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Conflict of Interest

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"Obie, I don't need a live-in babysitter."

"Bodyguard, Tony."

"Same thing. I'm fine, okay? I got back in relatively one piece and you know JARVIS keeps close watch on everything going on in and around the house." The man — Anthony Edward Stark, according to the brief packet the Asset had been given — spoke swiftly, hands moving in cutting but graceful motions. "No one is getting past JARVIS, so I certainly don't need Mr. Terminator here." Those keen, brown eyes focused on the Asset, a hand raised in an attempt to placate. "No offense there, buddy. I'm sure you're good at what you do, I'm just not in need of your services."

The Asset only replied with a brief nod; he wasn't meant to interact if he could avoid it.

He waited in silence, his posture straight and gloved hands clasped behind his back. It was unusual for him to be this exposed — to let his mark see his face — but since this wasn't a regular elimination, deviations from the standard operating procedures were to be expected.

His mission was to infiltrate Mr. Stark's household as his new bodyguard. Once the Asset found an opportune moment to strike, he would assassinate Mr. Stark and procure the arc reactor embedded in the man's chest — but not necessarily in that order.

Being fully visible during the entirety of the mission was out of the ordinary, but the Asset was well trained and would do what was required of him to complete his task.

"Tony," Mr. Stane persisted, exasperation melting into frustration, "you were kidnapped—"

"While in Afghanistan. This is America — my home turf. I have JARVIS and Happy and Pepper. Have you seen those heels of hers? I bet you she can take a man's eye out with—"

"I just want you to be safe," Mr. Stane said, his tone concerned. Or at least it would have been, had the Asset not known that Mr. Stane was the one who had ordered the hit on Mr. Stark. Mr. Stane played the part of caring father figure quite well, however.

"Thank you, Obie, but I'm not a child. I can take care of myself."

In the quiet of his own mind, the Asset reflected that Mr. Stark certainly seemed quite childish, if nothing else for the tantrum he was throwing. The Asset knew better than to voice such observations out loud, however, and remained quiet, hands still clasped behind his back and eyes focused on the other two men.

"This is non-negotiable, Tony. The board has given their approval. They're worried that—"

"So why are we even having this conversation? You've already made up both of our minds, apparently — which I don't appreciate, for the record." There was a flash of real anger in Mr. Stark's eyes, and something much frailer that was quickly shoved aside.

"Tony, Mr. Davis won't bother you. He's only here to make sure that you—"

"You know what? Fine. Whatever," Mr. Stark bit out through clenched teeth. "He can stay, but only as long as he stays out of my way and my workshop." He turned to face the Asset, his displeasure evident. "You got that?"

The Asset nodded; remaining in the background would only make his job easier.

"Affirmative," he replied.

Mr. Stark threw up his hands. "He even talks like Terminator. Where on earth did you find this guy?" The latter was aimed at Mr. Stane, who merely shook his head in exasperation.

The Asset wondered who this Terminator was, but didn't ask. His mission had officially begun and while understanding Mr. Stark's habits would be crucial for completing said mission, he wasn't supposed to engage the man in conversation.

"Good." Mr. Stane smiled. "Then I will leave you in Mr. Davis' capable hands."

Mr. Stark rolled his eyes, clearly unaware of the sinister edge hiding underneath Mr. Stane's amusement.

The Asset said nothing.

 


 

Mr. Stane had provided the Asset with all the details he would need to complete his mission, including the blueprints of the house, information about the various protocols and lockdown procedures, and an override code to disable the AI. Mr. Stane had been very clear on the fact that no action should be taken without first disabling the computer that ran the household, since it might alert the authorities if its master was harmed.

The Asset spent the first couple of days securing the house and checking the perimeter. He did so both to maintain his cover as Mr. Stark's bodyguard, and to double-check that the information he had been given was still up to date.

Once he was satisfied, the Asset bided his time.

Mr. Stark kept mostly to himself, locked away in his workshop. The Asset never tried to enter, as promised, knowing the tactical benefit of not overstepping his bounds and upsetting his mark. The Asset could easily kill Mr. Stark anywhere else in the house — he didn't need access to the workshop.

Ms. Potts was a liability — she arrived without warning and stayed for everything in between ten minutes and several hours, depending on the nature of her business with Mr. Stark. Without a set routine he could pinpoint and exploit, she might prove a hindrance to the Asset's mission. At the same time, the obvious affection between Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts was something the Asset could use in his favor, if needed.

He had found that most people were more willing to cooperate if it protected those they cared about from harm.

That was only a last resort, however, since Mr. Stane had instructed the Asset to keep a low profile — which meant as few unplanned deaths as possible.

The Asset was good at what he did — he would find a way to work around Ms. Potts' unscheduled visits. It might take him a week or two, but he was trained to be patient.

The Asset would wait.

 


 

"Have we met before?"

Four days had passed since the Asset's arrival and those were the first words Mr. Stark had spoken to him since their meeting with Mr. Stane.

The Asset looked up, away from the news he was pretending to watch, his expression blank. There was a frown on Mr. Stark's face and a coffee cup in his hand. Mr. Stark's white tanktop was smeared with dark spots — oil or grease — and he wasn't trying hide the bright glowing circle in his chest, visible through the thin fabric. The Asset wasn't sure if carelessly flaunting the arc reactor made Mr. Stark foolish or simply far too bold.

"No," the Asset replied flatly.

"You sure? Because you look awfully familiar."

Instead of replying, the Asset turned his gaze back towards the TV.

