Title: Send for the Man
Author: Jilly James
Fandom: MCU, Stargate: Atlantis
Relationship(s): Tony Stark/Alex Sheppard, Other/Other
Genre: Slash, First Time, Contemporary, Fusion, Crossover, Sentinels Are Known AU
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Explicit Sex, Canon-typical Violence
Author Notes: Alexander Sheppard is not Tony DiNozzo in this story. He was raised by the Sheppards and so had none of Tony’s life experiences. He’d be better thought of as an OC. The casting for the Sheppards is the same as in If Found, Please Return.
Challenge: Written for the Little Black Dress challenge on Rough Trade, July 2018.
Beta Thanks: desertpoet
Word Count: ~21,600
Summary: After defeating Ivan Vanko, Tony Stark comes online as a sentinel but keeps that information quiet, skeptical that he’ll be able to find a guide who isn’t after his money or fame. SHIELD is acting like a bag of dicks, things with Pepper are in limbo, and the CEO of Sheppard Industries has scheduled an impromptu meeting with him. Tony’s not sure where a guide hunt fits in or even if he wants it to.
– – – –
“Jarvis, lights to 40 percent.” Tony covered his eyes with his hand, trying to deal with the spike in his visual acuity.
“Sir, the lights have been off, and the shades were already drawn upstairs. The only illumination is from the…aperture you added in the ceiling during the recent reconstruction.” Right. He needed to hire contractors as soon as his senses were no longer torturing him.
“Damn,” Tony muttered. Even through flesh and bone, it was like looking at halogen lamps. He buried his face in the cushions of the sofa in his workshop. He immediately regretted the choice as his sense of smell went into overdrive.
“Perhaps it is time to finally engage with the sentinel support services?” Jarvis’ concern overshadowed the customary dryness.
“No.” He took a steadying breath as he sat up again. “Not yet. Stick to the plan.”
“Of course.” Now the caustic edge was back.
He knew Jarvis wasn’t pleased that he had insisted the Center only be called if he zoned and remained unresponsive for more than thirty minutes, but Tony needed time to wrap his head around his changed circumstances. It had been one thing after another the last year, and he just needed a minute.
“Sir, Ms. Potts is calling again.”
“Take a message,” he bit out. The last person he wanted to talk to was Pepper. They’d been moving towards something, dancing around each other for years, but Tony had held back thinking he was going to die of palladium poisoning.
Finishing his father’s element and beating Vanko should have greenlighted them to move forward, but as he’d talked to her on the roof after his expo had blown to bits, he hadn’t been able to take that step. He’d felt odd and off-kilter, like the other shoe was about to drop, like something was about to happen. It had made him wait, needing things to settle before he made any major life changes.
The proverbial shoe had dropped a mere five hours later. Tony had come online. Not wanting anyone to know until he’d sorted himself out, he’d taken the suit and headed for Malibu. The flight had sent his newly online senses haywire, forcing Jarvis to pilot the suit the last ten minutes of the flight and then into the workshop.
Tony had been slowly leveling out since he’d peeled himself out of the suit, but it was painful and slow. All he had to occupy himself with was wondering how much being a sentinel was going to fuck up his life.
He’d always been sensitive to people wanting to be close to him for his money, people climbing between his sheets with the goal of getting something from him. Would it be any different with a guide?
Thinking of a guide made him think of Pepper again. The thought of her should hurt more than it did. The fact that it didn’t made him a bit resentful. He’d seen her very briefly before he’d left New York and had somehow known she’d never be a guide. At a fundamental level, he saw the woman he’d been slowly letting into his life as incompatible.
It should hurt, but it didn’t.
From everything he knew about sentinels, it wasn’t even that uncommon. Sentinels were hard-wired to wants guides—even latent guides. Mundanes tended to be unattractive partners to online sentinels. It made sense from an evolutionary standpoint.
It still pissed him off.
On the one hand, it was great that sentinel biology ensured he wasn’t languishing from the neurochemical cocktail that was the byproduct of a broken heart. On the other hand, Tony didn’t connect with people easily, especially romantic partners. Having a possible relationship taken away by what amounted to an archaic biological imperative was frustrating.
“Sir, shall I cancel your ten o’clock appointment with the CEO of Sheppard Industries?”
Tony’s brow furrowed. “I have a meeting with Patrick?”
“Yes, Sir. You made it clear after Mr. Stane’s death that Dr. and Dr. Sheppard should be given priority scheduling should they ever call.”
That was when Tony was the CEO of Stark Industries. Though he’d failed to make the distinction to Jarvis. “When did he call?”
“Approximately four hours ago.”
“Four—” Tony scrubbed his hands over his face, quickly halting the motion as the simple nervous tic made his skin feel like it was being abraded. “You took a meeting for me when you know the shape I’m in?”
“Of course, Sir. As instructed.”
“Cancel it!” Tony knew exactly what Jarvis was up to. Patrick was a guide.
“I’m sorry, Sir. I already buzzed him through the gate.”
“I shall send him away when he arrives at the front door.”
“What time is it?”
“Five minutes past ten.”
Tony leapt to his feet and then the whole world went white.
– – – –
A soothing voice drew Tony slowly back to awareness.
“That’s it, kiddo. Time to wake up.” The voice was familiar and comforting, the endearment something Tony hadn’t heard in decades. He also felt better than he had since coming online. Like he was wrapped in a bubble of warmth.
Tony blinked, and Patrick Sheppard’s face swam into view, pale blue eyes narrowed in what looked like amusement and concern. Patrick was standing about eighteen inches away, not touching Tony anywhere, but he could feel the echoes of touch on his arm and shoulder. Since he was back on the couch, he could only assume Patrick had guided him there.
“Jarvis let you in?”
Patrick smiled and stepped back further, obviously trying not to crowd Tony. “You were zoned. I think letting me in to help was a compromise between his last instructions and me calling the Center if he didn’t open the door. I could feel you were in distress.”
“Indeed,” Jarvis intoned.
Tony sighed and dragged his hand through his hair. His own touch no longer felt abrasive. “So, you know I’m online.”
“I knew when I called Jarvis to set the meeting.”
Tony blinked. “You knew?”
Tony couldn’t even decipher that yet. “I feel…good. Like I’m in a bubble.”
“Empathic buffering.” The succinct answer wasn’t much of one.
He made a face. “I’ve never understood how that’s supposed to work.”
“We call it an empathic buffer because the term was coined when we didn’t know what else to call it. A guide’s abilities are considered empathic, but they’re really psionic. So I throw a psionic energy field around you, and that, for a sentinel, is like being surrounded by your favorite blanket. Your senses level out, and you feel energized. Even better is when that field is provided by your bonded guide after your psionic harmonies are synchronized.”
“And now I want to know everything about psionic energy.”
“Probably not the time.”
Patrick sat at the other end of the couch and nodded toward Tony’s latest project. “And as much as I’d love to jump right into the reason I’m here, I just have to ask why you have a cobbled-together particle accelerator in your workshop.”
Tony tapped his chest. “Needed to come up with an element that could run the arc reactor but not kill me.”
Patrick cocked his head to the side, looking thoughtful. “Palladium poisoning?”
“Yeah.” He hadn’t spent much time with the Sheppards in years, and he’d forgotten how easily Patrick could follow him.
Patrick’s expression tightened, and Tony wasn’t prepared to try to sort out his scent pile. “I wish you’d have reached out. We’d have tried to help.” Patrick shook his head. “But you’ve been avoiding us since your folks died.”
Tony glanced away. “Ob– Stane. He’d said some things…” Stane had led him to believe things about the Sheppards that he’d later learned were false, but even though they tried to contact him after Afghanistan, Tony had been ashamed he’d believed such bad things about two people he’d admired so much. It was only a couple months after Stane’s funeral that he’d changed the order, thinking maybe they could reconnect through their business at least. Then things had just gotten…busy.
“I get it, kiddo. That’s kind of what we figured after his misdeeds came to light.”
He looked back at Patrick, eyes narrowing. “Most of that was kept quiet.”
“Well, I have my sources.”
“I’m sure you do.” He half wanted to get up and get a drink, but it was so nice to not be struggling with his senses that he just leaned into the cushions and relaxed. “Your timing is curious.” He shot Patrick a speaking look. “Your sentinel lurking around too?”
“She’s a couple of miles down the highway. You’re a powerful sentinel, and we couldn’t know if she would set off any territorial imperatives.”
“How do you know what kind of sentinel I am?”
Patrick leaned back and crossed his legs, smiling at Tony. “Let me tell you a story.” He hesitated briefly. “Have you met my sons?”
He had to consider it for a second. “I’ve interacted with John and David over the years. If I met either of the twins, I don’t recollect it.”
“You may have seen them when they were babies, but it’s unlikely that you met them after they were four, which would be when you were about seven.”
There was something telling in that, but Tony didn’t have enough puzzle pieces to put it together.
“The twins…” Patrick smiled faintly and shook his head. “Do you know they were born in the same minute?”
Startled, Tony could only manage, “Pardon?”
“If I may, Sir?” Jarvis interrupted. “Prior to a young woman in Canada in recent years who had her fraternal twins twenty-three seconds apart, the Sheppard twins were considered the closest delivery gap of vaginally delivered twins. The exact time between them was not recorded but they were both born in the twentieth minute of the twenty-third hour on the ninth of June in 1973.”
Tony blinked. “That seems fast.”
“Alex came out first with Matt’s hand wrapped around his ankle. No mean feat considering they’re fraternal twins.” Patrick chuckled, looking fond. It made Tony’s chest feel tight. “They love to argue over who is older. Alex was first, but Matt was bigger by about four ounces, and that seems to mean something to the two of them. It was a little unusual that the bigger twin would be second, but they were both early and very small.”
“I’m oddly charmed by the story, but I’m not sure I see your point.”
“May 18th, 1978,” Patrick offered instead of a direct response.
Tony frowned, not able to come up with anything.
“That date is often called the great onlining, Sir,” Jarvis supplied.
“Right.” Tony snapped his fingers, remembering the story now. “Hundreds of sentinels all came online at the exact same time in somewhere-Virginia. Some of them near feral. Guides came online in higher numbers throughout the same area over the next several days. There was never an explanation. I assume that’s when your boys came online?”
Patrick raised a brow.
“It’s well known that all of your sons are sentinels.” An entire family full of sentinels was pretty unusual, but the Sheppards had never been willing to discuss it. It was around that time that he remembered his father saying the Sheppards were out of town for a while.
“Not all,” Patrick corrected.
Tony frowned. “And how was that misreported for so long? Or is it known now, and I’m behind the times?”
“We lied. We continue to lie. We don’t think many people know, but we can never be certain.”
“But you can get in trouble for claiming to be a sentinel.”
“Not exactly. He never claims it, the rest of us do. It’s splitting hairs, but there are no laws against it.
“But why lie?”
“A shaman is a shaman from birth.”
“I’d say that was a non sequitur but I gather one of your sons is really a…shaman.” Tony could barely say the word. It always sounded too much like voodoo-hippy-witch-doctor. “But really? They pop out of their mothers as fully fledged guides? Like doing the guide mojo before they can even lift their little heads?”
“No, not quite. They come into their psionic abilities when they’re ready to handle them. Usually in their late teens to early twenties, but they’re the only type of guide that’s known to always come online. Their spirit guide is with them from birth. Of course, since no one but the shaman in question can see said spirit guide, it’s not as big of a tell as it might be. I’ve still never seen my son’s spirit guide.”
“Probably a good thing it’s something they can hide. People are dicks.” Tony winced a little. He couldn’t believe he’d said that in front of a man he’d looked up to so much as a kid and who had been friends with his parents.
Patrick looked amused. “All of my boys swear, Tony. And Emma swears worse than all of them combined when she’s in a snit. But to return to the story… That day, May 18th, we were all at a small garden party. The hosts had children, and there was a nanny to keep after all the kids. I can’t even blame her because there were too many children for one young woman. The twins slipped away, and they weren’t even five yet. I don’t think they were trying to leave; they were just playing.”
Tony leaned forward and braced his arms on his knees, watching Patrick closely. “Something happened?”
“They didn’t even get far. They were playing in the drive near the street. Matt closer to the street than Alex.” Patrick swallowed heavily. “A man grabbed Matthew, tried to take him. We would later find that he’d broken my boy’s arm. But the first clue we had that something was wrong was Alex screaming.”
Tony almost flinched as if he could hear the scream.
“I couldn’t even tell you what happened immediately after we heard him. The primal part of my brain had barely registered that something was wrong when I was suddenly online. Abruptly, violently. And so was Emma. Except she was feral. John and David and one of the host’s sons came online as well. We’d later learn hundreds of sentinels onlined in response to Alex’s call.”
“Call?” Tony asked, throat feeling tight.
“Alex’s scream wasn’t just fear. It was a summons, an order to come to his aid. Not in any deliberate way, but you just don’t want to deal with a four-year-old shaman coming online in violent circumstances. Some part of him screamed out for aid with no ability to modulate or direct his power.”
“Jesus.” Tony rubbed his hand over his mouth, not even sure what to say. “How’d you keep that so quiet?”
“There was no one coherent enough who could point the finger at my son.” Patrick shrugged. “Alex’s call didn’t just summon any possible sentinel to him, it shredded that disgusting man’s mind. To this day, the would-be kidnapper is catatonic in a care facility in West Virginia.”
