It's cold. Well, it's probably cold. He's shaking, his breath visible in the air around him.
He knows his body is cold. His skin hurts, his nose stopped running a while ago, snot and blood and tears frozen on his face.
Not that he feels it.
There's cotton in his ears, the world around him tumbling and crashing and he can't focus on anything.
He's hurt. Some part of his brain knows he's hurt. Knows that there might be cracked ribs, knows he's freezing to death out here in the open, without a jacket, without a scarf, without gloves.
He knows this.
He's just not sure he's able to care right now.
He doesn't hear the crunch of snow under his feet. Doesn't hear the crack of branches, the wind in the trees.
All he hears is the sound of screeching tires, the crash of metal and stone, the sound of metal bending out of form.
The screams of his mother. His father shouting for her to get down.
A thump, pain lancing through his head. Darkness and blissed silence.
It didn't last long.
He managed to pull himself out of the car - did he get that cut on his abdomen then? The broken window? It leaves a trail of blood.
Or maybe that's the cut on his arm.
He pulled himself out.
Crawled away from the wreck.
No. That's not right. His mum's dead. He checked her pulse, his finger shaking. Doesn't look into her wide open eyes, the cracked open skull of his father.
Then he'd pulled himself out.
And cut himself.
Maybe? He doesn't know. God, he doesn't know anything.
Just that his mum's eyes aren't supposed to look like that. Just that his father threw himself in front of his mother and still she stopped screaming.
He hated her screams, but he wishes he could hear them now.
Not just in his head.
Anywhere but in his head.
But he can't, because she's gone and she doesn't have a pulse and her skin was still warm and her makeup done and her hair in neat, neat braids. And his father's beard immaculate and his eyes wide, so wide but his skull was cracked and he was still moaning, still saying things, he was alive and why isn't he back there, why did he leave, when his father was still moaning, still alive?
Is he looking for help? What is he doing, why did he leave, he can't just leave him there!
But there was help. Wasn't there? A man. He was on a bike. Why was anyone on a bike in this weather? They could get into an accident, could crack their skull could lose control of their vehicle.
He wasn't drunk. Mum had been angry and Howard had promised not to drink.
And he hadn't. For once he hadn't touched a single drop.
But he'd gotten into an accident. Still. Never when he was drunk, but the one night he was sober.
So why did the man on the bike think he could get away on roads in these conditions and not get into an accident?
But he'd stopped. Stopped next to the car and looked at him as he got out.
He had talked to the man. Hadn't he?
Asked... yes, said help. Wanted him to help, because he hadn't hit his head, had probably had a phone or something. Had a functioning bike, had legs to walk on. He could get help, for Howard, for him. Not for his mum. Because his mum was still warm, but her eyes were too wide. They weren't supposed to be that wide open. Were they?
The man had stopped. Had looked down at him. But his vision was blurring.
It was a man though, wasn't it?
All in black. He remembers that.
Is Death real? Maybe it was Death.
But Death is supposed to have a scythe and a black cloak.
Not black body armor and a mask and a rifle.
He might have been hallucinating.
The man had looked down on him and stepped past him.
Ripped open the door. Driver's door. Opened Howard's door and leaned in.
He can't hear anything. Not the wind in the trees. Not the snow under his boots, not the creaking of branches. He can only hear the crash of metal on stone, of metal bending out of shape. Can hear his mother screaming and his father gasping.
Tony doesn't know how long he's run. It's not quite running, maybe. He's tumbling and his legs are hurting. But the man in black didn't come after him. Only looked at him, with hidden eyes and then looked back down. Crouched and leaned forwards into the car.
There was a 'crack' and Tony vomited.
It's his concussion, nothing else. Not the sound from the car.
And he keeps on running, walking, leaving the car behind him.
He needs to call for help, but there's no one left to help.
His mum is dead and Howard is dead. And he threw himself in front of mum and he told Tony to run and he didn't drink a drop of alcohol.
The one night. The one night he did right.
And now he's dead and his mum is dead and Tony can't hear the snow.
There's a rhythmic thumping. It might be music. But it's not. There was music on the radio, but it didn't have any thumping. It had soft piano notes.
Tony stops running. Or walking. Stops moving. Looks up, because that's where the sound comes from.
The wind picks up. He doesn't hear it in the trees, barely feels it on his frozen skin.
But he sees the trees bend away.
He hears footsteps. Heavy boots on the snow.
He smiles and his lip cracks and it's stiff. But those are army boots, aren't they? He knows that sound.
He doesn't know how, but Rhodey has found him.
Maybe the man in black did call for help. Maybe Rhodey was already looking.
Why would he have been looking? Tony was at home. Wasn't back in the dorm.
Rhodey's at home too, visiting his family. Asked Tony to come. And he's going to join them in few days. But his father asked him to come to this presentation and he thought, that maybe, maybe his father really wants him there. Maybe he's done something right.
