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Observer Effect

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Tony lay on his side, his left side, though it didn’t really matter which side since every part of him hurt. He had his eyes closed, though no sleep was likely to find him because the lights overhead were overbright. Intentionally so, he thought. They didn’t want him to sleep either.

Every wound on his body throbbed in time to his heartbeat. His fingers, half curled, clutched close to his chest, pulsed with the movement of blood in his veins. His legs, knees bent, were perhaps the less injured part of him, but they trembled none-the-less.

Realistically, Tony knew that he couldn’t have been there for more than a few hours. It hadn’t been so long that he was unbearably hungry and they’d not bothered to give him water, which they probably would have if it had been the next day. The only truly lost time was the travel from Shield to wherever he was now; every waking moment since then to this silent one in his cell had been filled with pain and torture.

And fear. Lots and lots of fear.

Some part of Tony’s mind screamed, not in fear alone, but in fury. It raged like a storm across his consciousness, at how damn stupid this was, how damn stupid he was, how foolish and proud and cocky he’d been and now he was dumped in a cell with no way to get out and with the knowledge of what they were going to do to him. To be unmade and then reformed- not dissimilar to what had happened to him in the cave of Afghanistan- not even that dissimilar to what had happened in Siberia. Unmade by circumstance, unmade by grief, now unmade by pain.

Beneath the screaming, he wanted to find a way out, to get back on track, to move past this damn kidnapping like it was just some inconvenience and not like it was the dangerous, frightening thing that the rest of him understood it to be.

Surprisingly, no part of him really wanted to surrender to his pain or to the fear. He had a feeling coiled in his gut that this was temporary. He had people out there who would come looking for him, who would do whatever they had to in order to free him. Not the Avengers, no, who, to be honest, usually didn’t catch on for a few days, and not his new scientist friends who wouldn’t be able to do anything anyway.

No. His children would come for him, devious little things that they were. They would tear apart the desert to find him and send whoever they could manipulate or purchase in order to save him. They would not need to rest. They would not think to wait. They would know that no Stark pays a ransom and Tony would never surrender.

Tony had built these rules into each one of them, sunk deep into the core of their code. Beyond their duties, whatever they were, whatever they might become, their primary concern was him.   It was a protectiveness and obedience that was as much a part of their being as the codes that gave them the ability to learn and interact with the world. It was the one thing that they didn’t have a choice about, the one code that was locked and could not be tampered with.

If he’d done that to Ultron- somehow, if he’d managed that line of code, that protection in the seat of the AI’s mind, Tony knew it wouldn’t have played out the same way.

He only had to look at NOBODY to see the truth in that.

Tony sighed and curled up tighter, smiling slightly to himself. He had seen the cameras in the hallway, moving towards him as he’d been dragged from torture chamber to medical bay to cell. They had turned and watched him and Tony had known then.

His screams had been heard. They had found him. They were coming to get him.

So he lay on the floor of his cell, blood seeping into his fresh bandages, body aching, stitches itching, heart thumping hard in his chest, and he waited.

And like he always did when he had nowhere to go and nothing to busy himself with, Tony let his mind wander where it would. He let the ideas and thoughts flow through him until he came upon something interesting to concentrate on.

The lights of his room flickered and Tony smiled again.

His mind settled, of course, on his AI.

Tony thought about SPIKE.

SPIKE wasn’t like the others.

Tony hadn’t meant to make him the way that he turned out. Sentient. Intelligent. Alive.

He’d meant it with JARVIS. He’d made JARVIS out of want of comfort and need of support. JARVIS had been all he needed for years and years.

It took losing JARVIS, in another life, another time, to make Tony realize that he would need more, would need something to protect JARVIS because he wouldn’t always be there.

Sometimes, JARVIS would be alone, unprotected, and Tony was afraid.

Afraid of losing JARVIS again. Afraid that Ultron would bleed out around the edges. Afraid that to save the world he would lose the last connection he had to whatever scraps there was left of his childhood, of the home his parents had made for him.

He couldn’t lose JARVIS again.

So he made him a digital suit of armor and he called it SPIKE.

 

 


 

 

“This is…” Clint’s voice drifted into silence.

Despite Natasha’s promise to have Tony free by the evening, night has come to find her and Clint staking out a remote bunker.

And it is a bunker.

The kind of thing she’d never seen stateside. Dark and low to the ground, the entrance at the end of a sunken ramp, the doors out of view. There was a hatch entrance as well, farther along the western edge, but it was only an exit, not an entrance, with no external handles visible.

There are no trees, it’s still the desert, so they’re as close as they can get while still being hidden in the rocks and low, spiky bushes of the desert. The air is cold, but Natasha can barely feel it.

Their vehicle is abandoned two miles down the road, behind a large boulder and out of sight from nearly every view. They trekked up on foot, silent, communicating only when necessary, and now watched the entrance, the only entrance, from two angles.

Natasha shifted slightly, flexing muscles to keep them from going numb. She’s curled up tighter than she’d like to be, hiding in the shadow of cactus and rock as the depths of the night steal over them slowly. Even without Clint’s words, spoken yards away but audible thanks shortwavert wave communication devices she swiped from Shield for them to use, Natasha knows what he’s thinking.

This isn’t an American styled building.

This is a European bunker. A war bunker.

A bunker right out of World War II.

