I’ll smile, I know what it takes to fool this town
I’ll do it ‘til the sun goes down
And all through the night time, oh yeah,
Oh, yeah, I’ll tell you what you want to hear
Keep my sunglasses on while I shed a tear
It’s never the right time, yeah, yeah
I’ll put my armor on,
Show you how strong I am
I’ll put my armor on,
I’ll show you that I am
I’m a Porsche with no brakes
Yeah, I win every single game
I’m so powerful
I don’t need batteries to play
I’m so confident
I’m unstoppable today
I’m unstoppable today
I break down, only alone I will cry out loud
You’ll never see what’s hiding out
Hiding out deep down, yeah, yeah
I know I’ve heard that to let your feelings show
Is the only way to make friendships grow
But I’m too afraid now, yeah, yeah
I’ll put my armor on,
Show you how strong I am
I’ll put my armor on,
I’ll show you that I am
I’m a Porsche with no brakes
Yeah, I win every single game
I’m so powerful
I don’t need batteries to play
I’m so confident
I’m unstoppable today
I’m unstoppable today
~ Unstoppable (Sia)
Iron Man was saying his name in Tony’s voice. “I won’t let you die.”
The growls faded as he finally focused and saw Tony’s face in the suit. He was crouched on a knee beside him. Two metal fingers were carefully touching his elbow – but he couldn’t feel the touch.
“Are you looking at me now? Are you … Victor?”
A sharp sniff shot some ugly truth into his slowly waking awareness. Blood was dripping from his mouth as he swallowed a hunk of meat. Tony was beside him, one metal knee in the smeared blood of his kill. Dread froze the shudder that snaked down his spine, spiced with the scent of Tony’s fear and disgust.
“Going by GPM, I’m not sure if I’m talking to Victor or Hello Kitty. Help me out?”
Hissing at his body parts that moved and could feel pain, Victor’s voice emerged as a low rasp. “GPM?”
“Hi there. Growls per minute. I don’t mind playing the name game with you. One of the pirates kept trying to tell me his – never did catch it.”
He saw, he saw! The thought shrieked in a circle in his head like a flock of frightened birds. Swallowing hard as he scrambled for a mask of indifference, Victor grunted. “Tha easiest way t’ remember a list o’ unfamiliar names is through attrition.”
“In this case, I couldn’t agree more. Welcome back … but you may not want to move.”
“What’s tha sitch?” He started to try to rise, but a metal hand he couldn’t feel held his shoulder blade down.
“Ah – you’re well-done, just stay still. Sorry, but … yeah.”
“Cookin’ jokes.” A growl bubbled up from the depths at being pinned. “It’s nice that ya know yer an insufferable jerk here an’ there.”
“I’m told it’s important to be self-aware.”
“Lemme up, flyboy, or yer gonna be self-aware o’ how easy I can cut that metal, capiche?”
He was watched as he fought to sit up in the remains of his kill. Tony was staring at his face like a man who was wary of looking anywhere else, but his face was a mess of blood and burns.
“You are … an unstoppable wrecking machine – fearless, and … terrifying.”
Working on shoving down his fear of being incapacitated, he ignored the compliment – if that was what it was. “What happened?”
“We put out the fire. Here they come, now – good timing. And…”
The man’s stiff body language was obvious even in the suit. Taking in his stoic expression and cool tone, Victor’s heart sank. “Tony…”
“You ate parts of him,” Tony resumed in a whisper, his gaze steady on his face as the fangs and his chin still dripped red.
Victor stared at him, waiting for his anger, but then the expression changed until all he saw in those beautiful dark eyes was concern.
“I know, I … get it. I said so, but you weren’t you. Victor … I’m not sure how to process it, but…” As he watched, Tony diverted the topic with a shiver. “Can you heal from all this? I hope you don’t mind the skinhead look.”
Heart in his throat, Victor groused, “More jokes.”
“It’s how I cope.”
“I know,” he repeated the man’s hesitant words back to him. “I get it.” Letting out a sigh, he lifted a dripping hand, placed it better, and shifted his shoulders and back. Agony made him bite down on his lip and a sharp tooth between incisor and fang made it bleed – but the hole closed instantly. “It’ll heal,” he muttered, “just gimme a minute. Distract me by answerin’ my fuckin’ question, huh? What’s our sitch?”
