A Meeting of Minds

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)


Author's Notes: This story is set after "Extremis" and before "Execute Program".

Many thanks to tavella and seanchai for beta-reading for me!


Chapter One

--The walls were a stark, clinical white, but under his hands they were cold and smooth, like metal. The heat leeched out of his body through his fingertips; he jerked them back from the surface, but he couldn't lift his bare feet from the floor. He paced, trying to slow the drain, but every footfall bled more heat, more life from his body. Still he paced, faster, searching for a door, a window, any opening in the walls, but they were seamless.

Seamless... and moving. The room was shrinking! His heart pounded and he ran from wall to wall, but he couldn't hold them. The room collapsed smaller and smaller and he screamed for help but the walls just swallowed the sound and soon he could touch them with outstretched arms and still they shrank, the space growing tighter, less space for air and he struggled to breathe, he couldn't breathe and the walls were at his shoulders now and there was no air and no space no no no no no--

Tony jerked awake, gasping for breath and soaked with cold sweat. Just a nightmare. He forced himself to take deep, steadying breaths. It only took him a moment to calm down. The terror that had accompanied the dream was gone, faster than his nightmares usually faded.

Getting out of bed, Tony frowned as he stripped off the sweat-damp sheets. It hadn't been his usual sort of nightmare, though. The entire setup smacked of claustrophobia, but he'd never suffered from that, not even after the occasions when his armor had nearly become his coffin.

"Dreams don't always make sense," Tony muttered to himself as he remade the bed. His had been making less sense than usual lately. Two nights ago he'd had a classic college student's stress dream, walking into class and discovering he was late, prepared for the wrong test, and naked. But he hadn't had a college stress dream even when he'd been in college. And then there was the erotic dream about the snakes... tentacles... whatever. When he woke he'd never lost an erection so fast in his life, but while he'd been sleeping--!

Tony pushed the thought aside, tossed a fresh pillow on the bed and headed for the bathroom. He wasn't about to crawl between fresh sheets while he was--

--hate the night shift. If the pay wasn't so much better... Think of Terry. You want him to go to college, don't you? He's not going to get stuck--

Tony put a hand to his forehead. "What the hell was that?" he said softly. A stray radio frequency, maybe, if the operator had terrible protocol. Tony reinforced the mental filters he'd put on the data feeds.

The hot, pounding water of the shower felt incredibly good. Tony braced his hands against the wall and leaned into the spray, letting it work out the last aches of adrenaline.

--wish I could just get to sleep. If I can't get some rest soon I'm actually going to end up buying one of these Bowflex machines. Not like I couldn't use the exercise--

Tony shook his head sharply. That wasn't a stray transmission or a dream. That was a problem.

Tony turned away from his bedroom and headed for the elevator that would take him down to his lab instead.

***

Concentrating on the screen and the slowly scrolling lines of code, Tony forced himself to read each expression carefully. He couldn't block out the murmur of voices in the back of his head, but he ignored them steadfastly.

A sudden surge of rage swept through him and he slammed his fist down on the keyboard before he could stop himself. The rage vanished like it had never been. "Damn it," Tony swore, looking down at the broken keyboard. At least he hadn't lost his place in the code; after the first couple of interruptions he'd set the program to pause at any keystroke.

Sighing, Tony pitched the broken keyboard into a bin to be broken down and recycled and hooked up a spare. The intercom beeped just as he was sitting down again. Tony crossed the room to answer it by hand; God only knew if the Extremis was reliable right now, given what was happening in his head. "Yes?"

"The board meeting I rescheduled from last week is in two hours," Pepper's voice echoed a little, "and you haven't read the report from R&D."

The board meeting. Damn. Tony rubbed his temple. God, his head ached. He'd thought a week would be more than enough time to fix this, but instead the fragments of foreign thought had become constant, shifting and varying in intensity apparently at random. If he'd had Maya's help... but Maya was in prison, and not feeling kindly disposed towards him. He couldn't trust her to rewire his brain. And he couldn't reschedule the board meeting again, not if he wanted to keep this to himself. "I'll be up in a minute," he said into the intercom.

The board meeting was an exercise in mental and physical control that bordered on torture. Tony knew that there were questions he should have asked, discussions that he'd tuned out of, but as he walked out of the boardroom with the last member, none of them seemed suspicious. Unhappy or irritated, perhaps, but not suspicious.

Tony forced himself to walk calmly and casually back to his office. Once the door had closed securely behind him he leaned heavily against it and slowly slid down to sit on the floor, his head cradled in his hands. Pain lanced through his temples, disrupting his concentration, and the voices flooded in:

--love this song! Stop right now, thank you very much, I need somebody with a human touch--

--almost time to go home. Twenty minutes to go. Fuck, but English Lit is boring. Why did I take this course again? Right, thought it would be an easy A. Guess I should have remembered that it's a lot easier to get good marks in a class that I actually give a shit about. Like this is ever going to do me any good when I get out of school and into the real world--

--Group, please hold. Tanner Media Group, please hold. Hello, sir, and thank you for holding. How may I direct your call? I'm sorry, Mr. Se--

--Whoo boy, he's gorgeous. Look at that jaw line. Nice ass, too--

He struggled to shut out the thoughts, but all he could manage was to force them out of the forefront of his attention again. Breathing heavily, Tony levered himself to his feet and walked slowly, carefully, over to his desk.

"Shouldn't have let my guard down," Tony muttered to himself, sinking into his desk chair. This was no different than learning to ignore environmental distractions, really. As long as he focused, he was still capable of functioning.

***

The first time the beep sounded, Tony ignored it, afraid to look away from the Extremis code lest his hold on his concentration slip. Then the beep sounded again and he abruptly realized it wasn't the intercom or his cell phone, it was his Avengers communicator. Adrenaline flooded his system, bringing him to high alert, and it seemed like the voices quieted for a moment.

Tony activated the communicator. "I'm here."

Steve looked up at him from the small screen, cowled and serious. "A call just came through our central communications from security at your R&D facility on Long Island. Chemistro--Calvin Carr--attacked a guard there, and he's still inside. Your people there said they couldn't get in touch with you?"

"I didn't want to be disturbed," Tony said shortly, heading for the express elevator. "Does Luke know?"

"He's here with me," Steve affirmed. "We're lifting off now. Meet you there."

The call blinked off as the elevator slid into motion. Tony closed his eyes and called the armor. A wave of relief went through him when it responded, the systems a clear link in his mind in spite of the noise of strange thoughts.

Opening his eyes again, Tony stripped down quickly and sent the under-armor flowing out over his skin. The main suit was waiting for him outside the elevator and locked itself into place around his limbs even as he strode towards the Quinjet hangar. Tony launched himself out of the hangar, pouring on the acceleration. The landscape smeared into a blur of color, but the armor tracked his location precisely and fed the information into Tony's mind.

Calvin Carr still held a grudge against Stark Enterprises and his brother, Curtis, but if he'd been coming for revenge, Tony was sure he'd have attacked one of the Manhattan locations. His focus on the Long Island facility could mean only one thing: somehow, he'd learned that his damaged wrist blasters were being studied there. Were, in fact, being reverse engineered, which meant that the pair Tony had all but destroyed in their last battle had been repaired.

Tony didn't know how Calvin had

--these people are all idiots. How hard is it to fill out a form? Oh, thank God, this person actually did it right. It's a miracle. I ought to send a thank--

Focus. He had to focus.

He didn't know how Calvin had found out; the project had been undertaken under tight security and with strict need-to-know restrictions. Someone had broken protocol. Someone's head was going to roll.

Reaching out with the Extremis, Tony tapped into the security cameras at the lab, jaw tightening when he saw that Calvin was already inside, apparently holding the scientists hostage with an ordinary--although impressive--machine gun and yelling about something. Probably demanding the location of the wrist blasters. Tony wished fiercely that he'd had time to whip up a batch of the neutralizer that had protected him and Luke from Chemistro once before.

As little as Tony wanted to see Calvin armed with his weapon of choice, he hoped his people handed the blasters over. Calvin wouldn't hesitate to kill the scientists. He'd killed before.

To his mingled relief and frustration, one of the terrified scientists spoke up, pointing with a shaking finger. Calvin seized her for her trouble and dragged her in the direction she'd pointed, presumably to deactivate the security protocols and ensure the blasters worked.

Tony started to contact the Quinjet to bring the others up to date, but even as he reached out his guidance systems informed him that they'd both arrived at the lab. He landed next to the Quinjet as Steve and Luke were disembarking. "Calvin's already gotten his hands on his wrist blasters," Tony said grimly.

Luke frowned. "How do you--"

Tony tapped his helmet. "Security cameras."

"Damn," Luke said emphatically.

A strange sound brought their heads around just in time to see a large section of the lab building shimmer and shift in a way that made the eyes hurt a little. In the next moment concrete and steel turned to water and splashed to the ground.

Chemistro stepped through the opening, in uniform and fully armed. "The Avengers," he said. "I'm honored. Although I've heard their standards have fallen recently." He sneered at Luke.

"You've got delusions of grandeur, Calvin," Luke said, snorting. "Your weapon may be high-tech, but you're still a punk with a gun."

Chemistro scowled. "You need to learn a little respect." That was all the warning Luke got before Chemistro fired his wrist blasters. Tony retaliated with a repulsor blast that sent Chemistro flying across the parking lot, but it was too late; Carr had found his target.

For a horrible moment, Tony thought Chemistro had transformed Luke's lower body into stone. Then Luke leaned over and bashed at the stone with one invulnerable fist and knocked a chunk of it off, revealing his jeans underneath. It was the air that'd been transformed, not Luke himself.

"Asshole thinks he can toy with me," Luke grunted, bashing at the stone again.

Steve ran across the lot to close with Chemistro, who was climbing unsteadily to his feet. Tony kept a fraction of his attention on them as he lifted his hands. "Let me." A pair of repulsor blasts shattered the stone enough for Luke to pull himself free.

They turned to find that Steve had closed with Chemistro. He had one hand wrapped around each wrist blaster, forcing them up in the air and taking himself out of the line of fire. But neutralizing Chemistro's weapons left Steve without any way to strike at him.

Steve hooked his foot around Chemistro's leg and yanked on his arms, tossing the villain over his hip and sending him crashing down to the ground, wrist blasters still aimed safely into the air.

Almost no way to strike at him, Tony amended. This was Captain America, after all.

"I don't have to hit you to hurt you," Chemistro snarled. His wrist blasters fired into the air above Steve.

The air congealed into some sort of liquid. Tony doubted very much it was water this time. "Cap! Above you!" he shouted, heart leaping into his throat.

