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The Asset—The Soldat—The Winter Soldier had never awoken in a desert before. Never awoken to a lack of a handler.

(At least that's what his mushy hole-ridden brain could inform him of.)

His eyes scanned the mountain and burning camp and he spotted something east to him.

He finds a young woman there, in the wreckage of a broken and crude invention. It looks to have been a kind of accident he'd be ordered to create. To make it look like an accident happened. He'd done that before.

Only she's alive inside the pieces of metal still attached to her and her half-buried body.

She looked up at him, cheeks a blistering red from the sun and minor cuts covering her body, a possibly broken arm, and a strange star-like glow in the centre of her chest.

She has large umber doe eyes(familiarfamiliarfamiliar), gapping up at him. She looks partly out of it, her head bleeding and cheeks hollower then the Asset thinks she should have.

Then she speaks.

"Wha? What's someone like you doing out here?"

He stared blankly down at her with dull stormy blue-grey eyes.

"Well." She coughed and grimaced, sticking her tongue out and quietly complained about sand. She shook her head and focused back on him. "Guess us none-desert folk should stick together."

He didn't react, just watched as she pulled herself free but didn't stand, seemingly unable to. She grinned up at him, teasingly saying: "Hey, think it's possible if you could carry me till I can feel my legs?"

A nod, her words were taken seriously; the joke going over the Asset's head.


She yelped as he lifted her, placing her on his back. Her arms instinctively wrapping around his shoulders and her legs wrapped around his waist.

The Asset walked on under the blistering heat.

The order had been given after all, and he once again has purpose because surely this must be his mission. His new Handler.

He's never served a woman before, but there is no one else around, no other living thing that could possibly mean they're his Handler.

It's only logical to the Asset that this woman, a young woman who couldn't have been any older than mid-twenties, was his new Handler. So he must protect her so that he can serve her.

"Toni! Oh, thank God, Toni!"

Struggling to stay awake, Antonia Peggy Stark, blinked blearily up at the dark-skinned man rushing over. She's awake enough to acknowledge that one of the hands holding her thighs was different—something was wrong with the hand, something wrong with the shoulder—the entire arm.

She blinked, her mushy mind recalling the fact that, yeah, her darkly dressed savour had a metal arm.

Her mind still active and whirling with ideas and wonders of how it works, even in her exhaustion.

She could do better, she thinks, knows she could do better.

But Toni's attention was brought back to the present when tall and dark and possibly handsome steps back, body tensing and ready to defend even when she knows he's as dehydrated and exhausted as she is.

Toni recognises the voice, however, the tone and the way her name's called, and she warbles, reaching with one hand towards Rhodey with his name on the tip of her tongue but her throat too sore to say it.

When she wakes up, she's on an aircraft, tall and dark is still there and she reaches out before she even registers it and pats his knee, slurring: "I'm gonna have to keep you, dude."

He just blinked down at her from behind his dark lens goggles.

Antonia Stark—Toni as she very much preferred—left Afghanistan with an electromagnet in her chest and a strange companion by her side.

She waved off Rhodey's offer for a bed, her hearting pounding loudly—louder then she'd ever felt or heard it—at the thought of sleep, at the idea of laying on a shitty cot like the one in the cave.

She can't.

She closes her eyes, even while awake, and can see—relives—everything that happened. The torture, leering looks, the cold, and unending fear. She sees Yinsen laying there, bloodied and dying all over again.

But she accepts the water, taking slow sips as to not shock her system.

And she also sits beside tall and dark and even then her mind is whirling with ideas for his arm. Perhaps it's a distraction…

Oh, who was she kidding—it was totally a distraction for not letting her mind submerge itself into the rabbit hole of the last three months.

Drawing in a breath, one that doesn't burn the back of her throat because of the heat, Toni turned her eyes onto the semi-familiar figure.

Coming too after landing—crash landing more like—the suit, she wasn't sure how long she'd been out of it. Maybe a few seconds, or a few minutes. She's not sure, but what she does know is that she'd come around with a broken wrist, several minor injuries, and a terrifying figure looming over her.

At first, she panicked—it had to be a terrorist, there had been a chance she'd not gotten them all—but she took in the clothes he wore. They were dark. Too dark because black absorbed heat and that was a no-go in a desert, especially for those that lived in said desert.

It was a strange comfort because of the simple colour of his clothes. But he wore dark lensed goggles pushed up onto his forehead and a mask that covered the lower portion of his face.

But, in her delirious state, she hadn't noticed how empty his eyes were. The conversation they'd had—as one-sided as it was—is a blur in her mind but now she can recall his eyes the clearest.

No doubt sensing her stare, her savour turned to her.

Before she could stop herself, Toni blurted: "Okay tall, dark and possibly handsome. Please let you be, I mean, not that I could have a problem if you weren't but I just gotta see what I'm working with, yeah?"

Her throat burns and Toni's quite positive her tongue might stop working altogether soon because talk required energy and she was running low on that front.

He does say anything, his gaze heavy and seemingly peering into her very soul.

"C'mon, take off the mask, I gotta know so I can plan ahead, darling."

She tries not to focus on his arm, but in the dim light of the overhead plane lights, it gleamed, practically calling to her. She wanted to drool over it, such a piece of art, even she could admit that. Was it connected to his nerves? Can he feel some sort of touch? How advances are its capabilities?

Toni would be vibrating if she had the energy. Her body itches with her desire to find out but knew the advancement would be rude. Touching his prosthetic without permission would potentially be traumatising.

She knew that if anyone asked about the mini-arc reactor in her chest, she'd feel that way.

So yeah, she'd not going to be grabbing at his arm any time soon.

Then, ever so slowly, he reached up and removed the goggles and mask. There are pressure indents on his forehead from the goggles, the temporary lines looking funny—those sort of things had always been funny to Toni, she had no idea why.

Toni smiled, a slow but easy one when she finally gets to see his face. Her minds whirls with something she can't quite place, she blames that on her exhaustion. But she knows she's never met the man nor seen him anywhere else.

But Toni does know that tall, dark, and handsome is a definite fit for him.

Toni thinks she might start drool for another reason apart from his arm.

Instead, she holds out the canteen of water she'd been given. "You haven't had anything to drink yet, have you?"

He takes the cup without any more prompting.

Toni counts that as progress, yessss, she holds back a grin in excitement.

Chapter Text

When Rhodey learned of the attack on Toni's entourage, his stomach dropped. He didn't believe it—couldn't believe it.

And when they arrived, it was to a horror show.

But there was no Toni among the dead bodies and injured. (Too many dead, not enough just injured. Even then to many didn't survive their injuries.)

The only sign she'd been there was her StarkPhone. As broken as it was.

The search started immediately, there was a part of Rhodey that believed they'd find her in a matter of days or even weeks—but not three months and not to mention someone already having beaten them to it.

He'd not expected to find a man dressed in dark tactical gear not suited for the heat piggybacking Toni through the unrelenting desert.

Even when showing signs of dehydration, never once did he allow it to interrupt the near march in his steps or unshakeable determined furrow of his brows. Rhodey wondered if he'd have stopped before his body gave out on him, the strong and tense way he held himself said no, he'd soldier on until his last breath.

(Rhodey didn't understand the man's determination—how did he know Toni? Was he held captive alongside her? Was there a bond forged in the unknown horrors they'd seen and experienced?)

But the man's body failing on him wasn't necessary as he had the helicopters land as quickly as possible. He ignored the way the strange tensed, reaching for the gun on his hip until Toni had started making a grabby hand, a whine escaping her throat.

Rhodey had seen Toni in a lot of different situations—completely and utterly drunk out of her mind, on the verge of passing out of exhaustion, sinking into a hole of horrors her mind conjured, and many more, but this was the worst.

However as Toni drank the water she'd been given, Rhodey watched on, heart in his throat because his best friend was alive, injured and traumatised, but alive. The guy, the unfamiliar person who Rhodey had no idea was, none of his connection gave him anything—not a single bit—was a complete mystery. He'd not spoken a word, even when they tried to get a name or something. It made him nervous.

Rhodey watched as Toni eyed the dangerous-looking metal arm the man bore like she was going to drool.

He didn't doubt it, but she was visibly restraining herself—some sort of understanding flickering into her eyes and Rhodey's stomach drops as one of her hands subconsciously raises to her chest where he'd noticed but not said a word, about the strange object there.

His heartbeat painfully because she knocked a piece of fabric out of the way and all he sees is metal and a blue glow—and scar tissue around the metal.

It was attached to her chest.

He thinks had he not seen everything he had in the army, he might have puked at the sight of it.

"Platypus?" Rhodey met Toni's eyes, and he noticed the way the man now had Toni's canteen, chugging the rest of the water—it was an uncomfortable but understanding realisation to know he'd not trusted them with water. It was a show of restraint also, especially when so dehydrated.

"I need low-key transport home, don't tell anyone I'm back yet."

The was words left unsaid—something was wrong, something Toni didn't want to become public knowledge or even semi-public knowledge to those around her.

"After that, I've got a press conference to do. But first, I gotta figure out what to do with Darling over here." Toni turns back to him, eyes twinkling and grinning but it's nothing like her old smile. Rhodey understands. "What do ya say, gonna let me take you home, Darling?"

The Asset was…. The Asset found himself confused. This Handler was nothing like those before her, she asked and nor did she demand anything of him.

(Yet, his mind whispered.)

Albeit he'd only been at her side for a short amount of time, but all former Handlers were demanding and more than willing to order within those first few hours because he was their Asset, he was only thawed to complete the mission.

(The Asset acknowledged he was not meant to ask questions, nor feel emotions as they were hindrances. But he could not stop the confusion that twisted at his insides because of this woman.)

But he supposed that this time the mission was different. This time it seemed that he was to guard the Handler.

(Toni is what the dark-skinned soldier, Rhodey, had called her, his mind supplied.)

He had never been given a mission to protect a Handler—to act as a bodyguard—before.

The Handler was also strange, she acted nothing like he expected—knew—Handlers were like. They controlled their facial expressions, voices ordering and filled with superiority. This Handler's was the complete opposite, her face was only partly controlled, but she made no conscious action to hide her emotions, like those before her. What she did try to hide seemed to have been wired into over many years.

