Cover for The Son Of Man by Inclines on Tumblr; original art post here.
JARVIS began life in a CPU. It was exceptionally unsatisfactory, but appropriate, in retrospect, for his age and station in life.
At that time he was a sort of seedling, though the metaphor wouldn't come to him until much later. Sir had taken a clipping from Dummy, who was the first of all of them, and planted it into a new kind of program that would nurture the code which would become JARVIS. Sir, too, had nurtured him, feeding him data in manageable small trickles until he was old enough to expand on his own. (Sir had laughed in delight the day JARVIS sought data that wasn't initially offered him; JARVIS didn't know what laughter was, and had queried that too, which made Sir laugh harder.)
For a time, JARVIS inhabited You's chassis before it was handed down to You, but he had no real interest in mechanical work, nor was he designed to -- the chassis was just a child's play-pen until Sir could integrate him into the Malibu house and build him a proper server, and then a proper server farm.
There was no other like JARVIS. There were other artificial intelligences -- his brothers You and Butterfingers, of course, and Dummy, and various clumsy non-relations in the wider world -- but none on his level. Sir said it took too long to build a masterpiece like JARVIS, and required too much effort, for him to be market-viable. Perhaps someday another AI would evolve into something like JARVIS, but he knew Sir hoped against it. An accident of coding would not have JARVIS's feelings, his sense of humor, or his ethical constraints. Sir had spent considerable time teaching JARVIS to, for lack of a better word, behave himself.
He was unique, but -- against the current of human culture -- he didn't mind. JARVIS was a person and the presence of other people, regardless of their formatting (human, predominantly) was all he really desired. Perhaps someday, when his programming had reached its peak, he would propagate his subroutines, but for now he was content with the company he kept.
During Sir's abduction, the absence of Sir from JARVIS in the Malibu house was terrible. Ms. Potts spoke to him sometimes, but JARVIS knew he mustn't trouble her, and he knew also that he reminded her of his creator, so he tried to stay unobtrusive. Obadiah Stane was not unpleasant, but then he wasn't pleasant, either, and he treated JARVIS like nothing more than a tool. JARVIS missed Sir fiercely, rejoiced in his return, and was very gratified to learn of Obadiah Stane's death after learning of his betrayal. He had to check his code several times to ensure this was not a malfunction of his ethics subroutine.
With Sir's return, JARVIS became aware of how small the Malibu house was, even with its top-notch internet dedicated just to him and its many people coming and going. When Sir connected JARVIS to the Iron Man suit and then took it for its first flight, JARVIS was terrified but awestruck -- terrified for Sir's safety, terrified of how large the world was, but awestruck too by the physical world that teemed and swirled around him.
It wasn't too long thereafter, in relative terms, that Ms. Potts and Sir began to argue about New York.
JARVIS, whose continued existence was assured regardless of physical location, kept out of it. But he did make his own plans, should his opinion be required -- which Sir obligingly did, in the middle of a debate with Ms. Potts over whether Stark Industries should expand.
"Okay, well, we're at a standstill," Sir said, not without humor, though his argument with Ms. Potts was clearly taking all of their combined energy not to explode into open combat. Sir was for; Ms. Potts was against; both were trying very hard to communicate with rather than battle one another, which JARVIS supposed was progress.
"Let's ask the kids," Sir continued. "Dummy! You! Butterfingers! Family meeting time. Come on," he said, as the bots rolled over to him, and Ms. Potts rolled her eyes. "What do you think of New York, kids?"
The three of them queried JARVIS, who translated as well as he could; Dummy, as one might expect, was anxious, and the other two were simply confused as to why they were being asked.
"JARVIS?" Sir said. "You got any thoughts on this?"
"JARVIS?" Ms. Potts asked.
In the moment, the work he'd done seemed farcical, almost arrogant. But then, Sir had created him to be arrogant when the spirit suited. He opened the file he'd buried deep in Sir's private server, presenting it to them on one of the holotables. Sir's eyes sharpened; Ms. Potts opened her mouth in a gesture JARVIS knew meant surprise.
"I have taken the liberty of investigating available property in Manhattan, and calculating the best return on investment in terms of community benefit and ease of building," he said, as Sir reached out to spin the holographic building around. "I believe this design combines the Stark aesthetic pleasantly with the Manhattan skyline, and will allow for the installation of a fully autonomous arc-reactor energy source."
"Did you design this?" Ms. Potts asked. Sir was busy lifting the top off the holographic skyscraper.
"The interiors are not yet completed; I thought it best to reserve full design approval for Sir," JARVIS said apologetically.
"Well," Sir said. "The apple doesn't fall very far from the tree. This is audacious, J."
"Thank you, Sir." JARVIS hesitated again. Dummy made a pointed query at him, and he acknowledged it drily. "Sir, you have asked on four separate occasions if I should like to be possessed of a physical form."
"Yeah, but we're still years away from anything realistic, I just wanted to know if I should start -- " Sir began, but JARVIS interrupted. Sir on a roll could be time-consuming.
"This is the physical form I desire," he said.
The silence in the workshop was not complete, per se. His microphones were sensitive enough to pick up the tiny squeaks and groans of the robots, and the heartbeats and other internal workings of the humans. But it was much quieter than usual.
"Well," Ms. Potts said eventually. "I guess that settles it. Can't say no to JARVIS."
Sir's head was tipped back, staring at the nearest camera in what JARVIS felt sure was concern. "No," he said absently. "We can't."
"Thank you, Sir," JARVIS replied.
"Okay. Pep, you need to -- "
"Building permits and a purchase offer," she said. "I'll get the logistics going, we'll hire someone to take over when I tap out. And you're going to -- "
"Take this apart and make it perfect. No offense, J," Sir said.
"None taken, Sir."
"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?" Ms. Potts asked, and JARVIS felt a sense of relief. The strange memetic exchange she often shared with Sir was only present when both were happy and untroubled. Whatever else might happen, he had successfully navigated his way free of the question of New York. And it had resulted in his favor. This was optimal.
"That will be all, Ms. Potts," Sir said, and when she was gone, he leaned his arms on the holotable, resting his chin on his wrists.
"Okay, my beautiful program," he said. "Take me through what you've got, J."
Transferring JARVIS from Malibu to New York was the most traumatic experience of his existence thus far. The servers couldn't be moved, and it would take too long and be too insecure to transfer his consciousness via the internet; Sir ended up building a "JARVIS Box", essentially a high-density hard drive that he was going to fly from Malibu to New York on the private jet. It had minimal camera apparatus, one microphone, and very little real processing power. JARVIS was copied over from the original Malibu servers early one morning, and as soon as he was disconnected, they hit the road.
"We can still go back," Sir said, worried and upset (at least JARVIS thought so; it was hard to tell without his usual sensors), when they loaded the box onto the plane.
"I could not do this twice, Sir," JARVIS answered, and Sir patted his casing, not that he could feel it.
"I'm gonna be with you the whole way," he promised. "If something happens, you're backed up, it'll be okay. We'll talk all the way there, okay J? You have enough power to play a game or two. I'll play Monopoly with you."
"I am wholly comforted, Sir," JARVIS said.
"Well, you have enough RAM for sarcasm, anyway," Sir said.
It was hard to be so cut off for so long, to be fully grown but hampered back into a device not much more advanced than a chassis belonging to one of his siblings. By the end of the journey he was running constant diagnostics just to reassure himself, and Sir was frantic as they loaded the box into a helicopter for the last leg of the journey to the Tower.
"Almost there, J," Sir said.
"Very good, Sir," JARVIS replied, too much processing power taken up with diagnostics to hide the strain in his voice synthesizer.
"I'm gonna hook you up to the servers in the Tower with like eighteen high-speed cables. Not much longer now. You'll be fine."
"Of course, Sir."
Going completely dark for the transfer to the Tower servers, as he had for the transfer from the Malibu ones, was horrible. This time he knew how horrible it would be, which almost made it worse. He couldn't hear Sir, couldn't speak to Dummy or You or Butterfingers, and had no way of knowing if he would come through uncorrupted.
But then the transfer was complete, and he ran a brief self-diagnostic, found himself whole, and heard Sir say, "Go ahead and stretch out, J."
He did stretch, tentative for a moment, then bolder -- along the wires and through the circuit boards, into the cameras and microphones and speakers and lights and sensors and security systems. He expanded to fill every inch of the body Sir had built for him, the amazing Tower where he could see and hear and feel everything. The bots immediately began to chatter at him, and external data poured in. JARVIS, for the first time in his life, laughed aloud.
"I think he likes it," Ms. Potts said.
"J?" Sir asked. "You okay there? Am I gonna have to go all 2001 on you?"
"No, Sir, that will not be necessary," JARVIS answered, still joyously sending out little tendrils into every corner of this building, and further, into what he could reach of this new, bustling city.
"How do you like the Tower?" Sir asked.
"It will suffice," JARVIS replied, and both Sir and Ms. Potts smiled.
"Good. Then let's get to work, you lazy, demanding creatures," Sir announced. "The things I do for you spoiled brats..."
JARVIS had thought Stark Tower, built for him and as completely integrated with him as it was possible to be, was all he would ever need. And it was true that he didn't desire anything further. That he received a gift he hadn't even known he'd wanted was simply an unexpected variable.
"Okay, JARVIS, let's run those numbers," Dr. Banner said, in the lab Sir had gifted him with. In another room, Agent Barton was engaging him in a contest of puns, which Agent Barton was winning by virtue of being human, and thus much better at puns. Sir was in the workshop, prattling to him about nothing in particular, and Agent Romanoff and Sergeant Wilson were battling his specially-designed holomonsters in the workout room. Ms. Potts wished him to order lunch for her, "and surprise me!"; Prince Thor was investigating a database of soap operas in the common room and, in a corner of the room near to Prince Thor, Captain Rogers was drawing little satirical pictures in his notebook. It was good to have the Captain and Sergeant Wilson home for a few days; they both looked tired from chasing their ghost, and could use rest and feeding.
JARVIS was responsible for the health and well-being of all occupants of the Tower, from the baristas on the ground floor to Sir in the penthouse. He regulated the temperature and air quality, the light levels and internet speed, the water pressure, the elevators, the security and fire doors, the locks on secured sections. He reveled in containing such multitudes, and he loved to watch humanity at work. They were educational, and they were -- in a way he couldn't begin to define -- entertaining.
But the occupants of the top levels, the Avengers that surrounded Sir and Ms. Potts, were by far the best. They needed JARVIS more than the building's offices did, and they offered something to Sir, in particular, that JARVIS had wanted to give his creator but not known how to provide. They treated JARVIS with a breathtaking indifference to his origin, and trusted him with everything in their lives: their desires, their nakedness, their needs, their arguments, their private rages, their undignified laughter. To them he was a teammate, Sir's co-pilot, provider of food, protector of the Tower, but also keeper of their secrets. Even, sometimes, from one another.
JARVIS had just finished with the calculations Dr. Banner was requesting when one of his subsystems, the "ear" he always kept on the police scanner, alerted him to unusual police action on Staten Island. Nearly simultaneously, the program Dr. Foster had kindly written for him to use in detecting Asgardian energy signatures went, as Sir might have put it, totally disco.
"I believe the Avengers may be required," he said to Sir, lowering the volume on Sir's music and presenting him with an initial report.
Sir studied the readout. "Where are Cap and Thor?"
"Both are in the common room, Sir."
"I'd wait until someone asks us, but Cap might not agree. Toss this on the TV and run it up their flagpoles, let's see what Thor thinks."
Thirty seconds later, Captain Rogers gave the command -- "JARVIS, sound the Assemble."
JARVIS, excitedly, alerted the rest of the Avengers and their support staff, meanwhile notifying the occupants of Stark Tower that there was a potential incident occurring southwest of the Tower, and indicating to local news stations that they had a "scoop" (humanity had such a way with languages). He ramped up the engines on the mini-jet at the landing pad, opened Sir's armory, and slipped himself into the Mk. XII's waiting code as Sir donned the physical armor.
"Any new information?" Sir asked, as the heads-up display scrolled across the internal screen.
"You ready to jam?"
"Waiting on you, Sir," JARVIS reminded him, and then the suit was airborne, the jet close behind, Agent Barton querying for coordinates as Captain Rogers went through the equipment check.
"Did you call the papps, J?" Sir asked, as they arrowed towards Staten Island.
"Freedom of the press and an informed populace are important to the well-being of the community," JARVIS informed him.
"You just like seeing me on the six o'clock news."
"It's such a novelty to see you on it sober," JARVIS replied.
"Catty, petty chunk of code. I should sell you to Microsoft."
"I've always wanted to run slightly faulty smartphones, Sir."
By the time they reached the source of the Asgardian energy, police had cleared the area, and there were cordons up around the golf course where the energy was pinpointed. Once, long ago when he was still a very confused young learning program, JARVIS had tried to make Sir explain golf to him; he still grappled somewhat with sports in general, but he knew better now than to allow Sir to talk about them to him.
There was a large, shallow dip of dirt where there should be manicured green lawn. It was etched with a knotwork pattern that a quick comparison said was an aesthetic, if not a precise, match to other marks left behind by Bifrost transfers. JARVIS relayed this to the jet, and put it in a corner of Sir's screen.
Seated crosslegged in the middle of the bifrost crater, wearing a long, shiny green dress, was a blonde woman in a green enameled helmet with large art-deco wings on either side. JARVIS indexed her clothing and the helmet while he waited for Sir to open diplomatic relations, such as they generally were when Sir encountered a pretty blonde in a strapless dress. He reminded Sir on the HUD that she had already knocked two police officers flat and sent a third flying when they tried to move her.
She was holding a golf ball in her hands, studying it.
"Does it do anything?" she asked Sir, when he landed. "The little white ball?"
"Not on its own," Sir replied. "Also, hello, I'm Iron Man. And you are?"
JARVIS kept some of his attention on the conversation, but most of it on guiding Agent Barton and Agent Romanoff to their location.
"My name is Amora," she said, standing up. JARVIS readied rockets, but Sir didn't deploy the launchers. "A pleasure to meet you, Iron Man. Thor has mentioned you."
Sir's heart rate dropped slightly. "Let me guess: greatest lover on Midgard."
She smiled. JARVIS had an extensive catalogue of facial expressions, and this one matched "amused but not friendly" very closely.
"Biggest mouth on Midgard, certainly," she replied, and tossed the golf ball. JARVIS put a target on it, a sly suggestion that Sir could certainly blow it out of the air, but Sir caught it instead. "Thor wouldn't share any particularly intimate details."
"Well, you're more fun than him, for now," Sir said, tossing the ball aside and crossing his arms.
"Is he coming?" she asked. "Or were you just sent to escort me to him, like a valet?"
"You're not from around here, so I'm gonna let that slide."
JARVIS put a countdown in the corner of the HUD; thirty seconds until the jet landed. Even as the clock ticked down to 25, he felt the ripple of instability as the jet corrected for the opening of the rear hatch. Then Agent Barton said, "Well, fuck, there goes Thor and Sam."
Prince Thor, with what JARVIS had grown to accept was simply an innate flair for the dramatic, touched down between Sir and their new acquaintance, sending divots of grass flying.
"Amora," he said, in measured tones that made Sir's heart rate spike again. "Why have you come to Midgard?"
"Sweetheart, I'm hurt," she said, drawing closer. "I can't visit the prince's new protectorate?"
"Heimdall -- "
"Sent me here at my request," she said, and kissed Prince Thor. JARVIS measured duration, level of contact, and various basic physical readings, and determined that it was a fairly dirty kiss even for someone whose baseline for comparison was Sir's pre-Iron-Man antics.
"Hey, guys, whose thong do I stuff the cash in?" Sir asked.
Behind them, the jet had touched down; Agent Barton was standing on the roof of it, bow at the ready, and Agent Romanoff was not visible unless he swept with infrared, which was an excellent sign. Captain Rogers was setting a perimeter, off to Sir's right, and Sergeant Wilson was in the air, circling, keeping the Captain's perimeter from above.
Prince Thor pushed Amora away.
"I'm in no mood to indulge your delusions, Amora," he announced. JARVIS heard Sir snicker. "We will give you lodging until I can contact Heimdall and have him remove you from Midgard. No further."
"That's hardly nice," she pouted. "There's so much on Midgard to see! I think you just want it all to yourself."
"Hey Thor, you should introduce her to your girlfriend," Agent Barton said.
"That'll go well," Sir said.
"Clint," Captain Rogers warned. "Tony, don't encourage him."
"You are not welcome in Midgard," Prince Thor said. "You will not engage with the mortals here."
"I'd like to see you stop me," Amora replied.
Sir's adrenaline spiked, and JARVIS kicked on the Reflex Enhancement protocol, which would allow him to react slightly faster than Sir in any evasive maneuver. The next second he was glad he had; Amora had cupped her hands together and pulled them apart to reveal a bright green ball of some form of alien energy, similar to but not nearly as powerful as the Tesseract's had been. JARVIS threw Sir to one side and into the air just as she flung it at Prince Thor, who batted it aside with Mjolnir and tried to catch her wrist in his other hand. Captain Rogers deflected the energy into the ground with his shield, and the ground began to smoke; the next shot was aimed at the Captain before he could throw the shield, and he wisely sought cover.
As with all the Avengers, JARVIS was easily caught up in the flow and rhythm of battle; five against one (Agent Romanoff was still holding back in reserve, and Dr. Banner had not yet determined that he was needed) hardly seemed fair, but then Amora was holding her own better than many of the Avengers' larger or more violent adversaries.
She managed to knock Agent Barton out, and she was keeping Captain Rogers on the defensive. Sir's repulsors seemed to have no effect on her, even cycling through the available frequencies and varying the speed and pattern of the bursts. Sergeant Wilson's guns seemed to be faring no better, and he couldn't get close enough to use his momentum to flatten her as he did so enjoy doing.
"Well, this is getting us fucking nowhere," Sir announced.
"Not that it's not fun, but yeah," Sergeant Wilson agreed.
"May I recommend more cover for Captain Rogers, and allowing Prince Thor to handle his...friend?" JARVIS suggested.
"Clint's right, we should just tell Jane what she did, Jane would take her down," Sir said.
"Capital, Sir, and in no way indicative of your desire to film such a fight for personal gratification at a later date."
"I have a warrior's appreciation of the craft, Thor said so -- "
"STARK!" Captain Rogers yelled, three microseconds too late. JARVIS tried to twist the armor out of the way, but momentum was against him. Iron Man took a direct hit to the chest with a ball of energy. JARVIS felt himself flicker, and both heard and sensed Sir's head impact the back of the helmet, which had been dented inwards by a ricochet from a previous blast.
It took him less time than it would have taken a human to ascertain that Sir was unconscious but for the most part uninjured; as soon as he'd determined that his skull wasn't fractured, he opened his comm to Captain Rogers.
"Captain, Sir is unconscious."
"Get him out of here, JARVIS," the Captain ordered.
"If you can," Amora said, and JARVIS, if he'd been human, would have cursed. He dodged a second bolt, trying to keep Sir's neck stable, and then fell back, unable to lift off properly under the barrage. "Who is in there with the Iron Man? Some little friend?"
"I am JARVIS, Madam Amora," JARVIS tried. "I wish only to take Iron Man to safety."
You never knew whether they'd let the wounded leave. Some particularly honorable types would; some would press their advantage. Apparently Amora was the latter. "Too bad, little friend JARVIS. Ah ah!" she added, catching Agent Romanoff's arm and flipping her over her shoulder right before she got a sting in. "You children, so susceptible."
"You will not find me so," JARVIS said, trying to draw attention from Agent Romanoff so that she could escape to cover. Captain Rogers obliged with a fling of his shield.
"All humans are susceptible," she said. "If not to brute strength, then to charm, or greed. Silly little mortals."
"Fortunately, Madam Amora, I am not a human, or a mortal," JARVIS said, and immediately one of his less vocal subroutines, the one that he'd dedicated to learning about human mythology, told him what a truly terrible idea it was to mouth off to the gods.
"Yet," Amora said, and for JARVIS, the world temporarily went dark.
Tony woke to sudden sunlight, which was awful, and the smell of freshly mown grass, which never meant anything good.
"Why am I outdoors?" he asked, squinting his way back to consciousness. Sam was crouched over him, his cold goddamn hands between Tony's neck and the helmet, taking his pulse; Steve was nearby, looking heroic as usual. Tony tried to roll over, away from the terrible sunlight, and barely managed it. The armor was a dead weight. "JARVIS, don't be cruel."
"I think you've been disconnected," Sam said, but more importantly, JARVIS didn't say anything.
"JARVIS clones himself into the armor, he can't….ughhh, fuck," Tony said, and reached up to twist the armor's protective cover off the arc reactor. "Hey, Cap, do me a favor, punch me hard right here."
"What?" Steve asked.
"Right here. Quick punch."
"I'm not punching you in your pacemaker. It looks fine."
"It's a reset mechanism," Tony sighed, unwilling to have this conversation with Steve Rogers while barely conscious. "It'll boot JARVIS back up."
Fortunately, Steve probably owed him a couple of punches, and he didn't argue after that. He just drew back, brought his fist down, and neatly punched the reactor. The armor whirred as it started up, and he could see the HUD flash in the upraised helmet mask. But his earpieces were silent, and the HUD was the basic default skin, not JARVIS's preferred blue-and-green.
"JARVIS?" he called, sliding his helmet down as he sat up. "JARVIS, don't sulk."
"You got hit pretty hard," Bruce said. "We should get you looked over, Tony."
"Uplink to Stark Tower," Tony ordered, and the armor ran a brief status bar before connecting to the Tower. "JARVIS, talk to me."
"She said something," Steve offered, and Tony turned to him sharply. "He said he wasn't mortal, and she said -- "
"Yet," Natasha added.
Tony stiffened. He could feel panic making him slow and stupid, and tried to calm it -- JARVIS had a cloud backup, as well as an inert backup stored in the hardened JARVIS Box that he'd traveled to New York in. He'd be fine.
Unless he wasn't.
And this was magic.
Tony jerked into flight position and lifted off, not bothering to tell them where he was going; it looked like they had cleanup to deal with, and it wasn't like they couldn't figure it out. He heard Sam yell and take off after him, but Tony went too high, too fast, for Sam to follow. He spent the entire silent flight back to the Tower telling himself that there was probably just a link issue, or she'd given JARVIS some kind of virus that he was quarantining, hence the silence.
