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A Bison's Guarded Heart

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Tony DiNozzo stood near the exit to the Stark Expo main building as fireworks bombarded the skies as the crowd waited for the man of the hour, the superhero himself, Tony Stark, Iron Man. Tony wasn’t sure why he had talked himself into attending this overhyped event that seemed more of an exercise in ego than anything else.

It seemed more than a little masochistic and self sabotaging to the former Special Agent. The crowd, the fireworks, the music… the smells, the sounds, the flashes in his sight. Not a great place for an unbonded Sentinel, especially one who had never registered as a Sentinel with the S&G Center. Tony had been hiding his status and dealing with the sensory spikes and near zones (and admittedly a small handful of actual zones) on his own for years now, with the occasional unknowing assist by Leroy Jethro Gibbs and his patented head slaps.

But this place during this event was almost begging for a gigantic zone out which would reveal him and his online status. Tony supposed he was too sentimental. Some of his mother’s favorite stories were from the time she spent at the Expo in the 1970s as a booth girl.

She even claimed to have met the man whole name was branded everywhere in the fairgrounds, Howard Stark. Tony rather hoped that most of the tales featuring the genius were drunken fantasies fueled by wishes and dreams from the alcohol and pills she couldn’t live without. Or, it turned out, that she couldn’t live with, the combination leading to the overdose that killed her.

Tony had heard the rumors of Stark’s womanizing and hoped that it was those rumors which fed the stories of hot sexual encounters in hotel rooms and back rooms at the Expo. There was no way he wanted to believe that the erotic adventures recounted to his 7 year old self by his mother were real. She never claimed that the encounters were more than scratching an itch on both of their parts and it still freaked Tony out to think of the details she had provided.

When he had been a child and heard these stories he had always hoped that she was leading up to admitting that Howard Stark was his biological father. Anthony DiNozzo, Sr had never been up for any father of the year awards, or even father of the day, or father of the hour, for that matter. Tony had assumed that a genius like Howard Stark would be better.

That dream had died as he got older. Tony was born almost two years after his mother’s summer job at the Expo. Tony had never been overly good at math when he was a child. Or maybe, it was more that he didn’t know biological facts like the length of human gestation.

Regardless of his idiotic sentimentality and sense of nostalgia, Tony was here, constantly battling the overwhelming input his heightened senses were being bombarded with every second he remained.

Then, the rhythm of the fireworks changed. They had been going off in a regular pattern but now they were shorter bursts and aimed differently. Tony realized that the moment had arrived and the man they were waiting for was going to be a showboat about his entrance. It wasn’t really a shock, all things considered. The billionaire had a reputation for grand gestures after all.

The Sentinel knew that most people wouldn’t pick up on the pattern within the seemingly now dangerously random fireworks display. But he could see it and hear it. The new display was designed to look like ground to air missile fire and the armored hero would obviously be flying in and dodging it. But he didn’t want to actually take a dangerous chance. So he would know the pattern and where to be to make it look good but it was all smoke and mirrors.

Tony sighed in disappointment. But there was a reason that he hadn’t gone to any magic shows since coming online. Tricks like sleight of hand and fake walls wouldn’t fool a Sentinel. Unless Tony dialed his senses down to a normal, mundane level, the shows were boring and the tricks easily seen through. And messing with his dials that much without a Guide was incredibly stupid and dangerous.

As he gazed skyward, his eyes saw the plane approaching high over head and watched as the seeming robot jumped from its rear. The flight the man took toward the ground was beautiful and acrobatic, and the crowd surged forward in anticipation as he hit the stage.

Tony blinked once and cocked his head as the arms removed each piece of armor from the genius. There was a sound, a rhythmic noise and it captured Tony’s attention over all of the crowd noise and music and city sounds that had bombarded him all night. Without even realizing it, without the slightest attempt to fight or stop it, the unbonded Sentinel slid into a zone listening to the heartbeat of the man on the stage.

==

Tony sat on a bench near the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. As he was coming out of his zone the night before he had heard a woman tell Stark that he needed to be here today. Tony had reasoned things out in the hours after the Expo and knew that there was an excellent chance that Tony “Fucking Iron Man” Stark was his Guide.

As soon as he had caught the sound of that heartbeat over the hundreds of others in the area, Tony had fixated. It had been the pure luck that a Guide in the crowd had noticed his zone and brought him out of it when the genius had left the stage area.

If Tony had still had his federal agent credentials, he probably could have gotten into the Capitol Building, if not into the actual hearing room. As it was, Tony was a civilian, not even a PI license to his name, let alone a federal badge, so he was relegated to remote stalking via Sentinel senses.

He let his hearing expand and heard that wonderful sound. He added sight to the line and saw the man he was now convinced was his Guide, against all odds and common sense. Never had anyone said that Tony Stark was a Guide. But Tony couldn’t come up with another answer and as Sherlock Holmes was quoted as saying: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” And finding Stark’s heartbeat so easily - it was proof. Tony had barely had to try when he honed in on it. That was the sign of a Sentinel’s Guide.

So, here Tony sat, outside a government building on a bench, ear buds lightly in his ears to give a reason for his reactions to what he was hearing from inside. And that had been a good call as he chuckled over the genius verbally eviscerating Senator Stern. And his piggybacked sight saw the screen as his Guide took it over to show the failures of Hammer worldwide.

Stark was an ass, an over confident one, but hilarious if you weren’t the one on the receiving end of his acid tongue. But, unfortunately, he wasn't just taunting Congress and protecting his property as the billionaire thought. Tony could see, with his years of law enforcement background, what the engineering genius was overlooking. Stark was brilliant and the other weapons manufacturers and countries didn’t have scientists on par with him but that didn’t preclude private citizens with the intelligence, knowledge, and ego from feeling challenged. Thus was a nemesis created.

