Hey, it's been a while... I was recently impressed-and-mildly-perplexed by Iron Man 3, and the very brief conversation between Harley and Tony about bullies inspired this little one-shot. Apparently I'm on a quest to force Steve to have unlikely and way-too-self-aware observations about how awesome Tony really is, and make him stop insisting that Iron Man isn't a superhero... or something, so he magically appears in this too, so, ta-da! Instant Avengers fic.

As per usual, nothing that belongs to Marvel and/or Disney and/or anyone else can belong to me, and so it doesn't. But I hope some of you lovely readers enjoy.

*As of posting this, I've only seen the movie once, and apparently I'm not very good at writing dialogue for smart-ass little kids, so if it seems lacking in that department, my apologies.

Rose Hill, Tennessee wasn't on his list. The list being things that Steve Rogers had missed in his years as, how did Stark put it? A Capsicle? But since he was in Nashville, and had discovered a deep and abiding dislike of country music, he had been all too happy to take on a little side mission when Fury called.

That mission was to talk to one Harley Keener, an enterprising ten-year-old who had housed and assisted Stark with his Mandarin problem two weeks before.

"Is this really a priority?" Steve had asked, perplexed as to why he was being sent instead of an agent. He could hear the grin in Fury's voice when he answered.

"Not really, just keeping tabs on things. Don't wanna scare the kid by sending a team of agents, not when he didn't do anything wrong. So if you could just have a chat with him on our behalf and let us know what exactly happened when Stark was supposedly dead, it would be much appreciated. Since you're in the neighborhood and all."

Steve had resolved not to think it was kind of creepy that Fury knew where he was, and instead gotten back on his bike and headed for Rose Hill.

Before he even got close, he got a call from Stark, warning him to go easy on the kid.

"How did you-?" Steve remembered the day Tony had hacked the SHIELD helicarrier, and didn't bother finishing the sentence, "Why don't you just tell Fury what happened?"

"He's sort of a cop, at heart, he'll want another angle on the story," Tony had replied flippantly, "The kid won't know you, so tell him you're a friend of the Mechanic, and I sent you to check up on him, and that our boss wanted to hear it from him about what happened when I was there."

"Okay," Steve had agreed, "You really got help from a ten-year-old?"

"Well, when you're down on your luck and your suit's busted… I needed all the help I could get."

"You could have called us," Steve reminded him.

"I handled it."

"Yeah, I guess you did," he shook his head, "Right, I guess I have to go interrogate your pint-sized friend."

"Good luck with that," Tony laughed and hung up.

It was a small town, and he hadn't ever really been comfortable in small towns, but he followed Fury's instructions and tracked down the Keener residence. Harley's mother was out, it seemed, because all the lights in the house were out, so Steve headed for the shed where one light glowed in the window.

"Hello?" he called out as he knocked, "Anyone home? I'm looking for Harley?"

The door swung open silently and he took a cautious step inside, looking around. He'd expected something a little more… well, low rent. But he found the room full of everything a budding scientist could want. And there was the kid himself, standing by an old car with a plastic gun pointed at him. He looked his age, or a little younger, sandy-haired, with the unmistakable posture of someone used to being shoved around by kids twice his size. He realized dimly that the kid was scare of him. He still felt like the scrawny kid from Brooklyn, so sometimes Steve forgot what the serum had done to him; sometimes he forgot that now he looked like the bully.

"Who're you?" the kid asked, squinting suspiciously, "What do you want?"

"My name's Steve. I'm a friend of the Mechanic. He sent me to check up on you."

He seemed to have said the magic words, because the kid lowered the gun and stepped forward, "You're Captain America?"

Steve scratched the back of his neck and nodded uncomfortably.

"Oh. Okay," Harley put the gun down on the table in the middle of the room and gestured for him to come inside. He went to a mini-fridge on the other side of the workshop and retrieved a can of soda, holding it up so Steve could see, "Want one?"

"Sure," Steve caught the can easily in one hand, his eyes drifting around the room, "I'm guessing our mutual friend got you some upgrades."

"Yeah," Harley grinned, and then the grin wilted a little, "He's okay, right? The news said he was okay after…"

"He's fine, Harley," Steve nodded, trying to sound reassuring, "I just talked to him, actually."

"Good," the boy looked up at him, eyes wary, "That's not why you're here though, is it?"

"Not exactly," Steve admitted, "We have a… boss, sort of. Well, no one's his boss, so I guess it's my boss. But he wanted to hear your side of what happened when the Mechanic was here."

