“Iron Man, where are you?” Steve’s voice barked over the comms.
Tony clenched his teeth against the sharp, piercing ring that accompanied Steve’s voice.
“FRIDAY, block out the white noise,” Tony instructed as he typed madly away at the HYDRA computer. HYDRA’s mad scientists were good, but they needed to up their game if they thought Tony couldn’t hack their systems before they wiped their databanks clean.
“The filters are already at maximum, boss.”
Tony cursed. Another thing to upgrade and/or repair. Well, it wasn’t like he needed sleep. Coffee would keep him going.
“Iron Man,” Steve came over the comms again. The panicked and surprised cries of HYDRA agents joined his voice. Bones cracked from blows delivered by Steve’s shield and Thor’s hammer, or so it sounded like based on the reverberations of the impacts. The blows were accompanied by the static of Black Widow’s Spider Bites and the twang of Clint’s bow.
“Iron Man, focus. Falcon needs air support.”
Tony shook his head and blinked. He stared at the glowing computer screen. His hands hovered over the keyboard.
The smell of bleach and several other cleaning products seeped in through his air ventilation systems, and he gagged. “FRIDAY, a little more air filtration too. Sorry, Cap, but I’m a little busy poking around in HYDRA’s toy box right now. Get Pointbreak to help.”
“Iron Man, this is a command.” The shield reverberated against something composed of concrete.
“Sorry, can’t hear you over that static. I think we’re breaking up. FRIDAY.”
The team’s comms were cut off.
“I’m sorry to report, boss, but it appears the air filtration system is also at max.”
Tony scrunched his face. God, the smell of the place was getting worse. Did someone throw out a hamburger two weeks ago and leave it lying around? Ew, and was that—no, Tony did not even want to mentally identify what that smell was, otherwise he’d have think about why it was in the room. The images that would produce would be scarring for life.
“Mr. Stark, I believe it would be wise for you to extract the data now. I am detecting approaching hostiles.”
“Right…” Tony closed his eyes and tried to focus his senses on his guide.
His guide was several floors down in the building, but even through the cement and clutter, Tony could detect his guide within a two-mile radius.
Steve’s heart beat furiously. It was like a jackhammer and Tony gritted his teeth against it. He switched to focusing on Steve’s ragged breathing. It was harsh and put Tony on edge, but it cut out the sounds of whirling mechanics and the distant noise of battle.
Tony typed as fast as his fingers allowed.
The HYDRA agents were too close. Their footsteps echoed on the hard floor. Their puffs of breath were like the howling wind of a storm to Tony’s ears.
Focus on Steve, Tony told himself as he cracked HYDRA’s security. “FRIDAY, upload the data now.”
The door flung open.
Tony whirled and shot a repulsor blast at the first agent to rush in. It had the intentional effect of taking out any agents directly behind the first one as well.
There were still agents standing though.
One whirled around the corner of the door, rifle aimed at Tony.
Light from the computer monitor danced off the metal of the rifle, sparkling, shimmering, sucking Tony in. The constant movement of the light’s reflection was hypnotizing, and—
Something a lot stronger than a rifle slammed Tony square in the chest. The blast knocked him back into the computer and across the floor.
“That’s going to hurt in the morning.” Tony sat up and shot at where he’d seen the agents last.
He got hit by another shock wave and sent skidding across the room again.
FRIDAY flashed the emergency sign in his face and blared the alarm.
Tony hissed at the sharp screech. He had not designed the emergency alert system to sound like banshee getting shredded by a woodchipper, yet that’s exactly how it sounded.
Tony curled up in a ball and covered his head.
All that existed was the siren wail and the raging red of the emergency system.
His ears were bleeding. His head was going to explode.
He’d give anything to make it stop. Anything. God where was Pepper? No, Steve. Tony was such a royal fuck up that not even perfect Pepper could handle him; he needed someone stronger—a super human, a super guide. He needed Steve fuckin’ Rogers and the asshole was nowhere near to help him.
The red light disappeared and air hissed in Tony’s ear as the emergency latch on his helmet was removed.
White, blinding light poured into Tony’s eyes. He swiftly covered his face.
Metal against metal.
The crackle of lightning.
It was barraging him all at once.
Cold, cold, cold. His armor was too cold. The metal threatened to cut into him. He had to get out, he had to—
A body curled over Tony’s head, acting as a protective barrier between him and the world.
A chest decked out in leather and protective armor slowly rose and fell in deep, controlled breaths. The heartbeat was strong and steady. It’s rhythm was familiar, but not enough so that it brought a name to mind. Gunpowder, metal, oil, sweat, and a rich earthy musk brought images of a young man with dark hair, a metal arm, and a sharp, sarcastic tongue that could rival Tony’s when the young man was in one of his more talkative moods.
“That’s good. Focus on me, Stark.”
The light that felt like it had been burning out Tony’s retinas seconds ago lessened. The sounds of battle died down to a manageable background noise. The smells… the smells weren’t getting better.
His stomach roiled. He covered his nose.
Bucky cursed. Bucky pushed himself down lower so his chest was just centimeter’s from Tony’s face.
Bucky’s scent flooded Tony’s nostrils, but the other odors still seeped in through Tony’s mouth and coiled around his throat.
A gag wracked Tony.
Bucky sighed and finally dropped down next to Tony. “Worst place to do this,” he grumbled as he threaded his fingers through Tony’s hair and yanked the genius toward his neck.
