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All the ashes in my wake

Chapter Text

Tony has relaxed further into the plush seat, reclining now with a glass in hand. He’s worked himself up to a pleasant buzz, a little nightcap. Outside the car, the canyon rushes by them. They weave through the valley in the dark, only rarely coming upon another car. It's peaceful. It gives him a chance to breathe. There’s only the rumble of the engine, the rush of the wind, and good conversation.

It would have been faster, sure, to take the suit to the fundraiser, make it an easy flight home. It would’ve been great publicity too. But there’s nothing wrong with letting Happy drive him around for the evening. It’s been a while since they’ve had the chance, since Iron Man.

Maybe he’s missed it. Just a little.

The road dips into a tunnel, plunging the car into intermittent darkness. Between one light and the next, Tony has an idea for a new armor assembly system. What if he could turn the entry tunnel of the house into a progressive suit disassembly? He pulls the phone from his pocket, taking another sip of scotch as he starts making notes.

And glances up just in time to see a man jump onto the road at the mouth of the tunnel, face completely obscured by a curtain of long hair, and the headlights glinting off one of his arms.

--------------------1---------------------

The Soldier didn’t always remember the Chair.

At first, all he knows is the Mission and the Ice. Beyond that, there is nothing. Until one day nothing comes with the ghost of Fire across his skin, a Fire that burns him from the inside. It radiates along his nerve endings, through his bones until once again there’s nothing. Until he’s nothing. The phantom of Fire and Pain comes on so fast that he's left fighting not to shake apart or lash out in search of the nearest threat.

It’s 1953, the day the Fire becomes the Chair. The Handler is unhappy, deep in conversation with the technicians. The Soldier is between assignments and so may as well not exist to anyone in this tomb of ice and steel, left alone like a discarded toy until the next set of orders are given. The Handler makes no move to conceal their conversation from anyone’s hearing, let alone the Soldier’s enhanced senses. “The Soldier is slow to comply; the programming is lapsing. This is unacceptable!” the Handler snaps, heedless that the Soldier is maintaining his equipment mere feet away. “I want it recalibrated within the hour. Get the machine ready. Go!

Recalibrate.

The word is not one of the Words, and yet it elicits a reaction. A shudder prickles at the Soldier’s skin. His hands clench around the knife he’s meticulously cleaning. The blade bites into his fingers, drawing the barest line of blood. He watches numbly as it drips along his fingertips. The word has no connection to any tangible memory. It has nothing to do with his programming, with his orders. It should mean nothing to the Soldier. And yet...

The agents have whispered to one another when they think he cannot hear them. They say the Soldier no longer has the capacity for emotions. That they’ve burned them all out of him years ago. But they’re wrong.

The Soldier knows fear like an old friend.

He takes the knife and sets it against the underside of the metal arm. It only takes a moment, the slightest bit of his considerable strength, to scrape a single line in one of the titanium plates.

Soldier!

The Soldier does not flinch, simply replaces the knife on the table and turns to await orders. He barely registers the Handler’s words, eyes locked on the Chair behind him, on the technicians buzzing around it like flies on a carcass.

He goes without hesitation even as his flesh crawls.

If there’s one thing the Soldier knows better than fear, it’s compliance.

--------------------2---------------------

They tell him it’s 1953 and there is a single mark on the arm.

The technicians take no notice of it as they prepare the arm for the Mission ahead of him. They don’t question the Soldier about the mark at all, too busy talking over him about imminent upgrades and Maintenance. As if he were nothing more than a life-sized, highly skilled assassin doll.

So the Soldier does not mention it. It’s not classified as damage to the arm, therefore it’s not within his parameters to speak with the technicians.

The Mission passes in a blur, but the tiny, inconspicuous scratch in the metal weighs heavy in his thoughts. There are never blemishes on the arm - it’s made too durable for that. And any damage to it is to be repaired immediately. But the mark is still, inexplicably, there.

The Soldier has no explanation for it until after the Mission, as the Handler directs him to stow his weapons in the arsenal and report to the machine.

He stares at the Chair from across the chamber, and nods. His skin prickles, adrenaline coursing through him at the command. He knows.

He slices another mark into the arm before returning.

 

They tell him it’s 1958 and there are seven marks.

There is no Mission waiting for him, which immediately sets the Soldier on edge. Missions are straightforward. Missions are comfortable. Missions are far safer than the unknown. Without orders, the Soldier is left adrift; a spectre that haunts the facility rather than a weapon, his mind ceaselessly racing as he tries to assess where the next orders (the next threat) will come from. Eventually he is called to attention, ordered to wait in the main chamber for an endless stretch of time with no explanation.

(His index finger drums a senseless rhythm against his thigh. Taptaptap. Tap. Tap. Taptap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Taptaptaptaptap. The movements so minute that it goes unnoticed.)

It’s the technicians whispering amongst themselves that gives him an answer: the Handler has acquired a stranger to upgrade the arm. After counting out fifty minutes, waiting, waiting, (Taptaptaptaptap. Tap. Tap. Taptaptap.) they finally haul the new prisoner into the facility flanked by guards on either side, bruises blooming on his dark skin.

The Soldier watches, face impassive, as the Handler gestures and snarls at the newcomer - a man of proud bearing and sharp eyes. He answers the Handler’s demands in a language that the Soldier doesn’t know, one that is deep and flowing, with a sharp click around some of the words. An African language, Xosa?

The Handler grows frustrated with the stranger’s defiance and signals for one of the guards to strike him. The stranger glares, spitting blood onto the floor and says in clear, clipped English: “Go to hell.”

They drag him away. The Soldier’s hands curl into fists at his sides.

No one notices. Without orders, he’s a ghost.

Later, after the newcomer has given in to whatever torture the Handler has subjected him to, the Soldier sits at the maintenance station while the newcomer studiously looks over the arm. The Soldier keeps his gaze resolutely ahead, ignoring how the stranger’s eyes keep drifting up to his face, his expression unreadable. The man keeps his silence, however, at least until the guards eventually lose interest, and turn their eyes away. Sloppy. Arrogant. Exploitable.

His fingers twitch against the edge of the bench. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

The African man fidgets discreetly with the string of dark beads at his wrist.

The air sizzles for the briefest of moments, the barest buzz of electricity over the Soldier’s skin. He goes tense, only to find that the expected pain doesn’t come. Instead, the ever-present mechanical hum of the chamber around them becomes muffled. The voices of the technicians go dim even to the Soldier’s enhanced senses.

“They can’t hear us now,” the stranger says quickly, carefully, so his mouth barely moves to form the words. The Soldier glances down at the bracelet of metal beads, actually studying them now. Simple, unadorned, metal spheres, but not a piece of jewelry at all.

He understands now, why the Handler wants this man to upgrade the arm.

“These men wish me to wire this monstrosity directly into your nervous system, better than this patch job they’ve managed themselves,” the stranger continues, lips twisting into a sneer. “To increase dexterity and control. So that you can better modulate the strength that they are building into this… thing. In my country, with our technology, it would be nearly painless. Not so, here. You will feel it all, if I obey their orders. Barbaric.”

“This isn’t your country, doctor.”

His words surprise both of them. “So you can speak,” the stranger murmurs. “I did not expect that.”

The Soldier lifts one shoulder, masking a shrug by shifting for the stranger to better access the arm. His eyes flicker briefly over to the man; fully meeting his eyes would be too obvious, but the effect still manages to come across.

The African stranger mulls over this for a few moments, the two of them secluded behind whatever barrier he’s placed. It’s… peaceful, for the time being - a concept that’s so utterly foreign that the Soldier doesn’t know how to process it.

“So the Soviets' attack dog has a voice. Does he also want his freedom?”

The Soldier considers this.

Tap. Tap. Taptaptap.

“Yes.”

 

They tell him it’s 1963 and there are eighteen marks.

There’s an entire squad of guards assigned to him. Their eyes track every movement as the Soldier is equipped and briefed for his Mission. They don’t keep a hand on their weapons - they’re not stupid enough to pose such a clear threat to him - but they are never far from it.

They inject him with something that makes his mind go faded around the edges. Makes his mind quiet, but not peaceful. No, it makes him feel like he’s been shoved beneath the waves and is forced to watch them from below. Outside of the facility, they instruct, he will need to take pills to prolong the effects. He’s ordered this way and that, meaningless calibration tasks as they tinker with dosage until they are satisfied.

The Soldier obeys. His mind is quiet. Muffled.

He is to report for Maintenance before embarking on his Mission to the United States. From beneath the waves in his mind, he watches as the technicians strap him down and open the plates on the arm. They take special satisfaction in informing him that the upgrades on his arm were left unfinished - Because of him. Because he disobeyed. - and that they will have to continue Maintenance over his use to keep it working properly. That it will be an agonizing process.

He can do nothing but obey.

But he doesn’t give them the satisfaction of hearing him scream.

 

They tell him it’s 1975 and there are twenty-six marks.

They place him in Paris as the final conflicts in Vietnam draw to a close. His target is a diplomat attempting to convince both sides to abide by the Peace Accords. The Soldier doesn't care to know what the man has done to cause his deployment. By decades of design, the why has never mattered to the Soldier; only the how and the who.

It’s easy to slip through the back alleys of Paris, even in full uniform, moving like a ghost in and around the shadows of the city. The route has been planned for weeks, carefully cleared of hostiles, and even should someone notice the Soldier, they will not survive long enough to tell others.

The Soldier should move with single-minded purpose, with his thoughts only on the Mission. It’s what he’s been trained for. It’s all he knows.

Instead, it's oddly freeing to be out in the night air. Even a putrid back alley has come to be enjoyable. He doesn’t deviate from the path that has been chosen for him, but if his pace is a little more leisurely than his normal laser-focused gait, then that’s his own little secret.

A voice from a news broadcast drifts to him from a storefront, effectively freezing him in his tracks. From the mouth of the alley, the Soldier catches a glimpse of black and white from across the street, between the nameless forms of passersby. The grainy footage, decades old, is overlaid with a solemn narration in French.

Across the Atlantic, the United States observes a moment of silence. Today, February 5th, 1975, marks the 30th anniversary of Captain Steve Rogers’ disappearance…

He barely hears it above the sudden roar of his own blood in his ears. Nothing else in the world exists, except for the face staring back at him from the screens, repeated over and over again like a dream.

Or a nightmare.

Steve--

 

They tell him it’s 1986 and there are forty-four marks.

He’s been loaned out to the Red Room, to train the next generation of the KGB’s assassins. (They’re just little girls.) There’s a lot of talk, a lot of showing him off as the perfect soldier. He’s what they strive for, their example of what obedience and discipline looks like.

He teaches them to be steady, to be unbreakable, to be self-reliant.

To survive.

A student breaks his hold during hand-to-hand training by stabbing him in the arm with a knife she’d hidden in her uniform. The Soldier hisses and slams her into the ground hard enough that her bones rattle. She stares up at him through the spill of her hair - a deep vibrant shade of red - and for that moment her eyes reflect an age-old, familiar fear.

They’re just little girls… and he helps turn them into killing machines.

For the first time, he eagerly goes to the Chair once his Mission is complete.

 

They tell him it’s 1991 and there are forty-nine marks.

The Soldier receives his orders and a name. Target: Howard S--

 

They tell him it’s 1991 and there are fifty marks.

They want him to--

 

They tell him it’s 1991 and there are fifty-one marks.

He won’t--

 

They tell him it’s 1991 and there are fifty-two marks.

The Soldier waits on a snowy road, hidden in the dense treeline, for the target’s car to pass him.

 

They tell him it’s 1998 and there are fifty-four marks.

He has been relocated during cryo-sleep - to the US now, with a new Handler who deigns to introduce himself: Alexander Pierce. A somewhat grandiose man with a politician's tongue, who manages to simultaneously be condescending and speak to the Soldier as if they were equals.

He calls him the Asset. He calls him the secret to HYDRA's success. Their greatest weapon. That it’s because of him that they are on the path to order, to peace. That the Asset’s devotion is worthy of praise.

He calls the Asset you and not it.

Somehow, that's worse.

He knows better than to fall for it. He should know better. He knows this game. (Does he? He has no memory of it, but can feel it in his bones. He knows this game.) The Asset isn't a person. The Asset is a tool. A thing. If the Handler treats him otherwise, it’s always a lie.

The thought sits lurking in the back of the Asset’s mind as he completes each Mission assigned to him. Until the next file shoved into his hands contains the picture of a child. His senses fuzz out, his mind reeling as he stares blankly down at the photograph. A little boy, no older than six, with a gap-toothed smile and bright eyes. He doesn’t even hear the Handler’s instructions, simply--

"He's just a kid."

His words are met with deafening silence. The Asset purposefully unclenches his hands from where they’re clutching the file, forcing the tension from his shoulders; instinctually making himself appear more open - more submissive.

He shouldn't have fallen for it.

"Yes," the Handler responds evenly. He hears the brittle edge in the word, the underlying threat. Adrenaline rushes through his veins, but he doesn't allow himself to move. He's no longer standing before a Handler, but a predator. And one wrong move will see him punished or worse. "It's unfortunate. But sacrifices must be made for the bigger picture. We've given the senator every opportunity to avoid this. Now he has to pay the price. A great price." The gentle explanation has a core of steel. A warning.

The Asset's hands do not shake. He won't let them.

"He's… just a kid," he says again.

Another beat of silence, and then the Handler lets out a slow sigh. And then he does shake, because there can only be one thing coming. The Handler takes the file out of his hands with equal gentleness and sets it aside before turning to the technicians. "Wipe him. And up the dosage on his supplements. Clearly, he’s burning through them too fast."

His heart sinks, a sick knot turning in his stomach.

He shouldn't have fallen for it.

 

They tell him it’s 2008 and here are fifty-seven marks.

The Mission he’s brought out of cryo for is abruptly cut short. It’s a surprise to no one, least of all the Asset; the businessman, who had been ruthlessly courting the Handler for use of the Asset for the past several months, wants far too much and gives too little in return. The Mission was never going to leave the recon stage. The businessman arranges for the target to meet a convenient end at some munitions demonstration overseas instead.

Leaving the Asset with no purpose and no Mission.

That alone would grate on his nerves, would make him ready to crawl out of his skin.

