Sabretooth: Crawfish Tango – Chapter 3 – Arrepentida

The broken clock is a comfort, it helps me sleep tonight
Maybe it can stop tomorrow from stealing all my time
I am here still waiting though I still have my doubts
I am damaged at best, like you’ve already figured out

I’m falling apart, I’m barely breathing
With a broken heart that’s still beating
In the pain there is healing
In your name I find meaning
So I’m holdin’ on, I’m holdin’ on, I’m holdin’ on
I’m barely holdin’ on to you

The broken locks were a warning you got inside my head
I tried my best to be guarded, I’m an open book instead
I still see your reflection inside of my eyes
That are looking for a purpose, they’re still looking for life

I’m falling apart, I’m barely breathing
With a broken heart that’s still beating
In the pain there is healing
In your name I find meaning
So I’m holdin’ on, I’m holdin’ on, I’m holdin’ on
I’m barely holdin’ on to you

I’m hangin’ on another day
Just to see what you will throw my way
And I’m hanging on to the words you say
You said that I will be okay

The broken lights on the freeway left me here alone
I may have lost my way now, haven’t forgotten my way home

I’m falling apart, I’m barely breathing
With a broken heart that’s still beating
In the pain there is healing
In your name I find meaning
So I’m holdin’ on, I’m still holdin’
I’m holdin’ on, I’m still holdin’
I’m barely holdin’ on to you

~ Broken (Lifehouse)

*****************************************************************

Victor woke, unsure why. It wasn’t a nightmare; they had never come through if Tony slept beside him.

The arc reactor still whirled, accompanying the irregular heartbeat. He shook his head slightly to clear the fog of tension. He had begun to settle again, when he heard the device falter.

What tha hell was that? With a sniff, he frowned. Somethin’ ain’t right…

Moving without a sound, he slipped out of bed, reached out, and slowly pulled the sheet down away from the man’s chest. The glow of the arc reactor grew brighter, illuminating the bedroom – and then it faltered again.

Victor was familiar with the scarring around it and the smells of palladium, fancy glass, metal, and a mix of components he couldn’t name – but it was different now and the whiff of illness was still there.

Leaning closer over him, undistracted by the man’s heat now, he breathed the scents in deeply as he studied the thing. He touched it often but rarely looked at it for long – staring at it made Tony uncomfortable. With a start, he barely managed not to snarl when he spotted it – strange dark marks in the skin around the metal casing of the device.

In skin … or in veins? Palladium … housed right in ‘is bloody chest – fuck. It’s poisonin’ ‘is blood, which means it’s gonna damage … a lot.

Backing away, he almost fell into the armchair near the bed. The claws cut their way out of abruptly trembling fingers – impotent and useless for all of his strength and power. He couldn’t fight this enemy.

Tony wouldn’t lemme help, even if I could. It’s … in ‘im, not somethin’ I can kill. He needs that thing t’ live…

The thought that dropped into his head nearly made him growl, but he had no idea what else he could do. This was science far beyond his skill set.

Don’t wake ‘im yet, tha longer sleep keeps ‘im calm tha better, probly.

Rising, he left the bedroom and found Tony’s phone by scent. He plucked it out of the jeans pocket. It wasn’t the same one he’d had in the Arctic Circle but odds were good it was just as secure and he probably wouldn’t be able to get into it.

Looks like a piece o’ glass with a metal frame – wouldn’t know how t’ hack that t’ save … ‘is life. But tha fuckin’ robot is in there, bet on that shit.

Moving to the kitchen counter where his phone and wallet had been dumped, he set Tony’s phone down and called it, trusting that the inventor wouldn’t hear it. It went to voicemail and the second the tone sounded, he started talking to the thing that ran everything.

“Hey, Skynet, robot – what’s yer fuckin’ name, Jarvis? Talk t’ me, tell me how t’ help Tony. He’s sick, ya know that, I bet. He’s gonna be able t’ hear this message an’ if he’s pissed, I’ll take tha heat. C’mon… I dunno how … t’ help ‘im.”

Nothing answered. Fear rose, making him restless and angry. He needed to be at his mate’s side, to protect him.

Shut up, Puss in Boots, this is over our head. Holdin’ ‘is hand ain’t gonna help shit. Leaning an elbow on the counter, his free hand covered his eyes. His whispering voice started to crack. “He can’t die…”

The call ended and the glass rectangle was still dark; it hadn’t lit up, not even to show the incoming call. Rage tried to save him but despair crept in before it could even spark.

“Tony… Yer young, we’re ‘sposed t’ have time. I know ya don’t care ‘bout me past a bit o’ fun, but I can’t lose ya. Need ya t’ live, even if ya never wanna see me no more.”

A flash of light made him twitch. The alien phone was glowing a soft blue. When his phone rang in his hand, he nearly put a claw through it. The number was unlisted.

“Who is this?”

The voice was odd, mechanically British and clipped. Victor had to remember to breathe.

“This is JARVIS, Mr. Creed – I am flouting a loosely written protocol intended to prevent me from accessing your phone without Mr. Stark’s direct orders to do so. What is happening with him now?”

Without question, Victor jumped in. “He smells sick, it’s palladium poisonin’, an’ now tha device is … skippin’ or some damn thing. Never heard it do that before, even when it was near drained. Sounds like it’s gonna quit.”

“Are you observing him now?”

“No, I’m in tha kitchen. He’s asleep in tha bedroom – breathin’ is gettin’ a bit short.”

“May I ask how you know that from your present location?”

“I can hear it – like ya dunno that already. What tha hell’s goin’ on with tha tech?”

The machine paused. Victor was about to cuss it out when it began to speak again. “Test 202 will not sustain him. He must return to the workshop lab.”

Swallowing hard, Victor whispered, “Can he make tha flight? I gotta jet.”

“Inadvisable. It would appear the failure of test 202 is imminent and it will not be safe to move him if the problem has advanced that far.”

“So here he stays – make up yer damn mind. Gonna get ‘round t’ tellin’ me how t’ help ‘im?”

“Mr. Creed, I am not inclined to trust you – but the safety of Mr. Stark is paramount.”

“Yeah, it fuckin’ is. Ain’t askin’ ya t’ trust me, don’t care if’n ya do or don’t. Lessen ya can grow arms an’ legs outta that li’l glass box though, yer gonna hafta use me t’ fix ‘im. Those … dark vein marks weren’t there when he got here. Tell me what t’ do.”

“Very well – there is an ingot of palladium in the briefcase suit. I’ve unlocked that compartment. Bring it to him. He will have to change it out with the failing test sample in the reactor’s core.”

“That’s it? No pills, no nothin’?”

“Liquid chlorophyll helps reduce the symptoms. He should avoid excessive activity and be observed closely.”

“Now ya tell me. Excessive activity is why he came here – an’ he got it without ever tellin’ me he shouldn’t. Fuck. If’n he can’t change it out, how do I do it fer ‘im?”

“I am not authorized to give out details on how to open or remove the device.”

“Look, ya glorified Etch A Sketch, I ain’t a threat t’ tha man. If’n I was, removin’ it would be ugly easy, capiche?”

“Acknowledged. The information in question is still against protocols I am not able to bypass. I would suggest waking Mr. Stark and apprising him of the danger. He can change out the core samples, preferably before the reactor is compromised.”

“Fine. T’ save ‘im, tha bloody thing that’s poisonin’ ‘im has t’ be allowed t’ damage ‘im more. Ya smart fuckers are dumb as toast sometimes, ya know that? Fuck this, gotta get back t’ ‘im. How will I know when tha test one fails?”

“It will be obvious.”

“Great,” he responded, half snarling the word. He hung up on the creepy thing and set the phone down.

