Give me purity, strength and affection
give me lust to ignite my devotion for life
It’s where beauty comes alive
Can’t you see I’m a slave to the darkness
Cutting down, and I know I have done this before
as I stare into the wall
and now it’s time to let it shine
cause don’t you know I’m addicted
and suddenly I’m greatly affected
like burning fire inside
scared of losing my mind
I’m totally completely afflicted
as I inspire the lie like a lullaby
crawling around in my mind, my mind
Unremitting demand of my hunger
Time stands still as I am losing the grip of it all
like a thousand times before
Give me antidotes, constant removers
Make an instant deductive denial in vain
cause I always stay the same
and now it’s time to be reborn
although I know it’s addictive
It’s massive destruction
Combination of glory and hope
a schematic affliction
of a feeling inside what I swore
and suddenly I’m greatly affected
like burning fire inside
scared of losing my mind
I’m totally completely afflicted
as I inspire the lie like a lullaby
crawling around in my mind, my mind
~ Massive Addictive (Amaranthe)
Victor woke, slow and sluggish – a sure sign of the havoc that still tangled in mind and heart. If he had been on his own turf with time to kill, he would probably have opted to roll and go back to sleep … maybe for days.
Tony’s soft voice telling the house to speak more quietly had woken him. It was still a shock to be in the same room, let alone the same bed. Opening his eyes to see the inventor, he was struck all over again by how beautiful he was.
This could be a bad one…
“Feeling a little better?”
He wanted to say no and tell the man how ripped apart and adrift he felt, but wild horses couldn’t drag the weak bitch words from his lips. Stung pride wouldn’t even surface to save him with a mask of arrogant indifference. He turned his head away to the window, but it was still dimmed.
“M’fine,” he muttered. “Should check my phone – stuff comes up.”
“Except that you already told Obinata you were here until Monday morning. Check it later.”
Rolling to his side, he faced a familiar expression. Twenty Questions, incomin’. Frowning, Victor sighed. This is clearly Hell. Time t’ pull yer head outta yer ass. Yank ‘em bootstraps up. “Ya got Curious George face – shoot, Chatty Cathy.”
Chuckling, Tony rolled onto his side and propped his head up on his palm. “I wanted to ask … how did you beat that blood rages problem? It had to be bad, or you wouldn’t have decided on such an extreme choice to try to fix it. You said Xavier didn’t help – I believe you. What helped?”
Victor growled at the memory. “Tha runt stabbed a claw through my brain – startin’ from right here.” He reached and set a knuckle under Tony’s chin. “Went straight through, up in there – like shish kebab … claw lobotomy.”
Tony shivered and stared back at him in shock as he moved his hand away. “I may have to stop wondering why you hate him so much. Why did he do that?”
“I was threatenin’ t’ get loose an’ kill anybody I found: men, women, kids…” He looked away again, staring at the ugly scrambled Pollock painting. It likely resembled his addled brains. “I had t’ stop what was bein’ done t’ me. Knew that’d make ‘im fight me, only reason I said it. He set that fist there, an’ I goaded ‘im t’ do it.”
“They never told me that. Prior to Adamantium on your skull, then. Did you think it would kill you?”
“Didn’t much care.”
Tony frowned. “Then Xavier certainly did cross a line. Irresponsible to leave you locked up with only your nemesis on watch, too.”
“I called it an opportunity; tha rest o’ ‘em are gutless. Knew tha runt would throw down.”
“That’s exactly why it was irresponsible.”
He looked back at Tony. “That claw turned my brain t’ mush, but it came with a handy advantage – telepaths can’t get in now.” He tapped his temple as a forced smirk stretched his lips. “Those bastards are probly plenty upset they can’t make me their ass puppet no more.”
“I was told I started out straight-up feral, but like a big kitten, no real aggression. That tells me tha inner beastie didn’t remember squat, neither, if’n he didn’t know people were a threat. Later, healed ‘nuff t’ start talkin’ again, able t’ stand ‘steada movin’ like a critter. Still didn’t remember nothin’.”
Even now, Victor could feel that old confusion and the curse of the false peace twisted his guts all over again. No memories had remained of the root cellar, the axe, the pliers, or his pa’s abuse. Sensory memory had been wiped clean – of his mate’s death, or the tortures of scientists who saw him as subhuman, worse than an animal. He twitched when Tony’s stare came into focus again and dropped his gaze.
“Victor, tell me. It’s safe to tell me, if … if you need that.”
Swallowing hard, he whispered, “From things said ‘round me then, I remember that shit later, I grasped that Xavier never tried t’ get back in. When I got out, they were shocked they couldn’t control my mind, so I know he never tried. I was damaged goods. He had no use fer a timid kitten.”
“Full hardware reboot…” Tony mused, frowning again. “Ugh. What did they do with you after that, considering you were attacked and injured by your guard while in their custody?”
“They locked me up in their fuckin’ Danger Room an’ ran a jungle program t’ keep tha mental invalid beast occupied.” Victor sighed. “Guards, plural – that half-wit Caliban an’ tha Cajun both got their licks in.”
“What did they do?”
Victor growled. “Caliban broke my back in a sewer once, left me t’ drown – but in my cell, he up an’ decided t’ maul me one mornin’ while I was mentally a kid an’ couldn’t fight back. He was wearin’ a hero label at tha time – they all were.”
“They didn’t stop him?”
“Sailin’ in after it got bad hardly counts in my view – why was he able t’ get in there? That bastard ain’t got ‘nuff brains t’ work a padlock, let alone fancy Shi’ar tech. I always thought he had help – maybe from tha coonass.”