Steve reacted instantly, letting Chemistro go in favor of swinging his shield over his head. Chemistro scrambled to his feet and backed away, holding his wrist blasters steady to maintain a constant stream of the liquid. It poured down on Steve's shield and splashed away from him in a wide circle. The concrete smoked and crumbled wherever it struck. Tony raised his hands, but he couldn't risk a repulsor blast, not when the shock of it could send the acid splashing in exactly the wrong direction.

Luke ran through the shower of acid without hesitation, trusting his near invulnerable skin to protect him. Patches of his clothing started smoking, but he didn't seem any the worse for wear as he collided with Chemistro, knocking him back a few steps, but not off his feet.

Trusting Luke to keep Chemistro busy for the moment, Tony turned his attention to freeing Steve from the lake of acid. He didn't have anything with him that could neutralize it, but then, it wasn't real acid. Heat hastened the disintegration of Chemistro's creations; Tony used his unibeam to project a heat ray over the still smoking chemicals.

Steve was moving almost before Tony had cleared a path. "Iron Man," he said briskly, "Luke's keeping Chemistro busy," he nodded at the grappling pair; Luke had forced Chemistro's hands up again, "but I don't want to take the chance that he can't take the wrist blasters out of commission on his own. You can do a fly over and take them out from above."

Tony nodded and lifted off, then paused for a moment to calculate the best vector. All he needed was an instant and then he was off, boot jets blasting, hands stretched ahead of his body to grab at the wrist blasters. He'd have to change direction fast and sharp to keep out of their line of fire.

Judging the rapidly closing distance carefully, Tony prepared to maneuver, reached out

--NO! IT'S NOT TRUE! It's not! Shut up, shut up, oh God, why is he telling me this now? Please, please--

The overwhelming denial and fear and scream of thoughts flipped over into a much calmer sense of boredom as suddenly as it had come. Tony struggled to orient himself in the moment. Only a second had passed, but he was on the other side of the parking lot and still flying. Quickly, Tony set down and cut his boot jets.

Something was wrong with the feedback he was getting from his armor. He glanced down automatically even as he ordered a diagnostic. Half his chest plate was now made of tar. He hadn't changed his vector, which meant he'd flown directly into Chemistro's line of fire. Even as he watched the tar slowly oozed downwards. Tony was almost afraid to touch it, to see how deep the tar went.

It didn't matter. There wasn't time for that. Chemistro... was pinned to the ground, Luke holding him down while Steve used the edge of his shield to break the wrist blasters. When they'd both been shattered Luke hauled Chemistro to his feet again; he cooperated, scowling fiercely, but not fighting now that he'd lost his weapon.

Of course, now that Chemistro was under control, Steve was free. Tony watched Cap stride across the parking lot and grimaced. He'd screwed up, badly, and he knew it.

Being Steve, what he asked was, "Are you okay?" rather than "What the hell happened back there?"

Between the fact that most of the tar had run down his armor and the diagnostic that had finished running, Tony knew the transformation hadn't penetrated. "The armor absorbed the blast," he said. "I've called SHIELD for a pick up," he said, suiting actions to words.

Steve's shoulders relaxed slightly even as his jaw tightened. "What the hell happened back there?"

Ah, there it was. "I got distracted," Tony said shortly.

"By what?" Steve waved his hand at the parking lot, empty but for a handful of cars and the four of them.

"A lot more feeds into my awareness than my immediate surroundings," Tony said. Which was true, if entirely besides the point.

"You've been dealing with that for months and you've never had a problem focusing on a fight before," Steve said sharply. He paused, eyes narrowing. "Tony, is something wrong?"

Damn the man. He picked the worst moments to be perceptive. "I'm fine," Tony said shortly, struggling to shut out the voices now that the adrenaline was ebbing.

"'Fine' covers a lot of territory for you," Steve shot back, but the angry edge was leeching out of his voice, which meant he was only becoming more convinced that there was a problem.

"I'm not injured," Tony said keeping his voice firm and choosing his words carefully, "I'm not being mind controlled, and nothing in my life has gone down in flames." At least, not yet. "I'm fine, Steve."

Steve reached out and touched Tony's chest where the armor had been transformed. So much of it had been affected that Tony could actually feel the pressure of Steve's gloved fingers. "You almost got yourself killed," he said.

"I'm fine," Tony repeated.

Steve left his hand there on Tony's chest for a long time. Tony half wished they were alone so that he could take off his helmet. It felt wrong to be locked behind it in this moment. But it was just as well; if Steve could read his expression Tony doubted he'd let this go.

As it was, Steve eventually dropped his hand and, though he still looked skeptical and a little worried, he turned his attention back to Chemistro and the approaching pick up.

Tony touched his chest where Steve's fingers had been and pulled his own hand away to look at the tar that coated them.

This was getting serious.

***

Chapter Two

***

Tony stared down at the paperwork in front of him without really seeing it. The voices chattered on, but the blinding pain that seemed to fill his skull had actually started to drown them out. Tony set the paper in his hands down and pressed his fingers to his temples instead, closing his eyes against the way the text seemed to blur in front of him.

Just a little longer, he told himself. If you can concentrate on this for just a little longer, you can go back downstairs and get back to work on the solution. It's there, I know it's there, if I could just concentrate!

Blinking repeatedly in an attempt to clear his vision, Tony squinted at the document in front of him. There were spots in his vision, but the text wasn't blurry anymore. "Good enough," Tony murmured.

He was two sentences into the report when the pain in his head spiked. Odd halos wreathed everything in his field of view and--

***

Tony knew he was in a hospital almost before he knew he was awake. He'd spent too much time in hospitals for the beeping of the heart monitor and the smell of disinfectant and the cheap weave of hospital sheets not to trigger instant recognition. But for once, he had no idea why he was here. His head was pounding, but otherwise he felt fine. Well, a little sore, but no worse than after a good workout.

Blinking rapidly, Tony cleared his vision and let the room come into focus. St. Vincent's. There was something wrong with the fact that he recognized their private rooms. Turning his head a little, Tony found Steve seated next to the hospital bed. He was in street clothes, which meant that either whatever had put Tony in here either wasn't Avengers business or that he had been out of it for several days. He didn't look too tired. Actually, he looked very, very good. And Tony needed to stop thinking about that if he didn't want to have a reaction inappropriate to a hospital bed.

"Steve," Tony said. His voice was clear and he'd gotten it out on the first try, so that ruled out a long hospital stay.

"Tony!" Steve straightened up, leaning forward. "You're awake. How do you feel?" He reached out and pressed the call button even as he spoke.

Tony frowned. "I'm fine," he said. A headache wasn't serious. And the voices had gone quiet, completely quiet, which was more of a relief than Tony was ready to admit. "Why am I in the hospital?"

"We were hoping you could tell us," Steve said, his mouth settling into a hard line.

A doctor stepped through the open door of the room and was quickly followed by Pepper, and... Hank McCoy and Emma Frost? Tony frowned.

The doctor frowned, too. "Excuse me," he said. "I need everyone to leave while I speak to Mr. Stark."

A constellation of stubborn looks descended. Tony sighed internally. "Really, I'm--"

"Do not say you're fine," Steve interrupted. "Pepper walked in on you seizing in the middle of your office. You scared the life out of her. Something is very wrong, Tony."

"I suspect something has been wrong for some time," Hank said.

"I have it under control," Tony grated out.

"This is not under control!" Pepper snapped, stabbing a finger towards Tony in the hospital bed. She blinked quickly--holding back tears, Tony realized. "You flopping around in your office like a fish out of water is not under control. These people are your friends, for God's sake! Let them help you."

Tony's eyes slid away from Pepper only to land on Steve, his expression just as concerned and an order of magnitude more stubborn. Still, Tony gave it one more shot. "This isn't something you can help with." He looked around at the others. "Any of you."

Steve turned to the doctor. "Okay, you can tell us now," he said.

The doctor raised his eyebrows. "Mr. Stark?"

Tony scowled. "Go ahead."

"You suffered a paroxysmal event," the doctor explained. "Non-epileptic, but you did display extremely unusual brain activity. At the time you arrived at the hospital, the attack was still continuing. We stabilized you, but with non-epileptic seizures we can only wait for the event to end naturally. Your brain activity didn't return to normal for several hours. Under these circumstances, Mr. Stark, we would normally expect considerable brain damage," the doctor paused and shook his head. "Frankly, I'm not sure why you're able to speak at all, never mind coherently."

Tony's eyes slid to Hank, who inclined his head slightly. They'd have to talk more after the doctor left. "And the cause of the seizure?" Tony asked in the meantime.

"I suspect you can tell us more about that than I can," the doctor said. "You have none of the conditions normally predictive of seizures and, although your history of trauma is extensive, they have never occurred as a symptom before, nor has there been a recent trauma to trigger them."

"Hmm. I can't speak to any potential triggers, unfortunately," Tony said. "But I can make sure you have my complete medical records. Perhaps there's something there that can help." He smiled. "In the meantime, thank you for your attention, doctor. You probably saved my life."

The doctor looked skeptical. "I'm not so sure, Mr. Stark. Please do come in immediately if you experience another episode, even a minor one, or if any other symptoms occur."

"Of course."

The doctor just shook his head and left the room.

Pepper reached out and closed the door after him; for a moment everyone stared at Tony. Tony sighed and waved for them to speak. "Okay, let me hear the rest."

Hank took point. "You aren't taking this seriously enough, Tony," he said. "This seizure didn't end until Emma arrived and it did very real damage to your brain. Has it occurred to you that the Extremis is directed by the brain? What if areas had been damaged that would normally direct that work?" Hank shook his head slowly. "You were very fortunate that the Extremis was able to reroute brain functions and begin to repair the damage."

"I'm aware of the seriousness of the situation," Tony interjected flatly. "Although I'm curious why you are. Did someone call you when the doctors hit a dead end?"

"He dropped by to visit and see how Logan was settling in," Steve explained.

"And thus happened to be present when Ms. Potts raised the alarm," Hank said. "Given the atypical nature of the afflictions often encountered by the Avengers, I felt my particular expertise might be a valuable supplement to the hospital's regular staff."

If he let them work up to this like it seemed they planned to, Tony was never going to get out of this hospital bed. "And in cooperation, I imagine you determined that my brain short-circuited as a result of excessive input."

Hank raised an eyebrow. "Indeed. Your utter lack of surprise confirms my suspicions. This wasn't an ordinary sort of neural strain, Tony," Hank said seriously. "I've seen the signs before, working with the telepaths among the X-Men."

Steve stiffened and frowned at Hank. "Telepaths?" he asked. "Tony isn't a telepath. He never has been, and the Extremis enabled contact with computers, not with other minds."

"Nevertheless, it was most certainly a telepathic strain which caused Tony's seizure," Hank said firmly. "The fact that the seizure didn't end until Emma set up shields to protect his mind confirmed it beyond doubt."

