Title: Demons (sequel to Stick Around)
Author: Jilly James
Fandom: NCIS, MCU, The Sentinel
Genre: Drama, Fusion, Crossover, Romance
Relationship(s): Tony DiNozzo aka Dom Rossi/Tony Stark
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Canon-level violence, explicit sex, cases involving kidnapping, and canon-typical issues.
Author Notes: This is a sequel to Stick Around. Dominic Rossi was born Tony DiNozzo. The reason for the name change is explained in the first story.
Challenge: Written for Rough Trade April 2019 Take Two challenge.
Beta: Thank you, Ladyholder.
Word Count: 72,900
Summary: While Tony tries to get the Avengers Initiative moved under the U.N., outside voices keep telling him that his relationship with Dom is doomed to failure. Tony has to wrestle with his own demons to fight for the man he’s fallen for.
19 June 2012
“Good morning, Sir, it is now 6:30 AM. The temperature is sixty-three degrees.”
Tony Stark blinked blearily at the propulsion design he’d been working on for the last couple of days. It took him a moment to realize why Jarvis was giving him a status report on the time. Dom had slept in the lab last night, and this was his ungodly wakeup time.
Shaking off his fog, Tony glanced around to find Dom sprawled out on the new sofa Tony’d brought in just to accommodate Dom’s longer frame. He’d learned that his lover could fall asleep almost anywhere and in any position provided he trusted his environment. He’d spent one night with Tony in the lab getting used to the sounds and rhythm of it and then never had a problem sleeping while Tony worked.
Even though Dom could sleep just about anywhere, Tony wanted him to be comfortable so he’d immediately gotten a luxurious and much longer sofa. It didn’t hurt that there was plenty of room for them to make out on it.
Tony found it endearing and touching in ways he doubted he’d ever discuss that Dom just wanted to be around Tony sometimes—to such a degree that he’d read or work, leaving Tony to his devices, and then conk out on the couch.
They’d been together barely more than a month, and Tony already felt like he was in deep. Maybe too deep. Tony usually enjoyed celebrating his birthday, but he’d been happier to spend the day with Dom, hiding out in Dom’s condo and avoiding the world.
Dom’s birthday was a mere two weeks after Tony’s, and they’d marked the occasion by deciding to be exclusive and bailing on the use of condoms. Tony worried about how invested he already was, considering that Dom was a sentinel and Tony wasn’t a guide, but he planned to ride this happiness for as long as he could have it. And Dom hanging out in his workshop while Tony worked, making time for the bots, and talking to Jarvis made Tony happy.
Lately, he’d been obsessed with this project and hadn’t slept since he started on it. Dom had finally shown up last night with pizza and a stack of his own paperwork to do, not pushing Tony for anything other than being nearby. There was no recrimination for not breaking away from work. No demands to pay attention. Just…company.
Closing his work, Tony slipped off the lab stool and crossed to kneel by the couch, touching Dom’s arm lightly.
“Time izzit?” Dom mumbled, snaking an arm around Tony’s waist and pulling him up to sprawl on top of Dom’s body.
Tony let himself be nuzzled and sniffed by the handsy sentinel. “Six-thirty. Time for good little federal agents to get in the shower and then go to work.”
Dom kept his face buried in Tony’s throat. “I’ve never been very good.”
“Oh, I think you’re very good.”
“You just admire my mad blow job skills.”
There was no doubt about that. Tony had honestly never had a better or more attentive lover. Everyone should sleep with a sentinel at least once in their life. Just not Tony’s sentinel. Tony had totally called dibs on this one. “I certainly do admire your talents, that’s true. But I also know that you don’t actually want to be late.”
“Adulting sucks.” Dom’s hands drifted down to palm Tony’s ass. “How goes the design?”
“I’ve got a good start. I think I’m past the obsessing phase.”
“You want to grab dinner tonight?” Dom murmured against his jaw.
“I want to get laid, but I could be persuaded to go to dinner first.”
Dom chuckled, the breath across his throat making Tony shiver. “You can always have that.” He pressed a kiss to Tony’s collarbone. “The last wave of SI people are moving back into the tower today, right?”
“Yeah.” Tony sighed. “Pepper is coming in with the last group.” While reconstruction on the heavily damaged buildings would be ongoing for months, the road repairs had been completed and the broken windows and other minor issues around Stark Tower had been fixed, allowing him to resume business operations.
Dom craned his head back so he could meet Tony’s gaze. “There are micro fluctuations in your voice that sound…anxious. And your scent pile says the same.”
“Sometimes, sentinels are a pain in the ass,” Tony groused. How amazing they were in bed more than made up for the lack of privacy. He sighed and climbed off his lover, letting himself be moved until they were sitting side-by-side on the couch. “I just don’t want to fall into bad patterns with Pep again. We’re better off as friends, of that I have no doubt, but no one can twist you up like an ex.” He shrugged.
Dom watched him closely for several long moments. “You know I’m just a phone call away if you ever need me, right?”
Tony grinned. “Are you saying you’re willing to brave the Pepper Dragon for little ole me?”
Dom’s expression was serious as he said, “I’d brave anything for you, Tony.”
Feeling flustered, Tony squeezed Dom’s knee as he got to his feet. “Fortunately, all you need to brave is the shower.” U rolled away from her charging stand. “And U’s morning hug.” He laughed at U draping her claw over Dom’s shoulder. “I’m sure Jarvis has already ordered breakfast.”
“Thanks, J,” Dom replied as he gave U a final pat before heading out of the lab.
Tony stared after him belatedly realizing he was missing a kid. “Where’s Dum-E?”
“He is on the residential floor, Sir. I believe he’s checking for fire hazards.”
“Oh my god.”
– – – –
“Sir, Miss Potts is inspecting the security logs for the last several weeks.”
Tony froze, setting down the soldering iron he’d been using. “Particular reason why?”
“I believe she’s looking for Dominic’s comings and goings.”
“At the risk of being repetitive, any particular reason why?”
“I am uncertain and did not inquire. Would you like me to?”
“No.” Tony pushed back from the table. “I’ll handle it.” He wasn’t scheduled to see her until later in the day, but if she had time to be combing through security logs, she had time to talk to him.
Downstairs, he bypassed her admin and opened the door, tapping on it belatedly. “Welcome back,” he said neutrally.
“Tony.” She sat back in her chair, her smile welcoming if a bit strained. “I didn’t think we were scheduled until this afternoon.”
“Well, you know me and schedules.” He entered her office, kicking the door shut behind him, then sprawled out in one of the guest chairs. “Jarvis said you were interested in the security logs.”
Her lips pursed in what he easily recognized as irritation. “Yes. I saw a sentinel leaving the building this morning. I asked the security guard why he was here and who he was here to see, and he said he was on the access list for the executive elevator. Additionally, that he was here often and, beyond that, he didn’t know anything. So, I was curious.”
Tony wasn’t sure what was going on. “Why didn’t you just ask Jarvis? And how did you know he was a sentinel?”
Pepper arched a brow. “In the wake of the invasion, he was on the news more than once. He hasn’t got quite the profile of the so-called Avengers, but he was part of a team that helped defend the city. He’s made statements on behalf of the FBI several times. I’m sure most people in the country recognize him by this point.” She sighed. “What are you doing, Tony?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Are you really involved with a sentinel?” She gestured to the computer. “He’s frequently here overnight, he sometimes leaves with you around mealtimes. Is this how you rebound? With someone unobtainable?”
Tony had to fight down a well of irritation. “You left me, Pepper, so you lost the right to pry into what I do with my personal life.”
“We agreed to try to be friends, and friends worry about one another. They worry when they see people they care about getting invested in someone they can’t have! Also, I didn’t leave you. I said I couldn’t deal with you being Iron Man. You’re the one who chose the suit over me.”
“Hey!” he snapped. “You knew what I was when you got involved with me. Don’t turn this around as being my fault because you changed your mind. And let’s be clear that that’s exactly what happened. Either you realized you couldn’t deal with me the way I am or you entered the relationship expecting to change me, and neither of those things is my fault.”
He got to his feet, not giving her time to reply. “I was fine with the no-fault breakup, but do not try to act like you’re a victim of my selfishness. You, more than anyone, knew what you were getting when you started on this path, so let’s not pretend like it’s a mystery why I refused to change to meet your demands. I loved you and never tried to change you. I only ever asked for the same damn thing.
“Also, my new relationship is no one’s business. And since I’m a little angry right now, and I don’t want to say something I’ll regret, we’ll have to conclude this conversation some other time.”
He turned on his heel and left, not wanting to talk any further.
– – – –
“Sir, I have Colonel Rhodes on the line.”
Tony dropped his head on the table. “What fresh hell is this?” He’d wound down from his argument with Pepper three hours ago, but he was suspicious by nature, so Rhodey calling him shortly after he’d had it out with Pep made him wary. He’d cancelled his afternoon appointment with her, not up to dealing with another conversation so soon.
“Shall I tell him you’re not available, Sir?”
“No, put him through.” He’d only seen Rhodey once since the invasion, and he’d relished their time together. He’d even endured the epic chewing out for flying a nuke into space because he could tell Rhodey was actually proud of him but was yelling at him out of pure fear.
The display flickered and Rhodey’s face filled ted the screen. “Honey Bear,” Tony greeted, his smile feeling forced. “Considering the timing, just tell me up front if you’re calling because of something Pepper said.”
“I am,” Rhodey admitted. “She was really upset.”
“Yeah, well, so was I. We mutually agreed to call it quits. She doesn’t get to rewrite history and make it out to be my fault.” And maybe at one time Tony would have shouldered the blame. He hadn’t even realized he was changing, he just…had. Dom’s unconditional acceptance had affected Tony in ways he hadn’t even realized.
“It wasn’t easy on her…seeing you fly into that portal. It wasn’t easy on any of us, Tones.”
Tony sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. “I get that, okay? I don’t know how I’d deal with it if it had been you, but I know I wouldn’t have handled it by telling you that we could only keep our friendship if you left the Air Force.”
Rhodey made a face, one Tony knew meant Rhodey saw his point. “It’s a little different when you’re in a relationship with someone.”
“Come on, Rhodey, do you for a second think she got into this relationship not thinking she’d be able to change me? And maybe I’m just really seeing that now, but it wasn’t just Iron Man. It was do more, be better, clean up your act, be nicer to the board, stop goofing off, meet with the board more, crank out designs faster. I was never good enough. Never.”
Rhodey looked pained. “Tony—”
“And I tried, I really did, but asking me to give up being Iron Man, to stop the thing that matters most to me, was going too far.”
Rhodey made a placating gesture. “Okay, Tones. I hear you. And I hadn’t considered it from your point of view. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not trying to demonize her, okay? But her acting like I did something awful to her is historical revisionism, and I’m not playing that game. Also, we can be friends if she figures out how to separate her bad feelings about our relationship from where we are now, but I’m definitely not okay with her sticking her nose in my love life nor am I going to accept her running to you about it. Because that’s what this is about, right?”
Rhodey made a face. “She said she thinks you’re involved Sentinel Dominic Rossi.”
“I am,” Tony snapped. “Have been for over a month. It’s not a rebound and it’s not casual. Anything else?”
“Jesus, Tony! A sentinel? They don’t do permanent relationships with mundanes, you know that.”
Tony’s expression felt tight. “Is that all?”