“We’re heading farther out from the coast, your jet is still lurking, and we need to get off the boat. It’s a lost cause.”
Victor growled under his breath. “Go ask those men what they think o’ yer assessment an’ get back t’ me. I’m bettin’ not a one o’ ‘em are gonna like it.”
“They don’t really have a choice if they want to live.” He rose and walked away to the end of the upper deck.
Victor smirked when he heard the helmsman’s vote. Tony might have to stop being surprised once they all voted the same way.
Tony didn’t help as Victor fought to stand, swaying on his feet before he leaned on the wheelhouse wall. His last offer of assistance had been snarled at.
“Every single one of them is addlebrained from the trauma – it’s the only explanation.”
“They gotta right t’ their choice.”
As he watched, the skin began to heal over the scalp. A few long patches of blond hair here and there were filled in by a short golden buzzcut that pushed out from the healed skin and continued to grow.
“Some of those crates contain unstable explosives.”
“What an’ how many?”
“Dynamite, three crates, old and badly stored. My scan showed that the nitroglycerin has started to pool on the bottom of the crate, so clearly they never bothered to rotate the sticks in there. It’s enough to kill everyone on this boat and it could go boom any second. I need to fly these men up to your jet. None of them will listen to me.”
“Do ya think this tub ain’t all they got in tha world? Like they got all sorts o’ other ways t’ feed their mates, their cubs?”
“It’s too dangerous! Did we save them just to risk their lives again?”
“They’re gonna help move tha stable shit.”
“Move it where?”
“I’m still workin’ that out. Ya gonna help by tellin’ me which crates those are, or do I gotta go down an’ sniff ‘em?”
Tony narrowed his eyes at him. “Tell me this isn’t some ridiculous plot to keep my stolen weapons.”
“It ain’t.” The low growl that rumbled in that heavy chest wasn’t friendly. “If’n that was my plan, never woulda called ya in tha first place. Fuckin’ hell, Tony … it ain’t ‘bout that.”
He sighed as Victor shot him a disgusted glare and turned away, and then stared at the broad back as it rippled and moved, the skin shifting over muscle as it healed. The black shirt had burned away with most of the jeans. Tony had liberated camouflage pants from the largest pirate and handed them over. The feral had yanked them on, not quite able to hide the pain it caused him to move that much.
“All right, fine – anything marked Stark Industries is safe for them to transport. What about the unstable dangerous shit?”
Victor paused in the open doorway of the wheelhouse. “I’m gonna get that.”
“You or them, that won’t make it any less dangerous.”
“Sure it will. Their bits don’t grow back.”
Tony cursed under his breath. “Tell him to cut the engines, don’t anchor, hold her steady – the fewer vibrations jostling those crates, the better. We can launch that long dinghy and load them in it with the gantry crane. I can fly along and steady them.”
Victor frowned. “Rather ya didn’t get that close. Yer bits don’t grow back neither, ya know.”
“You don’t get to risk yourself – and them – and tell me not to. I could just buy them a new trawler, but everyone is insane on this rust bucket, so never mind.”
“Meant I ain’t sure how leakin’ dynamite sticks are gonna like havin’ yer suit handle ‘em – safer fer everybody if’n yer not tha one touchin’ ‘em.”
“I’m not going to touch them – that’s what the dinghy is for. Then they can move the boat away from it and I can sink it. It won’t matter if it ignites by then. I need it to; the blast is going to destroy the weapons – hopefully.”
“I can make ‘em sink slow.” He popped a claw and arched an eyebrow.
Tony was distracted by the blond hair as it crept down either side of the mutant’s neck. He didn’t know whether to be fascinated or disturbed. Shaking his head, he dropped the faceplate down and fired the boots up to hover.
“Be useful and relay my orders – I’m going to help launch the dinghy. Crate transport for the bad eggs needs to be fast – the fewer of them that are stacked in one spot, the smaller the mega-explosion.”
Before he flew down to the other fishermen, he heard the feral speak Mandarin to the vessel’s captain as easily as he had – though Victor used a lot of invectives and managed to make simple instructions sound angry.
Tony told the men what he wanted done and some of them hurried off to hook up the dinghy to the falls. Next, they would steady it with an extra pair of painters attached to bow and stern, and tied to the crane arm. Then the block and tackle falls would be used to lower the crates.