Standing over the red and gold case full of folded suit in the living room, he found the thick card of palladium by scent and grabbed it in a fist from the little open compartment.

That’s why tha smell o’ tha device was weird; he’s got somethin’ else plugged in there. Palladium scent is lingerin’ cuz o’ tha poison. Damn it, Tony…

The inventor hadn’t woken up but he didn’t look so peaceful now. Ashen-faced with beading sweat on his brow, he seemed more fragile than ever.

Victor slipped back into bed and pulled him close, nuzzling his hair. The hand not holding the palladium moved to cover the device. “Tony, wake up,” he whispered.

Pretty face frowning, Tony gave a little groan. “If you caught your tenth wind, I officially feel like roadkill.”

“Ya need t’ change out tha core thing in tha device.” He winced as those eyes cracked open into wary dark slits. Opening his palm, he showed him the ingot. “Rip int’ me later, huh? Tha reactor’s skippin’, ‘bout t’ fail.”

Tony struggled to sit up away from him and gasped when the device faltered again. “How do you know that? How did you get that? If you cut into my suit –”

“Didn’t cut it. Please just fix it?”

Tony stared at the thing on his palm. “That’s toxic, if absorbed into the skin… You should only touch the one end.” He appeared dazed.

“Can’t hurt me. Yer 202 one ain’t gonna work. I dunno how t’ open tha thing proper. C’mon, Tony…”

The inventor’s eyes closed and he sagged where he sat. “Test 202. How the hell did you talk to JARVIS? Victor, we had an agreement…”

“Do it now, Tony – or I figure it out myself. Don’t make me hold ya down fer that, cuz I bloody will.” He tried to let the baleful glare that won him wash over him, but it stuck in his ribs like a blade.

He set the ingot against a lump of blanket where the inventor could pick it up safely. Leaving the bed, he claimed the chair to give him space.

Looking away from him, Tony curled forward slightly and lifted nervous fingers to the front of the device.

Slowly realizing he didn’t want him in the room, Victor sighed. He dropped his forehead into his palms and set elbows on knees. Staring at the claws as they cut their way out of his toes, he felt the cuts in fingers as the shining claws emerged – useless.

Tony’s fear scent leaked around them, mixed with both aggression and the abrupt smell of tears as the covering of the device was clicked open.

Victor refused to leave – just in case – but he would give him what privacy he could. Closing his eyes, he listened to the sounds of a very private and stubborn man temporarily fixing his problem. When the sounds stopped, Tony sat there in silence but the song of the reactor and the heart it protected resumed.

“Do ya want me t’ leave?”

The bright voice had turned dull. “It’s your place.”

“Tell me what ya want me t’ do, I’ll do it.”

“So that’s the first time you’ve ever said that, right?” he snapped, his tone bitter. “When do you do what you’re told? Because I haven’t seen that.”

Uncurling to look at him, he winced at the anger in the expression. “Had t’ do somethin’.”

The inventor wilted more and scrubbed his face with his palms. When his hands dropped, he sighed as the aggression leaked away from his posture and scent.

“I know. And I knew. I knew you knew. That’s why … I stayed.”

“Scented ya were sick a while back, wasn’t sure what it was. Knew ya wouldn’t wanna talk ‘bout it.”

“Very perceptive.”

“Tried in Hawaii an’ ya shut me down.”

“If you can’t help, what’s the point of talking about it? I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about it. You’re my ‘stop thinking about it’ distraction. Okay?”

Victor’s head drooped. “Yeah…”

One hand lifted to motion to him. “Come on, come here – don’t leave me alone in this vast mess of a bed. I’m just angry that… I…”

Slowly, Victor rose and almost slunk to his lover’s side, sitting on the edge of the bed away from him.

“Wow, great imitation of a whipped puppy. Look, I didn’t want anyone to know, I was going to solve it on my… I was going to solve it. I thought this time I had, that’s all. I’ll try again.”

When Tony touched him, he lowered his head and wouldn’t look at him but allowed himself to be tugged closer. Fingers lifted his chin and then the shock of Tony’s mouth on his stunned him. Foreheads pressed together afterward, Victor shivered at the memory of ghosts and how he had lost them all.

Leaning back to look at him, Tony put his hand on Victor’s knee. “So talk to me, tell me how you did it? Conspiring with JARVIS?”

“Called an’ talked t’ yer phone, message is on there. It called me back. I didn’t cut yer suit, it opened that part – said t’ wake ya t’ swap ‘em.”

“JARVIS isn’t supposed to be able to call you without me knowing. That’s to protect you, by the way.”

“It said ya wrote a loose protocol,” he muttered.

“Geez … okay, yeah; I wrote it under the influence. Forget to cross one T and look what happens.”

“Don’t matter. Had t’ –”

“This goes down as another crawfish, sorry to say – we did have an agreement when I discovered your bank ties, about not snooping in each other’s tech. But –” He held up a finger to stop Victor’s protest. “But … you have now saved my life, again, and that can be called probable cause. Now, I should go home and keep testing solutions while I still can, but I’m not up to flying yet, so maybe after more sleep and breakfast.”

“Lemme fly ya home.”

“Not feasible – people keep tabs on me too much. The palladium will get me there.”

“Tony,” he muttered, “how rough we get, coulda snuffed ya if’n yer heart gave out. Why didn’t ya tell me it was this bad?”

“Why would I?”

The sharp tone lashed him, shamed him for reasons he didn’t understand. Victor bent forward, arms folded over Tony’s crossed legs. He hid his face in his hair to escape the scorn in those beautiful eyes.

“Hey, ah … hmm.” Hesitant fingers touched his back, brushed through the long hackles as they wilted in defeat. “Victor … we’re two very different people who got thrown together by an insane situation. We like sharing sex, but … we’re not really friends, are we? We don’t hang out.”

Victor rose to sit up, watched him in silence a moment, and then stood. “Ya wanna hide bein’ with me like a dirty secret – so hangin’ out ain’t exactly on tha menu, is it?”

“That used to be a mutually understood problem. I seem to recall a blowjob in a women’s toilet stall where you needed to pretend we were enemies in public, too. You had a ‘rep to protect’. So it isn’t just on me – you can’t be seen with me socially either. We have privacy at my house and your bank building suites, but we don’t meet up to play backgammon.”

“Yer just pissed I broke the no snoop rule. Or are ya tryin’ t’ die? Should I quit fuckin’ up by savin’ yer ass?”

“I don’t need a babysitter. I wanted a rough fuck and you’re good for that. We play to our strengths.”

Eyes narrowing, Victor tried to huff his growing anger out on a short breath. “Not interested in killin’ ya in bed or out. Ya harp on that consent shit but have ya ever heard o’ knowin’ yer limits? Folks with a heart condition maybe shouldn’t get on this ride.”

“Cute,” the inventor retorted with a frown. “I love when people call me weak, really, it’s fun.”

Tony’s scent was changing again, aggression pushing out the fear of his illness. It ran a chill through Victor’s veins and doused his anger.

He’d rather crash an’ burn than admit he’s spiralin’ outta control – sounds familiar. ‘Course, I did ask fer help, eventually – an’ got tortured fer it. Guess we got our reasons fer keepin’ that shit t’ ourselves. Fuckin’ fix it, asshole, before he tries t’ limp home.

Tony was still frowning at him. “Dead silence isn’t helping here, you know that, right? Pick words, say them. It’s called talking – or in your case, it’s called pissing me off.”

Frustration at his own confusion over how to express what he meant erupted as an instinctual growl. It made the man lean back a bit.

“Victor, damn it…”

Struggling not to bare teeth at him, he pushed out the first words he found. “Not a fuckin’ weak bone in yer body, flyboy. Ain’t a nick in yer machismo t’ give a damn ‘bout yer limits. Self-care’s a thing.”