Mr. Stark seemed to realize that the conversation was over and disappeared back down into his workshop without another word.

 


 

There were a lot of noises coming from Mr. Stark's workshop. A regular human wouldn't have heard them, but the Asset did. He couldn't quite make sense of the muffled bangs and blasts, but it was clear that Mr. Stark was building something.

The Asset debated whether or not to report his observations to Mr. Stane, but eventually decided against it — at least until he had something concrete to offer.

Until then he focused on being Mr. Stark's bodyguard, which was surprisingly easy considering that the man never left the house. Despite the Asset's initial dislike for the layout and design of the mansion — there were too many windows and too much open space — it had everything one could ask for. The Asset couldn't remember the last time he had been so comfortable, as a matter of fact.

The Asset knew better than to indulge, but there were some luxuries he couldn't avoid even if he tried. The sheets in the guest room were wondrously soft against his skin, the kitchen was full of exotic and expensive foods he had never even heard of before, and the technology available gave him almost unlimited access to movies, books, music, and every other kind of entertainment known to man.

The Asset had never cared for such things. He was born from cold, hard steel and biting ice — his world was harsh and sterile and nothing like Mr. Stark's opulent mansion. The Asset only knew of duty and missions and orders.

Except this time the Asset's mission was to observe and protect Anthony Stark until such a time that he could eliminate him. To do so he needed to blend in, which he knew included doing things he usually wouldn't — things not permitted in his world. He needed to appear as if these luxuries didn't confuse him or that the thought of spending his day on Mr. Stark's couch, watching whatever the computer recommended, wasn't completely out of the ordinary.

He needed to at least pretend to appreciate it, to avoid arousing suspicion.

It was more difficult than the Asset thought it would be, but he managed. Little by little, he might even have started to enjoy it, although he made sure to quickly stifle that rebellious thought.

He was on a mission and he couldn't let himself be distracted.

 


 

"I feel like I have adopted a stray cat that now spends his time lazing around in my house, raiding my fridge, and ignoring me." Mr. Stark stood next to the couch with his arms crossed over his chest, but the way his head was tilted to the side suggested amusement.

The computer was kind enough to pause the episode when the Asset looked away from the TV. He simply stared at Mr. Stark, waiting for some kind of explanation or continuation.

Eventually, Mr. Stark gestured towards the Asset. "I mean you, Terminator. You're supposed to be my bodyguard but so far you've just been sitting on my couch watching—" Mr. Stark squinted at the screen, "—Elementary, of all things, and eating my food."

The Asset calmly met Mr. Stark's gaze. "What else am I supposed to do?"

Mr. Stark spread his arms. "I don't know? What do bodyguards do? Look for stalkers in the bushes?"

"There are none," the Asset informed. "I swept the premises two hours ago."

Mr. Stark paused for a second before chuckling softly. "It's actually quite adorable how you take everything I say so literally."

There was nothing the Asset could reply to that so he remained silent.

"Okay, I think we got off on the wrong foot." Mr. Stark walked over and took a seat next to the Asset on the couch, holding out his hand in greeting. "I'm Tony, nice to meet you."

The Asset reminded himself that he was meant to blend in and accepted the handshake, despite how odd it felt. "Davis."

"Really? That's all I'm getting?" Mr. Stark raised an amused eyebrow. "That's ridiculous. Don't you have a first name?"

"No." The Asset wasn't even lying — his cover hadn't included a first name and the Asset was just the Asset. He had no name.

Mr. Stark pursed his lips. "Is this some weird bodyguard thing? Where you're not supposed to get too attached to the one you're protecting? I suddenly feel like I'm in a bad romance movie from the nineties. You don't happen to have a katana, do you?"

The Asset frowned in confusion. "Mr. Stark—"

"Tony."

After a brief moment of hesitation, the Asset conceded. "Tony. I have no idea what you're talking about."

Mr. Stark looked scandalized, a part of it exaggerated, no doubt. "Do you mean to tell me you haven't seen The Bodyguard? They didn't show it to you when you were an itty bitty recruit at the bodyguard academy? That will not do, Davis, not at all." He settled more comfortably on the couch, tossing his feet up onto the coffee table. Mr. Stark sat so close that the Asset could feel the heat radiating from his body. "JARVIS, bookmark this episode for later and bring up The Bodyguard instead. I need to educate poor Davis here."

"Yes, Sir," the AI replied.

Mr. Stark grinned at the Asset. "Don't worry — the movie is terrible. You'll love it."

Those two statements seemed to contradict one another, but the Asset decided that he had no reason to argue. Mr. Stark was clearly a man used to getting what he wanted and this was the longest they had been in each other's presence since the Asset had arrived — he would seize any and all opportunities to study his mark closer. Watching a movie didn't require conversation, after all, so he would still not be disobeying his instructions not to interact with his target.

Far too late the Asset realized he might have underestimated how different it was to observe a mark from this kind of proximity as opposed to from across a street — as was his usual habit.

By the time the movie was finished, Mr. Stark had fallen asleep with his head pillowed on the Asset's right shoulder. That, right there, would have been an opportune moment to strike. The Asset could easily slip away, disable the AI, and return to finish his mission. Killing Mr. Stark would have been almost insultingly easy, what with the man being trusting enough to fall asleep on the Asset's shoulder.

But that was also the problem.

Over the course of the movie, the Asset had realized that Mr. Stark's cheerful statements weren't the only things that contradicted one another.