"Emma," Tony acknowledged her with a nod.

"Tony," she returned. "Given that you weren't a telepath when I helped you with the Sentry, I'm curious how you got into this situation."

Tony grimaced. "I once described the Extremis as 'growing new connections'," he said. "I thought that process was complete. Apparently, I was wrong."

"'He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf,'" Hank quoted wryly.

"How long has this been going on, Tony?" Steve asked quietly.

Tony turned away from the rest of the team and met Steve's solemn gaze. "I can fix this," he insisted. "I've been reviewing the code I used to program the Extremis. I know the answer is there, I just haven't been able to concentrate long enough to grasp it. With Emma's help, that won't be a problem anymore."

Steve's jaw tightened. "How long?"

Damn it, Steve was going to hate this. Tony lowered his eyes. "Two weeks."

"Tony--" Steve cut himself off and took a visible breath. "Four days ago, when we were fighting Chemistro, that's why you overshot and flew into his line of fire, isn't it?"

"Thoughts I can filter out," Tony said. "It's just like any other noise. But the emotional jolts..." He shook his head.

Emma came closer to the bed and stopped next to Steve. "I can afford to stay for three or four days to shield for you," she said. "But Tony... If you can't find a solution to this--"

"I'll have to leave the team," Tony said flatly. "Give up being Iron Man. I know."

Emma shook her head. "No. If you can't find a solution, your choices are going to be between living full time in a shielded facility and dying. Your brain wasn't built for telepathy, and whatever process gave you the ability to hear thoughts didn't provide the structures to support that ability long term. As far as I can tell, you aren't physically capable of controlling your ability, and that includes shielding."

Tony couldn't argue with that, no matter how much he wanted to. Surely, if he'd been capable of shielding, he'd have figured out how by now. He didn't mention that he'd built an artificial shield more than a week ago. It hadn't worked. Or, rather, it hadn't worked for him. He'd arranged, obliquely, for SHIELD's telepaths to test it for him and it had worked perfectly for them. Apparently something in the sensitivity Extremis had generated required a biological component in order to be blocked.

"I need to get back to the lab," Tony said instead, swinging his legs over the edge of the hospital bed. "If I'm going to fix this before you have to leave, I better start now."

Steve looked like he wanted to protest, but eventually he just shook his head. "If there's anything I--we--can do to help, promise me you'll tell me."

Tony hated making promises to Steve. He always seemed to end up breaking them, one way or another, and Steve was always so damned disappointed. He always forgave Tony, eventually, but it was hard not to wonder when the supply of forgiveness would run out. Even Steve had his limits.

But despite knowing that, Tony could never seem to resist the plea in Steve's blue eyes. "I promise," Tony said.

Maybe he'd even manage to keep it this time. How could Steve possibly help with a problem with the Extremis?

***

Tony glared at the lines of code that filled the screen in his lab. Damn it, he hated it when he made mistakes. Although, strictly speaking, this wasn't a mistake. The Extremis did everything he had programmed it to do and didn't do anything he'd programmed it not to do. The problem occurred in situations where neither of those sets of rules applied.

He probably shouldn't have turned off quite as many of the safeties as he had when he'd injected himself.

But he hadn't been able to afford the time, and it was a moot point now. What he needed to concentrate on was trying to infer where and how the Extremis had rewired his brain in order to accomplish the primary objectives he'd given it. Unfortunately, the fact that no explicit directives driving those changes existed made defining them... difficult.

"Tony?"

Looking away from the computer screen, Tony found Steve standing just outside the elevator access to the lab, a plastic bag in one hand. "Steve," Tony said, smiling in spite of everything. "Pull up a chair," he nodded at one of the wheeled chairs currently tucked up against the workbenches.

Steve glanced over at the corner of the room where Emma was reclining in a more comfortable seat; Tony had hauled it down here for her. She didn't acknowledge Steve, her eyes fixed and oddly vacant looking. "I take it Emma's not actually with us?" He seated himself and rolled his chair over to Tony.

Tony shook his head. "She says it doesn't take much concentration to shield me, so she's working with her people at the same time." He nodded at the plastic bag. "What's that?"

"Lunch," Steve said. He reached into the bag and started unloading plastic wrapped sandwiches and bottles of water.

Tony watched, bemused, as food started piling up on a clear spot on the workbench. "I'm really not that hungry." Steve finished off the pile with a pair of apples.

"I've known you long enough to have learned that whether or not you're hungry has nothing to do with whether or not you need to eat," Steve said firmly. He picked up one of the sandwiches and held it out. "Eat."

Well... he could probably afford a short break. Tony took the sandwich and unwrapped it. The scent of roast beef hit his nose and his stomach abruptly growled loudly. Tony glared at Steve. "Not. One. Word."

Steve was grinning. "I didn't say anything," he said, biting into his sandwich.

Tony took a bite of his own, his eyes involuntarily straying back to the computer screen.

"How's it going?" Steve asked, nodding at the computer.

"I'm making progress," Tony said, "I'm just not sure it's doing any good. I'm not a neurologist, I'm an engineer. I gave Extremis instructions on what I wanted it to do, not on exactly how to do it. I could never have written a program that detailed in the time I had." He took another bite of his sandwich, frowning as he chewed. "I don't understand how the brain works well enough to figure out where my wires got crossed, never mind how to uncross them. I'm not sure anyone does."

"Can't you just reprogram the Extremis and tell it to," Steve waved a hand, "turn off the telepathy?"

Tony shrugged and swallowed before speaking. "I hope so. I'm trying to figure out how."

Steve set down his sandwich, sighing deeply. "I wish I could help."

"I know," Tony said quietly.

"I just hate feeling so useless!" Steve surged to his feet and took two steps away from Tony before stopping and spinning back to face him. "You're hurting and I can't even understand the problem!"

Tony's heart ached at the frustration in Steve's voice. Such passion for his friends. "Not every battle is yours, Steve," Tony said. He smiled slightly. "Trust some of us with our areas of expertise."

Steve walked back to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Of course I trust you." His hand was heavy and warm, and Tony held still beneath the touch, lest any movement prompt Steve to end it. Steve sat heavily back in his chair and squeezed Tony's shoulder briefly before taking his hand away. "I just don't like being helpless."

Tony wanted to reach out, to touch him. He picked up his sandwich instead.

***

Chapter Three

***

Emma ended up staying for five days.

It was longer than she probably should have, but neither of them had been able to resist the hope that maybe one more day would give them a breakthrough. A workable solution, instead of... what they had. Tony fixed that thought in his mind, as well as he could with the thoughts of others running through his skull.

He sat on the couch in the main area of the penthouse, forearms braced on his knees, hands laced together, while Steve and Peter waited. Tony couldn't decide if he was glad Peter was there or not. On the one hand, it would be easier to control this conversation one on one. On the other hand, Peter might provide a bit of a buffer between him and Steve. Tony carefully didn't look at either of them. "It can't be fixed," he said finally.

"What do you mean, it can't be fixed?" Peter asked quickly. "I thought you almost had it, that you just needed to be able to concentrate."

"I know what I said!" Tony snapped. He forced himself to stop. It wasn't fair to take this out on Peter. "I understood the problem. I thought that meant a solution was inevitable. I was wrong."

"Why can't you reprogram the Extremis?" Steve asked.

"I can," Tony said, studying his hands. "But in this area there are too many variables that I don't understand nearly well enough. This telepathy developed for precisely that reason. I can't see any way of constraining Extremis's programming enough to prevent further side effects while leaving it the functionality it needs to fix the problem."

"So don't fix it," Peter said. "Shield yourself instead. It's not the best option, but--"

"It won't work," Tony broke in. He lifted a hand and rubbed at his temples. A futile action--this headache had nothing to do with blood flow or any other physical cause. Tony took a moment to breathe through a sudden surge of someone else's excitement before going on. "I've already tried building a shield. I tried it before Emma even got here."

"Emma said you had two options, if you couldn't fix this," Steve said quietly. Tony cursed silently; he'd been hoping no one would remember that. "If artificial shields don't work..."

"This isn't going to kill me," Tony said firmly. "If nothing else, I can fly myself out of range every now and then for a rest."

"Because you're so very good at resting when you need to heal," Steve said dryly.

"Damn it, Steve, what do you want me to say?" Tony burst out.

"I want you to tell me the truth!" Steve shot back.

Tony's mouth snapped shut. Steve knew him too damn well. "Just because you want there to be a way out of this doesn't mean that there is one."

Hank's voice broke into the argument. "Nor does it mean there isn't one."

Tony turned and glared at Hank where he stood in the doorway. "I thought you were going to let me handle this."

Bounding across the room, Hank leaped up to crouch on the back of the couch. "And I thought you intended to explain the situation." Hank leveled a reproving look at Tony. "Completely."

"What are you-"

"I've spoken to Emma," Hank interrupted.

Peter looked from Hank to Tony and back again, head swiveling like a spectator at a tennis match. "What are you two talking about?" he burst out finally.

Neither of them answered.

"Tony." Steve's voice was quiet, but Tony knew that tone.

He pressed his lips into a hard line and shook his head once, but it was a concession, not a refusal. "Emma and I worked out some of how this works," Tony said grudgingly, leaning back into the couch. "I haven't been picking up everyone's thoughts at once. I've been picking up fragments of individuals' thoughts in series, like a radio on scan, pausing on each station for a few seconds before moving on. That's probably part of why I haven't been able to put together a telepathic shield that works; my telepathy doesn't work the same way natural telepathy does.

"One thing I noticed was that I tend to stay 'tuned in' to certain telepathic 'stations' longer than others. We think--" Tony broke off suddenly as a wave of black depression crashed into him.

This wasn't him, it wasn't his emotion, they weren't

--the point? My family's gone. It'd be so much easier, such a relief--

his thoughts. These weren't his thoughts. He had family, they were

--for everyone. If I do it right, maybe they can use the money to get out of their own hole.--

right here. Hands on his shoulders. Voices in his ears, not in his head.

--It'd only hurt for a second and then it'd be finished--

Tony struggled to focus on the world outside his head, the physical reality of someone gripping his shoulders, the tight, intense sound of voices: "--get him to the hospital." "The hospital can't help."

"I'm okay," Tony managed. Abruptly, like flipping a switch, the weight of depression vanished, replaced by a plodding ennui that was almost shocking, it was so ordinary. Tony pushed it out of the focus of his attention easily. "That input was just an intense one," he explained, realizing that it was Steve who was gripping his shoulders so tightly. Peter was hovering over him, holding a cell phone open, but he snapped it shut after a momentary hesitation.

Steve let go of him slowly, but he remained seated next to Tony where he'd apparently moved when Tony had been overwhelmed. "You were explaining the solution you found to this," he said evenly.

