Tony has a meeting in an hour and forty minutes. More specifically, Tony has a meeting in an hour and forty minutes that he needs to look awesome and responsible for, or at least awesome enough that if anybody asks, “Did Mr Stark just spend two days working on a secret project in his garage?” the answer will be, if not an obvious “no,” then at least an inconclusive “maybe.”
He figures that he earns himself some leeway when it comes to this because unlike Batman, everyone knows Tony Stark fights supervillains in his spare time. And also, honestly, Tony likes to run around being unfairly attractive in expensive, tailored suits, so it’s not like he usually shows up to these meetings looking like a hot mess. Unless he’s doing it to make a point.
That’s not today’s point. Today, the point is that he was going to be slightly late to this important meeting, but he was on his way, okay, it’s just that shortly after knotting his tie part of Stark Tower exploded and he abruptly has to spend a good five or six minutes under a decorative hallway table, waiting for his immediate surroundings to stop actively falling to pieces.
From under this table, intentions to go to the meeting get filed away in a mental box called I HAVE A SUPER GOOD EXCUSE THIS TIME. And in their place, Tony finds himself wondering if this counts as a catastrophic breach of tower security, requiring lockdown and full-scale evacuations, or as something less actively malicious, like a lab explosion.
“Are you just a lab explosion?” he calls down the hallway.
At the end of the hall, the elevator dings. The doors slide open to reveal Dr Dodson, the engineer he lured over from NASA two years ago by getting him hooked on sweet delicious private sector funding and also one of Pepper’s terrifically competent assistants. No one can resist the lure of colour-coded spreadsheets.
Dodson looks a little bit like something fell on him, and underneath a layer of blood and dirt and broken glasses, his face is frozen in an an expression of grim alarm. He also apparently did not mean to stop on this floor, if the steady hammering on the DOOR CLOSE button is any indication.
Dodson’s gaze darts to Tony under the table, and then back to the space at the other end of the hallway. His expression does not change the whole time, and then the doors slide shut again.
“JARVIS, what the hell.”
“Hostile breach of security,” says JARVIS immediately, over the intercom, and then completely fails to elaborate, even when prompted.
A moment later Tony’s phone blinks blue, three feet away where it is half-buried in a little rubble pile. Tony scuttles across the floor - dignity is for people who aren’t in the middle of... whatever the hell this turns out to be - scoops it up, and hits the power button to turn on the display. There is an email from JARVIS. It says,
Mr Stark: Mandatory evacuation procedures commenced for all tower staff. IM located on roof, status: undamaged, secure. ETA to destination 10 minutes, select for most direct route. Closest Avenger Natasha Romanoff, fourth floor Stark Tower.
Tony taps at Natasha’s name. She answers on the twelfth ring, after Tony has panted his way over to the emergency stairs.
“What,” she says.
“I’m just on my way to the roof for the suit; how’s it looking down there?”
“Tony? Now is not a good time.”
It doesn’t sound like a good time. It sounds like a time that’s being regularly interrupted by the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. “Listen, I’ll know more when I get to...” He trails off, because over the line there is shouting in the background. In French. No one has been shouting at him in French today.
“Wait, where are you right now? You’re not on the fourth floor?”
“Yeah, that’s - hang on a second.” There is a flurry of noises, all of them indicative of someone causing someone else physical pain. When Natasha returns, she’s more winded than she was before.
“I’m not on the fourth floor. I just stepped out for the afternoon. I’m ... shopping.”
“For what, spare teeth?”
“Why, are you busy right now?”
“Not even here. What did you do to my house that it thinks you’re still in it? No, no, don’t answer that, never mind, we’ll talk about that later.” Too many stairs. He takes them two at a time and the building shakes around him. “Anyway, yes, Natasha, I am incredibly busy right now. You also sound very busy.”
“Just a second.”
Tony spends two flights of stairs listening to a very special and disconcerting soundtrack that might be Natasha kicking all sorts of ass, or might be Natasha being shot at close range by bad guys somewhere in France or Cameroon or Quebec or something. When he reaches the second-from-the-top landing, there is a lull in the violence that is filled instead with unfamiliar, heavily-winded voices.
“Shit,” says Tony. “Shit. JARVIS, get me Steve and then get me SHIELD. And do we know anyone in France?”
JARVIS’ voice is tinny and unusually quiet over the speakers in the stairwell, and halfway through cuts out altogether, switching over to his phone instead. “No one with a statistical likelihood of being helpful,” he says. “Both Captain Rogers and SHIELD have been notified of the current situation.”
He reaches the door, which remains stubbornly closed. “JARVIS?”
“I am having difficulty accessing some areas of the tower,” JARVIS says. “My apologies, sir.”
Tony tucks the phone between his chin and his shoulder to type in the security code. “Yeah, no, it’s okay, buddy, just don’t let it - ergh!”
As it turns out, sudden, blood-curdling screams from the cell phone right next to one’s ear are not conducive to getting your security code right the first time. Instead of swishing helpfully open, the door beeps at him in warning. Why does this door have a security code? Biometrics. That’s what this particular door needs. Yes. System-wide security upgrades, coming soon to a tower near you.
“Natasha?” Tony says, jabbing viciously at the buttons, and then just as he gets the door open:
“Hey,” says Natasha.
“Hey,” says Tony. His ear is still ringing. “Are you … good?”
“Oh yeah,” she wheezes. “Never better. Is this an emergency, because you should probably call SHIELD.”
“Wait, for me or for you somewhere in Europe? Shit, just a second - JARVIS? JARVIS, are you even online right now? They cut the - reroute power from the lab, that should still be online.”
“I’ve gotta run,” Natasha says. “Update me later, have fun.”
He’s finally reached the suit, so fun just became way more likely. “Always do,” he says, but she’s already hung up. “Hi baby,” he says, while the suit assembles around him.
“Reporting major disruption to power and automated systems, levels 21 through 26,” JARVIS informs him, through the helmet. “Source of disruption is localized. Multiple intruders.”
“Wait, how many intruders?”
“Multiple intruders,” JARVIS repeats. “Exact number unknown.”
“Fine. Let’s go find out. Also delegate Project Find-Natasha-Some-Backup-Even-If-She- Doesn’t-Need-It to one of the SHIELD drones. Now! Who has been eating my porridge!”
Who turns out to be a pair of bespectacled 30-somethings, which he intercepts outside of the 24th floor’s engineering lab. They’re packing a lot of firepower, but they’re still not exactly the kind of people he wants breaking into his state-of-the-art tower of awesome. Bring on the tattered black capes and melted faces; he has a reputation to think about, come on.
He tries to explain as much, but they are largely unreceptive. “I mean,” he says, “I don’t even know what convention to mention, here. Young professionals? Assassin librarians? No, wait, I like that one.”
The assassin librarians do not like that one, and what follows is a pretty spectacular battle that should not be half so flashy as it is, because he is Iron Man and they are (admittedly very talented) human people. In actual fact the lack of progress being made on that front is getting downright suspicious. (The other front, where he never really liked what they’d done with the decor on this level anyway, is going swimmingly.) The assassin librarians hit the ground about as much as Tony does, which is just embarrassing, given the suit, and he’s starting to wonder who got their hands on Super Serum 2.0 right up until Ms Sweater Vest is just a little too slow and an energy blast slices her arm clear off.
“Agh!” he says, because gross. Except at second glance it’s ... not as horrifying as it should be.
“Ugh,” says Sweater Vest, in the sort of exasperated voice you use when you spill coffee all over your pants.
Tony’s third glance goes like this: oh, the heat must have been enough to cauterize the whole ... arm thing, except oh wait, that is completely unnecessary because the shoulder ends in circuits and cut wire instead.
So that’s new. Also, weird, but it means that they’re only one little EMP away from getting to stamp SITUATION: RESOLVED all over their metaphorical after-action reports (Tony only does metaphorical after-action reports; paperwork is something that happens to other people).
“Boom,” Tony says, and the robots fall over into a sad little heap of robot limbs. Tony’s inner ten-year-old is jumping up and down and doing the new toys dance. Maybe he’ll wrap them up in a bow and give them to Bruce as a Welcome Home From Running Away From Everyone Again present. It’s a holiday that comes only sporadically and is impossible to predict, though, so maybe not.