Tony’s mouth fell open. “A four-year-old did that?”
“Mm.” Patrick glanced away briefly. “It was chaos, and by the time everything quieted down, no one could point the finger at Alex as the cause of anything. Except for this one young woman and her son, but I’ll get to them in a moment.
“We were terrified of what might happen. We had our own abilities to deal with and four young children newly online. Plus, Alex had entirely too much power and couldn’t be left untrained—he was a disaster waiting to happen—but we had no idea how the government in the seventies was going to react to him. Though we were pretty sure they’d take him from us. The situation was impossible.”
“The police never had questions or worry about the guy with the shredded mind?”
“Not exactly. When they went to his house, they found the remains of young children buried under the basement floor.” Patrick’s tone was flat, but his hands were curled into fists. Tony felt nauseated. “If he ever wakes, he’ll have a trial and be promptly sentenced to death.”
Tony tried to think around all the angles despite the horror of the story. “The outrage and horror over him would have taken some attention off of your family.”
“For a time, yes. The authorities were focused on the investigation into him and his victims, the Center was focused on sentinels and guides who were showing up needing help, and that left us to limp along for a few days. Though things were not going…well. Until a young woman and her son arrived at our gate. Alex had managed to pull another young shaman online. One who had grown up with what could be called a hippie for a mother. He’d already learned all about meditation and centering.
“Coming online young wasn’t easy for him, but I can’t imagine many adults are as well prepared or as grounded as Blair already was at nine.”
Tony choked. “Blair Sandburg? The Alpha Prime of North America?”
“Yes, that Blair.”
“To make a really, really long story short, Blair and Naomi made everything possible for us. Blair could handle empathically buffering all four of my sons, and Naomi was a dream to help us learn meditation and centering techniques. She took us to a retreat with some artist friends who didn’t care about our family name or that Alex didn’t seem like a normal guide.
“But we knew time was not on our side and we’d be found out. Except Blair came to our rescue again. He’d learned to spirit walk and had connected with other shamans. They’d all felt the traumatic onlining of Alex and Blair and had been watching for them. After a few days of guidance from them on the spirit plane, he was able to pull me along with him. We made arrangements with a shaman in Peru to train my entire family.”
Tony blinked. “Wait. That period of time when the Sheppards moved out of country… You were in Peru?”
“Yes. My father ran the businesses and we left, taking Blair with us.”
“Naomi was willing, though she was not excited. Blair, on the other hand, was eager to go. Ultimately, she agreed to let him live with us.” Patrick made a vague, dismissive gesture. “There’s a lot more story there, but John and David stayed in Peru for three years before they came back to live with their grandfather and go to school, though they came back every summer to train. Emma and I stayed almost full-time for five years. We had to leave for short periods of time but otherwise lived in Peru. After we moved back to North America, we traveled back as often as we could. Matt, Alex, and Blair stayed for about a decade.”
“It was difficult, and I would have rather kept the family together, but Alex rightly pointed out that we have four children, and it wasn’t right to ask them all to live in the jungle because he wasn’t fit for company. Nor was it acceptable to expect John and David to be without their parents.” Patrick was smiling faintly as if the memory brought him humor. Tony couldn’t quite see what was funny, but it wasn’t his place to judge.
“The odds of Matthew ever leaving his brother for extended periods of time are slim, though it was worse when they were younger. Alex tried to encourage Matt to go with us, but he was so relieved when Matt declined that it hurt to watch. Blair was happy as a pig in mud staying in Peru, so he wasn’t worried about it. He missed his mother and only saw her a few times over the years, but he was happy. Peru felt like home to him.”
“And yet they came back.”
“Blair’s sentinel literally crashed in the Peruvian jungle. There’s no telling how long Jim would have been stranded out there if we hadn’t created almost a minor trade route to the Chopec village. Plus, Blair contacted me spiritually about an injured Army Ranger being tended by the villagers.”
“So, the top bananas, as it were, of the sentinel and guide world help protect the secret about Alex?”
“But why is it a secret? He’s a grown ass man now. Shamans aren’t common by any means, but they’re protected by the Council and the United Nations, and their existence is well known by mundanes.”
“The reason Alex has hidden is something he’ll have to explain. He wanted to be close to Blair but not live in the US. Blair moved to Cascade, and so Alex wanted to move somewhere near the US border. He’s lived near Vancouver Island since he was about sixteen.”
“Is that why you relocated most of Sheppard Industries to Canada?”
“At the time, privacy laws were better for sentinels and guides in Canada than they were in the US. I wanted to protect my family.”
Tony stared at the floor for several long moments. “It’s pretty easy to put the pieces together here, Patrick. You show up on the very day I come online and tell me you have a son who is a guide.” He met Patrick’s gaze. “You think your son, Alex, is my guide. But I don’t see how you could possibly know that.”
“Me? No.” He pulled his cell phone from his pocket, unlocked it, and scrolled to something. “Your onlining was quite early here on the west coast…” Patrick set the phone on the sofa cushions between them.
Confused, Tony picked up the phone and found a text conversation.
1:42 AM: Yo, Pops! My sentinel just came online. Wakie wakie!
1:43 AM: Feels like he’s on the other coast. Isn’t that just the way of it? At least he’s on this continent. Meditating…
1:48 AM: New York, I think. Gonna drag Matt and Ev out of bed and make them fly me there ASAP.
1:52 AM: Ev threw a shoe at me! I drank the coffee I made him out of spite.
1:52 AM: Matt wants to send John and David to do recon. To hell with that! Tell mom to make them behave.
1:53 AM: Although, if Matt is brave enough to wake Rodney in the middle of the night, I say he’s got the solid brass ones to make any request he likes.
1:57 AM: Holy shit! My sentinel is Tony Stark. Once I’d calmed down and was able to meditate properly, that’s who I saw. It’s so fucking WEIRD! At least I won’t have to worry about bonding just to find out that he was after my money. Worse, that it was a ploy to get to my family.
1:58 AM: Why aren’t you responding?? Do I really have to call and risk waking mom?
1:59 AM: Dad?!
2:00 AM: DAD!!! You know how annoying I can be.
I’m willing to text you every minute until you respond.
2:02 AM: Son, I’m thrilled, your mother is thrilled.
Your sentinel will still be online after everyone has slept.
2:05 AM: Were you not paying attention to WHO my sentinel is?
Didn’t Stark Expo BLOW THE FUCK UP LAST NIGHT?!
Are we not talking about the guy who FLIES around in a tin can and picks fights with terrorists?
2:06 AM: I may have been skimming.
You have a point. Go forth and conquer.
2:07 AM: The things I put up with…
3:45 AM: Why the FUCK is my sentinel moving rapidly the WRONG WAY?!
3:46 AM: I’m not psychic, Alexander.
You know he has a house in Malibu.
3:48 AM: But I’m going to New York!
3:49 AM: At the risk of being repetitive…
He’s not psychic, Alexander. But don’t worry,
Malibu is only a couple hours from your mother and me.
3:50 AM: NO!!!
3:51 AM: I cannot stress that no enough! I can handle first contact.
3:52 AM: Your mother is calling you…
4:18 AM: You guys suck.
4:20 AM: I know. It’s a wonder you put up with us.
“Tin can!” Tony muttered with half-hearted indignation. The texts continued, but Tony stopped reading and carefully set down the phone. He was uncertain how to characterize what he was feeling. “He felt me come online?”
“Has he ever done that before?” he asked, flailing around for an answer.
“He feels people come online every day, but he’s never, not once, claimed one of them was his. Alex has never searched for a sentinel because he’s always known that his sentinel wasn’t online yet.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
“What do you want to do?”
– – – –
Tony stood on the deck, staring out over the ocean, thinking on everything Patrick had said. Patrick was in the house, close enough to maintain the “empathic buffer” on Tony, so he wasn’t being tortured by the sunlight.
They’d talked for about ten minutes after he’d finished reading the texts, and Tony had learned some basic things about Alex Sheppard, but no amount of biographical data was going to prepare him for the decision in front of him.
“What would you do, J?” He knew Jarvis’ auditory sensors would easily pick up the softly murmured question.
“I’m afraid this is a situation in which I am ill-equipped to assist you, Sir.”
Tony blew out a breath. “You’re never ill-equipped to assist, but I get your meaning.”
“I have no frame of reference by which to understand what being a sentinel is like, and so I cannot comprehend what it’s like to need a guide. But I believe that even if you were not a sentinel that you would like the man that Dr. Sheppard described. He would challenge you and stimulate your mind if he is indeed as smart and ‘sassy’ as his father claims.”
Tony laughed. “Okay, so you do have an opinion.”
“I often have opinions, Sir, but it’s a question of how helpful they may be in any given situation.”
Frowning, Tony considered that statement. “You can always offer me your opinion, Jarvis.”
“Then you should at least meet with Alexander Sheppard. There are few people in life that you trust, and you deserve the opportunity to see if he could be such a person.”
“And the guide thing?”
“It’s likely that you will require a guide. It could be seen as incredibly fortuitous that your perfect match comes free from the suspicions most candidates would be met with.”
“That’s very practical, J.” The Sheppard family as a whole were wealthier than Tony, though none had Tony’s individual wealth. Sheppard Industries was about double the size of Stark Industries and much more diversified.
“I only engage in frivolity on Sundays, Sir.”
That startled a laugh out of him.
“Dr. Sheppard has asked that I inform you that Dr. Sheppard the younger is en route by helicopter and should be here in approximately fifteen minutes. Additionally, I’ve been informed that he’ll likely only be diverted from this as his destination by your direct request.”
Tony’s lips twitched with amusement as he went back into the house.
He found Patrick inspecting the damage in the floor. “When you need to get something done, you go all in, don’t you?”
“I was in a hurry,” Tony said flippantly. “So, he’s on the way.”
“Matthew and Evan are flying him from the airport. But he’ll wait if that’s what you want.”
Tony made an impulsive decision. “It’s fine. We should at least meet. Talk.”
“Then you need to prepare yourself for Matt. He’s not going to come inside or even leave the chopper, you’d be too on edge for that, but he’s an alpha sentinel and he’ll be closer than you’re comfortable with. Especially as you’re newly online. Any sentinel might make you feel like your territory were being invaded, which is why Emma is waiting at that diner, but an alpha sentinel will definitely set you on edge.”
“Okay.” Tony shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “So Matthew is the alpha of your crew? I wouldn’t have pegged that.”
“Of our family pride? No. That’s John.”
“It’s rare for so many sentinels and guides to be in one family, but, when it happens, they tend to form a mini pride within the larger pride. We actually have very little to do with the larger pride structure as we all tend to travel quite a bit.”
“So you have two alpha sentinels? Is that normal?”
“No, there’s nothing normal about us. And we have three. David is an alpha too. Emma would have likely been as well, but we weren’t a close enough match.”
Tony thought through the implications. “You two were already happily married and never interacted with the Center in any meaningful way before leaving for Peru.”
“I love my wife. Only severe incompatibility would have pulled me away from her. And I can’t really imagine even incompatibility pulling us apart. When we were eventually tested, we were an eight-point match, which is still highly compatible. But you need nine to even have a chance of being an alpha sentinel and guide pair.”
“So… Mom and Dad are sort of the pseudo alphas all their lives and then all three sons are alphas sentinels when they bond. How do you decide who’s in charge? Vote? Poker tournament? Like the Sheppard family version of the Lotto?”
Patrick laughed. “John bonded first, so he took up the reins. Matt’s actually a stronger sentinel—which is astonishing considering how unbelievable John’s abilities are—but Mattie is allergic to responsibility—his words.”
“But the strength of the guide matters as well?”
“Yes. Perhaps more than the sentinel as the guide boosts the sentinel’s abilities. But we’ve never been concerned with internal ranking. In a pride, there’s a feel of who the strongest guide and sentinel in the pride is. We all feel that Matt is the strongest sentinel, and Alex is a shaman, and that muddles the instinctive drive about picking the alpha pair.”
There was an obvious conclusion in there about alpha pairs that Tony wasn’t ready to deal with yet. “So, Matthew is going to set the helicopter down out there and I’m going to…what? Get twitchy? Feel the need to find a pot of woad and paint myself blue? Pull out the trusty bow and arrow?”
“Sentinels favor swords. Close combat over ranged weapons is always their go to.”
Tony goggled for a second or two before he realized Patrick was fighting a smile. “I see what this is. Teasing. I’m being teased.”
Patrick laughed. “Yes, though it’s not untrue. Sentinels in most countries carried ceremonial swords until the 1950s for a reason. They still do in Japan and a few other countries. And if your instincts are stirred up, you will favor close combat. A hands-on kill for certain threats is the sentinel’s instinct.”
“Biological imperative for the win?” he muttered with a hefty dose of skepticism.
“It is what it is. But, yes, you’ll get agitated when you feel Matt get close. Being prepared for it is half the battle.”
“And if I get…aggressive?” He’d heard stories of sentinels going feral over territory invasions.
“You’re not going to go feral over Matt. You might growl or posture, but that’s about it. But if you got more hostile than expected, I’d help calm things down.”
“And if that didn’t work?”
Patrick’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you that worried about hurting someone?”
“Yeah. Who hasn’t heard stories about sentinels gone whack-a-doodle.”
