Tony was six the first time he met his imaginary friend. He was sitting on his bed, breathing heavily (not crying. Big boys didn’t cry) and wishing there was someone who would hold him tight and tell him it would be okay. He wanted someone who would understand, someone who would care. What Tony wanted most of all, at the age of six, was a friend.
When the eagle appeared on his bedside not two minutes later, it didn’t take a genius to notice the correlation.
TIF (Tony’s Imaginary Friend) wasn’t there all the time, but he was there when Tony needed him. He would preen Tony’s hair and let the child run his hand through the feathers. Their formation and texture distracted him from dwelling on the fact that being around his father made him hurt—like getting shots in his brain. He could forget being yelled at for telling the same man that Obie wasn’t a nice person. None of that mattered when TIF was there.
Even the empty place inside Tony hurt less when he held TIF in his arms. It didn’t go away – nothing made the empty place go away. It just…wasn’t as noticeable. More like a toothache than walking on a broken leg.
Tony didn’t think anything of TIF. Everybody had imaginary friends. Still, TIF was private. TIF was Tony’s friend (it was all right there in the name), and he very rarely played with him in front of other people. Even if he did, he never touched him. As a result, very few people even knew Tony had an imaginary friend, let alone thought there might be something unusual about it.
Then Howard brought home two consultants. Two consultants who glanced at their colleague’s child with polite disinterest before freezing in place.
Tony didn’t pay the adults any attention when they first arrived, too busy watching TIF soar around the room with a delighted smile on his face. Being able to fly looked amazing.
“Tony?” One of the newcomers asked him gently. Tony glanced away from the spectacle above him and took in the adults staring at him cautiously. As soon as he looked at them he had to fight the impulse to run over and wrap his arms around their legs. They were nice. They didn’t feel…slimy like most of the people who came to speak with his father.
“Hi,” he said with a bright smile.
“Hi,” the shorter of the two responded, crouching down so he could be on Tony’s level. “You mind introducing me to your friend?”
“Who, TIF?” Tony asked. “He’s an eagle. And he’s imaginary.”
“Tell me, Tony,” the man asked in a voice Tony wanted to hear more of, “when do you see Tif? I’m assuming he’s not around all the time.”
“No. Not all the time. But he’s there when I need him. When I’m scared, or sad…TIF makes me feel better.”
His dad’s two associates exchanged looks before returning to an impatient Howard Stark and conducting a quick, intense conversation with him.
After that, everything made much more sense.
Tony’s feelings about being a Guide fluctuated throughout the years. Empathy was not an easy burden to bear. Nor was the horrible, all-consuming sense of something missing – like a part of his soul had been ripped out. And most of the spiritual stuff made him want to tear his hair out.
Still, it was hard to argue with evidence that had been right under his nose since he was six years old. The look on his instructor’s face the day they had the lesson on spirit animals was something he cherished to this day. Everyone at the Keep, Tony included, had expected the familiar form of a bald eagle to appear at the end of the meditation. To say he was surprised to find a red fox when he opened his eyes would be like saying he was sort-of well off.
Even at the Keep, an organization specifically created to educate, support, and advocate for both Guides and Sentinels, this was unprecedented. They had quickly hustled him off to the private office of the Alpha pair of the New York area, where Tony had talked one-on-one with the man who was in all probability the strongest Guide all the world over.
Tony had met with Professor Xavier a few times over the course of his training to talk about his abilities. It was clear from the start that Tony was a powerful Guide, though how powerful still remained to be seen. While helpful, there was only so much Tony could really expect to learn from Professor Xavier, given that his mutation made it difficult to determine where his Guide gifts ended and his telepathy began.
“I believe congratulations are in order?” the Professor said as soon as Tony entered his office.
“Why?” Tony asked as he settled down. He was confused and disoriented and he just wanted to know what was happening.
“You know that as a Guide, you will one day help to ground your Sentinel, focus overactive senses when they spike out of control, keep him or her oriented and on task, yes?”
Tony rolled his eyes as he nodded. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry knew that.
“And in turn, your Sentinel will protect you, shield you from other minds and the like?”
Again a nod coupled with an eye-roll.
“I know that the more spiritual aspects of what we do have always made you slightly...uncomfortable.”
It took all of the limited control Tony had at the age of twelve not to scoff derisively. They didn’t make him uncomfortable, they just didn’t make sense.
Professor X smiled at him indulgently, no doubt picking up on the thought. “I know as a result you have not been nearly as thorough in researching matters regarding spirit animals as you have been in other aspects of Guide gifts. Thus, I must inform you that what happened today indicates something very rare.”
Tony held his tongue, even though it was difficult. The explanation was far more important.
“When a Sentinel and a Guide are a perfect match for each other on every conceivable level, their spirit animals will behave slightly differently than an average spirit animal would. They will interact not only with each other, but with their partner’s human counterparts as well, encouraging and initiating physical contact. That the spirit animal you discovered during your meditation today is not the eagle we all have seen you in contact with so often...”
“Means that the eagle belongs to my Sentinel?”
“That is my current hypothesis, yes.”
“So?” Tony said. “There are lots of perfect matches. I’ve seen them. Why didn’t anyone warn me that this was a possibility?”
“True. But Tony, those matches are identified as perfect after the Sentinel and Guide have interacted face to face. Before today, there was only one instance when this happened without an imprint. So you can see why it was rather a shock to all involved.”
“And the other instance?”
“My Sentinel and I.”
Tony really didn’t know what to say to that.
“So...what do I do?”
Professor Xavier smiled. “That, my friend, is entirely up to you. The spirit animal will not harm you in any way. Rather, its purpose is to try and ease your path in difficult and trying times, if past experience is anything to go on. Though it is difficult to form an abstract based upon a single case. Regardless, it is a part of your Sentinel and will not harm you.”
“So I just...wait?”
“You are certainly under no obligation to. However, if you would like, I can try and do a little digging. You see, it was my spirit animal that went to Erik. I have long theorized that I was able to do so due to my telepathic mutation. If you are seeing your Sentinel’s spirit animal, perhaps he or she is a telepath as well. I could, theoretically, use Cerebro to attempt to find a telepathic Sentinel. With you permission.”
Tony gave it.
The search, however, turned up nothing, and Tony resigned himself to waiting.
The eagle still poked its head in occasionally, but now that Tony had a handle on his gifts his Sentinel’s spirit animal came around less and less.
The Guide gifts certainly came in handy while doing business. A whole lot of charisma, sexual appeal, and knowledge of people’s emotional states never hurt any businessman. Stark Industries practically had a monopoly when it came to Sentinel-friendly technology in addition to several devices to help mitigate the symptoms for both unbonded Sentinels and Guides, whose problems often fell by the wayside.
For the most part, copious amounts of scotch and an endless string of one-night stands helped dull the pain to an almost bearable degree. Why even try for a serious relationship when you knew there was someone out there who would literally complete you?
Waking up in a cold sweat, nightmares about the desert sands and his head forced under the water still echoing in his head, Tony couldn’t help but wonder what the fuck was taking so long.
Steve Rogers knew before he opened his eyes that something was very, very wrong. The sheets he was lying on were made of no material he had ever felt before, as were the clothes that covered his body. To someone without his unique skill-set it would have been imperceptible, but to Steve it was beyond obvious. For the first time since his injection with the super-solider serum, Steve didn’t feel like the fabrics were setting his skin on fire. All the smells came from within the room, and every single one of them was manageable.
This…all of this was wrong. Technology wasn’t anywhere near advanced enough for the kind of air filtration his sense of smell and the mechanical hum emanating from somewhere within the walls told him had to be in place. His skin should have been itching and burning, not covered in fabrics that were clearly made of nothing he had ever encountered before. Hydra was the only organization he knew of with technology advanced enough to make these materials, but he couldn’t imagine them expending such resources on a prisoner.
What Steve needed was more intelligence.
Sight would reveal his awakening to whoever it was that was observing him, and Steve was unwilling to risk it without having an inkling of whether they were friend or foe. Taste, touch, and smell had already yielded all they could. Time for hearing then.
The moment Steve focused himself on his hearing, he knew he had made a mistake. There was just…so much noise. Within his own immediate vicinity, underneath the sound of a broadcast there was the subtle combination of clicks, hisses, and whirrs Steve had come to associate with the radio, though something about it seemed slightly out of sync. The click of heels and footfalls through at least one wall. Voices. Voices everywhere, in every pitch and cadence and emotional state. Doors opening and closing, the clack of not-quite-typewriter keys, beeps and dings and horns and engines and…
Steve’s entire world narrowed until the buzzing drone of something mechanical over 150 yards away was all there was.
Steve didn’t know how long the fugue lasted, or the three that followed it. By the time he finally opened his eyes, he had no doubt that something was very wrong
He didn’t know who they thought they were fooling. He could hear the radio communications ordering the nurse to check in on him, to treat him gently, don’t want to give him a shock.
“Where am I?” was the first question out of his mouth. There really was nothing else worth asking.
“You’re in a recovery room in New York City,” the woman dressed as a nurse responded.
