to Hank Pym, which is enough to convince the Avengers that I'm Tony Stark, but isn't going to fly with the business world.† They won't see anything beyond the fact that it's not an exact match."† He held up one hand and wriggled his fingers.† "My fingerprints are the same, though.† And I still have all the same scars and other identifying marks."
"Who knew your checkered medical history would turn out to be so useful?"
Tony glared up at her.† He would have stood, but he had a nasty suspicion that Pepper, in her customary three-inch heels, would turn out to be taller than he currently was.† "I'm glad this is so amusing for you," he said.
Pepper lips twitched.† "I'm sorry, Tony," she said gravely, though from the look on her face, she was only barely keeping her mirth contained.† As apologies went, it wasn't particularly convincing.† But then, Thor had already apologized enough for everybody, before running off to personally hunt down Loki for vengeance.
"Suggestions for ways to make Tuesday turn out to be something less than a total disaster would be appreciated," he muttered.† Today's meeting with the rest of the team had gone better than he'd expected -- the rest of the Avengers had taken the news that they were stuck with a female Iron Man for the foreseeable future in stride, and Jen and Vision had offered to take his and Wanda's places in California, Vision in a transparent attempt to not have to be where Wanda was, and Jen because she'd apparently been nursing either a deep-seated desire to go be on the same team as Clint so she could throw him into walls again, or a deep-seated desire to force Tony and Steve to have to work together once more, something she'd already informed him would be good for the Avengers as a whole -- but he doubted he'd be so lucky with the board.
"Clothing that actually fits would be a start."† Pepper gestured at Tony's dress shirt, now over-sized and hanging off his shoulders.† "So would a bra.† We wear them for a reason, you know."
Mentioning that he'd been down in the lab in the first place so that he could avoid Jan and Wanda's attempts to make him come along on the shopping expedition they'd left for this morning would get him nowhere, Tony knew.† "I'm not wearing a skirt," he said.† "Or heels.† I'm not actually a woman."
"It's the twenty-first century, Tony.† You can wear exactly the same thing as you always do, just in a size and cut that doesn't make it look like you're wearing your boyfriend's clothing."
"If I hadn't said anything, you'd have arranged for me to wear one of those Businesswoman Barbie suits that have a miniskirt instead of pants."
Pepper didn't even bother trying to deny it.† "You'd be cute in a miniskirt, sir.† The board would love it."
Tony shuddered.† "Please don't say that."† At least one or two of them would, he suspected.† Some, like Layton and Shooter, had been on the board of directors since his father had been his age, and he'd once seen Shooter pat a secretary on the ass.
Flirting with one's co-workers and subordinates was one thing.† Actually touching them crossed the line from harmless fun into outright harassment.
Tony sighed, and cast a wistful glance at the schematics for the Mansion's security system, which he'd had spread out across the workbench beside his laptop, waiting until he finished answering his email, and the armor sitting patiently in the middle of the lab, awaiting the modifications that would compensate for his new lower bodyweight, smaller size, and altered center of gravity. "You're right. †We'd better go get me something to wear.† I'm going to need it before you call that press conference."
Strange's study was lit almost entirely by natural light, sunlight pouring in through the huge, round window set in the far wall.† At night, the main illumination would come from the candles scattered around the room, some of them stuck directly to tables or projecting pieces of the room's plaster molding with puddles of their own melted wax.† Wanda eyed them speculatively and hoped that Strange had cast some form of fire prevention spell over the house.† Several of them were dangerously close to the heavy brocade curtains that hung in the doorway and against one wall, and one half-melted specimen was glued to the top of a pile of books by a waterfall of wax that had dripped and then hardened.
Agatha's house had always been filled with a comfortingly old-fashioned collection of Victorian clutter, but Strange went her one better.† The walls were lined with book shelves, most of them jammed with leather-bound books, but some of them holding statues of strange, tentacled monsters, braziers cast in fanciful shapes, crystal balls of various sizes and colors, including several made from actual rock crystal, and one subtlety inhuman skull.† The lettering on the spines of some of the books seemed to writhe when she wasn't looking directly at it.
The Sanctum Sanctorum was said to contain portals to other dimensions within its walls, to be bigger on the inside than it was on the outside.† Wanda believed it.† Strange's -- servant?† Partner? -- had led her down yard after yard of twisting corridors and up more staircases than there were stories in the building in order to bring her to this room, and she could feel the latent magical energy in the air here.
It made the hair along her arms stand up.† Power, ready for the taking, or ready for those who could forms of magic other than pure chaos energy, anyway.
Strange was waiting for her by the window, in full sorcerer supreme regalia.† Did he ever wear anything else?
Wanda glanced down at her broomstick skirt and brown leather boots and wondered if she ought to have come in costume.† Would Strange think she looked unprofessional?
"You're on time," Strange observed.† "Good.† We have a lot of work to do."† Before Wanda could ask any of the numerous questions she had for him, he continued, "Before we can do anything else, we must first gauge the extant of your training."
"How are we going to do that?" she asked.† It was a perfectly reasonable way to begin, but she nevertheless felt a hint of trepidation.† What exactly would he want her to do?† Presumably nothing dangerous, but if she failed... Strange would probably have no compunctions about refusing to teach her any further.
At least Clea wasn't there.† The other woman was the daughter of a goddess, raised in a demon dimension; she had learned her first lesson in magic from Dormammu himself, long before she'd ever become Strange's apprentice.† Wanda, human and only half-trained, couldn't hope to measure up, and it would have been humiliating to have to display her comparative lack of knowledge in front of Strange's first student.
Strange fetched a fist-sized crystal ball down from one of the shelves and brought it over to her.† "This is one of the Crystal Spheres of Contemplation," he said, holding it out to her.† "If a magician meditates while holding it, his or her power and strength of will causes it to glow.† The brightness of the light it emits will allow me to determine the amount of raw power you posses, and the steadiness of the light will reveal the strength of your mental discipline."
That sounded reassuringly non-painful, and similar to some of the meditation exercises Agatha had had her perform, though Agatha hadn't used magical artifacts, preferring candles and circles of runes.
The crystal of contemplation was heavy, carved from a single piece of rose quartz with one milky-white flaw near its center.† Wanda sat cross-legged on Strange's thick oriental rug and closed her eyes, rolling the crystal between her hands and trying to relax, to let her hex powers fill her without actually using them.† Ensuring that the power she called up didn't being to warp chance and probability out of true around her took a significant amount of concentration.
The crystal was growing warm in her hands, like something living, and it had begun to glow just brightly enough that she could see its light as a soft red glow through her closed eyelids.
"Very good," Strange's voice seemed to come out of nowhere, and Wanda started, opening her eyes, the light from the crystal fading away as she did so.
"You have considerable magical potential," he said, "though your training is incomplete.† I expected as much.† Magic is a matter of imposing your will upon reality, and you were able to do that so successfully when you created your twins that even I was unaware of their true nature.† Their place in reality was not fixed, their existence given shape only by your will, but that will was strong enough that when you were present, the illusion was seamless."
Wanda winced; she could still hear her children's screams as Mephisto had re-absorbed them back into himself.† She had been able to make them exist while she was around them; if she had been more knowledgeable, more experienced, more skilled, would she have been able to make the spell permanent, make them real?
Strange would be able to tell her the answer to that, she knew, but she didnít want to ask.† She already felt uneasily as if she were betraying Agatha by seeking out training from another sorcerer. She wasn't going to ask Strange to second-guess Agatha's advice.† Whatever answer he gave, it wouldn't make losing the twins any easier.† Would knowing that it was her own fault, or that Agatha had encouraged her to try to create them too soon be worse, or knowing that it had been a forlorn hope, an impossible task that no witch or sorceress would have been able to successfully complete?
Strange was frowning at her, she realized, a faint expression of concern on his long, angular face.† He was probably regretting bring the subject of the twins up at all -- people all thought they had to walk on eggshells around her over it, that reminding her of it would cause her to have some kind of emotional breakdown.
"If you do not mind me asking," she began, deliberately changing the subject, "why did you agree to train me?† You're infamous for refusing to take on students."
Strange smiled at that, a sardonic flicker of humor in his eyes.† "Because untrained magical potential is dangerous, especially for those who have a great deal of it, and there are few forms of magical energy more dangerous and unpredictable than chaos magic.† And of those remaining who possess the knowledge and ability to train you, very few can be trusted."
"That isn't very reassuring," Wanda said.† It was true, though; most practitioners of chaos magic were malicious tricksters like Loki or worshippers of Chthon.
Strange raised an eyebrow.† "I didn't mean it to be," he told her.† "Shall we begin?† I need for you to demonstrate a spell for me, preferably one of the more complicated ones you know..."
"You shall pay for humiliating me at our last encounter, Captain!"† Zemo shouted.† "This time, the Masters of Evil will not be defeated!"
This time, the Masters of Evil consisted of Helmut Zemo, Mister Hyde, and the supervillain formerly known as Goliath, who had finally gotten tired of stealing Hank and Jim Foster's name and begun calling himself Atlas.
Last month, when they had attacked the Avengers Mansion and injured Hercules so badly that he had had to temporarily quit the team -- and beaten up Jarvis, for which Steve was never ever going to forgive them -- they had had the Wrecking Crew along for the ride.
Now it was just the three of them, and Steve was enjoying beating them in the most humiliating way possible very much indeed.
"What happened the last time you guys met?" Tony asked, as he spun sideways in midair to avoid Atlas's giant fist.
"I threw him off the roof," Steve said, and hit Mister Hyde in the face with his shield.
He and Tony might be barely speaking to one another these days, but in a fight, it turned out, their old partnership functioned as well as it ever had.† It was almost possible to forget that the person inside the armor wasn't the same man he had known for years, that they weren't friends anymore.
Sam, harassing Atlas on his left, folded his wings and dove under both massive arms, while Tony fired his jetboots and climbed higher, the two of them swapping places as smoothly as if they had choreographed it.
Hyde's fist slammed into Steve's shield, the impact rendering his entire right arm numb.† She-Hulk's superhuman strength would be very useful right about now, he reflected.† Too bad she had already left for California.† Tony and Sam were busy with Atlas, and Jan was occupied flying in circles around Zemo's head to draw the fire from his rifle and Adhesive X gun while Wanda steadily transformed the Mansion's front lawn into a living, vengeful obstacle course around him.
Which left Steve to slug it out with Hyde.† He'd done it before and he could do it again -- Hyde might have super-strength, but he relied on it almost exclusively in fight, and his combat skills were no match for years of training and experience -- but it always cost him a heavy toll in bruises and cracked bones.
Steve swayed backwards, aiming a kick at Hyde's ribs that should have broken bones but was probably only going to leave bruises.† "You should have stayed in prison," he said, switching his shield to his left hand.† "They'll add another three years to your sentence for this escape."
"A truly great mind cannot be imprisoned," Hyde snarled.
Steve managed to turn sideways and take the punch intended for his face on his right shoulder, which spared him the moment of dizziness a blow to the head might have cost him, but only further cemented his arm's temporary uselessness.
"I will not be humiliated like this!" Zemo shrieked.† A garden hose was tangled around his ankles, a Gordian knot of green rubber, and part of his purple mask had been singed black by Jan's stingers.† He fired his rifle in Jan's general direction, the muzzle blast ear-splitting, but he had come loaded with massive bullets designed to take down Thor or She-Hulk, and Jan's tiny form was too small a target for him to hit.
"That's for Jarvis!" Jan shouted, blasting him directly in his purple-fabric-covered face.
Hyde, damn him, was not tiring.† Steve managed to catch another blow on his shield, this time at an angle that deflected most of its force.† He let the momentum carry him around, kicking Hyde viciously in the gut with as much force as he could muster.
Hyde doubled over, the breath wooshing out of him, and his huge, sausage-fingered hands closed around Steve's ankle, gripping so tightly that it felt as if his bones were being ground together.
Steve hit the ground hard, just managing to roll out of the way of a kick that would have caved in his skull.† Then there was a familiar high-pitched whine of energy, as a repulsor beam caught Hyde right between the shoulder blades.
Hyde staggered forward a step and fell to one knee, and Steve rolled to his feet and slammed his shield into the other man's jaw in the same motion, using the momentum of his own upward movement to add power to the blow.
Hyde's head snapped back, and he crumpled to the ground, out like a light.
That was always such a satisfying move to perform, Steve reflected.† Dangerous to use on anyone who didnít share Hyde's enhanced durability, though; if his shield collided with someone's face at the wrong angle, it could drive bone fragments into their brain and kill them.
He'd done it several times during the war, including once by accident.† He had no desire to repeat the experience.
Steve straightened, and turned to face Tony, ready to offer a sincere if slightly grudging thanks, when a resounding thud made the earth beneath his feet vibrate.† It was followed, a half a second later, by an explosion.
Steve spun around, shield at the ready, to find Atlas stretched full length on the ground, out cold, with Sam sitting on his back.† Zemo was standing stock still, covered in thick, ropey strands of Adhesive X; his rifle was completely coated in it and utterly useless.† There were grass clippings all over him, stuck to the globs of adhesive.† He looked like he'd been tarred and feathered.
Wanda was smirking openly at him, dusting her hands together with the air of someone who had just finished performing a distasteful but necessary task.† Jan was perched daintily on her shoulder.† Steve couldn't see her expression, but he would have been willing to bet money that she was smirking, too.
"Good luck getting the glue off," Wanda said.† "If you're fortunate, they'll only have to take off a few layers of skin to do it."
The police arrived several minutes later, and looked less than pleased to see Hyde; this was, after all, his third arrest in the space of two months, if the aborted escape attempt Steve had halted a couple of weeks ago counted.
Zemo, however, they were extremely pleased to see, or at least visibly amused by.† Steve was sure he heard a few snickers as they -- very carefully -- cuffed him and led him away.
As the police cars pulled away, Steve surveyed the wreckage of the Mansion's lawn and wriggled the fingers of his right hand as the numbness slowly faded from them.† His shoulder was throbbing now, the heat of bruises already gathering under the skin.
"Good work, Avengers," he said, making sure to glance in Tony's direction so that he would know he was included in that statement as well.† "Now, what were we doing before these goons showed up?"
"Well, whatever I was doing before, it's been replaced by called the landscapers to do something about this."† Jan waved a hand at the torn-up lawn.† "They've fixed worse damage before, but I want to make sure we get this taken care of before Jarvis feels like he has to start repairing it.† He shouldn't have to clean up after those jerks."
"No," Steve agreed.† "He shouldn't."† Zemo's Masters of Evil had sent Jarvis to the emergency room the last time they'd visited the mansion.† Jarvis shouldn't have to do a second's worth of extra work on their account.
"Offer them a bonus if they're done by the end of the day," Tony said. "Tell them Mr. Stark is paying for it."
Jan offered him a bright smile.† "I was planning to."