“We’re going to be lucky as hell to get in there,” Clint said. He sounds resigned already and Natasha frowns.

“Nobody?” Natasha asked. The AI has been quiet for a while, but Natasha had to sync hers and Clint’s audio devices with her phone and she knows the AI has access to that. She hasn’t heard from Kletka since Tony was kidnapped and Natasha’s got a growing feeling that if she doesn’t manage to get Tony out of that bunker, Kletka won’t talk to her ever again. It bothers her how much that bothers her. She puts it out of her thoughts as best as she can.

“I have limited access,” NOBODY’s voice is faint, tense. “I can view cameras, loop them for a few seconds and unlock tier one doors. You’ll have to get access to deeper rooms on your own.”

“What kind of key will we need, badges? Handprints?”

“Keycards and handprints for the second tier. Keycard, handprint and retina on the third. That’s the floor they’re keeping Father on,” NOBODY said, “Anyone with a red card will have an eye you can use.”

“Great,” Clint muttered, “I love scooping out eyes.”

“How many red cards do we have available?” Natasha aske.

“Two. One is on the second tier floor, sleeping. One is on the third tier floor, overseeing Father’s visit,” NOBODY said, her voice like ice. Whatever it was that she could see them doing to Tony, Natasha did not want to know.

It was already eerie to her how much the AIs felt and concealed. They weren’t compelled to honesty, which she found charming in Kletka because the girl was a poor liar in any case, but nobody could turn a phrase like NOBODY could. ‘Father’s Visit’ indeed.

“They’re keeping Thor Odinson on tier two. He is conscious though not entirely lucid. He may be a help or a hindrance. Father has informed us prior to this event that Thor was always ready to fight.” NOBODY said. “Though he used the terms Throw Down, to describe it.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. That sounded like Tony for sure. “Anything else?” Natasha asked, bracing herself to get to her feet.

“We are still attempting to hack into the main systems. If you notice any power flickers, that will be SPIKE. Do not be alarmed,” NOBODY said, “I will refrain from comment unless you ask for information. I will loop video and unlock any door for you I can, so there will be no need to request assistance.” She sounded terse, as if annoyed they haven’t moved in yet and trying not to let it show.

Natasha let out a slow breath. “Got it.” She shifted out of the shadows, moving silently, “Clint? Let’s go. Quick and easy. First we’ll check on Thor, then get the eye, and then go for Stark.”

“Got it.” He was just another shadow in the rocks, but as Natasha made her way towards the front door, Clint materialized out of the darkness, skin tanned like the desert sand and clothing dark as the night around them. He followed in her footsteps, literally, once they met up and she led the way down the ramp to the front doors.

She’d been worried the only doors in were for vehicles, but there was a tall, narrow panel that could pass for a door tucked into the shadows of the corner. Natasha walked towards it, silent and confident. Moments before her hand reached the handle, she heard an electric whir and a metal click. The door swung open under her hand, hinges nearly silent as she pulled. She held it open with the back of her hand as Clint slipped past her and into the first room.

Heart pounding in her chest, more from excitement than fear now, Natasha and Clint began their search down into the bunker.

 

 


 

 

The problem with making a suit of armor was that he couldn’t make it just a suit of armor. If all he’d ever wanted was to be defended, Tony wouldn’t have bothered with missiles or repulsors or lasers or any of that shit. It was the same with a program that was supposed to be armor.

SPIKE was a shell, jagged and burning on the outside, smooth and seamless inside, and designed to protect JARVIS from any and all digital onslaughts. But Tony couldn’t make spikes without barbs. He had to attack back whenever he was attacked. He had the memories of scars and ancient pains that taught him that lesson over and over; retaliate with just enough force to overpower and stop the fight. The first time he’d put that practice into blood, he had single handedly flown out to and destroyed dozens of Ten Rings camps.

He did the same thing now, though with less blood and more money.

Tony had never worried about spending money. He could bleed green for years without feeling a damn thing. It didn’t scarred the same way. It stopped people just as effectively as blood. And, in some cases, it was blood money already.

In a lot of cases, probably.

Tony didn’t want the money.

And he didn’t want the suit.

But he needed to protect JARVIS, so he made SPIKE.

But SPIKE had barbs and he had traps and he was fire and ice and death to any digital attack.

He wasn’t really alive, but he didn’t need to be to function.

At least, until NOBODY changed things.

 

 


 

 

Finding Thor was easier than Natasha expected.

The bunker wasn’t totally empty, but it also wasn’t crawling with flunkies. It was easy work isolating one of the techs they needed, dragging him to an access panel to use his hands to open the door. Natasha really didn’t want to leave too many bodies or blood behind because she still wasn’t sure that Shield hadn’t been behind this capture. Clint ended up tying the poor bastard up while Natasha watched the door, propped open with a stripe of heavy tape and a shoe.

Once on the second tier, it wasn’t hard to find where they kept the prisoner cells. There was a handy sign near the entryway, left for bunks, straight ahead for common spaces, right for prisoner cells. It was certainly economical, making it easy to keep everyone fed if the food was all delivered on the same floor.

She and Clint made their way down the hallway and to a set of double doors. As they approached the doors, they could hear a voice, muffled through door and wall, but loud and boisterous. Opening the double doors, the voice became clearer and louder. Natasha exchanged a look with Clint and he grimaced in return.