Steve’s eyebrow’s rose in surprise. She wasn’t lying. With Steve’s gifts, he had no problem determining when someone was being untruthful. But things still didn’t add up.
“The game,” he said, gesturing with his head towards the radio that wasn’t quite a radio. “It’s from May, 1941. I know because I was there.”
“Captain Rogers…” she said anxiously, a small click and a red light coming from a device clasped within her right hand.
Steve could hear the soldiers, wherever they were, scrambling in response. Steve did the only thing his instincts would allow him to do – he repelled his attackers, breaking through one of the walls in his “recovery room” in the process. In search of answers, Steve was unable to resist the urge to flee the room that had contained him for the last…Steve didn’t know how long. His time in the ice had wreaked havoc with his internal clock.
Once he had forced his way out of the room, he was in the process of fleeing towards the nearest exit when he caught the trace of a scent that froze him in his tracks.
There was another Sentinel here.
Steve immediately readjusted his trajectory, pushing past people and through obstacles until he stood in front of the man whose scent he had been tracking. A man who, judging by the frantic instructions Steve had heard his voice issuing throughout the entire interaction, was in charge of this operation on some level. Which meant he would have the answers Steve needed.
“Sentinel,” Steve greeted the suited figure before him with a calm equanimity he did not feel.
The man before him stood up, nostrils flaring briefly before one eyebrow arched. “Sentinel Rogers,” he greeted, sounding mildly surprised. “Go fire whoever was in charge of research for this operation,” he called over his shoulder to one of his subordinates. “Also, whoever was in charge of this operation before I came back from New Mexico.” He turned back to face Steve. “Agent Coulson of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. You might have known us as the Strategic Scientific Reserve back in your day.”
“Back in my day?” Steve asked, fighting to remain calm.
“You’ve been asleep Cap. For a long time.”
Ever since Tony had been old enough to start building (around age 5) he’d talked to his projects, to his work. Isolation and loneliness drove lesser people to worse things. Given Tony’s genius the habit had been labeled “eccentric”. The most jarring part for Tony, after Dummy and JARVIS, was that his work didn’t always talk back.
The Tesseract was no exception to this rule. Director Fury had, very reluctantly, allowed Tony, in his capacity as a consultant, to work with Dr. Foster. Together, they tried develop a system utilizing the cube to recreate the Einstein-Rosen bridge that had apparently deposited a deity in New Mexico the year before.
“Hello beautiful,” Tony gave his customary greeting as he walked into the lab. “Oh, and morning to you too, Jane.”
The woman in question just rolled her eyes, familiar with his antics at this point. Under normal circumstances, Tony would have been turning the charm up to 11 and flirting shamelessly with the undeniably attractive physicist. However, since his most recent brush with death and the disaster with Pepper, his heart just hadn’t been in it. Judging by Dr. Foster’s obsession with the work and the tentative, broken smile on her face when she talked about what the bridge had looked like, her heart wouldn’t have been in it either.
Instead, they worked together, day in and day out. They talked to each other on occasion, but not much. Jane showed up to work hungover three days out of five, which helped endear her to Tony but meant that conversation was, as a general rule, reserved only for necessary communication. Or torture, when he was feeling particularly petty.
So Tony talked to his work, like he had been doing for a long time before his work could talk back.
He felt that over the past several months he and the Tesseract had developed a rapport of sorts. The longer he worked with it, and by extension talked to it, the easier it seemed to be to coax data out of it. In return for its cooperation, Tony frequently praised it for its complexity and told it about his day.
“...and then, get this, the idiot tried to shoot me. With my own tech! I mean, trying to shoot the armor is always a bad idea, but with another piece of the armor? Please. I kicked his ass, obviously,” he shared with it companionably that day as he took a look at the data he had just collected and whistled. “I can honestly say I hope no one with nefarious plans ever gets their hands on you. Jesus. Promise me you’ll only ever use your powers for good?”
The sound of a familiar Black Sabbath song emanating from his pocket put a stop to his babbling.
“I have to take this,” he told the Tesseract apologetically.
A look at the caller ID and he broke into a wide smile. “JARVIS!” he crowed. “What can I do you for?”
“There’s been an...incident at Stark Tower sir.”
“Like a ‘I need to pretend to be a responsible shareholder and ex-CEO” type incident or an ‘I am Iron Man’ type incident?”
“The latter, sir.”
“Sweet! See you in a few,” he said before snapping the phone shut. “Speaking of kicking ass, I gotta go,” he told the Tesseract. “Jane, it’s been real. Enjoy your hangover. I’ll be back in an hour or four.”
She managed to exert herself just enough to swear at him as he made his way out.
Steve stared at the file in front of him, processing the information he’d been given. Well, not so much given as dragged out of Director Fury.
“How are your levels?” Coulson asked him.
“Fine,” Steve snapped in response. He smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry. It’s just…materials and such are much easier to deal with, but there’s so much more sensory input to process.”
“I understand,” Coulson said with a bland smile. “It can be difficult at the best of times, let alone in the middle of New York City.”
Steve didn’t have a response for that, but his eyes flicked without his permission to the man lounging in the corner of the room, fighting a surge of jealousy. It was impossible not to spot what he was to Coulson. Even if their intertwined scents and synchronized heart-beats hadn’t been apparent to Steve with his enhanced senses, the way they looked at each other, the way their bodies subconsciously oriented in response to subtle changes would have made the nature of their relationship painfully obvious. A bonded pair.
Steve took a deep breath, trying to force himself to be rational. Just because Coulson and his Guide had everything Steve ever wanted even before he knew what he was, it was no reason to be irrationally angry. They were fortunate. He shouldn’t resent them for it.
Besides, Steve couldn’t help but muse, if he had found his other half before…before this…waking up, it would have been a living hell. And he didn’t want to fathom what it would have done to whoever he left behind.
“Sentinel Coulson…” Steve began uneasily. “Have they….has there been any progress when it comes to matching pairs?” he asked eventually.
Because he was alone. So alone. There was no one left. With grief already pulling at him, that missing place was getting harder and harder to function around. He’d always intended to take steps to find his Guide as soon as he was no longer on active duty. Well, he certainly wasn’t on active duty now.
“Meet-and-greets,” Guide Barton responded, chair tilted back against the wall, ankles crossed, and tossing a ball over his head. Steve’s hand twitched and he wished desperately he had a pencil and his sketchbook. A Study in Boredom or perhaps Nonchalant was just waiting to be immortalized in lead.
“But they narrow down the pool by a staggering amount before they set you all loose to make small talk. Something about genetic compatibility and other bullshit in the same vein. Got the rates up to about 70% after three mixers.”
Steve just nodded. He’d understood about one word in three, but he’d gotten the gist of it. The same means as before, but with some changes that allowed for far greater accuracy.
“Last I heard, they were looking at spirit animal compatibility, though that sounds even more like a crock of shit than the sciencey stuff.”
At the reminder, Steve closed his eyes and searched deep inside himself for his spirit animal. He hadn’t seen it since he’d woken up from the ice and he wanted to know what exactly it was getting up to. He followed the path within himself like they’d taught him when they realized the serum had brought his Sentinel gifts online as well as endowing him with several pounds of muscle and a much larger frame on which to place them.
When he opened his eyes, he was looking through the eyes of the bald eagle that was his spirit animal. The New York skyline had changed dramatically over the years, but it was still unmistakable.
He didn’t recognize the figure his spirit animal was swooping around, half-clad in some sort of glowing red armor, but he did recognize the feeling swelling in his chest.
It was like the Howling Commandos, who had once formed the small pride he lead. The sense of belonging, of protectiveness.
Only it was so much stronger.
Mine his very soul seemed to be shouting in exaltation. My Guide. MINE.
And then he saw that his Guide, his Guide, was being threatened, and something within him just snapped.
He was out the door before either Coulson or Barton knew he had moved.
“This is Susan McCall with Action News 10, coming to you live from Stark Tower. For the past half hour, the building has been under attack by an as-yet unidentified group. We are still unsure as to their motivations in being here. We do know that they have penetrated the first several levels of Stark Tower, and that there are over 2000 people trapped inside the building. The members of the group, heavily armed and reportedly dressed in yellow, HAZMAT-like suits, have yet to issue any demands. All attempts at negotiation have been ignored, and the police have lost contact with the two SWAT teams that entered the building.”
[a sudden, splintering crash, followed by a cascade of glass. The camera pans up just in time to follow the descent of Iron Man, falling from eight stories up]
“Iron Man has now arrived on the scene, billionaire Tony Stark no doubt feeling the need to…”
[The camera continues to follow Iron Man’s decent. It is clearly uncontrolled, and the suit is accelerating towards the ground now less than fifty feet away]
“Iron Man has…he’s lost power to his armor. Iron Man is crashing!”
[Sudden mechanical whine, followed by a brief flare of light from the Iron Man armor. The armor, now ten feet off the ground, slows dramatically. The light flickers before dying out entirely, and the armor plows into the ground]
“Ladies and Gentleman, Iron Man has just crashed here in front of Stark Industries Manhattan Headquarters. It appears as if his armor experienced a brief power surge before dying once again, allowing the armor to hit the ground at a much lower velocity. Still, a fall is a fall and we can only wait and see how much damage both the suit and the man within it have sustained.”
