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A Beautiful Thing

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Steve woke up to Tony’s worried, brown eyes and a splitting headache.  “What happened?” he groaned.

Tony’s relief was practically palpable.  “You got whammied.”

Huh?  Steve blinked and blinked, trying to get rid of the blurriness still clinging to his vision, and tried to sit up.  The world didn’t agree with that too well and immediately set to spinning, which then made his stomach clench and throat tighten in nausea.  Tony grabbed his arm to steady him.  “Whoa, whoa!  Lie back down, you idiot.”

Steve shook his head, gritting his teeth and breathing through the discomfort.  “What?”

Tony was trying to hide it, but he wasn’t doing it very well.  Steve felt like he’d been run over by a freight train multiple times, but he wasn’t out of it enough not to see that.  Worry was bright in Tony’s sharp gaze, worry and more than a little fear.  “You went down.  Don’t you remember?  Aliens?  Ship crashing?  Other ships shooting?”

I went down?  Steve struggled to think past the throbbing that had already settled behind his eyes.  For a second, nothing really came to him, his thoughts this muddled mess.  His surroundings were significantly more understandable, so he focused on them.  This was clearly the medical ward in the Tower.  He recognized the exam room (unfortunately – this wasn’t his first time waking up here), the sleek décor with its glass walls, chrome accents, and white tile, the holographic terminals about the area, and the scanners.  The main bed where he was laying was in the middle of the room, and he was hooked up to quite a few of those scanners.  Sensors were taped to his bare chest (apparently they’d taken his uniform and under armor off) and his arms and a pair was even taped to his temples, and the screens floating behind Tony seemed to be streaming his vital signs.  What the hell?  Bright sunlight was streaming inside the windows.  A horrified thought rushed through his addled brain, the same one that often plagued him nowadays when he woke up no matter where it was or how.

When is this?

But Tony looked the same as he had that morning, same Guns N’ Roses shirt, same jeans and same spiked up brown hair.  He had a bruise on his cheek, and he look panicked, but he was the same

Thank God.  I’m supposed to be here.

“Cap?  Just sit tight.  I’m getting the others.”  Tony let go of Steve’s arm to sprint to the door, which he slid open.  Then he was calling down the hall outside.  Steve didn’t get a chance to tell him to stop, and he was still a little too disoriented to even think to do it really.  He started peeling the sensors off his chest with a wince. 

“Yeah, how about no.”  Tony was back, batting his hands away lightly.  “Not until Bruce gives his say-so.”

Steve grimaced but gave up.  He squinted at the light from the windows.  “What…”

“Aliens,” Tony repeated.  He got right in front of Steve’s face, staring worriedly in his eyes.  “Steve?  I gotta say it’s not making me feel all that great that you seem to not be following me.”

Steve forced himself to focus.  “I’m following you.”  Tony didn’t look the least bit convinced.  They knew each other so well now that Steve could tell that from simply the lines crinkled about Tony’s eyes and the tense set of his mouth in a thin line.  It was no secret that the two of them had had a rough start.  When the Avengers had formed more than a year ago, not one of the team had been particularly comfortable with any of the others.  All six of them had been as different as could be.  They had radically disparate backgrounds and personalities, past traumas contributing to conflicting points of view, contrasting strengths and weaknesses.  The part of Steve who was a trained leader and tactician knew those differences were important, but getting them all to work together as a team had been a definite challenge.

Particularly him and Tony.  Granted, Thor was loud and a tad arrogant and at times stubborn, but he was a warrior used to fighting; he knew when to defer to a leader, understood how to train, and respected the importance of strategy.  Bruce tended to avoid conflict.  He preferred to go with the flow and create as little friction as possible.  And Natasha and Clint were professional spies and assassins, so they followed the chain of command.  They were used to obeying orders from SHIELD, which wasn’t to say they weren’t smart enough to think for themselves.  On the contrary, they were sharp on the battlefield and incredible assets.  Each of the Avengers was just that, an incredible asset. 

And Tony was, perhaps, one of the most incredible.  Not only was he among the smartest men alive, he was bankrolling the entire operation at this point, lending his tech and his Tower to the team.  He was allowing the Avengers to stay in his home, going so far as to give them each a floor of their own, opening his facilities to them, and that kind of generosity was more than touching.  Unfortunately, though, despite Tony offering so much, he’d done it in a rather backhanded, not too welcoming way, especially when it came to Steve.  Steve understood it.  Aside from the whole being rejected from the Avengers Initiative for not being a team player thing, Tony hadn’t exactly had a whole lot of reason to like him.  He had some deep-seated trust issues, but more than that, during Steve’s time in the ice Howard Stark had apparently transformed from a charismatic, charming, young war hero into a man who struggled a great deal with fatherhood.  It seemed he wasn’t there for Tony much, electing to spend much of his time building Stark Industries, forming SHIELD, and searching for the lost Captain America.  Tony’s pain and rejection had morphed over the years into a whole lot of resentment.  Plus he and Steve hadn’t exactly hit it off well aboard the helicarrier that first day, what with Steve accusing Tony of not being a true hero and Tony snapping at Steve that everything special about him came from the serum.  It hadn’t been pretty.

The friction continued for weeks, well into the Avengers becoming a permanent response team rather than a one time thing.  Steve wasn’t so proud of it, but he hadn’t put much effort into smoothing things over.  Tony certainly hadn’t.  The guy was overly complex, overly sarcastic, eccentric and rich and powerful and not afraid in the least to flaunt it.  He’d been constantly testing, constantly teasing Steve about being frozen, with his endless stream of comments and nicknames and derisive pop culture references about which Steve knew nothing (who the hell was Mr. Freeze, anyway?).  Obviously the fact that Steve knew nothing, as in he was totally ignorant of seven decades of history and technology and movies and music and everything, was utterly entertaining to Tony (and the others sometimes, though they at least had tried to hide it).  Plus SHIELD was right; Tony really hadn’t been a team player.  He’d despised taking orders from Steve, so much so that he’d more often than not utterly ignored them, which had typically led to chaos and mistakes on the battlefield.  Steve had been too sore and silently upset about it all to tolerate that, so he’d been sharp with Tony, demanding and dismissive of his opinions (maybe more than he should have been sometimes), which only ramped up the tension between them more.  It had gone around and around like this, driving the rest of the team nuts, until about six months ago when he and Tony had ended up stranded alone during a mission in South America.  They’d become trapped by arms dealers trying to turn a profit on some Chitauri weapons the group had acquired from the black market, and out in the rainforest with barely any supplies and no way to call for extraction, alone and running for their very lives, no hope beyond their own trust in each other…

Well, they’d buried the hatchet.

Since then, they’d inexplicably gotten close.  Really close.  They’d become friends, best friends even, and Steve was simultaneously thrilled beyond belief and so damn shocked that their completely opposite everything could work together so well.  The whole thing had started out small, thanking each other for saving one another’s ass after the rainforest fiasco.  Then they’d begun joking more, honestly joking instead of pushing each other’s buttons.  They’d started staying together after team meetings, hanging around just to talk.  They’d stopped avoiding one another.  Soon that became actively doing things together beyond Avengers and SHIELD business, sharing a beer some nights and watching movies and playing video games and sparring (for an untrained, non-military combatant, Tony was surprisingly good in the boxing ring).  Tony’s entire demeanor changed from acidic and confrontational to caring and compassionate.  Steve didn’t quite understand why, but he wasn’t about to look a a horse in the mouth.  Having Tony be his friend was incredible, especially since he’d made it his personal duty to teach Steve everything he needed to know about the future, from those complicated but elusive pop culture references to the current political climate to the ins and outs of modern cuisine. 

And tech, of course.  Tony loved to teach him about modern mechanics and computers.  To be honest, Steve didn’t need the guidance so much now (he’d hardly needed it before, as a matter of fact – he was an extremely fast learner).  But he liked Tony teaching him a lot, liked how Tony’s eyes lit up as he lost himself in explaining things, liked how he gesticulated and babbled and became calm and relaxed.  Tony wasn’t always those things, so it was a treat seeing it.  And Steve really liked watching him work.  He liked how Tony teased now, with honest affection behind his ribbing, and Steve also liked the fact that he himself had gotten to the point where he could see and appreciate that.  He liked being with Tony, liked everything they did together now.  In fact, they’d just started restoring a bike for Steve, a Harley-Davidson Softail that Steve had bought for himself on a whim a couple weeks back.  Tony had immediately told him he could “upgrade the hell out of it”, and so it had become their little pet project down in Tony’s private garage in the Tower where Tony kept his most expensive and rare sports cars and other automotive gems.  They hung out down there and drank and laughed and designed and worked.  It was great, and Tony seemed to really enjoy it, too.

Right now he looked like he was absolutely terrified and trying vehemently to hide it.  He took Steve’s shoulder, his grip firm and insistent.  “Steve, shit, are you okay?  You’re really scaring me.”

Steve shook himself from his reverie and focused on Tony, on those worried brown eyes, on the fact that there was a chair beside his bed that had a table next to it with an energy drink can and a discarded tablet and had Tony been there this entire time?  “What–”

There was a scuffle at the door, and Steve turned to find the entire team barging in.  Bruce came first, and there was relief in his eyes.  “Oh, good.  You’re awake.”

“Yeah, but he’s totally out of it,” Tony said quickly.  “Something’s wrong.”

“No, no,” Steve declared, shaking his head.  He scanned the team quickly, Natasha and Clint still in their combat uniforms with their weapons holstered and their eyes teeming with worry, Thor without his hammer and cape but with an expectant expression on his bearded face as if any moment he might need to launch into action, and Bruce in a black shirt and gray pants with his glasses atop his head and doubt in his gaze.  They were all here and okay, and for some reason, that made the memories finally snap in place.  Aliens.  Ship crashing and other ships shooting.  Right.  “What happened with the fight?”

Natasha watched him carefully.  Once it had been difficult to see what she was thinking beneath all the masks she often wore, cold or distant or flirty, but now it was easy to determine she was just worried as hell.  “It’s over.  Whatever the attackers wanted, they either got it and left or just left without it because they took off not long after you got hit.”

Steve struggled to think.  He hadn’t… gotten hit.  The whole damn incident had been weird from the get-go.  He’d barely been back from his run that morning when the call had come in from SHIELD for the team to assemble.  Some sort of bogey had been spotted in the atmosphere, either falling or coming down for a rather hard landing, and its trajectory was taking it to right outside Orlando, Florida.  They’d headed down there, Clint flying the quinjet with Tony leading the way in Iron Man, only to find the ship had already crashed in a swampy area just north of the city.  After Clint set the jet down, they’d naturally approached with caution, since they’d had no idea what the hell they were dealing with.  The ship had taken serious damage, its smoldering, dented carcass having created a rut in the earth hundreds of feet long.   Tony had declared there were no life signs in the vessel that he could detect.  Some weird electromagnetic radiation had scattered and interfered with Iron Man’s scanners, though.  Steve had suggested they assume there could be wounded inside, aliens (aliens again – how was this his life?) who needed their help.  No one had been too pleased with that approach, but there hadn’t been much choice.  So he and Tony had taken point, trying to find their way into the weird little ship.

Just as Tony had cut open the hatch and Steve had yanked it open and ventured inside, the other aliens had arrived.  They’d come out of nowhere, just appearing in the blue skies over Orlando, and they’d very obviously come with a purpose: blowing the hell out of the ship that had crashed.  Natasha and Clint had rushed back to the quinjet, taking it airborne to engage in what had turned into an aerial firefight.  Thor had joined them, summoning lightning with Mjölnir if the loud crackling and bang over the comm had been any indication.  The Hulk had pretty firmly planted himself between the downed ship and the attackers, roaring and batting away anything that got too close.  And Iron Man had darted in and out of the strange vessel, trying to assist Steve in his search will providing more cover.  The other aliens hadn’t been messing around in the slightest, and getting whatever survivors they could find out of the crashed ship had become imperative.

So Steve had rushed around inside.  He remembered that very clearly now.  The ship had strange halls that flickered with dying power, glowing ethereally.  They’d seemed not entirely solid.  There’d been glowing symbols and cartouches everywhere, weird but shockingly pretty.  Things had been creaking and groaning ominously.  He’d run everywhere he’d could, listening to the battle chatter, trying to follow Tony’s directions about where there might be crash victims and how to avoid debris and danger, struggling to navigate this extremely odd vessel that didn’t seem to have a cockpit or any living spaces.  Tony had directed him to a large, central hall, where the other man had thought there could be something.  And there had been something: escape pods.  Steve recalled that very distinctly too, these things lining the bulkheads of the hall that had been big enough to hold an average human.  They were made of some kind of metal that vibrated and hummed under his fingers when he touched it, and he’d shouted that he’d maybe found some survivors.  There’d been a dozen in all, each with a weird window in its front, and something had been venting gas into the hall, so he’d had a hard time seeing inside but he could have sworn there’d been a person in there.  A person who’d had no skin, no hair, no real facial features, one who’d looked waiflike and almost wispy and unearthly, one that had glowed like it, too, was more energy than solid flesh and bone.  He hadn’t known if the creature was dead or alive or what, and the fight outside had sounded serious so he’d taken the edge of his shield and rammed it into the pod.

It hadn’t done any good.  Whatever this container was, it had been designed to take a beating.  The ship had shaken, though, and something smelled like fire, and Tony had ordered him to get out.  Steve had refused to, not with a dozen lives potentially trapped, and he’d searched like mad for a way to get the pods open or released from the bulkheads.  There hadn’t been any controls that he found and there hadn’t been an airlock or anything that seemed like it would open to the outside to allow the pods to exit.  Tony had kept hollering to he leave, and Steve had responded in the negative and asked for assistance, helplessly standing in the center of the cavernous hall.  After what felt like forever, Tony had declared he was coming to help.

He hadn’t made it in time, though.  That was obvious now. Steve remembered the ship taking a serious hit, and everything had tipped and quaked.  The power failed and the lights had gone out, and he’d raced to that first pod, where he’d thought he’d seen the body.  Something wailed, and the pods had all suddenly burst open, but there hadn’t been a creature inside.  All Steve had seen was blinding light bursting toward him, and then…

Then here.  Then Tony’s brown eyes, watching him still with so much worry in them.  Steve sighed.  “This wasn’t a weapon.  Those pod things weren’t trying to shoot at me or hurt me.  There were people in them.”

“So you said,” Clint commented, folding his arms over his chest.  “But when we searched the wreck after everything was over, we didn’t find anything other than you and a bunch of destroyed stuff.”

Steve shook his head.  “Really?”

“The attackers blasted the hold, you went down, but then they just took off,” Bruce said.  He was looking at the holographic monitors beside Steve’s bed.  “Like Nat said, they must have gotten what they wanted.  How’re you feeling?”

Steve was too muddled to answer that for a second.  They hadn’t found anything?  Those pods had definitely been full of something.  They’d had power, and there had been some sort of system regulating them, and he could have sworn he’d seen light…

“Cap,” Tony called.  His firm voice pulled Steve from his confusion, and Steve looked up.  Tony’s face was taut with concern.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Steve replied with an uncertain nod.  “Yeah!  I feel fine.  Bit of a headache.”

“Makes sense,” Bruce said, turning back from the monitors and his StarkPad.  “You got hit with enough of that weird EM radiation that you were emitting it yourself for a while.”  What?  Steve turned to the monitors, not that he could make sense of whatever they were displaying.  His vital signs, sure, but other measures, likely of whatever energy surge had… whammied him.  Bruce shook his head in a mixture of wonder and confusion.  “It wore off pretty fast, but it was weird as hell.  I’ve never seen an energy signature quite like this.  It…  Well, it kind of looks like what we read off of Loki’s scepter, but… not?  I don’t know.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Clint said, leaning into Steve’s hospital bed with his hip, arms still across his chest.  He more than anyone would have a problem with any and all energy like Loki’s scepter.

“It’s not the same,” Bruce clarified.  “I don’t know what it is.  But whatever it was, it’s gone.  You’re clean, and their ship’s clean, too.”

“So we still have their ship then?” Steve asked, picking at the sensor on his chest.  He peeled the tape off.

“Hey!” Bruce protested, but he didn’t do much to stop Steve.

Natasha was explaining more anyway as she watched Steve free himself from the scanners.  “SHIELD impounded it.  The remains are being transported up here for study.  The whole thing was just weird.  Aliens A crash and Aliens B come to finish the job of blowing up their ship.  We seemed to be pretty inconsequential.”

“The second group were the Kree,” Thor added.  His brow furrowed in confusion.  “Are you certain you should be doing that?”

Frankly, Steve wasn’t certain of much at this point, other than he needed to understand what the hell had happened.  He finished detaching the remainder of the wireless electrodes taped all over his arms, chest, and head before sliding off the table.  Tony was right there to catch him should he wobble, but he didn’t for more than a second.  Already he was feeling worlds better.  The splitting headache was duller, and the dizziness was abating.  “I’m fine.  Who are the Kree?”

Thor didn’t look too convinced.  “They are a warrior race, known throughout the galaxy for their technological superiority, might in battle, and expansionist policies.  They are aggressive and widely considered to be extremely dangerous.”

“Well, that makes sense since they obviously came down here just to blow up a ship that was already out of commission.” Briefly Clint pursed his lips as he thought. “Plus SHIELD’s techs are already saying the thing that crashed had no weapons.  What about the folks who owned it?”

Thor dropped his hands to his hips, shaking his head.  “The vessel I do not recognize.  Nothing of the wreckage seems familiar.  Were there bodies to examine–”

“There have to be.  I saw…”  Steve stopped himself.  What had he seen?  Honestly, as the fog cleared from his mind and he thought more and more about it, he wasn’t quite sure.  It had certainly looked like some sort of alien in that pod with a humanoid shape.  The serum had granted him an eidetic memory, so he could picture the creature’s odd face and body in what he believed was perfect detail.  Androgynous with wispy white all around it and glowing, pale skin, thin and long-limbed…  Ghost-like?  Elf-like?  He’d been exposed to enough modern fantasy and science fiction at this point to make the comparison.  Not human to be certain.  Maybe not even solid, though that didn’t seem possible.  It had been unlike anything he’d ever seen, and he’d seen a lot, particularly since becoming an Avenger.  The creature had been incredible, delicate and dreamlike.  Beautiful.

But was it possible his brain had just played a trick on him?  The whole thing had lasted not more than a moment, and that instance had been filled with chaos and venting gasses and basically the whole room threatening to come apart around him.  Plus he’d been on an alien spacecraft that seemed more energy than anything else.  Couldn’t it be that he’d just imagined finding a face through that pod’s window?  “Before the hold got hit and there was all this – this light, I saw someone in that pod,” he said again, though he could hear in his own voice how uncertain he was.  “Whoever it was… It didn’t look entirely…”  He couldn’t think of the word he wanted, and the one that came out was stupid.  “Real?”

“That’s because it wasn’t,” Tony quickly replied.

Steve grimaced at the blunt statement.  “Maybe they got out on their own?”

“Not unless they’re invisible and untraceable,” Clint replied.

“There’s no evidence that there was ever anyone aboard that ship,” Tony reaffirmed.  “That cargo hold thing took fire, and I came to help you, and all I found was you on the ground giving me a freaking heart attack – not cool by the way – and a bunch of those weird capsules.  The one closest to you was open.  The others were sealed.  But that doesn’t matter, because there was no sign of any life anywhere or even signs that there ever had been life.  SHIELD’s got people combing for DNA and organics, but JARVIS and I already scanned.  There’s nada.”

That was pretty hard to argue against.  Steve tried to piece the facts together, but he couldn’t.  The only explanation was that he’d hallucinated it.  “Look, that ship was putting out tons of those psychedelic waves.  Maybe they messed with your head.  Like a prank caller or something.  Maybe that’s why the Kree dudes were so pissed off.”  Tony shrugged.  “Somebody somewhere is laughing their ass off, probably at us.”

The whole thing made no sense.  Steve leaned back into the exam bed, still reeling with it all.  His head felt stuffed with wool, thoughts about as quick and agile as molasses.  “So that’s it then?”

“As long as you’re okay,” Tony said.  He turned to Bruce.  “Is he okay?”

Bruce tapped a few spots on the monitors (not that they had any new information to display, but he was picking through the last readings carefully).  “Looks that way.  As I said, the EM radiation I picked up from you is long gone.  No obvious signs of trauma or injury.  Your vitals are spot on.  Have been since Tony got you out of there actually.”  Steve glanced at Tony, and Tony was just watching him.  The concern in his eyes hadn’t dimmed in the slightest.  Bruce’s sigh drew his attention again.  He threw his arms up a little in helplessness.  “To be honest, Steve, I have no clue what happened to you or why you lost consciousness in the first place.”

Steve considered that a moment.  He supposed it should have been more alarming, but he actually felt pretty good now.  The residual discomfort was fading fast.  “Well, then it’s fine.  Can someone hand me my shirt?”

Clint moved to do that, grabbing the gray Lycra t-shirt Steve typically wore under his combat suit from the table where Tony had put his energy drink and his tablet.  He knelt and grabbed Steve’s discarded boots, too.  Those he handed to Natasha to give to Steve, but she seemed wary.  Her sharp eyes narrowed.  “You were unconscious for more than hour.  Nothing we did could rouse you.  Maybe you should let Bruce run some more tests.”

That sounded decidedly unappealing.  Steve had never been one to be poked and prodded (given a youth spent sick all the time and his tenure as a lab rat for the SSR).  Thankfully Bruce answered for him.  “I’m not sure that there are more tests to run.  Everything I checked came back normal.”

“Then this means – what is it you Midgardians say?  No harm, no foul.”  Thor came over to clap Steve on the back.  As was often the case with him, he used enough force to nearly topple a super soldier.  Steve winced, getting his arms into his shirt before pulling it on.  “Though you did give us a scare, fainting as you did.”

Grabbing his boots, Steve grunted in frustration.  “I didn’t faint.  And I don’t like not knowing what any of that was about.”  Or if there were really people in there.  People who died or vanished or…  He had no idea.

“Unfortunately, unless you want to invite these Kree to tea and crumpets, we’ll probably never know”, Clint said.  He tipped a shoulder toward their resident thunder god.  “Thor chucking lightning at them was probably even more of an incentive to get lost.”

“I doubt they would answer, even if you asked,” Thor declared.  “The Kree are notoriously secretive.  Though we may not understand why, it is likely that vessel posed some sort of threat to them.  Earth was simply where their pursuit happened to end.  I doubt there was anything in particular about humanity that factored into this situation.”

Steve didn’t know if that was comforting or demeaning.  “If the ship posed a threat to them, does it to us?”

“Hard to see why,” Tony replied.  “Like Clint said, the ship that crashed had no weapons.  JARVIS gave it a good once-over.”

Steve sighed, raking a hand through his hair, trying not to be aggravated at the lack of answers.  “Well, I guess we’ll have to consider the fact that no one got hurt as a success.”

“Aside from you,” Tony added, and now his voice was more teasing.  “Getting your retro brain fried.”

Just like that, the tension faded.  “Is that a technical term?” Natasha questioned, grinning slyly now.  “Hey, maybe you got lucky.  Maybe these aliens did you a favor and downloaded the last seventy years into your mind.”

“Or maybe the extra power to your head squeezed out the stick up your butt?” Tony added with a smirk.

“I can certainly vouch for the merits of getting irradiated with bad vibes,” Bruce said, and it was truly a rare day if he was joining in on the team’s favorite past time of giving each other shit.  Relief might do that, bring out a man’s latent snarky side.  “It’s a blast.”

“This isn’t Cap’s first rodeo, though.” Tony’s smile couldn’t have been more shit-eating.  “Maybe you’ll get some new abilities, ones cooler than punching and kicking and being, you know, all Spangly.”

“Like super duper mind powers!” Clint teased.  He wiggled his fingers at Steve.  “Oooo.”

“Hardy har,” Steve grumbled.  He didn’t bother with his socks, jamming his bare feet into his boots.  “So now what?  SHIELD’s got the wreck.”

Clint quit with his antics in a huff.  “Yeah.  They’ve closed off the area where the crash is.  Fury’s made sure the satellite and defensive networks on high alert, just in case these yahoos come back for more playtime.  In the mean time, every scientist at SHIELD is vying to get access to the ship.  I mean, maybe we don’t know shit about what it is or why it was here, but it’ll be like Christmas to the nerds.  But Nerdo Supreme and his side-dork here seem to have claimed first dibs.”  Clint tipped his head toward Bruce and Tony.  “And I’ll let you two duke it out to see who’s who.”

“See, side-dork, I told you being an Avenger has its perks,” Tony said, nudging Bruce in the ribs.  “Like getting our hands on some juicy alien tech.  I really want to know what caused all that cool EM stuff.”

“I sense science babble,” Natasha said, rolling her eyes.  She gave Steve a little nudge with her hip as Steve finished getting his boots on.  “Fury’s waiting on a debrief.  If you’re feeling up to that?”

Of course he was.  “Not a problem.  So I’m all set then?”  He wasn’t sure he needed permission to go, but for some reason he wanted it.  Obviously him going down had shaken everyone, not just Tony.  They were all overcompensating to hide it.  It was weird, since he really had no memory of anything aside from trying to look inside the pods and calling Tony for help.  Maybe a little validation and assurance would put this to rest.

Bruce smiled fondly, probably seeing that, too.  “I guess take it easy, but yeah.  You’re good.  Come back if you get, well, wonky.”  That had the others laughing and Steve sighing and shaking his head.  He grabbed his shield where someone had put it in another chair by the door and strolled out of the exam room, grinning to himself before Natasha could catch him.


Later that day, Steve headed down to Tony’s private garage.  It was adjacent to the Tower’s main garage, where its many employees, the Avengers themselves, and sometimes SHIELD vehicles parked for their daily comings and goings.  There was nothing special about the huge, underground space, a cement well at the base of the building that just served its purpose.

Tony’s garage, though, was something else entirely.  It was only accessible through a secure, private elevator, and the only way to get into said elevator was with JARVIS’ permission.  It still blew Steve’s mind sometimes that he could waltz right into the special lift and have JARVIS take him down the one floor without even asking (well, to be fair, he’d asked JARVIS right before this where Tony was, and JARVIS had answered him, and this was how close he and Tony were now, that Steve got in to Tony’s most secluded places just like that).  The doors on the elevator opened, and Steve could waltz right out.

Which he did.  This place wasn’t huge compared the main garage, and despite being another cement hole under a massive Tower, it somehow felt inviting.  The lighting was bright, not glaring but warmer than one would expect of what was essentially a glorified man cave.  Tony’s personal car collection was lined up on either side of the long space.  Steve didn’t count himself particularly well-versed in automobiles, especially in this day and age, but he appreciated beauty when he saw it, and Tony’s collection was certainly that.  Tony had it all, from rare vintage cars that had been restored to their glory (the Shelby Cobra was the highlight of that bunch, its eye-catching shape and gorgeous exterior like liquid silver and blue, but the 1964 Ferrari Speciale and the couple Mercedes-Benzs, some Steve even recognized from his time, were pretty spectacular, too) to modern day speedsters (the Lamborghini Veneno and the Bugatti Veyron that looked like a silver bullet and Aston Martin Vulcan).  There was probably a billion dollars of automotive glamor in this garage, and Steve always felt utterly awed by it.

And then, at the end of the vintage side, was his bike.  It was small beans in comparison, but Tony was treating it like the greatest prize of them all.  He was there now, Steve saw as he walked down the lines of gleaming hoods.  Tony was laying on the mats they’d spread around the Softail, partially under the bike as he worked on the engine.  Steve was about to call to him when he spotted something beside Tony’s workbench.  It was pretty hard to miss.  “Wow.  When did you get this?”

Tony peeked out from under the bike’s engine.  He grinned.  “You like?”

What wasn’t there to like?  The car in front of him was utterly gorgeous.  It was sleek, perhaps not as uniquely, futuristically, or innovatively designed as some of Tony’s other acquisitions, but that didn’t detract from it at all.  In fact, its simplicity was incredibly alluring, its aerodynamic hood curved elegantly down towards its gleaming headlights and metallic grill.  The car’s iconic emblem was there.  A white racing stripe led back up the hood, crisp and brilliant against the car’s Navy blue, and the windshield was a flawless spread of glass.  The car was a two-door with an open-top, convertible configuration.  It radiated quiet, unquestioned power.  Steve stepped to it, feeling himself smile in appreciation.  “Holy hell…  Of course I like it.”

Tony stood up, wiping the engine grease off his fingers onto one of the rags.  “I like it when I render you speechless.”

“Doesn’t happen too often.”  Carefully Steve set a hand to the car’s door.  Even getting fingerprints on this seemed sacrilegious.  “This is…”

“The Ferrari F60 America,” Tony announced.  “Seven hundred forty horsepower, twelve cylinder engine with 690 torque, 6000 rev at max torque.   Two hundred five miles per hour, zero to sixty in 3.1 seconds, although I think I can get that higher with a few modifications.”  He smirked.

Steve shook his head, still utterly astonished by the car.  “This does not need any modifications.”

Tony practically beamed.  “Leather interior,” he went on, setting his hand to the passenger’s headrest, “with this completely unnecessary yet totally rad different coloration for the driver’s side and the passenger’s side.”  That was true.  The driver’s seat was red with the actual American flag as a stripe in its center, tasteful but obvious.  The passenger’s side was silver with the same design.  “Carbon fiber paneling.  Kickass sound system, special order for me.”

Steve looked up.  “For you?”

“You can’t get this car yet.  Like, nobody can get it.”  Smug did not quite describe the look on Tony’s face.  “It’s not due for official release until next year.”

“And when did you get it?  This wasn’t here last night.”

“Eh.  Santa came early this year.  Christmas in July?”  Tony grimaced and hesitated a second.  It was weird but fleeting. “Actually came a little later than I was planning.  Figured, you know, with the Fourth and all…  Patriotism for the win?”

The Fourth (and Steve’s birthday) had been last week.  It had been a quiet affair, Steve’s second out of the ice.  Tony had wanted to do something extravagant, but Steve had said no, and they’d settled on a small barbecue in at the top of the Tower.  It had been just the team and a couple others.  Thor’s girlfriend, Jane Foster, and her research team.  Tony’s friend Rhodes (who Steve really liked; the guy was down to earth, a military man, so they had a lot in common).  Pepper (who Steve also really liked and who didn’t seem to be dating Tony anymore?  Not that Steve really knew for certain, and he wasn’t going to ask.  Despite how close he and Tony had become, some things just seemed off limits.  He was sure Tony would speak about it if he wanted to).  After the dinner, there’d been a birthday cake loaded with 95 candles (which was all kinds of ridiculous – he was only 28) and fireworks (paid for by Tony, Steve found out).  Long after the display had ended and most of the party had dissolved, he’d sat with Tony on the landing pad of the Tower, each nursing a beer and watching the night sky, just joking and chatting.  Tony had dozed off with his head on Steve’s shoulder at the very end.

To be honest, that had been the nicest part of a really, really nice evening.

The sound of a car door opening drew him from the memory.  Tony’s eyes were nothing but mischievous.  “You wanna hear it?”

Steve quirked an eyebrow.  “What do you think?”

Tony opened the driver’s door even further.  “Then get over here.”

That invitation didn’t make much sense.  Steve glanced at the empty driver’s seat.  “You want me to…  No, Tony, it’s your car.”

“It is,” Tony agreed, though something about that seemed a little off, “which means I get to decide who can play around with it first.  So come on.  You’ve had kind of a shitty day.”

That soured Steve’s mood.  Just a little.  He still strolled pretty quickly around the hood of the Ferrari.  “I’m fine,” he insisted.  “Nothing happened.”

Tony stopped him at the driver’s side.  The good cheer had disappeared from his face.  It wasn’t terribly obvious; Tony hid so much behind his smarts and sarcasm.  But, again, Steve knew him too well now not to see it.  “Next time I tell you to get out of there, you get out of there.”

That was a tad bit laughable.  And not possible.  Maybe Steve could have flaunted the fact he was the team captain to remind Tony that his decisions stood out on the battlefield.  But that was bullshit, and Steve wasn’t that much of an ass.  Months ago, perhaps, but not now.  “I couldn’t walk away without knowing the ship was empty,” he said instead.  “That’s why we were there.  Search and rescue.”

“There wasn’t anything or anyone to rescue,” Tony argued.

“Yeah, but we didn’t know that until after the fact.  That radiation or whatever it was jammed up JARVIS, didn’t it?”  Tony clenched his jaw, like he was loath to admit the truth.  “The Avengers are a response team.  We’re the first ones in and the last ones out.  And getting innocent people to safety is always the number one priority.”

“I know that, and I know there are risks.  But if there never was anyone on board that ship, you were in danger for no good reason.”

“I’m not sure I was in danger at all.”  Tony scowled at him.  Steve sighed, realizing that was a pretty crappy thing to say.  “Look, we’re never going to know in a situation like that.  It comes with the territory.  Part of being a–”

“Don’t say soldier.”  Tony’s voice wasn’t sharp, per se, but it was firm.  They’d argued about this a lot, about the divisions between being a soldier and being an Avenger.  Tony was not one for blindly following orders (or following them at all).  He didn’t care to be “a whipping boy” for Fury or SHIELD or the government, and he abhorred the idea that one – or more – of  the Avengers could be killed at any time on the command of someone else.  He came from a world of fixing things, of making things the way he thought they should be, so his answer to any problem was gaming the situation to make sure it never got that far.  Cutting the wire, as he’d put it on the helicarrier, typically with incredible tech.  He didn’t like to consider there ever being circumstances that he couldn’t outwit or control.

Steve knew that wasn’t always possible.  He’d come from a world where a lot of times you were forced to make do with what you had, where there weren’t always options.  Where there was war and tough decisions and friends you saw one day and lost the next just like that.  Where planting yourself between innocents and evil was sometimes the only choice.  That was why he’d crashed the plane into the ice, why he’d sacrificed his life.  That was also why Tony had flown that nuke into the portal last year when the Chitauri had nearly destroyed New York.  Sometimes in war, in battle, in life, there was no choice but to risk everything and maybe lose everything.

It was a sensitive subject, the only one that consistently irked them both.  When they argued now, really argued, it was always about this.  Tony couldn’t handle the inevitability, and Steve couldn’t ignore that there were times that the inevitability outweighed everything else.  He didn’t want to now, so he just sighed softly.  “It’s part of who we are.  I can’t just turn my back when I don’t know for sure the job’s done or there aren’t lives on the line.  I can’t do that.”

Tony stared at him a moment more, brown eyes piercing, before dropping his gaze.  He exhaled slowly.  “I know.  I just…  I hate that this.  You know that.  You really did scare the crap out of me today, and not just me.  The whole team lost its collective shit.  God, Cap, I got in there after everything was blown up and you were on the ground and I thought…”

Whatever irritation Steve felt vanished instantly.  “I am fine, Tony.  Really.  Been feeling fine all day.  Everything’s good.”  Tony knew that.  Of course, he did.  And it was true.  Steve had felt one hundred percent normal since he’d regained consciousness.  There was no residual effects of… whatever had happened to him (if something had happened to him at all – he was still thinking that even if he wouldn’t say it again).  He’d taken radiation hits before, both during the war and during some of the Avengers’ missions, and nothing had ever come of them.  The serum was designed to handle that sort of stuff, to render him immune as a super soldier.  So everything was fine. 

But he felt the need to keep belaboring the point, probably because Tony looked not one iota more convinced.  “Listen, I worked all day at SHIELD surrounded by agents.  Plus Nat was watching me all the time.  You think she would have let me ignore something wrong?”  Tony grunted, trying to be dismissive but failing.  “Plus Fury insisted their docs look me over, like Bruce’s assessment wasn’t enough.  Unsurprisingly they found nothing.”  That had been a total pain in the ass and a complete waste of time.  “Plus I trained a whole class of recruits after lunch.  Plus I talked shop with Hill and Sitwell for hours, which is always a great time.  And I put up with Fury all day.”

“And how is the One-Eyed Wonder?”  That question seemed more perfunctory than anything else.  It was obvious Tony wasn’t too pleased with SHIELD right now.

Steve sighed.  “He’s fine.  Mad that we can’t figure out what this attack today was all about.  He wants you and Bruce on examining that ship right away.”

“Yeah, that’s nice,” Tony grumbled.

They didn’t speak for a moment.  Truth be told, Steve was beginning to feel pretty lousy now, not because anything was wrong with him physically but because Tony seemed so upset about it all.  That seemed unusual, but then it was occurring to Steve that this had really been the first time he’d been “seriously” hurt (at least badly enough to end up in medical) since they’d made peace between them.  Lord knew if something like this had happened to Tony…  He didn’t want to think about it.  “Really, Tony.  I’m completely okay.”

Tony heaved another sigh.  He shook his head.  “Just… next time–”

“I know,” Steve interrupted.  “Don’t get myself stuck in an alien ship with a bunch of radioactive sci-fi pod things with other aliens shooting at it.  I won’t.”  He raised his hand in a jaunty salute.  “Scout’s honor.  Now can we play with your new toy?”

That was finally enough to mollify Tony.  He grinned again, dropping his gaze to the car.  There was still something off by the way he looked, rueful and maybe even sad though it didn’t seem like he was maudlin over that day’s events anymore.  “Yeah…  It’s your birthday so I buy myself a three million dollar car.”

Steve dropped his hand where he was reaching for the driver’s door.  “Three…”

Just like that, this strange moment ended as Tony rolled his eyes and pulled the car door the rest of the way open.  “Get in, you old timer.”  Then he went around the back of the Ferrari to launch himself into the passenger’s side, like this wasn’t the most expensive car Steve had ever seen.  It took Steve a moment more – I can’t sit in a three million dollar car! – before he drummed up the courage to actually get in.

Settling into the driver’s seat felt like a bit like sliding against smooth silk.  The leather was as soft as a baby’s cheek.  Steve closed the door before relaxing more in the seat.  He gripped the leather-enclosed steering wheel ahead of him.  “Oh, this is nice.”

Tony was beside him.  “Yeah?”

“Oh, yeah,” Steve said appreciatively.  He’d never been one for all that macho nonsense about equating race cars with power and speed and masculinity.  Hell, he’d never been one for cars at all.  He’d only learned to drive in the war; Bucky’s family had been well enough off to own a car, and once Buck’s pa had let the two of them putter around in the street outside their brownstone, but he hadn’t really ever handled a car with any purpose until shipping over to Europe.  Even then he’d always preferred motorcycles.