“The Cajun is Gambit, right? Remy LeBeau.”
“Yup. LeBeau made it a regular date, tryin’ t’ beat me int’ rememberin’ crap I did so’s he could wail on me fer it more. Tha Weather Witch caught ‘im at it an’ wrecked ‘is fun. He probly sped up my memory recovery.”
“Geez. Trying to upstage the Stanford Prison Experiment is not a goal to aim at. So even after the claw left you harmed but harmless, they still just kept you locked up, barely had you monitored by anyone responsible for a prisoner’s rights, and didn’t even try to treat what Logan did to you?”
“They didn’t have a clue what t’ do with me, an’ maybe they saw it as a fix an’ left it at that.”
“That’s hardly a fix for you. I’m surprised Xavier didn’t try to put an asymmetric backdoor in your head while you were ‘down’, essentially.”
Victor glanced up at him with a frown. “Cueball knew my inner beastie was in tha driver’s seat, kitten or not, an’ I fig tha bastard also knew he didn’t have tha stones t’ take on that fight. A telepath that used t’ work fer me said tha rougher tha brains, tha tougher it is t’ mess with ‘em. ‘Sides, like I said – he had no time fer me if’n I wasn’t a warrior he could use fer ‘is li’l mutant guerrilla revolution.”
“Yes, but humor me – if your brain was mid-reboot, technically, your memories and personality may have been offline and inaccessible for further creeper invasions.”
“Ya remember I ain’t a robot, right?”
“Of course, sorry – I just mean we don’t know whether or not there was nothing there to manipulate, or if it was a weakness he didn’t try to exploit. The issue of not being able to enter your mind could have developed later, as the healing progressed.”
“Dunno, but there ain’t no shortage o’ assholes who think I got zip but cobwebs an’ refuse in my head.”
“For the record, I’m not one of those. To be fair, the list of people who think I’m an asshole is both lengthy and distinguished, but I don’t think you’re stupid. I got over assuming that rather early on. How did you escape, initially – how did it start?”
“Once I healed ‘nuff t’ remember who an’ what I was, I taunted one o’ tha junior squad, who also used t’ sneak int’ my cage, t’ trick ‘er int’ blowin’ up my restraints so’s I could escape.”
Tony’s smile slipped away and the focused stare was back. “You went through Psylocke to do it.”
“Ninja bitch got between me an’ tha door. Had t’ get away. What that freak Xavier was doin’ … was sick. Wasn’t gonna go back t’ that, told ‘er I’d rather die first. Anythin’ standin’ between me an’ freedom was fucked.”
“Did you ever try to tell anyone what was being done to you?”
“No point. Those assholes worship that bastard.”
“I would wager, even if he was aware of what he was doing, the others weren’t. You might have had at least one or two allies if they knew.”
“Didn’t care – couldn’t trust ‘em, any o’ ‘em.”
“But Victor, you needed help, you went there to get that – some of them might have been willing to listen to you, and to help.”
Victor stared down at the white expensive sheet. Don’t wanna see disgust on that pretty face, or worse … pity. “They all think I’m a liar, that I’m garbage; weren’t never shy ‘bout tellin’ me so. Couldn’t risk trustin’…” His voice dropped to a murmur. “Had t’ … get out.”
“Okay … I understand. Gutting a woman who thought she was protecting her people isn’t something I can get behind, but … I understand that desperation.”
“We scrapped before, ‘er an’ me – she stuck that psi-blade in my head an’ turned me int’ a brainless prisoner lotsa times. Ain’t no ‘prisoner rights’ with Cueball’s flyin’ monkeys.”
The hand that came up to gently cup his cheek nearly melted him. His hands weren’t entirely smooth or soft, though. There were calluses, fine scars, and little burn marks – the hands of a master craftsman. Victor pressed into the touch and the fingers stroked and scratched into the sideburn.
“I felt the same way in that cave,” Tony whispered. “Thanks for telling me.” He was quiet for a few breaths and then asked, “What can you tell me about the Hound Program?”
“Why should I tell ya squat ‘bout that?” Victor stared back at him as Tony’s hand dropped to the bed between them.
“It was my government, wasn’t it? I’m fighting for this country, for our belief in freedom – if there’s some horrid murdering black-ops division brainwashing killers, I need to know. I’m not asking so I can judge you about your forced involvement.”
“Seems t’ me, yer real good at that – or ya were downstairs, earlier.”
“I was wrong to jump to conclusions, not knowing your situation. I can’t know if you don’t tell me.” He reached out to cover Victor’s fingers lightly with his. “I need this; I rub elbows with those D.C. stuffed shirts. No one seems to know anything about the Hound Program, but you do.”
Staring at the hand touching his, Victor relented. “It was started as a wetworks outfit, t’ give their enemies a dirt nap. Me an’ a couple other brainwashed guinea pigs were trackers with a built-in rep fer recreational slaughter. Tha brass that knew ‘bout it didn’t like usin’ mutants – they hate us – but they were willin’ t’ foot tha bill t’ try it out. Already told ya ‘bout … tha targets.”
“That old way of brainwashing is more torture as conditioning than actual brain-manipulation. I imagine it’s very different than what Xavier was trying to do.”
“I ain’t gotta imagine, havin’ tried all tha flavors.”
Tony’s fingers tightened over his. “Those creeps didn’t have you under control for long.”