People saw Iron Man as a superhero. Well, if comics and movies had taught the world anything, it was that every hero had a villain rise to fight them. Stark boasted about privatizing world peace, awesome on a global level. But what about more locally, more personally. Tony pushed thoughts of Ari Haswari and Gibbs away with practiced ease. Stark took out the Ten Rings and other terrorists but what about the lone gunman that no one saw coming until after the fact?

As the hearings ended and the genius took a final potshot at Congress, ass clowns, really, that was just plain juvenile, not funny , Tony knew he had no chance of interacting with his Guide here. But the upside of stalking a celebrity - a public schedule.

----

Tony DiNozzo leaned against the wall in the underground holding area of the Monaco police department thinking about the past several hours. When he had found his Guide again upon each of their arrivals in the area, he had overheard Stark’s crazy plan to drive the race car instead of the professional driver. As he had made his way to the finish area, Tony had smelled something odd and when he followed up on it he had seen a suspicious character heading towards one of the gates to the track area.

Tony had hurried to a security officer and identified himself as a Sentinel but by the time he had convinced the man that there was a problem, everyone already knew it as the madman was swinging electric whips at the race cars.

During the fight between the criminal and Tony’s Guide, Tony had been unconscious from the tranquilizers the police had used when he went feral. Most police departments were issued with these weapons, at least if the area population was over a certain size.

The Sentinel & Guide Center had formulated a drug that could take down a Sentinel when in a feral episode with two shots. The drug had limited side effects on the Sentinel upon waking, mostly a dry mouth and slight tremor in the extremities for a few minutes. The upside, and what kept the drug from being misused was that it only worked on Sentinels in a feral episode. The hormones released during these times interacted with the drug to cause unconsciousness in a Sentinel.

When Tony woke up from his enforced nap, almost thirty minutes had passed and the Monaco police were able to tell him that Stark was a little banged up but safe and the perpetrator was in custody. Tony’s reaction had proved to them that Stark was his Guide and so they escorted him to an area where the genius was, talking to the whippy guy.

Tony listened to his Guide as he got the man, Anton Vanko, to talk and shook his head at the tactics he used. Utter foolishness. His Guide obviously had no talent, at least not innately, at interrogation. He was letting Vanko play him, not the other way around.

Tony stood straight as the liaison with the police department approached him.

“Monsieur DiNozzo, we have a room prepared for you and Monsieur Stark to use. It is private and Sentinel safe.”

“Merci, Captain Costa. I have no plans to bond here in strange territory but all things considered, I agree it is better safe than sorry in this case.”

The police captain led Tony to the room, just a hallway away from where he had been. He kept an ear on the “interrogation” occurring in the room behind him the last words Vanko spoke to his Guide caught his attention strongly enough to make him come almost to attention.

Tony listened as Captain Costa spoke to the billionaire, “ Monsieur Stark, this way, if you please. We have a room prepared. It is safe.”

“What? Safe? Room? I just spoke to him. Just now. His name’s Anton Vanko. Smart guy but insane. Too much glue sniffing, I’m guessing.”

“Yes, thank you for your assistance, Monsieur Stark. Please, right here, this is the room. He waits.”

The door swung open and Tony inhaled deeply as his Guide was finally next to him. The door swung closed and the genius spun around, “Hey, wait a minute, who’s this guy?”

Tony shifted his weight forward but didn’t take a step. “My name is Tony DiNozzo, Mister Stark.”

The older man swung back to face the former federal agent. “Yeah, okay, hi. You a cop? They need more information or a report or -”

“I haven’t been a cop in years. What I am, is a Sentinel. Your Sentinel, Guide Stark.”

“Huh? No, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here, pal. I’m not your Guide.”

“I was at the Expo opening. At the back. I zoned on your heartbeat the moment the armor was gone. I followed you to DC. Sat outside, heard your heartbeat and listened in on the hearing. I had no problems isolating your heartbeat, Guide.”

“Uh, right, still, no. Not the right guy. Not the right Guide, not -”

Tony smiled at the flustered man. “I’m not trying to force you, Mister Stark. But you are my Guide. I was surprised, I’ll admit it. Nowhere in all of your press is there that information. No one has even hinted at you being a Guide on the most wacko conspiracy website. I’ve seen theories that you’re a Sentinel, online, latent or dormant. But no whispers of Guide.”

“Um, well, I - Starks aren’t Guides. We’re geniuses. Playboys. Smart asses. Possibly Sentinels. But not Guides. Stark men aren’t wimpy emotional flower children.”

Tony breathed in the scent of his Guide, ever more deeply. “I hear echoes of another voice in that little speech. Trust me. I've got similar echoes. DiNozzo’s don’t cry, DiNozzo’s are strong, DiNozzo’s don’t whine, Junior. I guess bad fathers are something we have in common, huh?”

“My father was a great man. He -”

“Yeah. Relax. I get it. Public faces. Masks. I won’t push. Now. But I wanted to let you know I understand.”

The genius backed up to the door and reached behind, his hand searching for the handle. “Yeah, well, great meeting you, call me if you’re ever in Malibu. Or, you know, don’t, ‘cause -”

As the superhero’s hand closed on the handle two animals appeared in the room and Tony was entranced. The smaller animal was one he had only seen three times since coming online.

The first time was in the sewer when he was trapped with a corpse and a fairly useless Marine Sergeant named Bill Atlas. Tony got them out of the death room a serial killer had trapped them in and the bobcat had led him through the maze of sewers to the confrontation with the insane woman.

The second time had been just as he opened an envelope filled with powder. He had been stupid and had been so caught up in the banter that he hadn’t bothered to use his senses to scan the damn thing and the bobcat had arrived too late with its warning. It had remained with him until Gibbs had smacked him and told him to live, invisible to all other eyes but his own.

The third time had been when he made the decision to walk away from NCIS. It had appeared next to him when he entered the elevator for the final time and pressed against his legs, purring in happiness, until the doors opened once more.

Tony had named the small spotted feline Zed, after another ‘Bobcat’ from a role he loved. Tony admitted, his sense of humor was twisted at times, naming his spirit animal after a character in a police caricature movie series. But it fit. The name was a mask, hiding the hunter underneath.