But it’s worse, because there is a new Handler-in-training that has come to see him. A man named Rumlow, who lords over the facility as if he's already been handed control over it. A cocksure whelp. A fool. He watches the proceedings of the Maintenance and the Reconditioning like a king holding court as the technicians complete their work. Even they seem to be having a difficult time keeping their irritation from showing.

If he were only there to observe, the Asset could ignore him. But it seems that this Handler-in-training has the same predilection towards self-important speeches that his current Handler does, even if they’re less grand. Less insufferably altruistic.

Rumlow just likes to hear the sound of his own voice.

"Once Pierce decides you aren't worth the trouble, Soldier, you'll be mine," the man sneers. He’s decided to observe the Asset during training, and has been on the same track for the last several minutes. The Asset ruthlessly tunes him out with each thunk of the throwing knife against the target across the room. "We're going to get along great. Me, holding the leash. You, doing whatever the fuck I say. You can't help yourself, can you? It'll be fun. I’ll teach you how to sit, stay, maybe even roll over. I always wanted a dog--"

The screech of the next throwing knife sinking into the concrete at Rumlow’s feet cuts him off into petrified, blessed silence. He basks in it for a precious moment, before tipping his head in Rumlow’s direction.

The dumbfounded expression on the man’s face is glorious. The Asset meets that gaze unflinchingly, the corners of his mouth threatening to quirk.

"Woof."

He gets to enjoy Rumlow’s speechlessness for fifteen thrilling seconds. And it must show on his face, because Rumlow stops gaping at him, his face twisting into a snarl. The Asset stands his ground even as Rumlow rushes him, accepting the wild punch to his face. It staggers him only slightly, rocking him back on his heels.

It doesn’t stagger him as much as the next blow does, which comes from a telescoping baton that Rumlow pulls from his belt. It connects with his ribs, on the right, and the crack of steel against his bones nearly makes his knees buckle. The next hit lands right at the seam of his shoulder and the arm. The next under his jaw, sending him to his knees. He tastes blood.

His left hand comes up without thought, the ringing, metallic shriek of metal against metal as the baton strikes his palm. The Asset clenches bloodied teeth, pushing himself upright, titanium fingers closing around the weapon and crushing it with the barest of effort.

Something deliciously like fear flickers across Rumlow’s expression.

“Only the Handler or the operations lead is permitted to order punishment of the Asset,” he recites the protocol in a low voice. The baton bends in his grip. “Any further action will be seen as a threat to the Asset.”

‘Not your toy.’

The thought rises with such force, bitterness, defiance that the Asset is thrown momentarily off guard. He doesn’t catch one of the agents rushing him until the taser is jabbed against his spine.

The Asset comes to as they shove him into the Chair, Rumlow’s furious snarls rising over the clamor.

‘I hate you.’ That feeling, that freeing rage is still there. He keeps it tucked close inside his heart even as the rubber bit is wedged between his teeth and the panels of the machine lowers around him. ‘I hate all of you.’

They’re going to take this from him as well; going to burn it out of him like everything else, just like they have the last fifty-seven marks. Except that he won’t let them this time. Another mark. Fifty-eight. Enough. Enough. They can’t have this.

His last thought, as he’s serenaded back into agony by Rumlow’s furious shouts to up the voltage is:

‘It was worth it.’

 

They tell him it’s 2008 and there are fifty-eight marks.

He’s had enough.

--------------------3---------------------

They’re complacent.

By the time they release him from Maintenance and Reconditioning, the technicians are clearly just happy that he didn’t turn out to be permanently damaged by his last session in The Chair. “Rumlow’s been called back to DC,” the operations lead informs him upon his release. “Secretary Pierce says you were still working within your parameters, since he was deliberately baiting you and he’s not your handler yet. No further reconditioning is required.”

The Asset keeps his expression blank. “Mission parameters.”

“Right. Recon and threat assessment for now.” A tablet is offered to him, the name Tony Stark heading the file on screen.

He spends the next few weeks this way: researching a rich industrialist, his connections, his resources, his itinerary for the next several months, his (impressive) arsenal, and more. The tactical agents leave him to his work, barely even acknowledging his existence past the daily reports on his reconnaissance, giving him unfettered time and resources to accomplish his Mission. And that is their mistake.

There’s nothing to stop him from digging in other files on the tablet they’ve provided him with, and they either don’t care to, or haven’t thought to, monitor his activities on it. They’re arrogant on top of complacent, thinking the last wipe has made him docile.

The memory of it comes surging back after a week, the painsatisfactionrage sharpening just under his ribs. It’s a cold fury now, allowing it to wash over him in slow waves without giving any of the agents any hint to the storm brewing inside him. It’s quiet, patient, and cunning.

Within days he has access to everything: security routes, ongoing operations, supply acquisitions, and intel networking. The entire map of HYDRA's west coast operations laid out before him. The longer they leave him be, the more information he gathers. And none of them are aware of it.

Idiots. It will be their downfall.

He's going to enjoy it.

Each day out of cryo is a little clearer, each dose in three of the medications and supplements that he fakes taking is clearer still. Until suddenly it's been three weeks without being put back in cryo or the Chair, and the Asset sees no hint that they intend to do either just yet.

At four weeks without the Chair, the Asset is given new orders: to accompany one of the agents outside of the facility, the first time since his punishment at the hands of Rumlow. The excursion is the agent’s Mission rather than his own. He expects it’s a test of his recovery.

Agent Rollins drives them across the city in an unmarked van. The sounds of the city - pulsing, alive - filter easily into his enhanced senses even at this time of night. His fingers tap nonsensically at his knees as the drive continues. Taptaptap. Tap. Tap. He wonders how long it’s been since he’d been allowed outside the facility for anything more than a quick kill. How long it’s been since he could breathe fresh air.

How long it will be until he can have that again.

Eventually the van pulls to a stop, after winding its way through the labyrinth of LA for nearly an hour. The Asset waits as Agent Rollins climbs from the van, until a bang on the back door signals the all clear. He surveys the darkened alley and the industrial buildings surrounding them as he steps down from the vehicle. There’s a siren in the distance, a counterpoint to the pulse of the city with its ever-present electrical and mechanical hum.

The Asset had been aware of this Mission long before being assigned to it: a retrieval of a Pym Technologies researcher that HYDRA has been monitoring for some time. It’s a Mission so far below his skill level that he barely has to think about it. Within minutes, the security around the back employee exit has been rerouted, the pattern of the guards memorized; leaving them to wait at a distance until their target exits the building. If it were in Agent Rollins’ power, the Asset could be ordered to storm the facility. It would certainly be faster.

The crunch of shoes against pavement, in the opposite direction from where their target should be coming, has his head snapping up. Rollins doesn’t notice for several more seconds, only managing to unholster his gun just before a young man turns out of the alley ahead of them and freezes.

“Shit, uh…” he yelps, already backpedalling. It’s drowned out by Rollins’ own curse, frantic eyes darting to the door they’re supposed to be staking out and the interloper that’s turning back down the alley he’d come from.

“What are you waiting for?” Rollins hisses at the Asset. “Neutralize him. No witnesses!”

He breathes a quiet sigh, which the mask thankfully obscures. “Acknowledged.” He turns and sets off down the alley after the intruder; all too easily flanking the young man before he can even make it to the street on the other side. He lets out a breathless shriek as the Asset snatches at his shoulder and shoves him unkindly into the brick wall of the alley.

“Hey, let go!” the man gasps, struggling feebly in his grip. His voice pitches high and panicked. “Look, I’m sorry alright. Ain’t my business what you’re into. M’not gonna tell anyone-- oh shit, okay. Okay!” His entire body flinches at the press of a gun between his shoulder blades. “Please tell me that’s just a prop for your super kinky roleplay and not a real piece, man.”

The Asset tunes out his frantic rambling. All it will take is two shots to the back of the head. Quick, quiet, unfeeling. Almost merciful… in comparison to what he could be ordered to do. It’s just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just bad luck.

Instead, he steps back, dragging the man around to face him. “Kneel. Hands behind your head.”

The young man obeys, sinking bonelessly to his knees and cringing in terror as the Asset levels the gun at him once more. “Please, come on. I was just tryin’ to find a car out here. Just something stupid; I won’t say a word, I swear--”

Looking him in the eyes is even worse. The Asset is no stranger to the execution of bystanders. It’s a part of the process - no living witnesses. Ever. But this is…

He doesn’t want to do this.

“Hey!” Agent Rollins ducks into the alley with them, sneering impatiently. “Hurry up, Asset. We’re on a deadline.”

“Acknowledged,” he says through gritted teeth. His hand clenches around the handgun’s grip. But still he hesitates.

“Just get rid of him and let’s go! No one’s going to think twice if he shows up dead in an alley.”

He doesn’t take the shot.

“Comply, Asset!” Rollins growls. When the Asset doesn’t reply, he lets out a disgusted sound and starts forward. “Damnit, we don’t have time for this. I’ll fucking handle it. You’re getting reset as soon as this is over--”

A muffled pop!, and Rollins drops like a stone, a single, neat bullet hole perfectly between his brows.

“Holy shit…” the kneeling man breathes into the oppressive silence.

The Asset holsters his handgun, motioning for the other man to stand with a jerk of his hand. But his eyes are on the crumpled form of Agent Rollins, his breath coming faster and harsher as the silence stretches on. The weightless fear, the adrenaline rush, crashes and takes him with it. All it leaves him with is cold clarity: he’s shot the agent assigned to him. To simply say that he’s broken protocol is laughable. The Asset has committed an act of rebellion. He’s thrown out his programming altogether.

“Holy shit. Oh fuck, you actually shot him. He was gonna kill me. You were gonna kill me, but you didn’t and you shot him instead. I-- thank you? Thank you! This is wild, I can’t believe-- what’s your name? I’m Luis.”

This is not what he’s planned for. He’s been so careful until now, gather information, biding his time. But he has no supplies, no clear route of extraction.

But he couldn’t… he won’t go back to the Chair. Not again.

He forces the skin crawling panic back, his mind whirling, cataloguing, assessing everything and anything he has to work with.

The man, Luis, chatters on at him in the background. “I was just here to find this car, y’know. Because, like, my buddy Vincenzo and I were at this gallery hop today, ‘cause we like to support the local art scene, and he was tellin’ me about his new girl, Freddie. And she’s, y’know, a sugar baby and all that and he’s real cool with it because get that money, girl, right? And her sugar daddy actually likes Vinnie a lot, I think, ‘cause he’s trying to give Vinnie gifts and shit too and I’m happy for them, right? Get that money! But the sugar daddy, he’s married, see. And Vinnie tells me, ‘Freddie was with her Daddy last night, man, and he gave her this expensive ass engraved bracelet and shit. And when they were foolin’ around in his car, it musta fell out of her purse or something, because she didn’t have it when she got home. And it’s got her name in it, so if the wife finds it in the car, the game is up.’

“So I’m like, ‘Vinnie, I’ve got you, bro. All I gotta do is break into the car, and steal the bracelet back! Maybe take the radio too, throw off the scent, and give the cash back to Freddie’s Daddy if you want--’”

“Luis.”

“--Yeah?”

He considers Rollins’ prone body before turning to meet Luis’ eyes. “Can you point out that car?”

Luis nods quickly. “Oh yeah, sure. Long as I get that bracelet. Gotta look out for my boy, get me?”

END CHAPTER 1.

Chapter Text

--------------------1---------------------

“Mister Stark!”

The game begins all over again. Head up. Shoulders squared.

“Is it true that Stark Industries is hoping to revive the Stark Expo?”

“That’s the plan.”

Keep steps even, but fast. Make them work to keep up physically and not just verbally.

“Mister Stark, do you have a comment pertaining to Congress’ intention to demand the Iron Man technology be turned over to the military?”

“They can try.”

Swagger. Turn. Smile. Photo op. Snappy one-liner. Dismissal. Don’t let them see how fucking jet-lagged he is. Remember, Tony, you live for this.

It’s the steps of an elaborate dance that come to Tony Stark as naturally as breathing. He’s been born and bred for it, had it beaten into him from the nursery onwards. Iron Man isn’t the first armor Tony’s worn. It’s only the most literal.

“All set to go, Boss,” Happy says discreetly into his ear and it’s only from years of practice that Tony’s shoulders don’t slump in relief.

“Party’s over, folks,” he announces, already turning his back on the gaggle of vultures-- journalists and paparazzi trying to follow after him. “Let’s do this again sometime, say, next week or whenever you all get a whiff of my schedule.” He ignores their rising calls of his name, definitely ignores the more needling questions being thrown at his back in an attempt to get a reaction, and lets Happy put himself between them as Tony climbs into the car.

The door shuts behind him, the soundproof seal blanketing him in sweet silence. The reporters are only a muffled drone outside the tinted windows now. But it’s not until Happy has pulled the car away from the curb that he finally slumps in his seat.

The driver’s window slides down and Happy glances over his shoulder at him. “Where to, Boss? Hotel? The LA penthouse? Back to Malibu?”

Any, is the answer. Any place with a bed that isn’t a plane en route. The sofa on the jet may be large enough (and has been thoroughly tested for how many people can comfortably fit on it… in several positions) but it turns out it isn't the greatest for sleeping. So Tony hasn't slept in an actual bed for… what, since Dubai? A week, then? A week and a half?

"Boss?"

Tony lets his head fall back against the seat, clearing the fog from his mind. “You up for the drive back to Malibu, Happy?”

“It’s not that long a drive, Boss. And I’m looking forward to being home again.”

Tony lets out a breath of laughter. “Me too.” He shifts into a more comfortable position, letting the tension roll out of his shoulders. In the faint light of the car there’s no one but Happy to see him wince. His shoulder still aches from the wrenching he took on his last outing as Iron Man. It’s just one of many in the months since revealing himself as the man behind the armor, since he’d added the words actual real life superhero to his list of titles, right behind CEO and genius innovator and Merchant of Death.

His life has only gotten more active since taking Iron Man into the public eye. Becoming a superhero doesn’t excuse him from running his company or the social “responsibilities” he’s expected to upkeep, not that he hasn’t tried.

(“You cannot skip out on a meeting with the board to fight terrorists,” was one of Pepper’s several protests.)