“Most of those instances are poorly understood by the general public, not to mention dramatized by the media. You’re not going to go after the brother of your guide. But, if it sets your mind at ease, Alex could drop you like a five-year-old child from a hundred yards away. And you may be his sentinel, but he doesn’t let people fuck with Mattie.”
Tony blinked a few times. “A hundred yards? Is that hyperbolic?”
“No. But Alex should be the one to explain.”
“It seems like Alex has a lot of explaining to do.” He rolled his shoulders, feeling an itch between his shoulder blades.
Patrick watched him closely. “I think you’re feeling Matt encroaching on your territory.”
“Well, it’s getting worse very quickly.” It was rapidly starting to feel like a threat, like a violation.
“Sir,” Jarvis interrupted, “I have a call from Sentinel Sheppard. Shall I put him on?”
“This is Alpha Sentinel Matthew Sheppard inbound with two guides on board. I’ll be leaving one then taking off immediately. Do I have permission to enter your territory?”
Tony felt some of his anxiety lessen, the feeling of threat fading away, though he was still tense. “Yes, you have my permission to land.”
The line went dead. Tony took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders.
“Okay,” Patrick stepped close, “before your primitive brain kicks into high gear, let me just say that you kids need to take it slow. You in particular have been through a lot in the last year. And Alex, despite running around the jungle with knives and hunting wild game for most of his childhood, has been fairly sheltered.”
“Sheltered? You make him sound like a princess in an ivory tower.”
Patrick’s head bobbed from side to side while he considered that. “Rapunzel isn’t too far off.” At Tony’s baffled expression, he added, “I’m kidding.”
Tony rolled his eyes and tried to ignore the bit of lingering feeling that he was being invaded. His hearing slipped a little past his comfort zone as he picked up on the sound of helicopter blades at a distance.
“Seriously, Tony, give yourselves time to get to know one another.” Patrick waved his cellphone. “I’ve already texted Alex the same thing. Plus, I’m sure he’s gotten an earful from his mother about patience.”
“Is there a bundling board provided with this conversation? Jesus, Patrick, I’m forty-one.”
“And Alex is almost thirty-eight. It’s not about your ages, but about giving yourself space to make the right choices for each of you. You’ve been through a lot of changes recently.”
“We’re not going to rush into anything.” The helicopter could now be heard even at mundane hearing levels, so Tony struggled to dial down his aural sensitivity so he didn’t give himself a migraine. He ignored the part of him that wanted to get the suit on and get rid of the interloper sentinel.
Patrick nodded. “I’ve given Jarvis everyone’s cell numbers and email. We’ll be around if you need us.”
“What? All of you?”
“John and Rodney, David and Miko will probably wait until they hear how things are going and if you and Alex plan to try to get to know one another but, if he’s going to be here in LA for a bit, they’ll be here too.”
“Is everyone that protective of him?”
Patrick just grinned. “Maybe not the right word… You’ll see.” He cocked his head toward the front door. “It was good to see you again, Tony. We’ve been following your accomplishments from afar and have been so incredibly proud of you. Em and I will be nearby if you need us.”
Tony’s throat felt tight, and he didn’t want to poke at the reason why.
A scent captured his attention. He took a deep breath, trying to get more of it.
“Oh boy,” Patrick muttered. “Try to dial down your senses if you can. If you stay dialed up, you won’t be able to be rational.”
“I’d imagine so.”
“But…he’s not even here yet.”
“Just dial down. I’ll walk you through it until the helicopter lands.”
Tony tried to focus on Patrick’s instructions, but it wasn’t the easiest thing to do with that tantalizing scent getting closer. Then he picked up the sound of this soothing, hypnotic pulse.
“I can hear his heart…” It was no strain to stay focused on it, and it really should have been. It should have blown his hearing out to listen to a heartbeat not even on the property.
“Dial it down, Tony!” Patrick snapped. “Do not get hyper-focused. Cast your senses out over your property. Focus on a different heartbeat. Focus on the smell of flowers. Anything to not totally fixate on him.”
Tony managed to do as asked then took a shuddery breath when he heard the helicopter land. “I’m good.” He leaned over and braced his hands on his legs, taking deep breaths to get his bearings. “I’ve got it under control.” He stood up and forced himself to deal.
“You don’t want to go into some sort of bonding drive. When you get too focused on him, deliberately focus as many senses as possible on other things.”
“You want me to stay?”
“Nah, I got this. Just…tell Matthew, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, to get lost.”
“I heard you,” Matthew’s voice said from a distance. “And I’m outta here. Alex is waiting by Dad’s car. Be nice to my brother or I’ll kick your ass.”
Tony chuckled, but didn’t reply. The helicopter lifted off again.
“I’m gonna talk to Alex. You want to come out? Meet in the open air?”
“Nah. I need a minute. And I don’t want to intrude.”
“You won’t be able to stop yourself from listening anyway, and that’s normal at this stage. So it’s not intruding.”
Tony suddenly felt very unready for this moment. “I’ll wait here. He can just come in, you know, whenever.”
“Right.” Patrick watched him closely.
Tony interpreted that as worry about what he might do to Alex. “You’re sure it’s safe for us to meet alone? I’ve heard about sentinels losing it and…” he trailed off, not wanting to verbalize the thought.
“Normally, it would be a concern, but Alex can handle you.”
“You’re that sure?”
Patrick smiled. “I’m worried about you, not him. Let yourself really feel what’s going on. Not with your senses. Just…feel.”
Tony considered for a second. “There’s like a heavy feeling in the air, sort of like my ears need to pop.”
“Sir, if I may, my sensors detect an odd energy field that has covered most of the property. That may be what Dr. Sheppard wishes you to feel. It occurred when the younger Dr. Sheppard arrived.”
Tony blinked, not sure what that even meant.
Patrick sighed. “He’s not shielding fully. But, I promise you, Tony, Alex can handle you.” He reached out and squeezed Tony’s upper arm. “Keep in touch, kiddo. I’ve missed you.”
“Yeah.” Tony was trying to deal with all the things being thrown at him. “It was good to see you.”
Patrick hesitated at the door. “Oh, and the twins’ birthday is in eight days. You’re expected to attend.” Then Patrick was gone. “Mind your shielding, Alexander,” came a few seconds later.
There was no verbal response, but the sense of heaviness lessened. Tony focused on the soothing heartbeat coming from the driveway.
“You can always do this the more conventional way,” Patrick said softly from the drive. “Don’t give me that look. Just because neither of you are properly registered doesn’t mean you can’t be.” There was a brief pause and then, “All right, son. Just take it easy on him, okay? He’s been through hell and you’re…a lot to take.”
There was a huffy sound followed by a car door closing. The sound of the car driving away nearly drowned out the footsteps approaching.
The tap on the front door broke him out of what felt like a trance.
“Shall I open the door, Sir?”
“Ye—” He cleared his throat. “Yeah, let him in.”
The door swung open. “Welcome, Dr. Sheppard. Sir is just past the door in the entryway.”
“Please call me Alex. There are five Dr. Sheppards in my family, and it gets confusing. Are you Jarvis?”
Tony’s breath caught in his throat at the sound of the voice.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. From the first time I heard about you, I’d hoped we’d meet someday.”
“I’m…flattered.” Jarvis actually sounded kind of befuddled, which made Tony smile. Alexander Sheppard was already on Tony’s good side. And not just because he smelled great and sounded better.
Then Alex stepped into view and Tony’s breath caught. Tall, green eyes, hair nearly blond from the sun, tanned…and incredibly beautiful.
Alex rubbed the back of his neck. “So, this is weird.”
“After everything, it shouldn’t be even close to topping out my weird-o-meter, but it kinda is.” Tony took a step closer. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re obnoxiously attractive?”
Alex was obviously fighting a smile. “Mattie’s the pretty one.”
“Dear god. Is he even human?” His guide’s laughter felt like palpable joy. It was the best thing Tony had ever heard. That he was already thinking of Alex as his guide brought him up short.
“Is something wrong?” Alex’s brow furrowed. “Your expression kind of froze and your emotional tone is…odd.”
“What do you do?”
“For a living. I asked your dad about you, but other than you work for the company, he told me more about your personality. Though I’m still not sure if ‘vicious’ was hyperbolic or not.”
“Okay, I’m down for a game of non sequitur. I got my first PhD in chemistry—my focus was initially analytical chemistry, but I moved into chemical engineering. My second PhD was electrical engineering. As for what I actually do…whatever captures my interest.”
Two doctorates—clearly brilliant. “So, you’re basically perfect.”
“Didn’t my father describe me as vicious?” Alex asked with a grin.
“Right. As I said, perfect.” Tony took two steps, bringing him within ten feet of his guide. “Here’s the thing, I’m known for being impulsive and doing inadvisable things.”
He took another two steps. “If I were smart, I’d order us lunch, we’d chat, talk about ourselves. But I’m feeling rather impetuous. So, you should probably be the sentinel-fending-off badass your father says you are and keep me at arm’s length.”
“And if I don’t want to?” Alex took a step toward him, leaving about forty-eight inches between them.
“You probably should.”
“Are you worried about me?” Alex sounded incredulous.
“Shouldn’t I be?”
“I’ve been online for thirty-three years, Tony. You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Can you really handle me if I lose it?”
Alex’s eyes narrowed. The heavy feeling in the air suddenly intensified, like being underwater—much more intense than what he’d felt before
Tony found himself gasping and struggling not to back away. “Nice party trick.”
“And that’s all it is. A little aura, a little psionic energy flung about.” The feeling abruptly faded. “About as difficult for me as, say, hearing my heartbeat is for you. If I wanted you down, you’d be unconscious.”
“That’s really fucking hot,” Tony said, feeling a little breathless for a whole new reason.
Alex smiled. A wide, delighted smile, and it was beautiful. He held out a hand. “If you want to keep your distance for your sake, that’s fine. But don’t do it to protect me.”
Never one to deny himself, Tony reached out for Alex’s hand and pulled him close, feeling his nerve endings alight with pleasure at the first touch. He buried his face in his guide’s throat, breathing deeply. God, it was so fucking perfect.
“I can feel your sensory imprints. You did sight, sound, and smell without trying, and you just imprinted on touch. If you imprint taste, there’s probably no going back,” Alex warned.
“I’ve never been good at denying myself,” Tony murmured against Alex’s skin. He pulled back enough to meet his guide’s gaze. His guide’s. And why did his guide have to be so damn tall? “Let’s be rash, impetuous, impulsive—”
“Hasty, careless, devil-may-care,” Alex interjected. “I can play the synonym game, too. Though I like…spontaneous.”
Tony grinned and slid his hand behind Alex’s neck, pulling him down. Their lips pressed together as he claimed Alex’s mouth, licking inside.
The world seemed to snap into sharp focus as he was utterly consumed with Alex.
He backed Alex up against the wall as he continued to taste and explore. He finally pulled away from that perfect mouth and met Alex’s gaze, struggling for breath and some self-control.
Alex looked completely wrecked, pupils blown wide.
Tony blinked, feeling an odd sensation in his head.
Alex’s eyes widened in alarm, and then everything went blue.
– – – –
Tony stumbled and would have fallen if he weren’t holding so tightly to Alex. “What the fuck?” They were suddenly in the jungle. A blue jungle. “What happened?”
Instead of answering, Alex pulled Tony behind him as he looked around warily.
“Did you just shove me behind you? Really?”
An energy field that glowed white sprung up around them, startlingly white in a landscape of all blue. Then a long blade made of what looked like energy appeared in Alex’s hand.
“Nice trick. Care to share with the rest of the class?” Tony tried to pull away, not comfortable being in such a protected position.
Alex wouldn’t let go. “When we’re in the physical realm, you can be all sentinely. But your senses won’t do us any good here and you can’t wield psionic energy. Anyone who can force me onto the psionic plane against my will is a serious threat.”
“Yeah, agreeing that that doesn’t sound good.” He adjusted his position, figuring he’d deal with his incredulity about being on another plane of existence some other time. “I’ll stand by you but not behind you.”
Alex took his eyes off the landscape and briefly met Tony’s gaze. “Fair enough.” He swept a narrowed-eyed gaze over the tree line. “Shall we see who’s trying to hide from us?”
“I think that’s the least we can do.”
A wave of energy seemed to pulse out from Alex and every bit of everything rippled then vanished. Every tree, blade of grass, rock…everything. All gone. Leaving behind a bleak, blank, blue horizon with nothing but a tall being in the far distance.
“Okay, yeah, you’re kind of a badass,” Tony muttered.
“Peace, young defender,” a voice said. It felt like it was both in Tony’s head and all around him, not distinctly male nor female, both soft and loud.
“Being forced here is not a peaceful act,” Alex snapped. “Let us leave.”
The being was suddenly in front of them when Tony could have sworn it was more than a mile away. It was easily eight-feet tall and humanoid in shape, though the limbs seemed unusually long. The facial features were almost indistinct, as if they were shifting subtly from one second to the next.
“I see you have mastered this realm, defender.”
Alex extended the energy blade straight out, preventing the being from moving any closer. “Who are you?”
“I am Infinity.”
That made no sense to Tony, but Alex cocked his head to the side and made a noise Tony interpreted as surprise.
“As in…the cosmic entity?” Alex sounded flummoxed.
“Shit.” Alex dropped the energy blade, and the shield around them vanished.