“Really? Interesting advice. You don’t at all appear to be the self-reflection type.”

“Guess I ain’t, most days. Keep gettin’ told I oughta try it, though.”

“Okay, here’s the thing. Non-objectionable scenario: you could have simply woken me up. Then I’d ask you to fetch the case and I’d fix it myself.”

Shoulders slumping as he turned away, Victor headed for the door. “Ya need t’ eat.”

“Are you walking out on this conversation?”

Victor didn’t turn back. “What convo? Yer turn t’ pick a fight? Startin’ t’ see why most o’ yer friends’re made o’ tin. Gonna make ya eggs. Ain’t got no grass t’ toss on ‘em, though. After that, ya need t’ sleep more – yer words. Stay in bed – nap out. I’ll bring it in. If’n ya dunno how t’ give a fuck ‘bout yerself, I do – like it or not.”

*****************************************************************

Tony stretched out on the pillows as the mutant took the tray and left the bedroom. Food helped – and so had the dark green glass of liquid chlorophyll that neither of them commented on.

The concierge and kitchen staff in these buildings must be something else. So why didn’t he just have them bring up eggs, too? He cooked for me instead. Odd. Wow – I want to throttle JARVIS for helping save my life. This is probably a sign of nearing rock bottom. I keep butting heads with my host, too – we don’t fit on the same porch very well if we aren’t screwing. Friends with benefits? Maybe the benefits are all we have between us.

He tried to fight it off but sleep won. When he finally came to again, there was a bright glow behind the thick curtains across the room. The feral was asleep curled loosely near the edge of the vast bed. It took only moments of being watched for those amber eyes to slide open.

“I’m going to shower, solo, preferably,” he told him. “Get some more Zs – I probably will, too.” Turning away, he went to the bathroom and tried not to stare at the giant tub. How did this go downhill so fast? We were fine before. I could do without him treating me like a frail girlfriend. Huh – ‘frail’ is what he calls women half the time, as a casual insult. What a guy.

Tony was almost done with the shower by the time he stopped feeling irritated. He couldn’t pretend he didn’t know why Victor behaved the way he did. The few things the feral had admitted about his childhood in Canada painted an ugly picture. Certainly the idea of playing tough and uncaring to hide the hurt within was as familiar a mask as the one he stepped out of the shower and stared at on his own face.

He doesn’t behave uncaring to me half the time, though – he acts more like… Well, how he looks at me, I’d give a fortune to have Pepper look at me like that, but that’s only one of our problems. So what is it – ingrained misogyny and learned behavior? That bullshit claim he made on the Chinese fishing boat, that only the weak scream? JARVIS found me footage of Victor screaming during torture. He’s playing tough guy … and he feels more for me than I want him to. For the rest, I shouldn’t have reamed him for worrying, let alone for trying to help. He’s never tried to slice me, he fought off that ‘kill it to keep it’ baser instinct – and only bites if I ask.

Drying off, he almost tucked a towel around his waist but then decided not to bother. Taking stock of his general condition, he realized he still felt too sluggish to fly.

More sleep, and then home for more testing. Joy. I wish the Monaco trip was sooner.

The moment he left the bathroom and saw the mutant on the bed, he stopped. Victor had apparently gotten up to toss a clean comforter over the messy rumpled sheets before going back to sleep. He didn’t look peaceful. Tony froze and watched him, having endured enough horrid PTSD nightmares to recognize someone else in the throes of one.

No words were formed. He bared his teeth and snarled in his sleep, the claws threatening to shred the bedclothes.

Not sure why he dared to approach, Tony witnessed a strange but marked change in the mutant’s expression and movements. The closer he got, the more Victor seemed to settle. Glancing down at his chest, he gave a soft sigh.

Pepper, Rhodey, Happy, definitely JARVIS – they’d all call me crazy. The sound of it soothes him. Okay, here goes.

Moving around to the other side of the bed, he got up on it as carefully as he could. Before he even settled in, the amber eyes with narrow black slits for pupils had snapped open and were watching him.

“You were dreaming – nightmare is my guess, I’m familiar with the look from the inside. Hey – I’m sorry. I’ve been on edge a lot. I needed someone; you were the only one I could risk this with … since you already knew.”

He could swear he was being stared at by the beast for those first few moments. Once Victor shook his head slightly, the eyes appeared to focus more and then intelligence – and hurt – was shining in them.

“Ah … did you hear any of that?” The brief nod did little to reassure him. “Good. Come on, move in here. I appreciate the clean blanket, but I’ll be cold without the heater.”

The mutant’s voice was a rusty rasp as if he had to remember how to speak. “Want me t’ scrape tha carcass clean first?”

“I’ll live. You smell all sexy musky – it’s not a bad thing.” With an invitation, the blond moved close and gathered him into those thick furry arms. “I keep almost asking JARVIS to do things. I’m not used to not being home – anymore.”

“If’n ya need jack all, tell me. Don’t care what.”

“Sleep, mostly. I haven’t done much of that lately. I … probably don’t need to be back until this afternoon.”

Victor didn’t answer but Tony couldn’t worry about it. He knew he was safe in the grip of a terrifying person and it felt good to know that – even if they’d ended up sniping at each other to sort it out. He fell asleep to the deep thrum of the feral’s purr, confident that the arc reactor would help him rest better, too.

~ ~ ~

When Tony woke in the quiet bedroom, he was surprised to see a weak light glowing through the thin gap in the curtains. It was probably a lot later than he’d intended to sleep.

He was still in the warmth of Victor’s embrace and abruptly realized he didn’t want that to stop. Home meant the workshop, the tests … watching the hologram of himself die. It also meant pretending for Pepper and anyone else that everything was fine.

Lying to Pepper, that’s what it is, and it’s exhausting – no matter how used to it I am, since … birth. If I can’t fix this … I have to make sure she’ll be okay. So many things need to be secured, protected. The company, the … the everything. I don’t have an heir. That ugly thought dropped like a lead weight and churned in his stomach.

Soft lips brushed over his brow and he managed not to flinch. He’d thought the mutant was still asleep.

“Whatever’s eatin’ at ya, if’n ya don’t wanna say, it’s fine – but if I can help, I’m willin’.”

Loneliness opened him up, hollowed him out. At that moment, he couldn’t have said what was worse – the emptiness he’d endured his entire life or the creeping fear of death.

Turning away from all of it, he shifted in the feral’s embrace and brought his hands up to hold the sides of his face. Watching the black pupils open wider, he stroked the sideburns with his thumbs.

“I change my mind a lot – ‘impulsive’ should’ve been my middle name. You may as well get used to it if you plan to stick around.”

Tony began to kiss him and he could feel the massive creature melt against him. In that instant, he craved it – all of it. He forced himself to break the kiss. He had to be clear.

“We need certain boundaries; you know that, I know that. This has to be kept as secret as we can manage. Obviously, Pepper and your pilot know too much by far but I can trust Pepper’s discretion and I assume you trust anyone on your end that knows.”

Victor nuzzled his hair before he nodded. That open soft expression was smoothing the planes of his normally frowning and glaring face. Tony’s stomach flipped at the understanding of what that was. Fingers holding that furry face, he made Victor meet his gaze.

“Don’t go all Unchained Melody on me. You said you understand that I want Pepper – I do. This is about needing…” He couldn’t even say it. It’s awful to do this, it has to be. Pepper had said so and even when his brain didn’t see the simple easy things, she always knew and she was always right about them. So why can’t she see through my pretend bullshit when a serial killer mutant can?