Like a dog with a bone. Most of the time, Tony admired Steve's tenacity, but sometimes he wished the man understood when to leave well enough alone. Tony sighed. "As I was saying, I spend longer on certain mental frequencies than others. Emma and I think that my brain is looking for something."

"Looking for what?" Peter asked. "I mean, you weren't telepathic before, so it's not like you're missing something. Are you?"

"Not exactly," Tony said. "But in one respect, you've hit the nail on the head. I wasn't telepathic before. It's not natural for my mind to receive any input but its own. Which means what I'm looking for can only be myself."

Understanding dawned on Peter's expression. "So if you had a source of thoughts on the same frequency as yours, your brain would latch onto it and stop scanning."

Tony nodded. "Exactly. I could build set of very basic, very carefully programmed nanites to go into someone else's brain and tune its frequency to match mine."

"And that wouldn't change that person's personality?" Steve asked, brow creasing.

"Not at all," Tony said. "The radio analogy holds. The broadcast is the person's thoughts and feelings. It doesn't matter what station it's 'airing' on."

"Then what's the problem?" Steve asked. "Whip up a batch and let's go."

Tony couldn't help but feel warmed by the easy words, the total lack of hesitation. Steve would have offered for anyone, Tony knew that, especially since he didn't really understand what he was volunteering for, but a tiny corner of his heart clung to the foolish hope that it meant something.

Tony cursed that corner of his heart. Without it, maybe he wouldn't ache so badly for something so hopeless.

"It's not that easy, Steve," Tony said aloud. "Tuning someone else's brain to the same 'station' as mine won't shut the telepathy off, it just reduces the input to a single channel. Whoever is on that channel would be an open book to me; just because it wouldn't affect their personality doesn't mean there aren't going to be side effects, and I can't even begin to project what they might be. It's entirely possible, even likely, that the telepathy would begin to run in both directions, that they would hear me just like I would hear them." Tony ran a hand through his hair. "I can only speculate about the potential side effects of a bond like that."

"Telepaths--" Peter began.

"Natural telepaths are built for this," Tony interrupted. "For me, this was a mistake, a set of crossed wires. The support structures aren't there. It wouldn't be possible for me to shield this connection. I doubt whoever took the nanites could, either."

"Which means what?" Steve asked, frowning.

"At the least, a complete absence of any real privacy for both me and my... partner, for lack of a better word," Tony said. "But on top of that... Look, what effect is a connection that personal, that... intimate going to have on your personal relationships? Could you have sex with someone knowing that a third party is hearing every thought you have? Feeling every emotion? Would you want to be on the other end of the connection, getting turned on whether you wanted to or not?"

Both Steve and Peter were starting to look distinctly uncomfortable. Good. Tony kept going. "Even if you could accept sharing something like that, even if your partner could, what about serious romantic relationships? What person could accept that there's always going to be someone else who shares more of their partner's thoughts and feelings than they do? Hell, what if the bond starts communicating physical sensations? A single strike could end up taking out two Avengers. And with the things in my head, who could I trust to do this for me except an Avenger?"

Tony shook his head sharply. "There's too much we don't know about this and too many possibilities."

"And what about what we do know?" Steve demanded. "You've already seized once, Tony. How many more seizures before the Extremis can't keep up with the damage? We've seen how powerful some of these people's thoughts are. How long before you tune into someone who wants to hurt someone?"

"If I can get out of range to rest--" Tony began.

"If." Steve broke in. "We don't know what your range is. What if you can't get out of range fast enough? What if you're in the armor, trying to go for a rest, and something really powerful hits you? Do you really want to be out of control with the armor on?"

Tony closed his eyes. God, what a disaster that would be. Steve was right; he couldn't risk being caught by a surge of thought or emotion while he was armored. "If I can't risk getting out of range fast enough," he said, opening his eyes, "I guess I have to stay out of range."

"And spend the rest of your life in total isolation?" Steve challenged.

"It's better than dying," Tony shot back.

"It's not even a solution we know will work," Steve argued. "The Extremis accesses satellite technology, right? What if your range is global? You have friends who are willing to help you, Tony. Just because you refuse to let others take risks to save your life doesn't mean we aren't willing to." Steve stared Tony down. "Please, let one of us do this for you."

"It's not a risk," Tony bit out. "It's a certainty. You aren't going to screw up your life for this."

"That's our decision to make," Steve said.

"And what if the effect of the nanites is permanent?" Tony snapped. "Damn it, Steve, do you think I want to be exiled from the rest of humanity? Do you think I want to leave the team? I won't ask any of you to chain yourselves to me."

"You don't have to ask! There are plenty of us who'd offer."

"Like who?" Tony said, snorting. "Luke and Peter are married, and I wouldn't risk those relationships even if they were willing to. Jessica is already walking a fine line between Hydra, Fury, and us. Logan's healing factor would probably erase the effect of the nanites in seconds, if they even managed to make the change."

"Like me," Steve said steadily. "Like Carol, or half a dozen other former Avengers."

He'd offered. He understood what this would mean, and he'd still offered. Oh, hell, Tony had known he would. Steve was the self-sacrificing type. Of course he'd be willing to put his privacy, his personal life, and God knows what else on the line to save a friend. But Tony couldn't let him do that. Steve deserved so much more than to be tied down to Tony Stark for the rest of his life, constantly subjected to Tony's doubts and regrets and mistakes. And how long would it be before Steve realized the depth of Tony's feelings for him? Oh, he wouldn't be upset, he wasn't that narrow minded, but if Tony knew Steve, he'd feel guilty that he couldn't return those feelings, and the bond between them would never let him forget that Tony was painfully, hopelessly in love with him. Tony would be the albatross around Steve's neck, dragging him down when Steve ought to be lifting people up.

No, Tony couldn't let Steve do this... And he couldn't imagine letting anyone else as far inside him as the damned random thoughts and emotions struck. Steve had been the most important person in his life for a decade, even if friendship and partnership were the only claims he had on the man. Tony wasn't about to hand that connection over to anyone else.

"I'm sorry," Tony said, standing. "But I can't let you do that. Any of you." He turned his back on them and retreated to his bedroom. Stretching out on the bed, Tony covered his face with the crook of his arm and, for once, gave up ignoring the wash of thoughts and emotions pounding at his consciousness.

Anyone's thoughts were better than his own right now.

***

Chapter Four

***

Someone knocked on Tony's bedroom door. Again. "I'm not dead, Jarvis. Now go away!" Tony shouted.

There was no answer but the continued knocking.

Curled up on his side in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, Tony ignored the sound. It had taken three days, but he'd made arrangements for Stark Enterprises to be taken care of. His affairs were in order, and the business had made good cover for an attempt to find somewhere, anywhere, that the thoughts of others couldn't find him.

It hadn't worked, but Tony wasn't about to tell anyone.

So there was no reason anyone should need to talk to Tony Stark personally, which meant that whoever was on the other side of that door was could only be another one of Steve's emissaries, trying to convince him to bond with someone. In the three days during which he'd had to answer his phone, six different former Avengers had called and offered to help him out. Including Carol, as Steve had predicted. Since he'd stopped answering his phone two more people had come by and shouted through the door at him. He refused them all.

Whoever was at the door was still knocking. Tony didn't move. The knocking kept going. After a minute, Tony knew it had to be Steve himself. No one else would have kept at it this long. But even Steve had his limits. Tony pulled a pillow over his head.

The knocking didn't stop.

Five minutes. Tony swore the sound was drowning out the voices in his head now. Jesus, weren't his knuckles hurting? Maybe he was alternating hands.

Finally Tony stood up and stalked over to the door, jerking it open and ducking to the side as Steve's steadily knocking fist almost clocked him one. "You are the most stubborn man on the face of the Earth," Tony snapped. "What do you want?"

Steve stepped into the room before he answered, no doubt worried Tony would shut him out again. "You know what I want."

"No," Tony said shortly.

Steve put his hand on the inside of the door and pushed it closed. "I'm not leaving here until you and I are bonded," he said. "And neither are you."

"You'd need a set of nanites for that," Tony said dryly.

Steve reached into his pocket and pulled out a rectangular metal case a little smaller than a paperback book. He opened it to reveal a vial full of what looked like a gray fluid and a syringe. "Try again," Steve said smugly.

Tony blinked. "How did you manage that?"

"I got Reed Richards and Emma Frost on a conference call," Steve said, snapping the case shut. "I told them what you told us and they worked it out from there."

Tony frowned. "That's impossible. They'd need access to the Extremis code."

"You were working on the code down in your lab," Steve reminded him.

"My security measures--"

"Were bypassed in a couple of hours, between Reed's brain and Pepper's familiarity with your systems," Steve interrupted. "Reed studied the code you wrote for Extremis for an entire day, you know. He was very impressed."

Tony folded his arms across his chest. "You have the nanites and it's you who has to take them. You don't need my permission," he said harshly.

"Don't be insulting," Steve said. "I'm not going to force myself on you. I'm just going to stand here and argue with you until you give in, and then I'm going to inject myself before you change your mind."

Tony dropped heavily down onto the end of the bed. "Why are you doing this?" he asked tiredly.

Steve sat down next to him. "Tony, you're my best friend and my partner. You've been there for me when no one else was, you've helped me when no one else could, no matter what it cost you, you've given your life to save mine--"

"If you're doing this because you think you owe me something--" Tony began.

Steve broke in again. "That's not where I was going," he said firmly. "If you'd let me finish, I was going to say, why can't you believe that I'd be willing to do the same for you?"

Tony was silent for a long moment. "You're a good man, Steve. The best of men. You deserve everything and anything I can do for you," he said quietly.

"And you don't?" Steve asked.

Tony smiled bitterly. "I'm still trying to make up for past mistakes," he said. "I haven't earned any consideration."

"You don't have to earn my friendship, Tony." Steve put a hand on Tony's shoulder. It was an effort not to lean into the touch. He was so tired. Strange thoughts and emotions had been hammering at him for days even while he struggled to make sure his company was taken care of. Steve practically radiated strength and solidity and here he was, asking Tony to lean on him...

"I can't," Tony insisted, eyes fixed on the far side of the room. "You don't understand what you'd be getting yourself into."

"I do understand," Steve said firmly. "You explained it to me. Reed and Emma explained it all over again when they finished the nanites. What I don't understand is where you got the idea that sharing your mind would be such a terrible burden."

Tony had to laugh at that. "I'm pretty screwed up, Steve," he said.

"I know." Tony looked over at him, startled by the response, and found Steve smiling wryly. "But I also know that you're brilliant, and that you've got more courage than anyone I've ever known, and that you put an immense value on human life, and that you really believe that the world can be a better place than it is, and that you never give up hoping you can help make it into that better place, and that you're the most loyal friend I've ever had. And I'll be damned if I'm going to lose that."