But he could definitely see the appeal of this.  The sheer presence of the Ferrari aside, his artist’s eye caught the exquisiteness, the thought put into the design, the knobs and dials of the dashboard, the time and attention to detail, the craftsmanship.  That, honestly, reminded him of Tony and Iron Man, of all of the inventions he’d lovingly built.  Tony in his workshop, in the thick of designing with that glint he got in his eyes and how his hands seemed so perfect and precise.  “It’s a thing of beauty.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”  He turned to Tony and found the other man watching him.  Tony seemed to blush, and he looked away.  Steve did, too.  Despite all the time they’d spent together, something about this felt suddenly intimate.  Steve’s heart beat faster, and this feeling settled in his stomach, tense and fluttery, and he didn’t quite know what to make of it.

The strange moment ended as suddenly as it had come.  “Well, start it up, Cap,” Tony said.

Steve reached to where the keys were already in the ignition.  They were as sleek and fancy as the car.  Turning the engine over had it immediately blasting to life.  It was raw and powerful and – Steve couldn’t believe he was actually thinking this – sexy.  Once the initial roar had subsided, the car settled into an uneasy purring, crackling with unspent energy.  Steve could feel its vibrations through the steering wheel and the seat, feel it humming contentedly.  “God bless America?” he breathed, unable to keep a huge grin from his face.

Tony laughed.  “Technically God bless the Italians but whatever.  Want to take it for a spin?”

That seemed even more impossible.  This car was too expensive, and the odometer said it literally had zero miles on it.  “I don’t know, Tony.”

“Live a little, Rogers.  Come on.”

Steve considered it.  It would be ridiculously fun to drive this.  Of course, the competitive side of him didn’t want to admit to Tony that he was somewhat concerned that this was too much car for him.  Somewhat.  He’d never driven anything like this, and he was sure he could figure it out, but…  He revved the engine once.  Twice.  The sound the Ferrari made was like a primal growl, one that reverberated gloriously through Steve’s chest as much as it did through the garage.  “Wow,” he breathed.

Beside him, Tony winked.  “Think you can handle it?”

That was a playful taunt, one Steve really couldn’t ignore considering he’d just told himself that maybe he couldn’t.  He smirked and gripped the wheel with his left hand and dropped his right to shift the car into drive.  Then he stopped, though, because a peculiar thing happened.  He touched Tony’s hand instead.  Tony must have been holding the gear shift, and the second Steve’s palm brushed his knuckles–

God, he looks good like this.

Steve pulled away.  That was weird.  Not so much that he’d think that, because he did sometimes, particularly about Tony.  A lot, actually, about Tony.  He’d never had any sort of problem with finding another man attractive; he’d known for a long time that the same beauty he’d recognized as so alluring in Peggy he could see in Tony as well.  So, yeah, objectively (and not so objectively) Tony looked good.  Tony looked damn good right now, a little dirty from working on the Harley, sun-kissed skin just a tad sweaty, simple clothes rumpled and thick hair messy and face alight with affection.  That Cheshire-cat grin he had was so beautiful and so uniquely his.  He was definitely amazing like this.

What was weird, though, was the fact that…  Steve didn’t think he’d thought that.  Not right now.  He hadn’t even been looking at Tony, hadn’t been thinking about Tony at all, and this sudden thing had blasted through his brain, and it didn’t seem right.  It was crazy, impossible, but…

It didn’t feel like that was his thought, even if it was something that he had thought before and would definitely think.

The odd second left as quickly has it had come.  In fact, the disconcerting feeling vanished the second Steve stopped touching Tony.  Now he was staring at Tony, who had been looking at him this entire time, and things weren’t the same, which was totally strange because they obviously were exactly the same.

Tony frowned.  “What?”

Steve shook his head.  “Nothing.”  He sighed and turned the car off.  “Maybe a raincheck for this?  I actually came down to get you for dinner.”  He glanced at his friend, running his hand slowly over the Ferrari’s steering wheel.  “And got distracted obviously.”

“Beautiful things tend to do that,” Tony added, and there was a tone to his voice that was… not exactly rueful but wistful.  This was weird, too, because he had to be talking about the car.  “You’re a wuss, by the way.”

Steve snorted and opened the Ferrari’s door to get out.  Tony did the same, and the car doors closing echoed loudly in the cavernous garage.  He gave Tony a little shove away and in direction of the elevators.  “And you’re a jackass, so it’s all good.  Now let’s go eat.”


The next morning, Steve wandered into the communal kitchen in search of coffee.  Caffeine didn’t do anything for him thanks to the serum and his heightened metabolism, but there was a definite mental association between the beverage and energy that still seemed to have power.  It was only a placebo effect, but he’d frankly take that over nothing this morning, because he’d slept like hell the night before.

Of course Natasha and Clint were there already.  Natasha looked up from the breakfast bar the second Steve walked in.  “You look tired.”

Steve ran a hand through his hair.  He’d thought he’d done a better job hiding his sleepless night.  He’d gone for a run, showered, and shaved, and dressed in jeans and a simple heather gray t-shirt. He’d thought he looked passable.

But Natasha was too astute for that.  She frowned. “Did you sleep okay?”

Sighing, Steve headed toward the coffee machine.  There was probably no sense in lying.  “Not really, no.”  He could practically feel the two master assassins, who were thick as thieves, sharing a concerned look.  “And before you guys get all worked up, I feel fine.  This isn’t anything.  I just…”  He poured his coffee into his new mug, the one Tony had bought him for his birthday that said “OLD TIMER” on it.  “I couldn’t shut my mind off, I guess.”

To be fair, that wasn’t his normal cause for insomnia.  Usually it was nightmares, particularly of crashing the plane and freezing afterward but sometimes of the war, too, and the Battle of New York.  There were also plenty of nights he couldn’t get his body to settle; the serum made him require so much less sleep than an average person so he was rarely tired.  Exercising for hours was at times the only way he could wear himself out.

But this hadn’t been that.  He’d been surprisingly tired after yesterday’s weirdness, but he just hadn’t been able to get his brain to stop.  And it wasn’t any particular thing that had bothered him.  He knew he could brood and dwell and get anxious; he tried to contain those things and limit their impact on everyone else (and himself as much as possible).  However, he hadn’t been all that troubled.  No, he’d just laid there in his bed, restless, mind really racing for no reason.  He couldn’t say now what he’d been thinking about; it had been this sort of random stream of consciousness, his brain flitting from one thought to another to another.  The car down in the garage.  Tony.  The weird glowing aliens and their crashed ship.  The other night when Clint had been telling him about the merits of Star Wars over Star Trek.  The fact that the adhesive from the sensors Bruce had put on him made his skin a little itchy.  Thor’s promise to spar with him that he’d made the night before the ship had crashed.  The news stories from the paper last week.  And Natasha talking about a mission Fury wanted her to take in the Czech Republic, though Steve couldn’t recall when exactly she’d told him about that.

Not that it mattered because he’d never managed to think about any one thing too long before his mind was off on something else. The whole night had been like that, just plain weird, not uncomfortable per se but mildly disturbing. The serum afforded him great control over his mind and body alike, and he was used to being able to focus. Instead he’d been utterly anchorless, drifting all night with no way to shore other than the sun coming up and him completely throwing in the towel on sleep.

Natasha was still watching him worriedly.  “I feel fine,” he insisted, but his voice didn’t sound as sure as he wanted even though he did feel fine.  He came over to the breakfast bar and sat down across from the two SHIELD agents.  Then he sipped his coffee just to do something.  It was scalding hot, so it burned, and they were still staring at him.  “Don’t.”

Clint was the first to break the tension.  “Alright, fearless leader,” he quipped, and he stood and went to get a doughnut.  “No need to tell us all about your new brain powers.”  He waved his hands again like a goofball, like some kind of drugged out wizard or something, and Steve rolled his eyes.  He reached over and snatched the doughnut from the archer’s fingers before he could take a bite out of it.  “Hey, next time use your telekinesis.  Come on.”

“Shut it, Barton,” Steve said, eating the doughnut himself.  He didn’t realize it was filled cream, and the sticky white stuff basically exploded out of the pastry all over his chin and hand.  “Ugh.”

Clint laughed at him.  “Haha.  That’s what you get when you steal a man’s doughnut.”  He picked another from the platter and shoved nearly the whole thing into his mouth.

“You two are like man babies,” Natasha said.  She rolled her eyes and leaned closer to Steve, lifting a napkin to wipe the mess off him.  She touched his shoulder and–

why did I pick this one so freaking uncomfortable

An image flashed across Steve’s mind of white lace, of an elastic strap, of a cup of some sort?  What?  And it felt like something was digging into the side of his chest, poking and annoying, and that strap was too tight, and–

Natasha leaned over him to wipe the napkin over his sticky face, and he could see down her shirt, down to her breasts, and she was wearing a white lace bra.

Steve went stiff.  He looked away, horrified and reeling.  What the hell?

Natasha noticed, of course.  She’d notice if she was on the other side of the room with her nose buried in a book, so something literally right in front of her was not going to escape her scrutiny.  She smirked, as flirty as ever.  “Rogers…  Were you just looking down my shirt?”

Steve felt his cheeks absolutely burn.  Shame and disgust didn’t begin to describe what he was feeling.  “Sorry!” he gasped.  Sitting still was utterly impossible, so he stood and reached for a napkin on his own and rapidly wiped at his face and gooey hand.  “Sorry, sorry – sorry, I, uh, I gotta go.”  Before he even knew what he was doing, he was bolting from the common room, probably leaving Clint and Natasha completely confused but he absolutely had to get out of there.

It was pretty shocking he made it to the bathroom down the hall because all rational thought had pretty much abandoned him.  He found himself leaning into the vanity, staring at his own wide eyes and petrified face, just breathing hard as his brain skittered without traction.  That…  He closed his eyes and dropped his head, gripping the counter harder and harder.  It wasn’t possible, but he couldn’t deny what had just happened.  What he’d just experienced.  What had just been in his head.

That had been Natasha’s thought.

Which made absolutely no sense, but it had most definitely been real.  He hadn’t imagined that.  He wouldn’t have known what to imagine, wouldn’t have had any context for picturing that or feeling that or thinking what she had thought.  He wouldn’t have had any cause to.  It was like this random, errant piece of inner monologue had just spilled into his head from her.

That’s not possible.

Shaking, Steve turned on the water and dunked his hands under the cool flow from the faucet.  He splashed his face a couple times, like that could wash away what had just happened (or make it make a lick of sense).  Then he grabbed for a paper towel from the basket by the edge of the granite countertop.  You’re just tired.  He started telling himself that.  You didn’t sleep.  You’re hallucinating.  Or something.  Never mind that he had gone through many occasions in the past where he’d stayed awake for days on end for a mission.  Never mind that he’d been exhausted plenty of times before and had never experienced something like this.  That has to be it.  You’re really tired, and your brain’s playing tricks on you.

“Ah, good morning, Steven!”

Steve jerked and turned.  He’d forgotten this was a communal bathroom, a super swanky one befitting Stark Tower, but communal nonetheless.  Thor was coming out of a stall.  The demigod was dressed in sweats and a t-shirt that said “NEW MEXICO” on it that basically did nothing to hide how huge he was.  “Are you well?” he asked.

Steve drew a deeper breath.  “Yeah!  Yeah, I’m fine.”

Thor seemed to take that at face value.  “Good!”  He clapped Steve on the shoulder.  Yet again the force of it nearly had Steve staggering, but more than that, this feeling of complete hunger assailed him.  It was overpowering, like this pit in his stomach, and he wasn’t hungry.

But Thor was.  “Is there breakfast?  I do hope the others ordered some.”

This image of eggs, of bacon, of freaking pop tarts flashed through Steve’s mind.  The blue box and the white lettering and the picture of confectionary breakfast treat on the cover…  How deliciously awesome they were.  So good.

Steve didn’t even like pop tarts.

“Yeah!” he managed, stepping to the side so that Thor would stop touching him.  Thor did, and he didn’t seem any the wiser that his private thoughts had just ended up in Steve’s head.

He did seem concerned, though.  “Are you certain you are alright?  You look… harried.”

That was an apt description of how Steve felt, too.  “Yeah,” he gasped.  “Yeah, I just…  I have to…”  He didn’t finish, because his brain had already checked out, and his body was already moving.  He rushed out the door and ran down the hallway toward the elevators.  He had no idea where he was going or what he was doing or what the hell was happening.  He just wanted out.  He’d never been one to suffer from claustrophobia, but right now it felt like the walls were closing in and he had to escape.  Once he reached the elevator, he jabbed his thumb into the sleek plate beside the closed doors to summon the lift.  The couple of seconds he had to spend waiting were too torturous, and he couldn’t stand keeping still, so he rushed to the fire escape stairs. 

“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS called quizzically, “where are you going?  Are you well?”

Steve didn’t answer.  He burst through the doors and raced down the stairs.  It was a damn good thing he had such amazing control over his own body because he was going really fast and the steps were concrete and steep and he could have fallen because his brain was still horrendously offline.  He got all the way down to the ground floor in record time, slamming into the exit doors there with too much force and racing into the crowded lobby.  It was a work day.  People were staring.  They’d notice.

But he couldn’t stop.  A breath later he was on the street outside the Tower.  The summer day was already hot, and the sun was bright.  He was so discombobulated he plowed right into someone.  Horrified, he opened his mouth to apologize, but the words died in his throat because the woman’s thoughts rushed through his head–

–goddamn it what an asshole wait is that Captain America–

–and he was running down the street, damn well panicking.  This was the morning commute, and the sidewalks were teeming with folks on their way to work.  Weaving through the thick crowds without touching anyone was incredibly difficult.  Hundreds of men and women were moving about, generally paying attention to their own business, and he knew he was making a scene, but he was scared – damn it – and this was...

This was a serious mistake.

“Watch it!” someone shouted, and Steve turned just in time to avoid getting run over by a guy on a bike.  The guy got close, close enough that Steve’s arm brushed his, and there it came again.

bullshit!  I’m late I’m late I’m late–

The contact was hardly anything, but the frustration and impatience battering Steve felt astronomical.  He flinched and backed away from the street corner where he’d stopped, even though the guy on the bike was long gone.  What’s happening to me...  He turned around, scared and overwhelmed.  Grand Central Terminal was right ahead.  He’d run farther than he’d realized in his disorientation.  People were coming and going across the bridge to the entrance, huge crowds of them.  The city was still rebuilding here after the Battle of New York, even a year later.  This had been one of the heaviest hit areas during the invasion, so the scars were still visible.  There was so much noise everywhere.  The serum had heightened his senses, and sometimes it was hard to ignore irrelevant information, but this felt like a complete barrage.

What’s happening to me?

“You alright, son?” someone else asked, and he opened eyes he’d squeezed shut to find a nice older lady looking at him with concern in her eyes.  She grasped his forearm in a friendly show of compassion and–

–he looks just like David used to–

Steve could barely think to speak.  “Fine,” he stammered, pulling away just to get her thoughts out of his head.  The force of them, even as innocent and almost fond as they were, went away the second she let go of him.  “I’m just… lost.”  That was one way of putting it.

The lady smiled and tried to take his hand again, which made sense and normally would have been okay, but he pulled away before she could.  Immediately he felt terrible, but letting her touch him was so distressing that he couldn’t allow it.  She frowned.  “Well, the train station’s right there, young man.  Is there anyone I can call–”

“Steve!”

Steve ripped around to find Tony running toward him.  The inventor just left his Audi running on the cross-street, and anyone could have probably stolen it, but he obviously didn’t care, too worried about Steve to be at all concerned with losing a car.  Which was insane.

But no crazier than anything else going on right now.  Tony reached him, shaking his head.  “What the hell are you doing?” he demanded, and he reached for Steve’s arm.

Steve yanked away and stepped back.  “I don’t think you should touch me.”

Tony squinted.  He wasn’t even wearing his usual sunglasses, probably because he’d come here in a panic.  “Why not?  Are you alright?  JARVIS said you bolted out of the Tower all the sudden.”

Steve’s mouth just dropped open uselessly.  God, how could he even explain this?  He didn’t understand it himself.  It was completely impossible.  He couldn’t be thinking other people’s thoughts.  He couldn’t have others’ consciousness in his own head.  He just couldn’t.   This was a nightmare, a bad dream, something that wasn’t real.  Maybe he was still asleep back at the Tower.  Maybe he’d never woken up yesterday after he’d been blasted with…

The radiation.

“Something’s wrong with me,” he gasped.  Saying that hurt.  It was akin to admitting he’d been wrong all along, bullshitting himself because he’d never been okay.  He swallowed a rock in his throat.  “Something really bad.”

Tony’s worry went from serious to unbelievably intense in the blink of an eye.  It wasn’t all that obvious, but Steve could see it in the tightening of his frown and the way his gaze widened with alarm and how his muscles went taut beneath his t-shirt.  “Well, shit,” he breathed.  He stepped closer.

Steve forced himself to stay put.  The crowds were shifting around them, dense and barely giving them any space.  People were really noticing them now, and why wouldn’t they?  Two of the Avengers – of the most famous Avengers – were standing in the middle of the entrance to Grand Central Station during rush hour, and both of them looked totally horrified.  Even the nice older woman who’d stopped Steve before seemed scared, caught between going on in her business and lingering to make sure they would be alright.

Like this was that simple.  Steve exhaled shakily.  “Just don’t touch me, alright?  Don’t.”

“I won’t,” Tony promised, even though it was more than obvious that he had no idea what was going on.  “But let’s get you in the car.  Get you back home so we can figure it out.”

That seemed totally logical, but it still took Steve’s overwhelmed brain to realize it was pretty much the only choice.  He deflated in surrender and took a step toward Tony.

Right then someone decided to dart between them, and the passerby’s shoulder smacked into Steve’s as Steve walked forward.  The image arced into Steve’s mind like lightning.  It was immediately recognizable.  AR-15.  The gun was loaded, cleaned, well-loved, and ready to be used.  Steve could sense coarse fabric around it.  Backpack.  There were other weapons with it, an inventory of semi-automatics nestled in the bottom of the bag.  Horrified, he turned and saw the guy who’d knocked him walking quickly away with a huge rucksack on his back.  It was barely big enough to contain the rifle, because an AR-15 was a huge, powerful gun.  A powerful gun that could slaughter dozens in a matter of seconds.

This guy was going to shoot up the train station.

Steve knew that, because he knew exactly what it was he’d saw, because he knew exactly what it was that guy had been thinking.  It hadn’t been anything so specific, just a mesh of very determined, very angry, very nervous emotions.  The guy had been picturing a spot on the higher level of the main hall.  From there, he could cause a slaughter.

So Steve didn’t hesitate.  The would-be murderer was barely past him, and Steve whirled, reaching for him.  He grabbed the guy’s backpack and yanked it back.  The man hadn’t been anticipating the attack, and between Steve’s strength and his surprise he had no chance to hang onto it.  The strap across his chest just snapped as Steve pulled.  “Here!” Steve cried, tossing the pack to a flabbergasted Tony.

“What the hell are you doing?” Tony cried, nearly stumbling as the backpack slammed into him.

Steve didn’t answer.  He had a grip on the attacker, so he saw it as the man thought it.  Knife.  Boot.  Hostage.  The guy glanced at the nice older lady, who was screaming to the side and the closest target.  Steve could feel his intent instantly, and he moved fast, getting himself in between the lady and her assailant.  It didn’t take much to shut the guy down.  He was just an average young man, and Steve was a super soldier.  One punch across the jaw dropped him.

Around them people were running, screaming.  The old lady was pale and teary-eyed, glaring at Steve for what had probably appeared to be an unprovoked attack.  The police stationed at Grand Central were coming.  Someone was already trying to tend to the unconscious man at Steve’s feet.  And for one second, Steve wondered if he hadn’t made a terrible mistake.

But he hadn’t.  “Holy shit,” Tony breathed as he pulled the gun from the rucksack.  It was exactly what Steve had seen: a huge AR-15, loaded and ready and able to massacre innocents.  Horrified, Tony ejected the magazine before carefully emptying the rest of the bag.  All the handguns came out, as well as a few grenades.  “Jesus.”  Tony looked up from the weapons stash, from the disaster that would have been unleashed had this man reached Grand Central.  He shook his head, pale and still so wide-eyed.  “How the hell did you know?”

Steve shifted his gaze from Tony to the crowd of on-lookers, all of whom were shocked and astonished.  Everyone, including the people trying to help the would-be shooter, backed away from him.  They were watching him with utter reverence.  He felt exposed, shaken to his core, so he looked back to Tony, found solace in Tony’s brown eyes.  “Tony, something’s really wrong,” he said again.

Tony left the guns to the cops and came closer.  Immediately he made to touch Steve, hug him or comfort him somehow, but he caught himself before he did.  “Let’s go now.


Back in the Tower’s medical ward, Steve sat on an exam bed.  Again he was shirtless, and again he had sensors taped all over his arms, chest, and forehead.  He was staring at the monitors around him, squinting at what they were trying to tell him because he couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  This was insane.  Completely, utterly, absolutely, certifiably insane.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Tony said from where he stood next to the bed (but not touching Steve – no one was touching him now).  He shook his head, looking as confused and alarmed as Steve felt.  “So let me get this straight.  Yesterday you said that Steve was fine, and whatever took him down in that alien ship didn’t do anything to him.  Yesterday you said nothing was wrong.”

Bruce sighed irately.  Frankly, Steve didn’t blame him.  He’d told them all multiple times that he wasn’t “that kind of doctor”, not medical or psychological.  Yet the well-being of the team so often fell to him, the most qualified of them (by far) to manage it but also the most convenient.  The team got hurt a lot, and they tended to close ranks when they did because none of them could exactly risk treatment anywhere but SHIELD (and most of them didn’t trust SHIELD), which left Bruce, who rarely was injured thanks to the Hulk, in the position of rendering a diagnosis and prognosis.

Right now he looked like he had neither.  “Yesterday nothing was wrong, Tony.  I don’t know what to say.”

Natasha stepped closer to the holographic display, eyes narrowed as she looked over the data from the tests they’d completed a few minutes ago.  It was complicated, but the bottom line was clear enough.  “So the radiation’s back.”

Bruce nodded.  “Yeah.  Big time.”  He gestured to the image on the screen, a wire frame of Steve’s form from the whole body scan.  Waves of glowing light, colored vibrantly by the computer for visual emphasis (he wasn’t actually glowing like he might in some kind of science fiction novel, but maybe that would make this easier to accept?), were emanating from the head, the chest, the abdomen and legs…  All over.  It’d be pretty if not for the knowledge that this was his body and that energy was coming out of him.  Invisible, yes, but obviously enough to affect anyone who came in contact with him.  “I don’t have an explanation.  Whatever you were hit with on that ship…  It’s pretty obvious now that it infused your cells.”

Steve swallowed thickly.  “That sounds bad.”

Bruce sighed.  “I don’t know what it is.  You’re fine.  Physically, anyway.  BP’s fine.  Heart rate’s good.  Respiration’s stellar.  All the bloodwork, the MRI, the CT, everything…  It’s right on the money.  You’re as healthy as you ever are, which, with the serum, is ridiculously healthy.”

“Except he can freaking read minds!” Tony snapped, and Steve winced.  Bruce did, too.  “That doesn’t just happen!”

“Easy, Tony,” Natasha gently admonished, and Tony flushed and backed off, folding his arms across his chest.  She sighed, turning to Steve.  “I assume this all started this morning?”

Steve blushed, too.  He could still practically picture her white bra and feel all of its annoying discomforts.  Damn the serum and his eidetic memory.  “I’m not sure.  I didn’t really notice it before this morning.”

“So you’re listening to my thoughts right now,” Clint wondered quizzically.  “Like right now, right now.”

Steve opened his mouth to answer, but Bruce beat him to the punch.  “The telepathy seems to be linked to physical contact.  When Steve touches someone...  Here.  Watch.  Do you mind if I…”  It took Steve a moment to recognize that Bruce was asking his permission to touch him, which was all kinds of strange, both since Bruce typically didn’t like to be touched and that now touch was becoming this link, this invasion of both their privacies.  That was wiggling about the back of Steve’s mind, that this was unwanted.  He didn’t want this.

But that wasn’t what he said.  “You, um, sure that’s a good idea?  With the Hulk.”

Bruce’s excited (the pursuit of science trumped all concerns about privacy violations, it seemed) expression collapsed a bit.  “Yeah, good point, I guess.  Tony, touch him.”

Tony went stiff as a board, which was all kinds of… weird.  And kind of upsetting.  “Not me,” he said quickly, taking a step back.  His eyes looked wide and he was pale.  Scared.  Steve’s heart ached with a sudden pain.  “Someone else.”

None of the other Avengers jumped at the opportunity, which Steve supposed made sense.  Or maybe he would have thought that, if he wasn’t still staring at Tony, Tony who refused to make eye contact with him.  The silence dragged on for a second before Natasha offered a sharp sigh.  “Oh, for crying out loud,” she snapped before laying a hand on Steve’s forearm.  Natasha, the one of them with the greatest love of secrets and lies, opening herself just like that.

And just like that, it came.  It was strange, because Steve could feel her holding back.  There was this restraint on her own thoughts, like she was trying to be quiet, trying to contain it, fighting to center her mind.  It didn’t work.

–should never have let him go in there by himself we have to be more careful this bad it’s really bad–

 He pulled away.  He wanted to say something, tell her none of this was her fault, but before he could, Bruce was excitedly pointing at the monitors where JARVIS and the med room’s scanners were streaming new data.  “Look.  There.  You see it?  The EM signatures Cap’s emitting is getting significantly stronger.  That’s a sixteen-fold increase from the resting state.”

Tony’s forehead crinkled, and he looked like he was being dragged into this against his wishes by curiosity.  “That’s a huge bump.  And what’s doing it?  The physical contact?”

“Sensory stimulation to his brain?  Her breaching some minimal threshold in the energy field around him?  Her own bioelectromagnetism causing some sort of reaction with his?”  Bruce shook his head.  “I can’t begin to guess.”

“Did you feel anything?” Clint asked Natasha.

She shook her head.  “Not a thing.”

Thor had been silent thus far for most of the afternoon so far, watching the scientists run their tests with a hard, concerned look to his eye.  “But you did, Steve,” he rumbled, dropping his massive arms from where they were folded across his chest.

Steve hesitated about what to say exactly.  Anything specific felt like a betrayal of Natasha’s trust.  Sure, she’d touched him knowing what could happen, but she’d tried to stop her thoughts from leaking onto him.  “It didn’t hurt,” he finally offered.

Thor wasn’t appeased.  “But you read her mind, like you read the mind of the man trying to attack the train station this morning.”

Natasha shook her head.  “I was trying not to think about anything.”

“Is that some kind of trap for him or something?” Clint asked, shaking his head.  Natasha scowled at him, but Clint just came closer.  “That’s a crap test.  Here.  I’m gonna think about something really crazy and random.”  He spent a second contemplating before reaching his hand to Steve’s right arm, just where Natasha had touched him.  “Read my mind, Cap.”

Once again, the thoughts came rushing in.  Steve winced.  It sure as hell was random, what Clint was picturing.  “You hate clowns.”  He thought more for a second, picking through the bombardment of sensations and information.  “And buttered popcorn is better than caramel corn.”

Clint let him go.  Then his slack face broke into a huge, genuine, elated grin.  “Holy shit, dude!  That’s incredible!”

“You were really thinking about clowns?” Bruce asked, looking between the massive rush of data on the monitors beside Steve and Clint.

Clint was practically vibrating with how cool he thought this was.  “Yep.  Abso-freaking-lutely.  Clowns suck big time, and I never told any of you that I don’t like them, right, but he knew. He knew.  Bam!”

Steve bit the inside of his lip.  He wasn’t going to say the rest, the stuff that had come with the seemingly random thoughts.  Clint definitely didn’t realize it, but all of these other... feelings? Memories?  They’d come with the things he’d been mentally projecting.  A big-top carnival and a scary clown making hideous faces and the buttered popcorn stolen from a cart and a bigger kid named Barney pulling a smaller kid – Clint – along.  I didn’t even know he had a brother.

All the sudden, the tense air in the room shifted again.  Thor was coming closer.  “My turn,” he declared, reaching for Steve’s shoulder.  Steve didn’t even have the chance to escape before–

God damn it.  “Thor, off,” he gasped, pushing the demigod’s hand away him.

Thor grinned devilishly.  “What was I thinking, though?  What chaotic and wild ideas were slipping across my mind’s transom?  Come on, my captain!  Do tell!”

Steve wanted to die from mortification.  “Not sure what you wanted me to pick up,” he managed.  Then he sighed in submission.  “But I can tell you you’re, uh…  Lacking.  In the, um... underwear department.”

The team gave a collective groan of horror.  All except Thor, who looked pleased as punch despite the impromptu announcement of his nakedness under his combat suit.  “By Odin’s beard…  He is correct!  Shall I demonstrate?”

“Oh, hell, no,” Tony gasped.

Clint grasped Thor’s hands to get them away from the enclosures of his trousers.  “Dude, stop.  We believe you.  And what the hell is the matter with you?  What if we’d gotten a call or something?  You don’t ever go commando into battle, Asgardian or not.  That’s just…”  The archer shuddered.

“Okay, okay,” Natasha said, raising a hand to cut through the stupidity.  She turned back to Steve, and the worry was there again.  “So touching makes the telepathy work.”

Bruce was still mulling the data.  “Seems so.”

“And it’s not dangerous?”

“Doesn’t appear to be,” Bruce replied.  He let out a long, surprised breath.  “Wow.  This is really fascinating.  The biochemical processes going on in your cells, in your neurons…  I think we all know by now that radiation can cause radical molecular changes, but this level of energy output is unreal.  And this radiation is really something, different from anything here on Earth.  I’d really like to get you under an EEG, Steve.  An fMRI, and have someone in there with you so we can see where the brain activity is occurring in real time during the telepathic encounter.  We should run some experiments.  How does this field react to more people, to other stimuli?  Can it be sustained over a period, or does it wan with prolonged exposure?  And is it the serum causing this somehow?  Or allowing it?  Did the radiation from the ship interact with the serum to–”

“How do we get rid of it?”

Steve’s question appeared to take Bruce by surprise.  Steve didn’t know why.  The idea of fixing it had been right there at the forefront of his thoughts since Tony had brought him back to the Tower.  He’d sat patiently through all the examinations, put up with the questions and these latest tests, but that was the purpose, right?  To figure out how to turn this telepathy off.

Only Bruce just frowned.  “I’m not sure we can.”

That didn’t make sense.  Or maybe it did, and Steve was just deeply set into denial.  He’d never been one to avoid things that were unpleasant or upsetting; his mother had always taught him to muscle on and push through, to do whatever he had to in order to keep going.  Regardless, he could only shake his head, squinting as he appraised his friend in shock.  “Then how long until this wears off?”

Bruce seemed even more distressed.  He glanced around the other Avengers like he was looking for help.  There was no help to be had.  “Steve, I don’t know.  I have no idea if it will wear off.”

It was silent. Steve just sat there on the exam bed, hands limp in his lap, shoulders slumped, mind spinning and spinning.  It may not go away.  He closed his eyes, dropping his chin to his chest.  We can’t get rid of it.  Bruce is saying I’m–

“Are you saying he’s stuck like this?” Tony asked. His tone was soft, like he was afraid of the answer.  “Is that what you’re saying?”

Bruce’s sigh was irate and troubled now.  “What do you want me to say, guys?  Huh?  I have no idea what we’re dealing with here!  This random alien ship that no one recognizes with tech that’s light years above what we have on Earth crashes here, and Cap gets a face full of their incredibly powerful and unusual radiation, and this happens, and you expect me to be able to explain it?  After just a couple hours of studying it?  I’m shooting in the dark!”

“No one’s blaming you, Bruce,” Natasha said.  The fear buried in her eyes betrayed her calm voice.  “Is there any danger?”

“Cap said he was fine, right,” Clint added, shaking his head.  “You said it doesn’t hurt.”

Steve was reeling terribly.  Back when he’d been small and sick all the time, he’d always felt like he’d just been a mess of symptoms when he’d seen doctors.  He hadn’t been a person but rather a tangled knot of diseases.  A puzzle to unravel.  It was dehumanizing in a way.  Isolating.  Painful.

This felt like those moments from his youth.  Still, he knew that wasn’t what Clint meant.  “It doesn’t hurt.”

“That hardly sounds certain,” Thor added, and he himself seemed unsure, too.  His goofy good cheer was gone again.

Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose.  “I feel like I’m repeating myself here.  No, it’s not hurting him.  No, I can’t explain what it is or where it came from.  No, I don’t know what we can do to shut it down.”

“Well, that’s fan-fucking-tastic,” Tony grumbled.

Yes,” Bruce said slowly but sharply, side-eyeing Tony, “it’s a problem.  And I’ll start working on it.  We’ll need access to that ship right away, because that’s the only place we’ll get any answers.”

Clint nodded.  “I’ll call Fury and get it sent here quicker.”

Steve groaned.  He couldn’t stop himself.  Everyone turned back to him.  “Do we really have to alert SHIELD?”

Natasha eyed him critically.  “Captain America is a telepath now,” she declared, like that point needed the extra emphasis.  “You really think we can keep that a secret?”

No, Steve didn’t, but the last thing he wanted was for this to get to Fury and his people.  “Whatever it is probably won’t last.  And it’s not that big of a deal.”

“Yeah, that’s rather delusional,” Clint said.  “This is a huge deal.  Imagine the stuff you could do, Cap!  I mean…”  He grinned deviously again, eyes lighting up with a plan.  “We should fly to Vegas.  Tonight, you know, just in case you’re right and it doesn’t last because, dude, you’d be awesome at Blackjack.  Poker.  Texas Hold ’Em.  We could make a killing.

“He’d have to touch everyone,” Bruce reminded, shaking his head.  “The casino people would probably notice.”

Clint opened his hands in exasperation, gesturing at himself.  “I’m a master spy!  Come on.  We could make it work and we could get filthy rich.”

“Like we need money,” Natasha said, rolling her eyes.

“It’s the principle of the thing!” Clint protested.  “It’s–”

“Yeah, we’re not doing that,” Steve said.  He started peeling the sensors off again, and Bruce grimaced.  “What?  I’m still fine, right?”

“Theoretically, but I really need to run some tests.”  Steve balked and stopped trying to free himself.  He was becoming more and more certain that list of experiments Bruce had rattled off before wasn’t just him talking to himself.  “Nothing like this has ever happened before.  We need to understand it.  And SHIELD’s got more manpower to work this situation, so we’ll probably want to consult with their biomedical folks.  And, Tony, I’m going to need your help on this.  Figuring out wacky alien tech is right up your alley.”

It was right up Tony’s alley.  He’d even joked about it yesterday.  Now…  “Yeah.  Sure.  Whatever we have to do to fix it.”  His voice was uncharacteristically reserved, and he looked small and worried, though not worried for Steve’s wellbeing so much anymore.  At least not only for Steve.  Steve wasn’t sure how he knew that, but he did.  Tony wasn’t meeting his gaze, still making what seemed to be a concerted effort to look away every time Steve looked at him.  “I’ll, uh, go get my lab set up.”  Before anyone could say a thing, he was out the door of the exam room and moving quickly down the hall outside.

Bruce’s forehead furrowed.  “What’s up with him?”

“He was rather uncharacteristically restrained,” Clint said.  He sighed, like that was something that could just be brushed off.  “So what next then?”

Bruce considered it a moment.  Then he tapped a few places on the holographic display and swiped the entire load of data to his StarkPad.  “Let’s do the fMRI.”

Steve’s feelings had been flitting from horror and embarrassment to relief that he was okay to fear that he wouldn’t be and so many other random things.  Dread came sharply now.  Dread about what Bruce was implying.  Dread that this moment, the discovery of the problem and all the initial discussion and understanding, was simply passing and everything was moving on.  “That’s it?”  Bruce turned to him.  Steve tempered his tone a little; this wasn’t Bruce’s fault, and it was completely unfair of him to expect Bruce to fix this, but he couldn’t help it.  He was.  “I mean, what happens now?  If the tests don’t show anything.  What do I do?”

Bruce pressed his lips together thinly.  Helplessly he shrugged.  “I… don’t know?”  Frustrated, Steve gripped the side of the bed until he felt the padding nearly rip and the frame beneath begin to bend.  “I’m going to do the best I can to undo this, Steve, but…  Not knowing what we’re dealing with, it’s entirely possible that there’s nothing I or anyone else can do.  Which means…”

Steve sighed, heart plummeting.  “I’m stuck this way.”

It was quiet.  Then Bruce nodded.  “Yeah.”  Steve closed his eyes and looked away.  “But maybe it’s not so bad?  I mean, this is pretty… cool?  Isn’t it?”

“Mind powers,” Clint repeated, just as he’d said yesterday.  There he was, waggling his fingers again.  “Oooo.”  He grinned.  “Like a belated birthday present from the universe or something.  Aliens bestowing omniscience upon you!”

Steve didn’t even know what to say.  He felt so trapped all the sudden, like the world wasn’t the same.  His own body wasn’t the same.  It wasn’t all that different than the time directly after Project: Rebirth, when he’d been getting used to the radical changes in himself while under the scrutiny of the doctors and researchers of SSR.  At least back then he’d known what to do with himself.  More or less.  “So what?” he asked, shaking his head.  “When we’re done here, I just…  I try not to touch people?”

Natasha gave a sad smile.  “Hands to yourself, Cap.”


As it turned out, keeping his hands to himself was pretty miserable.

Which Steve idly found surprising.  It wasn’t like he was involved with anyone, and he was used to being alone.  He’d never quite fit in anywhere in his life, not as small, sick kid, not as Captain America when he’d been made big and different and into a hero, not even in the army where he’d had to carry that mantle for his men and his country.  And in the future, he of course stuck out like a sore thumb.  Even after learning so much, modern technology and history and pop culture and everything he could get his hands on, he never felt like he knew what he needed to know.  He never quite felt like he belonged or that he was home.

Except maybe when he spent time with Tony.

Regardless, he’d spent so much of his life on his own that it seemed strange to him that the distance between him and everyone else was bothering him this much.  And it was really bothering him.  He’d never been overtly affectionate with people before.  A hug here or two with Bucky when they’d been younger.  A hand on Natasha’s shoulder when she seemed troubled.  Nudging Thor now and again and pushing Clint away when he got annoying or helping Bruce up after his transformation from the Hulk.  Joking around with Tony.  Still, he wouldn’t call himself a handsy person.  He respected personal boundaries and space.  He appreciated when people respected his own (which also went back to his time as a lab rat after Project: Rebirth and the adulation he’d often faced from complete strangers since then).

But this quickly became maddening.  It took about a week for Steve to really regret that he’d gone running so stupidly into that alien ship without the faintest idea about what was inside.  It was funny how you never really noticed the casual space between you and someone else until that space became a barrier.  And it wasn’t as if it was insuperable or substantive or made of anything other than his own conscience.  Touching people was a direct link to their mind, one said person didn’t even realize existed.  Naturally Steve had problems with that on many, many levels.  He had problems with the morality, with the insight into someone else’s thoughts that he shouldn’t have, with the unfairness of it all.  He was the only one who really objected to it ethical grounds.  In fact, he was the only one objecting to it at all.

