"Wha- what are you doing out here in the desert?"
A blank stare, the lights don't even seem to be on, never-mind if there's anybody at home.
Dull eyes, grey storm over sea blue. Utterly empty.
"Well come on, us 'stranded in the desert losers' need to stick together."
"And hey, you can always carry me when I inevitably drop from sun-stroke."
It's a tease. For her at least.
"Toni! Oh thank god, thank god. Toni."
Near unconscious, Antonia Carter 'Toni' Stark peers blearily up at the man approaching her, only half aware of the tight grip upon her thighs. There's something wrong with one hand, something wrong with one of the shoulders.
Oh yeah, the left hand side is made of metal.
She wonders how deep it goes, wonders what the engineering is like.
(She could do better. She can always do better)
Metal Arm takes a swift step back, even though he has to be as dehydrated, as tired and itchy and burnt as she is.
But Toni recognises that voice, recognises that tone and the way her name is said.
"Rhodey," she near sobs into Metal Arm's shoulder, reaching with one hand (the one of the arm not broken on impact) towards the source.
There's not much else of that day she recalls.
But when she wakes up on the aircraft, Metal Arm is still there, her knight in shining prosthetic, sword shield against the terrifying might that is the sun.
She's reaching for him before it even registers, patting the knee of his dirty, blood stained pants.
"I'm keeping you."
Toni Stark leaves Afghanistan with an electromagnet in her chest and a companion (Bodyguard? Saviour? Dependant?) by her side.
Rhodey has insisted upon a cot for her, a rickety, unreasonably loud cot that's more steel skeleton and lump mattress than any real kind of comfortable surface.
She makes a mental note to come up with a better design. It won't be difficult at all, they've set the bar so low she could just step across it.
Lips wrapped around the neck of a bottle, she slowly sips at her water, unwilling to shock her system with a sudden influx of all that glorious H2O. It's not the hasty, parched chugs her instincts scream for, but Toni's become rather adapted at controlling her impulses recently.
Holding her tongue to avoid getting it ripped out in that cave, subduing the urge to build a simple handgun to take out the latest bastard that hit her.
It'd all been a lesson in patience, in restraint.
But she's Toni Motherfucking Stark.
Chances of the lesson sticking are low.
No lower than the bar this cot has set though.
Rhodey's up front, barking orders and sending her worrying glances but Toni just needs her space right now.
Drawing in a long breath (there's no sand-filled air in the plane, the filtration system has cleared it all out and Toni feels purer with ever inhale), the last Stark alive turns her gaze to the semi-familiar figure.
She'd come to after landing the suit, not quite sure how long she'd been out. It might have been a few seconds, maybe a few minutes. One or the other.
What she does know is that she'd come around with a broken wrist, several other not-so-minor injuries and a terrifying figure looming over her.
At first she'd panicked (terrorist, it had to be a terrorist, one of the Ten Rings) before she'd finally taken note of the dark, dark clothes.
They hadn't worn black; black absorbed heat, black stood out, black got dirty. They had a million reasons to not wear black.
But he didn't, not ones he cared about, anyway.
Toni doesn't remember much, doesn't remember when he'd snuck up on her.
But she does remember seeing the blood around his head, soaking into his dark hair, smeared around the lens of those curved goggles, disappearing beneath the mask. He'd been injured in her escape (Why was he even there? Someone sent to recover her? Someone sent to help her? Someone sent to kidnap her for an even worse group?) that much is obvious.
It hadn't registered fully at the time, like a half finished download, interrupted at the midpoint and never resumed.
But those eyes had been empty.
The conversation they'd shared (as one sided as it'd been) is a blurry thing in her mind, a pixilated image with a resolution so low it offends every last one of her electrical-engineering sensibilities.
"Okay tall, dark and handsome- wait, are you handsome under that mask? Please let it be so. I mean, I'm not usually one for the whole knight in shining armour gig, or black tactic gear as it is, but depending on how pretty you are, I think we can make this work."
Her throat burns. Too many words at once, too much strain and tall'n'dark doesn't so much as twitch.