[the camera, focused on the armor, suddenly jerks upwards. A blurry, off center shot of the window Iron Man crashed through moments before. A yellow-clad figure can barely be made out. It retreats back inside the building, out of view, just before the camera is adjusted properly.]
“One of the assailants behind this attack, still unidentified, is visible! And…oh, he’s gone now. Still, the question on everyone’s mind – who are these mysterious, yellow clad men? Where did they come from? What do they want? And who will be able to protect us if Iron Man has fallen?”
[The camera zooms in on the armor once again as we see signs of movement. There is movement from the helmet, the visor rises, and suddenly the face of Tony Stark becomes visible. His face is covered in a number of small cuts, and his expression is a pained one, but his eyes are open.]
“Tony Stark…Tony Stark is alive! We’re seeing signs of movement from the armor and…[the helmet is thrown to the ground]…Mr. Stark appears to be stripping off the armor! One cannot help but question the logic in such a maneuver when [a crash, followed by the sudden appearance of four yellow-suited figures. Their faces are hidden by yellow, cylindrical hoods that cover their heads completely]…the attackers…three, no, four of the attacker are exiting the building! All of them are armed. They’re walking towards Iron Man, their weapons are drawn…[Stark, back to the cameras, hauls himself to his feet.] Iron Man appears to be attempting to negotiate with the…[she is drowned out by a whir that starts out low before growing to a high whine, followed by a blast of blue light from Stark’s one gauntleted hand. One of the yellow-clad figures falls over, smoke rising from his suit]…Iron Man has engaged the yellow-clad figures! But they’re returning fire! And…it looks like Stark is in some trouble here! He’s clutching his side! Tony Stark still returns fire, but it’s four against one, and those guns are doing some very heavy damage to the Iron Man armor.”
[Another low-to-high whine, another yellow-clad figure falls, but the first has risen and joined the others in their attack on Stark. Their weapons send red colored energy hurling at Iron Man, who is clutching his side and grimacing in pain. One weapon scores a direct hit to the chest-plate of the armor. Stark’s hand flies to his chest, his face contorting as he falls to his knees. He, with visible effort, raises a hand to fire off another shot from the weapon in his armor, but the yellow-clad men are faster. Before he can fire, two blasts of red energy hit him almost simultaneously.]
“I…I don’t believe this. Iron Man…Iron Man has…he’s on the ground and he’s not moving. At this distance, it’s unclear if he’s simply unconscious or…”
[Sandra takes a deep, unsteady breath, unable to finish the sentence. One of the yellow-suited figures takes several steps forward, gun trained on the downed armor-clad figure. The gun is aimed squarely at Tony Stark’s head.]
“This…this might be it for Iron Man.”
[A loud, human roar of rage nearly covers the humming vibration of metal flying through the air. The yellow-clad figure howls in pain, his gun falling to the ground as he clutches his wrist.]
“What…there appears…there appears to be a third, unknown party now entering the fight. Iron Man is still unmoving, but now this third individual, who has just arrived on scene, is working to repel the yellow-suited men who invaded Stark Tower. He is wielding a…a disk of some sort, and judging by the way he’s holding it now I’d call it a shield.”
[A scream, a splash of crimson.]
“My God…he just…the unidentified man with the shield just…” [an unsteady breath] “…just broke the neck of one of the yellow-suited men with his bare hands. And now…he’s just thrown his shield into the chest of the only uninjured attacker…he’s on the ground. He’s not moving. It looks as if his chest has…as if his chest cavity has been crushed. The newcomer has just…he has pulled his shield free and has now turned to face the last yellow-suited man who…is running. The last man is now fleeing from the building…but no. The newcomer has thrown his shield again and the last yellow-suited man is down.”
“He’s retrieved the shield, and now that he’s turning to Iron Man and…he’s…he’s thrown the shield over his back and is approaching the fallen Tony Stark and…he’s…he’s picked him up? Yes. The unidentified man who just killed three of the four attackers has just picked an unmoving Tony Stark and is…he’s cradling him to his chest!”
[Camera adjusts to focus on a group of police officers in heated debate, five cops huddled around a man who is clearly their superior. He’s nodding, before reaching for his walkie talkie]
“This…this just in. Apparently the man holding Tony Stark, who we have still not been able to identify, is a Sentinel. For those of our viewers who were unaware, Mr. Stark is a registered Guide. Given this information, our sources are now telling us that there is a very high probability that what we are looking at here is a Sentinel in a feral combat drive, triggered by Stark’s distress. Now the challenge becomes calming the Sentinel enough to get all parties the treatment they need without putting the Emergency Medical Service personnel at risk.”
[Two men in EMS uniforms walk slowly towards where the man in the white t-shirt, khaki pants and combat boots is crouched on the ground, Tony Stark still cradled protectively in his arms. At their approach, he bares his teeth, letting out an angry, snarl. The EMTs take another step forward and the blond in white snarls again, adjusting Stark so that he rests against the blond’s torso, freeing his arms and hands. He reaches behind him, snarl continuing as he pull his shield free. The EMTs step back. Two police officers step forward and are similarly driven back. EMTs and police officers huddle together and engage in a seemingly serious discussion]
“Now, given that both a medical team and a Sentinel-Guide pair with the police have attempted to communicate with the feral Sentinel and both have been threatened with violence, the typical police response will be to sedate the Sentinel. This gives the police enough time to reach the Sentinel, Guide, and any other parties the treatment they need, and allows the Sentinel to return to a rational state of mind. And yes, here they are now…”
[a police officer aims a rifle across the hood of a police car. He takes aim carefully, and then a moment later the feral Sentinel lets out a scream of outrage, his eyelids fluttering. He wraps himself carefully and protectively around the body of Tony Stark before collapsing bonelessly.]
“And now Emergency Medical Services are approaching the scene, and…the Sentinel is clearly unconscious, so there is no danger on that front. They’ll transport the unidentified Sentinel and Tony Stark to the hospital, as well as any surviving members of the team who infiltrated Stark Tower. We’ll be getting back to you with updates as we receive them, but the story here seems to be coming to an end. This is Susan McCall, Action News 10, signing off.”
Steve jerked upright, each of his senses on high. He could feel the tail end of a drug of some sort working its way through his veins, but the serum and the adrenaline now coursing through his bloodstream were making quick work of it. Good. He needed to be on full alert. That much he knew. But why...
“Sentinel Rogers!” a voice, known but not familiar, called out before Steve had managed to make it off the bed.
His eyes zeroed in on the potential threat, his the tension in his spine easing somewhat when his senses confirmed what he already knew on an intellectual level. A Guide. Not his, but not a threat. Someone who had to be protected. Perhaps someone who could be trusted.
Still, while he would not hurt the Guide, Steve would allow nothing to come between him and his own.
Perhaps, in that respect, Barton could be useful.
“Where is he?” Steve asked in a voice barely above a growl. “I know he’s close. And I’m only going to ask once.”
“Well, you seem to be rational. Or close enough anyway.”
“He’s fine. Sentinel Rogers, he’s fine,” and Barton infused those last words with his gift. Steve had no choice but to believe him, and felt tension seep out of him as a result.
“You went feral. They had to sedate you before they could send the medics in.”
“The men?” Steve asked, eyes fixed on Barton.
Steve knew the smile that crept over his face at the news was far from warm. “Good.” They had hurt his Guide. They deserved nothing less.
Steve hopped out of the hospital bed, inhaling deeply. There. Under the strong, burning smell of antiseptic and the bitter scent of the injured, dying and dead. Metal, grease, singed hair, and blood. A particular combination that sang to Steve’s senses. His Guide.
Barton let him pass this time. He was yelling something after Steve about finding his own Sentinel and holding back the angry masses, but Steve wasn’t paying attention. Instead he followed the scent to its source.
A small, private room. Steve paused outside the door and listened. The steady beep of a heart-monitor, the hiss and click of medical machinery. Underneath that, there was the steady beating of a heart.
Steve slumped against the door. His Guide. That was his Guide behind that door. Seventy years out of his time, and his other half was here.
When he’d first come out of the machine after receiving the serum, everything had been too much. The physical changes alone would have been overwhelming, but when coupled the sudden influx of sensory information he’d never had to deal with before, it was all Steve could do to remain conscious. In the resulting fugue he’d let Doctor Erskine’s killer escape. Only Peggy had manged to rouse him enough to go after the murderer.
He’d thought it would be Peggy. There had been Guides in her family before, and she was usually successful in pulling him out of whatever fugue he’d managed to work himself into. Or Bucky, who had pulled him out of more than one scrape in the field. But neither of them had ever displayed the gifts.
Now here he was. Bucky and Peggy were dead and that tore him up inside. But finally: here was his Guide, behind the door and gravely injured.
Steve took a deep breath, using his Guide’s scent to fortify him, and opened the door.