"I can't even remember what I was doing before they showed up."† Sam shook his head, winced, and then rolled his neck in a slow circle.† "You know, my old apartment never got attacked this often.† This place is like Grand Central for supervillains."
"The price of living in the Avengers Mansion," Steve sighed.† "Being this close to Central Park's jogging trails is worth it, though."
"Says you," Sam snorted.† "How many fights with someone in brightly colored spandex did you get into while you were out running last week?"
"Only two," Steve protested.† "And they were good exercise."
Sam shook his head.† "You're not even joking, are you?"
Wanda glanced down at her watch, frowning.† "Stopped again," she muttered.† "What time is it, Iron Man?"
"Just past one."† Tony tilted his head slightly, considering, the armor's faceplate remaining as impassive as always. †"An old fashioned clockwork number would stand up to your powers better, you know."
"I had one.† You have no idea how many ways there are for something with that many tiny, moving parts to break."† Before Tony could offer the inevitable reply that he knew exactly how many ways there were and start listing them to prove it, she went on, "and I was supposed to be at Strange's sanctum sanctorum at one for a lesson.† He can never be bothered to be on time for anything, but woe betide the rest of us if we keep him waiting."
That was when the channel five news van arrived, unusually late on the scene -- normally, they beat the police to the site of a super-powered fight by a large margin.† Steve seized eagerly on Jan and Sam's offer to deal with them, probably prompted by the stiff way he was moving, and escaped inside as quickly as he could, Tony hot on his heels.
Tony avoided reporters like the plague these days, both in and out of the armor.† He had adjusted the armor's voice modifiers to conceal his new, feminine voice, but he was still paranoid about the idea that someone might notice a difference and connect the dots.
If the press had managed to catch up with him, they would have only pressured Iron Man for more news about his boss's transformation.† It was the only news story involving the Avengers that the Bugle and the Times had been printing for the past ten days.
It had actually managed to pull the papers' attention away from speculation over whether or not Tony had been involved in his 'bodyguard's' rampage of destruction two months ago, something Steve hadn't previously believed possible.† Tony had offered the press even less in the way of an explanation than he had given Steve, claiming that 'Iron Man' had been acting on his own initiative, and that a new bodyguard was wearing the armor now.
Unsurprisingly, no one really believed either half of that statement.
Steve ought to have told at the very least the police the truth -- Tony had broken the law, after all, and caused a significant amount of property damage in the process -- but he hadn't been able to give up the hope that Tony would redeem himself somehow, that he would offer up some explanation for his actions that excused or explained them.
He hadn't, of course, beyond assuring Steve that 'Iron Man' still had his back.† Once, he would have explained himself to Steve without hesitation, but Steve had the unhappy feeling that those days were over, possibly for good.
"I hate reporters,' Tony said, as the Mansion's heavy door swung shut behind them.
"Why?" Steve asked.† "Because they have that annoying habit of asking questions like 'Whose orders was Iron Man following when he broke all those federal laws and killed Titanium Man?'"† All right, maybe that sounded a little harsher than he'd meant it to.
"That was an accident!" Tony snapped, the strain in his voice clear even though the helmet's voice modifier.† "His armor malfunctioned!"
Steve stopped in his tracks, going cold, the ache in his battered arm forgotten.† "You mean that really was you?† I thought the Russians were just taking advantage of your apparent temporary insanity to pin the blame for his death on you."
Tony had demonstrated that he was willing to go to extreme, even criminal lengths to reclaim his stolen technology, but murder?† "We don't kill people, Tony.† Not when lives aren't at stake."
Tony shook his head, holding his gauntleted hands up, palms out, but Steve didn't want to hear whatever excuse he was about to make.† Not right now.
"We'll talk about this later," Steve said.† Then he turned on his heel and left, leaving Tony standing motionless in the middle of the front hallway.
What he really wanted to do was go down to the Mansion's gym and beat the stuffing out of the heavy bag there until he could think about this calmly, but his shoulder was already bruised and sore as it was; putting himself through what would essentially be the second fight in a row right now would only make it worse, and could turn mere soreness into an actual injury.
Instead, he went to the kitchen and dug an icepack out of the freezer, then dropped into one of the solid wooden chairs and held the plastic bag full of ice against his shoulder.† It would have worked better if the leather and mail of his costume weren't in the way, but trying to strip out of the skin-tight leather right now was more trouble than it was worth.† He'd wait a few minutes, he decided, let the ice start to numb things.
Tony had killed someone.† In the armor.† Killing someone with his repulsor gauntlets was what started the downward spiral that nearly killed him in the first place; Steve would have sworn any oath someone cared to name that Tony would never willingly use his armor to kill again, not unless other people's lives were at stake.
Damnit, maybe he actually had gone crazy.† It wouldn't be the first time one of them had snapped under pressure.
If Tony had broken under pressure before, he could do so again, and Tony was under an awful lot of pressure right now.
And to think that he'd thought the Avengers' biggest problem right now was the fact that Tony was a woman.
The ice pack felt good against his shoulder, but it was starting to make his fingers numb; the leather of his gloves was thinner than the rest of his costume, for flexibility's sake.† Steve shifted his grip on the ice pack and wondered when exactly his team had started to fall apart.
Had it been with Hank, or even before that?† Wanda and Vision had broken up, Hank and Tony had both fallen apart, half Steve's teammates had taken off for the West Coast to start a new team, which was a useful and important thing to do, but he missed the days when everyone had been a together in New York, almost like a family.
He had missed that, over the past year or so, while the Avengers line-up shifted constantly around him, never staying the same for more than a month at a time.† Captain Marvel and the Black Knight were very good at what they did, skilled professionals whom it was a pleasure to work with, and Namor was an old friend, no matter how irritating he could be, but they weren't Steve's family, not the way his old team had been.† When Monica and Dain had left the team to take care of their own affairs, it hadn't hurt or disappointed him, not the way it had when Tony had left, when Hank had had to be kicked out, and it hadn't just been because they'd left under infinitely more favorable circumstances, although that had helped.
Steve had just gotten up to swap the icepack out for one that wasn't starting to melt when the very last person he wanted to see appeared in the kitchen doorway.
"Steve," Tony started.† "I-" he broke off, looking away.
Tony had taken the armor off, something he did as little as possible these days, and was wearing jeans and a burgundy sweater that had once fit him perfectly and now hung on him, hiding the curves of breasts and hips under shapeless wool.† Steve wondered if it was intentional.† Had Tony deliberately tried to make himself look vulnerable, non-confrontational, before coming in search of him?
"I can't believe," Steve said, quietly, "that you killed someone and forgot to mention it."
"It was on the news."† Tony's voice was low, even.† "I thought you knew."
To be honest, it had been, but Steve hadn't thought-† "I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt, God knows why."
Tony flinched.† "I didn't mean to.† I-- his armor malfunctioned, caught on fire.† Neither of us could get it to stop."† He looked away, then back up at Steve, meeting his eyes squarely.† "If you want me to leave the team, I won't argue, but I owe you the whole story before I go."
An accident.† Of course it was an accident.† Tony would never intentionally use his armor to murder someone.† But then, once Steve would have said that Tony would never have used his armor against† him, or against SHIELD.† "What were you doing, Tony?† What did you think you were-† Why were you even fighting him in the first place?"† He knew why -- to get his precious technology back, technology that was apparently worth more to Tony than friendships, the law, or people's safety and lives -- but he wanted to hear Tony say it, wanted to hear him either admit that it was wrong or offer some kind of explanation that would make it all make sense.
"Of all the people I couldn't risk having access to my tech..."† Tony shook his head. "Russia sells arms to anyone who wants them these days.† Who knows where my designs could have ended up?"† He gestured vaguely at the air around him with a slender hand that still didn't look like it belonged to him.† "China.† North Korea.† Afghanistan.† I could have been responsible for the next major terrorist attack."
Tony had a strange concept of responsibility, obsessively over-zealous at some times and then nearly non-existent at others.† Steve belated realized that he was still holding the fresh icepack, and put it against his shoulder again without taking his eyes off Tony.† "And so you thought you'd prevent that by blowing things up?"
Tony sighed, looking down at his feet and then back up.† He was still standing in the doorway, neither inside nor outside the room, as if he weren't sure that Steve would welcome his presence, but couldn't quite bring himself to leave.† "I stopped selling weapons for a reason, because I couldn't control who had them or how they were used, and damn it, Fury knows that.† He knows why I-- he was the one who debriefed me when I got back from Afghanistan." Tony's voice had risen, and he was speaking faster now, the world tumbling over one another.† "And then he went behind my back last year and stole my patents and my tech, and if you think any of that was just going to stay in SHIELD's hands and not end up being used wherever the government wanted it to be, which it was, it was everywhere--"† He shook his head, hard, hair whipping back and forth around his face.† "Titanium Man was almost unstoppable even before he had my technology to augment his suit, and I --† It's my fault it was everywhere.† I fucked up, I didn't safeguard my lab properly and I lost control of the company and I had to clean up my own messes.† No one else was going to."
Tony's face was easier to read now, maybe because of the lack of facial hair, and the fear and guilt and anger there was raw, barely controlled.† He had wrapped both arms around his torso, like he was trying to hold himself together, something Steve had seen him do before, mostly during those months right before he had left the Avengers and nearly stopped being Iron Man for good, the months when, Steve knew now, he had been steadily trying to drink himself into oblivion whenever he wasn't in the armor.
Could he hear how irrational he sounded?† How abrupt and shrill his voice had gotten?† Did he even realize it?
"And there wasn't a legal way to fight it?" Steve asked, trying to sound as non-accusatory as possible.† He managed to keep the anger he still felt out of his voice; the more they talked about this, the more visibly upset Tony got, and if Steve somehow pushed him over the edge, he might never get his explanation.† He had to be careful, calm, or Tony would shut down, the way he had in the hotel.† "A way that didn't involve taking it back by force?"
Tony closed his eyes for a moment, long lashes dark against his skin.† His hands were curled into fists.† "Do you think I didn't try that?" he snapped.† "Do you think Fury would have made a move in the first place if he didn't have his ass covered?"† He drew in a long, slightly shaky breath, and added, quietly, "They were using my designs in weapons, Steve."
Weapons.† Like the ones that Tony had made once.† The ones that had nearly killed him.† This level of open anxiety over them was new, though.† "You still do contractor work for the military, or at least you did."
Tony shook his head again, the motion jerky.† "Communications equipment.† Aircraft engines.† Medical equipment.† Not weapons systems or munitions.† Not anymore.† I couldn't let them keep my technology.† I couldn't.† I had to get it back or destroy it, or- or bad things would have happened.† People would have died.† Because of me.† I had to stop it.† I had to," he repeated, voice sharp and brittle again.† "I-"
"Tony," Steve interrupted, and Tony immediately fell silent, his breathing unsteady.† "Tony, you know you sound-"
"I don't sound crazy," Tony snapped.† "I can't trust anyone with it, not even the government.† Especially not the government.† You know that.† You didn't trust them either.† You gave your shield up because you didn't trust them, which is just about like one of the rest of us cutting one of our hands off.† Like me giving the armor up."
"I... may have been over-reacting when I did that."† Backing down and putting his real costume back on after all of that had been an embarrassing lesson in swallowing one's pride, but it had been the right thing to do.† The administration whose actions he had been protesting had been on their way out -- was out, now -- and it had been time to stop grandstanding.
"I can't trust anyone with it!" Tony repeated, all but shouting.† "I can't.† I-" he broke off, covering his face with one hand.† "Oh God, I do sound crazy.† I sound like Hank."
He didn't sound crazy, not exactly, but he didn't sound anywhere near rational, either.
"You had to regain control of your technology or people might have died," Steve said, carefully.† "You do realize that the tactics you were using could have killed people.† Did kill someone."
"An accident," Steve agreed.† "Which wouldn't have happened if you hadn't been fighting him to begin with."
"Even if I was, even if SHIELD-"† Tony broke off, shook his head sharply, and went on, "I couldn't leave any of my technology in his hands.† He's killed people before and would have again.† Even if I could have trusted Fury, Titanium Man was-- I wasn't over-reacting when I went after him.† I didn't mean for him to die," he added.† "I tried to put the fire out, but it was burning too hot.† He had magnesium in some of his suit's circuitry, I think.† And the suit itself wasn't capable of handling the kind of power load my designs required."
Tony pushed past Steve into the kitchen and dropped heavily into the chair Steve had been sitting in, resting his elbows on the table and burying his face in his hands.† "So I did kill him, in a way," he said softly, the words muffled by his fingers.† "I was just so angry, and so scared.† I knew what would happen if I didn't fix things.† And it would all have been my fault, and I wouldn't have been able to live with it."† He shook his head back and forth minutely, digging his fingers into his hair.† "I swear it made sense then.† I was trying to keep anyone from getting hurt.† Even when I was attacking people, all I wanted was to-"
"Keep people from being killed," Steve interrupted.† "I grasp that.† I just don't understand why you wouldn't listen to me, why you had to put people's safety at risk."
"I-" Tony started.† Then he was silent for a long moment.† "I don't know," he said finally, voice uneven.† "I was so sure that-† I said I sounded crazy.† Maybe I was.† Things haven't made sense in so long that I just don't know anymore."
They didn't make any sense to Steve, either, but at least Tony seemed to realize that he hadn't been acting rationally, if not actually that he'd been wrong.
Steve had thought, when he'd confronted Tony to demand that he stop, and later, when he'd thrown "the Captain's" shield back in Tony's face, that Tony had been completely recovered from whatever it was that had driven him to try and seek oblivion in a bottle -- he had been so determined, so driven, so different from the man who'd been willing to just lie down and die -- but maybe he hadn't been.† Neither set of actions had seemed like Tony, unless Steve knew Tony far less well than he had thought, something he'd been willing to believe.
Maybe he didn't know Tony as well as he'd always thought he had, or maybe Tony had completely snapped under the strain of being both Iron Man and Tony Stark.† Either way, it bothered him to see Tony so obviously upset, to see him in pain.† It made him want to forgive Tony everything, just to see Tony smile at him again.
He couldn't do that, but he could take a step closer to Tony and rest one hand on his shoulder.
Tony stiffened under his touch, and drew in a long breath.† "I said I would leave the team if you asked me to, and I meant it, but I swear you can trust me at your back, Steve.† You always can. I know you may not believe me anymore, not after what I've done, but..."
Steve flexed his fingers, tightening his grip on Tony's shoulder.† It felt too small under his hand, delicate.
Rachel was never delicate.† It was one of the things he had liked about her, her strength.† One of the things he liked about Tony, too.
"I would put my life on the line for Iron Man," he said.† "Or for Tony Stark."
"But you still think I was wrong," Tony said.
Steve didn't answer.† He was pretty sure he didn't need to.