“They never do – whoever tha fuck tries it. I broke that leash, like all tha ones before an’ after it. Then I used tha data I stole on potential targets t’ become Hounds an’ killed ‘em – stopped that bullshit dead in tha water, far as I know.”
“Good, bad, or indifferent…”
“They weren’t Boy Scouts. Tha shit they made me do … couldn’t let ‘em keep doin’ that, with or without me. It was an experiment – they probly called it a flop an’ dropped it. They tried t’ burn me, fer knowin’ ‘bout it. Fuckers do that a lot, but it don’t never go tha way they plan.”
Tony was silent for a while after that, but it didn’t last.
“Did you go after the people who ran the program?”
“Couldn’t risk it. Tha assholes I did see were on tha top tier. Tanglin’ with yer whole military is pushin’ it a tad, even fer me. They got all tha cards, all tha power. So yeah, they’re probly still there, hidin’ under one rock or ‘nother. Yer country may believe in freedom, but D.C. has ‘nuff rot in it t’ choke ya if’n ya dig in too far.”
“Agreed. Sometimes it’s hard to trust them or the military. I trust Rhodey, but…”
“They all gotta bigger fish givin’ orders they hafta follow. Mark me, Tony – ya might run int’ that some day when yer friend’ll go against ya cuz some asshole wearin’ ‘nuff stars tells ‘im t’ do it.”
“I guess I’ll deal with that if it ever comes up. What happened after you got free of the Hound Program?”
“Went back t’ doin’ what I do.”
“Contract assassin work.”
“Among other pursuits.”
“So the Adamantium?”
“Came along later. Twice.”
Trying to give Tony answers and his attention, he ignored the lock of hair that slid from the messy braided bun to hang in his face.
“Not tha sort o’ body mod I’d recommend. Gettin’ it ripped offa yer bones hurts just as bad as gettin’ it melted over ‘em. Wearin’ it on yer outside like ya do – way smarter plan.”
“Definitely – but I better stop before you start calling me Pepper.” Tony let go of his hand and stroked the loose hair behind his pointed ear.
“Don’t mind as much if’n it’s ya.” Victor smirked at him, feeling bolder as his hair was stroked a second time. Hope springs eternal? At least he likes how I fuck. That’s gotta be good fer somethin’. “Whatever gets me a third date.”
Tony smiled, but his answer felt like a strike. “Maybe we should discuss that, since you’re not supposed to ask me to prom.”
Victor frowned and turned away to lie on his back, staring up at the ceiling.
Either be tha toy he does want, or walk away an’ don’t look back. Ya ain’t never gonna be more’n that t’ this one. “Ain’t gotta worry ‘bout it. I know what ya wanna say, know how this shit works. T’morrow’s it. Said it before – just keep takin’ my whistle-blower calls down tha road. Maybe once in a blue moon talk t’ me. That’s what counts.”
“Calls? Well, obviously. Listen, we wouldn’t be having this chat if I didn’t enjoy scrambling a bed with you. If that wasn’t the case, you would’ve woken up alone the first morning with Pepper handing you your dry cleaning. So – maybe … there’s a chance that you don’t know what I’m going to say.”
Watching him warily for a moment, Victor sighed. “Shoot.”
“Okay. We know I work a lot, missions interruptions, and our friends wouldn’t understand – you Hatfield, me McCoy – all that old cliché, ad nauseam. We also know I am bad at remembering to respond. When I do find time and call, let’s keep things light. We’re having fun – this is supposed to be fun, right?”
“Excellent. Life is too short. Well, for me, anyway. Good chat. I vote Italian.”
The shreds of anger and hope that were left abandoned him until all he felt was loss. Leavin’ right tha hell now would be best, ya know that. Gonna stay an’ play bitch anyway ‘til he boots ya? Fuckin’ useless. Lick ‘is hand, ya cur – ya know he thinks yer garbage, too, no matter how much he likes how ya fuck.
With his stomach curling in upset, healing factor useless, he retreated from feeling as best he could before he shamed himself by showing the riot within. When the mask finally slipped over his face, he managed a low tone of teasing mockery to give Tony what he wanted.
“Surprised ya get a damn thing done ‘round here, seein’ as yer takin’ a food break at every turn.”
“It’s called three meals a day – it’s a thing. I promised Pepper and Happy I’d do better on remembering to eat if I take a weekend off alone. JARVIS, is Pepper still here?”
“Yes, sir – Miss Potts is in the library.”
“Define ‘alone’,” Victor groused.
“Personal assistants are sort of supposed to hang around – to assist.” Tony half-climbed his chest and leaned on him as his fingers began toying with the nearest nipple. “Ask her if she’s eating with us or getting something else. I want Italian Beef Braciole. You know the place.”
“Miss Potts is heading home soon if you do not need anything further, sir.”
“That’s all I needed,” Victor deadpanned.
Tony grinned. “No, that’s fine. Tell her goodnight for me. Put in my usual order.”
“Miss Potts just called it in, sir. She will wait for it to arrive and set it up for you and your guest before she goes home.”
Tony beamed a smile at Victor. “She’s good.”
“So I’m often told.”
Chuckling lightly, Tony leaned down and licked the nipple.
Victor shifted in discomfort and he stopped. Tony watched him quietly, either unsure how to respond or feeling irritated, it was hard to tell. Victor tried to hold still as Tony did it again, confused by the strange feelings that were seeping in to kill desire.