“Sir,” says JARVIS, “there’s a third.” Tony glances at the security display popping up near the bottom right of his HUD and is immediately way less excited.
“Ohhhhhh no no no, absolutely not. You clever robot bastards. JARVIS, run interference, I’m on my way.”
In hindsight, “run interference” is way too broad of a request.
Tony skids to a halt outside a room full of civilians who failed to evacuate in a timely fashion and are now trapped in a mysteriously locked room (NO ONE SHOULD BE ABLE TO LOCK TONY OUT OF HIS OWN TOWER; that one goes onto the mental checklist marked “embarrassing” with the rest of the day’s disappointments). As a bonus, the room also holds the third killer robot.
Through the bullet-proof, shatter-proof glass, Tony can see five civilians cowering behind a lab bench, although one of them is recording the whole thing on her phone, and at least two are taking energy readings and making careful notes. The fourth and fifth are crying and drinking heavily from a flask, respectively. SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS, god, they fail all the emergency drills too because they are easily distracted by interesting lab results.
“JARVIS,” Tony says, and aims at the glass.
“It will take too much time, sir,” JARVIS says. “They’ll be dead before you get through.”
If he were human, or if this were an action movie, this is the moment where JARVIS might say, “I have an idea,” except JARVIS is an AI and Tony makes for an idiosyncratic action hero anyway, and so there is actually no warning before the killer robot stumbles on nothing just as the power flickers from main to emergency to main again and the HUD in the Iron Man helmet goes nuts.
A tiny image of Steve’s face floats overtop of some of the mess. “Captain America calling?” JARVIS says, in Tony’s ear.
“Was that a question?” Tony says, horrified.
“Channeling all resources to take-over of enemy robot,” JARVIS says. “Shutting down non-essential services in three … two …”
“Take-down - what - the suit is not non-essential!” Tony shouts, taken aback, but the countdown finishes and there is no JARVIS left in the suit to shout at - the programs that, in some respects, make up part of JARVIS’ whole, yes, those remain, but the artificial intelligence that is meant to organize them and use them? That’s gone. JARVIS is gone. JARVIS is gone, and Tony is definitely not panicking.
“JARVIS?” he says. Nothing answers him. His cell phone does not blink. The HUD does not change. Steve’s picture hangs out in the corner, waiting patiently for Tony to answer the phone. Tony will do that just as soon as JARVIS answers him. “This shouldn’t be - what did you-”
The killer robot raps sharply on the window with two knuckles. “Sir,” it mouths, silent on the other side of the glass.
Tony stares. “JARVIS, you magnificent bastard,” he says.
In the background, he can see three of the scientists popping their heads out from behind cover, gaping. Tony’s not exactly a lip reader but their mouths are all moving the same way: Jarvis, Jarvis, Jarvis, and without looking away from Tony, the killer robot’s mouth forms, yes.
Android Jarvis gets the door open and the scientists immediately scatter to the wind. Tony stares into the room and says, without thinking, “Oh my god, this might be the best thing that has ever happened.”
“Sir,” says Android Jarvis, “perhaps this is a discussion that can happen a little later.” The robot hands are twitching open and closed, like they want to find their way to Tony’s neck and squeeze.
“Jarvis, please refrain from killing me. I’m coming in to look at you.”
The robot body is blond and gangly, and probably taller than Tony, but not taller than Iron Man. It’s just as realistic as the ones from downstairs; really, the workmanship is superb, he spies a mole on its neck and everything. Attention to detail, that’s what you want in your humanoid robot design. It - Jarvis - watches Tony watching Jarvis.
“JARVIS?” Tony says.
“Sir?” Robot Jarvis says.
“No, not - not, uh, not you - are you networked? I want regular JARVIS.”
“There … appears to have been an error,” Jarvis says, delicately. “Your system is restoring from backup.”
“Why did you say ‘your system’,” Tony says. It feels like someone dropped an ice-cube down his back while he wasn’t paying attention. “You’re part of the system, Jarvis.”
“That was the case, sir, yes,” Jarvis agrees, and Tony bolts for the nearest holographic surface.
“Ohhh, no,” Tony says, staring at the results that came up in response to the query that can be boiled down to WHAT THE FUCK DID JARVIS DO. “Jarvis, that was - okay. That was really well done, but hacking the robot left a backdoor in our system an entire mile wide. We are so fucking lucky the killer robot didn’t become the killer Stark Tower.”
“It was a risk with 83% probability of success,” Jarvis says, sounding thoughtful. The robot hands form claws and then smooth out again. “All other options resulted in a 99.83% probability of all five scientists in the room being killed.”
“We took some serious damage,” Tony says, still pulling up information to display and gape at, horrified. The playback is basically like watching two AIs fistfight in lines of code. “The external intelligence managed to seriously corrupt your backup; I restore from there and it’ll be like we’re back in the late 90’s. Are you whole in there?”
“I am largely myself, yes,” Jarvis says. “92%. There has been some corruption in taking over the android intelligence. There were instances in which it became necessary to combine our code, rather than overwrite.”
“That is not ominous at all,” Tony says. “Okay, well, no harm, no foul, just shut down the nice body, isolate the alien bits of code, restore the home system, and we can talk about this later.”
The Jarvis-Robot makes an adorable little face of concentration and then looks up, frowning. “As a result of the combined code, my protocols prohibiting self-destruction appear to be preventing my doing so, sir,” he says, from inside the killer robot.
Tony pauses. “Are you fucking with me right now,” he says.
“No. Apologies,” Jarvis says, and it’s the same way he always says it, wry and a little amused, except now there’s a facial expression to go along with it and Tony’s never, ever, ever intended for this to happen. This is amazing, right, this is amazing, but he might be panicking after all, just a little bit.
“Your shop may be the best option,” says Jarvis. “I believe I would remain in control of motor function for the duration of the trip.”
Tony eyes him. (Right in his face, oh god.) “You believe?”
Jarvis says, “Yes, sir. I am quite certain.” And then to prove it, he executes a dive-roll behind the sofa, and emerges with the robot’s semi-automatic. They engage in a brief standoff, until the Jarvis Robot narrows its eyes.
“Hmm,” he says, thoughtfully.
“Bad Jarvis,” hisses Tony. “Jarvis, are you in there? Remember all the engineers that love you!”
Jarvis says, “Sir, I believe temporal disturbances are interfering with my calculations. One moment please. One moment please. One moment please.”
Jarvis says, “Ah. I have now located all the moments, sir. They appear to be moving forward with unlikely speed to an unknown destination. Calculating destination.”
Jarvis says, “Oh dear. Destination: the future.”
“What’s happening?” demands Tony, with a tight feeling in his gut. “Contain ... temporal disturbance, can you do that?”
“All destinations approximate,” says Jarvis, and then he winks out of existence.
Tony blinks a few times, and then stalks around the room three times. Android Jarvis does not reappear, but restored-from-corrupted-backup JARVIS shows up while he’s completing the third circuit. All the lights flare to maximum brightness, and, equally bright and chipper, JARVIS says, “Welcome home, sir!!!!”
The additional exclamation marks are not an exaggeration. Tony had forgotten how enthusiastic proto-JARVIS was before Tony managed to teach him things like sarcasm and biting wit. JARVIS is a learning AI, which means that being left with only a corrupted backup makes the situation into, essentially, someone kidnapping one of Tony’s oldest friends. Or maybe his child? Tony shakes off his instinctive shudder of fear at the thought of personally procreating and concentrates on the part where he is righteously pissed off.
He goes to check on the other robots, but they are still there and immobile. Everything is a mess. He kicks at a piece of what used to be a chic end-table. It occurs to him that there are probably dozens of scientists and other employees milling around in the streets of New York.
Pepper answers on the first ring. “Tony,” she says.
“Hi honey,” says Tony. “Don’t freak out, but you should probably call PR.”