“I’m just worried about you. I don’t want to you see you get your heart broken.”
“So if I say we’re just fooling around, everyone will lay off?”
“No, but I’m just curious if everyone would butt out of my private life if I told that lie.”
Rhodey shrugged. “Well, I’ve heard sentinels are a great lay.”
The laughter was a shocking release of tension. “You asshole. And, yes, it’s unreal.”
“Really?” Rhodey looked curious.
“They don’t miss a thing. He found all my known hotspots and new ones I couldn’t have imagined. So, yes, the sex is amazing.”
Rhodey’s expression became more serious. “But it’s more than that.”
“Look, it’s not like we’ve exchanged rings or anything. We like each other, we’re happy together. Can’t that be enough?”
“With a sentinel? Do you really need to ask why we might be worried?”
“You know I’m a latent guide, right? Or have you forgotten that little fact?”
“Tones.” Rhodey sighed. “Odds are you won’t come online at your age. You know that, so don’t play dumb. Also, you never wanted to be a guide. In college, you said if you were unfortunate enough to come online, that you wouldn’t even register. That you weren’t going to make your whole life be about a sentinel’s senses.”
“I know what I said. And I still don’t want to be like some auxiliary aspect of a sentinel’s sensory control, okay? But it doesn’t change the fact that me being latent makes us more…compatible.”
“Okay, but just don’t get serious, all right?”
“It’s barely been five weeks. Can we not freak out about this?”
“He’s going to find a guide someday, and then what?”
“You know what? This conversation is done. Feel free to call when warning me away from Dom isn’t part of your agenda.”
“End call, Jarvis.”
The line went dead.
Tony buried his face in his hands, feeling frustrated at everyone poking at his insecurity. He knew he’d fallen hard for Dom—harder than he’d admit to anyone but himself—and he did worry about what would happen when Dom met a compatible guide. That anxiety was there, bubbling in the background all the time, but he kept a lid on it so he could enjoy what he had for as long as he could have it. The last thing he needed was well-meaning people poking at it and making it harder to ignore.
Letting his hands fall to his lap, Tony looked up to find U right in front of him. The monitor on the wall read: Dad angry?
“No, I’m not angry, baby girl. I’m just frustrated because my friends have a bad habit of not listening to me. I’ll be fine.” He blew out a breath. “What’s up, Jarvis?”
“Dominic has indicated on more than one occasion that he’s comfortable not having a bond with a guide. Perhaps it would be wise to listen to him over others who have not been privy to the evolution of your relationship?”
Tony smiled faintly. “That’s good advice, J. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Sir.”
– – – –
Tony slid into the backseat of the car.
“Where to?” Happy asked immediately.
“The Center.” When he’d cancelled his appointment with Pepper, he’d called the Center to see if Kyle had any openings, which he had, so Tony had snapped that up. He needed to talk to Kyle and Scott about the upcoming meeting with the head of the U.N. Security Council, but getting in another session with Kyle would be a good thing.
“Seems like security coordination for the clean-up should be almost done,” Happy remarked casually as he merged into traffic. Ostensibly, Tony came to the Center to coordinate between the Department of Damage Control and the S&G Center. No one knew why he was really there, which was PTSD treatment and trying to fuck over SHIELD in as many ways as possible. The media had lost interest in his mundane efforts regarding security and repair of the city after only a week, so no one paid his comings and goings at the Center any mind at this point.
“I’m working on some ongoing projects with the Center. How to better coordinate in the event of a future disaster, how to integrate the sentinels and guides into our defensive strategy, that kind of thing.”
“SHIELD wouldn’t handle that?”
Tony snorted. “Do you want the people who shot a nuke at us in charge of what happens if there should be another alien invasion?”
“Point.” Happy hesitated, and Tony could tell he had something on his mind.
“Spit it out, Hap.”
“This guy you’ve been seeing…”
“Oh, not you too! Can’t anyone just be happy for me?”
“We worry,” Happy replied defensively. “He’s a sentinel.”
“I’m an actual grown-up, you know, no matter what anyone might think.”
“I know that, boss! We just don’t want to see you hurt.”
“How about we all go back to letting Tony look out for his own love life, okay? I’m gonna lose it the next time anyone prods at this. And really, how did you even find out?”
Happy was quiet and obviously uncomfortable.
“Hap?” Tony said more forcefully.
“Pepper said you’d gotten into a rebound relationship that could only end in heartbreak, and she asked me to look into the guy. She just doesn’t want you falling into a spiral because your relationship is over.”
“Oh my god.” Tony rubbed his hands over his face, trying to find some patience. “Enough, okay? I’ll talk to Pepper again, but this is my last polite butt-the-fuck-out to all my well-meaning friends.”
Happy obviously wasn’t happy, but he let it go, and Tony was grateful for the damn silence that lasted until they reached the Center. He hesitated as he got out of the car. “Since the cat is completely out of the bag, instead of making up an excuse, I’ll just say that you don’t need to wait. I’m meeting Dom here after my meetings, and he’ll get me back to the tower.”
Happy huffed but nodded.
Tony headed into the building and scrawled his signature on the sign-in log.
“Director Monahan is available early, Dr. Stark. You can head up to his office whenever you’re ready.” The Center staff were fucking religious about calling him Dr. Stark. And, for the most part, no one at the Center even blinked at his presence. While he did get the occasional fanboy or girl, it was a small minority because most of the sentinels and guides had other things to focus on. It was refreshing.
After his conversations with Blair, Kyle, and Dom, he’d checked into the various methods the Center had of dealing with trauma, and had been drawn to trying EMDR, which Kyle and several others in the Manhattan Center were certified to perform for latent or online guides. Tony was more accepting of it because it was technique for reprocessing memories rather than just conventional talk therapy. Even though he’d read through the science of it, he’d still been skeptical until he’d actually done it.
The first few days after a session were anything but better, but then it suddenly was better. Less nightmares, no flashbacks. The memories he worked on were blunted and faded the way they were supposed to be rather than sharp and vibrant.
While there was still some talk element involved, it was more about directing the treatment and focusing on the right things than talking about his daddy issues or delving deep on anything. It certainly didn’t require Tony to delve into the discomfort of self reflection.
It also helped that he’d grown to trust Kyle over the short period of time he’d know the other man. And while the work was personal, it wasn’t so intimate and revealing that it made Tony uncomfortable to work with Kyle in other ways.
He knocked on the door to Kyle’s office, heading in as soon as he heard the guide’s voice bid him enter. Scott was hovering behind Kyle, leaning over and looking at something.
They both frowned when Tony entered. Scott gave a sniff, frown deepening.
“You feel really irritated,” Kyle said immediately.
“You smell it too,” Scott added.
“You guys are the worst,” Tony complained. “What happened to the no reading me thing?”
“I’m not actually reading you,” Kyle said, leaning back in his chair. “You’re practically projecting irritation.”
“I can’t help what I smell,” Scott said as he leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest.
Tony huffed and flopped in the chair.
“Everything okay?” Kyle pressed.
“Fine. I’m trying to get these meetings set up to figure out how to get our superhero boy band under the auspices of the U.N., and that’s just all kinds of annoying. I need to go to Japan next week, so part of our meeting needs to be about filling you guys in and making sure I’ve got all my proverbial ducks in a row.” He sighed. “And it doesn’t help that with everything else going on that all my friends are sticking their nose in my choices about who I date.”
“We’re not trying to pry into your personal life, Tony. And you know we’ll help in any way we can when it comes to getting the planetary defense group sorted out.”
He waved his hand, not meaning it the way Kyle took it. “I don’t mean you guys. I’m talking about Pep, Rhodey, Happy… Each of them warning me away from Dom. So if you guys are feeling disapproving, you might as well say something now, let everyone get it out of their system now today. Because I’m going to lose my cool the next time this happens.”
“Hell no.” Scott shook his head. “Even if I were inclined to give you relationship advice—which I’m not—I sure the hell am not getting all up in Dom’s business.”
Tony blinked. “Uh. Okay.”
Kyle frowned. “I assume your friends are bugging you about being involved with a sentinel? Warning you that it’s a short-term prospect and not to get attached?”
“It’s like you’re psychic or something,” Tony said deadpan.
Kyle smiled, but it seemed oddly sad. “I’d normally be giving you the same speech, to be honest. Just because I wouldn’t want you to get too caught up in what can only be a short-term affair. But this is different—I honestly don’t know what to expect, so I can’t really take it on myself to advise you. The Council gave up trying to make Dom be anything but Dom a long time ago.”
Tony sat up straighter. “Is there something I should know?”
Kyle and Scott exchanged a look but didn’t say anything.
“Are you not telling me something? Oh, god, he’s not dying or something is he?” Tony felt sick to his stomach at the thought that something might be wrong with Dom.
“No!” Kyle said sharply. “It’s just… There’s this thing that most sentinels and a few guides are aware of that maybe you should know about…”
“Ky,” Scott said in a warning tone.
“Come on, Scott. Considering what what’s going on, not to mention the Avengers thing, I feel it’s in the spirit of Dom’s instructions to volunteer the info.”
“Consider me asking about Sentinel Rossi,” Tony interjected, making his request plain in case that eased some burden of conscience.
Thompson moved away from the wall, pacing in a way that reminded Tony of a big, predatory cat. “Rossi is a bit…unusual as sentinels go.”
“How so, and why does it matter?”
“We think it’s why SHIELD has always been so interested in him, and it might be relevant to your personal ties…” Scott sounded uncomfortable.
“Let’s start a little more foundational and not speculate,” Monahan said. “In a room full of sentinels, they can feel who the strongest sentinel is. How is something we don’t quite understand, but it’s not just a matter of opinion. They will all, without exception, point out the same person as the ‘strongest.’ That feeling usually correlates to who has the strongest senses.”
“Okay. I mean, I guess that make sense that the strongest sentinel would have the most acute senses. Though how they can just know is weird.” Tony wondered how that even worked. “It certainly implies there’s more than sensory strength at work.”
“Exactly. We test sentinels on three senses: sight, hearing, and smell. We haven’t devised tests that are granular enough for the other two senses. Basically, anyone at a level five or above tops out our ability to measure taste and touch. But the other three, well, the more time passes, the more refined our tests have become.
“And bonded sentinels can learn to piggyback their senses by leveraging psionic energy through their bond, which makes their sensory aptitude even more impressive. In any case, when it comes to the three senses, the Council keeps a confidential report of who the strongest sentinels are based strictly on the test results.
“Jim Ellison is in the top spot for smell and hearing while he’s number two for sight. I actually think he’s probably actually number one by a significant margin, but he’s most likely to zone on visual stimulus because his sight is so sensitive, so he probably hasn’t tested as well as he could.”
“Number two is nothing to sneeze at,” Tony remarked.
Scott added, “The point is that our testing methodology has consistently proved out the instinctive response of other sentinels, which is that Jim Ellison is the strongest sentinel living today.”
Tony had no idea where this was going. “And I assume that’s why he’s the Sentinel Prime of North America.”
“Yes.” Monahan made a frustrated noise. “You have to understand that there’s a lot that goes into determining the rating for a sentinel or guide, but how we pick our primes is more about instinct than it is about ratings—but people might mistakenly think it’s just about a number on a page. And the Primes are vital.”
