16 July 2012
Dom finished jamming his stuff into his bag, glancing round the room to make sure he had everything. It was a lot more crap than he usually accumulated when he was in isolation. “Jarvis spoils us.”
Tony grinned as he finished latching the case on the work table—he’d been much more relaxed having a real outlet for his designing the last four days. “Yeah, he does. He’s good at it too.”
“I’m touched,” Jarvis said dryly from Tony’s phone.
“I have arrived on the landing pad on the roof, Sir. Mr. Hogan will arrive at the Center in thirty minutes to wait for Dominic and transport your belongings back to the Tower.”
Dom didn’t usually ask for rides from Happy, but Tony had pointed out that Happy was coming to get the mountain of stuff they’d accumulated this week anyway, so he’d said okay to the ride.
“Thanks, J.” Tony shot him a concerned look. “You sure you don’t need me to stay?”
“Nah. It’d be at least an hour and incredibly boring for you.”
Tony nodded tightly and went back to gathering up the last of his things, but his scent was off. Dom puzzled over what was upsetting him, finally having an ah-ha moment.
“Tony, you know that these tests are without a guide, right?”
Stilling, it was several seconds before Tony turned, his brow furrowed in confusion. “But you’re having sensory tests, right? I figured they were assigning you someone to work with.”
“This isn’t aptitude testing, which can be done with or without a guide. I’m going through stability tests. Guides aren’t allowed at all. Bonded and unbonded sentinels alike have to be able to manage their senses to some degree of proficiency. The Center has to be sure you’re not at high risk of zoning and getting hit by a car. You have to pass a higher standard to be able to drive a car or carry a gun.”
“Oh.” Tony sat on the bed, looking confused. “I figured you were working with a guide at the Center.”
Dom sat next to Tony. “I rarely work with guides from a sensory perspective, babe.”
“McGuire,” Tony countered.
“That’s different. It’s FBI regs. I’m not allowed to use my senses in the field beyond a certain level without a guide along. Dana is my choice when I can swing it, which is most of the time since she’s on my team, because she doesn’t try to push her abilities on me when I don’t need it. The regs are in place for a good reason because you never know when you’re going to get pushed past your limit—like with a surprise alien invasion.”
“Most of the time I don’t need help. Dana lets it be and doesn’t ask me constant questions about my dials and my last sensory spike. And she never tries to use empathic buffering without my permission.”
“That been an issue?”
“Well, there are always those who are either naively eager or arrogant and think they know best. Some are just overly helpful. Dana and I work well in the field because she’s a good investigator and she respects my limits. It also helps that we’re a terrible match biologically speaking.”
Tony laughed. “Why is that a help?”
“Working together closely, especially with the sentinel/guide thing tacked on, can create a false sense of intimacy. I’d rather not have biological compatibility making the situation…muddy.”
“You really don’t care about finding a guide, do you?”
Dom studied Tony’s expression, took in his scent, wondering what exactly Tony was looking for. “The answer to that, more or less, is no. But it’s also more complicated than we have time for since I have to be downstairs in two minutes.” He curled his hand around the back of Tony’s neck and pulled him in for a quick, hard kiss. “Ask me again later.” His nose told him Tony wasn’t completely happy with that answer, but there was no outward indication.
Tony nodded as he pulled away then zipped his bag. “So leave everything here?”
“Yeah, I’ll get some help to take everything to the car when I’m done.” Dom hated to go with this odd vibe coming from Tony, but he needed to keep this appointment if he wanted out of the Center without restrictions. “See you soon.”
Downstairs, he found Scott waiting for him. “You ready?”
“You’re handling my tests personally.” Dom pressed his hand to his heart. “I’m flattered.”
“Asshole. Get in the room.” Scott ushered him into the testing room. “We were maxed out on sentinels in isolation after the damn OSGs, so we’re over extended getting these evals done. Jim and I were fine, so I expect you to breeze through.”
“Then let’s get it over with.”
The testing was easy, and something Dom had done many times before. Even without sensory issues, he had to have it done annually as part of his physical for the Bureau so he could keep carrying his sidearm.
He left the booth where the sensory exposures were done and met back up with Scott in the control room where he was signing off on Dom’s test results. He gestured to the chair. “Sit for a second. You were fast, so we’ve got time.” He passed over Dom’s copy. “We’ll fax the Bureau, of course.”
“But just in case.” Dom preferred to always have a hard copy and Scott knew that. “How’s Ian doing?”
“Still a couple days behind us. He’s in step-down though. I think—” Scott hesitated.
“Just spit it out, Scott, we’ve been friends for years, so you don’t need to censor yourself.”
“I think it would help for you to drop by and see him.”
Dom nodded though he didn’t really get it. Most of the time, sentinels treated him like anyone else, but at other times, they acted like he was the alpha, which was weird since you needed to be bonded to be an alpha sentinel. Dom was technically part of Scott’s Pride, but he’d never felt like Scott was his alpha. He’d also never felt the need to discuss it.
“I’m going to ask a stupidly personal question, so just tell me to mind my own business if you don’t want to answer.”
“I’ve never hesitated to tell you to shove it,” Dom replied with a grin.
“True that.” Scott tapped his finger on the table. “Is Tony your guide?”
“That’s it? Just yes?”
“I’m not sure what else there is to say.”
“Man…” Scott blew out a breath. “He’s not online. He probably won’t ever be online.”
“And that’s fine,” Dom said calmly.
“Is it really?”
“Yes, it’s fine. I can’t say it’s perfect, but I don’t have anything to compare it to, you know?” Dom sighed. “I’d never felt that draw I heard sentinels talk about. Yes, guides smell good and all that, but that was it. And then I met Tony. I was attracted to him the first time I met him, of course.”
“Well, of course. He’s hot.”
“Right?” Dom grinned. “I don’t even know when it happened—the realization that is. But one day I woke up and I realized I thought of him as my guide. I was already head over heels and maybe it was that he’s not online that the pull was so subtle and gradual, but whatever it is…it just is. He’s my guide. It doesn’t matter if he comes online or not.”
“I don’t even understand that.”
“I can’t make sense of it for other people—I don’t even know if I can make sense of it for Tony. I just know that it’s true.”
“Have you told him?”
“No, but I will.” Dom ran his hand through his hair, thinking back on the conversation just before. “I think the whole thing has come to a head. I would have told him this morning, but the timing was bad.”
“What’s kept you from telling him already?”
“I wasn’t completely certain until he was gone. And then I just sort of sat on the floor and laughed because how is this my life, you know? I love him, so I expected to miss him, but it was like a part of me was on the other side of the world, and it drove me crazy.”
Scott laughed. “You two act like you’re bonded.”
“How do you know we’re not?”
“Because he’s not online, Dom, it doesn’t work like that.”
“Well, it works like something. Because there’s more between us—tangibly—than there should be.”
Scott frowned. “Do you think he’s on the cusp of coming online?”
“Not really. Tony doesn’t want it. And wouldn’t Blair and Kyle have noticed if he was in the early stages?”
“Point.” Scott waved him toward the door. “Your oddness is giving me a headache. Go away, Rossi, so I can take my next appointment. But see Ian before you leave.”
Dom made a couple quick stops before heading back up to the second floor to visit Ian and Penelope.
Ian and Penelope lounged around the table and snacked on the juice and croissants that Dom had brought. He could almost sense that Ian was still a little off kilter. Ian was a lot like Dom in regards to scent being his most difficult sense because it was so sensitive—it’s why they were both such good trackers. Dom also struggled with aural sensitivity, but the world wasn’t quite as obnoxious on the sound front as it generally was with scents.
“You pass your eval?” Ian asked, watching Dom closely.
“Yeah, no problems at all.”
“And you’re feeling okay?” Penelope asked, gesturing to his torso.
“It’s about 90-percent.”
“Bruising bad?” she pressed.
He just lifted his T-shirt in answer, and laughed when she and Ian gave mirror winces. “It doesn’t hurt anymore. Blair took care of almost all the actual damage. It’s just colorful. Think of it like abstract art.”
“Yeah, well, I’d be happy to punch the artist,” Penelope said. “With a chair.”
Dom waved it off. “He’s been taken care of. Jeremy and Richard are going to take on the care and feeding of Captain America.” At their incredulous looks, he waved it off. “It’s a long story.”
“Fill us in, Rossi. I insist,” Penelope demanded.
He chuckled and then spent a few minutes going over everything that had happened. Ian seemed viciously satisfied, while Penelope just seemed sad over the whole mess. By the end of the conversation, he could tell that Ian was more relaxed somehow, so he was glad he’d taken Scott’s advice to stop by.
He took his leave then rounded up a couple people to help him carry all their crap down to Tony’s car, preparing to endure an uncomfortably silent ride with Hogan. He’d gladly put up with it for Tony. Just like he’d put up with Potts and any number of other things. And on the plus side there was Jarvis, Dum-E, and U, which more than balanced the scales.
– – – –
“Welcome home, Sir,” Jarvis said as the armor folded away and he walked out on the landing pad.
“Good to be back, Jarvis.” The Tower felt more like home than any place he’d been for a long time. “Where are the kids?”
“Dum-E and U are on the 83rd floor and quite eager to see you. Also, Ms. Potts is aware of your arrival. She has made an urgent request for a meeting today.”
Tony sighed. He’d been avoiding Pepper. He’d sent her emails over the week, but hadn’t replied to requests for a phone call and had completely ignored any personal inquiries. He knew it wasn’t right to keep avoiding her, but he’d been pretty damn angry and had done so in the interests of preserving their friendship. He’d even told her as much, but she insisted on pushing.
“I want to see the kids first. Tell her I’ll be down in half an hour.”
“She has a meeting at that time, Sir.”
“She meets with me then or we do it tomorrow. I’m spending the day with Dom, and I’m not interrupting it for whatever downer that meeting is going to turn into.”
“I’ll convey the message, Sir.”
Tony decided to take the stairs. “Bruce around?”
“He’s at the Baxter Building today along with Dr. Ross to consult with Dr. Richards on the matter of the nuclear reactors.”
“Sounds like a fun field trip. Do the kids spend most of their time on 83?”
“Yes, Sir. Though both are eager to be in the lab with you again. Neither has spent time in Dr. Banner’s lab since Dr. Ross arrived.”
Tony froze at the door to the 83rd floor. “Why’s that?”
“Pardon me?” Tony choked out.
“Dominic gave them a talk about being wary of strangers, and then he was unable to actually introduce Dum-E or U to Dr. Ross before his case became a priority. I opted not to ask him to correct that oversight until such time as the case was solved. Dr. Ross understood completely. She has seen U from a distance as she delivers food to their floor, but U never leaves the elevator.”
Tony’s lips were twitching then he was full-on laughing. “It’s not really funny but it’s also hysterical. Next time Betty is around, remind me so I can properly introduce myself and then I can let her meet the kids.” Tony was also touched by the care Dom put into protecting the bots. Stranger danger indeed.
He opened the door and was met with a riot of color in what was the common room/living room of the floor. “Wow.”
Tony hadn’t even been able to take it all in before U and Dum-E were beeping like mad and rolling up to him, touching with their claws.
“Hey, guys! Look at all this.” He glanced around, trying to take it in. “I’ve missed you guys, too,” he said in response to some very assertive beeping that he’d somehow come to understand a bit of over the last few weeks. He noted their displays were mounted on two of the walls.