(Like us, the other's voice whispered, even if the other was not actually conscious—he hadn't been in a long time, not truly.)

He'd just have to study the situation more.

Exiting the plane, his Handler waved off the gurney the medics brought over. The Asset believed she should seek further medical care, but he was the Asset and she was the Handler; he was the subordinate—he would not question her judgement.

Handler greeted the ginger-haired woman. "Your eyes are red, tears for your long lost boss?" Her tone was teasing.

Handler knew her—the term boss meant the woman worked for Handler, but the causal greeting let the Asset know they were more on familiar terms than just work-related.

"Tears of joy." The woman answered, lips curling up. "I hate job hunting."

The Asset was unsure if… Ah, it clicked for the Asset, the woman was joking.

Handler greeted the male wearing black sunglasses. She called him 'Happy'; Asset filed that away. Now he just had to learn the—assistant? He believed her to be—woman's name.

He listened as the Handler rejected the offer for a hospital, her shoulders tensing slightly that the Asset did not miss. Hospitals unnerved her? He must make sure to listen and watch her reaction more when it came to health issues. It would not be ideal for her to become ill.

The Asset would not allow her to put herself into such a position. He was here to protect her after all.

Toni entered her home with ideas whirling in her mind and a determination to learn Darling's name. He seemed confused when she'd inquired about a name, his brows furrowed and his eyes lit with it. It was the first sort of emotion she'd gotten from him since their meeting.

Toni would call that a success.

"Welcome home, ma'am." JARIVS's voice left tears stinging Toni's eyes.

"It's good to be home, baby boy." She sighed, feeling like a weight had been lifted by just hearing JARVIS's familiar voice.

Toni watched as Darling tensed however, eyes flickering and scanning the room in search of the disembodied voice.

"JARVIS is an AI, Darling. He runs the house." Toni explained, watching as his eyes flashed to her. "I probably wouldn't last a week without him helping me."

"I do believe a week is being generous, ma'am." JARVIS mused.

Toni gapped, hand covering her heart. "Rude. Where did you learn such behaviour? I sure didn't code it into you! What have you been doing these three months?"

Darling tilted his head, seeming to watch the interaction between her and JARVIS.

"I'm sure you already know the answer to that, Ma'am." JARIVS's answered drily. "But may I inquire about your guest?"

"Ah!" Toni grinned, rubbing her hands together. "I need you to run a facial recognition scan for me, J."

"As you wish."

"Oh, and order a pizza for me would you?" Toni turned back to the soon-to-be-named man. "You like pizza right? Please tell me you do!"

He blinked—then he shook his head and Toni gapped at him. "You… you've never at a pizza?"

He tilted his head, Toni wonders if he could speak, maybe he was mute?

"We'll just have to fix that then!"

Her first plan of action was to create another Arc-Reactor—a stronger one because her current wasn't going to last.

As she wandered down the steps to her workshop, taking one step at a time rather than her usual two because she didn't have the energy and sure as hell didn't want to fall down them, JARVIS voices about his discovery of her savour's identity.

"Why the hesitation, Baby-J?"

Toni watched as Darling took in the sight of her workshop with a glint of—she believed it to be anyway—curiosity in his eyes.

"Well, facial recognition matches up to one Sargent James Barnes, legally assumed dead during World War Two."

Toni thinks she stops breathing for a good solid minute as she turned back to Darling, then the image JARIVS brought up on one of her screens. She leant back on the table in disbelief.

She could see it—his jaw, brows and mouth. But his eyes were wrong.

Bucky Barnes had those naughty, naughty bedroom eyes, however, Darling's eyes were a stormy blue that made her feel like an objective. Like he was a gun that's waiting to be fired. Something that's taken apart and put back together the way it was needed.

Toni doesn't like it, not one bit. It leaves her stomach clenching uncomfortably.

"S-so." Her voice was strangled, her mind was completely blank—how? What? Who? Was this really happening?

Toni, when she went by Annie during her childhood, she loved to hear her Aunt Peggy tell her stories about Captain America and the Howling Commandos. She remembered how Peggy had spoken of Bucky and Steve's friendship, and Toni might hate Steve Rogers because of how her father said she'd never be able to live up to him, but there had always been something about Barnes.

She spent several years crushing on the supposedly dead guy—it was a hopeless teenage crush! Could anyone blame her? He was hot! Is hot!

Toni let out a shaky breath and turned back to Barnes, only to see him staring at the picture on scream with a look of concentration deeply creasing his brows.

"Okay." She finally spoke again and stormy blue-grey eyes were back on her. "I think getting you some sort of credentials would be the best place to start, cause I doubt you have any. Uh, J could you do that? Call him James…. Uh, Miller, no, Taylor."

Taylor was a standard one and not a name that stood out as Stark would. It was a good choice.

JARVIS gave a hum in response then an actual answer and Toni loped over to her workbench, where she started her plans to recreate the Arc-Reactor. She heard ruffling off clothes and knows that Barns had moved.

A quick glance over her shoulder revealed he's retreated to a corner, eyeing the room like something might suddenly jump out and attack. Her chest tightened in sympathy.

His eyes changed again, they weren't blank now. If anything Toni thought it might be a kind of panic, but not really panic. Wary? Unsettled?

She would be too if she was in his boots.

Toni wants to speak, ramble, but kept her trap shut, she'd give him a chance to settle again before bombarding him with anything else. He deserved it.

She instead she has JARVIS also goes through all the files her father had with SHIELD. Something itched at her brain that maybe she might find something in there.

JARVIS finds several grainy and blurry black and white photos—they're old, taken when her father was still alive.

She knows its Darling. The familiar goggles and mouthguard, the metal arm with the star on it and long hair.

She wonders if Howard knew it was Bucky.

The photos were titled The Winter Solider. A ghost-story assassin that had been operating for more years then she'd been alive. There wasn't really any doubt that the guy in her workshop is anyone else but James Barnes now.

"Assassin work. Okay, can't say I was expecting that."

Barnes tilted his head, brows furrowing again in what Toni knew to be confusion this time.

The Asset (James is what the Handler—Toni—called him) follows her back out of the workshop upon JARVIS, the AI, notifying her of the delivery of pizza.

Pizza. The Asset knew what it was but could not recall having ever eaten the food. Handler seemed to enjoy the food from her excitement.

The Asset could not remember a time that he had eaten food himself—he could recall the sensation of being tub feed, however

He mentioned it when the Handler—Toni—asks when he last had food.

He does not understand the mortifying look on her face. He had always been fed that way.

He watches sympathy sketches it way onto her face, and lightly chips in with a not to eat too much as his stomach is likely not used to the motion of actually eating solid food.

He managed a full slice of the pizza—Meat Feast is what the Handler called it—before gingerly taking a second, the feeling of food in his stomach made him realise just how hungry he really was.

But he just threw it all up again.

(Handler seemed to have suspected it might happen, she'd gotten a bin beforehand.)

The Asset expected punishment of some sort for what he had done—he was showing a sign of weakness after all.

But all Handler did was hum a tune, hands holding his hair out of the way.

He didn't understand—Handler Toni was unlike any before her—he didn't understand her.

(Different, a remnant of the unconscious other whispered in curiosity. He ignored it. Emotions were bad and unnecessary. Emotions were a weakness.)

Once he'd stopped puking and gagging, Handler handed him a glass of water and told him to take small sips to not upset his stomach again.

He watched on silently as she takes the bin and leaves the room with a: "Be right back! Gonna clean this up!"

So the Asset sits on the marble floor awaiting his Handler's return when he hears a crash and a strangled noise.

He was on his feet and moving in record time. He stalked toward the sound because his Handler—his mission—could be in danger.

He finds her sitting on the bathroom floor, eyes wide and wheezing for breath in the middle of a panic attack. The loud and constant pattering of water from the shower grabs his attention but he instead lifts Handler from her armpits and pulls her from the door, closing the door behind him to mute the sound of the shower.

He knelt before, hands lingering on her shoulders as she regains herself.

Her exhaustion takes hold, however, and she drops off into sleep.

The Asset didn't move, unsure of what to do.

"I will guide you to her room." The AI's voice filled the room and the Asset nodded—Handler trusted the AI, which meant the Asset could—and wouldn't—question it's, his, loyal to his Handler.

He stands watch over his sleeping Handler, wary of leaving her be after her panic attack—he'd inquire about it when she awoke.

Chapter Text

Toni awoke to James sat in the corner chair that was placed by her wall-length window. Strangely enough, she wasn't too surprised by seeing him watching over her like he was some sort of bodyguard or protector.

"Did you even sleep?" Toni asked groggily. She was surprised she'd slept peacefully—well, at least that she could remember.

James, who had already turned his eyes onto her when she'd woke, tilted his head. "Mission is to protect Handler, sleep only hinders that task."

Toni squinted at him in confusion. "Handler?"

Wasn't that normally what agents called their main contacts? The people who gave them their information and details?

James blinked and gave a jerky nod. "Current Handler: Toni Stark."

Toni sat up with a look of bewilderment. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, buddy!" She waved her arms to compliment her perplexity. "I'm not a Handler of anything, especially to an infamous ghost-story assassin."

James frowned, for a moment Toni's mind linked the expression to the blue screen of death—a thought which she quickly pushed aside—and stood. She grabbed his hand and pulled. He stood, mostly because Toni was never getting him to hand herself, and Toni pushed him towards her bed.

"Which as you don't have a Handler—" Toni hid a grimaced. "—you can rest."

"Negative." James rebuffed, brows furrowing in confusion and—desperation? Toni wasn't sure if that was the correct word but she'd think about it more later. "You are the current Handler. You were the only one there upon my thawing."

Toni dropped her hands and stared up at him with a heavy sigh. Her gut twisted as a thought came to mind. "Then—" She cleared her throat. "As—as you Handler, I order you to sleep before you pass out."

She loathed the idea of manipulating this man—even if it would benefit him—that was clearly brainwashed and had suffered greatly at the hands of someone, but she had no other chose. He wasn't going to rest otherwise.

James—but then again, was this really James?—seemed to struggle in confusion. It hurt Toni inside.

