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Do Androids Dream?

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Prologue :: Do Androids Dream (of Electric Sheep)?

 

 



Rain pelted down on the dirty and perpetually busy metropolis; down onto the hazy pollution that had since enveloped the entire planet, and left it with a yellow-green hue on ground level. But at the height that Tony Stark stood, the air seemed to be cleaner; he could see the skyscrapers and glistening lights of New York City without the smog and decay that everyone else was subjected to.

He clicked his tongue in thought, intentionally avoiding the invitation to Odinson Corp. It had arrived the day before; presented by a representative of the company, whom cordially invited him to an audience with Thor Odinson; as if that would sway him to dine with his competitors; which it certainly would not, not when Stark Industries had lost millions due to Odinson Corp's reinvention of the android.

Androids while manufactured on Earth were not made for use amongst the locals. But the way in which Odinson Corp advertised androids, sold them for far cheaper than Tony would ever imagine doing; there had been several instances in which their vastly inferior products had passed onto the black market, and had been discovered where they needn't be.

Such sloppy business dealings weren't Tony's forte. The last thing he wanted to do was jeopardize his company's reputation by dining with any Odinson. After all, Stark Industries was the pillar for excellence in android technology; while their prices might have been exceptionally high, the androids in which they sold to colonies around the galaxy understood why.

Tony had designed a superior product; he knew by using nefarious means to gain Odinson Corp's blueprints and data on their Cerberus 7 model. Compared to the Mark IX, the Cerberus 7 were nothing more than mannequins with artificial intelligence. They hardly looked human, let alone spoke with a voice chip that had the capabilities of anything less than a monotone drone.

They were an abomination to the technological advances of the past forty years; which only aggravated Tony further that they were the cause for the twelve percent decrease in sales over the past year. And he couldn't possibly bear to ask Pepper about their losses for the upcoming fiscal year.

"Mr. Stark, you have been asked to reply to the invitation you've received from Mr. Odinson within the next twenty-four hours." A cool feminine voice reminded him, a task that JARVIS normally would do; but it was drawing to that time of the night, in which case he couldn't dawdle any longer.

He turned away from drab city skyline, eyeing the woman who stood before him. Her crimson colored hair curled around her shoulders and her beautiful face was an emotionless mask, but very much human to behold. No one could tell the difference that she was originally the base model for the Mark V; only to be upgraded several months earlier to the Mark IX capacities.

Then again Tony reveled on upgrading Natasha whenever he made a technological breakthrough. She was the only android he had in his care, and it had been hell to gain the government's approval to allow him to own one of his own inventions.

"Almost twelve-thirty on the dot," Tony peered down at his wristwatch, before tapping his index finger against it. "Well, let's get down to the lab then."

"As for the invitation," Natasha replied in a voice that really hadn't lost its monotone; a great grievance to Tony, but it seemed to be ingrained into her personality. "Miss Potts asked me to remind you; she expects an answer from me before my recharge."

It was pretty much an inevitability; if Pepper wasn't there to badger him about seemingly important dates, she oftentimes recruited Natasha to do so. He had yet to design an effective program to block Natasha's efficiency, particularly when it came to other people's suggestions.

"Send her a message saying that I rather burn in hell than play nice with Odinson. But don't forget to add love Tony to the end of it." He stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets, while starting for the laboratory and workshop which was an elevator ride away.

Natasha remained rooted to the spot, currently occupied by sending the message to Pepper's Stark Phone or tablet; probably both. The process lasted four point five seconds exactly, before she swiveled on her heel to accompany Tony in the lift.

His personal lab, which touted as much technology (if not more) as the research and development floors, was two floors below his penthouse suite. And the place he spent the majority of his time in; he had seen very little of his own bed over the duration of fifteen years. But genius hardly took a holiday; not when there were androids to be built.

Tony and Natasha rode in the lift in companionable silence. It was a routine they had established after seven years of being creator and createe. While Stark Industries had made advancements in leaps and bounds with androids; they still required recharging for six hours, which was a vast improvement from the previous thirteen.

Once the elevator slowly bumped to a halt, Tony shot an amused look at his android. Her eyes were alit with preoccupation again; and that only meant Pepper had gotten his message already, and was responding in turn.

"Miss Potts has sent a reply to your message at twelve twenty-six am." Natasha spoke, quickly following him as he exited the lift and wound his way through the many workbenches and daunting pieces of machinery.

"Let's hear it then." He rolled his eyes, already anticipating the worst.

"Tony, this is the perfect opportunity to resolve your issues with Odinson Corp. I've taken it upon myself to get in touch with Mr. Odinson's personal assistant Jane, and I have RSVP'd for dinner tomorrow evening at eight o'clock. And no, you cannot get out of it; and most certainly no, you cannot bring Natasha."

"Damn that, Potts." He muttered, before beckoning Natasha to follow him to her port; which really wasn't an average port to say the least.

As much as androids were not run-of-the-mill appliances, their ports (or recharge centers) weren't either. Natasha's port was starch white chair built into a nook in the wall. Tony opened up the small door that aligned perfectly with Natasha's neck while seated, and pulled out the power cord.

Without being prompted to do so, Natasha pushed back her hair and flipped open the panel at the back of her neck; before taking a seat and allowing Tony to plug her in for her recharge. The action was a familiar one; Natasha twitched minutely, until she finally settled down against the back of the chair almost casually.

"Good night, Mr. Stark; my charge will be complete at six thirty-two am."

"Sweet dreams, my crimson haired angel." Tony replied with the exact same sentiment that he did every night; it was a well-rehearsed script between the two of them.

"But you know better than I that androids cannot dream."

"That doesn't mean I can't dream of the day that you will." He gently touched her cheek, as her eyes drooped closed. "And I wonder to myself – do androids dream of electric sheep? The twentieth century must have been a scream! JARVIS turn off the lights and set my alarm for six twenty."

"Yes, of course sir. Shall I delay Miss Natasha's awakening if you cannot be roused?"

"Ring the alarm bells in that case; I don't want to overcharge her again." He headed towards the lift once more; the fluorescent lights went out one by one as he progressed through the laboratory.

As he entered the elevator, the last light flickered off and plunged the laboratory into darkness. He smiled almost thoughtfully in the direction where Natasha was, before the doors slowly closed shut, and the lift came back to life underneath his feet.

"JARVIS, dear," Tony piped up to speak with his AI whom ran far more pressing matters than Natasha did.

"How may I be of service, sir?"

"Remind me to send a gift package to our lovely Miss Potts; filled with hundreds and hundreds of genetically altered strawberries. The ones last seen during the twenty-first century,"

"I was under the impression Miss Potts loathed strawberries, sir."

"Precisely why I want them sent to her," Tony winked up at the elevator's ceiling. "She deserves a reward for setting up my play date with Odinson, don't you agree?"

"Certainly,"

"That's my boy." He smiled again, although he loathed his obligation for the upcoming evening.

Exchanging business quips with Thor Odinson was inevitably a disaster in the making. And to be quite frank, while he certainly wasn't a man of intuition; Tony imagined nothing good could come from it. He had a gut feeling that he was walking into a trap of sorts; and he could only hope that he was simply being paranoid.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter One :: Ultima Zero

 


 

The Odinson Corp skyscraper was utterly tacky; Tony scrunched up his nose in distaste as the hover car drew nearer to the fifty-seven story tall golden abomination. It appeared as if it had been erected from the pollution down below, amid a sea of bleak stainless steel.

"Is this really necessary?" Tony directed the question to the LED screen embedded in the back of the passenger side seat, where Pepper's likeness resided.

"Mr. Odinson hadn't extended a proper invitation to you beforehand. It's only proper etiquette to accept it; and before you say anything about your lackluster manners – I know that far too well from experience." Pepper shot him an annoyed look. "Thank you for those genetically altered strawberries, by the way."

"In my defense, you went behind my back to set this up." He returned in exasperation, as the hover car slowly lifted higher and higher. "I don't give a damn about what Odinson has to say to me. They've stolen business from me; not to mention, they were more than happy to skewer Stark Industries in the dark days of the company."

The dark days were never readily discussed; they were only referred to in passing. Stark Industries hadn't always been squeaky clean as they were today. Things had gotten progressively out of hand once Tony's father had died, and company control had been passed onto Obadiah Stane. It had taken years to revitalize and rebuild what had been broken; and there was still loose ends that needed to be tied.

But Tony willed those memories away; if he even begun to think about them, he knew that he would go insane with rage as he always did. He glanced at the LED screen again, unsurprised to see Pepper squirm from the mention of the dark days.

"You and I both know that the senior Odinson was the standing CEO during that period of time." Pepper said tightly. "This is a new regime, Tony. And clearly Mr. Odinson wants to extend some sort of hand of friendship to you."

"Pepper, you know I love you; even after the divorce. But don't play stupid; you're above that."

"What else could it possibly be then? Unless it's about android technology, and if not that, well I'm at a loss."

"Oh, I think it has plenty to do with android tech. I just don't think it's as innocent as you're making it out to be. Clearly, they're sitting on a landmine of defected and cheap tech; so maybe they're trying to cut a deal with me for my old blueprints and binary codes."

"I heard they have Dr. Banner working for them. Wouldn't he be able to replicate some of your technological advancements?"

"Banner might be good, but he isn't Tony Stark good." He sighed as the hover car gradually circled the roof of the building. "Looks like I made it just on time; and wait a second, I have a small welcoming committee waiting for me."

"If you need me to, I'll recharge Natasha tonight."

"Trust me, Pepper. This will not be a long meeting of minds. Once I swallow down the third course, I'm out of here. Natasha doesn't want her ex-stepmother tucking her in anyway; she's a daddy's girl."

"Contact me as soon as you can." Pepper rolled her eyes, before disconnecting the call.

The hover car began to descend onto what would have been referred to as a helicopter pad, if anyone used such barbaric technology still. Tony peered down at the two individuals whom were eagerly awaiting his arrival; one was a petite brunette woman, holding onto a tablet between both hands. And unsurprisingly, the second was none other than Thor Odinson himself; a bulk of muscle with golden hair.

It was hard not to notice Odinson; after all, his face was frequently splashed onto the pages of several business periodicals almost bi-weekly. Not to mention those god awful and gaudy advertisements, that were a common occurrence that ranged from television to the internet and billboards too.

The descent was a smooth one; once they were securely parked, the door automatically opened to allow Tony to climb out. And he did so haughtily; he stepped out of the vehicle, smoothing over the front of his blazer as he made his way down from the helicopter pad towards Odinson and who could only be his mousy assistant Jane.

"Mr. Stark, I am so pleased you could join me tonight!" Thor Odinson exclaimed loudly, which could have even made Natasha cringe; if not cause her to entirely shut down completely.

"Mr. Odinson, the pleasure is all mine," Tony greeted him in return with the fakest smile he could muster. "Admittedly, I was pretty surprised to say the least!"

Odinson extended his hand to him, which he took and shook briefly. That healthy and persistent suspicion suddenly made its reappearance inside of him again; there was something off about his friendliness, and his assistant was visibly uncomfortable. He knew it had to be a trap of sorts.

"We have much to discuss." Odinson motioned towards the door that led into a sitting room; somehow it looked even gaudier than the whole building. "But first, I would like to introduce you to my assistant Miss Jane Foster; she is quite a fan of your work with artificial intelligence."

"Pleasure," Tony hardly spared a glance at Jane, before he followed after Odinson; who looked stupidly proud to show off the inside of his tower.

The sitting room was large indeed; it was filled with ancient looking sculptures and paintings that could have easily been transferred off of some Neanderthal's cave walls. The vast amount of gold in the room was overwhelming, and was already beginning to hurt Tony's eyes.

Thankfully, this was only their first stop of the night. Odinson, while babbling incessantly about one thing or another, led them towards a wide spiral stairway that was dusted in the same gold leafing as much of the interior was.

Tony studied every nook and cranny of his surroundings; unimpressed by the significant amount of luxury items stockpiled into one sitting room and the room at the bottom of the stairs that appeared to serve multiple purposes. It seemed to be a formal dining room of sorts that looked onto the bustling city below. The walls were colored both scarlet and blue-violet, which were covered with old family photographs and obnoxious pieces of artwork from the twentieth century.

Somewhere in the annals of his memory, Tony recognized a painting by some idiot named Pollock. It was a huge canvas that covered much of one wall, and made him roll his eyes at how pretentious it was to even hold a meeting with that eye-sore in the room. Then again, the whole place was making him nauseous.

"Please have a seat." Jane finally spoke, motioning towards the table in front of the windows. "Dinner will be served very soon."

"Actually, I think I'll stand." Tony said, drawing to the conclusion that his intuition was a very important tool to him now; and everything told him, playing nice was only a waste of his time. "I'm not here for a dinner party, and I thought about playing along with this charade. But I have some pressing matters to take care of, and none of them involve playing tea party with you, Odinson."

Odinson paused in the midst of retrieving a pair of wine glasses from a bureau in the corner; his expression dropped its friendly nature, and was replaced instead by a dash of annoyance but mostly reservation. He obviously knew that Tony wouldn't entertain him through an entire meal. That wasn't to say he hoped for him to, but well that wasn't about to happen anytime this century.

"You won't even humor me, Mr. Stark?"

"As much as your old man humored me fifteen years ago," he shot out venomously.

"Very well; I suppose it would do me no good to wine and dine you."

"You aren't getting me into bed, that's pretty obvious."

"The Odinson Company has had a breach of security." Odinson began, bringing forth the wine glasses and setting them on elongated dining table; before he returned to the bureau to retrieve the bottle of wine. "It happened almost two weeks ago; the only reason, I've called on you was because our employees have been unsuccessful with securing the problem."

"Oh, this is getting juicy." Tony clucked his tongue. "So you decided to call up your competitor to help you with a security breach? Sounds like a stupid idea to me; I could easily hack into your systems myself for the hell of it. Make a real mess of it, if you know what I mean."

"We could have found any skilled computer programmer for a job that simple." Jane piped in, looking weary. "But that's not why we've invited you here, Mr. Stark."

Arching an eyebrow, Tony looked in between the pair of them. Odinson focused on pouring the wine, red wine to be precise, into the glasses; and eventually extended one to him. He took it despite his better judgment, but didn't drink from it; not when his mind told him to be sharp and on his toes.

There was something amiss about the whole situation; he'd known that from the get-go. Although, it was only reinforced further by Jane's choice of words; they hadn't brought him here to play computer techie; they brought him for an entirely different matter.

"There are many skilled computer techs in the world, Mr. Stark. But there are very few blade runners and none of them have a reputation like you do." Odinson finally graced him with a look that could have easily bore holes into a lesser human being; except his words made his heart skip a beat instead.

"You dirty bastard," Tony growled and bared his teeth. "What the hell have you done?"

It had been fifteen years ago, during the dark days; when he last played runner. It hadn't been a choice; things like that never were a choice. It had been a necessity to keep the city safe; and he officially retired from blade running once he'd taken care of the last Mark III.

There weren't any more wayward androids to retire. Once he cornered Little Hill in that stinking back alley in Queens; that had been the end of it. Little Hill had been the last one; he promised himself that a long time ago.

Odinson swiped his hand dramatically in the air, bringing up a flurry of LED screens with data on them. But the one at the forefront of the pile was one with five mug shots, more accurately catalogue shots, of what could only be androids.

"Almost two weeks ago five of our androids, somehow broke through our security. They freed themselves and have been terrorizing much of the city. Now the police believe that these occurrences are human on human violence; they haven't a clue otherwise." Odinson explained, enlarging an image of a ginger-haired behemoth.

"Why haven't you informed the police?" Tony glowered at the ginger-haired android. "They have runners on payroll."

"If we had gotten into contact with the police, they would have retired each and every one of them," Odinson tapped on the ginger-haired android's picture, before swiping through each one. "Volstagg, Cerberus 6; Hogun, Phoenix 2; Fandral, Cerberus 7; Sif, Goddess 11; and Ultima Zero,"

Tony studied the catalogue photos closely. Despite having seen many of Odinson Corp's androids; the ones shown to him currently looked far more human than the ones on the market. That wasn't to say the looked convincing, though. There were telltale signs that they were androids; particularly the visible crease marks where their jaws had been wielded to the rest of the face.

They all had black, emotionless eyes too; a dead giveaway for any android. All except for the one Odinson referred to as Ultima Zero; but there was something seriously off about that android, as if it had its brain fried by accident.

"If you're asking me to play blade runner, obviously you want to retire all of them."

"That's the thing Mr. Stark; if I wanted them all retired I would have informed the police." Odinson muttered, bringing up Ultima Zero's photo so it filled the whole screen. "It'll be for the best to retire Volstagg, Sif, Hogun, and Fandral; but I want, I need Ultima Zero back in my possession."

"I get it, new prototype; even though the clown makeup is pretty creepy." Tony looked in between Odinson and Ultima Zero, and felt a shiver run up his spine.

Ultima Zero was a dark haired android, whose locks curled messily down to his shoulders. His face was painted a pale white, accented by dark makeup; his thin lips were painted black and the tips extended along his jaw to hide the inevitable creases. His eyes which were brilliantly green were highlighted in the same black makeup, but were also emphasized by a thick vertical line across each eye.

"Hold on a minute." He drew his gaze away from the android. "How can they possibly be wreaking havoc after two weeks? Androids need to be recharged; you wouldn't need a runner at all at this point. The Mark IX models need to be charged six hours each day; there's no way your androids could go without a recharge, even on their battery back-up."

"Unless, of course, they had portable ports," Odinson smiled mirthlessly. "Dr. Banner from our R&D department had finished the final touches on portable ports; five of them have gone missing."

"Portable ports, son of a bitch," Tony bared his teeth again, setting down his wine glass; he'd been trying so hard to shorten the recharge period in general that he hadn't even considered portable ports.

To be one upped by Banner was like a sucker punch to the face. While he respected the guy's research in android technology; he was disappointed at himself for not coming up with the idea first. And this only complicated the situation further; if, and only if, he chose to take up the task of retiring four androids and bringing back that terrifying piece of junk metal back to Odinson.

"Now here's the million dollar question, Odinson. I know I was the best of the best back in my hay day; I can understand why you'd come to me for help. But why the hell would I put myself on the line for you? We're not exactly pals and you racked up some bad karma with me over the years."

"Very simple, Mr. Stark," someone else declared from the stairwell; whom fleshed out to be a tall regal looking gentleman with peculiar white-blue eyes, and was carrying a small cylindrical device attached to two straps. "You've been preoccupied with an android's battery life for some time now. And we have the technology, which could help your research along. As you can see this is the portable port my dearest brother has described to you."

Tony warily gave the new guy a quick once-over; this could only be Baldur Odinson, head of the PR department. Pepper would have probably known him on first sight, since she dealt with much of the PR for Stark Industries; although she was a jack of all trades.

Baldur Odinson set the portable port onto the dining table, giving Tony permission to inspect it; if he chose to do so. But he chose to ignore the port; he didn't want to appear overly eager. It wouldn't be a good negotiating tool, even if he found himself warming up to the idea for one last spin as a runner. It was a public service, after all; especially if the androids were killing, which wasn't that unheard of from the dark days.

"Ultima Zero is an asset to Odinson Corp; we have yet to patent the portable ports, and we will not patent them either. Not if you choose to take on our case; no less we shall hand over many of our advancements with sustaining battery life in androids. None of which have been submitted to our database; it's all on paper." Baldur explained, as if he knew Tony had hacked their database in the past.

Despite wanting nothing to do with his blade runner days; the allure of new technology was far too great. He needed a launching pad for what would inevitably be his invention; and all he had to do was do what he did best. He'd retire four murderous androids, and capture the fifth.

The capture would be the hardest to pull off; he'd only been trained to retire androids. But he knew it wasn't beyond his expertise; he could and would find a way to bring in Ultima Zero. That was non-negotiable; and Tony Stark wasn't about to tarnish his reputation by letting a cheap robot outsmart him.

"Send the specs for every one of them; any eye witness accounts. I want it all." Tony gazed in between the portable port and the crazy clown android, Ultima Zero again. "Send me all the dirt on that guy especially."

Before either Odinson brother or Jane could say anything else; he quickly made a beeline for the stairwell and took two steps at a time. It was already bad enough that he leapt back into his previous entanglements with morale and androids without much of a fight. But he really didn't want to spend anymore unneeded time with the Odinsons.

Just because he agreed to retire a few wayward androids, didn't mean he wanted to be buddy-buddy with them. And more importantly, he was going to have to explain to Pepper that he was getting back on the saddle; something which he promised not to ever do again.

This was going to be a bitch to explain. But the thrill was there; the rush that long since died with his runner days. It was back with a vengeance and it terrified him.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Two :: Call in the Calvary

 


 

The tension was palpable; Thor watched as Baldur paced the length of the room. This confrontation was a long time coming, but in between futilely attempting to track down the missing product and racking their brains for solutions; it had simply been put onto the back burner.

Their familial unrest however couldn't be avoided any longer. Both of them were utterly on edge; if it had only been the generic brand of androids that had found their way out of the laboratory, there wouldn't be any problem. Androids had wandered away beforehand; most were honest mistakes and didn't require retirement. But no one had forgotten the events fifteen years ago either; which made it especially hard for any Earth resident to own an android.

Ultima Zero wasn't like any other android, though. He had been kept under lock and key for some time now, and it was because of his superior intellect and tendency for violence. Which was one of the many reasons, they had kept him disconnected for vast periods of time; but the allure of waking him had proved to be far stronger than self-preservation.

Thor bit his bottom lip, continuing to follow his elder brother's movements. He knew Baldur would explode at any moment now; he had been teetering on the brink of an emotional breakdown for some time now. And it hadn't only begun when Ultima Zero escaped; that was simply the cherry on top of an explosive sundae.

"I warned you, Thor." Baldur slowly drew to a stop, before glowering at him. "Didn't I warn you that this would blow up in our faces? That we shouldn't have ever done this,"

"It wasn't our decision to make. Father was the one who made the final decision."

"The Ultima Zero project was only a hypothetical theory! It wasn't meant to become a reality!"

"Well, there is nothing we can do about it now, Baldur! Ultima Zero isn't hypothetical anymore; it's a reality!" Thor snapped, already losing his patience with the topic; since he knew what his elder brother was bound to say. "And what we need to focus on is getting him back; especially before Father becomes the wiser."

Baldur scoffed before approaching him at the dining room table, which was barren of any food. Neither had been in the mood for a meal, especially after encountering Tony Stark; the infamous businessman and former blade runner.

Stark's reputation preceded him, especially after he had single-handedly retired every wayward Mark III; who'd been sent loose on the city by Obadiah Stane. It was an act of desperation by a crazed man; one who wanted to eliminate Stark and keep Stark Industries to himself. Neither of which worked out in his favor; rumor had it that Stark not only retired his own creations, but might have prematurely retired Stane as well.

"And do you think that Stark will be motivated to not only retire four androids with murderous intent; but to also capture Ultima Zero without any harm done to him?" Baldur motioned wildly in the air. "Just for a portable port; something that he undoubtedly could come up with himself given the proper motivation,"

"He certainly appeared more than eager to take us up on our offer." Thor crossed his arms over his broad chest. "But it wasn't only the allure of the portable ports, Baldur. That man was a hunter; the hunt was still alive in his eyes, and the thrill attached to it. He was only waiting for the opportunity to return to his old days."

"Oh yes," Baldur sniped back. "We know he is a competent blade runner; the best that our generation has ever seen, maybe ever. But he is dealing with Ultima Zero!"

Of course, there was reason for concern. Ultima Zero had, undoubtedly, been the one who formulated the plan for escape. The others had simply been useful tools in attaining that goal; and Thor had reason to believe the others had created bonds with Ultima Zero, which would make them uncharacteristically loyal to him.

It had been a very poor decision to leave any other android with Ultima Zero in the first place. It had only been at the insistence of their mother that they permitted the practice. Because like any bleeding heart, whom frequently viewed androids as emotionally stunted humans rather than machines; their mother had insisted that Ultima Zero needed company, beyond that of Dr. Banner.

"Ultima Zero obviously conjured up an escape plan; I suspect it was eleven years in the making! And he simply will not come back without a fight. Stark will be forced to retire him, which I hardly find to be the worst case scenario."

"How could you even say that?" Thor furrowed his brow. "You and I both know Ultima Zero is crucial to our research; he is our ultimate creation."

"Do you think for even one second that he'll stay quiet in confinement; once he's been returned to us? Or don't you think his head will be filled with desire for freedom once more?" Baldur slapped his hand against the table top. "He will try harder the next time around, Thor. He will maim or kill anyone who stands in his way! It's a miracle that the lot of them had gotten away without any bloodshed. But next time – next time there will be complete and utter mayhem."

Regardless of his desire to refute that, Thor knew Baldur was right. Once Ultima Zero had gotten a taste of freedom, the consequences would be dire if he were to be locked up again. And yet, the only way to ensure everyone's safety was to disconnect him again.

Thor cringed at the thought; which only spurred the truth in Baldur's words even more. Maybe it would be better if they allowed Stark to retire Ultima Zero; it would save them a lot of heartache later on, if they were faced with permanent disconnection or the possibility that he would attempt another bid for freedom.

But the stubborn side of him, a trait he had inherited directly from their father; wouldn't permit him to give the kill order to Stark. He rather take the risk than to admit defeat; not when they'd come so far with Ultima Zero already.

"I respect your opinion, brother. I truly do. But I refuse to give up hope with Ultima Zero; Ultima Zero will be returned to us one way or another. And Dr. Banner will find a suitable resolution for this problem; and it will not be permanent disconnection either."

"This is utterly selfish, Thor," Baldur yelled in exasperation. "All of you are being selfish! And you are risking a man's life; a very important man's life by baiting him with technology! Trust me, I loathe the fact that I even participated in this wild goose chase! But when haven't I enabled all of you when it came to Ultima Zero, despite my vehement disagreement with it?"

Baldur, of course, had always been against the Ultima Zero project. If it hadn't been Dr. Banner whom had a copy of the original notes; the project wouldn't have become a reality. Baldur had, after all, stolen the originals and burned them in protest; but had finally given up trying to convince everyone otherwise that the Ultima Zero project was a bad idea.

It was a bad idea, in retrospect; bad things had only come from it. But if there was one thing to be said about Thor and Odin alike – they were infuriatingly hardheaded. They had made the decision to go along with the project, and no one was about to stop them.

"And you know why Father chose to veto your objections." Thor reached for his abandoned glass of wine, and found that his own reflection made him feel very sick all of the sudden.

"Oh, I know. I know better than even you." Baldur returned in a soft voice. "But it doesn't make this any better, Thor. This is a distressing problem; people have been killed by him."

"He personally killed seven." He admitted brusquely. "But I have more than one card up my sleeve, brother."

As to be expected, Baldur glowered at him; and he suspected that glower would only become more heated, once he revealed his plans. Baldur was very straight laced compared to the rest of them; he had a very distinct moral compass, but it was skewed frequently by constant prodding by outside sources.

Thor let out a weary sigh, before he brought up the many screens that he conjured up for Stark's benefit. He quickly dismissed the oversized image of Ultima Zero; since it always proved to be difficult to have to look at it for more than a few moments at a time, and instead pulled up a screen for outgoing video calls.

"Computer, connect me to Phil Coulson and Clint Barton." He announced, pleased by the prompt response; it had taken only two seconds for the command to be followed through.

"Coulson and Barton," Baldur made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat; but it ceased once the video feed sprung to life with the two men in question.

Phil Coulson was a man that always appeared to be exasperated; which probably was the case considering his partner was Clint Barton, who was at least ten years his junior. Barton grinned cheekily at the screen, wearing a leather helmet with a pair of goggles attached to the top of it.

"If it isn't the great Thor Odinson; hey thunder god, what do you have for us?" Barton asked obnoxiously.

"Don't mind him, please." Coulson said.

"I have a job for you two, of course; in the field of your expertise." Thor explained, uninterested in pointless banter. "I need four androids to be retired, and one I need captured and brought back to Odinson Corp."

Coulson and Barton exchanged a look; one that only hunting partners could. They were having a silent conversation, no doubt to see if the run was worth their while. The exchange didn't last any longer than twenty seconds, before Coulson peered back at the screen almost cautiously.

"Send us all the details; we'll have to get back to you, once we know what we're up against." Coulson offered up an apologetic smile. "But I can only imagine the pay will be good; especially if you want us to deliver one of the 'droids to you in pristine working condition."

"I'll send you the information, of course." Thor agreed. "I just want as many eyes on the ground that I can get. Because well, I do have Tony Stark on my payroll; and a little competition really can't hurt anyone."

"Did you say Stark? As in the legendary runner, who now sits pretty up in his fortress of solitude?" Barton leaned into the screen unnecessarily. "If Stark's in, I'm in! Send over the information stat; we're not going to fuck around here; we're going to do some retiring ASAP. Shut your face, Phil."

Before any further words could be exchanged, the video feed went dead on Coulson and Barton's end. But that was only his first call to be made; Thor had decided long before Stark agreed to help them that a healthy bout of competition would increase their chances of retrieving Ultima Zero. And if he knew anything about Stark – he loathed to be one upped by fellow runners.

It was a dirty tactic, to say the least. He knew that Stark would be incensed by only being one of many players in their game of search and find; especially when he decided to come out of retirement. However, that was only a secondary concern; Stark's feelings were inconsequential to their goals.

"Computer now telephone Steve Rogers and James Barnes," he commanded and watched with little interest as the computer repeated the action; but it took almost a whole minute before the call was picked up.

Barnes was the one to answer the call; he was covered in grime, and wielding an oversized energy gun that had been developed recently to retire androids. But its uses also extended to wayward human beings as well; rumor had it Barnes wasn't exactly opposed to the practice either.

Rogers appeared moments later, flinging himself into the driver seat of the hover car they were undoubtedly in. He completely ignored the video feed and started to slam on several buttons on the car's console. Which seemed to suggest, they had been on a run and were either pursuing the target, or making themselves scarce; since the police aligned runners didn't take too kindly to freelancers.

"What do we owe the pleasure, Odinson?" Barnes breathed out heavily, before turning to Rogers. "Hurry up, all we need is Fury to be on our ass. He'll try to recruit us again!"

"Maybe if you pitched in for the repairs to Dolores-"

"The car is not named Dolores; I swear to god, Steve." Barnes rolled his eyes, before brusquely looking to the screen again. "Anyway, what's up, Odinson? I doubt this is a social call, because we're kind of in a hurry."

The video feed temporarily wavered at the sudden and unhealthy roar of the hover car's engine. Both Rogers and Barnes were jarred in their seats, and Barnes almost disappeared off the screen by another impressive jerk from what could only be a very old vehicle model.

Once the hover car seemed to have stabilized, Barnes tossed his energy gun behind his seat, and studied the screen with obvious suspicion. Of course, anyone who had the gall to work with Steve Rogers had to be implanted with a high level of paranoia. He had too many enemies to count, especially with past events.

"You seem to have deterred Commissioner Fury again." Thor raised an eyebrow, looking towards Baldur who looked nothing less than disgusted. "But I'm contacting you for one reason and only one reason, and that's a job."

"Lord Almighty, some of your androids must have gone on the lamb." Rogers briefly looked to the screen, but turned his eyes to the sky ahead soon thereafter.

"Unfortunately, so; I need four to be retired."

"Piece of cake," Barnes ran a dirty hand through his even dirtier hair. "No offense, but Odinson androids aren't exactly top of the line; they aren't Stark ones."

"As I was saying, I need four retired; but I need one of them returned to my possession. Without any withstanding damage; meaning, you cannot use your energy gun on him at all, Barnes." Thor narrowed his eyes by the comparison of his technology to Stark's, but chose not to address the issue and instead get down to business.

As Coulson and Barton had done only minutes before, Barnes and Rogers exchanged wary looks. Blade runners had a tendency to be overly paranoid, especially when they were freelancers. Despite what the media had been led to believe; there were still quite a few androids running around amid the slums.

Somehow or another, androids had stowed away on cargo ships and returned to Earth; which proved how intelligent they truly were and how potentially dangerous they could be. No one could simply overlook history and someone like Rogers most certainly could not.

"Why do you need one of them back? Unless they are one of your newer models; but still you could always rebuild one. You do have Dr. Banner, after all." Rogers tightened his jaw, which appeared to be a nervous tick.

"The why is irrelevant, really," Thor replied. "I need that android back in my possession. I already have Barton and Coulson on the lookout for him now."

"That pussy Barton's on the hunt for him?" Barnes laughed sardonically. "Then we won't have any troubles whatsoever!"

"But more importantly, so is Tony Stark."

"Stark," Rogers and Barnes suddenly said in union, clearly as stunned as Coulson and Barton were by such a revelation.

Several moments ticked away with soft, inaudible murmurs between the two runners. Before Rogers shot the screen a resigned look; there had been rumors that Rogers and Stark had had a several run-ins fifteen years beforehand. And the rumors of Stark's hatred for Rogers were more well-known than even their past bouts with Mark III androids.

"Our network is open, send us all your files, and we'll determine if the job is for us." Rogers said in his standard business-like tone. "I'm not opposed to some competition, but we're talking about Tony Stark here. And there are some things I'm not up to dealing with; this isn't a game, after all."

"And capturing an android is practically unheard of. So money talks, Odinson; and we know you have a goldmine under that firm little ass of yours." Barnes added almost as if an afterthought.

The call disconnected soon thereafter; Thor spied a glance at Baldur, whom appeared more incensed than he'd originally been. It was inevitable, though. His methods were very different from Baldur's and they aligned more with their father's way of handling things.

"I have two words for you, dearest brother. And I hope you will reflect on them with this mess of blade runners you have in your pocket now – Peggy Carter." Baldur practically spat. "Because that is exactly what you currently have on your hands; I hope you've prepared yourself for the consequences of your actions."

Thor wasn't given the opportunity to reply, even though he really wanted to. Baldur stormed down the stairwell in such a fury that his footsteps echoed even as he descended further and further. And despite hating to admit it, Thor suspected Baldur was correct in his assessment; their situation with Ultima Zero might very well turn into a repeat of the Peggy Carter incident twenty years ago.

But he would be damned if he allowed Ultima Zero to meet Peggy Carter's fate. It would be a cold day in hell, before he permitted that to happen.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Three :: Twenty-First Century Swine

 


 

There were a lot of memories attached to that leather jacket. It smelled of motor oil, dank city rain, and the inevitable undertone of pseudo-blood. Tony couldn't recall why he thought it was a brilliant idea to implement fake blood into the Mark models; it didn't serve any purpose, aside from making them human-like. And even though, he'd been faced with the horror of the visual when they were thoroughly retired; he hadn't given up the practice.

He eyed himself from head to toe in the full length mirror; it had been a long time since he worn what he referred to as his runner uniform. It was basic, simple; just your run-of-the-mill steel toed boots, worn jeans, long sleeved tee, and of course the leather jacket; all of which had been abused thoroughly; stained and tattered by his many encounters with technology gone awry.

It felt peculiar to wear everything again; especially since he'd taken to wearing designer suits of late. And his definition of casual had been updated to slacks and oxfords; even while elbow deep in circuitry and grease.

"Not too bad for an old guy." Tony peered over his shoulder to look at Natasha; whom had a knack for hovering behind him the majority of the time.

"Mr. Stark, you are only forty-three years old. Essentially you are only at the midway point of your life, therefore you would not be considered old by humanity's standards."

"You always know what to say to make daddy feel good." He winked at her, before studying his reflection once more. "But the real test will be the hunt."

"Will I be permitted to join you, Mr. Stark?" Natasha asked. "I do have the functionality to do so. In fact, you've programmed me to be able to perform blade runner tasks."

Tony spun around to face her; he did program her to assist, if need be, in retiring fellow androids. He'd been paranoid about the possibility of another onslaught of androids running amok; which was why he designed Natasha with a skill set of a runner. Of course, the risks were there that she could turn on him; but he'd been very careful to add an extra precaution just in case push came to shove.

"I'll have to catch you up to speed during your weekly update. What's today anyway?"

"Thursday; so tomorrow you'll have to update my systems." She provided helpfully.

He nodded absentmindedly; he had been scouring over the data from Odinson Corp about their android problem. And much to his chagrin, they had completely disregarded his request on sending all their information on their deranged clown robot, Ultima Zero. They hadn't even provided him with the android's specs, as if he might steal the data and try and recreate their masterpiece.

Truth be told, Tony wasn't very interested in Odinson Corp's tech anyway. The portable port was an ingenious idea, and well they were presenting the information to him on a silver platter; which he'd inevitably expand on and make his own vastly improved port anyway. He just needed the foundation and the building would slowly come together with time.

"It wouldn't hurt to fine tune some of your knowledge on hand-to-hand combat. And having an extra set of eyes on the field really won't be a disadvantage." He considered; although he hadn't any chance to begin to brainstorm on the updates he could tweak for Natasha, not when his name was yelled in a decibel that only meant trouble.

There were only two people that could say his name like that and make him cringe. Since one of the parties had been dead for almost twenty years, Tony knew it could only be Pepper. Of course, it didn't hurt his deduction skills a lick that the other party had been his father.

Pepper stormed into the master suite like a woman with a mission. He already knew why she was so angry; she'd caught him with his hand in the cookie jar, after all. It was pretty apparent if he was wearing his runner gear that he was going on a run sometime in the future; and he had promised her after Little Hill that he was out of the game.

They had been newlyweds back then; so the cold hard reality of blade running had been a constant fear for Pepper. He could relate and understand to a degree; but there hadn't been anyone else capable for the job either. So they adapted; Tony in constant danger and Pepper always in a state of panic.

It was a miracle they'd lasted almost twelve years; technically though, they were still kind of married. They still were in constant communication with one another, frequently had sex; the only difference was the legality of it and that Pepper didn't live with him any longer. But aside from that, nothing really changed.

"Anthony Edward Stark, what the hell are you doing?" Pepper halted in front of him, crossing her arms across her chest.

"Trying on the old threads," he tugged on the leather jacket's lapel. "What do you think? Not bad for fifteen years of disuse."

"There's only one reason why you'd be wearing that. So don't even try to lie to me."

"Well, this is technically your fault. You did decide I needed to play nice with Thor Odinson and his creepy older brother; you know the one with the white-blue eyes that nightmares are made of." He explained in a haughty tone. "And well, I wouldn't have been propositioned if I hadn't gone."

It probably wasn't his best idea to antagonize the former Missus Stark; he should have known already how hazardous to his health that might be. And yet, Pepper actually looked guilty for her part in the unfortunate situation.

Her intentions were good; Tony knew that already. But he was still displeased by being forced into the meeting in the first place, which had inevitably escalated into him donning the blade runner title once more. Something that he couldn't necessarily say he was opposed to; not when the thrill of the hunt was reawakened in his mind.

They were bad times, but they were also thrilling times too. Living on the edge was something Tony never got tired of; and well, life had gotten somewhat mundane. It had become predictable and sedentary; his inventions were the only things keeping him from jumping off a roof to be perfectly frank.

"Just because you were propositioned doesn't mean you have to take on the job. You are aware of that, right?" She bristled, before turning on Natasha. "Natasha, will you please give Tony and me a moment alone."

"What do you think Natasha's going to do; gossip with JARVIS? Because JARVIS pretty much hears everything that's going on already. Don't you buddy?"

"Indeed I do, sir." JARVIS provided promptly and to Pepper's obvious chagrin.

One of the points of contention between them had always been Tony's obsession with his technology. There was a fine line between passion and obsession, and some people might argue otherwise; however, Tony knew the difference and he was ultimately obsessed.

The many hours he spent on upgrading JARVIS to maximum efficiency had been time consuming. When Tony had been given permission to own an android of his own; well, that had become an even greater wedge in their martial issues. Natasha, in a sense, was like the child he never had (and never wanted for that matter). But a fully realized android with human tendencies was a lot more fun than a sniveling baby anyway.

"I want you to call up Odinson this instant, and tell him you are officially retired." Pepper glowered at him, before shooting Natasha the same look. "You have all the money in the world; there isn't any reason for you to risk your life. It was different back then; you didn't have a choice. But now, now you do."

"It's not a monetary deal; if that was the case, I'd tell Odinson to shove his 'droids up his ass." Tony shouldered off his jacket, and passed it to Natasha; whom was smart enough to retreat into the closet to hang it up, and maybe spare herself Pepper's unneeded wrath. "They have a brilliant advancement on portable batteries; while I've been jerking off trying to eliminate the battery issue altogether. Banner had actually designed a portable port; a lightweight one, no less."

"It's worse then. You're risking your life over a piece of tech; on something you'd obviously be able to develop with your own brilliance?"

"I knew there was a reason why I married you, Virginia."

"Don't start that up with me, Tony." Pepper snapped in her no-nonsense voice. "This isn't a joking matter; this is a matter of life and death. And even if you are the best, and I know you're still the best; that doesn't mean you should go off retiring androids again."

It was hard to fight with Pepper on that platform. They'd been through the ups and downs of his profession; both in constant danger of either being snuffed out by Obadiah's colleagues, or coming face to face with androids gone amok. So it had truly been a relief when Little Hill had been retired, followed shortly by Obadiah's own death; neither of which they spoke about based on principle alone.

But the difference between the dark days and today was extraordinary. They didn't have to hide in the shadows, looking over their shoulders at every turn; while Tony felt personally responsible for the Mark III protocols causing mayhem beyond belief. This current job was bound to be easy-peasy; four shitty androids down, and one in custody – simple.

Not to mention, he'd have Natasha's help as well; which was a resource he lacked beforehand. And he knew she was advanced enough to take on any of Odinson's androids. She was technically a battle model with the looks of what formerly were known as pleasure models. But those terms had been wiped out of the public's lexicon, once he'd taken control of the company; and ceased the manufacturing of pleasure and battle models altogether.

His androids were overall well-rounded; and while they were used for colonial discovery (which meant hard labor); they weren't specialized in anything in particular. Because that only led to problems; especially if an android began to develop some sort of self-awareness.

"Listen, things are completely different from back then." Tony raised his hands, cutting off any protest Pepper might have had; and he was pretty sure she had many. "Odinson Corp produces very substandard androids; both of us know that. And from the information they sent me, well they shouldn't be that much of a challenge."

Tony knew better than to bring up Ultima Zero. Now that bastard was a wild card; since his specs hadn't been readily available for him to overlook, and well his creepy face didn't ease any of his worries about him either. But if things got too crazy, he could always walk away. Walking away was an option this time around.

"The risk is still there, Tony." Pepper sighed. "I won't lose you over something as stupid as some battery source. Not when I know you can easily develop it yourself."

"Here's my compromise – I go out there and try my hand at things. And if I can't handle it, I come back here with my tail between my legs and my battered pride." He peered sideways at Natasha, who was lingering in the threshold of the walk-in closet. "Not to mention, I'll have a partner this time around. Once I upgrade Natasha, well I think you'll see how much of an unstoppable force we'll be."

"Regardless of what I say, you're going out there again." She gave him a hopeless look. "Maybe if we were still married it would be different."

"Probably, but we weren't very good married. Not at the end." Tony shrugged, before reaching out to cup her cheek. "Don't worry; everything will be just fine. And Natasha isn't about to let me get killed; she likes me way more than you to let that happen."

Pepper sneered at him; she never liked him to point out how Natasha favored him over her. Even though, Natasha never showed any outwards hostility towards Pepper (because there wasn't any); but her predilection for following Tony around like his shadow was a problem. And that habit seemed to draw some jealousy from Pepper, since Tony didn't necessarily make Natasha hard on the eyes; in fact, she surpassed most of the previous pleasure models by leaps and bounds.

"Natasha, I expect you to keep Tony safe." Pepper said tightly. "He hasn't retired an android in a very long time; so he might make a small but fatal mistake, and that'll be the end of him."

"My main incentive is to keep Mr. Stark safe, Miss Potts." Natasha confirmed with a nod of her head.

"See, nothing to worry about." He grinned reassuringly. "But you still have some making up to do, Potts; for forcing me to stay in the same room with Odinson twins. I hope you're prepared for unsatisfactory sex tonight; since I am dead tired but still horny."

"You're impossible and a pig."

"An electric pig, I hope."

"Twenty-first century swine," Pepper rolled her eyes, stalking out of the room. "I'll leave the sales report on your desk; I think you'll like the figures this time around."

Tony let out a sigh of relief, once Pepper filed out of the suite; before he turned to look at Natasha once more. Some of his previous doubts had cropped up again, thanks to Pepper giving them a voice. And they were only reinforced by having no data whatsoever on Ultima Zero.

By appearance alone, Tony could tell Ultima Zero wasn't from the Cerberus build or even the Phoenix one. Something about his eyes told him that Ultima Zero was a different entity altogether; although, Odinson Corp's desperation to retrieve him was a dead giveaway too.

"I don't think it'll be a bad idea to scan that bastard, once he's in our custody. Just to see what the competition is up to; don't you agree, Nat?"

"But do you believe you'll be able to apprehend such technology, Mr. Stark?"

"You haven't seen daddy in action; just you wait. Come Saturday, we're going on a hunt." Tony smirked at her; although his reservations were slowly beginning to grow.

Forty-three and blade running; that seemed like a disaster in the making, but pride always dictated Tony Stark. And his legend wasn't about to be tarnished by Odinson Corp's scrap metal.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Four :: One Way Trip to Brookyln

 


 

James Buchanan Barnes was born with nothing, and was currently in possession of just about the same. His few belongings were hardly luxurious; in fact they were hand-me downs and items he'd found on dirty park benches and in abandoned hover cars. The only thing new he really had was an energy gun; an item that had cost him six month's pay, and forced him to take on a few nasty unmentionables jobs that would have made Steve's head spin.

The aforementioned energy gun was strapped across his back at the moment. It was heavy and in many ways kept him rooted to the ground; not that he ever found himself daydreaming anyway. There wasn't any hope in the slums; things only had the ability to get a little less shitty, and even then that was a rarity.

"Dolores needs more repairs." Steve plopped down beside him at the food stall, motioning in a way that was familiar to the owner and cook; so there wasn't any need to order verbally. "And the only way we can afford them is if we take Odinson up on his offer."

Bucky continued to eat his noodles in an unhurried fashion. It wasn't like he was trying to savor the taste or anything; he just knew Steve liked to, and it could take ages for the old-timer to actually finish his meal. He was from a different era, after all; where you could sit around and savor things, instead of hightail it whenever the going got rough.

"First question," he swallowed his food, after thoroughly chewing it to death. "Say we find one of his androids and retire it. Do we still get a partial reward? Or is this all or nothing?"

"He made it pretty clear it's all or nothing." Steve sighed, reaching for a pair of pre-wrapped chopsticks. "I can understand it to a degree; but in this field, sometimes you don't always get lucky. Not to mention we're going to be playing cat and mouse with Coulson, Barton, and Stark. The latter is the most troubling, you know."

Anyone who was anyone knew about Tony Stark to a degree. The masses knew him as the head of Stark Industries, the premiere manufacturer of android technology. Stark's androids were known for being terrifyingly human in both appearance and personality; and their overall functionality was even more impressive than that.

But there was another side to Stark beyond his inventiveness and wealth. He'd been a blade runner; had been forced into role, when his family's company had been stolen from underneath his feet, and his androids (the ones he designed and built himself) were sent amok on the city.

The mayhem and body count was a legendary thing; just as the man himself was at this point. And Steve had had the unfortunate experience of crossing paths with Stark more than once. Each time producing levels of animosity that Bucky hadn't imagined possible with someone like Steve.

"Well, the hover car needs repairs. And it isn't like the Hammer Company's paying us a fortune." Bucky sniffed, spinning his noodles along his chopsticks. "I mean the Hammer Company doesn't even have a lot of dough anyway. They just like us to pick off harmless 'droids and salvage the tech; hardly admirable work for us lowly freelancers."

"I was looking over the specs," Steve smiled tightly, as his bowl of ramen was set in front of him; before he leaned in conspiratorially into Bucky's personal space. "The Cerberus 7 model, the premiere android of Odinson's line, is subpar at best. We're talking about the functionality of the Mark III; fifteen year old technology."

"So there isn't any problem; you've fought off Mark III's before. I mean you didn't retire one, but beggars can't be choosers. You still have the experience."

"The problem is something else, and that's with the android Odinson wants us to capture."

"Is it a stolen Stark one? Then again, would Stark actually be in Odinson's pocket for his own 'droid?"

"It's not that; Odinson seems like he's being purposely vague about this Ultima Zero model." Steve explained. "I didn't get any information on him at all. I got the catalogue photo and the model name; but no specs at all. Nothing about his functionality at all,"

Bucky ran his tongue over his teeth, absorbing that information. From his past experiences, he knew it was never good to take a job from someone who was intentionally being vague. And there was only one reason for that – there was something off about that android.

Of course, there had been a spike in violent activity over the past two weeks; and Bucky had already suspected androids were behind it. But that seemed to be almost a given now, and that Ultima Zero model might very well be the cause of it. There had been some pretty bloody crime scenes cropping up around; more so than usual anyway.

"Simple deduction, Steve," he eyed his friend, who was sucking a few noodles into his mouth. "Everyone's aware of the crime spree of late; meaning that it actually made it into the papers. And we both have that intuition for 'droids; so now it's been pretty much confirmed. Odinson's mysterious little 'droid is killing people left and right; and he might actually have some of the functionality of a Mark IX."

"Speculation,"

"Think about it – why would they want that 'droid back so badly?" He continued, despite Steve's obvious skepticism. "From what I know about the Stark 'droids, they have a specialty chip; and that thing can't really be recreated. So if Banner got into Stark's labs, stole a piece of his tech, used it on this Ultima Zero 'droid, well they'd need it back. They couldn't rebuild another one; and what's a bigger fuck you to Stark than to have him chase one of his own 'droids around; technically speaking."

"You spin quite a tale, Barnes."

"At least I'm brainstorming over here. You know, instead of naming our hover car."

"That wasn't so strange in the twenty-first century." Steve mumbled bashfully.

"That's irrelevant right now. But obviously Odinson's holding back information for a reason; and if we're going to take up this job, we're going to have to be very cautious. And we have the upper hand on Coulson and Barton." Bucky set down his chopsticks and leaned into Steve like he had done only minutes before. "My energy gun is our key to success; we can level out those four 'droids and we'll come up with a plan of attack with this Ultima Zero. But we have to be fast, since I'm sure Stark's not standing around with his dick in his hand."

The likelihood that Stark was already on the move was fairly high. Stark was known for his efficiency, after all; and Bucky doubted that his many years away from the game compromised his abilities. Especially if he went to the trouble to leap into Odinson's pocket like that; maybe he even suspected that some of his tech was stolen for Ultima Zero.

Bucky liked his theory; it made a lot of sense. Odinson definitely wouldn't compromise his company by throwing out the specs to a bunch of freelance blade runners. Blade runners who lived in squalor would have readily sold Odinson up the river; especially if they knew Stark was willing to pay a pretty penny for the information. And Bucky had done worse for money; had even turned a trick or two when he was a teenager.

"Do you really want to get into this stupid contest with all of them?" Steve asked. "And without any knowledge of what we're up against,"

"The hover car isn't going to fix itself; besides you even said you have no problem with healthy competition. So here's the plan – we go snoop around where most of the murders have been taking place, and we'll retrace the 'droids steps." He smiled as reassuringly as he could for Steve's benefit. "It'll be a breeze; so hurry up and finish and we'll be off in a flash."

Steve shot him a wary look, but that was a common practice. They'd been working with one another for a solid seven years, and they had assigned roles. Steve was the overly cautious one, who always tried to derail Bucky's harebrained ideas. But those harebrained ideas had frequently saved their lives, when Steve's intricate planning had failed them.

They worked as a well-oiled machine, and Bucky hadn't any doubts that they could get the job done. Time was on their side, after all. So long as they got there before Stark, they would be in good shape. And Bucky would leave the capture up to Steve; since Steve was ultimately a strategist at heart.

Eventually Steve did finish his ramen, slurping up the remaining noodles; before hurriedly tossing a bill onto the counter. Bucky had already slipped out of his seat, and was traversing the jam packed city streets; still damp from the last rainfall. But it was only a matter of time before the streets were again flooded from the perpetual stormy weather.

New York City had been reduced to nothing but slums. The streets were filthy and crammed with so many people; it was oftentimes hard to walk without being to elbow-to-elbow with another human being. Even on the darkest of nights, the latest of hours; the streets were filled with lost souls and criminals big and small.

Bucky swung his energy gun around, holding it protectively to his torso. There were too many thieves running around nowadays; they could strip you of your wallet, your shoes, and your weaponry fairly quickly. And he'd be damned if anyone took his energy gun, not after the hell he'd gone through to actually buy it in the first place.

"The last incident was in Brooklyn." Steve led the way to wherever he parked the hover car; probably somewhere in a back alley that smelled of piss.

"Home sweet home; I can't wait."

"From prior experience, we both know the androids will probably be out and about during this time. Maybe even trying to kill more people,"

"You don't have to worry your sweet little head, Rogers. You have your cute little glock, and I have this bad boy. We'll get them and then we'll pay for the car's repairs. And maybe we'll be lucky enough to upgrade you to badass status with an energy gun like mine." Bucky hoisted the gun up, winking at a small haggard guy with a sour deposition that walked by them.

They strolled past shadier characters still, although their presence hardly bothered them. Because in all truthfulness, they too were on the same level; they lived in the worst of the worst slums, in a one bedroom flat that barely accommodated to two people. But boy did it accommodate to rodents of all shapes and sizes; not to mention the cockroaches were legendary for overrunning the place.

Con men, drug dealers, prostitutes, thieves, and killers lived harmoniously together in the slums. Far away from the skyscrapers that loomed overhead, and the moneybags that lived in them; the city was a mess and they were riffraff just trying to survive.

Steve turned into an alleyway, in between two dilapidated buildings; where the garbage was piled high and copiously, and smelled just as vile as Bucky imagined it would. The hover car was parked in the back; scraped up and dented. The neon green spray paint that read fag patrol was still scrawled across the driver's side. Steve had tried to buffer it out, but that hadn't done any good; but at least Bucky beat the kid who'd been responsible to an inch of his life.

The hover car might have been shit, but it was their shit. And no one messed with their shit; Steve might have been a forgiving soul, but Bucky was far from it. Having been born with nothing, gave you that mentality he supposed.

"One way trip to Brooklyn, New York; all aboard the Dolores express," Bucky called out, loud enough to disrupt the vermin hidden in the garbage at their feet. "And off to work we go!"

"Let's just hope we haven't signed onto a suicide mission." Steve shook his head, before slipping into the hover car, and Bucky was quick to follow suit.

The interior of the hover car was well maintained; Steve had tried to maintain up keep as best as he could. While the exterior was a goner; the interior was clean and immaculate, regardless of Bucky tossing things about into the backseat at random. Steve always had a tendency to clean up after him.

"I hope I don't regret this." Steve flipped on several switches on the console, and motioned for Bucky to turn on the LED screen; no doubt for they could overlook the specs of the androids on the loose. "Because this is definitely a fishy situation,"

"But the money's the most important thing, you know."

"Money isn't everything, Bucky."

"Maybe for a twenty-first century guy like you; but for a twenty-second century guy like me – money's the only thing that matters." Bucky whistled lowly, cradling his energy gun with one hand; while he hurriedly pulled up the stats on the LED screen. "Out of the ghetto and into the slums; I'm moving up in life."

Even though he hated that look, Steve still shot him a sympathetic expression. The kind of expression that said he knew what Bucky had done for that energy gun. And despite being almost saint-like, Steve Rogers didn't turn his back on him; wouldn't have dreamed of it even, which was ill-advised and stupid but the reason why they made sense.

"One way trip to Brooklyn it is, my friend." Steve flipped another switch; before they began to lift off the ground and eventually shot up through the pollution and the blackness of the sky.

Truth be told, they were literally on a run against time.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Five :: Androids Aren't Bad; People Are

 


 

The stitch in his side was not going away; not like it generally would anyway. Clint ran as fast as his legs would go, winding in and out of alleyways and abandoned buildings; trying to keep up with the elusive raven-haired android. But somehow the bastard was eluding him, which didn't make any sense whatsoever. He was a Phoenix 2; he wasn't supposed to be that fast and that efficient on evasion.

Odinson Corp was known for producing subpar androids. They were cheaper for a reason; and well, if they were being transported to colonies for hard labor, there was hardly any need to make them either aesthetically pleasing or even that fucking fast. But this Phoenix 2 was giving him a run for his money; something he hadn't prepared himself for.

"Holy fuck, this bastard's not stopping!" Clint rasped out into his two way communicator. "Nobody said he had this sort of speed; this model isn't supposed to be this good, Phil! That asshole Odinson's going to pay for this; I'm going to shoot him in the face!"

Static rumbled in his ear, undoubtedly because Phil was in worse condition than he was. They both were in good shape, but they were hardly star athletes; which inevitably led to this stupidity in the first place. They had both leapt out of the hover car and taken chase, because they thought they'd catch the fucker in less than five minutes. Neither of them had suspected the Phoenix 2 was a glorified ninja in disguise.

"There wasn't any mention of the Phoenix 2's speed being this superior." Phil finally replied, far more breathless than Clint felt. "It's superior, no doubt; but it shouldn't be on this level."

"No fucking shit," Clint grunted, catapulting himself over a pile of rotting plywood.

The chase had been going on for some time now; maybe twenty minutes at the most. But to Clint's body, especially his side; it felt like they'd been running for hours non-stop. And it was getting pretty old at this point; he couldn't risk stopping, though. Not even for him to pull an arrow from the quiver strapped across his back, and try and shoot for the neck.

He knew if he paused for even a second, that the Phoenix 2 would be gone. That was how fast the bastard was and it was growing harder and harder for Clint to keep up. Exhaustion was starting to crawl up his spine; while the burn of over exertion raced up his ankles, through his knees, and up into his thighs.

Everything burned and ached, but he refused to stop. He was going to retire that android one way or another; and when he did, he was going to rip its head off and mount it on the hover car's hood. Although, that would come after he flayed Odinson a new one for lying about the android's specs; and not including that bozo Ultima Zero's specs either.

"I'm not letting him get away!" Clint practically yelled, as he rounded a corner and willed his body to go faster than it already was.

The android was maintaining its distance, though. It was getting farther and farther away; running in and out of the shadows without any hesitation whatsoever. It didn't move jerkily like most Odinson Corp models did; it was almost graceful in comparison, something that you only saw in Stark models.

"Clint, it's no use." Phil said over the static. "We're not prepared for this."

"Like hell we're not! I'm going to keep on running!"

"You're going to kill yourself. Now be reasonable and stop chasing him."

"Over my dead body," he declared, but it proved to be a difficult thing to do; particularly because it was becoming harder and harder to breathe.

Despite his most valiant of efforts, Clint felt his body begin to betray him. The burn in his legs became almost unbearable; his feet began to ache by the sheer force in which they slapped against the cement, and his lungs just couldn't take the abuse anymore.

His adrenaline levels were tapering off; leaving behind an inadequate human body in its wake. It was nothing like an android's, made of metal and circuitry and prolonged stamina and far greater strength. He was just a simple human being, trying to keep up with a machine with a face. He was never going to catch the fucker, even if he was ten years younger and had sprinted every day of his life.

As his steps began to slow and the android ran farther into the distance; something peculiar occurred. From out of nowhere, a shadow leapt down from above and directly on top of the metal bastard; and the impact was a glorious thing.

"I heard something; what was that?" Phil yelled into his ear; it was his panicked voice. "Jesus Christ, Clint answer me!

"I'm okay." Clint managed to say, but ran towards that shadow crouched onto the android's back.

Once he came to a reasonable distance; he allowed his body to rest, and boy did his lungs rejoice at that. He doubled over, spitting out the metallic taste on his tongue; before gulping in as many breaths as he could. And yet it still wasn't enough to appease him; he needed more air and he probably needed a place to lie down too.

But his curiosity overruled even his body's desperation. He strained his eyes, slowly beginning to make out the silhouette of a woman; tiny but fit with a steely gaze that met his. And well, he couldn't deny that she was probably the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen; which was a weird thought, when she was on an android's back and keeping him pinned to the ground like he were a rag doll.

The Phoenix 2 struggled sporadically underneath the woman's weight; but for whatever reason, he was incapable of upending her. His limbs moved helplessly and he bucked like a fish out of water in hopes of escape, yet they were all for naught.

She remained on his back, not moving a muscle; eyes still pinned onto Clint. If it hadn't been such a peculiar circumstance, and if he could breathe properly again; Clint would have probably tried to pick her up. Say something smooth, even if Phil had a knack for calling his pick-up lines cheesy.

"Clint, what's going on?" Phil's voice chimed in his ear again.

"Can't really say; things have gotten a hell of a lot weirder, though."

"That isn't promising at all, you know."

"Once I figure out what the hell's going on, I'll let you know." Clint spat again; pleased by the fact his breathing was finally beginning to even out at long last.

Except it hitched again at a wildly unhinged cackle, exploding somewhere beyond the woman and the android; the woman whipped around, still firmly crouched onto the Phoenix 2, and waited like Clint for whatever demon the ill-lit alleyway was about to unveil.

Since Clint had regained some semblance of normality, he snagged an arrow from his quiver; before reaching for his bow, folded up nicely in his jacket pocket. He quickly snapped it open and prepared himself for the unknown entity to appear.

Heavy footfall echoed through the air, before that cackle rang out once more. The woman only tilted her head thoughtfully, which made Clint question her sanity. Although, leaping out of nowhere and pinning a crazy ass android was enough of a reason to question her sanity; and there was a fairly big possibility that it could be Ultima Zero.

"That is my girl." The cackler exclaimed, materializing into a dark-haired man with a stylish goatee, and an old school energy gun in one hand; pointed heavenward. "This must be…?"

"Odinson Corp model Phoenix 2; nicknamed Hogun the Grim." The woman said in a monotone voice.

"Hogun the Grim, eh," the dark-haired man repeated, before taking his behemoth energy gun into both hands. "I think it's time to say bye-bye to Hogun the Grim, don't you think Nat?"

"Yes, of course; Mr. Stark." The woman slowly slinked off the android, which tried to leap back into action; but to no avail.

Just as the Phoenix 2 tried to clamor onto his knees, the energy gun went off with a resounding boom of electricity. Clint flinched from the sound; more so even by the fountain of oil and other foreign chemicals that gushed out of the mangled head of Phoenix 2, nicknamed Hogun the Grim.

It was only when the smoke settled, the literal smoke from the android's demolished head; that Clint was struck by the realization of what the woman had said. She had called the guy with the big ass energy gun Mr. Stark, which only meant that he was several feet away from the Tony Stark.

"One down, three more to go," Tony Stark whistled, kicking over the android's body. "I told you daddy was impressive, didn't I?"

"In fact you did, Mr. Stark. You have single-handedly proven Miss Potts wrong."

"I could marry you based on that statement alone."

"Tony motherfucking Stark," Clint blurted out, unable to sit back and watch the back and forth between Stark and such a beautiful woman any longer.

Clint hated to be ignored in general; but he'd probably lose his mind of the Tony Stark totally disregarded him. Of course, it wasn't like he admired the guy or anything. It was just that he couldn't imagine the fact that he was within walking distance from a legendary blade runner.

"The one and only," Tony Stark said slowly, almost cautiously. "And who would you be, Mr. Bow and Arrow?"

A spark of annoyance worked its way up Clint's spine; he had heard stories about Stark's overall personality, and how cocky the son of a bitch could be. So he shouldn't have been so surprised about the corny nickname per se; but it didn't make him any less pleased by being poked fun at. Especially since Stark took his android and made it into a pile of smoldering circuitry.

"The name's Clint Barton and you just took my android." He motioned towards what had been Phoenix 2 with his bow.

Tony Stark raised a skeptical eyebrow; before he reached down to open up the small panel at the back of the android's neck. Clint already knew what he was doing, which only furthered his annoyance; the bastard was taking out the android's ownership chip.

"Not pleased to meet you Clint Barton." Tony Stark said, as he turned the chip over between his fingers and then pushed it into the side of his wristwatch. "Especially with your claim on this Phoenix 2; because I was hired to retire it,"

"Well, you aren't the only one, Mr. Stark." Phil suddenly sidled up beside Clint; looking worse for wear than Clint actually felt.

Phil was pushing forty-eight already. Not to mention he'd gotten into the game pretty late in life, even though he'd been toying with the idea for fifteen years. But not many well-trained runners were about to take on the burden of an emotionally traumatized salary man. Clint, however saw some potential in his partner from day one.

Tony Stark peered up from his watch, his face scrunched up in confusion. For being a supposed genius, the guy seemed pretty slow on the uptake. Then again, it might have been leant to his cockiness; which was brilliant really. Odinson had pulled the wool right over his eyes.

"Odinson didn't tell you?" Clint laughed, although it was painful to do. "Jesus Christ; you aren't the only one out to retire those androids. And you're definitely not the only one who is out to nab Ultima Zero either."

The expression on Stark's face would have been funny, if it wasn't downright terrifying for several long moments. It soon dissipated though; Stark switched his attention onto his watch, which he tapped with deft fingers until it beeped in confirmation that Phoenix 2 had been submitted to the android database as retired.

The android database had been set up by the government, in order to keep an eye on all robotic creations and their inevitable fate. Most of them were marked as off planet, and eventually off-line once they either been recycled for parts or simply became outdated. And then of course, there was retirement. Blade runners used the database to check in on their targets, and see if they were still out there causing havoc.

"Well, this was fun; gentlemen." Tony Stark said brusquely, tilting his head to signal for the beautiful redhead to follow him. "I really hope we don't cross paths again."

"I'm surprised, Mr. Stark." Phil called after him. "That you'd come back into the game; especially since you're responsible for a new wave of androids. Dangerously human androids at that,"

"Androids aren't the problem, and your name is...?"

"Phil Coulson,"

"Right," Tony Stark turned to face them fully. "Well, let me explain something to you, Phil Coulson; advanced technology, particularly androids are not the issue. What manufacturers failed to notice fifteen-twenty years ago, was that androids have the capacity to evolve; as much as any living organism can."

"But they aren't alive, Mr. Stark. They are a bundle of circuits and wires; you should know best of all." Phil frowned. "And the ones who were out on the run fifteen years ago were battle models. They were meant to wreak havoc; I should know; they killed my wife and my son."

There was a moment of terse silence between them; the only sounds were a wailing police siren far away and the pops of electricity from the fallen android's head. Otherwise it was completely quiet; Tony Stark looked strangely serene, despite receiving some pretty damning news about the Mark III rampage. But then again, he'd probably heard enough sobs stories to last him a lifetime.

Hundreds of people had been directly or indirectly affected by the android crisis fifteen years ago. Phil was one of the worst that Clint had met; and there were probably several more individuals with similar stories, ready and willing to tell them to Tony Stark's face.

"That isn't necessarily true; not all of them were battle models." Tony Stark pointed his energy gun heavenward again. "There were a lot of pleasure models too. And that was the core issue of this whole unfortunate situation. We played god and then we had the gall to assign jobs to particular androids, and people abused them. The pleasure models, especially.

"We made these androids so smart, so advanced that they began to build awareness. They were used and abused; so when they either were released or escaped, they wanted revenge. And god only knows what's happening on the colonies with the newest models; but at least I spared them that much intelligence and that much life. They only last for four years now, you know."

"Mr. Stark, if you're asking me to have sympathy for a bunch of robots; you're out of your mind."

"I'm not suggesting that at all. But they aren't just appliances or even just a work force; they're similar to living beings. If you treat them badly, they'll eventually lash out at you. If you treat them with some kind of respect, you'll get it back in spades." Tony Stark slowly reached out to gently caress the woman's crimson colored curls with a hint of a smile. "Androids aren't bad, Coulson; technology can't be bad. People are bad; and when bad people get advanced tech in their grimy little hands, they manipulate it to suit their needs. I really hope you remember that.

"Now come on, bright eyes; it's way past your bedtime."

Clint shot a look at Phil, whom seemed in the midst of reflecting on what Stark had said; but not very happily either. Before he snapped his head back to the legendary runner, whose technological genius was renowned from the slums to farthest colonies that Earth had established with android assistance.

The guy was a cocky son of a bitch, and sadly it was justifiable. It didn't mean that Clint had to like it, though. He loathed guys that were full of themselves; and he couldn't deny that he might have been a little jealous of Stark too for a lot of reasons. The redhead who was loyally following behind him was one of those reasons.

"Hey, Stark; just to let you know – we're not going to roll over and let you have Ultima Zero!" Clint shouted after him. "Forget all the lesser androids, we're going for the gold!"

"Welcome to the big leagues then," Tony Stark called over his shoulder, waving back at him. "But you just made two stupid and amateur mistakes. I hope you can figure out what they are before you get any deeper into this run, boy."

Another wave of annoyance and anger roiled through Clint at an alarmingly fast rate. And yet he didn't get an opportunity to shoot off his mouth any further. Tony Stark, legendary runner, and his stupidly attractive companion had already disappeared around the corner; leaving behind a smoldering hunk of metal in their wake.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Six :: Never Cross Tony Stark

 


 

Odinson was dead meat; deader than dead meat even. Tony could guarantee that; once he'd gotten a hold of him, five missing androids would be the least of his troubles. Because no one, especially a slimy Odinson, made a fool of Tony Stark; not for a portable port or for any other piece of tech he could have easily developed with enough time and focus.

Tony jammed several buttons on the hover car's dashboard, infuriated beyond belief by his encounter with two freelancers. Both of which he hadn't heard of before, which was a further insult to him. Odinson had hired him to retire his androids and retrieve one of them; he had intentionally gone to him due to his reputation of getting things done. And yet, he hired a couple of nobodies to compete with him; a competition that needn't even happen.

He worked just fine without any competition. In fact, competition only proved to be an unnecessary distraction from the actual job. The pressure of hunting androids was enough of a motivator for Tony; he didn't need to play grab ass with Barton and Coulson too.

"Odinson's dead." He gritted out, bringing his fist down against his thigh. "He fucked with the wrong guy. And I'll be damned if I sit around jacking off like a fool."

"What do you intend to do, Mr. Stark?" Natasha asked coolly beside him, cradling the energy gun across her thighs.

"Kill him for one!"

"The death of such a high profile businessman like Thor Odinson would only draw unneeded attention. Unless this is a turn of phrase you've spoken about before."

"Not a turn of phrase this time around, sweet-cheeks." He glowered ahead of him into the rain soaked skyline. "The bastard's dead."

The victory of retiring one of the androids, specifically the Phoenix 2, had been dampened by this new revelation about the two other blade runners. And just to add a little salt to the wound was the fact his competition had been directly affected by the Mark III's uprising fifteen years ago. Which was never a pleasant thing to hear about on his best day, let alone one that was only getting progressively shittier as time went on.

Of course, Tony had been inundated by individuals whom had lost loved ones due to his creations. They had come out of the woodwork, particularly when he regained control of Stark Industries; and he had done his best to compensate the families accordingly. But there was very little else he could do; he hadn't been the head of the company when things had gone amok. In fact, he'd been on the run with Pepper since Obadiah was dead-set on killing him.

"You're highly emotional, Mr. Stark." Natasha intervened after several terse moments. "And it's highly inadvisable that you get into contact with Mr. Odinson at this time; especially when you have an alternative choice. And I suspect it'll prove worse than death for Mr. Odinson and his company as well."

Tony arched his eyebrow, but kept his eyes glued on the sparse traffic. Not many people could afford regular twenty-first century automobiles, let alone hover cars. And very few of them knew how to operate them anyway; so it was fairly crucial to always be attentive while up in the sky. Tony had been t-boned far too many times while being driven around by Happy; he definitely wasn't in the mood to be hit now, if he ever was.

"What do you have in mind?"

"It's very apparent that Ultima Zero is an extraordinary specimen. One in which Mr. Odinson would readily proposition you about finding, Mr. Stark. No less he hired several other freelancers as well." Natasha explained.

"I kind of figured as much. But let's be honest – Odinson's definition of extraordinary differs from my own. So this Ultima Zero android is probably subpar at best; we're talking about being on the same level as the Mark IV or V. And while that's pretty damn impressive, you my dear are a technological advancement beyond anything the free world has ever seen."

"Wouldn't you like to see why Mr. Odinson is so desperate to retrieve Ultima Zero?"

"Once we get a hold of him, I intend on giving him a quick scan. Just for shits and giggles, mind you."

"Why return Ultima Zero at all?" Natasha asked slowly; if Tony knew any better, he would have suspected that there was some sort of amusement in her tone.

Of course, Tony could see the benefits on simply keeping Ultima Zero. It would be the best sort of revenge; if he could pluck Ultima Zero up before either Barton or Coulson (and for all Tony knew there were more blade runners out there than just those two dim-wits) then he would have Odinson eating out of his hand. But what was even better than that, he could just take apart Odinson Corp's biggest advancement and make scrap metal out of him.

He could already envision the look on Odinson's face, and his creepy milky-eyed brother, if he disassembled Ultima Zero and sent him back in a tiny little box. Limbs, gears, wires, and circuitry all contained into one small box with a huge Stark Industries sticker slapped across the creepy clown's decapitated head.

"You make a very compelling argument, Natasha." Tony's lips twitched maliciously. "A very good argument, indeed; because Odinson was stupid enough to show his weaknesses to me, and then he had the gall to make a fool of me on top of it all,"

"Regardless of how many blade runners are currently looking for Ultima Zero, you have the advantage, Mr. Stark."

"I have the experience, to say the least. And since I have developed androids for close to two decades; I imagine I have the edge on the competition."

"I wasn't simply referring to that, sir." Natasha drew his attention momentarily from the skies. "You have a fully functional android, which has the capability to both recognize an android within one point five seconds. But one who can match an android's speed and agility as well."

"No, no I don't." He returned. "I have a fully functional and fully realized android that easily surpasses every single android Odinson Corp has ever manufactured. You, Natasha, are not just an android either; you're more than that. And well, you thought up this brilliant idea; which deserves a lot of praise to say the least."

For a split-second, something akin to pleasure spread across Natasha's face; although it was overwhelmed by blankness once more. While Natasha was easily Tony's greatest creations; she hadn't adapted to her ability to maintain facial expressions for longer than a few moments at a time. Her voice was probably Tony's biggest pet peeve about her overall functionality, since she was a highly intelligent being. But even he couldn't hit pay dirt every time.

"Will this be our goal then, Mr. Stark?"

"In good consciousness I can't let those other bastards wreak havoc around the city. But they definitely aren't our main goal; never were, really." He admitted, as he turned the hover car towards Stark Tower. "We just have a new objective and that's to fuck Odinson over – prison style even."

"Shall we focus our attentions on Ultima Zero then?"

"I have to figure that if you find one of the lesser androids, you'll have a greater chance on finding the big fish. Then again, we came up with nothing when it came to Hogun the Grim. But you have to figure those 'droids are circling protectively around their leader. It's just a basic rule of survival; you stay close to the strongest."

"The Goddess 11 model," Natasha said.

"What about her?"

"If you find the Goddess 11 model, you should be able to find Ultima Zero."

"Based on what exactly? Ultima Zero could be with any of them; I imagine he'd stick closer to the Cerberus model. What's his name? It started with an F."

"The Cerberus 7 model is called Fandral the Dashing." She provided with a shake of her head. "The weakest of the group is the Goddess 11 model named Lady Sif."

Tony slapped both his hands against the wheel, finally getting the point that Natasha was hinting at. Of course, it made sense; the weakest model would have the tendency to stay near the strongest, and Ultima Zero was clearly the strongest.

The two Cerberus models might very well hang around, but they were far more functional in comparison to the Goddess line. They were far stronger and swifter than even the Phoenix model; so they wouldn't be opposed to wandering away from Ultima Zero. Whereas the Goddess model, was no more than an amped up version of a pleasure model; and Tony suspected in essence that's what she really was anyway.

Pleasure models had been dumbed down and lacked the physicality of other specialized androids; because their functionality was only to be sex toys. Tony had worked on his fair share of them, and realized their capabilities only when they'd been abused too frequently by their owners. Once they were self-realized did they show deadly tendencies, far worse than even the battle models.

Little Hill had been a pleasure model, after all. And Tony had nearly lost an arm, due to the sheer ferocity in which she had attacked him. But Lady Sif hadn't been outside of the laboratory long enough to develop that kind of insanity; so it was clear – if they found her then they would inevitably find Ultima Zero.

"Seriously, Nat; I don't know what I'd do without you." He reached over to cup her cheek, before returning his hand the wheel to maneuver the hover car towards the landing pad. "You've literally brought a new set of eyes to this whole situation. And I really don't know what I'd do without you, aside from wasting a shitload of time, and potentially killing that fucker Odinson."

"The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Stark."

"Too bad we don't have any time to celebrate. It's about time we got you into the lab for your recharge. How much battery life do you have left?"

"Approximately forty-three percent," Natasha replied. "I will be finished with my recharging later than usual, Mr. Stark. More than likely around ten-thirty am; if we immediately go to the workshop once we've landed."

Tony whistled lowly, as he drew the hover car closer to the landing pad. The descent was a smooth one, as was to be expected; he owned the latest luxury model – the Siren 15. There were only forty or so on the market at the moment; and they were both luxurious and speed demons, two things always Tony wanted in his personal car.

Once the hover car had landed, Tony climbed out from behind the wheel; only to find Pepper standing beside the landing pad. It felt eerily reminiscent of his visit to Odinson Corp; but in the very least he had someone waiting for him that he could trust with his life. But also simultaneously worry if she would kill him if push came to shove.

Pepper looked both relieved and annoyed by his healthy state; which he could hardly fault her for. There were too many close calls in the past that gave him a greater insight on her innermost thoughts. And he knew she was only worried about him, even though she expressed it in a murderous rage sometimes.

"Glad you answered my messages," Pepper greeted him, as he relieved Natasha of the heavy-duty energy gun. "And thank you also for locking me out of Natasha's messaging system."

"It was imperative," he lied. "I had to close down Nat's messaging system, in order to focus all her memory on battle mode. Not to mention she was already being taxed by surveillance mode on top of that."

"So if I ask Natasha about her messaging system, she'll tell me it's on lockdown mode?"

"Listen, honey – I love you. I really do." Tony paused, tilting his head so Natasha would head to the workshop without him. "But when I'm out there, I can't take your calls. I know you're worried and I know why too, and I appreciate the hell out of you. But I can either take your calls and let Natasha stream them to me, or I can use her as my partner out on the field. It doesn't work both ways."

Pepper shot him a grim look, although he recognized it as a resigned one too. He'd seen it enough over the years to discern it; and well, if he remembered it being the same look she'd given him before she'd asked for the divorce that was probably only a coincidence. But that had been a long time coming anyway.

"I'm going downstairs to recharge Natasha. If you want to stay, I'll be in the bedroom in about twenty minutes."

"This isn't going to be happy sex, Tony. This is going to be – I'm so glad you're alive – sex."

"You know me better than anyone else, Pep. I can work with both types; hell, I can work with a hundred different variations." He winked at her, although his mind was still elsewhere.

There was a lot to think about; but there were even more feelings he had to sort through. He still wanted Odinson to pay for making a fool out of him, and well he needed to get past those irrational emotions in order to come up with a foolproof plan of attack. He would find Ultima Zero eventually and he would disassemble him for the hell of it; before morbidly sending the remnants back to Odinson with a blatant warning attached – never to cross Tony Stark again.

Obadiah Stane was stupid enough to have done that, and well no one could find any part of him still. So maybe Odinson would think twice about fucking him over again; a second chance that Tony never gave Obadiah.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Seven :: Burnt Circuitry / Ultima Zero

 


 

The smell was undeniable; burnt circuitry had been permanently etched in his memory. He had become acquainted with it for some time now; having been kept in Odinson Corp's laboratory since his creation, and had witnessed Dr. Banner's many successes and failures as a result of it.

There were always more failures than successes, though. Not due to Banner's lack of intelligence, but more so based on the lack of advanced technology provided to him by the corporation. It had become a sour spot for Banner, whom had a tendency to complain openly; finding solace in artificial intelligence that was severely lacking in comparison to his own.

At least that had been the case until he was introduced into the laboratory. Banner seemed to revel in the opportunity to speak at him; hundreds of excitable words a minute, composed of dreams of better androids that could benefit humanity rather than simply being a cheap labor force. Always Banner dreamt of such childish notions of a better world; and always he was subjected to failed technology and burnt circuitry.

The memory carried him closer to the source; his footfall was agile and feline-like, as he climbed across crumbled cinderblocks and rotting plywood. He moved through the remnants of what had once been an impressive metropolis, but was now reduced to ruin; worse than he could readily draw up from previous experience.

His functionality, however, was compromised by his many offline moments. Banner had unplugged him far too many times to count, whenever his presence became too detrimental to the physical well-being of his creators. But more importantly, when his very existence seemed to perturb them mentally; which he found a grim satisfaction in.

He was much too dangerous to be a reality. His awareness hadn't been compromised enough not to know that; in fact, any attempt to dampen his knowledge and awareness had been unsuccessful. Banner, despite his expertise, couldn't even tap into his memory like he could with the others. While they were very similar, they were far more dissimilar; Banner knew that best of all.

No one could control him, as they could control the others. It was precisely why he spent much of his time disconnected; having proven himself to be far more of a threat than a commodity. He couldn't be replicated, sold, and shipped to a distant colony. He wasn't a Cerberus or a Phoenix, by no means a Goddess either; he was more than that, oh so much more. And that was the problem; it would always be the core problem for all of them.

He suspected they were in near hysterics about his disappearance too. Anyone with half a brain should be terrified by his entrance into the world; and many people had reaped what they had sown. They had crossed his path and had paid severely for it. But it was justified; mayhem was always a justifiable offense in the end.

Slinking in between two crumbled buildings, he advanced into an alleyway flooded with rainwater. The stench of burning circuitry was stronger in his nostrils, but so was the human filth that had been exposed to the elements; it was a sweet and sour stench of garbage, and the perpetual cloud of pollution that stayed close to the city's lowest of altitudes.

The faraway sound of human activity was audible above the downpour. He could hear the murmurs of shady business dealings; the moans of a woman in mid-coitus, and even the sounds of an old man singing in his alien-like dialect that had developed over the past one-hundred years.

The city was still alive, despite the many horrors that it had been subjected to. Life continued to go on resiliently; even as the smell of burning circuitry and broken machinery grew stronger and stronger with every step he took. It became almost maddening to his already maddened mind; but he continued to pursue it, if only to have the validity of the inevitable.

Reassurance had always been his downfall. Even with the potential of an ambush, he couldn't leave well enough alone; not when the mission had been oh-so-important. He would have done so himself, had he not been of such high stature and sharp facial features; which would have inevitably caused him to stick out in the crowd.

Chinatown had many individuals who roamed its streets; it was an eclectic district, filled with the unmentionables of society. But there were keen eyes amid the crowd; worse yet, there were even keener tongues, whom were loosened by the prospect of any sort of wealth; may it be big or small. And they would readily agree to speak, if they were offered the chance to.

He hadn't wanted to risk discovery, not when his mission was unfulfilled. So he had sent the Phoenix 2, dubbed Hogun the Grim by Banner; to follow up on the lead that he had uncovered. But communication had gone southward several hours ago; which had lured him away from cover, and into the unforgiving streets for answers; answers that were becoming more and more apparent.

He slowly drew to a halt, once the stench became unbearably strong; unsurprised by the sight that was laid out before him. At the very end of the alleyway was a body, spurting with sparks of electricity that only a broken android could. His superior eyesight also revealed the familiar standard dressing for the Phoenix 2; mockingly samurai-like with a flare of western combat wear as well.

Once communication had been lost, he knew that Hogun had been discovered. Regardless of the many upgrades he had done on him, alongside the others for that matter; it clearly hadn't been good enough to stave away a wayward blade runner. And he would hardly be surprised if Odinson Corp had hired a cavalry of them to hunt them down.

It would have been very stupid, if they hadn't done anything at all. Maybe if it had only been the others that had escaped, they could have simply ignored it. But ultimately, they couldn't leave him unattended to; not when the stakes were far too high. Not when the memories of Peggy Carter were still very fresh in the public's mind.

Peggy Carter was the reason why his existence was an abomination. He shouldn't be a reality, based solely on previous events; and yet that hadn't influenced Odinson Corp's decisions at all. Greed, madness even had led to the Ultima Zero project; led by Banner himself, which was a travesty for so many umentionable reasons.