Bliss. Pure and utter bliss. The heavenly and soothing combination of metal, oil, and something else—something so powerful yet calming that Tony would compare it to an ocean, yet it was far more closer to the fresh fragrance of the woods after a rainy day—chased away the wretched odors and brought peace. Tony melted against Bucky and nosed the soldier’s neck.
Every muscle in Bucky’s body tensed, but he didn’t push Tony away.
After a minute of just nuzzling Bucky, Tony felt his head become more clear.
He pulled away and blinked to adjust his vision to the room.
A bunch of HYDRA agents lay dead or unconscious on the floor. “Did I do that?”
Bucky snorted. He pushed Tony away, but minded his strength so he didn’t send Tony rolling. “The first half, yeah, but the rest was all me. You were experiencing sensory overload when I arrived—just in time to save your butt too. Also, Steve says he is on his way, but that he is going to kick your ass for insubordination and for going out on the field when experiencing symptoms of overload.”
Tony snorted and stood up, ginning like a loon as he put his helmet back on. He left the faceplate up. “If I didn’t fight every time I was feeling a little overwhelmed, I’d never set foot on the field.” He let his faceplate drop and flew out the room to join the rest of the team fighting off the last of the HYDRA agents.
Tony didn’t like Steve’s chest. It looked like it would be the prefect combination of softness and firmness, but really, it sucked.
Tony pouted and burrowed closer to Steve. Artificial springtime fresh soap blended in with Steve’s “non-scented” laundry detergent fragrance and hid the faint but natural sweet smell that belonged to Steve.
Wrong, Tony’s hindbrain told him, but it didn’t fully rebel like it had in the past when Pepper had tried to sooth him and his senses.
Tony’s heart ached at the thought of his former guide and former girlfriend.
She had been perfect—the perfect balance of controlling yet nurturing and supportive. Honestly, Pepper was the only reason why Tony had survived the aftereffects of what had happened in Afghanistan—she was the reason why Tony hadn’t gone insane. Yet even with all of her care and strength, Tony found it harder and harder to focus his senses as the years went by, and soon he had to admit that he needed a different guide.
It had nothing to do with the break up that had occurred a month prior to his revelation.
“I can still feel your thoughts ricocheting in your head like a Gatling gun.” Steve sighed and massaged Tony’s scalp.
Steve Rogers: a born guide. Righteous and always ready to fight for what he believed in. He was heralded as the perfect guide. Not only did he have the perfect personality to be a guide, but with the super soldier serum, he had all the advantages of a sentinel without any of the drawbacks. He was a perfect, well-balanced individual, who didn’t need to be confined to a guide-sentinel partnership.
Yet he had still partnered with Tony. Tony Stark who was known not just for his playboy ways and his ego-centric personality, but for being unmanageable for any guide.
Imagine how the media would react if it ever found out that the Steve Rogers had been partnered with Tony Stark.
Tony wouldn’t be surprised if people started petitioning for their separation.
Tony’s chest tightened.
Okay, maybe Steve wasn’t his first choice in guide, but Steve…Steve…
Tony screwed his eyes shut and took a deep breath as a car alarm shrieked outside.
Steve covered Tony ears and rested his forehead on Tony’s. “Focus on me.”
Steve was the only guide who had been able to form any type of bond with Tony. The bond was weak and almost non-existent compared to the bonds that normally occurred between sentinel and guide, but it was precious, and Tony clung to it desperately.
He knew Steve did not share the same feelings toward the bond. Helping Tony was a duty, one that no one else could do.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
“Damn it!” Tony yanked his head away from Steve’s chest and jumped off the couch. “FRIDAY, tell Clint if he doesn’t stop throwing that ball at the wall, I will seal off every single vent in this tower and throw away all of the pizza in the fridge.”
“I will inform him.”
Strong fingers dug into Tony’s shoulder and tugged him back onto the couch and into Steve’s lap. “Come on, Tony, we need to get your focus back. We don’t need a repeat of what happened earlier. We’re just lucky you responded to Bucky when he arrived.”
Tony frowned, remembering the way Bucky had shielded him and brought him back from his sensory overload. “I would have been fine.”
Tony picked at a piece of lint at on his shirt. “Besides, according to your SHIELD pals, it couldn’t have been that bad if Bucky was able to bring me out of it.”
Steve tensed and his heartbeat sped up. “Don’t say that. Bucky was one of the best guides. He taught me everything I know.”
Tony scoffed. “It doesn’t help though, if he’s got the emotional capacity of an irritated cat.”
Steve shoved Tony off him.
Tony hit the other side of the couch with an: “oomph.”
Hurt pierced Tony at Steve’s rejection, but in the corner of his brain a spark of sadistic delight blossomed at Steve’s anger. Tony tried to push the ugly emotion down, but it swam beneath the surface like a shark lying in wait. It was a part of himself that he hated, and a part he didn’t really like to analyze. He vaguely knew the sadistic feelings stemmed from a place that had to do with Howard.
Steve pushed off the couch and paced. He pinched the bridge of his nose and released a strained breath.
“Listen,” Tony tried to placate Steve, “I’m not the one saying your friend is inept. That’s SHIELD. I’m just saying if we trust Fury and his little band of merry men, then obviously what happened today was a minor thing. Plus, it’s not as if it is impossible for a guide to calm a sentinel they are not bound to.” It was just far more challenging since the sentinel would be more likely to strike out against them.
“You could have been killed.” Steve whirled on Tony. “If Bucky hadn’t arrived when he did—”
“I wasn’t though.”
