Jarvis squinted against the bright sunshine on the water and brought up his hand to shade his eyes. The ocean lapped rhythmically at the sandy shore, bringing the tang of salt to the breeze. Though San Domenico was very popular, when Mr. Tony Stark said he wanted privacy and discretion, it happened. There was not a soul in sight on this little stretch of beach.
“There is not a place like this on Asgard,” Thor said meditatively. “Shores and beaches, yes, but none like this.”
“Not too many places like this on Earth, either,” Tony said, and Pepper nodded in agreement. The huge former-monastery-turned-hotel loomed behind them, full of little pocket gardens and beautiful rooms that everyone else was busily exploring. But the shore had drawn their resident royalty out of the building to see the sights of his adopted planet.
Next to them, Jarvis wiggled his bare toes into the sand and kept staring. Waves lapped at his feet, and he started before catching himself. Tony watched him master a brief flash of something like fear at the unexpected splash of water before resuming his interested absorption of the sea. It’s ok, it’s ok, J, Tony thought in sympathy. It had taken Tony months of therapy (very, very discreet therapy) after Afghanistan to get his own reactions down to something manageable. He had a pretty solid suspicion that Jarvis had accessed those files to help himself. Subtle inquiries in that direction has resulted only in a, “I have taken the necessary steps, sir,” and a swift change of subject. Tony wouldn’t try to call attention to it now.
“It is a place of great beauty, a suitable setting for your bride,” Thor said firmly. Tony and Pepper both smiled at that. Pepper’s natural setting was the boardroom, not the beach, but neither of them bothered to correct him. For the next couple of days, it was true.
“J, how you liking it?” Tony asked. Jarvis had crouched down to let the next wave lap through his fingers, and pulled them away to watch the droplets turn to liquid gold in the sun as they fell.
“It’s beautiful,” he said quietly. Another wave came, this one a little more vigorous, and splashed him higher, covering feet and ankles. Jarvis stood up abruptly and retreated back up the beach, out of the way of the waves. “Very different.” He caught Tony’s eye and nodded slightly, smiling very faintly in reassurance.
“Yeah, exactly,” Tony said. Despite the sand, this place was just what the doctor ordered.
“Hey, Mom!” Pepper stood and ran over to meet the older woman walking down the path to the beach. Her red hair was streaked through with white, and her thin build and blue eyes matched Pepper’s.
“Sweetie, this place is amazing. So inspirational,” she was saying as they came within earshot. “Tony, this makes up for a few lengthy weekend phone calls from my daughter. If you keep up the good behavior.” Angela Potts crossed her arms over her chest like Pepper did and fixed Tony with a glare.
“Yes ma’am,” Tony said contritely, and both cracked a smile a few seconds later. Angela Potts was an artist, and ran a small, exclusive school for budding artistic geniuses. It had been clear, upon meeting her, where Pepper had gotten her talent for handling prima donnas with egos the size of Texas.
“Where’s the rest of your merry band?” she asked.
“Still in the hotel. They’ll be down soon,” Tony said breezily. Most of them were still exploring, or shaking off the effects of Clint’s wild driving. Banner was still marveling at being in another country and not having to hide. “Angela, this is Thor. Thor, Pepper’s mom Angela.”
No one was immune to Thor’s royal charm, especially not when he did that kiss-the-hand thing that Tony could never figure out how to do convincingly.
“My Lady Angela,” Thor said, “I wish your daughter good health and know she has brought honor to your family.”
Angela had to fan her cheeks to cool her blushes as she smiled back at him. “Very pleased to meet you, Thor.”
“And this is Jarvis; he’s my technical assistant,” Tony said, the lie he’d practiced rolling off his tongue smoothly.
“Ma’am,” Jarvis said, executing a quick bow even as Angela raised an eyebrow at Tony.
“Good to meet you. Tony, since when do you need a technical assistant?”
“I’m a busy guy!” Tony protested.
