Chapter 1: Part I
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."
Chapter 2: Part II
Tony is terrified of slipping up. But somehow he manages not to.
He's lived without his name for too long. He's more prone to thinking about himself as 'Heil' so he reacts to Heil just as easily as before.
He doesn't know what to do about the Asset. He didn't think about how he behaved before he got his name back, just acted. He managed to reach the Asset that way, but he’s too prone to over thinking.
Something that gets in his way when he's supposed to repair and upgrade things for them as well.
All those thoughts about going further, of changing more, of making things bigger and better always come to his mind. But before he had silenced them without problem, only acting on the command he got.
He doesn't want to do anything else, doesn't want to give them any kind of advantage, doesn't want to help at all.
But it's so much harder to silence the maelstrom of thoughts now.
He's lying on his cot, trying to sleep.
Six days since he found the sound of his name.
The Asset has been gone for four of them.
For all that he was afraid of doing something wrong before, of showing his hand, of the Asset reporting him - now he just wants the Asset to come back.
He knows it's unlikely that something will happen to the Asset. But he's still afraid. There's always the small chance that there will be someone out there with a little bit more luck and then Tony will be alone.
He doesn't know what he'll do, if he ends up alone. He can't do this alone.
Yes, he might be able to escape alone. But he doesn't want to.
The Asset returns. He's mostly unharmed, just some scraps. His arm doesn't really need maintenance, but Tony finds an excuse to look at it anyway.
Wants to make sure.
The Asset keeps staring at him all through the check. He doesn't say anything, not until they're back in the cell.
He cocks his head.
Tony turns to him, stares, trying not to give anything away.
The Asset eyes him for another moment, then he nods and sits down.
Tony wants to sit next to him so badly. He might have done it before, not thinking about it. But now he's too terrified of overstepping some boundary, setting the Asset off and being found out.
He can't risk that. He can't risk going through torture and brainwashing again, can't risk losing his name and his own thoughts again.
Can't risk losing the best chance of an escape they've ever had.
He's going to get them out.
He'd rather die trying than stay here any longer as a puppet, a weapon forced to kill.
They're waiting outside the training room. It's occupied at the moment. But Heil has another lesson once it's free. This time with the Asset. It's not going to be easy, but he's happy about it.
The Asset steps up next to him, leaning his shoulder against him.
Tony relaxes for the first time since he got his name back.
The Asset comes back from another mission. Tony doesn't think he manages to suppress his shock at seeing his state.
He's drenched, his eyes are wild. His ribs seem to be broken and his arm most definitely is.
They almost have to drag him to the room where they wipe him.
Tony wants to scream, wants to hit them, wants to protect the Asset, but he can't.
All he can do is not to let his heart break at the terrified and confused whispers of the Asset.
"I knew him. I knew him."
He doesn't see him for two days.
He's not worried though. He's not. Really. The Asset is too valuable for them to do any lasting damage. And he won't remember the reset. So once he comes back everything will be alright. Besides the fact that they've once again robbed him of something, possibly hurt him a lot in the process. And besides the process itself. They seemed pissed. And they are incredibly petty when they're pissed.
Alright, Tony is incredibly worried.
He's also absolutely sure that the only reason no one's on his case about his behavior, is because everyone's so focused on the Asset's malfunction.
On him breaking through the brainwashing.
Tony doesn't know who he thinks he's known, but the organization isn't interested in them knowing anyone.
They bring the Asset. He sits on a chair, arm displayed, face and posture absolutely neutral.
Tony locks his own down deep inside of him. He'd be able to take out the two instructors who are present as well, but he's sure that by now the Asset is back into the organization's preferred mindset. And he doesn't want to fight the Asset. He also doesn't want to be reconditioned himself.
Not to mention that he wouldn't be able to take on everyone else out there.
So he puts on a neutral face and sits down to work on the arm.
The arm is trembling.
He frowns. Malfunction?
Pretending to check the connection he puts his hand on the bare shoulder of the Asset.
Not the arm. The Asset himself is trembling.
He glances up at the Asset, but he's still staring stoically in front of him.
There's nothing he can do now, not under the watchful eyes of their minders. He has to wait until they're back in the cell. The best he can do now is repair the arm and give the Asset back his mobility and keep himself from punishment.
They're in their cell. The Asset's already there when Tony comes back. They'd kept Tony for further reparations and for working with one of their engineers - a dumb know-it-all who knows nothing about physics at all - before letting him leave. Tony knows his work was sloppy, but if all else fails he can blame the dimwit. They don't know he's regained a sense of self, so they won't question his answers too much.
A tool is more reliable than a thinking person.
Tough luck, know-it-all.
The Asset is sitting on his cot, like he's doing whenever they're here and not sleeping.
But today he's not staring at the wall. Nor is he looking at Tony.
He's staring to the ground. His body is still, until a violent shudder shakes it. Still again. Another shudder.
Tony, very slowly, moves over to his side. Comes to a stop next to him. He lays his hand on the Asset's shoulder and with another violent shudder, the Asset slumps against his side. Tony rocks with the sudden weight, but doesn't hesitate to kneel on the cot, pulling the Asset into him, putting his arms around him.
He doesn't really know how to hug anymore, but he doesn't think the Asset notices his fumbling. This time the Asset doesn't stop shaking.
Tony may even feel wetness pressed into the crook of his neck.
Some time passes. Whether it's a minute or an hour, Tony doesn't know. But finally the shakes subside and the Asset pulls back.
He glances at Tony and he can see something in his eyes that hasn't been there before.
He doesn't know what it is, but it melts some of stillness, the deadness of his eyes.
The Asset looks at him, a slight frown on his face.
"You want to leave."
Tony nods. The Asset still seems to malfunction. And Tony doesn't want to lie to him.
"I... " the frown deepens and he looks to the side. "I'm leaving."
Thinking up a plan for them to escape isn't hard. Thinking up a plan for them to escape that isn't crazy? That is definitely harder.
