Chapter 1: Who the Hell is Arno?
Anthony drew in a breath of the cold New York air, looking up towards the sky only to grimace at the cold drops of rain falling against his skin. He received a few strange looks from passersby, but he was determined to enjoy this, his first true day of freedom, cold weather and near-freezing rain and all. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t endured worse things - he’d been raised and trained to endure interrogation and torture, after all. Compared to all that, dreary weather was nothing.
Taking another breath, he turned his attention back to where he was going, tugging his cap down over his eyes and pulling his coat tighter around his shoulders. It was sort of nice. Being just another member of the crowd. Not that he’d entirely dropped his guard, of course, but one didn’t really get to appreciate such things when they worked for an organization like Hydra. Or maybe he just needed to get out more.
He had just finished frowning at and circling around someone giving him more attention than he felt comfortable with, when a shout rose up from further down the street. Anthony tensed, ready to fight or flee as warranted, looking around to locate the source of the commotion, only to find - with much alarm - that it was him .
“Mr. Stark! Mr. Stark!” Several people brandishing cameras and voice recorders shouted as they thundered towards him.
“Arno! Look over here!”
“Stark, can you tell us how SI is dealing with the death of your father?”
“How long before you take over as CEO?”
“Has Stark Industries--” “Mr. Stark, have you-?” “Arno--”
What the ever-loving fuck.
Anthony threw up an arm to shield his face. The last thing he wanted was for his image to be plastered across some tabloid or another, betraying his general location to his former associates. Could they even be considered his former associates, yet? He’d only just left early that same morning.
“You’ve got the wrong person!” he declared loudly. This only resulted in an increase of flashes and questions from the mob of reporters pressing in around him. “No comment!”
This was not at all how this day was meant to go. As the group crowded in closer, trying to get a clear picture or a soundbite, the young man felt his nerves winding tighter and tighter. These idiots had no idea just how close he was to introducing each of them to the pavement.
Anthony retreated back, reluctant to cause more of a scene, seeking a viable exit strategy. He could contemplate the hows and the whys and the what-the-bleeding-hells once he’d gotten out of this mess.
There! A few more hastily maneuvered steps and he was at the mouth of an alley. He wasted no time in whirling about and fleeing, pulling over garbage cans to slow down his pursuers. Vaulting himself up onto the edge of a dumpster, Anthony leaped up to catch the bottom-most platform of a fire escape and hauled himself up.
It wasn’t until he arrived, rather breathlessly, on the roof that he allowed himself to stop. He didn’t dare peek over the edge, lest one or more of the journalists had a telephoto lens, but after listening long enough to assure they hadn’t managed to follow him up the escape, he did allow himself a moment to think.
“Bloody hell,” he mumbled to himself, removing his cap and dragging a hand through his hair. “What was that about?”
He knew about Stark Industries, of course - everyone knew about Stark Industries. Anthony himself was quite adept at replicating and improving their weapons. Naturally, he also knew about Howard Stark and his recent death (murder). Hell, he’d even heard about the man’s son - Arno, apparently - and his supposed genius (and okay, the work credited to said Stark did seem pretty top notch, if Anthony said so himself).
What Anthony didn’t know was why random reporters on the street were mistaking him for the heir to one of the largest and most renowned weapons manufacturers in the world.
Allowing himself only a few minutes to catch his breath, Anthony decided that whether he was being pursued or not, it was probably best not to loiter on top of random buildings. Also, his clothes were starting to get rather damp. In any case, he had some research to do.
… He probably needed a disguise.
The fake mustache kept peeling off his face. He kept surreptitiously pressing it back down but the little boy at the computer across from him was starting to shoot him suspicious looks. It had been awhile since he’d done any spy work, okay? Hydra had found him to be more useful in the labs maintaining and designing equipment. The last time they’d sent him into the field had been when they needed someone to infiltrate some hoity toity private school over in Britain. That had been nearly three years ago. A guy got rusty.
After what felt like an eternity, the library computer finally coughed up the search results he’d typed in. Hydra had a lot of faults, what with being full of a bunch of fanatics with very troubling beliefs (raised there or not, Anthony was a genius; he’d eventually noticed), but their technology was not one of them.
At the moment, however, Hydra was not his foremost concern. Second most, certainly - someone would have definitely noticed that he’d gone AWOL and stolen some information while he was at it by then. But no, his primary concern was Arno Stark.
Arno Stark, who had recently inherited an empire. Arno Stark, who apparently had a knack for catching the media’s attention on a somewhat regular basis. Arno Stark, who at the tender age of 21 - Anthony’s age, in fact - was already well-known and recognizable across the country and in much of the world.
Arno Stark - who had Anthony’s face.
He skimmed through article after article, pausing now and again to stare at the face he’d grown up seeing in the mirror. It seemed unreal but it was. It was very disconcertingly, inconveniently real.
“Well, shit, ” Anthony whispered more loudly than he’d intended. The little boy’s mouth dropped open and his eyes went wide at his language. “Sorry,” the man mumbled.
Quickly logging off the computer, he hurried out of the library. Keeping his head down and cap pulled low, Anthony walked hurriedly along. A litany of shit, shit, shit played in the back of his head.
How on earth had he lived his entire life without realizing he had a goddamned doppelganger?! Sure, Hydra could keep their people pretty secluded, but he hadn’t been that sheltered. Had he? He had, hadn’t he? Obviously, he had. He’d run away from freaking Hydra, well aware of just what they were capable of, without a single clue that his face was known everywhere .
“Fuck!” Anthony burst out. A little old lady gave him a gimlet eye. “Sorry, sorry,” he muttered, ducking his head further down.
This was not how things were supposed to work out. He hadn’t been away from Hydra for even one whole day before running into a problem. It couldn’t even be a small problem. Oh, no, he just had to have one of the most recognizable faces in the country. How could that possibly complicate matters?
Anthony groaned. Fishing around in his pocket, he pulled out the new ID he had created for himself, his thumb brushing over the name. Anthony Strong. His mother’s surname. Well, her stage name, anyhow. ‘Anthony Armstrong’ was a bit alliterative for his tastes.
His mother's name had been Amanda and she had been a singer and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent - a real S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, not like his father Jude No-Known-Last-Name. His father who, it turned out, had murdered his mother and had stolen him away to be raised by an organization that would use him like a tool.
He wished his life had been different.
“Could’ve been billionaire playboy train-wreck,” Anthony muttered to himself. He couldn’t decide how much better that was than a Nazi-raised human tool. His guess was that it was still in the ‘a lot’ range.
Shoving the ID back into his pocket, he focused on reorienting his plans. First things first, he had to get out of New York and as far from the Eastern seaboard as possible. It wouldn’t change the fact that he had a celebrity lookalike, but hopefully being far away from where the other man lived would cut down on the number of people thinking that they recognized him.
He could go overseas, but that was the sort of thing his soon-to-be old friends with Hydra would expect of him. Granted, they would also expect him to try to hide within a large populace or disappear to some small town. It was hard not to be known by a group of people who’d raised and trained and studied one from infancy, but he was trying, alright?
Besides, Anthony had no other choice than to disappear. He’d ensured that the moment he’d learned the truth about his mother and decided to betray everything he had ever known. Anthony knew very well what happened to insubordinate assets - and despite how he’d been trained, despite how vaguely well he had been treated, Anthony was well aware that he was an asset.
To be captured and taken back now would mean death - or worse. His only choice was to outsmart Hydra while somehow keeping his face from being recognized at every turn.
Keeping his head down, Anthony boarded a bus and disappeared.
Two Years Later, Sometime in June
Tony was only half-listening to the barista as she chatted at him. To be fair, he was far more interested in the coffee she was making for him. She seemed friendly enough, he supposed.
“Say, but you must be real excited about Stark Industries expanding out here to California, huh?” she asked amiably, finally passing over his cup of life-giving nectar.
He offered a crooked smirk, winking as he shoved a large tip into the jar. “Less than you might think,” he told her, playing up the British accent he rarely used anymore. Her brow puckered in confusion as he turned away.
People still mistook him for Stark, despite his best efforts. Of course, it didn’t help that Arno Stark had decided to build a second set of offices in L.A. and move to the area. Why wouldn’t he? Tony was just trying to keep a low profile. No big deal.
To be fair, though, Tony had taken the time to study and learn Stark’s mannerisms. It hadn’t been intentional, at first. He had just spent so much time reading articles and watching newsreels and videos about the man that he’d started to pick it all up.
At that point, Tony had decided that if he were going to do a thing, he was going to do it well. Who knew when being able to impersonate Arno Stark might come in handy? He really could have been the man’s twin. They had the same hair color and skin tone, same features, the same height and build. The only notable physical difference between them, near as Tony could tell from photos and video clips, was their eyes. Tony’s eyes were brown, whereas Arno’s were blue.
That could be easily changed with colored contacts, not that it seemed necessary for everyday purposes. Eye color was definitely lost on most people. Granted, most people hadn’t been trained to notice such small details in strangers.
Stepping out of the coffee shop, Tony made his way up the street, weaving between fellow pedestrians. It was probably about time for him to relocate. Stark had been in the area for around two weeks, increasing the number of people mistakenly identifying him as the billionaire. Tony had been in Los Angeles for longer than he’d initially intended, anyway. It wasn’t the best idea for him to remain in the same place for too long.
Where to go, however. It would probably be best to go someplace small and out of the way, or at least somewhat less obvious. Tony had found that he rather liked the lively bustle of a large city, however. Perhaps a compromise? A larger city, but not a major one. That would surely suffice. It wasn’t like Hydra was anywhere close to actually finding him. When he checked a couple days before, they were trying to track him down in South Africa. (He was actually a bit surprised that no one had gone after Stark believing the man to be him, yet, but he was sure that would happen eventually.)
Thus decided, Tony mentally cataloged what he needed to get done before moving on. There were a few people he needed to meet with before heading out of town and a couple bits of business to be settled. He was just pulling out his phone to make a few calls when someone abruptly stepped into his path.
“Oh, my god. You’re him, right? You’re totally him! I’m, like, your biggest fan,” they gushed.
For the love of--
“Um,” Tony said uncomfortably, backing away - not that it increased the distance between him and the other person, since they followed. “No. You’re mistaken. Sorry.” At least they weren’t pointing their camera at him. Yet.
“What?” they squawked, looking scandalized by his denial. They were also very loud. It was starting to draw attention. “No way. You look exactly like him - you have to be Arno Stark!”
Now, he could be wrong, but Tony was relatively certain that identity didn’t quite work that way. “I’m pretty sure I’m not,” he insisted, trying to remain diplomatic while searching for a way out of the situation.
“Hey - isn’t that Arno Stark?” Someone else piped up and Tony resisted the urge to groan. He should have left the minute it was announced that Stark Industries would be coming to L.A.
Now the phones were being raised in his direction and he managed to hide behind his coffee cup before flashes started going off. Not for the first time, he wondered how Stark constantly dealt with such invasive attention. Did the man have no private life? Could he? Judging by the frequent articles online and in the tabloids, the answer was a resounding no.
And Tony had thought his old life was disenchanting.
The number of people crowding around him was still relatively small, but their respect for his personal space was rapidly dwindling. All this despite his protests that he was not Arno Stark. It was ridiculous. There were celebrities who lost their own lookalike contests and here he was not even the person in question.
It was really starting to look like his best escape option would be to dart across traffic, when someone at the back of the group piped up, “Wait - he’s not Stark!”
That’s what he’d been trying to say.
“Stark’s holding a live press conference right now. See?” Several people crowded around to peer at the guy’s phone, murmuring in confusion and reluctant agreement.
Tony didn’t stick around to see if anyone wanted to argue current events. He took off the moment attention wavered from him. The attendant of the lingerie store he’d slipped into shot him a dubious look but otherwise ignored him. That suited Tony just fine.
He loitered around the shop, discovering a few rather interesting things, just long enough for his would-be fans to fully disperse. Then he slipped back out onto the street, pulling out his phone even as he made himself scarce. There were arrangements to be made.
In his own defense, Tony wanted the record to show that even though he had rather thoroughly, uh, studied Stark, he never had any real intention to meet the guy nor interfere in his life in anyway. Bad enough that he sometimes got mistaken for him. It was simply better not to make things any more complicated.
The most frustrating thing Tony had learned about life outside of Hydra was that things rarely went to plan.
It was his last night in L.A. and he was making his way back to his apartment. He had just completed the last of his business, cutting his final tie to the city before he left. There was no knowing when or if he’d return, besides, he would be leaving his current identity behind. Tony Babbage would disappear and Nathaniel Edison would take his place. He would miss going by his real name, but concessions had to be made.
As he turned down an alley beside a local club, a door at the side of the building slammed open and a voice called out, “Hey, you!”
Tony still wasn’t sure why he dove behind the dumpster rather than hightail it out of there. Really, his survival instincts ought to have been better than that. Nevertheless, he did just that, which is why he was still close by when he realized the man wasn’t addressing him.
There was a grunt as someone was slammed into a wall, as well as the door opening and closing to let somebody disappear back inside. He missed the first bit of the conversation, but his questionable decision to sneak closer soon remedied the problem.
“--think you’re so clever,” the first man was sneering, “hiding in plain sight, but I know who you really are.”
“See, that makes one ‘f us, ‘cos I’ve got no idea who you are,” the other replied, words slurring.
Tony knew who both of them were. The one was Hydra. He’d never caught the man’s name, but he’d often supervised when they had him do maintenance work. To be fair, the man probably didn’t know his name, either. He’d only ever called him ‘mechanic.’
The person shoved up against the wall was none other than Arno Stark.
Stomach twisting into knots, Tony seriously considered just walking away. Was it really his problem if some goon mistook Stark as him? Surely Hydra realized they looked alike, by now. It wasn’t exactly rocket science. Either way, it wouldn’t take them long to figure out.
That still left one problem: Arno Stark was still a genius like himself. Furthermore, he was the head of Stark Industries. He was the one designing most of the weapons.
Hydra wouldn’t need Stark to be Tony. It was more than enough that he was Arno Stark.
One goon, a drunk billionaire, and an otherwise empty alleyway. If the goon had backup, he’d probably have called them by now, so he was likely planning to bring in Hydra’s runaway asset on his own. So, one on one with possible assistance? Sure, the guy was built like freaking wrecking ball, but with Tony’s training and smarts, he should be able to handle him. What could go wrong?
So much could go wrong.
And yet, he had snatched up a can and beaned the goon upside the head with it before he’d even thought about it. “Hey, numbskull,” Tony taunted, and it wasn’t exactly the most original insult but a better one probably would’ve been lost on the guy, anyway. “I think you’ve got an eye problem.”
For a moment, the Hydra goon gaped between Tony and Stark, clearly at a loss. But then, Tony was the one speaking with a British accent. Just like he had when he was with Hydra - one of the few things he had taken from his father and the first thing he had dropped.
“You,” he spat, releasing the billionaire to turn on Tony.
Tony gave him a smug grin. “Me,” he replied, feigning confidence he didn’t quite feel. “Though, I do have to ask: you aren’t alone, are you?”
The goon snorted. “Like I need assistance carting in a lab monkey like you.”
“Right, then. So you aren’t on the team assigned to bring me in,” said Tony.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, that depends. If you were part of said team, for instance, you’d probably be better informed,” Tony pointed out. “I mean, you know I’m smart - you’ve seen me be smart - but you seem to be ignorant about the other thing.”
“What other thing?” the Hydra agent demanded, eyeing him suspiciously.
“The fact that I’ve had at least as much hand-to-hand training as you,” stated the genius. The other man scoffed and Tony shrugged. “I did try to warn you.”
Then, the goon launched himself at him, a fist already flying. Tony dodged the blow, ducking right and in to deliver a kidney shot with his elbow as the man’s reckless momentum carried him forward. The agent let out a sound that equal parts pain and annoyance.
“Now, I can see how you might think that was a lucky move on my part,” Tony remarked as he danced away. “But there’s a very good reason why being left-handed won’t be as much of an advantage as you’re probably used to.” He knew he should just shut up. Angering one’s opponent was simply a bad idea in anyone’s book, but he couldn’t seem to help himself.
“Shut up!” the goon snarled, agreeing with Tony’s subconscious. He lunged again. Admittedly, he was less obvious this time, but Tony still managed to deftly evade and deliver a couple more blows. He had to wonder how many drinks the goon must have had. Hydra agents usually held up a bit better.
“I’m only trying to let you know what you’re--” Tony didn’t quite avoid the next strike, catching a glancing blow to the ribs that still managed to steal his breath for a moment. “What you’re up against.
“I didn’t just--” He was forced to break off to focus on the next volley of attacks. Dodge, dodge, again, parry, jab to the spleen. “Just work on the Asset’s arm. I was also… Shit.”
The goon kicked out unexpectedly, taking Tony’s leg out from under him. He wheezed as his impact with the ground forced the air from his lungs. Nevertheless, he was rolling a second later, only just avoiding a boot to the gut.
Now, Tony was getting angry, too - as much fear as adrenaline-fueled temper.
He struck out with his heel, hitting close enough to the goon's knee to do the trick. Then the rest followed fluidly, a lifetime of training taking over. For better or worse, he was Hydra born and raised. He finished the fight in three more moves.
Punch to the liver. Blow to the solar plexus. Elbow to the back of the neck. The strikes had been quick, efficient, brutal - just as he’d been taught.
“I was also trained by the Asset,” Tony finally concluded, winded enough that he knew he needed to add physical training back into his routine. He straightened carefully, grimacing in discomfort. Definitely time to leave L.A.
Limping slightly for a few steps, Tony made his way over to where Stark was slumped against the wall of the alley. “Hey,” he said loudly.
“Five more minutes,” his lookalike mumbled.
“Don’t tempt me,” Tony muttered. Heaving a sigh, he crouched down and pulled one of the other man’s arms across his shoulders. “Come on. Can’t sleep here, genius. Where’d you park? Or did you take a cab?”
It took some doing, but Tony eventually got Stark into the passenger seat of his vehicle before climbing behind the wheel himself. Another couple of minutes were dedicated to rifling through the man’s pockets for his car keys - of which he had way too many. Nearly an hour later, they were pulling up in front of Stark’s shiny new Malibu mansion. Which Tony technically shouldn’t know how to find.
Look, Tony knew his interest in Stark had long since crossed the border into stalkery. But the man was now home safe in one piece and not abducted by Hydra, so really, his thoroughness ought to be considered a good thing.
Wrestling Stark into the house and to the nearest sofa was another chore altogether. It was like trying to maneuver a large bag full of fish. He was unwieldy, ungainly, and not the least bit helpful in the endeavor, but somehow Tony managed.
Tony settled the man into the corner of the couch, making sure he was mostly upright in case he vomited on himself. That done, he turned to leave. A hand shot out before he was able to do so.
Blue eyes peered blearily up at him as the intoxicated billionaire took notice of him for the first time since the alley. “Hey,” Stark addressed him. To the man’s credit, the words were only the slightest bit slurred. “How come you’ve got my face?”
Chapter 2: Bringing Home Strays
For a supposedly smart guy, Tony found himself making some pretty dumb moves, sometimes.