“Alpha sentinels are extremely territorial,” Scott interjected, “and inclined toward an instinctive hierarchy. It’s important that a given territory have a clear leader. It looks like a governance structure we formed on purpose but, in reality, we formed our structure around a sentinel’s hard-wired imperative.”
Tony was rapidly putting pieces together, but the picture still wasn’t clear.
Kyle added, “The strongest bonded sentinel leads the pride unless they’re deemed unfit, which is a whole other story. But the point is that it’s baked into a sentinel’s brain who the strongest sentinel is, and therefore the leader of the Pride, and it’s not about arbitrary bureaucracy.”
“I get it,” Tony said. “And even though I didn’t explicitly know some of that, it all flows with what I did know. But I don’t get what you’re trying to tell me with all that information. What does it have to do with Dom?”
Kyle drummed his fingers on the desk. “If I were to show you the list of the top two hundred sentinels, tested for any of the three skills, they’d all be bonded sentinels.”
“Top thousand,” Thompson added.
“Yeah, probably,” Monahan conceded. “So, if we exclude tests that require sensory piggybacking, it’s interesting that Dom has always tested in the top twenty—he’s the only unbonded sentinel to have a sensory rank that anyone even cares about. An unbonded sentinel is one of the strongest sentinels on Earth. And that’s not even factoring in how he’s the least territorial sentinel I’ve ever met. He has almost no territorial imperative at all that we’ve seen.”
Tony blinked a few times. “How?”
“We don’t know. But, the other factor is that even though he hasn’t surpassed Ellison on the tests, even though he’s not in that number one spot on our paperwork, any sentinel that meets him will tell you he’s the strongest sentinel in the room.”
“Uh…” Tony rubbed the back of his neck, working through that. “You’re saying that other sentinels feel like Dom should be the Prime of… something?”
“Sort of?” Monahan made a so-so gesture. “Sentinels don’t react to him like he’s a Prime even though they feel he’s the strongest, which feels to everyone who meets him like an inherent contradiction. In any case, the point of all this is that we were pretty sure our systems were compromised at one point a few years ago. We subsequently did a big security upgrade, but it was after that breach, and after a possibly unfortunate conversation that was probably spied on, that SHIELD started trying to recruit him.”
“Why was the conversation unfortunate?” Tony made mental note to extend an offer of security enhancements to Jim and Blair.
“I was discussing Dom with Jim and Blair one day and speculating about what would happen if Dom were bonded. Where would he fall in the Pride structures and things like that. And Blair joked and said, ‘What? Do we need an Earth Prime?’ And we all laughed and moved on. Now, that seems less like a joke. It actually feels resonant. Prescient even.”
Tony felt a little queasy. What would any of that mean for Dom? Or for their relationship.
“The point, Tony, is that while I might normally try to warn you about getting too attached to a sentinel, Dom has never, to my knowledge, craved a guide the way most sentinels do. He’s an anomaly in a lot of ways, and I think maybe the best advice I could give you would be to take it as it comes. To listen to Dom and your own instincts over any advice someone might offer.”
Tony nodded, agreeing easily enough, but he couldn’t help wondering what it all meant.
Dom pressed his lips to the base of Tony’s spine then kissed his way back up.
“God, you’re insatiable.” Tony groaned, pressing his face into the pillow. “You wore me out.” The words were muffled but clear enough to Dom’s ear.
Chuckling, Dom sucked a mark over Tony’s spine, right at the base of his neck. Tony arched back against him with a drawn-out moan. Tony was always putty in his hands when Dom sucked right over his spine—he had a very sensitive back. “You seem to have some energy left. I’m pretty sure you’ve got another go in you.”
“Ugh.” Tony rolled over and ineffectually grabbed at Dom. “Come here. I’m going to cuddle you into submission.”
Dom let himself be pulled into whatever cuddling position Tony wanted, which seemed to be making Dom the little spoon. He was fine with that. “What am I submitting to?”
“I thought that was obvious…I’m cuddling you. Aggressively.” Tony nipped at the back of Dom’s neck. “I know you’re perfectly capable of getting me going again, but I really need this too.” The last was said softly, and Dom threaded his fingers through Tony’s and pressed their joined hands over his heart. Tony was often reluctant to ask for what he needed, so Dom saw it as a step forward that he was admitting what he really needed was affection despite his assertion this morning that what he needed was to get laid.
“Do you want to talk?” Dom asked because he knew Tony had a lot on his mind, but he was also content to let things be. “This is great, so either is fine with me.”
Tony was quiet for a long time. “Kyle told me some stuff about you today.”
“Of course. I gave him the go-ahead to tell you if you ever asked, and he sent me a text that you sort of asked, though I’m not sure what that means. How do you sort of ask?”
Tony squeezed his hand a little harder. “I was upset about people sticking their nose in our relationship. Saying we can’t really be together because I’m not a guide. I sort of challenged Kyle. Wanted to see if he was going to say the same thing.”
“And instead he told you about me being a bit of an odd duck as sentinels go.”
Dom extricated himself from Tony’s grip and turned over so he could see Tony’s expression, finding it more shuttered than he’d like. “This isn’t just a fling for me, you know that.”
“But you still think I’m going to walk away? Why? Because a guide comes along?”
Tony shrugged one shoulder, not meeting Dom’s eyes.
Dom sighed. “Tony, I’ve met hundreds of unbonded guides in my life, and I was never tempted. Stop letting other people get in your head.”
“Jarvis said I should listen to you and not…whatever.”
“Jarvis is probably smarter than all of us combined. But it’s weird how he’s the most well adjusted of our motley crew.”
Tony smiled, the soft smile he only showed when he really felt something. He even smelled pleased. “I did good.”
“Yeah, you did.” Dom moved closer and claimed Tony’s mouth, easily getting lost in the taste. “God, you taste so good.”
“Flatterer.” Tony batted his eyelashes. “Bet you say that to all the boys.”
Dom really didn’t, but Tony wasn’t inclined to take him seriously when he said stuff like that. “When do you leave for Japan?”
“Next Tuesday. Something up?”
He nudged up Tony’s chin, getting access to his throat. “Just want to be sure I fit in as much you time as possible before you go.”
“Aww. You’re going to miss me.”
“Duh. Me and the kids.”
Tony’s hands, which had been roaming over Dom’s back, stilled. “Will you come by while I’m gone? Just check on them? Bruce will be around of course, and it’s not really necessary—”
“Of course I will,” Dom interrupted. “I’ll send ‘em texts like always, but I’d miss them. And we don’t need Dum-E putting out imaginary fires because he’s in a snit about being left alone.”
Pulling back, Tony blinked at him. “You think the fire extinguisher shenanigans are about loneliness?”
“Uh, yeah.” That seemed really obvious to Dom.
“Huh.” Tony looked like he was reassessing something. “Maybe they need another sibling.”
“I think they just want interaction. You, me, Jarvis, Bruce… You’ve already started expanding their circle.”
“True. I’ll have to be sure I explain more to Bruce. He’s pretty good about interacting with them though. He lets them do more than even I do.”
He knew Tony was hesitant about who he let near the bots, and Dom could understand why. Not everyone got how amazing and different they were, and just what a miracle Tony had created. Dom truly believed both bots and Jarvis had become aware. “If I’m in town, I’ll drop by and see them every day.”
Dom rolled Tony onto his back, bracing himself above. “Now, tell me I can have you every night between now and next Tuesday.”
“Oh ho. You think I’m that easy?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
Tony wrapped his legs around Dom’s waist. “You’re not wrong.” He could feel Tony’s cock twitch from where it was pressed against Dom’s stomach.
Dom grinned. “Thought you were worn out.”
“Thought you said I had another one in me?” he said in an obvious challenge.
– – – –
The phone ringing jolted Dom awake. The tone was as soft as he could make it—too soft to wake Tony, but he still disturbed his lover when he pulled away to grab his phone off the nightstand.
The time was just after 0200, and the display was a Bureau number. “Rossi,” he answered softly, hoping Tony would easily fall back to sleep. Tony hadn’t been getting nearly enough sleep lately, and Dom didn’t want to be the cause of even more missed sleep.
“Agent Rossi, this is SAC Sullivan. We have a child abduction, and you’re needed on scene ASAP.”
Dom grabbed the paper and pen always on the nightstand for just this kind of thing. He didn’t get called out in the middle of the night regularly, but it happened enough that he always was ready.
“Sitrep.” He never hesitated to take charge when he was called in regardless of who was doing the calling. Sullivan was actually from another division so not in Dom’s chain of command. Dom didn’t work a lot of missing person cases, but his agreement with the Bureau was that he would always help on child abduction cases if he was needed. The other type of case he’d get tapped for was a violent fugitive—there’d been one just last week, so it wasn’t the first time he’d had to bail on Tony in the middle of the night.
He took down all the relevant details as Sullivan rattled them off. “I’m easily 40 minutes out.” Tony nudged him sharply. “Just a sec.” He raised an eyebrow at his sleepy lover, who had been reading the case details over Dom’s shoulder.
“Jarvis will pilot you there,” Tony whispered.
Dom nodded his thanks. “Okay, I’m catching a priority ride. I can be there in ten. Anyone who has been on scene needs to still be there so that I can do scent elimination. I need the girl’s bedroom closed off. No one else in or out until I can examine the scene.”
“Forensics is in there now.”
“And forensics tends to be stinky as hell. The longer they spend in there, the harder it is for me to do the scent profile. They can have the room when I’m done.”
“Yes?” he prompted impatiently.
“I feel I should disclose that this is my goddaughter.”
“Then you need to hand the investigation off to a different SAC and get your butt to the scene to support your goddaughter’s parents. I’ll do everything in my power to bring Madeline home, but you can’t be involved in the investigation. I’m going to contact the Center to have another sentinel on stand-by in case we need it.” Which implicitly meant Thompson. Dom was the second strongest sentinel at the Bureau, and the strongest in New York. The only sentinel in the state who tested higher than Dom, especially with olfactory perception, was Scott Thompson, a bonded sentinel who would be able to piggyback his senses if need be.
“I…it’s not easy to just step back.”
“I’m not saying it is, but you don’t have a choice. If it hasn’t been assigned to another SAC by the time I reach the house, I’ll take care of it myself.” Every minute with a child abduction was critical, and Dom had no patience for anyone arguing with him. He always had tactical command in these situations, but he didn’t need an emotionally compromised SAC getting in his way.
He hung up and turned to Tony, giving him a quick, hard kiss. “I’m sorry.”
“Never apologize for this. Go. Jarvis is getting the suit ready. He’ll meet you on the landing pad. I assume you don’t want me to leave the suit with you…?”
“Definitely no. Hard to explain.”
“It’s only five minutes away if you need it. And if there’s anything I can do…”
Dom took a quick photo of his notes, scribbled a cell phone number at the bottom, and then passed the hard copy off to Tony. “Would you get in touch with Scott? That’s his cell. Tell him to be prepared to get called out. I don’t know what we’re going to find, but sentinel countermeasures aren’t uncommon in this type of situation. I’ll need another sentinel who can work around them, and the Bureau doesn’t have enough of that caliber in New York.”
“But you can?”
“Usually.” He gave Tony another kiss. “See you soon.”
– – – –
On foot, Dom followed the scent trail to a tree where it abruptly became old. “Dammit!” He slapped his hand against the tree trunk.