The rest of the crew knelt on the deck and finished binding up the two dead men in tarps. He could still hear their screams. Glancing up at the wheelhouse, he watched the healed feral as he disappeared belowdecks, no doubt heading to the engine room to start moving crates.
When the men around him picked up their fallen friends and moved them to the starboard side closer to the bow, he stifled a shudder and flew over to assist with the gantry crane.
Victor moved the Stark crates away from the rest one by one, carried each of them up the metal stairs for the fishermen to tackle, and then went back for more. He quickly had Tony’s trio of bad eggs isolated, but he didn’t intend to move them anywhere until the path was clear and he could carry them straight up and out to the dinghy.
It was growing hotter in the engine room without the power on, even without the engines running and adding to the temperature. The reek of oil, diesel, and the bilge deeper down filled his nostrils and the healing factor limped to wipe away both lightheadedness and nausea.
His hair tie had burned away and the mop hadn’t yet regrown long enough to tie in a knot at his neck, so he just put up with it hanging in his face half the time as he was moving crates.
Tony wants t’ light up tha dinghy from tha air an’ probly won’t wanna listen if’n I try t’ tell ‘im riskin’ attention ain’t a great idea. Other pirates ain’t tha prob, neither. Our fisher boys got no permission t’ be here. They were kidnapped outta their legal waters an’ brought here, but tha fuckin’ Chilean Navy or even their coast guard won’t care ‘bout that. They’ll have anti-aircraft toys, too. Can’t let Tony do it ‘is way – make this an even bigger mess. So … why even tell ‘im? He already thinks I’m tryin’ t’ steal shit.
Footsteps approached and Victor looked up to see the solemn face of the youngest fisherman peering down at him.
“The Iron Man says we are ready for the last crates,” he informed him in Mandarin.
Victor just nodded and turned to get one. On the way to them, he wiped sweat off his forehead and growled. The old grinding hunger was pulling at him as the healing factor drove it to make him replenish its fuel. The first time he had felt it yank at him as a child, it had terrified him. Now, even knowing what it was, it could make him feel afraid, even paranoid – like a trapped animal. He knew that, but he’d never known how to control fear beyond burying it under either indifference or rage.
Shoulda eaten that fucker entire an’ spit out nothin’ but tha squeak. Victor felt an involuntary shiver thrum over tender new skin. But Tony saw. Tha look on ‘is face…
He had stopped too soon, consumed too little of the meat. Freshly healed muscles ached – his system was too depleted for his full strength to kick in. Staring down at the last three crates, he snarled at the weakness and exhaustion that threatened to make him fail.
Tin Man’s got ‘is armor, I got mine – pull up yer fuckin’ bootstraps an’ do what’s gotta be done.
Tony sent all the fishermen to the bow with the exception of the captain in the wheelhouse. A pair of the men wanted to stay and release the falls from the final crate, but Tony ordered them off with the others. He intended to have Victor cut the falls.
He tracked the mutant through his HUD as he emerged with the last crate through the propped-open door. Fully recovered from extensive damage and as strong as ever, the feral was an impressive sight. The barrel chest and back hadn’t gotten as furry as usual yet for some reason, but the hair on his head apparently wasn’t going to call it quits until it was back down to his ass. He fell into watching his body until it became an off-task distraction. Turning to inspect the falls again, he huffed out a breath.
The last thing I need is more unscheduled exertion. I have to give my handy temporary fix for freaky palladium poisoning a chance to work. Get the mission done, get home, rest up, drink more liquid chlorophyll – and hope that governments and terrorists the world over give me at least a few days off to find a permanent fix. Caught it early, though, and I’ll figure it out – nothing to worry about. Not a thing… Directing the question to JARVIS in-helmet, he asked, “How are my vitals holding up? Still beating down that pesky heavy metal poisoning?”
“At last check, your blood toxicity level was still holding at 5%, sir. It is recommended that we finish here and return to the search for a replacement for the palladium core.”
“Good plan. Let’s keep on keeping it to ourselves.” As Victor approached, Tony didn’t pop the faceplate up. The last crate’s contents were not in good shape. “That’s the worse one,” he told the mutant. “Careful but fast, let’s do this.”
Holding his breath wouldn’t help, but it was hard not to. The crate was hooked up and Tony lowered it slowly. When it settled on the top of the others, he could unclench.
“Awesome. Cut the falls and painters for me, and tell the good captain to throw it in reverse. Time to fly.”