Tony had never seen anyone else’s spirit animal. It had been stated that Sentinels and Guides could see them when they manifested on this plane of existence, regardless of whether they were their own. But no one had ever seen Zed and Tony never saw any others. Until now.

And what a way to start. Stark’s spirit animal was huge. It took up nearly a third of the room but Tony didn’t feel crowded. It was insubstantial but looked solid. It slid its bulk up against the Guide and butted its head against his chest. And then Zed jumped on its back and sniffed at Stark’s neck.

“I don’t think they’re going to let you leave. I’ve only seen my animal less than a handful of times, Guide Stark. And I’ve never seen anyone else’s. But my bobcat and your buffalo seem like best friends already. It’s like the odd couple.”

The genius frowned. “He’s a bison. Not a buffalo. There is  a difference, subtle but true, especially in the spirit realm and meanings and stuff.” The man turned his attention to the large ox-like creature butting his chest. “You outed me, here, Archimedes. Honestly, you’re worse than DUM-E and Butterfingers. Don’t you give me those cow eyes. You aren’t a cow. It doesn't work. You know I’m not fit to be his Guide. It would be stupid. And I’m not stupid.”

Tony took two steps towards his Guide. “The stupid part have anything to do with what Vanko said to you, about palladium in your chest and dying slowly? Anything to do with those marks Zed is sniffing out? The strong metallic smell around you? Are you ill, Guide?”

“Oh, stop with the Guide thing. Call me Tony. I’ll call you - hmmm - I’m a bit off my game here - Sentinel, senses, bobcat, hmmm, Green Eyes, I guess. I’ll come up with something better when I haven’t just, you know, escaped an insane genius with electric whips who tried to fry me because he wanted to make God bleed. So, yeah, okay, Green Eyes, just call me Tony.”

Tony shook his head. “Nope. If you won’t call me by name, I’ll have to come up with something myself for you. I’m going to call you Star until you come up with something better than Green Eyes, for me. ‘Cause I’m feeling sappy and you are my touchstar, here.”

The billionaire blinked his eyes several times. “Okay, yeah, that was really sappy. Sweet. But beyond saccharine. More molasses than anything.”

Tony smiled. “You evaded my question, by the way. Don’t think I missed that.”

Stark’s mouth twisted wryly. “Change the subject, would ya? You really don’t want me, trust me on this.”

“Sorry, no can do. Protect the Guide, protect the Tribe. I can’t protect you if you don’t at least let me be near, my Star. And I won’t be of any use if I go into a feral mating drive because I can’t bond with you and another Sentinel looks at you or something. I need to protect you, I stalked you from New York, to DC, and now here to fucking Monaco! Please, I won’t push a full bond but I need to protect you, to keep you as safe as I can and if I do, you can protect the Tribe like you do. Please, my Star, let me be there for you.”

Tony watched his Guide’s throat work with emotion. And then, the briefest of nods. Tony smile widely and approached. “I won’t imprint everything. But I need to -”

His Guide, his touchstone, his Star nodded at him. “I know, you need the neck, the pheromones. Go ahead, just no biting!!!”

Tony leaned in to his Guide’s neck and placed his nose tight against the skin and inhaled as Archimedes, with Zed still atop his back, disappeared into the spirit plane. “Guide.” Tony murmured as he took in the scent, tainted as it was, of his Guide.

“Sentinel. I offer my guidance to you that you may protect. And so that I can protect. Thanks for not being a dick about the whole armor thing. I’d have blasted you if you tried to treat me like a housewife. I’m no stay-at-home Guide needing a big, strong Sentinel to take care of him.”

“Never thought you were, Star. Never would try it. Equals. Sentinel and Guide as they were meant to be,” Tony stated as he straightened. “What’s the plan, now?”

The billionaire leaned against the door. “Well, um, I need to get back to Malibu and do stuff. My birthday party is coming up, ya know. I should cancel it. But - well, anyway, I’ll leave Pepper and the new PA, Natalie, here to clean up the mess, well the public relations mess, at least and we’ll take the plane back and talk. You know plenty about me if you read the papers or the internet but I don’t have the same knowledge of you, at all, so unless you want me to, you know, hack everything, you can just, you know, tell me. ‘Cause I would. I like to know stuff. All kinds of stuff. And I’m not gonna tell Pepper about you or who you are, we’ll just sneak you on the plane, ‘cause Pepper doesn’t know anything about the Guide thing or the - well - the other thing. No one knows about that or the Guide thing, either, so ya know, just shh.”

Tony laughed. “Got it. Keeping it on the down low, for now. And I’ll tell you anything you want to know, Star. Just ask when there’s time.”

--

Tony lounged on the most comfortable and Sentinel friendly bed he had ever been on, and it was on a fucking airplane! His Guide had recommended that he stay secluded in the bedroom area until after takeoff in case Pepper Potts or Natalie Rushman needed to get on the jet for some reason. And with the bed being so comfortable, Tony certainly had no issue with that idea. It was reasonable. He would have even done it if the bed was a piece of nylon on some boards. Under the circumstances though, it was heaven.

And the idea proved out when both Potts and Rushman boarded to talk to Tony about things before they taxied. As the jet began to taxi to the runway for takeoff, Tony listened intently to the conversations on the tarmac. His eyebrows rose and he bit his lip. It was information his Guide would need but it was not urgent. Later, when it became more immediate of a problem, Tony would reveal the info. Rather like Gibbs, he supposed. He had learned from the best at appearing all knowing after all.

His Guide entered the bedroom and smiled nervously. “I’m just gonna get cleaned up and then we can talk. It is somewhat of a long flight. This jet isn’t the Concorde. Hell, the Concorde isn’t the Concorde anymore, so, yeah. I’ll be back, just sit tight, relax, take a nap, whatever.”