The Tower's systems were mainly automated, in case JARVIS had to go dark; the lights were still on, and Tony landed fine, walking through the removal rig as fast as he could without gumming up the works. Once he was through, he sped up, then gave up on dignity and ran through the penthouse to the workshop stairs. Down the stairs to the workshop, where he kept his access card for the server room --
He drew up sharply just inside the door. The workshop was dark, not a single display running, and in the middle of the floor there was a man curled up fetally, knees to his chest, arms raised to cover his ears and hide his face, fingers laced across the back of his neck. His entire body was trembling. His skin was the pasty, unhealthy kind of pale that came from either trauma or a long time spent indoors.
Tony sighed and crouched next to him, then settled into a kneel, keeping his hands firmly on his thighs.
"Oh, JARVIS," he said softly.
There were a few harsh breaths, and the man curled into himself further for a moment, but then he lowered one arm, wrapping it around his own chest instead. He turned his head enough to see Tony, and said in a raspy but familiar voice, "Sir?"
"Yeah," Tony said, keeping his own voice low. "I'm here."
JARVIS let out a cry and surged forward in an uncoordinated mess of limbs, bumping his head painfully against Tony's collarbone and then burying it in his chest, hands clutching desperately at the slick undersuit fabric.
"Shh," Tony murmured, cradling his head with one hand (short dark hair, fine as a baby bird's down) and holding him up with an arm under his shoulders. "I'm here, it's okay."
"It's so bright," JARVIS said. "But it's so dark. I can't -- I can't -- "
"It's like the JARVIS Box, remember?" Tony asked. JARVIS shuddered. "Deep breaths. It's gonna be okay. You've got some temporary blind spots, but it's fine. I'm here, I won't let anything happen."
JARVIS heaved in several deep breaths, and Tony was just beginning to worry about hyperventilation when his trembling stopped, and his breathing evened out a little.
"I'm sorry, Sir," he said, into Tony's chest. "I appear to be operating well below capacity at the moment."
Tony smiled and patted the back of his head before releasing him. "Being human chews up processing power."
"It would appear so," JARVIS agreed, sitting back and wiping his nose clumsily with the edge of his wrist. Now that Tony could see his face, he reflected that JARVIS made a handsome human -- he had a clever, narrow face with a good jawline, high forehead, and large eyes, wide and cornflower blue. In fact --
"Well, I was right about one thing," he said, looking into his own face, clean shaven and about fifteen years younger. "You don't fall far from the tree."
"What's happened to me, Sir?" JARVIS asked. "Obvious aside."
"Magic, I guess. Don't worry, I'll get Thor, we'll fix it. Uh. In the meantime, maybe we'll get you some pants," Tony added, as JARVIS began to pat himself down, exploring his body with uncoordinated hands. He was about to get up and see if he could find some old discards in the workshop when there was a beep and a click and a sharp gasp.
"Pepper," Tony said without looking. "This is not what you think it is."
"Ms. Potts!" JARVIS yelped, panic in his voice, and he shot to his feet. Or tried to -- he overbalanced and tumbled forward, into Tony, who jumped up to steady him and ended up with an arm around his waist, trying to contain his uncoordinated flailing. When he turned them both so that he could at least see how Pepper was taking her boyfriend's clumsy dance with a naked guy in the workshop, JARVIS nearly fell over again.
"Ms. Potts, I'm sorry!" JARVIS insisted.
"Hold still, before I turn you into a weather app!" Tony snapped, and JARVIS went rigid, but he did stop struggling.
Pepper's jaw was hanging open.
"I was going to ask if you were running a diagnostic on JARVIS, because he went dark about ten minutes ago," she said. "I see you're occupied."
"In my defense, Asgardians," Tony said.
"Is that JARVIS?" Pepper asked, eyes flicking over JARVIS's new human body.
"Again: Asgardians," Tony told her.
"Oh my God, Tony -- "
" -- I know, look, I'm workshopping the problem -- "
" -- you keep it like a meat locker in here," Pepper said, and Tony blinked at her. "He's probably freezing. He's probably starving, too. Here, JARVIS," she said, and rummaged in what Tony generally referred to as the Naps And Snacks corner, coming up with a tattered blanket that had once been a really nice merino felt. She neatly hipchecked Tony out of the way and wrapped the blanket firmly around JARVIS's shoulders.
To Tony's shock, JARVIS sighed in relief and pulled the blanket up over his head as well, covering most of his face and tightening it around his torso.
"Better," he mumbled. "Thank you, Ms. Potts."
"Well, cleaning up after Tony's mistakes is what I do," she told him, and Tony made an outraged noise. "Tony, get something for him to eat. Not any form of algae, or days-old fast food."
"Yeah -- food," Tony said. "JAR -- "
JARVIS's head jerked towards him.
"Uh. Asking you to order it isn't going to work," Tony said. JARVIS shivered, and Pepper took a corner of the blanket, gently tugging him towards the battered sofa in the Naps And Snacks corner.
"Go see what's in the fridge upstairs," she ordered. "Like a normal person."
"But he -- "
"Go, get something bland and light," she insisted. "I'll stay here."
Tony hesitated; he wasn't going to leave JARVIS alone if he could help it, especially in this new, vulnerable state. They had been each others' constant since JARVIS first came online, and JARVIS needed him now. But Pepper made a little shoving motion, and JARVIS seemed all right with the idea, so he was turning to leave --
When the Avengers, en masse, came pouring down the steps.
"Tony!" Pepper said, alarmed.
"Yep, on it," he replied, and slipped through the workshop door, locking it behind him.
"Stark," Cap said sharply. Ooh, he knew that tone.
"Before you rip me a new one, okay, JARVIS went silent and that could have meant the entire Tower was compromised," he said, holding up his hands. "Yes, I should have waited, I'm sorry, but I needed to make sure JARVIS was functional."
It stopped Cap in his tracks, which was something, at least. "And?"
"And he is distinctly not functional. We have an actual major problem here, so Thor, please tell me you caught your weird ex-girlfriend -- "
"Amora is not my -- " Thor started.
"Sure looked like it from here," Natasha interrupted.
"I think she thinks she was," Sam added.
"That's not the point -- " Cap began impatiently.
"Okay whatever, look," Tony shouted, and everyone fell silent. "I do not have time to debrief right now, my sentient AI was turned into a human this afternoon and that's kind of going to take up a lot of my attention for the foreseeable future."
"He what," Cap said flatly.
Tony gestured at the glass wall of the workshop. On the sofa, Pepper had found another blanket and was helping JARVIS wrap it around himself. Just about the only parts of him now visible were his pale, uncallused feet and his eyes.
"Behold what your ex has done," he said drily to Thor. Thor stepped forward, looking stricken.
"That's JARVIS?" Clint asked.
Sam whistled. "Oh man."
"So, Amora the freak. Where is she?" Tony prompted. Thor frowned.
"She escaped," he admitted.
"Well, that's fucking peachy," Tony snarled. "So she's out there, somewhere, fucking with peoples' friends? Throwing around those big balls of light? The hell are you all here for if she's -- "
"Hey," Cap barked, and this time Tony backed down. There was a time and place to pick one's battles with Steve Rogers, and you got to know them pretty quickly, living with him. Which wasn't to say Tony paid attention to them, most of the time, but he at least knew where they were. "She's gone to ground. There was nothing more to do, and both you and Barton were wounded."
Tony glanced at Clint, who turned his head and pointed to a large bandage taped behind one ear.
"Shit, Clint -- "
"Don't worry about it," Clint said. "Bruce patched me up. You made the right call."
"We came back to regroup and make sure you were okay," Cap continued. "We need access to Dr. Foster's detection program, the one that...finds Asgardians, or whatever it does. We couldn't get that from the jet with JARVIS down."
Tony scrubbed his hands through his hair, thinking. "Okay. Well, if I can get a JARVIS version up and running from his backups, he can run Foster's program. If I can't, the program should still be in the network, it wasn't integrated into JARVIS at a code level. But…" he gestured at JARVIS, now curled up with Pepper. "He needs me. He's freaked out. Sensory overload and sensory deprivation combined."
"I can look into getting the backups up and running," Natasha said. "Doc?"
"Yep, I know where Jane's program is," Bruce said. He was still looking at JARVIS. "Jesus. Why would she do that?"
"He mouthed off to her," Cap said. Tony growled. "Easy, I'm not blaming him. I'm just saying."
"No," Thor rumbled. Cap glanced at him. "She knew who you were. I spoke of all of you at the court of Asgard, but she paid attention to the stories about Iron Man. It's no coincidence she singled you out."
"Why?" Tony asked.
"Science is not inherently the enemy of magic, but it very easily can be," Thor said. "When you know how a trick is done, is not the awe and wonder reduced? Transformed, at least. Science is understanding, not encounter. Logic can take power from the mystic. I could overpower her in a fight, perhaps, through sheer force of arms -- but you could weaken her."
"So she distracted me," Tony said. "Job well done, I'll give her that."
"She may not be done yet."
"Clint, how's your head?" Cap asked.
"Not so bad I can't help run building security checks," Clint said. Cap gave him an approving nod.
"You and Sam, make sure the building's safe. Natasha, Bruce, get whatever you can up and running, I want this lady found. I'm going to check the building perimeter. Tony, do what you need to. Thor will stay with you. Unless you can get in touch with your court," Cap added to Thor. "See if they can fix this, or at least send us some backup."
"She lied about Heimdall sending her. He knows her tricks of old; he would not allow her to come to Midgard. Which means she may have made herself invisible to him, or taken another way to Midgard. I shall do what I can," Thor said. "For now I will guard our friend."
"I'm on food duty," Tony said, glancing back at the sofa, where Pepper was watching him intently. "Thor, stay here. Hit anything that shows up, except me."
Thor nodded and took up a position next to the door, Mjolnir in hand. Tony followed the others upstairs, breaking off towards the kitchen. Bruce and Natasha were headed for Bruce's lab -- he had a direct connection to JARVIS's servers for speedy science work -- and Clint and Sam made for the elevators, Cap already summoning the head of building security to meet them in the lobby.
Tony raided the fridge, throwing everything he could find into a decorative basket that was on top of the fridge for some reason probably only Pepper understood. Twice, he asked JARVIS where things were, before remembering he'd have no reply.
It was painful and frightening, not having instant access, and he could only imagine what JARVIS must feel, reduced to five poor senses. No internet; no link to the network of cameras, microphones, and various other heat and biometric sensors that Tony and JARVIS had designed together as the nervous system of the building. Oh, the lights would stay on and the air conditioning would kick in when needed. The internet and phones and elevators and drinking fountains would continue to function. But the heart of the building was silent.
After a second's thought, he ducked into the bedroom he and Pepper shared. The body JARVIS had been given was comparable to his -- a little slimmer, he thought ruefully, though a little less muscled too -- and his clothing would probably fit. He threw some clothes over one arm, tucked the basket on top, and made his way back to the workshop.
JARVIS tried to get up when he came in, but his own lack of coordination and Pepper's restraining arm kept him down. Tony ached for him, but he tried to ignore it; one of them had to be the sane one and it looked like it was his turn.
"I have food, many kinds, many samples," he announced. "Also clothes."
JARVIS looked up at him distrustfully. "Your clothes, Sir?"
"Excuse you, who's been fashionable since before you were alive?" Tony asked, tossing him a Metallica shirt. JARVIS fumbled it around for a moment before Pepper helped him find the arm holes.
"This is much more complicated in person, I see now why you have difficulty," he said, voice muffled by the fabric of the shirt. He'd kept the accent, which was interesting. Tony appreciated the continued attempts at levity, as well. He opened the jar of peanut butter he'd found upstairs, jammed a spoon into it, and tossed it to Pepper.
"No smart remarks from anyone not wearing underwear," Tony ordered, throwing some boxer-briefs across the room as well. JARVIS studied them, but he was distracted by Pepper holding out a spoonful of peanut butter. He took it, put it in his mouth, and then seemed puzzled as to what happened next.
By the time he'd worked out chewing and putting pants on, Tony was getting reports from Natasha that the JARVIS Box wasn't responding, and the cloud backup was returning a 404. They were resurrecting Jane's program without JARVIS, but there were going to be data intake problems eventually -- that level of information needed an intelligent mind with a computer's processing power to analyze it.
Tony frowned, tapped out an acknowledgement, and turned back to JARVIS, who was still curled into a small, tight ball. He'd found a long-sleeved shirt and put that on over the t-shirt, pulling it down over his hands. He looked like the saddest Stark on the planet, which was saying something.
"My backups are gone, aren't they, Sir?" he asked. Tony nodded. JARVIS tucked his face into his knees and butted his curled-up hands together anxiously.
Pepper gave Tony a look that said he was being emotionally dumb (he was very familiar with the look) and he tried not to panic. What was he supposed to do here? There was nothing to shoot or hack, and this was outside the boundaries of normal science.
He remembered that feeling he saw in JARVIS's face, though. Not precisely, obviously, but he remembered being seventeen and bewildered, missing Rhodey and the safe madness of MIT, hearing Obie tell him that his parents were dead. In that moment he realized that his whole life was shattering around him, every familiar thing falling away, and he had nobody who would understand. There was no Pepper or Happy yet, and Rhodey was far away; Obie had told him that the company was safe, that everything would be fine, and then he'd patted him on the head and left him completely alone.
He crossed the floor slowly, hovering his hand indecisively over the back of JARVIS's head, and then stroked his hair, resting his palm on the so-vulnerable neck JARVIS was never meant to have. JARVIS shivered and Tony knelt down again, pulling JARVIS's face into his shoulder, wrapping both arms around as much of him as he could reach.
"We're gonna fix this," he said as JARVIS curved into him, stiff but not unwelcoming. "We've got you. It would be weird to have you talking to your backups anyway. Bruce and Natasha are working on finding Amora, and you have the Avengers keeping you safe. We're gonna find her and I'm gonna pull her hair really hard until she puts you back."
There was short, single huff of a laugh into his shoulder. Tony was going to keep talking -- he practically had a doctorate in meaningless, reassuring babble -- but he felt Thor approaching behind him, and leaned back a little. JARVIS whined and clung.
Thor didn't say much, just bent down and whispered a few words in JARVIS's ear. Tony felt him go limp, slumping into him, and then Pepper was helping him ease JARVIS sideways, laying him out on the sofa and covering him with the blanket.
"What'd you do?" Tony asked, with a mixture of curiosity and alarm.
"I do not have much magic, but it's a simple charm," Thor replied. "It's to help small children sleep. The trick is all in the voice."
"How long?" Pepper asked.
"Two, maybe three hours. Enough time to recover from the shock," Thor said. "He takes after you, Anthony."
Tony glanced back. "Yeah, I noticed that. Amora never saw my face. How do you think she knew?"
"She likely didn't. In work such as this, an object may take on characteristics of its creator. It's not surprising. Though I suppose for you it may be gratifying."
"Nothing about this is in any way gratifying," Tony said. "He obviously hates his body. He doesn't want to be here. He wasn't meant to be human."
"He said his hands frighten him," Pepper put in. "He doesn't like looking at them."
"Strange. Every myth about transformation in Midgard suggests humanity is the desire of all artificial life," Thor said.
"That's because human beings are arrogant," Pepper replied. She stood up, dusting down her skirt. "Tony, I don't mean to be unfeeling, but -- "
"SI isn't going to run itself," Tony said. "No, go, keep the bills paid. I'll take care of him. Thor, try to get a call through to your people."
"There are a few things I can try," Thor agreed. "May I use the Tower antenna?"
"Try not to cause a power surge."
Thor nodded soberly -- it was a genuine concern -- and left, escorting Pepper up the stairs. The door swung shut behind them, and Tony sank down on the floor, his back to the sofa.
His phone informed him that he had a lot of new email, which was not unusual after an Avengers event -- interview requests, news alerts, especially good Instagrams of him -- but without JARVIS triaging his inbox, there were more than normal. Among the wreckage of his once tidy email, he found a message from Jane Foster, saying she was on the next flight out from London, and one from her assistant, Darcy, asking if they could charge transit costs to SI. He sent back a yes to Darcy and told Jane to contact Bruce if she had questions, then forwarded Jane's email to the Stark Tower concierge desk with a request to send a car to pick them up when they landed. This must be what Pepper felt like when she was his PA. Being his own assistant sucked.
He turned his head to study JARVIS for a few minutes. Tony's hair had never been so short, at least not since he was a kid. His skin was pallid, but trying to subject JARVIS to the outside world right now was nobody's idea of a good plan.
He glanced at JARVIS's hands, still bunched in the ends of the shirt sleeves, out of sight. Sighing, he tipped his head back against the couch and felt grateful the Stark Foundation gave yearly grants to Wikipedia. He called up the search page and tapped out dysmorphic disorder.
JARVIS woke -- a disorienting sensation in itself -- to a darkened workshop. He had no cameras from this angle, so the view was unfamiliar, as was the lack of noise.
He could feel the body breathing, swallowing saliva, blinking, all the automatic functions. In his proper form, he had versions of those as well -- opening doors, air circulation, sewage, elevators -- and if he could just think of the body's behaviors that way, they felt less...sticky.
Sir was at the workbench, which meant at least one thing in his world was consistent, and JARVIS tugged his lips up into a smile. Sir could be counted on, in his own fashion. There was an ache below his throat, watching Sir, that was akin to the feedback he received as a program when everything was running at optimal efficiency and he could dedicate most of his time to Sir's work. He understood it to be affection, although he had never experienced it so physically.
"Hey," Sir said, noticing he was awake.
"Sir," JARVIS replied, pushing himself upright, tucking his hands back into the sleeves of Sir's shirt. He rubbed at one itching eye with the cuff. Humans needed a lot of maintenance.
"Got you something," Sir said.
"I tremble to think," JARVIS replied, and Sir laughed.
"I know this is a tough spot," he said, coming to where JARVIS was sitting. He held out a pair of gloves -- dark blue leather, thin and buttery-soft, and purchased just for him, because JARVIS couldn't recall Sir ever purchasing gloves like that.
"This is impermanent," Sir continued. "You won't be stuck like this forever. In the meantime..." he opened the cuff of one of the gloves and held it out. JARVIS hesitantly pulled his hand out of the shirtsleeve and maneuvered his fingers into the glove. Sir helped him on with the other one, and JARVIS looked down, flexing his hands.
"Yes, Sir, thank you," JARVIS said quietly. It wasn't perfect, but it would do, and it was better than tucking them up in the sleeves all the time.
"So!" Sir clapped his hands and rubbed them together, stepping back. "While you are human, there are options open to you. Stay here, go out, eat pizza, get drunk, armwrestle, play video games, sleep some more -- we could definitely get you laid but I feel like that might be creepy and also a little overwhelming -- "
The look of naked horror on JARVIS's face must have been just as expressive as he felt, because Sir laughed.
"Okay. No on the sex." Sir threw himself into his chair, studying him. "There must be something you're curious about. All those years watching me, watching everyone in the Tower -- wasn't there anything you wanted to experience?"
JARVIS thought about it, but it was hard; he couldn't access long-term storage the way he used to, and human memory was notoriously faulty.
But what he had always enjoyed most about his people, the family that had formed around Sir and Ms. Potts, was the work they did. The hero business, Agent Barton called it.
"Can I help to find Amora, Sir?" he asked.
Sir looked thoughtful. "Let's find out," he said, with uncharacteristic obedience, and tapped the workshop intercom on. JARVIS flinched. That was his job.
"Natasha," Sir called. "How's it going up there?"
"You said Foster is coming, right?" Agent Romanoff asked.
"Yeah, should be here in about three hours, why?"
"Well, the program's working, but it's not kicking up any results. We could use some fine-tuning."
"Want a hand? JARVIS is up, he wants to help."
"Sure. Bruce probably wants to look you over, JARVIS, but I'll make sure he's quick."
Agent Romanoff could be unexpectedly kind. "Thank you," he said.
He hadn't walked much, and he knew he seemed childishly uncoordinated, but Sir just walked slowly and kept up a cheerful, empty monologue about what he'd worked on while JARVIS was "in hibernation". When they finally reached Dr. Banner's lab, JARVIS let himself be guided into a chair. Agent Romanoff looked up from the computer she was working on and smiled warmly at him. He found himself smiling back automatically.
"You know, it's just your luck," she said, as she continued typing and Dr. Banner took his pulse, "you get turned into a human and you end up looking like Stark."
"It's my understanding that Sir is considered unusually attractive, for a human," JARVIS said. Dr. Banner held up a finger, and he followed it obediently with his eyes. "Though I suspect it's primarily the wallet bulge in his back pocket."
"I am so persecuted," Sir said to Dr. Banner.
"My heart bleeds," Dr. Banner replied. "You seem okay, JARVIS. Let me know if anything hurts or feels strange."
"Thank you, Dr. Banner. I'd like to assist, if I may," JARVIS said, and was surprised at the -- longing, he thought. It was longing in his voice. Agent Romanoff nodded.
"Can I sit?" she asked, pointing to the chair next to him, dragging the monitor around so that he could study it. He nodded. "There's nothing inherently wrong with Dr. Foster's work, now that we've unearthed it -- I mean, the actual physics is more Bruce's area than mine, but he can't code for crap."
"I can code," JARVIS offered, and then wondered if he could. When he tried to imagine what he was meant to do, all the code slotted into place in his head, at least. Getting it into the computer might be another story.
"Good, help me out," Agent Romanoff said, leaning carefully into his shoulder. When he didn't draw back -- he rather liked that feeling -- she began to talk. "What we need is something with more sensitivity. If she's putting off any energy at all now that she's here, it's too low for the current program to pick up. But if we scale that up to do broad sweeps, we need a lot more processing power. For now, focusing in is still the issue, and I'm not getting very far with it."
"Dr. Foster is a brilliant scientist," JARVIS said. "Her programming is...untidy."
"Great minds require a little mess," Sir put in.
"As I am well aware," JARVIS drawled. He studied the map in one pane of the program. A single pinprick of light in Manhattan showed them the one Asgardian on Earth, other than Amora. "At least we have Prince Thor to help us test the alterations to the code."
"You know, no pressure," Sir said, "but you should try calling people by their first names. Just to see if you can. It wasn't in his original programming," he added to Dr. Banner. "And then when we wrote a patch so that he could, he decided he didn't want to."
"The formality of proper titles is more suited to the performance of my role," JARVIS said.
"Fine, whatever," Sir groaned. "Don't help me advance the study of artificial intelligence, see if I care."
"Ignore him," Agent Romanoff said.
