Doubts

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)


Author's Notes: Many thanks to elspethdixon and seanchai for beta-reading for me!


Tony forced himself to slow down as he read through the report from Stark Enterprise's research and development division. It was fascinating, but biotech wasn't really his area, even if he'd managed in the past. He needed to read carefully if he wanted to really understand what the project's team leaders were discussing at their meeting next week. It was hard not to rush ahead, though. The way they'd convinced the cotton fibers to operate like a chameleon's chromatophores was brilliant. If Hank got his hands on some of the reports, he probably wouldn't come out of the lab for weeks. Jan might even forgive him, once she found out he was obsessing over color changing fabric.

--Why not tell him about it?-- Steve sent.

--It's proprietary research,-- Tony replied, pausing in his reading. --And if I brought in an outside researcher, the team would be insulted. I want to encourage this kind of innovation, and that means making sure my people know that they have my total confidence.--

--I said tell him about it,-- Steve corrected, amusement coloring his tone. --Not hire him to work on it. I can tell how fascinating you find it, even if I don't understand a word running through your head when you're reading, and that you want to share.--

Tony wavered. He knew Hank wouldn't intentionally appropriate someone else's work, but if inspiration strikes, you can't not think about the idea. Still, if he stuck to the concepts, it ought to be safe enough. And, well, Stark Enterprises did own the work, even if Tony was always careful to be fair with his people.

--Besides,-- Steve sent, --Hank's real passion are insects and size changing. Nothing distracts him from those for long.--

Tony smiled to himself, reminded once again of how odd a pair of interests those had seemed to be. To be honest, he still didn't entirely understand how Hank's interests could be both so focused and so disparate. Maybe it would make sense if he was only interested in miniaturization, but he was just as fascinated by growth. Still, he was interested in all sorts of biotech, and it would be nice to share...

--Invite him to lunch. You need to eat. Invite Jan, too. Then I can have someone to talk to when you two become incomprehensible,-- Steve sent, tolerant amusement coloring his mental tone.

Tony reached out for the phone and paused again. It was the middle of the day; should he really interrupt? He knew Hank had better things to do than--

--Than what? Chat with a friend? Get excited over innovative tech? Just call him, Tony.--

Still feeling vaguely uncertain, Tony picked up the phone and dialed the number for Hank's lab. The phone rang a few times before Hank picked up. "Pym."

"Hank, it's Tony," Tony said, suddenly feeling unaccountably nervous.

"Tony!" Hank sounded cheerful, but also...worried? "Is something wrong?"

Tony blinked. That was an odd way to answer the phone. "No, everything's fine," he said. "My R&D division just came up with something I thought you'd find interesting and Steve suggested I take you out to lunch." There was a long pause on the other end of the line. --This was a stupid idea,-- Tony sent. "I'm sorry if I interrupted something," he said into the silent phone. "Forget about--"

"No, no, it's okay," Hank said quickly. "I was just surprised. Sorry. Where should we go?"

Tony let out a quiet breath and named a restaurant near Hank's lab. He didn't want to take him away from work for too long. "Bring Jan, if she's around," he said. "Or we'll drown Steve in technobabble."

"She's working," Hank said, "but she won't mind a break. Heck, she'll probably die of shock at the idea of me asking her to take a break." Tony could hear the grin in Hank's voice. "See you there in half an hour?"

"Sounds good," Tony replied, smiling.

***

Jan perched on a stool in front of her drafting table and flipped through fabric swatches, glancing back and forth between the design she'd drawn and the fabrics. No, no, no, no, no. None of these blues were right. She set them down and made a note in her PDA to get another range, this time with more green in them.

"Jan?"

She looked up, startled, to see Hank in the doorway. "Hey there," she said, smiling. "What's up? I thought you were buried for a few hours at least."

"I thought so, too," Hank said, looking bemused. "But Tony just called and asked if we wanted to go out to lunch."

Jan blinked. "Is the world ending?"

Hank laughed. "No. I asked. It's just lunch. And technobabble, but Steve will be there."

"Wow." Jan hopped off of the stool and brushed at the creases in her pants. Should she change? No, Hank wouldn't have thought to give her time to change before lunch. "I think that's a first for Tony."

"I don't think it's actually Tony," Hank said as they headed for the front door. He held Jan's coat for her before putting on his own. "It's Steve."