When Tony came to, his brain was trying to batter its way through his skull. His ribs ached in a way he knew from experience meant they were broken, and there was the steady beep of a heart monitor serving to make the headache more severe.
Tony didn’t open his eyes, but he did reach for the IV.
“Don’t,” a firm voice ordered.
Tony’s eyes snapped open. There was a plastic chair by the foot of Tony’s bed, positioned strategically between Tony and the door. Seated in that chair was a man wearing brown combat boots, khakis, and a short-sleeved white cotton shirt under which a pair of dog-tags was clearly visible. He was well-muscled. Unbelievable well-muscled. His blond hair was mussed and his baby-blue eyes were narrowed at Tony in disapproval.
“I would stop you physically, but I’m pretty sure I can’t handle touching you at the moment,” the man confessed, his Brooklyn accent coming through.
If the man’s presence in his hospital room, his protective positioning, and his military background weren’t enough, the sensation in Tony’s chest was more than enough to seal the deal.
“Sentinel,” Tony exhaled, breathless with emotion. Or because of the punctured lung. One of the two.
“Guide,” the man responded, breaking out into a huge, heartwarming smile. It dimmed somewhat as his eyes scanned the bed. “I’m going to have my hands full with you, huh?”
Tony shot him a grin that bordered on wicked. “You have no idea.” The smile faded somewhat. “You kept me waiting.”
Tony could feel his Sentinel’s mood shift, even without seeing the smile fall off his face. Without the bond and exhausted as he was, he couldn’t get much beyond a surface impression. But even that was filled with overwhelming grief.
“I’m sorry,” he replied, and Tony could feel his sincerity.
“Where were you?” Tony asked, memories from before filtering in. He had been in trouble, had been dying, and then…someone had appeared just as everything was going dark. “I mean…I appreciate the rescue and everything, but I’ve been in way worse scrapes than what you pulled me out of a few hours ago.”
The Sentinel’s lip curled back in an angry snarl and he let out a low, rumbling noise that Tony had no choice but to classify as a growl.
“You were dying, Guide. I felt it. And you’re telling me you’ve been through worse?” he asked, rage simmering under every word.
“Well…yeah. Don’t you…I don’t know, watch the news?”
“I’ve been…asleep,” he said slowly, staring at the spherical disk propped up against the wall next to Tony’s bed. “For…well, a long time.”
Before Tony had a chance to respond, or even get a closer look at what his Sentinel was staring at, he was distracted by the man making an announcement.
“We’re about to have company,” the Sentinel commented for Tony’s benefit.
Sure enough, within three minutes an angry Nick Fury stood in all his leather-clad, eye patched glory stood in front of Tony’s hospital bed, flanked by an expressionless Coulson. Fury’s one visible eye was narrowed in a glare that might have made Tony feel something like amusement if he wasn’t feeling liked he’d almost died recently.
Surprisingly, he turned and aimed his ire at the Sentinel seated by the foot of Tony’s bed.
“What do you think you’re doing, soldier? Leaving the base without permission, property damage, assaulting SHIELD personnel…”
“With respect, sir, I wouldn’t have needed to assault them if they hadn’t attempted to stop me,” Tony’s Sentinel informed Fury with such a dry tone that Tony couldn’t help but let out a chuckle. It quickly turned into a groan of pain as his ribs reminded him that they were broken.
Blue eyes darted over to his in an instant, gaze narrowed in concern.
“’m fine,” Tony waved him off. “Just stop being funny and everything will be great.”
Fury still looked murderously angry, but Coulson’s expression had…well change implied there had been one to begin with…manifested with slightly widened eyes followed almost immediately by a subtle massaging of his temples.
“Stark…” he said with a heavy sigh.
“Stark? As in Howard Stark?” Tony’s Sentinel inquired, looking at Tony with an unfathomable expression on his face.
“My father. Jesus Christ, where have you been? Under a rock?” Tony asked, blaming the sharp stab of pain that tore through him at the mention of his father on his numerous injuries.
The three men before him all exchanged unreadable looks before Tony’s Sentinel (and he really needed someone to mention the man’s name. This was getting ridiculous) shot him a wry smile. “Something like that.”
Fury shook off whatever it was that had come over the three of them, turning his one eyed glare back on Tony’s Sentinel. “Rogers, I don’t know what the hell was going through that freezer-burned brain of yours, but if you pull another stunt like this, so help me god I will lock you in a Hulk-proof cell until the end of time itself. What the hell were you thinking soldier?”
“Sir,” Coulson interrupted Fury’s tirade, “there were clearly mitigating circumstances. Frankly, we’re lucky Sentinel Rogers didn’t put them in the ground. I doubt I would have the same restraint if I were in his position.”
Fury turned his glare on Coulson, seemingly alarmed by the agent’s defiance. “And what position was that, exactly?” he asked with barely controlled anger.
“He sensed a Guide in peril – his Guide in peril.”
“I would like to object to the use of the word peril. Sounds too damsel in distress. ‘Danger’ maybe. Or ‘at personal risk due to great acts of gallantry.’”
Fury’s mouth opened and closed a few times as he processed the information. Eventually he gathered himself and rounded on Tony.
“Stark. I should have known. This particular magnitude of disaster has you written all over it. And who else on earth could be responsible for sending Captain America into a feral combat drive?”
“Sentinel Coulson,” Steve said through gritted teeth, hands fisted tightly at his sides, “would you kindly remind Director Fury that I come from an era where an assault would be well within my rights under pair-bond interference.”
“Oh, he doesn’t need reminding. We’re in an era where it would be well within your rights,” Coulson remarked, meeting the other Sentinel’s gaze with an inscrutable expression.
“Gentlemen, with all due respect, I’ve already had one feral episode today, and I’d really like to avoid the one I’m currently on the cusp of. Frankly, the idea of damaging Fury sounds fairly appealing right now, but as soon as the threat against my Guide was eliminated, instinct would demand I bond with him, and he’s not fit for anything of the sort at the moment. So, keeping in mind that I would derive nothing but pleasure from attacking the Colonel, would you be so kind as leave before I am forced to take drastic action?”
“Rogers…” Fury barked
“Sir,” Coulson said, placing a restraining hand on Fury’s shoulder. “He’s not joking about being close to the edge. Or about wanting to hurt you. We should go.”
Coulson studied Tony carefully before shaking his head. “I’ll send my Guide up once I get Fury far enough away that Sentinel Rogers stops smelling like aggression incarnate.”
Tony’s Sentinel gave him a smile that was all teeth as Tony struggled to formulate a response.
“I don’t need another Guide in here!” Tony protested as vehemently as his injuries would allow. “I’m fine!”
“Stark, you’re projecting all over the place, and I don’t think you even know you’re doing it. Barton is coming up here and that’s final. Besides, I would have thought you’d want to be as in control as possible when your visitors arrive – particularly Lt. Colonel Rhodes.”
Tony would have sat up in shock and outrage if he had more energy. As it was, he shifted slightly to glare at the Sentinel who had been making his life difficult going on three years.
“You didn’t,” Tony spat, eyes narrowed in anger and just daring Coulson to contradict him.
“I did,” Coulson replied with that particular bland smile Tony was sure meant the Sentinel was taking pleasure in turning Tony’s life into a living hell.
“What kind of unfeeling bastard calls his Guide by his last name?” Tony spat back, desperate for some kind of retribution.
“An on-duty one,” Coulson replied, unperturbed. “Sentinel Rogers,” he said with a nod by way of farewell before departing.
Tony collapsed back onto his pillows and tried not to cringe as he imagined Rhodey’s response to his latest near-death experience. He doubted it would go over well.
In order to distract himself from the inevitable fallout, Tony decided to turn his attention to more important matters. Namely, his Sentinel.
“So, can I just say that you were totally worth the wait?” Tony said, angling his head so he could see the well-muscled figure at the end of his bed.
“I didn’t mean to keep you waiting,” Rogers (or so Tony had gathered) responded with an earnesty that bordered on the painful.
“So, I was mostly tuning him out and I’m high on pain killers right now, but was it just my imagination or did Fury say something about sending Captain America into a combat drive?” Because really, what the fuck did Captain America have to do with anything?
“I don’t know why he was so surprised. What else was I supposed to do?”
“Wait. Wait. “What?” Tony asked. Because he couldn’t have heard that right.
“I mean, it’s a instinctual reaction. When a Sentinel perceives a threat against themselves, their territory or their Guide, instinct just completely...”
“No! Not that. Yeah, feral episode, that’s all well and good and perfectly understandable. Go back to the part where I asked about Captain America and you answered in the first person.”
Rogers just stared at Tony before his eyes drifted once again to the spherical object resting on the floor. A shield, Tony realized. A shield that looked very familiar. Three concentric circles – red then white, then red again. In the center, a white star on a blue background. He looked back up at his Sentinel, matching the face in front of him with the one on the photographs in his father’s office and on the posters from decades past.
“Holy shit!” Tony exclaimed breathlessly. “But…what…how?”
“Ice,” Clint Barton explained as he pushed his way into Tony’s private room without permission. “About a month ago SHIELD found itself a Capsicle in the artic and felt the need to bring him home.”