The purr had sparked but quickly guttered out. When the mutant spoke, it was barely a rasped whisper. “It’s ‘bout needin’ touch … comfort. It’s usin’ pleasure t’ push back tha dark an’ tha pain – tha fear. Said I was willin’, don’t hafta fret ‘bout nothin’.”

Tony’s thumbs stroked up the long bottom fangs and he watched Victor’s eyes close, heard his breath catch.

“I shouldn’t do this. You shouldn’t want me. I’m using you, it isn’t right.”

Lying closer than ever while watching Victor’s face, he sucked in his breath sharply when he saw those strange cat eyes open. The amber gleamed in the dim light, sparkling like cabochon gems with what he belatedly realized were unshed tears. The black pupil slits moved, widening to ovals to take in more light.

The eyes are windows to the soul… He brushed away the random flotsam thought. Whatever soul was being laid bare to him, he was too obtuse to read whatever it was trying to say. “I’m sorry…” It was all he could do to whisper it.

“Don’t…” Victor broke the stare and his hold to nuzzle him again. “Don’t never be sorry.” When those eyes met his again, the wet sheen was gone. “I’m where I wanna be, Tony. An’ ya?”

“I’m … where I need to be,” he murmured, repeating the words the feral had said to him in Hawaii – when he had come to him to be punished for not fixing … everything. This now was different – he felt raw and empty. “I need to … not think about it a little longer. I don’t want to think at all.”

The deep guttural sound that rumbled from the feral’s chest and throat turned Tony to mush. “Shh… Lemme have ya. I got ya…”

Tony couldn’t speak after that for a long time. He relaxed and gave his body over, letting Victor suck him and opening to let him fuck him, gasping softly at how it felt as it went on and on. His skin was buzzing in no time and it was putting to shame the paltry escape of alcohol. Now and then, he almost blacked out as he came and felt Victor fill him as it happened.

~ ~ ~

He rose up back into consciousness to the feeling of a cock pushing back into his body. The craving for it hadn’t waned.

“That feels good … you feel so damn good,” he whispered.

Vaguely aware that Victor had been edging him as he thrust as gently as he could, Tony allowed himself to just drift in it. There was none of the teasing urgent desperation of the other times he’d endured this, and he couldn’t try to urge it to an end as he was tugged back into that haze of lazy pleasure.

As Victor left his body limp and weak in the moments after they had both come again, he moved down it to lie between his legs and sucked his cock into that mouth – this time returning to slow and gentle suckling and winding strokes of the long tongue that seemed to go on forever.

It wasn’t going to happen, though. “You’ve drained the tap,” he muttered, slurring the words a little. Victor wasn’t stopping. “I can’t…” Almost before the words were muttered in a daze, he felt pleasure begin to build again. “How … oh, fuck…”

Tony sucked in a breath and held it as the sensation was drawn out. He felt exhausted yet live-wire focused until it sharpened into a quietly blooming orgasm that peaked fast and then faded into a hyper-sensitive white-hot pleasure. His cum barely spilled, gentle and slow, like translucent thin milk. The feral swallowed it all and licked him clean before rising to lie down beside him, pulling him close. Tony lifted trembling fingers to feel the muscles of the throat. Shocked, he relaxed in the feral’s embrace and let the afterglow melt him.

“How?” he whispered, as Victor kissed his hair.

“Hush,” the low voice admonished softly, “just feel it.”

He wanted to protest but he felt too muzzy and warm. Once the thrumming purr started over his head, he was soothed into sleep within moments and everything drifted away.

~ ~ ~

Tony woke to the smell of citrus and before he had even opened his eyes, a soft orange slice was pressed to his lips. Without question, he let the feral feed him and then looked up to see him leaning on an elbow holding a small bowl of the slices. His blond hair was a mess in the braided bun but the smile was almost shy and actually reached the amber eyes. As he watched them, he saw the black pupils widen in the dim bedroom.

He’s feeling shy after all that? I should really get out of here before I manage to screw things up again – provided I can actually walk to leave. What the hell did he do to me…?

“Feel rested now? Ya can sleep more if’n ya need it.”

“Maybe – after you feed me more fruit.”

Eating several of the sweet juicy slices, he smiled to see the mutant eating them by popping them behind the fangs.

“You don’t plan to tell me how you did that to me, do you?” Victor was quiet at first and Tony let him take his time. It seemed to help and rushing him before hadn’t helped at all. I suppose if I’d grown up locked in a cellar, treated like a rabid animal, I’d have grown up laconic, too.

“Called edgin’, already told ya that. Get ya in erotic limbo a while, keep it feelin’ good but not too good, stretch it out. Fer tha rest, ya can orgasm without really comin’, just gotta hold it off an’ tease it.”

“It was … something else.” He left the last orange slice for Victor and snuggled into the pillows again to sleep more. The mutant put the bowl on the nightstand with the lube and drew him in. That purr was something else, too. “You have a talent for making my brain shut up,” he murmured, already slipping away.

“Likewise,” came the purring response in his ear. If he said anything after that, Tony never heard it.

*****************************************************************

Watching from the bathroom doorway as Tony woke, Victor leaned against the doorframe with fingers tucked in the pockets of new black jeans. He had spent most of the shower coming to grips with how things were going to go, both for this tryst and any future ones. Without the healing factor, he’d probably have a splitting headache.

Tony wants Pepper an’ she def wants ‘im, way ‘er scent lit up like Christmas any time tha man came near ‘er. While they’re stumblin’ ‘round that, I managed t’ carve a slice fer me. He calls me addictin’ after all; gonna hold ‘im t’ that friends with bennies shit, too. Ain’t no way that woman can yank tha corn cob outta ‘er ass quick like, seems like a habit t’ keep it shoved up tight t’ me. I can operate in that gray area, no prob. Gotta be li’l hunks o’ ‘is comp’ny, though – he’s made it clear he ain’t interested in bein’ mine fer good.

He didn’t miss the look of relief Tony quickly tried to wipe off his face when he noticed the damp towel over furry shoulders and the attempt at clothes on his body.

The inventor looked away, scrubbed his face in his hands, and then tried and failed to smile. “A shower sounds good. Again.”

“Ya shower more’n me – probly a new record.” Gonna hafta swallow tha surly instinct shit when he needs t’ bail. Might could get ‘im back sooner next time if’n I do. Fuck – this touchy-feely crap’s a confusin’ pain in my furry ass. One thing I do know – humans as a mated pair don’t often last long. If’n they fig it out an’ later crash an’ burn, I’ll just make damn sure I’m tha one pickin’ up tha pieces.

“You got a head start this round, huh?” Tony stared down at the reactor in his chest.

“Figured ya were ‘bout spent fer any more fun an’ games. Hungry?”

“No, I’m fine – better, I suppose I should say. I need to go.”

“Feel up t’ flyin’?” Victor restrained the knowing smile as his lover’s shoulders slumped.

Tony sighed, a defeated sound. “I don’t think so. Can I change my mind again?”

“Not botherin’ me none – already called Zane.”

“Him again. Fun. Did he escape from a bad 70s porno before or after joining your PR team?”

Victor chuckled. “Told ‘im t’ behave; that bit o’ campaign stumpin’ in my honor durin’ our last flight was freelance.”

“You overheard all that, huh? So he’s your wingman in all senses of the term. Damn good flyer, I’ll give him that.”

“Tha best I ever found. It’s dark out – good fer down-low taxi services.” He used the towel on his hair again before tossing it on the bathroom floor. “If’n ya wanna shower this minute, tha hot water recovers damn quick ‘round here.”

“Good thing. How adept are you at discretion in transit?”

Victor let the sharp smile stretch wide. “We’re pros with crazy resources – don’t worry yer pretty ass ‘bout that. I can have clothes yer size brought up if’n ya’d rather not rock tha walk o’ shame look.”