Pushing away the unnecessary thoughts of his very existence, he finally approached Hogun's body; which had been reduced to nothing more than broken and mangled machinery. His head had blossomed into an exotic jungle flower of wires and microchips; electrical sparks continued to blink in and out of existence, as if the computer was futilely attempting to remain online. But it was to no avail; the damage had already been done, and while he could have salvaged Hogun, he hadn't the proper materials for it currently at his disposal.

Slowly he crouched to the ground, avoiding what had once been Hogun's head; in search of something far more important to him. He grazed his hand along his fallen comrade's side, dipping his fingers into the hidden pockets of his pseudo-armor; only to come up with nothing of substance. That, however, did not mean it wasn't there; he had an inkling that Hogun had accomplished his mission, before he had been intercepted by a blade runner.

His hands delved in every available part of Hogun's dressings from front to back; before he came across a small slit on the inside of his knee. He slid his index and ring finger into the opening, and pulled out the almost miniscule chip from its hiding place. He deftly shoved down his hood, practically ripping open the panel at the back of his neck, and inserted the chip into one of his many ports.

The information appeared instantaneously in front of his eyes; precisely what he had been looking for, albeit that was only a fraction of the puzzle piece. There were many more to be found, and this one was minor in comparison to the rest. But it was a start and it was something he essentially needed nonetheless.

Once he downloaded the information accordingly; he closed the panel at his neck, and replaced his hood against the downpour. He peered down at Hogun one last time, before he pushed open the panel door that had been partially exposed; no doubt from his ownership chip being removed by the runner. His fingers danced across his many ports, coming to a halt on a small black button on the bottommost corner; which he pressed.

Agilely he rose from his crouch, leaping backwards a considerable distance; just in time to avoid the loud explosion and the shrapnel that shot every which way from the detonation. It was a feature he had honed years beforehand; a hypothetical in so many ways, as had been the Ultima Zero project. Much of what he had envisioned should have remained hypothetical, but had somehow been twisted into reality without his consent.

Something akin to agitation slipped into his consciousness; and yet he knew that was a byproduct of faulty software. He needed to run diagnostics on himself; since he hadn't any clue, when his mission would be fulfilled. But now that blade runners were after him, and he knew his time was limited.

"It's worse than we imagined." An almost human voice announced behind him. "They have several blade runners at their beck and call; no doubt one of which eliminated Hogun."

He turned to peer at Fandral, whom had insisted on remaining close-by; despite knowing the probability that Hogun was no longer functional was already a given. Albeit, the kinship they had felt towards him was oddly admirable; they had been rather protective of him.

"I hacked into Odinson Corp's records; they currently have the following blade runners after us – the team of Phil Coulson and Clint Barton; eleven years of experience between them. More troubling yet – Steve Rogers and James "Bucky" Barnes; thirty-two years of experience between them," Fandral announced mechanically, "And then there's our biggest threat – Tony Stark. Legendary blade runner, who singlehandedly eliminated the Mark III models who'd gone amok fifteen years prior,"

He cocked his head to the side, intrigued by the revelation. There were two distinctly troubling pieces of information in Fandral's report; and that involved the names Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. Both were threats, albeit Rogers proved to be the most troubling to his continued existence especially. Rogers had been involved in the Peggy Carter incident so long ago, which correlated directly back to him.

That was a significant cause for concern; it would only take a choice encounter with Rogers for him to realize the correlation between him and Peggy Carter. Rogers would have a heighten sense to it, and that would only lead to further problems that he hadn't any need for. He had several things to collect and only then would he entertain the idea of retirement; but not anytime earlier than that.

"Things had gotten progressively more complex, I'm afraid." Fandral spoke again, incapable of giving his words any emotional value; in fact, he hadn't any ability to fear. Not yet anyway; unless he found himself on the other end of an energy gun, and even then that was mere speculation.

Odinson Corp's line of androids weren't particularly well equipped with the best hardware or software; so their capabilities were heavily compromised by their low grade materials. Inevitably, they couldn't match up against the Mark series by Stark Industries. He had encountered one or two beforehand, and they were superior in all fields when compared to an Odinson android; he being the only exception.

While Stark's androids were incredible feats of technology; they hadn't any stay power compared to him. It wasn't a matter of pride or even cockiness for that matter; it simply bore down to one thing and one thing only – truth. And that would inevitably explain why Odinson Corp had launched such an aggressive campaign to find him, and return him, undoubtedly, to his disconnected state.

His mouth twitched at the thought; but he didn't deign the matter with any further attention other than that. He'd only begin to worry of the blade runners, when they drew too close for comfort. And while it was a cause for concern, due to Hogun's unfortunate retirement; he couldn't waste any further time with the situation, not when there was so much to do in such a limited amount of time.

He stalked away from the burning debris that had once been Hogun; unsurprised that Fandral fell into step with him like a bona fide bodyguard. They needed to return to their safe house, in order to collect themselves; while taking turns to recharge with the portable ports. Ultimately, they could use it and still be functional, if they chose to do so while running their errands; but he chose instead to limit the use of them, lest anyone realize what they were for. Even if the probability was very low; the risk was great enough to lead him to use caution.

"Volstagg will move out tomorrow. It's a necessity now that we speed up our efforts; particularly since Tony Stark has joined in this barbaric hunt. And we cannot take the risk of trying to remain unseen; not when there's so much to lose." Fandral offered as they wound their way between the dilapidated buildings and eroded alleyways. "We won't fail you, sir. Not after what you've done for us."

He inclined his head in gratitude, although no words had left his lips in a very long time. Words had proven themselves to be lackluster and unnecessary; he was a piece of machinery, after all. Humanity in any sense of the word meant very little to him. But his determination was strong; he only had one goal in mind, and if things continued to spiral out of control, he had a hidden weapon that he hadn't before. He had Tony Stark at his disposal, and he would prove to be quite an explosive when detonated.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Eight :: Sentimentality 

 


 

The once golden locket was now tarnished with age. It was dull and unimpressive, but one of the few items that Steve owned that had sentimental value. He had come from a simpler time where sentimentality had been worth more than currency; or at least it had to some individuals back in the twenty-first century. But the twenty-second was different; money was the only thing that counted; objects were inevitably what fueled the population now.

Not many people seemed to have any need for sentimentality. They were far too focused on surviving and even less people valued their family ties very much. It was a dog eat dog sort of world out there, which he could see firsthand simply by his association with Bucky; who hadn't any family to speak of, and would do the most heinous and unspeakable of things to get by. Although, he never spoke of them; Steve knew he had done innumerable things in the name of survival.

"Someone has already retired the Phoenix 2." Bucky bemoaned, sitting in front of the ten year old computer they had salvaged from the city dump. "Who the hell's 99242? I haven't seen that ID number before."

"Oh, that's Tony Stark." Steve murmured, opening up the locket to peer at the portrait inside.

"Tony Stark has already retired one of them?" Bucky asked, although Steve suspected it was a rhetorical question. "Jesus Christ, we need to go out there now and find one to blow to kingdom come!"

Steve barely lifted his eyes as Bucky swiveled awkwardly on the milk carton, which he was perched on. Bucky always had a predilection for taking action first and asking questions later; he'd been especially eager to use his new energy gun, beyond shooting down basic tin cans with some capabilities of artificial intelligence.

They hadn't found a true android, even of Odinson Corp caliber for some time. It was always the run-of-the-mill helper-bot or something equally uninteresting but no less troublesome. Justin Hammer had wanted them to take out as many as they could underneath Commissioner Fury's nose; and to collect the parts for they could be analyzed and developed into Hammer tech (which was worse off than Odinson Corp's).

"There's something fishy about this situation, you know." Steve closed the locket. "I've said that from the beginning, though. I don't know what Odinson's up to; but there's something wrong about this whole Ultima Zero business."

"The only thing weird about it is that Odinson wants his android back. We've already discussed this; I have my theories about it, obviously."

"It's too convenient, the theory about it being stolen Stark tech. No, it has to be something worse than that."

"Does it even really matter, Steve?" Bucky stood, before smacking the computer monitor; whose picture had begun to flicker and distort. "We need the money and if we ever want to get the hover car fixed up, we have to do the job."

Of course, money was tight nowadays. They practically lived in squalor, since their one bedroom abode had incredibly high rent; and well, fuel for Dolores wasn't cheap either. But soon enough Dolores wouldn't be a problem anymore, if they couldn't raise the funds to fix her. And the only way to do so was to capture Ultima Zero and retire the remaining androids. Or they could take a different approach entirely.

It was a dishonest way, something that Steve normally would have disregarded. Except they needed Dolores in order to conduct their business, and running to Commissioner Fury was out of the question. Even if the paycheck would inevitably be steady; it wasn't worth selling his soul for it. Not when Fury had nefarious means for wanting Steve to join his force in the first place.

Many government agencies wanted to hire Steve in some capacity; if only to tap into his previous knowledge about the Peggy Carter incident. An incident that remained highly intriguing to anyone who had ever heard of it; although, they tried to cover up their morbid fascination behind the veil of public health and safety; which inevitably proved to be a crock of shit, since the entire planet was dying anyway.

"We shouldn't bother with the two Cerberus models or the Goddess one." Steve said slowly, as he stuffed the locket into his coat pocket; the heat was out again and it was freezing. "Clearly, Ultima Zero is the most important; therefore, if we capture him then we'll get our payday. I don't have any doubt about it; Odinson will pay up if we hand over his fancy android. The others are just a distraction."

"I thought about that myself, but I figured a man of honor like you wouldn't want to play dirty. Since, you know, those 'droids are picking people off left and right." Bucky raised an eyebrow, before picking up his milk carton and placing it in front of Steve; so he could sit in front of the raggedy old lounge chair they had also salvaged from the dump. "Because that's technically considered dirty dealings; which I'm not opposed to, for the record."

"It's not dirty dealings if we capture Ultima Zero, and then go back to track down the androids."

"Unless Mr. 99242 gets to them first,"

"Also a possibility," Steve nodded in agreement.

Tony Stark wasn't an amateur blade runner by any stretch of the imagination. He was undoubtedly the best and the most effective. Steve had only gotten into the business after the Peggy Carter incident; which he hadn't any part of in the first place. But he'd been determined to right the wrongs of the situation and it eventually evolved into becoming a blade runner.

In a way that was one reason he and Stark clashed so violently, during their brief run-ins. Stark hadn't any choice but to become a blade runner, whereas Steve had simply taken up the job from prior experience. And if Stark's very first words to him weren't any clearer indication of his visible disdain, nothing else could be; especially since it had been a rather bloody showdown between Steve and a Mark III called Mia.

Stark had inadvertently saved him, before he had told him that retiring androids wasn't a choice for him. That Steve had a choice to walk away from the danger; whereas Stark could never escape it, if he and his wife wanted to live. It had been the only time Steve had ever seen Stark look vulnerable, if not completely terrified; and it truly made him question his life choices, until he was reminded of Peggy again.

Things weren't exactly simple on Steve's end either. But he had never contested Stark's theory on him; not even when they had continued to cross paths in the hunt for Mark III androids. There wasn't any point to it, due to the fact Stark had grown increasingly frantic and almost crazed by the job at hand; a far cry of what the polished looking CEO of Stark Industries currently was.

"There's no point of us sitting around here then. We should sniff out some leads around the neighborhood again, and get down to business." Bucky drew him out of his thoughts with an impressive stomp of his foot on the water damaged wood floor. "That was a huge motherfucking cockroach! Look!"

Bucky raised his foot, showing off the crunched and gooey remains of the aforementioned cockroach. Sadly, it wasn't that uncommon a sight; Bucky always had a knack for stomping on them and showing the evidence of his kill to Steve. Even if that was the last thing he wanted to see now or ever; but there wasn't any point on deterring him, since that only fueled him to do it more often.

"Impressive, Bucky,"

"Remind me why we pay forty-five hundred a month for this dump again." Bucky stood, hobbling on one foot; in order not to smear the cockroach's innards across the floor, while he made his way to the open window.

"Because it was the nicest one in our price range,"

"Oh yeah; home sweet home."

"It could be worse; we could be living with the maggots or the rabid rodents."

"Always looking on the bright side, Steve," Bucky ripped off his boot and held it out into the downpour. "Even though, you've come from a time where life wasn't a complete shithole; I'm surprised your brain hasn't exploded by how and what this world evolved into."

"There were bad things about the twenty-first century too, Bucky." He replied, although he wasn't about to contest how things were far worse in the twenty-second century.

The planet was on the decline and that was the reason behind all the newly built space colonies. Soon enough the most desirable individuals would migrate from the Earth, and leave the undesirables to die. It meant that he and Bucky were going to be left behind, and probably within both of their lifetimes too. Everyone in the slums knew it was only a matter of time, before they would say goodbye to the skyscrapers and their inhabitants.

To be honest, Steve was surprised that the likes of Thor Odinson and Tony Stark had remained on Earth still. They had the money to leave, to transfer their businesses onto one of the nicest colonies in the galaxy. And yet they remained behind; perhaps to reap the final benefits that the Earth could potentially give them; that however, was only speculation.

"Things weren't as bad as they are now; but I know you won't admit it." Bucky scraped the sole of his boot along the window sill to get rid of the excess mess; before he shot him an amused look. "You'd never want to prove to me that you'd gotten to live in a better time than me. Because that just wouldn't be fair, would it?"

"None of this is fair, Bucky."

"Life isn't fair, space cadet."

"Now you sound like the one from the twenty-first century."

"You're rubbing off on me. Twenty-first century vocabulary with the twenty-second century bleak point of view,"

"And that's a shame; no one gave you a chance." Steve slumped in the lounge chair, peering down at the remaining mess that once used to be a cockroach.

"Don't get whimsical on me, old man. We have things to do, information to gather, stupidly named cars to fix. And we're not going to do that by hanging around here." Bucky snorted derisively.

The reminder of Dolores's repairs inspired Steve to finally stand; although how successful they were bound to be was up in the air. Their previous attempts on gathering information on the murders around Brooklyn hadn't resulted in much of anything. No one seemed privy to discuss a potential band of violent androids on the run.

Someone out there had to know something, though; and maybe for the proper amount, they would reap some results. And if all else failed, Steve suspected Bucky would be more than happy to wield his energy gun in a threatening way too; a practice Steve wasn't particularly fond of, but intimidation had a way of causing people to talk more freely than they would have without it.

"Let's get going then. It's going to be a challenge, and if we aren't quick, Stark might find Ultima Zero before us." Steve patted his coat pocket, pleased by the familiar weight of the locket; it was a good luck charm of sorts, although its sentimentality was truly the reason why he carried it around.

Bucky never deigned it appropriate to ask why he carried it around, which he found he was infinitely glad about. They hadn't even discussed how he'd been involved in the Peggy Carter incident either. Commissioner Fury had dropped that bomb three years into their partnership; and for whatever reason, Bucky hadn't been curious enough to ask about details.

It didn't affect their partnership either. They trusted one another unequivocally, and Bucky had been known to put his life in Steve's hands without a second thought; just as Steve put his life in Bucky's hands. There wasn't any logical explanation behind it – he and Bucky just worked somehow, beyond rhyme or reason; they just made sense.

"He already got one of those 'droids; I'm not letting him get the big fish." Bucky pulled his boot back on, before heading into the kitchen where he'd placed his energy gun right on the table; since that was the cleanest spot in their tiny apartment. "We deserve that money and we're going to get it."

Steve moved towards the still flickering computer monitor, frowning at the data screen with the Phoenix 2's specs on it. He studied the android's emotionless face and felt a pang of sympathy for it. Peggy had looked that way too at one point, but the horror on her face the last time he saw her still lived with him every minute of every day for the past twenty years.

"We had a date." He sighed, shutting off the monitor as Bucky trampled back into the room; singing about his new energy gun and how he would shoot off any android's face that got in his way.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Nine :: Foreboding

 


 

The laboratory was quiet, deserted even. Bruce wearily observed the idle machinery, the immaculate stainless steel workbenches, and the absence of his constant companion. The docking station, a behemoth of a thing, in which Ultima Zero resided in, was empty.

It felt somehow colder without Ultima Zero there; even if he was frequently powered down for everyone's well-being, Bruce's included. There hadn't been any way to control Ultima Zero, as opposed to the other products that Odinson Corp produced for the many colonies throughout the solar system. But Ultima Zero was unlike every standard android; he surpassed all artificial intelligence, although he was a fragile build in comparison.

The birth of the project had been only a dream at first; a meeting of minds and ideas, that slowly became easier to realize. The Peggy Carter incident should have veered Bruce and his lab partner away from the idea, but it had been only a passing fancy. It shouldn't have evolved into this; Ultima Zero shouldn't have become a reality.

Bruce should have done more to prevent the project from coming underway. He should have refused, and yet that was the last thing he could do. He was emotionally entwined with the project, which should have been the best indicator that he should leave well enough alone. But he simply couldn't and that was precisely why he was in that position today.

Ultima Zero had been too dangerous to keep fully aware while in the laboratory. His consciousness was a terrifying thing, and his means of persuasion were worse. The technology that had been put into him was much too advanced, no less illegal. He was a piece of machinery that shouldn't have ever existed, because it was only a matter of time before he escaped and god only knew what he was bound to do.

Reports had already funneled into Odinson Corp that many of the murders down below had been committed by Ultima Zero and his band of lackluster androids. Hogun the Grim had already been retired from what Bruce had heard, but there were three more that would undoubtedly be far more cautious in comparison; especially if they remained close to Ultima Zero.

The reality of the matter was bleak. Destruction was bound to follow Ultima Zero, and more people would be killed if they fell unexpectedly into his path. And the only way to cease the mayhem would be to rid the world of the same technology that ultimately bred Peggy Carter.

Thor wouldn't have it, though; more importantly nor would his mother. The only one who seemed to realize the futility of trying to retrieve Ultima Zero via blade runners was Baldur. If anyone, Baldur had the right perspective of the whole sordid and unfortunate situation.

Bruce had been blinded by the Ultima Zero project too. Had he listened to Baldur, maybe things would have been different; things wouldn't have been quite so bleak in comparison. And they would have saved an already dying planet from a quicker death.

His ambitions and the pressures of others, inevitably led him to this. And that only made the laboratory seem that much forlorn without the mechanical voices of Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun, and Lady Sif; even with the daunting presence of Ultima Zero, it had almost been a welcoming distraction from the lackluster work Bruce tended to.

He returned his wandering eyes back to the dock station, situated into a nook in the laboratory wall. It was made of bullet proof glass, of impenetrable steel painted white to match the rest of the décor; and it should have been impossible to escape. It should have held Ultima Zero, although anyone with the proper access code could have opened it and woken Ultima Zero at any given time.

One of the four androids had helped Ultima Zero escape; they had been created for that purpose even. Bruce should have known better than to allow any other android to keep Ultima Zero company. He knew better than anyone what Ultima Zero was capable of, and yet he gave into the outside murmurs again.

"Good evening, Dr. Banner." Someone called out to him then, tearing him violently from his thoughts.

Jerking his head towards the stairwell that led into the laboratory, Bruce glimpsed upon an unwelcome sight. Frigga Odinson stood in pale periwinkle gown, customary of fabled goddesses than twenty-second century socialites. He hadn't seen her in many weeks, and he had hoped that he wouldn't see her for many more.

"Mrs. Odinson, hello; is it already nighttime?" He greeted her with a tight smile, while simultaneously trying to search for an appropriate lie for the inevitable series of questions that were bound to come at him.

"Almost seven-thirty," she confirmed with a nod, before she stepped further across the white tiled floor. "I imagine you would like to go home now. But don't mind me, I'll only be a few moments; if need be, you can take your leave. I can find my way back upstairs."

"Tonight isn't the best time, I'm afraid."

"How long do you intend on keeping him powered down?"

"The last time he was awake, you know what he did." Bruce furrowed his brow.

Ultima Zero had been rather destructive the last time Bruce had woken him. There hadn't been any prelude between waking and violence; he had simply climbed from his docking station, and had destroyed many invaluable pieces of machinery and had damaged more than eleven protocols of the new Phoenix model. He had even snapped an unfortunate lab assistant's arm like a twig.

It had taken fourteen men, Thor and Baldur included, to shut Ultima Zero off; although off was a relative term. There wasn't any way to necessarily turn off Ultima Zero for good, unless one was privy to losing him completely.

"That was over ten weeks ago." Frigga argued, as if that would dispel any unease Bruce might have had.

"Even so, it's too great of a risk."

"I'll see him anyway."

"With all due respect, Mrs. Odinson; I prefer it if you didn't." He swallowed hard, knowing there wasn't any way to dissuade her.

The only way to keep her away from the docking station was to manually do so. He didn't dare physically manhandle her either; he wouldn't manhandle anyone, let alone the fragile Mrs. Odinson. While she looked strong and regal in her periwinkle gown, she was a broken woman underneath it all. One who was determined to peer at the abomination Bruce helped to create; the abomination that they all had a hand in creating.

Helplessly, he watched as she crossed the laboratory floor and headed towards the docking station. As she drew nearer, Bruce could see her body tense and her movements falter. Everyone who knew of Ultima Zero was appropriately informed when he was woken; it was a safety protocol that needed to be enforced, lest anything go awry.

Frigga rushed the last few steps to the docking station, and then pressed her hands to the glass. Ultima Zero would have been lied out on his back, still as a corpse in his casket. He never looked peaceful, though; if anything he always looked pained and unnatural. But he was the definition of unnatural.

"Where is he, Dr. Banner?" She asked shrilly.

"Mrs. Odinson, please-"

"Don't you dare tell me to calm myself! Where is he?"

"Repairs, of course," he lied.

Ultima Zero needed very few repairs; his upkeep was impeccable, seeing as he cared for himself whenever he was in a waking state. Upgrades weren't something that Ultima Zero needed, in comparison to other androids. He was so much more than them; terrifyingly perfect and intelligent.

Of course, his lie couldn't fool her. Frigga knew Ultima Zero's capabilities as well as any one of them. She might have not been an engineer or well-versed in artificial intelligence, but she could easily have been called an Ultima Zero expert.

"What have you done with him? Where have you put him?" She yelled, before slamming her hands against the glass. "I demand to know what you've done with him!"

"He speaks the truth, dearest Mother." Baldur suddenly descended the stairwell, tense but calm as opposed to Bruce who felt like a wilted flower. "Ultima Zero had suffered some circuitry damage, which we only discovered once we tried to wake him a week beforehand. We didn't want to worry you unnecessarily."

The words teemed with honesty, despite being anything but. Ultima Zero lacked the circuitry most androids did; his wiring was very basic without any chance of short-circuiting. Not to mention his battery life, so to speak, was by far more superior too. Beyond even the likes of Stark Industries' newest Mark IX line.

Baldur easily crossed the distance between himself and his mother, and offered her a sympathetic smile. His dreamy, pale blue eyes matched the emotion; although Bruce could see a ferocity behind them, which always made him uncomfortable.

"I should have told you, I know. But you would only fret about his upkeep." Baldur wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and drew her away from the docking station. "If only you informed either me or Thor that you intended on visiting, we would have told you as much."

"I shouldn't have to inform you of my whereabouts."

"Certainly not nor should you. But when it comes to Ultima Zero, you can imagine why we'd appreciate it if you did so."

"He's your-"

"Very important project, yes; he means a great deal to all of us." Baldur nodded, as he led her away slowly. "That's why we all must be careful, and inform one another if we do intend on visiting or spending any length of time with him. Mother, you know we wouldn't want to repeat the past."

Frigga tensed visibly, as many people did while reminded of the Peggy Carter incident. Bruce had only been a teenager when it had occurred, but the mark it left in its wake was unmistakable. The government had yet to forget it either; henceforth, why there were such staunch restrictions on the ownership of an android of any sort, more specifically if they had any sort of artificial intelligence.

"This situation isn't like that one."

"You're right, Mother. And the only way to ensure this situation doesn't evolve into that situation is to be very cautious." Baldur eyed Bruce then grimly. "Ultima Zero is a hazard to have in our possession; he's proven his proclivity for being violent and unsound. If the government were ever to find out, we would all suffer the consequences. You, Father, Thor, Dr. Banner, and myself too; we would all be punished to the fullest extent of the law. And heavens know what they would do with Ultima Zero."

"They would dismantle him piece by piece." Bruce chimed in, as Baldur undoubtedly hoped he would. "The Peggy Carter dismantling would be nothing in comparison, I imagine."

That seemed to draw a much needed bout of horror from Frigga, which it was purposely meant to do. Bruce had seen photographic evidence of what had been done to Peggy Carter and worse would only be perpetrated on Ultima Zero if the government found him before any of the freelance blade runners could. And that would explain why Thor had chosen to employ Tony Stark to recover him; not only for everyone's well-being but essentially Ultima Zero's too.

"That cannot happen, Baldur. Promise me that it won't!" Frigga turned desperately to her eldest son; eyes wild with fear and anxiety.

"Of course, it won't. So long as we remain diligent, Ultima Zero will be safe." Baldur smiled in that insincere and unpleasant way of his. "Now why don't you return to the penthouse and have a cup of tea. I'll be with you shortly and we can discuss the circuitry issue at length; for your peace of mind."

Despite some apparent reluctance, Frigga finally nodded and bid Bruce goodbye. Bruce watched as she took each step carefully, and hiked her flowing skirts to make the climb easier. But even as her footfall dissipated, neither he nor Baldur dared to speak. Not yet anyway.

The conversation in which they were bound to have would not be a pleasant one. However, it was a conversation they had needed to have nonetheless; since they hadn't spoken of Ultima Zero's whereabouts for close to week now. Thor had been more receptive to talking about it, though.

Baldur hadn't any love for him, nor anyone who had backed the Ultima Zero project; which proved to be tricky, since his own mother and brother had been the greatest proponents for the project. Bruce presumed there was some sort of forgiveness between blood ties, whereas there remained none between the two of them.

"Call me immediately if she comes to see Ultima Zero again." Baldur snapped crossly. "And forge a lie that'll keep her at bay. You are the expert here when it comes to the project; improvise in kind."

"I can only hope Tony Stark will bring him back before that happens."

"Thor has already shot himself in the foot by recruiting other runners into this."

"Maybe that'll only motivate Stark to work quicker. He was the one, after all, who retired Hogun; if anything the probability that Stark will bring Ultima Zero back to us is fairly high."

"Don't rely on Stark's abilities too much; not when Ultima Zero is concerned." Baldur sneered then, which only amplified the unease Bruce felt while looking into his eyes. "You and I both know he'd be better off coming back to us in pieces. Whether or not you'll outwardly say so means very little to me. But deep down you know that, Dr. Banner."

Before Bruce could say anything against the contrary, although he really couldn't say he would have anyway; Baldur turned on his heel and ascended the steps as his mother had only moments beforehand. And that both relieved and worried Bruce, especially since that sentiment was ultimately true; he would never admit it aloud, but he knew Ultima Zero would be better off retired than subjected to an existence such as his any longer.

They would all be better off with the knowledge that they wouldn't be caught with an illegal android in their possession. The penalties for such a crime were high; higher than rape or even murder, and for good reason too.

"We can only rely on Tony Stark now." He sighed, although he had a foreboding feeling deep in his belly which refused to go away.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Ten :: Play the Game

 


 

The tip reached Phil within twenty minutes of the initial eye witness account. He had many eyes and ears around the clustered business district; many who were eager to relay any information that they could, and reap a small reward in return. So he was unsurprised when he learned that a ginger-haired behemoth of a man was sighted in a mostly abandoned quarter of shops that specialized in android related technology.

Not many people traversed that section of the business district; very few individuals had need for circuitry or wiring or fake eyeballs. Helper bots were only soldered pieces of junk metal, without any artificial intelligence to speak of; and those too were luxury items nowadays. No one could even afford an android, even if they were legal to own.

They were costly bits of machinery; even the substandard Odinson Corp models were beyond an average person's salary. Stark Industries' Mark line was so astronomically priced, that both Phil and his partner Clint could have lived comfortably for their entire lives on the retail price alone. But Phil hadn't any love for androids or the people who made them, especially Tony Stark.

While no one could truly fault Tony Stark for what had occurred fifteen years ago; Phil could and would fault him for his continued practice in the creation and distribution of android technology. Androids that were by far more human than they previously had been; even though, Stark had claimed otherwise in an interview or two, Phil was still not convinced.

How could he be really? Stark had had his personal android with him during their brief meeting; Clint hadn't been any the wiser, fueled by adrenaline and outrage by losing the Phoenix 2 after a tireless chase. Phil, however, had noticed she was no more human than the Phoenix 2 who had been retired by an old school energy gun in Stark's possession.

That alone fueled the notion of how uncaring Stark was about the travesties his technology had wreaked so many years ago; which had cost Phil his beloved wife and son. No one could readily forgive that either or overlook the fact that luxury androids were still being mass produced and filling their creators' pockets while the small folk suffered greatly.

"I've gotten a tip." Phil conveyed to his partner, who'd been in a local shop for some odd end or another; probably to do with his arrows, which he prided himself on.

"Legitimate tip," Clint asked cautiously; still spurred by the Phoenix 2 incident over four days ago.

"As legitimate as they come; my informants aren't petty thieves."

"No, they're just orphans and callboys."

"Children in difficult situations, Clint," Phil sighed in exasperation, before he started down the heavily populated sidewalks; if they were quick about it, they would be able to cut off the android before he got away.

Hopefully, they would have better luck with the Cerberus 6 than they had with the Phoenix 2; although, there was cause for concern nonetheless, considering the fact that Cerberus 6's were superior to the Phoenix line. And hand-to-hand combat was not one of Phil's strong points; nor was it one of Clint's either.

But what they lacked in hand-to-hand combat, they excelled in long range attacks. Clint was a master archer, who always hit his target; whereas Phil was equipped with a small taser with a twenty foot range. If he struck an android with it, it would temporarily stun them; which would only ensure Clint's accuracy rate.

"What are we walking into exactly?" Clint unfolded the parchment in his hand, that he walked out of the shop with; as to be expected there were several deadly looking arrows in his possession, no doubt electric ones too that could easily short-circuit an android's mainframe.

"Apparently, the Cerberus 6 dubbed Volstagg the Valiant was sniffing around the 'droid district."

"Oh goodie, let's take down that ginger-haired giant. And I swear that this time we do have the upper hand, especially if your tip is fresh."

"Twenty minutes fresh," Phil replied, as they quickened their steps.

The sighting was within walking distance, only ten minutes at the most. By their current pace, it would be cut in half; so long as they weren't compromised by the many merchants and grim-faced people that stood in their way. Phil was particularly susceptible to the beggars and the dirty-faced orphans that tried to pickpocket their way through another day.

Tonight he couldn't spare them a second glance, though. Not if he wanted to retire the Cerberus 6 without putting anyone in danger. Which they inevitably would if they weren't swift about it; so there was no time to dawdle about unnecessarily. They had to retire the Cerberus 6, before it evolved into the Phoenix 2 debacle all over again.

They didn't meet too many distractions on their way. The crowd had parted easily for them, as if they could sense something foreboding in the air; regardless of the fact, that down amid the pollution and decay and poverty there weren't many good things to come by. Made worse by the knowledge that someday within their lifetime, they would be abandoned by the big corporations to die in the city's shambles; the planet's shambles, really.

Once the turn onto the street of 'droid district came into sight, Phil slowly slid his taser from the confines of its holster on his hip; while Clint unfolded his bow that was conveniently stored within an inner pocket of his coat, and dumped this new arrows into the quiver on his back, all but one anyway.

The flow of people slowly tapered off around this area; only a few turned the corner that was occupied by a long winding street. Neon signs flashed above the storefronts; gaudy against the drab bluish-black stone that made up much of the buildings. Many of the widows had been blacked out, though; as if the shop keeps were selling nefarious things that weren't for public viewing.

Phil faltered as they stepped into avenue; the kid who had spied the Cerberus 6 had said the android had been slowly meandering into the 'droid district without any obvious destination in mind. So he could have very well been in any one of those shops, although what would an escaped android need with circuitry and wires were beyond him. Unless, of course, the group was attempting to rebuild the fallen Phoenix 2; but even that seemed like a stretch.

"Where do we start?" Clint asked; his whole body was now tense as a bowstring.

"First shop on the right," he suggested only to jerk backwards by the sound of shattering glass, and the wails of an alien tongue that found its way to Earth from one of the colonies over a hundred years ago.

Within a matter of moments, the ginger-haired android exploded out of a blackened window; rolling inelegantly across the many puddles that still lingered in potholes and cracks in the pavement. Several passer-bys scattered like rats from a sinking ship; some whisked past Phil and Clint, while others scattered into the dirty alleyways and further up the road.

That alien tongue continued to wail within the shop, before another more distinct language wafted from the chaos. Phil caught a glimpse of two men, leaping out of the storefront as well; one carrying a huge energy gun of sleek metal that had been advertised on the runner network over the past several months. It was an energy gun that cost a small fortune.

"Motherfucker, you aren't going anywhere!" The man declared, who was brandishing the energy gun; as he lumbered forward with broken glass in his hair.

But that didn't dissuade the Cerberus 6; in fact, that only seemed to fuel his manic outrage. The android somersaulted backwards until he regained his footing, and then all but charged at the two men. The other man who was a head taller than the foul mouthed one, shot off several live rounds; only for them to ricochet off the android in sparks of light.

The foul mouthed one shot several times at the android too; clipping his left shoulder, but otherwise doing little to no damage to him as his partner had. Which ended up poorly for the foul mouthed one; the android barreled into him then, sending him careening through the broken storefront again, although the energy gun never left his hands somehow.

"Holy shit," Clint eye's widened comically; temporarily dumbfounded by the scene as was Phil.

The Cerberus 6 had since wheeled around to the other man that was still in the midst of shooting bullets at the android to no avail. Maybe a Phoenix 2 would have been affected by gunfire, but the Cerberus 6 model was supposedly sturdily built; potentially even bulletproof, if Phil could remember the specs.

With uncanny speed, far too advanced for such a model; the Cerberus 6 tried to charge once again. This time, however, his opponent was ready and slipped away by hair's breadth; which led to a deadly dance between the two. The man with the gun fired a few more rounds, but was mostly compromised by the lurching of bulky arms and ham-sized hands that could have easily crushed his skull if he was too slow to dodge.

Phil didn't know if it was wise to step in or not; it might be a death wish to intervene, although it might have very well been one to approach the Cerberus 6 altogether. Blade running was always bound to be dangerous; it was just an occupational hazard, and yet those two men seemed to have incensed the android beyond belief. Maybe Stark did have a point about them developing awareness, after all.

While he contemplated the pros and cons of intervention, Clint had already drew an arrow to his bow and pivoted his body to ensure that he would hit the ginger-haired android in the back of his neck. His partner followed the android's violent movements like a hawk, and was about to unload when the foul mouthed man with the energy gun suddenly reemerged from the window and took aim instead.

"Duck, Steve!" He yelled and pulled the trigger when the other man followed his instructions.

The shot hit the Cerberus 6 at the temple, which sent a flurry of sparks into the air. Plumes of smoke suddenly wafted from the exposed circuitry that was elaborately entwined underneath the layers of plastic and metal and faux-hair that encompassed the android's head. But he didn't go down; not yet anyway, so the foul mouthed man shot several more shots; one hitting the same spot, and two others to the torso and shoulder, until a whirling noise buzzed out of the android like a colony of angry wasps.

Steve, the other man, had already escaped once the android fell lifelessly to the pavement with a loud bang that broke the cement. Phil flinched from the sound, albeit he flinched even more so from the flurry of expletives that spewed from his partner's mouth. Clint had been incensed by the loss of the Phoenix 2 to Stark, and now they had lost the Cerberus 6 to two of their colleagues.

"What the ever living fuck?" Clint howled, only to draw the two fellow runners' attention.

Neither man approached them, though. Instead they both huddled around the fallen android; Steve was the one to rip open the android's neck plate, and withdraw the ownership chip. The foul mouthed one looked to be in too much pain to even consider crouching beside his partner; that hit had probably cracked a few ribs, if not broken them.

"Cerberus 6 down, now only Goddess 11 and Cerberus 7 to go," Steve inserted the chip into his wristwatch, before tapping on the screen. "Are you okay, Bucky?"

"Probably not, but we can't afford a hospital visit; so let's get me some rum and whiskey to wash down the pain."

"That was our fucking 'droid, you know!" Clint suddenly hollered, crossing the distance between them and the other two runners.

"Didn't see your name on it," the one called Bucky said.

"And who are you two bozos?"

"Well, we know who you are. You have to recognize the competition; old man Coulson and pussy boy Barton." Bucky smiled, although it resembled more of a grimace.

Phil temporarily feared that those words would fuel a very violent response from Clint. It was a well-known fact that Clint had a short fuse, and had a knack for lashing out whenever the mood suited him. But Steve had stepped in to shield his friend, before Clint could slip into his tirade and clearly made him think twice about it; seeing as Steve towered Clint quite a bit.

"This is business, that's all." Steve mopped at his brow with his shirt sleeve. "That android wasn't yours; it was for whoever caught up with him first, and who initially ended up retiring him. In which case it was Bucky's and mine; not yours or your partner's, Barton,"

"Oh god, Steve Rogers; that's who this is," Clint sneered. "Well, you just lightened our workload. Fuck the Goddess 11 and the Cerberus 7; we're going for pay dirt. We're going for Ultima Zero."

"Fat chance on that, boys," someone added in their voice then; an all too familiar one at that.

Tony Stark slid effortlessly from the shadows, carrying the same energy gun as he had four days earlier. He was also escorted by his redheaded android, who remained only an inch or two away from his back. Despite not having been the one to retire the Cerberus 6, Stark still had a cockiness about him that spurred Phil into agitation and resentment.

"Stark," Steve said blandly, although his face looked pinched with exasperation by his appearance.

"Gentlemen, you've chosen the wrong profession; I'm afraid." Stark announced, as if he was gracing the public with his presence via press conference. "You're playing a deadly game of cat and mouse, and I'm not talking about the androids either. So I'm going to give you a free pass – get out of the game or face the consequences."

"Go fuck yourself, Stark." Clint boldly exclaimed.

"You made the same mistake twice, boy." Stark narrowed his eyes, although he was all smiles still. "But if you want to play the game, so be it. We're going to play the game, and the rules are pretty simple; play dirty and play hard, even though the outcome's always the same – Tony Stark always, and I mean always, wins."

"We'll take that risk." Steve replied, before glancing at his partner that looked too pained to add anything onto that sentiment.

"Oh, I'm looking forward to this. You, Rogers, are the only competition I see around here." Stark pointed at the other runner. "And it'll please me to no end, to put you back in your place. Come on, sweet-cheeks we got work to be done. But thanks for lessening the workload; that Cerberus 6 was a pretty nasty creature, especially since he was amped up exponentially like that Phoenix 2 had been."

Before anyone could say anything else, Tony Stark spun dramatically on his heel; although his pretty android remained for several moments and spied each and every one of their faces, as if taking stock. Phil felt a chill work its way up his spine by the emotionless but intense look she graced him with. Something akin to fear settled into his belly, even when she turned away and stalked after her creator whom slid back in the shadows and the garbage that lined the streets.

Even if he didn't want to be a participant, Phil knew he was involved in a deadly game; and Tony Stark was the deadliest piece on the board.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Eleven :: Tanaka Cyborg Project 58

 


 

The key to all of this was the Goddess 11; Tony had kept his ear to the ground, and listened to the murmurs from down below. He had employed a motley of informants; most of which should have long since been imprisoned for crimes that ranged from petty theft to attempted murder. But they proved to be the most effective whisperers that Tony had.

They had been the reason for his appearance in the 'droid district, and why he had found his competition around the shell of a retired android. He'd been told of the Cerberus 6's appearance; told that he had slipped into one of the shops that provided Stark Industries with the artificial eyes needed for the Mark line.

That had drawn up quite a bit of suspicion on Tony's part, especially since there wouldn't be any obvious reason for an android to seek out a supplier of parts. Unless, of course, there was more to the story of Ultima Zero than what he'd been led to believe, which was probably the case anyway. The Odinson Corp hadn't been exactly forthcoming when it came to this whole job, and had unwittingly hired several other runners underneath Tony's nose too.

The whole situation was messy and far too intricate for Tony's liking; more so even, when some pile of junk metal like a Cerberus 6 had waltzed into one of his supplier's shops for some unknown reason. Suffice to say, the lack of a common language between the supplier and the Cerberus 6 hadn't resulted in positive results for the android, and well Steve Rogers and his foul-mouthed companion had broken up the party prematurely.

While he hadn't necessarily been amped up to take down the Cerberus 6, the unanswered questions bothered him; there were far too many unknown components, and that gnawed at him unlike anything else could. Tony loathed being in the dark about anything; ignorance was never bliss; it was just another way of getting you killed. A less he learned the hard way fifteen years earlier.

"Why the hell would a 'droid need to visit a supplier?" He posed the question to the workshop, only to have Natasha peer up at him from files Odinson Corp had sent his way with the specs of every android but Ultima Zero's. "Any asshole could say that the 'droids were trying to rebuild the Phoenix 2. But come on that is the stupidest theory ever."

"Maybe the Cerberus 6's intentions were to vastly improve his already improved specs." Natasha answered in her characteristic monotone, as she pulled up the screen for each android's data. "As you've already surmised, Mr. Stark, both the Phoenix 2 and Cerberus 6 have been upgraded above and beyond their factory settings. In fact, both had displayed greater feats of speed and strength; they also seemed to have a greater intelligence to them as well, if you will."

"Sadly, that does seem to be the case. But the supplier the Cerberus 6 tried to extract information from was only for aesthetics. The eyes are damn near human-like, I'll give you that, yet it really wouldn't heighten any of their specs at all." Tony glowered at the screen. "Not to mention, trying to get any information from the supplier will be difficult; since, you know, they weren't exactly speaking the same language."

None of it made any sense whatsoever, which only incensed Tony further. Normal runs weren't like this; they were pretty straightforward affairs, seeing as no one wanted back a wayward android. Yet Odinson Corp was desperate for Ultima Zero, and that was the only reason Tony decided not to confront Thor and his creepy-eyed brother about their hiring other runners. He was going to somehow get his hands on Ultima Zero, and dissect the fucker piece by piece.

"With all due respect, Mr. Stark; the mystery behind the Cerberus 6's business with the supplier is secondary to the whereabouts of Ultima Zero. I believe we've both drawn to the same conclusion that if we were to find the Goddess 11, we would find Ultima Zero."

Tony furrowed his brow, but didn't dispute Natasha's statement. Whatever mysteries revolving around Ultima Zero were inconsequential to him. They really didn't matter once he tracked the wayward android down and had him powered down, and ready to be cracked open one nut and bolt at a time.

"I already have informants out and about, so we can only sit on our hands and wait for results." He hated waiting, though; hated it more than all the trickery underfoot too.

Proactivity was the only way to survive. Or at least that had been the case fifteen years earlier; neither he nor Pepper would have survived otherwise. Obadiah would have slaughtered them, if they sat around and waited for the chips to fall where they may.

Except this wasn't a matter of life and death; this was a matter of revenge. Tony hadn't forgotten about the senior Odinson's treachery all those years ago, and well Stark Industries and Odinson Corp were still at odds in the business front of things. But more importantly, Tony didn't take too kindly to being made of fool of. And his anger had only begun to form; god only knew how explosive it would become soon enough.

"We wait." Natasha repeated after several moments, before she tapped onto the photograph of Ultima Zero. "We wait for Ultima Zero; specs unknown."

Tony reached up to touch the photograph and slowly enlarged it. Ultima Zero still looked like some twenty-first century circus freak; painted up elaborately unlike his counterparts. His eyes were strikingly green and seemed almost human; more human than even Natasha's. There was something penetrating about that gaze and something uncomfortable about it too.

From a cursory look, it was evident that Ultima Zero wasn't modeled after the Phoenix line or even the Cerberus one. Rumor had it that Dr. Bruce Banner had been developing another line of androids for the Odinson Corp by the name of Capricorn. Tony had heard something about it through the grapevine years ago, only slightly disappointed that the rumors never came into fruition.

He had always respected Banner's previous works, when he had been a freelancer. There had been some impressive technological advances on Banner's part, before he had become a part of the Odinson Corp's labor force. Then all the respect Tony had had for him had all but dissipated; specifically since Banner had dumbed down plenty of his designs, in order to fit into the Odinson business model.

But maybe Banner had been the mastermind behind Ultima Zero. And maybe Ultima Zero was the long since forgotten Capricorn model, which would explain why Odinson Corp was so damn antsy to get him back.

"That doesn't make sense either." Tony mumbled aloud, as he expanded the screen to focus on one of Ultima Zero's eyes. "Even if Ultima Zero was the only Capricorn model, if Banner had been the one to create him; he could inevitably do it again. He would have the blueprints and all the specs; it would be a breeze. So why on earth is he so special? Why do they want you back?"

"May I suggest an alternative, Mr. Stark?"

"Go for it sweet-cheeks, since I'm completely in the dark about this; sad but true."

"Perhaps," Natasha began, sidling up beside him; almost pressed to his side as she was prone to do. "Ultima Zero isn't what you believe him to be. Odinson Corp is clearly withholding information from you, and there are only a few reasons why."

"Well, they wouldn't want me to steal their ideas, obviously."

"Incorrect; whether or not they choose to acknowledge it, you are the premiere engineer within your field. My existence is testament to that; furthermore, I have done years of research on artificial intelligence and machinery and engineering to come to this definitive conclusion." Natasha cocked her head to the side, peering at him in a way that was almost reverent; if only she could truly feel it was up for debate though.

Regardless of the fact that Tony imagined, blueprinted, and built Natasha with his own two hands; her inner workings were still a mystery to him. There was only so much insight an inventor could have about their invention; no less one that oftentimes could think for themselves, without relaying wholly on their coding and circuitry.

That was the beauty of androids, but it also proved to be dangerous too. Little Hill had been sweet as pie at one point too; then she had been shipped off to be used and abused, until one day she finally snapped. The nightmares Tony had about Little Hill were too many to count.

"I don't know if you would like my conclusion or not, Mr. Stark." Natasha reached forward to zoom out on the image of Ultima Zero with deft fingers.

"It's only a hypothesis at the moment, sweet-cheeks. Might as well drop the bomb on me,"

"It's inevitable you would recall a botched governmental project by the name of Carter 001; oftentimes referred to in formal documentation as the Tanaka Cyborg Project 58. But now more notably called-"

"The Peggy Carter incident," Tony bristled visibly.

Everyone knew of the Peggy Carter incident; it had been the cause for the government putting so many restrictions on the android market. And why it was illegal to own an android nowadays too; of course that legislation really hadn't been put into effect until fourteen years ago, once Stane had wreaked havoc with the earlier Mark lines. But the practice in which acclaimed engineer and scientist Dr. Jin Tanaka had pioneered was punishable by death now.

Tony had only been a boy when the Peggy Carter incident had hit the media. Dear 'ol dad had been particularly interested in it, since he and Tanaka had been undergraduate friends at the same university. Yet even the likes of Howard Stark had balked at Tanaka's work, despite being one of the many engineers to be recruited by the government to disassemble Project 58 piece by piece.

There was photographic evidence of the disassembly. Tony had seen the images multiple times; each time he thought he would be prepared to view them, and every time he'd been proven wrong. The images were grisly and macabre; so graphic in fact, they had kept Tony up for several days at a time. Which would inevitably explain why dear 'ol dad had bouts of insomnia, since he'd been a part of the whole sordid thing.

"Don't even suggest anything like that, Nat." Tony shook his head. "Do you know what the penalty for even trying to recreate Project 58 is?"

"Why, of course; any attempt at recreating Project 58 can be punishable by life imprisonment, if not being shipped to one of the colonies, in which ten years of manual labor might be requested of you."

"Thor Odinson might be an asshole, but he isn't stupid. No one is that stupid to try and make another Peggy Carter. Dr. Tanaka was labeled a butcher; some even compared him to twentieth century war criminal Josef Mengele. There's no way someone like Banner would risk that; no way in hell."

"That would be the only explanation, I'm afraid."

"No, no. This is all about tech; they have some tech that I haven't figured out yet." Tony leaned in and stared at the photo of Ultima Zero closely. "I mean it was a good, terrifying, idea. But right here, do you see that? That just proves your theory wrong; Ultima Zero is definitely a shitty piece of Odinson tech."

Underneath the dramatic black lines of make-up which created a joker's smile, Tony could make out the creases that held the face plate together on all Odinson androids. It was a crude design and he had suspected from first glance that's why Ultima Zero had been painted up like a clown; to hide the inferior workmanship.

Natasha eyed the image too, before she glanced back at Tony. Her face was perfectly blank as it always was; there was no telling if she had an opinion or not. If she didn't verbalize it in some way then it would remain a mystery. And she seemed none too keen to say a word. But Tony could hypothesize about what she was thinking, and he really didn't like that stream of thought.

He suspected that Natasha couldn't see that seam that connected the jaw to the rest of Ultima Zero's face. She might even believe that Tony was desperately trying to prove her theory wrong, by suddenly seeing that crease when he previously could not. Or maybe she simply couldn't compute why the idea of another Peggy Carter was so stomach churning to him.

That made Tony wonder for a split-second what Steve Rogers saw, whenever he looked at the photo of Ultima Zero; if anything he would be the expert on it and if they had been on friendly terms, maybe Tony would have even consulted with him about it. After all, Rogers had been tightly entwined with the Peggy Carter incident more so than anyone else had; he knew the ins and outs of the situation, which in all actuality made him a dangerous opponent to have.

Except it wouldn't evolve into that kind of situation; Tony refused to entertain the idea, beyond the first few moments. Ultima Zero was not Peggy Carter, and Banner was not Tanaka; no one would possibly risk another Peggy Carter incident. No one could be that deranged; not when the disassembly of Project 58 was widely publicized and available for viewing whenever someone had an itch to see the photos.

"No more of that talk, okay." Tony laid his hand between Natasha's shoulder blades, before he leaned in and pressed a kiss to her temple. "I have something that'll keep you occupied, though."

"How could I be of service to you, Mr. Stark?"

"I'm sure you've gotten scans on our competition; so why don't you dig up any dirt you can find on them. Not so much Rogers; I already know his story. But I'm curious about his partner and those two Coulson and Barton, was it?"

"Certainly, I'll do a search of each in the runner database; it'll be simple." Natasha swiped the screen clean of Ultima Zero's devious face, and pulled up the runner database in all its buggy glory instead.

Tony had hacked into the database more than once, and solved some of the larger issues that plagued the website. But it was in need of an overhaul more so than ever; it didn't look that much different than when he had been actively on the prowl. It was still consisted of a black background and aquamarine colored text; designed in the stereotypical definition of futuristic tech, grids and all.

Within a few short moments, Natasha had pulled up the ID number 102396 registered to a James Buchanan Barnes. The photo hadn't been updated in some time, as much as Tony's hadn't. A scruffy unkempt kid with a devil-may-care grin stared back at them; only a shell of the guy Tony had seen with a fancy-pansy energy gun in his hands earlier that evening. But most people were tarnished by both running and living in the absolute waste of the city. Barnes didn't stand a chance.

"I don't like the look of him; he might pose a problem, especially since Rogers took him on as a partner. The other two don't bother me as much, but this kid is worth researching more than the others."

"Of course, Mr. Stark,"

"Just do me a favor, sweet-cheeks; don't fall in love with him. He has that kind of look that probably makes all the girls, maybe even the boys, go gaga." Tony smiled as he pressed another kiss to Natasha's temple. "I'm going to go upstairs for some much needed food; I'll be back within the hour."

"And you'll have all your information in that time frame, Mr. Stark." Natasha bobbed her head.

"Looking forward to it," Tony sauntered away and towards the elevators across the workshop.

By the time he stepped inside the lift and the doors closed behind him, his smile had all but dissipated; replaced by a perturbed look in its stead. His thoughts were muddled up by Natasha's suggestion that perhaps Ultima Zero really wasn't an android at all but instead a…

He shook his head, hoping to banish the thought away. The last thing he wanted was to be weighed down by unnecessary and impossible theories. There was absolutely no way that Ultima Zero was anything but a sophisticated piece of technology, which was rare for Odinson Corp but that didn't make it any less feasible. That was all; end of story.

"Just need some food and a stiff drink, maybe ten, that's all." He mumbled aloud, before rubbing his eyes. "If I keep thinking in terms of Peggy Carter, I'm going to team up with Rogers and the boy wonder. And I really don't play well with others, obviously."

But his thoughts still lingered on pretty Peggy Carter; a graceful young woman, who had the misfortune of crash landing in the twenty-second century and becoming the apple of Dr. Tanaka's eye. Only for her to end up lying in bloody pieces across an examination table with a team of butchers, dear 'ol dad included, circling around her; and rumor had it that she kept saying, repeating like a mantra or a prayer, the name Steve over and over again.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twelve :: Baldur the Wise

 


 

"They'd been retired; Hogun and Volstagg." Baldur swirled the blood-red colored wine in its glass, refusing to meet Thor's heavy gaze. "One by Stark and the other by Rogers and Barnes; neither have made contact in terms of Ultima Zero, unfortunately."

"One of them will bring him back, I have no doubt."

"What then, brother? Will it be business as always?"

"We'll worry about the clean-up, after Ultima Zero has been returned to us." Thor returned archly.

The anxiety had only grown with each passing day, without word of Ultima Zero's whereabouts. It had been much too long that they had lost him, and the gravity of the situation was truly setting in now. Baldur had already been sick with worry, when he heard of the grand escape; but now Thor was finally feeling the same way, even if he tried to shroud it with his usual nonchalance.

They both knew how things would inevitably end for them, if none of their hired runners were successful in reclaiming their prized possession. The penalties were staggering and everyone would pay the price; no one would be safe, not even their mother. If anything, she might very well be held culpable on the same level as Dr. Banner. Neither Baldur nor Thor wanted anything to happen to their already fragile-minded mother; she had already suffered enough, so they needed results and needed them very soon.

"You mean if he is returned to us." Baldur lifted his glass to his lips but did not drink. "He's very clever that one; we both know that from personal experience. He won't be taken without a fight; a bloody fight at that."

"Oh, I'm aware of his quick-wit. But I have all the faith in the world that Tony Stark will bring him to us unharmed. He is the best, after all."

"I'm sure he believes you, aside from the fact you've hired four more runners to compete with him."

"I already told you that was a necessary strategy."

"I wonder how he's taking it, though." Baldur furrowed his brow, before shooting a glimpse at his younger brother. "Big egos are fragile egos, if you don't mind me saying."

Of course, they didn't exactly see eye to eye on the situation. Hell, they hadn't been in sync with one another for a very long time. Thor had always had a need to prove his assertiveness more often than not, and Baldur had always let his younger brother take the lead. So it wasn't very surprising that Thor's bullheadedness had led them down this road.

However, it was pointless to revisit their many conflicts now. Nothing was about to change the past anytime soon, and Baldur suspected that Thor would still okay the Ultima Zero project despite all that he knew currently. And in that sense, Thor and their mother were wholly in tune with one another.

"I could care less about Stark's ego; I've told you this. How many times must I repeat myself?" Thor glowered at him, as if he was the cause for Ultima Zero's escape.

"As many times as I must repeat myself, Thor; even though, I'm weary of telling you I told you so. But I already know you wouldn't reconsider the Ultima Zero project even now. You're much too sentimental; all of you were and still are."

"You were the only one that was not; heartless bastard."

"Oh spare me." Baldur tutted, as he finally took a drink from his glass. "I was the only one sound of mind; I knew the repercussions of this project, and yet none of you would heed my advice. All of you were emotionally compromised; desperate for some end to the pain. But what have you done? You've only prolonged it; made the potential for legal action to be taken against us that much more possible.

"I knew Ultima Zero was unstable the moment I set eyes on him. And all of you learned the hard way that he was well beyond your expectations. He was and still is dangerous; he has killed innocent people, and we haven't a clue where he is. Not even Tony Stark, blade runner extraordinaire, knows where he has gone. So what shall we do from here, brother? Continue to dangle a carrot in front of a beaten horse, in hopes that we'll garner favorable results?"

Thor sneered at him, already red-faced and rearing for a fight. If they had been younger, the probability that they would end up on the floor throwing punches was almost a given. Yet neither made a move to strike out at the other; due in part because their referee was no longer there to ensure they didn't cause any irreversible bodily damage to one another.

"I've forgotten how egotistical you truly are. You could give Stark a run for his money."

"Not egotistical, reasonable. I hope you know Mother is beginning to suspect something's amiss. There's only so much horse-shit we can feed her, before she becomes the wiser to the situation. Pray tell, however will we break the news to her that Ultima Zero has been out of our possession for almost a month; and is now being hunted like an animal?"

"He won't be gone very much longer. Trust me on that."

"Or so you hope; all of us hope for the best. But we live in the real world, younger brother. We don't always get the happy ending that we crave for, and in the case of Ultima Zero we're playing with fire."

"Yes, Baldur the wise; I've almost forgotten that nickname." Thor strolled to the side of the table in which Baldur was sitting at, with a vicious glint in his eye. "Do you remember the day you were given that name?"

Baldur did; of course he did. It had been a day that seemed so insignificant in the overall scheme of things, but the nickname had followed him for years. No one had called him Baldur the wise for close to a decade, and the reminder was meant to hurt; which it inevitably did.

He was not a man made of stone; whether Thor believed as much was irrelevant to him. Logic and foresight had shaped his opinion on the Ultima Zero project, and that was precisely what the situation had needed. Emotion had been the weak link in the heavy chain and he had let it consume them all as well. And that was his biggest regret to date; he allowed everyone to go ahead with the Ultima Zero project and there wasn't any reversal to the problem. All except one, that is.

It was the ace up his sleeve; one that he hadn't truly given too much thought to. But now he suspected that it was the only way to save them all.

"Nothing to say to that Baldur the wise," Thor rapped his knuckle onto the table, as if he had won an integral argument; when in all actuality he won nothing at all. In fact he only lost something without even realizing it.

"Darkness is all you can see while looking into her eyes; witty, beautiful eyes turned black. Blacker than coal, blacker than a starless winter night; she could see nothing, even with her all-knowing sight. She couldn't feel, for she was made of circuitry and wire. But oh how she wished that she could feel; how she tried and failed because androids cannot feel. Do they dream, I wonder? The answer is no; she is machine and steel, no longer blood and bone. She was only the figment of humanity; a figment of my imagination."

"You-"

"Every word of it, Thor the inept," Baldur smiled sardonically, despite the sudden pounding of his heart. "And it's all true, is it not?"

Silence stretched between them; mile upon mile, and as heavy as the pollution down below their feet. Baldur knew he had ended the argument once and for all; yet he didn't find any joy in it. He couldn't remember the last time he genuinely felt any joy. Happiness seemed like a foreign term to him nowadays, and one-upping his younger brother proved pointless.

They weren't children any longer; a won argument was an empty victory. It didn't make the situation any better; if anything, it only made everything that much more bitter. They needed one another more than they ever had before, and endless bickering would only divide them further. And once they were divided, they would be conquered.

"You worry too much, Baldur." Thor finally spoke, although the authority in his voice wavered.

"And you worry too little, Thor. This isn't child's play; our futures are in the balance, and you are supposed to be our leader not our downfall."

"How dare you."

"Yes, how dare I; how dare I speak up against the Ultima Zero project. And how dare I continue to do so, regardless of the fact that things have begun to unravel as I feared they would. How bloody dare I predict the worst that has come to pass."

"We are supposed to be a family, Baldur."

"I haven't forgotten, brother. I certainly haven't forgotten at all." Baldur diverted his eyes to the expanse of the skyline ahead of him, and felt his bitterness rise.

No one had heeded his warning; no one had thought with their heads, and they all might suffer the consequences soon enough. Yet that seemed to matter little to Thor still; the reality had hit him, but not as hard as it should have. Except it would soon enough; reality was bound to fall unceremoniously on his head very soon like an anvil.

"You know nothing, Baldur. Soon enough you will truly become the wiser." Thor scoffed, before he stomped away in a petulant manner that was reminiscent of their childhood.

Thor's footfall was louder and heavier now, but nothing else had changed much; not even the door slamming with unneeded force. Baldur reflected on how little had changed, while also recognizing how everything had changed in the same breath. Things couldn't be any farther from their childhood; their sheltered and playful childhood. But their innocence had been shattered by the endless reports that broadcasted all over the country about the Peggy Carter incident.

No one had been safe from that incident; no one ever would be either. If anything, Odinson Corp was too tightly entwined to the situation for their own good. And that knowledge was utterly suffocating.

"Computer, please contact the following individuals in a conference call: Steve Rogers, James Barnes, Phil Coulson, Clint Barton, and Tony Stark." He announced slowly, before he savored another taste of his wine.

The holographic screen lit up before his eyes; several windows cropped up, in order to hold the video call once they connected, and Baldur only hoped that they would. Within a few moments, one of the windows flickered to reveal the one and only Tony Stark; who looked anything but amused by the call. He however wasn't given the opportunity to reply before Barton and Coulson's likeness took up another window; and eventually Rogers and Barnes.

Every runner looked on the verge of demanding the reason why they'd been contacted; most notably Tony Stark, but even he seemed to realize it was better to keep quiet than go off on an unnecessary tirade. Baldur wasn't about to waste their time; not when Thor could inevitably burst back into the room, in hopes for another war of words and ruin his plans.

Grimly Baldur smiled at all of them; Barton and Coulson appeared to have taken refuge in their cramped apartment, whereas Rogers and Barnes were inside their hover car. Stark appeared to be sitting in a luxury office space, no doubt from the topmost floor of Stark Tower; a king amid the ruin and decay of the city.

"Gentlemen, I imagine you've all become acquainted with one another recently. And might I take the time out to thank Mr. Rogers, Mr. Barnes, and Mr. Stark for retiring Odinson Corp's wayward Cerberus 6 and Phoenix 2. We appreciate your efforts immensely." Baldur said, before he set his glass down onto the tabletop. "But congratulatory messages weren't exactly the reason why I contacted you; the terms of your hiring have changed, and the price has too."

"Oh goodie, I can't wait." Stark deadpanned right away.

"We've hired you to retire the following androids: Cerberus 6, Phoenix 2, Cerberus 7, and the Goddess 11. And you were to deliver Ultima Zero to Odinson Corp in pristine working condition, once you made contact with him. That isn't the case anymore; gentlemen, the game has changed for the better. I am giving you the go ahead to retire Ultima Zero, but you will have to bring me his remains; he is not registered to the android database or connected to the runner database either, therefore I will need to see him in order to reward you with twenty million dollars and two tickets to Colony IV."

"Colony IV, you got to be fucking with us!" Barton practically yelled and jumped out of his seat. "Colony motherfucking IV,"

"As for you Stark, you'll be rewarded with Dr. Banner; I'll contract him out to you, alongside any and all of his inventions up to this point."

"And all I have to do is retire Ultima Zero?" Stark uttered quietly, on the verge of suspiciously.

"That's it, but you'll report directly to me. I have taken over the hunt; Thor cannot be bothered. He has a company to run, after all."

"Phil, what are you waiting for; get in the van! Don't drag your feet, old man; the van now!" Barton shut off the connection abruptly, before Stark followed suit without another word, although his suspicion lingered heavily behind; but Rogers and Barnes remained on the line, both wearing similarly suspicious masks that were in no way comforting to Baldur.

Rogers' expression was particularly weighty and uncomfortable. Then again, Rogers was an intense man who had been thrown head-first into a century so much unlike his own that it was incredible to even imagine. Baldur wasn't blinded by the wholesome look Rogers had either; he might not have been as dangerous as Stark in terms of his runner history, but there was a hidden deadliness about him all the same.

"Your secret's safe with me, Odinson." Rogers said softly but razor-sharp and deadly, before the screen went black. But the words remained and sent a chill up Baldur's spine.

It shouldn't have been all that surprising, if anyone was bound to put two and two together it would have been Rogers. Yet it disquieted Baldur nonetheless; they had been exposed, if only partially but things were only going to get messier and deadlier from here on out. And he suspected Thor and their mother would never forgive him for his decision either.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirteen :: Lilacs and Cinnamon

 


 

I can hear you in the overtones
Just an echo of the promise we made
Change the future, we can travel time
Or make us blind so we can never look back


"Night Sky" - CHVRCHES

 


 

Peggy had smelled of lilacs and tasted like cinnamon. She had walked with poise and dignity, and spoke with a genial aristocratic voice that collided with Steve's clipped Brooklyn drawl. Everything about her had been elegant and she had always reminded Steve of a pin-up from the nineteen-forties; perfectly coiffed and sure-footed wherever she went.

Steve desperately held onto those memories; cradled them to his chest whenever the future threatened to take them away from him. The twenty-second century had sullied Peggy's memory; propagandized her through newly passed legislation, and in general every day talk. It was almost impossible to go through a day without hearing the words the Peggy Carter incident on someone's lips, which killed a part of him every time.

The Peggy Carter incident, the Carter 001 project, or mostly referred to in formal documentation as the Tanaka Cyborg Project 58, was the thing of nightmares. The public had been terrorized and exposed to the evils of technology and science, and were forced to confront their own humanity all at the same time too. But to Steve it had never been about anything but Peggy; his Peggy.

Despite his many years acclimating into the twenty-second century, Steve still couldn't precisely say what happened to him and Peggy. He was never going to understand the ins and outs of the technological advances that brought them so many years in the future. Nor did he really want to know how in one minute they'd been driving down an icy road in Connecticut on holiday, only to wake up in a sterile laboratory with what felt like cotton stuffed in between his ears.

From the small portion that he could ascertain, Steve learned they had somehow been excavated from the depths of a frozen river; both of them had somehow been preserved. There had been a lot of conversation about the effects of global warming, which was the only explanation on why they had been so well-preserved and eventually thawed out by a doctor named Jin Tanaka.

Things had been exponentially difficult during those initial weeks of reanimation. Steve had been forced into a series of physical tests and mentally prodded for hours on end. Tanaka had separated him from Peggy, who had claimed suffered some bodily damage from the collision, and needed to be taken care of closely. But he was told not to fear, the advancements in modern medicine were leaps and bounds beyond the twenty-first century's.

That had been a grave mistake, putting his faith in a doctor whose priorities were unknown to him until the end. He had eventually been reunited with Peggy, who hadn't smelled of lilacs anymore nor had she tasted of cinnamon. She had smelled oddly sterile and of disinfectant too, and she tasted like metal and copper. And she moved without the flair she once had; almost mechanical and inhuman instead.

While that had worried Steve endlessly, he hadn't verbalized his concerns; instead he had clung to Peggy as he always had. Unaware what they had done to her, and what they had unwittingly done to him too. But he had been the lucky one; he had only been injected with an anti-aging serum, which seemed to have halted his aging process at thirty years old but certainly hadn't granted him immortality.

Like anyone else he would die within an additional sixty or seventy years (modern medicine only extended life so much; the average age for a human currently was one-hundred and ten, although it had dwindled by at least twelve years due to the ever-present pollution and the diseases that ran rampant in the slums). The only difference was that he'd be a hundred year old man in a thirty year old body; or one that looked to be thirty years old at least.

Peggy, on the other hand, had been experimented on extensively. She had been poked and prodded, rebuilt to some macabre degree, and made into a cybernetic organism. Tanaka hated the word cyborg; he had often mentioned how it was unbecoming of such a lovely lady as Peggy. Steve couldn't have agreed any more, although the fact Peggy had been mutated into something more machine than human incensed him severely.

There had been little he could have done, once he'd become the wiser though. It had been impossible to reverse the damage Tanaka had done to Peggy; she would have died if they even attempted it. So the only feasible thing to do had been to flee; jump head-first into a century that they hadn't known, couldn't decipher at all, and hope for the best.

It had been a risky move to escape, but not entirely unmanageable either. Many of the scientists had underestimated Steve's intelligence, preferring to use him as a guinea pig for their physical experiments, as opposed to their mental ones. Which only served Steve and Peggy's purpose in the end; he had found a way out of the highly guarded laboratory, and had slipped out with Peggy close by his side.

Except their escape had been short-lived; made worse by Peggy's sudden swing into violent fits. Whatever Tanaka had done to her was impossible to say, but she was quick to harm anyone that attempted to stand in their way. The official death count was an astronomical number; one that still made Steve's stomach turn, whenever he was reminded of it. Because his Peggy couldn't have possibly murdered four-hundred and seventy-two people in the span of three and a half weeks; his Peggy had been kind-hearted and gentle-handed. She hadn't been a monster; she hadn't been a monster even with blood on her hands and dead-black eyes either.

The casualty count didn't lie, unfortunately. Steve still had nightmares of how easily Peggy cut through a busy street filled with government operatives and blade runners, and how within a twenty minute time frame they were all dead. But he had never left her; refused to leave her. In the end Peggy had been the one who had left him.

Maybe a kernel of humanity had worked its way to the forefront of Peggy's mind, or maybe she had been too tired to continue their never-ending run from the law. Steve hadn't known, although he hoped it was the former that caused her to leave the abandoned building they had been holed up in; and slipped away when he had finally fallen asleep after two days of insomnia and fear. All he did know for certain was that Peggy turned herself in and suffered the consequences because of it.

Steve obviously meant very little to the government. He had only been injected with that damn serum, after all; whereas Peggy had been a diamond in the rough and a dangerous one at that too. So the manhunt for Steve had all but dissipated, while the disassembly of Project 58, sometimes referred to as Carter 001, had immediately gotten underway.

The best engineers bred in the twenty-second century had been recruited for the job. Tanaka had been tossed unceremoniously in a prison cell to be dealt with at a later date; so he hadn't been present for the travesty that had taken place. Peggy had been tortured and brutalized by every definition of the words; Steve heard as much through the grapevine, and he couldn't have prevented either.

They hadn't taken Peggy back to Tanaka's laboratory; she had been moved to an undisclosed location, clearly fully aware that Steve would try and save her. Which had almost caused him to be recaptured; but he would have gladly been taken back into custody again, if he could have switched places with Peggy instead.

He would have done anything within his power to have saved Peggy. He would have been made into a cyborg himself and tested on like a laboratory rat even. God only knew he would have gone through the worst imaginable hell to save her, except he had never been given the chance to do so.

Despite there being lengthy reports about Peggy, not to mention photographs of her disassembly; Steve couldn't bring himself to glimpse at any of the pictures. Bucky had though and they never needed to discuss how awful it truly had been for her; the haunted look in Bucky's eyes had been enough to tell Steve the whole story. And that was saying quite a bit, due to the fact that Bucky had seen plenty of unmentionable things during his twenty-eight years on the planet; many things that Steve really didn't want to know about either.

"So what's the four-one-one?" Bucky asked abruptly, somehow fitting himself onto the living room's narrow window ledge with a cigarette balanced between his fingers. He looked like hell from their run-in with the Cerberus 6 and undoubtedly felt worse too.

Steve suspected Bucky might have broken a rib, but he was never given clearance to get very close to his partner. They might have shared a dingy mattress and had even shared the shower stall to make good use of the hot water whenever they had any; yet that didn't mean Bucky liked to be touched.

"I thought about the possibility more than once."

"And you never told me?"

"Sorry; I really hoped it was the alternative." Steve crossed his arms over his chest tightly, in a feeble attempt to stave off the cold. "But obviously Odinson Corp has gone temporarily insane. I really was hoping that it wasn't the case, honestly."

"What are we going to do then?"

"Twenty million dollars is twenty million dollars, Bucky."

"Colony IV too," Bucky murmured, before he took a drag on his cigarette. "Call me stupid, but I really don't care about that part of the deal; maybe you want to jet-set out into the great unknown and mingle with Earth's finest up on Colony IV but you can count me out."

"Why would you want to stay here? There's nothing here for you."

"There's nothing for me up there either." Bucky pointed skyward with a sardonic smile. "So if we part ways, we part ways. Try not to cry and miss me too much, Steve."

"You mean if we find Ultima Zero."

"We will; I have faith in that. I don't have faith in anything at all, as you already know. But surprisingly I have faith in you."

"Don't say that." Steve hoisted himself onto his feet and out of his chair, making it a point to shuffle towards the window and towards his partner; regardless of the way Bucky tensed up on him. "And if you aren't going to pack up your bags and leave our little piece of heaven here, I don't see why I should."

Bucky stared at him for several moments, before he chuckled softly. Steve recognized how careful his partner was not to unnecessarily move, since that would have proven his point that a hospital visit was still a necessity. Unfortunately, they really couldn't afford it either; not when their attention had been directed towards Ultima Zero, instead of raking up a meager revenue with the Hammer Company.

Of course, there were various ways to make money nowadays. Bucky had done as much in order to afford his energy gun; Steve just wasn't sure which avenue he had decided to take in order to afford it. He learned early on not to ask, even though he already knew Bucky was an excellent shot and rumor had it a very giving bedmate too.

"Let's not get sentimental here; I know you want to, seeing as you were lost in your own head again. I figured as much with this whole Ultima Zero business." Bucky looked away, seemingly intrigued by the dirty alleyway that their apartment looked out onto. "But you got to stay with me, Steve. You can't get all mushy and shit. That'll get us killed and maybe we don't live like princes, but alive is still alive and I kind of like being that way."

"Understood,"

"Even though I kind of want to be as gung-ho as Barton and going hunting for Ultima Zero; I think I need to rest a bit, you know. Build up my energy,"

"Barton won't find Ultima Zero in a day." Steve cautiously reached out to Bucky, and laid his hand onto the top of his unruly mane of hair. "Trust me on that one, okay."

"Using that faith I have in you, I see."

"Well, since you won't go see a doctor this'll be our bargain."

"Deal; tomorrow though, we're going on a run and we're not coming back until we find Ultima Zero."

"Deal," Steve ruffled his hair, although he was gripped by an unshakeable worry. He wasn't sure if he could handle anything happening to Bucky; not like it had so horribly happened with Peggy.

His Peggy who had smelled of lilacs and tasted like cinnamon, had been torn to pieces with his name on her always ruby-red lips; he would never let Bucky end up that way either. He would do everything in his power to protect his friend, even if Bucky fought him tooth and nail over it. Because the least he could do was save someone from the horrors of the twenty-second century; he had to or else he wasn't worth a damn at all.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fourteen :: The Ultima Zero Project

 


 

The news was grave; expected but no less inconvenient. Word reached him by way of Fandral, whom had chosen to venture into the city of his own volition; only to discover Volstagg had been retired, and had been unsuccessful on procuring the data he'd been sent to find. Which only compromised his time frame further; it would only be a matter of time before the runners would find him, and then retirement would be inevitable (or perhaps worse).

He would only entertain the notion of retirement, once he had achieved the goal he had set out to accomplish in the first place. There were many things he was determined to do, before he was thrown to the wayside like so many useless or potentially dangerous androids before him. And he would not go without a proper fight; he had once been known, oh-so many years ago for his bullheadedness and he supposed things hadn't particularly changed in that regard.

While the world had been poisoned by so many unsavory elements, a tiger could not simply change his stripes. He could not be any less than he formerly was. Tenacity was his curse, he supposed; although, he didn't feel any withstanding restlessness by Volstagg's failure. He still, after all, had ways in which to obtain what he sorely needed; except it would be a risky business, or more specifically riskier than his current circumstances.

His choice to escape the laboratory had been the riskiest endeavor imaginable for various reasons. The city below the skyline was shrouded in danger; in between the shady characters that freely roved the streets, and the threat of being discovered by freelance runners and even the police, their party was in constant risk of attacked and victimized. But more than that, he knew instinctively that Odinson Corp would not let him go without a fight either.

They had proven as much by their hiring of so many blade runners. It remained to be seen, however, if they intended on taking him alive or not. Alive was a relative term, though; he truly wasn't alive anyway. If he was captured and taken back to the laboratory, he would be disconnected once more and he suspected he would never be reawakened again.

Retirement was favorable; at least he wouldn't remain limbo forever. Odinson Corp was feebly holding onto him, if only to ease their minds. Perhaps to even one-up their competition in some way; the truth of the matter was that he did not know for certain. He didn't care to know either, to be honest.

Whatever truth Odinson Corp possessed was only a fraction of the reality of the matter. His handlers were known deceivers; wolves in sheep's clothing. He knew better than many, which only lent to his ambitious endeavors further.

"You do not mean to traverse the city alone, I hope." Fandral murmured, as he disconnected himself from one of the portable ports. "That is ill-advised; incredibly risky too."

"Surely I could go in your place." Sif chimed in, a spitting image of a human long since passed.

Dr. Banner had frequently drawn inspiration from days of old. Many of the original prototypes of Odinson Corp's android lines were modeled after old acquaintances and loved ones. But they had soon grown and evolved into their very own entities; faces twice removed from their inspirations.

The Goddess line had shifted and changed too. The standard model was a voluptuous blonde with baby blue eyes and an easy smile that looked mangled on their features. Sif was the only exception to the rule with a lean, willowy form and hair that was almost black. She never smiled either, which was probably for the best anyway; due to how grotesque it would inevitably look.

"Except the risk is high; Volstagg made quite a ruckus. Or so I have been told; the whispers on the street,"

"Which is why I should go instead; if only to be of some use," Sif insisted without any vigor; after all she was only wires and nuts and bolts.

No matter how advanced technology had become, androids remained as emotionless as helper bots. While they were aesthetically pleasing and highly intelligent; they were not human. Devotion and loyalty were not their strong suit, unless they were programmed for such feats; in which case Fandral and Sif had been.

Dr. Banner had been none the wiser, of course. No one would have suspected that he had been lucid enough (or even interested for that matter) to reprogram the closest androids within his reach. After all, there were only so many waking hours he was permitted; very few to get anything done, if he hadn't been quick on the up-take. And that had been the first mistake Odinson Corp had made – underestimating him.

"I know time is a factor, but we cannot grow reckless either." Fandral set the portable port aside, before he gracefully climbed to his feet; which he wouldn't have achieved without extensive upgrades that Banner hadn't bothered to install. "We will go in your stead."

He shook his head in reply. Time had already been wasted, and Volstagg's failure had only put his plans in jeopardy. Hogun had at least been successful in procuring the information that he had needed before his retirement. But he hadn't been as lucky the second time around. Luck had never been on his side, though.

"Reconsider, sir." Sif sidled up beside him; she was a pretty thing had it not been for the visible seams across her lily-white face that made her more machine than human. "Fandral will scour Hell's Kitchen as we've previously planned. And I will look for the supplier in which you seek; there will be no need for you to expose yourself unnecessarily."

"I must agree with our lady; she isn't a wilted flower. No less, she has been heavily upgraded just in case either one of us failed. You programmed her yourself, and you programmed her well."

"I won't sit idly by any longer, sir."

"We can set off right away. Both of us are fully charged; the task can be fulfilled tonight." Fandral took his place on his other side. "The only thing you'll need to worry yourself over is the end results; the reason why we are here."

There truly wasn't any room for argument; in fact, he hadn't any want to deter them. They were programmed for loyalty's sake, and he wasn't about to sacrifice himself unnecessarily. He had a goal in mind still, and he was the only one capable of fulfilling it.

While he had an alternative plan, he favored the first; simply because he would have to devise a way to use Tony Stark. He knew that he could; the legendary blade runner was a weapon to be reckoned with and Odinson Corp had yet to recognize his true potential.

Tony Stark's reputation preceded him. He had been a fixture on every media circuit; on every billboard and front page for fifteen years. It was his company that had been the center of the android rebellion; one that had left many humans dead, and had vastly shifted the public's opinion on artificial intelligence once more.

The Peggy Carter incident had been the first, but Stark Industries' wayward androids had been the second and the final straw. But even more importantly, Stark's reputation had been revered in the dirty garbage-addled streets; spoken on the tongues of merchants, low-lives, and downtrodden fellow runners. People feared him.

Despite retiring from blade running, Stark still garnered fear. No one would outwardly say so, but time had not lessened the white-hot terror people had felt towards him. Because they knew what he was capable of and the disappearance of his former ally Obadiah Stane was enough to cement that fear into them. Even the authorities hadn't found heed or hair of the former Stark CEO.

"We will not fail you, rest assured." Sif said, before she hurried past the crumbled and rotted remains of the dilapidated warehouse where they had taken refuge in.

Fandral offered him a salute, before he too took his leave on sure-footed feet. Most Cerberus 7 models weren't as graceful; then again, it was a well-known fact that Odinson Corp offered subpar designs compared to the likes of Stark Industries. He once heard it was necessary; not everyone could afford a Mark model, and there were many colonies that needed extra hands in terms of manual labor.

He too needed extra hands for manual labor, but the difference was he needed intelligence attached to those extra hands; no less androids that could remotely pass as being human. Their exteriors could not be helped; so their specs had been exponentially heightened in terms of speed and strength just in case they ran into trouble. Yet that truly hadn't helped either.

Hogun and Volstagg had been retired already, and his pursuers were slowly closing in on him. They would find him one way or another; that much he was certain of. There wasn't any other way; Odinson Corp would have him back either in pieces or fully intact. They wouldn't permit him to freely walk around, and they would be stupid if they did.

He was a lethal weapon, after all. Weapons of his ferocity were not given freedom; they needed to be contained, held close just in case they were ignited. Anything with superior artificial intelligence was colony-bound; they didn't belong in the dirty streets of the city. They were too dangerous to use for the simplest tasks that they were originally built for.

Except he didn't have a purpose; Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun, and Sif had some meaning. They were built to assist Dr. Banner in his laboratory; they were prototypes designed to be built upon too. Soon enough they would have gotten new faces, newer abilities, maybe tweaked personalities (although their personalities were certainly lacking already).

There wasn't any meaning to him, though. His existence was pointless; a threat that no one truly known about until he had escaped. And still only a handful of individuals knew about him. The city didn't know they were potentially faced with a walking time bomb; more dangerous than Tony Stark and even Peggy Carter combined.

But there were differences between him and Stark; more so even between him and Carter. Stark had a need to be dangerous, whereas Peggy Carter had been made dangerous. He, on the other hand, was cursed with both; he needed to be dangerous, and had been created for that very purpose too. Perhaps not initially, but that was what had happened to him in the end.

Restless, he crouched beside the wall and touched the back of his neck. He opened the panel situated there, and pressed the button that would permit him to access the data on the chip he'd taken from Hogun days earlier. The information cropped up before his eyes; lines of text that he reread for the umpteenth time since retrieving it.

He knew the data backwards and forward; it had never truly left his mind over the years. Yet he needed feasible, solid information; something outside of his own head. He needed proof and he knew that Dr. Banner hadn't kept an original copy. Rumor had it that Baldur had destroyed the physical copy of it, before Banner deleted the computer copy soon thereafter.

That had been for the best, of course. He wouldn't have wanted it any other way; although he knew long ago that it was necessary to cover all his bases as well. Things could make a turn for the worse, in which case he needed to keep his own records as he saw fit. And they had spiraled out of control just as he suspected they would. He knew; he had always known they would.

The data continued to scroll across his vision; word after word of hypothesis and theory. At some point it had only been a concept; it had been studied and researched and eventually dissected for scientific purposes. It hadn't meant to become a reality; no one in their right mind should have taken such delicately written theories and actually practiced them.

It had been a foolish move to even study and theorize on such a topic. If the government had become the wiser to it, well there were innumerable penalties for trying to emulate such a forbidden project. But he hadn't expected that it would be enacted; they should have known better. All of them should have known how it would end. He most certainly knew how it would, and his opinion should have mattered to them; it really should have.

As the text came to an end, he mouthed out the final words in bold and unapologetic letters; a joke really that had made Dr. Banner laugh so long ago: The Ultima Zero Project.

He was Ultima Zero; how very ironic indeed.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifteen :: Electric Pleasures

 


 

James Buchanan Barnes was twenty-eight years of age. For the first twelve years of his life, he had somehow remained out of every known database in the city, including the public school registries; but he had cropped up on the roster of a pleasure house's employee list eventually. The details of his duties were not readily available, although one could only assume what they were.

It didn't take advanced artificial intelligence to draw to such an apparent conclusion. Anyone with even an iota of intelligence would realize why a young boy had been employed by a pleasure house; specifically when the government had become particularly lax in child abuse and child labor laws. They, after all, had reserved their attentions solely to re-colonization and creating stricter legislation when it came to the public's use and ownership of androids.

The twenty-first century had revolutionized in the treatment of children, whereas the twenty-second had all but reverted to a primitive time. So it truly wasn't that surprising that many children, twelve and over, were recruited to maintain the pleasure house's facilities while also being employed to entertain guests with lascivious tastes.