“Same thing?” Dana asked from behind him. The Bureau always insisted he work with a guide in these types of situations, but she was functioning more as a field agent than a guide right now. Sometimes, the more Dom pushed his senses, the less he was able to utilize the help of a guide. It was odd, and he knew it, so he’d never discussed it with anyone but Blair. Since he and Dana had worked together so often, she knew to give him space and that he would ask if he needed something. It was one of the reasons why he preferred working with her over other Bureau guides—she didn’t try to foist her abilities on him.
“Yeah, but there’s another new scent on top of the ones we were already tracking. Just like the last time. This was ridiculously well-coordinated. They had to have sealed scent exemplars waiting at every one of these false trails and then had someone open them up at the right time to lay down the trails to the start point.”
“Any idea why? She’s one little girl. I’ve heard of sentinel countermeasures before, but this is beyond that.” It wasn’t just the olfactory misdirection of laying down a bunch of nasty smells most sentinels would be able to deal with. Instead, there was an obvious effort nullify the effect of any sentinel.
“They’ve got us running in circles, chasing false scent trails,” he mused out loud. And that brought up a question he’d asked earlier than he still hadn’t gotten an answer to. “Let’s regroup with the others. I need some questions actually answered this time.” He cocked his head to the side, easily hearing the confirmation from Scott that they were on their way back to the rendezvous point.
“Thompson and Monahan are on their way back. They had the same thing. Another false trail.” Scott and Dom were the only sentinels in New York at present that could process the scent trails with all the overlying smells used to distract.
It was more than a mile back to the truck coordination point they’d set up. He could smell that Scott and Kyle were back already. Their trail must have been shorter. As he neared base, he softly called out, “Scott, would you meet me here?” There were other sentinels in the area, but he wasn’t worried about any of them ignoring the local Prime’s privacy to run off to the FBI. Dom had started to think there was something he wasn’t being told, so he didn’t want the other agents working the case to hear this.
Scott and Kyle came through the tree line a few minutes later. The sun was just coming up, lightening the sky with the colors of sunrise. Scott looked like he was fighting a headache, and Kyle was keeping a hand on his arm.
“What kind of an asshole uses a distillate of muskox urine?” he groused as he neared.
“The very worst kind. The kind I plan to punch in the face with a brick.” Dom rubbed his temples. “Here’s the thing, these trails feel like more than sentinel countermeasures.”
“In what way?” Kyle asked as he began to rub the back of Scott’s neck. “Because I’m all in with the face punching. This stinks even for me.”
“They feel like a distraction.”
“Oh,” Dana exclaimed. “You’re right. Wow. What the hell is going on?”
“After the first fake trail, I asked how these yahoos had fresh scent for Madeline. After all these other fake trails—which seem to have been laid down at the same damn time—we know they had multiple scent stores; my guess is it’s some sort of worn clothing that they were storing in sealed bags. But the question remains, where and how did they get so many?”
“And we never got an answer to that,” Kyle murmured. “At least, we didn’t. I don’t know how much you guys leave us out of the loop when we’re assisting like this.”
Dom shook his head. “If there were something classified, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, but that isn’t an issue here; the policy is to keep you informed of anything that related to or that impacts the search. In any case, I’ve been so turned around chasing scent trails that I’m not working the investigation, and I’m done being literally led around by my nose.”
“You want us to work with the team to verify that these leads are false while you do that?” Scott asked.
“Actually, no.” Dom shook his head emphatically. “Let the Bureau S&G teams chase them. They may not be able to smell Madeline or her kidnappers around they countermeasures, but they sure the fuck can smell the countermeasures themselves! No, I think you need to get some isolation time and get rest. Because I have a hunch if we get a better lead that we’re going need your nose again, Scott. If you spend the next few hours smelling muskox and that damn rose oil, you’re not going to be as effective.”
“I have no problem with that plan,” Scott muttered, rubbing his temples. “I hate scent countermeasures. Everything winds up tasting like crap for days.”
“I just dial taste off for at least 48 hours. Better than tasting this.”
Scott made a mournful noise. “And Vivaan was bringing those chicken and roasted red pepper sausages to the food cart tomorrow.”
Dom snorted. “Send him a text and let him know you and I are without taste buds for a few days. Marisol will set some aside.” He clapped Scott on the shoulder and nodded to Kyle before he headed back to the command center to figure out what the hell was going on.
– – – –
Dom entered the study at the Baker house, where SAC Sullivan was ensconced, supposedly staying out of the investigation since his goddaughter was the victim. “I need the room,” he said shortly, keeping eye contact with Sullivan. The other agents quickly scurried out.
“Any news, Agent Rossi?”
“What don’t I know?” he bit out.
“I don’t follow.”
Dom tilted his head to the side. “My sense of smell may be overwhelmed right now but it’s not so bad off that I can’t detect your nerves.”
“You’re here to find my goddaughter,” Sullivan snapped. “Do your job, Sentinel.”
“We’re not playing that game—the one where you dismiss me because I’m just a sentinel. You are personally compromised by this situation, and now I believe you are withholding pertinent information. So you tell me what’s going on or I’m going as far over your head as I can manage. And that’s the damn director’s office in case you’re wondering how high the view will be. Because this amounts to misuse of the Bureau’s sentinel and guide resources, and the Council is going to have something to say about that.”
“That’s not what’s going on! I would never send sentinels out in the field on a wild goose chase. You just need to find her!”
“Finding a missing child isn’t just about sniffing out a trail! Especially not this one. There’s an investigation too.”
“I’m handling it,” Sullivan said coldly.
“No, you’re not. You are not on this case. This is your last chance to come clean with me before I make several calls because I have no choice but to believe that your withholding of information is endangering the life of a five-year-old girl, and I am done giving you any consideration in this.” When Sullivan continued to give him a frigid stare, Dom turned to leave.
“Agent!” Dom snapped as he spun back around.
Sullivan frowned in confusion.
“You’ve dismissed me investigatively because you see me as a damned nose. But I am a stellar agent and twice the investigator you ever were. I have two sentinels in isolation at the Center being treated for sensory collapse because they pushed it too hard around all the countermeasures out there when the whole thing was a huge waste of time! So stop with the bullshit and answer my damn questions.”
– – – –
Dom stepped outside the Baker house and moved deeper into the back yard, away from the taped-off scent trail that marked the path the kidnappers had taken to remove Madeline from the house.
Hours of investigative work had finally cracked what was going on and how this had all been accomplished. Sullivan had confirmed that the real “ransom” demand had come in and the task force had not been notified because it came straight to Sullivan. Bradley Sullivan had no children, so the only way to get to him was through his goddaughter, the only child of his best friend Jeremy Baker, Sullivan’s college roommate. Desperate to protect his goddaughter, Sullivan had hidden that he’d been ordered to lose critical evidence for an upcoming trial if they wanted to get Madeline back alive.
The parents had known nothing about the demands to Sullivan, but the person who provided the worn clothing to the kidnappers certainly had. Dom had repeatedly asked the question of where the worn clothing had come from—because those scent trails couldn’t have come from any other source—and no one had an answer, but they’d all been too focused on chasing false trails to press the issue.
When he’d pushed, he’d learned the Sullivan had shielded the housekeeper from having to answer about the missing clothes because he’d worried that something she might say would reveal what was really going on.
Sullivan hadn’t meant to shield a co-conspirator, but that’s exactly what had happened. That he was unaware of her involvement didn’t mean a damn thing to Dom. Sullivan should have been suspicious of her tale of a missing load of laundry from a week ago. A clothes’ hamper—and absolutely nothing else—didn’t just go missing from within the confines of an upper-middle-class house in Bronxville without it being inherently suspicious. The housekeeper had been coerced into cooperation, but that didn’t negate her involvement, and it sure didn’t negate the time they’d wasted chasing false trails through the woods.
He pulled out his phone and pressed one of the pre-programmed numbers.
“Hey,” Tony answered. “How goes it?”
“Not great.” Dom sighed, staring up at the late afternoon sky, edging toward sunset. It had taken too long to get a solid lead, but it had been good to work the investigation and turn off his nose for a while. He had people out looking into the original case that the kidnappers were trying to get thrown out of court. Dom had spent most of the day interrogating people at the Baker house and then on the phone coordinating the investigation.
“What’s wrong?” The distinctive sounds of Tony working on something mechanical came through easily over the phone. It was oddly relaxing to Dom.
“The kidnappers laid a very complicated series of false trails. When I left the scene, they still had a few trails to go over, but we got through it and they were all false. Someone withheld some critical information, and a sentinel-driven manhunt was premature.”
“Well damn. I guess I won’t hold dinner,” Tony said in a lighthearted tone, but Dom could hear the concern. “There was an Amber alert earlier, but it was light on details other than who was missing and where she had been abducted from. Media coverage has been sketchy. Just that sentinels bad been called in to find her.”
“More press was here earlier, but there’s only one hanging around now. The family’s not particularly noteworthy other than being affluent, and the media tends to assume sentinels called in will result in a very short manhunt. I have no idea what they’re going to do with this when it’s not concluded soon. Because this is not going to be fast. Whoever set this up is good. Considering how fresh the scent was, they had to have had about ten people waiting with scent stores and all ten were used to lay down false trails at the same time. It’s a cluster fuck.”
“Where’d they get the scent exemplars?”
“Isn’t that the million-dollar question? After a couple of interrogations, I finally got an answer to that, and it’s opened up new angles for the investigation and given us a new sniff angle, as it were.”
“Your senses must be pretty taxed.”
Dom didn’t want to get into just how overworked his sense of smell was. There was no point in worrying Tony. “It’s not too bad. I got to turn off my nose for most of the daylight hours and focus on being an investigator. But I called for two reasons. First to let you know that I’m definitely going to be at this for a while, so I won’t see you tonight. And the other is… well, Scott and I are both a little overextended on the nose front, so I’m calling in someone to take over as sniffer-in-chief.”
“Sounds like a solid plan. I’ve read about the kinds of things people use to overwhelm a sentinel’s senses. That must really suck.”
“You have no idea.” Dom rubbed his nose just at the memory of the night in the woods. “Anyway, I was wondering if you could help me with something?”
“You know I’ll help any way I can.”
“Well, this is a pretty big favor…” Dom didn’t even want to ask, but he knew he needed a heavy hitter to handle the sniffing aspects of whatever came next. He laid out what he needed.
Tony readily agreed to Dom’s request.
Dom needed to make some more phone calls, but he lingered on the line with Tony for another minute, just wanting to hear his voice.
– – – –
An hour later, Dom and Dana met up with Kyle and Scott at the command center. He led them back out into the woods, ostensibly to follow-up on one of the scent trails found earlier. There was a small shack the forest service used for supply drop-off, which was only a quarter mile off the road.
He stopped out front, casting his hearing out for anyone nearby, and then passed off a note explaining what he’d found out during the investigation. He’d written it down because he didn’t want every Bureau sentinel still on scene to be hearing what was going on. Some of it would come out publicly and some would be buried.
A couple of minutes later, Kyle looked up from the summary, lips pursed in disapproval. “What now?”
“The housekeeper hadn’t washed the sweater she’d worn to hand off the laundry to the guy who set this up, so I’ve got a minimal scent trace of someone not at the crime scene or at the point where our false trails branched off. But it’s so faded that I’m not sure anyone but you, Scott, is going to pick it up. No one else I’ve checked with has been able to get anything off it so far.” He handed over the evidence container they used specifically for preserving scents for sentinels. The sweater was inside.
