Baby, I miss you. (I know you love nicknames. Is ‘baby’ too generic, too common? Don’t worry, I’ll come up with something better. I promise.) I ache for you every day. I think it’s almost time to meet. I can feel it in my bones. It’s like the universe is whispering, ‘soon, soon.’ Do you hear it, too? I’ve been working so hard lately on getting myself ready so that when we finally meet you’ll look at me and say…
I won’t spoil it. I want to hear you say the words, when it finally comes time.
Soon, my love.
“Daddy’s back,” Tony calls out half-heartedly. The lights are on and the tables are gleaming thanks to JARVIS and the cleaning bots, but the workshop is empty. DUM-E, U, and Butterfingers have moved to Avengers Tower.
Avengers Tower in New York City, where everyone else is except Tony.
“Welcome back, Sir,” JARVIS returns.
Everyone else except Tony and a part of JARVIS, but JARVIS has the enviable ability to be in two places at once. Maybe Tony should start working on that for himself.
The Malibu house hasn’t been home since Avengers Tower (formerly Stark Tower) had been repaired post-Chiaturi. Tony had pretended his relocation was temporary for a few weeks, but when first Bruce and then the rest of the Avengers had moved in, Tony had the bots bought back over. Then Tony’s primary residence was once again New York. Sometimes he wishes he had rebuilt the Tower in California, but that might’ve just been asking for a higher prevalence of sea monsters that the Avengers are still under equipped to deal with.
He should talk to Steve about that.
“Alright then, J. Let’s get right to it and work back up to full steam by this evening, yeah?” Tony mutters as he starts pulling files up in order of priority.
“Sir, are you sure your first task shouldn’t be to find your ‘mystery penpal’?’”
“Work first, then play,” Tony counters.
If he tackles the problem of his mystery penpal first - who Tony had shortened to Myster-T, given the call sign - then that means Tony has to admit that he came all the way to Malibu because of a few untraceable emails. Instead, if he works through some of this pile from SI - he hadn’t been exaggerating that much when he told Pepper and the rest of the Avengers he needed a work-vacation to get through it - then the issue of Myster-T is just another problem on the list like sea monster preparations or budget allocations.
Besides, Tony is a genius, but he isn’t the only one in the world. Of course there are people who can send emails that he and JARVIS can’t backtrace to a specific person. That competence clearly means they aren’t government employed - which is a relief, really. So, there are other intelligent people in the world who happen to like sending Tony emails, what’s the big deal? And so what if Tony got tired of hearing the word ‘stalker’ from JARVIS and had banned his AI from using it? Tony is fine. There have been no attacks on his person or any increase in attacks on the Tower. He’s fine. It’s just a few emails.
And if this does blow up in his face, as things tend to do, then it will probably blow up in Malibu, which means everyone he cares about will be back in New York and outside the detonation zone. That’s what matters most.
Tony soon realizes that it’s harder to get back into the swing of things in Malibu. Knowing that the entire house above him is empty nags at his brain, preventing him from getting swept away into his engineering-zone. If he can’t work because he misses people… That’s just ridiculous. He tries harder to push the thought of the empty house or what time it is back in NYC away so that he can focus.
He reads and signs off on budget allocations for R&D. He reviews project updates and sends his comments back - most of which are for engineers to get out of their offices and talk to the person next to them, who is equally intelligent and has already solved their problem. Communication, people, communication. He fleshes out a few ideas that he’d filed away a few weeks ago and shoots them off to R&D to develop further.
Tony does a few suit upgrades for himself. He researches submarines, and makes notes on how to drag underwater tech into the future - maybe he should put ‘Find Atlantis’ on his bucket list. And despite JARVIS insisting on moving ‘Myster-T’ to the top of the priority list, Tony keeps relegating it to the bottom.
This is how I know we’re meant to be. You don’t even have to reply for me to understand your signs. You’re always so impatient for the future to arrive, aren’t you?
I won’t disappoint.