But he was just in the background, like he always is. Doesn't know why he was supposed to be there. Unless it's for some nice family picture. Then he and his mum are both there.
Well, his mum is in a lot of them.
Howard likes his mum. A lot. He just doesn't seem to be all that keen on Tony.
But the point is, he's there. And he's on the way back. But Rhodey, Rhodey's not supposed to be here. But he is, because those are his boots and now Tony can let go and feel the cold again.
He turns around and the smile is still cracking open his lip. The blood feels warm on his not-cold skin.
But that smile freezes as well.
It's not Rhodey. It's the man in black and he stands there, his eyes no longer hidden. They're open too wide.
They look dead.
There's a man beside him.
He looks like he might have been at the party earlier. All sharp suit, neat hair style. Manicured nails.
He turns to the man with the boots.
Tony's Russian is rusty, but he understands him.
"Bring him in."
Tony doesn't want to do what they tell him. He's hurting and he might have screamed for his mum at some point. For Jarvis.
Even for his dad. He hasn't called him dad in over twelve years.
But they don't stop. They put needles in him and dunk his head into a barrel of water. Again and again. Call him Heil IV and he's crying and he wants them to stop and he just wants to go home and wants to curl into a tight ball, have his mum's arms around him, wants his father to laugh and tell him about the Howling Commandos and that thing that Cap did that one time.
Those are nice moments. He clings to them, tries to remember them.
But he loses them more and more with each day. Loses the smell of his mum's perfume. Loses the feeling of her dress against his neck. Loses the sound of laughter and the feeling of carpet under his feet.
Loses the benevolent smile Jarvis throws them, or the slight frown when he sees the glass in Howard's hand.
The smell of whiskey is the last thing he loses.
He's in a cell. Maybe. It's where he's supposed to stay. He doesn't know where else to go to, though. Doesn't know what's out there behind the bare walls.
Where do they think he'll go? Is it a cell, if he doesn't want to leave?
They fetch him. He doesn't know when. Once a day? Once a week? Every three hours?
They inject him with things. Make him watch pictures and film reels. Call him Heil IV again. Have him recite things and not react to others.
They start training him.
They don't need to train him much with weapons. He's quicker than all of his instructors with them.
They approve. They don't say it, but Tony's learned a long time ago to read people.
He doesn't always understand why people feel things, but he knows that they do.
They approve. But they don't tell him. They just give him other tasks.
Marksmanship. He's not so good with that.
They hurt, they hurt so much.
That's when he sees him again for the first time.
He doesn't know what's so different about him, why he notices him.
He might be familiar, but there's not much that is familiar to him now. He's wearing dark combat gear and a mask over his face. Brown, messy hair starts to fall into his face.
The little spark of something that might have been recognition soon fades under blows and hits and hurts.
Heil isn't sure, but he thinks it doesn't take him as long as it should to get over his injuries. He doesn't know how he knows this. But he should take longer to heal.
He's got other instructors as well. A mousy little guy. An elegant woman with dark hair in a topknot. A brutal looking guy who doesn't seem to be teaching him much in way of technique and more about pain endurance.
He likes the man with the messy brown hair best.
He's not nice or gentle. Far from it. But he's not cold. For all that he has dead eyes, he's not cold. He's not clinical, doesn't enjoy hurting him.
But he rarely trains with him. There's a lot of time - months? weeks? years? - between those lessons.
Heil stopped counting a long time ago.
Sometimes he's called in to repair stuff. He's good at that. He likes repairing things. He doesn't enjoy things. He's not supposed to enjoy things. But fixing things is something he's good at, something that calms him down, that doesn't hurt and still earns him approval.
At some point they tell him to build stuff.
He's not supposed to like this either, but he does. They tell him 'Build a gun that does this' or 'Build a missile that does that'. They tell him 'Update this plane'.
And he does.
There are thoughts niggling in the back of his mind, telling him to do something else, that he could just tweak this, play with that and the plane could be able to be even more awesome.
But he's not supposed to have those thoughts, so he doesn't act on them. He has his orders and he follows them to the letter.
He doesn't want to get any more injections, doesn't want to be held under water again, just to see how long he can hold his breath.
He's not supposed to oppose what his instructors deem necessary. He doesn't voice those thoughts.
But he fixes stuff. And he builds things. Builds exactly what they tell him to build.
He sees the man in the dark body armor again.
He's sitting on a chair that can be reclined. His arm is bare and it's made of metal.
It's also severely deformed.
The face of the man betrays nothing. It's indifferent and unmoving.
It's the first time Heil has seen it without a mask covering it.
He stares for a moment too long and is shoved forward.
But there are no consequences.
"Hurry. We need the Asset back on the field yesterday."
Heil frowns at him. He's not able to turn the time back. He can fix, but he can't do that.
