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A Burden Taken

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Tony breathed deep as he slid down against the bark of a tree. His breath came out in white, warm puffs of air in the chill of the night. Soft orchestra music filtered out through the mansion’s windows.

Tony tugged on the collar of his tux. He hated these parties so much. They were so boring. He much rather be home modifying his computer or working on the blueprints of his robot dog. Why his parents forced him along on these parties made no sense to him. No one at these parties was his age, and all the old people ignored him except for a few, and those few always pinched his cheeks or did something embarrassingly grandma-like.

Tony rubbed his arm where his dad had grabbed him after he’d told his dad as much. He massaged the bruise he felt forming there and bit his bottom lip. The flesh was still tender.

Tony glanced up shyly at the mansion, torn between what he wanted to do and what his brain was telling him he needed to do if he didn’t want to risk another bruise.

His dad wouldn’t miss him for another two minutes, right?

Tony hugged his knees to his chest, wallowing in self-pity and frustration at his predicament.

A faint, high-pitched screech lured Tony’s attention to one of the mansion windows.

Tony sucked in a sharp breath as a man with a metal arm and dressed in dark clothing climbed out of one of the windows and swung himself onto the roof. The man landed with the grace and poise of a large cat, his back facing Tony.

The man glanced over his shoulders. The movement allowed Tony a quick glimpse of the man’s face. Tony could not perceive the man’s facial features from a distance, but he did see a black mask that covered the lower half of the man’s face.

The man continued to survey the area with his back to Tony. He bowed his head and raised his hand to his ear.

Images from spy movies played in Tony’s head, and Tony’s heartbeat skyrocketed with excitement and curiosity.

A moment later, the man in black sprinted across the rooftop and jumped off the other side, disappearing into the darkness.

It was the coolest thing Tony had ever seen. Or maybe the second coolest? That arm had looked pretty groovy. Tony’s fingers twitched with the need to dismantle and prod the arm until he knew all of its secrets.

“Tony? Tony, are you out here?” Jarvis hollered.

Tony cringed. “I’m here.”

Jarvis hurried to Tony. His face was red from running and his hair was in slight disarray, but otherwise he looked as immaculate as ever. “Sir Tony, there you are. You had me quite worried when your mother noted your lack of presence.”

Tony ducked his head between his shoulders. “My dad didn’t notice, did he?”

Jarvis sighed. A sorrowful expression dragged down his face. “Your father made no comment, but I’m afraid he will notice your absence soon. Mr. Hampenstair is about to make an announcement.”

Tony closed his eyes and for the briefest second wished he could stop time. He then forced himself to stand and follow Jarvis back to the party where he’d be forced to feel his life drain away every millisecond that passed.

Later that night, Tony and all of the guests were surprised when a piercing scream interrupted Mr. Hampenstair’s speech.

Mrs. Hampenstair had been found murdered in her bedroom.

It had been three hours since Mrs. Hampenstair’s body had been found, yet the police still refused to let any of the partygoers leave.

Howard paced around the guest room Tony and Maria were in. Tony was seated on the bed with his mom. She rubbed soothing circles into Tony’s back. “Calm down, dear. They will all let us go in due time.”

Howard swirled his scotch then downed half the glass. “’In due time?’ They should have let us go hours ago! Do they have no idea who I am? I fuckin’ built their guns.”

“Honey, don’t exaggerate.”

“You think without my contribution to weapons development they’d still have the guns they have now?”

“No, dear, but—”

“The police are just looking for information, right?” Tony piped up. He was terrified of his father’s anger, but he was more frightened of what happened when his parents fought. “What if we give them some?”

Howard scoffed. “Unless you saw the murderer then there is nothing we can say, which is exactly why we should be allowed to go. Some of us actually do important things with our lives.”

“I might have.” Tony sat up straighter. Excitement and realization raced like electricity through his veins. “I saw a man with a metal arm and dressed in black climb out from one of the windows and disappear.”

Howard scowled. “What a wonderful imagination you have, Tony. Next time use it to create something useful and not some ridiculous story.”

“But I did see a man!”

Maria wrapped her arms around Tony and pulled him back. Tony hadn’t even realized that he had half lunged himself at his father.

Howard sneered. “Feel free to tell the police your story then. I’d love to see how they’ll react.”