Tony laid back on the bed and indulged his senses, listening to his Guide in the small shower as the jet flew at its cruising altitude. He was so tempted to piggyback his sight to his hearing but decided to be a good boy and refrain from watching his Guide shower, until he was invited to do so. Tony wasn’t a rapist, after all and it would be skirting that line of consent to do it now. But his Guide knew he was listening, so Tony felt no guilt about that or the images that filled his imagination to accompany the sounds of the flowing water over wet skin.

Fifteen minutes later, the genius entered the bedroom once more, fully dressed and more presentable. He glanced around. “Let’s go get comfortable to talk. We stay in here, we might be too comfortable for much talking to get done.”

Tony chuckled. “Your jet, my Star. Lead the way.”

As they settled onto the couches, Tony shook his head in disbelief at the stripper pole in the middle of the room. Playboy billionaire, indeed.

“Alright I've showered, taken some painkillers and my brain is now functioning at near normal capacity, so Sheriff.  We're going to talk let's talk. I want to get to know you. My life is an open book thanks to the tabloids, yours not so much.”

Tony leaned back against the couch, angled his body toward his Guide and sighed deeply. “Okay, Galahad, well, my life hasn't been nearly as eventful as yours but it's had its moments.”

“Galahad?”

Tony smirked. “You wear a suit of armor, don’t you? Modern day knight.”

“Okay, first, I don’t ride or swing a lance around... Okay, yeah that sounded better in my head. Second, Galahad, no. No one would call me the virgin knight. Hasn’t been true in a long time. Don’t have any virginities left.”

Tony chuckled, “You mean the tabloids were telling the truth ? And here I thought I was gonna get to deflower you at some point. Damn.”

“Real comedian, my Sentinel.”

“The only first I’m interested in is your first bonding, my Guide.”

“Wow. Um, you really turn on a dime. Is that what it’s like for other people when I do that? Man, I’ve got to apologize to Pepper and Rhodey.”

“Everyone always says my parents were just asking for it, making my initials ADD.”

“Anthony D DiNozzo. D?”

“Anthony Dante DiNozzo, Junior, to be precise about it. If you ever decide to call me by something other than a nickname that isn’t actually part of my name, I respectfully request it not be Anthony. And never, ever, ever, ever Junior.”

The billionaire laughed. “Got it. No Juniors.”

“My father always introduces himself as the real Tony DiNozzo and almost invariably calls me Junior. When he can be bothered to recall my existence.”

“You said you had daddy issues. Or I inferred it based on the comments. So, your dad’s still alive?”

“As far as I know, yes. We don’t really have contact. Our relationship is - to call it estranged is an understatement I think. My mom died when I was eight and he promptly shipped me off to boarding school to get me out of his hair. I was there ten months of the year. Then when I was twelve, he shipped me off to a year round military school, the Rhode Island Military Academy because when he took me with him on a vacation, read business opportunity, to Hawaii, he forgot that I was there and flew back the mainland, leaving me to live on room service until his accountant called days later to dispute the charges. My father was embarrassed and disowned me entirely. When I went to college, he tried to take the trust fund from my mother for my education and I spent most of my freshman year in court stopping him. Now, I sometimes get a Christmas or birthday gift when his personal assistant or flavor of the month brings it up but it is never something I can use or would want.”

“Okay, so your dad is an asshole. I can relate. I - A few people know but I don't - in public - I can’t unless I know it is safe.”

“I get it. You can’t air your dad’s dirty laundry in public. Reporters get ahold of a quote of you saying something derogatory about Howard Stark and it never goes away.”

“Exactly. Howard was brilliant. I don’t deny that but, I mean, he really never should have gotten married or had a kid. He wasn’t really cut out for monogamy and he wanted a smart kid but he didn’t really think ahead about what it would be like if that kid was smarter than him. I’ll tell you, he didn’t like it. And he drowned his sorrows and he wasn’t a nice drunk.”

“I relate to that. Senior liked his scotch and his bourbon. And he liked taking swings at me. Frankly, I preferred it when he did it when he was drunk. His aim was worse and his coordination sucked. He’s a functional alcoholic even now from what I know. And the alcohol wasn’t an excuse for his bad behavior. He wasn’t faithful to my mom and she loved him a lot and had a hard time coping. Dad favors alcohol. Mom’s poison of choice was pills: opiates, uppers, downers, whatever. It killed her in the end. She took an overdose and I found her lying in the hallway outside her bathroom one day. I don’t think she did it deliberately. I have to think if she had, I would have found her in bed or maybe the tub. She wasn’t the greatest mom, but I loved her.”

“God. I’m sorry. I don’t -”

“It was a long time ago, mia stella. But it did help inform who I am. Mom spent a good bit of time with me growing up and her judgment wasn’t the best since she was usually high. I already knew your dad wasn’t the faithful sort.”

“Jesus. Don’t tell me -”

“One of my mother’s fondest memories was of the summer she spent as a booth girl at the Stark Expo. She reminisced a lot about how she even met Howard Stark himself there and he came onto her and my mom, being a child of the sexual revolution, took him up on it and had a torrid affair. She didn’t expect anything other than great sex and he delivered some of the best orgasms of her life. She explained it all - in detail - often. Really often. It probably explains a lot about my character. I grew up on bedtime stories of real life porn starring my mother and a married billionaire. When I was little, I dreamed that she told me these things because Howard Stark was actually my real father.”

“Wait, he wasn't, right? I mean, you’re not -”

“No, love. I knew plenty about sex and sexual positions and orgasms but I didn’t know about pregnancy. She met Senior six months after she left the Expo and I was born a year and a half after that.”

“Good. Good. I was worrying there for a minute. I mean, I’m pretty sure Howard was careful during his affairs, he didn’t want a bastard child or two to interfere with his company and money. And no one has ever successfully claimed to be his kid (or mine for that matter). They make claims, sure, the money is a draw, but especially after DNA testing became so prevalent, no one proved a claim.”