Tony sighed, and leaned back into Steve's touch; not much, but just enough for it to be perceptible and slightly disconcerting.† "Maybe I was.† I would do it again, though.† Not in the same way, not with the same mistakes, but I would.† It had to be done."
He twisted in his seat, looking up at Steve, and Steve was suddenly very aware that Tony's hand on his wrist was delicate, feminine.† That there were breasts under that sweater, the faint swell of them very visible from this angle.† He even smelled different, in some subtle way Steve couldn't quite define.† Like a woman.
If Steve's eyes had been closed, he wouldn't even have known this was Tony.
He let go of Tony's shoulder and took an abrupt step backward, feeling his face heat.† "Thank you," he said, feeling suddenly awkward.† "For explaining."
Then he left the kitchen as quickly as he could without actually looking like he was fleeing.
He was back in his room before he realized that he'd left the ice pack sitting in the middle of the kitchen table.† His shoulder had been iced enough, he decided.
He kept forgetting that Tony was a woman now, at least physically.† It was so easy, when Tony was in the armor, moving and speaking and fighting exactly the same way he always had, to imagine that nothing had changed.
It shouldn't make a difference; Tony was no more attractive now than he had been before -- if anything, he was slightly better looking as a man than as a woman -- and he was every bit as capable of being Iron Man.† And every bit as tightly-wound, every bit as much of a potential loose canon.
It shouldn't make a difference, but it did.† Maybe because of the cognitive dissonance of speaking with someone who sounded like -- was -- Tony, but no longer looked like him.† Maybe because, when he was around this superficially female version of Tony, he found himself halfway expecting his long-standing interest in Tony's body to be returned.
Steve might be able to appreciate men, but relatively few men were capable of returning the favor.† Women, on the other hand, were far more likely to return his interest.† Which didn't mean that Tony did, since he was, after all, not really a woman, but Steve's subconscious didn't know that.
None of that mattered right now, anyway, not compared to their real problems, like whether it was really a good idea to have Tony on the team.† He needed to stay in New York as long as Strange and Wanda were still working to fix him, and it would be a waste of resources to have Iron Man in New York City and not call him in for help in a fight, and while Tony had repeatedly stated that he was prepared to find a different place to stay if Steve didn't want him in the Mansion, the Avengers Mansion was Tony's house.† Kicking Tony out of his own home was not something Steve was prepared to do, even if there had been the remotest chance that Jarvis would have actually let him.
Tony knew he'd screwed up, but still seemed utterly convinced that he had made the right choices -- that he had, in fact, had no other choices -- despite his obvious guilt over Titanium Man's death.† Which hadn't really been his fault, if his story about the man's armor malfunctioning was true, and Steve had no reason to believe it wasn't.† Accidents happened, in combat.† It was why having a superhero who wasn't in full and complete control of his actions was so dangerous.
And if Tony's emotional state a few months ago had been anything like what Steve had seen just now, he hadn't been in full control of his actions.
The idea that Tony hadn't been in full control of himself when he had effectively sucker-punched Steve and left him helpless and unable to interfere while he'd gone on to attack a government installation -- against Steve's direct orders, after Steve had all but begged him to reconsider his course of action -- ought to have made Steve feel better.† It didn't.
If Tony had snapped before, and for no apparent reason that Steve could decipher, then he could do so again.† Hank had, after all, and Hank had been the last person anyone had expected it from.† Hank had always been quiet, a little unsure of himself, reserved.† Not the kind of person you expected violence from, especially not borderline megalomaniacal super-villain-style violence.
Hank had nearly gotten the entire team killed before he'd snapped out of it.† Tony had nearly gotten himself killed before he'd managed to snap out of the drinking.
Steve had heard people claim that men who'd broken or been damaged and healed were stronger in the broken places.† It would have been nice if that were true, but he knew from experience that it wasn't.† He still had nightmares about explosions and ice and falling when things around him got bad, the way they had recently, and he knew perfectly well that that didn't make him "stronger," anymore than the number Ultron had done on his head had made Hank stronger, or being taken apart and temporarily losing his emotional connection to the rest of them had made Vision stronger.
Surviving trauma and disaster took strength, especially strength of will, but breaking once made people more likely to break again, not less so.
If he only knew why Tony had gone so far over the edge, he might feel better about it, might be able to understand, but he wasn't sure that even Tony knew.
The thump of a fist knocking against his door actually made Steve jump a little.† "What is it?" he asked, rising to open the door and desperately hoping that he wouldn't find Tony on the other side of it.
"The news crews are gone," Sam said, as Steve pulled the door open.† "And the Wasp says the landscapers are on their way."
Steve nodded.† "That's good," he said.† "Thanks for-"
"Covering for you?"† Sam shrugged.† "I figure you've done enough interviews about why you decided to put the costume back on.† Plus, any time they get a chance to talk to Captain America, they hang around twice as long as they do for the rest of us."
"Why do they keep asking me about that?"† He gave them the same answers every time, the only answers he had.† "Do they think my reasons are going to change?"
Sam snorted.† "Knowing reporters?† Probably.† And you're more fun to talk about than the economy.† You probably get better ratings, too."
"I shouldn't," Steve muttered, unable to help himself.† "The economy is more important."
Sam nodded at Steve's shoulder, and Steve belatedly realized that he was holding his right arm awkwardly, stiff against his side.† "Iron Man said you'd gotten hurt," Sam said.† "How bad is it?"
Steve shrugged, favoring his sore shoulder.† "Just a few bruises.† It should be fine in a couple of days."† Had Tony actually sent Sam to check up on him?
Sam raised his eyebrows.† "I wondered why you were still wearing your costume.† Having trouble getting it off?"
"Stark said you'd say that." Sam shook his head, and stepped forward into the room, reaching gently for Steve's arm.† "He knows you better than I thought.† Here, let me see.† Where does this thing fasten?
"Right there.† If you unhook that part, I can get the rest just fine."† His arm didn't want to bend at that kind of an angle without sharp protests. "We were on a team together for a long time," Steve added, as Sam undid the tiny hook and eye fastening and then, without ceremony, nudged his arms upward and yanked the entire top of his costume off. "Before he..."
"Fell apart?" Sam suggested, moving back to let Steve drop his leather and mail tunic on the bed -- and also, Steve suspected, to get a better look at him.† "He's got things back together now, though.† I know I wouldn't handle being turned into a woman anywhere near that well.† And damn, that looks nasty.† Did you put ice on it?"
"Yes.† I left the ice pack in the kitchen.† I don't think it's actually as bad as it looks, though."† Nothing was torn, after all, or moving his arm would be infinitely more painful.† "It really is just bruises, and I heal from those pretty quickly."
Sam had a point, he reflected.† Tony was actually handling the situation far better than Steve had expected, unless he had lost it just now as some form of re-directed stress, which Steve supposed wouldn't be surprising.† From the sound of things, SI's board of directors was being less than supportive about the whole thing, and the media was having a gleeful field day with it.† Awkwardness aside, it might be a good thing Tony was staying in the Mansion; it was harder for reporters to get access here.
"Someday," Sam was saying, "I will get you to admit that your super soldier serum has a healing factor in it."
"I don't have a healing factor.† I just heal quickly."† Steve sat down on the edge of the bed, rotating his shoulder carefully.† It really would be fine, he decided.† Also, he needed a shower before he put civilian clothes on.† He smelled like leather, sweat, and grass stains, thanks to all the rolling around on the lawn he'd done.† And speaking of the fight earlier,..
"How did you manage to knock Atlas out?" he asked.† "I was a little busy at the time."
Sam grinned. "Wouldn't you like to know."
"No, really, how?"
"Well, while you and Iron Man were busy with Hyde, I-"
For the next few minutes, Steve almost managed to forget about Titanium Man, teammates who had suddenly become the wrong gender, and Tony's potential mental state entirely.
The Adam's annual charity ball was semi-infamous in New York's business world; given the hosts' banking and finance connections, there was often as much quiet not-quite-insider-trading going on at the event as their was fundraising for the American Cancer Society.
Tony had had two tickets to it, one for himself and one for an unspecified and to-be-selected date, for the past two months.† He hadn't given the matter of whom he'd be going with much thought; there were always women eager for the chance to accompany Tony Stark out for a night on the town.† Some of them were even women whose company he actually enjoyed.
Only one or two of those were women who would actually consider attending a public event with large amounts of media coverage with another women.
"Aren't you going?" he asked Jan plaintively, when the date had begun looming inescapably over him.† "Can't I just go with you? Or not at all?"
"I'm recently divorced.† If you go with me, the next day's headlines will be shrieking that my marriage ended because I'm secretly a lesbian. Or that you and I were together beforehand, and our torrid affair broke my marriage up."† She sighed.† "I'd say stay home, but you know better than I do that people are going to see that as a sign of weakness."
They would, of course.† Tony was already seen as so much fresh, bloody meat for prospective corporate sharks, with his company barely solvent again and his personal record so very, very shaky.† He was getting tired of having to fend off politely worded doubts about SI's viability as a company ever time he turned around, not to mention doubt about his ability to competently oversee it.
Important business was going to be transacted at that party. Deals would be made, information would be exchanged, and prospective business partners would be quietly sounded out.† As much business got done in this town over drinks and seemingly casual conversation at parties and on golf courses as ever did in the boardroom.† He had already let himself fall out of the loop by not going to the right handful of bars anymore -- to any bars -- or meeting the right people for drinks.† He couldn't afford to start missing major social functions on top of it, especially not right now.
Even ones where everyone else would be drinking.† And that would require him to wear women's formal attire.† Pepper was truly never going to let him live this down.
There had to be somewhere he could get a tuxedo in the right size and cut from; this was New York, after all.
"They're going to see anything I do as a sign of weakness," Tony said.† "I can't win here, unless Strange can magically change me back before Saturday."
Jan eyed him with a distinctly assessing gaze, and started to grin in a way that made Tony distinctly uneasy.
"I think you should go as a girl," she said.
"I am. That's the problem."
"No, I mean actually as a woman."† Her eyes sparkled with a light that was positively gleeful.† "Rock the dress and the make-up and the whole nine yards.† Take that chauffer of yours as a date, or find some other poor sap who owes you a favor and make him do it."
"Happy's married," Tony objected, pointing out what was only a small fraction of the many, many things terribly wrong with this idea.† "And I can't take an employee to this."
Jan snorted.† "Since when has that stopped you? You took your secretary to it last year."
"No, I took Indres.† I gave Pepper and Happy extra tickets."† Pepper was significantly more than just a secretary -- that wasn't even her official job title, and hadn't been for years -- and she needed to be present at events like this every bit as much as Tony did.† She was the one who filed in for Tony any time he couldn't be present for something, the one who scheduled pretty much everything around him, the one who knew where the bodies where buried and where the records were filed and who the right person to call to deal with the latest crisis was.† Or at least, she had been.
He was pretty sure that if Pepper had been around during the past couple of years, rather than taking a well deserved break, he wouldn't have lost the company and had to scramble to get it back.† He was never, ever going to tell her that, though.† It would make it sound like he was blaming her for leaving, when all the blame lay squarely on his own shoulders.
Jan waved a hand dismissively.† "I'm sure you can find someone.† If all else fails, you can ask Cap or the Falcon to do it."
Tony managed not to wince, but it took effort.† "Because Steve wants nothing more than to go to a party with me," he said.
"You used to drag him to these things all the time," she continued, relentlessly.
Tony took a deep breath, forcing himself not to think about what it would like to walk into the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton on Steve's arm, to dance with him in public, to be able to pretend, just for an evening, that Steve felt the same way about Tony that Tony did about him.
Tony had given up long ago on the idea of Steve returning his feelings -- by the time he'd realized that what he felt for Captain America was more than just lust for his phenomenally attractive body, Steve had already started his endearingly ineffective pursuit of Sharon Carter -- but part of him couldn't help savoring every touch, every bit of time he got to spend with Steve alone, just the two of them.
These days, of course, he'd thrown away the ability to have even that.† Forget sex or romance; he'd settle for just having Steve's friendship back.† It had been a little better since that talk in the kitchen -- Steve would actually speak to him about more than just official Avengers business now -- but the trust and friendship that they'd once shared was broken, gone.
It almost hurt to watch Steve joke with the Falcon, trading the same kind of in-jokes and back-and-forth banter he'd once shared with Tony.† No, if he were being honest, it did hurt.† The Avengers had been his family once, and now he felt shut out of them, and shut out of Steve's life.
"It wouldnít hurt to-"
"Jan," Tony interrupted, keeping his voice level, "do I play the 'two of my friends aren't speaking to one another anymore; I must get them back together' game with you?"
Jan shook her head slowly.† "Fine," she said.† "I'll drop it.† Don't ask Steve."
"It's a moot point anyway, because I'm not going as a woman.† The media would eat me alive."
"They're doing that already," Jan pointed out.† "Don't talk," she went on, pointing a finger at him, "just listen.† You're going to be uncomfortable at this party no matter what, right?"
"Yes," Tony admitted.† That much was a given.
"So make everyone else uncomfortable, too.† Go on the offensive.† You can insert your own sports-related analogy here."
"I played tennis in school," Tony said, and pulled out his SI-manufactured Blackberry-clone.† Email.† Surely he had some vital red-flagged email from SI's legal council that could rescue him from this conversation.† There were at least five ongoing lawsuits involving SI, if you counted the ones where Tony was suing other people as well as the ones where people were suing him; in New York, after all, lawsuits were just another tool one used in order to do business.
His inbox wasn't empty -- it was never empty -- but nothing in it was important enough to actually need his attention. "And ran track," he went on, inanely. "Football metaphors aren't my forte, either."
Jan was sitting forward in her char now, leaning her elbows on her knees.† "Half of them will spend at least the first hour of the party too stunned and weirded out to exchange inside trading tips and plot Stark Industries' downfall behind your back, and all it will take is a pair of heels and some eyeliner."
"I'm not putting a pencil that close to my eye."
"I do it every day," she informed him, and then, "Does this mean you're agreeing to the heels?"
"I don't even own any dresses," Tony protested, knowing he was just trying to stave off the inevitable now; when Jan had her mind made up about something, it tended to happen.† "I specifically told Pepper not to buy me any."
Jan grinned from ear to ear.† "Trust me, that won't be a problem."
Agreeing to this had been a mistake.
Normally, Tony would have been glad that at least he'd managed talk Rhodey into coming with him and would therefore have someone interesting to talk to, but he was pretty sure that Rhodey had agreed to accompany him solely for the opportunity to laugh at him.
Had it been someone else in his uncomfortable sling-back, two-inch-heel shoes, Tony would have done the same thing.
"You're sure about the eyeliner?" Jan asked.
"Positive," Tony forced out, through gritted teeth.† He hated having studio make-up artists poking at his face and messing with his hair every time he had to appear on television for something, and the past twenty minutes had been almost as bad.