There's a man in a nice and neat suit in the room. Tony's never seen him up close. He's just sometimes there, on the other side of a window, or giving speeches on the television.
His hair starts to gray. His nails are manicured.
"Just fix his arm."
Tony nods. He can do that.
He pulls his tools out and sits down.
The man's face betrays nothing. But once Heil opens the mangled arm he can see that it's just because the man must have amazing control. He envies him. He wants that control as well.
But the man has given him lessons. And he's never been cruel. He's hurt him, but only ever in the sense of training. Never just to hurt him. He's been as nice as the lessons allow him to be.
Which is not very nice. But it's not malicious.
Heil cuts two wires and the man's face smooths out for the fraction of a second. He doesn't think the others have seen it. But he has.
The cold eyes don't seem so dead, when they stare at him. Just for a second.
But Heil stares back, holds that moment close.
He had forgotten what gratitude feels like.
He's working on the arm more often after that. They tell him to update it. Make it more precise, make it stronger, make it sturdy.
And he does. But he also makes it lighter. He ignores the niggling in the back of his head that tells him that he's only supposed to follow orders. That tells him that he's not supposed to have these wayward thoughts, much less act on them.
He makes it lighter, makes it feel texture and warmth and cold.
And sometimes the man will look at him, no mask and no barrier in front of his eyes.
And he'll never smile. Never say anything, never nod.
But Heil slowly starts remembering what warmth feels like.
The Asset sees him in front of the training room. There's a vague sense of recognition. He has probably seen the boy around the base before.
He's standing mostly still but one of his hands keeps twitching. His eyes keep moving all over the place. He leans forward just slightly before straightening again. Almost unnoticeable.
Like he wants to curl in on himself.
The Asset is to train the boy to fight.
First thing he'll have to learn is hide his tells.
He sometimes sees him around the base after that. Coming from the technician's workrooms. Sometimes from the labs or the recalibration rooms. When he's coming back from there his eyes are wide open, the white showing. He's pale then, shaking.
Sometimes he sees him with other handlers. Sometimes in training, sometimes after.
He still looks mulish then, but his bullheadedness grows less and less.
They send him on a mission. He doesn't know how, someone messed up and it had gone to hell in a matter of seconds. He completed the mission, but two of his handlers are down, the kill was very messy and will draw attention and his arm is no longer functioning.
It's hurting, like someone is ripping it off, constantly.
He doesn't let them see. Emotions are not required.
They send him into the repair room.
He sits down in the chair, keeping an eye on the door. The handlers and mechanic enter.
It's not his usual mechanic. Instead the boy - he doesn't look like a boy anymore. People age so fast around him - sits down next to the reclineable chair.
He's not fidgeting now. But his eyes widen as he takes in the damage of the arm.
He starts working on the arm, his hands so careful. Almost... gentle? Just a moment later the pain stops so suddenly that there's a rush in the Assets head.
He looks at the mechanic and doesn't know what he feels.
Heil doesn't see the man in the dark body armor for a while after that. That's not unusual.
What's unusual is that he finds himself missing him.
He's not supposed to miss things.
There are other things he would miss, otherwise.
He doesn't tell his instructors about those forbidden feelings. He doesn't want to go back to the films and the needles and the water.
He's malfunctioning. But he's good at fixing things. He'll get rid of those feelings in his chest, fix himself and no one needs to know.
They scream at him and rush him to medical. His fix doesn't work. He tried to get to the part where the warmth comes from. But he's flesh and blood. He's not made of metal. So he bleeds and bleeds and bleeds and his healing isn't able to stop it.
The blood that runs down his chest feels warm.
Maybe it's not so bad to remember?
He wakes up.
There's a heavy weight in his chest. He looks down and sees cables coming out of him.
Is he made of metal now? Can he fix himself now?
Heil IV updates himself. He's not made of metal. He can't fix himself, but he can update himself, can get rid of the cables and the battery.
They tell him to duplicate the fix.
He does and he doesn't. He's not supposed to disobey orders, but he remembers what warmth feels like. He still hasn't fixed that.
So he duplicates the fix, only he doesn't. It's not stable.
He tells them he doesn't know how to fix it.
They are more careful with him afterwards. Don't want him to blow up.
But the reactor in his chest is safe enough.
Safe for him.
He's got injections in his blood and it doesn't poison him.
He's not made of metal and there's still warmth in his chest.
He doesn't tell his instructors and waits.
They leave him alone now when he works on the arm. He's safe. He doesn't know where he could escape to, doesn't have a place to go to.
Doesn't have thoughts of his own.
The Asset is loyal, so neither of them will do something.
He likes it. Likes that they're not constantly looking over his shoulders. It makes his skin crawl. It feels like frozen tears and not feeling the snow under his feet.
He doesn't know what snow feels like.