“Okaaay,” Tony drew out, holding up his hand. “For the rest of the class? Because should we be trusting this bozo?”
“Lies have a particular vibe here,” Alex answered. “Any being that can force me here is probably beyond my power to deal with anyway, but if they can truly lie without me knowing then I’m definitely just posturing.”
“Your little weapon might have stung a bit,” the big dude offered calmly.
The dude, Infinity, looked to Tony, its eyes a solid field of shifting greys. “In this realm, your mate’s weapon would have destroyed the life force of most mortal beings, leaving their physical form a living husk for all their short days. It was no trivial threat he made.”
Tony’s list of questions was growing by the moment. “I’m not sure if I care about your opinion yet, so I’ll just offer a noncommittal…” He shrugged.
“I need to sit down for this.” Alex made to sit, pulling Tony with him.
Tony braced himself to land on his ass on the ground, but he found himself on a loveseat next to Alex, and the environment was like an airy library. Just a very blue one. “Wha…?”
Infinity stared at Tony. “Alexander has never before revealed to another living soul the level of control he has over this plane.” An overly large armchair appeared behind Infinity and it took a seat.
Before Tony could reply, Alex cut in. “I loathe feeling manipulated, so if you have something to say, just say it.”
Tony held up his hand again. “The class has a question, teach. Or maybe fifty questions. Starting with what the fuck is a cosmic entity?”
Alex glanced over at Tony and blew out a breath. “It’s one of many creation myths. Or supposed myths. One of my teachers encouraged me to learn as much about creation myths as possible because there were grains of truth in many of them, and the knowledge might be needed someday.
“The way it was told to me is that before the universe began there were six singularities and the cosmic entities of Death, Entropy, Eternity, and Infinity somehow harnessed the power of the singularities into six stones of power and set them out into the universe.”
“Sounds like a fairytale.”
“And yet more accurate than not,” Infinity countered.
“Why are we here?” Alex shot back stubbornly.
“In your short years, you’ve frequently contemplated the reason for your existence, Alexander, Defender of Man, yet you have no answer. I come bearing the answers you seek.”
“That seems unlikely.” Alex crossed his arms over his chest. “Past experience leads me to believe I’m about to get a bunch of cryptic bullshit and then left to figure things out for myself.”
Infinity smiled faintly. At least, Tony thought it was a smile. It might have been a declaration of war for all Tony knew—that face wasn’t really what he’d call readable. “I cannot tell you what will be, but I can tell you what you are.”
“You make it sound like I’m not human.”
“You’re human, but you are also more. As you well know. I will not prevaricate, and you will not play the fool,” Infinity said severely.
“All I know is that I’m not like a normal guide. Or even a normal shaman. I know I don’t have a spirit animal, but I don’t know why.”
Tony shot Alex a concerned look, not sure how to help.
Infinity held up its hand and what looked like a prism formed. “Light passes through and breaks into many colors.” A ray of light suddenly passed through the prism, causing a rainbow of colors to form more vibrantly than should have been possible.
“The people of your world only openly acknowledge psionic energy as that which powers the empathic gifts of your guides even though many guides have abilities that are not in any way empathic. Spirit guides are the means by which your people’s guides connect to this plane. They are the conduit of the energy you draw.”
The orange light passing through the prism formed into a small orange lion. “But psionic energy is known by secret sects on your world who are able to channel it differently. If they have the aptitude and the right ancient tools, they can seemingly do magic. They call it sorcery.” The yellow light formed into an odd-looking ring. “Many of the other realms calls psionic energy seidr, and there are disciplines that pull energy from this plane for rituals and spells.”
The crystal and light thingies vanished, and Alex shot Tony a bemused look. “So, you’re saying that empathy, magic, and no doubt many of the unique gifts that have sprung up on Earth, all are fueled by the same source.”
“Yes, but you already suspected that since you’ve felt the pull of more than empaths as you learned about this place.”
“So, what is your point?”
“The point is the answer to your question. You wonder why you have no spirit guide, but what need have you of a connection to this plane when you are the master of it?”
Alex crossed his arms over his chest. “That makes no sense.”
Tony rested a hand on Alex’s knee and leaned forward. “Look, Infinity dude, say whatever it is you have to say.”
“Very well. A threat rises, one that threatens all life in the universe. The future is still uncertain, but the first steps down a dark path have already been taken. We foresaw this eventuality, but our direct actions in the mortal realm could cause as much destruction if not more. We could unmake that which we love.
“Other than the six stones used in combination, psionic energy is the greatest cosmic force. It is the force that flows through the universe and enables life. By appointing a master of this realm, life has the greatest chance of continuing.”
“But what is it we’re supposed to do?” Tony asked, sensing that Alex needed someone to run interference and come up with the questions.
“There is nothing that you need to do. Yet. It is not our place to tell you how to defend the universe, merely to give you the tools to do so.”
“But no information,” Alex snapped irritably.
“In our viewing of possible futures, the ones with the best outcomes were those where you were allowed to prepare but not told the exact nature of the threat to come.” Infinity held up a hand with bizarrely long, skinny fingers. “When we guided you in preparing for one threat, other threats were a surprise. There will be problems of this Earth and problems from the stars. The road you walk now must be your own. We name you defenders, but you are not our defenders. Rather you are the defenders of your people.”
“And why now?” Tony asked. “Your timing is suspicious.”
“And your timing was…spontaneous?”
Alex made a choking sound.
Tony goggled at the big alien thing. “So even cosmic entities aren’t above a little voyeurism? If you’re the peeping Tom, is Entropy like a cosmic flasher?”
“We watch everything, but such prurience is quite beyond us. Rather, your impetuous actions necessitated revealing ourselves now.”
“And why does our relationship affect you?” Alex asked, sounding tired.
“If you were to form your psionic connection with your sentinel while in your physical bodies, you would be felt for hundreds of miles. You’ve endeavored to hide your entire life, Alexander. Was I wrong in reasoning that it was preferable to reveal ourselves early?”
“You weren’t wrong.” Alex rubbed his hands over his face then glanced at Tony briefly before looking back to Infinity. “So, we have to form the psionic part of our connection here?”
“Yes. The sentinel’s imprint is fixed within your physical bodies, but the remainder of the physical bond must come after your psionic connection.”
“Which can only safely be completed here. I get it.” Alex stared at his hands. “Is there anything else you can tell us?”
Infinity had several small details to impart that took a while. Tony felt completely out of his depth, and it didn’t seem like sass was going to help things any. And he was becoming concerned by how Alex just nodded along, asking pertinent questions, but not really reacting. He asked about his own spirit guide because he hadn’t seen his since he’d come online, but Infinity indicated there wouldn’t be one. That Tony’s access to the psionic plane would be more profound through his bond to Alex than it would ever be through a spirit guide.
Infinity got to its feet, staring at Alex for a long time. “You won’t be alone in this, Alexander. Others will rise with you. Others will heed the call to defend. You’ve hidden the full breadth of your abilities even from those closest to you, but the time is coming when you’ll need to tell them the truth.
“Normally, time passes the same between this realm and the physical, but when I pulled you here, I brought you into a temporal bubble. You have as much time as you need. The time distortion on this place will end when you choose to leave.” Infinity vanished before anything else could be said.
“I’ll take you back,” Alex said getting up.
Tony shot to his feet. “But I’m just getting comfortable here. Besides, it seems we have the gift of time. That’s not something to be taken so lightly.”
Tony wandered around the library, noting many familiar titles on the spines of the books. “What is this place?”
“It’s the library at our house in British Columbia.”
“That’s on Vancouver Island?”
“Actually, on a small island near Vancouver Island, but whatever.”
“Okay,” Tony said clapping his hands sharply. “Let’s try just saying what’s on our minds, yeah? I won’t make pointless small talk about the amazing intricacy—and weird solidity—of your psionic illusions and you won’t pretend like everything is fine. Okay? Great,” Tony didn’t actually wait for a response.
At Alex’s open-mouthed look of astonishment, Tony continued, “Here’s the thing, I’m in. All the way. It may sound crazy right now because I’d guess that you’re thinking about how fucked up this all is and probably wondering why I’d want to go down that road, but I’m used to fucked up. It’s like my comfort zone or something.
“And, yeah, we need to get to know each other and work shit out and blah blah blah. But when all the talking is done, you’re right for me, I’m right for you, and that’s that. So I say we take the time the cosmic douchebags have given us as some minor recompense for the clusterfuck they’ve laid on us and do whatever the hell we want while we’re here.”
“Whatever we want?” Alex asked, eyes brightening.
“Yeah. I love doing whatever I want, don’t you? Don’t you find it, I dunno, liberating?”
“I actually wouldn’t know.”
That brought Tony up short and he really considered what Alex’s life must have been like. “If you could do anything, go anywhere, what or where would it be?”
“I…” Alex shook his head and shoved his hands in his pockets. He went to stare out the window overlooking a very blue oceanscape. “I was so excited when I felt you come online because I thought this might finally be my chance. Blair’s always thought my gifts would be easier to hide if I were bonded, that I’d seem more normal.”
Tony made a raspberry sound. “Normal is overrated.”
Alex glanced back, shooting him an amused look. “How the hell would you know?”
“Cause I’m anything but normal and I’m awesome, so normal can’t be all that great.”
That garnered an actual laugh. “Sorry, I was having a self-pity moment. I shall endeavor to get over myself while we figure out the shenanigans we want to get up to while we’re here.”
Tony felt like that had turned a direction he hadn’t intended. He crossed the room and tugged Alex around to face him. “I want to know whatever’s going on in your head, whenever you’re ready to talk about it. And if you want to rail against the universe for giving you the shaft, I’ll happily listen—I’ll even egg you on and supply invectives as needed. But they gave us time. We can be overwhelmed or in denial or talk or whatever. Let’s just take it however it comes. But maybe we need a little bit of a distraction right now.”
Tony impulsively pulled Alex down into a firm kiss, enjoying how Alex relaxed against him. “So, let’s do it all. You’ve got the mojo for the ultimate VR experience. Let’s give this baby a test run and have some fun.”
“Ya know…we can observe the physical world from here.” Alex began to smile. A real smile.
“Want to see a black hole?”
“Oh. My. God.”
– – – –
The viewing pool shimmered in a way Tony had learned meant they were catching up with the current time. After Alex had offered to show Tony a singularity, he’d then worried he’d have to retract the offer since they were in some sort of temporal anomaly. If time wasn’t moving outside of this place, how would they be able to see events unfolding?
But when Alex had tried, they’d discovered they had a couple hours they could view before the viewing pool went blank. Tony figured one of the entities had enabled them to see the past couple hours. Which was cool if a little weird.
They were seated side-by-side, watching some blue people engage in a sporting event that seemed to involve a lot of staring at each other.
He nudged Alex’s shoulder. “I’m not sure I see the entertainment value. And how are those judges applying scores to a staring contest?”
“I’ve honestly never figured out what this event is about. I only learned about it because I was on the psionic plane when I felt the pull. They use a ton of psionic energy in this event, but I’m not sure what they’re doing with it.” Alex let the viewing pool fade away and glanced over at Tony. “You’re taking the confirmation of life on other planets well.”
“Eh. I always figured it was there. I just hoped for something less…boring.”
“Anything can start to feel mundane,” Alex murmured, looking distracted.
Tony got all up in Alex’s space by means of straddling his lap and leaning down for a thorough kiss. Alex’s hands immediately went to Tony’s ass, pulling him closer. It felt like they’d been here for weeks, but it had probably only been a few days. Without the need to sleep or eat, time passed…oddly. Or, rather, the perception of time.
Groaning, he pulled away and rested his forehead against Alex’s. He was panting a little even though breathing was, according to Alex, an artificial construct. Just like his appearance. “I can’t wait to do that when I can properly taste you.”
Alex’s arms tightened briefly. “Should we talk about when to go back?”
“I’m ambivalent. The more time we spend together, the more I want to be with you in the real world—experience you with my senses. But I’m not eager to end our time here.”
“Yeah.” Alex pressed a kiss to the corner of Tony’s mouth, then another to his jaw and then behind his ear. It felt good but not in the way it should if they were in the real world.
“We’ve talked about everything except this psionic bonding that we need to do.”
Alex scoffed. “That’s the grossest exaggeration yet, and you have not been shy about gross exaggerations.” When Alex would get to ruminating, Tony would either kiss him to distraction or tell some tall tales to make him laugh.
“Well, if you want to avoid bonding talk, you could show me another channel on the all-universe network.”
“I don’t have much left to show you. While we’re in this time bubble, I’m not feeling psionic currents, so I can’t find anything I’ve never seen before.”
Tony blinked in astonishment. “With the secrets of the universe at your fingertips, the few dozen places you’ve shown me are all you’ve investigated?”
“I can’t exactly spend all my time here. Or even very much. I have training with other shamans where I have to mask my abilities, and I can’t come here for long stretches by myself. I have a job and a family that keeps tabs on me.”
“Good point.” He slid off Alex’s lap. “Let’s lie on a beach again.” In a blink, the scenery had changed from indoors to something straight out of a magazine spread of Bora Bora. Except the usual blue. Another blink and they were in swimsuits.