Tony eases his Aston Martin through the turns of his driveway, laughing into his phone. “You keep that up and Steve is going to kick me off the team for being a bad influence.”
“Bad influence? Please,” Bucky snorts from the other end. “The guy has known me for ninety years which includes, I remind you, a brainwashed personality disorder. You couldn’t make me worse if you tried.”
“Right, because you’ve always dropped everything, hacked a Quinjet, and flown across the country for fish tacos,” Tony teases as he pulls into the garage.
“I woulda if I could. Always thinkin’ with my stomach.”
“Well, it’s led you to the right place. San Diego is the place to be. This a day trip for you, or are you sticking around?”
“The jet is goin’ to wait for me, right? If you’ll let me interrupt your work-cation so you can play tour guide… wouldn’ say no. I’d love to do some sight-seeing. California’s pretty, I can see why you ran away.”
“Excuse you. I did not run away,” Tony protests as he parks his Martin in line with the rest of his Malibu collection. He hadn’t told Bucky or any of the Avengers about the emails, citing only his ever-increasing pile of work, so he really didn’t deserve that. “I came out here so all of you would leave me alone so I could actually get work done.”
Tony grabs the grocery bag full of snacks on the passenger seat and climbs out of the car, holding his phone to his ear with his shoulder.
“I still call that runnin’ away. Come on, don’t you need a break by now? I know I’m sorta droppin’ in, but since I’m in the area... Show me your state?”
“Sure, Barnes,” Tony agrees easily, not even needing the persuasive plea in Bucky’s tone. Of anyone, Tony is pleased that it’s Bucky who seems to have gotten a sudden hankering for exploring the west coast. Tony has slammed SI with emails and updates and plans in the past few days - his employees could use a break while Tony shows off to Bucky what Malibu and the surrounding area has to offer. “I’ll give you a tour, pro-bono because I’m nice, and see if we can knock some of that New York City grit off of you and make you a beach babe. Come on up to Malibu. J, send Bucky the coordinates… J?”
The silence has Tony dropping his snacks and dashing for the keyboard. The lights in the workshop had flickered on, so it wasn’t a power outage, but an unresponsive JARVIS is even more worrying.
“What’s wrong?” Bucky demands. “Tony!”
“JARVIS is down,” Tony growls. No one touched JARVIS. You come after Tony, not his AI. He hangs up the phone and tosses it on the workbench. Then, Tony starts digging into JARVIS’ activity files. “J, buddy? What’s got you tongue-tied?”
Code scrolls by, and Tony’s fingers leap to the keyboard to tackle the virus currently occupying all of JARVIS’ working memory, keeping him too occupied to respond.
“Tony,” someone breathes behind him.
Tony whirls, hands out in defense. He has to do a double-take at who he sees stepping out from behind a cabinet. “What the fuck?”
The other man’s face falls. It takes Tony a second to process it, because he rarely sees his own face like that. It’s like looking into a distorted mirror.
“Not what I’d hoped for, but that’s probably to be expected,” the other man, a man who looks eerily like Tony, sighs. He’s not a perfect replica, not like a clone would be. The ‘other’ Tony is taller, a bit stockier. His eyes are farther apart, his lips thicker, his eyes a darker shade of brown.
The beard, the nose, the hairstyle, and the cheekbones though… so much of Tony’s appearance is worn by this man.
“It’s still a couple months until Halloween. No candy here for you,” Tony snarls as he reaches back and fumbles on the bench until his hand closes around the handle of a wrench.
“It’s not a mask,” the man replies with a huff of laughter. He steps closer. “It’s my face. Our face. Tony… I’m T.”
“I told Pep I should’ve gotten a patent on the beard,” Tony quips as he slowly backs away. The Iron Man armor stands lifeless in the corner. With JARVIS offline, Tony will have to manually activate it. “What did you do to JARVIS?”
The man gasps, still walking forward. “You named your AI after your butler? That’s so sweet. Oh, Tony, there’s so much to know about you. I can’t wait for you to tell me everything.”
