The cold knocks the breath from his lungs.
He’s stumbling down a street. Stumbling because he’s tired, he’s been running since the thing with that woman, her name starts with a W (let it go, there are more important things). He’s been running since he left Pepper there. He’s been running.
He doesn’t even remember what that was about.
He’s somewhere in Kazakhstan. The city he’s in is really a town that smells like coal and frozen filth. There’s barely anyone out on the street; the sun’s going down and the thermometer in his parka is reading -1 C. He thinks he might have known what that meant, once upon a time. He’s fuzzy on Celcius now. Well. It’s cold as balls.
He’d told the woman at the Internet café he was an American in broken Russian. It seemed like a good idea when he said it, but she scowled and made it abundantly clear it wouldn’t make things easier. He feels guilt, now, sharp and stabbing, when he realizes that maybe it’s a thing they can use to trace him.
He steps over a pile of slush that’s starting to freeze over and thinks he should have the email protocol down.
Today is a deletion day, maybe. Deletion days are hard. There are primary directives, dark shapes he’s hidden away deep in his brain, large chunks of data that are just starting to be fragmented now, the last of it, the words slated to be overwritten last.
Everything else is disposable.
Deletion days feel like he’s being emptied. He can’t string a thought together. It’s all queued, it’s usually planned. Part of the plan, that’s what he returns to when it gets to be too much to bear, when he crosses that threshold of emptiness he suspects humans aren’t supposed to be faced with. It used to be every week, but now it’s every 36 hours. He can feel it while it’s happening, feels bits of him stutter up and whir before there’s quiet again, and less of him than there was before, and he can’t even begin to imagine what he’s lost.
So he doesn’t.
Step, step, step, and he goes over it again, reminds himself: 1 mile northwest of the north edge of the town, between two free-standing pine trees in a clearing. He sent the message, that’s all he had to do here. It has to be good enough.
Maria can take care of herself, he thinks. It floats to the surface, briefly, his voice and not-his, sure and certain and riding the edge of a smirk. Maria, and he clings, though he shouldn’t, because often when he remembers things, it’s the last time he’ll remember them, now. Maria, he thinks, she used to yell at him, but she might be a friend. They dated, maybe, there’s a lingering affection for her and he remembers the way she smells, like Old Spice, thinks of the way her skin felt and –
It stops him long enough to knock elbows with two other cold souls bustling by with hoods pulled down over their faces, and it’s –
Gone, sinking, let it go there’s nothing you can do, and he’s left with the dull suspicion he’s used to putting other people in danger, before it’s gone, too, and he’s just another beaten-down man out in the cold.
It’s just one of a thousand things he can only grasp at, really.
He steps in snow that’s too deep, feels it seep into his boot as a melting sludge. He should get back, keep moving – always, he needs to keep moving, this is one of the things that never leaves him – but he’s hungry. He doesn’t remember the last time he ate, he’s always hungry, but it goes ignored. It’s cold. He’s tired. He wants to stop. He can’t read the signs.
He doesn’t know where he’ll sleep tonight. Last night it was the bed of an old-model pickup, half-full of rotting leaves that froze when the snow fell and rancid water. The night before it was an empty building in Petropavlovsk, shivering under the emergency blanket he’s got stuffed in his coat until the cold dulled the pain in his head.
Tomorrow, he’ll get up, he won’t remember the email, he’ll get up and his stomach will ache until he finds somewhere to get food and he’ll press on, because somewhere along the line, he made a decision, somewhere, a long time ago, he screwed up, and this is his way, to fix it.
He’s going to fix it. There’s reason behind this, he reminds himself.
(please let there be reason behind it)
He reaches into his pocket, feels the roll of bills, tight and small and pulls them out. They’re not dollars, he turns them over in his hand and doesn’t remember the exchange rate, it’s the last of the ones he’d bummed off of – what’s his face, his friend.
He has friends, somewhere.
A fist slams into the side of his head.
No, he thinks, in the first second before the ringing starts, when he still has breath.
Assemble, he thinks (just one of those absurd words that crawls across his mind sometimes) as he stumbles, and then that’s gone, too.
Tony’s head hits rock, or brick, maybe, the side of a building, and the shock of freezing snow on his almost-bare scalp is enough to make him shut his eyes tight. No one even knows where he is, how many are there, how did they find him, how does he say help in Russian, who would even help him –
“No,” he chokes out, and they bash his head into the brick again. His ears are ringing, bright and oddly clear and something like an elementary school bell, and it aches to even drag his head up to look.