The problem they have is that they don't know how things are done. Until only recently they'd both been put on ice whenever they weren't needed. And even if they were out it wasn't like either of them where kept up to date with things. Sure, the Asset knows stuff about training, weapons, armor. But he doesn't know about the rosters, about the perimeters. And yes, Tony knows about weapons and safety grids, scanners, firewalls and digital security. But he doesn't know where any of those are implemented.
They don't know who the actually big dog is. They don't know what's outside, where the next settlement is. Hell, they don't even know what year it is. And doesn't that mess with Tony's ability to breath, to think, to function?
Surprisingly the Asset kneels down next to him, his hand a reassuring weight on his neck his voice calm as he talks.
How does the Asset know what to do, how to help him? They definitely didn't cover that in training.
But Tony is not going to give up. He's going to get them out.
The base is in an uproar. Tony has to concentrate to keep up his mask of indifference.
He wants to know what's going on. He hates not knowing what's got everyone running around like they've lost their heads, people shouting at each other, no clear chain of command.
Instead he stays to the side, not doing anything until he's spoken directly to.
"Heil IV! Get your gear and get moving"
Tony doesn't need to suppress a flinch at the non-name anymore. He's gotten used to it by now.
Doesn't mean he doesn't resent it.
When he doesn't move, the woman steps forward, right into his space and gives him a hard shove into the chest, right over the reactor he installed after he tried to dig his emotions out.
"Didn't you hear me, you useless piece of shit? Get moving!"
Tony cocks his head.
"To the hangar you dimwit!"
Tony nods and heads to retrieve his gear, before moving towards the hangar in quick but measured steps.
He relaxes a bit when the Asset, already in full gear, falls into step next to him.
They don't talk, they don't look at each other.
But by now they don't have to.
They board the jet and get briefed while Tony puts on his gear.
Tony's heart pounds wildly, in dread or excitement, he doesn't know.
He's heard of them. Even hidden back in the workrooms, the cell, the control room, he's heard of them. A group of superpowered people, or at least highly skilled individuals, fighting for what is right.
Bruce Banner, a brilliant scientist. Tony's actually read some of his research during his lessons. After he became an enemy the organization retracted his names from the papers, but Tony would still recognize the style.
Hawkeye. A brilliant marksman and if the annoyed comments are anything to go by, a huge smart-ass.
Thor. The Thor. A real life god. How cool is that?
Captain America. The actual Captain America that his father has told him so much about. One of the only topics he could talk about whether he was drunk or not, happy or not. Though, to be perfectly honest, if he told stories about him when he was happy and sober those two states usually disappeared pretty quickly.
And the Black Widow. Tony wants to cry when he thinks about her. Not because he's sad or terrified.
But because the red hourglass, the red hair, the graceful death are not a symbol of terror for him.
They're a symbol of hope.
Black Widow, once a puppet of the Red Room, now hero. She got out. She was just like them and she got out and now she's free, she has a name and she can do what she wants.
If she could do it, there's hope that the two of them can get out.
Taste freedom again. Be allowed their names and thoughts and words.
They land on the outside of a big factory. Considering the electric security pad he can just make out next to the main doors it's probably one of their organization.
He wonders how they got in.
Tony, the Asset and a group of instructors disembark the jet.
There are bodies strewn around. Some are groaning. Some are utterly still.
They move closer to the entrance, but there's no sound, no movement.
The agents secure the entrance and one steps through and immediately to the side.
Nothing. No shots, no hits.
After a short moment of silence, their earpieces crackle.
They file in, one after the other.
There's no one on this floor, the assembly belt still, just more bodies on the floor.
But, knowing the organization, all the important stuff is somewhere below ground anyway.
And he seems to be right. The main instructor leads them towards a hidden entryway behind one of the heavy machines.
Well, not so hidden now, considering that it's blasted wide open.
They enter, one after another.
Still all clear.
No movement, no sound.
Something's not right.
They go in further and further.
Tony can feel his teeth aching from the stress, a headache building behind his temples.
He hates this, hates knowing something is about to happen, but nothing happening yet.
There's a cry.
A light, a bang.
Tony dives for cover, ripping up his weapon, aiming without thinking. There’s a clang, like bullets hitting metal and in the next moment something crashes into the wall above him, bouncing back.
The Shield. He had almost gotten hit by the Shield. Captain America's shield.
Tony shakes his head. No time for that now.
He takes aim again, almost hitting the Captain.
Where's the rest?
Two agents go down.
Black Widow accounted for.
Shots are fired from further down the hall and Tony spares a second to look over.
Falcon accounted for.
The Widow is on him now. He snarls when she gets a grip on his neck, twists and twists again and he's free. His weapon is in his way and he lets go of it, drawing a knife as he's jumping at her. She manages to avoid the worst, but he feels the knife sliding along her side. A kick and he goes to his knees, rolling away, avoiding the next hit that might have taken him out. Kicks out her legs, but she gets back up as quick as him.
This is fun.
Her face betrays nothing, but he's known the Asset long enough.
He sees the tick.
He grins wider.
Yeah, this is definitely going to be fun.
They exchange kicks and locks, moving too quickly for even Hawkeye who seems to be lurking somewhere behind to get a lock on him.
She's wheezing and he can barely stand up straight anymore, his left sight hurting like crazy.
Body on the ground.
He glances around, never letting her entirely out of sight.
Only two instructors left. The Asset is locked into a fight with the Captain. He's lost his mask and they seem to be evenly matched. But there's something off about the fight.
Tony frowns. They're not fighting right. They hit each other, hard, but they're not trying to do serious damage.
Neither of them.
The Asset is malfunctioning, that's not new. But what is the Captain doing?
He doubles over, not able to draw enough breath. The Widow. He forgot the Widow.