Barton sucked in a quick breath through his teeth. “Jesus, Tony. You…fuck. No wonder Captain America looks like he’s ready to behead somebody.”
“What? I’ve had worse,” he muttered off-hand, and would have waved dismissively if he could find the energy.
“Not. Helping,” Captain America (Captain fucking America!) said in a perfectly placid tone of voice that sent shivers down Tony’s spine, and not in the good way. Well, maybe a little bit in the good way, but that was neither here nor there. The man sounded the kind of emotionless that psychopaths did before they began torturing someone in new and creative ways.
Barton continued cracking wise, but even if Tony couldn’t feel the worry coming off the other Guide despite his shields, he could still read it in the creases in his brow. Under normal circumstances, Tony might tell the other Guide to shove his concern where the sun don’t shine, but he was too tired to put up much of a fight today. Instead, he allowed Barton to walk him through the meditation, eyes falling shut as he centered himself on a strong mental presence. It wasn’t exactly steady, but it was…firm. Grounded. Tony used it as his focal point, breathing in and out, focusing only on the beating of his heart and the rate of his exhales.
When Tony finally had himself back under control (everyone was right about the state of his shields, which chafed more than a little), he re-focused on the focal point he had used during meditation. While the core was strong, incredibly so – stronger than anyone Tony had ever met before in his life, the edges were ragged and frayed. Tony could fix that.
The more Tony soothed the hurts he could see, the more he found. The strong mental shields that protected that amazingly steady core weren’t falling, it was more like they were…opening a little. A door made just for Tony. He slipped in and the shield started to close , not just behind him, but around him and there were two soothingly warm point of contact on his torso and nothing in his life had ever felt so good or right and he never, ever wanted it to stop…
And then suddenly it did. Tony jerked upright with a start, swearing when his injuries made themselves known again. Barton was staring at him with a look of sort of horrified awe on his face (an expression Tony shouldn’t be nearly as used to seeing as he is) and Coulson was standing between Tony and a stiff Captain America. His hands released their grip around the icon’s wrists as Tony watched.
Rogers meets his gaze, and the guilt in his expression was overwhelming. Tony felt like he had kicked a puppy. The other man left the room without a word. Coulson spared a quick moment to pull Barton close, burying his nose in the man’s neck and inhaling deeply. He untucked the archer’s shirt and ran his palms up the man’s torso while Barton’s lips moved next to his ear. Coulson pulled back, returned Barton’s shirt to its formally tucked status, and then followed Captain America out the door.
The entire thing took less than thirty seconds.
“What the actual fuck just happened?” Tony asked once he found his voice.
“You just tried to bond with Captain America. And he tried to bond right back,” Barton replied before dumping himself casually into the chair Tony’s Sentinel had been occupying mere minutes earlier.
“No I didn’t. I was meditating.”
“Yeah. And you used Rogers as your focal point. Because you’re a dumbass.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yeah, you kinda did.”
“I just closed my eyes and picked the best focal point in the area! I thought it was you!”
Barton shook his head in what Tony thought was disbelief, a wry little smile making the corner of his mouth twitch upwards.
“He wasn’t going to hurt you. I mean, he’s your Sentinel. It’s just…he clearly wasn’t totally in control of himself and if he accidentally exacerbated one of your injuries…the self-loathing would be painful, even to an average person. Also, the middle of a hospital ER is sort of the last place you want to get up to that kind of thing.”
Barton let out an amused scoff. “It’s just…I’ve never seen anything like that happen before. I mean, bonding is fantastic and everything,” the archer’s smile mutated into something that could only be described as filthy, “but it clearly wasn’t sexual. It was…I’ve never seen two people so ready to fall into each other that a platonic bond almost happens by accident. And you’ve been awake for like, twenty-seven minutes tops.”
“How long did it take Coulson to pin you, Barton?” Tony asked, eyebrows raised in challenge.
If Barton’s smile had been filthy before, now it had progressed to unsanitary enough to be a health hazard. “Six days. And I was trying so hard, too.”
Tony just blinks at him in wordless shock. “I’ve seen your spirit animals, you know. You two are a perfect match. And it took you six days to get him to bond?”
“Coulson is nothing if not dedicated to his work.”
“He…he blew you off for six days for an op?”
“Oh no,” Barton’s mouth curved into a smile, “I was the op. He gets the assignment, he goes to the last place ‘Tasha and I have been sighted. He takes a good smell, trying to get a sense of where we went, what we were up to, that sort of thing. And then BAM!” Barton smacked his hands together for emphasis. “Coulson’s out of there before the other agents even have the chance to ask him what he’s managed to pick up. God, those mission reports still make me laugh every time.”
“He could tell it was you by the way the scene smelled?”
“He could tell I was his, he could tell I was unbounded, and he could tell I was traveling with another Sentinel. From a week-old scent pile.” Barton shook his head, his pride becoming tangible. “The things he can do amaze me to this day. Anyway, that was enough to drive him up the fucking wall, and he was after us like a bat out of hell.”
“And you?” Tony asked, drawn into the story in spite of his best efforts to remain aloof and disinterested.
“We ran. Harder than usual, when we found out someone was on our tail and getting a little too close much too fast. I didn’t know who he was!” Barton defended himself at Tony’s critical look. “I just knew that I had a government agent on my tail like a dog after a bone, and that I’d done some pretty stupid stuff because of Natasha. Then one day, we’re on the run, and all of a sudden he’s just there. Standing right in the middle of the street just waiting. And as soon as I get within 300 yards of him, I can tell.”
“What’d you do?”
“Pinned him to a tree with arrows and then molested him. What else?”
Tony smirked. “We’d better be careful Barton, or I’m going to end up liking you.”
“Well, we can’t have that,” Barton replied with a matching smug expression. “I’m not sure the world could survive it.”
Steve leaned against the wall outside Tony’s room. He had one hand fisted in his hair, the other curled against his thigh. He couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid.
He’d promised himself. When he’d woken up from his drug-induced stupor, he’d sworn that he would do nothing until his Guide was ready, until he’d healed. A sexual bond was out of the question for at least two months given the state of his Guide’s ribs and the man’s other injuries. He wasn’t going to do anything before the two had a chance to talk properly.
So what the hell had happened back there?
“Instinct,” responded one of the few voices Steve was familiar with in this strange place and time.
“Not an excuse,” Steve gritted out to Agent Coulson who had taken a perch beside Steve on the wall. “If I can’t control myself, I shouldn’t be anywhere near him. I’ll hurt him, I’ll take advantage of him – we haven’t even had a proper introduction yet, let alone a conversation.”
Agent Coulson remained silent for a beat. “I am a SHIELD agent, with the highest security clearance our country has to offer. I am the SHIELD agent assigned to supervise the Avengers Initiative. I am also a Sentinel.”
“Did you have a point, Coulson, or were you just flapping your gums because you like the sound of your own voice?” Steve knew he was being much harsher than usual, but after the day he’d had he just couldn’t find it in himself to care.
“The point, Captain Rogers, is that I know more about Tony Stark than any other man on the planet. Including Stark himself. So I can share with you, for example, the fact that Tony Stark has had no fewer than three Sentinels who would have been a suitable match approach him.”
Steve’s head jerked up, heart beating faster as he was filed with panic. Tony wasn’t bonded. He could smell that much. But was there someone else? Was Tony stepping out with another Sentinel, trying to establish a connection?
“Stark turned every single one down.”
The rush of relief was almost overwhelming in its intensity.
“Additionally, since the age of six, Stark has been seen on numerous occasions in the company of a spirit animal.”
Steve had to fight not to roll his eyes. Tony was a Guide. Of course he’d been seen with a spirit animal.
“Many people, myself included, think there is a link between the two. You know, of course, that when a spirit animal physically interacts with a human other than the one they guide it is an indication of a perfect match?”
“Of course,” Steve snapped.
“Anthony Edward Stark’s spirit animal is a red fox, Sentinel Rogers.”
“The spirit animal that has been spotted with Stark, more often than not in contact with him, is a bald eagle.”
Steve’s head jerked up. “That…what?”
“Stark’s been waiting for you since he was six years old, Captain. After so long a time waiting, after having grown up being comforted by the merest shadow of you, is it really such a surprise that his mind would automatically seek yours out as soon as he was able?”
Steve was still standing outside his Guide’s room trying to process what Coulson had told him when the hair on the back of his neck rose. Steve shifted onto the balls of his feet without conscious thought, his entire body coiling tightly in anticipation of the threat he was convinced was imminent. A careful survey of his senses revealed what he had already subconsciously recognized – the breathing pattern and heartbeat unique to Sentinels. Judging by the lack of any vital signs nearby that corresponded, it was an unbonded one as well.
Steve’s lip curled slightly and the hairs on his arms joined those on the back of his neck in standing on end. The next seven minutes were spent with all his senses firmly focused on the Sentinel that was approaching the hospital, evaluating the potential threat.
Every step the other Sentinel took towards Tony wound Steve a little tighter. By the time the man question was within visual range, Steve was just about ready to snap. Steve took advantage of the other Sentinel’s approach and used it to assess his potential adversary. His uniform spoke of advanced training and his posture and gait confirmed it. Steve could smell that the Sentinel was worried and on edge, which only served to make Steve even more tense.