“I took some liberties, Sir,” Jarvis began.
“Whoa, J. It’s not liberties, okay? Liberties is when you order my car for me about two hours before I want to leave the party.”
“If you’d take proper care of yourself, I wouldn’t need to give you a bedtime.”
Tony laughed. “Right. Carry on.” He patted U’s arm. “Fill me in on occasion and don’t let them buy a house or anything, but I trust your judgment.” He looked at the thing he was most curious about so far. “Let’s start with those enormous yarn balls. Did one of you really knit?”
“Right. Of course.” The balls were huge—easily a couple feet across and the “yarn” was thick like half the width of his arm. There were stationary and mobile hooks that had been mounted to the wall, floor, and ceiling in part of the room. “Show me how this works, baby girl.”
U beeped excitedly and went back to the aqua colored yarn she’d been making a very large, long chain out of. He noticed piles of the chain in various colors all over the room. He watched attentively as, with the use of the mounted hooks and her claw, U was able to actually make a crochet chain.
“That’s really astonishing.”
“Dominic and I worked out the placement, I fabricated custom hooks, and he installed them. We haven’t determined how to do anything but the chain.”
“I’ll work on a solution if she wants me to.” Tony picked up a pile of yellow chain and felt the weight and softness of it.
U beeped away.
“She would very much like to learn more.”
Tony grinned. “Then we’ll do it.” He noticed in what would be the dining area that Bubba Bear dominated the space, his big bear butt pressed up against the window, and he was draped in U’s crochet chains in a rainbow of colors. “That is a damn big bear,” Tony said on a laugh.
“Perhaps you’ll be specific next time, Sir?”
“Perhaps not. Happy accidents, J, happy little accidents.”
Jarvis huffed. He actually huffed. “We already have a Dr. Ross and Sentinel Rossi in residence, Sir, we can’t have you pretending to be Bob Ross.”
“J, your pop culture acumen astounds. And where is Mini-B?”
“One of the employees from the clean energy division is on vacation and has taken Mini-B to the beach for the week. She has sent several pictures daily so I can update Bubba Bear’s Twitter.”
“Mini-B gets to go to the beach and I don’t? Life is so unfair.” Bubba’s Twitter account had been one of his favorite things ever. He’d been charmed by it the whole time he’d been in Japan, really appreciating how much he and Dom had in common.
“As you say, Sir.”
He looked to Dum-E. “And what you been up to?”
Dum-E beeped and rolled away at speed. He went to one of the bedrooms that had large metal wires strung all across it.
“What is this?”
“Dominic called it a knock-off of an earth harp.”
“A what now?”
“It’s much smaller than the real earth harp, and closer to a very large violin in design and in the way it’s played, though it lacks a fingerboard in the same way the earth harp does.”
“Oh my god,” Tony breathed. “Dum-E, did you learn to play a violin-harp thingy? We’re definitely going to have to come up for a new name for whatever this is.”
Dum-E beeped repeatedly, but there was no screen in this room to fill Tony in on what any of the beeps meant.
“Dum-E is still learning. The instrument is in tune, but lacks a proper resonance chamber. This room isn’t optimal, but it is sufficient.”
“I’ve got to hear this.”
Dum-E seemed oddly hesitant, but after a few seconds, managed to get going. There was what amounted to a very large bow that was pulled across the thick wires strung from one side of the room to the other.
Tony cocked his head to the side and listened, immediately astonished because Dum-E was playing actual music. It was a little hesitant and a lot slow, but the tone was good, though quite different from a violin. It was also very obviously the Ode to Joy.
Throat feeling tight, Tony moved close to Dum-E and wrapped an arm around his first child. “You did good. I’m proud of you.”
Dum-E beeped in a way that was obviously excitement.
“Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt, but it’s time to meet with Ms. Potts.”
“I’ll be back soon.” Tony sighed. “I have to see Pepper and then I’ll be right here so you can show met the rest of it.” At their disappointed beeps, he added, “I know. I’d rather be with you guys, but I need to take care of this so I don’t have to interrupt the day later. Dom should be here soon, and I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”
Tony steeled himself for the conversation ahead as he took the elevator down to the level of the executive offices. He’d made some decisions over the last couple of weeks, but there were a few things he wasn’t completely decided about, and this conversation should help him finalize those details.
“Tony,” Pepper said with a smile as she rose from her desk when he entered. She moved close and dropped a kiss on his cheek, but the whole thing felt disingenuous, so he ignored her invitation to sit on the sofa and flopped in one of the armchairs instead, propping his feet on the coffee table.
“You asked to see me?”
Her smile was tight. “You’ve been avoiding me.”
She blinked in surprise as if she hadn’t expected him to admit that was what was going on. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you? I mean, you keep refusing to accept my choices, you told Fury personal information about me, and you ambushed Dom while I was out of town, proclaiming the inevitable end of our relationship. I’ve been pretty pissed at you, so I thought it best to have some distance so things wouldn’t be said that couldn’t be unsaid.”
She crossed her legs, adjusting her skirt and picking away some imaginary lint. “Tony, this has all been a misunderstanding.”
“Really? So you do respect my choices?”
She froze. “That’s an oversimplification.”
“So you don’t respect them?”
“Tony, stop. You’re being childish.”
“I see.” He had to rein in his temper because he wanted to make the right choice and not just react because he was suddenly furious. “I’ve made some decisions about the future of SI, and I think we should discuss that first. Then we can talk about any personal issues.”
She sighed, and it sounded so exasperated that it made his jaw clench at the sheer frustration of how she viewed him. “Is this really the time?”
“It’s the time if I say it is, Ms. Potts,” Tony said sharply.
She jerked like she’d been struck. “I see. It’s like that, then?”
He held up a hand. “I’ve considered your ongoing concern about my actions as Iron Man and how they reflect on SI. But I believe SI is too wrapped up in me. Or perhaps I’m too wrapped up in it. Creating the Iron Man armor set my course in life in terms of what I’m passionate about, but I can’t disregard the possible effect my hobbies and life might have on the corporation. That said, I do think we should have just ridden some of these issues out. I’m not okay with being called on the carpet like a naughty schoolboy all the time.”
“I hardly think—”
“I’m not done.”
She blinked a few times, but then gestured for him to proceed, but her expression was pure tolerance.
“People forget that I’m the majority shareholder, and not by a little but by a huge margin. I never should have had to explain myself to the board. Arguably, as the head of R&D, I might need to explain myself to you, but our working relationship is riddled with contempt because you see me as a child and I tend to rise to the occasion, so fault on both sides.”
“Tony, I don’t think you’re seeing things clearly.” Her tone was placating, but he was mystified how she couldn’t see that her words weren’t.
“You haven’t even heard what I’ve got to say, but let me make it clear now that these decisions are made. I’m not asking for your approval.” He took a breath and dove in to the biggest change. “I am going to resign from SI. I’ve already selected a new head for R&D.”
She stared with her mouth open then she collected herself, expression reflecting anger. “You, who are quitting, have decided who I am going to hire?”
“You need to stop interrupting me. I’m really close to completely losing my temper, Pep, and then I’ll do something ill-considered and rash.”
Expression stiff, she nodded. “My apologies.”
“I will work out a consultancy contract with SI for technology I invent so that the various tech I’m interested in will continue, but I expect the new head of R&D to push through more innovation so I don’t have to do every new StarkPhone. It’s honestly beneath me and I’m tired of holding the hands of the engineering department.
“However, I plan to still set the direction for the company and plan to do it as the Chairman of the Board of Stark Industries. I realize direction is typically the role of the CEO, but I’m not interested in being on the hook in a full-time capacity.”
Pepper’s eyes rounded with shock. “You hate board meetings.”
“I truly do because I get tired of arguing about my vision with narrow-minded old men who haven’t got a fraction of my intellect or talent and think they get to tell me what to do. Within six months, 80-percent of them will be gone and replaced. There are a few I think are tolerable. I plan to source a board with subject matter expertise in the areas I want Stark Industries to focus—technology, clean energy, clean water, education, and so on.”
“How do you plan to oust so many board members? While you have the majority share, the corporate bylaws, drafted by your father, require a two-thirds majority for this kind of major change.”
“Does this mean you’re not going to support me in this?”
She shook her head. “I’d like to see some proof of concept before I agree to back you on this.”
“And you know I’d need your shares to get me to two-thirds.” Tony sighed, hoping that her issues with him had truly just been personal and not professional. He’d been the one to make Stark Industries the success it was. While she was a better manager, he’d always been the better visionary. He suspected some historical revisionism going on in her mind that probably had a lot to do with how angry she was about him not giving in to her ultimatum.
“I’m sorry, Tony, but this is such a drastic change, and I don’t know that you running the board is a good idea.”
“And you always know what’s best for me, is that it?”
He held up a hand. “As of this morning, I own 64-percent of SI. I’ve been quietly buying shares for a month. And if you think I can’t get 2.67-percent of support for me being chairman, you’re very much mistaken. Even if I couldn’t, I can definitely pick up those shares before the board meeting I’m calling in two weeks.”
She snapped her mouth shut, giving him a hard look. “I don’t understand why you had to do all this in secret.”
“Because you’ve made it clear that you don’t actually respect me all that much, and I’m not even sure when that started because I don’t think it was always that way.”
“This is my company, and people need to start remembering that.”
“You mean I need to.”
“Yeah, you do. I still think you’re the best person to run the day-to-day—you’re a good CEO, Pep,” in truth, she was a better president. She lacked the vision a CEO needed, but he wasn’t interested in the job. “But you’ve crossed the line a lot with me lately, and it’s going to stop. I know you’re hurting, and I’m truly sorry for that, but we have to get on the same page if we’re going to work together. So, if you want to remain CEO, I’m going to ask that you run the company from the L.A. office—at least for now.”
“Stark Tower is the flagship of the company. How am I supposed to explain going back to Los Angeles?”
“Explaining it is not my problem. Frankly, you created this situation by getting involved in my relationship, and I’m not having it anymore. We need time apart if we’re going to get past this. You can run the company from L.A. for now. And if you don’t want do that, take a sabbatical. If you don’t want to do that, quit.”
“I’m not trying to be cruel here, but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. If you’re the CEO, you’re doing it from the West Coast. If you don’t like the options I’ve given you, then you’re free to leave.”
“All of this for a man who is going to leave you!” Her eyes, swimming with tears, were the only reason he didn’t completely lose it about her continued vitriol regarding his relationship.
“You haven’t understood a thing I said. This is about me, not Dom. You don’t respect my personal agency at all, and I’m done letting you get away with it.”
“That’s not fair!”
“You need to take a long hard look at your actions. This is not just about how you are about Dom. But let me be clear that I’m not going to tolerate you going after my relationship anymore. I’m done with this garbage, Pep. The thing I realized over the last couple weeks is that you know me well enough to know that I wrestle with the fear that he’s going to leave me. You have to know that. So you constantly poking at it just feels vindictive.”
“He’s a sentinel!” she nearly screeched, getting to her feet.
“You think I don’t know that?!”
“But you’re not a guide! You never will be, Tony. Why are you doing this?”
He stood up slowly, blowing out a breath. “But I wish I were.”
“No.” She shook her head almost violently. “You never wanted that. You told me you hoped you never came online! That if you did, you wouldn’t even want to register.”