“I’ll sniff it in a second. If I get the scent, I’m going to want to act. So, what else have you come up with?”
“We know there was a fresh scent trail that led from the house to the place by the road where we set up the command center. There were no other scent trails at the house, and all the scent trails with Madeline’s scent only went to the woods. We know she wasn’t at the house at all and there was nothing else of value from a sensory perspective. Which leads us to the conclusion that they brought her to that spot on the road where all the false trails branched out.”
“Reasonable assessment,” Scott said with a nod.
“So assuming they actually brought her to this point, but all the trails leading from here were fake, that means…”
Scott’s brow furrowed as if trying to work through the issues. Dana had been working the investigation with him so she already knew his suspicions.
Kyle figured it out first. “Oh god. They put her in some sort of containment vessel to block scent before they moved her again so we’d have no trail to follow.”
“That’s all I can come up with, yeah.” Dom shoved his hands in his pockets because he desperately wanted to punch something. Scott looked murderous. “Thing is, it’s a public place—a fucking road with a scenic overlook, so we eliminated any unfamiliar scents and didn’t follow any trails that didn’t have hers or the known kidnappers’ scents.”
“But if she was in an isolation vessel,” Scott added, “they could have handed her off to someone new and the new person walked away with her.”
“Right. Someone knows exactly how sentinels work and did everything they could to ensure sentinels couldn’t connect the dots about what happened. But, the scent on that sweater? It picks up a half mile down the road. There’s a clearing a further half mile down off the side of the road and I smelled helicopter fuel. I think there were people at each of the false lead dead ends waiting with their scent packs. The kidnappers brought her here and probably placed her in the containment vessel then closed it and moved away. Then someone else took the vessel down the road and then they left, leaving her with the guy who I can smell on that sweater. But I’m the only one so far who can follow that scent trail and I need verification that I’m right about smelling him.”
“They’re ensuring she’s not going to be found,” Scott said stiffly.
“Maybe. We’re still working the investigation angle to try to pinpoint where she might have been taken, but we need to follow the new scent trail too.”
“It’s a helicopter, Dom.” Scott looked pissed. “Even on the off chance that I could follow the very unique fuel signature of a helicopter in flight over the smell of the helicopter I’d have my ass in, I’m gonna be honest, even with the downtime today, I won’t be able to handle that—my nose is shot.”
“Yeah, me either. Even if I dialed off every scent but the helicopter we were chasing, I don’t think I could parse out new scents as they came in fast enough considering how bad the sensory fatigue is. I’m getting too many echoes of roses now.”
“Muskox,” Scott muttered.
“I don’t know how you’re both not reeling from the damn skunk.” Dana rubbed her nose. “And I can’t dial that crap off.”
Dom smirked at her then said, “But Ellison can definitely handle it.”
“Ellison is five hours away,” Kyle countered.
“Not exactly. I called Stark and asked for a favor. He sent two of his suits for Jim and Blair. They should be here literally any minute.”
“Holy shit.” Scott looked impressed.
Kyle had his head cocked to the side. “Can you really dial off every scent but one?”
“Uh, yeah. I can keep off everything but a specific scent, but when doing this kind of thing I have to allow for new scents which is harder because I have to process, exclude or include, and then dial off if needed.”
“Huh.” He and Scott exchanged a look.
He didn’t have time to dig into that, and he wouldn’t do it in front of Dana anyway. He trusted her in general but, at the end of the day, he didn’t give information about his abilities to anyone outside a select group at the Center. Besides, he knew other sentinels who could selectively dial certain scents off so he couldn’t be that weird.
Dom’s phone vibrated and he lifted it to his ear and just waited. The vibration rhythm was specific to Jarvis.
“They will arrive at your location in one minute. Sir asked if we can be of further assistance?”
“That’s it for now, but thank you both.”
“Happy to help. As always, I’m available to you whenever you have need.” The line went dead, and Dom put his phone back in his pocket.
“One minute. I’d imagine Jarvis will pilot them as far away from anyone seeing them as possible, so my guess would be the back side of this building.” He could already hear the faint hum of the repulsors. Scott had his head cocked to the side, obviously tracking them.
They made it around the back of the building just in time for both suits to land and begin folding away from Jim and Blair.
Blair stepped out, looking thrilled and invigorated, bouncing on his toes. “That was such a rush!”
Jim immediately bent over and braced his hands on his knees, looking overwhelmed. “Remind me to never do that again.”
“It takes some adjustment to keep your senses on an even keel,” Dom remarked. “But you get used to it, and it’s fun.”
Ellison scoffed. “I’m gonna need a minute to get myself back to some sort of baseline, so fill me in.” Blair moved close and helped Jim straighten up, sliding his hand under the back of Jim’s shirt and rubbing in a circular pattern. “Though, as an aside, it’s worth noting how bad you all smell.”
“Rub it in why don’t you.” Dom shot a glare Jim’s direction.
“I call ‘em like I smell ‘em. Not that the whole area doesn’t reek. The old fish is just insult to injury.” Every sentinel had different scents they classified as the most horrible.
Kyle passed over Dom’s written summary, and then they started going through his conclusions, though Blair made the connections immediately before Dom even finished explaining things.
“So the plan is for me to hang my head out the window like a Labrador and try to follow a particular chemtrail and see if it leads anywhere?”
“I figured we’d just leave the door open, but, yeah, that’s about it. Doesn’t sound like the best plan. We’re still hammering on the investigation front, but we don’t have anything yet. I just don’t see what other option we have right now.” They had requests in for any satellite data they could get for the area, but that would take time they didn’t have.
“I’m game.” Jim rubbed his hands together. “Let’s do this thing.”
– – – –
Dom dropped to his knees and took a few deep breaths, trying to get his bearings. He hadn’t been successful in making contact with the search team over his radio, and he was somehow cut off from Dana and the rest of the group. He had to assume the rest of the sentinels were as bad off as he was and utterly useless as a result. The most effective criminals were always those who knew exactly how to counteract the effectiveness of sentinels and had the money to burn on their little sensory toys.
Jim had miraculously managed to track the helicopter to a clearing near some woods in Vermont, and the scent trail had led into the woods. Said woods were a sentinel boobytrap.
A fucking olfactory shock grenade had gone off practically in his face earlier, nearly sending him into sensory overload and causing him to zone. Shock grenades weren’t cheap because the manufacture of them had to be precise to keep sentinels from detecting their presence from a mile off. Dana had left to get help when they’d realized their communications were being jammed. Dom had been too disoriented at that point to follow her through the woods, and he hadn’t seen her since. He thought that was about an hour ago.
He’d somewhat recovered from that first shock grenade when Kali had appeared, helping to ground him. Unfortunately, the majority of the strength of a spirit animal came through the bond and varied depending on the strength of the guide. Kali had helped as much as she could, but after blocking another shock grenade for Dom, her psionic batteries had needed to be recharged.
Though her presence had been invaluable for the time she’d been with him because after the shock grenades had gone off, high-frequency sound generators had started up at irregular intervals, and flash bangs were popping off with regularity. Dom had managed to knock out several surveillance cameras and motion sensors, but he had no idea if he was even going in the right direction any longer.
His senses were so strained, there was a temptation to dial everything off except minimal sight, but that self-protective impulse had gotten more than one sentinel killed from dangers they could no longer detect. Not to mention dialing off so many senses could set you up for hypo-sensory collapse, which was the last thing any sentinel wanted since it killed more sentinels than not.
He couldn’t smell anything useful, and even his vision was fucked up because it was the middle of the night, they were just past the new moon, and the strobe lights were making it difficult to adjust his visual acuity.
There was a little girl out there relying on them to find her and bring her home, but his senses weren’t helping—they were hindering. He blew out a breath. He couldn’t help that Tony was also on his mind because Dom wasn’t completely sure he was getting out of this. A sniper could pick him off easily right now.
He pulled his cell out of his pocket pressing the record button. At least he could leave a message for someone to be transmitted when the jammers went down. If he included Jarvis in the message, Jarvis would know when his phone pinged the satellite, and he could pass on anything personal to Tony.
“This is Sentinel Agent Dominic Rossi with a mission report on the search for Madeline Baker. Jarvis, when you get this, there’s a bit at the end that—”
“I’m here, Dominic,” Jarvis’ voice came clearly over the phone speaker.
“Jarvis? Wha— How are you getting around the signal jammers?”
“The phone Sir crafted for you is not so pedestrian as to be affected by common signal disrupters. Are you well?”
“Not exactly.” Dom rubbed his forehead, feeling intense relief but now scrambling to get his thoughts in order. “I’m basically deaf and blind out here, and I don’t think I could smell a pizza if you put it right under my nose.”
“What has happened?”
“I got an olfactory shock grenade right in the face, they’re using signal jammers, we’re all cut off from each other, and I have no idea which way to go. I’m turned around by strobe lights, flash bangs, and high-frequency emitters.”
“I gather these perpetrators were prepared for a sentinel response. How can I help?”
“Can you tell where I am?”
“Yes. Should I dispatch assistance to your location?”
“I’d rather find out how to get out of here. Do you know where we landed?”
“I’ve accessed the GPS data from your phone.”
“We initially headed north by northwest through some woods. The path was a straight line until the sensory booby trap went off.”
“They were likely headed toward a service road that runs between the two highways on either side of the forest.”
“Wonderful.” Dom wanted to bang his head off a tree. “We’ll have to get a fresh team out to see if they can pick up the scent trail.”
“I’ve accessed satellite records for the past forty-eight hours. The helicopter that landed in that clearing the night prior originated in Fort Lee. It has subsequently flown to Boston. Both the origin and departure destinations are shell companies belonging to the same man—Robert Routh.”
“Okay, that’s something. Robert Routh Senior is the grandfather of Mark Routh, who is on trial for securities fraud of all things.” There had to be more skeletons in the Routh family closet because no one went to this much trouble to beat a minor securities fraud conviction. The call to Sullivan had been about losing the evidence for one of Routh’s codefendants, which would incidentally clear Routh. The FBI investigation was currently pointed at the other guy, though. They hadn’t even looked much at Routh yet.
“Jennifer Routh nee Hayes, wife of Robert Junior and mother to Mark owns a small property a half mile south-southwest from your current location.”
That had to be it. Dom got to his feet. “I hope they haven’t moved Madeline.”
“I find that unlikely. Vehicles have not left the property since you landed.”
“Jarvis, I’m not even going to ask how you’re accessing that type of satellite data.” The only thing Dom could think of that Jarvis could be getting this information from was military satellites.
“As always, I find your reasoning to be exemplary.”
Dom started moving, forcing his vision to cooperate. “I feel like I’m moving in the right direction, but let me know if I’m off course.”
“Your instincts are sound. I was able to contact Guide Sandburg; he and Sentinel Ellison were back at the helicopter and had already called in reinforcements to help clear the woods of these traps and get the rest of you out. Sentinel Thompson, Guide Monahan, and Guide McGuire were last seen together, looking for you. I relayed your location and Madeline’s likely location. You are presently the closest. The shortcut through the woods puts you ahead of even the vehicles, but backup is en route.”