“Just like how Sam wasn’t,” Steve spat. “He just got a few bruised ribs because someone wasn’t there to back him up when he needed help.”
Steve’s words were a sucker punch to the gut. “I was gathering information. If hadn’t done that then we wouldn’t know about the weapons HYDRA was creating and the human experiments being performed.”
“That doesn’t give you the right to—“
“Mr. Rogers. Nick Fury demands to speak with you privately. He says it is of the upmost urgency,” FRIDAY cut in.
Steve’s fist and jaw clenched. Every muscle in his body was wound tight as he calculated in the situation in his head.
It was fascinating, really. Tony had always admired the way Steve’s body turned into a statue as he strategized, his body waiting to spring into action once h made his decision, while all of the life in Steve sparkled in those determined and pondering blue eyes.
It was subtle, but Steve’s shoulders dropped just enough that Tony knew Steve had made a decision before he spoke. “All right, give me a moment to find someplace private.” Steve moved to leave, but Tony held up his hand to stop Steve.
“I got some things I need to get done. Just have FRIDAY lock the doors behind me and you can have the room to yourself.”
Steve nodded. “Don’t start anything you can't stop in the middle of. Once I’m done talking to Fury, we’re going to continue where we left off.”
“Sure thing, Cap.” Tony mock saluted as he strolled backwards out of the room, a devil may care grin on his face.
The door slid shut as he exited the room. The lock bolted into place, the sound as piercing as a gunshot to Tony’s ears.
Tony winced and rubbed his ear as he wandered down the hall.
Pepper had sent him a few R&D projects to work on, he could at least get one or two started. Although, there was still the problem with the noise and air filtration systems in his suit to consider. That was a bigger project though, and even if he could theoretically stop in the middle of it, Steve would probably still end up wrestling him out of the workshop.
“…based on the reports you and Barnes submitted, it sounds like things with Stark are only getting worse,” Fury’s voice reached Tony’s ears, the sound muffled with crackling noise like radio static.
Tony stopped and shook his head, trying to clear out the voice of the super spy in his head.
Steve sighed. “I am aware of how it sounds, but I am working on it with him.”
“I know you are working on it, but Rogers these reports indicate a bigger problem. What we had hoped would be a permanent solution to Stark’s deterioration is not the case, unless you’re going to tell me that you and Stark have not been going through guide and sentinel exercises regularly.”
Tony bit down on his bottom lip to keep from making a sound. They had been doing the exercises routinely. They’d even upped the number of times they meditated together and practiced hearing the other’s heartbeat (Tony) and reading the other’s emotion and thoughts (Steve). It just wasn’t working.
Steve said as much to Fury. “We can increase the number of exercises. Perhaps Tony is the type of sentinel that needs to mediate every morning and night.”
“We can try, Rogers,” a note of regret—ever so faint—entered Fury’s voice. “However, this is not the first time Tony has shown signs of becoming permanently overwhelmed. Before he bonded with you, he was showing the same symptoms.”
“I am aware.”
“Then I am sure you are also aware that your bond decreased those symptoms, which are now back to where they were when you two started your partnership. Even with your bond, Stark is deteriorating at a rapid rate.”
“What exactly are you trying to say, Fury?” Steve spoke through gritted teeth.
“I’m saying, Rogers, that I have scientists working around the clock to see if there is anything we can do to stop this progression, but I’m going to need you and Stark to do whatever you can too. And if a solution can’t be found—“
“We’ll find one,” Steve said with steely determination.
“A nice sentiment, but that’s all it is, which is why—”
A jackhammer pummeled the sidewalk outside and ripped through Tony’s skull like a buzz saw.
Tony dropped to his knees and clutched his head.
He cursed and scrambled to his feet even as shrieking sound mercilessly pounded into his eardrum. He raced to the elevator, hoping he hadn’t alerted Steve to his eavesdropping when he’d fallen.
Steve’s footsteps echoed on the floor at his approach.
Tony threw himself into the elevator and sighed in relief when not only did the doors slid shut before Steve could see him, but the jackhammer’s crushing noise was cut off.
Blue holographic monitors hovered around Tony, displaying information ranging from the R&D files Pepper had sent him to the files he’d stolen from the HYDRA base the Avenger’s had taken down. None of the screens could hold his attention though; all he could think about was what he’d overheard.
He knew he had been getting worse, that he was losing control of his senses more and more each day, but he hadn’t really stopped to consider just how bad it had gotten, there had always been something else more important, and in all honesty, there wasn’t much Tony could do.
Sentinel and guide studies were still a fuzzy science that was layered in mysteries. It was only in the last century that people realized sentinel and guide bonds did not indicate whether two people were soul mates or not. Heaven forbid eighty years ago if you didn’t marry your partner, or even worse: divorced them.
No the metaphysical bond between guide and sentinel came down to compatibility.
And unfortunately, Stark men were horribly incompatible with everyone. It wasn’t so much a problem for the guides in the family; guides could live their lives without a sentinel, but there was always this sense of longing—like something was missing in their lives, like there was purpose that needed fulfilling but no matter what they did they could not fulfill it. It often led to depression in a lot of guides, but it was manageable.
Sentinels just got screwed over completely.
A sentinel could spend most of their early years without a guide; although having one around for puberty certainly made it easier when it came to adapting to the new senses. In their twenties, Sentinels started needing to have a guide around them. They didn’t have to possess a bond with the guide, but if they didn’t have one present that’s when the sentinel’s senses would start to lose focus and precision until they became overwhelmed and went insane. Around mid-thirties if a sentinel was not bonded the same thing happened to them.