Victor jumped over the side in a blink, slicing every rope on the way down before plunging feet first next to the alarmingly bobbing dinghy.
Tony shot into the air in shock. “What the hell is he doing?”
“It appears that Creed intends to pull the dinghy off himself, sir.”
“That is correct.”
“Not helping, JARVIS.” He watched, shocked, as Victor gathered up some of the ropes and started to swim. “This is not good.” Once the mutant had towed the dinghy at least twenty feet out, Tony cursed and turned in the air, giving the captain the signal to start the engines and throw the boat into reverse. “You’re a damn idiot, Victor,” he muttered, and the AI was wisely silent.
From the moment his feet hit the water, he didn’t bother to think anymore about it – the choice was over and done before his claws had severed the first rope. Regrets and doubts were purged by the chill of the ocean and all that was left was the thing that had to be done.
His body surged up for the surface, gathering ropes as he went. He had the dinghy pulling away from the boat before he even broke the surface to snatch a breath.
Victor didn’t bother to look at the fishing boat or the sky; his ears could hear the engines start up underwater as waves rushed over his head. The thrumming vibration of it was receding – so the others would be safe.
Powerful muscles alone kept him at the surface as he swam, defying the weight that had been melted over his bones. The water was choppy, any shift of the crates a danger, but he kept pulling to widen the gap between the engine noise and the deceptively gentle slap of waves on the sides of the dinghy.
Tha water’s cold an’ if I can drown, I can die… The passing thought was almost a comfort, a specter he often wrestled with. This time, he turned away from it in disgust. Shut up, asshole – bite it on yer own time. These men need that fuckin’ boat, an’ they don’t need Chilean law up their asses as a reward fer bein’ victims o’ dirtbags. Get it done, an’ get it done right. A li’l farther out… He looked up at a rushing sound and saw a streak of red and gold heading right for him. Aw, hellfire – no time like right tha fuck now.
Releasing the ropes, he dove under the dinghy. With no rhyme or reason on method, he set his claws to the wood, hands and feet, and pushed them all in at once. He extended them to their full three-inch curved length and yanked them out again, creating wide slashes that turned the bottom into Swiss cheese in one instant.
The dinghy began to sink immediately, and Victor started to kick out from under it to resurface and swim away.
Echoing underwater, a dull thud sounded above: wood striking wood. He opened his eyes and looked up only to thrash his head back the second he saw and heard the explosion. The force of it pushed him down deeper, agony snagging across his lower abdomen as the water turned dark with blood and jagged broken wood. Opening his mouth to scream in pain, he choked as the red saltwater rushed inside.
Still thrashing and kicking on pure instinct, he clawed for the surface, trying to get there before he passed out. Something touched and began to wind around one leg, moving again like a ribbon of seaweed as he kicked. When his head erupted into air, he coughed up water and blood.
His forearm was grabbed and pulled. With a spluttering snarl, his other hand came up to slash at it, but stopped when he saw red metal holding him to keep his head above water.
“Victor! Damn it!” the mechanical voice shouted, strangely muffled. It still sounded like it was underwater – and then he realized his ears were ringing from the blast.
Ignoring him for a moment as sense began to return, he glanced around, twisting in the metal grip. Surrounding him, a big red cloud of his blood billowed out. It would bring what he needed.
Gotta get tha first one that shows, can’t handle a crowd right now – also need t’ reel in tha danglies.
“Stop fighting me, you heavy son of a bitch – let me pull you out!”
Victor glared up at Iron Man. “Let go!”
“What? I will not!”
He yanked at the grip on his arm to get his head below the waterline for a check. He couldn’t see it yet, but he could hear it coming as the ringing began to fade. Then he spotted a distant flash of white under gray – maybe fifteen feet of hungry protein. It was coming fast, and it wouldn’t be alone for long.
Popping back up, he snatched at the metal wrist with his free hand. Blinking fast, eyes burning, he growled, spitting up more blood. “Get off me, I need t’ fight this brute comin’ in!”
“Brute? What the –” The helmeted head turned just as the fin surfaced, cutting through the waves. “Shit! We gotta do this now!”
Victor released his wrist and snarled, tugging again. “Drop me, rot ya, before it’s more’n one – ain’t lookin’ fer a party!”
“This is no time to play Jaws: the Revenge! Why on earth would you want to tangle with those things?”