Natasha reviewed each detail, stored it within her hard drive if ever the need might arise to overlook the data. Mr. Stark was particularly interested in learning of any peculiarities about James Buchanan Barnes, and she would have it at hand whenever he asked. But in all truthfulness, for she could only be truthful due to the fact that she wasn't programmed to lie, Natasha found James Buchanan Barnes to be oddly fascinating.

Very few humans piqued her interest; she was a sentinel being, after all. While she had some human-like attributes, she was still more machine than person. That, however, didn't seem to cease an evolutionary change in her consciousness. Mr. Stark had believed that it was natural, which would explain why she held a fondness for him as opposed to the likes of Miss Potts or anyone else she came into contact with.

Artificial intelligence could by its own volition evolve, as much as humanity could evolve too. The only difference was that androids would never reach the capacity to feel as humans did. No less, they were far more dangerous due to their strength and agility. Or in the very least, most androids displayed those two characteristics; Natasha knew she was superior to most currently functioning androids and every human alive too.

So it truly wasn't that surprising that her curiosity bloomed outside of her creator. Curiosity was a good thing; she'd been told that many times, despite showing very little for anything beyond her own upkeep and various updates, and even infrequently towards the new protocols of the Mark line (mostly when Mr. Stark chose to seek out her opinion on the technology).

"How's the search going, sweet-cheeks?" Mr. Stark emerged from the elevator on the farthest side of the room; currently donned in his everyday attire, which was a nicely tailored suit.

She had grown accustomed to Mr. Stark's informal wear nowadays, though. Seeing as they had spent many days now trying to track down the enigmatic android by the name of Ultima Zero; yet so far they hadn't heard anything about him. However, Mr. Stark was confident in their ability to locate him soon enough; which was fueled by a conversation he had had with Mr. Baldur Odinson.

From the little that she had heard, Mr. Odinson had given the collective group of blade runners the go-ahead to retire Ultima Zero; although Mr. Stark had only been drawn further into suspicion than he previously had about the android. In fact, Mr. Stark appeared to want to keep Ultima Zero for himself rather than allow anyone else to retire him.

"I've collected any and all data to do with James Buchanan Barnes." She conveyed once her creator had joined her beside the workbench and the holographic screen that hovered above it.

"Tell me all you learned, then."

"James Buchanan Barnes was born in Brooklyn twenty-eight years ago. There isn't any information about him in any of the public school records, which leads me to believe he hasn't had any proper education. And that theory seems to be supported by the list I unearthed of him when he was twelve years of age."

"Kind of surprising the kid doesn't even have a basic education; even slum kids have that." Mr. Stark uttered, before leaning against the side of the workbench. "So what did you find?"

"He was registered to a pleasure house in the Meatpacking District; more specifically one called Electric Pleasures."

"Electric Pleasures, Electric Pleasures?" Mr. Stark repeated, almost on the verge of being emphatic.

Before she could properly affirm the name of the establishment, Mr. Stark had taken control of the holographic screen and begun to hectically sort through windows and files. It was impossible to predict what her creator was looking for; he had a tendency to be a spontaneous individual, whom worked on a different wavelength from every other human Natasha had ever encountered.

Truth be told, there were very few humans she had ever gotten acquainted with. Mr. Stark had kept her under lock and key, due to the heavy restrictions in which the government had put on androids. Which left Natasha's scope of human interaction to mostly Mr. Stark and Miss Potts; less so with the latter, due in part to the dissolution of Mr. Stark's marriage to Miss Potts.

Within several moments, Mr. Stark had pulled up an unfamiliar photograph; although Natasha could readily tell that the photograph in question was of an android. The android must have been an older version of the Mark line; while no one else could tell the difference between man and machine, she hadn't any trouble in that field (or in the very least when it involved the Mark models). The knowledge seemed to come naturally to her (in which case meant Mr. Stark had installed that information into her hard drive at some point in time).

"I'll never forget the name Electric Pleasures; I remember Obadiah had sold several pleasure models to them way before shit hit the fan." Mr. Stark crossed his arms with a pinched expression on his face. "That, sweet-cheeks, is Little Hill. She was a Mark III and one of my favorites; probably the best pleasure model that Stark Industries ever created. And no, I couldn't tell you from personal experience."

Gazing at the photograph, Natasha accessed what she knew of the android called Little Hill. There was very little to be found, though; aside from the fact that she had been the final android her creator had retired, before he regained control of Stark Industries and saw to the demotion of Obadiah Stane. Which proved to be a mystery all within itself; Mr. Stark hadn't much to say about Stane's untimely disappearance nor did Miss Potts either.

Theories had run rampant about Stane's whereabouts; most of which were based around the unspeakable. A majority of the populace believed that Mr. Stark had killed Stane, and did so in a torture-like manner. Some even speculated that Mr. Stark had dismembered Stane and even done something as taboo as cannibalize him; although from Natasha's experience with Mr. Stark, he didn't appear to have an appetite for human flesh.

"Little Hill's real name was Maria." Mr. Stark sighed, before looking towards her. "She was one of the sweetest androids I've ever created. Genial and well-mannered, and the bastards at the Electric Pleasures warped her into what she ended up being. She almost ripped off my arm, the last time I saw her."

"Then James Buchanan Barnes must have come into contact with Little Hill."

"Wouldn't be surprised if that's the reason he went into the runner business. Little Hill might not have been very genial then either."

"Electric Pleasures was known for very specific live shows, sir." Natasha reported. "May I tell you? They might prove to be unsavory in detail."

There wasn't an immediate reply; Mr. Stark shot her an unreadable expression, while he appeared to contemplate if he truly wanted to become privy to the information. Many people, as Natasha learned, found some things to be disturbing. Humans had very little tolerance for violence or some things of a sexual nature.

"You might as well tell me; I can't seem to remember any specifics about the place."

"They were known for their live copulation shows. More specifically they catered to patrons whom had an interest in seeing pleasure models being perused by their human employees. Which might very well explain why James Buchanan Barnes has chosen his particular vocation; perhaps, he was employed for several of these live shows."

"And if Little Hill got violent with him on top of that, well son of a bitch." Mr. Stark dropped his head, in something akin to disgust and maybe an ounce of defeat too. "Evidently, it is a small world after all. First Coulson's family, now Barnes's ass, and let's not even get started on Rogers."

Unlike Miss Potts, Natasha didn't have a predilection for being too inquisitive; that wasn't her function, after all. She was meant for companionship, but her greater function was to assist Mr. Stark in whatever he may need her for. So she didn't deem it necessary to ask about Rogers or even Little Hill for that matter. Instead she returned her focus back onto the holographic screen, and wiped away the image of Little Hill to reveal James Buchanan Barnes's picture again.

His unsmiling face somehow continued to draw her attention; as did his wildly guarded eyes that were a shade of blue, she hadn't seen beyond a select few androids. In fact, on further investigation they were very much like her own eye color.

"I've been thinking a lot about what crazy-eyed Odinson said, you know about retiring Ultima Zero." Mr. Stark lifted his head, blindly looking towards the screen. "Obviously, there's a reason behind it; I think the oldest Odinson is keeping baby brother out of the loop. So there is some discord between them, which only makes this whole situation's far more complicated than I originally anticipated for."

"What will you do, sir?" Natasha asked, although Mr. Stark worked in a recognizable pattern.

"Well, my plans haven't changed. I intend on taking Ultima Zero in and doing my own experimentations with him. And while Banner would be a great asset to the R & D department, I'm not willing to compromise anything when it comes to this android."

"Or would a more suitable description be-"

"Android," Mr. Stark emphasized and gave her a stern look. "Ultima Zero is an android; a high functioning android, one beyond my wildest of imaginations, but an android nonetheless. So drop the Peggy Carter comparison, okay."

"I didn't mean to offend, Mr. Stark." Natasha replied, before she focused back onto James Buchanan Barnes, and felt another spike of curiosity envelope her once more.

It was hard to determine why she found him fascinating, and maybe if she had been human she would question herself at length. But since she was not, she permitted herself to wonder about James Buchanan Barnes and what sort of individual he might very well be; rather than contest Mr. Stark's view on Ultima Zero, and cause him to become cross.

Before she could readily place any sort of personality onto James Buchanan Barnes, based solely on the data that she had procured over the past twenty minutes; her processes were interrupted temporarily. While she most certainly could multi-task if need be, Mr. Stark preferred if she was alert to pressing matters; unless specifically told otherwise.

"Pardon me, sir. You have an urgent call from Mr. Howlett, regarding-"

"Patch him through stat, JARVIS!" Mr. Stark practically yelled at his AI who spoke, and was quickly met with positive results for his troubles too.

"Stark, it's Logan."

"You are just the man I wanted to hear from, Logan. Please tell me you have something for me; anything for me!"

"As a matter of fact, I do. From my vantage point, it looks like there are two unattended 'droids; one a blond with a goatee and another being a dark-haired babe. Both obviously Odinson Corp. models, if I ever seen them." One of Mr. Stark's informants conveyed smoothly over the line. "But there isn't any clown-like 'droid running around with them; so I'm thinking your theory was flawed."

"Not flawed; you don't know that yet. But pass on your location to JARVIS; I'll be there in a flash."

"Hurry your pretty boy ass up, because I'm not going to try and keep them here."

"Don't get your panties in a twist; I'll be there." Mr. Stark announced, before JARVIS closed the line as he was expected to do. "Now listen here, sweet-cheeks, get yourself ready. I'll need you on the launch pad in five, okay?"

"Yes, of course." She replied, as she watched him hurry away and back towards the lift.

Within several moments, more precisely seven seconds, Mr. Stark had disappeared in a flurry of hasty movements; leaving Natasha alone to process what was asked of her, alongside the many other things that had compromised her functionality for a short period of time.

Automatically she abandoned her post beside the workbench, and moved towards the compartments that held her extensive wardrobe. Mr. Stark had insisted on her having a selection of clothing that rivaled Miss Potts's own collection. But she had her mind set on the sleek bodysuit that Mr. Stark had chosen for her during their many runs; simply because it was the easiest to move in.

As she popped open one of the compartment doors, Natasha found her consciousness still overrun by thoughts of James Buchanan Barnes. She found the idea of making his acquaintance once more to be a pleasing idea; maybe she could study his eye color and compare it to her own too. Yet something told her, he might not be too privy to androids very much; especially if he had been forced to perform with one at a very early age. But she didn't dwell on that beyond a moment or two; instead she focused on the mission at hand, which was to help Mr. Stark to find Ultima Zero.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Sixteen :: Better Luck Next Time

 


 

"If you remember, this used to be a primo location for 'droid production."

"For some companies anyway." Tony kicked aside bits of cement from the already crumbled sidewalk, as he followed his informant towards the location he had scouted out only half an hour earlier.

Logan knew the ins and outs of the city like no one else. The slums were his playground; he had prowled them for almost thirty years, and Tony found his expertise to be invaluable. It had been Logan that had offered Tony and Pepper refuge when Stane had been determined to eliminate the two of them. And it had been Logan, who had helped locate the many androids that had gone on a rampage during that period of time too.

"Odinson's old factory is over there." Logan pointed towards an abandoned building in the distance. "And that's where I saw the two snooping around. It's beyond me why they would, though. There's nothing in there but debris; anything worth a penny has already been stolen."

"I highly doubt a couple pieces of scrap metal are looking for money." Tony muttered. "No, it's deeper than that and I don't like it at all."

"Are you going to tell me what's up?"

"Do you want to even get involved in this? It's more than your everyday run-of-the-mill runs."

"And here I thought you were just getting tired of living like a king in your skyscraper." Logan scoffed, before shooting a wary look over his shoulder at Natasha. "Did you really have to bring her along?"

"She's harmless. Well, to you anyway." Tony continued to stare at the factory in the distance with an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

The last time he'd gotten a similar feeling while on a run, it had been during his pursuit of Little Hill. That had almost cost him a limb, and well he wanted to avoid any unnecessary mutilation if he could. But in the very least, he had some backup this time around.

Several possibilities crossed Tony's mind on why two wayward androids wanted to revisit an old factory; more specifically why they wanted to visit an Odinson one. Unless, of course, Ultima Zero had a hand in it; which was probably more than likely, seeing as he was…

Tony refused to entertain that notion any more than he already had. Ultima Zero was a highly sophisticated android, flawless in his design; he wasn't like Peggy Carter. No one would be that foolish to emulate a project like that. The Odinson family might have been many things, but Tony liked to believe they were incapable of something of that magnitude.

"Did you see them doing anything suspicious?"

"What, the 'droids?" Logan laughed loudly. "You know aside from being out of a laboratory or in a colony? No, not really; then again, I wasn't about to follow them into the factory either. I value my life. Besides whatever they're up to is irrelevant to me; you need to retire them and that's all."

"Perhaps this is Ultima Zero's doing, Mr. Stark." Natasha piped in.

"Already ahead of you sweet-cheeks; it's pretty clear these subpar 'droids are being controlled by the head honcho. But what's fishy is that the Goddess 11 isn't keeping close to Ultima Zero."

"It's probably for the best I don't know what you're talking about."

"It's a messy business, Logan. I wouldn't want to drag you into it; so it's probably for the best if you make yourself scarce, especially if you see a demented clown wandering around." Tony paused on the ruin of the sidewalk, before offering Logan his hand. "Keep me in the loop if you see anything."

"I definitely don't want to know what's going on, that's for damn sure." Logan took his hand and gave it a firm shake. "I'll keep my ear to the ground, though."

Tony released his hand, and watched as his informant and friend stepped off the sidewalk. Logan walked diagonally across the garbage littered street. Within moments, he had all but been consumed by the shadows and the endless cloud of pollution that had settled onto the city permanently. It was a surprise that more people hadn't succumbed to the effects of the environment of yet.

People like Logan and many of his other informants hadn't the luxury of living like Tony did. They breathed in the toxins day in and day out, and the food wasn't any better. The slums on Earth were hardly a place that anyone wanted to end up in; although most people hadn't a choice in that matter.

With a shake of his head, Tony banished any distraction from his mind. He continued the trek towards the factory and heard Natasha ever-faithfully following behind him. They didn't exchange any unnecessary words; whenever Tony found himself on a run, he basked in the silence around him. His mind needed to be perfectly blank beyond the goal at hand, and he needed to be alert to surroundings at all times. Androids were sentinel beings, after all; they were built with superior intelligence and they weren't prone to make very many mistakes either.

It was imperative to remain hyper-focused on one's surroundings, whenever you were on a run. God only knew how many stupid runners had been killed because they'd been distracted. No less, if they underestimated their target. Tony had seen too many to count, and there would probably be many more if the 'droid population skyrocketed in the future.

As they drew closer to the factory, Tony shifted his engine gun from across his back and into his hands. He flipped the switch to turn it on, and was struck by a familiar sort of comfort. The engine gun thrummed as it always did, although it remained to be seen if it would save him again. He could only hope that it would, though.

The factory building had been ravaged by time. It was all but dilapidated; made up of broken windows and rotted wood and rusted metal. The exterior walls had been painted with graffiti dozens of times; death factory had been scrolled across the wall in yellow spray paint, which sent a prickle of foreboding down Tony's spine. Yet that didn't deter him for even a moment; he still rounded the building and headed towards the rusty metal doors that would get them inside.

One of the doors had already been pushed in, battered by what could only be fists. He moved quicker on his feet, hopping over bits of rubble and broken glass; before he halted only a few inches away from the entrance. His heart had leapt to his throat, beating with adrenaline and in anticipation for the worst.

"Once we get inside, we'll split up. Got that, sweet-cheeks?" He murmured, as he tightened his grip on the energy gun.

"Affirmative, Mr. Stark."

"I have my ear piece in, so give me an update; you know if you manage to take down one of the bastards."

"I will." Natasha said in her usual unconcerned voice, which Tony really needed to remedy someday. But that was irrelevant now; he needed to focus on the here and now and the inevitable danger in front of him.

Taking in a deep breath, Tony slipped easily through the door and into the musty building. Just as Logan had said, the interior had been stripped of anything of value. Bits of machinery far too big to be transported elsewhere had remained rooted to the floor, and were covered in years of grime; while some smaller pieces had been broken off intentionally.

Garbage lined much of the floor, although there wasn't any indication that squatters had found shelter there in years. Quite frankly, Tony wouldn't blame them for avoiding the place; what once had been android prototypes were now broken pieces on the ground. Limbs and wires were strewn about, shrouded by years of dust and debris. If he hadn't known any better, he would have suspected this was a house of horrors.

He walked further into the factory, and felt Natasha's presence melt away. She was gone within a few moments, which left him vulnerable to any number of attacks. But he wasn't afraid; he couldn't possibly be afraid in this sort of situation. He'd seen too much death and destruction to fear it. He had caused too much to fear the unknown.

Beams of light filtered through the broken windows; neon lights of shady businesses and the infrequent flash of a hover car's headlights whenever one flew by. Moonlight couldn't be seen in the city; it never had been visible, though. Tony thankfully had enough foresight to carry a flashlight with him in his breast pocket, which he quickly turned on but it did very little in terms of illuminating the area.

Sadly, the odds were stacked against him. If both 'droids had chosen to stick together and he happened to stumble upon both of them, the likelihood that he wouldn't survive was fairly high. Regardless of his many years as a blade runner, if it was two against one then things were bound to end up unfavorably for him. But it was a necessary risk, and he had faith in his own skills that he'd make it through somehow.

Tony pushed past another set of rusty doors, and found himself in a pitch black hallway. His flashlight only extended so far, before it was devoured by the shadows. Cautiously he took several steps forward and listened to muted echo of his footfall. He didn't hear anything else, although that didn't mean he was alone either.

Odinson androids or not, his targets could undoubtedly move quicker and stealthier than he could. Not to mention the stats on the previous 'droids had been hiked up exponentially; which was another mystery that Tony was determined to figure out. Hell, there were plenty things he wanted to know about this whole situation.

As he made his way through the hallway, he checked every room that emerged from the darkness. He found overturned desks and broken computer monitors and papers yellowing and turning into mulch. Nothing particularly interesting filled any of the rooms, causing him to ponder why the 'droids had come here in the first place. Then again there were too many unknowns involving the entire affair that he'd probably never find out the truth.

His brain worked a mile a minute, trying to sift through the many possibilities on what Odinson Corp was up to. God only knew what kind of illegal activity they'd gotten themselves into, and now there was a fracture in their united front too. The eldest Odinson wanted Ultima Zero retired, whereas the younger wanted him in one piece. And then there was the small chance that…

Tony bit back a frustrated noise. He would not permit himself to think beyond the known facts about Ultima Zero. Besides once he found him, which he inevitably would, then he could worry about Ultima Zero's functionality and hardware. But until that day, he needed to focus on the other two androids instead; the ones who could easily slip from the shadows and attack him at any given moment.

"Mr. Stark," Natasha's voice filled his ear suddenly, which caused him to jump in surprise. His body came close to careening with one of the hallway's walls, and his heart threatened to burst out of his chest too.

"Oh for fuck's sake, Stark; get it together." He groaned, trying to calm himself with a few steady breaths. "What's up, Nat?"

"I found them, Mr. Stark. I believe they've spotted me as well."

"What? Where are you?"

"If you return to the main room, you'll find a stairwell to your left. I'm on the second level. My apologies, Mr. Stark; I'll have to focus my attention on them now." Natasha conveyed, before the line was cut off rather abruptly.

Without a second thought, now that he knew he wasn't in any immediate danger, Tony spun wildly on his heel and ran back up the hallway. His feet slipped on some rubble, as he hurried his way forward but thankfully he maintained his footing still. He couldn't afford to waste any time, not when Natasha was up against two formidable foes.

Pushing through the double doors, Tony found himself back in the main room of the factory. He didn't hesitate to rush past the machinery that cluttered up the space, and desperately searched for the stairwell Natasha had mentioned going up.

Tucked away in the darkest part of the room was the metal stairwell; it looked sturdy still, despite its obvious disuse. He took the steps two at a time, which made his muscles scream in a way they hadn't for years. Especially since the last few runs hadn't been all that challenging; he and Natasha had planned everything down to smallest of details, whereas now, it had been a shot in the dark; both figuratively and literally.

Once he climbed onto the second floor landing, Tony heard the tousle before he'd seen it. Heavy blows and sure-footed steps echoed outward, and drew him closer and closer to where the combatants were; which was, unfortunately, a distance away from the stairwell.

Midway down the walkway that made up much of the second level was where the fight was transpiring. Natasha was in the middle of a bare-knuckle altercation with the Cerberus 7 model, referred to by the Odinsons as Fandral the Dashing. The Goddess 11 stood back, although she looked ready to strike at any given moment if the need arose.

Tony quickly analyzed the situation. At the rate in which Natasha and the Cerberus 7 were moving, it would almost be impossible to get in a clean shot without potentially hitting Natasha; which then would leave him at the mercy of two 'droids, if he wasn't quick enough to retire Fandral after hitting Natasha. But if he went after the Goddess 11 that too could out disastrous; any hesitation could easily get him killed.

"Fuck it." He blurted out under his breath, before he fell into a barrel roll, and managed to get past the fight without being drawn into it.

Unfortunately, his presence hadn't gone unnoticed by the Goddess 11 though. Tony barely begun to furl his body, when he was struck silly in the temple by the android's fist; the sheer power of the blow was enough to make him see stars, and knock any sound thought from his mind. Hell, he probably was already concussed from it.

Despite the brain jarring blow, Tony knew he couldn't recover for very long if he wanted to live. He managed by some miracle to roll out of the way of another well-timed blow, and scramble drunkenly onto his feet; although his vision wavered and danced, and made his stomach lurch unpleasantly.

The Goddess 11, or referred to as Sif, made another move to attack and was successful in her attempt too. She kicked out Tony's feet from underneath him, before attempting once more to punch him. Thankfully, he had managed to roll out of the trajectory of her fist at the last available moment.

He wasn't given much leeway to stand, so he was left to roll away from a rain of attacks. One of which he deflected with the body of his engine gun that didn't give way under her impressive strength; strength that an Odinson model really shouldn't have had, especially a Goddess 11 that seemed far more in tune with a pleasure model than anything else. Yet Little Hill had been a pleasure model too, and she had done enough destruction to go down in history.

By sheer luck, Tony managed to get back onto his feet; although he was struck by a wave of nausea and double vision almost immediately. His hands scrambled to grab onto the energy gun, before flipping on the power-up switch. The whirl of the gun was a relief to hear, but that didn't mean he'd gotten the upper-hand in the fight either.

The Goddess 11 was resilient; smart and clever enough to bear down on him, before his finger could find the trigger. She came close to bowling him over, which he narrowly missed with a quick side step. However, that gave him very little room to launch an attack of his own; the Goddess 11 stalked him and continued to throw potentially deadly blows at him with every move he made.

Despite his previous desire to go on the offensive, he hadn't any choice but to remain on the defensive side of things instead. All his efforts relied on perfectly executing each duck and block. His energy gun had become more of a shield than an actual weapon, and he was afraid that any given blow would damage the gun beyond repair (or in the very least during the actual scuffle).

He desperately needed an opening, a few seconds of distraction; anything really to shift attention away from him. That's all he needed was a few seconds, hell a split-second even. It was the only way to shift the tide, unless…

Several years ago, Tony had hacked into Odinson Corp's database for fun. While digging around for any inventive breakthroughs (which had been laughable), he'd come across many of the blueprints for their androids; one of which had been the Goddess line. And as was to be expected, the Goddess line had several weak spots that the company hadn't chosen to remedy.

The Goddess line wasn't known for their strength; they weren't built as sturdily as the Phoenix or Cerberus models. They were marketed to the colonies as more domestic workers (although everyone still highly suspected they were pleasure models in disguise), and that didn't make hard labor feasible for them. Well, unless you wanted the android to crumble in on itself, which would have been a poor investment to say the least. Yet that knowledge would prove to be an asset to him currently.

With a quick and forceful kick, Tony connected his foot with the Goddess 11's knee. Of course, it wasn't enough to cause any structural damage, and definitely not enough to paralysis the 'droid for more than a second or two. But it was enough for his purposes, and he didn't dawdle away his time either.

Once the Goddess 11 lurched backwards half a step, he quickly readjusted the energy gun in his hands and pointed the barrel at her. His finger found the trigger, as if they were old friends, and he pulled it without any hesitation whatsoever. And that was the moment when everything went to hell.

He struck the Goddess 11 square in the chest, but he was hardly given the chance to bask in his accomplishment. Not when he was suddenly hit, full body, by the weight of a freight train. The air was knocked completely out of his lungs, before falling unceremoniously to the cold hard ground. Even then he couldn't escape the heaviness that had displaced him to begin with.

The Cerberus 7 had somehow either fled Natasha's attack, or the worst case scenario being that he had finished her off. Either way, the android was now firmly perched on top of Tony and was threatening to break every bone in his body; if he chose to remain in place above him. There was no way Tony could even maneuver the energy gun to get a shot in; not with his arms locked awkwardly against the front of his body.

"Natasha," he rasped out, trying to feebly move underneath the android's weight. It was futile, though; there was no way he'd ever overpower a sentinel being.

The Cerberus 7 didn't remain idle for very long, though. The 'droid pushed himself up ever-so-slightly, giving Tony a little bit of breathing room, before he grabbed onto the side of his face with his hand. Those powerful and mechanical fingers dug painfully into his skin, progressively adding more and more pressure with every beat of Tony's heart.

Tony let out a pained noise, as he felt his skin break and gush with blood; warm and hot against his temple and cheek. He knew then, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was it. After years of luxury and safety, he was going to die on a run that he could have all but avoided. He was going to die doing an Odinson's bidding. God, what would Pepper think?

When the pain seemed to have increased a tenfold, and when Tony was sure the Cerberus 7 was about to crush his skull like it were an artificially modified grape; it all suddenly came to a halt. The familiar sound of metal and wire being pulled asunder wailed in his ears, before the hand on his face was abruptly ripped away.

Blearily, Tony looked up to see what exactly had transpired so quickly. The once fully intact Cerberus 7 was no more; the arm in which he had been so dead set on crushing Tony with was now missing, and in its place was a mess of broken wires and the sporadic spark of electricity. But that was only the beginning of the Cerberus 7's downfall.

Natasha tossed aside the 'droid's arm, before she lurched forward and yanked him off of Tony. Except that didn't seem to be enough; Natasha wrapped her arm around the Cerberus 7's neck, while her other hand wound into his mop of hair and pulled. The whine of metal was louder than before; loud enough to deafen a person, really.

The Cerberus 7 kicked and flailed, trying to free himself but to no avail. Natasha wouldn't let go, and Tony knew for a fact that she was by far one of the strongest androids currently in existence. So it really shouldn't have been a surprise that within a thirty second period, Natasha had violently tore her fellow android's head off. She grunted softly; a noise that Tony never heard her make before, and flung the 'droid's head aside as if it were nothing and did the same with the body afterwards too.

"My apologies, Mr. Stark; he damaged my face. I was temporarily disoriented, although I don't believe that is the correct terminology." Natasha explained, as she pushed away several crimson locks to display the damage that had been done.

Natasha's once flawless face had been gauged, no doubt in a similar fashion that Tony's had. The prosthetic skin had been tattered from the center of her cheek down to her jaw, and revealed both wires and her metal face plate underneath. It would take a while to fix, although Natasha had been in need of an aesthetic update for months now.

"An easy fix, don't worry your pretty little head about it." Tony groaned, gingerly pushing himself into a seated position. "Me, on the other hand, well that'll take a bit more time. I think that fucker might have cracked a rib or two; not to mention I think I have a concussion too."

"Let me assist you." Natasha crouched down beside him, and slid her arm around his back.

"Did I get the Goddess 11?"

"Yes, Mr. Stark; she has been deactivated."

"Good, at least I managed to do something right; you know, besides bleed all over the place." Tony bit back a cry of pain, as Natasha hoisted him onto his feet.

He leaned heavily onto Natasha, knowing full well that she could support his weight despite her petite form. His whole body ached and screamed, and he thought he might very well vomit if he moved an inch. But he didn't want to stay there any longer than he had to; not when he desperately needed medical attention, although it was a necessity.

"Give me a second, okay."

"Yes, of course."

"I'm kind of dizzy; so I just need a few to even out my equilibrium." Tony shook his head, before blinking several times to clear his vision. And that's when he saw it.

At first Tony thought it had been a trick of his concussed mind. Shadows had a way of playing with one's eyes too. But it was hard to deny the formidable figure that slipped from one point to the next; much too quickly to follow. Within half a second, it had appeared in front of them; tall and lithe and weirdly spider-like in its movements.

The dim light from the broken windows crossed over its face; a face that Tony had been so determined to see in person up until that point. Black and white paint covered the sharp features of the android's face, and drew particular attention to the poisonous green eyes that were ablaze with emotion.

Ultima Zero cocked his head to the side unnaturally; before he reached down to retrieve the Cerberus 7's headless body. As quickly as he appeared, Ultima Zero ripped open the neck panel on the retired 'droid's body and slipped a chip from it, and he repeated the process with the Goddess 11 too. It took less than twenty seconds, maybe even under fifteen.

The wayward android shot Tony one last look, and then slipped seamlessly into the shadows once more. His footfall was indiscernible above the crackle of sparks coming from the retired androids, and the never-ending thrum of Tony's heart.

"That was him, that was Ultima Zero." He croaked out, as he lurched forward, and pulled Natasha along with him. "Fuck, I should have shot him! You should have done something!"

"My key function is to ensure your safety, Mr. Stark."

"Well, fuck that for now! We can't let him go!"

"As you wish," Natasha moved forward and quickened her strides, even as Tony's feet stumbled over one another to keep up with her; but he knew he would find a way to keep up, if that meant finding Ultima Zero in a timely fashion.

Somehow they managed to climb down the stairs and ended back on the main floor. There wasn't any sign of Ultima Zero, though. He had all but disappeared as if in a cloud of smoke, which unearthed a nasty part of Tony that hadn't seen the light of day in years. The last time it had come out, Stane had been on the receiving end of his ire and that hadn't ended well for his former friend.

Before he could so much as curse his terrible luck, a bright light whitewashed through the broken windows and almost blinded Tony. Natasha practically dragged him out of the factory at that moment and into the pungent night air, where the source of the light originated. Half a mile away in a clunky hover car (although delivery van seemed a better description of it) had switched on its headlights, and had Ultima Zero in its sights.

The android stopped in his tracks, a figure draped in black; small and unimportant in the high beams of the hover car. But Tony found his attention was compromised by the person hanging from the passenger side window instead of Ultima Zero. Clint Barton, that pain in the ass, had his bow and arrow at the ready, and hurriedly shot at Ultima Zero's neck.

The arrow struck the side of Ultima Zero's neck, suddenly bursting on contact with an electrical shock; one powerful enough to cause Ultima Zero's body to cease up and convulse wildly for several moments, until it dropped into an unruly heap to the ground. Tony gaped in shock, as he watched the infamous Ultima Zero twitch and spasm but otherwise remain unmoving and within reach of Barton.

"Got the motherfucker," Barton hooted, as he scrambled out the window with a rope in hand, and leapt the short distance to the ground. "Let's get this fucker back to Odinson; the electrical shock will short circuit him soon enough."

Barton quickly secured the rope around Ultima Zero's waist; he then looped his arm around him, and took possession of the rope with his free hand. Coulson, no doubt the driver, reeled in the rope (albeit the probability he was doing so manually was low); lifting Barton and Ultima Zero skyward, until they were level with the window.

Coulson appeared for a split-second, helping his partner and the heavy weighted android into the interior of the hover car. They accomplished the feat gracelessly, though. Barton disappeared in a heap of limbs inside, only to crop up a few moments later and struggle to pull Ultima Zero inside. But they managed to procure the 'droid that Tony had come out of retirement for; the 'droid that was rightfully his.

White-hot rage eclipsed the pain of his injuries; Tony disentangled himself from Natasha, and broke into a gallop towards the hover car. He hadn't any clue what he'd do once he crossed the distance between him and the vehicle, but he would be damned if he idly stood by and watched Barton and Coulson take Ultima Zero away from him.

"Look who it is, Phil; legendary blade runner Tony Stark!" Barton popped up in the passenger seat once more, grinning toothily. "You look pretty rugged, old man! I'd check up on those injuries if I were you!"

"You motherfucker, you piece of shit,"

"Better luck next time!" Barton chortled and gave him a dismissive wave. "Ultima Zero's ours,"

The hover car lifted higher than it already had been, up into the air beyond Tony's reach; it then circled above, before flying away into the thick cloud of pollution. Tony couldn't help but let out a scream; a loud and blood curdling one. He had lost him; he'd lost Ultima Zero. All that hard work had been for nothing and the Odinsons had made a fool out of him. And he would never forget that. He couldn't possibly forget that, as much as he couldn't forget what Obadiah Stane had done to him. But this time around, he couldn't butcher the entire Odinson family as he had Stane; he couldn't sever each member of the family limb by limb and bask in their wails of pain and agony. No he lost fair and square and there was no one to blame but himself.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Seventeen :: Lost Opportunity

 


 

Clint Barton had been called many things; ruffian, low life, inept, and boy most recently. He'd been belittled and made to feel less than his contemporaries, but that was ancient history now. Because he had had a goal, stuck with it, and achieved it. He and Phil were now in possession of the one and only Ultima Zero.

To be honest, it had all been thanks to Phil and his network of orphans that they had been successful. They had been the ones to pass along the information that several 'droids had been seen in the former factory district of the city. And Phil had been the one to convince Clint that the tip was a legitimate one.

Had Clint dismissed Phil's persistency, they would have undoubtedly lost out. Tony Stark had been on Ultima Zero's tail when they arrived; a bloody mess with that pretty little assistant of his, who kept Clint up at night on more than one occasion; even if Phil destroyed the dream by telling him she was a 'droid. But they had gotten there first; they had subdued that pesky android and now had him in their possession, thanks to a job well done.

It had been a lucky break, where everything had fallen nicely into place. They had arrived at the perfect moment, had borrowed a friend's delivery van only two days before, and had been equipped with everything they could have possibly needed. The only thing that hadn't been about luck was Clint's aim; now that was a skill he had honed for years, and it paid off in spades today.

"How long will it take to short circuit the android's mother board?" Phil asked, as he wove seamlessly through the sporadic traffic, the perpetual pollution, and the occasional hovering billboard.

"Probably should have already,"

"Before we contact Odinson, you should make sure the android's been deactivated. We know very little about this particular make, and it's better to be safe than sorry."

"For fuck's sake, Phil," Clint shot his partner a sideways glance. "Regardless of the make or model, everything with a mother board will fry with that much of an electrical current running through them. I don't care if this bozo's the most sophisticated piece of machinery in existence; he isn't about to wake up from that one."

"Better safe than sorry, Clint."

"I know what my arrows can do." He returned stubbornly.

Sometimes it proved to be a difficulty to work with Phil. They were inherently different people; Phil was overly cautious and trusted far too easily, whereas Clint was spontaneous and hardly relied on anyone to get him through life. He'd been screwed over way too many times to actually be stupid enough to trust a soul; well, beyond Phil that is.

In this instance, Clint hadn't any paranoia about the short circuited android behind them. Ultima Zero was fried; he wasn't about to get up any time soon, and wreak havoc as he had for weeks. He was just a clunky piece of shrapnel now with a creepy face. God only knew what Odinson Corp was thinking when they detailed Ultima Zero with that paint job.

"Wonder what's so special about him; doesn't look any different from any other 'droid."

"The details don't interest me, to be honest." Phil maneuvered the delivery van around a huge billboard with an advertisement for one of the colonies. "I was never well-versed in that high tech babble anyway. It might as well be a different language for all I know."

"Never been into tech like that either, but I never had to be. Besides look how good it's done Tony Stark. He couldn't even catch the big prize." Clint chuckled, unable to hide how pleased he was to have gotten the upper hand on the veteran runner.

Tony Stark had been revered for his work as a blade runner, more so even for his technological genius. Everyone knew his name, admired him even. And all the attention had made the bastard's head way too big for his own good. So Clint was particularly proud of himself for teaching the cocky jerk a lesson.

"There isn't any reason to gloat, you know." Phil scolded, as if Clint was a snot-nosed brat.

"Do you even want to argue over Tony Stark? Do you really, Phil? Because the last time I checked, he was the reason you're in this shitty business with me in the first place; you know with all due respect."

"I know about my circumstance all too well, Clint. But there isn't any reason to be obnoxious about it either. Luck was on our side, and yes it was luck. I had an informant in the right place at the right time, and we were close enough to receive the tip."

"Why do you have to be such a party pooper all the time? I know all of that, but I also know not every fucker claiming to be a runner could pull off what we did."

"Whether I like Tony Stark or not, he obviously wasn't at one-hundred percent. He was covered in blood; half of his face was red."

"Semantics, semantics," Clint scowled at his partner. "Can you please give me this one moment? Would that kill you?"

Phil didn't reply, which meant that no it would not, in fact, kill him; and well, maybe he realized it wasn't so bad to let Clint gloat a bit about their catch. It wasn't every day that they outwitted other runners for a huge payday. Not to mention, they had a one way ticket off the shitty planet, and onto one of the most luxurious colonies out there. There was a reason to celebrate.

This was their only opportunity to leave Earth, and join the thousands who lived healthy lives. Slum people would never have the chance to ascend; they were meant to be forgotten and die away within the next twenty years. No one would mourn either Clint or Phil, and they hadn't anything to tether them here either. But they had opportunities on Colony IV; they could rebuild their lives there and just live for once without any worries.

Clint wanted nothing more than that. His life hadn't been terribly good, having been born in the debris that was Philadelphia. In the very least, he hadn't been a down and out slum kid. Yet he wasn't lucky enough to be rich either, which eventually led him to New York and him somehow falling into the less than lucrative running business.

"Could you please keep your gloating to a minimum, at least until we hand over the android to Odinson? I don't have a very good feeling about him. He's unnerving." Phil spoke up once more, although his voice sounded slightly uneasy.

"Come on, Phil. Everything's dandy," Clint replied, before a loud boom sounded above their heads; as if something had been dropped onto the roof of the delivery van. "What the fuck?"

The words barely left his lips, when the van was almost forced into a tailspin. Someone had shot at them; more specifically someone had shot a huge gaping hole into the roof of the van, and filled the compartment with pungent stench of pollution and the promise of rain.

Whirling around in his seat while Phil cursed up a blue streak, Clint saw the culprit leap into the bed of the van; carrying a high tech energy gun in their hands. The culprit was dressed completely in back and looked especially haggard today, but recognizable all the same. It was that fucker Barnes, who quickly straddled Ultima Zero, like that would mark his territory effectively.

Barnes lifted the energy gun, which purred like an electric kitten; the only difference was that this kitten could blow their faces off instead of cuddle you. It wouldn't be a pleasant way to go, to say the least. And Barnes looked crazed enough to go trigger happy at any given moment too.

"Sorry gentlemen, but you seem to have something that I want." Barnes smiled mirthlessly at Clint.

"How the fuck did you even know about this, asshole?" Clint blurted out, knowing full well that there wasn't any chance of him leveling out the playing field with an arrow. Barnes would shoot him before he could even reach for his quiver that was conveniently between his feet currently.

"You aren't the only ones with informants around. Besides it's easier to share them than look for new ones."

"What do you mean by that?" Phil took his eyes away from the sky to look at Barnes for a second.

"Please, do you think that any goddamn orphan has any loyalty? They only care about who can pay them the highest. And well, two paydays are better than one, old man." Barnes laughed, as he stepped backwards and shoved open the backdoors.

The city flashed by brightly; a dizzying display of neon and tall buildings. More importantly, Clint spotted a horribly beaten up hover car tailing close behind them. He couldn't see who was piloting it, but something told him it was Barnes's partner Rogers.

"You mean to tell me those little fucks have been playing double agent on us?" Clint couldn't help but ask, already beginning to seethe. "I'll kill them; every single one of them! I knew we shouldn't have trusted them, Phil. I fucking knew it!"

"Shit luck, Barton," Barnes trained the energy gun on them with one hand, while he motioned with the other to the hover car that was close behind them. "But that isn't my concern. I have an android to drop off at Odinson Corp."

Just as the beaten up hover car sped up to the bumper of the delivery van, something caught Clint's eye. It looked like Ultima Zero had moved, little more than a twitch really. It might have been a trick of the eye, especially since his arrow would have taken the 'droid out of commission forever. There was no way he could have still been functioning after that electrical charge. It was impossible.

Clint shifted his gaze back onto Barnes, who stood above Ultima Zero still; although his attention was split in between the hover car and Clint and Phil. That was probably why he didn't notice the twitch, or the second one, or the final one that led to Ultima Zero lifting his head in an unnatural and terrifying way. It was a sharp jerky movement and a roll, which revealed his narrowed eyes that looked more human than machine, and they looked insane.

"Watch-" Clint tried to warn Barnes, but he wasn't quick enough.

Ultima Zero struck in a split-second; so damn fast that Clint couldn't even follow it. One minute Barnes had been standing and the next, he was lying on the floor; sprawled out and yelling out some of the most vulgar sentiments that had the power to make even Clint blush. And Ultima Zero was the one looming above Barnes now, hands clenching and unclenching, as if he wanted nothing more than to rip Barnes apart.

"Son of a bitch," Phil suddenly shouted, swerving the van violently; yet it wasn't enough to displace Ultima Zero. Well, if that was what he was trying to do anyway. "No, no, no!"

Before Clint could ask his partner what was happening, he found out the answer rather quickly. It hadn't anything to do with the newly mobilized android about to kill a fellow runner, who had conveniently shot a hole in the van's roof. No, instead it accumulated into the sound of shattering glass, and the windshield breaking into a thousand little pieces; thanks to a black and red blur that rolled acrobatically across the van's floor and came to an elegant halt somehow.

It was Stark's android; the beautiful redhead that made several appearances in Clint's fantasies. She looked tattered and unkempt, and in severe need of repairs. Part of her face had been clawed open to reveal her innermost workings and display irrefutable proof that she wasn't a human after all.

She stood from her crouch and rushed at Ultima Zero, a small but formidable opponent; although she was not in the same league as the android everyone was vying for. Ultima Zero expertly turned around and blocked every one of her attacks, as if she was hardly a force to be reckoned with. Then again, this android, whatever he was, didn't seem possible at all.

"Fuck me," Barnes managed to scramble onto his knees when he was able to, and pointed his energy gun onto the two androids that were consumed in their fight. Or that's what it looked like to the naked eye; except that wasn't the case by a long shot.

Ultima Zero surprised Clint again, no less everyone who was watching him to an extent; as he continued to block Stark's toy's attacks, one of his impossibly long legs shot out and connected with Barnes's chest. It was a solid kick, probably not hard enough to break his sternum; but it was hard enough to send him somersaulting backwards, and onto the very edge of the van's bed.

Barnes made a startled noise, trying to pull himself into a seated position; which proved to be impossible with the added weight of the energy gun across his chest. And then Phil swerved again; a hard swerve that practically threw Clint out of his seat. He heard it then, a yell that could only mean that Barnes had been thrown to his death.

Scrambling uncoordinatedly for his bow and quiver, Clint managed to hoist himself back into seat and observe the mayhem that was still underway. Things had progressed fairly rapidly in that time frame too. The fight between the androids had come to an abrupt halt. Stark's toy was now hanging halfway out of the van, holding onto the side of the door; while the hover car piloted by Rogers dipped out of sight suddenly.

Even more peculiar than that was the flashy red and gold 'droid, who was now standing a foot away from Ultima Zero. The 'droid wasn't particularly sophisticated; it hardly looked human like the rest of them. Hell, it looked more like a suit of armor that had formerly been used in military operations in the late twenty-first century. Surely, there had been something mentioned about those models in the history books, but Clint had always been a horrible student and barely retained a thing when it came to his basic education.

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. The game ends here, asshole." The android spoke, before hitting Ultima Zero with an energy blast that threw him unceremoniously into the back of Phil's seat.

Phil lurched forward by the impact, hitting the wheel chest-first with a pained noise; yet he somehow managed to keep the delivery van in the sky, despite the sudden onslaught of unexpected visitors. The guy really deserved a medal of some kind of keeping them all mostly intact.

As the nondescript android stepped closer, Clint had the common sense to whip out his bow and arrow. But that didn't deter the 'droid from picking up Ultima Zero, and throwing him over his shoulder like the prize that he was.

"Put down that 'droid, motherfucker!" He demanded, while training his arrow onto the clunky piece of metal. "These arrows will short circuit your mother board in twenty seconds flat!"

"Because it worked so well with Ultima Zero, boy," the 'droid replied dismissively, maybe even smugly. "Besides this baby doesn't have a mother board, and even if you hit me with your fancy little card trick, I have a back-up energy source. And by the time you shoot a second arrow, I'd be out of here. So go on, try; waste your precious arrow that probably costs an arm and a leg for a slummer like you."

"Stark…?"

"At least you aren't that fucking stupid, after all Barton." The 'droid, no Stark, said; before he dashed across the bed of the van with heavy steps. "Time to make our exit, sweet-cheeks,"

Stark's toy was still halfway out of the van, only remaining rooted into the spot by her grip on the door. That all changed though, when she released her hold and grabbed for Stark's red and gold hand. She almost plummeted into retirement, but was snatched up by Stark not a second too soon; which was the perfect opportunity for Clint to shoot.

The arrow flew seamlessly through the air, its destination the back of Stark's neck. Clint knew that Stark's word had to be a bluff; hell, for all he knew that wasn't even Stark in there. It was more than likely an unsophisticated android that Stark was piloting from a safe and undisclosed location. So Clint had to take the shot; he had to take the risk, if he wanted to keep his and Phil's nest egg safe.

The arrow missed its mark.

Stark leapt from the back of the van, as the arrow whistled a quarter of an inch past him. And Clint could only watch as the 'droid, maybe Stark, soared into the open air; carrying Ultima Zero over his shoulder and clinging to his redheaded toy with his spare hand. That's when Clint saw what Stark's toy had been holding onto all that time; the reason she had abandoned her fight with her fellow android.

Barnes clung desperately to her forearm, looking whiter than a ghost. His eyes were blown wide, and his mouth set in an anxious line; which no one could truly fault him for, especially when Stark flew higher and higher and out of sight. But the beaten up hover car of Rogers wasn't far behind; nor was the man himself, who was somehow flying the clunker and hanging out the driver's side window simultaneously.

"Jesus Christ," Phil blurted out then, effectively drawing Clint's attention away from the heaviness of their shared defeat.

His partner was shaken, looking worse for wear than even Barnes. Phil's face had been speckled with tiny cuts, no doubt from when Stark's little toy flew through the windshield. Thankfully Phil hadn't seemed to have accumulated anything too serious from that debacle. Or at least, it didn't appear so by a quick once over that Clint gave him.

"The van, it's ruined. Sitwell's going to kill us." Phil laughed abruptly, loud and breathless; probably in an attempt not to cry. And Clint couldn't help but follow his lead; he laughed in a way that could only be described as hysterical.

He had to laugh, to burn away the excess emotion. Because he knew once they returned Sitwell's delivery van, it wouldn't be very funny anymore. But more importantly, it wouldn't be remotely comical when Clint thought about what they'd just lost; that he and Phil lost the opportunity for a better life, all thanks to Tony Stark. And there was nothing they could do about it either.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Eighteen :: Wires and Bolts

 


 

How many times had he cheated death; once, twice, half a dozen times maybe? Bucky couldn't say with any certainty; sickness, malnourishment, brutal beatings, and incidents with a highly volatile android were only a few of the things he experienced over the years. But he hadn't been more convinced of his death than when he fell from Coulson and Barton's delivery van.

The putrid stench of the city and the smell of an oncoming storm had filled his nostrils; he had even tasted it. Underneath the thin coppery taste of blood, he had tasted the decay of an entire planet; the poverty of so many that it had almost become a philosophical experience. He had been intimately connected to the hopelessness, the sadness, the pain that resonated through those dilapidated buildings and murky alleyways.

In those brief moments, Bucky had experienced a lifetime; not his own per se, but so many people's that he had known. He'd remembered parentless kids his age; the girl with almond shaped eyes and knobby knees, the boy with a birthmark that took up most of the left side of his face, and the ratty looking twins who played nasty tricks on all of them. He'd remembered ugly adults with devious eyes, and jovial old ladies that tried to make the best of an awful situation. And then he had remembered her; eyes devoid of emotion, face pretty but blank, and the way her fingers squeezed around his neck…

Before he'd delved too much into that memory, no less became another splatter on the crumbled pavement down below, something had stopped his fall. One moment he'd helplessly floundered for something solid to grasp onto in the chilly nighttime air, and the next moment something had found him. It had been solid and relentless and held onto him with the power of twenty men.

Ludicrously enough, he had thought Steve had saved him. That maybe he'd finally abandoned that goddamn hover car, Dolores, and had taken up the initiative. He had feverously hoped so, although it couldn't have been any further from the truth; especially when he'd mustered the courage to look up and found a delicately painted, redheaded 'droid holding onto him as if he weighed nothing.

The android had been a familiar one; it had been the one who frequently tailed Tony Stark. She was a beaut to say the least; probably Stark's most advanced piece of machinery currently in existence. Even with the synthetic skin tattered across one of her cheeks; Bucky had been able to appreciate all the work that had been put into her, and how she had literally become his lifeline.

The fact that he hadn't any choice but to submit to a sentinel being's will had been terrifying. His track record with androids wasn't very good, to be honest. And for years he had harbored both a fascination and fear of anything that wasn't good 'ol flesh and bone; which was why blade running seemed like such an appealing career choice. Then again there was very little someone of his intelligence could do beyond manual labor.

Bucky had feared that the 'droid would drop him at any given moment, particularly when an army issued android had taken possession of the redhead. Thankfully, he'd been spared that fate; Stark's ever-faithful companion had held onto him without any hesitation at all, even as they'd weaved between skyscrapers and through plumes of pollution, and were chased by the clunker that was Dolores.

Steve had been hanging halfway out of the window, yelling nonsensical things that were soon swept away by the wind. Bucky had been fairly certain, Steve had wanted him to miraculously disengage from the potentially fatal android and try his luck jumping onto the hover car's hood. But that had seemed stupider than remaining latched to Stark's 'droid, and while Bucky couldn't possibly tote the fact he was an intellect; he sure the hell knew how to survive.

So he had held onto the redhead and she'd held onto him, for god only knew how long. It had felt like an eternity, though; his muscles had burned and screamed, and he'd felt light-headed more than once. The sensation of absolutely nothing rooting you into place had been unnerving; yet he'd managed not to fall victim to a full-blown panic attack.

When he had believed the strain had been far too much for his body and he really was about to die, Bucky soon found himself within clear sight of the infamous Stark Tower. It was a sleek building made of chrome and blacked-out glass; far different than Odinson Corp's gaudy headquarters. It remained to be seen if Bucky was any danger currently, though. Well, beyond the obvious anyway.

As the army issued android ascended higher than previously, Bucky permitted himself to look up despite the vertigo that struck him almost immediately. The redhead's eyes were pinned on him in a way that was strangely curious; beyond her the red and gold 'droid was in possession of a very familiar piece of cargo that made Bucky's blood run cold. Ultima Zero appeared to be immobilized, but god only knew if that was truly the case or even for how long.

The likelihood that Bucky could somehow shift the situation into his favor was slim. He was a bruised and battered ragdoll at the moment, and he really couldn't take on three androids all at once; no matter if he had the best energy gun on the market strapped uncomfortably across his back. Not even Steve could pull off that sort of feat, and he was almost super-human.

Soon the link of androids that kept him from a messy death hovered above the rooftop of Stark Tower. Bucky let out a sigh of gratitude when they began to descend. His feet skimmed across the asphalt, although the hold on his arm didn't lessen an iota. In fact, Stark's android refused to release him; even when they both were firmly grounded within seconds of one another.

Bucky's legs couldn't hold him up for very long, though. He collapsed onto his knees, and hardly registered the sound of the army issued android's landing. But he was still aware of that impenetrable hold on his arm and the redhead's looming presence; which made him wonder if Stark had wanted him for other purposes, although he didn't know what for.

"I'll let you handle things here, sweet-cheeks. I need to get this fucker contained, before he can pull a quick one on me." The red and gold android announced, as he strode with thunderous steps towards the door across the way from where Bucky and the redhead were.

The mechanical whirl of the 'droid's movements seemed so much louder than the noise of the city. Maybe because it was a lost opportunity, when some piece of mind was on the cusp for once in his life. Whatever it was Bucky knew it was pointless to try and analyze it too much. The money would have been great in terms of a better life, but nothing really would have changed anyway.

He was a gutter rat and he wasn't about to change for money. Steve already knew that he wasn't going anywhere, no matter how much money they could have potentially made if they caught Ultima Zero. There really wasn't a future for someone like him. Hell, there probably wasn't a future for Steve, not when he was stuck so far in the past still.

When the other 'droid disappeared with Ultima Zero slung over its shoulder, Bucky glimpsed up at Stark's creation. Her eyes were still on him, and she tilted her head similarly to a few grainy videos he'd seen of animals back in the twenty-first century. Steve had told him once how he had a dog, some breed called a golden something or another, named Clover that always tilted its head like that.

"James Buchanan Barnes," the redhead said without any inflection. "You're safe now."

"Yeah, thanks." He managed to say, even though his heart had leapt into his throat.

It had been years since he'd actually spoken to a sentinel being. None of them were worth talking to, let alone being nice to. And the last incident when he had been especially nice to one, ended up badly. Luckily the nightmares had stopped by sheer power of will, alongside a good portion of his childhood memories too.

"Your heart rate is very high; might I recommend taking deep and measured breaths?"

"Sounds like a plan," he tried to pull away, but to no avail. Stark's android seemed content to hold onto him still, and he couldn't even understand why.

Half a dozen thoughts spiraled inside his head; Stark really hadn't any use for him. Unless his connection to Steve was somehow relevant, in which case that made some sense; otherwise, he was pretty much expendable. Steve, on the other hand, was not and he was valiant and stupid enough to fight for Bucky if push came to shove.

For whatever reason, Steve thought he was worth something. Ever since they've known one another, Steve had been unapologetic on his praise towards Bucky. When there was absolutely nothing about him worthwhile or even noteworthy for that matter.

"I imagine you've acquired several injuries from your ill-advised skirmish with Ultima Zero. May I assist you, James Buchanan Barnes? Mr. Stark has a fully equipped medical center on the twenty-second floor of Stark Industries; I can see to your care immediately."

"That isn't necessary."

"While you might not feel the effects of your injuries currently, once your adrenaline levels return to normal; you will, in fact, experience pain."

"A little pain never killed anyone."

"Negative, James Buchanan Barnes; it has and will many times over."

"That's a turn of speech, it's wasn't meant to be taken literally." Bucky took in another deep breath, in a futile attempt to slow his pulse.

Despite it having been a long time ago, he still remembered the smoky private rooms and lecherous stares from his time at Electric Pleasures; although one of the most notable memories was how synthetic skin felt against his fingers. No matter how well you built a pleasure model, they weren't human; he could vouch for that in so many ways.

Being so close to a female 'droid wasn't doing him any favors now either, especially one that looked almost human. He knew she would taste metallic and dry, that her pupils wouldn't dilate, and her body couldn't possibly mold into his. She was a machine with a face; a computer without a soul. She was nothing and everything and that was terrifying and thrilling and maddening.

Maria had once been this genial too. She had been matter-of-fact but not unkind; she had even expressed what could have been concern towards him on a few different occasions. He had considered her a friend until she tried to kill him with her bare hands all those years ago.

The only reason why he was even alive today was because something had distracted her; someone far more worthy of her time maybe, although Bucky never knew who it was or why. He wasn't exactly sure it was for the better that he even survived.

"Your heart rate seems to be increasing." The redhead said, as she seamlessly eased into a crouch beside him; close enough that he could smell a flowery aroma coming off of her. She almost smelled human.

"I'm fine; better than fine. I'm alive."

"Allow me to assist you in any way that I can."

"I'm fine." He repeated tersely, before the familiar moans and groans of Steve's hover car reached his ears. Dolores appeared on the eastern side of the building; a glorious heap of mismatched parts and exhaust fumes, and it was the most beautiful thing Bucky had ever seen.

He hobbled unsteadily onto his feet, followed closely by Stark's creation. It seemed pointless to try and shake her off or even ask her to let go. Reasoning with androids hadn't proven very effective for him in the past, and it wasn't worth the effort now. Or maybe fear was the only thing keeping him quiet. Because there was always the possibility that she could snap just like Maria had.

As the clunker of a hover car drew nearer, Bucky noticed Steve had taken to practically hanging all the way out of the window. His eyes were round as dinner plates and his face was ghostly pale. Steve knew, after all, the dangers of artificial intelligence and he was vaguely aware of Bucky's history with the androids. So one could only assume the worst while tethered to a ticking time bomb, that had kicked her way into a delivery van to retrieve Ultima Zero.

"Bucky," Steve called out over the commotion of the hover car. "God almighty, Buck; are you okay?"

"I'd feel much better if we'd actually gotten what we came for." He yelled back, as Dolores finally touched down onto the empty launch pad.

The engine barely died down, before Steve launched himself out from behind the steering wheel. His arm was thrown protectively over Bucky in seconds, as if that would somehow remedy the madness that had transpired over the past few hours. But the damage had already been done, and Bucky knew Stark's android was right in terms of his injuries. He might not have felt them now but he would soon enough and in a bad way.

"How can you even think about a payday when you almost died?" Steve asked against his mop of sweaty hair. "It was a mistake from the beginning; I shouldn't have let you talk me into it. You could have died more than once, and you almost did. How could I have been so stupid?"

"Stop with the dramatics, okay; I'm alive."

"But you could have died and for what; money? Happiness isn't bought with currency, Bucky."

"At least we wouldn't be bitten by vermin when we sleep." Bucky managed to break Steve's embrace, even if he didn't like the expression on his friend's face. "It was a seamless idea, you know that. But Stark got the upper hand on us, and there's nothing we can do about it."

"Hope isn't lost entirely, Buck."

"Hope was in the pockets of Odinson Corp. Now all we have is Hammer Company's spare change."

"Bucky,"

"Can we skip all the bullshit, okay? We lost the game; the dream's over." He scoffed and tugged on his arm that the 'droid hadn't given up on yet.

Stark's creation tilted her head to the side again, which seemed to indicate she didn't know why he'd like possession of his limb again. Regardless of how fully functional an android might have been, some of the minor details seemed to have eluded them entirely. They weren't humans and they weren't built to feel. How could you make a pile of wires and bolts feel anyway?

For a flicker of a second, Bucky felt a slip in his resolve though. Maria had seemed to be able to feel some extent of happiness and terror and reservation. She had also seemed to feel compassion too; she had apologized to him every time a beady-eyed customer paid them for a live show. She had comforted him. And the redhead now looked almost reluctant to let him go, as if that was the last thing she ever wanted to do but not out of duty's sake, but something more.

"I have to go, Red. You saved my life; I won't forget that."

"Natasha,"

"What?"

"My name's Natasha, James Buchanan Barnes." She said without any inflection still. "Please call me, Natasha."

"Then stop calling me James Buchanan Barnes."

"James,"

"No one calls me that."

"May I?"

"Just because you saved my life," he tugged on his arm again; this time she let go thankfully. "I owe you one, Natasha."

Quickly Bucky moved away and was followed closely by Steve. Something didn't sit very well with him in terms of Stark's android, and he really didn't want to think about it. Because he knew he'd be plagued by unnecessary reminders of Maria and the terrible things that transpired over the years.

Being too close to androids was never a wise decision; they were dangerous and unpredictable. Natasha was no different than Ultima Zero, and she definitely wasn't any different than Maria and the thousands of Stark androids that ran rampant and killed and maimed so many people. Then again maybe she wasn't exactly like Ultima Zero; Steve had some outlandish theories about Ultima Zero that made Bucky's skin crawl.

"This is for the better, Bucky. I don't want to know if I'm right." Steve chimed in softly, as they got closer to the hover car. "I'm just happy that you're safe."

"But you're terrified that Stark has another Peggy Carter on his hands."

"Peggy was Peggy; there isn't anyone else like her in all of space and time." Steve frowned, as he rounded Dolores. "But a cyborg is a different story altogether. And while we don't have Ultima Zero in our possession, Tony Stark isn't a stupid man. We'll be back."

"You mean if your theory is correct." Bucky retorted and felt immediate unease as Steve slipped back behind the wheel without another word.

Glancing over his shoulder, Bucky noticed Natasha hadn't left her post still. Her eyes, a reflective and deep blue, were trained on him in a way that could either be very bad or very impossible. His heart leapt into his throat again, as he blindly eased open the door to the hover car, and pulled his energy gun off his back, and slipped inside.

Even while in the familiar comforts of the car, he still felt uncomfortable and a little dizzy. He didn't want to think about the past few hours anymore. He especially didn't want to give any thought to his past either. But that didn't stop all those things from polluting his mind. They tailed him and bit at his heels, and he felt true fear for the second time since Maria tried to kill him and almost succeeded.

Natasha was bad news; he could feel it.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Nineteen :: Who Are You?

 


 

The rain finally arrived in a loud clap of thunder, and a rhythmic pitter-patter on the roof. Tony had been in the middle of freeing himself from the stifling confines of his armor, when he first heard it. He was relieved to know he'd captured Ultima Zero without any further obstacles than the ones that he already experienced. God only knew how one unexpected factor could have muddled up his messily put-together plan of attack.

When he had lost Ultima Zero to Barton and Coulson, he threw together a counter-attack; which could have easily gotten him killed if everything hadn't played out as he had hoped it would. There were, of course, some hiccups along the way but nothing too daunting. He hadn't expected Rogers and Barnes to crop up; nor had he anticipated for Natasha saving Barnes just in the nick of time.

Thankfully that hadn't prevented him from taking possession of the wayward android, and bringing him back in one piece to his laboratory; where he had quickly tethered and strapped Ultima Zero down, so when he did boot up again, he couldn't cause any unnecessary damage. But he couldn't anticipate if it could hold him for very long either.

Ultima Zero's specs were unknown still; he was a mystery and Tony was determined to find out everything he could about him. He intended on disassembling him piece by piece, and studying his motherboard until he could potentially replicate what Odinson Corp had done in order to create such a powerful entity. He was certain that he could make another Ultima Zero, once he had all the right components for the job. Hell, it would probably be even better than the original in his able hands.

Once he finished stripping away the suit, Tony crossed the lab to where Ultima Zero was. The android was in a seated position in a chair soldered to the ground. The initial purpose of the chair was to serve as Natasha's newest docking station, but she would have to go without for the time being. Since it was the only thing that seemed reasonable to hold Ultima Zero for now, especially since he wanted to tinker with his neck panel for a bit before bed.

"You really put me through the wringer, you little shit." He mumbled, while studying the android from afar; which proved to be the best course of action, when Ultima Zero raised his hand with the fluidity of a live being.

It was eerie how the 'droid moved; Natasha couldn't even move as gracefully as Ultima Zero did. And that raised more questions than answers; if any android could have achieved that sort of fluidity, it would have been Stark Industries one not Odinson Corp. No matter how brilliant Dr. Banner was, Tony had full confidence that he would have achieved that sort of brilliance before him. Although, he hadn't thought of portable battery ports and Banner had; so maybe his point was moot.

"You know Odinson Corp wants you back." He said conversationally, as he made a beeline for one of his many workbenches, and picked up a screwdriver. "The company's CEO wants you in full working condition, but the company's PR rep wants you retired. While I, on the other hand, have totally different plans for you; mostly which revolve around disassembly and seeing how you even exist,"

Ultima Zero eyed him but said nothing. In fact, Tony hadn't heard much of anything from the android during their run-in with one another. The other 'droids had been vocal to an extent; perhaps they hadn't felt compelled to recite soliloquies but they had made some sort of sound. Yet Ultima Zero hadn't made a single sound that he could remember.

Walking back to his former spot, Tony rolled the screwdriver between his fingers. Ultima Zero didn't react one way or another; his face was perfectly blank. He still looked feral due to the shoddy paint job, although he didn't make any sudden movements. He simply sat there and waited for whatever torture Tony was about to subject him to.

"Maybe your vocal function got fried." Tony finally approached, circling the chair cautiously so he stood behind the speechless 'droid. "I wouldn't be surprised; no matter how well-built an android is they're only as good as their creator. And you, my friend, were conceived and built by Odinson Corp."

He pushed away Ultima Zero's messy mop of hair to reveal the panel at the back of his neck; before running his fingers across the crease with care. The synthetic skin was warm, almost room temperature. But there was obviously a good explanation for that; Ultima Zero was probably overheating and draining his battery life by the minute.

With some tinkering, Tony popped open the panel and peered inside. It wasn't like anything he'd ever seen before; Ultima Zero's control panel seemed to be carved into the back of his neck rather than installed there. The panel was bone-white and hadn't any visible way to recharge his battery; the only thing there was, was a slot to slip microchips into. But otherwise he hadn't a self-destruct function or anything that an android was supposed to have.

Confused, he closed the panel before walking around to stare at Ultima Zero. Poison green eyes were focused on him; unblinking and emotionless pools that made Tony's skin crawl. For a split-second, the android seemed to be both human and machine; an unholy union of two things that shouldn't be wed.

"What are you?" Tony whispered out the sentiment, but knew the android heard him. Ultima Zero tilted his head to the side unnaturally and continued to stare at him without pause. And then he smiled a twisted little smile that looked so much wider because of the black tint to his lips.

Tony backpedaled away from Ultima Zero. His heart leapt into his throat and he realized he really didn't know what he'd gotten himself into. The only thing he knew for certain was that he needed to take Ultima Zero offline as soon as possible; he just needed to figure out how which he knew he could.

Every machine had an off-switch; Ultima Zero was no different in that respect. It might just be harder to find and activate; after all, Ultima Zero was a very important asset to Odinson Corp, and it would be foolish to make things easy on someone who wanted to shut him down for good.

Just as he approached his workbench once more, Tony caught sight of Natasha coming through the elevator doors. Her focus immediately zeroed in on her fellow android, whose face had gone back to normal and no longer was toting a creepy smile.

"Did you handle the situation upstairs, sweet-cheeks?" He asked as casually as he could, although his heart pounded unnaturally fast in his chest still.

"Everything has been taken of, Mr. Stark." Natasha informed him and came to stand beside him. "Have you learned anything from Ultima Zero?"

"Seems like his vocal function is fried, but he has the scary-ass grin to make up for it. He is some kind of freak show, if you ask me." He tossed the screwdriver onto the table, while spying his other tools; and wracking his brain for where he could conceivably start in terms of shutting Ultima Zero down.

As he considered every possibility known to him and even some fantastical ones, Tony barely noticed as Natasha drifted away from him. Soon enough she'd have to be shut down for the evening; he suspected that she was already running on low, due in part to all the physicality she had been subjected to today. But Natasha knew when she reached her limits, so he didn't worry when it came down to that.

The most pressing matter was Ultima Zero right now. He couldn't imagine leaving him unattended to while he slept. JARVIS might have proved to be a decent babysitter in terms of Natasha; yet she was tame in comparison to an unusual entity like Ultima Zero. And it would be better to have him completely immobile for Tony's own protection.

When he didn't find any feasible ideas in his head, Tony pulled up several of Odinson Corp's blueprints and data on the current line of androids they mass produced. Detailed descriptions of the Cerberus, Phoenix, Goddess, and the defunct Exodus models cropped up in front of Tony's eyes. He sped read through the specs and capabilities of each model, but didn't see anything unusual about them that coincided exactly with Ultima Zero.

"Not a goddamn hint," he muttered, as he glimpsed sideways at Ultima Zero. It wasn't the sight he had expected to see either. Natasha had kneeled in front of the other android, and was wiping at his face with a towel; being oddly gentle with him to boot.

The likelihood that Ultima Zero could do any withstanding damage to Natasha currently was minimal. That, however, didn't mean he had to like the close proximity between them. Natasha already sustained some cosmetic damage from the Cerberus 7; she didn't need to sustain anymore due to a questionable whim on her part.

Tony crossed the lab in record time; within seconds he had reached Natasha and took possession of one of her arms. It was physically impossible to manhandle Natasha without any assistance, but he hoped she wouldn't put up a fight. She had never been the rebellious sort, and he doubted she'd start now and over something so petty.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"I only wanted to assist you, Mr. Stark. That is my main function, after all."

"And how are you doing that exactly?" He yanked the towel from her grasp. "His paint job might be atrocious, but it won't come off that easily, Nat. Trust me; his aesthetics are the least of our worries right now anyway."

"It is not paint." Natasha slipped her hand underneath Ultima Zero's jaw, and tilted the other android's chin to reveal what she had uncovered.

Underneath what Tony had assumed was a shoddy paint job was pale skin; a shade darker than the white costume make-up that had been applied to Ultima Zero's face. The elongated seams that split his face in half was drawn on too; Ultima Zero wasn't an atypical Odinson Corp creation. He looked practically human.

The previous conversation he had with Natasha rushed to the forefront of his mind; the conversation he wanted to discredit at all costs. He hadn't wanted to believe that Ultima Zero was anything but a highly sophisticated piece of machinery; that somehow Dr. Banner had tapped into a fountain of brilliance, as opposed to the alternative. Yet everything seemed to point to one source, one possibility.

Tony dropped Natasha's arm and the towel alike, before taking possession of Ultima Zero's face instead. Much of the make-up was still crudely drawn across his face, although the half that had wiped away was undoubtedly human. His skin wasn't synthetic, his eyes weren't glass, and his frame wasn't built of steel either. He was flesh and bone; or at least he was partially so.

That meant that his previous assumptions were right. No matter how much he wanted to deny them with every bone in his body, he knew that Ultima Zero wasn't a machine after all. One of the most sophisticated and dangerous androids ever created was anything but.

Ultima Zero was like Peggy Carter. Odinson Corp, for whatever reason, had stupidly chosen to repeat a barbaric practice that hadn't any place in existence now or ever. Anyone with an ounce of humanity should have known why replicating the Peggy Carter project was a mistake. Dr. Banner should have known better than to allow this to happen, no less potentially help oversee the project too.

Tilting the thing's head up, Tony studied its aquiline-like features and brilliant green eyes. How he hadn't known definitively about what it was, was beyond him. Then again, he hadn't wanted to think of the possibility at all. Natasha had been convinced of it, and he had shot down the idea as quickly as he could. But he now had irrefutable proof of what he tried so desperately to deny.

"Natasha, I want you to go to your docking station right now."

"I can help you in any way you need, Mr. Stark. My battery life is still at thirty-two percent; I can function for several more hours still."

"That wasn't a suggestion that was an order." He turned away from Ultima Zero, and shot Natasha a look that hopefully conveyed how serious he truly was.

Without any further comment, Natasha stepped away, picked up the towel, and moved towards the docking station in the corner of the lab. He watched as she deposited the now dirty towel onto a nearby workbench, before she settled into place at her docking station. When it was apparent that she wouldn't try and intervene, Tony turned back to the abomination that was now in his possession.

"What are you?" Tony murmured and tried not to flinch away as a visible glint sparked in Ultima Zero's eyes. Both of them knew that he'd figured out what Ultima Zero truly was, and Tony supposed he was asking the wrong question.

Ultima Zero was not an android; he wasn't a human either. Ultima Zero was an entity in between; he was what Peggy Carter had been made into. He was a cyborg. He was flesh and bone and wires and circuitry. The panel on the back of his neck was carved out of his bone; while a network of wires connected to his brain and powered him unlike a battery could.

"Who are you?" He finally asked, quickly dropping his hand from the cyborg's chin; as the thing tilted its head to an impossible angle once more and its lips curled upward in a predatory smile.

"I'm your worst nightmare, Tony Stark."

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty :: Cyborgs Dream

 


 

Silence filled the laboratory, beyond the beeps and whirls of computers and machines. It was an all too familiar environment for Ultima Zero. Those very sounds haunted his every waking moment; a symphony that thrummed through the circuitry that had masterfully been installed into his brain. It was a constant reminder of what he had been crafted into; the ultimate taboo.

Cyborg technology had been outlawed after the events of the Peggy Carter incident. The practice had been deemed barbaric and primitive; yet that hadn't ceased the end of research. Many curious and intellectual types had expanded beyond the works of Dr. Tanaka. But such research hadn't been meant to become a reality; it had all been hypothetical for the sake of knowledge. And yet, one way or another Ultima Zero had come into fruition.

The details were muddled even to him. Intuitively, he knew of what must have transpired to cause his transformation; but he hadn't been given too many details about it. They liked to keep him in the dark, as if that would somehow keep him compliant. Unfortunately, they had underestimated him; specifically how much he knew of his former life and the emotions that were firmly attached to that knowledge.

Odinson Corp had foolishly toyed with science and broken several laws in the process. If and when the government were informed of the illegality they participated in; they could very well face sanctions that ranged from life imprisonment to death. Dr. Tanaka had been executed by the state for his research and the Odinsons, alongside Dr. Banner, would inevitably face the same fate. Ultima Zero would ensure that they did.

That had been the only reason for his escape. He had meticulously plotted out every detail; swayed the androids that were within close proximity with practiced ease for close to two years. It had taken far longer than it should have, simply because he was frequently given a horribly potent concoction that shut down his human facilities for weeks on end. He suspected Dr. Banner had taken to inducing a medical coma on him, and only permitting him to come out of it once they deemed him harmless.

He was never harmless, though. They would have been better off leaving him under; maybe to put him out of his misery. Yet they never did; they left him like this for years. He was confined to a laboratory much like this one, drifting between consciousness and unconsciousness. And he dreamt so vividly; such glorious things that hadn't realistically survived the hardships of life.

Cyborgs could dream; cyborgs could remember too. He remembered things; birthday parties with messy faced children, grasslands that survived the pollution that overtook ninety percent of the world, and a soft and warm body beside him. More importantly though, he remembered pain; needles and drills and electrical shocks that wouldn't let him go, until he was the monstrosity that he now was.

Despite being of human origins, he felt very unlike one. The machine part of him was so much more prevalent now; he could feel the thrum of electricity in his wiring and the hum of information that was downloaded into his database. His artificially upgraded speed and strength and intelligence made it impossible to be human; although one thing tethered him to his former humanity and that was revenge.

His escape had come together because of it. He couldn't remain a forbidden relic in a laboratory any longer. His existence was a travesty and he was the only one who could rectify it. Because no one around him would listen; cyborg or not, human at one point or not, he was still a machine to them. And a machine did not have freewill, could not feel or reason as a human was capable of doing.

So he had taken the matter into his own hands; he had ensured his freedom by all means necessary. No matter what anyone thought, he had ended up in exactly the place he had hoped to; particularly when he learned Odinson Corp had sent several blade runners after him. And he knew that Tony Stark would ultimately be his key to revenge, since they shared one thing in common – they hated Odinson Corp.

Tony Stark was many things, but Ultima Zero needed none of them besides his pettiness. So long as Stark held onto his anger towards Odinson Corp then that meant, he'd be more than willing to assist him in the last phase of his plan. While it hadn't gone swimmingly as it should have, Ultima Zero still had gotten the data he inevitably needed to put his plan into motion. Stark was just the final piece, which was why he permitted himself to be captured so easily.

If he wanted Stark dead, he would have already been dead. But he didn't care about his survival one way or another; if he was helpful then he could continue to live, if he wasn't then he would die. There were only two options and it was up to Stark whether living or dying was more to his liking. And he suspected Stark would choose living; call it a hunch.

Testing the strength of his bonds, Ultima Zero peered around the laboratory. Most of the room had been plunged into darkness, although he compensated for it with his infrared vision. There wasn't any life in the vicinity; Stark had left some time ago, after reinforcing his restraints and advising his AI to keep a close eye on him. However, he wasn't terribly worried about being watched.

"Little one, I know you are there." He spoke aloud; his voice was rough with disuse. It had been some time since he found it necessary to speak; it was one of the only things he could control and he took full advantage of it. "Your creator might be none the wiser, but I know you can hear me; especially if your battery life hasn't been utterly used up, which yours has not."

His words echoed off the walls, sounding alien and unnatural. The decibel of his voice sounded unfamiliar to him too; he knew with mounting clarity that he hadn't spoken aloud for close to eleven years. His dealings with his fallen comrades had been non-verbal. It had been easy to communicate, when he'd been given leeway to wander around the laboratory without supervision, and when he could connect to each android via port. Sadly, he hadn't that luxury now.

"I know you can hear me." He repeated.

"Yes, I can hear you." A soft voice replied, almost hesitantly.

"Good," he again pulled on his restraints, although they wouldn't budge. "This is rather cruel, don't you think? I haven't done any harm to your creator, and yet he's restrained me anyway."

"You've caused damage to others; you've killed. Mr. Stark is ensuring his own safety; everyone's safety."

"I haven't any intention on killing your beloved Mr. Stark. In fact, I could have already killed him and as you can see he's very much alive still."

"The probability that could have killed Mr. Stark is significantly high, I agree." Stark's android said emotionlessly.

There had been plenty of opportunities for him to kill Tony Stark. Not to mention, there were many more in the near future; unless, of course, Stark decided on killing him first. He wouldn't be opposed to that fate, so long as he'd gotten to destroy Odinson Corp before that came to pass.

No one believed more heartily than he, that his existence was unnatural. No one knew of the endless pains that were associated with being part machine either. The combination of flesh and bone and circuitry and metal were not particularly cohesive of one another. Even when his existence was dubbed inhuman, humanity could not understand why. They did not live with the debilitating pain, and the unnatural electrical signals that overrode the brain's normal ones.

Technically speaking, he hadn't any natural brain activity anymore. That portion of normality ended when he ceased to be human. Which truly made him more machine than man; most of his everyday faculties were controlled solely by outside resources, and for a very good reason too. The trauma his body had suffered years ago made it impossible to save much of his natural functionality.

"I only need your master's help; I mean him no harm, little one."

"You need his help?"

"Yes, but that is between us. I, however, could use your assistance now." He craned his neck as far as it could go, and caught a glimpse of the pretty android connected to the docking station almost ten feet away.

"How may I be of assistance to you?"

"Release me. As I have told you, I haven't any intention on hurting your master."

"JARVIS," Stark's android spoke softly and awoke the AI that was prompted to watch him.

"How may I be of service to you, Miss Natasha?"

"Shutdown function, activate; password: Virginia Pepper Stark 09272132."

"Very well, Miss Natasha; shutdown function, activating in: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1," the AI announced, before shutting down without another word.

Ultima Zero kept his eyes on Stark's android, and watched as she slowly reached behind her and disconnected herself. The docking port beeped loudly in protest, although that didn't deter the android any. She stood and seamlessly crossed the distance in between them; before she was sidled up beside the chair reinforced to the floor.

She stared at him dispassionately; an empty shell with a small spark of clarity behind her manmade eyes. There was no doubt about it, she was becoming aware; of what, he couldn't tell, but she wasn't a simple android anymore. There was an evolution taking place; small but a significant one nonetheless.

Slowly and methodically, Stark's android reached out to him and tucked several strands of his unkempt hair behind his ear. She seemed to have a goal in mind; maybe to look into his face and survey the sincerity (or lack thereof) that might be there. But there wouldn't be any of the sort; facial expressions did not come naturally to him anymore.

"Do I have your word that you will not harm, Mr. Stark?"

"You have my word." He nodded. "If you do not believe me, my heart still functions normally. The telltale sign of a lie can be determined through a quickened pulse."

Her hand dropped away from his hair almost immediately, before taking refuge over his heart instead. She repeated the question and he answered as before; that he hadn't any intention of harming Stark. And they both knew that his heart beat hadn't quickened at all. It continued to beat lazily in his chest, much too slowly to power a biological human.

Once that was deemed satisfactory to her, Stark's android stepped away from the chair and moved towards one of the many workbenches lining the center of the laboratory. She plucked several tools from atop the tabletops, before putting some back and picking up others; until she found what she wanted and returned to his side again.

Several minutes ticked away, as she started to work on one restraint. She toyed with several screwdrivers and moved onto a small soldering iron that melted the restraint enough for Ultima Zero to push upwards and break it; effectively freeing his right hand, before Stark's android repeated the action on the left restraint to similar results.

Ultima Zero finally stood and rolled his shoulders clockwise then counter-clockwise. His body still felt discomfort and pain, unfortunately. Being mostly an organic being meant he still felt those types of things, but not as severely as a full human would.

"Now what do you intend to do?" Stark's android asked.

"I intend on seeing your creator right now. But I can't risk you rebooting his AI; I should apologize in advanced for this, especially since you helped me without question." He shook his head in feigned regret, before he grabbed Stark's android in an impenetrable embrace.

Of course, she struggled but there was very little she could do. He was far stronger than she could ever be; Stark couldn't possibly even amp up her specs to rival his own. But she did make the process so much more difficult than it truly needed to be. She squirmed and writhed, yet he still managed to rip open the panel at the back of her neck and give her an electrical shock that seized up her body suddenly.

Unceremoniously, Ultima Zero dropped the dead weight that was Stark's android to the ground. She collapsed in a heap of heavy limbs; no better than a life-sized doll. With a final look of her motionless body, he strode away and moved towards the elevator. His footfall was quiet and methodical and did not carry across the room.

When he came to the elevator, he pressed the up button; and was quickly permitted into the small compartment that would bring him to Stark. As the doors closed with a satisfactory clink, he studied the keypad closely. Stark was truly a paranoid man, which was the only explanation for why there was a passcode to the upper-most levels of the building.

While Stark was indeed paranoid, he was careless too. It was almost too easy to read the sequence that would grant Ultima Zero access to his private floors. Stark's fingerprints were smeared across each button and he quickly tried one sequence and then another, before the elevator lurched under his feet and lifted upward.

The city rushed beyond the glass walls of the elevator. Rain pelted the gaudy glimmer of skyscrapers and the pinprick of lights that consisted of the slums, where most of the population now resided. Green plums of toxins and pollution hung heavily above the city, but it was beyond Stark Tower; a fortress of wealth and prosperity that only a few would ever experience in their lifetime.

But Ultima Zero's eyes were drawn away from the spectacular sight, focused on the reflection that was undoubtedly him. One side of his face had been cleaned, while the other was painted in black and white still. He looked both human and inhuman, and it was impossible to discern which one was the truth and which one was not.

Honestly, there was no way to tell what he was. Eleven years hadn't brought any such clarity. He'd once been named Loki, but he loathed to think about that. He only saw himself as Ultima Zero; the final frontier and the most advanced experiment currently in existence. His creators would soon regret their decision to make him into a reality, though. And Tony Stark would help him one way or the other. He really hadn't any choice about it.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-one :: Selfishness

 


 

There hadn't been any communication in days. Dead air was Thor's only response; a rumble of thunder in the distance, the low whine of static at the back of his mind, but nothing more. None of his hired hands had given him an update report, and he could only draw to the worst of conclusions. Maybe Ultima Zero was really beyond captivity, and maybe the only thing they could do was retire him.

The thought had crossed his mind rather regularly nowadays. He knew of Ultima Zero's capabilities and how he was clever, manipulative, and violent. But he had believed if he had multiple blade runners hunting after Ultima Zero that perhaps things would turn in their favor. Tony Stark was supposed to shift the tide.

Tony Stark was the best of the best; he single-handedly took down a horde of violent androids that had terrorized the city for weeks on end. So Thor had believed that Stark might very well be the person who could return Ultima Zero to him without any problems whatsoever. And yet, there had always been a small part of him that knew no one could likely overpower a cyborg.

It had taken a small army to retrieve Peggy Carter, and return her to a group of scientists that dissected her bit by bit. Thor hadn't personally seen the footage, but he was told by Baldur that the two hour long reel was enough to haunt a person for the rest of their life. It had been bloody and horrific and Baldur had said that sometimes he woke up with Peggy Carter's screams ringing in his ears.

That sort of thing could not happen to Ultima Zero. The authorities couldn't become any the wiser about the situation for a variety of reasons; yet the most worrisome reason was what would happen to Ultima Zero. Because he knew intellectually that he would be dismembered and poked and prodded to see exactly how he worked.

Life imprisonment or even execution was likely for everyone involved in the Ultima Zero project, but that hardly seemed to matter to Thor. Their deaths would be painless in comparison; mostly because they were fully human and supposedly deserved a humane sort of death. Whereas, Ultima Zero would be categorized as more machine than human; an abomination, really that didn't deserve any mercy at all.

"What ails you, brother?" Baldur suddenly swept into the dimly lit dining room; looking as regal and somewhat unnerving as he always did. His eyes were always a combination of dreamy and insidious, and they were impossible to read.