Bruce certainly didn’t.  He thought Steve’s newfound telepathy was a scientific marvel worth studying intently.  He’d spent days conducting his experiments (using Clint as a guinea pig – never mind that Steve didn’t have much say in the matter, and he now knew more about Clint than he’d ever wanted to).  Once they established basic safety parameters (though aside from raising his blood pressure ever so slightly and occasionally creating some mild discomfort or disorientation, the telepathic encounter never caused any physical issues), Bruce had learned all sorts of fascinating things.  Not about the alien ship or how to get rid of these powers but intriguing information all the same.  The energy Steve was radiating increased exponentially with the extent and the duration of the physical contact.  Touch via hands was the best, though any direct physical contact facilitated the telepathic link.  Clothes made no difference.  Neither did metal or plastic to some extent, though the thickness of those barriers did reduce the connection.  The nature of the thoughts didn’t matter, either.  Sad memories or excited contemplations or internal arguments or mundane musings – none of that mattered.  It all transferred almost perfectly.  The link couldn’t be maintained through walls or glass (which made sense, since contact seemed to be required, but Bruce had tested it anyway to be thorough).  Furthermore, the connection truly did go one way; no matter how hard Steve tried to share his own thoughts, he couldn’t, though it wasn’t easy to maintain his own stream of consciousness when Clint’s (or anyone’s else’s) invaded.  And no matter how hard Steve tried, he couldn’t keep Clint’s thoughts out.  Which Bruce thought was pretty interesting, relating the EM signature once again to the mental machinations of Loki’s scepter.

After a week, Steve was beginning to wonder if Bruce was really trying to get rid of his telepathy at all.

Clint seemed not at all bothered that Steve had peeked so much into his mind.  That was probably because Clint considered this whole thing to be just about the coolest thing ever, a party trick when he was being more dismissive or the ticket to absolute power when he was feeling grandiose (and particularly deluded).  And Thor simply found the whole thing hilarious.  He’d been quick to touch before, and he didn’t always remember not to now.  Furthermore, whenever Steve got an unfortunate brainful of someone else’s thoughts and said thoughts were even slightly embarrassing (it was utterly shocking how much people thought about sex and food), the demigod always seemed to figure it out and poked fun.  It was good-natured of course, and Steve knew if he told Thor to stop he would, but it got tiring.

Even Natasha seemed amused by it all.  Like Clint and Thor, she chuckled or laughed at some of the funnier moments, like when they’d gone for a morning run and a gaggle of teenage girls had fawned all over Steve, and what they’d been thinking…  Well, they’d basically been saying what they’d been thinking, particularly about Steve’s ass.  Or when Steve and Thor had gone to the ballgame, and there’d been a young couple sitting next to them, and the man had brushed Steve’s legs when he’d practically climbed over the two huge guys (who looked not at all incognito in their caps and sunglasses – since when did that ever work as a disguise?).  Steve picked up instantly on the young guy’s intent to propose to his girlfriend, and he’d been happy for them (the man’s cheer had been downright infectious), and he’d stupidly leaned over to Thor to whisper the news right as the couple’s image had appeared on the stadium’s Jumbotron because apparently the guy had arranged his proposal to appear on there, and…

Needless to say, that girl was never going to forget the way her future husband proposed to her, with a huge Asgardian lightning god beating the horrified boyfriend to the punch and congratulating them on their upcoming nuptials before the question had even been popped.  In front of thousands and thousands of people.  Even if Thor hadn’t relayed the story to just about everyone who’d listen, the news cycle had picked it up.  Steve still wanted to die of embarrassment.

So everyone had found that funny.  And Natasha had barely maintained her cool, professional exterior when the two of them had been sent on a quick intel op at a gala some days back, once Bruce had declared Steve fit for duty.  Originally she’d been the one elected to work over their mark.  She’d been dressed to the nines in a shimmering, black evening gown, all dolled up and looking like a dish in order for their target to forget about keeping his secrets for a bit.   Her job was to figure out where the weapons dealer’s latest stash of ill-gotten gains was, but instead of trying to infiltrate the man’s entourage and get close to him, she’d sent Steve in.  Which had been wildly godawful, with Steve protesting up until the last second, until she’d pushed him to them and he’d pretended to be some kind of bumbling idiot.  He’d stumbled into their mark and then gracelessly crushed the guy to the dance floor and then failed to get up like some clumsy oaf with man’s group all around him, annoyed and trying to get him out of their way.  All of that flailing and fumbling had elongated the contact, and Steve had managed to glean the location they’d been sent to learn, and Natasha ended up being right.  The whole mission had been clean, easy, without her having to compromise herself (not that she wouldn’t, but Steve didn’t care for it) and without any bloodshed.  As she’d sashayed her way across the parking lot, she’d declared Steve’s powers, for how annoying they were, had their uses.

Of course, Fury had caught wind of that.  Maybe he’d already figured on the utility of Steve’s telepathy from the incident at Grand Central, but Steve’s mission with Black Widow had sealed the deal.  Pretty soon the SHIELD Director had Steve working interrogations, sitting in on negotiations with other groups (including other intelligence organizations), helping with meetings with other government agencies.  Steve hated all that crap.  He was a soldier, not a spy, and frankly this all felt extremely underhanded.  Fury kept insisting it was a matter of national security, and when it came to touching a captive terrorist to learn his targets, Steve readily believed it.  The other stuff felt like bullshit, like when Fury wanted him to shake hands with the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee at a White House dinner in search of dirt Sitwell could use while arguing for an increased budget for SHIELD the next day.  That went to the heart of the immorality of it all.  He’d said to Natasha once or twice that he was concerned SHIELD was using him, that people with worse agendas could use him.  She’d been somewhat light and dismissive about that, but she’d had a hand on his shoulder when she’d said it.  He could feel her worry, about as sharp as it had been the day this had all come to light, and that was like a little way of saying “I know” without saying anything at all.

But that was about the one and only time any of the team had touched him with an intent other than to tease, test, or  get a job done.  Hence why the distance was becoming distressing.  People outside the Tower didn’t treat him differently; why would they?  Steve’s powers were still a secret.  Only Fury knew outside of the Avengers.  That led to unintentional mishaps all the time.  Every day and everywhere.  The couple at the baseball game.  At the coffee shop where the barista’s hands casually brushed his.  On his morning run when a kid had stumbled in front of him and Steve had leapt to catch him.  At SHIELD where an agent walked to close to him in the corridor or when he held the door for someone and they gave him a grateful pat or when someone new offered his hand as a greeting.  What was he supposed to do, ignore common courtesy and be a rude jerk?  It was strange, because you didn’t really realize how much physical contact with other people there was in your day-to-day existence until you became hyperaware of it and went out of your way to avoid it.  There was no turning this power off, no escaping it, no shutting it down.  This was his life now.  And everyone in his life – his friends – was trying not to touch him.

Especially Tony.  Tony wasn’t just trying not to touch him.  Tony was avoiding him completely.  Since the morning that they’d discovered Steve’s very much unwanted skills, Tony had become a ghost in his own Tower, which was all kinds of weird and disturbing because that was not like Tony at all.  Ever since he’d accepted the Avengers becoming his team and the Tower becoming their collective home, he’d been involved in everything.  And when Tony was in the room, he tended to be the center of attention.  He was quick with jokes, with fun, with teasing.  Quick with his wit and his smile.  He was never shy, rarely reserved, and always front and center in their group.

Yet no one had really seen him since the whole space ship fiasco and Bruce’s subsequent assessment of Steve’s situation.  Steve had been looking.  He’d checked the common rooms, the kitchens, the gym, the in-door theater and the game room and the labs.  The medical ward.  The helipad.  Tony’s private garage (which looked utterly untouched from their last night in there).  Tony’s penthouse (he didn’t dare even try to enter there without permission, which resulted in him ringing the bell outside the sealed doors and loitering around the hallway like a desperate fool).  Whenever he had a chance, he searched the whole Tower for him.  Nothing.  He’d asked JARVIS a couple of times every day about where Tony was and what he was doing.  “In his workshop,” the AI always replied, “and he is working on solving your dilemma.  He does not wish to be disturbed and said you would understand.”

The thing was, though, Steve didn’t understand.  He knew Bruce had had contact with Tony; whenever he summoned Steve to his lab for another experiment concerning his powers, Steve always enquired, and Bruce always sheepishly answered that Tony was fine and deep in his work.  The scientist said that with that tone of a friend doing another friend an uncomfortable and not entirely fair favor.  Running interference.  And Natasha and Clint had both seen Tony, too.  They’d talked to him, even eaten with him.  Steve had caught them all in the common room late one night after he’d come home from one of Fury’s little errands.  They’d been in there, sharing a couple pizzas, chatting quietly (about him – Steve’s enhanced hearing picked up that sad fact out in the hallway), but the second he’d come into the room with a tired smile, the mood had changed entirely and everyone had gone rigid and Tony had unceremoniously gotten up and ran out the other way.  He hadn’t said a thing.  Hadn’t excused himself.  Hadn’t justified it.  He’d tucked tail and fled.

That had been the sum total of their interactions over the past week.  Seeing Tony bolt from him, knowing Tony had basically cut him off without even an explanation…  That only amplified the horrendous feelings of being radically different Steve was already having.  Truth be told, it also pissed him off a little.  Things might have been different because of what he could do, sure, but that didn’t mean things between them had to be different.  He thought about that a lot, brooded really, when he was alone in the gym, taking his frustrations out on a punching bag into the wee hours of the morning.  He and Tony had become so close, such good friends, that having all of that disappear without a word left this sort of aching hole in his heart.  He cared about Tony.  A lot.  Plus not having Tony’s support right now was added misery, because – damn it – this sucked.  And he was kind of scared.  He didn’t know how he was supposed to handle this, and if Bruce couldn’t fix it, if it lasted…  This last week had felt monumentally long and unpleasant.  How was he going to deal with it on a permanent basis?

He needed Tony to be there for him, if nothing else.

But Tony wasn’t.  Tony was treating him like he had the plague, and maybe that was overly dramatic, but it sure as hell felt that bad.  Like the mere proximity to him could lead to contagion (which Bruce had tested and found to be impossible).  This wasn’t a disease, and no one else seemed to be able to “get it” (even the SHIELD techs working with the debris from the ship weren’t being subjected to any radiation and therefore were fine).  So Tony acting like this really had no rational explanation.

Which made it hurt more.

Steve sighed as the elevator doors closed.  He just wanted to go hide in his room for the next seventy years.  A few weeks prior before the alien ship crashed, Fury had convinced him to do a charity gig at a children’s hospital.  He’d completely forgotten about it until this morning, and when he’d tried to argue that his condition should preclude him from participating, the SHIELD Director had quite bluntly reminded him that telepathy posed no threat to the people he was to meet or himself.  Plus Fury had promised Captain America’s presence, which made Steve feel like an asshole for even trying to excuse himself.  He could put up with a couple dozen excited kids for a few hours if it was for a good cause, couldn’t he?

Well, he had, but it had been terrible.  Not physically painful, but kids’ thoughts were… chaotic.  Like being in a crazy storm of happiness and excitement and wild, pure jubilation and having to hold steady to yourself and what you needed to do.  There was no avoiding touching the kids, because they’d immediately climbed all over him.  Kids basically had no filter between their brains and their mouths, so he listened to all the same stuff they were thinking anyway.  Still, if Steve never thought of Minecraft or the Harlem Shift or how cool Iron Man was or the lyrics to some song called “Royals” again, it’d be too soon.

Needless to say, he was exhausted and he wanted to spend a few good hours in his suite, far, far away from everyone else and their noisy brains.

About halfway up the Tower, though, the elevator stopped and doors opened.  Steve’s eyes went wide, and all his senses, muted and numbed by hours of torture, went acutely sharp.  “Tony,” he managed in a weak voice.

Tony was right there.  Obviously he’d been waiting for the elevator, and when he saw Steve, he immediately paled and his eyes went wide.  Steve felt the blood drain from his own face, every nerve in his body tingling and alight with anxiety.

Natasha was there, too.  She was holding a StarkPad, and clearly she and Tony had been talking about something, probably work for SHIELD.  Now she was glancing between the two men.  “Wow.  You guys make awkward seem awkward,” she commented, more amused than anything.

“I’ll, uh,” Tony floundered, and he looked like he wanted to run, “take the next one.”

“Nope.  I will.”  Then she none-too-gently pushed Tony inside the lift and JARVIS shut the doors just as she waved goodbye.

So now they were alone.  For the first time in more than a week, since that night in the garage, it was just the two of them.  The tension was awful.  They stood side by side, but neither of them was looking at the other.  They were both stiff, staring straight ahead, wound tight and barely breathing.  Steve could sense that without his powers, without even looking.  The distance between them felt infinite and painful, worse than even when they’d been arguing all the time.  Each silent second passing was torture, and the elevator wasn’t even moving, as if JARVIS was waiting for them to sort out their issues before letting them leave.

Which wasn’t going to happen unless one of them talked.  They were both outrageously stubborn, but this was ridiculous, so Steve cleared his throat, tried and failed to think of something to say.  Finally he offered a really inept, “Hi.”  Tony stiffened.  Steve shifted his weight toward his side of the elevator.  “Don’t worry.  I, uh, won’t get closer.”

It was with great and obvious effort that Tony relaxed.  “It’s cool.”  It got quiet again, and Steve couldn’t help but feel hurt.  Tony looked utterly mortified.  Then he seemed to remember that he was being a jerk.  “How are you doing?  I mean... with everything.”

“With not being able to touch anyone unless someone wants to study me or use me for something?”  That came out harsher than Steve intended, and Tony winced.  “Sorry.”  Steve sighed and looked forward again.  “It really sucks.”

Tony couldn’t help a little smirk.  “Hurray for the correct parlance at least.”  Steve couldn’t stop a withering look.  Those sharp brown eyes kept glancing at Steve, like they couldn’t help themselves.  “Guess getting all Star Trek-like with telepathic wonder magic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Not if it means losing you.  “Not really, no,” Steve replied instead.

“Seems like it could be fun,” Tony offered.  “Kinda like x-ray vision.”

And Tony would say that because he hadn’t been around to see exactly how not fun this was.  That stoked the pain inside, but Steve ignored it.  “I’d never use x-ray vision on someone without asking first.”

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Tony said, and maybe that could have been insulting, but his tone was rueful and fond more than anything.

“And it doesn’t work like that.  I can’t touch people and go rifling through their thoughts for something.  Not really.  The person has to be thinking it during the contact.”

Tony’s face was oddly unreadable.  “Oh.”

“But you’d be surprised how much... stuff you’re thinking about without even realizing it.”  That was kind of incredible, when Steve considered it.  The way neural networks worked.  Memories and cognitive functions and mental models of thinking.  How lighting up one node tended to light up tons of others through association, some seemingly randomly but not.  There was always a reason.  All of this had taught him that at least, to appreciate the complex wonders of the human mind.  “Isn’t Bruce sending you all the data from his umpteen experiments?”

Tony actually blushed.  His answer was pretty defensive.  “Yeah, but it’s not terribly pertinent to me figuring out what was up with that crashed ship that you got zapped in the first place.”  He sighed.  “Speaking of which, I really need to get back to it.  J, workshop?”

For a second, it seemed JARVIS wouldn’t obey his master and instead would leave the two of them trapped in this box for all eternity.  The elevator started moving again, though, and Steve didn’t know whether to be seriously disappointed or really relieved.  He was both.  More than that, though, he was frustrated and anxious.  There was no reason to beat around the bush.  Once they reached Tony’s destination, who knew how long it’d be before Steve had another chance to talk to him?  “So… are we not friends anymore?”

That sounded blunt and pretty pathetic.  Steve felt so stupid and desperate, and hiding that was impossible because his whole life had been turned upside down yet again and he didn’t want to lose everything.

For a second, he was pretty sure Tony didn’t want to lose it, either.  “God.  Of course we are.”

“Then what gives?” Steve asked, finally turning toward the other man completely.  He didn’t come any closer, but he wasn’t backing off, either.  He wanted an answer.  “You’re avoiding me.”

“I’m… not,” Tony answered, but that was about as convincing as the tax-man telling you he wasn’t after your money.  “It’s just… hard to get used to.  And I’m really busy trying to fix everything, okay?  I’m the most qualified to deal with alien tech, and this alien tech is trickier and techier than most alien tech, okay, so it’s taking a lot of time, and–”

“Tony,” Steve softly interrupted, and Tony glanced at him, actually caught his gaze for a split second that spoke so much – pain – before looking away.  Steve sighed.  “I’m not an idiot.  I know that’s not why.”  He stopped himself and shook his head.  “Not the only reason why.”

Tony sighed shortly.  “Look, Cap, let’s just get this fixed, okay?”

Steve wanted to be comforted that Tony was trying so hard – and he was, that was obvious – to help with his problem, but for some reason it was just insulting.  Like Steve was a problem he could work on and then repair.  Like this whole thing – which was a part of him right now, whether he wanted it or not – was a situation that could be treated like that.  “What if it can’t be?  Are you going to keep avoiding me?”

“I’m not – Steve, I’m – I–”  Tony stammered, shaking his head and struggling.  He was fidgeting, which he never did.  He was always so smooth and charming and in control.  Right now he looked like a deer in headlights.  Steve just stared, barely thinking, barely even breathing, because just like that now he needed an answer.  Terrified as he was, he had to know.  “I just…  I’m…  Fuck, I’m not trying to be a jerk here, and I know I am, but – shit.”  Tony tipped his eyes up and sighed.  “Shit.”

“Tony, I don’t want to–”

“I know!”  The elevator suddenly beeped.  They’d reached the workshop, so the doors opened.  Tony’s relief was palpable, and all the sudden this huge smile broke out on his face.  God, he’d been sweating.  “I know, and it’s fine.  It’s not you.  It’s me, right?  Yeah, it’s me.  I get caught up in stuff, and I can’t stop.  You know that.  So let me work on this and then we can get you back to normal and everything will be normal again.  Right?  Right.  Cool.  Later!”  He darted out into the hallway and disappeared around the corner before Steve could even call to him.

Which left Steve alone in the elevator again, only this time with his mouth hanging open and his heart breaking.


Somehow Natasha beat him up to the common room.

Not only had she beaten him there, but she was sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee and the newspaper.  Steve stood in the room’s huge entrance, shaking his head.  “How the hell…”

“You let him escape,” she said, not even looking up from the Times.  She sighed.  “Of course you did.  You and Stark have to be the two thickest morons I have ever met.  And you have a chronic inability to talk to each other.  It’s a testament to how emotionally constipated you both are that that somehow survived the Great Reconciliation.”

Again, he probably should have been insulted.  However, as he wandered over to the living area, he just wanted her insight.  He had a feeling she was about to dole it out.  Nobody knew people better than she did.  “What do you mean?”

Natasha finally looked up.  Slyly she cocked an eyebrow.  “Let me guess how this conversation went.  After a bunch of extremely uncomfortable silence, you accused Stark of avoiding you.  And Stark answered with something about everything being hard to get used to, and he’s working too hard anyway, and you being you let him get away with that.  Then there was some more uncomfortable dancing around everything important before he tells you it’s him, not you – classic break-up line, by the way – before taking the first out he can find.”

Steve grumbled, “We didn’t break up.”  That eyebrow arched again.  “Because we’re not dating!  Holy hell, Romanoff.”  He plopped onto the couch, folding his arms across his chest in what was probably a ridiculously petulant pout.  This wasn’t the first time someone else on the team had made fun of him (and Tony) for how close they were.  It hurt more this time, though, with his friendship with Tony pretty obviously on the line.  “I just don’t get it.  It’s not like I’d touch him without asking.  If I did touch him or he touched me, it’d be by accident.”  Something suddenly occurred to him, something frightening and worrisome.  “Jesus, what’ll happen if we have to go out and fight?  We’ll have contact all the time in the field.  We have to.  You think this telepathy goes through Tony’s suit?  Maybe I should ask Bruce to test that.”

“Oh, for crying out loud, Steve, you can’t be this dense.”  That stopped Steve in his tracks.  He turned to her.  She sighed, long-suffering, and set down her coffee cup on the table.  “You and Stark fight ugly until you don’t, which thank God you two got over it because I was honestly about ready to kick you both in the nuts.  You went from enemies to frenemies to friends, right, and you start hanging out all the time.  From at each others’ throats to attached at the hip.”

“I get it,” Steve muttered.

“Then you charge head first into a dangerous situation and almost get your butt blown up.”

Steve frowned.  “I did not almost–”

Natasha’s look silenced him.  “And now you have these crazy powers that force everything to be different because all the casual, friendly hand-shaking and arm-shouldering and butt-slapping can’t happen anymore.  And everything now has to be out in the open.  Tony never adapts well to changes, and this is sudden and huge, and when he can’t handle things that are sudden and huge…”

“He hides and distracts himself,” Steve replied.  “I know that.”  Natasha’s eyebrow seemed like it might get stuck that way for how often she was raising it.  “What I don’t get is what about this he can’t handle!  You guys are all okay.  I mean, yes, this isn’t ideal, and yes, it can be a problem, but you’re not treating me like some kind of leper.  I don’t understand why he is.”

“That should be obvious,” Natasha said again.  “He’s scared.”

“He’s got no reason to be.  Nothing’s really wrong with me.  Bruce has tested and tested and this whole thing seems completely safe–”

“Not of that.”  Natasha tipped her head.  “Well, not only of that.”

That made Steve really think.  And when he figured it out, it really was clear.  “There’s something he doesn’t want me to find out.”

“And?”

“And he’s constantly thinking about whatever it is now because he knows I could.”

“Keep going.”

“Which is why he’s not risking being anywhere near me.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Because any contact at all, accidental or otherwise, will probably reveal it.”

Natasha grinned.  “Bingo, Cap.”

Steve grimaced, shaking his head.  How could I have been so dumb?  This made perfect sense.  It explained why Tony was avoiding him completely, why he seemed so antsy and troubled, why he couldn’t just tell Steve the reason.  Why he was actually interested when Steve had been explaining to him how the mind-reading worked in the elevator.  It wasn’t that Tony didn’t want to be his friend anymore or hang out with him or support him.  It was that he was afraid that Steve would find out his secret, whatever that secret was.

“I still don’t get it, though,” Steve said softly, staring blankly at the coffee table.  “What’s so awful that he doesn’t want me to know about it?”

Natasha sighed, reaching for her cup again before pulling her legs up beneath her on the couch.  “That I can’t help you figure out.  Tony’s usually about the least secretive person I know.  Well, maybe besides Thor.  Point is, whatever’s bugging him, it’s bad enough for him to risk your friendship entirely.”

Steve shook his head.  “That doesn’t make any sense!  We don’t have secrets anymore.  Not like that.  And there’s nothing he could tell me that’d make me think less of him.  Or see him differently.”

Natasha’s knowing, coy smile slipped a little.  “You sure about that?  And are you sure he’s sure about that?”

Steve absolutely was about the first thing, but the way she was a tad melancholic cooled his confidence about the second.  Before he even thought twice about it, he was up and heading back towards the elevators.  “Where are you going?” Natasha called after him.

He glanced over his shoulder.  “To talk to him.”  And I’m not letting him get away this time.

Natasha waved him off.  “Good idea.”

In no time at all, Steve was back in the lift.  He pressed the space on the wall panel to take him to the floor with Tony’s workshop.  The elevator didn’t move.  “JARVIS,” he called quietly with a tense sigh.  “Please?”  There was no answer.  For the first time in months, the AI didn’t automatically take him to Tony.  Steve just stood there, thwarted, not sure what he could do.  Finally he came up with something.  “You know I’m not going to hurt him, don’t you?”

JARVIS’ answer was contrite and immediate.  “Of course, Captain.  What I fear – and what he fears – is the unintentional.  Though Mr. Stark has at times in the past struggled with human contact, he has come to appreciate yours dearly.”  That brought a small smile to Steve’s face.  “I cannot say I agree with his approach to this unimaginable situation, but I understand his reasoning.”

“You know what he’s trying to hide from me.”

JARVIS paused.  “No, but I believe I can deduce it, though it is not my place to guess.”

“I just need to talk to him,” Steve replied.  “I’ll stay outside the workshop if you think that’s better.  Or on the other side of it.  Far enough away that he doesn’t have to be scared.”  It kind of hurt to suggest that, to admit that Tony didn’t trust him to keep his distance.  But Steve wanted to fix this way more than save his own pride.  “I just want him to know that I get it and it’s okay, but it doesn’t have to be like this.”

JARVIS was quiet again.  Then the elevator suddenly began to move with a little jerk and a hum.  “No, it does not.”  Steve smiled.

They were silent the rest of the short ride to Tony’s workshop.  The doors opened a few moments later, and Steve stepped off.  Tony had multiple workshops around the Tower, but this was his main one.  It was the entirety of a floor, equipped with every tool and instrument an engineer could need.  There was a server room just outside the workshop itself, which always amazed Steve just a little, that so much computing power could be packed into such a small space.  Tony was obviously putting it all to use if the panels outside the temperature controlled area were any indication.  Steve passed that and went to the workshop itself.

Tony was in the middle of the huge space.  Steve could see him perfectly through the glass walls.  Obviously the inventor had figured that JARVIS would keep everyone away because he hadn’t bothered with the privacy tinting.  And he hadn’t noticed Steve because he was deep in studying something on his holographic displays, eyes narrowed and lost in thought, hair mussed, his hands with those long, skilled fingers at the ready to manipulate and pull apart and build.  He looked incredible like this, the glow of the arc reactor faintly blue through his t-shirt, the t-shirt that was barely hiding muscles and deceptive strength.  Steve just stared.

Then, if by preternatural sense, Tony realized he was being watched and looked up.  This look lasted much longer than the previous one, far more than a glance, and it was more meaningful.  They saw each other, like that night in the garage, like so many moments before it, and that connection between them surged warmly.  Steve had really missed it, even if it had been only a week or so he’d last felt it.  He offered a tentative smile, and Tony smiled back.

But that smile disappeared as quickly as it had come, and Tony looked like he was about to order JARVIS to get rid of him.  “Wait, Tony,” Steve gasped, coming to the workshop door.  It was stupid and probably old-fashioned, but he knocked.  “Come on!  Don’t shut me out!”

“Busy!” Tony called, his voice muffled by the glass.  “Goodbye!”

Steve exhaled sharply and knocked again.  “I just want to talk, okay?  That’s it.”  Aside from a barely perceptible shiver, Tony didn’t respond.  “I’ll stay far away, as far as you want me.  It’s fine.  I don’t mind.”  Again Tony said nothing.  He went back to his work, but Steve could tell right away his brain wasn’t in it.  He huffed.  “You know, you’re being kind of a stubborn ass about this.”

“Go away, Rogers.”

Steve couldn’t help a smile.  “Yeah, not doing it.  I can be a stubborn ass, too.”  And he promptly turned around, folded his arms across his chest, and leaned back against the glass door.  “Just gonna wait out here!”  He tapped his sneaker on the ground, making a show of his obstinance.  “I’ll last hours, Stark.  Days.  You know I can.”

“Go away.

“Nope.”

“I’m not letting you in.  You’re going to be waiting forever.”

“Fine.”

“I mean it.”

“So do I.”

Tony didn’t say anything further, though his annoyance was nearly tangible.  Steve ignored it.  He sat, cross-legged with his back to the door.  He was feeling stupid and childish but not enough to stop, not even as the seconds – minutes – began to slip away.  At least he could keep watch like this, he supposed as he checked down the surrounding hallway.  Not that there was any need to.  And at least no one would bother him here, which was fine.  The exhaustion from the day’s events was turning into a bit of a headache.  This had been happening that last couple days, that all the sudden he’d get a touch of throbbing behind his eyes.  It wasn’t so bad, but it felt good to close out the world and drift a little.

Tony grunting and setting down his pad was loud enough that it snapped Steve from his haze.  “God damn it, you’re so freaking annoying,” the inventor snapped, and the next thing Steve knew, the locks on the workshop doors were disengaging.  Surprised and pleased (not that much time had passed), Steve lithely got to his feet and went inside, grinning at his victory.

That smile softened into awe.  He hadn’t really noticed before, but the side of the workshop was filled with debris from the alien ship.  He recognized some it right away, the weird chunks of metal that wasn’t just metal, that still glowed.  “Wow,” he breathed.  He looked around in surprise before meeting Tony’s gaze.  “How does this have power?”

“Seems to generate its own,” Tony commented.  He hadn’t moved one step closer from his place, his workbench behind him and the holographic displays all around him.  He looked wary.  “Not quite sure how.  It’s not made out of anything I’ve ever seen before.  Kinda this… half matter, half energy, fluxy-substance.  Whoever these aliens were, they have tech we can’t even begin to understand.”  He shrugged a bit, which did precisely nothing to mitigate how bitter his tone was.  “Which I guess makes sense since they transformed you into a psychic antenna.”

Steve was tempted to remind him that hadn’t been by choice, but the shimmering symbols on a slab of wreckage caught his gaze.  They were just as amazing now as they had been on that ship, glittery and exotic and flowing.  “This is writing?”

“Yeah,” Tony replied.  He was bringing up more of the symbols on the displays surrounding him.  There were hundreds.  “Whatever their language is, I guess.  I catalogued every one I could find on all that wreckage.  I’ve got JARVIS and Stark Industries cryptographers on it.  Plus Fury put SHIELD’s people on it.  So far nothing.  Without a primer, I’m not sure we can figure it out.  Maybe these are letters?”

Steve wasn’t quite sure how he knew, but he was sure they weren’t.  Not entirely.  He felt strange looking at all the debris, walking through it.  Sadness?  Worry?  Fear?  Familiarity.  “They’re words.”

“Huh?”

Ahead there was a sleek piece of gleaming metal that looked strikingly different than the other pieces of the ship.  The end of this piece was charred, like it had been caught in explosion.  It had been, and so had he, because he’d been standing in front of it when the ship had been attacked by the Kree.  It was the escape pod where he thought he’d seen the alien.

No.  It wasn’t an escape pod.  “This one says ‘vessel’.”

“How do you know that?”

Steve stared at another glowing symbol, this one filled with intricate lines.  The word just came in a whisper.  “‘Spirit.’”

“Steve?”  There were footsteps behind him.  “Steve, are you okay?”

Vaguely he realized Tony was coming closer, talking to him, but he couldn’t stop staring at the symbols, couldn’t stop this feeling that he knew this.  He couldn’t explain it, but this certainty was inside him, this… power.  He dragged his fingers lightly over more of the writing.  “‘Giving.’”

“Steve, you’re kinda scaring me here.”

“‘Light.’”

“Steve?”

There was another, one more, and he could almost bring the meaning up, almost see it and feel it, but–

“Steve!”

Steve broke from his trance and whirled to see Tony right behind him.  Tony took a step back.  “Whoa, whoa.  Are you… reading the symbols?  What the hell’s happening? ”

“I…”  That ache in Steve’s head was suddenly – quickly – getting worse.  Every nerve in his body was tingling, chaotically so, and the world seemed to bend.  A rush of warmth seared across him, leaving him reeling.  It felt like panic, but he wasn’t panicking.  At least, he didn’t think he was.  He wasn’t sure.  He blinked and blinked, but nothing focused.  “Tony, I – I feel really weird.”

Except for Tony’s brown eyes.  Those were extremely clear.  That look of horrified concern was back in them.  “Weird how?”  Steve opened his mouth to answer, but in the maelstrom of strangeness that was growing stronger and stronger – what’s the matter with him shit call Bruce need to get help – he couldn’t think of what to say.  Of how to describe this.  All these thoughts were in his head, but they weren’t his.

They were Tony’s.  Tony’s.  But he wasn’t touching Tony.  Tony was a good five feet from him.  He wasn’t touching him!  He wasn’t–

“Steve, I need you to talk to me!”

–what’s happening to him had to be the contact with the debris but why why–

This wasn’t possible.  It wasn’t.  But he could feel Tony’s terror, feel his mind racing with questions, feel so much power behind it.  It was overwhelming, like a tidal wave threatening to crest, and Steve could barely hold back the onslaught.  He had to get away.  He had to escape.  He turned to run, but his muscles weren’t working, and nothing from his brain was getting to his limbs, and his own panic was mixing with Tony’s, and that wave was getting closer and closer, and–

–help him fuck I have to do something–

He was dizzy, faint, staggering.  Falling.

–no no no!  Catch him!

Tony leapt forward and wrapped his arms around him as he stumbled.  Suddenly the wave broke and flooded him.  His mind exploded with Tony’s thoughts.  He tried not to look, to see, to feel it and know it, but he had no choice.  It was all too strong.  Tony’s terror.  His worry.  His need to call the others.  His anger and helplessness and shock.  His want to do something.  Everything about this moment, but everything else.  Plans for new repulsor jets for Iron Man’s boots.  Algorithms.  Equations.  Designs.  Memories.  The ugly, crooked nose of one of the terrorists water-boarding him.  Arguing with Howard.  Drinking at MIT with a desperate need to fit in.  All the facts necessary to ace an American history exam in grade school.  Pepper not liking strawberries.  The excitement of soaring high and fast in Iron Man.  Playing with a Captain America action figure, one all dirty and bedraggled from being dragged around a little boy’s life.  Everything.  It was too fast to process, too incredible to grasp, so chaotic and wild.  So powerful.  The agility and alacrity befit of a genius’ mind.

Flooding his.  Washing him away.  It hurt.  It hurt so much, and his world was eroding.  He wasn’t sure there’d be anything of him left.

“Steve!  Steve!  Shit!  JARVIS!”

But at least Tony was touching him.  Holding him.  That was nice.  Really, really nice.

“Hold on, Steve.  God, please, hold on…”

And through unending onslaught consuming every part of him…  It really was neat, how the human mind worked.  How neural networks connected seemingly random things.  How one thought could lead to another, and another, and another, until the wayward meaning of that last symbol somehow came to life.  It was bright, glorious.  The very essence of Tony’s mind. 

Beauty.

Then Steve was swept away into darkness.

Chapter Text

Tony liked to think he was pretty calm in the face of adversity.  He knew he had his moments of sheer lunacy, where he went off the deep end and did shit that was pretty crazy, and he knew he could lose his cool.  Still, when things got dangerous or serious, he was generally okay.  He could function.  He could handle it.

Right now, though, he was on the verge of total panic.

In the space of thirty seconds, Steve had gone from completely normal to weird but okay to looking like he didn’t know if he’d wanted to puke or run to this.  To having a goddamn seizure of some sort in Tony’s arms.  Steve was jerking inhumanly, twisting and tormented, his long body swept up in this weird, abrupt fit that Tony couldn’t stop.  That Tony didn’t fucking understand.  It was terrifying.

And he had no idea what was happening, what had caused this.  He just knew he had to get Steve help right now.  Hence the panic.  “JARVIS!”

“His vital signs are wildly inconsistent!” the AI replied.

“No shit!” Tony cried, straining to keep Steve flat to the floor.

If a computer could sound desperate, JARVIS was managing it.  “Sir, you must–”

Steve gave an inhuman cry.  Tony had his arms around Steve’s shoulders, trying to keep him still, but he had to let him go.  These were serum-powered convulsions, and as much as it killed him to back off and see Steve suffering, he knew he couldn’t hold him and was risking his own life in the process.  “Shit,” he gasped.  “Fuck!”

What the hell was happening?

“Sir, you must not touch him,” JARVIS declared.  “It stands to reason that whatever the cause of this episode is, physical contact will likely only exacerbate it!”

Steve didn’t seem to be settling much without Tony’s hands on him, which was pretty stark evidence to the contrary.  Helplessly Tony shook his head.  “How the hell can I help him then?”

The thought flew into his head, but Steve, who was writhing on the floor with his teeth ground so tightly together it seemed they’d crack, was the one to say it.  “Iron Man!” he gritted out, and Tony was already standing, already summoning the suit to him from the armory a few floors below.  JARVIS opened the side windows of the workshop, exposing the area to the outside, but it still took a few excruciatingly long seconds for Iron Man to make it there.  Tony just stared at Steve writhing on the floor of his workshop, aching miserably inside with fear.  For once, he just couldn’t think.  His mind was always racing, always moving, always working.  Now it was utterly blank as the image of Steve – please, God, not Steve – being tortured by some invisible force etched into his retinas.  JARVIS was nattering about alerting Doctor Banner and Steve’s erratic blood pressure and skyrocketing pulse and if the suit would diminish the obvious trauma caused by physical contact and–

“Not your fault,” Steve whimpered.  His eyes were clenched shut, and he was curled tightly into himself like he was bracing himself against the convulsions.  He could barely breathe to speak, but he was.  “Tony, not – not your fault.”

It’s my fault.

That thought came right with Steve’s mangled words, like Steve had known what he was thinking before he even thought it.  There was no time to consider what that meant, though, or how that had happened because Iron Man was there.  Normally the armor encasing Tony was a comfort, but right now it couldn’t happen fast enough.  The second the faceplate on the helmet came down, the HUD came to bright, sharp life, and Steve’s vital signs were streaming in the lower right corner thanks to JARVIS and Iron Man’s scanners.  JARVIS was right; they were all over the place.

He needed to get Steve to Bruce right now.

“Is Banner on his way?” Tony demanded as he knelt and scooped Steve into his arms.  Steve immediately went rigid, flailing with his mouth open in a soundless scream.  Tony had the physical strength now to hold Steve tightly, to keep him still.  He had no idea if his touch was amplifying Steve’s distress, but it didn’t matter.  There was no choice, and they had to go.  “Is he?”

JARVIS had probably said something before, and he said it again now.  “He is!  Hurry, sir!”

Tony didn’t waste a second, clutching Steve firmly to him in a bridal carry as he jetted out the open windows.  Steve sobbed, seizing again, and his pulse spiked on the HUD.  “Hang on, Steve!” Tony cried, rocketing up the dozens of feet to the landing platform at the top of the Tower.  That was the fastest way to the med bay.  “Hang on.  Please hang on…”

JARVIS already had the hangar doors open, and the quinjet was dark and idle in its place just inside.  Tony raced past that and down the hallway toward the medical ward where – thank God – Bruce and Natasha were waiting.  They both looked horrified, sharing a panicked glance, as Tony rushed closer.  “What happened?” Bruce demanded, sprinting to get to Tony’s side.

Tony thundered into one of the triage rooms and set Steve to the medical bed.  “I don’t know!” he cried, flipping back Iron Man’s faceplate.  “He was in my workshop, looking at the wreckage from the ship, and all the sudden he just got weird–” Steve wailed, once more twisting against unseen forces, and Tony jolted back when his arm collided with Iron Man’s torso.  There was damage all down the front of the armor, indentations in the plating there and on his arms from Steve’s fingers when Tony had carried him.  “Jesus…”

“What’s happening to him?” Natasha asked from the foot of the bed, watching with huge eyes and helpless hands.