“Focus, copycat. What did you do to JARVIS?” Tony demands.
“It’s currently occupied with something of my own design. I’d love to show you. There’s so much I’d love to share with you. I think of all the things we could do together and I just…” the man pauses for a second, breathless. “I’ve waited so long for this day to finally come so we can share the rest of our lives together.”
“I’ll share this,” Tony snarls as he hurls the wrench at his doppleganger.
The man ducks, his hands shielding his head. Tony turns and races for the suit, no longer trying to disguise his movements.
Pain. Tony stops, paralyzed, as pain courses through his system and seizes his muscles. Electricity, dancing along his nerves and lighting them up. His muscles tense and tense and tense. His jaw locks shut, stifling his scream. His chest burns, spreading out around the arc reactor, fire building and spreading through his nerves, his flesh, his bones.
The pain recedes.
Tony opens his eyes and sees the ceiling of his workshop. His body aches, and his fingers and toes twitch from the aftershocks sending cascades of pain to Tony’s brain.
“Ow,” he whines.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to have to do that,” T says, crouching beside Tony.
Tony doesn’t even have to tilt his head. T leans over, taking up Tony’s entire vision.
It’s so weird to see your own face making an expression and not being able to identify it, Tony thinks. Is that sympathy? Is he somehow not sympathetic, or is the other guy just doing it wrong?
T’s face comes closer, and Tony cringes. Tony’s hands come up, trying to cover the arc reactor, though it takes three times to get his limbs to respond to his command. This is all too familiar. Tony’s chest squeezes. The reminder of when it was Stane leaning over him, whispering to Tony and telling him how stupid, how selfish Tony had been… how Tony had one last use…
“No, don’t hide from me,” T coaxes as he pries Tony’s hands away from the reactor. “This is it, the one thing I knew I couldn’t do without you. I was hoping it could be our first co-project.”
T pulls up Tony’s T-shirt until the arc reactor is uncovered. The awe on T’s face makes Tony nauseous.
“Here’s all I could manage on my own,” T says, lifting up his own shirt to display a tattoo of the arc reactor. It’s the perfect size and position, the details reconstructed into a flat rendering.
Always the reactor.
Tony wonders if he could do it - embed the reactor in someone else’s chest and have them realize what it’s like to live with an electromagnet carved into your rib cage. Have them realize with every breath, every step, every movement, just how deep the metal goes.
He can’t. He won’t. But a part of him wants to, to give T exactly what he’s asking for.
“It’s so beautiful. I know I’ve told you before, but I need to tell you in person. It’s beautiful,” T says, his fingers skimming the surface of Tony’s reactor.
T’s face is a mimicry of Tony’s, but all Tony can see is Stane.
Tony punches him - Stane, himself, either works. Tony has regained enough muscle coordination that the punch is effective, sending T flailing.
Tony crawls back, back toward where the suit stands.
“Tony, come on! I don’t want to hurt you. Don’t make me hurt you!” T says as he rubs at his jaw, where Tony had scored the hit. Then he reaches into his pocket, and pulls out another cartridge for his taser.
Tony bangs his head against one of his tool chests first. The chest is too heavy to move for Tony’s current strength level, but he reaches up and opens one of the drawers. He grabs a handful of screwdrivers and flings the whole handful at T.
At least a few hit T, and T yelps and fumbles the taser. Tony grabs another handful and throws them, hard. T crouches to the floor, his hands covering his head.
Tony reaches into another drawer and grabs a handful - screws, this time - and holds onto them as he redirects himself and slides back to the suit. When T pokes his head out, reaching again for the taser, Tony hurls the screws at him. T goes back to cowering, and Tony spares a thought to be thankful that his doppleganger is such a coward.
Tony reaches the suit. He grips the legs and hauls himself up until he can reach the latch to manually open the suit. Tony climbs inside, his body shaking, as he waits for another hit from the taser or something else to go wrong… but the suit closes around him.