The other Sentinel had the benefit of more intensive training and more experience, but Steve had a height and weight advantage, not to mention the extra endurance and expedited healing the serum had endowed him with. Tony was his. His Guide. And he would die before he let anyone else have him.
By the time the other Sentinel, Lt. Col. Rhodes, according to the uniform, stood in front of him, Steve was on a hair trigger. Clearly sensing this (Steve had no doubt he was oozing hostility in every possible way), the Sentinel came to a stop a good two yards away from Steve, his posture as non-threatening as a Sentinel could make it.
Steve took several deep breaths, attempting to pull himself back from the precipice of the feral episode he was currently teetering on. It did almost nothing – every breath was laced with the scent of the man before him, the one every instinct was screaming at him was a threat, even when logic told him otherwise.
“Rhodey, tell Captain Aggression over there to get his ass in here!” an already intimately familiar voice called from within. The sound of it immediately allowed Steve to think a little more rationally. “I promise not to spiritually molest him this time. Really!”
Steve straightened up and walked back into Tony’s room, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the other Sentinel. Under other circumstances, he might have hesitated at the thought of enclosing himself in a small space with his Guide after their brush with bonding earlier. But Steve could not conceive of being anywhere but beside his Guide, standing firmly between him and the other Sentinel.
Brown eyes met his own, and the brows above them furrowed in concern. “Cap, you’re all over the place.”
“You’re…you’re right here. Right here in front of me and you are mine. You are my Guide and you belong to me but…you don’t yet. Not really. Someone…another Sentinel could come and take you…take what’s mine…” Steve growled at the thought.
Tony’s eyes had widened as Steve’s tirade went on. “Hey,” he began soothingly, one hand reaching towards Steve before he looked at it and froze with a small grimace. “Rogers,” he tried again in an entreating voice, and Steve could feel a wave of reassurance and calm flow through him. He began to mentally follow the wave towards into source, in search of more, before he realized what he was doing and quickly stopped himself.
“Steve,” he corrected. “You, of all people, should call me Steve.”
“Steve then,” Tony said with a smile. “Steve, I’ve been waiting for you for 35 years. I’m not about to give up on you now that I’ve finally found you. You are mine, Steve. My Sentinel. I’ve known that since I was six. You have nothing to worry about.”
“I know that,” Steve said, feeling himself begin to unwind, though very, very slowly. “Intellectually, I know that. But instinctively? Tony… this day has not been good for my self-control.” Steve took a deep breath, inhaling his Guide’s scent and reveling in it, diluted and corrupted by antiseptic and sickness as it was. Coffee, blood, sweat, and…hot metal?
“Now that we’ve established that, can Rhodey come in? I’m sure he’s got a speech prepared about how me risking my life every two weeks is bad for his health and then he and I need to have our standard fight before I check myself out AMA. Also, I’d sort of like to introduce my best friend to my Sentinel.” Brown eyes widened and met his own while Tony’s lips arranged themselves in the most exaggerated pout Steve had ever seen.
He let out a short huff of laughter at the sheer ridiculousness. Still, the expression had its intended effect, though perhaps not in the manner Tony had anticipated. The talk, the expression – Tony’s mere presence – had calmed him enough that he was once again capable of being rational. He would be anxious and on edge throughout the visit, but he had no real reason to complain.
Steve acquiesced with a short, reluctant, jerky nod, but the smile that lit up Tony’s face in response made him think that it was more than worth it. Steve managed to hold onto that mindset and relative calm right up until the moment the other Sentinel actually walked through the door.
Steve managed to not growl as Lt. Rhodes entered the room, but it was a near thing. He still couldn’t prevent himself from shifting so that he was physically between the door (and the other Sentinel) and Tony, his muscles tensing as he prepared to defend what was his if the need arose. The Air Force officer stared at him with raised eyebrows and a combination of amusement and exasperation, but underlying it all Steve could sense protective rage and bone-deep fear, all of it rooted in worry, and all of it directed at Tony.
The Lt. Colonel had entered the room before taking three steps to the right, keeping his back to the wall and as far away from Tony as the room would allow. The obvious effort to keep Steve calm by leaving the exit clear and presenting himself in as nonthreatening way as possible made Steve grateful.
“Oh thank God,” Rhodes said when he had situated himself in the hospital room, “reinforcements. Do you have any idea how hard it’s been, trying to keep this idiot safe all by myself? ‘Rhodey, you’re not my Sentinel. Stop trying to be.’ Well, Tony, now that your Sentinel is here, maybe you’ll be willing to listen to some common sense or exert an iota of self-preservation.”
The tone was joking, but Steve could tell that the Sentinel had meant every word.
“You and I,” Lt. Colonel Rhodes said, “will have a long, long conversation when you’re a little closer to stable. The stories I could tell you…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “And you and I” his gaze moved to Tony now, “need to have that conversation you were talking about earlier. I have grey hairs, Tony. Grey hairs, plural. And you are the cause of every single one of them. But…we’re not going to have that talk now. We’ve had that talk enough. We could have that talk in our sleep, and I think we have done several times over. Let’s skip ahead to the AMA one then, shall we? You know my view on this, and they can be nicely summarized in three short words: you’re an idiot.”
Steve heard and felt Tony adjust himself on the bed. “Yes, but I’m Steve’s idiot. Your argument is invalid. Rhodey…we’ve done this before. We both know how this ends: with you angry and me at home with a disapproving Pepper interviewing private nurses. What makes you think this time is going to be any different?”
“This time, you have an angry, ready to bond Sentinel sitting on the edge of your hospital bed who went on a feral rampage on national television while trying to keep you safe. One who, despite the frankly astounding amount of bonding pheromones I can smell pouring off both of you, hasn’t put your health at risk by bonding with you.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Tony mumbled petulantly while Steve fought off a wave of guilt at the reminder of how close he had been to jeopardizing Tony’s health.
“That only makes it even more impressive,” Rhodes replied, shifting his stance and crossing his arms over his chest in irritation.
The increase in his frustration, his tone of voice, and the shift in posture combined was a little too much for Steve’s self-control. He let out a low warning growl while he shifted on the bed, ready to counter any attack that came his way. Rhodes uncrossed his arms and held them up in the universal sign that he was not armed and therefore was not to be treated as a threat while Tony simultaneously sent a wave of fairly aggressive calmness in his direction. Steve’s growl cut off fairly quickly, and while under normal circumstances he would have been feeling slightly sheepish, all he could muster was slight thankfulness and a glare in the direction of the Lt. Colonel.
“Lt. Colonel Rhodes, I appreciate your patience. I’ve had a very trying and disorienting week which culminated in today. I am sure under normal circumstances we wouldn’t be having any problems, but…under the circumstances, I would ask that you do everything in your power to keep your voice soft, your tone calm, and your body language friendly. I have absolutely no desire to injure my Guide’s best friend, and judging by the conversation thus far, I owe you a thank you or two. But I am in a place where the slightest perceived threat to the bond would trigger a violent reaction. I would appreciate it if you would do your best to respect that, sir, and make it as easy as possible for this conversation to take place.”
“ ‘Sir’, huh?” Rhodes asked with an arched eyebrow, but given his stance and the effort he had taken in modulating his voice and tone, Steve did his best to make his gaze somewhat less hostile. “You’re not air force.” It wasn’t a question. It was a statement of fact.
“You two can bond over war stories later,” Tony interrupted loudly, rolling his eyes. “Rhodey, I’m fine. See? Still breathing and stuff. I honestly have no idea why Coulson called you. No, wait, I do; he takes pleasure in making my life as difficult as possible. Well, mission accomplished for Coulson. Now, if you could just fetch the nurse on your way out…”
“Tony, I am not enabling your leaving against medical advice. It’s just not happening.”
“Against medical advice?” Steve asked, turning his glare onto Tony. “Ah. AMA. Of course.” His Guide’s sheepish look confirmed it for him. Steve felt compelled to set the record straight. “Now, I know we haven’t known each other long...”
“Either twenty minutes or thirty-five minutes, depending on how you count,” Tony asked, practically oozing cheek.
Steve ignored him and pressed onwards. “But if you think I would allow you to put yourself at risk and check yourself out before it’s medically advisable, then you are an idiot.”
Rhodes looked back and forth between the two. “You two need to talk, and I think it’d probably go better if I wasn’t here. You,” he pointed at Tony, “call me. And you,” he said, pointing at Steve, “and I are going to have that talk sometime soon.”
Steve looked away from his Guide long enough to give the other Sentinel a nod farewell, but turned his gaze back on Tony as soon as the door had shut.
Tony seemed to visibly quell under the force of Steve’s disapproving glare, but in a matter of seconds he had squared his shoulders and return Steve’s glare with one of his own.
