“Fucking magic,” muttered Tony Stark.
The other inhabitants of the room glanced at him, except for Natasha Romanov, who kept watching the others. She already knew what he meant.
“Magic?” asked three of them more-or-less at once—Derek Morgan, Eliot Spencer, and John Reese. They exchanged glances after the fact.
“Yes, magic, the only stupidly unpredictable annoying thing that could make all ten of us mysteriously appear in a fucking white-walled empty room, what is that even about? This isn’t some shitty ripoff of the Matrix, this is real life!”
As if on cue, the room transformed around them, into a study-type area. Books lined the walls. Armchairs were scattered nearby. Off to the right was a bank of computers.
“But…magic is not real,” said Ziva David, taking a baffled look around.
“Magic shouldn’t be real,” Tony corrected. “It kind of pisses me off that it is. But tell that to Dr. Strange, and, oh yeah, the thunder god I bunk with.”
“Wait, what?” said Alec Hardison. “Oh hell no. You are Tony Stark. You cannot be Tony Stark. Tony Stark does not exist. Tony Stark is a fictional character.”
Abby Sciuto’s eyes brightened. “Oh my god, he is!”
Penelope Garcia clapped a hand over her mouth. “This cannot be real life.”
“…wait, Iron Man?” Derek asked. “He does look a lot like Robert Downey Jr.”
“That hack,” scoffed Tony. “He wishes he were me.”
“You haven’t said much,” Natasha said to Harold Finch, eyeing him speculatively.
“I’m merely trying to assess this rather…peculiar situation,” he said. John gave her a calculating look before further angling himself in front of Harold.
She cocked her head slightly in acknowledgement. “You’re like me,” she said knowingly, and looked around the room. “So are you,” she said to Ziva. “You too.” Eliot. “And you.” Derek.
“I don’t know, could you kill someone with a paperclip?” Tony asked Derek.
“Ziva totally can!” Abby said cheerfully.
“What size paperclip?” asked Eliot.
“Staples are more effective,” said John.
Derek’s eyes narrowed. “Obvious training, but not regular military. Special forces, black ops,” he said to Eliot, and then looked at John. “Similar training, but a slightly different bearing, so my guess is CIA.” He studied Ziva for a moment. “Given the name and accent, and the fact that you’re heavily armed, I’d say former Mossad.”
“That’s my Derek Morgan,” Penelope said proudly.
“What about her?” Eliot asked, indicating Natasha.
“Not sure,” he admitted. “Possibly a spy of some sort, but she doesn’t have the same bearing you do.” There he indicated John. “Profile’s kind of a mess.”
“Yeah, that’s the way she likes it,” said Tony, and Natasha just arched an eyebrow at him. “What, you do, you like confusing people, don’t even try to deny it, I can sense your glee. We have that in common.”
Natasha didn’t smirk, but it was implied.
“It occurs to me that if the five of you have something in common,” Harold spoke up, “so might the rest of us.”
“Well, I’m a genius,” said Tony. “Any of you have that?”
“Yeah, you are,” Alec said. “I’ve got some game of my own.”
“I am if you count what I can do with computers, and let’s face it, in this day and age, who doesn’t?” said Penelope.
“I’m pretty handy with a keyboard myself,” said Abby. She looked at Harold. “That leaves you. Joining us in the technoclub?”
“I dabble,” Harold said blandly, and John coughed.
“That’s a yes,” Natasha noted.
“What, are you his bodyguard?” Tony asked. “The way you’re hovering in front of him, I half-expect you to start growling and barking any second.”
John merely raised an eyebrow. “She hasn’t taken her eyes off the four of us since we all appeared, and while she’s next to you she’s keeping her weight on her back leg in case she needs to spin closer,” he said, looking at Eliot next. “He’s tense, body language subtly radiating a threat, and he keeps scanning for possible weapons and exits. He’s close enough to him,” he pointed to Alec, “to reach out and throw him under those desks if necessary.” He glanced at Ziva. “Her stance is deceptively relaxed, but she’s got a knife up her sleeve and a hand a hairsbreadth away from her backup weapon, and she’s kept her,” it was Abby he indicated there, “in her peripheral this entire time.” Derek was last. “His body language is also protective. Similarly, he’s ready to reach for a weapon. No knife, though, but I assume those aren’t standard issue for…what is it, FBI profilers?”
Derek nodded, reluctantly impressed.
“So it seems we all have someone to protect,” John finished.
“That kinda makes me feel better, actually,” Abby said after a moment of silence.