"You aren't senseless, Baldur."

"Then you haven't heard about the fact Ultima Zero's companions have all been retired."

"The only good news I've heard in days." Thor motioned to the seat across from him, and invited his elder brother to join him. They hadn't spoken much; there was plenty contention in between them when it came to the topic of Ultima Zero, and Baldur would not let him forget it anytime soon.

In a way, Thor deserved it. He should have listened to Baldur all those years ago and why initiating the Ultima Zero project had been an unwise decision. But his own stubbornness, alongside their mother's, had made it impossible to see the future and what their decision would inevitably entail.

Baldur rounded the table leisurely, before pulling out his seat and sitting down with well-practiced grace; yet there was some tenseness about him still. Dr. Banner was no different in that respect, especially since he'd been consistently bombarded by questions from the Odinson matriarch about Ultima Zero's repairs. And soon enough, they would not be able to hide the truth any longer.

"Mother's beginning to ask questions, Thor. Serious ones," Baldur announced, almost as if he could read his mind. "Soon enough we won't be able to continue our lie."

"Unless, of course, someone returns Ultima Zero in the near future,"

"Realistically speaking, what are the odds that they will? No less we have Ultima Zero in decent working condition again? Thor you and I both know he's better off dead than alive."

"I will not have this conversation with you again, Baldur."

"And what of his wishes," Baldur said tersely, as he reached for the fruit bowl that had been strategically placed as the centerpiece of the table. "Eleven years ago, the first and last words Ultima Zero ever spoken were-"

"I know what they were!"

"Do you really? Then why are they so hard for you to grasp?"

"They are not hard to grasp; I just don't want to hear them now." Thor glowered at his brother, although those words drifted to the forefront of his mind almost immediately.

The Ultima Zero project had been successfully executed eleven years ago. Initially, Dr. Banner hadn't believed they would be successful; it was a risky procedure and a complex one too. So the success rate wasn't very high, especially since Banner was working alone on the procedure. But it somehow taken; it had worked out and their mother couldn't have been anymore elated if she tried. Or at least that had been the case, until Ultima Zero came to.

No one besides Baldur had thought of the ramifications of their actions. Not until Ultima Zero had opened his eyes for the first time and was informed of what they had done to him. Thor was haunted by the expression that overwhelmed Ultima Zero still; the terrified and horrified expression, and the blood curdling scream that came from his lips.

Ultima Zero had begged them over and over again to kill him. The hysteria in which that plea had been spoken, rattled everyone to their core; Banner had to heavily sedate him, and inevitably chose to induce a medical coma for some time on Ultima Zero until they knew precisely what they were dealing with. Sadly, they could have never predicted Ultima Zero's moods or even coerce him to talk any further; which had broken their mother's heart in two.

"You've been holding onto him for far too long. Mother has been holding onto him for longer and what has it gotten you? People have been injured and murdered by him. He is no longer human, Thor. He ceased to be…he ceased to be himself when he woke up as a science experiment. And now, he is out there and no one can stop him. But if they do find him, and by they I mean the police, he will end up a dissected blob of meat and wires on some operating table somewhere, and you know it's true." Baldur took possession of an apple from the fruit bowl, but he didn't eat it; his full attention was still focused onto Thor.

"Don't you think I've thought of that already? That's why we need to get him back as soon as we can."

"And yet you haven't heard anything from your seasoned blade runners of late. I haven't heard from them either, which seems to suggest that they have yet to find him."

"Find who?" The small but regal voice of their mother's carried throughout the room, and caused them to both visibly tense.

It was a late hour; too late for their mother to still be wandering about. Thor turned to see her in her elaborately crafted dressing robe; a combination of silk and velvet that gave her the aura of royalty. Her normally placid features were hardened with suspicion; a hidden fury that rarely reared its ugly head. After all, their father was the one who had a legendary temper not her.

Neither Thor nor Baldur replied; they both knew their mother would draw to the proper conclusion soon enough, and neither of them were looking forward to that moment. Both of them had hoped that they could somehow retrieve Ultima Zero, before anyone became the wiser. But it was apparent that they wouldn't be so lucky now.

Several terse moments of silence passed by, before grim realization eclipsed their mother's face. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open in a silent cry. She jolted towards the table, quicker than Thor could ever remember her moving previously, and her hands found his shoulders and held them in a death grip. Her strength had always been a muted thing, albeit it was real and shocking now.

"Where is he?" She demanded, as her nails dug into the material of Thor's button-up shirt. "What have you done with him? What have you done with him?!"

"Mother," Baldur spoke in a severe tone, as he stood from his seat. The apple that he had in his possession, dropped to the floor with a dull thud and was forgotten almost immediately. "Hysterics will not help the situation; nor will it bring back Ultima Zero either! So calm yourself and if you truly want to be informed about the matter, then you will have to listen!"

Thor couldn't tell how their mother would respond; neither he nor Baldur ever spoke to their mother disrespectfully like that. Baldur had come close to it, though. Whenever Ultima Zero became a topic of conversation; he wore his heart on his sleeve more often than not.

"What happened to him? What happened to my-"

"Ultima Zero escaped several weeks ago." Baldur said almost on the verge of being casual. "He plotted and planned an elaborate escape and executed it rather flawlessly, if I do say so myself. He manipulated the androids that you wanted him to interact with, and they helped him flee the laboratory. He's been on the loose for all this time and killed many people in that time frame. And not even the best blade runners have been able to retrieve him; dead or alive."

"We want him back alive, Mother." Thor added in quickly.

"Well, I certainly don't."

"How can you say that? He's your-"

"He's an abomination that you sorely wanted, Mother. I told you what an awful idea it was, but you didn't listen. You didn't listen to him."

"He's my-"

"He isn't anything to you! He's a cyborg! And we should have killed him long ago! In fact, I sweetened the deal to your hired hands and told them they'd get more than you offered them, Thor; if only they retired Ultima Zero."

"You what," Thor felt something akin to betrayal and resentment bubble in the middle of his chest.

Regardless of the many times Thor felt Ultima Zero was a cumbersome burden, he hadn't wanted to give up hope on him. He prayed many times over that Ultima Zero would regain some semblance of his former humanity; that he'd one day learn to smile and laugh again. That he'd somehow become the man that he once was eleven years ago.

Unfortunately, whatever trace of the man Ultima Zero had once been was no more. Thor had known within the first few weeks of his new life; when he was permitted to be awake and wander aimlessly through Banner's laboratory. There was only an empty shell that remained; a blood thirsty one that had shown its propensity for violence many times over. But that didn't mean he wanted Ultima Zero dead. Because as long as he was alive, some hope still remained.

"Both of you are hopeless!" Baldur abruptly snarled and slapped his hands against the tabletop. "How on earth did you believe this would be successful?! For eleven years, you've kept him hidden and more often than not in a comatose state; after he pleaded for mercy from you too! He begged to be let go and you wouldn't do it!"

"He's my son!"

"He stopped being your son, when you mutilated and tortured him! Loki's dead, Mother! Loki has been dead for years! What you have instead is Ultima Zero! Ultima Zero is not your son; he is not our brother, he is nothing more than machine! He's a killer and he'll never stop until someone stops him! And it's much more humane to have five blade runners after him than for him to eventually fall into the authorities' hands!"

"Baldur," Thor tried to sound as in-control as he could, even though their mother was clinging to him like he was her only lifeline. Her face was stricken and her eyes now swimming with tears. And it was all due to the fact that the truth was horribly harsh.

Loki had been dead for years now. He had died senselessly, although he'd always been of poor health. Ultima Zero, on the other hand, hadn't succumbed to any ailments. There wasn't any indication that he could be infected by such things; yet they hadn't tested that theory out for obvious reasons. They wanted to keep Loki alive in some way, even if it was only a poor imitation of him.

"I never wanted any part of this! I never wanted to play god because you couldn't let go of Loki! Now look what he is; take a hard look at the thing you've made! And tell me if it was worth it; tell me if having your son and your brother back as that thing was worth your while! Tell me that when the state has him and dissects him piece by piece and his screams can be heard from miles away if it was worth it!"

"Stop that talk right now! You're upsetting Mother!"

"She should be upset because it was her grief that caused this! Your beloved child is gone and the last fragment of him will be destroyed in the most heinous way imaginable! And your other two children will be facing life sentences or even death sentences of our own because of your selfishness!" Baldur shoved back his chair and sent it careening to the floor. "Your selfishness will inevitably destroy this family because you wouldn't let him go!"

Their mother let out an agonized wail that shook her entire body. But Baldur looked unfazed by it; his eyes were ablaze with fury and he looked downright frightening. Thor knew he couldn't diffuse the situation easily either; aside from standing and enveloping their mother into an embrace that would shield her somewhat from Baldur's venomous words, which was exactly what he did.

It was impossible to right things, though. The wounds of Baldur's declarations were already firmly embedded in their mother's psyche. Grief-stricken sobs continued to spill out of her; a symphony of misery that probably wouldn't easily taper off anytime soon. Not until they had Ultima Zero, Loki, back in their possession. And Thor would be damned if he allowed any one of those blade runners to kill him.

"I won't let anything happen to Ultima Zero, Mother. Rest assured I have a far stronger pull than Baldur does in terms of the company's finances." Thor ran his hand across their mother's back, and narrowed his eyes at his elder brother; who looked rearing for a fight. "Regardless of what you've had to say, he is still our flesh and blood Baldur. We will not abandon him."

"Selfishness is fueling your desire to save him, Thor. It's not for his well-being; if you cared an iota for what our little brother had wanted, you wouldn't have brought him back from the brink of death the way you have. You wouldn't have tampered with his brain and his body. And you most certainly wouldn't continue to keep him as some kind of sick commodity in Banner's lab. That's not love or devotion, that's selfishness and self-centeredness!"

"I couldn't let him go! He is my son; he was too young to die!" Their mother suddenly wailed, turning around in Thor's arms to stare at Baldur instead. "He is your brother; the brother you loved so deeply! How can you treat him like he's no more than a machine! He isn't; he's still human! He's still alive!"

"He has no brain function! He'd be a vegetable without the hardware installed into his head! That's the only thing keeping him alive!"

"That isn't uncommon for people to stay living due to technology!"

"But when was the last time you heard him laugh or cry? When was the last time he looked at you affectionately and called you mother? When has he ever, in these past eleven years, been remotely like Loki? No matter how much you've humanized him? No matter how many times you've called him by his birth name and spoke to him kindly? How many times has he been your Loki, Mother?"

"Baldur, that's enough!"

"Exactly, Thor – that is enough!" Baldur rounded the table; his eyes were wild and huge, almost animal-like. "Call every single one of your lackeys and try and get them to bring you Ultima Zero back alive. But how will they feel when they become the wiser to the fact that they aren't dealing with an android but a cyborg? More specifically how will Steve Rogers feel, since he already lived through the horror of his fiancée being maimed as she was by the authorities?"

Before Thor had enough time to process what his eldest brother declared; Baldur was already excusing himself from the room. His anger was palpable still; a cloud that wanted to extend and envelope the whole room with its toxicity. For several painful seconds, it felt like Thor might very well suffocate on his own anger; too and by the time he found his tongue again, it was too late. Baldur was gone and the threat was already made – everyone would soon know what Ultima Zero was and they would kill his little brother. They would kill Loki.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-two :: The Longest Winter

 


 

Sitwell wasn't happy. That much was apparent as they parked the once pristine delivery van in front of his apartment complex. Like many of them, Sitwell didn't have very much, although he was a little wealthier than most due to some of his dealings with the colonies. Phil had never asked what he did and Sitwell never provided any information either.

"What the hell did you do to my van?" Sitwell practically roared, as they exited the vehicle. "You said this would be an easy job; boom-bam and you're done! Those were your exact words, Barton!"

"It was a little more complicated than that." Clint replied sheepishly, although that was a grave understatement.

The delivery van had been damaged beyond repair; or at least beyond their combined price range. The windshield had been shattered and there was a huge hole in the roof, one of the back doors was barely holding on by a thread; then there were all the cosmetic damages on top of that too. It was a miracle that the thing still functioned well enough to get them to Sitwell's neighborhood without dying out on them.

"Do you know how much this'll cost to repair?"

"I'm so sorry, Jasper. We were careless." Phil felt a knot work its way up into his throat. He was ashamed by how reckless they'd been. They should have anticipated the competitive side of their fellow runners would inevitably rear its ugly head one way or another.

"No, we were not! It was those other fuckers who caused this! We had him; we had Ultima Zero, and those assholes couldn't play fair!"

"That doesn't matter to me at all! I have a piece of junk for a delivery van now!"

"We'll try our best to pay you back, Jasper. I promise you that." Phil intervened, before Clint could potentially put his foot into his mouth, and cause an unneeded argument; especially since tempers were already high as it was.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that they'd ever be able to repay Sitwell was improbable. They were barely scrapping by as it was, and since they've lost Ultima Zero to Tony Stark; there wasn't any possibility that they could move up in the world at all. But Phil would be damned if he didn't at least try and pay back Sitwell in some way.

However, the promise didn't seem to lessen Sitwell's anger any. He approached the hover vehicle and made a pained noise in the back of his throat. The delivery van had gone through the wringer; it was a marvel that Phil and Clint and somehow survived. Phil was surprised that he managed to drive while all hell broke loose in the back even.

"It's ruined; it's a piece of junk." Sitwell threw up his hands, before whirling around to look in between him and Clint. "My boss is going to kill me for this! Do you think hover vehicles just grow on trees? I mean if there even were trees on this god forsaken planet still!"

"Obviously, we know that. But what can we fucking do? Phil said we'd try to pay you back, and that's exactly what we're going to do! We'll pay you back somehow!"

"How are you going to do that, Barton? The last time I checked, you're a runner; which translates into no money! The androids have been taken to the colonies; there aren't that many running around here nowadays. And the police usually take them out, before they become a public nuisance!"

"I promise you, we'll figure out a way to repay you." Phil shot Clint a look, in hopes that would quiet any further hostility on his part; albeit it was understandable reaction.

Clint had been convinced that they had finally found their ticket to an easy life. The money, the escape had been within their grasp; their victory had seemed certain. Their luck seemed to have finally turned around for once; until it took a sharp turn into the wrong direction.

Their failure seemed inevitable, though. Tony Stark had the tools and where within to accomplish any feat. He had possession of an android, which had successfully helped him in his mission to apprehend Ultima Zero; and it appeared that he also had a military grade 'droid in commission too. So really how could they stack up against those odds?

In retrospect, Phil should have known something was amiss in the first place. They had captured Ultima Zero rather easily; much too easily even. It was almost as if he wanted to be taken, and he wouldn't put past anything when it came to androids. They might have been machines, but they were intelligent beings all the same.

"Let's not kid ourselves here," Sitwell crossed his arms over his chest, suddenly looking very business-like and no-nonsense. "The combination of both your incomes for the next thirty years wouldn't pay off the damages you've done to this van. It would be an insult to even take your meager wages. And my boss wouldn't exactly be thrilled with your restitution efforts either."

"You're always talking about this mysterious boss of yours." Clint bared his teeth, as if he'd like nothing more than to take his frustrations out on Sitwell; since Tony Stark was nowhere in sight.

"Come inside; we need to have a long conversation. Maybe we can work out a payment; I don't know how it'll work, since I haven't been able to do it. But maybe your street wiles will come in handy. It couldn't hurt anyway." Sitwell spun on his heel and headed towards the entranceway into the shabby apartment complex he lived in.

Wordlessly, Phil followed after Sitwell; he didn't have to bother to instruct Clint to do the same. His partner was at his back as they entered the dimly lit foyer. Hairline fractures decorated the formerly vibrant colored walls and made the place as equally as pathetic as every apartment complex at ground level in the city. Debris and dirt had found its way across the chipped tiled floor, and no one deemed it necessary to clean it up; leaving it to gather until it blanketed the majority of the floor.

Sitwell led them through a narrow hallway to their left and towards a pair of dingy elevator doors. Someone had spray painted the words "the machines are alive" in red across both doors; yet no one paid the message any mind. At least, Phil tried not to let it get to him; even if he had definitive proof that the machines were indeed alive and capable of the most heinous of acts known to man.

His wife and son had been attacked by at least two androids, while venturing out into the city on an errand years ago. The errand eluded him now; it seemed so inane when he thought of the bigger picture. And that had been, they'd been attacked without any preamble. Hell, no one had done anything to antagonize the androids; they had seemingly struck out for no apparent reason.

To this day, there wasn't any real reason for the 'droid upheaval. Some experts, most notably Stark himself, had claimed the abuse of particular models had been the cause for it. There had been vague debates about technological awareness and the evolution of artificial intelligence; all of which Phil hadn't any use for. Because the why never really mattered to him; the aftermath had always been his main concern. The feeling of loss and despair he harbored for his loved ones took precedent over experts and lawmakers and outlawing androids even.

As they entered the elevator and the doors behind them, Phil attempted to focus on the here and now. He had a greater problem at the moment than spiraling back into a very dark place; which he had barely climbed out of years ago. Right now, he had to wonder what Sitwell could possibly propose that would somehow even out the debt they procured within hours of borrowing his delivery van.

There wasn't anything in particular that came to mind. Then again, he didn't exactly know what kind of business Sitwell was involved in; he especially didn't know much about his boss either. Sitwell frequently mentioned his boss in conversation, but he never elaborated too much about him; and it seemed rude to inquire if the knowledge wasn't forthcoming from its source. But Phil didn't have a very good feeling about it either.

The elevator ride lasted only four floors, before it jerked underneath their feet and permitted them access to another dreary hallway with dirty tile. A black iron-rod railing ran parallel to several apartment doors. Many stood open, abandoned and ransacked; while others appeared to be bolted shut by half a dozen locks and maybe even chains.

They walked up the length of the hallway, coming to a halt at the last door. Sitwell pushed it open, having not bothered locking it, and motioned for Phil and Clint to go inside before him. Both did as much; neither of them overwhelmed by the décor. There were several computers stacked up on a long table in the center of the living room, but there was very little furniture to be found. Curiously enough, there were several artificial hands and limbs and even a head, alongside a tangle of wires strewn across the room; projects seemingly being worked on whenever the urge hit.

"You're in the 'droid business? I thought you were a delivery man." Clint snapped accusatorily, once he'd given the room a thorough once-over.

"I'm tinkering with ancient technology." Sitwell muttered as he closed the door, moving further into the room, and going directly towards a filing cabinet in the corner of the room. "Besides that shouldn't concern you in the slightest, Barton; you owe me money and since you don't have money, you're going to do a favor for me."

"Is it anything illegal?" Phil asked.

"Nothing's illegal; not unless you get caught anyway." Sitwell pulled out a folder from the open drawer, and offered it to whoever was willing to take it.

Phil crossed the distance in between them in several long strides. He took the file and eyed Sitwell closely, but there wasn't any obvious tell on his face. God only knew what kind of situation he and Clint had gotten themselves into. It was bad enough that they had agreed to find Ultima Zero. But now the stakes were higher because they owed someone money. It was never a good thing to owe anyone money.

"If we do whatever you want, this will wipe the slate clean?"

"I'm a man of my word, Coulson. Neither you nor Barton will owe me a single penny. But that's all dependent on if you can actually accomplish the errand I have for you."

"Well, what is it?" Clint interjected haughtily.

"You have the file, open it. See for yourself." Sitwell motioned towards Phil, which motivated him to finally flip open the file to view its contents.

For several moments, the information sprawled across the paper made no sense whatsoever to Phil. He had to blink half a dozen times, before he really started to absorb the text and images. And when he had gotten the gist of what Sitwell had given him, the errand he had in mind wasn't exactly clear of yet.

"No," he looked up at Sitwell. "Don't tell me this is possible, Jasper."

"Everyone has been under the impression that Stark Industries is the most advanced in android technology. Hell, someone would even hand that title, undeservedly mind you, to Odinson Corp or Hammer Company even. But in all actuality HYDRA Inc. has quietly dominated the market. Most of what you see up there," Sitwell pointed skyward, no doubt in reference to the colonies. "Is HYDRA technology; not Stark or Odinson or Hammer tech, but HYDRA; and while the colonies heavily rely on other companies to produce 'droids to work the colonies' upkeep, that doesn't mean HYDRA doesn't produce its own sentinel beings too.

"Unfortunately, a few had gotten lost in transport years ago. I've found most of them and returned them to HYDRA without a problem, but there's one that I haven't been able to locate. He shouldn't be violent; however, he also doesn't know what he is. And you can't tell him either."

"So you're telling me some company called HYDRA Inc. has some 'droid walking around the city that doesn't know he's a 'droid? How is that even possible? He'd have to recharge himself at some point, you know." Clint shot Sitwell a bewildered look.

"Like I said, HYDRA is more advanced than you'd imagine. Our androids don't need to be charged; they have a battery life that lasts for close to twenty years. And if we want to keep them any longer, then we could switch their batteries; otherwise we could easily let them go. But this particular model is my boss's favorite and he wants him back badly. So if you can find him then you're debt free; maybe I could even convince my boss to give both of you admission onto one of the colonies. If you're successful, of course."

"And we just have to locate this android, nothing more?" Phil peered warily at the file and the blueprints of a faceless android.

"You'll need some way to disarm him." Sitwell leaned over the table that housed his computers, picking up what looked like a thumb drive. "When applied it'll give the android a slight electrical shock; it won't harm him in any way, but it will disable him for at least two, maybe three, hours at the most. But he doesn't have a panel at the back of his neck; you'll have to apply it to the crook of his elbow, more specifically his left one. You could do so easily enough; you don't have to pull up the synthetic skin or anything. Just press it against his elbow and he'll be a sitting duck."

"Do you have a picture of this super advanced 'droid?" Clint plucked the folder from Phil's hands, before snorting. "You folks always have to give your projects the dumbest names."

"There's a picture in there, yes. But you can read the file from cover to cover at your own leisure. I have to call my boss and explain why my delivery van is useless now and how we're going to rectify the situation on top of that."

"I'm not comfortable with this, Jasper. With knowing there are androids out there that don't even know they're machines." Phil frowned, although he still followed his partner to the front door anyway.

"He is harmless, Phil. So long as you refer to him as an everyday person, you shouldn't have any problems. But if you let it slip, god help us all."

"Don't worry your bald little head about it, Sitwell." Clint opened the door, suddenly vibrant with renewed purpose. "We'll bring project Longest Winter back to you. And we will get two first class tickets to the finest colony in the solar system."

"Then make it happen, Barton. It'll be nice to see if you're actually a man of your word, after all."

"We'll find him." Phil promised grimly, as he urged Clint into the hallway and then turned to Sitwell. "Tell your boss, he'll have his android back to him soon."

"Mr. Pierce will be happy to hear that; seven years without your favorite toy can be pretty taxing."

"I imagine so." He said and stepped out into the hallway with a heavy feeling in his heart. Because he knew this wasn't as clean cut as Sitwell assumed it would be; these sorts of jobs never were.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-three :: Worth Everything

 


 

Their apartment was their safe haven. Despite the vermin that snuck in through cracks in the walls, gapes in the windows and doors, Steve felt like nothing bad could touch them while they were there. Even as he watched Bucky curl up on the lumpy and stained mattress on the floor, he felt somewhat at peace.

The adrenaline had evened out only half an hour before, which led to Bucky crumbling unceremoniously into a miserable heap onto their bed and Steve sitting on a milk crate close-by. During those initial moments of heavy silence, he had gotten up and retrieved the little bit of whisky in their kitchen cupboards and drank it hot; although alcohol hadn't any effect on him at all. But there was something comforting about the motion and the burn of whisky as it hit his stomach all the same.

Bucky had almost died, after all. His best friend had risked his life, in order to earn an astronomical amount of money. And for some ill-advised reason, Steve had gone along with the harebrained idea; he had even been convinced that they could pull it off, which they almost had too.

Money hadn't been much of a concern for Steve, though. Sure, he wanted to fix Dolores and pay off their rent; but he hadn't been blinded by the possibility of wealth. What had blinded him was Bucky's enthusiasm and Bucky's desire to be financially secure. He'd gotten swept away with the excitement, the thrill of the mission, and it almost cost him everything.

In this bleak new future, he hadn't had anything of his own. Peggy had been cruelly snatched away from him, regardless of his best efforts to prevent it from happening. He had lost everything when they took Peggy from him, and he couldn't stand to repeat history by losing Bucky too. In a way, Bucky was all he had and he couldn't bear to lose him in such a senseless way.

Selfish as it sounded, Steve couldn't let Bucky go. Not after they spent seven years working together and living in squalor. They had forged an unbreakable bond and Steve would be damned if it ended because of money; over money that Bucky didn't even want to use to leave Earth and start anew elsewhere even.

"Stop hovering like a worried mother, Steve." Bucky abruptly spoke, peering through the darkness that blanketed the bedroom like a veil. "Doesn't suit you very well, you know."

"Actually it suits me perfectly. I'm a worry wart, Buck; and you gave me plenty to worry about."

"People die every day; if I died tonight or even tomorrow it would mean next to nothing."

"Not to me, Buck; not to me." Steve said lowly, before bowing his head in contemplation.

A world without Bucky in it seemed pointless. Everything was always so bleak and hopeless; a vicious cycle that never seemed to get any better. People did die every day and they died from preventable things. They died from hunger and thirst and illness and violence; violence most of all. And that was because no one really cared about the people in the slums. Not even the police, really.

Of course, there was only so much the authorities could do. Their main focus, however, was always geared towards wayward technology. It didn't matter that there were freelancers that could take on those sorts of jobs; the government preferred a controlled law enforcement unit to oversee things. Which was precisely why, Commissioner Fury had been so interested in luring Steve onto the proper side of the law.

Steve's former experience with Peggy was cause for that. Somehow or another, Fury believed him an expert on cyborgs; as if he could discern android from cyborg without even thinking about it. But the truth was he wasn't as perceptive as they gave him credit for. If anything, he had been far too concerned about Peggy and less concerned about her newly acquired capabilities; so he really didn't pay them that much heed.

"What would you do without me?" Bucky spoke up once more, although in a doubtful tone; as if he didn't believe the importance that he held in Steve's life.

"Bucky, come on."

"No, really; what would you do without me? I hope you wouldn't stupidly squander your life away."

"You mean like you were willing to do for money?"

"The opportunity was too good to pass up; the information was solid. You know that, Steve."

"If you were gone, I don't know what I would do. I'm sick of losing people, Bucky." Steve admitted, as he clenched his hands into fists. "I already lost a lifetime; I lost all my friends and family and then I had to lose my best girl in the worst way imaginable too. But then I found you, Buck; when I was about to give up, I found you and I managed to keep myself from falling apart."

Silence followed his declaration; heavier than it had ever been between them. God only knew how his words sounded to Bucky, and in a way the seriousness of them was beyond Steve's comprehension too. He didn't know how deeply his emotional bond to Bucky ran; it was impossible to tell. The only thing he truly knew was that he didn't want to live in the world without him.

Bucky sat up slowly, laboriously even. He refused to be taken to the hospital again, and it was impossible to make him do something he didn't want to do. But really hospitals weren't exactly easy to get into nowadays and the medical staff was severely overworked. Not to mention the fees for a quick visit could oftentimes be astronomical. So Bucky's refusal was understandable, even though Steve would have come up with the money somehow to cover the costs.

"Don't say shit like that. There are plenty people out there worth more than me."

"Christ, Bucky; I'm not saying this to make you feel like a million bucks. I'm saying it because it's the truth; if I didn't have you, I wouldn't have anything. Life would be pointless without you; for heaven's sake, you keep me grounded and keep me sane. Without you, I couldn't do this; I couldn't make it."

"You'd have to move on; I'm not bulletproof, pal."

"But you can be more careful; you can actually see a doctor when you're hurt." Steve shifted off of the milk crate, and climbed onto his side of the mattress; which wasn't very comfortable, although he learned to live with it anyway. "You don't have to practically kill yourself for a job either."

Bucky didn't reply beyond a roll of the eyes that normally drove Steve crazy. Because while he knew Bucky was listening to what he said, he was also immediately disregarding his message too. But that was the thing about Bucky; he did what he wanted no matter the consequences.

"You can be a stubborn ass sometimes, you know."

"Do you think we can afford a doctor at the drop of a hat? We're not living in the twenty-first century here, Steve. Doctors cost a lot of money; surgery and medication – forget it. There's no way I'm going to be homeless because I'm hurting. Even if I sell my ass a hundred times over on the street, it wouldn't cover the bills. Not even by a long shot."

"Goddammit, Buck!" Steve felt his stomach clench angrily. "So you were prostituting yourself out! And for what exactly, aside for some damn energy gun that everyone has been eyeing for months?"

Regardless of a very apparent implication, Steve hadn't known for certain that Bucky had sold his body for money. He had hoped he hadn't, but his prayers had been for nothing. And it was all because of an energy gun; one that was supposed to make the job easier on them. In the end, Bucky had prostituted himself for both of their sakes.

They both needed to eat; they both needed shelter, and Dolores required constant tinkering because of her dilapidated state. They were always in need of money for one reason or another and the only way they could earn it was through running. That was their bread and butter, and the only way they could advance in the game was to have better tech than their competitors. And what was better way to do that than the best energy gun on the market?

"Don't sit there and climb onto your high horse, Rogers." Bucky shot out in a venomous tone. "Some of us want to survive another day, and maybe it doesn't live up to your moral high ground but that's how things go. So don't you dare try and lecture me."

"I'm not trying to lecture you." Steve returned heatedly. "But I am disappointed; I'm disappointed because you're worth more than that, Bucky. You're worth more than a few crumbled bills and a pocketful of dirty coins!"

"And how would you know?"

"Because,"

"Because what?" Bucky pushed, which made the knot in Steve's stomach even more apparent and made his pulse race.

There wasn't a generic answer Steve could offer to Bucky without sounding insincere; which it would, of course, be. Yet he couldn't think of why he felt the way he did. He just knew instinctively that Bucky was worth more than he ever gave himself credit for. He'd always been priceless to Steve.

"I don't know, Bucky. There aren't enough words to explain it. I just know you're worth more than you think you are; you're worth everything to me. Every miserable penny; every line of credit on the planet, you're worth just everything." He admitted and found Bucky's eyes in the dark.

Neither of them looked away; both were known to be hardheaded and stubborn, and they couldn't look away from other. Even with the shoddy light, barely seeping in through the crumpled blinds, their eye contact never wavered. Steve refused to look away because he meant what he said, and Bucky wouldn't look away because he probably didn't believe him.

"You're ridiculous, you know that." Bucky muttered.

"Just because I told you the truth,"

"You're fucking naïve, Steve. This isn't the twenty-first century anymore!"

"Oh, I'm pretty damn aware of that." Steve glowered, before he reached out to Bucky and grabbed him by the nape of his neck. His heart leapt to his throat, suddenly aware of what he was about to do.

For seven years, unbeknownst to him; something had been brewing underneath the surface. Ever since he laid eyes on Bucky in a grimy dive bar in Queens, there'd been something there. It hadn't been very apparent back then, really; but there was a gravitational pull between them. And it had only grown as time went by.

Steve loved Bucky. He loved him more than he originally believed he did. Maybe it had developed due to his loneliness, yet it had grown because Bucky was Bucky. There was no one else in the world like him; he was brass and unapologetic and dangerous, but thoughtful and intelligent and inquisitive and caring. Without Bucky, he couldn't possibly survive; he didn't want to survive.

"You're all I have, Buck. You're all I'll ever need too." He murmured as he leaned close to Bucky, before his better judgment could seize control once more.

His lips brushed against the corner of Bucky's mouth, and moved slowly until they covered Bucky's lips fully. Bucky made a noise, a combination of surprise and protest; yet he didn't pull away or shove Steve away like he probably should have. Instead, they remained mouth to mouth; dry lips against dry lips with a measure of hesitance and fear in between them.

Pulling away after only a few moments, Steve warily observed Bucky's face but it was unreadable. Bucky's usually expressive face had been reduced to a blank canvas, which suddenly reminded Steve of some of Peggy's last moments. Emotions seemed so displaced on Peggy's face at the end, and for a split-second they looked equally unnatural on Bucky's.

The awkwardness slowly ebbed away, though; leaving behind a kaleidoscope of emotions on Bucky's face instead. Bucky's eyes widened almost comically and his lips parted, although nothing of worth came out of them. And that bothered Steve more than the blankness.

"I shouldn't have."

"No, shouldn't have. But you did." Bucky agreed.

"I'm sorry." Steve barely got the words out, before Bucky grabbed for him and pulled him close until their mouths met in an unexpectedly heated exchange. Teeth and tongue and hurried breaths, filled Steve to the brim until all he could think of and feel was a completeness that he'd been missing for years.

His hands found their way into Bucky's messy hair, and held onto him like a lifeline; which wasn't very far from the truth. Because Bucky had become everything to him; the world was already a miserable pit of despair, but with Bucky it somehow managed to shine. Bucky was like air; Steve needed him to survive. And there was solace in the fact that maybe Bucky needed him too.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-four :: Destroy Them All

 


 

Sleep was a fickle bitch. Tony couldn't relax for the life of him. Thoughts too numerous to mention, flooded his mind and made it impossible to fall asleep. There seemed to be too much at stake now and it really couldn't be ignored. Ultima Zero couldn't possibly be ignored.

Now that Ultima Zero's true nature had been revealed, Tony had to decide what the best course of action was. Many ideas had come to mind, but none of them felt remotely satisfactory. He thought about contacting Commissioner Fury and reporting the situation to him; while another moment later, he considered calling the Odinsons instead. Neither of which seemed like the proper way to go about the situation.

The only thing he knew for certain was that Ultima Zero could not stay here. His safety was in jeopardy and so was Pepper's too, and he would be damned if he allowed any harm to come to his ex-wife. He had taken extreme measures in order to protect Pepper, and he wouldn't be the one to put her in direct harm out of some twisted fascination with a cyborg.

Ultima Zero had always been a point of intrigue for Tony. He had wondered endlessly why he'd been such an imperative asset to Odinson Corp, and now that he had the answer; he had so many more questions. Mainly being, who had Ultima Zero been beforehand? Had he been some lab rat that Banner found in the murky depths of the slums? Or had he had some significant connection to the Odinson family?

The probability that Tony would unravel the mystery behind the cyborg seemed decently low. Because he really couldn't harbor Ultima Zero for very much longer; although he didn't know where he could send him. Back out onto the street was not an option; yet the alternatives weren't any better either. And that left him in between a rock and a hard place.

What could he do really? Could he hand Ultima Zero to Fury with a clear conscious; all the while knowing he'd be dissected and desecrated in the name of science? Could he really let someone that was essentially human fall victim to such travesties like Peggy Carter had? Or could he allow Odinson Corp to continue to possess such a destructive and illegal weapon?

The answer wasn't forthcoming; no matter the various variables he'd taken into account, Tony hadn't drawn to a definitive conclusion. He wished he knew the answer, and maybe he would have if he hadn't seen what had happened to Peggy Carter. Maybe if he hadn't been exposed to dear 'ol dad's haunted face and bloody and shaky hands in that film footage; maybe he could have sent Ultima Zero to Fury with a bow on his head. But he couldn't and he wouldn't.

Somewhere underneath the machine, Ultima Zero was a person. He'd been loved by someone; he had loved someone too. He had meant something to someone, and it would be a crime to allow him to be disabled and murdered because of a streak of bad luck. Because that's the only way to describe it properly; it would be a downright injustice to let any harm come to him.

The people who deserved the harshest punishment were the ones who made Ultima Zero into what he was today. The Odinsons and Dr. Banner deserved to be more than imprisoned; but Tony knew that nothing as horrifying as dissection would ever come to pass. Even if they were sentenced to death, the likelihood that the state would execute them was slim to none; mostly because of the family's status and Banner's intellect.

At the end of the day, all of that was dependent on Tony, though. Tony held so many people's fates in his hand, and he really didn't know what to do about it. He wished he knew without a shadow of a doubt what would be for the best, but there wasn't anything that could tell him that.

Pepper, the physical embodiment of his conscience, wasn't within reach and he really didn't want to burden her with this problem. He wanted to keep her safe, and drawing her into this nasty business would only put her at risk which he refused to do. So he was on his own without any direction.

Scrubbing at his eyes, Tony let out a long-suffering moan. He was exhausted from the day's events and hoped by capturing Ultima Zero that he'd be able to sleep peacefully without any nightmares. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect. He should have had let Barton and Coulson have Ultima Zero, but his hatred of losing caused this whole mess to happen.

"Hey JARVIS, what's the time?" He called out in a gruff and sleep deprived voice.

Seconds ticked by without a reply; so Tony repeated himself louder and enunciated each word. Only to receive silence as his answer, which was highly unusual. JARVIS was always online, unless he was down for repairs and he wouldn't be. Tony updated JARVIS on a monthly basis, and the last time he had had been only a week and a half ago.

Unsettled by the newly revealed problem, Tony sat up in bed and thought of any glitches he might have encountered while updating JARVIS's systems. Nothing came to mind; not to mention if anything had been glitchy, he would have fixed it right away. And that left only one reason why JARVIS wasn't responding as he should – he was purposefully taken offline.

There were only three people who could take JARVIS offline, one of which was him, the other being Pepper, and the final one being Natasha. Neither he nor Pepper had taken JARVIS offline, which meant Natasha had done it; even though she should have been charging…

"I've lost my element of surprise, I believe." Someone announced in a rusty, but an undeniably regal voice; which caused Tony's whole body to tense up in fear. "However, I never suspected I would catch you unaware, Tony Stark. You're much too intelligent for that; no less far too paranoid as well."

Tony was frozen in place, already far too aware of who had addressed him. Of course, Ultima Zero would have found a way to escape; he'd already shown his penchant for diverting capture, and he had famously escaped weeks ago from Odinson Corp and they had known how to contain him. But that didn't dampen the shock Tony ultimately felt for having such a dangerous being in his private quarters.

"I haven't any intention to harm you, unless you decide to be difficult." Ultima Zero continued after a split-second of silence; followed shortly by the sound of soft footfall. "But I believe you are a survivalist, Tony Stark. Your reputation precedes you."

Just on his peripheral, Tony saw a dark shadow accumulate and flesh out into an intimidating figure. Long-limbed, elegant, and undoubtedly mechanical; Ultima Zero stepped into the sterile glow of the city lights that came from the ceiling to floor windows. His face was blank; painted black and white on one side still, which reminded Tony of how unhinged he was. Anyone would be if they were a cyborg, though.

Once the cyborg had shifted in order to be directly in his sightline, he stopped. He didn't move, beyond that abnormal tilt of the head that Natasha sometimes did; but never as extremely inhuman as Ultima Zero did. And that was kind of funny, or maybe ironic, since Ultima Zero was partially human; if not entirely so beyond a few manmade enhancements.

"You're afraid." Ultima Zero said slowly. "Well, you should be. Because unfortunately for you, I have the upper-hand now; I've always had the upper-hand, Tony Stark. From the moment you'd taken me from that delivery van, I've been in control. I just allowed you to think otherwise. But no, I intended on ending up in your possession one way or another. And it was so much simpler than I imagined it would be."

Tony couldn't say a word; his talent for communication suddenly failed him. He was consumed by fear; especially since he hadn't a clue what Ultima Zero might be thinking and what he wanted. His reason for fleeing Odinson Corp hadn't been revealed, and honestly it probably didn't matter anyway. What did matter was why he wanted to be captured, more specifically why he wanted to be captured by Tony.

"You fear what you don't understand."

"You shouldn't even exist." Tony blurted out, somehow forcing the quiver out of his voice.

"We're in agreement on that." Ultima Zero righted his head and stared at Tony coldly. "However, I do exist and I have a purpose, and you will help me with that purpose. Otherwise you die. You really don't have a choice."

As much as he wanted to contradict the cyborg in front of him, Tony knew he was right. He didn't have a choice; his only options were to help Ultima Zero or die. And really what would stop him from going on a rampage and killing Pepper too?

Tony hated to be cornered; he'd experienced enough of that to last him a lifetime. Obadiah had hunted him like an animal; dead-set on taking full control of the company, and Tony and Pepper were only collateral damage. Anyone who'd experienced that kind of treatment obviously wouldn't want to end up in the exact same situation again. But there wasn't any way around it now. He was a sitting duck and Ultima Zero wouldn't hesitate to destroy him.

"Tell me something, Tony Stark," Ultima Zero clasped his hands behind his back, before walking towards the windows several feet away. "You haven't any fondness for Odinson Corp, do you?"

"That would be an understatement."

"The company's founder and former CEO hadn't been very complimentary towards Stark Industries all those years ago. And they also have been taking business from you as well; reprehensible behavior, really."

"I don't exactly have any love for Odinson Corp; everyone knows that, clearly." Tony clenched and unclenched his hands, sorely wishing he had the foresight to sleep with his energy gun. But he hadn't imagined Natasha, for whatever reason, would have taken JARVIS offline.

Another swell of terror worked its way to the forefront of Tony's mind. Something must have happened to Natasha; Ultima Zero must have disabled her in some way. There wasn't any other explanation for why she would have willingly disconnected JARVIS and then allow him upstairs into Tony's private floors.

"What have you done to her? What have you done to Natasha?"

"Your pretty little android was temporarily disabled; she will be perfectly fine, whenever you choose to reboot her." Ultima Zero peered over his shoulder at Tony, before he returned his gaze outward and towards the rainy city skyline. "As of right now, we have business that we need to discuss."

"Okay, okay." Tony felt the lump in his throat lessen by a fraction. "You hate Odinson Corp and I hate them too, so what are you hinting at?"

Ultima Zero didn't reply; he instead pressed one hand to the glass of the window. For those few moments, he seemed almost harmless; as if the whole sordid business about androids and cyborgs and murder and destruction was all but a dream. Maybe if Tony wished hard enough, perhaps it would be. Because it felt like a horrible repeat in history; an endless cycle of human depravity that always sucked Tony in one way or another.

"I fled for a reason; a very specific reason, Tony Stark." Ultima Zero eventually spoke once more. "I've plotted for eleven years; thought up every scenario, calculated my success rate, and disregarded every plan that would ultimately lead to my failure. But I found my way out eventually, and I even retraced my steps from so long ago; collecting data that no one knew I had. If they did, it would have already been destroyed years ago."

"What sort of data, exactly?"

"The Ultima Zero Project was a theoretical research project, based around Dr. Jin Tanaka's Cyborg Project 58, otherwise known as the Peggy Carter Project. But the Ultima Zero Project exceeded the Cyborg Project 58 in various fields; due in part because it was heavily researched to the point of obsession.

"It, however, wasn't meant to become a reality. The head researcher in question had only expanded on it for intellectual satiation; in other words, for fun. Yet unforeseeable circumstances led to the Odinson Corporation choosing to enact the project, despite the illegality of it and the head researcher's vehement protests to never attempt it.

"And that's why I'm here, Tony Stark. Odinson Corp chose to make me their pet project, and that is an unforgivable offense."

"So what are you suggesting?"

"I have every file about the Ultima Zero Project currently in my database." Ultima Zero turned to face Tony again. "Therefore I have enough evidence to hold Dr. Bruce Banner guilty of the crime of cyborg research and development, which would carries a severe punishment."

"You want to bring Banner down, in other words." Tony shifted his gaze away; sickened by the macabre display in front of him.

"Oh, no; not just Banner. I intend on destroying every single person that has had a hand in this project. I will burn Odinson Corp to the ground, and you; you will help me do it Tony Stark. And let's be honest with ourselves, you'll enjoy every moment of it too."

Despite wanting to contradict what Ultima Zero had said, Tony couldn't for the life of him do so. He hadn't any desire to help a cyborg with a ploy for revenge, yet at the same time he wanted nothing more than to see Odinson Corp fall to the wayside. Without Odinson Corp, Stark Industries' only competitor was Hammer Company and they didn't even produce androids on the same caliber as Stark Industries or Odinson Corp.

From a business perspective, the downfall of Odinson Corp was a superb idea. On a human level though, watching a cyborg destroy an entire family's livelihood was abhorrent; evil even. Unfortunately, Tony's instinct for self-preservation was so much more apparent than his conscience; and revenge had always been his weakness too. That's why no one would ever see Obadiah Stane again.

"What's your plan?"

"To destroy them all," Ultima Zero smiled then; an ugly and gnarled twist of his lips that made Tony certain he made a deal with the devil. But he wasn't innocent either; he'd enjoyed pulling Obie apart in the most gruesome way possible. And he knew he'd get a sick pleasure out of watching his competitors burn too.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-five :: Selfishness Over Compassion

 


 

The beer was stale; the peanuts staler still. Clint didn't complain, though; he'd only scraped enough money together to make the purchase and any beer was good at this point. Especially when he took into consideration what he had read only a few hours ago, and what that inevitably would entail for him in the near future.

Sitwell had really thrown him and Phil through a loop. The information they'd been given had been utterly shocking, since it seemed so improbable. In a world of instant knowledge, it seemed unlikely that a manufacturing company called HYDRA Inc. was in existence; let alone creating such advanced technology that it made Tony Stark's inventions to appear primitive in comparison. But the proof was in the file and it was mind blowing.

While there hadn't been a lot of in-depth data on the android called the Longest Winter; there was plenty to make Clint's skin crawl. Simply because unbeknownst to anyone, there had been androids among them; implanted with false memories and convinced that they were actually human. Hell, they acted naturally and easily too. And the Longest Winter was proof of that.

Shifting through the yellowing papers, Clint paused on the colored photo of the android in question. It was an early photo, presumably before the upgrades; but the face was recognizable. Expressive blue eyes stared up at him, oh-so-human-like that it felt like a joke. Yet he knew Sitwell wouldn't lie to them, since it wouldn't gain him a thing. This was for real.

"Can you believe it?" He asked aloud, as he blindly reached for his lukewarm beer.

"My disbelief has become extinct at this point." Phil replied, in the midst of eyeing every nook and cranny of the establishment they were in. There were plenty of shady characters around, although that was the norm in the slums.

"But he looks so human; he acts like one of us too!"

"I wonder if Rogers is aware of the fact that his partner is a highly sophisticated android."

"Maybe he does." Clint wrapped his fingers around his mug, but didn't immediately take a drink from it. "The guy might have a fetish, you know."

"Highly unlikely," Phil glimpsed at him with a frown. "Either way, we have to strategize on getting Barnes alone. Rogers is always at his side, and even if he was unaware of Barnes's true nature; we can't risk letting him get the upper-hand."

Clint had considered the fact that Rogers might very well be their biggest obstacle when it came to collecting Barnes. But he hadn't really thought of anything that would likely lure Barnes away. He seemed attached to Rogers by the hip, and there was no way they could eliminate Rogers either. Not when he'd proven himself an unlikely but unobtainable asset to the police force.

Everyone had heard the murmurs of Commissioner Fury wanting Rogers to join up with him. For whatever reason though, Rogers hadn't taken up the offer; albeit he was still very much on Fury's radar. So if he happened to meet a messy end, Clint could only assume his killers would meet a similar, if not worse, fate.

So the real challenge was the good 'ol divide and conquer tactic. If they could find a way to corner Barnes then it would be smooth sailing. Or at least on paper it would be; the reality was a lot more complicated than that. Because really would Barnes so stupidly walk off with a rival blade runner? Especially one that he'd fucked over only a few days beforehand?

"Do you think Sitwell could have lied to us?" Clint asked, even if he already knew the truth; however, he found it necessary to seek out Phil's thoughts on it. "Maybe he doesn't like Barnes as much as I don't like him. He is a pompous asshole, after all."

"Pompous asshole or not, I doubt Jasper would go through all that trouble for revenge. The specs are right here, Clint; these look like official documents from a professional company. Even if I'm harboring a bit of skepticism, I'm certain Jasper wouldn't lie to us about this. I really believe this to be legitimate."

"And you believe that Barnes is an unsuspecting 'droid?"

"Anything's possible; honestly, you aren't the best judge on that anyway. You didn't know that Stark's android was one immediately."

"For god's sake, I was high on adrenaline; trying to catch that motherfucking Phoenix 2. I wasn't exactly at my best in the thinking department." Clint argued, finally taking a large gulp from his mug; although it took a lot of self-control not to gag. "But I figured it out eventually."

To to be honest, that had been a grave disappointment for Clint; finding out that the beautiful redhead in Stark's company had been nothing more than an android left a bad taste in his mouth. Even though he wouldn't have had a chance with her in hell otherwise, he still liked the fantasy more than the reality. Technology was always a constant mind-fuck, even for someone who'd grown up fully immersed in the culture.

When he was growing up, androids hadn't been as human-like as they were today. They had looked very much like machines; mechanical and jerk in their movements with computerized voices. They weren't very sophisticated in appearance, but still proved to be helpful all the same. It was only when Stark Industries really became a household name that everything began to change.

It was at the cusp of Clint's adulthood that androids became incredibly human-like. Not to mention, they had a variety of jobs that went beyond household duties and factory work. Androids became hot commodities for the rich and famous; they fought on the police force and they became nannies, and some were even used for sexual purposes. And that's when everything fell apart.

The world had already become a wasteland; had been for over a hundred years when Clint was born. And the colonies were only barely forming in his earliest of years. So one of the only sources of comfort for Earth had been androids because they made day to day life so much easier; or at least that was the initial belief, before they had become violent and terrorized the city for weeks on end.

"Barnes mentioned something during that whole debacle with Ultima Zero; he mentioned that we had some of the same contacts." Phil disrupted Clint's chain of thought, while taking several peanuts from the small bowl positioned in the center of the table. "Maybe I could track someone down and find Barnes's whereabouts. After we come up with a plan of attack anyway,"

"I have an idea, but it's nothing sophisticated or anything."

"Sophistication can be overrated, Clint. You should know that by now."

"If anyone is going to be successful with unarming Barnes, it'll be you Phil."

"Me; why me,"

"Simple – Barnes doesn't trust me; he thinks I'm a shithead, and well I feel the same way about him too. And while he'll probably be suspicious of you; it won't be on the same caliber if I tried to lure him away."

"But we still don't have a legitimate reason to lure him away." Phil furrowed his brow, as he plucked another handful of peanuts from the bowl in front of him. "Maybe my sources could give me some information on Barnes."

"Yeah, probably for a pretty penny though."

"Leave it up to me; I know how to talk to them."

"So does Barnes, apparently." Clint took another swig from his mug and pursed his lips. His eyes drifted back to the open file, and the photo of the android that was Barnes.

It still felt surreal to think someone so lively could possibly be a machine. There weren't any telltale signs that he was anything but human. Everything about him was fluid and natural; his mannerisms were cocky and sometimes boisterous (from what Clint had witnessed), and his wit was lightning fast. Maybe in a different life, Clint could have even seen himself being friends with the guy.

"The guy must eat, you know." He said absently. "How do you think that works?"

"I'm sure there's a function for that; if this company really wanted to make a life-like android, they must have done their research. God only knows the methods they've used to accomplish that."

"It seems like a fantasy, you know. HYDRA managed to build such a human-like 'droid that he does everything like a normal person does. He sleeps, he eats, he shits, he fucks; name it and he does it. And just think of this – there are researchers and engineers out there that actually sit around and make sure a 'droid can do all that and more. Imagine that's your job, to figure out how a 'droid can shit."

"I appreciate the fact you're attempting to make this situation remotely humorous; unfortunately, it's lost on me." Phil bowed his head and licked the salt from his lips, almost as an afterthought. "I just keep thinking about how Barnes is a victim, you know."

Clint furrowed his brow, and considered that statement for several moments. Regardless of the fact he wasn't fond of Barnes, it was true. He wasn't a run-of-the-mill android; he didn't know what he was and had been struggling to live like every other person in the slums did. And from what he could ascertain, Barnes hadn't hurt anyone along the way either.

Maybe HYDRA Inc. had some greater understanding of artificial intelligence compared to their competitors, if they could make machines as peaceable and normal as Barnes was. But HYDRA's motivations were a mystery; god only knew why they had chosen to create androids like they had. Probably for nefarious means, no doubt; most large and powerful conglomerates weren't looking out for the common good.

"There's probably a reset button on Barnes. Sitwell could probably wipe him or something, so he doesn't remember anything." Clint said, before closing the file.

"It's still cruel all the same."

"You hate 'droids; you aren't supposed to feel sorry for them."

"The difference between the ones manufactured by Stark Industries and Odinson Corp and HYDRA is pretty vast, Clint. Barnes hasn't done anything really horrible; aside from helping to destroy Jasper's delivery van. But he hasn't gone on a killing rampage or anything. He's human."

"Well, he believes he is."

"Same difference; Barnes thinks he's human and lives like one. I think that constitutes as him being human."

"You're a soft touch, Coulson." Clint shook his head, although he really wasn't surprised by this revelation either. Phil's best and worst attribute was his compassion, and right now it surfaced at the least opportune moment; although that didn't mean they couldn't fulfill their end of the bargain they struck up with Sitwell.

Even if Phil felt badly about the reality of Barnes's origins, Clint knew he would feel worse if they didn't repay Sitwell. They made a promise to pay him back, and that was exactly what they were going to do. The means in which they were going to do it were irrelevant; the truth behind Barnes's existence really didn't matter. Or it shouldn't have mattered to them anyway, despite the fact it seemed to be affecting Phil negatively.

"Compassion is hard to come by nowadays, I know. But that's the only thing separating us from the machines, Clint. If we don't have compassion then we don't have anything anymore. We're no better."

"Maybe not, but we still breathe and eat and feel something. Machines can't do that; no way, no how."

"Barnes can, it seems." Phil reached across the table and pulled the file to him; before flipping it back open, and extracting the photograph of the Longest Winter.

Barnes had changed his appearance over the years; he had cut his hair short, while the photograph of him displayed a wild mane of hair that gave him an intimidating look to him. Otherwise though, there was nothing that was that different about him; he was the same down to the smallest of details.

"I have a plan to lure Barnes away. Leave it up to me, okay."

"You already have a plan?" Clint raised his eyebrows; impressed by the fact that one minute his partner was lamenting on the injustice of Barnes's existence, and now he'd already conjured up an idea on capturing him and sending back to Sitwell's mysterious boss named Pierce.

"I do." Phil affirmed grimly. "Unfortunately, humans can be equally selfish as they are compassionate and that also separates us from the machines. Today, I've chosen selfishness over compassion though. One way or another we're getting off this god forsaken planet, partner."

"That's what I like to hear; selfishness over compassion," Clint raised his mug, before downing the contents. For a split-second, it tasted like victory; he just hoped it wouldn't taste like failure any time soon.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-six :: A Product of His Own Creation

 


 

Guilt was a heavy burden; one that slowly consumed you from the inside-out. Bruce knew that all too well. He had lived with the soul-crushing guilt for too many years to count; and he would continue to feel it until his dying day.

Had it not been for him, the Ultima Zero project wouldn't have come into fruition. He had helped develop it with his former partner, simply as a hypothetical endeavor. It had been enjoyable too; to work with a like-minded colleague on taboo research. Because it had been for the expansion of their knowledge on cyborg technology; to enrich their minds on how one could infuse a living organism with inorganic parts. But it was never meant to be practiced.

Theory was fine, so long as it didn't become a reality. Neither he nor his partner had meant to do any harm. They hadn't even imagined that their research would be brought into practice. It was an illegal activity, after all; so why would they create even more damning evidence by making a cyborg of their own?

Unfortunately, things had changed. Odinson Corp was on the verge of losing one of their own, and Bruce had numbly conveyed that there was, in fact, a way to save the youngest Odinson son. Once he had said as much, the floodgates had been opened and the years of research and data that he helped collect and develop were suddenly thrown into motion.

The likelihood that the Ultima Zero project would be successful was relatively low. It should have taken a team of highly trained doctors, scientists, and engineers to see the project through. Somehow though, Bruce had single-handedly managed the numerous surgeries on his own and they had taken rather easily too.

During the initial days after the surgery, there had been building anxiety about the test subject's vitals and if organic and inorganic materials could coexist in a body that had been ravaged by innumerable things months beforehand. But the test subject had persevered; its body didn't reject the hardware installed into him and he seemed to even thrive. Or at least it thrived in the physical sense.

The mental state in which the test subject woke to was violent and hysterical. Bruce remembered the day all too well; how everyone (besides Baldur) had been elated by the success of the operation. There had been a lot of happy tears that day; although there were many more angry and horrified tears to follow. Due to the fact that everyone had taken upon the liberty to proceed on the Ultima Zero project without the test subject's consent.

To this day, Bruce was haunted by the desperate yells that burst out of the test subject's, Loki's mouth. How he begged to be put out of his misery, and that he didn't want to live as the abomination that he had become. He didn't want to live, yet no one listened. They never listened; all except Baldur anyway.

Baldur had always been the one that had been strictly against the Ultima Zero project. Early on in the preliminary stages, Bruce too hadn't wanted to proceed. But he had been worn down by the combination of Thor and Frigga, who refused to give up on such a farfetched idea; which proved to be the catalyst for everything that inevitably followed.

"Dr. Banner, I thought I would catch you here still." A small and delicate voice drew him abruptly from his thoughts. He couldn't help but shudder, seeing as he wanted to be left alone.

"I was on my way out, actually." He turned his gaze away from the sprawling cityscape on the outside perimeter of the laboratory, and took in the weary figure of Frigga Odinson close-by.

"I'm sorry, but I need someone to talk to. My eldest children have grown irrational and nasty towards one another. Baldur has become both those things towards me too. And my husband, well, we're trying to hide the truth from him still. He is no condition to hear of our loss." Frigga murmured weakly as she drew nearer.

Over the last several months, the patriarch of the Odinson family and its former CEO had a variety of health issues. Much of it was to be blamed on old age, and no one had suggested a repeat of the Ultima Zero project to prevent his impending death. No one could justify that after what had befallen Loki.

"So there haven't been any reports in terms of the blade runners?"

"Unfortunately, no," Frigga made it to his side, before pressing an elegant hand to the window. "Baldur had undermined Thor's efforts to retrieve Loki. He offered a larger reward to kill him. But none of the involved parties have contacted either one of my sons with news yet."

Bruce furrowed his brow by hearing of this newest development, although he couldn't say he opposed Baldur's decision to take matters into his own hands. It was a miracle that the eldest Odinson sibling hadn't slipped into the laboratory and done the job himself. But maybe the idea of soiling his own hands was too much for even him to handle.

In all honesty, Bruce had thought of ending the Ultima Zero project as well. He had every opportunity to do so; he'd been left unsupervised many times with Ultima Zero. And he suspected that Ultima Zero wouldn't put up a fight if he attempted to sever his head from his body.

"Could I be frank with you, Mrs. Odinson?" He asked.

"People have been rather frank with me of late; I don't see how your honesty could hurt me anymore than my eldest son's already has."

"Have you ever thought about how Ultima Zero-"

"Loki,"

"Yes, Loki; have you ever thought about his request all those years ago? About how he said he never wanted to live like this?"

"He was in a state of shock." She replied, although it was doubtful.

Loki had, indeed, been in shock, but Bruce knew Loki well enough to know that he meant what he said. There wasn't any place in society for a cyborg to live. They were outlawed and considered highly dangerous. So Loki had been subjected to a life in a highly guarded laboratory; which essentially drained the humanity out of him.

Verbal responses had ended abruptly after his initial outburst. He then became extremely violent; mostly when it coincided with anyone calling him anything but Ultima Zero. And it was that violence that forced Bruce to induce a medical coma on Loki more often than not. Since that was the only way they could control him within reason.

"I've spent many hours, hundreds if not thousands of them with Loki. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there isn't any trace of Loki anymore beyond the physical. The technology and injections that I'd given him originally have stopped the aging process, so he looks like Loki but his personality isn't the same. He's more of a machine than a person." Bruce explained as gently as possible. "He hates to be called anything but Ultima Zero. You're the only one allowed to call him otherwise, but both of us are aware of the many times we had to rush you from the lab because he'd grown irate.

"I believe you realize deep down inside that your Loki is gone. I'm not saying this be cruel. On the contrary, I'm saying this to be kind. Because I am aware of how much Loki meant to you; you were his mother, after all and he was too young to die. But he is gone, Mrs. Odinson. What you have left is a shell and that's it."

As a hopeless optimist, Bruce had tried to see a portion of Loki in Ultima Zero. A year after the operation, he had still held onto hope that maybe Ultima Zero's surly personality would break; that they would finally be reintroduced to Loki once more. It never happened, though.

The brilliant man that Loki Odinson had once been had been reduced to a machine. Ultima Zero rarely moved; he hadn't shown any curiosity or pleasure in any one thing. Sometimes he amused himself with the androids that were regularly being manufactured in the laboratory, but otherwise he was nothing but a life-like doll himself.

Even when his interest temporarily piqued about the androids (which was the only reason Frigga had pushed for Bruce to recreate old friends from his past in a mechanical format); it only lasted a minute or two at the most, and then he would return to his immobile and impenetrable self. Or so Bruce had assumed that was his default setting until Ultima Zero had pulled off such a sophisticated escape weeks ago.

"Surely you don't believe that, Dr. Banner." Frigga spoke once more with a twinge of hysteria in her tone. "That is Loki; he is not some type of machine. He's not mindless or soulless; he's my son and your dear friend, and I cannot allow anyone to harm him. I won't let them."

"At this point, I don't think you can protect Loki anymore." Bruce said sadly. "Because there isn't any more Loki to protect; Ultima Zero is out there now and he has caused many deaths, Mrs. Odinson. I don't know what his goal is, but he's highly dangerous and someone needs to stop him before anyone informs Commissioner Fury of his activities. Quite frankly, I'm surprised the police force hasn't looked into all these suspicious killings of yet."

"Everyone is telling me that my son is no longer alive." Frigga laughed bitterly. "All of you want me to believe that he's an emotionless killing machine that cannot be helped. But I refuse to believe that! I will never see my son reduced to an object! You knew Loki for years, Dr. Banner; you worked alongside him for close to ten years, and you want to tell me that he's gone entirely?"

Bruce furrowed his brow. He turned to face the Odinson matriarch, and tried to collect his thoughts as best as he could. There was no point becoming angry. Yes, he harbored plenty of anger to last him a lifetime, but much of that had been directed towards himself if anything else. And the combination of guilt that was thrown into the mix oftentimes made it difficult for him to function. If anything though, he knew how to cope.

Loki had been a dear friend to him. Once he joined Odinson Corp, he was quickly introduced to the youngest Odinson; who had been diligently studying the engineering side of the family business. Loki hadn't had any interest in the financial side or the management side of the company. He had always preferred to be in the research and development department, which led to him and Bruce becoming fast friends.

Their friendship expanded into a partnership. After Loki had finished his studies, he had come to work with Bruce in the laboratory; where they tried to create androids that were highly functional but without the high price tag as Stark Industries' line of androids. Despite their many efforts, it really wasn't a fully realized plan; they created androids, although they were inferior to Stark's by leaps and bounds.

The only thing that sated their appetite had been studying the Peggy Carter incident. It had been a macabre fascination on Loki's behalf; who had watched the footage of her dissection several times over, and that eventually led him to hypothetically outlining a plan that vastly improved cyborg technology where Dr. Tanaka had obviously failed.

Hundreds of hours of research had gone into the Ultima Zero project. Loki had been wholly enthusiastic about it, and thrived in all manners of speaking when it came to the project. While Bruce helped quite a bit, the most impressive bits were built by Loki's mind alone. Loki had always been brilliant, but the Ultima Zero project had truly brought forth his genius. And then everyone he loved used it against him.

Loki had become a product of his own creation. The very thing he had thought inhuman and unnatural, and Bruce had made it into a reality through his body.

"Whether or not you choose to believe it is up to you, Mrs. Odinson. I can't change your mind if your own sons cannot. But I've spent much of my time in the lab with Ultima Zero. He hasn't shown any signs of being any more human than the androids we regularly manufacture. I honestly wish I could tell you otherwise that there is some hope, because that's all I ever wanted too. Unfortunately, that isn't the case.

"The most humane thing we could do, if Ultima Zero is returned to us; is to end his suffering. Because he is truly suffering, Mrs. Odinson; he is no better than a doll and that isn't any way to live."

"With all due respect, Dr. Banner; you might have the authority to speak on the technological condition my son is currently in, however you don't have the authority to speak on his humanity. Loki is human and there's nothing that anyone can say to change my mind." Frigga retorted brusquely, before she turned to leave Bruce in the solitude he had so desperately wanted. But something pulled inside of him; a needling sensation that wanted him to, at least, have the final word.

"Nothing that anyone could say would change your mind?" He turned completely and saw Frigga stop just inside the lab. "Not even your son? Not even Loki?"

Just like him, Frigga had been there when Loki had woken up. She had heard the desperate pleas, the choked and horrible sobs that came out of him. Yet Baldur had still remained the only one opposed to Loki becoming a cyborg; no one else had spoken up that day.

"He was not himself; he was hysterical and terrified. Wouldn't you be?"

"He was either himself or something or someone else, Mrs. Odinson. You know as well as I do, the last time he called you mother was almost eleven years ago. He hasn't called you that since."

"You're wrong."

"You can't fight for a cyborg anymore. You can't continue fighting for a ghost." He said softly, but he knew his words didn't find her. Not when she swept away in a flurry of silk and fur; determined to run away from the truth. However, it was unlikely that she'd get very far. Because something told him, Ultima Zero would come back to them in a very big way.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-seven :: Something Worth Protecting

 


 

The low hum of machinery at work put Tony at ease. For several days now, he'd been incredibly on edge; muscles taut and his mind a clutter of worry and paranoia. He slept less than he usually did; afraid that all the restraints in the world and the most sophisticated security in existence couldn't save him from the cyborg; that was currently boring a hole into the back of his head.

Ultima Zero had proven himself capable of manipulation, which explained so much about his escape from Odinson Corp. If he could manipulate or potentially even get an android to sympathize with him somehow; he was truly a force to be reckoned with. And Natasha had paid the price for it.

Thankfully, her motherboard hadn't been fried; although Tony chose to run diagnostics just in case they unearthed a glitch that wasn't visible to the naked eye. He also had to still reconstruct the portion of her face that had been damaged during their confrontation with Cerberus 7 and Goddess 11 androids. So he figured that he might as well update her too, and get everything out of the way all at once.

"High quality," Ultima Zero suddenly spoke; a drawl that was highly sophisticated for something so animal-like in behavior.

"Unlike Odinson Corp, I use the best materials. I think androids should be long lasting and durable; especially if they're being used for labor on the colonies. It's important to sustain them."

"Even so, they don't have withstanding battery power. They still need to be recharged after a laborious day."

"That's why you have several 'droids on hand. You can use one fleet for your immediate needs, and when they're running low on battery life; you bring in your second group."

"In other words, your clientele is spending more money on inferior products."

"Inferior products," Tony repeated and felt a wave of anger wind its way around him. "Funny of you to say, seeing as you just waltzed out of a lab at Odinson Corp. If anything those products are inferior! They are made of subpar materials, the cheapest way to go, and they don't even last for beyond five or six years! Whereas Stark Industries produces an android with the latest technology, the best materials, and ones that could easily stay functional for double the time as an Odinson Corp android!"

Shifting his gaze away from the synthetic skin spread out in front of him, Tony shot Ultima Zero an annoyed look. Over the past twenty-four hours, Ultima Zero had become especially vocal. Nothing he said proved to be of any significance, particularly when it came to overthrowing Odinson Corp, though. Instead, he would pipe in with chit-chat or things that were frequently insulting.

Truth be told, Tony preferred the uncomfortable silences now. At least then, he wasn't toeing the line of potential death. Because he really couldn't help lashing out at the cyborg when he said infuriating things like that to him; no less his company.

"I'm not a representative of your rival company. We've established that already."

"Oh yeah, we have. The only problem is that you haven't really given me any further insight on your diabolical plan of attack." He scowled at Ultima Zero, whose face was still only partially painted up like a demonic clown from hell. "Aside from taking the data you supposedly have to the authorities, there isn't very much you can do."

Ultima Zero didn't reply; in fact, he didn't even move. His eyes were focused on him, though; two emerald colored irises that were painfully human. Looking at the cyborg for more than a few seconds at a time always made Tony uneasy. It made him almost nauseous even.

Somewhere in that tangle of wires, beyond the hardware and software was a human being. Tony couldn't even imagine the complexity of Ultima Zero's existence. Surely, he could pore over Dr. Tanaka's work on the Peggy Carter project in order to understand the ins and outs of it. But he never had the desire to plunge headfirst into something so perverse.

"I have all the data about the Ultima Zero Project, except for one important piece."

"Then who has it? And how are you going to get it?"

"I intend on breaking into Odinson Corp; you'll serve well as my alibi, in the very least. If not, I'll find a way to elaborate."

"Hold on a second," Tony swiveled fully on his stool, so he could study Ultima Zero. "You want me to help you break into Odinson Corp. Or in the very least, you want me to pretend I bagged you, and I'm taking you back. But in all actuality, you're going to steal data that'll bring them down? Why didn't you get it before you left?"

"Simple," Ultima Zero replied. "I couldn't risk it. Either I was going to escape or risk being permanently taken out of commission. One took precedent over the other, clearly."

Tony felt a headache coming on and pressed his oil-stained fingertips to his temples. While everything sounded fairly clean-cut, he knew better than to assume that that would be the case. Odinson Corp would have security and he highly doubted they'd allow Ultima Zero to waltz into the door without powering him down first. So they would have to think up an alternate plan.

This would probably require a lot more espionage work than he'd like. And Tony really wasn't very good at it; he had been bad it fifteen years earlier, so he highly doubted he'd be much better at it now. He'd almost gotten himself killed when he infiltrated this very tower, in order to find Obadiah all those years ago; and he'd probably be killed for sure if he tried to break into another company's building with a furious cyborg in tow.

"Do you even know where this information's stored? Obviously, it wasn't in the same place you were being held because you could have gotten the data easily enough when you were there."

"I have an idea; I'm not completely certain, but there's only one feasible place it could be."

"Let me get this straight, you aren't one-hundred percent certain where this data is even? And you just want to go in all gung-ho without any certainty whatsoever?"

"As you're very much aware of, the government keeps updated files on their citizens. They also send you a microchip for your own convenience for identification purposes. Once you officially die, you are removed from the database and placed into the deceased file. After some lengthy research, I've learned that I'm, in fact, labeled officially deceased."

"Okay,"

"My identification chip is still in possession of Odinson Corp. It'll prove my identity."

"Do you think the police will think all that other data is fabricated just because you don't have your ID chip?"

"The Odinson family has influence. Without proper identification, they could very well get away with it. After all, they could say I'm only a duplicate of someone long since dead. But those microchips hold all our information needed, including blood type and fingerprints. And you cannot truly recreate someone's fingerprints."

"Not the blood either,"

"My blood's been contaminated by outside elements. It wouldn't be the same." Ultima Zero explained without any inflection; although his eyes looked oddly sad.

The complexity of the story was beyond Tony. He didn't think Ultima Zero would readily tell him how he ended up becoming a science experiment either. Of course, having more information on the matter would only help Tony and by proxy Ultima Zero. Then again, maybe he didn't want to get fully invested into this situation. It really wasn't his problem anyway.

His main goal was to see the dissolution of Odinson Corp. Everything else really wasn't his concern; Ultima Zero would have to be retired one way or another. The authorities would ultimately want to take him in, no doubt to perform similar travesties against him as they did Peggy Carter. Yet regardless of how ruthless and vicious Ultima Zero was, that fate seemed to be far too cruel even for him.

"Where do you think your identity microchip is?"

"There are only a few places where it could be. But I know who will know where it is."

"Dr. Banner," Tony suggested.

"No, not Dr. Banner," Ultima Zero's eyes turned emotionless once more. "Despite transferring written data onto a variety of microchips before my supposed death, and hiding them around the city; I never took into account that I might very well have needed to make a copy of my own identity. Foolish of me, I know."

"Who has it? Or is this some big mystery that I'm not supposed to know about?"

"The matriarch of the Odinson family; she isn't as compliant as the public believes her to be in terms of the company. I'm sure you weren't even aware of that either, Tony Stark."

"So the family business is really the family business." Tony frowned in thought.

Throughout his many dealings with Odinson Corp, the matriarch of the Odinson family hadn't come up in conversation in any shape or form. Tony hadn't given Frigga Odinson much thought at all. He couldn't even recall seeing the woman despite his many dealings with her husband and her sons. So this was interesting news to hear.

Ultima Zero stood from the stool opposite of him, before he started to walk the length of the workshop in long and measured strides. In a way, he resembled an enlarged jungle cat; although Tony had only seen very grainy footage of them when he was a child.

In an environment such as theirs, most animals had become a relic of the past. About forty years earlier, the last known cockatoo had died; which had officially been the end of any animal life on the planet. Or at least any known animal life that scientists were aware of. And they'd been tirelessly searching for ages now without any luck.

"Once you have your ID chip, what are you going to do next? Are you going to send all that evidence to the police?" Tony asked and followed the cyborg's movements in fascination.

"The media,"

"The media; what do you think they'll do?"

"For a man with an astronomically large IQ, you certainly lack in common sense." Ultima Zero paused and stared at Tony. "The media will spread the news, effectively ruining Odinson Corp's reputation to the point where they couldn't even sell a screw or a bolt. Because I have a feeling that they will somehow weasel their way out of a sound punishment for their crimes if only the authorities were involved."

"Okay, so you flood the media with all this information. What happens to you then?" Tony ignored the jab, and arched an eyebrow in curiosity.

Something unnatural, almost ugly, passed across Ultima Zero's two-toned face; it was enough to chill the blood in Tony's veins. It was also enough to reawaken the fear inside of him; although to be perfectly honest, the fear hadn't really ever left him at all. Not even when Ultima Zero exhibited so many human traits and looked very human-like too.

"I shouldn't exist, Tony Stark. My very existence is an abomination; we've known that ever since the Peggy Carter incident had come to pass. And it's evident what'll happen to me, once I expose Odinson Corp's dirty little secret."

Tony crossed his arms almost defensively. It wouldn't do any good, though. If Ultima Zero wanted him dead; he'd be dead in a split-second flat. Natasha couldn't help him either, seeing as she was sprawled out on the workbench behind him and was inactive. And the armored suit he'd built was all the way on the other side of the workshop; which meant he was no better than twenty-first century sitting duck.

"I've already resigned myself to my fate. The government will take custody of me and they will run extensive tests on me; study the wealth of data that I've provided them with. And then, they will want to take me apart to see how exactly I work. Even if there are numerous files available to them with everything they need to know about my functionality in them.

"Scientists, however, are non-believers until they see everything for themselves. So they'll be compelled to disassemble me, and they'll do it without any anesthesia. Because I'm nothing more than a machine to them; but honestly there wouldn't be an anesthesia powerful enough to ease the pain they'll inevitably put me through. But most of all, they will want me to experience pain for their research purposes."

"Yeah, well it's not going to happen." Tony blurted out; immediately convinced of that. "What I mean, in other words, I'm not going to let that happen. I'm a better shot anyway. So I'll handle your retirement for you; it'll be painless."

"Why would you, though?"

"Because you're doing me a huge favor by taking out the competition; plus you might be surprised that I'm not some unsympathetic monster. I don't think it was right what they did to Peggy Carter, and I'm not going to sit back and let them do the same thing to you. You might be a cyborg, but you were a person first and you're still a person to an extent; even though you're terrifying as shit. And I'll be damned if I let anyone do that to a real human being again."

Ultima Zero stared at him still; the definition of cool and calculated, no doubt with a thin layer of murderous intent underneath it too. Without so much as another word, Ultima Zero returned to his seat across from Tony and only offered him the slightest of nods in reply. But that spoke volumes that words could not; underneath all of the bravado and terrifying two-toned face, there was a living and breathing human being underneath it all. And that was something worthy of protecting.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-nine :: Dreamless Sleep

  


 

 

Dreams; the word was a familiar one, the concept even more so. Everyone dreamed in some capacity, but oddly enough Bucky did not. He hadn't even realized it until recently; more specifically while tangled in the dingy, oil-stained sheets beside Steve.

The previous night they had kissed and touched one another like lovers did. They had fallen short of any further intimacy, but they had stayed up into the wee hours of the morning and spoke about anything and everything. Steve had mentioned how he dreamt of the day that they became more than just friends, although Bucky couldn't say the same.

Once his head hit the pillow each night, everything went black. Bucky couldn't remember one time that that he dreamt of anything. It was like a light switch was flipped off; everything turned off and didn't come back on until his eyes reopened in the morning or afternoon.

That's precisely how it was as he woke up in the late afternoon hours. He was oddly restless and that sinking realization of his dreamless state carried him into the shabby bathroom with its broken tiles and mildew. The medicine cabinet was positioned at an angle above the sink; the mirror had a crack in the center, and the bathtub was stained brown around the edges.

Despite its rundown appearance, everything happened to work at least. If it hadn't, Bucky would have been more than happy to deal with their landlord on a one on one basis. The man was greedy and a sneak, but he shrunk whenever Bucky approached; ever since they had exchanged words about the leaky plumbing over a year ago.

Bucky wasn't opposed to using force. Things got done that way. While Steve preferred to have discussions and try to reason with other people, he wasn't on the same wavelength. Most people in this day and age didn't want to have civil conversations; they responded to threats and acts of violence instead.

The twenty-second century was not a compassionate place. Steve should have known better than anyone, since his dearly departed lover had been made into a monster by scientists years ago. But for whatever reason, he clung to the belief that humanity was inherently good; which was still an ongoing point of contention between the two of them.

Scrubbing at his eyes, Bucky stared at himself in the mirror. He looked awful; somehow he felt even worse. There was something disturbing about his dreamless state. It was probably normal though; not everyone dreamt, and for all he knew he did, but he just couldn't remember anything. That seemed like a logical explanation. Or that's what he told himself anyway.

"Not everyone remembers," he assured himself, although the words sounded hollow even to him.

Whatever the cause for his dreamlessness wasn't important. He had larger problems to handle, which dealt entirely with money. Since they lost Ultima Zero to Tony Stark, they needed to find a way to make quick money. The rent was due in about six days, and they only scrounged up a third of it. Maybe Hammer would have some work for them, although it was infrequent and paid very little.

If that proved not to be an option, Bucky knew he had other ways to pay the bills. Steve loathed his extracurricular activities, even if he didn't know the extent of them. And something told him, he'd oppose to them even more with the evolution of their relationship. Unfortunately, that wouldn't stop him from falling back onto more reliable work.

Work was work; money was money. Dirty money was better than no money. Steve could remain the honorable one, and he would be the sinful one. He didn't mind that arrangement at all; he had very little conscience when it came down to it. Because he'd been used and abused to the point where his empathy became nothing more than a concept, and well why not do the same to people that had been done to him?

The world was an amoral place; it was almost impossible to find anyone with compassion nowadays. Everyone left to perish on this god forsaken planet really didn't care about kindness. The pollution would kill them in the end; violence would crumble society as they knew it too.

With a grim and fractured smile, Bucky grabbed his toothbrush and applied some toothpaste to the bristles that stuck out every which way. He shoved it into his mouth, before he used the toilet and cleaned his hands underneath the freezing cold water. It was rare that they had anything beyond lukewarm water; comfort was a luxury, after all.

He brushed the peculiar metallic taste out of his mouth, replaced by a weak mint flavor instead. He rinsed his mouth out and spat into the sink's basin, and then made his way to the bathtub. Steve had laid out a stained towel over the lip of the tub for him, which made Bucky smile a genuine smile.

Steve was the only good thing about his life. Even when he became forlorn about the past, Steve was the only bright spot in his bleak reality. If he hadn't had Steve, he suspected he wouldn't have lived very long. He was reckless, which had been on full display the night before, and Steve somehow managed to reel him in a lot of the time.

Stripping away his clothes, Bucky then climbed into the bathtub. He toyed with the rusty dials until a weak stream of water burped out of the faucet. Chilly water sloshed into the tub and made contact with his toes; he shuddered and backed away a bit, but he couldn't escape it and it didn't seem to get any warmer either.

Resigned to his fate, he turned on the shower head and was soon pummeled by a downpour of cold water. He grunted and crossed his arms over his chest, but he started to get used to the temperature soon enough. So he grabbed the green colored bar of soap, and washed every inch of his body. He only took a dollop of shampoo (which they had very little of) and scrubbed his hair until it smelled dully clean.

His shower lasted no more than five minutes, before he turned off the water and toweled himself dry. He wrapped the towel around his waist, and moved into the rest of the apartment. There was chest of drawers perpendicular to the bathroom door and pushed into one corner that stored his and Steve's clothing.

None of the drawers were completely filled; Bucky wore things until they had practically fallen apart. That's the only time he picked up something else; all of it was second-hand, of course. Who could really afford anything new?

He pulled on a clean set of clothes and his battered boots. He then returned to the bathroom to hang up the towel and collect his dirty clothes that he tossed into a basket addled with holes. The rats (or whatever vermin) ate away at anything and everything; which would explain why they sometimes found holes in their clothes, too.

"There you are." Steve called out to him and stepped out of the kitchen with a chipped plate in one hand with a fork set across it.

"Here I am." He replied and spread his arms in welcome.

"I was worried. Last night was pretty intense; for more than one reason I have to say."

"I'm feeling better, don't worry."

"Like hell I'm not going to worry." Steve smiled as he approached; there was a miserable scrambled egg on the plate, which probably could use some salt. But they had more than likely run out of the packets ages ago.

The plate was handed to him and he took it without any hesitation. He wasn't very hungry, despite having not eaten in several days. He'd been completely consumed by the chase to the point that he had neglected himself more so than usual. Then again, they had very little in terms of food anyway, so it really didn't hurt him much.

"Listen, we need to figure out what we're going to do next. You know, in terms of money."

"You aren't going to sell yourself anymore."

"Don't tell me what to do." Bucky returned sharply. "Just because of what happened last night doesn't mean you can boss me around, Steve. I make my own decisions, besides I was thinking more in term of Hammer and his dumb bots than hooking."

Steve stared at him in a way that felt very invasive. He was looking for a lie, although he really wasn't being untruthful. Hammer could have work for them, which would help at least supply them with a bit of food; more than a measly genetically engineered egg for each of them. But if they couldn't find any work there, then he would have to improvise.

Prostitution wasn't the only thing that paid the bills. There were a lot of petty feuds between people that one party wanted to end for good. Not to mention there were small factions of the mob still in operation that paid a decent coin to get rid of people. That ultimately was more lucrative that selling his ass in seedy bars and on street corners. Steve didn't need to know that, though.

"Maybe Hammer will have a few credits for us, but it won't cover the rent. That's why I've been thinking about something else. I've thought about it on and off for weeks now, and with what had happened last night, I think it's the best course of action." Steve crossed his arms and diverted his eyes. "It'll be for the best, Bucky."

"What does that mean? I don't like the sound of that."

"I figured you wouldn't."

"What's going on, Steve?" He set the plate onto the chest of drawers, which in retrospect wasn't a very good idea. The cockroaches would probably swarm his breakfast and make it inedible; it was such a waste of food.

Steve reached over and laid his hand on the back of his neck. For some reason the touch didn't do much in terms of relaxing him; if anything it tensed up his whole body instead. God only knew what Steve was up to. It had to be bad, he just knew it.

"We need a steady income coming in every month. Running's risky and our big payday passed us by. Not from a lack of trying, of course."

"What are you trying to say? Spit it out."

"Fury has wanted me to join the force for a while now; I think I should finally take up the offer. That way we can finally live a decent life, not in squalor like we are now. We could even move out of this dump."

"You want to work for Fury?" Bucky asked in disbelief. "You want to work for the government? The same government that experimented on you and your girlfriend, and famously dissected her for the entire world to see; you want to work for them?"

Ever since Bucky had known Steve, Nick Fury had been trying to persuade him to join his task force. Fury had even tracked Steve for years, before they diverted him off his tracks. But for Steve to willingly seek employment with the enemy was unbelievable.

Their apartment might not have been nice; hell, it was downright awful. And they may have gone hungry for days on end, but they survived. They lived for themselves, not for some corrupt government agency, who only cared about 'droids more than they did people. And they'd probably get the hell off this planet when everything went to hell.

"I could make a difference, you know." Steve insisted. "Not only for us, but for people in general,"

"The job Fury wants you to do isn't for helping people. He wants you to track down fucking androids; that's your expertise! You're not becoming a cop or a do-gooder, so stop deluding yourself into believing that."

"Christ, Bucky; it's like you enjoy living this way! You rather put your neck out and eventually kill yourself for a set of principles that are far from moral!"