“I will.” Tony nodded his head in determination.

He was humiliated twenty minutes later when the officer assigned to question his family laughed at him.

Tony didn’t bring up the man with the metal arm again.

It hadn’t been twenty-four hours since the murder before Tony felt a tingling all around his skull.

Tony frowned and put down his model toy car to go in search of Jarvis. He found his butler prepping dinner in the kitchen.

Tony wandered up to Jarvis and tugged on the pink apron the man was wearing to get his attention. “My head feels weird.”

Jarvis stopped in the middle of slicing vegetables to peer down at Tony. “What kind of weird?”

Tony scrunched up his face. “Weird. Like it tickles, but not really.” Tony prodded the base of his skull with his fingers. “Like there is some kind of pressure there. Maybe a tumor?”

“Did you hit your head on something?”

“No.” Tony scowled, still sore from the lack of belief he’d received from the adults the other night when he told them about the man with the metal arm. Why did they treat him like he was stupid? “It just feels weird.”

Jarvis frowned. His eyes roved over Tony, as if searching for something. A moment later, Jarvis smiled politely at Tony and bent down so he was a little closer to Tony’s level. “Tony,  you know about soul mates, right?”

“Duh.” Tony rolled his eyes. It was all any romantic movie was about. It also showed up in almost every Disney movie too.

Soul mates upon crossing paths could take away each others’ pain. There was usually some sort of sensation to indicate when—“Oh!” Tony covered his mouth with his hands.

Disbelief rushed through him, and he found himself mentally chasing the source of the tingling sensation. That was how it worked, right? Soul mates didn’t have to cross paths again in order to take away each other’s pain. They just had to find the source and tug on it? Or just accept the pain, right?

Tony wasn’t a fan of pain, but he’d happily take it on if it meant helping his soul mate. Plus, it would let his soul mate know they’d crossed paths. Then they could retrace their steps and find each—

“Now, it may not be your soul mate, Tony, but it is—”

Tony screamed.

White hot pain seared his skull.

He blacked out.

The Asset tensed, his chest heaving as he took pain-bracing breaths.

Something was wrong.

He was strapped to the chair and he could feel the rush of electrical currents racing through his skull, but the pain that should accompany it wasn’t there anymore.

He could think.

He wasn’t supposed to be thinking.

He wasn’t supposed to have any thoughts beyond pain and the bright light overhead.

Pieces of his thoughts were slippery though. Images, voices, smells, and tastes all swirled together, becoming a blur of sensation.

The electric current running through his brain stopped.

He released a shaky breath. The ones in charge of wiping him clean began the slow process of disconnecting him from the chair.

They asked him questions to be sure he was in proper working order.

He answered them.

None of them asked about whether he had felt pain or not.

His handler stepped out from the small room’s corner and gave him the command to follow.

The Asset obeyed, never once mentioning the lack of pain.

It was not in his protocols to question his handlers, the doctors, or their equipment.

“You really don’t comprehend the problem with this?” Howard’s voice cut through the fog in Tony’s head like a knife.

“I understand why you are concerned, but this is supposed to be a good thing. We shouldn’t—”

Howard’s bitter laugh interrupted Maria. “’A good thing,’ Maria? ‘A good thing?’ Think about it. He spends his days either cooped up in here or at school, and he hasn’t diverted from the routine in the last two weeks. The odds suggest that he crossed paths with his soul mate at last night’s function. Did you see anyone remotely close to his age there? He’s going to become one of those pompous assholes’ boy toy .”

“Maybe there was someone there we didn’t see who would be more age appropriate?” Maria suggested.

Howard chuckled, the ice in his glass clinking. “Oh sure, I know exactly who. The murderer. Or perhaps the man with the metal arm?”

Tears welled in Tony’s eyes. He tried to pretend he was still unconscious, but he couldn’t stop himself from shifting in discomfort on the bed he was lying in.

Maria shushed Howard. “He’s waking up.”

“Fantastic,” Howard spat out the word.

Tony screwed his eyes shut and rolled over to bury his face in his pillow.

Howard stomped over to him and whipped Tony onto his back.

Tony’s eyes flew open to see his father scowling down at him. “Stark men don’t hide from their problems, Tony. None of this hiding behind your pillow nonsense.”