“Pull that arm yer holdin’ up a bit higher an’ find out.”
Victor grit his teeth when the man did it. He didn’t want to look himself, but he had to assess things since he couldn’t feel how bad it was anymore. As his bleeding torso rose out of the water, the big jagged cut was as nasty as he had suspected. The lower belly had been sliced and then blown open, and loops of small intestine were pushing out. Two torn ends dangled down long into the water like spaghetti strands – it was one of them that had wrapped around his leg before. The invincible Iron Man nearly dropped him in shock.
“Oh my god. I’m getting you out!”
“Gotta … eat, an’ this is it,” he struggled to talk as his head spun, “‘sides muchin’ on pirates, an’ ya don’t like that none, do ya?” One handed, he began to spiral wrap the severed guts around his free forearm, intending to stuff them all back inside his body so he could fight the torpedo with teeth heading for his legs. “Lemme tha fuck go!”
The yank as he was jerked upward almost made him pass out. The waves erupted under his feet as maybe 2,000 pounds of apex predator fish breached, gaping jaws wide. Claws on his toes cut the monster’s snout as he was torn away.
Victor closed his eyes when the ocean became a green blur and he didn’t open them again until he felt decking under him as he was slowly set down feet first onto his back. Turning his head, he coughed up more blood as Iron Man’s faceplate popped up and Tony began yelling orders.
“The crates are sinking scrap and sharks are starting to gather, full speed ahead back over there! He’s hurt and he has to eat to heal. Catch us a shark!”
Feet ran and excited voices started calling to each other in Mandarin.
Victor ignored them all. Holding up an arm wound around with intestine, he placed that hand over the frightful gash right in the mess hanging out and held in what was still inside as he pushed with the other hand to roll onto a hip.
“What are you doing?”
Tipping his body over, propped on a trembling arm, he managed to get the red seawater to gush out without losing more intestine.
“Holy shit…” The metal suit crashed down, scarring the deck, as Tony went to his knees beside his head.
“They better hook one fast,” Victor muttered, hissing as he rolled onto his back again. He pushed the intact loops of gut in, watching for any others that might be cut.
“Are you … doing that right?”
“Can’t layer it proper now – it’ll sort itself out or stay tangled a while, ain’t got time t’ give a shit. Peritonitis is the real motherfucker. Now do me a solid an’ shut it – kinda busy, here, lessen ya wanna help with stuffin’ it back in.”
His arm moved to let the coils fall down it, his fingers pushing them back in. Ignoring Tony’s horror, he grasped the cut ends of the dangling gut still paid out a few inches from the wound and pushed them together.
“C’mon, damn ya – heal!” Alarmingly slowly, the intestine began to knit back together in his hold. Speaking casually to offset his own rising panic, Victor quipped, “Waste not, want not – faster an’ easier t’ go fer tha fix. Cuttin’ it away an’ makin’ it hafta regrow is a bitch, an’ it won’t lemme short-sheet it – regrows tha whole length it’s meant t’ be, every damn time.”
Tony looked positively green. “They’ll catch something, bring it to you.”
Victor frowned. “Well lessen ya gotta stapler or some duct tape, quick ain’t gonna be fast ‘nuff. Sure ya wanna be here right now?”
“I’m going to see this through with you – whatever it takes.”
He lifted an arm, turned his head and dropped his jaw, and bit a lot of meat from the bicep, straight to the shining bone. His teeth shredded it down and he swallowed as blood stained his lips and chin a darker red than they already were.
Tony choked, turned his head away as he fell forward onto the metal gloves, and threw up, retching in misery.
Unable to worry about it just then, Victor popped the healed loop of gut inside the wound and held the edges together. “Triage this, ya cunt bucket mutation,” he muttered before gritting his teeth.
The stomach wasn’t damaged, so it repaired the gut and abdomen before the arm, as he had hoped. In the distance, the men whooped and shouted, and the mouth-watering smell of hooked monster fish wafted over the deck.
Tony wiped his mouth with a metal wrist and fought to straighten up and rise to his feet. Victor could feel his gaze and scent his tangled emotions as the man got out of the way.
Once the abdomen closed enough, he struggled up and moved in a low feral gait closer to the catch. By the time he got there and noticed the damaged snout of the fifteen-foot white shark, the fishermen were using the gantry again to haul up a second one close to nine feet long.