Tony felt a little breathless. "I..." Tony stopped. What could he say to all of that? God, it was tempting to give in, to feel the touch of Steve's mind the way he'd been enduring the touch of strangers. So what if being bonded like that meant Tony couldn't stand to have lovers? If it happened, it'd be worth it to have Steve so close. Worth it to him, anyway. "What about Sharon?" Tony asked. "What if the bond interferes with your relationship with her? Are you willing to give that up?"

"My relationship with Sharon is a friendship now," Steve said. "Even if it wasn't, a romance that keeps falling apart on us isn't worth losing you."

"But am I worth being alone for the rest of your life?" Tony asked, painfully.

Steve laughed softly. "If we do this," he said, "no matter what happens, neither of us will ever be alone again. That's worth a lot."

It was. Maybe it was even worth the risk that Steve would find out how he felt. Maybe he could actually keep his feelings to himself, even if he couldn't shield. God knew he had enough practice ignoring them, pushing them aside, and drowning them out with other emotions. If he could forget how much he loved Steve sometimes, maybe he could keep Steve from realizing. And when Steve did take a shot at a serious relationship with a woman, if it did have an impact on Tony... there was no reason Steve would have to know that. Tony could do that for him. Steve was worth it, whatever it took.

"Be very sure about this, Steve," Tony said, turning to catch Steve's gaze.

There was complete certainty in Steve's eyes. "I am."

Tony took a deep breath. "All right then. We should probably do this somewhere with medical support, just in case."

He started to stand, but Steve stopped the motion with the hand still resting on Tony's shoulder. "I said we weren't leaving this room until we were bonded. I meant it. Hank McCoy is waiting outside, just in case."

"Covering all the angles?" Tony said wryly.

Steve smiled a little. "You bet." He took his hand off of Tony's shoulder and opened the little rectangular case he'd been holding in his other hand.

"Wait," Tony said suddenly. Steve stopped and shot him a questioning look. Tony held out his hands. "Let me."

Steve raised his eyebrows, but shrugged and handed the case to Tony. "Okay."

Thank God he hadn't asked why; it felt a little embarrassing to admit that this seemed just a bit like getting married, and you didn't put the ring on your own finger. And he better not remember that thought in about five minutes. Tony concentrated on drawing the gray fluid up into the syringe and ensuring that there were no air bubbles. He put the vial back into the metal case and set it aside, holding the syringe in one hand as he turned to Steve.

Steve shifted a little on the bed so that he was facing Tony more directly and turned his arm over to expose the veins in the crook of his elbow. Tony looked up at Steve once more. Steve nodded. Tony dropped his eyes back to Steve's arm, cupping his elbow in one hand as he carefully pierced the vein with the syringe and steadily depressed the plunger. When he withdrew the syringe a tiny bead of blood appeared on Steve's skin. Tony gently wiped it away with his thumb.

"Reed said it would take about ten minutes for the nanites to change my mental frequency," Steve said as Tony put the syringe away. "And that there's no telling how long it'll take for your mind to find mine after that."

"So can we leave the room while we wait?" Tony asked, smiling a little. "Or does it not count until we know it's working?"

"I think we're committed now," Steve said. "I guess I can let you out of the room."

Tony snorted, but stood and went to the door. Hank was seated just outside the door, one of the kitchen chairs having been brought over for that purpose, his arms resting on the back, a pair of glasses perched on his nose as he read a book. He looked up as Tony stepped out into the hall. "It's done, then?" he asked.

"Waiting for it to take effect," Steve said from behind Tony.

"There's a deck of cards in the living room," Tony suggested.

"I'm not playing poker with you and Hank."

The corner of Tony's mouth quirked up. "Crazy 8's?"

They ended up arguing about the rules for almost ten minutes before actually agreeing on a set and starting to play. Tony couldn't help rubbing at his temple every now and then as his mind flipped between mental stations, though he could see the worry growing in Steve's expression every time he did it.

Despite the headache, Tony won two rounds in a row. "I'm not sure this any better than poker," Steve complained. "Does counting cards work for Crazy 8's?"

"Counting cards is about knowing what each player is likely to be holding," Hank said as he dealt the next round. "But this game places somewhat greater value on how you use what you have than it does on the hand itself."

"It still gives him an edge," Steve said. --Maybe Hearts? I got pretty good at Hearts during the War.--

Tony picked up the cards Hank had dealt him. "Hearts depends on your hand even more than poker does," he said absently, arranging his cards. "What we really ought to try is Bridge. Partners with a mental bond would be unbeatable. Assuming the bond ever actually takes." Tony finished arranging his cards and looked up to find both Hank and Steve staring at him. "What?"

"Neither of us said anything about Hearts," Hank said.

"But I thought it," Steve said. Then, without speaking: --Can you hear me, Tony?--

Tony's heart skipped a beat. "Yes," he breathed. --Can you hear me?--

--Yes.-- Steve broke into a grin and a wash of such relief flooded Tony that he blinked in surprise. He'd had no idea Steve was that worried. --Of course I was worried! You're my best friend and I thought you were going to die. There was no guarantee that this would work and then it didn't seem to take and-- Well, it's okay now.-- Suddenly Steve frowned. --This isn't hurting you, is it? You've been rubbing your temples all afternoon.--

--No, it--

"Out loud for the rest of the class, please," Hank said dryly.

"Sorry, Hank," Steve said sheepishly.

"No, it doesn't hurt," Tony said. "Actually, the headache is almost completely gone." Which was a relief; it had been starting to make him nauseous.

Steve frowned at him. Oops. It was going to be even harder to convince Steve that he was okay to go out on missions after he'd been injured now, wasn't it?

The frown turned into a grin. "Yes, it will be," Steve said with satisfaction. --It's about time someone took care of you.--

"I don't need taking care of," Tony objected.

--Forgot you'd hear that. This is going to take some getting used to.-- "Your track record says otherwise," Steve said aloud.

Hank looked back and forth between the two of them. "I am very glad I'm not on a team with you two anymore."

***

Tony shifted his weight slightly, keeping it on the balls of his feet but trying not to settle in the ready position while he waited for Steve to make his move. Steve remained still, though the potential for motion seemed coiled into every muscle. Was he ever going to attack?

--Patience is a fighting skill, too.--

"We're not supposed to read each other while we're sparring," Tony reminded him.

"Sorry," Steve said aloud. "I can't help it. Your thoughts are just there."

"We're supposed to ignore them," Tony said. "How can we practice with each other if we know exactly what the other is going to do next?"

--You're a hard man to ignore, Tony.-- The mental tone was so full of affection that Tony actually blinked... and subsequently missed the lightning quick sweep of Steve's leg that knocked his feet out from under him and sent him crashing down onto the mat. Steve came over and smiled down at him. "And reading me only helps you if I'm thinking about what I plan to do next," he said, holding out a hand.

Tony glared up at him, but took Steve's hand and let the other man help him to his feet again. "Getting distracted like that is why I'm supposed to be practicing ignoring you," he groused, rolling his shoulders a little to banish the lingering feeling of the impact of the fall. He needed the practice; Steve was damned hard to ignore, himself. He always had been, even before Tony had realized--

"Shall we try this again?" Tony said quickly, cutting off the thought before it could quite articulate itself. He wasn't sure how much of his partial thoughts Steve caught, but so far he seemed to have kept enough of a rein on himself.

Steve was frowning. "Why do you keep cutting yourself off when you start thinking about me?" he asked. There was a thread of hurt in both his voice and the bond that triggered a helpless regret in Tony. Regret, but not repentance. "If you think you're going to offend me--"

"It's not you." The last thing he'd wanted was for Steve to think he'd done something wrong. "There are just things in my head that you shouldn't have to deal with."

"Something to do with me," Steve said stubbornly. --Damn it, I'm supposed to be helping him.--

Tony ached in response to Steve's frustration and doubt. He wanted desperately to reassure his friend, but how could he do that when he was stepping on thoughts of Steve left, right, and center?

The first few days it had been easy to control himself. They'd been so busy making sure the nanites had worked on Steve the way they were supposed to, checking for side effects, making sure the Extremis wouldn't send Tony's brain into 'scan' mode again, testing what could and couldn't interfere with the bond, practicing sending thoughts, emotions, even images across their shared wavelength, and on and on. Tony's mind had been thoroughly engaged and personal musings rarely intruded.

But as things calmed down it got harder and harder to avoid certain thoughts, especially now that the source of those thoughts was a constant murmur in the back of his mind. And the more Tony was forced to censor himself, the more Steve noticed him doing it. This was turning into a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation.

--Please believe me,-- Tony sent, --when I say that there isn't anyone I'd let into my mind like this but you.--

--But you still don't trust me.--

--Trust isn't the problem.--

--Then what is the problem?--

Tony moved back into the ready position. "Let's try this again," he repeated.

"Because blocking each other out is apparently a useful skill," Steve said sharply.

Tony could feel his disappointment.

He ignored it.

***

Chapter Five

***

Tony sailed through the air on his boot jets at a fraction of his potential speed. He didn't often have a chance to take the armor for a spin just because he wanted to. This was supposed to be a test run to see how he handled it with Steve playing passenger inside his head, but it felt like a lark. Tony did a barrel roll and then, on impulse, dropped into a loop. He laughed in exhilaration and grinned inside the helmet at the surprise and excitement he felt echoing back from Steve.

--I had no idea you liked flying so much.-- Steve sent.

--I don't usually have time to just enjoy it,-- Tony responded. --I'm almost always on the way to, from, or in the middle of a crisis. Even when the threat isn't immediate, I'm thinking ahead to what needs to be done, what resources we have to draw on, what tactics to use--

--Usually all of the above,-- Steve broke in, amusement underlying his thoughts.

Tony angled his flight to gain altitude, noting and dismissing the status message that appeared in his field of view to inform him that his oxygen supply had kicked in to compensate for the thinner atmosphere. --Or all of the above,-- Tony conceded without shame. --But when I can... We'll, it's even better than a fast car. No traffic laws, no speed limits, and no one else to watch for. It's even better than sex.-- Tony winced, suddenly chagrined at the comparison.

He could tell, from the tenor of Steve's amusement, that he was laughing, despite a slight shading of embarrassment. --Tony Stark, notorious playboy, likes something better than sex?-- The question was supposed to be teasing, but the bond betrayed genuine curiosity. He probably never would have asked aloud, but things had a way of slipping out mentally.

--Shocking, I know.-- Tony rolled over to fly on his back, staring up through the last wisps of atmosphere at the stars. --But when you've had enough sex with enough people it starts to get... well, a little ordinary. Still very, very good, but ordinary.--

--You're not nearly as promiscuous as you let people think you are,-- Steve replied.