He tries to duck, but the next punch hits his temple. His vision swims. He tries to pull back, but now she's on him, she keeps coming after him and he can't die now, he can't die when there's finally a chance for them to leave, to be free to taste their own names.
His ear-piece. The instructor.
"Asset, Heil, fall back."
Tony doesn't think he's ever been happy about a command he got from one of the instructors. Not that he knew what happy was before he got back his name. But still. He didn't think he'd ever be happy to receive a command.
Now he is.
He's not dying. Not now not today, not with then. He swears to himself that he's not going to die unless he's dying in freedom. Not caged.
He'll die a free man.
He kicks the Widow with all he's got to the chest, feels it give a bit, feels the crack.
She stumbles back. She'd fight him, still. He sees it in her eyes. But she's not coming after him.
He pulls back, towards the exit, the Asset covering their retreat.
The Asset freezes. Just a tiny moment, but he freezes.
And the instructor sees it.
He flinches and continues their retreat. But Tony can see it in in every line of the instructor's body.
He will be punished. He's going to be punished severely. Cruelly. Maybe even worse than the last time.
Tony grits his teeth.
They board the plane. The instructor yells at the pilot to take off.
It leaves the ground.
Tony's whole body is thrumming with terror. The hatch starts closing as the ground falls away.
He steps up to the Asset. He's staring blankly, but his jaw is clenched, his muscles tight.
Tony puts his hand on the Assets arm.
He ignores the instructor.
The Asset turns to look at him. Tony pulls down his own mask and smiles.
He shoves him and he falls through the closing hatch.
The last thing Tony sees are the shocked, wide eyes and the Captain running up to him.
Tony's not going to die in freedom.
He hits the ground. His whole body hurts, but he can't spare a thought on that. The jet's hatch closes on the dark, warm eyes and the sad smile.
He scrambles up, his leg giving out. He falls to his knees, but he crawls forward, gets on his feet again, tries running after the jet, but he can't.
His cheeks are wet. Why are the Asset's cheeks wet?
But he promised. Heil promised. Together or not at all.
This is not together.
He's left him behind. He pushed him out and now he's alone and Heil is with them and they are going to hurt him, going to hurt him terribly for betraying them. He didn't just go against orders, against conditioning. He betrayed them. He freed the Asset, shoved him out.
He's free now, he's no longer with them.
But they were supposed to leave together. Not like this. Never like this.
He falls to his knees and the scream is tearing at his throat. He screams until he needs to breathe again.
There's someone next to him. The Captain. The Captain who called him Bucky.
The Captain that he knew.
He looks up at him. The Captain looks... is that concerned? Maybe it's concern. The Asset doesn't know, he doesn't know how concern looks now. But Heil had looked at him like that sometimes.
He kneels down. Not an advantageous position, but he's keeping out of arms reach.
Not that the Asset intends to attack him. Not now.
The Asset shudders. He knows that name. Just like he knows that man. But he doesn't know how or from where. He doesn't know.
He looks up at the man.
"I know you."
The Captain smiles. It looks a bit like Heil's smile.
"Yeah, you do."
The Asset shakes his head. That's unimportant now.
"Doesn't matter." He gets back on his feet again. Moves to follow the route the jet took. He doesn't know where exactly the base is. He knows he's too hurt to fight now. But that doesn't matter. He will heal. He's resourcefully. He will find them. And he will take Heil from them. No matter what.
Together. They are supposed to be together.
He snarls. "I'm not Bucky." He glares. The Captain is still close, his teammates behind him, their eyes locked on him. Weary. Distrusting.
More intelligent than the Captain.
Doesn't matter. Not now, not for him. He doesn't need their trust. He needs for the Captain to leave him alone.
"Than what do I call you?"
The Asset frowns. Why does he want to call him anything?
"I'm the Asset."
The Captain shakes his head, angry.
The Asset knows what angry looks like.
"I'm not calling you that."
The Asset shrugs. He doesn't care. He turns again.
"So you're going back again? I can see that you're no longer completely under their command. Why would you go back now? Return yet again?"
The Captain sounds betrayed. Why does he sound betrayed?
"I'm not leaving him."
The Captain jogs up to him. "Leaving who?"
The Asset stares into the distance. But he can't see the jet, can't see Heil. He's lost him. But he's not giving up.
The Captain flinches.
The Asset cocks his head. "I need to find him. I was not supposed to leave without him." He swallows, looks to the ground. "Together, or not at all."
He can feel the Captains gaze on him.
"Heil is a person?"
The Asset stares at him. What else is Heil supposed to be?
The Captain squares his shoulders, his chin coming up. "Listen. This Heil, he wants to get out from HYDRA as well?"
He nods. At least he wanted to. He may no longer want that once they're done with his punishment. But the Asset knows that he'd want him to get him out anyway. He is not going to leave Heil behind. Not when he saved him, not when it was Heil, who gave him back some semblance of own thoughts.
Who made him feel warmth for the first time in... in however long he can remember.
He's not letting them destroy that. He will fight, and if he needs to take out every last one of them in the process than he doesn't care. He will get Heil back.
Together, or not at all.
Being free alone is not an option.
"You don't have to do this alone, Buc-, Soldier. You are hurt and you have no means to follow that jet. Come with us and we'll help you."
The Asset snorts. Why should he trust the Captain to help him and not just lock him up?
"Why should I trust you?"
"Because I used to be your friend. And I still am. And HYDRA is our enemy. I'd help anyone who wanted out from them. If it's someone you care about? Even more."
Hawkeye in the back slouches from his previous alert stance. "Besides, stealing away any of HYDRA's assets? Definite plus in my book."
The Asset looks at each of them. The Widow, face betraying nothing. The Falcon, still weary, but angled towards the Captain. Probably going to agree to whatever he suggests. Doctor Banner, looking worn and weary. Thor, all eager eyes, still brimming with energy.
And the Captain. The Asset knew him, once. He doesn't trust people, but he feels like he just might be able to go along this time.