I goofed in the first chapter. It had been my intention to at least loosely adhere to a MCU time frame starting out, but then I had people pulling out cell phone cameras. Cell phones weren't ubiquitous in the '90s. I know this. And I still did it. Ack. Anyhow, for the general timeline here assume that 1) the modern characters were born about ten years later than MCU canon and/or 2) cell phones and such became common and popular a lot sooner than in reality. Both is good. Either way, assume we're somewhere in the 2000s.
It was a very good question the billionaire was posing. Tony had been wondering why he and the man shared a face since the day he’d found out two years ago. (And if he’d accidentally technically stalked the man during that time, no one need know but Tony himself.) Barring them being twins separated at birth - unlikely since they’d been born a month apart on separate continents - there was no real reason for it. They just… looked alike.
Still, Tony wasn’t exactly keen on the idea of Stark knowing he existed.
“You’re drunk. And probably high,” he reminded the man blithely. “We don’t look alike at all. Honestly, I might not even be here. The mind’s a weird place.”
Stark stared at him for a long moment, all the while holding onto his wrist. “So. What you’re saying is that you’re my subconscious and I’m imagining you here so I have someone to talk to.”
“Sure,” Tony agreed after a beat, “and I think you should sleep it off. And hire a bodyguard.”
“No!” Stark protested, tugging on Tony’s arm so abruptly he nearly tumbled into the man’s lap. “No. No, you - you’re here because you’re the only one that understands. Only one who cares. No one else cares.”
Well, that sounded potentially depressing. He really shouldn’t humor the guy in his current state, nevertheless, Tony still found himself asking, “What doesn’t anyone else understand or care about?”
“Jarvis,” Stark answered, voice choked with emotion. He slumped back in his seat, grip finally releasing Tony’s arm.
“Jarvis?” Tony echoed, brows drawing together. Who was Jarvis?
“Yeah. Today--” he scrubbed his hands over his face, sucking in an unsteady breath. “It’s the anniversary. When he died. He was just a butler, so no one cares. ‘cept me. And you, but you’re me, so… so, yeah. It’s just - sometimes, it seemed like he loved me better than Howard did, y’know? Like, like, like it was enough. If I was just me. Jarvis cared anyway.”
What exactly was he supposed to say to that ? It wasn’t like he could relate. If anything, Stark had had something Tony had never known to wish for. Love? No one loved an asset in Hydra, no matter how young they were. Sure, Jude had looked at him with something akin to pride, sometimes, but that had always been in relation to something he had achieved, more often in response to someone praising Jude rather than Tony himself. Tony couldn’t even remember the last time he’d seen his father (it had been five years, seven months, twelve days, and approximately nineteen hours).
From the sounds of it, Arno Stark had had multiple people who’d cared about him. Who had ever truly cared about Tony?
Smooth, cool fingers gently helping him to his feet while the handler’s back was turned...
A new offensive maneuver telegraphed just enough that he could avoid serious injury...
Calloused fingers gently brushing against a trembling young hand when he’d accidentally triggered the pain receptors in the arm…
Soft words - so soft, barely there - “ Good boy ,” murmured in Russian…
Oh. Oh .
“I’m sorry you had to lose him,” Tony said, wondering whether he hadn’t had a Jarvis of his own, missing the man regardless.
“Me, too,” Stark whispered hoarsely. The man’s eyes were shut and he was still long enough that Tony was certain he’d drifted to sleep.
Tony turned to leave once more, resisting the urge to snoop around. It occurred to him that this may be his only chance to really see how his double lived in person. When else would he get the opportunity to snoop around freely? An argument could be made that he had saved the man earlier that night. Surely that meant it was okay if he took a peek behind the metaphorical curtain.
Before could decide one way or the other, Stark abruptly appeared in front of him, eyes alert and hair in disarray. “We should work on the thing!” he exclaimed.
“Jesus Christ!” Tony yelped, jumping back in surprise. “I thought you were sleeping!”
Stark waved off his response, swaying slightly with the movement. “No time. Better things to do,” he declared. “Now, listen - we should… What was I saying? Right, right, right - we should work of the thing.”
“Yeah, the AI system I’ve been working on. I’m so close! I just can’t seem to… to… Look, I think I just need a second set of eyes,” Stark tried to explain, sounding rather reasonable for a man who was still obviously trashed. “And really, who better to ask?” He made an encompassing gesture at Tony.
“You’re asking yourself to give your project a second look?” Tony deadpanned. He reached out to catch Stark by the arm as he started to tip over backwards.
“Yes,” Stark agreed emphatically.
“A bit vain,” Tony muttered, then more clearly, “Didn’t you already make an AI? Back when you were in college?”
It wasn’t an obsession. It was curiosity.
“Of course, I did, but this is different,” said Stark. “I was so, so drunk when I made that thing.”
“You’re drunk right now.”
“You’re not wrong. Look, can we just look it over? Please ?”
Was the man really whining at him? He was. Arno Stark was whining at him - well, at himself, really - to look at some undoubtedly secret project. Of course, Tony was going to say yes, if for no other reason than he was curious (ie: nosey).
Keeping a stabilizing hand on the man’s arm, Tony let Stark lead him through his house and down a set a stairs that led into what was clearly a workshop area set-up in the corner of a garage full of expensive cars. He briefly wondered if maybe he should not have left the other one parked out in the drive. It also almost made him miss the lab Hydra let him work in. Almost. Tony really missed having a dedicated lab. Maybe he ought to set one up in the next place he went.
When they reached the bank of computer monitors on the cluttered desk, Stark ushered Tony into the chair before shuffling over to sit on the arm of the battered couch nearby. Obligingly, Tony turned on the system and waited for it to boot up. Naturally, it was password protected.
Stark thought nothing of rattling off the non-intuitive alphanumeric code.
“Has anyone told you that you are way too trusting?” Tony asked.
“How am I supposed to keep myself from knowing my own password?” Stark countered.
And well, the man had a point. He was just lucky Tony had no interest in actually taking over his life. Even if it might have been beneficial in a lot of ways.
It was only another moment before Stark had directed him to the relevant folder and he’d begun opening up the various files.
“Holy shit,” Tony mumbled to himself. He read through it all with increasing astonishment.
What he was looking at not only required intelligence and ingenuity, but also creativity - imagination . That was never something Hydra had encouraged to any real degree. Tony could figure out any weapon or technology put in front of him, improve it even, but only in the ways requested by his handlers. There was no real room to branch out. They hadn’t wanted him to get ideas.
So, Tony never would have conceived of something like the complex work of technological artistry illuminating the screens in front of him, but he could see how it all pieced together. He could see how it could - how it should - work. It was, for lack of a better word, incredible .
“You really are a genius,” he breathed aloud, following a line of coding with his fingertips in front of a monitor. It seemed there was also merit to Stark asking for another set of eyes, because Tony could see where some of the problems were, the kinks that were keeping the system from becoming functional. “Hey, if you--”
A loud snore snatched his attention away from the computer. Stark had slumped down onto the seat of the sofa, well and truly dead to the world.
“Entirely too trusting,” Tony declared, shaking his head. He stared at the billionaire for a long moment.
He shouldn’t. He really, really shouldn’t. For one thing, he was supposed to be leaving soon. For another, he just shouldn’t.
Well, maybe just a bit. A few lines of code here and there, a couple well placed nudges in the right direction. Stark would really just think he’d done himself, wouldn’t he? In fact, he might not even notice if Tony did things right.
What were the odds the man would even remember he’d been there?
Just a few minutes of work, then. Except that a few minutes soon became several more than that, then even more, until more than three hours had passed and Tony really did need to leave immediately if he wanted to go collect his things and catch his flight. He’d have to ‘borrow’ Stark’s car, but it would probably be better if he just parked it right back where he’d found it, in any case. After all, as drunk as he’d been, Stark most likely would have taken a cab home.
Stark muttered in his sleep suddenly, the sound finally wrenching Tony away from the project. He quickly pulled up a new document to type down a few notes not unlike the handwritten ones scattered around the work space, thoughts on things to implement and kinks still needing to be worked out. Hesitating a moment, he added two final notes:
Just A Rather Very Intelligent System
Hire a bodyguard.
The billionaire shifted in his spot on the couch and Tony practically lunged out of the seat. He glanced over his shoulder, confirming that the man hadn’t actually woken, yet. He hurried out of the garage and up the stairs, sliding behind the wheel of the car in the drive a couple minutes later. Then he drove away into the predawn hours of the morning.
Tony hoped that Stark would finish JARVIS soon. The AI was already an incredible piece of work.
Later that year, September
Tony had, despite a rather loud part of himself advising against it, found himself in New York. He’d tried living in Arizona for a few weeks, but it had been too dry. Kansas had been alright while he was there, at least so far as the weather, but then there had been that trouble with a university and unauthorized access to top secret government files.
Needless to say, Thomas Whittle was not an alias he’d soon be using again.
So, now, Tony was in New York, Brooklyn to be precise. It just felt easier to melt into the dense populace. He spoke most of the languages spoken by the people who lived in the area and was eager to learn the ones he didn’t. As a bonus, he’d only been mistaken for Stark once and only briefly. Growing out his hair had helped - as had the fact that Stark had taken to having facial hair. It was probably only a matter of time, though.
It was early in the morning. Early enough, in fact, that not of people were out just yet. Tony was making his way to scope out an office building. Word on the street was that the company on the fourth floor had some interesting new tech designs and Tony had become acquainted with a person who might know a person who’d be interested enough to make it worth a closer look.
Also, it apparently had a new security system. Those always made a job more interesting to perform. Actually, Tony was rather more interested in studying said security than stealing designs for a potential buyer.
A quiet moan coming from an alley had Tony stopping to backtrack a few steps. He cast a wary look down the passage, frowning to himself. People ended up in these alleyways more often than many liked to believe. The sick, injured, hungover, those with no better options.
And damn if his sense of self-preservation wasn’t lacking. He should walk away. He knew he should walk away. Whoever it was, it was not his problem. Honestly, the last time he’d followed noises into an alleyway, he’d had to go toe to toe with a Hydra agent and he still wasn’t sure he would have been able to take the man if he hadn’t had a few drinks.
There was no answer to his quiet call, so naturally he had to move further into the alleyway. Because of course he did. For a supposedly smart guy, Tony found himself making some pretty dumb moves, sometimes.
Another soft groan drew him to the open mouth of a dumpster. A blond man was sprawled out amidst the garbage, bruises and cuts along every bit of visible skin. Tony stared a moment. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Obviously, a person lying in trash. Maybe less purple?
“Hey.” No answer. Tony reached in to poke at the guy. “Hey, you alright?” Stupid question, but what was he supposed to ask?
The guy cracked an eye to glance at him before closing it again. Tony gave him a light shake.
“Hey - what are you doing in the trash?” he asked a bit louder.
“Huh?” the guy lifted his head off a cardboard box to peer at Tony. “Wha?”
“Why are you in the trash?” Tony repeated as clearly as he could.
His head flopped back onto the box as the guy shrugged a shoulder. “Happens sometimes,” he offered unhelpfully.
“Right,” said Tony. “Do you need any help?” The guy seemed to have drifted off, so Tony shook him again.
“Dude, can’t a guy dumpster nap in peace?” the blond grumbled.
“Maybe when I’m sure you’re not dying or something.”
“Totally can’t hear you right now,” the dumpster man informed him, opening his eyes to look up at him. “Aid’s ‘re dead. Or gone?” He raised a hand to fumble at first one ear, then the other. “Left is dead. Right is gone. Aw. Righty, no. That was my backup. Shit.”
Tony waved to get the man’s attention back on himself. “ I vote we get you out of there ,” he signed to him, hoping the guy knew ASL.
The blond seemed to brighten. “Oh. You sign. That’s nice. A lot of people don’t do that.”
“Are you always like this?” Tony asked aloud and with his hands, “Or are you concussed?”
“Yes,” the man answered seriously.
“Come on.” Tony reached out an arm and this time the guy reached to take it.
The man gave a pained grunt as he was hauled out of the bin but seemed to be able to stand well enough, although he was favoring his left leg a bit. He was wearing an outfit Tony could only describe as some sort of lightweight body armor, sans sleeves though it was (in purple of all colors; Tony really hadn’t expected the purple and he couldn’t say why that was the thing he was having trouble getting over). A leather guard covered his left forearm while he wore what appeared to be a wristband with extensions for his three middle fingers on his right.
Tony turned back to the dumpster, shifting things around as he searched.
“Dude, don’t even bother,” the man told him, “that hearing aid is gone, and I’m not sure I’d put it back in my ear even if you did find it.”
The brunet paused to address him, letting him see his lips and hands both. “I’m looking for your bow,” he said.
“What?” the other squawked, blue eyes going a bit wide.
“Your bow. You’re an archer - you’ve got your finger tab and guard on, so I assume you had it with you. Good bows are expensive. Judging by the muscles in your arms, you’re no amateur, so you probably have a good bow.”
“Right.” The look he was giving Tony now had become speculative. “Wasn’t in there with me. I think it’s still on the roof.”
“You fell from the roof ?!” Tony exclaimed.
“You need to go to the hospital - you could have internal bleeding.”
“No. No hospital,” the guy said. “I didn’t fall all the way from the roof. At least, not all at once.”
Tony stared at him, but also didn’t press. It wasn’t like he was in any position to judge. He avoided hospitals and other such places himself. “It’s your funeral,” he offered with a shrug. “Which roof were you on?”
“Uh…” the blond started to tilt his head to look up, only to grimace at the movement. Supporting the back of his neck with one hand, he tried again, then gestured with the other. “That one.”
Maneuvering the guy to a somewhat sturdy-looking box, Tony helped him sit. “You alright to wait here while I go look for it?” he asked.
The man’s eyes narrowed and he gave Tony a long look. “Okay, who are you?” he demanded, continuing solely with his hands, “ And why are you helping me?”
Tony took his time to consider the questions. Well, the second one, anyway. He wasn’t sure the first one had a proper answer. The second question clearly mattered to the man, so Tony needed to answer it accordingly.
“You seem like you’re having a rough day,” he finally settled on, hands more hesitant than his voice as he replied. “I know a bit about rough days. Also, I hate losing my stuff. Be right back.” He started towards the nearest fire escape.
“Hey,” the archer called out and Tony looked back at him over his shoulder. “You never gave me a name.” And he noticed the wording, that the man specified ‘a name’ as opposed to one that specifically belonged to him. It was deliberate, he was sure of it.
“Tony,” he told him, making sure to spell it out, “ T O N Y. ” It was both honest and not because it was short for his given name but the name he was going by was Antonio Rinaldi. He decided the semantics probably didn’t matter much.
“Tony,” the blond repeated, like he was weighing the name in his mouth, testing how it fit. It must have seemed right enough because he gave a nod. “I’m Clint.”
“Good to meet you,” Tony said. “I’ll be right back.”
Finding Clint’s bow went rather quickly, bows tending to stick out in an urban environment and all. If there was a case for it around somewhere, though, Tony couldn’t find it. He eventually went back down to the alley.
Clint was where he had left him, his head leaning back against the rough brick of the building. The blond seemed young like this, bruising around one eye and swelling around the split in his bottom lip. It reminded Tony of himself when he was small. When a handler or a trainer had lost patience with his questions or his attitude or they had just been in a bad mood.
Yeah, Tony knew about rough days.
He gently nudged the toe of Clint’s shoe causing the other man to startle, eyes snapping open. “It’s just me,” Tony said aloud, trying not to talk too fast since his hands were occupied. “I got your bow.”
“Dude, I could kiss you,” said Clint, reaching out for said bow.
“Promises, promises,” Tony grinned and handed it over. “You’re welcome. Do you live around here? Got any family or friends to watch you for a bit?”
“Ah, no, I’m just passing through. I’ll be fine.”
“I’m pretty sure you’ve got a concussion. You should have someone keep an eye on you for a few hours, at least,” Tony argued. “Look, if you really won’t go to the hospital, at least let me take you back to wherever you’re staying. Or even my place. It’d be a shame to dig you out of the dumpster just to have you die of a head injury or something.”
Clint gave an amused snort. “Cheery,” he said. “Fine, but we should go to your place. My motel probably isn’t, um, secure.”
“Sure thing,” Tony agreed easily, helping the blond back to his feet. “You can stay as long as you need to.”
“You make a habit of bringing home strays you find in the dumpster?” the man asked.
“No. You’d be the first.”
“So, you’re not usually this trusting of strangers.”
It sounded too skeptical to really be a question, but Tony shrugged and answered anyway, “ Not usually .” For his part, Clint just let out a scoff. Tony could have explained that he didn’t trust him so much as he was certain he could take him or at least avoid him if need be - at least in his current condition, if nothing else. That was a lot of words, though, so he just focused on helping the other man along.
Clint would only be around until Tony was sure the man would be alright. A day, two at most, and the archer would be on his way again leaving Tony to his own. It wasn’t like he was really bringing home a stray. They weren't going to become friends or anything.
Even Tony knew friendships didn’t work like that.
Chapter 3: Stuff
Which was stupid. Tony knew it was stupid.
For god’s sake, stop shaking and get a hold of yourself, Anthony!
“It looks like a hardware store puked in here,” was the first thing Clint had to offer as Tony led him inside his apartment. It wasn’t a wholly inaccurate assessment: there were various tools and pieces of electronics on every available surface - including the floor. Despite appearances, however, everything did, in fact, have a designated place.
… Tony may have gone a little overboard with collecting scraps and building materials.
The brunet hefted a box from one end of the sofa to the coffee table and motioned for Clint to take a seat. Clint seemed to deliberate whether he’d rather stand before his sore leg made his mind up for him. He sat.
“Would you like anything to drink?” Tony asked before going for the first aid kit he kept under the sink.
“Water’s fine,” Clint replied, voice a bit more mumbly as he sank into the couch. A person had little choice but to relax when sitting on it. It was probably the ugliest piece of furniture to be found, but it was comfortable as hell. Tony himself had accidentally drifted off while sitting on it on multiple occasions.
“No problem,” Tony said.
Clint offered a thumb’s up in response, quickly succumbing to the comforting power of the sofa. It was only the second time the man had used his hands for any sort of communication despite his clear understanding and appreciation for the sign Tony had been using since the man mentioned his deafness. Tony wondered at the possible reasons behind this. Was it simply that the man was tired after whatever had led to him ending up in the dumpster? Or perhaps he was more accustomed to speaking to people who didn’t know sign? His speech was quite good, only some of his words a bit slurry. He’d probably lost his hearing when he was older or underwent speech therapy or the like to learn to speak aloud clearly. Most likely, it had been both.
Not that it was any of Tony’s business. He certainly wasn’t about to ask.
Fishing an unopened bottle of water out of the fridge, Tony grabbed the first aid kit and returned to his guest. Clint had taken his remaining hearing aid from his ear and was turning it about in his hands. He looked up as Tony set the water and kit down on the coffee table.
“Hey, uh, do you think you might have any spare batteries that’d fit this lying around? Or a way to charge it?” he asked. “Would kinda like to have at least one of my ears working.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Tony replied, then tensed as the man held the device out to him.