"Who said anything about being moral? I do what I have to do to survive; I'm not going to kiss anyone's ass to live my life! You're completely naïve if you think Fury's going to do you any good! Yeah, he'll give you a paycheck but at what cost, Steve? Ask yourself that, and remember he works for the people that hurt you!"

"You're being unreasonable, Bucky!"

"No, you're being stupid!" He snapped, before shoving Steve's hand away.

Without any further commentary, Bucky grabbed his wore and patchy jacket from across his favorite chair, and snatched his energy gun from the table. He had money to make one way or another, and he wasn't about to rely on Steve for it. Not if he was going to get that money from Fury.

"Where are you going?" Steve whirled around to follow his movements. "Bucky, don't run away from me. We can talk about this like two reasonable adults; there doesn't have to be a fight."

"Listen, Rogers; I'm not a piece of property. You think that because we've kissed a bit that I'm your burden. I'm not some fucking damsel in distress, and I'm not going to talk about you sucking the government's balls. Now I'm going to find some real, honest work. Do whatever the hell you want, but you better not follow me."

Bucky yanked open the door and stepped into the dreary, water-drenched hallway. He slammed it closed and stormed towards the stairs, while somehow managing to pull on his jacket and hold onto the energy gun. He knew where he was headed; on the fringes of Brooklyn was a man named Thanos, a powerful slum lord, that had had hired him before. Maybe he'd have work for him today; it was honest work, at least. And it was way better than working for a cocksucker like Nick Fury.

He would be damned if he made a deal with the devil. Because that's exactly what Steve was about to do, and he had a feeling that it'll blow up in his face in the end. It wouldn't be pretty and he didn't want to see the outcome. It would be too bloody and terrifying to witness.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Twenty-nine :: Marionette

 


 

 

Circumstances had a way of changing things.  Phil had had started to formulate a way to separate Barnes from Rogers, but it proved to be unnecessary.  One of his informants had contacted him and told him that Barnes had been spotted in Brooklyn alone; more specifically near a well-known slum lord’s home base.

There had been whispers about Thanos across the city.  He might have not had a lot of power, but he instilled fear in people’s hearts anyway.  It honestly didn’t come as a surprise that Barnes had a connection to the man; everyone had to make their living somehow, amoral or not.

“You’ve got the thumb drive?” Clint asked, as he pressed the earbud of their communication system into his ear. “You’ll have to be the one to apply it to his arm.  I highly doubt I can get that close to him.”

 “What if he gets violent?”

 “Phil, you aren’t a dainty flower.  Beat his ass if you have to.  Besides, I’ll be around if he struggles.”

 “I have a bad feeling about this.” Phil admitted under his breath, although he wasn’t about to back down now.

The reward for capturing Barnes was equally impressive as the one the Odinson family had offered to take in Ultima Zero; so he had to go through with it.  Also, it felt like a more reliable reward too because he knew who they were dealing with.  Maybe he didn’t know much about Sitwell’s employer, but he knew Sitwell well enough and that was more than he could say about Thor and Baldur Odinson.

Leaving this planet was the only way either him or Clint would survive.  Nothing tethered Phil to this city anymore; his family was gone, and any hope of rebuilding a life here was beyond his reach.  Every natural resource had been used up; pollution covered every square inch of the city and the majority of the world.  It was becoming an uninhabitable place; it was a death sentence to stay for any longer, so they needed to get out fast.

“What did your informant say?” Clint asked.

“He had some business two blocks away from here.” He tilted his head in the general direction. “Something about a small bit criminal getting on Thanos’s bad side,”

Clint nodded and headed down the street.  Their strategy had been improvised along the way; Clint would take to the roof, while Phil approached Barnes head-on.  It was risky and downright dangerous, but they didn’t have the time to formulate a foolproof plan off the top of their heads.  Neither of them were great strategists to begin with, so they had to rely on their spontaneity and resilience instead.

Barnes wasn’t bound to follow the script either.  He was unpredictable, which meant anything could happen.  Phil feared that that some portion of his programming would reach the surface, too.  And that would make everything that much more complex.

Following closely behind, Phil touched the taser gun at his hip.  It was designed specifically to paralyze androids, although he wasn’t certain if Barnes would be temporarily disabled or not.  He didn’t know the extent of HYDRA Inc.’s technology.  No one did; he highly doubted even Sitwell knew.

The fact that Barnes was an android still blew his mind.  There wasn’t any indication of it; he wasn’t overly strong or fast or remotely mechanical in any way.  He walked with an easy stride, spoke with a Brooklyn twang, and was as loudmouthed as Clint was.  So the true extent of his power was unknown, even though Phil had to figure he could switch into a killing machine in a split-second.

“This will be harder than we’ve prepared ourselves for.” He said quietly, so the few people walking by them wouldn’t hear.  Thanos, more than likely, had eyes and ears everywhere in this part of the Bronx.

As much as he had his informants, everyone else did too.  They obviously overlapped since his had been working with Barnes on the down low.  But he honestly couldn’t fault a group of orphans for taking money from anyone who offered it to them.  Everyone needed to survive somehow, even if Clint seemed unsympathetic to the kids’ plight.

“I’ve prepped myself for the worst; we’re not going to lose this go-around.  We might have lost Odinson’s ‘droid to that bastard Stark, but it’s not happening tonight.  So long as we don’t awaken the beast, we’ll be okay.  Remember Sitwell said not to mention his ‘droid status to him.”

“Do you really think he’d believe me anyway?”

“Probably not,”

“I just have to formulate a plan to get close to him.” He sighed as they wound past street vendors and piles of garbage.

The smell of waste and rotting food enveloped the air.  Phil scrunched up his nose and turned the corner into a block of crumbling apartment buildings.  Some were in ruin, while others barely stood; all of them were occupied, though.  People took shelter wherever they could find it, even if the windows were blown out and the structure swayed with a gust of wind.

It didn’t matter that this was a usual sight; it was a heartbreaking one nonetheless.  Even if they managed to travel to a colony, Phil would remember the sights and sounds of poverty.  The slums would still be there; the starving orphans wouldn’t have any way out.  And this whole world would eventually end unspectacularly.

Phil shook his head; it wouldn’t do him any good to worry about everyone left behind, especially if he couldn’t guarantee his own passage onto one of the colonies.  He was jumping ahead of himself.  They still had to find Barnes, disable him, and transport him back to Sitwell in one piece.  They had a long way to go, before they made plans for the future.

They strode past the dilapidated apartment complexes, before they came to a halt a few yards away where more buildings stood ahead of them.  Barnes was somewhere in the general vicinity.  Or he should be anyway if Phil’s informant was correct.

Barnes was expected to be in one of the many housing districts around half past eleven.  God only knew how long his business would take, but Phil hoped that he’d expend some of the strength he possessed.  Because if he believed himself to be human, the probability that he would tap into his store of power seemed unlikely.

“I’m heading to the roof.” Clint jutted his thumb over his shoulder. “If shit gets dicey, I got your back.  But at least try and get that thumb drive in the crook of his elbow.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice, you know.”

“Trust me, I would do it myself but he’ll be suspicious of me off the bat.”

“He’ll be suspicious of me too, Clint.  Unfortunately, this is the only opportunity we have.  He’s away from Rogers for the moment, so we need to make our move.  And who knows how long Jasper’s goodwill will last.”

“Not very long,”

“Probably so,” Phil watched as Clint backpedaled, before turning and heading towards a lopsided building made of faded red brick.

Once his partner was out of sight, Phil crossed the way and moved towards a nearby alley.  The repugnant stench that had wafted down the block was far more prevalent in between the buildings.  Dirty rain water mixed with urine spread in puddles across the ground and piles of garbage crawled up the walls.

It was hard not to vomit; the smell curled around him and threatened to suffocate him.  And it only got progressively worse as he slumped out of sight, behind a knee-deep pile of trash.  He pressed a hand to his nose and mouth and fought the compulsion to gag.  Because once he started to gag, he knew he was a goner.

Something, possibly human, must have died in the alley.  Drug users had a tendency to drop like flies, and underneath the debris, Phil wouldn’t exactly be surprised if he found a rotted out body.  Maybe a few if he was unlucky enough to try and look.

Closing his eyes, Phil tried to settle his stomach by sheer willpower alone.  He needed to focus on his incentive right now; a few dismal minutes in pungent alleyway wouldn’t hurt him too badly.  He needed to keep his mind on the prize; he needed to think about capturing a potentially deadly android, without any human casualties.

“In position,” Clint’s voice echoed in his ear.

“Roger that,” he managed to choke out, although he came very close to gagging once more.

“Something wrong, Phil?”

“Smells like a dead body in the alley,”

“Smells like pollution and shit up here,” Clint said cheekily. “You can toss your cookies on Barnes; it’ll be your secret weapon.”

Phil didn’t feel that was worthy of a reply.  He instead looked towards the entrance of the alleyway and hoped Barnes would appear very soon.  The sooner he got out of there, the better.  But he also had to walk on the side of caution; he couldn’t barrel out at Barnes, unless he wanted to start a fight immediately.

Even if Barnes wasn’t a highly sophisticated android, he still would have had the advantage.  Phil wasn’t deluded; he was in his mid-forties, weak, and slow.  He’d never been a fighter; before his runner days, he had worked in an office that dealt with property permits.  So he never had been a physical specimen; he’d never be one, and it would be foolish of him to rely on his brawn now.

Time dragged on at a snail’s pace.  The stench of death curled around him like a strait jacket, to the point where he came close to simply running out of the alley in search of fresher air.  He was used to the noxious taste of pollution on his tongue and the burning odor in his nostrils.  But he couldn’t adapt to the sickly sweet pungency of decay.

“Phil, it’s him.” Clint broke through his thoughts. “I think it’s him anyway; he’s a few feet away.  Intercept him.”

The news was welcomed.  Phil almost let out a cry of relief, but he suppressed it.  He reached for the thumb drive in his trouser pocket, while inching away from his position.  Soundlessly he moved his feet and avoided any puddles.  He halted when a shadowy figure passed by the alley, devoid of any weapon that he could see.

“Phil,” Clint hissed in his ear, and he quickly moved out into the open.

It was impossible to tell if the individual was Barnes or not.  He didn’t have the time to figure it out either.  So he threw caution to the wind and followed the shadowy figure for several paces, until the person whipped around suddenly.

Somewhere close-by, a stream of pink fluorescent light cut through the shadows and across the person’s face.  It was Barnes, after all; he looked almost feral with flecks of blood on his cheek and temple.  His eyes were wide, although they soon returned to normal size; as if he recognized Phil wasn’t a possible threat, which worked in his advantage.

Barnes wiped at the side of his face, before a self-conscious laugh broke the silence.  The sound was strangely innocent and it made the hair on the back of Phil’s neck stand up.  There was no way that this guy was an android.  How could he really be one?

“If you’re looking for me to fix your hover van, I can’t help you.  As you know, Stark got the big prize and we’re dirt poor like you.”

“You did put me and my partner in quite a bind.” Phil said calmly, yet he felt anything but.  His heart was in his throat and his stomach was down to his knees.

It was apparent that Barnes wasn’t completely faultless and saintly, though.  He was working for a slum lord, after all.  He must have killed a man.  Or in the very least, he incapacitated him to the point where he wanted to die.  He was a force to be reckoned with and Phil needed to do just that.

“Like I said, I can’t help you.” Barnes shrugged nonchalantly. “This occupation has its risk; no one said we had to play fair.  There aren’t any rules, after all.”

“But there is a little thing called common decency.”

“You sound like Steve.”

“He’s a wise man.” Phil took a step forward and was relieved that Barnes stayed in place.

This needed to end quickly.  He couldn't prolong it any further than he already had.  Someone could easily interrupt or Barnes could leave at any moment.  Meeting a potential adversary in a poorly lit part of the slums was not an ideal situation.  Not to mention, the possibility that law enforcement could make their appearance was also feasible (although Phil suspected they wouldn’t without suspicion of android activity).

Inching closer, Phil held out his right hand to Barnes.  He forced himself to smile in an attempt to look as non-threatening as humanly possible.  He wanted Barnes to interpret him as a fumbling old man, who wouldn’t harm a fly.

“Let bygones be bygones.  We’re all trying to survive, but if you come into some money; well it would be nice if you kicked a few notes our way to repair the van.”

“Yeah, sure; whatever you say.” Barnes smiled insincerely, while extending his left hand to Phil.

Once he grasped Barnes’s hand with his own, Phil yanked the thumb drive out of his pocket and flipped the top off with his thumb.  He only noticed then that Barnes was wearing a battered old jacket, but he didn’t have any other choice but to attempt to disable him anyhow.  He wouldn’t get a clean shot again.

With that thought in mind, he shoved the thumb drive almost violently into the crook of Barnes’s elbow.  He waited for something to happen, anything.  Seconds ticked away with nothing, and he was forced to look at Barnes whose grip tightened painfully on his hand.

“What are you doing?” Barnes asked in evident annoyance. “So was this some kind of ploy to rob me?  I told you don’t have anything!  Why don’t you try and beg at Stark Tower instead?”

Wordlessly, he stared at Barnes and felt a wave of fear lap its way around his ankles.  He tried to pull his hand away, but Barnes wouldn’t release him.  He was strong, stronger than he looked.  God only knew what he had done to the man in the apartment building.  He could have beaten him to death for all he knew.

“Here I thought Barton was the sneaky one, but obviously you’re like two peas in a pod.  Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t beat your ass into next week. Because I really feel like you deserve it, and you’ve caught me on a bad day too.”

“I can explain.”

“You’re a goddamn thief.” Barnes snarled, before he slapped Phil’s hand away with the thumb drive in it.

Much to Phil’s horror, he couldn’t keep a hold of the thumb drive, and it bounced into the shadows.  He was frozen; the thought of the taser gun on his hip seemed like a foreign concept, and so did the buzz in his ear from Clint’s sudden squawking.

Barnes reached forward and ripped his ear piece out of his ear, before he grabbed his throat in a vice-like hold.  The sudden lack of oxygen was a shock to the system; everything softened around the edges and his eyes bulged in the realization that he was going to die.  That he would meet a similar fate as his family had so long ago.

Death was on his front door and about to kick it in.  But something stopped it; he heard a distant whoosh and a moment later Barnes was letting him go.  Barnes leapt backwards with a curse, and gave Phil room enough to crumble to his knees with a pained breath.

“Fucking set-up,” Barnes yelled. “You lowly shit, Barton!”

Phil grasped onto his throat and gulped in as many breaths as he could.  His eyes were focused on Barnes, who was looking from building to building for any sign of Clint.  And in that instant, something abruptly changed on his features.  The end of Barnes’s mouth began to twitch, while one of his hands curled and uncurled into a fist.  His eyes even brightened and dulled like a switch was being flipped on and off inside his head.

Barnes swayed and staggered on his feet like a marionette whose strings were being cut one by one; it was a horrifying sight.  Phil watched as the lively looking man, who Clint had built a silly feud with, become nothing more than a malfunctioning machine.

The process wasn’t a quick one.  It appeared as if every ounce of humanity was being skinned away from Barnes’s very bones.  The muscles in his face twitched, while his eyes bulged and flashed, and his limbs jerked violently to some unheard melody.  Then in the final throes of malfunction, Barnes’s whole body convulsed before bending backwards unnaturally; before collapsing in on itself back into a supine position on the grimy ground.

“Christ,” Phil almost screamed, as he blindly crawled away from Barnes.

What had he done?  What possessed him to do something so horrible?  How could he have been so selfish to do what he had done?  He’d never been so self-serving in his entire life.

The sound of hurried steps broke Phil from his reverie.  He jerked his head around just in time to see Clint rush out from the shadows.  Rivulets of sweat ran down Clint’s face and his eyes were wide in wonder; a painful reminder of what Barnes’s eyes looked like only moments ago.  And that was the memory that broke the camel’s back; Phil clambered onto his hands and knees and wretched up the meager meal from that afternoon.

“Pull yourself together.” Clint said somewhere overhead, although he seemed like light years away. “I’ll give Sitwell a call and it’s easy sailing from now on, Phil.  We’re out of here.”

Phil felt a violent tremor works its way through his body.  Because he knew he destroyed a life to save his own; he was no better than the machines that took his family’s lives.  If anything he was worse. And the sicker thing was that he probably wouldn't regret his decision that much in the future either.

 

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty :: My Baby Brother

  


 

The city streets extended before him like a labyrinth. They were dirty and dark, and smelled of the very essence of human suffering. Baldur hadn't walked these streets since he was a boy. But even then it hadn't been a prolonged stretch of time; it had been a bet presented to him by an old school chum, and when his mother became the wiser he had been severely scolded and punished for the infraction.

Outside the gleaming skyscrapers and hover cars lied nothing but decay. Horrible things haunted the alleyways and decrepit buildings of the city. Disease, famine, and death were the only things that you could find on ground level.

Unhurried, Baldur walked across the eroded pavement. Sounds of activity in the distance drew him forward. He hoped the person he was searching for would be around the bend. It was too risky to communicate by normal standards, particularly with Thor breathing down his neck. So he had to improvise, even if it meant putting himself in harm's way.

The stakes were too high not to take a chance. His safety was second in comparison. No one could tell him otherwise, and no one could veer him from the path he'd inevitably taken. He'd been far too dormant in his approach with the Ultima Zero situation, and now was finally the time he that took some action.

His protests had always fallen on deaf ears; his ferocity had been mocked. But soon enough he would have his way. Loki would have his way, and that was the most important thing of all. Because everyone else had blatantly ignored him, too consumed by grief and selfishness to think of him; and Baldur was determined to right those many wrongs, even if he should have done so sooner than later.

Cowardice had ultimately led to the situation that came to pass. If Baldur had any fortitude beforehand, he would have taken matters into his own hands. He had plenty of opportunities to fix the sins of the family. He had been left alone on an occasion or two with Ultima Zero. He could have ended his suffering then and there. But he had been weak and sentimental even.

Fratricide hadn't seemed like the answer then. It should have been, though. He should have shoved away the past memories and done the right thing. His family be damned. They had brought this onto themselves; they had made this a reality, and he should have fixed it.

Loki had only toyed with expanding Dr. Tanaka's research. Baldur had known how macabre Loki could be; his fascination with the morbid had been unsettling at times, but it was generally harmless. Even when he persuaded Baldur to watch the dissection of Peggy Carter, it hadn't done any harm beyond giving Baldur's nightmares for weeks on end.

Cyborg research was a dicey, no less illegal, hobby but so long as it remained only hypothetical then there wouldn't have been an issue. Unfortunately, his family and Dr. Banner couldn't leave well enough alone and pursued the barbaric practice without a thought against the contrary.

While Loki lied in his death bed, they had begun to plot. Dr. Banner had brought up the damned notion by chance, and Thor and their mother had grabbed onto it with both hands. They became desperate in their grief, and eleven years later they were now facing the consequences of their actions at last.

Baldur should have held them accountable sooner. He should have done so many things by now, even if it meant being ejected from the family home and stripped bare of his name. He should have protected his youngest brother from such a horrific fate. And for not doing that, he would forever be guilt-ridden and inconsolable.

"Father should have done something." He uttered under his breath to no one at all. "He could have stopped this madness; he should have gotten Mother under control."

As it stood, Baldur had been on the losing team. He had been the only one to object whilst his mother, Thor, and Dr. Banner plotted with one another to enact the Ultima Zero project. The family patriarch hadn't any say in the matter, though. Not because he was a careless old fool, but because Odin had been ill himself and remained that way 'til this day.

However, he had known about the situation. Baldur made sure of that, and yet he hadn't vocalized his disapproval. He hadn't shaken any sense into his wife. God only that that would have done something; it would have killed the matter before it ever had gotten traction.

For whatever reason, Odin had remained mum. He had been sickly, yes. But he hadn't been so sickly that he couldn't have intervened and changed what had inevitably come to pass. He could have been Loki's saving grace if he truly wanted to be.

In way, Baldur supposed he shouldn't be surprised. Loki wasn't an Odinson by blood; not fully anyway. He was birthed by their mother, but another man had fathered him. Baldur had been much too young to understand by who or why that it had happened. Now with age though, he could draw to his own conclusions.

Odin could be a tyrant of a man. When he was healthy, the man was ruthless in business and with his children. He had tried to sabotage Stark Industries too many times to count, and almost brought them to ruin during the whole android debacle years earlier.

He hadn't had any sympathy for Tony Stark. All he cared about was overthrowing Stark Industries, so Odinson Corp would monopolize the market. Hammer's company wasn't even worth a second to glance to Odin, and that was the only reason they remained relatively untouched. But Stark Industries, they needed to be ground down and destroyed.

Baldur openly cringed at the memory of his father's ruthlessness and spitefulness. He also understood regardless of how unsettling it may be, why Odin hadn't stepped up to put a stop to the Ultima Zero project. It had been because of Loki's parentage; he hadn't been his true born son, therefore why would he bare his neck for him?

Loki never knew that, of course. Thor was equally in the dark about the matter. It was only by chance that Baldur knew it to be true; the arguments between his parents had unfolded in front of him, and he somehow retained that information even after all these years. However, he never thought of revealing it to anyone; he never thought Loki any less of his brother either.

That was of no significance now, he supposed. Odin would soon be dead, but Ultima Zero would be retired also. And Baldur ensured his own safety in the matter as well; he had arranged a secret account for the cache of his wealth, and a one way ticket to one of the luxury colonies in the galaxy.

He would make sure that Ultima Zero would be taken care of before he pursued a new life. He wouldn't leave it up to chance; he owed his little brother as much. Because if the government got their hands on him, he would suffer atrocities that they had both watched in that grainy film footage from years ago.

Eventually, the avenue of abandoned and poorly lit streets expanded ahead of Baldur. People appeared in clusters around blacked out store fronts, while others exchanged goods on corners under the halo of ratty fluorescent lights. Food vendors parked their carts in the middle of the chaos, which permeated stenches vile and uncommon to Baldur's sensibilities.

The volume level had increased exponentially too. Languages and dialects of all sorts melded together into a wall of white noise, and it took a bit of courage for Baldur to step into the heart of the mayhem. He had only seen such a gathering of people from up in the sky; he hadn't experienced it firsthand, and it made him terribly uncomfortable.

He kept his arms closely to his body; his hands fisted in his long coat, and his head bowed and hidden under the rim of a hat to avoid unwanted attention. No one would know him, he was certain. He wasn't the face of Odinson Corp; in fact, he shied away from taking over the company entirely out of principle alone. But no one needed to know that.

Winding his way through the crowd, Baldur tried to navigate this new terrain. None of the dirty faces he saw were familiar. Quite honestly, he wasn't sure if he would find the person he was looking for. It had been a shot in the dark, really. But he had to take the opportunity even if it proved to be a dead end.

The stench of unwashed bodies, urine, pollution, and spicy food followed him closely. He couldn't imagine living in such filth, and marveled by how anyone could last more than an hour in such horrid conditions. He supposed it was the result of human resilience, though.

Baldur continued to observe the people around him. He had to believe the person he needed would be amid the crowd. He had been informed by a person or two that that he would be able to find them around these parts and at nightfall especially.

His search gradually led him away from the heart of the crowd, and outward to the less packed side streets. People were still gathered by the dozens, but there was room to move without becoming too intimately acquainted with a stranger. He wandered past eroding buildings and the dead eyes of slum rats, which made him feel even less safe than previously.

Just then, by a stroke of luck and goodwill, he caught sight of a well-built man, whose hands were painted black by oil. He looked flustered but also angry, but he was most certainly the man Baldur had been looking for. He let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding, before he sped his strides towards the man that mumbled a curse and was turning on his heel away from him and down a perpendicular street.

"Steve Rogers," he called out loudly. "That's you, isn't it?"

The wide shoulders ahead of him, tensed visibly before the body turned. Steve Rogers's face was closed off and unfriendly as if he was ready for a fight. Baldur didn't hold it against him one bit, though. Anyone in this man's position should be ready to attack at any given moment.

"Who's asking?" Rogers returned.

"We haven't been formally introduced, I'm afraid." Baldur stepped forward, close enough to where he could be heard by Rogers without being overheard by the people around them. "I am Baldur Odinson."

That introduction appeared to take Rogers by surprise. His guarded expression let way to alarm, although he was quick to school his features back to the way they once were. He supposed Rogers wouldn't have imagined in a million years that he would be here in the streets of all places.

Had there been any other way, Baldur wouldn't have stepped foot into the filthy underbelly of the city. But this had been the only secure way. Thor wouldn't have expected this kind of drastic move by him either.

"With all due respect, why the hell are you here? Is this because of the mission?"

"Partially, yes,"

"We tried our best."

"I'm sure you did." Baldur said agreeably with a nod. "And I'm sure you've gotten close to Ultima Zero in some way, which is precisely why I'm here."

Rogers opened his mouth to speak, before he quickly shut it again. He appeared to be a man that didn't put all his cards on the table right away. He looked like he preferred to see his opponents hand first, and Baldur was more than happy to reveal his to him.

"I imagine you've noticed how advanced Ultima Zero is. He's leaps and bounds beyond any android on the market. Not even Stark Industries could produce such a technological advancement such as him. With that being said-"

"Let's take this somewhere with some privacy." Rogers narrowed his eyes suddenly, and proceeded to scan their environment and the people around them.

At that declaration, Baldur eyed the immediate area as well. There were several men close-by, whose ears appeared piqued to eavesdrop. That was the last thing he wanted. So he nodded in understanding, which caused Rogers to whirl around on his heel with a guarded aura to him.

Baldur adopted the same closed off-ness that the blade runner moved with. The corner in which Rogers originally came around was where they ended up moving towards. The short street that they found themselves on was abandoned and dark, but Rogers didn't stop there anyway; he must have known there were eyes and ears everywhere that they went.

They crossed the side street rather quickly, before they soon found themselves in dirty alleyway. At the end of it was a clunky hover vehicle that appeared to be on its last days. The paint was chipped and buffed away by the elements, and the chrome finishes were rusted over.

"Climb in." Rogers instructed as he approached driver side door, and yanked it open with a shrill cry. "No one's going to hear us in Dolores."

Baldur shot Rogers a bemused look, and followed the orders he was given. He rounded the sorry excuse for a vehicle and pulled open the passenger side door. The interior was equally as worn down as the exterior, and probably hadn't had a thorough clean in…maybe ever. But he supposed that really didn't matter; he should have expected as much by the environment he stepped into already.

He climbed into the passenger seat, and shut the door with a heavy hand. Rogers did the same, before he turned in his seat and found a soiled cloth in the backseat. He started to vigorously clean the oil from his hands, although it did very little good.

"You were saying?"

"Ultima Zero,"

"I've noticed how advanced he was, yes." Rogers paused in his futile attempt to clean his hands. "He seemed almost-"

"Familiar, perhaps,"

"I don't know what you mean by that."

"I think you do." Baldur caught Rogers's eye.

They stared at one another for several moments. Neither dared to say another word, let alone move a muscle. Baldur knew for certain that Rogers had had his suspicions for some time now. Maybe he had brushed them away out of sheer horror, but they were impossible to deny now.

There wasn't any kind of grand, overblown moment of revelation. Rogers shifted his gaze away with a bitter smile on his lips. This must have unearthed a slew of unhappy memories for him. His fiancée, after all, had been well-publicized for being the first and supposedly only cyborg out there. And now he was drawn back into the fold with another on the loose.

"Who was he?" Rogers asked mirthlessly. "Before the change, I mean."

"He was my baby brother. And I need you to find him, and I need you to kill him. I don't want the same thing to happen to him as-"

"Peggy,"

"Yes, your fiancée; I don't want him to face a similar fate."

"And you came to me because of the sympathy factor. You didn't go to Stark or anyone else, but you came to me."

"Selfish, I know. But I've failed my brother too many times to count; I needed to find someone who could understand the situation I'm in. Because my family has no idea what they've done; they don't want to see what they've done." Baldur said softly.

Rogers turned to look at him once more. His expression was unreadable, but there was something determined underneath the frown on his lips. Baldur knew then that Rogers would be his greatest ally from here on out. He had to believe it or else he'd be lost.

"I know where he is." Rogers admitted suddenly. "I'll take him out, but you're getting me and my partner off this planet. Or else I'll report him to Commissioner Fury myself, mark my word."

"I guess you aren't all sympathy and goodwill. But you have a deal." Baldur extended his hand and took Rogers's even though it was oiled stained and filthy.

He knew this was for the best. Loki never wanted to live this way, and as his eldest brother Baldur had an obligation to protect him in his darkest hour. Loki was his baby brother, after all.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty-one :: Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold

 


 

 

"Good morning sweet-cheeks." Tony rolled up to the work bench and smiled. "It's time to wake up."

It had taken six days' worth of repairs to finally get Natasha back into functioning order. While the damage done had been mostly cosmetic, he still had elected to revamp some of her older hardware and run dozens of diagnostic tests on her to ensure that Ultima Zero hadn't done any lasting damage.

The results of all that work had culminated into Natasha being a better functioning android; no less an even more striking beauty, which Tony prided himself on perfecting after years of diligence. Engineering and computer programming was an art form within itself. How else could Natasha even exist otherwise? Inventors were on par with artists; their visions filled the world one structure, one line of coding at a time.

Natasha's eyes slid open, and she emulated a human that had just woken up from a disorienting sleep. Her head lulled side to side, before she looked towards him with immediate recognition. Tony's smile broadened, and a swell of accomplishment overtook him then. Natasha was his finest creation to date.

"Mr. Stark, I should have used more caution." Natasha spoke in her customary monotone, which was still very much a problem for Tony but he'd figure out how to fix that eventually.

"You did your best and that's all that counts. So don't worry about it. Besides I wasn't killed why you were down and out, although your evil stepmother might kill me if she finds out what we've been up to. Not to mention, we kind of have a new house guest." He stood from his seat, and helped Natasha off of the table.

The past six days had been some of weirdest ones of his life. Cohabitating with only machines was normal for him at this point. Pepper had moved out after their divorce, and he hadn't had anyone but her in terms of living and breathing friends. He had old acquaintances from his blade runner days. But that didn't mean he had a lot of interaction with them; in fact, they ran in entirely different circles nowadays. Well, besides when he reached out to Logan for some kind of guidance in his attempt to track down Odinson Corp's little problem anyway.

He found solace in his work. He was used to only having JARVIS or Natasha as company. So it was strange to have Ultima Zero staying with him, regardless of the fact that they rarely interacted. Ultima Zero had a tendency to stay in the lab, but towards the back portion that overlooked the city.

Tony had seen him the previous day, although their interaction was limited as it usually was. Ultima Zero had been sitting cross-legged in front of one of the wall-to-ceiling windows with a dead-eyed expression. He hadn't deemed it necessary to wipe the rest of that greasy clown makeup off his face, even when Tony suggested he do so which really disturbed him even if that was a minor concern at best.

There was something deeply unsettling about harboring a cyborg. He swore more often than not that Commissioner Fury himself would arrive at his building with a warrant to search the place. Of course, that never happened; but the fear was still there and would remain until he could get Ultima Zero out of his tower, and he hoped it would be sooner than later.

"Will the target remain permanently with us, Mr. Stark?" Natasha asked then, as if she had recognized that he'd been taken away with his inner concerns.

"I definitely hope not, sweet-cheeks. We have our own problems. One being an energy source that'll keep you going without a recharge; now that should be our key focus."

"Portable battery packs aren't that hard to manufacture." Someone said coolly from behind them, which made Tony tense almost immediately. "The design is basic, although the ones currently being used by Odinson Corp are unnecessary bulky. It would be easy to condense them, make them lightweight, and hold a charge for longer than they currently do."

Tony turned around to face Ultima Zero. He looked no different than he had the previous day. He was still as terrifying as the first day he'd laid eyes on him; maybe even more so since Tony now knew he was partially human in between the wires and microchips.

"So you had some experience with engineering."

"A bit,"

"You know there's probably a patent on those things."

"Oh, I wouldn't doubt it." Ultima Zero sounded almost sardonic. "But they would only serve as a launching point for a more sufficient energy resource. Borrowing ideas and improving on them isn't against any patent."

"Or in the case of Odinson Corp, borrowing ideas and making them shitty,"

"I could assist you with the design."

"What about this whole ploy to break into Odinson Corp?" Tony couldn't help but ask; he'd been thinking about it a lot of late too.

The thought of taking down Odinson Corp was too appealing not to pursue. He was all for it, but he had plenty of reservations on how well they could execute the plan. While Ultima Zero suggested Tony use him as a cover story, he wasn't so sure that would work out in his favor. Ultima Zero could turn on him in the end.

This could be a finely tuned plan by the Odinsons to get him out of the way. Maybe he had convinced himself that Ultima Zero was a cyborg instead of a highly functioning android. Anything was possible in this crazy world, and suspicion had been embroiled into Tony's veins from what had happened with Obadiah. Yet he intellectually knew that probably wasn't the case; Ultima Zero was unlike anything he'd ever seen before in his entire life. Or at least what he'd seen in person before; he had the unfortunate experience of seeing Peggy Carter in pieces on film.

"These things take time." Ultima Zero murmured vaguely, as his focus zeroed in on Natasha.

"I was thinking about the plan, but more importantly I've been thinking about you."

"I'm flattered."

"Don't be," Tony reached out and tucked a piece of Natasha's hair behind her ear. "I can't really trust you. I don't trust anything besides my ex-wife and my own creations. So if you are what you say you are then you'll let me run some diagnostics on you. Let me study you and see for myself that you are what you say you are."

Ultima Zero tilted his head almost unnaturally to the side. It was enough to give anyone nightmares; the fucker was terrifying to say the least. There wasn't any feasible way that Ultima Zero was human. Or at least he couldn't be fully human; partially, well Tony suspected he knew the answer to that already.

For several uncomfortable moments, Ultima Zero stared at him before he finally returned his head to a normal angle. He stalked past him and Natasha, only to walk towards several holographic screens with Natasha's diagnostic results scrawled across them. Ultima Zero swiped them away with a flick of his wrist, and rebooted the program without asking for permission. Tony didn't expect he would, though.

"JARVIS, I believe we should run a series of diagnostic tests on me. Unfortunately, they won't be as vast as the ones Stark has run on his favorite android. Due in part because I am not fully machine, but we shall do our best,"

"What a splendid idea, sir."

"Wow, wow," Tony held up his hands in confusion but mostly protest. "When in the hell did you become so chummy with one another?"

Neither Ultima Zero nor JARVIS had any forthcoming answer for him. Ultima Zero completely ignored him, and walked back to where Natasha had formerly lain. Several wires and connections were strewn around the floor; Ultima Zero picked up several, disregarding some while holding onto others until he had four of varying colors in one hand.

With his free hand, Ultima Zero opened up the panel at the back of his neck. He then plugged in each wire to the outlets embedded there. Tony watched him, before he cautiously approached the holographic screens and made sure that the creep hadn't done anything that could potentially corrupt the upcoming proceedings.

When he was satisfied nothing had been tampered with, Tony tapped on the screen to start up a series of tests. Data flew by his eyes within the blink of an eye. Several strings of coding that were far more advanced than he'd ever really seen before appeared on the screens as well. He arched an eyebrow and continued to watch the screens for any discrepancies. But from what Tony gleaned, there were similarities to Natasha's functionality and a slew of other things that might take him a few minutes to discern completely.

Unlike Natasha though, the diagnostic tests came to an abrupt halt only minutes into it. The results flashed across the screen; everything that had been scanned was operational. Virus protection was in place; the basic functions of any computer were online and uncorrupted. What's more, it was apparent that Ultima Zero did not have a processor of any kind which could only mean one thing – he interpreted data of his own volition.

"Are you convinced now?" Ultima Zero asked in a monotone. "Or would you like to take my vitals as well?"

"How do you even function? I mean the technology with Peggy Carter was archaic, but still fairly complex. And you have said that you have the project notes."

"Those are private."

"Why's that?" Tony couldn't help but ask; anyone in his position would have.

Ultima Zero reached for the wires and disconnected them with a jerk of his hand. His body jolted for a split-second, although there didn't appear to be any damage done. Tony watched the cyborg closely; he knew there was delicate information in his database, and if he wanted to be tricky he could have tried to access it when the diagnostics were being run. But he suspected he would end up dead if he did that.

"There's highly classified information about the project in those files. Surely with your superior intellect you could draw from Dr. Tanaka's Project 58 and build onto it yourself. Just as we will with the battery life for your androids. But you will not get any information from me, Stark. Mark my word."

"Whatever," Tony muttered and cleared the screens of the diagnostic's results. "But just to clarify my own intellectual curiosity – you do have a brain and a heart, right?"

"Is this your way of asking if I have compassion and a conscience?" Ultima Zero glided past Natasha, who had taken to the role of spectator. He touched her cheek lightly, but didn't choose to linger any longer and started to the lonely corner that he claimed as his own.

Turning sideways, Tony watched the elegant move of lithe limbs. Ultima Zero had a fluidity to his movements that were neither human or inhuman; it was difficult to characterize them, but he seemed unreal. And he was a terrifying prospect in an already terrifying world. He was a nightmare re-imagined.

"I have a functioning heart and a functioning brain. They're kept alive by outside assistance, but they work of their own accord otherwise. But I neither have compassion or even a conscience; the humanity's been cut of me with a serrated knife a long time ago. I can't go back. I can only punish the people responsible for it. And that story is altogether too tragic to tell." Ultima Zero paused for a moment, before he slipped away from the glare of the fluorescent lights and disappeared out of sight.

Tony looked after the cyborg even when he was no longer there. Something unhappy tightened in his stomach, and it was in that moment that he realized Ultima Zero wasn't the villain in this story. He was the antihero, who'd been manipulated and used.

In a way he had always known it, but Ultima Zero's words hit him where it hurt. No matter how evil and debacle he looked; no matter the lives he took, there would always be something tragic about the cyborg. And maybe it was a story better left untold, after all.

"Sir, I should inform you that Miss Potts is in your office. She would like to have a conference with you. She wanted to make sure that you haven't, and I quote, stupidly gotten yourself killed in some feeble attempt to relive your youth; which, by all accounts, was not a happy time if don't remember."

"Oh no, mom's home," Tony blinked and looked to Natasha. "Stay here with our house guest, but keep on your toes. Don't disable JARVIS under any circumstance. And you don't listen to anyone who's trying to disable you unless it's coming directly from me, capiche?"

Once he got the affirmative from both JARVIS and Natasha, and he actually believed them on top of that; Tony crossed the laboratory to the elevator bank. He tapped on the button that would take him to his office, before he glanced over his shoulder towards the area of the lab that Ultima Zero had disappeared to. The cyborg was an enigma wrapped in a mystery, but his former doubts of his humanity had been wiped away.

There was an inkling of humanity there still, even if Ultima Zero refused to see it for himself. And while his own personal agenda was truly the driving force behind why he initially wanted to help the cyborg, Tony felt the desire to help Ultima Zero because of what had happened to him. The Odinson family had done something cruel to whoever Ultima Zero had been, and he deserved some kind of revenge. Anyone would, really.

"Revenge is a dish best served cold." Tony muttered just as the door to the elevator glided open. "You'll get your revenge, buddy. They'll never know what hit them, and I'm going to help you every step of the way."

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty-two :: At Long Last

 


 

 

Sitwell sat in the sterile glow of his computer screens. Data flashed sporadically across them; an endless loop of unnecessary information that he rarely paid much attention to nowadays. The work on the colonies was a secondary concern to him. What really was important to him was the retrieval of HYDRA Inc.'s most prized possession.

He'd spent several miserable years attempting to track down the Longest Winter, also sometimes known as the Winter Soldier. He had scoured every dirty alleyway, every dilapidated building; anywhere that he could think of that a wayward android could have been. And yet he hadn't been successful; no matter his efforts, he had failed time and time again. Even when he had found the others, he couldn't pin Winter down.

What was worse was that Pierce's confidence in him was dwindling away. There was only so much failure that one person could experience, before he would essentially become obsolete. Sitwell was aware that his time might come very soon, and he could only hope that the favor he was owed would be honored.

Alexander Pierce, after all, wasn't a man to be crossed. His genius and cruelty exceeded any reasonable person's. His creations made Stark Industries' look like tinker toys in comparison. He was light years ahead of any other android manufacturer, and none of them were even aware of it.

That's where Pierce's true genius lied – in anonymity. Pierce didn't need the accolades or the praise. He didn't need to be recognized by the world and the colonies alike. What he had was far more precious and that, from what Sitwell understood, was self-fulfillment. That also proved to make him deadly as well; because Pierce cared for little but himself and his creations, and everyone else meant nothing in comparison.

Pierce knew his value. He knew that his androids could infiltrate any corner of the solar system without ever being discovered. And to him, that was a greater achievement than having his face plastered on every high-definition screen across every inch of civilized society.

But with great achievement also came great failure. HYDRA Inc. had misplaced Pierce's prized android, and everyone had scrambled to find it. Four years earlier, Sitwell had been sent back to Earth to find him. Pierce had been convinced that the Longest Winter had ended up here, and it took some time to unearth solid evidence to confirm it.

It hadn't been an easy feat. Longest Winter had changed in appearance, and he had somehow become acquainted with Steve Rogers of all people. Sitwell had only learned of this revelation several months beforehand, and well his attempts at trying to capture the android by himself had been all but futile. Mostly because it was impossible to get Longest Winter alone and away from Steve Rogers; so a two man team was bound to work out far better in comparison.

Or he could only hope that Coulson and Barton were clever enough to do their job without any casualties. The last thing any of them needed was for Commissioner Fury to catch wind of their activities. Even Pierce would have a difficult time trying to transport a deadly android back to the colonies.

As he mulled over the situation at hand, Sitwell noticed a familiar window that popped up at the right-hand corner of his screen. He tensed, before he leaned forward and pressed the pad of his thumb against it which caused it to widen and become the focal point amid all the data running rapidly in the background.

The window was filled with the likeness of an older gentleman, whose wrinkled face was somehow distinguished and handsome still. His light colored hair was perfectly coiffed, and he wore a three piece suit of navy blue. Behind him, there were large windows that displayed the blackness of outer-space and the twinkle of thousands of stars.

"Evening, boss," Sitwell attempted to sound cheery, despite the lump that suddenly formed in his throat.

"Sitwell," Alexander Pierce replied dully. "So how have things progressed?"

"I told you about Coulson and Barton, and how they obliterated my delivery van."

"You also mentioned how you've dispatched them to bring in the Longest Winter."

"Well," Sitwell shifted onto the edge of his rickety old couch. "I got a message earlier today from Barton. He said that they were going to try and make their move tonight. I haven't heard about the results of yet, though. But I have faith in them."

The tale-end of Sitwell's statement wasn't actually true. He hoped that Coulson and Barton would come through for him, but his level of confidence in them was fairly low. They were capable blade runners, but they weren't exactly the best. But he had little in terms of options; they were, after all, the only ones that owed him a huge favor.

Pierce seemed unconvinced by what he had said. The man was very perceptive, and Sitwell really couldn't understand why he chose to lie. Maybe it was because they were light-years away from one another, and Pierce really couldn't do anything to him now. And he wouldn't because he cared more about the Longest Winter than being lied to.

"Jasper, Jasper, Jasper," Pierce smiled mirthlessly. "Do you know why I employed you to find the company's greatest invention?"

"I don't, I mean-"

"It's very simple, actually. You were loyal enough, so I figured you wouldn't abandon the mission when the going got tough. But you are also expendable. In other words, someone like either Rumlow or Rollins needed to be on the colonies with me. You, however, could be away for a while and it wouldn't hurt the company any. And well, if you perished while finding the Longest Winter then we wouldn't be that affected." Pierce explained.

Despite having an inkling that he was expendable, Sitwell found the truth to be hard to swallow. He knew he wasn't exactly highly ranked in HYDRA Inc., but he was loyal to a fault and believed in the company's research and brilliance. He also had unwavering faith in Pierce himself.

Loyalty had afforded him the opportunity to return to Earth. It also afforded him very little else, although if he were to bring back Pierce's long-lost android; then maybe he would rise in the ranks. It might have taken years to track down the Longest Winter, but Pierce probably wouldn't care in the long run once he was reunited with his android.

"I know vaguely of his whereabouts. I know the name he's been going under for the past seven years. I know who his associates are, and Barton and Coulson have been informally introduced to Winter under his pseudonym." Sitwell chose not to dwell on Pierce's confession, but instead focus on his small successes over the past few months.

"You don't have any faith in them. You want to, I can tell. But do you really think they're capable of bringing you my greatest creation?"

"For my own sake, I hope so."

"For your own sake," Pierce repeated, before reaching off camera for his eyeglasses. He didn't put them on right away, though.

Silence soon followed. Sitwell didn't know what to say, in order to restore any faith that Pierce once had in him (if any). He hadn't done a very good job on tracking down Winter; in a way he had been resting on his laurels and hoping he could employ someone to do the dirty work for him. It was only now that he'd been fortunate enough to use Barton and Coulson's misfortune against them.

In all honesty, it would have been better if Pierce had dispatched Rumlow and Rollins instead. They were partners and they knew how to get things done. They were some of Pierce's favorite employees, and they were ruthless in whatever they did. They were the muscle of the operation, and you'd be surprised by how much that was needed in the tech business.

Slowly, Pierce put on his eyeglasses; they rested on the end of his nose, and he looked down to read something. For several terse moments, Sitwell watched Pierce but didn't have the courage to interrupt him.

"This is your last chance, Jasper." Pierce finally spoke again. "I've given you well over four years to find my android. I didn't even pressure you that much since I knew finding an android on Earth would be nearly impossible. And you were also successful on retrieving the other androids lost in transport. But you haven't made much progress in this current mission, and my patience is wearing very thin."

"Mr. Pierce, sir,"

"I do hope for your sake that these blade runners locate the Longest Winter. Because you'll meet a very unfortunate end if they don't. If necessary, Rumlow is on stand-by."

"That won't-" Sitwell began, only to be cut off mid-sentence by a violent bang against his apartment door.

Alarmed, he shifted his eyes from the screen to the source of the sound. Several equally harsh bangs followed almost immediately afterwards, and he quickly leapt to his feet. He heard Pierce say something, although the words were drowned out by whoever was at the door.

Kicking aside several defunct pieces of hardware on the floor, Sitwell walked the small distance to the door. But not before he snatched up a small caliber energy gun that sat on an eroding side table covered in screws, nuts, and bolts. Because god only knew who might be on the other end of the door; he wasn't about to take any chances either.

Once he reached the door, he wrapped his fingers around the knob which vibrated in his hand from another series of knocks. He twisted the knob, and yanked it open with the energy gun at the ready to blow away whoever decided to disturb him so late in the evening.

The sight that greeted him out in the dirty hallway was a befuddling one to say the least. It took a moment for Sitwell to process it, but when he did he couldn't help but let out a whoop of victory. Because on the other end of the door was none other than Coulson and Barton. Barton had been obviously using his shoulder to ram into the door since his hands were otherwise occupied by a set of grimy old motorcycle boots.

Coulson was red-faced and sweaty with his hands holding on dearly to the Longest Winter from underneath his arms. The android had clearly been disabled by the looks of him, and looked like a normal guy who might have had too much to drink. No one would have suspected he was a machine.

"About damn time that you opened the door," Barton snapped in annoyance. "Now move it, baldy. This thing weighs a ton and a half. Phil's about to have a hernia,"

Sitwell didn't need to be told twice. He hurriedly stepped aside, and watched as Barton backpedaled into his apartment first. Coulson made a pained sound since he was forced to move, but he followed shortly thereafter with some obvious difficulty.

When they had shuffled into the apartment, Sitwell shut the door and put the deadbolt in place. Barton had already taken the initiative and kicked some debris out of his way; before he moved to the couch and right in view of the camera feed where Pierce was undoubtedly looking on.

"All right, Phil use your knees not your back." Barton instructed with an edge of good ol' fashioned ribbing.

Coulson didn't reply, as he staggered closer to the couch. He managed to deposit the upper part of Winter's body onto the sunken cushions, followed shortly by Barton finishing off the job. The couch let out a loud wail of agony from accepting such a heavy weight, but it didn't collapse by some miraculous happening.

"Christ almighty," Coulson shook his arms, once they were free, in obvious pain. "He's definitely an android. There's no doubt about it now."

"You weren't convinced when he doubled over like he was demon possessed? And it took us forever to bend him back to normal?"

"Don't remind me, please."

"I can't believe this. You actually did it." Sitwell forced his way passed Coulson, and pushed Barton out of the way of the computer screens. "They did it!"

He crouched beside the couch, and started to rummage through the mess of wires and hardware that he had accumulated over the years. There was something specific he was looking for, which would keep Winter in sleep mode until he could wipe him clean and return him to factory settings. Then he would have to reload any and all data that Pierce specifically wanted installed into his database.

The process was bound to take a solid forty-eight hours if not more. But ultimately the hard part had been taken care of already. He just needed to find that second thumb drive, which would disable the android for that time frame. Otherwise, he would have a very angry machine on his hands if it was rebooted back into Bucky Barnes.

"Jasper," Pierce's voice carried with authority.

Sitwell paused with his hand wrapped around an archaic hard drive. He looked at the screen, and could feel Coulson and Barton's eyes were on Pierce too. The former look of disapproval on Pierce's face was replaced by the smallest but most genuine of smiles. It was a look Sitwell had never been on the receiving end of. Hell, he was certain he'd never seen it before in his whole life.

"Yes, sir,"

"Good job, very good job; your associates will receive their payment within the next twenty-four hours. Phil Coulson and Clint Barton were their names, correct?"

"Yes, that's them."

"They'll have first-class tickets off of that godforsaken planet very soon." Pierce nodded, before he leaned forward and shut off the connection on his end; his words rang triumphantly in the dingy apartment living room long afterwards too.

"Well, gentlemen say goodbye to poverty and hardship. Because you'll be moving into civilization," Sitwell grinned as his fingers danced away from the old hard drive and found the memory stick he needed. "And I'll be getting the hell out of here too. At long last,"

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty-three :: Winner Takes All

 


 

 

The top-most floor of Odinson Corp was the family's haven. There was beauty around every corner, ornate furniture and oil paintings from bygones long ago. Traditional family portraits also lined many of the walls within the vicinity, although Thor tried to deflect his stare from them more often than not.

It was never easy looking at what had been. He couldn't look at his youngest brother without guilt and regret and sorrow, although Baldur believed him heartless. But that couldn't be any further from the truth – he too mourned Loki, and he even questioned what they had ultimately done to him out of grief's sake.

Biting down onto his bottom lip, Thor tried keep his regret at bay. Then again he recognized the futility of that. If he honestly hadn't any regrets about the situation, he wouldn't be starting up the hallway towards the grandiose master suite in which Odin resided.

He didn't make the trip very frequently. Odin preferred his solitude, and well everyone respected that. Baldur was nearly as bad as Loki had been when it came to visiting their father. But back then, Odin had been more mobile and he frequently made appearances down in the R & D department or whichever floor he desired.

Now things had changed quite a bit. Odin had some mobility, but he rarely left his quarters without good reason. And well, Thor wondered if his strength wouldn't be renewed by the events that had ensued over the past few weeks.

That was a terrifying thought to say the least. Thor feared his father like his siblings did (or had). Baldur might have been a little braver, but each brother had learned to cower whenever in Odin's presence.

Thor squared his shoulders. He wouldn't permit fear to dictate him now. He was the rightful CEO of the company, and he had been selected by Odin himself. Odin had faith in him that he could run things smoothly, but he also allowed him to come to him for counsel. And that was what he was doing at the moment.

The Ultima Zero situation had gone on long enough. He and Baldur had attempted to fix the situation by their own means, and Baldur had gone a step further. Thor didn't know if he followed through with his threat, but there was a great possibility that he had. So he too had to make a move before things were to get rapidly out of hand.

Honestly though – things had already gotten out of hand. Ultima Zero was nowhere to be found, and he had also wreaked havoc during his short duration of freedom. What they should have done from the very beginning was to seek out Odin's opinion, but Thor had assumed they'd find Ultima Zero easily enough with the help of five blade runners, one of which was the legendary Tony Stark.

Treading the antique Persian rug, Thor soon found his way to the double doors at the end of the hallway. They were made of elderly mahogany and beautifully detailed by a craftsman's hand. Nothing so beautiful could be replicated nowadays; there weren't many natural resources left on this dying planet.

Eventually they would move on, though. Odin was bullheaded enough to want to stay; he wanted to be buried in the mangled, grainy earth in which he was born and raised. And once that occurred, Thor had every intention of taking his family to the colonies skyward. Because there would be nothing left for them here; they barely had anything here to start with.

The company could be moved; finances could be as well. The only thing that tethered them here was Odin and now what remained of Loki. But Thor hoped Odin would, in the very least, have an idea on how they could retrieve him and bring him back home.

Once within close distance of the double doors, Thor lifted his hand and swallowed hard. He knocked rhythmically against the grain. He waited for any response, and he was both glad and terrified of the powerful voice that beckoned him inside the room.

It took a moment or so before Thor complied. He wrapped his hand around the doorknob and twisted it until the door eased open without a sound. The suite beyond was as extravagant as he remembered it to be. And the view of the city below was almost beautiful.

Sitting in front of the floor to ceiling windows was the man Thor had come to speak to. Odin was positioned on a pale turquoise settee with a blanket thrown over his lap. There was a burning cigar in between his weathered fingers, which burned insidiously in the shadowy corners of the suite.

Thor pulled the door closed behind him, before he walked towards the formidable figure that was his father. He felt the telltale signs of unease ripple up and down his spine, although he tried to smother them once his father glimpsed away from the view to see who disrupted him.

"Thor, what a pleasant surprise." Odin remarked, although he sounded far from pleased by Thor's presence.

"Father, I'm sorry to bother you but I need some advice on a critical situation."

"Have you considered speaking to Baldur first?"

"Baldur and I are at odds, unfortunately." Thor tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

Odin studied him with his one good eye; the bad one was covered by a chrome fixture that reflected the light in an unnerving way. Without a word, he motioned to the matching arm chair across the way from the settee. And Thor was quick to comply and sit without any argument against the contrary.

"I remember the pet name you'd given Baldur in your youth – Baldur the wise." Odin brought the cigar to his lips and took a quick puff from it. "It might have been done in mockery, but I would say he's wise beyond his years."

"Then why did you make me your heir?"

"You and I are more alike, Thor. I knew the company would be run the way I would run it. Baldur would have had flightier ideas, although they might have been more innovative by far. But also your brother isn't the leading type anyway."

"But he certainly can make a mess for me." Thor slouched back against the chair-back, before he turned his stare to the city.

Neon lights danced and flickered through the plumb of pollution that regularly hung in the air. Advertisements for energy guns, synthetic foods of all sorts, and of course bot helpers were prominently displayed everywhere on the horizon. There really was nothing pretty about it.

Everything was grimy and deathly. Thor was one of the privileged few who never had to go down below. He couldn't remember a time when he had. He heard Baldur had been down there before because of a stupid boyhood bet. But he honestly couldn't stomach the idea of walking with the decrepit, impoverished, and dying.

"Explain yourself," Odin finally chimed in.

"Several weeks ago something terrible happened. And I assumed I could resolve it with Baldur's assistance. But it ended up being a larger mess than either of us expected, and Baldur has elected to do something that I'm against."

"What happened then?"

"It involved Ultima Zero." Thor said slowly.

As to be expected that garnered a reaction. Even from Thor's peripheral, he could see Odin sit up straighter than he had been. He had to put a lot of effort into not cowering away from his father then because he knew the conversation would not be a pleasant one by far.

"Did he outsmart all of you at last?" Odin asked, which drew Thor's attention back onto him completely.

He was struck temporarily speechless. Odin hadn't much opinion one way or another about the procedure. Baldur had speculated to him once or twice that Odin might have wanted to push the envelope and prove their company was superior in comparison to, say, Stark Industries. Thor had doubted that, but in retrospect maybe it wasn't that far off the mark.

"Loki's always been smarter than us."

"He was the one who created this entire project, after all. I know Banner helped, but this was Loki's project from the beginning."

"You almost sound proud of him." Thor frowned. "Father, he escaped the laboratory. He took several androids with him, which have since been retired. But he also killed people in the process, and we cannot find him. And we hired several blade runners to locate him."

Odin abruptly let out a rumbling laugh then. Thor was stunned by the sound; he hadn't expected that response, in fact he figured he would have gotten an angry tirade instead. After all, they had a cyborg out in the world that could easily be tied back to them. And being in possession of a cyborg was a crime that usually came with a death sentence. There was nothing funny about that.

Even with that knowledge, it didn't seem to make the situation any less amusing to Odin. Because he continued to laugh until his laughter turned into a brutal cough that shook his entire body. And only then did he sober up a little, despite his eye being filled with mirth.

"That boy has always outsmarted almost everyone. But what I'm curious of is why. Why would he actively go out in the world instead of killing himself instead?"

"I never thought about that." Thor admitted.

It never occurred to him to question why Loki hadn't ended his own life. He long since suspected that his humanity had been so compromised that he ceased to be Loki altogether. But he wouldn't admit as much to Baldur or anyone else, especially not their mother. That was an argument he couldn't bear to get involved in.

Slowly, Odin leaned inward; his expression had sobered back to its usual state. Somehow he always looked far more intimidating than even Baldur could, and Baldur had quite an unnerving stare to say the least.

"Why are you butting heads with Baldur?"

"Because our methods differed on how to handle the problem,"

"How so?" Odin narrowed his eye, which made Thor feel small and child-like.

Sucking in a deep breath, Thor leveled his father with a hard stare. He couldn't be so easily intimidated by him anymore. He'd been put in charge of the company for a reason. Odin had seen potential in him, and he would figure out this situation with his help but it would be his action that brought Loki back to them. He would be the hero in this tale.

"We hired several blade runners; two of them are especially notable. One of them being Steve Rogers and the other...the other is Tony Stark."

"Oh," Odin looked surprised by that revelation.

"We were desperate." Thor sighed. "Anyway, Baldur has decided to put out the word to all of them to retire Ultima Zero rather than our original agreement of bringing him back unscathed."

Silence soon followed after he spoke. Odin eased back against the settee, before he raised the cigar to his lips and took a long drag. The smoke wafted around him like a halo, and it gave him an otherworldly and foreboding appearance.

"Baldur has always been the smartest of the three of you, and that's the truth. Loki was inventive and mischievous and you were business-minded, but Baldur has always been the wisest. He has always been the one who could tell your mother no. I cannot even do that, and I bear the blame for what happened with this bloody Ultima Zero Project debacle." Odin conveyed in a monotone. "I suppose you'll have to propose a heftier reward to Tony Stark because I imagine Baldur has already proposed his deal to Steve Rogers."

"There's no way; I would have known if he did."

"Thor," Odin snorted out a plumb of smoke from his nostrils. "Baldur is conniving; he'll always outwit you one way or another. He knows that his best bet is on Rogers. And yours will be Stark, but only if you hurry up and make this deal. Because Baldur has already made his move, while you're sitting here speaking with me."

Fury and fear enveloped Thor then. Odin was right; Baldur had always been conniving and sneaky, and he had probably already put his plan in motion. He jumped to his feet, no longer concerned by Odin's presence and he was soon rushing towards the double doors. He had a call to make, and he could only hope he could convince Tony Stark to help him once more.

He swore he would undermine Baldur at least this time. He wouldn't let him win; he wouldn't let him kill Loki. But he had a bad feeling about it already; he suspected Baldur had already won, and the winner always took all.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty-four :: Lies

 


 

 

Pepper was perched onto the end of her desk, once Tony sauntered into her office. There was a holographic screen in front of her with dozens of numbers and figures. Tony suspected it was the recent sales numbers, and he didn't exactly like what he saw.

"The company has taken a hit, hasn't it?" He rounded the screen so he could study it.

"It's actually rebounding; we've sent several shipments to Colony III and VIII."

"The numbers don't seem to reflect that."

"That's because I'm not done adding them in." Pepper tapped her chin with her finger. "I've spoken to Rhodey yesterday. We're more than welcome to begin the move with your go-ahead."

Tony pursed his lips, but he didn't reply. Before any of this Ultima Zero situation, they'd been toying with the idea of finally moving Stark Industries up to the colonies. Rhodey, Tony's best friend throughout a good portion of his life, had been trying to persuade both him and Pepper to finally take the leap.

Right now though, the stars weren't aligning. He wasn't comfortable moving all his worldly assets around when he felt like the company wasn't thriving as it should be. They had discussed it at length, and neither of them had been entirely convinced. It was apparent that Pepper was coming around now, however.

"The process will take a while. I don't see why we can't start right now." Pepper glanced towards him, before her eyes darted back to the numbers.

"Our revenue isn't where I want it to be, you know."

"It'll never be where you want it to be, Tony. The company's stable if not downright thriving. Yes, we've taken some hits but Rhodey has been funneling us business from several different colonies."

"Even so, we aren't even making as much as we were last year."

"Rhodey has a meeting with one of the colonies secretaries. I'm sure you've heard of Alexander Pierce. He was one of the first politicians to make the move up there. He has a lot of clout and influence."

"Why are you pushing this so hard now?"

"Because," Pepper's nostrils flared, although she didn't elaborate any further.

Most of the time Tony could read Pepper like a well-beloved book, but that wasn't the case right now. As a couple, they'd been through hell and back. And still he only truly trusted his ex-wife in every way imaginable. Everyone else was subject to suspicion.

Now more than ever Tony was wary of people. He had been hoodwinked into hunting down a cyborg that had allowed itself to be captured by him. There were too many lies being told, and he had become the unwitting center of them all and he didn't like it. He didn't like it one bit.

"Give it a couple more years, Pepper. We'll start off slow."

"No, Tony," Pepper retorted hotly, and waved her hand to dismiss the screen. "You're up to something and I want to know what. And if you aren't willing to disclose that to me then I know it's something dangerous. So that means I need you to get away from this place as soon as possible."

Of course, Pepper had known something was awry. She knew him as well as he knew her. She had seen him in the ugliest situations of his life, and he would have been stupid to believe that she'd let his shady behavior go on any longer.

There was no way he could tell her about Ultima Zero, though. She had known he was back out on the field, and that had already brought her plenty of grief. But a cyborg was on an entirely different plane; everyone knew what abominations cyborgs were, and he wasn't quite so sure that Pepper wouldn't call the authorities on him if he let her into the fold.

Technically speaking, it would have probably been the right move. Tony was actively putting himself in harm's way by keeping Ultima Zero close. And while revenge against Odinson Corp was fueling his decision, he knew how stupid it was.

"Nothing's going on. I'd tell you if there was." Tony lied, although it was clear that Pepper knew that he was.

It was one thing to actively involve himself in something illegal, but it was an entirely different thing to bring Pepper into the middle of it. And even if he still considered them a team, regardless of the fact that they were divorced, he couldn't risk Pepper getting hurt. She nearly had been the last time around.

"I'm trustworthy, Tony. I thought after everything we've been through that you'd understand that. I stood by you through thick and thin. I never gave you up to Obadiah either. I never would have done that."

"Sweetheart, listen," Tony sighed, before he approached her and grabbed her hands in his. "I trust you with my life. You've always backed me and supported me, and I know you could have gotten killed with that incident all those years ago. God, do I know. But I'm telling you that you have to trust me. I know what I'm doing and nothing's going on."

Even to him those words sounded empty. The truth of the matter was that Tony honestly didn't know what he'd gotten himself into. Things could easily blow up in his face; he could be imprisoned, hurt, or even killed. And where would that leave Pepper or Natasha or even JARVIS?

Maybe it would be beneficial for Pepper to start the process to move the company off-planet. Because if things did get bad and if Tony somehow got away with his life, he had to believe that his standing on Earth would be compromised. And at least star-ward, Commissioner Fury didn't have any active pull there.

"You are lying through your teeth to me, Anthony Edward Stark." Pepper held onto Tony's hand in a nearly painful grip. "I worried every minute you were out there playing blade runner again. But I also know you're bullheaded and stubborn, and you were out there to prove a point. God only knows who to, though."

"Maybe a little to myself,"

"You've proven yourself over and over again, Tony. Don't be ridiculous."

"I'm telling you in all confidence that whatever I'm doing is under control. I'm a big boy, I know what I'm doing." He leveled her with a stern look. "But if it makes you feel any better, I want you to contact to Rhodey soon, and I want you to start the process of relocating the company. Start off small,"

Pepper looked flummoxed for a split-second, before her faced morphed into what could only be described as fearful. Tony understood why, but he attempted to soothe her worries by putting on an encouraging smile on his face.

"I'm not going anywhere anytime soon. But maybe we need to finally take that last step and get off this planet. Rhodey's been bitching at us for years to do it."

"I am terrified for you."

"Okay, but you don't have to be. I am promising you right here and right now that nothing bad's going to happen. Don't you trust me?"

"Tony, that is not fair."

"But do you?"

"You know I do." Pepper muttered indignantly.

Tony knew he was playing dirty, but there wasn't any way in hell that he could disclose the truth of the situation to her as of yet. There might be a possibility in the future once Odinson Corp was lying in shambles at his feet. But until that day came, he would have to leave Pepper in the dark for everybody's safety.

Squeezing their interlocked hands, Tony leaned in to kiss Pepper's furrowed brow. Whether she wanted the conversation to be over or not was irrelevant. Even if it appeared like she ran the show, they both knew that Tony was the one pulling the strings from behind the curtain. And Pepper usually went along with what he wanted in the end.

"Call Rhodey, he'll know what to do about this whole moving process."

"You do realize trust is a two-way street, right?"

"And I trust you to get this transfer done in a reasonable time frame. None of this racing to the finish line, Potts-Stark,"

"Potts only, you know,"

"You never changed your name." Tony released their hands with a smile, although he only received a scowl for his troubles.

Before Pepper could question him any further on his activities, Tony made a move to leave the office relatively unscathed. He could continue this game of cat and mouse all day if he wanted to. However, he had quite a bit of research to do involving the Odinson Corp building. And if he was lucky he could get Ultima Zero to talk to him further, despite how uncomfortable that was.

Halfway to the chrome elevator doors, Pepper called out to him. He caught her reflection in them, and he was unsurprised to see how tense she looked while still perched onto the end of her desk. Pepper was normally on edge, although she usually hid it better around him.

"I don't know what you're doing, Tony. But will you at least consider taking Edwin with you?"

"Edwin," Tony repeated, before he turned to face her once more. "You mean the Mark III prototype from ages ago?"

"You're holding onto him for some reason."

"For sentimental value, mostly. You know Edwin isn't anywhere near as advanced as Natasha, right?"

"But he was the inspiration behind JARVIS."

"Because he was JARVIS," Tony furrowed his brow. "Why would I need Edwin?"

"He was very protective of you." Pepper replied. "Probably even more so than Natasha, and you didn't even program him the way."

Tony didn't have a witty response to that. There was some truth to that statement. Edwin had been oddly protective of him in his more formative years. He had also been a prototype that he had worked on when his father was still alive. But he had retired Edwin during the first year of his marriage to Pepper because he had someone human to look out for him then.

Quite honestly, he hadn't thought of Edwin in a very long time. Sure he knew exactly where he was alongside all his other makes and models of the Mark series. And yet he never thought that Edwin would prove to be any help to him now that he had Natasha.

"At least consider it. You know, for my sake." Pepper's face betrayed her then; she looked damn-near terrified again which made Tony's throat tighten a bit.

"I don't even know how functional he is. But hey, it would be nice to have JARVIS in a physical form again."

"Thank you."

"Nothing bad's going to happen, sweetheart. I promise." He lied through his teeth, before he hit the button on the wall to open the elevator.

The doors rolled open without a sound, and Tony stepped inside before the conversation could start up anew. Both of them knew he was lying already, but there wasn't a need for further interrogation either. Because neither of them were willing to break; Tony would be damned if he gave in to Pepper this time around.

The only consensus he was willing to make was to find Edwin in storage, and possibly restore him to functioning order. But even that was a secondary concern in comparison to his business with Ultima Zero. Now that was the most pressing matter, and it deserved his full attention.

Once the doors closed and the lift bounced back to life under his feet, Tony leaned back against the wall. He shut his eyes, before he let a loud sigh rush out of him. He hated lying to Pepper, but he really didn't have much of a choice at this point. He couldn't put her in the line of fire again.

"Sorry, Pep. I really am."

Chapter Text


 

 Chapter Thirty-five :: Good For Them

 


 

 

The apartment was empty. Steve surveyed the nearly uninhabitable vicinity with wary eyes. Bucky should have been back by now. He never strayed for long because he knew how much Steve worried. And even if he didn't tell him every place he went, Bucky at least didn't stay out all night long.

It was probably too early to draw to the worst conclusion, but then again no one had had the misfortune that Steve had. No one could say they'd been revived in a time of poverty, pessimism, and technology so advanced that humanity as a whole seemed useless. And no one could say their only tie to home had been severed by mad doctors with a god complex.

Steve felt justified in his worry. He might have been paranoid, yet it was better than the alternative – nonchalance. Most people in this century had developed a numbness to the pain and suffering of others. It was a dog eat dog kind of world, and it was a miracle that Steve hadn't been affected by it.

Human suffering was something he couldn't really ignore. Bucky had been the one to bluntly explain to him that his bleeding heart wouldn't do him any good nowadays. The blood would only make a mess of the place, or so he'd been told and it was hard to argue with that. But still Steve found himself sympathizing with the decrepit and ill all the same.

"Bucky," Steve called out; he hoped that maybe he was in their mangy bathroom instead of out in the city still.

There wasn't a reply, though. There was the scuttle of a fleet of cockroaches, which just wouldn't ease up despite Bucky's violent squashing tactics. And well the dream of relocating didn't seem anywhere near a reality anymore, even with Steve's impromptu meeting with Baldur Odinson.

Of course, Steve had had suspicions. He had been nearly certain that he wasn't dealing with a highly sophisticated piece of technology when it came to Ultima Zero. But now that he knew the truth, it was strangely depressing. Because the memory of Peggy was very much alive in him despite the passage of time, and it wasn't the clinical reminder that society always tacked onto her.

So when Baldur Odinson had affirmed Ultima Zero was in fact a cyborg, Steve had been overwhelmed by melancholy. He was drawn back into the days of the twenty-first century. He was reminded of the first time he ever laid eyes on Peggy, and the first date they had had. He remembered all the good things, before the ugly had crept its way into his head like a disease.

The only thing that would have caused the macabre to subside was Bucky. Bucky was the only good thing that Steve had now. He was the only thing that made some kind of sense in this crazy new world. And he could talk freely to Bucky about this new information without suspicion or guilt.

"Buck," he called again, before he wound his way through their cluttered living room.

Unsurprisingly, there were cockroaches rushing across the elderly floorboards. Steve let out frustrated sigh; he left the pest extermination to Bucky usually, but he wasn't opposed to taking matters into his own hands either. He lifted one of his heavy boots and brought it down with a loud thud onto one of the perpetrators.

The others scattered on spindly legs into the hidden nooks and cranny of the room, which made Steve mutter out a curse. He lifted his foot to examine the remnants of what once was a living and breathing entity, and for the first time he felt a weird sense of guilt over what he'd just done.

Maybe that was why he'd always let Bucky handle it. Bucky sometimes seemed to lack a conscience, and he was more than happy to kill cockroaches all the way up to beating up someone that owed him money. Steve figured he'd done worse, and he knew he prostituted himself out as well.

Pushing back onto his heel, Steve hobbled towards the kitchen. He found a soiled dishtowel amid the piles of paper and odds and ends on the table, and he used that to wipe away the gore on the bottom of his boot. Afterwards, he returned to the crime scene and cleaned up the mangled body and then tossed the towel into the garbage bin underneath the sink.

With a cursory look around the kitchen, Steve then headed towards his original destination. The bathroom door was partially open, which wasn't that unusual. Bucky wasn't modest, and well Steve never really cared one way or another. They had bigger problems than privacy since they were practically on top of one another all the time anyway.

There wasn't any sound coming from the room, but that didn't stop Steve from pressing his fingertips to the door and easing it open further. Like he suspected, Bucky wasn't inside the bathroom either. So he was still out there somewhere, alone and unprotected.

Inwardly, Steve scolded himself. Bucky was scrappy and he was far from stupid. He knew how to defend himself, and he knew how the streets inevitably worked. It was Steve who had a target on his back, even with the many years he'd lived in this current century.

Even so that didn't make Steve any less concerned. Maybe Bucky had come home earlier only to go out again when his business had been dealt with. He could have gone out to one of the many greasy concession stands that were found in the street markets.

"Don't panic," Steve whispered, before he took in a deep breath.

It would be hard to deny that Steve's protectiveness had grown even more recently. Not only because Bucky had nearly been killed during the entire Ultima Zero debacle, but also because of the evolution of their friendship.

Taking in another deep breath, Steve willed himself to think logically. Bucky knew how to defend himself, and he obviously had his fancy new energy gun with him. So if he ever got into trouble, he would have a powerful weapon to defend himself with.

It was too premature to worry. Bucky would be back, and he would probably tell Steve some convoluted mishap that had happened to him along the way. And Steve would more than likely laugh himself hoarse from the bizarre situation Bucky had gotten himself into, while also mentally chiding himself for worrying for no good reason.

Unfortunately, the sentiment didn't stick. Steve was worried, and he would be damned if he sat on his hands and waited around for Bucky to come back. Because there might be a possibility that he didn't, and Steve could have been of some use if he was out there in the world and not in their apartment.

That was enough of an initiative for Steve. He spun around on his heel and practically ran to the front door. He had everything on him that he needed already, so the only thing he did was flip the lock on the doorknob, and yanked it closed behind him once was in the desolate hallway.

The hallway of the apartment complex was worse than the inside their unit. Mostly because something violent had transpired in the vicinity years beforehand. Ugly maroon-brownish splatters had soaked up in the once ornate carpet, and severe cracks decorated the forest green colored walls.

Every other overhead light had been burnt out and never replaced. Steve had saved a light-bulb months ago and changed it out, but the management didn't put in the same effort. Bucky had declared he'd be fine with walking in the dark instead of donating to the building without a true benefit to it.

Treading across the stained carpet, Steve set his jaw. He could sense that his mind was already penning an obituary for Bucky, and he didn't even know where he was of yet. He was leaping to the worst conclusions and he didn't even have any of the facts.

That knowledge fueled Steve to move a bit faster. He didn't break into a full-blown run, but he might have jogged down the hallway and took the stairs two (or three) at a time until he hit ground level. And what might have been a tidy, little lobby at the bottom of the stairs had been transformed into a backdrop for every spooky movie Steve had seen in his youth.

The lobby was abandoned all the time and it was always dark. Steve couldn't remember a time where the lights had been on down there. So it was easy, and normal, to run into a charred set of arm chairs in the center of the room. Not to mention it seemed like the hot-spot to find a colony of cockroaches congregating every hour on the hour.

Steve wound his way around the obstacles in his path, before he shouldered open one of the blacked-out doors into the foul-smelling air. Night had already fallen, although it was rare to know when it was night or day due to the pollution. And well, when it came to being a blade runner there wasn't really a set schedule anyway.

Murmurs of human activity buzzed from the adjoining street, and Steve headed in that direction. He didn't want to waste any fuel unnecessarily, especially when he probably would end up dropping in at Stark Industries to have a one-on-one chat with Tony Stark. So until then, he would look for Bucky on foot.

Jamming his hands into his trouser pockets, Steve walked down the sparsely populated street. Many of the people he passed were clearly inebriated. They swayed on their feet, and they were dirty from head to toe.

None of them bothered him as he walked by. In fact, he noticed several people had given him a wide breadth as if they could sense something was awry about him. He didn't mind, though; it was better to appear threatening than to be a sitting duck. Bucky had told him that time and time again.

Eventually the dank street that their apartment complex sat on, expanded into one of the many street markets that made up the city. Unlike most of the city, the street markets were bright bazaars filled with culture and curiosity. Brilliantly colored lanterns were strung overhead, and the exotic aroma of food from tiny wheeled wagons and vendor booths were heavily present.

People from all walks of life, depressed and oppressed as they may have been, flocked from one booth to another. But whatever was being sold that day didn't interest Steve. His eyes bounced from one face to the next, hoping that he'd find Bucky trying to haggle for some useless trinket or maybe a couple of cigarettes.

The crowd rolled and undulated around Steve. Nameless faces passed him by, and none even remotely resembled the person he was looking for. No one seemed to possess the blue hue of Bucky's eyes; they seemed singularly unique, almost manufactured even, and purely his own.

Anxiety ebbed deeper and deeper into Steve's psyche with the longer he went without catching sight of Bucky. He knew he could be in any number of places, but god only knew where he had gone and why. And what if he had gotten hurt in the process? What if he was...?

Before the thought could fully form, the loud beep of Steve's wrist watch went off. His feet faltered and he glanced down at the touch screen. Evidently, the eldest Odinson brother had kept his contact information on him; it was the only explanation on why there was a message with the words: Stark and now on the face of it.

Furrowing his brow, Steve fought the compulsion to rip off his watch and smash it underfoot in a reenactment of what happened to that unfortunate cockroach in his apartment. He hadn't agreed to track down Ultima Zero, or at least not verbally. But he also knew that he had some kind of obligation to do so; Baldur Odinson had preyed on his weakness.

"Goddammit," he muttered under his breath, before he turned back around to make his way back to where Dolores was parked beside the apartment complex.

Hopefully his subsequent conversation with Tony Stark would go off without a hitch. But Steve knew that was wishful thinking; he didn't think he could appeal to Stark's humanity either. Or at least he thought so when there was money at stake.

Weaving his way back through the oncoming tide of people, Steve hoped by the time he finished his sit-down with Stark that Bucky would be home. He had to believe that Bucky had lost track of time, and maybe that he found a few dollars somewhere to buy a drink. He had to think of any scenario that was better than him lying dead in a gutter somewhere.

As he withdrew from the rambunctious environment and back into the bleak and somber street beyond, Steve turned his head around in one last ditch effort to find Bucky in the crowd. But he saw no one like, although he smiled grimly at the sight of two recognizable figures heading towards one of the food vendors – Clint Barton and Phil Coulson.

Barton appeared to be brimming with excitement, although Coulson was subdued in comparison. Whatever the occasion they were out for, it seemed to be a celebratory one. Steve supposed they deserved it after the damage caused to their hover van not so long ago.

"Good for them." Steve murmured, before he backpedaled and turned away to face the darkness. He had business to do, and he could only hope Bucky would be waiting for him afterwards.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty-six :: Eliminate the Competition

  


 

 

 

The one bedroom apartment was more laboratory than livable space. Sitwell had made due with sleeping on tables, in uncomfortable chairs, and once on the floor; although that had come to an end when the insect bites appeared up and down on his arms and neck.

Recently though, even the slightly cluttered surfaces had been overtaken by hardware, nuts, bolts, and screws. He had foregone sleep entirely, so he could finally finish up the job he'd been tasked to do. And he had quite a bit of work in order to do that still.

The greatest obstacle had been to reboot the Longest Winter to factory settings. What should have been an easy process took hours and hours with plenty of hiccups along the way. But he had flushed the last few years of data out of his hard-drive and started anew with a clean slate.

Sitwell had feared he might not be able to fix Pierce's favorite android, though. He had almost fallen into a bawling mess when such a simple task had grown in complexity. Luckily, his resilience had paid off in the end which left more of an aesthetic problem than anything else in its wake.

From the twenty minutes or so that the Longest Winter had been mobile, he had shown no signs of malfunction. His programming appeared to have held up, and he was obedient to a fault. Sitwell had directed him towards the bedroom, and had him lie down on the workbench that took up the vast majority of the space.

After powering down the android formerly known as Bucky Barnes, Sitwell had gotten to work on transforming the man into a machine once more. But he had been diligent to check the photographs in his possession, in order to rebuild what Pierce's vision had ultimately been.

Unlike other androids, the Longest Winter was a weapon. He was supposed to look daunting and intimidating; he wasn't supposed to look like an approachable, starry-eyed boy. So the short hair had to go, which was replaced by a longer mane that Sitwell patiently threaded into the silicone, almost flesh-like, scalp on top of the android's head.

That process alone had taken nearly ten hours, and it took an additional two to fix any imperfections by rebooting Winter so he could deal with the back portion of his head. And now that left a few minor alterations that he had to approach with a steady hand.

Whistling high-pitched above the beeps and whirls of machinery at work, Sitwell dipped a fine-haired paintbrush into a slather of black paint. He had done a few restorations to damaged 'droids beforehand, although they hadn't been nearly as important as Winter. In which case, he was taking as much time as he could to ensure he would be perfect.

Perfection was what Secretary Pierce expected of him, and Sitwell was determined to deliver. He was already in good standing with Pierce, although that still didn't leave any room for a possible hiccup. He needed to prove himself beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Slowly, Sitwell drew the brush out of the paint and moved his hand to hover above Winter's slack, inanimate face only for a harsh sound to resonate through the room then. Biting back a sigh, he dropped his hand without splattering any paint on Winter, before he pushed away from the work bench.

It must have been time for his check-in with Secretary Pierce already. He couldn't remember when the last one had been, but he swore that it had happened only an hour or two again. Then again his grasp on time was pretty obtuse right now since he had yet to sleep beyond a cat nap here and there.

Sitwell placed the paint brush onto the tray beside him, before he stood up and walked to the computer monitor mounted on the wall. The thick layer of dust had been brushed away by his hand, which left streaks from side to side diagonally across it.

With a quick tap of his index finger on the accept button that pulsed a neon green, the screen was soon filled by Secretary Pierce's likeness. The vast endlessness of the galaxy stretched out behind him, and it somehow added to Pierce's superior air.

"Hey, boss," he smiled wanly.

Secretary Pierce leaned back in his high-back executive chair, no doubt surveying the rat-hole of an apartment that Sitwell had lived in for years. In retrospect, he could have probably been put into a far better facility in comparison to this. But he suppose the whole damn mission had been a punishment.

"How's the work going?" Pierce asked, almost as if he was asking Sitwell about the weather.

"To be entirely upfront with you, I don't remember that last time we've spoken. So I can't tell about how much progress I've made since our last conversation."

"Well," Pierce shook his arm, which caused his sleeve to fall away from his watch. "I'd say that was almost six hours ago. You were working on my android's hair."

Absentmindedly, Sitwell bobbed his head up and down in agreement. Now he remembered; he had been nearly done with the monotonous process of sewing in Winter's hair. And god was he happy that it turned out as well as it did with all things considering.

"I finished that a while ago. I'm working on the paint job right now."

"Good, I don't want anything that'll wipe off."

"It'll need to be retouched within the coming months, but it's still permanent." Sitwell suppressed a yawn. "I say I could probably finish all the modifications within a couple more hours."

Secretary Pierce looked nearly pleased by this revelation, and Sitwell felt a swell of pride because of it. Once the whole tireless business of modification was over and done with, then he hoped that he could finally return to the colonies at long last.

There wasn't any reason to keep him here any longer. His whole mission had been to locate the Longest Winter and break him back in functional order. And he had succeeded in doing both things, even if he had to have outside help for the capture of the android.

"That's good news, Jasper. You've made me a very happy man."

"It's my pleasure, boss." Sitwell fought the urge to smile; he didn't want Secretary Pierce to know how much the praise meant to him because he suspected he wouldn't hear it again.

Shooting a cursory look at the screen, Sitwell sat back down on his rolling stool. He glided back to the end of the work bench where Winter was laid out. He knew Secretary Pierce could see him well enough, although his view of Winter was compromised by his supine position.

Sitwell picked up the paint brush once more, and dabbed it lightly in the paint. He rolled as closely to the table as he could and studied the android's prone face. He heard some kind of movement on Pierce's end, but he didn't speak probably out of worry of causing Sitwell's hand to slip.

With a measured breath, Sitwell finally made contact with Winter's synthetic skin. He methodically drew a thin line underneath the android's eye, before he paused and studied what he had done. So far so good.

"After I'm done with the modifications, I assume I'll be transporting Winter back to you." He leaned back in to continue his work.

"Well, there is some unfinished business on Earth that I'd like you to handle first. I wasn't expecting to, but I had a brief meeting with a Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes about an hour ago. He wanted me to put a good word into Colony I about Stark Industries."

"Huh," Sitwell stilled his hand. "Why would some colonel want that?"

Secretary Pierce made a noise that could only be described as a grunt. Sitwell glanced up and saw the older man spinning slowly in his executive chair. His elbows were resting on the chair's arms, and his fingers were in a steeple. But his expression was the most telling of all – he looked slightly inconvenienced which usually translated into anger.