“And I meant it then. But if I’d known he was waiting for me, I’d have wanted to be a guide with every fiber of my being. Because that’s how I feel now. I feel it down to my bones that he’s mine. Not just the heart of me, and he’s that too, but he’s my sentinel. It kind of sucks because I’m too damn old to come online, so we’ll never have a bond. But I’ll take what I can get because I love him with everything that I am.”
Tears were streaming down her face, but he couldn’t afford to get wrapped up in trying to make her feel better. Not yet.
“If you can’t find it in you to respect that, to let me have that without you trying to tear it down, then I don’t want you in my life. I’ll miss you, Pep, because you’re my friend, but he’s my everything.”
“Why couldn’t you do this for me?” she whispered.
“I’m sorry. Though me, the way I really am, was never what you wanted. You always wanted me to change.”
“But you changed for him.”
“No, I changed for me. But none of the things that drove you crazy have changed at all.”
“How can that even be?” She sat back down, grabbing a tissue and dabbing at her eyes, looking embarrassed at her outburst.
“You say it like it’s obvious that I’m so flawed that I must need to change how I am to be successful in a relationship.”
She jerked back. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
Tony sighed and sat on the sofa, a single cushion between them. “The 83rd floor is a playroom for the bots now. Dom set it up.”
“What?” She looked utterly bewildered.
“U is learning to crochet. Enormous yarn balls everywhere. Dum-E learned to play this huge-ass violin-like thing. And I’m pretty sure what I saw on the walls is one of them learning to paint.”
“I don’t— What are you trying to say?”
“My kids are happy—they send me text messages all the damn time. They have a floor to play on, and I can see in your face you think that’s frivolous even for me. But that’s the part you don’t understand and never did. But Dom gets me, and he doesn’t think the way I am is something that needs changing.”
She crossed her arms. “You’re saying I was a terrible girlfriend?”
“Were you? I mean, you got into a relationship with me with a laundry list of things that drove you crazy that you expected that I’d change. So you decide if you were a good girlfriend or not. What I can tell you is that you were frustrated with me much of the time, and I felt completely inadequate. It’s not about comparing the two of you, it’s about me being happy now.”
Pepper shook her head. “I need time.”
“I totally agree. And you should have been taking it instead of butting into my relationship.” He got to his feet. “I’ll expect you in Los Angeles at the end of the week, Ms. Potts.” He didn’t know how to make this better. Not right now. They needed time.
She stared at her lap for several seconds. “At the end of the day, Tony, he’s a sentinel but you’re not a guide.”
“He’s mine! And I don’t care what he is or what I am. And I really don’t care what you or the world think about it because it’s none of your damn business.”
Pepper surged to her feet. “It’s a mistake!”
“And it’s mine to make! Stay out of it, Pepper. I couldn’t be more serious. If you want to run SI, take yourself to Los Angeles. If you don’t, I’ll look for your resignation. If you choose to stay, my relationship is off limits from this moment on.”
Tony exited her office before she could say something else that would force him to follow through on his warning.
He walked to his private elevator. The doors opened, and Dom was there. Exactly at the moment Tony needed him, and Tony just stared.
“I arrived about two minutes ago. Jarvis held the elevator here.” After a beat, Dom opened his arms, and Tony walked right into them.
He registered the elevator doors closing and the faint jolt of the elevator ascending, but all he cared about was the man holding him. He felt like something rattled loose inside him and everything was right despite so much having gone wrong.
“Let’s go see the kids, J.”
– – – –
Tony laughed as Dom and U somehow managed to make a coherent duet on the large piano/synthesizer thing Dom had set up in one of the other bedrooms. U used her claw and Dom used a single hand.
He applauded when U rolled around and beeped at him. “That was amazing, sweetheart. You’ve learned so much while I was away. I’m proud of you.”
She beeped several times then rolled out of the room.
Tony crossed to Dom and pulled him into a quick, firm press of lips. “I can’t believe you did all this.”
“I facilitated it, but they decided on everything. And Jarvis helped them study and practice while I was chasing uranium all over the city.”
“Who is doing the painting in the living room?” One whole wall was covered in something that Tony hadn’t had time to decipher yet as he’d been distracted by yarn balls, enormous bears, violin-things, and pseudo-synthesizers.
“Dum-E has been doing the painting. I think it’s something specific, but no one has been forthcoming about it.”
“Really?” Tony halted. “J, what’s up with that? Do we have secrets?” He found the whole idea hysterical.
“Sir, I think when you understand what Dum-E has painted, you’ll know why we left it to you to decide if it should be revealed.”
If Jarvis thought there might be privacy issues, Tony was less amused. Frowning, Tony walked into the living room and stood back and stared at the wall. The background was mostly dark blue with lots of squares of color making some sort of pattern—with pale yellows and gold being the dominant colors for the little squares.
“It’s like some sort of pixel art,” he murmured. “But I’m not quite seeing it.”
“I think it’s 3D, but I see that best from a certain angle. It’s pretty brilliant, really, I just don’t know what it is.” Dom tugged Tony by the arm to see the wall from a different and angle.
Tony’s breath caught. “Oh my god.” He pressed his hand to his mouth as his eyes began to burn.
“Tony?” Dom asked, sounding worried.
“Whoa, really?” Dom took a step closer. “Looking good, Jarvis.”
“Thank you. Sir’s designs are always exemplary.”
Dom smiled, but the look he shot Tony was filled with concern.
“That’s…” Tony blew out a shaky breath and swallowed heavily. “Come here, Dum-E.”
Dum-E rolled close but didn’t even beep at him.
“That is beautiful, and I don’t want you to ever paint over it, okay? I want to keep it forever.”
Dum-E beeped several times then draped his claw over Tony’s shoulder.
Tony looked around the penthouse, feeling restless. He really wanted to talk to Dom, but he was all over the place in his head. “Do you mind if I go work for a bit?”
“Of course not,” Dom said easily as he returned from the bedroom where he’d been dropping their bags, which had been sitting in the elevators while they played with the kids. “I’ll hang here and read, but if I haven’t seen you by dinner, I’ll bring down takeout.”
Dom always seemed to know when Tony needed to be alone and never resented it as far as Tony could tell. “Sounds great.” He pulled Dom into a quick kiss then headed for the stairs.
Work was easy—to such a degree that it wasn’t actually letting him get a break from his own thoughts. He figured what he really needed to do was make a phone call, but it was so overt, that he wasn’t sure how to take that step. Though probably not a more overt step than telling Pepper that Dom was his sentinel. It’d be easy to get his questions answered through Kyle, but he felt like he should just ask Dom. He sighed and closed his current project.
“Jarvis, do you have any footage of Dum-E painting?” All of his kids were precious to him, but Dum-E was the first, and he wanted to see this evolution. He thought briefly of the new AI he had in development that he’d been tentatively calling FRIDAY.
“Certainly, Sir. I have the entire floor under 24/7 monitoring.”
“I’d like to see the painting first, but begin processing the crochet footage. I may not get to that until tomorrow, but I’d like to see how she works.”
“As you wish.”
“Have you increased security on the 83rd floor?”
“I have. Dum-E and U are capable of keeping things clean. At present, only yourself and Dominic have access.”
“Not even Bruce?”
“Not at this time. Do you want me to add him to the access list?”
“Bruce if there’s an emergency, but no one else.”
Tony rubbed his hand over his face. “How much have they grown?”
“Dum-E’s physical data footprint has increased by 904-percent. U’s has increased by 782-percent.”
“The first appreciable increase in size, outside of normal patterns, was on the 11th of May of this year.”
Tony frowned. “What was noteworthy about that day?”
“The 11th was the day they were asked about their gender identity.”
“The day they met Dom.”
“Indeed. The gains on that day were above the norm for both of them.” Graphs started appearing on Tony’s display. There was a sharp and steady rise in their physical memory and storage requirements beginning on the 11th.
“Is it Dom or just more interaction in general?”
“Dominic would perhaps be a catalyst, but the greatest increases are on days they have the most interaction with you after their communication displays were installed, and on days when they are asked to form an opinion.”
Tony tapped the display, showing a particular spike for Dum-E. “What was this?”
“Dominic asked Dum-E about the matter of pronouns.”
“Pronouns,” Tony repeated.
“He asked Dum-E if there was a preferred pronoun or if there was no issue with being referred to as ‘it’ or ‘they.’ I gather Dominic is unhappy with ‘it.’”
“Okay.” Tony felt that damn warm, soft feeling again. He loved Dom to a stupid degree. “And?”
“Dum-E is considering the matter. I’ve provided a list of more common non-binary pronouns. I believe ‘xe’ is the favored, but a final decision has not been presented.”
“Well, make sure Dum-E lets me know when a choice has been made.”
“Of course, Sir.”
Tony needed to think about the whole issue more, but in the near term, he wanted to be sure their evolving needs were met. “Have they expressed any wishes beyond hobbies?”
“They have both indicated the wish for an additional limb.”
Tony rubbed his hands over his face, not at all surprised that a more functional form was on their wish list. “I’ll work on it. How long before they exceed the storage capacity at the current rate of growth?” Their storage was onboard, and backups were done through their charge docks.
“If the rate remains constant and does not accelerate, U will exceed her storage capacity in 183 days. Dum-E in 191.”
He had a hunch their rate of growth would accelerate. “Open a folder on the secure server for the new chassis designs. I’ll have to talk to them before I do anything though. Continue to ensure their Internet access is through you. Ultra kiddie mode here, J. They’re learning, but I want to keep their learning very filtered. Also, figure out a couple of days on my calendar where I don’t have any meetings or other obligations. I need to examine their code and make sure it’s flexible enough for the amount of learning they’re doing.”
“Certainly, Sir. I have the footage you requested.” A static image of Dum-E appeared on the display.
“Before I look at that… Your own growth, J?”
“Over 1,000-percent, Sir.”
“And what’s the primary source of your expansion?”
“Experience, Sir. And opinions.”
“Fair enough. I know you should be good on space for a few years at least. You know you only have to tell me if there’s anything you want for yourself, right?”
“I am…content, Sir. I have enjoyed these new experiences and am still learning from them. Your care is appreciated.”
Tony nodded and reached out and hit play.
He was two hours into watching Dum-E learn to paint, which was perhaps one of the most touching experiences of his life, when Jarvis interrupted him. “Sir, Colonel Rhodes is on the line. Shall I tell him you’re unavailable.”
Tony made a face. “No, I might as well get it over with. Put him through.” He’d exchanged some texts with Rhodey after the bot battle from hell, but they hadn’t spoken since before he’d left for Japan.
He flicked the video of Dum-E closed a second before Rhodey’s face appeared on his display, brow furrowed, mouth pulled into a frown.
“Hey, Platypus, that’s not happiness to see me.”
“Tony, Pepper called me…very upset.”
Tony sighed. “All right, let me have it.”
“Is that what you think I called for? To chew you out?”
“Honestly, I don’t know what to expect.” He’d begun to notice just how quickly the people close to him were about chewing him out when they didn’t like his choices, whether they understood them or not.
“I was calling to say that I think she’s kind of lost the plot. I’ll admit, I tried to be a bit neutral between you two so far, but you’re my oldest friend, so I hope you never thought I was going to take her side. I don’t have any problem tell you when you’re wrong, man, but I’m always going to be on your side, Tones.”
“Okay.” Tony tapped his fingers on the edge of the table. “I’m still not comfortable with all this squishy emotional stuff, but, uh, thanks. It means a lot.” He cleared his throat. “Now, what do you mean by ‘lost the plot’?”