"Is that okay? Did he say that was okay?" Harley demanded uncertainly. Steve knew immediately who 'he' was, and nodded.

"Well, not much. He broke in here and was hiding out. Iron Man was broken," Harley shrugged, "He traded me his bully light for some help. And a tuna sandwich."

"Bully light?" Steve interrupted, "What's a bully light?"

Harley held up a little red and gold metal cylinder that looked like it had come off of Iron Man's suit. He pressed a button and the room was suddenly full of bright light that momentarily blinded Steve.

"You point it at their face, and then you can get away," Harley explained matter-of-factly.

"Effective," Steve blinked away the swirls of lights and stars, "What about what happened in town, after that?"

"With the dragon people?" Harley nodded and started explaining. Most of what he had to say matched up with Stark's report, though he had to admit, Harley's tale was considerably more entertaining for the dramatic reenactments. The sound effects were a nice touch too.

"Then he said to the guy 'that's the thing about smart guys, we always have a back-up plan', and then he fired one of the RTs at the guy and bam! He went flying, and then… well, we got away," Harley finished with a flourish, mimicking Iron Man's classic pose, one hand out as if he was blasting away an imaginary enemy. Steve grinned.

"I always just used trashcan lids when the bullies came after me," he commented, almost to himself, "But I guess laser blasts and bully lights are good too."

"The RTs aren't lasers, they're-" Harley stopped mid-explanation and looked up at Steve, "Wait, you had bullies?"

"Yeah," Steve shrugged. Harley was looking at him as if he was sure he was lying.

"I wasn't always like this, you know," he pointed at the muscles of his left arm, "They wouldn't even let me join the army, I was so small and scrawny. Then I met this doctor who was trying to make soldiers stronger. He thought I was a good candidate. I don't like bullies, see. And I wanted to help. So he made me like this. And before you ask, no, he can't make you like this. He died a long time ago."

"That sucks, sorry," Harley shrugged, "He was your friend. Like Mr. Stark is your friend?"

"Well, actually… Tony and I aren't really… we sort of butt heads more often than we agree on things."

"But you both think bullies are bad," Harley pointed out with a shrug.

It took Steve until that moment to realize that he had always thought of Stark as a bully. Not the kind that used to plague him in the alleys of New York City; not the ones who were all muscle and no brains, the ones who threw punches without a second thought, but the kind that fired words at you like trained snipers. Almost immediately since they met, all Steve had seen was a fast-talking smart ass who thought the world had been made to cater to his every whim; a spoiled brat who thought he was the center of the universe.

For the first time, Steve considered what it must have been like to grow up Howard's son. What was it like to always be the smartest person in the room, even if the room was full of adults who thought you couldn't possibly know what they were talking about because you were only a kid? How exhausting was it to have to translate everything you had to say into words and phrases that most people would understand before you even opened your mouth? What was it like to be questioned at every turn, because your mind worked twice as fast as everyone else's? Steve couldn't even begin to imagine how frustrating the world must have been through Tony Stark's eyes.

And suddenly, all of the swagger made perfect sense. It was Stark's trash can lid, he realized. The harsh words and cocky attitude were his real armor. Because everybody loved the class clown, even if he was a bit of a jerk, and what better cover for the too-smart-for-his-own-good son of the famous and infamous Howard Stark? What better defense against loudmouthed bullies than a voice that drowned everyone else out?

Harley was watching him, perplexed at his silence. Steve managed a weak smile and stood up, "Uh, well, thanks kiddo. I think that's all I need…"

"Okay," Harley followed him to the door, "Tell the Mechanic that he needs to keep building stuff."

"Will do, kid," Steve smiled, walking towards his bike.

"And tell him he's a snot-faced loser for leaving me behind!"

Steve laughed and turned to wave at him, "Snot-faced loser? I'll definitely pass that one on."

"Okay, thank you!" Harley shouted over the roar of the motorcycle. And with that, his encounter with Captain America was over. He stood in the street and watched the Mechanic's friend-but-not-friend speed off. Then he turned and went back inside. He switched on a light by his workbench, where he had been trying to recreate the bully light, so he could give one to Ginny Harrison, the cute girl in his advanced algebra class who always got picked on by a pack of eighth grade mean girls. He lifted up a tiny LCD bulb and examined it under his magnifying glass.

He'd have to look into the merits of trash can lids as shields as soon as he finished the new bully light.

Reactive strategies. It was all about reactive strategies.

Thoughts are nice, if you are inclined to review.