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A Meeting of Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony didn't know how Calvin had

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

Focus. He had to focus.

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

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

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

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

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

Luke frowned. "How do you--"

Tony tapped his helmet. "Security cameras."

"Damn," Luke said emphatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm fine," Tony repeated.

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

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

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

This was getting serious.