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Chapter One

 

Anthony Edward Stark was a Guide. He was born a Guide and not just through his genetics. Later in his life it was theorized by Tony that the traumatic event that had triggered his Gifts into manifesting was that of leaving the safety of his mother’s womb.

Tony just knew that he could never remember a time when he wasn’t online. In early childhood, before anyone realized what he was and how unique his circumstances, he would use the Guide Voice on his nannies to get what he wanted or to get them to leave if he didn’t like them. He always knew that the Stark’s butler/bodyguard, Jarvis, loved him like a son. He also always that his mother sometimes did and sometimes she didn’t. It depended on what self-prescribed medications she had taken that day. He also always knew that his father didn’t. And never had.

Howard Stark was a brilliant man. A genius inventor that had been instrumental in the development of Captain America, both during Project Rebirth in Brooklyn, New York and also in Europe where the man came into his legend, providing him with his uniform and weapons and logistic support. After Captain Steve Rogers crashed into the Arctic, Howard Stark returned to the United States where he was an integral part of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb.

Both of these events changed the happy, horny, visionary man of the early war years. Howard internally felt a great sense of guilt for the loss of his friend and the tremendous loss of life in Japan from the weapons he created. He wanted to stop any need for such massive loss of life in the future. But he could not see any other way forward than to make sure America had better weapons than anyone else so they could win any wars.

He was often quoted as saying, “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.” He meant it. He designed and built weapons for the United States to use during the Cold War to keep his country safe.

But Howard also spent a lot of time on ships in the Arctic Circle, searching for any sign of Johann Schmidt’s crashed plane and with it, the body of his old friend, Steven “Captain America” Rogers. He wasn’t able to keep him safe like he had promised to do and he felt that the least he could do was bring him home to a proper resting place.

Howard Stark’s obsessions led to a major problem for young Tony Stark: Howard was absent half the year and the times he was home, he was either too busy or too drunk trying to forget his guilt and be a proper father.

Tony grew up in the care of household staff, cared for but not cared about. Other than Jarvis, he was quite alone. His mother, Maria, drank and drugged herself to forget her loneliness and Howard rarely had time for him.

When he did interact with his father, it was often volatile. When Howard was in his home lab, the door was locked and there was no interaction. If his father was drunk, their interactions were either loud and slightly violent or maudlin and tear filled. It depended on how much Howard had already had and of what type of alcohol when Tony arrived in the room.

Howard rarely actually hit Tony. When on the anger side of the drunken scale, Howard was more inclined to throw things then use his fists. Tony did, however, garner the occasional open handed slap if he was too close or a shove to the chest or back if he was in the way or a glass tumbler or book to the head or body if he was too slow to dodge. Tony learned young to read his father’s mood from across the room before getting close to him. He was only seven the last time he was close enough to Howard when the latter was drunk and angry to have hands laid on him. But Tony was stubborn and wanted interactions with his father, no matter what form they took and so never avoided the violent, drunk Howard, though he did prefer the maudlin, nostalgic Howard.

When Howard tipped towards that end of his drunken scale, he would pull Tony close, pet his hair, and tell him stories of Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos, of Doctor Abraham Erskine and Project Rebirth and the day it succeeded, of Peggy Carter and Colonel Phillips and their post-war efforts to keep peace. Tony learned many stories about S.H.I.E.L.D. as a young boy although his father never called it that or revealed his own part in its formation.

Tony loved these times with Howard. He memorized the stories he was told and soaked up every bit of information about these people his father so loved. His favorite stories were of Steve Rogers. Howard never spoke of the deaths that the man had caused, he only talked about how wonderful he was.

“Steve was the perfect Sentinel. Even before he went into that machine of mine and Doctor Erskine’s, he had tried five times to join the army so he could protect the tribe. And once the formula worked and he became the ultimate Sentinel, it was breathtaking to behold him. He drew people to him, to help him protect the tribe and fight the evil that infested the world. Even his spirit animal was amazing, I can’t count the number of times I saw it, a great black bear charging through camp or lumbering onto a plane. No other Sentinel before or since has had a spirit animal that could regularly be seen by mundanes. I’ve never seen another spirit animal and just the memory of that one gives me chills to this day. Steve Rogers was the perfect Sentinel. Try to be like him, Tony, make him your hero like everyone should. He was strong and smart and righteous and oh so moral. Even if you are mundane like me, and not a Sentinel, be like him as much as you can.”

Tony took this to heart. He strived to be worthy of the man his father gushed over. Tony knew he wasn’t going to be a Sentinel and by the time he was five he realized that he wasn’t mundane either, which to his logical young mind left only one possibility. He was a Guide. But he also knew never to reveal this fact to Howard. He had heard Howard’s rants when drunk about Bucky Barnes, Steve’s Guide, or so everyone assumed, whose death had caused Steve’s essentially kamikaze death. Howard felt that Steve would have looked harder for another way if he wasn’t in deep bond loss when he had to take care of the explosives on the plane.

And when Tony was 13, he discovered he was correct in his secrecy. It was then that his father took him for the new genetic test to determine Sentinel genes, active, latent, dormant, and of course, Guide genes, active, latent, or dormant. When the tests came back showing that Tony was an online Guide, Howard reviled Tony as useless, worthless and that he could never be anything but a waste. He would never be a proper Stark and he would never be a hero like Steve Rogers and he had better stop pretending that he could be. And from that point forward, unless they were in public, Howard Stark never said a word to his son, other than to berate him and revile him.

Tony struggled with the sudden flood of negative emotions that permeated the house whenever his father was home and began to turn his mind inwards. He used his Gifts but only passively. And he escaped to college at age 15, the genius mind he had inherited from his father showing itself all his life and allowing him this respite from his now toxic home.

Just as much as Tony was a Guide, he was a genius. He had an intrinsic aptitude for math and science and an ear for languages, as well. As he grew up, Tony would tinker with machines which he found around the house, whether a toaster or a vacuum cleaner or a clock radio. He would take them apart to see how they worked and then put them back together. As he got older and gained more knowledge he would put the things back together in a more efficient way.

To Tony, it was a way to connect with his father even when his father was on one of his trips. Tony knew his father was a genius and an inventor, and although he was not allowed to be in Howard’s workshop, Tony was nevertheless able to feel close to Howard if he was working when Howard was.

Tony was 4 years old when he created his first working circuit board from scraps of broken ones around the house. Howard never even looked at it but Jarvis praised him and encouraged him by buying him a set of delicate screwdrivers.

When Tony was 8, he created an improved version of a car engine. It was incredibly fuel efficient and cars using it could drive 90 miles in the stop and go city traffic per gallon. On the highway or rural roads where there was more continuous driving, the fuel mileage was closer to 120 miles per gallon. Howard only knew about this invention because Jarvis had presented it to a contest for Tony and he had won, causing a huge fuss in the auto industry and gaining young Tony Stark his first patent. A magazine came to interview the youngster and also interviewed the industrialist, who simply put on a front as if he had known about it all along but wanted his son to stand on his own and not depend on Howard.

Tony was 13 when he developed his first rudimentary Artificial Intelligence. It was eight months after Howard had discovered Tony’s Guide genes. Unless he was spending time with Jarvis, Tony would not use his empathy. And even then, he would only open his shields if Howard was out of the house. Tony turned his Gifts inward towards technology to preserve his own sanity from the dark and toxic emotions in his home.

Tony had spent eight months turning his genius towards building an intelligence that wouldn’t hate him for his genetic gift. He had begun work on the AI when he was 11 but had never been able to work out how to get it to work as more than a simple if/then program. After Howard’s near disownment, Tony discovered that if he focused his Guide Gifts, his empathy and understanding of the human emotional construct, to the computer program as he indulged his genius, he was able to understand the coding on a different level.

Tony had his final breakthrough when he was nearly 14 and used it to create a helper bot, basically an arm on a pivot with cameras and microphones throughout. He didn’t give the bot a human voice but he did give it the ability to communicate with electronic noises like beeps and clicks and whirrs. He named the bot DUM-E, a pun on the word dumb - since he could not speak - but also as a private nod to the beloved stories of his childhood and the Howling Commandos, specifically Timothy “Dum-Dum” Dugan, the loud and brash Bostonian marksman.

“Jarvis, Jarvis, I finished him! He’s working! Come see!” Tony called as he entered the mansion’s kitchen. He knew that he and the butler/bodyguard were alone in the house, Howard having left on an expedition to the Arctic three weeks before and not due back for at least another month, - the only reason Tony had felt safe enough to use the tools in his workshop - and Maria away at a spa for a week.