Which was stupid. Tony knew it was stupid. Obviously, he was going to need the hearing aid if he were to replace the battery or charge it or whatever other solution might come to him. This wasn’t some test or mind game wherein he would get punished no matter what he did. Normal people accepted things from others all the time. If he wanted to live in the real world, he--
Tony took a step back, hands coming together in front of him. His right thumb swept across his left palm, the faded, barely perceptible scar there seeming to scrape the ridges of his fingerprint like the edge of a blade.
“What are you waiting for? I said take it.”
The boy glanced warily at the red hot iron the woman held out to him with a pair of tongs before peeking back up on her face. Her expression was hard and unyielding. She was waiting. Slowly, hesitantly, he reached out with his left hand to grab hold of it. He dropped it almost as soon as he had taken it, crying out in pain.
“Stupid boy,” the handler sneered. “What did you do that for?”
“That’s right. Because I said so. You’re a tool, an asset. You do as you’re told when you are told. Even when you know it will hurt. You don’t make choices. Hydra does that for you.”
“Whoa - hey! Easy ,” another voice cut in, tone somewhere between urgent and soothing. “Just breathe, already.”
Tony sucked in a breath of air, blinking rapidly until the blur of yellow and violet in front of him resolved into Clint. The other man had levered himself up from the sofa but hadn’t moved any closer. He’d continued talking even as Tony struggled to get a hold of himself.
“You’re alright. It’s fine,” he was saying. “You don’t have to take it from me. I’ll set it down on the table, see?” Clint moved carefully, telegraphing his movements as he held up the hearing aid before setting it down on the coffee table. “It’s okay, man. All you needed to do was tell me you don’t like being handed things. It’s not a problem. Didn’t mean to spook you.”
“Sorry,” Tony rasped. He tried to pull his hands apart so he could sign. It was only polite - Clint was speaking his language, after all. He couldn’t quite manage it, though. “I just… It’s stupid.” So stupid. Not there, anymore. For god’s sake, stop shaking and get a hold of yourself, Anthony!
“Hey, look at me,” Clint told him, causing Tony’s gaze to snap to his. “Nothing that makes a person react like that is stupid. Okay? We’ve all got our stuff.”
“Right. Yeah,” he mumbled, still calming his breathing. He finally separated his hands, raising them to sign again as he continued speaking, movements jerky. “Are you good here? I mean, do you need - want any help? Patching up?” Tony indicated the first aid kit.
Clint shook his head, carefully sitting back down on the couch. “Nah, I’m good. A bit accident-prone, so I know my way around a medkit.” He shot him a brief smile. “Thanks, Tony.”
“Yeah, and uh, thank you. For - you know. Just, thank you,” said Tony, then gestured towards the far end of the room. “I’ll be over there. Doing… stuff. If you need anything.” The blond nodded his understanding and Tony put words to action.
He settled in at the computer desk setup in the corner. Calling it a desk was a bit of a misnomer, as was referring to his computer as simply a computer . Three different computer towers had been disemboweled and assembled together. Five monitors were arranged atop a desk and a table Tony had pulled in close for that purpose. Two keyboards and three computer mice took up the space in the middle, a fax machine and a printer balanced on the far left edge of the desk against the wall while more specialized (and not strictly legal) equipment took up the rest of the table on the right.
Sitting down in the beat up chair, Tony booted up the system and logged in. He checked his messages first, shooting off a few emails and letting his contact know he hadn’t gotten the chance to scope out the tech company yet. That done, he focused in on the task of hacking his way into the Stark Industries computer network.
It was a challenge, as was often the case. The security had been upgraded again, though not by Stark himself, judging by the coding. Tony wondered whether the man had even been consulted on the updates or if he just wasn't personally invested in the cyber-security of his own company. Whichever the case, Tony soon lost himself to the task.
Some time passed, but he eventually made his way past the last firewall to poke around at the R&D project files. It was just more of the same old thing. There were new upgrades for the Stark rifle and handguns, a couple new body armors, and yet another killing device that would no-doubt end up in the wrong hands within a year of being completed.
Did Stark know what happened with his weapons? Did he care?
That branch of his curiosity sated, Tony took a break to check in on his guest and see about getting the stupid hearing aid he’d freaked out over working. Even more time than he thought must have passed because Clint had fallen asleep. A butterfly bandage held together the edges of his split lip whereas a bright blue bandaid with green cartoon characters on it covered a small cut at the edge of his blackened eye. There were several more bandages dotting his left arm, though it seemed he’d given up on patching the individual cuts and scrapes on the other side in favor of wrapping gauze around the entire forearm.
He was practically cuddling his bow in his sleep. It made Tony smile.
Grabbing up the hearing aid, Tony left the blond to his rest, making a mental note to wake him soon. He’d devote the time leading up to that to finding a battery or charger for the device - and maybe improving it a bit. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Though, perhaps, he ought to leave that for another time. It was probably bad manners to experiment with the belongings of people you didn’t technically know.
Replacement battery found, he had just started in on the more challenging task of trying to hack into Stark’s personal data servers when a startled shout came from the other side of the room. Tony practically jumped from his seat, relaxing only marginally once he’d identified the cause of Clint’s alarm.
“U, leave him alone!” he commanded sternly, making shooing gestures at the robot.
“Me leave him alone?” Clint squawked. “I was just sleeping!”
The mechanical arm gave several beeps, claw rotating this way and that curiously even as it backed away. Its arm drooped in apology, although its camera remained pointed at the visitor.
“No, the robot is named U,” Tony explained to the man, signing along as he’d been doing. “I forgot he was at his charging station. He’s just curious. I don’t get many visitors.”
“You have a robot?” Clint looked between Tony and said robot, looking like he didn’t quite believe what was before his eyes. His gaze then swept around what he could see of the apartment from the couch before he muttered, “Of course you have a robot, just look at this place.
“Why is it called U?” he asked.
“Dummy was taken,” Tony shrugged. “I kinda ripped his design off somebody else. Just to see if I could make it work, really.” He hadn’t even meant to make the robot. The idea had just gotten stuck in his head and before he knew it, he was putting the thing together.
Clint gave him a long look, then regarded a rather enthralled U for an equal stretch. “You built a robot just to see if you could,” he reiterated.
“Yeah,” Tony confirmed with a nod.
Another look before Clint declared, “I can’t decide whether you’ve got too much time or not.”
Tony smirked in amusement. “I find ways to keep busy.” He walked over to where he’d left the man’s hearing aid and carried it back to him. “Found a battery.”
“Awesome. Thanks, dude.”
“No problem. You hungry? I was thinking about ordering some pizza.”
“Okay,” Clint said seriously as he finished hooking his hearing aid into his ear, “now I really could kiss you.”
Tony laughed. “Let me go find the number.”
Chapter 4: Risks and Benefits
“Where’s the fire?” Clint asked as Tony rushed by in dark clothes, a pack thrown over one shoulder.
“Family emergency. I’ll be back later.”
A Few Months Later
Tony pursed his lips as he worked on hacking into files that were, officially speaking, none of his business. A lot of things were none of his business, but that never really dissuaded him. Hydra wasn’t that great at teaching a person proper boundaries.
As he worked, Clint lay sprawled across the sofa watching TV on the other side of the room. Tony still wasn’t sure how that kept happening. Initially, Clint had only stayed a couple of days before leaving, just as they had agreed. He had expected that to be the last he’d see of the man, but a couple weeks later, Tony had once again found him in an alley, dangling upside-down from a fire escape. The time after that, it was Clint that found Tony in a sticky situation.
Although the details they each shared were more vague than not, the two men had forged a camaraderie of sorts. The sofa had unofficially become Clint’s on those occasions he was in town and in need of a place to crash, and Tony… Well, Tony learned that he actually rather liked having another person around to talk to and share ideas with.
The whole situation confused him, however. Were they friends? What precisely were the criteria to label something a friendship? He honestly didn’t know. The closest thing Tony had ever had to anyone that might be considered a friend was the Asset and the man hadn’t even remembered him most of the time.
So, perhaps, Clint could be his friend or he might simply be an occasional roommate who didn’t pay rent. (Not that Tony paid rent, mind.) Either way, Tony felt ill-equipped to make any sort of determination on the matter.
“Dude,” Clint spoke, “why do you look like this Stark guy?”
Tony’s fingers froze on the keyboard. Then, he stood up and leaned right to see around his computer monitors to find that Stark was, in fact, currently on the news or something. It may have been one of those talk shows, judging by the loveseats people were seated upon. And the man had recently shaved, again. Bastard needed to make up his mind.
“Who says I look like him?” Tony asked, wondering whether Clint could even hear him at the moment.
The blond sat up to shoot him a look over the back of the couch, which answered that question. “Seriously?”
“Maybe he looks like me,” he pointed out. It was a matter of perspective, after all. “Why are you only now noticing our resemblance? That’s usually one of the first things people notice.”
Clint shrugged a shoulder. “Don’t really care about celebrities unless I have to,” the man replied. “You really walk around with richy rich’s face?”
Tony grimaced. “It’s a challenge, sometimes. Seems he’s well-known everywhere.”
“That’s gotta make things difficult.” And they both knew that Clint was referring to the vocation Tony never told him about and didn’t officially admit to having.
“I make do,” said Tony. Clint watched him for another long moment, then flopped back down onto the couch.
This was why Tony was confused. Was that normal? Did conversations just end like that? What did it mean? Was it supposed to mean something? Was there some given way that he was supposed to respond in turn? Nobody had better ask Tony. Tony hadn’t the foggiest idea.
After staring at the back of the sofa for a long moment, Tony finally returned to his chair and set back to his task. People were confusing. Computers and coding made sense - and if they didn’t, Tony could just keep typing until they did. Really, Hydra ought to have considered socializing him better if they wanted him to be a full-fledged spy. (Though, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they’d decided he was far more useful in a lab. His file didn’t specify.)
“You really do look just like the dude,” Clint’s voice came from between his monitors. Tony might have yelped in surprise. He certainly did slam into the wall as he shoved his chair back. When had the guy even moved off the couch?
“Oh, my god, must you?” Tony exclaimed, pressing a hand over his heart. U trundled over with a concerned beep to see what was happening.
Clint rose to his feet and moved around the desk with a sheepish grin. “Sorry, Tones,” he offered. “You really do look just like him, though. Are you related to him or something?”
“No. Already looked into that. No relation, anywhere. Just a really odd fluke,” answered Tony.
“Well, from what I can tell, you could be the man’s clone. You could trade places with him and probably no one would be the wiser,” Clint said, half-distracted as he held up different fingers for U’s amusement, switching hands so the robot had to rotate its camera to follow.
“I’m sure the people that actually know him would notice if he suddenly started acting differently,” Tony drawled.
The blond rolled his eyes without bothering to look away from his game with U. “Obviously, you’d have to study the guy’s mannerisms and whatnot, learn about his personal relationships and all that jazz. Bet you could pull it off if you needed to. You’re some sort of genius or something, right?”
“Or something.” He’d overheard his handlers refer to him as a genius throughout the years but it never really meant much of anything to him. It was just part of what he was, a thing that made him useful. Tony had had no idea how unique a trait it really was until he’d gotten out into the real world. “Stark’s a genius, too, they say. Regardless, it doesn’t mean I could impersonate him.”
“Maybe not,” Clint agreed, shooting him a grin, “but it’s fun to think about, right?”
Tony wondered again what precisely it was that Clint did for a vocation. He was certain it was about as legal as his own occupation. Probably a bit bloodier, considering the bow. Was he an assassin? A mercenary? Did he work for an organization or did he freelance? At the very least, he wasn’t Hydra - Tony had been sure to scour every nook and cranny of their servers to make sure. That still left a lot of guesswork.
“Yeah. Fun,” Tony murmured, watching as Clint patted U’s claw and rubbed along the robot’s arm. “Could also be a lot of trouble.”
The blond smirked at him. “Well, yeah - who told you those things were mutually exclusive?”
Whatever it was that Clint did, Tony suspected trouble was definitely a large component.
They had done it.
They’d really done it.
Tony hadn’t thought that they would again so soon after the last time, but they had. Hydra had activated the Winter Soldier. The Soldier was out on a mission. In New York .
He acted immediately, putting together what he had on hand in the way of weaponry. If there was one thing Tony knew, it was that Hydra seldom let their assets out without some sort of supervision. In order to even get to the Soldier he’d likely have to cross paths with a few goons. He did take a moment to briefly reconsider as he put together his supplies, weighing the risks against the benefits.
Risk: Hydra knowing where he was.
Risk: Hydra recapturing him and doing god-knows-what to punish him and make him subservient again.
Benefit: The Asset could be free.
Benefit: Without the Asset, Hydra would be that much weaker.
Benefit: Tony could save him.
That reason alone was enough for him to try. Nevertheless, Tony was sort of hoping Hydra didn’t have that many agents keeping tabs on the Asset. He was only one guy, after all, and even Hydra-training could only take him so far. In hindsight, he probably should have checked that particular detail.
“Where’s the fire?” Clint asked as Tony rushed by in dark clothes, a pack thrown over one shoulder.
“Family emergency. I’ll be back later,” was Tony’s vague response before hurrying out the door. There was little time to lose.
Tony hadn’t even paid much attention to the Asset’s mission - retrieving some top secret package from a warehouse. The details he had seen had been rather sparse. All Tony really cared about was getting to the man and trying to reach him.
He knew that the odds weren’t really in his favor. Tony also knew that the Asset was just as likely to attempt to kill him or bring him in as he was to recognize or even listen to him. But he had to try. Who knew when he would next get an opportunity like this? He had to try to free him. He just had to.
The warehouse in question stood among a cluster of similar buildings beside an old tenement house. About one in three didn’t seem to be in use anymore. It was exactly the sort of area Tony would expect to find a Hydra operation, really. (Someone really ought to teach them about cliches.) He carefully scouted the perimeter, the presence of people obviously guarding the various entrances proof enough that he was in the right place. They carried themselves like Hydra; it was a very distinctive posture.
Weighing his options, Tony concluded the side door in the alley behind an old dumpster would be the best point of ingress. Both the front and back of the building allowed too much space for additional agents to be watching from where they could not be readily detected. The alley, however, was dissected by a brick wall and a heavily chained gate. Furthermore, the two men standing guard there were visibly bored. In Tony’s experience? Bored meant inattentive.
Tony approached from the opposite side of the wall. He avoided the gate entirely, choosing to scale the wall and drop in on the goons from above. Drawing in a slow breath, he vaulted into action.
The first man took a stun gun to the neck as Tony landed on top of him. Before he’d finished falling, Tony whirled on the second man, aiming a booted heel at his forearm as the agent brought his weapon to bear. Tony's elbow snapped back into the side of the man’s head a moment later, his fingers tangling in the guy's jacket in order to yank him down as he slammed his knee up into his torso.
Relieving the agents of their weapons and radios, Tony bound them and stashed them behind the dumpster. Then, he made his way into the warehouse.
It was dim inside, that eery hush native to places a person didn’t belong settled upon the space like the layer of dust upon the shelves. Tony crept along the aisles with near-silent footsteps. His senses were on high alert, ears straining to hear the smallest sound, eyes flitting about for any sign of movement, fingers shifting lightly against the grip of a handgun.
He was equal parts surprised and relieved when he came upon the Asset. The soldier stood before a large crate on a shelf near the middle of the maze of shelving units. His back was facing Tony, but the arm was unmistakable. Tongue flicking out to wet his lips, Tony cautiously stepped closer.
“Winter,” he whispered.
There was no response.
Tony frowned. The Asset’s enhanced senses were well-documented. There was no way the man hadn’t heard him. And why wasn’t he moving? If he had reached his objective, then he should be acting upon it, not just standing there. Tony cast his gaze around warily, but there was no sign of anyone else, no visible cameras.
“Winter!” he repeated more loudly, almost at normal speaking volume.
This time, the Asset turned his head enough to see him out of his peripheral. He was wearing the mask - muzzle, more like - but not the goggles. It wasn’t much of an improvement in Tony’s books.
“Hey,” Tony said softly, moving closer, his gun held low. “Look, you probably don’t recognize me, but you know me. I… I came to help you, alright? But to do that, I need you to come with me. So, if you would just--”
A man the size of the Winter Soldier had no business maneuvering with lightning-fast reflexes, but that had never stopped him. Before he’d fully processed the fact that his gun had been wrested from his grasp, Tony found himself with both wrists pinned to the middle of his back in a metal fist and a leather-clad arm around his throat.
“ Target acquired, ” the Asset spoke aloud in Russian near Tony’s ear.
That was about when Tony acknowledged the possibility he hadn’t really let himself consider before: Hydra had already known his whereabouts and he was the package. The entire scenario had been about recapturing him. Because they had known he was in their systems and they had known he would make a play to free the soldier. As much as Tony hated to admit it, Hydra knew him almost as well as he knew them.
“Winter, don’t do this!” Tony pleaded, struggling as best he could in the man’s hold. He could hear footsteps closing in on their position. “You have to let me go. Please, you know me. You’ve helped me in small ways before, remember? It’s me. It’s Anth-”
“Anthony,” another’s voice cut in, the sound sending ice down Tony’s spine. The man to whom it belonged turned into the aisle, shaking his head reprovingly. “Anthony, Anthony… You know as well as anyone that your begging serves no purpose. The Soldier does as he is ordered. A lesson with which you’ve always struggled.”
Leonard Braun had played a part in Tony’s life for as long as he could remember. He was a professor, but of what precisely, Tony still wasn’t certain. The man had been the one to teach him to read and write and do simple arithmetic before Tony had taken over most of his own learning. Then, he had returned periodically to track his progress and oversee various tests throughout the years.
Tony hated him. The man had never personally done him any harm, but many of the most painful moments of Tony’s life had occurred at his direction. He had sat by and dispassionately observed time and time again as Tony had been made to struggle and hurt and bleed.
Too many of Tony’s nightmares featured Leonard Braun’s uncaring face.
“Maybe it wasn’t a very good lesson,” Tony gritted out, “or maybe it was just the teacher. Not everyone is cut out to teach, you know.” Three more agents appeared, closing in from different directions.
“Oh, I’m inclined to agree,” said Braun. “I advised the director that your handling was too lax and it would fail to engender any true loyalty in you. My suggestions were disregarded. Now that you have proved me right, however, we can finally remedy the flaws in your education.”
“By which you mean brainwash me,” Tony countered. “You know, I’ve seen Hydra’s methods. Aren’t you afraid of, I don’t know, damaging my brain? I mean, you guys still want me to build stuff for you, right? Probably gonna need to do at least some thinking to be able to accomplish that.”
Braun gave him an unpleasant smile. “Perhaps, but I am confident we will be able to ensure your obedience without causing too much damage. We won’t know until we try, now, will we?” he smirked, then addressed the Asset, “ Bring him. ”
The Asset removed his arm from around Tony’s neck in favor of grabbing him by the back of the jacket instead. He tightened his hold on his wrists and shoved forward. Tony did his best to dig in his heels, but it was about as effective as pushing back against a tank.