“Actually, it would be suspicious if I didn’t. Coming home clean might be suspect, even.”

“Yer call.”

The inventor got out of bed reluctantly to head for the bathroom. He paused a moment with a hand flat on Victor’s abruptly fluttering stomach before passing him to enter. It was as good as a thank you and he’d take it.

He tackled brushing out and braiding his hair to the tune of Tony showering. Imagining it wasn’t going to help him avoid tossing the man back onto the bed, so he set his efforts on how to get him home incognito instead.

Out in the living room of the suite, he heard the single sharp knock of the runner delivering his rush requests. Beyond a quick wary sniff, he ignored the sounds of a key and the door opening. The delivery made, the man left again and locked the door.

Grabbing his phone from the dresser where he’d left it, he called Zane again. “Hey – one more detail ‘sides playin’ dress up – get a fake Stark Industries logo on tha jet. Easy peasy, right? Far as tha question o’ LAX or ‘is own comp’ny tarmac goes, that’s up t’ ‘im. Right. We probly won’t be long.”

Victor went out of the bedroom to get some prep work done. As ideas popped into his head, he started to smirk.

~ ~ ~

Tony emerged wrapped and draped in two huge white towels by the time Victor was done with prep and digging into a drawer full of t-shirts.

Plucking out options, Victor held them up to show him. “Sex Pistols or Van Halen?”

With a small smirk, Tony nodded at the black shirt. “God Save the Queen.”

Dropping the other one back in and shutting the drawer, he hauled the vintage punk shirt on over his head and plucked the braid out of it.

“Sure ya don’t wanna wear one o’ mine?” His wink won him a real smile.

“Still not your girlfriend – and I’d trip over the hem.”

“Fetchin’ yer shame walk duds, got it.”

He gathered the clothes and shoes that had been shed in an eager-to-mate rush and set them on the foot of the rumpled bed. If he had planned to stay here longer, he would have given orders not to clean the place up just yet. Flying Tony home was better. He didn’t care about the risks.

“Yer Stark flightline or LAX, by tha by?”

“LAX, you can’t land at Stark.”

Tony began to dress quickly. The strange marks around the arc reactor were still there and he grabbed the t-shirt first to hide them before stepping into his skivvies and jeans and pulling them up. He didn’t fully face Victor until Black Sabbath’s Paranoid artwork hid his chest.

“Ain’t gotta be ashamed o’ that.”

“I … guess not – around you, anyway.”

He needs t’ unclench. Time fer a diff’rent kinda poke, then. “This tha last I’m gonna see o’ ya fer a year or what?”

Tony sighed and Victor watched as the ready-made speech popping into his head, possibly another lecture, began to puff out his chest. Then their eyes met after Tony took in his expression and body language. Not seeing even a hint of the combative sneering sarcasm he had expected to find, the puff wilted.

“Resigned and making jokes instead of angry and bitter? I’ll take it.”

“Not really much o’ a joke, but yeah – ease tha asshole pucker back down t’ maybe five? We got us an understandin’, huh?”

“I honestly can’t tell when you’re kidding or not.” He sat to put on socks and tennis shoes. “I’m not actually trying to jerk you around like a fickle … well, whatever you’d call it – but don’t. I’d rather not hear what you’d call it.” Straightening up, he stood. “It’s not a plan, is my point.”

Victor shrugged. “Ya need somebody here an’ there an’ can’t go t’ just anybody – ain’t an all-fired mystery. Don’t mind bein’ tha one ya go t’, any road. Happens that yer so self-sufficient I get blue balls waitin’ fer ya t’ need squat.”

“I doubt if I’m the lone number in your little black book.”

“Quality over quantity is key.”

Tossing him another wink, he turned and walked into the living room of the suite. Properly goaded but not yet shedding the scent of anxiety, Tony followed. His next question was a surprise.

“Victor, I’m just going to ask straight up; is Hank McCoy right about your healing factor not being … ah … transferrable?”

“He ain’t wrong, put it that way.” Victor faced him as he settled a hip on the back of the couch. “Asswipes tryin’ t’ clone me never got real far – it don’t take. With tha right hoodoo, they can make a decent copy o’ most folks but mine tend t’ not outlast a limited warranty an’ they ain’t never that strong. Healin’ factor’s fer shit in ‘em. Dunno why.”

Letting out a breath, Tony leaned his back against a wall and crossed his arms. “Science at large thinks it isn’t anywhere close to cloning humans, mutant or not, so who are these hoodoo people?”

“Yer better off not knowin’.” He picked up the braid and began to lace it through his fingers. “Don’t want ya mixed up in that shit.”

“I see. Mutants only, huh? Yet I’ve noticed your saliva seems fairly talented at stopping any bleeding unusually fast.”

“Maybe so but if that was a cure-all, McCoy woulda had me lickin’ more stuff. He preferred my tongue rolled up in general.”

“I see his point.”

Victor looked up at him as his fingers stilled. “Tony, I ain’t holdin’ out on ya. If’n I could give ya some o’ tha good juice, I would; told ya I’d help ya however ya needed. McCoy did ‘is level best t’ fig it out in tha time he had me, better’n ya or me could do – an’ he wasn’t tha only one that tried. Still stands t’ reason that if’n it was somethin’ I could pass on – ‘sides maybe genetically, dunno ‘bout that – I probly wouldn’t be standin’ here now.”

“Why not? To the standing here, thing.”

“Cuz I’d be starin’ out from inside a Mason jar on some lab quack’s shelf.”

“Hank wouldn’t –”

“That blue simian do-gooder’s too busy trippin’ over ‘is own morals t’ be in tha same league as tha Dr. Hyde freaks I run int’.” He tossed the braid behind his shoulder. “They don’t care one wit fer yer ‘ask first’ bullshit – not that yer sainted McCoy gave a damn ‘bout it, neither, come t’ that. Fact is, without a healin’ factor, most o’ me would resemble a shoddily laid out railyard.”

Fingers lifted reflexively to his scalp just behind the hairline. With a short chuffing growl at himself, he forced the hand to drop to his thigh. Stifling a shudder wasn’t managed as well as he’d hoped. Pushing away the memory of how it had felt to have his skull opened and the pieces set aside, he leveled a heavy stare at his mate.

When Tony’s eyes went wide, the mouth opening in shock, Victor knew he was finally catching up.

“Okay, I understand. Illegal exploratory surgery, above and beyond the Weapon X program and Xavier trying out brainwashing… Geez, I’m starting to see why you balk and scoff at my consent lessons.”

“Glad we’re on tha same damn page fer once.”

“Yeah … and I’m sorry.”

“Ain’t yer fault – ‘sides tha bloody yo-yoin’, ya treat me better’n most.”

“As long as we’re sharing, I’ll admit that some things you do go beyond what my morals can condone. It’s one of the reasons for the yo-yo behavior – thanks for soft-pedaling that one – and sometimes wanting to be around you means turning a blind eye, maybe more than I should. That’s a choice I make and I’ll own it, but it’s … difficult.”

“Yup, I figured that out. Every story’s got more’n one side, though.”

“I doubt if you want me to start listing things.”

“Nope, I don’t – but if’n yer only gettin’ yer intel from tha likes o’ Nick Fury or tha X-freaks, that’s some heavy bias right there.”

“I imagine; I do try to take that into account but really ignorance as bliss can work wonders.” Tony’s arms dropped as he glanced around the suite again. “Where did my case go?”

Victor snorted as he stood. “Don’t notice much, do ya? It’s in that box by tha door. Figged ya wouldn’t wanna fly home.”

Tony went to look and stared down at the box. It was covered by logos for a brand of toilet paper and taped up with duct tape.