Tony was in his forties and the bond he had was a thin string that could be snapped with just one word, and it was the only reason why Tony wasn’t locked up in an asylum for sentinels.
A sledgehammer like sound broke Tony from his thoughts.
He spun in his chair and squinted as the blue holographic images stung his eyes.
“Hey, you doing okay down here?” Steve asked.
Tony could just make out Steve’s blurry figure near the door through all of the lights. “FRIDAY close the screens.”
The blue lights vanished.
Tony sighed at the clear vision of his worktables, stools, and equipment.
A frown on Steve’s face caused wrinkles to form around his mouth and his brow to furrow. He cupped Tony’s face in his hands and tilted the genius’ head back to examine him. He grimaced. “Monitors were bothering you?”
“Your pupils are tiny, too much light coming in.”
Tony closed his eyes and let out a heavy breath. He slumped against Steve, his ear landing right over Steve’s heart. The steady beat eased some of Tony’s tension. “So what’s the plan?”
“You heard, didn’t you?”
Tony shrugged. “Not surprising news, really. More surprising that I’ve survived this long.”
“The future has dating websites,” Steve stated. “Are there websites for sentinel and guides?”
“Trying to set me up, Steve?”
Tony heard the blood rush to Steve’s face and smiled.
“No. What I’m trying to say is: you can’t be the only sentinel that’s had this problem, so there should be websites, or people who match up sentinels and guides, right?”
Tony sighed. “You don’t think I’ve tried that in the past? You’re the only one, Steve, who has even gotten any sort of bond out of me.”
“You shouldn’t give up though.”
Steve’s pep talk grated on Tony. He pushed himself away from Steve and stood up. “I’ve been trying my whole life, Steve, and trust me, I’m trying, but it’s not as easy as those old movies like to make you think. Sadly, most of us don’t instantly bond upon first sight with compatible guides and sentinels.”
“Then we have to strengthen our bond, Tony, or else…” Steve clenched his fist. He pierced Tony with a demanding stare, like he could somehow will Tony to form a deeper bond with him through looks alone.
“I go crazy? My senses overwhelm me, or my instincts to protect become so strong all I focus on is trying to save the world and end up building a murder bot instead?” Tony put on his best shark-like smile.
A lesser man would have flinched at the reference to Ultron, but Steve had been putting up with Tony’s sharp as knives tongue for years. “Yes, Tony. You go crazy and then we have to stop you, whether it be from harming yourself or the world.”
Sorrow softened Steve’s expression. “I don’t want to fight you, and I don’t want to see you locked away.”
Tony scoffed and marched for the exit; he was done with this conversation. “I’d like to see anyone try; I have a reputation for being an escape artist for a reason.”
Tony wanted to blame his lack of appetite on Natasha and Clint.
The two moved around the kitchen in such perfect harmony—passing bowls, utensils, and ingredients to each other without ever looking up for the other. They were the epitome of a perfect guide and sentinel partnership.
They even had the sickeningly sweet partners-at-first-sight relationship that Tony had mocked just the other day in front of Steve. Granted, Clint was the one who described it that way, whereas Natasha just rolled her eyes at Clint.
She never did deny it though. The closest Natasha ever came was one time when Tony prodded her for more information. She had answered him in a bored tone with: “Guides are more intuitive, and it is not uncommon for them to detect the potential for a bond before their partner. However, there are reported instances of sentinels recognizing a potential partner before the guide. There is no exact formula for how and when a bond may be forged.”
In other words: “Shut up, Tony, before I deck you.”
“C’mon, Stark, you finally came to breakfast on time like an adult, don’t mess up now by staring at your food,” Clint teased.
Tony stirred his oatmeal. His stomach roiled at the sight; he’d always felt oatmeal was one food dye away from looking like vomit.
He picked up his spoon and nibbled on the tip so that only four or five oats entered his mouth.
He shuddered as hints of the plastic bag the oats had been in and specks of dust touched his taste buds. His eyes watered at the foul taste and he put his spoon down.
Clint stopped in the middle of making eggs and turned to look at Tony. He frowned, and gestured for Natasha to take over the stove.
In seamless movement, Natasha replaced Clint, and Clint headed over to Tony.
Tony fought his scowl. Damn, perceptive Clint. Also, damn guide instincts! Clint must have been picking up something, because it wasn’t the first time since Clint had moved into the tower that Tony had recoiled from a meal, and Clint hadn’t said or done anything about it before.
“Something wrong with your oatmeal?” Clint asked.
Tony pushed the oatmeal away and stood up. “Not hungry.”
“Yeah, right. When’s the last time you ate?” Clint held up a hand to stop Tony from answering. “You know what? Never mind. FRIDAY, when is the last time Tony ate anything, excluding what he had just now.”
“It has been twenty hours and fourteen minutes since Mr. Stark has consumed solid food. He has however, had five cups of coffee within that amount of time.”
Clint raised a taunting eyebrow.
Tony scowled. “You’re not my mom.”
“Thank god, I’m not.” Clint made a show of wiping his brow like he was relieved. “With these hips?” Clint slapped his hips. “You’d rip me apart coming out of my birth canal.”
“C-section,” Natasha grunted.
“Oh, right.” Clint scratched his chin in thought.
Tony decided to use the momentary distraction to escape the room.
