Today's installment is the first few pages of a Dreaded Bonding AU story where Tony Stark finds out he's a Guide. Because apparently I have to do one of those in every fandom I write for, now.
In a way, it was Steve’s fault.
He’d figured out pretty quick that Tony Stark was a Guide—the super soldier serum didn’t make him a Sentinel, but it did pep up his senses some, and there had been a couple of Sentinel-Guide teams in the Howling Commandos. He knew what they smelled like.
He also noticed more or less right away that Tony wasn’t anywhere near as polite, deferential, and professionally invisible as the SHIELD Guides he saw around base were. But he didn’t make much of it. He figured either Tony had gotten his service out of the way and promptly forgot all his military discipline as soon as he was done, or maybe he’d gotten out of it for one reason or another. Medical, or because his work was defense-related, or maybe Howard had just pulled some strings. Steve had liked Howard Stark well enough, once they’d gotten the matter of Peggy straightened out, but he did seem like the kind of guy who might finagle his boy out of military service, especially if it wasn’t wartime.
And he hadn’t learned much about how things had changed, for Sentinels and especially for Guides, while he’d been…away. It wasn’t directly relevant to him, and there was a lot to learn. So he hadn’t thought much of it. He assumed everyone knew, and it was no big deal.
If he had known, or at least had known more than he did, he might have made the same call. He couldn’t say.
It happened when what had been supposed to be a simple investigation and retrieval operation into an abandoned HYDRA base turned into a confrontation with a neo-Nazi militia. Ironically, they were mostly there so that Tony could have a look at any leftover tech in situ, and oversee its safe removal if necessary. Otherwise, the two regular SHIELD squads who were with them, and the Sentinel they’d brought along to ferret out any hidden rooms, could have handled it. It was just their bad luck that when the firefight started, the Sentinel’s Guide was among the first ones hit.
Either of the Howling Commandos’ Sentinels would have been able to push on—it wasn’t a particularly serious wound, just a lot of blood. But Sentinel Webster was a technician, not a soldier. When the Guide was hit, an anguished scream came over the comms, trailing abruptly into a whimper before it was cut off by the Widow’s voice. “Petey’s been hit,” she said. “Webster’s freaking out. Pretty sure he’s zoned on the blood. I can take out these clowns or I can watch Webster’s back until he gets his shit together, but I can’t do both.”
Steve had only had to think about it for a second. The militia guys were reasonably well armed, and they’d gotten the drop on them, but they weren’t the kind of enemy that really required a guy who could fly and shoot laser beams out of the palms of his hands. “Iron Man,” he snapped, over the open comm channel. “Go help Webster.”
“Kind of busy here, Cap,” Tony had answered, the sound of his repulsors in the background. “Thor’s looking for a rumble, why don’t you--”
“Stark,” Steve snapped, wondering why everything had to be a goddamn argument with Stark. “His Guide’s down. I need you over there. Now.”
That actually got Tony moving. When Steve caught up with them again—after all of the neo-Nazis were neutralized—Natasha was administering first aid to the other Guide, while Tony was crouched awkwardly on the floor next to Webster, his faceplate up and one gauntlet off, holding Webster’s hand.
Actually, it was more that Webster was clutching Tony’s hand, because Tony had no idea what he was supposed to be doing, but Steve didn’t notice that at the time. A med support team showed up, and Petey managed to regain consciousness long enough to get his Sentinel grounded. It wasn’t until they were in a conference room on the Helicarrier debriefing that Steve realized anything out of the ordinary had happened. He’d just gotten to the part where he explained how the Guide had gotten hurt, saying, “So I sent Stark to assist--” when Tony interrupted.
“Yeah, why did you send me, anyway?”
“Who else was I supposed to send?” Steve had asked, annoyed.
“I don’t know; anyone else?”
“You were the only Guide present who wasn’t bleeding out,” Steve had said, trying to keep his tone calm and reasonable.
Tony said, “The fuck I am,” at the same time as Fury, the Sentinel’s supervisor, and Agent Coulson all said, “Stark isn’t a Guide.”