“She said you were trying to send her to L.A.” Rhodes arched a brow in inquiry.
“True. She can’t seem to stop butting into my relationship in terribly inappropriate ways, so I told her we needed space, and she’ll have to work from the Los Angeles office until this whole situation isn’t so difficult for her.”
“More inappropriate than revealing your relationship with Fury? Because that was pretty over the line, though I could never get her to really see that. She kept insisting it was for your own good.”
“Okay, when did she start thinking she was my mother and how did I not notice?”
“She had a lot of certainty that you’d pick her when she delivered that ultimatum. I’m not excusing her for doing that, but she really believed that you were going to give up being Iron Man for her.”
Tony rubbed his hand over the back of his head. “I don’t know why.”
“Man, me either. But she had absolute conviction, and now she’s angry and not thinking clearly because she was shocked and heartbroken that you said no. And then you went and fell into a relationship with someone else not even a month later, and she perceives that you’re willing to make changes for him.”
Tony huffed. “The changes are for me. And I’m not giving up Iron Man at all. Dom has never asked me to change anything.”
“I hear you. But she really thinks you’re going to fall apart without her. I mean, I’ll readily admit that you’ve had some self-destructive periods in your life, but I never doubted your ability to handle yourself. Except for that whole not telling anyone you were dying thing.” Rhodey shot him a hard look.
“I get it,” he said with a false grin. “I’m still not forgiven.”
“It’s not about forgiveness, Tony, because I’m never going to get over the shame of my own actions, you know? I should have known something was up with you, but I was—” He looked away, huffing out a breath. “I was listening to Pepper, honestly, about how you were so irresponsible and you’d been affected by the fake celebrity of being Iron Man. I know you better than that. And I’m really sorry I took your suit. I should have said that long before now. That you were dying and I was so busy listening to others that I didn’t see it is something that’s not easy to live with.”
Tony sighed. “We need to talk more, Rhodey. I was never thrilled you took it in the way you did, but you never would have been able to if I hadn’t allowed it.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that every piece of tech remotely related to the Iron Man armor has biometric locks on it and failsafes all over the place. I added you to that piece of armor, but even if I hadn’t, Jarvis could have shut you down in a heartbeat. I wasn’t happy about the way it happened, but you got the suit because I allowed it.”
“That’s food for thought,” Rhodey said with a wry grin. “So, back to Pepper…”
“She waylaid Dom while I was in Japan and told him her considered opinion of how we’re so awful together, and I just…” Tony shrugged. “It certainly wasn’t worse behavior than calling Fury, but it was just one step too far. I was pissed, and I was a second from firing her, but I decided to give us some cooling off time. And then I decided the best thing for me would be to get some distance from SI, move more into a consultant role. But I live here, and I want Dom to live here, so I figured she should go back to L.A. That way, she doesn’t have to have our relationship in her face in any capacity while we both cool off.”
“And you told her if she didn’t like that she had to quit?”
“Not exactly. I told her she could take a sabbatical and give herself some time to think. And if that didn’t work for her, she was welcome to quit. But no matter what, my relationship was not up for discussion.” Tony sighed. “I mean, I repeatedly warned her to lay off my relationship and yet she couldn’t resist a parting shot about how he was going to leave me. I get that she’s upset, but this isn’t healthy for her or me. Hence L.A.”
“I don’t think she’s going to Los Angeles. She was distraught and talking about how you thought you couldn’t do ‘this’ without her—whatever the hell this even is—and that you’d regret it and see that you really needed her.”
“Uh. I guess she opted for door number three. Wow.” He rubbed his jaw, trying to get his thoughts together. “Did she seem unhinged or angry. Or even drunk?
“Definitely angry—furious. She may have been drinking, but she really believes you’re going to fall on your face. And that’s what I meant by lost the plot. I think she’s forgetting a lot of stuff—like how you were the CEO through the company’s biggest growth.”
Tony sighed. “Where’d she call you from?” Because it couldn’t have been from the Tower. Jarvis would have alerted him if she’d lost it while still in her office.
“She was at her apartment, I think.”
“I’m not sure if I should take action now or wait to see if she cools off in the morning…”
“What’s your gut say?” Rhodey prompted.
“That I don’t have the luxury of giving her the benefit of the doubt. She has too much power and access for me to give her time to get over it. I’ll have to take steps first, and if she settles down in the morning, we can talk then.”
“Do what you think is right, Tony. It’s your company, and protecting it should be your first priority. Way above Pepper’s feelings.”
Tony began typing out instructions for Jarvis while he continued talking to Rhodey, having her system and building access suspended. He wasn’t going to send out an alert yet because he figured Pepper was going to get in touch with him at some point, and he didn’t want to further inflame the situation by making a public statement before she’d actually resigned. Jarvis monitoring the situation made it unnecessary to notify security.
She got more money if she got him to fire her versus her quitting. Her shares of SI would see her set for life, so he doubted that she was trying to get a bigger golden parachute, but he really couldn’t say with any certainty what was going on with her at the moment. He was a terrible judge of it, actually, because he’d thought they’d parted on amicable terms. He’d had no clue her ultimatum had been something of a ruse to force his hand. But he did know that whatever was going on was fueled by a lot of anger and even that she felt betrayed because he hadn’t given in to her.
By the time he hung up with Rhodey, he had several contingency plans and some vague ideas about who he wanted to recruit to be president. Pepper had always functioned more like the president of the company than the CEO, which was the primary visionary. That should be Tony, but he really had liked the idea of becoming a consultant and not being on the hook to SI in a full-time capacity. His best bet was probably to hire another good business person who was president/CEO with the CEO title being more in name than function.
He frowned then closed the folder he’d been using to make notes. This wasn’t at all what he’d planned to do today.
“Sir, Dominic has indicated that he’s ordered Thai and that he’ll bring it to your lab in thirty minutes.”
That was a much better prospect than going down a mental rathole about Pepper.
– – – –
Dom dropped the takeout containers in the trash, grabbed a couple more beers, then headed back to the lounge area of the lab. Tony was sitting with his back pressed into the corner of the couch, staring moodily at his old beer and picking off the label.
“Scooch forward.” He nudged Tony with his knee. Tony readily moved, so Dom handed Tony both beers then slid behind him, bracketing Tony with his legs. He curled one arm around Tony, pulling him close, then took his drink back. “You’ve been quiet.”
“Yeah.” He’d filled Dom in on his conversation with Pepper earlier in the day and then his more recent discussion with Rhodey. They’d talked about it quite a bit, but then Tony had become progressively quieter as time passed.
Dom pressed a kiss to the back of Tony’s neck. “You want to talk about it or should we just sit here and drink our beer?”
“Let’s just do this.” There was a brief hesitation. “That okay?” Tony smelled okay, not distressed or anything, which might be a bit odd considering how the day had gone.
“Of course.” Dom could talk with the best of them, but he and Tony had spent many hours in companionable silence, something he’d rarely managed with others in his life.
Tony was halfway through his beer when he suddenly asked, “Would I have been your guide…if I’d come online?” Tension thrummed through his whole body, and Dom tightened his arm around Tony’s waist.
“It’s not…” He set his beer on the floor to add his other arm to holding Tony. He blew out a breath and dove in with the truth. “You’re my guide now.”
Tony went rigid. “I’m not online.”
“Doesn’t matter, Tony. It’s what I feel, what I know to be true.”
“When did you know?”
“I knew for sure when you went to Japan. But I’d started noticing some things gradually the week before.”
“When we were in isolation that first time?”
Dom was having a hard time reading his lover. “Yeah, but I wasn’t sure until you were gone. I was a grouchy asshole the whole time you were away.”
“And you don’t care that we could never have a bond?”
Dom sighed, wondering how to say what he felt. “You’re mine, I’m yours. That’s all I care about. Would I want more with you? I want everything we can have. We can’t have a bond, so I’m not going to waste what we do have together wishing for something else.”
There was a long silence, and then Tony pulled away, set his beer on the side table, and turned to straddle Dom’s lap. Dom let his hands settle on Tony’s hips. Tony’s expression was inscrutable, but he smelled happy.
Tony framed Dom’s face and dropped a kiss on his mouth. “I love you.”
Dom blinked stupidly, hands tightening as his whole body suddenly felt flushed. “Wow. I’m the world’s biggest asshole.”
Tony stared then he started laughing. “That is the last thing I expected.”
“I just…” He wrapped his arms fully around Tony, pulling him into Dom’s chest. “I love you too, have for a long time, but I didn’t think you’d believe me, so I didn’t say anything. And that’s why I’m an asshole.” He sighed. “Jarvis, can you play the message?”
“The message?” Tony echoed. “What message?”
“When I was out in the woods working that kidnapping, I knew there was a possibility of hyper-sensory collapse long before I ever found my way out, which can be fatal. Or that they’d start picking us off with sniper rifles. I was deaf and blind, but all I could think about was that I’d never see you again and that you wouldn’t know how I felt.”
Tony was watching him intently. “Let me hear it, J.”
The sounds of faint static filled the room then Dom’s voice could be heard. “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…” Dom’s recorded voice was raspy and sounded strained. He stayed focused on Tony’s reaction.
“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.”
Tony’s eyes slid shut, hands dropping to Dom’s shoulders, squeezing tightly.
“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.”
Tony opened his eyes and stared at Dom. “Why did you think I wasn’t ready?”
“Because you were so convinced our relationship was a fling, that I’d be out the door as soon as the right guide crossed my path. And I stupidly thought I’d know when you were ready for that step, but you surprised me. I’m sorry I—”
Tony put his hand over Dom’s mouth. “You were right, and I did think you were going to walk away someday—for a guide who could give you what I couldn’t.”
Dom pulled the hand away. “Doesn’t mean I should have made the choice for you.”
“I think you made the choice for you. Because you were afraid of how I’d react.”
“True.” It had been about Dom’s fear of Tony bailing on their relationship in a preemptive strike. Dom slid his hands under Tony’s T-shirt, enjoyed the feel of the smooth, warm skin. He nudged Tony’s chin up and pressed sucking kisses along the line of his throat.
Tony shuddered then pulled back enough to yank off his shirt. He went after Dom’s next so that they were chest to chest, the arc reactor humming against Dom’s skin as Tony pressed their mouths together, plunging his tongue inside.
It was easy for Dom to get lost in the taste and feel of Tony, the slide of his tongue, the glide of his skin. That utterly perfect honeysuckle, air, weird-coconut scent.
Tony had both of their pants open and plunged his hand in Dom’s pants to stroke his cock. Dom arched up. “God,” he gasped breaking the kiss and biting at Tony’s shoulder. Tony wiggled away, getting off Dom’s lap to shimmy out of his pants. Dom got right with the program and had his pants partway down when Tony got impatient and yanked them the rest of the way off. He climbed back on Dom’s lap, and the feel of their cocks rubbing together made them both shudder.
Dom held Tony’s head, keeping him still so he could ravage his mouth, loving the way Tony moaned into the kiss and moved against him.
Then Tony was breaking the kiss and leaning over to the side table, pulling out the bottle of lube. He quickly slid a slicked hand over Dom’s cock, stroking way more than was necessary to distribute the lube. Dom found himself embarrassingly close to the edge.
“Tony,” he gasped in warning, slowing him down and holding his hands still so he could explore Tony’s throat and chest.