“Well, let’s move on. I’ll just put it out there before I subtly change the subject that I don’t have any kids. I admit to lots of sleeping around, plenty of short term relationships, one night stands (mostly in college), a few serious relationships, but no kids. And I’ve never cheated in my life. I try my best not to model my father’s behaviors, from his promiscuity to his drinking. I drink, occasionally, a beer or two, I went wild in college and I can fake it with the best of them nowadays but I don’t get drunk. And I don’t take painkillers, more than Tylenol, if I can avoid it.”

“Got it. I - uh - well, I’m sure you know I drink. I - since I - after -” The billionaire rubbed his chest and the device implanted within it and then just waved his hand in its direction. “Well, since that, I’ve realized that I have issues with drinking. I - Jeez, okay, I know I’m an alcoholic. And I’ve been trying to quit. And doing pretty well. ‘Cause, drinking and the issue I have going on that you know about and that I can't seem to actually really verbalize to anyone at all coherently, they would not mix well at all. And before I got my prosthesis in my chest, well, I was a sex addict, too. Introspection sucks, you know, but after the kidnapping, I realized I was trying to hide from the space inside that was meant for my Sentinel. That hole that is shaped like you. So, yeah, I’m working on it. I’m a work in progress.”

“I’ll help, mio bello.”

“Really? I’m not a woman.”

“Doesn't mean I don’t find you beautiful.”

The genius actually blushed.

“I’ll back off for now. True, though, inside and out. Now to subtly change the subject, I am going to skim over some stuff in my life. We can go in depth over time but for now, there’s a lot I should tell you about and I don’t want to get into the minutiae that isn’t needed.”

“Understood, Lestrade.”

“Does that make you Sherlock? Or Mycroft?”

He waved his hands. “Yeah, yeah, okay, move it on.”

Tony grinned. “So, after Senior sent me off to RIMA, I got into sports, track, football, basketball, mostly. And I was scouted by Ohio State and got a full ride and was being seriously scouted by several pro teams by my senior year. I went to the Final Four twice during my tenure at OSU. And then a bad tackle by a Michigan Wolverine named Brad Pitt - no relation - broke my leg, badly, and ended those dreams and plans. I changed my minor in criminology to a second major and with the time I had during rehab, got my degree and did most of the work towards a Master’s in criminal psychology. I then took a job at Peoria PD and moved from there to a bigger department in Philadelphia and then Baltimore where I made my gold shield and worked homicide and vice. Then Detective DiNozzo met a Navy cop who was undercover and during the course of their joint investigation, found out that his partner and best friend was dirty. The Navy cop offered me a job after I resigned from the Baltimore PD and I went to work for NCIS. During those years as a cop, I finished up my Masters in Criminal Psychology and picked up another in Criminal Justice.”

“Color me impressed. That’s a lot of work in a short period while holding a job like a cop or detective.”

“It was draining but I never wanted to stall my career. And it was interesting. So, I moved to NCIS, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, basically federal cops for Navy and Marine personnel and their dependents. I worked with the guy who recruited me and we were the Major Case Response Team out of DC. Gibbs is a hardass and a bastard, and proud of it. He chased away agents from the team like they had an ICBM on their tail. But I stuck it out. He was a great mentor and we were working on a friendship I think, it was just the two of us for a year or so, and when there were other agents on the team, they didn’t last. I was made Senior Field Agent, basically his second in command, after a year, which didn’t mean much when it was just the two of us. Then when I was there for almost two years, he recruited a third that didn’t go away. Kate had been in the Secret Service and resigned due to sexual misconduct and Gibbs hired her.”

“Ooooo, kinky was she?”

Tony laughed wryly. “The exact opposite, actually. She was really uptight and prudish when it came to anything sexual. And she was a self-proclaimed feminist. Now I have no problem with women standing up for themselves in the workplace and I agree there are areas that need improvement and good-old-boys networks are prevalent, especially in law enforcement. But her brand of feminism was to accuse anyone and everyone who was male of being a chauvinist if something happened she didn’t like or if she was to do a job she felt was beneath her. And she had no problem with being a reverse chauvinist and doing and saying things she would have eviscerated a guy for doing or saying to a woman. And from the outset, with no reason I could see, she decided I was a playboy loser and womanizer pig. And suddenly, I was getting jumped on by her, verbally , every chance she got, and Gibbs decided to put his lumps in, too. It was not a great time. And she didn’t follow my orders. I was her superior but Gibbs told her she only had to follow his orders. Out of the blue, this former Marine decided there was no such thing as chain of command and you’ve worked with the military enough to understand how idiotic and dangerous that is.”

“Wow, yeah. You had experience and seniority and the position.”

“Well, it didn’t seem to matter. Gibbs gave her too much authority for a probationary agent and it came back to bite us several times. I can’t go into specifics, national security and all that but I was seriously getting close to packing up and either transferring within NCIS or taking one of the offers from other agencies that I got. But then, well, we were tracking a serial killer and thought we knew who it was - we were way off - and I got roofied and locked with the latest victim and the one before who was missing, and who was now a corpse, in a sewer. I had to get us out and the stress and isolation brought me online. We both got out and I hid what had happened. When I picked up something with my senses, I claimed that it was my out of the box intuition. I didn’t register and I used all of the mundane known things to deal with my senses. I just didn’t trust Gibbs or well, anyone, to not misuse me. And Kate was just as bad as ever and we got a new probie on the team, a computer geek who was green as grass and twice as wet but who had degrees from Johns Hopkins and MIT and flaunted them in our faces. He didn’t find my degree in Physical Education to be worth much and never realized there was more than that.”

“Okay, that is stupid of him. I know some stuff and I know that phys ed majors take a lot of the same classes as pre-med students. Plus, you ended up with a second major.”

“Yeah, well, my strategy was to play the clown, both to divert attention from myself and to push Gibbs’ temper onto myself and away from the others, so they didn’t leave like so many before. It wasn’t the best play and I also played up the mask that Kate was sure that I actually was. And I was actually losing my real self in the masks. Then I did something stupid. I was bantering with McGee and Kate and opened an anonymous envelope without even thinking to scan it with my senses. It was filled with a fine white powder which turned out to be yersinia pestis.”