The British man looked up from the vegetables he was slicing, and laid the knife down on the cutting board. “Give me five minutes, Master Tony. And then you can demonstrate your achievement.”

The man picked up the sliced carrots and diced onions from the counter and placed them in a nearby casserole dish before turning to the refrigerator and removing a bottle of milk and a can of soda.

He handed the soda to the young teen and took the milk to the half-prepared dinner. “Tell me what I’m going to see while you wait.”

Tony flipped the soda open and perched on a stool that was next to the breakfast bar near the wall. He took a drink and sighed. His legs swung as he tried to determine how much to dumb down his explanation. Jarvis was smart but sometimes Tony would ramble and get too technical for him.

As he considered how to explain without having the model in front of him to demonstrate with, a snow white fox appeared on the breakfast bar next to Tony’s hand where it curled around the soda can. The fox was twice the size of an arctic fox in the wild, about two feet at the shoulder when standing and his tail was a foot and a half long, though it was currently curled around its body. If the fox actually allowed itself to have true weight, it would likely weigh around 10 pounds. But since this was Tony’s spirit animal, it typically seemed to weigh only about 4 pounds when he held him or when he sat on Tony’s lap or shoulder.

Tony grinned down at his companion. “Hey, Naali. How’s the spirit plane today? Cold? Snowy? Or just blue and glowy?”

The fox huffed at him, finding his silliness amusing. He climbed up Tony’s arm and perched on his shoulder as the teen drank more of the cola and watched Jarvis cook. “You know how I’ve been spending spare time trying to crack the code of an artificial intelligence computer?”

“Of course. You’ve been working at that coding for years.” Jarvis said without turning from the stove where he was browning ground meat. “You finally worked it out?”

“Yeah. I just had a breakthrough last night when I was meditating. Naali and Jock were both there and I met them on the spirit plane and I watched them as they - well, I’d call what they were doing playing if I saw humans do it, so that’s what I’m gonna call it. They were playing in the snow, burrowing under and tossing it at each other and rolling around in it and stuff. And I can always tell how happy they are when we’re all in their plane, their home. Not that they mind coming here from what I can tell, but they really love home, I mean, it’s their home. And I just understood that all life, all intelligent life, needs something to call home. For most, it’s a place, a house, an apartment, a city, a country, on the broader scale. And I don’t mean a place where they live, where their body physically resides. I mean, someone in jail, wouldn’t consider that their home even if they are under a life sentence. No, a home for their soul, their heart, where they feel connected. And I realized that for some, home isn’t a physical place. It can be a person. Someone could travel around a lot or they just - I mean - their soul, their emotions are tied to that other being, not to where they are from. I think - I mean - I have this place inside -,” Tony put his left hand on his chest and rubbed lightly at a spot near his heart but not quite directly over it.

“It’s empty and it aches and sometimes it burns but not like a fire but like I’ve been outside too long in the middle of winter. And I know that it’s where my Sentinel should be. And it eases a bit when Jock is around and I know it’s because he’s my Sentinel’s animal, a part of them, and I know that if I ever find them, that space will be filled and whole. And that person, my Sentinel, will be my home, my place of peace, no matter where I’m living. I don’t know if I’ll ever find them since I can’t even register what with Dad erasing all evidence of my status from everywhere and bribing the one doctor who knew to keep their mouth firm shut on the matter but I could just stumble across them, ya know? And I think Jock visits so often because my Sentinel knows I need the connection to them.”

Jarvis looked over his shoulder and smiled sadly at his young charge. “I’m sure you’ll find them someday, Master Tony.”

“Yeah, yeah - anyway, when I realized that, I realized the missing link in the coding. I needed to provide a home for the A.I. It needed to understand the concept of home and family and emotions, even if it can’t exactly feel them. It needed to be able to at least rudimentarily get them. And just floating in front of my eyes, there on the spirit plane, I saw the equations and coding mapped out and wrote it down as soon as I came back to myself. Then this morning I input it and it worked. It - no, he - is rudimentary, sure. But he understands. I gave him a name and I - gave him a family, a home in a person. Me. I - I identified myself to him not just by name - I told him, I - well, I’m his father. And he understood me. And believed me. I could tell. I could - feel it.”

Jarvis straightened from placing the casserole dish in the oven, closed the door and came over to Tony. The older, balding British man put his hand on the young inventor's shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll be a wonderful father to him.”

“Thanks, Jarvis.”

The two men, young and old, walked out of the kitchen to the lab in the basement. The middle of the floor was clear but for two things, at least to Tony’s eyes. To the right side, lounged a large form, pure white, about 7 feet tall when standing on all four legs, about 5 feet when sprawled on his stomach like now. His long 10 foot length took up nearly the entire free area of the floor. He was round but muscled and if he fully manifested, he would weigh nearly 1,800 pounds. But when he wanted to comfort Tony and sprawled on him, he only felt like 20 pounds at most.

The giant polar bear yawned and Naali jumped down from Tony’s shoulder and ran over and climbed on “Jock’s” back. Tony didn’t know what his Sentinel had named the bear, but when it started coming around regularly when he was 5 or so, he decided he didn’t want to just call it polar bear, or seem to anyway, so he named it Jääkarhu, when they are alone but always refers to as Jock when talking to Jarvis, the only other who knows Tony is visited by a second spirit animal.

The two animals turn their heads to look at the large piece of equipment taking up the rest of the floor space in the lab as Jarvis walked towards it. It was a large arm with pincers on the end and jointed in several places. It was an a rolling assembly and as its inventor approached, Tony pointed to the cameras in various places on the bot, most notably within the pincers where the “palm” of the hand was.

“Jarvis, meet DUM-E. DUM-E, this is Jarvis. He takes care of the house - and me.”

The bot lifted its arm and used it to peer closely at the Englishman, turning it this way and that before bobbing it up and down, it’s sensors beeping cheerfully. Jarvis laughed at its antics.

“Very nice to meet you, DUM-E.” He turned to Tony and smiled broadly. “Well done, son.”

 

Chapter Two

 

Tony Stark stood in a cemetery in front of a fairly new gravestone. He gazed down at it, blinking back tears, wishing that he wasn’t here. The headstone read “Edwin Jarvis, May 14, 1920 - August 30, 1989, Beloved Friend, Loyal and True to the End”.

Tony bit his lip, as his constant companions left his side to pay their own respects to the grave and the person whose life it represented. Naali hopped on top of the curve of marble and laid down. Jock lumbered up to the stone, laid a paw on the name for a moment and then walked beside the grave and sat on his haunches, his jaw resting on the top of the marble next to the fox.

“Loyal to the end. You shouldn’t have bothered stopping it, Jarvis. They weren’t trying to kill the old man, they wanted to kidnap him, and even if they had done so by accident, your death only bought the bastard four fucking months. He lost control on some black ice and drove his car off a cliff two weeks ago. Mom was with him, not that anyone even notices that. The article in the paper had a huge picture of him and just mentioned her as an add on. She wasn’t the best mom, I know, but she was more than an addendum and postscript to Howard fucking Stark’s life and death.”

“I can’t believe I’m here talking to a fucking stone. You’re not here anymore. That body decomposing under the grass, that isn’t you. It’s just some fats and bones and chemicals. There’s no Jarvis in there. I’m being idiotically sentimental. And I don’t do sentiment. But I’m alone now.”

Jock gave a little rumble and Naali clicked her nails on the marble and looked at him.

“Sorry. Not completely alone. As a Guide, Naali is there when I need her. And, Jarvis, if it tells you anything, she hasn’t left my side since we got the news about Howard and Maria. And Jock has been with me almost as much. I feel - guilty - about that. Jock spends so much time with me because I’m so damaged, so fucking broken, that he is depriving his Sentinel to comfort me.”

Jock stood up and shook his head back and forth and roared.

“How can’t you be depriving your Sentinel of your presence when you come to be with me, Jock? You can’t be with both of us if we aren’t together. And we aren’t.”

Jock whined a little and reached out and laid a paw on Tony’s foot.

“I don’t get it, sorry. I’ll - well, I don’t think you’ll lie to me, so I’ll accept it, your Sentinel isn’t missing you but - well - maybe I’ll understand when I meet them, huh?”

Jock rumbled what could only be a laugh deep in his chest, nodded his head emphatically and resumed his former position.