“Nat, in that cart over there, there’s lorazepam!  Get it!”  That sharp order from Bruce had Natasha breaking from her stasis.  She rushed off to get what he needed.  Bruce was pale, shaking his head in confusion as he tried to come closer with sensors.  “Weird how?” he demanded.  Tony didn’t answer, staring with his mouth open as Steve flailed wildly.  “Tony, come on!  Weird how?”

“Weird like he could read the alien writing!”  Steve nearly threw himself off the bed, so Tony staggered forward and took Steve’s arms.  He was the only one of the three of them who could handle Steve’s unrestrained strength at the moment.  His voice was thick with terror as he tried to calm him.  “Easy, Cap!  Easy!”

“Don’t touch him!” Bruce snapped.  “It’s gotta be the telepathy causing this!”

“No shit!” Tony snapped back.  He let Steve go again, didn’t have much choice because Steve’s entire body wracked with a vicious tremor.  In a contest of strength, they were probably pretty equally matched when Tony had Iron Man.  If he held Steve down, they could both be hurt.  Tony shook his head, breathless.  “Are these seizures?”

“How much of the lorazepam?” Natasha shouted.  “Bruce!”

“Everything.  All of it!”  Bruce floundered, barely slapping a sensor on Steve’s arm before he was forced to retreat.   He fumbled for more.  “We need to get these on him, figure out what the hell is going on!  JARVIS, I need a scan–”

Steve choked on his breath, arching his back.  His face was flushed red, tendons taut in his neck as he threw his head almost violently back.  Alarms began to wail.  “Doctor Banner, his pulse rate is dangerously high!” JARVIS screamed over the din.  “This level of tachycardia will lead to cardiac arrest!”

No.  Tony’s brain was thankfully operating on some level.  He rushed to another cabinet, searching for the AED, for atropine, for things they could use to restore the rhythm of Steve’s heart.  He was shaking so hard that he knocked a ton of stuff to the floor, bandages and equipment and vials, but he just left it and jetted back with the supplies.  “Here!”

Natasha was there too, thrusting a fully loaded syringe at Bruce.  “Is this going to do anything?  Won’t the serum–”

“Have to try!”  Bruce tried to get to the bed to administer the sedative, but it was obvious when Steve’s knee nearly caught him under his chin that that was a stupendously horrible idea.  If Steve hit Bruce like this, hurt him seriously or made him lose his composure…

“His breathing is failing!” JARVIS announced.

Tony pushed closer to the bed.  With Iron Man’s gauntlets, he grabbed Steve’s right leg when the latest fit lulled just a bit and pushed it flat to the bed.  He laid his weight right down on him.  “Hurry!” he snapped, reaching for needle.  There was no time, not if touch was causing this.  “Hurry, damn it!”

Bruce handed the syringe over.  It wasn’t too easy to handle it with the armor on, but Tony managed, jabbing it into the meat of Steve’s thigh right through his jeans.  Natasha had already prepared another dose, and she offered that directly to Tony.  Tony injected that, too.  “Let him go!” Bruce ordered, backing away from the bed.  Tony hesitated, panting himself and looking down at Steve where he was suffering.  Steve was contorted on the bed, bent at such an unnatural angle.  His face was bathed in wetness, though whether that was sweat or tears Tony didn’t know.  His blond hair was a mess, and his eyes were clenched shut, and he was laboring for every breath.  He looked like he was in unimaginable pain.

And they were causing it.  He was causing it.  He had to be.

“Tony, let him go,” Bruce said again, lower and more calmly and very serious.  Tony jerked back like he’d been hit, stumbling from the bed.  “Let him be, okay?  Hands off.  Let’s let the benzo work.”

But, as awful seconds stretched into even more awful minutes, neither the sedative nor the lack of physical contact seemed to make much difference.  Steve still tremored viciously, lips pulled back from teeth clenched tightly enough to crack, breathing in shallow, useless gasps.  There was no relief, no end in sight.  Whatever was doing this to him was still doing it.  “What the hell…” Tony whispered.

“No one’s touching him,” Natasha said, shaking her head.  She looked up, green eyes huge with horror.  “No one’s touching him!”

With could only mean one thing.  It took Tony’s beleaguered brain a moment to get to the conclusion, even with the evidence right in front of him.  “He can read minds without touch,” he murmured.

“What?” Bruce demanded, clearly shocked.  “Since when?”

“Since right now!  Since this started!  I touched him–”

“You touched him?” Natasha repeated incredulously, and Tony knew right then and there that he hadn’t been all that opaque at all about why he hadn’t wanted contact with Steve.

Not that it mattered now.  Not that anything other than Steve mattered.  “I touched him, and he started – no, he was already unsteady and not right.  But when I grabbed him – I was trying to make sure he didn’t fall!  And I grabbed him and he started doing this.”  Tony could barely breathe.  The alarms were wailing, and Steve was choking and twisting and seizing, and–

“Not your – your fault!” Steve cried even though there was no way he could be with it enough to track their conversation.  His voice escalated into a scream, and Tony stiffened.  Just like before in the workshop, when Steve had gone down, Steve was saying what Tony was thinking, what he’d been just about to think.  The guilt was right there, at the tip of his consciousness, ready to come forward.  Tony knew it, and he knew what this meant.  This whole damn thing had been impossible from the get-go, like some crazy sci-fi nonsense straight from Star Trek, and this seemed even more unreal, but it was true.

Steve was reading his mind.  His mind.

And it was killing him.

“We need to get out of the room,” Bruce announced quietly.  He’d obviously come to the same harried conclusion.  Just like that, he grabbed Natasha by the arm and dragged her out.  Tony, however, was glued in place, hesitating and watching yet again.  Watching Steve get ripped apart by his own thoughts.  God, how could this have happened?  And now they were just going to leave him?

“Tony, come on!”

Tony jolted into motion, turning and racing out of the room.  He joined Natasha and Bruce where they were watching through the glass wall out in the hallway.  Steve was still insentient, squirming helplessly.  He’d kicked one of his shoes off and torn the mattress of the bed, gripping the fabric hard enough to obliterate it.  Alarms continued to wail.  “This isn’t far enough,” Natasha whispered, shaking her head in a spastic jerk before rushing down the hall further away from the room.  The thought of putting even more distance between them and Steve was excruciating, but there wasn’t any choice.  Tony swallowed down his pounding heart and followed.

There was another exam room at the end of the hall.  The three burst inside, all of them shaking in panic.  “JARVIS!” Bruce shouted.

The AI knew what they needed without anything further.  JARVIS turned the room’s interior wall into a display.  Now they could see Steve again, see his vitals streaming in a constant flow on the corner of the screen, see him relaxing – he’s better – on the bed.  It was like a switch had been flipped, like something had suddenly been turned off, and he was limp, breathing easier, trembling but settled.  His pulse was slowing, his blood pressure falling, his respiration improving.  Tony could have cried.  He’s okay.

“This appears to have been beneficial,” JARVIS quietly declared.  There was no masking the relief in the AI’s voice.

“How far away are we?” Bruce asked.

Tony was already doing the math in his head, coming up with answer just as the computer did.  “Nine meters, though the minimal safe distance may be less than this.  Clearly remaining within the room was not an option.  I must praise you for your quick thinking, Doctor.”

Bruce winced.  “Not sure I deserve that.”

Natasha released a long, shaking breath as they watched Steve close half-lidded eyes.  She murmured something in Russian, clearly a ‘thank God’ or some such.  “Is he alright?”

“How can he be alright?” Tony snapped, losing his cool.  “Jesus.  Fuck!  This is all my fault–”

“Stay calm,” Bruce advised.  That was practically his mantra, given his condition.  “We don’t know what’s going on yet.  We don’t know what happened.  We don’t know anything, other than the fact his powers have obviously gotten significantly stronger in the last – what – fifteen minutes?”  He shook his head, tapping at the display and bringing up loads of data.  Apparently Bruce had been monitoring Steve’s condition daily, taking readings of the EM signature, how strong it was, where it was localized in his body, how it interacted with other people and items...  “Everything seemed completely steady, so what the hell happened?  What did this?”

I did,” Tony said.  His voice cracked.  “I knew I was right to stay away.”  To hell if his reasons had been totally different and totally selfish.  “The second he comes in contact with me, this happens!”

“Stop,” Bruce demanded.  His tone was significantly sharper.  “Focus on fixing the situation instead of feeling guilty.  I highly doubt anything you did caused this.”  That wasn’t much consolation, but Tony had to admit it was true.  And there was no time for this right now.  Steve was serious danger, and they needed to understand its nature.  “We have to get new EM readings right now.  That’s the only way we’ll find answers.”

“So take data,” Natasha said.

“Love to.  How do we get the sensors on him?” Bruce replied tightly.  “Without them, we’re not going to have the resolution we need.”

They went silent.  The breadth of the problem was right before them, with Steve moaning on the bed, barely awake and hardly aware.  How were they going to take care of him when they couldn’t touch him?  Couldn’t even be in the same room with him?  How were they going to figure this out with nine meters of glass and metal and plastic between them?

“Sir, Agent Barton and Thor are on their way up,” JARVIS announced, breaking a tense silence.

Shit.  “JARVIS, lock down Steve’s room!”  Tony shouted.  “Don’t let them in there!  Tell them to come here!”  The fear stabbing through him was terrible, and he turned to Natasha.  She didn’t seem pleased, but she left to make sure the other two Avengers stayed outside Steve’s space all the same.  That wasn’t much consolation.  If they got anywhere near Steve–

“Can you open a comm link to Cap?” Bruce asked.

Tony turned back to the display, where Steve was still on the bed.  He looked practically lifeless now, utterly motionless on the mattress, and if it weren’t for his vital signs streaming steadily across the screen, Tony might have thought the worst.  “Communications open, Doctor,” JARVIS said.  “I am not certain Captain Rogers is conscious.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Bruce murmured.  “Cap?  Cap, it’s Bruce.  Can you hear me?”

Steve didn’t move.  He didn’t respond, either.  JARVIS was correct; it wasn’t obvious at all if he was awake, let alone with it enough to speak.  “Maybe we should let him sleep,” Tony advised, wincing.  “If he’s out, he’s not having our thoughts beamed into his brain.”

Bruce said, “Unfortunately, he’s also not helping us figure out what’s going on.”  He shook his head, watching the display intently for any signs Steve was stirring.  “If we can’t get in there, we need him to get the sensors on himself.  And probably insert an IV.  And try to assess his situation.  And explain what caused this.”

It sucked to hell and back, but that was all true.  Tony wanted to scream.  Instead he bit his tongue until he tasted blood and stayed quiet as Bruce tried again.  “Cap, I need you to listen to me.  Focus on my voice.”  There was still nothing.  They couldn’t quite see Steve’s face; he was mostly turned away now, and though his eyes had been somewhat half-lidded before, it was impossible to tell at this point.  “Cap, please.  This is really serious, and I need you with me.  Wake up.  Please.”

Steve moaned, twitched a bit, but that was it.  Bruce kept calling to him, coaxing him back to awareness and becoming increasingly insistent and worried the longer this went on with Steve not really responsive.  Tony just watched.  The image before them was so crisp, so vivid and bright, and he felt like he could just reach out and touch Steve.  Which was the whole goddamn problem.  “Steve, it’s Tony,” he suddenly said.  He stepped closer to the display like he was actually getting closer to Steve.  “Steve?  Come on.  It’s Tony, and I need you to wake up.  Wake up, Steve.”

There was another groan, louder, and Steve turned his head.  “Wake up,” came a groggy response.

Tony could have cried in relief, even if that reply wasn’t entirely right.  Was Steve still reading his mind?  Even this far away?  “Yeah, time to wake up.  We need your help.”

That probably appealed to Steve’s stupid, persistent need to be such a selfless asshole all the time, because his eyelids fluttered and then opened.  “Holy Mother of…”  Bruce didn’t finish.  Steve’s eyes were glowing.  Even on the video feed that was obvious.  They were shining like sapphires in sunlight, brilliantly and unearthly blue, and this is really bad.

“What’sa matter?” Steve slurred.  All the sudden he was trying to sit up.  Trying.  It was about the least graceful, least coordinated, least Steve thing Tony had ever seen him do.  Bruce shook his head and opened his mouth to object, but Steve was already stammering, “Don’t need to take it easy.”

Bruce wasn’t exactly appeased.  “Steve, sit still, okay?  Do you remember what happened?”

“Tony was playing guitar,” Steve murmured, looking around like he didn’t recognize where he was.  Then he started humming, singing.  “Yes, I’m back…  Well, I’m back in black…”

Tony’s blood turned to ice.  Jesus.  Bruce wouldn’t get it.  No one else would get it.  When he’d been at MIT and particularly lonely, he’d tried to teach himself guitar one semester.  He’d been… fifteen?  Sixteen?  He couldn’t remember exactly, but he’d practiced the hell out of that AC/DC song.  He’d mastered it before deciding guitar wasn’t for him and that he was doing this just to piss off Howard, who’d hated rock music and the idea of Tony doing anything other than engineering.  He still loved the song decades later, but he was pretty sure he’d never told Steve.  Steve was getting this from his memories, from his mind.

Bruce was staring at him, equally horrified. Then he turned back to the display.  “Steve, I need you to focus. It’s really important.”

“Thor’s here,” Steve said.  “And Clint. Clint thinks I have brain damage.” He frowned. “Do I?”

Bruce frowned, too. If there’d been any doubt that he wasn’t still reading their thoughts even at this distance, it died a pretty spectacular and upsetting death.  “That’s what I need your help to figure out.  There’s a cart right to your left.  Inside there are–”

Steve was already moving, already pulling open the top drawer, already putting the adhesive sensors on his arms.  They were the same ones he’d worn before, when they’d first brought him here.  Steve wasn’t terrible careful about getting them in place, but at least he knew where.  Tony couldn’t tell if that was because he remembered from all the times before or he was receiving information from Bruce’s thoughts.  Either way, he was lifting his shirt (revealing that tapered waist and a chest that put Adonis to shame with its chiseled eight-pack of abs and those glorious pecs and miles of pale, milky skin across it all and – Jesus – this was no time to ogle) and putting the sensors on.  Then he was sticking one on either temple before flopping back to the bed with a groan.  “Gonna throw up,” he whined.

“There’s a basin to the left,” Bruce commented, tapping rapidly at the display.  “Just lay still.  Hold on.”  He was already bringing up the newly recorded data.

Tony only glanced at it, watching Steve instead.  Steve looked decidedly green where he was curling up again on the bed.  Tony couldn’t stand seeing him like this.  Somewhere during that mess back in the jungle months ago, his capacity to handle Steve in danger or pain had gone down the tubes.  It didn’t help that Steve was a magnet for trouble.  For God’s sake, that was why he’d lectured the younger man on this days ago, before everything had gotten all crazy.  He’d had no idea this would happen, and it fucking killed him inside.  “Hold on, Cap,” he murmured, feeling so damn lost.  “Hold on.”

“What the hell’s going on?” Clint demanded as he thundered into the room.  Behind him were Thor and Natasha, the former looking utterly shocked and the latter terrified behind a newly restored stoic façade.  Clint shook his head.  “JARVIS said Rogers went down.”

“And Natasha told us we cannot see him,” Thor added, “that we cannot even come close to his room!”

“Everyone needs to stay calm,” Bruce advised, though his tone didn’t support his request so much anymore.  “Something bad happened.”

“No, really?”  Clint narrowed his eyes, coming to stand beside Tony and stare at Steve on the display.  “I take it this isn’t just all shits and giggles anymore.”  He said that like this turn of events should have been obvious.

“Good God.  His brain activity is off the charts,” Bruce said.  His eyes were wide, and he was shaking his head the way he did when one of his experiments veered off in a way he hadn’t expected.  “The EM signature is ten times what it was before.  The resting level, when he wasn’t touching anyone.”

Tony glanced at the read-outs.  Holy shit.  Steve was now producing more of this weird electromagnetic radiation than a gamma-ray generator, which was all kinds of horrifying.  Bruce tapped at the screen, creating another image of Steve’s body.  The flow of energy from it was incredible.  Tony knew it was yet again simply the computer coloring the output, but it was bright, vibrant, like a shimmering rainbow encasing a human form.

“I guess this explains why he’s reading minds without touch,” Bruce mused.  “The EM radiation and the range of his powers isn’t linearly related, but it is most definitely related somehow.”

“Is the energy what’s hurting him?” Natasha asked.  “Some kind of radiation sickness?”

“It’s not ionizing.  It never has been.  Like I said, it’s similar to Loki’s scepter, which never hurt anyone,” Bruce replied.  Then he winced.  “Never made anyone sick.  Sorry.”

Clint shook his head dismissively.  “Even if the power’s this much stronger?”

“If it was the radiation, wouldn’t his serum protect him?” Thor offered.

“Guys, he’s been swimming in this energy for more than a week now.  I don’t think it’s the culprit.  Plus, if it was, getting us away from him wouldn’t have eased his symptoms.”  Bruce exhaled shortly, hands flying across the display.  “The telepathy is causing physical distress now.  For whatever reason.”

“If this radiation is ten times stronger, then his powers are, too,” Natasha said angrily.  “Maybe he’s like – like an antenna or something.  We’re constantly broadcasting, and he’s receiving, only the range is much bigger now.  It’s too much for him to handle!”

An antenna. Tony had called Steve that before.  He’d been joking then, but now it made a sickening amount of sense.  Whatever had caused this, Steve was open to their thoughts now, all their thoughts, and the physical distance between them and him was the only protection.  Natasha was exactly right.

As if to confirm that, across the feed Steve moaned and then mumbled something.  It wasn’t English.  The words were deep, slurred, but it sounded… Russian?  Tony went cold, and Natasha paled.  Frozen, she watched Steve mutter and moan for what felt like forever.  She didn’t translate, turning back to Bruce insistently.  “How can we fix this?”

Bruce threw up his hands in exasperation.  “It’s not like I’ve magically conjured up an answer in the last fifteen minutes!  I still don’t know!  I–”

An alarm wailed again, piercing the tension.  Tony recognized it instantly.  Steve’s pulse was skyrocketing again, his body locking itself anew with terrible convulsions like they hadn’t given him a sedative minutes prior.  His vitals swung wildly into an even more dangerous state than before.  Instantaneously, the readouts from the sensors he was wearing also increased radically.  The energy output from his body was dramatically higher than even a few seconds prior.

“It’s rising again!” announced Bruce, dread and alarm in his voice.  Like that wasn’t frightfully obvious.  “I don’t get this, I don’t get this, I–”

Steve’s scream cut him off.  On the display, his body was writhing just as violently as before, like some angry child was yanking him about as if he was a rag doll.  “Oh, what the hell,” Clint moaned, watching with huge hazel eyes.  “Someone fucking do something!”

Tony could barely manage to think, even though the truth was blatantly obvious.  “We have to go further.”  That ill feeling churning in his gut got worse, and it crept through his body in a hot, awful wave, like acid bubbling in his veins.  He shook his head, watching mindlessly as the seizure became worse and worse.  “We have to get further away.”

“What?” Thor demanded.  He gestured toward the horrific scene.  “And leave him like this?”

“We’re the ones causing it!” Tony roared.  “Getting away is the only way to stop it!”

“JARVIS,” Bruce called, “can you calculate a new safe zone based on the rise in the EM signature and our proximity?”

The AI actually sputtered.  “Doctor Banner, there are too few data points to begin to determine a mathematical relationship with any statistical certainty–”

“Just guess!”

The couple seconds it took JARVIS to complete the request felt like an eternity, one filled with the hell of Steve slipping away from them again. The seizure stopped, but not because it had somehow been treated or alleviated. It stopped because Steve was falling victim to tachycardia again, and this time it was leading to ventricular fibrillation. It stopped because Steve’s heart was no longer beating properly. It stopped because he was dying.

“Twenty-one point eight meters,” JARVIS finally proclaimed. Then came the vicious kicker. “In all directions. It is a radius of 21.8 meters.”

Thor seemed rattled beyond basic comprehension skills. “What does this mean?”

“JARVIS, send all of our data to Tony’s workshop! And give me constant updates on Steve’s condition!” Bruce shouted, and he was turning to go.

“We’re fucking losing him!” Clint raged, glancing between the display and the others.  “You can’t leave him like this!”

“We also can’t treat him,” Bruce snapped, appraising Clint sharply.  He wasn’t mad at the team per se.  Bruce tended to get riled easily whenever one of them was threatened and he felt even the slightest bit of responsibility (which he always did).  “We can’t touch him!  We can’t even be in there with him!  The best option is getting away from him and hoping the situation corrects itself.”

“It did before,” Natasha whispered, ashen.

Fervently Bruce nodded.  “Yes, so let’s go.  We’re doing more damage to him standing here and debating this!”

The alarms screamed louder.  Frozen, Tony watched in complete misery as the EM signature rose again, a beautiful wave of color flowing all around the image of Steve’s body on the monitor.  With that, Steve’s heart rate faltered further, the already spastic line of the EKG jittering worse and its accompanying numbers wildly changing.  On the bed Steve’s body bent, and then he went limp.  “We have to go now,” Bruce insisted.  “I know it’s terrible, but it’s his only chance.”

There was no choice, no fucking choice.  Tony gave a ragged, frustrated cry before turning and running out of the room, praying he was doing the right thing and hating himself for it.


It was probably a miracle, but their crazy plan ended up working.  The second the Avengers got beyond that twenty-two meter radius, Steve’s vital signs immediately stabilized and the direct threat to his life vanished, just like that.  Tony watched it happen from his workshop, too horrified to do anything but stare blankly and hope with all his heart that this would be okay.

So far, so good.  Steve was quiet, not quite conscious again, laying peacefully on the exam bed.  His eyes weren’t quite closed, and that revealed the amazing blue glow that had inexplicably come to them.  Tony didn’t know if it was an artifact of the video feed or if the ethereal shine was actually this gorgeously stunning.  It didn’t matter.  He couldn’t stop staring at it, couldn’t pay attention to the others arguing around him, to Bruce working feverishly at one of his computer stations with JARVIS guiding him, to Natasha’s soft words advising calm and cool heads, to Clint and Thor blatantly ignoring her and bickering about the whole fucked-up situation and how this had suddenly gone from something funny and light to heavy and horrifying.  Trying to digest and understand and figure out who or what was to blame.

I am.

Minutes and minutes went by.  Tony was gnawing at the inside of his cheek until it hurt, staring uselessly at the screen.  He knew he needed to do more, to help at least.  He also knew this was totally irrational.  He’d been totally and ridiculously irrational ever since this crazy situation had started, first with giving Steve shit about going into that downed alien ship to begin with and then with avoiding him this last week and now with feeling so damn guilty.  He had no idea what was going on or what had caused this, and Bruce was right: blaming himself solved nothing.  He kept telling himself that, kept trying to convince himself, but he couldn’t believe his own lies.  The fact was, he could barely admit the truth to himself, barely address this secret inside, and that secret had caused all of this.

And it was driving Tony mad now.

“Well, this could explain a few things.”

With great effort, Tony looked away from the display of Steve alone and barely conscious in the medical ward.  Bruce was chewing his lip, staring at his data with a taut, quizzical expression on his face.  Then he opened his hands wider and the entire workspace magnified.  Now it was large and bright in front of the whole team.  “What are we looking at?” Natasha asked, hands on her hips.

“Steve’s brain, or at least a pretty good approximation of it,” Bruce replied.  The glowing networks of trillions of points were all around them, a vast, spidery web of interconnected nodes.  Neurons and their axons, entangled perfectly together to create intelligence and emotion and memory.  Tony always marveled at this, at how nature so easily created something so complex and breathtakingly powerful, capable of simply achieving goals even the most advanced artificial intelligence networks in the world couldn’t manage.

Not that that mattered now with Steve’s brain so screwed up.  And not that you could see how dangerous this really was from Bruce’s rendering.  The picture was bright and colorful and incredible.  Just beautiful.

“So there have been some pretty significant changes in the last hour or so,” Bruce declared.  “When I took readings last week, back when Steve was touching people to read their minds, only about 15% of his brain was active in producing that EM signature.”

“I thought you said his whole body is involved in that,” Clint said, shaking his head.

“It is.  But I think a lot of it has always come from his nervous system, both central and peripheral.  The electromagnetic radiation seemed to be originating from how his nerves were electrically interacting with each other across his body, but since most your neurons are in your brain, that’s where the focus was.”  Bruce sighed.  “Anyway, before only 15% of his brain tissue seemed to be... infested with this, I guess.  Infected.”

“Involved,” Natasha coolly corrected.

“Right.  Now more than 50% of his cerebral cortex seems to be producing the EM radiation.  Something kicked this whole system up into overdrive.”  Bruce side-eyed Tony.  “Now I don’t know if it was because he came in contact with the debris from the ship.”  Which was still spread all over the side of the workshop, the weird broken wreckage that was more energy rather than matter which pretty well challenged all laws of physics.  All of it was covered in that weird writing, too.  “And that brought this latent power to life?  Or if somehow coming in contact with Tony did it.”

“His genius brain downloaded into Steve’s brain and shorted it out,” Clint surmised, and while the words were perhaps facetious, nothing about his tone was.

Which made Tony feel even shittier.  “I didn’t know it would happen.”

“If you did not know, then why were you avoiding Rogers all week?” Thor questioned.  There was heat in his voice, anger in his eyes, and they all knew there was no reason to fault Tony for this situation.  Logic rarely trumped emotion, though.

Particularly guilt.  “I didn’t know,” Tony insisted, because he was not going to talk about this.  It was none of their business.  “And what was I supposed to do?  Let him have a seizure in the middle of my workshop?”

“No one knew this could happen,” Bruce said sternly.  “Up until now, there were no indications.  I’ll keep saying it: everything about Steve’s condition was stable.  There was no reason to suspect–”

“We’re talking in circles,” Natasha interrupted, raising her hand to avoid what was likely going to devolve into an argument.  “And it’s water under the bridge at this point.  You said you had an explanation, Bruce, so what is it?”

“Well, maybe explanation is too strong a term.  I have a theory, I guess.”  Bruce turned back to the huge, three-dimensional rendering of Steve’s mind.  “I couldn’t detect this before, maybe because so little of Steve’s brain was actually involved with his telepathy.  Now it’s more obvious.  These patterns of EM activity?”  Sections of Steve’s brain lit up, including the frontal cortex and the limbic systems.  “They’re odd, kind of like...  It’s hard to describe.  It looks like brain activity.”

“It’s his brain,” Clint said irately.  “So that would make sense.”

“His brain, but not his brain activity.  This is not human brain activity.”  Bruce gestured to the display, to the glow of energy.  “It’s too high frequency, not like anything from this planet.  I have been saying that all along, but I can see patterns now.  It’s not just a constant bombardment of energy, and it’s not random.  There are components to the waveforms.  It’s almost like…”  The display showed that, using mathematical analyses to break down the complex energy signature into its underlying factors.  Bruce appraised the results, shaking his head like he knew what he was suggesting was biologically and physically illogical.

Then again, they were talking about alien telepathy being implanted in their friend’s brain.  Was anything about this logical?  “It’s almost like another consciousness is super-imposed on top of Steve’s.”

A complex image of composite wavelengths separated and became distinguishable on the display.  The bottom plane was Steve’s normal, human brain activity.  The top layer was far more, more peaks, troughs, and higher amplitudes.  Far higher frequencies that matched the EM signature.  Tony couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  It seemed no one else could, either.  “That’s not possible,” Natasha murmured.

Bruce threw his hands up a bit in helplessness.  “Apparently it is.  Steve doesn’t just have some wacky mind powers.  He has a whole secondary mind functioning in his head.”

“Another mind?” Thor said slowly, eyes narrowed as he tried to understand.

“Another mind,” Bruce agreed.

“The aliens he thought he saw.”  The words slipped softly from Tony’s mouth.  His own mind was mulling this over, turning around Bruce’s conclusions and forming new ones using them.  “Before he fell, he was reading their language.”

“Yeah, you said.”  Bruce cocked an eyebrow.  “Which makes a lot of sense if he has some sort of alien consciousness embedded in his brain, tangled up in his own thoughts.  An alien consciousness from an alien race that has a ship that’s made of a mix of energy and matter, one in a constant, impossible state of flux.  An alien race that’s far, far advanced, way beyond anything here on Earth in terms of technology, intelligence, and evolution.  An alien race where telepathy may be their primary form of communication for all we know.”

That was… an enormous conclusion, but it did make sense.  Why Steve seemed affected by being close to the wreckage.  Why he’d been able to make sense of the glyphs all over the debris.  And maybe why he’d started acting so strange.  Clint squinted, shaking his head.  “But if there were aliens on board that ship, and Cap saw them, then what happened to them?  Where are the bodies?”

Bruce sighed, scrubbing a hand through his mussed salt-and-pepper curls.  “Maybe they’re non-corporeal.”

Everyone was silent.  Thor dropped his massive arms from where they’d been crossed over his chest.  “Non-what?”

Bruce opened his mouth to answer, but Natasha beat him to it.  “Non-corporeal.  As in they don’t have a body like humans or other aliens do.”  Tony actually tore his gaze from Steve’s now slumbering form to stare at Natasha in surprise.  He wasn’t the only one, too.  The entire team was staring at her.  She balked, and despite everything a faint blush colored her cheeks.  “What?  I’ve seen Star Trek once or twice.”

Shocked, Bruce just stared a moment more.  Then he gave himself a little shake like he needed to knock himself free.  “Well, whatever.  The point is these aliens obviously have the technology to phase matter and energy.  It’s interchangeable to them.  The physical form might not be necessary to them.”

“So… what?”  Clint shook his head.  “Those pods were storing these guys?”

Bruce thought about that.  “Or transporting them.  Or protecting them.  Or all of the above.  Who knows?  But it makes sense.  You said the composition of the pods was different from the rest of the ship, right, Tony?”

Tony nodded.  He’d said that a couple of days ago when he’d begun studying the wreckage more intently.  The pods were comprised of metals that were far more solid and less constantly changing from matter to energy.  Not that Tony could identify what types of metals and substances had gone into their construction.  He’d never seen anything like it.

“So if they were some sort of transport containers, when the ship was fired upon by the Kree, its power systems failed and the pods opened,” Thor offered.

“And maybe the rest of the non-corporeal dudes fizzled away or something,” Clint added.  “Except for the one closest to Steve.  It found a new containment vessel.”

“It certainly seems possible,” Bruce agreed.  “That burst of EM radiation could have been the creature transferring itself into him.  The ship was so saturated in that stuff that it could also be that it was flown and operated through some sort of alien hive mind.”

“That would explain there not being a cockpit,” Natasha said, “or any other obvious flight controls.”

“And all of this might explain why the Kree pursued them,” Thor added.  “Technology this advanced, to change matter into energy at will and exist in the places in between, to fundamentally alter the mind of an organic being…  The Kree hunger for the capacity to dominate and control.”

Clint nodded. “Or they perceive it as a threat.  If they’re so gung-ho about fighting everyone like you said.”

“Aye,” Thor rumbled.  His eyes narrowed.  “There is much beyond the Nine Realms, beyond our galaxy even, that is unexplored and unknown.  Given the chance, the Kree would certainly–”

“Not to interrupt all this awesome, geek-inspired speculation, but it doesn’t fucking matter.”  They all turned to Tony.  For his own part, Tony hadn’t quite realized what he was about to say.  His emotions – terror and worry and anger – just surged, and out it came.  He glared at the others.  “What we need to do is figure out how to get this thing out of Steve’s head.  Because I don’t know if you guys aren’t noticing or what, but this non-corporeal asshole who decided to take up residence in our captain?  It’s killing him.”

The others stood stiffly, harmed by the bluntness of that.  Tony sighed, waving a hand at the rendering of Steve’s brain all alit with the EM radiation and the secondary consciousness infesting him.  “The human body, even one with super serum, is clearly not meant to house this thing.  So we need to get it out of him right now.  Like right now.

“I still don’t have any idea how to do that,” Bruce said, and his voice was thick with barely restrained emotion again.  “Do you?”

Tony ignored that bait.  “Then that’s what we need to be discussing.  I don’t…”  His voice twisted and died with the knot in his throat, with his own roughly contained feelings that he didn’t want them to see.  He looked down, fighting to breathe through it and keep going.  “This is clearly getting worse.  Much worse.  I don’t know what caused it, and I frankly don’t care.”  He swiped away the image of Steve’s brain from the holographic projection and brought up one of his own, what he’d been thinking about this whole time while the others were contemplating science fiction.  This was plain old science.  The math behind it, as complicated as it was, was concrete, something he could actually solve.  And it didn’t look good at all.

Including the graph hovering in front of them, which showed a model between the EM radiation intensity, the amount of organic tissue involved in the telepathy, distance, and time.  “If you extrapolate out what’s happening…  If Steve’s powers continue to increase as they have, as they are right now, we have less than a day before no one can be in the building with him or within a block radius.  We have less than two days before we’re talking about evacuating Midtown.”

“Holy shit,” Bruce whispered, shaking his head.  “You’re sure?”

“I have JARVIS crunching the numbers, but it’s not rocket science.  There’s some kind of exponential relationship between the strength of his telepathy and the range it encompasses.  I know we only have a few data points, but the math doesn’t lie.  We have only maybe three days – maybe – before the only safe place for him is out on the middle of the goddamn Atlantic ocean.  Or the fucking moon, take your pick.”  Tony sighed shakily, biting at his cheek again in utter frustration.  “Either way, unless we fix this or isolate him from the entire city, from humanity, he’s dead.”

They were all silent.  No matter what else, this harsh reality was firm and undeniable and right in front of him.  That graph, with its steeply climbing line from this point to Steve’s death.  Tony glanced at the image of Steve in the medical ward, sleeping fairly peacefully on the bed.  But the sensors all over him were registering the increase.  He’d been watching those numbers – the involvement of 50% of his brain tissue and intensity of the EM field around him, the required safe distance – go up and up.  They were safe in the workshop at the moment; it was farther away than those twenty-six meters JARVIS had advised.  But it wouldn’t be in about thirty-three minutes.

And all of this, of course, assumed that there’d be anything left of Steve’s mind to save.  This spirit – or whatever the fuck it was – was consuming him, for lack of a better term.  More than half his nervous system was engaged in serving it or dominated by it or becoming it, for all they knew.  The fact that Steve’s body couldn’t withstand the psychic energy all around him might become irrelevant.  Either way, Steve’s life was in the balance right now.

Just like that.

“Shit,” Clint breathed.  He tipped his head back, hands on his hips, whole body tight with frustration.  “How the hell did this go from something funny to this?

“We need to do something now,” Thor demanded.  “We need more people on this.”

“I’ll contact SHIELD, but they’ve been working on it,” the archer declared.  “Obviously there are no easy answers here.”

“Easy or not, the answers must be found.”  Thor stepped closer to the graph.  Maybe the science and math behind this were beyond his understanding, but the image told the story clearly enough.  “There must be others we can engage, other scientists who can perhaps lend new perspective.”

Clint glowered.  “SHIELD can bring more people in, but we have the greatest minds on Earth right here.  If they can’t solve the problem–”

“What about the containment vessels themselves?  These pods?”  Thor shook his head.  “Can we not use them to reseal the creature?”

Helplessly Bruce gestured at the wreckage.  “None of them are functional, and even if they weren’t blown to hell, we can’t fix them.  We can’t even figure them out.  This technology is kinda beyond us.  We keep saying it.  It’d take months or even years to really study it.  Plus I’d have no idea if we could lure this creature out of Steve’s head.”

“Into a cage,” Clint grumbled.

“Exactly.”

“You’re attributing negative connotation to something you admit you do not understand,” Thor declared crossly.  “Perhaps it is not a cage.  Perhaps returning to its vessel would bring this spirit comfort.  Even if it is a consciousness, we have no cause to consider its implantation into Steve malicious or even purposeful.  It might be a victim in this as much as he is!”

“The sole survivor of the crash,” Tony murmured.  God, there was irony in that.  Steve had gone into that ship to find survivors, and found them he had.  In the worst way imaginable.

All the sudden Natasha stepped closer to the wreckage along the side of the workshop, where Tony had been working before.  The rest of the Avengers watched her as she brought up the array of glyphs and symbols.  “This creature was the sole survivor,” she commented.  “What do you do as the sole survivor?”

Tony just stared a moment.  Then he understood.  Natasha was a genius.  “You send a distress signal,” he said.  She smiled and nodded.

Of course.  It seemed so clear.  If their team couldn’t figure out how to get this entity out of Steve’s head, then said entity’s own people might.  If the Avengers could get them here.  If they could alert them.

If they could read their language.

Tony took a deep breath.  “I have an idea.”


Six stories above Tony’s workshop, Iron Man made his way into the medical ward.  It was somewhat strange, to see the armor walking alone through the vacant corridors.  Casually strolling, for all intents and purposes.

“Can’t you go any faster?” Clint griped.

Tony sighed.  “The Iron Legion protocol hasn’t really been tested yet.  JARVIS and I just finished working out the major kinks.”  He tapped a few spots on the holographic terminal.  “So deal with it.”  On the display, the HUD was showing Iron Man’s field of vision, the corridors of the medical bay in fact as the armor made its way through them.  To the left of the image were Steve’s vital signs, which were thankfully steady.  To the right was the alien’s EM signature, which was climbing but at a slower rate.  Bruce was beginning to think psychic contact itself might have be a catalyst for the surge in Steve’s powers, which was in turn causing him to become more sensitive to psychic energy at a greater range, which was then resulting in an increase in EM signature again, and all of it was becoming some sort of vicious feedback loop.

Still, because everyone in the building was outside Steve’s range (save for an empty suit of armor being remotely controlled like a puppet), things were stable at the moment.  For the moment.  That was the key point here, and that was why Clint was so antsy, pacing behind Tony while Tony concentrated on helping JARVIS pilot the suit.  There was absolutely no time to waste.  Natasha was on the horn with SHIELD, alerting Fury to the situation, which Tony had not wanted to do in the slightest; he knew how Steve felt about SHIELD and how Steve disliked being anyone’s burden or concern.  Still, Tony had to concede that they required help with the time constraints, and if this came to needing to evacuate around the Tower, SHIELD had the power to make that happen.

So she was off coordinating with Fury.  Bruce was in another lab a couple floors down, desperately pouring the data about Steve’s condition with renewed vigor to determine if he’d missed anything in his week-long study that would stop it or at least slow it down.  So far, there was nothing.  Thor was “assisting” him (meaning he’d carried samples of the wreckage from the alien ship down there for Bruce’s own research, and he was now probably doing what Clint was doing – pacing and pestering).

