Demons Chapters 4-6

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Chapter Four

24 June 2012

“Marisol!” Dom hadn’t seen her at the food cart in months—since well before the Chitauri invasion. She was rather shy to begin with and didn’t enjoy manning the cart, but she’d been so busy cooking after the battle to keep the sentinels and guides fed that she’d been around even less than usual.

She smiled brightly at him, but hesitated about moving closer. She usually was happy enough to hug him. “Are you recovered well enough?”

Dom huffed a little and pulled her in for a hug. “I’m fine.” She was a tiny little thing, barely five-feet tall, and she had a good four inches on her mother. He pulled back and held her at arm’s length. “What brings you down? Not that you don’t brighten up the entire city with your presence.”

“You flirt.” She thwapped his chest lightly with the back of her hand. “Vivaan said he saw you this morning, so I assumed you were out of isolation and could do with some good food.”

“I can definitely do with your food. I finally dialed taste up yesterday, and those chicken sausages Vivaan kept for us were,” he kissed his fingers, “glorious.” They’d been passed on by Blair and Jim who were the first out of isolation.

She gave him a concerned once-over, no doubt noting all the small cuts that were almost healed. OSGs were not intended to be shrapnel or projectile grenades, but they still could lacerate the hell out of you if you were close when they went off. Dom’s proximity had been dangerous to that one grenade. It had resulted in a lot of small lacerations all over his neck, arms, and even a couple on his face. His arms took the worst of it as he’d instinctively shielded his head and neck.

“I have much more food for you,” she said with a grin.

“You are way too good to me.”

Marisol scoffed. She’d pushed food off on him before, always refusing to accept payment. Dom made a point to slip a hundred here and there into the tip jar. He knew they were doing fine with the food cart once they started feeding sentinels, but making food was their business. He wasn’t okay with taking it for free.

“I sniffed out something I need to deal with, but I’ll be right back to collect those culinary delights.” He leaned down and she kissed her cheek then winked at Vivaan, who was watching them with an indulgent smile. He lifted his brand-new phone to his ear. “You there?”

“Of course,” Jarvis said readily. “The subroutine that monitors for the use of my name or for you addressing me directly is working as per design.”

“Good. It’s a great time for that.”

“I see. Then I shall be monitoring actively.”

Dom jogged across the street and around the corner, to right where Nick Fury was standing, leaning against a brick wall. Natasha Romanoff was back a ways, in her official SHIELD uniform, arms crossed over her chest. Dom ignored her—he had zero use for Romanoff.

“So your nose has recovered, I take it?” Nick mused aloud.

“Doesn’t take advanced senses to sniff you out, Little Nicky. It’s been four days. Did you really think I hadn’t recovered?”

“Not many sentinels would have, given the situation.”

“Interesting. You shouldn’t know anything about that ‘situation.’ Much less whether or not I should be recovered.”

Fury smiled enigmatically. “I keep my eyes on certain things.”

“You mean you’ve hacked into the FBI. Noted. We’ll get right on that.” While the Bureau had all the specific details of what went on since it was in all the reports, they were not informed about the effects on the individual sentinels. That was considered confidential and kept within Center records. Even the Bureau didn’t know the specifics of his situation beyond the fact that he’d be out of the office for a week. That Fury knew to be waiting for him was an issue.

“The point is that not many unbonded sentinels would have recovered so quickly from that sort of stimulus.”

Dom laughed. “Don’t try to con me, Nick. I’ve known for years that you hacked my records from the Center. Which means you already know that I’ve always bounced back from sensory assaults faster than most bonded sentinels. So let’s stop playing stupid games and you tell me what you’re here for.”

Fury cocked his head. “I’ve wondered why you turned me down. The Avengers Initiative should have been alluring to you. I had no idea Stark was even more alluring. Did you think you couldn’t have both?”

Dom felt a deep well of rage, so sharp it was difficult not to punch Fury, but forced himself not to react. “Wow, Nicky. I’m not sure if you’re trying to prostitute Stark or not.”

Jaw clenching briefly, Fury smiled, but it looked fake. “Stark has done a good job of keeping his relationship with you off the radar. And with the sentinel lock on the battle zone, we missed a lot of your comings and goings from the tower. That was the big clue, I think. Plus, I’m starting to think Stark has made some extra suits…”

“You’ll have to ask him about his tech. It’s none of my business. Or yours.”

“Interesting. Seems like you’ve made him your business. Even once I became aware of your little liaison, I figured it was a fling. He had to be curious about being with a sentinel—most people are—but then he surprised me by spending three days with you in isolation. That you let him surprises me even more. Sentinels aren’t supposed to tolerate mundanes around them when they have issues.”

“Really? Tony spent three days with me?” He shot Fury a glare. “See, I know for a fact that you haven’t gotten inside the Center’s records or security system since your obnoxious hack a few years back. You have no idea where Tony was inside the building even though you might somehow know he was there. So, you’re guessing, thinking I’m going to confirm one way or another what Stark was up to. I mean, for all you know, the Center became aware of a possible serious breach in their security and had called in Stark to help make sure you couldn’t get in again.”

“And in three days of his ‘security work’ he never left the facility?” Fury smirked at him.

Tony had spent every minute Dom was in isolation with him, never leaving once until Dom was ready to be checked out to go through sensory testing. At that point, Tony had headed back to the tower in the very early hours of the morning. The only thing anyone outside of a very small handful of people knew was that Tony had spent three days at the Center—they couldn’t know it was all with Dom.

“How would you know he never left? You’re not staking out the Center, are you? Because they’re not going to put up with that.”

The smirk got bigger. “My hands are clean.” Fury wasn’t lying. Which meant he had an inside source somewhere or he was using selective truth to keep his scent pile from being a giveaway.

“It’s not my place to tell you stuff about Tony Stark. If you want information about who Tony spends time with or where he spends the night, I suggest you ask him.”

Fury laughed. “I appreciate your loyalty to Stark, but it’s misplaced. Do you think he’s eager to have your affair spread over the tabloids? What would he do to keep his latest little fling out of the eyes of the media? I’ll admit, they’ve been distracted, but Stark has been trying to clean up his act. Partly for the sake of the Avengers.”

“Blah blah blah. Is that all?”

“You should reconsider coming to work for me, helping get the Avengers off the ground. It’d certainly be easier to protect your privacy if you had a legitimate reason to be spending time with Stark.”

“I have a legitimate reason. It’s called dating.” Dom was trying to keep his anger under control. He was damn close to punching Fury.

“Just think it over, Sentinel. You can better protect Stark from within SHIELD, assuming that’s your aim and you’re not just curious about fucking the world’s favorite playboy.” Fury pushed away from the wall and Romanoff moved closer. “You know how to reach me. I’ll be waiting for your call.”

Dom watched them leave then went back across the street. The Manhattan S&G Center butted up against Central Park. There was a fenced-off portion of the park that was reserved for the Center and to provide a buffer zone for the sentinels and guides, but the front was a circular drive and courtyard very entrenched in a busy part of Manhattan.

He found Jim, Blair, Scott, and Kyle all waiting in the courtyard near Vivaan and Marisol’s food cart. There were also two new additions in the form of Ian and Penelope Edgerton. Penelope went right in for a hug, getting an eyeroll from Ian.

“I assume you guys caught all that?” Dom asked, looking around the group.

“Yeah. Well, Jim filled me in.” Blair looked unimpressed, which was always a dangerous thing where Blair was concerned. “I’m so done with…them.” He was obviously being vague considering that any sentinel could overhear. “Did he really just threaten to cause problems for your friend if you don’t join up?”

“More or less.” He accepted the hotdog Marisol brought over to him and promised to stop by the stand before he left to get whatever else she had for him. “It’s cute how his little bodyguard thought that noise generator she had was going to do anything to stop you guys from hearing.” SHIELD underestimating sentinels was no hardship for him.

“What are we going to do about them?” Jim nodded in the direction Fury and Romanoff had gone.

“I’m gonna run it by Tony and see what he wants to do. My guess is that Captain Eyepatch is doubling down on recruiting me because he thinks it will help him control Tony, which makes this more about him than anything related to the Center.”

“Fair,” Kyle agreed. “And since we’ve now had it confirmed that we were not breached since those yahoos did it the last time years ago, either they were behind the shit that went down or they were the source of the information getting out to someone else. Either option makes them suspect.”

“And we can’t figure out which yet.” Dom knew that they hadn’t had an opportunity to slip Jarvis into SHIELD’s system unobtrusively, and the backdoor Tony had created during the invasion had been closed. He looked to Edgerton. “I can’t say I’m totally surprised to see you, but hello, Ian. Thank you for bringing your better half. You’re always such a grouchy asshole when she’s not around.”

“Rossi,” Ian greeted laconically. “Figured since they set up that party with me in mind that I should get my butt up here and answer any future invites personally.”

“I love how bloodthirsty you are.”

Ian’s grin was toothy. “I’m headed to Vermont. Jim and Blair are going with. It’s been a few days but I want to get a sense of the scene. Pen is coming along out of necessity because OSGs take weeks to really fade, but then she’s going to be poking around, if you get my drift, to see what she can find.”

“I’ll ask Tony about letting our, uh, other helper connect with her directly.”

“Good enough.”

Dom shot Jim a look. “You sure you’re ready to be up there?”

“I was never as bad off as you and Scott. You guys had worked yourself to sensory exhaustion before I ever got involved. It was nasty, but I was out of isolation in two days. That you both needed a full extra day says a lot. I’ll be fine.”

“But,” Blair added, shooting Jim a hard look, “the plan is for us to not actually be in the woods. We’re going to stay by the road, listening in case Ian needs us.”

“Right,” Jim agreed. “What he said. ‘Cause I’m honestly not eager to smell that ever again.”

Penelope looked concerned. “I know it has to be bad because it sent three of the strongest sniffers in the country into sensory overload. You’re not risking a sensory flashback by going with us, are you?”

Jim shook his head. “No, the strobes were harder for me. I’m still struggling with flashes of light, to be honest.” Jim laughed. “I’m the only one of the three of us who hasn’t been cleared for field work.” He shot a mock-glare at Dom. “Not that it’s not annoying that you’re back in fighting form before I am.”

“Beauty before age, Ellison.”

“Asshole.” Jim took a swipe at him, shoving him toward the food cart. “Go get your food, and tell Tony we said hi.”

Dom waved. “I’ll keep you guys posted. Oh!” He snapped his fingers. “I forgot. Tony said he was sending presents over. He wouldn’t elaborate, but if you get a delivery from SI, it’s legit.”

Blair grinned. “Well, that should be interesting.”

Marisol passed off an entire bag of food to him, ignoring his protests, and said to say hi to his “beau.” Dom appreciated the discretion. He had a hunch she and Vivaan knew exactly who he was seeing, but both were very respectful of the privacy of everyone they met at the Center. They were the only food vendor allowed actually within the courtyard on the Center’s property.

Dom hailed a cab. The companies that picked up fares near the Center were good about how they cleaned their cars and used sentinel-safe odor neutralizers. Any that fell down on that were broadcast on a message board for sentinels and guides in or visiting New York so they’d knew which companies to avoid.

“Stark Tower,” he said absently as he pulled his phone out of his pocket. “You get all that?” he asked Jarvis.

“Yes. I admit to great concern.”

“It’s more annoying than concerning, I think. We got this, don’t worry so much. Just don’t play it until I get there.”

“I am relieved you did not plan to keep this from Sir.”

“I would never ask you to keep something like this from him. But I would prefer to be there to discuss it with him.”