“Charmin?”

“Ain’t nobody guessin’ an Iron Man suit’s wadded up in that. Jet’s gotta john, needs t’ stock up sometime.”

“Wow. I take back any doubts I had that you know what you’re doing.”

Chuckling, Victor sat on one end of the couch and stomped into his boots. “There’s a hoodie on tha back o’ a kitchen chair – pull that on an’ take tha elevator outside up t’ tha roof. Helipad’s up there. Zane’ll fly ya t’ my jet.”

Tony fetched the hoodie and pulled it on, setting the hood over his hair. “I like this part – it hides the fact that my hair looks like hell, at least.”

“Naw, ya look good ‘nuff t’ eat.” Victor smirked at his surprise.

“What if I’m recognized by someone?”

“Keep yer head down. Any o’ my folks’ll think yer my latest hustler toy, rented an’ paid.”

“Lovely.”

“Gets tha job done.”

“Hustlers or your plan?”

“Both. I’m takin’ a car. Off ya go, see ya on tha jet. When ya get t’ tha airport, ya can ditch tha hoodie. Gonna see why. I’ll lug tha TP.”

Tony shook his head as he went out the door. As soon as he left, Victor got up and grabbed a black windbreaker with a white Stark Industries logo out of a closet. Tearing the drycleaners plastic off and dropping it, he hauled it on over his t-shirt, leaving the braid hidden.

Popping a black ball cap over his hair and eartips, he smirked as he hoisted up the Charmin box under one arm. Once the elevator sounded, heading back down, he left the suite and caught it, hitting the button for the garage.

~ ~ ~

As planned, Zane had flown Tony around the long way. By the time they boarded the jet, Victor was already on it, lounging in a front aisle seat. The pilot was grinning from ear to ear behind their illustrious cargo. Dressed in his purloined Stark Industries windbreaker, a match to Victor’s, he sidestepped around the shocked inventor to sit up front and start flipping switches.

Tony stopped in front of Victor, fingers tap-tapping on his jeans. It was one of his nervous tells. “I don’t want to know, do I?”

Victor rose. “Probly not. C’mon, Mr. Stark – gotta private cabin fer nappin’ tha whole way.”

He was still in the hoodie but stripped it off as he followed Victor into the small cabin, tossing it on the armchair by the bed. “You barely fit in here.”

“It’s just fer sleepin’ which I mostly do in a chair out there anyhow.”

“So why have it?”

“Fer tha shower, I guess – ‘specially after a job.”

“Another thing I probably don’t want to know details about.”

Victor’s eyebrow arched. “Yer welcome fer this favor, Vic – that’s what ya meant t’ say.”

Tony ran fingers through his hair – another tell – and sighed. “Right. Exactly.”

“If’n ya want it t’ yerself, I can go back up front.” He thumbed at the closed cabin door.

“No, too keyed up to sleep and I’d rather have your company. I’ll … drop it.”

Victor didn’t comment further on the man’s urge to be offended by imagining what he used the jet for. He was used to morbid fascination reactions from the few who ever made it this far and lived to tell the tale.

He watched as Tony claimed one side of the bed, away from the wall, notably without removing clothes or shoes. Patting the wall behind him, he gave one of his pretty but plastic smiles.

“Left you a spot. Do your nuzzle thing, I’ve gotten so used to it … it’s sort of soothing.”

Taking the invitation on surface value, Victor slotted in behind him and pulled him close. The bed was barely bigger than he was and it took up most of the cabin.

“This reminds me of the cargo plane rendezvous in the Arctic. That was originally intended as a farewell/thank you encounter. Turns out, you’re more addicting than I anticipated.”

Nuzzling as requested, Victor murmured, “I aim t’ please.” He ran the tip of his tongue up the outer shell of Tony’s ear. When the man’s whole body shivered and relaxed against him, a sharp smile stretched wide, unseen. “Wanna sleep?”

“It’s not that long a flight. Talk to me.”

Victor went still with lips feathering the soft hair behind the ear. Requests like that, from anyone he actually liked, tended to lock him up. He knew his silence irritated the man but that only drew the knot in his head tighter.

“Okay, Chatty Cathy, I’ll start things off – with one question.”

The amusement and patience in his tone sparked a muffled short laugh from Victor. As much as he wasn’t fond of being grilled for information, answering questions was easier than trying to figure out what to say.

“Here it comes,” he muttered into Tony’s hair, more relieved than he’d want to admit.

“Only one! Tell me something no one alive knows.”

Victor scratched at a sideburn. The first thing that popped up was good enough – after all, Tony had said it fascinated him.

“When yer in tha electric chair an’ stuff starts t’ sizzle, tha cotton they used t’ shove up tha ass gets real hot. Fuckin’ weird.”

“Ah… What?”

“Ya asked.”

“Cotton. Up the … hmm. Do they still do that?”

“Dunno, ain’t ridden tha lightnin’ since they traded tha chair fer a needle in most burgs.”

“Wow.”

“Yup.”

“So you took the criteria of my question to a giddy level of literal. Do over – I was aiming for historical anecdotes.”

“Gimme somethin’ more specific.”

“Jimmy Hoffa?”

“It wasn’t me.”

Tony dissolved into laughter and Victor chuckled.

“I imagine no one can say getting you to talk is easy but once managed, it’s never boring.”

“Sometimes folks wish I’d shut tha fuck up. Depends.”

“So why do you clam up around me so much?”

Victor hesitated a moment before deciding to roll the dice on the truth. “Ya can make me nervous ‘bout fuckin’ up.”

Tony’s scent warmed at that and though he couldn’t see it, he knew the man was smiling for real. “Well ditto for me on that. Ask me something – that’s how this works.”

“Naw, anythin’ worth askin’, I’m too stupid t’ understand ya. Ain’t gotta dictionary in here.”

The inventor turned his head to look at him but Victor glanced away at the ceiling.

“You aren’t stupid, Victor. Maybe you can’t do trigonometry equations in your head – unless you can…?”

“Nope, not on paper or a calculator, neither.”

“But that isn’t the definition of intelligence. I’d love to test your IQ – I bet you’d be surprised.”

That sparked a purr. “Lemme take ya huntin’ first.”

Tony turned onto his back and smiled up at him. “That’s just an attempt to ditch the topic.”

“Not really – it’s tha best way t’ show off what smarts I do got.”

Tony chuckled. “I could listen to you talk for hours. See? You’re an interesting person. Stupid is boring. However, the great outdoors isn’t my scene, if you recall.”

Victor licked his tongue over his teeth, catching the whiff of lust from his lover as he did it. “Toss me a science-shit voicemail t’ keep me warm when ya disappear fer months.”

“You got it.”

Tony accepted his kiss and let him turn it into a lazy exploration, until a hand started to slide down the man’s clothes. Gentle fingers moved to grip the thick wrist and stopped it.

“Victor, I want things to be clear between us, so I’m going to ask: what did you mean about us having an understanding?”

“Ya were onboard with tha friends with bennies thing – gonna change yer mind on that?”

“No – no, I meant that.”

“Even after ya sort shit out an’ get better?”

“Yes – until I figure out how to woo the girl of my dreams.”

“Fine then – got us an understandin’.”

Tony ran a fingertip up a smooth lower fang. “Uh-huh…”

When Victor leaned in for another kiss, he smiled at the purr that rumbled up as their lips met.

Victor felt the fingers release him and he worked swiftly to get that hand inside Tony’s jeans. Gripping the hardening cock and working it slowly, he watched his face as the kisses failed and his lover’s body writhed in his embrace.

“You’re going to make me pop like a freshman,” he muttered, heated and breathless. “Is this to make my walk-of-shame clothes more authentic?”