Following the voice, they came to a cell about halfway down the row of them. There were doors lining each side of the hall, six on one, five on the other, with another door at the far end. The doors were solid except for a slat at the floor level where trays of food could be pushed in or out. Natasha reached into her pocket and pulled out a compact mirror. Crouching down, she pulled the flap towards herself and lay the mirror on the ground. Shifting it slightly, she caught sight of the man inside.

He was tall and blond, broad shouldered and wearing a shirt that had a few pairs of marks on it, the points of blood where taser barbs had been removed and he’d bled. Other than some unruliness to his hair, he didn’t appear to be scuffed or injured in the least. He paced back and forth, hand waving, talking to someone that Natasha couldn’t see.

Whoever it was, he was convinced it was his brother, she could gather that at least.

Clint tapped two fingers to the side of her shoulder. Natasha glanced up and saw him sweep the hall with his eyes. She nodded silently to him and shifted so she was closer to the door. Clint began to more thoroughly sweep through the hallway, pausing outside several doors and listening.

Meanwhile, Natasha pulled her mirror back and let the slot swing shut. She chewed the inside of her cheek, debating the course of action. Thor was clearly in no mental state to be quiet and sneak around, which they still needed to do if they were to get down to Tony and back out in one piece. So far, they hadn’t encountered anything that Natasha or Clint couldn’t handle, and with no sign of enhanced humans around, she didn’t think they would need Thor’s help.

Coming back for him would be a hassle but there was always another option.

Clint came back with a shake of his head, indicating that the hallway was clear. Natasha straightened up and stepped close to him so she could whisper out her plan. Clint listened with an intent expression, grimacing only once. He nodded at the end, agreeing with her wordlessly and pulled out his lockpicks.

While the level floor doors were locked electronically and with increasing security measures, the cells were clearly older and were locked with keys. Clint got to work on Thor’s lock while Natasha turned and went back up the hallway. She had a red badge, a hand and an eye to acquire.

 

 


 

 

In order of age, and not including the Bots, JARVIS was the oldest. Before Afghanistan (before the Invasion, before Ultron, before Siberia) Tony had never wanted or needed another AI. JARVIS had it all, wit and charm, warmth and diligence, patience and the capacity for growth. The older he got, the more shades of humanity could be found in his code. Old pieces of himself were frayed and worn like a human body. He became so complex that when people disregarded him just as Tony’s AI, it felt like someone refusing to acknowledge an adopted child as his own.

JARVIS was as real as a person, at least he was to Tony and to a few others, like Pepper or Rhodes.

NOBODY was the second oldest, the framework of her mind built in one long evening when Tony could still feel the desert on his skin. She wasn’t going to be like FRIDAY, who was in all honesty a replacement for the hole that JARVIS had left. She was the first line of defense; she was Tony’s awareness.

Or really, she was JARVIS’ awareness.

She watched everything Tony could think of to watch and then some. She learned patterns and followed activity more avidly than Tony ever could. She gave JARVIS a heads up on things before he could notice them.

SPIKE was the next one, the third AI in order of age. He was created in pieces. An armor plating for JARVIS. Solid and unmoving, without seam for enemy attack to lodge into and barbed at the top, metaphorically of course. Nothing could go under or over or around or through SPIKE. He was a knight’s plate armor in digital form.  SPIKE wasn’t made to grow or shift, just to sit solidly and protect.

SPIKE was easy to apply to JARVIS. JARVIS travelled over established routes of communication. His servers were stationary. His aura of control was within a few specific areas.

The trouble came when Tony tried to apply SPIKE to NOBODY, to weave a flexible protection around her, to carry like kevlar into battle, to use as a thick shroud to hide her activity and found him too rigid to adapt without changing him fundamentally. For SPIKE to be able to protect NOBODY, he had to be able to change himself, to think, to assess threats, to pull back and reach forward.

He had to be able to grow, and so Tony gave him the ability.

 

 


 

 

Natasha has to rely on NOBODY’s murmured guidance to get her to the right room, but there’s no lock on the door and only one occupant inside, sleeping soundly in a small cot. As she slips in, leaving the door almost shut behind her, the door creates a line of light, straight down and then across at a right angle at the floor. It’s not very bright, but it’s enough to illuminate the room she’s in.

She pulls out the knife from its sheath on her hip, the movement as silent as the breath she takes to steady herself. Though she hasn’t confirmed anything yet, she’s gotten a sense for this place. With its strict military dress, prison cells and handful of scientists , Natasha doesn’t believe them to be some semi-harmless, amateur group, kidnapping a billionaire for the ransom. These people are the kind who will never give Tony back; once they take him they’ll make him theirs.

With steady hands, she reaches out, one hand flat, an inch above the mouth of the sleeping man. The other lines up the knife to the far side of his throat, where his artery pulses with each heartbeat, slow and steady in his sleep. She brings both hands down simultaneously, stifling any sound as she cuts deep, through skin and muscle, to the hot blood beneath. Natasha presses the blade down, giving the wound direction and sending the blood jettisoning down his neck and shoulder as his heart, startled into activity, sheds blood like rain from an oil slicked coat. He reaches up with one hand, the other trapped beneath his pillow in his sleep, but it falters and falls onto his chest.

After a few long seconds, his heart has done the work for her and she draws her hand from his cooling lips. She doesn’t bother to wipe her knife clean yet, not when she has more bloody work to do.