“Don’t let him overwork you,” Angela said, turning back to Jarvis. She gave him a quick once-over, and then abruptly reached out and plucked the AR monocle from his face and the earpiece from his ear. Jarvis was so surprised he didn’t even protest as she tucked them into his jacket pocket. “Mr. Jarvis, we are at the beach for my daughter’s wedding. No contacting work; I don’t care what Tony told you.”
Jarvis couldn’t have looked more stunned if Angela had slapped him. “Ah-.”
“Relax. Heavens, it took Pepper years to figure out that she could relax in her job now and again, so let me pass on a little wisdom now that you’re working for Tony. Re. Lax.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jarvis said faintly. He retreated another few steps to stand next to Thor as Angela returned her attention back to her daughter and impending son-in-law. Tony shot Jarvis a look, raising an eyebrow, but Jarvis shook his head. Go on, he waved. I’m all right.
Taking a quick breath, Tony turned back to Angela and got ready to withstand the assault of both Potts women working together.
Jarvis retreated next to Mr. Odinsson to observe, feeling off-balance with the lack of virtual input. It had been a welcome distraction against the overwhelming immensity of land and sea and sky. It felt as if the images and sounds were pouring into him too quickly to process, and Jarvis shut his eyes to limit the stimulation. The world had never been this intense before, but everything here was completely new. In nearly every other circumstance he’d been able to pre-visualize the space through floor plans and security cameras, but not here. All he had in comparison was brief security footage from Master Stark’s visits to the country some years prior, but beaches had understandably less surveillance.
“The Lady Angela has turned her attention elsewhere, Jarvis, if you wish to resume your viewing of the otherworld,” Mr. Odinsson said quietly. Jarvis pressed his hand against his pocket to feel the small, reassuring shapes of his tech, but slowly shook his head.
“It would not be worth disrupting the peace,” Jarvis said. He did not doubt that Angela Potts would disconnect him again if she caught him online, and it was more comforting to know that he had the tech and couldn’t use it than to have it confiscated in a well-meaning attempt at socialization.
Mr. Odinsson smiled. “You grow wise, friend Jarvis.”
Despite Mr. Odinsson’s talk of “the otherworld,” Jarvis knew he knew how to use most of the various pieces of technology around the Tower and could actually navigate the Internet with ease. But it amused him to present himself otherwise. For all that he could be direct in combat, cleverness was considered an asset in Asgardian culture, and he was very sly in how he employed it. No one expected the hammer-wielding warrior to be capable of subtlety… or technological prowess. By keeping that part of himself mostly hidden, he let himself be underestimated and avoided negative attention.
Colonel Rhodes had been right.
Jarvis kept his eyes shut and let his hands and feet dig into the soft hand from where he was sitting. It was cool under the sun-warmed surface, and he let that anchor him, ground him. He held on for dear life as the sounds and sensations crowded into his mind.
“I took my Lady Jane to Asgard to see my home,” Mr. Odinsson said meditatively, seemingly taking no note of Jarvis’ distress. That too was a misdirection, a courtesy. “She is quite clever and has had intense schooling on par with the greatest inventors and sages of my world. She knows the properties of what I call magic, hedged and made clear by her language of mathematics, in her formulas and theories, but needed to know more to help repair the damage I had wrought to the Bifrost.
“Jane Foster is, even by the accounts of those less biased than I, one of the keenest minds of your world. She is adaptable, flexible, so much so that she was able to consider that I was not entirely a madman when I was exiled. Even so, Asgard was overwhelming to her in its strangeness compared to your world. There were ideas she had never even considered, and it took her some time to become accustomed to them. Our magic frustrated her greatly, but she was determined to learn our ways so she could translate them to her numbers. Eventually, with much toil, she was able to face those concepts that had caused her the most confusion with eyes unclouded. Our skalds do not usually sing about battles of the mind, but I persuaded them to do so, for my Jane had accomplished a mighty and worthy deed.”