“We’ll be letting Steve know that you skipped breakfast,” Natasha intoned.
“Snitch. Also, Steve’s not my mom either.” Tony stuck out his tongue as he dashed out of the room.
He heard Clint snapped his fingers. “Now there’s someone with the right birthing hips, don’t you think, Nat? Steve could totally give birth to Stark.”
A spatula slapped skin. “Hush, you.”
The rhythmic blows of Bucky’s punches lulled Tony into a peaceful state.
Normally when Tony was feeling overwhelmed and in need of focus he went to his lab or workshop to work on projects, but his mind was too scattered to focus and the brilliant lights from the screens stung like he’d been locked in a dark closet for days. The dim lighting of the gym in the early morning was much easier on Tony’s eyes, not that he was using them.
Tony had shut his eyes long ago just to listen to Bucky beating the crap out of one of the punching bags.
It was almost like listening to an album as Bucky went through his punching sets. For five minutes it would be: punch, punch, punch, breath. Punch, punch, punch, breath. Then it would punch, punch, and knee. Sometimes Bucky would slow it down and it would be one deep breath followed by a resounding punch that caused the bag to swing and its chains to rattle.
Tony dragged his knees to his chest and curled into a ball, preparing to doze.
The punching stopped. “Any reason why you’re watching me, Stark?”
Tony grumbled and snuggled as deep into the wall as he could.
Bucky scoffed and went back to hitting the bag.
Tony slid down the wall as Bucky’s breathing, punches, and heartbeat blended into one hypnotic sound that turned Tony’s muscles to mush.
After what felt like only a few minutes, Steve’s springtime fresh scent tickled Tony’s nostrils. With a sigh of acceptance, Tony uncurled and pushed himself up into a seated pose.
Bucky stopped mid-punch and looked over his shoulder at Tony, brows furrowed.
Tony’s sight zoomed in on the beads of sweat along the nape of Bucky’s neck.
While Tony could appreciate the hot and sweaty look on others, he had never been one to find sweat the most appealing substance on earth, but at that moment the way the like glinted off the shimmering bead of liquid enraptured him. Specks of rainbow colors shone just above the bead.
“Tony. …Tony!” Steve voice came in echo-y to Tony’s ears.
“Tony!” Calloused fingers with a steel-like grip shook Tony’s shoulder.
Tony blinked rapidly, resetting his vision.
Steve was crouched down next to him, face marred with a frown, while Bucky remained a statue at the punching bag. Bucky aimed an intense stare at Tony, one that could rival the expression that came over Bucky’s face whenever Tony handed him a new sniper rifle to inspect.
Tony batted Steve away. “Jeez, can’t a guy run over calculations in his head without everyone looking like they’re at a funeral?”
“Tony,” Steve started, but Tony cut him off.
“I’m fine, Cap. I didn’t blow up anything or breakdown.”
“Tony, this is getting serious,” Steve pressed.
“Do we really have to have this discussion here?” Tony tilted his head at Bucky.
“Hey, don’t mind me.” Bucky struck the punching bag one last time then headed toward the exit. The doors swished open to let him out and slid shut the moment he’d stepped over threshold.
Steve didn’t miss a beat. “Natasha said you didn’t eat breakfast this morning either.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Sometimes I skip breakfast, Steve.”
“Yes, but you don’t go through the effort of making breakfast, take two or three bites, and then stop. The only times any of us have seen you do that is when something comes up at SI or there is an emergency.”
“Maybe I had an idea for a new prototype.”
“Then why are you in the gym? Also, when that happens, you take your food with you.”
Tony scoffed and feigned offense. “What are you doing, stalking me?”
“I’m your guide, Tony. That means I take care of you.”
“Sentinels are the protectors,” Tony argued.
Steve shook his head. “Tony, I don’t want to fight with you. I just want to know what’s wrong, and what I can do to help.”
“Nothing has changed, Steve.” Tony pushed himself off the ground, brushing off dust from his clothes—god, the dust was everywhere. His eyes were picking up every tiny speck floating in the air.
Steve grabbed Tony’s wrist and yanked him down. “Then let’s meditate. After that we’ll work on some bonding exercises.”
Tony groaned and threw his head back. “I’m tired of bonding exercises.”
“Are you tired of your life?”
Tony grimaced. When Steve threw punches, he didn’t hold back. “Well, I have accomplished more than most. It has been a fulfilling life at least.”
“Tony!” Steve scowled.
“All right, all right. I get it.” Tony crossed his legs and took in a deep breath. “Let’s just get the meditation over with so we can start our trust falls or whatever Kumbaya crap you’ve got planned for today.”
“Let’s also try to get some food into you before our exercises.”
“God, why are you such a dictator?”
Steve hit Tony with a deadpan stare.
Tony sighed and shook out his arms before resting them on his knees. “Fine. Honestly, Fury should be proud.” He shut his eyes.
Steve shifted himself into position. “Just focus on me. I’m your anchor, remember?”
“You never let me forget, dear.”
Steve swatted Tony’s knee.
“I didn’t know hitting was part of meditation.”
“Seriously, I think I meditate more than Bruce at this point.”
“How can I when you’re not even relaxed!” Tony threw his hands up in the air.
“If you would just shut up for one minute!”
Tony guffawed. “Do you even know me?”
Steve groaned in aggravation. He buried his face in his palm. “Sometimes I wonder if you really want to be saved.”