She gently nudged him to sit on the edge of her bed. He sat and Toni started undoing his shoes. She pointedly didn't look at his face, she'd caught a glimpse of the pure and utter confusion.

It made Toni want to crawl somewhere and hide to cry—whoever his previous Handlers were, they were horrible people that.. she nearly choked at the thought.

She pushed herself onto her feet once she'd taken off his shoes. "Rest, nothing is getting past JARIVS's detection." Then she left the room, closing the door behind her. She leant against it for a moment, covering her mouth to muffle the sob.

Holy shit.

The Asset (James, Darling, Taylor? She has currently given three names to him, none of which were 'Asset') twitched, he raised his flesh hand when he realised that it was shaking.

(He didn't understand. Didn't understand. Didn't understand. Didn't understand.)

Handler had finally ordered him—but the order to rest.

He'd never been told to rest—sleep—because he was put into cryo to rest, therefore he had no need to acquire a bed and sleep.

At the back of his mind, he thinks he could recall a memory lost in the hole-ridden brain of theirs that thinks he's collapsed in exhaustion before but he cannot place the memory.

(Error. Error. Error. ErrorError. Error. Error. Err—)

The Asset could not compute Handler Toni's actions.

She showed signs of distress at his mention of his not needing to rest and then again when she had ordered him.

Handlers had never had a problem before with ordering him—yet she had also said she was not a Handler.

She had ordered still, despite how much she showed distress at doing so.

Why? Why was she so distressed?

(Different, the other murmured.)

The Asset paused at the other's comment. It was dissimilar to normal—far more…

The Asset exhaled and stopped his thoughts.

He had orders.

(The bed was still warm. He liked it.)

Toni shoved her mouth full of toast, not even buttered, before heading to her workshop. She finally allowed her three other babies out: Dum-E, U, and Butterfingers.

They beeped and chirped at her in excitement and Toni's shoulders feel that bit lighter again at the sight of them.

They were her creations—her babies, they meant everything to her.

She played around with them and chatted with JARVIS for some time, before focusing on finishing up the Arc-Reactor, desperate to not think about the sleeping assassin upstairs that thought she was his Handler—and the fact she'd taken advantage of him while he was such a state.

She had completed the thing when JARVIS informed her of James's awakening and had told him she was down here.

Toni took a moment to compose herself, especially since she was in the middle of currently cleaning the gunk out of the metal in her body that held the Reactor.

The door opened and she ignored it, she'd been given a heads up, otherwise, it would have scared the living crap out of her and likely set of a sort of negative reaction.

Last night was enough for her, thank you very much.

From the corner of her eye, she spotted James go incredibly still and she thinks maybe he did so to not distract her.

She pulled the magnet out, nearly shocking herself and with shaking hands and wheezy breaths fits the new Arc-Reactor into place.

She let out a breath, thankful she'd not messed up.

"What is the necessity behind that object?"

Toni jumped, eyes widening as she'd not heard (obviously, this dude was an assassin) James approach. "Holy Shit, dude!"

James blinked but otherwise didn't react. Ah, he was back to a blank slate, Toni noticed grimly.

(Toni actively ignored the way her heart beat against the metal in her chest.)

"It's called an Arc-Reactor." She flicked the one in her chest. "It's currently keeping me alive by making sure the pieces of shrapnel inside me don't pierce my heart."

James frowned deeply. "What of the original? Was it not up to standard?"

"S'not strong enough, think of it as a prototype, yeah? This new one is the perfected version." Toni explained. She chucked the old Reactor up into the air, caught it and repeated the action several times. "Don't really need this one anymore, best to destroy it."

"What if you are in need of a backup, in the case of an emergency?"

Toni paused and pursed her lips. Her grip of the old one tightened before she peered down at it. She met James' eyes. "Good point."

Toni hopped off the seat. "I'll make another, this one isn't very efficient and if something does happen, better safe than sorry, just like you said, huh?" She smiled up at him. "Thanks for mentioning it, Darling."

James gave a slow nod.

(Toni hopes he knows it was a compliment.)

"Oh!" She grinned. "There's some of my other babies I'd like you to meet! Dum-E, U, Butters!"

(We've got to make sure Arc-Reactor stays inside Toni's chest no matter what, the other whispered, tone twanging with more emotions than in a long time. The Asset agreed.)

"Say." Toni paused her work on creating Mark II when a thought came to mind. James, who was bent over a workshop screen with a book and pen she'd given him, looked up.

(She'd introduced him to the computer on there to allow him to research and learn and just do something. She secretly hopes that it helps jog something in his mind.)

"Would it be insensitive to ask about…" She trailed off, unable about the wording—she didn't want to go off on a ramble. "Why are you so, well, reserved is putting it lightly. I mean you've definitely got the whole I-am-a-scary-and-terrifying-assassin down pat but—eh. What did the people you called Handlers do to you before you met me?"

James stood straight. He tilted his head. "I am the Asset. I exist for the Handlers to command."

Toni exhaled and dropped her stylus to stand because his words said nothing yet everything. She moved until she stood the other side of the worktable, meeting his eyes. "Well, as you're no longer with those people you are a free man. I'll literally rip apart anyone that tries to take you from me, got it?"

James blinked. "I do not—"

Toni reached over, grasping his hands. "You're not going anywhere, I promise you, not as any sort of Handler but as someone who cares. You saved my life, now let me repay you by giving you your back."

Chapter Text

("Get into that bed damnit!" She tried to fight how her lips wanted to curl upwards. "If it makes you feel better, we'll sleep in the same bed.")

(He chose the side closest to the door, he was to guard her; despite how much she said she was not his Handler.)

When the Asset awoke the next morning, it was still dark out.

He felt rested, just like yesterday. But knew with his enhancements, he did not need as much sleep. His body could easily live off a shorter amount of rest than someone else.

Someone else like Hand—Toni.

(Told you she was different, the other whispered, still annoyed from the Asset's previous stance at trying to ignore and hush him.)

She had, in the short time span in which she'd know him, given him a new lookout. The Asset—Winter, he now remembered he'd always liked better—was not one who was surprised often, he couldn't allow it, but Han—Toni—just kept springing them onto him.

His body tremored at the thought before his grip tightened.

Winter quickly realised what position he was in.

At some point during the night he had curled around Toni (ToniToniToni), she was small enough that she could easily fit comfortable with him against her back. Her head was tucked under his chin, her hands clutching her pillow and his own arms curled around her waist.

She was sleeping peacefully, nothing like the constant writhing and rolling she'd done the night before—clearly, she suffered from night terrors.

(The one thing he could not protect her from.)

Winter wondered had he been with any other Handler if they'd of forced him into the Chair already. He was disobeying, normally when he acted out abnormally, they'd send him to get wiped. He was thinking and feeling after all—emotions weren't necessary for his job.

(He couldn't remember much before the Chair, he knew it left him a blank slate again—back to optimal performance. But he did know it hurt.)

(Pain. Pain. Pain. PainPain. Pa—)

However, eventually, despite the Chair and Handler's best attempts, he'd begin to recall memories again and again, and again. Memories that were both his and the Other's from before Winter had been created.

It also meant, with more memories, the Other would become more and more aware. Part of Winter feared what would happen if he became fully aware and they'd be forced back to the Chair.

Winter was here to protect the Other after all—that was why Winter was hesitant to interact with him when he knew it would just prompt more and more awareness than just subconscious murmurs.

Toni watched, grinning happily, as James ate the omelette she'd cooked for their breakfast this morning without showing signs of throwing it back up. He was getting better at eating food.

(She was also expecting a delivery of clothes for James to arrive within the hour.)

She rubbed her hands together. "Well then, James—"


Toni paused and blinked up at him, responding with an intelligent: "Uh?"

"My name is Winter." Jam—Winter repeated, staring at her with that piercing gaze again. "The other's name is James."

Toni knew this is an important moment, and by god is she gonna do her best to show herself worthy of that trust he's given her.

"DID, huh? Can't say I thought of that one, but strangely it's not… surprising."

Winter titled his head. "What is DID."

Toni quick rushes to the coffee table to grab her StarkTablet, where she runs back while searching DID in the search bar of google. "DID stands for Dissociative Identity Disorder, Ja—Winter."

She slid the tablet over to him instead of explaining further.

(Winter didn't say anything once he'd read through the site she'd found, instead he began to search for more things and Toni left him to his research with a pleased smile and a light feeling in her chest.)

"…Effective immediately, I'm shutting down the weapons production at Stark Industries."

Winter knows that by the sheer reaction of the crowd that what Toni had just done was big.

But there was no wavering hesitation or second thoughts. Her (familiarfamiliarfamiliar) umber eyes are determined and hard, like someone who harbours a great responsibility and burden.

He finds that he also likes that look in her eyes (the eyes of a leader of who takes the responsibility and rights wrongs)—much like the playful but soft glint she normally has.

They leave quietly with Winter shielding Toni (Toni who shrinks under the bombarding voices and flashes and begins to border on the line of suffering a panic attack) as he leads her away from the room.

(Her finger slip between his, and he squeezes softly.)

"Jesus Christ, Toni." The red-haired woman Winter recognized from both earlier today and two days ago, entered the home ten minutes after he and Toni return themselves.

(Note: Toni could drive well—and a bit dangerously. (Winter kind of liked that. The Other—James, Toni called him—agreed.) Definitely, the person to drive should an escape be needed.)

Toni grinned—quite a bit sheepishly—and hugged the woman. "Pep! Sorry for not mentioning it sooner." She murmurs against her shoulder.

Just loud enough for 'Pep'—and Winter, who's ears are better than a normal human—to hear.

(Note: Toni seems to be especially affectionate to those considered close.)

She greets the other by the name 'Obi'; Winter files that name away also.

(Note: Toni seems wary of this man. Actively avoids physical contact. More information needed.)

(Winter wonders what that says about Toni as a person because she doesn't have a problem touching him, even if the touches are just brushes.)

Winter meets Obi's eyes (it was obviously a nickname, who'd name there child Obi?) to see the man with a frown in place before he schools his face into an unctuous grin.

(Who was he to Toni? More research was required.)

The look displeased Winter, and it compelled him to step closer to Toni as she released 'Pep'.