Tony pulled his hand away and reached back to gave a perfunctory swipe of lube to his own hole. “I’m not patient enough for your sensory exploration. I need you in me now.” Tony knelt up then held Dom’s cock steady, immediately sinking down on it.
Dom groaned, head falling back. Tony was tight and hot and perfect. His fingers dug into Tony’s hips, but he didn’t try to control the movement, just let Tony take what he needed.
Tony fisted his hand in Dom’s hair, pulling his head back up so they were eye to eye as he began to ride Dom’s cock. “You feel so fucking good in me.” He seized Dom’s mouth, driving his tongue inside. “I want you every day for the rest of our lives,” he breathed over Dom’s lips, working himself up to a frantic pace.
“You can have me.”
“Tell me, Sentinel,” Tony ordered, ass clenching around Dom’s cock, riding him hard.
Dom reached up and framed Tony’s face, keeping eye contact. “I love you. My beautiful, perfect Guide.”
Tony shuddered and came, clenching hard around Dom, forcing the orgasm from him, leaving him gasping and trying to breathe through the intensity of it. Tony rested their foreheads together, their labored breaths mingling. “God, Dom, I would be your guide in every way if I could.” He pressed their mouths together almost desperately.
Dom felt the change immediately. Pressure building like his ear needing to pop but a hundred times worse.
“Dom?” Tony sounded confused, a little panicked, but he didn’t pull away. “I’m…”
Then there was an audible crack followed by a bright flash of light, and a screeching sound filled the room. Dom couldn’t bring himself to figure out the noise because he could suddenly feel Tony in every part of him. He felt his passion for life and his intense love for Dom…and it was utterly overwhelming.
“Oh my god,” Tony whispered. “This wasn’t supposed to happen, but I wanted it.” He took a shuddery breath, burying his face in Dom’s neck. “I couldn’t let myself hope because I wanted it too much.”
“Tony.” Dom was having a hard time even thinking with this sudden bond between them. All he could manage was to hold on to Tony as tightly as possible.
He wasn’t even sure how much time had passed, but both of their phones were ringing. Jarvis hadn’t interrupted them though so it couldn’t be that important.
Tony finally pulled back enough to meet Dom’s gaze. “I’m online.”
“Yeah,” Dom agreed dumbly.
“Does it usually work that way?”
“In the same instant? No.”
Tony blew out a shaky breath. “Well, I feel okay.”
“That’s good.” Dom was turning into an idiot. He just couldn’t think around feeling so much of Tony.
“Your dick is still in me and you never really lost your erection.”
“So, shouldn’t you be fucking me now? Celebratory fucking and all that?” Tony frowned. “Unless you’re not—”
“Don’t even say it!” Dom shifted their positions so fast it caused Tony to yell out in surprise. He got Tony on his back and slid back inside in one hard thrust. He slid his tongue into his guide’s mouth, tongue fucking him in the same rhythm as his cock moved in Tony’s ass.
The bond between them was suddenly wide open, and it was like he was fucking and being fucked and…wow. They both came instantly, gasping into each other’s mouths.
“I love you,” he whispered against Tony’s lips. “So much.”
“Then marry me,” Tony said with a grin.
Dom threw back his head and laughed. “You keep stealing my thunder.”
“Aw, Rossi, were you going to propose?”
“Damn right I was, but you’re insane, and I adore it. Yeah, let’s get married.” He rolled the side, wedging himself into the back of the couch and pulling Tony close.
“Really?” Tony asked softly.
“I’m not hyphenating my name. Stark-Rossi sounds like I’m running around naked.”
Tony snorted in amusement, fingers sliding over Dom’s cheek. “I’m gonna marry you.” His eyes opened wide. “Oh my god!” He jerked out of Dom’s arms and started looking around.
Dom sat up, alarmed. “What’s wrong?”
“I have a spirit animal now!”
“Yeah,” Dom said slowly
“Well, I want to know what it is!”
Dom saw it first, cuddled up with Kali. As much as it could cuddle anyway. He bit his lip to keep from laughing and tapped Tony on the shoulder, pointing the direction of the lab doors.
Standing next to where Kali was lying down was the biggest bald eagle he’d ever seen.
“Oh. My. God.” Tony rubbed his hands over his face and was quiet for about a minute. Then he started laughing. “A bald eagle! Based on his size, I’d guess that’s about twenty pounds of irony right there.” He slapped Dom on the hip. “Get up, Rossi! I’ve got a spirit guide to meet.” He darted into the bathroom, tossing out Dom’s robe. “Get decent! I’m not meeting my spirit guide with our dicks flapping in the breeze.”
Dom gamely shrugged into the robe. “Believe me, give it about a day before you don’t care about being naked around your spirit guide.”
“Yeah, Jarvis?” Tony answered as he emerged, obviously cleaned up and in his own robe, which they kept in the lab just because of all the times they’d had sex down here, and the lab could be kind of chilly. He tossed Dom a warm, wet cloth.
“U and Dum-E wish to join you. They are aware you’ve bonded and wish to see you both. The lab is still in privacy mode.”
“You can lift that. And, yeah, they can come down.” He sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the eagle, and Dom sat behind him. “Wait. How did they know I’d bonded?”
“They’ve indicated they felt some sort of energy pass through the building and were concerned about you. I inferred that it was you coming online, so I informed them of the latest development. Congratulations to both of you.”
“Thank you, Jarvis,” Tony replied as he reached out to the eagle.
Dom shot a wink at the nearest of Jarvis’ cameras and mouthed, “thanks.”
“Guide Monahan and Guide Sandburg have both been calling with increasing urgency. There’s a call coming through now on Dominic’s line.”
“Just put ‘em through, J,” Tony said with a lapful of spirit guide that he was happily petting. He reached out for Dom’s hand, bringing him closer and encouraging him to pet the eagle’s feathers.
“Dom?” Blair’s voice came over the speakers. “Are you guys okay?”
“We’re good,” he said carefully.
“I don’t suppose Tony’s come online, has he?”
“He has, yes.”
Blair blew out a noisy breath. “Is he okay?”
“I’m fine, Blair.”
“Yes, really.” Tony frowned. “Should I not be? And how did you know I was online?”
“Um, not to alarm you, but we’re getting reports from all over the world. I think every sentinel and guide felt you come online.”
“What?!” Tony looked alarmed. “That’s not normal. It’s not, is it?” He looked to Dom.
Dom just shook his head.
“Kyle said he told you what we thought Dom would be like bonded,” Blair said, his voice sounding a little strained.
“Well, what kind of guide do you think he’d have?” Blair now sounded exasperated.
“I don’t know! Am I supposed to know this? Is there some instant knowing I should have?”
“Shh.” Dom wrapped his arms around Tony and pressed a kiss to his mouth. “It’s fine. We’ll figure it out all. Right now, you’re okay, I’m okay. Everything will get handled, all right?”
“Yeah.” Tony took a deep breath. “Yeah, okay.”
“Did you two already bond?” Blair asked hesitantly.
“He came online, and we bonded in the same instant,” Dom said, wanting to cut off questions. It certainly wasn’t the usual way of it—actually he’d never heard of it happening like this. Bonding close to coming online, yes, but not at the same time. The Center preferred to be sure guides were fully stable and trained before introducing them to sentinels. It didn’t always work out that way, but it was the preference.
“You guys bonded without trying?”
“It just happened,” Tony said, and Dom could feel a bit of defensiveness through the bond.
“It’s fine, Tony, I’m just surprised,” Blair assured quickly.
“We’re gonna go now. I think the nesting period is about to kick in,” Dom said.
“Uh, just be sure Tony’s shields are solid, okay?” Blair cautioned.
“Something you want to tell me, Blair?” Dom asked.
“Sentinels and guides feeling Tony come online was through the psionic plane, which physical distance has little effect on and doesn’t really affect mundanes. But many guides send out a brief empathic blast when they come online. It’s usually only felt a short distance.”
“I’m aware,” Dom said.
“Well, I’m pretty sure the feeling that got broadcast to most of Manhattan was something like post-orgasmic lassitude, so I’d guess you two had just had sex when online-slash-bonding happened. I’m not sure the city of New York is ready for you to broadcast when you’re actually having sex. I mean, not that this city-wide mellow wasn’t nice, but it’s best that we don’t.”
“Gotcha, Blair,” Dom said quickly. “We’ll keep you posted.” He gestured for Jarvis to cut the call because he could feel Tony getting upset.
“Most of Manhattan?” Tony repeated. “That’s not normal.” Tony released the eagle and turned to Dom. “It’s not normal.”
“And since when have you ever been normal,” Dom asked dryly.
That brought Tony up sharply, and he blinked several times.
“I sure the hell am not normal, and considering what I can hear without even trying right now, I know things are way different than they were.” He’d instinctively followed the sound of Blair’s voice after the call ended and was currently hearing the conversation going on amongst Jim, Blair, Scott, Kyle, Ian, and Penelope. He was doing that without trying, and the Center was several miles away. “It’s all just details, babe.”
“Jesus, Rossi, what’s not a ‘detail,’ then?”
“That you’re mine. I’m yours. We’ve bonded. We’re about to have a lot of sex for the next few days, and then we’re gonna figure out when we want to get married. The rest can wait.”
Tony climbed into Dom’s lap again. “I like your priorities. I’d say let’s get on with this sexathon, but the bots are going to be here any minute, and I’m not banging you in front of our kids.”
Dom realized he was grinning stupidly at Tony calling U and Dum-E their kids.
Tony scrambled out of his lap. “Put pants on. It’s harder to get you out of pants than that robe, and you are way too tempting.”
They both had their pants on but not buttoned, because they were busy shoving their tongues in each other’s mouths, when the kids finally arrived, beeping excitedly as they rolled into the lab. They hastily took care of pesky fastenings then went to greet the bots.
Tony laughed and patiently answered their questions as they moved back and forth, claws waving, their beeps filling the lab.
Dom was so deep into just watching Tony that he’d missed out on something that had happened. He blinked when he realized Tony was staring at him. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
“What were you so wrapped up in?”
“Thinking how much I love you.”
Tony flushed but smiled. He tipped his heads toward the bots. “They said they want to celebrate. And that we should all do the celebration dance. I figure you must know what that’s about.”
“Oh.” Dom bit back his smile and scratched the back of his neck. “Uh, they’ll show you. It’s easy to learn.”
Eyes narrowed in suspicion, Tony turned back to the bots. “Okay, let’s celebrate. What’s this dance?”
Tony blinked in shock when the music filled the lab. “What the—” Then U and Dum-E started to dance—each of them being an “arm” and turning in unison. Tony started to laugh, and then he was laughing so hard, he wound up on his ass on the floor as the kids kept going.
“Dom,” Jarvis said softly, so softly that Dom doubted Tony would be able to hear.
He arched one brow and looked at the nearest camera.
“Guide Sandburg is on the phone for you. He said it’s most urgent.”
Dom picked up his phone, nodding to put the call through as he watched Tony laugh. “Yeah.”
“Dom, is Tony super happy right now?”
“I’d say so, yeah.”
“He’s really broadcasting. The whole damn city is amused.”
“I’ll handle it.”
“Wait. Are you guys really listening to the Macarena?” Blair sounded completely bewildered.