Jan had put styling products he hadn't bothered to ask the names of in his hair, somehow transforming his expensive but now slightly-too-long haircut into something that looked cute, feminine, and like he'd had it done on purpose, and attacked his face with brushes and tiny little make-up pads.† The resultant coat of make-up was almost invisible, except for the way it made his face look.
He looked... if he hadn't known the woman in the mirror was him, he would have turned on the charm and flirted with her.
"You really ought to have earrings, with hair that short," Jan was musing, studying him carefully with the air of an artist evaluating a nearly-complete painting.† "It's a little late for that now, though.† And the clunky wristwatch comes off."
"It's Swiss," Tony protested.† "It cost two thousand dollars.† And technically, it's not a watch, it's a chronometer."
"It's also blatantly a man's watch, doesn't actually fit you anymore, and doesn't match the dress.† If you really need to know what time it is, you can ask your date."† Jan held out her hand imperiously.† "You can have it back when you get home."
Tony sighed, and handed over the watch.
"Are you sure about this?" Wanda asked, for what had to be at least the third time.† She had watched Jan's transformation of Tony in silence, offering only the occasional comment, but Tony appreciated the gesture of solidarity.
"No," he said again, "but I don't have a choice.† I have to go to this and at this point it's too late for me to get a tuxedo in the proper size."
She shook her head.† "No, I mean going with Rhodey."
"That's the one part of this that isn't going to suck.† He doesn't like these things any more than I do, so after he gets done laughing until he cries at the sight of me in this thing," Tony waved a hand at the little black dress, "I'll at least have someone to talk to.† Plus, he won't let me go near the open bar this thing's sure to have."† Which was more of a relief than Tony wanted to admit -- he hadn't been looking forward to tonight even before Loki's spell.
Everyone drank at events like this, even if it was only a single glass of champagne.† It was just what was done.† His total avoidance of alcohol was going to be conspicuous, and considered everything from rude to a glaring sign of weakness that reminded everyone who noticed it that he was an alcoholic.
"No, I mean..."† Wanda glanced at Jan and trailed off, twisting her fingers together with unaccustomed nervousness.† "I was there in California, Tony.† I saw the two of you, before you put the armor back on."
Tony winced, memories he'd been trying to avoid rearing their heads again and bringing guilt with them.† "I've apologized for that," he said, studying his shoes -- how was he going to run in these, if something happened?† Oh God, he wouldn't be able to bring his briefcase tonight, not in this outfit.† Maybe it wasn't too late to back out -- "I... he knows I screwed up, and why I screwed up.† We're working things out."† They† were.† Everything was going to be fine, and Rhodey would be pleased to see him and no supervillains were going to attack the charity ball.
"You apologized?"† Wanda's eyebrows rose, and Tony shrugged uneasily, feeling as if he were being judged over something, but not sure what.
"I know apologies can't bring Erwin and Clytemnestra back, or make up for what I put Rhodey through, but it was the only thing I could do."
Erwin and Clytemnesta Morley... both of them dead in explosions, casualties of Tony's stupid, destructive rivalry with Obadiah Stane.† Rhodey felt the guilt over their deaths as much as he did, he knew -- he had been the one wearing the armor when Erwin had died, when Tony and Rhodey had both failed to save him.
Cly and Erwin had taken Tony when he'd been nothing but a liability, when they'd had every reason to turn him away, and he'd repaid them with death.† Cly had burned to death, like Titanium Man had; he wondered if she had screamed the way he had.
He wasn't going to think about that tonight, especially at a party where he'd be surrounded by alcohol.† Tonight was for business, and he had too many people at SI depending on him to be allowed to fuck up.
Tony glanced at the stranger in the mirror again.† Jarvis was right; he did look a little bit like his mother.† Strange; everyone had always commented on how much like Howard Stark he looked, before.
"I can't stall anymore, can I?" he asked.
It was a rhetorical question, but Jan answered anyway.
"No.† War Machine's going to be here any minute, and if the three of us leave now, we'll be just in time to be fashionably late."
"I hate my life," Tony muttered.
"Maybe," Jan said, "but you look really good, and that's all anyone there will see."
Wanda patted him on the shoulder -- his bare shoulder, which felt almost like going out in public half naked, which he technically was if you counted his mostly-bare legs -- and said, "Keep your head up and don't listen to anything they say about you."
He'd been able to do that, once.† Not since Afghanistan, not really -- he'd lost the ability to not care what people thought of him at some point in those caves, building the armor slowly under Yinsen's watchful gaze -- but before that, no one's opinion had mattered.† His father's always had, but his father had died, and the longer Tony spent in charge of SI, dealing with the people Howard Stark had screwed over, the more he realized that his father had been a deeply unpleasant man whose opinions were not necessarily worth respecting.
Even after Afghanistan, he'd been able to fake it, though.† And if Tony could hold it together and not appear to be a broken wreck after a near death experience and three months of torture and captivity, then he could do it now.
His determination lasted through the walk downstairs -- Steve, thank God, didn't seem to be around -- Rhodey's arrival and subsequent laughter, and Happy's shocked double-take when he pulled the Aston Martin up in front of the Mansion's front door.
At least he didn't laugh.
"I'm driving," Tony informed Rhodey, reaching for the driver's side door before Rhodey could.† He had to take the shoes off to do it, but damn it, he'd surrendered enough of his masculinity tonight as it was.† Getting to drive a sports car from a Bond movie through Manhattan was minimal comfort, but at least it was something.
Driving a car, like any other mechanical task, always calmed him down, so that by the time they reached their destination, Tony had almost stopped wanting to cringe at the thought of getting out of the car and walking past the photographers and their cameras.
He could do this.† He was Tony Stark, and he had an entire company depending on him and a reputation to uphold.
If he was lucky, maybe none of the reporters would recognize him.
They did, of course.
"Are they always like that?" Rhodey asked, wide-eyed, as the door swung shut behind them.† "I don't remember it being that bad, before."
"No.† This is significantly worse than normal."† It wasn't every day, after all, that a major figure in the business world was magically transformed into a member of the opposite sex.† That kind of thing usually required extensive surgery and months spent at a private clinic in Sweden.
"Damn." Rhodey shook his head.† "I'm sorry I laughed, okay?"
"Don't be."† Tony shrugged.† "Everyone does."
Except tonight, rather than laughing, everyone seemed to want to just stare at him.† Some of them were people he didn't even know, who couldn't possibly recognize him as Tony Stark and were presumably staring because Jan had insisted on a backless dress.† The halter-style top, which fastened around his neck and left his entire back bare to the waist, had been a compromise between her insistence that high necklines were not in style right now and Tony's inability to wear anything low cut without showing off a chest full of shrapnel scars.
The fact that people were checking him out ought to have made him feel uncomfortable, but surprisingly, it actually made Tony feel better.† He might be stuck as a woman right now, but at least he could still have the same effect on people that he'd always had.
Hank might not have wanted him, but Hank didn't notice that women other than Jan existed.† He never had.
Tony gritted his teeth, his tentative good mood abruptly vanishing.
"I thought you'd gotten tired of playing airline pilot for my cousin," Morgan drawled, smiling cheerfully at Rhodey.† His tuxedo was just a fraction too tight, and his cufflinks were large, flashy, and almost certainly Austrian crystal or even cubic zirconium rather than the diamond he clearly wanted people to think they were.
He had an ivory-topped cane in one hand.† An affectation, or had someone worked him over for money owed them again?
No, Tony would have heard about that.† Morgan always came to him when he was in financial trouble.† And if he'd gotten himself into yet more trouble while Tony hadn't been in the picture to bail him out, then that was his own fault, not Tony's.
"I'm a freelancer now," Rhodey said, smiling tightly at Morgan.† "Thought I'd try working for myself for a while, being my own boss."
"Well, I'd say it's working out for you."† Morgan turned to Tony and held out one perfectly manicured hand.† "Morgan Stark.† Where ever did Rhodes find someone as delightful as you?"† Then, to Rhodey, "I see you haven't introduced us.† Afraid I'll steal her away from you?"
Rhodey made a strangled noise, then started to cough.
"It's me, Morgan, you idiot," Tony hissed, through gritted teeth.
Morgan stared at him blankly.† "What?† No, I'm quite sure I'd remember meeting† you."† He took Tony's right hand in both of his, smiling a familiar, smarmy smile.† "Would your date mind if I borrowed you for the next dance?"
"This isn't West Virginia, Morgan.† Do you not read the newspapers anymore?† Because that would explain why your investments always do so badly."
Morgan dropped his hand, took a step back, and gaped at him.† "Tony?† Oh My God, is that you?"
"Hello, Morgan," Tony said, giving his cousin a bright, false smile and not bothering to disguise the contempt in his tone; he hadn't bothered to pretend there was any real affection between them since the second time Morgan had lent his assistance to a supervillain trying to kill or discredit Tony.† Morgan had displayed a distinct lack of concern when Stane had taken over SI, had in fact fallen all over himself trying to suck up to him.
"You're a girl," Morgan stammered.† "I thought that was some kind of hoax."
"Unfortunately not."† Tony kept the smile in place with minimal effort; he'd had a lot of practice.
"You're an attractive girl," Morgan went on.† "Who'd have expected that, huh?† If I didn't know who you were-"
"You'd hit on him," Rhodey interrupted.† "Yeah, we got that."
The music playing in the background finally registered, and inspiration struck.† "You're required to dance at least one dance at these things," Tony informed Rhodey.† "The hosts insist on it.† Let's go get it over with."
He took Rhodey by the wrist and nearly dragged him toward the dance floor and away from Morgan's flustered and still faintly leering presence.
The library was one of the rooms in the house that Steve had always associated with Tony; there had been a lot of nights early in his time with the Avengers when Steve had spent hours very late at night or early in the morning sitting in the library talking to Iron Man.† He'd usually been woken by nightmares of the war or the explosion that had killed Bucky and trapped him in the ice; he'd never known what Iron Man's reasons for apparently never sleeping had been.
It wasn't until this evening, when Steve had completely run out of anything to read, that he realized he'd been avoiding the library since Tony had come back.† It was something of an embarrassing revelation.
Tony wasn't in the mansion tonight, though -- he was at a party of some kind with Jan and James Rhodes -- so the library should have been empty for Steve to browse for a book to his heart's content without fear of having to make awkward conversation with... anyone.
Except, as it turned out, the library was not empty.† Wanda was curled up in one of the oversized leather chairs that predated the Avengers' use of the house and had somehow managed to survive six years of superhero occupancy.† She had her nose buried in a copy of Macbeth.
"Isn't that play supposed to be bad luck?" Steve asked.
"Only if you're an actor," Wanda responded, without looking up.† "And anyway, bad luck is my specialty."† After a moment, she added, "The witches are the best part.† They control or manipulate almost everything that happens in the play."
"I like Henry V better," Steve told her, as he started the long walk up and down the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, waiting for something to catch his eye.
"You would."† Wanda turned a page in her book, and Steve switched his attention to the book shelves, searching futilely for something he hadn't already read that wasn't an engineering manual.† There were hundreds of books in here, from Howard Stark's old tomes on economics to a handful of books in Transian that were either Wanda's or Pietro's, brought with them when they had first joined the team.† There was an entire shelf devoted to Dashell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, for Vision, and half a shelf of bright green bound volumes of the American Journal of Biochemistry that had to be Hank's.† They ought to send those to the west coast.† The extensive collection of studies on arthropods, too, but there was a chance some of those were Scott Lang's.
"Are you actually going to pick a book?" Wanda asked.† "Or are you just going to wander back and forth distractingly?"
Steve flushed, and pulled one of Vision's noir stories off the shelf at random, going to sit in the chair opposite Wanda.
"You missed Tony in a dress earlier," she said, just as he asked, "How are the magic lessons going?"
"Strange is a much harder taskmaster than Agatha was, but I think I'm learning more from him."† She smiled faintly.† "He told me yesterday that I was adequate."
"I take it adequate is good?"
"From Strange?† It's practically gushing praise."
That was good, Steve thought.† Wanda deserved to have something go well for her, after the last year.† First the loss of her children, then her marriage ending, then Immortus's attempt to take over her body...† At least she was back, now.† He'd been worried when she had briefly joined forces with Magneto that they had lost her.† Possession was a hard thing to come back from, and Wanda had already had to do it once before.
"You are... you've been in California for a long time.† What's it like being back here again?"† He'd almost said 'being back home again,' but managed to catch himself.† Not everyone on the team thought of the Mansion as home the way he did.
"Not as different as I thought."† She shook her head, a lock of hair falling into her face.† "Sometimes it feels like the past few years never even happened.† I missed New York," she added.† "LA's not the same.† It never gets cold there, and all the buildings are too new."
Steve nodded.† "I know what you mean."† Los Angeles didn't have personality that New York City had, but then, no other place Steve had been did.† Of course, he might be biased; New York was home, and always had been.
Wanda sighed, and shoved the wayward piece of hair back behind her ear.† "I thought it would be hard getting used to being on a team with Vision again, but..." she trailed off, letting the sentence hang.
"Vision's a coward about you.† He always has been."† As far as Steve was concerned, being an android was no excuse; Jim Hammond had been an android as well, and probably a less sophisticated model than Vision, and he would never have treated someone he so obviously cared about so coldly.† He wouldn't have run away from them, either.
"Someone had to fill in for me and Tony on the west coast," Wanda said, without much conviction.
"Jen was already going.† I could have gone, or called in some favors to get one of our auxiliary members to return to full-time status."† It wasn't as if the Avengers were lacking connections in the superhero community.† This probably wasn't a conversation Wanda really wanted to have, though.† Time to change the subject.
"It's been nice having you on the team again.† We missed you."
"It's good to be back."† Wanda closed her book, keeping a finger between the pages to mark her place.† "I was so far away from myself for so long that when I look back at what I was doing, what I was thinking, it doesn't even seem like me.† It wasn't all me, I know that now -- some of it was Immortus -- but I think I lost my way before that.† First I lost the- the twins, and then Vision, and then I even lost control of my powers." She set the book to one side and pulled her bare feet up onto her chair, tucking one foot under her and wrapping her arms around her knee.† "And then Immortus... I know it's not as bad as what happened to Carol, as what Marcus did to her, but it was still a, a kind of violation."
"If there's anything I can do-" Steve started, awkwardly.
"Just being back here helps.† I hadn't realized how much I had missed this place.† I ought to have come back here before, not gone to Magneto."
"Well, he is your-"
Wanda straightened, eyes narrowing.† "He's not my father.† He's never been my father, and I should have known better than to go back to him.† Lashing out like that made me feel in control, but I wasn't really.† He was just using me, the way he did before.† And I let him.† Again."