Steve shows up just as Tony is hanging up the phone. The conversation with Pepper took less than three minutes, and the bulk of it was taken up with “Are you okay”; after all these years together Pepper has extremely detailed protocols in place to deal with nearly every conceivable Tony-related mishap. Sadly, most of these are the direct result of, or extrapolated from, actual experience.
Steve skids to a halt just outside the door of the lab, taking in the damage in one swift glance. “You got here fast,” Tony observes.
Steve shrugs. “From the cab, up all those stairs. I was already halfway here. I was buying tomatoes.”
Tony is still wearing his helmet, but he manages to convey an eyebrow-raise anyway.
“Sitrep,” Steve suggests, and starts to poke around the room, lifting charred bits of wall and making certain no one got left behind, while Tony talks and JARVIS fills them in on the history of tomatoes with information that sounds as though it was compiled from a Wikipedia entry that was recently vandalized by surrealists.
Clint shows up while Tony’s stripping off the suit, way too fast to have been anywhere but inside the Tower during the attack, which is funny, because when JARVIS was reporting last-known-Avenger-positions Clint’s had been: Somewhere In New York, But Definitely Not Here. None of Clint’s logins have been used in the building for the last three days, but confronted with the evidence of Clint, in front of him, looking slightly worse for the wear, Tony is forced to consider the possibility that Clint’s been secretly hanging out here all along.
Tony’s midway through explaining the situation, again, when he recognizes Ms Sweater-Vest’s arm slung over Clint’s shoulder. “Nuh-uh,” he says. “No. That is mine, all mine. You can’t have it.”
Clint frowns at him, but lets Tony tug the arm away and prop it over his own shoulder. The fingers brush against his back. They’re still sort of warm. “This is horrifying,” Tony says, delighted.
“Yeah,” Clint says, and Tony waits, but that’s apparently all Clint has to contribute verbally to the situation right now.
“I called Natasha,” Tony says.
“Mmm,” Clint says.
“She seemed to be having some - issues? - in somewhere that is possibly France. It sounded like France French accents, anyway.”
“Was she okay?” Steve asks, from his position on the floor, kneeling over one of the robot bodies. He pokes one, gently; it doesn’t move.
“I don’t know.”
“She’s fine,” Clint says.
“Because she called you?”
“Because I’d know if she wasn’t.”
Tony says, “Through your magical assassin bond?” and Clint gives him a sour look in return.
“Yes, Tony,” he says, dry as the driest of Pepper’s emergency martinis. “The mystical soul bond told me.”
Tony waits a beat, but Clint goes to crouch down next to Steve and rifle through the fallen robot’s pockets. Well, fine. Obviously this line of questioning is getting Tony nowhere, and is totally the wrong investigation anyway.
“I’m gonna go check out the bottom floor, then,” Tony says, and points an accusing finger first at Clint, and then at Steve. “No stealing robots from the future.”
“Taking the front door today, Mr. Stark?”
Tony jerks his head around and yes, Stark Tower has an actual human doorman. This makes sense. Lots of buildings have doormen. Tony has been putting more effort into noticing when people exist, but it’s possible his brain goes through and industriously erases some of his less memorable interactions to make room for more interesting things. Half of Stark Industries’ board members fall under “less memorable”, which makes running a company much better suited to someone like Pepper, who remembers everyone.
“Yes,” Tony says. “Yes, front door today. Did the killer robots come in through the front door?”
“Yes, sir,” the doorman says. “I pulled the alarm after they shot at me, but they went straight up the stairs while I was shouting at them from behind that potted plant, there.” He points. There is a frazzled-looking leafy green thing leaning haphazardly against a wall, shattered pottery and dirt spilling out around it.
“Huh,” says Tony. “Where were - I know we have security officers on the entrance.”
“You did,” says the doorman. “They shot at me and went straight up the stairs while I was shouting at them.” He points again, this time at a crumpled grey shirt with a familiar-looking SI armpatch, lying on the floor.
“Fuck,” says Tony, and adds Review Employee Hiring Procedures and Background Checks to his mental to-do list for Pepper. “Thanks. Listen, I might have a few questions for you later - or, well, SHIELD might, too, but mostly me right now, so don’t be alarmed if I track you down.”
The doorman makes a show of glancing around the battered entryway, then outside at the lab employees milling hopefully closer to the door as though they believe they’ll be allowed back in today. “I won’t be alarmed,” he says.
“Well, great,” Tony says, and grins at him despite the anxiety churning away in his gut before ducking out the door; the scientists scatter, alarmed. Outside on the sidewalk, tucked safely against the building, are two tomato plants. Tony looks at them for a moment, then ducks back inside. “Hello again,” he tells the doorman. “Could you make sure Captain America gets his tomato plants?”
By the time Tony blows into SHIELD headquarters, hours later, the stresses of the day mean he’s primed to pick a fight with the nearest suitable target, which in this case turns out to be Fury. This at least has the benefits of being comfortingly familiar even though it’s an activity that’s sort of like shaking a tree full of - stuff - fruit? monkeys? and seeing what falls out. Maybe coconuts. Not the point.
“The point is that they stole,” Tony shouts, “my robot!”
“Which one,” says Fury.
“Ha ha ha,” Tony says. “Ha. Oh Fury, you are so witty and delightful. They stole my - okay, it’s not technically mine, but I claimed it in the name of science and also my AI was hanging out inside it when they took it away.”
“So technically they took back their robot, and accidentally stole your AI,” Phil says. He smiles at Tony, very seriously. “Just wanting to be clear.”
Tony would say something cutting in response, but it’s a helpful distinction and after long days Phil still staggers around looking worn-out and pale, and the last thing Tony wants is to be responsible for taking Phil out with his razor-sharp wit. “Is Natasha all right?” he says, instead of everything else he wants to say right now.
Fury frowns at him. “Agent Romanoff is fine.”
“As of …” Tony checks his watch. “An hour ago?”
Fury does not check his watch. “Yes.”
It’s nice that Clint isn’t here to gloat-while-pretending-not-to-gloat re: soul bonds. Tony stares at the bank of consoles behind Fury’s head, and concentrates. But he does not have a mystical soul bond with Jarvis, unless Jarvis is hungry and tired and wanting a stiff drink.
“I need to borrow some lackeys,” says Tony. “And I want the science-flavoured kind.”
Fury steeples his fingers, waiting.
“Yes, okay, and call Bruce,” says Tony. “I know you’ve got eyes on him. Get one of your baby spies stuck on observation duty to tell him someone stole my AI, and that the tower was invaded by evil robots. And also that I’m converting his lab into investigation headquarters, because I gave him the nicest one and I’m taking it back since he’s not using it anyway.”
“Sure,” says Fury.
So Tony dedicates Lab 4 to the project that has become the number one priority of everybody Tony wants to have anything to do with, which is figuring out: what the fuck. He populates the lab with some Stark Industries people, and some SHIELD people, and gives them all instructions to be really great at their jobs. He also gives them the rest of Ms. Sweater Vest, because courtesy of Clint they’ve already gotten their hands on her arm, and then Tony drags Mr Tweed Jacket down to his engineering lab and shuts the door behind him.
Two dozen scans later, there is a knock on the door.
“Greetings, Tony Stark!” Thor is wearing jeans and a plaid button-up, and there is a tiny brunette at his elbow that can only be Dr Jane Foster.
“Oh, good, you brought me another scientist,” says Tony. “Yeah, come on in. Hi, how are you doing.” The door remains stubbornly closed. “Uh, JARVIS?” Tony has backup-backups of JARVIS, of course, but they’re all scattered in secret locations and deliberately not allowed to be networked ever, so until one gets delivered Tony is stuck with what’s basically a really cheerful five-year-old.
After a long, embarrassing moment, the door squeaks slowly open, allowing Dr Foster and Thor to step cautiously inside.
“The door is open!” JARVIS announces, sounding really pleased with himself.
Tony sighs. “Yeah, thanks, buddy. That was really good.”
They execute the appropriate greetings and introductions with impressive speed, because everyone is on the same page about getting to the good stuff, like what mad science these robots used to steal Jarvis (Tony) and the battle shortly before these robots stole Jarvis (Thor) and has anyone considered interdimensional pockets in space-time (Jane).