Not that Clint could do anything else.  “This is fucking crazy,” he muttered, pivoting again as he reached the end of his self-imposed track before turning back.  “You should be devising some kind of beacon or something.  Figuring out how to broadcast this thing.”

Tony tapped a few spots to recalibrate Iron Man’s sense of gravity; the suit was veering a bit.  He really wished he’d devoted more effort to the Iron Legion protocol to work out the kinks.  He’d started on it a couple weeks ago, but he’d been working less lately and spending more and more time with Steve.  “There’s nothing to broadcast unless this works.”

“What if he’s not conscious?”

Tony glanced at Steve’s vitals.  “Brain activity shows he is,” he replied, but he was worried about it, no mistake.  Steve hadn’t really moved in the last hour.  Tony had no idea if he was awake or had any idea what was going on.

Clint sighed.  “Then what if he’s too out of it to help?  Or what if he can’t help?  Or what if–”

“Barton!” Tony snapped, turning in his rolling chair to glare at his companion.

Clint glared back but then surrendered and continued pacing.  “Fucking crazy,” he grumbled more disparagingly.  “Bullshit.  This is bullshit.  E.T. fucking phone home.”

Tony couldn’t argue with him, not really.  This whole plan – getting Steve, whose brain was basically being overrun by an alien spirit, to help them read said alien’s language to send a distress call to said alien’s buddies and pray they cared enough about their wayward friend to come and get it – was basically insane, a page right out of E.T. or The X-Files or any number of sci-fi stories.  But there were no choices.  They only had a few hours before the danger to Steve would force them to evacuate Stark Tower and a few blocks around it.  Assuming things stayed steady, that was.  It was pretty horrifying that a stable but inexorable and inexplicable slide into disaster was the best case.

Tony wasn’t going to let that happen.  “JARVIS?”

“Approaching Captain Rogers’ room,” the AI tensely replied.  “Our model indicates you have eleven minutes before you must leave your current location.  I have already begun preparations to transfer our project to Stark Industries’ ancillary laboratories on the twenty-first floor.  Thor is on his way to move the debris.”

Having to relocate right now was shit, but if they had to, they had to.  “Have SI Security help him.”  Normally they went out of their way to keep the company (and other civilians) disconnected from Avengers’ business.  The bottom half of Stark Tower was used by Stark Industries, and entrance to the Avengers’ facilities above the twenty-second floor was strictly prohibited.  Exigent circumstances.  “Tell them to hurry and make damn sure they know not to go any higher than this floor.”

“Yes, sir.  This is will perhaps be difficult, but I feel I should mention we will buy ourselves some time by transferring Captain Rogers to your penthouse first.  It is the highest location in the Tower and should serve to increase the distance between you on his end.”

Tony had already been considering that.  Moving Steve wasn’t so much the problem, though that might be difficult if he wasn’t conscious and capable of walking.  Moving emergency medical equipment?  Scanners?  Drugs?  A fucking ventilator should Steve’s breathing fail on them again?  “Get the other suits from the armory.”

“Sir?”

“I know the protocol has flaws, but we should be able to move a bunch of equipment without burning the Tower down.”  Hopefully.  One of the bugs in the system tended to have Iron Man shooting the floor instead of raising his arm.  “Okay, we’re at his room.”

Clint instantly gave up pacing and came to stand behind Tony and lean right over his shoulder, which was all kinds of irritating.  Tony was too nervous and worried to notice, though.  On the HUD, Iron Man walked inside the exam room.  Steve was still on the bed, and he looked… okay.  Passed out or sleeping, Tony wasn’t sure which.  The cameras in the room were fairly well fixed, but Iron Man wasn’t, and as the armor got closer, the view of Steve’s face became clearer.  He really did look peaceful, despite all this.  Untroubled.  Tony found himself staring, lost in an image he’d wanted to see for a long time, if he was honest with himself.  Steve’s handsome face lax with slumber, long lashes pressed lightly to pale skin, hair mussed over his brow and begging to be caressed back, those plush, pink lips parted with slow, even breaths…

“Take a picture,” Clint said, not too kindly.  “It’ll last longer.”

Tony snapped from his haze and grunted.  “You’re an asshole,” he snarled beneath his breath.  Then he touched a few spaces on the control panel to route his voice through Iron Man.  “Cap?  Can you hear me?”

Unsurprisingly, Steve didn’t answer, which brought back a whole load of guilt about forcing him awake. Again, though, there wasn’t much choice. “Come on, Steve,” he beckoned again. He put his hands into the holographic controls for Iron Man’s gauntlets and reached the suit’s fingers to Steve’s shoulder. The suit didn’t have the best dexterity, fine motor control, or a soft touch, even when he was inside it. Like this it felt absolutely clunky. Gotta refine the whole system when this is over.

Steve stirred and mumbled something. “What’d he say?” Clint asked, brow furrowed.

Tony didn’t answer, though he’d heard it. “Nothing you build is clunky, Tony.” Steve could sense his thoughts, even from here. Hurry.  “Steve, it’s Tony. Open your eyes, pal. Come on.” He shook Steve’s shoulder as gently as he could. It was weird touching him but not getting the direct feedback from Iron Man’s systems and his own senses. “You have to wake up. Right now. You’re in serious trouble.”

“Wake up, Cap!” Clint shouted.

For whatever reason, that order got Steve moving.  His eyes shot open, and he leaned up fast with a wrangled gasp, and that turned out to be a horrendous mistake.  The unfortunate incident they’d avoided before ended up happening now, pretty much all over Iron Man’s boots.  JARVIS turned the armor away before the two men could really see, but the sounds of Steve heaving was awful enough.  “Get him something, Stark,” Clint ordered, green himself.

Iron Man headed to the side of the room and then returned with a basin and a couple towels.  Steve was still shaking, turned shamefully to the side, his breath ragged and tinged with the threat of more vomiting.  “Sorry,” he moaned.  The HUD focused on his quivering back, on his hands denting the exam bed again.  “Sorry.”

“Here, Steve,” said Tony, maneuvering the suit to offer the towels.  “It’s alright.”

Steve took them with a trembling hand.  Then he wiped his face and spat into the basin before turning around.  His eyes were still so wildly bright, even when his face broke in confusion.  “Tony?”  He shook his head.  “What’s with the suit?”

“Do you know what’s going on?” Clint asked, leaning even closer.

The confusion got even worse.  “Clint?  You’re using Iron Man?”  Fear flashed in his overly bright eyes.  “Where’s Tony?”

“Right here, Steve,” Tony answered.  “Neither of us are in the armor.”

Steve just blinked.  He looked completely befuddled, which was a good look on him.  An adorable look, really, which Tony couldn’t help but think despite the gravity of this.  Then he prayed Steve wouldn’t telepathically pick up that.  Or anything else.

Which Steve didn’t.  He looked pale and nauseous and fairly horrified at the mess, and then he was sliding off the exam bed to wipe it up.  “No, no,” Tony said.  “Leave it.  Just lay back down.”

“What…”  Steve looked around, squinting as if nothing appeared right to him.  It probably didn’t.  “What happened?”

“You don’t remember being in my workshop?  Going all…”  Tony didn’t want to use the word, but he did anyway. “…crazy?”

Steve just stood there at the end of the bed, the armor poised next to him in case something should happen. The moment he spent thinking felt endless. Tony didn’t know if he was remembering what had gone on or gathering the information from someone else’s thoughts. It didn’t matter. Steve’s eyes widened, and his cheeks paled further, and his blood pressure and heartrate rose. “Oh, God.”

It felt shitty to agree, but agree Tony did. “Yeah, it’s bad.”

“How bad?”

Tony and Clint shared a look. What was the point in lying?  “Bad enough that we can’t be in there with you. No one can be near you at this point.  Last time we tried you ended up nearly having a heart attack,” Clint said.

“In the middle of having some awesome seizures,” Tony added, hoping his voice didn’t sound as throaty and emotional to Steve as it did to him.  “You always were extra.”

The joke fell flat.  Steve was still scanning his surroundings, looking utterly lost.  “How far away are you?” he finally asked after another few quiet, tense moments.

“Far enough that you’re okay,” Tony replied.  “For now.  But it’s not going to last, so we need to find a way to fix this.”

“I can still sense you,” Steve murmured.  “Can’t… can’t read your thoughts, but I know where you are.”  Clint glanced worriedly at Tony, but Tony was busily studying the EM energy readings from the sensors on Steve’s body.  Sure enough, now that he was conscious, the levels were rising, and their eleven minutes was down to seven and decreasing rapidly.  Shit.  On the display, Steve was stumbling away from the bed.  He looked unsteady and extremely panicked, glancing about wildly.  “What’s happening to me?”

Tony stood from his rolling chair, like he could actually go to Steve.  This was bullshit.  “Stay calm.  Steve?  Hey, I need you to be calm.”

“There’s no way to fix it!” Steve cried.  His eyes were bright with tears, and he looked terrified.  Of course he would be.  The enormity of what he was waking to was right there, in the empty medical ward with an empty suit of armor as his only companion.  He couldn’t be with anyone.  He was sick, and he was alone in the strictest sense of the word, isolated for his own good.  Tony watched his pulse go higher, his respiration increase to the point where he was nearly hyperventilating.  “Bruce said he couldn’t fix it!”

Tony had never wanted to be physically with someone as badly as he did right then.  “Steve, listen to me.  Listen.”  Steve wasn’t listening.  He clearly wasn’t entirely in his right mind – that’s fucking laughable! – because he was stumbling out the door.  JARVIS moved faster than Tony could manage, and Iron Man grasped Steve’s arm and pulled him back.  Steve struggled, but he wasn’t putting all of his strength into it (or he wasn’t with it enough to try).  Either way, Iron Man got him back into the room.  “Steve, calm down.  Come on.  J, get me on the display.”

JARVIS did as he requested, and a second later Tony was staring at himself on the exam room’s large wall.  The second his image appeared there, the second Steve saw him, Steve visibly relaxed.  Tony couldn’t stop to think about what that meant, what Steve had to know.  That timer was counting down.  “I know this is crap.  It’s terrible, and you’re scared, but you’re not alone.”  That was what this was.  A reminder to Steve that he wasn’t alone.  Tony took a deep breath.  “And we’re going to find a way to stop this.”

Steve stared a moment, like he wasn’t sure or couldn’t understand or was hearing something – the doubt in Tony’s mind, in the back of Tony’s heart, the fear and the worry and the truth – but then he nodded.  “Okay,” he said softly.  “Okay.”

“Alright,” Tony said on a long breath.  He glanced at Clint, praying he wasn’t going to make a liar out of himself.

Steve quirked a grin, looking away from the display.  “You don’t lie, Tony.”  That was said quietly, affectionately, almost secretively.

Tony almost choked on his breath.  Here and now, in the middle of all this…  Steve couldn’t be flirting with him?  Christ.  Focus!  “Right,” he said on a shivery breath, trying not to notice Clint caught between shocked and smirking.  “First we need to get you up to the penthouse.  That’s the highest point in the Tower.”

Steve squinted, raising his gaze upward as if he could see all the way to the top of the Tower.  Then he nodded, turning back to video feed with Tony.  “Yeah, okay.”

Clint gestured to the timer.  They had to go now.  “Can you walk, Cap?”

Steve looked unsteady but he nodded.  Tony and JARVIS didn’t take any chances, bringing Iron Man over immediately.  Steve grimaced but put his arm around the armor for support.  “Not like it’s the first time,” Tony said cheekily, willing to do anything to keep the tone light and Steve moving.  The armor could get him to the penthouse if he went down again, but the thought of him suffering another near-death experience was too terrible to contemplate.  “At least you’re not bleeding all over me.  Or puking.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Steve moaned through gritted teeth as he and Iron Man hobbled and limped out into the hallway.  He stood a bit taller at the odd sight coming toward him.  “What the hell…  I really am goin’ nuts.”

Tony smiled faintly as JARVIS directed his other Iron Man suits, four of them in all from the Mark VI to the Mark X, marched down the hall.  “They’re just getting us some gear for upstairs.”

Steve grunted, tripping over his own feet a little and nearly staggering into Iron Man.  “What?” he gasped.

“Nothing you need to worry about,” Tony replied, worried himself at how sick Steve seemed to be getting and how quickly it was happening.  The EM levels were rising even faster, and the timer was dropping rapidly.  “C’mon, Cap.  Chop chop before you go wonky again.”

Thankfully, between Iron Man’s physical support, JARVIS’ expert piloting, and Tony and Clint’s constant chatter, they managed to keep Steve on his feet and walking down to the elevators.  From there it was a fairly quick and uneventful ride up to the top floor.  The higher Steve went, the slower the rate of increase in the EM radiation became, just as they’d suspected.  Once they reached the top floor, they’d gain back another thirty minutes before Clint and Tony would have to descend further.  Tony breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that, both that their theory was holding true and that Steve was okay.  It’s great.  We can just keep him totally isolated from everyone else forever.

That bitter thought thankfully didn’t get to Steve.

The second Iron Man opened the doors to the penthouse, Steve weakly shrugged free of his grip and quickly staggered to the massive living area.  He flopped onto the couch, more graceless than Tony had ever seen him be.  He was face down for the most part, butt somewhat up in the air, groaning.  His t-shirt had ridden up a bit, revealing a swath of milky skin across his lower back.  Were the circumstances different…  They’re not.  Yet again Tony was a terrible man for even looking.  “JARVIS, send one of the Legion to get clothes from Steve’s floor.  Something comfortable.”  He hadn’t even noticed until now but Steve was still missing one of his shoes.  His jeans and t-shirt were rumpled and sweaty.  “Pajamas and stuff.”

“Yes, sir.  Captain Rogers, I suggest you drink and perhaps eat something bland and easy on your digestive system.  You cannot afford to become dehydrated.”

Steve only groaned.  Obviously just the trip up here had worn him out.  “Steve, don’t conk out yet,” Tony called.  He took control of the suit, quickly making his way to his kitchen.  He never used it, as fancy and elaborate as it was.  And he didn’t know what he had on hand for food, let alone food that me JARVIS’ requirements of being bland and easy on one’s stomach.  He managed to find a few protein bars in the pantry (a billion dollar, weaponized suit of armor picking through a pantry was probably a pretty comical scene, if anything about this could be funny).  With the bars in hand, he took a couple bottles of water from the refrigerator.  One immediately burst because the suit gripped too hard; the sensors weren’t integrated well enough into the remote piloting protocols.  Dripping wet, he directed Iron Man back to the living room.

Steve had slumped further on the couch, at least turning his face a bit so he could breathe.  He looked like two hundred and fifty pounds of super soldier dead weight.  Above Tony’s shoulder, Clint sighed.  “He’s too sick for this.”

Tony wasn’t about to admit defeat.  This was too important.  Maybe the food and water would energize Steve enough to function.  “Come on, Rogers.  Wakey wakey.”  He had Iron Man set the items down on the coffee table (gently – breaking another bottle or shattering the glass wouldn’t have been cool) before nudging Steve over.  The strange scene was about to get stranger as Iron Man sat with the soft whir of its servos on the couch, pushing the practically insentient soldier to his side.  Again, if this hadn’t been so damn scary, it could have been adorable.  “Steve, I have water and something to eat.  And we need to talk.  So wake up.”

“Go ’way,” Steve grumbled, curling tighter into himself.

“If you want us to help you,” Clint began, clearly trying to keep his own frustration at bay, “you need to help us.  So let’s go.  Drink, eat, and listen.”

Steve grumbled something else.  “This belated birthday present from the universe sucks, Barton.”  Clint took a moment to remember his wayward comment made a week ago, and then he grunted a chuckle, glancing at Tony in relief as Steve struggled to sit up.  Iron Man couldn’t quite manage unwrapping the protein bar or uncapping the water bottle, so Tony handed those to Steve through the piloting interface.  Steve couldn’t do it either at first, with his hands shaking so bad.  He was shivering, sighing like he was trying to control his emotions.  “Am I gonna die?”

Jesus.  “No,” Tony said, “and you just said I don’t lie, right?”  Steve looked right at Iron Man’s face, and his eyes were blindingly bright.  It was eerie and unearthly and powerful, like Steve could see him straight through the machine and meters and meters away.  Then Steve nodded, looking down and finally ripping open the wrapper of the snack.  Tony sighed.  “But we don’t have a lot of time, and I need you to help me figure out the aliens’ language.”

Confused, Steve frowned.  With a groan, he sat up a bit more, using the armor for support, and then took a drink from the water bottle.  “Their language?”

“You were reading it before you had the seizure.  Do you remember?” Tony prompted.  “In my workshop.”  He was already having JARVIS send the information to the StarkPad on the coffee table.  Hopefully he’d be able to handle the touch interface with a metal suit of armor.

Steve was frowning even harder.  He nibbled on the protein bar a little.  “Not really, no.”

“Well, you did.  So I have a compendium of their symbols or letters or whatever here that JARVIS and I put together.  You need to look through them and tell us what they mean.”  Tony handed him the StarkPad, having brought up the data without cracking the screen.  Yay.  Today was looking up.

The furrow in Steve’s brow was deeper than the Grand Canyon, and if he frowned any more vehemently, his face was going to get stuck that way.  He stared at the symbol like it was personally attacking him.  “Tony, I – I don’t know.  Why…”

Tony hesitated a moment, but again there was no point in lying.  “That blast of light, the EM radiation you got hit with...  We think it was one of them.”

Steve looked up.  “Come again?”

“One the aliens.  They’re... spirits, I guess.  Energy.  And one of them is in your head.  That explains your telepathy, explains the readings Bruce is getting from you now, explains why you were able to make sense of this before.  We need to get a handle on what this stuff says, so we can find a way to call them to come pick up their friend.”

“Yeah, you know,” Clint joked lightly, “all Star Trek-like.  Bones and Spock are going to science the shit out of this and save Kirk’s dumbass self from his dumbass antics.  We can play some awesomely lame fight music if you need it.  Rip your shirt off if you want.”

Tony went cold and shook his head.  “Sending out a distress call is how we’re going to save you,” he added quickly.  “So the sooner we can get a signal broadcasting, the sooner these guys can receive it and get here.”

That was a lot for Steve to take in (thankfully he didn’t seem to notice the comment about his shirt).  He sat there, leaning against the couch and Iron Man, holding the StarkPad in his lap with glazed, wide eyes and his mouth hanging limply open.  Of course, all kidding aside, the assumptions about this plan were vast and obvious, first that they could figure out the language enough to muster up some sort of meaningful signal and, second, that said signal would reach these aliens, wherever they were.  The galaxy was a massive place, so that seemed unlikely.  And, third, that the aliens would care enough to come.  And that they would be able (and willing) to get this entity out of Steve’s body without harming him.

It was a fucking longshot, and that was undeniable.  Tony couldn’t lie about that, either.  He felt desperate and terrible and unwilling to even entertain what would happen if this didn’t work, if Steve died from this or ended up in isolation somewhere far from civilization to protect him.  How feasible was that?  How terrible was that?  Steve had already been lost once, cut off from everything he knew and loved, and this time he’d be awake to experience it.

Tony swallowed the lump in his throat.  “So look at the symbol.  Please.  And tell us what it means.”

Steve finally focused and looked down.  Everything went silent as he stared at the StarkPad.  Tony looked up at Clint, but Clint was watching the timer.  Thirty-five minutes.  Then they’d have to go down another few floors.  They’d have to be out of the building by nightfall.  They’d have to evacuate around the Tower that night.  This had to work.

“I don’t know,” Steve finally admitted.  “There’s just… nothing.”

Tony bit his cheek again until it hurt.  “You’re sure?  Because there was before.”

Steve dragged his fingers across the screen, switching the image to another of the hundreds they’d found.  “This doesn’t mean anything to me.”  He sighed and swiped again.  And again.  And again.  “I don’t know!”

Clint grunted and pushed himself back from the chair.  “Well, shit.”  He folded his arms across his chest and started pacing anew.

Behind him, the doors to the workshop opened, and Natasha came through.  She looked grim and worried but determined as she approached.  “SHIELD’s ready to clear the area,” she announced, “and we’ve got the air space around the Tower locked down.”  Her face softened when she saw Steve’s image on the HUD, saw that he was awake and uselessly looking through the symbols.  “How is this going?”

“Poorly,” Clint said, shaking his head irately.

Steve looked up, eyes bright with anger and frustration.  “If there’s someone else in my head, it’s not like I can talk to him!”  He frowned and dropped his gaze again.  “It.  Whatever.  I don’t know.  And you can’t evacuate the city for me.  That’s – that’s not – it’s–” 

“Don’t, Captain Selfless.  Keep looking,” Tony said, trying to stay calm.  There was some serious irony in the fact that Steve could read the minds of anyone within a hundred feet of him at this point but he couldn’t communicate at all with the entity sharing his skull.  Across the penthouse, the doors opened, and the other Iron Man suits entered carrying the medical equipment and supplies.  Steve’s head snapped back up, and he grimaced.  “Don’t!  Don’t worry about that.  Don’t worry about anything.  Focus on this.”

“I’m trying, Tony,” he said, voice thin with pain and distress.  He wiped his face but didn’t quite catch the tear dripping down onto his jeans.

That was pretty damn horrifying and heart-breaking.  Tony had never seen Steve cry, and he had no intention of today becoming the day he did.  He glanced at Steve’s vitals, not liking what he saw, before turning back to his friend.  My friend.  God, what Tony wouldn’t give to tell Steve everything right now, if only to give him just a bit of comfort, show him how not alone he was.  Instead he just kept his own voice level and calm.  “Easy, Steve.  It’s alright.  You’re doing fine.  Keep looking.”

Steve sucked in a deep breath and steadied himself.  Then he swiped through the images more.  He stared at the next symbol, JARVIS helpfully supplying a rendering of the one he was seeing on the display next to Iron Man’s HUD.  Natasha was tense next to Tony as she took Clint’s place and leaned over his shoulder.  Steve swiped the screen to show the next one.  And the next one.  They were dozens into the list, and the minutes were draining away.  Natasha was clearly worried, but she was hiding it.  “Anything, Steve?”

Sighing shakily, Steve shook his head.  “I just don’t know.  None of these look…”  He’d brought up the next image, and his voice died.  Tony recognized it instantly.  The one with the beautiful, thin, intricate lines.  The one Steve had recognized before.  “‘Spirit’,” he whispered now, sweeping his fingers across it.

Tony’s pulse immediately picked up.  Jackpot.  “You recognize that one?”

Steve stared a moment more, motionless.  Behind Tony, Clint stopped pacing and dropped his arms from his chest.  He came closer.  “Cap?”

“Steve, you okay?” Natasha asked, her expression fracturing in worry.  Steve didn’t answer, still looking intently at the pad.  “Steve?”

All the sudden Steve dropped the pad to the table and stood.  He looked utterly horrified.  “It wants to go home,” he gasped.  His brow furrowed, and his jaw tightened, and he trembled.  “It wants to go home right now.”

Alarmed, Tony stood, too.  So much for not being able to communicate with it.  “It’s telling you that?”

Steve squinted, looking around wildly but not focused on anything in the room.  It was almost like he was listening to something none of them could hear.  That probably wasn’t far from the truth.  “Scared,” he finally breathed.  The admission was so soft that it was hard to tell if he’d spoken at all, or if he was talking about himself or the non-corporeal being in his head.  He turned, and those blindingly bright eyes stared directly at Iron Man.  “Help.”

Tony was fairly certain at this point that he was talking to the alien.  Natasha seemed to realize it, too.  “How can we do that?” she asked.  “How can we get you home?”

“Message,” Steve said.  His face had adopted this pained, terrified visage, like something was coming and he didn’t want it but couldn’t stop it.  To the side, his vital signs were becoming erratic again.  Obviously the physical distress was due to more than just his telepathy.  He looked around frantically some more before trying to take a step forward.  Banging into the coffee table nearly toppled him, and Iron Man jumped to steady him.  “Message!”

Clint shook his head,  “Jesus, his heartrate–”

“What message?” Tony demanded, focusing on Steve where he was now thrashing against the armor.  This awful image came to Tony’s head, something out of a horror movie now with the innocent victim struggling against some sort of demonic possession.  That wasn’t fair to the non-corporeal being that had been forced into Steve; for all they knew, Thor was right, and that creature was a victim in this, too.  Tony couldn’t bring himself to care.  “Steve, what message?”

Steve doubled over, sobbing heavily through gritted teeth.  It looked like he was barely holding something at bay.  He reached to the coffee table, nearly lurched forward like something was shaking him, and his palm slammed down too hard.  The glass shattered.  “Steve!” Natasha cried helplessly.  She turned fiery eyes to Tony.  “We have to do something!”

There wasn’t anything to do.  They were twenty floors away, and it was the same shit as before.  Getting close would only make it worse.  And stopping this didn’t solve anything.  Tony felt like a bastard, but the only way to fix this was going forward.  “Steve, what’s the message?”

But Steve was already ahead of him.  He’d broken the table because he’d been reaching for the StarkPad, and he was fishing it out of the broken glass.  Breathing was becoming a challenge, and he all but collapsed back the couch, holding the tablet.  He barely switched it on.  “JARVIS,” Tony gasped.  “Get the medical equipment here!  Get it ready!”  Then Tony was grabbing at the holographic controls for Iron Man.  He knelt the suit in front of Steve, helping steady him, holding the StarkPad up.  “Come on, Steve.  Hold on.  We need the message, okay?  Come on.”

Steve groaned.  He whispered something; Tony couldn’t understand it.  His forefinger was trembling fiercely as he ran it across the screen, across the tablet’s writing program.  Tony put Iron Man’s arm across Steve’s shoulders, gently holding him up as he wrote.  Seconds slipped away, each infinite for how painful this was.  Agony creased Steve’s brow, and he choked on his breath.  Alarms flashed on Iron Man’s HUD, ones that mirrored the red flashing numbers and red-tinted read-outs on the workshop’s display.  “Tony…” Natasha warned, like what was happening wasn’t aggravatingly obvious.

“I know,” Tony whispered, his own panic mounting.  “We need the message.”

She shook her head.  “Tony!”

“I know!  Steve!

Steve’s hand slipped.  Tony watched in utter stupefaction as light spread from his fingertips to the tablet.  “Holy shit,” Clint whispered.  “Holy shit!”

“Tony, stop him!” Natasha cried.

It was too late.  JARVIS thought to have Iron Man pull the tablet away, barely avoiding it getting fried as energy exploded out of Steve.  It was pure white, blinding and overwhelmingly stunning.  Steve screamed.  He was completely encased in it, generating it, the epicenter of it, like a star going supernova.  The building vibrated.

Then the HUD went dead.  Not just the HUD.  Everything.  The sensors.  Steve’s vital signs.  Every link they had to Steve.  Dead.

The three Avengers were silent.  The world seemed to be still, trapped in this grotesque stasis.  This couldn’t be happening.  It’s not happening!

But it was.  Panicked, Tony fumbled at the holographic console. “JARVIS, what the hell is going on?”

“The energy surge caused a localized electromagnetic pulse, sir!  It disrupted Iron Man’s power systems!”

“Get it back!” Tony shouted.  He glanced around their connections to the penthouse, but every single one of them had been disrupted.  “Reboot everything!  Get it back!  Get it back!”

“Ten seconds!” JARVIS declared.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Clint said, shaking his head and pacing again, faster and in a frenzy.  “Fuck, Tony!”

Natasha looked ill, more horrified than Tony had ever seen her be.  She opened her mouth but nothing came out.  There was nothing to say, nothing to do.  Nothing other than wait.  It was the longest, most painful ten seconds of Tony’s life.  He’d lived through some horrible shit: losing his parents, Afghanistan, Obie’s betrayal, falling from the wormhole thousands of feet over Manhattan…  At least those times he hadn’t been helpless.  Right here, right now, unable to go to Steve, unable to save him or talk to him or even see him…

Please, God, let him be okay!

“Coming online!” JARVIS shouted, and Tony fumbled to bring everything up.  The suits rebooted first.  To the left of the dark display, JARVIS displayed Iron Man’s systems as they quickly cycled through diagnostics and calibrations.  Everything looked nominal.  To the right were Steve’s vital signs, which appeared terrifyingly flat.  The sensors weren’t rebooting.

No, that wasn’t it.

The HUD flickered on and revealed the truth.  “Oh, fuck,” Tony whispered.  Steve was lying on the floor between the couch and the coffee table.  He was prone, unmoving.  Not just unconscious.  He wasn’t breathing.  His pulse was nonexistent, the EKG a flat line shooting across the screen.

The psychic surge had stopped his heart. 

“JARVIS, do something!” Natasha cried.

Iron Man was moving then, scooping up Steve’s limp body and surging through the penthouse.  Under JARVIS’ direction, the armor burst into the bedroom and laid Steve on Tony’s California king.  The other suits were already there, having brought in the medical supplies.  The second Steve was on the mattress, the Mark VII was ripping open his shirt.  The Mark VIII was scrambling with an intubation kit.  The Mark VI was readying the AED, and the Mark X was preparing an injectable pen with a cartridge of atropine.  It was a frenetic blur of sleek red, of gold and silver plating, of Iron Man’s intense, glaring blue eyes.  A medical team made of robots, with the world’s most intelligent AI controlling them.

As they fumbled to begin CPR, Tony could only pray his inventions would work well enough to save Steve’s life.


Six hours later, it was well past midnight, and Steve was resting comfortably in Tony’s bed.  Tony himself was nowhere near his own bed, which was a travesty all things considered.  He wasn’t even in his building, in fact.  No, he was a dozen or so blocks away, at SHIELD Headquarters in Time Square.  The entire team was there, and all of the other personnel in Stark Tower had also left.  In fact, a two block radius around the Tower had been completely evacuated, courtesy of Nick Fury and his clout.  Therefore Steve could sleep peacefully, because no other human was within a two thousand foot exclusion zone.

And Tony could only watch him from afar.  It was emotional torture.

All things considered, though, Steve was doing remarkably well given the physical torture he’d just endured.  Apparently this non-corporeal being didn’t take too well to getting upset.  Maybe it was the proximity to reminders from home, the debris from its ship or its language or who knew what.  Tony was trying not to blame this entity for what was happening, but it was even harder not to than before.  Steve was laying in his bed, unconscious after having the Iron Man suits work on his body (for all intents and purposes, his dead body) for more than three minutes before they’d managed to restore his heartbeat.  That had pretty seriously soured Tony’s opinion of these non-corporeal assholes.  That and standing there helplessly without a damn thing he could do to help as Steve had nearly died.  Again.

Fuck this.

Tony sighed and scanned across the video connections on the monitors all around him.  Somebody somewhere would probably call what he was doing obsessive, but he really didn’t care.  He had just about every security camera in the Tower tiled in an impressive display before him.  SHIELD was already carefully watching the Tower and the exclusion zone, but that wasn’t good enough.  Not when one person could cause Steve another bout of seizures and cardiac malady.  JARVIS was also keeping an ever-present, unwavering eye on everything, which was good.  JARVIS was, in fact, running the show at this point.  He was the one actively guarding the Tower.  He was the one piloting the fleet of Iron Man suits keeping watch over Steve and tending to his needs.  He was the one who’d saved Steve’s life, effectively.  Having the AI maintain this vigil should have been comforting.

It wasn’t, though, and not because Tony didn’t trust JARVIS.  He did, with his life and with Steve’s life.  But that wasn’t enough to appease his guilt, fear, and desperation, so he was also keeping an eye on Steve, watching him sleep and checking his vitals constantly.  Right now, everything was relatively stable.  Not great, but stable.  Tony wasn’t sure it’d last, though.  The EM readings from Steve were still rising, like this entity was just gaining more and more power, getting stronger and stronger.  Feeding off of itself, off of other people’s psychic energy, off the goddamn air for all they knew.  Nothing about this made sense, not with forces beyond humanity’s understanding at play here.  Regardless, it was growing more potent, and Steve, the unfortunate vessel it had picked, was in turn becoming sicker and weaker.  If that wasn’t intentional, and this creature (parasite) hadn’t meant to cause this, then it was just horrifically poor luck that that his non-corporeal being needed a body and it was killing the body it needed.

Or maybe it was good luck, fortunate that Steve had been the one in that crashed ship to absorb this thing.  Would an average human without the serum be able to withstand this?  Irrelevant.  Tony was well past the point of caring about any of the what-ifs, about the science, about the chance to learn something from this ordeal.  He just wanted it over and Steve safe, preferably right next to him and never to leave his sight again.

“Sir, the other Avengers are at the laboratory’s door.  Shall I let them in?”

Tony sighed, tearing his eyes away from Steve’s face.  He’d been staring again.  Damn it.  His work lay forgotten on the table before him, and he’d let the metal he was making harden too much before pouring it.  He was going to have to heat it once more.  “Yeah,” he said, heading back over to his makeshift blacksmith’s station.  He set the container of silvery sludge back into the laser heating bed and set the equipment to reheat it.  Quickly.  This project needed to get done now.

This project that he hadn’t told anyone about.  The second they’d been relocated to SHIELD HQ, he’d claimed this lab, kicking out the SHIELD techs and having Stark Industries Security move all of his equipment and gear here.  Then he’d holed up, going to work feverishly while overseeing JARVIS and his Iron Legion getting Steve changed and settled after his attack.  He hadn’t left since, hadn’t eaten all day, was tired and had a splitting headache but wasn’t slowing down for even a second.  So he hardly looked up when Clint demanded, “What in the world are you doing?”

Tony sighed, not looking up at the team’s approach.  “Working.  And keeping an eye on Cap.  Since, you know, humanity’s become poison to him.”

Out of the corner of Tony’s eye, Bruce flinched.  He glanced at the rest of the team, and Tony felt exposed and obvious.  Like he was wearing his goddamn heart on his sleeve.  Which he was, but no one knew that that, and he’d come this far.  He wanted to keep it that way.  “How’s he doing?” Bruce asked, walking toward the displays with the video feeds of Steve sleeping and the continual read-out of his vital signs.

Tony bit his lip and shrugged.  “Okay, I guess.  The Mark VII broke three of his ribs doing CPR.  Thankfully he was dead, so he didn’t feel that.”  There were more flinches on the periphery.  Tony watched his metal bubble and boil.  “It’s already healing.  At least the alien invader hasn’t screwed too much with the serum.  Small miracle, considering that and isolation are about the only things keeping him alive right now.”  Darkly he shook his head.  “No word from our inconvenient guest’s friends?”

Natasha sighed.  “The signal’s been broadcasting on every satellite SHIELD and the US Government have access to.”  It was another small miracle, dumb freaking luck, that the StarkPad on which Steve had been writing the spirit’s message hadn’t been destroyed by the power surge.  One of the Iron Legion had managed to recover it after they’d stabilized Steve, and the suit had immediately jetted the crucial item to SHIELD.  Tony had wasted no time in getting a digital version of the message (which was a series of twelve symbols) shooting into space with as much power and range behind it as humanity could muster.  No one could read the message of course; for all they knew, it could have been an open invitation to the rest of the non-corporeal race to come infest Earth.  Or it could have been picked up by the Kree, a blatant indication that they hadn’t finished the job.  Or it could be a partial message; had Steve even finished transcribing it before he’d gone down?

There was no way to be certain about any of that.

“But so far nothing,” Tony surmised.  If someone had responded or shown up in response to the call, he would have heard about it.  He was watching space as much as he was watching the Tower.  Natasha frowned and nodded.  “Awesome.”

“It has only been a matter of hours.  Deep space communication requires time.  We are doing all that can be done,” Thor quietly reminded.  Tony hadn’t seen him much that afternoon.  He was tense with worry, as they all were.  “And Steve is... well enough right now.”

“Yeah, sick and totally alone,” Tony grumbled, going back to his task.  He donned protective gloves and pulled down his goggles from where they were atop his head before carrying the steaming, now liquid metal back to his work bench.  “Watch out.”

Clint shook his head.  “What–”

“I’m lining Iron Man with whatever those pods are made of.”  He carefully poured the vessel over Iron Man’s boot where it was secured in a safety enclosure.  “I’ve spent most the afternoon screwing around with this weird metal/energy hybrid polymer thing.  When it’s heated, it turns to a liquid like most other things, although the flux gets a little weird.  Anyway, it melts and it binds to other metals.  So I can coat my suit in it.  Which I’m more than halfway done with doing.”

“Are you sure you should be messing with that?” Bruce asked worriedly.

“It’s debris, isn’t it?  And it’s on our planet.  Ergo, it’s ours.”

“Yeah, but–”

“Why?” Clint interrupted, squinting at the huge project Tony had going.  “What does this get us?”

Tony watched the gray liquid completely coat the red and gold plating of the Mark XI.  It tended to harden and gunk up the joints, so he’d been brushing those areas by hand, painting it on rather than pouring it.  The whole thing was tedious and time consuming.  “Hopefully a way for one of us–” Me, he thought sternly. “–to be with Steve.” He could feel the team gawking at him.  He waited until the bottom of the boot was completely sealed in the gray substance (which was oddly shimmery and kind of pretty) before turning to them.  “Think about it.  If these pod things were meant to be containment vessels for the aliens, then this metal must act as a deterrent for their energy.  How else would it keep them inside?”

“And you’re building a barrier,” Bruce declared, eye glazing as he considered the notion.  He rubbed his chin.  “You think the metal will prevent the EM radiation pouring out of Steve from interacting with us.”  Tony nodded, appraising the boot.  It needed a second coat.  Good thing there were a lot of those pods.  “You know you’re not going to be able to test that before you try it.”

Tony had already thought of that.  “Yeah, it’s a risk.  But so is letting Steve suffer another attack without someone with him.  Iron Man and JARVIS handled it last time, but not without trouble.”  There’d been numerous fumbling moments, delays, and inadvertent damage done to Steve.  The broken ribs had been just one multiple contusions and bruises.  The Iron Legion had nearly failed to intubate him, and the precious seconds without oxygen might have been disastrous.  The lack of fine-motor dexterity was compounded by faults in the decision-making trees within the computers in the armors themselves, seconds, yes, but potentially costly in a life and death situation.  The Iron Legion had simply not been programmed to handle this sort of crisis.

Natasha seemed to see through him.  “Tony, they saved his life.  It’s alright.”

“Actually, no, it’s not,” Tony said, and he went over to the pile of metal he’d gathered from the wrecked pods to get more to melt.  “It’s not alright.  It’s not alright that he’s alone in the penthouse with a bunch of robots and a computer taking care of him.  And keeping him company.  And telling him this will be okay.  And making sure he’s alright.  And, you know, being human around someone who’s sick and totally isolated.  Because robots aren’t human.”  Tony closed his eyes and tipped his aching head back.  “No offense, J.”

“None taken, sir.”

“It’s going to be a moot point,” Clint said.  “Fury wants Steve moved.”