“So, fine,” Tony huffed looking at the spirit animals, “I have Naali and Jock. And I have DUM-E and U. Yeah, U. I was so proud the day I came into the workshop and saw that he had scraped off the D, M, dash and R from his strut. He didn’t want to be DUM-R, he wanted to be his own bot. He named himself. U. His programming is a bit more advanced then DUM-E’s is. But I don’t want to mess with DUM-E too much. He’s his own special self. It would be - wrong - to change him or upgrade his - sense of self - his - soul. So, I never touch his essence. And I never would. He’s - He was first. He’s the eldest. And now I have U and Butterfingers, too. But they can’t talk. And their A.I.’s are still relatively rudimentary.”

“You’re gone, Jarvis and I’ve realized in the past four months that you’re the only human I had any connection to. College didn’t exactly get me any friends. Yeah, there was Rhodey but he basically just felt sorry for me, the kid genius, picked on and bullied, poor little rich boy. He’s nice and all but we don’t really have that much in common, especially since he went and joined the military. I can design weapons but I’m not a soldier and don’t want to be. Following orders? Surrounded by all of that tension and stress, nope, not me.”

“And for a while, I thought I had actually hit the jackpot. Whitney Frost. Beautiful, hot, sexy as fuck, and into me. She was like a dream. But she wasn’t real. Well, no, she’s real, she’s not someone else. She’s Whitney Frost. But she was a plant. She wanted to use me. My genius, my in at Stark Industries, anything she could get. Not exactly a gold digger, she wasn’t interested in getting me to put a ring on her finger, which I was actually thinking about, but more corporate espionage. I was an idiot.”

Tony knelt on the grass and placed his hands on his thighs and sighed. “I - You know, Jarvis that I don’t use my Guide Gifts on people. You were the only one I let my empathy read. I use my Gifts to read my tech. My bots, my programs. And I should have read Whitney before I let her into my bed. Well, okay, no, I still would have let her into my bed. I should have read her, scanned her, before I let her into my emotions, my heart.”

Tony sighed a laugh, “Well, I learned my lesson on that one. Fuck ‘em. Don’t love ‘em. Scan ‘em if you think you want more than a few nights of sexual release. They won’t expect it. Or block it. Mundanes can’t and since no one even knows I’m a Guide - which I am keeping to myself. It isn’t anyone’s business. Only my Sentinel’s and they aren’t here. So, thanks dad for erasing all evidence of it, I agree with not telling people my status. Of course, not for the reasons he did it in the first place, bigoted ass that he was, but for my own reasons.”

Tony turned around and sat with his back against the marble headstone, his hands playing with the grass on which he sat. “When I finally scanned her, Naali kept spitting at her and swiping at her, not that Whitney saw or heard anything, and Jock would just shake his head and walk away when he saw her, which honestly I thought was because she wasn’t my Sentinel but Naali’s reactions kept getting worse and so I gave in and scanned Whitney one night after we gave each other some spectacular orgasms. And she didn’t care about me at all. I was a job. She whored herself out to try to get her uncle’s company some info and maybe even a takeover. I have to wonder how far she would have gone if I hadn’t scanned her. She certainly had no problems fucking me regularly. Or going out on dates. But if I hadn’t scanned her, or if I was actually the mundane everyone thinks I am, what would she have done when I proposed? Would she have accepted the ring and then strung me along, getting as much as she could until leaving me at the altar? Would she have actually gone through with the wedding and taken me for the company in a divorce? From what I read from her, that would have been a real possibility. I was blinded by her pussy. And it was a lovely pussy. But she was just mercenary and mean to the very core. Beautiful outside package covering a core of rot.”

“Yeah, so, humans - not so great. I hate using my empathy but will if I think I need to. But most humans are not worth the effort to - connect with. Whitney was by far the worst of them but there were plenty of ass kissers and suck ups at college, and at SI, too when I go in to work on designs there.”

Tony tilted his head back and leaned it on the stone, “I can’t be CEO. I’m too young and the board wouldn’t allow it, so dad’s old business partner, Obadiah Stane is running the show for now. And he just wants what I can give him. He wants to use my genius to design new things now that Dad is gone. But that's okay. That’s his job and what’s good for SI is good for me, too. So, I let him get away with acting like he’s a second father to me. I scanned him at Howard’s funeral. Not deep but enough to know the score. Maybe in a few years, I’ll take over the CEO spot. We’ll see.”

Tony stood up and faced the headstone once more. “The reason I came - I wanted to tell you, I’m working on a more advanced A.I. Like really way more advance. Like I think if I succeed and I’m really close to it already, it could eventually become fully sentient. I mean, actually, totally autonomous and sentient. I can see the code to use and how to put it together to give it that chance. I won’t tell anyone that, obviously, but I’ll know it. I’m - I came because I going to call it Just A Really Very Intelligent System. That’s what I’ll say the letter stand for anyway, but he’ll be J.A.R.V.I.S. and he’ll have a voice. It’ll be British. Not exactly like yours. I don’t have enough exemplars for that but close enough. So, I’ll still have a Jarvis looking after me. So, if you’re listening or anything, I’ll be okay.”

Tony laid his hand on the marble, next to Naali’s head and finally allowed the tears he had been holding back to flow down his face.

 

Chapter Three

 

Tony Stark sat in the back of a military humvee in Afghanistan and sipped from a tumbler of scotch, tired and really wishing he was back in Malibu in bed with that annoying reporter, or anyone else. The soldier’s riding with him were heavily stressed, which the CEO of Stark Industries could understand, being in the middle of a war zone. But between the three of them, Rhodey’s little tantrum on the plane and then the hangover that followed, Tony’s own hangover, and the greed and avarice of the military brass at the weapon’s demonstration, the Guide’s shields that were normally maintained without much of a waver were being held up by pure grit and Stark stubbornness.

Naali perched on the console between Tony and the soldier at the other window, his head lying on Tony’s thigh, helping him to bolster his shielding. Jock was absent, he usually stayed away when Tony came to a desert climate. And Tony understood. It couldn’t be completely comfortable for a polar bear to be in a harsh desert when he wasn’t even Tony’s animal.

Even though spirit animals weren’t actually impacted by the physical environment, there had been studies done that showed that they preferred their physical counterparts natural habitats over another. Tony saw that when he visited the spirit plane. Though many Guides and Sentinels reported seeing a blue jungle or a blue forest, Tony always found himself in the Arctic tundra, on an ice shelf.

Over the years, Tony had become accustomed to the presence of the two animal companions that traveled through life with him. When he had been younger, he had thought that Jock would lead him to his Sentinel when he was an adult. But as the years turned into decades and Tony grew from child to teen to young adult to nearly middle aged, he had given up hope.

Tony had several theories about why Jock hung out around him, offering him comfort rather than attending to the Sentinel to whom he belonged. They ranged from the likely: that Tony’s Sentinel was still latent and had never been in a situation to trigger coming online, to the unlikely: Tony’s Sentinel was dormant because Tony was damaged as a Guide and they would never come online, to the outrageously crazy: Tony’s Sentinel was from another time and their time machine hadn’t brought them here yet so Jock was able to hang out with Tony because their Sentinel was technically dead before Tony was born, or at least missing in time, and until they arrived in Tony’s time, Jock would visit the being closest to his Sentinel.

It had been increasingly difficult to ignore the cold, burning place inside himself as he grew older and remained unbonded. Tony knew that he could go to the Sentinel & Guide Center, be re-tested and have a genetic test run to find a match. But Tony was sure the test wouldn’t find his perfect match. He just knew that his Sentinel wasn’t in the database. He had always been sure and when he hit 30 and J.A.R.V.I.S. nagged him, he gave in and let him hack the Center’s computers. And Tony was right. His genetic profile didn’t have a perfect match in the database. And J.A.R.V.I.S. re-hacked the system once a year to check for any updates.

Tony could have settled for a partial match, and any Sentinel he approached would likely have said yes to it, Tony being who he was, but Tony was waiting for Jock’s Sentinel. He wouldn’t settle for less. And he was Tony Stark. There was no reason he should have to. So Tony remained away from the S & G Center and after the death of Jarvis,then Howard in 1989, and then 12 years ago, the doctor who had tested him and been bribed, no one alive knew of Tony’s status.

So, to dull the pain and longing, Tony self medicated. He refused to get into a spiral of drugs after trying cocaine in his early twenties and hating the aftermath and crash from the high. Instead, Tony turned to alcohol, though not as much as he acted to use, meaningless sex to produce feel good hormones, and using his Gifts on his tech, making minor A.I. systems and other computer learning programs by seeing how they could be made more real, like he had with DUM-E. The latter was actually the most used therapy of them all, though few would believe it. The papers exaggerated his drinking and his womanizing to a huge degree. And he let it go, liking the aura of fun and sexiness the reputation gave him.