“Does your head still hurt?” Maria asked as she reached out to rub Tony’s temple.

Tony shook his head.

“Great, he’s fine. Congratulations, Tony,” Howard’s words came out soaked in venom. “You have crossed paths with your soul mate. This is a great time in one’s life yada yada yada. I’m going back to work.”

“Howard!” Maria chastised, but Howard was already out the door.

A tear fell down Tony’s face and he brushed it away as quickly as possible. “I’m sorry.”

Maria squeezed Tony close. “You did nothing wrong. Your father is just concerned and doesn’t know how to show it. You scared us there for a moment, Tony. We almost took you to the hospital.”

Tony sniffled and bowed his head. “Am I really going to be someone’s boy toy?”

Maira winced. “Don’t let what your father says upset you. Whoever your soul mate is, they will love you unconditionally. Understood?”

Tony nodded his head, but the contempt in his father’s voice made him doubt.

Over the next week Tony learned something about his soul mate.

Their left shoulder was always in pain, and whatever caused the pain also put some strain on their neck too—or so Tony assumed. Only the left side of his neck tingled, and it was so faint that Tony hadn’t noticed it right away.

Tony’s brain had immediately gone to the man with the metal arm when he first experienced the shoulder pain, but he did not voice his thoughts to anyone on the matter. Instead, he spent days mulling over if he should attempt to take away some of his soul mate’s pain.

It had been scary the first time to do so, not at all like the movies, but if it were Tony in pain everyday, he’d really appreciate it if his soul mate could take on some of that pain.

Tony breathed deep as he sat on the edge of his bed and braced himself.

He wanted to be a good soul mate.

He chased the tingling sensation around his shoulder until a burning pain consumed his shoulder.

Tony hissed and clutched his shoulder. The pain wasn’t nearly as bad as the first time he’d taken his soul mate’s pain, but it still hurt greatly. It felt like his muscles were on fire and as if he were carrying a ton of bricks with one arm.

Tony closed himself off to the pain.

He took a few deep breaths then tried again.

He spent hours and days accepting and rejecting the pain of his soul mate until the burning sensation was like white noise in the back of his mind.

He hoped his soul mate enjoyed their reprieve.

The Asset prodded his left shoulder as his handlers drove him to the location of his next target.

The pain was gone.

He frowned behind his facemask.

The Asset knew a lot about pain, and he knew that unless one of the doctors or his handlers had given him something that blocked off his pain receptors then he should be feeling the constant pull and tug of the arm on his muscles and nerves.

The weight was still there, but there was no agony to it.

Something was wrong.

Something was wrong with him.

He should report the flaw to his handlers.

The Asset clenched his jaw.

The flaw was… a flaw, but one to his benefit. Less pain meant he could fight more efficiently. Unless the flaw proved detrimental, his handlers did not need to know.

The Asset did not know how much time had passed since he’d been taken out of Cryo. All he knew was that his doctors and handlers were different.

He yanked on his tactical gear as one of his new handlers explained to him his mission.

The Asset’s right palm tingled.

The Asset stopped dressing to stare at his palm.

He saw nothing wrong with it.

He went back to getting dressed. When the task was completed, his handler held up a picture of the target for him to see. The handler had the Asset repeat the information about the target’s schedule and habits. The Asset would make it look like a suicide this time.

An hour later, and he was in transit. His palm still tingled.

He focused on that sensation. It wasn’t caused by numbness. This was something different.

The Asset closed his eyes and willed himself to find the source.

A sharp sting replaced the tingle.

The Asset grunted and flexed his fingers.

It felt like a knife wound.

The Asset was very curious now.

Tony stared down at his palm in awe.

A bandage was wrapped around his palm where he’d cut himself with a knife when he’d tried to help Jarvis in the kitchen.

He felt no pain though.

Two years ago he’d crossed paths with his soul mate and in that time his soul mate had never taken his pain away from him. He understood though. His soul mate was in a lot of pain most of the time, so they probably didn’t want to endure more.

Tony curled his hand into a fist and hugged it to his chest. Tony could have dealt with the pain, but the fact that his soul mate had taken it away from him—he cherished that so much more.

Tony was alone in his room and hunched over his his shattered robot dog. His dad had always said the dog was a waste of Tony’s talents and he’d always wrinkled his nose when he saw Tony playing with the dog. So Tony had spent the last month upgrading his dog so Howard would be proud. He really thought he’d done an amazing job.