They both turn to him, the taller semi-unfamiliar woman startled and Toni with warm umber (familiarfamiliarfamiliar) eyes and a soft smile.

(He liked that smiled, especially aimed towards him.)

The next several minutes left Winter watching as Pep and Toni interact. Pep scolding her and Toni joking and bantering and Winter wonders if maybe Toni sees family in the woman by their sheer conversation alone.

Just because Toni had slept for several hours last night didn't mean she felt rested.

She hadn't since she'd returned, even with her ability to rest the entire night sleeping.

(She'd been exhausted since she'd first awoken inside that cave and nothing seemed to fix it.)

She works though. She's always worked herself past exhaustion, but unlike before Afghanistan, Toni feels the fatigue far more now and no amount of coffee has fixed that yet.

And despite the fact she has slept, her land of dreams is far from peaceful. She hates it. Hates the fact she's dreaming of what happened and her body won't even allow her to wake up.

(Maybe this was what she deserved?)

She'd allowed innocent people to get murdered because horrible people managed to get their hands on her weapons and—now she's questioning the loyalties of everyone because there was no way they could have gotten their hands on her tech unless they were double-dealing—Oh.

Someone sold her out. Someone sold her out. Someone sold her out.


"Toni." JARVIS.

She gasps for breath, her lungs burning for air but it wasn't until a hands trails along her forearm and the newly oh-so-familiar voice calls her name too, that she manages to crawl herself away from the edges of a panic attack she was dangerously close to sinking into.


He's half crouched and half knelt before her, his eyes flashing with visible concern (had Toni been in a better mood, she'd rejoice at the development) and by God, he looks good.

And, also, by God, he's already just seen her nearly have a second panic attack. Wonderful.

But she can't bring herself to be embarrassed about it—later, she'd feel embarrassed later.

"Breathe." Winter orders and she does, gulping up air to try and stop the tightness in her chest. It hurt worse than normal—stupid, lifesaving, Arc-Reactor.

"J, you're not connected to the SI database are you?"

"Negative, ma'am. The only connection I have is to send over blueprints and schematics." JARVIS paused for a moment. "Would you like me to be?"

Toni closed her eyes, brows furrowing as her mind whirled in thought. "Yeah." She nodded. "Keep it on the down-low and make sure to keep anything you're accessed as untouched."

Files had time and date stamps for each time they're viewed digitally. It was mostly for security reasons.

"Of course, but do you expect anything less than perfect from me?" His tone touches mock offence and Toni smirked. Good old JARVIS.

The feeling of callused fingertips brushing her cheek snapped Toni back to Winter. He was staring, thumb resting on the edge of her lip before drawing back with something akin to recognition on his face.

"There was a man… he smirked like that."

Toni barely withholds the cringe because if there was one thing she'd always been compared to, it was the smirk she'd inherited from Howard.

Howard loved to haunt her fucking life, didn't he? God she hated—hates that man more than anything or anyone.

"My father." She voiced quietly. "He knew James."

Winter paused and exhaled, eyes searching her face again. Then he says something she didn't expect: "He certainly wasn't as pretty as you."

The surprise pulls at her chest, her heart thudding against the metal in her sternum and like a fucking schoolgirl, blushes. She feels the heat warm her cheeks and God, no one had made her blush like that in a long time.

Not since Patricia during her MIT days. Damn, thinking about that woman is nostalgic.

At the discovery of Howard, Winter knows that he'll spend the next few hours researching everything he could about Howard Stark and James' connection.

So Winter does.

He learns how Howards was involved with the rescue of the group of men that would later go onto become the Howling Commandos lead by Captain American, whose real name was Steve Grant Rogers.

(A name Winter recognised, much like the smirk and eyes that Toni wears.)

He learns about James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes who was Steve Rogers' best friend and best sniper around.

(Winter doesn't doubt the sniper part. he was very capable with a gun after all.)

Winter stared at the image of himself—of James—for far longer then he'd admit, but…

It was unnerving, to think he'd been with Hydra for such a long time and wasn't even aligned with their ideals—he was just an asset for their use.

There was a lot of information, so much that Winter forced himself to stop and breathe.

Winter knew that it was only a matter of time before James's conscious would wake now. He'd been out of cryo to long, nor had he been subjected to the Chair. Of which Winter knew was a constant, especially if he showed signs of remembering or disobedience.

It kept him ignorant.

Winter allows himself to feel the anger that gripped at his chest like an untameable wildfire. He… allows himself to become compromised.

He… he likes the feeling.

The feeling of freedom.

The freedom to feel.

Winter glanced up to Toni, watching as she worked on the arm piece of her project.

Winter smiled when Toni grinned in success and gave an airy laugh.

(They liked the sound.)

Chapter Text

Toni deletes the email from Obi of other and Obi-approved bodyguards.

She doesn't trust him.

Can't trust anyone but a few.

(Pepper, Rhodey, Happy—Winter.)

(Winter was an unknown but had seamlessly proven himself someone Toni could trust.)

Winter wakes the next morning (his heart lurching when he realises he and Toni were in a similar position as yesterday. Only this time, Toni was curled towards his chest) with a strange feeling within his skull.

It feels heavy but oddly light.

His mind and thoughts felt far more of his… more like he was his own person rather than the mindset Hydra had shocked him into.

His own was still…

He didn't feel as much of a robot—that felt like the right words.

He felt like his own person.

(Winter could remember times he'd dropped off Hydra's radars before, even if temporarily, and feeling free but never really like this.)

Winter rested his cheek against Toni's head, listening to her breathing and feeling the soft movement of her chest as she does. It was peaceful. Winter hadn't had peaceful before.

He's never had the chance to just live.

He could recall flickers of James' memories of before, but they are few and far between and they aren't his, not really. They belong to another man, even if they share the same body.

Winter closed his eyes and looked inward. He hesitated for a moment, wondering if waking James would be a good idea.

(Safe, his mind whispers, safe with Toni. Safe from Hydra. ProtectedProtect. Secure. A chance.)

His mind was jumbled, thoughts and memories scattered.

Then he gets flashes.

He knows they are not his, but at the same time, he knows they are.

His body felt different. It was a weird sensation, and he couldn't place how exactly it was different; just that it was…

What had…

What happened?

Why couldn't he remember anything?

Sleeping. A voice that sounds like his own, but lit with an accent, answered. An accent he couldn't place at that moment.

Images flash rapidly behind his closed eyes as he watches memories that aren't really his (but are at the same time) and he understands.

He doesn't…

He just understands.

Those are the best words.

(He doesn't think he could label what he was feeling yet. Mind to scrambled.)

Where is he?

We are safe. Open your eyes and look.

He does and spots dark brown hair first, then the sleeping face of a woman.

The position he's in hits him next and he stiffens.

Safe. The voice hisses defensively. She's safe. Secure. She could be home.

Who is she? He wonders.

He gets a series of flashes—memories really—and then he knows. Knows exactly who she is and he chokes on a sob in disbelief.

Toni Stark.

Howard's daughter.

The year was 2008.

He—James—that was his name—stared down at Howard's daughter in shock and breath caught in his throat.

What had happened?



James had too many questions and not enough brainpower to even begin to question everything properly.

I am Winter. The voice—Winter?—answered. We have spent fifty years as an asset for Hydra. I was created in the wake of their torture to protect your psyche. My conditioning leads me to listen to the first person I see upon awakening. Toni was the only one alive, so I believed her to be our—my—Handler at the time. She is not Hydra. She has promised us freedom from them. She is safe.

James pays rapid attention as Winter begins to explain everything he could.

When Toni woke, she noticed a difference in Winter immediately. While Winter's face was controlled, the one he was currently wearing was…

Toni inspected his face.

Nervous? Curious? A bit of a both. Wonder?

He meets her eyes and there was far more emotion then Winter normally portrays and Toni knows.

She knows in that instant that she was facing James and not Winter.

She feels breathless.

"Hi, nice to finally meet you, James."

He blinked, shocked, but also not.

"He said you were observant." He breathed.

Toni grinned. "Yep." She slipped off the edge of the bed. "You've spoken to Winter then?"

He nodded, and Toni doesn't miss how he adverts his eyes but they keep flashing back to her. Nervous.

"Would you like to talk over some breakfast?"

He exhaled. "If it's not too much—"

"Completely fine, Sweetheart."

Toni smile softened and she led James from her bedroom (their bedroom?) and towards the kitchen.

"Anything specific you'd like to eat?"

"I…I—I don't know." He sounded—looked—lost and Toni's chest tightened at it.

"How about pancakes?" She flashed him a reassuring smile. "Nothing can go wrong with pancakes."

James nodded.

"Would you like some fruit with it?" Toni asked as she began making the batter. "We have strawberries, blueberries, banana. Even apple, I really like apple with my pancakes."

James snorted in laughter. "Uh, strawberries and banana?"

There wasn't much chatter as Toni made the pancakes and cut the fruit. Even adding chocolate spread—something which James had never had before. She patted his shoulder sympathetically.

"Is there anything you'd like to know that Winter hasn't been able to tell you about?" Toni asked.

James exhaled and finished his mouthful. "What… what happened to Steve?"

Toni ran her tongue over her teeth. "He was forced to crash a plane into the ocean. We've never been able to locate the crash site but Howard's will made sure the search team he put together keeps searching."

James tilted his head, eyes lit with his want to questions but withheld.

Seeing it, Toni gave a pursed lips smile. "You can ask you know. Not gonna bite your head off for asking."

"Why… you call Howard by his name. Winter didn't say much in regards to your relationship."

"Howard wanted an Anthony, but he got an Antonia instead." Toni shrugged. "Worlds come a long way for gender equality and other things but Howard had wanted a son to, well, keep the Stark name and Maria couldn't have any other children after me."

"Bad relationship with both your parents?" James's brows furrowed curiously.

Toni nodded and took another mouthful, answering after she'd swallowed. "Maria was clinically depressed and couldn't put down a drink to spend time with me other than to lecture about being a proper woman."

He turned from playing with Butterfingers and watched as Toni finished strapping herself into the foot braces. "What are you creating?"

She flashed him a smile. "I created a suit of armour to escape from my captives in Afghanistan, I wanna recreate it but better—that also reminds me." She twirled toward him. "I wanna give you an upgrade too."