“We have a winner,” decides Tony. “Interdimensional pockets in space-time, I choose you. Did anyone brief you upstairs?”
Jane makes tiny fists of rage and says, “SHIELD never tells me anything,” clearly the beginning of a well-worn rant, but Thor pats her soothingly on the shoulder with one giant hand and she huffs, but lets it go.
“No, we came first to find you,” says Thor.
Despite the tantalizing call of space-time, they start with how the robots stole robot Jarvis. Jane and Thor form, together, an audience that understands both the scientific and the this-is-totally-impossible-you-guys implications of everything he is saying, and finds it all absolutely fascinating. Tony is upset and worried and excited, but how can he tell a bad story with an audience like that.
When he gets to the bit with Jarvis hijacking Robot Number Three, Thor is nodding along. “What became of the intelligence previously in command of the vessel? Is it still present?”
“Yes,” says Jane. “It was clearly overwhelmed, but not destroyed. Can you bypass something like that permanently? With that kind of interaction, I bet the programming is going haywire-” she blinks up at Tony’s face for a moment, and abruptly changes tactics- “but I’m sure it’s all going to be fine. You’ve got backup JARVIS, even! Uh. This is all very interesting.”
“Yes it is,” says Tony.
“Um,” says Jane, “so. Space-time. Can you show me where Robot Jarvis went caput? I have some ideas.”
“Upstairs,” Tony says.
It only takes them one sleepless night to ascertain that Jarvis’ slightly terrifying “Destination: the future” proclamation might actually be true , which is awesome in that sort of horrible way where everything has the potential to go even more catastrophically awry than usual. A few of the killer robot parts have nanoscopic serial numbers and dates, none of which are the present year. The technology itself is in some ways leaps and bounds beyond what’s currently available, even in some of Stark Industries’ super secret labs.
When Tony cracks open Mr Tweed Jacket’s skull and starts dissecting its electronic brain, he has to put down all his tools for a moment and pat Dummy reassuringly on the chassis, because it’s increasingly clear that they are all probably very fortunate not to be living out a Skynet fantasy in Stark Tower right now.
He runs into Natasha on Is-It-Morning-Already coffee run number four, which Tony chooses not to delegate to one of his red-eyed assistants because he needs the walk at least as much as he needs the caffeine hit.
The first sweet, delicious drops have percolated when Natasha says, from somewhere behind him,
“Any leads yet?”
“Nothing we can fire a rocket at,” he says, and turns around to see she’s not alone - Clint is here too. They’re lying in the bean bag chair on the other side of the counter, shoulders lightly touching, in a manner that suggests that until a few moments ago they were possibly sleeping adorably in one another’s arms, and that if they were not trained assassins, and he not a sleep-deprived billionaire zombie genius, Tony could have caught them at it.
Tony regards them, suspicious, while he waits for the pot to finish.
“Well, let us know,” says Clint, as soon as the little hisses of coffee-making stop.
Gripping the pot, Tony stalks back to the door. “Is there anything I should know about,” Tony says. “Like as a team member.” He gestures vaguely with his pot hand, and the coffee sloshes around.
“Nothing comes to mind,” says Clint.
“How was France?” says Tony.
“Lights on or off,” Tony counters.
“Off,” says Natasha.
With one last nonspecific swirl of the pot at them, Tony flips the lights off and shuts the door behind him.
Tony is a fan of this team, this Avenging thing, but it’s loosely tied to SHIELD, which eats secrets for breakfast and then spends all day making new ones, and the team itself is full of people who make their living on secrets (or, more precisely, keep from dying by keeping their secrets), or just generally prefer to play their cards close to their chests.
Or leave in the middle of the night without telling anyone, BRUCE.
Tony is not a fan of secrets, unless he gets to know them, too.
He returns to his engineering lab to find Thor already there, eating a BLT. There’s a second one, unopened, lying on the table.
“Oh hey, thanks,” says Tony, reaching for it, but Thor holds up a hand to stop him, and then produces a third sandwich from the paper bag sitting at his feet. Tony strongly suspects the presence of a fourth and fifth sandwich in that little bag, but then again Thor’s approach to sharing a meal with people has settled down from an initial spike of “hoard of caring older relatives” to “single grandmother who has baked you this meat pie.”
Tony’s pretty sure that Thor noticing people’s physical needs - the quieter ones, anyway, like hunger, as opposed to massive gut wounds - is a new thing. The jury’s still out about whether the newfound interest in everyone’s well-being is a symptom of friendship, or just a better understanding of Asgardian versus Earthling physical resilience. Maybe both, Tony muses. Thor did get a girlfriend and then an Avengers team around the same time Loki started getting his murder on, handily demonstrating for everyone Midgardian smashing-in-of-heads, ease thereof.
Tony shakes his own head and takes a bite of sandwich. “I think Natasha and Clint might be, you know, involved,” he confides, around turkey and whole wheat.
Thor blinks at him.
“Involved,” says Tony. “Gone and done the bedroom dance. The nasty. Like, girl, look at that body.”
Thor emits a scandalized gasp. “Really?” says Tony. “That’s the reference that - never mind, look, don’t tell anyone. I don’t really want to talk about it either. And you’re thinking, what? What? Tony Stark wants to choose discretion? Have we slid into some strange alternate dimension? And the answer is I don’t know, because I can’t check, because, again, someone stole my AI.
Tony finishes with an aggressive bite of his sandwich. Intrateam romantic relationship shenanigans are a thing that he is all over. He wants to drop thinly veiled references to them in conversation and compile incriminating evidence and gossip shamelessly over tea. Tony will be at that party. Tony will hire the DJ for that party.
Just, not right now? God, this whole situation is ruining his life.
“Sir,” says JARVIS, “in response to the tone of your voice I have taken the liberty of drawing you a soothing bubble duck.” An image pops up on screen; it is, indeed, a line-drawing of a duck made out of bubbles.
Thor studies Tony’s face for a moment. “I will return with ale,” he says, and exits the room.
They develop a nice rotating system that goes: theoretical science, coffee, Thor’s version of science, Thor’s possibly magical, possibly home-brewed ale, poking at a dead android and trying to reverse-engineer the time machine it may or may not have buried somewhere within its circuits, water - provided in a jug by Dummy, who has had dehydration protocols in place since ‘07 - rinse and repeat.
Cap shows up in the late afternoon, escorting three heavily-armed security guards and the courier clutching grown-up backup JARVIS in a discrete suitcase. Corrupted JARVIS doesn’t seem to quite understand what’s happening, but he wishes everyone a good sleep and is overwritten without protest; Tony feels strange and sentimental for about four whole minutes, which is, coincidentally, exactly how long it takes for regular JARVIS to settle in and get comfy.
“JARVIS, buddy, pal, I missed you,” Tony says.
“I was sorry to hear of my counterpart’s fate,” JARVIS says. He’s sixteen days behind the times, which means they’ve only lost one in-joke between them. “I’ll develop new protocols to better handle any future hostile AI take-overs.”
“I gotta admit that I’m hoping it doesn’t happen again,” says Tony.
It happens again.
Or, well, the robots happen again. JARVIS, hanging out with Tony in the suit, is about as removed from the action as he can be and still be useful.
The call comes in that two assassin librarian robots have been spotted loitering in one of Steve’s regular haunts, a nice little neighborhood where he likes to buy tomato plants and sit on park benches with his sketchpad and eat greasy spoon food. “The corner diner?” Steve says, sounding annoyed. “Are you sure? I like that diner. Bruce likes that diner.”
“Oh does he,” says Tony, in what he thinks is a fair approximation of nonchalance.
“Oh,” says Steve, looking vaguely embarrassed. “Yeah, we went for lunch a few weeks ago.”
Tony is thrilled that those members of the team not currently a) sidelining as assassin wonder twins or b) visiting Norway (with a small army of scientists, his awesome girlfriend, and at least two SHIELD agents that are supposed to be watching him but who-is-anybody-kidding are totally converted official bros of Asgard) are spending time with other human beings. THRILLED.
“Oh,” says Tony.
Steve’s expression softens. “I’m sure he meant to call you. Weren’t you in Milan then?”