Tony turned around, nearly dropping the hunk of metal he was carrying.  “What?”  Thor came to get the item from him, carrying it to his workbench.  Which was good, because Tony was just standing there uselessly.  “Where?”

“Out of the city,” Natasha said.  Tony just stared at her, mouth hanging open.  She looked resigned.  “We need to transport him away from here.  It’s really the only way we can handle this.”

“But we’ve evacuated–”

“It’s not going to be enough,” Bruce said.  “It’s going to take more than a few hours for this situation to be resolved.  The exclusion zone will be twice the size it is now by this evening.”

Tony knew that.  His own model had predicted it, for crying out loud.  “We can’t keep a sizeable chunk of Midtown Manhattan empty for days or longer,” Natasha continued.  She shook her head.  “It wasn’t my choice.  Steve deserves the entire goddamn state bending over backward for him for everything he’s done, but the city council is concerned about the economic and political impact and–”

Tony waved her argument away.  He didn’t want to hear it.  And maybe with the money and influence he had, he could make a stink about this, cause all sorts of trouble, but he was frankly too rattled.  And he didn’t trust that Steve was safe here anyway where other people could have access to him.  That was relying on SHIELD, on local law enforcement to be diligent, and it was requiring people to be caring and decent.  He didn’t have that amount of faith, not when he was this raw.  “Fine.  It’s not feasible.  So what then?”

“SHIELD’s got a small cruiser out in the Atlantic,” Clint explained.  “They’re bringing it in just outside Block Island Sound.  It was designed for unmanned stealth reconnaissance, so a lot of the systems can be directly controlled from HQ or the helicarrier.  It should be pretty self-sustaining.  We get him on there, and hopefully he’ll be safe until we hear from the aliens.”

Tony couldn’t follow what they were suggesting for a moment.  “So you want to load Steve on a ship and send him out to sea?  Indefinitely?”

Clint shrugged sadly.  “You said it earlier.  The only safe place for him is out in the middle of the ocean or the moon.”

“I was fucking kidding!”  The others looked away again as Tony breathed through his distress.  He shouldn’t be taking this out on them.  This wasn’t their fault, and, to be honest, Fury’s plan wasn’t any more or less terrible than any other.  That was the whole problem.  There were no good solutions to this.

After a few long, tense, tedious minutes, Tony exhaled slowly.  “When does Fury want to do this?”

The two SHIELD agents exchanged concerned looks.  Clint finally answered, “As soon as possible.  Before the morning commute preferably.”  Tony grunted.  Fucking figures.  “They’re getting supplies out there right now.  The ship was outfitted with sleeping quarters and an infirmary and other accommodations in the event it ever needed to be used as a life boat or a rescue vessel.  So there will be some comforts there with him.”

“And Fury wants your Iron Legion aboard,” Natasha said.  “At least with the suits, Steve will have support.  And we can of course have a constant communication link with him.  We’ll be able to see him and talk to him, and he’ll be able to do the same with us.  He’ll be alright.”

Tony shook his head, hating this.  “But he’ll be alone unless we get this shielding to work.”

Bruce frowned again.  He was looking over Tony’s plans.  “Even if this ends up being functional, it’s not going to be a permanent solution.  I mean, you’re going to have to…”  He shook his head in a touch of embarrassment.  “Go to the bathroom.  Eat.  Sleep.  Change your clothes and wash.  You can’t live in the armor, Tony, and if this goes on for more than another couple days…”

Again Tony waved his hand dismissively.  He went back to his workbench.  “I’ll handle it.”  Bruce’s frown got even deeper, and Tony wanted to smack him for being such a goddamn naysayer.  “Look, it’s shitty.  This whole thing has been one shitty thing after another.  But I am not letting this happen to Steve without someone there with him.  Yeah, the Iron Legion can probably take care of him.  Yeah, there can be food and supplies and we can make this as comfortable as possible.  Yeah, we can be in constant contact with him.  And, yeah, maybe I’m being unreasonable and crazy and overprotective.  I don’t fucking care.”  His voice broke, and he had to cling to his composure.  He turned his gaze back to Steve’s sleeping face.  Even unconscious, he didn’t look completely okay, with lines of pain gathered around his eyes and marring his forehead.  Tony took a deep breath.  “I promised him he would not have to go through this alone, and I’m going to find a way to make that happen.  So I’d prefer if you guys would get out and focus on security and getting that signal broadcasted with every piece of communications equipment we can muster.  There’s no time, and I want to get this done.”

With that, he went back to work.  He could feel the rest of the Avengers standing there, and the awkward quiet was pretty unpleasant.  They didn’t leave.  Seconds crawled away, so Tony tried to work.  He shook himself slightly to focus, scrolling through the plans on the display in front of him to figure out what needed to be done next.  He was about to go back to the pile of wreckage when Thor got in his way.  “Tell me what must be done,” the demigod implored.  “I will help you.”

Clint and Natasha stepped forward as well, the archer joining Thor at the mound of mangled metal and Natasha going to Tony’s slipshod refinery.  She put another set of protective gear and looked at various containers of the heated metals.  “We’ll all help you.”

Tony whirled and found that Bruce was already peering at the pieces of Iron Man that were already coated.  He glanced over the work, found it satisfactory, and nodded.  “Let’s hurry.  With any luck we can get this completed before Fury tries to move him.”

Relief and gratitude, as warm as anything Tony had felt that day, swelled inside him.  He couldn’t help a shaky, genuine smile.  Of course, there was the thought tickling the back of his mind.  It was always there, had been since Steve’s and his failure of a mission to the jungle, since the Battle of New York, since meeting Steve in Stuttgart all those months ago.  And with it came that pang of icy, mortified fear.  Do they know?  Could they know?  Was he so obvious?

He didn’t give a damn.  “Thanks,” he said to them all, and then he went to work alongside his family.


Tony had to admit it was strange having to creep toward his own Tower.  On top of that, it was pretty stupid.  This had to do with the distance between him and Steve, not the speed at which he traveled it.  But he couldn’t shake his fear, like if he flew closer at a snail’s pace, he’d have more time to back off.  Thus Iron Man, capable of flying multiple times the speed of sound, was basically hovering its way from Times Square to Stark Tower.  “How is it going?” he asked.

“Fine so far,” came Bruce’s reply.  He and the others were back in the lab at SHIELD, closely watching as Tony approached his target. “EM radiation levels aren’t spiking and Steve’s vitals are stable.” Of course, Tony could see all that; JARVIS was constantly updating the data in the lower right hand corner of the HUD along with his nearness to Steve.  He was just outside the giant sphere JARVIS had rendered around the Tower. “I think you’re clear to enter the exclusion zone.”

“Be careful, Tony,” advised Natasha. She sounded scared, and why wouldn’t she be? They were really playing with fire here and not for a strictly imperative reason, which made Tony doubt this all over again. Steve didn’t need human contact to survive. As long as the alien inside him stayed quiet, he’d be okay by himself out in the middle of the ocean.

No. Tony swallowed his pounding heart and inched closer. He could see the Tower ahead. It was almost dawn, the summer sun peeking over the horizon to set the top of the building aglow where the Avengers logo proudly sat. Steve had slept for almost twelve hours, and his vital signs looked decent. The spirit had stayed quiet.  Fury wanted him moved now, before the city truly got busy with a new workday.  This was the best time to try this.

“Going inside,” he announced, breaching the invisible edge of the sphere.  Then he just waited there, staring intently at the spirit’s EM readings.  They didn’t change.  Neither did Steve’s vital signs.  Cautiously, he tried another couple meters closer to the Tower and then stopped again.  Nothing happened.  “Yay?” he whispered.

“Hard to tell if it’s the lining on the suit working or just our models miscalculating the critical distance,” Bruce reminded.  “Keep going.”

Tony chose to think the former just to be optimistic.  He fired up Iron Man’s jets in the suit’s boots and palms to move closer to the Tower, as little faster this time.  He kept glancing at Steve’s vitals.  “J, if things start going south–”

“I will immediately change trajectories,” the AI promised.  “The Iron Legion is also standing by.”

That was the best they were going to get for a fallback plan.  Tony’s heart was shivering in his chest, and he felt nauseous with anxiety.  He’d never had patience for crap like this, for proceeding slow and steady to be safe.  Every meter closer to the Tower was equal parts too much and not enough, infuriating yet hopeful.  However, he continued this painfully slow pace until he was halfway across the exclusion zone.  “Still okay?” he asked just to double-check.

“Looks good,” came Clint’s response.  “JARVIS says the quinjet is almost ready.”

Tony could see that, the jet’s launch system pulling the aircraft out onto the Tower’s massive landing pad.  JARVIS quickly flashed some data on the HUD, that all the jet’s systems were nominal and engaged.  “Just need to collect our sole passenger for this flight,” Tony murmured.  He increased his speed a little, but once more nothing happened.  He was well within the exclusion zone at this point, beyond the margin of error.  The suit had to be working.  “Think this is a success.”

“Indeed,” Thor offered over the comm link.  “It is about time that one thing goes well.”

That emboldened Tony even more, and he went even faster, moving at a steady rate across the last of the distance.  A few silent, tense seconds later, he landed with a soft clank on the balcony of the penthouse.  He took a deep breath, a cold sweat bathing him and every nerve in his body alive with nervousness and excitement.  “I’m on the building.”

“We see you,” Natasha replied.  “And Steve seems fine.  No change.  Still sleeping.”

“Awesome,” Tony breathed, and he walked quickly across the balcony to the glass doors that JARVIS had opened for him.  It had been less than twenty-four hours since he’d last been in his penthouse, but everything seemed wildly different and not in a good way.  He didn’t feel welcome, like he was some kind of intruder in his own place.  It was total bullshit how this whole mess had turned everything around.  Their home was forbidden.  Friends and family had become dangerous.  Scientific curiosity was all entangled with terror.  Something that should have been secret had likely been splayed open.  And something that might have been beautiful…

There was no point in thinking about this garbage now.  He was exhausted, and his brain was wandering, so he needed to focus.  Quickly he made his way through the penthouse to his bedroom.  It was only somewhat weird (and kind of kinkily arousing) to step inside and find four other variations of Iron Man standing there, just like sentinels guarding the bed.  Tony ignored them, ignored the medical equipment arranged everywhere, and headed for Steve.

Steve was laying on his side.  The Iron Legion had changed him out of his ruined clothes and into a set of pajamas that they’d brought from Steve’s suite.  He was shivering in tiny trembles in the bed sheets and duvet.  He looked so pale, the pallor made worse by eyes ringed in lilac and the dark beginnings of stubble covering his jaw.  He had an IV in his arm, and his lips were still a bit bruised from where the Iron Legion had not too gently intubated him when he’d stopped breathing.  Even when they’d been trapped together on that crazy mission to the jungle, Tony hadn’t seen him quite this helpless and disheveled.  He reached out a hand to touch him.  All day, with all this anguish, this was the thing he’d wanted to do most of all, and now he was so close, he could.  He would.

“Tony.”

Natasha’s voice broke him from his thoughts, and he yanked his hand back.  Shit!  “Sorry,” he gasped.  “Sorry!”

“It’s alright,” Bruce replied.  “Everything looks really good.  EM levels are still unaffected, and he seems fine.”  Tony glanced at the readouts for himself, and Bruce was absolutely right.  His nearness hadn’t had any negative consequences.  It’s working.  There was a pause over the line.  “Well…  I guess if we’re doing this, we should do it.”

“Go ahead and touch him, Stark,” Clint said, though he didn’t sound overly sure of what he was suggesting.  Tony just stood there, staring at his gauntlet through the HUD where it was still hovering above Steve’s body.  “There’s no point to all this unless you can touch him.”

Clint was right about that.  The whole reason to try this was to have someone with Steve to ensure he received proper care and compassion.  None of this mattered without that goal.  Still, for all he wanted to do this, it didn’t feel entirely right.  For God’s sake, Steve wasn’t awake.  He couldn’t protect himself.  If this hurt him, it’d come out of nowhere for him, and that felt cruel.

So instead he gestured for the Mark VIII to come closer.  JARVIS seemed to realize what he wanted and brought the Mark VIII to the bedside.  “Steve?” Tony called, turning back to the bed.

“What are you doing?” Clint asked.

“Can’t touch him if it’s not okay with him, so I’m making sure it’s okay.”  The responding silence seemed like condemnation and acceptance simultaneously.  It didn’t matter what they thought, if it was stupid or just delaying everything further.  Tony wasn’t causing Steve an ounce of additional pain, particularly without his knowledge.  “Steve, wake up.  Wake up.”

The Mark VIII shook Steve’s shoulder, but it didn’t do much to rouse him.  Tony sighed, trying not to be frustrated to be back in this position.  Again.  I swear to God I’m never waking him up again.  I’m letting him sleep.  If we get him out of this, I’m letting him sleep as long as he wants.  “Steve, come on.  You gotta wake up again.  I know it sucks, and you’re probably sick of this shit, but we need to move you, and I need to make sure this plan of mine is going to work, so up and at ’em.”

Steve groaned as the Mark VIII jostled him a little harder, and his vital signs registered him regaining awareness.  Tony gave a shaky sigh.  That was easier than he’d expected.  “Alright, cool.  Yay.  Open up those baby blues and look at me.”

Steve did that too, also much more easily than Tony anticipated.  A sharp spike of doubt went through Tony, and he couldn’t stop wondering if it was because his thoughts were getting into Steve’s head, if that wasn’t what was pushing him toward consciousness.  But then Steve grimaced and turned away.  “Go away, Stark.”  Pain creased his forehead again.  “Never mind.  You’re not here.”

For a moment, he thought Steve was totally out of it.  Then Tony realized with immense relief he was actually remembering everything that happened right before he went down, which was fairly amazing.  His voice tremored with utter joy.  “I actually am here, Cap.  Right in front of you.”

Steve’s hazy blue eyes, still so weirdly bright, opened to watery slits again.  He focused on the Mark VIII, squinting at the armor looming over him.  “No, no,” Tony said.  He took a step closer to the bed.  “Over here.”

Those bleary eyes squinted in complete confusion.  “What’s wrong with Iron Man?”

Tony looked down at the suit.  “Oh, you mean my new paint job?  Fancy, right?  Really like the glittery undertones.”  Which it had in abundance.  The entirety of the suit was this deep, monochrome gray, the same color those pods had been before they’d been melted down.  The shimmery quality of the strange metal had transferred with the coating, so Iron Man looked very strange and kind of psychedelic.  Steve winced as he rolled over more to get a better look, and then he moaned.  The Mark VIII immediately came to support him.  “Yeah, take it easy.  You, uh, got a little banged up when you lost consciousness last time.”

Steve squeezed his eyes shut.  “What happened?”

There didn’t seem to be any good reason to go into the details.  “We got the distress message from your new best friend broadcasting, so its buddies should be getting it and coming really soon.  In the meantime, we need to relocate this party to a new venue.”

All that light banter seemed to do no good.  Steve was paling before his eyes, wavering in the grip of the Mark VIII.  Tony clambered forward (which wasn’t nearly as graceful or coordinated as it should be because the metallic coating really had messed up the joints – and that somewhat defeated the purpose of having a more responsive caretaker on hand).  “Steve, easy!  Easy.”

“Feel sick,” Steve moaned.

Tony reached for him, but then he stopped himself just in the nick of time.  “His vitals are erratic again,” Bruce tensely declared in Tony’s ear.  Tony glanced at them.  “But the EM readings are steady.”

“If the suit is truly working and blocking Stark’s thoughts, why would that be?” Thor said, and Tony could practically feel his frustration over the comm line.

“Because he’s got an alien spirit in his head poisoning him!” Clint snapped.  “Tony, we need to get him moved.”

Tony exhaled shakily.  “Okay, okay,” he replied.  He came closer to Steve, who was doubled over on the bed, struggling for each breath.  In a split second, he’d gone from pale to utterly white and bathed in sweat.  His pulse was too fast again, his breathing shallow and strained, and agony clearly had him captive.  Clint was right; this goddamn thing was poisoning him.  “Steve, Steve, easy…”

Steve choked, grabbing at his hair.  “Gotta get it out,” he whimpered.

The shrapnel tearing into Tony’s heart wouldn’t have hurt this much.  “We will, okay?  I promise, and I still don’t lie.”  Steve just moaned, pressing at his temples hard enough that his biceps trembled, strong enough likely to kill a normal man.  Tony couldn’t stand not being able to help.  The same miserable, itchy sensation of aggravation worked him over.  He wasn’t going to be its victim this time.  He dropped to one knee beside the bed where Steve was suffering.  “Listen.  This suit?  I made it so I could be with you.  So I can take care of you, touch you.  Okay?  My thoughts won’t get to you because the suit will block them.”

Steve seemed too lost in his anguish to hear him, as if he was utterly adrift in it with nothing to hold him steady.  Tony’s eyes stung in terror and fury.  “I promised you that you wouldn’t be alone.  Remember that?  And I’m not lying about that either.  You’re not alone.  I’m here, and I’m staying with you.”  Maybe if he just…  Tell him.  Let him know.  He couldn’t, but his hands – covered in the shimmery gloves – came forward again, shaking with tentativeness.  “I’m here.  Can I touch you?  I want you to know I’m with you.”  Steve sobbed raggedly.  “Steve, please.  Let me touch you.”

Once more it seemed like Steve was too far gone to hear him, but he gave another soft, strangled cry and flung out his arm.  And a hundred horrified thoughts screamed through Tony’s head – Steve wasn’t aware enough to understand and maybe Tony’s thoughts were undue influence or just Tony’s goddamn voice begging him – but they didn’t really matter because Steve grabbed his arm and held on tightly.  Tony’s heart jumped, and his eyes darted to the EM readings, but nothing happened.  Nothing changed.  They were the same as they’d been all morning, high but steady.  Stable.

It worked.

And that was all the confirmation Tony needed.  In a flash he was pushing onto the side of the bed and pulling Steve against him.  It couldn’t have been all that comfortable; the Mark XI had a more angular design, not that the lack of angles would have made nickel-titanium alloys a pleasant thing to lay on.  But Steve didn’t seem to care, clinging to him and shuddering violently.  Twenty-four hours of serious isolation had done a number on him.  “I got you,” Tony promised, laying his hand on Steve’s head and rubbing his back as gently he could with a gauntlet.  “I got you.”

Steve held on tighter.  “Scared, Tony.”  He’d said that before.  At the time, Tony hadn’t been sure if he’d been referring to the alien consciousness trapped in his mind or himself.

Now it was obviously about himself.  And for Steve to admit that…  Steve who’d faced the worst atrocities of World War II without a moment’s hesitation.  Steve who’d flown a plane of HYDRA bombs into the ice to save all of the Eastern Seaboard.  Steve who’d never once worried that they wouldn’t be rescued when they’d been stuck out in the jungle with no supplies and little to no hope.  Steve who led the team, who always knew the right answers, who never faltered, who was never afraid.  Captain America.  “I know,” Tony said.

“Gettin’ worse.  I can…  I can hear them.  All of them.”

That ache inside was getting worse, too.  Obviously what Tony had feared before was true; the exclusion zone wasn’t preventing the telepathy.  It was merely reducing the bombardment.  And if it was this bad with no one within a couple thousand feet…  Tony couldn’t fathom it, the thoughts of thousands of people in a constant hum.  All that noise.  All that static.  “I know.  But we’re going to take care of it.  First, though, we need to go on another little trip.  We have to get you out of Dodge for your own protection, okay?”

Steve said nothing to that at first.  Then he drew a deeper breath, clearly trying to control nausea or pain (or both), before nodding.  He tried to push himself up a bit.  Either the vertigo or the ache in his ribs stopped that attempt pretty quickly.  “Not sure I can – I can walk.”

Tony glanced at the Iron Legion still standing around the bed.  Again JARVIS seemed to anticipate his unspoken order, and the Mark IX brought over a stretcher from the other side of the room.  “Not a problem.”

A few minutes later, the Mark IX was pushing the stretcher through the hallways of the penthouse to get to the elevator.  Tony was walking beside it in the Mark XI, holding Steve’s hand tight while Steve very obviously tried not to throw up as he was wheeled through the deserted building toward the quinjet’s landing pad.  Steve’s eyes were clenched shut again, and he was gritting his teeth.  “Where’re we goin’ again?”

“Oh, someplace spectacular,” Tony answered as the elevator took them down from the living quarters.  “All expenses paid cruise on the Atlantic.  And I hear Fury really went all out on the ship.  Fancy as hell.  It’s gonna be awesome.  Just you and me and eating anything we want and drinking really, really expensive wine and watching TV and laying out in the sun and getting awesomely tan.”  Steve looked like he was in incredible pain.  The suit registered the damage to the gauntlet as he squeezed Tony’s fingers, which probably wasn’t so good for the coating.  Carefully he extricated his hand and instead laid his gloved palm on Steve’s chest.  “We’ll talk about your bike, huh?  And what still needs to be done.  Plan it out.”  Tony’s throat closed up in fear.  What if he was making promises he couldn’t keep?  More promises that wouldn’t pan out?  “It’ll be okay.  I know it will be.  We’ll get you through this.”

He wasn’t sure who he was promising anymore.

The elevator deposited them by the launch bay.  The rest of the Iron Legion was already there, silently loading the quinjet.  Clint had said the SHIELD ship would be fully stocked with medical supplies, but Tony wasn’t taking any chances.  They moved the stretcher into the quinjet.  “How are we looking?” Tony quietly asked as he took a blanket from one of the storage cubbies in the rear of the jet and laid it over Steve’s shivering body.

“Airspace is clear,” Natasha declared.  “SHIELD’s got an escort for you.  They’ll protect your path.”

Bruce’s voice was grim over the comm line.  “Tony, if he’s this ill from just the stress this spirit is putting on his body–”

Tony didn’t want to hear it.  “JARVIS, let’s get this show on the road.”

The suits under JARVIS’ control secured the jet for take-off, and in no time at all they were in the air, rising above the Tower and into the light of dawn.  Steve grimaced, turning his face away from the illumination pouring in through the cockpit window and reaching all the way back into the fuselage.  Tony sat beside him.  “It’ll get better when we get away,” he said, reaching a hand to Steve’s shoulder.  There were tear tracks on Steve’s face, and he was trying very hard to breathe slowly and evenly.  Tony hated this whole screwed up situation.  This was more than he could do before, sure, but it was still nowhere near enough.  “Just hang on, Steve.”

Steve managed a jerky nod.  In a few more seconds, the quinjet was quietly flying away from the city, east towards the ocean.  JARVIS had automatically calculated a flight path that was a little longer and more roundabout but also avoided the eight million people living on Long Island.  Finally Steve began to relax.  By the time they were well over the water and miles from land, he was breathing easier, and the pain seemed better.

To a point.  It was getting difficult to tell what physical troubles were being caused by the overpowered telepathy versus the alien in his head or if those two things were even mutually exclusive.  Regardless, Tony was infinitely grateful that someone between the Avengers and SHIELD had actually thought to simply get Steve away from everyone else rather than trying to get everyone else away from him.

The flight only lasted a couple minutes.  JARVIS capably guided the quinjet through low, wispy clouds, streaking over a tranquil, silvery ocean.  Ahead was the SHIELD spy ship, just as Clint and Natasha had said.  The deck wasn’t quite big enough for the jet to set down.  “Alright,” Tony said, getting to his feet in the Mark XI.  “JARVIS, bring us about.”

JARVIS did, and he kept the jet perfectly steady (better than most pilots could in fact) as the rear ramp was lowered.  Tony gently took Steve’s shoulder, rousing the other man from a light and fitful doze.  “We’re here, Cap.  You think you can lean on me for a few?”

Steve blinked groggily.  He tried to sit up, but then he moaned and slumped again.  Tony watched his heartrate shift again, this time towards being low and bradycardic rather than frightfully high and fast.  “Sorry,” he gasped.

Tony grimaced behind the face plate.  “Second time I have to carry your heavy ass today.”

Steve was squinting anew, like he couldn’t focus.  “Sorry to be such – such a bother.”

“You?  You’re a pain in my ass, Cap.”  He looped an arm under Steve’s knees and another around his shoulders.  Steve groaned as Tony lifted him.  Tony looked down at him, at his eyes squeezed shut and his long limbs tangled together and his pale skin.  God Almighty.  “But I wouldn’t trade you for anything.”

As Tony walked a tad clumsily to the open ramp, Steve grunted, tucking his head into Tony’s armored shoulder.  “You have everything,” he murmured.

Tony felt incredibly shitty for a second, and then he caught the corner of Steve’s bruised lips turn up in a faint smile.  “Well, I still wouldn’t trade you.  Now hang on.”

Steve did, throwing a shaking arm around Iron Man’s neck and concentrating on his breathing.  Tony hopped down the nearly dozen feet or so from the jet to the deck of the ship.  The Iron Legion followed, carrying the equipment with them.  Steve groaned.  “Your – your army of robots is kinda – kinda creepy.  Like Skynet.”

Quickly Tony headed across the gunmetal gray deck to the equally gunmetal gray entrance to the ship’s interior.  “When did you watch Terminator?

“We did,” Steve murmured. 

Tony stopped.  The hatch to the interior of the ship wasn’t very big or wide, so getting himself in with Steve in his arms was a little bit of a challenge.  “We did?”

“Few weeks ago.”  JARVIS put a map of the interior of the ship up on the HUD.  The infirmary was deeper within the ship’s interior, a fairly large section that had some adjacent washrooms and quarters.  “You ate too much – ate too much pizza and passed out on my couch.  That’s why you don’t remember.”

Tony grimaced as he carried Steve deeper inside.  “I really don’t.”

“Fell asleep on me…  Put you – put you to bed afterward.”

Tony stopped, his attention drawn to Steve.  He looked down at the captain in his arms, and then he had this vague memory.  He had no recollection of watching The Terminator, though it could have been one of a dozen times.  A movie and pizza and beer.  Maybe after a rough mission?  They could have been in his suite or Steve’s suite, just hanging out together and decompressing after a fight, and maybe he had fallen asleep right away with a full belly and sore from a tough fight.  But he couldn’t remember waking up on a couch (at least, not like that) so…  Had Steve done what he’d claimed and really put him to bed?  And if so, had Steve carried him just like he was carrying Steve now?  Was this hint of a memory the warmth of Steve’s chest, the strength of his arms, the steady beat of his heart beneath Tony’s ear?  Looking up and catching soft blue eyes and a warm smile?

That was too much to think about.

Tony nervously cleared his throat.  Steve couldn’t read his mind like this, not anymore, so it was pretty damn ironic that he felt more vulnerable and obvious than ever.  “Let’s get you settled.”

They found the infirmary.  True to Fury’s word, the area was well stocked with supplies, everything from bandages and medicines to high-tech scanners and emergency equipment.  Tony saw right away that he could re-sync the sensors still on Steve’s body to the computer here and relieve JARVIS of the duty of constantly monitoring them.  After setting Steve to one of the exam beds (which was bolted to the floor, though the seas were nice and calm at the moment) he did just that.  Steve was quickly dropping off into unconsciousness again.  His heartbeat was still off, too slow and irregular, and his respiration was troubled.  His brain’s electrical activity was off the charts.  Getting him out of the city hadn’t done much to reduce the climbing EM signature.  It wasn’t rising drastically anymore, hadn’t since getting everyone away from Steve and that huge surge back in the penthouse, but it was still increasing in intensity.  Tony didn’t know if it was the alien’s intention or not, but the end result was obvious.  “We have to get this fucking thing out of you,” he muttered as he tucked a blanket around Steve’s curled form and tried to make him as comfortable as possible.

Steve seemed mostly out of it, but he gave a little shake of his head.  “It’s not to blame.”

Tony grunted, fumbling with the suit’s gauntlets to get a bottle of Gatorade open.  He’d found a bunch of cold ones in the infirmary’s little fridge.  He’d pulled Steve’s IV for the flight, and he’d need to get another inserted, but Steve was awake and mostly calm right now, so perhaps just getting him to drink would be enough.  “Yeah, well, not sure that I care.  This thing is hurting you.  A lot.  You almost died.”

“So did it.”

“Its life does not compare to yours.”  Finally he practically ripped the top off, and orange liquid got everywhere.  “Ah, shit.”

Steve was quiet a second.  Tony took the pause to wipe up the mess.  When he turned back, Steve was laying flat with his hands across his belly.  He looked… not well, but accepting.  Contented.  “I can sense it more now,” he finally admitted after a long moment.  “Feel it.” 

Tony frowned.  He didn’t know if he gave a damn.  “You want to sit up and drink a little of this?  You need the fluids.”

“These beings,” Steve whispered.  His eyes were open now, and that depthless glow was there.  It was so intense, so bright.  “They see everything so differently.  There’s no division between things and people.  Energy’s inside of all of us, part of everything in the universe, down to the – the molecules and the atoms and the forces that draw opposites together and keep everything in perfect balance and synergy.  They’re that energy.  They go back and forth from substance to this other plane, exist in both places at once, so they can be all and see all and…  It’s really incredible, a whole new way of… of perceiving the way things are.  No barriers between what’s alive and what isn’t.  Everything is connected, like… like the way thoughts and memories and feelings are, one leading to another and another.  Random, maybe, but not at the same time.”  He smiled, and it wasn’t forced.  Weary, yes, and quivering, but not forced.  “It’s really beautiful.”

Tony watched him stare at the ceiling, watched him see something that was unfathomable to anyone else.  With the stunning light in his eyes, the way the glow was spreading slowly to his skin, his neck and shoulders and hands…  He didn’t look the same, either.  More unearthly.  Between this world and the next.  Not quite real himself.  A gift from the universe.

But then a stream of blood slipped from Steve’s nose to roll slowly down his cheek.  Horrified, Tony simply stared at the ruby drop trailing red behind it.  Then he reached over quickly and grabbed a tissue from a cart by the bed.  Carefully he wiped Steve’s face.

Steve didn’t seem to notice.  Weakly he reached up a hand that seemed pure light as much as it was flesh and touched Tony’s armored wrist.  He smiled.  “I wish you could see it, too.  You’d love it.”

The fear only got worse.  “Yeah, me too,” Tony lied instead.

Steve’s smile grew warmer and more affectionate.  He let his eyes slip shut.  “And I’m glad you – you finally decided to hang out with me again.”

Tony gasped a soft chuckle, one that as tangled up with a sob.  “Yeah.”

Not more than a few moments after, Steve’s hand loosened its grip on his, and his arm slumped to the bed.  He’d lost consciousness.  Tony watched his face tighten up into that miserable expression again, one that persisted even into sleep.  All this power and knowledge…  Knowing what the world is thinking and feeling.

And it’s turning your brain to mush.

“Shit,” Tony whispered.  He tried to wipe at the tears slipping from his eyes, but then he realized he had the damn armor on and couldn’t.  There was nothing to do but let them come, so he did.  He picked up Steve’s hand and held it tight and silently sobbed.

Minutes into it, minutes that seemed as long as an eternity, Tony heard someone calling to him.  He pulled himself away from his exhausted, devastated haze, too tired to be horrified that the others had possibly heard him crying.  “What?”

“Just checking on how things are,” came Natasha’s voice on the comm link.  She was deafening in his ear.  “You went quiet for a long time.  Is he okay?”

No.  Like he’d done so many times that day, Tony bit his cheek again, bit it until it hurt and all he could taste was blood.  “Something better happen soon,” he answered instead.  He looked at the tissue smeared with red still clenched in his gauntlet, looked at the hint of a crimson streak on Steve’s face.  “We’re running out of time.”


Watching Steve die was unfathomably excruciating.

And that was what was happening.  There was no denying it, no more planning to stop it or trying to figure it out or struggling to prevent it.  Whatever symbiosis there had once been between the non-corporeal being inside Steve and Steve’s body seemed to completely disappear.  It was infuriating; all the work they’d done to put distance between Steve and other people, to limit the dangerous flood of psychic input, really wasn’t mattering in the end.  Tony didn’t even know if the lack of touch was making a difference at this point, but he wasn’t going to chance it.  Steve was already in so much pain that he’d do anything to make that better.

But there wasn’t much he could do.  Nothing about this made any sense.  Tony didn’t know what exactly was happening, if Steve was finally suffering from acute radiation syndrome or something like it, if the being itself was turning completely toxic to him, if the stress of this entire ordeal was simply becoming too much.  It was dizzying, how quickly this really had gone from something slightly invasive and kind of amusing and really annoying to this, to Steve fading away in front of him.  It didn’t seem fucking fair, not in the slightest.  Any of them could have gone into that ship.  This could have happened to anyone, but it had happened to Steve.  And Tony knew it wasn’t right of him to blame this alien.  Steve was sick and suffering, but he kept almost mindlessly saying that, that it wasn’t the spirit’s fault, that it was even more afraid now than it had been before, that it really wanted to go home.  Tony didn’t give a shit.  The spirit was killing Steve, not the other way around.  And if it wanted to go home, if it had such an amazing and powerful and beautiful understanding of the tenants of the physical and metaphysical universal, why the hell couldn’t it just leave?  Did these creatures need a corporeal body to be in this plane of existence?  Why was it stuck inside Steve’s body?

He wasn’t any more capable of answering these questions than he had been before, and he couldn’t focus enough to try.  It was just this bitter, furious fog consuming him whenever Steve was calm or sleeping.  And it never led to anything.  Tony objectively knew he should be doing better.  When he had a moment to focus, he should have been trying to understand this.  He should have been helping by working through the facts again, trying to deduce some sort of solution, trying to devise a cure.  Maybe exposure to different kinds of radiation would do something, make Steve’s body or mind inhospitable to the spirit.  They’d dismissed the idea of luring the entity out and back into its vessel, but they hadn’t really tried it.  There was enough of the strange metal left to try to engineer something, even if it was a longshot.  Furthermore, even though most drugs didn’t have any effect on Steve, maybe there was a combination that would at least provide some relief.  Back at HQ, Bruce was working with the SHIELD scientists, desperately struggling to create some sort of treatment, feverishly looking for an answer to even one of these questions.  After a week of examining the problem and all the effort they’d already spent on this, it didn’t seem likely that they’d strike gold in these last six or so hours since they’d brought Steve to the middle of the ocean.  But at least they were trying.

Tony wasn’t doing anything but uselessly observing.

And objectively he knew that was bullshit.  He’d done all of this to be with Steve because Steve couldn’t suffer like this alone.  That was Tony’s promise.  But, God, being here for this was unimaginable.  Since they’d arrived on the ship, Steve’s already tenuous vital signs had been steadily falling.  His heart was slow, struggling.  His breathing was poor, a raspy, weak wheeze that seemed to rattle in his chest.  His blood pressure was low, too, and he was dehydrated.  He couldn’t keep anything down, not even the small sips of water and sports drinks Tony kept trying to get him to imbibe.  He’d become feverish. Bruce had no explanation for that other than Steve’s nervous and immune systems simply going haywire in a last-ditch effort to deal with what they perceived as an infection.  Too bad nothing his immune system could do would help, not unless it had invented weapons against the non-corporeal.  Even still, the added misery from that, a high fever and violent chills and unending nausea, was terrible. Tony had never witnessed something like this, never had to take care of another person when that other person was ill let alone so seriously ill, and he felt woefully unequipped.  He wasn’t sure what he had been thinking or expecting, but he didn’t feel prepared in the least.  He wasn’t prepared in the least to see Steve like this.

But this was where they were.

“Easy, Steve,” Tony murmured, rubbing Steve’s arm where the younger man lay on the bed on his side.  Steve was curled up in the sheets, arms folded over his stomach protectively.  He was shaking hard enough nearly to rattle the bolted-down bed.  “Just breathe.”

Steve groaned.  In the last few hours, he’d stopped talking so much, even during his calmer periods.  Tony thought it might have simply been too difficult.  Right now he gritted out, “Are they – they comin’?”

Tony felt like a bastard.  Steve had asked this over and over again, too.  “Yeah.”  He rubbed harder before he remembered there was a suit of armor between them, that metal fingers were dragging across skin, that this was a far cry from the comforting touch of another person.  “Yeah, they’re coming.”  That rat bastard feeling came back, the lie sour.  He kept promising this every time Steve asked, but he had no idea if it was true.  He was in almost constant contact with the team at SHIELD and Stark Industries’ own satellite and defense networks.  There had been no answer to the message that they’d been able to detect and no sign of anything approaching the planet.  This is crazy, has no chance of working, he’s going to die and I can’t stop it…  Tony choked on the sob perpetually lodged in his throat.  “It’s going to be over soon.”

One way or another.

Steve groaned to that.  The flush drained from his cheeks, his glassy eyes abruptly sharpening with the realization of impending misery, and he squirmed toward the edge of the bed.  Tony gave a shaky sigh and grabbed for the basin he had close at hand.  This had become something of a pattern over the last endless hours, too.  Steve would sink into pain and sickness.  He’d suffer for a while, body wracked with agony and even the lights in the infirmary (which Tony had all but shut off – he didn’t need them to see thanks to Iron Man) too bright.  The gentle motion of the ship would only compound the nausea.  Finally he’d throw up and pass out.

They were at the last stage of this latest round.  Steve didn’t really have anything in him to vomit, hadn’t most of the time they’d been here, but it was still terrible having his body trying to expel something that wasn’t there.  Tony never watched during these parts.  It wasn’t something he wanted to see, felt like a goddamn betrayal to witness Steve at his lowest.  Plus the Mark IX was constantly in the room with them, so he didn’t feel so horrible looking away.  He kept up the contact and comfort, though.  “Just breathe.  You’re okay.  It’ll be over, and then you can rest.  Breathe.”

It went on for what seemed like forever.  It always did.  And when it was finally over, Steve slumped against him, boneless and sweaty and trembling.  His brilliantly bright eyes were closed, and he looked as white as a ghost.  Tony bit his lip again hard, not sure if he wanted to scream or cry.  He did neither.  “Steve?”

Steve coughed weakly and groaned as Tony settled him back into the bed.  He licked bloodless lips.  “Reminds me…  Reminds me of when we were stuck in Brazil.”

That was probably the first truly sentient thing Steve had said in all these long hours.  “There wasn’t this much barfing in Brazil,” Tony commented, getting the disheveled sheets and blankets up and over Steve’s body.  Then he took the cool, damp cloth he’d been using to wipe Steve down and dunked it back in the bowl of water he had.  He laid it to Steve’s forehead.  “And as I recall it was way more of you nearly getting both of us killed with your stupid heroics.”

Steve’s dried, cracked lips pulled into a small smile.  “You’re always just…  Just like complainin’ about shit.  Bitched the entire time in – in that jungle.”