Howard hadn’t thought so.

He’d thrown the dog across the room, then picked it up, took it down to his workshop, and tore it apart.

It would take months for Tony to repair the dog, and honestly, he wasn’t even sure if it would be worth it. What if Howard just broke it again?

Tony’s skull began to tingle.

Tony tensed as the vivid memory of the first and last time such a sensation had occurred returned to him.

He could ignore his soul mate’s plight.

He didn’t want the pain, and so far his soul mate had only taken his pain once.

“Completely useless! A disgrace!” Howard’s shouts from before echoed in Tony’s ears.

Tony screwed his eyes shut. No, he wasn’t completely useless. He could do at least one thing right.

Tony opened himself up to his soul mate’s pain and screamed as their agony came rushing at him all at once.

The Asset kept his head down as he trudge through the small town library. He wasn’t supposed to be here, and he’d more than likely end up in the chair for his disobedience, but he needed answers.

He’d been wanting answers for some time, but now the desire was unrelenting.

Before his handlers had put him in Cryo again, they’d wiped him. His memories were as muddled as ever, but a few things stood out too starkly to be erased. His arm no longer hurt him and two times now he’d been put in the chair and other than the initial pain, he’d felt nothing but the pulse of electricity.

Something was happening to him, and he needed to find out what.

He skimmed the shelves for encyclopedias. He picked out one and flipped to a section on pain. He skimmed the page until he came across something that tugged on his memory but that he couldn’t recall the fine details of.

Soul mates .

The passage on pain and soul mates was very brief, so he shelved the book and searched for the encyclopedia that would contain information on soul mates. When he found it, he hurriedly flipped through the pages until he located the desired passage inside. He read fast, his eyes darting up every few seconds to make sure danger wasn’t approaching.

Soul mates could take away each others’ pain once paths cross.

The Asset had a soul mate?

The Asset shook his head. The Asset was a thing. It did not possess a soul; therefore, it could not have a soul mate.

But what if it did?

The Asset wanted to rid itself of such a traitorous thought, but could not.

The thought rung too loudly in his head.

The Asset was recovered and put in the chair.

Once again there was no pain.

Without the pain it felt easier to keep his memories.

His memories were faded, ripped apart, and mixed like a mosaic, but there was some clarity to them.

He remembered what he’d learned.

A soul mate.

He had a soul mate. He shouldn’t have one, but he did.

He had a soul mate and they were taking his pain away even though they didn’t know what he was.

The Asset’s chest ached, but in a manner he had never experienced before.

It felt good.

“God damn it!” Tony flung the beer bottle across the room and fell to his knees. He buried his face in his palms and screamed, just screamed until his lungs burned.

Howard and Maria were dead.

Tony punched the plush carpet of his living room floor.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

He still hadn’t proven to Howard that he was just as good as him—that he could create things just as amazing  as Howard could.

And his mom…she…

Tony punched the floor again and again, uncaring of the shards of glass that littered the ground. He hissed as the glass sliced open the side of his hand and embedded itself deep. He didn’t care. He just didn’t care.

The Asset squeezed the side of his hand and brought his fist close to his face. The tingling sensation was different this time. It was actually two very different tingles at once. One went deep into the side of his hand, while the other reverberated, flashing in and out.

The Asset should not look into the sensation—should not form a connection with his soul mate that was any stronger than it already was.

His curiosity was rampant though.

Something had jabbed itself into his soul mate’s hand. Very sharp, and with edges that poked and prodded. The reverberating sensation had to be his soul mate punching something. The pain felt exactly like that of an ill-thrown punch upon impact.

Who or what was his soul mate hitting?

Tony sifted through the files in Howard’s office.

He’d just finished attending his parents’ funeral, and he just wanted to finish packing up Howard’s many works and blueprints so he could lock them away in a safe and forget about them until he was thirty or some other god awful age. He wished he could just pick it all up and throw it in a box, but there were also contracts and bills among Howard’s notes and schematics. Tony couldn’t risk such important items getting lost in the shuffle, so he had to be meticulous.

Tony froze when he came across a file with his name and the word soul mate on it.

His heart pounded in his chest.