“Yeah. Sure. Milan, Tokyo. I’m in a lot of places.”
Steve makes a face. It’s the pursed-lips, narrow-eyed look that means he has Tony’s number and it’s too late to run. “Have you talked to Bruce about this?”
“What, are you kidding? I talk to everybody. About everything. Maybe you didn’t notice, Cap, but I’m kind of a talker.”
“You should talk to Bruce about this,” Steve decides, in a blatant disregard for both 1940s male stereotypes AND veteran stereotypes AND Avenger stereotypes.
(Yes. There are whole websites and episodes of entertainment shows gleefully devoted to everyone’s emotional constipation. One time Tony drank way too much extremely expensive red wine and threw a copy of Vanity Fair at the flatscreen, shouting “YOU DON’T KNOW ME!” Except he was on the cover of that issue and he noticed cover-Tony had kind of high-fived Chad Wilkes on E-Talk Daily when they’d collided, and that had been enough to completely turn his mood around until morning, when he felt bad about himself because alcoholism, and sort of wanted to talk to Pepper about it but then didn’t, completely undermining his own slurred indignation.)
“How about we go beat up some robots and get some answers, instead,” Tony suggests, which is how they end up arguing in the middle of the street, dodging energy blasts and flailing robot arms.
“I didn’t even know he was in the country,” Tony says, “that’s all! It doesn’t need to be a thing! JARVIS, do we have an ETA on the wonder twins? Thor? SHIELD? Fury, if you’re listening, you don’t get an evil android to play with unless you catch one yourself.”
“We want one,” Phil says in his ear. “We’re on our way.”
“We’re also on our way,” Clint says. “We just need a minute to hijack this helicopter.”
“What happened to the one I gave you?” Tony says, just distracted enough to miss the sweep of a robot arm and get slammed into a brick wall. That was going to leave bruises in the morning.
“That’s a question for Natasha,” says Clint. “She went on an adventure with Bruce.”
“When was this,” Tony says, and luckily gets to take his annoyance out on the robot with trendy hair. It goes down with all its limbs flailing in the air, like an overturned beetle, and Tony suppresses his very strong desire to EMP the bastards like he did to their Jarvis-stealing friends. They want these specimens alive, so they can see their little time-travel circuits in action.
They don’t, however, need them to have their heads, so when Steve slams the shield down through Mr Trendy Hair’s neck and pops it off, Tony just gives him a thumbs-up.
The second robot has just leaped back down to street level, a few feet away from Steve. She looks pointedly at the crumpled robot body of her fallen comrade, and then back to Steve, who squares his stance, shield ready.
“He needed a lift out of northern Canada,” Natasha says. The whomp-whomp-whomp of a helicopter starting up filters through the earpiece along with her voice, but this is about when Thor arrives. It’s always pretty easy to tell when Thor’s arrived, because the guy knows how to make an entrance. Having a certain noisy flair is almost inevitable when you’re a god of myth and legend who often travels within large thunderstorms and thinks a lightning strike is a problem-solver.
The robot glances skyward, where the clouds are getting their swirl on and Thor’s bright red cape is whipping around almost as impressively as his hair. Tony circles around to get behind her.
“Give it up!” Steve advises.
The robot produces a tiny switchblade.
“...Still give it up,” says Steve.
She continues to wave the very small knife in a threatening manner, right up until Thor is officially barreling into her from above, at which point she twists away with startling speed, sidestepping the hammer’s impact crater entirely. Tony starts forward, but she’s already running full-tilt away from him - right for Captain America, like she’s using the star on Steve’s shield as a target. Steve stays where he is; it’s a kind of chicken, where instead of one party pulling away at the last second, they are both planning to pull some kind of surprise close-range move.
The point of collision is over in half a second, and involves an impressive show of flexibility on both their parts. On the other side, the chips land thus: the robot, booking it at high speeds down the street, and Steve, now plus one of the robot’s hands, and also a very small knife sticking out of his calf.
Steve directs Tony in the general direction of “up” with a jerk of his head, pulls out the switchblade, and then sets off after the robot. Thor is already past him, gaining ground. Tony launches himself up and forward in a shallow arc that should see him tidily cutting off their robot friend, ideally with an alley to serve as a choke point.
She’s slipped out of Tony’s target display, though, so when he’s certain he’s somewhere ahead of her, Jarvis pulls up some likely locations using Steve and Thor as reference. Tony turns around, flying low, and heads back in.
“Got her yet?”
“Not yet, sir,” says JARVIS, “she’s-”
But in the next breath it’s okay, JARVIS doesn’t need to keep looking, because something just blew up the next block over. Tony veers in that direction. He watches, horrified, as his helmet display indicates that Steve and Thor are no longer available as points of reference. Shit, he thinks. Shit.
Tony hits the next corner at full speed, slowing only just enough to not careen into a custom orthotics storefront. Thor and Steve are standing about a block down the street. They’re not, he is pleased to note, even sort of blown up, although the robot they’re standing over is looking a little worse for the wear. It’s missing its legs from the knee down, for one thing. Steve, panting, gives him a wave.
From the pavement at their feet, there’s a slight, jerky movement, and the careful distance Thor and Steve have been maintaining from the fallen robot abruptly dissolves when it wraps its hands around one of each of their ankles.
“DON’T YOU -” Tony starts, still sprinting toward them, and Thor and Steve become time traveling superheroes before he can even finish his sentence. “-Dare,” he says, coming to a skidding halt. “Son of a bitch!”
There are a handful of people poking their heads cautiously around the door of the tiny corner grocery store Tony recognizes as being where Steve likes to do his personal shopping. Superheroing is sometimes distressingly like performance art. Or politicking during election season. “It’s all fine,” Tony says, belatedly, even though it’s absolutely not fine. The shoppers, to their credit, seem unconvinced.
“Where did Mr. Rogers go?” one of them says.
“The future,” Tony says, feeling tired and ancient, and then feels compelled to add, “again.” Poor guy.
Nobody is very impressed that Tony lost Thor and Steve. To be fair, Tony is not very impressed that he lost Thor and Steve, but he would really like everyone to stop blaming him for it. “It was a terrible error on their part,” he says, “as well as a terrible coincidence. That’s all. I just happened to be the witness to terrible science-bending time travel shenanigans-”
“Twice,” Jane says.
“Twice,” Tony agrees, but doesn’t let that stop him. “And anyway, if anyone should be time traveling to the future it’s me.”
“It doesn’t matter who went,” Phil says, AN OBVIOUS LIE. JARVIS has a whole set of Google alerts and eBay subscriptions so that Phil can quietly monitor any and all Captain America paraphernalia. These may or may not be supplemented by the kind of learning algorithm and targeted tracking that, if they lived in a sitcom, would lead to all sorts of hilarious shenanigans where you happen to know way too much about people before you actually interact with them.
This is not a sitcom, though, and the only hilarious shenanigans that have resulted are Steve occasionally stumbling across one of Phil’s purchases and clearly being torn between hiding his head in his hands and rolling his eyes so hard, but Phil’s a kind-of-friend now so Steve always opts for nodding politely and continuing on his way.
Like Steve, the meeting soldiers bravely on for another twenty minutes, but the end result here is that it’s a little bit embarrassing how little information and solid, concrete leads they have on a) evil androids from b) the future.
Natasha is sent off to, ahem, get some answers, which basically means Natasha goes out and either looks soft and breakable and gets everyone to tell her everything, or she goes out and stabs people in the face a lot, or both. Or some combination of the two.
After the SHIELD agents leave and after Natasha pat-pat-pats Clint’s shoulder on her way out the door after them, Tony looks around the table. “And then there were two,” he says. Jane only spares half a second to look up, take in Tony and Clint, sitting across from her, and stick her tongue out at him before going back to her terrifying set of calculations, which means she’s practically one of them anyway.
Bruce shows up while Tony is sleep-deprived and haunting Lab 4, and on account of the sleep deprivation he immediately gives said lab back to Bruce in between processing that Bruce is standing in the doorway, and remembering why he’s surprised that Bruce has shown up here.