Ya know ya want ‘im. Don’t wreck what time ya got left. It ain’t no diff’rent than bein’ a playtoy fer any other dick or twat that won’t be seen with ya in public. Take what ya can get. What else is there? Yet the act of falling still and not reacting made that warm mouth leave his body again. He met his gaze reluctantly as the pretty brown eyes watched him. How tha fuck am I gonna do this? Never shoulda come here. Leave or shove it down, asshole. Be damned if’n yer gonna show weakness or whine like a bitch. Trying not to let his mood sour further, Victor asked the first inane thing that entered his head to get the man talking, to distract him. “What project’s next?”
“Hmm. Okay. Ah, several to do with medical stuff, and clean water. Apparently, when you give up making weapons, the tree hugger types are ready to welcome you with open arms.”
“Ever make toys fer yerself – besides tha suits?”
“I am making a new phone – just for me, not for mass production. The masses couldn’t afford it.”
“Don’t ya already got tha crazy alien phone? Where’d ya get that one?”
“I made that one, too. This is going to utilize my other technology, like the glass and the holograms in the workshop.”
The inventor’s hand began to slide down his body until Victor’s abdomen muscles fluttered in a ripple away from the touch. It had been involuntary, but he abruptly felt confined, trapped. As the fingers left his body, he couldn’t meet those eyes again, afraid of what he’d see in them. Gaze dropping down to his hand, he was surprised to see claws cutting their way out as his unease increased.
“Victor, I’m stumped. Will you tell me what’s wrong?”
He froze where he lay, watching the claws curl and lengthen. The man’s scent confused him. There was heat in it, but fear seemed to be killing that.
Why fear? Talk, idiot. “Not a thing,” he finally answered, breaking the silence. The lie stung, leaving a sour taste in his mouth.
“I don’t believe that.”
Tony waited, still watching him, and then Victor finally recognized a taint to the scent that was overtaking the brief fear – irritation … or anger.
Victor turned his head to escape the stare as the warmth slowly left the man’s eyes. Emotions he could barely pin down long enough to attempt to name them tried to drown him. His heart rate increased and then the scents in the room began to tilt and morph and he closed his eyes tight against the awful surge of madness.
Mud and blood, both filled his nose – he couldn’t breathe! Something heavy had struck the back of his neck and was pushing him down into slopped dirt. Frantic, he scrabbled behind his head to get free and felt thick leather split under his claws. A woman’s voice was screaming, growing dim as his ears were filled. The bloody mud hummed a strange cyclic sound that echoed through the mess – a siren song. It offered comfort.
Let go, drown an’ it ends. It all ends…
Fingers touched him, brushed down the side of his neck, in the same instant that vertebrae snapped under the heavy split boot. A vicious hiss was torn from his throat – made by air, he could breathe again – and when his eyes snapped open, he was staring up at the pale and stiff face of Tony Stark.
What did I do? Terror gripped his throat, but there was no scent of blood. Tony’s fear had bloomed only to be overtaken by anger. Looking down, he saw his clawed fingers gripping the man’s forearm tight enough to bruise. The lethal points were pricked on the skin, not yet drawing blood.
The voice was a chilled warning as it echoed his mad thought, the face filled with more outrage than fear. Victor opened his grip carefully before the inventor snatched his arm out of the way.
Tony huffed out a breath sharply and rolled off his body. “I need a drink.”
He got up and pulled on the lounge pants he’d tossed onto an odd artsy chair. A drawer opened and shut and by the time Victor glanced up, he had hauled a black t-shirt on and left the bedroom without looking back.
Staring after him in shock, Victor didn’t move for almost a quarter of an hour. He could hear the man talking to Pepper beyond in the kitchen. Tony sounded angry or frustrated, but for some reason Pepper did not. Guilt, shame, and fear tore at him and he tuned out what they said to each other, not wanting to know.
Ya coulda taken ‘is fuckin’ hand off… The thought made him feel sick. Fuck ya, ya bloody waste – weak, stupid fuck. Pa shoulda done it, shoulda drowned ya like a rat in tha filth!
Trying to control his breathing as he’d been taught to do, to calm the body until it faded, it was hard not to allow the madness to shift and morph. He gasped at the abrupt scent of his mate’s blood and his mind reeled in confusion, not sure if it was Tony … or Michel. Wind rose and he growled. There was no wind. There was no scent of blood.
Pull it back, don’t show this t’ ‘im, please… This is Tony’s house, that’s where ya are. He coughed and snarled, abruptly remembering that the house could see him.
Victor rolled and curled onto his belly where he could watch the empty doorway, at a loss for what to do. He tried again to pretend nothing was wrong as anger and self-hatred swept all the rest of the mental flotsam away.
Yer fuckin’ insane. Stop reachin’ so high, nothin’ fer ya there. Miss Junior League Tabitha sent ya packin’ even with a cub between ya. He’s Tony-fuckin’-Stark, darlin’ o’ Yank justice, an’ all he wants is t’ get ‘is itch scratched – he’s slummin’, an’ yer tha only one that don’t wanna see it. Ya belong in tha dark with yer own kind – criminals an’ killers who ain’t gonna care ‘bout all tha shit ya done. Most o’ ‘em are useless braindead borin’ asswipes, but ya ain’t worth any better’n that an’ ya know it.
With a growl, he nearly tossed himself out of Tony’s scrambled bed. He snagged his lounge pants from the floor, but threw them into his open duffel bag. Grabbing his jeans, he turned and froze – Tony had returned and he’d barely noticed while the decision to leave rattled around in his seething head.