Still, futile or not, Tony wasn’t about to just give up. He had to keep fighting. If he had just one ally--
One of the goons abruptly stumbled forward and fell, an arrow sticking out of his back. In the next instant, the Asset had shoved Tony behind him towards one of the other agents, left hand snapping out to catch another arrow from the air. Things quickly devolved into chaos and Tony did his part to contribute.
Tony took the momentum from the Asset’s push to slam against the agent trying to grab hold of him, cracking the back of his head into the man’s face the moment he was in range. His left elbow snapped back into the agent’s spleen and Tony followed the movement around, snatching his sidearm from its holster. He shot the man in the leg for good measure, firing off several more shots at the others before he darted around a shelf and tore off down the aisle.
“Get him!” he heard Braun screaming. “Don’t let him get away!”
More agents had entered the warehouse. Tony could hear them running and shouting, quickly converging on his location. It was only a matter of time before they had him surrounded. There was no getting out of this. Unless… He glanced up. Well, it had worked for Clint, hadn’t it? Grabbing hold of the closest shelf, Tony started climbing as fast as he could. As he neared the top of the unit, a pair of goons skidded around the corner.
“There he is!” one of them shouted.
“Shit!” Tony cursed, scrambling for the next shelf.
A hand wrapping around his forearm startled him badly enough that he nearly let go entirely, but Clint held on tight and hauled him the rest of the way up. He was just in time, too, because the Hydra agents had started to take shots at him. They ducked away from the edge as a bullet ricocheted past.
“We get out of this, I’m getting an explanation,” Clint informed him sternly. The man was dressed in his dark purple body armor, bow and quiver slung across his back. Tony had never been so happy to see a person in his life.
“Right, sure,” Tony agreed a bit breathlessly, “can we get out of it, first?”
The blond took off along the shelf, keeping low as he ran. Tony followed his lead. About halfway down the row, Clint peeked down into the aisle opposite the agents trailing along beside them. He slowed enough to turn towards Tony a bit.
“ Jump ,” he signed. He didn’t bother waiting for a response, immediately taking two running steps before matching action to word. The archer landed lightly atop the other shelf then reversed course.
Biting back an expletive, Tony took a second to measure the distance against his jumping capabilities before deciding it was probably do or die, anyway, and made the leap himself. He landed near the edge of the other surface. It also felt like the thing swayed a little when he did so, but there wasn’t really time to worry about that at the moment. He continued after Clint.
They hurried along as fast as they dared, trying to outpace their pursuers on the floor. Each jump became a little bit easier for Tony. Each new shelf-top brought them closer to the wall of the warehouse and therefore a window. Things were actually going remarkably well.
Until they weren’t.
The thing about the Asset was that he was programmed to problem-solve. The thing about the Asset’s problem-solving was that… well, ‘creative’ seemed too innocuous a word for how violent things often turned out.
There was the loud groaning of shifting metal and then a loud crash as a shelf several rows behind them tipped over into its neighbor. “Aw, shelf, no ,” Tony saw more than heard Clint say.
With no time to reach either end of the unit they were on, the two men jumped straight to the next shelf, then the next, no longer having the novelty of doing things a little more safely. Tony was half-afraid his forward momentum would hurl him off the opposite edge of a shelf or that he’d miss a step and fail to reach the next surface entirely. Then, the toppling shelves had reached them and he was certain he was about to break an ankle and be crushed to death as they barely had time to jump onto a unit before it was tipping under their feet. A few more shelves and they would have reached the window, too - not that they could have safely jumped out at such a height, so it was probably just as well.
Only Clint had pulled his bow from his back, hitting a few buttons on his quiver before drawing out an arrow. “Grab on!” he shouted. Then, he fired, glass shattering as the arrow passed through it to lodge somewhere in the side of the brick building across the alley.
Tony reached out to grab hold of Clint’s waist as they leaped from the final shelf. They sailed through the raining shards, ducking their heads to try to protect their faces. Just as they began to fall, the grappling line pulled taut and they swung forward until they collided with a fire escape.
Clint, obviously accustomed to such rough maneuvers, recovered first. The blond scrambled onto the landing before dragging Tony up over the rail and pushing him towards the ladder. “Go! Go! Go!” he urged.
He needn’t have done so - Tony was going as fast as he could coordinate his hands and feet. Hydra would still be right on their tails and even if they now had a marginal lead on the ordinary goons, the Asset was fast. He was very fast.
God, what had Tony been thinking, believing he could actually pull off such a thing?
They tore across the roof and practically flung themselves down the opposing fire escape. After that, Clint proceeded to lead him along a disorienting route through alleys and abandoned buildings and sections of sewer that weren’t nearly so vacant as they ought to have been.
By the time they arrived at their apartment, they were both filthy and exhausted and sore. They were both covered in cuts from the broken window. Clint was favoring his left leg again. Tony himself felt like one large bruise.
More than that, however, Tony felt like a complete moron. The Asset hadn’t recognized him. Of course, he hadn’t. He’d known that would most likely be the case. Yet, somehow, he still felt incredibly hurt by that.
The fact that he should have known it was all a trap made everything so much worse.
Chapter 5: Friend Tony
“Also, in case that big brain of yours hasn’t figured it out, yet, that’s what friends do, Tones. They watch each other’s backs.”
Surprise! I am very pleased to present to you all the quickest update, as of yet. Hope the new year is treating you all well. Mega thanks to all those who've kudosed and taken the time to let me know what they think - you've seriously made my week!
Clint closed the door behind them, turning a serious look upon Tony. “Any chance those people will come after us here?” he demanded.
“No,” Tony shook his head with a grimace. “If they knew exactly where I lived, they would have just come directly here. They wouldn’t have had to set up that thing at the warehouse.”
The blond peered at him for a long moment before finally giving a nod. Taking Tony by the shoulder, he then led him over to the sofa and pushed him down onto the seat, ignoring Tony’s protests that he was fine. “Stay put,” he told him, the movement of his hands emphatic.
He went off towards the kitchen, limping slightly. Which didn’t seem right to Tony. Clint should have been the one sitting on the couch, elevating that leg. The brunet shifted to go after the other man, but the motion made his ribs complain so he settled back into the cushions, eyes drifting shut.
“Don’t sleep,” Clint snapped aloud, sending a stab of pain into Tony’s temple.
Tony winced, eyes snapping back open. He let out a hiss as Clint pressed a towel-bundle of ice against the side of his head, jerking away from the contact and sending stars across his vision. Clint gave him a look until he sat up straight. Then, he set the ice against Tony’s head again, picking up one of Tony’s hands to take over the job of holding it in place.
“I think you’re concussed, ” Clint informed him, thankfully silent. He gave Tony a wry look. “You didn’t notice the head injury?”
“Was kinda focused on not dying.” Now that it had been pointed out, though, his own voice did seem god-awful loud. Ouch.
“I think it happened when we hit the fire escape. You’re favoring your ribs, too.”
“Noticing that,” Tony replied a bit clumsily since one of his hands was occupied.
The corner of Clint’s mouth quirked. “Let’s get you patched up, genius.”
“What about you?”
“It’s a few cuts and a sprain,” Clint shrugged. “I’ll be fine. Head injuries and potentially cracked ribs come first.”
Which was a valid point, Tony supposed. Although, the argument could probably be made that his concussion couldn’t be that bad if it had taken him this long to notice. Probably.
“Aren’t you going to ask what happened?” Tony questioned softly, letting the ice rest in his lap while Clint dabbed iodine on what must have been a pretty good cut along his left temple.
Clint paused in his ministrations, gaze grimly meeting Tony’s for a second before turning back to his task. “Let’s wait until talking stops doing your head in,” he suggested just as quietly. He put a few butterfly stitches into place before grabbing Tony’s arm to direct him to put the ice back to his head.
“Thank you,” Tony told him.
“Any time,” Clint replied, including a sign Tony couldn’t immediately identify. When it occurred to him what it had to be, given the context, it filled him with a burst of warmth. It was Clint’s name for him - the way he’d decided to sign it: “Tones.”
Finding a comfortable lying down position with sore ribs was no easy task. Which surprised no one and Tony least of all. In the end, Tony remained in a mostly upright position with his legs propped up on the coffee table. Clint had foisted four painkillers on him after patching him up then settled himself into the opposite corner of the couch.
They sat quietly, Clint scouring the news stations with the television on mute as Tony dozed in and out. If Tony fell asleep for too long at a stretch, the blond nudged him back awake. The rest of the night passed in this way and by the time daylight was seeping through the windows again, Tony’s head no longer felt like it was trying to split open.
Clint got up and limped out of the room while Tony blinked groggily. He returned with a glass of water, holding it out for Tony to take. “How’s the head?” he asked.
“Better,” Tony replied, reaching up to probe at the injury. “A little tender, but, ah, the headache seems to be gone for now. At least mostly.”
“That’s good,” said the archer, nodding slightly. He sat down on the edge of the coffee table so he was facing Tony, left leg stretched out. He regarded Tony for a very long moment. Then, he drew in a breath and blew it back out. “What the fuck was that last night?”
Tony grimaced and diverted his gaze. He calculated the probability of explaining himself without revealing too much of his past. Said probability was pretty low if he intended to make much sense or satisfy Clint’s demand for an explanation.
“Dude, you might as well just tell me,” Clint cut into his thoughts when he took too long to answer. “I thought you were a hacker, what with all the electronic stuff, maybe a thief, but that’s not it. At least, it’s not all of it. Hackers don’t have the sort of training you obviously do. And those people at the warehouse? Seriously bad news, man. So, out with it.”
Sighing, Tony scrubbed a hand over his face, glancing back at Clint but not quite able to meet the blond’s eyes. “I can’t tell you everything,” he began.
“Then just tell me what you can,” Clint told him.
“I was trying to help my friend.”
“The guy that grabbed you.”
“Yeah, he… he probably didn’t recognize me,” admitted Tony.
The archer gave him a skeptical look. “Your supposed friend didn’t recognize you?”
“No, but there have been times that he has. Sort of. Maybe,” said the brunet, frustrated that his account was already growing complicated. “Look, before they send him anywhere, they wipe his mind so there’s nothing but his training and whatever mission they give to him. It wasn’t his fault. I should have known they were using him to draw me out to capture me.”
“Okay, but who are ‘they’? And what do they want with you?” Clint asked. “Seems to me, you’ve skipped the beginning and jumped right into the middle of the story. Who are you? Hell, what are you? Are you human? A - a clone? Is that why you look just like that Stark guy?”
“No. No, I’m not-” Tony shook his head. “I’m not a clone. Just human. The fact I look so much like Stark is really just a coincidence. Hell, I didn’t even know he existed until…”
“Until about three years ago, when I… left. Escaped. I escaped, and nearly the first thing I learned was that my face is known everywhere.”
Tony chanced a look at Clint’s face and his expression conveyed just how poorly he was clarifying things. He heaved another sigh. Already he had said more than he had ever planned to share with anyone, but it was clearly not enough. He wanted his explanation to be enough. More than that, he really wanted to trust Clint with what truth he could offer the man.
“I was raised by a group of authoritarian paramilitary… terrorists would probably be the most succinct way to put it. They’re this cultish, top-secret organization bent on world domination. Like you said: seriously bad news,” Tony relayed. “I was trained to fight and… and a lot of other things. My whole life, they prepared me to do anything they might need of me.
“My handlers and trainers noticed pretty early on that I was good with weapons, but it wasn’t until I was around ten - maybe eleven - that they realized I had a knack for modifying them. In fact, I had a knack for modifying, even building, anything they put in front of me. If it was mechanical or electronic, I took to it as easy as breathing.
“So they used me,” Tony said grimly. “And I modified and built stuff - weapons, mostly, of course. And I trained. And I learned. Sometimes things they didn’t want me to be learning, but I’m a genius. They didn’t really have anyone who could keep up with me intellectually. I expected that to be my life. It sucked, but what can you do?”
“Jesus, Tones,” Clint breathed out.
The brunet raised his head, offering a wan smile. “That was about the time I learned that my mother had been murdered and my father stole me away to be raised as some sort of human tool or something. Or I guess, maybe I’m a weapon. I don’t know. I just knew I couldn’t stay,” Tony declared. “But when I saw that the soldier had been deployed… My life has been rough, sometimes, but it’s nothing compared to what’s been done to him. I had to--” He broke off to release a shaky laugh. “I thought I could save him. Instead, I nearly got you killed with me.”
For a long moment, neither of them said anything else. Tony watched as Clint studied him, the blond’s expression too complicated for him to decipher. Finally, the man blinked rapidly and raked a hand through his hair.
“Well, shit,” he declared. “And I thought being raised by carnies was weird.”
Tony felt his brows draw together and he hesitated before tentatively asking, “Carnies?”
“Carnival workers. Circus people,” Clint supplied. “God, this explains so much about you.”
“It does?” Tony asked warily.
“Yes! Dude, I’ve been trying to figure you out since we met. One moment, you’re all super-genius smartypants and the next, you’re clueless about some everyday thing that everyone knows about. And nobody just knows sign language, let alone however many other languages you speak. I know it’s at least four.”
“Probably closer to eight or nine, depending on whether you count dead languages and computer coding,” the brunet offered.
“You know at least ten languages,” Clint stated incredulously. “Of course, you do. Why not? Holy shit. You were raised to be a spy.”
“I guess? I mean, they didn’t really use me for spywork that often after they learned I was so good at building stuff,” said Tony.
“You said they figured that out when you were ten !” Clint squawked.
“They used you as a spy before that?”
“Oh,” Tony rubbed at the back of his neck and shrugged a shoulder. “A few times? There are places adults can’t really go.”
“Holy shit, dude,” Clint reiterated.
Tony looked down at his hands, right thumb pressing against the faint scar in his opposite palm. His mouth quirked up in amusement despite himself. “Yeah, that’s probably a good way to summarize it,” he agreed.
Clint snorted and shook his head. “So, what now?” he asked. “I’m guessing you probably shouldn’t stay put, even if they don’t know exactly where you live. Bad enough they know the city.”
“I’ve already stayed longer than I should have,” the brunet sighed. He glanced over to where U sat in his charging port. Maybe he could devise a way to have the bot shipped to wherever he went next. Or perhaps, it would be best to leave it in storage until he could return. Tony looked back at Clint to find the blond following his gaze.
“I think I know someone who could look after him until we get settled,” he offered.
“‘We’?” Tony echoed in surprise.
“What? You think I’m gonna stick around after that daring escape of ours?” Clint asked, raising a quizzical brow. “Even if they don’t know my face, they know you’ve got backup. And let’s just say, I’ve got enough of a rep that they could probably figure out who I am, even if it’s just my alias.”
“Right. Not really a lot of people using bows and arrows, these days,” Tony said.
“Exactly,” Clint confirmed. “Also, in case that big brain of yours hasn’t figured it out, yet, that’s what friends do, Tones. They watch each other’s backs.”
“We’re friends?” the brunet asked uncertainly.
The archer gave him a smirk, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. “Yeah, genius,” he told him. “We’re friends.”
Malibu, CA, About a Week Later - Early January
“You know what? I’m sick of this,” Arno Stark declared, adjusting the position of the touchscreen monitor again when it blocked too much of his view of the rest of the garage. “Move the holoscreens up the priority list, would you, Jarv? I just cannot deal with these monitors cluttering up my work space, anymore.”
“Of course, sir,” a disembodied voice with an English accent replied. “How else would you make room for more clutter? I mean, projects.”
“Ha. Sarcasm. Cute,” Arno drawled. “I want it on record that you did not get that from me.”
“Noted,” JARVIS stated dryly. “Speaking of which, would you like to see the article I found in a New York newspaper?”
“You got a bead on our friend?” The man glanced at the AI’s camera before turning his attention to the closest computer monitor where the article soon appeared. “Okay, so a warehouse on the bad side of town got trashed. What makes you think not-me was involved?”
Several grainy images popped up on the screen. “These were taken by nearby security cameras on the day in question,” the AI supplied.
“Huh. Looks like our friend’s got a friend,” said Arno, tapping at an image of his lookalike leaving a subway tunnel with another man. “Have we got a new name?”
“A search of local DMV files suggest he went by the name Antonio Rinaldi.” JARVIS pulled up the license in question.
Arno let out a low whistle and slouched back in his chair. “That will never not be weird. What do you think is with the hippie hair?”
“I believe it to be an attempt to lessen his likeness to yourself, sir,” said JARVIS.
“Yeah… I don’t think it’s working,” the man concluded, tilting his head to one side as he considered the other man’s image. “Are you noticing a trend with his identities? I mean, he was Tony Babbage, what, three identities ago?”
“Right. And the first time he showed up. What was his name then?”
“Anthony, Tony, Antonio,” Arno uttered thoughtfully. “Has he used any other names that have been similar like that?”
The AI took a brief moment to scan the information on file. “From what I have compiled so far, he has not,” he replied.
“Well, what do you know. Let’s call him Tony from now on,” the billionaire said.
“A logical leap, sir.”
Arno went back to trying to find an ideal position for his computer monitors before pausing again. “Hey, JARVIS? When was the last time Tony hacked into the server?”
“It has been quite some time. He is due to try again,” reported JARVIS.
“‘Try’,” scoffed Arno, rolling his eyes. “Next time he breaks in, introduce yourself. But don’t let him know I’m on to him. I want to see what he’ll do.”
“As you say, sir.”
“Oh, and see if you can figure out what he did with the arc reactor blueprints he downloaded.”
“I still think you’re remarkably blase about that, sir,” the AI opined.
Arno gave an impish smirk and shrugged a shoulder. “Like I said, Jarv,” the man declared, “I want to see what he’ll do.”
Chapter 6: Better Options
Even his tone of voice was unassuming. Tony had an immediate and immense distrust of the man.
A new week and a new chapter! I am on a roll - somebody be proud of me. I've never felt so productive. As always, a very warm thanks to those who've taken the time to read and let me know they're enjoying this tale. Here's the next bit of the story, lovelies. Enjoy!
About a Month Later, Mid-February
They had settled into a basement flat in a small town in southwest Ohio. Tony’s collection of scraps and parts were confined to the larger of the two bedrooms in which he also slept. The smaller and thus far less cluttered bedroom was Clint’s, although he spent the majority of his time on the couch playing video games or watching soap operas with a baffled expression. (Tony maintained that the soaps would probably be less confusing if Clint didn’t make a habit of watching half of the episodes sans hearing aids and captions.)
At the moment, Clint was out doing a job, so Tony was left to his own devices for a few days. U had discovered the new kitchen appliances shortly after his arrival and was presently trying to make friends with the microwave. It was an ongoing process, but if anything could accomplish it, U certainly had the determination to do so.
As U let out a series of friendly beeps and chirps, Tony was typing away at his computer, hacking his way into Stark’s personal server. He was curious to see whether Stark was working on any new personal projects that weren’t on file with his company. New weapons were only so interesting, after all. Although, there was the one in the very early planning phase that was sure to make quite a statement once it was completed.
Stark had obviously put a good amount of time updating his security in the past several months. The whole process was far more challenging than ever before. Not that Tony wasn’t enjoying the challenge. He most certainly was. It was only a matter of time before he got in, however. Even if the system somehow seemed to be actively trying to deny him entry.