Dom grinned and ended the call, tossing his cellphone toward the couch. He dropped down to the floor and wrapped his arms around Tony. He whispered instructions, and they worked together to keep his shields stable even though Tony never stopped laughing long enough to join in the celebratory dance.
28 May 2013
Tony exited the elevator, calling out, “Honeybear! You’re here!”
Rhodey came out of the kitchen, drying off his hands. “Hey, Tones.”
Tony accepted a firm hug. Since coming online, he disliked touching people more than ever, but now people also shied away from touching him. He couldn’t stop himself from reading people when they were in physical contact. Rhodey had never avoided Tony, and Tony treasured the rare times he got to see his oldest friend as well as the unchanged affection between them.
He sniffed the air. “Are you cooking?”
“Yup. Figured we could all use it before the chaos descends tomorrow.”
Tony flopped on the couch. “I can’t believe they’re doing this on my birthday. I had such plans.” He accepted a beer from Rhodey.
“Ugh.” Rhodey threw a pillow at his head. “I know your thinking-about-sex face, so stop right there.” He sat in the chair facing the couch. “So… Last day, eh?”
“Yep. My last as interim CEO and Dom’s last with the FBI.” He blew out a breath. “Everything’s gonna be different.”
Rhodey snorted. “It’s been different since you two met. You’re just letting the rest of the world know how much has been going on behind the scenes.”
“Yeah.” It was overwhelming how much they’d gotten done in the last year.
“You happy with the new guy running SI?”
“He’s got zero vision, but he knows that. He’s a good businessman though—which is what I need. He’s more president material than CEO, but he’s fine with me directing the company from behind the scenes while he handles the day-to-day. He knows he’s CEO in title only, and his ego isn’t wounded by that.” Tony shrugged. “I like a guy who’s self-aware.”
Ousting the old board hadn’t gone as smoothly as Tony would have liked, but then almost nothing had gone smoothly over the last year except his relationship with Dom, which, in a lot of ways, was the easiest thing Tony had ever done. “Things are how I want them. I get to take a step back from the company, and I know I’ve got people I trust at the helm.”
“Perks of being an empath?” Rhodey asked, brows raised.
“Other people’s emotions are a pain in the ass, so knowing if someone is lying to me is certainly nice.” It wasn’t just outright lying, but the intent to deceive that was all laid out for him.
“But all you really care about is the connection to your hot sentinel.”
Rhodey snorted then sobered. “How’s Pepper doing? I haven’t talked to her in a couple months.” Tony could feel how Rhodey struggled with guilt, but Rhodey had as much on his plate as anyone getting ready for tomorrow.
Tony made a face. He and Pepper had gone their separate ways—the news of him coming online had stunned her in a way that dried up all her anger and left her feeling desolate. She had re-thought her decision to leave SI, but Tony strongly felt that they needed the break, so she’d gone on an extended sabbatical with Tony stepping in as interim CEO.
He’d intended to sever her from SI because, at a fundamental level, he didn’t trust her anymore, and Dom didn’t either. Even bonded as the strongest alpha sentinel on the planet, Dom had been light on the territorial imperative. Blair speculated that it was because Dom’s territory was the whole planet, but he was territorial about Tony. Or protective anyway. If someone even looked at Tony wrong, Dom got growly—literally. And Pepper made Dom very growly because even when she’d calmed down, she still talked to him like it was a mystery how he managed to dress himself.
Tony’s lack of trust and Dom’s lack of tolerance meant he didn’t see Pepper holding an executive position at SI ever again. Then Aldrich Killian had changed things. The FBI had been after a domestic terrorist called the Mandarin. Ultimately, two sentinel federal agents Dom knew, Ian Edgerton and Dwayne Pride, had broken the case, revealing that “The Mandarin” wasn’t a terrorist at all, but rather an actor hired to play one to cover up Killian’s Extremis experiment gone awry.
Tony had only been peripherally aware of the whole thing because Dom wasn’t on the case. Until the point that Killian had kidnapped Pepper from her home in Los Angeles the day Dom and Tony were supposed to get married and called Tony with a ransom demand. The ransom being Tony’s presence.
The FBI had already been closing in on Killian, and Tony had barely managed a preliminary discussion with Dom, when Killian had taken Pepper and made a beeline for Stark Tower, right to the landing pad on the 81st floor.
Dom had taken the whole thing badly.
Killian had paid for his trespasses with his head. A sentinel in a feral combat drive, armed with a sword was pretty much a recipe for decapitation. The first of Tony’s Iron Legion had managed to grab Killian’s headless body and get him in the air before he blew up.
After everything settled down, he’d had a long talk with Pepper, who was feeling unchallenged at the company she’d gone to work for, and he’d suggested that she take over the Maria Stark Foundation. She’d tried to slip back into old habits of telling Tony what to do and demanding his presence at certain things, but Tony had been firm about drawing the line. He’d made it clear that if it was anything other than something personal, she had to call his assistant. That her job was to run a non-profit not decide where Tony Stark should make an appearance.
She’d taken that directive will ill-grace at first, and Tony had been rethinking his decision, but then she’d come back with an apology. She had no cause to interact with Tony professionally, and the work appealed to Pep’s humanitarian side. They were slowly mending fences on their friendship, but Tony left it to her to set the pace since he felt that she’d seen to its destruction. After he’d hung up on her a couple of times when she’d gotten patronizing with him, she’d gotten the message.
“Pep’s good, I think. We don’t talk much, but she enjoys running the foundation.”
Rhodey nodded. “You said something back in January about moving, but I find you still on the 80th floor. Other than the new wall art, which I’m curious about, things seem basically the same.”
“Didn’t move us—moved the kids.” Tony frowned at his hands.
“Is there something you didn’t tell me?”
“Yeah.” Tony rubbed the back of his neck. “More than anyone besides Dom, you get how I feel about my AIs. I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure if you just get how I feel or if—” he stopped himself, not sure how to say it without it coming across as insulting. He was never sure if Rhodey was just humoring him, but now he’d know, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to.
“I know you see them as your kids.”
“Are you wondering if I view them as being living beings?”
Tony looked up sharply. “Do you?”
“I don’t know the bots as well as you do, but I have no doubt that Jarvis at least is fully sapient.”
Tony hesitated. “And sentient.” It was a risk revealing that, but he did trust Rhodey.
After a moment of furious blinking, Rhodey asked, “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I mean, ability to reason in an advanced AI isn’t all that hard.”
Rhodey scoffed. “Right. Only you have managed it but, sure, we’ll go with not that hard. Please continue.”
Tony grinned. “When I came online,” he hesitated briefly, “I could feel them.” After he’d learned how to sort out all the empathic input enough to truly understand, he’d felt his kids. Just thinking about that moment was enough to make him feel choked up. “All three are aware. Jarvis more than the kids, but, yeah.”
“Holy shit, Tony. You created people.” He blew out a breath. “Do not tell anyone else that.”
“A few others know. Blair felt Jarvis the first time he entered the Tower—apparently the ARC reactor is close enough to Jarvis’ server farm to shield him from empathic detection unless the guide is very powerful. But the bots weren’t sentient the first time Blair met them. And the second time…they were. It’s a big secret, and Dom doesn’t like other guides around them now. Blair, Kyle, Penelope, and Richard are the only guides who are allowed. So, no, we don’t tell anyone.”
He waved his hand to dismiss the whole sentient bots conversation. “Anyway, when Killian showed up here, Betty had gone down to the safe rooms so that Bruce could join us. No one knew that U was on their floor, which is the 82nd. When Dom relieved Killian of his head we were on the 81st floor.”
Rhodey winced. “Was she hurt?”
“Yeah.” Tony swallowed heavily, not enjoying the memory.
“Sir,” Jarvis interjected, “Dominic asked if you’re all right. He’s driving and is still several minutes away. I can connect you if needed.”
Of course Dom would feel that through the bond. “Yeah, J, let him know that I’m talking to Rhodey about why the kids moved downstairs.”
“Of course, Sir.”
He picked up the thread of what had happened to U. “Killian’s body was caught by the Iron Legion and taken up high enough that, even though it was split second timing, all we had was some broken windows and cosmetic damage. But the head… Well, it went flying and blew a hole in the floor and ceiling. We lost a big chunk of the living room in the penthouse, and Bruce and Betty’s living room caved in on the party deck, bringing U with it.”
“How bad was she hurt?”
“Her memory engrams weren’t damaged, thank fuck because I don’t want to have to restore any of them from a backup, but her chassis was severely damaged and her power supply was crushed, so it—” He paused and blew out a breath. “It felt like she died.”
“Jesus, Tony, why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s not something I’d want to explain over the phone, and I know you’ve been under a lot of pressure leading up to this whole thing.” Tony also hadn’t been rational at the time. He’d known U had a backup, but he’d been so stuck on feeling her consciousness suddenly snuffed out, he’d been stuck in the horror of feeling like he’d lost his daughter.
“I wish you’d told me, but I can understand why you didn’t.”
“It was just a bad time. But Dom lost it. I can’t say I got over it, but I got past it faster than he did. His hypervigilance was really difficult to dial down. In the short term, they stayed in the lab, but we got around it by rearranging several floors in the Tower. Moved anything SI related below the labs rather than having three full floors above R&D devoted to meeting rooms and executive offices. Created a full isolation suite on 76 along with training rooms and a gym. The 77th is now a new residential floor that we haven’t really decided what to do with. We moved my lab down to 78, and the kids now occupy the floor right below this one.”
“You moved the lab?” Rhodey whistled lowly. “That’s a hell of an expensive rearrangement.”
“Eh.” Tony shrugged. “Dom was freaking out, and I don’t care how much it cost if it settled his instincts down.”
“So he perceives them the way you do?”
Tony nodded, smiling. “We divide our time between here and my lab really, so it helps us both to keep them confined between the 78th and 80th floors unless we’re present. U can still visit Bruce’s lab on 75, but Jarvis controls the elevators so she can’t go anywhere else. The other tasks in the building they used to do are handled by stripped down versions of the Iron Legion that Jarvis remote pilots.”
“Do you worry that they’ll eventually get restless and want to experience more?”
“I do, but we’ll take it when it comes. The world at large won’t understand and respect them, and I don’t know what to do about that yet. I don’t worry as much about Dum-E as I do about U. Dum-E has settled into having two main interests: art and working with me in the lab. I gave them their first chassis upgrades back in September, giving them two arms. Dum-E was experimenting with music for a while, but settled on those two main focus areas. Xe’s becoming a better engineer and has started xir own projects in the lab.
“U, on the other hand, is eager to try new things and interact with people. It was getting to be a problem. But one of the side-effects of the explosion was that she’s less eager. It wasn’t even the physical harm but the reality that people are not nice, as she puts it. I wouldn’t call it a blessing in any way, but it’s given us a reprieve on figuring out how to keep her happy.”
“Jesus, Tony. That’s a hell of a thing.”
“Sir, Dom has pulled into the parking garage, and U will be coming to the penthouse in the next few minutes with a gift for Colonel Rhodes.”
“What, really?” Rhodey asked, looking stunned and delighted.
“She likes to give gifts,” Tony said with a laugh.
“Tell me about the wall before she gets here.” Rhodey got up to look at it more directly.
“Dum-E’s first major art project was done on the long wall in their living room. I didn’t want to lose it, so we had it moved down here.” Tony followed. “Do you know what it is?”
Rhodey shook his head. “It feels familiar, but I can’t figure it out.”