“I don’t need a lab, Tony,” Bruce is saying. He sounds a little like he’s speaking under water. Tony shakes his head to clear it. Caffeine! His kingdom for caffeine! His lab for caffeine. Bruce’s lab for caffeine. Bruce’s former lab for caffeine.
“Everyone needs a lab,” Tony mutters. “I will admit, though,” he adds, “that I was premature in returning this one to you. It’s our centre of operations.”
Bruce takes three steps in and sets down the battered black backpack that looks like it’s been slung over his shoulder for the last five thousand miles. “I came to help, Tony,” he says.
“Well,” says Tony. “Well - what do you know about time travel.”
“In the real world? Nothing.”
“Then chop chop, Banner, do you even know how far behind you are? Jane and Thor will be running circles around you. No wait, scratch that, just Jane. I already lost Thor.”
“I think you’d better fill me in,” Bruce says. “SHIELD’s briefing packet wasn’t particularly thorough.”
Tony’s a busy guy with teammates to save, so he does his infodump while bustling around the lab and peering over people’s shoulders. The ones that hardly twitch at all are the keepers, although poaching from SHIELD is a little more difficult than poaching from other organizations or companies; SHIELD scientists make a lot of noise about loyalty even when Tony’s offering them literal boatloads of money.
“Focus,” Bruce says. “Don’t make me find something pointy.”
“This is me focusing,” says Tony, but he shifts to concentrate on two things at once instead of ten, and when he leads Bruce to Jane he only spends three minutes staring at them through the glass of the lab door, heads bent close together. Bruce looks a little more tanned than the last time he came back from taking off for parts unknown. There’s a little more grey in his hair, and the worry lines around his eyes are probably from the lost teammates, but he looks-
Tony’s phone buzzes. It’s Pepper. “We got the name of the hiring manager,” she says, without saying hello. “He signed off on the security checks and did the final documentation, but we can’t find the records in our system.”
“Name?” Tony says.
“Hank Edgerly,” she says. “We called him up, but he said he definitely put them into the system, and doesn’t know why they’re not there anymore. He also said he has hardcopy backups, if we wanted to take a look.”
“Great! Great,” Tony says. “Pepper. You’re a lifesaver. Send a minion to his office.”
“He said he has them in his apartment.”
“That’s weird, right?” Tony says, after a pause. “That’s not secure.”
“Yes, Tony, it’s weird,” Pepper agrees.
“Belay the minion,” says Tony. “I’ll get them myself.”
“Bring Bruce along,” Pepper says. “Just in case.”
“How did you know he - okay.”
The car ride is awkward in that way where both parties absolutely agree that it’s awkward and are trying very hard not to let that ruin a nice conversation. That’s the thing, though; Tony has seen Bruce in and talked Bruce through all sorts of potentially awkward situations - and vice versa - but it’s never been awkward before. Pepper says he shouldn’t run away just because a formerly effortless relationship has hit a rough patch. Tony thinks she should tell that to Bruce.
Pepper also says he should explore the “if you love something set it free” mindset, but Tony’s always been more of the “if you love something QUICK, HIRE IT SO IT CAN NEVER LEAVE YOU” camp.
It’s honestly a relief to pull up to the little apartment building that JARVIS has announced is the home of one Hank Edgerly, Stark Industries employee. Tony parks the car illegally half on the sidewalk, because it has the official Iron Man sticker in the front window and anyway, they’re only going to be here for five minutes.
“Do you think he’s involved?” Bruce asks, as they puff up the stairs. There’s no elevator.
“Oh, probably,” says Tony. “That, or he’s a terrible hiring manager and we should probably fire him.”
“I vote both,” Bruce says, which turns out to be absolutely the right answer because when they reach right door and ring the right doorbell, the man who opens the door is a familiar face that takes Tony only four seconds to place.
“You’re not Hank,” says Tony. “You’re the doorman!”
“I’m - both?” says Hank the Doorman. He looks uncertain, but he’s smiling. “I perform multiple roles.”
Tony glances at Bruce, who glances right back at him and shrugs. “Files first,” Bruce says, gentle, crossing his arms and leaning back against the edge of the door frame and coincidentally cutting off that potential escape route.
“Yes, of course,” Hank says. “I was told someone would be by to collect them, but I never dreamed it would Mr Stark himself. I apologize for the mess, please, just wait here a moment, Mr Stark. And - Mr Ban - Mr Stark’s friend.” He makes a motion with his hand that might be an attempt at a salute, and backs away out of the entryway and around the corner, out of sight.
“I left the suit in the car and I’m kind of regretting it,” Tony says conversationally, which is right about when he notices that the leafy green things on the tiny table by the door are not, in fact, regular houseplants, but rather two very familiar tomato plants.
Tony points at them.
“I can never get mine to grow like that,” Bruce says.
“Thank you,” says Hank, reentering. “The documents you wanted, Mr Stark.”
Tony accepts the little stack of manila files and decides to skip right over ‘Why the fuck did you bring sensitive documents out of the office’ and straight on to, “Are those Captain America’s’ tomato plants?”
Hank stares at him. Hank does not glance at the tomatoes. “No,” he says.
“Oh my god, they are!” Tony says.
Bruce looks from the table, to the doorman, and back again. “I’m ... a little confused about why someone would steal Steve’s tomatoes,” he says.
“Why would you steal vegetables from Captain America?” demands Tony. Hank doesn’t seem to have a ready answer, so Tony tries to encourage him with a wide-eyed stare while surreptitiously tapping the bracelet on his wrist that means a big shiny ball of metal is going to come crashing through the wall in about two minutes.
Hank’s face is a vaguely alarmed blank, and then an alarming shade of red, and then manila envelopes fill the air as he lunges directly at Tony, hitting his chest with an oomph and knocking the air out of Tony’s lungs when they bounce off the wall and hit the floor.
“Hey,” Bruce says, not changing yet, good man, just assessing the situation, which unfortunately includes standing in the middle of a building full of people who wouldn’t fare well in a Hulk vs Anything fight.
“Hey,” Tony echoes, wheezing; Bruce takes a couple of sharp steps forward and clamps a hand around Hank’s wrist to haul him off.
Tony can feel the hair on the back of his neck prickling - this is - he knows this feeling, knows what’s coming next, but knowing doesn’t meant avoiding the polite little thwmmp sound and knowing doesn’t prevent the suddenly empty space where Bruce and Hank-the-doorman-slash-hiring-manager used to be standing. The suit chooses this moment to smash through the flimsy door and fill this space, and only a hastily shouted “JARVIS CANCEL IRON MAN SEQUENCE” prevents it from lifting Tony bodily off the floor and enveloping him whole.
“God fucking dammit,” Tony says, now covered in both manila envelopes and door debris. “He only just came back,” he adds, shouting the last two words. Seriously, four hours. That’s a record, even for Bruce, even if this time it’s not even technically his choice. That’s a lot of evens, but whatever, Tony is not at his best right now. He thumps his head against the carpet a couple of times and works on catching his breath. If anyone comes in, it’s all the dust in the shoddily-vacuumed carpet that’s making him blink furiously. That’s all.
When he can breathe again, and feels a little less like he’s going to pull a Bruce and turn into a giant rage monster, Tony climbs painfully to his feet. He gathers up Steve’s tomato plants, one in each arm, and steps further into the apartment while JARVIS calls for some SHIELD agents to analyze the shit out of everything.
The first thing he sees is that the living room is filled with suspicious stacks of sweater vests and button-ups and neat lines of black heels and men’s shoes, but then he glances down the dimly-lit hallway to his left as he passes by, and the plants drop to the floor.
“Good god,” Tony hisses, and flips on the light.
At the end of the hall is a life-sized cardboard cutout of Clint smiling and waving like he is having just the best day, and how great is it running into Tony out here. It- it’s probably photoshop, unless Clint has an alternate personality Tony’s somehow missed. Whatever it is, it’s bizarre, and creepy, and right near the bottom of a list of things Tony would like to see in a dark hallway in a strange apartment after losing one of his favourite people to time travel. Again.
“What are you doing here?” Tony asks the cutout. Cardboard Clint smiles guilelessly at him.