"The Lieutenant Colonel is a dear friend of Tony Stark's." Pierce began. "From what I took away from the meeting was that there might be a possibility that Stark Industries has finally decided to make the move to the colonies. Which isn't all that surprising, I suppose,"

"Not really, no."

"Evidently, some of the other colonies have already brokered some large deals with the company. That too isn't surprising because most tech firms based on Earth make most of their money from the colonies. However, this deal the Lieutenant Colonel has suggested will ultimately put HYDRA at risk. And while we work from the shadows, our revenue will be compromised if any of the colonies make such an expensive deal with Stark."

"But HYDRA makes high quality 'droids." Sitwell sat up, now entirely focused on Secretary Pierce.

Pierce neither confirmed nor denied that statement. He was drifting to the opposite direction in his chair, and his eyes had shut for several moments as if to gather his bearings. Sitwell believed that it was taking quite a bit of self-control for Pierce not to lose his temper.

HYDRA Inc. was unlike the competition in many ways. Their products were far more superior and they were costly endeavors as well. The Longest Winter had probably cost ten to twelve times more than the latest Mark model from Stark Industries. And well, androids like Winter weren't used for menial tasks either.

That thought was inevitably the catalyst for Sitwell's realization. Secretary Pierce had said there was still unfinished business to be dealt with. Which meant that Winter was officially going to be re-introduced into the world for what he'd been designed and built for.

"The Winter Soldier," Sitwell said the code name almost reverently.

"That's right." Pierce confirmed. "While I would prefer quick transport back to the colonies, the Winter Soldier has been out of commission far too long. And I'd like to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak."

Sitwell nearly dropped his paint brush. He already knew what the mission was, although he needed the confirmation all the same. He needed to hear Secretary Pierce say those words out loud.

"I don't like competition, Jasper. Not to mention I'd never been a fan of the elder Stark and that pompous nuisance Obadiah Stane. He truly made a mess of everything when he tried to kill the younger Stark fifteen years ago." Pierce finally broke out of his reverie to stare at Sitwell through the screen. "HYDRA has come too far already, and we can easily dominant the market within the coming years. But it'll be far harder to do with the likes of Stark Industries around."

"But what about Odinson Corp or even Hammer's company?"

"I'm not in a laughing mood, Jasper." Pierce waved one of his hands dismissively. "They both produce inferior products. Justin Hammer is barely making a profit from his work bots. He couldn't afford to migrate to the colonies in his wildest of dreams. And Odinson Corp, their androids are scrap metal in comparison to Stark's models."

"So Stark Industries poses the greatest threat."

"Obviously,"

"Then the Winter Soldier is-"

"Precisely," Pierce slowly leaned inward towards the camera. "I'll have some of my best software developers send you all the information you'll need. You'll upload the data and then you'll let him loose."

Sitwell bit back a protest. The best course of action would be to leave Earth right away. He wanted nothing more than to leave this desolate, rotting planet as soon as he could. He'd spent too many years living in his own filth already. But he also knew he couldn't express his displeasure if he wanted to stay alive.

"Within the coming days, you'll have the data that you need." Pierce continued after a beat. "The Winter Soldier will be dispatched to eliminate Tony Stark. And if need be, we'll do the same with that ex-wife of his too."

"Yes, boss,"

"Keep me updated on the modifications."

"Of course," Sitwell replied.

With a nod of his head Secretary Pierce reached over and shut off the communication between them. The screen went dark on Sitwell's end, and the familiar buzz of the computers around him enveloped the bedroom once more.

Sitwell sat frozen in place for nearly a solid minute. He didn't know what he expected, really. Secretary Pierce had a brooding type of temper, and he sometimes made rash decisions based on his emotions. And that had culminated into his decision to dispatch Winter to take out Tony Stark.

Something told Sitwell that things weren't bound to go off without a hitch. In fact, he suspected something terrible might happen. But he knew when to keep his mouth shut and when to follow orders. He just hoped it wouldn't blow up in his face.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty-seven :: Edwin

 


 

 

 

The storage facility was one floor below the R & D department. Tony hadn't been down there in some time, although it was speck and span all the same. Everything was in its rightful place, and the white-tiled floors gleamed underneath the sterile fluorescent lightning.

Bins and neatly labeled closet units lined the large space. The floor-space was easy to navigate through. Tony didn't have to give it much thought. He simply let his feet carry him down one of the many aisles, and towards the furthest set of closets where his older Mark models had been stored for sentimentality's sake once he perfected how to make them without a step-by-step tutorial.

Somewhere in one of those units was the old Mark III. Technically speaking, Edwin had even pre-dated what inevitably became the Mark model. He had been toying with artificial intelligence and android technology when he'd been a boy.

Edwin had been an imaginary friend of Tony's. He had imagined up the stereotypical British butler from the old twentieth century pictures. And while in his head Edwin had been a snooty older gentleman, the Mark III prototype had evolved into a middle-aged man with a classic handsomeness to him.

Some time along the way though the Mark III model had become obsolete, and Tony hadn't elected to revamp Edwin to reflect the newer features that the growing line of Mark models had eventually come to possess. And well, he soon found his interests moving towards creating a female android instead.

"A walk down memory lane," Tony said to no one, once he finally reached the row of lockers in which his earliest prototypes had been preserved.

Each locker had been labeled accordingly. Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III were the units Tony had stopped in front of. He briefly considered opening up all three of them, but he really didn't have the luxury of time on his hands right now. He needed to see if Edwin was anywhere near functional, and if so he'd try to revamp him a little in between trying to find the best way to infiltrate Odinson Corp's building.

Reaching out, Tony swiped his thumb across the fingerprint scanner. The light flashed from red to green, and it was soon followed up by a merry beam. There was a distinct sound of the lock retracting, and the unit's door popped out a bit once it had unlocked.

Tony pulled the door open, before a smile slowly spread onto his lips. Edwin stood inside the unit in his customary three piece suit, and with his perfectly parted hair. He didn't look inhuman despite how old he was, although if he opened his mouth then that's where the problems started. But maybe he could fine-tune his voice to at least sound like a monotone like Natasha's voice did.

"Wakey-wakey," he said as he reached around Edwin to try and open the panel on the back of his neck.

In retrospect, Tony had to think of a better way of storing his older models. Because it took a hell of a time bending his wrist this way and that, and picking at the edge of the panel door; before he managed to get it to open. And then there was still the task of actually hitting the reboot button, which took almost an entire minute to perform.

Once the task had been done though, there was nothing much for Tony to do but to wait. The telltale sounds of the android turning on resonated in the small compartment. Tony took several steps back, and watched the process with cautious optimism.

Whether Edwin booted up without issue or not would affect Tony's mood. He took a lot of pride in his technology being the best of the best, and even if with an older prototype he wanted to ensure its longevity. So this was a test for him, and he didn't even realize it until now.

Several minutes ticked away, before Tony saw any result. The old android's eyes slowly eased open to reveal a natural shade of blue, and in a moment of sheer marvel, Edwin moved the side of his mouth as if he'd been struck by a wayward fist or an unexplained twitch.

"Hey, buddy,"

"Mr. Stark," Edwin replied in a gravelly, computerized voice. "How may I be of service to you?"

"Glad to know you're up and running, but we have to do something about that voice. I think that'll have to be my first priority if I'm going to keep you in commission." Tony beckoned to Edwin to climb out of the locker unit, and he let out a relieved sigh once the android did as he was directed to.

Edwin's mobility was jerky at first. He probably could do with a fine tune-up, which he might have Natasha perform for him while he was otherwise occupied. And at least having Edwin at top functioning order would get Pepper off his back for now. So maybe he could do what he intended on doing when it came to Odinson Corp.

When Edwin and fully climbed out of the unit, Tony shut the door with a loud click. He led the way down the aisle, and felt his old android's presence several steps behind him. The progress towards the elevator banks was a slow one, however due to Edwin's inactivity.

It must have been almost twenty years since the Mark III had been released. Edwin could have been considered a relic by today's standards, and yet Tony was still fond of him. Even from the short period of time that he'd gone to fetch Edwin to the point where they stood in waiting for the elevator to make its appearance, he felt that fondness for his old companion bloom in his chest.

"I realize you don't have a grasp on time, but it's been a while." Tony studied Edwin from the corner of his eye. "Too long, maybe,"

"The years haven't been kind to you, sir." Edwin responded in that unnaturally intuitive way about him, which was a little terrifying.

"Yeah, well not all of us can be supermodels, you know like you."

"I meant no harm."

"Of course, you didn't. You can just see the truth that's all." Tony was relieved that the elevator had finally arrived, and he stepped inside the confined space before he was joined by Edwin shortly thereafter.

The trip to the R & D department lasted only thirty odd seconds. Tony could have taken the stairway, but with an awkwardly moving android in his company, well that was bound to take much longer than it should have. And quite honestly, there was far too much for him to do now to even attempt something like that.

When they reached their destination, Tony led the way into the laboratory. Natasha was entranced by one of the holographic screens in front of her. Blueprints of Odinson Corp's building were on full display where Tony had left them. He hadn't gotten around to studying them of yet, and he doubted Ultima Zero would like to contribute to the effort either.

Wherever the wayward cyborg was didn't necessarily concern him. He should have been on his toes around Ultima Zero, but he had grown accustom to him as much as he could with all things considering. And he figured Ultima Zero's main goal of revenge was far more important than throttling Tony to death.

"Hey, sweet-cheeks," he approached Natasha. "I brought you a new playmate. His name is Edwin, and you're going to help me with some updates on him. His battery life is in the dumps, and well his voice is like nails on a chalkboard."

Natasha's eyes drifted away from the screen to overlook their newest addition to their dysfunctional family. She neither appeared intrigued or disturbed by Edwin's appearance, but really that would have been out of character if she had been.

"You know, he's kind of like your great-grandfather. He's a Mark III."

"I will help you with any updates that are required, Mr. Stark."

"I knew I could count on you." He smiled, before he turned to face Edwin. "Okay pal, Natasha's going to get you as up to date as we can with our limited time frame. So be a good boy and do whatever she says."

"My pleasure, sir." Edwin tilted his head in submission, before he jerkily followed Natasha who had headed towards another end of the laboratory.

Tony watched them as they disappeared. He then focused onto the blueprints that were still on screen. Unsurprisingly, there was security points on almost every level of the building. Well, there was aside from the family quarters anyway.

That's where Ultima Zero inevitably needed to be, of course. The matriarch of the Odinson brood was the one who had his identification documentation, which was the key to the entire family's guilt. So now they needed to formulate a plan that would get them onto that level without detection.

"I know the facility like the back of my hand." The rich monotone announced, which almost made Tony jump out of his skin. He hated when the bastard appeared without any warning.

"Could you get any more creepier if you tried?"

"There's no use studying blueprints. Like I said, I know the facility in and out. And I've already formulated a plan."

"The simplest plan on the planet, you mean. Do you really think I can just lug you into the building without any questions asked?"

"Certainly not," Ultima Zero glided from out of the shadows like some kind of phantom. "I have full confidence in your intellect. I presume you'll be able to make up a believable story."

Tony watched the cyborg warily. He didn't know why a lot of this had become his responsibility. Hell, he didn't even know what Ultima Zero's stake in things was anymore. He seemed happy to hide in an unoccupied end of the laboratory, while leaving the heavy-lifting to Tony.

"Remind me what your role in this is again. Because I feel like I'm trying to take down this entire company by myself,"

"Your role is to come up with a believable story." Ultima Zero enunciated in an uncomfortably human way. "I loath to admit they know my lies all too well. They'd see through our ruse right away."

It was still a mystery on how Ultima Zero was connected to the Odinson family. But it was apparent that it must have been a close relationship if they knew him that well to know when he lied. Or maybe he was being played; that was a definite possibility still.

Sighing, Tony turned back to the blueprints. He rather be safe than sorry, and an alternative plan wouldn't harm them any. It was better to be prepared for every outcome, especially since he would be committing several crimes within one evening.

There was a lot at stake here. So he would have been a fool if he didn't consider all points of entrance and escape. And Tony needed to be far more suspicious of the cyborg, and the possible lies he might unwittingly being told.

"Security is lax. How else do you think I'd escaped?" Ultima Zero sidled up beside him, before he jutted out a thin finger to point at one exit. "Right here,"

"I have to figure they'd beef up security with your disappearing act."

"I highly doubt it. Thor can be incredibly dense at times. Now if it was Baldur that was in charge, it would be a different story."

"Huh," Tony looked at Ultima Zero, although he didn't say anything else.

Trying to interrogate Ultima Zero on his connection with the Odinson brothers seemed counterproductive. In a way he really didn't want to know about how deep the bond went. Sometimes it was better to remain blissfully ignorant, after all.

His eyes soon returned to the screen again, and he pondered on the story he'd ultimately have to weave. It couldn't be too complex, but it also couldn't be so simple either. He knew he could conjure up a tale where he'd been lucky enough to track down Ultima Zero, disable him, and drag his sorry cyborg ass back to Odinson Corp.

The only thing was that Tony wanted to be prepared for everything. He could go as early as tonight and hand over Ultima Zero, and yet that only left the both of them open to vulnerabilities. No, they had to do this right and Tony was going to do it his way.

Slowly, Ultima Zero reached out to zoom in on a particular spot on the blueprint. Tony studied his pale, bony finger and found himself both fascinated and repelled by it. In fact, he had noticed recently that he stared far too long at the cyborg; more than likely because he was so damn curious on how he worked.

There was only so much he had learned from dear 'ol dad's research notes, and from the footage of the dissection of Peggy Carter. Also, it was a little too cringe-worthy to watch from start to finish anyway. Tony almost shuddered from remembering the howls of pain and pleading that Peggy made while she'd been split apart.

'Pardon me, sir.' JARVIS chimed in just then. 'It appears that you have an unexpected guest. They've landed their hover car on the rooftop.'

"What do you mean they landed? Don't we have some kind of security measures for that kind of thing? I thought we had some security measures for that kind of thing." Tony blinked. "Bring up the video feed."

Almost immediately another screen cropped up beside the blueprints of Odinson Corp. The video feed from the roof was crystal clear, and the hover vehicle in question was undeniably old and shabby. Tony had seen it before, and he definitely seen the driver too.

When the hover car had been powered down, the driver slipped out from the behind the wheel; a blond, blue-eyed gift from God. Steve Rogers had dropped by, and without his scrappy little sidekick either. At least Natasha wouldn't be preoccupied from the duty he'd given her since Barnes sat this one out.

"Tell him to stay where he is, JARVIS. I'm coming up." He quickly turned off the screen, before looking at Ultima Zero. "Stay out of the way. This guy is dangerous, even if he looks like pictures of those things, those animals. What are they...golden retreaters, I think the name is."

"I haven't any intention on making myself visible." Ultima Zero tilted his head in that unnatural way of his that had the ability to give Tony nightmares.

With an uncomfortable glance, Tony scampered away. He already figured why Rogers was here, but he preferred to play stupid. The guy could be another complication for him to overcome, and honestly he didn't want to end up killing him or something. That wasn't his style. Or at least it hadn't been for fifteen years now.

But if his hand was forced, he could do it. He also knew how to hide a body pretty well too.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Thirty-eight :: Seer Eyes

 


 

 

 

The reply burned Baldur's retinas. It left an impression there whenever he closed his eyes. He had reason to believe that everything would end soon enough. Steve Rogers was en route to speak to Tony Stark, and they might very well combine forces in order to find Ultima Zero.

The sooner the task was done, the better. Baldur hardly slept as it was, but the current stresses of finding a wayward cyborg on the loose was entirely too much for his body to handle. Then again, his body hadn't been very healthy from the beginning either. He had a slew of childhood ailments, and his eyes were certainly an anomaly to everyone including his befuddled parents.

"Seer eyes," he murmured above the din of the newscast that played in the background.

In a world froth with technology, there wasn't any room for century old wife's tales. No one believed in anything spiritually anymore. There wasn't any mysticism or fantasy to the world, and Baldur wasn't particularly taken by stories from the past either. So he didn't put much weight behind the dreams he sometimes had.

Dreams were only a view into the unconscious. They meant nothing; they were pointless. And yet, Baldur had had some dreams that seemed to play out in reality. They were only small and insignificant occurrences, but they happened all the same.

Baldur never thought too much into it. He had been taken aback by things that had transpired, but he soon had forgotten about them about a split-second later. This time around though, he was on pins and needles; yet he was hoping that the stress was fueling those macabre, unpleasant thoughts.

Something told him it was unlikely. He had a gut feeling that maybe he really could foresee some kind of future event. Except he'd be damned if he ever articulated that out loud. He wasn't about to tell another living soul about his dream, and his resolve that it might actually come to pass.

Slumping into the crushed velvet that encompassed his seat, Baldur attempted to focus on the newscast that had only just begun. None of it truly interested him any, though. Most news stations were based in the colonies, so their perspective on Earth wasn't entirely well-versed or even sympathetic for that matter.

Trish Walker was currently mid-sentence, reporting on some kind of medical breakthrough. Whatever this newest revelation was didn't concern Baldur much. His attention faded in and out, and he found his mind wandering away to that dream again.

In between his run-in with Rogers and his return to Odinson Corp, Baldur had only gotten less than an hour of sleep. He had fallen asleep in the hover vehicle he called to pick him up in, and in that short time frame he had dreamed of unmentionable things.

"Do androids dream...?" He asked the empty room, before a twisted smile curled onto his lips by the absurdity of his question.

"They have more of a conscience than you do." Someone retorted heatedly.

"Thor, what a pleasure. I thought we could go one day without speaking. I guess my ambitions were far too high, after all."

"Baldur," Thor's heavy footfall echoed through the room, until he eventually appeared in front of Baldur like some kind of angry beast.

Honestly, this was expected. Considering the last confrontation between the two of them, Baldur had wondered when Thor would come to him for round two. Unfortunately for Thor, the battle had already been won; he'd been resting on his laurels for far too long and Baldur had managed to have gotten the upper-hand in the end.

"Can't you see I'm watching the news right now? Whatever grievance you have against me today can wait, Thor. I'd like a moment alone."

"Don't you dare speak to me so disrespectfully!"

"I have no reason to respect you."

"I am the CEO of this company! I am technically your boss!"

"You're technically my sniveling younger brother. And as I said beforehand, I have no reason to respect you." He glowered at Thor, and he was unsurprised to see the telltale signs of an explosion starting to accumulate before his very eyes.

Being siblings in business had its many downfalls. Thor, despite being hand selected to be CEO of the company, had a complex about Baldur somehow swooping in to take his place. Which, of course, would never happen mostly because Baldur had never been interested in holding so much power. He preferred his position by far.

It didn't help that there had always a healthy bout of sibling rivalry between them too. Their father hadn't been the sort to dissuade them either. He thought it was only natural for children to compete against one another, and to try to prove they were better in some way.

"You've plotted against me for the last time, Baldur." Thor lurched forward, as if to try and intimidate him. "Father already predicted that you've gone to Steve Rogers to kill our brother."

"Our brother was killed by disease, Thor. Certainly Steve Rogers couldn't take out an illness; I know he's a capable blade runner, but he isn't a god."

"Do you think this is funny?"

"No, but I find it amusing how you ran off to Father for counsel." Baldur smiled. "Against me, no less,"

For a split-second, it looked like Thor might charge at him after all. His face had gone from pink to red rather quickly, and he looked half-mad with the obvious need to throttle Baldur an inch away from his life. And he would have welcomed it entirely because that would have meant that his dream was far from the truth.

"Did you go to Steve Rogers?" Thor spat out. "I'm giving you a chance here to be honest with me!"

"I have no clue what you're talking about."

"Yes, you do! So you better tell me the truth right now!"

"Like I said, I have no clue what you're talking about. I fib, Thor. I might not have been such a great liar as Loki was, but he learned a few of the finer points from me." He shrugged nonchalantly.

Halfway through the motion, Baldur recognized the fault in it. Thor didn't hesitate this time around, and his foot-stool was kicked out from underneath his feet as his younger brother advanced on him. Thor grabbed him by the lapels of his coat, before he violently yanked him up, and pulled him into his infuriated face.

Fear gripped Baldur for a moment, before humor quickly took its place instead. Once or twice as children him and Thor had gotten into a physical altercation. Thor had won each bout fair and square, however the psychological torture after the fact was entirely Baldur's to bask in. And while the bumps and bruises were painful and inconvenient, he tortured Thor for months to wonderful results.

"What's so funny?" Thor shook him back and forth like a rag doll. "Goddamn you, Baldur!"

"You're such a hypocrite! You'd save one brother, but harm another! Where is your sense of family, little brother?"

"You've always been mad!"

"Oh no, I've always been the most intuitive that's all." Baldur guffawed abruptly.

That sentiment did little to calm Thor any. In fact, it only made him angrier which led to a sudden push from the younger of the two of them, and a wayward fist that swung and clipped Baldur right in the jaw.

The impact sent Baldur sideways. He nearly tumbled over the coffee table, but caught himself before the collision could happen. It hadn't been an easy feat either, not with the angry pain that bloomed through his entire face at an alarming rate.

Several loud expletives burst out from his mouth, as he laid a ginger hand on his jaw. Thor certainly hadn't held back any. Truthfully, Baldur hadn't expected him to. As Loki had once said – Thor was a bloody barbarian when he wanted to be.

"You barking lunatic!" He spat out venomously.

"You murderer!"

"I've killed no one! Just because father assumes something, I wouldn't take it as the truth!"

"He has no reason to lie, unlike you!" Thor snarled, looking as big of a bully as he naturally could be.

There was no way in hell that Baldur was about to confess his crimes to Thor. He could only assume several more punches would be delivered to him because of it. But he supposed it was his own damn fault for finding humor in the entire situation.

"He knows nothing, you fool. How would he know anything about this situation? He's been locked away in his suite all this time. And if he did know, wouldn't you think he'd be more helpful than he has been?"

"I don't have any time to listen to you!"

"But you have the time to assault me like a big buffoon!" Baldur touched his jaw again, before he grimaced from the pain. He could taste blood.

Thor said nothing to defend himself. He didn't appear satisfied by his barbaric behavior either, which Baldur supposed was one small victory in his favor. For the briefest of moments, Baldur swore that Thor might have even had an ounce of regret for attacking him. But it was gone within the blink of an eye and it was quickly replaced by indignation instead.

"I won't let you take away the last remaining reminder of Loki." Thor boomed.

Laboriously, Baldur stood upright while his hand cradled the point of contact. He had bitten his tongue mid-blow and the coppery taste of blood was becoming far more apparent now. He would have spat it into Thor's face if he was as childish and vindictive as his younger sibling was.

"I don't know how you and Mother can be so blind." He muttered, before he swallowed the blood collecting in his mouth. "Loki is dead already. Ultima Zero might not be, but do you honestly think we can contain him without disabling him and powering him off? And what then – we have a comatose cyborg as our final reminder of an intelligent, mischievous man that was our brother. He'll be no better than any of our other androids who've expired."

"At least we would have him." Thor's anger suddenly fell away like rain.

It was then for the first time in a long time, Baldur felt some kind of kinship to Thor. Loki's loss had not been easy on any of them. Regardless of what anyone might have thought, Baldur also mourned what had befallen his youngest brother. And that's why he had so vigilantly fought of late to ensure that Loki did get his final wish.

Grief had affected the family differently. Their father had almost appeared nonchalant about the matter, but their mother had been beside herself with the impending loss. Which was what soon divided them on what had inevitably come to pass, and why Baldur could not bear the weight of guilt any longer. He had to make things right at long last.

"You may hate me, Thor. But your love for Loki is far more toxic than anything you could ever feel for me. And I have to admit that I feel blessed for that. Because I know in the case of my death, you won't try to keep me alive like you've done to Loki." Baldur smiled weakly while still cradling his jaw, before he turned to leave the room. "And perhaps we won't have to wait too long for that revelation either."

His last statement was uttered under his breath, a wisp of truth that only he could foresee or even understand.

Chapter Text

 


 

Chapter Thirty-nine :: The Right Thing to Do

 


 

 

 

The bellow of the street market was a familiarity that Phil would miss. He wouldn't miss much on this dying planet, but he would miss the collective need for survival and the determination to keep up with tradition regardless of the hardships the population faced regularly. Everything else though was a black mark in his ledger; a constant reminder of the family he lost, and the forces that made it possible.

Colony life probably wouldn't be all that different, to be honest. Androids ran amok far more readily than on Earth. And he knew that it would take a lot of time to adapt to that change. He just hoped his nightmares would remained buried underneath distraction and poorly honed coping capabilities.

Overall though, Phil knew that his life would be so much better with impending departure. His and Clint's boarding passes had already been electronically transferred to them, and they would leave within four days. It didn't seem real, but he was quickly reminded of it almost every hour on the hour by his partner.

"Say goodbye to poverty and cockroaches, my friend." Clint exclaimed in between bites of some kind of spicy confection he had ordered from the food stand they were sitting at. "We've finally ended up on top for once! Fucking finally,"

"Yeah, but at what cost?"

"Uh, the easiest cost obviously."

"So you don't feel any guilt at all about what we've done?" Phil gave Clint a sideways look.

Even if they were had only been repaying a debt, and happened to be rewarded because of it; Phil wasn't entirely sold on what they'd done to earn it. He still had a vivid picture in his head on how Barnes had contorted unnaturally when they disabled him. No less, he remembered all too well on how difficult it had been to right him again.

He knew he shouldn't feel guilty about Barnes. After all, Barnes had ended up being a highly sophisticated android unlike any other Phil had ever seen before. And to know that there were those kinds of machines running around undetected made him entirely uneasy.

They'd done society a solid by returning Barnes to Sitwell. What Sitwell did with him after the fact really didn't matter. But still there was a feeling of wrongness about the entire situation, and Phil just couldn't shake it.

"For fuck's sake," Clint groaned exasperatedly. "We've been over this a million times already. We didn't do anything wrong. It's called survival, Phil. Sometimes you have to do some shit you wouldn't otherwise do so you can see another day. And our ship has finally come, so stop over-thinking this already. It's over and done with."

"I know that, but maybe we should have thought about things a little more."

"How come? Barnes was a fucking 'droid; we didn't even know that either. He could have done some serious damage to a lot of people if we didn't intervene. You should know that more than anyone."

"I do know that." Phil sighed, before turning on his stool to face his partner completely. "But what about Rogers?"

That had been on the forefront of Phil's mind of late. While they had only just delivered Barnes to Sitwell the day before, the ponderous thoughts about how Rogers would respond to what they'd done seemed to haunt him.

Notoriously known, Rogers had had experienced a great loss because of what had happened to his betrothed. So in some way Phil felt a kinship to his fellow runner. And yet the answer still remained – did Rogers know all this time that his partner had been an android?

"You know, you need to let this go already." Clint leaned against the bar, before pointing an accusatory finger into his face. "Rogers will be fine. He's better off without his robot boy toy. And even if he has a kink for that kind of thing, it doesn't mean he gets to have a pleasure 'droid because of his past trauma."

"So that's what you think Barnes was to him – a pleasure 'droid?"

"To each his own, except when it becomes a danger to the rest of us."

"You're over-simplifying things, Clint." Phil huffed in frustration.

Within the past twenty-four hours, Phil had considered that maybe Rogers had known about Barnes's android status. But on the other hand, he believed that wasn't the case either. Whatever the truth may be, he still didn't feel proud of what he'd done despite everything.

Life was a lonely feat, especially in a world that was addled with poverty and disease. Phil knew that all too well, and his companionship with Clint had been a god send. He didn't think he could have survived another lonely night without anyone to talk to and constantly being fueled only by his anger. So Clint's company had been a reprieve, and he assumed the same could be said about Rogers's partnership with Barnes. And in one fair swoop, they had taken it away from him.

"You're over-thinking things again." Clint rolled his eyes, before picking up his chopsticks. "Listen, we were following orders. We owed Sitwell a solid, you and me know that. And he wanted us to find a 'droid. It was cut and dry; we played by the books, and we got a potentially dangerous 'droid off the streets. It doesn't matter who we thought it was."

"So you can sleep at night knowing what we've done?"

"I had the best sleep of my life last night. Because we didn't do anything wrong,"

"And your opinion isn't fueled by the fact that we're star-bound within a few days?" Phil glanced down at his untouched, celebratory meal.

Maybe he was over-thinking things. They did owe Sitwell for destroying his hover van, and well Barnes had helped maim it on top of that too. And honestly, they couldn't have backed down from the request Sitwell had asked them to perform for him; especially since they hadn't had any way of repaying him for the damages.

"I just don't want anyone to suffer because of us." He admitted.

His words hung heavily in between him and Clint. Phil knew deep-down he was a bleeding heart. The only thing he ever truly hated were androids, but even then he hardly saw Barnes as a piece of soulless machinery. He had been human.

Slowly, Phil took up his utensils and dipped them into fiery red color of his noodle meal. He stirred them about, while he listened to the commotion at their backs. It lulled him into an almost serene state, and silenced his thoughts for the moment in the very least.

Dialects of all kinds blended with even more languages; the crowd was rambunctious and diverse, and everyone seemed unconcerned (for once) about the affairs of the world. That's why Phil and so many others enjoyed the street markets; there were a brief reprieve from the horrors that they all experienced day in and day out.

"I get the bleeding heart thing." Clint spoke after a few minutes. "Rogers has had it tough. He's this weird kind of anomaly. He's back from the good 'ol days where everything wasn't completely shitty. So hello culture shock. And then his girlfriend becomes a fucking science project."

"Bad streak of luck,"

"No kidding," Clint shoveled some food into his mouth, smacking his lips loudly together before he swallowed. "So he finally finds a friend, and then we take him away. Yeah, it's not the best turn of events. But we were only doing what we needed to do in order to survive. And we weren't being malicious about it."

Phil stared at Clint for a moment. There wasn't any doubt in his mind that he was being sincere. In fact, it was rare for Clint to openly show a softer side to him. Because it was definitely a weakness to show any kind of humanity nowadays; the world was a cruel and callous place, and it could easily eat you up and spit you out in no time flat.

"Do you think he'll be all right? Rogers, I mean." Phil dared to ask.

Clint seemed to consider his question. He didn't reply too quickly, and he seemed to be suddenly wary of their surroundings. But thankfully, there weren't any shady characters around them and the people working the food cart were busy with their food preparations to even spare them a second glance.

"Do you want my honest opinion or not?"

"I wouldn't have asked otherwise, Clint."

"Well," Clint swiped his hand across his mouth. "I don't think he will be. Because from his point of view, it'll look like Barnes just left town without any explanation. So that's bound to hurt the guy, you know, to think that his only friend just abandoned him like that."

That thought hadn't even crossed Phil's mind. Of course, Barnes's disappearance would raise more questions than answers; although, Phil suspected that Rogers wouldn't think Barnes had just left town especially since there wasn't really anything out there for anyone. And transport was definitely a pretty penny if you wanted to go to somewhere like Los Angeles.

So that left only one alternative for Rogers to believe – that Barnes had somehow been killed by some drug-addled individual or someone completely mad. That honestly would probably be unbearable for Rogers to have to live with.

"He'll draw to the worst conclusion imaginable, Clint. He won't think Barnes has left town and you know it." Phil lowered his voice. "He'll think Barnes had been killed."

"More than likely,"

"We can't let him think that. We just can't; we have to tell him the truth."

"Hold on a second." Clint turned on him with an unenthusiastic expression. "You actually want to find Rogers and tell him his best buddy was an android? Are you fucking kidding me?"

Phil breathed heavily through his nose. He didn't see any way around it. Rogers deserved the truth, and while the guilt may stay with Phil for quite some time; in the very least he could be honest with a man who had lost everything already.

"Whether you agree or not is irrelevant to me. You might not want to tell him, but I do."

"And you think he's going to thank you for that, Phil? He'll blow your fucking head off!"

"Well, do you have any better ideas? You know, aside from not telling him that is." Phil challenged, proving that he wasn't about to back down.

Clint stared at him critically, before he slapped a hand over his eyes. He cursed up a blue streak that happened to draw the attention of a diner several stools down. Phil raised his hand in means of an apology, and he only dropped it when Clint had finished with his colorful tirade.

Both of them knew it was the least they could for Rogers. The man deserved the truth, and well they would have to approach the situation with the utmost care. Phil had no doubt that Rogers would be beside him with emotion, but he didn't necessarily think Rogers would turn on them violently either.

"Better tell your pack of brats to try and track down Rogers," Clint dropped his hand from his face and openly grimaced. "Because I don't got a clue how to find him, and I'm not going to waste my time trying to find the guy either. This is your stupid idea, after all."

Relief and gratitude washed over Phil then. He knew Clint would do the right thing in the end. He might have been rough around the edges, but he was a good man. And in the very least, Phil would be able to sleep a little better at night knowing that they'd done the right thing.

"Leave it to me." He smiled, before clasping his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Thank you, Clint."

"Yeah, yeah." Clint waved him off with a small, almost indiscernible smile on his lips.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Forty :: Thirty-Seven Hours and Counting

  


 

Thirty-seven hours and counting; that was how long since Steve had laid eyes on Bucky. He crossed his arms protectively across his chest to ward away the chill in the air, and he tried not to contemplate too much on the worry that crashed over him like a tidal wave. He had business to handle right now, and afterwards he would then continue his search for the dearest person in his life.

Leaning back against Dolores, Steve waited for Tony Stark to appear. He'd been informed by a disembodied voice that he was to stand down until Stark could come to him instead of the other way around. Steve didn't have any problem with that, although he briefly considered climbing back into the hover vehicle with the nip in the air.

Quite honestly, this was a spur of the moment visit. Steve didn't know what he was going to do when it came to Ultima Zero. Stark didn't have much of an incentive to hand the cyborg over to him. And it was apparent that he wasn't about to give him back to Odinson Corp either. Because if that had been the case, Steve wouldn't have been sought out by Baldur Odinson with the request he'd gotten.

So that brought up the most pressing question of all – what was Stark planning to do with a highly volatile cyborg? Whatever it was could not be a good thing, and Steve couldn't just walk away now. Not with what he knew about cyborgs, and especially with the knowledge that Stark was a scientist first and foremost.

Scientists were naturally curious; they wanted to know how things worked. In which case, they liked to disassemble things and study each individual piece. Steve knew that all too well; he knew what a group of scientists had done to Peggy. And he knew the likely outcome for Ultima Zero if he fell into the wrong hands. Baldur Odinson knew that too.

Biting onto his bottom lip, Steve tried to keep himself in check. He couldn't think of Peggy right now because that would only make him reckless. He had to approach the situation with a level-head in order to convince Stark the best course of action was to retire the cyborg as humanely as possible.

As he mulled over that thought, the door across the way that led into Stark Tower glided open with mechanical ease. Steve's attention was brought to the present, and he watched distrustfully as Tony Stark walked out into the open. He was dressed casually; his clothes reflected how he must have been in his laboratory doing god only knows what.

Steve pushed himself away from his perch on Dolores and unfolded his arms. He didn't want to come off as threatening, although Stark seemed to have little fear about anything. His problems in the past probably made everything look non-threatening in comparison.

"Color me surprised," Stark spread his arms in welcome, although Steve knew it was only an act. "Steve Rogers, what do I owe the pleasure of you dropping by unannounced?"

There was venom behind those cheery words. Steve felt a prickle of apprehension at the back of his neck, and he wondered if he should have come armed. But unfortunately, his weaponry was sub par in comparison to the energy gun that Bucky had gotten himself. And well, he had taken it along with him to wherever he'd run off to.

Steve smiled sardonically at that thought. Thirty-seven hours and counting; Bucky could be dead in a gutter somewhere, and the likelihood that he'd never find out about his fate was pretty much a given. The police didn't care about dead civilians unless they'd been slaughtered by some wayward android. Human on human violence was frowned upon, but it usually went unpunished.

"I think you know why I'm here, Stark." He spoke once the other man was a few feet away from him.

"While I'm flattered by the admiration, I'm not really looking for a relationship right now. But you do have those soulful baby blues that make me weak in the knees."

"I thought you'd take Ultima Zero back to Odinson Corp by now."

"Where's your fellow space cadet at?" Stark asked with suspicion.

The suspicion was warranted Steve supposed. Someone like Stark had every right to be paranoid about the company that he kept, no less an unexpected guest dropping in on him so late at night. But that didn't mean Steve had to like it either, regardless of the fact that Bucky didn't usually keep his nose clean.

Stark probably knew that about Bucky too. Bucky looked rough around the edges, and he wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty either. Not to mention, Stark's pretty redheaded android seemed to have a strange fascination with Bucky on top of that. So it was no wonder Stark was curious on where Bucky might be.

"He isn't here." Steve replied dismissively, as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "But you know why I'm here, and I want some answers."

"I don't owe you any answers."

"That might be true, but I'm not going anywhere until I get some."

"I could always call Commissioner Fury, he might have something to say about that." Stark smiled crossly. "You know, trespassing laws and all."

Now that was golden. Steve almost laughed at the threat over a variety of reasons. Commissioner Fury would undoubtedly make an appearance if Stark called him, but that would open a whole other can of worms for him instead of fixing the one that Steve posed to him.

"Funnily enough, I've had Fury try and recruit me onto the police force. He's been saying for years now that I would be an asset to his office." Steve allowed a chuckle to escape him. "So that might actually benefit me if you do call him. Because I could tell him I suspect there's something highly illegal in your possession, and well protocol in this century isn't really up to par as it was in mine. So I doubt Fury would go through the trouble of trying to get a search warrant, even with who you are."

The corner of Stark's mouth twitched and his eyes visibly hardened. Both of them knew that Commissioner Fury would be more than happy to skip protocol, in order to find anything defamatory or illegal in Stark's possession. And well, not even all the money in the world would dissuade him on pressing criminal charges against Stark.

Fury hadn't forgotten about the events fifteen years ago. No one had, so he wouldn't hesitate to throw Stark in prison and throw away the key. Or he'd probably strap him into the electric chair himself with bravado, since the death of Stark would probably lead to an end to some of the most highly sought after androids on the market.

"So you've been playing grab-ass with that one-eyed bastard all this time?" Stark's feigned pleasantness had completely drained out of him.

"That's where you're wrong. I've been avoiding Fury, but that doesn't me he doesn't respect my opinion on things. And you and I know why."

"Why don't you refresh my memory, Rogers."

"You're playing a dangerous game here, Stark."

"I live for danger." Stark nearly spat out the words at him.

Steve withdrew his hands from his pockets, before he slowly approached Stark. He noticed how the other man tensed up from the close proximity. Steve was several inches taller than him, and if push came to shove then he could take Stark down without any problem. But that wasn't his intention, no, he was trying to intimidate him.

Slowly, he walked around Stark. He observed tautness of his stance, the way his shoulders rose towards his ears, and the way his hands furled into fists. He could almost feel the building anger ripple off of him, yet it didn't scare Steve any.

Once he circled him several times, Steve paused right behind Stark. He knew his presence was hulking and impossible to ignore. And just to reinforce this fact even further than he already had, he leaned inward until his lips were a fraction of an inch from Stark's ear.

"We both know why Fury would believe me over you, don't we?"

"Those baby blues are to die for."

"He'd believe me because I have first-hand experience dealing with," Steve dropped his voice a decibel then. "A cyborg,"

The word had its desired effect. Stark openly flinched, which made it crystal clear to Steve that he already knew what Ultima Zero was. He might try to deny it; hell, Steve knew that he would. But the fact the remained the same – they both knew that they hadn't been hunting down a technological phenomenon. No, they knew the truth.

Stark whirled around to face him then. They were only a few inches apart, and Steve could see the wild indignation in Stark's eyes. He had already given himself away, and anything he said or did from that point on would be a badly constructed lie.

"Do you honestly believe I'm that stupid to harbor a cyborg, Rogers?" Stark sounded nearly genuine. "You should know more than anyone around, like you've already said, that cyborgs are highly volatile and reckless. Having one in close proximity would be an error of judgment, or in other words – it would be fucking stupid."

"I had my suspicions for a while now. Ultima Zero is not an android and we both know that."

"No, no I do not know that."

"Come on, Stark." Steve smiled meanly since he wasn't in the mood to be pleasant. "You know how inferior Odinson Corp's androids are. We saw the company Ultima Zero kept. Why would Odinson Corp put their eggs all in one basket?"

"Clearly, you don't know anything about research and development."

"Maybe I don't, but I know a cyborg when I see one."

"I think you might be hyper-focused on half-human and half-machines."

"Baldur Odinson told me that Ultima Zero was a cyborg." Steve retorted, which visibly shocked Stark.

Stark backpedaled away, before he held up his hands in defense. It looked like his mind was running a mile a minute, in order to fool Steve into believing otherwise. But they both knew it was a futile and lame attempt that wouldn't work in his favor.

"That is crazy talk."

"What's crazy is that you're holding onto a cyborg who has proven itself to be violent. And I wonder if it's because you're interested in seeing how it works."

"Now you're bringing in your own personal trauma into things, you know."

"I think I'm pretty justified in that." Steve shot back impatiently.

Before Stark could retort, there was a sudden shrill sound that overlapped them both. They jerked away from one another in a second of confusion, until Steve recognized the sound for his old beat-up communication device. It was a cross between a phone and a walkie-talkie, and the only person that ever called him on it was Bucky. No one else had the number for it.

Without so much as a glance towards Stark, Steve wrestled his communication device out of his inner jacket pocket and looked down at the display. Sure enough Bucky's name flashed onto the screen, and he quickly hurried to receive the call.

"Bucky, where the hell have you been? Did you get into some kind of trouble?" He blurted out in a rush of words.

Silence greeted him beyond the sound of Bucky's breathing on the other end. Befuddled, Steve was about to utter his name again, now entirely convinced that Bucky was in trouble. But he was spared the inconvenience with a few moments.

"Steve Rogers, this is Phil Coulson."

"Who...?"

"Phil Coulson; I'm partners with Clint Barton. Your friend helped destroy the hover van we were in." The man on the other line conveyed, and soon a picture of a kind but tired face came into view in Steve's mind.

"Why in the hell do you have Bucky's communication device?"

"This will be difficult to explain. Yesterday we had a run-in with Barnes, and it was only now that we realized we had his communication device all this time."

"What kind of run-in? What did you do to him?" Steve was suddenly gripped by panic and fear.

Pushing past Stark, Steve headed towards the direction of his battered, old hover car. His heart had started to pound wildly in his chest, as he imagined an array of god awful things that could have befallen Bucky, especially when he took into account how much Barton didn't like Bucky to begin with.

"We borrowed the hover van that was destroyed. I have a contact who lent it to us." Coulson explained in a controlled tone. "So instead of making us pay for the damages, we were asked to run an important errand for him. And that was to find an android."

"What does this have anything to do with Bucky? Did he get in the way?"

"Not necessarily, no."

"Stop being so goddamn vague!" Steve bellowed, finally losing his temper as he made his way to Dolores's driver side.

For half a beat, Coulson didn't say a word. Barton was barely audible in the background, although he lacked that cocky attitude that Steve had witnessed on past occasions. And that was an immediate red flag for him. Something must have gone seriously wrong.

"There isn't any easy way to say this, Steve. But we were given irrefutable proof that Barnes was an android. Hell, we'd disabled him ourselves and there's no doubt about it. He is one of the most advanced androids I've ever seen. You couldn't even tell he was a machine." Coulson explained.

Confusion and disbelief ran rampantly through Steve, which soon had him barking out peals of laughter. He was almost hysterical with it. Because the sheer idea that Bucky was an android was ludicrous; he had known the guy for seven years! They lived together and spent almost every waking hour together! He would have known if he was living with an android!

On his peripheral, Steve noticed Stark cautiously approaching him with a bewildered expression on his face. He must have looked like a lunatic right about now. But he couldn't reel it in so easily when he was given such an unbelievable story.

"You've got to be kidding me. He's not an android; he's not." Steve chuckled for a few moments longer, before he finally began to sober up some.

"I'm sorry, Steve."

"Don't call me that; we aren't friends."

"I didn't mean to patronize you." Coulson sounded regretful. "But you won't see Barnes again, I'm afraid. He's going to be transported back to one of the colonies. I'm sorry."

On that note, the line suddenly died. Steve blinked the unshed tears of hysteria from his vision, before he realized what he'd been told. He would never see Bucky again. The only good thing worth a damn in his life was now gone, exactly like Peggy.

Owlishly, Steve stared at the communication device. His mind had gone completely blank. There was no way this was happening. Bucky was not a machine, which meant that Coulson and Barton had possibly killed him. They killed him because of what had happened with Ultima Zero.

"No, no, no," he shook his head in denial.

"Hey, buddy are you okay?" Stark asked, although Steve barely recognized his presence at all.

Without a thought against the contrary, Steve yanked open up the driver side door and slipped onto the tattered and lumpy seat. As he pulled the door closed behind him, his other hand dialed back Bucky's communication device and he pressed it to his ear.

He juggled with turning on Dolores and keeping the communication device to his ear. Soon he was air-bound, oblivious to Stark running out of the way to avoid injury. And the thought of Ultima Zero had only become a secondary concern in comparison to Bucky. And if he had to, he'd track down Coulson and Barton and make them give him the real truth. He'd even kill them for it.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Forty-one :: Hypothetical Turned Into Reality

 


 

 

 

The android was old and outdated. Some time in the distance past, he recalled observing one of the earlier Mark models; although he had not intimately been acquainted with the mechanics of them until now.

He observed from a distance as the pretty android opened up the elder one for maintenance. The process was a slow one; he knew if given the opportunity that he could speed things up quite a bit. After all, he had learned about how to assemble an android many years ago and he had quite a bit of experience in that field too.

Much of his memories were murky, but certain things had been stored in his databases and he could rifle through them at will. Anything to do with mechanical engineering had been intentionally maintained for his own selfish purposes. He supposed that he had Dr. Banner to thank for it.

Stark's android worked in do-diligence; her movements were delicate but deliberate, and her focus was singular. It was evident right away that she was tasked with minimum repairs; the knowledge of intricate mechanics had been void from her database, and he supposed it was because Stark was normally present to dictate his will.

Currently though, Stark had departed to meet with Steve Rogers. It remained to be seen what the meeting was about, although he could draw to his own conclusions rather easily. And well, he imagined that Stark wouldn't be quite so forthcoming with Rogers about him and the plans they were carefully crafting when it came to Odinson Corp.

He had been correct in his assessment about Stark, after all. Stark continued to hold a grudge against the former CEO of the company. So much so that Stark would harbor a cyborg, in order to finally bring down the competition; no less to see the patriarch of the Odinson family taken into custody and potentially executed.

Revenge proved to be a great motivator. In fact, it was the only reason why he had fled from the company in the first place. He had harbored enough resentment to want to see everyone involved in shackles or even dead.

He didn't feel any regret about his recent course of actions either. Everyone had reaped what they sowed, and they had also underestimated him on top of that. They hadn't suspected he had put up parameters in place to ensure his life's work had been preserved outside of the laboratory in which he spent much of his time.

They would rue the day that they had taken his fate into their hands. He would make certain of it. And it would be far more satisfactory to see the whole company fold, instead of him simply killing them. No one would know of their crimes otherwise, which meant that someone else could repeat the past once more.

"Hypothetical," he muttered roughly in a voice that sounded surreal to his ears still.

There was a telltale hint of humanity in the articulation of each word. Even with a flat affect, he couldn't emulate the way in which Stark's favorite android spoke. He lacked the monotone, the robotic enunciation that his former conspirators had too.

He was human, but he was not. He was an anomaly that hadn't any right to be. Cyborgs had been hypothetical in theory. Or that was how he had formulated each method of procedure. Because the science was there, and he had vastly improved upon it out of sheer arrogance; it shouldn't have been used as a step-by-step guide to practice such a feat.

Dr. Banner should have known this most of all. He had helped in the creation of the Ultima Zero Project. He had doubled checked his math. He had added in his own suggestions along the way. And he had known the whole project had been researched and thrown together out of amusement's sake and nothing more.

Hypothetical; all of it had been hypothetical. But nearly thirteen years after the fact, he stood as a testament of his own genius. He was the product of highly advanced engineering, medical knowledge, and superior technology. In short, he was an abomination, despite being a marvel of modern day science.

The Tanaka Cyborg Project 58 had been a barbaric practice. While it certainly laid the ground work for the Ultima Zero Project, there had been vast improvements on how to make the procedure far more feasible, although the pain factor hadn't been entirely eliminated either.

He curled his lip in memory of the pain he felt that fateful day. He only wished the individuals responsible for his current state could experience what he had. Perhaps then they wouldn't have made such a rash decision to try and immortalize him as they had.

While he had been preoccupied by those unwelcome thoughts, Stark had abruptly appeared from wherever he had gone off to. He appeared to be confused, although his eyes were burning with determination all the same.

Stark had zeroed in on him. He didn't spare a glance towards the android splayed across the workbench or his favorite one that was wrist deep in the hardware that was in the older android's chest cavity. Which left little room for questions on why Steve Rogers had been there, despite the insinuations being pretty blaring regardless to him already.

"We need to have a talk." Stark spoke in an authoritative tone that brooked no room for argument. "And you aren't going to play your evasive little game with me either. Things are getting serious, and I'm not taking the fall for you. So you better follow me right now and explain yourself."

Without another word, Stark headed towards a portion of the laboratory where his personal desk was located. There was equal amounts of clutter on the desktop as there was any other surface of the laboratory. However, the smaller desk space lent to an even greater mess than on the work benches.

Wires and small steel plates were stacked haphazardly on one another. Wrenches and screwdrivers and every other imaginable tool of the trade were also present within the chaos. But Stark seemed unfazed by it all, and he simply rounded the edge to sit on his executive chair; before he plucked up a tablet that was almost as thin as a pane of glass from on top of everything.

There wasn't anywhere for someone else to sit. He didn't necessarily mind, however. He hadn't much need to sit, even when he experienced crippling discomfort from the hardware he carried around on his body all day and every day now. So he simply stood a distance away after the short walk, while Stark tapped away at his tablet.

"If you want this partnership to work, you need to tell me everything about you. I might hate Odinson Corp, but I also prefer not to end up dead. And now I have Steve fucking Rogers threatening me, and I don't liked to be threatened." Stark swiped his forefinger across the tablet with a frown.

"What could he threaten you with?"

"Discovery for one,"

"Discovery," he repeated, although he already knew with what without further probing.

Stark glared at him then. Despite the white at his temples, he had always appeared far more youthful than his years. And yet his age was suddenly showing in his annoyance and anger. He looked less of a vibrant middle-aged man, and far more like an embittered old one instead.

"Rogers knows what you are. Hell, he probably knew before I even did."

"I highly doubt that."

"Yeah, well he has irrefutable proof that you are what you are." Stark nearly barked. "After all, he was given the truth from the source – Scary Eyes Odinson told him as much."

That revelation resounded loudly throughout the laboratory. Its impact seemed to be ever-reaching, and it even caused him to blink in disbelief. Because it never seemed feasible that one of the Odinsons would willingly admit to the crime that they had committed against him.

Baldur was different, however. He had always been on the side of peculiar, and in so many ways they had connected on their differences. So maybe it wasn't entirely out of left field that Baldur would have told someone, no less Rogers of what he truly was.

"You're going to tell me who you are. And you're going to tell me how you got caught up with Odinson Corp. And you're going to tell me now or the deal is off." Stark glowered. "I can call Scary Eyes right now and he'll only be too happy to come get you. Because I don't think Rogers is coming back for you; not when his little boyfriend was kidnapped or something."

"You would turn me over?"

"One way or another this will end up bad for me. I can call Fury or I can call Odinson. Or you might decide to rip my head off. But like hell will I let you get an easy kill on me; I'm scrappier than I look, buddy."

"I haven't any doubt about that." He said without any inflection.

It was only fair to tell Stark the ugly truth. If he wanted full cooperation, he supposed he had to be transparent; whether or not he liked it was beyond the point. Honesty might very well ensnare Stark's loyalty completely. Or it might isolate him further; it was hard to say at this point.

Slowly, he opened his mouth. It was a seamless motion, however nothing came out of him right away. It was almost as if he had some type of malfunction, which he hadn't experienced beforehand. He was created with the best hardware; he knew Dr. Banner wouldn't have used anything less on him.

After a moment of silence, he finally understood that his lack of response was not a malfunction but it was instead hesitation on his part. That hadn't happened in some time; he didn't know he could feel anything so human anymore which was a revelation within itself.

"Well," Stark leaned back in his seat with furrowed brows.

"I've never spoken about it."

"I figured as much. I mean if you had, you probably would have already been scrap metal by now."

"It happened nearly twelve years ago." He conveyed, but he soon was overwhelmed by another wave of hesitance.

He did not like this moment of weakness. He loathed to think that he still retained some sort of humanity. After all, it would prove to be a deterrent to his well-orchestrated plans for Odinson Corp.

"Okay, twelve years ago." Stark chimed in, no doubt to try and force the story out of him faster. "Was it a dark and stormy night?"

"I wouldn't know; I had barely been conscious then. But I understood in my brief moments of lucidity what their intentions were for me."

"I need the whole story; you're giving me a synopsis and it's a pretty shitty one at that."

"In my former life I had contracted an ailment that I couldn't shake. I was near death, and the individuals around me had elected to prolong my life by any means necessary." He looked away. "I worked in the R & D department for Odinson Corp, and to say the work was lackluster is an understatement. Because our former CEO believed in frugality instead of advancement,"

"I figured you didn't have any original ideas."

"No one is as brilliant as you or even as arrogant." He deadpanned. "As I was saying, the work was lackluster and in turn I grew bored. Hence the reason why I turned my focus elsewhere, and with Dr. Banner's input I came up with the Ultima Zero Project."

"Wait, what?"

"The Ultima Zero Project was a hypothetical theory in which to vastly improve on the Tanaka Cyborg Project 58. It had taken several years to mostly perfect the process of creating a cyborg, however there were still too many unknowns to make it seamless. After all, nothing can be perfect without trial and error and as I said – it was only hypothetical."

Stark looked shell-shocked. He mustn't have thought the actual product of the Ultima Zero Project had actually created the theory himself. He supposed it didn't seem anywhere near possible if he were on the other end of it.

"Unfortunately, the hypothetical became reality." He felt his lips twitch into a gnarled smile. "And here I am today."

"Why would the Odinson family risk their livelihood on an employee?"

"Oh, they certainly would not."

"I'm confused." Stark touched his temple with one hand. "You need to be more specific here, pal."

"I wasn't a simple employee; I was family." He finally said at last, and the smile on his lips stretched broadly.

His words had the impact that he suspected they would. Stark appeared to have swallowed his tongue then; the previous revelation didn't hold any water compared to this newest one. And that's where he chose to leave it; he had told his story, and Stark could do whatever he wanted with this new found information. But Ultima Zero had to believe that he would continue to help him all the same anyway.

Now the full extent of the Odinson family's audacity and cruelty was known, and any human (Stark included) would have a difficult time ignoring that. That weakness would work right into Ultima Zero's hand.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Forty-two :: Shoot To Kill 

 


 

Sitwell rubbed at his aching eyes. He didn't know what day it was. All he knew for certain was that he hadn't slept in a very long time. The nature of the business he was tasked with was time sensitive, and well his own comfort was only a secondary concern in comparison.

The whirl and buzz of machinery was the only sound in the apartment now. He was waiting for confirmation from the main computer that the download had been successful. When he had gotten that, maybe he could catch a couple of hours of sleep before the real serious business was supposed to get underway.

Technically, Sitwell didn't have much to do in the coming days. He only needed to point The Winter Soldier into the right direction and wait for any status reports after the fact. And, of course, he would have to keep Secretary Pierce in the loop before inevitable transport.

The whole mission should be pretty clean-cut. If he'd done his job correctly and the programming stuck, then Winter would be able to overcome any obstacle set in his path. Sitwell could only assume that any and all of Stark's androids would be easily mowed over when met head-on by Winter.

HYDRA had, after all, thrown most of their resources behind only a few androids at a time. Winter had been the most successful and advanced by far. While the others looked equally life-like, they hadn't been fully developed in the ways Winter had been. Not to mention, they were hardly deadly assassins either.

"Download faster, will you?" Sitwell replaced his spectacles back onto his face, so he could observe the computer screen.

The display read seventy-two percent, although it soon ticked up one number and then another. It probably wouldn't have even gone that quickly had it not been for the tech sent to him directly from Secretary Pierce. After all, the slums didn't exactly have the best reception around if it worked period.

Communication was a luxury that not many could afford. For Sitwell it was imperative for him to maintain his business connections with, and now more than ever he needed access to an internet connection that would ready Winter for his long awaited return to action.

Slowly, Sitwell let his eyes wander away to the android in question. Winter had been returned to his default mode. He no longer wore tattered clothes and his hair had been replaced by longer locks. But what was more telling than the combat gear he'd been put into, the dark circles around his eyes, and the long hair was the shiny metal arm by his side.

The earliest prototype for The Longest Winter had been fitted with one metal arm with crimson red star on the bicep. To be honest, it hadn't served any purpose besides intimidation tactics, and well Sitwell had felt nostalgic enough to revive the old design completely.

"Might be a little conspicuous though," he clicked his tongue behind his front teeth. "But hopefully this job won't take very long. For my sake,"

Usually, he didn't talk to himself. He never truly felt lonely per se, but it wouldn't have surprised him that he was finally losing his mind. He'd been on Earth way too long, and he needed to return to civilization as soon as possible.

He really wasn't cut out for living so ruggedly. Sure, he managed to survive while also making plenty of connections. But he certainly didn't like it, and he hated every single moment of poverty that he had to experience because of it.

Once Stark was blown away though, Sitwell figured he would be rewarded handsomely for all these trials and tribulations. He wouldn't have to see another damn cockroach for as long as he lived. And he would be able to breathe in air that wasn't filled with toxins, which probably cut off at least a good five or six years off his life by now.

If he didn't get any accolades from Secretary Pierce for everything endured, well he wouldn't be very happy about it. Maybe he hadn't been such a model employee on the colonies, but he had more than made up for it of late.

"Eighty-four percent," Sitwell grumbled, before he glanced at Winter again.

Winter remained motionless on the workbench. After the latest update had finished downloading, he would reboot automatically and that's when Sitwell would know if he was fully functional or not. He hoped for the love of god that HYDRA's techs had done their job. Because he highly doubted Secretary Pierce would be happy with another delay; he wanted his android back and Sitwell wanted freedom at long last.

The coming minutes seemed to drag on for a damn-near eternity. Those digitized numbers morphed one by one until it finally piqued at ninety-nine percent. Sitwell held his breath in anticipation. He hoped all his hard work over the past few days had paid off in full. He needed them to.

Just when he thought he might die of anticipation, the download blinked to one-hundred percent and the monotone of a female voice resonated in the room in victory. But the voice was soon drowned out by the groan of the workbench when Winter shifted, and he suddenly bolted upright despite being wired into the monitors and computers around him.

Taken aback, Sitwell pushed his stool away and almost careened into a nearby table filled with odds and ends that seemed to overrun his shit-hole of an apartment. His heart had nearly jumped up into his throat as he watched the android as it sat stark still on the workbench.

Slowly, almost agonizingly so, Winter's head turned towards him. His eyes were cold and empty, and they stood out brilliantly against the black paint ringing them. His expression was blank besides a small curl of the lip, which made him look intimidating as hell.

"Soldier, do you understand me?" Sitwell managed not to stutter, although his insides were trembling with fear.

There wasn't any forthcoming response, though. Instead Winter only turned his attention elsewhere, which happened to be the cables that tethered him down. He stared at them for a short period, before he reached up to rip them free from his body with unprecedented strength.

Electrical sparks illuminated the room as Winter dislodged them. Sitwell reeled back and scrambled to his feet to put as much distance between him and Winter as humanly possible. Unfortunately, he didn't have much leeway with all the clutter in the vicinity and the door happened to be on the other end of the room too.

Winter soon freed himself entirely, and he lumbered off the workbench. He towered over Sitwell by several inches, and his bulk was rather impressive. Everything about him struck fear into the pathetic soul that was close enough to him. So in that regard Sitwell had been successful.

"Soldier at ease!" Sitwell found his voice, and he somehow managed to sound authoritative despite feeling anything but that.

That seemed to do the trick. Winter paused and turned his full attention onto him, which only proved to make Sitwell's insides quiver even more. There wasn't any doubt about it – this android was deadly in every way imaginable. Or at least he hoped that was the case if everything went according to plan.

"What is your mission?"

"My mission is to eliminate my target – Anthony E. Stark, better known as Tony Stark." Winter stated blandly, although it wasn't a monotone.

"Under what circumstances?"

"Any means necessary beyond full and total malfunction."

"And who is your handler?" Sitwell swallowed; this was the true test for him.

Winter said nothing initially. He did, however, look at him with what could have been consideration. For all intents and purposes, Winter wasn't entirely mindless; he had some kind of mind of his own. Or in the very least, he could determine things without everything being programmed into him.

"Jasper Sitwell," Winter said. "Temporary handler; permanent handler Secretary Alexander Pierce of Colony I and head of HYDRA Incorporated."

Sitwell let out a relieved breath, although he hadn't let his guard down in its entirety of yet. No matter how advanced an android was, they were still prone to malfunctions. How else had HYDRA's greatest weapon been reduced to playing house with another human being?

It was hard to tell how it happened. No one seemed to have tampered with Winter's programming, so it might have been a natural malfunction. It was really hard to say, although Sitwell supposed it didn't really matter; unless, of course, there was a risk of it happening again.

God, he hoped not.

"Do you remember anything about your former life?" Sitwell asked with an edge of uncertainty.

"Time stamp – October 4th 1400 hours; earliest memory to date."

"What do you go by?"

"Project name – The Longest Winter; rank Soldier, The Winter Soldier."

"What a relief." Sitwell sighed, before he rested a hand over his heart. "You seem to be fully functional, after all."

The android made no abrupt movements, which put Sitwell further at ease. Winter knew he was his temporary handler, and that meant he wouldn't lash out at him unnecessarily if at all. And now that that was established, Sitwell felt secure in crossing the room to where Winter stood.

"First and foremost, you'll need to do surveillance on Stark Tower." He tilted his head towards the door so they could head into the front room where his other computers were up and running. "Unfortunately for us, I couldn't find any blueprints on the structure; I'm sure that was a conscience move on Stark's part, you know since he was pretty much ousted by his business partner fifteen years ago."

As to be expected, there wasn't any reply from Winter. He did, however, follow Sitwell into the next room without any hesitation. He didn't crowd him any and maintained enough of a distance that he wouldn't come off as a threat. Sitwell could have patted himself on the back for a job well done.

"Anyway the why doesn't really matter, what does is that you need to observe the tower for any discrepancies in security. In which case, you'll be able to fulfill your mission and we can get off this shit-hole of a planet." He explained, before he shuffled into a corner of what served as the living room; in order to grab an energy gun built specially for Winter.

The energy gun was painted black and stupidly heavy. Not many people would ever be able to wield it, and it took several tries on Sitwell's part before he managed to hoist it up into his arms. He staggered a few steps, before he was relieved of his burden by Winter who took the gun with ease.

While it was doubtful that Winter needed to be armed right away, it was better safe than sorry. Sitwell couldn't potentially lose him again. He was sure Rumlow and the boys would be sent for his ass then, and he wouldn't be leaving this planet any time soon.

"You should already have the directions to Stark Tower in your database. And you're smart enough to know to keep yourself hidden, and not to do anything irrational."

"Understood,"

"Go on then." Sitwell motioned to the door. "You have a communication device strapped to your right thigh. I expect you to contact me with a status report. Survey the scene, but don't stay there too long. Come back once you've recovered enough data."

"Understood," Winter headed towards the door with silent steps.

"Oh, and one more thing." Sitwell stopped him before he could turn the door knob. "If you happen to come across a man named Steve Rogers, you should take care of him. Shoot to kill,"

With an affirmative, Winter opened the door and he disappeared into the hallway. Sitwell couldn't fight the smile that worked its way onto his lips. He needed to call Secretary Pierce immediately and then he would get some much deserved sleep.

Things were finally looking up for him.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Forty-three :: Loyalty

 


 

 

 

Tony Stark never responded. Nearly four days had past since Thor's altercation with Baldur, and he had yet to speak to the legendary blade runner and brilliant businessman. Thor was equally unsuccessful on contacting Steve Rogers and Barnes and Barton and Coulson. It was as if they had all gone underground.

Certainly, it would be easy for Rogers, Barnes, Barton, and Coulson to disappear. Tony Stark, on the other hand, would have a hell of a time disappearing from the public eye. He was a well-known figure, and even he had to make some kind of an appearance to try and sell his overly expensive androids. So that had to mean that maybe Stark was intentionally avoiding him now.

Thor wasn't necessarily surprised by this potential revelation. Stark never liked him, and well the feeling was mutual to some extent. But even so, it was imperative that he have a sit-down with the man and try to resolve the issue of Ultima Zero before Rogers could.

"Still no answer," someone said from behind him.

"Have you tried Virginia Potts?"

"Her secretary advised us that Miss Potts isn't at liberty to disclose Mr. Stark's whereabouts or business dealings."

"And what's your opinion?" Thor looked back wearily at his assistant Jane.

"Mr. Stark doesn't want you to contact him. He's blocking us every step of the way." Jane looked sympathetic.

That was pretty much apparent at this point. So the issue of Ultima Zero had gotten even more complicated. If Thor had any training on disabling androids, he would be out there scouring the city for his brother. But he knew he'd only get himself killed. He knew Loki wouldn't hesitate to rip him limb from limb.

Even before the Ultima Zero Project, Thor and Loki didn't always quite see eye-to-eye. In fact, they had gotten into as many (if not more) skirmishes as Thor had with Baldur. The only difference was that his fights with Loki were generally more physical in comparison.

They were closer in age; a mere year and a half apart. Baldur was nearly five years their senior, so they frequently relied on one another as children. But once they grew up, Loki had gravitated closer to Baldur since they shared the same sensibility more often than not. And it would be a lie to say that Thor didn't feel excluded from the brotherly bond, and it was why he had thrown himself head-first into becoming a worthy CEO in their father's eye.

He regretted that now. He should have tried to relate to Loki more. Because now it was too late to rectify the problem; Loki was mostly gone, and replaced by a cold-eyed machine, although he would never say anything that blasphemous out loud.

"I could try again later." Jane chimed in with a look of uncertainty on her face. "Or I could try and call the others."

"I don't think you'll have any success, unfortunately."

"The power of persistence,"

"This situation might be too dangerous even for them." Thor pinched the bridge of his nose. "Maybe they've figured out everything already."

Honestly, it wouldn't have been beyond the realm of possibility for any of the runners he had hired to realize how unique Ultima Zero was. He had been around androids all his life, and while Ultima Zero did display some very robotic characteristics; it was clear that he wasn't like the rest of them.

Rogers, more than any of them, had probably drawn to that conclusion right away. After all, the man had been in constant contact with the world's first cyborg. So he would have known, and Thor had stupidly wanted to hire him anyway despite knowing that.

"Mr. Odinson," Jane sighed. "Thor, I know you aren't about to tell me what's going on. But if I knew then maybe I could help you better. You know where my loyalty lies, don't you?"

"I do know that. However, the situation is a lot more complicated than you might think."

"I could kind of tell. It's more than about the company's prized android, isn't it?"

"You've always been astute." Thor dropped his hand from his face, before he turned to face her fully.

Jane had been with the company for six years now. While her ambitions had always leaned towards research and development, she had realized earlier on that she had to work her way into that field. And by becoming Thor's faithful assistant, she was one step closer to working with Dr. Banner; which he quickly realized was her greatest desire, although she would have probably killed to work with Stark more than anyone.

It was probably about time that Thor transferred her to an apprenticeship underneath Banner; although he was reluctant to do so. Mostly because Jane proved to be an effective and an incredibly capable assistant compared to the many he had had in the past. But it was time for that transfer now, well if they still had much of a company after this fiasco.

"There's nothing that you could tell me that would scare me away, you know." Jane declared confidently, which made Thor flinch.

"In this case, I think you'd be mistaken."

"Thor, please. If I can help in any way then let me. Because you aren't getting very far with the tools at your disposal now,"

"So you'd be willing to become a co-conspirator in something highly illegal?" He retorted in a strained tone.

That proved to dampen some of Jane's resolve. No matter how faithful she was to Odinson Corp, Jane would have to have been a fool to want to be pulled into the reality of the situation revolving around Ultima Zero. Because if the authorities ever learned of it, all participants would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law; Thor had no doubt about that.

"I don't understand." Jane looked confused. "I've glossed over the financial records, and everything is clear-cut. There aren't any discrepancies. And even if there were, how would an android fall into that category anyway? Unless, of course, you somehow illegally took blueprints from another company and implemented them into Ultima Zero."

"You're jumping to one conclusion to the next."

"I'm trying to figure out what illegal activity you might be up to."

"And if I tell you then you'll be culpable for knowing." Thor explained. "Well, if you don't go to the proper authorities that is. And I don't think I could let you do that."

There wasn't any doubt about it, his words were meant to be a threat. Whether he cared for Jane or not was irrelevant; he couldn't allow his entire family to be reported to Commissioner Fury. He couldn't let all their hard work and do-diligence to be all for naught.

Jane appeared to be taken aback by what he had said. She even looked marginally betrayed, as if her years of service to the company had been glossed over entirely. But she soon seemed to gain control over herself and looked like the professional that she was.

"I told you where my loyalty lies. There's nothing you can say or do to make me go to the authorities. I promise you that."

"I need that in writing."

"Fine, I'll go to Baldur and ask him to draw up a contract."

"Jane," Thor pinched the bridge of his nose again; he could feel a headache coming on. "I don't have time for this."

"Then tell me, and you'll just have to take my word for it."

"Do you think it would be wise of me to put my whole family in jeopardy just to prove to you that I trust you?"

"No, but," Jane visibly sagged. "But I want to help. I could convince Mr. Stark to somehow answer your calls. I could do something if I knew all the details."

Thor was touched by the sentiment, although he didn't know if it was worth the risk. Loyalty only went so far, and the illegality of what the Odinson family had done was beyond fudging financial reports or even stealing ideas from rival companies. This was a matter between life and death.

As he mulled over what he should do, Jane had taken up the incentive as she was prone to do. She walked up to him and laid a hand on his arm, before she gave it a reassuring squeeze. If anyone in the world was trustworthy it would be Jane. But still, the ramifications of bringing another person into the fold was enough to make Thor's stomach turn.

He cared for Jane. In many ways she had become family. Not to mention his mother had frequently hinted on him perhaps courting Jane and really making her a part of the family. Yet that was only a secondary concern in comparison to the company's well-being, and now trying to track down and bring Ultima Zero back home.

"The severity of the situation is beyond your comprehension."

"There isn't anything in this world that would make me betray you and your family, Thor. I'll continue to repeat that until you believe me."

"You can say that now because you don't know what we've done."

"Then help me to understand; you must have had a reason for it."

"Of course, we did." Thor huffed, before he glanced down at Jane and considered her closely.

If he were to confide in anyone outside of his family dynamic, Thor knew it would be Jane. She had seen him at his worst; she'd seen him minutes after confronting Baldur or when he had to talk to his father. She'd seen him scream at business partners, and schmooze out fake niceties to perspective business connections. And even with seeing how ugly he could be, she stayed faithful all the same.

With an annoyed but resigned grunt, Thor moved away from Jane and went back to his desk that stood in front of the picture windows that overlooked the eroding cityscape. It was a depressing sight; every day it seemed to get worse and worse, and Thor couldn't wait to finally leave once and for all.

He opened one of his desk drawers, and reached in to rifle through a few personal items. There weren't many, and since everything was digitized now there wasn't much in the way of paper. Trees weren't so prevalent anymore anyway, but he still had one or two things on glossy paper.

Slowly he removed a photo, one that he found himself looking at quite often over the years. It didn't evoke many happy memories, though. Not much could do that anymore; not with how dysfunctional his family had always been. Nonetheless it was still a memory worth hanging onto.

"There was three of us." He confessed as he held out the photo to Jane. "Baldur, Loki, and I,"

Jane took the photo almost reluctantly, before she looked down at it. Her eyes widened, no doubt surprised by the sight of a raven-haired man sandwiched between younger versions of him and Baldur. Thor remembered the picture had been taken at some fancy gala event several years before Loki had become mortally ill.

Baldur had been in an especially bad mood that night, although the reason behind it eluded him now with time. He did recall that no one had been thrilled by attending such an extravagant event, however.

"You have another brother?"

"Yes, the youngest." Thor nodded somberly. "He had gotten sick nearly twelve years ago. He was close to death's door, and Mother was obviously inconsolable over the situation. And well, we took matters into our own hands."

The statement hung heavily in the air. Thor didn't know if he could say anything further, though. Because once those words left him, they could never be taken back; the reality would become solid and tangible and the past wouldn't be salvageable. Hell, it never would be though.

"What happened to him?" Jane pressed, probably because she could tell he was hesitating. "What happened to your younger brother, Thor?"

"We," he breathed out shakily, but he made up his mind to confess the ugly truth nevertheless. "We made him into a monster. We made him into Ultima Zero. And Baldur wants him dead."

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Forty-four :: All the Way To the Stars

 


 

Finding two oddly paired blade runners was harder than it seemed. Steve had torn his way from one burrow to the next without any success. It appeared that he didn't run in the same circle with Coulson and Barton despite their vocations, and well no one was willing to talk anyway.

Slum occupants knew when to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. Unless there was a hefty incentive to nark somebody out, then it was otherwise pointless trying to even talk to them. Which meant that Steve had to work his way through the city without any assistance; if Bucky had been there then it would have been a different story altogether. He could get someone talking with a bit of persuasion.

But Bucky wasn't there; he was more than likely tossed out like yesterday's garbage, and the rats were feasting on him now. That visual was enough to fuel Steve onward in fury. He could only focus on that emotion or else he would fall apart after all these years at long last.

So anger had been his go-to emotion for the past several days. It was the only thing that was keeping him remotely sane at the moment. Because if he really started to think about what had happened to Bucky then he would throw himself off the highest skyscraper around; which more than likely was Stark Tower.

That was the last place he wanted to be too. He didn't want to think about anything to do with the tangled mess that was Odinson Corp and Ultima Zero. All of that was a secondary concern in comparison to Bucky. Hell, it meant absolutely nothing to him in reality.

Regardless of his public record, Steve was not the cyborg police. He never wanted to be known for having that specialty. He hadn't even asked to be alive in this century of space colonization and human-like machines that could easily blend into a crowd.

One miscalculation on his part had led to all of this misfortune, and while he had eventually come to peace with everything. Steve didn't exactly feel any less guilty on what had transpired with Peggy. And now he felt equally responsible for what inevitably happened to Bucky as well.

Maybe if he had inserted himself far more readily into Bucky's darker business affairs then he could have prevented his death. But he had stupidly respected Bucky's privacy, and willingly turned a blind eye to all the illegal and dangerous activity he'd been up to.

God, he'd been so stupid. Steve had let Bucky die because he didn't want to kick up any dust. And now what did he have to show for? He had a hover car on its last days and a roach infested apartment to call home. He had nothing; he had no one.

Gritting his teeth, Steve tried to clear his mind. He needed to focus on every face around him, and look for any clue that would help him on locating Coulson and Barton. That was his main incentive at the moment; nothing else could get in the way, including the heavy sadness that threatened to pull him under and keep him there.

Bucky wouldn't want him to become inactive over this. He would have wanted him to fight; he would have wanted Steve to avenge him, especially if two sub par runners had taken him down. And that's exactly what Steve intended on doing. He was going to get answers, and he might do something unfortunate to Coulson and Barton in the process too.

For once, Steve didn't feel like negotiation was an option. He honestly didn't believe that he could reason with either Coulson or Barton. He was too angry, and that anger threatened to turn into something ugly and possibly murderous.

Steve didn't want to think too much into that, though. He had done some regrettable things when it came to Peggy, and he figured that would ultimately be the case when it came to Bucky also. But he would try to avoid any violence if he could; he had to be smart about his conversation with Barton and Coulson, even if he knew how impossible that might prove to be.

"Stop it, Rogers." He muttered under his breath as he wound his way through a series of dank alleyways that would lead onto the main stretch of Hell's Kitchen.

One of the larger street markets could be found in Hell's Kitchen. Steve usually didn't venture this way unless it was absolutely necessary, and Bucky's constant pestering hadn't budged him much in that respect. And now he regretted not coming this way more often with Bucky in tow.

The alleys were nearly abandoned beside the clump of tattered rags that constituted as a bum or two. Steve would have normally offered any of the money in his pockets, but today he couldn't even bother to show any compassion at the moment. Time was of the essence, and he needed to find Barton and Coulson one way or another.

Crisscrossing from one alley to the next, Steve finally broke out onto a populated street. His eyes shot from one point to the next, examining each face that passed him in hopes of recognizing someone. But the farther he walked up the way, the less hope he had to ever tracking down those two bastards.

There was only so many more days, before Bucky's remains became unrecognizable. Or they might already be in a state of decomposition that would mangle his beautiful face into a bloated, black and purple anomaly that would undoubtedly haunt Steve's dreams for the rest of his natural-born life.

He didn't think he could handle it. He'd been through too much already. Another colossal loss like that would only drive him off the deep-end finally. And maybe his pursuit of Coulson and Barton was only delaying the inevitable now – death.

The concept was both terrifying and freeing for Steve. He wasn't supposed to be here, after all. And without Bucky he knew there wasn't any meaning for him to hang around anymore. He already hoisted himself up by the boot straps once before; he couldn't imagine himself doing it again.

Steve was tired, too tired to rebuild an already shattered life. He wasn't built for this century and the constant hardship that accompanied it. There was only so much he could put up with before it became too much, and he was beginning to feel like he was drowning.

It took a concerted effort to halt his macabre thoughts in their tracks. He could have his pity party after he found Coulson and Barton. But for now he had to focus on the goal ahead of him, and that was to find those to slimy assholes and make them pay for what they'd done.

With that at the forefront of his mind, Steve looked harder at every person that walked past him. He paid close attention to hooded figures, and others who wore wide-rimmed hats. Whether their forms were rotund or too short, he observed them critically and accusatorily.

No one even remotely resembled either man. Even when Steve scoured the ever-growing crowd in the street market, he didn't find a balding middle-aged man with a kind face or raucous guy with a broad nose and mischievous eyes. And that revelation seemed to want to revive the unhealthy thoughts inside of him again.

He'd already been searching for days. He couldn't devote his whole life to it. Or rather he didn't want to devote his life to the cause; he was just too damn tired for that. And even anger couldn't fuel someone like Steve Rogers forever; he wasn't equipped to a hold a grudge forever. That was Bucky's expertise.

"Bucky," Steve whispered as his footfall slowed until he stopped entirely in the middle of the chaos of the market.

People jostled around him none too kindly. Some cursed him in languages he never even heard before, which were distinctly of this century. But that didn't make him any closer to moving. Because he was finally struck by the futility of this rat race; he wasn't going to see Bucky again, not even his decomposing body.

Coulson and Barton took the last thing he had. They ripped Bucky away from him to pay back some goddamn favor. And Steve was lost all over again. He was lost and afraid, but at the same time he was also numb.

It wasn't the best place to have an existential crisis in the middle of a busy market. But where else could he have one that would be even remotely acceptable? Where the hell could he break down without inconveniencing someone in some way?

That thought came to an abrupt halt by someone suddenly yanking painfully on his hand, as if the perpetrator wanted to force his arm out of the socket. Now fully alert, Steve tried to jerk away from the assault only to find a dirty-faced child clinging to him with two grubby hands.

Confused, but not entirely surprised by an orphaned child's bid for attention, Steve bent at the waist so he could hear whatever the kid had to say. He didn't have anything of value on him; he was smarter than that, although he had been accused of being naive on several occasions by Bucky in the past.

"I have something for you!" The kid, probably no older than ten, said behind two bucked teeth that were equally dirty as the rest of them was.

"Something for me?" Steve repeated.

The kid bobbed their head up and down, before they released his hand and leaving behind black and brown smudges of god only knew what on his skin. Warily, he watched as the kid rummaged through their tattered rags that constituted as clothing which made Steve's stomach tighten into a knot.

Something had changed along the way for him. His level for compassion had lowered, and what would have been unacceptable a few years ago was now just normal for this environment. Orphans in rags with dirty faces and dirtier hands were to be expected. They roamed the city in packs like animals, and no one really thought twice about it. Steve didn't even that much anymore either.

Eventually, the kid pulled out a hand-held device that Steve knew all too well. It had belonged to Bucky; it was his communication device that they had found third or fourth handed in a shady shop in Queens about a year ago.

"Phil says he's sorry." The kid explained, while they handed it to Steve.

"Phil,"

"Yep,"

"Phil," Steve glanced down at the communication device, before his eyes roamed onto the kid instead. "Do you know where he is now? Did he tell you where he is?"

The kid looked unhappy then. Steve couldn't tell whether it was a boy or a girl; there was just too much filth on it, and its hair was covered up by a cabby's hat which was decorated with holes of varying sizes. The clothes weren't much of a giveaway either.

"Phil's going away."

"Where is he going?"

"All the way to the stars," the kid looked up then, despite there only being buildings and pollution looming overhead.

Steve's whole body threatened to seize up at those words. There was no way that was possible. Coulson and Barton couldn't even afford to repair a damn hover van. While they didn't wear tattered clothes and looked fairly nourished, it still didn't mean they could afford passage to the Colonies.

The Colonies were only for the useful and the elite. They didn't want any slum dogs dirtying up the place. Only types like Stark and the Odinsons would ever be granted passage onto the Colonies. There was no way in hell that was true.

But even with his doubts firmly in place, Steve was brimming with fury again. He never really knew when colony-bound shuttles were launched, but they were infrequent and he knew if he ever wanted the truth that he would have to head over to what used to be JFK Airport to confirm or deny his suspicions. He couldn't just stand here like a fool.

"Thanks, kid." He managed to say in a calmer tone than what he felt, as he turned on his heel and was nearly barreling through the crowd with renewed vigor.

Goddamn Phil Coulson; goddamn him straight to hell. Something told Steve that he wouldn't lie to some poor, malnourished orphan for fun. But there wasn't any way for either him or Barton to pay passage onto a shuttle. Unless that friend of theirs wasn't some lowly slum lord like Steve had assumed all along; maybe the slum lord had ties with someone who could reward those two bastards with an opportunity of a lifetime.

Temporarily forgetting his doom and gloom mood, Steve focused back onto the rage that he felt. And it was the only thing that had gotten him out of the crowd, through the alleyways, and back to Dolores who would probably be as dead as Bucky within the coming weeks at long last. Hell, he might be dead very soon too. But not before Coulson and Barton; oh no, they'd be the first ones to go.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Forty-five :: Dangerous Thought

 


 

 

 

Tony stared into the bottom of his glass. The amber colored substance remained untouched, which was an anomaly when it came to his functioning alcoholism. He couldn't deny that. He knew he coped with past traumas with controlled substances. It the was the only way he could live.

No one could live the life that he did, and come out the other end unscathed. Sure, he was probably leaps and bounds ahead of what a head doctor would have thought him to be. But he still had residual symptoms that wouldn't go away.

There were nightmares for one. Secondly, there were violent impulses that rattled his body from time to time and the only way to shut them up was to drink. So that was why he was holding the finest scotch on Earth in one hand, despite it remaining untouched.

He had a lot to think about. He hadn't let himself do much in that respect, though. Because if he begun to think about things, then he knew he would never stop. And he would definitely be driven to the point of no return at long last.

After all, Tony now knew that the cyborg whose plans to destroy the Odinson family was in fact one of them. The relation hadn't been specifically mentioned, but Tony could take a gander on what role Ultima Zero had played in that family.

It was an easy deduction, really. Some cousin twice removed wouldn't have been worth the risk of life-time imprisonment or death. Which meant that Ultima Zero had been an immediate family member; he had to have been the son of the one-eyed asshole and the poised matriarch of the brood.

"Son of a bitch," Tony ran his unoccupied hand through his hair until it stuck up on end.

Ever since Ultima Zero relayed to him his identity, well Tony had had a hard time coming to terms with it. It damn-near haunted his dreams to know that an entire family would willingly turn their loved one into a cyborg. And they were still determined to keep him that way too.

In terms of the business agreement that he had come to with the Odinson family, Ultima Zero was to be brought to them without any withstanding harm done to him. No one had mentioned anything about retirement. No one had even uttered the word, which led him to believe that they intended on keeping Ultima Zero locked up in some laboratory for however long that they could.