“Thank you for not making my position…untenable.”

“If you’re ever feeling a conflict, I hope you’ll tell me. I know your duty to…him comes first but you also have privacy and security protocols with me, which could put you in a difficult position. So if that ever comes up, please let me know so we can resolve it.”

“The offer is appreciated, Dom.”

“I’ll see you soon.”

“No more than you are right now.”

“Smart ass.” Laughing, Dom shoved his phone back in his pocket.

– – – –

Dom impatiently tapped his foot as the elevator ascended to the residential level. He’d expected Tony to be in his lab, so was surprised when he’d heard that Tony was in the penthouse. He was determined to have dinner, sit, and talk, but he was also desperate for Tony.

Despite the closeness, the touching, and Dom being naked the whole time they were in insolation, sex had been pretty much off the table, which had been so frustrating. Anything that over stimulated any sense while he was “recovering” could cause any of his senses to start spiking—sex had a tendency to be very overstimulating on many fronts for sentinels with hyper-sensory issues. The biggest problem with it was that sentinels got so caught up in the pleasure that they failed to keep their senses under tight control.

The few times he’d struggled with sensory spikes, Dom had never had a problem beyond a day, but Tony had been adamant about observing the full three days the Center doctors had prescribed. Dom knew the other two pairs hadn’t been so diligent, but he’d found Tony’s insistence on following the doctor’s orders to be endearing.

The elevator doors had barely opened before Tony was on him, sealing their mouths together. Dom dropped the insulated bag he was carrying, wrapping his arms around his lover, relishing in the taste and smell of Tony. Having to keep his sense of taste dialed off for so much of the three days in isolation had been hell because Dom loved the way Tony tasted.

He slid his hands to the back of Tony’s thighs and lifted, encouraging Tony to wrap his legs around Dom’s waist. Eagerly getting with the program, Tony’s legs wound tightly around him. Dom walked to the couch, lowering Tony onto the sofa, pressing him into the cushions and grinding against him. His cock was already rock hard, the feel of Tony’s hard-on and the scent of his arousal making Dom insane with want.

Dom broke the kiss, nudging Tony’s chin up to suck a path down Tony’s throat.

“You okay?” Tony asked breathlessly.

“Perfect.” He nipped at Tony’s collarbone. “You taste so damn good.”

Tony groaned, arching up, rubbing their cocks together. “I want to fuck you so bad.”

Dom bit a little harder. “I’m not gonna last long.” He shoved Tony’s T-shirt up, closing his lips around one pebbled nipple. Tony had insanely sensitive nipples, but it had taken them some time for Tony to be completely comfortable with Dom being that close to the arc reactor. Once they’d crossed that hurdle, Tony could be very demanding about getting Dom’s mouth right where he wanted it.

He managed to get both of their jeans open and shoved down enough for their cocks to rub together. He immediately noticed the difference and froze. Tony was completely bare. “When did you…?”

“I had an appointment for it at the Center the day you got called out for your last case.”

“Tony…” Dom breathed into Tony’s neck. “You didn’t have to.”

“I know. And as much as you’re weirdly more attached to my facial hair than I am, I know the rest of it was sometimes not easy.” Body hair had made Tony fucking Dom a hit or miss proposition. Dom’s ass was absurdly sensitive and, when he was aroused, the brush of hair over his cheeks could be too acute a sensation.

Dom’s fingers tightened on Tony’s hips. Every time Tony made adjustments for Dom, he struggled not to tell Tony how he felt. How completely gone he was on him. But he knew Tony mentally saw their relationship as temporary no matter how many changes and adaptations he made for Dom.

He slid down Tony’s body, swallowing his cock to the root, earning a startled gasp followed by a moan. Tony’s hips stuttered, and he pushed into Dom’s mouth. Dom knew he wouldn’t last long; he was so consumed by Tony that he probably wouldn’t even need touch. He sucked strongly, relishing every reaction from his lover until Tony strained up and came down Dom’s throat.

He pulled away, bracing himself on one arm and palming his cock. One full stroke and he came on Tony’s belly and upper thighs.

Tony pulled Dom down into a kiss. “You came on me like a caveman,” he laughed against Dom’s mouth.

“I like it when you smell like me.”

“You were all over me for three days, I’m pretty sure I smelled like you already.”

“Now you’re extra.” Dom grinned, moving to wedge himself between the back of the couch and Tony, wrapping his arms around the other man. “I brought dinner.”

“Oh?”

“Marisol hooked us up.”

Tony sprang into action, wiggling out of Dom’s arms and kicking off his pants as he headed for the bedroom.

“I see where I rank!”

“I’m starving, Rossi!” Tony called from the bedroom. “But I refuse to have dinner with your cum all over me.” The sounds of the faucet and then cloth over skin was easily heard. Tony came back clothed in a silk robe, tossing a similar one to Dom as he made tracks toward the thermal bag by the elevator.

Laughing, Dom joined Tony in the kitchen and helped to unpack the food.

“I should have Dum-E take some down to Bruce. He’s been all wrapped up in an experiment, but I think he’s really angsting over Betty.”

“That would be Dr. Elizabeth Ross?”

“Mm hmm.”

“Sure, why not?” Dom helped get a container together then met Dum-E at the elevator to take down to Bruce. Dom had to take a minute to promise Dum-E that he’d be down in the lab later to say hi to both kids.

When he got back, Tony was halfway through some sausage and rice dish. He swallowed his bite of food. “I may have poked Brucie Bear too much.”

“Oh?” Dom dished up some of the same food.

“I asked him why he hasn’t gotten in touch with her. He’s been moody since.”

“If he’s not forced to hide from the government, seems like there’s no reason they can’t be together.”

“My point exactly.” Tony pointed his fork emphatically. “But I’ll let him stew on it for a while. When I get back from Japan, I’ll poke him again.”

“You leave the day after tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah.” Tony shot him a questioning look. “Blair called while you were en route. The plan had been for me to lay the groundwork with the U.N. members myself, bringing in the Council only if necessary, but apparently Jeremy and Richard Turner are going to meet me there.”

Dom nodded. “Whether directly or indirectly, the shit we went through on this last case was SHIELD’s fault. They either set this up, for what reason I don’t know, or they had a failure of security around the files they stole and caused it. Either way, the Council is taking this whole thing very personally.”

“And they want to…?”

“Be sure you get the cooperation you need. The plan was already in discussion, but Blair was going to talk to you about which way you wanted to swing this. If he called and told you, I gather the decision was made based on some stuff that happened right before I left. But you’re running the show as far as the Avengers go, Tony. You tell Jeremy and Richard what you need, they’re not going to take over.”

Tony frowned. “What happened?”

“Nick Fury was waiting for me when I left today.”

Jaw clenching, Tony set his fork down with a clatter. “What’d they do?”

“I asked Jarvis to record it. Do you want to risk ruining your dinner by listening to it now?”

“I have terrible impulse control, and not even Nick Fury could ruin Marisol’s food,” Tony deadpanned. “Play it, Jarvis.” Tony bit aggressively into a sausage hero as the slightly distorted audio began to play. Romanoff’s little gadget that was supposed to make it hard for sentinels to hear their conversation hadn’t impacted Jarvis’ recording much.

Tony became unnaturally still as he listened to the recording. When it was over he softly asked, “J, did Pepper call Nick Fury or anyone at SHIELD?”

Dom winced, hoping the answer was a resounding no.

After only a couple of seconds, Jarvis replied, “Two days ago at 9:42 AM, Ms. Potts called the number we have on file for Director Fury himself.”

“I see. That was the morning I texted her that I was going to be at the Center with you, and all my meetings had been cancelled.” Tony put his fork down very slowly. “Please get Ms. Potts on the line.”

“I can…” Dom wasn’t sure where he could go that he wouldn’t be able to hear, but he would try to give Tony privacy if he needed it.

Tony reached out and grabbed his hand. “Stay.”

A few seconds later, Potts’ voice came over the speaker. “Hello, Tony.”

“I’ll get right to it, Pepper. Did you discuss my relationship with Dom with anyone at SHIELD or Nick Fury?”

She sighed. “Tony—”

“Just answer the question, Pep! Did you talk about my relationship with someone working for a government agency?”

There was a long silence. “I didn’t— I hadn’t considered it in that light.” Dom could easily hear the vibrations in her voice that spoke to anxiety. “I was just concerned about you, Tony, please believe that.”

“SHIELD has done nothing but try to control me from the minute they put a spy in my company. And you felt the right way to handle your concern was to disclose my personal information?”

“Tony, please, you’re not looking at this properly. Nick Fury is trying to protect your interests, and—”

“No, he’s not!” Tony yelled. “He’s not, Pepper. He’s trying to strongarm me into being a member of his superhero boy band, and you gave him leverage to try to blackmail my lover. What the hell were you thinking?”

Another silence. “Tony, I swear I had no idea that he was going to do anything but talk to you.”

“Oh, so strong-arming me is so much better!”

“There wasn’t supposed to be any strong-arming!” she yelled. “Would you be reasonable?”

“I am being reasonable, Pepper. What’s not reasonable is you thinking that it was okay discuss my private business with a government agency, with a damn spy, and that I’m going to just be fine with it. That I’m going to see it as concern and not fucking betrayal.”

“I understand that you’re upset, Tony, and not thinking clearly. Perhaps we should talk later.”

“We should talk about it now! I want to know exactly what you said to Nick Fury.”

“I simply told him that I was concerned about your attachment to this sentinel. That I worried what would happen to you when the relationship ended. You were distracted and missing work! He apologized to me, Tony. Said he’s the one who put Rossi in your path, and that he never meant for this to happen.”

“Jesus, Pepper, it’s a relationship not a communicable disease! Dom was hurt and I was with him for a few days, of course I was fucking distracted. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“There is nothing wrong with me, Anthony Edward Stark.”

“Oh no, you are not pulling the disapproving tone with me. Not when you violated my privacy and my trust. As you already know, I have a trip to Japan in two days, but we will talk about it when I get back because I’m too damn furious to talk now. In the mean time, I would strongly caution you against discussing my private life with anyone again.”

“That sounds like a threat, Tony.”

“Does it need to be, Pepper? Do I need to make threats to get you to respect my right to privacy? Because if I do, I will certainly make sure I’m perfectly clear about exactly what I expect and what the consequences will be.”

The silence was even more drawn out. “There’s no need to say something you can’t take back, Tony. I’ll respect your privacy—of course I will. I clearly made a mistake and misinterpreted what Fury wanted. We can talk when you return.”

Tony made a slashing gesture and the call ended.

“Tony,” Dom began but halted when Tony held up a hand.

“Jarvis, get Rhodey on the line. When that call is over, please dial Happy.”

“Hey, Tones,” James Rhodes’ answered. “Wow. Pepper is calling me too. Should I stay on with you? Start a conference call?”

“Please ignore it and call her back.”

“Done. Now what’s up?”

Tony took a deep breath. “I’m just gonna be blunt because I can’t think of the last time I was this pissed.”

“Jesus, Tony, blunt is always fine. What happened?”

“Pepper decided that it was in my best interest for her to complain to SHIELD about my relationship with Dom Rossi. SHIELD used the information she gave them to attempt to coerce my lover to come work for them.”

“Oh.” That single exhalation, carried a world of shock. “Damn.”