There was that sucker punch of Steve’s again, but this time he might as well be wearing the Iron Man gauntlets with the amount of damage he caused. The pain was excruciating in Tony’s chest, but he numbed himself to it, shoving down every thought and emotion into a vault where no one could access them.
Tony must not have hid his pain fast enough, though, because Steve flinched and lifted his head up. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
Tony shrugged. “Kind of hard to take it any other way than what was said.” Tony closed his eyes again and breathed deep, forcing his muscles loosen but never quite able to reach the same level of relaxation he’d had when all he had to focus on was Bucky punching. “As I said, let’s get this over with.”
Tony could sense the desire to pursue their conversation rolling off of Steve based off the tensing of his muscles and his slightly faster breathing. Tony internally pleaded for Steve to shut up and do the damn exercise.
Perhaps Steve had heard him or sensed Tony’s desires through the bond, because he finally settled back into position and began the process of meditating.
Tony focused on Steve’s heartbeat, listening as it slowed. Steve’s breathing evened out, and if it weren’t for the faintest of differences, Tony might have mistaken Steve for asleep.
Tony could feel his heartbeat slowing down to match Steve’s and his breaths becoming deeper and evenly spaced.
Wrong. The word was like a bee buzzing around his head.
Tony’s body clenched.
Steve’s heartbeat and breathing stuttered, but he quickly recovered.
Tony tried to ease himself back into his relaxed state, but like a trigger, that one stray thought brought dozens more, all of them circling around his failure to form a strong bond with anyone.
And really? How does a deep bond even form? All these stupid exercises did nothing for him. He’d gone through meditation techniques, trusts exercises, spending a week or more alone with Pepper, and every other method that was said to help with building bonds, yet he’d never formed one with her. Yet with Steve it had taken just week locked in a secluded space together and they were able to form the frail thing between them.
Pepper was the love of his life; Steve was his enemy some days. It just didn’t make any sense. How could he have a metaphysical bond with Steve and not Pepper?
And why, even after getting the equivalent of a sapling of a sprout and doing everything to cultivate it, was the bond still so weak?
Obviously there was something defective about him. His family had a history, and most of the guides he’d ever tried to form a bond with were able to do so with someone else.
Steve gripped Tony’s hands and squeezed them reassuringly.
Wrong! The dips, the curves, the texture of the skin: all of it was wrong!
Tony yanked his hands away.
Steve’s eyes flew open, shock evident on his face.
Tony clenched his hands into fists. “You know yesterday how you asked about if there were dating websites, but for sentinels and guides?”
“There are, but I never bothered with them. After Ultron, Pepper and I had FRIDAY crunch the numbers to find anyone in the world who could possibly be compatible with me. We found a few, I met with them, and there was nothing.”
“Was I one of them?” Steve asked. Tony knew why Steve was asking; if Steve had not been considered a viable candidate then he was proof that there was an error in FRIDAY’s calculations.
Tony laughed bitterly. “Surprisingly, yes. Same with Banner, but fuck if we know where he is. Not that it matters, since Banner and I tried a year or so before Ultron.”
“We can't give up.”
“I agree, but I’m running out of ideas.”
Steve squared his shoulder and looked more defiant than ever, but the loss of color to his face gave away his terror; he knew how bad the situation was if Tony was admitting he was running out of ideas.
Steve’s heart rate was rapid.
Tony frowned and looked up from his phone where an image of Pepper was being projected.
“I’ll call you back, Pep.” Tony ended the call, cutting off Pepper’s sound of protest.
Steve sounded like he was on the communal floor, and was arguing with Bucky.
Which explained the quickened heartbeat.
The hairs on the back of Tony’s neck stood on end, and even though he knew Steve could more than handle himself in an argument, the same instincts that had been pushing him away from Steve were suddenly howling at Tony to go to Steve and defend his guide.
In two seconds, Tony was in the elevator and taking it to the floor Steve was on.
“When are you going to get it through your head; I can’t help you.”
“You’re the best, and you got him to calm down before.”
A crunch. Something plastic.
“I was the best. Becoming emotionally and mentally unstable changed that. You already know the techniques. There’s nothing else I can do.”
The elevator doors opened.
“But at the base—”
“Not something unheard of.”
“Hey,” Tony strolled over to the duo, who were milling about the kitchen. Steve’s hands were covered in flecks of colorful paint from his artistic afternoon, whereas Bucky appeared to have gone back to the gym. A towel covered in sweat was draped over his shoulders.
Bucky had down half a liter bottle of water and crushed the bottle in his metal hand.
That explained the crunching noise from earlier.
Tony stepped up beside Steve, elbows bumping. “So what’s going on?”
“I was trying to see if Bucky could help us,” Steve explained.
“Don’t you think you should have conferred with me before getting your best friend involved?”
“Are you saying you haven’t talked to Rhodey about what’s going on?”
Well, shit. That question put Tony in quite the predicament. He hadn’t told Rhodey a thing; he didn’t want Rhodey to needlessly worry about him. However, if Steve learned that Rhodey was in the dark about Tony’s deterioration, Steve would call up Rhodey in a heartbeat and tell him.
Bucky swore in Russian.
Tony narrowed his eyes at Bucky. “You got something to say?”
Bucky leveled Tony with a chilling look. “I’m sayin’ nothin’.”
Which didn’t mean Bucky didn’t have anything to say.
Tony wasn’t stupid. Bucky’s observation skills rivaled that of Natasha’s. Tony had no clue how he’d given himself away, but he knew deep in his bones that Bucky had picked up on the fact that Tony hadn’t said anything Rhodey about his deterioration.