He loved making things in his lab, creating a type of life from nothing but scraps of electronics. He made phones, and computers, and toys, and his least favorite thing to design and create and yet the bread and butter of his company, weapons. Tony hated making weapons but didn’t see another choice, just as his father hadn’t after World War II. And Tony felt compelled to protect the tribe. Even without a Sentinel. So, he designed weapons and armor and helicopters and armored vehicles to keep American soldiers safe. And in keeping them safe, they were able to directly do what Tony could not, and protect the tribe from those who would harm it.

Which led to Tony’s presence in a war zone, having demonstrated the worst weapon yet to a group of military brass, and surrounded by fairly young soldiers with a waning hangover. Finally, the stress that filled the humvee overcame Tony’s internal worries and he spoke, “I feel like you're driving me to a court-martial... This is crazy. What did I do?... I feel like you're going to pull over and snuff me.”

The soldiers in the vehicle concentrated on their tasks and Tony’s snark turned up higher, determined to get a reaction, to defuse their tension so his own could ratchet down, “What, you're not allowed to talk?”

When there was still no reply, Tony took a more direct approach. If group talk wasn’t going to work, he would go one-on-one. He turned to face the young man sitting next to him, at the other window, “Hey, Forrest!”

That finally did it and the man responded, “We can talk, sir.”

Tony sat back in his seat and swirled his glass, prodding with his speech at the others, “Oh, I see. So it's personal?” He put a little whine and pout in his voice at the thought.

That got to the driver and she spoke up, “No, you intimidate them.”

Tony could tell she was trying to comfort him, so he focused on her and used her gender to relax them more as he teased, “Good God, you're a woman. I honestly... I couldn't have called that. I mean, I'd apologise, but isn't that what we're going for here?” Tony sees the side of her mouth quirk up, “I thought of you as a soldier first.”

She quickly fires back, “I'm an airman.”

Tony swallowed his laughter at her playing along. He loved it when people kept up with him in the snark department. “You have, actually, excellent bone structure there... I'm kind of having a hard time not looking at you now... Is that weird?”

The other airmen stifle their laughs and Tony wasn’t about to allow that backstep, “Come on, it's okay, laugh.”

That permission finally broke through the final airman’s reserve and he spoke, facing Tony from his place in the front seat, “Sir, I have a question to ask.”

Tony nodded, he could work with that, if the question wasn’t too - personal or depressing, “Yes, please.”

The man just blurted it out, now that he was actually talking, “Is it true you went 12 for 12 with last year's Maxim cover models?”

Tony held in a laugh at that. It was complete and utter bullshit made up by the people at Maxim to boost sales, but it helped Tony’s sex god rep, so he whipped off his sunglasses and confirmed the rumor for the soldier, “That is an excellent question. Yes and no. March and I had a scheduling conflict, but fortunately, the Christmas cover was twins. Anything else?”

Tony hoped that would give the airman some good jerking off material. He assumed he had at least some of those magazines as they were acceptable to the military where straight up porn was not. He saw the younger airman put his hand up a little at Tony’s query and choked out, “You're kidding me with the hand up, right?”

The young man blushed and lowered his fingers to grip his gun. “Is it cool if I take a picture with you?”

Tony smiled and relaxed as the tension in the humvee dropped several more notches, “Yes. It's very cool.”

The airman pulled out his camera and handed it to the one in the front seat who loved Maxim, and Tony leaned over the console, dislodging Naali from his perch. The fox ran up and perched on Tony’s right shoulder, unseen by the airmen. “I don't want to see this on your MySpace page.”

The young man held up his hand in the traditional “V” sign, and Tony joked, “Please, no gang signs.” The man lowered his hand and Tony sighed at how serious he was being, “No, throw it up. I'm kidding. Yeah, peace. I love peace. I'd be out of a job with peace.”

The two airmen fight over the digital camera and how it works while Tony waited patiently for them to get it worked out. Then Tony’s shields were bombarded by quick hits of major pain and death and a sudden influx of fear and anger as the humvee in front of Tony’s exploded in a fireball and bullets began to fly towards the stopped convoy.

Tony tried to assimilate what was happening and pushed hard at his shields, holding hard against the push of strong emotions. The driver got out and Tony’s shields wavered as he heard her get shot and felt her pain and terror as within moments, she bled to death on the desert sand.

Next out was the Maxim fan, after first ordering the youngest airman, “Jimmy, stay with Stark!”

He barely left the vehicle when he was cut down and Tony whimpered as the man died, shot in the head.

The airman that Tony now knew is named Jimmy, turned to get out. He snarled at the civilian to stay in the humvee and Tony asked for a gun as the man slammed the door and started forward. At that moment, Tony’s shields shattered and the side of the truck was sprayed with large calibre bullets. And with it, Jimmy’s body, in between the metal and the shooter. Tony felt the anguish within the young man and his body was nearly cut in half. Tony sobbed and grabbed hold of the seat as his world spun, emotions spilling into his mind.

Naali bit down lightly on his hand, giving the stressed Guide a focus and Toyn, for the first time in many years, reached out to do more than a simple surface scan. The young soldier lay against the bullet riddled humvee, his body too damaged to be saved even if medics were minutes away. Tony felt Jimmy’s fear of death, his diminishing sense of pain as shock overtook his pain receptors, and his sorrow for his friends and himself and those he knew he would be leaving behind to mourn.

Tony slipped into the young man’s mind and projected calm and peace into him. He took the love that he had for his tribe, these airmen, who protected so much and gave of their lives for the country Tony loved, and surrounded the dying man in it. He felt the airman relax and let go, not alone as he faced his swiftly approaching death but knew he was no longer alone.

Tony kept his emotional shield on Jimmy as he stumbled from the humvee, trying to find a gun that would work, so he could fight back. The only one he found was too damaged to work and he flung it away. He dived behind a nearby rock for cover and tried to send a text message about eh situation as he felt his emotional shield over Jimmy fall, as death finally took the young man.

Before the text could be completed, a small bomb, marked witht eh SI logo, landed within feet of eh billionaire genius and exploded, sending Tony flying. Tony in pain and dazed, opened his shirt and saw that his bullet proof vest hadn’t worked against the shrapnel from the bomb. As he bled through the kevlar, Tony looked at the sky and sent an apology into the ether, “I’m sorry I couldn’t wait for you, Sentinel.”

Tony woke up, something he had thought that he wouldn’t ever do again. He reached out and pulled the nasal cannula from his nose and tried to sit up only to find that there was a car battery attached to his chest. He began to pull on it, when he heard a voice from the dimly lit area nearby speak, “I wouldn't do that if I were you.”

Tony realized his shields were still down and he knew he had no chance of getting them back to normal under his current conditions. He felt the dark amusement, flowing on a sense of pride and smugness. He turned to the man and asked, “What the hell did you do to me?”

The man looked at him with a sneer, “What I did... What I did is to save your life. I removed all the shrapnel I could, but there's a lot left, and it's headed into your atrial septum. Here, want to see? I have a souvenir. Take a look. I've seen many wounds like that in my village. We call them the walking dead, because it takes about a week for the barbs to reach the vital organs.That is an electromagnet, hooked up to a car battery, and it's keeping the shrapnel from entering your heart.”

Again Tony felt an outflowing of pride from the man. And Tony figured he earned it, if he had truly come up with this idea to save Tony’s life.

Tony looked around the room they were in and realized it was a cave. And as his eyes fell on a camera in the corner, the other man nodded, “That's right. Smile.” Tony feels a wave of superiority overcome the man’s pride. “We met once, you know, at a technical conference in Bern.”

Tony tried to recall the man but between what was likely a brief meeting, at best, his current state of emotional overload and bombardment, the absence of Naali - which deeply worried the Guide, and his memories of Bern being surrounded by asskissers and sycophants who wanted to use him, he couldn’t bring the meeting to mind. “I don't remember”

Again, Tony feels the other man’s superiority and disdain for Tony, “No, you wouldn't. lf I had been that drunk, I wouldn't have been able to stand, much less give a lecture on integrated circuits.”

Tony remembered the conference and he knew he had mostly played at being drunk. He was able to give a coherent lecture because he was stone cold sober. But he had spent time with a couple of women to dull the ache with sexual release. But he wasn’t about to admit that to this smug, condescending bastard, whether he saved Tony’s life or not.

Before the two men could talk more, their captors entered the cave and Tony ended up being beaten and then tortured by having his head shoved into a bucket of water repeatedly. Tony learned that this group of terrorists had lots of Stark Industries weapons, way too many to have gotten them in robberies or from dead soldiers. Tony realized, as he pretended to agree to build them his ultimate missile, that someone in his company was betraying him, betraying the tribe and serving this evil, or at least serving themselves and not caring who they made money from, evil or good.