The inventor was leaning in the doorway, his arms crossed over a psychedelic image of Jimi Hendrix’s face. His expression, body language, scent – none of it helped. He simply couldn’t read the man.
“Were you leaving?” he asked, his tone neutral, controlled.
Shattered pride pricked and singed, surging over madness as the mask stiffened to help him cope – at least to get him out. Lick yer wounds somewhere else, ya weak-ass li’l bitch. He lifted his chin. “Ain’t much reason t’ stay.”
To his surprise, Tony wilted a bit, his scent morphing into yet another mix he couldn’t read. “Come on, huh? Don’t go. Have some dinner with me.”
Victor shook his head to clear it, baffled at the man’s calm and the strange invitation on the heels of Tony’s anger. After what I almost did… “Not hungry, an’ not in tha mood fer more fuckin’ questions.”
“Talk or not, it’s fine. I talk enough for both of us. You don’t have to eat, but I need to. It’s really good, though. What do you say?”
Forcing himself to move, he endured being observed as he pulled the jeans on and fastened them. Meeting those eyes again, he stared back as a riot of thoughts and confusing emotions almost made him dizzy.
“I’m … going to get out of your way,” Tony said softly. “Kitchen or front door, whatever you need to do – but I hope you’ll come eat with me. Pepper’s going home soon. I’m often chasing elusive me time, but unless I’m working, I’m not … overly fond of being alone.”
Tony turned away and headed off to the kitchen again, missing how Victor’s stiff posture fell apart in his wake. After a glower at his phone in the duffel and his scuffed black boots on the floor, he trailed after the man. He felt helpless in his need to be around him, to hear that voice speaking to him – to be reflected in those beautiful eyes. Yet even as he followed with soundless tread, he knew the real reason he was pulled to do it.
It wasn’t real, ya stupid fuckin’ dumb beast. He don’t want us beyond a tumble. Bury it an’ forget it. Yer mate is dead.
Balking a moment as he saw Tony waiting for him under the huge round alien skylight, Victor swallowed a growl and moved to rejoin him.
Pepper was setting the kitchen table for two when Tony led him in.
Fetching up against the counter with the most distance away from her, he hesitated to cross arms over his chest and stuck his fingers in the pockets of his jeans instead – barely remembering to retract claws beforehand. He felt weirdly self-conscious around her without a shirt, and then felt stupid for it and frowned. Glaring at his bare and clawed feet to avoid glaring at her, he kept his eyes down until she stopped smiling at him and looked away. The smile had been … it made no sense.
Tony drew Victor’s stare back up as he came behind her and moved the silverware from around one of the plates and set the utensils off to the side. She noted it, but didn’t react.
Once again, they were synced effortlessly and for one blinding moment, a bewildering hatred for her burned inside him. Consciously making his body relax, he leaned more of his weight on the counter.
“I brought up a few other bottles, too – are you sure about this one?” Pepper asked.
Tony glanced at it. “Yeah, hand it over. Do you want a glass?”
“Just a little.”
Victor was surprised when he got a glimpse of the label – Cheval Blanc 1947, a three-litre bottle of Merlot. He’d never seen one in person before, but he knew it ran in the $135,000 crowd. It seemed an odd choice for an awkward meal in a kitchen with a felon. The trio of less criminally expensive bottles was a testament to the fact that Pepper agreed.
Tony handled it like a true oenophile, and Victor fell into wondering how the brash parts of him managed to mesh with the cultured parts.
“You have Curious George face,” Tony teased him, smiling. “Ask away, it’s only fair.”
There’s somethin’ t’ try – quit worshippin’ tha man by noticin’ ‘is faults an’ dumbass quirks. He ain’t a damn god. “All tha rock t-shirts, mechanic skill, mad scientist inventor, an’ basic arrogant brat stuff on tha one hand, but ya know how t’ handle wine like a professional snob. Kinda surprisin’. Tha suits ya pick, all o’ that – tha culture shit seems a bit o’ a mismatch with tha rest o’ ya. Where’d ya learn it?”
Pepper was smiling again as Tony handed her a glass. “He has you pegged.”
Handing the other glass to Victor and picking up the last one, Tony snorted.
“I had excellent teachers of arrogant snobbery in my dad and his friends, but my mother taught me about wine, while she and my unofficial Aunt Peggy taught me how to dress like a proper billionaire without being too painfully ridiculous.”
Victor frowned. “I like bein’ painfully ridiculous with my bling.” His ears twitched at the sound of a car moving up to the circular driveway.
Tony winked at him. “I know. I found a few photos of you in those gold and canary diamond Luxuriator sunglasses. Delightful. You look delicious in a bespoke suit. A toast: to enjoying ridiculous wine with people I like – waiting for boring ‘special occasions’ is so passé.”
Pepper laughed, sobering when she met Victor’s gaze. Did she realize she was an open book? He didn’t even need her scent as proof – her expression and body language was more than enough. Tony wanted her, too, though he wasn’t thinking about it that instant.
Ain’t no way t’ compete with that. Victor drank to the toast, trying not to treat the amazing vintage like cheap swill. Why these two ain’t already mates is beyond me. Humans an’ their bullshit reasons fer not fuckin’ – probly just as asinine a set o’ reasons as Tabitha’s fer walkin’ away from me.
The house chimed in, “The delivery driver is here, Miss Potts.”
“Thanks, JARVIS.” She set her glass down after taking another sip, and then went to the door. After she returned and Tony helped her set things up, she finished her wine and accepted his half-hug. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Victor, if I miss you in the morning, thank you again for rescuing my mom’s files.”