He works on the arm and makes sure it's safe for the Asset. He's just supposed to repair it. But they don't know what he's doing. They would do it themselves, if they knew.
The Asset stares at him. His eyes aren't as wide anymore. They aren't cold or dead now.
He likes that.
He's not supposed to like things.
"Move your arm."
The Asset moves through a range of motions, testing. He nods. He stares at Heil.
"Where's my old technician?"
Heil blinks. The Asset doesn't talk. Only answers questions. Doesn't ask questions.
"I am your technician."
The Asset nods and leaves the room.
The next time the Asset is send out on a mission Heil accompanies him.
There's a whole world behind the bare walls of his cell. Is it a cell?
Now it is. Now he knows that there are things outside. He smells the cut grass. He can feel the sun on his face.
He blinks. He sees a bright dress and remembers someone laugh and tell him he did good.
Heil looks at the Asset and wonders if he remembers.
Wonders why there's a name rattling around in his skull.
He doesn't tell his handlers that he's malfunctioning. He's going back to his cell, but he doesn't want to forget again.
He's going to remember and he's going to make the Asset remember, too.
His eyes aren't too wide anymore. But there were a pair of dead eyes that had once been not-dead as well.
He doesn't want to feel the Asset's pulse dying under his shaking fingers.
They put the Asset on ice. Heil sees it for the first time and he doesn't vomit, doesn't hit his handler.
But inside his head there are screams, a man's scream. A woman screaming. The Asset not screaming. A man gasping.
Heil is on another mission alongside the Asset.
They are staying in an old hut together. It's dark and it's wet and it's cold. Heil feels the warmth of a body next to him.
The instructors are standing by the windows, whispering among themselves.
They don't think the two of them can hear them.
They're right about Heil. Heil's not like the Asset. But the Asset has his head cocked a bit. He's listening.
Heil's not sure he's supposed to do that, but he's not going to hell him to stop.
Doesn't want to.
He's happy that the Asset does stuff he's not supposed to do as well.
Maybe it means he's feeling warmth as well.
He's not supposed to talk right now. Doesn't know he's going to speak until the words have left his mouth.
But the Asset doesn't tell on him either. Just turns to look at him, from not-dead eyes and leans a little bit closer.
"So are you."
The Asset doesn't get hurt on this mission. The arm doesn't malfunction. Only Heil does. But he tried to fix himself once and now he's got a reactor stuck in his chest, because he can't fix flesh and blood.
They put the Asset on ice again. Heil watches him, keeps looking into his eyes until he closes them.
He's not so good with emotions, but maybe there's something in those eyes that wasn't there before.
He puts the memory of it quietly next to all those other memories he's not supposed to keep, somewhere in his chest, where sometimes there's warmth. Keeps them safe from needles and water. Only pulls them out in the dark of night, when no one is there to hurt him and take them away. Lets the name that doesn't have a sound rattle in his head. Feels the warmth of blood on his chest. Remembers a soft lullaby and laughter. Remembers 'Run, Tony'. Remembers not-dead-eyes and 'So are you'.
A while later they fetch him. Not to build or to repair.
This time it's him they put on ice.
They are in another country. The language sounds familiar and Heil knows what they say. It's not English and it's not German. It's not Russian.
They're somewhere in the forest. The Asset has to go out. Again and again. Twice he comes back bloody.
Heil wants to cover the rips and the cracks, but he stays in the back, doesn't say anything, doesn't do anything, but check the arm.
And lean in to the warmth that leans against him in return.
The Asset hasn't been put on ice for a while. They send him out again. This time Heil comes with him. He disables security systems and crashes the servers.
He feels like laughing, but he doesn't.
Heil is in his cell. It's not the one he was in before. It's smaller and there's a second cot in it.
He's staring at the gray wall opposite of his own cot, trying to figure out the best way to increase both speed and durability of the plane the instructors have him working on.
They haven't asked for it and he won't do it. But it's something that keeps his mind occupied in the long spaces of time that pass between repairing and building and training and personal upkeep.
There's a clang outside the heavy door and the hatch is pushed back. Someone looks through it.
Heil knows the drill so he's already standing at the back of the cell, his hands held up visibly. Which the instructor must have seen before giving the command.
The hatch is closed and a moment later the door opens and another person enters.
The door falls shut again and he slowly lowers his hands.
They've never shared any time together outside of lessons, missions and repairs. It's strange to see the Asset somewhere else. Somewhere that could almost be called personal.
They stare at each other, before the Asset heads to the second cot. He divests himself of his armor and lies down on his side, closing his eyes.
He doesn't talk to Heil, barely looks at him.
Heil wonders. Does the Asset keep his memories?
It's strange, not waking up alone. Waking up and seeing a pair of blue eyes trained on him.
Heil stares back. Tries to see the something that he could see in them before they put the Asset on ice.