“Yersinia pestis. Give me a minute.”

“Buzz, too long, Alex. Pneumonic plague. Bio-engineered antibiotic resistant pneumonic plague. I was infected and sent to Bethesda and Kate had a cold and had to come, too.”

“Right, compromised immune system.”

“Yeah. Well, I went down hill pretty quick and Kate actually stayed with me. She wasn’t sick but she told me she was and she stayed in isolation with me.” The Guide opened his mouth and Tony just raised his hand to stop him. “It was probably a bad idea on numerous levels but to me, then and later, it helped. I wasn’t alone with strangers. Then I made it through and I hoped Kate and I had bonded and things would be better.”

“Were they? Or was she just blowing smoke or feeling guilty ‘cause you were dying?”

“I’ll never know. I came back to work and within a few days, Kate was shot in the head by a terrorist we had been chasing for over a year. The guy had a major hate on for Gibbs and was coming after our team to hurt him.”

“God, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, so we’re mourning a teammate and the terrorist is still out there and the Director of NCIS is making a lateral move to work at Homeland Security and the new Director is an old lover of Gibbs who is very invested in him. And there is a spot open on Gibbs team thanks to Kate dying and the new Director decides to fill it with the sister, and former handler, of the terrorist after he was finally killed. See, the terrorist was supposedly a double agent in Hamas for his country but was actually a double agent for Hamas against everyone else. And his sister was his handler from his country. I never trusted her. And she was about a thousand times worse than Kate with her attitude. And she was just doing her best to sow dissension and divisiveness in the team. From the outside, we probably looked solid and tight but inside, her work was more than halfway done before we ever heard of her. So Gibbs accepts her on the team and things go along, and she is constantly playing hot and cold with me but I could smell that she wasn’t attracted to me at all and held me in contempt. And so I let her play but never took her up on it or even made it look like I would. It infuriated her.”

“I bet.”

“Yep. Best part of my day. Then well, long story short, Gibbs got caught in an explosion and was in a coma for a while and when he woke up, he had forgotten the last fifteen years.”

“Ouch.”

Tony nodded. “Yeah, but it was worse than that because fifteen years before was just after his wife and daughter - who he never talked about - were killed by a drug dealer that his wife had witnessed kill someone. He eventually started to get some of it back but he was in a bad place and after a bureaucratic idiocy got some sailors killed when Gibbs’ intel should have protected them, he quit, leaving me the team. The Director appointed me Team Lead and I had McGee, the liaison, and a probie straight from the legal department. And I would have stayed and kept it together and Gibbs likely would have come back when he recovered, but I’m a Sentinel and was feeling on edge and unsafe with my team.”

“Right, you didn’t trust the liaison chick or have a good relationship with the Johns Hopkins kid and the other you didn’t even know.”

“Got it in one. So my dials were always turned up above normal. Now, NCIS has several Sentinels working for them but the DC office only has two, not counting me, and both of them were low level, a four and a three. I’ve never been formally tested, obviously, but based on what I’ve been able to do, even without a Guide, I am at least a nine, likely a ten. And the Director never turned on her white noise machines except when she had to, like in MTAC or in top secret meetings with SecNav or something. So, I overheard her encouraging the liaison officer to disrespect me and that she wouldn’t be punished for it. And I heard the liaison telling McGee that I didn’t deserve backup in the field, and he agreed with her. So, I started deliberately snooping at that point and discovered the Director was putting together an unsanctioned op to take down the illegal arms dealer she blamed for her father's suicide. And that the reason I always felt uneasy around the liaison was due to the fact that she was working against me from the get go and had waited to take out her brother until there was a spot on Gibbs’ team. The Director had promised her a spot for intel on the arms dealer. I anonymously reported that and some other stuff to SecNav and others and they took her out of her position, quietly, both of them, but the Director realized I had something to do with it and spread it around to other agencies that I was a troublemaker and whistle blower. Basically, I was blackballed from law enforcement, unless I wanted to go to a Mayberry size town as a deputy. Even if they knew the whole story behind the Director’s downfall, everyone’s got a little larceny operating in them and wouldn’t want me around in case I got it in my head to take them down.”

“Wow, so you worked to save your own life, took down a corrupt government agency director and got rid of a spy, basically, and got the shaft for it.”

“Yep. I couldn’t stay at NCIS and I couldn’t work elsewhere. I didn’t need to work, not for a while, anyway. I‘ve got a healthy trust fund. I’m nowhere near your league but I get by. And I was feeling nostalgic and saw the announcement about the Stark Expo re-opening and felt that I had to go and the rest, as they say, is history.”

“Wow. You really, really opened up. Okay. Then, okay, I can - um - right. I’m dying. I know you heard Vanko but see when I was captured by the Ten Rings,” he sighed explosively, “I’ve got shrapnel working its way towards my heart and they had a doctor captive and he operated and put an electromagnet in my chest to keep the shrapnel away and powered it with a car battery. Let me tell you, you haven’t been tortured properly until you’ve had your head shoved in bucket of water while the car battery stuck in your chest is getting splashed and electrocuting you at the same time.”

Tony reached for his Guide’s arm. “Guide.”

The other man snorted and shook himself, placing his hand on Tony’s sleeve. “Sorry. Dark humor.”

“We have that in common. But you don’t have to deflect with me.”

“Right. Masks. No masks. So, anyway, I needed to create something better and the only thing I had access to in the cave that had the power to do what I need it to do was palladium. So, I miniaturized the arc reactor and came up with a better one when I got home. But palladium is a heavy metal and it is poisoning my bloodstream. So, I’m damned by heavy metal toxicity if I keep the arc reactor in and damned by shrapnel to the heart if I take it out. I’ve tried every known element and none have the power to run the arc reactor.”

“Okay. We’ll figure it out, Guide. Have faith. I hate to quote the Shaman but the universe provides. We met now for a reason and I can’t accept that it is just for me to watch you die. Believe in me, believe in us, believe in the universe.”