"The important thing is that you came back."† It was selfish of him to be happy that Wanda was back in the Avengers Mansion, all things considered, but he couldn't help it.† Having the Scarlet Witch back on his team put Steve's world one step closer to where it ought to be, where it had been before everything had gone wrong.
"The important thing is that I came back before I seriously hurt someone," Wanda corrected.† "Or kill them.† Studying magic is a harder way to be in control again, but a better one."
Steve wanted to tell her that he was proud of her, but that would have been patronizing.† He was, though.† He had known people who had never recovered from a fraction of what Wanda had been through.† It was one of the things he loved about his team; no matter what happened to them, they always got back up and kept going.
He couldn't think of anything to say that didn't sound trite, so he just stood and crossed the room to her chair, bent down, and hugged her.† "I'm just glad you're back," he repeated.
Rhodey let himself be dragged towards the dance floor; if he'd actually put up any resistance, Tony wouldn't have been able to move him.
He still hadn't gotten used to how much smaller he was -- the loss of body mass was even more disturbing in some ways then the loss of certain body parts.† Tony didn't have to look up at people often, aside from Happy and various fellow superheroes.† Now, at 5'7", most of the men in the room were taller than him.† Or would have been, if he hadn't been wearing heels.
He was starting to suspect that this might be one of the reasons women wore them.
The band was playing a waltz, for which Tony was grateful -- anything more athletic would have put him at serious risk of a twisted ankle, not to mention the fact that trying to remember to let Rhodey lead was difficult enough even at a slow tempo.
"You're doing it again," Rhodey said.† "The woman doesn't lead, Tony."
Damn it, he was doing it again.† Tony deliberately made himself relax and follow Rhodey's movements.† "Some of the women I've danced with have."
Rhodey grinned.† "That's because some of your exes scare me."
"Are you implying that you weren't man enough for Bethany?"
"Well, you weren't," Rhodey pointed out, without malice.† "I'm not sure anyone is.† I bet Indres led, too."† His hand on Tony's back was big, warm -- like Steve's hand might have been.† Tony concentrated on that, and not on his instinctive desire to flinch at the mention of Indres' name.
"Actually, no," he said.† "She was a very good dancer.† She was very good at everything."
"Including working one truly fucked-up number on your head."
"She didn't say anything to me that wasn't technically true, except for the part about not telling me that she'd been hired by Stane to spy on me."† With most of his attention focused on where his feet were, not what he was saying, the words came more easily.† Dancing was like sparring, in a way, or driving a car with sensitive steering and tight suspension.† He leaned a little closer to Rhodey and concentrated on synchronizing their movements, on the sound of the music, on anything but the memory of Indres' parting words.
"I guess that just slipped her mind."
Tony grinned.† Joking about it somehow made it feel, if not less real, then at least more remote, less important.† None of the other Avengers were willing to touch any subject involving Stane or alcohol in any way that wasn't dead serious and slightly judgmental.
He and Rhodey had already done the judgmental part, and the screaming at one another part, and the beating each other up part.† And then the apologizing part.
"So how's that new car of yours working out?" Tony asked, as the two of them stepped smoothly into a turn.† He was getting the hang of this not-leading thing.† Another couple songs, and it might not even take effort.† "I had doubts about some of the design elements, but I figured you would want the higher horsepower."
Rhodey picked up on the subtext instantly, his face breaking into a grin that showed off even white teeth.† "Oh yeah.† Come on, I'm a jet pilot.† There's no such thing as too much throttle.† Plus, that finicky suspension and all those fancy electronic add-ons in your ride weren't my idea of a good time anyway.† You practically had to have an engineering degree to operate it.† I prefer to put all my attention on the road."
"I'll have to race you sometime."† Tony smirked up at him, daring a challenging tone he'd tried very, very hard never to use in California.† "I bet I could still beat you, finicky suspension or no."
God, he'd missed this.† Steve wouldn't spar with him anymore, wouldn't talk shop with him unless it was directly related to the business at hand.† This, this was what he'd needed to feel normal again.
Who'd have expected it to involve a dress and heels?
"Oh, you wish," Rhodey snorted.† "I'd blow you out of the sky."
"Is that a challenge?" Tony drawled.† "I could make some kind of joke about stamina if you want.† Or the part where you just offered to blow me, but I think that might be too easy."
Rhodey's smile faltered, and he shook his head.† "I am not prepared for this level of weird," he stated.† "Just turn it off, or down, or whatever, okay, Tony?"
Tony blinked, and missed a step, then had to skip sideways to get back into the proper rhythm.† "Turn what down?"
"What flirting?"† Tony frowned, suddenly hyper-aware of Rhodey's hand against the bare skin of his back again.† Rhodey had always been tall, muscular, strong -- like Steve pathetic part of his mind that could never seem to get over anything whispered -- but it was even more obvious now.† Dancing with him, standing this close to him, it was impossible not to notice.† He hadn't been doing anything with that knowledge, though.† He'd gotten over his impulse to flirt with Rhodey months ago, when he'd finally realized that all the stripping nearly naked in front of him and silent invitations in the form of unnecessary touching in the world were not going to make Rhodey interested in him.
It wouldn't have been fair, anyway.† Not when he'd already been asking so much of Rhodey.† He'd thought, once or twice, that it might be a way to repay Rhodey for everything Tony had put him through, but he was trying to be honest with himself these days, and honesty meant admitting that sex with Rhodey would really have been for Tony's own benefit.† He'd wanted comfort, affection, affirmation, wanted to lose himself in someone else's body, and it didn't hurt that Rhodey's body was not only solid and hard with cleanly defined muscle, but also faintly reminiscent of Steve's.
And, damnit, he'd thought he was over this, past holding everyone he was attracted to up to Steve like he was some kind of paragon.† Just because he'd been Tony's best friend, just because he was as close to physically perfect as humanly possible, just because he'd been the one to come for Tony when he was at his worst, to try and get through to him...
"What flirting?"† Rhodey repeated.† "Christ, you don't even realize you're doing it, do you?"
Tony blinked.† "Actually, no.† Come on, if I were flirting with you it would be intentional and a lot less subtle."
Around them, couples were dancing with varying degrees of skill, most of them middle aged white men and women with blonde hair that was sometimes believable and sometimes not.† This was New York, though, so white was far from the only ethnicity present.
He and Rhodey probably looked like a completely normal couple to the rest of the room.† If Tony had been his usual self, people would have stared, whispered surreptitiously, never done business with him in quite the same way again.
There were parties in New York where it was totally acceptable to dance with another man, but this had never been one of them.
"For future reference, then?" Rhodey said.† "Smiling at people, leaning in towards them and batting your eyelashes looks an awful lot like flirting."
"I'm not acting any differently than I always do."† He hadn't been, had he?† On the other hand, Rhodey was an attractive guy, so maybe Tony had been flirting.† He'd been trying to break the habit in Rhodey's case, but it had been an automatic reflex for a long time.
"Yeah, that's the problem.† You always kind of flirt with people.† It's what you do.† You're going to have to watch that; now that you look like a woman, guys are going to think you mean it."
"I always did mean it, at least with you."† Tony batted his eyelashes up at Rhodey, ostentatiously mimicking some of the more vapid woman he'd once dated.
Rhodey made a face.† "Don't do that.† It's creepy."
"Which part, the part where I'm being honest, or the eyelashes?"† The music was winding down, the song coming to an end.† Tony stopped moving, and Rhodey stopped with him.
"The eyelashes," he said.† "I figured the other part out a while ago.† Seriously, don't flirt with me, okay?† You're actually pretty hot as a woman, but you know I'm not into men."
"So it's suddenly a problem because I'm hot now?"† That made less than no sense.
"This is going to sound really silly, but it's not real.† This isn't actually you.† The real you is just another guy, and I'm not gonna something that wouldn't be real, or even pretend like we might.† After all," he added, serious expression transforming into a smirk, "my mother always said I shouldn't lead women on."
"I hate you," Tony informed him, smiling again in spite of himself.† "Just so you know that."† Rhodey had a point, actually, and Tony winced inwardly yet again at the way he'd thrown himself at poor Hank.
Life would be much easier if other people weren't so inconveniently binary when it came to sex.† Change into a different gender and suddenly no one knew what to do with you anymore.
"This is going to sound terribly rude, but can I borrow your date for the next song?"† The voice came from almost immediately behind him, and Tony turned to see an unfamiliar man in his early thirties, a few years older than he was. †"You look very, very familiar," he was saying.† "Where do I know you from?"
He took a step forward, and Tony, without even thinking about it, found himself taking a corresponding step back, right into Rhodey.† He wobbled on the stupid heels, and Rhodey put a steadying hand on his shoulder.
The man reached forward, probably intending to take Tony's arm and steady him.† "A little early in the evening to be into the champagne," he said, and Tony suddenly knew, with a deep, visceral knowledge that seemed to come from nowhere, that he didnít want this man to touch him.
"I don't know you," he blurted out.† "We've never met."
"Hey," the man held his hands up, palms out, smiling easily, "I was just trying to be friendly."
His smile made Tony's skin crawl; he'd seen it before, he realized.† If this man laughed, he knew, he'd be able to recognize the sound.† "Go be friendly somewhere else," he snapped, glancing around automatically for his briefcase before remembering uneasily that he didn't have it with him.† He jerked away from Rhodey's hand and started to walk, away from the stranger and the dance floor.
What the hell had that been?† His heart was pounding, and he felt sick, shaken, and desperately in need of a drink.† Where had he known that man from?† Why didn't he remember?
"Tony, what the hell?† What's wrong?"
Rhodey had caught up with him, just in time for them to reach the table reserved for the two of them and Jan together.
Tony sank down in one of the chairs, and buried his face in his hands, only remembering once it was too late that he was wearing three layers of make-up and that touching it would smear it.
"Are you okay-" Rhodey started, sitting down next to him.
"I don't know," Tony admitted.
A waiter appeared by the table as if by magic, the sign of a very expensive catering service.† "Can I get either of you anything?" he asked.† "There is an open bar tonight."
"No," Rhodey said, before Tony could answer, and he felt ridiculously and pathetically grateful.† "She doesnít want anything."
"Tony?" Jan was hovering by the table now -- figuratively, in this instance, not literally.† "What happened?† I saw the two of you talking to Harry Saunders.† Was he hitting on you?"† She shook her head, making a face.† "Stay away from him.† He's a jackass.† He tries to pick up women at parties because nobody can stand to talk to him unless large amounts of alcohol are involved."
And then, with a sickening lurch, Tony remembered where he'd met Saunders -- Harry -- before.
Steve hadn't read The Maltese Falcon since before the war; he'd forgotten how much he disliked it.† He'd seen the movie with Humphrey Bogart numerous times over the years, and the memory of Bogart's performance had overshadowed the book until he'd forgotten just how much of a heartless bastard Sam Spade was.
If this was Vision's preferred reading material, then it was no wonder he distrusted his own and other people's emotions.† They needed to find him something where the characters didn't all have ulterior motives.
Steve wasn't, he told himself, waiting up until Jan and Tony came back just so that he could be treated to the spectacle of Tony in a dress.† That would be immature and petty.
He was going to finish his book, and then he was going to go to bed.
The Maltese Falcon wasn't a very long book.† Maybe he should go and get Red Harvest when he was done with it.† Or the Thin Man.† He'd always preferred Nick and Nora and the Continental Op to Sam Spade, anyway.† Or one of Vision's Philip Marlow stories...
The sound of the front door opening was easy to hear from Steve's position in the living room.
"So, that race is still on, right?"† Tony.† His new voice, hovering between soprano and alto, still didn't sound right to Steve.† "After all, you did promise to blow me out of the sky."
"Okay, we agreed that the innuendo would stop," Rhodes said.
"You're no fun.† You do know that, right?"
"I had a hot woman on each arm tonight," Rhodes returned.† "I think I'm plenty of fun."
"For the record," Jan said, "I wasn't actually your date."
"No, but you arrived with him," Tony said.† "And that's all anyone's going to remember."
Tony sounded good, normal -- more like himself than Steve had heard him sound in a long time, unless he counted Iron Man's performance in the fight against Masters of Evil.† But then, even when he'd been drinking heavily, Tony had usually managed to sound like something like normal.† If he hadn't, people would have figured out what was going on sooner.
This time, Steve had decided, he wouldn't be so blind. †If Tony snapped again, he would be ready for it.
It was silly, but something inside of him relaxed at the knowledge that Tony and Jan were back safely, despite the fact that charity fund-raisers weren't in the least dangerous.† Steve was contemplating abandoning Dashell Hammett and going to bed when he heard the quiet sound of bare feet against the living room's wooden floorboards.
Every time she and Hank had returned from some social function, Hank had always come straight into the living room, thrown himself down on a couch, and sighed about how awful it had been to anyone who had been willing to listen.† Jan had always followed close behind him, except for the couple of occasions when it truly had been awful, in which case Hank had gone to hide in his lab.
Old habits died hard, apparently.
Steve put his book aside and looked up, about to ask Jan how the evening had gone -- he wouldn't admit it to many people, but he actually enjoyed Jan's descriptions of what everyone had been wearing -- and froze.
It wasn't Jan.
Tony was barefoot, holding a pair of black, strappy shoes in one hand.† He -- she? -- was wearing a slinky black dress that fell to just above the knee, its high collar covering his chest but leaving his entire back bare.
He was facing away from Steve, which meant that Steve had a perfect view of said bare back.
How could he have thought that Tony was less attractive as a woman than he'd been as a man?† Or not curvaceous enough?
The black dress clung to Tony tightly enough to show off a narrow waist and gently curving hips -- combined with his shoulders, just broad and muscular enough from years of metal working and hand-to-hand training to balance the hips perfectly, the result was a slender hourglass figure that...
Okay, Steve probably couldn't actually fit both hands around Tony's waist, but that didn't mean that the urge to try wasn't there.
Tony collapsed into one of the chairs like a puppet whose strings had been cut, burying his face in his hands with a groan and not seeming to notice Steve's presence.† He looked exhausted suddenly, his slumped shoulders making the line of his spine stand out clearly, and Steve felt both vaguely guilty for his prurient thoughts a moment ago and intensely awkward, knowing that he was seeing a moment that Tony believed was private.
There was no way he could slip out without Tony noticing, and it would be better not to even try.
Steve cleared his throat, and Tony's head came up with a startled jerk.
"Steve," he said, surprise clear in his voice.
He was wearing make-up, visibly smudged around the eyes.† It looked... strange.
"You look-" Steve started.
"Really stupid?" Tony finished.
"Like someone else," Steve said, lamely.† He couldn't quite bring himself to tell Tony that he looked beautiful; he clearly wasn't enjoying his stint as a woman, no matter how well he was handling it, and telling him that would just be rubbing it in.
Tony snorted.† "You're not the only one thinks that.† We ran into my cousin Morgan at the ball, and he tried to hit on me."