How was the Asset supposed to be Mr. Stark's bodyguard and kill him at the same time? A bodyguard was, after all, meant to protect their charge — sometime at the cost of their own life. Which one of the orders took priority?

The Asset glanced down at Mr. Stark's sleeping face. Mr. Stark had looked tired when he first stepped into the living room — wound tight with tension and worried lines etched around his eyes and mouth — but that had softened now. His dark lashes were fanned against his cheekbones, his lips slightly parted; he looked utterly peaceful and at ease.

The Asset felt a flutter in his chest and quickly tore his gaze away, swallowing thickly. His hands clenched, one metal and one flesh — both hidden under gloves, as ordered — and tried to push the unwanted feelings aside.

This was not the place or time. The Asset had a mission to complete — a mark to eliminate.

A mark that was currently a warm, solid weight leaning against his side while soft, half-snores echoed in the otherwise quiet room. A mark that clearly trusted the Asset to keep him safe, to the point where he let himself be vulnerable enough to fall asleep in his presence.

The Asset closed his eyes and decided that this time, he would simply be Mr. Stark's bodyguard — not his demise.

The knowledge that he would have to do the opposite one day made his chest constrict.

 


 

The feeling didn't go away. None of the feelings went away.

Every time he saw Mr. Stark — which started happening on a more regular basis since Mr. Stark emerged from the workshop to refuel more often — the Asset would feel that flutter in his chest. Perhaps it was simply because Mr. Stark smiled at him, or perhaps it was something even more dangerous that the Asset just wasn't prepared to face yet.

Mr. Stark watched more movies with him. He sat next to the Asset on the couch, talking and laughing and no matter how hard he tried, the Asset couldn't tear his gaze away.

The Asset didn't even dare to consider what that might mean.

There was also the matter of contradiction — not knowing which of his orders he was supposed to prioritize. He assumed he had been assigned as Mr. Stark's bodyguard merely as a cover, but he found that the task came more naturally to him than killing the man.

The thought of assassinating Mr. Stark even made the Asset feel a pinch of something frighteningly close to hesitation.

The Asset quickly shoved it aside and made sure to school his features. Hesitation meant doubt and doubt was a weakness. He couldn't afford that. He was the Winter Soldier and he never failed a mission. He would complete his one too. One way or another, he would.

He studiously ignored the little voice inside him telling him he was lying.

 


 

A couple of days later, JARVIS called for the Asset's attention.

"Mr. Davis, I strongly suggest you head for the workshop." The tightness in the AI's voice had the Asset drop what he was doing and bolt for the stairs leading down to Mr. Stark's sanctuary.

The Asset had never visited the workshop before but he assumed JARVIS would allow him inside when he all but invited him. The Asset wasn't sure what had happened but he felt a shiver of fear slither down his spine at the AI's unmistakable urgency.

The workshop was empty when the Asset pushed open the door and stepped inside. Mr. Stark was nowhere in sight and the Asset felt an unreasonable spike of panic.

"Sir, the screens."

The Asset's gaze automatically travelled to the screens on Mr. Stark's desk, his eyes widening at what he saw.

There was a video feed showing the surrounding landscape and buildings flash by at a breathtaking speed, lights twinkling in the dark night. There were sounds too — Mr. Stark's whoops of joy and wonder, but he seemed unaware of the Asset and JARVIS's conversation.

"JARVIS, what's happening?" the Asset asked, his voice flat.

"Sir is testing his new prototype," JARVIS replied, which wasn't much of an answer since the Asset hadn't been informed of what Mr. Stark was building in the first place. "I was not allowed to perform the necessary diagnostics and simulations, which goes against the security protocols. He also insisted on certain... unnecessary risks. Seeing as you are in charge of Sir's safety, I saw it fit you be informed."

"Yes, thank you," the Asset replied distractedly. His gaze remained fixed on the screens.

The Asset realized that Mr. Stark was flying. How and with what he had no idea, but Mr. Stark was out there in something he had built but not tested properly, risking his life like an idiot.

"JARVIS, patch me through," the Asset demanded.

"Certainly, sir."

It didn't even occur to him that letting Mr. Stark kill himself with his recklessness might actually have been in the Asset's favor — he was too focused on the tightness in his chest that might or might not have been worry. The Asset was Mr. Stark's bodyguard and it was his duty to make sure the man was kept from harm — both caused by others and his own stupidity, apparently.

The Asset spoke up once he had confirmation from JARVIS that Mr. Stark would hear him.

"Mr. Stark, get back here at once." The Asset was surprised by the barely curbed rage in his own voice.

"Davis?" Mr. Stark laughed, sounding deliriously happy. "Oh, are you watching? Beautiful, isn't it?"

"Mr. Stark," the Asset growled, "return to the workshop."

There was a suffering sigh over the comm line. "Fine, Mr. Spoilsport. I was on my way back anyway. I need to figure out how to fix the icing problem."

"The what problem?" the Asset asked, voice deathly cold.

"Uh, nothing," Mr. Stark replied quickly — far too quickly. The Asset chose not to pursue the subject, if only to keep himself from getting angrier.

He restlessly clenched and unclenched his hands while waiting for Mr. Stark's return. When the man finally arrived, it wasn't quite what the Asset had expected.

A loud, rumbling crack, the shriek from a splintering piano, and finally the sharp blare of a car alarm. The Asset was running towards the wreck before he even fully registered what he was seeing. A man made out of shiny metal was lying in the mess of concrete and dust on top of the crumpled car while a weird-looking robot was spraying it with a fire extinguisher.