Heil is distracted. They don't notice during his repair work, but they make him feel it during the lessons. They're brutal.
He comes back to the cell, limping, holding his side.
He'll be alright in a few days. He just hopes there won't be any lessons until then.
The Asset's in the room when he gets back, but Heil barely looks at him.
He doesn't want to see the cold eyes.
He lies down and curls up, not bothering to take of his boots or clothes. He's just so tired.
He wakes up to the clank of the door closing. His heart races. Why did he not wake up earlier?
He strains his ears, tries to figure out if he's in danger, tries to figure out the situation.
"Up." A rough voice. He knows that voice, somewhere in the back of his head where his lessons and memories are, somewhere in his chest where there's sometimes warmth.
He sits up, suppressing a wince.
Definitely cracked. They really weren't happy with him.
But he doesn't care. Because right now the Asset is close enough to feel his warmth again. Because right now there's something back in his eyes and Heil relaxes a bit.
He holds out bandages and motions for Heil to lift his arms.
The Asset nods and finishes wrapping his ribs. He doesn't go back to his cot. Instead he sits down next to Heil. There's less than a hand's width of space between them.
"Huh?" Heil blinks. He's still tired, the small energy boost he felt upon waking gone again now that he knows he's safe. Or as safe as he'll ever be in this cell that might not be a cell.
"You're better." The Asset frowns not looking at him. "You don't get hurt like this."
Heil's face feels warm. This is wrong. He is not supposed to show emotions. He's not supposed to feel emotions.
And why does the Asset remember? He didn't remember. He forgot. That's what the Asset does.
"Heil IV." His voice is firm, commanding. Heil suppresses a flinch. His voice might be softer when he continues. Or maybe Heil just tells himself it is. "Why are you so hurt?"
"I was distracted."
The Asset nods.
He stops speaking after that. Heil is glad when he falls asleep again. The Asset doesn't stop speaking in his dreams.
The Asset is still in the room when Heil wakes up. He's still sitting on his cot.
He doesn't speak, but he checks Heil's injuries.
There's a loud clanking from the door. Heil stands up, moves to the back of the room. The Asset doesn't move before the command is given.
One of the big, brutal faced instructors stands by the door. He grins at Heil as he fetches the Asset.
He's not supposed to feel emotions, but a shudder runs down his spine.
He's in there when they bring the Asset back. His arm's a mess. Heil frowns. He needs to cut the cable to avoid the Asset feeling the pain, but the access panel in his upper arm is jammed.
The brutal instructor is watching them. He's got a nasty gash on his face and Heil feels something that might be satisfaction.
The instructor frowns and steps closer. Heil wants him to leave. "What's the hold up?"
He waves at the arm, which is only damaged on the lower part. As if Heil can't fucking see the arm. It's right in front of him. Of course he can-
He shakes his head. He's not supposed to feel emotions.
"I need to disconnect the pain receptors."
He's almost got it now. He just needs to hold this part and-
Something grips his hair and pulls him back. He can't suppress a shout, both in surprise and pain. The Asset's eyes widen and he starts to get up, but then his gaze falls to something behind Heil, probably whoever grabbed him - the instructor, who else? - and settles down again.
There's tension in every line of his body.
"The pain receptors? Are you fucking kidding me? This is not a pussy clinic. I don't care about pain receptors. The Asset has to function, the rest is irrelevant."
Heil grits his teeth. He wants to hit him. Wants to open up that gash again, wants to see new blood running down his face.
There's a different kind of heat in his chest. Not the subtle warmth that makes him feel safe. It's burning and he wants to let it out, wants to burn the man behind him.
But he can't. He's not supposed to feel emotions.
He wonders how much longer he'll care.
The instructor lets him go.
Heil looks at the Asset, but he just stares blankly into the air.
Heil doesn't want to do this. He doesn't want to hurt the Asset.
But leaving the arm broken isn't an option either. As is refusing to do it at all. He'll get needles and words ringing of silence and water and lose the warmth in his chest.
And someone who has no idea what they're doing will work on the arm.
He feels sick, but he's going to have to work on the arm without disconnecting the pain receptors.
The Asset doesn't even twitch when he starts working on the arm.
Heil replaces the last part and closes up the access panel.
He sits back, breathing out. His hands start shaking and there's the sticky feeling of sweat on his forehead.
Now the Asset looks at him. He doesn't smile, but the corner of his mouth ticks up.
Heil forgets that he should care. Instead he smiles back.
He's shaking when they lead him back to his room. Is it a cell? It's not where he remembers it being. When the door is opened there's a second cot in his room. The Asset's standing at the back of the room. Staring straight ahead, his eyes blank and dead.
Heil hopes he's not going to give him a lesson now. They sometimes to this. Give him lessons right after they bring him back, when he's still all shaky, feels like he's going to be sick all over himself.