That aspect of his mystique had been one of the first sacrifices to the bond, though Steve hadn't been particularly surprised. --But more promiscuous than most other people are, nevertheless,-- Tony sent back.

--Is that why you haven't settled with someone? Trying to keep things fresh?-- Steve's emotions were an odd mix of hope and doubt.

--If only you knew.-- Tony quickly turned his thoughts to a less dangerous answer. Disappointment colored Steve's mental tone, but he didn't make an issue of it. This time. --No, it's not just novelty. I've known enough happy couples to believe that the emotional connection makes it different. Makes it more.-- Even if he'd never experienced that connection himself. He'd thought he had. Hoped he had. But in the end, it had never been real.

Tony turned away from the stars and dropped back towards the Earth, trying to fight off a sudden, involuntary melancholy.

Warmth bloomed inside him, unbidden, and eased the emotion. --You're not alone,-- Steve sent.

Tony couldn't help but respond to the tenor of Steve's emotions. His spirit lightened even as he lowered himself to the Earth and it was all he could do not to slide into the depth of feeling he'd been avoiding betraying. Fortunately, he'd arrived at his destination. Tony touched down in front of one of his research and development facilities and quickly cleared security and headed for the basement, where he'd installed the equipment he'd need to give the armor a workout.

--I don't know why you didn't install a training room in Stark Tower like the one we had in Avengers Mansion,-- Steve sent.

--Stark Tower was never meant to be Avengers headquarters,-- Tony sent as he entered parameters into the computer that would control the testing. --When I designed and started building it we still had the mansion. And then there was no need for a headquarters...-- A momentary swell of grief washed through Tony before he set it firmly aside.

--You'll have to build one in now,-- Steve sent, almost gently. --The Young Avengers will need it, too.--

Tony smiled slightly. --I suppose I will.-- He finished entering parameters into the control system and stepped into the testing room. --I'm ready here,-- he sent to Steve. --You ready there?--

--I'm ready,-- Steve sent. His job for the next half hour was to do his level best to distract Tony from taking the armor through this test run. The faint tension in Steve's emotional tone told him his teammate had something in particular planned, but nothing in his thoughts hinted at what. Tony didn't try to pry it out of him, though; that would have defeated the point of the exercise.

--Here we go.-- Tony used the Extremis to send the command to start the program. The system didn't bother with a warm up, instead launching into a full-scale attack, ports in the walls firing lasers and releasing robots to attack him. Tony's mind kicked into gear, letting the armor's systems rate the threat level of each attack while he formulated tactics and looked for patterns in the chaos.

He was dodging through a complex sweep of lasers, trying to get to their source, when the first wave of emotion struck him. Grief, so full and deep that Tony gasped aloud, faltering. One of the lasers caught him in a glancing blow, but it wasn't enough to disable him and he recovered quickly, struggling to avoid the beams for a moment before he picked up on their pattern again and managed to reach the emitter and disable it.

After that it was joy, and then confusion, and then a swell of self-conscious pleasure so potent that, despite the adrenaline pumping through his veins and the burn of exertion as he fought the training program and the tight focus of his attention, Tony grew physically, almost painfully aroused. Steve sure as hell wasn't holding anything back.

The training run was almost over and Tony was battering at one of the more durable robots when a shock of mingled fear/surprise/anxiety/tension slammed into him and then-- --Fuck!--

--Steve!-- Tony delivered the next couple of blows through sheer instinct before forcing himself to wrench his attention back to his task. Steve was okay, he had to be okay, Tony would know if something was really wrong, but damn it, Steve never swore, not like that.

Tony tore the last robot apart with more vigor than was probably necessary and was at the door of the training room almost before the program shut down and disengaged the lock. He got outside and was running through the corridors toward the elevator back to the surface without thinking. --Steve? Talk to me, damn it. The training program is finished, you don't need to be distracting anymore, please tell me you were just distracting me--

--Tony, I'm fine. Tony!-- Steve sent, his thoughts calm and soothing.

It took a second for the words to reach the core of alarm that had taken root in Tony. By the time he actually managed to take a breath and ease back from the edge of panic he was already outside. --What the hell did you do?-- Tony demanded. He launched himself into the air, pushing himself well past his usual cruising speed despite the fact that he was starting to calm down now. It was all he could do not to break the sound barrier.

--I asked Jarvis to cut me sometime during the run,-- Steve sent back. --I wanted to make sure I wasn't expecting it. It's inevitable that we'll be injured during a fight sometime. We had to know.--

Tony took another steadying breath. --I know. I know. But, damn it, I wasn't expecting anything like that. I-- You scared the hell out of me, Steve.--

--I know,-- Steve sent.

Of course he did. The bond between them ensured he knew the precise depth of Tony's fear for him. Steve was the most important person in his life, Tony couldn't lose him.

--Tony?-- Steve sent tentatively. --The most important person?--

--Of course you heard that,-- Tony said, clinging to the wryness he felt at the slip to disguise the deeper emotion. --You're my closest friend, Steve. You had to know that.--

--I thought Happy Hogan... Or Rhodey,--

Tony let a fraction of the warmth he felt for Steve slip free. --Are both good friends, the best, but they aren't my teammate, my partner, my... well, that's special.--

Steve's emotions were an inarticulate welter of affection and gratification and pleasure and pride. Tony touched down in the Quinjet hanger while he was still trying to sort them out.

--Thank you, Tony,-- Steve managed as Tony jogged down the stairs to the living quarters, too impatient to wait for the elevator. He lifted his helmet off as he stepped into the penthouse and cradled it in the crook of his arm.

Steve was sitting at the kitchen table, his arm outstretched while Jarvis carefully stitched him up. Blood trickled down his arm from the short, deep gash.

"You're welcome," Tony said aloud. A rush of relief, ridiculously strong, overtook him when he saw Steve sitting there, safe.

Steve glanced over at the door in surprise. "You got back fast."

"No reason to linger once we were done," Tony said casually. It was an obvious lie, given how much he'd enjoyed the trip out, but Steve didn't call him on it. Tony nodded at the cut Jarvis was stitching up. "That made you swear? I've gotten worse slicing a bagel."

"Which is why you are not permitted to use the kitchen," Jarvis said serenely.

Steve shot Jarvis a quick smile before turning back to Tony. "I played it up," he said. "I figured 'ow, that hurt' wouldn't be a particularly effective distraction."

"You were right," Tony said, shaking his head. "The good news is, I passed the test." He took one last look at Steve, safe at the kitchen table. "I'm going to go put on some regular clothes." He paused in the kitchen door and pointed at Steve. "It's your turn next."

"Bring it on," Steve said, smiling.

***

Less than twelve hours after Steve came through his own practice run with flying colors, the police called Stark Tower.

--Is it paranoid of me to think it feels like they were waiting for us?-- Tony thought at Steve as they converged on the communications room, where Peter had taken the call.

--Yes.-- Steve sent back. --If they knew, they wouldn't have waited until we were combat-ready.--

--Point taken.--

"Looks like one of the nuts in the SHIELD bulletin about the escape," the sergeant on the line was saying as they joined Peter. The call was audio only and, from the sound of it, was being made on a cell phone from the scene itself. "We've got 'im pretty much contained, but I figure you folks are better equipped to handle a guy with a disintegrator gun than my boys are."

"Didn't you two just re-capture a guy with a disintegrator gun a couple of weeks ago?" Peter asked, out of range of the audio pick up. "What, did they have a sale?"

"Chemistro uses wrist blasters, not a gun," Tony said frowning. "And those transmute material, not disintegrate it. The breakdown of the transmuted substance happens later."

"Foolkiller uses a disintegrator gun," Steve noted. --Always with the guns. I almost wish they'd be more creative.--

Tony nodded and leaned towards the audio pick up. "Sergeant, is this guy wearing a leather mask?"

"Looks like something out of a bad horror flick," the sergeant said briskly. It was definitely Foolkiller, then. "You got an ETA for me?"

Tony smiled slightly. "Two minutes, sergeant. Hang in there."

--I assume I'm getting a ride?-- Steve sent even as Tony spoke.

--Of course. No need for the three of us to take a Quinjet.--

"No problem." The call cut off.

Tony pulled off his tie and started unbuttoning his shirt, the under armor spreading over his skin even as he disrobed. "We'll meet you there, Peter," he said.

"I'll see if I can leave something for you to mop up!" Peter threw over his shoulder, grinning, as he ran from the room.

The armor came flying into the room as Tony toed off his shoes and locked itself into place around his body. "Ready?" he asked Steve.

Steve pulled up his cowl and nodded firmly. "Let's go."

They ran to the Quinjet hanger together but bypassed the jets themselves. Instead Tony looped an arm around Steve's waist and launched himself into the air without even slowing down. The armor automatically adjusted for the lopsided weight, keeping their flight smooth as silk.

Tony knew precisely how much acceleration and speed an unarmored passenger could tolerate. Steve could take more than most, and the leather of his costume helped. Tony pushed them right to the limit, intent on reaching the site.

Foolkiller, more mundanely known as Kurt Gerhardt, didn't have any special training or abilities, but his weapon and his instability made him dangerous regardless. Worse still, he'd been escalating at the time he was imprisoned in the Raft; who knew what his definition of a 'fool' encompassed now?

Frowning, tracking their position with only a fraction of his attention, Tony wished he had more data on the so-called 'purification' gun. As far as he knew, no one knew where it had come from or how it operated. It disintegrated people instantly, but people weren't particularly strongly bonded together, in relative terms. Would the armor be enough to protect him? It did have significant energy dispersal and absorption properties. Hopefully he wouldn't have to find out, but he had a far better chance than either Steve or Peter, if it came down to it.

--You are not going to jump in front of that ray gun, I don't care what you've built into the armor,-- Steve interjected firmly.

Tony started. For a moment, he'd actually forgotten Steve had a line on his thoughts. --I'm not looking to get disintegrated,-- he sent back. --But I'm far more effectively protected against direct hits. We know the gun will take you or Peter out, but I might survive. It's a reasonable risk.--

--Your life is not a reasonable risk,-- Steve sent back fiercely.

--But yours or Peter's is?--

--I didn't say that,-- Steve sent, impatience coloring his mental tone. --But you have a bad habit of throwing yourself into the most dangerous part of a battle without regard for whether or not you're the best suited to it, tactically.--

--The most dangerous part of a battle is where help is needed most,-- Tony pointed out. --And I'm better protected than the rest of you.-- A fact which occasionally made Tony feel vaguely guilty. He had looked into constructing armor for his fellow Avengers, but the more he toyed with the designs, the more he realized it wouldn't work for them the way it did for him. Not only would armor muffle the abilities they were most familiar with, none of them had the ability to multitask needed to run the systems without an AI more advanced than Tony was comfortable building into a suit that was going to come into contact with as many strange things as the Avengers encountered on a regular basis.