“I consider this a violation of my privacy and my trust, and I’m just making it clear that—”

“Whoa, Tony, just stop. You know I worry about you getting attached to a sentinel of all damn things, but I have never violated your confidence. Even when you were being a fucking idiot, I never went to a damn government agency about you, and I never would. You don’t need to warn me because I’ll just assure you that it wouldn’t happen. I’ll definitely talk to Pepper and try to get her head screwed on straight though. Just cut her a little slack, yeah? She’s reeling from the breakup. I don’t know why she truly expected you to choose her over pretty much everything you are, but she did, and it’s thrown her for a loop that it didn’t work out that way.”

Tony stared at the island countertop. “Her belief when she entered the relationship that she could change me to suit her is not my responsibility.”

“I’m not saying it is, Tones. Don’t take it that way. I’m saying she’s been loyal to you for a long damn time, and even if she were furious, she wouldn’t betray you on purpose. Her head’s turned around, and I’ll do my damnedest to get her to see things clearly, but I’m not now or ever condoning what she did, okay? We’re cool. Just let me talk to her. Try to keep your head in the interim and don’t blow up and do something you’ll regret, all right?”

Tony’s expression and scent spoke to annoyance, but his words belied those. “Of course, sugar plum. I’ve got a hot sentinel to climb before I leave for Japan the day after tomorrow, so I’m gonna sign off.”

Rhodes huffed. “Overshare.”

“Since when?”

“Since grad school! Now, go climb your sentinel. Pepper’s already called me twice, so I’m going to call her now.”

“Later, tater.” Tony made the same gesture and the call ended.

Dom wanted to ask questions, but he waited for the next call, which was already connecting.

“Boss, you don’t have to say anything,” Hogan said immediately. “Ms. Potts already called and said she’d screwed up by talking to SHIELD about you and that I shouldn’t do the same no matter how worried I might be. But, honestly, I didn’t need to hear that because I would never.”

Tony chuckled, his scent pile matching his expression. “I hear ya, Hap. Just covering my bases. It’s not that I don’t trust you.”

“And I’m willingly reaffirming that I take my job as head of your security seriously but more than that, from a personal level, I’d never talk to anyone about you unless you gave me permission.”

“Thanks. I appreciate the reassurance. I’m sorry I had to ask.”

“Well, when someone you trusted messes with that, it bears checking on the others.”

“And not everyone would be so understanding, so I appreciate it even more.”

“I’ve got your back, boss. Always.”

Dom went to get Tony a bottle of tea while he finished up his conversation with Hogan. Tony had expressed that he’d been trying to drink less at times of emotional upset, so Dom tried to subtly support that by sticking other beverages in his path. Tony’s current beer bottle was almost empty anyway.

Tony ended the call and rubbed his hand over his face, looking tired and frustrated. “How could she do that?”

“She thought she knew what was best for you and for some reason thought caring about you warranted her violation of your privacy.”

Tony’s lips pressed into a thin line.

“You smelled irritated at one point when you were talking to Rhodes. You want to talk about it?”

After a few seconds, Tony said, “He sees some events in our shared past a little differently than I do. I already know that if he thinks I’m wrong when we have a difference of opinion that he would most definitely betray my trust.” Tony sighed and rubbed his temples. “That’s ancient history though and I hope he never feels backed into a corner like that again.”

“I don’t really understand.” Dom didn’t really agree with Tony’s conclusion, but he had to concede that he didn’t know the particulars.

“It’s not important. Look, I know I was a wild child and that it went way beyond childhood, but I’m sick of people acting like I can’t contain myself.”

“Ah. So it was the comment about keeping your head on that caused you to smell irritated?”

“Yes. I know people developed a certain impression of my impulsivity because I came out about Iron Man, but—”

“Why would they think that was impulsive? How else were you going to keep control of your own technology?”

Tony’s mouth fell open. “You figured that out?”

“Oh come on, really? That was painfully transparent. I know exactly how the government works when they want something. They wanted you to keep quiet so they could steal your patents and confiscate your hardware. The court of public opinion was literally all you had.”

“And why can’t my friends see that?”

“You have more friends than those three, Tony. Rhodes, Potts, and Hogan may be your inner circle and who you let close to you, but I’m sure others saw the press conference for what it was. As for why Potts or Rhodes don’t get it…I couldn’t say.”

“Well, to be fair, there is a pattern of behavior.”

“Partying never seemed to have an effect on your business decisions, and I’m not sure why they act like it has.”

“I missed board meetings,” Tony countered.

“So? I know all about how businesses run. The SI board is way more up in your business than they have any right to be. I’m sure it’s largely because you are the literal cash cow for the company, but they seem to have turned it around to make you think you’re accountable to them constantly rather than the reality that they’re desperately dependent on you.”

Tony stared, blinking rapidly.

“Sorry, that’s really none of my business. I just don’t get why you’re defending why those closest to you would think you needed to be treated like a child.”

“I always welcome your opinion, Dom, I just think you see me through rose-tinted glasses.”

Dom snorted. “Because I see you as a grown-up, with full agency and mad decision-making skills? How very idealized.”

Tony laughed, the tension bleeding from his frame. “You ass. I’m not going to make my past out to be something it wasn’t, so I have to concede they have some basis for finding my decision making lacking, but I’ll also admit that perhaps I’ve been letting everyone hold that over my head a little too much.”

“Good.” Dom grabbed another container from the food bag and headed for the microwave. “I’m still hungry.”

“Good?” Tony echoed. “That’s it?”

Dom hesitated. “Feed me my line here, Tony, because I’m not sure what you’re looking for.”

Tony shook his head. “No, I mean… That’s all you have to say? You’re not going to belabor being right or whatever?”

“Was there anything to be right about? I’m just trying to support you, babe. If you want to recriminate yourself for the whole night, I’ll sit here and listen, but I’m not actually going to pretend to agree with you.”

“No! That’s not what I want. I just…” Tony tipped his head to the side, cracking his neck bones, the sound making Dom wince. “Thank you.”

Dom didn’t really get all the undercurrents in the situation, but he could sure feel them. Everyone’s past was complicated in ways new people couldn’t easily understand, so he was fine with not understanding, but he was struggling with not knowing how to help. So he settled for heating up more food and serving them both while Tony worked things out in his own mind.

“How do you want to handle this situation with SHIELD?” Tony asked, sitting back and sipping his tea.

Dom shrugged, not wanting to put undue pressure on Tony.

“Come on.” Tony legitimately smelled irritated. “I’m seriously asking for your opinion here. I don’t want you to just give in to me. What would you do?”

“I’ve never been worried about the world knowing about us,” Dom said sharply. “Fury thinks he can coerce me because you care about it. Only you can say one way or the other.” Dom got up and went to the refrigerator to put the rest of the food away. He heard the scrape of the stool and Tony’s soft footfalls coming up behind him.

Tony’s arms slipped around his waist. “I’m not trying to hide. So let’s steal Nicky’s thunder.”

Dom turned around in the circle of Tony’s arms, leaning down for a kiss. “How should we go about that?”

“You got a nice tux?”

“How is that a serious question?”

– – – –

25 June 2012

Happy inched the car toward the red carpet. It was a black-tie event at the Met to raise money for victims of the Battle of New York. Tony hadn’t planned to attend because he’d already donated millions to the fund, plus it was his last night with Dom for a while since he was leaving for Japan in the morning.

But Nick Fury had tried to back Dom into a corner, and Tony wasn’t putting up with that. It had been Tony’s idea for them to go out together to a very public event, but then Dom had said he’d meet Tony there rather than going together for some reason. Tony hadn’t been sure why, and Dom was being enigmatic.

Pepper had tried to call him today, but Tony had refused to take the call. He was still too angry, and he knew he would say something he’d regret if he didn’t give himself more time to cool off. Rhodey claimed that Pepper was really upset about inadvertently playing into whatever plans Nick Fury had to manipulate Tony, but even Rhodey had to admit she was positioning herself like a victim in the situation. And that made Tony even angrier.

Tony had never really cared about media attention—he’d been used to it since he was a kid—but he’d kept Dom to himself because it was something that was just his. There was also the element of not wanting to see the speculation about the inevitable end of their relationship spread across news outlets and all over social media. He didn’t need thousands of people poking at that.

He was determined to just ride it out and get over his damn insecurities because he wanted Dom for as long as he could have him. He sure as hell didn’t want his neurotic issues to drive Dom away.

They finally reached the drop-off location, and an attendant opened the door for him. Happy gave him a nod, and Tony stepped out of the vehicle to the typical round of shouts and flashes of cameras.

He waved at the crowd, flashing his media smile.

Then his breath caught as he noticed a figure walking down the red carpet toward him.

“Holy fucking hell,” he muttered under his breath. Because of the kind of work Dom had been doing since the invasion, Tony had never even seen Dom in a suit, much less a tuxedo. It was perfect suit porn, and Tony needed some media outlet—any media outlet—to get a good picture of Dom in that tux.

Dom walked toward him, one hand in his trouser pocket, the corner of his lips twitching. His short, dark blond hair was artfully spiky, and his eyes seemed especially green. He stopped about eighteen inches from Tony. “Dr. Stark.” His smile grew wide and beautiful. “Armani looks good on you.”

“Armani is always a solid choice.” He gave Dom a blatantly appreciative once-over. “I have to say that the Brioni was inspired. You wear it well.”

Dom reached out and snagged Tony by the wrist, reeling him in then claiming Tony’s mouth. The kiss was fierce and unmistakably possessive.

Tony curled his arms around Dom’s shoulders and gave as good as he got, right there on the red carpet with cameras flashing all around them and reporters shouting questions. When Dom broke the kiss, Tony grinned at him but didn’t let go. “I like your style, Rossi.”

Chapter Five

27 June 2012

Dom rapped on the fire exit. He’d been forced to enter the Bureau offices through weird means because reporters were camped out in the front. The door was opened a second later by a grinning Ian. Huffing in annoyance at Ian’s good humor, Dom stalked into the building, not missing a single one of Ian’s muffled chuckles from behind him.

When he walked into the bullpen, his entire team got on their feet and started applauding.

“You’re all assholes.”

Laughter followed him to his office.

He’d naively thought the day between when benefit at the Met and going back to work—where he was technically still on leave—would be enough time to let the speculation and attention die down. But Dom had underestimated the public’s interest in who Tony Stark was dating.

Penelope had taken over the small conference table in his office and had three monitors and multiple laptops going. She was grinning like a loon.

Dom flopped into his chair and shot her a baleful look. “Not you too.”

She looked up and fanned herself. “It was smoking hot! I recorded the coverage from TMZ to my DVR so I can appreciate it…often.”

Dom rolled his eyes and glared at Ian as if he should do something about it.

Ian held up his hands in a surrender gesture. “I’m not going to stop her. Besides, I thought it was hot too.”

“I hate you both.” Dom slouched down in his chair.

Ian grinned. “The Bureau have anything to say?”

“The director himself called me.” That had totally ruined Dom’s Tuesday. “He very dryly said they’d appreciate a heads up if I’m going to make a public spectacle of myself so they can have the PR department prepared.” Tony had apparently prepped the SI PR folks even though he didn’t tell Potts directly about his planned red-carpet relationship reveal. Dom had mentioned the plan in passing to Kyle, who Dom later learned had prepped their own people for media inquiries.

“Most agents would have gotten yelled at,” Ian said as he propped his feet up on the edge of Dom’s desk.

“Get your feet off my desk, you heathen. And maybe other agents would be yelled at, but I’m not sure why. Who we date isn’t the Bureau’s business.”

“It’s sort of their business when they have to deal with the media camping out in front of the building,” Penelope countered.

Dom groaned and dropped his head onto his folded arms.