Tony flopped down on a beach towel next to Alex, propping himself up on his arm and resting his other hand on Alex’s stomach. “Why haven’t you told your family about what you can do?” The question had come up the first “day” of their stay here, but Alex had been reluctant to talk about it. They knew each other a lot better now but, in some ways, Alex’s life was a bigger minefield than Tony’s was.
“Matt knows I can do more than I’ve let on, but…” He sighed and rolled to face Tony, mirroring his position. “They’ve put up with a lot, sacrificed a lot. I don’t want there to be another thing that comes from me.”
“But if you are the way you are for a purpose, doesn’t it mean that everyone’s sacrifices—yours, theirs—are in service of that purpose? That if you’re gifted this way to help protect the universe, that they’re helping to protect it too?”
“And don’t you think anyone who can and is willing should help?”
“I suppose,” Alex repeated, smiling faintly.
“Look, I spent the last year keeping a major secret from the people I care about. The situations aren’t exactly comparable, but I’m just throwing it out there that this may not be a secret you need to keep anymore.”
Alex nodded, looking a bit pensive. He reached out and touched just below where the arc reactor was. “I can’t imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t figured out…” he trailed off, shaking his head. Alex had said that the arc reactor showed up in this place because Tony expected it to be there. But it felt different. In fact, he didn’t feel it at all.
Tony captured the hand and pulled it up to the arc reactor. “I’m fine.” He’d never voluntarily let anyone touch the arc reactor outside of Pepper, but that had been an unusual circumstance.
“We’re slowly bonding,” Alex said abruptly.
“Our psionic energies are falling into sync. It’s slow since we’re not intending to form a bond, but it’s happening. I think if we spend enough time here, we’re going to bond whether we’re ready to or not.”
One thing he’d learned in the days they’d been getting to know one another was that if there was anyone worse about interpersonal interactions than Tony, it was Alex. Outside of his family, of course. Alex usually tended to be blunt, but the uncertainty of their situation often left him wrong-footed.
“Alex, if you don’t want to bond—”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
Tony feigned indignation. “I’m the smartest man on the planet.”
“Rodney would disagree with you.”
Tony groaned. “It kills me that Rodney McKay is working for Sheppard Industries. Do you have any idea how hard I recruited him?”
“Believe me, I know. Whenever he gets annoyed with anything, I hear about how he should have taken the job with Tony Stark and how the only thing keeping him at Sheppard Industries is the perk package. Which gets John indignant at being called a perk, which usually gets Rodney loudly laid in his office, and then I spend the rest of the day plotting with Mattie and Evan to troll the fuck out of those two.”
Pointing his finger in Alex’s face, Tony said, “Stop distracting me with true tales of Sheppard family dysfunction. Every time I ask if you want to bond, you use some combination of words to say or imply that you do. Which must mean you think I don’t. But I’ve said it every way outside of skywriting that I’m all in. So what’s the deal?”
Alex rolled onto his back and dropped his arm over his eyes. “I don’t know. It’s all so fucking confusing. Not you…I’m certain about wanting to bond with you. But I feel like I’m dragging you into something crazy.”
“I’m fine with crazy, and crazy is usually fine with me.”
“Of that I have no doubt.”
Tony peeled the arm away so he could see Alex’s eyes. “Spit it out.”
“I thought bonding would settle this shit down. If anything, it seems like it could get stronger. I’m already a basket case in crowds. I don’t want to saddle you with…that. Me. If I wind up being a hot mess.”
They’d talked a bit about all the places Alex had always wanted to visit but, when he’d tried when he was younger, the press of people and all their empathic noise had overwhelmed him.
“I don’t care if you’re a hot mess. In fact, be a hot mess.”
“What?” Alex turned his head to meet his gaze more directly.
“I’m often a hot mess, so we’d be gloriously messy together.”
“Is that supposed to be reassuring?”
“Maybe. But you’re forgetting something.”
“I’m Tony fucking Stark. If I don’t want to deal with crowds, I don’t deal with them. If I want to buy out an amusement park to ride one roller coaster then that’s what I’ll do. You’re worried that I’m going to regret my choice but, well…” he rubbed the back of his neck, trying to find the words he needed to be a little vulnerable. “I worry about the same thing, okay? Despite everything, we’re both as neurotic as the next person. I cover it up by being arrogant, unapproachable, and never taking anything seriously. While you are…mean?”
“I’m not mean,” Alex said on a laugh.
“Your father thinks you’re mean.”
“My father thinks I’m vicious.”
“And the difference?”
“I don’t know. A mean person does cruel things to people who don’t deserve them.”
“So you only hurt the deserving?”
“I hurt people who fuck with my tribe. Merciless might be a better descriptor.”
“I probably shouldn’t find that hot, but I really do.”
Alex laughed, a deep, genuine laugh.
“So bond with me,” Tony said softly.
Sobering quickly, Alex met his gaze. “If we do it now, do it here, you’ll feel a pressing need to finish the physical bonding as soon as we get back.”
“I already felt a pressing need for that. Why do you keep warning me off?”
“Because I’m dangerous.”
“I like danger.”
“You’re impossible,” Alex replied with what sounded like fond exasperation.
“Come on,” Tony mock whined. “Come out and play with me. We’ve already discussed our angst over the future until we were sick of it; we’ve lain on every beach you’ve ever seen in a magazine; we’ve compared good and bad habits; we’ve flirted and made out until I feel like I’m going crazy with wanting you; we’ve compared professional interests and your facility with combustible materials is both hot and terrifying; we’ve done the tour of places in the galaxy that pull psionic energy—and the black hole was the best first date ever, by the way; and we’ve even made preliminary plans for the first edition of the Rich Assholes’ Guide to Saving the Universe.
“Now all we need is for you to do your bonding mojo, go home, fuck like minks, and then do the nesting thing where we get to fuck like bunnies and possibly even mice.”
“Well, as much fun as it sounds to imitate the mating habits of as many small, highly fertile mammals as you can bring into a single conversation, we won’t be nesting when we get back.”
Tony had already learned not to jump to conclusions about things Alex said, so he just made a go-on gesture.
“We’re handling the nesting now.”
“Yeah, that’s what nesting is… Psionic harmonies coming into sync. It takes about a week or so once a couple initiates a bond. The sentinel remains territorial until that’s done. Then the guide feels fully theirs because their psionic energy is synchronized.”
“How did I not know that? I’m not completely clueless about sentinel/guide dynamics.”
“And I’d never thought to ask if it’s common knowledge. I do know that only a shaman could come close to seeing the harmonics the way I do.”
Tony stared. “Oh my god. Do you see auras? Are you struggling with latent hippie tendencies? Are you going to, like, try to decorate with crystals and tie-dye?”
Alex started to laugh, his whole frame shaking with mirth. Grinning, Tony rolled on top of him and leaned down for a kiss.
When they came up for air many minutes later, Tony realized he was suddenly seeing a shifting sea of colored light around Alex. “What the hell?”
“Welcome to psionic energy harmonics 101.”
Tony kneeled up, watching the play of light. “That’s… Is that what you see?”
“If I want to see it, yeah.”
– – – –
It had taken hours, but Tony finally felt like he had a basic grasp of psionic energy. Accommodating Tony’s method of working, Alex had managed to create a reasonable facsimile of a workshop and had worked with Tony to make the energy signature almost like a waveform they could analyze together.
“So, this major peak won’t ever change because…”
“That’s each person’s unique signature. It’s all the other stuff that shifts and changes over the course of their life. For instance, you see these peaks here?” He pointed to a segment on Tony’s wave pattern. “Can you feel that they’re new?”
“New? And what do you mean by feel?”
“Forget the feel part. I guess that’d be like you asking me if I can hear the lady two miles away blow her nose.”
“Right. Anyway. Look at them in comparison to the other peaks in your energy signature.”
Tony cocked his head to the side and, using his hands, pulled the waveform apart, stretching it out like he was working with a 3D model. “Okay, I see what you mean. It’s like they have less age.”
“Exactly. That’s because those are energy spikes unique to sentinels. They’re barely little blips when a sentinel is latent.”
Tony looked from his energy representation to Alex’s. “You have the same ones though. Or near enough.”
“Of course I do. You’re my sentinel.”
Something warm uncurled in Tony’s gut. “So, over the course of the nesting week, all of these peaks and valleys, except the main one, synchronize.”
“Yep. Some pairs never achieve a full sync, but you don’t need that to bond. Alpha pairs always have a full sync, though.”
“I’d guess we’re about halfway there,” Tony mused out loud as he thought over how much it had changed since he’d started looking at it.
“About that, yeah.”
“Will I still be able to see this when we go back?” Somehow, seeing Alex in this unusual way was unbelievably precious to him.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Even if you can’t do it at first, I might be able to help.”
“Even though sentinels aren’t the ones who are the psionically gifted half of the team?”
Alex leaned down and braced his elbows on the table. “True story…sentinels use psionic energy all the time. Most are mentally resistant to what they term ‘spiritual’ stuff, so they never really learn how to do it outside of using their senses.”
“I don’t follow.”
“So, let’s go with the most obvious example. What’s something sensory that only a bonded sentinel can do?”
“Ooh. A pop quiz. Do I get a prize if I pass?”
“I’m sure I can come up with something you’ll like.” Alex grinned.
“Well, then, that would have to be…sensory piggybacking.”
“Bingo.” Alex just looked at him expectantly.
“Ah.” Tony pointed his finger. “Sneaky. That’s been right in front of sentinels the entire time and they never picked up on it.” How else would a sentinel use hearing to see into a closed room?
“Well, someone has no doubt figured it out. A bonded sentinel can do that because they can pull on the psionic energy abilities of their guide through the bond. The seeing into a room with no doors or windows has always seemed like an impossibility. And it is with the senses only. What the world calls ‘seeing’ into a room is really using psionic energy to remote view a scene they’re hearing or smelling. You could even call it magic.”
“Ugh. Let’s not.”
“So, what’s my prize?”
“Should I give you a prize for stating the patently obvious?”
“Hey! If it were that obvious, some punk would have written it up in some anthropology text years ago.”
Alex’s smile grew. “Okay. You’re right, you deserve a treat.” He moved closer and slipped in behind Tony, wrapping his arms around Tony’s waist. “You can have me.”
Tony leaned back. “I’m so on board with that.”
Alex extended a hand and the two energy waveforms moved on top of each other. Lips pressed against Tony’s ear then on the side of his neck. “This usually happens during sex because it’s easier for a sentinel when their senses are focused on their guide. But you’re no ordinary sentinel, are you?”
Another twist of Alex’s hand and the waveforms seemed to pulse and flow as if they were alive. “That’s us. So close to being in sync.” There was an odd feeling in the air, like something had changed. “I opened the door, Tony. Are you going to walk through it?”
Tony understood at a deeply visceral level what Alex was doing. He was asking Tony to help form their psionic connection. Following an impulse he didn’t quite understand, he reached out and pulled the pulsing waves of light toward him, pressing them together, feeling them thrum in his hands.
“I want us to be together,” he murmured, feeling Alex’s arms around him and their life energies in his hands. “Sentinel and guide. Friends. Lovers. Partners.” He pressed the thrumming ball of energy into his arc reactor.
There was a sharp pulse of light that spread out in every direction.
“Fuck!” Alex squeezed him tighter, and it felt like they became one as his guide met him halfway. Their thoughts melded, hopes and ambitions, fears and disappointments all merged into one being.
Tony managed to turn in the tight embrace. “You’re mine.” He yanked Alex into a kiss as the arc reactor burned between them. The ground trembled beneath their feet and there was the sound of something shattering.
The world exploded around them, and then they were falling.
Tony blinked and stumbled, falling on his ass in the middle of his entryway, pulling Alex with him.
He didn’t even take the time to settle himself back in the real world or acknowledge Jarvis’ words of concern. He just yanked Alex close and kissed him again. All his senses engaged, and he was completely overwhelmed by his guide.
“Bedroom,” Alex muttered pulling away fractionally.
Growling, Tony got to his feet, took Alex by the hand and half ran to his bedroom. He began to peel off Alex’s clothes, fingers eager to explore the smooth flesh.
Somehow, he got them both naked on the bed, frequently getting lost in the pleasure of kissing his guide. His senses were overwhelmed with Alex, and everything began to blur.
Alex’s slick hand sliding over Tony’s cock brought his attention back into sharp focus. “Jesus, hurry,” he whispered urgently as he haphazardly slicked them up. He pulled Tony on top, parting strong thighs to allow Tony to rest between his legs. “Please.”
Tony’s brain struggled to catch up as his senses were intoxicated with guide.
“Dammit, Tony.” Long legs wrapped around Tony’s waist. “Come on, fuck me.”
Tony stilled both their frantic movements and met Alex’s gaze. He reached up and cupped Alex’s face. “My guide.”
“My sentinel,” Alex returned breathlessly.
Tony reached between them and guided his cock to Alex’s hole, slowly pressing inside, using one long thrust to breach Alex’s body for the first time.
Their gazes stayed locked as Tony began to move, thrusts slow and deep. He slid his hand between their bodies, palming Alex’s cock, doing nothing but stroking over the head.
Alex moaned but never looked away.
Tony began to move faster, the urgency returning. He pulled his hand away from Alex’s cock to brace his weight on both arms. He got his knees under him, forcing Alex’s thighs farther apart so he could have better leverage as he fucked into Alex’s body.