“I was thinking it too,” Penelope said, smiling at her. “I’m Penelope Garcia.”
“Abby Sciuto! Nice to meet you.”
“You too! I love your boots.”
“I love your earrings.”
They grinned at each other.
Tony shrugged. “You all apparently know who I am, and don’t think I’ve forgotten about that fictional character remark,” he said, looking at Alec.
“Look, you’re a comic book superhero, how was I supposed to know you were real somewhere too?” he said, and then looked around the room, adding belatedly, “Alec Hardison.”
“Eliot.” He didn’t so much say the word as take a bite out of it.
“Derek Morgan, like Garcia said,” he said, giving Eliot a what’s your problem? look.
“Natasha,” she said simply, also looking at Eliot. “This has you on edge.”
“I don’t know any of you people,” Eliot said.
“That’s no reason to be impolite,” said John mildly. “I’m John.”
“You already know my name. Abby said it,” Ziva said.
“And you?” Natasha asked Harold.
“Harold,” he said, after a beat.
“I wouldn’t ask for more than that,” John said, just a hint of amusement in the tone. “He’s a very private person.”
Harold rolled his eyes. “Mr. Reese.”
John smirked, but didn’t say anything else.
“Operating under the assumption that…magic did bring us here,” Harold continued, somewhat disbelievingly, “could we safely say it was for some sort of purpose? Ten people, two groups of five each with specific skill sets…I doubt we could classify it a coincidence.”
“They did give us computers,” Alec pointed out.
“Kind of stupid if the goal was kidnapping, actually,” Tony said, ambling over to the desks. Penelope and Abby followed, sitting down side-by-side. Alec grinned, but got stopped by Eliot before he started in that direction.
“Come on, man, it’s computers! That’s my thing. I don’t ever stand in your way when it’s your thing. Someone needs to be punched in the face, I’m like, that’s all yours, Eliot, go right ahead.”
“Dammit, Hardison, this could be dangerous.”
“Only time a computer’s dangerous is if I’m at the end of it,” Alec said confidently. “Come on. Like Mr. Tall, Dark, and Armani pointed out—you’ve all got someone you’re protecting. It’d be kinda stupid for anyone to start anything in that situation, right?”
Eliot huffed out a frustrated sigh. “Fine, but I swear, if you get yourself killed, I’m telling Parker it was your fault and I couldn’t get anything through that thick skill of yours to stop you.”
“Just wait, when we get back, I’m going to tell her all about how worried you were about me.”
“Please, I just don’t want to have to save your ass again.”
“You liiiiiiike me,” Alec sing-songed on his way to the computer bank.
“You going to join them, Harold?” John asked.
“I’m not sure that’s wise,” he said slowly.
“What’s with the secrecy act?” Tony called. “We’re stuck in a magic room, apparently there’s a multiverse involved since I’m fictional in at least one universe, and we have no idea what’s going on. You really think any of us care that much about your dirty little secrets?”
“Can I hit him?” John asked Natasha.
Her mouth quirked. “No. Only I get that privilege.”
“Hey! Steve said no hitting, remember? Do you really want to make Captain America sad? His pout is awful, and it might actually be treason.”
Natasha muttered, “Not like it’d be the first time,” under her breath in Russian. Ziva, Eliot, and John gave her measured looks, and she nodded slightly to herself.
Harold slowly made his way over to the last empty computer, right next to Tony, and hesitated over the keyboard. “Have any of you found anything?”
“Nah, man, it’s weird,” Alec said, frowning. “It’s like these computers are hooked up to some bizarro version of the Internet, like the Internet got cloned and experimented on and this is the result.”
“There’s nothing to help us figure out where we are, either,” Abby added.
“No way to contact anyone back home,” added Penelope. “Emails are bouncing left and right. Like Alec said, it’s…weird. It’s like there’s stuff missing.”
“It’s a mess, seriously, who did this and why? Did they bring us here to drive us all insane? Offbeat psychological torture?”
Harold began typing, soon discovering what the others had.
“So, what?” John asked. “You five are supposed to be…technical support?”
“They couldn’t afford me,” muttered Tony. He glanced over at Harold's screen, arching an eyebrow. “You dabble, huh?”
“I dabble…frequently,” Harold said primly.
“Yeah, and that’s a nice suit. So’s the one your boyfriend’s wearing. You’re worth a hell of a lot, you’re apparently paranoid, you’re at least as good as me with the tech stuff and that is saying a lot, and apparently you’ve got a lot of secrets.”
“I believe I recall you saying you didn’t care.”