He'd learned that lesson.

Which left him going into battle with several orders of magnitude more protection between himself and the enemy than his friends had.

--Tony, the armor doesn't make your contribution to a fight less valuable.-- Steve sounded a little upset, and maybe a little disturbed. --If anything, you're more at--

However Steve had intended to complete that thought, they arrived at the scene of the disturbance and noting the disposition of the police and bystanders distracted him. The police had cordoned off a particular building and a substantial crowd of gawkers had gathered around the front entrance.

--Damn it, don't they realize they're putting themselves right in the line of fire?-- Tony could tell by the tenor of Steve's thought that it was a casual thought, not an intentional communication, but he couldn't help returning sympathetic frustration.

The two of them set down inside the police cordon just as Peter swung in above them and landed smoothly on the glass just above the building's entrance. Steve stepped away from Tony's side and glanced around. After a moment he fixed his gaze on a particular man and stepped up to him. "Sergeant?" Steve inquired.

The man nodded briskly, straightening up automatically as he met Steve's gaze. They all did that, but then-- Tony cut the thought off, focusing on the sergeant's words. "Thanks for getting here so quickly, Captain," he said. "He's inside. Tenth floor on the south side. We got almost everyone out, but he's probably got a couple of people in there with him."

Tony accessed the Extremis and downloaded the building's blueprints as the sergeant spoke, reviewing them quickly. "That floor is all individual offices," he said to Steve.

Silently, Steve ran through the tactical implications. Tony listened in with a portion of his attention while he used the Extremis to check for security cameras in the building. It had coverage in the elevators, stairwells, and lobby, but nowhere else. He slipped that knowledge quietly into Steve's deliberations.

After a moment, Steve nodded firmly and focused his attention back on the sergeant. "We need to move this crowd further back from the building," he said. "We're going to bring him out where we have better visibility and can keep track of bystanders."

Tony lifted off the ground again, pausing level with Peter. "I'm going to clear a path; you'll need to pull him out of there."

"No problem," Peter said cheerfully. "One thorn-in-our-side extraction coming right up!" He swung over to the opposite building and took up station, saluting at Tony when he was ready.

Tony resisted the urge to shake his head. Instead he hovered in front of the sixth floor windows and raised his hands. One repulsor blast at a fraction of full power reduced the tempered glass to tiny pieces that rained down onto the cleared street.

The effects of Foolkiller's gun were obvious; most of the floor had been gutted. Tony noted the weakening structural integrity and the danger of collapse with a fraction of his attention, but mostly he concentrated on scanning the wrecked interior for Foolkiller. Just as his eyes caught on the distinctive leather mask, two ropes of webbing splattered onto the man's chest.

"Come to Spidey!" Peter called out, yanking hard on the webbing. Foolkiller flew out the shattered windows.

"You!" Foolkiller screamed, twisting around mid air, firing his gun in one long arc and sweeping it towards Peter. A couple of meters of window glass vanished into nothingness, but Peter dodged the beam easily.

"Geez! Smart move, trying to kill the guy holding you eighty feet off the ground!" Peter said, lowering Foolkiller to the ground as he spoke.

A couple of feet up Foolkiller slipped out of his leather jacket and dropped to the ground, free of Peter's webbing. "I should have known you'd come after me!" he shouted, shaking his fist in Peter's direction. After a moment he seemed to remember he still had his weapon and swung it back towards Peter, more controlled this time.

Tony dialed his repulsors down a little and hit him with a repulsor blast that knocked him off his feet and back a few feet. "Apparently," Tony said, "he still thinks he's your arch-nemesis."

"It's hard being so popular," Peter sighed dramatically as he dropped to the ground. Behind him, Foolkiller struggled to his feet, but even as Tony lifted his hands for another repulsor blast, Steve's shield whirred by him and slammed into Foolkiller's wrist, sending the 'purification' gun flying again and leaving Foolkiller staggering and clutching his wrist.

The shield was deflected just enough to send it flying into a lamppost and ricocheting back into Steve's outstretched hand. Tony smiled briefly at the precision of the throw. "Peter?" he prompted aloud.

"Got it." Peter leaped over Foolkiller, snatched up his gun, and encased it in a ball of webbing. "Just in case," he said, handing the sticky ball to Tony.

"As for you," Steve said, stepping up to Foolkiller. "Back to--"

"I'm not going back there!" Foolkiller snarled. He yanked something out of the waistband of his pants and pointed it at Steve. Tony's adrenaline spiked, his vision narrowing down to Foolkiller's finger on the trigger as he threw himself at the man. There was a burst of sound and then he impacted with the unprotected villain. A harsh crunch sounded as they went down and Tony quickly rolled away before his fully armored weight crushed Foolkiller.

Standing, Tony turned to find Steve picking himself up off the ground and dusting himself off. "I dropped under the bullet," he explained.

Tony looked down at the weapon that had fallen from Foolkiller's hand. An ordinary handgun. A .44, he noted absently. He looked back at Steve, a little dusty but just as-- Tony cut the thought off and called SHIELD to arrange transport instead. Steve frowned at him.

"Someone's coming to pick him up," Tony said aloud.

Steve stepped up next to Tony and looked down at the unconscious villain. "Are they bringing a medical team?" he asked.

"Of course." --His injuries aren't life threatening. Just a few broken bones.--

--Just making sure you didn't forget. Your opponents' health isn't always high on your list of priorities.--

Steve, Tony realized, was angry with him. --I wasn't about to hold back when I didn't know what sort of hardware he was--

--That's not what I'm mad about.--

"Psst," Peter hissed loudly. "The sergeant's on his way over."

Steve turned away from Tony without another word, accepting the sergeant's thanks on their behalf. Tony distracted himself by scanning their surroundings with every sensor he had, making sure the area was clear. Every time his eyes strayed back to Steve, he yanked himself back on task by trying a different sensor suite.

It was always hardest to hide his reactions to the man in the aftermath of a fight, but damn it, he'd never had to police his thoughts before. This was going to drive him crazy.

A SHIELD flying car arrived and took custody of Foolkiller before he ran out of scans to run, thank God. "You mind if I catch a ride back to Stark Tower with you?" Steve asked the SHIELD pilot while the medics prepped Foolkiller to be moved. --If I spend another minute with Tony, I'm going to shout. Not in public. The Avengers have done enough falling apart in public.-- He didn't even glance at Tony.

"Sure!" the driver responded. Then he stopped. "As long as you don't mind waiting a minute for our passenger."

"No problem."

The three Avengers and the SHIELD personnel waited in slightly awkward silence as Foolkiller was loaded into the car. Tony watched it lift off with a faint ache of regret.

"Um. What was that all about?" Peter asked when the car--and Steve--were gone.

Tony restrained a sigh. "Steve is mad at me. You might want to keep your head down when we get back to the Tower."

"It's like being in high school all over again," Peter grumbled, and was gone, swinging between the buildings.

Tony did sigh then. Alone again.

--Not a chance,-- came Steve's thought, hard and sharp edged.

--I don't suppose you could let this go, just this once?-- Tony sent back.

--I've been letting it go, Tony.--

In which case, Tony decided, he wanted to be in more neutral clothing when they had their... talk. He lifted off and built up speed, heading for Stark Tower.

***

Chapter Six

***

Tony was in his bedroom, pulling a shirt on over his undershirt, when Steve jerked the door open without knocking and stalked inside, slamming it shut behind him. He was still in uniform, his cowl pulled down and blond hair sticking up everywhere. "Hello, Steve," Tony said calmly. "You wanted to talk?"

"What do you think you're doing?" Steve snapped.

Tony raised an eyebrow. "Getting dressed?"

"You know what I'm talking about," Steve said, eyes narrowing. His anger was a tight, hot thread through Tony's mind. "You keep yanking your thoughts around, trying to avoid something."

"My thoughts are my business," Tony said flatly.

"No, they aren't! Not since we literally put our minds on the same wavelength." Steve ran a hand through his hair. "You asked me before we did this if I knew what I was doing. You said I had to be sure. Maybe it should have been me asking you those questions! If you weren't prepared to deal with the consequences, why did you let me do this?"

"I tried to talk you out of it!" Tony snapped.

"You tried to convince me I couldn't handle it," Steve shot back. "You never once said you didn't want to do it because you couldn't handle it!"

Tony took a step forward, aggressive, closer to Steve. "Would that have shut you up?"

Steve glared at him. "With your life at stake? No!"

"That's why I didn't mention it!"

"Well, it's done now, so you'd better figure out how to handle it," Steve said, folding his arms across his chest.

Tony laughed hysterically. "Handle it? Handle it? What do you think I've been trying to do?"

"That's not handling it, that's denial," Steve said sharply. "You can't watch your every thought for the rest of your life, Tony."

Tony took another step into Steve's personal space, face flushed and gut twisting. "What do you want from me?" he said, all but shouting. "Do you want me to just hand over everything I am?"

"Yes!" Steve shouted back.

"Fine!" Tony reached up, grabbed Steve, and pulled him down into a kiss, their mouths crashing together painfully. He eased up the pressure a hair, just enough to take the edge off and turn it into a real kiss. Covering Steve's mouth with his own, he used the harsh pressure of his lips and Steve's surprise to part Steve's lips and slipped his tongue inside. If this was all he was ever going to have he was going to take all he could get, damn it.

Steve's mouth was warm and slick beneath his, and Tony grew hot with arousal. He started to shove the feeling aside, but no, no, he wasn't hiding anymore. Instead he embraced it, welcomed it, until the desperate desire to have Steve in his arms, his bed, his heart, his life made his whole body ache with longing. He wanted so much, but this kiss was all he could have and God, Steve tasted so good that it didn't even matter that he wasn't kissing back.

Even as Tony thought it, Steve's mouth softened under his and strong hands spread over the planes of his back and pulled him close. Steve tilted his head a little, easing the angle of the kiss, and suddenly instead of desperate and harsh and one-sided it was deep and hot and wet and perfect and Steve was kissing him back and Tony dissolved into shared pleasure and joy.

--You can have much more than this kiss.-- Steve's thought slid into Tony's mind gently, so gently, as if he thought he might hurt Tony. --You've been hurting, Tony. You've been trying to crush a part of your heart.--

They never broke the kiss, or maybe they did, maybe it was a dozen kisses, lips clinging as their mouths parted and then came together again and again, still hungry for each other. --I didn't want you to know, I didn't think you could want this, I was certain I'd have your regret and guilt and pity in the back of my mind forever. Why didn't I realize you wanted this?--

Carefully, Steve pulled away from kissing Tony, raising one hand to cup his face. Their eyes met and Tony's heart ached at the tenderness he saw in Steve's gaze. "You were so busy pulling back from how you felt," Steve said, his voice startlingly hoarse with emotion, "that you couldn't see what I felt." And then, a little unfocused as all incidental thoughts were, --I hated feeling you turn away.--

"I hurt you," Tony realized suddenly, regret knifing through him.