Tony had.  Steve had kept insisting they’d be rescued, kept insisting they be hopeful with an entire horde of terrorists hunting them and constantly shooting at them and blowing up everything around them.  It had been unbelievably aggravating, to have Captain America bombarding him with his unending optimistic attitude while they’d been filthy and hungry and hurt and alone.  Steve had had all this unwavering faith that they could handle this if they just worked together.  Tony had always been cynical, a pragmatist for all his interest in the future and technology.  He’d gotten so pissed off from dealing with Steve in those few days that he’d hardly been able to stand it.  All that bullshit about team work and trusting each other and taking strength from that.

The thing was, though, that Steve had been right.  They had found a way to not just survive but defeat their enemies and complete their mission.  They’d persevered and overcome.  They’d won.  Tony had realized right after they’d been finally rescued and they’d both been recovering in the helicarrier’s med bay side by side that Steve’s talk, as irritating and dumbly naïve as it had seemed, mindless propaganda shoveled like shit by an outdated relic from decades ago…  It wasn’t just talk.  Steve really believed in it.  And he really believed in Tony.  He trusted Tony.  Had faith in Tony.  Considering the number of people in Tony’s life who had left him or disappointed him or betrayed him, that had really meant something.  Here was Captain America, someone he didn’t understand and didn’t like and to whom he’d (frankly) been a dick for months, basically telling him they were friends.

That had changed everything.

“Gonna read – read me the riot act again?”

Tony broke from his thoughts and looked down through the HUD, focusing on Steve where he lay beside him.  “What riot act?”

“The…  The other night.  Last time we…”  Steve was clearly exhausted.  He was still smiling, but the smile was starting to slip.  “With the car.  In your garage.”  Oh.  Right.  Tony didn’t want to think about that night, the last night that things had been normal, and, God, the car and the way Steve had looked in it, better than Tony had ever imagined.  All the lies he’d told that night, the things he’d kept hidden…  The things he hadn’t been brave enough to reveal.  His secret that had driven him to cut Steve off completely, that had maybe caused all of this.  If he’d just been braver, been strong enough to just tell him…  Steve had to know now.  Had to have read it from Tony’s thoughts, so it wasn’t a secret anymore at all, and it was stupid to feel so afraid of the truth that this point.  Tell him.

But Steve was already going on.  “Should’ve listened to you,” he mumbled.  He reached out a shaking hand and grabbed the Mark XI’s arm.  He didn’t seem to have the strength to dent the armor now.  “You were – you were right.  Should’ve listened.”

Tony swallowed around that lump in his throat again.  “No.”  He took Steve’s hand from his arm and gently laid it across Steve’s belly.  “You do that, and you’re not you anymore, and I…”  He stopped himself at the last second, stopped himself from saying what should be said.  It seemed like the words wanted out, and of course they did now.  With Steve like this, so sick, teetering on the edge of something far worse, what reason was there to hide?  With Steve most definitely knowing the truth anyway.

Still, the words that were burning in his heart didn’t come out.  “And I like you.”  He cleared his throat.  “Just the way you are.”  That sounded pathetic.  “Cap.”

Steve’s breathing was slowing even more.  “Like you, too,” he murmured, tucking his face into the pillow.

Of all the miseries Tony had endured over the last few days, this was up there among the worst.  It wasn’t what he wanted, fantasized and imagined and dreamed.  And that felt wrong and selfish, particularly with Steve passing out against him.  “Just sleep,” Tony beckoned.  He rubbed a hand over Steve’s forehead, brushing away the sweaty blond locks.  Thermal sensors in the suit picked up the heat of Steve’s fever, even through the metallic coating.  Tony glanced at the readings and chewed his lip even harder.  “Sleep, Steve.  You’re okay.”

It didn’t take much at all for Steve to go back down this time.  Thankfully the nausea didn’t return, and the pain let him be, and he was able to find peace fairly easily.  Tony leaned back once his charge was lax and as comfortable as he could be.  As had been happening the last few hours, a ripple of pale light worked its way over Steve’s body.  It was the spirit, the strange electromagnetic radiation coursing through Steve with pretty, glowing tendrils.  Tony watched the ethereal glow bend around Iron Man’s hand on Steve’s brow where it was repelled by the metallic coating.  He didn’t know if this was the entity trying to get out or taking more of Steve’s body, but it didn’t matter.  It was happening more and more, and it was frightening.

“Tony?” came Natasha’s voice over the comm link.  “Tony, you there?”

Tony sighed and pulled his hand from Steve before gathering himself and standing.  “Yeah,” he answered, trying to sound more put together than he felt.  He turned and stared at Steve’s long body limp on the bed and glowing like a ghost in the darkness.  “Tell me something’s happening.”

There was a brief pause over the line, which was an answer in and of itself.  “No.”  Tony closed his eyes.  Same damn thing for hours and hours.  Natasha’s sigh was loud.  “You should come back to the city for a bit.  Eat.  Clean up.  Sleep.”

Tony’s reaction was knee-jerk.  He shook his head emphatically.  “No, I can’t.”

Bruce spoke then.  “You need a break.  You’ve been in that suit for eight hours straight, Tony.”

“Eight hours, eight days,” Tony groused, picking up the basin into which Steve had dry-heaved and dumping it into the toilet in the adjoining washroom.  “It doesn’t matter.  I’m not leaving him.”

“You haven’t slept in more than a day,” Bruce argued.

“I’ve cat napped when he’s been sleeping,” Tony replied, coming back out into the infirmary and starting to straighten up some more.  Despite those cat naps, he was fatigued beyond belief and feeling irrationally persecuted.  “Besides, I can go a lot longer and you know it.”

Bruce’s tone was increasingly aggravated.  As horrible as Tony’s view of this hell was, theirs was the same, if not worse because of the distance and the helplessness that went with it.  They were watching Steve wither, yes, but they were seeing Tony suffer as well.  “That’s not the point!  You need a break–”

“Not happening.”

“Tony, come on.”  Natasha was much calmer.  “I know you’ve peed in your suit before.”  Tony grimaced.  “This is a nobler cause by far, but it’s not any less disgusting.  Steve can spare you for thirty minutes.  The Iron Legion is right there.  We’ve got eyes on everything.  You need to take care of yourself, too.  You can’t keep going like this.”

Tony stopped and sighed after dumping a bunch of soiled towels in the hamper.  They had a point, and he couldn’t lie.  He was tired of being in Iron Man.  He’d never worn the armor this long before.  He was achy and sweaty and probably stank.  He was hungry, and he did have to pee and had been holding it for hours.  Sure, Steve’s plight made it easier to ignore it all, but it was there.  Taking off the suit for even a second wasn’t possible here.  If a moment of relief amounted to increasing Steve’s pain or hurting him further, he couldn’t take it.

But… he supposed he could take what the others were suggesting.  A few minutes away?  Now that he’d let himself consider it, his body screamed for reprieve.  “Alright,” he said without really thinking.  “Alright.”

Natasha’s voice was loaded with relief.  “Okay.  Come on back.”

Tony turned and looked at Steve where he was asleep.  He was still glowing.  It remained utterly unbelievable that something so seemingly pretty and innocuous could herald so much pain and suffering.  He was peaceful, though.  Now seemed as a good a time to go as any.  Tony came closer, brushing his hand gently over Steve’s head with the soft whir of the suit.  “I’ll be right back,” he promised.

Then he was walking through the narrow hallways, heading out onto the ship’s deck, and rocketing into the night sky.  He hadn’t realized how much of the day had vanished.  The clouds above were very thick and dark, not quite heavy enough to rain but low and threatening.  He was only five minutes away from the city, five minutes from SHIELD HQ and Stark Tower, so he’d see the team again shortly, but he had to ask again.  He didn’t know why.  He already knew the goddamn answer. “So there’s nothing?”

“No,” Natasha confirmed.  After a tense beat, she spoke again.  “How is he?”

And she knew the answer to that.  The team had access to Steve’s biosigns.  Tony had been trying to limit the audio and video access just to preserve Steve’s dignity and spare them, but hiding the details wasn’t hiding the truth.  “He’s not going to make it much longer.”

“Fuck,” Clint whispered.  Apparently the archer was with them.  “We have to do something.”

“What?” Bruce demanded.  “What would you like us to do?  We’ve got those symbols broadcasting every way we can with all the power behind it that we can manage!”

“Well, we have to think of something else!” Clint snapped back.

Thor was there as well.  Of course he was.  Of course they all were.  “How much time is there?”

Bruce’s sigh was short and harsh.  “Considering the signs of organ failure, the rate of respiratory decline, the cardiac distress, the way things look now…  Christ, I can’t begin to–”

“Just guess, Banner!” Clint demanded.

Before Bruce could say anything, the HUD turned red and alarms began to wail.  They were echoing, because they were going off both within the suit and with the rest of the team.  Because the alarms weren’t about Iron Man failing or something going wrong at SHIELD.

Steve.

“There’s a massive power surge on the ship!” Natasha cried.

JARVIS didn’t waste a second.  The AI was already changing Iron Man’s trajectory, reversing power violently and so quickly that Tony cried out.  Then he took a breath and focused, throwing all the suit’s energy into the thrusters.  He rocketed through the thick clouds, rain splattering against the armor with serious force as he streaked back toward the ship at more than Mach One.  “JARVIS,” he gasped, “what’s happening?”

“I cannot say, sir!  The surge generated another EMP-like burst!  The Iron Legion has been disabled!”

Shit!  Tony couldn’t breathe.  His heart was thundering, and his body was burning with terror, and he couldn’t do anything but pray.  Come on, come on, come on!  The distance between him and the ship was closing rapidly because he hadn’t gotten that far away, but it felt infinite, excruciatingly long, even as the time to target decreased from thirty seconds to fifteen to ten.  Hang on, Steve!  Hang on!

With a roar of air splitting, Iron Man landed on the deck, indenting the plating and causing the vessel to rock.  The ship was dark as night with all of its lights out from the EMP.  “JARVIS,” Tony gasped, turning around and around.  It was drizzling, and the ocean was a bit choppy, and he was dizzy with panic.  He couldn’t detect anything, not with normal vision or infrared.  Then he realized he was wasting time, because Steve was down below, and he was standing up here like stupid moron, so he jetted toward the door to go inside.

But Iron Man’s sensors stopped him.  His own senses stopped him.  Something was terribly wrong, even more than normal.  The suit was detecting a large energy signature on the port side of the small deck, right near the railing.  Tony turned and activated the suit’s weapons, raising the palm repulsors as they powered up.

Only to lower them just as rapidly once he realized who was there.  “Steve?” he asked, horrified and shocked.  “Steve!”

Steve stood at the railing.  He was more light than flesh, stunningly so.  It was also mind-boggling he was up here, that he’d been able to get up and walk despite how sick he was.  He didn’t look sick at the moment.  He didn’t look suicidal either, like he was trying to escape this hell the only way he could.  No, he looked strangely placid.  Serene.  Ready.  “Home,” he said.

Tony took one step closer, utterly stricken.  “Steve, no.  That’s not home.”

Steve’s face was tranquil.  He was quiet a moment, the energy field around him so intense and powerful that his hair was flowing upward, that he looked…  “It’s time,” he said, tipping his white eyes skyward.

“Please, Steve.  Don’t listen to what it’s telling you.  That’s not home!”  Tony chanced a step closer, but Iron Man’s sensors wailed.  “JARVIS–”

“The energy field is dangerously powerful,” the AI responded tautly.  “Sir, he’s jumping!”

The AI realized it before Tony did.  In one fluid motion that seemed completely impossible given how sick Steve was, the younger man was vaulting over the edge of the ship.  Maybe the entity thought Steve could fly or walk on water or defy the laws of physics.  It was impossible to say.

What Steve did, though, was fall into the inky ocean.

Tony wailed a curse, firing the jets in Iron Man’s boots and taking a massive leap over the side of the ship.  It took a split second for him to realize Steve was underwater.  The light he’d been emitting was gone, swallowed whole by the roiling, sable sea, leaving nothing but utter blackness on this moonless, starless night.  It was like he was gone completely.  “Shit,” Tony whimpered.

“Sir!”

That snapped Tony from his terrified haze, and he dove.  Hitting the water hardly registered, Iron Man smoothly descending beneath the surface.  It was unbelievably dark there, an abyss for all intents and purposes that went on forever.  JARVIS immediately brought up the infrared imaging again, and Tony caught sight of the dying heat signatures in the ship’s generators through the hull, the slight impressions of passing fish–

And Steve, a huge, hot blotch of light that was fading and sinking.

Tony didn’t waste a second.  He dove the suit downward.  The water retarded the boot thrusters but not enough that more than a moment passed before he got his arms around Steve.  Then he twisted around, holding Steve tight, and jetted upward, exploding up and out of the ocean with a roar and an intense spray.  He landed back on the deck of the ship and knelt before setting Steve carefully to the plating.  “Steve?” he called desperately.  “Steve?”

Steve was dark and gray.  Limp.  Still.  “He is not breathing,” JARVIS declared.  Warnings were flashing all over the HUD for different reasons, terrible reasons like a complete lack of respiration and a faltering heartbeat.  Normally a plunge into water like that would have meant nothing for Captain America.  Like this, already so traumatized and ill?  “He is in respiratory and cardiac arrest!  Sir!”

Tony pushed Steve’s sodden arms away from his torso and quickly laid him flatter.  Then he started chest compressions.  Steve’s pulse was practically nonexistent, having gone from stuttering to silent in only a couple seconds.  Carefully he pushed on Steve’s chest, trying to force his heart to beat.  He wasn’t sure how much good this would do, though.  Not with water in Steve’s already brutalized lungs.  Not with Steve not breathing.  “Come on!” he cried raggedly.  “Don’t do this!  Breathe!”

There was nattering in his ear, a flurry of voices demanding information and fighting, but he could only focus on JARVIS.  “Sir, you must breathe for him!”

Tony shook his head, pushing harder on Steve’s chest.  Steve’s face was waxy, so white in the darkness.  His lips were blue, the force of the chest compressions pushing rivulets of water from his mouth.  His eyes were closed.  He looked dead.

But he wasn’t, not yet.  And Tony couldn’t do this.  His voice broke with utter panic. “No, Steve!  Please!  Come on!  Don’t do this to me!”

“Sir!”

“I can’t touch him!” 

“He will die if you do not restart his breathing,” JARVIS said sternly and very plainly.

There was no choice.  If this did more damage…  There’s nothing worse than losing him!  Tony heaved a sob but stood and tapped at his chest.  The Mark XI unfolded from him – the sweet brush of cool air to his sweat-soaked skin was such a shock – and stood to the side, lights glowing furiously to illuminate the scene.  Tony knelt again beside Steve’s pale body.  He set his shaking hand to Steve’s motionless chest, unable to breathe himself for his fear.  Nothing happened.  Steve’s body remained unmoving, eyes tightly closed, soaked hair dark against the pallor of his face.  He was still and cold and dying.

“Sir!”

Tony choked and jolted.  He began CPR again in earnest, balling his hands together over Steve’s sternum and firmly pushing down.  It was hard; Steve’s chest was a wall of muscle and very firm, and it took all his strength to compress it.  “Come on,” he whimpered, fighting to count, to focus, to stay calm.  He tipped Steve’s head back further and parted slack lips before pinching his nose shut and sealing his mouth over Steve’s.  He exhaled firmly once, twice, desperately praying the breath would do some good.  It didn’t.  Tony practically screamed in terror, resuming chest compressions, counting furiously.  “Come on, Steve!  Breathe!  Come on!”

It went on, push after push, breath after breath.  Steve’s body shifted with each compression of his torso, but other than that he remained completely limp.  This isn’t happening.  Tony wavered, arms burning, his own chest aching, but he didn’t slow, didn’t stop.  He wasn’t going to stop.  There were people talking over the comm link, JARVIS telling him that it had been more than a minute and the Iron Legion was rebooting and would be there shortly with the AED, Bruce yelling for information, Thor declaring that he was coming, Clint arguing about something and someone talking about a disturbance in the atmosphere and talking and shouting…  But none of it mattered.

Steve still wasn’t coming out of this.

Tony heaved a sob.  “Steve, please,” he moaned, faltering in his rhythm.  The world blurred with tears.  “Please…  Don’t leave me like this.”  He pushed more at Steve’s chest, pressing down and down and down over his sternum, over his heart.  Nothing wasn’t doing any good.  He couldn’t bring Steve back.  He couldn’t fix this.  He all but collapsed, exhausted.  “You can’t die!  You can’t!  I need you.  I can’t do this without you!  I can’t…  I wanted to tell you – and I can’t hide it anymore.”  The world was shaking, vibrating, twisting around him.  And the truth was coming, fast and hard.  He couldn’t hold it back, not now, not ever again, because Steve was dying, and– “You have to know.  You have to know!”  Tony leaned down, cupping Steve’s face, sweeping his thumbs across Steve’s cheeks, and sealed his mouth over Steve’s again.  A kiss of life. 

And he pulled away and whispered into his lips, “I love you.”

Everything was still.  Then, “Stark!”

Tony looked up at Natasha’s scream over the comm link.  The ship really was rattling, and there was an incredible roar.  Through the thick, heavy clouds, light exploded, blinding white illumination that was growing stronger and brighter as something came closer.  The ship’s deck rattled beneath them, rumbling through Tony’s bones, and the very air molecules seemed to quiver.  A breath later Tony watched, utterly awestruck, as a ship, one that looked just like the spacecraft that had crashed in Orlando all those days ago, broke through the cloud base and gracefully descended.  “Holy shit,” he whispered.

“Tony, what’s happening?  What’s happening?”

Tony simply stared.  That incredible flux of matter and energy was hovering right above him.  It simply rested there for a moment, seemingly suspended in time, and then the rumbling got louder, deeper, boomed in a clap of soundless thunder.  Tony cried out from the sheer power of it, this wild tingling sensation arcing across his nerves.  He threw himself over Steve and squeezed his eyes shut.

But nothing hurt them.  And when Tony looked down again, he saw more light, the same light that had been rippling over Steve before in clear, pure waves, only now it wasn’t simply confined to Steve’s body.  Tony’s breath locked in his throat as the light moved up his own arms, wrapping around him in wispy tendrils that grew stronger and more substantive as it went higher and higher.  As it did, he felt… different.  There was this faint inkling in his thoughts, one that grew as the light consumed him.  He saw more, knew more, understood more.  It took him a moment to realize what this was, what this meant.  It was a bridge, a connection.  The breadth of it all, how energy was transmitted and transformed, how it flowed from one node to another in this seemingly random array of light and color and power, this entropy that went on forever, through flesh and blood, through the ship beneath them and sky above them and sea and the very molecules of the air all around them, purposeful in its chaos…  This was the power Steve had experienced, the link from mind to mind and soul to soul.

And his was joined to Steve’s.

He saw a blonde woman with kind, tired blue eyes and a gentle smile.  A young man with rakish good looks and a charming smile.  The pain of a bent spine and lungs that constantly worked against the body.  The need to serve, to be useful, to do what was right.  Howard’s fun grin and Peggy Carter’s warm, brown eyes.  The serum rushing through every cell in his body with the bombardment of Vita-rays, and there was pain, but it was incredible, amazing, this wave of heat and strength and fire that was so vivid against a world that had been dull and gray and limiting.  Project: Rebirth.  The war.  The ice.  The Avengers, and the Chitauri, and Iron Man.  Tony’s hands, working.  Tony’s voice.  Tony’s eyes.

This was Steve’s heart.  Steve’s thoughts and memories.  Steve’s own light, so good and strong and pure.

It was breathtakingly beautiful.

Tony gasped, tipping back his head and basking.  The light encased them both, brought them together, and moved through them.  He held Steve closer, cradling him tightly, and turned to face the light around them, watched the ship reach toward them.  Its structure was changing before his eyes, opening wide and wrapping around the deck in a field of warm light, cradling them.  No, not them.

The spirit.  It was going home, moving through the two humans, using them to reach its salvation.  In a parting caress, it held them both just a moment longer, perhaps in gratitude or appreciation, before slipping away completely.  Just like that, the connection, the color, the power and understanding and perspective, all faded away.  The light left them, rising up toward the ship and the stunning flare of energy.  Tony raised an arm to shield his eyes; the illumination was overwhelming now, like looking into sun.  The spirit met its companions, the mass of energy shifting to allow it entrance, and then it became indistinguishable among its brethren.  The glow retracted, reforming into the ship and fading away until the shape of the vessel became clear again.  Then it wasted not a moment more, turning overhead before zooming up and into the clouds, disappearing into the night like it had never been there at all.

It was quiet.  The ship was rolling gently with the waves, the sound of the water lapping against the hull loud but lulling.  A moment passed before Tony realized he was staring numbly at a sky that was dark and empty.

“Tony!”

Natasha’s voice cut through his reeling senses, piercing the contented fog in his brain.  He shuddered simply from being so overwhelmed, gasping a hoarse cry.

The team bombarded him.  “God, Tony, what’s going on?  What happened?”

“What was that?  We registered another EM surge!”

“Tony, is Steve okay?  Is he?”

Steve.

Tony looked down.  Steve was still in his arms, still sopping wet, still limp and curled tightly against his chest.  For a moment, the fear returned, the memory.  Steve hadn’t been breathing.  Steve’s heart had stopped.  Steve had died.

But he wasn’t dead now, far from it in fact.  His skin was warm, flushed with vitality.  He was inhaling and exhaling at a steady rate.  Tony’s hand was around the back of Steve’s neck, holding him close, and he could feel the strong beat of Steve’s heart.  Steve was alive.  He was fine.  And Tony was touching him, had his hands on his bare skin, and it didn’t seem to be doing anything.

Just like that, everything was over.

Steve’s hazy blue eyes opened to slits.  Then he smiled and closed them again.  “Hey,” he greeted tiredly.

The relief was so, so good.  Tony couldn’t stop beaming.  “Hey.”

“Did I get whammied again?”

Freely Tony laughed.  “You idiot.”  He hugged Steve hard, hugged him and basked in it, and smiled through his tears.  “Yeah, you did.”

Chapter Text

So this whole thing was just plain weird.

Actually, all things considered?  Weird didn’t begin to describe it.

Steve woke up in the medical ward again.  It wasn’t to Tony’s face this time, though.  In fact, Tony wasn’t even there.  Steve opened his eyes to the team conspicuously minus Iron Man, a fact upon which his senses and brain immediately fixated even though he felt like he was more hungover than he’d ever been in his life (which, considering how many years it’d been since he and Bucky had gotten sick on Bucky’s pa’s old moonshine, was pretty new and unpleasant).  The others were utterly elated he was conscious, huge smiles on their faces, arms around him, just how bad things had gotten evident in relieved eyes and tight grips.  Which was ironic because he couldn’t really remember why he felt so terrible or why they’d be so happy.

He was so totally confused, in fact, that he didn’t even think to be afraid or even alarmed that they were all touching him, that Natasha was hugging him and Thor was bear-hugging him and Clint was socking him in the shoulder and Bruce was quickly checking him over, that they were touching him…  And nothing was happening.  No thoughts were slamming into him.  No emotions or feelings that weren’t his were getting into his head.  The quiet, normal, mundane sensation of someone’s hand on him…  That was all it was.  The telepathy was gone.

Of course, that made the confusion so much worse.  The team hovered around him while Bruce conducted his tests, and he asked questions because he just couldn’t stop himself.  What had happened.  How they’d gotten the entity out of his head (that he did remember, this… presence inside him that wasn’t him, part of every thought and feeling and emotion, an unwilling interloper that got louder and stronger and more and more scared).  Clint wanted to know the last thing he remembered, which was very clear in Steve’s head: Tony’s workshop, all the wreckage, the weird symbols, and then…  Tony’s thoughts, overwhelming his.  It had been so powerful, so chaotic, so… amazing.  He trailed off when he’d gotten to that part, and he’d felt himself blush, which was strange.  Now that he was thinking about it, he had a lot of memories of Tony, very vague, hazy memories, but of Tony.  Tony with him.  Tony promising him that things were going to be okay, that he wouldn’t be alone.  Tony’s tech all around him.  Tony taking care of him and touching him and comforting him and…

Kissing him?

Stranger still was the fact that the rest of the team seemed uncomfortable, like they were reading his mind, which couldn’t be the case at all.  No one was reading anyone’s mind anymore.  According to Natasha, the team had discovered Steve’s powers had originated from some sort of non-corporeal alien, and they had devised a way to send a distress call out to alert the alien’s compatriots as to the crash and the predicament.  Apparently Steve had aided in this, writing the message in the alien’s language, but he had no memory of that, either.  After that it had been a waiting game.  As Bruce explained, Steve had been very sick and getting dangerously sicker.  Part of that had been because of the fact that his telepathic powers had amplified to a ridiculously large range, and the psychic bombardment had been too much for his body to handle.  The other part of that had seemed to be the alien itself, the toxic stress it had been putting on him increasing and increasing to the point where he simply hadn’t been able to withstand it.  All of that had culminated in multiple near fatal incidents.

Of which, again, Steve truly had no memory.  He said as much, and Bruce seemed perplexed, but then he surmised that with all the chaos going on in Steve’s head, other people’s thoughts and the alien itself, maybe there’d been interference in Steve’s own neurological memory processes.  Steve supposed that made sense.  He had this vague sense of being overwhelmed by a storm of thoughts and memories and emotions that hadn’t been his, but he couldn’t say whose they were.  Random people.  This blur of indistinct things that he couldn’t begin to pull apart.  Clint seemed to sense his distress and clasped him on the shoulder and told him he should probably be grateful, because the whole thing had been pretty shitty (which also seemed to be an understatement) and something the archer would gladly try to repress later.  Thor expressed much the same, as light and gregarious as he always was, but there was tension and pain in his eyes.  Clearly the team had gone through something really traumatic, which in turn made the fact that Steve didn’t have any context for these details all that much more disturbing.  They were telling him that he’d nearly died, and there was no framework of recollections or emotions to understand that.

He just knew whatever had happened had driven Tony away again.

At any rate, he was fine now.  He’d been asleep for more than a day since the aliens had mysteriously arrived to collect their lone survivor of the crash.  Since then, there had been no sign of them.  All the people who’d been evacuated to protect him (he was not happy a chunk of Midtown Manhattan had been relocated on his account) had returned to their homes and businesses.  SHIELD had contained the fall-out from the incident, so nothing had gotten into the media.  There’d also been no further interference from the Kree or any other extraterrestrials.  Everything was quiet.  On top of that, all the wreckage from the original crash (which was now almost two weeks ago, Steve was learning) was disintegrating.  The weird state of flux that comprised it was failing, the mix of energy and matter losing whatever balance it once had.  It was reaching the point that in a matter of a day or two, there’d be nothing left of the strange substance other than this weird ash the chemical process left in its wake (which Bruce sadly and disappointedly complained was useless to study).  No one had any explanation, if it was simply degrading with time as though it possessed some sort of half life or if the removal of the final spirit from Earth had triggered the decomposition.  With the spirit gone, the telepathy gone, and now the wreckage gone, there was basically no evidence that any of this weirdness had ever happened.  And without firm memories of anything from the moment Tony had first touched him to waking up in the med bay, this was all starting to seem like a bad dream.

A very, very weird, bad dream.

For the next couple hours, Bruce ran tests.  Steve was too out of it to protest or care or even really notice.  Naturally Bruce had been keeping a close eye on him while he’d been unconscious, but aside from confirming the serum was undoing the damage caused by the spirit and that the EM radiation was gone, he hadn’t been able to be precisely sure everything was back to normal until Steve had regained consciousness.  Now that he had, Bruce ran through a gamut of experiments, attaching those same sensors and measuring Steve’s vitals carefully while having Clint and Thor touch him and having him touch them.  Nothing was out of the ordinary.  To be frank, Steve found himself holding his breath every time anyone came near, expecting thoughts charging into his brain.  None did, no matter who touched him, how long, or what they were thinking.  The EM levels remained completely nonexistent, and his vital signs stayed level and unchanged.  It was the best possible result.

But the team celebrating it didn’t feel right or complete without Tony there.  And Tony wasn’t there.  Later that night, when Bruce was finally convinced everything was fine and he released Steve from his care, they’d had a team dinner.  Pizza and salad and beer.  Watching The X-Files (which hit a little close to home, but it was easy enough to shirk it and the others didn’t seem to notice).  It was a pretty good time, and it felt good to be normal again, included in the group without all this extra baggage even if he was a little hyperaware of how close people were.  Like when Natasha sat too near on the couch (purposefully, he realized a few minutes into it – Natasha was hiding it well like she always did, but she’d been scared).  Like when Clint handed him a beer and Thor threw an arm around his shoulders and Bruce accidentally knocked into his knees passing in front of him in the living room.  None of that amounted to anything no matter how much he expected it to.  It took a while to relax because of that, but he did.

For the most part.  It was hard to completely, because Tony wasn’t there.

And he wasn’t there the next day.  Or the day after.  Or the day after.  As life incredibly just got back to normal, the fact that Tony was not a part of it was awful, like being told to march on with a bone out of its joint.  This was utterly maddening, and it became obvious what was going on right away.  Just like Tony had before, he was avoiding him.  He wasn’t eating with the team or training with the team or even talking with the team, at least not if Steve was there.  The second Steve showed up, Tony was gone.  He was running away.  Again. 

And, again, Steve didn’t understand why.  Something had happened while he’d been sick.  He was certain of it.  The others certainly seemed to know what it was, but they weren’t telling.  Not that Steve was asking.  The whole thing was just plain uncomfortable.  The awkward tension had been bad before Steve had gotten so sick, but now it was infinitely worse.  This had become the proverbial elephant in the room.  If Steve walked in unannounced on a conversation Tony was having with one or more of the Avengers or if Tony happened to interrupt Steve with their friends, Tony would bolt no matter what, and the others would look at Steve like he should know what was happening and be able to fix it.  He didn’t, so he couldn’t.  He’d laid awake all hours in bed these last couple nights, not sleeping, staring into the shadows and trying to figure it out.  This was like déjà vu, only he was fairly sure the exact same thing couldn’t be happening.  Tony couldn’t be freaked out by the telepathy and Steve touching him anymore, right?  He knew that was gone.  Therefore, whatever thing he hadn’t wanted Steve to find out…  Steve couldn’t find it out now unless Tony told him, so why this painful separation?  His memories of when he’d been sick were shaky at best, but he knew Tony had been there.  The other Avengers had all but confirmed that, that Tony had sent in his Iron Man suits to take care of him, that he’d modified one to allow him to be with Steve in person, that he’d saved his life in effect.

So why was he like this now?

Steve had no idea, and he was too afraid to ask.  Maybe he’d said something, did something…  He was fairly certain he’d been sick all over Tony once or twice, but Tony wouldn’t be that grossed out or petty.  Still, that was pretty embarrassing, being so weak and vulnerable in front of someone you respected so much.  Maybe Tony was giving him space to process that, to work out his own feelings?  Which was ironically stupid, because aside from whatever had gone on with Tony, Steve didn’t have too many feelings about this whole thing.  It felt so surreal, like he’d had some kind of out of body experience, so he was mostly numb.  Or maybe he’d made Tony uncomfortable somehow?  Somehow.  Like watching your best friend nearly die wasn’t severely traumatizing in and of itself.

But they were friends, so why wouldn’t Tony be with him now?  And why wouldn’t anyone tell him what was going on?  Even with the team around him all the time, a little more protective and appreciative for this ordeal, Tony’s absence and the lack of a reason was making Steve feel isolated all over again.  Even going back to work (to SHIELD, where Fury gave him a load of shit for things beyond his control and admonished him for going into that ship alone and basically flailed sternly the way the SHIELD Director always did when his emotions got the better of him) didn’t make Steve feel normal and good.  Something was really wrong.

Still.

As these situations often did, as this same one had before, it came to a head.  A few days after Steve had woken up, more than two weeks after the crash that had started everything, he was riding the elevator up Stark Tower on his way back from an all-day conference at SHIELD.  Fury wanted a more extensive defense network of satellites put in place after this latest interstellar incident, which had required a lengthy meeting between the Avengers, top government and SHIELD personnel, and members of the World Security Council.  Tony had been there.  Tony was with him in the elevator now, in fact, and like he had been for the whole meeting, he was stiff, unusually quiet, and distant, both literally and figuratively.  He hadn’t once made eye contact with Steve.  During the discussion at SHIELD HQ, he’d said his bit, contributed with his plans to aid in the project, but other than the bare minimum, he’d been tight-lipped.  Steve had been trying to watch him, trying to offer a smile here and there, but Tony was pointedly ignoring him.

It really hurt all over again.

Natasha was noticing.  She was in the elevator, too.  At long last, she couldn’t take it anymore.  “You two are pathetic,” she commented unhappily as the miserable seconds of silence went on and on.

Steve bristled.  He dropped his gaze to his feet, feeling called out and chastised again, and he wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what.  It didn’t matter.  “JARVIS, here’s good,” Tony called out.  The elevator stopped barely higher than the lobby, and Steve raised his head just in time to see Tony get off.  He never once looked back before the doors closed behind him and the elevator continued upward.  Frustration simmered in Steve’s veins.  Goddamn it.

But it was Natasha who expressed it.  “You need to go talk to him,” she declared, turning and staring at Steve head-on.  “I can’t believe I have to tell you this again.”

“Talk about what?” Steve grumbled, and to hell if that was petulant and somewhat childish.  He was tired of feeling left out and excluded.

Natasha’s sharp eyes narrowed in confusion.  “You really don’t know?  After everything that happened.”

That frustration broke free.  “No.  How could I know?  And what am I supposed to know?”

All the sudden, her irritation melted.  She sighed, shaking her head like she was realizing something.  “Well, I guess it makes sense.  You were kinda mostly dead at the time.”  Confusion left Steve reeling, and he just dumbly shook his head, squinting at her.  “Stark’s got the worst timing in the world.”

Steve exhaled deeply, trying to hang onto his patience.  “Can someone please just explain to me what is going on here?  Please?  I can’t read minds anymore in case you haven’t heard.  Tony obviously didn’t get the memo.”

“Just go talk to him.”

Steve huffed.  “At least tell me why.”

The elevator came to a stop at one of the top floors with a soft beep.  The doors opened.  Natasha gave a soft, sweet smile.  “Definitely not my secret to tell, Cap.”  Then she stepped off and headed down the hall with only a sly glance over her shoulder before turning the corner and heading toward her suite.

Flummoxed, Steve just stood there.  He didn’t get it.  He didn’t remember Tony telling him his secret.  Obviously Natasha knew.  Did everyone know?  He wracked his brain a moment, trying to hold onto the hazy presence of Tony’s thoughts that was still lingering.  But there was nothing there, nothing to explain this anyway.  Just that unique sense of Tony that he hoped would always stay with him, maybe forever imprinted on his own mind.   All the perfect power and intelligence.  The memories and perceptions and sensations.  Of all the thoughts that had filled his mind throughout the incident, Tony’s were the only ones that were still distinct.  Was that Tony’s secret?  That he knew Steve was silently cherishing this lasting touch?  Was that weird or inappropriate?

“Captain Rogers.”  JARVIS’ quiet call drew Steve from his worries.  He sighed and looked up.  “Shall I take you to your floor?”

For a moment, Steve hesitated.  There was that itchy sense of déjà vu again.  The last time he’d tried to confront Tony, it hadn’t exactly gone well.  This time the potential fall-out seemed far more monumental and damaging.  Tony didn’t like to be cornered, didn’t like to talk about his feelings.  What if he still felt exposed in front of Steve?  What if Tony didn’t want to be his friend now that he knew that Steve had seen into his mind?  What if this strained their relationship more, hurt the team, ruined everything?  This life in the Tower with the others, with Tony…  It was really all Steve had.

And he wasn’t willing to lose it.  “No, take me to Tony.  Please.”

There was a pause, and for a second Steve thought JARVIS wouldn’t.  But then the elevator doors closed, and the lift descended quickly.  “Gladly, sir.”

It felt like it took forever to go down, but in reality only a few moments passed before the elevator stopped.  It had deposited him outside Tony’s private garage.  Obviously the inventor had run down here, to his most secluded safe haven.  Steve took a deep breath and walked inside.  The garage seemed empty.  Quietly he made his way down the line of expensive cars, vintage and modern alike, toward where his bike was near the back.

He spotted Tony before he got there.  The other man was just sitting in his new car, the gorgeous Ferrari he’d just bought.  Steve had completely forgotten about it.  It was still stunning, all sleek lines and shine beneath the bright lights overhead, exuding silent power, grace, and strength.  The engine wasn’t running, though, and Tony was sitting in the passenger side, staring emptily at the windshield and looking whipped.  Concern roiled inside Steve, twisting his gut, and he winced as he came closer.  “Tony?  Are you okay?”

Like he’d been punched, Tony snapped from his thoughts.  His eyes widened when he saw Steve, and then he was scrambling from the car, stumbling out of the door and slamming it shut before moving around to the drivers’ side as if he needed the physical barrier of the car between them.  “JARVIS shouldn’t have let you in here.”

Steve raised his hands helplessly before letting them fall against his thighs.  “Well, he did.  Sorry.”  Tony looked up from his shoes for a split second, meeting Steve’s gaze before hastily averting his eyes again.  Steve sighed.  “We really have to talk.”

Tony shook his head.  “About what?”

“About us?” Steve replied, confused.  “You know.”

“No, I don’t.”

That confusion got worse, sharper.  “You don’t?”

Tony looked just as puzzled.  “Um…  No?  Do you?”

A strained moment of silence passed.  This was the first time they’d really spoken in days, in more than a couple weeks really, and it wasn’t making any sense.  Natasha was right; they really did suck at communication.  Steve folded his arms across his chest, shaking his head.  “Are you… trying to play dumb or something?  Because something weird is happening here.  I thought you–”

“Goddamn it.”  Tony sighed and shook his head, pressing the heel of his palm to his brow.  “You know what?  If you’d just been outted by some wacky space alien and then stupidly outted yourself to everyone on top of it–”

“Huh?”

“–you’d be freaking out too, so, no, there is nothing to talk about, because even though the truth is out there and all that, it’s not important, so we can just pretend it never happened–”

What never happened?”

“–and go back to normal because normal would be good, right?  You and me, back to normal.  Just forget what I said and what happened and what you read from my mind–”

“What I–”  Steve shook his head at Tony’s words, which were coming faster and faster.  The bottom line was clear, though.  Tony knew that he’d read his mind.  When he thought about it, he didn’t see how Tony couldn’t know.  That didn’t help with the shame.  “I didn’t mean to, Tony. I swear.  I’m sorry.”

Tony frowned, increasingly agitated. “Great? Apology accepted.  So can we just ignore the whole thing now?”

Steve swallowed through a dry throat. “I’m not sure that we can.”

“Well, we have to.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It can be.  You agree to never talk about it again, I do the same, and then we go back to being cool with each other.”  Tony tried for a grin, but it simply came off flustered.  He was more out of sorts than Steve could ever recall.  “See?  Fixed.”