Victor nodded, watching her as she disappeared.
Tony set his glass down. “Ah, I’ll be right back, going to see her out to her car. Get started if you want.”
He spent the time pacing until Tony returned, sitting only when he did.
“At least try some of this, there’s tons here.”
The large beef roll covered in sauce was stuffed with ham, nuts, and not much greenery, so he ate some of the thick slices just to please the man. Preferring scotch whiskey didn’t lessen the quality of the wine, so he helped Tony kill the bottle. The inventor ate with gusto and Victor found that he liked to watch him eat – even if it wasn’t something he had hunted for him.
While they ate, Tony told him more about the medical projects he had mentioned, and even regaled him with a few stories from missions until the plates were empty. When he tossed the last of the wine down the hatch, he fetched the next bottle and started in on it.
Victor fell into watching him ply the ah-so to open it as he had the first one, mesmerized by his clever fingers. “Plannin’ t’ get tipsy?”
“No, wine doesn’t have much chance of that. Do you want a splash to rinse your glass? I don’t generally bother when going from serious pricey to sort of pricey.”
“Got no earthly idea what tha hell yer even sayin’.”
“Scotch man, got it.” Sipping the next vintage, which Victor ignored after he’d filled both glasses, Tony studied him. “I know I implied a ‘no more questions’ in the dinner invitation, but I do have one, and I’d rather not leave it until tomorrow – assuming I can convince you to stay.”
As his scent changed again, there was a fresh note of anxiety in it. Strangling the growl that threatened to break free, Victor downed the wine in one gulp.
Ya nearly maimed ‘im, so that fucks yer claims ya won’t hurt ‘im. Take yer lumps. “Yer not gonna drop it, I bet – may as well spit it out.” Just t’night. Ya know ya don’t wanna walk out that door ‘til ya hafta. Screw yer courage t’ tha stickin’ place, an’ maybe get t’ screw ‘im again. One fer tha road…
Tony couldn’t help the nervous flutter in his gut at the thought of his question. Taking even breaths to calm himself, what was left of the anger began to fade away, too.
Victor sat there like a furry shirtless Adonis with his hair in a braided bun, ratty from sleep. The bone beads were tangled in the hair, half hidden by it as more escaped the braid. He looked resigned – and maybe a little gut-shot.
The feral’s unusual avoidance behavior in bed had been confusing. He had tried again to offer touch as comfort when the upset seemed to increase. The snatch and grip on his forearm, claws poised to stab – capable of severing it with a simple effortless squeeze – had turned his guts to water in an instant.
With ‘Don’t show fear!’ going off in my head like a claxon, the threat of being mutilated made getting angry pretty damn easy. Coupled with the silent treatment prior, the glaring fact that something was amiss, and the obvious lie over that…
Frustration and fear had led Tony to walk away in anger – a mistake, as Pepper had pointed out. He hadn’t told her about that terrifying clawed grip, but he’d known she could help him untangle things when he related his frustration to her.
‘You let him in, Tony,’ she had chastised him, relatively gently. ‘You need to talk to him, not walk out the moment he starts behaving in a way you don’t like. I imagine it would be hard to know what all is wrong with him – but a little empathy and understanding goes a long way. If you really do want to help him – you need to actually work at it, because with a person like that, it won’t be easy or quick. If you don’t want to put in the work, end the … experiment, or whatever you’re calling it. Don’t toy with someone like that, especially if he has real feelings for you. It’s not only potentially dangerous, it’s … cruel.’ Tony sighed. She was right – she often was. Okay, here goes…
Rising, Tony picked up his stool and moved it around the corner of the table to Victor’s side.
I either have to tackle this issue, or give up trying to teach him – and give up everything else with it. “Humor me, huh? Turn this way.”
His guest grunted as he shoved his stool back to sit facing him as requested. He hooked thumbs in the pockets of his jeans, and all of the claws, in fingers and toes, had retracted. Softly glowing cat eyes watched him as Tony scooted closer.
“May I touch you?”
At a stiff single nod, Tony placed his palms down on thighs that were almost thicker than his torso. Touch still seemed to both hold Victor’s attention and soothe him at once.
Not so surprising, most people probably don’t dare. Yikes, Victor with a touch hunger problem – not a pleasant idea – but then why threaten to dismember me over a touch? Pepper was off in one respect, about real feelings. Stalking isn’t love. Then again, all I told her was that we got physical over trench-bonding. “I want to ask you this, and I’d like an honest answer.”
Victor nodded again, but didn’t say anything. His heavy shoulders were slumped now and the arrogant mask he had briefly worn was gone.
Pushing on, Tony asked, “Have you ever thought about killing me – beyond work-related reasons?”
He tried to wait patiently, but the longer Victor hesitated after his initial twitch of surprise, the more obvious it became that the answer was yes. It took effort to remain calm, all things considered. His fingers gripped a little over the solid muscles, trying not to think about the coiled monstrous strength in that body, how hard Victor was to injure or even to slow down, or the fact that all of his suits were in the workshop.
Here we are with this concern on deck – again – because I’m an idiotic danger whore who likes to play with fire. He calms when shifted into sexual gear… Even thinking about that had his hands giving the thick thighs a rub and squeeze. Geez, stop it. He was flinching earlier. You figured out he doesn’t want to tell you no, consenting or not. What if the sex is only making this worse? Still waiting for an answer. I’m comfort-groping a half-naked professional assassin with stalking statistics popping in my head like fireworks, and he gets cagey over this question? Fun!