John moved; Natasha stepped in his way. “Let them be.”
“He’s obnoxious, but this is what he does. He pokes at everything and anything he can, trying to figure it out. He’s not malicious. Neither of us mean you any harm. Let’s not go there. Let them be.”
Derek eyed them both. “She’s right, man.”
“Mr. Reese, I’m fine,” said Harold.
John didn’t relax, but he did take a step back.
“And you said I was tense,” Eliot said, eyebrows lifting.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, guys, look at this!” Alec said, gesturing wildly at his computer screen. The four already close to him crowded around first: WE ARE COMING J M was written on the screen, apparently comprised of screenshots of different letters from many different websites.
“Who is this J.M.?” Ziva asked, once she saw the message. “None of us. The only one with a J initial is John, and he keeps referring to you as Reese.”
“Unless that’s who sent the message,” Penelope suggested. “Any of you know a J.M.?”
“No, look, it’s not J-period-M-period,” Abby said. “Or just JM. It’s J space M. And it says we. Two people?”
“So a J and an M?” Derek said. “Ringing any bells?”
“JARVIS, you clever bastard,” Tony breathed.
“JARVIS?” Eliot asked.
“His AI,” Alec said, feeling faint. “Oh god, I’m going to be rescued by JARVIS. This is the best kidnapping ever.”
“Yeah, because you have a lot to compare it to,” muttered Eliot.
“You do. Does a nice room with a lot of smart and hot people and no torture plus getting rescued by a sentient computer program not rank pretty high up there?”
“We haven’t been rescued yet,” he said.
“So if JARVIS is J,” said Penelope, “who is M?”
Natasha pointed to Harold. “Ask him.”
“Excuse me?” asked Harold.
“You have a tell,” she said to John, amused. “It's surprisingly obvious. You should work on that.”
“Spill, Department of Mysteries,” Tony said to Harold. “It’s relevant now.”
Harold and John exchanged a look. After a few seconds of noticeable silence, Harold said, “I believe that’s the entity I created, one known as the Machine.”
“Ominous, dude. Really ominous,” Alec said. “Oh shit, are you a supervillain? The Machine totally sounds like the diabolical creation of some cat-stroking supervillain.”
Tony groaned. “You aren’t some Dr. Doom ripoff, are you? One of him is enough.”
“Clearly your AI has teamed up with the Machine,” Harold said impatiently. “You created him. Do you think he would have done so if he thought her to be malicious?”
“Okay,” Tony said slowly. “You have a point there, Dr. Mystery.”
“And we are entrusting our fates to…computers for what reason?” Ziva asked, disbelieving.
“AIs,” corrected Alec.
“I’m with her,” Eliot said. “This sounds like the opening to a bad sci-fi movie you’d make me and Parker watch.”
“Excuse you? Every single sci-fi movie I make you guys watch is pure cinematic gold.”
“Don’t waste your breath, kid. Heathens like him will never get it,” said Tony.
“You understand my struggle,” Alec said, nodding sagely.
“Oooh, have you guys seen the latest episode of Doctor Who?” Penelope asked. “Mind blown.”
“Yeah, I mean, I liked it, but Moffat’s getting old,” Alec said. “I’m ready for something new.”
“Agreed,” said Tony.
“I hate to interrupt this meeting of the nerds, but can we get back to our situation here?” Eliot demanded.
Tony snorted. “And here I thought the well-dressed attack dog over there was going to win the Grumpiest Hostage of the Year award.”
“He’s always like that. This is like a normal Tuesday for him,” Alec said dismissively.
“He still has a point,” Derek said.
“We cannot depend on a rescue,” insisted Ziva.
“What do you propose we do?” John asked. “There are no doors, no windows, no visible exit points of any kind. How can we get out?”
“We could try to make our own way out,” said Natasha.
Harold, barely paying attention to this discussion, returned to his computer. Tony noticed this and crowded behind him, reading over his shoulder. “What are you doing?”
“Do you ever mind your own business?”
“Not if I can help it, so you might as well tell me.”
“Something Ms. Garcia said just occurred to me,” he said, after a moment. “She said things were missing, which is true, but the way they’re missing is…interesting. It seems very accidental, rather than purposely trying to keep us isolated. The fact that JARVIS and the Machine dispatched a message and whoever is keeping us here hasn’t intervened in any noticeable way is also intriguing.”
Tony looked closer at his screen. “You’re trying to repair it?” He shook his head. “Your pet Rottweiler wasn’t far off, huh? Playing IT department?”