In the last two months alone, Tony has attended meetings in Tokyo and Dubai, been to tech demonstrations in Brussels, been called to military hearings in DC, met with the board and the heads of Stark Industries R&D, and somehow found time to track down and destroy three more caches of SI weaponry that had gone “missing” in the last few years.

One of which had ended in him being thrown through several walls in a bunker in South Dakota. Selling to domestic terrorists, Obie, seriously?

He’s never felt more focused. The suit is freedom and salvation. Purpose. An anchor. For the first time, Tony feels like he’s doing something that’s worth it, really worth it, instead of spending his life gaining money that he’ll never be able to spend and numbing the emptiness with his current substance of choice. Cleaning up Stark Industries and the mess he’s made of the world is nothing short of liberating.

But fuck, sometimes when he stops to breathe it feels like he’s going to crash.

A sigh turns into a sharp knife of pain right through his chest. Tony stiffens, a hand coming up over the ridge of metal beneath his shirt. A cough rattles in his lungs, one that he ruthlessly suppresses. It would only make the pain worse, he’s learned that now.

Tony unbuttons his waistcoat and dress shirt with deft hands, reaching beneath both to get at the arc reactor. He’s had the cover on it for most of the last twenty-four hours and now the metal has rubbed the sensitive scar tissue around the reactor raw. The press of the cover causes a vibration that he feels right through his damn ribs. Tony grits his teeth around a curse as he twists the cover off, even the slightest scrape of metal against his skin is almost too much.

Keeping the cover on for so long isn’t good for him - he doesn’t need Helen Cho’s discerning eye and her genius level intellect in bioengineering to tell him that, though she has, on more than one occasion. The reactor has always ached, always made his lungs catch at unexpected moments. The added pressure of the supposedly lightweight cover hasn’t helped any. But Tony had made that choice the moment Rhodey had plucked him out of the desert. The arc reactor is a secret he shares with the few he trusts.

(It’s a secret he’ll share with no one else, now. Pepper. Happy. Rhodey. Helen. No one else. Not after Obie. Not after Tony had trusted him and Stane had gone and ripped it right out of his chest.)

The arc reactor bathes the car in a soft white-blue glow. From the driver’s seat, Happy peers at him in the rearview mirror. “Everything alright?”

Tony makes a vague gesture, setting the cover on the side console and trading it for a tumbler and the bottle of scotch hidden inside the compartment. “Seriously, Hap, when am I ever not alright?”

Happy, noticeably, doesn’t have an answer for that. And Tony doesn’t press for one.

He’s fine. He’s tired, and can feel the exhaustion creeping into his bones. When he closes his eyes he might sometimes still see Obie standing over him with the reactor’s light gleaming off his smile, or Yinsen glassy eyes as he tells him “don’t waste this,” or he might hear Pepper screaming as the Iron Monger armor crashed through the ceiling of that warehouse.

But he’s handling it, like he always does.

--------------------2---------------------

He’s fucked this up.

The Asset has gone into this escape with a fraction of what he needs. His resources include a service pistol, two combat knives, his throwing knives, his tactical gear, a stolen car, the body of an agent in stashed in the trunk…

...and Luis.

“Is this some secret government agency shit? It’s some secret government agency shit, isn’t it,” Luis breathes from the passenger seat. And then: “Take a left here.”

“Classified,” the Asset grunts.

“I knew it! Are they gonna come after me, next? They gonna make me disappear? Am I going to get a visit from a couple of suits and get a bag thrown over my head like in some kickass spy movie?”

He honestly can’t tell if the man is excited or frightened by the prospect. “Only if you talk. The surveillance around Pym Tech was compromised before you arrived.”

Luis nods, his wordflow barely even pausing as he directs the Asset to cut down a back road. “Right, right, right. I’m cool with that. Not like anyone would believe this if I told them anyway. Feel like I’ve fallen into some kinda superhero comic, y’know? Like the old Captain America comics with the scary Russian agents and the--”

The Asset tunes him out again, something tight and squirming rising in his chest. His hands curl around the steering wheel, with just this side of too much force. The steering wheel grinds ominously under his hands.

He has less than an hour before Control checks in on the trackers, less than an hour to put a true escape into place and buy himself some time. Perhaps another twelve hours before his disappearance is discovered. Mission parameters: remove trackers immediately, supplies in less than two hours, an extraction route in three, a safehouse to recuperate and regroup in six hours.

Thinking about what he has to do in terms of the Mission is easier. It lets him focus, lets him work through the frantic haze and the conditioning that screams wrong, wrong, wrong at him.

The Asset finds an underpass, a place that should be out of the way of any nearby street cameras. “Once the car is slow enough, get out. I won’t stop. Wait for three minutes after I’m gone before leaving. Do not head back the way we came,” he instructs. And then adds, “Can you make it home from here?” in a fit of some baffling concern that he doesn’t quite know how to process.

Luis frowns, but nods. “Yeah, man. You gonna be okay from here? You alright with disposing of the…” he fumbles, jerks a thumb towards the back of the car, “the body? Because I’ve read stuff-- not that I ever thought I’d be in a situation where I needed to dispose of a body holy shit, right? M’not really for killing but you did save my life and all, and I’d help.”

“I can handle it.”

“Okay, sure. You’re not gonna leave him in the trunk, are you?”

The Asset levels the man with a flat stare.

“Not that you don’t know how to do your creepy secret agent job! Just sayin’, because I’d feel shitty if Vincenzo’s Daddy-to-be became a murder suspect. But you’re a professional, I get it.” The underpass is coming up on them, but instead of preparing to exit the car, Luis scrambles for the glove compartment and digs around inside until he comes up with crumpled envelope and a pen. He scribbles something onto it, then holds it out. “Listen, man, I kinda feel like you put yourself at risk for me. And I’m grateful for that! You saved my life. So if you need anything, you call me?”

He glances down at the phone number scribbled on the envelope and back at Luis’ face, frowning beneath the mask.

Luis pays him no mind and tucks the scrap of paper into the center console. “Keep it, yeah?”

“If you don’t get out now, you’ll miss your chance. I’m not stopping,” is all the Asset says.

Luis grins. What the man thinks he’s heard in that response, the Asset will never know. “Cool, and thanks again!” he chirps as the car slows just enough for him to slide from the passenger seat.

It all goes wrong from there.

Forty minutes later, the car is abandoned down a side street in relatively the same pristine condition it was taken. Agent Rollins’ body has been deposited in a deserted warehouse to be recovered in the coming hours. The first of the trackers is easy to remove with a throwing knife slicing into his thigh with a steady hand, and is hidden on Rollins’ body. The confusion will buy him at least a few more hours. The second tracker, harder to slice out, implanted on the underside of his right arm and dangerously close to the brachial artery, is tossed into a storm drain.

By the time the Asset has found suitable tools and a secluded area to deal with the arm, his time is running low. The incision on his arm stops hurting after a few minutes, but still leaves him clumsy as he pries open the plates. The improvised stylus, merely a bit of sturdy metal wire twisted together, probes at the inner workings of the arm, digging through servos and wiring that makes sparks dance along the nerve relays. His metal hand balls into a fist at the sporadic, lighting-hot pain that rockets up through his entire body, but it’s nothing he hasn’t experienced before.

He’d studied the schematics that the techs never imagined he’d see. He knows the arm. There’s another tracker down near the wrist, an emergency cut off near the power source. Both of them are easy to disconnect as long as his hands are steady and he braces himself against the jolts to his nerves.

The problem is the kill switch at the socket.

Two minutes until Control check in.

It’s buried too deep in the arm to dismantle without significant effort. There’s not enough time. He focuses on the signal receiver attached to the whole component instead, to at least prevent Control from wirelessly activating the switch.

And that’s his mistake.

He knows it the instant the receiver disconnects, because there’s a crackle and the smell of ozone, and then white-hot burning bleeds out through every nerve ending in his body. The Asset drops the makeshift tool, an involuntary hiss escaping through clenched teeth. He goes tense, bearing the pain until it becomes too much, every breath like fire in his lungs.

It releases him a second later, sagging against the metal table he’s been leaning on while he worked. There’s a deep gouge in it where his left hand has scraped, metal-on-metal.

The receiver is out. He has more time. So he tries again.

This time he manages to get the metal implement wedged up under one of the cables before the pain starts again. It gives him just as little warning as it did the first time, first nothing and then all at once agony that burns and burns from the inside out.

The Asset’s knees don’t quite buckle, but it’s a near thing.

After two cycles like this, he’s narrowed it down to a security mechanism in the arm itself. The cycle is timed, exactly seventeen minutes apart. An electric shock to debilitate him if the arm is tampered with? To make him easy prey? This wasn’t in the schematics.

He's fucked this up.

He doesn't have the tools needed for this delicate work and he can't tell which component in the arm is causing this. And the pain is only getting worse with each cycle, to the point that complete immobilization until the radiating waves pass. He makes it twelve blocks before the pain is so great that he collapses against the wall of a filthy alley, barely biting back screams until it’s over.

Panting, the mask biting into his cheek as his head lolls against the grimy brick, the Asset has to think fast.

New Mission parameters: find someone with the expertise and resources to disable the arm.

Luckily, he’s spent the last several weeks studying the movements of just such a man.

--------------------3---------------------

“I’m just saying,” Happy scoffs from the front of the car, “you could do better than that MMA shit you’ve got that guy teaching you.”

“You mean the internationally recognized expert trainer that I hired? You tryin’ to muscle in on his job, Happy? Driver, bodyguard, trainer? Should I be worried about you taking Pepper’s job next?”

“We both know that no one else could do her job. How she does her job, I haven’t got a clue. No offense, Boss.”

Tony smiles against the rim of his glass. “Definitely not the worst thing that’s been said about me.”

Tony has relaxed further into the plush seat, reclining now with a glass in hand. He’s worked himself up to a pleasant buzz, a little nightcap. Outside the car, the canyon rushes by them. They weave through the valley in the dark, only rarely coming upon another car. It's peaceful. It gives him a chance to breathe. There’s only the rumble of the engine, the rush of the wind, and good conversation.

It would have been faster, sure, to take the suit to the fundraiser, make it an easy flight home. It would’ve been great publicity too. But there’s nothing wrong with letting Happy drive him around for the evening. It’s been a while since they’ve had the chance, since Iron Man.

Maybe he’s missed it. Just a little.

The road dips into a tunnel, plunging the car into intermittent darkness. Between one light and the next, Tony has an idea for a new armor assembly system. What if he could turn the entry tunnel of the house into a progressive suit disassembly? He pulls the phone from his pocket, taking another sip of scotch as he starts making notes.

And glances up just in time to see a man jump onto the road at the mouth of the tunnel, face completely obscured by a curtain of long hair, and the headlights glinting off one of his arms.

Several things happen at once, least of which is the violent reminder that he has a heart condition and having his heart attempt to do a flying leap right out of his chest is not pleasant. A stream of cursing fills the car, but there’s no telling who it’s coming from. There’s a screech of brakes that has Tony bracing as the vehicle slides dangerously. (Seatbelts! Why are they never taught to wear seatbelts in luxury vehicles?)

There’s a brief, sickening thump against the side of the car. Happy jerks at the steering wheel, continuing to curse a blue streak as he tries to regain control. When the car finally does skid to a stop, yards away from the mouth of the tunnel and listing sideways across the road, Tony collapses against the seat.

“What the fuck?” he croaks.

Happy throws the car into park, slamming a fist to the hazard lights, and twists in the seat. His eyes are a little wild as they find Tony’s. “You okay, Boss?”

Tony levers himself up, groping blindly for the arc reactor cover which, like everything else in the car, has gone tumbling to the floor. “I’m fine. Don’t I look fine? What the hell was that, Happy?”

“I don’t know! I think I got him though.”

“You-- Did you hit him?

Happy throws his hands in the air. “That’s what you’re supposed to do!”

“No, no that is definitely not what they teach you in driving school.” He hurriedly twists the cover onto the reactor and does the buttons up, eventually, with one shaking hand.

“It’s Bodyguard 101!” Happy continues to shout. “You don’t stop when some asshole tries to block the road. That’s how you die!

That’s fair enough. Tony gets his feet under him, nearly knocking his head on the ceiling. “I’m going out there.”

“You-- No. Boss-- Tony! Do not get out of this car.”

“I’m the boss, I make the rules. I’m going to see what happened.”

“I’m your bodyguard, I’m the one that makes the rules in dangerous situations! Tony!”

“Then get out of the car and watch my back--”

With a deafening shriek, the door to Tony’s right is wrenched open. He doesn’t even have the time to launch himself away from it before a hand is grasping the front of his suit and pulling him from the car like he weighs nothing at all. The hand releases him, sending him sprawling into the dirt. Somewhere behind him, Tony can hear Happy’s panicked shouts.

‘Get up!’ his mind shouts at his sluggish limbs. Tony scrambles up, turning to face their assailant.

Backlit by the car’s headlights, at first all Tony sees is a silhouette looming towards him, just a towering black shape full of sharp angles that moves like a predator. He squares his stance, mind frantically trying to detect an opening to attack. And then suddenly the man is there, right up in his face, and Tony barely has any time to get a hand up. With a jolt, he sees that it’s not just a shadow obscuring part of the man’s face, it’s a mask.

His eyes are pale and glint like daggers in the night.

Tony jabs with open palms. He aims for joints, for soft spots, for anything that will slow this asshole down. But his movements are clumsy; he’s unconsciously trying to fight through the suit, still relying on the amplifiers and fuck it’s unreal how fast his attacker is.

He needs to find a better way to transport the suit, is the thought that keeps screaming in the back of his mind. The suit does nothing for him miles away in his workshop, why hasn’t he invented a way to keep the suit with him?

He finally manages a solid hit below the ribs, but the man doesn’t even flinch. An unyielding hand twists in the front of his shirt again, this time directly above arc reactor hidden under his clothes, and Tony’s heart does a sickening swoop. His wild strike is blocked with a hand clamping around his wrist, twisting until he has to clench his teeth around a shout.

The whole arm glimmers in the light from the car, metal plates spanning the whole length of his attacker’s arm all the way to the shoulder.

Tony stares blankly at it, eyes tracking the way the plates ripple and readjust. Not armor. Bionic.

‘Holy shit, this had better not be some Terminator bullshit,’ he thinks hysterically, at the same time he has the overwhelming urge to pick the plates off and see how that baby works.