“Joy.” Dom kept moving, his vision normal for the time being. “My vision is screwy, so I’m not effectively seeing or hearing the surveillance devices out here anymore.”
“It logically follows that if they have surveillance devices to trigger their traps that they have monitoring.”
“Yes, it does.”
“Attempting to locate their internet connection now.” Before Dom could say anything, Jarvis added, “I’ve found their service provider.”
“Don’t tell me anything else,” Dom said sharply, not wanting to know what Jarvis was getting up to inside a private citizen’s data connection.
“Of course.” After a pause of only a couple of seconds. “I’ve managed to shut down their router. Their jammers were running on frequencies specific to most cellular phones and the radios employed by law enforcement, allowing them to still connect to their monitoring devices.”
“And all that’s down now?”
“The motion-activated traps are still in place and cannot be shut down remotely. I believe these are likely to be the flashbangs you’ve remarked upon. I’ve notified Dr. Sandburg that communication should be restored.”
“I’ve made it to the tree line,” Dom whispered. “I’m going to shove my phone in my back pocket. Feel free to keep monitoring, but I need my hands free. Let Blair know where I am and not to call me.”
“Take a moment to center yourself, please. You will do no one any service if you are in jeopardy yourself.”
“Only a very brief moment,” Dom conceded, taking a few moments behind a tree to get himself together and try to extend his senses.
“Shall I have Sir come to your location?”
“Jarvis, as much as I’d love for Tony to come to the rescue, I have a feeling this is going to be over before even Iron Man could get here. But you could do me a favor…”
“Only give him this message if I don’t make it, okay? But tell him I know we didn’t have long together, but that I love him with everything that’s in me.”
“And you don’t wish him to have this message otherwise?”
“I’ll tell him someday, J, but he’s not ready to hear that from me right now. If I make it out, I’m happy to wait for Tony to get there in his own time.”
There was a brief pause. “I’m learning.”
“And, Jarvis, it’s been my honor to get to know you and count you among my friends.”
“I…feel the same. I would take it as a great personal favor if you would not perish tonight.”
“There are some people in dire need of a good killing, J. I aim for this night to end with their deaths and not mine, but I’m less in control of this outcome than I’d like to be, and I’m not one much for sitting on things that need to be said.”
“I will be your voice if that is what you require of me.”
Tony groaned and rolled over. He wasn’t deeply asleep anyway because he slept better with Dom around, though he hated to admit that. There was also some formless anxiety related to Dom and whatever case he was working. It wasn’t the first time Dom had been called out on a case since they’d been together, but it was the first time it was making Tony worry this way.
“What’s up, Jarvis?”
“I am…concerned for Dominic, and I am unsure how to proceed.”
If the concern alone wasn’t cause for alarm, Jarvis rarely expressed doubt about what he should do in any given situation. “What’s going on?”
“I spoke with him briefly, and he gave me permission for ongoing monitoring, but I fear he’s in rather grave danger.”
“Lights.” Tony reached for the sensor bracelets for his suit. “Tell me what’s going on,” he ordered.
“He and his team walked into what he called a sentinel boobytrap. He described flash bangs, strobe lights, high and multi-frequency emitters, and olfactory shock grenades.”
“Fuck! Get the suit ready. I’ll be up on the landing pad in a couple of minutes.”
“He’s out of the forest trap already.”
Tony froze. “Okay. But you think he’s still in danger?”
“There’s been gunfire, and while I occasionally hear his voice, I cannot be sure he is unharmed.”
“Let me hear it,” he ordered.
“Let me hear it!”
“It’s quiet now.”
“Jarvis,” Tony said warningly.
“I’m boosting the microphone and increasing ambient-noise filtering. There is an additional 1.4 second latency. On speaker now.”
It was staticky and what sounds there were came through very muffled. Finally, a woman’s voice came through. “I’ll kill her if you don’t back off!”
“That’s not going to happen,” Dom said firmly. “You’re going to put that grenade down and you’re going to step away or I’m going to shoot you in the head. All your men are dead, and I have no reason to negotiate with you when you’ve basically put the kid in blast-proof box, you callous bitch.”
“You’re going to shoot a woman in the head?” She sounded disbelieving.
“Lady, you don’t understand sentinels for all that you sure know how to get them turned around in the woods. You’re not part of my tribe. In fact, you’re a threat to it. I have no problem putting a bullet in your brain. Now step back and put down the damn grenade!”
“You don’t understand anything that’s going on here!”
“Then I suggest you step away, put down the grenade, and get on your knees. Then you can explain all you want until I’m overcome with understanding.”
All Tony could think was what a snarky little shit Dom was.
There was a long pause, and then, “No! If I die, I’m taking her with me.”
“Do not reach for that latch!”
The sound of gunfire was sharp and caused Tony to jump.
“You have to pull the pin from the grenade for your threat to mean anything, you fucking idiot,” Dom said dryly.
Sounds were muffled for several minutes then Dom’s voice could be heard again. “Hey there, Madeline. I’m a sentinel and I’m with the FBI. Do you know who that is? It’s kind of like the police.”
Tony thought it was smart that Dom introduced himself as a sentinel first. Most kids didn’t know what the FBI was, but they all knew that sentinels were the tribal protectors.
“I know you’re scared, and I’m going to get you out of there, but I need you to just hang on for a minute, can you do that?”
Tony heard nothing in response.
“I know you’re scared, baby, but you’ve got to give me a minute to get you out of there. I just need to be sure there aren’t any more people around, and I need to concentrate to do that.”
Biting the inside of his cheek, Tony wondered just how bad off Dom was that he was having to take time to listen for heartbeats. From what he’d ever seen, Dom could tell you how many people were around almost in an instant.
“Okay,” Dom’s voice came again. “I’m going to unlock that thing and get you out. I can hear my friends just down the road, and they’re going to help us get you back to your mommy and daddy.”
Suddenly the sound of a little girl crying came over the speakers.
“That’s it, Madeline. It’s okay.”
There was a hiccupping sob, and then, “You smell bad.”
“Believe me, I know. Do you want me to put you down?”
“No.” She gave a couple more heartbreaking sobs. “What is the smell?”
“Well, it’s uh, muskox pee, and skunk spray, with some fish, and rose oil, and a few other things.”
“Someone peed on you?” she asked around a little hiccup.
“No, bad guys mix it all up and put it in these little bombs to confuse sentinels.”
“But it didn’t confuse you?”
“Oh, it did for a little while. And since they put you in that box and put all those nasty smells everywhere, that meant I couldn’t smell you. But my friend Jarvis helped me find you. He’s probably still listening over my phone. And my friend Tony made it possible that Jarvis could help me, and I’m going to tell him all about you later and how you were so brave and you let me hold you even when I was so stinky. So say ‘hi,’ Madeline.”
Tony’s eyes stung.
“Hi, Jarvis. Hi, Tony.” She sniffled. “Will I get to meet them?”
“Maybe some day. But I’ll bet you want your mommy and daddy first, huh?”
“I want to go home.”
“I’ll bet. I saw your room when we first started looking for you, and it’s very nice. I like outer space too.”
“I’m gonna be an astronaut.”
“I’ll bet you are, and you’ll get to see your room soon, but we’re going to take you on a ride to the hospital where your mommy and daddy will be waiting. The doctors will want to look you over and make sure you’re okay.”
“Dom!” a familiar female voice said. “Oh my god, I freaked out when we couldn’t get back to you.” Tony realized it was Dana McGuire, the FBI agent and guide that Dom sometimes worked with.
“I’m fine,” he said shortly.
“You’re really not. The mirror is not going to be your friend, Rossi.”
“Anyway, this is Madeline. Madeline, this is my friend Dana, and that’s Kyle, Scott, Blair, and Jim. And, yes, we all stink. Dana’s going to take you outside right now, okay?”
“I want to stay with you.”
“And I’d love to stay with you, but I need to explain to everyone what happened here, and then I need to let the doctor check me over, okay?”
“Are you hurt?”
“Not the way you mean, baby. Just go with Dana, and I’ll come see you after we’ve both seen the doctor and after I’m less smelly.”
A few seconds later, Dom said, “Just hold on a sec. I think I’ve got someone on the line and I need to sign off.” More loudly, Dom’s voice came over the phone, “You still there?”
“I am,” Jarvis said. “How can I help.”
“You already did so much, Jarvis. Thank you.”
“It was my great pleasure.”
“I need to get back to the Center post haste. My senses are so screwy. Tell Tony I’m fine— No, I don’t want to lie to him. Tell him my senses are a hot mess and I’m headed to the Center and to call Kyle, okay? But make sure he knows I’m fine. I’m not perforated or anything.”
“Yes, you are,” came distantly from someone.
“That hardly counts. I could pick those fragments out with tweezers. It won’t even need stitches!” Dom countered. “Listen, Jarvis, I gotta go. Again, thanks. I have no doubt that you saved at least my life, and you made sure Madeline came home.”
The line went dead.
Tony flopped down on the bed and buried his face in his hands.
“When should we call Guide Monahan, Sir?”
“I don’t know, Jarvis. I feel in the dark here, and it sounds like he needs to be at the Center. And…his guide is with him.”
“Sir, are you allowing your…worry about your guide status to cloud your judgment about whether to follow-up on Dominic’s health?”
Tony opened his mouth to deny it, but then snapped it shut. “I think we both know the answer to that.” he wanted to think that he wouldn’t have let it get in his way for long, but he could be neurotic for a long time given the opportunity.
“Then I shall send a text to Guide Monahan now, requesting that he make contact regarding Dominic’s condition as soon as he reasonably can. Shall I also inquire after the health of the others?”
Tony blew out a breath. “Yeah, go be a decent human being for the both of us, Jarvis.” He flopped back on the bed, worried about Dom and more than a little annoyed by his own insecurity.
Knowing he wasn’t going back to sleep, he headed down to his lab.
– – – –
“Sir, I have Guide Monahan on the line for you.”
“Put him through,” Tony said quickly. As soon as his display showed the call had connected, he asked, “Are you okay, Kyle? Is everyone else all right?”
Kyle sighed. “God, Tony, I’ve never experienced anything like this. This whole thing was about getting someone out of jail on what amounted to a petty crime. The Bureau is digging into it, because that cannot be the motive, but I doubt I’ll ever hear the whole truth of what’s going on. These guys were determined that sentinels were not going to find this little girl, and there’s no doubt that the investigation would have hit a dead end because they did a damn good job of obscuring motive.”
“I heard something about all the countermeasures that were used.”
“It was…I can’t even explain it. I don’t have a sentinel’s nose, and even I can’t deal with the smell after three showers.”
“Jesus. How’s Dom?”
“Bearing up as well as can be expected, I guess. He’s camped out in the shower in isolation. He’s checking in every half hour as ordered, but… He’s just a difficult case. I’m calling you from my iso room with Scott. We won’t be out of here for days. Jim and Blair are locked down too. Two sentinels trying to sniff around this mess plus one who met us in Vermont wound up with sensory collapse from the overwhelm. This threw us all for a loop.”
“Dom is alone?”
“Yeah. But, uh…”
“You can see him if you want. He said he wanted to see you in point of fact.”
Tony straightened up. “Then I’m coming down there.”