Nothing about this seemed fixed in the slightest.  “Tony, we…  We can’t just go back without talking this out.  Things… happened, and–”

“Look, just take the car, okay?”

That… really came out of left field.  Steve snapped out of his thoughts, out of his lame attempts to find some way to ease Tony and tell him none of this was his fault, because that just shocked the hell of him.  “What?”

Tony closed his eyes, chewing his lip and dropping a hand to the hood of the Ferrari.  “Take it.  Please.  Having it here just hurts too much, alright?  I laid this… this huge burden on you, at a really crappy time no less, and that wasn’t fair and – you know, for the record?  This was why I didn’t want you to touch me in the first place!”  Steve just stared, mouth hanging open limply.  Tony shook his head more.  “But whatever.  Bottom line is what’s done is done, and it hurts having this thing here, so I’d appreciate it if you can take it.”  Then Tony tipped his head.  “I mean…  Yeah, okay, you might not have a place to put it.  Alright.  I can return it.  Sell it.  If you don’t want it.  I’ll sell it and give you the money.  I just don’t want it here–”

“I don’t understand,” Steve said.  “What does the car have to do with anything?”

Tony looked like he didn’t understand, either.  “Because it’s yours?”

If the last comment came out of left field, this came from another galaxy.  “What?”

Tony’s face tightened even more in pain and confusion.  “I bought it for you?  For your birthday?”  Steve went cold.  Tony stammered a second, and then went on.  “Come on, Steve.  It’s the Ferrari F60 America.  If there was ever a car meant for Captain America, it’s this one.”  Steve just shook his head again.  His jaw was probably on the floor at this point.  Tony kept going.  “I lied about it not getting here in time for the Fourth.  It did get here, but I was…  I was too scared to give it to you.  Because I suck.  Clearly.  And considering that–”

“You bought it for me?” Steve whispered.  He glanced between the car and Tony.  “Why?”

“You know why.  You know all this.  You said one thought led to another, and so there was no way I could hide it from you, so you know!”  The look on Steve’s face must have said it all because the confusion in Tony’s eyes reached an absolute peak.  The color drained from his cheeks and his jaw went slack.  “Don’t you?”  Steve just slowly shook his head.  Tony just stared.

Then he turned and walked away.  He was shaking, raking his hands through the fullness of his hair and scrubbing them there roughly.  “Holy shit, I really did out myself.  The freaking irony…  I thought – I mean, you read my mind!  You knew my secret!”  Too shocked to think, Steve just shook his head.  “You had to know!”

“I – I didn’t!  I don’t,” Steve murmured.  “It was too much, and it happened so fast, and I tried not to look, I swear, but I couldn’t…  I don’t remember.  I’m sorry, Tony.”  He felt terrible, and he wasn’t sure why.  “I’m really sorry.”

“No, no.  Ah, goddamn it,” Tony whispered, shaking his head.  He looked caught between utter horror, anxiety, and excitement.  “I can’t believe it.  All this time, I thought you didn’t…  I thought you weren’t…”

“Not what?” Steve asked.  Tony opened his mouth, but nothing came out.  He was speechless.  That never happened.  And Steve was too completely overwhelmed to manage a single thought.  The words came all the same.  “What am I supposed to know?”  Tony didn’t answer.  Steve shook his head, aching inside and desperate.  “Tony, what am I supposed to know?”

“I can’t believe this,” Tony said with a twist of a smile on his lips.  “I can’t believe I have to do this again.  Do you have any idea how freaking hard it was?  That’s why I didn’t give you the car!  I’d say it’s not fair, but then nothing about any of this has been fair.  Is someone trying to punish me or something?”

Steve didn’t know, and he didn’t care.  Something inside him was starting to make sense, something he hadn’t realized hadn’t made sense until now.  And he had a feeling he knew the answer to his own question, what it was he was supposed to know, but he needed to hear it.  “Tony, please.”

Tony finally meet his gaze.  When he did, he stopped fidgeting, and everything seemed to quiet.  That lingering connection between them hummed, a soft tingle of excitement and meaning.  It felt so strong, that sense of Tony in his head, in his heart.  Steve shook his head, stepping closer before he realized the car was between them.  “Tony, I–”

Tony rushed around the front of the car.  For how fast he ran over, he seemed to lose his nerve, hands clenching at his sides before he finally managed to touch Steve.  He reached up and cupped Steve’s face.  That feeling inside Steve shivered at the contact, trembled at how good it was, at how much he wanted.  He wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he wanted.

Then Tony kissed him, and he knew.

Steve had only really been kissed once before, and Tony was nothing like Peggy.  His lips were harder, the bristle of his goatee surprising, and he kissed with purpose, not a tentative brush but a kiss with need behind it, like Tony was throwing everything into a slim chance and praying it panned out.  It was incredible, electrifying, a simple touch that was more powerful than any other touch he’d experienced over the last couple weeks.  Over his life really.  And he didn’t know what the hell he was doing, but he knew he wanted more, so he slid his lips against Tony’s before opening his mouth.

Tony’s tongue immediately touched his, and – God – that was even better.  Steve shivered, opened his mouth wider, and Tony took what he offered, exploring deeper, stealing Steve’s breath until Steve felt drunk and light-headed and Tony gripped his face tighter to keep him grounded.  Steve pulled away with a gasp.  “I didn’t know!  I didn’t know!”

“I was too scared to tell you,” Tony whispered back, panting against his lips.  “I was – I thought…  There was no way you’d want me!”

Steve hadn’t thought about it before.  How could he not have realized this, not have wondered, not have needed?  “I want you!”

“And I was worried you’d find out before, and you’d feel trapped or worse–”

“Tony–”

“I love you,” Tony said, breathless and desperate.  A warm rush of euphoria rolled over Steve, bringing every nerve to life.  He’d never imagined anyone saying that to him, and he’d never dreamed it would be Tony.  Tony’s eyes welled with tears.  “God, I love you.  I’ve loved you since…  Months.  Maybe since I met you, since I first saw you, only I was too much of an asshole to see it–”

Steve shook his head, aching inside.  “No, that’s not true.”

“And I got scared when the telepathy happened–”

“It’s alright–”

“And then I touched you, and that made everything worse–”

“No, Tony, no.  Seeing your mind…  I can’t describe how amazing it was.  I can’t tell you how it made me feel–”

“I know!  I know.  I saw your mind, too.”  Steve didn’t understand, but there was such honest admiration in Tony’s eyes, such open reverence, that he couldn’t think to ask.  “God, Steve, I saw you, and I…  I just want to be with you anyway I can.  Any way you want me, that you’ll let me.  I didn’t mean to drop any of this on you like this, and I should have been brave enough to be honest weeks ago when I got the car – that’s why I got the car!  Or, God, all the way back to when I first made myself realized the truth, but it was just this huge, awful secret, and I was scared you wouldn’t feel the same–”

“I do,” Steve gasped.  “Tony, I do!”

But Tony barreled on.  “But the thought of losing that, losing you…  None of this would have happened if I’d just been honest–”

Steve couldn’t take it anymore.  He took Tony’s confession with a kiss of his own.  He was tentative, because this was so new and so important.  “I do feel the same,” he whispered, pulling away just long enough to look in Tony’s eyes and offer his own truth.  “I do.  I love you, too.”

Tony’s restraint seemed to snap.  He kissed Steve again, kissed hard, devouring like he needed Steve to live, needed him like air and water and sunlight.  As much as being kissed moments before had been a new experience, this was far beyond, kissing in a way Steve didn’t know kissing could be.  It was deep and intimate, and there was no air to breathe, but he didn’t need to breathe.  He just needed to let Tony have him, let Tony pull him closer, let Tony thread his hands through his hair and brush his tongue across his teeth and entangle it with his own and taste him.  That drunk feeling returned, more consuming and wonderful than before, and he felt disconnected like he was flying yet incredibly grounded in his own senses.  In Tony’s lithe body against his own.  In Tony’s soft, fast breaths and hands running through Steve’s hair.  In Tony’s mouth sliding against his and Tony’s taste and his own heart thundering.

In his calves hitting something cool, smooth, and hard.  The car. Steve pulled away with a wet sound, surprised, and Tony let go of his face.  “What?” he asked, fear crawling into his eyes.  “Shit.  I’m sorry.”

“No, no,” Steve replied.  His heart was beating fast, and he felt flushed with desire, so much so that the thought of Tony turning away from him right now was just horrifying.  “No, I just…  I don’t know what I’m doing.”

That fear faded.  Tony smiled, and – God – that smirk was unbelievable.  It was molten and erotic.  “Rushing headfirst into something?  All reckless and heroic?”

Steve leaned back into the car, thinking for a moment that the vehicle was – what had Tony said?  Three million dollars? – expensive and they shouldn’t be doing this here because he really had no concept of what this would be like, what he thought was about to happen, and he could break the car and…  All that fell away as Tony kissed him sweetly and planted his hands on his chest, pushing gently but insistently.  “Always,” he moaned into Tony’s mouth.  “But…”

Tony leaned away a second, and his gaze was nothing but open and offering. “If you want this, if you do…  I’ll take care of you.  I’ll show you.  But I want you to be honest, because we don’t need to do this.  Especially not here and not now.  We just…  This is new, and we don’t need to take this fast, and if you’re not ready or scared…”

Steve was scared, but he knew he was ready.  He kissed Tony quiet.  “Waited for seventy years to find where I belong, and it’s with you.  Plus it’s not like this is all that new.  Well, the wanting you part.”  Tony smiled and actually blushed.  It was absolutely endearing.  “Plus I almost died.  So, no, I don’t want to wait anymore.”

Tony’s grin turned positively hungry, and love and relief was alight in his eyes.   He kissed Steve again, harder this time, and licked at his lips.  Steve groaned as Tony caught his lower one between his teeth and bit gently and playfully.  A shock of desire went straight to Steve’s groin.  “I bought you this car,” Tony husked, pushing Steve back into the Ferrari again.  His mouth trailed down Steve’s jaw, nibbling and sucking softly.  “Not gonna lie.  It was a bit of a selfish gift.  Something for me too.”  Steve braced his palms on the smooth hood behind him, tipping his head back.  Tony rumbled against his throat, kissing there, and the feel of that was unbelievable.  “You know why?”

All Steve’s blood was rapidly rushing south.  That glorious lightheaded feeling amplified, and he couldn’t think to answer even if he wanted to.  He just groaned, shivering as Tony rolled his hips into his (God, Tony was hard already) and did more sinfully pleasurable things to his neck.  “I might have wanted to see you like this.  Just like this.  Given you a backdrop that suits you.”

“You were planning to…” Steve’s voice trailed off.  He was reeling with the idea that Tony had spent three million dollars just to live out a fantasy.  With him.

Tony chuckled, but the smoothness of it felt a little fake, like he was trying to seem calmer and more in control than he actually was.  “Maybe.  Kinda surprised you didn’t pick up on it when my brain downloaded into yours.  Up until you got sick, I was thinking about pretty much nothing else.”  Steve shivered again.  Tony kissed his neck more, lips soft and tantalizing, suckling soft at first and then harder at the juncture between his jaw and his neck.  “It’s as good as I dreamed.  The way you look with this car, your pale skin against the blue exterior that brings out the blue in your eyes.  The deceptive strength in your body pressed right to the power of this machine, both so honed and stunningly perfect…  God, Steve, do you have any idea how beautiful you are?”

Steve opened his mouth, staring blankly up at the lights overhead.  His mind raced with no traction, thoughts blissfully floating with Tony’s caresses and kisses and words.  “Tony,” he whimpered.  Deft fingers pulled his shirt from his jeans and then skirted up underneath it, brushing across his stomach.  Steve bucked.

Tony hushed him.  “Easy, darling,” he hummed against Steve’s Adam’s apple.  The vibrations of his voice were delicious, setting Steve’s blood simmering.  The light touches across his abs were just as tantalizing.  “You still sure?”

Steve nodded.  “Absolutely,” he managed.

Tony grinned, cocking an eyebrow.  “Hang on then.” 

Before Steve could even respond, Tony was sliding down his body as the engineer’s skilled hands went upward.  With every touch of Tony’s fingers, rough calluses from years spent building rubbed over Steve’s stomach and flanks and then higher as Tony explored.  He kissed through the cotton of Steve’s polo shirt, trailing his mouth lower and lower, and Steve’s brain just completely short-circuited.  He couldn’t think, couldn’t process what was happening, couldn’t do anything but tremble in exhilaration and stare as Tony got on his knees in front of him.  “Oh, God…”

That grin came back, sly and a touch possessive.  Tony leaned up just a bit to get his hands higher, pushing Steve’s shirt up with them.  Steve gasped and thrust his hips forward when Tony kissed at his stomach.  Warm wetness slipped over the muscles there, leaving a trail of goosebumps in its wake, and he looked down again to see Tony tracing his abs with his open mouth.  Steve had already been half hard, but he was quickly going mad with it, gripping the hood of the car behind him tighter just to keep himself from losing it completely.  “Tony,” he groaned, the tightness of his jeans becoming unbearable as Tony teased the skin of his belly more, dipping his tongue into his navel.  “Tony!”

“Still okay with this, love?”  There was a wink.  “Still think you can handle it?”

Steve had no idea.  He frankly didn’t know if he was coming or going.  He was only certain that he wanted more, wanted this now.  “Please,” he whimpered, and if he hadn’t been so damn turned on, that would have sounded pathetic.  “Please…”

Those deft fingers fell to his belt, but not before giving him a torturous stroke through the denim.  It was so good it hurt, and the relief of his belt buckle coming undone and the button of his pants popping open was shocking.  “Figure I owe you everything,” Tony murmured, slowly unzipping the fly of Steve’s jeans.  He looked up with brown eyes so dark with lust and affection.  “For saving me from myself.”

Steve shook his head, struggling to think with this fog of need consuming him.  “I never–”

“You did,” Tony interrupted, sliding his fore and middle fingers under the waistband of Steve’s jeans and his boxers.  “You did when you told me you trusted me.  When you told me I was your friend and your teammate, so of course you had faith in me.  Remember that?”  To be honest, Steve was having trouble remembering his own name.  “Taught me about being a good person.  About being a hero.  You were teaching me that before I even knew you, when I was kid and my own father didn’t care to show me how.”

This image went through Steve’s mind.  Something from Tony’s memories.  A little boy playing with a Captain America action figure in his room that looked so well-loved with joy in his eyes.  In the chaos of Tony’s thoughts colliding with his own before he’d passed out, Steve hadn’t realized what had come with the memory.  Respect.  Admiration.  A driving want to be good and noble.  “You are a hero, Tony.  You saved my life,” he murmured.  “And I’m not just talking about the other day.”

Tony looked up at him, surprised.  Despite how flustered he was feeling, Steve smiled.  Tony watched a moment more, like he couldn’t quite believe what Steve thought of him.  That soft, quiet connection between them seemed stronger, thrumming in contentment, in appreciation and understanding.  Then Tony grinned.  “Well, still.  I owe you this.”

“You don’t owe me – oh, God.”  Tony mouthed at his erection through his jeans a moment before tugging down the denim.  Steve gripped the car harder just to keep standing.  The second or two before Tony touched him was excruciating; Steve had never so helplessly and desperately waited for something in his whole life.  Then Tony worked his pants open more, and there was a brush of something to the underside of his hard cock.  Even through the cotton of his underwear, he could tell it was wet and warm and a little rough.  Tony’s tongue.  Tony licked again, harder, and Steve shuddered.  And then Tony’s firm fingers wrapped around the stiff, aching length of him.  Steve had never been touched before by anyone other than himself, never known what it felt like, and – God Almighty – it was incredible.  “Tony!”

“Shh,” Tony whispered.  He just stayed still a moment, a terrible, torturous moment, and it looked like he was holding himself back too, like he wanted something frantically, like a starving man before a massive feast trying hard to decide what he wanted to eat first.  His voice wavered when he asked, “Is this okay?”

“Yes!”

“Then just let me…”  He kissed the head of Steve’s cock, stroking gently from root to tip as he did, and Steve bucked and sucked in a shallow breath.  Need flooded through him, tight in his core.  He squeezed his eyes shut.  He wanted to look down and watch what Tony was doing, but that’d be the death of him, the absolute end, and he wasn’t sure where this was going, but he knew he wanted to be able to get there.

That plan went out the window when he felt Tony pull down his jeans and boxers and kiss him directly, a few light, kitten licks that gave Steve no warning for when Tony’s mouth enveloped him completely.  Steve couldn’t stop himself from crying out from the pressure, the pleasure, and he barely kept his feet beneath him, gripping the curve of the car’s hood so tightly that he was sure he’d dented it.  Tony didn’t need to do this, shouldn’t do this, but Steve couldn’t think enough to really stop him, especially when that slick, wet, heat slid up and down him, when Tony’s tongue laved over him, when he gripped the base of him and mouthed at the tip of him, when he swallowed him.  Steve tried not to move, and Tony was gripping his hips tightly to keep him still, which he needed desperately because the tension inside him grew, getting tighter and tighter, and this burning wave of desire rose, and he was going to come like a freight train barreling out of the tunnel toward light.  “Tony, Tony, Tony–”

All the sudden it was gone.  “Can I have you?”

Steve gasped, giving an aborted jerk of his hips in pursuit of denied pleasure.  His eyes snapped open and he looked down.  “What?” he asked hazily.

Tony’s lips were red and swollen and slick in the light.  He was grinning again, excitement and arousal bright in his eyes.  And nervousness.  “Can we have sex?”

Even if Steve’s brain had been operating, he still wouldn’t have understood the question.  “I thought we were having…  Oh.”  He’d honestly never thought about it.  Well, that wasn’t strictly true.  He knew how it worked.  He’d known back in the 30s and 40s, when he’d first started realizing this part about himself, and he’d heard things.  Since coming to the future, he’d learned more.  He knew how to work the internet, for crying out loud.  He was a young man with a serum-powered sex drive.  He knew.

In abstract terms, anyway.  “You want me?”  His voice came out in a shocked whisper.  “Like that?”

That nervousness in Tony’s gaze got sharper.  “I want you,” he said lowly, and he kissed Steve’s rigid length again without warning.  Steve groaned, slumping into the car just a little.  Tony nuzzled against his lower stomach, as if simply being this close was unimaginably blissful.  “Any way you’ll let me have you.”

Steve was too in love to speak.  Tony had said that before, but now, with so much open reverence on his face, with this silent prayer that Steve accept what he was so desperate to give…  Steve could only nod, throat tight and body humming with so much sensation.  He really was rushing into this headfirst, and he knew he was woefully inexperienced, but he wanted to be what Tony wanted.  He wanted to feel that, to know it through Tony.  He wanted to take what Tony was offering.  And Tony had already been inside him, a part of his mind and even his soul, so completing that link physically…  Could anything be more right?

Tony seemed to sense that too, and all hesitation vanished.  He was on his feet again, kissing Steve fiercely, but Steve was hungry and learning, so he kissed back.  He plunged his tongue into Tony’s mouth, and the moan that won him was dizzying.  Tony didn’t seem content to let him be the one winning, though, and his hand snaked right back between Steve’s legs.  Steve pulled free of Tony’s lips to cry out, and Tony hummed happily, mouthing at Steve’s throat again.  The wave of pleasure Steve had barely held back before roared to the forefront anew, and he scrabbled to hold onto Tony, to reach for Tony’s jeans, to get his hands on Tony’s bare skin.

“Wait, wait,” Tony suddenly said, pulling away and stumbling from the car.

Steve gasped, so shocked by the sudden withdrawal of Tony’s heat and Tony’s mouth and Tony’s weight pressing him into the Ferrari again that he nearly staggered.  “What?” he moaned.  “No, Tony–”

“Wait a sec!” Tony called.  He was running down the line of cars in the garage and then darting between a few.  “Hold on!  Just one sec…”

The couple of seconds Tony was gone were infinite and unbearable.  Steve was so completely confused and turned on that he just stood there against the Ferrari with his pants open and pretty well exposed.  He made to at least get himself back in his underwear.

“Nope!” Tony said as he rushed back.  In his hands he had a small tube and something else; Steve couldn’t quite see what.  He didn’t have much time to wonder.  “Nope, no, no.  Don’t.”  Tony was back up against him, mouth hot and open on his, batting his hands away from his clothes.  The kiss was powerful and dizzying and Steve whimpered into it.  Tony thrust into his crotch.  The rasp of denim against Steve’s cock was ungodly cruel and so good, and Tony did it again, letting him feel exactly how hard he was, how much he wanted him, where this was headed, and then pulled back.  “You still sure about this?  We can go slower, take this upstairs, whatever you need–”

“Here,” Steve whispered, his voice a hoarse moan.  “Now.  With you.”

Tony’s body trembled a moment, and then he grabbed Steve’s hips.  Steve had no idea what was coming, but he didn’t expect to be turned around and pushed down onto the car hood.  He must have tensed; he didn’t mean to, he really didn’t, but it was sudden.  “Trust me,” husked Tony’s voice in his ear.  “It’s easier like this.  Okay?”

That wasn’t a rhetorical question, because Tony was still and patient until Steve nodded.  He bent over more, bracing his palms on the hood.  He wasn’t sure how he felt about not being able to see Tony.  It wasn’t because he feared what Tony would do; he did trust Tony with his life, with the most intimate parts of him, with everything, and he had for much longer than this.  He knew that now.  But he was anxious, because he couldn’t see what was coming, which was admittedly a hell of a turn on but disconcerting.

The turn on part completely overpowered the nervousness when Tony pushed his shirt up to his shoulders.  He kissed there, wetly exploring the muscles of his back.  Without thought Steve went lower, barely bracing himself on his elbows as he sank.  It felt so amazing, not knowing exactly what was happening, just feeling Tony’s lips paint his skin, trace his shoulder blades, find his spine and drift down it.  He hardly noticed Tony getting his shirt off before pushing his pants down more, working the denim down lower until it was about his calves.  When Tony’s hands cupped his ass, Steve shivered and automatically spread his legs as much as he could.  His erection was so hard it was throbbing, pressed against the cold metal of the car.  Even the slightest shift of his hips was too much sensation.  Not that he could do much with his pants where they were, so this antsy itch crawled up his body.

But Tony calmed him with a touch to his lower back.  Steve opened eyes that had slipped shut when he heard another belt being opened and a zipper being undone.  Cloth rustled and when Tony’s weight settled against him again, he felt bare skin, seeming acres of it, pressed to his back.  Tony gripped his hips and pulled him up more, which wasn’t the most comfortable against the car, but Steve could feel the stiffness of Tony’s hard cock against his backside, and that was…

God.

Tony rocked against him once or twice, a teasing thrust or two that had Steve’s eyes going half-lidded and the hood of the Ferrari turning into a heated blur of deep blue.  The motion pressed Steve’s dick into the car again, and he hissed through his teeth.  Tony’s hand immediately snaked around his hips to protect him and gentle the contact.  The grasp of his fingers had Steve crying out, pushing back, and Tony responded with a kiss to his arched spine.  He worshipped there a moment, stroking Steve’s length as he tortured them both with caresses that were gloriously good but painfully not enough.

Then the hand on him disappeared.  Steve tried to twist around, but he couldn’t do much without pushing Tony off.  There was a snick of a cap opening, more rustling, and a couple moments later, Tony’s hand returned to his erection.  His fingers were dripping wet now with what Steve belatedly and stupidly realized had to be lube, so the slide of Tony’s fingers around him was slicker and easier.  He whined, too pleased to care if that was pathetic, and arched his back again to give Tony more room to work.

At least until Tony’s other hand drifted down the small of his back to the cleft of his ass.  The first tentative touch there was startling, and Steve bucked before he could stop himself.  Wordlessly Tony shushed him, easing him with a few slower, firmer strokes and whispering sweet comfort into his ear.  There were kisses again, a rain of them down Steve’s shoulder, and Steve didn’t recognize what Tony was doing, how he was trying to distract him, until he felt a finger slip between his cheeks to brush over his entrance.

A shock of electricity went through Steve, a burst of surprise and embarrassment.  Again, he’d known how this worked between two men, but he hadn’t really understood what that meant.  The realization left him dizzy and reeling.  Like this, bent over a goddamn race car in the middle of a garage, he was completely exposed, very vulnerable, and wide open.

And that was so damn good.

Tony waited a moment.  Steve didn’t understand why until the blood stopped whooshing so loudly in his ears.  He was panting, and despite how much he wanted this, he’d gone stiff, muscles tense and clenched.  He forced himself to relax, to draw a deeper breath and slow his racing heart.  Tony helped him, kissing away the tension in his shoulders and neck, caressing his cock carefully, enough to provide pleasure but not so much as to lead him anywhere.  That finger stayed put, patient and pressing just enough to let Steve adjust to the touch.  Sluggishly Steve realized Tony was waiting for him.  He nodded when he felt ready.

Only then did Tony push that fingertip slowly and carefully inside.  Everything was still for a moment.  Then Steve remembered to breathe.  He exhaled the air in his lungs and melted into the car, forcing his muscles inside to release and accept this.  It didn’t feel bad.  It didn’t feel particularly good, either.  It burned a little, and it was strange more than anything.  But it was alright, and despite the desperation and heat of the moment, despite Tony’s own erection that was hard and waiting against Steve’s ass, Tony continued to take his time.  Seconds slipped away as Tony very carefully worked the entirety of his forefinger within him.  Steve squirmed a bit, because that felt outrageously big, but this was still fine, and he relaxed into Tony’s gentle probing. For a few seconds, when he could really manage to think again, he wondered if this was it.

But it wasn’t.  There was the soft sound of liquid squirting, and then cold wetness against his backside dripping down his ass, and then another finger prodding where the first was inside him.  Steve jerked with the sensation, but yet again Tony soothed him and waited until he was calm and ready to continue.  The second finger seemed impossibly larger with the first alongside it, and the burning and discomfort was a little worse.  It was also stupid, because Steve had been injured far more than this before (recently, in fact), but this felt like so much.  Distantly he knew it was because he was speared open in the most intimate way, nervousness compounding everything, and he feared he wasn’t going to like this and therefore Tony wasn’t going to like him.

Still, he breathed, tried to relax, and let Tony work.  Tony was tentative and gentle.  It was obvious he knew exactly what he was doing.  He stretched Steve carefully, thrust when he felt he could go deeper, massaged and explored until this was feeling less like an intrusion and more like something good.  Steve shivered with unwinding tension, breathing heavily and sinking into the car’s hood again.  Before he knew was he was doing, he was rolling his hips back into Tony’s thrusting fingers, which earned him a deeper push that surprisingly didn’t feel bad at all.  Tony’s other hand went back to Steve’s erection, which he idly knew had flagged during all that.  It was firming again, and Steve felt hot and flushed all over.

Then Tony twisted his fingers just so and touched something inside him that made stars flash behind his eyes.  The shock of intense pleasure was so good and so unexpected that Steve cried out loudly, muscles turning infirm.  He all but collapsed onto the car with a desperate whine, trembling and bathed in a sudden sweat.  He tried to turn around.  “What…  Tony–”

Tony swallowed his question with a deep kiss, one Steve had to crane his neck to accept.  That pressure was back, a light dance of fingers against some place deep inside that Steve had no idea even existed, and he whimpered insentiently into Tony’s searching mouth.  “Not being able to touch you,” Tony husked into his lips.  “It was unbearable.  Torture.  You should never have to go through something like that.”  Steve jerked, teetering on a knife’s edge between where he was and utter pleasure.  Tony drank his moan.  “And I’m never going to stop touching you now.  Not ever again.”

Like lightning, ecstasy flashed over him, a barrage of it, and that wave was cresting once more.  Tony pressing harder and longer was all it took for it to crash over him.  He went down under it, lost in pleasure more demanding and consuming than he’d ever felt before.  The flood seemed to go on forever.

When he broke the surface and managed to suck in a desperate breath, he found himself shivering against the car’s hood, staring at the white racing stripe so crisp and stark against the blue paint.  He was sweaty, hot, bigger than his body.  Tony was still lightly stroking him through the end of his orgasm, but he stopped like he knew just when nerves were becoming oversensitive.  His fingers left Steve’s body, and the aching want they left behind was surprising.  Steve slumped even more.  He couldn’t speak.  Couldn’t think.  Didn’t have to do anything.  That was nice.  He felt like he was floating once more.

Only to be grounded by Tony pushing inside him again, this time with what felt like three slick fingers.  He was stretching more insistently.  Less playing and teasing and more to accomplish his goal.  Steve was so loose from coming that it didn’t hurt at all.  Distantly he supposed that was the point, and he was grateful to Tony, so very much in love with him, for making him feel this way, for caring so much, for everything ever, for…

“Are you still sure?” Tony asked again, leaning over his back to pepper fresh kisses across his shoulders.  “Are you?”

Steve licked his lips, mouth twisting in a smile as he blinked away sweat and sweet tears and looked up into those amazing brown eyes.  “Always.”

Tony took another kiss, one that Steve was too overwhelmed to return much.  After Tony leaned away, he heard foil ripping, heard more wet sounds, felt Tony rolling on a condom before coating himself liberally in lube.  He was fisting himself after that like he needed to back himself off, his knuckles brushing against Steve’s skin in rhythmic sweeps.  “Breathe,” he implored, and Steve was so dizzy he didn’t know if Tony was begging him or himself.  It didn’t matter.  Nerves that had gone a little hazy and numb from his orgasm came to shocking life again when Tony grabbed his hips with both his hands and positioned them the way he wanted.  This was it.  Steve sucked in air, tight with renewed anticipation and anxiety, as he felt something significantly thicker than fingers begin to breach him.  The stretch was more, the stinging burn returning, and Steve had to fight not to clench up.  Not being able to see was tormenting, and the vulnerability was unbelievable, simultaneously so new and alarming but incredible because this was Tony.  He pushed himself up from the car hood only to have Tony gently still him.  “Breathe, sweetheart.”

Steve had forgotten to.  He stopped trying to move and exhaled the air that had been trapped in his lungs.  When he did that, it was like a pure release, and he relaxed with it as Tony pushed inside more.  God, that was…  Steve groaned, dropping his head between his arms.  Tony moaned himself, the sound of it utterly intoxicating.  Steve could feel him trembling now where he was gripping Steve’s hips firmly, as if he was struggling to hold himself back and not to go any faster.  There was no cause for that now, and having Tony like this was not enough, and Steve thrust back before he even thought to.  Tony groaned again, a deep, desperate sound.  “Steve…”

“Please,” Steve begged.  “Please.”

That was it.  Tony lost his restraint and pushed in faster, harder, deeper.  He went all the way, until Steve felt Tony’s hips flush to his ass.  Then Tony stopped, which was good because Steve needed the moment.  He truly did, because Tony felt huge, and this was so new and much.  He held onto the car, breathing fast but deeply, willing his muscles to relax and adjust to it all.  After that moment, they did.  He did.  He was ready, and he reached back and touched Tony’s hand where it was on his hip. Tony took a moment to weave their fingers together so tightly, a firm anchor in this swirling sea of sensation.  Steve had never imagined this, never dreamed of it.  And now he never wanted this with anyone else.  “Tony,” he whispered.  That seemed to be the only word he could think of.  “Tony, Tony…”

Please.

Tony hushed him with a gentle thrust.  It felt strange but so good at the same time, and Steve gave a soft cry, arching his back when raw nerves fired with sensation.  He let go of Tony’s hand to slap his palm to the car hood, needing the outlet for the intensity as Tony pulled out and slowly pushed back in.  The thick slide was unbelievable, and Steve just gasped and gasped for air, tremoring.  Tony’s arms wrapped around his abdomen to support him, guiding him up a bit before pulling him closer.  Fingers pulled at a nipple, pinching and teasing, and Steve whined at the sparks shooting through him.  Tony rolled his hips in another few slow, shallow thrusts that did nothing but tease them both before settling in and driving deep.

Steve stared at the car beneath him, lost in pleasure.  Sweat dripped from his nose and brow, splattering silently to the blue hood, as his body settled and welcomed Tony completely.  Now that Tony had found his rhythm, everything was falling into place.  Tony thrust in, and Steve met him.  Steve breathed in as Tony exhaled against his neck.  Hearts were pounding in tandem.  The connection between hummed with energy.  Steve had never realized what this would be, what it would mean, how close it could bring two people.  How Tony would become part of him.  This felt to be even more than when Tony’s thoughts had flooded him.  As incredible as that had been, it had been chaotic and wild and frightening.  This was different.  This was Tony, not just in his mind but in his body and heart.  It was powerful and terrifying and so profound Steve could hardly take it.

Then Tony slowed his pace, nudged Steve’s legs a little further apart and tilted his hips more, and changed the angle.  He swiveled a bit, clearly searching for something, and when he found it, when his cock brushed up against that same spot inside Steve, Steve cried out.  He fell forward and barely caught himself, hands banging onto the car.  As good as this had been seconds before, now it was beyond words, beyond anything.  Every thrust touched that bundle of nerves, each one driving deeper and harder, and Steve could barely hang on.  His blood was simmering, his nerves tingling with runaway ecstasy.  His own cock was hard again, shoved into the car repeatedly from Tony’s rocking hips.  That place inside sent shockwaves of impossible pleasure there, and he tensed his legs, his stomach, his ass in a last ditch attempt to hold onto himself.

He couldn’t.  Tony all but pounded into him, holding him to the car with his weight, rushing them both toward completion.  When he directly hit that place inside the next time, Steve climaxed with a shout and without even a hand on him.  Where the first one had had a gradual build-up, had been carefully wrung out of him, this felt punched free, blindingly forceful.  The pleasure went on and on, a cascade of it that tumbled down and washed over every inch of him, inside and out.  Instead of floating, this time he flew, catapulted high and far, carried by the hardness of Tony rubbing against muscles within, by Tony’s hands on digging into his hip and shoulder, by Tony breathing hard and fast and whimpering his name.  By Tony jerking and pushing him harder into the car, driving hard to find his own pleasure.  Steve vaguely realized he found it, feeling Tony pulse and jolt inside him.  Feeling Tony’s weight falling onto his back, feeling Tony’s breath blast his sweat-soaked hair, feeling Tony’s teeth sink into his shoulder in an attempt to keep sane.  There were a few more ragged, sloppy thrusts, muscles fluttering in the fading echoes of bliss, before they both went limp against the hood of the car.

For what felt like forever, they just laid there, tangled up in each other.  Steve’s senses lethargically began to register the world around him.  The smooth, curved edge of the hood digging into his lower chest and belly.  The constriction of his jeans around his calves.  The sting of perspiration in his eyes, eyes that were blinking languidly to that same shine of deep blue beneath him.  The fading burn of exertion in his muscles.  Tackiness on his belly and thighs.  The slowing of his pulse, of the movement of air in and out of his body.

And Tony.  Frankly, Steve wasn’t quite sure where he ended and Tony began.  Tony’s chest was on his back, the arc reactor pressing in not quite painfully but firmly enough to comfortably know it was Tony.  Tony’s heart was beating hard but slowing; Steve could feel that inside him and against him and all around him.  And Tony’s lips were working over where he’d bitten apologetically and appreciatively.   Then those damp lips kissed up the nape of his neck to his ear, whispering gratitude and soft solace again, before Tony pulled out of him, leaving a surprising dull ache behind.

Steve just breathed a moment more.  Then he finally, finally, moved, turning onto his side before making it onto his back.  It wasn’t easy with his legs stuck in his pants and Tony still practically pinning him to the car, plus the strangeness in his body, the newfound emptiness inside and the lingering, pleasant throb, but he managed.

Tony was right there, arms bracketing him as he leaned over him.  Seeing him now…  His hair was all mussed and disheveled.  His skin was glowing with sweat all down his face and chest.  His lips were swollen, and his eyes…  God, his eyes.  Deep and hazy and free.  Full of open love and pleasure.  Steve just lost himself in them, and Tony stared back before smiling.  “God, look at you,” Tony whispered.  He shook his head, as if he was marveling at a work of art.  “Now this is a beautiful thing.”

Steve’s eyes welled with pure happiness.  This was more than he’d ever wanted, more than he deserved.  A sly smile probably did nothing to hide just how much he was feeling, but he tried all the same.  “Get your money’s worth then?”

Tony grinned broadly, dipping his head to take a sweet, slow, long kiss.  After that he leaned back with a groan, and Steve could finally sit up.  The room pitched just a bit, and his limbs weren’t as perfectly coordinated as they normally were, and he pretty gracelessly slid from the Ferrari’s hood to the concrete floor.  Tony followed him with a laugh, and they collapsed practically on top of each other, kissing and kissing.

Then Steve pulled away and caught sight of the car.  “Aw, damn it…”  He grimaced, struggling to pull up his pants with one hand while reaching for his discarded shirt.  That he ran across the car’s side, trying to wipe away his release.  He realized it was somewhat pointless, though, when he spotted the dents his fingers had left in the hood, the giant slick of sweat, the body-shaped imprint.  He grimaced.  They done this to a three million dollar car!  “Sorry?”

Tony had already taken off the condom, tied it, and tossed it into the trashcan by his workbench.  Now he was pulling the ruined shirt from Steve’s hand and wiping at Steve’s own stomach instead.  He cleaned himself too, before pulling up his pants.  “Eh.  Gives it character.”  Grimacing harder, Steve shook his head.  “Fine, Captain Sensible.  I’ll buy you a new one.”

Horrified, Steve balked.  “No.”

“Least I can do for the man I love.”  Tony pecked him on the lips.  “Besides, it was high time you finally took it for a ride.”

“Tony!”

Tony laughed before hooking his hands into the belt loops of Steve’s still loose and open jeans and tugging him closer.  “The man I love,” he said on a long sigh.  Then he practically giggled.  “God, it feels so damn good to say that, you have no idea.  I kept that secret for so long, babe.  So long.  I really should have just told you months ago.  You’d think I’d learn something about bravery from you by now, that all your reckless hero stuff would rub off on me.  Rushing in headfirst, right?  Jesus.  What the hell was wrong with me?”

Steve grinned, shrugging.  “I don’t know.  Glad your secret’s finally out, though.”

“Me, too.  Wow.  The man I love.  The man I love.”  Tony held him tight, vibrating with pure joy, and Steve hugged him back just as hard.  “I love you!   I love you!”

“I love you, too,” Steve said with a laugh.  He really, really did.

Tony just kissed him hard, like he needed to make up for all the weeks, the days, the hours where he’d kept his feelings hidden.  “What do you think about going upstairs,” he purred into Steve’s ear when he slipped his lips there, “taking a shower together, eating way too much take-out, maybe watching some stupid sci-fi nonsense, and going for round two?”

This was really it.  Steve knew he was where he belonged.  Where he was supposed to be.  And he felt more at home than he thought possible.  So he kissed Tony again, kissed him as deeply as he could, and cherished every beautiful moment.  “You just read my mind.”

THE END