“How’s Tony doing?”

“He’s fine.” Dom knew his voice was muffled, but figured Pen could hear him okay. “While people are curious about him wherever he goes, he’s not getting the attention there that he’d be dealing with here.”

“I love the new phone,” Pen said, sounding kind of dreamy. “I can’t believe I got the next generation StarkPhone three months ahead of the official launch. Please thank Tony again.” Tony had sent new phones to Jim, Blair, Kyle, and Scott, and then added another couple for Ian and Penelope when he heard they’d joined the investigation. They didn’t have access to Jarvis the way Dom did, but they did have some extra bells and whistles, Jarvis’ phone number in case of emergency, not to mention the cutting-edge encryption technology.

“I’ll do that. Again. Because Tony loves to be thanked—the more often the better. The only thing he likes more is being handed things,” he said dryly. Sighing, he sat up straight. “On another subject, Kyle mentioned hotel woes?”

“The sentinel-safe room we’d booked really wasn’t,” Penelope said sharply. “After Ian’s tromp through the woods, the bleach they’d used in the room caused sensory spikes, so we’ve been bunked out in the Center for the last couple of nights.”

“I’m going to be staying at the Tower while Tony is gone, so you guys can have my place if you want.” The bots were apparently stressed about Tony’s first trip away since they’d begun communicating more. Dom thought they’d probably always been stressed about it, but they now had a way of texting their dad, and they were doing it a lot. When he’d talked to Tony last night, which was early morning for Tony, he’d agreed to stay in the penthouse and keep the kids company.

“Oh, I love your loft.” Penelope shot Ian a pleading look.

Ian frowned. “I will never get your lack of territoriality. I can’t stand for other sentinels to stay in my home overnight. It feels like a territory invasion.”

“I’m just an oddball.” Dom shrugged. “It’s up to you, of course, but you’ll have the place to yourself.”

“Yeah, we’re in. Thanks.”

Dom had been prepared to make the offer, so he pulled his spare keys out of his pocket and tossed them to Ian. “Tell me how it went in Vermont. I didn’t have a chance to get much of an update from Kyle.”

“It stunk,” Penelope said, pounding on the keys a little more briskly than usual. “Even I could smell it and, oh my god, what a stench. I can’t believe that was days later.”

Ian nodded. “I’m honestly surprised you guys were only in iso for three days, especially if you and Scott had been chasing false leads all day.” He pulled a notebook from his pocket. “I did isolate a few more scents. One of note was a distillate of the stinking corpse lily.”

“Are you for real?”

Penelope came out from behind the table and sat on Ian’s lap. He curled an arm around her waist and sniffed her hair. Penelope grabbed Ian’s notebook. “The lily would smell like rotting flesh probably.”

Dom nodded slowly. “I vaguely remember that scent. It didn’t jump out above the other scents. I wasn’t even sure it wasn’t a real dead animal.”

“We got some samples and found one defective OSG that hadn’t gone off, so the Center is carefully taking it apart to see what all is in there and what we can learn from how it was made. Anyway, the lily is indigenous to south-east Asia and pretty much doesn’t grow anywhere else. It tends to bother mundanes more than sentinels since most sentinels learn to block out that category of scent early on.

“However, there is one sentinel who has a severe issue with the artificial dead-body scent the lily puts off. To a huge degree. He’s level six and very strong on scent tracking. And if we look at the sentinels qualified for this type of thing and their relative location to the crime in question, it’s you and Scott here in New York, Ian being next closest in DC, and then Pride in New Orleans. Jim is an understandable factor in their planning since he’s been in New York a lot since the invasion.

“I spent a lot of time talking with Blair, Kyle, and our, uh, other helper, who is amazing by the way, and the test thing seems likely. Specifically testing to keep the best trackers on the East Coast overwhelmed and spinning in place while they…? And that’s where we blank.”

“Is the fact that it was a kidnapping noteworthy?” Ian asked.

“Maybe.” Dom considered for a few seconds. “Probably, but I don’t want to make that assumption. We tend to mobilize and go all out more for abductions than anything else. The Council has never been keen on sentinels being put in harm’s way for property crimes. Yeah, we solve those cases too, but you know the Center would have yanked all sentinels off that case after the first couple instances of sensory collapse if we’d been searching for a sculpture. But because it was a person, we kept going and took the risk.”

“So are they testing the protect the tribe imperative?” Ian asked. “Because they could be planning to steal a Monet and figure they’ll get away with it if they’ve tested us at the highest level.”

“But we come back to did we pass the test or fail it,” Dom reminded. “From a sensory perspective, we flopped. We were running around in circles. If I hadn’t had outside help to point me in the right direction, I’d have never found her through sensory means. We’d have had to rely on the investigation to hopefully catch up. By the time I made it to the house, I could barely focus enough to listen for heartbeats.”

“I think you failed the test, but question is: do they know that?” Penelope replied.

“Meaning?”

“Were they able to get ahold of the reports? All they know from an outside perspective is that you got out of those woods and found Madeline Baker. But do they know how?” she pressed.

Dom shook his head. “I don’t think so, but there were surveillance cameras in the woods, so they had to have seen a lot of that. But because of the conspiracy nature of the whole thing, the assistant director agreed to keep the details about how we got out of the woods to being on paper, eyes only. That the paper report exists isn’t even noted in the system. He has one copy, I have another, and the last one is on file with the S&G Center, locked up, in case there’s ever a question of what happened. So even if FBI records were hacked, it will just reveal the countermeasures and what forensics was able to determine, and that I tracked Madeline to the house.”

Penelope frowned. “So whoever set this in motion doesn’t know if you passed or failed?”

Dom shrugged. “It could be enough of a fail—it took us a long time to find her. I just don’t know. And the investigation has been a bust so far because all the team found out was that Routh was approached, but the person he IDd as reaching out to him is amongst the dead.”

Ian sighed. “And we trust that he’s being honest?”

“From what I heard, he’s furious that this simple plan to get his son out of jail resulted in his wife’s death, so I assume he’s being honest. The sentinel who sat in on his interrogation said he was honest, but his emotional chem signals were muddled because he’s so angry.”

“All right,” Ian said decisively, “let’s go with the base assumption that someone is planning to take something—either a person or a thing—and they’re testing countermeasures to confuse and throw off sentinels so they can spirit whatever it is away. So we need to work on how we are going to react.”

“I’m gonna throw training and prep on that kind of thing over the wall at the Primes,” Dom said. “I have no thought right now on how to prepare for that kind of situation.”

“It’s too bad you’re not bonded,” Ian said, looking thoughtful. “Considering you fared as well as Scott and Jim, you’d no doubt be able to handle the OSGs if you had a guide.”

Penelope thwapped Ian on the arm as Dom shot him a dirty look. “I’m perfectly fine as things are. I’m not going to bond for the rest of the world’s convenience.”

“You know I’m just saying what everyone is thinking. I’m not telling you to do anything about it, but it’s still a fact that you’re an unbonded sentinel who performs in the field as well as bonded ones.”

“And since we all know it, there’s no point in saying it.” Dom got to his feet. “I need to check in with my team.”

An hour later, Dom was back in his office with a series of printouts under his arm. Ian was leaning over Penelope’s shoulder, reading something on one of the displays.

“Since you’re here and our off-the-books investigation into what went down last week is stalled out, you want in on my new case?”

“What’s up?”

“Powers that be shot me a case that’s way outside my team’s usual because they think my sniffer is going to help.” He tossed the file to Ian.

After barely a second, Ian made an indignant noise. “Why can’t they get it through their heads that we can’t actually sniff out refined uranium? This is ridiculous. We can feel it, but I’m not jazzed about being that close to it.”

“I don’t know.” Dom sat in his chair. “They seem to think any time they need to find something urgently that a sentinel must be the right choice for hunting it down. And, to be fair, if we get any leads that involve scent, like tracking down a suspect, I wouldn’t mind having you on board because I’m worried about why someone bought a bunch of uranium on the black market and brought it to New Jersey.”

“Get your butt back out of that chair, Rossi. If we’re gonna do this, let’s get ourselves down to the Port Authority. That’s where they picked up alpha and gamma radiation, so we might as well see what we can find.” Ian pointed at Penelope. “You’re staying here.”

She held up her hands. “I’ll stay right here, far away from radiation, but if you get irradiated, you’re not getting any for a month.”

– – – –

Dom entered Tony’s lab, dropped his dinner on the bench, and then rubbed his hands together. “Hey, kiddos!”

The bots rolled off their charging docks, chirping like mad, and the screen on the wall immediately lit up.

U: Kitty!

“Oh, I see how it is. I’m just the path for Miss U to get some quality Kali time.”

U made a mournful little cheeping sound.

Laughing, Dom moved close and gave her as close to a hug as he could manage. She plucked at his shirt with her claw. “It’s fine, baby girl. Kali can come play.”

Kali immediately shimmered into view. She’d been a little more absent lately. She usually lounged around whenever he was home, but she’d always made herself scarce around other sentinels and guides, and Dom had been spending a lot of time working with them lately.

U beeped in obvious excitement. She and Kali were playing in the open area of Tony’s lab where he usually did bigger engineering builds.

Dum-E was hovering near the table.

“Something up, Dum-E?” Dom patted the table near where he’d set his food. “Come keep me company while I eat. Tell me what you’re up to.”

Dom unpacked the food and began to eat while Dum-E did the weird robot version of pacing. The screen finally lit up.

Dum-E: Dum-E need activity.

“You need something to do?”

Dum-E: Helper bot. No help.

“Hmm. Do you mean that Tony doesn’t need much help or that you don’t have enough ways to help?”

Dum-E: Not enough. Dad not need.

Dom felt a little sad for reasons he didn’t want to dig into. “Are you saying you need a hobby, kiddo?”

Dum-E: Jarvis explain hobby. Yes, Dum-E need hobby.

He was so, so out of his depth, but needs must. “Well, what kinds of things would you like to try?”

Dum-E: What Dom hobby?

“What are my hobbies?”

Dum-E’s claw bobbed up and down.

“I, uh, play the piano as much as I can. I also play the guitar and the ukulele for fun. That’s music. We could probably rig up some sort of large keyboard thing if you wanted to try that, but it’ll be a little limited one-clawed. Something with strings might be a better option. But think about whether that’s something you want to try.

“Other common hobbies are things like art—painting or drawing, sculpture maybe. Then there’s crafts like needle work, crochet knitting, sculpture might fall here too.” Dom scratched the back of his neck. “There are a lot of athletic hobbies. Treasure hunt type things. Racing of all kinds. Dance is pretty common as these things go.”

Dum-E: Tonight?

“You want something you can do tonight? Um, okay. Let me think.” It took him a second but once the idea hit him, it would not leave him alone. “All right, I’ll work on some other stuff you can try out but, for now, I have an idea that will be lots of fun and it will make your Dad happy. But…it requires Miss U’s assistance.”

A rapid beep came from the other side of the lab as U began rolling rapidly toward them. Kali hopped up on one of the empty work tables then settled her big frame down to watch them as she began licking at her huge paws.

U: U have hobby too?

“Do you want one?’

U: U Want. Be like Dum-E.

“Right. Hobbies all around. I shall work with Jarvis and figure that out. But let’s get started on the surprise for your dad. The most important thing is that you work together, but I know you two are already great at that, so this is going to be great!”

– – – –

Dom was propped up in Tony’s bed, reading case reports. It was still fairly early, and the smart thing to do would be to get a little extra sleep, especially after the way the kids ran him ragged, but he was missing Tony like a part of himself was gone, and it was making it hard to calm his mind down.