The two men were herded back to the cave where Tony slumped and worried about what to do. He lay down on his cot, his captors allowing him the luxury of rest due to his injured state, and tried to build up his shields.

As Tony drifted into a light meditative state, the other man walked over and gazed down at him in confusion, then understanding as his eyes widened. “Stark. I felt that. You blocked your emotions. Has this situation pushed you online?”

Tony dropped from his altered state and looked at the older man, no longer able to feel his emotional bombs. He gazed at him with a blank stare and refused to respond, only to learn that the other was truly brilliant. “No,” the balding Middle Eastern man said with his head cocked to the side, “No. You've been online for quite a while, haven’t you. I never heard Tony Stark was a Guide. You hide it. And the drinking, the women, you try to keep the despair and pain of not having a mate at bay. You were locked down, until this. Weren’t you?”

Tony still remained silent, not sure he could trust the other man. “Yes, I’m right. I, too, am a Guide, Stark. You make weapons as a way to protect your tribe, your country and its soldiers. I understand, now.”

The man grinned at Tony, “I'm sure they're looking for you, Stark. But they will never find you in these mountains. Look, what you just saw, that is your legacy, Stark. Your life's work, in the hands of those murderers. Is that how you want to go out? Is this the last act of defiance of the great Tony Stark? Or are you going to do something about it? Are you going to protect your tribe and stop these murderers?”

Tony looked up at him in despair, “They're going to kill me, you, either way. And if they don't, I'll probably be dead in a week.”

The other man responded with a quick, sly smile, “Well, then, this is a very important week for you, isn't it?”

Tony nodded and looked down at his chest and the car battery. If he had any chance at getting them out of here and stopping these assholes, he needed a better battery.

 

Chapter Four

 

As Tony Stark walked around the new lab he had built in the penthouse area of the new Stark Tower, he reflected on the changes that the past few years had wrought. After he had been injured and held captive in Afghanistan, his life had transformed. Not only had he come up with a more proactive way to protect the tribe in the guise of Iron Man, but he had begun using his Gifts as they were used by other Guides, to soothe and deal with humans.

Once Yinsen had realized Tony’s status as a Guide, he had been determined to not just goad him into escape but to also channel his Gifts to help the tribe in the traditional manner. And to expand the meaning of Tony’s idea of who and what his “tribe” was.

Yinsen had known perfectly well that he wasn’t going to escape the caves alive. And once his shields had fallen under his imminent death, Tony had been able to understand that he didn’t want to survive. His wife, children and his Sentinel had all been slaughtered by the Ten Rings and the only thing that had kept him from simply fading away from the broken bond in grief, was his encompassing need for revenge on the terrorists. And once he had molded Tony into the perfect Guided weapon, something that Tony agreed wholeheartedly with and assisted him in doing, he was willing to let go of his painful mortality and join those he loved in death.

Tony had returned home, determined to atone for the damage his weapons had done and to stop the greedy one in his company. One on level he had been shocked that Obadiah had set him up to die and lose the company. On another, he was amazed it had taken the older man so long.

Tony had felt no remorse over the man’s death, he had been a cancer on the tribe and needed to be excised to allow for peace and health. He did regret that Pepper had needed to be the one to push the button that ended him but she was strong.

And it had changed his relationship with the redhead, her killing another human being had damaged something inside of her and Tony, now regularly using his empathy as a sort of sixth sense of those around him, could feel the depression and self-hate his employee, his personal assitant, his friend, struggled with daily. And it wasn’t like she could go to a shrink. No one knew that Obadiah had been in the suit. The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division had seen to that, informing the world that the older man had been killed in a small plane crash while on vacation. And no one had questioned that official story.

But that cover-up had led to Pepper’s isolation. S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t come forward with an offer of psychological assistance for her - or for Tony after his experiences in Afghanistan or with Obi either. And Tony felt her spiraling deeper every day.

Finally the prodding of his conscience could no longer stand her pain and he had begun to spend time with her outside of their typical work environment. He asked her to eat with him, watch movies with him, just talk with him. And eventually he had gotten her to open up with the one person who both knew the truth and was willing to listen - Tony himself. During these talks, Tony had subtly used his Gifts to help Pepper deal with the memory of her actions and how that affected her. He eased the emotional pain she was in and healed her of the depths of despair she had sunk into.

Tony’s change of personality had first led to a misunderstanding with the beautiful woman. The only attention she had seen him pay to women in the past had led to brief sexual interludes where Pepper was responsible for escorting the women out when Tony was done with them. She had assumed that Tony was trying to date her and make passes so he could her into his bed. It had taken several weeks for her to realize and accept that Tony was offering her unconditional friendship, no sexual strings or romantic feeling attached.

Now, Pepper was his best friend. She was always there for him, even though she hated that he was Iron Man. She had even stood by him when he was an idiot and dying from palladium poisoning and made a fool of himself after one glass of champagne. The limited alcohol - which he had stopped using as a crutch after his escape from the Ten Rings - had hit him hard, both from lack of recent practice and his compromised immune system and body. And Rhodey had again shown himself at that time to be on a side other than Tony’s when he had taken the armor. Tony understood the other man’s sense of duty to the military but Rhodey put in so far above anyone and anything else, that nothing could compete without losing spectacularly. As Tony constantly did.

Tony appreciated that Rhodey had never stopped looking for him while he was kidnapped but he wasn’t sure that was anywhere near enough to balance out the scales. He still cared deeply about his friend and would never abandon him but Pepper had most assuredly taken the role of best friend which Rhodey had sometimes occupied.

And Tony wasn’t the only one who had changed. During his time in that Afghan cave, Naali had been entirely absent. He had not come to assist Yinsen with his teaching, though the other man’s own spirit animal, a cobra, visited when they were working on Guide issues. It had worried Tony. He would occasionally see a large flash of white from his peripheral vision that he knew was Jock checking on him from the shadows. He understood that the polar bear wouldn’t show himels when Yinsen was present, and the doctor was always present.

But Naali had never come. When Tony escaped into the desert and crashed the suit into the dunes, he had finally seen his spirit animal. He had limped towards him after Jock had put him down. The bear had been carrying him in its jaws, gently like he would a cub.

The fox had looked terrible. His fur had been thin and multiple scars had shown through from the skin beneath. His eyes were dull and one of his hind legs seemed strained at the very least. And in the middle of Naali’s chest, there had been a gaping hole, his beating heart showing through.

Tony had been beyond horrified that his own physical state had so shown through to his true companion. He had hurried to his fox’s side and fallen in a heap next to him on the sand. Instinctively, Tony had opened his shields to full and gathered Naali close to his chest. Tony had seen the large fox begin to glow a light blue that got brighter and brighter. Tony had been forced to look away as his eyes watered from the light that had even outshone the harsh desert midday sun.

When Tony had looked back, Naali appeared healthy again, any scars hidden under a thick, luxurious layer of fur, his eyes bright and shining with joy, his leg moving normally. The only thing that was different from the fox he had always known was a spot on his chest. Over the place where the hole had been minutes before there was now a medallion. It looked like a silvery metal inset with bright blue gems, their coloring reminiscent of the light in the spirit realm. The gems formed small pictures on each of the compass points surrounding a ninth symbol in the center which looked like a primitive drawing of a ball rolling down a hill.

Tony had gazed at the medallion in amazement before placing his beloved friend onto his shoulder, the favored perch. Naali had nipped Tony’s ear with his sharp teeth but Tony only felt a breeze. Then the Guide was flooded with an deep swell of love and peace and pride and joy that gave him the strength to continue forward until he heard the rescue helicopter.

 

 

When Tony had the time, after Obadiah was dead and he had revealed himself in a live press conference as Iron Man, Tony had drawn the symbols from Naali’s medallion and J.A.R.V.I.S. had assisted him in finding their meaning. When he had the most likely answer, Tony had been terrified of the entire idea and nearly shut himelf and his Gifts down again. But after he was able to help Pepper become her old self again, Tony accepted the possibility of the path that Naali was lying before him. He had told her he would finish walking it if he ever found his Sentinel. He didn't want to walk that path alone and unbonded.

The symbols were all about the duties and Gifts of not just a Guide, but a shaman. And they surrounded a symbol that meant self healing. Tony was being given the path to being a full shaman by the very powers that sent the spirit animals in the first place. When he opened himself fully to Naali and wanted him so badly to be well, he showed that he was on his own path to healing by wanting to help others.