Steve winced.† "I'm sorry?"† He'd only met Morgan Stark once or twice, and had a vague memory of a stocky man a few years older than Tony, who reminded him of Tony's playboy faНade at its most annoying, with none of Tony's intelligence or charm.
"I don't think I'll ever be clean again," Tony groaned, burying his face in his hands once more.† "What's wrong with me anyway, Steve?† Why do only creepy people want me?† Morgan," he repeated, disgust heavy in his voice.† "Norman Osborn will be trying to pick me up next."
"Jan's not creepy," Steve pointed out.† "And she apparently wanted you."† He was still a little bitter over that, jealous, if he were honest.† Even discounting the fact that Tony had entered the relationship under false pretenses, before he'd told Jan that he was Iron Man, and that the ink on Jan's divorce papers had barely been dry... if Tony had had to date a fellow Avenger, a little, selfish voice whispered, why could it have been him?
"Don't rub it in, okay?" Tony said.† He sounded tired.† "Tonight was bad enough without being reminded over and over that most women don't have any interest in me anymore.† Which would be bearable if it weren't for the fact that only the wrong kind of men do."
"And the right kind of men would be better?"† That wasn't entirely unexpected, considering that Clint had walked in on him kissing Hank, but it was still something of a surprise to hear Tony come right out and say it.† Then again, Tony had never bothered keeping anything about his love life secret.
"Well, obviously, but Rhodey's never been interested, and neither have you, and-"
He must have done a much better job than he'd thought keeping his feelings discrete, Steve thought, and then the implications of Tony's words hit him, and he found himself staring at Tony, mind suddenly blank.
Tony was attracted to him.† Tony cared whether or not Steve was interested in him.† Tony considered Steve to be "the right kind of man," whatever that meant.
"... and Hank was a really bad idea, but I've always had a weakness for blonds.† And for people who would be terrible for me."
Did Tony include Steve in that category?† Considering that he'd never made a move on him in all their years of friendship, probably.
"Listen to me," Tony went on, shaking his head.† "You'd think I'd be used to this by now."
"Used to what?"† Steve had clearly missed something.
"Sorry."† Tony started to stand, gathering the discarded shoes up in one hand.† "You don't need to hear all about my problems."
"No."† Steve held out a hand, and Tony came to a halt a step away from his chair.† "Tell me.† You used to tell me things like this."† Once he said it, he realized that wasn't actually true.† Tony had been one of the handful of people whom he could always talk to, but he'd rarely reciprocated.† Hell, as far as Steve could tell, Tony never spoke to anyone about his real problems, not the most serious ones, anyway.
It was one of the reasons they hadn't realized how bad his drinking problem was; he'd never asked anyone for help, never mentioned how much of a strain he was under or how much pain he was in.† He'd just carried the weight of his problems by himself until it had broken him.
"Tell me," Steve repeated.
Tony shook his head.† "It's really not-"
"Sit," Steve interrupted, pointing at the chair Tony had just vacated.† "Talk."
Tony dropped obediently back into the chair, then looked irritated with himself.
"You don't actually want to hear the rich businessman whine about how hard his life is," he said.† Steve looked at him silently, and he sighed.† "Apparently you do."† He paused for a moment, then said, "I know people don't want me for myself.† I'm not stupid.† They want my bank account, or my body.† Once they see through the glossy shell and realize what I'm really like, they don't stick around."
"That's not true," Steve objected.† "Where on earth did you get an idea like that?"
"It doesn't matter."† Tony waved a hand dismissively.† "Indres didn't lie about-" he broke off, then said, "It is true, you know it is.† Even Jan just wanted a distraction from everything that had happened with Hank.† Even if I hadn't told her about being Iron Man, it wouldn't have lasted.† She can do better."
"We can all agree that Jan can do better than any of us -- it's not like she hasn't told us so -- but that's not what this conversation is about."
Tony buried his face in his hands again.† "Ignore me.† I'm just feeling sorry for myself because I had to face things about myself tonight that I didn't want to be reminded of."
So that's what this was actually about.† "I know it must be hard, but you got through the party without drinking.† You've been sober for months now."
"That doesn't make the consequences go away.† Nobody trusts me or my company anymore, not after what Stane did.† After what I did.† Everyone knows what Tony Stark is like, how easy it is to get what you want out of him if you just use enough alcohol." Tony made a rough, half-laughing sound.† "I probably won't even remember it in the morning."
Said in a woman's voice, that sounded much worse than Tony had probably intended it to.
"You're trying now, though," Steve started.† "That's the important-"
"Hell, I didn't even remember his name until Jan told me."
Steve blinked. "Whose name?"
"Some guy.† I met him at a party, before, when I was drinking.† I didn't even remember him until I saw him tonight.† He didn't recognize me, either, but he tried to pick me up again, so he must have recognized something about me."
"Pick you up again?" Steve said slowly.† He really didn't like where it sounded like this was going.
"Steve," Tony said, quietly.† "Don't make me spell out how stupid I was."† He looked up again, eyes hollow behind the smeared mascara.† "Maybe it wasn't even him. Maybe nothing actually happened, and it's all in my head; hell, I can't even remember.† I just know he was there, that night, and-- stop looking at me like that.† It's not like anyone did anything to me; I did it all to myself.† I'm the one who let myself get that out of control.† I'm the one who handed control over my body over to someone else, and before you say anything," he held his hands up, palms out, "yes, I know exactly how lucky I was.† Hank gave me the lecture when he ran the blood tests on me."
'Lucky' wasn't the word Steve would have chosen.† Someone had used Tony, taken advantage of him.† Even, possibly, violated him.† If he couldn't remember, there was no way to know whether he had actually agreed to anything that had happened, and he wouldn't have been in any condition to defend himself.
The thought made Steve feel sick to his stomach.† "When was this?" he asked quietly.† 'Give me his name?' was what he actually wanted to ask, but Tony was reluctant enough to talk about this as it was, and those details were none of Steve's business.
Tracking the son of a bitch down and making sure he never laid a finger on another human being again would not help Tony now.
"Just before I lost the company."
Just before he completely fell apart.† Before he'd vanished off the radar, before Steve had tracked him down to that seedy hotel room where he'd been hell-bent on drinking himself into oblivion, had tried to get through to him and failed.
Maybe the one didn't have anything to do with the other.† Steve doubted that, though; it would have been too great a coincidence, Tony going over the edge just days after hitting what had clearly been some kind of personal rock bottom for him.
"It was over a year ago.† I don't know why seeing him tonight shook me so much.† I ought to be focusing on the positive; apparently it's really easy to talk people into setting up business meetings with you or settling lawsuits out of court when you're wearing a moderately revealing dress."† He shook his head, smiling wryly, and it struck Steve once again how different Tony's facial expressions looked without the mustache or goatee to hide or emphasize them.† The smile didn't reach his eyes.† "I suppose there had to be some consolation for having this done to my body."
When it came to losing control over your own body, being magically transformed into the opposite gender had to rank pretty high up there.† Maybe that was why Tony was so bothered by the ridiculous idea that no one wanted him anymore, or that only the 'wrong' people did -- Tony had always been able to seduce people, to charm them, before, but it was clearly important to him to be able to control that attention, to get it only from the people he wanted it from.† Sex in this new body would have been some kind of re-affirmation of control, Steve guessed, but only if it was sex Tony deliberately sought out.
Loss of control wasn't something Tony seemed to cope with well -- control over his sexuality, his body, his company, his technology.† Over, well, everything.
They should probably be grateful Tony wasn't out there desperately seducing everyone in sight, with the kind of manic, obsessive overkill he'd displayed when trying to get his armor back.† Clearly, the loss of his technology was something he'd perceived as an even greater violation than having the integrity of his own body compromised.
But then, Tony had always been funny about his technology.† Wanda had said that having control of her powers taken from her bad been like being violated; Tony's armor, his designs, were as much a part of who he was as Wanda's mutation and magic.
He'd been willing forgive Wanda for her reaction to everything that had happened to her, to her own loss of control.† Why was Tony different?† Was he holding Tony to too high a standard?† Wanda to too low a one?
"You're not that different," Steve said, carefully, "not in the ways that matter."† Which was both true and not true.† Tony could still run SI as a woman, still be Iron Man, still make Steve want to pound his head against the wall in frustration over how hard it was to understand him, still make Steve ache to touch him.† And yet, every time Steve looked at him, there was still that half-second of confusion, that need to remind himself that this was Tony, not some stranger with his mannerisms and speech patterns.† "You look better without all that make-up, though.† It doesn't belong on you.† The dress either."
Not that Tony didn't look utterly desirable like this -- the dress clung just tightly enough to emphasize all the curves he did have, and the low back revealed a long expanse of smooth skin, dipping inward just below his waist.† Steve could imagine drawing that naked back -- the hollow of his spine, the angular lines of his shoulder blades, the curve of ribs narrowing down to the slim waist and then rounded hips flaring out again... pencil or charcoal, to get the shading right.† Maybe water colors.† He didn't usually do water color, but the delicate wash of tints would be perfect for--
Stop it, Steve told himself.† The last thing Tony's going to let you do is use him for figure-drawing practice.† Talk about just using someone for their body...
"I feel like I'm wearing a costume," Tony admitted.† "Like I'm pretending to be someone else."
Steve stood, holding one hand out to Tony.† "Come on," he said.† "It's late.† You should wash that stuff off and go to bed."† He was tired of being angry with Tony, of being suspicious, of waiting for the next meltdown, the next catastrophe.
And maybe, it wasn't just that he was tired of not trusting Tony.† He'd had his reasons for taking off his costume and becoming The Captain, but... a lot of things had changed.† Maybe it was time to stop waiting for the next betrayal, and start trying to get things back to normal again.
Tony stared up at Steve for a second, confusion in his eyes; then his lips quirked in a little half-smile and he took Steve's hand, letting Steve pull him to his feet.† It had never been difficult to manhandle Tony, but it was even easier now; he was a good fifty pounds lighter as well as half a foot shorter.
Steve led Tony into the kitchen and fetched a clean dishtowel out of a drawer, dampening it under the faucet.
"Plain water's not going to get all of this off," Tony said.† "Jan doesn't use cheap make-up."
"Probably not," Steve agreed, "but it will take some of it off."† He handed the towel to Tony, and watched as Tony proceeded to smear eye shadow and mascara around his eyes until he looked like a raccoon, or possibly one of the teenagers who hung out in the Village -- one of the more interesting things about visiting Dr. Strange's sanctum sanctorum was always the people you saw on your way there.
"Give me that," Steve said after a moment, able to stand it no longer, and took the dishtowel from Tony's fingers.† He put a hand under Tony's chin to tilt his face up, and Tony closed his eyes as Steve brushed the wet cloth gently over his eyelids.
Tony stood motionless, his face still under Steve's hands, expression unreadable.
He was right; the dishtowel didn't take all the make-up off.† Steve was right, too, though; it did remove most of it.
He pulled the towel away, letting go of Tony's chin, and dropped it on the table.† Pieces of hair were hanging in Tony's face; Steve reached up, without thinking, and brushed them out of the way.
Tony, eyes still closed, turned his face into the touch, and Steve realized suddenly how close they were standing.† Tony was only inches away.† All he had to do was lean down a little and--
He wasn't sure which of them moved first.† Probably himself; Tony seemed spellbound by the touch, lips parted slightly and expression serene, waiting.
Tony's lips were soft under his, almost passive.† Steve had expected more force, more aggression.
There was nothing passive about the heat building in his body though, or in the way Tony stepped forward a moment later, closing the distance between them and molding himself against Steve, pressing up into the kiss.
The feel of Tony's body pressed against him was like an electric shock, jolting Steve into an awareness of what, exactly, he was doing.
Stepping back from Tony was the last thing he wanted to do, but he made himself do it, trying to will his hardening erection away.
"I'm sorry," he blurted out.† "I shouldn't have done that."
"Hmm?"† Tony blinked at him, looking dazed, his eyes half-lidded.† "Yes you should.† For an eighty-year-old man, you kiss really well."
Steve shook his head.† "I don't want to be one more person taking advantage of you."† He hesitated, then, added, trying to sound like he meant it, "You should go to bed.† It's late."
Tony took a step back from him, disappointment visible on his face.† "You're not-" he started.† Then he fell silent, and turned to go, giving Steve one more torturous glimpse of his pale, naked back, framed by black silk.
Tony paused in the doorway.† "It's not taking advantage of me if I want it," he said, without turning around.† Then he was gone, leaving Steve alone.
"Let's focus, people," Tony said, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice.† "This isn't a total disaster.† It's not a disaster at all unless we let it be one."
"Not a disaster?" Layton's eyes widened, bulging out even further than they normally did and increasing his unfortunate resemblance to a frog.† "How would you describe losing a two hundred million dollar contract, then, Mr. Stark? Or should that be Ms. Stark?"
'Disaster' actually summed it up pretty well, but you didn't use words like that when talking to banks or stockholders or potential buyers.† Tony had been counting on the terrain exploring robots for the Tieri Mining contract forming one of the cornerstones of his attempt to rebuild SI's capital and prestige.† SI's designs -- his designs -- had a much lower rate of failure and were cheaper to produce.† The contract should have been theirs on the basis of quality alone.
And they'd submitted the lowest bid, without sacrificing quality or functionality to do so.† Tony had worked fourteen-hour days with the engineers on the project for two weeks straight, to ensure that their prototype was ready under budget and before the deadline, despite the fact that they had begun work on the project months -- and in one case, over a year -- after their competitors had.
"We have contingency plans," he said, trying not to let his bitterness show and probably failing.† "The Tieri contract was not a guarantee."† Except it had been, or should have been.† Layton and the others were right to be angry.
"It would have been," Layton said tightly, clearly struggling for composure, "had they not had doubts about our stability and ability to complete the project."
"We're just going to have to prove to people that Stark Industries is as stable as ever."
"Stark Industries hasn't been perceived as stable in over five years," Shooter said. "Not since-"
"My father was alive," Tony interrupted. "I know."† Shooter had been on the board for nearly two decades, and had disliked Tony ever since his father had first brought him in to a board meeting, intent on shaming his board members by proving that a six year old had a better grasp of the basic principles of engineering than they did.† Howard Stark had never expressed anything like pride in his son, not verbally, anyway, but the fact that he'd been convinced that his six year old son really was more intelligent than an entire boardroom full of adults had to count for something. "We've been producing better designs, better technology, since then, though," Tony said, doing his level best to sound positive, confident.† "Everyone acknowledges that.† Innovation is what this company is known for.† You can't innovate and be 'safe.'† Safety in this field is a death sentence."
"A perception of unreliability is a death sentence, especially in the current economy."† Layton again, harping on his favorite topic.† He'd been an accountant before rising to executive level responsibilities, and profit and loss and balance sheets were near and dear to his heart.† Tony might have empathized more if he wasn't always such an irritatingly pompous doomsayer about everything.† "There isnít a bank in New York that would loan to us if we needed it," he went on, "or extend any significant amount of credit, not when there's no guarantee who will be in charge of SI in six months."