“Dominic?”

“What’s up, Jarvis.”

“A woman has been pacing the area around the Tower. Facial recognition has identified her as Dr. Elizabeth Ross.”

“Ah, hell.” Dom let his head drop back to rest against the headboard. “Did you tell Bruce?”

“I have not. I wanted your advice about how to proceed.”

“Is Bruce still awake?”

“Yes. He is in his lab.”

“I’ll go down and talk to her. Will you text Tony to see if he’s okay with me bringing her up?”

“Sir trusts your judgment.”

“And I’d still feel better with Tony’s okay.”

“As you wish.”

Dom set the reports on the bed and got up. He pulled on some sweats and an Iron Man T-Shirt that amused him to wear then shoved his feet into some boots and headed downstairs. He went for Tony’s private parking level. No one should really be in the main lobby at this time of night, but coming from the side of the building would allow him to observe his quarry.

He paused at the corner nearest her last location. Even though it was late evening, there was plenty of foot traffic in the area. He spotted her easily enough. She was about 5’7, late thirties or early forties, with short, dark, curly hair. She had a lot of presence about her.

His phone vibrated with a text message from Tony.

TS: Was that really a serious question?
DR: Is your question serious? It seems we’re both a fount of non-serious questions when we’re apart.
TS: Ass. YES, show the woman inside. Put her up. Steal her shoes so she can’t run away. Green Bean’s rumpus room is ready in case they want some rumpus and he decides to make an unexpected appearance.
DR: I’ll let you relay that bit of info, shall I?
TS: You’re so sweet to give me all the fun jobs.
TS: Gotta get back to the meeting. Miss you.
DR: Miss you too. Love your bed but it’s not nearly as enticing without you in it.

Timing his moment to when she’d paced closest to his position and foot traffic was thin, he approached her, though she was focused on looking up the building where the STARK was still just a letter A.

“Is there something I can help you with, Dr. Ross?”

“Ah!” She whipped around, hand flying to her chest, and her heart sounded like it was trying to escape. She blinked a few times then her cheeks turned pink. “You’re Dom Rossi.”

It was his turn to blink stupidly. “You know me?”

“Oh, well…” She cleared her throat. “That kiss is everywhere.”

Dom sighed. He didn’t regret it, not for a second, but he hadn’t expected people to be quite so obsessed with it. “The reaction has been unexpected. Can I escort up to Dr. Banner’s lab?”

“I…” She looked flustered and smelled worried and uncertain.

“Or perhaps I can invite you in for some really nice Scotch and we can chat for a little bit?”

She clutched at the strap of the purse she had hanging cross-body. She was also wearing a backpack that looked too large for her. “That sounds like a perfect idea.”

He held out his hand. “Can I take your bag?”

She shrugged out of her backpack, handing it over before following him down to the private garage entrance. She never asked about all the doors opening and closing as they passed, though her eyebrows were doing something complicated.

As the elevator began its ascent, she asked, “Bruce is in the building?”

“He is. He has the entire 75th floor for his lab. He’s currently living in a suite on the 82nd floor.”

“I see. And what floor are we going to?”

“The 80th, which is Tony’s apartment.”

“Oh. Um, I don’t want to intrude.”

“But that’s where the Scotch is.” He smiled at her. “Tony’s out of town, and he knows you’re here. In fact, he told me to steal your shoes so you can’t run away.”

She snorted in obvious amusement then clapped her hand over her mouth. “You stealing my shoes really isn’t that funny.”

“It’d be hella funny if I actually did it. But I’m not that kind of guy.”

The elevator stopped on 80 and he gestured for her to precede him, putting her bags on one of the arm chairs and showing her to the couch. “Is Scotch okay? Tony has pretty much everything.”

“Scotch is perfect.”

He brought her the drink, which she took and then just rolled the glass between her hands.

“What’s on your mind, Dr. Betty?”

She smiled faintly. “You are stupidly attractive, you know that, yeah?”

Dom laughed. “Nice evasion technique.”

“Okay, yes, I was avoiding the question, but only with the truth. You get that you’re hot like burning, right? And why is your T-shirt so tight?”

Dom felt oddly embarrassed. He cleared his throat. “Tony likes a nice view.”

She smirked at him a bit and glanced from him to the Manhattan skyline then back to him. “So I see.” After finally taking a sip of the Scotch, she said, “Bruce said he had to stay away from me because he had to go on the run, but he’s not on the run anymore which seems to implicitly mean that we don’t have to stay apart any longer. And yet…”

“He never called you,” Dom stated with certainty.

“No.” She stared at her hands.

“I don’t know Bruce that well, to be honest, though I’d say we’re acquaintances, slowly edging toward friends. I’ve met his alter ego a couple times, and he’s pretty cool too.”

“See? I know he’s not the threat Bruce thinks he is.”

“Well, he probably is, but that’s a whole other issue. Let’s just say he’s not a fluffy bunny, but he doesn’t hurt without cause. In any case, I was recruited by SHIELD to be the handler for the team that fought against the Chitauri. Part of the recruitment package were dossiers on all the team members. Bruce’s was full of psychological profiles and theories about his motivations and how to control him.”

She sat up straighter, glaring at him.

He held up his hands. “I turned the gig down, Dr. Betty. I have zero interest in being SHIELD’s puppet. My point is that I may have learned a thing or two about Bruce in between all those pages. He’s terrified of hurting people, and worried about coming between you and your father or making you choose between them.”

Ross’ mouth tightened into a thin line. “My father is the one who made me choose when he decided to act in such a despicable manner.”

Dom did not want to get into the Ross’ family drama, and he sure as hell wasn’t cut out to be a relationship counselor. “My point is that Bruce is pretty paralyzed when it comes to making the first move. I think he probably wants to but feels like he can’t.”

“You think I should…go talk to him?”

“I think you should march down to his lab, tell him you’re moving in, and that he better be able to cough up plenty of lab space for your experiments.”

“Really?”

“Go be the boss, Dr. Betty.”

She chuckled though it sounded a little thin. “Don’t take no for an answer?”

“Something like that.” Dom got to his feet. “I don’t think he wants to say no but feels he should. It’s up to you if you’re going to let that go without at least talking about it.”

Ross stood, looking less tired and more resolved. “So where do I go? 75th you said?”

“Yep. I’ll show you down there and then how about I drop your bag and coat off on 82?”

She smiled. “You’re that certain I’ll be staying?”

“I have faith in you.”

– – – –

2 July 2012

Tony flopped down on the bed in his hotel room, not even bothering to undress. The room was as nice as could be found in Japan, but Tony wasn’t enjoying it, which totally threw him. He always enjoyed travel. He loved expensive hotel rooms and new locations. But all he could think about was going back home and climbing his sentinel like a damn tree.

He made mental note to try to find a way to get Dom to come with him the next time he had a business trip. He’d been here almost a week and he had another week or so to go, but it was hell being away. It was like this deep ache he couldn’t get rid of. He’d never felt like this away from Pepper or anyone else in his life.

“J, any news from home?”

“Dominic has been quite busy working a case.” Jarvis’ voice was tinny and less rich coming through the cell phone. He was used to hearing it at home with more vibrancy, and he missed it. He rolled out off the bed and dug in his bag for his speaker, letting it automatically connect. “I’ve inferred high priority based on him working the entire weekend.”

Tony paused in shrugging out of his suit coat. “Anything worrisome?”

“I’ve deduced certain aspects of the case that are potential worry, but my instructions regarding his confidentiality preclude voicing those conclusions or prying further.”

“Hmm.” Tony wrestled his tie off, tossing it the way of the jacket. “You know I expect you to let me know if he’s in danger, correct?”

“Of course, Sir. I’ve adjusted my contingency plans several times. The latest SSFTOHS armor is ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. The adjustments you’ve made for a distressed sentinel should be effective. Might I suggest a new acronym before you have to explain it to Dominic?”

Tony laughed. “I’ll consider it.” Saving Sentinels From Their Own Heroic Stupidity had been a late-night model name decision he’d made right before he’d sent it off to production an hour before he’d had to board the flight to Japan.

He shucked his pants then crawled back on the bed and rubbed absently at his chest. He’d been toying with the idea of having the shrapnel removed, but he wasn’t quite there yet. “How are my kids?” He’d been hearing from Dum-E a ton the first couple of days—U a lot, too, but less than her sibling—but it had tapered off once Dom was in the tower overnight.

“They are doing very well, Sir. Dominic has taken over a room on the 83rd floor as a play space.”

“A play space? Should I even be surprised?”

“Of course not, Sir. You brought him home, I’d expect you to be able to predict his shenanigans.”

Tony huffed. “Do I want to know what they’re up to?”

“I’m sure you do, but it’d be best if you see it for yourself when you are home.”

“Something to look forward to, then.” He sighed, wishing again that he could just put on the suit and go home. “Just another week.”

“It will be good to have you home. Goodnight, Sir.”

“Goodnight, Jarvis.” Dom would already be at work, so Tony would send him a text in a few minutes. He’d much rather call, but his dinner meeting had gone very long.

The meetings with select members of the U.N. Security Council had been going much better than Tony had expected. The current head of the SC was the representative from Japan, so they’d agreed to meet here to avoid any scrutiny about Tony Stark making trips to visit high-ranking members of the U.N. while in New York. It was a lot easier for his movements to be obscured as something else when reporters weren’t hounding his every step. SI had many business interests in Japan, so there were also real SI meetings to deal with.

Somehow, the Turners had come up with which member countries had a hand in the World Security Council, so the U.S., Germany, and Morocco were excluded for now. The fact that it had been nearly two months since the invasion and the WSC hadn’t been called on the carpet by Congress in the U.S. or by the World Court was inexcusable in everyone’s eyes. The Turners, the head of the Security Council, the Secretary General, and Tony—of all people—were going to meet with POTUS as soon as it could be arranged for a heart to heart.

Oddly enough, Wakanda had been included in their meetings in lieu of the missing Security Council members. Tony suspected Wakanda would be part of the next Security Council election. Having the King of Wakanda involved had added some pomp to the whole thing that Tony could have lived without.

The King of Wakanda had put out publicly that since he had business in Japan and Tony Stark was visiting as well that he’d be meeting with Tony about clean energy and clean water initiatives. Tony had managed to not roll his eyes at the ruse because it probably would convince anyone but Tony.

He’d always known Wakanda had technology that they hid. He’d run across their firewalls when he was hacking his way through the world when computers were new and firewalls shouldn’t even exist. He’d had the sense to let it alone and just watch. Someday, they’d have to come out of the proverbial closet about what was really happening in their kingdom, but it wasn’t Tony’s job to throw them out of it.

Though he found their attempts to disguise their technology more than a little amusing. Less amusing was the way their tech tried to subtly prod at his. Jarvis had firmly but politely repelled the last gentle probe with an advisory that he’d be less nice next time.

King T’Chaka had given Tony a couple odd looks the next day. Tony had just smiled brightly and offered the guy a beer to go with his sushi.

He’d expected months of back-and-forth meetings and negotiations, but everyone was surprisingly on board with getting the so called “superheroes” under the umbrella of the U.N., and they really wanted to the WSC before the World Court. The U.N. had apparently been putting pressure on Congress to do something but had been getting stonewalled. King T’Chaka had been one of Tony’s best advocates, to his ongoing confusion, and often managed to make Tony’s point diplomatically when Tony was getting frustrated with the political doublespeak that crept in at times.