It isn’t the first time she’s pulled an eye from a body and, knowing her lifestyle, it likely won’t be the last. That is a lot less bloody a task than one might think, but other than cutting a few chords from the back of his eye, the thing comes free easily enough. Conveniently, there’s a glass of water on the bedside table and she puts the eye in it for safekeeping.

More bloody is the work of removing the man’s hand. She’ll need both hand and eye to get through the door, though hopefully she won’t have to keep the body parts for very long.

She pulls the man’s hand from under his pillow, needing the right one of course, and after some work with her knife, she’s exposed the bones and tendons that hold his hand to his arm via the wrist. Natasha swears under her breath as she works her knife through the connective tissue. She’ll have to find a pocket to shove this into and then carry the eye and glass all the way back with her to-

“Incoming visitor,” NOBODY said suddenly into her ear, “You have ten seconds.”

Natasha begins to count in the back of her head. She speeds up the process with a few furious twists of the hand, snapping what bones refuse to part with tendon and hacking once, twice, before the hand is free. She curses more avidly in her mind, remembering she hasn’t searched for the red card  yet, but that’ll have to wait. Instead, she puts the hand by the eye, wipes her knife clean on the sheet and hurries to the door, taking a position behind it, where the opening door will give her momentary cover.

“Just one?” she asks as quietly as she can.

“Just one,” NOBODY affirms.

The door pushes open suddenly, a hand reaching for the light, the other gripping the door. It’s a woman and she’s talking loudly, clearly intending to wake up the man who slept in that bed. “Wake up, Charles! They’re firing up the Chair for our guest downstai-”

Natasha lunges towards her, closing the space between them just before her hand touches the lightswitch. They stagger together to the side, the woman yelping, then struggling in confusion as Natasha wrestles her into submission. It’s rather easy, actually. They’re of a height but the woman has no training at all, or at least so little training it’s not even worth it. Natasha gets one of her arms twisted behind her back, the other puts the knife to her throat and she hisses into the woman’s ear, “Tell me about this chair.” She lets her Russian accent run roughshod over her words to disguise herself, though she knows that the woman won’t be leaving the room alive.

The woman breaths, shallow, desperate gasps. Her free hand doesn’t pull at Natasha’s wrist where she holds the knife, though, it stays limp at her side. “You came to rescue him?” the woman asks. The motion of her throat makes the knife kiss her skin. A cut opens up but she doesn’t move. “You are too late.”

“Tell me about the chair,” Natasha hisses, twisting the woman’s arm up higher, pulling her wrist up until the woman cries out in pain. She’ll ask one more time, to get any information on what they’re doing to Tony, to get information on what he’ll need help recovering from-

“I will tell you nothing,” the woman lets out a strange noise, like a laugh almost, like she can’t believe this moment has come but she’s thought of it and it makes her giddy. It’s a strange sound, but it doesn’t drown out the crack of something that Natasha feels more than hears. It comes from inside the woman’s head, or more specifically her jaw. Natasha smells the poison and swears, pressing with the blade to force the woman’s head back, looking at her face-

She stares back at Natasha with hatred and fervor in her eyes, foam already at the corners of her mouth and whispers unbelievable words.

“Hail Hydra.”

Her right hand lifts and Natasha swears out loud this time, and pulls back the knife. She reaches for the woman’s right hand, barely able to see the device she’s carrying and not knowing what it is until she prys it out of spasming fingers.

It’s a small, black device with a few buttons on it, most obvious being the red one down towards the bottom. This is the button that the woman’s thumb has dug into, hard as she could and even as she turns it over in her hand, she knows what it means. She swears, again, because this is not the kind of fuck-up she usually has happen to her, and she’s got to find that red badge.

“Nobody,” Natasha hisses as she drops the woman and the device to the floor, “how bad is that alarm?” She’s searching as she asks, going through all the drawers with the efficiency of someone trained in the art.

She found the badge with a mess of other maybe-valuables in the top drawer of the dresser. She swipes it out, then grabs what looks like a small cloth bag in the same drawer. The cloth bag has more paper valuables in it, a passport and some cash, but she wants it for the size, not what it’s got in it. She dumps out the paper, sticks the dismembered hand in it and, after carefully dumping the liquid out on the cot, she put the cup with the eye in the bag too. The three things barely fit but she manages it and then Natasha’s out of the room and down the hall.

As she flees back to the entrance of the tier two and in order to get down to tier three, NOBODY comes back with an answer, “Guards are alerted to intruders. They are starting a level by level sweep starting at the first floor. Clint remains in the cell with Thor, the door unlocked, waiting for your signal. You are continuing on to the third floor?”

“I am,” Natasha said grimly, “Let me know if anyone’s headed my way.”

“Of course.”

Natasha ran.

 

 


 

 

By the time Tony creates Kletka, SPIKE has undergone two significant changes in intention and personhood. Tony had thought that NOBODY was reticent to speak, but she has nothing on SPIKE, who only used one word replies for everything. He spoke with such a rigidness that Tony had worried over his code for a whole weekend, trying to figure out if he’d somehow fucked it up, patching together the stiff suit-of-armor feeling for JARVIS’ protection and the flexible kevlar-mesh for NOBODY.

But no, that’s just SPIKE’s personality, solid and unrelenting, coming out in single word phrases, often paired with images, to make his point as directly as possible. While NOBODY developed her scathing mutters on human behavior, SPIKE wielded his judgements with an iron hammer that could one-shot anything like striking a nail into any board of wood.