“Tony, just prepare yourself, okay? He might have to ask you to leave, which could feel like a rejection when it’s not. I’ve never seen him do well with anyone when his senses are over stimulated. It doesn’t happen much, fortunately. I expect we’ll have to slap an empathic buffer on him at some point, and he really won’t like that, but he’s not great about accepting help when he needs it. At least, not this kind of help.”
“I’d like to see him, and if he needs me to leave, it won’t be a problem.” It would be, Tony knew it would, but he’d never say so. He could too easily imagine how it would feel to have Dom say that having Tony around wasn’t good for him. He might intellectually get it, but emotionally was a whole other story.
“I can’t leave isolation right now, but I’ve left instructions that you be given access to Dom’s room. If you have any trouble, call me, and I’ll sort it out.”
– – – –
Tony pulled into the Center parking lot. He didn’t actually have a parking pass for the Center, but he was on the visitor’s list. He’d wanted to hop in the suit and get here immediately, but on the off chance that he might be here longer, he decided to get bring a few things. And then he’d driven himself because he knew Dom wouldn’t have transportation, and he wasn’t ready to throw Dom and Happy together after all this.
The person he checked in with initially scoffed at the idea of taking Tony down to Dom’s isolation suite, but Tony had pressed for them to check the instructions Kyle had left. The guy’s eyebrows had tried to climb right off his face, but he’d reluctantly called for someone to escort Tony down to the sub-basement levels.
Tony had never been down to the isolation suites, but it was odd. Things were still in a way he’d rarely experienced. The vibration dampeners and sound filters were built into the whole sub-structure and then reinforced further on the individual rooms. And, to him, it smelled like absolutely nothing down here. It was almost eerie.
There were digital displays outside each suite with the name of the occupants and any instructions about things like food or linen deliveries. He passed the suites with the names Ellison and Sandburg, and then Thompson and Monahan on the displays.
The guide-nurse stopped at small station and handed him a sealed package with some sort of natural-hued fabric. “There’s a bathroom through there.” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “You’ll need to shower then come back wearing that robe. I’ll have pajamas for you to change into once you’re inside. There’s a bag in there for you to place your outside clothes in. I’ll explain the rest of the procedures when you return.”
She subtly sniffed. “Are you wearing anything scented?”
“No. I started following sentinel-safe product protocols when I started seeing him.”
“Then the standard wash will suffice. You’ll see them dispensers in the shower.”
“Right.” It was like stepping into some sort of very clinical Twilight Zone. He left his bag near Dom’s door then headed into the bathroom by the nurse’s station. It was a large shower with several grades of sentinel-safe cleansers on the wall. He chose the normal one, cleaning and washing his hair while pondering the labels like cologne/perfume, unknown substance, chemical exposure, bodily fluids.
After drying off, he put on the robe and rejoined the guide-nurse.
She pointed to the door to Dom’s room. “There’s an inner and outer door with small room between. This room is where food and linen deliveries are made. Unless there’s an emergency, all communication is done through the terminal inside the suite.
“Once you are past the outer door and it’s closed, you will change into the pajamas I’ve placed on the table. All your current clothes and your bag should be placed in the locker in the antechamber. They are to remain there unless Sentinel Rossi deems it safe for you to bring them in. Anything you need, including new clothes, should be entered on the terminal and they’ll be delivered to you.”
She gave him another once-over, lips pressed into a thin line. “Should there be an emergency, there are switches throughout the room. Press one. His contact schedule is every half hour right now unless he decides to sleep. The current order from the doctor is to give him privacy unless he misses a contact point. If he misses one or goes to sleep, we’ll turn on the monitoring cameras and turn them back off when he wakes. Any questions?”
“Is there anything I need to do for him?”
“Nothing unless he asks for it. Be prepared to leave quickly if he asks you to or if he has a severe sensory spike outside of what’s normal in this sort of situation. If he zones, hit one of the emergency buttons and then leave the suite. While zoning can be normal for some sentinels—though not for Rossi—it can be dangerous or even deadly when their senses are so violently overstimulated.”
“Right.” It was like stepping into another world, and Tony had the unusual feeling of being completely out of his depth, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. “Well, let me in there.”
“The lighting is very soft but the sentinel can adjust it if they need to. Sometimes they prefer to sit in the dark, though that’s not optimal as their control over their sight tends to not improve if they sit in the dark outside of actual sleep. If we see that he’s gone to sleep due to a missed check-in, we’ll dim the lights and turn on the IR camera.”
She gave him another assessing look then walked over to the entry door, swiped a keycard, and punched in an access code. “There’s no security getting out, but only a select group have access to these rooms unless the emergency button has been pressed. In which case, any medical staff or guide-conservator can enter. Please don’t hesitate to ask for anything either of you need. That’s why we’re here.”
“Okay. Thanks.” He walked into the small room and heard the door close behind him. The room was pretty barren with a couple metal chairs, a metal table with a small stack of sealed clothing, a locker, a trash can, and a curtain-less shower area. He knew there was a bathroom inside, so he assumed this was for the distressed sentinel to scrub off the outside world. He stuffed his bag into the locker then quickly changed into the not-really pajamas. They were draw-string lounge pants and a soft T-shirt all in some earthy shade. There were no buttons, zippers, or elastic anywhere, and all the fabrics were natural.
Tony had barely finished pulling on his T-shirt when the inner door opened and Dom was standing there, hands braced on the doorjamb, eyes fixed on Tony. He was wearing nothing.
“Hey,” Tony said softly, noticing a lot of superficial wounds that had all been cleaned but none bandaged. Some of them had obviously bled a bit after being cleaned but then left to dry.
Dom made an impatient come-here gesture. When Tony stepped close, Dom grabbed him by the wrist and hauled him to the room. He was pulled tightly against Dom’s body as the door slid shut behind them.
“Tony,” Dom breathed as he buried his face in Tony’s neck.
“Hey,” he repeated as he rested his hands gently on Dom’s shoulders. “Am I hurting you?”
“No. Don’t treat me like I’m a delicate little blossom.” He seemed to be trying to merge with Tony’s neck. “The whole world reeks, but you smell so good.”
Tony held on a little tighter. “Are you okay?”
“I will be.”
“You do look a bit…perforated.”
“You heard that?” Dom laughed.
“Jarvis relayed your comms. Why did you leave it to bleed?”
“Bandages were too much. Nothing needed stitches, so I just made sure they were clean.” Dom nosed up behind his ear.
“What do you need?”
Dom’s arms tightened. “I’m so tired. Can you stay?”
“Of course…I’m not leaving unless you need me to.”
Dom backed him toward the bed, not really letting go or taking his face away from Tony’s neck. “They’ll turn the cameras on if I go to sleep…” Dom muttered.
Dom pressed Tony back onto the bed, arranging him so Tony was the little spoon, then he curled up around Tony and pressed his face into the back of his neck. “Thank you for coming.”
“Where else would I be?”
The arms around his waist tightened then abruptly relaxed. The rhythm of Dom’s breathing changed, and Tony realized that he had already fallen asleep. Tony’s mind was spinning with the events of the day, the new, strangeness of the situation, and worry for Dom. But his own fatigue was a powerful force that wouldn’t be denied now that the anxiety over Dom’s safety had been assuaged.
He let himself follow his sentinel into sleep.
– – – –
Tony woke to the feel of Dom’s hand travelling over his skin, and he was keenly aware that Dom still had his face pressed against Tony’s neck. “You okay?”
“Better,” Dom replied, voice raspy, sounding like he’d just woken up. “I was so damn tired, but the smell was driving me crazy and I couldn’t relax. I can’t even tell if it’s actual residual smell or sense memory.”
“Are you still smelling it?”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m sort of gorging myself on your scent. Not that I don’t always love your smell, but it’s very extra right now. Sorry.”
“Why would you apologize for that?”
“I know this isn’t what you want, and—”
“Whoa! Hold the conclusion train! Do you mean about why I don’t want to be a guide?”
Tony rubbed his hand over his face. “This isn’t that, Dom. To me, this isn’t any different than you being hurt or injured and needing me to help you. So of course I’m here.” Which was weird because Tony had never been on board with that kind of thing before. “My issue was always that I never wanted to give up my dreams to be a ground for a sentinel’s senses.”
Dom was quiet for a long time, hands still moving aimlessly, but they finally stilled and he squeezed Tony tightly. “Okay.”
“Are they recording this?”
“I gave the signal when I woke up to stop the video feed and raise the lights, but it would only have been video.”
“Look,” Tony added, “even with my formerly stated aversion to the guide gig, I’d have been there with you last night if I could have been. I hope you know that.”
Dom huffed a laugh against the back of Tony’s neck. “Well, it sure would have gone better if you had been there, and it wouldn’t have been because of my senses or anything sentinel related. Jarvis bailed me out and made it possible to find that little girl. And I have no doubt you could have done even more, and even faster. You’re amazing.”
Tony felt stupidly pleased and flustered. “Tell me how you’re really doing.”
“I was in bad shape when we got in, worse than I’ve ever been, and I think it may have freaked some people out. I shouldn’t have been having skin issues, but all my senses were so hyped up and everything else was so whacked out that the vibration from the helicopter transporting us back made me crazy, and I couldn’t bear for anyone to touch me.” Dom sighed. “I actually snarled at the guide-conservator who tried to help me. God, that’s embarrassing.”
“I really don’t think you should be embarrassed by anything that happened after your hell night in the woods.”
“I guess.” Dom wiggled a bit, like he was trying to get even closer to Tony. “Anyway, my skin is fine as far as I can tell, but I’ll admit I feel better for having you here. My hearing seems pretty normal, same with sight. Though they’ll put me through some stress tests when I get out of here to be sure.”
“And your nose?”
“It’s terrible when I’m not sniffing you. And that’s making taste bad. I admit to having taste almost dialed off. Otherwise, I’d be licking you like a popsicle to try to counteract the flavor side-effect of the OSGs. Not that I’m not happy to lick you like a popsicle no matter what.”
“I can’t believe you ran into OSGs,” Tony muttered. “The ones that a sentinel can’t smell from a mile off are so stupidly expensive because of the manufacturing difficulty.”
“It’s not my first go around with an olfactory grenade, though it was by far the worst. Actually…” Dom sighed. “There’s something about the OSGs and the original false trails that bothers me.”
“Sentinels vary wildly in what type of scent they struggle to deal with—the kind of thing it’s difficult for them to block out even in run-of-the-mill situations. It’s why there’s such a weird scent cocktail in OSGs.”
“You mean like skunk versus old fish?”
“Right. Skunk weirdly tends to bother non-sentinels more than sentinels, but it is an overpowering scent which makes it effective in its own right because sentinels who can’t filter out scents are going to be neutralized by it. But muskox urine is an issue for many sentinels, same with rotting fish. I mention those two because muskox is Scott’s problem like whoa. While Jim always is sensitive to the smell of old fish.”
“Well, that’s the thing. I’m very sensitive to floral distillates, particularly rose. Now, florals can be an issue for some sentinels in general because while flowers are part of nature and they’re part of our sensory baseline, the patterns of flowers that come together in say a floral arrangement aren’t natural and so they’re jarring and draw your attention. Many botanical gardens can be distracting because the blends of floral scents can be weird. But it’s like a minor nuisance thing—it’s not usually overwhelming unless you’re having another sensory issue.”
“Is that why there are never flowers in a S&G Center?”