"Sharing their thoughts doesn't turn them into a single person, Hank," Jan said. "You know enough telepaths to know that."

"Their telepathy isn't typical, though, is it?" It was a nice day out, although a little cool. Hank slid into the driver's side of the car and waited for Jan to get into the passenger's side before he continued. "They don't get to turn it on and off. They don't get to choose what to hear or not hear. There are no barriers between them. This thing is still new; how long will it take before they can't tell whose thoughts are whose?"

Jan frowned. That was kind of a disturbing thought. "You seemed as happy about this bonding thing as I was when we talked about it before," she said.

"I hadn't had time to work through the implications yet." Hank turned the ignition, but paused before starting out. He dropped his eyes, not looking at Jan. "I'm not really worried, it's just...your sense of self is a precious, fragile thing sometimes..."

Jan put her hand over Hank's on the gearshift. "I'm sure that won't be a problem." But the words didn't come out sounding sure.

***

Whatever concerns Hank may have had about Steve and Tony's bond, he quickly forgot them in the face of new and innovative biotech. He and Tony were trading polysyllabic words before anything but bread and butter had arrived on the table. Jan, on the other hand, found that she couldn't stop thinking about it now that she'd started.

Steve seemed like the same person he always had, although the open softness in his eyes whenever he looked at Tony was new. But Jan couldn't help poking around the subject obliquely. "It must be nice," she said as Hank's voice grew intense with interest for a moment, "to understand what the heck they're talking about!"

Surprise colored Steve's expression and he quickly swallowed the sip of water he'd taken and set his glass down. "What makes you think I understand?" he asked.

Jan poked at her salad. "Well, you've got an inside track on Tony's brain now, right? And he understands."

"Well, sure," Steve said, "but I don't have the background knowledge, or the training, or the insight. We only hear each other's...I guess you could call them surface thoughts. Those only account for a tiny portion of our minds."

Jan crunched away at her salad thoughtfully for a moment. "But don't you feel Tony's understanding? Even if you couldn't come up with the next step, don't you feel like you get the current one?"

Steve shook his head. "You said it yourself, Jan. It's Tony's understanding, not mine. I just know that it's there."

"How can you tell the difference, though?"

Steve started to answer and then paused for a moment, his eyes flickering over to Tony, who glanced over at just the right moment to meet his gaze for an instant, though he never paused in his conversation with Hank. Steve smiled. "Thanks."

Jan was about to ask 'For what?' when Tony replied: "No problem." Hank looked confused for a moment, but Tony just jumped right back into their conversation.

As did Steve. "Tony reminded me, he used a radio metaphor to explain this thing when it first started," he said. "And it still works. If a radio band is like the frequency on which our thoughts exist, and the broadcast that goes out on that station is like the actual thoughts, then our separate thoughts are like the voices of two different announcers. There's a difference in...in timbre, for lack of a better word."

"Okay, that makes sense," Jan said while Steve took a bite out of his club sandwich. She couldn't help but be a little relieved, too. She loved Tony, really, but...well, Steve was good for him. She just wasn't so sure it worked the other way around. "It must be maddening sometimes, though, having someone chattering on in the back of your head." Jan smiled to soften the comment.

"I...really like it, actually," Steve said. Then he quickly took a bit of his sandwich. Tony, Jan noticed, shot Steve a brief but warm look.

"You don't ever want to be alone, really alone?" Jan asked curiously. She loved Hank but there were definitely times when she needed to be away from him for a while.

Steve shook his head and swallowed before answering. "No. I've had my fill of being alone." He paused and seemed to be struggling for words for a long moment. "I'm not sure if I can explain it," he said at last. "You know that feeling when you're just sitting quietly with someone you've known for years? Someone you know almost better than yourself. Not doing anything together, or talking, just being together?" For a moment, Steve's expression went distant, but also content in a way Jan didn't think she'd ever seen on him. Maybe not on anyone. "It's kind of like that, all the time."

Suddenly, briefly, Jan felt a little envious. Then she smiled at Steve. "If anyone deserves that, you do," she said sincerely.

"What about me?" Tony broke in, teasing.

Jan threw a dinner roll at him, but Steve caught it before it could make impact. "You got that and Steve. That's more than anyone deserves."

"Point taken," Tony said, plucking the dinner roll out of Steve's hand and biting into it, grinning.

--End--