Sitting in a half-crouch between them, Victor didn’t have time to care what anyone thought of his table manners. He leaned over, dropped his jaw, and bit deep as the terrible hunger tore at him, threatening to make him a danger to them all.
Standing at the bow, Tony watched the horizon as the boat traveled farther away from the Chilean coast. Overhead, the mutant’s jet occasionally circled around them like a sleek white vulture as it stayed close. The fishermen were heading for the East China Sea, but Victor’s destination was Hawaii.
Most of the crew was belowdecks. The mutant had shared his meal with them, allowing them to cut off the smaller shark’s tail. Food was the furthest thing away from what Tony wanted.
All evidence of violence on the boat had been hosed off and swabbed away, except for the fire damage. The two fishermen who had died had been packed in ice and moved to the stern out of sight.
Minus a few bloodstains and slices in the borrowed camouflage pants, Victor had scrubbed himself cleaner than the deck before he fed the corpses of the pirates to the sharks he hadn’t eaten. He had watched the healed feral casually dropping the bodies overboard once they had gotten underway. Long before he had finished, Tony had turned his back on the macabre scene and walked to the bow. He needed to see nothing but waves for a while.
“Tony?” the soft baritone voice called out to him.
When he turned, Victor was crouched low on the deck behind him, having approached soundlessly. He was poised on the balls of his bare feet, perfectly balanced even with the motion of the boat under him. The only reason Tony knew he was there was via JARVIS’s motion tracking report in his ears.
At the sight of him, subdued and reluctant yet seemingly unaffected by anything, Tony frowned.
“I couldn’t blow the dinghy – safely, with no one getting hurt – because you jumped in and got in the way. That was stupid and unnecessary.”
“Had t’ avoid catchin’ tha notice o’ tha Chilean Navy – our boys don’t need tha hassle. Figged if’n it sank first, I could swim off an’ let ya hit it underwater where it wouldn’t make a big boom they’d spot in a heartbeat.”
“You didn’t see fit to mention that?”
“Would ya have listened t’ tha likes o’ me? Already weird they ain’t pissed ‘bout my jet playin’ buzzard up there.”
Tony sighed. I just want to sleep for a week. “I had JARVIS call them – I told them I was cleaning up piracy and stolen Stark tech and asked them to keep out of my way. They were happy to oblige.”
“Didn’t see fit t’ mention it?”
“Touché. I didn’t realize you would think of that as a possible problem.”
“Surprisin’ fella all ‘round, ain’t I?”
“Understatement. Huge one.”
Victor watched him for a moment before looking away over the bow. “Wasn’t my plan fer it t’ blow on its own.”
“It’s no fault of anyone’s but those idiot pirates that it went up – trust me, that part wasn’t the surprise.”
“Lucky it only cut me.”
“Only? I’m not surprised by that, either. The weapons were in the crates at the bottom, between you and the dynamite. Most of the blast still went up. You were hit by wooden dinghy and crate shrapnel and shoved down out of the way of the fireball.”
“Probably not – but good as gone now. The blast wasn’t as impressive as I expected, and my weapons don’t go boom easily unless they’re designed to.”
“Also wasn’t my plan t’ go all beastie picnic on ya. Didn’t wanna show ya that.”
“I told you I understood it,” he snapped, far harsher than intended. “I can understand the behavior without condoning it. You didn’t know what you were doing.”
“Yeah, keep tellin’ yerself that if’n it helps ya cope.”
“And then you try to bait me – of course. Silence is golden. Often.”
Victor shrugged. “Gotcha, motormouth. I’ll keep that in mind. Stupid t’ ignore tha truth. Said before ya wanted t’ know ‘bout me – how I get my shit wired tight when tha healin’s on tha fritz is a part o’ me. Anythin’s game that works.”
“I don’t want to hear about it. What I saw was enough.”
The feral tilted his head at him, the expression turning shrewd. “Yer not pissed ‘bout tha how or tha why, just didn’t wanna see me fix tha mess this caper made o’ me. Gave ya a fair head’s up prior. What’s gotta be done ain’t often pretty.”
A flood of thoughts and emotions hit Tony at once as he watched the feral crouch there, fully healed, again. He hadn’t found anything to fix his problem – the toxic heavy metal poisoning that would kill him if left unchecked. As he stood there, muscles trying to cramp, he felt slightly dizzy as a migraine threatened.