A gunshot rips through the night, followed by the ping! of the bullet off the assailant’s metal-plated shoulder. Sparks fly up, making spots blink in Tony’s vision. “Put him down, asshole!” Happy bellows from the direction of the car. Tony has just enough time to crane his head around and see that Happy has run around from the driver’s side, pistol in hand. And then he’s being shoved out of the way with enough force that he nearly faceplants into the dirt again.

Their attacker starts in on Happy, somehow managing to angle his body so that the next shot once again ricochets harmlessly off his metal arm. Tony hauls himself forward, stumbling to the car and its wrenched open door. More shots, a shout from Happy. Tony all but throws his upper body into the car, hands scrambling under the seat in search of something, anything. His multitool, a tire iron, the fucking bottle of scotch if it’s all he can manage.

Tony barely even gets his hand on a fallen glass when he’s dragged out by the collar of his suit jacket. He’s turned and slammed against the side of the car, unyielding hands pinning him there and Tony is not going out like this. Not murdered by a fucking cyborg action movie wannabe in the desert, miles outside his own damn city.

Nothing happens.

Tony risks looking up, no longer staring down at the attacker’s hands in blind panic. The man is breathing heavily, they’re close enough, still enough that Tony can see that now. The illusion of a killing machine coming after him in the night is shattered. This is just a man.

A man who, though still keeping him pinned to the car, hasn’t made a move to actually kill him.

Cut it off.

The voice catches him off guard. It’s low and sharp as a knife point, clear and steady and somehow not at all what Tony expected. He finally looks the man in the face. The black mask is unsettling, but not nearly as unnerving as the man’s eyes boring into his.

“Uh, what?” Tony asks.

Cut it--ngh--” The man cuts off in a hiss, hands clenching even tighter at Tony’s arms and Tony grits his teeth. Fuck, those’ll be some interesting bruises to explain. There’s a sound so low that he almost doesn’t catch it, coming from the metal arm. And then both of the hands holding him are ripped away, the sound from the arm drowned out by the bitten off scream that the man barely seems to choke back. He doesn’t have time to process what’s happening. The man grips at the roof of the car on either side of Tony, and he can swear he hears the metal creak under his hands.

The noise coming from the arm only seems to grow louder, becoming a high-pitched metallic whine. Tony catches a whiff of ozone, can almost taste the crackle of electricity in the air. The man is frozen in front of him, every muscle locked. He’s not even breathing.

His right hand, the one that’s not metal, whips away from the car towards his torso, and the next sound is the quick snick of a knife coming loose from its sheath. Somewhere to his right, Happy lets out a distressed shout. Tony recoils, ready to duck under the arm or kick him away.

Except the knife doesn’t come anywhere near Tony, because the man lets out another agonized sound and jams the knife into his shoulder with the ungodly scrape of metal on metal.

Cut it off!” the man snarls, and this time his voice sounds like he’s speaking around shards of glass. His eyes are wild, glinting out at Tony from the shadow of his long hair. The knife digs deeper, his whole body spasms, and blood wells up under the blade.

“Christ,” Tony yelps. His eyes are locked on the blade, and then swing to meet Happy’s equally horrified expression from where the bodyguard is standing at the front of the vehicle. He turns back to their mysterious assailant. “Fuck. Yeah, yeah, okay. Get in the car.” He’s already shoving at the man’s shoulder, nudging him towards the door and hoping it doesn’t end with that knife going between his ribs instead. “Happy, drive.”

END CHAPTER 2

Chapter Text

--------------------1---------------------

“This is insane,” Happy keeps muttering from the driver’s seat.

“Definitely not how I planned to spend tonight.”

“Boss, you’ve lost your mind.”

“It’s possible-- Heyheyhey I’m gonna need you to put the knife down, Jason Voorhees.”

Their guest looks ready to stab something with it, and from here Tony can’t tell whether it’s going to be him or if the guy is just going to up and start stabbing at his shoulder again. He’d tolerated Tony’s frantic touch just long enough to get inside the car, then had rounded on Tony with a snarl emanating from beneath the mask. And then he’d all but collapsed into the seat, pressing as far away from Tony as possible with his eyes glinting murder. He’s surreally out of place in Tony’s plush Rolls Royce, all leather and metal. (Not that the inside of this car hasn’t seen leather and metal before, but those times had been infinitely more fun and less hazardous to Tony’s health.) It would’ve been funny if not for the fact that the knife is still in the man’s hand.

Alright, it’s a little funny, in the hysterical oh god what the hell is happening sense, right up until the moment that Tony reaches under the seat for the supplies and the knife is replaced with a gun faster than he can blink.

Tony’s hands shoot back up. “Seriously?”

Mister Nightmare-on-Elm-Street takes a shuddering breath, sounding like it’s stuck in his throat. “Cut it off,” he demands again. The metal arm has started twitching at the fingers, but his flesh hand doesn’t even tremble.

“Yeah, you’ve said that a few times--”

Now.”

They both sway a little as Happy wrenches the car in his haste to turn around, his eyes bulging in fear and rage. “Hey, leave him alone! What the hell is your problem? I’ll crash this damn car before I let you hurt him, I swear to god--”

And then Happy’s mouth snaps shut as the gun is turned in his direction instead. Shit. Their new friend is running on aggression alone, just reacting to each new threat with a bigger threat and it’s going to get them all killed if one of them doesn’t de-escalate the situation quickly.

Fuck, Tony is terrible at de-escalation.

He gets a hand over the panel of buttons on the side console before Cyborg Wannabe can do something inadvisable, like start shooting. “Alright, enough!” he raises his voice, squaring himself up in his seat. “This is how this is going to go. You want me to get that thing off you, I’ll do it--” God, what is he even doing? This is such a bad idea. Why does Tony always go for the bad ideas? “--But we’re establishing some goddamn ground rules first, yeah? Rule number one is that you put the gun away before someone gets hurt - and it’s not going to be us. See this? I push this button and the door behind you flies off. And at this speed? All it takes is one good turn and you’ll be thrown out into the canyon, Terminator. Hell, it might not even kill you, but you’ll be left out in the desert with that arm still attached. That what you want?”

Tony makes sure to meet the man’s eyes, his hand hovering dangerously over the panel of buttons. “You got me? You don’t threaten my friend here. Ever.”

The car is blanketed in heavy silence, save for the truly disturbing mechanical noise that arm is making. Tony holds the man’s gaze, watches the gears turning in his head. The moment he lowers the gun is almost enough for Tony to slump in relief. His hand falls away from the panel - the customized entertainment and climate control panel.

He can’t believe that actually worked, holy shit. Thank god for unmarked buttons.

“Okay,” he concludes, his voice deceptively light. “So I’m going to reach under here and get my tools and the first aid kit. And you’re not going to pull that gun on me. Right?”

Their passenger just stares at him with hard eyes. It’s as close to agreement as anything he’s given thus far, so Tony moves to slide both cases out from under the seat. He tosses the first aid kit onto the side console, safe from knocking into glasses now that all of them have been thrown to the floor during their scuffle. “Try not to bleed on the seats, alright, Predator?”

He balances the toolkit on his knee and pops both it and the first aid kit open, selecting implements only while half paying attention. With his other hand he goes to push the man’s left arm into a better position, pausing when there’s a low, rapid clickclick of the plates rearranging themselves. Tony freezes, his hand hovering. “You’re going to have to let me touch it, you know that, right? I may be good, but I haven’t invented tech-based telekinesis yet.”

Another brittle silence where the man only breathes heavily behind his facemask, and then the plates reform into a more relaxed state once more. The whole thing is shaking now. “Hurry.”

“Doing the best with what I’ve got here,” Tony grumbles, holding a metal pick between his teeth. His hands pull the arm closer, frowning at the solid weight of it. “What’s it doing? There a short in the wiring somewhere? Gotta speak up, Sadako, I’m flying blind here.”

That, of course, goes about as well as anything else has so far. All Tony gets is a rough, “Just get if off!”

“Work with me here!” Tony’s snaps back at him, frustration crackling in every word.

He can practically hear the man’s jaw creak with how hard he’s clenching it shut. But after a moment, Cyborg Murder Machine’s head dips, the fall of his long hair obscuring his eyes from Tony. “Damage to the arm,” he reports, and that’s the only word for it because it comes out as flat as if he were reading a phone listing, with only the slightest waver. “Attempted removal... resulted in activation of security measures.”

A cold tendril of dread winds its way between Tony’s ribs. He doesn’t like the sound of that. For the first time since this has started, now that the rush of adrenaline, of “I’m not going to die here,” is over, Tony recognizes that there is something deeply wrong happening.

“What kind of... security measures?”

“Electroshock through the neuroports. Seventeen... minutes apart, each cycle progressively longer with higher voltage. The mechanism was triggered after removal of the wireless receiver for the kill switch--” Another spasm wracks his body, his body a line of painful tension.

Tony’s heart has already done a dangerous leap at the word neuroports. But kill switch? He lets out a desperate curse, snatching the surgical shears up from the first aid kit. The man doesn’t move to stop him when he starts pulling off his shoulder holster, or unsnapping the fastenings on the piece of bondage gear he calls a tac vest. He doesn’t even glare at Tony when he sticks the blunted shears under the hem of his shirt and starts cutting towards the shoulder. He nearly drops the shears once he gets the fabric, now sticky with blood, pulled away.

Because Tony is looking at something straight out of a horror story.

He’d been quietly admiring the piece of machinery attached to this man, in between the moments he feared it would be his cause of death. Even underneath the fear, there had also been the same insatiable excitement that he was going to get under those plates and see what was under the hood, what made it tick.

But this…

The arm is screwed right into the bone. There’s no other word for it. There’s no visible detachment point, just panels of metal plates that come up over his shoulder, over his chest. It’s grafted right into the skin, thick scar tissue closing up around the edges of the metal, angry and red with what has to be constant friction. His mind all too easily supplies the kind of reinforcement an attachment like this would need, the kind of modification that would be required and what that would do to a person over the long term.

(Reinforced ribs, a fabricated sternum, decreased lung capacity, a weakened immune system, a lack of mobility… no, no, he can’t think about that.)

Tony can actually feel something crackle inside the arm this time, and Mister T-800 sounds like he’s choking on either a curse or a scream. Tony grabs the arm at the wrist to keep him from jerking away. His phone is tossed onto the seat beside him, his earpiece hooked behind his ear. “You reading me, J?” he says once it connects. He already has a few of the bicep plates pried off by the time JARVIS gives his succinct response.

Loud and clear, Sir. How may I be of assistance?

“I’ve got a particularly nasty little time bomb here, and I could use some back up. You up for a little bomb squad action?”

This is not the kind of recreational activity I would advise.

Tony smiles darkly. “Aw, J, where’s the fun in that? Look alive, scans are incoming.” He plucks the microscanner out of the toolkit, running it slowly over the bicep of the arm and then feeding it into the inner workings as carefully as he can. At his side the phone lights up with a rendered image of the scan - too small to be comfortable. Tony absently adds putting customized display screens to the car’s interior to his list of upgrades.

He and JARVIS work together in unison mapping out the inner workings of the arm. Even with his heart in his throat, it takes everything he has not to whistle in twisted appreciation. It’s truly a work of art. Horrible, unethical, currently-being-used-to-torture-a-man art. With this he can even see the electrical current traveling along the… artificial nerves. The whole thing is rigged with an artificial nervous system, shit.

He can also see the moment the current stops. The whirring noise coming from higher up in the limb cuts off, and the other man slumps against the door, that long hair sticking to his face with sweat and his body shuddering with each breath.

“Oh good, we’ve got, what, you said seventeen minutes? We’ve got that to work with now. You still with me there?” The man’s eyes swivel over to him, his gaze a little unfocused. There’s no answer, but at this point, Tony doesn’t expect one. He just picks off more plates as they move up the arm, revealing more of the inner workings as he goes. “J, set a timer for me. We’ve got seventeen minutes starting from the end of the power surge before another one hits.”

Of course. Sixteen minutes and forty-two seconds remaining.

“Let’s dig in and get to work.” Tony flicks a glance over at his companion again. “Sorry, Terminator, I usually buy my dates dinner before getting this up close and personal. I swear I’ll be gentle with your virtue.”

He watches as dark brows draw into a, masked but recognizable, scowl. “Shut the hell up or I won’t be as gentle with yours,” the man grumbles, and it’s the first thing he’s said that resembles having a personality.

Tony smirks. “Now, that’s more like it.”

From there it’s easy to sink into focus, the end of a flashlight clenched between his teeth as he works, picking through the inner workings, the servos and wires. He can ignore the ever present countdown JARVIS runs on his phone screen when his mind has narrowed down to parts and circuits. The haze flickers out only briefly when the man sucks in a sharp breath as the metal pick Tony is using touches one of the artificial nerves.

“Can you feel this?” Tony resists the urge to tap the nerve again, his stomach twisting at the jerky nod he receives in answer. Whoever created this didn’t even shield the nerve relays? How the hell did they do maintenance without hurting him?

‘Did they even care?’ the terrible thought whispers back.

Sir,” JARVIS asserts cooly as they near the shoulder, “I believe I have found the source of the surge.

Tony taps a knuckle against his phone screen, enlarging the blown out schematic so he can see the component. And pauses when he sees what it’s connected to.

What the fuck.

It appears to have--

“I see it, J.” Tony grabs Halloween Reject’s hand before he can think better of it, and presses the flashlight into his palm. “Hold this up here,” he says, guiding it into position so the beam of light is where he needs it, “and don’t move.” He dives back in with both hands free now, lets his mouth run away with him. “So, Jason X, how’d you know to find me out here? Or did you just wander the desert until you picked the right Rolls Royce?”

“You should change your routes. They know all of them - had me studying them for weeks.”

Tony’s hand doesn’t slip, but it’s a near thing. “You wanna run that by me again?”

“They were going to order me to kill you. They knew everything, had it all planned out. Then your partner disagreed with the price and they shut him out. He pursued other options.”

Please cut the second wire, counterclockwise from the power source, Sir.” A quick snip of the wire cutters. “Power to the deadman’s switch has dropped 30%. Six minutes remaining until the next surge.