“Steve, I have been doing this on my own for almost two decades now. And I am going to do what I have always done. I am going to check myself out Against Medical Advice.” Steve began to make a noise of protest, but Tony glared at him and simply talked louder, covering the objections Steve had been preparing to voice. “I am going to go home to my bed. My soft, ridiculously large bed covered in silk sheets. Personally, I find the idea of spending the next few days in it much, much more appealing than spending them in a cot covered in sheets and smelling of antiseptic. Surrounded by the sick, the dying. Feeling…”
Tony took a deep breath, his shoulders hunched defensively. And in that moment, Steve ached. Everything in him was screaming for him to reach out, to take Tony and wrap himself around him and cradle him and soothe him. To shield him from the world, from the invasive thoughts and feelings of those around them that had burrowed into his head since the day his gifts had come online.
Then Steve thought about how long Tony’s powers had been active, and he felt slightly ill. He had been so young…and then the reason why Tony had been active so long occurred to Steve and he felt as if someone had stabbed him in the chest and was now twisting the blade. He’d seen the statistics in the folder Coulson had given him, and while he hadn’t be able to understand all of it, he had been able to discern certain significant facts. According to the research, Sentinel-Guide pair typically came online within three years of each other. This matched up with what they’d thought but been unable to prove in his time. Most Sentinels and Guides came online in their late teens and early twenties, but it wasn’t uncommon for people to come into their gifts as late as thirty. The earliest most people came online was in their early teens.
Tony had been active since he was six. Tony had been active since he was six because of Steve. Exposed, every hour of every day to the feelings of those around him, a gaping sensation of something missing because Steve wasn’t around to make any of it stop, wasn’t there to shield him, to protect him. Thirty five years on his own, feeling incomplete, because of Steve.
Never again, he swore to himself, staring into pained brown eyes as Tony realized what he was saying and cut himself off, never again, and not for one moment longer. You are not alone, Tony Stark. You will never be alone again. I swear it.
Every instinct Steve had was telling him to reach out for Tony, both mentally and physically. To wrap himself around Tony, slip his shields around him and protect his mind, shelter his body, now broken and bleeding, with Steve’s own. To bind them together so tightly that nothing short of death could ever tear them apart. Bond, his instincts were screaming, bond now.
He wanted to. Oh, did Steve want to. But the hospital wasn’t the place. And Tony...being here, being in the hospital wouldn’t help Tony. Not really. Not in the long run.
“If you were to check out AMA,” Steve began, holding up a hand at Tony’s excited and, more worryingly, relieved expression. “If,” he emphasized heavily in response, “what would you do about treatment for your injuries?”
“If all they want is bed rest or observation, nothing. Jarvis can keep an eye on me…”
“Jarvis?” Steve said, feeling the jealousy and possessiveness he had been fighting fiercely to keep at bay beginning to burn hot again.
Tony rolled his eyes. “He runs the house. Really Steve. Nothing to worry about here.”
“And if you needed actual medical attention and supervision?”
“I’d hire a private nurse. Have done, in the past. I’d get better care, since the nurse would work with me and only with me, no other patients to get distracted by, and I’d probably recover much faster in more familiar surroundings. Steve, they’re going to want to keep me at least 48 more hours. I don’t think I can handle that. Can you?”
Steve looked at Tony. Looked at the furrows in his brow, the small droplet of sweat working its way down his forehead. Heard his heart beat slightly too fast. Smelled the anxiety he was experiencing. His brown eyes…they were desperate.
“I’ll go find a nurse,” Steve conceded at last.
Tony’s brilliant, relieved smile was more than enough to assuage the few doubts that remained.
Tony let out a relieved, contented sigh as soon as he set foot through the mansion doors. Well, as soon as Steve set foot through the mansion doors with Tony in his arms, but who cared about the semantics? Under normal circumstances, Tony might have objected to being treated like a Disney princess. But this was his Sentinel, here at last, and, to be fair, Tony was feeling a bit distressed, even if he wasn’t a damsel.
“Good afternoon, Sir.” JARVIS’s sardonic mechanical tones oozed from the speakers.
Steve froze, and Tony could sense the sharp flash of fear that tore through him, followed swiftly by aggression generated from the need to defend and protect.
“Calm down,” Tony said soothingly, doing his best to project a sense of tranquility and safety despite his headache. “Steve, it’s just JARVIS.”
“Did you by any chance, Sir, neglect to inform our guest of my existence?”
No, Tony hadn’t. He had forgotten to inform Steve of the exact nature of JARVIS’s existence; had forgotten to inform Steve that JARVIS wasn’t a butler or a housekeeper or anything else familiar, but an artificial intelligence. This fact was often difficult for normal denizens of the 21st century to grasp, let alone WWII heroes over sixty years out of their time. In hindsight, perhaps a bit of preparation would not have gone amiss.
“Tony…” Steve said through clenched teeth. “Tony, there is no one else in this house. I can’t hear any other heartbeats, I can’t smell anyone…”
“JARVIS isn’t’ real. Well, he is real, he just isn’t a person…what I’m trying to say is that JARVIS is an artificial intelligence. Did you have Sci-Fi in the forties? Umm…he’s…”
“Just A Rather Very Intelligent System,” JARVIS cut in.
“Don’t think that’s really helping, JARVIS,” Tony said.
“My apologies, sir,” JARVIS replied in his primmest tone. Why had Tony thought it was a good idea to program his AI to be sarcastic, again?
“JARVIS is...it’s sort of like he...he’s here, but he’s not...here and oh my god how am I so bad at this?”
Tony could feel Steve’s panic receding, but his confusion was only becoming stronger.
“My purpose is to assist Master Stark with his work, in addition to keeping the house organized and comfortable.”
Steve visibly started when JARVIS addressed him directly, but Tony could feel his Sentinel make a mental effort before the tension in his muscles slowly eased.
“So...you’re a butler? A...a radio butler?”
“Close enough!” Tony said, only to wince and let out an involuntary hiss as his ribs gave a painful twinge.
“We need to get you into bed,” Steve said, tense again. His face was lined with concern as he met Tony’s eyes. “Where is your bedroom?”
“Upstairs, third door on the left,” JARVIS replied.
Steve didn’t jump nearly as much this time around, and managed a grateful smile before he followed the directions. Opening the door with special care, to avoid jostling Tony’s ribs from what the Guide could sense, before entering the room. He placed Tony gingerly on the bed before taking a step back and staring at him in concern.
Tony rolled his eyes, but, hey. He was where he wanted to be. Mission accomplished, overprotective, ridiculous, old-fashioned Sentinels aside. Now to just get said overprotective, ridiculous, old-fashioned Sentinel on the same page.
“Look Steve. I’m in bed. I’m all nice and cozy and not in pain. You’re here, I’m here. Let’s get this party started.”
The glance Steve shot him was reproachful. “Tony, you aren’t in any condition to be attending a party. You’ve cracked your ribs, you…”
Tony let out a small chuckle before wincing in pain. “What did I tell you about being funny? It’s not allowed. The doctor said so and everything.”
The bewildered expression on Steve’s face was too much.
“We are clearly having some communication difficulties due to the whole...you being frozen in ice for over half a century thing. Allow me to rephrase; you, me, bonding – right now.”
“Tony…we need to talk.”
Tony’s chest felt like it was going to collapse in on itself. “Wow. Less than two hours. A new record even by my standards.”
35 years. 35 years waiting and it was over before it ever even began.
Steve was beside him within seconds, his brow wrinkled in concern. “What wrong? Are you hurting? Tell me how to help.”
“You’re leaving me. Why do you care about helping?”
“I’m…what? Tony…why would I ever…I just found you. I won’t ever leave you.” A pause, as he considered his words. “Unless…unless you want me to go.”
“What? No! God no. Steve, you said ‘we need to talk’.”
“Yes. I think we should have at least one conversation before we bond. I mean…we don’t really know each other. And I’d like to know you. I don’t want you rushing into anything just because you feel like you’ve been waiting so long. I…”
Tony’s relief was overwhelming. If he hadn’t already been propped up bonelessly against the pillows on his bed, he might have been in danger of collapsing.
“Talking. Okay. Actual talking. Yeah. I can do that. I’m very good at talking. What do you want to know?”
Steve’s eyes flickered to Tony’s chest. More specifically the blue glow emanating the arc reactor embedded there. “What…what is it? You…you don’t have to tell me, but…it…it’s doing something that’s changing your scent and…”
“It keeps my heart beating,” Tony said grudgingly. He’s…he’s not ashamed of the arc reactor. That’s not what he wants anyone to think. He cut a hole in his shirt and displayed it for all the world to see to stop that very sort of response. Tony doesn’t want pity. Not from anyone. Especially not from Steve.
Steve just looks at him for several long moments, his hands fisted tightly in his lap. “You are going to have to explain this to me. Slowly. Because I don’t understand.”
“There’s...shrapnel in my blood, close to my heart. The arc reactor keeps it from shredding my heart.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed and he took a deep breath. “And how exactly did the shrapnel end up in your bloodstream?”
“I was..captured. Spent a few months in Afghanistan as a hostage.” It took everything Tony had to make it sound nonchalant, to make it seem like he didn’t still wake up screaming some nights.