At that point, if Steve had known what was going to happen, he would have backed down. It would have been easy just to say that he must have been mistaken—he wasn’t a Sentinel; it would be a strange mistake to make, but nothing that couldn’t have blown over. But he didn’t know. He said, “Of course he is,” and “Geez, I never figured you for a draft-dodger, Stark.”
It turned out that that was the kind of accusation that had to be investigated. Tony was characteristically sarcastic about it at first, complaining about how he had to waste his valuable time just because Steve had some weird conviction that he was a Guide. When a SHIELD Sentinel came into the briefing room and told Tony to take his hand, Tony quipped, “I don’t know; usually I get people to buy me a drink first.”
“Stark,” Coulson said. “Just do it.”
Tony did, then jumped back as though he had been burned. “The actual fuck?”
“He is,” the Sentinel said, giving Tony a look of undisguised contempt.
Tony was pale, shaking his head and swallowing hard. “No. That’s—I can’t be. I was tested, just like everyone else, and I’m not.”
Steve still didn’t understand. He got that Tony really hadn’t known, but he didn’t see why he was so rattled by the news. It wasn’t until Tony insisted on a blood test, and Fury agreed, but said he’d have to be kept in custody pending the results, that Steve realized there was more to this situation than he knew, and that the “more” was something bad.
Tony paced. They’d confiscated the suit—Bruce, at his insistence, had agreed to take it back to the Tower—and locked him in a set of crew quarters. With a guard on the door, since the electronic lock wouldn’t have kept him in for more than thirty seconds. And even without the suit, he could have stolen a Quinjet or something.
Since he was apparently a criminal now.
There wasn’t much room for pacing. The quarters weren’t much bigger than a prison cell—bunk beds on one wall, a couple of drawers for personal effects, a portioned-off bathroom about the size of a postage stamp. At least he didn’t have a roommate.
He wouldn’t be here long. They’d get this stupid mistake, practical joke, whatever it was, sorted out.
He held on to that thought until Fury came in, a medical printout in his hand. Wordlessly, he passed it to Tony.
There, in black and white—well, blue on gray, sort of—was the proof. There were eleven genetic markers for Guide status; Tony had seven of them. Three was enough. Tony wanted to say it was impossible, but he knew better. It was more than possible; it was true. Up in the conference room, the Sentinel they’d dragged in had linked with him. He’d never linked before, but it couldn’t have been anything else, that feeling of another mind—a hostile one—brushing up against his. Just thinking about it made his skin crawl.
“This is a problem,” Fury said.
“I didn’t know.” Tony shook his head. “I swear to God I didn’t know.”
“I think I believe you.” That was a relief, kind of. “For one thing, you’re not stupid enough to have kept on hanging around a security organization if you were trying to keep this under wraps. Sooner or later, somebody was going to figure it out.” Fury paused, just for a moment. “It’s still a problem.”
“How many people know? You, me, Steve, Coulson, that Sentinel, whoever did the DNA test--”
“And everyone who was on the op today, and their immediate superiors, and anyone they’ve talked to about it,” Fury continued. “But even if it was a shorter list, I cannot—this organization cannot—conspire with you to break the law.”
“I didn’t know,” Tony said again.
“And now you do.” Fury sighed. “Coulson’s looking into it—what we have to do. He’ll come down and fill you in as soon as he knows something.”
“I need to make some calls,” Tony said. Pepper. His legal department. Pepper.
Fury hesitated. “I’ll get you a phone.”
Steve had to talk to Tony.
After leaving the conference room, he’d gotten hold of a tablet and done some research. There had been signs, in his day, of how the military was attempting to standardize Sentinel-Guide relations. Matching pairs through the latest scientific techniques, for instance, rather than deferring to the Sentinels’ own judgment. Rotating a Sentinel through several Guides over the course or a tour of duty, instead of leaving pairs together as long as they functioned and no one complained. Increasing attention to formalities that emphasized the Guide’s subordinate relationship to the Sentinel. The explanation had been that making the Sentinel-Guide relationship less personal and intimate would keep Sentinels’ protective instincts under control, and increase efficiency, since if half of a pair was sidelined due to injury or illness, the other one could be reassigned and returned to duty.