Alex came first, cock untouched, back arching, bowing up sharply and nearly knocking Tony away. Tony pushed Alex’s legs up to his shoulders, bending his guide nearly in half as he chased his release.
“Tony,” Alex gasped.
His name being said in that tone by his guide was enough to send Tony over the edge. He rode out his orgasm, face buried in Alex’s throat, struggling for control.
He collapsed on to Alex and then tried to roll off, but Alex wrapped arms and legs around him, keeping him in place.
Alex pressed a kiss to his temple then brought their mouths together. “Stay,” he whispered against Tony’s mouth.
He slid his hands under Alex’s shoulder, returning the embrace. The sentinel part of him was pushing for the rest of the imprint, to explore every inch of Alex’s body and commit it to memory. But, for now, this embrace was everything he needed.
– – – –
The sun was barely lightening the sky as Tony kissed the back of Alex’s neck then slowly stroked down his spine.
Alex arched into the touch then wiggled a little closer. “I know you’re striving for epic mink/rabbit/mice-dom, but I’m fucked out.”
“It’s only been like five times.” He huffed out a laugh. “I haven’t been like this since I was a teenager.”
“Excuse you, but it’s been seven times and nine for me because you were determined to prove me wrong when I said ‘I can’t possibly so soon…’”
“I’ve always been an overachiever.” He kissed a spot on Alex’s spine he knew was particularly sensitive.
Alex shuddered, so Tony began sliding his hand over Alex’s hip. Alex shimmied away. “No more dick for you until I’ve showered, eaten an entire cow, and no longer feel quite so…chafed.”
Laughing, Tony grabbed Alex’s pillow and curled around it. “Shall I have J order that cow now or later?”
Alex threw a different pillow at him as he got out of bed. “Morning, Jarvis.”
“Good morning, Alexander.”
Tony smiled into the pillow at how Alex treated Jarvis.
“If Tony hasn’t gotten out of bed and joined me in the shower in the next two minutes, please put Shake Your Bon-Bon on repeat until he rethinks his life choices.”
“I shall endeavor to fulfill that request promptly.”
“Oh, hell no!” Tony groused, struggling out of the tangle of covers. “You two are not ganging up on me.”
By the time they got out of the shower, both of their phones were lit up with text messages and voicemails. They shared a look from across the bed.
“You first,” Tony prompted.
Alex sighed. “The whole family is here at some hotel about five miles away. They know we bonded already.”
“How could they know that?”
“Blair,” Alex huffed. “He was on the psionic plane last night and said he felt the difference in my psionic signature. He called Mom and Dad, enthused and congratulatory, asking who my sentinel was. John, David, and Mattie want to scout Malibu for any potential threats to us, so they’ll be calling at some point to ask permission to enter your territory.”
“Oh, I think you’re leaving the entertaining part of those texts out.”
“You’re just a gossip, aren’t you?” Alex groused. “You can read the epic talking to I got from my father at your leisure.”
Tony laughed. “Let’s fuck with ‘em. Send them a group text that we’re having a small get together late this afternoon so I can meet the family and decide if I want a bunch of Sheppard sentinels tromping through my territory.”
Alex grinned. “That’s going to confuse the hell out of them. I’ll just play dumb when they ask about our nesting period.”
Tony nearly cackled.
“Though, be warned, starting off your relationship with my brothers by trolling them might not be the choice of a wise man.”
He scoffed. “I can handle your brothers.”
“We’ll see.” Alex tipped his head toward Tony. “Your turn.”
“SHIELD is demanding my presence, Pepper is increasingly upset by getting the brick wall that is Jarvis, and so she’s flying back to California to find out what’s wrong with me. Rhodey wants to know why I’m not taking Pepper’s calls and said that some asshat thinks he and I need medals, complete with a ceremony, for that shit in New York.”
“Ugh.” Alex flopped down on the bed. “You win for shitty text storm. So, uh, text Pepper that you’re dealing with a personal emergency and can’t talk on the phone right now, and you’ll see her in a couple days. And tell SHIELD to suck it. Better yet, meet with them right after you see Pepper before they have time to take any action in case they figure some shit out from your visit. They probably have her office bugged.”
Tony suddenly felt homicidal. A few seconds later, he registered Alex’s arms coming around him and a soothing hum in his ear.
“I’m sorry, I should have considered that might be a hot button.”
“You don’t ever need to apologize for letting me know there’s a problem.”
“Well, then, have you considered that they’ve probably got long-term plants in your company? From what you said, Nat-whatever came up through legal. That wasn’t a sudden decision on their part.”
“Fuck.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Does Patrick have to deal with this shit?”
“Oh yeah. He’s ferreted out several spies. Plain old corporate espionage as well as government agents trying to figure out what he’s up to. And since JADEM Aeronautics and Aerospace designed and builds the quinjets, SHIELD has always thought they have a right to be all up in our business. One of the many reasons Dad moved the company headquarters to Toronto. Canada doesn’t tolerate the shenanigans American spy agencies get up to. Every time we catch a US spy at JADEM, since we’re the largest employer in the country, the prime minister gives the president absolute hell. Especially when Dad mutters under his breath about how delighted the UK would be to have Sheppard Industries or JADEM open a facility.”
Tony chuckled. “I can see I need to have Pepper get some tips from your old man on how to manage SHIELD’s antics.” There was an odd little ping across their bond when Tony mentioned Pepper. Alex’s expression when Pepper came up was often complicated. Tony had wondered if there was more to it.
Before he could ask, Alex said, “So, let’s do some epic texting to get all the peeps squared away while we eat, and then I want to see this workshop you destroyed with a homemade particle accelerator.”
“Indeed, Sir,” Jarvis replied. “You asked that I remind you that all sensitive items in the workshop must be boxed so that we can schedule your regular contractor to repair the damage.”
“But first,” Alex grabbed Tony’s upper arms and gave him a little shake, “feed me before I lose it.”
They texted while eating breakfast, both caught up in the issues they had to address. Alex’s phone was flashing so often, Tony wondered if he needed to worry about seizures.
When Alex started laughing, Tony prodded him. “What’s up?”
“There were so many text conversations going on that Rodney finally started a group chat with all nine of us, which did not decrease the chaos by even a bit. They keep threatening to call, but I keep saying your hearing is acting up.”
Alex got this devious look on his face that was kind of alarming. “Hey, Jarvis?”
“If I give you my phone credentials and an audio file, can you change my outgoing greeting to be that audio?”
“Would you mind?”
“I’d be delighted to help.”
“Sweet! You’re the best.”
Tony smiled. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to have my outgoing greeting be John Cleese monologuing about the apocalypse.” He shot Tony a grin. “I mean, we’re going to be telling them about stuff in order to explain how we bonded and got through our nesting period in a day. This is like priming the pump.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere right now,” Alex said dryly. “My dick is broken and on holiday.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“Show me your workshop, you sex fiend.”
Tony pouted as Alex walked out of the kitchen.
“Particle accelerators get me hot,” Alex called back.
“I happen to have one of those laying around!” Tony called out as he ran after his guide.
He let Alex into the workshop, watching happily while Alex wandered around, peering closely at things, exclaiming over the sheer amount of carnage creating his dad’s element had caused.
When Alex got to where the model of Stark Expo was propped against a wall, he stopped and cocked his head to the side, staring at it intently. Tony moved closer. He’d glossed over the events of the last few months so hadn’t gone into detail about how his dad had hidden the info about the element.
Before Tony could offer an explanation, Alex said, “Looks like an atom.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Do you have any idea how many times I looked at that and never saw what it was?”
“So, I guess it is, in fact, an atom.” Alex turned and stared at him. “Situational blindness? You probably saw it as a kid, yes?”
“So, you were used to it and had no reason to think it was something else. Besides, I’m a chemist. It’d be sad if I didn’t see it for what it is.”
Mildly mollified, Tony settled for just pouting.
“So, did you come up with a name for it?”
“I was thinking about badassium.”
“That’s a winner in my book.”
Tony watched as Alex began looking around again. “You haven’t asked about it.”
“And I wasn’t going to. I’m curious—I mean, come on, it’s a new element. But I’m not going to make demands like that, Tony.”
In response, Tony fired up the work table and let the projection of the element’s atomic structure show in the room. “Huh. Similar to vibranium. Likely not as strong, but more moldable and probably more conductive.”
He couldn’t help smiling as Alex began analyzing the atomic structure of badassium, muttering under his breath and making notes on the work table.
– – – –
Tony finished wrapping one of his more delicate prototypes before placing it in a box then promptly got distracted by the sight of Alex playing some sort of weird game of keep away with the bots.
He’d thought he couldn’t like Alex more than he did after their week on the psionic plane, but the way Alex treated Jarvis and the kids like they were people made Tony feel something he had no experience with.
His phone vibrated and he reluctantly pulled it out, frowning at an angry message from Pepper. It was civil on the surface, but he’d known Pepper for years, and it was clear that she was upset. He couldn’t really blame her, but he also wasn’t going to have this conversation over the phone where SHIELD could hear.
“Something wrong?” Alex sat on one of the lab stools and rolled closer to help Tony bubble wrap some stuff they needed to move out of the lab.
“Pepper’s not happy with my, ‘I’m dealing with a personal emergency, I’ll talk to you tomorrow,’ excuse.”
There was that odd little thing in their bond again. “It’s not an excuse. You did have a personal emergency, and now you’re dealing with the aftermath of it.” Maybe Alex was feeling insecure about Tony’s affection for Pepper considering that they had previously been heading toward a relationship?
“What’s up with you when I mention Pepper?”
“I’m fine, Tony.”
“You say you’re fine, but there’s this funny little thing in our bond when she comes up.”
Alex sighed and stuck the thing he’d been wrapping in the box. “I’m fine.”
“Is it about my, uh, aborted potential relationship with her?”
“No.” Alex shook his head emphatically. “That’s not… It was more some things you said about how the last few months have gone for you.”
“I made things rough on her and kept her in the dark, so if anything I said made her sound awful, it wasn’t her fault.”
“Tony, stop,” Alex admonished gently. “You don’t need to be defensive on Pepper’s behalf. She didn’t sound awful.”
Tony rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck. “All right, hit me with it.”
“It’s not bad, so don’t look like I’m going to… You know what, let me try this a different way. Currently, David is slated to succeed my father as CEO when Dad retires.”
“He’s COO now, right?”
“Yeah, and he’s really good at it. Matt and John can’t stand the actual business side of things.”
“Might be a sentinel thing. Most sentinels steer away from bureaucratic jobs. Just the thought of it horrifies me now, though I never really enjoyed it to begin with.”
“Yeah, David is an oddball in that sense, but he did a couple tours in the Navy, so when he says he’d rather be in the boardroom, I figure he’s field-tested that decision.”
“He’s a pilot, right?”
“All my brothers are—John in the Air Force, David trained in the Navy, and Matt trained privately. Plus, Evan was an Air Force pilot before he came online and met Matt.”
“You mentioned that you and Matthew were the only ones to never serve in the military.”
“Military service is a family tradition, but it wasn’t an option for me—for obvious reasons—and Mattie wasn’t going anywhere without me, so…” He shrugged. “But he satisfied the urge by becoming an aeronautical engineer and then became a test pilot. People initially groused about Mattie getting the slot as test pilot over experienced military pilots—they thought of it as nepotism in action—but Matt is truly the best pilot we have.”
“What are your brothers’ call signs?”
Alex snorted. “Figured you’d go right to the trivia. John’s call sign is Spartan, David’s is Ares, Mattie’s is Diablo, and Evan’s is Phoenix.”
“And do you have a call sign?”
“I’m not big on flying.”
Tony grinned. “That doesn’t mean your brothers didn’t saddle you with something since they’re all pilots. Come on…fess up.” He grabbed his coffee and batted his eyelashes. “Please?”
Alex rolled his eyes. “Buttercup.”
Tony immediately choked, snorting his coffee up his nose. “Ow. You timed that on purpose.” He mopped up the coffee and dabbed at his face. “Be serious.”
“I am serious. The helicopter I use to get to the island has Buttercup stenciled on the side.” He pulled out his phone, made a few swipes, then showed Tony a picture of a small, dark blue helicopter with Buttercup in yellow script on the pilot door. “They claimed to be naming the chopper and not me, but it’s been Buttercup no matter what vessel I’m in.”
“Oh my god. That is amazing. I can’t believe you admitted it though.”
Alex just shrugged. “Why? It doesn’t bother me. And, at the end of the day, for all that my brothers are major badasses, we all know who the heavy hitter is.”
“Touché, Buttercup.” Tony gestured for Alex to continue. “You were saying something about David…”
“So, David, who took his MBA program by storm, comes into the company as a VP, but to everyone at the company, it just looks like nepotism. And, honestly, it was. Which is fine because it’s Dad’s choice who he lets run his company, but he didn’t set Dave up to be respected by his peers. It took David years to correct the perception that he was a trust fund baby who never worked for anything. Longer than it would have if he’d gotten in the trenches and worked his way up.”
“I gather you’re saying I shouldn’t have made Pepper CEO?” Tony was trying not to bristle.
“Honestly, no, you shouldn’t have. But I get why you did. You thought you were dying, and you were leaving your company in the hands of someone you trusted. But what’s done is done, and you can’t undo it without destroying what credibility she has.”
“You think she doesn’t have credibility?”