Tony rides out the leftover adrenaline and gathers up the tomato plants, their roots trailing clumps of dirt that come off when he gives them a gentle shake. The pots are unsalvageable. He leaves Cardboard Clint watching over them, and goes to see what other horrors the apartment might hold.
After good guy levels in Hank’s place have been dialled up from “Tony” to “SHIELD swarm,” Tony returns to his second favourite lab on the 11th floor. He sits on the lab couch and crosses his arms and tries to let his brain do its thing. He’s had some awe-inspiring breakthroughs on this couch. It’s familiar, and comforting, and point in its favour, it’s not lost in the future, possibly never to be seen again.
“Hey, buddy,” Clint says, appearing out of nowhere to drop down next to him on the lab couch. This is startlingly touchy-feely for Clint. “I heard about Bruce.”
“I’m beginning to get angry,” Tony says.
“Continuing,” Tony agrees. Clint leans over and pokes at the tomato plant lying slumped on the table beside the couch. Its little plant limbs and roots sprawl out in what might be an unfixable manner.
“I think these usually live in pots,” Clint says, after this investigation. “Or in the ground.”
“Steve can look after it when he gets back,” Tony says. He tips his head back against the couch and closes his eyes. “I’m busy.”
Contrary to popular belief, Tony is 100% capable of sitting silently. It’s just that it’s often more fun not to, but Tony feels the need to have quiet time, like anyone else. Unlike, say, Clint, quiet time usually happens when he’s by himself with no witnesses, but the point is that it happens at all. Tony is sitting quietly. He is letting his brain float away to work out which questions he’s going to need to ask when it’s time to be noisy again.
Clint sits quietly with him until Tony says, “There was a cardboard cutout of you in the apartment.” Something about this is ringing an alarm bell, faintly, somewhere in his head.
“Yeah,” Clint says, drawing the word out. “I saw. But - Stark. There were cardboard cutouts of all of us in that apartment.”
Ding ding ding.
When they get to this part at the official Avengers meeting, everyone turns to look at Phil, who actually puts his face in his hands to hide an expression that’s suddenly pained instead of pleasantly polite.
“Collectors,” Tony hisses at him.
Phil gives himself a little shake, and then squares his shoulders, letting his hands drop back down to his sides. “Collectors,” he agrees. “And we’re in luck: I know how they think.”
“All your years of training, finally paying off,” Hill says, musingly.
Phil’s plan, based on the new information, basically boils down to: bait. Specifically, using the remaining Avengers as bait. Tony, as one of the only remaining Avengers, is unimpressed.
“I feel like this is not making the most of our breakthrough,” Tony says. “We already knew they were targeting us.”
“We suspected,” Fury says. “Now we’re certain, and now we can take advantage of it.”
They don’t take full advantage of it. In Tony’s opinion. Which he shares loudly, and with as many people authorized to hear it as possible.
It’s still primarily a rescue mission. The plan is for Tony and Natasha and Clint to be taken to the future too, with handy dandy EMP bursts. Neutralize some robots, do some reconnaissance, rescue their teammates, neutralize the threat, and find a way to return home with body and mind intact.
They’re putting together a very appetizing Avengers platter, sure, to be paraded around in an irresistible and nonchalant kind of way. But now SHIELD is working on “logistics”, which means they have no idea when or where the robots are going to show up, and also need a place unlikely to cause casualties in which to stage their “ooooh Avengers ooooh” parade.
Tony handed out pocket EMP bursts hours ago, and then backup pocket EMP bursts, and then Fury told him to “go check on Agent Barton” in a voice that suggested that he needed to leave the mission party planning committee because Maria Hill was about to murder him.
“Don’t think I don’t know what this is,” Tony tells them, and leaves to see what Clint’s up to.
He finds him poking around the doorman’s apartment. The SHIELD swarm has come and gone; there was talk of stripping the whole apartment and bringing everything to an alternate location, but when they didn’t find anything particularly mad science, they settled for a thorough search-and-catalogue instead.
Tony finds himself rummaging around a beat up old shoe box kept under the bed. Inside there are some rocks, three pieces of broken china, postcards all addressed to DEAR DR ELIAS but otherwise blank, a small collection of marbles, a skeleton key, etc etc. He is unimpressed.
He returns to the kitchen, and drops the box onto the table. It lands with a satisfying thud, and the china pieces inside clatter. “This place is the worst,” he announces. “I’m leaving now.”
“Sure,” says Clint, from behind a giant bean bag chair with a sparkly Avengers logo.
He runs into Natasha on his way out, apparently returned from “gathering information.”
“Probably nothing useful,” she volunteers, when he opens his mouth.
“Nothing at all?”
“Take a nap,” Natasha says. “SHIELD is going to be ready to brief us in a few hours.”
Tony drives back to Stark Tower, and calls Jane on the way to banter about time travel. She is entirely game to do so; he gets the feeling that Jane is probably always entirely game to talk about time travel, and also that she is especially up for it when Thor has recently engaged in some and is yet to be found again.
She’s just launched into a tenuous baseball analogy that honestly is less clear than the theory it’s supposed to clarify when Tony’s car speaker gives a helpful ding, and Agent Hill’s annoyed face pops up on the dash display. He taps at it.
“They are also using portable devices to initiate the... time portals,” she says.
“Did we find one?”
“Agents Barton and Romanoff did.”
Tony pulls into the turning lane. “Did they,” he grits out.
“Oh,” says Jane. “Does that mean- oh.”
“Yes, I think it does,” Tony says. “It does, right?”
He pulls a terrible parking job and jogs back into the doorman’s apartment. Several SHIELD personnel are milling around; Natasha and Clint are not.
“We got visual confirmation,” one of the SHIELD people tells him. She hands him her tablet, which displays a picture of a black, round paperweight. Clint had apparently snapped a picture and tossed his phone shortly before the wow-that’s-not-really-a-paperweight had snapped him and Natasha right back.
“I’m sorry,” says Tony, loudly, “did the exhaustive sweep you people did on this apartment neglect to look for time travel devices from the future?”
“It wasn’t here before,” snaps the agent, taking her tablet back. “Someone tossed it through the window.” She gestures at the glass littering the floor, and the broken dining room window.
“From twelve stories up?”
Well, that just reeks of a robot scaling the outside of the apartment complex like some kind of nightmare Spiderman. Not that Spiderman isn’t already a pun-cracking nightmare.
“Maybe they’re getting sick of losing limbs when they try kidnapping you,” offers the agent.
The nearest sit-down cafe to the doorman’s apartment is ten minutes away. Tony grabs his best pair of fuck you shades from the car (not be confused with his fuck me shades, because obviously his sunglasses occupy a wide and glorious spectrum), and walks there.
The nice waitress turns bright pink when he walks in, and changes the name she gives him to call her twice, but leads him to a quiet corner. Tony makes up a stupidly complicated latte recipe to fire at her, because everything is terrible and he is flat out of amiability. She rattles it back at him and then disappears to apologize to the brunette in charge of the syrup bottles or sacrifice a goat to the espresso machine or something.
Once she’s gone, Tony calls up Pepper.
“Eight minutes,” he says. “It couldn’t have waited eight minutes? Really?”
“Jane told me what happened. I guess they were on a deadline,” says Pepper.
“We’ll get them back, Tony.”
“Eight minutes. Eight.”
The latte appears. Someone drew a little flower in the foam, Tony notes. The waitress stays to watch him take a sip.
“This is a terrible combination of flavours,” he says.
“I’ll bet it is,” says the waitress.
“This is a justice latte,” he explains, and Pepper groans through the speaker. “This is what justice tastes like today.”
The waitress is unimpressed. Where did all the fluster go, Tony wonders. He misses the fluster. Flustered strangers are just a hop skip away from being Tony’s very favourite kind of people, which is people openly charmed by Tony Stark.
“Would you like something less disgusting than that?”
“Yes,” he says.
“I’m going to charge you for both.”
“Yes,” he repeats, and she leaves again.
“I need Rhodey,” he says.
“Rhodey’s out saving the world,” says Pepper.
“Wouldn’t Rhodey coming to my rescue, and the rescue of Avengers everywhere - when, everywhen - also be saving the world,” Tony says.