He's going to get Heil back. No matter what it takes.
He nods and shakes the hand the Captain holds out.
The Avengers are housed in an old mansion with sprawling grounds. The security is high, he can see that, even if the Widow insists he's not allowed to see much of it.
He can still hear enough.
An old, gray haired man opens the heavy wooden doors.
"Welcome back. I'm glad to see you again return unharmed." He looks at the Asset and he can see intelligence behind that friendly manner. "And who might this be?" He doesn't blink an eye at the armor, the weapons, the muzzle, the blood. Just asks as polite as can be.
Some people are very strange.
He shakes his head. His thoughts are dissolving.
The Captain steps up to the old man. "This is Bucky."
The old man's head whips around at that, his eyes wide, losing some of the nonchalant professionalism. Then he turns to look at the Asset again, squinting a little bit. He nods. "Now that you mention it, I can see some resemblance." He pulls himself back into that bland politeness. "But where are my manners." He steps to the side pulling the door open behind himself. "Do come in."
The Avengers file in, one after another. The Widow and Hawkeye wait for him to pass, before following.
Everyone puts their things down in the hall. Some tidier than others. Thor even hangs up his damn hammer. Hawkeye just lets everything fall by the wayside.
As does the Captain.
The Asset frowns and shakes his head. What?
He keeps his things on him. At least he tries.
But under the watchful eye of the Widow and Falcon he puts down some of his weapons and his face mask.
Not all of them though. They can't expect him to just walk into an enemy's place unarmed.
One by one the Avengers disappear, each time when two come back cleaned up and changed two others leave.
When all of them are done, the Captain turns to him.
"If you want you can use the upstairs facilities as well, B-" He shakes his head. "Soldier."
Taking a shower would mean being vulnerable for a short while. But on the other hand something in him craves clean, warm water. He looks at the Captain.
"Someone will guard me?"
The Captain opens his mouth to speak, but the Widow is faster. "Yes."
He nods. Everything else would be utter foolishness.
He looks back at the Captain. "It will be you."
The Widow makes a protesting face again, but the Captain cuts her off, before she can voice it.
"Natasha." They exchange hard stares for a moment, before she nods and backs down.
The Captain turns and motions for him to follow.
The Asset's skin crawls when he turns to follow him up the stairs, everyone else at his back. But the siren song of a warm shower is too tempting to ignore.
The Captain motions towards one of the many doors down the hall. "Shower's in there. I can..." He scratches his head. "I mean, if you want to change into something clean, I could fetch you some clean clothes?"
The Asset eyes him for a moment, then shakes his head. He turns and enters the bathroom, pulling the door closed.
Colors flicker in front of his eyes. Blurring together, flickering, up, down, left, right. There are voices. Talking to him? About him?
Pinpricks of pain in the crook of his arms, in his legs, his neck.
Something is pushed over his mouth and nose and he's pushed down, submerged. His limbs feel heavy, weighted down and he wants to swim up, but he can't and the colors are a maelstrom and everything is black.
They pull him out. He lands in a heap on the floor, wet, shivering, curling in to himself. What do they want? They are shouting, it's too loud, he doesn't understand.
Are they asking him something?
Everything swirls and they pull him up, push him down onto something. A chair?
Something wipes over him and he's no longer wet, but his teeth are still chattering.
Hands are on him, holding him down. Something cold closes over his wrists, over his ankles. He bucks up, but it's holding him down.
His throat hurts.
He may be screaming.
Something is pushed into his mouth and he chokes. Tries to turn his head away. They hold it. Stop. He wants them to stop.
Needles are pushed into the crooks of his arms.
No. Nonono, please not the needles he can't lose- can't-
What's he not supposed to lose?
He doesn't know.
He already lost it.
Heil gives up and sinks back against the chair. He wanted to keep something. He didn't. He failed.
The Asset's body is thrumming with tension. He wants this to be over, wants to be there, doesn't want to wait any longer.
They have waited long enough. The good thing about getting commands to follow is that there isn't this much discussion as the Avengers seem to have before a mission.
Twice he had tried to leave and go at it on his own.
Once the Captain had convinced him to stay.
Once the Falcon.
And in some way he's glad that he stayed. With his knowledge and the resources the Avengers can command - their own and those of SHIELD, by means of an unremarkable man who strikes the Asset as someone you have to be very careful around - are more than he'd had otherwise if he'd gone at it alone.
But still. There's so much time passed.
He hopes that Heil is still different.
He hopes. It's a foreign sensation.
The dread and the knowledge, deep down, that he will not meet the Heil that pushed him to his freedom, that fought for them to leave, is something new, too. He never cared enough about anything to feel dread.
Not even his own life.
But now he cares and he just wants him to be safe. Wants him by his side, a warmth that makes him feel-
-makes him feel alive.
He lowers his head, lets his hair fall around his face, staring, trying to hold back the tears.
He doesn't want Heil to be hurting.
But he is. And it's his fault. Because he is free and Heil is with them.
He knows them. Remembers glimpses of days past, of uniforms that they no longer wear.
But the symbol, the wretched symbol is still the same.
He's going to rip everything apart that wears that symbol. Be it machine or man, he doesn't care.
He's going to take back what is his.
"ETA six minutes."
He looks up at that. The others are as battle ready as he is.
But he knows, they don't care about Heil.
Maybe a little, but just as much as they might care about anyone. Maybe even less.
Heil is HYDRA after all.
He knows it's up to him to make sure that he returns unhurt.
He doesn't care what kind of truce they might have agreed on. If even one of theme so much as lays a hand on Heil he will rip them apart just as much as he will anyone else.
It doesn't matter that images of a sickly boy with the Captain's face keep flashing in his mind, that he remembers the sound of laughter that he doesn't know.
He doesn't want to lose that.
But he wants to lose Heil even less.
And if what he suspects is true, than Heil will attack them with everything he's got.