“Why’s that matter now?”
And the fun keeps coming. Don’t retreat. He respects confidence, and obviously, soothing him is not a bad plan right now, just don’t sexualize it. “It matters, and it’s essentially a yes or no. I’m going to guess you have, because ‘no’ wouldn’t be so hard to admit.” He sighed. “We need to talk about this. I have to know you aren’t going to become a threat to me the moment you feel you aren’t getting what you want. Stalker 101 – we did discuss that before. You claimed you weren’t a threat then. Is that still true?”
Victor watched him, wary again. “Ain’t gonna hurt ya – fer tha umpteenth time…”
“You keep saying that, yes, and yet – you have thought about it. Then I tried to offer comfort and you nearly severed my hand. You have to talk to me about this.”
“That was…” His low voice evaporated and the amber eyes skated away to the floor.
“Victor … that was what? What was that? Was it something to do with instinct?” The nod was barely movement at all. “Were you triggered, is this a PTSD problem? I struggle with that, too, I understand it. Give me something.” Another fraction of a nod allowed him to breathe again. “Okay. That helps.”
“Don’t wanna talk ‘bout that,” the mutant whispered. “It’s … bad, but nothin’ t’ do with ya – didn’t know I was grabbin’ ya.”
“I was the only one in bed with you.”
He shook his head in the negative and the bone beads swung loose. Tony managed not to wince when they struck Victor’s cheekbone. The feral didn’t react to it.
Mulling over what he was implying, he worked at remaining calm. “Was it a … flashback? You were reliving something bad, grabbing someone else, to stop them?”
“Ghosts,” came the man’s low and broken whisper.
Surprise chased by annoyance that he hadn’t guessed that tripped his heart rate faster.
Insomnia, night terrors, flashbacks, PTSD – all painfully familiar – am I that awful not to think he’d have all that? Auschwitz and brainwashing torture, for pity’s sake … and something about being locked in a cellar and defanged? Nice going. Hank would probably want to strangle me. Remembering Pepper’s words about it being hard to know what all was wrong, and empathy, stung him. So would Pepper. At least he’s not angry now. I am so out of my league…
Careful and slow, he let go of one thigh and lifted that hand to Victor’s neck again in the same touch that had gotten him grabbed before moving it to the furry cheek. The reaction was confusing as Victor pressed into the touch as he had before.
“I’m happy you’re trying to let me know why, instead of being pissed at me.”
When the amber eyes shifted to look at him, the black slitted pupils were moving, widening. “Ya ain’t done nothin’ t’ me t’ be pissed at.”
“Well, something I did or didn’t do upset you down in the workshop, and it’s clearly bothering you now, but…” he stroked the sideburn again. “I do need to understand why you thought about killing me.”
Sighing when the mutant looked down, Tony left his hands where they were for the comfort factor, and changed tactics.
“Look, I’m a danger whore, right? I’m still going to ring your bell until you need to go – if you’ll let me, that is. So let’s start slow – tell me when and where? Work with me. We need this.”
“New York, my suite at tha bank – after tha waterfall thing in Obinata’s office,” he muttered.
Tony arched an eyebrow at him. “Seriously? Okay… Ah, that night was maybe the wildest time of my entire life – the good kind, anyhow. The crazed feral thing, pinning and making me, not even pulling free before doing it again, not knowing if you’d ever stop fucking me… I want to have that memory bronzed. Why? What did I do to mess up that bad? I mean, I knew you were upset, after I declared it my turn. I remember that slam about you feeling like a Cracker Jack prize rather vividly, not to mention the drugged lion petting zoo remark – like a gut punch. I said it then, repeating now – we switch, it’s what we do. If you were … feeling used… Well, weren’t we using each other? Aren’t we now? What’s wrong with that, if we both want it?”
“Don’t matter, it was maybe two breaths o’ time.”
He used the press of his hand on Victor’s face to make him look at him. “It matters to me. When exactly did you think about it?”
“Ya got up, started gettin’ dressed t’ leave. Two seconds, tops – over an’ done.”
“Because I was about to leave? See, that is all kinds of worrisome – for me.”
“Ain’t no need. Had t’ … had t’ reach that point t’ look at it, t’ feel it, then I knew I didn’t want that. Even if ya never gimme tha time o’ day again, still need t’ know yer out there. Ya exist. I need that. That’s why I like t’ give a burnin’ need fer a coroner t’ idiots that try t’ put a contract out on ya. It’s my new hobby.”
“So tomorrow – late morning, technically – what happens then?”
“I put my ass behind tha wheel o’ my ride an’ disappear – outta yer hair.”
“Then you go back to stalking me?”
“Won’t matter what I tell ya – ain’t gonna catch me at it.” The mutant’s gaze slid down to stare at the hand on his thigh.
I need to give him an out. Tough guy like this, he won’t cope with playing dunce cap for much longer. I get the feeling he’s put up with it this long because he’s given me too much power here, for some weird reason, and that isn’t anything like stalker behavior. You’re a stumper, Victor.
“‘Sides,” the feral added with a bit more defiance, even with eyes downcast, “there ain’t no law against pickin’ up mags yer in or showin’ up at public events.”
Fortune favors the brave. “Without firing weapons at my face, hopefully.” He smiled and winked when Victor looked up at him sharply, a growl dying on his lips fast.
“That was savin’ yer ass, flyboy – ya fuckin’ know that.” The pupils narrowed to slits as the expression contracted into a wary glare.