Steve brushed his thumb over Tony's cheek. "Of course you did," he said softly. "You jerked away from thoughts of me like they burned you and I could hear and feel every moment of it."

--I destroy everyone who loves me.-- "I'm sorry."

Steve kissed him again, slow and soft. --You can't destroy this. I won't let you.--

The thought slipped out before Tony could catch it: --Promise?--

--I promise,-- Steve vowed, certain and solid, the promise so deeply rooted in his mind and heart that Tony could feel it, like something tangible. "And Tony?" Steve said aloud. "Don't censor your thoughts from me. Please."

"I'll try," Tony said, resting his forehead against Steve's for a moment, "but I've been practicing not thinking about some things for a lot longer than the last couple of weeks."

"I can handle that, as long as you aren't deliberately shutting me out." Steve stroked his fingers down the length of Tony's spine and Tony was suddenly, viscerally aware of just how closely he was pressed to Steve's perfect, sculpted body. Arousal swelled within him, pouring through his body in a flood of pure, liquid sensation. Steve gasped softly and then it was as if Tony's desire flowed into Steve, because Tony could feel it rising in him like the tide. "I've... never felt anything like that in my life," Steve said, his voice growing rough. He shifted against Tony without thinking, instinct driving him, and sparks of sensation lit in both of them as their bodies rubbed over each other.

--Neither have I,-- Tony thought, because it was easier than trying to articulate words. --I can feel you responding to me. I can almost feel you touching me.--

Steve slowly drew his hands over Tony's back and sides, making him shiver with sensation, and slipped them beneath Tony's shirt and undershirt. Strong fingers stroked lightly over bare skin and Tony gasped as he realized he could feel a faint echo of his skin under Steve's hands. It added a startling resonance to the caress. Tony moaned and wondered at the strength of his reaction to such a simple touch.

"Not just your reaction," Steve said, rubbing his hips voluptuously against Tony's. Even through the leather of Steve's costume Tony could feel how hard he was; almost as hard as Tony himself. The needy ache of his own cock seemed to blend with that of Steve's until Tony couldn't tell where his hunger stopped and Steve's began and the well of desire seemed infinitely deeper than he'd ever felt before.

"It wasn't like this before," Tony gasped, leaning into Steve, grinding against him almost helplessly. "Why wasn't it like this before?"

Steve's hands were moving, drawing vibrations of pleasure over his skin. "You were holding back," he said roughly, one hand pushing past the waist of Tony's pants and coming to rest on the curve of his ass, cupping it, encouraging the movements of Tony's hips. Steve leaned in and captured Tony's lips in another kiss. --Don't hold back anymore. Let go.--

Tony shuddered, kissing back urgently, feeling that same resonance and needing more of it, more skin, more closeness. Steve stripped Tony of shirt and undershirt, breaking the embrace only for a moment, and then they were in each other's arms again, only this time the cool, hard edges of Steve's scale-mail dug into Tony's chest. The touch was something straight out of Tony's fantasies, Steve too eager for him to wait, pushing him against a wall, Tony's armor falling away with a thought, the contrast between the smooth leather and sharp, hard mail of Steve's costume pressing into his skin making it so much more vivid.

Tony's back thumped into the wall; it wasn't a fantasy anymore, it was real, Steve's hands were opening his pants, button, and zipper, slipping inside the gaping fly to explore, the touch too light, too teasing. --More!-- Tony impatiently pushed down his pants and underwear and kicked them away.

Cool leather slid over hot skin as Steve pushed his thigh between Tony's legs. Tony let his head thump back against the wall, groaning loudly, hips bucking involuntarily, his eyes clenched shut. For an instant, instead of the blackness behind his eyelids, Tony saw himself, naked and flushed and squirming with pleasure under Steve's hands. A rush of emotion came with the vision: wonder and pleasure and a kind of happiness that Tony wasn't sure he'd ever felt before.

Except, of course, he wasn't feeling it now--those were Steve's emotions.

--That's how being with you makes me feel,-- Steve told him, kissing Tony again.

Maybe their emotions could leak into each other, because even though the moment of deeper communion had faded, a thread of that happiness still felt as immediate as ever. Tony kissed Steve back with everything he had, because Steve did that, Steve gave him that.

Pushing away from the wall, Tony backed Steve towards the bed as he worked on undressing him. They bumped up against the bed before he'd done more than pull Steve's belt free of the loops and cast it aside, but he batted at Steve's hands when Steve moved to help him. "No, you don't," Tony said aloud. "Do you know how many fantasies I have of stripping you out of this costume?"

"No." Steve smiled, letting his hands play over Tony's skin instead. "But I have a feeling you're going to try out all of them."

"And then some," Tony affirmed, working the mail and leather shirt off over Steve's head. The weight of the mail made a distinct thump when he dropped it, but Tony had already moved on, pushing Steve down to sit on the edge of the bed so that Tony could tug his boots off.

Tony grinned as he set the second boot aside, because of course Steve had to wear socks inside the boots, but somehow the white cotton sport socks didn't seem to go with the uniform.

"If I were more insecure," Steve said, leaning back on his elbows and looking down his body at Tony, "I'd worry about you laughing at me."

"It's the socks," Tony said, leaving the socks in favor of reaching up to grasp the waist of the snug leather pants and peeling them down Steve's long, powerful legs. --You look like something out of a porno,-- he sent, amused, hoping that in that moment Steve could see how he looked through Tony's eyes, white sport socks and white briefs and his cock straining at the fabric, all muscle and lust.

Steve went red to the ears and tugged off the socks before shimmying out of the briefs. Tony wasn't sure if that was intended to make him look more or less like sex personified. What it did do was make Tony's pulse leap to an even faster rhythm and all he wanted was to swallow Steve down, take that beautiful, flushed cock into his mouth and taste Steve, so he did. Steve cried out, hips jerking upwards and running into Tony's hands, hands that held him steady while Tony licked and sucked with abandon.

Fingers laced themselves into Tony's hair, cradling Tony's head, but for all the burning urgency Tony could feel in him, Steve didn't try to guide him. Maybe, Tony thought, that was because he didn't need to. Tony could hear and feel every desire almost as if they were his own, and the jolts of ecstasy that rewarded every hungered-for touch quickly transformed knowing what Steve wanted into wanting it himself.

Tony was so caught up in the slide of Steve's cock between his lips that he almost didn't stop himself before he sent Steve tumbling over the edge into completion. But Steve made a choked, urgent sound and it was so damned erotic that Tony paused, just for a minute, just at the right moment to ease Steve back from the brink.

"Don't stop!" Steve demanded, hips pushing up a little, but Tony pulled away.

"As much as I love doing that," Tony said, catching Steve's eye, "I have something else in mind." He motioned for Steve to scoot up onto the bed the rest of the way and climbed up with him, crawling forward over Steve until he was looking down at him. "I want to feel you sliding into me," Tony said, voice low and rough. Steve caught his breath. --I want you so deep inside me I can't tell where I end and you begin.--

Steve brought his hands up to rest them on Tony's hips, his fingers curving around towards his ass. --Do you have something?--

Tony chuckled and leaned over to retrieve a condom and lube from the bedside table. "Do you want to open me up, or should I?" Tony asked huskily.

Steve's eyes went dark and his tongue flickered out over his lips. "I want to," he hesitated fractionally, "to get you ready for me." --My fingers surrounded by your heat, wondering what it'll feel like to bury myself inside you.--

Hearing those words from Steve, Tony's desire leapt impossibly higher. "Hurry," he said hoarsely.

Steve didn't answer, but his emotions were a welter of agreement and desire and urgency and warmth and wonder. Tony leaned forward, his hands splayed on Steve's broad chest, and let his eyes close as Steve slowly stretched him. It felt good, deliciously good, but even better was the tide of shared emotion. Tony basked in it, following the threads of feeling through their shared emotional landscape, rapt.

Powerful, yet still dexterous, hands gripped Tony's hips. --Tony.--

He understood. Eyes still closed, head falling back, Tony moved, letting Steve guide him until he could slowly sink down, taking Steve inside of him. The visceral sensation brought Tony's mind back to the physical with a rush of brilliance over his nerves.

Opening his eyes, Tony reached out for Steve and met him halfway, each gripping the other's forearms. Their eyes met, hot and dark. "So good," Tony said, lifting himself, savoring the sweet slide of Steve's cock from his body before settling again, back arching and shuddering with the pleasure of being filled by him again.

"Faster," Steve demanded, lifting his own hips to meet Tony's rolling rhythm.

Tony laughed breathlessly but complied, sweat beginning to bead on his skin as he rode Steve, his whole body undulating, using his grip on Steve's arms for leverage. The pressure of Steve inside him made Tony's nerves sing. The power of their bodies moving together sent shivers of wonder and need through Tony, the resonance turned the simple, sweet pleasure of being fucked into something extraordinary.

--So beautiful.-- Steve's thought, wreathed in intensity. --I've never seen anything so beautiful.--

Tony could only smile, feeling the depth, the quality, the sincerity of Steve's emotion. Love for Steve bloomed in Tony, truly unfettered for the first time.

Steve pushed up off the bed, almost tipping Tony over backwards before he caught him in his arms, gathering Tony close so that he was sitting in Steve's lap now, bodies still deeply joined. Their mouths came together in a deep, hungry kiss. It didn't seem to matter that neither of them could move much like this, arms wrapped tight around each other, kissing like their lives depended on it. Ecstasy sparked within them anyway, ricocheting between them until Tony couldn't tell what was his and what was Steve's, and he realized it didn't matter, it was theirs.

A wordless sense of affirmation swept through them and then their shared pleasure crested and broke and Tony heard himself crying out, heard Steve's breathless, choked moans of completion. Suddenly utterly wrung out, Tony slumped forward into Steve's arms. Steve let Tony's weight bear him back down onto the bed, carefully tucking Tony close against him.

For a long time Tony just rested there, face turned into the curve of Steve's throat and shoulder, and breathed in the scent of sweat and leather, a scent he'd associated with Steve for years. He felt himself settle into a kind of quietness, absent any driving need, characterized only by a kind of warmth.

It took Tony a long time to find a word for the unfamiliar feeling. Content. How long had it been since he'd felt content?

--Too long, if you have to think that hard about it,-- Steve sent, stroking Tony's back absently.

Tony smiled and pulled back just enough to look into Steve's eyes. "I have a feeling that might be changing."

Steve's expression was warm and assured. "You bet."

--End--