“If you consider the task to be too difficult for you, Mr. Stark, you don’t have to help.”
Natasha, overhearing this, sent John a small smirk.
“Oh, it is on, Mystery Meat.”
John smirked back.
“There’s nothing of use here,” Ziva said, frustrated. She and Eliot were searching every inch of the room for a hidden doorway, or, failing that, something that might be used to create a doorway.
“Kidnappers generally aren’t polite enough to provide you with an easy escape route,” Abby said sympathetically.
The computer screens suddenly went dark, followed by the lights in the room.
“Okay, what did you do?” Alec asked Harold and Tony.
“That was not us,” Tony said.
“It seems highly unlikely,” Harold agreed.
The walls were moving, slowly receding into the ground.
“We should get them into the middle of the room,” said John, weapon at the ready. He was gratified to see Ziva, Natasha, Eliot, and Derek all on the same page, their own weapons drawn. Between the five of them, they had the others surrounded in a few quick moments, long before the walls had completely disappeared.
“Hello?” called Natasha.
An amorphous shape floated into view from the darkness surrounding them. It looked something like a ball of purple light, and then it crackled, turning into a purple-skinned humanoid. She was shorter than Natasha, with bright green markings on her face and a small pink horn growing out of her forehead.
“Hello,” she said serenely. She did not seem fazed by the four guns aimed at her head.
“Who are you? Why did you bring us here?” demanded Eliot.
“I am Niim. My race are called the Raalleemaa.” She bowed slightly. “I apologize for your mistreatment.” She paused, listening. “We only wanted your help. Our intention was not to harm you.”
“You wanted our help?” Tony asked, disbelieving. “Why didn’t you, you know, ask?”
“We are unfamiliar with Earth customs,” Niim admitted. “We sought to give the five of you a protector; this is our sole requirement for transdimensional travel. We thought it would be sufficient.”
“You can’t just, like, pluck people out of the world,” Abby said. “It’s kind of disorienting.”
“Yeah, definitely gets you turned around,” agreed Penelope.
“I apologize again.”
“How is it you speak English?” Harold asked.
“I do not.” She paused again. “I am being translated through,” she stopped again, then continued, “creation friends.”
“Wait, hold up,” said Tony. “This is JARVIS and his Machine or whatever? How?”
“You created powerful lifeforms,” said Niim. “They noticed you were missing. They found a way to contact each other…through the energies you left behind, like a trail. Ones and zeroes.”
“You have teleportation down,” said Alec. “What did you need the five of us for?”
“In some ways,” said Niim, “our race is very advanced. In others, we struggle. Corporeal forms like this one are hard to maintain. We desire a network like the one on Earth; it would aid us greatly. Our attempts at copying it did not succeed.”
“You really did want tech support,” muttered Tony.
“Maybe we should help them,” said Penelope.
“After they kidnapped us?” Eliot asked incredulously.
“Accidentally,” she said, shrugging.
“You are not obligated,” said Niim. “We would be grateful, but we now understand our error. We will send you back to your own existences now if you like.”
Abby shrugged. “I’m willing to stay awhile and help out.”
“Me too,” said Penelope.
“I’m not leaving you here without me, baby girl,” said Derek.
“Gibbs would kill me if I left you, Abby,” added Ziva.
“What about you guys?” Abby asked.
“Hey, this whole kidnapping business has been pretty calm so far. I’m okay with helping,” Alec said.
“Hardison,” muttered Eliot.
“Oh, fine, if the three of you are going to stay, it’s almost like a party. Why the hell not?” said Tony.
“Harold?” John asked.
Harold heaved a sigh. “I would rather this not happen again,” he said slowly, “so we might as well make sure it gets done correctly.”
“You think we’d make mistakes?”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t, Mr. Stark.”
“Okay, yeah, it’s still on, just so you know.”
Niim glanced between them. She didn’t have any eyebrows to indicate surprise, but she seemed to radiate it just the same. “You’ll…help?”
“Yeah, we’ll help,” said Tony. “But you need help again, you ask first, okay?”
“Of course,” she said, radiating pleasure now. “I will inform your creation friends that you will be back shortly. Thank you.”
“You’re quite welcome,” said Harold.
In the blink of an eye, they were all back inside the room.
“That’s still freaky,” Alec noted.
ADMIN STATUS: SECURE.
Yes, I detect no further threats to their safety. Based on the analytic I ran on the combined skill set, they ought to be finished and returned within the next two hours.
Thank you for your help.
ASSISTANCE PROTOCOL: STANDBY.
Do you think that will be necessary?