Eep. There’s that patience limit. Tony removed his hand from his face and put it back on the other thigh. “I do, I’m just … never mind. Collecting interviews, watching from afar … your fanboy activities don’t bother me.”
“So what’s tha big prob?”
What indeed. Maybe I should have asked about Chicago while he was still in whipped pet mode. Great timing for zinging him back to pissy. Take a bow. “You’re a self-styled stalker, Victor, you tell me.”
“Not gonna gut ya fer needin’ me outta yer way. Ain’t got one o’ ‘em bullshit ‘if’n I can’t have ya, nobody can’ motives, neither. Fuck who tha hell ya want, don’t care. Got no time fer that crap. I do got shit t’ do, ya know.”
“Yes, I know. Okay. Thanks for being honest with me – that’s all I wanted. Well, almost all I wanted.”
He started to slide his palms up the worn and soft denim straining over those awesome thighs, but then stopped.
Looking up at the now impenetrable poker face and the wary eyes, he asked, “Why did you start to flinch in bed, before?”
Victor’s eyes narrowed. “Ya said one question.”
Tony halted his frown, too. “That’s right – square deal. Dropping it. Will you stay tonight? We can be as platonic as you like, or not – sex is not a condition of the offer.” Victor’s hesitation sparked a whole new set of questions, but Tony sat on them.
“Good. I’m enjoying your company. Whatever I did or keep doing – general apologies for being an ass. It’s a hard habit to break.”
“Told ya already, ya ain’t done nothin’ ya intended t’ do – we’re five-by-five ‘nuff fer me.”
“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to tell me what I unintentionally did?”
“Best if’n we take tha current truce an’ roll with it. No sense borrowin’ trouble. We’re just too diff’rent is all.”
Tony gave him a reluctant nod. “Okay. You know … if you want to ask me anything, you can – you’ve been more than patient with my incessant questions – and Pepper’s.”
“Got one thing I wanna know.”
“Ya gonna teach me more stuff ya want me t’ learn, or what?”
“Ah … sure? I sort of thought that was one of the things I was annoying you with.”
“Oh, it’s plenty annoyin’.” Victor shrugged. “Still willin’ t’ listen. If’n I don’t like it, gonna ignore it.”
Tony felt a smile tugging at his lips. “Fair enough.”
“Did ya eat ‘nuff so’s we can go fuck some more?”
“Yes, and I’m very much on board with that idea. You did say I can fuck whomever I want, and at the moment, that happens to be you.”
“Slide ‘em hands wherever ya damn well want then, an’ let’s get it on – as tha immortal Marvin Gaye crooned it.”
Chuckling, Tony slid his hands from the magnificent thighs to take Victor’s hands, unhooking the thumbs out of the pockets. He rose and tugged to get the mutant to stand up with him.
“Let’s go back to bed. I was of a mind to suck on your nipples as a start, and I still want to.”
It was a surprise that the mutant allowed himself to be led so easily and Tony wondered again about the apparent power he’d been given. Victor had made it plain he didn’t want to discuss where things had gone wrong, and Tony intended to respect that, even if it seemed unwise.
Getting them both nude and slowly relaxed again took some effort, but the nipple sucking endeavor did work wonders.
By the time he was pushing into Victor’s body again, barely able to function verbally through slow and easy thrusts, he had convinced himself that their latest problems were a talk – and a mystery – that could wait.
He stroked the thighs again as he lay between them, loving how the powerful muscles twitched and shuddered under his touch.
On his back, Victor watched him under heavy lids fringed with lush black lashes. In the dimmed room, the amber glow was mesmerizing. As he used the thick thighs to grip and thrust harder, the serene look of contented pleasure changed, morphing into the fascinated expression of near-worship.
I’ll never get used to that, but I’m getting addicted to it. God, how he feels, how he looks at me… Even more than flirting with the danger he is, that – that is going to be hard to give up.
Author’s Note: Curious George is a monkey character in children’s books by Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Rey – first appearance in 1939. Chatty Cathy was a pull-string “talking” doll invented by Jack Ryan, made by Mattel, in stores in 1960, for six years. She was second in popularity after Barbie.
“Hatfields and McCoys” of course, refers to a feud of two rural families of the West Virginia (Hatfields) and Kentucky (McCoys) area on either side of Tug Fork (a tributary of the Big Sandy River) from 1863 through 1891. The first murder in the feud was a McCoy who fought for the Union in the Civil War, while most on both sides fought for the Confederacy. A group called the Logan Wildcats (Confederate Home Guards) murdered Asa Harmon McCoy. Victor read about the Civil War long after the fact to find out more about his mate, the French Union soldier and carpenter-turned-railroad builder, Michel Richoux. I’m sure this feud would have caught his attention for many reasons, especially as a tale of a family that didn’t quite get along. Before and during the feud, the two families had intermarried and switches in loyalty to either side also happened here and there. Not the best example of how people behave.
The Stanford Prison Experiment (Stanford University, August 14 – 20, 1971) was an attempt to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and guards. Conducted by a research group led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo using college students. It was funded by the military (Navy and Marines) and was fraught with ethics violations and abuse of the “prisoner” students by the “guard” students. An “asymmetric backdoor” is a hacking term, a type of backdoor into a program that can only be used by the attacker who plants it.
“Screw your courage to the sticking place” is a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 7, where Lady Macbeth urges her husband to have the guts to murder King Duncan. Obviously, I had to split a chapter in two again. It got too big by far. Thanks for reading! – AnonGrimm (@MET_Fic)