“I’ll try, my Sentinel. I’ll try.”

Tony smiled.

“But you are really exceptionally sappy, you know, Magnum. I’m supposed to be the one all in touch with my feelings.”

==

Tony Stark sat on the edge of his chair as he watched the delivery men place boxes and various paraphernalia around his garage, supervised by the new kickass personal assistant, Natalie Rushman. His Sentinel was secluded in the small bathroom to keep his presence in Tony’s life quiet for the moment.

The Sentinel had convinced Tony, or more had encouraged Tony in his own conviction that he really was not in a good place, mentally, to have a birthday party surrounded by people he barely knew and who were only interested in coming because of his money or fame. Even though Tony was trying to stay positive, he knew that a gathering like that was a bad idea but Pepper had been so insistent. But his own Columbo had encouraged him to accept his own gut feelings and do what he wanted, not what Pepper wanted. It was his birthday, his life , his house , and he took control of it.

Since he had cancelled the party, Pepper had gone to Stark Industries and was getting things cleaned out, thus the delivery men. She had boxed up all of Tony’s stuff from the CEO office and sent it to the house. She told him that since he had so much free time, he could take care of his junk.

Tony wanted to explain his feelings and stuff to Pepper but the problem was that so much of what was going on in his head and heart had to do with secrets he had been keeping from his former personal assistant turned CEO. And him keeping secrets from her was historically not a good idea but he couldn’t just tell her, “Hey, Pep, I kind of want some downtime since I just finally met my Sentinel,” when no one alive even knew he was a Guide. Obie had known but, like Howard, he had felt that it would have hurt the company - thanks to the misogynistic and Guide phobic assholes on the Board - to reveal that information.

And he still hadn’t been able to man up to his good friend and tell her he was dying. “Look, Pep, I found my Sentinel, and yeah, surprise, I’m a Guide, and I want to bond with him but it is really sucky timing because the arc reactor in my chest, the one keeping me alive, it runs on palladium and that is a heavy metal and historically, heavy metal exposure over the long term is not a good thing and no other element that exists is powerful enough to run the arc reactor and so the palladium is poisoning  me and unless I figure something out, and soon, this is my last birthday and I really don’t feel like spending it surrounded by a bunch of sycophantic assholes.”

Nope, Tony couldn’t do it. He said it in his head plenty but when confronted with the red headed feisty woman, he got tongue tied and tripped over his words. He knew she would cry and he didn’t want that, he couldn’t deal when Pepper cried.

The last of the things were brought in and propped against the wall, the scale model of the Stark Expo grounds from the original Stark Expo. The delivery men left to return to their truck, presumably, and Ms Rushman came over to Tony. He found her very attractive but it was more of an aesthetic appreciation than a ‘I want to hit that’ kind of feeling. Increasingly so since he had met and pre-bonded with his Sentinel.

Natalie leaned over in his personal space and examined the bruises and scrapes on his face from the fight with Vanko and Tony’s impacts with the ground and other hard objects. “They look better, not as harsh.”

“Yeah, well, I put some stuff on them.” He leaned back away from the tough redhead who was setting off his internal Guide senses. “I have an odd question, Ms Rushman. If it was your last birthday, what would you do?” Tony wanted validation for his choice and he was curious if what he was feeling from her would straighten out. It was odd, deception and distrust overlaid on hope and curiosity, Tony thought.

She leaned in and practically whispered in his ear, “I’d do anything I wanted with whoever I wanted to do it with.” She laid her hand on his sleeve.

Tony would never know what he would have said to the strange woman who was physically projecting lust and desire but was feeling bored and not at all attracted to him because his Sentinel chose that moment to exit the bathroom and enter the conversation.

“Well, I know that honeypots are historically accepted for spy missions and those spies who are adept at them. Cinematically, the genre is chock full of scenes where the hero, like James Bond, seduces the lovely Bond girl to get information of some sort or access. And in reality honeypots are also not an unheard of tactic. Seduce your enemy, use their weaknesses against them, get the information or just divert their attention. In broad society, the idea is morally ambiguous, to say the least but in covert ops, it is a legitimate idea. The problem we have here , however, is that honeypots are designed for enemies or adversaries at the least. Running a honeypot on a current ally and one that may someday be a teammate is just frankly, stupid and incredibly short sighted. See, the victim of such a honeypot would never be able to fully trust the one who took part and lack of trust on a team that runs field operations of any sort leads to teams that don’t function as teams but rather disparate individuals working toward similar goals in their own ways. Tony will never trust you after this, Agent Romanov.”

The redhead had spun around and crouched in a defensive position at the first word from the man leaning in the doorway. And after his mini lecture finished, she narrowed her eyes and straightened her spine. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The Sentinel faced the Guide. “When we were on the jet and Pepper left, Agent Romanov got a communication from someone she called Colonel Fury. He told her to get her ass moving on her assignment, that they needed to know if Stark was a possible fit for the Avengers Initiative or at least, worth being told about his father’s element research. I didn’t say anything until now because there wasn’t anything to be done about it.”

“Who are you?” The redhead snarled at him.

“I bet that is just killing you, not having the intel, a curveball from the outfield screwing up your mission, a wild card in the hand.”

Tony sighed. “Fury. One-eyed bastard. I should have smelled a rat when she put Happy on his ass with such ease but I just thought she was reacting to his chauvinistic attitude. Of course, Fury wants to keep an eye on me, I blew up the plans of Iron Man being a secret identity and I go my own way. Get out, Ms Rushman, or whatever your real name is. Tell Fury I don’t need him or his little spies in my life. And for the record, I wouldn’t have slept with you. For a large number of reasons I have no desire to try you out. Tell Pepper the truth before you quit. If I find you still running this con on her tomorrow, I’ll ruin both you and Fury. Trust me. You don’t want me as an enemy. I will blow you up and then salt the earth behind me.”

The redhead glared at him. “You don’t decide if I’m fired, Stark.”