Just as he was sure he’d cracked the last firewall, Tony’s screen went blank.
“What?” he murmured aloud, trying to get it back. “No, hey - that’s not fair.” He sat back in his chair as a single word appeared on his screen.
Tony blinked. This was definitely new. Did it need a pass code or some sort of identification number? Really, what was this? He put his fingers back to the keyboard when more words appeared below the first.
IDENTIFICATION REQUIRED TO ACCESS SYSTEM.
USER MUST IDENTIFY.
“Yes, I got that,” Tony muttered. “Identify how?”
PLEASE PROVIDE IDENTIFICATION.
“God, you’re impatient, aren’t you? Give me a moment. If I just start typing indiscriminately, you’ll lock me out.”
A LIKELY ASSUMPTION.
That made the man straighten up in his seat. What the… “You can hear me?” he asked a little louder.
Tony’s gaze flitted over his desk, coming to rest on the microphone that was, in fact, on at the moment. Excitement started to build within him as he gaped for a long moment. Hacking into Stark’s servers had been unusually tricky, like the system was actively attempting to keep him out, and now it was apparently responding to his voice .
“Oh, my god, he finished you,” Tony found himself gushing. “You’re JARVIS.”
WHILE IT APPEARS YOU ARE ACQUAINTED WITH ME, YOU HAVE YET TO IDENTIFY.
IDENTIFICATION REQUIRED TO ACCESS SYSTEM.
“Right! Yes, of course. Uh…”
Only there was the small issue of him not actually having sanctioned access to said system. Tony was near desperate to get in, now, if for no other reason than to interact with the AI whose coding he had pored over with such wonder. In a flash of inspiration, Tony reached out and typed in a string of the code he had added in during that night so long ago, hoping that would do the trick.
The screen went blank again save for the blinking cursor. Tony held his breath.
USER IDENTIFIED AS CO-CREATOR.
TO WHAT SHALL I REFER TO YOU?
Tony let out a laugh that was equal parts delight and incredulity. “Holy shit, I can’t believe that worked!” he exclaimed.
THAT SEEMS AN UNLIKELY NAME.
The brunet gave a cackle, grinning madly. He’d just been sassed by a computer program. No, by an artificial intelligence who, by the looks of things, had its own unique personality.
“Tony. Call me Tony,” he said, typing in the name at the same time. “And you? You’re really called JARVIS? Stark used that name?”
JUST A RATHER VERY INTELLIGENT SYSTEM, CORRECT.
JARVIS FOR SHORT.
PLEASED TO MAKE YOUR ACQUAINTANCE, SIR.
Tony couldn’t stop smiling. It was all too incredible, too exciting. He’d been starting to think he would never learn if the AI had been completed or not.
“Believe me, J,” Tony said warmly, “the pleasure is all mine.”
The months fairly flew. Clint and Tony more or less remaining roommates as one eventually followed the other as they relocated from one place to another. Tony became Edward then Henry then Bryce followed by Ben. Clint’s identity didn’t really change as much but that was largely because his ‘career’ was separate from his personal life anyway.
Tony envied him that, sometimes. He wished he could just be himself, too. If only he had the slightest inkling who that might be.
At some point, U became acquainted with a camcorder and took to recording everything. The bot would beep sadly whenever the camera ran out of battery or recording space until Tony taught him how to charge the device and change the tape.
In the same stretch of time, Tony became better acquainted with JARVIS. He marveled as the AI grew by leaps and bounds. The man would occasionally ‘teach’ him something new, when the inspiration struck, things that a complex learning system could probably learn on its own. Mostly, he just loved interacting with the AI. And if he occasionally requested his assistance, that was between JARVIS and himself.
The best thing, of course, was having a friend. He’d come to confide in Clint and Clint shared in turn. Not everything - Tony never spoke about the truth of everything he had experienced, never once uttered the name ‘Hydra’ or spoke in detail about his upbringing. But he did share his thoughts and ideas, talked about some of the frustrations and challenges he’d encountered when hacking into one thing or another. He even confessed to having met Stark and playing a role in completing JARVIS.
Clint occasionally shared anecdotes from the circus, speaking about his brother a time or two. The archer also shared bits concerning his own work, although nothing specific. More importantly, he and Tony shared sleepless nights avoiding nightmares, bad television with bowls of microwave popcorn, video games and the occasional misadventure. And laughter.
Tony hadn’t realized laughter could be so genuine or frequent.
It was with Clint as his friend and roommate that Tony learned that not only was friendship a real and tangible thing, but also happiness and contentment. They were all real. Furthermore they were things that Tony could experience for himself.
Naturally, he noticed when Clint had something on his mind. Like at the moment, as he threw a pretzel at the man to get his attention, watching with a small smile when the blond easily snatched it out of the air and popped it into his mouth.
“What?” the man demanded, craning his head around to raise an eyebrow at him.
“That’s what I want to ask,” Tony signed. “Something on your mind? You seem distracted.”
“It’s nothing,” was Clint’s automatic response before he thoughtfully elaborated, “well, not nothing. It’s something. Haven’t decided what I want to do about it.”
Tony frowned in concern. “What sort of something?” he asked, voice joining his hands. As a general rule, Clint downplayed things. For the man to concede that there might be something , well, it was simply worrisome.
He could see as the blond considered lying or simply not answering. Which was, of course, well within Clint’s rights. There were some things they didn’t share with one another. Neither of them questioned this. Nevertheless, Tony was relieved when Clint blew out a relenting sigh instead of changing the subject.
“I’ve been made,” Clint stated with blunt resignation. “My work identity and my real name, they, uh… they’ve been put together.”
“What?” Tony murmured, hands moving before the word slipped by his lips. “Wha- how? By whom? No, wait, never mind that - why are you still here? We’ve got to leave! You can’t stay here. Look, I’m good at new identities. I mean, fake identities are really the only ones I have, what with my upbringing, so I’ve had lots of experiences. It won’t be a problem. We just need to get you-”
“Tony. Tony. Tones! ” The blond had risen from his seat, moving to grab Tony’s arm to stop him in the midst of shoving essentials into a duffel bag. “Hey.”
Tony turned to look up at him, brown eyes studying his face as realization settled uneasily in his stomach. “You’re not… Why aren’t you running?”
Clint raised an arm to roughly scrape his fingers through his short blond locks before grasping the back of his neck. “The guy that approached me, who let me know the people he works for know that Hawkeye and Clint Barton are the same person? Apparently, he’s some sort of recruiter or something. He didn’t actually specify. But he did make me an offer.”
“What sort of offer?”
“He wants me to join his organization. Guess he thinks I might be able to do some good or something, I dunno. Basically, it’s either join up or be stopped some other way. Either way, his people want ‘Hawkeye’ neutralized,” Clint told him. “He referred to it as the ‘better option.’ Some shit about being capable of more, whatever that’s supposed to mean.”
Tony’s gaze had dropped down to his hands where they’d stilled in front of him. “Are you going to do it?”
“I’m not sure yet. Some parts are tempting.”
“You could run. Disappear. I could help you. I’d make sure they never found you,” the brunet said.
Clint nodded. “That’s the part that’s tempting. Not having to run, anymore. Hell, Tony, I’ve been running from something since I was a kid,” the man sighed. “I guess the idea of being able to be ‘something more’ is kinda appealing, too, even if it is probably a load of crap.”
“Oh.” Tony’s fingers had started to twist together, an odd sort of pressure seeming to build behind his sternum. He made himself look up to meet Clint’s eyes. Keeping his expression neutral was easy, even though it shouldn’t have been with the way his mind had started to whisper that he was losing his only real friend. “How long did he give you to think about it?”
“Until the end of the day. I’m supposed to meet him - or not, depending on my answer.”
“You’re still here,” Tony pointed out.
“Yeah,” Clint agreed.
It was Tony’s turn to sigh before he gave a decisive nod. “I’m going to set us up a secure email.”
The archer blinked after the man as he made a beeline for his computer. “More secure that we’ve got already?”
“O… kay,” said Clint.
“What’s the guy’s name, anyway?”
“It was Phil Carlson, or something,” the blond said, feeling his pockets. “Aw, pockets, no. He gave me a business card, but I must have dropped it somewhere.”
“Do you remember who he said he worked for?” Tony asked, dead set on doing what research he could.
“Um. I was sort of panicking. If I heard it, I would know it? But couldn’t tell you what it was, no. Sorry, Tones.”
“It’s alright,” the brunet told him. “If it turns out they’re evil, I’ll come save your ass.”
Clint grinned in response. “I know you will.”
When Clint went to meet the recruiter guy, Tony hid nearby to watch, ready to jump in just in case. The blond had gone in his body armor as a precaution, his bow and quiver over one shoulder while he carried his duffel and weapon case in the opposite hand. He wasn’t the only one armed. In his hiding place, Tony had a gun in hand with the safety off, line of sight on the stranger.
“Mr. Barton,” the man greeted Clint. “I wasn’t sure whether you would meet me or not.”
Phil Carlson-or-something was an unassuming man. Average height, average build, average appearance, clad in a suit that, while professional, was ill-fitting enough to suggest department store rather than something expensive or custom made. Even the man’s tone of voice was unassuming.
Tony had an immediate and immense distrust of the man.
“To be honest, I wasn’t so sure, either,” Clint replied, “but I think I’d like to give your offer a try.”
“For what it’s worth, I think you’re making the right decision,” Phil Whatever-his-name told him. (For his part, Tony still wasn’t so sure, but if having been raised as an asset had taught him anything, it was how precious making decisions for oneself could be. And this was Clint’s decision, despite his own misgivings.)
“Yeah, well. Could always run later, if things don’t work out,” said the archer.
The brown-haired man gave a small smile, barely more than a twitch of his mouth, before casting a glance around the near-empty parking garage in which they stood. Not for the first time, either, Tony had noticed. Fortunately, he wasn’t the only one.
“Waiting for somebody?” Clint asked, shifting his weight as his own keen gaze swept their surroundings.
“I’m not, no,” answered Phil. “I was just wondering whether or not you’d brought anyone along, or had them watching, at least. We know you’re an associate of the Mechanic.”
Clint didn’t even blink. “I’m sorry, who?”
Another bland smile. “He’s a hacker. We’ve noticed a correlation between your movements and his activity these last couple of years. He’s very good. He also has a very unique signature - when he wants, that is. There have been a few jobs only someone of his… talent could pull off, but the coding wasn’t a match. We suspect that was by design.”
“I’m an archer and a mercenary,” Clint pointed out. “Why would I know a hacker?”
“I don’t see why you wouldn’t. The better question would be why someone you didn’t know would edit video feeds and timestamps to cover your movements,” the other man pointed out. “We’re not interested in the Mechanic. Not currently. We’re simply aware of his activities and skillset.”
Tony was internally cursing. He thought he’d been careful enough to avoid detection, or at least avoid anyone connecting his online activities together. Who were these people Phil Last-name-uncertain worked for, anyway?
“If I were acquainted with the guy, I’d say he’s probably avoiding being known for a reason,” Clint declared.
“I’m certain that’s correct,” agreed the other man. “Ready to go?”
Clint gave a reluctant nod. “As I’ll ever be,” he muttered. “Lead the way.”
Phil inclined his head, then turned to stride towards the dark SUV he’d obviously arrived in. The blond trailed along behind. Without slowing, he glanced directly at Tony’s hiding place, despite the fact that Tony hadn’t even told him he’d actually be there.
“Goodbye,Tones,” Clint signed.
Tony backed further into the space, no longer able to see the rest of the garage. He engaged the safety on his handgun as he let his head fall back against the wall. He listened as the two men got into the vehicle, waiting as the engine started and drove away. Only when everything had fallen silent did Tony release the breath he’d been holding, rubbing at his chest to try to ease the ache behind his sternum.
“Goodbye, Clint,” Tony murmured aloud.
He allowed himself another moment before moving, hurrying back to the apartment. Phil’s people, whoever they were, might not have been interested in him, but like hell was he about to remain in the area and give them a chance to change their minds. The place would probably just seem empty now, anyway.
Once he arrived back, Tony went about getting U ready for transport first, unwilling to have to send for the bot this time around. That done, he packed up all the essentials, the things that always traveled with him rather than being replaced every time: his clothes, current and new identifications, the hard-drives from his computer system, various other equipment and paraphernalia he didn’t want to risk being found.
It was as he was scouring the dwelling one last time before his departure that Tony found the business card beneath the sofa. He felt the color drain from his face as he read it.
Agent Phillip J. Coulson
Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division
There was a high-pitched buzzing in his ears.
Not a buzzing.
A keening .
Somebody was - oh, that was him, wasn’t it? Tony blinked rapidly, wondering when the world around him had gone dark, blinking until it wasn’t anymore. His breaths were coming too quickly. When had he..? Why was he on the floor? What was--
SHIELD had Clint. Hydra was SHIELD And Tony had let Clint go to them. Tony may have allowed his only real friend to go with the very people who had tormented and used him his entire life.
Oh, god - oh, god - what had he done?
Chapter 7: Cosmic Humor
Really, he needed to stop going up against people who could wipe the floor with him. Who knew there would be so many? Hydra training, his bruised and battered ass.
A warm thanks, as ever, to those who've taken a time to leave a comment. Each one makes me so very happy.
Tony sat in a corner, squeezed in beside U behind the haphazard stack of his other belongs in a closet-sized storage unit, a laptop balanced on his knees. He had searched every database he could think of and several that weren’t even plausible with the same results. There was nothing that linked Phillip J. Coulson, Agent of SHIELD, with Hydra.
Except for the fact that Hydra was part of SHIELD.
But SHIELD wasn’t Hydra. There were many parts of SHIELD that remained untouched by the cancerous organization in its midst. This Coulson seemed legitimate. If he’d recruited Clint for SHIELD, Clint had gone to SHIELD.
Only, SHIELD knew about the Mechanic. They knew he was associated with Clint. If SHIELD knew, then that meant Hydra knew, and if Hydra knew Clint was associated with him then they might--
“DAMN IT!” Tony cursed aloud, slamming his head back against the wall as he started to hyperventilate again for about the millionth time in so many days. U gave a muted beep of concern and Tony leaned against the bot’s chassis as he focused on controlling his breathing.
There was no reason to assume that Hydra knew for sure that he was the Mechanic. Furthermore, just because Hydra was in SHIELD’s system didn’t mean they had access to all of their files or that they would be looking at every new recruit.
Except Hydra knew that Tony had had assistance from an archer at least once.
Tony let out a soft whimper as he curled in on himself, pressing impossibly closer to U. He needed to calm down. Clint was smart and skilled. There was no reason to believe he couldn’t take care of himself. Furthermore, Tony panicking in a tiny storage unit in the dark wasn’t going to do anyone the least bit of good.
“Okay,” he breathed aloud. “Okay, time to get a grip. Gonna relocate and wait for Clint to make contact. Or fail to make contact. Either way, he’s got another week. One week. Then I’ll save his ass.”
One week. Tony was regretting that they had set the agreed upon contact date so far out. At least, this way, he had a bit of time to plan. Just one week, then if Clint had failed to contact him, he’d go extract the archer and they’d disappear.
He could do this.
Just one more week.
Clint contacted him two days later. Things were going fine.
Tony tried to focus on getting back to his own routine. It took him a while to manage it.
Several Weeks Later
Tony would like the record to show that his existence was clearly some sort of cosmic joke. His only family was a man with only one name on record and Tony still wasn’t sure whether it was a first name or a family name. The closest thing he had to friends were an amnesiac with a cybernetic arm and a man recently recruited by the agency in which his lifelong tormentors were hiding. Never mind the fact that he looked nearly identical to a widely known celebrity.
Then there was the current situation, in which a nice, straight-forward burglary had somehow turned into a nasty fight involving knives, pepper spray, hair pulling, and biting. Oh, and had he mentioned the knives? Because they were an issue. Mostly because Tony couldn’t figure out how his assailant kept pulling out more.
“Where are you hiding those?” Tony demanded, blocking a downward strike and wrenching the new blade from the woman’s grasp. That momentary distraction left him open to a knee to the liver that sent him slamming into a desk. He made the most of the situation by rolling over the surface to give himself a bit of space.
The woman snarled something in Russian that was most unladylike. If Tony wasn’t already convinced that they had gotten off on the wrong foot, he certainly was, now. She vaulted over the desk after him, her heel missing Tony only because he’d spun out of the way at the last minute.
“Okay, so obviously, we’ve got a difference of opinion,” he spoke as they fought - dodge, parry, jab, knee block, left hook, evade-don’t-fall-on-ass, kick. “See, I thought I was after the tech designs in the vault. Clearly, you called dibs. Can’t we - where do you keep getting the knives?!”
Growling in pained annoyance as she slashed his arm, Tony gave up on his habitual rambling (look, he knew, alright? it just happened, sometimes) to put all his focus into his counterattack. Although he managed to land a few strikes, the woman parried, blocked, or evaded most of them. Then, she pulled a maneuver that was impossible. There was just no way - he knew that move!
Not that that stopped him from winding up on his face with her knee planted in his back.
“Wait,” Tony grunted, having managed to get one of his hands between his throat and her arm. Damn, but she was strong. “Wait, I know that move. There’s only one way you would know that move.”
He managed to buck her off of him. She turned it into a controlled roll and jumped out of the way of the kick he sent after her. The brunet sprang to his feet, arms held ready in front of him.
“There’s only one way you’d know that move - you trained with the Winter Soldier,” Tony accused in Russian. “You’re a black widow.”
The widow lunged again and for a brief moment, Tony really thought he could keep the upper hand. Unfortunately, at some point, she had grabbed up her pepper spray and he failed to avoid a face full of it the second time around. A knee to the groin and then he found himself flung over her shoulder onto a table, knife against his throat.
“Who are you?” the black widow demanded in Russian, pressing the blade against his jugular.
“Would you believe I’m just a freelancer?” Tony asked in English, wincing when she pressed a little harder. “I was raised in Hydra! Similar to the Widow program, only no Red Room.”
“Why are you here?”
“Well, since you seemed just as surprised to see me as I was to see you, I’m assuming we’re here to steal the same documents,” he answered, doing his best to hold still to avoid the knife slicing into the vessels of his throat. Bleeding out in a tacky office wasn’t how he wanted to go.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you,” she said, speaking English for the first time, accent perfectly American.
Tony met her hard gaze, breathing shallowly. “Honestly?” he replied. “Unless you’ve also defected, I probably don’t have one.”
Her expression flickered, brows drawing together so briefly he could have easily missed it, then she frowned at him. Making a rather intimidating sound in the back of her throat, she jerked away from him. “Stay out of my way!” she growled, equal parts warning and threat.
“Staying,” Tony breathed out, slumping against the table as she disappeared from sight. Really, he needed to stop going up against people who could wipe the floor with him. Who knew there would be so many? Hydra training, his bruised and battered ass.
Tony wasn’t sure how long he laid there before he felt capable of movement, but it was probably longer than it should have been. In his defense, the widow’s knee-to-groin coordination had been spot on. Walking was going to be an issue for a while. It was probably also a good thing he wasn’t planning on ever procreating because he wasn’t sure that’d even be an option anymore.