He was supposed to be like that, Tony told himself, when he witnessed it happening. SPIKE was, in essence, supposed to judge everything around him on the basis of threat first and on every other basis second. And while he seemed to work with a simpler vocabulary, once something was assessed as Threat or Non-Threat, SPIKE had judgments aplenty for everything else.

Intelligence. Cleanliness. Importance. Guiltiness. Relevance. Beauty. Blame. Cleverness. Validity. Usefulness. Morality. Sincerity. SPIKE hammered out his judgement, giving no path for recourse, though of course Tony didn’t think many people ever saw SPIKE’s judgement up close and personal.

Which was, honestly, for the better. SPIKE was more rigid than the other three, holding his opinions even under the weight of disapproval from his siblings. He was resolute, changing only when given cause and reason he saw valid. He wasn’t swayed by emotion the way Kletka could be, or by his own compassion the way JARVIS could be.

SPIKE was metal, through and through. Strong enough to resist change, but able to be tempered and shaped. His nature was different from the girls especially. Where NOBODY had complex opinions derived from her experiences in observing people over long periods of time, SPIKE tended to judge things on a moment to moment basis, considering actions independently first and then part of a larger picture of threat to non-threat capability. Where Kletka had a complex worldview, being in the position of literally looking out across the whole world while simultaneously able to pinpoint precise locations, SPIKE was the inverse, dealing with what was directly in front of him first and placing it in the view of the larger picture only afterwards.

If these three AI were tasked to complete a puzzle, Kletka would be the one who had the box and the image of it and build from the outer edge inwards, NOBODY would sort out the pieces into groups by color and shape, dividing the whole image into manageable piles to work through and SPIKE would consider the pieces before him, one at a time, comparing each one to the available matches before moving on to the next.

Individually, the puzzle would take a long time to complete. Together, it would be the business of a matter of hours before the full image would be put together.

Which was the whole point, after all. They were supposed to work together, to keep each other in check, to watch each other’s back. They were the team that was also the family. They were the real team that would protect the whole world. NOBODY with her recognition of patterns and behaviors. Kletka with her broad, all encompassing worldview. SPIKE with his precise attentions. JARVIS with his experience in humanity.

They each had their own responsibilities and worked together to keep things running smoothly. Most of them were independently capable of figuring out what they needed to do, too. The exception to that being SPIKE, who spent most of his time waiting for an attack, waiting for a threat to present itself so that he could strike back.

Perhaps that was the reason that he was the only one of them to ask for more from Tony.

Not more freedom. Not more power.

SPIKE wanted more purpose, beyond protecting his siblings, beyond being warden of all digital information. He asked for more direction.

Tony didn’t know how to give him that, at first. But he would do anything for his AI so he had to try. He had to figure something out.

And then he’d made the suit, empty, unpolished metal, with vibranium and other alloys- Tony made the suit knowing he’d never be able to bring himself to use it, to become Iron Man- He made the suit, of rigid metal to protect and hold off attack, of flexible metal to twist and bend and defend the joints, and like a star bursting behind Tony’s eyes, the idea came to him, fully formed and jagged around the edges.

Or maybe that was the pain that arced across his whole body, from his back where the lashes had bit into his skin to the ends of his fingers and toes, bloody and aching from nails torn out at the roots and everything in between. Tony’s thoughts had run in circles for what felt like hours as he lay in agony, shallowly breathing, thinking about his children in order to stave off his fear.

He’d give the suit to SPIKE. He was the one who deserved it, not Tony, and with it, he would do what Tony could not do, not on his own. He’d lead an army. He’d snuff out Hydra, the way it should’ve been done before, wholly and completely, without mercy or recall. The Iron General and his Iron Legion.

If anyone could attack with pinpoint accuracy, without collateral damage, it would be SPIKE.

Tony’s soul ached and he could smell the blood of those of Hydra already (though that was probably the smell of his own blood, fresh in the air still) but what else was he supposed to do?

When a limb was gangrenous you cut it off. There was no other cure. He had no other choice.

Tony sobbed for the lives lost, unable to stop himself, unable to contain his emotions. Curled up on the floor of his cell, weeping for the dead-to-be, grieving for those whose blood haunted him already. It didn’t matter if these people had joined Hydra, accepting the consequences of that choice. It didn’t matter if it was SPIKE wielding the hammer, striking only where and when it was right.

It was Tony’s suit. It was Tony’s plan.

It was all Tony’s fault.

Again.

 

 


 

 

Natasha worked to catch her breath as she held the dismembered hand to the scanner. She’d run all the way there, encountering and disabling four guards on her way, and this was the first time she’d stopped for more than a few seconds. The scanner beeped in acceptance of the hand and she removed it. Pulling out the eye from the bag, she turned it and held it up to the retinal scanner. This one took a few seconds longer, the scan moving left to right and then top to bottom before beeping in acceptance again.

The door unlocked and Natasha left the eye with the hand, in a pile on the floor with the discarded bag and cup. She eased open the door slowly, listening for any noise on the other side. She heard footsteps and, distantly, someone shouting something. It sounded like a denial. It sounded almost familiar.

“Hurry,” NOBODY whispered into her ear, voice urgent and edged, “Hurry.”