But Toni's quite certain those eyes are focused on her, she can feel the weight of them. Heavier than metal-plated armour. Lighter than the burden of guilt she bares.
"Come on, take off the mask, I gotta know what I'm working with here when I introduce you to the public."
She's trying not to focus too much on the arm.
But it's silver and even in the low lighting, it's gleaming, calling her.
A metal prosthetic. Metal alloy? Must be. Is there any connection to his nerves? Can he feel any form of touch? How advance is it, what are its capabilities?
She's itching to figure it all out, but even Toni knows prodding at a dude's prosthetic without permission is rude and potentially traumatising.
She only needs to consider the possibility of someone messing with her reactor and she knows, knows deep in her bones she'll be half feral, that she'll attack. Or drop from a panic attack.
She's gonna avoid that.
Ever so slowly, tall'n'dark reaches up, removing the goggles and the mask.
There's pressure indents, temporary lines in his skin that'll disperse as the blood flow regulates and Toni gives a lazy smile.
"Oh yeah. Now that's a face we can work with."
That thought presents the issue of cameras, of paparazzi and identity as she doesn't have a clue who this guy is. Considering he looks as traumatised as she feels, then it'll probably be best to put off the introduction to the flashy side of her life.
Hell, for all she knows, this guy could have been another of the Ten Rings' prisoners, another hostage/victim. (Though Toni's pretty sure they'd have ripped off the shiny arm if that were the case) he could have suffered like her.
The press is unavoidable for her.
But not for this dude.
Hey, she'll break him into her life slowly. After all, she did decide to keep him and Tall, Dark and Handsome (oh boy does he fit that bill well enough to deserve capitalisation) hadn't exactly argued.
In the very least, Toni can pay for the guy's therapy bills; that total lack of emotion seems to indicate he needs it.
The Asset has never woken in the desert before.
The Asset has never woken to a lack of handlers before.
(At least, that's as much as his hole ridden brain can recall)
It takes a moment, footsteps in the sand, a trail that'll be erased by the wind, to realise there's something to the east.
(He's never become operational with a wound before, never become operational while not at full capacity)
He find the woman there, in the wreckage.
It looks like the kind of accident he can almost remember setting up. Only she's still alive.
Then the order is given and he once again has purpose.
James 'Rhodey' Rhodes is worried.
When they found Toni (not an 'if', it'd never been an 'if' for him) the one thing he'd not considered was someone having beaten them to the punch.
He'd not expected to find a man in dark tactical gear carrying her piggyback throughout the desert.
Even though he'd been showcasing textbook signs of dehydration, the man had still continued to march grimly on with no intention of stopping. Perhaps he wouldn't have stopped until his body failed him.
But there hadn't been a need for that. Rhodey had seen to it the copter landed as quickly as possible; he had ignored the way the stranger had reached for a gun until Toni started with the grabby hands.
Now he's trying his best to ignore the hellishly intimidating man that's perched on a chair by Toni's cot. They'd offered him a cot too, but the look that'd been thrown to them could have been nothing other than a very stern no. And that's putting it mildly.
But he's hanging over Toni like the biggest, meanest attack dog in the whole copter. He's making them nervous, he's making Rhodey nervous. Because he can't read this guy.
There's no tells, nothing but textbook military moulded into something more, a useable blade purposefully sharpened until it's deadly. Not the kind of knife you'd find in a kitchen, the kind of knife that has one purpose and one purpose alone.
It's not a friendly one.
Rhodey doesn't have a clue where Toni picked him up from, but by god is he hoping whatever secret service branch that sent him to collect Toni will be waiting to retrieve him when they land.
Sipping at her bottle of water again, Toni pauses for a moment, swinging her gaze around to look at the guy.
Is that arm just encased in metal, or is a full out prosthetic? Rhodey's got his money in the later, but it's also making him nervous. Because that's more advanced than he's seen his fellow servicemen getting.
This guy... he's got no idea how long he's known Toni, if they've suffered together, if something has happened, if there's a bond between them forged in a trial by fire.
But he does know that this guy is determinedly watching over Toni.