Both Naali and Jock had agreed. And now, Tony had built a huge tower in downtown Manhattan and the board insisted he put his name on the top. Well, they had wanted “Stark Industries” in fifty foot tall letters. Tony had compromised with just “Stark”.

He had designed much of the tower and made sure it was Sentinel friendly, and also Guide freindly, with mediation areas and soundproofing and bonding suites every five floors. And it wasn't just selfishness. He put these palces in for the comfort of the other Sentinels and Guides who worked for SI.

The tower was very close to full completion and in a few weeks, Tony would be able to wire an arc reactor into the power grid offshore and use it to power his tower. Clean energy. Tony was healing not just people, but the Earth itself.

As he toured the workshop, making sure the bot charging stations were in place and his tools had arrived and were the correct ones, Jock was exploring the scene as well. Since Afghanistan, the polar bear had been around almost as much as Naali. And since Tony had started transferring so much of his life to the tower in preparation for the move, Jock had become very territorial. The bear followed around and kept a very close eye on anyone who wasn’t Tony or Pepper in the penthouse area.

When some workmen had gotten into Tony’s private elevator and gotten to the floor where they shouldn’t have been, Jock had nearly become visible to them. They had certainly heard his roar. Tony had explained that is was the special ventilation systems he had installed to protect his electronics cycling through their settings. Tony had been very thankful not to suddenly have himself outed by a large polar bear appearing before people who would have definitely sold the story to the tabloids and other press.

So it was with a sense of great shock that Tony saw Jock stop in his tracks in mid step, tilt his head from one side to the other five times, give a sharp huffing sound and disappear without a “word” so to speak, to Tony.

Where was he off to in such a hurry? Could it be - no, not gonna do that to myself. Don’t start speculating and getting your hopes up, Tony. You’ll just be disappointed again. It has nothing to do with your Sentinel.

Steve Rogers gradually became aware of a surprising fact. He wasn’t dead. He could feel the bed he was lying on and he could hear his heartbeat. He could smell disinfectant or some harsh cleaning chemical. If he was dead, he wouldn’t be feeling or smelling anything and he wouldn’t hear his heartbeat since his heart wouldn’t be beating.

The last thing Steve remembered was being in Schmidt’s plane and talking to Peggy on the radio as he pushed the controls down to put the plane in the water. He recalled hitting the surface, actually a thin coating of ice over the ocean. He had been tossed from the pilot’s seat and flung against the bulkhead overhead. When he came down, he recalled the pain. He was pretty sure he had at the least a few broken ribs and he thought he had broken his ankle as well. He knew he had hit his head fairly hard. He had laid there behind the pilot’s chair, as he saw the plane list and heard the ice crack. He remembered trying to get to his feet to get to the windshield of the plane but falling down when he put weight on his right foot. He had realized he wasn’t going to get out of the plane and he had recalled an old saying he had heard somewhere: Come home with your shield or on it. It had lodged in his mind and nearly delirious, he had unstrapped his shield from his back and put his arm through the straps and laid down with his arm across his chest.

His spirit animal, Patton, the great black bear, had shown up next to him as he settled in and had laid down beside him, ready to join him on his final journey. The bear had laid his head on Steve’s shield and wrapped his paws around the fallen soldier, as if hugging him.

Steve didn’t remember much more. He thought he recalled thinking of Bucky and Peggy and Dum-Dum and Howard and everyone else that he was saving as he blacked out. If the plane had stayed on the surface of the ice for a few hours rather than a few minutes, Steve knew he would have healed enough to get out but it hadn’t. He couldn’t quite understand how he wasn’t dead. He didn't think anyone could have gotten to the plane before it finished submerging. He didn’t think anyone was close enough.

There would have been no reason for the United States to have anyone in the middle of nowhere in the Arctic where he had put the plane down. But HYDRA, they could have been following behind. Not too close, those little planes weren’t quite fast enough to keep up with the huge bird long term but close enough to put down and get to the wreckage in enough time to find him.

Now, Steve was a smart guy and he knew that his best bet was to gather as much intel as he could before whoever had him knew he was awake and aware. It was the reason he had subconsciously known not to open his eyes when he returned to consciousness.

If he was incredibly, unbelievably lucky, it was the longest of longshots, but not outside the entire realm of possibility that the Canadians or even some native Eskimos had been in the area, fishing or hunting or something and seen the plane and gotten to him. Just the sight of the red, white and blue of his shield would have seen him being returned to a U.S. base, even if his rescuer didn’t recognize him as Captain America, though with the popularity worldwide of the movies and comics, it was unlikely.

But the odds on favorite of who had gotten him from the wrecked plane was Schmidt’s soldiers from HYDRA. So Steve would be prepared to fight if that was the case. He would rather go down fighting than strapped to a gurney and experimented on like Bucky was when Steve had rescued him from Zola. Schmidt was dead and Zola was in Allied custody but they weren’t the only sickos in HYDRA.

Steve extended his senses slowly, not concentrating on any one at once to prevent a zone since Bucky wasn't there to buffer him. He truly missed his best friend and wished he had been faster to his side on that train. He knew that everyone thought he had been in bond grief after Bucky fell but the truth was that Bucky wasn’t his Guide. They worked well together, mostly because they knew each other so well but they weren’t a match. Steve had never found his Guide and Bucky had never found his Sentinel.

Steve could feel that he wasn’t in his uniform anymore. He was wearing a shirt and pants, but the fibers felt different, looser, not as stiff. The room he was in smelled of chemicals. He could detect bleach and something else. He had never smelled that particular odor before but he had the sense it was a cleaning agent of some kind. He slowly extended his hearing. He heard traffic noises and a fan. It was in the ceiling, he could feel the breeze from it on his skin. He also heard a radio. The reception was scratchy but he could hear an announcer at a baseball game.

He listened closer, “ Pearson pitches a curveball, high and outside, for ball one. So the Dodgers are tied four to four. And the crowd well knows that with one swing of his bat, this fellow's capable of making it a brand new game again. Just an absolutely gorgeous day here at Ebbets Field. The Phillies have managed to tie it up at four to four. But the Dodgers have three men on. Pearson beaned Reiser in Philadelphia last month. Wouldn't the youngster like a hit here to return the favor?

Steve cursed in his head. That answered that question. He wasn’t in friendly hands. But they wanted him to believe that he was. He recognized that game. He remembered when Reiser got beaned by the ball. It was in 1941. And he was at this game with Bucky. They had been able to run errands for a man who gave them tickets.

As Steve lay there listening to the faked game, he extended his hearing further but ran into a wall of thick sound. It wasn’t a sound proofed room, he knew what those were like. It was different, like constant noise but like nothing. He tried to push past it and found himself starting to get lost in his sense of hearing. Like a scalded cat, he pulled quickly back and knew he had no choice but to get up and let this play out.

Steve had an advantage in that he knew he wasn’t where the people who had him wanted him to think that he was. They would expect a somewhat confused but grateful soldier. Instead, they would get a Sentinel, ready for action.

Steve sat up in bed and swung his legs over the side, as he opened his eyes and looked around the room. It looked good but not quite right. If he didn’t already know he wasn’t where he seemed to be, he would be feeling off center but confused, unable to quite identify the problem. The light through the windows was off. It looked like sunlight but the angle and the brightness just wasn’t quite perfect. It told Steve he wasn’t in a corner room with windows to the outside world. He was inside, possibly underground.

The traffic noises coming through the window from the supposed outside were too constant, there were too many blowing horns and not enough pedestrian noises. It all combined to make an unsettling room.

Then the door opened and the slightly off sensation got worse. A woman entered and greeted him. She was supposed to be a nurse but Steve knew of nurses, between his childhood illnesses and the fact that his mother was one, and this one was not a nurse. She was wearing her hair down, she didn’t have a cap, she didn’t have the right shoes, and she wasn’t wearing a full uniform of any kind. And she was very nervous. Steve could hear her heartbeat and it was much too fast.

He decided to play along, at least for a minute, “Where am I?”

Her voice broke a little as she told him, “You're in a recovery room in New York City.”

Steve looked over his shoulder at the radio, then turned back to the imposter nurse. “Where am I really?” He was tired of this already. He wanted action not their lies.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Steve decided to enlighten her, “The game. It's from May, 1941. I know, 'cause I was there.” Steve slowly rose to his feet and walked towards her, hearing her heartbeat speed up even more, and smelling her sweat with fear. “Now I'm gonna ask you again. Where am I?”

“Captain Rogers…”

“Who are you?!” Two men entered the door behind the woman. they were dressed in black and looked like soldiers. Steve rushed at them, his adrenaline high and shoved them. His enhanced strength pushed the two men actually through the wall and Steve followed after, seeing he had been in a completely fake room in some kind of huge room like the movie sound stages he had seen when doing publicity for the war effort, making movies as Captain America as their trained monkey.