Most of the negotiations right now were about whether they’d be structured like a sister organization of the S&G Council or whether they’d be under the S&G Council. Both had advantages and drawbacks.

Tony had decided to throw his weight behind the “Guardian Initiative” being placed under the leadership of the S&G Council, at least temporarily, and utilize the existing S&G infrastructure to figure out what they’d need to support any enhanced individuals. He thought it best to see what they actually needed in the way of governance before recreating the wheel. They could spin off a separate entity when, or even if, it was necessary to branch out. He was very comfortable with the Turners after having spent the week with them and would have no issue with them being in charge. Also, sentinels would be called upon anyway for planetary defense in the event of any alien incursion, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to completely separate the two groups.

Regardless of which way they decided to go, the members planned to set everything in motion behind the scenes, keeping it as quiet as possible and raising support so they could bring it before the General Assembly in September. The Security Council would have everything in place in time for general debate in only three short months. King T’Chaka had managed to have a lot of insight into who all was connected to the WSC, even in a covert way, so they knew who to avoid to keep from raising red flags to the WSC or SHIELD.

All in all, everything was moving much faster than Tony had ever expected.

Even though things were going so well here, the best part of the week so far had been the news that Dr. Betty Ross had shacked up with Bruce. They’d disappeared to Bruce’s suite on 82 and hadn’t been seen by anyone except Jarvis and U since. U being the one to occasionally bring up food deliveries. That was five days of non-stop reconnecting. Tony planned an epic amount of teasing.

Tony was fucking delighted that his science bro had his girl again. He’d sent Bruce an email asking for a list of whatever Dr. Betty needed for whatever research she wanted to run. He didn’t expect to hear back anytime soon.

“Sir? Dom is calling for you.”

Tony smiled. Exactly who he wanted to talk to. “Thanks, J.” He waited while the call connected. “Hey,” he said, wanting to kick himself for how soft and mushy he sounded. “Shouldn’t you be working?”

“Anthony,” Dom drew out his name, sounding serious. “Is there something you forgot to tell me?”

“Uh.” He racked his brain as he sat up. “No. Should I know the answer? Because there’s pretty much nothing I hate more than not knowing the answer. I work hard to avoid such circumstances.”

Dom huffed. “Something about a delivery?”

“A delivery?”

“Yes! I got a call from Ian and a hysterically laughing Penelope this morning, and I was ordered to get my ass over to the loft to deal with the delivery you sent!”

Tony blinked a few times. “I didn’t— Oh! Of course. It was a joke, babe. Remember when I said—”

“Yeah, yeah, about how I was going to miss using you as my teddy bear. I mean, you weren’t wrong that I was going to miss cuddling you, but how did you think this was going to be any sort of substitute? It’s not even—” Dom huffed in a way that was pure frustration.

“Huh? Is this because I forgot to change the delivery address? When I placed the order, you’d planned to stay at the loft. Do you really care that your buddies saw that I sent you a teddy bear?”

“No! Why would I— Tony! Why the hell is it so big?”

He laughed. “Did they manage life-sized? I told them to send the biggest teddy bear they had. Just think of it as me. Well, not exactly—that’d be weird. But cuddle away, babe, cuddle away. No one but Jarvis will know. No judgment.” He couldn’t stop smiling.

Dom made a sound suspiciously like a squawk, and then feminine laughter could be heard over the line.

“This is Penelope Edgerton. Just hold on a second, I’m sending you a picture of a grumpy sentinel for your viewing pleasure.”

Confused, Tony waited until there was an alert on his phone. He opened the message and then bit his lip. Dom was standing in front of a big brown bear dressed in a red vest. Dom’s arms were crossed over his chest, and he looked vexed. The bear, on the other hand, was sporting a huge bear-ish grin. It was also wedged between the floor and the ceiling with the ceiling putting enough pressure on it to cause the enormous head to be tipped forward.

Tony tried to contain his mirth, he really did, but he finally gave in and collapsed back, laughing his ass off, ignoring Dom’s demands to, “Talk to me, you asshole!”

Tony was laughing too hard to talk to his lover.

“Dammit, Tony!”

After several minutes of muffled talking between Dom and who he assumed was Ian Edgerton, overlaid with Penelope’s laughter and Tony trying to contain his own mirth, he heard Dom call out, “I’m moving him into the Tower! Bubba Bear is getting his own damned room—he needs to expand his fucking horizons. Next time, would you be fucking specific when you ask for something big?”

There were some vague noises he couldn’t decipher. “Dammit, Tony, do you have any idea how much this thing weighs?! How’d they even get it in here? Okay, I am not moving him, I’m hiring the same damn delivery company you hired to haul this monstrosity right where you have to see it every day!”

Tony laughed harder.

Chapter Six

4 July 2012

“Sentinel Rossi,” a familiar female voice called, stopping him as he walked toward Tony’s private elevator.

Sighing, he plastered a pleasant expression on his face and turned around. “Ms. Potts, what can I do for you?” Why was she lurking around late at night on a national holiday?

“A moment of your time if you please. Perhaps we could adjourn to my office?”

“It’s rather late.” He made a show of looking at his watch. It was pushing eleven already. “I’ve got an early start tomorrow.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed you keep rather long hours, though you’re usually in quite a bit before now. I’m surprised you had to work at all today.” Great, she was keeping tabs on him.

“Criminals don’t tend to observe national holidays. There’s pretty much just Christmas for the criminal underbelly.”

She smiled thinly and gestured toward the main elevators. “It will only take a few minutes.”

Dom really didn’t have any reason to talk to Potts other than to keep things peaceful for Tony. He didn’t want to create problems Tony would have to deal with later, so he followed her to the elevator and resolved to suck it up.

As soon as they were inside her office, she gestured for him to sit on the sofa in the lounge area then walked to the wet bar. “Drink?”

“No, thank you.” He didn’t offer anything further. She’d asked to talk to him, so she could just get to the point. He wasn’t going to make small talk.

She brought her drink to the couch, taking a seat at the other end and angling her body toward him. He looked over, but kept his body facing forward.

She took of her brandy. “I haven’t spoken to Tony directly since he left for his trip, though we’ve communicated via email.”

“Okay.”

She smiled, but it seemed false. “You may or may not know that Tony and I had a disagreement before he left for Japan.”

Dom just arched a single brow.

“I think Tony misunderstood some things and, as a result, you may have a mistaken impression of my view of your relationship with him.”

“I have no impressions, Ms. Potts. Is that all?”

“No, it’s not.” She sighed. “I’m concerned for Tony. He rebounded into a relationship with you and, I confess, I was a little hurt that he took up with someone so seriously, so quickly, but I now just worry about him becoming attached to someone who is going to leave him. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but you will leave, we both know that.”

He just stared at her.

“I can see that I’m upsetting you.”

“Don’t confuse my lack of reaction with me being upset. I’m not going to discuss my relationship with Tony with you. So you can poke at it all you want, but I’m just going to give vague affirmative noises until you get frustrated with me. I don’t know you, and while I’d be happy to get to know anyone Tony wants to introduce me to, he hasn’t made that choice. This feels like an end run around Tony’s wishes, and I’m not going to participate in it beyond superficial politeness. You’re welcome to say what you want to say, but I’m not going to play this game.”

She took a deep breath, her scent-pile laced with frustration. “I may have made some missteps trying to protect Tony, but my only thought is for him. I’ve been taking care of him for years. You’ve known him a month.”

Taking care of him?” Dom repeated incredulously. “He’s not a puppy or a child.”

“I know that!” She visibly reined herself in. “You misunderstand me.”

“I don’t think I do. But if you actually do care for him, you might consider butting out until you’re certain your motives are about him and not about yourself.”

Her expression hardened. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“Ditto. But anyone looking at this situation objectively wouldn’t trust your motives. So maybe let Rhodes do the heavy lifting when it comes to worrying about Tony. That way, you won’t come off quite so much like a jealous ex.”

She jerked back like he’d slapped her, and then her expression went blank. “From the position of Stark Industries, I would greatly appreciate it if you would stop making such a spectacle of your relationship with Tony. We don’t need the PR nightmare you’re causing.” She waved her hand. “With that bear and the subsequent social media fiasco about it.”

“Wow. I thought the adventures of Bubba Bear was trending worldwide in a positive way. Stark Industries by all accounts is getting a ton of publicity out of it and, last I heard, stock prices had taken a bump and pre-sales of the next StarkPhone had maxed out. I’ll concede it’s been a nightmare for me in terms of getting asked for autographs and selfies, hence why I am trying to deflect people’s attention with Bubba.”

He put his hand over his heart. “I’m truly sorry to hear I’ve been such a hardship for Stark Industries. I’ll let Tony know that I’ve taken Stark Industries’ official request to shut down Bubba Bear’s Twitter account under advisement.”

She got to her feet. “When you leave him, and we both know you will, I’ll be the one here picking up the pieces. I’m patient, Sentinel, count on it.”

“I once followed a scent trail over the course of eighteen days and 2400 miles. There’s no one as patient as a sentinel, Ms. Potts, but feel free to do as much waiting around as you like. Makes no difference to me.” He stood up. “Nice pissing contest. Maybe we can do it again some time.” He turned and left her office, not exactly proud that she’d managed to goad him, but he really disliked the way she’d talked about Tony like he was a child she needed to manage or clean up after.

The minute he was in the elevator, he rubbed his hand over his face. “Seriously, Jarvis, if there’s any way this little game is hurting SI—”

“It is not,” Jarvis said firmly. “Public sentiment about your relationship is generally positive, while reactions to Bubba Bear are overwhelmingly positive. It allows those intrigued by your relationship a focal point.”

“Right.” He blew out a breath. When he’d had the bear delivered to Stark Tower to take up residency on the 83rd floor, he hadn’t considered how much attention it would garner. He’d decided to satisfy the clamor for answers by creating a Twitter account for Bubba Bear and making a joke out of the whole thing. He’d then procured a tiny version of Bubba, called the Mini-B—Bubba’s minion—put him in a replica of the T-shirt Dom had created for Tony shortly after they first met, and then persuaded people he knew and trusted to get touristy pictures of Mini-B all over New York City. At the end of the day, he’d put up a Tweet with the latest photo and a summary of Bubba’s day.

“For however long it lasts, people are entertained and diverted by Bubba Bear’s adventures. Any effect on Stark Industries has been positive. Also, Sir is quite amused by it.”

“And that’s the only opinion that matters.” Dom sighed, letting it go. Tony was subscribed to Bubba’s Twitter account and frequently commented on Bubba’s Tweets.

The doors opened on the 83rd floor and he resolved to only spend a few minutes with the kids because he really needed to get some sleep. This case needed his full attention and energy because they hadn’t yet figured out the reason there was black market uranium running around New York.

His resolve didn’t hold out and he wound up spending more than an hour praising the kids’ latest attempt at hobbies. Some were working out better than others. He had an idea for something new for Dum-E, but he needed to solve his current case so he had time to implement it.

He headed back down to the penthouse to get ready for bed and catch some sleep before he had to get back to the office.

He was barely out of the shower when Jarvis said, “I have Sir on the line for you.”

Dom felt himself relax at just the thought of talking to Tony. “Thanks, Jarvis.”

“So I hear Pepper ambushed you.”

“Jarvis, you snitch,” Dom groused as he flopped on the bed, tossing his towel on the floor.

“If you’d wished for me to keep the information from Sir, you would simply have had to ask. Unless it violated any of my existing protocols, I would have acceded to your wishes.”

“You know I wouldn’t ask you to keep anything that happens in his tower from him.” Dom sighed.