The one time Johnson tried speaking to him, he'd not even acknowledged the question. They've been offered no name, no details or credentials and every agency Rhodey's gotten in contact with have denied the ability to send an agent after Toni Stark. He has to sit, gritting his teeth as more and more suits declare rescuing his best friend (the army's top weapons contractor) a waste of resources. A strain of resources.
He can still hear the undertone.
'She's probably dead by now'.
And dead bodies are no use to America.
Well, aren't they going to be in for a surprise when they get back?
Snapping to attention, Rhodey's eyes find Toni's.
Her new shadow is chugging the other half of her water bottle; it's an uncomfortable realisation to know he's not trusted their water until Toni drank from it. The kind of restraint that's take, refusing water when dehydrated... oh, he's been trained alright.
"I need low-key transport to the house, don't tell anyone I'm back yet."
The unsaid 'something's fishy' hangs heavy in the air and Toni side-eyes her tag-a-long. As if he's the last piece to a puzzle she never knew she had.
That or a piece from another puzzle altogether.
"After that, I've got a press conference. But first, I need to figure out what to do with Handsome here."
She grins, cocking her head back to look the man in the eyes but it's not her old smile. It's something hollow, as if Toni's innards have been carved out and replaced with something else. Something that the press won't recognise; after all, they've only ever cared for Toni's outer casing, not the gooey centre.
"What do you say, Handsome? Let me take you home?"
Eyebrows wiggle and Rhodey knows there's something wrong when the other guy doesn't so much as register Toni's innuendo, just gives a quick jolt of a nod so sharp he almost misses it.
"I'm taking that as a yes."
"You should really see Pepper, Boss."
"Not right now, Happy. Got more important things on my plate."
Happy side-eyes Handsome as if he's the cause of all this, which, yeah, he got her brain spinning on the copter, otherwise she'd probably be meeting Pep and Obi right now.
But Handsome's presence had brought questions (where'd he come from? Who sent him? Who is he and whose behalf is he here on?) and that'd brought her mind back to something very important.
How did the terrorists know the route the army vehicles were using? How had they known she was there? Which car she was in? All in all, it can be summed up with one very simple conclusion.
Someone sold her out.
Someone in the know had sold her out.
And that's... that's fucking unacceptable.
So under the pretence of settling Handsome in, she's gonna get some space to plan her next few steps. Because living by the ear nearly got her killed once already.
"Want me to call Obadiah?"
"Nope. Let's leave it a surprise."
Toni waves her good friend off, slipping into the back of the car before she turns expecting eyes on Handsome. God, she needs to get a name for him, quick. But the one-time Rhodey had asked, he'd just got a dead-eyed murder stare.
The kind of bad-boy persona that'd have sent her stomach burning with interest a year ago, but now... well, it's not really a persona, is it? That's how Handsome is, that's for sure. Were it an act, well they've been in each other's general vicinity for two days solid now. He'd have to have cracked by now.
But there's no micro-tells, just the occasional furrowing of confused brows, most predominantly when there's a request for his name.
"Boss, you've got appointments with the CIA, with-"
"I know, Happy. I know they all wanna speak to me. But I just need to get home right now."
She needs to hear Jarvis' voice, needs to see U and Dum-e and Butterfingers. Needs to see the brightly lit bedroom and the clean, sand free workshop. Right now, Toni just needs to know that she's home, that it's not a terrible dream and she's gonna wake up back in that cave.
Besides, it's not like she could have dreamed Handsome up.
Well, okay, that's not her being totally truthful. She could have undoubtedly dreamed Handsome up, borrowed that face from Bucky Barnes himself and slapped some rugged wartime expression on it while lengthening the hair. Hell, she could have even come up with that arm (she could do better than that, the arm is going to be her second project, second behind her new insurance)... but the attitude.
No, if Toni was gonna go to the effort of dreaming up some extraordinary man to fulfil her every dirty fantasy, then she'd damn well give him a personality, give him a genuine interest in her besides those business-like, bitterly cold eyes.
The bottom line is, she doesn't understand this stranger.
But just because she doesn't understand him, (the genuine confusion when asked for his name, the utterly foreign look he'd given the airplane food, the way he'd carried her through the desert for potentially hours on end) doesn't mean she cannot trust him.