Tony dropped his eyes to the polished wooden surface of the conference table for a moment, breathing in through his nose and doing his best not to react visibly to the comment.† It was true; SI was seen as unreliable, because he was seen as unreliable, and half the men in this room had done their best to block him from resuming control of the company after Stane's death.† And without the cashflow from the Tieri contract, credit and liquidity were going to be an issue.† The fact that they weren't already was, though it galled Tony to admit it, not actually due to him.† You could say a lot of bad things about Stane, starting with the fact that he had been a psychopathic killer, but at least he hadnít run Tony's company into debt.
"That's not the issue at hand," Tony said, looking Layton straight in the eyes.† "The issue at hand is how we're going to pursue other avenues of funding, and other sources of income.† The ebook reader has generated a lot of media buzz, but it's not going to be a major source of revenue the way the Starkphone is."
Ms. Grant, the only woman on the board and disappointingly impervious to Tony's charm, stared coolly at him.† "If your bodyguard hadn't gone out of his way to alienate Colonel Fury, we would still have our role as major technology supplier to SHIELD to fall back on."
Tony forced down the impulse to snap that he didn't want Fury's business anyway.† Not now that he knew how little he could trust the man.† Fury knew, better than most people, why Tony didn't want his armor in anyone else's hands, how dangerous it was.† "Iron Man is aware of that," he said.† "That particular bodyguard has been fired and replaced.† Wishing that our problems didn't exist doesn't help anyone.† We have to move forward, not dwell on previous mistakes.† SHIELD is still involved in several patent lawsuits with SI, which would make a business relationship extremely," Tony paused, searching for a word that would not raise eyebrows in polite company, "awkward.† If the judge rules in our favor, SHIELD will have to compensate us for their unauthorized use of Stark designs."
"SHIELD took possession of salvaged technology from your bodyguard's armor, which you've always refused to sell.† Perhaps if we made it legally available-"
Grant interrupted Layton, cutting him off mid-sentence. "If we did, the US Government would swoop in and take over the program.† Or do you really think Senator Byrd's given up on that?"
Byrd.† At least there was someone out there whose pursuit of Tony's armor was open, above-board, and well-intentioned.† Tony and the senior senator for Virginia had a mutual respect for one another that made clashes with him, if not pleasant, at least endurable.† At least, Byrd had respected Tony.† God knew what he thought of him now.
It was ridiculous to feel as if he'd let the older man down when they barely knew one another, but Tony still felt an uncomfortable sense of shame when he thought about Byrd's probable opinion of his descent into drunken uselessness.† Byrd had been one of the few people in either business or in Washington who had taken Tony seriously from the beginning.† "He'll still be trying to get Iron Man to work for the government when they force him to retire thirty years from now.† Iron Man's armor has never been for sale, gentlemen.† That's not negotiable."
Grant adjusted her glasses and consulted the sheaf of papers on the table before her, the gesture almost certainly for show.† "The reports from the scientific division on the green energy project are promising.† If we allocate more resources to the project and foreground it, the media buzz should be positive, as should the investor reactions.† Alternatives to fossil fuels aren't as much of a concern right now as they were this time last year, but there's still a lot of interest."
"And several nice government incentives for pursuing them," Tony said, nodding.† He could see where Grant was going with this; playing a major role in the development of alternative fuel sources would be a nice in with the new administration, provided the president lived up to his campaign promises about supporting scientific progress.† And anything that let them do part of their research on the government's dime was good for the companies finances in both the short and long term, provided they could produce results.
Layton, of course, was still frowning.† Tony had never seen him do anything but frown. "The project is still in development, though.† It could be a year before we see any salable results."
"And in the meantime," Tony said, smiling for all he was worth and resisting the urge to gaze at Layton through his eyelashes just in case that might help, "we get the tax breaks just for researching it."
Steve swayed backwards, easily evading Tony's right hook, then followed up with a swing at Tony's jaw that Tony just barely managed to block with his left forearm.
Tony had been landing fewer blows than usual, though his defense hadn't suffered as much from lack of practice as Steve had expected.† Before his transformation, Tony had been barely two inches shorter than Steve, his reach nearly identical.† Now, he was half a foot shorter than he had been, and he still hadn't learned to compensate properly for the loss in both reach and mass.
In the armor, as he'd demonstrated more than once since returning to New York, that didn't matter, but he couldn't always rely on the armor.
"You need to get in closer," Steve told him.† "It will keep me from using the fact that I have a longer reach against you."
Tony's eyes narrowed, and he backed up a step, fists at the ready.† "If I close with you, you'll just use the hundred pounds of mass you have on me to pin me to the floor.† Getting close enough for you to grab me would make this a very short fight."
Steve had always been able to beat Tony in unarmed combat, but previously, Steve's only real advantage had been skill and training.† It hadn't exactly been a fair fight, but it had been close to one.† He hadn't truly thought about the difference Tony's new smaller size would make, or rather, he had thought about it, but only in terms of how it would affect Tony's fighting abilities, not how much easier it would make it for Steve to seriously hurt him.
He was going to have to be careful, Steve realized.† Hold back just a little, the way he did when he trained with Wanda.
Steve threw a jab at Tony's shoulder, being careful not to put his full weight behind it.† Tony spun sideways, just managing to dodge the blow, and landed a punch against Steve's ribs.
Grabbing him by the wrist, yanking him forward, and throwing him over Steve's hip and onto the mat was as easy as breathing.† And also, Steve thought with a wince, as Tony climbed to his feet again, not exactly pulling his punches.
There was a hint of jerkiness in Tony's movements as he resumed his feet, a tenseness through his shoulders; despite Steve's hopes, he didn't look any more relaxed than he had when he'd returned from SI's offices.† Steve hadn't asked, but he assumed today's board meeting had gone badly.
Offering to spar with Tony had been a spur of the moment decision, motivated as much by a selfish desire to regain one more piece of normalcy as the hope that it would help Tony blow off steam and relax the way it always did for Steve.† Unfortunately, it didn't seem to be working.† Tony visibly seethed every time he forgot to compensate for his altered center of gravity or smaller size, clearly angry with himself for the failure.
Over the next few minutes, Tony over-balanced several times and failed to land at least two blows that he should have easily pulled off, growing more irritated each time.† He might be learning to deal with his transformation in day to day life -- mostly by ignoring it and acting as if everything were exactly as it had been, silently challenging everyone around him to do the same -- but in a fight, he clearly fell back on old habits and familiar moves.† That could be dangerous.
"You need to relearn the way your body moves," Steve said, blocking a kick from Tony and jabbing an elbow into his ribs, slightly less forcefully than he normally would have.† "You can't just go on memory.† Pay attention to how every move feels; if it's awkward to do, it's not going to work as well as it did before."
"I'd like to see you relearn how to do everything," Tony challenged, blocking Steve's right cross and throwing several quick jabs at him with his left hand.† Tony's left-handedness was one of the things that always made fighting him a useful challenge in addition to fun, and that hadn't changed.
"I did," Steve said, swaying backwards to let Tony's next punch sail harmlessly past his face.† "After they gave me the super-soldier serum, I spent a month tripping over my own feet and breaking things."
Tony smirked.† "Steve, you still do that."
"Not in combat."
Tony's smirk got broader, and Steve went on the attack, sweeping his feet out from under him with one well-placed kick. This time, Tony was ready for it, and hit the mat on his shoulder, rolling and coming up to one knee, then planting his hands against the mat and shoving himself back to his feet again.
His hair was damp, strands of it sticking to his neck and face, and a sheen of sweat glistened on his skin.† The sports bra and undershirt he was wearing left his arms bare, so Steve had ample opportunity to notice that while Tony might have lost some mass, he had lost nothing in terms of muscle definition.
For a moment, he could see the gently curving lines of Tony's naked back again, pale and smooth against the dark fabric of that stupid dress, remembered how Ton's body had felt against his.† How he had tasted.
Tony's eyebrows drew together, his smirk gone now.† "You're going easy on me, aren't you?"
Steve blinked, and his attempt to slip sideways and let Tony's left-handed jab slide past him yet again did not quite succeed.† "No?" he said, absorbing the blow and squaring off to deliver a few more of his own.
"Stop it," Tony said flatly.† "Would you pull your punches with Diamondback?"
"Rachel's a professional enforcer," Steve objected.† "She does this for a living."
Tony's stance was a perfect mirror image of Steve's, leading with his right foot instead of his left, in classic southpaw fashion.† "So it's because I'm an amateur," he snapped, "not because I'm a girl.† Interesting how you never went easy on me before."
Okay, so perhaps Tony had a point, but... "You're a lot smaller than you used to be."
Tony dropped his guard, lowering his fists, and actually rolled his eyes.† "Yes," he said.† "Now you have a hundred pounds of muscle mass on me, instead of just fifty pounds.† Come on, you've always been stronger, faster, and better than me at this, and you always will be.† It's not like the ability to kill me with your bare hands is something you've only just now acquired."
"Well, yes, but-" Steve spluttered.† When Tony put it that way, it made him sound like some kind of killing machine.
Tony's foot shot up and caught him right on the chin, hard.
Steve staggered back a step, stunned not just by the force of the impact, but the fact that Tony had done it at all; he'd never been able to kick his foot directly upright as high as his head before. Steve had tried to teach him that move before, without any real success.
Tony hit him in a classic football tackle, his entire bodyweight colliding with Steve's ribs, and the two of them went crashing to the mat, Steve too off-balance to prevent it.
"I've always wanted to be able to do that," Tony said, sitting across Steve's hips and smirking down at him.† "You're right; it is fun."† Then his eyes narrowed.† "Did you let me do that on purpose?" he demanded, leaning forward menacingly and setting one arm across Steve's throat.
Tony weighed barely anything; Steve could have thrown him off easily.† He didn't, though he knew he ought to.† Tony's weight was resting directly on top of Steve's groin, probably not by accident, and the position had the possibility to become very interesting, very quickly.
"Did you?" Tony repeated, leaning forward and letting a little more of his weight press against Steve's throat.† It made his hips shift in interesting ways.
"No," Steve said, thrusting his hips upward and to the side to throw Tony off of him, and rolling to pin him to the ground in a knee-on-stomach hold.† "I didn't.† You surprised me."
Tony made no move to escape, not that he could have from this position given how much of a weight advantage Steve had.† He was panting slightly; with his knee planted on Tony's chest, Steve could feel the motion of his ribs with every breath.
On second thought, Tony pinned underneath him, panting, his lips parted and his skin streaked with sweat was not actually any better than Tony straddling him.† It didnít help that Tony was acting more like his old self than Steve had seen in over a year; not just the way he had before the transformation, but the way he had before the serious drinking had started, before the bizarre lashing out of the armor wars.† It was as if Steve had suddenly been given his best friend back.
Except that when he planted one hand on Tony's chest to pin his shoulder blades more firmly to the ground, he could feel the soft swell of Tony's right breast under his palm.† That was... not like before.† The sports bra must not be made of very thick fabric, because Steve could actually feel Tony's nipple hardening through it.
Pulling his hand back and shifting his weight off of Tony's chest wasn't something Steve consciously planned on doing; it just sort of happened.† Then Tony was lunging up at him, and Steve had a split second to wonder what on earth kind of wrestling move this was before Tony was kissing him, fingers digging into his shoulders.
The kiss the other night had been gentle, tentative.† This was nothing like that.
It was openmouthed, all teeth and tongue and desperation, Tony's hands gripping his shoulders so tightly that it hurt.† He'd always wondered what kissing Tony would be like, mostly in terms of wondering what the moustache and goatee would feel like against his face.† It turned out that kissing Tony was a lot like sparring with him -- both of them gave it their all and Steve forgot, once again, to hold back.
Tony pulled back, and with the kiss broken, Steve could once again think about what a bad idea this was.† Tony was vulnerable right now, not himself, potentially unstable...† and currently pulling Steve's shirt up over his head and running his hands over Steve's naked back and stomach.
Steve shivered under the touch, and found himself leaning forward and reaching for Tony before reason intervened.† "We shouldn't do this," he said.† "I said I didn't want to take advantage of you and I meant it."
"I'm not really sure it's possible for me to come on to you more obviously than this, Steve, short of climbing into bed with you in the middle of the night, completely naked."† Tony stripped the undershirt off and threw it to one side, leaving him in nothing but shorts and a black sports bra that didn't completely hide his scars.† It was impossible, like this, to ignore the fact that his body was inarguably female, just as it had been the other night when he'd walked into the living room in that dress.
It should have been strange, off-putting, to have him be at once so obviously Tony and so clearly not male.† It definitely shouldn't have been sexy.
Tony wrapped himself around Steve in a modified version of a submission hold -- had his left arm been a few inches higher, he would have had Steve in a choke hold -- and pressed open-mouthed kisses against the junction of his neck and shoulder, sucking just hard enough to make Steve writhe, but not hard enough that it would leave a mark.
Steve closed his eyes and drew a deep breath in through his nose.† "Tony, I-- I don't want to just be one more† round of casual sex for you, while you regain control over... something..."
Tony let go of Steve and pulled back, looking him directly in the eye.† His eyes, at least, hadn't changed.† They were still the same shade of grayish blue they had always been.† "Steve," he said, voice low and husky, "nothing with you could be casual."
He reached up to cup the side of Steve's face, leaning in until their lips were only inches apart and staring at Steve with the single-minded focus Steve had previously seen him give to complex mechanical problems and fanatical quests to get his stolen armor back.† "Doing this with you almost makes being a woman worth it," he breathed, and leaned forward those last few inches to kiss Steve again.
"You're my friend, Tony," Steve said, turning his face to the side to dodge the kiss.† He could smell Tony's sweat, not unpleasant, but different than before.† He smelled like a woman.† But then, what else would he smell like?† "I don't want to lose that, not after just barely salvaging our relationship from... everything."
"You won't," Tony said.† His pupils were huge and dark, making his eyes look grey.† This close, Steve could almost count his lashes.† "Please, Steve."† His voice went low on Steve's name, breathy and needy in a way that made Steve's groin throb.
"I don't do casual sex with women -- with people."† Steve ran one hand up Tony's back, hooking his fingers under the elastic of the sports bra and pulling it upward.† Tony raised his arms, letting Steve pulled the bra up and over his head, revealing two small, round breasts.† They were pale, with hard, dark nipples, the skin between them a spider web of scar tissue -- the same familiar ragged mess of scars Steve had seen before when sparring with Tony, and that one, memorable time when a supervillain had made his armor disintegrate.† Proof, if he needed any more, that this was really Tony, was the same person who'd been his friend for years.† The same person he'd wanted for years.† "It didn't work with Rachel," he went on, knowing he was babbling, a she traced the line of one scar with a fingertip, following it outward from Tony's heart over the curve of his breast to where it ended, just above the nipple.† It was slightly different in texture from the soft skin surrounding it, and paler, the end of the scar partially bisecting the dark aureole.† "I'm not good at it.† Sex means something, Tony.† We can't just-"
"Of course it does," Tony interrupted.† "You're you.† Always so chivalrous; it's one of the things I like about you."