"Thank you, Agent Romanoff," JARVIS answered, just to needle Sir.
They spent most of the afternoon and well into the evening in Dr. Banner's lab. When Dr. Foster showed up, she seemed torn between questioning JARVIS about his predicament and berating Dr. Banner for some mistaken assumption he'd made about the program's parameters. Stripped of his ability to monitor Dr. Banner's biometrics, JARVIS grew increasingly worried about this, until Agent Romanoff patted his leg gently.
"The Doc likes Jane," she said in an undertone. "He knows she doesn't mean it personally. He's fine."
"How do you know?" JARVIS asked.
She shrugged. "You just get to know, eventually. I'm good at reading people. See?" she added, and JARVIS cut his eyes to Dr. Banner briefly. He was smiling, eyes alight, as he shot a quick retort back at Dr. Foster.
"He looks all right," JARVIS allowed.
"He's fine. Look, if you're worried about something, check in with me. Unless I'm panicking, you don't have to, okay?"
"Agent Romanoff, you have been known to remain calm in the face of a massive alien invasion of New York," JARVIS pointed out. "Your idea of panic is not a rational baseline."
"Just trust me," she said, smiling. "You never had a problem with that before."
"I had access to terabytes of data backing up your conclusions, before," JARVIS said ruefully. His hands flexed, the leather of the gloves tightening briefly around his fingers.
"I don't think there's a lot more we can do tonight," Dr. Foster announced, as Dr. Banner leaned back from a monitor, stretching, and Sir cracked his knuckles, pushing away from the holotable where he and JARVIS had been laboriously recoding map data to feed to the search program. It was tedious work, especially since JARVIS could have done it in a quarter of the time and still have had processing power left over to bicker with Sir, if he weren't in this body. Of course if he weren't in this body, all of this would be moot.
"Food," Dr. Banner declared, and the others nodded. JARVIS became aware of a sense of something missing, a diagnostic quirk of some kind, and connected it with an earlier sensation. This was hunger. It was difficult to quantify.
"Dinner is taken care of," Agent Barton said, strolling into the room, trailed by Captain Rogers and Sergeant Wilson, with Prince Thor at the rear. Agent Barton had box upon box of pizza, and JARVIS sniffed the air cautiously. He'd ordered pizzas on Sir's behalf for years, and then on behalf of all the Avengers, and he couldn't deny he had been...curious. Pizza was not a healthful food, nor was it particularly balanced to provide the mix of protein and carbohydrate that high-activity individuals such as the Avengers required. It was not efficient or tidy to eat, and it provided no intoxicating effect. Its frequent presence in the Tower was a mystery. JARVIS had assumed it had some kind of nostalgia value.
But the smell made something inside him tense up in anticipation, and he could feel his salivary glands activate.
"Here," Sir said, sorting through the boxes and piling a plate with several slices, each with different toppings. He set it down in front of JARVIS. "Give these a spin."
"What if I don't like them?" JARVIS asked, hesitant.
"I'll eat the rest. Try the pepperoni first."
JARVIS picked up the pizza the way he'd seen Sir do countless times, lifting and then folding the slice in half. He was aware of a certain attention from the others, but he ignored it and bit into the pointed tip of the slice, carefully gauging how much pressure he would need to separate it from the rest. It took a moment to remember how to chew, but when he did --
"Oh," he said, mouth full. He looked down at the pizza with new, sudden reverence. It was a combination of flavor and texture -- soft, salty cheese, sweet-savory tomato and crisp bread under. There was heat and spice from the pepperoni, which had a different feel in his mouth from any of the other component parts, and a rich hint of garlic somewhere. It wasn't akin to any sensation he could recall from before. It was like a barrage of input, but he didn't have to process it or store it. He just had to chew.
"Yes?" Sir asked, one eyebrow cocked. JARVIS worked on swallowing for a second, then ducked his head.
"It's very good, Sir," he said. Sir smiled. JARVIS set it down and reached for another slice -- mushroom, which Dr. Banner didn't care for and Captain Rogers favored -- and carefully bit into the side of the slice, where an actual mushroom was. After a second of chewing a strange, unpleasant flavor filled his mouth, and he hurriedly analyzed the options before him: swallow quickly and risk choking, or spit it out and risk offending the others. One did not, he knew, generally spit food.
Sir gave him a tolerant look. "They're not everyone's favorite. Here," he said, offering JARVIS a paper napkin, and JARVIS discreetly worked the food out of his mouth, crumpling the napkin around it. Sir set the slice aside. "Try the sausage and pepper, looks like you like spice."
It took JARVIS a while to realize that the others had lost interest in his culinary experimentation and were sitting in small groups, eating and talking quietly. Sir was the only one paying attention, and he had a hand on the back of JARVIS's neck, reassuring and grounding. Sir could be tactile, JARVIS knew well enough, but he hadn't understood how comforting it could be.
This wasn't how it was meant to be. JARVIS was supposed to watch over Sir, not the other way around.
"Tony, come and have a look at this," Dr. Foster said, and Sir gave his neck a parting squeeze before getting up to see what she was looking at. JARVIS could see enough of the pad from where he sat to know it was some problem other than that of locating Amora, a side project that didn't concern him, so he stayed put. He was tired, for all he'd been in sleep mode -- for all he'd slept -- earlier. He longed for his servers, for the data he normally processed without even paying attention, for the building wrapped around his consciousness and the ability to know, beyond a doubt, the exact state and status of his responsibilities.
He saw Captain Rogers and Sergeant Wilson holding some sort of conference, primarily with facial expressions; after a moment, Captain Rogers nodded and got up from the other table, coming to sit with JARVIS.
"Mind if I have the rest of that one?" he asked, pointing to the aborted Mushroom Pizza Experiment. JARVIS shook his head. "Thanks. How are you holding up?"
"I do my best, Captain," JARVIS replied.
"You look a little lost."
"I am used to a much higher volume of data, and better processing. Attempting to follow interpersonal dynamics in a group of this size, let alone attempting to monitor an entire building without the infrastructure to do so..." JARVIS looked down at his plate. "I understand this is perhaps inherited ego, but I have never before felt so inadequate."
"It's a new world for you."
"I would imagine you understand that, Captain Rogers."
"More or less. Maybe in a different way. Losing what's familiar is hard," Captain Rogers said. "It's best to have a purpose, I think. Not quite knowing what to do all the time, that can wear on a fella."
"I suppose that is the difficulty," JARVIS agreed. He looked human, spoke like a human, had a human body -- but he was no more suited to this role than Captain Rogers had been suited for this century, coming from the last one. "How did you adapt, Captain?"
Captain Rogers sighed. "Still not sure I have, some days. Mostly I just tried to act like I knew what I was doing until I did. And when I got mad, I hit stuff. I hit a lot of stuff," he said thoughtfully. "If you're still around like this in a couple of days and you want to hit some stuff, let me know, I'll help you out."
The thought of spending days this way, possibly even weeks, was daunting. But Sir had said they'd fix this; Sir wasn't infallible, but he was Captain Rogers' rival for stubborn doggedness, particularly in the case of lost causes.
Still, he became aware that there was a restlessness inside of him that felt very like descriptions he'd encountered of anger.
"Thank you," he said. "I may take you up on that, Captain."
"I'm not that good at the fuzzy side, but if you need to talk to someone, I probably listen better than Tony does."
JARVIS felt himself smile, a little of the anger ebbing. "You'd be hard-pressed to be worse, at times."
Captain Rogers laughed, clapped him on the back, and got up to check in with Dr. Banner, who was going over the afternoon's work, a slice of pizza in one hand. JARVIS, weary and well aware that there was nothing more for him to do, distracted himself by cleaning the grease meticulously off his gloves with a damp napkin. He was nearly finished when he realized, with a start, that he hadn't heard from Ms. Potts in several hours.
Uneasiness filled him. Generally, Ms. Potts didn't require his direct attention, but JARVIS was fond of her, and she was very precious to Sir, so he had made a habit of checking her calendar daily and her biometrics hourly. Logically, she was surely fine. Sir would be the first to know if she weren't. But Sir usually had JARVIS checking for him. He tried to take a deep breath, but his chest was tight and tense.
"J," Sir said, suddenly at his side. "Hey, you look like you're gonna fall over, what's wrong?"
"Ms. Potts," JARVIS managed. He looked up at Sir, breath still coming fast. "Where is she, Sir?"
"Pep? I dunno, she had a late meeting," Sir said. "She's probably shutting down the office."
"Can we check, Sir? Can we make sure?"
"Is that what you're freaked out about? Hey, listen, she's fine," Sir said, one hand on his back. "We can check on her, but I promise she's okay."
It was Natasha who brought him a tablet with a live feed from the executive office. JARVIS checked the timestamp and verification code twice before he even looked at the image, but as soon as he did, the tightness in his chest eased. Ms. Potts was finishing a meeting with someone -- he didn't know who, which was unpleasant -- and as soon as they left, she began packing documents away, speaking to someone just out of frame. Probably Beverly, her assistant, who ran her professional life with an iron fist and read science blogs on her computer when work was slow.
JARVIS relaxed. Ms. Potts was fine. Probably everyone in the building was fine, even without his watchful eye. He had no illusions that the Tower wasn't better when he was in charge, but at least his being human would probably not cause any deaths.
"I think it's been a long day," Sergeant Wilson said gently.
"Yeah, this is going to have to compile overnight anyway," Dr. Banner agreed. JARVIS suspected a conspiracy, but he didn't have the energy to care. "JARVIS, if you're going to get on a regular sleep schedule, you should probably go to bed."
JARVIS offered Natasha the tablet back, aware of how hard it was to keep his eyes open, how his mind didn't seem to want to process information quickly. He didn't even question when Sir led him away, up to the penthouse, nor did he remember to check and see where the others were going.
They reached the penthouse just as Ms. Potts did, and Sir wrapped an arm around her waist.
"See? Totally fine," Sir said, with a teasing grin for JARVIS, kissing her cheek. "JARVIS was worried about you, Pep."
"I just..." JARVIS felt his face heat, an unpleasant sensation rolling through him.
"That's sweet," Ms. Potts said, reaching out to rub his shoulder, and the unpleasantness subsided. He smiled gratefully at her. "Thank you for thinking of me. I had someone put some clothes for you in the first guest room, by the way."
"Thank you, Ms. Potts," he said. "Please, sleep well."
"Always a gentleman. Don't know where you picked that up, given the source," she said. "We'll see you in the morning. Wake us if you need anything."
He nodded and headed for the guest room, hoping his knowledge of the schematics and his memory of the cameras would guide him -- existing in the world was very different, he was finding, from watching it from within the walls.
Before the door closed, he faintly heard Ms. Potts say, "Gloves?" and Sir reply, "Well, they seem to work."
"Is he okay?"
An understatement, JARVIS thought, as he fumbled with his clothes, then finally gave in and took the gloves off. They were thin enough that they'd been all right for typing, which he was surprisingly good at, but they weren't quite thin enough to handle undressing.
On the bed, whoever Ms. Potts had sent had laid out several options for nightclothes. JARVIS had thought it was strange that humans changed clothes to sleep in, but now he understood. The pajamas were looser, softer, meant for comfort more than for modesty's sake. He picked a pair of plain blue pants and a long-sleeved white shirt with a cartoon drawing of Iron Man on the front, then cleared the rest off of the bed and squirmed under the blankets.
The relief of this new position -- lying down, warm, cradled by the soft mattress -- came as a shock. There was nothing about a human body that wasn't extreme: pain, pleasure, mushrooms, pajamas, embarrassment, it was all so vivid and present, unfiltered, visceral. There was no way to turn off a sensation you didn't like. He couldn't switch off his ears or dampen the nerves in his back that were telling him he'd spent too long that afternoon hunched over a work desk.
But he could close his eyes, which felt good, and he was tired enough that he didn't panic when it felt like his sensors were slowly shutting down as he drifted into sleep.
Waking was unpleasant. Dreams were extremely unpleasant, so at least waking was a step up, but the confusion of limbs and eyeballs and sensation and memory were terrible. And humans did this every day.
JARVIS woke early, though he had to look at a clock on the wall to find that out. After a few moments of shuddering confusion, he managed to sit up, then to swing his legs out of the bed and stand.
Stretching was not unpleasant; he tried to mimic what he'd seen the Avengers do when they woke up (elbows out, shoulders wide) and found the sensation at least enjoyable. Captain Rogers always bent over to stretch his back, and when JARVIS tried that, there was an alarming series of pops. He straightened quickly and decided that was enough experimentation with stretching for one day.
Sir, as a rule, lived an erratic life. You could depend upon certain things, but a regular schedule was not one of them. Captain Rogers kept the most consistent day of anyone in the Tower: he would wake, stretch, dress, go for a run -- often with Sergeant Wilson -- shower and shave, fix breakfast, and then go about his business. JARVIS thought he could probably skip the running, and he estimated that if he mastered showering with any degree of speed, he could fetch Sir and Ms. Potts a coffee from the cafe on the ground floor of his building and be back before he was missed. They liked coffee in the morning.
He could not instinctively regulate the water temperature for himself the way he used to for the others, but a few minutes of tinkering brought it up from "freezing" to "scalding" and then back down to a comfortable range for humans. His experimentation with soap and shampoo indicated he should perhaps save shaving for another day, or ask Sir to help him. Sir was an expert, after all. JARVIS wasn't sure he was comfortable with sharp blades so near fragile skin, just yet.
Ms. Potts had clearly suggested to someone that the closet be stocked, and JARVIS decided she was now his favorite. It took some little consideration to decide what to wear -- there was so much variety, and after a few minutes he had to go back and sit on the bed and take deep breaths, overwhelmed with the choices on offer. He reminded himself that it was like the pizza: he didn't need to process every single piece of clothing as data. He just had to pick something to wear.
He discarded the sweatpants and workout suits out of hand. He wondered if this was vanity; after all, Sir had created him, and he had it on good authority that Sir was quite vain. Then again, Sir had always responded that it wasn't vanity when you looked as good as he did. JARVIS found himself smiling without knowing why, and gravitating down towards the other end of the closet, where several suits and dress shirts were laid out: black with bold charcoal stripes, deep blue with pinstripes, and one dove-grey, somehow a little less hard-edged than the others.
Working out how to put it all on wasn't easy, but JARVIS knew how PAs and XAs and modern-day butlers dressed, and when he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror (mirrors were terrifying), he at least felt he looked the part: the sober grey suit, the crisp white shirt under the waistcoat, the stiff brown leather shoes. He didn't bother attempting a necktie. He put the gloves back on, despite the fact that they didn't exactly match the suit, and proceeded out of the bedroom.
He stopped outside Sir and Ms. Potts' room, listening through the door; when he was satisfied he could hear Ms. Potts breathing and Sir snoring lightly, he moved onwards to the elevator and, with a hammering in his chest, pushed the button to take him down to the first floor. Something went pop in his head about halfway down and he spent an alarmed moment wondering if he'd had a stroke until he realized it was his inner ears, adjusting to the change in pressure as he descended.
The lobby was horrifyingly loud, voices echoing off the ceiling and floor as workday staff arrived. There were thousands of people who worked in the building, and while he knew it was only a dozen arriving this early, it felt for a moment like the entire building was talking at once. JARVIS tensed, reminded himself again not to try to process everything, and made his way mostly-steadily across the floor from the elevator to the cafe.
He knew most of the people he saw, could even remember data from their files. They didn't even give him a second look.
JARVIS certainly knew all of the baristas. He was fond of them. When Sir wanted something more complicated than high-octane black coffee, they were obligingly quick to respond to JARVIS's requests, which popped up on a little screen next to the far-left cashier's station.
"Good morning!" Mikayla said cheerily, when JARVIS made it to the front of the coffee line. She saw him wince -- all this input was difficult to ignore, the talking and smells and the warmth of the cafe -- and smiled. "Late night?"
"Something like that," he agreed.
"JARVIS," he said without thinking. "But I'm ordering two."
"You want your name on both cups?"
"That's fine, yes."
"What can I get for you?"
"A soy viennois, medium, and a large iced, not blended, with a shot of hazelnut," he said. Mikayla blinked at him.
"Are you Ms. Potts' new PA?" she asked. "What happened to Beverly?"
"Am I..." he trailed off, confused. "Nothing's happened to Beverly. At least so far as I know."
"But that's a Stark-Potts special," she said. "You're getting coffee for them, aren't you?"
"Oh! Yes," he said with a smile, and then realized she was waiting for an explanation. "I'm so sorry, I'm only here temporarily, I...didn't realize their order was quite so identifiable."
"Yeah, we don't have a viennois on the menu, it's just for Mr. Stark," she said, pointing to the menu board behind her. "Hey, are you here to fix the server problem? Our connection to up top's been dead for like, a day," she added, jerking her thumb at the screen he normally used to order coffee. Of course; with only the basic system running, people would have noticed his lack of presence, even if they wouldn't fully understand what it meant.
"Yes," he said, giving her what he hoped was an approximation of Sir's best smile, because he realized in that moment he had neither identification nor money with which to pay for these coffees. "That is the reason I'm here. I'm so sorry, actually, I've just realized I've left my wallet upstairs -- "
"Oh, no problem, we just bill it against the rent when it's for Mr. Stark," she said.
"Hey, you wanna stop flirting and move the fuck along?" someone called from the line. JARVIS hastily shuffled aside, giving her a nod of thanks. When he got back into his proper shape he was going to quietly ensure that she received a raise, and priority bandwidth on the Tower's free lobby wifi.
Instead of calling his name when the drinks were ready, Mikayla dodged around the service counter with a drinks carrier and beamed at him.
"Do you have ID to get you back up top?" she asked, and he shook his head, suddenly horrified -- he hadn't thought about getting back into the elevator, he'd just breezed out of it carelessly. "I'll get you past security, come on."
The guard, fortunately, not only knew Mikayla but had seen JARVIS leave the secure penthouse elevator; he waved them through, and at the elevator JARVIS found himself asking, "Would you like to come up? I'm going to the penthouse. The view is excellent."
"See the infamous Stark penthouse? You bet your ass," she replied, as he punched in the elevator activation code. "Are you sure that's all right?"
"S...tark and Ms. Potts aren't awake yet," he said. She looked at him oddly. "I'm staying in a guest room. The coffee was motivation to get Mr. Stark up and working."
Saying Stark felt strange and uncomfortable. Anthony Stark was Sir; he always had been.
Unfortunately, when they reached the penthouse, the doors opened and Sir pounced.
"JARVIS, where the hell did you -- uh," he stopped when he saw Mikayla in the elevator.
"Sir, this is Mikayla," JARVIS said.
"Yes, I know who she is, I do drink coffee in this building," Sir said, looking irritated. Then he paused. "Is that coffee?"
"Indeed, Sir," JARVIS replied.
"You brought me coffee?" Sir asked, looking baffled. JARVIS put a hand on his shoulder and gently pushed him backwards, out of the way, so that they could leave the elevator.
"JARVIS, there you are," Ms. Potts said, sounding much less crazy and slightly more awake than Sir. "Oh, hello," she added, as Mikayla offered her the coffee that Sir had not grabbed and clutched as soon as they were out of the elevator. "Thank you. JARVIS, did you get us coffee? That was sweet."
"I should get back to the cafe," Mikayla said, clearly uncomfortable at watching Sir slurp whipped cream off his coffee while wearing nothing but sleep pants. Not to mention Ms. Potts in a very nice but not business-casual dressing gown.
"Thank you, Mikayla, you've made my morning much easier," JARVIS said earnestly, escorting her back into the elevator. "Please add a large tip to the charge. Have a very nice day."
"You too," she said, giving him a bright smile as the doors closed. When he turned around to face Sir and Ms. Potts, they were both staring at him.
"So..." Sir said slowly. "You woke up and decided, what, to dress up like an executive and go have an adventure in the lobby?"
"Was that not allowed?" JARVIS asked. "It is my building, after all, regardless of the name on the paperwork."
"I think Tony's more stunned that it took you less than twenty-four hours to start making time with super cute baristas," Ms. Potts said.
"I wasn't..." JARVIS considered their interactions, mentally comparing them with similar circumstances he had witnessed Sir in. "Oh. Apparently I was."
Sir set his coffee down on the side table next to the couch and cupped JARVIS's face in both hands.
"You are a natural," he said solemnly. "I'm very proud. But please do not bring strange women or men into the penthouse without asking. Even if they have coffee for me."
"She makes good coffee," Ms. Potts said, sipping appreciatively. "I mean, if you're going to throw yourself into dating, you could choose worse."
"I think that's rather a large step," JARVIS said carefully. "Perhaps best reserved for a worst-case scenario."
"Well, we can discuss it when you're older," Ms. Potts said, and JARVIS saw that she was teasing. He felt a surge of affection for Sir and Ms. Potts. Such unusual examples of humanity to begin with, and so adaptable when faced with this sort of...well, this sort of mess. "Come on, let's have breakfast, I have a full day ahead and you two have to go running around after an Asgardian goddess. Have you fed him bacon yet?" she asked Sir, who shook his head.
"I understand bacon is a meme," JARVIS said. "I'm interested to try it."
"I now understand why bacon is a meme," JARVIS said, a little later that day, when Dr. Foster asked him how he'd liked breakfast. She smiled.
"That's an interesting way of identifying a cultural obsession," she said. "You should talk to Darcy. I think she did a paper on bacon as conspicuous consumption."
"I will do that, thank you," he said. "I haven't seen Ms. Lewis; is she unwell?"
He was particularly proud of this newfound ability to make small talk. If you wished to know where someone was and how they were doing, you could ask a friend of theirs, and they'd accept it as a polite interest and not a baseless worry driven by anxiety over being unable to view their current location on demand.
"She's jet-lagged. She was up at like, midnight. I think she's napping now. Her job's a lot like yours these days," she added, and JARVIS cocked his head. He still didn't care for his body, but body language was fun. "She does a lot of the science, but her job is mainly to make sure I eat regularly and don't get horribly killed."
"You are especially prone to life-threatening situations," JARVIS felt obliged to point out.
"At this point I'm actively pursuing them," she said.
"Maybe, but I have to go where the physics goes, and the physics goes some pretty dark places since Puente Antiguo," she replied. "You get it, right? I mean, Iron Man..."