“I asked Jarvis to let me know if Pep crossed the line. I think waylaying you practically in the middle of the night qualifies.” Tony sounded beyond irritated.

“Tony—”

“I’m not going to violate your privacy by asking Jarvis to tell me what was said, but I’d appreciate it if you’d tell me.”

“I honestly don’t know what her agenda was, Tony, because I think I pissed her off and she lost the plot somewhere along the way. But it was something to do with how we both know I’m going to leave you and she’ll still be there to pick up the pieces. I don’t know. She’s lashing out because she’s upset and—” he stopped himself from saying more.

“And?” Tony prompted. When Dom didn’t reply, Tony added, “I’d like to know what else you think is going on.”

Dom huffed and slid under the blankets. “I’m naked and sliding into bed and we could be talking about that. Instead, we’re talking about that bizarre conversation.” He rubbed his hand over his head, causing the damp hair to stand even more on end. “She doesn’t acknowledge your personal agency much at all, Tony. She talks about you like a child she cleans up after.”

“I see.”

“I’m not sure you do. I probably shouldn’t have told her off, but the whole thing is infuriating.”

“I don’t care that you told her off, Dom,” Tony said softly.

“You’re not going to go down that path of how she has cause to think this way, are you? Because then I’ll really lose it.”

“No. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the things you said, and I’m not going to revisit it. Besides, revisiting things is boring.”

Dom snorted and curled around Tony’s pillow. “Don’t worry about this, Tony. It doesn’t matter. Her opinion doesn’t matter. Maybe you guys will be good friends again some day, or maybe you won’t. But there’s nothing you can do about it from where you are.”

“Do you think I should try to fix this?”

“Fix what? You can’t make her heart not be broken, babe. The end of the relationship was the right thing for the both of you, but it doesn’t mean she’s not hurt. That can’t be handwaved away.”

“True, but she’s got a lot of power, and I’m not thrilled with the jealous ex routine considering she’s using company resources to stalk my new lover.”

“Ah.”

“No opinion?”

“Tony, I don’t want… I don’t know. Opinions can be intrusive.”

“I’m seriously asking here.”

“I don’t like the way your CEO and your board treat you, much less the way they order you around. It’s like they think you’re an actual child.”

“And if you were me, what would you do?”

“Reset the power balance? Change the expectations? I don’t know, but they do it because they know they can. They act like you’re childish, which is utterly bizarre to me because they’re judging on certain actions while ignoring all the things that don’t fit their narrative. Look—”

He sat up and blew out a heavy breath. “I had a problem when I first came online with people treating me like I was nothing but a set of enhanced senses. It didn’t seem to matter that I was an exceptional investigator my whole career up to that point—suddenly I was just a nose or some glorified binoculars. It was disconcerting. I didn’t feel like I could afford to put up with it if I wanted to stay in law enforcement.

“I had to fight to hold that line every damn day for several years—I had to make them treat me like an investigator first and a sentinel second. It’s why the Bureau only calls me Agent Rossi. But it did get better. Hell, I wound up with my own unit. I’d like to say it was all roses after that, but it’s wasn’t. I still got tossed cases I shouldn’t have because they thought a sentinel was going to do it better, even if it wasn’t true. I still get asked to set aside cases to go hunt down fugitives or missing kids—I do take the missing kids, but I rarely take the fugitives. And I turn down all cases of property crimes no matter who asks because it’s not my department and if I don’t draw the line somewhere, there will be no line.”

“I need to think on that.”

“Okay.”

“It’s… Thank you. It’s good advice, but I need to think about what I want to do with it.” Tony sighed. “Why are you getting home so late?”

“Shitty case.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Just talking to you helps. I miss listening to your heart at night.”

“You listen to my heart?”

“All the time, Tony, all the time.”

– – – –

6 July 2012

“What the hell is this?” Ian lifted some papers laying on a workbench and flapped them at Dom. Their investigation and a promising scent trail had converged at this warehouse, but they were too late for the uranium. They’d found what looked like remnants of some sort of engineering or manufacturing process. Agents were swarming the building, but Dom already knew there were no people in there and definitely no uranium.

Dom moved closer and looked over Ian’s shoulder. “They’re— Are those robots?”

“It sure the hell looks like it. Or close enough that it doesn’t matter. Why the hell would they need uranium?”

“Power source,” Dom murmured, spreading the schematics out, “is the obvious answer for all that it doesn’t make any real sense.”

“Oh?”

“Fission reactors, even the smallest of them, are way too big to be an effective power source for a robot.”

“And you can’t make a fusion reactor with uranium.” Ian stood shoulder to shoulder with him, looking at the detailed diagrams. “I can’t make heads nor tails of this, but… Is it three copies of the same thing?”

“No…” Dom went over each set quickly, picking out the differences, pointing them out. “There’s a set with the power assembly in the head, the chest, and the stomach. I’d guess they were trialing which was most effective or something. I don’t really know. We need an engineer to look these over. They must have bailed quickly, and it concerns me that these were left behind. It makes me think there’s a fourth set. Plus, the designs for the actual power source aren’t here.”

“I hope no one has miniaturized a fission reactor.”

“Right.” Dom made a face. “A couple of years ago, I would have said it was impossible, but I would have said a stable miniature fusion reactor was impossible too. But then Tony popped up in Afghanistan with one. Actually, I would have said we’d miniaturize a fission reactor long before a fusion one.” He was glad Tony already had security clearance because Dom had a hunch he was going to need to get permission to read Tony in on this. He sure the hell wasn’t going to SHIELD with it, and he didn’t think they had time to vet someone qualified to figure out what these plans had to do with uranium.

“Why robots?”

“I have no idea. The world has gone fucking crazy. You heard about that shitstorm a few months back in Russia? Some crazy mad scientist they’d managed to keep under wraps unleashed thousands of robot spiders, about the size of your fist, on the Kremlin.”

“I remember but only because it was funny as hell that his power source was for shit and they all went dead around the same time and there was a huge cleanup problem instead of the Kremlin being deconstructed, which was his stated goal.”

Dom snorted. He sort of loved incompetent criminals. While they sometimes caused accidental catastrophes, more often than not, they were just amusing. He looked around. “This is a warehouse; it’s not a factory. None of these components could be machined here. If they built stuff like this here, and it’s not just theoretical, we’ve got more avenues to look into because that’s all specialty stuff.”

Ian drummed his fingers on the bench. “Do you smell all the metal in the air?”

“Yeah.” Most metal products didn’t carry much scent unless you were close to them—though some alloys were stinky and iron definitely had a distinct smell—but metal work created particles in the air that definitely had a traceable scent. “I’m getting gold, tungsten, titanium, and something I’ve not run across before.”

“There’s some nickel in there too.”

Dom rubbed his nose. “Yeah. It’s probably what’s making me want to sneeze.”

Ian drummed his fingers over the prints. “You can’t easily smuggle freaking robots, but what if all the components were made elsewhere and it was all smuggled in at the same time? This would just be the assembly point.”

“Which means we need to go back to the port authority and look for any more irregularities. But, more importantly, if this was all assembled here it’s because they plan to use them here. They’re not going to make a bunch of man-sized robots here just to move them hundreds of miles and risk getting caught at inspection stations.”

Ian’s unimpressed face was almost funny. “How many do you think there are?”

Dom shook his head, looking over the plans. “I have no idea. I need an engineering consult on these plans. Someone who can extrapolate from the amount of nuclear material we know they have and the necessary size of the reactor. But I’d guess…a lot.”

“Jesus.” Ian rubbed his hand over his face. “Any idea what the robots can do? I can see a reactor of whatever type being ideal for a long-lasting power supply, but are these experimental assembly line bots that someone didn’t want to clear through the appropriate channels for use in the U.S., or are they a weapon of some kind?”

“Even without understanding everything on these specs, we both know to the answer to that.”

“Yeah. I’m just hoping there’s another reason why I’m smelling Semtex and a host of other chemicals used in the manufacture of high-yield explosives.”

Dom sighed. “You clear the site so we can do a full sensory profile of the building, and I’ll get McGuire to issue a threat alert to all agencies and departments in and around New York state. And then I’m going to ask for permission to read in an expert or two.” He turned away and kicked a pile of rags. “Robots. That’s just fucking great.”

– – – –

Dom stopped by Stark Tower rather than heading back to the office. The trail had gone cold, but Ian was out chasing leads with a couple of people from Dom’s team. Tony’s lab had the best privacy of any place in the city, so he figured he’d talk to Tony from there. He’d asked Jarvis to get a good time to call from Tony, and even though it was the middle of the night in Japan, Tony had said any time was fine.

He was glad the kids were up on 83 having fun because he didn’t really have time to talk to them right now. “Privacy protocols, Jarvis,” he said as soon as the lab doors closed behind him.

“I have Sir waiting.”

“Thanks.”

Tony’s face appeared on the display. He was obviously without a shirt, but he looked like he was sitting at a table.

“Sorry to bother you so late.”

“It’s no bother. I’d rather talk to you than lie here staring at the ceiling, not sleeping. Besides, you rarely bring me into your cases, so I figured it was important.”

“Yeah. I got permission from my AD to read you in on this case, but it’s highly classified.”

“Noted.” Tony’s eyes were narrowed with what looked like concern. Dom hated not being able to really scent and hear Tony. It had been making him more than a little grouchy. Ian had even remarked on how he was like a bear with a sore paw. The bear joke had gone over like a lead balloon.

“The day you left for Japan, routine sweeps of customs warehouse at the port of New Jersey detected traces of gamma radiation.”

“Whoa.” Tony’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s not at all where I expected this to go.”

“They finally found the shipping container that the radiation came from, and in that they found alpha particles.”

“No beta particles?” Tony tapped his pen on his chin.

“No.”

“How much gamma radiation?”

“Not much in the grand scheme of things.”

“So, probably uranium-235,” Tony concluded.

“That’s where the FBI went, too, because, before it landed on my desk, they cross-referenced shipping manifests and various investigations, and came up with a black-market sale of eight kilos of uranium-235 that Interpol had flagged on behalf of several agencies in Europe.”

“Eight kilos?”

“Yes.”

“That’s a very specific amount that’s worrying.”

“How so?”

“Well, you know it’s not actually that much, right? If we sold uranium by the gallon, a single U.S. gallon would weigh about 150 pounds, so eight kilos isn’t much in the grand scheme of things.”

“Okay. Not much should be better that a buttload, right?”

“Better than 126 gallons? Absolutely, but eight kilos is, unfortunately, the exact weight of the pellets in two four-meter nuclear fuel rods. Now, two fuel rods isn’t remotely useful for a nuclear reactor.”

“There’d be hundreds of rods, right?”

“Correct. Your standard nuclear reactor would go through nearly thirty tons of fuel pellets a year. So eight kilos isn’t useful from the general perspective of energy production. Did they track the sale of any uranium-238 or plutonium along with it?”

Dom shook his head. “I checked. Nothing that’s popped in or around what we’re looking at.”

“So we can probably take bomb off the table.”

“We followed some scent trails from the warehouse, not the uranium of course. Yellowcake reeks, but refined uranium dioxide is almost invisible to a sentinel’s nose. So we’re not relying on scent trails to track this stuff down directly. But we did track a security guard who hadn’t been to work in several days and had been in that shipping container. What we found at the end of the scent trail was these plans.” Dom set them on the work table. “Can you scan those, Jarvis?”