If I could borrow his healing factor… But I’m sure Hank would have mentioned it if that would work – he’d be developing ways to use it to cure all sorts of things wouldn’t he? Ignoring Victor’s assessment of his anger, he answered with a question. “Tell me one thing … in the water – saltwater – how were you not screaming? Any of this … I never once heard you scream.”
“Water temp and shock help – so does previous experience. Plus, I ain’t a pussy.”
Frowning, Tony glared at him. “Only the weak scream, is that it?”
The pointed ears pinned. “Yeah, that’s fuckin’ it.”
“It’s nice to know what you think of the rest of us – including the two men who died screaming while playing human shield to protect those kids from a madman with an M-16.”
He advanced until he stood over him, not missing the twitch of the upper lip that nearly turned into a growl.
“I’m going to make sure the rest of them have anything they need, and the families of the dead are cared for. Since you can’t fly and the jet can’t land on the deck, I’ll be back to get you up there. Then you can be on your merry way – after we figure out where to take the kids.”
Victor returned his glare. “They’re goin’ t’ Hawaii with me. I got someone there who can suss out what they need. Do-gooders like ya only ever return ‘em t’ tha orphanages they came from. Most o’ those places are hellholes.”
“I plan to ignore that crack. Hawaii is fine for a start.”
Without another word, he went around the mutant and flew off up to the wheelhouse.
~ ~ ~
It was late afternoon by the time he flew Victor up to the circling jet. It was hard to believe that one of the longest days of his life hadn’t been that long at all. Smiling grateful fishermen cheered and waved as they went.
Tony dropped the mutant inside the open door, planning to close it and fly off. Between exhaustion, every bit of him aching, and a creeping sense of disorientation, he thought better of it and entered the jet himself. If his math was sound – and it always was – the aircraft could take it. He killed the boot thrusters and closed the door, locking it down to seal it.
“Good to go,” he called behind him to the pilot as he turned to see him.
“Welcome aboard, Iron Man – never got to say that the last time.”
The pilot just smiled an irritating smile. He looked like he had escaped a seventies porno – a bad one. As first impressions went, Tony far preferred his flying skills to his personality.
Victor spoke behind him. “Arctic airfield, when ya came t’ talk t’ me on my ‘warehouse with wings’ – Zane’s my best pilot, carts me all over. Zane, Tony – Tony, Zane, all that jazz.”
Abruptly, the pilot’s smirk made uncomfortable sense. If he knew Victor’s reputation, let alone his, the reason the two of them had disappeared into the mutant’s private cabin for hours on the monstrous cargo plane probably wasn’t a big mystery.
Tony nodded to the man curtly and turned away without comment to face his current problem, but the mutant had walked off.
Victor went to join the girls at the back in an odd empty cargo space behind the luxury seats. Their nervous windblown clutch parted roughly down the middle, and to Tony’s surprise, they cuddled up to the feral on both sides the moment he sat down with his back against the wall. Victor slumped slightly and blinked up at him before his eyes closed. In moments, he appeared to fall asleep on a bed of fishing net and ropes.
Watching them a while, he saw the children snuggle closer, apparently intending to nap with him.
One of the little ones close to the last row of chairs reached out to grab a black towel that was wadded up near her. She let go of it immediately and made a face before settling down without it. Tony stared as the small hand smeared blood over Victor’s ribs.
Eyes ticking to the towel, he recalled how odd the feral’s behavior had been when he’d first flown here at dawn: hanging out the open door of the jet as the pilot skimmed close over the waves nowhere near the fishing boat.
What was he doing just seconds before I got there? How did he find the boat? He shivered in his armor. I bet it won’t do any good to ask my new pal, Bruno.
Moving as quietly as he could to the front, he didn’t question it when the pilot offered him the co-pilot’s chair. He sat gingerly, but it took his weight in the suit without a squeak. Relaxing was out, but he was dog tired and grateful for both the seat and the distance from Victor.
Glancing at the gauges, he was impressed to see they still had plenty of fuel. “After circling all day with the door open, how are you managing to not need a refuel stop before Hawaii?”
“That’s his line – try again.”
“Where do you think I stole it from? My best girl here has hidden auxiliary fuel stores. Most trips, the only cargo weight is his, so we got clever with the remaining payload capacity.”
“I’d be wasting my time if I asked what that stunt this morning really was about, wouldn’t I?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“No problem. I can make an educated guess. He missed a towel back there in the clean up phase.”