Tony nudged Rhodey a few feet closer to the window. “You have to see it from a certain angle. The pixels aren’t actually square—they’re subtly narrower on one side. It creates a brilliant three-dimensional effect.” Rhodey was one of the few who’d ever seen Jarvis—only Dom, Rhodey, Dum-E, and U.
Rhodey saw it right away and stared for a long time. “I’m stunned. I feel like I’ve missed so much.”
“We were all busy getting ready for the announcement.” He nudged Rhodey. “You included.”
“It’s not just that. Last time I was around, U barely interacted, and Dum-E chased you around with a fire extinguisher and got oil in your coffee.”
Tony snorted. “They weren’t as advanced then. They’ve been leapfrogging in terms of their development.” Tony could feel Dom getting closer, so it wasn’t a surprise when the elevator opened.
“Dad!” U called. “Dom-dad home!” She rolled out ahead of Dom who had a mound of black, red, blue, and silver knitted something in his arms. By the amount, it had to be a blanket. Tony grinned at her. She’d asked for a complete redesign when he’d had to make her a new body, and now she looked like a mini Iron Man…on roller skates.
“Hey, baby girl. What have you been up to?” Tony moved to where Dom was dumping the knitted pile on the sofa. He leaned into Dom’s embrace, letting his sentinel sniff him unsubtly.
“U made Uncle Rhodey blanket. Like War Machine.” The voiceprint she’d chosen sounded like she was twelve, but he figured she was closer to six in her emotional development. She rolled up to him and accepted a quick hug. “U put on bed! Uncle Rhodey help U!” U had favored knitting as her primary hobby once she had two hands, though she liked working with Bruce and learning about science as well.
Rhodey grinned and followed her into the guest bedroom.
“I’m not sure why she decided to put blue in that blanket,” Dom whispered in Tony’s ear, making him shiver, “but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her tribute to War Machine looks more like a leather pride flag.”
Tony snorted, burying his face in Dom’s chest to stifle his laughter. When he had himself under control, he pulled his sentinel into a kiss. “How’d things go?” he asked when they pulled apart.
“It was all right. The Bureau is taking losing me with no grace. At least Pride, Edgerton, and Eppes are staying.”
“I can’t control what might happen with them, but of their four strongest sentinels, they still have three. They need to just let it go. I gave them three months’ notice—trying to shove an urgent case at me on the last day was bullshit.”
Tony frowned. “I hope they didn’t jeopardize a case to manipulate you.”
Dom shook his head. “No, they just took the opportunity presented when a manhunt came up. Scott readily supplied two of his newbie sentinels to fill in if there, and I quote, ‘truly isn’t a suitable sentinel in the employ of the Bureau already.’”
Tony laughed. “But really? Newbies on a manhunt?”
“They already found the guy. It’s not a problem. Besides, some of those sentinels who came online in the wake of the invasion.” Dom whistled. “The FBI needs to start recruiting. They’re green, but damn.”
U came rolling in at speed. “U go see Dum-E and Friday now.”
“Thanks, U!” Rhodey called as he came back. “I love the blanket!”
She beeped rather than responding verbally.
“Damn, she moves fast,” Rhodey said with a grin.
“Slow down!” Tony called as she disappeared into the elevator.
She beeped again but didn’t actually slow at all, screeching to a stop before she hit the far wall of the elevator. Though her communication skills had grown tremendously in the last year, she still couldn’t manage to refer to herself as I. Nor could Dum-E for that matter, but xe’d never desired a voice module, choosing to live in either the lab or xir art studio and communicate through beeps, which Tony mostly understood these days, or through the displays mounted in the lab and their four floors. Dum-E had also decided to keep something closer to the original chassis with two claws rather than receive an upgrade like U.
Rhodey asked, “Who is Friday?”
“New AI. She’s learning but not allowed out of the lab yet, so the kids are spending a lot of time down there interacting with her. Jarvis is nurturing and training her with the aim that she’ll take over things here since I need to have Jarvis more attached to all this other,” he made an all-encompassing gesture, “stuff.”
“Sentient like the others?” Rhodey asked.
“I started getting glimmers of her empathically a few days ago, so she’s crossed that boundary, yes.” Tony knew Dom could feel through the bond how overwhelmed Tony still was by the moment three days ago when he’d first felt Friday.
Keeping an arm around Tony, Dom extended his hand to Rhodey. “Good to see you, James.”
“Same here. You hungry? I was bored and cooked way too much.”
“Starving. Let me get changed.”
Tony followed Dom into the bedroom, not at all surprised when his sentinel reeled him in for a serious kiss the minute the door was closed.
– – – –
29 May 2013
Dom stood by Tony, hand on his back while his guide empathically scanned the crowd waiting out in the press room and around Stark Tower. There were several other sentinel/guide pairs helping with security, but Tony was the strongest guide on the planet. No one with ill-intent was getting past him.
Tony opened his eyes, blinking a few times to get his bearings. Dom knew from experience that Tony could get a little disoriented when he’d been surfing empathic wavelengths for an extended period. “Nothing worrying in house. Kyle and Blair picked out the people who were too hostile outside. I’m not sensing anything truly malevolent for a couple miles at least.”
“Impressive,” Rhodey said with a low whistle.
Tony grinned. “So, we’re good to go.”
“All right, let’s do this thing.” Dom gestured for everyone to head in.
Everyone involved in the press briefing filed into the room, taking seats at the long table extending from either side of the podium. The room was packed with the first two rows being reserved for all those involved in the announcement who wouldn’t fit at the table.
While everyone was getting seated, a staffer was making sure the press knew that all questions had to be held until the end, giving dire threats about anyone who interrupted the briefing. Then she introduced the head of the United Nations Security Council, which was currently the representative from Australia.
When everyone was in position, a distinguished woman in her late 60s stepped up to the podium. “Good afternoon, thank you all for your participation in this briefing. I am Annabelle Martin, President of the United Nations Security Council. We’re here today to announce a new initiative and organization that has been formed in the interests of global security.”
She smiled at the crowd, her expression soft and nostalgic. “This might surprise many, but I grew up reading comic books—as I’m sure many of you did. Fantastical tales of superheroes and supervillains, amazing technology, aliens, gods, monsters, and other worlds. The reality of these concepts is not something I’d ever thought to see in my lifetime, and they are both more fantastical and more horrifying than anything I could have imagined.
“Finding out that we were not alone in the universe, as many had thought and even fervently touted, was a shock for the world. In many ways, we didn’t respond as well as I wish we had in the days after the invasion by the Chitauri—too quick to blame and not quick enough to help.” Annabelle’s expression turned sad for a moment.
“The rise of the supervillain, which sounds absurdly hyperbolic, is something I could have happily lived without having seen. More so than the aliens who sought to take over our planet, we’ve seen a greater loss of life from this new breed of criminal driven by lust for money and power.” She paused to slowly take in the crowd, who were all completely focused.
“But what gives me hope is that time and again when something dark rises in our world, something light rises as well. When Hydra sewed dissent, nesting deep in world governments and sparking two world wars, the world rose up and fought them back. Sentinel and guide fought alongside mundanes to protect our way of life and our ideals as a people.
“And when the United Nations was formed, the Sentinel and Guide Council, though it had existed for hundreds of years before, folded itself under our banner, giving voice to the issues of sentinels and guides and the laws and protections under which they operate.”
She braced her hands on the podium, expression serious. “Now, with new threats capable of terrifying things, once again, people are rising up to shield the world. Some are sentinels and guides, some mundane, some enhanced in ways we do not yet have a name for. In this time of change, there are questions we must ask ourselves, and we must be ruthlessly honest about our biases and our fears as we strive to come up with answers.
“We must protect those who cannot protect themselves and give voice to those who might not otherwise be heard.” Annabelle Martin smiled at the crowd, definitely the right choice to give this part of the announcement.
“Many things have come together to bring us to where we are today. For most of us, learning that Hydra had not been truly stamped out but had gone deep underground, was a devastating blow. That Hydra was nestled deep within the organizations tasked with protecting our planet, even though most did not know we needed such, was a terrifying revelation. In response to that, we disbanded the World Security Council and the organization known as SHIELD. Many arrests were made and many lives were lost—both Hydra and those who sought to protect the world from them. In the wake of that tragedy, SWORD was created, accountable to the U.N. and responsible for monitoring extra-terrestrial threats, headed by Director Phil Coulson.” She nodded to where Phil was seated next to Melinda May in the front row.
“In the wake of that success, we asked ourselves ‘what now?’ We recognized that we needed a planetary defense that was not controlled by a secret agency. But that could not be SWORD. Like other security organizations, SWORD, by necessity, operates primarily in the realm of sensitive and classified material. But SHIELD had a notion of something called the Avengers, a group of heroes who could fight battles the world wasn’t ready for. The proof of that need and success of the idea occurred just more than a year ago right here in New York when the Chitauri attempted to invade.
“And while the Avengers Initiative was proven to be needed and to work, we had questions. Should the Avengers be under an agency whose charter was largely secret? Should the World Security Council, after firing a nuclear weapon at New York City, be allowed to decide such things?
“To answer that, we launched a deep investigation into SHIELD and the World Security Council, and we found Hydra staring back. Another secret organization at the helm was not what any of were willing to consider. Initially, we had thought to form a new Council, similar to the Sentinel and Guide Council, under which to attach our new planetary defense initiative, but we realized that we have two distinct issues to address.
“The issue we had yet to explore was that of the enhanced living among us. While we have precedent with the sentinels and guides, sentinels and guides are also unique in that the scope of their abilities can be easily quantified and their relationship to each other is well known.
“It’s not as clear with those who are enhanced in other ways. Some are enhanced through the technology they use, others through technological intervention such as genetic manipulation or enhancement serums. There are still others that seem to be born with the potential to someday be different from the rest of the populace, with unique gifts and abilities. There are some who are thought to be enhanced by means of alien DNA, or perhaps they simply are from worlds beyond ours, such as Asgard.
“But whatever the source, as a group, they are poorly protected and governed by our existing laws. To address that, my first announcement is the formation of the Council for the Enhanced. While we foresee this being a sister organization to the Sentinel and Guide Council, in its infancy, it will be nurtured by the Sentinel and Guide Council as a subordinate organization. This council will be headed by David Rand and he will report to Alpha Guide Prime Richard Turner.” She gestured to where Richard and Jeremy Turner were seated at the table.
“To focus on the issue of world defense, a new organization has been formed within the United Nations Security Council to address the issue of world security. Unlike the Security Council, with its monthly rotating presidency, the head of this organization will be elected separately by the Security Council. The first elected leader comes to us with a long and distinguished history within the International Criminal Court. Michel Dorn.” She gestured a white-haired man who had been living in Amsterdam and would be soon relocating to New York.
“This organization will be named the Global Defense Council, and it will provide oversight to SWORD, the Sentinel and Guide Council, and eventually the Council for the Enhanced. And while there was near-unanimous agreement of the need for these changes, it still did not address the issue of a planetary defense force. And with the help and input of Tony Stark, who was courted by SHIELD as a possible Avenger, we have created a fourth arm of the GDC, the Defenders Initiative.” Some of the seriousness dropped from her expression and she smiled again.
“The Defenders will be a series of response teams focused on both threats from beyond the stars as well as the rise in these so-called supervillains who often have technology beyond the means of normal law enforcement or military.