His thoughts are all jumbled up and he doesn't understand why he's so happy to see the Asset.
He sinks down on the right cot. It feels like it's his. He's probably been in this room - this cell? - before. That sometimes happens, when he gets back. Sometimes his memory is a bit wonky and he feels dull and numb. That's what they want. He's not supposed to feel.
The door closes with a loud clank. It rings through the sparse room. The Asset stays where he is for a moment still staring at the closed door. His head is cocked slightly.
A moment later he relaxes and heads over to where Heil is lying. The Asset crouches in front of him, staring into his eyes.
Maybe he should feel threatened, but instead he just feels calm and something else. He doesn't know what that is.
He's probably just tired.
"How're you feeling?" The Asset's voice is rough, like he doesn't use it often. But he sounds... concerned?
Heil's not good with feelings.
He stares back blankly. Maybe this is a test and they want to see if the needles worked.
But maybe it isn't.
He frowns. He needs to answer. Especially if this is a test.
He tries to go with something that's fairly regular for after the needles. "Tired?"
The Asset keeps staring at him, scanning his face.
For what, Heil doesn't know.
"This is no test."
Heil flinches. He'd known, that there had been experiments, but he didn't know the Asset could read-
Heil doesn't answer. He presses his lips together and keeps shaking.
The Asset doesn't ask again. But he keeps looking at him.
Heil doesn't show what he's feeling. He doesn't want to be send back.
The Asset stares down at Heil. He'd fallen asleep again at some point, body rigid, always twitching. Hands gripping the rough sheet too tight.
The Asset is not supposed to question the actions of their handlers.
He never has before.
He doesn't like it if they send him to the chair. But that’s just how it is.
He never had the urge to disobey an order he is given before.
And yet he'd been ready to attack the handler earlier when he'd pulled Heil off. The cry of alarm and pain had been enough to send him into high alert and a fight ready state.
He hadn't done it though. Not because of the warning he'd seen in the handlers eyes.
But because he would make it only harder on Heil.
The Asset could be wiped. But they don't tend to punish him further than that. He hates it when they do it, but they never go any further.
They would go further with Heil. He doesn't know how he knows it, but in that moment when he's ready to smash the handler's skull he realizes that they would punish Heil for it.
So he stops, settles back.
And it hurts. He's no longer used to repairs on his arm hurting. Heil is always careful and since he got him as his mechanic it has never hurt again.
But it's nothing he can't endure. He knows that Heil hates it. Sees it in every line of his body, in the soft shaking of his fingers, the sweat on his face.
But he'll get through this as well.
They both will.
And then they will do the rest of their duties and return to the room and it'll just have been a scare.
Only it doesn't. Because Heil does what he's not allowed to.
The Asset's hand clenches, so tightly he would have broken almost anything had he held anything in his hand.
He's not supposed to feel anything. But that changed a long time ago. He doesn't know when and why, but he thinks it's got something to do with Heil.
And now he feels anger. And... something that might be guilt.
He doesn't know. He doesn't know how emotions feel anymore. Did he ever know?
But he knows one thing. He's going to protect Heil as best as he can. He doesn't want him to ever come back like this again. Pale and shaking and flinching, not from one of the handlers, but from the Asset.
That is never going to happen again.
It's night. Probably. At least they turned the lights off.
The Asset is lying on his own cot, staring up at the white ceiling.
Heil looks at him from almost closed eyes. He's under no illusions that the Asset doesn't know that he's being watched.
He's trained more than anyone Heil knows after all.
Heil sometimes wonders about that. He's been trained a lot as well. But the Asset is off the charts and that's not only due to whatever the instructors did to him. It's not just the arm.
What kind of training did he go through? How long has he been with... with them?
Does he have voices of people he no longer knows inside his head?
The Asset closes his eyes. Heil wants him to look at him again.
He doesn't know why. His thoughts are no longer as jumbled. But he knows, they took something away again. They always do.
"Did they put you on the chair?"
Heil blinks. "What chair?"
"That's where they put me. And then I forget." The Asset turns and looks at him. "And you forgot, didn't you?"
Heil frowns. He did. He forgot something. Probably. He doesn't know what, though.
But he guesses it has something to do with the Asset.
Why else wouldn't he know that they share a room?
He doesn't know how to answer though, so he decides to go with the first question. "They don't put me on a chair." He pulls the blanket over himself and turns towards the wall. "They put needles in me. And put me under water."
He closes his eyes, but it doesn't erase the image of water everywhere, of being submerged completely. Of needles sticking in his flesh and pulses and fluids running through him.
The Asset doesn't answer.
"Why did they do it? What did I do?"
Heil counts his breathing. One breath. Two breaths. Four. Nine.
"You smiled at me."
He's not supposed to feel emotions. Emotions are a crutch, emotions aren't allowed. He's a tool and a tool needs to function.