There’s no JARVIS talking to him, but the HUD lights up with power. Tony can see T, slowly standing up and stammering some sort of plea. Tony can’t hear him. There’s only a buzzing in Tony’s ears as Tony aims the repulsor and fires.
The HUD darkens in front of him. Tony worries about the arc reactor - did something happen that he can’t see? Can’t feel? - and then everything goes black.
I don’t understand. I don’t… What? How could you wreck our first meeting like that? Why did you make me hurt you? Why did you hurt me? I love you but I can’t believe you did that to me.
I’ve never been this angry at you.
“Hm?” Tony replies. He hurts and he wants at least another five minutes, even if it’s a call to assemble.
“Tony! Open the suit.”
He’s already in the suit? Tony opens his eyes and sees that he is. Bucky takes up most of the field in the HUD.
Tony opens the suit and immediately regrets it. He’d collapsed in the suit, and now he’s again on his back, with the reactor now exposed, and someone is leaning over him. Tony scrambles back again, or tries to, caught up in the circuitry.
“Hey, hey,” Bucky eases, holding up his hands and stepping back. “It’s me, Bucky. You’re in Malibu, in your workshop.”
It comes back to Tony all at once - his stalker, the fight, and - “JARVIS,” Tony gasps, scrambling to his feet. He doesn’t avoid Bucky’s hands when Bucky reaches out to help.
“He’s still not responding,” Bucky says.
Tony leans against Bucky as they move over to the chair in front of Tony’s keyboard. Tony pulls up several screens with JARVIS’ information.
Then Tony turns, his gaze searching over to the spot where the repulsor had landed. T is gone. Tony hadn’t killed him then, which is both a relief and a disappointment. T will still be out there, waiting for his next shot and now preparing for an icy reception from Tony.
Tony turns back to his screens. Still, he feels eyes on the back of his neck. Bucky is standing right next to him, so it isn’t Bucky. No one is there, Tony tells himself, you just looked.
Tony looks again. No one is there.
He turns back to his screens. Again, there’s the creeping sensation of being watched that crawls up his spine. No one is there.
“Who?” Bucky asks. There’s a glint of metal out of the corner of Tony’s eye, where Bucky is playing with a knife. “Hydra? A.I.M.?”
“Didn’t see a logo,” Tony deflects, his fingers dancing on the keys as he searches for what’s tripping up JARVIS. It couldn’t have been an internal hack, T obviously wasn’t a superspy and so he would’ve had to disable JARVIS before he got into the house. So, that means he had to have tried - ah, there it is. “Alright, J. Time to come back home.”
Bucky doesn’t speak again, whether because he thinks he’d distract Tony or because Bucky can read the destruction and recreate the scene himself, Tony doesn’t ask. Tony will go ahead and rely on the former rather than worry about the latter and what Bucky will think of Tony’s self-defense skills.
How can Tony explain to Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier - or on that matter, any of the Avengers - and admit he’d almost been taken down by a civilian wanna-be? Sure, the guy had to be smart to get around JARVIS, but still. Iron Man, taken down by a taser?
Tony smashes out his frustration and embarrassment on the keyboard, helping JARVIS across the final hurdles until JARVIS once again has the bandwidth to respond to other inquiries than the spiraling viral overload T had attacked with.
“Welcome back, J,” Tony greets with relief, relaxing back into his chair with a sigh.
He darts another look behind him - still no one.
“Good to be back, Sir. My apologies for the delay. It seems I was overloaded for a worrying amount of time.”
“We’ll fix it. Mark it high priority and search out the weak spots,” Tony orders. “I want to know how he got in. I’m not going to let him or anyone else hurt you like that again, J.”
Bucky steps closer, into Tony’s space and a scant inch from touching. “Who?” he demands.
“Don’t know his name or if he has any affiliations,” Tony deflects again, not turning to look at Bucky. Then he realizes that not looking was a giveaway, and so he meets Bucky’s gaze - only it’s not Bucky. While the clothes may be casual with jeans and long sleeve shirt, the man standing tense next to Tony is every inch the Soldier.