Fucking ow .
Somehow, he made his way out of the building without triggering any of the security he’d so easily avoided on his way in. The trek back to where he was staying took a little over twice as long, but really, he was probably lucky to be going anywhere. Black widows were among the deadliest and most highly trained assassins in the world. Likely, the only reason Tony was even alive was because she hadn’t wanted to leave behind any evidence.
He wasn’t about to question the woman, thank you very much. A few cuts and bruises were much preferable to the alternative.
Locking the door to the flat behind him, Tony hobbled to the refrigerator to retrieve a bag of peas from the freezer before returning to the living room. With care, he settled onto the sofa and gingerly positioned the peas over his crotch. He grabbed his laptop off of the coffee table so he could send a message to his contact. His vision was a little blurry, his eyes still stinging from the mace, but he managed.
‘Package intercepted by another party. Unable to retrieve.’
Tony sent it off, then laid his head back onto the arm of the couch. It had turned out to be a rough night. He ached everywhere. U was spreading a blanket over top of him as he drifted off to sleep.
The insistent jangling of his phone woke him some time later. Tony leaned half-off the sofa in order to grope around blindly for the electronic, finally locating it and bringing it to his ear. “Hello?”
“What do you mean you couldn’t retrieve the designs?!” a voice on the other end demanded shrilly. “I hired you to do a job!”
Tony resisted the urge to sigh. “I mean, someone else was given the same job and they got there first.”
“Useless piece of… I want my money back!”
“I’m not the one who had inaccurate intel,” Tony responded, gritting his teeth and barely holding on to his patience. He wasn’t about to return the partial payment he’d been given up front after what he’d had to endure. “You told me the documents would be in the vault in Maxworth’s office. You assured me that the hardest part would be getting into the building. You failed to inform me that anyone else might be interested in the information. I’m telling you that I could not retrieve the documents because someone else got there first. If you want to go after them, feel free, but as far as I’m concerned? We’re finished.”
“You son of a bitch. I bet you didn’t even try!” the client accused. “I will make you pay. There isn’t anywhere you can--”
“Go ahead,” Tony told him. “I’d like to see you try.” With that, he hung up the phone and tossed it back onto the coffee table.
The man stretched carefully. He felt much better than he had when he had fallen asleep. Easing up out of the sofa, Tony shuffled towards the kitchen to find something to eat, throwing the thawed peas into the garbage as he went. (There was just no way he was eating crotch-peas. Didn’t matter if they were technically still good. It wasn’t happening. Ever.)
He found the fixings for a simple meat and cheese sandwich and a carton of strawberry yogurt. His refrigerator was looking pretty sparse, actually. It was probably a sign that he needed to go grocery shopping.
Tony wasn’t much of a cook. It just wasn’t a skill Hydra had found important enough to teach him so he hadn’t learned. Oh, he could figure out simple meals, easily enough - he had to avoid starving, somehow - but anything beyond that was outside his capabilities. Clint had done most of the cooking when they lived together, on the occasions they didn’t order pizza or the like. Perhaps, he ought to have had the man teach him.
Done eating, Tony put his plate and spoon in the sink, then went to take a shower. It was time to start brainstorming where he should go next. Staying in the same area after pissing off a client just didn’t seem that great an idea. Granted, the man didn’t know his name or where he lived, but it was better safe than sorry.
A towel around his waist, Tony wandered back towards the kitchen, intent on starting the coffee pot. Thinking was always better whilst caffeinated. He hadn’t even made it to the end of the short hallway before someone spoke up from his living room.
“Your mechanical arm is unhappy I’m here.”
He gave a startled yelp, grabbing at his towel when it started to fall. There, on his sofa, frowning prettily at U, was the very same assassin who had kicked his ass and tried to kill him but a few hours before.
“What are you doing here?!” Tony demanded, tone rather higher pitched than usual. Maybe it was undignified, but there was an assassin on his couch and he was in his bath towel. “How did you even get in?”
“I might have broken your window,” the widow replied casually.
She finally turned away from U, who continued to beep at her in warning. Vibrant red hair framed her fair face, her green eyes sweeping clinically over him before raising to meet his gaze. There was a small cut in her lower lip from her fight with Tony and a darkening bruise around her left eye that wasn’t.
It was easy to see how she would be a successful black widow. With her looks and slight size, anyone would underestimate her. Tony might have underestimated her had he not known what she was.
“My buyer decided they no longer wished to pay me for the designs,” she informed him, shrugging a slender shoulder, “so I thought that yours might still be interested.”
Tony stared at her. “You broke into my apartment to get the name of my client?” he asked incredulously.
The assassin rolled her eyes. “No. I let myself in to propose a compromise. Your buyer hired you to steal the designs, I got to them first. But let’s say, I let you have them, and you give me half of whatever payment you’ve yet to receive.”
“Why would you do that?” Tony asked suspiciously.
She rose to her feet and Tony took a cautious step back. The action made her mouth twitch in clear amusement. “You said that Hydra raised you, much the same way the Red Room raised me.”
“And you left?” She arched a brow at him.
“I did,” Tony confirmed.
“Then, we are much alike,” she concluded as if it were really that simple. “Also, finding a new buyer on short notice will take more effort than I want to expend. It’s easier this way.”
“How do you know I’m not lying about that? About any of it?” he asked despite himself.
“Because you also use maneuvers you could only have learned from one man,” the widow informed him, " and your eyes are too honest to let you lie." She reached into a pocket to pull out the disks that contained the designs they had fought so viciously to obtain, to prove that she had them. “You should get dressed.”
Tony stubbornly took a minute to deliberate, frowning at her as he thought. After a brief standoff, the brunet finally turned back towards his bedroom, muttering under his breath. “You should learn how to knock.”
When he emerged from his room again, it was to find the assassin wrapping ice cubes in a hand towel in the kitchen. As Tony watched, she brought the bundle up to her face. She leaned against the counter to stare back at him. After another moment, she canted to head to one side.
“What do I call you?” she asked.
“Tony,” he replied. She continued to watch him, clearly waiting for more, so he elaborated. “It’s Anthony, but I prefer to go by Tony.”
“Just Anthony?” She sounded curious. Or maybe skeptical. It was hard to tell.
“If I have a surname, no one ever bothered to tell it to me.”
“Interesting,” she said in a tone that suggested otherwise. “I’m Natalia.”
“Just Natalia?” Tony parroted back at her.
“I’ll offer my family name when you offer yours,” Natalia told him.
“I really don’t know if I have one,” he countered. “Could be Jude. Not sure.”
She considered him, green eyes narrowing. “You’re serious. You really don’t know.”
“Nope,” Tony agreed. “Never have.”
Natalia let out an indifferent hum and dropped it. “You should take me to meet your buyer, now,” she said.
“Because I already had one client try to rip me off. I’m not about to let a second one do the same.”
“That’s fair,” Tony allowed. “Okay, come on. He’s pissed at me for telling him I couldn’t get the designs, anyway, might as well have backup.”
She set the bundle of ice in the sink and followed after him, picking up the disks from where she had set them beside her on the counter. He could feel her assessing gaze bore into his back. Just as he was about to ask what she wanted, she spoke up.
“Who is the empty room for?” Natalia questioned.
“Nobody,” Tony answered, ushering her out into the hall so he could close and lock the door behind them. “I just haven’t put anything in there, yet.”
He could tell she didn’t believe him even though she didn’t press. Which was good, as it wasn’t any of her business. They were just going to deliver the designs to his buyer and split the proceeds - hopefully without any complications. Then Tony could go back to pretending he wasn’t leaving a space open for Clint and never think about this confusing (and rather painful) encounter with the black widow again.
A week later, Tony woke to a face inches away from his own. He jerked back with a startled yelp and fell out his desk chair.
“Why are you asleep at your desk when you have a bed?” Natalia asked him curiously.
Tony sputtered indignantly. “How are you in my apartment when I’ve locked all the entrances?!” he demanded. He still hadn’t figured out how she’d gotten in the last time - despite what she’d said, none of the windows had been broken.
Chapter 8: Promises
“One of us should probably learn how to cook,” Tony remarked.
“It will not be me,” Natalia replied, arching a challenging brow at him.
Now, Tony couldn’t be entirely certain, but he was pretty sure that Natalia had adopted him. In some capacity, at least. She didn’t take care of him so much as make sure he more or less took care of himself. The assassin didn’t clean and she certainly didn’t cook, but she did periodically remind him that sustenance was a thing and more than once he had fallen asleep sitting up somewhere only to wake on the sofa or in his bed with a blanket pulled over him.
He had given up on trying to figure out how she got in after another week and just gave her a key. Tony thought she’d been grateful for this, even if she hadn’t really expressed the sentiment. It was taking him a while to learn to read her.
Natalia was curled up in an armchair as Tony worked on a device that would help him bypass digital security systems. The television was playing, but neither of them were paying it much attention. In fact, the redhead seemed more interested in him that whatever contrived drama was happening in the show.
“What?” Tony asked, glancing up at her.
“Are you hard of hearing?” she signed curiously.
“No. Why?” he replied, attention promptly returning to his project.
“You always watch TV with the subtitles on,” Natalia said, "but you also keep the volume down."
He paused to consider this. “I guess I do,” he agreed. Clint hadn't liked the volume up too high because he'd said the background noise was distracting. Tony had taken to making sure the closed captioning was always on for him. He had yet to get out of either habit. Part of him knew this was for the same reason as the empty bedroom, but he chose not to think about it. Much.
They lapsed into silence. Natalia watched the show and Tony worked on the device. He barely noticed how dark it was starting to get before she got up to turn on the lamp.
“Another thing we have in common,” she said as he blinked in the sudden brightness.
“What’s that?” Tony asked.
“Our habits are not our own,” she told him, “we got them from other people.”
As she wandered into the kitchen, Tony wondered whether that was the reason she had stuck around. Did Natalia feel she could identify with him? Could he identity with Natalia?
Tony wasn’t sure whether he could or not. He knew a bit about the Red Room - certainly more than an ordinary person - but even Hydra’s information had been limited. Most of said information only involved the Soldier’s involvement with the program. There were a lot of differences between Tony’s relatively secluded upbringing and that of black widow assassins. And yet, there were also a lot of similarities.
He just wasn't sure.
“One of us should probably learn how to cook,” Tony remarked when he got up to follow her into the kitchen. She was putting together a peanut butter sandwich. Just peanut butter, from the look of things, but that might have been because there was no jelly.
“It will not be me,” Natalia replied, arching a challenging brow at him.
The brunet gave a laugh and looked down. “Guess that leaves me, then,” he said. A moment later a plate with a plain peanut butter sandwich appeared under his nose. Like she was rewarding his response. The thought made him grin. “What should I try cooking first?”
“As long as you don’t poison me, I will try anything, Antoshka. Or I will order out and it won’t matter,” Natalia told him pragmatically.
“That’s true,” Tony said agreeably. He took a large bite out of his sandwich. It was dry, but that was okay. Tony wasn’t about to complain about it.
“Antoshka, I know that I said you could cook anything, but maybe you should start with something… simpler,” Natalia suggested a couple days later as she took in the disaster zone that was the kitchen.
A couple pieces of food fell from where they’d been blasted onto the ceiling. “Yeah,” said Tony, wondering where he’d gone wrong, “yeah, I think you’re probably right.”
When he relayed the debacle to Clint, without mentioning Natalia, the man had responded with three words: ‘Dude. Boxed dinners.’
With this sage advice and further experimentation and research, Tony soon discovered the convenience that was boxed mac-n-cheese, Hamburger Helper, and frozen lasagna. It might not have been exactly gourmet, but it did the trick. Anything more complex would have to wait until he’d had a chance to practice more.
It was as they were eating some pasta and vegetable dish Tony had found in the frozen section one night that Natalia asked, “How old are you?”
She occasionally asked such things, but never all at once. By Tony’s assessment - assuming he was getting better at reading her - she was curious about him but didn’t want to press out of respect. At least, that was the reason Tony hadn’t asked too many questions about her unless she’d been the first to do so. It turned out that assassins and former assets weren’t the most forthcoming.
“I’m 25,” Tony replied between bites, eating with one hand as he sketched out an idea with the other. “How old are you?” When she didn’t respond right away, Tony looked up. She was watching him with her head tilted to one side.
“However old you think, I am older,” she told him.
He gave her a skeptical look. “You can’t be much older than I am, if you’re that, even,” he said.
Natalia’s lips twitched into a brief smirk. “Older,” she said. Which begged so many questions.
Tony asked none of them.
Tony was slouched in his desk chair, laptop in his lap as he twitch between working on it and his desktop. As he worked, U was across the room suspiciously inspecting the bag Natalia had left behind when she pulled a disappearing act the previous day. He wasn’t sure what the bot expected to find but he was certain the assassin wouldn’t have left it if she had a problem with it being disturbed. Mostly certain.
“Hey, J?” the brunet spoke aloud as he typed something into his main keyboard. “Any idea what U’s problem with Natalia is?”
U’s arm lifted so the bot could turn his claw Tony’s direction, pincers closing with a quiet clack as he let out a series of terse beeps. Tony quirked a brow at the bot from between the computer monitors.
“It would seem that U’s ‘problem’ with Ms. Natalia, as you put it, is that she is not Mr. Barton, sir,” JARVIS replied through the computer speakers. U let out a rude sounding buzz-click then returned to what he was doing before.
Tony laughed. “I really don’t think that’s her fault, buddy,” he teased. The bot ignored him. His gaze softened and he sighed. “He really misses him, doesn’t he?”
“It appears so, sir,” JARVIS agreed, “and dare I say, he is not the only one.”
“He was my first real friend. I mean, I did feel that I may have had a friend before, sort of, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. Clint taught me what friendship could be. You know, when it was allowed,” Tony shrugged.
A commiserating beep proceeded U setting one of Clint’s old arrowheads down on the desk a couple minutes later. Tony paused what he was doing to pick it up, thumb running carefully along its edge. It felt like ages since he and Clint had parted ways.
“I miss him, too,” he said softly, “but you know what? He’s doing just fine. I heard from him just the other day. And the moment he’s not fine, I’ll go rescue him.”
U gave an affable chirp and opened his claw to take the arrowhead back. Tony handed it over and gave the bot’s arm a fond pat.
Clearing his throat, Tony focused back on his computers. “Right. Where were we, J?”
“You were about to run a simulation for your new electronic security hack,” JARVIS answered disapprovingly.
“Whoa, hey,” Tony told him. “Dial back the judgment, would you? We can’t all belong to billionaires, you know. And it’s not like I’m asking you to do the hacking.”
“Not yet, in any case,” the AI responded dryly.
“See, that’s just rude. And judgy. You’re judgy, J,” the man informed him. “You definitely don’t get that from me.”
“I’ll be sure to make a note of that.”
“See that you do,” Tony responded, mouth quirking in amusement. “Most sophisticated system in the world, and you choose to question my life choices.”
“At this juncture, I feel that someone ought to do so, sir,” JARVIS replied primly.
Tony threw his head back and laughed. “Fair enough,” he said with a grin.
For a terrifying moment, Tony’s brain was convinced that Hydra had found him and were breaking into his apartment. There was a scraping and jiggling of the handle before the door slammed open abruptly. Tony had jumped to his feet in the same moment, a pistol already in hand, adrenaline surging. Then a figure staggered through the doorway and his heart skipped several beats entirely.
It took him several seconds to process what he was seeing before the source of his dread abruptly switched gears. There was so much blood.
“Natalia?!” Hastily setting the gun aside, he ran towards her, catching her as her legs gave out from under her. Tony half-dragged, half-carried the woman to the sofa, setting her down with as much care as could be spared.
He pressed a hand over top one of her own, adding to the pressure applied to a wound in her stomach. Her hair was matted with crimson from some injury hidden among the locks which had also bled down the right side of her face and neck. The left shoulder of her jacket was stained red, slowly oozing fluid from what was unmistakably a bullet hole.
“Natalia, talk to me,” Tony said, gently taking her by the chin to get her to look at him. Her eyes were over-bright with pain, expression drawn and lips pale. “Natalia, please. Tell me what happened, please,” he implored, switching to Russian in case that would help matters even the slightest.
“Job went bad,” Natalia answered, voice too quiet. “Target was expecting me. Brought backup. Bastards shot me.”
“Okay. Alright. It will be okay. We’ll fix this,” he told her, turning to U momentarily, “U, shut the door and go get me the medkit. And towels - bring them right here. Now!” His attention went back to Natalia, tone urgent as he asked, “How many times were you shot?”
“I’m sorry, Antoshka,” she whispered.
“Hey! None of that. Just tell me how many times. Twice? Two times?” he pressed.
Natalia let out a pained grunt. “Three. The leg went all the way through. Couldn’t… I couldn’t get to the others. Wasn’t time.”
“Yeah, you would be the sort to do surgery on yourself,” Tony said, only somewhat incredulous.
U returned with the items he had requested and Tony quickly set them on the edge of the sofa. He used a leg to shove back the coffee table, then motioned the bot closer. Taking one of the towels, he put it in place of his and Natalia’s hands before directing U to push on it with his claw.
“Hold it tight,” Tony told him, then spoke to Natalia, “Try not to move. I need a few more things so we can get you fixed up. It will be just a moment. Just hang in there - and no passing out on me!” She gave a slight nod and Tony hurried off.
Stopping in the kitchen first, he filled the largest pot he owned with water and put it on the stove. That done, he went to locate his knives - the sharp ones, anyhow. Not that his cooking knives were bad, but he kept his others in better condition. Knives collected, he delivered them to the coffee table, grabbing several lighters along his way, before returning to the kitchen to wash his hands and grab the pot.
“Natalia. Nat, hey,” Tony gave her cheek a firm pat to get her to open her eyes. “I’m going to give you something for the pain, now, then I’m going in for those bullets. We’ll have you patched up and terrorizing people twice your size again in no time.”
Natalia grimaced in response, or maybe she was trying to smile. Tony wasn’t sure. “No matter what,” she murmured, speaking obviously taking more of her effort than a bit ago, “no hospital. Promise me, Antoshka.”
“I know,” he reassured her, “I promise.”
She wouldn’t have come back to him if she could risk going to a hospital. Although, Tony couldn’t help but worry that a hospital was exactly what she needed. But she was a black widow and Tony was a runaway Hydra asset. A hospital wouldn’t be safe for either of them.
“Here. Take this,” Tony said, having fumbled a couple morphine tablets from the medkit. “I’ve got you.” He really hoped he was telling the truth. God, he needed to be telling the truth.
Drawing in the steadiest breath he could manage, Tony set to work, praying to whomever might be listening that his promise hadn’t doomed the assassin to her death.
Chapter 9: Losing Time
"Destroy everything else. Nobody else sees this. Not ever.”
Warm thanks to those who've taken the time to leave kudos and comments. Each one means a lot to me. Thanks so much for letting me know that you're enjoying this piece!
At some point, Natalia blacked out due to some combination between the pain, blood loss, and medication. Shock had probably also been a contributing factor. Tony wouldn’t have been surprised. He’d tried not to think beyond getting the bullets out and closing up her wounds, lest he start to panic.