Had Howard somehow discovered who Tony’s soul mate was? No. He couldn’t have. That would be the kind of thing Howard would have held over Tony’s head to keep Tony in line. So if Howard didn’t know who Tony’s soul mate was, then what was in the file?

Tony flipped the file open and read its contents.

His heart sunk with guilt and sorrow.

His dad had been trying to find Tony’s soul mate. Howard had compiled all the data he could about the people who had been at Mr. Hampenstairs party so many years ago. Howard quickly dismissed anyone Tony had met before as a possible soul mate. Then he had hacked down the number of possible people. Howard had then gotten a hold of the remaining people’s medical records over the years and compared their hospital visits to times when Tony had blacked out from his soul mate’s pain.

Howard hadn’t discovered who Tony’s soul mate was, but he had learned one thing: no one at that party could have been Tony’s soul mate.

At least, no who had been invited.

The Asset had just finished killing a man and making it look like the target had hung himself when he felt a great pressure on his chest.

The Asset stopped in the middle of cleaning up the trail of clues he’d left behind at the scene.

He touched his chest.

The pressure was far greater than anything the Asset had felt before from his soul mate. He was far more used to the faint thrums that came from his soul mate tripping, followed by the pounding headaches of a hangover hours later.

This—he didn’t know what this was, but it made his heart twinge and his breath quicken.

The Asset glanced at the clock on the wall. He still had plenty of time before anyone was expected to arrive at his target’s home, and the recovery team also wouldn’t be showing for a little while longer.

The Asset opened himself up and immediately fell to the ground.

He gasped for breath and clawed at his chest. His chest! His chest! Something was in his chest! It burned! It—it!

He blacked out.

His soul mate was alive.

The Asset winced as the voltage to the chair was raised. His body shuddered under the current, but he didn’t feel the pain in his brain. No, he felt the pain in his chest where a knife was cutting his soul mate open and stuffing something metal inside.

The Asset screamed.

Three months later and the Asset always had a handler within two feet of him unless it interfered with him taking out his target, and even then his handler was never very far. They’d heightened the voltage of the chair and more frequently wiped him, but it was as if the memories of his soul mate were permanently etched into him. He couldn’t forget them. They’d gain a natural haze that came with time, but he could always recall them, and he knew despite having only passed each other by chance, his soul mate had shown him more kindness than anyone.

His soul mate took on his pain even though during many of their years of pain sharing the Asset had only a handful of times taken on his soul mate’s. And during the last three months his soul mate had suffered greatly and still taken on his pain.

It made the Asset want to return the favor, and so he did.

Even now he felt the constant ache and weight of his soul mate’s chest. Something had been implanted there. Something metal and unnatural.

Like the Asset’s arm.

Was that what made them soul mates? Because they were machines?

Except his soul mate wasn’t.

The Asset wasn’t either.

That was the other thing his soul mate had given to him: a sense of humanity.

Hydra would beat it out of him if it ever learned what he’d gained.

The Asset snapped out of his thoughts as the target walked into the their apartment. A woman. She was someone who looked like any average woman on the street, not the kind of woman who Hydra would target, but it wasn’t his job to question his superiors.

The Asset adjusted his pose—he was kneeling on the rooftop across the street from the woman’s apartment.

The Asset aimed and shot the target clean through the window.

She died without making a sound.

“Good job,” one of his handlers said with a grunt. “Let’s clean up and move out.”

The Asset nodded and did as told.

All evidence had to be removed.

Not long after he was in the getaway van. The vehicle stopped at a red light, and the Asset peered through the windows as a voice blared loudly out from the closest store.

Seven televisions showed the image of a well-dressed man as he spoke to the press.

The Asset tensed. That face . It belonged to one of his past targets. It belonged to—

No… That face was different. A relative perhaps, but the man was not Howard Stark.

The Asset’s eyes drifted down the banner across the bottom of the TV screen.

Tony Stark .

Tony Stark waved away the press, his hand going to his tie to fiddle with it as he left the scene. His collar was already loose and his top shirt button undone.

It gave just the tiniest glimpse of something metal under the shirt.

The Asset touched his chest.

Something was wrong with his soul mate.

The way the Asset’s chest tingled was not normal. He opened himself up to the pain and felt the air ripped right out of his lungs.