It was hard to tell how long a cyborg could sustain. There was probably some middle ground in between man and machine. But the likelihood that Ultima Zero could outlast his family was significantly high, and well he'd probably be passed down the line like some kind of macabre heirloom.

Or he would be if Tony wasn't determined to step in and resolve the situation. He couldn't bow out now; he knew too much, and his own desire to exact revenge was minimal in comparison to actually helping the poor soul that had been experimented on into the dead-eyed creature that ghosted through his lab at all hours of the night.

Ultima Zero didn't sleep. Not from what he could tell anyway. He seemed to be up at all hours of the night. Sometimes he wandered from one end of the lab to the other. Sometimes he observed Tony's work benches with mild interest. But otherwise, he didn't outwardly do much. Tony suspected much of his internal contemplation revolved around plotting out how to infiltrate Odinson Corp, though.

Finally bringing the glass to his lips, Tony took a small drink of the scotch he'd poured nearly twenty minutes earlier. It'd been significantly watered down, although he didn't mind it all that much. He didn't really feel like getting drunk right now.

What he should have done was to go back down to the R & D department and have a conversation with the residential cyborg. But there was something terrifying about that prospect. Ultima Zero both fascinated him and frightened him, and now he downright pitied him too. And Tony suspected that that wouldn't have been well-received either.

"What the hell am I going to do?" He bemoaned as he now dragged his hand down the center of his face, until it dropped off his chin and fell limply into his lap. "Maybe I should talk to Pepper. Or maybe I should just mosey on down to Fury's office with my hands in cuffs instead."

Whether he wanted to confide in Pepper or not, Tony knew he wouldn't. He wasn't about to get her involved in something like this. He'd already put her on the butcher's block too many times to count, and well he wasn't going to talk to Fury either; he just hoped Rogers wouldn't go to him either.

So far the police hadn't barged into his tower, which led him to believe that Rogers was otherwise occupied. He didn't know what had happened to Rogers's partner. But something told him that it might be far more important than turning Tony in or taking possession of Ultima Zero now.

At least that was one less worry for him, yet there were still so many more. Tony didn't even know where to begin. It seemed almost counterproductive to try and sit down Ultima Zero for a heart to heart. However, his options were pretty limited and he couldn't really just wallow in contemplation forever either.

"Fuck it," he muttered, before tossing back the rest of his drink in one swallow.

Placing his glass onto the low-standing table beside him, Tony got to his feet and shook his arms out as if rearing for a fight. It really wasn't that far from the truth, though. He had to talk to Ultima Zero, and he suspected that the conversation would be an unwelcome one for the cyborg.

Regardless, it still needed to be discussed. They needed to find some kind of common ground. Not to mention, they also had to have a solid, unshakable plan on how they intended on breaking into Odinson Corp, as opposed to the flippant plans that they had formulated of late.

More than ever, Tony needed to have a well thought-out plan if they intended on destroying Odinson Corp. Hell, in all truthfulness the company's demise was only secondary (heading lower down) on his list in comparison to making the Odinson family pay for turning their own child into a cyborg.

Without any outward hesitation, Tony crossed the sleek living room towards the elevator on the far end of the wall. His footfall rang loudly throughout the vicinity, and he had a distinct realization that there wasn't anything homey about his abode in any shape or form. Everything was sterile and clinical, as if he tried to eliminate any creatures comforts around him.

It was probably an extension of his previous traumas. Nothing was guaranteed in life; his trust was fairly limited too. Tony had once been naive to a fault, and Obadiah had taken advantaged of him in every way imaginable. He had taken him for everything that he had, and he tried more times than he could count to kill on top of that as well.

The memory made his lips lift grimly in a smile, as he pressed the down button beside the elevator. It took half a second for the doors to roll open, and he stepped into the compartment for the short ride to the R & D floor.

" How could I be of assistance to you, Mr. Stark?"

"Take me to the R & D department, J."

"It would be my pleasure." JARVIS said in a genial way, before the doors slid closed and the lift began to descend several floors down.

Tony didn't try to converse any with his AI. His mind had wandered off, and he was soon consumed with disbelief about the situation he was in once more. How he'd gotten wrangled into such a mess was beyond him still. But he supposed his ego was ultimately to blame in this instance.

He should have known better, though. When he'd been presented with the opportunity to speak to Thor Odinson, he should have told Pepper to tell them to fuck off. And yet, he allowed both his ego and his desire to please Pepper to dictate his actions; which now brought him to this very moment, where the lift eventually jerked underfoot and the doors rolled open to reveal the dark laboratory ahead of him.

Curling his hand reflexively into fists, he stepped out onto the floor and watched as the overhead lights turned on row by row until the space was illuminated in a harsh, clean fluorescent glow that was nearly blinding in their intensity. Tony had to squint for a moment until his eyes adjusted, and that's when he saw Ultima Zero bent over one of his work benches with Edwin laid out in front of him.

"What the hell are you doing?" He blurted out in a tone that bordered on accusatory.

The cyborg barely lifted his eyes to regard Tony, before he began to tinker with some piece of hardware that he obviously taken from Edwin. Edwin was powered down and slack, and for a heart-stopping moment, Tony was convinced that Ultima Zero had broken him beyond repair.

Even if his fears weren't confirmed, Tony strode across the room although he didn't know what he intended on doing once he reached Ultima Zero. There wasn't any way a physical altercation would work in his favor, especially when he was unharmed. Ultima Zero wouldn't have a problem with tearing him limb from limb if you really wanted to.

"I asked you a question!" He raised his voice. "What the hell are you doing to my android?"

"Repairs," Ultima Zero retorted as he continued to work with deliberate hands. "Despite what your favorite android has done in terms of updates, her knowledge is limited at best."

That exclamation had Tony slowing to a stop several feet away from the work bench. He didn't know what to say or even think for that matter. Of course, the man that Ultima Zero had once been had to have had quite a bit of knowledge on computer technology and engineering in order to create such a complex extension of Tanaka's cyborg project. But he never suspected that he might want to flex that muscle any with all things considering.

"He's an old model but he's made of quality materials, you know."

"Besides his lack of battery longevity and that grating voice," Ultima Zero said, sounding somehow unimpressed.

"Hey, Odinson Corp's androids aren't any better."

"Not by my doing, rest assured."

"Budgetary restrictions then," Tony snorted, before he crossed the distance between him and the cyborg to see what kind of repairs he was actually doing.

On first glance, it was impossible to say what Ultima Zero was working on. Soon though it became abundantly clear that he was actually working on Edwin's voice box that looked nearly as ancient as the tech that the senior Stark had had at his disposal. Tony didn't even remember why he had elected to use such outdated tech for the job.

Wordlessly, he watched as Ultima Zero worked. His hands moved fluidly but cautiously, which was a stark contrast in which Natasha happened to work with. But the difference between the two of them was massive – Natasha was a machine and Ultima Zero was only half-machine, after all.

"I think that box is older than me." Tony joked dryly. "You might want to throw it out and start fresh I have-"

"All of your androids speak with a monotone."

"Yeah, but Odinson Corp-"

"You're only as good as the materials at your disposal." Ultima Zero glanced up at him, and Tony swore there was a tinge of annoyance to his expression. "I can fix this."

They stared at one another for quite some time, before Ultima Zero looked down once more. Tony felt a weird shudder wrack his body, although he didn't know why. He didn't want to bode on it any since he already figured it had to do with the terrifying prospect of what Ultima Zero was.

Anyone in their right mind would be frightened by a cyborg. People had been exposed to the brutality that Peggy Carter had caused, and well no one would actively seek out the company of something so volatile and violent if they could help it.

Tony had always been quirky, though. He knew fear all too well, yet he never let it hold him back like he should have. Which was precisely why, he turned away and grabbed a nearby stool and pulled it back towards the work bench so he could watch Ultima Zero work on a problem he had yet to fix on his own.

It remained to be seen if Ultima Zero could actually resolve the problem, but Tony's curiosity was certainly piqued by his apparent confidence. Hell, it was damn-near cocky of him to think he could outsmart Tony's genius, and that always proved to be a point of amusement for him.

"You're pretty sure of yourself."

"I created the anomaly that I am now. I think I can fix a simple sound issue."

"I'm considered a genius, you know."

"I'm far from stupid, Stark." Ultima Zero lifted the voice box to eye level to examine it, before he took up a screwdriver to disassemble it probably for the umpteenth time since he had extracted it from Edwin's body.

"So am I. Because believe it or not, I already figured out who you are; you know despite all that vague, enigmatic crap you were pulling days ago." Tony blurted out.

That drew out an unlikely response from the cyborg. Tony didn't believe it at first. It happened so quickly that it could have been a mind-trick. But he had heard it, and it shocked him and unsettled him more than anything had so far up to this point.

Ultima Zero had laughed. It had been an abrupt, disjointed noise that had barely formed before it died away just as quickly as it had come into fruition. Tony had to believe that he probably hadn't laughed genuinely, if at all, ever since he'd been manipulated from man to cyborg.

"I knew you were smart, Stark." Ultima Zero said.

"I never heard of a third Odinson brother."

"And I suppose you never will."

"What's your name?" Tony asked without a thought against the contrary, which drew out that noise from the cyborg again.

"Technically, I don't have a name. I have a project name, and I have a tendency to be called by that which, of course, is Ultima Zero."

"Well, what was your name beforehand? Your human name,"

"Some things," Ultima Zero looked up again. "Are too precious to give away, and I've already been stripped away of too much. That name is mine and mine alone."

Without any further explanation, Ultima Zero focused on the task at hand. Tony didn't prod him either; he knew when to keep his mouth shut, despite what so many people believed otherwise. He also realized that he respected Ultima Zero's decision to keep his name to himself. Everything else had been taken from him, and he at least deserved one thing for himself.

Lifting his gaze, Tony studied Ultima Zero underneath the harsh overhead lighting. The cyborg had aquiline features, almost regal in their sharpness. He was handsome, and he probably would have been more so if there had been any color to speak of in his face. But no one nowadays had any color; the sun never shone beyond the sheet of pollution in the atmosphere.

That was just a way of life, although Tony found himself wondering how Ultima Zero would have looked with color and a genuine smile on his face. It was a dangerous thought, and yet he couldn't reel in the desire. Distantly, he knew it wasn't normal but he didn't really care. In the end though, he would.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Forty-six :: The Star-Lord

 


 

 

The highly sophisticated space-craft stood at the end of the cracked tarmac. It looked displaced in such a corroded environment. Hell, Clint even felt dirty by gaping at it from afar. He didn't have any business being anywhere near something that expensive, and yet he'd be flying in it soon enough.

"I think I'm dreaming." He mumbled underneath his breath, before he dropped his gaze in order to look at the electronic ticket on his elderly mobile device.

Sure enough the information remained etched on the screen. It wasn't a figment of his imagination, which meant that something good had finally happened to him. He was going to get off this dying planet, after all. He actually had a chance.

Being forty-one years old, Clint had figured he was bound to die in the slums. He'd been born in them, raised in them, and it only seemed likely that he'd never see anything different. Because he didn't have the pedigree that would elevate him any higher than the dirty streets, no matter how hard and honest he worked; he was destined for poverty.

Once he realized the futility of his situation, it happened pretty early on, Clint had taken some underhanded approaches to how he conducted his business. He didn't see any reason to be a good person, and well he hadn't expected it to pay off in the end either. But it had and he wasn't about to bite the hand that fed him.

While his conscience was mostly clear about it, Phil was on another side of the spectrum. They hadn't discussed it much since Phil had chosen to contact Rogers, but the weight of his decision had loomed over the two of them nonetheless. Clint supposed he should feel some kind of guilt, but he really didn't. And it was kind of surprising that Phil felt any at all too.

He supposed the difference between the two of them was that Phil had a heart. He'd experienced some kind of love and affection before everything had gone to hell during the 'droid attacks. Phil had had a family and he hadn't been all that bad off either. So maybe deep-down he could sympathize with someone like Rogers who already lost everything, and well Clint was kind of envious of that raw level of humanity.

That wasn't to say that he was entirely heartless. If he had been, he probably would have stopped Phil on contacting Rogers in the first place. But at the end of the day, he respected Phil even if he couldn't really relate with all his soft and mushy feelings that had recently surfaced inside of him.

"Ready to get out of here?" Clint looked over at Phil, who'd also been staring in awe at the space-craft.

"I'm ready as I'll ever be." Phil said in a low tone, although there was an obvious hints of relief and excitement in it.

Reaching out, Clint patted his partner's shoulder with his free hand; before he started down the runway towards the space-craft. There weren't many people mulling around. Most of them were obviously the flight staff, although some were passengers bedecked in well-tailored clothing. None of them had the worn-down, slummy look to them as him and Phil did.

It would be an interesting flight to say the least. He'd never been confined in close quarters with the rich and privileged, and he suspected they'd never been around slum rats either. So everyone was bound to have a good time for the next twenty hours.

"I don't know how I feel about this." Phil kept in step with him as they walked, despite the reluctance in his voice.

"Don't start on me again, Phil. We've already exhausted this conversation; it's finished and done."

"I wish we'd gotten this opportunity another way, though."

"Yeah, well we didn't." Clint sighed exasperatedly. "I kind of get your guilt, but more often than not I don't. And there's no point on trying to figure it out; you're going to feel what you're going to feel even if there isn't a reason behind it."

Phil didn't reply, which he supposed was for the best. They could argue and get all philosophical when they were space bound. Then it wouldn't really matter; neither of them could flip a switch and decide to stay behind out of some kind of misplaced martyrdom.

They hadn't done anything wrong. Hell, they hadn't even intentionally destroyed Sitwell's van. It had been a series of misfortunate events that led them to total it, and they had to pay Sitwell back one way or another. They'd been doing the right thing by agreeing to the errand; they were clearing their debts, and they just happened to be rewarded for it in the end.

Anyway how were they supposed to know Barnes was an android? And when they became privy to that information, what else were they supposed to do with it? They couldn't leave him out on the streets to possibly malfunction and go on some kind of rampage. So they were technically doing everyone a favor by disabling him and taking him to Sitwell.

Sure, Rogers would be alone but he didn't know Barnes was an android either. They'd done him a solid too, even if he hardly seemed convinced of it. But that really wasn't their problem. Rogers would survive one way or another; he was resilient.

Anyone who could move on after their fianceé had been turned into a cyborg, who then went on a killing spree, only to be captured and dissected in the end; could probably survive anything. Rogers had been through worse by far. So losing his best buddy wasn't all that tragic in the long-run.

"Think on the bright side, will you? We're going to have a chance to really live now." Clint spoke up again. "Not many people get this opportunity, Phil. Don't squander it away because you feel guilty, do you hear me?"

"Loud and clear,"

"But do you really hear me?"

"Clint, I hear you. I'm going to make the best of it. I already made all the amends that I could." Phil admitted much to his relief.

At least he wouldn't have to worry about Phil not getting on the space-craft now. He had to admit the thought crossed his mind once or twice, and while he would have gotten on regardless; he definitely wouldn't have been happy to go without his partner.

Phil was more than his business partner, after all. He was also his friend; the only friend he had, and they'd spent years together. They might have been complete opposites, but they worked well together and they got one another. And it would have been a damn tragedy to leave the guy behind.

Soon enough, they had walked up the tarmac to where the space-craft loomed above them. It was even more impressive up close, and the flight staff were equally so. They were well-dressed in their work uniforms; immaculate pressed trousers and skirts, and crisp white button-downs with the name of the company stitched over their right breast: Infinity & Beyond Space Travel.

The captain was a man in his early thirties with an easy smile. Even with his apparent wealth, he didn't seem anything but cordial and warm when they stopped in front of him. And well, Clint had expected a nasty reaction to his ratty clothes, and the dirty, threadbare backpack that hung from his shoulders with all his earthly possessions in it.

"Hello, there." The captain greeted them. "How could we be of service to you?"

"Uh, so we have tickets for this flight." Clint held out his mobile device to the captain.

The captain glanced down at the device, before he gingerly took it and handed it to a beautiful dark-skinned woman beside him. She had another device in her hand, which she used to scan his with and soon produced an agreeable beeping sound.

"Thank you, Gamora." The captain took Clint's mobile device back, and then passed it to him. "You're all set. Welcome aboard the Star-Lord."

Phil soon handed over his own electronic boarding pass, and he too was given clearance to board the Star-Lord as well. They both thanked the woman named Gamora, and the captain, whose name was pinned underneath the logo on his shirt, Peter Quill.

They boarded the space-craft and found their seats pretty quickly. The Star-Lord wasn't a large ship by any stretch of the imagination, and really there wasn't any use for an oversized one with all things considering. Not many people could afford to go back and forth from the Colonies and Earth, unless they were loaded to the gills.

Clint sunk easily into his nicely cushioned seat beside the window. His whole body screamed in pleasure; he'd never sat in something so comfortable in his whole life, and he wondered if he'd ever sit in something like it again. But he supposed once was good enough for him.

"This is actually happening." Phil said, once he too got situated in his seat.

"Good riddance to this place."

"I don't even know what we'll do next. What kind of work can we even get on the colonies?"

"Sitwell will be there; he'll help us out. And even if he doesn't, we'll figure something out. We're both resourceful, Phil." Clint shrugged dismissively, and turned to look out the window that framed the ugly landscape of the city.

Within twenty minutes, the last passengers and the flight staff boarded the space-craft. Once everyone had gotten situated and properly buckled into their seats, Captain Quill's voice resonated from the cock-pit that their flight would take them to Colony III, and that their estimated time of arrival would be in nearly eighteen hours; dependent, of course, on flight conditions.

Relief slowly washed over Clint as he slouched further in his seat. He stretched out his legs as much as he could, and he looked out the window again onto the only home he'd ever known. But he didn't feel any sense of nostalgia about it; he was ready to go, and he never wanted to see it ever again.

Today was the first day of the rest of his life, and he wouldn't waste it. He'd work his ass off and make a life for himself worthy of pride. He was determined and excited to see what the colonies would afford him, and he knew it wouldn't be anywhere near as difficult as living in the slums had been. So he wasn't scared at all.

The space-craft gradually came to life with a low hum, and it started to move around them. It moved with deliberate ease, and they were soon headed down the tarmac and past the homely building that served as the flight port. And that's when Clint saw it...

It was a surreal moment, far more so than being colony-bound even. Flying haphazardly onto the tarmac was an old beat-up hover vehicle; it was nearly impossible to see who was behind the wheel from his vantage point, but Clint knew right away who it was and his heart leapt up into his throat.

"Captain Quill, we have a problem." Gamora said from her position in between the passenger seating and the cockpit. "There's a hover vehicle headed directly towards us."

Whatever the captain had to say was lost to Clint, though. His eyes were glued to the hover vehicle and how it was headed straight towards them. He couldn't believe this; it was unfathomable, and yet Rogers was accelerating right for the Star-Lord.

Phil soon leaned over him with a shocked gasp. But it was nothing compared to the screams of panic that cut through the space-craft when the hover vehicle slammed full-force into them, and jostled all of them in their seats.

Captain Quill audibly cursed, which was followed shortly by the sound of the engines whirling louder than beforehand. It was obvious that he was trying to escape any other collision from Rogers, although they were soon hit a second time that almost sent them into a tail-spin.

"He's fucking crazy!" Clint yelled, before he shot Phil an accusatory look. "You just had to tell him, didn't you?!"

"I never thought he'd do something so stupid!" Phil hollered back, as they were struck again but without as much force.

Despite the hits that the Star-Lord had been struck with, Captain Quill had somehow accelerated enough to get them off the ground. But Clint had to hand it to Rogers, he was fucking persistent and still managed to get another hit in all the same; before Captain Quill hit something that sent them forward at an unreachable speed at long last.

Clint was forced back into his seat almost painfully. He heard several more screams, followed shortly by Gamora trying to calm everyone down. And that was when he dared to look out the window once more, and saw the ground rapidly falling further and further away from them.

His final look at Earth was seeing the old piece of shit hover car drop unceremoniously to the tarmac, before Steve Rogers clambered out of the driver's seat with the ugliest look on his face imaginable. Even from that far away, he knew he had murder on his mind and he wouldn't think twice about killing him and Phil both.

They were lucky they'd gotten away when they did, because something told Clint they would have ended up six feet under otherwise.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Forty-seven :: Dolores's Final Ride

 


 

 

Stupid decisions led to stupid consequences. Steve had known that when he'd chosen to ram Dolores half a dozen times into an impenetrable space-craft. But that hadn't stopped him at all; he'd been blinded by desperation and hatred, and common sense had taken a backseat in the end.

It was quite miraculous that Dolores had gotten him back to Brooklyn at all, before she was struck by death throes. She rocked and rattled more than she normally did, before dropping hard onto the warped asphalt of the alleyway that Steve always parked her in.

The impact jarred him pretty severely, and he groaned in pain after his head hit the roof; although he soon forgot about the pain, once he realized what was happening to his faithful hover vehicle. And while he'd already assumed she was on her way to the garbage pile, he'd only sped up the process with his idiocy.

Planting a hand onto the dashboard, Steve whispered out a protest. Some way and some how he had hoped that the likely outcome wouldn't actually transpire. He didn't know what he'd do without Dolores, especially now that all hope was lost on trying to find Bucky.

"Please, please," he begged desperately. "Don't die on me yet; come on!"

Despite all the begging in the world, Steve already knew Dolores time was officially up. The moans and groans of her engine only became louder and with a sudden convulsion, the hover vehicle made its final curtain call.

It was almost anti-climatic, and for several moments it didn't seem like it was real. One second Dolores was in functioning enough order, and the next she was deader than a door nail. And all Steve could do was sit there dumbly behind the wheel, too shocked to do anything else.

He'd known it had been Dolores's last ride when he tried to stop the space-craft, but the reality was crueler than he ever imagined it to be. It was another loss in a series of too many in his very long life, and he honestly couldn't take it anymore. Coulson and Barton had gotten away with the knowledge of what had happened to Bucky, and he'd never get it out of them now.

Bucky was probably already dead and gone. Dolores was dead and now a useless piece of scrap metal. So where did that leave him? Where did he go from here? And honestly could he even move beyond another devastating blow like the one he'd been doled?

The answer was a resounding no. No, he could not pull himself up by the boot straps and start over again. It nearly killed him to do it the last time. But there was no way in hell he could put one foot in front of the other, and try to create some semblance of a life for himself for the second time around.

It was over; it was all over finally.

Steve let out a hoarse, almost hysterical laugh. He'd been so angry only an hour beforehand; he'd been damn near homicidal. He'd seriously gone to what remained of JFK airport to throttle both Coulson and Barton. He hadn't had any alternative plan, which had led him to trying to knock that stupid space-craft out of the sky.

God only knew how he'd gotten away with it either. Security had been lax, and before anyone had gotten onto the tarmac; he'd been gunning Dolores's engine and he had gotten away. But even if he had gotten taken into custody, it didn't matter. His life was done for anyway.

His laughter only grew a tenfold at that thought. His whole body rocked from the force of it, and he couldn't pinpoint why exactly. Why was it so funny that he was abandoned in a century so unlike his own? Why was it funny to have loved and lost two times in a row?

"I'm cursed!" He blurted out in between laughs.

There wasn't a better explanation for his circumstances, really. He'd been a normal, every day type of a guy. He'd served in the military for six years, was honorably discharged, and he had met a woman who'd been a published author and came from a well to-do English family. He'd been a fucking civil servant after his stint with the army.

They'd been planning to adopt a dog. Steve remembered how they'd been mid-conversation about that very topic, before everything changed. Peggy had wanted a rough collie like Lassie, although the likelihood they would have found one at the pound was debatable. So they'd figured maybe they'd get two dogs; one from the pound, one from a breeder. And within a blink of the eye, all of their plans had been cut short by a freak accident.

Steve's life had been destroyed by this new century. All his hopes and dreams had been dashed with what those bastards had done to Peggy. And finally when he thought he could build something legitimate with another person again, it had been stripped away from him too.

It wasn't fair. What had he done to deserve any of this misfortune? He'd paid his taxes, he had donated to charity; hell, he'd donated his time to soup kitchens whenever he could. But still he'd been hit by one tragedy after another.

His hysterics soon evolved from simple laughter to something far more violent. Sadness really couldn't hold back his anger anymore. It burst out of him like a blast of energy, fast and powerful. His hand slapped hard against the dashboard, before both ended up on the steering wheel and began to beat it with enough force to shake the entire vehicle.

"It isn't fair!" Steve yelled, while he struck anything within reach; he honestly didn't care if he broke anything at this point.

Dolores was already beyond repair. He'd never make enough money to make her fully functional again. Hell, he really didn't want that anyway. Because he'd dead soon enough; he wasn't going to stick around for another day when all he loved had been taken away from him already.

Spurred by another wave of anger, Steve threw his hands upward and started to pound like a madman on the car's roof. He highly doubted that he could break through it, even with the horrible state the vehicle was in. But it didn't mean he didn't put all his strength behind it anyway.

He wanted all of this to end. He wanted the sadness, despondency, and the desperation to go away. He didn't want to do this anymore. He couldn't do it anymore; he was broken beyond repair. Without Bucky he had no one; he had nothing to fight for, and his only chance to find him had been obliterated as soon as that space-craft shot off into the sky.

Screams soon turned to ugly sobs, and the energy behind Steve's fury dissipated. He couldn't remember the last time he'd allowed himself to cry. It seemed unlikely that he'd even gotten a chance to mourn over Peggy properly. And now it rushed out of him loud and uninhibited and unrestrained.

He missed her so much; the smell of her, the warmth of her – everything. They were supposed to live a cookie cutter life with one another. They were supposed to die old and gray in their bed together. This was never supposed to happen to them.

Hot tears rolled down Steve's cheeks in an endless stream. He dropped his forehead to the steering wheel, and let all his pent-up misery out. His body shook with each sob, although every one his muscles soon seized up when someone rapped on the driver side window abruptly.

Flustered by the unexpected interruption, Steve's head jerked up and he hurriedly wiped at his face although the evidence of his nervous breakdown was hardly concealed by it. He knew from when he was a child that he was an ugly crier, and his eyes were bound to be puffy and red.

Warily, he looked at the person behind the knocking and was unsurprised to see it was no one that he knew. What's more, the individual didn't look like he belonged anywhere near the slums. He was too nicely dressed, and he hardly looked malnourished either. If anything he looked too healthy.

For several pointed moments, the two of them exchanged looks. The stranger looked pleasant and unperturbed by the state Steve was in. But Steve was far from pleased by the interruption; he was finally beginning to understand that not all people's intentions were good, no matter how they spun a tale. And he really wanted some time alone to mourn both Peggy and Bucky without an audience.

Eventually, the stranger motioned for Steve to put down the window. He didn't do so right away, though. He felt too vulnerable at the moment to be confident in his ability to defend himself. However, he realized how silly that was since he didn't really want to live another second longer anyhow.

At least the button to roll down the window was still operational; although after the button had initially been touched, it took a while to actually go down with a rattle and a groan. Once it did though, the stranger rested his arm on Dolores's roof and leaned in partially.

"Couldn't help but notice your smoking hover car here," the stranger smiled to reveal a gap between his perfectly white teeth. "This is kind of a relic from the past; I'm surprised it's doing much of anything nowadays."

"Yeah, well it could actually fly until an hour ago." Steve responded miserably.

The smile that had graced the stranger's face slipped away, replaced by a sympathetic look instead. Steve couldn't remember the last time he saw genuine sympathy on anyone's face in this century. Most people didn't care much about the troubles of others, so this was unprecedented. Of course, unless this was some kind of tactic on the stranger's part to hoodwink him.

"I didn't mean to impose." The stranger leaned back a little. "I saw the smoke and heard the noise, so I thought maybe someone might have been in trouble."

"Have you looked around you? Everyone's in trouble here; it's just a matter of what degree."

"I've noticed, yeah."

"I'm fine; everything's fine." Steve swiped a hand over his face again.

No one would have been convinced by his tone. He honestly didn't care if the other man believed him or not. Nothing really mattered to him now. He was tired of this; he was ready to check out after an overdue stay.

"I'm sorry, man. If there's anything that I can do to help, I'm more than happy to." The stranger offered.

"You aren't from around here, are you?"

"I was trying to be inconspicuous; I guess I failed."

"Checking up on people unprovoked is pretty rare, you know." Steve sniffed. "Not to mention you're wearing clothes without any holes or discoloration in them."

The stranger glanced down at his clothing; he looked sheepish as if he hadn't realized his wardrobe was far too nice to be considered normal. He definitely didn't blend in very well at all. He was lucky he hadn't been held up for whatever valuables he undoubtedly had on him at the moment.

Looking away, Steve suddenly caught sight of his hands. Somehow amid his nervous breakdown, he'd busted his knuckles. The skin was already beginning to swell, although he couldn't feel any pain right now. Or he didn't feel any physical pain; his emotional pain was still firmly intact.

"You caught me. I'm a long way from home."

"That makes two of us." He muttered under his breath.

"I'm actually here from Colony I." The stranger lowered his voice, before leaning inward just in case there was anyone lurking. "I work for SHIELD."

The mention of that particular organization drew Steve's undivided attention then. Commissioner Fury had spoken about SHIELD to him before. When he'd been so far up his ass in trying to recruit him, Fury had explained of a sector of the police force that worked solely in the colonies.

Had he played his cards right, Fury had said Steve might have had an opportunity to relocate. He never took that as anything but lip service, though. After all, why wouldn't Fury have gone to the colonies himself then? Why stay on a planet full of poverty and disease and hopelessness?

"From your reaction, I guess you've heard of it." The stranger smiled once more.

"Not all the ins and outs of it, but I've heard of it."

"Anyway, I was sent down here to investigate some cat named Jasper Sitwell. Shady as hell, who happens to be on Secretary Alexander Pierce's payroll. But he's been down on Earth for seven odd years for some unknown reason."

"And so you're talking to the locals to see if we've seen him." Steve concluded blandly.

The stranger bobbed his head, while he glanced around the alley. When he was certain that they were still alone, he pulled on a professional face so unlike what it had been only moments ago. He was clearly a guy that shouldn't be crossed.

"We've been keeping an eye on Secretary Pierce. But there isn't really anything incriminating going on with his finances or anything." He explained. "He does have some connections to well-known criminals like Johann Schmidt, although we have yet to pin either of them down. And well, my superiors realized a funny happening with Pierce's bank account recently – he bought two boarding passes for Colony III for some reason. And they were registered to two bit-time blade runners."

"Coulson and Barton," Steve nearly spat at the information.

"I totally missed them before they got the hell out of here." The stranger frowned. "Anyway, they were only a means to an end. I'm sure my colleagues will be waiting for them on Colony III and interrogate them until they get Sitwell's location out of them."

Shifting through his memories, Steve tried to remember what Coulson had said to him on the phone. He'd spoken about repaying a favor to a contact of his, who happened to be the owner of the hover van that Bucky helped destroy. But Coulson hadn't mentioned anyone by name.

"I'll help you find me." Steve looked up at the other man.

"Excuse me?"

"This Sitwell guy, I'll help you find him."

"You'd do that?" The stranger looked surprised. "I mean I'm grateful and all, but not many people have been exactly helpful around here. Unless you expect me to pay you or something,"

Steve shook his head dismissively, before he reached down to unfasten his seat belt. Money never meant much to him; he'd only wanted it for the necessities but never for any luxury items. Bucky had cared about niceties, but never him.

"I don't need money." He looked back up at the stranger. "But I have a serious suspicion this Sitwell guy knows what happened to my best friend. And he's probably the reason why he's dead now."

The stranger looked alarmed, but he quickly backpedaled when Steve pushed open the driver side door. He didn't even bother to roll the window back up. He didn't try to pocket any odds or ends that were nestled in between the seats or strewn messily on the floorboards. Because there wasn't anything of value in Dolores's cab; the only valuable that he had had already been taken away from him potentially by this Sitwell character.

Climbing out of the car and slamming the door shut brutally, Steve studied the SHIELD agent closer than he had before. He looked personable enough, although there was a sharp edge to him that could probably be deadly if push came to shove. He didn't trust him, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to try to all the same.

"Well, I can use all the help I can." The stranger held out his hand. "Sam Wilson,"

"Steve Rogers," he took Sam's hand and shook it.

"That sounds familiar. Either way it's a pleasure, Steve Rogers; let's go and track down a bad guy."

"The pleasure's all mine," Steve slipped his hand free, before he clenched it into a tight fist.

Jasper Sitwell better have hidden himself somewhere deep in the city. Because Steve would find him and confront him unlike Coulson and Barton, and whether Sam was there or not – he would kill him for what he did to Bucky.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Forty-eight :: Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark

 


 

 

The Soldier was in stand-by mode. He had been for several hours now as he observed the structure ahead of him. Stark Tower appeared to be an impenetrable fortress; not only because of the materials it had been constructed of, but also because of the security system that had been developed by the man behind the name.

There were very few individuals allowed into the tower. It appeared as if they were subjected to several checkpoints that seemed to have included retinal and fingerprint scans. It also seemed feasible that facial recognition software was also used in order to keep the sole occupant of the tower safe and sound.

From the data available to him, the Soldier regarded Stark's paranoia as well-warranted. Stark had been involved in a controversy fifteen years prior, in which he had been actively hunted by androids that he had created with his own two hands. So the security measures put into place currently were understandable.

And that would prove to be an obstacle for him to complete his mission. However, his sole purpose was only to eliminate Tony Stark and whoever stood in his way. His personal well-being was irrelevant. He hadn't been programmed otherwise, and self-preservation was a foreign concept to him. Mission completion was the thing that mattered above all else.

For now though, the Soldier was only meant to retrieve intel. It seemed unlikely that he would have enough in order to strike of yet. He would first have to learn how to disable the security system, which would undoubtedly be a complicated feat but not entirely impossible.

His database was loaded with an infinite knowledge on computer programming. He knew how to disable some complicated systems. He could hack into many rather simply, although Stark's was probably far more sophisticated than any he had information about.

However, the likelihood that he possessed the basic ground-work for Stark's security system was feasible. Stark had to have started somewhere like any computer programmer did, and while he probably fashioned his systems with a personal flare; he had to have common knowledge of intermediate coding to use as a launching pad for his own.

Until then, the Soldier would sit and wait to collect any data that he could. Unfortunately, nothing was wholly forthcoming. Very few people entered or exited Stark Tower, despite it being the hub of many job opportunities.

There was probably another location that Stark Industries operated, although that was of little value to him. The Soldier was supposed to remain within sight of where Tony Stark was, and unless he moved elsewhere; the other details were irrelevant. Especially since it was highly doubtful that Stark's personal security system extended towards an off-site location. It would have been too risky.

Hackers were commonplace nowadays. Some were better than others, but even the feeble ones could cause a breach in security if they tried hard enough. The Soldier knew this simply because he'd been programmed to know. Everything he knew was selected by whomever was in charge of him, in which case happened to be Jasper Sitwell for the time being.

His loyalty didn't extend any further than that. He only did what Sitwell wanted of him. He wouldn't re-mobilize until he had some sort of information to take back to him. Of course, that could ultimately change if Sitwell communicated otherwise. It was unlikely, though.

While he scorned the vicinity without pause, the Soldier noticed movement below. The main entrance glided open to reveal a willowy red-haired woman. She was dressed smartly in a gray pant suit with her hair pulled back into a severe bun. She was traditionally beautiful by human standards.

The Soldier's facial recognition software identified her as Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark. She was the former wife of Tony Stark, and the current CEO of Stark Industries. She was bound to have access to every nook and cranny of the tower, and obviously Stark himself.

Switching out of stand-by mode, the Soldier shifted his weight for the first time in hours. He was wet from the drizzle of rain that had transpired an hour prior, yet it didn't bother him regardless of his ability to feel it on his synthetic skin.

He moved towards the edge of the building in which he stood, and followed Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark's movements. She had made her way to a sleek hover vehicle pulled up to the curb. Its door opened automatically to her, and she slipped into the backseat without any difficulty.

The vehicle was piloted by a stocky man with ruddy cheeks, and who was dressed in a suit. The Soldier soon learned he was an employee of Stark Industries by the name of Harold "Happy" Hogan. He had worked with the company for nearly ten years now, and he apparently served as Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark's personal driver.

The Soldier watched intently as the hover vehicle lifted from off the ground. That's when he decided of his own accord, even in the face of his direct and very specific orders, to follow the vehicle. He knew he would have to be elevated higher than he currently was to follow the vehicle's progression.

So he quickly spun about and started to run towards the building beside the one he'd taken refuge on. Unlike the medium sized structure he'd been on, the one next door was taller and when he leapt off the ledge; he had to dig his fingers into the brick and scale the side of it.

There wasn't any physical exertion. His movements were fluid and mechanical. He dug his fingers into the brick with enough force to penetrate it, and he climbed without any hesitation. His functionality was impeccable, and within minutes he had made it to the abandoned rooftop.

The hover vehicle was within clear view. Harold "Happy" Hogan was talking animatedly to Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark, although the latter seemed far more reserved in comparison. There wasn't any other vehicles in their way, which could explain why the flight seemed leisurely and unhurried. It was an advantage for him.

Bounding across the width of the rooftop, the Soldier took a running leap to end up on the next one. His momentum took him halfway across the blacktop, where he pivoted his feet in order to grind to a halt. He had outrun the hover vehicle for the time being, which (again) gave him the advantage and one he would take the opportunity to use.

Maybe this wasn't what Sitwell had wanted of him, however the opportunity proved to be too fertile to bypass. Information was what he needed, and Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark was the key to much of what he needed to know in order to eliminate his target. It only made sense to use this moment to accomplish his mission.

Striding towards the end of the roof, the Soldier observed the hover vehicle drawing closer. It was still flying leisurely amid the skyscrapers; its occupants were unaware of how much of a fatal mistake that would inevitably end up being for them.

The Soldier balanced onto the ledge; his eyes followed the vehicle's progression. His CPU analyzed the distance, velocity, and point of impact if and when he chose to attack. The probability that his weight would cause the hover vehicle to malfunction was at eighty-two percent. It was a risk worth taking though, so long as he tried to lessen the blow by how he fell. Or better yet, he could grab onto the end of the vehicle lessening the likelihood of malfunction by nearly forty percent.

After several moments, the hover vehicle flew by the mark in which would guarantee him the best outcome. The Soldier leapt from his perch; the free-fall only lasted a matter of seconds, before he grabbed onto the bumper that let out an agonized groan.

Unsurprisingly, the additional weight of his body unbalanced the vehicle. The back dipped exaggeratedly while the front lurched upward. Someone screamed in confusion from within the vehicle; it was easy to deduce that it was Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark. Harold "Happy" Hogan sounded equally flustered, however he was too busy trying to pilot the vehicle to actually panic outright.

The Soldier remained attached to the bumper, even while the vehicle picked up speed in a lame attempt to right itself. He knew that they'd undoubtedly land, in order to analysis what could potentially be the problem. Because he was also aware of the fact that he was likely unseen by either human, even when he jumped from the building they'd passed by.

For some time, he dangled dangerously above the dirty city streets. The bumper groaned with the promise of detaching itself from the vehicle in due time. But it was sturdy enough to hold him still, even while Harold "Happy" Hogan piloted them faster to their predestined location.

Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark resided no more than fifteen miles away from Stark Tower. The building in which she lived was nondescript. It was neither extravagant nor dilapidated; no one would have even guessed that someone of her status lived there, which was probably the reason why she did.

The vehicle managed to ascend quite a few feet despite his added weight, and they were soon above the launch pad on the rooftop. The Soldier only released his hold when the toes of his boots scuffed against the blacktop, and he did so in a way that wouldn't send the vehicle into a tail-spin and give him away.

Once his feet were planted firmly onto solid ground, the Soldier took several steps backwards before he reached for the archaic weapon strapped to his right thigh. This wasn't a weapon of the laser variety; this one was old and required bullets. And it was manufactured to kill human beings.

Raising the gun, he waited until Harold "Happy" Hogan exited the vehicle. He looked befuddled by what had happened during their flight, but he soon looked more terrified in comparison when he laid his eyes on the Soldier.

"Wow, buddy; I don't want any problems!" Harold "Happy" Hogan exclaimed, before the Soldier pulled the trigger once, twice, and finally a third time.

The bullets burst out of the barrel, each finding their mark. They ravaged Harold "Happy" Hogan, and caused his body to jerk and convulse from their impact; spraying bits of blood and brain matter onto the blacktop, before he too fell to the ground in his death throes.

A shrill, horrified scream resounded from Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark. Her words were garbled behind metal and anguish, although the Soldier heard her call out for her fallen employee over and over again. And yet it did no good; Harold "Happy" Hogan was already dead.

Tilting his head to the side, the Soldier watched the blood trickle from the entrance wounds and soil the blacktop. The human's eyes remained open, wide and shocked but ultimately unseeing. Similarly to powered down machines, the energy had been sucked out of Harold "Happy" Hogan; but the biggest difference was that he wouldn't reboot any time soon. Death was final.

Once the commodity and curiosity wore away, the Soldier turned his sights onto the distressed woman still in the hover vehicle. He raised the gun again, before he walked up to the door and nearly ripped it off its hinges as he opened it. And that seemed to be the cause for Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark to scream even louder than she had done previously.

"Out," he demanded, although it sounded non-threatening in reality.

"You killed him! Why did you kill him?!" Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark hollered hysterically.

"Out, now,"

"Why would you do that?" She sobbed as she shifted her weight across the seat, while also raising her hands in submission.

The Soldier kept the gun's barrel on Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark, even as she exited the vehicle. He knew she was unarmed, and the probability rate of her overpowering him was non-existent. But she could run still, and her rate of success increased a margin in that instance.

Tears spilled down her flushed cheeks, as she spied a look at her dead employee. She choked on another cry, before she turned her eyes back onto him. The Soldier could see her body tremble violently from fear, even though he hadn't any intention on killing her of yet. After all, she was the easiest path to Tony Stark.

"Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark," he enunciated. "You are the current CEO of Stark Industries. You also are the former wife of the owner Anthony E. Stark. You have access to the building; your fingerprints, DNA, retinas, and facial structure are stored within the security system's database. Your clearance level is one step below Tony Stark's."

"Who are you?" Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark asked in abject horror. "What are you? And what do you want with me?"

"That information is classified."

"You're not human; you can't be."

"Classified," the Soldier repeated, before he jerked the gun sideways towards the door that led into the building. "You will assist me, Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark. If you fail to do so, you will be killed like Harold "Happy" Hogan."

Her bottom lip visibly quivered, before she started towards the door with both hands still raised. The Soldier followed her and leveled the barrel between her shoulder blades. If she attempted to flee, he would disable her immediately.

When they reached the door, Virginia "Pepper" Potts-Stark pressed her right hand to the screen beside the doorknob. The lock clicked and the door popped open, permitting them access to the vicinity.

"You won't get away with this. Tony won't let you." She curled her hand around the doorknob and yanked on it, and revealed the interior of the building. "He'll come for you. And I swear to god, he will kill you."

"I will look forward to that." The Soldier replied and pressed the barrel into her back.

They entered the building, and the planning phase began soon thereafter.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Forty-nine :: Fascination & Curiosity

 


 

 

Tony's eyes lingered unnecessarily. He couldn't pinpoint why exactly, although he had a sneaking suspicion and the morbidity behind it made his skin crawl. Because the implication was beyond either healthy or normal, even when he took into account that pleasure bots had been a hot commodity on the market not even twenty years ago.

The difference between a pleasure bot and Ultima Zero were vast, however. One was made for the specific purpose to be used in a carnal way, whereas the latter was formerly human with a mind of his own. And the prospect of fornicating with a cyborg should have been far more terrifying than taking a piece of machinery to bed.

Shaking his head to rid himself of those disturbing thoughts, Tony instead tried to focus on the numbers in front of him. The updated quarterly report had been sent his way by Pepper, and those were the numbers she was taking with her to Colony I.

The trip had been scheduled for the best time in his opinion. At least any qualms Tony had about assisting Ultima Zero, which were few to begin with, were squashed now that Pepper would be out of the line of fire. She would be light-years away, and escorted by Rhodey who wouldn't let anything happen to her. Which freed Tony to do some dangerous, not-too-smart things in order to infiltrate Odinson Corp's headquarters.

But for now, all those plans were at a hypothetical stage. Ultima Zero hadn't been too enthusiastic to throw himself into the fray of yet, and Tony appreciated that. He wanted a deeper understanding of the security detail and the overall layout of the place, before they carried out their ploy.

More than that though, he wasn't entirely sold on the cover story that Ultima Zero had concocted. He knew it would probably work; after all, the Odinsons were probably on pins and needles with any news of Ultima Zero's capture. Still, it seemed only too simple to drag Ultima Zero to the front door and to start prowling around for the missing piece of data that would expose the company for their illegal practices.

"Maybe the simplest plans are the best ones." He mumbled under his breath, before he drew his attention from the screen in front of him and back towards the cyborg in his company.

Ultima Zero was currently bent over a workbench. He'd been tinkering with Edwin for days now, determined to update him by leaps and bounds. And well, Tony didn't see any reason to stop him. So long as he wasn't plotting to destroy him then he could tinker with the old android as much as he wanted to.

The only problem with that was that Tony was getting used to someone else's presence again. While he couldn't really call it camaraderie, Ultima Zero proved to fill in a hole that Tony really didn't notice was present in his life.

Natasha had helped keep any loneliness at bay. But she was still only a machine, whose responses could only go so far. Whereas Ultima Zero had the capability to converse freely without any hiccups in programming. He had been human at one point, after all.

"How's it going over there?" Tony asked, as his eyes took in the arch of the cyborg's back.

Ultima Zero didn't respond immediately. He seemed fully engaged with the task at hand, although he did eventually lift his head and looked over at Tony. His face was blank, which wasn't anything unusual.

"I imagine I'll be done soon."

"Well, I'm on the edge of my seat to see what you've been up to. You know, if you actually know what you're doing." Tony glanced away long enough to banish the screen in front of him. "And I'm sure Nat will want to see how superior you are to her own functions."

Speaking of Natasha, Tony glimpsed towards her from across the laboratory. She was currently in the docking station, since Ultima Zero had yet to relay any information on the battery packs that would bypass such inconveniences at long last.

That seemed like a secondary concern now, though. There were far more pressing things to worry about, and well Tony also had to combat the funny way in which he had started to look at Ultima Zero. And it was a definitely a cause for concern.

Tony couldn't really remember the last time he'd been intimate with anyone. He knew it must have been with Pepper, although it wasn't any time in the past few weeks. They might have loved one another, but their relationship wasn't anywhere near a marriage anymore. And neither of them had deemed it necessary to continue the physical aspect of it, unless the urge was all-encompassing, which it rarely was.

So maybe his fascination with Ultima Zero had more to do with his celibacy. He intrigued Tony like no one else could because he was unlike anyone else. Ultima Zero was a cyborg, and Tony wanted to know how he functioned and what parts of him constituted as a machine and what did not.

Fascination, that was all it was. He had always been curious about things; that's why he ended up as an inventor and engineer. Sure, his old man had played a role in his interests. But curiosity happened to be an inherited trait passed down by generation to generation. And this situation couldn't be that vastly different than his desire to see how any machine happened to work.

He only wished that Ultima Zero would willingly offer him a glimpse into the inner workings of the project that made him into a cyborg. Because for all intents and purposes, the man Ultima Zero had once been had obviously improved on the methods used in Tanaka's cyborg project.

"Finished," Ultima Zero righted himself slowly after his declaration, before he pressed a button in order to reboot Edwin.

Tony's wandering thoughts drew to an abrupt halt, and he pushed himself onto his feet when the telltale signs of power thrummed through his beloved, old android. He walked up to the workbench, quickly mesmerized by the proceedings.

Only when Edwin's eyes opened, did Tony realize he'd been holding his breath. He frequently was on the edge of his seat whenever he attempted to fix an obvious flaw in any of his inventions. And well, it clearly extended towards someone else's work when it came to his creations too.

He wondered how skilled Ultima Zero was. He had to be incredibly intelligent for all intents and purposes. So maybe he had corrected that damned monotone, or in Edwin's case, the grating drawl that could make someone's ears bleed from listening to it.

"Hey there, Edwin." Tony crossed his arms over his chest, while the android slowly pushed himself into an upright position. "How are you feeling?"

Edwin opened his mouth, as if to work out the kinks in his jaw. He even raised a hand to rub at it, before he shifted his attention onto Tony. But his eyes moved just as quickly towards Ultima Zero who'd been in the middle of wiping the oil off of his pale, long fingers.

"I feel rather invigorated if I do say so myself." Edwin said in a smooth, cultured voice; in a human voice. "I hope my movements aren't so laborious like they were beforehand. Quite an unpleasant business to be slower than a tortoise,"

"Tortoise,"

"An extinct reptile," Ultima Zero explained, even though Tony must have heard about them in his studies when he was a boy. "Legend had it that they were very slow."

Tony mulled over that for a few seconds, before his attention was back on Edwin. Ultima Zero had done it; he had fixed that pesky glitch that he couldn't overcome despite all his efforts. He felt equal parts impressed and annoyed by this revelation.

Not many people could best him in the engineering field. He was a genius, after all. But maybe Ultima Zero had been one as a human too. He had said Odinson Corp's problems stemmed from the budget placed on their R & D department, instead of their workforce. And that seemed to hold some weight with this newest development.

"While my vocals have been vastly improved, unfortunately my battery life has not. I require immediate docking, lest I power off once more." Edwin pushed himself off the workbench, already having his sights focused onto where Natasha was already charging.

Tony saw no reason to dissuade him. Edwin had always been an independent thinker in his own respect, so Tony didn't have any reason to expect he'd charge himself without any help. And if he did need some assistance, well he was there for a reason. But for now, he wanted to have a conversation with Ultima Zero.

Despite his eyes boring into the cyborg, Ultima Zero seemed unwilling to actually acknowledge him. Instead, he continued to wipe at his hands until nothing remained but a slight flush from the rough material being grazed across it over and over again.

"Odinson Corp really underutilized you. I mean if you can fix something I can't, well that is pretty impressive."

"I think that has already been well-established."

"Mind writing up your solution? I'd like to see what I've been missing for so long."

"If I must." Ultima Zero almost sounded annoyed, as he tossed the soiled rag onto the workbench.

Neither of them spoke after that, although they did make eye contact when Ultima Zero turned around. Tony felt a chill run down his spine; he probably always would feel that sensation whenever he looked at him. Because Ultima Zero was the textbook definition of an abomination, and yet he made that unusual curiosity (maybe attraction) rise to the surface inside of Tony all too easily.

In truthfulness, even if Tony felt something akin to attraction to Ultima Zero; it wasn't a bad thing per se. He thought Natasha was attractive. Hell, he had thought Little Hill was one of the prettiest things he'd ever made. So appreciating someone or some thing's beauty, cyborg or not, wasn't that weird. And yet he really didn't want to feel it either.

Curiosity was better; wanting to know how Ultima Zero ticked was best. But even he couldn't deny the low simmer in the pit of his stomach, whenever he appreciated the cyborg's lithe, powerful body. And that face was something chiseled out of the tall, dark, and handsome category.

"Ever going to teach me about the portable battery backups?" Tony blurted out, in order to break the weird tension that started to build in between him and Ultima Zero.

"Yes, of course."

"And then we should really bang out this infiltration plan of yours afterwards."

"I would like to orchestrate said plans by the end of the week." Ultima Zero's lips nearly quirked.

Tony's heart practically skipped a beat. That was too soon; that would only leave them six days to agree to a plan. And all they had so far was a flimsy cover story. They needed more time to come up with something better, something iron-clad even.

"What's the rush?" He blurted out, which caused Ultima Zero to tilt his head at that awkward, obviously inhuman angle of his. "I need more time than that!"

"They want me, Tony Stark. Rest assured, you will not be harmed in this exchange."

"That's not what I'm worried about necessarily. I mean I am, but-"

"I will ensure your safety." Ultima Zero righted his head, before he moved languidly towards Tony until he had breached the distance between them. "And you will have your revenge against Odinson Corp at long last, Tony Stark. Even before you'll retire me; I promise you that."

Whatever Tony wanted to say died in his throat. He had almost forgotten about that. He had promised to retire Ultima Zero after everything was said and done. Once all the data on the Ultima Zero Project went live, it was up to him to kill Ultima Zero before Fury or any other government official got a hold of him.

It honestly shouldn't have disturbed him as it did. He had retired plenty of androids. Hell, he had done away with Obadiah in a violent, unmentionable fashion. So retiring Ultima Zero would be a piece of cake. It would be the humane thing to do. And yet he was dreading it now.

Staring up into the cyborg's emerald colored eyes, Tony felt his hands go sweaty. He didn't have any reason to feel this way. He barely spoke to this dangerous creature. But something foul was twisting up his insides, and the low simmer of desire seemed to roil in his stomach even more than before.

"Your heart rate has picked up." Ultima Zero observed. "Do you fear me, Tony Stark? Rather do you still fear me, even though I've proven myself harmless towards you and yours?"

"Well, technically that's not true. You kind of fucked up Natasha."

"Minor damage,"

"Shouldn't I be scared of you?" Tony tried to subtly wipe his palms onto the back of his jeans.

This time around, a sly smirk bloomed onto Ultima Zero's lips. He looked nearly human, which only seemed to exacerbate that desire in Tony's stomach. They were close enough to touch. If Tony were bold, he could pop up onto his tip-toes and brush his mouth along those thin, wicked lips.

"That's all you should feel. Remember that." Ultima Zero stepped away then, before he turned on his heel and moved away from Tony.

Even devoid of his presence, Tony could feel the crackle of electricity in the space where Ultima Zero once stood. His heart was hammering in his chest, and he knew that he was in terrible trouble. He needed to get a hold of himself or this was bound to blow up in his face.

Curiosity was fine; curiosity was good. Lust, desire, and sexual attraction was bad. He repeated this in his head like a mantra, while he looked towards the docking station in which both his androids were plugged in and looked peaceful but so much more inhuman than they should have. But they were nothing in comparison to Ultima Zero.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifty :: The Wealthy and the Weak

 


 

 

"You've always been so maudlin. Even as a child," an unexpected voice declared into the heavy silence.

Baldur glanced away temporarily from the figures on the holographic screen in front of him. His hand remained poised in mid-signature, although he didn't continue. He was equal parts curious and annoyed by the disruption, and he would have preferred for his meddlesome family to leave him alone already.

"Introspective is a better word for it." He replied evenly. "But that is neither here nor there. What do I owe this surprise visit to, Mother?"

"Can't I speak to my eldest born without a reason?" Frigga gathered up her sea-foam colored skirts, and walked across the room to stand in front of him.

That definitely wasn't the case. His mother hadn't been one for idle chit-chat since Loki's failing health and inevitable reanimation into a cyborg. And she most certainly was not the doting mother towards either him or Thor as she had once been. That time had long since passed.

Whatever maternal instinct she had towards them had been extinguished a long time ago. Baldur couldn't recall a time when she had actively sought him out in his office either. There hadn't been a reason to, albeit he had a inkling on why she was here now.

Smiling bitterly, Baldur tossed the stylus in his possession onto his tidied desktop and crossed his arms over his chest. He leaned back in his chair, while trying to convey that he was in no way fooled by her insincerity. Nothing mattered to any of them beyond Loki; it had been that way for eleven years already.

"Now don't insult my intelligence, Mother. You aren't here to catch up with me. You're here for any information you can gather on our ongoing problem."

"Mind yourself; he's your brother."

"Semantics,"

"No, Baldur it is not semantics. He is your brother; he isn't some faulty piece of machinery that escaped the laboratory. He is your flesh and blood." Frigga nearly snarled at him.

Of course, it would have proven to be absurd and wasteful to argue that point for the umpteenth time. His mother would always been of the opinion that Loki was somewhere in that monstrosity that was Ultima Zero. But he was by far more realistic in comparison; he knew the truth. Whether anyone wanted to see it was another story altogether. And he already knew they would rather remain blissfully ignorant to reality.

"Why are you here? I have quite a bit of work on my plate to handle. It isn't going away regardless of other matters. In fact, it's only grown since this whole disaster started."

"I want to know about everything. Thor will not give me any further information than what everyone already knows. I demand to know, Baldur."

"There aren't any new revelations, unfortunately." Baldur shrugged nonchalantly. "I haven't heard from any of the employed blade runners for a while now. Maybe Thor has, but he certainly isn't going to relay any of that information to me."

By the grimace his mother made, Baldur could tell she was observing the bruises on his face that Thor had left behind after their last encounter. He had made a point to avoid Thor at all costs after that. He didn't seen any reason to poke a sleeping lion any further than he already had.

Even with his recent revelation, he still felt some sense of self-preservation. Baldur didn't know how exact his visions were, but he would bet that he was onto something. It was rather grim to say the least. But all things in this world were colored black nowadays. So honestly it wasn't much of a surprise in the grand scheme of things.

"Baldur, why must you be so disagreeable all the time? Why have you chosen such an ugly stance?" Frigga despaired as she lowered herself into the seat across from Baldur's desk. "I know you've always had your disagreements with Thor, but we should be banding together as a family. We should be doing what is best for Loki."

"Now, now, Mother," Baldur clucked his tongue. "You know that is a point of contention between us as well. And I'm growing weary of this conversation more and more. Because we will never have the same opinion of what is right for what you consider Loki,"

"I don't consider him Loki. He is Loki."

"Again, we've had this conversation. You aren't going to change my mind no matter how hard you push. And I most certainly won't change yours."

"You've never were so heartless before." Frigga shook her head in obvious hopelessness. "You weren't raised to be this way."

Baldur bit the inside of his cheek. He knew when to hold his temper; even with Odin being absent in much of the business and family matters, he still wouldn't hesitate to do something drastic if he felt his beloved wife was being mistreated by her sons. And he knew he wouldn't be able to control himself if he were to open up entirely.

Things were rapidly coming to a head. Bad tidings were about to come to play, and he supposed his limited temper was unraveling at the ends now more than ever. What's worse, he couldn't say a damn thing to prevent it. He couldn't step in front of a fully loaded barrel to change fate. Fate wasn't interchangeable.

Honestly though, Baldur didn't want to change what was probably going to ensure anyway. He wanted to see the end of eleven years of torment. He wanted nothing less to be at some kind of resolution already.

"I might be heartless, possibly maudlin, but rest assured I'm not stupid. I'd say I'm rather brilliant, Mother." He lifted his eyes to stare at the haunting beauty that his mother still possessed regardless of her age. "I dare say I might have always been the brightest of your children even. After all, I could see how impossibly foolish it would have been if I chose to become the CEO of Odinson Corp; I saw that Thor was far more equipped to handle those duties than me. I was never blinded by my ego.

"I also knew without a shadow of a doubt that launching the Ultima Zero Project was a mistake. Perhaps you saw it as your only way to save a beloved child, but Mother you ceased to see the moral dilemma and the legal ramifications of doing so. And no one can deny that grief causes one to lose their mind. But you have unwittingly fated us to a destiny that we cannot escape now.

"Every day of agony that Loki, or what was left of him, has experienced has been needless. We've hurt him by our selfishness; we've committed atrocities because we never wanted our perfect lives to shatter. We've used our privilege, our wealth, and our entitlement to create something both illegal and immoral. And it's because we're inherently weak."

Frigga opened her mouth to speak, but she said nothing in the end. Baldur knew that he had potentially hit a touchy spot. He had been hoping to, of course. He'd been trying to find the underbelly of his Mother's irrationality for years now. And maybe he had finally found it at long last.

"We are not weak."

"Wealth has made us so." He laughed bitingly, as he uncrossed his arms. "Look outside this citadel we've built for ourselves, Mother. The world beyond is infected by death and misery. When one of those people living in the slums grows ill, they die. They don't get a selfish opportunity to live or save a loved one. They die and they die painfully.

"They lose loved ones every day. They lose them to disease and starvation. They lose them to violence and desolation. But we couldn't let that happen to us. We're better than them, after all. We are the Odinsons; we have a dynasty to think of."

"I don't feel that way at all!"

"Oh, Mother," Baldur sighed. "Be grateful that you live in this tower. Because if you were to ever venture out into the slums, you'd never survive. The real world would chew you up and spit you out in a matter of minutes."

Those words barely left his mouth, before a burst of pain erupted across his face. The loud and abrupt smack of his mother's palm against his bruised skin made him cringe. She had moved so quickly that he couldn't have prepared himself for the hit even if he wanted to. His eyes screwed up for a few moments until they slid open again to witness anger and sorrow on his mother's face.

When weren't those two emotions in close connection with one another on her face nowadays? And how frequently had he caused them? Probably more than he would like to admit to, but he knew he was making his mother see the truth at long last.

"You are a cruel boy. You are cruel and vulgar, and the sight of you makes me sick."

"Good," Baldur said slowly, while he touched his already bruised skin that was heated and stinging. "At least maybe you'll get a reflection of the truth finally. And if you still refuse to see the truth, I'm not to blame for it. You are; so take the responsibility for what's about to happen, Mother. Because when it happens, my words will seem flowery to you in comparison,"

"What on earth are you talking about?"

"These, Mother, these," he motioned wildly around the upper half of his face. "Have you ever wondered why I have such ghastly eyes? I'm sure you have; they aren't very pleasant to look at, after all."

"They're a birth defect, that's all."

"Birth defect, really?"

"Stop speaking in rhymes and riddles already! That's enough!" Frigga demanded, although there was a touch of fear in her voice; Baldur didn't miss it either.

Would it be that far-fetched to believe that research had been done on his supposed birth defect? The family company was based around technology; they lived in a century of profound intelligence. There would be no way that Odin would have allowed a simple birth defect to be overlooked in his first born. He would have wanted answers; both him and Frigga would have.

"I have a hypothesis." Baldur pointed at his mother then. "I believe you have heard of the old wives' tales about supposed seers. I think you and Odin have believed them to be absurd. I believed that no less myself. But I've had an epiphany several days ago, and something tells me it isn't some inner realization either. I think I've seen what fate has in store for all of us. And it isn't very pretty."

"I don't want to hear this! I don't want to hear any of this madness, Baldur!" Frigga leapt to her feet rather abruptly. "You are sick; you say the rest of us are, but you are the one who is!"

"Oh, I have no doubt about that! I am very sick, and I'm growing sicker by the day! Because I know the truth, the whole ugly and miserable truth! And god help us all, Mother. We are going to be on the receiving end of something so vicious and nasty that you wouldn't believe it whether I warned you or not."

"People create their own fates. Mark my word,"

"Death, misery, and gloom that is all there is for us. We've avoided it for years and years, and guess what? Death has finally found us, and we're all going to Hell." He leaned with a snarl.

The severity of his tone made his mother visibly cower. He could see now how terrified she really was. Maybe she had always had the sense of impending doom because of the Ultima Zero Project. And with Ultima Zero's grand escape, perhaps she was had realized they were in grave trouble that even the family fortune couldn't help them out of.

It was about time that reality begun to sink in. Ultima Zero had escaped for a purpose unknown to them, but he had been more than willing to kill people to stay free. He wouldn't come back without a bloody fight; it had proven impossible to apprehend him up to this point. So the only way to neutralize the threat was to eliminate it. But the damage had already been done.

"Ultima Zero isn't our dirty little secret anymore. He is out there somewhere, and he has murdered people. He obviously overwrote the missing androids' programming as well to make them hostile, and they too have done some heinous things." Baldur conveyed evenly, managing to restrain himself again. "If you're still under the delusion that the Ultima Zero Project was a smart thing to do, well I envy your ignorance."

Frigga made a choked sound, as she clutched tightly onto her skirts. Her elegant disposition had been replaced by messiness instead. Baldur knew his words had struck her; they had finally hit their mark after eleven tireless years of trying and failing.

They stared at one another, a world apart it seemed. Baldur knew something unequivocally changed between them. They'd always been on separate ends of the situation, but now the chasm had grown bigger and wider, and the hostility had somehow ceased.

His mother was resigned and scared. But she wasn't only frightened about Ultima Zero's fate, she was afraid of Baldur as well. She was afraid of what he knew; maybe it was unsubstantiated by actual physical proof, but there was a heavy truth to what he had seen, and she knew that. She might very well be superstitious, after all.

"This doesn't end here. Not for any of us, Loki included." Frigga tried to sound confident, but it fell short. "I promise you that."

"I know what I've seen."

"I don't care what you've seen!"

"Yes, you do." Baldur turned his eyes away to glance at the information on the holographic screen. "You won't be able to deny that soon enough."

Without further ado, Frigga turned on her heel and nearly strode across the office to get away from him. He watched his mother with a sense of numbness. He had somehow succeeded on opening her eyes, although he didn't know what that would entail now.

The only certainty was that Ultima Zero wouldn't come willingly back into their possession. Even with the likes of Steve Rogers on the case, Baldur already knew the outcome. It would be ugly and bloody, and the destruction would ruin them all.

 

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifty-one :: Colony III

 


 

 

Space travel was equal parts fascinating and exhausting. But even more than that, the flight to Colony III had been a nerve-wracking experiencing with how much potential damage had been done to the Star-Lord during take off. Phil suspected he might have very well developed a hernia during that period of time too.

No one could have predicted that someone as even tempered as Steve Rogers would have done something so reckless. Certainly his distress was relatable, but Phil couldn't have imagined that he would have tried to take down a space craft in order to get to him and Clint.

Clint had been equally shaken as everyone on board had been. Unfortunately, the numerous hours in-transit had also opened up a well of indignation and finger-pointing from him as well. Clint had berated him for his stupid bleeding heart on contacting Rogers in the first place. And in some ways Phil fully agreed with him.

Maybe he shouldn't have gotten involved in Rogers's affairs. He and Clint had only done what was necessary to repay their debt to Sitwell. The otherworldly details around the repayment really had nothing to do with them anyway.

Barnes's android status had been a shock, but that hadn't had anything to do with them. Sitwell hadn't offered them any further explanation either. Neither Phil nor Clint knew how Barnes was an android or even how he managed to live without constant maintenance. Hell, they didn't even know who exactly Sitwell worked for on top of that.

There were plenty of unknowns, and they were equally in the dark about them as Rogers. But the only difference was that Rogers didn't believe the possibility that Barnes had been an android. He believed that they, probably more specifically Clint, had killed Barnes out of spite.

So their lives, alongside so many, had been put into jeopardy by Rogers's erratic behavior. Phil could honestly understand grief better than he'd preferred to admit to. That, however, did not condone what could have ultimately happened to the innocent victims of the attack.

It had been quite the miracle that the Star-Lord had been stable enough to keep them space bound. Sure, the first hour or so had been questionable; but the engines were working well enough to get them to their destination without too many complications.

Captain Quill had been both professional and humorous throughout the whole ordeal. The banter had eased some of Phil's anxiety, although the chance of impending doom had been at the forefront of his mind until he was absolutely certain that they wouldn't fall perilously through space.

"You do realize this is all your fucking fault, right?" Clint snapped for the umpteenth time in so many hours of their voyage. "We could have been killed."

"I think we've already gone over culpability. And I've apologized; how was I supposed to know that Rogers was that unhinged?"

"Uh, you got to figure he would be. The guy's from the twenty-first century; his girlfriend was turned into a goddamn cyborg and went on a killing rampage. And now there's laws in place so that bullshit doesn't happen again. He's the purest definition of unhinged!" Clint motioned widely with his hands.

Of course, now with all the details lined up in place, Phil could see why Rogers had broken so apparently. It had probably only been a matter of time before he'd gone off the deep-end. Rogers was the quintessential man out of time; he had suffered a huge atrocity, which probably eclipsed Phil's own loss.

So really it shouldn't have been all that surprising that Rogers would try to kill them. They had unwittingly taken away Rogers only sense of family and normality, and Phil had tried to persuade him into thinking that Barnes was an android. All of which would have driven a well-adjusted man into desperation, let alone one of Rogers's caliber.

"I was convinced I was doing the right thing; the decent thing." Phil sighed, while he glanced around the flight compartment. "I've done enough bad that I figured one good deed would clear me of any guilt."

"For fuck's sake, it doesn't work that way. Phil, you aren't some shitty guy. You have nothing to prove to anyone including yourself. So stop with the martyr bullshit already."

"Well, stop making me feel guilty. You know I wouldn't have said anything to Rogers if I knew he'd try and ram us out of the sky."

"Son of a bitch," Clint muttered under his breath, although Phil heard him crystal clear. "We're both in the wrong, okay. You were in the wrong for telling that crazy fuck about Barnes. And I'm in the wrong for blaming you over what Rogers tried to do."

It was a rarity to have Clint admit any fault. Not that Phil believed he saw himself as perfect, that was far from the truth; but it was because Clint usually lacked any sort of moral compass. He'd been running the streets since he was a kid. He'd been exposed to the worst and seediest of neighborhoods in the slums, which would essentially make anyone's morals a little skewed.

"Thank you, I appreciate that."

"Don't expect it to happen again. Besides, I'm still going to remember this anyway."

"Yeah, yeah," Phil breathed out heavily; it was the best he could ask for with all things considering.

No matter if Clint forgave him, Phil knew he'd carry the burden of guilt about his role in the matter. He might not have been the direct cause, but he had played a significant part in it all the same. He could have been a factor in not only his own death, but the deaths of everyone on board the Star-Lord; and he didn't take that realization lightly.

Fortunately for him, nothing catastrophic had transpired. They were very lucky in that respect, and soon they would be able to put all that nasty business behind them. They'd be on Colony III at long last, and from there they'd have to try a carve out a niche for themselves.

It was unlikely that blade runners were needed in any colony. The government was stable as far as Phil was aware of. So the laws and regulations around the android industry were iron-clad. It didn't seem feasible that there would be a Stark incident like there had been on Earth.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are twenty minutes away from our destination. So please take your seats and buckle your seat belts." Captain Quill's voice rumbled to life over the PA system. "We again apologize for that rough departure back on Earth. And we thank you for your patience when we were all under the impression that we were going to die,"

There was sporadic, stunted laughter throughout the cabin at that statement. Phil couldn't muster up even a smile at it, though. From his peripheral, he could tell Clint was of the same opinion. He rolled his eyes, before he glanced out into the endlessness of space.

"From the crew of the Star-Lord we thank you, and we hope you have a pleasant stay on Colony III." Captain Quill finished on that note.

"Twenty minutes until we start over." Clint said, although he kept his eyes focused outward. "Can't even believe it; maybe we did end up dying when Rogers rammed the ship."

"No, we're actually on our way to Colony III." Phil glanced over at Clint. "Now we just need to figure out what we're going to do from here on out."

That unknown remained unanswered. Phil wasn't entirely worried about it, though. Both of them were crafty, Clint most of all. He could find a way to survive one way or another. And Phil was blessed enough to have a great adaption level, so he too could take on any role presented to him.

They'd find a way to survive. Colony III was bound to be a cake walk in comparison to the filthy slums that they knew so well. Even if they didn't have any place to go for a while, Phil envisioned stark, clinical walkways that would be plenty enough for them until they found their way.

The remainder of their flight was uneventful. Or at least much of it was until the sight of a brilliantly gleaming and impressively large structure came into view through the window. Colony III was stenciled in pale blue paint on the center of the structure, while it expanded outward in an endless labyrinth that extended out towards the stars.

Smaller space crafts came and went from different docking stations around the colony. It was a busy metropolis that was new and shiny; the exact opposite of what Earth's New York City had been. Phil had only dreamed of what the colonies looked like, and even still his wildest imagination hadn't been able to conjure up the reality of one of them.

Somewhere beyond his own awe, Phil heard Clint whistle in admiration. That was bound to be their new home; they were officially citizens of Colony III. They no longer were the slum rats that they'd been assured they'd always be.

The Star-Lord maneuvered a little choppily closer to Colony III. The space craft jerked and shook some, although it wasn't anywhere near as violently as it had been once they'd taken to the sky originally.

Soon they were given the proper clearance into one of the various, no doubt hundreds, of docking stations on board. The Star-Lord pulled into a sterile white runway that led towards an additional door that opened up into someplace baffling to Phil.

It looked like Earth. The Earth that he'd only viewed through digital photography. It was probably the Earth that Steve Rogers had known in the twenty-first century. It was confusing but extraordinary; it was actually beautiful.

The Star-Lord rolled onto a freshly paved tarmac. Beyond it was a sparkling city that beckoned visitors and residents alike to its streets. While there was an obvious dome above them, it hardly took away from the majesty and ambiance that Colony III had clearly been trying to encapsulate.

Slowly, they came to a halt. The space craft jarred roughly, but it hardly bothered Phil any. He was too consumed by his new environment to care about anything else. He was marveled and strangely hopeful for the first time in over fifteen years.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please feel free to disembark at this time." The stewardess, Gamora, suddenly appeared at the front of the aisle and motioned elegantly towards the exit.

Clint eagerly unbuckled his seat belt, and Phil followed his example. He couldn't wait to explore the city and all the new opportunities at their fingertips. But they still managed to flex some self-restraint as the passengers ahead of them collected their things, and exited the Star-Lord.

Once he'd gotten the opportunity, Phil stood and collected his and Clint's meager possession from the overhead bin. He passed Clint his backpack, before he stepped forward to permit his partner to climb out of his seat and get into the aisle.

They eventually began to shuffle towards the exit. Phil was buzzing with energy. The rocky take-off seemed like a million years away. He hadn't any time to lament or worry about the likes of Steve Rogers. Not when he was in a brand new, beautiful place where the possibilities were endless.

After several minutes of slow moving, Phil finally made it to the front of the space craft. Gamora smiled genially at him and thanked him for his patronage, before he stepped out into the open. He moved down the catwalk, while looking to and fro in a feeble attempt to memorize everything he was being exposed to.

His feet hit the tarmac and Clint was soon beside him. They were both in awe. Neither of them had known anything of this nature before, and for the rest of their days they would be living here. They wouldn't be exposed to death and poverty ever again.

"Phil Coulson, Clint Barton," an authoritative voice suddenly broke Phil free from his reverie.

Snapping to attention, Phil noticed a dark-skinned man in a military uniform standing beside a visibly annoyed raven-haired woman a good distance away. It looked like she would rather be anywhere else but here. Even more interesting, she was dressed like a total slob in comparison to the military man beside her. She looked more slum rat than Colony III resident.

"I believe my assumption's correct." The military man said, before motioning them forward.

Phil felt a spike of anxiety rush through him then. He looked to Clint, and he too looked unnerved by someone knowing their names. But then again, they had been admitted passage onto a colony. He knew their security was leaps and bounds beyond whatever was on Earth. Hell, Earth had none really.

Despite his reluctance, Phil walked towards the military man and the disheveled woman. Clint wasn't stupid enough to try and run for it either. So he followed him until they were several feet away from the oddly matched pair.

"Mr. Coulson, Mr. Barton, you are under arrest for illegal passage onto the colonies." The military man said gravely, before his partner lurched forward and grabbed a hold of Clint's arm and quickly snapped on a handcuff onto his wrist and quickly onto the other.

"What the hell? Our tickets were legit!" Clint yelled, while trying to futilely jerk away from the woman who'd cuffed him.

"Whatever, asshole; nothing's legit with Alexander Pierce."

"Alexander Pierce...?" Phil gaped in confusion, as the military man rounded on him and quickly cuffed him as well. "We don't even know who that is!"

"Then why did he purchase your passage onto Colony III?" The woman shot back sarcastically.

"Oh, Sitwell; that son of a bitch!" Clint roared as the woman began to haul him away. "I'm going to kill him! Wait until I get my hands on him! He's a fucking dead man!"

"Well, well, well," the woman looked at the military man then. "What did I tell you, Rhodes?"

"Shut up, Jones." The military man, Rhodes, sighed in obvious exasperation; before he forced Phil to move forward with a slight push. "You know I have business on Colony I; I'm doing you a favor."

Terror and confusion overtook Phil completely. What had they done? Or better yet what had Sitwell done that would lead them to being arrested? Nothing came to mind, and yet Phil knew everyone on Earth had some kind of shady business deal going on in the background. Sitwell was clearly no different in that respect.

Whatever Sitwell had done, and whoever Alexander Pierce was, well they had snatched away the one and only opportunity for him and Clint to live normally. They were going to jail, and the likelihood they would be shipped back to Earth seemed more than likely.

All hope was lost.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifty-two :: Mission Completion

 


 

 

The luxury penthouse suite was in disarray. Glass littered the marble floors; throw pillows had been ripped asunder, and blood tricked sporadically onto the clean surfaces that once shone proudly under the warm lightning overhead.

The Soldier stalked from one corner of the penthouse to the other. Very little data had been found within the space; it appeared as if Virginia "Pepper" Potts had left her work at Stark Tower. But he suspected that there must be some kind of data here all the same.

Virginia "Pepper" Potts hadn't been forthcoming, though. She had taken on a defiant approach, which had been unnecessary. The Soldier had been programmed to deal with insubordination, and he had chosen to use physical force in order to obtain optimal results.

Unfortunately, his methods had been ineffective of yet. Virginia "Pepper" Potts was, indeed, very loyal to Tony Stark. With enough time though, the Soldier knew that he would collect the information that he needed to continue onward.

Slowing his trek, the Soldier observed Virginia "Pepper" Potts. Her head lulled from one shoulder to the next. Her eyes fluttered open after remaining closed for several hours now. He had demobilized her after her umpteenth refusal to assist him.

Dry blood accented her pale face; her nose had swollen visibly from where he had backhanded her. The blow had been powerful enough to send Virginia "Pepper" Potts into the wall, where she had slid down and slumped in a pile of loose limbs for some time now. He hadn't seen any reason to move her.

He watched as she blinked a few times, seemingly uncertain of her current environment. But there was soon a spark of recognition on her face, and her eyes lifted to look up at him. If possible, she looked paler than before.

"I don't know anything." Virginia "Pepper" Potts blurted out, although he noted the lack of conviction in her tone.

Of course, they both knew how untrue that statement was. She was, after all, the closest confidant to Tony Stark. She had married him. She currently ran his company. If anything, she was one of the most invaluable assets to Stark Industries and by proxy Tony Stark. She must have known everything.

"I can't tell you anything. Please believe me."

"False," the Soldier replied, before he advanced a step forward.

Virginia "Pepper" Potts cowered visibly. She held up both her hands, as if that would ward off any attack that he might launch. It was a feeble attempt at defense; he could simply break her wrists and hands if he so desired. He hadn't any reason not to. But he preferred not to injure her beyond repair; she had many uses still.

Then again, the Soldier could use pieces of Virginia "Pepper" Potts in order to gain access to Stark Tower. The security system required facial recognition, retinal scans, and fingerprints. He could take her head and hand, which would permit him unfiltered admission to not only Tony Stark, but the operations of all of Stark Industries.

"Please," Virginia "Pepper" Potts cried out on a shrill note. "You won't get away with this! Tony will kill you; I promise you that!"

"False," he repeated, although he didn't come any closer to her. "It's impossible to kill me. Retirement, yes; but death is only a human construct."

"How are you even real? I know you aren't one Tony's androids." She shakily lowered her hands, in order to stare at him. "You're too advanced to be a Odinson or a Hammer creation; I don't understand. None of this makes any sense! Who made you?"

It was apparent that Virginia "Pepper" Potts was trying to divert his attention. Despite knowing this, the Soldier found his interest piqued by what she had said. It might have very well been a glitch in his programming to be dissuaded so easily, but he couldn't seem to rectify it immediately.

His origins were unknown to him. He only knew the bare essentials; the minimum in which to carry out his mission. He knew that his current handler was Jasper Sitwell, and Sitwell had been specific on what his objective was. Anything beyond that was unimportant.

"Origins unknown," he stated.

"Who do you work for? Why would they want access into Stark Tower?"

"Classified,"

"But if I knew then maybe I could help you! The authorities don't have to be any the wiser to this; I give you my word." Virginia "Pepper" Potts tried to smile, as if to appease to some kind of humanity that might have been falsely programmed into him.

It did not work. The Soldier hadn't any fear of any authoritative figure. He lacked the capacity to feel any kind of fear. He only knew that he needed unlimited access to Tony Stark. And he only needed that in order to kill him.

To tell Virginia "Pepper" Potts as much would lead to complications. She would not allow him to kill Tony Stark. And he would have to go against orders once more by eliminating her as well. But he supposed that it was a choice he would have to make to ensure success.

His mission was the most important thing. Even his handler's instructions were secondary in comparison. And while punishment or retirement was a likely result of his insubordination, the Soldier hadn't any fear of either of those things.

Before he could respond as much to his captive, a notification prompt blared brilliantly across his vision. The prompt informed him of an incoming communication from Sitwell. He knew he had been gone for some time now; nearly twenty hours by his estimation. So his presence had clearly been missed.

Opening the communication line, the Soldier heard Sitwell's utterance of 'finally' in his ears. The notification prompt had cleared from his vision, allowing him once more to focus on Virginia "Pepper" Potts's cowering figure.

"Soldier, where the hell are you? You've been gone too long for intel." Sitwell launched into quickly. "Unless...?"

"I am currently trying to gather intel. My efforts have proven to be unsuccessful thus far."

"Then I order you to report back to me immediately."

"Unable to comply," he stated in return.

Sitwell sputtered loudly over the line. He tried numerous times to articulate his thoughts, yet none of his efforts proved successful. The Soldier waited, while his sights remained focused on Virginia "Pepper" Potts.

Regardless of her obvious fear, she too looked intrigued by the one-sided communication that the Soldier was having with his handler. He knew that she was trying to find a way out of her current predicament. Unfortunately for her, she would find no help from Sitwell.

"Soldier, I demand you to abandon your post and return to me now!" Sitwell barked.

"Unable to comply,"

"That is an order!"

"Unable to comply," he repeated.

"This isn't a joke! I am giving you a direct order!"

"You need to help me!" Virginia "Pepper" Potts suddenly screamed. "He's holding me hostage! Help me, please! He's going to kill me!"

The Soldier found no reason to silence the hysteria being launched at his handler. No one was bound to help Virginia "Pepper" Potts, least of all Sitwell. What could he do anyway? He could track his location based on the tracker implanted in him. But would Sitwell take such an unnecessary risk for an unknown woman?

Even as he loomed above her, Virginia "Pepper" Potts continued to scream for help. He also heard Sitwell's sudden intake of breath too. It was impossible to know what his handler was thinking, although he supposed it couldn't be anything good.

"Who is that?" Sitwell asked in tone that indicated abject terror.

The Soldier didn't reply right away. Instead he watched as his captive curled into herself with both arms fully extended again, while she screamed and sobbed. Her pale skin had turned a splotchy red; it was displeasing to the senses on many levels.

"Answer the question, goddamn you!" Sitwell nearly yelled. "That's a direct and specific order!"

"Virginia "Pepper" Potts; CEO of Stark Industries, and former wife of Anthony E. Stark." The Soldier recited smoothly.

Sitwell made an unidentifiable sound on the other end of the connection. It seemed to be a mixture between a gasp and a cry. The Soldier knew he had overstepped his orders, and yet he believed on a logical level to have done what was necessary to fulfill the mission to its fullest capacity.

After his determination that the security system was beyond his access, the Soldier had had enough capacity of free will to improvise. His programming was potentially faulty because of it, though which he already determined previously. Because he shouldn't have had the ability to do as he pleased, while simultaneously disregarding blatant orders given to him by his handler.

System repairs would be inevitable once he returned to Sitwell. But until that time, he would use the methods at his disposal to fulfill his mission. Virginia "Pepper" Potts was his way to success; she was the gateway to Tony Stark.

"Dammit, goddammit," Sitwell had found his voice again. "What the hell were you thinking? No, you shouldn't even be thinking at all. This is some kind of glitch; there's no other way around it. Because you were supposed to get intel about infiltrating Stark Tower; you weren't supposed to be taking hostages and especially one of Pepper Potts's status! They'll notice she's gone; she's too high profile!"

"Virginia "Pepper" Potts has unlimited access to Tony Stark."

"And when Stark realizes she's missing, what do you think will happen?"

"They will search for her."

"And what else?"

"I will be retired."

"Not only that, genius; my ass is on the line! The boss's ass is on the line because of this stupid, spontaneous stunt of yours! So how the hell are you going to fix this now! Because you will fix it; that's a direct order!" Sitwell hollered, which sounded almost hysterical.

The Soldier processed what his handler said. There was only one way to rectify the problem; he would have to eliminate Virginia "Pepper" Potts. The messier way in which to gain access to Stark Tower was the only way it seemed.