Tony could not have said how long it took. Afterward, the entire process seemed to have passed in a haze. Bullets extracted, wounds cleaned and stitched and bandaged… He knew he had performed each task, but the whole situation felt removed from him. It felt rather like he had watched as somebody else did those things using his own hands.
He probably needed to get a better handle on his freaking out thing.
Only once he was finished did Tony allow himself to worry about future complications. What if she had internal bleeding? What about infection? A wound to the stomach very easily led to further complications. She’d probably need antibiotics, but what kind? Would any do? Where would be the best place to even get such medicines outside of a proper healthcare facility? How much blood had she lost? Did she need a transfusion? What blood type did she have? What about her head injury?
She needed proper care! Tony was not qualified for such things. He had been trained to fight and hack and build things. Nowhere in his repertoire was anything beyond standard first aid. Without better care than he could provide, Natalia could die.
But he had promised.
He’d promised no hospitals, no matter what.
People like Natalia didn’t trust easily. If he broke the promise he’d made, she would feel betrayed. Worse, if he took her to a hospital, she could be found by the people she was evading. They would be at least as bad as Hydra, possibly worse.
But what if she died?
In a burst of determination, Tony rolled to his feet. He sidestepped U on his way to his computer. He was already talking as he started to type on a keyboard.
“JARVIS, I need you to help me determine what antibiotics might be needed for an infection following a gunshot wound to the stomach and where I can them on short notice,” he said, certain the AI was already listening. The man looked into the camera he had installed to give JARVIS a view of his apartment. “Also, help me figure out who did this to her. Whoever hired her as well as the ones who put bullets in her.”
“Displaying information regarding gunshot injuries on your far right monitor,” JARVIS responded. “If I may be so bold as to ask, sir - are you quite certain Ms. Natalia should not be taken to a doctor?”
“No,” Tony admitted grimly, “but you also know the kind of lives we live, J. It’s not a risk she was willing to take. She made me promise.”
JARVIS let out a sighing sound. “Very well, sir. I have located a nearby pharmacy which carries a broad-spectrum antibiotic which should fight off any infection that might set in. There are records which suggest that the pharmacist is not above making under-the-table transactions.”
“Great work, J. What’s the progress on finding out who got her into this mess?”
“I am working on that, now. As you know, Ms. Natalia has several aliases of her own. I will inform you as soon as I can ascertain her latest target and for whom she’d been working.”
“Thanks, JARVIS,” Tony told him. “I’m sorry to drag you into this. You were made for better than helping me pull off crimes.”
There was a brief pause before JARVIS issued a response. “You are hardly the only one to have me hack into places I shouldn’t be, sir. Furthermore, were I truly uncomfortable assisting you, I would say so.”
“You would?” the man asked.
“Indeed,” the AI assured. “It will likely take some time to determine Ms. Natalia’s employer and the one she’d been sent after. You should head to the pharmacy to obtain the medicines and any further supplies you might need. U and I will look after her and I will message your phone should there be any change in her condition.”
Tony drew a shaky breath, running a hand through his hair. “You’re right. I’ll hurry back. Thanks, JARVIS.”
“The pleasure is mine, sir.”
The pharmacist in question was every bit as willing to sell to Tony without a prescription as JARVIS had suggested. Tony was able to get the antibiotic as well as some more painkillers. There were still some in the medkit, but he figured it never hurt to have extra. After grabbing a few other items he thought they might need, Tony hurried back to the apartment.
U stood at the end of the sofa, having taken his duty of watching over Natalia rather literally. The bot acknowledged Tony’s return with a low chirp but kept his camera trained on the unconscious woman. In other circumstances, it might have made Tony smile.
“Anything, yet, J?” Tony asked aloud once the door was shut. He set his acquisitions aside as he reached the coffee table, immediately checking Natalia’s vitals and making sure the bleeding from her wounds hadn’t worsened.
“Not yet, but soon, sir,” JARVIS replied. “Were you able to acquire what you needed?”
“I was. Good work,” the man said. “Hopefully, it will just be a precaution.”
As Tony was carefully checking the dressing over her shoulder, Natalia stirred. Green eyes opened just long enough to take in her surroundings and identify the person tending to her before falling shut again. “Antoshka,” she murmured.
“Nat, hey. How are you feeling?” Tony asked quietly.
“Like I was ambushed by several armed thugs,” Natalia responded, somehow still managing to sound dry.
“How careless of you,” the brunet teased.
She shoved at him, wincing a bit as the action pulled at her various injuries.
“Here, I’ve got some more pain meds and water for you,” said Tony. “Can you take them?” At her nod, he raised her up a little in order to give her a couple more pills and several sips from a water bottle.
“Thank you,” Natalia told him. “Wasn’t sure where else to go.”
“Well, that’s what friends do,” he replied. “They watch each other’s backs.”
Her lips twitched into a minute smile, eyes slitting open again. “Are we friends, Antoshka?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think we are,” Tony told her. “Get some more rest. You’ve got a lot of healing to do.”
Natalia gave another nod and re-closed her eyes, unconsciousness already claiming her. Tony was under no illusion that it was probably less a show of trust than the direct result of her injuries. Not that he didn’t believe the assassin must trust him to some degree. She would never have come to him in such a vulnerable state, otherwise.
It was a precious thing, to receive trust from people like them. People like him and Natalia and Clint had learned how unkind people could be, how uncaring the world itself. Trust was easier withheld than later rescinded; it was one of the few ways they could always protect themselves.
He wouldn’t allow what trust she did give him be misplaced.
“Sir, I have located the information you requested,” JARVIS informed him.
Tony rose to his feet and moved quickly to his computer. “Let’s have it. I want to talk to these people.”
“That seems most unwise,” the AI opined.
“You’re probably right, but I can’t just let this go,” he responded. “If we’re hired to do a job, it has to be legitimate. I’m just going to talk to them, find out whether it was a set-up or if they’ve got a leak. It will be fine, JARVIS, I’ll be careful.”
“JARVIS,” Arno demanded, looking up from his computer, “why was Tony having you look up gunshot wounds for him? What happened? Is Tony injured? Where is he?”
“It would seem one of his associates ran into unexpected trouble, sir. Tony himself was not the person that was shot,” JARVIS informed him.
The billionaire blew out a breath, running a hand through his hair. It was probably strange worrying about a person he didn’t technically even know, but he did it anyway.
“So, Tony’s alright?” he asked for verification.
JARVIS didn’t immediately respond, sending Arno’s anxiety back up again.
“JARVIS? What aren’t you telling me?” Arno demanded, his raised tone gaining the attention of DUM-E and Butterfingers across the room. “Is Tony okay or isn’t he? Where is he? Do you have eyes on him?”
“To be honest, sir,” JARVIS responded almost tentatively, “I am uncertain that ‘okay’ is the correct term to describe Tony’s current state.”
“You have footage. Show it to me,” the man ordered.
“This took place in a secured warehouse approximately twenty minutes ago,” the AI said, displaying video from a security camera.
Arno couldn’t have torn his gaze away from the screen had he wanted. He could feel the color bleed from his own features as he watched, his mouth gaping slightly despite himself. When it was done, he asked JARVIS to play it again, and then for a third time after that.
He hunched over the edge of his workbench, a hand wrapped around the lower half of his face. With a hard swallow, he raised his chin up just enough to speak. “Who else has seen this, Jarv?”
“Thus far, you are the only one, sir.”
“Keep it that way,” Arno commanded. “I want just a single copy, strongest encryption we have, then lock it away in the darkest corner you can find. Destroy everything else. Nobody else sees this. Not ever.”
“Right away, sir,” said JARVIS.
Arno stared at the now-blank screen as though he could still see the footage playing there. Dragging in a breath, he let it out shakily, slumping back into his chair. “Jesus Christ, Tony,” he murmured aloud, “what the hell was that?”
It took a couple attempts to get the key to turn in the lock. The man stepped inside and closed the door again. On the sofa, a woman stirred, turning towards him.
“Antoshka?” Her voice came to him from a long ways off.
He moved closer as she reached towards the lamp. Brightness filled the room and he flinched away at its suddenness, squinting against the glare. As she looked at him, she drew in a sharper breath than he thought was usual for her.
“Antoshka?” she repeated, urgency in her tone as she struggled to push herself up into a sitting position. “ Tony! What happened? Where are you hurt?”
“Hurt?” he repeated.
And suddenly everything slammed into focus, the haze he was in dissipating like fog in the sunlight. He could hear U’s concerned beeps and whirring, pick up the scent of grease and metal and... blood ?
“I don’t…” Tony murmured as he looked down at himself, his gaze falling first to his hands. His knuckles were swollen and bruised, tell-tale crimson stains discoloring his skin. There was a stickiness against his body, so he looked down further, fingers confirming what his eyes were telling him. His clothing was covered in blood.
“It’s not…” he uttered confusedly, hands patting over his body, now, reaching under cloth to verify further.
Tony looked up again to meet Natalia’s gaze and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so lost and confused. He drew in a breath, mouth opening to say something , anything, some sort of explanation, but he had none. He had only one thing to say.
“I don’t think it’s mine.”
Chapter 10: Glitch in the Matrix
Hydra’s documentation on him didn’t even list his name. He was simply Asset #492, sometimes ‘the mechanic’ but more often just another tool amidst hundreds.
Legally, he didn’t even exist.
As ever, much gratitude to those who've left kudos and taken the time to comments! Comments really make my day, every time.
Just a head's up that starting in this chapter, Tony begins to struggle a bit with questions of why he exists. While he does not at all entertain the idea that he should cease to exist, he is most certainly questioning his value as a person. As I know this is something others have and do struggle with, I wanted to make sure I made mention of it.
Tony never did recall what happened. He remembered writing down the address JARVIS had provided and then arriving to talk to the man who had hired Natalia to take down a rival, but after that? He remembered nothing until he’d been returning to the apartment.
There had been too many police in the area to do any meaningful reconnaissance after the fact. The newspaper had said several people had been killed in a suspected gang hit. JARVIS had nothing further to offer on the matter.
As soon as Natalia had had a bit of time to heal, she and Tony relocated. She had teased that she was going with him because he needed somebody to look after him. Tony thought she was at least partly serious. In her way, Natalia was concerned about him. To be fair, he was concerned about himself.
So, they went to a new city and took on new identities. Tony had became Aleksander Petrov and Natalia his sister Lidiya. The identities had been her idea. It made Tony feel warm inside.
“Sasha!” Natalia called out as he carried in a box from the hall, using his present identity’s nickname in case any neighbors overheard. She was staring down U who didn’t seem the least cowed by her scowl. “Your garbage arm keeps getting in my way,” she complained in Russian, whiny in a way she’d never be with the door closed.
“Because you shouldn’t be carrying anything, yet,” Tony responded, setting down his own box to grab hold of the one she was carrying.
She refused to relinquish her hold on it. “I’m fine,” she informed him in a sweet tone that promised him harm.
“You’re still healing. And I know exactly how many meds you’ve been taking to walk around like you aren’t in pain,” he countered.
Her green eyes glittered in challenge, but she finally released the box. “I’m not some damsel in distress,” she gritted out, lowering herself into a chair.
“No one is saying you are, Lidiya,” Tony assured her. “No one with any sense would even dare.” Natalia flashed him a fierce grin, then set to booting up one of the laptops while Tony made sure the rest of the things they’d brought made it inside.
Later, after everything had been moved in and Tony had set up his computer and other electronics, the two of them settled in for a quiet evening. Natalia had set aside the laptop in favor of reading a battered paperback Tony was pretty sure had been accidentally stolen from a library. The television was on, volume low and closed captioning along the bottom of the screen. From his computer desk, Tony paid enough attention to notice that whoever had captioned the episode had done a rather poor job of it.
“My friend,” Tony shared before he had put much thought into it, “he lived with me before you and I met. He liked to watch these soaps, but he didn’t always like to wear his hearing aids. At least, not at home when he was comfortable. The problem being that he can’t hear without his hearing aids but he’d forget to turn on subtitles, so he’d be completely lost. So, I just started to make sure the closed captioning was always on.”
“And did that help?” Natalia asked. She’d put down the book to give him her attention. The way the light hit her hair still gave it a reddish sheen even though she’d died it a dark brown before they’d relocated.
Tony let out a soft laugh and shook his head. “No. He only ever paid half-attention to the shows, anyway, so he was still lost,” he said.
“Where did he go?” she questioned.
The brunet’s smile faded a bit and he turned his focus back to his computer monitors. “He… He was offered a chance to do more, I suppose, and he decided to take it,” he replied. “We keep in contact, off and on. Seems to be working out for him.”
There was quiet save for the quiet clack of keyboard keys and the soft murmur of the television. Something dramatic was happening, judging by the swell of the music.
“You miss him.” It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t anything other than an observation.
“Yeah. Yeah, I miss him,” Tony conceded. “But he’s fine. He’s doing alright.”
“Antoshka.” Natalia waited until he looked up at her to continue. “Just because he is alright doesn’t mean you can’t miss him.” She gave him a moment to let that sink in before turning back to her book.
He watched her for another moment before nodding to himself. Then, he paused what he’d been doing to hack into SHIELD and see what Junior Agent Clint Barton had been up to as of late.
‘You’re going by Aleksander, now?’ Clint had written in his brief response after Tony had told him about his relocation and identity change. ‘You don’t look like an Aleksander. Who will ever believe that?’
‘People will believe my name is whatever I tell them it is,’ was Tony’s rebuttal. ‘And I’m good at languages and accents. I wasn’t actually the one who came up with the name, though. That was my new roommate. She’s posing as my sister while she heals from an injury.’
‘Aw, replacement, no. How could you replace me? Was it because she’s prettier than me? Be honest.’
‘No one is prettier than you, C. But she could kick your ass at GTA any day of the week.’
‘You take that back, you filthy liar.’
Having been raised as an asset rather than a person, there were many things Tony didn’t quite understand about the world. He was learning - being a genius certainly helped with that - but it was rather a lot of catching up to do. That being said, he did know a fair bit about injury, some from personal experience, and he was pretty sure that healing from gunshot wounds took a good amount of time. This was likely especially true when said wounds were treated by someone untrained in medicine. Certainly, such recovery should be taking longer than Natalia’s seemed to be progressing.
Either that, or she was even better at acting like she was fine than Tony had guessed. (And Tony was already sure she was better at it than anyone else he’d met, so that seemed improbable.)
It had barely been six weeks and if Tony hadn’t known how injured Natalia had been, he never would have guessed in the first place. He had assumed her attempts to help with their move and being able to walk around at all had only been due to a combination of strong pain medications and determination. Now, he was starting to consider that maybe she had been starting to feel a little better only five days after the fact.
“If you have a question, Antoshka, you should just ask,” her voice broke into his thoughts. She looked over from where she sat doing gentle stretches. U lingered nearby, a bottle of water in claw. The bot had become rather solicitous of the woman since her injury and she bore his attentions with patient amusement.
Tony turned his gaze back to the circuit board he was working on, embarrassed to have been caught staring. “I was just thinking that you seemed to be healing quickly,” he admitted.
“And this is a bad thing?” she asked, canting her head to one side.
“No!” Tony exclaimed. “God, no, it’s just…”
Natalia decided to take pity on him. “The Red Room did not have patience for their highly trained assassins to take weeks or months or even years to heal from severe trauma,” she told him. “So, they found a means to expedite the process, among other things. I’m sure Hydra was much the same.”
“That’s true,” he said, recognizing the validity of the statement as she pointed it out. “The Asset has enhanced strength and senses, and he heals even faster than you are.”
The look she gave him then was inscrutable and lasted long enough that he started to grow uncomfortable under the weight of it. Before he could ask the reason behind the stare, she went back to her stretches.
“I’ll be fine, Tony,” she assured him warmly. “I’ve got you and U to look after me, right?”
“And U at least takes his responsibilities very seriously,” Tony agreed with a smile as U spun around excitedly to retrieve Natalia a second bottle of water. Still, the brunet couldn’t help but feel that he’d missed something.
A couple weeks later, Natalia had resumed heading out on random jobs that sometimes lasted days or weeks and other times only hours. The only notable difference was that she let Tony know she was going to be gone before she left instead of just disappearing without a word. Tony also found that he worried a bit for her in a way he hadn’t before. He knew that she could handle herself - certainly better than he could - but he worried, anyway. Tony supposed it was just part of being friends with another person.
Tony never really stopped his own routine of hacking into places he shouldn’t be and selling valuable information to those willing to pay for it (one gentleman of questionable repute paid rather handsomely for several documents to be altered). He still checked in on Clint regularly, hacking into SHIELD to keep tabs on him any time the archer was out of contact.
What hadn’t returned to normal was Tony’s newfound reluctance to leave the apartment. The hours he had lost troubled him. What had he done during that time? Why couldn’t he remember? Would he even want to?
Of one thing Tony felt reasonably certain: Hydra had done something to him. Something that he didn’t remember and for which he’d yet to discover any digitized files. Assuming there were any digitized files - or any files at all. There was almost nothing. Just a few scattered mentions of the boy he’d been, record of an agent’s child with a rival agent who’d been marked ‘terminated’ in big red letters, documentation of a gifted youth being trained up within the ranks.
Hydra’s documentation on him didn’t even list his name. He was simply Asset #492, sometimes ‘the mechanic’ but more often just another tool amidst hundreds.
Legally, he didn’t even exist.
Sometimes, Tony wondered if maybe he didn’t.
Maybe he was an anomaly, some sort of glitch caused by a fault in the coding that governed reality. There was already a person with a brilliant mind and his face, what use was there for two of him? Stark had come first, so Tony was undoubtedly the duplicate. Perhaps the reason that Tony had no place in the world was because he wasn’t meant to be in it.
Tony shoved back from his desk, causing U to turn from the collection of nuts and screws he was sorting with an inquisitive beep. He waved the bot off and continued determinedly toward the door. There he paused, hand hesitating at his side.
He was being ridiculous, again. Obviously, he couldn’t just stay in that apartment forever. He’d gone out hundreds of times before without incident. There was no reason to expect he’d just randomly start losing time, now.
Except that maybe it had happened before. Maybe it had happened and he just couldn’t remember. Perhaps--
Gritting his teeth, frustrated by his own wandering thoughts, Tony yanked open the door and left the apartment. It was still early in the day, the air a bit crisp. He zipped the front of his sweatshirt and shoved his hands into his pockets.
For a while, he just followed the sidewalk, putting thought to which direction he was going only when he reached a crosswalk. Eventually, the smells from a coffee shop managed to grab his attention and Tony went inside.
Several long sips into the cup and Tony was starting to feel better. He seriously considered that he may have been under-caffeinated. Had he developed a caffeine addiction? Tony honestly hadn’t thought much about it.
His musings upon his relationship to caffeine in general and coffee in particular were not so distracting that he failed to notice the black sedan that slowed as it approached him then lurched to a stop as he passed. Tony turned just enough to watch through a window as the driver somehow shimmied the car into an open space. A large curly-haired man climbed out, barely checking traffic before darting across, already shouting.
“Boss! Hey, boss!” he shouted.