The Asset pushed the robot aside and jumped up onto the car, one knee on each side of the metal contraption he knew would contain Mr. Stark — the bright blue glow at the middle of its chest was a big clue, if nothing else. The Asset didn't think before he reached out with his left hand, grabbing the faceplate and ripping it clean off.

A wave of relief washed through the Asset when he could see Mr. Stark's face again.

Too bad Mr. Stark wasn't as happy to see him.

"Hey! Whoa! Don't break it!" Mr. Stark feebly raised an arm, the suit whirring as he moved. A split second later he was frowning in confusion. "Wait. Did you just rip that off with your bare hands?"

The Asset paused, realizing that he had, perhaps, overreacted. He was supposed to hide the fact that he possessed a metal arm and this was definitely not helping. The Asset glanced at the faceplate he was still holding, debating how to reply.

"It's the prosthetic, isn't it?" Mr. Stark asked.

The Asset blinked, staring down at the man sprawled under him. "What?"

"Your left arm. You always wear gloves but I can tell by your gait that your left side is heavier. You have some kind of prosthetic, don't you?"

Mr. Stark knew about the metal arm, although clearly not the specifics. And he said it so easily — as if he had no idea what he had just stumbled upon. Then again, the Asset supposed he didn't. Mr. Stark knew nothing about HYDRA and the torture and the chair and—

"You okay?" Mr. Stark asked, concern lacing his voice.

The Asset blinked and forced the memories aside, knowing they had no place here — not during a mission. He managed a nod, albeit a twitchy one.

"I'm sorry if I scared you." Mr. Stark met the Asset's gaze, his own surprisingly sincere — no self-confident smirk or playful banter in sight.

The Asset swallowed, forcing himself to relax. "You should be more careful," he chastised. He knew he should deny being scared — assets weren't supposed to feel fear, but the rapid thud of his heart and the slight tightness in his throat said otherwise.

"I can't make any promises, I'm afraid. I'm a walking disaster — just ask Pepper." Mr. Stark grinned. "I'm going to give you gray hairs. Or at least an ulcer. Probably both."

For some reason, the Asset smiled. It felt weird; he wasn't used to smiling.

"Now, as much as I'm enjoying the view — and trust me when I say that I am — I should really get out of this thing."

Those words made the Asset realize that he was, for all intents and purposes, straddling his mark — and with no intention of strangling or otherwise harming him. Mr. Stark was covered in metal, which put a certain distance between them, but the Asset still felt something flare to life. Something he hadn't known he had forgotten until he experienced it again. It was a warm, heavy burn in his gut, comfortable despite the way it made him want to squirm.

The Asset stared down at Mr. Stark, fascinated to see the very same fire in those wide, brown eyes. Even if the Asset didn't fully understand what he was looking at, he found himself liking it. There was something awfully familiar about that warm, heady feeling — a rush of excitement that made him feel bold and so breathtakingly alive.

Mr. Stark swallowed noticeably and even though he clearly tried, his smile was less casual than usual. "I'm going to get ideas if you keep looking at me like that, Davis."

The Asset wasn't sure where the impulse came from but he found himself leaning closer, until they were mere inches apart. Mr. Stark held his gaze, looking as transfixed as the Asset felt.

"Well, we can't have that, can we?" the Asset replied softly, before carefully placing the faceplate back from where he'd taken it and climbing down from the wrecked car.

"That's it?" He heard Mr. Stark call, his voice distorted behind the metal of his faceplate. "You're not even going to help me out of this thing?"

"If you got inside it, you can get out of it," the Asset deadpanned. He walked across the workshop, heading for the glass door. "Come upstairs and eat when you're done."

"You are so my babysitter."

The Asset didn't reply, but he found that he couldn't stop smiling — even more so when that warm, excited feeling lingered in his chest for the rest of the evening. Since he liked it so much, he didn't even stop to consider that it might be something bad — something that could endanger his loyalty to the mission.

Right then, he might not even have cared.

 


 

The next night, Mr. Stark suddenly decided to leave the house. Except he didn't just go outside — he went to a fundraiser taking place in a building the Asset had not had the time to inspect or approve of, which was a grave error from a security standpoint. He told Mr. Stark as much, in the car on the way there, but Mr. Stark merely smiled and shrugged, saying that the Asset should be happy he hadn't tried to give him the slip.

The Asset was fairly certain that Mr. Stark had, in fact, tried to sneak out without him noticing, but the Asset was far too good at what he did to let that happen.

In retaliation, Mr. Stark had insisted on driving — despite the Asset's protests. He had relented only when Mr. Stark had threatened to drive off without him, since it was more important to accompany his charge to the fundraiser than to be the one behind the wheel.

The Asset didn't like crowds. He was completely exposed, uncomfortable in the suit Mr. Stark had insisted he must wear if he intended to come along, and carrying far too few weapons. Everyone wanted to talk to Mr. Stark and the Asset had to hold himself back from intervening whenever someone approached them — they could all be potential threats.

It only got worse when they met Mr. Stane just before entering the building. The look Mr. Stane gave him once Mr. Stark had turned his back warned the Asset that Mr. Stane was not pleased with his performance. Mr. Stark should not have been allowed to come to this event.

The Asset was possibly failing his mission.

He made sure that his expression remained unreadable when he offered Mr. Stane a brief, acknowledging nod, then followed his charge. Only the Asset wasn't sure if he should consider Mr. Stark as such. He was a target, nothing else. The Asset was meant to assassinate him.