Bucky explains the Soldier as almost a separate mindset, where everything that is Bucky is stripped away - just as Hydra intended - leaving only the skills behind. Tony doesn’t think that’s quite right, at least not since Bucky has gotten away from the mind wipes of Hydra. There’s more Bucky in the Winter Soldier now, or at least guiding the Soldier. Bucky and the Soldier may slip back and forth, but the final result is always a mix of the two.
So, Tony has no fear of the Soldier. Instead, Tony relaxes. Someone is battle-ready, at least, even if the Soldier isn’t wearing his combat gear. Tony isn’t going to get attacked from behind - or any direction - with the Soldier.
“I can track him,” the Soldier volunteers.
Tony startles. “You can?” he asks, but then waves away the question. If the Soldier said he could do it, then he could. “I, uh, let me think a minute,” Tony says instead, resting his head on his fist.
His brain feels slow, aching along with the rest of his body. JARVIS is still reviewing the firewalls, the information scrolling by on the screen in front of Tony, but Tony feels like he can’t think. What does he do next? Where is the next attack going to come from? How can Tony fix this? Right now, all he’s doing is feeling, not thinking - the burn on his back from the taser, the ache from the electricity, the fear that someone is going to remove the reactor.
“Sir, you have another gift from your mystery penpal,” JARVIS interrupts. “Or am I allowed to dub them less a mystery, at least to yourself?”
The email is displayed on a new screen, one that both Tony and the Soldier can read, before Tony can stop JARVIS.
“Too soon, J,” Tony scolds with a dry mouth.
“My apologies,” JARVIS returns with enough sincerity in the tone that Tony lets it go.
Tony can’t read the email himself, not yet. Instead, Tony watches the Soldier read, watches the Soldier’s eyes skip across the screen. Tony’s heartbeat is loud in his ears when he sees the Soldier understand.
When the Soldier turns to Tony and meets his gaze, Tony can see the ice in the Soldier’s eyes.
“I will kill him.”
“He’s probably not working with Hydra or any other Big Bad,” Tony admits, turning away. He doesn’t want to see the judgement on the Soldier’s face for not being able to handle this threat. “Most likely just a civilian with a penchant for hacking and a fetish for… well, me.”
“I will kill him,” the Soldier promises. He brushes his hand against Tony’s back, circling the spot where Tony was hit with the taser. It aches, and Tony wonders if he has burn marks on his clothes.
Tony forces out a weak chuckle. “I mean, I appreciate the thought, I do but just… uh, he’s wearing my face. As a heads up. He modified himself to look exactly like me, and it’s not perfect but it’s… eerily close. Just a warning for whatever torture you’re dreaming up that it’s gonna look a lot like…”
“He’s not you. I will not get confused.”
Tony sighs, feeling the ache in his chest as his lungs expand and contract. “Just make sure you and Bucky can look me in the eyes when you’re done, yeah?”
The Soldier crowds even closer, pressing up against Tony’s side. Tony relaxes into the touch, into the warmth, as he tries to disguise the fact that his hands are shaking.
“He will not disturb you again,” the Soldier growls.
Tony swallows, wishing it wasn’t relief that was blooming in his chest. He should care enough to talk the Soldier back from murder, right? Jail time would be enough, it’s not like the guy managed to kill JARVIS. Tony should do it himself even, because this is why he came out to Malibu - so that the others wouldn’t have to deal with Tony’s mess when it came, as always, to bite him in the ass.
Tony slumps sideways, putting more of his weight onto the Soldier. He rests his head on the Soldier’s shoulder and sighs. One of the Soldier’s arms wraps around his back, protecting it, and the other keeps the knife in hand.
“I can handle it myself,” Tony mumbles as he closes his eyes. He never suspected that he’d find someone playing with a knife near his body to be relaxing, but here he is.
“Yes,” the Soldier murmurs above Tony’s head, or is that more of Bucky? “But you don’t have to.”