“Maybe…” Victor sucked in a breath. “Fuck, yer pretty when yer just ‘bout t’ shoot.”

Tony seemed unable to answer and within a few strokes, Victor caught most of the sweet pearly cum in his hand and pulled it free. They both watched it drip from his fist before their eyes met. Victor opened his hand and swiped his tongue up it, swallowing down what he got.

“Damn,” Tony whispered. Sitting up slightly, the inventor gripped the wrist again, pulling it down.

Victor knew he could feel the heavy cock hardening where it was pressing against his thigh.

Flicking his tongue out, Tony licked the droplets that were left, tracing them around the side of his open hand. “Those jeans are kind of tight – does that thing hurt, trapped in there?”

“Tony…”

Victor forgot to breathe when the man rose up and made him lie on his back with a mere look. Tony straddled his thighs and sat on them, his hands covering and kneading the denim over the bulge.

He hadn’t tucked his spent cock away and Victor didn’t know how to stop staring at it, at those skilled hands or at the beautiful eyes staring down at him full of warmth.

“Call me Anthony,” his mate whispered.

It was quite a while before he could obey. Victor got lost in the pleasure given to him, in the feel of that hot mouth that made him come so easily without the need for pain. When the frustration of wanting to roll to his belly and give his body to him was wiped away by the soft lips swallowing his seed before they kissed hot touches up his stomach and chest, he lay limp in surrender. Accepting a sweet and salty kiss, he licked the taste of himself right out of Tony’s mouth.

“Anthony,” he breathed against the cheek that was laid against his. Whispering into the ear at his lips, he almost begged, “Lemme say it…”

Tony’s head turned and lifted to kiss him silent, to keep it inside. It was all the answer he would give.

~ ~ ~

Lying quiet and warm with Tony’s weight on him, Victor breathed in the scent of sex around them as the man slept. Their jeans were still rumpled and open but he resisted the temptation to wake him for more.

At the first slight tilt of the craft around them, he gently circled an arm around his back to steady him. The inventor was out so solid, he didn’t wake until the landing gear began to touch down.

Neither of them spoke as the jet slowly taxied to a stop, and then they sat up and put things away. Sitting side by side on the bed, Tony’s head drooped slightly.

“Can’t be helped,” Victor muttered to him, hands lax in his lap. “As I’m often told, ya gotta get t’ it before ya can get through it.”

Tony took a deep breath and reached over to lace their fingers together for just a momentary squeeze before he let go and stood. He moved to the door and turned the handle to open it, staring down at his hand on the shining steel.

“With everything I’ve ever heard or read about you, not one of those reports or witness accounts said you could be kind. I’m glad that I know it.”

Stunned, Victor remained seated until Tony left, leaving the door open. Hearing him speak to Zane, he hauled himself up and went out. To his surprise, Tony had picked up his coat that had been abandoned on a chair when they’d arrived in Phoenix.

“This thing is a trip, you know that, right? It’s longer than you are tall. Bespoke, therefore über custom – why is it drag-the-ground length?”

Victor shrugged. “Looks badass, freaks folks out. Also, doubles as a blanket in a pinch – even used it as cover an’ as a scent decoy more’n once.”

Tony nodded, smiling. “I have a photo or two of you in it. Impressive.” He folded it over the back of a seat with care.

Zane headed for the stairs and opened them up. “The car’s coming in to drive you home, Mr. Stark.” They both watched as he picked up the Charmin box from between the front rows of seats.

The inventor smiled at the pilot’s wink. “Thanks.”

“Sure thing, chief.” He went down the stairs with the box and disappeared.

Tony snorted. “He’s enjoying this game a bit too much.”

Victor kept his distance, sensing the shift in Tony’s scent and mood. The mask was sliding down. “So what’re ya gonna do now, t’ fix yer prob?”

“Try more element combinations. Clearly I need more focus and less distraction.”

“Less distraction would probly mean ditchin’ tha expo plans – an’ Monaco.”

“You’re still my favorite stalker.”

“I bet. Better be yer one an’ only.”

“The rest are just paparazzi, these days – and leave them be, please.”

“Yer no fun.”

Tony gave him an odd searching look before it was wiped away by his trademark fake smile. “Maybe we’ll plan a meet down the road at another of your bank suites, somewhere new – for kicks.”

“Like tha great Mae West said it, ‘Come up an’ see me sometime.’ I’ll buy a backgammon set just fer ya.”

“I mean it – and thanks, for … everything. I’ll call – or you can, you actually remember to. Don’t eat too many billy goats Gruff while you do … whatever you’re doing next.”

“Just gonna be hard at work, same as ya. Bet we’ll both end up killin’ some assholes that deserve it. Yer good at it – seen all tha footage on CNN.”

Tony dodged the dig smoothly. “You should come to the Stark Expo. We won’t be able to meet up there, but you like tech toys – you’d probably get a kick out of it.”

“Maybe I will.” He watched as Tony gave the wall at the stairs a pat, shot him another plastic smile, and went down out of sight.

He didn’t go to the door but sat in his favorite window seat to watch as the Charmin box was loaded into the trunk of a black limo. The driver worked for him and was a skilled fellow who could be trusted to handle this discreetly.

Tony didn’t look back at the jet as he climbed into the car. The driver shut the door for him and gave a salute to Zane just before he drove away.

The pilot popped his head back in from the open stairs. “We heading out straight away, Boss?”

Victor sighed. “Yup. Don’t even remember what job’s next.”

“We have Costa Rica and Cuba; want me to flip a coin for the first stop?”

“Costa Rica. Ya can take tha Stark shit offa tha jet there with li’l notice by pryin’ eyes. After Cuba, I wanna hit Haiti fer fun before we jump tha pond again.”

“Got it. Wheels up in no time.”

Settling in, he closed his eyes and muttered, “No rest fer tha wicked.”

*****************************************************************

Tony sighed and scrubbed his face with his hands as he leaned back in his desk chair. The holographic failure of test 332 reverted back to the starting point on the command of JARVIS after Tony had remained silent.

Glancing over at the kitchen/bar and the bottles waiting there, he resisted the urge to sink into them and finished off the latest tall glass of chlorophyll goop instead. The aftertaste was awful and the gassy discomfort was an insult.

“Are you ready to select another combination for test 333, sir?”

Setting the glass down with a dull thunk, he watched the remaining dark green residue slide to the bottom. Frowning, he reached for his phone on the desk instead.

“I need a mini-break.”

The AI’s silence felt like judgement but he ignored it. One speed dial button away was a talented distraction.

Victor’s phone was answered but the mutant didn’t immediately speak. When he did, he sounded distracted himself. There was an excess of noise on the line he couldn’t pin down.

“Tony – ya need somethin’?”

“I need – to hear a friendly non-ball-busting voice.”

Victor’s snort of amusement made him smile. “Fire tha ginger an’ gimme ‘er job – only ball-bustin’ ya’d have would be from comin’ yer brains out all day an’ all night.”

“I’d get nothing done and my company’s stocks would plummet. Besides, you already said no to being my new masseuse. What are you doing? Wait, no, scratch that – I shouldn’t know that.”

“Drivin’ at tha moment, nothin’ nefarious – but gonna hafta bail in a minute. Busy, busy.”

“On a phone while driving – bad boy.”

“I’m in tha backseat, flyboy. Ya hard at work?”

“In both senses of the phrase. Where are you?”

“Trinidad, leavin’ Iglesia de la Santísima now on tha way t’ a job.”

Tony translated ‘Church of the Most Holy’ in his head and smirked. “Did you stop for confession?”

“On a Monday night?” He could hear Victor chuckle. “Just wanted t’ see tha new buildin’.”