Despite knowing this, the Asset couldn't curb his growing protective instincts. He kept his distance, prowling the edges of the room since he knew that Mr. Stark wouldn't want him to hover, but never let the man out of his sight, either.

The Asset tensed when Mr. Stark spoke to the agent — the Asset identified the inconspicuous man as one without even having to hear them speak, although he couldn't say for sure what agency he belonged to. The Asset would have to look into that; if they were being observed he needed to know. It could compromise his mission.

The Asset was grateful when Mr. Stark decided to sweep Ms. Potts into a dance instead, since she was definitely not a threat. The Asset watched the two dance, curious about the awkwardness in their body language. They usually seemed to gravitate towards one another, expertly navigating around their counterpart with teasing remarks and sizzling attraction. Tonight was different, however, and the change lay within Mr. Stark, if the Asset wasn't mistaken. He didn't look nearly as interested as he should have, holding such a beautiful woman in his arms.

Mr. Stark looked out over the crowd as he was dancing, his gaze eventually catching the Asset's. There was an almost imperceptible lowering of Mr. Stark's shoulders — showing his relief — and when the dance ended Mr. Stark politely bowed to Ms. Potts before leaving the dance floor, heading towards the Asset.

There was a smile on Mr. Stark's lips, growing softer the closer he came. "I realize I'm being extremely rude to my poor bodyguard here. Did you want something to drink too?" Mr. Stark asked once they were within talking distance.

The Asset shook his head.

"Oh, you're on duty, is that it?" Mr. Stark shrugged. "I don't mind if you live a little. In fact, I will get you a drink right now. What do you want?"

"Mr. Stark—"

"Tony," Mr. Stark reminded firmly, but he was still smiling — fondly, even.

"Tony," the Asset corrected, swallowing down that excited flutter in his chest, "I don't drink alcohol."

That was the truth. The Asset couldn't let his judgment be clouded by something like alcohol, although the few times he had been forced to imbibe some, it hadn't affected him to any major degree. Still, he knew better than to take such an unnecessary risk.

Mr. Stark blinked. "Huh. You know, I've heard of those kinds of people but I never thought I'd actually meet one. You're about as rare as a unicorn in this crowd, Davis." The fond smile returned as Mr. Stark placed a gentle hand on the Asset's arm. The touch was light but still shockingly warm. "There are alcohol-free options, I'm sure. I just don't want you to stand here and be bored."

"I'm not bored," the Asset replied truthfully. Keeping an eye on Mr. Stark was a fulltime job and being in his presence like this was extremely distracting.

The Asset felt his heart begin to race when Mr. Stark moved closer — just an inch, but it was more than enough to ignite that reawakening flame curling low in the Asset's gut. He had no idea what to do with it, but he had felt cold for so long that he couldn't help clinging to that blessed source of heat.

The Asset had spent so much time on ice that he had forgotten how good it feel to be warm again.

Mr. Stark was looking up at him, the smile gone, replaced with something that looked almost like nerves. But there was something else, too — something frail and hopeful — and the Asset didn't know why, but he couldn't help leaning closer. Longing, the Asset realized, that was what he saw in Mr. Stark's eyes. The Asset was close enough to almost taste it. If he just moved a little further he could—

A movement in the corner of his eye and the Asset straightened, automatically reaching for his gun before realizing that the elegantly dressed woman wasn't a threat. She was just breezing past. She did, however, remind him of the fact that they were in public.

Mr. Stark was already pulling away, his gaze averted. "You know what?" His voice was hoarse. "You might not want one, but I definitely need a drink. I'll be right back." Despite the rushed words, his hand lingered on the Asset's arm longer than strictly necessary.

The Asset tried to calm his raging heartbeat while he watched Mr. Stark weave his way through the crowd, heading towards the bar. The Asset wasn't sure what had almost happened, but he couldn't deny that it had felt awfully right.

He knew it shouldn't — the Asset's orders had been to not interact if he could avoid it — but there was just something with Mr. Stark that drew him in. He wanted to stay close and protect and shelter him. Mr. Stark made the Asset feel warm for the first time in, well — he couldn't even remember. Not only because of the emotions he lit in the Asset's chest, but because this mission was longer than most he had been assigned. He had spent more time out of the ice than usual, and there had been no visits to handlers or sessions in the chair.

He had almost begun to remember what freedom felt like.

The Asset ruthlessly silenced the thought, a shiver racing down his spine. He didn't know freedom, he reminded himself. He was an asset — a tool — and he did as told. If his handlers found out about his straying thoughts, he would be put in the chair again. He didn't want that.

Anything but the chair.

The Asset realized his hand was shaking and he quickly clenched it, swallowing down the wave of nausea.

He had to complete his mission. Mr. Stark was a mark, nothing else.

The Asset looked up just in time to see Mr. Stark storm off towards the entrance, an unknown blonde woman at his heels. The Asset realized he had let his attention slip and quickly followed the duo, still reluctant to let Mr. Stark out of his sight.

Mr. Stane was there, on the stairs leading up to the building, and the Asset could tell that whatever he told Mr. Stark was bad news. Mr. Stark was rigid under the arm Mr. Stane had wrapped around his shoulders and the Asset had to curb his urge to push the man off. That wasn't his mission.

He was there to eliminate Mr. Stark.

The look Mr. Stane shot him before quickly descending the steps was a clear reminder of that.

The Asset was running out of time to complete his mission.