If wasn’t going to say anything though, then Tony would just play along and not call Bucky out on his observation. “Good.”
Bucky side-eyed Tony, a glint of aggravation in his gaze. “Although, keeping secrets from each other can sometimes interfere with a bond between sentinel and guide.”
Tony side-stepped in front of Steve. He felt an animalistic growl bubble up in his throat. “That didn’t sound like ‘nothing’, Barnes.”
The irritation vanished from Bucky’s eyes, to be replaced with disinterest. Bucky cocked his head and quirked an eyebrow at Steve. “And you think I can help you?” He huffed and gulped down a mouthful of water from his bottle. “Good luck.”
Bucky walked around Tony and Steve, and headed for the exit.
Tony fought every voice inside him that said he should give chase and attack. Bucky wasn’t an enemy; he was a pain in the ass, but not the enemy.
“Did you really have to chase him off?” Steve asked.
Tony cringed at the accusing tone. “I think he was going to run off anyway,” Tony said with as much sass as he could muster.
“He might have had an idea about what we could do.”
“Based off what I heard, Bucky has nothing for us.”
“Then what do you want to do, Tony? Because like you, I am running out of ideas.”
“We’ll figure something out.” Tony ignored the knot of dread in his stomach.
Something was up; every avenger who wasn’t already deployed on a mission or away for other reasons had gathered in the meeting room, except Tony.
Tony could hear them talking, but every time he tried to fine tune his hearing it was like listening to a crackling radio, or flipping from a classical musical station to heavy metal with the volume blasting.
“FRIDAY, what is the rest of the team up to?”
“I have been asked not to disclose that information to you.”
The team was moving. Tony waited to see if they would disperse, but their footsteps echoed toward where the carrier was kept.
There was only one reason why his teammates would be heading in that direction, and it wasn’t for repairs.
“FRIDAY, connect me to Steve.”
“I’m sorry, boss, but he says that he has to run an important errand and cannot be disturbed.”
“Tell him I know that his damn errand is a mission, and I’m not going to sit back like some baby and wait for the team to return home.”
A few seconds later a screen popped up with Steve’s disgruntled face. “Tony, in your current condition you cannot go on missions.”
“I damn well can, Steve. Now you can either tell me about the mission or I can just tag along completely blind.”
“You’re not going to join us.”
“I’d like to see you stop me. You’d have to blast this place with an EMP to stop me from taking off after all of you, and if you do that, then all of you are grounded too. Face it, Steve, I’m coming along. Even a concentrated EMP blast won’t work, unless you think you can get a hold of such a device and get to my suits before me.”
If Wanda wasn’t off on a mission with Vision, she might have been able to hold Tony in place long enough that the rest of the Avengers could leave. Perhaps even Thor could keep Tony from pursing the team, although, there was a good chance there’d be a lot of destruction involved if Thor held Tony back.
Steve must have realized this, so he switched tactics. “This isn’t some big battle in which we save a city, Tony. SHIELD found another HYDRA base, which we believe is where they are storing the weapons mentioned in the data you collected. This is a simple retrieval mission; your additional manpower is not needed.”
Simple retrieval mission? Had someone hit Steve on the head? Tony would be the first to admit, the team’s skill sets allowed them to take down more enemy’s than the average Joe, but this was still a HYDRA base filled with hundreds of enemies. Not only that, but Steve would be going in with Bucky, Natasha, Clint, and Sam: all formidable opponents, but three of which were very much normal humans. Also, there was a certain “boom” factor missing to the team, even if Clint brought his exploding arrows.
Plus, what if they ran into a weapon or bomb that needed diffusing? Natasha was good with tech, but when HYDRA was involved there almost always was some kind of curve ball, and while Natasha was good at figuring things out, Tony had always been faster. And when it came to things like explosives, timing was everything.
Tony couldn’t let his team go out there without him; he needed to be there to protect them.
Tony shot open the doors to the HYDRA base, as the rest of the team funneled in behind him.
“What happened to sneaking in?” Clint said over the comms.
“They’d already spotted us,” Tony said as he zoomed around the building, taking out any guards on the outside.
“Us or the man in the big, red suit?” Sam asked as he cleared out the other side of the building.
“You’re just jealous that your wings aren’t as sexy as my suit.”
“I don’t know. I’ve seen more wing kink on the internet than I have robot or metal suit kink,” Clint said.
“Chatter,” Steve reprimanded.
“Oh! Hello?” Flashing lights and monitors had caught Tony’s attention from one of the windows. “FRIDAY, confirm what I am seeing here.”
“It appears to be a security room.”
“Excellent, let’s go see how secure it is.”
Tony rammed through the window head first, sending glass shattering to the floor.
Guns spewed bullets at him, but the armor took them with ease. Tony fired a round of blasts at the security guards that knocked them into the walls and unconscious.
Tony scanned the room for more guards, but his scan came up empty. “Hmm. Not very secure at all. Ironic, isn’t it?”
“Like rain on your wedding day, boss.”
Tony mock gasped as he set about dismantling the security system. “Remind me when we get home to take a look at you, FRIDAY. A fine system like you should know the proper definition of ironic and how to use the word correctly.”
“Iron Man, you still in security?” Steve demanded.
Tony glanced up at the monitor showing Steve breaking down the door into one of the labs. “Yup, and use the shoulder next time, Steve, otherwise you’re going to do some serious damage to yourself.”