“I know she doesn’t.” Alex held up a hand. “Just hear me out, okay?”
Tony nodded stiffly.
“I have no doubt she knows how to run the company, but she doesn’t have any personal credibility. Up until she got the biggest promotion of all time, no one thought she was anything but your voice, your arm, the instrument of Tony Stark’s will. So then you say, ‘She’s the boss now,’ but no one has any confidence in her as the boss because they never perceived her as anything but a mouthpiece.”
Tony drummed his fingers, thinking that through. “Pepper made a lot more decisions than she’s being given credit for while I was CEO. She often told me what needed to be done.”
“But no one knows that, and if you go out there and defend her, she loses more credibility because it won’t ring true. The issue is that she’s got a tough road ahead of her and you helping her is going to make it worse.”
Bemused, Tony could only blink. “Huh?”
“The company needs to weather you not being involved. As long as you are helping her with the company in areas where she shouldn’t need you, you’re proving that she isn’t empowered to do the job.”
“Are you saying I should let her sink or swim?”
“No, I’m saying you should set her and the company up for success. You guys have to get over the hurdle of the stock fluctuating over every little thing you personally do. That can’t happen as long as the company and you are seen as the same thing. As long as that is going on, Pepper will feel pressure to involve you way more than the CTO should be. And the more she involves you, the more she seems unsuited to the job. From an outsider’s perspective anyway. It’s a vicious cycle.
“None of the plans we talked about for whatever this unknown threat is involve you or I at the mercy of a corporation. I think you need to back off. Truly back off. Get her a mentor to work with who can help her navigate the bumpy road. Get someone you trust to step in as interim CTO while you take a sabbatical. You’ve been through a lot of shit, so you’re allowed to take some time away. Keep doing the R&D you love and pass it off to the acting CTO. Let the company find its feet without your direct involvement. Otherwise, you’ll never be free of the incessant demands.”
Tony felt any remaining defensiveness drain away. “Okay. I can do that, though I have no idea where I’m going to come up with two people I trust who are available for mentoring and acting as CTO.”
Alex rolled the stool closer and nudged his shoulder. “We’ll figure it out.”
– – – –
Tony stepped out onto the balcony and stared up at the night sky. He needed a few minutes to himself after spending hours with an invasion of Sheppards.
He found that he genuinely liked all the Sheppards, though Matthew was probably his favorite. Aside from being a sarcastic asshole to rival even Tony, his devotion to his twin endeared him to Tony immediately.
They’d explained most of what happened, leaving out the bit about needing to save the universe. For now, they’d couched it as Alex had been tapped by some cosmic force to be sort of a guide prime for Earth, and that he had a lot more abilities than he’d heretofore disclosed.
There had been speculative looks at the reveal, and Tony was pretty sure several of the family had worked out that there was a lot more, but Matthew had diverted the conversation by grousing at Alex for his failure to procure enough sour cream and onion potato chips.
Then Tony had surprised himself by inviting everyone down to his workshop. All the brothers helped him take apart the particle accelerator. From there, the science fest was epic. Rodney was as brilliant as Tony had always heard, but he was also completely impossible, which Tony kinda liked.
Miko seemed sweet at first, but she was utterly fierce when she got her science on. She and Rodney had fought about a point of theoretical physics for nearly half an hour before Emma sent them to separate corners. Literally. Separate corners of the lab.
Tony had shown the flight-minded of the bunch the iron man suits and how they’d evolved, feeling suitably gratified by everyone’s responses to his tech.
He didn’t really have a bead on Evan Lorne-Sheppard yet but thought Evan was the grounding force the younger Sheppards all needed. Even David and Miko had fairly volatile personalities. Whereas absolutely nothing seemed to rile up Evan. Matthew and Evan were clearly the closest to Alex.
“We can be a bit much,” Patrick said softly as he joined Tony at the railing looking out over the water.
“It’s good. I really like everyone”
“You sound surprised.”
“No. Maybe.” He shrugged. “I figured we’d all get along for Alex’s sake, but… I guess I feel like I’ve missed out on something by not keeping in touch after Mom and Dad’s accident.”
“We’re your family now, Anthony, and we’re gonna get on your nerves, but we’re never going anywhere.” After a beat, he asked, “Have you two decided where you’ll live?”
“We’ve talked about it. I had been planning to relocate to New York, which Alex knows, but he comes first, so we’ll have to figure stuff out.”
“He’s never done well in densely populated cities. All the emotions get to him after a while, but I can say that he’s now shielding better than I’ve ever known him to. That’s after only one day, and all of us have noticed. The ability to keep his aura contained directly correlates to his ability to block out empathic noise. So, you two need to do some field tests to see what’s possible.
“In the interim, your new tower is beginning construction, right?”
“Yeah, in Manhattan.”
“Have Alex get you our research specs on psionic shielding. We’ve done some work in the area as it pertains to building construction with good success. I’m sure with your engineering mindset and sheer brainpower you can improve on it. If you build psi-shielding into your residential floors, that might be enough.”
“Give him a quiet place in all the noise?”
“It’s what we do for sentinels. Iso rooms are standard for sentinel-friendly workplaces, but not much was ever done for guides who get overwhelmed. We’re trying to address that. It’s not true shielding, since there is no true block for psionic energy, but we’ve learned things about blocking out ambient empathic noise.”
Tony immediately began thinking through the issues. If it was successful, he’d propose it as a joint venture between their companies. Hopefully the first of many. “If we’re in New York, where will everyone else be?”
“Well, be prepared for Matt and Evan wherever you go. It’s not a good idea to try to put the twins in different cities.”
He made a mental note to consult with Evan and Matt on floor plans if New York worked out for them.
“As for the rest of us… John, Rodney, David, and Miko live in Toronto, and I imagine they’ll stay there since it’s our HQ. Em and I travel between coasts and our facility in Mexico, but we keep our permanent residence wherever the twins are.”
“That’d be good.” Tony smiled as he stared at the sky.
– – – –
Two days after the first meeting with the Sheppards—which was followed by more than half of them staying at the Malibu house—Tony made arrangements to meet with Pepper at SI’s main office in LA. It was a Saturday, but it wasn’t uncommon for many of their staff to be working, so things were only a little less busy than normal.
Tony stepped into Pepper’s office and, from her angry glare, he knew he was about to get an earful. “I brought visitors,” he said quickly, cutting her off before this could be embarrassing for both of them.
He heard a tell-tale electronic hum, but considering all the tech around, he wasn’t sure what it was exactly. He’d been training with the Sheppard sentinels, but he didn’t quite have their precision yet.
The double-tap on his shoulder let him know it was what he feared.
Pepper got to her feet when she saw the two people standing behind Tony. “Is there a meeting I didn’t know about?”
“I invited some extras. This is David Sheppard, Chief Operating Officer of Sheppard Industries, and Radek Zelenka, R&D SVP of the same.”
She blinked a couple times in apparent confusion, but her expression remained pleasant as she stepped forward and shook hands with Radek and David.
“I thought you and I could have a quick, private chat,” Tony said before she could ask any questions. “Let’s go downstairs for a minute.”
He shot a meaningful look at David, who nodded. The bugs would be gone by the time they got back.
Pepper was silent as Tony walked with her down to his private lab. A lab Jarvis kept completely monitored and no one was allowed in unless Tony was present. The lab was shielded against sentinel spying as well.
As soon as the door was shut, Pepper crossed her arms and glared. “What the hell is going on?”
“I’m not here to fight with you, and I’m not going to do the recrimination thing. I fucked up the last few months, okay? I should have told you, Hap, and Rhodey that I was dying. I should have told you that I was trying to set things up so that the people I most trusted would have control of my…legacy, I guess. I didn’t know how to have that conversation. I’m not good at being—”
“Vulnerable?” she supplied, softening a little.
“Yes, that. So, I acknowledge that I should have done things differently, and I apologize. I don’t want to revisit it again.”
“And yet the first thing you did was revert to your old behavior when you just vanished!”
“We’re not doing this,” Tony said sharply then forced himself to take a steadying breath. “I came online just a few hours after the shit show with Vanko.”
Her mouth fell open and she just stared for several long seconds. “You what?”
“Yeah, shocked me too. I don’t really seem like the sentinel type, and it felt like just another thing I was going to have to deal with. Another parade of my personal life in front of the press. And I’m honestly tired of dealing with things right now.”
Grief, sadness, and anger warred in her scent pile. “Why didn’t you just tell me?”
“Because I needed to sort it out, all right? There was a spy from an intelligence agency in my house and my life for weeks, manipulating me as I was dying, knowing I was dying. She got all up in my company’s business and my personal business, and then she stuck a needle in my neck without my consent. And maybe she was trying to help, but it didn’t give her the damn right. And then she conspired with others to lock me up in my own house, turned Jarvis off, and then dared to order me to do what SHIELD wanted me to do.
“And I get that I was keeping secrets, Pep, but it’s my life. Mine. And I’m really sick and tired of people telling me what to do with it.”
“Tony,” she began, looking and sounding sad.
“No.” He held up a hand. “I can’t hear whatever it is right now. I care about very few people, but you’re right at the top of the list, and you’ve taken really good care of me over the years, but I don’t need you to take care of me anymore. I don’t need to hear what I’ve done wrong anymore.”
“That’s not— I don’t—” She huffed, frustration overwhelming her scent.
“Pepper, I brought you down here to tell you what’s going on in private, in a space that Natashalie didn’t have the chance to plant listening devices.”
“What?!” she near screeched.
“Your office is bugged. I can’t say when it was bugged, but that’s part of the reason I brought David Sheppard along with me. He’s an alpha sentinel and adept at finding surveillance devices. He’s purging your office now, and Radek is filming the whole thing. If I can prove SHIELD planted them, I’m going after them for corporate espionage.
“But, mostly, I needed to tell you what was going on. Just you and me here. And then explain the major reason David and Radek are with me.” Her stance became more defensive. “I’m sorry for the way I made you CEO.”
“You mean the suddenness because you were dying thing?”
“Not really. I don’t regret making you head of the company, and there’s no one else I’d trust to continue with my vision for SI, but I should have set you up to succeed rather than having to fight for every scrap of respect.”
“It’s not that bad.” She glanced away, swallowing.
“I’m sure it’s worse, and that’s on me. I know that you know as much as I do about running a company. More in fact because I’m the last person who should be telling someone how to be CEO. You learned the job because I was so bad at it. But people just assumed you were the mouthpiece. You were doing the job, but only I knew that. And that’s where I fucked up.”
“So, you want me to quit? Or you’re going to replace me?”
“No! Now just listen. I need you to stop being mad at me long enough to actually hear what I’m trying to say. You can do the job, you’ve proven it. But you need someone who can tell you the things you don’t know and give you advice when you’re ready to pull your hair out, and that person can’t be me. David volunteered, and I accepted. He’s slated to run Sheppard Industries someday, so he’s not after your job.”
She just stared at him, so he decided to continue on.
“I need to take a break from SI—get used to being a sentinel, work on some personal projects, get my head straight after everything that’s happened. In order to do that, I need to set you up better. So, Dr. Zelenka is going to fill in full-time as CTO and head of R&D. If, after you meet with him, you have a serious objection to him taking the role, we can look for someone else.”
Pep seemed more bewildered than anything. “This doesn’t even… It doesn’t feel like you.”
Tony shrugged. “I need the time, but I haven’t done right by you or SI, so I’m doing my best to fix that. So if you’re on board with Radek, David, and sometimes Miko helping Radek—that’s David’s wife, by the way—then your first act is to come up with confidentiality agreements for them and a consulting contract for Radek.”
“I can’t believe you’re really going to stop working.”
“Well, I might not stop, but anything I come up with will filter through the CTO. Pep…” Tony paused and sighed. “This is also about giving you the time to come into your own in the job.”
“The board isn’t going to be happy.”
“I don’t give a fuck.”
“No, I’ve been slowly weeding those assholes out, but, at the next election, anyone who isn’t on board with the future you and I devise for this company is gone. I’m done marching to other people’s tune. Take the time I’m away to find your feet without my crazy dogging your steps. I’ve stumbled onto some people I trust to help you do that, and I’m grateful to them for it.”
She stared at the floor for a few moments before blowing out a long, slow breath. “You know you’ve been driving me nuts, but I’m still going to miss you.”
“I’m not leaving the planet, Pep. I’m just taking some time to figure things out.”
Her lips pursed. “Why people associated with Sheppard Industries? They’re actually direct competitors of ours in a couple of market segments, particularly some segments we’re moving into. I know your parents were friends with Patrick and Emma Sheppard, but I wasn’t aware it went beyond that.”
“Friends might be an exaggeration. Mom and Emma were friends, but I don’t think Dad and Patrick liked each other very much. Still, they ran in the same social circles.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Their oldest son and I were thrown together at various functions until we were about eight. David, John, and I crossed paths only rarely after that.”
“Which doesn’t explain why people associated with the Sheppard family and why now.”
Tony sighed. He hadn’t planned to reveal this because he didn’t want to hurt her, but he wasn’t going to lie about Alex. “One of the Sheppard twins is my guide.”
Pepper stared for a long time; her scent pile was…complicated. “I see.” She cleared her throat. “I thought all the Sheppard kids were sentinels…?”
“Misinformation to protect his privacy. He’s looking forward to meeting you when you’re ready for that.”