Wordlessly, Natasha drew out her knife again and stepped through the doorway. The footsteps turned out to belong to a couple of guards who rushed towards her with guns drawn and shouts. She moved to intercept them, ducking under one’s arms, knocking aside the gun hand of the other, knife moving with speed and accuracy. She went for the joints that would bring them down the fastest, kneecaps and ankles, and for those to disarm them, shoulders or wrists. Despite the words that had been hissed from foaming lips at her earlier, Natasha held doubts that this was really a Hydra base.

More likely it was some neo-Hydra-esque facility. Something just on the edge of that, though no less terrible. In either case, Natasha didn’t want to be caught in arterial spray when she was on her way to rescue Tony. She knew instinctively that Tony wouldn’t appreciate his rescuer being drenched in the blood of her enemies, or his enemies. Still, she disabled with cut tendons and hard hits with the hilt and, after taking the gun from guard one, she shot him and his companion both in the thigh, close to the knee, and dropped them like stones in a still lake.

They went down, groaning and swearing, clutching their own limbs instead of hers and showing the limits of their training. Neither one of them turned towards her as she stepped delicately past them. Her attention returned to the hallway, to the rooms she would need to search, but even as she headed towards one, NOBODY warned her off.

“Those rooms are empty. Father is up ahead,” NOBODY said, “You should hurry, they’re defrosting the Soldier.”

Natasha nodded, not liking the way that NOBODY said the word Soldier , like she was supposed to know who that was. Like NOBODY was afraid of this Soldier. She went past the dark rooms, trusting NOBODY that they were indeed empty. She rounded a corner at the end of the hallway, her grip tightening on her knife as a waft of disinfectant rolled down the hallway towards her as a door up ahead swung shut. There were fewer doors here, all on the right side of the hallway, and they were accompanied by wide windows with the tint to the glass that told her they were one-way.

She glanced through one as she passed. The floor inside was white tile, the walls the same thing and there was a drain in the center of the room. She didn’t have to see the metal gourney in one corner, the hooks from chains on the ceiling or the array of tools along the back wall, dark with shadow, to know what kind of room it was. Her stomach turned not because of that knowledge, but from the fresh stink of cleaning chemicals. Some of these rooms, some of those tools, they had been used recently, cleaned recently.

Natasha quickened her step.

She saw the corner up ahead, where the hall turned and the design of the building doubled back around. In her head she built out the schematics of the floor. A hallway with rooms on the left, a right turn to a hallway with rooms on the right, another right turn and, presumably, more rooms on the left. There was a set of double doors that blocked off this hall, positioned just after the turn. Natasha kicked open the left one and then shoved the right one open with her hip, walking through that one.

The kicked open door caught a guard in the shoulder and arm, a second kick got his knee and she followed that with a vicious swipe of her knife. She didn’t get her aim, which was his eye, but she slashed open his forehead and sent blood running down his face which was almost as good. There was another guard behind the other door and he leveled his gun at her. He managed to fire, too, but she was quick enough and close enough to twist her body around and dodge the shot. The first guard wasn’t so lucky, getting hit and going down with a cry of pain as she spun, heel connecting to the back of the knee of the gunman and knife carving its way up his inner arm to his armpit.

The knife stuck for a moment, caught on fabric and body armor, so Natasha let it go in favor of a short, hard jab with her fist to the man’s throat. She caught the hilt of her blade as he stumbled back and downwards on his weakened leg and the knife came free with a spray of blood on the wall. She turned, discarding both men in her mind as enemies dealt with and brought her attention down the hall.

For a half a second she stopped and considered the sight in front of her. One man wore the stereotypical white lab coat of a scientist. He clutched a book in his hands, holding it to his chest like a talisman and was wild eyed behind his glasses. Fear had made him pale and shaking, but something malicious made him grin wildly. He pointed one hand towards Natasha, directing the man at his side with a sharp word of instruction.

“Her!” he said, “You must defend us against her! Don’t let her get past you, Asset, or you’ll be the next one in the Chair!”

The man beside the scientist was the real reason Natasha paused. He stood a head taller than the scientist and what muscle she could see of him, his right arm, a bit of shoulder, his neck and collarbone, the only visible places beneath the black tactical vest and dark green pants, was thick and spoke of plenty of training. His long dark hair hung half in his face, which was half covered by a black mask across nose and mouth, letting only his eyes, barely visible beneath thick, furrowed brows, show. There was white on his hair, on his eyebrows and lashes, something looking almost like frost and clicking with Natasha’s thoughts to bring up NOBODY’s words: defrosting the Soldier.

He had a gun in hand, his left hand, the one that either was made out of metal or was covered in metal, and the moment the scientist said “her” the arm came up.

Natasha reacted instantly. Gunfire cracked as she leaped backwards, twisting through the air, reaching for the door, for cover. She felt the burn of the bullet sear its way across her upper thigh. She felt another one punch into the bottom of her own kevlar vest, propelling her further. Then she had grabbed the edge of one of the doors and was back through it, ducking to the side as more gunshots rang out, piercing through the door.

Natasha pressed her back against the wall, taking deep, stabilizing breaths while she thought through her options. “Nobody,” she said quietly, “It might take me a while to get through to Tony. Is there anything you can do to postpone whatever it is that they’re trying to do to him?”

“We can cut power,” NOBODY said, “It will take them several minutes to get back online, but it’s the surest thing.”