“No, seriously, you’re so fired. Pepper hired you to be my PA. Hah. No. Get out and don’t try to run the con on her either, not again. If Pepper wants you after you tell her the truth, until Fury pulls your leash, that is her call, but only after she has all of the facts. But you aren’t welcome here again. You failed your mission. Totally. Get out.”

“You’ll be hearing from Fury, soon.” She whirled on her heel and stalked out of the building.

“JARVIS, launch security protocols Alpha One against anyone who isn’t on the approved list, starting now until further notice.” Tony turned to his Sentinel and smiled. “Thanks for the intel. I was getting weird vibes from her but I wasn’t sure what was up with it.”

“Protect the Guide, protect the Tribe. It is my imperative. Plus, she’s hot, you’re known for liking hot women, and I’m territorial and jealous.”

Tony walked to his Sentinel and laid a hand on his chest. “You know what’s hot? That. You. Defending me. And the jealousy is kinda hot, too, got to admit. I wouldn’t have taken her up on it, you know, even if we hadn’t met.”

The Sentinel placed his hand over the one on his chest. “I know. I could smell the deception on her so heavily, I’m sure she was practically radiating an emotional tone of wrongness to you. Even before we met.”

Tony nodded. “She was. It was a puzzle and well, I like puzzles, so I hired her to try to figure it out.”

The Sentinel smiled down at the Guide. He leaned in but before anything could happen, a well known voice cleared its throat and spoke. “Hey, Tone, who was the hot redhead? She looked seriously pissed.”

Tony whirled around. “Honeybear! That is a long, convoluted story. And she was pissed because she tried to play me and didn’t get what she wanted.”

Colonel James Rhodes shook his head. “Surprising. But you’ve been surprising lately, Tone. And I don’t mean the race car thing. On the whole, that wasn't so surprising. That was predictable of you. But making Pepper CEO? Cancelling your birthday party? Turning down hot redheads for sex? What's up, Tony?”

Tony sighed. “Yeah, okay. Right. Well, see, there’s stuff going on and I need to tell you some of it. Oh, first, Rhodey, this is Tony DiNozzo. Deputy Dog, this is my good old friend, James Rhodes.” The two men nod at one another as Tony links his arm through the colonel’s and pulls him to a couch. Tony knew his Sentinel understood this was something he needed at least semi-privacy for and watched from the corner of his eye as he wandered over to the Stark Expo display.

“Rhodey, I need to - okay, I - right, this is ridiculous. You know how the arc reactor is burning through the - right. The arc reactor, in my chest, the thing keeping the shrapnel from shredding my heart? Right. The power source is palladium and it is the only element that has enough power of the right sort to work and the problem is that it is a heavy metal and being inside my body, well, my heavy metal toxicity is rising and if I don’t figure out an alternative soon, I won’t see my next birthday. Hell, I won’t see next month.”

Rhodey leaned forward. “Tony. You’re dying. God, your recent behavior makes so much more sense now. Giving away the company, damn, you’re getting your affairs in order.”

Tony nodded, “Exactly. And I haven’t given up but I need to figure it out. Okay, so the world needs Iron Man. Monaco showed that if nothing else. But if I can’t fix it before it is too late, well, the world will need someone to take my place. I don’t trust the government to use it right. To give it to the right people, for those people to use it for good and not personal gain. I can’t have my legacy fall into the wrong hands. Not again. But your hands. Your hands are so patriotic and just plain good, I’m amazed you don’t bleed red, white, and blue. Or golden. I can trust you, Rhodey. I have a suit ready for you to take. It is actually keyed to your genetics so no one can take it from you but you have to tell them that it just bonded that way to its first user. I can’t give it to you. It wouldn’t look good, it would be bad. You need to take it from me, we’ll stage a fight or well, make the suit look like it has been in a fight and you tell them that it was. And you’ll be there if the worst happens. And I trust you to use it right, to disobey unlawful orders, to keep the tech safe. If they try to reverse engineer it, take it apart too much, it’ll self destruct. And JARVIS can always fix it. If Iron Man can’t be there, I know the world can depend on the Iron Patriot.”

Rhodey arched his eyebrows. “No, really? Iron Patriot?”

“You’ll do this for me?”

“Yeah, Tony, I’ll carry on your legacy, whether you are around or not.”

“Thanks, honeybear.”

The Air Force Colonel rose to his feet and embraced Tony and fifteen minutes later he was on his way back to base, flying in his new suit, painted red, white, and blue.

Tony smiled sadly as he watched the other man soar into the clouds and turned back to his Sentinel who was still gazing at the model. “Oh shit, did you zone and I didn’t notice? Shit, I’m a crap Guide.”

The other man shook his head. “No. I’m not zoned, just confused. This thing isn’t accurate. I mean, not at all. Not even close .”

“Well, this is the old Expo. Howard’s Expo. I didn’t follow the same plans for the new one.”

“No, no, I know that. I mean, my mom, she was obsessed with this period in her life. She told me stories, yeah, the porn featuring your dad prominently among them, but she also told me stories just about the Expo and she would explain with drawings and mockups of the area using bottles and jars that were handy. I could have navigated that place with my eyes closed, she laid it out so well. But this isn’t even close. I mean, if it was nearly right I could say that during construction things changed a bit due to various real world issues on site but this - “ The Sentinel turned to face Tony. “This isn’t remotely what was actually built. Tony, Fury said something to Romanov about your father's element. Could this layout be a clue or something? A hidden treasure map? Your dad was brilliant but the technology in the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t advanced. He built an arc reactor, right? But it was huge and no good for general use because he didn’t have the technology to make it smaller?”

Tony looked at the model. “Help me set this up on a table, gumshoe?”

Once the model was flat, Tony had JARVIS scan it and project it holographically and as he manipulated it, he realized that his Sentinel was right. It was a hidden map to a new element, the element that just might save his life and let him bond with the man at his side. He turned to the younger man, “I know you aren’t about to let me out without you, so what do you think of the name War Machine?”