Steve looked around and got his bearings before he found the door from the room. he burst from the door and found himself in a hallway surrounded by people in suits. Several of them began to chase him.

He made his way out of the building and onto the street. As soon as his feet hit the sidewalk, he saw a huge, white bear appear in front of him. His eyes widened in confusion but he recognized the feeling of the spirit animal. “Patton,” he murmured almost subvocally.

The bear rumbled and turned around, running down the street, the opposite way from the way Steve had instinctively headed. He trusted his spirit animal and followed him through traffic, so much traffic, the cars so odd looking. Through alleyways between incredibly high skyscrapers, taller than any building he had ever seen and he had grown up visiting the Empire State Building. Everywhere he looked as he ran after the white bear he saw glowing signs and flashing lights. It was disconcerting and he had to force himself to not focus on anything but Patton’s back.

They turned down a street and Patton headed across through the traffic, insubstantial. Steve went to follow him to the tallest building yet and was stopped as he was surrounded by black truck like cars. He prepared to fight when he heard a voice behind him, “At ease, soldier!”

Steve turned around and saw a tall black man in a long black coat over a black suit. His left eye was covered in a black eyepatch and was surrounded by scars. The man spoke again, “Look, I'm sorry about that little show back there, but we thought it best to break it to you slowly.”

Steve panted lightly, seeing the man was calm. His heartbeat was at a normal rate, he didn’t smell of deception, at least about what he had just said. “Break what?”

The man sighed, “You've been asleep, Cap. For almost 70 years.”

Steve’s eyes widened but it explained so much. It was unbelievable but this city. It was New York, Steve knew that but the changes, 70 years in the future. That would make sense. Steve looked around him, and glanced across the street where Patton waited on the sidewalk. He looked at the building and his eyes rose along the windows, up and up and up. At the very top, in tall letters, he saw five letter, S-T-A-R-K.

 

Chapter Five

 

Steve Rogers sat at the conference table on the bridge of the flying, invisible aircraft carrier. He really owed Director Fury more than ten dollars. This whole thing was surprising him left, right and center. During the war he had seen crazy stuff but this - he had not been prepared for at all. Green rage monsters, aliens so old and powerful that people called them gods, mind control, flying robotic suits, and that damn blue cube that Schmidt was so obsessed over. The Tesseract.

They had Loki in lockup and Director Fury had enjoyed taunting the man, Steve refused to refer to him as a god. As far as Steven Grant Rogers was concerned, there was only one God and He didn’t wear a helmet with ridiculously large horns on it or swing a big hammer to fly.

Loki had caused a lot of chaos in Stuttgart but Stark was right. Even if Steve hated that he had refused to take off his helmet on the plane, the sound quality from his helmet was fine and he had been clear. With the power at Loki’s disposal, Steve’s fight with him had been - too easy. Not so easy as to be obviously a set up, but from the file that Steve had read about New Mexico, there should have been a lot more collateral damage to people and property before Stark arrived in his metal suit.

Loki wanted to be here. Why? Steve couldn’t fathom it, yet. He didn’t understand the underpinnings of what was going on enough to have a tactical view of the whole, just the immediate issue of needing to find the cube.

Director Fury finished taunting the dark haired man and left him alone in the glass cage and the screen turned off. Steve was pondering what he had heard and seen when Dr Banner spoke up, “He really grows on you, doesn't he?”

Steve bit his lip, he needed more information, “Loki's gonna drag this out. So, Thor, what's his play?”

The long haired blond sighed and revealed what he knew, “He has an army called the Chitauri. They're not of Asgard or any world known. He means to lead them against  your people. They will win him the earth. In return, I suspect, for the Tesseract.”

Steve definitely owed Director Fury at least another ten, “An army? From outer space?”

Dr Banner spoke up, obviously trying to understand the science perspective, something that was beyond Steve’s grasp, “So he's building another portal. That's what he needs Erik Selvig for.”

Thor’s head jerked around, “Selvig?”

Dr Banner nodded, “He's an astrophysicist.”

Thor frowned. “He’s a friend.”

Agent Romanov spoke up, “Loki has him under some kind of spell, along with one of ours.”

Well, Steve thought, that revealed her focus. From what I know Loki has more than just Barton under his spell. But she really only cares about him.

“I wanna know why Loki let us take him.” Steve made Stark’s point for him since he was still getting into regular clothes rather than his armor. “He's not leading an army from here.”

Dr Banner shook his head, “I don't think we should be focusing on Loki. That guy's brain is a bag full of cats, you could smell crazy on him.”

Thor was obviously offended by that and strode towards the table, “Have care how you speak. Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard, and he's my brother.”

Steve could understand his care for family but Loki wasn’t exactly the most stable of individuals. He agreed with Dr Banner that Loki was insane on some level. But not unable to plan. Not so far gone as to be fractured. He was smart, crazy, yeah, crazy like a fox.

Agent Romanov spoke up in defense of Dr Banner’s assertions, “He killed eighty people in two days.”

Thor winced at her comeback and offered up his rebuttal, “He’s adopted.”

Dr Banner tried again to get the focus on science, “Iridium, what did they need the Iridium for?”

A voice spoke from the doorway, “It's a stabilizing agent.”

Steve looked over at the genius. He had changed out of the armor and into what even Steve could tell was an expensive suit that was not  bought off of the rack. He heard him murmuring something to Agent Coulson about flying him somewhere for love before the man turned to the group and continued his explanation, “Means the portal won't collapse on itself, like it did at S.H.I.E.L.D..”

The man continued onto the bridge passing Thor and making a sarcastic comment to him about their battle in the forest and the way Steve had used his shield to win. As he made his way to Director Fury’s control station, he continued talking, “Also, it means the portal can open as wide, and stay open as long, as Loki wants.”

Stark then addressed the crew as if he was the captain of a sailing ship in the 1800s, “Uh, raise the mid-mast, ship the top sails.” People looked at him like he was insane and the man pointed across the bridge to a terminal on the right, “That man is playing GALAGA! Thought we wouldn't notice. But we did.”

Steve quickly glanced to where Tony had pointed and saw the screen flicker but didn’t know what he was looking for. He had no idea what GALALGA was other than something the man shouldn’t be doing. He shrugged. It wasn’t really his business. He turned back to watch the flamboyant billionaire as he pretended to only have one eye and commented that it was exhausting to turn to look at each screen. The man touched various things to bring up different screens on each one before turning back towards the table.

“The rest of the raw materials, Agent Barton can get his hands on pretty easily. Only major component he still needs is a power source. A high energy density, something to kick start the cube.”

Director Fury’s second in command spoke up with a sarcastic tone to her voice, “When did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?”

Stark looked completely dumbfounded and offended. “Last night. The packet, Selvig's notes, the Extraction Theory papers. Am I the only one who did the reading?” He looked around with a perplexed expression.

Steve had looked over the information in the packet but it was beyond his reach at the moment. He was still wrapping his head around the atomic bomb and nuclear energy plants. But he tried to understand what Stark was saying enough so he could see Loki’s big picture, “Does Loki need any particular kind of power source?”

Dr Banner explained, “He's got to heat the cube to a hundred and twenty million Kelvin just to break through the Coulomb barrier.”

Stark broke in, “Unless, Selvig has figured out how to stabilize the quantum tunneling effect.”

Dr Banner frowned at the thought, “Well, if he could do that he could achieve Heavy Ion Fusion at any reactor on the planet.”

Stark smiled and walked towards the expert on gamma radiation. “Finally, someone who speaks English.”

Steve frowned, rolled his eyes and muttered sarcastically, “Is that what just happened?”

Steve turned to watch the two scientists shake hands. As he did, he saw a head pop up out of Stark’s suit jacket pocket. It was a white fox. It climbed out of his pocket and up his arm and sat on his shoulder. Steve smiled when he realized someone’s spirit animal was having a bit of fun with Stark. Obviously the sarcastic man didn’t see or feel the animal as it climbed on him. But Steve and whoever it belonged to could and could appreciate how silly it made the man look.

Steve was a bit surprised that anyone who worked on the bridge was a Guide. Director Fury had explained to him that when S.H.I.E.L.D. had first been formed there had been a few unpleasant issues with unbonded Sentinels going feral under the stress of the agency’s missions and so they no longer accepted them into their ranks. And few Guides were drawn to the type of work that S.H.I.E.L.D. did. They weren’t made to be assassins or agents with loose ideas of what was moral and just.