“He,” Tony says slowly, keeping his movements casual as he clips at another wire. “As in Obadiah Stane. That’s who was hiring you?” The gentle nod he gets for that is almost sheepish and Tony curses under his breath, panic and uncontrollable anger rising like bile in his throat. “Nice. Assassins. Shady underworld dealings. Obie. It’s like every nightmare I’ve had in the last six months, thanks for that. So, what, you decided to make a go for it anyway, and decided this was better?”

“No.” There’s a note so raw in the man’s voice that it catches Tony off guard. “I… don’t want to be… this anymore.”

And Tony believes him.

Power to the deadman’s switch has been severed, Sir. You may now remove the explosive component.

“Great.” He juggles the forceps into his hands, digs in, and twists. The glass and steel container pops free, the liquid inside sloshing innocently, and he passes it over. “Here, you can hold that. Should be harmless now. Would’ve been one hell of a fireworks show if you’d gotten that arm off with that still in there.”

A sharp swerve of the car sends Tony tumbling forward, nearly sprawling across Assassin Murder Eyes’ lap if not for him slamming a hand onto the car door to stop himself. For a moment they blink at each other, Tony holding his breath in case this is about to mean his untimely end. When it doesn’t, and Tony gets nothing more than a startled, hilariously frustrated stare, he pushes himself upright again. “Happy!” he growls.

The driver has turned around to glare at the pair of them. “No, no, no, I thought you were joking before. There had better not be a bomb in this car!”

“There’s not,” Tony snipes back, “anymore. It’s disarmed.”

“Boss!”

Sir, may I remind you that there are four minutes until the next power surge?

Tony grunts. “On it. You,” he says, gesturing to his new, booby-trapped friend. “Hide that before Happy goes into apoplexy. And Happy! Give us a smooth ride, this is a delicate operation back here.”

“The last time you said that it was because you wanted to get hot and heavy with a model back there. I’d take that over this.”

“Oh, I think we’re getting hot and heavy enough already. Aren’t we, Blue Eyes?”

“Stark.”

“We’ve reached the disapproving voice. See, we’re getting to know each other just fine. Now whatever you do: don’t flinch.” Tony wriggles the wire cutters up where he needs them, finally manages to get them around the connection to the power supply, and clips.

The whole arm goes dead weight.

The sound that comes out of Cyborg Wonder’s mouth is shocked and raw, equal parts pain and relief, a little hiccup of a moan. And Tony doesn’t have time to dwell on how the noise sends a little involuntary shiver down his spine, because he’s too busy trying to brace the now limp prosthetic with his knee while he continues to dig around inside it. The wire cutters are quickly traded out for his handheld laser cutter instead, and Tony actually has to put most of his weight into keeping both the arm and the man attached to it in place while he works.

“Hang in there, almost…”

The man doesn’t even flinch now, not even when the laser cutter hums to life. Within a few minutes and a few sparks, the struts connecting the shoulder joint are severed. The whole arm goes sliding to the floor of the car with an ungodly scrape of metal and a heavy thump. “Jesus,” Tony mutters. “How the hell did that thing not just tear the muscles off your shoulder?”

It takes another moment before Blue Eyes shudders away from Tony’s hands bracing at his side, instead sagging back against the door. His shoulder is a mess of frayed wire and protruding struts now, all but the final, grotesque ring of metal plates picked off and exposing the inner workings of the shoulder; just looking at it makes him wince.

With the excitement over, and the only sound in the car being the man’s quiet, labored breathing, it feels like they’ve come to the precipice of whatever this is. Tony shoots a glance at Happy, catching his eyes in the rearview mirror. A shared “well, now what?” passes between them. The question sits like a block of ice in Tony’s stomach, his limbs still jittery with leftover adrenaline.

He’s got a car full of horrible, beautiful scrap metal, a twitchy assassin, and more questions than he’s comfortable with.

‘Now what?’ he asks himself again.

It’s not until those pale eyes peer over at him, glinting with determination and under that a startling uncertainty, that Tony realizes he’s not the only one asking themselves that question. Tall, Dark, and Prickly levers himself upright, but holds himself like a tightly wound wire, ready to snap at any moment. He doesn’t know where to go from here any more than Tony does.

So Tony does what he does best: he talks to get ahead of the problem, before it can turn around and kill him.

“So that’s it, huh? You’re down an arm. And honestly better off that way. Because this? This thing is beautiful and I could spend at least a week taking it apart, sure, but it’s also a metal monstrosity. Completely unsuitable to be a prosthetic. How you’re still functional, I haven’t got a clue, Robocop.” Tony straightens his suit and leans back against the seat, trying to appear more at ease with the situation than his still racing heart suggests. “What’s the plan now? You gonna pull a no witnesses thing? Kill us both and dump us out in the canyon?”

Happy makes a choked noise from the front of the car, sounding suspiciously like a muffled curse. Tony ignores him, and keeps his eyes locked with the man’s too-pale eyes.

“I wouldn’t suggest that, by the way. You kill someone who’s in the public eye like I am, and they’re never going to stop looking for you.”

Murder Eyes continues to watch him, and says nothing. Reveals nothing at all.

“Way I see it, you’ve got two options, right? You can either let us go and we’ll conveniently forget this ever happened, and you can run off without that thing weighing you down. Or…”

Even before the words are fully formed, Tony knows this is a bad idea. This is the king of bad ideas. This is several bad ideas rolled into one. A clusterfuck of bad ideas. But, well, he’s already went through with more than a few bad ideas tonight. What’s one more?

“Or, you can come back to my workshop in Malibu, and I can make you a better arm. One that’s not going to kill you slowly when you use it. And one that won’t kill you when you try to take it off either.”

A strangled noise from Happy cuts through the car. “Boss, are you insane--”

“What do you say, big guy?” Tony says over Happy’s protest, eyes never wavering. It’s like staring down a predator - one wrong move could end in disaster and it’s a nasty, unspeakable thrill.

Finally, the assassin lowers his eyes to the arm that lays in a crumpled heap on the floor, studying it for a few, panic-inducing breaths, before meeting Tony’s gaze.

“Yes. I’ll take it.”

END CHAPTER 3.

Chapter Text

--------------------1---------------------

Happy Hogan is not happy. In fact, he’s anything but living up to his name at the moment - he’s terrified and pissed off and can barely keep his eyes on the road ahead of him. He keeps glancing in the rearview mirror, afraid that if he looks away for too long, the actual cyborg assassin in the backseat will fly off the handle again.

Not that he looks ready to do such a thing now, of course. He’s stayed slumped against the car door since the whole hair-raising chaos had ended, as far away from Tony as he can manage, his shoulders (including the one that’s been reduced to exposed wires and metal struts) hunched. The mask makes it impossible to tell what he’s thinking, that long, unkempt hair of his even keeping his eyes hidden from view except for the faintest gleam. The metal arm - the actual metal fucking arm is still lying on the floor of the car. From this angle, Happy can only catch the smallest glimpse of it.

His life has somehow become the plot of a Terminator movie, and Happy is in no way prepared to deal with that. He has no idea how Tony managed to get through the entire thing without a) getting them both shot or b) panicking.

(And the bluff with the door… he can’t believe that actually worked, what the hell, Tony?)

He keeps a white knuckled grip on the steering wheel the rest of the drive back to the Malibu manor. But despite his anxieties, the man in the backseat never moves. If not for the faintest occasional shudder, Happy would think he isn’t real at all.

That all changes the moment Happy pulls the car just inside the manor gates. The swift movement in the rearview mirror has Happy’s heart seizing in his chest. As does Tony’s startled, “Whoa, hey there, killer!” But his fears are, mostly, unrealized, because all the man does is force the door open with his good shoulder and stumble out. Happy jerks the car into park, watching him through the cars windows for a moment. When nothing happens, he swivels around in the seat… only to find Tony clambering out of the car after him.

“Tony--!” he hisses. “Boss, wait-- dammitdamnit.” Happy fumbles with his own door, adrenaline already racing, his palms clammy. He doesn’t have a weapon anymore; his gun is in pieces on the passenger seat, useless after his tussle with the self-professed assassin. After the madman had ripped it out of Happy’s hands and snapped the slide off it like it was made of paper.

“Where’re you going?” Tony’s saying as Happy climbs from the car. “House is that way.”

“Perimeter check,” the assassin mutters, so low that Happy only barely manages to catch it, and stalks off into the sprawling grounds surrounding the mansion without a backwards glance.

They watch him walk away until he’s nothing but a shadow among the gardens, before Tony shrugs and turns back towards the car. As if this kind of thing happens to him everyday.

It didn’t used to happen everyday, at least. Happy can fondly remember the days when the strangest thing that happened to them was Tony’s one night stand keeping exploding plants in her hotel room. Now it’s all secret paramilitary organizations, weaponized armor, terrorism, and assassins leaping into the road after them in the night.

“We’re calling the cops, right?” Happy says in a low voice, already knowing the answer even before Tony turns and arches a brow at him. “Then we’re calling that SHIELD guy? The one that keeps hanging around?”

“We’re not calling Agent. We’re not calling anyone.” Tony ducks his head into the car, a hand flailing back to grab the doorframe as he rummages around inside.

“You’re… kidding, right?” Happy stresses with a quick glance across the grounds. Their assassin friend is nowhere in sight now, and that makes the hairs on Happy’s neck stand on end. “Boss, I don’t know if you noticed, but the guy jumped into the road to stop our car. With his body. And then admitted he’d been hired to kill you.”

“Jesus,” Tony mutters to himself. He’s pulling the severed cybernetic arm from the car, carrying on as if he hasn’t been listening at all. “This thing’s gotta weigh over thirty pounds. How the hell does he even move with this thing? He’s basically been running around with a small child grafted to his shoulder-- that’s not an image I wanted to have.”

Boss!

“Happy, I know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah, you do. That’s what scares me.” Happy wanders closer, hissing through his teeth because he just knows that tall, dark, and murderous is going to pop out of the shadows at any second. “You’re doing that thing you do, where you’re thinking so far ahead of everyone else that you don’t see the danger right in front of your face. The six foot assassin cyborg right in front of your face! There’s nothing stopping him from turning around and murdering us, Tony.”

Tony looks at him for a long moment, hefting the severed arm up over his shoulder like it’s nothing more than a slightly inconvenient piece of luggage. He wonders if Tony even realizes how bizarre all of this is. “Nah,” he drawls at length, “he’s not gonna try anything.”

“You can’t know that.”

“Pretty sure; the odds are good.” Happy sputters at his words, about to argue that people can’t be calculated like gambling odds, when Tony tips his head in that devil-may-care way of his. “Listen, Hap, I can’t ignore that there’s someone out there keeping tabs on me, on Iron Man, and on SI. Somebody who had Ob-- Stane in their pockets and somebody powerful enough that he couldn’t buy them. I don’t like that, not one damn bit.” Tony’s got that look in his eyes again, the same one that’s put a sliver of fear into Happy’s heart ever since Tony had come back from Afghanistan. He’s been Tony’s bodyguard for over a decade now; he’s used to Tony Stark being reckless. But this is different from the recklessness of the past, that only resulted in partying a little too hard and gambling with the future of his company.

Apparently it’s the kind of recklessness that leads a man to invent a flying man-shaped tank and send it and himself into battle.

And so Happy isn’t that surprised when Tony concludes with a flippant, “And this guy’s on the run from them. So what’s the harm in keeping him around for a bit? Could be useful. Besides…” Tony nods into the distance, where the assassin is just coming back into view. “I don’t think this guy has a plan that goes beyond the next few hours.”

He has to admit that Tony might be right about that last thought, at least. It’s a little pathetic watching the man come swaying up to them, visibly fighting the loss of his balance, looking like he’s ready to just drop. An exhausted cyborg assassin isn’t quite as terrifying, and that’s a dangerous thought to have because Happy is equally sure the man could still murder them both with frightening efficiency.

“So what’s next?” Tony chirps as the man stops a safe, defensive distance from them. The gun is in his hand again, held casually at his side. Everything about him is terrifyingly unreadable, watchful. But at Tony’s question, there’s the slightest flicker of hesitation.

Maybe Happy just imagines it. Maybe he’s so scared out of his mind over the events of the last hour that he’s grasping at any weakness his mind can find.

But for a moment, the man looks… a little lost.

The moment dissipates quickly as the assassin gestures to the house with the gun. Tony doesn’t even look fazed. “You got it, Vader. Guessin’ you want me to go first? Come on, Happy, you’re with me.” Happy quickly falls into step with his employer, his skin prickling at turning his back on their… hell, he doesn’t even know how to refer to the man. Kidnapper? Attacker?

The only one among them who has any semblance of a plan is Tony, and that, honestly, scares Happy more than anything.

--------------------2---------------------

Tony has a plan.

He definitely has… a part of a plan.

Unfortunately, the part of the plan he does have - to lure their new one-armed assassin friend to his workshop - conveniently skipped over the fact that in order to get him there, Tony would have to let him into the house first.

Tony watches him stalk through the foyer and beyond like a caged predator, those pale eyes flicking into the corners and around sightlines. Perimeter check, he’d said outside; he’s searching for threats. But just watching him pace around the house, peering into rooms, makes something slick and icy curl through his veins. Tony hasn’t played host since before Afghanistan, hasn’t let a stranger into his home since he started working on the armor. And since Obie… well, suffice to say having someone all but snooping through his home puts Tony on edge.

‘You’re the one who invited him here, Stark. Pull it together.’

Happy leans subtly closer. “What happened to...?” his driver whispers, his gaze tipping meaningfully at the ceiling.

Cyborg Ninja doesn’t react as he continues his methodical search of the house, but Tony isn’t about to assume that he’s not listening to every word they say. So he keeps his stance casual, toying with the lapel of his suit and adjusting the weight of the arm over his shoulders. “I gave him some time off.” What he’d actually done was shoot a quick command from his phone before they even arrived at the manor, muting JARVIS unless otherwise prompted.

The last thing Tony needs is his new houseguest losing it over the AI’s disembodied greeting. And the both of them getting shot because of it.

As if summoned, the man appears before them again, all but melting out of the shadows of the house. Which is something he should not be able to do, because Tony’s manor is anything but gloomy. How in the hell did he do that? “The house up to your standards, Your Highness?” Tony drawls, refusing to flinch.