One of them sneers, and punches him in the mouth, and Tony’s tongue is overrun with copper.
Osborn, he thinks, terror bright in his throat.
It can’t be coincidence, it can’t, they’re going to capture him, someone in the US wants him, he’s wanted, they’re going to lock him away in a hole and what about the objective, he has to get to Afghanistan, he has to, Osborn, he doesn’t know much but he knows has to stop Osborn. Osborn is in control, Osborn is evil, he doesn’t know why until the deletion cycle is over and maybe not even then, but Tony has something he wants and they can’t have him, there’s something terrible at stake, he knows that, there has to be, that’s why he’s here, it’s his fault and this is the most important thing in the world and he’s –
He’s being mugged. One of them knees him in the crotch and he’s shocked and absurdly hurt at the unexpected violence of it even as he’s crumbling down in half and there’s a whining whimper climbing in his throat. Maybe it’s fear, maybe that's – maybe he didn’t use to be a person that showed fear like that –
“Tvoi bumaznik,” they say, and he doesn’t know what that means, and he tries to open his mouth, but English is going to come out, they’ll know it’s him, god, what does he do –
This is what being overwhelmed thinks like, he thinks, and one of the three stomps on his foot and presses his hand over Tony’s mouth just as he’s screaming. He knows what this feels like, he feels it every day, every day he wanders around in the cold with absolutely nothing in his control and this is no different, except he feels his ribs crack and –
His leg kicks.
One of them grunts, deep in his chest. An arm that smells of wood smoke and motor oil comes over his shoulder, fingers scrabbling for his throat, and his body grabs and ducks and flips him like he weighs nothing at all –
" – that was good,” the blond man says, “that was – wow, you’re in pretty good shape for a desk jockey – "
The man is on the ground, and Tony is standing, and he looks at his own hands and doesn’t know what the hell just happened.
“ – use their weight,” the man says, and he’s standing behind Tony, he’s got his hands on Tony’s waist, and it’s a demonstration, that’s what it is, just focus on that –
His body knows this, he realizes, and for a split-second he stumbles over that before it’s gone, and he ducks as one of them shouts and the other throws a punch wildly at his head. One, two, and he has it, the instep, the twist of his shoulder that follows.
(This isn’t going to last. It’s just regurgitated data.)
The third man kicks his feet out from under him, and he’s on the ground, he feels his tailbone hit the concrete and hisses, god, just, he just needs a minute so he can run, he just, so he can limp, his foot is broken, he just –
“ – like this,” he’s saying, and there’s the faint smell of Irish Spring under their sweat, under the nylon of the mats and the perfume of Tony’s cologne starting to melt, and it seems so silly now, he shouldn’t have worn it, what must he think of him –
He gasps where he lies on the ground, curls over and wheezes in pain as something grows in him. Something, not a physical sensation, but close enough to dull his soft focus and make him pant like he’s drowning. Something, that rises in his chest, that makes his heart ache and there are tears stinging in his eyes, something that feels warm in him, feelings he’ll have no name for soon, comfort, relief, affection –
“That was dirty,” the blond man says from where Tony’s put him on the mat, but he’s smirking, and Tony doesn’t care, he can be Tony here, he’ll – he can be Tony with him in his off-hours, he doesn’t have to be Iron Man and he seems to like him anyway. “Here, up,” the blond man says, and when he reaches for Tony’s hand, it’s electric –
This is the end of the line, this is him, alone, this is not his country. He is a wanderer, he is a no one, he is such a no one that he’s being beaten in an alley for pocket change he doesn’t have. He is a refugee and not even that, he’s just another nameless face built for the cold in his filthy jacket and his ratty scarf. He can’t be a refugee, he’s beyond home and duty and he doesn’t remember why he’s done this except he tries to, because he’s still a fool for hoping and gets the sense he’s always been, tries and tries and all his brain spits back is you need to do this.
He scrambles to standing, his body screaming, and his foot feels like it’s a pulpy mess of bones but he’s alight with it, there’s nothing else he can do, if he doesn’t he’s going to die –
(they’re going to die)
It’s clumsy, maybe. He doesn’t regain that sense of grace again, the effortless twists and falls of his limbs, but he manages in some desperate way, gets one of them pinned while the first one isn’t stirring with his face down in the mud. His knee thuds into the third one’s chest and his foot throbs like it’s being cut off and it stabs through him again, the smell of blood, the tang of metal, other places his brain won’t remember after this –
He’s done this before, and the dance of it snaps into him with something akin to pain.