The Asset snarls and it's a dark sound and it should make Heil afraid.
"They're not going to do that again. You're leaving."
But it doesn't. It makes him feel safe.
He turns around again, facing the Asset.
"Then so are you."
The Asset frowns, cocks his head.
"We're leaving. Together, or not at all."
Despite what both of them declared the night before, nothing much changes. They are still fetched for their tasks. Heil builds and repairs and upgrades what they tell him. He still has lessons.
He doesn't know for what they fetch the Asset, but he can imagine.
Heil is extra careful to put all of his emotions on lock-down. He doesn't want to risk going back into the water.
He doesn't smile, he doesn't frown, he only answers when talked to.
He disconnects the pain sensors, when he repairs the arm. But he's quick about it, does it before anyone notices. Thinking up convincing lies about why he's accessing the upper access panel in case anyone asks. They don't know anything, they won't notice if he bullshits them.
He doesn't need to do it. Though he fears for a moment, when the brutal instructor comes to talk to his tech instructor.
But he leaves.
The difference that he does notice, is when they're in the cell. He always waits until the Asset relaxes - or relaxes as much as he ever does.
The Asset's hearing is superior, so he knows that he's listening to sounds from outside, that he knows when people are approaching.
The difference isn't that they talk more. The difference isn't that they touch or smile.
They do none of that, even if Heil wishes they did.
The difference is that he now knows he's not alone. That he knows when he's safe he can let the warmth in his chest expand, can add other little moments, can let the warmth grow.
The quirk of an eyebrow, the upticking corner of a mouth. The feeling of safety and belonging.
There's a name rattling inside Heil's head. It doesn't have a sound, but it's becoming louder and louder with every passing day.
They send them out on a mission. They don't know how long it will take, but at least a week.
Not that they tell Heil that, but they're not exactly cautious to talk quietly.
Why lower your voices around your commodities, after all.
They're in a meeting with a big bald man. Heil thinks he knows him, feels a shudder running down his spine. He's been given a mask. He usually doesn't wear one. But then he usually doesn't meet anyone who isn't an instructor or technician.
He feels the man's gaze on him and he feels sick.
The man nods at one of his subordinates, who steps forward, placing a fortified case on the table.
The instructor moves forwards, runs a hand over the seam, then nods for the man to open it.
He pulls it open and reveals a set of guns.
The instructor pulls one out, looks it over closely, testing weight and balance, before gripping it tightly and aiming at an empty part of the wall.
Everyone except for the instructor, the Asset and Heil flinch when the shot explodes.
The bald man is good though. His twitch is unnoticeable to anyone who isn't trained to look out for the minutiae of movement.
Sometimes it’s the only difference between taking out your opponent and getting your guts blown.
The instructor nods and hands the gun over to Heil.
"Look it over."
He nods and quickly disassembles the gun.
The bald man steps forward and hits the case closed pulling the gun out of Heil's hands.
Two of the low-level instructors pull their guns, as do the security guys of the bald man.
His instructor signals for all of them to lower the guns.
"Now, now, no need to get violent. What seems to be the problem, Mr Stane?"
The man aims his unimpressed gaze on the instructor.
"He's obviously one of your engineers. I know you've got someone who knows what they're doing in your ranks. I will not have him get an eye on our technology and you simply copying our guns without going through the deal."
The instructor cocks his head.
"And what's to stop us from doing that anyway, once we've bought your stuff?"
The man shrugs. "Nothing. But I don't care if you do it then. By that time you'll have bought the agreed amount of weapons and I'll have received my money. You're not into trade, you're not going to undersell my stuff. If you build it for yourself afterward, be my guest." He glares at the instructor. "But this sell is either all or nothing."
The instructor stares back for a long moment.
Heil wants to yawn. Their posturing is ridiculous.
Finally, the instructor nods.
"Alright. Let me test the other guns and we'll see about your deal."
They send them on a mission together. It's not the first time, but it's different from before.
They think Heil is trained enough.
They've trained him since he was first with them. Maybe. He doesn't actually remember the time when he was first with them. But he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't being trained.
So the chances are high that it's never been different.
Now they think he's ready. Not just enough to accompany the Asset to be a mechanic to look after his arm at a more convenient location for his mission than the base.
No, now he's going to go into the field alongside the Asset.
He feels strange. He's jittery and wants to laugh and to vomit.
They're in the back of a truck together. Around them equipment is piled high.
Two instructors are sitting in the back as well.
Heil hopes they won't notice that he's shaking.
The Asset doesn't talk, doesn't even look at him. But increment by little increment he leans closer, until his weight rests heavily against Heil's shoulder.
Heil lowers his head, hoping that no one notices his smile.
They're supposed to break into a research facility and recover the research of their lead scientist.
Heil doesn't know why it's suddenly so important to get their hands on it, but he doesn't ask questions.