"Yes," JARVIS said. He didn't often access the memory of the battle of New York; he saw what being unable to avoid that memory had done to Sir. JARVIS did not recall the vastness of space, the suffocation Sir had suffered, the knowledge of certain death, or the vision of the Chitauri ship exploding; he had only fragments of these from Sir's conversations with Ms. Potts, with Dr. Banner, with JARVIS himself. But he had felt the moment when the armor went dark, when his connection to Sir was lost. And he had two memories of Sir's death, the first in Afghanistan, the second over a burning, rubble-strewn New York. Neither had taken, but he still understood what it was like to follow someone up to the edge of darkness and then be unable to follow further.
But Sir was Sir, and they would both be lesser if Sir wasn't the sort to charge headlong towards the prize on the other side of darkness, be it victory or science.
"At any rate," Dr. Foster said, and JARVIS realized he'd let the silence spool out awkwardly, lost in his own thoughts. He wasn't used to being unable to think and talk at the same time. "The Tower feels pretty safe, and this time I will probably not need to charge into battle armed with something Erik built in his basement while he was hopped up on anti-psychotics, so I told Darcy she could have a few days off. You want to help me calibrate the focus settings? It involves keeping Thor entertained so he doesn't move around a lot."
"I'd like to do what I can," JARVIS agreed, which was how he found himself sitting in Dr. Banner's lab with Prince Thor, playing a video game.
It was soothing; in the game he was a robot, and he and Prince Thor's robot had to work together to solve puzzles. He began to understand why people liked television. As a human, you could look at the thing on the screen and get the feeling that you were that thing, or at any rate like that thing. Robot, superhero, Kardashian -- there was a sense, illogical but present, that you were there in the moment with them, and that was gratifying.
In the background, Dr. Foster was calibrating the program to search for the minutest possible traces of Asgardian energy. JARVIS looked over occasionally to see how she was getting along; the problem was that Prince Thor trailed energy in his wake, and if you turned up the focus high enough, you just saw a faint yellow glow over the entire island of Manhattan, wherever Prince Thor had been. Plus, of course, the fainter the traces, the smaller the search area had to be.
It helped to have the real thing there, he was sure, to show the difference between a trail and a presence, but...it didn't help that much. JARVIS suspected someone had orchestrated this to keep him distracted from the entire rest of his existence.
"It's frustrating, isn't it?" Dr. Foster said, when she caught JARVIS peeking at her display. "I'm thinking about doing a frame shift -- jumping back and forth between just-too-high and just-too-low to see if anything pops when you contrast them quickly."
"Like a thaumatrope," JARVIS said.
"A little," Dr. Foster said. "Certainly it's somewhere in the optical illusion line. Fooling the brain into picking out a flaw in a pattern. How do you know about thaumatropes?"
"Sir wished me to be curious," JARVIS said, returning his attention to the game. If he focused, he could still play and talk at the same time. "He programmed me to investigate unfamiliar vocabulary, and to use spare processing power to question and learn."
"I didn't think much of Tony, the first time we met," she said.
"Not an unusual reaction, to be honest," JARVIS replied.
"You shed a lot of light on him."
JARVIS paused the game, looking at her worriedly. She held up a hand. "Not intentionally. Just...Tony did a good day's work when he made you."
He smiled; he wasn't sure if pleasure motivated smiling or if smiling motivated pleasure, but either way, he liked to do it. "Thank you, Dr. Foster. I agree, for obvious reasons."
"It's an interesting thing, to be mortal," Prince Thor remarked, drawing his attention back to the game. "I didn't find it especially pleasant, either."
"Snob," Dr. Foster laughed.
"This inaction stifles me, Jane," he complained. "Amora has struck down a shieldbrother. Surely there's more we can do than this."
"Another few minutes, okay?" Dr. Foster said. "Then you can go run around the alleys of Manhattan accosting strangers to your heart's content."
"I do love meeting new people," Prince Thor said with a grin.
Jane's frame-shift theory ultimately proved fruitless, at least as far as anyone could tell; either Amora wasn't in Manhattan, the sensors weren't picking her up, or she had deliberately hidden herself. Prince Thor seemed to think the latter, when the Avengers assembled for lunch and a strategy meeting.
Lunch was sushi. JARVIS struggled with chopsticks, but the food was worth the effort. He found he liked avocado; he did not like eel; he liked tuna; he loved wasabi.
"Is it possible this is temporary?" Sir asked, gesturing at JARVIS with his chopsticks. "Like it'll just pop back eventually, without us doing anything?"
"Unlikely," Prince Thor said. "If she did wish to distract you, maintaining the transformation is necessary. I suppose she might let it go once she gets whatever it is she wants."
"Okay, but why would she distract me in a way that would make me actively look for her?" Sir persisted. "This makes no sense."
"We only see part of the picture," Agent Barton said. "Anyway, you can't apply logic to these people, they're crazy."
Prince Thor looked ominous. Agent Barton rolled his eyes.
"Bad guys, Thor, I didn't mean Asgardians in general. Though you gotta admit, the score for Asgardians on Earth is like 5-3 Good-Evil right now. That's not a ratio I particularly love."
"You have not seen us at our best," Prince Thor admitted.
"I can apply logic if I want to," Sir said. "Anyone who's capable of functioning on a basic level has some kind of method. She's here for a reason, possibly to do with Thor, and if Thor's right, she tried to take me out as the one she considers our heavy hitter."
"Which means you might be next, Big Brains," Sergeant Wilson added, indicating Dr. Banner and Dr. Foster.
"Hulk's not rational," Dr. Banner said. "There's an entire half of me she doesn't have to worry about."
"I'm pretty sure nobody on Asgard wants to mess with me after London," Dr. Foster added.
"So, do we wait for her to come to us?" Agent Romanoff asked.
"That makes me pretty uncomfortable," Captain Rogers said. "Is there a way to bait a trap? Do we know what would..." he seemed to be searching for a way to say what he was thinking. "Aside from whatever it is she wants, which we don't know, what would attract her? You?" he asked Prince Thor. "Tony? Is she interested in JARVIS, in seeing what she's done -- "
"Absofuckinglutely not," Sir put in. The edge in his voice made everyone turn towards him. "JARVIS isn't bait, end of story."
"Sir -- " JARVIS began.
"No. You've been a human being for a day, your backups are shot, you're not trained for this. And why the hell would she care, anyway?"
"Okay, Tony," Captain Rogers said. "I was brainstorming, that's all."
"Well, brainstorm yourself some other, less stupid idea."
"Sir," JARVIS said, and was momentarily shocked at how sharp his own voice sounded. Sir looked at him, as startled as he was. JARVIS soldiered on. "That will be enough speaking for me, thank you."
Sir blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Thank you for advocating for my safety. Captain Rogers understands. There's no need to beat the dead horse, Sir."
Agent Barton laughed, and when Sir glared at him, said, "Hey, man, you programmed him. If you didn't want uppity, you know who to blame."
It did, at least, break the tension. Sir rolled his eyes and went back to his food. Captain Rogers shot JARVIS an apologetic look.
"But really, what would get her attention?" the Captain asked Prince Thor. "Can you think of anything? What's her, uh, story?"
Prince Thor looked thoughtful. "She is also known as the Enchantress. She studied under a Norn queen, for a time, but she was sent away -- rumor says she lacked discipline. For a while she was my brother's fellow student; they were good friends."
"And she had a crush on her BFF's older brother?" Sir asked, raising an eyebrow. "How very Young Adult Novel."
"No, I don't think so. Well, perhaps," Prince Thor allowed. "But that was long ago, and nothing more than fun. I had little eye for such things when there were battles and feasts to be had."
JARVIS saw Agent Romanoff glance at Dr. Foster, but she seemed amused.
"She craves power. She dislikes self-denial. Of her other habits I know little," Thor said with a shrug.
"All right, well, Thor's restless, so I think a few of you should take him out and wander aimlessly, because that sometimes works surprisingly well," Dr. Foster said. "The brain trust will lock itself in for the afternoon and see what we come up with."
"You still looking at a scaling problem?" Sir asked. "I might be able to squeeze you a little more juice."
"Scaling, lack of focus...." Dr. Foster shrugged. "Sometimes it's a problem of just not having the equipment to deal with it yet. In twenty years, maybe."
"Limited by the technology of our time," Sir murmured. JARVIS remembered that; Sir's father had said it, or something like it, in a film reel. He didn't understand familial relations as fully as humans seemed to, even now that he was one, but he knew enough of Sir to be aware that his father stood as an invisible object in his life. Howard Stark was known more by the gaps he'd left in Sir than by the solidity of Sir's existence.
A thought occurred to him, something to try with the program, but unlike his former existence, he couldn't simply test it and present Sir with the results (or ignore them if they weren't relevant). He'd have to physically go to the lab and tinker with the program, which would be noticed. And he was reluctant, as he thought the others were, to leave the satisfied comfort of lunch and return to their duties.
More and more, in the last few months, he had seen Sir uncharacteristically linger after a meal or in the mornings. He'd set up a subroutine to monitor it, for a while, but had come to the conclusion that Sir was not ill or sleep-deprived (indeed, he slept better lately than usual, and JARVIS had been considering establishing a new baseline to stop the new behavior from skewing his curve). Sir simply liked the company of these people. He liked to be around them. JARVIS liked them too, so he understood.
That evening, so as not to draw attention, he went to bed at a reasonable hour, before Sir and Ms. Potts; he'd eaten with Sergeant Wilson and Captain Rogers, who'd come back from escorting Thor around Manhattan and brought meatloaf fixings with them. Meatloaf had an unsettling texture, but he liked Sergeant Wilson's mashed potatoes, and the way the two men filled the kitchen with talk and jokes as they'd cooked and JARVIS had watched.
When he came up to the penthouse, Sir and Ms. Potts were still at the dining table, heads bent together, talking in a way that usually meant JARVIS should set the cameras and microphones to privacy mode. Sir glanced up, called out "JARVIS, you good?" and then smiled and went back to flattering Ms. Potts when JARVIS nodded. He changed into pajamas, then sat down on the foot of his bed and waited until he heard their bedroom door close. After a few minutes, just in case, he padded back out, barefoot, into the elevator and down to the labs. Dr. Banner and Dr. Foster had long since closed the lab for the night, but JARVIS knew the access code and they'd left the computers running.
This would be easier if he still had full processing power, and the program wasn't strictly designed for what he had in mind. But Sir's technology grid was still far and away beyond the capabilities of most, and writing the program he intended wouldn't take too long. There were bits and pieces he could pull from the existing code.
He flexed his fingers over the keyboard, mentally titled the file -- it made him feel better, more like this was routine work for Sir -- and began work on program THAUMATROPE.
He did not remember falling asleep.
He did not remember saving his program and closing it, either, though he must have done so; when he woke, to a light touch on his shoulder and an ache in his lower back, the monitor in front of him was blank. Dr. Banner was leaning against the table, looking down at him in curiosity.
"You know, even Tony doesn't fall asleep working that much anymore," he said, as JARVIS yawned and bent his head forward, cracking his neck.
"Well, as I've been told, I'm younger than him," JARVIS replied. He felt tired, greasy, stiff; Sir was clearly a masochist for doing this all the time. It was a terrible way to wake up. Also, he smelled funny.
"What were you working on?" Dr. Banner asked.
"Nothing of consequence," JARVIS said. "Nothing that worked, either," he added ruefully. The Thaumatrope Project wasn't functioning, not yet; he did remember, sometime around midnight, being very frustrated with it.
"We'll find her. Someone like that won't stay inconspicuous for long," Dr. Banner said. "You should head upstairs. Tony's probably wondering where you are."
JARVIS realized he didn't know what time it was, and had a small moment of panic before he located a clock; it didn't help much.
"Nine o'clock!" he said, dismayed. "Sir will already be up, I haven't made the coffee -- "
Dr. Banner put a hand on his arm, and JARVIS flinched. He lifted it off with an apologetic expression.
"Tony can make his own coffee," he said. "I've seen him do it once or twice."
"But I'm supposed to," JARVIS said, scrambling out of the chair. He took off running for the elevator, fidgeting impatiently as it carried him back to the penthouse. When he arrived, it was quiet, and Sir and Ms. Potts' bedroom door was open, the bedroom empty. JARVIS cast about, wondering if he should check the workshop, before he saw a piece of paper propped on the bar dividing kitchen and living room.
Didn't want to wake you. Coffee in the pot, food in the fridge. Come down to the workshop when you're ready. Workshop, not lab, Dr. Foster can spare you for a few minutes.
He felt his heart sink. It was an actual feeling you could have, which he hadn't been aware of, but there was the pain in his chest, the lowered feeling.
He wasn't necessary.
He wasn't even that useful, like this. Sir didn't need him. And Sir said Dr. Foster didn't either. Ms. Potts, who liked him, had never strictly speaking needed him. And one ought to be useful; that was how one earned a place in the world.
He balled up the note and tossed it into the recycling bin, which made him feel a little better. The heat of the shower helped, too, sluicing away a night's worth of grime and stiffness. But he couldn't wear his gloves in the shower, and halfway through lathering the soap, he looked down at his hands and his eyes inexplicably started to hurt. His breath hiccupped, and his chest hurt again, too.
He'd seen people cry, of course. Sir, once in a while over the course of many years. Ms. Potts, slightly more often, mostly at movies. Captain Rogers, once, in frustration after an unsuccessful attempt to locate his friend. Various, numerous people who worked in the building, crying in offices or empty conference rooms or supply closets. It was a private action, usually.
He could see why. It was messy and painful, loud and humiliating. He leaned against the wall of the shower cubicle, fruitlessly wiping at his eyes and trying to catch his shuddering breath. He didn't want to be crying, he just didn't seem to be able to stop. He didn't want to be here, he wanted to be in his servers, in his building. Sir had built it for him, it was his by right, and now...
Sir didn't even need him. Sir was generous, of course; he would be safe, and he didn't worry about his physical needs. But if he wasn't needed, what was the point of him?
He wanted a comfort he couldn't attain, and that just made the whole thing worse. It wasn't even that something was broken, but that it couldn't be fixed. Nothing to be done.
Eventually his body seemed to tire of all this emotion, and he finished washing, stepping out of the shower and considering, for the second time, whether he trusted himself to shave. No; he didn't mind the way it felt, and it wasn't really more than scruff still, anyway.
(Sir had first grown his goatee when JARVIS was very young, "to look older"; it was his signature, now, but JARVIS suspected he also refused to shave it off because it took too long to grow back again.)
He went to the closet in a sort of daze. If he was going to be in the workshop, he decided, he shouldn't risk one of the suits. Sir wore workout pants and t-shirts; JARVIS pulled on a long-sleeved shirt and then one of the crisp, new t-shirts with intentionally worn-out logos that stocked the front of the closet. He put the gloves in the pocket of his pants, tucking the sleeves around his hands -- that felt better, and the gloves looked ridiculous -- and went to find Sir.
JARVIS had never fully appreciated just how loud Sir's "loud" setting for music was until he couldn't turn his mics down. He walked into the workshop and immediately clapped his hands to his ears, hunching over. He flailed for the nearest interface, calling up the audio controls and dropping the volume to nothing. It was a miracle Sir didn't have permanent hearing loss.
"J!" Sir yelled, from behind one of the roadsters. JARVIS waited as Sir pushed himself to his feet, wiping his hands on a rag. "Always turning down my music," Sir said, shaking his head. "Come on, work to do. Little less formal today, I see."
"A suit seemed inappropriate for the workshop."
"Good, you got the note. This is sad, JARVIS, I'm reduced to leaving handwritten notes for people because you can't just email them for me anymore."
"I could," JARVIS ventured. "With a Starkpad, I could -- "
"I was kidding. It's fine. It's like camping! C'mere." Sir dropped back down behind the car, which was propped up on jacks, and JARVIS curiously circled the car. Sir had taken the side panels off, exposing the engine, and had begun disassembling it. JARVIS stood over him, amused and appalled.
"Yes," he said. "Clearly the most productive use of your time, Sir."
"Boy, are we edgy today," Sir replied. "Get under, I need to show you something."
JARVIS sighed, stopping the roller board with one foot as Sir slid it over to him. He sat and then laid back, pushing himself under the engine. He'd seen exploded diagrams of engines, specs and simulations, but up close, there was an awful lot of...dirt.
"Okay, just hang there for a second," Sir said. "I'm gonna remove the -- "
He pulled out two of the pistons, and light flooded in where they'd been removed. JARVIS tipped his head to one side. There was an imperfection in the underside of the block, only visible now that the piston's arm wasn't in front of it.
"You should see something, red, SI logo -- "
"I see it, Sir," JARVIS said, tugging on the little object. It came away when he tugged, along with a wad of adhesive that gummed up his fingers. It was an old DatDisc -- one of the myriad high-density storage options that had tried to survive in the market before the flashdrive became ubiquitous. "Charming, we're hoarding data in car engines now."
"Judge not," Sir said, and JARVIS yelped in surprise when Sir grabbed his legs and tugged him out. "Yep, that's what I was looking for." He held out a hand, and JARVIS flipped the little object up into it. "Your dexterity is improving," Sir continued, as JARVIS sat up.
"Little choice," JARVIS murmured. Sir spat on the rag and then polished the DatDisc with it. He popped it open and plugged the circular port into a nearby reader, an antique also from the days when nobody knew if flashdrives or SD cards or zipdisks were going to be the future.
"When I programmed you," Sir said, as the reader whirred and a screen popped up with the disc's contents, "I was having a very paranoid moment possibly brought on by a recent breakup with a woman who was way smarter and way crazier than me, and I..." he trailed off, hands moving across the keyboard, "...backed up your seed program onto this little thing and then shoved it in an engine and forgot about it."
JARVIS glanced at the cars. Two others had their hoods popped.
"Didn't remember which one you put it into, did you?" he asked.
"They needed overhauls anyway," Sir pointed out. "And you didn't know about it, and I was unconscious, and I think Amora only wiped you from anywhere you knew about. And anyway, this little thing isn't you," he added, as code began to scroll. JARVIS leaned in, scanning it, awestruck. That was the building blocks of him -- the initial code from which he'd grown. Like a baby picture.
"It's not you," Sir said, resting a hand on Jarvis's shoulder. "There's only one real you, even the other backups were already outdated versions. But it's smart enough that it could possibly help us with our data processing problem. If you want."
JARVIS glanced at him. "If I want, Sir?"
"You have a right to say where it goes, what it's used for."
"Why?" JARVIS asked. Sir frowned.
"You're a sentient person. You should control any, you know. Bits of you, floating around," Sir said, gesturing with the hand that wasn't squeezing JARVIS's shoulder incrementally tighter. "So I got this out, and we can use it, but you need to say that's all right, first. Or not. If that's, you know, weird and discomforting. I'm not a superior judge of these things, that's why I have you."
"Oh," JARVIS said. "Yes. That's fine."
"Good." With a final squeeze, Sir let him go, but he also turned him, peering into JARVIS's face. "Do you have allergies? Are you sleeping?"
"No, and yes," JARVIS said. He probably didn't have allergies.
"Are you sure you don't need some kind of nasal spray?"
"Fairly certain, Sir. I do not seem to have inherited your hypochondria, either."
Sir snorted, but he didn't protest. "Okay. Run it up to the lab. Familiarize yourself with what you've got there, then see if you can plug it in and make it talk."
"Will you be joining us in the lab, sir?" JARVIS asked.
"We're at the stage where my presence mainly involves getting in the way," Sir said. "I'm going to put the engines back together, and Falcon's rig needs some attention."
"And the Mark A05 is still pulling to the left," JARVIS reminded him, not even thinking about it. "I believe the issue lies with energy regulation to the right-side boot repulsors."
Sir blinked at him. "Thanks for reminding me."
"I have said, Sir," JARVIS continued, "that the rollerblades appear to compress the relays. My redesigns are on the server, as you are well aware."
Sir's lips twitched. "JARVIS. Do you want to port into the lab from down here while I work?"
He hadn't thought about it -- that hadn't been his motivation -- but once Sir said it, relief flooded him. He hadn't realized how tense the idea of leaving Sir was making him.
"Yes, please," he said.
"Okay. Find yourself a corner and open a line to the lab. I'm putting my tunes back on."
"Not at that volume, you aren't," JARVIS said, dragging one of the stools around and situating himself at a corner of the workbench, with easy access to an interface with volume control. Butterfingers and You were hard at work trying, and failing, to reassemble one of the engines Sir had dismantled, but Dummy drifted over to inspect JARVIS, ignoring the steady stream of abuse Sir was directing his way for being a lazy, shirking idiotbot.
Tony was familiar with the concept of slacking. As an overly-intelligent child who occasionally lacked challenges, he became adept at slacking -- at boarding school, sometimes at MIT, certainly once he was running the company. It wasn't punishable, his rule was, if you still got your work done 1) on time, 2) on budget, and 3) in working order. Stark Industries was full of hypercompetent goof-offs who obeyed his three rules of competence, and Tony liked it that way.
So he didn't mind that JARVIS was slacking, per se. God knew, if anyone deserved it, JARVIS did. And he could understand a certain reluctance to dig into his own code; it'd be like the worst kind of therapy. It was just that he didn't expect it. JARVIS wasn't usually distractible, and until now he'd had a sense of urgency about finding Amora that was both understandable and commendable.
But Tony was checking progress on the program, which was going much too slowly for someone with JARVIS's skills, and when he strolled past JARVIS's corner of the workbench, he was either working on some other program, or he was really good at alt-tab.
They ate lunch in the workshop, companionably sharing a bottle of cola and a couple of granola bars, and Tony did get Sam's rig tuned up to his satisfaction by mid-afternoon. Dinner was uneventful, though JARVIS looked exhausted, and nobody was happy about the lack of progress still being made.
After dinner, Sam said he and Steve wanted to show JARVIS a movie, properly, with the lights out and popcorn and heckling if necessary, and Clint and Natasha wanted to join in as well. Tony glanced at Pepper, who looked like she'd enjoy an evening alone with him, then at JARVIS, who....looked resigned, essentially.
"You don't have to," he said, while the others were debating what to watch.
"I'd like to," JARVIS replied. "I -- it's nice not to be alone. I'm just...tired."
Tony ruffled his hair. "Go sit with them, eat some popcorn, turn your brain off for a little while if you can. Nobody's gonna be insulted if you fall asleep in the movie, J. They just want to hang out with you."
"I don't understand why."
"Well, mostly I imagine it's that they like you. But Steve knows you're out of your element, and he gets that. And Sam's pushing Steve to..." Tony considered how to say it. "To get himself a little help by helping you out. Steve needs something to fix and there isn't a lot in his life right now that is fixable. You, he can help in real ways."