It had made a certain amount of sense, but the Howling Commandos had cheerfully ignored most of it, just like they ignored the rules racial segregation, and anything else that got in the way of their effectiveness and unit cohesion.
The race regs had been struck down in ’48—and about damn time, as far as Steve was concerned—but the Sentinel-Guide regs got even tighter. Pair matching was overseen by liaison officers from the Sentinel-Guide Division of the Selective Service Administration, with the Sentinels having little say, and the Guides none at all. Provisions were made for the mandatory term of military service to be renewed indefinitely, with release typically only granted for “approved employment”—police or another government agency. Responsibility for training Sentinels and Guides shifted from the military branches themselves to the Sentinel-Guide Division, which then split into two separate agencies, one for “recruiting” Sentinels, the other for “training and assigning” Guides.
It was at that point that the situation for Guides had gone straight to hell. Corporal punishment for Guides went from being frowned upon to being actively encouraged. Guide Training and Assignment Centers turned into something like prison camps, where the Guides were broken down and remolded into something cowering and obedient. And G-TAC, once they got their hands on a Guide, were very reluctant to give them up, and wormed their way into maintaining a supervisory relationship over Guides even if they were released to civilian occupations. Guides could be reassigned or brought in for additional “training” at their liaison officer’s will.
The civilian world, and even a great deal of the military, had been unaware of exactly how bad things had gotten until a Guide named Blair Sandburg, who had successfully evaded the draft for several years, was captured, subjected to several years of torture, and somehow emerged strong enough to make his story public.
That had been about ten years ago, and things were supposed to be improving again now. Draft policies had been rewritten to put some brakes on the cycle of constantly renewing conscription terms, and to peg the number of Sentinels and Guides drafted to actual military needs, rather than automatically taking all of them. Regulations for protecting Guides from abuse were given some teeth, and Guides were given privileges equal to those of Sentinels to request reassignment or a particular type of assignment. There were official limits on how much force could be used in Guide training, and a committee to enforce them.
Steve had to struggle not to vomit, reading the list of training techniques that, apparently, some people needed to be told were not acceptable. Physical discipline resulting in broken bones, damage to any organ or sensory system, or “burns classified as third-degree or higher in severity.” Caloric deprivation of over 50% of normal intake, lasting 72 hours or more. Exposure to extreme temperatures resulting in heat stroke or hypothermia. Sleep deprivation lasting 48 hours or more. Maintenance of stress positions for excessive periods. That part of the report included examples of stress positions and guidelines for how long was “excessive.”
Now he understood why Stark had chosen to evade the draft. Or why Howard had chosen it for him. However it had happened, it wasn’t something Steve had any right to criticize.
A low-ranking SHIELD operative stopped Steve at the door to the quarters Tony had been assigned, asking “What’s your business with the Guide, sir?”
“I’m his team leader,” Steve said. The operative seemed unimpressed by that, so he added, “Debriefing. We need to sort out what we’re going to do from here.”
Apparently that was a good enough answer. The operative unlocked the door and stepped aside. Steve knocked.
“What?” came Stark’s voice, strained with anxiety.
“It’s Rogers. Can I come in?”
“Pretty sure I can’t say no.”
Steve let himself in. Stark was dressed in the gym clothes he wore under the Iron Man suit—sweatpants, t-shirt, tennis shoes—and his hair stood up in uneven spikes. As Steve watched, he demonstrated why, raking one hand roughly through it. “Cap,” he said. “I really didn’t know. I think—Dad must’ve—it’s the only explanation I can figure.”
Steve nodded. “It seems like something he would do. Mind if I sit down?” After a moment’s hesitation, Tony nodded. The bunk was the only place to sit, so Steve sat there.