 


 

The Asset avoided Mr. Stark the morning after. Not that it was difficult, seeing as Mr. Stark had shut himself away the moment they had returned from the fundraiser and had still not emerged. The Asset told himself not to feel relieved by that. He denied that he foolishly hoped that Mr. Stark would stay hidden forever, because then the Asset wouldn't have to kill him.

The Asset wished that staying away meant that Mr. Stark would be spared.

But he knew it wasn't that simple.

 


 

A series of high-pitched whines and the sound of shattering glass had the Asset running for the workshop. He wasn't sure what was wrong, but his instincts told him to find and protect Mr. Stark.

Luckily, the Asset didn't have to bother about whether or not the door would allow him admittance, seeing as it lay shattered on the floor. His gaze searched frantically for Mr. Stark, not calmed in the least when he saw the furious look on the man's face.

"Mr. Stark—"

"I told you not to call me that," Mr. Stark snapped. He was wearing one of the metal gauntlets — red now, instead of plain metal grey — and marched past the Asset, heading deeper into the workshop.

The Asset dared to grab his arm, ignoring his own disappointment when he realized that he was still wearing his gloves and couldn't feel Mr. Stark's bare skin against his own. He desperately wanted to.

"Tony, what's wrong?"

Miraculously, Mr. Stark stopped. He drew in a deep breath, his gaze cold and his expression eerily blank. The Asset could still see the rage boiling just under the surface, however, but he knew he wasn't the source of Mr. Stark's anger.

"Obie has been dealing under the table." Mr. Stark pulled his arm out of the Asset's grip. "He's been selling weapons to our enemies — to the people who kidnapped me — and they're terrorizing civilians. I can't let that stand, not when it's my name on the boxes."

The Asset could see where this was going when Mr. Stark clenched his fist, the gauntlet whirring. The suit could fly — it could take Mr. Stark anywhere he wanted in the world.

"It's too dangerous," the Asset protested. "You don't know—"

"You won't stop me, Davis," Mr. Stark bit out sharply.

"But what if—"

"You won't stop me." Mr. Stark was glaring, his jaw tightly clenched and gaze fierce.

The Asset swallowed, hands itching to reach out and touch. "It's too dangerous," he repeated, softer this time, not knowing what else to say.

Mr. Stark sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. "I'll let you tag along over the comms, okay? Does that make you feel better?"

The Asset was trying to push back the panic building in his chest. He knew Mr. Stark was right — the Asset couldn't make him stay unless he planned to physically restrain him. The Asset wanted to, but he wasn't sure if he should; he couldn't think beyond the nauseating worry.

"Fine." He nodded, albeit reluctantly. If he was allowed to supervise, he could at least offer tactical advice. The Asset had been deployed into countless warzones over the years and was no doubt better trained to strategize than a civilian, no matter if Mr. Stark's file said he was a genius.

"I know what I'm doing," Mr. Stark assured, even though the Asset knew that was a lie.

Without thinking he stepped closer, placing his hand on Mr. Stark's shoulder. "Be careful," he urged.

Mr. Stark — no, Tony — swallowed, his eyes suddenly flaring with that fire again, pushing back the cold, ruthless anger. The Asset realized his thumb had strayed, brushing softly against the side of Tony's throat. Before he had time to regret it, the Asset let his hand curl gently around the back of Tony's neck. He wanted to pull him closer — to press his lips against Tony's — but somehow managed to hold himself back.

"Just be careful," he whispered.

Tony nodded, looking as if he had forgotten how to speak entirely.

 


 

By the time Tony made it back, the Asset was a nervous wreck, pacing back and forth inside the workshop. There hadn't been much he could do once the fighter jets got involved and he had watched, helpless, as Tony tried to outrun them.

The moment Tony's army of robotic arms had removed the helmet the Asset was there, climbing up onto the platform so that he could cradle Tony's face in his hands. The Asset's heart was racing; he needed to know that Tony was okay.

"Whoa. Hey there, Davis." Tony smiled despite the exhaustion in his eyes. His arms were spread out, held more or less motionless by the robots trying to disassemble the armor. "We're good. Not injured, I promise. Well, a little banged up, maybe, but nothing too serious."

"Sirs, removing the suit is impossible while Mr. Davis—"

"Not now, JARVIS," Tony interrupted. "I think Davis needs a moment."

"You are a reckless, insane, infuriating idiot of a man," the Asset said, not holding back on the worry threatening to burst out through his chest. His thumb stroked Tony's cheekbone, seemingly on its own accord.

Tony's grin widened. "Tell me something I don't know."

The words poured out of him without the Asset's permission.

"I can't stand the thought of losing you."

Tony blinked, his smile fading into surprise. Realization dawned a second later and the Asset saw the budding hope — sweet, precious hope, still so frail yet undeniably there.

"That... would qualify, yeah," Tony mumbled, awed. He swallowed, his gaze flicking down to the Asset's lips before meeting his eyes again. "Davis, I—"

The Asset kissed him. There was a soft noise of surprise from Tony, but he leaned into it almost immediately. Tony's lips were warm and wonderful and everything the Asset hadn't even known he wanted. His body was humming with joy, that flaming heat bursting through his veins, thawing him from the inside out.

He wasn't sure if he had ever felt anything so amazing. He wanted it to last forever. He wanted—

The clicking sound of high heels descending the stairs made the Asset pull back, his eyes widening when he realized what he had done. He had kissed his mark.

He shouldn't have done that.