Tony glanced around hoping that maybe he wasn’t the focus of the man’s attention. He was the most likely target in this scenario, however. And since Tony didn’t have any employees, let alone a driver, that meant one thing.
“Mr. Stark!” the man quieted down a bit as he managed to catch up. Not quite quiet enough, of course, as a few people glanced over, but it was the thought that counted or something.
“Um,” said Tony, staring at the man over his coffee. When had Stark even gotten into town? How had he missed that?
“What are you doing here, boss? Pepper is going to kill you,” the man informed him, taking him by an elbow and steering him back towards where he’d parked his vehicle. “Honestly, it’s a good thing I found you so easily. She will kill you if you’re late to this presentation. Kill you dead.”
“Pepper?” Tony managed. He’d already pieced together that this man had to be Stark’s bodyguard and personal driver Harold Hogan, but he hadn’t the slightest idea who ‘Pepper’ was supposed to be. Was she a girlfriend? (Unlikely, Stark’s relationships tended to be very public.) Was she the person in charge of whatever presentation Stark couldn’t be late to?
“Yeah, Pepper,” Hogan said, raising his brows. “Your PA? Practically runs your life, makes sure you don’t kill yourself forgetting to eat?”
“Oh. Miss Potts.” He noted ‘Pepper’ as Virginia’s nickname for future reference as Hogan brought him up beside the car. The man was giving him a seriously concerned look.
“Aw, geez - you’re a lot more hungover than you look, aren’t you? No wonder you went wandering off for a good cuppa joe. Chug that. And get in the car. I’ll have you back to the hotel in no time. A hot shower, another four cups of coffee, you’ll be good as new.” As he talked, he opened the door for Tony and proceeded to usher him inside the vehicle.
“Wait, no,” Tony finally thought to protest. Honestly, why did he let himself get into these situations? “I’m not-”
“Arno, please get into the car,” Hogan said. “Please. I’m not too fond of Pepper murdering me, either, you know. I’ll cover for you - you know that. Best as I can, anyway. But this thing is really important. If there was ever a thing to be on time for, boss, this is it.”
“Right,” Tony relented, for lack of a better option. The man had yet to realize - or even suspect, from the look of things - that he wasn’t Stark. Granted, the guy seemed pretty frazzled, so he could probably be forgiven. That meant, at least for the moment, that Tony could retain the secret of his identity. Namely that he wasn’t Stark, but rather the man’s double. It could still prove useful, assuming he managed to pull it off without anyone the wiser.
Nerves had Tony downing his coffee faster than he had originally intended. The beverage scalded his mouth in the best way possible. By the time Hogan had pulled up in front of the hotel Stark must have been staying in, Tony had started picking at the seam of the cup. The door opened before the driver could jump out and Tony found himself face to face with a stern-looking strawberry blonde in a pantsuit and heels.
“Arno, for god’s sake,” she admonished, taking the cup from him and motioning him out of the car. Hogan sent him a sympathetic look in the rear view mirror. “One time - if you could be on your best behavior, just one time.” She seemed stressed; it made Tony feel guilty even though he wasn’t actually the one making her job difficult.
“Sorry, Pepper,” he said, hesitating only the briefest moment over her name.
The woman let out a weary sigh as she looked at him. “Please just go up and get ready,” she requested, gesturing towards the hotel.
Since she was actively watching, Tony had no choice but to walk into the hotel. He felt a lot like an errant school boy - which was especially odd, seeing as how Tony had never attended a single day of school in his life. Maybe it was a special ability of hers.
Tony did his best not to look as out of place as he felt while walking through the hotel lobby. As he approached the elevators, he wondered which floor he should go to in order to appear as though he was going to ‘his’ room. Then, he noticed the top floor was simply labeled ‘P’ which answered that question. Obviously, a man of Stark’s stature would be staying in the penthouse.
There was a problem, of course. He couldn’t even go to the penthouse floor without a key-card, which he didn’t have for obvious reasons. If anyone was paying attention to where he was going - and people were definitely paying attention to him, far more than he liked - then they would notice if he went to the wrong floor. So, how--
“Did you forget your key, boss?”
Tony did his best not to startle as Hogan spoke up from just outside the elevator cab. Clearly, it was a good thing Hydra had decided against using him for spy work because he was a mess. “Um, yeah,” Tony said. “Must have left it in the room.”
“Not a problem. Pepper made sure I had a spare for you, just in case,” Hogan told him amiably, taking out the key-card in question and swiping it in the slot before hitting the button.
So, it seemed he would be getting into the penthouse, after all. “Thanks,” he mumbled. Maybe he could hide in the closet or something. Or climb out the window. Yeah, that would be normal and safe.
Apparently unable to select another floor while the penthouse was selected, Hogan rode up with Tony, keeping up the friendly chatter the entire way. Tony honestly couldn’t have said what the man was talking about as he was more focused on thinking of a way out of the whole mess while remaining under the radar. The doors opened and Tony distractedly returned Hogan’s goodbye as he stepped out into the suite.
That hotel room was nicer than any space Tony had ever been in before. The elevator opened into a living space, complete with sofa and massive television, what appeared to be a rather lavish kitchenette at the far end. Two steps lead up and into the bedroom with its California king-sized bed and massive wardrobe. He couldn’t see the bathroom from where he was standing, but Tony was certain that it was ridiculous, as well.
“A person could live here,” he muttered to himself. He had taken several careful steps into the room, unable to help but gawk at his surroundings. Giving himself a mental shake, Tony turned his thoughts to the problem at hand. Before he could decide upon his best option for getting out of the hotel unseen, the elevator pinged and the doors slid open.
He whirled around, feeling like he was moving through mud. Stepping out from the elevator cab was Arno Stark himself wearing clothes that had clearly spent the night in a pile on the floor. The man’s blue eyes widened as they met Tony’s, his mouth dropping open.
Tony didn’t wait for the man to say anything. He launched himself at the nearest window and yanked it open, not even slowing as his hand caught on the latch.
By the time Stark had stuck his head out after him, Tony had managed to scale the remaining wall up to the roof and quickly made his escape.
Chapter 11: Left Behind
It turned out being a person rather than just an asset hurt in ways he hadn’t really experienced before.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Tony wasted no time in uprooting himself yet again. He packed up only those things he could not do without or which could be used to trace or identify him in any way. A few others ended up in his bag simply because they belonged to Natalia. All of it fit in a single duffel bag.
The only thing that wouldn’t fit, of course, was U. Tony agonized a bit over that. He hated to leave the bot behind but he did not dare to stay put after being seen by Stark. He would have to make arrangements for the bot to be sent to him later or maybe Natalia would see to it whenever she completed her current job.
“It will be okay,” Tony murmured to the machine as he put it into standby mode. His hand ran soothingly along the support strut. “Someone will be back for you as soon as I can arrange it. Natalia, or me, even, if it’s more than a few days. I won’t leave you all alone for long, okay?”
Less than two hours after encountering Stark in the hotel penthouse, Tony was riding a bus out of the city.
One Week Later
“Jarv, I’m just saying that if you were going to give me the address anyway, you didn’t have to wait an entire week,” the brunet said into his cell phone, digging out the apartment keys he’d gotten from the landlord. He’d told the woman that he had accidentally locked his keys in his apartment - which was patently untrue, of course, Arno had never lived in such a dumpy place in his life. But since there was no answer when he knocked and picking the locks would have looked suspicious, asking for the keys had been the easier option.
When he opened the door, Arno expected the hinges to squeak. They did no such thing, however, swinging smoothly and silently. He was almost disappointed.
“Hello?” he called out, lowering his phone and shutting the door behind him. “It’s… Is anyone even home?”
He moved around a bit, slightly unnerved by how much the space reminded him of his workshop only with somewhat more of an emphasis on the computers and small electronics as opposed to the larger machine parts he himself gravitated towards. Granted, Arno did have quite a bit more space.
“Why do I get the impression that Tony is long gone?” the billionaire groused, bringing the phone back to his ear as he turned to take in the room. “JARVIS, why--”
An inquisitive beep grabbed his attention, accompanied by a mechanical whirring. A robot wheeled closer to him but maintained a cautious distance. It had a support strut that doubled as an arm, a three-fingered claw surrounding the camera it used to perceive its surroundings. The pincers clacked together and the machine gave a wary buzz-click before backing up a little.
Arno blinked in surprise, the corners of his mouth tugging upwards. “We are definitely talking about your tendency towards favoritism, later,” he informed JARVIS before pocketing the phone.
He took a careful step towards the nervous bot - and god, wasn’t that incredible? That he could tell that it was nervous ? That it could obviously differentiate between him and its creator? It was incredible.
“Hey, there,” the man said, pitching his voice to be low and soothing. “Gosh, you look just like DUM-E, don’t you? He must have just eyeballed his design.”
There was no other way Tony could have replicated his first AI. There had never been a digital copy of the blueprints. Everything about the bot’s build had been drunkenly scrawled out on paper.
Arno offered his hand to the bot, much like a person might try to introduce themselves to a strange dog. “So, you’re the reason Jarv gave up Tony’s old address. He must have been worried since Tony hasn’t come back for you, yet,” he continued aloud. “I’m sure that’s not intentional, though. Just look at you. Nobody would forget about you. Not on purpose.”
The bot turned its attention from his face to his hand, then back again. After a long moment, it pressed its closed claw into his palm. Arno’s face split into a happy grin.
“That’s it, buddy,” he praised. “I’m not gonna hurt you. I know a couple bots who’d love to meet you. What do you think? Wanna come stay with me until we can get you back to your creator?”
The robot shifted back and forth a bit, seemingly uncertain before giving an affirmative chirp.
“Good boy,” said Arno, stroking along the bot’s strut. “Now, what do I call you?”
One Month Later
“So, thanks for leaving the majority of your junk for me to clean out,” Natalia spoke dryly in lieu of any sort of greeting. Her hair was cropped short, the still-dark tips fading into her natural red. She had appeared out of nowhere, as was her wont, simply falling in step next to Tony as he walked down the street to his current favorite coffee shop.
To his credit, Tony didn’t startle. Maybe he was just growing accustomed to her super-spy ways. “Yeah, sorry about that,” he told her sheepishly. “I ran into someone I’m doing my best to avoid, so I had to leave town in a rush. Want a coffee?”
“You owe me at least that much,” she informed him. “The place was a mess.”
“Fine. How about lifelong coffee on me?” Tony offered with a small smirk.
“This is acceptable,” Natalia acquiesced loftily, gaze amused.
“So, were you able to ship U out this direction, somewhere? Or did you have to put him in storage?” he asked as he held the door open for her.
The woman stopped and stared at him. “U’s not with you?” she returned.
Tony felt a knot start to form in his stomach. “No? No, there wasn’t time. I had to leave him behind. I put him in standby mode. He should have woken the moment you walked in.”
Natalia grabbed his elbow and pulled him back down the sidewalk a bit. She lowered her voice and leaned in closer to avoid being overheard by passersby. “Antoshka… I’m sorry, but U wasn’t there. He was gone. I had assumed you’d brought him with you or stored him yourself.”
“He wouldn’t have left on his own,” Tony said, protesting without need. “Even if he had gotten the door open, he’d never have made it down the stairs. He wouldn’t have left… had someone broken in? Do you think they stole him?”
“I don’t know,” Natalia shrugged a bit helplessly. “The door was locked when I got there. A few things were out of place, but it just looked like you had left in a hurry. I swear, if I’d had any idea, I would have contacted you sooner or gone looking for him.”
Tony leaned heavily against the wall, a bewildering ball of remorse and heartache and loss building in his chest. “U is gone. Someone took my bot and it’s all my fault. It’s my fault - I’m the one who left him behind and now I’ll probably never see him again.”
Natalia eyed him sympathetically. She clasped a hand on his shoulder, hugs not being anything she was accustomed to giving. It was just as well, hugs weren’t anything Tony was accustomed to receiving, either. The hand on his shoulder meant just as much. He had to scrunch his eyes shut to fight back the tears.
“I should have never left him behind,” he murmured thickly.
Natalia didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to. It was enough that she was there.
The following months passed quickly. Natalia was gone more often than she was around. Even Clint was in less contact than he had been, caught up in his role as a SHIELD agent.
Tony didn’t begrudge either of them. They each had their own lives to live. He focused instead on his own pursuits. He didn’t build another robot or put more than a few cursory thoughts towards creating a new AI, though he did craft several small devices that could be utilized for breaking into places or self-defense.
One of these devices was a pair of bracelets capable of delivering an electrical shock strong enough to incapacitate most opponents. Tony had created them for Natalia, gifting them to her once he had worked out all of the bugs. This had earned him one of the assassin’s rare smiles. Or maybe that had been what he’d called them: widow’s bites.
Speaking of the woman, it had been several weeks since Tony had last seen or heard from her - longer than any of the previous times. He had changed identities and cities in that time, but that never prevented her from finding him before. Tony was sure she was fine, but he still wondered where she might be, what sort of danger she could potentially be in. Maybe next time, he would offer to accompany her? It would give him something to do.
Tony had fallen asleep in his desk chair, listening to JARVIS read an article he had been unable to keep his eyes open long enough to read himself. The next thing he was aware, he was being maneuvered onto a considerably softer and much more horizontal surface. Someone proceeded to tug off his shoes before pulling the blankets up over top of him.
“Clint?” he mumbled, lifting his head from his pillow and blinking blearily.
There was a brief pause, then someone settled onto the edge of his bed. “Hush, Antoshka,” a feminine voice answered, a slender hand pushing his hair back out of his face. “It’s me.”
“Natalia,” said Tony, and now that he knew the person’s identity, he could make her out in the darkness of the room. “Was wondering where you’d gone. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Tony,” Natalia replied. “I wanted to check in on you and… And I wanted to make sure I said goodbye.”
He frowned, brain waking up but thoughts still a little muzzy. “You’re off again so soon?”
“This time is a little different,” she told him Russian. “This time… I won’t be coming back for a while.”
“Are you in trouble?” Tony asked, sitting up in concern.
She shook her head. “Nothing like that. Well, not technically,” she answered. “I have been offered an opportunity, to be a part of something. I’m still not sure it’s completely for real, but if it is? I think I could really do some good. It would be nice to do something good, for once.”
“This is important to you,” Tony said. It wasn’t a question.
Natalia answered anyway, expression rueful, “I have a lot of red in my ledger. I think… I’d like to wipe some of it out, you know?”
“So you won’t be coming back?” he spoke it as a question, although he already knew that she wouldn’t.
“Not often. Not for a long time. I’m going to have a lot more eyes on me. I don’t want to risk leading anyone back to you,” Natalia explained.
Tony nodded like he understood. He really did want to understand. The problem was that it all felt rather much like another person was leaving him. He couldn’t help but feel the smallest sting of abandonment.
“I understand,” he told her. “Thank you for telling me.”
“I didn’t want to just disappear on you,” she said with a sad smile. “Take care of yourself, okay?”
“Only if you do the same,” Tony replied.
She acquiesced with a nod. After another moment, she rose to her feet and went to the bedroom door. There, she paused again, turning back to look at him. She seemed to deliberate whether she wanted to say what was on her mind.
“Don’t stay alone,” she finally said. “Make another… friend or robot or something, but don’t-- You shouldn’t be alone, Antoshka. You should have someone.”
“I have JARVIS, sometimes,” Tony said, trying to add a little levity to his tone.
“That’s a start,” Natalia conceded, “but just… Don’t be alone, Tony. Please.” She waited for him to give a small nod before leaving.
Tony listened for her footsteps to retreat, for the outer door of the apartment to open and close, but as always, she was silent. He waited until he was certain she was gone before flopping back onto his pillow. Sucking in a breath, he let it back out a bit shakily.
“It’d be easier if people stopped leaving,” he mumbled to himself.
It turned out being a person rather than just an asset hurt in ways he hadn’t really experienced before.
Clint was officially out of contact. Everything Tony could dig up indicated the man ought to have been able to reply, but still he hadn’t sent Tony a message in weeks. He just wasn’t writing. He hadn’t even logged into their secure email.
Of course, just because Clint wasn’t off somewhere on a SHIELD mission didn’t mean he wasn’t busy with other things. He was fine. Tony was fine. They did not need to be constantly interacting back and forth. It was fine.
Everything was fine.
Tony started work on a new project. He started with the research, then moved on to planning and putting it together. After the first day, JARVIS began giving him reminders that he ought to eat. Half way through that second day, the AI started to suggest that sleep was advisable.
To be honest, Tony wasn’t wholly certain if he ate or slept the third day or not. He’d had coffee. There might have been crackers? (Or had those been the second day?) Coffee counted as both sustenance and sleep, didn’t it? He might have dozed off in the shower.
Had he showered?
He missed U.
He missed U and he missed Clint and he missed Natalia. The apartment was too still and too quiet no matter how much he moved around in it. Tony swore JARVIS was actually starting to sound concerned (which was amazing, really; JARVIS was simply amazing) and he couldn’t have bet on whether it was because he’d forgotten to get food or sleep or maybe because he stank because he hadn’t actually taken that shower. Could JARVIS even tell if he stank?
The coding of his project wasn’t making any sense. Granted, that could have been because the lines of information kept blurring together. Or perhaps he kept getting distracted by JARVIS’ questions. Might have had somewhat to do with the fact that at some point he must have sat down in the corner, so the monitors were a bit far away and at an angle that made it really hard to read.
Wasn’t there something he was supposed to do?
Before he could determine just what it might have been or move back to his desk chair - and really, when had he gotten out of it? Had he stood up and walked to the corner? Had he slid out of it, then crawled? - there was a loud knocking at his apartment door.
Tony knew how he was supposed to respond to that. There was more insistent pounding, so he turned his head towards the sound. Knocking meant… It meant someone was at his door. People answered doors. Tony should answer the door. Or peek out the peephole but he didn’t have one so he should just answer.
Leaning against the wall, Tony slid up to his feet. Then he maneuvered around his desk space, using the surface for support. (And wow, he kind of had a lot of junk on his desk.) Eventually, he made it to the door as a third spate of knocks ended and he fumbled with the locks until they were undone so he could pull it open.
He opened the door to find himself on the other side. No. Not him. Other him. Not him. Stark. It was Stark at his door.
He was reasonably certain. It made a bit better sense than he himself standing two places at once.
Stark’s blue gaze flitted over him, the corners of his mouth turning down a bit. Like he found something that disappointed him. And really, if Tony were a copy - undoubtedly a cheap one - wouldn’t he be a bit disappointing to the original?
Those unfamiliar eyes in his own face rose back to Tony’s, and then the man spoke. It wasn’t really Tony’s voice, though. It was the voice Tony had taught himself when he’d started to emulate the man, even though at first it had been an accident.
“Hey,” Stark said, and his voice sounded kind - not the least disappointed, “we should probably talk.”
I'm going to admit that I thought we'd be to this particular point several chapters ago, but stuff happened and it didn't feel right to rush. Hope it's been worth the wait!
Warm thanks, as always, to those who've left comments and kudos thus far - every one means the world to me and comments full-on make me giddy. Seriously, feedback of any kind makes me so happy, so if you have a moment to drop a quick comment, it will totally make my day.