Steve flung his shield at the enemies in the room. “I got a little overexcited. Also, glad to hear the camera feed works. Stay there and monitor what’s going on. Let us know if anyone is escaping with tech or if one of us is about to be surrounded.”
The command chaffed; Tony wanted to be in the middle of the action. Even so, he could acknowledge the advantage of maintaining his position. “Understood. I’ll see if I can hack into their data mainframe from here.”
“Your priority is the monitors.”
“I heard you the first time. Winter, three approaching from upcoming corridor on your left.”
Bucky didn’t respond, instead he took cover behind a rack of machine parts, waited for the three agents to enter the hall, then fired at them.
“Boss, Hawkeye has gotten himself caught in close quarter combat.”
Tony’s eyes jumped to Clint’s monitor. FRIDAY was right, but it appeared Clint was handling himself fine. He even managed to mimic one of Natasha’s leg moves to incapacitate one of the agents.
“Well, we know who Clint’s been practicing with, not that there was ever any question.” Tony’s eyes skimmed the other displays while his fingers typed across the keyboard, pulling up windows on the computer’s screens.
“Shit!” Sam shouted.
Tony’s head snapped around to Sam’s monitor.
Sam’s left wing had been ripped apart by an explosion and the man was crashing down to earth.
Tony didn’t think; he acted.
He zoomed out of the window and straight for Sam.
Tony wasn’t fast enough. Even as he flew straight for Sam, he knew based off of Sam’s positioning that he wouldn’t make it before Sam crash landed, but his heart still lurched when he saw Sam skid and somersault across the ground.
Tony landed in front of Sam and shot off repulsor beams in the direction of Sam’s attackers.
In seconds, FRIDAY was flashing something across his HUD screen and saying something to him, but Tony couldn’t stop shooting. If he stopped shooting then the agents would attack again, and Sam would be dead, if he wasn’t already.
Tony thought he heard Sam calling his name, but it was so distant Tony was sure he was imagining things.
A shield to the head knocked out Tony.
The sound of roaring engines, shifting gears, and howling winds stirred Tony. With it came the familiar smell of the carrier, and each of his teammates’ odors, which was not a pleasant mix, especially since all of their scents were tainted with blood and sweat.
Tony shifted and noticed that he was no longer in his suit and that he was lying across two seats.
Tony groaned and rubbed his hand down his face. “Did I get drunk again?”
“I don’t know if that would have been better.” Steve thrust a water bottle at Tony’s face. “You lost it.”
Tony unscrewed the bottle cap, his lips falling in a downward curl as he recalled blurry images from his last moments of consciousness. “I don’t remember my senses overwhelming me.”
“Not senses this time: instinct.”
Tony’s stomach dropped. “Oh.” In a lot of ways that was worse than if Tony had been overwhelmed.
“You almost destroyed the building while we were inside,” Clint threw over his shoulder from the pilot’s seat.
Natasha punched Clint in the shoulder.
“You did it to protect me though,” Sam threw in quickly, an obvious attempt to make up for Clint’s blunder. “So thanks.”
“Any data we could have collected was erased, though, and the weapons we were looking for had disappeared along with half of the agents.” Steve wasn’t projecting anger in his tone or on his face, but Tony knew by the tightness of Steve’s jaw and muscles that the man was livid. “We had to focus all of our attention on escaping and stopping you.”
Tony shrugged. “Once you were outside, you could have just let me destroy the building. Not like the world needs another HYDRA base in it.”
“That’s not the point, Tony.” Just enough anger leaked into Steve’s voice to give it an edge. “You fought us when we got too close to Sam. You even injured Bucky.”
Tony heart jumped to his throat. He pushed himself up onto his elbows and searched the aircraft for Bucky.
In the farthest corner of the carrier, Bucky stood in the shadows like a phantom. His eyes were glazed over in thought. A white bandage encircled his upper arm, and his metal hand pressed a cold compress to his injury.
Tony’s throat went dry.
Images of people harmed by Ultron flashed through Tony’s mind.
Innocent people harmed because he’d tried to protect everyone and he had somehow messed up instead.
He was going to be sick.
“Calm down, Stark. Tis only a flesh wound.” Bucky’s eyes had regained some of their focus, but he kept them pinned to the wall as he spoke, like he didn’t want to be part of the conversation.
Tony’s brain sputtered. “Did you just make a Monty Python reference?”
Bucky didn’t say anything.
“Tony, you can’t come on anymore missions until we figure out what to do about your condition,” Steve said.
Something inside Tony snapped at Steve’s sentence. “So you just want me to sit around and wait to die?”
“No, but we can’t—”
“Uh, not that I don’t love your daily bitch fests, but I’m picking up something on our scanners and it’s coming in fast,” Clint said.
“Readings indicate a vessel, heavily armed. No indication whether friendly or hostile,” Natasha stated.
Steve frowned and headed over to the controls.
Tony righted himself on one of the chairs and leaned forward, watching the proceedings.
“Have you tried contact?”
“No response,” Natasha answered.
Steve nodded. “Hawkeye, veer out of their path. Let’s see what happens.”
Warning light flashed across the readout screens.
“Vessel just fired at us,” Natasha announced.
Clint viciously yanked the aircraft into a sideways tailspin.
The missile sailed past them.
Except it wasn’t a missile.
Tony jumped out of his seat to warn the others just as the EMP went off.
Darkness consumed the aircraft. Suddenly, Tony was weightless and flying out of his as the carrier crashed toward the ocean.