The Michael Myers Fanboy only gazes at them with that flat stare of his, somehow managing to look focused even though Tony is sure he’s ready to pass out. How anyone wouldn’t be is… concerning. That thought is concerning. Tony definitely doesn’t like the paths his mind leads him down with that observation.

“Right,” he says, when there’s no answer forthcoming, “then if you’re satisfied with the house, I’ll just send Happy out and we can--”

No.” The simple word erupts from the assassin, quiet and menacing, and it makes Tony tense despite himself. It shouldn’t surprise him; his suggestion was the definition of a longshot.

He forces his clenched fist to relax, plastering an easygoing grin on his face. “Aw, come on, it’s just Happy. There’s no reason to keep him here. You’ve got me, right? I’m the one you wanted. We can just go down to my workshop and--”

“He stays.”

“Are you seriously worried he’s going to run for help? Seriously? We agreed that we’re all friends here, sugarpop. Friends don’t take friends as hostages.”

The assassin takes a single step from the doorway, but it has all the effect of him looming. “No one leaves,” he repeats, and his words drop the room into icy silence.

“I’m not leaving,” Happy pipes up after a tense moment. Tony fights to keep his face impassive, to not show just how much he wants to curse. When he turns a subtly indignant stare on the man, Happy only lifts his head high. “I’m not leaving you alone with this guy, Boss. No way.”

“Hap.”

“I’ll just take one of the guest rooms or something. It’ll be just like we’re traveling again. Honestly, this isn’t even the most dangerous thing you’ve gotten into lately...”

And that does nothing to make Tony feel any better about this. Guilt coils between his ribs, only an added weight to that which already threatens to drown him. He’s devoted his new chance at life to doing the right thing, and still all he can do is cause trouble for those around him. “After this,” Tony assures him, “I’ll give you all the time off and therapy you want, Hap. And a raise.”

Happy grins. “How about that trainer job and we’ll call it even?”

“You got it, buddy.”

With a little bit of bravado and gentle prodding, Tony beckons them down into his workshop. He viciously ignores the piercing stare levelled at his back and the creeping feeling of intrusionwronggoaway that prickles along his skin. He is in control here. They’re entering his domain at his request. They’re not intruding, invading his space if he lets them in. Right?

At least the armor is tucked away in its vault under the floor and JARVIS had ensured that everything sensitive had been backed up and shut down for the night. Tony casts a quick glance through the glass partition as he inputs his passcode. Inside everything is quiet and dark. “I’ll set up to start getting scans of the arm while I look at your shoulder,” Tony says, if for no other reason than to stall for a few more seconds. “Maybe we should make sure you didn’t completely fuck anything up when you decided stabbing yourself was the way to go… hey, you know, man, a name would be nice.”

From the stairs, Happy gives him a look that clearly reads as if you get me killed, I’m haunting you forever. A few steps up, Mister Mortal Kombat simply stares at him. It’s not even enough to be called a glare, not in confusion or annoyance just… waiting. Ignoring every word that comes out of Tony’s mouth.

Rude.

“Because I’ve got a savant level of talent for coming up with nicknames, but even I’m going to run out of original ones to call you in my head unless you tell me your name. You know? Introductions? You know who I am, this is Happy, you probably looked him up too. You? ...No?”

Nothing. More staring.

“You must be fantastic at parties.”

The lights flick on the moment the door is opened, screens and drafting surfaces beginning to glow and hum to life. “Daddy’s home,” Tony murmurs. The bots perk up from their charging stations almost immediately. DUM-E practically vibrates off the damn thing, whirring and clicking his claw, the little robotic idiot. “Stay back! Daddy’s got serious work to do.”

God, the last thing he needs is DUM-E to come wheeling at them at full speed. U, he can at least trust not to try and make friends with the new, incredibly deadly, face in the room.

“I got ‘em, Boss.” Happy pads across the workshop towards the charging stations, arms open to corral them back. “Hey, let’s stay back here, alright kids?” He sounds happier to be at a safe distance. Which is understandable even before Tony glances back at Ninja-Who-Refuses-To-Be-Named. Those sharp eyes are riveted to the bots, the haze that had been cast over them thrown off now. His entire body is on high alert again, spine ramrod straight and his good arm held just far enough away from his body in case of an attack.

His finger is back over the trigger, even if he hasn’t raised the gun to aim at the bots. A subtle, but distinct threat.

“Don’t pay them any attention, Silverhand. They’re just a pair of oversized lab assistants. Like a pair of semi-useful golden retrievers. Come over here. I’m just going to set this to scanning and then I’m all yours for the evening, big guy.” Slipping into his usual swagger makes it easier to ignore that prickling at the back of his neck. Tony hefts the arm down onto the nearby work table, wincing as it lands with a dreadful clatter. It’s unreal how heavy the damn thing is. He keeps his eyes on it as he taps the surface of the table, arranging the sensor probes on all sides. “J,” he says carefully, “give me a full render. Everything. Every screw, every wire. Factor in the parts removed from the previous scans. I want to know how this baby ticks.”

“That’s who you were speaking with in the car,” comes the low voice, remarkably steady given everything that’s happened tonight. Tony glances up, only to find that Murder Face has done that nifty shadow trick right in the middle of his workshop and is now standing feet from him.

“Christ, how do you not make a sound in all that leather? I’ve been in leather bars where you can hear it above the music; how do you manage it?”

A single brow arches. And that’s… that’s sass. The one armed cyborg assassin is sassing him, which is extra impressive when Tony considers the black facemask obscuring most of his expression. “Who is… J?”

Oh. Right. Tony quickly weighs his chances; outright lying is only going to lead to ruin, and probably a gunshot wound. But… “JARVIS, my AI.” There’s no look of confusion or shock that comes with that explanation. Tony gives it a beat before slowly continuing. “I built him to help me. He’s a computer program— nope, look, not even I’m going to dumb that down and insult J like that. He’s my… helper down in the lab. Runs simulations, keeps track of my projects, like in the car. He was feeding me the information from the scans in real time.”

Again, he receives nothing but a blank stare.

Tony makes a disgruntled sound in the back of his throat. This is not usually how this conversation goes. “JARVIS, say hi,” he says before he can stop himself. “Direct verbal mode only.”

Sir, is this wise?

Well, at least that wipes the stoic look off Robocop’s face. And he doesn’t start shooting, which is even better. He glances quickly around as most people do when interacting with JARVIS for the first time. Tony is quick to hold up a hand. “He’s just a computer, big guy— Sorry, J.”

It is alright, Sir. I suppose to the layman that is… an accurate statement.”

“JARVIS is just going to help us get a look at your arm and the shoulder joint, alright?” Tony makes a blind gesture at the desk nearby, where the rest of his tools are. He mentally counts the seconds, compares them to each dreadfully shallow breath the assassin takes. Is he trying to make it look like he’s not breathing at all? Or is it just the pain?

Finally, the gun is stowed back in the holster at his hip, and Death Machine gives a sharp nod. He comes closer at Tony’s beckoning, silent as Tony moves the gauntlet he’d been modifying out of the way. “JARVIS, chair,” he says absently, gathering the tools he’ll need. He hears the cranks start up behind him, the modified staging area opening up and the chair he uses to perform modifications on the reactor smoothly slipping into place. “Just sit down there so we can take a—”

He has less than a breath to recognize that the silence has gone brittle and icy. His hands dart for the desk for something to defend himself and then there’s a hand around his throat. Tony finds himself dragged around and pinned with the sharp edge of the work station pressing into his back. His tools go rolling to the floor as the whole thing rocks under the force of it. He’s once again face-to-face with the expressionless mask and the man’s certainly not expressionless blue eyes searing into his.

‘This again?’ he thinks wildly.

At the same moment there’s a chorus of shouting and alarmed beeps from across the room, the commotion as one protective bodyguard and a pair of equally protective bots go flying forwards—

“Everyone calm the fuck down!” Tony shouts in warning.

Thankfully, everything falls quiet. Neither of them move. The hand at Tony’s throat doesn’t even twitch. And Tony keeps the gauntlet that he’d only just managed to grab pressed, open-palmed, against the man’s ribs.

Tony doesn’t dare look away from those pale, pale eyes. It’s like being pinned by a predator all over again, and Tony is keenly aware of how easily this man should be able to snap his neck. Given that Blue Eyes has been running around with that torture device of an arm weighing him down, he’d probably be able to do it without even thinking about it. Hell, if he’s really an assassin like he says, he’s probably done it countless times already. Except now, faced with those eyes again, Tony has a whole new, horrifying context:

He’s scared.

“Hey, alright, we’re calm. Aren’t we?” Tony keeps himself still, keeps the gauntlet cupped close to his ribs, barely touching him. He hasn’t revved up the repulsor, but he hopes that the gesture is more of a reminder than a threat. Without having a goddamn clue what caused the reaction, Tony can only hope it doesn’t escalate things further. This close he can feel each trembling breath that the man attempts to hide. When no further attack comes, he risks a glance towards Happy and the bots.

“Hey, hey, back to the charging stations, kids! Happy, can you-- DUM-E, put that fire extinguisher away! How did you even get a hold of it that fast? What did you think that was going to do, huh? Happy, get that thing away from him. I’m fine, just get him back.”

Mister Killer Blue Eyes takes a shuddering breath, drawing Tony’s attention. “Not…” he says, voice rough, “not in the chair.”

Tony blinks. “Y-Yeah, sure. Okay, of course?” Is that really what set him off? He casts a sidelong glance at the completely harmless looking chair. “J, get it out of here,” he says with dismissive little wave. The movement makes the hand at this throat all the more apparent. But it’s not hurting him, or even really pinning him in place anymore. Tony swallows reflexively against the hand, ruthlessly suppressing the chill it causes. “You know we’re going to have to find a place to sit and do this, right? I can’t very well look at your shoulder while being pinned to the table.”

No one moves.

“...We good?” The hand at his throat eases, and Tony leans back until it falls away completely. “Okay,” he says, unable to keep the relief from his voice.

They make it as far as the floor, as getting the assassin to move anywhere without his explicit consent is impossible and after that last display Tony is loath to test that hypothesis again. “This is great, see?” Tony rambles around the screwdriver clenched between his teeth. His knees definitely aren’t going to call this great in about five minutes. “Like a sleepover. After we’re done we can paint each other’s nails and braid your hair.”

His attempts to dispel the tension in the air goes unacknowledged. But, unless his eyes are playing tricks on him, the defensive line of the man’s shoulders does ease just the slightest bit, and he doesn’t move to stop Tony in his work again after that. Tony counts that as a victory.

He winces as he peels the fabric of the shirt away from his shoulder, even though the assassin doesn’t flinch when it sticks to his skin, or when Tony starts swabbing at the knife wounds with antiseptic. It’s not until they’re clear of dried blood and sluggishly bleeding once more that Tony stops to study them, and promptly frowns. He’d been uncomfortably up close and personal when Terminator here had decided stabbing was the quickest way to get the arm off. He had seen just how deeply the knife had sliced into skin, the memory of it still just a little sickening.

So it brings him up short to find the wounds in his shoulder are already showing signs of healing. The edges of each wound are puffy, undoubtedly raw, and sluggishly leaking clear serous fluid longside the blood. Such an advanced healing response… in as little as two hours?

His mind whirls with the possibilities.

Tony keeps his hands steady, gently swiping across the wound with a clean cotton swab, and sets it discreetly aside.

The shoulder joint itself, even without the stab wounds, sends sickly chills down his spine. It’s a mess of frayed wire and bent metal. The assassin’s frantic stabbing had actually managed to pry one of the plates up along the back of his shoulder, leaving one of the screws - the actual screws holding the damn thing in place - exposed. He can see the end of it, and feels nausea creep up on him. “Ah, that’s… that’s gross. Hold on. Just don’t move.” With the whole thing already ripped from the skin anyway, it only takes a few well placed uses of the screwdriver to get the plate loose and removed entirely.

Stitches. A normal human being would need stitches. But with a healing factor this advanced? Tony can only think to clean the wound and bandage it along with the others, and hope for the best.

Afterwards, Tony works diligently and quickly to close off the unpowered artificial synapses left behind and clip off the wires and protruding supports. All of it lets him get a hand on the inflamed scars running along the seam of the shoulder - hot to the touch, definitely painful by the way the muscles under his fingers jump. He can feel where there are more modifications under the skin, screws and reinforced bones to compensate for the sheer weight of the arm. He doesn’t need an X-ray to tell him how fucked up this all is.

None of it is humane. Not even in the same league as humane. This is a weapon.

Tony Stark has spent his entire life around them, building them, designing them, using them. He knows how to recognize a weapon, even when it’s been physically attached to someone. Even if it’s a living, breathing person.

His mind easily traces the map of repairs and upgrades along the shoulder joint. None of them were made with comfort or sustainability in mind. No insulation from the metal, nothing to shield the user from any of the electronics.

“How did you even get by like this?” he finds himself asking. “You’re all kinds of tense. And I’m not talking about you not liking me - which I am getting from you and really? I’m hurt, Blue Eyes. - Or that you need a good massage. This is fucked up. You’ve fucked up your muscles carrying that thing around, gotta be. No one could do that and not be damaged.”

“How long will it take?”

Tony honestly hadn’t been expecting a response, and has to mentally backtrack several paces. “Say again?”

“How long. Will it take. To build a replacement?”

“I… don’t think you get what I’m saying here, killer. Your arm is fucked. The whole system is fucked. I’m not going to pop a new arm into that socket just so it’ll kill you in the long run or keep you in so much pain you can’t function. Better just to start over.”

Murder Face slowly turns to face him, those eyes absolutely dagger-like.

“Hey, don’t glare at me like that,” he says. “You’ll get your arm. Bigger. Better. Less likely to cause you long term injury. I don’t half ass this shit, okay? If you want to fix that, then we have to fix this first.” He taps at the edge of the shoulder coupling, careful to avoid anything that might still be sending sensory relay.

The assassin follows the movement with his eyes, the silence heavy between them.

Tony holds his breath and waits. The proverbial gauntlet has been thrown, and now it’s up to him to take the bait.

It’s not a bluff, exactly, no. Tony didn’t lie. Not exactly. And that sliver of territory where semantics lie is where Tony thrives. It’ll take him time to build a new arm, sure, and even more to design and fit a proper shoulder coupling. But if it should take enough time for Tony to discover just who Terminator is running from, then, well…

And who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be without pain? Let alone receiving a shiny new prosthetic from Tony Stark?