"I want to do this," Steve told him. "I do, but-"
Tony reached for the side of his face again, turning Steve's head slightly to force Steve to meet his eyes.† "I don't want sex, Steve.† Okay, I do, but-" he broke off, glancing away, then said, fiercely.† "I want you.† Specifically.† Right here and right now, but not just here and now."
"Oh," Steve said, very quietly.† "I've never done this with a guy before," he confessed.
Tony crawled forward, moving with an easy grace he hadn't displayed while sparring, until he was straddling Steve's thighs once more.† He picked up Steve's hand and settled it back over his breast, breath catching as Steve automatically rubbed a thumb over his nipple. "Does this feel male to you?" he asked.
"No," Steve said, and bent to see if his mouth on Tony's breast would get a similar reaction.
It had been a long time, Steve reflected, since he'd allowed himself a day off from being a superhero, to just go and do something normal.† It had been even longer since he'd been able to do that with Tony.
The last time they had met in a casual setting, out of costume and not on Avengers business, had been in a dinner in California, where Steve had tried unsuccessfully to convince Tony to abandon his obsessive and self-destructive attempt to reclaim his stolen technology.† Since then, they hadn't interacted unless the team required it.
Well, until the day before yesterday, in the gym.† That had definitely been interaction, and it hadn't been Avengers-related.† Neither had his conversation with Tony after the party, or the sparring, really.† Teaching Tony hand-to-hand combat had always been something between Steve and Tony Stark, not between Captain America and Iron Man.
They were just beginning to rebuild their friendship.† Steve really hoped sex wouldn't get in the way of that; as good as the sex had been -- and it had been very good -- he wouldn't trade Tony's friendship for it.
Cornering Tony in his lab last night to talk about things had ended up turning into yet another round of passionate sex, and while post-coital snuggling on the floor of Tony's lab had been nice, Steve wasn't sure it counted as talking about their relationship.† So he'd asked Tony to come with him to a photography exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, where nothing untoward could happen.
Hopefully, he could work up the nerve to actually broach the subject before they left the museum.
MoMA had the same high ceilings, white walls, and pale floors that every modern museum seemed to have.† Tony, back in the same masculine business attire he always wore and looking as if slinky black dresses, heels, and make-up were something that had never crossed his mind, was staring around the lobby with a bemused expression.† "You know," he said, "I think this is the first time in five years that I've been here during normal visiting hours.† I usually come here for fund raisers."
"Well, I hope it's still interesting even without the hors d'oeuvres and women in fancy dresses."† Steve had been dragged to more than one of those fund raisers, before Tony had started drinking.† Tony had always claimed that he needed someone with him who could talk about art, so that he wouldn't look like a clueless engineer who didn't know anything about culture, or that Captain America's presence at a particular benefit dinner would ensure a better turn out.† There were always hors d'oeuvres, the tinier the better, and women dressed as if they were ready to attend the opera.
Tony made a face.† "Trust me, fancy dresses have lost their appeal."
"I thought you looked very pretty," Steve said sweetly, smirking down at Tony.† Now that Tony was no longer actually wearing a little black dress, and no longer visibly exhausted and depressed, making fun of him didn't feel cruel.
Tony raised his eyebrows.† "I'd like to see you wear heels."
Steve grinned.† "I have, actually.† I went undercover as a women a couple of times during the war."
Tony stared at him, the amusingly flabbergasted expression on his face more than worth surrendering a few blackmail-worthy details about Steve's past.† "A six foot, three inch tall woman.† And people actually fell for that?"
Steve shrugged.† "Some women are very tall."
Tony failed to look convinced.† "It's not just the height.† It's the build, and the bone structure, and... trust me, I'm very familiar with the differences between men and women at this point.† You would make an extremely unconvincing drag queen."
Steve resisted the impulse to protest that he would make a very convincing drag queen, realizing just in time how silly that would sound.† "Bucky and I were never caught," he said, instead.† "Okay, we were frequently caught, but not because people saw through our disguises."
"They were probably just too polite to say anything," Tony told him, smirking.† He put one hand on the small of Steve's back, steering him toward the banner that proclaimed "Into the Sunset: Photography's Images of the American West," in brightly colored letters.† "Come on; Ansel Adams awaits."
"Ansel Adams is not the only famous landscape photographer to take pictures of the American West," Steve said primly.
"He's just the only one people have ever heard of."† Tony grinned at him, so close that Steve could feel his body heat.† The close physical proximity wasn't anything new, but now it felt different, intimate in a way it hadn't been before.† Or maybe it had been, and he'd just never noticed.
"Is that the Marlboro Man?" Tony pointed at the first picture, a color-saturated portrait of a cowboy.† "Is that supposed to be sincere, or a post-modernist commentary?"
"I'm not sure," Steve admitted.† "I think this is supposed to be an examination of how photography shaped American conceptions of the West, so it could be either."
"Oh," Tony said.† "One of those exhibits."
"I could be dragging you through the abstract art hall. †Don't complain."
Tony grumbled something under his breath, but it was clearly a token protest.† In the end, Steve was pretty sure Tony enjoyed the photography exhibit, too.† He had something to say about all of the pictures, even if it was only to make fun of them, one hand on either Steve's back or his arm the whole time, and kept smiling up at him.† When had Tony smiling -- a real smile, not a fake one for cameras -- become unusual?
"Anything else you want to see as long as we're here?" Steve asked, as they left the exhibit, sliding an arm around Tony's waist, quietly reveling in the way Tony leaned into him. He'd missed this, too; Rachel was an incredibly passionate woman, but she wasn't much for simple displays of affection.
Several feet away, a woman with two children in tow was looking at them.† Steve met her eyes, and realized as he did so that he was standing there, in public, with his arm around Tony in a way that left no doubt as to the nature of their relationship.
Steve froze.† Putting an arm around Tony had felt so natural; he hadn't stopped to think about what he was doing, what he was revealing.
The woman gave him a harried smile, and turned to pull one of her children away from a piece of sculpture.† "No, sweetie.† Don't touch that."
Steve relaxed, feeling silly.† There wasn't any reason for worry or caution; as far as anyone else in the museum knew, Tony was a woman.† If Steve wanted to put an arm around him in public, or even kiss him in the museum lobby, in front of god and everyone, no one would raise an eyebrow.
"The Jackson Pollock paintings," Tony announced.† "I think MoMA outbid me for one of them a few years ago."
Steve raised his eyebrows.† "I thought you didn't like non-representational art."
"Jackson Pollock's paintings aren't supposed to mean anything or be some kind of incomprehensible political statement.† That's the whole point.† Plus, he did interesting things with fluid dynamics."
Steve couldn't help smiling at that.† Of course there was an engineering-related reason Tony liked them.† "Art can be a powerful political tool," he pointed out, steering Tony around a group of tourists who were standing in an amorphous huddle in the middle of the hallway.† By the slant of the light coming in through the windows, it was already past noon, and early afternoon on a Saturday seemed to be most people's favorite time to visit museums; the building wasn't exactly crowded, but there was a steady stream of people milling around.† Steve had been in here before, on weekdays, and seen nobody but a few security guards, and a scattering of art students from Cooper Union.
Tony snorted.† "Not when it's people gluing baby dolls to trashcans and claiming it represents something deep and meaningful."
"That's not real art.† Not unless they made the doll themselves or painted something on the trashcan.† Art should create something."† It was old fashioned, Steve knew, but art should be about more than just shock value or being confusing for the sake of being confusing.† It was supposed to communicate something to people, or, failing that, be aesthetically pleasing.
"I'm allowed to not get avant garde art," Tony said, gesturing expansively at the museum around them with the arm that wasn't wrapped around Steve's waist.† "I'm just an engineer. Youíre supposed to be sensitive and artistic."
"Good art should be accessible to the average person.† If it's a form of social protest, people should be able to understand what you're using it to say without needing you to explain it to them."† He sounded really pompous, didn't he, Steve thought, wincing a little.
Tony's lips curved in a familiar little half-smirk.† "When you were a teenager, you wanted to grow up to paint WPA murals, didnít you?"
"Yes," Steve said.† "After you get done staring enviously at the painting you almost bought," he added, "where do you want to go eat?"
"I'm taking you to the Modern," Tony told him, as if it had already been discussed and decided upon.
Steve winced.† The museum's two-star gourmet restaurant was undoubtedly very nice, but it didn't match the low-key afternoon together that he'd had planned.† "It's ridiculously over-priced," he pointed out.
Tony shrugged, grinning up at him disarmingly.† "So?† I'm paying.† I always pay for my dates."
"Date?" Steve repeated.
"Just because I look like a girl doesn't mean I'm going to let you treat me like one," Tony went on.† "Come on, let me keep at least a little masculine pride."
Date?† Tony considered this a date?† Steve hadn't thought about it in so many words, but... maybe it was.† It wasn't anything the two of them hadn't done together before, but they hadn't been sleeping together before, either, and that bit on context changed everything.
If Tony had assumed that Steve's request that he come with him to the photography exhibit had been Steve asking him out on a date, then the fact that he had come meant that he did want the two of them to have a real relationship.† That, in fact, he assumed they'd already started one.
"So, as far as dates go, how has this one been so far?" he asked, trying for a casual, joking tone.
"No one has tried to kill either of us yet," Tony said, with that infuriatingly sexy little smirk; Steve wasnít fooling anyone, apparently.† "Or attacked the museum.† So I think we can consider it a success."
It had been so long since a business meeting had gone well that Tony had almost forgotten what the combination of relief and smug satisfaction it always engendered felt like.† He hadn't even realized how much stress he'd been under until the meeting was successfully over with, and he'd actually felt sick from the overwhelming relief.
Stark Industries' green energy research was now going to be carried out in partnership with the Department of Energy, with half the project's funding being provided by the American tax payer.† The government officials he'd been meeting with had been men he'd never seen before -- not surprising, since for the first time, he hadn't been dealing with the DoD -- and so they had been able to get directly to the business of the meeting, without having to spend a good fifteen minutes on the ever-popular topic of "oh my God, you really have been turned into a girl!" first.† One of the Department of Energy scientists, whom Tony suspected hadn't been exposed to any media other than technical journals in years, had even called him "Ms. Stark."
It had been a hard sell -- federal budget concerns being what they were, the government wasn't going to fund SI's work unless they were satisfied that they might actually get useful results out of it -- but once Tony had realized that the senior official was flirting with him, he'd known how to pitch the project.† Lean forward a little, lower his voice to create a sense of intimacy and make it seem as if he were talking directly to the man, smile.† Nothing that would make it obvious to everyone else in the room -- under normal circumstances, flirting with a male prospective investor was just as likely to alienate half the rest of the room as work in his favor -- but enough that the other man's interest in what Tony was saying increased perceptibly.
He'd always tried to use charm to turn business negotiations to his advantage, even in the very early days when he'd still been figuring out how to do it successfully -- eye contact was key, but it had taken a while before he stopped having to remind himself of that -- but somehow, it had felt slightly uncomfortable this time, in a way it never had before.
SI would have been desperate without this deal, though, so Tony had shoved his unease to the back of his mind, smiled across the table at his audience, and done his level best to make explaining the data on various powerpoint graphs and spreadsheets sound vaguely dirty.† He'd discovered long ago that anything could sound suggestive if you said it with the right intonation.
"Do you want tips on the best way to flutter your eyelashes?" Pepper asked him now, voice completely deadpan.† "You know, for next time."
"That would be completely unprofessional, Ms. Hogan," Tony told her.
Pepper raised an eyebrow.† "So we're going to be professional now?† I suppose I should give you the message Captain America left for you later, then."
"Steve left me a message?"† The disproportionate swell of pleasure he felt at the idea was silly, he knew, but even having Steve's friendship back was still enough to make him want to grin uncontrollably, and now... Tony had thought their friendship had been destroyed for good, had never expected Steve to so much as exchange the time of day with him again, let alone forgive him or understand why he had done the things he had, and while he was pretty sure that Steve still didnít understand, he was going to assume that the sex meant that he was forgiven.
Thinking about Steve and sex in the same sentence was never going to get old, especially not now that he had first hand experience in the matter.† It turned out that a female body had a few advantages to it after all, especially when your partner had super-soldier-serum-enhanced endurance and a recovery period that would have had Tony seething with envy if he weren't currently benefiting from it.
Pepper pointedly looked away from him, examining her wafer-thin black PDA as if whatever was written on it was vastly more interesting than Tony's love life. "Given that it has nothing to do with company business, giving it to you now wouldn't be very professional, would it, Mr. Stark?"
"It's from Steve.† How unprofessional could it be?"† Especially compared to some of the messages previous dates had occasionally left for him.† While anything could sound suggestive if read in the right voice, Pepper had developed a finely honed skill for making the most lurid and salacious of messages sound utterly devoid of interest or appeal, generally by reading them in a tone of extreme boredom.† Tony had asked her, once, how she did it with a straight face, and she had smiled and said, dryly, "Constant practice."
He gave Pepper his best puppy dog eyes, and she relented.† "He says that dinner is at seven, and he'll meet you at the restaurant."
"Seven?† I don't leave work until seven fifteen."
"I think this may be a subtle message that normal people work from nine to five, not eight to seven, and you should consider leaving earlier today."† Pepper was examining the PDA again, but Tony could hear a faint hint of satisfaction in her voice, and wondered who's idea the early reservations had actually been.
"So, when are you and Happy's dinner reservations?" he asked.
"Six-forty-five."† Pepper shut the PDA off and tossed it onto her desk, which was spotlessly neat in comparison with Tony's own mess of forms, papers, blueprints, and empty coffee mugs.† There was brightly colored paperweight shaped like a flamingo that Tony knew had been a gift from Happy sitting alone on the desk's far corner, in its own little quarantine of tastelessness, at odd with the somber black of her blotter, keyboard, and computer monitor.
Tony checked his watch.† It was a quarter to six, which meant that if he wanted to be out of the building in time to meet Steve in Manhattan at seven, he would have to leave pretty much immediately.† And so would Pepper.† "How long were you going to make me wait before you told me that I was about to be late?" he asked.
"It's written in your computer's appointment book, if you check," she said.† "And I sent you an email."
Which, translated, meant, 'Had you not specifically asked me what Steve said, I would, indeed, have deliberately let you be late just to teach you a lesson about checking your messages.'
"Most of the emails I get are spam," he protested.† &quo