He couldn’t breath and his heart was beating out of his chest.

For a few precious minutes he lay in his cell, wishing for the pain to end and dreading what it would mean when it did.

Relief washed over him as oxygen returned to his lungs.

Shortly after that, news had broken across the world that Iron Man was Tony Stark.

Hydra was not pleased, and began looking more into Iron Man. They had even found information about that battle between Stark and Stane.

That’s how the Asset learned just how injured Tony Stark must have really been during that press released.

He also realized that the same places Tony Stark had been injured were places where he had felt the pain of his soul mate after their shared heart attack scare.

The Asset sifted through old files on his targets until he came to the target that marked the beginning of the shared pains.

It took months—years—to collect all of the information and not get caught. Some of his sources had come from Hydra, but most of it had come from research done between eliminating his targets and the recovery team coming to collect him. Eventually he found what he was looking for:

Tony Stark had been at the Hampenstair residence that night.

The Asset dug more. He did his best to create a timeline based off his medical chart and what he could find of Tony Stark’s medical history; the man was very good about keeping such information secret. It made things challenging for the Asset.

The Asset liked it.

He was always challenged physically by others, but not mentally. It made sense; he wasn’t supposed to think, so why would anyone challenge him to a game of wits?

Perhaps if someone had they would have learned just how much control he’d regained over the years.

The Asset was going to run. He didn’t know when or how—just that when he did make his escape he’d better bring a knife to extract the five tracking devices in his body.

Tony ate his shawarma slowly as he looked around the table at his teammates, or whatever the hell they were to him. He was too tired to contemplate social relations. Throw quantum physics at him and he wouldn’t care, but the complexities of human interaction were just too much right now.

He groaned when the pain in his lower back vanished. He didn’t know what he’d done to suddenly receive his soul mate’s help so often, but ever since Afghanistan his soul mate had been more proactive in taking his pain away from him. Tony still couldn’t rely on them to always take away his pain, but he appreciated the times when they did.

“Got to be around for the first alien invasion,” Steve mumbled to himself.

“Was it worth it?” Tony asked.

“Ask me again tomorrow.” Steve hung his head back and slumped in his chair.

Poor guy needed rest and he was going to have to sleep on one of those horrible SHIELD beds too. Were they even beds or just cots? Either way it would suck. The food over there probably sucked too.

Tony’s eyes flickered around the table again. Bruce would need a place to stay for the night since he definitely would not want to stay at SHIELD Headquarters. Natasha and Clint were in the same boat as Steve, and Thor... well, Thor was supposed to be some kind of alien prince, but he was also very laid back, so who knew what his reaction would be to SHIELD’s living quarters.

“Sleepover at my place?” Tony asked.

“An actual sleepover or a group orgy?” Clint asked.

Steve choked on a bite of shawarma.

Tony shrugged. “Only if the orgy is after a nap.”

“Ah, yes, group coitus after a long battle is truly magnificent and a splendid idea, but I would prefer a few more women folk if we were to do so,” Thor said.

Clint quirked an eyebrow at Thor. “You just get more interesting every time you open your mouth.”

Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose. “No sex.”

“Agreed,” Natasha said.

Steve was still flushed. “We barely know each other.”

Now that was an interesting response. “What was that, Cap? You’re protest is that we don’t know each other? Does that mean if we become besties we can have an orgy with you?”

“Stark,” Steve warned.

“I’m just curious.”

“You’re pushing it.”

“Where’s the ‘no?’”

“Shut up.”

Tony snickered and rubbed his left shoulder, feeling an extra twinge of pain from something his soul mate had done.

He was so going to get all of these guys to move in with him.

There was upheaval in Hydra after the alien attack on New York. A few secret agents that had been deployed into SHIELD had been killed. Some of the research Hydra had been using SHIELD as cover for was now unobtainable due to a few higher ups in the spy agency.

SHIELD was still under Hydra’s control, but Hydra did not appreciate the threat to its machinations. There were talks of plans to get rid of the high ups in SHIELD who were getting too close to discovering Hydra and its secrets. The Asset knew it was only a matter of time before they’d sic him on them.

He also knew this was the best time for him to escape, while Hydra was still floundering.

He waited to receive another mission.

He let them take him to the designated spot when a mission finally came his way.