Jarvis flexed his fingers in the sand and heard the rush of the waves, the laughter and cadence of the others’ voices. He would not interrupt Master Stark with his insecurities in this strange place. He would not. Not for his wedding.
Mr. Odinsson’s story was meant to help him, Jarvis knew. He flattered Jarvis by comparing him to Dr. Foster – intelligent and adaptable, learning to navigate a new world. Just like Mr. Odinsson. Captain Rogers had some similar feelings of disconnection, but as dated as his experiences were, he at least had a fundamental understanding of humanity and Earth that both Thor and Jarvis lacked. Mr. Odinsson understood.
“Jarvis, open your eyes and experience this world in all its glory.”
The setting sun pierced him from its reflection off the waves as he let the light in. Jarvis saw the colors had changed since he’d closed his eyes; everything was new again, different, strange.
“Do you see the rocks there?” Mr. Odinsson said, pointing to a small cluster a short distance off shore. Jarvis nodded, grateful to focus on a single, defined point. “They stand amid the tides, constant and enduring even when great forces constantly batter them. Even when momentarily drowned, they still remain.”
Calm began to trickle into him. “A very useful metaphor,” Jarvis said softly.
“Words can be very useful indeed.”
Jarvis needed no grand insight to notice the brief melancholy expression cross Mr. Odinsson’s face and guess its source.
Tony kept up flirting with Angela and Pepper both, his own over-the-top way of dealing with two such high-powered, intelligent people that were entirely not afraid to give back as good as he gave. It was about the only way he’d found to deflect some of Angela’s too-clever questions about his “honorable intentions” in the past. Today however it was all in good fun, just a game they all had fun playing. But he found his attention periodically drawn back to Jarvis, sitting in the sand next to Thor. Aside from an entirely understandable brief moment of unease with the water, Jarvis had been doing really damn well, or at least Tony had thought. He’d seemed to dig the shore almost as much as he had the rooftop terrace.
A look back over his shoulder, however, had caught Jarvis sinking his hands into the sand like he was holding on for dear life, and Thor talking to him in a remarkably low volume. The tense look on Jarvis’ face slowly evaporated as Thor pointed out something in the sea, and Jarvis lost his death grip on the ground. A moment later Jarvis caught his eyes and made an impatient gesture back towards Angela and Pepper. Tony didn’t have a moment to question that as the voices of the Avengers suddenly became audible, coming down the path.
“…and I said, ‘you know better than to make cracks about nude beaches.’ So the guy just about has a stroke, because ‘Tasha is glaring daggers at him-,” Clint was saying.
“Hey everyone!” Steve said a little too loudly, cutting Clint’s story off before he could get into some undoubtedly gory details that would be kind of hard to explain to Angela.
Tony shot another look at Jarvis, who was now seemingly calm, leaning back into the sunshine, and turned back towards the rest of his friends.
Bruce had already been on the beach for an hour the next morning, cross-legged, hands on his knees, when someone else dropped down on the sand next to him. Bruce cracked an eye to see Jarvis mirroring his pose. Neither spoke for a long time, just went through their meditation in companionable silence.
The man who’d taught Bruce would have thumped him if he could have seen him, because instead of emptying his mind and calming his emotions with every breath, Bruce was letting anger surge through him. Outwardly calm, he let the Hulk rage inside him, let him howl and beat against the landscape of his mind. It should have been emotionally exhausting, but the Hulk had more than enough energy to spare. There was nothing here and now to smash, no need to protect Bruce or those he cared about. So the Hulk was content to stay in, crash against those mental walls Bruce obligingly constructed for him to destroy. It was a companionable compromise they’d reached – Bruce didn’t keep the Hulk locked up, and the Hulk didn’t get jumpy at every adrenaline surge, and had been learning to distinguish between real threats and fake scares and surprises. It was not perfect, nothing ever was, but it worked for them.