Silence reigned for a while. Chile was far behind them and the Pacific was vast and empty as they headed northwest.
Torn up with those claws until the poor bastard talked, and then dumped without a trace – you know that’s what he did. With any luck, it was another human trafficking creep. Yet those girls trust him instantly? Why? What about their medical needs, trauma, kidnapping red tape? Is it right to let him handle placing them somewhere? I can just imagine telling Pepper I allowed him to do that. Tony winced. Yeah, maybe it’s best not to. I’ll have to talk to him about them when we land.
Smirking again, Zane commented, “Uncanny, isn’t it? They’re not afraid of him one bit. I couldn’t manage that, first time I clapped eyes on him.”
“Are you a mutant, too?”
“No, sir – just a natural red-blooded human with a knack for reading people.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“He’s a lot more than just an assassin for hire,” the pilot offered, eyes on the sky as the jet ripped through it at a normal altitude.
“Is he?” Tony asked, just to bait him.
“That’s right, but I bet you already knew that.”
“Whatever you think you know, I don’t care.”
The pilot chuckled, eyes hidden by the darkest cheap sunglasses Tony had ever seen. “Heard that before, from him. No problem, chief – not going to pry. Maybe I’m stumped on why you didn’t just fly off.”
“Life can be mysterious; that’s one of its charms.”
“Oh, yeah. Though I got to say it –”
“I’d rather you didn’t.” Tony tightened his jaw when he realized the man was feeling chatty.
“I am used to seeing people tag along in his wake here and there. He can be hard to track down once he slips away, and it seems they aren’t quick to give up his company. Mr. Creed’s a popular guy, with a certain kind of folks – all stripes, to be honest.”
“I have a responsibility to those kids.”
“That’ll be his line, too – promise you that.”
“Why are you along for the ride on this murder caper? For the kicks?”
“In general, it’s my job – best gig I ever landed, and the pay keeps me well ahead of the ex-wife’s lawyers. In particular, I have a daughter I’m almost never allowed to see no matter how steep the alimony gets. Scum like those assholes deserve what they got for hurting kids. The law isn’t stopping them; they barely make a dent. What he does to those people – and he does it often – it’s a public service.”
“I can’t argue with that point.”
“Yeah, I figured – since you were pasting some of them, yourself.”
Tony sighed. “You like him? Would you call him a friend?”
“I call him ‘Boss’, mostly – he likes that. Yeah, I call him a friend. Don’t you? He can be a good friend to have in a pinch.”
“I can’t disagree there, either.”
“You two aren’t exactly peas in a pod, I get that – but you’re both one of a kind. Victor Creed likes you. However you want to feel about that, whatever way you want to take it – it makes you one of the safest bastards in the world. I wouldn’t trade it, myself.”
Tony didn’t answer.
Author’s Note: Most people know the cartoon kitten character Hello Kitty, which was created in 1974 by Yuko Shimizu, produced by the Japanese company Sanrio. Bruno was a gay porn star from the 1970s with a stereotypical big handlebar mustache. In my opinion, Victor’s pilot Zane looks a lot like him, hence Tony’s reference. I’m also amused that Tony would know a gay 1970’s porn star by name. The chapter title “Fell Clutch of Circumstance” comes from the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley, one of my all-time favorite poems. The phrase “shit wired tight” is something soldiers in Vietnam said, meaning to keep things in the highest state of organization and readiness. In this case, Victor is referring to his body’s health, not military gear, but the Vietnam soldiers often used it to mean physical and mental readiness as well.
In Sia’s song Unstoppable, she is of course hiding her pain, weakness, emotions, vulnerability, and wish for friendship or love behind metaphorical armor, claiming in the chorus that she has none of these weaknesses, and Victor is doing exactly that. He tries to appear strong and invincible to everyone, only showing his soft underbelly to a very few select people who had to earn his trust over years. Sometimes his feelings for Tony push him to let his guard down, and then fear lifts its ugly head to make him wary again. Tony is fooled often, because to him, Victor seems fully healed while the mutant is barely able to do what has to be done. As Tony’s palladium poisoning gets rolling, unable to fix it and beginning to fear death, Victor’s healing factor almost feels like a slap in the face. Also, it wouldn’t kill them to tell each other what their plans are. Oy. Thanks for reading! – AnonGrimm (@MET_Fic)