She swallowed and nodded, looking down again.
He took her by the elbow and guided her to one of the lab stools. They sat in silence for a couple minutes and then began to talk like they hadn’t really done in a long time.
When they went back upstairs a half an hour later, Tony felt like they were on the right path and things were as good as they could be. For now.
– – – –
Tony drummed his fingers on the table in the building where Fury had arranged to meet him. King Spy was making him wait. Probably because Tony had been ducking him after the shit show in New York, and Tony had refused to let Jarvis open the gates for SHIELD when they came knocking on Friday.
He’d agreed to meet on Sunday, the day after his meeting with Pepper, wanting to do it quickly after David Sheppard was seen at SI and before Nick could do much digging.
There were folders on the table at the seat opposite him, a blatant effort to tempt him. He’d been ignoring them but maybe not ignoring them would make Nicky finally spy up. He grabbed one labeled: Avengers Initiative, Preliminary Report.
Avengers? Sounded like a boy band.
And, of course, Nick showed up and stopped Tony from reading it because it “didn’t apply to him anymore.” Then he passed over the spy’s assessment of him. Like SHIELD had some fucking right to assess him.
The report was obnoxious. Yeah, there was some truth to some bits, but it pissed him off that SHIELD thought assessing him while he was dying was okay. He managed to get through reading the report with his typical snarky remarks but, inside, he was seething.
“Director Fury,” one of the agents interrupted, holding a hand to his ear, “there’s a man at the door who claims to be Mr. Stark’s guide. He says he needs to join Mr. Stark, but he has no identification.”
“Uh, no,” Tony said quickly, knowing Fury would do the opposite of what Tony asked. “He doesn’t need to join. He can just, you know, wait in the truck.”
“Tony Stark is not a sentinel,” Fury said slowly, watching Tony’s every move.
“I wasn’t, but now I am. I mean, that’s kind of how it works. You’re off, then you’re on. But, you know, my guide was supposed to be hanging out while I ran in here real quick to see what you wanted, but I guess he got impatient seeing as how you made me wait. Just tell him to go away.”
Fury had a devious sparkle in his eye that nearly brought joy to Tony’s vicious little heart. “I think Mr. Stark’s guide should definitely join us. Be sure to scan him for weapons and surveillance devices.”
While they waited, Fury shot Tony an incredulous look. “You managed to hide that you’re a sentinel long enough for you to find a guide? You can’t have bonded yet, so I guess you’re in the courting phase. He’s not under any NDAs with us, so we’ll just watch what we say, right?”
“Whatever you say.” Tony held up his hands in a surrender gesture.
Fury pressed a remote and all the screens displaying SHIELD mission data and breaking news reports—no doubt displayed to appeal to Tony’s curiosity—went blank.
“All he has is frozen yogurt, Director,” the flunky finally offered.
“Then let him join the party since he came all this way,” Fury said with a grin.
A moment later, Alex sauntered in, looking stunning in tight jeans and black T-shirt.
“I can’t believe you got fro-yo,” Tony griped.
“Don’t worry, I got you some.” Alex nudged a chair into place by Tony and passed over a container of blue and white swirled something with fresh strawberries on top. “I was feeling this tart yogurt with sprinkles, but for some reason the blueberry cheesecake was calling out your name.”
“Good choice.” Tony took a bite and moaned in bliss as the taste of blueberries and strawberries exploded on his tongue.
Alex propped his feet on the table and took another bite of his yogurt. “Well, hello, Director Fury.”
“You look familiar, but I can’t quite place your name, Mr.…?”
“Doctor,” Alex corrected while stirring in sprinkles. “Dr. Alexander Sheppard, but I won’t hold out much hope that you’ll use the correct form of address. After all, I only have two PhD’s. Tony has three.”
Fury’s eyes were narrowed in what looked like calculation. “Are you implying that I’ve treated Dr. Stark disrespectfully?”
“I didn’t think I was being subtle enough for it to be called an implication.”
Tony snorted and covered his amusement by taking another bite of yogurt.
“You wouldn’t happen to be Alexander Sheppard of Sheppard Industries?” Fury prompted.
“I thought you were a sentinel?”
“I’m gratified to know we even managed to pull the wool over SHIELD’s eyes,” Alex responded with a grin.
“Lying about being a sentinel seems like a fruitless endeavor.”
“Maybe.” Alex shrugged and set aside his yogurt to grab Romanoff’s report on Tony. “Almost as fruitless as sending a spy to assess a dying man.”
“That was for Dr. Stark’s eyes only.” Fury’s protest was a token effort at best as he made no effort to retrieve the folder.
“I’ll just bet it was,” Alex said absently. He scoffed loudly at one point then laughed at another, but Tony could feel it was for show. Inside, Alex was simmering with rage.
When he was finished, Alex tossed the folder on the table and it slid in front of Fury. “What a bunch of manipulative twaddle.”
“I assure you—”
“Spare me,” Alex snapped. “I mean, I get it. Why you’d send Romanoff to Tony. If you can get them to actually want that shitty gig, a guide can be an excellent spy. They know exactly how to dig a knife in. How to twist facts to get their desired results.”
Whoa. That was news to Tony. “Romanoff is a guide?”
“Yep. It’s probably why you even marginally trusted her. Even a latent sentinel is biologically predisposed to want to trust guides.”
“Agent Romanoff is not in question here,” Fury said in a transparent attempt to get control of the conversation.
Alex ignored Fury and focused on Tony. “So, is this Avengers Initiative like some sort of boy band?”
Tony choked on his laughter. “I thought exactly the same thing.”
“Maybe they need a new name. Too bad One Direction is already taken. Maybe Single Minded or Lack of Vision are available.”
“We should try to get the domain names,” Tony agreed.
“Note to self?”
“Note to self.”
“Hey!” Fury yelled, making the situation ironic. “This is not a joke.”
“You’re right,” Alex bit out. “It’s not a fucking joke, but it’s perilously close to a crime. So, let me tell you where we’re at, Director. Romanoff better stay away from Tony, me, Stark Industries, Sheppard Industries, and any subsidiaries. Any, and I do mean any, goodwill I had toward SHIELD was burned with that manipulative piece of trash.
“You want something from Tony, you make a damn appointment and come through the front door respectfully. I don’t like some of the shit this Coulson fellow pulled, but Tony likes him, and he’s earned the benefit of the doubt for A—being under orders, but also B—being up front about what he was doing. Though if he ever threatens Tony with being tazed again, I’m kicking his ass.”
Alex got to his feet and leaned over, bracing his hands on the table. He was so fucking hot, it took Tony’s breath away. “But if Romanoff or any other spy comes at us from the side or behind, trying to sneak information or manipulate Tony or anyone in my tribe, I swear to you that they’ll come back to you catatonic with a brain the consistency of pea soup.”
“Is that a threat?” Fury asked, getting to his feet as well.
Alex stood straight. “It’s an assurance that neither Stark Industries nor Sheppard Industries will tolerate your attempts at espionage, and we don’t have to. It’s a fucking crime. So, I promise you that we will defend ourselves from your spies.”
“It’s still an empty threat, Guide Sheppard.”
“Ah. Do you mean that I lack the resources to carry out my threat?”
“Oh, Nick, bad move,” Tony said in a conciliatory tone.
Alex’s shield gave the illusion of snapping and his aura flooded the room and probably a good few blocks. It was a good thing they were in a nearly deserted industrial area. Alex was really only letting out a fraction of his guide aura, but Fury would think he’d lost control and that they’d revealed their whole hand.
Nick’s eye widened in alarm, but he wisely gestured his men back when it seemed like they might be stupid enough to point their weapons at Alex right in front of Tony. Feeling less amused, Tony got to his feet, prepared to intervene if anyone should get twitchy.
“My threat is not empty, Director Fury,” Alex said as he reined in his guide mojo. “I will feel any spy coming at us, and I will not be nice. Right now, I consider SHIELD a threat to my tribe. You’re going to have to work to build up some trust if you want anything from us.”
“We need Stark’s help—”
Alex slammed his hand down on Romanoff’s report. “Tony Stark: Not Recommended.” He did a good impression of a growling tiger.
“I know exactly what it was!”
“We need Stark to consult with SHIELD.”
“On a case-by-case basis, we’ll consider it, even though you really can’t afford him.” Alex stepped back and stood shoulder to shoulder with Tony. “In consideration for waiving Tony’s normal retainer, he wants a little favor, and you’re going to help him.”
Aggravation pouring off of him, Fury looked to Tony. “He do all the talking for you now?”
“Oh yeah. Because I can’t think of the last time I was this entertained.” Tony cocked his head. “You really think we didn’t talk about this ahead of time? You think maybe Alex is reacting to my rage at you slipping a spy into my life to manipulate me while I was dying? And I would have never told you that to your face, but he wasn’t going to let that slide,” Tony ended in a conspiratorial whisper.
“I sure the hell wasn’t. So you can keep your super secret boy band, and if you need something from Tony or anyone even in Tony’s sphere, you make an appointment like a normal person.” Alex took Tony’s hand then grabbed his yogurt. “I love sprinkles.” He shot Fury one more warning look. “Be straight with us and we’ll be fine. Use the phone, not a spy. I’m making that rule one.”
“How many rules are we going to have?” Tony asked, grabbing his own yogurt. The blueberry was damned good.
“For SHIELD?” Alex started walking toward the door, Tony readily walking with him. “Probably a whole manual of rules with a special set of appendices for how to get unfucked after they’ve screwed up.” Alex halted abruptly and turned back around. “I forgot. Rule one may be: use the phone, not a spy. But rule zero, the unbreakable rule, is don’t fuck with Jarvis. Your minions had the fucking audacity to turn Jarvis off. You mess with him again, all bets are off. I will come at you with all the legal power of Stark and Sheppard Industries. And then my mother is going to call you and make you regret all your life choices.”
They hadn’t discussed that ultimatum, but Tony’s throat felt tight at Alex’s understanding of how upset he’d been at SHIELD fucking around with Jarvis.
“All right,” Fury finally agreed.
“Glad we got that clear.” Alex spun around and headed for the door again.
They went to the car in silence, and nothing was said for a long time. Tony finally pulled over on the side of the highway and turned to face his guide. “That was the best thing ever.”
Alex grinned, and Tony leaned over and yanked his guide into a heated kiss.
– – – –
Tony sat at his worktable, twisting from side to side on his rolling stool, trying to figure out his next steps.
“Is everything all right, Sir? You’re not usually blocked in such a way.”
“I’m not blocked, J, I’m just thinking.”
“May I be of assistance?”
“You listened to the recording of our meeting with Fury?”
“What’d you think?”
There was a longer pause than Tony would have expected. “I think Master Alexander is a welcome addition in your life.” After a brief pause, Jarvis added, “And mine.”
Tony’s eyes felt hot and stingy for some reason, and he stared at his work table. “Yeah, he is.”
“What troubles you?”
“I’m not troubled. It’s just…been a long time since I felt I had someone besides you unquestioningly in my corner. It’s nice that there’s someone else.”
“It is a welcome occurrence. But something still troubles you.”
“It’s not— Do you think it’s too soon to be falling in love with him?”
“I think if the emotion is there, the time frame in which it occurred is of no significance.”
Tony smiled. “Well put.”
“Alexander has begun to descend the stairs to join you, Sir.”
“Thank you, Jarvis.”
“As always, Sir, you are most welcome.”
Alex entered a few seconds later, setting an iced coffee in front of Tony.
“What’s up, Buttercup?”
Alex rolled his eyes. “That’s gonna get old.”
“I really don’t think so.”
Alex chuckled and gestured to the computer table. “New project or are we disconnecting the table for when the contractors come tomorrow?”
“I’m thinking about designing you a suit,” he said impulsively, warming to the idea.
“Oh, come on. It’ll be fun.”
“I told you I’m not keen on flying. I tolerated the helicopter because I lived on a damn island. Why would you think I’d want to pilot myself around in a fitted can?”
With feigned hurt, Tony clutched his chest. “That hurts me. I mean, deeply hurts me.”
“It’s very different from flying any other kind of vessel.”
“Yeah! And probably not in a good way.”
“Don’t you have to try something to know if you hate it?” Tony countered.
“Ugh. Don’t bust out mom lines on me or it’ll be a sex-free night.”
“Okay, moving on. But, seriously…don’t you think you should give it a shot?”
“No. No suit.”
“Aleeeex,” Tony whined. “Don’t be a party pooper.”
“No.” Alex headed for the door.
“I’m making you a suit.”
“I’ll use it as a paperweight,” Alex called back as he started up the stairs.
“I’ll let you pick the font that I use for the Buttercup insignia on the chest plate!” Tony yelled after him.
Alex pivoted gracefully on the stairs and came back down, just sticking his head around the doorframe. “No Buttercup. But make it green and silver,” he conceded.
“Yes!” Tony paused. “Why green and silver?” he called after Alex as he started back up the stairs.
“If you’re going to fly around the world like the damn pride of Gryffindor, I need to provide some Karmic balance!”
Tony laughed, feeling lighter than he had in years. He tried to focus on the bond and let Alex feel the emotions running through him at that moment. He wasn’t ready to say it, but he definitely felt it.
There was a brief pause then a warm feeling flooded their bond straight from Alex, and it felt exactly like love.
– – – –