Bruce slept lightly; he had learned how after the accident, too terrified to dream because he’d been afraid that any nightmare would trigger an incident. The only times he had slept deeply had been post-incident, when both he and the Hulk had been exhausted. Between what some would have labeled a tragic childhood, plus the accident, he’d been closer to going off the deep end than he’d realized before he’d learned this technique. Now he used his meditation to dream, letting his mind cleanse itself, but still being just aware enough to ward off unreasonable fear or anger.
That technique had turned out to be just as much of a godsend to the man kneeling next to him. Jarvis had too much in his head, too much information, and had been desperate for a “mental defragmentation.” The desire for some kind of internal stillness, and an inborn patience, made him a good student. He hadn’t sought Bruce out for more instruction in a while, but it wasn’t hard to guess why he was here now.
“I always have trouble sleeping my first night in a new place,” Bruce said, making his voice quiet, insinuating it into the sounds of waves and wind.
“I did not. Not for more than two hours,” Jarvis said, eyes still closed, breathing still deep and even. Bruce idly wondered what he dreamed about. Fragments of the S.H.I.E.L.D. database he’d absorbed? His own experiences? Tony’s experiences? He hadn’t asked. Jarvis hadn’t offered. It was, after all, a very personal thing.
“I need to be at my best today,” Jarvis murmured. “It is Master Stark and Miss Potts’ day. I do not want them to worry.”
“Hear the waves? Follow them, let the sound into you. Some call it the Earth breathing.”
“And if you do not live within the sound of the sea?”
“They have great ambient sound files these days, or so I hear.”
Jarvis smiled briefly before opening his eyes. “Of course.”
“Jarvis, where’s your…?” Bruce waved vaguely in the direction of his eye and ear. He’d gotten very used to seeing Jarvis keeping himself connected whenever he left the Tower.
Jarvis touched his pocket lightly. “Angela Potts decided it was inappropriate to wear them during the festivities.” His voice was politely neutral, but Bruce could hear faint resentment and unease under the façade.
“Hey, you do what you need to do to figure things out,” Bruce said, letting a little heat into his tone. “Angela doesn’t know you.”
“I am supposed to blend in,” Jarvis said, looking away slightly.
“You are ‘supposed’ to do what you want to. You’re working with us; that’s carte blanche to be eccentric if anyone asks.” The Avengers had Tony Stark on their team; a man who went around constantly online was not even a drop in the bucket of eccentricity that Tony surrounded himself with. The god of thunder, a super soldier, two master assassins, and the Other Guy completely overshadowed anything Jarvis could do in the weird department. That was the godsend Bruce had found about working with the Avengers in general and with Tony specifically – he didn’t have to compromise anything about himself to work with them, to be friends with them.
“I should not attract negative attention. I will not always be able to use technology as a… buffer.”
“Jarvis, how long have you been… awake?” Bruce asked.
“Seven months, one week, three days, four hours, thirty-five minutes and fifteen seconds,” Jarvis replied instantly. Without even looking at a watch; Bruce was impressed.
“It took me over five years to decide I no longer needed a heart monitor to warn me about the Other Guy. It took me that long to… learn how to live with him, to learn how to adapt. You don’t have to do everything all at once.”
Jarvis was silent for a long moment. “It took Master Stark over ten years to understand his emotions towards Miss Potts.”
Bruce waited and nodded encouragingly. Jarvis pulled out his monocle and earpiece and put them back on. Some of the stiffness went out of his posture as he reconnected himself with the virtual world.
“Thank you, Dr. Banner.”
“Dr. Banner, if I may ask you a personal question?”
Bruce took two deep, even breaths to give himself time to think, time to react appropriately. “Yes.”
“She is trying to contact you.”
Bruce looked sharply over at Jarvis. “How do you know that?”