Right now, she has far too few people she can trust. While she'll be keeping and eye on Handsome, he's got more of her trust than anyone else in her social circle right now.
In fact, one of the first things she plans on doing is finding out just who this guy is, because he certainly doesn't seem to know.
Amnesia maybe? But then why had he been in the Afghan desert? Why had he been there at just the right moment to sweep her up of that sand dune? Her knight in robotic armour.
Toni snorts, ignoring Happy's concerned glance, because if either of them were the knight in metal casing, it probably wasn't Handsome.
Hell, maybe he'll end up the damsel soon and she'll be able to rescue him. Though there'll be no white horses because urgh, how cliché.
"Alright, Handsome. What's your poison? I'm sure I'll have it back at my place, but it's always nice to know. Hey, that's what we should do, a getting to know you kind of ice-breaker, like those shitty exercises you get at company meet n' greets only better, because it's gonna be me and you."
Toni grins, waggling her eyebrows at her company who just stares blankly back. Oh, it is so on. She's gonna break that mask. Happy' concerned eyes be damned, she's not side-lining her own issues in favour of playing with her (literal) shiny new toy. She's not.
"I don't use poison," Handsome says, flicking a glance to her from the corner of his eyes that could almost be considered quizzical. Huzzah, some success on the emotion front.
"I was talking alcohol, but okay. Probably not good for us to crack into the good stuff this early on. Pretty sure the good ol' army doc said I wasn't supposed to go near the booze and it'll just be sad letting you drink if I can't join the party. So, hey, we'll find something else to do. You know, I really fancy a cheeseburger right now. A really greasy, all-American cheeseburger. Happy! We need cheeseburgers. Then take me home."
Handsome's still eyeing her, not quite ice blue but not storm grey either. Just as harsh in his study of her though.
"You sure, Boss?"
"Never been surer of anything in my life. I'm feeling patriotic, Happy. Let's go get some of that iconic American grub."
Toni walks back into her house with metal in her chest and grease on her fingers.
Chewing heartily on her third burger (she's gonna regret that, she knows it, can already feel her stomach rolling but she wanted some good ol' American fast food, god damn it), she strides into the mansion.
The lights come to life around her and she waits, just basking in the presence of her beloved Artificial Intelligence, soaking up the knowledge that JARVIS is here and all his vast attention is unquestioningly focused on on her. She doesn't doubt he's known she was back since the very moment the US Army got to her. Doesn't doubt he has been tracking her since she took in her first breath of American air, stepped out on American soil. Her baby boy has been following her every move and now, no doubt just like her, he's simply taking in the moment.
Her triumphant return, the queen back in the castle, a god returning to her playground. (Only, what could possibly make a god tremble, could have their hands shaking with cold sweat sliding down their spine at the thought of a cave, of a car battery being pushed into their hands and-)
Shaking her head, Toni clicks her fingers towards the window, watching it light up with the most important updates, all the little notices full of information, the things she's missed in her... unplanned absence.
Above her, JARVIS rattles out the current temperature, the three most important things she's missed, followed by a smooth welcome home. It goes unsaid just how much she has been missed by himself and the bots, how worried he was (because he's her artificial intelligence, damn it, of course he's gonna be capable of emotions like that) and just how pleased he is to see her glorious self once again within these hallowed halls. Well, maybe a bit of an overstatement there, there's no halls here but there could be, Toni has the money for it, after all.
"Well it's good to be back, J. Hey, can you set me a room up, I've got a guest. Then we're gonna put you through your paces because I need to know who I'm dealing with here."
Swinging her head around, Toni grins at Handsome, revelling in the sudden sense of control, in once again being within her home, within her element. She's in complete control here, within a sense. JARVIS protects her, looks after her, puts her wellbeing first. And right now, after months of hell, that's exactly what she needs.
That, and to start working on her new insurance, to make sure this could never happen again. Another suit, slicker, stronger, superior in every way to the one she'd clobbered together in that cave. Then... then Stark Industries make no more weapons. Weapons production will be shut down. No arguments, no bending her neck to others. That is how it's gonna go. And the board will just have to accept it. She still owns the company, it's still her name on the side of the building. They can just suck it up.