“That’s about overstimulated sentinels and trying to keep the Centers as blank a canvas as possible. But when it comes to scents sentinels have a problem with, a real problem, flowers are pretty rare as these things go. To the degree that I’ve never encountered an OSG in the field with a floral distillate included.”
“And these grenades had it?”
“A lot of it. And not just any floral distillate, it was rose. Sentinels who have an issue with florals tend to have a problem with lavender.”
“Weird. Rose is a stronger scent.” Tony’s mind was spinning. Someone had been prepared for Dom. “So they knew you were coming?”
“That’s not really the issue. I get most of the child abduction cases of this type for 100 miles in any direction. Anyone could reasonably expect I’d catch this case. The issue is that while the Center documents these kinds of sensitivities, they’re considered confidential information that’s supposed to be kept under the tightest encryption because it allows sentinels to be specifically targeted.”
“And these OSGs specifically had rose in them and not lavender?”
“Not a bit lavender to be found. Same thing with the false scent trails.”
“Hmm.” Tony tapped out a rhythm on Dom’s arm where it was slung over his waist. “I know what goes into the manufacture of sentinel-sensitive ordnance, though of course SI never would have manufactured something like an OSG. It’s not the easiest process to do it well, so if you didn’t smell that stink bomb from a mile off, they had top of the line production, which means they were expensive. Plus, we now have to consider that there was a security breach at some point. Question is…when and where?”
“Well, the S&G systems would be the obvious choice, but we can confirm or rule that out easily enough. I could get Jarvis on it with permission from Blair or Jim. But we already know their systems were hacked in the past, right? SHIELD got in.”
“True. But why would SHIELD do this?”
“Maybe they didn’t, but that doesn’t mean their data wasn’t accessed by others. The S&G Centers are pretty much one-way on the data flow. They don’t share information with others except very selectively and there are no automated hooks into S&G systems. But SHIELD has to because, to some degree, they have to share information with other agencies, so they have more hooks into their system. They like to think they’re secure but, trust me, I know better.”
“Which opens up the possibilities hugely.” Dom wiggled around a little and slung his leg over Tony’s thigh, holding Tony tighter, and Tony really didn’t mind being Dom’s teddy bear right now. “I just can’t figure out why. I can’t say that they were only targeting me because Scott’s weakness was baked in too. But muskox urine is de rigueur in these things because most sentinels hate it. I can’t say I’m fond of it myself.” He took a deep breath from right behind Tony’s ear.
“Nothing in this case merits that kind of action?”
“Not a damn thing. Routh was the minor player in the securities fraud the Bureau investigated. He might not have even done any time. My assumption right now is that the investigation is going to turn up something that would come up in trial that the Routh family had to avoid at all costs. Still, you’d think bribing public officials would be a better first-line tactic. I mean, what’s the black market on high quality OSGs?”
“Mmm. About 30k. You can get crap quality for a couple thousand each, but sentinels will smell them before they ever go off. Still, they’re good for lower level sentinels. And even if they go off when sentinels aren’t around, they’re a good countermeasure after the fact because they still stink.”
“Right. But if you want to truly set a trap for a sentinel, you need to shell out some serious cash. And they had to have at least twenty shock grenades, plus the sealed scent you’d put in a shock grenade to lay down those false trails, plus the flash bangs, and the frequency emitters, and the strobe lights. And then there was the signal jammers set specifically to common cellphone bands and police radio frequencies. And let’s not forget their monitoring center, which was top of the line, and the fucking mercenaries guarding the house. Oh, and the manpower for the kidnapping itself and all those false scent trails.”
“That’s a lot of money to test a sentinel.”
Dom froze. “What?”
“Why’d you say test?”
Tony frowned. “It wasn’t deliberate.” He considered for a second. “Or maybe it was sorta deliberate. It wasn’t really a trap, right? Because it’s not like they tried to pick you off or round you up or anything.”
“True. Okay, I agree. Not a trap. But now that you’ve said test, that’s exactly what feels wrong about all this. It does feel like a test. I’ve been trying to put what happened together with this investigation and it doesn’t gel. I figured we needed more information from the interrogations that are ongoing. But what if it was some kind of test instead?”
“Clearly a test for at least you and maybe Scott or even Jim. But by who?”
“Isn’t that the million-dollar question?”
“I wish we could talk to Kyle and Scott.” Tony would like to get Jarvis on the investigation even if they were stuck here for a few days, but he’d need access to get Jarvis looking around.
“We can—everyone’s ears are pretty much fine. Scott was most affected by the frequency emitters, but I’ll bet he’s back to normal. Jim had a migraine last night from the strobe lights. But it’s the OSGs that are going to fuck us up for a while. We can call from in here, but… You bring your phone? Only so Jarvis can listen in.”
“Yeah, it’s in my bag. You okay with me bringing it in?”
“You can bring your bag in from the locker, just keep everything else by the door. Might as well grab your tablet or whatever. No reason for you to be bored while I’m sniffing you like my favorite Christmas cookie.”
Tony laughed and squeezed Dom’s hand then pulled away. Dom was obviously reluctant to let him go. His heart felt like it was being squeezed when Dom immediately buried his face in Tony’s pillow. Tony wasn’t supposed to want a sentinel attached to him like this.
He shook off the thought and went to grab his gear, pulling out his tablet and phone and leaving the rest on a chair by the door. He turned it on as he climbed back into bed, letting Dom wrestle him onto his back, resting his head on Tony’s shoulder.
As soon as the phone was on, Dom said, “You there, Jarvis?”
“Always. How are you feeling?”
“I feel fine, but the world is a stinky, stinky place, J. Tony smells really good though.”
“I’m gratified to learn that Sir has tended to his hygiene.”
Dom laughed as Tony squawked in outrage. “Thanks for the major assist last night.”
“You are quite welcome. How may I assist you today?”
“We’re about to make a conference call. Thought you might want to listen in since I think Tony’s going to have some stuff for you to follow-up on.”
“I shall listen most attentively.”
Dom sighed as Tony pulled up Kyle’s number. “We’re never getting those scents off my phone,” he said mournfully.
“I’ll get you a new phone. They can even leave it in whatever bag it’s in as long as I can set the new one nearby for Jarvis to transfer your stuff.” He leaned in for a quick kiss, but Dom reached out, cradling Tony’s head and prolonging the contact.
“Tony? Everything all right? Something wrong with Dom?” Kyle’s voice came over the speaker.
Dom broke the kiss and smiled at Tony as he said, “Everything’s fine. I’ve leveled out a lot. I asked Tony if we could talk. You guys up for it?”
“Yeah, we’re good,” Scott replied. “I don’t think I’ll be up for smelling the outside world for a couple more days, but my ears are fine.”
“What about Jim and Blair?”
“I talked to Blair about an hour ago,” Kyle answered. “Same deal. Extreme olfactory sensitivity is keeping you all grounded, but you’re doing okay otherwise.”
“I’ll conference them now,” Tony said.
Once Blair and Jim were on the line and they’d gotten through some quick formalities, Tony informed the group, “Jarvis is on the line as well.”
There was a brief hesitation before Blair said, “Hi Jarvis.”
“Blair,” Jarvis greeted. Blair had been so over Jarvis’ formality the first time they’d talked, and Jarvis had somewhat reluctantly agreed to first names. Tony found it amusing even as he appreciated that everyone in this small circle treated Jarvis well.
“So, here’s the thing,” Dom began, “something Tony said made me think we should talk. Because the fact that there was a rose oil distillate in the OSGs is not only weird—”
“It’s really suspicious,” Blair supplied.
“Right. So, if I said that the whole thing last night was a test, what do you think?”
Silence reigned for several seconds.
“Now that you say it, that’s exactly what it feels like,” Jim answered. “If it was a trap, why not kill us? We were sitting ducks for a while there. I know I was. That flash bang went off at the same time as that racket started, and I lost it.”
“I agree,” Scott added. “If it was just an attempt to keep us from solving the kidnapping, sentinel misdirects were the only major attempt they made at obscuring things. They didn’t mess with the investigation much.”
“Right.” Blair added. “Because why not kill the housekeeper? She was the loose end, right? If they wanted to hide the motive, why wouldn’t she have disappeared a week ago after handing off the laundry so no one could ask her any questions? And why hadn’t she washed her sweater?”
“So, if we look at it like a test,” Dom said, “the question then becomes who is testing, why are they doing this, and who were the likely targets?”
“I’d have to say it’s probably not Jim,” Kyle said. “Jim was definitely supposed to be in Cascade, and that’s too long a flight for people to assume he’d get involved. No, the more likely back-up to Scott is always Ian Edgerton.”
Tony didn’t know that name. “Who?”
“Bureau’s strongest sentinel, based out of Quantico, bonded to a Bureau analyst,” Dom answered. “He’s one of the top-rated snipers internationally, and considered the best tracker in the world.”
“And is much closer and would have probably been tapped from the beginning,” Kyle supplied, “except that there was a prison break in North Carolina and they called him in at the last minute for the one guy they hadn’t been able to catch. Which happened a couple hours before the kidnapping. I’m pulling up some information. Just hold on a second.”
After a beat, Kyle asked, “Do not risk a sensory flashback when I ask this question. But what other scents do you recall?”
“Rose,” Dom immediately supplied.
“Male muskox urine,” came from Scott
“Rotten fish,” was offered quickly by Jim.
“There were also the other usual suspects,” Dom added. “Sulfur, skunk, durian fruit, and there was some kind of herb. It was only in the OSGs not in the false trails, and my nose was already fried by then, and I wasn’t trying to parse the individual smells.”
“It was rosemary,” Jim said. “My nose was less taxed than theirs, but I never was on the false trails, so I didn’t have any comparison.”
“They were targeting Edgerton.” Kyle sighed. “And that really speaks to some pre-planning.”
“It’s very methodical,” Blair added. “Florals as a countermeasure aren’t uncommon because they’re cheap and most sentinels can get overwhelmed by them. But in an OSG? They’re almost unheard of. They’re too subtle compared to the other, more common scents. And lavender would be a more obvious choice anyway. But rosemary? I’ve never heard of that being used as a countermeasure or in an OSG. Those OSGs were made for Ian and Dom at the least. Jim just confirmed that the fish used specifically was catfish, which is his most loathed fish smell. So that seems general in a way but specific to Jim, too.”
“And Scott has a major issue with the smell of Durian, and that’s more common than rose or rosemary, but durian is still rare in an olfactory grenade,” Kyle supplied. “Well, hell.”
“So, if this was a test, did we pass or fail?” Jim asked.
“I have no fucking idea,” Dom muttered then pressed his lips to Tony’s shoulder. “But Tony is offering to comb through the Center’s security systems and see if the breach was on our end.”
“I’m fine with it,” Blair said quickly. “I mean, yes, we’d accept any assistance.”
“If you can get some credentials set up for Jarvis, once he’s in, he’ll start looking for any issue,” Tony answered.
“I’ll text you a link shortly.”
Dom sighed. “If it wasn’t Center systems that were breached, we think it’s possible someone got it out of SHIELD’s stolen files.”
There was a sound that made Tony think of an indignant turkey.
“Oh fuck those assholes sideways with a cactus!” Blair exclaimed.
“I’d be more than happy to take that mission,” Tony said. If SHIELD was in any way responsible for what had happened last night, even if it was an act from a decade ago and shitty security today, Tony was going to make their lives a living hell.