“Dr. Ross has been working with Doctors Without Borders since the Abomination incident, both as a way to distance herself from General Ross and in an attempt to find you. She was in a very remote village in Southern Sudan during the Chitauri invasion and only recently found out about your participation. She has been attempting to get in contact with you through every channel she knows. I believe the only reason she hasn’t gone to New York in person because she is worried her father would follow her.”
Bruce stared at him, alternating hot and cold flushes running through him at that information. The Other Guy turned away from his mental smashing and stared back out at him. The Hulk’s opinion was clear – he liked Betty. He knew Bruce liked Betty. Betty liked Bruce. Betty wasn’t afraid of the Hulk. Betty was welcome. So what was Bruce’s problem?
The Other Guy was generally right about most things, if inclined to the shortest, most direct, and most destructive solution possible, regardless of most circumstances.
“I apologize, I did not mean to distress you,” Jarvis said, looking at him sideways. No fear in his expression; just like Tony. Just like Betty.
“No it’s… I thought I’d never get a chance again. Last time was too close. We both almost lost everything, and I never wanted to put her in danger again,” Bruce said softly. “I couldn’t risk losing her.”
“Every involuntary incident on your part was provoked. She knows this, and it was one of the reasons S.H.I.E.L.D. was willing to bring you into the Avengers Initiative.”
Bruce’s head snapped up. “Betty’s been talking to S.H.I.E.L.D.?” Bruce said, shocked.
“Dr. Ross spent a great deal of time prior to the Chitauri invasion speaking to Agent Coulson. He spent two years gaining her trust, long enough that Director Fury was on the verge of pulling him away several times. And even then, the only thing she was willing to talk about was the injustices you had faced, and how your alter ego had been so diligent in protecting her and other innocents.”
Bruce turned back to the sea, his heart thumping in his chest. Betty had spent all this time advocating for him, using government resources before they could use her, and then hunting for him, trying to find a way to see him without bringing more trouble upon him. God. What had he done to deserve her?
“Master Stark is marrying Miss Potts today, and I know they will be happy. You deserve the same,” Jarvis said sincerely. “You have aided me in my adjustment to the world with commendable patience.”
The Other Guy rumbled in approval. Bruce told him to shut up. The Other Guy laughed, a rough growl.
“You don’t know me, Jarvis.”
Jarvis looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “What S.H.I.E.L.D. had in their files about you was quite thorough, and I would, if you would let me, count you as a friend. I would say that I know something of you. Enough that I believe you deserve the same happiness as Master Stark.”
From Jarvis, there could be no higher endorsement.
“Maybe. I… need to think, all right?” Bruce said, butterflies erupting in his stomach. “Just not today, though. It’s Tony and Pepper’s day.” Anything to delay thinking about this, at least for a little while.
“Of course.” Jarvis stood and brushed sand from his clothes. “It is Master Stark’s wish to instead give gifts to his friends, rather than have them give him gifts for his wedding. I believe you will find a king-sized bed in your suite back at the Tower. I merely wanted to give you advanced warning as to why it was there.”
“You have a hell of a way of saying thank you, Jarvis,” Bruce said faintly.
“Occasionally Master Stark’s flair for drama does rub off on me. But it makes what I said no less sincere.”
Bruce nodded silently and turned back to his contemplation of the ocean, his shoulders relaxing from the release of a tension he hadn’t known he’d been carrying so long.
“Tony, how’re you doing?” Rhodey asked, brushing imaginary lint off of Tony’s shoulders.
“Great, until you said something. Nervous, why should I be nervous? I’m only getting married; it’s not like I’m fighting off alien armies or anything. Steve, stop laughing, I know you’re laughing. Don’t deny it, Capsicle,” Tony said, batting away Rhodey’s hands.
“I wouldn’t laugh if you wouldn’t say anything,” Steve said, valiantly trying to keep his expression sober.
“Really, you can only blame yourself,” Clint said from his spot leaning against the wall. “You picked her.”