And Heil may not be on his level, strengths wise, but he is sneaky and he is ferocious.
The only thing that keeps him from being a major Asset to the organization, to Hydra, is that he avoids killing as much as he can.
The Asset doesn't understand it, but he hopes he'll still be the same.
He doesn't want him to kill as easily as he himself does.
The jet loses speed.
"ETA one minute."
He gets up, looks out. A compound draws closer. He doesn't know if it's their base for sure. He's rarely been outside if he wasn't driven out by a military style cargo truck.
But he thinks he recognizes some of the formations from the inside.
Though he's more than sure that the majority of places are underground.
The hatch opens and Thor twirls his Hammer, flying outside. Thunder roars and a massive bolt of lightning hits the facility.
East wing. Not where the quarters are. Nowhere close to Heil, hopefully.
Still, the Asset's gut clenches.
The next moment they're almost over the compound and Doctor Banner strips out of most of his clothes, before letting himself fall out of the hatch.
The Asset knows what's happening, but he still follows him with his gaze, morbid curiosity, as he hits the ground, leaving a hole behind. Then the Hulk climbs out, roaring, running towards the operators who are leaving the building.
The jet sets down, letting the rest of them disembark, before Hawkeye takes it up in the air again. He's going to keep it close by for extraction, but it would be foolish to leave it in reach of HYDRA.
The Asset grits his teeth as he encounters the first operators. He doesn't hesitate taking them down, not giving them time to speak.
He hasn't told the Avengers about this little gem. Maybe he should have, but he knows that they would have kept him back if they'd known about the trigger phrases.
It's surprisingly comfortable to fight with them by his side though. He's fought in teams before, but with the operators he's always just one more weapon at their disposal. When he'd fought by Heil's side everything had been overshadowed by Heil's reluctance to engage and by the hold the commands of the operators had on him.
He doesn't slow down, taking down men and women as he goes, not caring about the sound of screams, of breaking bones. Doesn't stop at the smells.
He's used to it. And he has something more important on his mind.
They've made it about halfway through the compound when he enters.
The Asset doesn't know his name, but he knows that all the other operators jump at his command.
He knows that he likes to watch when the Asset is hurting. Knows that his smile is cruel.
His blood runs cold when he sees who stands half a step behind him.
Heil. Draped out in body armor and mask. Eyes dead.
He's too late.
He doesn't look away from Heil. Can't.
He's failed him. Heil freed him and he paid it back by letting these monsters do this to him again.
He snarls, hurls himself at the operator, knife out, ready to gut the bastard.
Something's in his way. He stops himself, barely in time before he sinks the knife into Heil's side.
The operator looks bored.
"We could cut this quite short, Soldier, couldn't we?" He grins. Cold, flat. "One word and all this would be over." He looks over the Asset's shoulder and his grin widens. "I'm guessing you didn't tell your new friends about that, did you? But I'll play nice. Our dear Heil was a bit in need of an overhaul. We kept with the old model too long. Prone to malfunctions, not recommendable. But I'd love to try out this version." His grin turns sharp. "What do you say?"
Before the Asset can say anything - not that he intended to do that - Heil moves. The Asset barely manages to dodge the hit, jumping back.
Heil doesn't give him room though, closing in again, brandishing his weapon, trying for every opening he gets.
He's definitely not hesitating now.
The Asset blocks an attack, turning it into a lock. Heil head-butts him.
He rips off his mask to avoid the blood pooling inside.
"Heil, listen to me!"
He's not one for words. He was never allowed words. He doesn't know where these came from, or what words he wants Heil to listen to.
Heil doesn't listen anyway though. He just attacks, doesn't pull punches, aims to hurt, to destroy. He sees the rest of the Avengers engage some of the operators.
He's glad that the Hulk and Thor are outside, keeping the main force of the operators occupied. He doesn't want them in closed quarters here with them.
He just hopes that the others will keep to their own opponents. He doesn't want any of them to engage Heil.
The Asset doesn't know how they would react if Heil were to seriously wound one of theirs, but he can't imagine it being pretty, or in any way in Heil's interest.
So instead he ducks and weaves, trying to draw Heil away from the head of the base, who's still watching them with something like mild interest, having pulled back to a more defensible position, but letting is lackeys do the work for him.
"Please, Heil, I need you to remember."
"The previous Asset is malfunctioning. The Asset is to subdue and capture him."
The Asset grinds his teeth. Shit. He needs to get them out of Heil's head again.
If he would believe in anything but his own abilities he would pray that they hadn't managed to take too deep roots in his mind yet.
He hopes that he's enough to pull him out.
"We called you Heil. The two of us shared a... shared a room. You were warm when nothing else was."
He ducks, blocks a kick, deals out a kick of his own into Heil's side. Nothing too damaging, but enough to kick him off balance, enough to hopefully hinder further movement.
He doesn't slow down though. Keeps coming after the Asset,
He gasps, as pain flares up from his side. He pulls back, hand on his side.
Wet. Warm. Blood.
There's a bloody knife in Heil's hand.
He coughs, going down to his knees, holding his side, lowering his head. Hunches his shoulders.
Heil comes closer, knife still up.
Cocks his head.
So much for catching him unaware.
The Asset comes to his feet again, one hand still pressed to his side.
"Don't you remember the promise you made?"
Heil cocks his head.
The Asset had thought his eyes were dead, when he first saw him behind the base's head. But maybe there's still something there.
Maybe it's his imagination, maybe it's hope. He doesn't know, he doesn't know how these things affect perception. He's out of his depth here.
But he thinks that there's still something of Heil there.
"You promised that we'd get out. Together. Together or not at all."
It's not imagination, not delusion. Something flickers in Heil's eyes at that. He frowns, shifting his balance.
"The Asset is not to leave the premises without command."
"But you're not the Asset, are you?"
He frowns, shifting his balance even more. Going on the defensive.
"What- What do you mean?"
"I am the Asset. You are Heil."