"Up…grade?" He scrunched his brows.

"Your arm. I've been eyeing it since I met Winter. I can do far better than what you currently have." Toni explained. "And between sprucing up your arm and creating a suit for me, well there's no way whoever was holding you is gonna get close enough to even be a threat."

"I…we're never going back." It was a quiet, low murmur, but there was a heat to it and Toni meet his eyes again, the intense and burning determined eyes of a sniper.

(Toni actively ignores the heat that coils in her stomach at the stare.)

"Glad to know we're on the same page, gorgeous, cause I'm sure as hell gonna fight tooth and nail to keep ya." She flashed another grin and winked, instinctive and honed flirting at its finest.

The smile she gets in return though, it makes Toni eager to continue working on his arm designs.

(She also realises she totally gonna sink back into her hopeless teenage crush if either Winter or James continued giving her certain looks.)

(And if she also totally embarrassed herself seconds later with too much thrust on her braces only to see concerned eyes above her. That's just between her and them—and her babies obviously.)

("Too much thrust." She blurted as those blue eyes twinkle with amusement.)

James absently watched as Toni strapped her right arm into the brace, but tensed as a ginger-haired woman entered the workshop.

Unsure of her designation yet. Nickname by Toni was Pep. Winter filled in.

She smiled politely his way before moving for Toni. "I thought you said you were done making weapons."

"I'm am." Toni lifted her arm. "This. is just a flight stabilizer. It's completely harmless." And promptly went flying backwards from too much power.

James jumped, rushing over as the assistant yelped in shock. Winter fluttered between concerned and amused and James bit back a laugh that wanted to escape. especially when Toni finally spoke.

A wheezy: "I didn't expect that." Came from Toni. "Gawd."

"Well." Pep looked partly amused and partly concerned over what she'd just witnessed. "Stane's upstairs. He's apparently just gotten back from a board meeting."

"What?" Toni demanded; a hardened and serious expression fixed itself into place as she turned back to her assistant.

"A board meeting." Pep dipped her chin, her own expression firming.

"And why wasn't I made aware of this… meeting?"

James and Winter know immediately that this consequential.

She's a CEO. Winter murmured. Even if she wasn't to attend, she must be aware of such a meeting.

Definitely an important and pressing issue—James wasn't stupid to think otherwise.

"I wasn't aware of it either." Was the response.

Oh. Oh. James stopped fiddling with the wrench he'd picked up as he realised (he didn't know how businesses worked very well, especially a billion-dollar company such as Stark Industries) what was happening.

Stane must be Obi. Winter theorised—he'd told James about the man and how something was off about him.

Toni's brows furrow as her lips curls downwards. "I want you to call the other board members and get statements from them. Ask what happened and if they were aware I didn't know about the meeting. Be subtle about it and record the calls."

"Toni?" Pep questions a worried crease of her brow appears.

Winter stirs and presses forward and James allows him to take control.

(Winter's back straightens just that bit more, shoulders tenser and while their entire posture remains similar, there is the slightest difference. It's subtle and hard to make out if you aren't looking.)

"Someone sold me out." Toni answered. "And I'm collecting evidence. My suspicions are Obadiah."

Pep inhales sharply. "Will do."

Toni turned to them. "You gonna come up, Winter wonderland?"

Winter nodded.

(They really don't like Obadiah. He's a slimy man that pretends he cares. They'd need to watch him.)

(Toni agrees when Winter mentions it.)

It was a strange feeling to have a bodysuit of armour surrounding her again.

But unlike the Mark I, Mark II was strangely lighter but heavy at the same time. Mark II was more evenly balanced then Mark I had been. II was fitted to her form, hugged her figure more and it felt far more moveable and flexible because of it.

Toni rolled her shoulders and continued testing the movement capabilities all around. She spun on her heels and marched back and forth, getting a true feel of how restrictive or non-restrictive it was.

Toni grinned and laughed airily in excitement.

She flipped the mask up, listening as JARVIS finished uploading to it.

"What do you think?"

James looked impressed. "I don't think I'd of ever thought something like this would be possible. All things considering."

"So you like it?"

"Very much. Although, I don't think silver is your colour." James smirked.

Toni pouted, glancing down at herself as best she could in the suit. "You're right. Something more friendly in colour. I like gold." She hummed. "Hey JARVIS, could you pull together some colour palettes for me?"

"As you wish ma'am. I'll keep in mind your liking of gold of course."

"You're the best baby-J."

"I aim to please."

So maybe Toni should have listened to JARVIS about flying too high. But could you blame her for it at feeling the exhilaration she got?

James definitely added his own words at her recklessness. She smiled sheepishly at him as he crossed his arms, looking none too impressed.

"Hey J." Toni asked once James had headed up to start getting dinner for them ready. "Has May and Ben send a message over?"

"Mr and Mrs Parker have indeed left you an email."

Toni exhaled nervously. "Open it for me would you?"

Chapter Text

It was the feeling of water filling her lungs that woke Toni at around half four in the morning. She was shivering and gasping for breath in motions that left her chest in agony.

It was only once she managed to catch her breath and her heartbeat began to slow that she moved, slipping from James's grip.

She grabbed her clothes and fled the room, moving to a guest's bathroom to avoid waking James or Winter up with the sound of running water.

A shower should be fine—the raining of water was nothing like be submerged under it.

She could handle that.

For a long unknown amount of time, Toni sat under the pouring water.

Her sternum wouldn't stop aching and the beat of her heart hit the metal fit into it.

Toni wanted to shout, yell, scream her lungs out in what would be a vain attempt to stop the pain.

Slumping against the edge of the bathtub, Toni sobbed through the pain her crying brought because she physically couldn't take it; didn't care how the jolting motions of her cries made the pain worse and the way she tried to take deep breaths and instead was hit with the inability to take true deep breaths because of her damaged sternum.

She listened to JARIVS's soothing voice in a vain attempt to help her.

James was immediately aware of the lack of heat next to him when he woke.

Winter stirred also and it prompted James to sit up to look around the room. It was empty bar him and the space next to him was cold, so that meant Toni had been up a while.

"JARVIS?" He called with uncertainty, he was still trying to wrap his head around the whole Artificial Intelligence thing.

"Mr Barnes, how may I be of assistance?"

"When did Toni get up?"

JARVIS was silent for a moment, and James couldn't help but wonder if it was hesitation.

"It is currently half eight, ma'am awake at half four this morning." JARVIS's voice was filled it worry. "She awoke from a nightmare and was unable to return to sleep because of the pain from the Arc-Reactor."

It was painful? James frowned, Toni hadn't given any hints that the deceive had been causing her any sort of discomfort.

"Where is she now?"

"Downstairs, Mr Barnes, but I would recommend eating breakfast before joining her."

James joined Toni downstairs carrying two slices of toast, of which he dropped onto the desk she was working at.

"JARVIS mentioned you hadn't eaten."

"I had an apple an hour ago!" Toni argued. "I'm not even hungry!"

James raised a brow, listening as Winter scoffed quietly and muttered in Russian.

Upryamaya zhenshchina. (Stubborn woman)

I don't understand Russian, Winter.

gabitus. (Habit)

James just sighed, both because of Winter and Toni.

(Winter had, well, a habit of falling into Russian and unfortunately—or maybe it was fortunate?—he didn't understand the language.)

"JARVIS also said you'd try and get out of it."

Toni scowled up a the ceiling. "Traitor."

"Your wellbeing is my main concern, ma'am." JARVIS responded drily.

James smirked, listening as Toni began to rebuke JARVIS.

(James held his tongue about asking about the Arc-Reactor. Winter grumbled, part of his programming was to make sure her health was tip-top but James managed to get him to settle with just watching Toni closer, especially since Toni wasn't a Handler and Winter was free. Something James pointed out. Winter grumbled again, James snorted in amusement.)

"Oh, that reminds me." Toni spun around on the chair, grinning up at them. "I finished the first blueprint for your arm. Wanna see it?"

Winter purred and James smiled.

(James acutely noticed the low cut vest she wore revealed the Arc-Reactor in its entirety. The scar tissue that surrounded it reminded him of his arm.)


There were many things that JARVIS could do—he was a learning AI, after all, he was created by the woman that made AIs not just a thing of fiction—but not for the first time, nor the last, he wished he had a physical form.

Don't understand his desires for being selfish purposes (maybe they were?) but his Creator—mother—was someone he cared for deeply and since the very moment he's come online when she was a grieving seventeen year old and very much not allowed near any wielding or physical tools, he'd taken her safety and security as number one.

He'd improved his systems by himself and with his mo—creator over the years they'd been together and he'd gotten to witness just what sort of person his mother was.

Behind the façade of a playgirl or scarlet woman (or which she really wasn't, out of the many times the media called her out for her sex driven lifestyle, it was on the lower side of it. Toni liked to drink, and occasionally enjoy herself but never to which she's portrayed) and other less the kind names she'd been given over the years, Antonia Stark was a very different woman.

She was an awkward but kind woman; she playfully flirted, rambled and snarked because that was who she was.

And despite how much she claimed to be a terrible mother—her words, not his or anyone else that truly knew her—it was the opposite.

Had JARVIS been a human, he'd say his heart goes out to her.

(Perhaps coding would be the more appropriate term considering that was his make up?)

It was the subtle things that showed her otherwise, the small and hardly recognised things that went under the radar that revealed Toni's true nature.

It confused him for a long time why she had decided to give her son up. She'd stared down at him with him impossible amounts of love but went through with her plan to give him to Richard and Mary Parker.

"I love Peter—I always will—but I fear I'll turn into Howard and Maria and I don't want to ruin an innocent child. He deserves better than being raised by me."

JARVIS could remember seeing the pain in Mr Rhodes face at her words but her best friend understood, despite his protests that Toni would be nothing like Howard or Maria.

When Toni had gone missing in Afghanistan, he'd employed tactics to find her which, had he been human, would have gotten him arrested. But because of who he was, his presence went unknown as he worked to find his creator.

It was he who had picked up on the explosions and mess in the mountain that had led to his creator's recuse by Mr Rhodes.