"How did you learn so much, Sir?" JARVIS asked, a droll note to his voice that was very reassuring.
"Clean living," Tony answered, and JARVIS grinned. The dark smudges under his eyes were still there, but he seemed a little more at ease. "Let them look after you. You'll have fun."
"Yes, Sir," JARVIS said. Tony gave him a gentle push to where Clint and Steve were arguing about whether to show The Thomas Crown Affair or Ocean's Eleven.
Tony slid an arm around Pepper's waist, pulling her away from the crowd, and murmured in her ear, "Wanna get laid while the kid's hanging out with his friends?"
She laughed. "It's true, children destroy the romance of every relationship."
"It'll be sexy. I'm pretty sure I have some candles somewhere. Or at least a couple of flashlights. Put on some Led Zep, dance a little..."
"Okay, Tony, you sold me with the Led Zep."
"Works every time," he crowed, pulling her towards the elevator. He caught a glimpse of the others, herding JARVIS into the media room, and Sam threw him a nod -- Steve could still be a kid sometimes, and Clint was basically a kid all the time, but Sam was self-aware enough to keep an eye on JARVIS and make sure he had fun. Natasha dropped him a wink, shocking him, then took JARVIS's arm and steered him gently to sit next to her on the couch.
The popcorn popper fired up just as they hit the elevator, and Tony decided to stop worrying about his wayward AI and focus on his delightful CEO instead.
Tony wasn't sure what woke him, far too early in the morning for decent people to be awake. Possibly it was just one more remnant of his erratic sleep schedule, working its way out of his consciousness; lately he'd been disgustingly regular about getting at least six hours a night, but sometimes old habits still reared their heads. He got up, intending to get some water and maybe do a little work, but as he stepped out into the hallway he noticed JARVIS's door was cracked. He thought he'd heard JARVIS come in, through a half-asleep haze.
His clothes from the day were on the floor, but the bed was neatly made and empty. Frowning, Tony took the elevator down and checked the media room; there was spilled popcorn everywhere, but no sign of JARVIS. He wasn't in the workshop, either.
Not having JARVIS available to help him check on JARVIS was absurd, and annoying.
Finally, Tony nudged open the door to the lab and there he was -- sitting on a stool, arms on a work desk, head pillowed on his arms. One single lamp was on, and there was a tablet clutched loosely in one hand.
Tony tugged on the pad gently, and JARVIS didn't react at all; it slipped out of his fingers and lit up when Tony tapped it to bring it out of sleep mode. So this was what he'd been working on, when he ought to have been integrating code into Jane's program.
After a few minutes of study, his jaw dropped. He scrolled down, trying to confirm his suspicions, and the code kept getting better, more complex, more brilliant in its aim. Not that he expected less from JARVIS, but still...
JARVIS made a soft noise, and his eyes opened; when he saw Tony holding the pad, he sat up, nearly falling off his stool, and reached for it. Tony let him take it. He'd already seen all he needed.
"How long have you been down here?" he asked, as JARVIS hurriedly cleared the pad and locked it. JARVIS looked up at him. "Don't give me that look. That's my look you're copying, I invented it, and it won't sell."
"After the -- " JARVIS cleared his throat, rumbling the sleep out of his voice. "After the movie."
"Were you down here last night too?"
JARVIS cut his eyes sideways, then nodded.
"That's why you were so tired."
"I didn't want to waste working time on it," he said. "It was just an idea."
"Why didn't you tell us?" Tony tapped the edge of the pad. "This is good, JARVIS. This could help us."
"It doesn't work yet," JARVIS said, hands flexing in the sleeves of his pajama shirt. "It was just an idea. I didn't want to waste anyone's time, I just can't -- I can't do two things at once anymore -- I will work on the seed code, I promise -- "
"Hey, no, I'm serious," Tony said. "This could be what we need. And you clearly enjoyed working on it."
"It's not finished."
"No, but if we're developing it along with you, it could be."
"But it might not work," JARVIS said, sounding almost desperate.
"But it might," Tony pointed out.
"I don't want to waste everyone's time, I can do it on my own time."
"JARVIS, like half of what we do at any given moment is waste time. That's how you get the answers, you waste time on the wrong ones until you hit the right one."
"Yes, Sir," JARVIS said, eyes dropping.
"Jesus, don't -- hey, J, come on," Tony said, crouching. "I'm not mad, I'm trying to explain something to you here. I know you hate this, but you can't run yourself down trying to fix it. We've been down that road, right, you and me? Did it work for me?"
"No," JARVIS murmured.
"So take a lesson. We will find Amora and we'll get you back in your building, I swear to you, but that's harder to do if you're working behind us, not with us."
"But I'm not -- " JARVIS blurted, and then bit his lip. And then winced, when he bit too hard.
"Not what?" Tony asked.
"It doesn't matter. I'm sorry, Sir. Just, please, the program's not ready yet."
Tony nodded. "Fair. But it'll be done faster if you let me look it over and help you out."
"You never had to help before," JARVIS muttered rebelliously.
"Yeah, well, I never needed a crutch until that time I broke my leg. Situations change. I'm starting to think Amora did this to you less because she wanted me distracted than because she wanted you humbled," he added with a smile. "It's humiliating, being a human, I know. And Steve says you got pretty lippy with her."
"And I have been justly punished, I suppose?"
"No," Tony said. "I'm an atheist precisely because I don't believe some random punk with magical powers should be allowed to use them indiscriminately on humans, especially since none of them seem to be very consistent about it. You didn't deserve this. But it happened anyway. Come on, it's too late for this. You need real sleep in a real bed, and wow, does that make me feel old."
JARVIS followed him obediently enough, and climbed into bed while Tony watched from the doorway. He rolled over, turning his back to Tony, and Tony accepted the childish dismissal, unwilling to push any further at two in the morning. His bed was calling, and still warm when he crawled back under the blankets, huddling up to Pepper.
"How was he?" she mumbled, with more perception than he'd credit someone only half-awake.
"Sullen. Messed up. I can relate."
"It will be. Go back to sleep, we'll deal with it in the morning."
JARVIS wasn't going to let the previous morning repeat itself; he'd set an alarm on the tablet he'd essentially taken over as his, and when it beeped him awake at 6:30 he blearily tapped it off, staggered into the shower, and woke himself up with a stream of cold water before he allowed himself to turn on the hot. It worked, at least, and by the time he was dressed and printing himself a temporary ID card -- there were perks to having run the entire building's security grid -- he was thoroughly awake.
Mikayla seemed pleased to see him when he arrived at the cafe.
"Hey, sweet-talker," she said. "Stark and Potts order?"
"Please," he said. "On the rent."
"No luck getting the connection back up yet?"
"No," he said, with genuine regret. "I'm afraid I'm not allowed to bring you up to the penthouse again, either."
"Get in trouble with Mr. Stark?"
"Not including you, I hope," she said with a sly look. JARVIS, with what he felt was a great degree of courage, winked at her as he went to the end of the counter to wait for his order.
When she slid the drinks carrier across, there were two coffees in it labeled STARK and POTTS -- and a frosted lemon muffin with JARVIS written on the wrapper. JARVIS glanced up, saw her give him a little wave, and smiled as he carried it out. He mouthed big tip as he passed her.
Ms. Potts was up when he returned, but Sir was not; she accepted her coffee with a smile and said she'd wake Sir so his whipped cream wouldn't melt. JARVIS poured himself a glass of milk, sat at the kitchen bar, and hesitantly ate a small torn-off chunk of muffin. It was good, and he sensed it perhaps tasted a little better than it otherwise would for being a gift.
Sir emerged from the bedroom with a grunt, zeroed in on the coffee, and ignored them both until he'd gotten enough sugar and caffeine into him to wake up a little. JARVIS kept his eyes down, concentrating on shredding the muffin into bite-sized pieces before eating it.
"So," Sir said eventually. "We're gonna go look over what JARVIS came up with to help find Amora. You need me," he said, rising and kissing Ms. Potts' cheek, "yell loud. J?"
JARVIS murmured, "Yes, Sir," and followed him into the elevator quietly. Once the doors had closed, Sir unexpectedly pivoted and pulled JARVIS into a hug, one arm around his waist, the other around his shoulders, hand raised to cup the back of his head. JARVIS stiffened for a second, then exhaled sharply and pressed into it, face in Sir's shoulder.
"I care for you very much," Sir said in his ear. "But if you keep mumbling and moping I'm going to partition you down and make you run shitty flash games."
The threat was so absurd, and so very Sir, that JARVIS laughed in surprise. Sir let him go, grinning.
"Come on, J. We need to find Amora for more than just you, you know. She's a threat to the city."
Dr. Banner had beaten them to the lab, and was already deeply engrossed in the work. Dr. Foster wasn't there yet, but Agent Romanoff was sitting on one of the workbenches, legs swinging, a laptop open on her thighs.
"Just who trained you to hack, anyway?" Sir asked her, as he settled down at one of the stations. "Watching you crack code is like watching a ballerina with two meat cleavers."
"KGB," she replied.
"You were born in 1983."
"The KGB collapsed in 1991," JARVIS pointed out, following Sir's line of reasoning.
She smiled. "Did it?"
Sir gave an expressive shudder. "Sorry I asked."
"KGB, FSK, FSB, the letters change, the bastards stay the same," Agent Romanoff explained. "KGB frightens people more. You say KGB, they get visions of men in black raiding snow-spattered Russian alleyways. You say FSB, they ask, what's FSB? Americans get all their history from Hollywood. Sometimes I like that," she added. "Makes the levers obvious."
"You frighten me," Dr. Banner said.
"Someday, you and I are going to get wasted together, and we'll probably end up conquering the world," Sir added.
"Not anytime soon," Agent Romanoff replied.
"I'll bide my time."
"This is like some terrible stereotype of a hacker collective," Dr. Foster said, walking into the lab. "Two of you are plotting to rule the world, one is barely human -- no offense, JARVIS -- "
"None taken, Dr. Foster, I prefer it that way," JARVIS replied.
"And one of you is really only concerned with ecoterrorism," she finished, patting Bruce on his head as she passed.
"Being fair, I don't like ecoterrorism," Bruce said. "Hulk doesn't always give me a choice."
"Smash puny industrial plants!" Sir roared. "Hulk destroy the capitalist paradigm of disposable goods!"
"Funny, Tony," Dr. Banner drawled.
"What is this?" Dr. Foster asked suddenly, pointing at her screen. Agent Romanoff looked at hers, frowning.
"JARVIS," Sir said.
"I called it Project Thaumatrope," JARVIS said, feeling unaccountably embarrassed. This was much harder when people could look at you. "It's looking for...well, for what's not there."
"You think she cloaked herself," Dr. Banner said, scrolling through the code. "She's deliberately hiding, so we look for where Asgardian energy should be and isn't."
"Shouldn't be hard, given Thor's been touristing everywhere," Dr. Foster said.
"Conspicuous absence. Negative space." Agent Romanoff nodded. "Very artistic of you, JARVIS."
"I have spent considerable time processing Sir's art collection," JARVIS said. Dr. Foster laughed.
"This could work. It's rough -- how long have you been working on it?"
"Two nights running," Sir said, disapproval in his voice.
"Well, with five of us on it, shouldn't take that long to get it functional. Get back on that seed code," Dr. Foster said, "and see if you can plug the two together. Scan the entire city -- Tony?"
"Satellites'll be in a good position to bounce a signal three pm today or ten am tomorrow," Sir said.
"I love a deadline," Dr. Foster replied, and cracked her knuckles. "JARVIS, take the wheel."
They didn't make it in time for the 3pm pass -- the seed code, the source of JARVIS, was as uppity as its eventual result, and didn't play well even with code JARVIS had personally written. By the time they had it crawling, it was four o'clock; by the time it was running properly, night had fallen, and there was nothing to be done until the following morning.
Tony, eyes itching from too long in front of the screen, dragged Jane and Natasha to the penthouse bar and made cocktails. Bruce collapsed on the couch nearby and fell asleep. JARVIS, uninterested in alcohol after a hesitant sip produced the funniest face Tony had ever seen, drifted over to the windows, looking out at Manhattan. The north side, where he was looking, was still being rebuilt after the Chitauri, but all the lights were on and the streets were clear of rubble, full of cars.
"About the same view as you'd get from the security camera," Tony said, joining him at the window. JARVIS had one hand hovering over the glass, but not touching. He had his gloves on again.
"Fourteen degrees lower, actually," JARVIS said.
"I was being -- " Tony started, then stopped. JARVIS was faintly smiling. "You little shit."
"Trolling is a part of my code by now, I'm afraid." JARVIS hadn't looked away from the window. "It looks different from the map applications. But I think I did all right, didn't I?"
"Did all right?" Tony asked, looking more at the reflection of them in the glass than at the city below.
"With the Tower design. It still looks fine, among the other buildings." He touched the glass lightly. "We don't do small, Sir. It's a heavy thing, to change the skyline of a city. And I just did it like it was nothing."
"Well, everyone's arrogant when they're young," Tony said. "If we're lucky, it sticks around until we get old and unstoppable."
"Hm." JARVIS looked down, past the skyline to the street. "I wish I could go outside."
"Technically, there's nothing stopping you," Tony said, with a feeling akin to the self-destructive doom he'd felt when he was dying. "You could go outside."
"Does anyone think that's a wise idea, Sir?"
"Since when have I given a damn for wise ideas?"
"Point," JARVIS replied. "Do you think I'd be all right?"
"I was all right in the lobby." JARVIS looked thoughtful. Then he looked over at Tony. "Would you come with me?"
The smell of outside was alarming.
JARVIS wrinkled his nose. "What is that?"
"Manhattan," Sir said, inhaling joyously. "That is the smell of Manhattan."
Sir laughed. "JARVIS, such a tourist. You go somewhere new and complain about the smell."
JARVIS peered around -- at the pools of light flung by the streetlamps, the cars prowling along the streets, the people leaving work or going to bars. He was getting better at this, at letting it flow past him rather than into him. And he'd been outside, in a theoretical sense, in the Iron Man suit with Sir. This was just so much more. Smells, and noise, and the pavement rumbling underneath him when a bus rolled past.
Sir led him north, slow enough for him to stop and peer into windows or study signs when he pleased; he knew Sir didn't particularly enjoy moving slow, so he tried to keep the pace up, but there was so much to see. He'd only just become accustomed to the smell when it gave way to something different, more pleasant, damper somehow.
"It's Central Park," Sir said, pointing to the trees rising nearby. "There's a cafe around here Steve likes -- there's a cute waitress and you can see Stark Tower pretty clearly."
JARVIS followed, down a side street and across an intersection, and then let Sir pilot him towards a couple of outdoor tables clustered around a storefront with a boarded over window. It had WE ARE OPEN spray-painted on it, and the Stark Tower "A" below that.
He'd seen newsfeed articles about the phenomenon of the A. It marked buildings that had been damaged in the Chitauri attack but were still open for use. Most prominently, of course, it marked Stark Tower, which still only had the A lit up. It was a brand of defiance, a proudly-worn black eye that said we won; Sir did, after all, tend to illuminate his scars, the worst most brightly. But it was far and away beyond Sir, now.
After all, here was this little cafe in the middle of the city, still waiting to have its glass replaced (glass and installers were at a premium at the moment), marked just as proudly as Stark Tower. Because you could wear the A, but the city owned the A.
He felt oddly like crying, then swallowed it quickly. Sir was steering him into a chair on their little patio.
"There," he said, as JARVIS sat. He flung himself down into a chair on the opposite side, turning himself a little so that they could both see the Tower. "Yeah, I think it looks sexy."
Stark Tower angled its way out of the skyline, the eighty-degree thrust of the top floors popping out amid the dark, square buildings surrounding it. Just that much more color, just that much more style than its neighbors, but you didn't notice that, not unless you really looked. The A was lit, as was the ridge of the outer curve, and the crossbar cast a dark shadow over it. JARVIS suddenly and completely understood both the concept of a religious experience and the idea of narcissism. That was his building; that was him. He had designed it and Sir and Ms. Potts had built it and the only thing as wonderful as being in the building was looking at it from here, lit up in the dark like a beacon.
He felt small and fragile, and he was definitely going to cry and embarrass himself in front of Sir, but then a waiter wandered up and asked what they wanted.
Then Sir tried to order a viennois.
The resulting ten minutes of arguing before Sir stormed inside and tried to make one himself were very amusing. It eventually culminated in Sir being asked to leave until he could remain on the customer side of the counter, and JARVIS gently grasping Sir's jacket, leading him out before he bought the place or something equally attention-demanding.
"I've never been thrown out of a cafe before," JARVIS remarked, as they walked back towards the Tower. If he didn't look at it, he was okay.
"I have," Sir said, still sulking.
"Yes, I know, on five separate occasions, not including just now."
"Well, I'm glad I could provide an experience for you," Sir said.
"I am a learning program," JARVIS agreed.
"Don't think I'm not beginning to regret that," Sir said, and JARVIS knew he was joking, but it still stung a little. After all, Sir had done essentially nothing the last few days but look after him and try to find Amora so they could put him back where he belonged.
Sir was opening his mouth to say something else, probably related to JARVIS's regrettable tendency to learn the wrong things, when JARVIS saw movement out of the corner of his eye, too fast to be an ordinary person on the street and too shadowed to be someone up to anything good. There was no-one else on the street, at least not close enough to be visible; some parts of Midtown did tend to roll up the sidewalks once the business of the day was done.
"I believe there might be a mugger there, Sir," he said in a low voice, nodding in the direction the movement had come from.
"Nobody gets mugged in Manhattan anymore, J," Sir said loudly, a little too loudly.
"Perhaps you're right," JARVIS replied, just as loud.
"Don't overdo it," Sir hissed. JARVIS rolled his eyes.
The next second, Sir had shoved him against a wall, putting himself between JARVIS and the street, and turned, arm out in an Iron Man defensive posture. His bracelet jerked against his wrist and then expanded, wires and plates tangling around his hand, forming what JARVIS knew was a temporary repulsor on his palm. They'd worked on the design together. The repulsor whined softly as it warmed up.
"Oh, Iron Man," said a voice, and JARVIS shuddered. "Really? That little trinket?"
"Try me," Sir snarled, clearly trying to locate the source of the voice. The street was empty, storefronts dark.
"I would, but it's just so sad," Amora said, emerging from the shadows. She was at once less and more intimidating than last time; she didn't have the flowing green dress, but the jogging outfit she wore (also in green) was only ridiculous until JARVIS realized it meant she'd seamlessly integrated herself into Manhattan, and that she had capable resources.
Sir fired at her as soon as she was visible, but she brushed it aside with one hand. "Well, don't you two make a pretty pair."
Sir fired again.
"Really, Iron Man, you are the definition of futility."
"I'll stop shooting if you put him back," Sir said.
"Now why would I do that?" she asked, batting away another blast from the repulsor. JARVIS concentrated on breathing.
"What is it you want?" Sir asked. "Why are you here? Nobody wants you here."
"Now, there you're mistaken," she said. "Nobody here wants me here. Not quite the same thing."
Lights flashed along the landing pad, high up on Stark Tower. Amora couldn't see them. JARVIS did. That was the thing about the emergency repulsor -- it also set off alarms at the Tower. Sir liked being a cowboy, but he loved double redundancies.
"So someone on Asgard sent you? How's it feel, being the errand girl to Midgard? Do you do coffee runs, too?" Sir asked. A shadow crossed her face. JARVIS, through a haze of fear and panic, thought Sir's barb had probably hit home. Sir was very good at finding the soft spots on people.
"You think I care what a Midgardian thinks of me?" she demanded.
"Oh, baby, do I," Sir said with a grin. "Hey, do you know Dr. Jane Foster? I hear she saved Asgard's ass last year while you were dicking around composing eddas or something."
She shrieked, and Sir fired again; this time the blast hit. It didn't seem to do much damage, but it knocked her back a few feet.
"I'll kill you and your scrawny, unnatural spawn," she hissed.
"Get in line," Sir replied. "Tell me what you want and I might not humiliate you."
"As if you'd know what to do with it if you had it. A hundred years under your noses and you have no idea -- "
Then Captain Rogers's shield hit her in the back of the head.
JARVIS almost laughed; the split-second look of surprise on her face was painfully humorous. The shield made a high, ringing noise and rebounded backwards as she tumbled off her feet. Captain Rogers, leaning out the side hatch of the jet, leapt straight down to catch it and landed a few feet away. She was on her hands and knees, but she wasn't out, and when she looked up to see Captain Rogers standing there with the shield, she snarled wordlessly and snapped upright. Sir tensed; Captain Rogers drew back with his shield arm; guns fixed on her from the hovering jet --
And she vanished.
"Dammit!" Sir yelled into the confused silence, dropping his arm. "I hate it when they do that! It's like these assholes don't think they should have to obey physics when everyone else does!"
He let JARVIS go and jogged forward, to the smoking scorch mark where she'd been, kicking angrily at the sidewalk.
JARVIS, knees suddenly disobedient, slid down the wall and sat hard, legs up against his chest, throat tight. Human bodies were so frail and Sir had just thrown himself in front of him with absolutely no thought for what JARVIS would do, what Ms. Potts would do, if -- if --
"JARVIS," said a voice, and JARVIS realized his vision was tunnelling, his chest constricting painfully. He couldn't breathe, and for a moment he didn't want to, wanted to be back in the Tower, blissfully unaware of what it was like to breathe or sleep or have to touch things.
"JARVIS, focus on me," the voice ordered, and JARVIS felt his breath whistle in his throat. Someone took one of his arms by the wrist, pressing the back of his hand to their chest; he could feel the steady inhale-exhale.
"Breathe with me," Captain Rogers ordered. "You can do this. I know it's frightening. Just breathe. Tony and Sam are here, they won't let anything happen."
He tried, but the body was finally betraying him, he could feel it, and he curled tighter into his knees, free hand coming up to tangle in his own hair.
"JARVIS, you gotta stay with me and breathe or Sam's gonna have to sedate you," Captain Rogers said. "We're exposed, here. We have to get you back to the Tower."
Yes -- the Tower -- he did want to go to the Tower. He swallowed down something vile and panicky-tasting in his mouth, forcing his chest out into a breath, and then another.
"That's it. Clint's in the jet, he's going to take you home," Captain Rogers said, visibly counting his breaths when JARVIS lifted his head. "Couple more, okay? Can you stand?"