Only he isn't. They aren't. He's not the Asset. The Captain calls him Bucky. He's no Bucky. But he's no Asset either. And he doesn't think Heil is Heil either. The Captain flinched and didn't think Heil was a person.
But what are they, then? Who are they?
"Come with me. Please. We can leave, together."
Heil's posture straightens, his grip on his knife tightens.
"The previous Asset is malfunctioning. He is to be taken in." And he attacks, more ferocious than before.
But not as precise. His hits go wide, leave him open for attack, don't aim for vulnerable spots any longer.
Hitting adrenaline, or doubt?
The Asset ducks, pushes back Heil's arms, blocks his knife. Dances around him.
"I'm sorry I left you behind. That wasn't supposed to happen."
Heil freezes, arm pulled back. He frowns. Blinks. Looks up at the Asset. At not-Bucky.
"You didn't leave me behind. I... I pushed you."
Heil straightens, puts his knife away. "The Asset is malfunctioning as well. Malfunctions are to be reported immediately."
He turns, towards the base leader. Who is no longer looking mildly interested. Instead he's looking angry. He says something, but he's too far away for Not-Bucky to hear it. But Heil flinches.
He jumps forward and rips it out of his ear.
Heil turns, eyes big and wide in his face, mouth dropped half open.
"Don't go back. Don't report."
Heil pulls a face, as if he's in pain.
Not-Bucky sees the base leader stalking towards them, flanked by two lackeys. The Widow is heading towards him, but she's not going to reach him before he's close enough to use the trigger phrases.
Bucky looks into Not-Heil's eyes.
"I'm sorry for this."
He hits him over the head, catching him when he crumbles.
The retreat is a haze for Bucky. He's aware that he's shooting at people, that he's shooting them. He's aware of blood and tears and guts and urine and screams and punches connecting.
He's aware that there are other people flitting around him, helping their retreat.
But the thing that is occupying his mind is the heavy weight in his arm, over his shoulder.
He's got him. They are almost out.
And he'll get his Heil back, whoever he really is, whatever he is called. He will get back that warmth, that smile, those careful hands. And he'll never ever let him go again.
The flight back is quiet. Doctor Banner is sleeping, Thor and the Widow are talking in one corner. She's keeping an eye on him though.
He doesn't care.
The Falcon and the Captain - who is not a sickly boy getting into back-alley fights no matter what his brain tries telling him - are sitting not far from him, trading glances and quiet words. The Captain shoots him not so hidden looks every other moment.
He knows that he wants answers.
He wants answers himself.
But not now. Now he wants Not-Heil to wake up, to be himself again.
But for all the new found hope he now harbors, he doesn't actually believe in miracles, so he took all of Not-Heil's weapons. Secured his own and put away those he couldn't secure.
He keeps watching not-Heil. But there's not the slightest flutter of those long lashes. Just the deep and even breaths that assure him that he's going to be alright.
There's a sound from his right and the Captain - Steve? is that his name? - sits down next to him.
"How is he?"
The Captain throws him a look.
What did he expect?
"I mean, is he going to be alright?"
Bucky nods. "We heal fast."
Maybe-Steve pulls a face. "You also hit very hard."
He has firsthand experience with that. Bucky grins. "That I do." He shakes his head, turning serious again. "But I didn't hit him that hard. I just wanted to get him out."
Maybe-Steve turns his eyes towards not-Heil again.
Bucky answers the unasked question. "It's not the hit, that keeps him out. They... they got to him. They did something. You're always tired afterward. Not just tired. You're exhausted." Maybe-Steve looks pained. "And they couldn't have been finished with that long before we arrived. They send him into a fight right after."
And god does he hope that they didn't even manage to finish. Not-Heil broke through the command once. Bucky did, too, though it possibly took him longer. He will break it again. But he doesn't know how long it will take.
Doesn't matter. He will be there. Just like Heil was at his side whenever he woke up. Whenever he felt cold.
He stretches his hand, touching Heil's neck, over his pulse.
The- Steve claps his shoulder. "If you need anything, either of you, don't hesitate to ask, okay?"
Bucky nods, looking after him as he returns to his seat besides the Falcon.
Bucky turns back to Heil. All he needs is for him to wake up again. To be his Heil again.
Heil still hasn't woken up, when they reach the mansion again. Bucky picks him up and lets Maybe-Steve guide him towards an empty room.
He declines the offer of a room for himself though. Steve just nods and tells him, he'll bring him something to eat.
After Steve's left, Bucky can't look away from Not-Heil's face.
He looks so vulnerable and his gut twists as he thinks about what they've done to him.
They didn't just reset him. They broke him into a completely new designation.
He forcefully relaxes his fingers from their tight clench.
He's out now. And Bucky took as many of those bastards down in the process, as he could.
He wants to do more. He wants to wipe HYDRA from existence. But they can't do that, before they didn't get rid of the triggers that he has. That Heil probably has as well.
And if Heil decides that he doesn't want to have anything to do with HYDRA anymore, not even destroying it, then Bucky will gladly step back, let the Avengers do the job and find some peaceful haven for himself and Heil.
He wants to take HYDRA down. But even more than that he wants to make sure that Heil is feeling safe and secure. Wants him to be himself.
But for any of that to become possible, Heil needs to wake up first.
There's a soft knock on the door.
Maybe-Steve enters, a tray laden with food balanced in one hand.
Bucky shakes his head. Looks at the tall and blond man, not scrawny at all.
Watches him put down the tray with ease.
"You used to be smaller, didn't you?"
Maybe-Steve whips around, stares at Bucky with huge eyes.
He shrugs. "I don't know. Maybe?" He looks back at Heil, doesn't want to see that terrified hope in the other man's eyes. "Steve. You're Steve. Right?"
"Yes." He sounds like his voice is about to give out.
Bucky shakes his head. "Don't- That doesn't mean-" He reaches out, grips one of Heil's hands. "I don't know who you are. I don't know who I used to be. I don't remember."