Judging by the expression on Steve’s face, it hadn’t done any good. “You were a prisoner of war?” His tone was absolutely lethal.
The feelings behind Steve’s reaction were a snarled-up, jumbled intense disaster that Tony didn’t have a prayer of untangling at this distance. Anger, fear, self-blame, all of it strong and intense and surprisingly...layered.
“And the day I found you?” Tony’s Sentinel inquired after a long time spent reining his emotions in. “What exactly was happening then?”
“You were a lab rat and died for your country. You don’t get to be mad at other people for reckless hero-esque behaviour.”
Steve gave him a long, searching look. “Rhodes wasn’t kidding, was he?”
”Not really, no. Now, we’ve had our talk. Can we get on with the bonding part of the program?”
Steve, for reasons Tony really couldn’t fathom, insisted that someone from the Keep be called to supervise their bonding. SHIELD, for reasons Tony really didn’t care about, wanted some more time to deal with the fallout from “the Stark Tower Incident”, as it was now being referred to, before involving any other organizations in any official capacity. The compromise, to Tony’s horror, was Clint Barton.
“What can I say?” the archer said with a shrug and a shit-eating grin as he and Coulson entered the room. “Everybody loves me.”
“Would someone,” Tony shot a glare in Steve’s direction to make it explicitly clear who that someone should be, “please explain to me why this is even necessary?”
“Because I don’t trust myself to stop when I need to,” Steve responded firmly.
A retort (witty of course) about not needing to stop died on his lips at his Sentinel’s stern expression.
“Alright then!” Barton said loudly, clapping once before rubbing his hands together. “Let’s get this show on the road, shall we? You guys want to do this here, I’m assuming.”
Tony nodded and saw Steve do the same.
“Cool. So, at this point we have two options. We can go with the guided method, wherein I root around in both your psyches a bit before I do my best to stick them together.”
Steve’s expression was blank, but Tony thought he could sense a hint of doubt. Or he could just be projecting, because Tony thought that option one was a terrible, horrible idea. He was just opening up his mouth to share that feeling with the room at large when Barton began speaking.
“Or,” the archer shot a sharp look in Tony’s direction, “we can let things play out naturally. You two almost fell into a bond at the hospital. I think if we let Cap start centering himself on you like he’s clearly been itching to do since he woke up from the sedative, everything else should just flow,” he informed them, emphasizing his last word with a corresponding hand gesture.
“And if it doesn’t?” Steve asked calmly. He crossed his arms over his chest in a manner that made his muscles bulge and his shirt stretch tight in very distracting ways.
It was almost enough to distract Tony from being slightly offended by Steve’s question. Tony already knew that Steve was, overall, a fairly pragmatic and cautious individual. He simply wanted to know all the possible outcomes of any given situation, but Tony was still slightly hurt. Didn’t Steve have any faith in Tony’s abilities as a Guide?
“Then I’ll come in and give things a nudge in the right direction. But I seriously doubt you’ll need it. Stark may be a pain in the ass, but he’s nothing to sneeze at in terms of empathic ability. And after that display in the hospital? I think you two have this more than covered.”
“Which options would you recommend?” Steve asked in the same infuriatingly reasonable tone of voice he’d been using since the conversation’s beginning.
“I know which I’d prefer,” Tony offered petulantly from his perch on the bed.
“Option two all the way,” Barton responded emphatically, ignoring Tony’s outburst. “It’s way less invasive and easier on everybody, me included. I’ll step in if I have to, but I really don’t think you guys will need it.”
“Tony?” Steve inquired, finally turning to face him. Tony decided to make the most of it.
“Au Natural, all the way,” he responded with a suggestive eyebrow waggle.
Steve didn’t so much as roll his eyes before turning back to Barton and Coulson. “Two it is then,” he told them decisively. “Guide Barton, if you won’t be needed to facilitate the bonding, is there any way you and your Sentinel could wait outside the room? Just far enough to give the illusion of privacy, but still close enough to intervene if things start to take a turn for the worse? This is…well, it’s intimate, and I’d like to keep as much as possible between the two of us. I’m sure you understand.”
Tony wasn’t quite sure how his Sentinel was managing to radiate sincerity, but if it got them space to themselves, which he had pretty much kissed goodbye as soon as Steve had said he wanted to involve the Keep, then he was all in favor of it.
Barton and Coulson had a conversation that seemed to consist of varying degrees of raised eyebrows. Eventually, Coulson nodded and headed toward the door. “I’ll be a shout away if you need me. Either of you,” he said. He eyed them both in a manner that was somehow just as threatening as it was reassuring.
Barton followed his Sentinel with two thumbs up and a suggestive lifting of his brows, calling “you kids have fun!” through the door as he exited the room.
Tony let out a small laugh despite his best efforts not to, and winced in pain as a result. God. Ribs got used a lot. Who knew?
Steve’s hand reached towards Tony, but he stopped himself with a chagrined expression on his face.
Tony, looking into Steve’s blue eyes, reached up and wrapped his own hand around Steve’s.
The effect was immediate, like two waves interfering constructively, traveling back and forth between their bodies through the contact point, building higher and higher with each pass. Tony needed more. He turned his face into Steve’s forearm as the blond sank his free hand into Tony’s hair, and while that was better it still wasn’t enough. Tony reached desperately for the hem of his shirt only to be stopped by large, warm hands wrapped around his own.
“Shh,” Steve soothed. “Not too fast. Don’t hurt yourself,” he told Tony. He released his hands before moving his own to the position Tony’s had been in moments before.
Steve slowly urged Tony into a mostly upright position before carefully pulling the fabric up and away. His gentleness was surprising given his size, but not his character. Tony’s ribs barely twinged at all. As soon as Tony’s shirt was out of the way, Steve tugged his own off with far less ceremony. He ran his hands up along Tony’s arms, across his shoulders, along his collar bones down his torso…all of it with a reverent expression on his face.
Tony felt drunk, he felt high, like he was coming off the tail end of an orgasm…just from Steve’s hands running over his skin. He closed his eyes and let the sensations wash over him, lowering his shields to see if what Steve was feeling was anything like what he was feeling.
The emotions pouring off Steve were almost more than Tony could handle. Awe, amazement, a protectiveness so fierce it was almost painful, but most prominent of all was an overwhelming sense of rightness. The conviction that for once, he had found exactly where he needed to be and was doing exactly what he needed to be doing.
The more Tony looked, the more he saw; Steve’s mind opened under Tony’s influence. The soldier’s shields didn’t so much fall away as they did envelope him. Each layer deeper he went added to the protection Steve gave him, blocking out more and more of the world outside as more and more of Tony’s Sentinel becoming clear.
Tony felt Steve’s complete disorientation at the changes in the city he had always called home even as he felt the puff of the Sentinel’s breath as Steve buried his nose in Tony’s neck. He watched Steve grow up, a scrawny boy in a Brooklyn Tony had never seen who never knew when to back down. He felt the agony of physical transformation augmented by a sudden influx of excess sensory data. He felt Steve’s jealousy, his hopes, his fears, the agony of losing everyone he cared for, his determination to never let it happen again, to protect Tony the way he hadn’t been able to protect Bucky.
The exchange was just that – an exchange. Tony felt Steve, watched his reactions as he learned Tony’s history from Tony’s perspective, every memory bringing their minds closer and closer together. Until suddenly Tony wasn’t empty because the hole had been filled by Steve – it had been a Steve-shaped hole and how had he not noticed that sooner?
“Talk to me,” Steve demanded. His ear was resting against Tony’s arc reactor, hands running soothingly along all of Tony’s skin that he could reach. “I need to hear your voice.”
So Tony talked. He talked about Dummy and JARVIS and the rest of his inventions. He talked about MIT, about the plans for the Quinjet and new designs for the arc reactor. Tony babbled like he had never babbled before, sensing with wonder the feeling of calm, of groundedness, of home this evoked in Steve. He talked until Steve picked his head up off Tony’s chest and leaned down before slowly pressing his lips against Tony’s. One kiss, unbearably tender and sweet, then another, still slow but building, a fire, and urgency underneath. Three, then four, and then Steve’s tongue was in his mouth and Tony’s lost count.
Some time (minutes? Hours? Days? It didn’t matter. Tony didn’t care) later, Steve pulled away and climbed up the bed, setting behind Tony before gently pulling the Guide until Tony’s back was resting against his chest.
“My Guide,” he whispered in Tony’s ear. “My Tony. Tell me, was I worth the wait?”
“Of course. You’re in my head. How can you even ask that question?” Tony muttered without nearly as much heat as he would have liked. “And I mean, you waited way longer than I did, even if you can’t remember most of it. I should get you a t-shirt. ‘I got frozen in a block of ice and all I got was this lousy t-shirt and a sub-par Guide.”
Tony got a quick flash of reproach through the bond before Steve felt the need to overwhelm Tony with his satisfaction and contentment with the current situation.
“Okay, okay. You’re happy. I got it. You can turn it down now.”
“I don’t think I will,” Steve said with a grin before pressing a kiss to Tony’s neck. “You’ll just have to get used to it.”
Tony smiled. “I think I can handle that.”