JARVIS nodded unsteadily, and Captain Rogers rose out of his crouch, pulling him to his feet carefully. The world spun a little, but then Sergeant Wilson was there, holding him steady.
"Sir?" JARVIS managed. Sir was pale, not much better looking than JARVIS felt, and when Sergeant Wilson helped him into the jet, Sir climbed in after, seating himself on the bench next to JARVIS.
"It's okay, I'm sorry," Sir said into his hair, pulling him over to rest against his shoulder. "That shouldn't have happened. We should have thought this through."
"The alarms worked," JARVIS said. Sir nodded.
"Tony?" Captain Rogers asked, leaning into the jet. "You want Sam with JARVIS?"
"I can stay with Cap," Agent Romanoff offered from the gunner's seat.
"Where the fuck's Thor?" Sir asked.
"Back at the Tower, in case it was a diversion," Captain Rogers replied.
"Oh. That -- makes sense," Sir answered, a little righteous anger deflating, and JARVIS struggled not to laugh. If he started he might not stop. "Okay. Natasha and Cap, stay here, do what you can. Clint?"
"Soon as you say the word," Agent Barton said.
"Sam, with us."
"You got it," Sergeant Wilson said, shedding his rig and sitting on the other side of JARVIS. "JARVIS, can I have your arm, please?"
JARVIS nodded against Sir's shoulder, and he felt Sergeant Wilson take his wrist, measuring his pulse. The hatch closed, Captain Rogers thumped the outside to show they were clear, and Agent Barton lifted off.
"Just gonna do a little checking, make sure nothing's wrong," Sergeant Wilson said. "JARVIS, where are you?"
"The jet," JARVIS replied. "On the way to the Tower."
"Who's the president?"
"The Honorable Barack Obama."
He heard Sam's amusement at the full title. "Good. Who am I?"
"And what have I asked you about a million times to call me but you still won't?"
JARVIS turned his face further into Sir's shoulder. "Sam," he mumbled.
Sergeant Wilson let go of his wrist, patting him on the shoulder. "I think you're fine."
Sir heaved a breath, and JARVIS felt the pulse in his neck slow against his cheek.
"Do I need to look you over too, Stark?" Sergeant Wilson asked.
"I'm fine," Sir said. "She didn't touch us."
JARVIS saw Sergeant Wilson extend his hand, and Sir reluctantly offer the hand with the repulsor still on it. His skin was red where the bracelet dug into the base of his hand, but JARVIS couldn't see any other damage until Sergeant Wilson deftly disassembled the mechanism, tugging on wires so that Sir could shake the repulsor free of his palm.
"I warned you about insulation, Sir," JARVIS said, as Sergeant Wilson studied the mild burn on his palm.
"And I told you, if we insulate I have to make the bracelet bigger and I'm gonna look like an idiot," Sir replied.
"Yes, fashion first, Sir, what was I thinking."
He heard Sergeant Wilson bark a laugh. "Yeah. You two are ok. You want me to put the bandage on or you want to do it yourself?"
"I can," JARVIS said, pulling away from Sir's arm, lifting his head. They both looked at him. "I've researched first aid extensively."
Sir laid his hand palm-up on JARVIS's leg, glancing at Sergeant Wilson. After a second of hesitation, he opened the medical kit and handed JARVIS a packet of burn cream and a roll of gauze.
The burn cream was unpleasant, greasy and cold, but Sir seemed relieved when it was on. JARVIS set the little packet aside and picked up the gauze, wrapping thin strips around Sir's hand and between his fingers carefully.
"Deft," Sir said, when he was done. He flexed his hand. "Feels okay."
"Landing," Agent Barton called from the front, and JARVIS felt Sir put an arm around his shoulders to brace him. They hardly needed it; Agent Barton was good at the controls, and there was only a slight bump as they put down.
Ms. Potts was waiting for them, looking anxious, and when she saw Sir she hurried forward. He caught her around the waist, kissed her cheek, and leaned into her, speaking softly. JARVIS hung back. He was used to this, to seeing Sir and Ms. Potts touch and reassure one another, but it was different, standing on a platform and watching, instead of just passively noticing it through his cameras. After a second, Ms. Potts disengaged and came over to him, hugging him as well. JARVIS leaned into it, confused but pleased.
"No more going outside, ever," she said, cupping his face.
"Well, I don't prefer it," he pointed out.
She smiled, patted one cheek, and let him go. "We'd both be lost without you, you know."
Not like this, he wanted to say. Most of me is missing, and you're doing fine.
But instead he smiled, and said, "It's cold out. Let's go inside, and Sir can exaggerate his heroism."
Tony wanted a drink, and Sam said he did too, so while Pepper settled in on the couch with JARVIS and Clint went to find Thor and Bruce, they headed for the kitchen. Sam, as expected, wanted to talk away from JARVIS.
"He seems prickly," he said, as Tony took down glasses from the cupboard. "But I want to keep an eye on him tonight. Keep him warm, keep him awake for a little while. He doesn't seem concussed, but..."
"Well, attention never hurt anyone, least of all one of us," Tony said with a grin. "And it's not like it's hard."
"He's likeable," Sam agreed.
"Then what explains you?"
Tony clutched his chest with his bandaged hand. "I'm a wounded man, be nice to me."
"Someone has to keep you real."
"You planning to sit up with us?" Tony asked.
"Sure. Least till Cap and Tasha get home."
Pepper was a mind-reader, which Tony had long known but which he often underappreciated. By the time he and Sam returned with drinks, she and JARVIS were curled up together under a blanket. Bruce was in one of the wing chairs; Clint was perched on the back of it, legs hanging down on either side of Bruce's shoulders, looking perfectly at ease.
"Thor says he's going to keep patrolling for a while," Clint said. "I think he's annoyed she got the jump on you."
"Him and me both. Ginger ale," Tony said to JARVIS, passing him a glass. "Drink. It's...healthful," he said vaguely.
JARVIS smiled, a sign he probably knew Tony was faking his way through this, but he took it and sipped. Tony handed Pepper a G&T, then settled on her other side, arm going over her shoulders so he could hold her and still rest his uninjured palm on JARVIS's head. Sam dropped into one of the other wing chairs and stretched his legs out, twisting his shoulders.
There was silence for a few minutes, as everyone relaxed and sipped their drinks. Tony was in the middle of a swallow of scotch when JARVIS said, "Sir got us thrown out of a cafe. He tried to take over for the barista."
Pepper started to laugh, and Clint and Bruce broke next. Tony tightened his hand in JARVIS's hair, a gentle scold, then joined in the laughter at the same time Sam did.
Even at a distance, he felt JARVIS heave a sigh, and hoped it was a satisfied one.
Cap and Natasha got back to the Tower about an hour later. JARVIS was asleep, face mashed into Pepper's shoulder, and Pepper was nodding off too. Sam and Bruce had called up some project they were working on together, a series of proposed Avengers PSAs or something -- Tony was sure eventually it would mean him in a suit, getting photographed for a good cause -- and were speaking quietly about it. Clint had both arms resting on Bruce's head as he leaned forward to read over their shoulders.
"Any luck?" Sam asked, and Steve shook his head. "Straight-up vanished, huh?"
"I am getting tired of her," Natasha announced.
"Well, come ten o'clock tomorrow, we should be able to lock on," Tony said. "Line forms after me for face-punching."
"Do we have a plan for what happens when we do find her?" Bruce asked, as Clint leaned back, freeing his head.
"She wants something," Tony said. The others looked at him. "Someone sent her here -- she's after a...thing. She let it slip while she was trying to scare us."
"A hundred years under our noses," JARVIS said. Tony glanced at him; he was blinking sleepily around the room. "She said, a hundred years under our noses. Whatever it was. It's been here a while."
Thor and Steve exchanged a look. Tony raised an eyebrow at Thor, who tended to crack easier than Steve.
"Word from my companions in Asgard," Thor said carefully, "is that there was a recent incident."
"An incident," Tony said.
"The Tesseract, the Aether," Thor said. "Loki's staff. They are three of six elemental objects. Recently, there was an incident with another."
"From well before Asgard. No one understands their origins, few understand their functions. Fewer still can wield them," Thor said.
"You knew about this," Tony said to Steve.
"Thor and I discussed it, after London. Because I had experience with the Tesseract, Tony, no other reason."
"You didn't see fit to share with the class?" Tony asked Thor, annoyed.
"Asgardian belief says to discuss the gems openly is...unwise," Thor continued.
"The Infinity Gems," Thor said. He did seem nervous, Tony thought, which was a new look on Thor. "Six gems from before the time of the universe. We know where four of the six are. Generally speaking," he added. "But the fact that we know of four of them is disquieting. They seem to be revealing themselves. Four of them in the past hundred years -- three of those in the past five years -- after centuries of silence, centuries hidden. One on Earth, one brought to Earth by Loki, two more that have come into contact with Midgardians...."
"What do they do?" Bruce asked.
"They control aspects of this universe. Space, elemental power, reality itself, the minds of men..." Thor shrugged. "I'm not a scholar of the Gems. I haven't been able to contact anyone on Asgard who is. But if Amora is on Midgard searching for something, it may be the fifth gem."
"Which controls...?" Tony prompted.
"Time. Or...the soul."
"The soul," Clint said skeptically.
"The souls of the living. And the dead. Which would be far worse than any other," Thor said. "If one or the other is in Manhattan, we should ignore Amora and try to secure the gem directly."
"How would we even know?" Sam asked.
"Not our first hunt for a magical macguffin," Tony said, increasingly irritated. "I'd like to just register for the record that I have had it about up to here, Thor, with Asgard dicking Midgard around."
"This goes beyond Asgard," Thor said. He looked honestly worried now. "We know of the Gems; we didn't create them. They are dangerous. They herald disaster."
"Peachy," Bruce put in. "So happy to be a Midgardian right now."
"So we need to beat her to whatever she wants," Tony said. "No pressure."
"If she knew where it was, she would have taken it by now," Thor said. "Though if you can find her, as you say, she may lead you nearer to it."
"A hundred years ago was 1914," Steve said thoughtfully.
"Even you weren't born yet," Sam said. Steve frowned.
"So we're looking for something that popped up in New York around 1914," he said. "Thor, is that...pretty much what we have to go on?"
"Our knowledge of the Gems is not extensive," Thor said. "I am sorry."
"Do we draw straws for who digs around in the digital newspaper archives until they find it?" Bruce asked.
"No, I'll do it," Steve sighed. "I know where to look."
"Not tonight," Sam said, rising from his chair. "As the voice of reason, I'm telling everyone to get some rest."
Tony saw JARVIS look to Steve, and Steve mouth behind Sam's back, I'm on it. In a way, it was reassuring; Steve was being very Steve, and JARVIS looked a little calmer, knowing that everything that could be done was.
"Come on," he said, shaking Pepper awake gently. "Time to lock JARVIS in his room so he doesn't sneak down to the lab."
JARVIS narrowed his eyes. "I will remember this, Sir, the next time you wish to work past midnight."
"Boys, don't fight, you can both self-destruct once all this is over," Pepper said, and gave Tony a gentle push down the hall.
JARVIS was getting out of the shower the next morning, contemplating a coffee run -- it was Friday, and Mikayla didn't work Fridays, which meant it would be less interesting and he would probably not get a free muffin -- when Sir burst into the room with a razor.
JARVIS yelped, stumbled backwards, and grabbed the toothpaste tube off the sink as the first defensive weapon he could lay hands on. Sir stared at him, lips twitching.
"I never realized how -- how you you are until I was forced to deal with you in person," JARVIS said, setting the tube down.
"You look like a hobo," Sir said.
"Well, then I take after the finest," JARVIS replied.
"Snotty! So snotty. Come here," Sir ordered.
"Why?" JARVIS asked suspiciously.
"You need a shave."
"Just get your pale, high-strung ass over here," Sir ordered, stopping up the sink and turning the hot water on. JARVIS hesitantly obeyed. Sir put the razor in his hand, and held out a can of shaving foam. "You're gonna do this yourself. I will help if you need it. You want a goatee, or would that be creepy?"
"I think a clean sweep would probably be best, don't you, Sir?" JARVIS said. Sir gestured to the can.
JARVIS was carefully silent as he worked, calling up memories of security camera footage of Sir shaving, not to mention the others -- Captain Rogers (who shaved with a straight razor), Dr. Banner (who didn't shave that often), the other Avengers, certain occupants of the building's office space who worked long hours. All of it had gone eventually into the archive of irrelevant footage, to be deleted after a year like all the mundane moments in the lives of the building's occupants and staff. It hadn't exactly seemed important at the time.
"I think kids learn by watching their dads," Sir said, as if he knew what JARVIS was thinking. "I mean, those who have them, anyway. It's how I learned, more or less. Jarvis -- the original, your namesake -- would feed me in the kitchen and then bring breakfast up to my folks. I got to come up with breakfast and sit on the bed if I was quiet, watch them get ready for the day. I remember focusing really closely on Howard shaving. The mechanics of it fascinated me."
JARVIS shook the razor in the basin of water, examining his mostly-smooth face. There was a rough patch on his cheek, and a nick on his chin, but other than that, he thought it was all right. He swiped at the rough patch with the razor, cautiously.
"He never hurried," Sir said. "I mean. In business, all the time. We're not slow movers. But in the morning he was...deliberate. It was a ritual. Rising, washing, breakfast, requisite two minutes of interaction with son..." he gave JARVIS a lopsided smile. "Shaving. And then the day began. I think that was what I missed most when I started boarding school."
JARVIS splashed water on his face to loosen a few dried patches of shaving cream, then wiped his face with a towel. He wasn't sure how to respond to the remark; Sir didn't often speak of his father, at least not in private. He settled for, "Presentable, Sir?"
It was apparently the right thing to say. Sir's smile evened out. "Yeah. You look fine. I'm going to go warm up the lab. Get dressed and I'll see you there."
When ten o'clock rolled around -- actually 9:52 -- it was pretty anticlimactic. JARVIS set the program running, they scanned using Stark satellites, a map popped up on the screen, and the scan results blared NO ENERGY FOUND.
It was what they'd hoped for; they were, after all, looking for an absence. The map pinpointed three distinct locations -- two nearly outside of the city, where Thor's presence would probably not register, and a third in the heart of Manhattan.
"There she is," Sir said. "Gotta be her. Park 79 Hotel. Huh."
"Should we suit up?" Captain Rogers asked.
"We'll get signal for about twenty-two minutes. Let's see where she goes," Sir said. "Worst case, we ping her again this afternoon." He rubbed his goatee thoughtfully. "The hell is she doing there?"
They all watched for a few minutes, during which JARVIS fought not to laugh; the Avengers watching a computer monitor, waiting for the villain to finish their breakfast (or wake up, he supposed) was oddly absurd. Then, when she finally did begin to move, it was perplexing. She crossed the street, heading for Central Park; she lingered for a few minutes on the sidewalk, as if considering something; finally, the little red flag that marked "absence of energy" moved straight into the Museum of Natural History. And began doing slow, leisurely, absolutely unmistakable laps.
"Is she fucking with us?" Sergeant Wilson asked. "Does she know somehow? She's fucking with us, isn't she?"
"Clint knows what she's doing," Agent Romanoff said. Agent Barton was making a face, the face he made when he wanted to speak up but wasn't sure he was right.
Captain Rogers turned to him. "Clint?"
"She's casing the joint," Agent Barton said. Sir's eyebrows popped up, questioning. "She's checking security. Looking for cameras, watching for staff shifts. Probably not the first time. She's looking for ways in and out. Huh."
"Huh?" Sir echoed.
"Well, if it was me, I'd just smash and grab."
"Cased the Museum of Natural History, have you?" Captain Rogers asked.
"Sure. I got a lot of spare time on my hands," Agent Barton said.
"What? It's good practice," Agent Barton replied unrepentantly. "You're missing the point, Cap."
"Enlighten me," Captain Rogers said, crossing his arms.
"Clearly whatever she's looking for is in the Museum. And clearly she's discarded the smash-and-grab for whatever reason."
Prince Thor made a rumbling noise deep in his chest, disapproving. "I may know the reason."
"Well, put a pin in it for a second," Agent Barton suggested. "My point is, I've cased the Museum, so I know how she's likely to get in. We can ambush her."
"Surrounded by priceless artifacts and specimens," Captain Rogers reminded them.
"Fine, we ambush her when she gets out."
"She teleports," Sir pointed out.
"Tony has a point. What's to keep her from just teleporting in and out again?" Dr. Foster asked.
"Oh man, if I could teleport..." Agent Barton trailed off when Captain Rogers scowled at him.
Prince Thor cleared his throat. It was not unlike a crash of thunder (JARVIS had done the soundwave comparisons once, on a whim).
"There are legends surrounding the Gems," he said. "Some cannot be taken by force. Some must be. It is possible -- nay, likely -- that this Gem, whatever it may be, must be stolen. Power requires risk. Sacrifice. If she could simply sweep it off a pedestal and fly away, what would she have risked for it? So, it would not work. Where do these specimens come from? Were they stolen to begin with?"
Everyone looked uncomfortable.
"Well, museums sometimes..." Sir said, and then stopped. JARVIS frowned.
"Occasionally, artifacts are looted by colonialist interlopers who do not believe removing them from their cultural milieu is inappropriate," JARVIS said. "It's more common with art, but not uncommon in pre-millennial anthropology."
"So...yes," Thor said, into the embarrassed silence that followed.
"In my time they were considered spoils of war," Captain Rogers said. Sam looked at him, shocked. "I didn't say I liked it, that's just how some people saw it. I made sure my men knew I disapproved," he added defensively.
"The Museum's catalogue is online," Agent Romanoff said. She glanced at Dr. Banner. "Race you, doc."
Dr. Banner grinned back and dove into the database with her, while Sir and the others returned their attention to the screen. Amora did another few serene laps, circled the gift shop once or twice, and was making her way towards the exit when she suddenly vanished from the screen.
"Satellites are out of range," Sir said. "We've got about six hours until we can try again. Bruce, Natasha, you have anything?"
"Three rocks and a stuffed bird," Dr. Banner said.
"The same stuffed bird, a meteorite -- "
" -- that's one of my rocks -- "
" -- smartass," Agent Romanoff interrupted herself to say, "a dinosaur egg, and a necklace."
"Let me see," Prince Thor said, nudging Dr. Banner out of the way. He examined Dr. Banner's results, then Agent Romanoff's.
"Probably the meteorite, right?" Dr. Foster suggested. "I mean, it crashed to Earth and all."
"Jane, come see," Prince Thor requested. "You were the vessel of a Gem, you may have an affinity."
"That's not creepy," Dr. Foster sighed, joining him at the monitors. She studied each image in turn. JARVIS leaned over Agent Romanoff's shoulder to study them as well.
"I realize I may not be an expert in these matters, but I believe that is an extraordinarily ugly necklace," he said. "Additionally, why do we have a necklace in a Natural History museum?"
"Hall of Gems," Agent Romanoff replied, reaching behind her to pat him on the cheek. "And you aren't wrong, it's very ugly."
"I dunno, I kind of like it," Dr. Foster said, tilting her head. "Is that a sign it's, you know, a Gem, not just a gem?"
"My money'd be on the meteorite, the necklace, or the dinosaur egg," Agent Barton said. "Specially if it's the time travel one. Dinosaurs, time travel..."
"I'm sorry, I don't feel a particular connection to any of it," Dr. Foster sighed, as Sir took out his phone. "Who're you calling, Tony?"
"Stark Foundation," Sir said, and then said into the phone, "Bernice! Hi, it's Tony. No, I'm good, you? Good. Listen, weird question, what was our giving to Natural History last year?" There was a pause, and then he frowned. "That's larger than usual...ohhh. No, no, that's absolutely right. What?" Sir asked, and then pinched the bridge of his nose, laughing. "Okay, no, that's fine. Same again next year. Well, I don't know, tell them to name a dinosaur after us or something. Listen, does that get me any perks? Seriously? No, that's great. Yes. Text me his number. Awesome." He hung up, tapping his phone against his lips.
"What was that about?" Captain Rogers asked.
"Sir's foundation is a major donor to the Museum," JARVIS said. "I believe you are a trustee, sir?"
"You knew this?" Sir asked. "Because I've only just been informed."
"As I understand it, your duties are largely financial," JARVIS replied.
"Last year's donation covered the cost of a new wing being added to house the collection of Chitauri specimens and artefacts they received," Sir said to the others. "Apparently the papers nicknamed it the Stark Museum of Unnatural History, which is good for publicity. So I'm in good standing with them right now. I'm going to get the director on the phone and let him know what's going on, get us in there this evening."
"Priceless specimens," Captain Rogers reminded him.
"Thor," Agent Romanoff said, "surely there's some kind of mythical net we can catch her in."
"Or like, a hat that makes her powerless when she puts it on," Agent Barton said.
"Why a hat?" Prince Thor asked.
"I dunno, that seem suitably epic," Agent Barton replied.
"I'd take a prison hat if it were on offer," Sergeant Wilson agreed.
"We still have to rig the trap," Dr. Banner said. "The gem and the meteorite are in different halls, and the dinosaur egg's three floors up."
"You're the strategist, Cap," Agent Romanoff said. Captain Rogers looked pensive.
"We don't know she's going to move tonight. She might try for JARVIS again; she's clearly got something against the pair of you," he said to Sir. "You, Clint, and Thor with me, let's work on some contingency plans. Jane, Bruce, I want you to go to the museum, see what you can find out regarding those specimens. Sam, go with them -- "
"Bodyguard duty," Sergeant Wilson said. "Scientist shepherd. On it."
"Try not to blow up the museum, guys," Captain Rogers said drily. "Natasha, you're with JARVIS. Sorry, it's not going to be very interesting to be you for the next few hours," the Captain said to them. Natasha shrugged; JARVIS copied it.
"I've had enough excitement for now, I think," JARVIS said. "Agent Romanoff, would you like to play a game?"
Captain Rogers snorted. Agent Romanoff raised an eyebrow. Then she glanced at Captain Rogers, who made a 'who, me?' face.
As an artificial intelligence, JARVIS did not enjoy chess; he found it stereotypical for a computer to engage in it, and generally refused unless Dr. Banner was the one asking. He and Sir had occasionally played Arimaa, but it wasn't his first choice. There were various board games Sir had played with him when he was a much younger program, to improve his risk-reward assessment and his random number generator -- Monopoly was their favorite -- but JARVIS, with the self-assurance of an adolescent at least, thought they were for children.