The man nods jerkily, and Tony fights not to show just how his heart leaps in triumph. “That’s acceptable. For now.”

“For now? You'll be taking that back. No one can resist my tech, Blue Eyes, no one.”

His eyes narrow and if Tony isn’t mistaken, that’s a smirk. “Get to work and we’ll see.”

“Well, that just sounds like a challenge. You’re on.”

END CHAPTER 4.

Chapter Text

--------------------1---------------------

The staring is a bit much.

Tony will be the first to admit that he’s a showman. A bit of an exhibitionist. An attention whore, as Pepper often teases him. He likes to be in the middle of the action, likes to put on a performance. Fireworks. Adoring crowds. Athletic showgirls in slinky little two-pieces styled after the armor-- now there’s a thought. The whole deal, Tony craves it all. And when he gets his fill and no longer wants any of that… he retreats to his workshop, where there are no fancy suits or flashing cameras and nothing is expected of him.

And there lies the problem.

“I know I won 2008’s Sexiest Man Alive award, but I promise you can look away. I’ll still be just as ungodly attractive later,” Tony says without turning around. The burning pinpoint between his shoulder blades doesn’t fade. Though, now that Tony thinks about it, that might be a knot forming from keeping his injured shoulder in one position for so long.

Unsurprisingly, his remark is met with silence.

“I don’t know what you thought was going to happen down here, but it’s not all fireworks and explosions.” Mostly. Sometimes. “It’s also a lot of staring at screens and trying to get the math to make sense. Not exactly exciting to watch.” He spins the chair away from the desk to prove a point, only to find that the assassin is still standing near the staging area, in the exact place Tony had left him… forty minutes ago?

“Christ, you can sit down, you know that, right?”

Darth Ninja just gazes at him from his position. Tony isn’t even sure it’s meant to intimidate this time, because under the lights of the workshop he looks a little pale. What little skin Tony can see is almost ashen, his gaze not quite focused. Which is fair. How he can even still stand at all is beyond Tony at this point.

“Okay, this? This is just unnerving. There’s a couch just over there. Sit down before you fall down, if you’re going to insist on hovering.”

He whirls the chair back around, pretending to concentrate on the screen once more. After a few seconds, there’s quiet footsteps behind him as the assassin heads in the direction of the sitting area. The fact that Tony can actually hear him move this time is telling how exhausted he clearly is.

Even with a bit more breathing room, Tony is incapable of sinking into the work. He stares blankly at the processing renders of the arm, investigating individual power couplings without intent. This is the outwardly unglamorous part of designing, though Tony has always found it soothing. When he can immerse himself in the data it’s so easy to make the world around him disappear.

But not tonight. No, because someone can’t stop staring at him for five damn minutes.

He spins the chair around again, finding his new houseguest is now seated on the couch near the workshop door, looking stiff and out of place as ever. And still watching him. “I usually kill time during this part,” he begins. “A little mood music? How do you feel about heavy metal? No? Because it looks like you’d fit right in with all that black leather.”

From across the room, Happy jolts awake from where he’d just began to doze off on Tony’s, much more worn in, sleeper sofa. He comes awake with a little gasp, his eyes seeking out the assassin even before he becomes fully aware. Tony shoots him a wry, almost apologetic smile.

“Can’t we all be friends here? I could seriously use that name. I can’t keep calling you ‘hey, you’ or any of the other nicknames I’ve got. I could settle on one, but I don’t think you’ll like it. No one ever likes my nicknames. Which is a crime because they’re fantastic.”

“I don’t remember.”

The rant Tony had been building up to screeches to a halt. “You… don’t remember? I’m sorry, what does that even mean?” He shares a look with Happy across the workshop, and wonders, for a hysterical moment, if Happy hitting the man with the car had actually managed to do permanent damage after all.

“I don’t remember,” the man repeats, his typically flat voice twisting into something tired and… frustrated. “If I had one, they never called me by it.”

The ominous they again.

“Well what did they call you?”

“The Asset.”

That answer drops with all the effect of submerging the room in ice. Tony attempts to find a response that doesn’t include horror and finds that he can’t. Happy is awake now, and doesn’t seem to be faring too much better than Tony is.

“Alright, I’m not touching that bullshit with a ten foot pole,” Tony says at length. “You have to have a name.”

“Maybe.”

The skepticism in that one word rocks Tony even further off his axis. There’s a distraught sound clawing its way up his throat, that he quickly covers by grunting, “JARVIS, give me the most common male names in the US in the last… you gotta be what, thirty? There about? In the last thirty years, J. Please.”

“As you wish, Sir. Would you like me to read them for you as well?

“Cut the sass, J, just give me the list.” It’s up on one of his screens even before he finishes his demand, and Tony scrolls absently through the first fifty or so names and back to the top. “If you didn’t have one before,” he says to the assassin, who looks legitimately confounded by this turn of events, “you get to make up for it now and pick your own. You get to rebrand yourself, which is a chance not a lot of us get. You think I would’ve asked to be an Anthony? I’d rather have gone with my mother’s side and at least been an Antonio. Alright, ready? I’m gonna read through these and you just pick whatever one calls to you. Michael?”

Dubious silence.

“Christopher?”

Nothing.

“John? Daniel? Andrew? Matthew? All of these saint names, Jesus-- heh. Hm… James?”

The reaction isn’t dramatic or sudden. There’s a twitch out of the corner of Tony’s vision, a movement of the man’s good arm as he shifts forward. But Tony whips around to look at him, taking in his furrowed brow and his averted eyes.

“James?” Tony repeats. “That one?”

He gets a slow nod in return. “It’s… suitable.”

Tony smiles, rocking back in his chair. “James. See, that’s a good name. James’ are great people. One of the best people I know is a James. ‘Course, Jameses never go by James. It’s like the Secret Law of James or something, but you can come up with some crazy nickname for yourself later.”

“No.”

“I’ve got plenty of suggestions.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Jimmy? Jimbo? JimJam?”

Stark.

Eh, it was worth a shot.

--------------------2---------------------

Tony loses track of time somewhere along the way. The screen becomes a blur of equations and shapes, making Tony squint at them. Happy is dead asleep somewhere behind him. It’s got to be pushing the 3AM mark, an hour that Tony is so intimately familiar with that he knows it by the itch in the back of his brain and the distinctly testy little zing in JARVIS’ responses. The render of the arm is still in progress, along with the surface scans of the shoulder joint, leaving Tony without much to do but babysit the program. And that is… boring. It’s painfully boring. He’s mentally drafted at least seven new upgrades for the suit and can’t play with any of it.

Because James is somehow, against all odds, still awake.

Tony’s been waiting for the ever-present weight of the man’s gaze to drop off. The newly-christened James had made a good go of it, putting on that robotic otherworldly assassin act like nothing will slow him down. But the guy’s got to sleep sometime, right? And give Tony the opportunity to put his stolen blood sample into analysis?

Except, apparently, that’s not the case.

For a single hysterical, sleep deprived moment, Tony delights in the idea of finding out who can stay awake the longest - something that no one has ever beaten Tony at, not even during the Great MIT Finals of ‘88 disaster when Rhodey had downed a six pack of Jolt and nearly had a caffeine-induced panic attack about 36 hours into it. It’s a tempting experiment, but one that Tony ultimately gives up on.

After a moment’s decision, Tony leans back in his chair and stretches. “I think that’s it for tonight,” he announces to the room. Happy, who’s been slumping further and further down the threadbare sofa at the back of the workshop, shoots upright again. “Hap, time for bed, yeah? That sofa is gonna kill your back, believe me, I know.”

“Think it already is, Boss,” Happy mutters, grimacing. “Uh… we all done?” He sounds so hopeful that Tony almost feels bad about it.

“Nah, we’re a long way from that. But there’s nothing more we can do tonight, so it’s time to catch some shut-eye. I’m beat.”

Disbelief and then suspicion flickers across Happy’s face in quick succession, only smoothing out when Tony shoots him a significant look. Thankfully, Happy doesn’t comment on his employer’s sudden, out of character desire for sleep.

The icy presence across the room, however, is a different story. Tony can feel the scowl even before he turns to address James, who hasn’t moved from his position in the little sitting area near Tony’s desk. And it is a glower to end all glowers. Even with most of his face obscured, Tony can feel the absolute murder coming off him in waves.

It would be impressive if it weren’t terrifying. No, scratch that, it’s still impressive. Tony’s very impressed.

“Jimmy,” Tony starts. “Jamie. Jamsey--”

Stop that.

“Oh, you’ve brought this on yourself. You’re going to live with it, Jim.”

Those striking blue eyes narrow dangerously, but he ignores Tony’s jab. “The work isn’t done.”

“Uh, no, of course it isn’t. This isn’t a slap it together and send it to fabrication type of project. It’s going to take days--” Weeks, if Tony can push his luck far enough. “--to get all of this sorted. Listen, I know I’m a genius, but even I can’t make a fully operational prosthetic arm appear out of nothing. This is engineering, baby. Like all great things: if you do it right, it takes time.”

He’s not sure whether it’s the almost patronizing flirtation or Tony’s refusal to work that causes James’ scowl to deepen. But he doesn’t try to force Tony to get back to designing, or threaten him, or any of the things that typically happen when someone holds Tony hostage and wants him to build. And Tony has a truly dizzying breadth of experience to call from. This is nothing like any of them.

No, James is desperate. Running. But he doesn’t want to hurt them.

And Tony can work with that. (Can help, says a voice in him, previously so small and choked, smothered by years of apathy. Tony can help him if that’s what he wants.)

His thoughts swirl back around to the present, startled to find that he’s been zoning out. God, he is legitimately exhausted. And in that time, it seems, James has been considering him, his sharp eyes like a physical touch against Tony’s skin, making the hairs at the back of his neck stand on end.

“Go,” he says at last, nodding towards the workshop door. Tony unwittingly arches a brow at him, is halfway to saying something snarky about how he’s not so bad after all, before he forcibly swallows it back. Arguing for the sake of being contrary is the last thing Tony needs right now.

“You too,” he chirps, grinning at the look he gets for that. “Workshop is on lockdown if I’m not in it-- sometimes even when I’m in it. House rules. You can have any guest room you want. We’ll start again tomorrow, after we’ve all had at least one REM cycle. How’s that?”

By some miracle, or to be more accurate, by the grace of James’ barely veiled exhaustion, James agrees to those terms. Tony locks down the workshop and calls it a night, and they climb the stairs back into the mansion proper. James follows them as far as Tony’s hall before disappearing into the shadows of the house without a sound.

“How does he even do that?” Tony mutters after turning to find the assassin gone. “This house is the opposite of gloomy, there’s no dark corners for him to hide in, how?” He sighs, bringing a hand up to scratch at the ridge of the reactor against his sternum.

“I’m taking this one,” Happy all but slurs in his own tiredness, gesturing at the guest room across from Tony’s door. “I’ll keep the door open, so I can see if he tries anything.”

Tony’s brow furrows. “That’s not necessary. He’s probably just going to pass out as soon as he finds a nice little hiding spot. Maybe a closet in one of the guest rooms. Like a pissed off cat hiding under the bed. ...You think he could fit under one of the guest beds?”

“Look, Boss,” Happy continues on, ignoring Tony’s sleep deprived ramblings, “you do the genius superhero thing, I do the bodyguard thing. I’m not taking the chance. There’s an armed--”

Tony snickers.

“Ha-ha. There’s a man with god knows how many weapons on him in the house. Who could kill us both with the one hand he’s got left. I’m keeping the door open.”

Tony heaves a put-upon sigh and heads for his door. “Alright, Hap. Whatever you want.”

“Yell if anything happens in the night, yell loud.”

Goodnight, Happy!” Tony makes sure to close the door behind him with a pointed snap. But once faced with his dark, quiet bedroom, he finds himself adding, “JARVIS, lock the door and throw up the full security on the entry points. Let me know if our new friend starts acting squirrely.”

Finally,” comes JARVIS’ oddly soothing sarcasm, “a sensible request. I half feared you would ask me to aid you in defusing another explosive device before your night was through.

Tony laughs gently, letting the tension in his body slowly unwind. This is his room, his home, his sanctuary, he keeps reminding himself. The only sand is the beach right below the house. The hot sun will be mixed with the spray of an ocean breeze. This is Malibu, home. He’s safe here.

Sir? Your heart rate is elevated. It is 3:32 a.m., the morning of November 17th, 2008--”

He shakes himself out of the haze he’d fallen into, forcing his hands to still as he starts unbuttoning his waistcoat. “It’s fine, J. Just finally coming down after everything tonight. Adrenaline crash.” He starts on the fine silk shirt underneath and pulls both it and the waistcoat off at once, wincing as it pulls on his sore shoulder. “Have U…” He pauses, gazing speculatively at his bedroom door before heading into the en suite bathroom. He closes the door behind him, and turns on the sink for good measure. That should deter any keen-eared assassins… he hopes. “J, have U take our blood sample and get it to processing, now everyone’s out of the workshop. Don’t let Dum-E get ahold of it. Have him clean up the staging area. I want that blood sample running behind the renders.”

“It will be done, Sir.”

“Thanks, J. I want to have a full spec run, look for unusual markers, numbers that are off the charts. He’s gotta be enhanced - there’s no way he could be running around like he apparently has been.”

Yes, Sir. Would you like me to compare them to the sample from Project Jolly Green?”

Tony glances up from washing the dust, dried sweat, and concealer from his face. The bruise under his eye - a souvenir from his bunker shakedown in South Dakota - has faded to a truly fascinating shade of mottled swamp green. “We still tracking the good doctor?”

“Yes, with all discretion.”

“Go ahead and compare them, then. He’s the best expert we have other than me if it-- fuck--” Tony cuts off with a strangled breath, his hands flying to his chest, that suddenly feels like someone is wedging a hot knife right beneath the reactor casing. “J--” The world greys out around the edges, sliding sideways as Tony’s knees threaten to give out. Fuck, fuck, Tony can’t breathe - the pain catches in his lungs with every gasp.

Sir? Sir? You are in distress. Shall I place a call to Doctor Cho? If you do not respond in the next five seconds, I will continue with this course of action.”