The sound of swallowing.
"It's okay. I- I understand. Call, if you need anything?"
Bucky nods. It takes a moment, but then there's the sound of footsteps leaving the room.
Bucky leans forward, resting his forehead on their linked hands. Letting everything he's feeling, everything he's been hiding, everything he's never been allowed to feel, doesn't know how to feel, wash over him.
Let’s that strange sense of contentedness he feels when he's next to Steve settle somewhere. Allows that trickle of unease the Widow wakes in him. Let’s the warmth that comes to him, when he thinks about Heil's hand on his skin, working on his arm oh so carefully, fill him. Let’s the sense of worry take up room, allowing it, but answering with the certainty that Heil will be alright. That they heal. And that they always, always found back to themselves.
He doesn't know how much time passes. He thinks he'd just slipped in a daze, but if he's perfectly honest he might have actually dozed off.
He snaps back to himself when the hand in his grasp is suddenly yanked away from under him. He looks up, sees Heil, crawling back on the bed until his back is up against the headboard, legs pulled up in front of him, looking around frantically.
Bucky holds out one of the glasses that Steve had put on the tray. He doesn't expect Heil to take it.
"What am I doing here? And what-" He frowns, looks at Bucky. "You-" He shakes his head, presses his free hand against his temple.
"Who are you? What are you doing here."
Bucky shrugs. The warmth in him is receding, but even if Heil hasn't recognized him, he at least hasn't recognized him as an enemy either. "I'm looking after you."
He squints at Bucky. "Why?"
"Because I care about you and I lost you once already."
Heil frowns again, putting the now empty glass down on the bed next to himself. "I don't remember." His face becomes pained and he's pressing both of his hands against his head. "I, I can't remember anything!"
His breathing is speeding up, his eyes going unfocused, before closing tightly.
Bucky gets up from his chair, sits down close to Heil on the soft mattress, but still far enough away to give him some space.
"Hey, hey listen to me, okay? Listen to my voice concentrate on that. If you want, you can put your hand on my chest, but listen to my voice. You are alright. You are going to be alright. You will remember. I was exactly where you are right now and I'm starting to remember things. Not everything yet, but more and more is coming back, okay? You just woke up. You will remember as well."
Heil nods and one shaking hand moves from his own temple towards Bucky's chest, pressing right over his heart.
Bucky breathes in and out. Slowly, deliberately.
"Would it be alright if I touch you?
Heil nods again, but doesn't look at him.
Bucky moves around, careful not to dislodge the hand on his chest
He puts his hand on Heil's back, moving it in slow, steady circles over his back.
They sit like that for a while.
Heil's breathing has calmed down and one of his hand has come to rest in his lap. The other one is still pressed against Bucky's chest.
He carefully puts his own hand over it again. It twitches, but relaxes immediately.
"I don't really remember you. But I feel like I remember you anyway. Does that make sense?"
Bucky smiles, a little. "To me it does."
"That's good." Heil slumps against him, rocking him a little backwards. "That's good." He closes his eyes, breathing evening out.
Just when Bucky thinks he's fallen asleep again, he opens his eyes a bit, just a slit, enough to see them shimmering.
"What's your name?"
He swallows. There's something stuck in his throat.
"I think they call me Bucky."
There's a knock on the door again. Bucky cranes his neck, trying not to move too much, lest he wakes up Heil, who's now slumped against his chest, curled up against him.
"Yes?" he whispers. If it's who he's pretty sure it is, than the volume of his voice won't matter.
The door opens to reveal Steve poking his head inside.
"You guys alright?" he asks just as quiet, eying the two of them with a strange glint in his eyes. Contentment?
Steve nods. "Okay, call if he wakes up?"
The mumble comes from Heil, who's rubbing his eyes, suppressing a yawn - without much success.
"I can see that." Bucky scratches Heil's scalp, eliciting a content hum. The warmth in him resonates with it. "Do you want a shower?" He eyes Steve, gauging his reaction, but he just smiles and nods, clearing the doorway.
"Mmmm. 'n a bit?"
Bucky is in no hurry to get the warm weight off of his chest so he just nods and lets Heil doze a bit more.
"I'm going to find him something else to wear. That alright with you?"
Bucky nods at Steve. While he doesn't really want to divest himself of his armor and weapons and while he'd love for Heil to be as safe as possible, being as far removed from anything HYDRA might be the best for Heil right now.
Come to think of it, Bucky should probably wear something else as well. Or at least get something to wear over the armor so that Heil doesn't have to see it.
After a few minutes Heil suddenly sits straight up, blinking around himself and squinting up at Bucky.
Heil shakes his head. "Sorry, nothing. I think I... dreamed?"
He stretches, gets off the bed. Slowly.
Then he moves to the hallway. Through it. Right to the bathroom.
He didn't ask for directions, didn't look at the layout. Nothing. Just went straight for the door.
Heil stops in front of the door. Blinks again, looks around. Makes a confused face, before shaking himself and pulling open the door. Stopping again. Squinting, looking around, frowning.
He turns, looks back at Bucky.
"I know this place."
They're sitting in the mansion's living room. Heil is showered and clothed in slightly ill-fitting clothing - Hawkeye's, he thinks. It's stranger’s clothes, it's vulnerable and yet he feels comfortable out of the body armor. The Asset- No. Bucky? He called himself Bucky. The Captain had called him that, too.
Bucky is still wearing his armor, but he's zipped up a hoodie over it.
Not that it conceals much.
Still, at least one of them can take a hit now.
And Heil sincerely hopes that neither of them will have to. He's just so tired.
And he feels slightly unsettled by the house. He's never been here. And yet he remembers it, somehow. But at the same time... not?
Like, that furniture over there feel all wrong to him. He feels like there should be heavy, antique furniture, a darker color on the walls. But at the same time he knows exactly how many steps the stairs have, which of them creaks. Knows where the bathroom is and that down that hall is a big kitchen.