“I’d offer you a drink, but uh…yeah, you’re free to slurp some water out of the faucet if you want.”
“I’m fine, thanks. D’you want me to have something sent from the mess when I leave?”
“Uh, no, I’m not—not hungry.” Tony paced in the tiny room, like the big cats in the Bronx Zoo of Steve’s youth, when the animals had been confined to barren iron and concrete cages.
“I didn’t…I assumed you’d finished your military service, or been excused,” Steve explained awkwardly. “I…did some reading, just now, and now I know it doesn’t work like that anymore. I’m sorry.”
“Has anybody told you anything? Do you know if they’re going to try and make me--” Tony stopped swallowed hard and pivoted on his heel, pacing the few steps to the opposite wall.
“I don’t know,” Steve said. “I can look into it.”
Shaking his head, Tony said, “Agent is, already. And Pepper, and the SI legal team. I was hoping maybe my age…but apparently they can take you anywhere up to age 60. Maybe a medical deferment.” He tapped the arc reactor in his chest. “Or, um, conscientious objector. I’m sure that disgusts you. Trying to get out of serving my country. But--”
“You’re already serving your country,” Steve said. “And—I didn’t know what it’s like, for Guides, here. Now. Did you know about this Sandburg fella?”
“Yeah. Everybody does.” Tony paced some more. “He only dodged the draft for seven years, and look what they did to him. Me? Almost twenty-five years. I’ll be lucky to make it out alive.”
“I’d have kept it a secret, if I had any idea, really.” But he supposed that wasn’t Stark’s main concern right now. “And I’m going to do whatever I can to help. I can tell the draft board we need you more as Iron Man than as a Guide. Might carry some weight, coming from Captain America.”
“Thanks,” Tony said. “Yeah, that…that ought to work, but….” Tony slumped against the wall, rubbing his hand over his face. “I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t have pissed off everybody I know in DC if I’d known about this. I wonder if…maybe if I agree to some weapons contracts, the DOD will get me out of it.”
“You shouldn’t have to do that.” Steve knew how important his decision not to manufacture weapons anymore was to Tony.
“Shouldn’t,” Tony said with a huff. “I can’t try that and the conscientious objector thing. Have to figure out which one’s more likely to work. And yes, I realize I’m a huge coward. Apparently I don’t have any moral principles I’m not willing to put aside to save my own ass.”
“That’s not true.” Tony hadn’t given in to the terrorists’ demands, when he’d been captive, even though his own plan, of building the first Iron Man suit right under their noses and escaping in it was much riskier.
Steve tried to remind him of that, but Tony just flicked his hand and said, “I don’t—let’s not talk about that; I’m freaking out enough already.”
“Right. Sorry.” Steve should have known better; he had things he doesn’t like talking about, either. Soldier’s heart, they called it, two wars before his. PTSD, they called it now. “I’ll do whatever I can to help make this come out right,” he reiterated. “In the meantime, is there anything I can do? How long are they keeping you here? I can get you some things from your apartment, if you want.” It didn’t seem like much to offer, but sometimes the little things helped.
“I don’t know. Yeah, okay. I need a suit.” Steve was about to say he didn’t think that was wise, but Tony went on, “A suit-suit, not armor. Shirt, tie, belt, shoes, the whole shebang. JARVIS can tell you which ones. And, you know, razor, toothbrush, that stuff.”
Steve understood what he meant—if Tony had to face anyone down, he wanted to do it dressed as Tony Stark: Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist. That was a kind of armor, too. “You got it,” Steve said. “Anything else?”
“—they’re in the bowl on the kitchen counter; JARVIS can tell you. Bottle of Scotch, if they’ll let you. Worth a shot.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Steve promised.
A tablet—the one from my nightstand, if they’ll let you. So far, all I’ve been able to get my hands on is this.” Tony waved a very basic cell phone—very much not Stark tech; the kind that Tony had called a “grandpa phone” when SHIELD tried to issue Steve one.
“Better than two tin cans with a piece of string tied between them,” Steve noted.