Tony leans against the cool tile, sucking in a gulp of air. And then another. The pain dissipates as quickly as it came on. “I’m fine, JARVIS.”

Sir--

“Cancel that call, we’re fine.” He levers himself upright again, wincing as he turns to look at the hunk of metal in his chest in the wide mirror above the sink. “Christ, what was that for?” he hisses at it, gingerly running his fingers around the reactor cover. Tony twists it off and lets out a gasp at the sharp tug against his skin. The area right up against the housing has been rubbed raw, not bleeding yet, but as Tony watches the blood wells up under the angry looking marks where the cover had been sitting. “We’re fine, J, see? I’ve just been wearing the cover for too long.”

JARVIS doesn’t answer, but his silence says plenty. Exactly where he picked up the disapproving silent treatment is a mystery-- Pepper, it was probably Pepper. Tony returns to his bedroom, the reactor cover in hand. Now that it’s been removed, the soft blue light from the arc reactor spills over the room, bathing everything in a dreamy haze. Watching the light play off the walls soothes Tony’s nerves, letting him breathe easy, for just a moment, for the first time in days. The proof of his own existence is reflected back at him all around the room in that gentle glow.

Everything is fine. He’s safe. Whole.

Since coming back from Afghanistan, this has been the ritual before Tony lets himself succumb to sleep. He climbs into his too soft bed and watches the light play off the walls, spreading his hand over the reactor to watch the shadows form and ebb, sometimes to the rhythm of the waves breaking against the beach below the house.

But tonight as Tony lays there, all he can think about is James outside the door, lurking the halls. Maybe outside on the balcony, his mind unhelpfully supplies, peering in through the shaded windows.

It’s a ridiculous thought. Tony spends just as long berating himself for thinking it. There’s nothing in James’ behavior that points to trying to kill him in the night, thank you, Happy. Even still, the thought refuses to leave his mind. There’s a stranger in his home. A dangerous, desperate stranger who could easily stumble upon his weaknesses, and that dread keeps burrowing deeper and deeper--

He reaches for the bedside table, knocking into the lamp, his phone, the fidget puzzles that always seem to find their way in here, and the little half-finished bot he’d started building after a nightmare a few weeks ago before finding the reactor cover. It stings as Tony twists it back on, his chest burning, and the light is abruptly snuffed out.

Thankfully, the exhaustion takes him soon after.

--------------------3---------------------

The first thing Tony is aware of when he comes awake again is that his chest aches. He comes right out of dreamless sleep, groggy and wincing as his breath causes his chest to pull.

“Wh’t th’fuck…” he groans, raising a hand to touch the reactor sitting heavy in his ribcage. Had he fallen asleep on his front again? His fingers brush smooth, body-warmed metal and his eyes blink open.

Right. He’d fallen asleep with the cover on. That explains a lot.

“Good morning, Sir. It is currently 8:37 a.m. You have slept for approximately four hours and twenty-three minutes, waking twice during the night. The weather today is 75°F with clear skies. You appear to be in pain. Shall I call Ms. Potts?”

“No, mother,” Tony mutters, pushing himself into a sitting position. He hisses through his teeth, deciding it’s better just to get the pain over with like ripping off a bandaid. He breathes another curse as the cover pops off.

There’s dried blood around the edges of the cover when he holds it up for inspection. “Fantastic,” he says. “JARVIS, if your next words include ‘call’ and ‘Doctor Cho,’ I’m donating you to MIT’s undergrad robotics program.”

“Perish the thought.”

The only bleeding Tony sees is from the contact points where the cover sits on his skin, irritated by the constant pressure and friction, and he sighs in relief. It stings as he goes through his morning stretches and massages, ruthlessly prescribed by one insistent Helen Cho, but it’s manageable.

“Yoga this morning, Sir?”

“No time. Am I missing anything, J? Anything that’s going to bring down the wrath of a certain Ms. Potts?”

“No, Sir. Ms. Potts has kept your schedule clear for today.”

Bless Pepper. Tony should send her flowers. Or shoes. Or a bouquet of designer shoes. Tony considers the conundrum as he gets ready for the day, letting JARVIS’ update on SI stocks and the company’s projects wash over him. He rattles off a few responses to “urgent” emails while he showers and trims his goatee back into perfect shape. It’s not until he’s - carefully - replacing the reactor cover and pulling on a t-shirt that one of JARVIS’ updates brings him to a stop.

“...and James returned from patrol one hour ago.”

The remark shatters the routine Tony had fallen into, the haze where Tony had almost fooled himself into thinking that nothing existed outside of his bedroom. He blinks out at the gorgeous expanse of ocean beyond the window, serene and deep blue, mulling over JARVIS’ report.

“J, what was our guest up to last night?” he questions.

“If it would please you, I could give a full recounting of his actions--”

“Uh, maybe just--”

“--the list is quite short. James patrolled the house and grounds three times; at 3:35 a.m., 6:06 a.m., and at 7:50 a.m. He cleaned his weapons and gear. Showered in one of the guest rooms. And spent approximately two hours on the main balcony.”

“What was he doing out there?”

I believe he was watching the ocean, Sir.” JARVIS’ reply is as tranquil as it always is, and yet it rattles something within Tony, a thing that he cannot name, that he can barely describe. It’s only when he backtracks through the conversation that he stumbles upon his answer: JARVIS’ hasn’t mentioned sleep among his list of observations. Or eating.

And Tony is concerned. Confused and concerned for the likely enhanced hitman wandering around his mansion. Unsettled by this, Tony finishes dressing, replaces his reactor cover, and prepares himself for the battle of wills outside his own room.

--------------------4---------------------

The Asset-- no, James. James now. Real people have names.

James recognizes that things are spinning out of his control. His tightly constructed plan of freedom, supplies, escape, shelter has been all but tossed down the drain. Even his improvised plan to remove the arm and get as far out of HYDRA’s reach as he can make it has all crumbled around him. Now he’s stuck here in the most ostentatious house in Malibu, mere hours from the LA base that he’d escaped from… with perhaps one of the most noticeable men on the planet.

And who has this many windows? Who builds a house with such terrible sight lines?

The longer that James stays in Tony Stark’s overelaborate mansion, the more that his nerves fizzle and itch to close himself into a secure location. He patrols the grounds several times in the course of the night, his mind cataloguing every secure vantage point, every place to expect an ambush. It is not safe here, he knows that he knows

He also… wants? As much as the Asset-James-he knows how to want anything. Stark has promised him an arm, an arm without pain, an arm that is not a weapon, and he had promised it while looking at James with fierce eyes that for once did not make him expect punishment on the horizon. No one promises James things like this. Not without an ulterior motive; he knows that deep in his bones, knows it like the workings of his rifle. But he wants to believe that…

It’s hard to think. It gets harder as the hours tick on. The pressure starts to build behind his eyes first, a minor annoyance in the early hours of the morning that quickly escalates to an agonizing throb, until it feels like his head is going to split open. Until his body becomes sluggish with it and his focus scatters to the winds. But James is no stranger to pain, and so shoves it to the back of his awareness as the day goes on, sitting in Stark’s workshop watching the man argue with his talking computer program.

Except the pain doesn’t fade; it only grows the longer James attempts to ignore it. And soon it becomes difficult to think of anything other than the fact that something is wrong. It builds until he feels cold all over, even in his thick, form-hugging uniform, and like he’s going to overheat mere moments later. His remaining hand clenches on the back of the sofa, gritting his teeth in frustration. The dry, achy feel of his mouth is familiar, as is the nausea - he’s coming down off the battery of supplements that HYDRA has kept him on.

The last dose he’d taken had been two days ago.

James had spent the last month spreading the doses out as far as he could in preparation for his escape, but the suddenness of the last mission had ruined all of that. James had left with no backup doses, nothing to help wean him off the cocktail of drugs that his enhanced body burns through so quickly.

All of this is going wrong. The Asset has made a mistake. He needs to leave this place, now. New Mission parameters must be set--

His thoughts race, his heart beating a painful staccato in his chest. He must remain in control, he can’t let the target-- no, Stark. Not a target. Stark. He is James and Stark is not his target. James wants to curse, to pick up the nearest object and throw it across the workshop. He’s wanted to be free for literally longer than he can remember, and now that he has it, even the barest taste of it, he doesn’t know how to handle it.

Something moves above him and James snaps to attention, his body coiling for attack.

When had his vision begun to swim?

“DUM-E, leave him alone!” a voice shouts, sounding far away to his ears. The shape above him jerking back almost guiltily. “He doesn’t want you poking at him-- hey, Buzz Lightyear, you don’t look so hot.”

What?

James blinks his vision clear, finding that his breath is coming in hard pants beneath the mask and that his skin has gone clammy. The pain now feels like knife points digging from inside his skull, shooting down his neck and through his shoulders. The already existing ache at the empty shoulder socket throbs in harmony with it, a twisted call-and-response along his nerves. One of Stark’s robots has somehow managed to come over to him without being noticed - how long had it been there? - its claws clicking rhythmically. Stark is shooing it back, which is almost amusing considering the robot is taller than the man himself.

“Hey.”

He blinks again, only for Stark to have moved closer and the robot to have disappeared entirely. How is he losing time so easily?

“Where did it go?” he asks with a sluggish tongue. “Your robot?”

“Dum-E? I sent him back over to sort tools. Don’t mind him, yeah? He was just trying to figure out what was wrong with you.”

“Wrong? Why…” His brows draw together and even that hurts.

“He does that, notices when his humans aren’t operating at optimum efficiency and tries to help. Or ‘help.’ Who knows what he was planning on doing. Dum-E! What were planning on-- That’s a fist bump. Who taught you that? Was it Rhodey? I bet it was Rhodey.”

“Do y’ever stop talkin’?” James mumbles.

Stark spins around to stare at him, a peculiar expression on his face. Whatever it is makes his eyes sparkle in the too-bright lights of the workshop. “Haven’t you heard? ‘Loves the sound of his own voice.’ It’s practically on my business card.” That winning smile, the one that had appeared in all of the intel James had been given on the man, flits across his face and then dims. “You okay?”

No, he wants to say, everything fucking hurts. But in the end, the only thing he manages to grit out is the word, “Compromised.”

“You in pain? Is it the shoulder?” When all James does is clench his eyes shut, Stark’s voice grows softer. “Describe it for me.”

And so he does, in halting terms. James describes the unbearable pressure inside his skull, the shooting pains, the lights that make it feel like his nerve-endings are on fire.

“Oh. You’ve totally got a migraine. I’ve got some painkillers if you’d like to…”

“No pills,” James growls, but his voice hitches when his sudden movement causes another flare of pain.

“Alright, alright. No need to go all Liam Neeson on me. Couple of things you can do, then. How long’s it been since you’ve slept?”

James doesn’t know how to answer that and it only agitates him more. Why does Stark keep talking? Asking him questions? His mind whispers a sickening litany of comply, comply, comply that doesn’t help the pounding in his head at all.

“You don’t remember? Or are you that committed to the whole Terminator vibe you’ve got going?”

“The A--” he stops, swallows. “I have received the adequate amount of sleep that protocol allows.”

“Protocol. Alright, explain to me what ‘adequate’ sleep is according to protocol.”

He fights not to snarl in response. “While the Asset is active, twenty minutes of sleep is permitted every eighteen hours.”

Stark is starting to have that look again, the same that he got when looking at the arm in the backseat of his car, the same one right before he started listing names for James to choose from. James still doesn’t know how to parse the expression. “And… how long have you been active?”

“Forty-four days.”

The next thing that James is aware of is Stark making shooing motions at him, his words of “Nope, come on get up. Up, up, let’s go,” a blur across his senses. James climbs to his feet without thinking, swaying as the change in position makes his head swim dangerously. The hand at his elbow has him flinching, but it keeps him upright.

He lets himself be led away, his mind unable to formulate a reason to fight it. It's so much easier to let Stark herd him back upstairs. He dimly hears Stark chattering away again on the way up, still bickering with his program even though they've left the workshop - and honestly, who does Stark think he's fooling?

("Which room, J?

"The north hall, Sir, the fourth guest room. ...Sir, his heart rate and breathing rate have increased. Skin surface temperature is holding at 104.3°F.

"Shit. Shit. How far above his normal do you think that is?"

"I do not have sufficient data to make that estimate.")

They find their way into the room James has claimed as his - the only room in the whole damn house with acceptable cover. Stark leaves him, dazed and blinking, just inside the door to go over to the sleek dresser set and start rummaging through the drawers. A pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt are shoved into his hands. “These’ll probably fit you. You’ll want to get out of those leathers to sleep - no way is it comfortable.”

James has grown weary of fighting his own body. The bed calls to him, the soft-looking sheets an inexplicable siren to his senses. He goes forward, tossing the clothes down onto the bed and starting on the buckles of his body armor with his one remaining hand. Even in his current state, it’s second nature to remove his gear quickly and efficiently.

“You need any help?” Stark asks from behind him, as he’s pulling the scratchy uniform shirt over his head one-handed. His belt and holsters are next, swiftly followed by the constricting material of his pants. “Since you’ve only got the one arm and al-- okay. Sure. Uh.” Stark cuts off with a strange choking sound. James ignores it as he tugs on the borrowed clothes. The t-shirt catches awkwardly at the shoulder socket, but is loose enough to untangle it quickly, although the sweatpants are slightly too short.

They’re the most comfortable clothes James can remember wearing, all the same.

He turns to find that Stark has whirled to face away from him, fidgeting with his shirt. James peers at him for a moment, his head throbbing and unable to understand exactly what the man thinks he’s doing. After a moment, however, Stark glances over his shoulder and does a double take. “You plan on sleeping in that mask there, Scorpion?”

In his bleary, unfocused state, James had almost forgotten he was wearing his facemask altogether. He brings his hand up to touch it, tracing the familiar hard edges at his throat. Its weight has been a reminder of his loyalties to HYDRA, of his servitude. The Asset was not permitted to take the mask off outside of the base. The Asset was not permitted to have a face in the world. Or a name, for that matter.

“It can’t be easy to breathe in, right now. You really so worried we’ll see your face or something? Because I just saw… more of you than I ever expected to, there, killer. What more is a face gonna do?”

The Asset was never…

Fuck it.

He reaches back and unclasps the mask.

END CHAPTER 5.