Tony tapped at his keyboard one-handed for a second and glanced at the information he found. “New? It was rebuilt in 1926.”

“Yeah, well, tha church bell is left over from tha former one an’ it’s nearly older’n me. I’m an architecture buff an’ Late Gothic/Spanish Revival mixed with Neo-Gothic gives me wood.”

“Learn something new every day, huh?”

“Yup – I’m a deeper fella’n most are aware.”

“I’m figuring that out. Is this the first job since I saw you or have you come out from under your bridge often to harass various new billy goats Gruff?”

“Often – they taste like chicken. Don’t get yer knickers twisted, ya wouldn’t miss any o’ ‘em.”

“Glad to hear it. Do you have an opinion on the Boy Scouts of America?”

“Now that’s pretty fuckin’ random. What’s up?”

“Nothing, never mind – considering donating is all.”

“Don’t they try t’ get city boys out in tha woods t’ learn survival stuff? I can get behind that. Maybe ya should join.”

“Ha ha – really, forget it.”

“Tony, listen – I gotta bail, duty calls. I’ll text ya later?”

“Sure … okay. Ah, thanks – it’s good to hear you.”

“Pleasure’s all mine,” the mutant replied, his deep voice thrumming with the undercurrent of a purr.

Tony sat in the chair and shivered at the sound of hunger in that voice. If the feral had shown up on his doorstep, testing would have been done for the day.

He put the phone down and tapped a quick reply to an email he’d started hours before to the Los Angeles Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Beneath his response, the incredulous questions about his offer began to swim in his vision: Are you sure? Is this really THE Tony Stark?

Hitting send, he rose fast, the motion rolling the chair backward. He wouldn’t be able to hide what he’d just done from Pepper. “I need a drink.”

“Sir –” JARVIS piped up.

Tony interrupted, “One for the nerves – before we watch my hologram die a few more hundred times. Not interested in a discussion about it.”

Pouring scotch into a glass, he leaned against the sink edge as the memory of Victor in bed made his breath catch.

“JARVIS, go ahead and bust my balls again – tell me I can’t ask Victor to fly here … right now…”

“The testing is to save your life, sir. Distractions won’t accomplish that.”

Downing the drink in two swallows, he set the glass in the sink. “Test 333. Got it. Thanks. This sucks so much.”

~ ~ ~

Hours after a hurried dinner eaten while standing at the table – a ball of nervous energy and dead-eyed exhaustion at once, Tony got back down to the workshop without talking to Pepper much. She wasn’t going home for the night yet and she probably thought he was acting strangely, more than usual. He couldn’t avoid her forever.

I could just tell her… No, no – bad idea. Not now. Not … not here. Where? Ever? Can’t I just fix it and never need to tell her? Sounds like a better plan. I like it. Avoiding the desk and the work, he collapsed on the couch. She’s in that gray ruffled-back blazer with the black leggings and stilettos. Black top … or is the whole black thing a one-piece deal like a cat suit? It needs to be a cat suit. One button closure knows all…

His thoughts went south along with most of the blood his brain needed to function. Studying the erection in his jeans like a problem to solve, he cursed under his breath when he heard Pepper coming down the stairs. She was holding a tablet. One quick glance at the small frown on her pretty face proved he was right – she was worried and she would ask him what was wrong.

In an abrupt irrational panic, he snatched his phone from his pocket and opened up his jeans. It wasn’t difficult to fish out an effective topic changer. Just as she entered her code and came in to see him there, he aimed the camera in the phone and took a picture of his painfully hard dick.

“Tony! What the…?” She whirled to turn her back, a beautiful flush lighting up the freckles on her cheeks.

He struck out for an attempt at casual but got pretty close. “I’ll just be a minute; I have to finish sexting to my sociopathic mutant assassin stalker.”

“Why on earth?”

“In person, he has a habit of treating me like a post-coital toy mouse stuffed with catnip. I figured, long distance, he might miss me. This will cheer him up.”

“There are no words.”

“I hope he reciprocates in kind – I may need to invent a larger phone screen to see it all at once, though.”

“Really?” She sighed in exasperation.

“Absolutely. Let’s just say it’s … proportionate. Which satisfies my –”

“Oh my god, seriously?”

“– sense of engineering design.” He smirked. “Among other things…”

“I’m going.”

Tony chuckled and put things away, wishing he could have seen her face for all of that. “Okay, come back, it’s safe. What am I signing?”

Irritated, she handed him the tablet and stylus. He didn’t listen to her explanation and didn’t read it before signing with a brief flourish.

Something about a military plane, a flyby drop, and the expo…? Doesn’t matter. Focus. “All done. Thanks.”

“I don’t want to know,” she muttered under her breath. The blush was gorgeous – and a real feat, as she almost never blushed.

Tony watched her escape up the stairs through the glass. Her long legs and perfect feet disappeared last as he tried not to feel the riot of things that were tangling him up at once. He had to get back to testing samples; there was no time to waste on screaming fears – or anything else.

Yet it was getting harder not to think about all the ways the poison would destroy him, would destroy his mind. The horror of that threatened to send him right into a bottle. Every test that failed had driven him to try again … in the beginning. Now, after so many failures, hope was brittle and fading fast. Anger and exhaustion of mind and spirit chased each other through his slowly failing body.

Letting out a sigh, he turned away from the empty stairs. “I can crawl into a bottle and never come out, go out in a blaze of glory – or I can…” His voice faded to a whisper and then faltered into silence.

He had gotten a custom F1 race suit made for Monaco just in case ‘blaze of glory’ was the option he jumped for. Pepper would be outraged, so he simply hadn’t told her about it – like the Boy Scouts getting the art collection … and everything else.

Why not blaze of glory, really? If I’m going to die, I should drive for that race… How damaged will the brain be by then? Not enough to make a difference, it’s coming up soon.

The phone he’d set on his thigh gave a short buzz. On the screen, a typically brief text from Victor waited: Sorry to bail on you, call when I can.

A smile twitched at one corner of his mouth as he realized he had read it in the clipped Canadian mountain man accent. He always did.

“How messed up am I?” he muttered. “The brightest moment of my day has been a less than ten minute chat with the Thing That Goes Bump in the Night.”

Impulsively switching to his photos, he looked at the new one he had never meant to take – it had just been an abrupt attempt to ruffle Pepper, to get her off the scent of how not okay he looked.

“Well, that part of me looks just fine.”

He admired the photo – the lighting was perfect. A smile finally crept back onto his face as he imagined the mutant’s reaction. With a snort of amusement, he gleefully hit Send.

 

FINI.

(Sabretooth will return in Another Auld Lang Syne: After Midnight.)

*****************************************************************

Author’s Note: Arrepentida means repentant, to change one’s mind. In a tango, it is a family of steps which allow a couple to back away from a collision or traffic jam in a minimal amount of space and on short notice. This is symbolic of the touch and go and hesitant indecision of Tony and Victor’s relationship. To some extent, it works for Tony and Pepper, too. The song Unchained Melody is by the Righteous Brothers, another of Tony’s musical reference quips to keep Victor at arm’s length, emotionally.

In Iron Man 2 prior to Monaco, Tony’s blood toxicity level is 24% and in the deleted scene in the workshop (prior to Pepper arguing about the art collection he donated to the Boy Scouts of America) Tony is seen doing the 486th test for a palladium core replacement. I wanted to explore that heartbreaking and awful testing process in this story to give it more attention than it receives in the movie. I chose 202 and 333 as test numbers to show that he has tried so many times already, yet has so many more to endure. Thanks for reading! – AnonGrimm  (@MET_Fic) (anongrimm-blog.tumblr.com)

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PreviousSabretooth Series

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