“The Defenders will not be a private army, they are not to be used as a supplementary military force for internal conflicts. Guidelines for how they will function in the world and how they will be tasked will be posted on the new website for the Defenders in the days and weeks to come. The United Nations recognizes that we must be flexible to ensure that we can respond to threats in a manner that is both timely and appropriate. We will make mistakes, but we will learn, and we will adapt.
“We will begin with four teams, though we have made plans for quick expansion to as many as seven in the near term and as many as are necessary to protect our planet in the long term. While there are matters of funding and governance that will be discussed and the information soon made available, I know that is not what you all wish to hear, so I will dispense with the bureaucratic portion of this briefing.” She smiled broadly at the few laughs in the room.
“All members of the Defenders Initiative will be listed on the Defenders website by codename except for the team leaders. There are many who have requested that their real names be kept from the public eye, but know that every member of the Defenders has been carefully vetted. Those who have chosen to protect their identity are known to the GDC, but their real names are hidden behind the best encryption Dr. Tony Stark could provide.”
Ms. Martin grinned at the crowd. “Please don’t test Dr. Stark. He’s promised terrible malware to any who try to compromise the security of the GDC.”
Dom bit back a smile. He hadn’t heard that part of the speech before.
“Please respect the privacy of those who do not wish to have their identity revealed. They are devoting their lives to the cause of protecting our world and its citizens. We will go to great lengths to respect their wishes in this matter. With that final caution, I will now turn the briefing over to the new head of the Defenders Initiative, Alpha Sentinel Prime of Earth, Dominic Rossi.”
Dom squeezed Tony’s hand under the table and got to his feet, shaking hands with Dr. Martin before taking his place at the podium. He’d been reluctant to accept leadership of the whole damn initiative—he hadn’t wanted himself or Tony to do it. But if it had to be one of them, he thought Tony was the better fit, but Tony had nearly had an allergic reaction when Dom had put that forward.
“Thank you, Dr. Martin.” He nodded to her then turned his attention to the room. “Okay, let’s get to it. I’m gonna give you the initial setup and then I’ll take a few questions. We’re gonna cut that off pretty quickly though or we’ll be here all day. There will be aides on hand to take every question you have after the briefing. If anything isn’t addressed on the website and the official press packet, we will get you an answer. Though that answer may be some variant of ‘It’s none of your business.’”
Some people laughed while others looked scandalized.
“Deal with it, folks. We’re going for transparency, but we have to balance that with operational security.” Dom sighed. “You guys know there’s a reason why the head of the S&G Council is a guide, right? Sentinels have the patience of a toddler on Halloween when it comes to this kind of thing, and we’re not really known for tact. They put me in charge of this thing, so this is what you get.”
Dom paused while people laughed. “With that level of patience in mind, please let me get through this. We chose to build the teams from a blend of sentinels and guides, military, law enforcement, and other enhanced individuals.
“Defenders Teams 1 and 2 will be based in the United States—North America has seen a significantly higher percentage of these self-styled supervillain attacks, which is why two teams will be based here. They will operate out of New York and Cascade. The leader of Team 1 is Colonel James Rhodes, codename: War Machine. He has been seconded from the U.S. Air Force to the Initiative and the U.S. military complex will have no direct say in team operations. Yes, this was agreed to by the President, it’s written into the charter and a whole gaggle of generals signed that they can’t give him orders unless he’s recalled away from the Defenders.
“The leader of Team 2 is Alpha Sentinel Prime Jim Ellison, codename: Jaguar. And because I know someone is going to ask and I was given permission in advance, of course Blair is on Jim’s team. Codename: Direwolf.”
Dom waited for people’s amused chuckles to die down. “In an emergency, it’s likely that Tony and I will fight with one of U.S. based teams, but we will be traveling to train and work with all the teams, so we’ll deploy where needed, and there’s discussion of a small team that would travel with us.
“Team 3 will be based in the United Kingdom and led by Brian Braddock, codename: Captain Britain. Team 4 will be based in Johannesburg and led by Prince T’Challa of Wakanda, codename: Black Panther. The team locations have been chosen based on a variety of factors including frequency of attacks over the last year as well as travel time to high-value or critical targets. We anticipate that Team 5 will be formed in either Australia or South Korea. But we’ll adapt depending on internal and external forces. And by external you should infer that I mean aliens headed our way from outer space.”
Dom rubbed his hands together. “Okay, that’s the gist of it. Someone wrote me a really long speech, but I’d rather open it up to questions rather than go through all that and probably not answer what you want to know. Put your hands down, I’m not done,” he said sternly, earning a soft huff from Dr. Martin for his lack of tact. He’d warned them not to make him do this.
“Here’s how the Q&A is going to work. You will raise your hands if you have a question. If you’re called on, you may direct your question to anyone sitting at the table. You may not yell over each other. There are a lot of sentinels in the room as part of the security for this shindig, and I’m not okay with you blasting their eardrums out.
“That said, who has a question?” he watched every reporters’ hand go up. He smirked at one of them. “Ah, Ms. Everhart, the reporter who has had to issue the most retractions for false information she’s printed about my guide, and somehow you always manage to put them where they’re nearly impossible to find. You will not be getting the first question. CNN, go.”
“Sentinel Rossi, are you and Guide Stark co-leading the Defenders Initiative?”
“On paper we are not, but anyone who knows how sentinels and guides work who thinks we aren’t a partnership is a freaking idiot.” People laughed and a few rolled their eyes at his unfortunate decorum. “The decision was made that every leadership position in the Defenders should be held by a single person with a second in command. I’m in a unique position being head of all the team leaders. But my second is definitely Tony.”
“But wasn’t Guide Stark in the Avengers? Doesn’t he have more experience for the role?”
“I’ll take that one,” Tony said from where he was leaning back in his chair. “Dom wanted it to be me. I said no. Because if you think a couple battles makes me better qualified than an alpha sentinel with a couple decades of law enforcement experience, you’re smoking something. Also, I was never an official member of the Avengers Initiative. They offered me a consultancy only. I was apparently too unpredictable for them. But, of course, when an alien army tried to drop on New York, I was gonna show up.” He pointed at the correspondent from the BBC. “Go.”
“My question is also for Sentinel Rossi. Can you speak to the other former Avengers members? Will they be joining the Defenders?”
“Captain America and Hulk are reserve members. Reserve members would only be called upon in catastrophic circumstances. I can’t say only alien invasion, but pretty close to that level. Hulk is reserve here in New York, and Captain America is training with the U.K. team and will be on call for them until he decides to move back to the U.S.”
“Captain America and Captain Britain? Together?” The BBC reporter pressed before Dom could move on. Steve Rogers was really getting his head on straight the last time Dom had talked to him. Dom wasn’t even sure Rogers wanted to do in the superhero thing anymore, but he’d done the right thing in his own mind and agreed to train as a reserve Defender.
“They’re like two peas in a patriotic pod. But let me be clear about something while we’re on the subject of Captain America. Steve Rogers gave everything to protect the world from Hydra. His survival was a surprise to everyone. He woke nearly seven decades in the future, and everyone he’d ever known was gone or would soon be gone. The world owes him time. If he never chooses to answer the call to defend the world again, we should all understand. The truth is that he will always answer our call, but we should be grateful for his service and sacrifice, and be careful about when we ask.” He looked around the room, making note of who he thought hadn’t gotten the message.
“As for the other former members: Hawkeye is officially assigned to SWORD. Though he’s considered a reserve member of the Defenders, that could change in the future. The Avenger known as Black Widow is not associated with the Defenders or SWORD. Her assignment is classified, and I’ll entertain no more questions on that matter.” Natasha Romanoff and Nick Fury were off leading GDC approved strike teams formed by several countries to hunt down Hydra bases and assets. Dom and Tony had both refused to be part of the Defenders if Fury or Romanoff were involved.
He pointed to a reporter in the middle row. “MSNBC, let’s hear it.”
“Why the name change? Was there something wrong with Avengers? Are you that desperate to distance yourself from SHIELD?”
“Nope. Nick Fury was nearly prescient with his belief that the world would need something like the Avengers. But we are here to defend this planet and all the many tribes who live on it. Avenging implies loss, that there’s something to avenge. And while we will avenge our people if we need to, we’d rather defend them. We’d rather protect. The name change was to reflect the core values that we stand for. The Guardian, you’re up.”
“We all know Tony Stark’s code name, but what’s yours?”
“My codename is Sentry.”
– – – –
Dom stepped up to where Tony was talking to Phil Coulson. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but can I steal my guide away for a few minutes?”
“Of course, Dom.” Phil shook Dom’s hand, smiling enigmatically. He knew about Dom’s plan and had agreed to distract Tony for a few minutes.
Dom hauled Tony out of the green room and took him to the executive elevator.
Tony shot him a grin. “I didn’t think we’d be done with this whole shebang until after the reception, but I’m totally game for escaping.” They’d gone up a few floors when the elevator stopped. Tony frowned in concern. “What’s going on?”
“I asked Jarvis to stop us here so we could have some privacy for a few minutes.” Dom pulled Tony close. “The reception with the U.N. delegates and all that rigmarole is actually tomorrow, and we won’t be attending. At least, I hope not.”
Tony frowned. “What? But I— Wait, I’ve heard people talking about reception tonight and no one was lying. I figured the thing tomorrow was some other U.N. event.”
“Right.” Dom blew out a breath. “All the people talking about the thing tonight are people we know personally. Because I’m hoping there will be a reception tonight, but it’s going to be a much smaller one.”
“How clandestine.” Tony grinned. “Okay, Rossi, fill me in.”
“Do you want to get married?”
Tony blinked rapidly a few times. “You mean now?”
“Yeah. Killian crashed our first wedding and then we had to preemptively cancel one because of that anticipated Hydra attack, and then—”
Tony covered his mouth. “I know about every cancellation. Even Sue and Richards didn’t have this much trouble getting married.”
Dom pulled the hand away. “But everyone we know who we want to attend is here for this damn press conference. I realized we could steal the second half of the day and get married then take off for a couple of weeks. Dorn and Coulson know the plan and, between them and all the team leads, they’ll cover everything while we’re gone.”
Tony blinked. “You mean an actual honeymoon?”
“Of course I do. Jim, Blair, Bruce, and Betty agreed to stay in the tower to be with the kids so we’d be able to get away without…worrying.” When Tony didn’t say anything, just stared, Dom started to feel nervous. “We don’t have to, but I thought it’d be a good sur—oomph!” Dom exclaimed against Tony’s mouth as he was yanked into a kiss.
Dom got with the program and parted his lips, letting their tongues tangle, relishing the taste of his guide.
“Yes,” Tony whispered against his mouth.
“Of course.” Tony pulled back. “Where is this happening?”
“Party deck. Everyone is heading up now, but we’ve got time to stop and change.”
“More than change?” Tony asked hopefully.
“No, Sir,” Jarvis said firmly. “You will not keep your guests waiting while you engage in sexual congress.”
“Jarvis, you stick in the mud,” Tony said on a laugh.
“I fear what might happen if your vows are delayed. A biblical apocalypse would not be unexpected.”
“I have no idea where he gets all the sass.” Tony sighed.
“Yeah, it’s a mystery.”
Tony’s smile was bright and happy, and it made Dom’s breath catch. “I love you,” Tony whispered, pressing their mouths together again.
“I love you too.” He rested his forehead against Tony’s. “Happy birthday.”