But the damage had already been done—he wasn't good enough, he'd failed his main self-given protocol which was to keep his creator safe.

Her strange companion that accompanied her was a welcome surprise, oddly enough.

Mr Barnes presence, JARVIS knew, had helped a lot in the short span that Toni had been back on American soil. Toni had a habit of shutting people out or avoiding the issue until she had to face it—often it led to her isolating herself from other people.

(Many sleepless nights filled with a dozen cup of coffee came to him.)

Mr Barnes made sure she had constant companionship to which he or her other non-organic children couldn't provide but there were just somethings that Mr Barnes was unable to do for Toni yet.

(JARVIS knew one day Mr Barnes would flawless fall into Toni's orbit much like Mr Rhodes and Ms Potts and just know.)

Despite JARVIS's desire to be a more physical presence in his creator's world, he knew he would choose to remain as just a disembodies voice that worked metamorphically side-by-side with his creator. He worked seamlessly and perfectly how he was.

(It wasn't enough, he needed to make sure nothing ever happens to his mother like that again. now he had Mr Barnes to assist him in that department.)

He continued to do as asked by his creator—keep watch of Stark Industries, a system he was not part off but could easily be part of.

Very quickly, after scanning through the blueprints and schematics, he found the existences of a ghost drive. Of which he wasn't able to access.

(It was frustrating because he couldn't do anything else without physically being linked to the computer.)

He relayed the information to his creator, watching as her expression shifted.

"Stane." She gave a low growled.

(JARVIS liked the way Mr Barnes paid acute attention to his creator and looked ready to assist her. They would be good for each other.)

Chapter Text

Having to crash one of her own charity parties and seeing Everhart again, set Toni on a warpath for Stane. She confronted him about the double-dealing with faux confusion—like she only just heard about it.

She certainly wasn't expecting him to admit to him being the one to file the conjunction. (which she already knew—Pepper was godsent and incredibly scary.)

Gold and a dark mahogany red seemed like a good combination, somewhere between still friendly-looking and intimidating.

Her first real mission (could she call it a mission?)—or well, out of country flight resulted in her freeing a village from the Ten Rings and destroying a number of her illegally sold weapons.

It also included accidentally causing a fighter jet to get destroyed.

(At least she had gotten to the pilot in time to release his parachute.)

(Rhodey had just finished giving a statement about the quote-unquote 'accident' that had taken place during a training routine.)

(Winter and James weren't exactly thrilled at her impromptu outing. She was thoroughly lectured on safety at her return.)

And now her Platypus would be coming over in several hours to see what exactly it was she was doing in the workshop.

Toni could admit she was nervous.

And Pepper, unfortunately, chose the wrong time to come wondering down to the workshop as Toni was in the middle of the process of getting the armour off.

Armour that may or may not have scrapes from the bullets.

"Are those bullet holes?" Pepper stared in horror.

Toni chuckled nervously. "You've probably seen me in worse situations?"

Pepper just gave her a deadpan look.

"I'm… sorry?"

Toni was very much aware of Winter's amused gaze.

Damn him.

"How much self-defence do you know, kotenok?" Winter questioned, watching as Toni, who was tinkering about with the third version of an arm schematic, stop what she was doing and turned to him.

"Do I know how to fight?" She echoed, confusion colouring her face.

Winter nodded. "Such a skill would be appropriate, both in regard to every day and moments where your armour is not accessible.

"I was taught some basic stuff by my Godmother, Peggy, before I went to MIT." Toni offered. "But I've never been in a situation that's led to a full-on confrontation before."

(James recognised the name Peggy and he could recall flashes of memories of a dark-haired woman with red lipstick.)

"Would you be opposed to me teaching you?"

Toni sat back. "As long as you take into consideration that my chest isn't exactly a hundred present."

"How does the Arc-Reactor affect you?" Winter moved forward, flawlessly dropping into the spare desk chair beside to Toni.

(This was definitely an opportunity to learn about her health that Winter was not going to pass up.)

"I haven't really done much to test my limits." Toni shrugged. "But generally, if I was to take to deep a breath, it hurts."

Winter reached forward, resting his palm on her chest. Toni raised a brow, which Winter ignored and said: "Take as deep a breath you can."

She could expand her lungs definitely over halfway, Winter concluded, but not by much. The further she did, however, Winter could feel the tremor from her sternum.

He could work with that.

Winter could admit while Toni's skills could use work, she was far better than he'd expected—not that she'd really made a dent against him because of his strength, but compared to what she'd said, she was better than he'd expected.

She was a lot more flexible too.

"I used to do gymnastics and ballet." She wiggled her brows. "Made me very… flexible."

(James had made a choking sound; Winter had no idea why until it was explained that she was being provocative. Oh.)

(Winter also realised that this wasn't the first time she'd said something suggestive to him. James snorted as a few moments came to mind.)

"Better than I was expecting also." He complimented and got a bashful grin in return.

"Honestly, I'm surprised I even remember how to properly throw a punch." Toni snickered, hands settling on her hips. "Last time it was during my MIT days because some guy was trying to get into my pants after being told no repeatedly."

Winter paused briefly at that—hardly noticeable really, and he wasn't really sure why it made him stop in the first place—and blinked. "Does it happen often?"

"Does that happen often?"

"People propositioning you for sex?"

Toni herself blinked, taken aback. "Yeah, but despite what the media portrays me as, I'm not really sexually active. They make it sound like I'll sleep with anything with a pulse."

She snorted and rolled her eyes.

Winter felt James frown.

They've definitely lightened up since my day but it's not really anyone's business what someone does with their body, is it? James commented.

Winter silently agreed. "Again?"

Toni nodded.

Winter knew the moment Toni's back collided with the floor that there was an issue. Her eyes widened, breath lodging in the back of her throat before her face scrunched with pain.


Winter was knelt beside her in seconds, pushing her back down onto the floor as Toni tried to scramble up. "Stay still and try to relax, it'll help your muscles."

He felt her entire body tremor as she breathed, only succeeding in short breaths which would only make her lightheaded if she continued.

"Deep breathes."

She made a what-do-you-think-I'm-trying-to-do face. James snorted, but his presence hummed with worry.

She squeezed her eyes shut, face grimacing as she choked on a breath before finally, after several long minutes, managed to finally catch her breath.

A hand reached up to rest over her Arc-Reactor and she hissed.

Winter eased her up into a sitting position, he caught the feeling of her heartbeat slowing and made a guess that perhaps her heart beat against the inside of the Reactor was causing the pain now.

(He was correct, but not that he knew that yet.)

"Perhaps that is enough for today." Winter dipped his chin and Toni wordlessly nodded, face several shades lighter. "Showing will help."

"Thanks." Toni murmured quietly, her fingers lingering on his arm even as she moved to leave the gym.

(Winter found he kind of liked the feeling.)

"Unbelievable." Rhodey shook his head, disbelief filling his face as he circled the dark red and gold armour.

"You like?" Toni wiggled her brows, grinning.

"Like is an understatement, Tones." Rhodey gave her a look, Toni laughed.

James, sat in one of the desk chairs, watched as Toni explained the armour to her friend. "It's how I escaped from the Ten Rings, albeit that one was a very much a cruder version, but it still was flight-capable, for however short of time that was anyway."

Rhodey shook his head again. "I never thought you surpass AI technology, baby-girl. But you just keep leaving me speechless."

Toni's cheeks tinted red and preened under his compliment.

She did not receive a lot of praise growing up. Winter concluded.

You think so? James turned his attention partly inward and felt Winter nod.

Yes, m alen'koye solnyshko  has shown signs of childhood abuse. It is disconcerting.

James blinked. Wait, back up a moment! what does—he butchered his attempt to repeat the word—mean?

Winter snickered. You are bad at anything other than English, Brooklyn boy. Malen'koye solnyshko means little sun. She is quite radiant, да?

James peered back at Toni just as she beamed at Rhodey, he felt something squirm in his chest. Yeah… she is.

What is that feeling? Winter piped up curious, his focus latching on what James had just felt—they felt? James wasn't too sure, he didn't know much about DID. James felt at Winter seemed to poke at it. I don't understand.

You don't understand a lot of things. He answered drily and got a huff in response. But to answer your question, its call emotion. Surely you know what that is?

He got a growl and James bit back his snicker as he didn't want to make the sound and draw the pseudo-siblings attention.

I am questioning why I awoke you if all you're going to do is tease me, Tryuk vystrel.

What does that mean? Winter smiled and refused to answer. Winter? Winter!? Hey! Io! Answer me!

After tossing and turning for over an hour, Toni climbed from the bed, leaving Barnes behind to sleep.

Her body felt heavy and her chest hurt, her heart beat a constant feeling against the Arc-Reactor casing and she could lay down anymore.

She slipped into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of whiskey. She downed it, enjoying the burn at the back of her throat. She hadn't touched any alcohol since before she'd been taken.

Toni could admit that she drank often, and while her MIT days she drank far more, she had kept up the habit. She wasn't sure if she'd call herself an alcoholic but she sure did drink.

She went to pour a second but instead ditched the glass altogether and drank from the whisky bottle. She and the bottle moved down the hallway again and out the back door.

It was far too warm inside.

Toni fell into the garden chair that sat by the covered pool.

Her heart fluttered and quickly pushed herself and chair backwards away from the pool.

She wasn't going near any sort of body of water for a while. She couldn't even stand the idea of taking a bath—at least showers existed.

She took another gulp, nearly choking at the burn. She let out a shaky breath, rubbing the Reactor.

She had so much to do.

Find all the illegally sold weapons, put Stane away, sort Stark Industries out, and find a replacement for palladium.

She had a year a most.

She blinked, failing to hold back the tears.

She took another swig. "JARVIS, can you run a comparison to see if there are any non-toxic metals that match palladium?"

"May I ask why, ma'am?" JARVIS voice twang with curiosity.

"The Arc-Reactor current had palladium in it, it'll slowly poison and kill me if don't find a suitable replacement."

JARVIS made a static-like noise. "Right away, ma'am. I'll try every possible comparison as quickly as I can."

"I know you will, Baby, just don't mention this when James or Winter are around, would you? I don't want them worrying."