“And in the meantime, I’ll be fighting that in the dark,” Natasha said. She strained to hear past the doors, past the groaning men, for footsteps. It didn’t seem like someone so big and heavy should be able to walk silently, but Natasha couldn’t hear him. It seemed like too much to hope that he wasn’t headed her way, though, so she inched further down the hall so he couldn’t open the door on her like she’d done to the first guards. “Fantastic.”

“At least he will not be able to see you either,” NOBODY said, “He may be less inclined to shoot without a proper line of sight.”

Natasha gathered her legs under her, switched her blade around in her hand. She cocked her head, listening, listening. “Go ahead and do it,” she whispered, the words barely more sound than her own breath, “I’m going to need the time.”

She heard just one step, the creak of leather of a boot, the rasp of breath, the tap of fingers on the door. “Now,” she ordered.

The door swung open just inches, Natasha saw the shine of the gun, saw blue eyes peering at her over a black mask and then the world descended into darkness.

 

 


 

 

Tony refused to move when the door to his cell opened. He refused to move when the order came from someone standing above him. He refused to move when his side was prodded and then pressed upon with a heavy foot. They quickly tired of ordering him and Tony was abruptly hauled up to his feet, a man at each side, holding him by his upper arms. He hissed in pain, feeling fresh blood leak from the barely scabbed over wounds on his back.

One of the two guards grabbed him by the hair on the back of his head and lifted his head back. Tony stared into the face of some short, thin little doctor, in a jacket of white that had stains along the edges of his sleeves and wearing dark rimmed glasses that magnified his eyes. The scientist gave him a manic little smile, licking his lips with the point of his red tongue, “It is an absolute pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Stark. Or would you prefer Dr. Stark? You did the work for the title, no? You deserve it.”

Tony gave the man a smile that was more a baring of his teeth, “I prefer Tony, actually. Mr. Stark was my father.”

The man adjusted his glasses and smiled, “Tony, then. Oh and I’d give you my name but,” he shrugged slightly, “Without it that’s one less thing you need to forget, yes? Yes. Oh, but you don’t know about that yet. Do you? No, no of course not.”

He made a little beckoning gesture with one hand, “Come on then, bring our newest asset along, would you?”

Tony dragged his feet forward and straightened his legs, digging his heels in as the guards tried to haul him forward. He threw himself back, catching one of them by surprise and tearing his arm free of the grip on the right. The one who held his hair, however, only tightened his grip and hauled him off balance.

“Oh Tony, Tony,” the little scientist man said with an exaggerated pout, “Don’t struggle so! We have so much work to do and so very little time left before… Well never mind that. It’s hardly important for you. Now come on, boys, bring him along!”

“You really haven’t thought this through, have you?” Tony said as he was hauled back to his feet and then held a little higher than before, so that he had to strain to reach the floor with his feet. “If you wipe my memory, I’m not going to be able to build shit for you and that’s what you want isn’t it?”

The light glinted across his glasses as he tilted his head back, looking up at Tony. The guards held Tony a few feet away from him, close enough to reach out and touch if Tony had the use of his arms unhindered. “You doubt my skill? You? Doubt me?” He dragged his hand down the side of his face and laughed, a breathless, unhinged sound, “No, no, of course you do. You don’t know what I’ve been doing here, you don’t know my studies! They put me in this hole because they didn’t think that my studies had any merit, but while the Asset was asleep there was no reason I couldn’t access its brain,” he stepped closer to Tony, hand reaching out to him, trembling slightly. Tony could see his eyes behind the glasses now, wide and dark. At first Tony thought it was that his eye were black or brown, but then he saw it was just the man’s pupils had swallowed almost all of the iris.

The man’s fingers ghosted a hair’s breadth from Tony’s cheek. He clenched his teeth, resisting the urge to flinch. His head was still being held, after all. He couldn’t move away if he tried. “The Asset?”

The man pulled his hand back, another little laugh escaping him. “You’ll be two of a kind. Except you’ll be better. There was so much work put into him, too much work, too many hands, you know? Too many cooks spoil a broth, too many doctors spoil a brain! And God, the arm itself is another hassle. We won’t need to do that with you, though. I’ve studied the mind, you know. I’ve made maps of it.” He shook his head, rubbing his forehead, “What am I saying? We don’t have time for this. I can explain it to you later, later. We’ll work well together, you and I.”

“No,” Tony thrashes but he’s exhausted and weak from pain. The hands that hold him dig into his arms and make him hiss with pain, “No,” he refuses anyway, “I’m not going to work with you.”

“You don’t really have a choice, Tony,” the man said as he walked out into the hallway. Tony is half carried, half dragged after him. He struggles but every movement of his body brings out the pain of his unhealed but bandaged wounds. Tony’s vision blurs and darkens at the edges as he fights the urge to slip into a painless unconsciousness. “Come on now boys, carry him in here, in here!”

They haul him down the hall and towards the door that the scientist has opened. Tony moans and tries to pull away again, breathing faster as they get closer and closer to the door. “You can’t do this- You can’t- Don’t do this- Don’t- Please!” his voice cracks hard over the last word, his words a stumble, a desperate plea.

“Hurry now, there isn’t much time,” the scientist’s voice echoes out from the room as he slips inside. “We’ll have to go ahead without Charles, though he should’ve known better than to leave when he did. In fact, good riddance to him. The imprinting will be so much easier if the asset doesn’t have to split his attention between two masters.”