Ms. Potts came within view and the Asset quickly climbed down from the platform on which Tony stood, despite the flash of hurt in Tony's eyes. Ms. Potts gingerly stepped over the glass still littering the floor, staring at Tony, then the Asset, then back to Tony.

"What's going on here?" she asked.

Tony managed a smile, though it looked a touch off-center. "Let's face it," he said. "This is not the worst thing you've caught me doing."

The Asset wondered if Tony was referring to the suit or Ms. Potts finding him in a compromising situation with one of his bodyguards.

The Asset realized he didn't actually want to know the answer.

He shouldn't have kissed Tony.

 


 

The Asset and Tony danced around each other after that, not sure where they stood or how to proceed. The Asset wanted so badly to pull Tony close — to hold him and protect him from everything that could possibly harm him — but he knew he couldn't. Not when he was one of the things Tony needed protection from.

The Asset had been sent to kill Tony.

Tony was his mission, nothing else. The Asset had to kill him, in spite of his own doubts.

All too soon, the Asset found that he no longer had a choice in the matter.

Mr. Stane called and informed the Asset that they had to act immediately. The Asset knew Tony had sent Ms. Potts to gather information concerning Mr. Stane's illegal weapons transactions just a couple of hours earlier. She must have been discovered, and now Mr. Stane was getting desperate.

Despite his flicker of concern for Ms. Potts, the Asset felt his training take over.

The Asset would do as ordered.

 


 

The Asset secured the premises before disabling the AI in preparation for Mr. Stane's arrival. Once the Asset had let Mr. Stane into the house, he was told to assist but not interfere — Mr. Stane wanted to personally procure the arc reactor.

The Asset obeyed, following quietly in Mr. Stane's wake.

The mark was taken completely by surprise, slumping helplessly against the couch cushions when the paralysis set in. Mr. Stane was talking but the Asset didn't listen — he was too distracted by the wide, frightened eyes of the mark.

The Asset had seen those kinds of eyes hundreds of times before but he still felt something within him catch and squeeze. The Asset made the mistake of stepping closer, fueled by an instinct he was desperately trying to push down — a flicker of compassion that had no place in this situation.

Follow orders. Obey. Complete the mission. That was all that mattered.

He had to follow orders.

But then the mark's eyes landed on him, so expressive that they almost took the Asset's breath away. There was panic there — so much fear and desperation — but also a plea for help. The mark was begging for the Asset's help.

Mr. Stane seemed to notice he no longer had the mark's attention and glanced over his shoulder.

"Oh. Him." Mr. Stane smiled back at the mark, picking up the metal instrument designed to extract the arc reactor. "Mr. Davis works for me, I'm afraid. He won't save you."

A slight widening of those panicked, begging eyes — shock and denial flaring.

Then, a second later, something flickered and died. The Asset saw it happen — the instant crack caused by those words, followed by shattering hope. Hurt and betrayal took its place. The mark struggled to swallow, his gaze turning towards the ceiling instead, as if he could no longer bear to look at the Asset or Mr. Stane.

The mark's eyes shone bright with tears.

Tony's breaths were fast and shallow when Mr. Stane fitted the instrument against the glowing circle in his chest.

No. Not Tony. The mark.

This was nothing but a mark — another mission.

The whirr of the contraption burying into the mark's chest made the Asset's skin crawl. It reminded him of the chair — of the countless hours of pain and torture he had withstood, just as helpless as the mark was now.

Mr. Stane was talking again but the Asset still didn't listen. He couldn't look away from the heartbreaking defeat on the mark's face — the acceptance of betrayal and what was to come.

The mark flinched when the arc reactor was pulled out from its socket, a choked noise of pain slipping past his lips. The Asset stared, suddenly unable to breathe. The mark's chest rose and fell in weak, agonized breaths, and the Asset found he matched them, step for step.

It felt like someone had just ripped his heart right out of his chest.

The pain was worse than anything he had ever experienced in the chair.

The mark—

Tony was still staring at the ceiling, unable to move. There was so much pain in his eyes — so much betrayal and fading hope.

The Asset was going to watch Tony die.

The Asset moved without conscious thought. Instincts took over — instincts he could no longer curb because Tony was in pain and the Asset couldn't stand it. Without the reactor Tony would die and the Asset didn't know what he would do if Tony died.

He couldn't lose him.

A gunshot rang out, loud in the near silence of the room. Mr. Stane almost fell off the couch when the bullet lodged in his shoulder, dropping the arc reactor when his hand automatically reached to cover his wound. The Asset didn't hesitate, marching across the room with his gun held steady, still aimed at Mr. Stane — in case he tried to move to hurt Tony again.

Mr. Stane did.

One warning shot was enough — the next bullet buried between Mr. Stane's eyes.

The Asset didn't watch as Mr. Stane crumpled to the floor. Instead he hurried over to the couch and fell to his knees, dropping his gun in favor of the arc reactor, which had landed next to Tony's feet.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," the Asset whispered.

He didn't even dare to look up at Tony's face, choosing to focus on getting the arc reactor back in place instead. The Asset was trained to cause destruction and suffering, not handle something as delicate as the arc reactor, but he had to try. His breath was hitching from panic but he had to try.

"I'm sorry." He swallowed before continuing to repeat his breathless mantra. "I'm sorry, Tony. I'm so sorry."

The Asset had to tug off his right glove when he realized he couldn't feel what he was doing through the leather.

His hands were fumbling — they usually never did that — and were too big to reach properly, but somehow the Asset managed to slot the cable into its socket, then the arc reactor itself. He knew it had worked the moment Tony drew in a relieved breath.