Though, to be fair, the smell of cookies might be what gave that one away. But even that smell he seems to know. Seems to know how sweet and soft they'll taste, how warm they'll still be, because he's never patient enough to wait for them to cool down and- and- He shakes his head. And someone always indulges him and gives him one off of the cooling rack.
It's confusing and it's making his head spin.
He doesn't notice that he's pressing against the- against Bucky's side until Bucky drops a heavy arm over his shoulder.
Glances up at him, at the little tick at the corner of his mouth that he's sure no one else can see. It's his alone.
Captain America clears his throat, smiling at the two of them.
"So no fall back on the programmed behavior?"
"Not the slightest. He also doesn't refer to himself as the Asset any more. My guess is that while they broke him into the designation before, the time was too short to root it seriously in his mind."
They are talking about him and about his... condition. His situation. And he should be listening, because that's somewhat important to his general being.
But he just can't concentrate on anything besides the warmth at his side and the delicious smell wafting out of the kitchen.
A moment later there are footsteps coming from there. Heil perks up slightly, anticipation making his mouth water.
An old man steps through the doorway, a tray laden with cookies, mugs and a teapot. He takes one step into the living room and freezes.
Recognition slams into Heil. Even more so than with the mansion, he knows this man. Knows him with every fiber of his being, knows the soft cadence of his voice, the soft and careful touch of his hands on hurting limbs. Knows the happy laughter.
He can't know him and yet he does.
The tray clatters to the ground, cookies, coffee everything spraying around.
The man doesn't care, just steps right over it, towards Heil, falling to his knees in front of him.
"Oh my god. Oh my god, this can't- Young- Oh my god."
Bucky has tensed next to him, but for once he can't think about that. Can't spare him any mind, because he knows this man.
"Whats going on? Jarvis?"
That... might be Captain America? Heil doesn't care. He only cares about that man in front of him. That face that he remembers, but with less lines in it, framed by less gray hair.
But he remembers those kind eyes. Can't understand how he could ever forget them.
"You... you know me?"
The man nods, a hand reaching towards him, but stopping in the middle. Shaking. There are tears running down his face.
"My... my name. You know my name?"
Now the man cries, big heaving sobs, shaking his frame.
"I do. Oh, I do. Young master Anthony." He smiles through the tears and something inside Heil shudders in anticipation. He knows that name, but it's not right. "Young master Tony."
He's moving, slipping from the couch, hugging Jarvis tight.
"Tony. I'm Tony. I have a name. I know you. I know you."
They've left Heil, have left Tony with the butler in the living room, both a crying mess, clinging to each other.
Bucky's side feels slightly cold, but he can't begrudge them that. He does stay in the doorway of the kitchen though, close enough to keep an eye on them, to hear- to hear Tony call.
God. Tony. He has a name now. They both do.
He turns his head towards Steve, who's got a teary smile on his face. Happy tears, Bucky thinks. Always feeling so much.
And suddenly Bucky understands. Understands those sideways looks, understands Tony and the butler. Understands that there are more ways than just one to feel warmth.
He opens his arms. "Come here, you punk."
Steve looks startled, but a moment later he hugs Bucky, strong enough to make his ribs creak.
Crying. The big lug is crying.
Bucky buries his head in his hair, to keep the others from seeing that he's doing just the same.
He's supposed to be sleeping right now. It's dark, everyone's in bed - alright, almost everyone, he thinks he can hear someone - the Widow? - fetch something from the fridge. The fridge door closes with a clinking sound. It's way too silent if he can hear it.
Her room door closes again.
He's warm and comfortable. And he can't sleep. He listens to the ticking sound of the old grandfather clock outside in the hall. Tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick-
There are voices in his ear. Screaming at him to follow command. You are worthless, we should have just had him snap your neck. Waste of resources. Put him under again, I can't work with something like this.
Load faster. I said, load faster. What kind of piece of shit are you? Get going! Reload. Reload. Reload.
What the hell? Did you even look at the target? Fucking aim!
Your designation: Heil IV. If I see you not responding even once it's back into the tank with you.
Shoot. Reload. Repair. Heil. Hail HYDRA. Again. Again. Shoot. Kill.
Reload. Reload. Reload.
He wakes with a gasp. His throat hurts, his hands shake.
Why is he here? Where is here? He's going to be punished. They are going to hurt him and going to put him under again, and the needles, again with the-
He presses his hands to his temple. He knows this room. He's allowed to be here.
This... he knows this mansion. It's his. He remembers it. He'd lived here with his family. Not a perfect family, far from it. Not particular nice either, most of the time. But it had been his. They'd lived here. He'd lived here. As a kid with a family and a name.
He's shaking. Curls on his side.
He's so cold.
He wipes away tears from his face.
Why is he so cold?
He lies there, shivering, freezing.
He needs to stop thinking of the tank, or he'll never be warm again.
He blinks. There's something, even in those memories that are without a name. Something that was always warm.
And- and it's still there.
Tony crawls out of his bed and carefully slowly opens the heavy wooden door that connects his room to the next. Pokes his head in.
There are slits of eyes, focused on him. He can see the dark shape of a gun.
It's trained on him, but he's not afraid.
A moment later it disappears.
"Hei- Tony?" His voice is gravely. Warm.
Tony tapers closer. Comes to a stop.
"Tony?" His voice is firmer now. Slightly suspicious
"Yes, still Tony. Can," He hesitates. In his bed, surrounded by cold it had been so easy to think of the solution. But now, standing here the last step seemed too far.
Bucky looks up at him. Cocks his head. Then he smiles. The tick of a corner of his mouth. He scrawls back a bit. Lifts the corner of his blanket.
Tony doesn't hesitate another second, crawls in next to him and curls into his chest.
This time, when he falls asleep, he dreams of safety, of arms around him. Of sunshine and laughter.