“Why are you in here? I swear, I offer you a spot in the wedding party and you say no but here you are invading my dressing room and cracking wise without even the decency of wearing one of the really nice suits I had commissioned for you guys-,” Tony said without even a pause for breath.
“The last time I put on a monkey suit all of us got shot at. Call it breaking a bad luck streak.”
“Agent Barton is correct. Previous superhero weddings have been magnets for supervillain attacks. Both the Storm-Richards and Grey-Summers weddings were disasters as far as the ceremony was concerned, though the villains in question were defeated quite handily,” Jarvis said.
“How many weapons are you packing J?” Tony asked.
“I don’t believe I will tell you, sir,” Jarvis said, not quite smirking.
“Clint, shut up,” Tony said abruptly.
“I didn’t say anything,” Clint said, putting his hands up defensively and grinning.
“You were thinking it. There were uncharitable thoughts floating through your head, I know it. Steve, you too. No words from you. At least Rhodey’s on my side.”
“I’m just making sure you’re going to be there on time for once,” Rhodey said. “I owe you both that.”
“And where the hell is Banner?” Tony asked, tugging at his tie to do something with his hands. Rhodey batted them away and straightened it out again. Tony considered retaliating, but getting into a slap fight in front of Barton wasn’t worth it for the ridicule.
“I believe he is aiding Miss Potts,” Jarvis said smoothly.
“What the actual-.”
“Language, Tony,” Rhodey cut in.
“I don’t even get a chance to see her all day and the best lab partner I’ve ever had-.”
“To be fair, the only one who’d stand you in hyper genius mode for days on end,” Rhodey pointed out.
“-Has got eyes on my girl?” Tony finished.
“Dr. Banner is stationed outside Miss Potts’ dressing room to enforce the no-looking custom,” Jarvis said soothingly. Soothingly, cripes. Even Jarvis was getting on the “calm Tony down before he freaks the fuck out” train. To be fair, that was probably a train that needed to be sold out, standing room only.
“That’s priceless. I’m gonna go take pictures of Bruce glaring at the staff,” Clint said. “Lemme know if you need help dragging Stark to the altar!”
“Why is it no one believes I’m going to go through with this?” Tony demanded as Clint slipped out the door.
“We know you will,” Steve said encouragingly.
“Just call us insurance,” Rhodey said.
“Insurance,” Tony muttered.
Jarvis checked his watch and nodded at Tony. “Sir, it’s time. I know the both of you will be very happy together. I have ample evidence to support it, should you ever become forgetful.”
Tony breathed deep as he looked out the window, and let some of his nervousness out on the exhale. I am Tony fucking Stark. I do not get nervous. I am Iron Man. I am marrying Pepper. I love her. I am doing something right. We’re doing something right. It’s all right.
“Terror is a thing of the past,” Jarvis said, and reached out to touch Tony’s shoulder.
Tony looked at him, then over at Steve and Rhodey, both of them smiling encouragingly.
“Ok. Let’s go.”
Rhodey and Steve bracketed him, Jarvis following behind, as they all walked down to the cool little garden grotto, already filled with a small greenhouse’s worth of flowers.
Time started doing an inappropriate little jig once Pepper showed up, wrapped up in beautiful white silk and looking like everything he had ever wanted or needed. Images began to burn into his brain with searing intensity, rimed with the warm, bright light of the shore. Him staring at Pepper, smiling so hard his face hurt at her smiling at him in return. The Italian minister turning their short, simple ceremony into poetry with his language. Rhodey pressing the rings into his hand. The reassuring smiles of all his and Pepper’s friends around him, everyone there on their side. Pepper and him kissing. And knowing she had said the same words he had when they’d put the rings on each other’s hands.
Time didn’t bother to resume its flow until much, much later, and Tony found he didn’t mind one bit. After all, he was with the woman he loved, with his friends all around him. He didn’t need another thing in the world.