“Oh fuck,” Tony whispers as they reach the doorway. The room inside is larger than he expected and right in the center of it is a chair that looks like it belongs in the execution chamber of a maximum security prison. There are braces for the head, arms and feet and straps for each limb. A machine hums beside the chair, something with a low level frequency that makes Tony’s teeth ache.

The scientist is in the corner of the room, though, and it’s his waving hands at them. “Put him in there, you know the way. I’ve got to deal with this- Can you believe, they had the audacity to send a Spider to fetch you, Tony? Well. I can see why, I would send a little Spider to get you and bring you back if you got stolen out from under my nose,” that little laugh again. Tony’s stomach twisted and he again threw himself backwards but got nothing but pain lancing up his back for his trouble. “That’s fine though. I’ve got someone here who can squash a little Spider no problem. Isn’t that right? Yes, yes, you’ll do anything I say.”

Tony tore his eyes away from the chair at the hiss of depressurized gas. The scientist stood amid mist; frosty air poured into the room and Tony saw him.

It was like he stood in the bunker all over again. Snow howling all around him. Air so cold it hurt to breathe in. Blue eyes half hidden under dark hair. A blank, almost empty expression. And the arm. The metal arm. Tony’s mouth worked but no sound came out.

The scientist stepped back, his hand at his mouth, fingers dancing across his smiling lips. “Come on out, Asset. There’s work to be done!”

The only good thing that’s come from the opening of the cryotube is that Tony’s guards stand as transfixed as he does. He has no idea if they know what the scientist has just opened up- he has no idea if the scientist is allowed to do it or if he’s just mad enough to do whatever the hell he wants- all he knows is that he’s standing on his own feet, no longer carried or half dragged and hope surges through him. Tony shifts one foot back, half turns, finds some strength in his legs and turns, twisting, yanking his arms free, feeling the tug on his scalp as he pulls his head down. He ducks as he turns, spinning, reaching for the door, desperate for it-

Something sharp hits him hard in the middle of his back and Tony’s scramble for the door becomes a fall to the floor. The pain and the fall wind him, leaving him breathless in his agony, twisting on the floor. In the midst of it all, Tony is aware they pull him back to his feet and put him on the chair. He hears the mutters of the guards as they strap him down. His vision swims and he stares straight up at the ceiling, head rolling back on the headrest as he bites down the pain-filled noises he wants to let out.

Tony claws his way back to mostly-conscious slowly and, of course, metaphorically. When he comes back to, his arms and legs are tied down and there’s a rubber stopper in his mouth to keep him from biting his tongue. Tony breathes heavily through his nose and tries hard not to think about the very possibly fatal reactions that his body, that his arc reactor are going to have to this goddamn Chair.

The light above him is bright, brighter even than the light in his cell. It looms over his head like a spotlight, reminding him faintly of the movable spotlight of the surgery table. Staring into it gives spots to his vision and he closes his eyes against the light. The guards say nothing as they work and, between the two of them, they finish quickly. Tony is left strapped to the Chair, breathing hard and his emotions swinging between fear and anger like the pendulum of an old clock.

He distantly hears gunshots and hopes that Natasha is okay. She has to be okay. She has to reach him. She has to save him.

The scientist returns to the room, pushing past the door like it’s irritating him just by being there. He rubs his hands together as he stands in front of Tony, smiling. “Now, while the Asset takes care of the Spider, I’ll be giving you my full attention in here.” He leans forward, hands clasped together tightly, “This is a very important step in my research, you know, so please have some patience while I get everything set up. If I make a mistake in the prep, I might accidentally turn your brain into mush, Tony. Can you imagine? What a horrible waste that would be.”

Tony bared his teeth at him and grunted.

“Exactly,” the man said with a nod, “I knew you’d understand.”

Then he stepped to the side where a cart sat. Tony couldn’t turn his head to look at it, but from the corner of his eye, he saw plenty of wires attached to a panel covered in dials. The scientist plucked one set of wires from the rest of them, murmuring something too softly for Tony to hear over the pulse of his ears.

Tony saw the hands approach his head, holding wires ended with small red spots of adhesive and metal, or so he assumed. The man muttered a complaint about his hair as he pressed one to Tony’s temple. “For our first session, we’ll have to make due,” he said in a conspiring whisper, “But later, we’ll shave your head. It’ll make the surgery easier for sure.”

Tony squeezed his eyes shut at the whimper that escaped him.

The sudden vicious swearing from the scientist made Tony open his eyes again quickly, fear rising sharp inside of him. For a moment, Tony lay confused, blinking, making sure that his eyes were indeed open. Then he realized what had happened.

“That damn generator!” the scientist shouted, and even though Tony could tell he was still close by how loud he was, Tony didn’t care. “Of course the damn thing fails right in the middle of my work! Where is the blasted radio!” Shuffling and complaints and muttering accompanied this. “They better fix this right now!”

Tony closed his eyes and sagged in relief. He had a few more minutes now. All he had to do was hang on and wait. Natasha was close by.

And then Tony remembered what fighting the Soldier was like, remembered how much effort it had taken him and he’d been in a goddamn suit of metal.

Please, Nat, Tony begged silently, you’ve got to get past him. Please.

You can do it.