"Come on in, Handsome, I promise the Malibu sun will bite more than JARVIS. J, run a facial recognition scan for me."
Handsome dithers, but it's so short, so small a hesitation that she almost misses it. She still registers the little tell though, even as her head spins with all that needs to be done. Get Handsome an identity, a solid set of papers that she can shove in the face of anyone who tries to get rid of him for 'entering the country illegally'. Please, if they looked at their history, if they all did, they'd realise that such words are more than a little hypocritical.
Not the topic she wants to get into though, there's no time for that and she's suppose to be an American icon, being a Stark an' all. Which means not bringing up historical blunders.
Rolling her eyes, Toni polishes off the last of her burger, cocking her hips and staring at Handsome as he warily assesses her home.
Who knows, maybe he has shit to be off doing. Can't be all that important though, not if he so easily followed after her.
Maybe someone sent to spy on her? To steal her tech? But they why send him on what surely amounts to a suicide mission, coming to rescue her from the Ten Rings?
It's not adding up, the equation is missing a key component (key components?) and she doesn't have all the data.
Which means research, first and foremost. Toni is, after all, a scientist. There's so many avenues to take in order to compile her data too, not just sitting back to observe. She can run some tests of the sly, look for patterns in the behaviour he exhibits and link it up to outside sources, can send JARVIS on a researching spree.
Handsome has to have come from somewhere, after all.
People just don't appear from nowhere, don't just pop out of the snow like daisies.
God, she's itching to watch Mulan again now. A young woman triumphing over a savage group of men, yeah, that's the kind of therapy she needs right now.
"Come on then, Handsome, no need to stand at parade rest or anything."
It's only as she says it that Toni realises just how on the mark she is. Well, it's not really parade rest, more like some kind of bastardised version or something. He's been trained, it's blatantly obvious. Right, as if she'd had any real doubts before.
"Miss, I have a near definite match on... your guest."
"Oh? Why the hesitation, J?" Toni questions, aching to take the steps two at a time as she had once done, but now she's no longer as confident in her leg strength and balance.
The last thing she needs is Obi and Pepper visiting, only to find her in the country, but dead at the bottom of her staircase.
"Facial recognition matches up to one Sargent James Barnes, legally assumed dead during World War Two."
Toni skids to a halt, staring at the image JARVIS brings up on her workshop window before she twists around to look back at Handsome.
Oh yeah, she can see it, the jawline and the nose and that sinful mouth. She lets out a long, low whistle, inspecting the image again.
The eyes are wrong though.
Bucky Barnes has naught bedroom eyes, a gaze that promises the best night of her life with his head buried between her thighs.
Handsome's blank icy blues just make her feel like an object. And not even in the 'men are objectifying me' kind of way.
More like a gun to be taken apart and put back together again, useful and necessary to keep working. It's not a look she's ever gotten before and it's making her ill at ease.
"Huh. So, what're we looking at? Long lost descendant? Working clone? Time-traveller? Though I think I will genuinely cry if someone's beat me to inventing time-travel."
Glancing hopefully towards Handsome, Toni finds he's not even looking at her, not truly.
His face may be turned her way, but he's staring at the picture of Sargent Barnes with a look of deep concentration on his brow.
Right, she can deal with this.
Or rather, JARVIS can deal with this, start plucking some digital strings because she has a suit to build.
"Come on, Barnes Jr. let me show you wonderland, then we'll see if I can do something about that arm of yours."
Righty-oh, so this is what I'm working on while on the train while the sun is dawning and I'm heading to uni with sleep in my eyes. It's all been wrote on my i-pod so far, and that's a trend that'll probably continue. For anyone that's curious, my day starts at 5:45 and I'm not going to sleep until about 10:30/11:00-ish. So yeah, I don't wanna make it seem like an excuse for mistakes, but in essence, that's what it is.
Anyway, on the story, Toni's born much later than Canon Tony, just because I want a young, female Toni absolutely bossing a male dominated industry.