Instead he dismantles the digital side of the security. It's a pretty impressive setup, and while it's no match for his abilities it takes him longer than usual.
He suppresses the urge to smile.
He's done this much before when he accompanied the Asset on a mission. The difference this time is that he doesn't stay in the control room when it's done. Instead he's been geared up before disabling security, now wearing the same body armor as the Asset and he enters the building at his side.
They chose a time when the security is as low as possible. Unfortunately the amount of guards can still not be called anything even close to a skeleton crew.
Heil hesitates in taking down the first guard they come across, but the Asset quickly steps in and chokes him, letting him slide to the ground without a noise. He can't let them be discovered.
Can't let the instructors notice his malfunction.
The Asset nods at him and moves further into the compound, Heil close on his heels.
Heil manages to take out the next one himself. He doesn't kill him though and he tells himself that it’s because they didn't get a kill order. They are supposed to get in without drawing too much attention. Unconscious guards who didn't see them do the trick just as well as dead ones.
They work their way into the heart of the facility quickly and efficiently and Heil can almost hear his blood sing.
They reach the last two barriers between them and the research. A heavy, reinforced door and a group of heavily armed and apparently well trained guards.
There's no taking them out and leaving them unconscious this time. The guards have seen them, they need to be killed.
Heil draws his knife. They're already too close, a gun would be a disadvantage.
He's on the first man in the blink of an eye, grip tightening, thrusting the knife upwards, aiming under the lower edge of the body armor -
- and stops.
He's shaking, his muscles locking up.
The guard has his gun up and there's a popping sound and the flash of gunfire - was that pop a shot? Has he just been shot?
The Asset is in front of him, metal hand pushing the gun away, breaking the guard’s neck with the other.
Heil has heard that noise before.
Not in training. They didn't do this in training. He knows what it feels like to hit flesh, to draw blood, to break bones.
He knows how it feels to be hit, to bleed, to have his bones broken.
But they didn't cover this.
Something barrels into his side and he stumbles, falls, hits his head against the wall.
He might have a head injury.
Something tickles the side of his face.
The Asset snarls and he's fighting.
Heil can smell blood and urin and feces.
The people on the ground are dead.
Their eyes are open. Too wide.
They're well trained, but the Asset is usually better than this. He should have taken them all out by now. He doesn't fight efficiently. He stays defensive, keeps attackers away from Heil IV.
That's against protocol. The Asset is malfunctioning.
Something grabs Heil, pulls him up and back.
They haven't completed the mission yet.
There's a sound in one of his ears. Someone is talking. Maybe?
He doesn't understand them. Maybe it's a different language.
The Asset pulls him back through halls and rooms already littered with dead and unconscious bodies.
They shouldn't draw back. The mission isn't over.
The Asset is malfunctioning.
Heil can't fix him. He can only fix his arm. Heil can't even fix himself.
They haven't finished the mission yet. They're both malfunctioning. He can't fix them, can't fix this.
Heil is sore. Everywhere. There's no part of his body that doesn't hurt. His brain hurts. His hair, his teeth, his nails. His thoughts are a scrambled mess.
What has he done? Why did they send him back? Why did they need to recalibrate him?
He turns over and vomits.
Whatever it's been, it must have been bad.
There's another cot in the room.
He's sitting at the edge, posture ready to jump up, to fight, to duck. Staring blankly at the wall.
He must have done something bad as well. Heil saw them lead him out of his recalibration room earlier.
Heil sits down on his own cot and stares at the wall.
There's a man kneeling on the floor. He's shaking and crying and Heil can smell urine. And still, he glares at one of the instructors who's mocking him.
They put a knife in Heil's hand. They tell him to kill the man.
They repeat the command.
Heil stands in the freezing spray of the shower. The water running off his body, swirling around the drain is a soft pink.
Heil doesn't remember what happened. It must have been good though. The instructor guarding him looks smug.
He dreams. He dreams of snow without sound, of too wide eyes, of a man dressed in black.
Dreams of the smell of alcohol, of a kind laugh and a flower dress.
Dreams of blood covered hands, of a stinging cheek and a voice whispering Run, Tony.
He wakes with a suppressed cry. Gasps, choking on his own breath.
His heart races and he's sweating.
His head rings with the force of a thought that slammed into him, shaking him to his core.
It's not a thought though. It's a sound.
There's a name, no longer soundless, no longer rattling around, but instead firmly embedded in his mind.
Tony sits up and looks over to the other cot, at the man staring back at him.
He killed them. Killed his parents, took him in.
Took that life away.
But it was them who took his name. Was probably them who took the Asset’s name as well.
His resolve hardens. He tries to smile and it feels foreign on his face.
"I'm going to get us out."
The Asset cocks his head.
"Don't worry, I'm not leaving you behind." He remembers what they said. Remembers how warm it made him feel. "Together, or not at all."