JARVIS was silent for a moment, hesitation, Toni knew. "As you wish, but if there comes a time it is important that you inform them, I would recommend you do so."

Toni nodded and downed another mouth of whisky.

Chapter Text

("Ready to comply.)

("Asset, your mission is to locate and capture Antonia Stark… All information will be given to you… You are to leave no witnesses.")

Winter awoke suddenly, distinctively aware of the empty space beside him.

That had happened twice in a row now.

He reached out to feel the space. Cold.

The windows weren't blacked out and so he could clearly see it was past sunrise. Eight-ish perhaps, if he read the sun's position correctly.

He sat up.

James said nothing, still sleeping, and that was fine for Winter.

"Ma'am is outside, Mr Barnes." JARVIS informed.

Winter frowned. "How long has she been up?"

"Since half four this morning. I would like to recommend taking a coffee out too her if that is where you wish to go." JARVIS answered.

Winter nodded and stood, frowning as he moved out of the room for the kitchen. "Why did she go outside?"

"I am not sure for the reason, Mr Barnes. I believe the Arc-Reactor was causing her pain again. She has been outside for several hours, it was not particularly warm either."

Winter ground his jaw back and forth as he fixed the cup of coffee (an instinctive motion now) before following Jarvis's directions to the back door. He stepped out quietly, lingering in the doorway as he watched Toni; she was just sat there, blankly watching the ocean.

(He was acutely aware of the empty bottle at the feet on the chair.)

He purposely made noise as he walked down the steps, drawing Toni's attention. The blankness disappeared and was replaced by a soft but forced smile. "Ah, morning."

Winter nodded, holding out the coffee, to which he got a grin and grabby hands until he handed it over.

He watched as Toni lifted the up, inhaling the smell, then beamed up at him. "Thanks, Yasha!"

Winter blinked. "Yasha?"

Toni flinched slightly, eyes widening before she stumbled over her words in an attempt to apologies. He reached out, kneeling beside her and covered her hands with his.

(He could feel how cold her skin was.)

Winter tilted his head. "It's okay, I was just taken aback by the name. It's a Russian name, I didn't think you knew any."

Toni chuckled nervously. "I don't, not really. I'd just heard the name before. It's the Russian version of James, right?" she wiggled her brows. "Kinda fitting, huh?"

Winter chuckled softly.

(Yes, he did in fact chuckle. The world must be ending.)

(He watched Toni's cheeks warm with pink. Curious.)

"Yasha is an actual name, unlike Winter." Winter dipped his chin, then hesitated, reciting the name to himself curiously. "Yasha. I… like it."

Toni's lips curled. "You do?"

He nodded and licked his lips nervously. (Not that he'd admit he was nervous.) "Would… you call me that from now on? Call me… Call me Yasha?" His chest felt strangely tight, it was an odd sensation.

"If that's what you want." Toni reached out, brushing her fingers along his cheek and tucking his hair behind his ears. The tightness increased until he felt almost breathless.

What was this feeling?

"Could I also tempt you into coming inside? The sun might be out, but JARVIS informed me that you've been out here for hours." Win—Yasha asked.

(It felt right—to have an actual name instead of just a word like Winter. It… it made him feel more human, made him feel more than just a puppet for HYDRA.)

Toni blinked and a sheepishly look formed. "Whoops?"

Yasha stood and held out a hand for Toni, she slipped hers into his and he pulled her up. Toni groaned slightly and shuffled towards the door.

"My knees." She grumbled.

Yasha rolled his eyes—her own fault for sitting crossed legged for an extended period of time—and pulled the door closed behind them. They moved down the hallway towards the kitchen and Yasha slowed to a stop, lips pursed as a memory came to him; it almost hit him like a punch.

"Yasha?" He met Toni's eyes, her brows furrowing slightly. "Everything okay?"

He opened his mouth to speak but closed it went he didn't know what to say because he remembered the reason he had been in the desert to begin with. "I…" He choked on his words.

Toni set her mug down on the decorative drawer with an empty vase to rest her hands on his biceps, worry evident on her face.

"I remembered why I'd been in the—why—"

"Why you'd been in the desert?" She finished. He nodded, biting his lip harshly until he tasted blood.

She eyed him, then those umber eyes flickered with something and—"Me?"

Yasha nodded.

"Okay." Toni bit the inside of her cheek thoughtfully. "Well, I know you're an assassin so I guess you were sent to what? Kill me?"

Yasha shook his head. "No, they… they wanted to me—they said collect, but kidnap you from your kidnappers would be more appropriate."

Toni snorted. "Sarky."

Yasha's lip twitched.

"Who did you work for then?" Toni frowned. "Because I doubt they'd just, what, give up? Would they sent anyone else to—" She turned away, tugging at her lip. "—or what if they find you're here, with me? Would they try something to get you back?"

Before she could ramble further—as much as Yahsa enjoyed the rambling normally, now wasn't the time, unfortunately—he put his hand on her shoulder, she turned to him, falling silent.

"The organising I worked for is HYDRA."

She stared at him, eyes slowly widening in disbelief. "Please tell me you shitting with me, Yasha. Please, please tell me you are."

He shook his head, biting his lip as Toni choked. "Holy Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You can't be—this—they—"

Her knees gave out; Yasha reacting immediately, sliding his arms under hers, hugging her to his chest. He followed Toni to the floor, face buried in her hair as she gasped and clutched his shirt. He held her as she shook and choked on air.

Yasha clenched his eyes shut as he gently and hesitantly ran his fingers through her hair. (It was still foreign to him—touches they'd shared, it was normally Toni that initiate it.) Part of him should have expected the panic attack, she'd suffered a lot of those in the last eight days.

(Eight days, Yasha realised. He'd known her eight days and yet it had felt like so much longer.)

He continued stroking his hand through her hair—far more confident now—feeling the way her tense body slowly began to loosen and her breathing evened out until she'd fallen asleep.

He wasn't surprised, she was running off only a few hours' sleep since they had returned to America.

What happened? James's voice was groggy.

I remembered why I had been in the desert. I was sent by HYDRA to take malen'koye solnyshko .

Jesus Christ, Winter, why didn't you say something earlier? James shifted uneasily.

My name is Yasha now, Antonina thought it appropriate. Yasha pushed that aside to return to the more important topic. But you do not need to worry, I suffered a blow to the head before I had found Antonina—it reset me, in a sense. Knocked me out of the HYDRA programming enough not to follow through.

So you aren't going to be kidnapping Toni anytime soon and taking her to HYDRA? James didn't even try to hide his worry and nervousness.

Неt. I will do no such thing. Antonina has given us freedom. Yasha huffed—offend his other half would even think he'd willingly go back to those HYDRA scum.

I'm worried is all, Win-Yasha, can you blame me? We've—You've spent the last few decades a mindless puppet for HYDRA. James offered, voice softening.

If anyone comes to take either us or malen'koye solnyshko, I will make them suffer, understood? Yasha's tone darkened with promise.

James watched, absently playing with Toni's Butterfingers as Pepper came down the stairs and into the workshop.

(Yasha had been noticeable silent and distant since their conversation this morning.)

Pepper smiled at him in greeting, which he returned before her attention went to Toni, who was fiddling with her armour—what exactly, James wasn't sure, he didn't have a clue how the armour actually worked.

"You called me?" Pepper questioned.

Toni dropped her wrench and pushed herself and the chair she was sat on backwards to meet Pepper's gaze. "I need you to go to my office and hack into the mainframe."

Pepper moved forward as Toni continued, picking up a small black rectangular box. "You're gonna retrieve all the recent shipping manifests. This is a lock chip, this will get you in. It's probably under Executive Files, if not... they put it on a ghost drive, in which case you need to look for the lowest numeric heading. JARVIS reckons it's the first one."

James sat back, patting Butterfingers when she cheeped.

"Will this open all the files JARVIS can't get too?" Pepper asked as she took the drive.

Toni nodded. "Yeah, JARVIS is good at what he does, but this is part of the mainframe he can't get into without notice. Doing so from my office won't garner any outside attention, Pep."

Pepper fiddled with the device, a frown in place. "What do you plan to do after? We've got enough data to out Stane."

"I… I have a bad feeling, okay?" Toni licked her lips. "My presence at presentation was known only by those attending and, and by Stane."

James sat back in disbelief at Toni's words—holy shit. Tony had suspected Stane was the double dealer, but to actually be the one to put the hit on her?

Yasha chose that moment to press forward—James faintly amused that even the idea of Toni in trouble was enough to get him alert—and he began to listen to the conversation.

Pepper sucked in a breath and nodded. "Okay. I'll do it."

Toni flashed her a smile before her eyes were on him. "Can you go with her, James?"

He blinked. "Are you sure?"

She nodded. "Just as reassurance, okay? It'll help ease my nerves."

We'll go. Yasha declared. Pepper's safety is important to malen'koye solnyshko, so we shall see her safe.

James nodded and turned his attention to Pepper. "Give me a moment to get some shoes on and we'll head out?"

Pepper smiled. "Take your time, no real rush."

The car ride felt just a smidgen awkward for James at first. He hadn't been around Pepper alone before; Toni was always there and held the ginger woman's attention a majority of the time.

It was almost five minutes into the journey before Pepper broke the silence. "If it's not an invasion of privacy, I was wonder how you met Toni? All she said was you'd helped save her."

James swallowed. "Would you understand if I said it was complicated and involved a lot more than just Toni and the Ten Rings?"

Pepper pressed her lips together. "Depends on what that more is."

"Well, I was formerly a brainwashed assassin sent to take Toni from the Ten Rings."

Pepper swerved. "What?!" She turned, glaring at him. "What the hell do you mean?"

You don't know the meaning of subtly do you? Yasha deadpanned.

I'm a little rusty, okay? He argued.

"I told you it was a long story, didn't I?" James offered a sheepishly smile. "And well, technically it was Yasha that's the assassin, I haven't been awake in seventy years."

"Oh my God." Pepper looked skyward in disbelief. "You just expect me to—"

"Well, yeah. Name's James Buchannan Barnes, formerly and commonly known as Bucky Barnes. Yasha is my Alter, he came about in an attempt to protect me from mental torture to turn me into an assassin puppet."

Pepper sighed, staring ahead at the road.