Tony would be fine.

The Asset realized he was shaking, his right hand resting protectively over the arc reactor — as if to make sure it remained where it belonged. He slumped forward, his forehead landing against Tony's thigh.

"I'm so sorry," he whispered, voice cracking. The Asset knew that he should move — Tony was still paralyzed and couldn't push him away even if he wanted to — but he found that his limbs wouldn't obey him. He was too exhausted.

Minutes passed in silence.

It didn't take long for the Asset to realize that there would be severe repercussions for what he had done. Not only had he failed his mission, but he had killed his contractor — one of HYDRA's allies. They would punish him severely, maybe even kill him, but as he sat there, listening to Tony breathe, the Asset found he didn't care. It was worth it.

He would gladly trade his own life for Tony's.

The Asset flinched when he felt a clumsy, hesitant touch against the back of his head. Tony was regaining control over his limbs, although he was clearly not the most coordinated yet. The Asset shivered when Tony's hand settled against his hair, the gesture full of gentleness — as opposed to the anger the Asset had expected.

He still didn't dare to look up.

"Your name isn't Davis, is it?" Tony's words slurred slightly, but not so much that the Asset couldn't understand what he was saying.

"No," he replied softly, swallowing down the lump in his throat. "I don't have a name. I'm just an asset."

"Obie hired you?"

The Asset nodded. "I'm on loan from HYDRA."

Tony sucked in a sharp breath. "HYDRA?"

There was both disbelief and recognition in Tony's voice — he had heard of HYDRA before. The Asset froze, fear gripping his heart. Was Tony going to send him back to them? Was Tony one of them? But then why had Mr. Stane wanted him dead?

"That's where I recognized you from," Tony mumbled dazedly.

The Asset squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the blow he knew had to be coming.

"James, look at me." Tony's voice was surprisingly soft.

Automatically, the Asset did as told despite the panic growing in his chest. He was surprised to find something like awe on Tony's face, mixing with the shock. Tony still couldn't move all that well but his hand brushed clumsily against the Asset's cheek.

"You— wow. I have no idea where to even begin sorting this mess out." Tony let out a trembling breath. "I will, though. I promise you, James. Whatever they did to you, I won't let them do it again."

There were several things the Asset could have addressed but there was one in particular that stood out to him.

"Why do you call me that?"

Tony looked pained. "Because I'm pretty sure that's your real name. I know who you are, James. Who you were, before HYDRA."

The Asset's eyes widened. "You do?"

"Yes, I do." Tony smiled faintly. "I have no idea how HYDRA did it, but we'll get to the bottom of it, I promise you that."

Hope was building in the Asset's chest.

"And you really need to tell me about HYDRA." There was urgency in Tony's voice and determination in his eyes.

Tony wasn't with HYDRA — he wanted to stop them.

This was the Asset's way out. If he returned to HYDRA they would punish him for his disobedience, but Tony offered him a different choice. It would be no less dangerous — the Asset knew that without even asking — but he could tell that it was a road he would much rather travel down.

"I'll tell you what I know," he promised, the tightness in his chest lifting when he saw the smile on Tony's face. The Asset straightened, reaching out to cup Tony's cheek with his right hand, shivering when he felt Tony's skin against his palm. "And you can tell me who I am."

"It's a deal," Tony replied, leaning into the Asset's touch. "We'll fix this, I promise."

 


 

"We finally meet, Mr. Stark." The agent that stepped into Tony's office looked impeccable, except for the slight twitch he gave when his gaze landed on James. There was a flicker of recognition mingled with confusion, but it was quickly covered up.

James tried not to stiffen where he stood next to Tony's chair, but Tony still noticed. He gave James a comforting smile before focusing back on the agent on the other side of his desk.

"Agent Coulson, right?"

"Yes, Mr. Stark. You will be pleased to hear that Sector 16 has been cleared and as for Mr. Stane himself, reports will soon reach you of his unfortunate demise." The agent gave a slight nod. "Plane crash."

James noticed that Tony lost his bearings for a second — Stane's betrayal and death was still weighing heavily on him — but he shook it off just as quickly. They hadn't called the agent there to discuss Stane.

"Lovely." Tony offered a tight smile and James gently brushed his fingers against Tony's shoulder, hoping to reassure. Tony noticeably relaxed. "Unfortunately, Agent Coulson, we're not anywhere near done yet. We've got a much bigger problem on our hands than Obie's double-dealing. In fact, I'm about to make your life about ten times more complicated."

Agent Coulson didn't so much as raise an eyebrow. "Is that so?"

James's stomach clenched from dread, but he knew they had to do this. After what Tony had told him — after he had explained that James wasn't just an asset and that he'd once had a family, friends, a life — he knew HYDRA had to be stopped. As dangerous as it was to trust S.H.I.E.L.D, they didn't have much choice.

They had to start somewhere.

"Yes. Well, I say me," Tony amended, rising from his chair and smoothly buttoning his suit jacket, "but Mr. Barnes here is the one who will do the talking. And I can guarantee you that your boss will want to hear what he's got to say."

There was that flare of recognition again, Agent Coulson's eyes widening just a tiny fraction. James realized that this man, much like Tony, knew who James had been before HYDRA got their hands on him.

Agent Coulson knew of James Buchanan Barnes.

"I will arrange a meeting with Director Fury right away," the agent replied.

Tony grinned. "I thought you'd say that."