That’s how Tony moves, like someone with the strength of all he used to be, thinks of that blond man, thinks of the feel of his hand in Tony’s, thinks someone cared enough to teach him this, thinks –
" – I’m going to kill you this time,” the man says, and raises his hands shining with rings –
– Captain America glowers up from him, wipes blood off his lip, and Tony says “I don’t want to hit you again,” before he’s the one being hit –
" – listen to me,” Thor hisses, and he’s got him by the throat, and Tony swings and can’t –
He’s been here, he was a titan, once. He can feel the shadows of these foes, he’s fought, knows the fierce pulsing that rises in his body when he tries to remember what shapes they were. It’s enough, it’s something (it’s anything and anything is more than the nothing he has to hold on to. He can pretend to be the powerful thing he must have been, to do this, to do this again and again, because he’s fucking terrified right now, he feels about to shake apart but once upon a time people called him a hero, and –
“Same time next week,” the blond man says.
He had friends. He had friends, some time before it wasn’t this, it wasn’t darkness and running and forgetting everything he is –
He’s absolutely nothing, compared to what he used to be.
He doesn’t even remember what he used to be.
It’s all gone.
He screams, a feral sound that rips out of his throat, and lands a kick to the second man’s chest.
This feeling is not for Pepper.
He feels his data draining away – memories, feels a twinge of something wild, anger, maybe, in him.
This feeling isn’t for her.
But he knows why, maybe.
In this moment, he knows, that’s why he’s doing this. He must be doing this, all of this, for them, whoever they are. There is someone, somewhere, back home, wherever that was, once upon a time. There is someone waiting for him. There is someone who loves him. There is someone who laughed at him and kissed him, maybe, and told him not to do this.
There is someone, somewhere, that’s more important than everything he was.
The asshole stays down, this time. They glance at each other, he thinks, he’s not sure, because there’s blood in his eye and the wind whips, stinging, into his face. He reels. He doesn’t know if he has it in him, another round. He leans on his good foot.
Then they scramble to their feet and run away.
Tony watches them go in half-disbelief, and then collapses against the building and feels his heart pound against his ribs.
He’s so cold, he’s so cold and he hurts and he doesn’t care, because he left it, he left all of it behind, he gave that up, gave up something that’s still warming him through when he doesn’t even know what it was. How can he, how can he have made this decision and it’s not fair –
Cling, he won’t remember this, tomorrow, he won’t remember this is five minutes, it’s just going to be gone and what if he didn’t have to do this alone–
(what if he did–)
He’s never going to know.
He’s never going to know, and he tries to sift through what’s in his RAM, but it’s all corrupted, it’s already being overwritten. He gasps a little, shuts his eyes tight and ignores his probably very serious injuries, but if he doesn’t do it now it’s gone, shuts his eyes and holds the feeling to his chest and tries to call up the images, again, an office, the mat, the blond man with the blue eyes and his face was so certain –
He has to hold it, this feeling, it’s all he has and he can’t remember who it’s for, but he can recite it, he can keep it if he says it enough, he has to keep it –
there is someone who loves you
someone who loves you
And then there’s nothing, and it’s like a dream slipping away after waking.
It sends another one of those phantom sensations through him to think it, psychosomatic response brought on by nothing, a mirage of a memory, a drowning wash of relief.
It’s miserable. It feels right.
He has the vague impression he fought for this.
No, and he sifts more, and there’s nothing, there’s nothing more, it’s gone, there’s no name, there’s nothing, there’s a gaping hole and he doesn’t feel anything. There’s nothing, there’s no detail, nothing but imperative, the word Afghanistan, the vague sense of an enemy named Osborn.
There’s nothing he can do to stop this, he’s in, he’s all in, he’s a shell, this is all there is, he gave up everything for this and he doesn’t want it, he hates it, he hates that he made this decision, how can he possibly have, he would give anything, anything to know, just for a moment, to remember, who –
Love, he thinks, and it’s the most pathetic of pleas, but sometimes the word alone can fire receptors and call cross-indexed things to bear, and –
And all that rises up in him is the rawness of guilt and something that stabs in his stomach.
He wonders how many times this has happened since he started erasing.
He wonders if he at least had the decency to say “I love you” before he left.