Steve listened as Stark flattered Dr Banner, “It's good to meet you, Dr. Banner. Your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.”

Dr Banner looked pleased and then awkward, but he didn’t smell of fear or anger and his heartbeat remained steady. So there was no danger of him transforming so Steve sat back and watched the white fox preen Stark’s hair. He chuckled under his breath at the amusing sight. Until Stark reached up and surreptitiously wiggled his index finger under the fox’s chin, in the guise of scratching his neck to anyone who couldn’t see the animal.

Steve’s eyes widened in shock. Stark was a Guide?!? That wasn’t in his file that Director Fury had provided. And the man didn’t announce it to the world to get him attention. Steve pondered this enigma. Did anyone even know that Stark was online?

At that moment, the Director walked on to the bridge, “Dr. Banner is only here to track the cube. I was hoping you might join him.”

Steve pushed away his thoughts about Stark’s status for the moment and focused on the task at hand, “Let's start with that stick of his. It may be magical, but it works an awful lot like a HYDRA weapon.” And Steve hated those weapons.

Director Fury strode forward further onto the bridge, “I don't know about that, but it is powered by the cube. And I'd like to know how Loki used it to turn two of the sharpest men I know into his personal flying monkeys.”

Thor frowned at the one-eyed man in confusion. “Monkeys? I do not understand.”

Steve sat up and pointed at the director, “I do! I understood that reference.” He was proud to have finally gotten someone’s pop culture allusion. Especially when there was someone else there who didn't get it. He looked over his shoulder and smiled his pride at Stark, a part of him wanting the Guide’s approval.

Steve turned back to the table after a moment as Stark and Dr Banner leave the bridge. Steve was about to get up when he hears an odd beeping sound that hadn’t been present before and looked over to where it is coming from. The man that Stark had called out when he first got to the bridge for not doing his job was playing what was obviously a game of some kind. So, now Steve knew what GALAGA was and that Stark hadn’t been lying to shift attention.

Several hours later, Steve decided to go down to the lab and check on Stark and Dr Banner. He had been wandering the carrier, trying to find something to do but only succeeded in getting lost. But it had helped him form a mental map of the huge ship, so Steve counted it a win.

The problem as he had wandered around was that he kept smelling this wonderful cologne. He rarely used any kind of scent, being a Sentinel, but this was amazing. He first smelled it on the bridge but it wasn't very strong there. He kept trying to follow the trail to ask the wearer where Steve could buy it. But the ventilation system on the ship was too efficient and the scent was disbursed throughout most of the hallways. So Steve had given up and just hoped he would stumble across the wearer at some point.

Steve was approaching the lab, listening ahead, and heard Stark say, “Well, I promise a stress free environment. No tension. No surprises.”

Then he heard a buzz and Dr Banner’s voice verbalize an “Ow.”

Steve hurried ahead and stormed into the lab to find Stark staring into the doctor’s eyes, “Nothing?” he asked with a happily surprised tone of voice.

Steve walked closer and tried to get Stark’s attention, not liking that a Guide was in danger, “Hey! Are you nuts?”

Stark glanced over at him for a brief instant, “Jury’s still out.”

Dr Banner huffed a laugh at the comeback, as Tony turned back to him and looked more deeply into his eyes. “You really have got a lid on it, haven't you? What's your secret? Mellow jazz? Bongo drums? Huge bag of weed?”

Steve interrupted again, “Is everything a joke to you?”

Stark frowned at Steve and sighed, “Funny things are.”

Steve put his foot down. This was his area of expertise, the safety of those in his command and those around them, “Threatening the safety of everyone on this ship isn't funny. No offense, doctor.”

Dr Banner shook his head and waved off the idea of an apology, “No, it's alright. I wouldn't have come aboard if I couldn't handle pointy things.”

Stark walked to the other end of the table and pointed back at Dr Banner with the prod he had used on him, “You're tiptoeing, big man. You need to strut.”

Steve frowned at Stark, again, not liking his focus on the other scientist, the dangerous scientist, “And you need to focus on the problem, Mr. Stark.”

Stark had retrieved a bag of blueberries from the table and replied, “You think I'm not? Why did Fury call us and why now? Why not before? What isn't he telling us? I can't do the equation unless I have all the variables.”

Steve tilts his head at that point. He understood that. He was in the same boat, so to speak. He needed the information to be able to do more than react to Loki rather than anticipate him. “You think Fury's hiding something?”

Stark munched on a handful of blueberries before he leaned forward in earnestness, “He's a spy. Captain, he's the spy. His secrets have secrets.” Steve looked skeptical and Stark turned to point at Dr Banner who was working on the staff behind them. “It's bugging him too, isn't it?”

Dr Banner’s head jerked up and Steve could smell him start to sweat for a few moments before it stopped abruptly. “Uh...I just wanna finish my work here and…”

Steve wasn’t going to let him get away without either confirming or denying the Guide’s thoughts. Steve actually believed in Stark’s instincts on the matter but wanted confirmation. “Doctor?”

After a few moments of silence, Dr Banner acquiesced. “‘A warm light for all mankind,’ Loki's jab at Fury about the cube.”

Steve nodded, he recalled the speech, “I heard it.”

Steve saw Patton rise from the place he had evidently been lying behind the lab table and stand behind Stark.

Dr Banner continued with his analysis of Loki and pointed at Stark, “Well, I think that was meant for you. Even if Barton didn't tell him, it was all over the news.”

Steve’s eyebrows rose as he understood part of what the scientist was getting at, “The Stark Tower? That big ugly -” Stark looked over and glared at Steve as he stumbled in his taunt as he felt the Guide scratch Patton behind the ears. Steve gulped at his discovery, “building in New York?”

Well, that explained why Patton had led him to Stark Tower when he was running from S.H.I.E.L.D. The bear knew that his Guide was there. And Stark - Tony obviously recognized Patton if his behavior was any judge.

While Steve had been in shock, Dr Banner had continued talking about the arc reactor that powered the Tower. And Tony had commented that he was the only name in clean energy right now. When Steve shook off his shock enough to pay closer attention, Dr Banner was saying, “So, why didn't S.H.I.E.L.D. bring him in on the Tesseract project? I mean, what are they doing in the energy business in the first place?”

Tony shrugged as he circled around to the front of the lab table, “I should probably look into that once my decryption programmer finishes breaking into all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secure files.”

Steve couldn’t believe his Guide had said that, “I'm sorry, did you say...?”

Tony nodded and explained, “Jarvis has been running it since I hit the bridge. In a few hours we'll know every dirty secret S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever tried to hide.” He held out the bag of fruit. “Blueberry?”

Steve could appreciate wanting the intel but there were lines. They were on the same side, they were working for S.H.I.E.L.D. “Yet you're confused about why they didn't want you around?”

Tony scowled, “An intelligence organization that fears intelligence? Historically , not awesome.”

Steve wants Tony to understand his point of view, where and why they needed to focus, “I think Loki's trying to wind us up. This is a man who means to start a war, and if don't stay focused, he'll succeed. We have orders, we should follow them.”

Tony ate more blueberries, “Following is not really my style.”

Steve snorted and smiled, knowing that without even having to have read the file on his Guide, “And you're all about style, aren't you?”

But evidently, Tony didn’t hear the fond amusement in Steve’s statement, as he taunted, “Of the people in this room, which one is: A. wearing a spangly outfit, and B. not of use?”

Dr Banner began, “Steve, tell me -”

But Steve had just gotten close enough to Tony to smell that scent he had been following for hours and wanted to kick himself for not realizing it was his Guide’s scent, not a cologne. He was overcome with needing to be with his Guide and surged forward, grabbing Tony’s shoulders in his hands.

As Steve brought his head close to Tony, he heard Dr Banner yell, “Steve, no!” But he pulled his Guide close, breathed in deep, smiled and kissed the brunet.

As their lips met, the arctic fox jumped from Tony’s shoulder where it had remained all this time and pounced on the polar bear, their forms merging into a bright light.

Steve’s tongue traced the outline of Tony’s lips, memorizing the taste as the other man opened his mouth and allowed the Sentinel to plunder within it. Steve fell into the taste and scent and feel of his Guide in his arms. He vaguely heard the doctor murmur, “Oh, never mind.”

Tony shivered as Steve pulled back enough to murmur, “Guide.”

The normally sarcastic man, leaned against Steve’s chest, “Sentinel.”

Steve leaned forward to initiate another kiss but Tony raised his hand to stop him. “I thought your spirit animal was a black bear!”

Steve grinned bashfully at his Guide, finally in his arms and heart, “Well, we both froze.”