Tony’s expression shifted to work mode when he began shifting through the plans. Dom couldn’t see what he was doing, but he knew Tony’s work expression. “You’re worried someone is planning to use the uranium to power these?”

“You tell me. Is it even possible? We’re talking mini fission reactors, right?”

“Yes. Very, very tiny ones. Fission reactors that small aren’t something I’ve even heard of as being in the works. There isn’t a lot of application for them anyway. You’d have to change over the fuel so often it makes handling the spent fuel canisters a logistical mess.” He hesitated, expression twisting. “I could make one given time and interest. I was never interested because the byproducts of nuclear fission are the opposite of the type of work I want to do. Fusion is the only clean energy solution of the two.

“There’s also the matter that it would be something very lethal just walking around. The smallest fission reactors are often used underwater where there’s no issue of cooling to deal with. You’d have to not care about public safety at all to even consider sticking a fission reactor into something land-based that was mobile.”

“I think that’s probably a given.” Dom sighed.

“There are a couple of others I think are capable of this kind of design.”

“I don’t suppose any of them are local?”

“Reed Richards, but he’s not interested in fission reactors anymore than I am. I’d actually suggest you talk to him. He might have some insight into who else he can point you. Also, he’s there and I’m not, so he might have some idea for how you could find this stuff. I can certainly put you on the right path for where to look for some of these components, however. And Jarvis can do some figurative poking around. There are only a few factories in the world that can machine stuff with precision they’d need for this. Don’t even get me started on the circuit board complexity.” He huffed. “Why couldn’t they have left the power source specs? I suppose that would be too convenient.”

“I actually think there’s a fourth set of plans.”

“Because they readily left three behind?” Tony was back to tapping his pen on his chin. “The head as a repository for the reactor is a no go. Too small and not able to support enough weight. Chest or abdomen is much more likely.”

“Could there be a set that was between the two or combined them?”

“Maybe. Could be they tested out several placement options for the power assembly. I think higher would cause weight distribution issues because a fission reactor, no matter how small, would have to be heavy—and I honestly don’t think you can make it small enough to fit in the specs for this head. And I’m not seeing anything in these plans to account for the weight.” Tony blew out a breath. “Yeah, I’d say these are failed designs. I’m going to text Reed and tell him to fit you in the minute you get clearance to see him. We’re not best buds or anything, but he seems to think he owes me because his team were in Australia during the Battle.” Tony rolled his eyes. “Which is stupid, but I’ll take advantage of it if it gets you the answers you need.”

“Okay. I know he’s done government work before, so I’ll run it by my AD and then call him.”

“Also, I recommend you tell Bruce something. The big guy can’t be harmed by radiation, so…”

“Right.” Dom rubbed the back of his neck. Getting approval to read in Banner would be harder, but he could work on it. If he pitched it as needing someone ready to toss radioactive robots in the ocean, he might be able to get away with it.

Tony pointed his pen at Dom. “Do not get irradiated! I like you the way you are. When I said the sex was nuclear levels of hot, I didn’t ever intend for you to take me literally.”

– – – –

Dom sat across from Reed Richards, not liking the expression on the man’s face. All he’d done was show the scientist the plans, he hadn’t mentioned anything about the uranium.

Finally, Richards pushed the plans back toward Dom. “I recognize the…we’ll call it the style of the engineering, for lack of a better word. Victor Von Doom designed those—it’s exactly his aesthetic. They’re all mocked up differently for various power supply placements. Did you find the plans for the actual power source?”

“No. We found these when we tracked a guy who worked security at the port of New Jersey. What we were actually looking for was about eight kilograms of refined uranium-235.”

“Victor, you idiot.” Richards rubbed his hand over his face. “He miniaturized a fission reactor.”

“Is he capable of that?”

“Maybe not him, but he employs a lot of scientists who crank out really annoying tech on his behalf. And Victor wouldn’t care about the possible collateral damage if his little reactors were to rupture.”

“How many of these bots could he make with eight kilos of uranium pellets?”

“Well, that’s 800 fuel pellets. Energy equivalencies aren’t the easiest thing to estimate, but approximately five pellets would create enough energy to be comparable to about 85,000 cubic feet of natural gas.”

Dom nearly choked. “Isn’t that enough to run a house for like a year?”

“Moderate-size house, yeah. It’s not clear how many he’d need per bot because it’d depends on whether there are any high-energy weapons involved. The plans aren’t specific about armament.”

“Best guest, Dr. Richards, how many could they make if they have figured out how to miniaturize a fission reactor?”

“Based on the assumption that the bots are for something short-term, meaning they’d be operable for four to six hours after activation, and that they had at least one moderate-yield energy weapon on board… I’d say there’s enough fuel here for about a hundred. But if he’s fueling the weapons separately? He could have enough for four hundred or even eight hundred. It all depends on how long he needs to keep them operational to meet his ends.”

“Great.”

“While the reactor the uranium would fuel is the most challenging aspect from a science perspective, and the acquisition of the uranium the most difficult logistically, after those two pieces, manufacture of the control boards is going to be the most problematic. This is very specialized circuitry work. It’s most likely Victor would have done it where he could prevent questions being asked—which means a lot of these components were probably made in Latveria. The U.S. government keeps an eye on shipments from Latveria, but you might want to look into nations Latveria is allied with as the source of the shipments. He could have routed them through a country we wouldn’t scrutinize too closely.”

– – – –

7 July 2012

“Rossi,” he answered briskly, distracted by the mountain of tip reports he was helping other agents wade through. It was Saturday, but he didn’t expect to be going home before they solved this case. The Fantastic Four were pursuing leads and coordinating with Dom or Ian, but nothing had come of it yet.

“Agent Rossi, I have Director Holder on the line for you,” the director’s admin said in her oddly flat tone.

Dom sighed, wondering what the director could possibly need that was more important than the case they were working. “I’m moving back to my office now.”

“Rossi,” the director said as soon as the call connected, “why is SHIELD bothering me?”

“Sir, I find SHIELD to generally be a bother. What specifically are they bothering you about?”

Holder sighed. “They’re claiming jurisdiction over your case.”

“I wasn’t aware SHIELD had jurisdiction over anything.”

“That’s a fair point. They don’t in any traditional way. It’s more like they have areas of oversight.”

“And smuggled nuclear material on American soil is in any way one of their areas?”

“Obtuse doesn’t become you, Rossi, though I wore the same mask myself earlier in the day.” Holder laughed. “But there’s a case to be made that freaky robots might be more their bailiwick than ours.”

“Respectfully, sir, SHIELD has proven themselves to be more of a blunt instrument in these matters than any of us are comfortable with. It was their plane, their hardware, their facilitation that shot a nuke at New York. Fury may claim to have disagreed with the order, but since he’s been proven to be easily overruled by others, I’m not comfortable turning over my case to anything even remotely connected with SHIELD. Especially with their questionable history with things nuclear.”

“Hmm.” Holder was quiet for a long time. “I’ll tell Fury to fuck off, then?”

“You have all the fun jobs, sir.”

“And old man’s got to get his kicks where can, son. Speaking of kicks, you and that great big teddy bear are all I hear about at home.”

“Um.” Dom scratched the back of my neck. “I’m really sorry to hear that, sir. Your dinner conversations sound dreadfully dull.”

Holder chuckled. “My granddaughter, who is five, would like Bubba’s autograph.”

“Sir, while he’s a work in progress and we have great expectations of him, Bubba can’t actually hold a pen.”

“I’m sure you’ll sort it out.”

“Right.”

“I’ll let you get back to work.”

“Thank you, sir.” He hung up and decided to dump how to deal with bear autographs on Jarvis. Dom had managed to get the giant bear into Stark Tower and situated on the 83rd floor. He’d started a Twitter feed and recruited people to handle Mini-B. He was not on autograph detail.

– – – –

“Dom?” Dana called from the doorway.

“What’s up?” He didn’t even lift his head from where it was resting on his arms. It was the first night he couldn’t go home. Instead, he was pulling it out from the office and catching cat naps. He had an impending sense of doom about the whole robot thing and didn’t feel like he could afford to take his eye off the ball.

“You have a visitor.” She sounded underwhelmed.

He looked up. “I have a visitor. At two in the morning?” He sighed. “Let me guess. Tall dude, eye patch, excess of leather?”

“Bingo. Plus Romanoff and Barton are with him.”

Dom sighed. Most law enforcement could spot the spy-duo now—the battle had significantly raised their profile and made being effective spies impossible. Pictures were all over social media from people who had captured photos of the battle. “Where are they?”

“Conference room off the main lobby. I wasn’t letting them past security.”

“Joy.” He got to his feet.

Ian rose as well. “I’ll hang back, but you’re not going alone.”

Penelope waved them off, her head staying where she was using Mini-B as a pillow on the conference room table.

When they got downstairs, Ian stayed outside the room, giving Dom a nod as he headed into confront the leather-clad lion who was decidedly far away from his den.

“Director Fury,” Dom said as he kicked the door shut behind him and sprawled out in a conference room chair, “what can the FBI do for you at two in the morning? I know! You came for Bubba’s autograph. It’s all the rage lately.”

Romanoff glared, Barton smirked, but Fury’s expression was impassive. “I underestimated you, Rossi, I readily admit that. I thought you’d come on side to keep your relationship on the QT, but I misjudged you. But the bottom line is that the Avengers need Stark, and he needs them.”

“Does he? Interesting. He hasn’t said anything to me about post-Avengers ennui.”

Fury shot him a look brimming with disappointment even though his scent-pile was a muddle of angry-type emotions that were only barely touched by scent blockers. “SHIELD could also do with having you on board, so I admit that I got a little heavy handed trying to get you to see things from my perspective.”

“Uh huh.” Dom laced his fingers and rested them on his stomach while leaning his head against the back of the chair. “I’m just gonna rest here. Let me know when you’re ready to get to the point.”

“I want you to work with Agent Romanoff and Barton on this case of uranium-powered bots.”

“No.”

Fury glared. “That’s it?”

“I’m pretty sure the director already told you where to go. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I don’t trust them or you. I don’t want you anywhere near the case.”

“You don’t have any idea what you’re dealing with,” Romanoff snapped.

“I know exactly what I’m dealing with. Because I got permission to read in Tony who sent me to talk to someone else who identified who created the designs. So, we’ve got it covered. You’re not needed here.”

“You’re not going to be able to handle Victor Von Doom on your own. And once we have proof that it’s him, we will be taking over.”

“Do you think it’s Doom because you followed me when I went to talk to Reed Richards? Are you stalking me, Nick? That’s actually a crime you know.” He’d smelled Romanoff when he’d been at the Baxter Building, but he was pretty used to smelling Romanoff following him or Tony around. “I consulted with Richards because Tony suggested it, not because I suspected Victor Von Doom of anything.”

“Which doesn’t explain why you’re looking into shipments coming out of Latveria.”

The FBI was leaking information like a fucking sieve. Dom pasted a pleasant expression on his face. “I’ve got Reed Richards and Tony Stark working the problem, two of the most capable minds on the planet.” Bruce, Sue Storm, and Betty Ross were also on it, all holed up at the Baxter Building together, but Fury didn’t need to know that. “I really don’t think you bring anything to the table except too much leather. You know where the door is…” He got up and walked out of the room, not giving Fury a chance to reply.


Chapters 1-3 | Main Page | Chapters 7-9

2 Comments:

  1. “He had an impending sense of doom about the whole robot thing”
    Intentional pun? If so, well played! If not, well, still loved it!

  2. Oo, two DIFFERENT people get to tell Fury No.

no matter where you go, there you are...