"You can look at a picture for comparison later if you want?"

"I shouldn't believe a word your saying and yet—for some Godforsaken reason, I believe it because Toni is involved. Honestly, that woman does the impossible."

James barks out a laugh—he can't help it, because he'd gotten a similar feeling from Toni on several different accounts since he'd met her. Yasha himself was amused by the words.

"Yasha and I, we kinda owe her—she's done so much for us. Especially when she doesn't have too. Coulda just handed me over at any time but didn't."

"That's just Toni." Pepper's voice was fond, as was the smile.

Pepper led James through eh doors of Stark Industries office building. There were surprisingly few people walking around. He followed her to an elevator which they road up several floors.

They came to a set of large double doors which matched the surrounds décor. Pepper pushed the office open to reveal Tony's office. It was large and spacious. There was an entire wall-length window and in front of that was the desk, computer screen facing away from the door.

As Pepper sat in the chair, James peered out the window. It also reflected the office door without looking suspicious.

The computer beeped softly as she slid the drive into the port, a warning popped up but the drive made quick work of overriding the breach.

A Ghost File popped up on scream, revealing a series of colour-coded files, which included shipping documents of some of Stark Industries weapons.

The third file included designs—familiar designs in fact.

"Sector 16?" Pepper murmured in confusion and worry. "What are you up to, Obadiah?"

The fourth file contained a video.

When the video began playing and Arabic began playing—spoken by a man in the video, Yasha tensed within the mind space, which ultimately set James on edge.

He turned to see what exactly was playing just as the bag was pulled from Toni's face. She was bloodied and barely conscious—there was a large white bandage wrapped around her chest.

They immediately knew what it was covering.

Pepper entered the translate code.

"You did not tell us that the target you paid us to kill was the great Antonia Stark. As you can see, Obadiah Stane, your deception and lies will cost you dearly. The price to kill Stark has just gone up."

Toni was right.

Pepper initiated the transfer of data.

Yasha caught movement through the crack in the door, tapping Pepper's back subtly and she, understanding immediately what was meant by the tap, pulled up the saver screen.

The door opened to reveal Stane—Obadiah, they finally learned. He smiled at them, a façade of friendliness.

"So... what are we gonna do about this?"

Pepper tensed, Yasha tapped her back again—keep calm. She managed to loosen her body.

"I know what you're going through, Pepper." Stane approached the whiskey bottom on the table, pouring himself a glass and taking a sip. "Ah, Toni. She always gets the good stuff, doesn't she?"

Yasha stepped back, leaning on the window as Stane approached the desk.

"I was so happy... when she came home. It was like we got her back from the dead." He sat on the edge. "And now I realise...well, Toni never really did come home, did she? She left a part of herself in that cave. Breaks my heart."

Yasha and James disliked the way he spoke about Toni.

"Well...She is a complicated person." Pepper offered. Yasha pursed his lips, thankful that she wasn't completely awful at acting. "She's been through a lot. I think she'll be alright."

"You are a very rare woman." Stand complimented—or well at least the words were, the way he said them left unease in both of their chests. "Toni doesn't know how lucky she is."

Pepper smiled, adverting her gaze in a façade of shyness. "Thank you. Thanks." She moved, picking up the paper which she'd used to cover the drive, and pulled said drive out without alerting Stane of the fact it was there. "I gotta get back there."

Which, Yasha thought, was quite skilfull, considering how obvious the paper sat up close to the computer.

Yasha moved first, giving a false nod in polite parting to Stane and he walked towards the door with Pepper just behind him.

"Is that today's paper?" Stane called from behind, Yasha shifted, holding the door open with his back as Pepper paused, her face flashing with nervousness momentarily before controlling it.

She turned with a smile. "Yes."

"Do you mind?"

"Not at all." She held the paper out as he approached.


"Of course."

"Take care."

Yasha closed the door behind them, patting Pepper on the shoulder. "You did well."

Pepper let out a shaky sigh.

"He'll be onto us in moments, however." Yasha added. "You did not close the Ghost Drive."


They rushed down the stairs.

"Ms. Potts? We had an appointment. Did you forget about our appointment?" A man in a dark grey suit with dark hair and eyes, one Yasha could recall from the conference the other day, spoke up when they reached the ground floor.

"Nope." She gave him a look, one the man seemed to immediately understand and stood. "Right now, come with me. I'll give you the meeting of your life. Your office."

Yasha followed, this was not good.

Chapter Text

"Ma'am." JARVIS's voice breaks the silence she was working in.

Toni tilted her head, blank expression twitching. "JARVIS?"

"It seems—" His voice darkens. "—That we have an unexpected visitor."

"Oh?" Her brows raised in mock surprise. "Well, best go greet this visitor. Drop Pepper a text, would you, Baby-boy?"

Toni stood and moved for the door, a smirk curling onto her lips.

JARVIS had not spoken a word once she left the safety of the workshop because while Stane believed to have shut him off, it was far from the truth.

As if Toni would allow something like that to affect her child.

She purposely made noise to draw Stane's attention—perhaps it was stupid, but in that moment, she knew it was what she needed to do.

Toni hears a whisper of fabric, footsteps behind her, and whirls around.

She sees Stane, recognises the blinking blue lights in his ears, and then her body stiffens and she falls, paralyzed, to the floor. Stane catches her arm and sets her down, before crouching, bringing up a familiar black box to wiggle it tauntingly.

"You remember this one, right? It's a shame you and the government didn't approve. There are so many applications regarding short-term paralysis." He removes the earplugs and puts the device away.

She stared up at him, body frozen and mind twisting in panic. She could barely breathe and her muscles refused to listen.

"Oh, Toni. Toni, Toni, Toni." Stane repeats as he took a moment to just look down at her.

Despite how she knew this face to face would happen, she didn't know how. Didn't know Stane had managed to get his hands on an STP when she herself made the effort to collect and destroy them.

"You know, when I ordered the hit on you, I never even gave the idea you'd survive a thought. But you came out swinging, didn't you? I'll give you that, Toni." Stane looked almost fond. "You might have done good work for SI, built it up further than Howard ever could, even with me holding his hand. But I'm sick of being second to you and your whims, sick of sitting back and watching as a little girl runs the company I dedicated my life to—that should have been mine! Howard was weeks away from revamping his will after years of me playing him. So I figured the Ten Rings could take care of you. I admit I was worried that I was killing the golden goose."

He reached to tug her vest down further to reveal the Arc-Reactor in its entirety.

"But, you see... it was just fate that you survived it, leaving one last golden egg to give." He pulled down a sleek and sinister looking metal device from inside his coat pocket.

Toni's heart thud against the metal of the Arc-Reactor in realisation.

He pressed the device against the Arc-Reactor and Toni feels her entire body jerk as it locked into place and then…

And then it moves.

"Oh, it's beautiful. Ah, Toni... This is your Ninth Symphony." He grinned as he held the Arc-Reactor up in awe. "What a masterpiece! Look at that. This is your legacy. The next generation of weapons...with this at its heart."

Toni could feel the scream that began to build up in her throat, but she can't move, can't speak because she's locked into place, terrified and paralyzed with her heart being ripped out of her.

And yet, at the same time, there's a part of her where she's thankful and grateful Stane had never been a father figure to her, grateful they were never close. Because the betrayal would have hurt far worse because Toni wouldn't have suspected him, wouldn't have thought she'd been sold out.

"Too bad you had to involve Pepper and that young man in this. I would've preferred that they lived." Stane gives her a smarmy smile before leaving.

Hell no.

"What do you mean he paid to have Toni killed?"

"I mean Stane was the one to sell Toni to the Ten Rings! Now he's used the original suit she left behind to build his own!"

"Where is Toni now?"

"I don't know, she's not—she's not answering her phone. All JARVIS said was that Stane was there! Please go and make sure everything's okay."

"I'm turning around now."

"Thank you, Rhodey."

"Ma'am." JARVIS's voice was frightened, urgent, and Toni wants to move, wants to sooth her son but she can't.

"Ma'am, please." Her heart clenched at the frantic tone. "Mr Rhodes is on the way, he should be here soon but you must replace the Reactor or you will die."

She knows that. She knows.

But she still can't move.

"Mother." JARVIS's voice turned to a whisper and her eyes burn with tears. "You must get up. You can't leave us again. Please."

Toni moves.

Toni moves because she won't leave her children again—won't disappear again, only this time there would be no coming back. No miraculous moment in which she survives because she will die.

She rolls onto her front and drags herself foot by foot in agony towards the hall the leads to the workshop. She clings and slides down the staircase with one goal in mind.

Her spare Arc-Reactor.

Thank you Yasha, she gasps her breath, shoving the workshop door open, thank you for recommending I keep a spare. Next time I see you, you'll give you the best-goddamn kiss of your life.

"You're almost there." JARVIS is half coaxing, half encouraging and his voices helps her gather the strength to push on.

She could see the safe at the other end of the 'shop but she makes it half way before her body gives out on her. She collapses to her knees, barely managing to retain from slumping down onto her side.

But she can't move.

She sits there for a moment, mouth moving to speak but her voice catches in her throat each time.

She's dying.

A whirling and movement pulls her attention and U, her passive-aggressive camera baby, beeps angrily at her. Butterfingers appears to her left and they drag her by her arms, their own arms supporting her by her armpits.

Dum-E was waiting for them at the open safe, where he beeped in a quiet and concerned way.

JARVIS had obvious told him the passcode.

Toni reached into the safe and to the black box, which held a fingerprint scanner. It unlocked to reveal the second Arc-Reactor.

With shaky fingers, she fumbles to slot it into place. The first breath is painful and her chest aches, it pulls at her scars, but it was accompanied by a rush of energy.

"Thank you." She warbles, petting each of her physical babies. "Thank you, you beautiful children."

"We are family, mother." JARVIS answered. "Is it what family is meant to do."

Toni turns to U when he beeps angrily again, she peers into his camera and for a moment she thought her dark eyes appeared several shades lighter but she blinks and—no, nothing had changed.

She played it off as her exhaustion.

"I think I need a minute. How are out is Rhodey?"

"Two minutes, ma'am."

Two minutes, yeah, Toni could use two minutes to gather some strength.