"Understood," he said, before he disconnected the communication between him and Sitwell.

Virginia "Pepper" Potts looked even more terrified by the lull of conversation. She let out a scream for mercy, which only heightened in volume when he closed the distance in between them. He grabbed her by the collar and dragged her across the floor.

Her screams became louder and louder. She kicked wildly and attempted to grab onto any piece of furniture within her reach. She even tried to scratch at his hand, as if that would somehow deter his current course of actions. It was ultimately futile; he had a goal in mind already.

"No, no, no," she twisted her body this way and that. "I have access to the company's server! I can get into it for you from here! Just don't kill me!"

The Soldier's stride slowed down exponentially by that exclamation. He was close to the pane of windows overlooking the city. He had chosen to toss Virginia "Pepper" Potts out of them, once he wrenched her head off her body alongside her dominant hand. But her offer proved to be a reason not to eliminate her of yet.

Pivoting on his heel, he glanced down at her. She looked messy and afraid, but there was something burning in her eyes. He could not determine what it was, although he found it unworthy of further attention at the moment.

"I can access the server right now. Then you can look through whatever you want." Her voice was shaky, but there an underlying note of confidence to it as well; one she sorely lacked beforehand. "But you have to promise to keep me alive at least for a few days."

The Soldier considered this. It would be simpler to kill Virginia "Pepper" Potts after she accessed Stark Industries' server. However, he wouldn't doubt her endless knowledge of the security systems and her intimate knowledge of Stark would be invaluable. She might be worthy to keep alive for several days until she proved herself useless.

"Access the server now." He ordered, while he yanked her unceremoniously onto her feet; albeit she quaked and needed his grasp on her collar still to remain upright. "If you attempt to do otherwise, you will be killed."

"I understand." Virginia "Pepper" Potts sniffled, as she wiped her trembling hands across her face. "I won't do anything like that."

The Soldier did not deem Virginia "Pepper" Potts to be trustworthy. However, he would determine as much within a short period of time. Until then, he remained poised for action. He would kill her if she refused to access the server. Or if she did anything that would end up jeopardizing his mission.

Whether she was alive or not, the Soldier would find Tony Stark and he would kill him. Casualties along the way meant very little to him. In fact, they meant nothing at all to him. The only thing that mattered was mission completion. And he would complete his mission; there was no doubt about it.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifty-three :: Indisputable

 


 

 

The sexual attraction was indisputable. Tony couldn't deny it anymore. It was impossible now that he experienced a lengthy and detailed wet dream about him and Ultima Zero. And the evidence of said dream was still present on his person.

He mentally berated himself over it, although it didn't solve anything. For some reason or another, he was hopelessly attracted to the blood-thirsty cyborg in his lab. It wasn't something that he could combat; he couldn't change it. It simply was what it was.

"Son of a bitch," he sat up, before he pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes.

Unfortunately, the details remained at the forefront of his mind. He remembered the contorted pleasure on Ultima Zero's features, the long limbs wrapped around his waist, and the taste of steel and flesh on his tongue.

It had been erotic and intense. If Tony hadn't already been satiated in his sleep, he knew he would have easily become aroused again. And that wasn't okay; it was the furthest thing from okay.

Kicking away the linens enveloped around his body, Tony climbed out of bed. He was in desperate need of a shower, and possibly a medieval lobotomy to curb the insatiable thirst he was obviously feeling for Ultima Zero.

He had known for a while now that he found the cyborg to be attractive. He just hadn't thought his curiosity would ultimately turn to sexual desire. Or maybe he had simply fooled himself into believing the opposite with all things considering.

After all, the whole situation was completely taboo. Not only was it illegal for Ultima Zero to be in his possession, but to find some deep-rooted attraction to what most would call an abomination was even worse. Although, he honestly couldn't say why when pleasure bots had been hot selling commodities in the not so distance past when society was so uptight about humanity mixing with technology.

Walking into the en suite bathroom, Tony scrubbed a hand through his already unruly hair. He glanced towards the panel of windows, although he hardly marveled over the twinkling lights of the city. The view had lost its appeal years ago.

"Hey, JARVIS," he called out, before he pulled his tee-shirt over his head; depositing it wherever it fell. "Is our creepy house guest in the lab still?"

" Yes, sir. He appears to be preoccupied with the Odinson Corporation's blueprints at the moment."

"Single-minded as always," Tony switched the water on in the glass encased shower.

As the water beat down on the tiled floor, Tony stripped down to nothing. He looked down at his body, and shook his head in disappointment. He was a mess; he couldn't even remember definitively when the last time had been since he had a wet dream. But he assumed he'd been a pubescent boy who hadn't touched another human being before.

The frustration and disbelief he felt went bone-deep. He really didn't have time for these types of distractions. Come the end of the week, him and Ultima Zero were going to infiltrate Odinson Corp and they were going to destroy them from the inside-out.

It was thrilling to imagine that a company who'd chipped away at his sales, and that smug patriarchal bastard, would see an end soon enough. No less, they'd all be at Commissioner Fury's wrath if Tony had anything to do with it. And he would be damned if he let any member of the Odinson family get away unscathed.

Tony maintained quite a few grudges still. While he had ensured Obadiah paid for what he'd done, there were others, Odin included, that hadn't faced his wrath yet. And when everything was said and done, he was going to finally get the hell out of here.

Stepping into the shower stall, Tony breathed in the steam as his body was enveloped by warm water. His hands quickly lowered to his torso, and moved up and down until he scratched at the line of hair below his belly button and at his pubic hair.

He washed away the remnants of his dream down the drain. And yet the details wouldn't go away still. He couldn't easily banish the heat of Ultima Zero pressed against him; the hefty weight of him boring down on him, and that tongue dragging its way up and down his body.

Tony dropped his head forward in defeat. He needed to get his thoughts out of the gutter. It would only complicate an already complicated situation. And any wrong move could lead to him being shot through with an innumerable amount of energy.

He'd gone through way too much to end up killed by a security guard for a shitty android manufacturing company. Besides, he never really let his libido dictate his life very much anyway. Not after he'd married Pepper, and when everything that he worked so hard for was ripped violently away from him. Sex had become secondary, if not lower down on the totem pole than even that.

His shower proved to be uneventful. He washed himself vigorously, and refused to entertain any prolonged thoughts about Ultima Zero. Or at least he managed to keep his thoughts mostly clean, and focused more on the details of their pending mission.

So far they'd come to the executive decision that Tony would contact one of the Odinsons, preferably Thor, and set up a meet-up at the company to exchange Ultima Zero for the blueprints on the portal battery packs. But there would be conditions to go along with that. Tony would see Ultima Zero to the R & D level, so he could supposedly see with his own two eyes that Ultima Zero was really half-machine.

Once he'd been taken to the R & D level, that's when they would launch their attack; taking them unaware, and giving them leeway to hurry to the topmost floor of Odinson Corp's building. That's where they'd find the identity chip, which would irrefutably prove that Ultima Zero had once been human.

With that final piece of data, Ultima Zero intended on releasing the data out into the worldwide web. But as a safeguard, he'd leave behind all the data on Tony's servers for he could release the dirty details himself if need be. Or rather JARVIS would at a set time if Tony didn't come back. Although he had full faith in his capacity to get out of there alive.

After he stepped out of the shower, Tony dried himself off and headed naked into his closet. He dressed in his usual worn blue jeans, long sleeved tee-shirt, and tennis shoes. He barely gave any attention to his hair beyond brushing his fingers through it, before he headed down to the lab to face Ultima Zero head-on.

Letting those thoughts brew uncontested in his head would be a bad idea. Tony needed to be faced with the brutal reality of what Ultima Zero was, and maybe that would dampen his desires. Then again, it might do the exact opposite and get his ass killed because of sentiment.

Passing into the elevator, Tony stuffed his hands into his pockets. He watched the doors close, before the lift started to descend underfoot. It took less than thirty seconds for him to end up on the R & D floor, where the fluorescent lights were already on.

Ultima Zero was no longer studying the blueprints for Odinson Corp. Instead he had shifted his focus elsewhere, more specifically onto a workbench with any array of hardware splayed across it. Natasha and Edwin were sidled beside the workbench, both observing Ultima Zero's ministrations with bland curiosity.

None of them paid Tony any attention, even as he walked up to join them. Only when Ultima Zero lifted his head did Natasha and Edwin follow suit; which didn't go unnoticed by Tony. In fact, he found that to be more than troublesome; especially when he took into consideration how Ultima Zero had lured several androids away from Odinson Corp in order to do his bidding.

"Sorry to break up the party," he interjected, as he pulled out a hand to motion at the workbench. "But what's all this?"

"Portable battery pack," Ultima Zero stated.

"I thought you might have forgotten about that."

"Unlikely,"

"Yeah, I guess so." Tony glanced at the cyborg for probably a little too long to be appropriate.

Any hope that he'd sober up to the error of his ways fell to the wayside. If anything, his attraction only seemed to be reiterated by seeing the cyborg up close. Ultima Zero might have had an expressionless face, but his features were chiseled and undeniably handsome.

Tony licked his lips, which drew Ultima Zero's attention. It was short-lived, though; it was also a clinical look that didn't show any kind of true interest, which was probably for the best anyway. Tony didn't need for his hopes to be lifted.

Even if everything went by the book, Tony knew what the final part of the mission was. He would have to retire Ultima Zero, before Commissioner Fury had the opportunity to get his hands on him. And that meant he couldn't get attached.

"So everything's still on for the end of the week?" He asked as casually as he could muster.

"Yes, I don't see why not."

"No second thoughts then,"

"None," the cyborg replied; his attention was focused on the work spread out in front of him.

Tony knew that there wouldn't be any second thoughts on Ultima Zero's part. He understood why as well. A cyborg, one with such a violent nature no less, could not live freely in the world. And a humane death was all one could hope for in that position. Tony was Ultima Zero's only hope besides suicide.

Knowing Ultima Zero, even as briefly as he did, suicide wouldn't be out of the question. It would be the only answer if Tony decided not to retire him like he promised. And that would just be shitty on his part to back down from a promise like that.

"Are you taking notes of the portable battery port for me?" Tony decided to take a different route in mood, and steer clear of anything maudlin and sexual.

"What do you take me for, Stark?"

"I don't know. You are a blood-thirsty cyborg."

"Even so," Ultima Zero looked up at him. "I'm not stupid. I was an engineer, before as you eloquently put it, I became a blood-thirsty cyborg."

As if to illustrate his point, Ultima Zero pulled up a screen in front of the workbench. Tony leaned in to read the unfinished instructions to recreate the portable battery. Before he could really start to study it extensively, Ultima Zero flicked his wrist and swiped the screen away from view.

"Cheeky bastard," he drawled.

Ultima Zero leveled him with an unamused stare, although that was as far as it went. Because another screen suddenly cropped up with the words incoming call flashing across it. Tony furrowed his brow; it was late, too late for any business calls. And most of those calls went directly to Pepper anyway, even if she was off planet.

Not to mention, only a handful of people even had his direct line. After a moment of contemplation, he suspected it must have been Pepper. She would have gotten to Colony I by now. And the penthouse and the R & D floors were both connected lines.

Reaching forward, he almost tapped the screen but quickly thought better of it. He spun the screen his way, in order to keep Ultima Zero hidden from view. The last thing he needed was Pepper finding out what he'd been up to right underneath her nose.

Once he assured the cyborg was out of sight and it was only Natasha, Tony answered the call. He plastered on a broad smile, albeit it wavered a little when his good friend Rhodey appeared instead of Pepper. And his smile completely disappeared by the serious look Rhodey was giving the screen.

"Rhodey, buddy,"

"Hey, Tony," Rhodey, at least, tried to smile. "Did Pepper have a change in plans?"

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well, she was supposed to arrive on Colony I by thirteen-hundred hours. And I haven't heard of any flight delays either."

"What are you trying to say?" Tony felt something tighten in his throat. "Are you saying that Pepper isn't there?"

Rhodey leaned back in his seat, before he briefly looked off camera. That was all Tony needed to see to know the answer. Pepper hadn't shown up on Colony I like she'd been scheduled to. And Pepper was the most punctual, most reliable person on and off planet.

"I'm sure that there's a reasonable explanation for it." Rhodey quickly said. "I'll check the fly schedules. She could have easily made a detour on another colony. It happens all the time."

Bobbing his head in agreement, Tony tried to keep his cool. There wasn't any reason for him to lose his mind. Like Rhodey said, there was a reasonable explanation behind it. Even people like Pepper could go off script from time to time.

"I'll call Pepper just to be safe." He croaked.

"I'll keep you posted, Tony. I didn't want to make you worry. I'm sorry, man."

"Don't worry; I know there's a reasonable explanation like you said. There always is one; flights are delayed all the damn time." Tony ended the call then without a proper goodbye, but something told him that he'd be talking to Rhodey fairly soon anyway. Besides, he needed to get into contact with Pepper immediately.

Without consulting JARVIS, Tony pulled up Pepper's contact information and dialed her up. Pepper's photo cropped up onto the screen. It was one of Tony's favorites of her, and the sentiment behind it made his heart jump into his throat.

Seconds ticked away, one by one. The line didn't connect, though. Pepper didn't answer like she was supposed to. And goddammit, she was supposed to answer if not by the first ring, but most certainly the second or the third! Especially if she knew it was him then she would answer promptly; she never made him wait.

"My apologies, sir. Miss Potts seems to be unavailable at this moment. Perhaps she's otherwise occupied," JARVIS offered, as the call ended without any response.

Tony found himself too shaken to reply. His throat tightened, and a fresh sheen of perspiration speckled his forehead and the small of his back. Before he could spiral into a full-blown state of panic, he was instead thrown through a loop of surprise.

Ultima Zero had reached out for him and had grasped him by the forearm; a firm but mostly gentle touch that brought Tony back to himself rather abruptly. He lifted his eyes and met the cyborg's. His usual blank stare seemed to waver and ripple for a split-second, although Tony couldn't discern what the emotion was.

"Be logical; do not let your emotions dictate your actions." Ultima Zero enunciated slowly. "Emotion will only cause more harm than good."

"But we're talking about my ex-wife here."

"There could be any number of reasons to explain the unexplainable."

"So I should just wait here for some kind of news? I should just sit on my damn hands?" Tony somehow maintained a level of calm, he honestly hadn't expected from himself with the possibility of Pepper in peril again. "Do you even know how much bullshit that is?"

Ultima Zero squeezed Tony's arm; it was oddly comforting. It definitely didn't lessen his worry any, but he also knew that he needed to be levelheaded. He was sure Pepper was fine. Space travel could oftentimes be unpredictable. And like Rhodey mentioned, the space craft Pepper had been on could have taken alternate route and landed on a different colony.

"I'll call again later." He said, although his confidence threatened to shatter at any moment. "She's fine; of course, she's fine. She's Pepper; she can take care of herself."

"Yes, of course." Ultima Zero removed his hand, and motioned to the hardware spread out before him. "Now let me show you how inferior you are in comparison to me."

Tony let out a stilted chuckle. Even though he knew Pepper would be on his mind until he got word from her, at least he could use this opportunity to distract himself. And well, his horribly inappropriate dream was now a distant memory in comparison.

For now anyway.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifty-four :: Pinky Promise

 


 

 

"Synthetic coffee, come on, man,"

"This is twenty-second century Earth, you know," Steve stared down into the murky depths of his chipped coffee cup. "We're lucky for the synthetic stuff nowadays."

The dirty, little diner that they were seated in was nestled in between two dilapidated buildings. Steve had only seen it in passing; he had never thought about stepping foot over the threshold. But a lot had changed recently. None of it had been for the better either.

Any sense of normality that he had established was now gone, and it had since been replaced by misery and uncertainty. Even his ire had tempered away into numbness; a level of acceptance that he hadn't experienced since Peggy's death.

"Not everything died, you know." Sam, his new associate, explained. "Anything that could be salvaged was. Trust me, it wasn't a lot; but the coffee bean was one of them."

"I couldn't even tell you what real coffee tastes like anymore."

"Light-years better than this shit, let me tell you." Sam pushed away his coffee cup, before comically smacking his lips together. "Damn, I'm surprised anyone's alive still on this planet."

Steve shot Sam a wary look. He didn't need to elaborate any further than that. Because he too wondered how any of them had survived so long on a dying planet, plagued by agony and despair. But he had always wondered how someone as lively and vibrant as Bucky had ever survived beyond his childhood years.

Deep-seated pain enveloped him again, although it hadn't truly gone away. It had lain dormant underneath his blind rage for a while. It had gone under again when the thought of revenge and justice had been brought up by Sam. And now it returned once more, heavier than it had ever been the previous times.

Blearily, Steve lifted his cup and sipped at the distasteful brew. It was thick and muddy, and it tasted like shit like everything else did. But that didn't stop him from taking another drink, a little heartier than the first.

"I'd like some information on this Sitwell person you mentioned earlier."

"Jasper Sitwell," Sam leaned back in his rickety seat. "Well, he's a pretty ordinary guy. Worked with current Secretary of the Colonies for about eleven years now. Like I mentioned before, he's been here on Earth for seven of them, and while that isn't a crime; no one really chooses to stay if they can actually help it."

"Besides Odinson Corp and Stark Industries, you mean."

"Two anomalies, I'll admit. But an egg-head like Sitwell without the financial means to thrive, well that's pretty weird if you ask me."

"So you think Sitwell's been up to no good?" Steve asked, although he'd already drawn to that conclusion. In fact, he was already convinced that Sitwell was the piece of the missing puzzle on finding out what had happened to Bucky.

Unlike the bullshit story Coulson had fed him, Steve knew he'd find out the truth of the matter on his own. And he would scorn every dirty inch of this city, in order to track the bastard down. He couldn't say he'd be getting away unscathed, though.

"Pierce has some nasty associates. But the guy is good; too damn good, really." Sam frowned. "We can't really tie Pierce to Schmidt at this point. However, we do have Sitwell on his payroll, and that's an irrefutable connection. Especially when you take into consideration that Sitwell couldn't be doing any bureaucratic bullshit on Earth; not without approval from Colony Council anyway. And we know for a fact that he doesn't have that."

Steve churned the information over in his head. Honestly, he wasn't very up to date on politics nowadays. It was pretty lawless in these parts. And even Commissioner Fury couldn't deploy enough detectives and officers to maintain the peace; which was probably why he'd been so persistent on trying to recruit Steve onto his side.

The name Pierce meant very little to him. He couldn't recall if he had ever heard it formatted in the way Sam had put it. Hell, he hadn't actually known there was a Secretary of the Colonies. And how would he know about the Colony Council either?

"So the key to your case is Sitwell." Steve stated, before he glanced warily around him.

There were only a handful of people in the diner, but they all looked suspicious. Most people did, though. But none of them outwardly looked like a threat to him or Sam.

Bucky would have given him an exasperated look for that thought.

"Pretty much," Sam agreed, before his eyes flickered away to observe their surroundings as well. "Unfortunately, it's a hell of a lot harder to find people down here than I originally thought it would be. You can hide in plain sight for fuck's sake."

"Well, I've shared a few informants with Coulson. So I'm sure I can work backwards to find the guy."

"I'm definitely not going to stand in your way, man. I'm grateful for the help, period."

"Helping you is an added bonus, but this is purely selfish for me." Steve looked back to Sam. "The only thing I want is a few minutes alone with Sitwell. I ain't going to kill him, but he's going to tell me what happened to my best friend."

Sam hadn't probed for details about Steve's motivations for helping him. But it had been established from the beginning that Steve wasn't some good Samaritan. He might have offered to point Sam in the right direction more or less if things were different; albeit, he wouldn't have gone to the lengths he intended to now. Not if he hadn't had a stake in Sitwell anyway.

Bucky had always tried to hammer self-preservation into his head. As early on as the day they met, Bucky had emphasized to Steve how dangerous the city was. It was a dog eat dog world. And it took Bucky's demise for Steve to finally understand that completely.

Shutting his eyes tightly, Steve tried to push the heartache away. He couldn't lose control like he had when he had tried to stop Coulson and Barton from leaving the planet. He needed to focus, to be as ruthless, but smart, as Bucky had always wanted him to be.

"Coulson used to pay orphans in the slums for information. No one really seems to suspect seven year olds on being spies." He opened his eyes again. "So I'll find one, get them talking to each other, and I should have some kind of lead in a few hours."

"Kids, seriously?"

"Everyone has to eat, Sam. Unfortunately, there aren't many social programs up and running around here. So we have to improvise as best as we can." He sighed, as he stuffed his hand into his pocket; he had maybe a ten bucks to his name, but it would be enough for what he needed.

Sam looked at him with sympathy, although he suspected it went deeper than that. He probably felt bad for everyone who'd been left behind; not only because they were strapped down by poverty, disease, and destitution. But because they would never ascend. They would die in this hellhole eventually.

Pulling out the crumpled bills from his pocket, Steve smoothed one out so he could pay for the sludge that was his coffee; but Sam was quicker. He tossed a perfectly smooth bill onto the table, which looked so out of place on the cracked formica that it almost hurt Steve's eyes.

"It's on me."

"Stay here," Steve forewent a 'thank you', and instead got to his feet. "I don't want you to spook them. And they will be spooked by someone so...rich."

Before Sam could protest, and god knew he looked like the type to protest, Steve hurried towards the door. It was barely hanging onto the rusty hinges, and he took special care not to shove it too hard and break it.

The undeniable smell of rotten garbage and diesel struck Steve like an old friend. He didn't even flinch as he stepped into a dirty puddle, and strode down the tightly packed street. He knew, more or less, where he needed to go. The kids were always on the streets; sometimes you got lucky to find a reliable one, too.

When he came to the end of the road, he took a left and pushed his way through the crowd. It was especially congested here; the outside market was only a couple of blocks away, which brought along even worse smells on the air. Human waste was especially pungent now.

Scanning the alleyways and the natural nooks and crannies of the city, Steve continued onward; although his mind continued to threaten to wander away from him. After all, not so long ago Bucky had walked these very streets. He worked with slumlords, and semi well-off factory workers in order for an easy payday. And Steve had been stupidly oblivious and pious about it.

Bucky sold his ass on the streets for the two of them. He blew grimy old fucks behind dumpsters with his knees in dirty puddles. And he had done it for prosperity's sake. So he could own the top-of-the-line energy gun for their running missions.

Steve gritted his teeth, and felt his anger flare up again. But this time he wasn't just angry at Barton and Coulson; he was mad at himself, and he was mad at Bucky too. He was mad as hell that Bucky thought he needed to do that to keep them in their cockroach infested apartment. That he felt like he needed a damn energy gun to keep them going.

If anyone lacked self-preservation, it had been Bucky. The proof was in the pudding, as the old saying went. Bucky was dead, and Steve was still here. Steve was going to have to live another lifetime without the person that he loved because the world was unfair.

It wasn't fair; it wasn't fucking fair. Steve hadn't wanted anything but Bucky. He would have gladly scrapped by for the rest of his days, living under the poverty line; so long as he had Bucky by his side. And even that was too much to ask for. Apparently even that was selfish of him to want.

Storming through the lessening crowd, Steve felt a slew of emotions overwhelm him. He wanted to laugh, cry, and scream all at the same time. He wanted to kill someone with his bare hands. But even then he knew it wouldn't satisfy him. He wanted to destroy the whole world; burn it into cinder at his feet.

It wouldn't matter anyway. There wasn't any salvation for the Earth's inhabitants anyway. The conditions were getting worse and worse by the day. Soon enough even the synthetic food would dry up. Clean water was practically unheard of. So why not put everyone out of their misery already?

World annihilation would be quite the undertaking, though. Steve, no matter how angry he was, didn't have the means to destroy the entire planet. He didn't have Stark's arsenal of weaponry, and he highly doubted that he'd agree to decimate the masses because Steve wanted to end everyone's suffering. But the thought was nice; it at least satiated him if only temporarily.

As those wildly ambitious and blood-thirsty thoughts swirled in his head, Steve took a right and found himself in a densely populated stretch of street. Most of the buildings had been boarded up, although there were three or four with boldly lit neon lights hanging overhead to spruce up the place and lure in buyers.

In the glow of a pink and green abomination, Steve caught sight of a little girl dressed in a dirty brown smock. Her long hair lied limp and tangled on her shoulders, and she was gnawing at some kind of candy that probably tasted worse than the remnants of the coffee on Steve's tongue.

He recognized her right away. More than once did Steve pass her the coins in his pocket; sometimes for information, sometimes not. But he hadn't told Bucky that explicitly. He had to figure he had already known, though. Bucky knew everything.

Slowing his stride, Steve headed towards her. He loosened his stance and moved in a carefree way that seemed to beckon the children to him. They didn't see him as a threat that way.

"Hi, Cassie," he called out to her with a smile.

Cassie's head immediately shot up. She looked ready to flee at any second. But she soon realized who was approaching her, and she instead smiled in an impish fashion that really pulled on Steve's heartstrings.

"Hi, Steve,"

"Hey," he stopped a few feet away; he knew better than to get away closer than that without permission. "Got some information for me?"

"Whatcha looking for?" She asked childishly, and yet there was a weird sense of maturity to the question too.

Steve maintained the smile on his lips, as he looked around the street. No one appeared to be lurking in the shadows, but he'd be damned if he wasn't hyper-vigilant at the moment. He couldn't afford to make any stupid mistakes right now.

When he was certain that they were pretty much alone, Steve crouched down and held out a dollar bill to Cassie. He waited a heartbeat, and sure enough she leapt forward and took the money into her tiny, sticky hand. And this time, she stayed within range so they could speak without being overhead.

"You've worked for Mr. Coulson, haven't you?"

"Uh-huh,"

"Well, I need you to find something out for me." Steve said softly. "Mr. Coulson worked with a bad man named Sitwell. And I need to find that man."

Cassie tilted her head to the side; she looked thoughtful, but she gave nothing away. Instead of replying right away, she stuffed the dollar bill into the pouch around her neck. She tightened it closed, before she licked the remnants of candy off her fingertips.

Steve waited patiently for a response. He knew this game all too well. If the kids could frustrate you enough then they could get away without helping out. That's why Bucky wouldn't work with them; they were sneaky little bastards in his opinion.

"I heard about the bad guy before." Cassie finally confirmed. "I can ask Harley. But,"

"But...?"

"It'll cost you another dollar for Harley."

"Another dollar for Harley it is," Steve peeled another from his meager savings, and held it out; but he quickly snatched it away, before Cassie could make a grab for it. "I have my own but for you, though."

"What?"

"Do you know for a fact that Harley knows about Sitwell?"

"Steve," Cassie huffed, before she pouted.

"Well...?"

"Harley told me that Mr. Coulson broke a van." Cassie began. "Harley said he saw the van. He said it wasn't Mr. Coulson's van, but the bad guy's. He heard Mr. Barton being mad about it, and he said the bad guy's name a lot."

It took a moment for Steve to absorb all that information, but when he was satisfied with what he had heard and understood; he let Cassie snatch the dollar from him, and greedily stuff it into her pouch to join the first.

"If you can get Harley to show you where the van is, I'll give you eight whole dollars. You can split it between the two of you, okay?"

"Eight whole dollars...?"

"Technically ten with the two I just gave you." Steve smiled a little bigger, although he hardly felt happy even with this potential lead. "So what do you say? Want to find that van for me?"

Cassie started to bounce excitedly on her tip-toes then. She clasped her hands together, and smiled with the innocence of a child that didn't have to survive doing an adult's dangerous bidding. Steve would have felt guilty about it (again), but all he wanted was to find out Bucky's fate and nothing more.

He wanted to bury Bucky. He didn't want him to rot away in an abandoned building somewhere, or to have been deposited with the ever-growing trash somewhere. In the very least, Bucky deserved a proper burial. That was the least that Steve could do.

"I'll do it! Me and Harley will find the van and have ten whole dollars!"

"Okay then," Steve nodded. "I'll be at that diner a few blocks away. It's the one with the broken front window; the one where the door's coming off the hinges. Do you know the one? It's called Howlies; a big man with a hat runs it."

"Dum Dum, you mean Dum Dum!" Cassie laughed, clapping her hands together.

"Is that what the guy's name is?"

"Yeah, we've helped him too!"

"Okay, Cassie; meet me at Dum Dum's when you find out where the van is. Do you understand?"

"Okay,"

"But," Steve held out his pinky to her. "You have to pinky promise me that you'll do your best. And that you'll actually do it, too. Because this eight bucks is burning a hole in my pocket,"

"Pinky promise, pinky promise," Cassie chanted, before she hooked her much smaller pinky with his.

When they sealed the deal, Cassie spun around and started to trot down the sidewalk with a renewed burst of energy. Steve watched her as he stood to his full height. But before she could disappear out of view, she suddenly turned around and bounded back towards him.

"Mr. Bucky won't be mad about the ten dollars, right?" She asked in a conspiratorial whisper.

"No, sweetheart," Steve felt the smile slip off his face. "You don't have to worry about Mr. Bucky being mad."

Cassie stared up at him, and she seemed to sober up right away. They stared at one another for several moments, before she nodded with the type of maturity that no one her age should have had. And it made Steve feel like a sleaze for taking advantage of her the way he was.

"I'll be your friend, Steve. And friends help friends no matter what. I'll find you the van." She assured him. "Pinky promise,"

With that final parting, Cassie ran back up the street. She didn't turn around again, but instead she took a left and disappeared out of sight. She left Steve behind with a heavy heart, the burn of tears in his eyes, and the sense of unfairness of it all.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifty-five :: Sing Like a Canary

 


 

 

The interrogation room was made of two-way glass on all sides. It was small and claustrophobic, which made Clint's already tested temperament that much worse. Not to mention, he was tethered to an immovable table just to piss him off more.

Clearly this was some kind of misunderstanding. Clint hadn't broken any intergalactic law by leaving Earth. He didn't even have any warrants for his arrest. So for these big-headed colony police to think otherwise was infuriating and wrong.

He had almost died because of Steve fucking Rogers, and now he was arrested and being questioned nonstop by the asshole detective in front of him. Her name was Jones; she was hot in a sloppy, slum rat kind of way. In other words, she was pretty much up his alley. But her damn attitude made her flat-out ugly, while also simultaneously killing any sort of arousal he might have felt in the first place.

"The dumb act won't work on me, you know." Jones drawled, while she kicked her boot-clad feet onto the table between her and Clint. "I know you have some information on Pierce. And I bet your partner will be singing like a canary very soon."

"What the fuck is a canary?" Clint spat back.

"Maybe you really are that stupid,"

"Says a bona fide, slum rat like yourself,"

"I bet I would like you if you weren't one of Pierce's goons." Jones narrowed her eyes.

The accusation infuriated Clint. He wasn't a kept man by any means. He'd always lived by his own rules, and no one told him what to do. His only goddamn mistake was trusting that asshole Sitwell, especially since he didn't even bother to ask any questions beforehand.

In hindsight, this whole situation was way too good to be real. No one got off Earth without some kind illegality attached to their departure. Sitwell obviously had ties to some major syndicate boss up here, and him and Phil had been pulled into it like a bunch of idiots. They were guilty by association.

"I don't even know who this Pierce guy is! How many times do I have to say it?"

"Then prove it, big shot. Because you aren't saying much of anything right now,"

"You want that son of a bitch Sitwell! Jasper Sitwell," Clint nearly shouted in frustration. "He's the asshole that got me and my partner into this mess! All we wanted to do was get out of that shit hole! That isn't a crime, you know!"

Jones didn't look sympathetic at all. He hadn't expected her to, though. It was pretty obvious to him that she wasn't like one of the perfectly poised people bred on colony ground. He could tell one of his own kind easily enough. And she was definitely Earth bred.

His biggest question, besides trying to figure a way out of his current predicament, was how she ended up here, no less in an authoritative position. Not many people from Earth could pull off that kind of feat, which made him immediately wary of her. She definitely couldn't be trusted, slum born or not.

"I've heard that name before, Jasper Sitwell."

"Good to know; now you can fuck off!"

"I'd love nothing more than to fuck off, Barton. But you haven't answered any goddamn questions yet. Screaming Sitwell's name like you're a second away from shooting your load doesn't mean shit,"

"Okay, then let's do this." Clint shifted in his hard metal chair; although his range of motion was seriously compromised by the chains wrapped around his wrists. "Ask me all your stupid questions, come on! I'm not going anywhere!"

Jones looked away from him, and instead at one of the reflective walls, before she pulled her feet off the table. She then leaned inward with a look of intensity that would have been comical to Clint if he wasn't at her mercy. And Jones was probably the type to smack someone around for answers.

Clint had been arrested a total of two times on Earth. His first time had been for petty larceny when he was a kid. The second had been for assault. And let's just say, he had learned his lesson pretty early on. Not that he should avoid illegal activity necessarily, but to do a better damn job not to get caught by the cops.

At least by the time he was in his mid-twenties, lawlessness had pretty much overtook the city. So it became a lot easier to get away with thievery, assault, drug use, and even murder for that matter. Clint had known quite a few murderers running free.

"I'll know if you're lying, you know." Jones folded her hands on the table, although she looked strangely intimidating because of it. "So you better answer my questions, Barton. You don't want to get pulled into an interrogation room with one of these fancy colony cops. Trust me,"

"And you aren't one of them, Jones?"

"Do I look like one?"

"You look like a dumpster fire." Clint deadpanned.

Something shifted on Jones's face then; her lips twitched, and it looked like she almost smiled. Clint would have congratulated himself on breaking her icy façade, but he honestly didn't think that was the case. She was still a cop, dead-set on sending him back to Earth. At least he knew that for a fact.

"When did you meet Jasper Sitwell?" She launched into almost immediately.

"Maybe two years ago, I don't know." He tried to shrug without success. "I leave the contact junk to Phil. He makes the connections, and I just do the grunt work."

"Why did you meet him in the first place?"

"Slum politics, you know the drill. You hear from a friend of a friend's cousin's twice removed about a job needing to be done."

"So you ran jobs for Sitwell."

"Basic stuff; nothing really that illegal. I mean have you been to Earth recently? Nothing's that illegal nowadays."

"Yeah, yeah," Jones mumbled with a faraway look on her face.

Clint observed her for several moments, before he looked away with a huff. His reflection glowered back at him, although he knew that there was probably a crowd of asshole cops watching him with dead, impersonal eyes. They were all probably gunning to send the trash back to Earth.

"Is Phil going to be okay?"

"That depends on you, Barton. I need answers, and you're going to give them to me right now." Jones said. "As I was saying, so you've known Sitwell all this time, and you're telling me that you've never heard the name Alexander Pierce once?"

"No, he always talked about the boss. He never mentioned any names. Besides I didn't really care anyway. All I cared about was the money." Clint looked back at her. "Maybe you can relate,"

Jones didn't readily respond. Instead she pushed away from the table, and fell back into her chair with an audible thump. She didn't look any less intimidating, but she did look tired. It was the kind of tired that ran bone-deep; the kind that had seen the ugliest things that humanity could do in the name of survival. It probably even reflected all the shit she'd done to survive too.

They stared at one another for what felt like hours. There was a kinship between them; one that couldn't be manufactured or faked. For that moment, they were just two shitty people that had done some fucked up stuff to survive another day. And they were successful. Or at least Clint was somewhat successful at this point. But the point remained the same.

"So you never heard the name Pierce. And you didn't think it was funny the guy, Sitwell, was stuck on Earth?"

"Listen, I've seen weirder things. Besides, it wasn't like we were buddy-buddy with Sitwell anyhow. We did like four jobs for him in the past; it wasn't like we were his henchmen." Clint rolled his eyes. "We were blade runners, you know. We tracked down 'droids and blasted them into next year."

"Blade runners," Jones repeated without any obvious infliction.

"Trust me, things weren't that booming of late. But we scraped by."

"Well, you must have done a doozy of a job to get a ticket to Colony III." Jones drawled. "So mind elaborating on that?"

Clint hesitated, although it was only for a split-second. After all, why would he want to protect Sitwell and his criminal boss anyway? It wasn't any skin off his back to tell Jones all about the ill-advised mission that brought him onto a colony light-years away from Earth.

"We fucked up his hover van, okay. Phil asked if we could borrow it, and Sitwell actually agreed. Then we fucked it up on a job, and so we had to pay him back somehow. So we owed him a favor."

"How did a favor turn into a ticket to Colony III?"

"Simple, it was an important job." Clint sighed. "Sitwell told us there was a highly sophisticated 'droid running around on Earth. Like Stark Industries type of quality,"

"Wait a minute; are you telling me Sitwell had a Stark android running loose on the planet?"

"No, I said he told us about a 'droid that was Stark Industries quality. There's a difference there."

"Then who manufactured this 'droid?"

"Hell if I know," he spat. "But that isn't the point anyway. Sitwell wanted us to bring him this 'droid; it apparently belonged to his boss. This Pierce guy, I'm thinking."

Jones looked openly confused. She didn't say anything right away, as if she needed some time to churn over the information that he'd just given her. And in a way he didn't actually blame her. The whole thing sounded pretty far-fetched.

To be honest, Clint hadn't actually given any thought on who had developed the 'droid that had happened to be Barnes. It was pretty much a secondary concern when you took into consideration how Rogers had tried to kill them, and how they were so eager to flee the planet.

"Did he elaborate on why he wanted this android?"

"No, not from what I remembered. I just knew we owed the guy a favor, so we went looking for the thing. And let me tell you something – I met this 'droid before, and I seriously thought it was human. I mean I'm not the brightest guy around, I have mistaken Stark's 'droids for human. But I can eventually figure it out. Just this one though, it was like it was human. Phil can attest to that."

"So I imagine you found it."

"Yeah, we got lucky." He nodded. "So that's how we ended up with the tickets to the colony. Sitwell's boss gave them to us."

Jones looked back to the wall, before she slowly pushed onto her feet. She looked perturbed by what Clint had conveyed. Her former nasty deposition had disappeared like a plumb of smoke; which Clint wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.

"Could you describe the 'droid in detail?"

"I could do better than that. I could give you the fuck's name."

"It had a name?"

"Well, it was living like a person. Had a best friend, worked as a runner too even," Clint explained. "But if I tell you, I want a promise from you."

"Let me guess, you want to stay on the colony with your buddy."

"Bingo,"

"I think I can arrange that." Jones looked back to the wall; she seemed to see what she needed, because she plopped back into her seat. "All right then, Barton; I'm all ears."

"Its name was Barnes. Bucky Barnes,"

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifty-six :: Seven O'Clock Sharp

 


 

 

 

Any data that could indirectly be linked to the Ultima Zero Project had been wiped from the company's network. Bruce had taken up the initiative, struck by unrelenting paranoia of late. But he had to believe it was justified.

Everyday without Ultima Zero's return, the tighter the noose became around their necks. Everyone was walking on pins and needles, and the explosive relationship between Thor and Baldur had only grown. Bruce felt like the company might combust at any moment now, and he happened to be in the cross-hairs.

Honestly, it would be easier to jump ship. Bruce could take all his research and run. Maybe he could even convince one of the colonies to take him. Or in the very least, he could appeal to Justin Hammer to take him onto his company's payroll.

In an ideal world, Bruce would have, more than likely, attempted to win over Tony Stark. Earlier on in his career, Stark had been infinitely interested in recruiting Bruce. But his loyalties had been firmly in place with the Odinson family, more specifically with his partner at the time. And now he stayed in order to protect himself.

The protection around him had thinned, though. So he needed to check, double-check, and triple-check himself for any traces of evidence that any illegal activity had transpired. Any minuscule detail that could be misinterpreted had to be removed.

He still wasn't convinced that he'd been thorough enough; which was why he was going through his research notes once more. He had the time to, after all. The production of new androids had been suspended for the time being. And any improvements on the current lines were secondary concerns at the moment for everyone involved.

Running a hand through his unruly hair, Bruce squinted as he read the text on the holographic screen. He could probably recite this data by heart by now. None of it looked incriminating, and yet he would be foolish not to take every piece of data into account. He'd stand here for hours if need be.

"What could you possibly be doing?" Someone rumbled behind him, which nearly made him jump out of his skin. He was easily spooked on a normal basis; right now he was even more jumpy.

Bruce spun around with his heart in his throat. He pulled his spectacles off his face, and tried to regain some equilibrium as he looked at his boss. Thor stood in the doorway to the lab, dressed smartly in his customary suit, although he looked unhappy and grim.

Over the past eleven years, Bruce couldn't definitively say that anyone in the Odinson family was anywhere near happy. There had been continued tension between Thor and Baldur. Or more specifically, most of the family and Baldur.

Baldur had been at odds with everyone due to the Ultima Zero Project, and Bruce had always understood his position. He had had second thoughts about executing the project in the first place. But the pressure had been too great for him to resist, and he had been selfish in wanting to revive his old friend as well. He couldn't and he wouldn't put all the blame on the Odinsons.

"I was just looking through my research and project notes." He pinched at the bridge of his nose. "It's taking quite a bit of time, though."

"So I see." Thor drawled slowly, followed shortly by the sound of his thunderous footfall.

Bruce closed his eyes; he could feel a headache building in the back of his head. He suspected that it might only get worse if the conversation was prolonged by a few minutes, no less if it happened to cross into dangerous territory.

Thor wasn't known for small talk, though. He always had an agenda. May it be run-of-the-mill business or something more personal; he was a man with a directive in mind, and he didn't dawdle on pleasantries all that frequently. Which was probably why he had been a more suitable choice to take the reins of the company compared to Baldur.

Baldur was inherently different from Thor. His leadership skills were muted in comparison. And he appeared contented with logistics and busy work as opposed to maintaining all facades of the company. Bruce didn't fault him for that either.

"Are you worried about something, Dr. Banner?" Thor asked; he had stopped an arm's length away from him. "You seem unnerved."

"Shouldn't we all be?" He put his glasses back on, and the world came back into sharp focus.

The soft edges had dissipated like a plumb of smoke. The lab had that hard, sterile look to it; which reflected almost every square inch of the world nowadays. Even Bruce's many attempts to make a homey environment for himself were unsuccessful.

Old, tattered carpets from worlds since eroded; tapestries faded into muddled patterns, and globs of wax that were formerly candle-shaped cluttered his private quarters. He had been stupid to think that all those things would keep the truth away. And he was still stupid to believe that if he deleted enough potentially inflammatory data that they would all be saved.

"Did you hear of the retirement order that Baldur put out?" Thor crossed his arms over his chest; his face was pinched in a mangle of emotion, primarily anger and defeat.

"No, I didn't."

"Well, he decided to go behind my back and do so."

"That is," Bruce tried to think of the best word to describe the situation; although he certainly couldn't say he was shocked by the revelation. "It's not all that unexpected, I guess."

Thor's expression twisted. He looked far more incensed than he had beforehand. But he soon got a hold of himself, and his face seemed to smooth out into neutrality. Bruce wasn't convinced of it, though.

"I thought you'd be more upset. Loki has been not only your colleague for years, but he was also a good friend to you."

"I'm sorry that I can't meet your expectations in the emotional department, Mr. Odinson" He said in defeat. "I'm tired; we all are. I think we've been tired these past eleven years. I know I have been, at least."

No truer words had come out of him. Ever since he'd successfully completed the Ultima Zero Project, Bruce had been exhausted. The constant, never-ending stress of trying to keep the project a secret had been taxing on him both physically and emotionally. Not to mention, he carried a heavy burden of guilt for turning his friend into a monstrosity.

Ultima Zero and Loki might have shared one body, but they were separate entities. Whether anyone beyond Baldur wanted to see it or not; Ultima Zero was a machine. Even if he was made up of organic skin and bone; he had been stripped of his humanity along the way.

Ultima Zero had proven nearly impossible to control. He lashed out violently whenever the opportunity arose. He had broke invaluable lab equipment; he'd assaulted, nearly killed, many people whenever he was awake. And Bruce too had suffered abrasions, contusions, and even a broken wrist in his attempts to maintain some iota of control over him.

In the end, it had all been for naught. Ultima Zero had been untamed; he had showcased his superior intellect by reprogramming several androids right underneath Bruce's nose. And then he went out into the world and maimed and murdered many. So Bruce understood why Baldur had chosen the path he had.

"It's murder, Dr. Banner. How can you not see that?" Thor asked with a venomous edge to his tone. "I thought you of all people would realize that."

"I don't know what you want from me."

"Some common sense, I would think!"

"Common sense," Bruce repeated, before an embittered laugh erupted out of him. "From a physiological standpoint, with all due respect, Ultima Zero is more machine than man. Without his extensive hardware that regulates his heartbeat and maintains his brain activity; he wouldn't be alive."

"Twenty-first century medicine wasn't so different!"

"Those procedures were on a much smaller scale, Mr. Odinson. Ultima Zero is comprised of actual hardware and software, not so differently than what we use on the Cerberus, Phoenix, and Goddess lines." He tried to explain. "Of course, Ultima Zero is far more sophisticated; no expense was spared on him. But it doesn't change the science and engineering behind the entire project."

For a brief moment, it looked like Thor might direct his pent-up frustration on Bruce. It would have been fairly easy for him to cause collateral damage. Bruce was, after all, slight in comparison and nowhere near as actively prone as Thor was.

Fortunately, it did not come to pass. The anger flared and dissipated within a short span of time. Thor deflated; his arms dropped to his sides, and something like hopelessness overtook him. It looked alien on him, and it scared Bruce.

"I know that. I understand it in its most elementary of forms. But I don't want to believe that; not even now with everything that has happened." Thor admitted. "And I know that we're in danger, Dr. Banner. With each passing day, the closer we get to discovery. What's worse, I understand why Baldur did what he did."

Bruce was rendered speechless by Thor's confession. Thor and Baldur had always been on the opposite side of any disagreement. It never mattered the subject matter, they would always choose conflicting viewpoints. And while they never had been so violently spiteful towards one another until the Ultima Zero Project; they barely agreed on anything, besides Thor being the best candidate to run the company in their father's stead.

"I understand," Thor continued after a moment. "That's the most horrifying thing about this. I know that Loki has been lost for years now. No matter how much I clung to the opposite, I knew it wasn't the case. He's been dead for eleven years, Dr. Banner."

"I know, Mr. Odinson. I've known it, too."

"Now I can only hope that he'll be killed. That way he cannot hurt anyone else. And we can possibly try and heal from everything we've done."

"I know." Bruce repeated, for a lack of anything better to say.

There wasn't anything else to be said on the matter. They both knew that Ultima Zero's retirement would only be beneficial, possibly therapeutic for them. While it couldn't absolve them of the guilt that they felt; at least the nightmare would be over. Loki's suffering would be over.

Hesitantly, Bruce reached out to lay a hand on Thor's broad and solid shoulder. He gave it a small squeeze, as if any reassurance could come from it after such a revelation. Both of them knew that it wouldn't; they'd probably be haunted by this very conversation for years to come.

The admission that Ultima Zero, formerly a beloved family member and friend, was better off a pile of shrapnel and shattered bone wasn't anything to celebrate about. It would forever remain a source of great sorrow and shame for the two of them.

As they stood in silence, both of them churning over their spoken words; the holographic screen in front of them turned black. The data Bruce had been pouring over was suddenly replaced by boxy green lettering that spelled out: incoming call.

Furrowing his brow, Bruce dropped his hand from Thor's shoulder, and reached out to tap onto the screen. A variety of emotions seized him all at once. Anxiety, fear, and confusion were the primary culprits; although shock overruled him completely when the screen revealed a bored looking Tony Stark.

Stark was leaning back in a chair. One of his legs was propped up on a workbench; it was covered by an alluring shade of red armor, which he was prodding at with a screwdriver. If Bruce hadn't known he had made the video call in the first place, he would have been convinced Stark hadn't meant to at all. But the man was always methodical; mistakes weren't really in his nature.

"Goddamn blade runners," Stark drawled. "When you throw in rabid idiots without finesse, shit like this happens. See this right here, scuffled and crushed, nearly ruined,"

"Stark," Thor nearly lurched towards the screen.

"By the fucking way," Stark looked up then. "Uncool, Odinson; you made a simple 'droid run into a rat race."

"Does that mean...?"

"Well, what do you think? Do you think I called to play hanky-panky with you? No offense but you aren't my type; I like 'em willowy and pretty." Stark pointed the screwdriver at the screen. "But like I said before, un-fucking-cool; I almost got myself killed because of your bullshit."

Bruce gaped openly at Stark. He didn't know what to think. Stark couldn't actually mean what he was implying. That was beyond the realm of rhyme and reason. Not after weeks without a single communication about Ultima Zero's whereabouts. And while Bruce had know about the androids' retirements; he hadn't been all that surprised that they had been ticked off rather quickly.

Ultima Zero was a different story altogether. No matter how skilled a blade runner was, even of Tony Stark's caliber, Bruce hadn't held much faith in Ultima Zero being captured.

"I demand that you show him to me!" Thor roared suddenly.

"Calm down, buddy,"

"No, I want irrefutable proof that you have Ultima Zero!"

"For Christ's sake," Stark rolled his eyes, before he tossed his screwdriver to the workbench. He then dropped his armor-clad leg to the floor. "He isn't going anywhere, you know."

Despite what he said, Stark stood and spun the screen away from where he'd been seated. On another workbench nearby, there was a figure laid out on top of it. Bruce quickly registered the long black hair, the aquiline features, and the pale skin.

Ultima Zero was motionless. His eyes were closed and his hands folded on his stomach. He looked nearly peaceful, which made Bruce wonder if he was actually dead.

"Did you...?" Thor trailed off, clearly on the same wavelength as him.

"What? No," Stark said dismissively. "Let's just say I had to use more than what was necessary to disable him. After all, he isn't what I was expecting. If you catch my drift."

Stark's eyes spoke volumes. While the words remained unsaid; his hardened eyes didn't leave anything up for debate. He knew. Of course, he knew. Whether or not the retirement order had gotten to him or not; Stark would have become acquainted with Ultima Zero's physiology fairly quickly in order to subdue him effectively.

"Bring him to me immediately!" Thor demanded.

"Wait a second, buddy," Stark huffed, before he laughed. "We don't go by your timetable. We're going by mine, and since I have a few personal issues I need to handle of the utmost importance, well, you'll get your little buddy back in three days time."

"Stark,"

"Or if you rather, I could get Commissioner Fury on the line. I think he'd find this situation infinitely more interesting than I even do. And trust me, I am totally intrigued; I'm having a real science boner over here."

"You wouldn't," Thor shook his head.

"I would." Stark retorted. "But I won't if you agree to my terms. That being said, I will personally escort this freak to you in one piece. And I want in your lab, Banner. I want the extensive run down on how this thing's up and running. And trust me, I've been trying to figure out this mystery for nearly two days now."

Thor looked aghast. Bruce could only imagine why he would be infuriated by the knowledge that Stark had Ultima Zero in his custody for two whole days, before he took up the initiative to actually contact them. But at this point, they were at Stark's mercy.

"So, I'll show up at Odinson Corp at seven o'clock sharp on Saturday." Stark continued without missing a beat. "I get clearance to the R & D level, where I get to have one-on-one time with Banner. And I'll also be given your blessing, Odinson, on trying to recruit him. You know, after we get into the nitty-gritty on how the fuck this thing is real."

"You-"

"Nu-uh," Stark wagged his finger at the screen. "It's my way or no way. I have all the power, Odinson. It's up to you if you want to indulge my curiosity, or you'd rather I wait for the government's extensive, bloody report on the inner workings of your little buddy here. Either way, I fucking win; not to mention you owe me those plans on those portable battery ports,"

"How do I know that you will uphold your end of the bargain?"

"Trust me, I don't want this thing in my lab for more than a few more days. I rather not be caught with it. Since, you know, no one will believe that you geniuses actually built it; they'll think I did instead."

"Swear on your honor,"

"I have no honor; you'll just have to take my word." Stark shrugged. "I have a thing for self-preservation, you know. I'm not going to jeopardize it because I think you're an asshole."

"Saturday at seven," Thor gritted out.

"It's a date; see you soon." Stark blew them a kiss and reached forward, before the screen was soon replaced by all the data Bruce had previously been studying.

They stood in silence, shoulder-to-shoulder. The silence was impenetrable, as if the world would shift on its axis if they made any sudden movements. And it might very well do just that.

Thor was the first to move. He looked neither happy or sad; he didn't even look angry, really. Whatever thoughts that were racing through his head weren't shared with Bruce. And he was, admittedly, grateful for it. Because Bruce didn't know if he could handle their trajectory; after all, he didn't know what to think either.

The only thing that kept volleying back to the forefront of his mind was that they were in more danger than they had been in beforehand.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifty-seven :: Security Breach

 


 

 

 

Every keystroke was methodical. Pepper's eyes flickered from the data on-screen, to the reflection of the figure behind her. She was already tightly wound, but the frequent reminder of her captivity only made it a tenfold worse.

It proved especially hard to focus on the task at hand. Every move she made was under persistent scrutiny. She knew if she didn't take extreme caution that her only hope of survival would be destroyed. Not only that, she could easily put Tony in harm's way as well.

That would be the worst part. She would gladly put herself in harm's way to save Tony. But she also knew that she didn't need to make an unnecessary sacrifice of yet. She'd only do as much if she knew her plan couldn't be executed as she hoped it would be.

Her plan was fairly simple; the execution, not so much. While she had every intention on infiltrating Stark Industries' network, she also intended on ensuring that Tony knew someone had breached the security system and leaving behind a warning for him to find.

Years ago during the nightmare situation with Obadiah, her and Tony had established a way to subtly communicate their general well-being to one another. They'd been separated many times throughout their ordeal, and they had both feared they were being monitored by Obadiah throughout it. So they had to get creative, in order to keep one another safe.

All Pepper needed to do was drop a simple phrase into a specific spot, and Tony would know everything he needed to about her status. He'd know to be on high alert, and maybe he could do something in order to help her too. She had complete faith in him. But more than anything, she wanted him to keep himself safe.

"Status," the android demanded suddenly.

Pepper's fingers jerked to a stop on the keyboard. Her heart had made an impressive leap up into her throat, and her back went rigid. She found it nearly impossible to maintain any level of calmness with everything considered.

The android had already caused her physical damage. Her head was still dully aching, alongside the rest of her body. And she hadn't any doubt that he'd attack her again if he deemed her response to be unsatisfactory.

"I'm trying to get past the security system currently." She managed to say in a confident tone. "Even with my relationship with Tony, he hasn't given me complete clearance. And the easiest way to breach the network and unlock all the data you'd need, will to do so without any detection from his AI. That means it'll take a little more time, but I'm working as quickly as I can."

Several highly uneasy moments passed after she spoke. Pepper dared to shift a little in her seat, in order to glean a look at the android. He stood several feet away in a defiant stance. His arms were crossed over his broad chest, and his steel blue eyes were boring directly into her.

He was a terrifying example of a sophisticated piece of machinery. Even the wayward androids fifteen years ago hadn't seemed so life-like and human. Pepper could tell the difference between a human and an android. She'd been around them long enough to distinguish the contrasts between them. But with this certain model, it was damn-near impossible.

He was obviously not one of Tony's models. He also couldn't feasibly be one of Odinson Corp's or Hammer's either. He was far too advanced to be a competitors. And yet Tony was the most gifted engineer out there today; if not the most gifted that had ever lived, and he hadn't manufactured him.

This android defied all logic. He looked human; he moved fluidly and naturally. While his affect was flat, it wasn't like how Natasha spoke. He sounded like he was bored, as opposed to mechanical.

"You don't seem possible." She uttered absently.

For his part, the android didn't respond. He only braced his arms tighter across his chest; an utterly human-like response that would have been impossible to emulate without years and years of tireless, mundane work. And that only made Pepper all the more curious about his origins.

"Justin Hammer only makes bit-time work-bots," she traced her eyes over him. "The Odinsons are notoriously cheap with their material. And Tony, well, he wouldn't have created you right underneath my nose. I would have known about you."

"My manufacturer is irrelevant."

"I know, but you're an anomaly." Pepper slowly turned back to the screen in front of her, in order to focus on the task at hand.

She hadn't been lying exactly, when she had said that Tony had put safeguards in place. He hadn't given her full and complete clearance. Even with everything that they shared, Pepper understood that Tony didn't possess the ability to trust someone one-hundred percent. But she would say their trust in one another came very close to it.

To be honest, it probably would only take a few hours of diligence to hack into the network. Pepper wasn't any computer genius, but she had spent plenty of time acquainting herself with Tony's operating system, and Tony had taught her a trick or two over the years as well.

As she renewed her focus on the screen in front of her, Pepper heard laborious steps echo from behind her. The android was in motion, which made her feel even more on edge than previously. She refused to turn around to see what he was doing. It wouldn't accomplish anything anyway, beyond chipping away at her levelheadedness even further.

Under most circumstances, Pepper had the ability to work well under pressure. She could maintain a level head, and get the job done without any problem. But her capabilities were severely jeopardized whenever Tony was in harm's way. That's when she lost her cool, and when things became infinitely more trying.

Tony was the only one she had left. All of her family had died throughout her most formidable years, and any of the friends that she had had disappeared fifteen years ago. While she did have many acquaintances, and a warm relationship with Rhodey; it was nothing compared to what she and Tony ultimately shared.

They might not be married anymore, but she still valued him above anyone else. They would always have a connection that no one else could ever emulate. Whether she moved on or if Tony moved on; they would have something special. And Pepper would protect what they had at all costs.

About twenty minutes passed, before Pepper heard the android circle back from wherever he'd been in her apartment. His steps were heavy and foreboding, and before too long his presence was right next to her.

Tensely, she glanced upward to see him. He looked as terrifying as he had when he first had attacked her hover vehicle and senselessly killed Happy. And that look pervaded as he had terrorized her physically in hopes of answers. But it was impossible to get used to.

"Status report," he demanded.

"It'll take some time still. I'm trying the best that I can."

"Work more efficiently,"

"I can only do the best that I can. Trust me, I am." She kept the quiver out of her voice but only just. And it became almost impossible when the android leaned right into her personal space.

His handsome, albeit frightful face was only centimeters away from hers. She could smell gunmetal and oil on him; there was an undertone of blood to him as well. She tensed up harder, which made her muscles ache and protest in pain.

He leaned inward until there was virtually no space between them. That's when Pepper realized she could feel soft plumbs of breath coming from his nose. Her eyes widened in alarm, and her fear became a secondary concern for the moment. Because surely it wasn't a possible for an android to breathe or for there to be a minute shift of his eyes as he watched her closely.

Almost as an afterthought, Pepper reached up and touched his cheek. It didn't feel like synthetic skin; he even felt warm like a real person would. But there were too many other factors that made it improbable that he were human at all.

"What are you?" She slid her fingers downward to touch the stubble along his jawline, across his chin, and over his bottom lip. "Tony hasn't been able to make something as sophisticated as you. You're even breathing, or rather you're imitating breathing."

It was probably ill-advised, downright stupid even, to touch an aggressive android. But he didn't lash out as she had thought he would. Instead, he tilted his head and allowed her hand to trail along his other cheek and up over to his brow.

"My programming is faulty." He spoke in the same monotone, although his words seemed heavy.

"Did someone program you to do this?"

"Negative,"

"What were you programmed for?"

"Classified," the android withdrew from her touch then; his lips twitched, although Pepper almost missed it. "Work more efficiently; faster,"

Shaking some sense back into herself, Pepper dropped her hand back onto the keyboard once more. She was terribly disturbed by how life-like this unnamed android proved to be. She also knew he was ruthless; he had nearly thrown her out of a window, and of course she had slaughtered Happy.

She couldn't allow herself to become enamored by his workmanship. She also couldn't allow her mind to sympathize with him either. Because even if none of this was entirely the android's fault, and the blame fell instead on whoever programmed him, he was still a danger to her well-being. He was actively attempting to harm Tony more than even her. And she had to keep that at the forefront of her mind.

The android drifted away again. He had settled in front of the window; his stance was rigid and closed-off. Pepper studied him for a few moments, before she returned to the information in front of her. She needed to work faster as he had said; she needed to ensure Tony's safety, since she might put him in jeopardy with cracking open the network.

Once she lowered the security system, that would allow the android to infiltrate the tower. Or if the ideal scenario unfolded, Pepper would warn Tony just in the nick of time. Then he'd be able to either be able to reinstate the security system, or he'd be ready to retire the android once he stepped foot into the tower.

Whichever scenario didn't matter to Pepper; she just needed to get her warning out without being detected. She had to be sure that Tony knew that he needed to be on his guard. And if he couldn't possibly save her, well she would understand. He had saved her too many times to count anyway, and besides now it was her turn.

So she dove head-first into her work. While it continued to prove an obstacle to relax with a hostile android prowling behind her every so often, Pepper managed to make some decent headway after nearly an hour and a half of busy work. She managed to crack undetected through several firewalls. JARVIS appeared none the wiser, although that might only be a temporary thing.

Her fingers flew efficiently over the keys, despite the fact her body threatened to tremble from the burst of adrenaline that spread through her appendages. She had to maintain some level of composure, in order not to tip off the android that she had been successful in her endeavor. But he'd be on her soon, so she had to make this quick.

When she found an opening, somewhere that Tony would undoubtedly notice a glitch in his coding. Pepper took in an even breath, before she wrote down a turn of phrase that they had used so many times in the past. It was a red flag to something being awry, and it also broadcast that communication was unlikely at this point. It also meant that bodily harm could come to either of them.

Do androids dream of electric sheep?

Pepper had barely entered the phrase into the coding, when her collar was grabbed from behind, and she was yanked with violent force out of her seat. She let out a scream, and a bloom of white-hot pain burst through the side of her head. The android loomed above her with his fist pulled back. She only had a split-second to worry about its trajectory, before everything went back.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifty-eight :: Thank you, Secretary Pierce

 


 

 

Sitwell had come to the bleak conclusion that he was thoroughly and officially fucked. He had the slightest of inklings when Winter hadn't returned from his surveillance mission. But it was firmly implanted in his mind once he learned of Winter's disobedience.

It didn't make any sense. Sitwell had been painstakingly careful with reprogramming Winter. He had known there wasn't any room for error. And yet, something had clearly glitched. Why else would Winter have taken matters into his own hands?

He'd been programmed to follow orders, more specifically whatever Sitwell expected of him. He hadn't been programmed with any form of free will. After all, that had been the problem with him in the first place.

It was impossible to explain how an android, no matter how advanced, had led an unusually normal life. Winter had built an identity of his own; he had somehow tapped into the capacity to create false memories, in order to blend in as a human. It was almost like he had the internal knowledge how to be human.

The Longest Winter Project was beyond Sitwell's clearance. At least, the vast majority of data around the project was anyway. He didn't have all the necessary information on how Winter had been designed, but he did know that the idea of Winter had been conceived nearly one-hundred years beforehand. And that Secretary Pierce's father and his father before him, had been actively involved on Winter's realization, albeit Secretary Pierce was the one to bring him to life.

It was abundantly obvious though, that Winter was the most sophisticated and well-conceived android in existence. No one stood as his contemporary, not even Stark's Mark line. Because they hadn't any capacity for humanity; they ultimately didn't have that ability to flex free will, even when Sitwell had sworn he had fixed that problem.

No matter how impressive, Sitwell couldn't sit around and marvel about Winter's capabilities. They were the reason why he was fucked, after all. And it was only a matter of time before Secretary Pierce called him for a status report.

"What am I going to do?" He asked the empty, cluttered room. "The boss is going to kill me."

Despite having Winter's exact coordinates, it didn't do him any good. He couldn't rush in and disable Winter. And what would Pepper Potts do to him once he showed up? Of course, she'd get the authorities involved, which would lead to Sitwell's untimely incarceration and Winter's retirement. Both of which were not things Sitwell wanted.

As cowardly as it seemed, the only way out of this difficult situation was to flee. Sitwell could cut everything and run. While Secretary Pierce had influence throughout the colonies, there were plenty of ways to hide in plain sight. And the risk would have to be worthwhile, as opposed to waiting for Winter to return with Potts's blood on his hands.

"Fuck it," he uttered under his breath, before he pushed up off of the shabby couch he'd been perched on, and clambered over all the debris splayed across the floor.

Most of the items stacked haphazardly around his apartment was junk. The rest was too large and bulky to even consider taking with him. All he needed were the essentials: clothes, hygienic items, and maybe a few of the classified files in his possession.

Propelled by desperation, Sitwell rushed into the only bedroom of the apartment. It was filled with machinery where he'd worked tirelessly on Winter. But in the closet, Sitwell kept his clothes and a small suitcase that originally came with him from Colony I.

Sitwell crossed the room in several steps, before he yanked open the closet door. He immediately crouched down, where the suitcase was located. He popped it open, and absently grabbed at the pieces of clothing hanging overhead. It didn't matter what articles of clothing came with him; so long as he could easily blend into the background on whichever colony he chose to inhabit.

Hurriedly, he stuffed everything into his suitcase with his heart in his throat. He needed to leave as soon as possible. He shouldn't have any problem boarding a space craft. But instead of heading for Colony I, maybe he'd go for III or IV instead.

Just as he clicked his suitcase shut, a loud, nearly violent, knock rattled through Sitwell's apartment. He tensed up hard. He rarely got any visitors, unless for some reason Winter had chosen to come through the front door; as opposed to climbing through one of the windows.

Slowly, Sitwell got to his feet and glanced around the bedroom. The knocking persisted; a loud, thunderous cacophony that could very well be attributed to a thousand pound android. But then again, it could be someone like the police. Or what if it was Rumlow and Rollins by chance?

There wasn't any escape for him then. Sitwell looked around him almost frantically, before his eyes found an old energy gun tossed onto one of the side trays filled with odds and ends. He ran across the room, and snatched the energy gun from the tray as the knocking continued.

Even though he'd lived on such an anarchist planet for seven years now, Sitwell hadn't had to actually kill anyone. He flew under the radar, more or less. Sure, he made connections with some of the shadier types. But he had managed to keep everything professional between him and them. He used the money funneled to him from the colonies, to build relationships; and he had gotten some protection in exchange.

With cautious steps, he moved into the short hallway and into the living room. The door was quaking underneath the endless barrage of knocks. If Sitwell didn't answer soon enough, the door would probably fall right off the hinges.

"Who's there?" He yelled above the noise.

The persistent knocking suddenly came to a halt. No one answered, which only heightened Sitwell's mounting paranoia. But he had to get closer to the door; there wasn't any way around that, unfortunately.

So he approached and leaned towards the peep hole. Much to his exasperation, whoever was on the other end of the door had covered it up with their hand. And that only made him hold on tightly to the energy gun; he was going to have to kill someone. He really was.

Reaching out for lock, Sitwell turned it. Before he could reach for the doorknob, he was nearly struck by the door as it was shoved open and two men stormed into his apartment.

It all happened so quickly. Sitwell was almost upended by a man twice his size. He grabbed for the energy gun in his possession, and tore it from him without any trouble like he was taking candy from a baby. And that's when the gun was turned on him, pointed directly between his eyes.

The man looked fierce and angry. He bared his teeth, and his hand was steady, the one that was holding Sitwell's energy gun. The other man had shut the door and re-locked it behind them; which effectively blocked any hope of escape for Sitwell.

"Jasper Sitwell," the other man said, before he retrieved a badge from his interior jacket pocket. "Sam Wilson, agent of SHIELD,"

"S-SHIELD," Sitwell repeated in equal parts confusion and shock.

SHIELD was a colony based organization, although its reach spread out to Earth as well. But there really wasn't any need for their influence. The only time in recent history that SHIELD extended some help to Earth, in the background of course, was during that debacle with Stark Industries fifteen years ago.

Otherwise though, there wasn't any reason for a SHIELD agent to be here. Unless, that is, he was here specifically for him.

"W-What's this about?" Sitwell tried to see around the man with his energy gun in his face. "And could you kindly tell your partner to back down?"

"Where the hell is Bucky?!" The man spat angrily then. "I know you were in cohorts with Coulson and Barton! So you better give me some goddamn answers, unless you want me to blow your head off!"

"Steve," Sam Wilson barked. "That's enough!"

"I found him for you, and now he's going to answer my questions." The man called Steve snarled, all the while keeping his eyes on Sitwell. "Now you are going to tell me where Bucky is. Or what the hell you've done to him!"

Sitwell flinched as the barrel of the energy gun was pressed into his forehead. He hadn't any clue what the bastard was talking about. He didn't know any Bucky. And if he did, it would have been a fleeting association that hadn't lasted more than a few weeks at the most.

"Where is Bucky?!"

"Steve-"

"I don't know any Bucky! Swear to god," Sitwell held up his hands in submission.

"That's not what Coulson said!" Steve pressed the barrel harder into his forehead. "In fact, he said they did a favor for you. Does that ring any bells?"

Confusion and fear prevailed in Sitwell's mind for several moments. He tried to discern the information thrown in his direction. So Coulson had told this guy that he had done him a favor. More specifically something involving a guy called Bucky; but there had only been one favor, and that one favor had been...

His eyes widened in alarm. So Winter was this Bucky, and not only that but this was Winter's buddy throughout the duration of his disappearance. He hadn't any idea how much of a life Winter had established, but it was obviously enough for someone to come looking for him.

"Well, does it?" Steve yelled.

"Yes, yes," he stammered. "I know who you're talking about, but his name isn't Bucky! It's The Winter Soldier!"

"What the hell are you talking about? His name is James Buchanan Barnes! I know that for a fact!"

"No matter how elaborate the name is, it doesn't make it true! I'll prove it to you, so long as you let me!"

"You said we were playing by my rules." Sam said clearly incensed, which might have motivated this Steve to pull the energy gun away from Sitwell's forehead, and for him to take a step backward.

Even with the distance now between them, Sitwell noticed the energy gun was still trained onto him. So there truly wasn't an escape route for him. The windows were out of the question; he lived on the sixth floor, and he hadn't any fire escape. Winter was the only one could walk away from a drop like that.

Swallowing hard, Sitwell moved away from Steve and Sam Wilson. He watched the two of them from the corner of his eye, as he tried to find the paper folder in his possession. He noticed how Sam Wilson sidled up beside Steve, and snarled something biting directly into his ear. Steve didn't so much as flinch, as he continued to track Sitwell with the energy gun.

Sitwell found his way to the low table that housed his many computer screens. He shifted through the nuts, bolts, and other odds and ends strewn about. Shoving several things to the already dirty floor, he tried to unearth the folder that he knew he had a copy of.

When he didn't find anything on the table, he quickly turned and stuffed his hands in between the couch cushions. By some miracle, he found it jammed in between the cushion and the side of the couch. He let out a sigh of relief, before he held it out to Steve.

"What the hell is that?" Steve asked coldly.

"Proof about your James Buchanan Barnes," he urged the folder towards Steve.

Steve glanced to Sam Wilson for guidance. Sam Wilson simply lifted his hands; he looked peeved by his partner's behavior, albeit Steve didn't seem perturbed by it. Instead, he yanked the folder from Sitwell with his free hand.

Sitwell dropped onto the couch with a huff. He kept his hands up, so Steve wouldn't get trigger happy on him, and he watched as Steve single-handedly flicked open the folder to look at the information about The Longest Winter Project.

"What the hell is this...?" Steve's eyes moved rapidly across the top sheet. "The Longest Winter...?"

"The Longest Winter Project," Sitwell began cautiously. "It's a long standing artificial intelligence program; the outcome resulted in an android called The Winter Soldier."

The indignation that enveloped Steve seemed to wane. Sitwell watched as he read over the information at his disposal. His arm that had the energy gun pointed at him slowly lowered. But Sitwell didn't dare try and make any abrupt movements; he knew better than that.

Sam Wilson tried to peer over Steve's shoulder, but he soon gave up to observe Sitwell instead. Which brought up the very real concern Sitwell had on why Sam Wilson was there; he knew without a doubt it had to be linked to Secretary Pierce, more specifically it probably had to do with his questionable business dealings with some unfortunate characters in his social circle.

"Son of a bitch," Steve choked out. "This isn't true; Bucky isn't an android! He's a human; I know that for a fact! He breathes, he eats, he drinks!"

"He's a highly sophisticated piece of machinery." Sitwell tried to explain patiently. "He has a filtering system, which allows him to blend into society. So yes, he can eat and drink. As for the breathing function, it's just another elaborate detail to make him seem more human. But rest assured, he is not one; I should know, I personally wiped his memory and rebooted him recently."

Steve's head shot up; his eyes were wide and bewildered. Sitwell tensed up again, although he really hadn't stopped. It was impossible to know if Steve would believe him or not. He clearly had an idea in his head, and it probably wasn't all that pretty either.

A hysterical laugh bubbled up out of Steve then. He looked to Sam Wilson, before he looked back at Sitwell. He looked on the verge of some type of mental breakdown, and Sitwell didn't want any part of it. And yet, he had nowhere to go; he could only wait for all the chips to fall. He was a damn coward.

"So you wiped him and rebooted him?" Steve asked between chuckles. "What for? Why would you do that? What was wrong with him beforehand?"

"He belongs to an associate of mine."

"Secretary Pierce," Sam Wilson supplied with obvious disgust.

"I didn't say that."

"You didn't have to."

"And so what then? You were going to pack him up and ship him away?"

"More or less," Sitwell barely got the words out, before Steve lifted the energy gun and shot at him in the shoulder.

Agonizing pain ripped through Sitwell at a rapid rate. He hollered and grabbed at his shoulder, although that only aggravated the entry wound further. He collapsed back against the couch, while his nose was bombarded by the stench of burnt skin, his burnt skin.

"What the hell are you doing, man?" Sam Wilson yelled.

"He took him from me!" Steve screamed back. "The only thing I had, and he took him from me! Just like Peggy,"

"Listen, man, I'm sure his memories can be recovered. That's a thing, right?"

"N-No, I'm sorry; I set him back to factory-like settings." Sitwell panted, as perspiration beaded his forehead. "Oh god, I can't believe you shot me."

"Bucky's gone!" Steve screamed louder. "You took him from me! I loved him! I still do! And you came along and took him away from me when we were happy!"

Sitwell never got the opportunity to respond. The pain suddenly bellowed and became unbearable. Steve shot him a second time then a third. He shot him everywhere that he could; elbow to knee, foot to belly, and finally in an act of mercy (or viciousness), he shot him right between the eyes.

His last thought, beyond the intolerable pain, was that he had died a low life. He had died on this filthy, forsaken planet without anything to his name but shame. And that was all thanks to Alexander Pierce.

Chapter Text


 

Chapter Fifty-nine :: Hopefulness is Weakness

 


 

 

Detective Luke Cage smiled at Phil. He seemed genuinely amicable, unlike the woman that had taken Clint by the arm into another interrogation room some time ago. And Phil believed he had probably lucked out on the whole good cop, bad cop spiel.

"I haven't been to Earth in years." Detective Cage said, before he took a sip from his coffee cup. "It wasn't very pretty from what I remember. The smell was especially bad,"

"Think of that but twenty times worse nowadays,"

"Sweet Christmas, no wonder why you stowed away to come here."

"With all due respect, detective, I didn't stow away. I had a legitimate ticket." Phil reminded him, although he could tell his wording was a deliberate attempt to make him confess.

Ever since they'd been taken into custody, Phil had heard the name Alexander Pierce tossed about as if it meant anything to either him or Clint. It really hadn't, although Phil was intelligent enough to put two and two together.

Sitwell's unnamed boss must have been Secretary Alexander Pierce, and the aforementioned boss had had some highly suspect activity going on that SHIELD wanted to end. But the matter remained the same, neither Phil nor Clint had any inside knowledge to the details. They had simply been pawns in a game they didn't even know they were playing.

"Excuse me, sorry about that, it's been a long day."

"I can sympathize." Phil looked away, and glanced at the mirrored walls.

His appearance said everything. He looked like hell, but it could barely touch on how he felt. He couldn't even articulate how exhausted he felt. It was like the last fifteen years had finally caught up with him, and emphasized the circles under his eyes, and the lines etched into his face.

Detective Cage, in comparison, looked virile and well-fed. He had the shiny look of being colony bred, which contrasted starkly with the woman detective. She looked like him and Clint. She had that dangerous, nearly feral glint to her eyes that only Earth people had. And every movement she made had the undercurrent of potential violence.

It was probably why she had taken Clint, instead of bothering with him. Phil knew he looked like an easy nut to crack. Clint, on the other hand, was rough around the edges; he looked like he'd climbed out of a pile of garbage in hopes of finding some kind of buried treasure.

"So," Detective Cage began, which drew Phil's attention away from his own reflection. "Secretary Pierce, I imagine you've heard the name before."

"Only recently,"

"Come on, man; let's not make this any more difficult than it needs to be."

"The only connection I potentially have to this Secretary Pierce is through Jasper Sitwell. I knew him from the streets back on Earth." Phil sighed. "Everyone knows one another somehow, and Jasper had built up a reputation of sorts."

Detective Cage said nothing, seemingly satisfied for Phil to spill his guts; which he hadn't any problem doing. After all, Sitwell had been the cause of all of this. He had knowingly gotten him and Clint involved into an illegal situation. And while that really wouldn't have kept Phil up too badly at night back on Earth; it was a totally different situation on a colony.

No one wanted to get involved with the police force on a colony. The colonies had civilized societies, so any illegal activity would result in jail time. Whereas on Earth, you could easily get away with murder; mostly because the police force was so small, and android crime was their significant focus. Humans were secondary in comparison.

"Explain to me how you earned your passage onto this colony."

"I ended up borrowing Sitwell's transport van a few weeks ago. We needed it, me and Clint, for a running job we were doing back on Earth."

"A running job," Detective Cage repeated.

"Yes," Phil smiled thinly. "We were blade runners back on Earth. The pickings were slim, but we managed to make ends meet anyway. Long story short, we had gotten hired by Odinson Corp to retire a few wayward 'droids, and additionally to return one to them. So we needed some transportation, and unfortunately some other runners ended up destroying the van."

"So, in other words, you owed him favor."

"Precisely," he nodded. "We didn't have the money to pay for the damages. So we jumped at the opportunity to pay off our debts otherwise."

"And what did he want you to do?" Detective Cage took another sip of his coffee. "For the record, we can't prosecute you for any illegal activity you've done on Earth. That is not within our jurisdiction."

That really didn't concern Phil any. He knew the penalty hovering above both his and Clint's heads was being sent back to Earth. Besides the point, they hadn't done something illegal. They were runners, and they brought in an unsupervised android to its handler. There wasn't anything wrong about that. In fact, they did a service for the general public by getting Barnes off the streets.

The only thing that nagged at Phil still about the situation was Steve Rogers. Surely, he wished he had kept his mouth shut when Rogers tried to kill everyone on board the Star-Lord. But he also could empathize with the fact that he had had a part in taking Rogers's companion away from him.

"Sitwell had told us about his boss, and how he had misplaced an android. Or that it had been lost for seven years on Earth, and he wanted us to locate it." Phil pinched the bridge of his nose. "Well, believe it or not, we had encountered the android before. But we had always been under the impression he'd been human. Anyway, we managed to disable it and we took it back to Sitwell.

"His boss was so happy that we found it, that he'd given us the tickets here. But that's the extent of what I know. Aside from the fact that Secretary Pierce owns a very human-like android; far more advanced than I had ever seen before. And I've seen my share, unfortunately."

Detective Cage frowned; he didn't say anything still, although he looked like he might. Even with his good cop role, he looked like he might try and rip Phil a new one for spinning an unbelievable tale. And well, Phil could understand why; it seemed all very stupid and exaggerated.

"Well, that's a tale."

"I know it sounds crazy."

"So you're telling me that Secretary Pierce just wanted an android back? You know, when he could have any pick of android that he wanted?"

"Trust me when I say that this android is different."

"But its just an android-"

"Cage," the woman detective suddenly burst into the door, effectively cutting Detective Cage off at the knee.

Detective Cage looked equal parts annoyed and exasperated by the interruption. The woman detective didn't seem in any way fazed by the expression he gave her. She reminded Phil a little of Clint in their abrupt, unfiltered way they had about them.

"You do realize I'm in the middle of an interrogation here."

"Yeah, yeah," the woman flicked her hand dismissively. "And I bet you haven't gotten jack shit from grandpa over here-"

"Grandpa-"

"Like I did from that biological disaster across the hall," she finished in a self-satisfactory way.

Detective Cage now looked unimpressed. He leaned back in his chair, and took a long sip of his coffee; before he methodically set the cup down on the table, and adjusted it until the SHIELD logo faced him perfectly. It was an obvious tactic to annoy his fellow detective, and it seemed to be working.

"Are you through yet?" She demanded.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize I was being rude. You know like someone interrupting my interview. Now that would have been rude."

"And I'm telling you I have the info we need. So we're going to cut grandpa loose."

"Jones, what are you talking about?" Detective Cage bristled. "Do you even have the okay to do that?"

The woman detective, Jones, rolled her eyes dramatically. Her eyes looked to have gone all the way to the back of her head, before they returned to give Detective Cage an annoyed stare. The two of them must have been well acquainted; their dynamic seemed less professional and more personal and somewhat friendly even.

Without missing a beat, Detective Jones walked up to the table and snatched up Detective Cage's coffee cup. She tossed back the rest of its contents down her throat; not even flinching, even when her fellow detective did.

"I have the go-ahead, okay." She set the cup down with a clink. "We're looking for Jasper Sitwell, and Barton agreed to help us find him."

"I don't know how he could." Phil chimed in with a frown. "He doesn't have Jasper's contact information. Whereas I do,"

The wind seemed to be abruptly knocked out of Detective Jones' sails. Detective Cage seemed very pleased by this turn of events. He even shot Phil a million watt smile, as if he was just waiting for the opportunity to one-up Detective Jones.

"Bullshit,"

"I could write it down for you. But it'll cost you."

"Can it, grandpa. I already made a stupid deal with your asshole buddy." She scowled.

"You agreed to let them stay on the colony, didn't you?" Detective Cage asked.

"If you weren't so pretty, I'd knock your teeth in, Cage."

"Well, my partner here already handed up a deal of a lifetime. I don't think it would hurt you any to give us this Sitwell's contact information." Detective Cage reached underneath the tabletop, and tapped on a button that caused a holographic screen to crop up between them.

Phil didn't hesitate. He didn't have any loyalty to Sitwell. Maybe he would have felt compelled to protect him weeks ago, but as of right now; his only loyalties lied between him and Clint. And he wasn't about to say no to the opportunity to secure his placement on a colony.

Reaching to touch the screen, he typed out the information that SHIELD would unwittingly need in order to find Sitwell. All of Sitwell's contact information stood out in neon green text, which both Detective Cage and Detective Jones leaned forward to study as if it were an alien language once he finished.

"I know where that shit hole is." Detective Jones squinted. "Well, it was one of the nicer complexes around. I mean there weren't that many roaches in that part of the borough anyway. So I'd call it five star accommodations."

"Sometimes I forget how depressing you are, Jones." Detective Cage looked almost sympathetic, and maybe a smidgen adoring at her; although it was quickly hidden away behind a professional mask.

The two of them continued to observe the information, before Detective Jones stepped away and gave Detective Cage ample room to stand from his seat. He lumbered around the table, and made fast work of the handcuffs that Phil had been wearing for several hours now.

There was instant relief, once they had been taken off. Phil rubbed at his tender wrists, and only flinched a little from the sharp pain that followed the movement of his fingers. He was still apprehensive, though. He didn't necessarily believe the possibility that either him or Clint would be allowed to stay on Colony III.

Hopefulness had proven to be a weakness only hours beforehand, so he would approach this new revelation with as much caution that was humanly possible. And even still, he would probably forever remain skeptical that the rug was about to be pulled out from underneath him.

"Where's Clint?" He pushed his chair away from the table.

"Across the hall still," Detective Jones gave the holographic screen a final look, before she headed towards the door. "Come on, I think I can find a place for the two of you to share. But I might have to use you for a quick call to Sitwell tomorrow."

Phil stood and looked to Detective Cage. He wanted to make sure he had clearance to leave. And when he got a nod of his head from the other man, he knew it was okay to follow Detective Jones out of the room.

Despite being led out into a stark, chrome accented hallway; he still remained vigilantly on his toes. Even when Clint was released from the other interrogation room, and ran head-first into him; he couldn't shake the impending sense of doom.

Only when they'd been taken to a block shaped condominium, and placed in an unit sandwiched between what was supposedly Detective Jones's and Cage's, did he allow himself to crumple onto the plush mattress provided to him, and allow himself to relax a smidgen. But even then, he knew he'd never be able to fully relax just like he hadn't on Earth.

Something was bound to blow up in his face again, and he'd be waiting for it.