Hydra no longer required that his handlers be nearby—his behavior had been good for the last few years, so they thought it was safe to allow him space to do his job. One handler stayed around this time though, most likely due to the chaos in Hydra—someone felt the need for extra caution.

His handler had decades of fighting experience, but he wasn’t cut throat enough—his moves too sluggish and uncertain.

The Asset disposed of the handler in seconds.

He remained in his designated spot, and cut out the trackers.

There was one in his neck, close to an artery. The second was in his right arm, also close to a vein. The third lay in his lower back, and the fourth in his foot.

The fifth one—that one was tricky.

The Asset had seen his medical charts and knew there was a tracker right around the elbow of his metal arm.

The Asset picked out his best knife and rammed it into his elbow, prying the metal apart, piece by piece.

When he was done, he stuffed the trackers into his handler’s coat then ran off into the night.

Tony grimaced and rubbed his left elbow. He cut off the flow of pain.

“You okay, Tin Man?” Clint hollered from the couch in the living room. Steve occupied the chair next to him and was drawing.

Tony gritted his teeth and rubbed the tender spot. “Yeah, fine.”

“Your soul mate sending you some pain?” Clint teased.

A lot of pain, and it felt weird too, like an echo. It was sharp, but not fully there, which didn’t make sense. It was just such an odd sensation to describe.

Tony opened himself up to the pain again then shut it off immediately.

He was already dealing with the stinging throbs and burns at his neck, right arm, back, and foot (what the heck had happened to his soul mate?) in addition to his soul mate’s shoulder pain. As much as he wanted to take on all of his soul mate’s suffering, that echo-like and sharp sensation was just too much for him.

“Tony?” Steve sat up and put his sketchpad down. “Are you sure everything is okay?”

Tony waved Steve off. “Don’t worry about it. Just a few little cramps here or there.”

Steve frowned. He opened his mouth to speak.

“I’m a big boy, Cap, I think I can handle a little pain. Honestly, you’re being ridiculous. After everything that happened with Loki this is no big deal.”

Steve shut his mouth, but looked like he wanted to argue.

Tony grinned and headed toward the elevator; he needed to escape before Steve changed his mind and decided to lecture Tony. “Just take a chill pill and calm down, or ask Bruce for his special brownies. I hear they are really good for getting people to relax.”

And with that Tony escaped down into his lab.

The Asset craned his head back to stare at the tower that had once had the Stark Industries logo on it. Instead a large letter “A” stood where the company logo had been.

He’d hidden his tactical gear under civilian clothing. A long-sleeve shirt, a pair of over-sized jeans, and a hoodie to hide his face from the many street cameras, covered him.

The Asset frowned and mulled over his best plan of entry. He’s gotten access to the tower’s blueprints, and knew the person he was looking for would be near the top, but not quite. Going in through the front door wasn’t impossible, but odds were he’d be caught. The buildings nearby would get him to one of the higher floors if he launched himself from one of their rooftops. He wouldn’t know what floor he would end up on though, and then he’d run into the same issue with security.

The Asset mulled it over and decided on the vents. He didn’t like them because they would limit his escape routes if everything went south, but his choices were also limited.

He found an opening into the ventilation system and snuck inside. His movements were slow and awkward in the narrow shaft, and he often paused to be certain no one had heard him.

He spent hours climbing up the many floors, and somewhere in the back his mind he knew that if he’d been anyone else, he’d never have made it so far without a break to catch his breath.

He reached a vent cover and used it to determine his location.

An Iron Man gauntlet lay on the coffee table.

The Asset’s heart jumped. This had to be Tony Stark’s floor.

The Asset closed his eyes and listened carefully for another person’s presence.

Someone was standing next to the vent. Their breathing was heavy and their heart was pounding.

They knew he was there.

The Asset kicked open the vent and flung himself out of it, all while drawing his gun.

Tony Stark aimed a powered up gauntlet at the Asset’s head, while the Asset aimed a gun and the genius’.

“All right, pal, just who the hell do you think…” Tony trailed off. His eyes were glued to the Asset’s metal arm.

The Asset yanked out a knife and slashed himself across the cheek.

Tony Stark yelped in astonishment and retreated a step. His hand flew to his cheek, and his eyes widened.  

The Asset sheathed his knife. “I’m your soul mate.”