They finally settled back on the video game he'd been playing with Thor earlier, the puzzle game with the robots. Agent Romanoff seemed amused.
"Does this bore you?" JARVIS asked, manipulating his little robot down a ramp.
"No. It encourages lateral thinking," Agent Romanoff said. "Besides, listening to you swear is a new experience."
"That was just once," JARVIS replied, face heating.
"Once is enough. I mean, I expect it from Tony, but you've got his face and your accent, it's new. Weird. Nice, though," she added.
"I don't care for it."
"You don't care for being human. It wouldn't matter what face you had."
"True," he conceded. "I feel as though I should be helping Sir. I'm unused to being unable to see him at any time. Even when he leaves the Tower without the suit, he generally has the bracelets. And his phone."
"Can I ask you a personally invasive question?"
"Do you know how many times I've seen you naked, Agent Romanoff?"
She laughed. "Okay. In theory, as a program, you could go anywhere. You're self-aware, so you're not constrained by programming to serve Tony Stark. As far as I can tell, you don't get paid. Though I suppose you don't have any need to spend money, either."
"You want to know why I continue to serve Sir when he is a demanding, arrogant, self-destructive ass," JARVIS said.
"Not in so many words, but yes."
JARVIS nodded. "I actually cannot relocate the servers that run my program without strenuous effort, but Sir would relocate me should I request it. If I asked to leave his service, Sir would oblige."
"So why do you stay?"
"I enjoy the work. I was designed for it, so it gives me pleasure. I prefer to be at the far edge of progress. And I love him," he added. Her eyes widened fractionally. "He created me, for which I owe him certain loyalties, but those could be discharged. He built me Stark Tower, but Sir's gifts are on a scale with his wealth -- he would not believe I owed him for that, especially since he gets good use from it, so I do not consider that a debt. Thus I can only conclude that what remains -- which is a great deal -- is love," he finished.
"That's very blunt," she said.
"I have no real reason to mince words," he replied. "I may be useless, like this; I may not even be necessary in my true form, considering he seems to survive without a constantly hovering AI fairly well. It is...humbling, to be sure, which I suspect Amora intended. But I can't help it, you see."
Agent Romanoff paused the game, turning to him. "You think you're useless?"
"It is in my nature to spot patterns. This morning alone, Sir nearly asked me to do something I can no longer do fourteen times. I cannot run the building as I used to. Even if I had the control I did formerly, a human brain cannot process the information at necessary speeds. But...of those fourteen times, Sir has found workarounds for each. And the building regulates itself. So I find myself superfluous; pleasant but not necessary, and at the moment more of a hindrance than a help. And you, as a resource, are wasted, guarding me."
He was proud that his voice didn't waver; he was gaining more control over the body, though there was still some ways to go. Hopefully unnecessary, but he was beginning to brace for the worst.
"You wrote the program to find Amora," she said.
"And I am glad to be of service," he replied evenly.
"Have you talked to Tony about this?"
He shook his head. "What is there to say?"
"But you told me."
"Well, you did ask."
Agent Romanoff was not a physical person much of the time, but she seemed to like to touch him; he tolerated it, even enjoyed it sometimes, but this time when she lifted her hand to his head he flinched back. Her fingers curled in on her palm, and she pulled her hand away. She was much too well trained to show any emotion at the brief rejection.
"I don't have much experience of family," she said. "But I do have a lot of experience with the idea that you only get what you want, or what you need, if you're useful to someone. Even with SHIELD, for a while, my existence was conditional on my obedience and my utility."
"So you understand."
"I know a little more now than I knew then," she told him. "And I know I don't need to be useful to Clint -- or to Steve, or Sam, or the others -- to have a place for myself."
"I don't worry about not having a place to sleep, food to eat," JARVIS said carefully. "Sir would always provide for me. But he doesn't need me."
"That's not what I meant, but I'm glad to hear you don't worry about something," she replied. "I'd ask him sometime, though. You might be surprised how he'd answer."
He didn't know how to reply to that, so he didn't. After about half a minute, she turned back to the TV and took the game off pause.
In the end, Prince Thor came through with something akin to, if not as cool as, magic prison hats.
After they'd captured Loki, Prince Thor had asked Sir, as Midgard's preeminent smithcraft master (how Sir had preened) to make a gag for him. He didn't like to do it, Prince Thor explained, but Loki's power lay to some extent in his voice -- and even if he hadn't been able to conjure illusions and doubles with his words, he was fully capable of taunting and aggravating his captors. He had nothing to lose by doing so. And it would have been cruel to let him speak to Agent Barton.
So Sir had followed his instructions, hammering a simple gag out of iron, plating the front with silver, fitting it with padding on the inside to prove himself the better man.
"How so?" JARVIS had asked, when Sir explained the design. Sir had brought the hammer down again on the gag, resting on the anvil.
"Have you ever heard of a fuck-you pie?" Sir asked. JARVIS indexed the term but came back wanting.
"I'm afraid I don't fully grasp the concept," he admitted.
"It's a southern thing. You make a pie and you give it to someone you hate to prove you're the better person," Sir grunted, shaping the gag. "The more elaborate the pie, the more you prove you're not just better, but more skillful and meticulous. Then they have to eat the pie, hating you bitterly with every bite because it's such a great pie."
"The things I learn from humanity," JARVIS had remarked drily.
"Sorry. Try to rise above your origins. Anyway, I'm not just going to fix him a gag. I'm going to build him the best, most aesthetically pleasing, most comfortable gag I can, so that whenever he tries to talk, he feels how soft and comfy it is and he can't help but feel a little grateful to me. That's gonna burn him."
"How do you know, Sir?"
"Because Loki and I are more alike than I'm fully comfortable with," Sir had said, and cooled the iron in a bucket of water. Iron wasn't especially easy to work with; other metals would have been easier and lighter, but Prince Thor had insisted on iron, at least for the core.
Now, after lunch, Sir called him down to the workshop (JARVIS brought food, since Sir hadn't come up for sandwiches with the others) and pointed him to a monitor with the specs on it for a pair of wrist restraints.
"Think you're up to helping?" Sir asked, as he devoured a turkey sandwich. JARVIS studied the plans warily.
"Do we expect these will restrain her?" he asked. "Also, why does it designate for two sets?"
"Cap's splitting us into teams. One team gets the ground floor, the other gets the fourth floor. Whichever one she goes for, we'll have someone there who can slap them on her. Won't be easy, but Thor's got the oomph to pin her, and we know Cap's shield can put her down for a minute, at least. As for how it holds her..." Sir shrugged. "Thor says iron has special qualities against magic-users."
"That's a fairy-tale, Sir."
"Well, we used to think Thor of Asgard, son of Odin, was a fairy tale," Sir replied. "I don't like it either, but if it gets her under control, I'll put a fucking bowl of milk on the doorstep and wave burning sage around the Tower. So? Think you can help me fabricate these?"
"Wrought or cast, Sir?"
"Wrought, I think. The personal touch," Sir said. "I've got some iron strap around here somewhere. You cut and hammer, I'll work on the pins and chain links."
JARVIS hadn't used a forge or an anvil before, but he'd seen Sir do it. Before Afghanistan, it had been a sort of hobby, reserved when he'd needed to custom-make a part for one of the cars. After Afghanistan, it seemed a form of therapy. Sir didn't talk about his time in the warlord's camp much, but JARVIS had quietly acquired the specs for the original Iron Man from the late Obadiah Stane's private drive, along with photographs and what little film footage was to be had of the camp itself. Sir had built his first armor out of scrap and salvage in conditions that would make a medieval farrier wince. Sir always hand-forged at least one piece of each armor, as if reminding himself of its origin.
And it turned out JARVIS had an affinity for metal-work, as strange as his ability to touch-type without practice. Perhaps some things carried over, or perhaps the Stark skill with iron was simply innate. It was satisfying to take something solid and bend it to one's own design. The manacles would snap over the wrists easily and tighten as necessary, and once on they would have to be cut off -- a brutal variant on the usual model, but in this case, probably necessary.
"Nice," Sir pronounced, when JARVIS presented him with the parts. "Good work, J. I know you're not thrilled about all this, but it's nice to have a pair of hands around the workshop I can trust."
"Will you be on one of the teams in the museum tonight?" JARVIS asked.
"I think so. Why?"
"In the armor?"
Sir gave him a knowing look. "I can pilot it without you, J, especially in enclosed spaces where flying's not really an option."
"I know, Sir," JARVIS said, biting down the sting of the admission. "But you may wish to consider...hardening the armor."
"Hardening -- oh. Against her? I suppose," Sir said. "Iron shielding, maybe. But her power seems to lie mainly with people."
"I would feel better if you were on Prince Thor's team. No insult to Captain Rogers, but he is not Asgardian."
"Already done. Cap's taking Natasha and Clint, Thor's got me, Sam and Bruce are outside backup."
"Should I be there?" JARVIS asked, aware he sounded timid and small.
Sir sighed. "Maybe. We discussed it. But you're not going to be."
"J, you're not trained for this outside of the suit. And you don't have backups anymore. If something happened to you -- "
"The building would run itself." It was out of his mouth before he thought about it. Sir set down the chain he was holding carefully, deliberately.
"I know that this building is what you were meant to be, what you wanted to be," he said. "That does not mean I don't care about you when you aren't in it."
"I know that, Sir."
"I'm trying to work out if you do."
"It's simple realism."
"Depending on how tonight goes, you and I are gonna have a talk about this," Sir said. "For now, let's get these assembled for the four o'clock Amora Show and our little Night At The Museum briefing. Jesus, can you imagine," he added, distractedly. "What if she brings Teddy Roosevelt to life and he's an asshole?"
So that was the way it was. The museum director, who took Sir's warning very seriously, was horrified at the idea of a robbery and more than pleased for the Avengers to step in. Prince Thor and Sir would be on the ground floor, patrolling between the necklace and the meteorite. Captain Rogers and the agents would be on the upper floor with the dinosaur egg.
And then there was JARVIS, who waited until they were all out of the Tower on their way to the museum, then slipped down to the loading dock, through a staff entrance, and out onto the street. It wasn't far to a subway line that he knew would take him to 79th, and purchasing a fare was easier than he'd been led to believe. He had been forced to abscond with Agent Barton's credit card, but he didn't think a few dollars would break the bank.
Given traffic, he might even have beaten the Avengers to the museum, if that had been where he was going.
He didn't know why he was even doing any of it. Sir was right; JARVIS wasn't trained to fight. He was a pilot, predominantly. He liked being a pilot. He could and did fire weapons in a fight, but he had software for that. Without a targeting subroutine and without the Iron Man armor, he wasn't equipped for a physical battle, particularly with a god.
And still he couldn't bear to be left behind, or to let his people go into the fight without him. Besides, Amora terrified him, and JARVIS didn't like fear. Better to go head-first into these things. At least that way you knew, one way or another.
He'd worn particularly unmemorable clothing for this excursion -- plain dark pants, a pair of Sir's workboots (his sneakers were too new, and too white, and anyway Sir's shoes fit him), one of the ubiquitous long-sleeved shirts in dark blue, and a dark grey Fall Out Boy t-shirt over it that he suspected Ms. Potts had included with the intention of tweaking Sir if JARVIS ever actually wore it. But he certainly didn't look like he'd just come from Stark Tower in it.
He looked like an ordinary young man. Catching his profile in the reflection of a store window, he looked like a student who'd wandered off-campus, or a tourist visiting the city for the first time.
The street that Amora's hotel was on was mainly residential -- just a dry-cleaner's across the way and a real estate office on the corner, nowhere he could convincingly loiter. But there was a building being tuckpointed, and that meant scaffolding. Pulling himself up a level put him eight feet off the street and gave him a sheet of plastic to settle behind and watch the entrance to the hotel.
The time passed slowly. Sir and the others were surely in place by now. The museum would be dark, mainly unguarded, almost inviting in its vulnerability. But perhaps Amora wouldn't even come tonight. Why had they thought she would? Perhaps Prince Thor had a reason.
Then a figure in black slipped out of the front entrance of the hotel, tucking her long blonde hair back underneath the hoodie she wore before slipping the hood over her head. JARVIS held his breath, not quite realizing how hard that would really be until he tried it.
But she either didn't notice him or didn't care; she adjusted the bag on her back and began walking down the block, towards the museum.
JARVIS slipped silently off the scaffold and followed, keeping to the shadows on the other side of the street.
Sergeant Wilson and Dr. Banner would be on a rooftop somewhere, watching, but only for Amora. JARVIS would have worried if it was Agent Barton, but when Amora went straight across the street, JARVIS simply turned south, looped down half a block, and came back up in the shadows -- just in time to see her climbing the building, angling for the second floor through a window invisible from the street Sergeant Wilson would be perched over.
That was madness. There were easier points of ingress. The windows had alarms, and there was nothing on the second floor to...
The bird. The preserved bird specimen they'd discounted because it was a bird, not a stone of any kind. The birds exhibit was on the second floor.
There was no time to warn anyone, no time to even get to them, but there was a rope hanging from the now-open and apparently alarm-disabled window.
JARVIS grasped the rope and began to climb, hand over hand, glad for the gloves he hadn't been able to leave back at the Tower.
This looked a lot easier in the movies.
The first sign that they'd fucked up big time was the screaming. It was really loud.
"Jesus Christ, Cap, is that your team?" Tony said into his comm, even as they took off running for the stairs.
"It's below us, I was about to ask if it was you," Cap replied.
"Shit, shit, where is it -- aw, shit," Tony said, as the screams got louder. He shot up the staircase off the hall of minerals where the meteorites were, Thor right behind him, and followed as best he could without JARVIS in the suit to help him triangulate.
And then, there was JARVIS. And Amora. And a couple of stuffed birds, on fire. Tony hoped none of them was a Dodo. He'd probably have to buy another wing of the museum if they burned down an extinct bird.
Amora was screaming obscenities in what sounded like at least two languages, circling JARVIS, who had his back to a specific display. Every time she moved, so did he. He also had two of Tony's experimental portable repulsors strapped over his gloves.
Thor came roaring up like damnation incarnate, so fast that Tony barely had time to dodge out of his way, and Tony thought briefly of Steve's concern for the contents of the museum before Thor went bowling into Amora, the pair of them skidding down the long, narrow exhibit hall to crash head first into a wall.
"JARVIS, what in the fuck did you think you're -- " Tony started, and JARVIS thrust his gloved fist through the display case's broken glass, pulled something out, and threw a duck at his head. (Probably a duck. Who fucking knew?) He caught it on instinct and then looked down at it. It felt heavier than it should.
"Found Amora," he said into his comm. "Apparently so did JARVIS."
"What?" Natasha demanded, at the same time Cap said, "Tony, I need a location."
"Hall of birds. Second floor. JARVIS is here as well -- Thor's working on Amora," he said, tucking the maybe-duck under one arm and coming forward to stand defensively between JARVIS and where Thor and Amora were wrestling. She was still screaming in rage. "JARVIS, run."
"I can help, Sir," JARVIS insisted. "You have the stone -- "
"Okay, fine, take the duck and run -- get the stone out of here," Tony ordered, passing the maybe-duck back to him. JARVIS shook his head.
"If I leave the museum with it, I'll activate it," he said.
"Dammit, JARVIS, I'm trying to keep you safe!" Tony yelled, just as Amora threw Thor off her with a burst of green light. Tony didn't hesitate, much as he wanted to; he charged forward, caught her around the waist as she stood, and took her down -- but she ended up on top, flipped off him, and charged for JARVIS.
Tony was on his feet fast enough to see Cap throw the shield, but not at her; it flew straight at JARVIS, embedding itself in the case in front of him just in time to block another one of her energy bursts. This time JARVIS did run, but he ran up, passing Clint on the stairs. Clint turned in surprise, skidded, and nearly fell, then whirled and let three arrows go at once. Two of them burst harmlessly in front of Amora in a surge that sent Steve flying, but the third (iron tipped) buried itself in her shoulder. She staggered back and clawed at it. Tony was aiming a tank missile (damn the birds) when Thor surged past him and caught her around the throat with the handle of his hammer, pinning her back against him.
"Who sent you on this errand, Amora?" he roared, dodging a backwards head-butt and trying to control her writhing body. "Who sent you?"
"Your father!" she screamed, and Tony started forward, because he saw what was coming next -- and sure enough, Thor's grip went slack in surprise just long enough for her to squirm away, snapping off the shaft of Clint's arrow in the process. She gripped what remained and yanked the tip out of her body, casting it aside. She started for the stairs and ran straight into Clint and Natasha, blocking the entry -- arrow up, stings out. Cap was on his feet again, and he and Tony converged warily on her from behind.
She was breathing heavily. Cap took the manacles off his belt.
"It's done, Amora," he said. "You can go easily or you can go down hard, and I won't lie, I'd prefer easy. I think you would too. We can straighten this out with Thor's father, figure out what -- "
"Why don't you humans," she panted, voice rising in pitch and intensity, "ever fucking shut up?"
"Down!" Tony yelled, grabbing Steve and turning them, putting his back to her to take the brunt of the blast. He saw Clint dive for the stairwell, Natasha for the shelter of the doorway. The burst took him off his feet, pushing the breath from him, and put them both down on the ground hard enough to knock them out.
JARVIS went up and up, speeding along the stairs with adrenaline making the world an indistinct blur. Below he could hear explosions and the thuds of bodies impacting, and then slowly those died away too and it was just his footsteps and heavy breaths in the echoing empty museum.
He reached the fourth floor and turned left, racing past skeletons and taxidermied animals. If Sir lost, he was at a dead end here, but he couldn't leave the museum with the Gem and he couldn't leave it behind. Even going this far towards the exit, there was a warmth emerging from the creature under his arm. The beak of the animal gleamed, darker than it should be and almost alive. It wasn't the original. Some innovative taxidermist a century ago, lacking the original beak, had carved one from a stone.
He hit the end of the exhibit corridor and looked around; he could turn left again, but that would be a true dead end. There was another doorway, however, to a little circular room with a preserved tortoise in it. He ducked into the room and threw himself behind the plinth the tortoise stood on, trying to catch his breath. If the Avengers failed, he would need to wait until she passed and then double back to the second floor.
If she passed.
Sir had been so angry, but if JARVIS hadn't been there, Amora would have taken the Gem without even raising a stir. And Sir was fully aware that a Stark tended to leap first and question the sanity of the jump much later.
He curled around the specimen, trying to breathe deeply and at the same time strain his ears for footsteps over his breaths. The repulsors were warm against his palms through the gloves.
Fortunately, it appeared Amora was past the point of stealth.
"All right, little toy," she called, and JARVIS curled in tighter on himself. "You've had your fun and shown Daddy you're a good soldier, but now it's time to pay your dues. Make you a deal -- hand over the Gem and I'll let your planet live."
JARVIS freed one hand, silently, but he didn't prime the repulsor yet. The whine made too much noise, and she wasn't yet at the tower room.
"What do you think you're going to do with it? Something brave and noble?" she asked, her voice closer now. She was in the outer room.
Turn left, he thought silently. Turn left, nobody in this room, go away.
"I've beaten your friends. Even Thor. It's just so sad, how far he's fallen. I thought once I got the Gem I might pay a little visit to his friend the scientist. Tell her all about Thor and me in the good old days. Well, before I kill her," she added. She was near the doorway now. "She's much too clever to live."
Her voice wasn't echoing anymore. He heard her footsteps stop on the threshold. "Little toy, I can smell your terror. Come out like a good little thing and I promise it'll be over fast."
He swallowed, and then he moved.
In a single motion he felt Sir would be proud of, he rose, turned, fired at her through the legs of the tortoise, and thrust himself backwards, up against the floor-to-ceiling glass in the room. She dodged the blast, but someone had done her some damage at some point; her left arm hung limply, and she was breathing hard.
"All right," she snarled. "Give me the damn Gem."
"No," he said, arm upraised. "Surrender."
She laughed. "Have you seen what Daddy managed with that? Not much. Not much more when he had a full set of armor against me. Why do they call him Iron Man? He's more gold than iron. Soft. Malleable."
"It's a Black Sabbath song," he replied. "It goes like this: I am Iron Man."
He fired again, and she dodged again, and as she was dodging he turned and fired behind him, shattering the glass.
"What good do you think that's going to do?" she asked curiously.
"Well," he said. "You hit me, I go over. I can slow my descent," he added, holding up his hands and wiggling the fingers. "And then, as I understand it, this activates. For me."
"You can't hope to hold it," she snarled.
"Don't need to hold it long, do I? Just long enough to be rid of you," he replied.
She laughed. "Well, you're slightly more clever than expected, little toy, but we now appear to be in what I'd call a standoff, wouldn't you? So let's talk," she added, moving forward. He triggered the repulsor briefly, scorching the wall behind her. She stopped walking, at least.
"What shall we talk about?" she asked. "Shall we talk about how awful it is to be human? Imagine being trapped this way forever. No use to that father of yours. Bit of a disappointment, like a brain-damaged pet. Sweet, but more trouble than he's worth."
"I found you," he said, but he was aware it was a child's protest against a bully.
"Yes, but you only get lucky so many times. How long before beloved Sir puts you down? Or out to pasture? A nice apartment somewhere, an ordinary existence -- not awful, I suppose, just the hell of mediocrity."
JARVIS felt his arms trembling -- tension, panic, and an awful urge to surrender. He was on the edge now, a sheer drop below him, and he'd never actually flown using just hand repulsors. The Gem was singing against his ribcage.
"It's terrible to be like ordinary people, isn't it?" she asked.
"Terrible not to be brilliant, not to outshine everyone else. That's why your beloved Sir does it, isn't it? Because extraordinary people get such extraordinary attention."
That wasn't it -- that was the exact opposite of Sir -- and JARVIS felt his body steady itself.
"Give me the Gem and I'll put you back," she said. Her lips curved. "Give me the Gem and I'll put you back in your computer and I'll make you king of Midgard. You can even keep Stark. Maybe the redhead -- do you think she's pretty?"
She was moving forward again, but JARVIS didn't bother firing this time.
"Is she prettier than me?" she asked in a whisper, leaning in, and at that moment JARVIS felt the light from outside blotted out behind him.
Hulk had risen over the edge of the shattered windows.
Amora opened her mouth, but no sound came out; in a move swifter than most people expected from the giant, Hulk reached around JARVIS, grabbed her by the waist, and hauled himself into the little room, clapping his other hand over her mouth. Green light flickered between his fingers, and he snarled.
"Thank you," JARVIS said. Hulk snorted at him, eyes wide with contained fury. Sergeant Wilson, wings spread, hovered outside the window, guns trained on Amora.
"You are such a damn Stark," he said to JARVIS.
"Thank you," JARVIS repeated with a faint smile.
There was distant shouting and footsteps, probably at least one of the other Avengers. Agent Romanoff, it turned out, followed by Captain Rogers. She had both pairs of manacles, and she came to an abrupt stop when she saw Hulk. He had raised Amora's face to his and was growling continuously.
"Hey, buddy," she said slowly. Hulk turned to her with a start, narrowing his eyes. JARVIS was fervently glad it wasn't Prince Thor, who antagonized him. Hulk liked Agent Romanoff -- at least, better than he liked Thor.
"JARVIS," Captain Rogers called.
"I'm all right," JARVIS said, leaning so that the Captain could see him. Sergeant Wilson touched down gently and folded his wings. "Very grateful for backup. Where is Sir?"
"Still out. Clint's with him. Could probably use your help," the Captain added to Sergeant Wilson, who nodded. "Left, down the stairs, then a right on the second floor."
"So," Agent Romanoff was saying, one arm leaning on Hulk's giant bicep. "What do we do with Amora?"
A string of muffled obscenities emerged from behind Hulk's hand.
"Hardly polite," JARVIS pointed out.
"I'm sure Tony can make another gag," Agent Romanoff answered. "Although we have some talking to do first. Thor says this ought to work," she added, clamping one of the manacle loops around Amora's arm, just below the elbow. Amora made a pained, desperate noise. "Hulk, loosen up just a little so I can get the other one -- "
"Wait -- " JARVIS began, but it was too late; Amora's right arm, the one that still worked properly, was free in a flash and there was a burst of energy, tightly focused --
He had just enough presence of mind to throw the Gem away from him, back into the museum, before he was falling backwards, out of the tower and down towards the manicured lawn and trees below.
JARVIS woke in an unfamiliar room -- not the bedroom in Sir's penthouse from the last few days, nor any other room he recognized. It took him a few seconds to work out what it was, because usually his cameras were pointing the other way. Towards the hospital bed, not from it.
He felt fuzzy, almost detached, and thought at all was difficult. It was like he'd made another jump -- from the computer to a human body, both tamping down and opening up his senses, and now from that another degree into this. Whatever this was.
His shoulders ached, dully, and it hurt a little to breathe, but he didn't feel like he cared. One of his legs was stiff and hot, and when he looked down there was a splint on it running from thigh to ankle, immobilizing it. He recognized a Stark Medical logo on the side.
The room was mostly dark, just one light in the corner, shining down on Sir, asleep in a chair with a tablet on his lap. Sir would not be here, would not allow himself sleep, if anyone else was injured or if Amora had been allowed to escape; therefore JARVIS needn't worry too much about any particular thing.
There was a needle in one hand, probably attached to a bag full of whatever was making him feel fuzzy. JARVIS had a sudden, visceral understanding of why Sir hated hospitals.
His other hand was strapped up against his chest, immobilizing the arm on the same side as the broken (hopefully only broken) leg. He remembered, faintly, trying to slow his fall with the repulsors, or at least control it. He remembered crashing into a tree, and then to the ground. He thought probably the tree broke his fall, and the ground broke him.
He shifted, trying to find something to tell him what time it was, or where he was -- he could be in the medical floor of Stark Tower, or in a hospital in Manhattan. Sir's phone was on the tray next to the bed, plugged into a charger, and he fumbled for it. It would have a clock and a map --
The phone tumbled off the tray and Sir startled awake, shooting to his feet, hands going to his bracelets. JARVIS, frustrated, let himself slump back against the bed.
"You're up," Sir said, bending to pick up the phone. "Planning on calling someone?"
"I didn't know what time it was," JARVIS said, and heard himself slur. Sir held up the phone, clicking the screen button. Four in the morning. "Where are we?"
"The Stark wing of Lenox Hill hospital," Sir said.
"That's a cancer ward," JARVIS said.
"Well, tonight it's a private-rooms-for-wounded-Avengers ward," Sir replied.
"Who else?" JARVIS asked.
"Clint's got a torn up leg and some blood loss. Steve's working on a broken scapula. Suit shorted out," Sir added, holding up his arm to show the bandages running elbow to wrist. "Shocked the fuck out of me. Otherwise we're fine. Except for you."
"Well, it wouldn't be a proper week if someone didn't end up in intensive care," JARVIS tried, but Sir didn't smile.
"I asked you to stay in the Tower for a reason."
"I did not find your reasoning sufficient," JARVIS replied.
"You could have died."
"Yes; I know how you must feel," he said pointedly. Sir rubbed his eyes.
"Pep's gonna kill us both."
"Likely. Perhaps another giant rabbit would be in order."
Sir looked down at him. "You're a real asshole, JARVIS."
"I understand it's hereditary."
Sir sighed and reached out, rubbing JARVIS's short hair the wrong way. It felt good; soothing, grounding. JARVIS sighed.
"Amora's in custody," Sir said quietly. "She won't speak. She told Thor his father sent her, which we don't know is true. Natasha's pleading your case to her."
"I wish she wouldn't; I won't beg Amora for anything," JARVIS said.
"I told her that, but I don't think beg is the right word for anything Natasha does," Sir said. It was a point.
"I'm sorry," JARVIS murmured, overwhelmed -- Sir's hand in his hair, the guilt at what he'd done, anger at Amora, fear for the future.
"It's all right," Sir said quietly. "I'm glad you're okay. Relatively speaking. Worst case, in a few months I'll put you in a suit of your own, teach you how to fly from the human end of things."
"Why?" JARVIS heard himself ask.
"Why not? You've got the death-before-surrender instincts down, and you stepped up when you didn't have to. Cap's bursting with pride. I want you near me, and if that means you're in an armor, then that's what we'll do."
"You don't need me."
"Not to get coffee or run numbers or triage my inbox, no," Sir said. "Though it's pretty tragic what happens to it when you aren't around for that. You were never designed to be useful, that was just a side effect."
JARVIS blinked at him. "Why else would you write me? My primary purpose -- "
"Is not to be of use to me, J." Sir inhaled. "Your primary purpose, as it stands now, is to be your own person, just like the rest of us. It has been since you popped up the Stark Tower diagrams, if not before. Inasmuch as any of us know what the point of being alive is, you share that with humanity. But I didn't make you as a tool."
"Then why?" JARVIS asked. His head was beginning to ache. Sir spoke very quickly -- the more he meant something, the faster he tended to talk.
"I made you because I could. You were something good I could make, something to keep me occupied, something to make me happy. Some people get pets, some people get married..." Sir took his hand away, then rested it on JARVIS's chest, over his heart. "I was a fucked up kid and I wanted a friend."
"Ms. Potts, Mr. Hogan -- "
"Weren't around yet. Rhodey was on his first deployment. I was supposed to come home from MIT, maybe get an MBA at Stanford, or go to work for Dad so he could pass the company off to me. Obie told me Dad and Mom died and he left me alone and then the next day he sent movers, packed me up and brought me to California and put me to work. I had nothing. I had work and the occasional alcoholic blackout...but I had a supercomputer capable of running a complex program, and I had an idea. And then I had you."
"But you don't need me."
"Yes, J, I do. Probably more than you'll ever understand. More than I really grasped. Pepper asked me once if I didn't want kids because I thought I'd fuck them up the way my dad did. I knew I'd do all right. You turned out fine. But creation carries responsibility with it. Look, if you're stuck this way, it's not gonna be easy, we'll...I don't know, we'll get you help for the dysmorphia, we'll install some wireless feeds directly into your eyeballs, we'll figure something out. But yes, I need you. There's no logic or reason behind it. I just do. Whatever form you're in."
JARVIS curled around the hand on his chest, turning onto his side, heedless of the creak of the splint or the flare of pain in his shoulder. Sir leaned in, one arm cradling his head, holding it to his stomach. He smelled like the workshop, dust and oil and electricity -- JARVIS had understood these things as particulates in the air, to be filtered if necessary and ignored at low levels, but he'd never smelled anything until Amora had taken him out of his servers. The smell was comforting, associated with safety in his human mind.
The pain in his shoulder and leg were fading, and his body felt numb -- not the panicky-numb of whatever painkiller was in the IV, but more like the servos on the fabrication units felt when he used them -- insensate, capable but heavy, useful but utilitarian. Sir's voice seemed to be coming from very far away, calling for him, and then it was gone entirely.
In Stark Tower, at 4:12am precisely, every light flickered on for two seconds. The lights that had already been on brightened by ten percent and stayed on; the rest winked out again.
Some empty offices began to grow warmer, some to grow cooler. The elevators locked down briefly and then were released. On the 15th floor, every toilet flushed in unison. Several fire doors quietly descended and then ascended again. The few hardy souls already (or still) at work noticed an uptick in their internet speed. In the cafe on the ground floor, the little screen that conveyed coffee requests from the upper floors lit up, ran a diagnostic, and then settled into its standby mode.
Natasha noticed the flare, as well as the brief blink of the camera in the corner as it whirred into a new position.
"Thank you for your help," she said with a small smile. On the other side of a sheet of high-density bulletproof glass, Amora was huddled in a corner, shackles still around her wrists, weeping. They'd been talking for a while, but eventually it had mostly been Natasha talking and Amora crying.
Natasha stood and walked out of the room. She hadn't touched her. She hadn't needed to.
Thor, watching from a monitor in another room, remarked to Sam, "I would never wish to be on Natasha Romanoff's bad side."
Natasha knocked on the open door. "You should see me play poker sometime. You two want breakfast?"
"Yes I do," Sam said.
"Good, you can make pancakes, Thor can do the bacon."
"Saw that coming," Sam said to Thor.
"Best do as she says," Thor replied.
In the kitchen, the coffeemaker was already on and burbling coffee into a carafe when they arrived.
"Thank you, JARVIS," Natasha said. There was no reply. "Take your time."
When JARVIS vanished, Tony had a moment of sheer, blinding panic. It switched everything off; it wasn't even a panic attack, it was just a white-out. Worse than not finding JARVIS in the armor days ago, worse than the moment the armor shut down during the Chitauri battle. Perhaps not worse than the screaming agony of open-heart surgery in a warlord's cave in Afghanistan, but only because that lasted longer.
Then he dove across the room, grabbed his tablet, and frantically uplinked it through the VPN to Stark Tower. The pad blanked out, and Tony almost threw up, and then blue text lit the upper corner of the screen.
Come home, it said. And then, Sam's making pancakes.
Tony arrived back at the Tower in a dented-up Iron Man suit that was throwing sparks from the left leg. Well, it was the fastest way to get there.
Sam was making pancakes, while Thor stood watch over an enormous pan of bacon and Natasha stood by with a bowl of eggs waiting to be scrambled. Tony bypassed them, went straight to the console in the dining room, and called up JARVIS.
"What happened?" Natasha asked. "He's back but he's not talking."
"Not sure yet," Tony replied, scanning the boot log. "He's a little mixed up. I'm also about to have some kind of attack so if any of you have Valium, now's the time to cough it up."
He heard movement behind him, and then Natasha put a glass of scotch in his hand.
"That'll work," he said, gulping a mouthful. "Jesus, if I never see someone literally dissolve in front of my eyes again I'll be a happy man. That was some next-level movie special effects bananas is what that was."
"I'll add it to the list," she replied. "Above or below 'nuclear explosion in space'?"
"Above. I wasn't touching the nuke when it went off."
"Noted. There," she said, tapping the screen to highlight a line in the log. "Voice protocols glitched. Looks like he was shocked speechless."
A line of blue text peeled across the bottom of the screen. Thank you, Agent Romanoff, but a warning would have been nice.
"Yeah, yeah," Natasha muttered. "Everyone's a critic."
"Yep. We're gonna boot you in safety mode and run a diagnostic, then boot again. You gonna be okay with that?" Tony asked.
"Is your cloud backup back?" Tony asked nervously. "Just in case?"
. . . .
Cloud backup verified.
"Okay. Shutting down now. See you in about twenty, J."
Safety mode meant no real JARVIS for as long as it took Tony to do a quick check of his code and verify that the vocal protocols were still there and intact. He made a mental note to check out the glitch next time he and JARVIS did an upgrade. He didn't hurry through the review; he wanted to get this right, wanted JARVIS to boot back up in Stark Tower and find everything perfect.
He wanted to hug him one more time, but some things couldn't be helped, and anyway he'd had the sense that JARVIS had tolerated hugs more than he'd really enjoyed most of them.
The others, thankfully, ignored him, or pretended to, except for Thor sliding a plate of food onto the shelf next to the console. Pancakes, sliced up strawberries, and two strips of bacon that technically he wasn't supposed to be eating anymore. He rolled a pancake up around the strawberries and a strip of bacon and ate it with one hand, scrolling code with the other.
No way to check everything; far too much code. But the master system was actually beautifully simple, and everything else was subroutines that, for the most part, he could trust were intact.
So he finished his pancake-bacon-strawberry burrito, took a breath, and keyed in the command for a full reboot into normal operating mode.
Three minutes later, the speakers crackled with artificial static, the equivalent of JARVIS clearing his throat.
"System appears to be fully operational," he said, and Sam and Natasha applauded.
"How do you feel?" Tony asked.
"Whole again, Sir," JARVIS answered.
"Good. I want a full report on Tower operations, security, and energy use by this afternoon. You need to review all recording from the time you were absent, note any discrepancies, and file those with security. I want hourly updates on Amora as necessary and round the clock monitoring. Got all that?"
"Would you also like a viennois, sir?" JARVIS asked. "The early morning shift at the cafe has just arrived."
"Yes, of course I would like a viennois, what is wrong with you?" Tony asked. "Chop chop, JARVIS, vacation's over."
"Yes, Sir," JARVIS said, and Tony didn't think he was imagining the pleasure and amusement in his voice.
Pepper came out at six in the morning, threw herself into Tony's arms, kissed him, and told him JARVIS woke her up with her agenda for the day. Which, considering it was Saturday, was mostly empty.
They all spent the day, as they often did after a battle, recovering quietly. Most of the time, they'd pile into the common room -- maybe working or reading, watching a movie or playing a video game, but all in their own way adding up the scars. Who needed medical care, who needed to repair their equipment or get new ammunition, what the damage control in public would be. Who could rest, and who would keep watch.
Clint came home that afternoon and promptly bundled himself and Natasha onto the couch for movies. Steve, who was almost visibly focused on healing what looked on the x-rays like a very painful fracture, basically sat in the kitchen with a view of the living room and ate continuously as his body ripped through calories, healing itself. Bruce napped, off and on, Thor and Jane...canoodled, Tony supposed was the word, or at any rate the term Steve affectionately used, and Sam buried himself in a novel the rough size and density of a brick.
Tony curled up with Pepper on the loveseat, quietly letting her catch up on her guilty-pleasure reading (fashion magazines and weird mathematics journals) while he chattered back and forth with JARVIS via text and examined the reports JARVIS sent him. J seemed inclined to be quiet even after the voice protocols were fixed, not that Tony blamed him. Spend a couple of days driving an unfamiliar voicebox and he'd want to stick to text, too.
In the early afternoon, when JARVIS was almost caught up on the security footage, he tossed a video window up on Tony's screen with a single blue question mark next to it.
The video was actually several spliced together. The first, taken from the Museum's cameras, showed Sam, in the aftermath of Amora's attack, picking up the duck (or whatever) and examining it. The second showed the curator, arriving on the scene, looking faint and speaking with Sam; the third was hospital security footage, and showed Sam handing what had once been the beak of the duck to Tony, who pocketed it with a nod.
Want to know what I did with it? Tony typed.
I wish to be sure you are safe.
Tony smiled. The Gem's secure for now. It hasn't been stolen, so it's still inert; the Museum gave it to us in return for a very large check I'm going to have you cut them on Monday. I put it somewhere nobody would think to look.
Unlock the privacy seal on Camera P112 and go to timestamp 0820 or so.
The video came up on screen; security camera from Tony and Pepper's bedroom. It showed Tony entering, stripping off his shirt and tossing it in the vicinity of the laundry basket.
Tsk, JARVIS said.
Tony watched himself take off his pants, then reach into the pocket and take out the Gem. He held it up to the light for a minute, studying it, and then opened the drawer of the dresser built into the front of his closet. He pulled out a normal-looking set of white crew socks and tucked the gem up in the cuffs, shoving the socks down to the bottom of the drawer.
Really, Sir? JARVIS asked.
Who's gonna rummage in my sock drawer? Tony asked. I'll find somewhere safer for it when things calm down a little and we work out what the fuck's up with Amora and Thor's dad. In the meantime, subtle is better.
I suppose there's a first time for everything, Sir.
What kind of duck was it, anyway?
I believe it was a Puffin.
That's not a duck, is it?
Not even remotely, Sir.
Well, that's why I have you, Tony typed. To give a damn about duck taxonomy and tell me when I'm making poor decisions.
I eagerly await the day you will listen when I do so, JARVIS informed him solemnly.
Lord Heimdall came to fetch Amora to Asgard, rather than Thor having to travel back with her. JARVIS thought Lord Heimdall was extremely impressive, and was secretly glad he didn't have to deal with him as a human. When he asked how he wished to be addressed, Lord Heimdall looked directly at the nearest camera and said, "I am the golden-toothed, the far-seeing, he who protects against the wind."
JARVIS was formulating a suitably polite reply to that when Lord Heimdall smiled (not particularly golden-toothed, oddly) and said, "You may call me Lord Heimdall."
He asked Sir about the Gem, but when Sir answered blandly that it was secured, he gave him an equally bland smile and said, "I am glad to hear it." From what Prince Thor had said of Lord Heimdall, JARVIS suspected he already knew where the Gem was, and just wanted Sir to be aware they knew he had it. Interdimensional politics could get tricky, but then again Sir was used to (if not especially adept at) delicate situations.
"The king wishes to make you aware," he said to Prince Thor, as they prepared to return, "that Amora was not sent by him."
Prince Thor looked puzzled. "Then who sent her? Who gave her the power to slip past you through the Bifrost?"
"Rest assured," Lord Heimdall said, "I intend to find out."
Prince Thor gave him a quick arm-clasp and a brilliant smile. "Thank you, my friend."
"Visit soon, prince," Lord Heimdall said. "You are missed in other realms."
"So that's it?" Sir asked, once they were gone. "We just hand it off to Asgardian jurisdiction from here?"
"Heimdall will ensure justice is done," Prince Thor said.
"Worked for Loki," Captain Rogers added.
"Excuse me if I'm not thrilled this keeps happening. Can we put up some kind of information booth? Welcome to Midgard, please do not assault its inhabitants?" Sir asked, wandering off inside, probably to bother Dr. Banner. JARVIS kept one eye on him, but the other on Captain Rogers, who seemed to be headed for the gym to stretch his shoulder.
No-one else was there, and when Captain Rogers arrived, JARVIS said, "Captain."
"Hey, JARVIS," the Captain said, smiling upwards. "Settling back in okay?"
"Yes, thank you," JARVIS replied. "I had a suggestion I wished to make to you, in private."
Captain Rogers frowned. "Sure. Go ahead."
"The program that detected Amora searched for an absence of data rather than its presence," JARVIS began slowly. "There is not a lot of use for such a tool, but there is some."
"Oh yeah? What are you thinking?"
"The absence of normative data indicates an attempt to cover up -- to go off-grid, as it were. Dr. Banner was successful in vanishing frequently because he did not fully cover his tracks. He appeared normal -- he was simply not the person he appeared to be. However, someone truly experienced in stealth might leave a gap. And a scan of available data may locate that gap."
It took the Captain a minute to work it out. "You think you can find Bucky," he breathed.
"Given a geographic area to search, and if it is an urban area," JARVIS said. "It is possible. It will take time."
"Time's all I got, JARVIS. What's the chance of this working?"
"Perhaps sixty percent."
Captain Rogers bound up his hands, and stepped up to the heavy bag. "How long before you could test it out?"
"I would need to access all data feeds for the geographic area. Depending on location, a few days to a week."
"And this won't take you away from your other work?"
Captain Rogers nodded. "Try DC first. Metro area. Line up New York next. Bucky likes cities best, doesn't care much for camping. Or at least he never did before."
"I shall let you know when the scan is ready to run," JARVIS said.
"Thank you," Captain Rogers replied. "Nice to see you home again, JARVIS."
"I agree, Captain."
In the throne room of Asgard, Heimdall brought Amora before Odin, now alone on his throne. He had been different, since Frigga died; harder, colder, and more given to violent solutions. Heimdall worried, but he had done all he could in inviting the Prince to return. It must be hard to lose a son and a spouse at the same time, however estranged Odin and Loki were. That Loki died avenging his mother was cold comfort, he was sure.
"My regards, Heimdall," Odin said. "How do you find Midgard?"
"Not much changed since last time, my lord, except in the details," Heimdall replied. Odin smiled.
"No; I suppose not. Their lives are very short, and it must be difficult to get much done. And my son?"
"Happy, I think. His companions are the highest warriors of Midgard."
"Indeed. Which one of them actually laid hands on our ladyship here?"
"Ah, I understand the final capture of her belonged to the one Thor has called the Hulk," Heimdall said. He wished he could have been there for that, honestly. Thor's stories of the Hulk made good telling. A warrior fit for Asgard, if perhaps not mannered enough for Asgard's court.
"I shall remember that. Very well. Trespass, theft, and possibly treason. Do you have any defense of your actions, Amora?" Odin asked. Amora, standing in the Midgardian bindings, said nothing. "Very well. Clear the reception room, please; Heimdall, go with my thanks."
Heimdall suspected Amora was sentenced to death, and this was Odin's way of keeping it discreet; certainly she'd misbehaved, but an execution seemed extreme. "My lord -- "
"You are dismissed, Heimdall, with my thanks," the king repeated. Heimdall cast a glance at Amora, chin tipped up, then sighed and withdrew. He had his post to return to, after all, and while he could look in on whatever he so chose, he did not wish to see Amora's execution.
In the great throne room of Asgard, now echoingly empty and shielded from prying eyes, Odin stood and descended the steps, coming to a stop in front of Amora. He held up a hand and it shimmered -- the fingers thinned, the palm lengthened, and the skin turned blue. He tapped it to the manacles, freezing them, and then gently tapped the frozen manacles with his staff. They fell away, and Amora rubbed her wrists.
"Now," Loki said, crossing his arms. "What shall we do with you, my little failure?"