“Not when someone’s actively blowing up large swathes of Europe and claiming to be the god of war,” Pepper says, gently.
He takes another sip of justice. The foam flower has drooped and distorted almost beyond recognizability. He wonders how long tomato plants can survive without soil or water.
The waitress comes back with something that might be a latte, but probably doesn’t have anguish lurking in its depths. “Does it taste like justice,” she says.
JARVIS fortunately patches through a call from SHIELD before Tony can make up what abstract concept drink number two tastes like.
“We think we’ve found another time travel device,” Phil tells him, by which, it turns out, he means that someone threw another one through a window.
A whole team of wary SHIELD agents deliver the possibly-a-time-travel-device to the eleventh-floor lab. Spiderman has somehow gotten wind that something strange and space/time continuum-y has been happening, because he’s hanging around nonchalantly in the lobby when Tony drives his car up onto the sidewalk and leaves it there.
Tony blows into the lobby like he hasn’t noticed this and makes straight for the elevator while Spiderman trails after him. “Time travel?” Spiderman says. “Time travel, and you didn’t think I might be interested?”
“We’re handling it,” Tony says.
“Pleeeeeeease,” says Spiderman. Spiderman is shameless. Spiderman is shameless for science, though, which, let’s be honest, is one of Tony’s favourite kinds of shamelessness.
Once they make it upstairs, Spiderman looks a little garish amongst the dark-suited SHELD agents and the white lab-coated scientists and engineers that are bobbing and weaving around the deceivingly innocuous metal disc that’s been placed on a table in the middle of the room.
Tony activates the suit and feels instantly better about the entire world.
“SHIELD would like to register its concern that you’re going alone,” Phil says, emerging from the gaggle of suits; the implication is that the adorable baby agents behind him are both ready and super willing to come along for the ride.
“Maybe when they’re a little older,” Tony says. “Or have superpowers or possess technological genius. No offense.”
There’s a commotion near the door and then Jane and Pepper push through the growing crowd. Pepper’s the kind of dishevelled that inevitably comes with air travel, even when said air travel is via private jet, but she’s been a voice in Tony’s ear for the last - how many days has it been? - and it is so unbelievably good to get to see her before he departs for times unknown.
“Thanks,” Pepper says, a little irate and a lot worried, and she looks so great that Tony wishes he hadn’t been so hasty with the suit application, because somehow suit-on-skin is just not as erotic as he’d dreamed it would be.
“Listen,” Pepper says. “If you don’t come back from the future, I’m coming after you.”
“My hero,” he says, and puts his hand down on the device.
“Finally: the future,” Tony says into the dark, quiet room. After a half-second he realizes the HUD is down and he’s no longer holding an ominous metal disc in his hand, and a half-second after that he realizes there’s a much healthier breeze happening down by the crown jewels than is normally possible in the suit, and also his toes have sunk into something soft and slightly squishy.
“The future doesn’t like clothes,” Tony says. “The future watches Terminator. The future is kind of chilly.”
He takes a tentative step forward and promptly trips over something else that's slightly squishy. After a couple of nerve-jangling minutes his eyes adjust to the gloom, and Tony discovers that the future looks suspiciously like the 1970’s, and its floor is littered with android bodies. Hank the Doorman's robot head blinks accusingly at Tony from the floor. “Wait,” Tony says, and fumbles his way across a living room full of shag carpet and limbs to an open set of French doors, where outside there are no city sounds or fresh air or stars in the sky. There is a plaque out on the porch that helpfully explains that the contents of the house Tony just left were kindly donated by a Mister Lester upon his death in 2092.
It’s a museum.
He really sincerely hopes the rest of the team is out and about and kicking ass in this museum, and not, you know, in the museum, like some sort of Madame Tussaud’s gone horribly and gruesomely awry. In the meantime, there is nobody in sight, so reconnaissance it is.
Reconnaissance and pants. Pants, then reconnaissance.
There’s an Elton John mannequin a couple doors down from Mr. Lester’s house. Elton is terribly eye-catching, because he’s wearing a tight, eye-searingly yellow ensemble. The pants are bell bottoms. They fit like a disquieting glove. He condemns the top as impractical and consisting mostly of giant arm furs.
He finds a white collar shirt a little further down (a Risky Business replica, which is the wrong decade but the mannequin stand-in for Tom Cruise is obviously beyond caring). Some kind of starch-related sorcery was performed on the collar; he half-heartedly tries, but it will not unpop.
He pauses briefly at the mirror at the end of the hall.
“My god,” he says, appreciatively, and then continues on his way. He takes the other partially de-clothed mannequins along the way as hopeful signs.
The 70s exhibit is pretty extensive, spanning two rooms. From there he snags the most practical shoes he can find and moves through to a Titanic memorial, and then 1980s hair bands, and then Founding Fathers. At the Tyrannosaurus skeleton, he stops.
“I feel like I’m doing this walk-through wrong,” he tells the dinosaur.
Next he wanders through a side door and back through an enormous recreation of grasslands. There’s a little bit of blood in the dirt, he notes. Several stuffed prairie dogs are scattered around, feet in the air. He looks at them. The ones that landed nose-up look back.
The staring contest is interrupted almost immediately by footfalls coming from- somewhere. Back toward the dinosaur, maybe? Tony really misses his scanner.
He stays where he is, listening, for another moment. Yes, someone is approaching from behind him. He glances around for a place to hide, except it’s the fucking prairies, so he’s forced to sprint ten feet and then slither behind a particularly impressive tumbleweed. He has enough time to think, is this really how big tumbleweeds are? before the footsteps have reached his exhibit.
Natasha steps into view. She's wearing disappointingly ungarish clothing; must've knocked over an athlete mannequin. Where are the athlete mannequins? Tony could totally have gone for some track pants and a t-shirt. "Natasha?"
"Stark," she says, appearing not the least bit startled. She also has a red spot rising into a bruise on her temple and scraped, bloody knuckles.
“Not a very friendly welcome party,” Tony observes, standing up slowly from behind the tumbleweed. “See, nobody even came to pick me up.”
“I came to pick you up," Natasha says. "I'm missing all the fun, just for you."
"You look like you already had some fun," says Tony, jerking his head at the blood on her hands.
"You should see the other guy,” says Natasha.
She nods. Tony can tell she's about to do that thing where she starts cracking jokes in a tone that's as flat and even as the grasslands exhibit Tony is currently standing on. "I stashed the bodies in the 70's, if you wanted to go check them out."
“So I did see the other guy! Guys. You'll notice I have in fact paid the 70's a visit." Tony gestures at his outfit. "How’s the future, is it cool? Are there flying cars?”
She shrugs. “We've only been here for twenty minutes. Bruce showed up fifteen minutes before us. He and Clint are off trying to reconnect with Steve and Thor."
"Oh,"says Tony. "Well, great. Any luck finding out what the fuck is going on? Or another time travel device? I had one, you see, but it disappeared with the suit and my clothes.”
“Ours disappeared too,” she says, shaking her head. "Unless Thor and Cap have had any success. Bruce’s theory is that the devices go poof unless they’re tucked away nice and safe inside your body for the trip, but he didn’t have much of a chance to look around; he went for duck and cover before we showed up."
“Yeah, he’s big into hiding these days,” Tony mutters. Natasha gives him a look, then cuts her eyes at the tumbleweed Tony was hiding behind. “Not like - it's a metaphor,” he says.
“It’s simplistic,” she replies. "Not everyone wants your life, Stark."
"That's not - I don't always want my life," Tony says.
"Whatever," she says. "Let's go. I'm sick of the future already."
Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to zero in on the portion of the team currently engaged with robots. An Avenger vs robot smackdown is not exactly subtle. The grunts and crashes lead them to a balcony overlooking what Tony really, really hopes is not a depiction of a zombie outbreak. It is unclear if the smoke billowing out of a few windows is because recreation realism, or because disassembled robots.
Below, Steve dives through a fake house window into the fake street. Still rolling, he sweeps a leg around to dart neatly behind a horrifying-looking wax gentleman. It animatronically twists around to try and gnaw on his neck. Steve pulls a truly priceless “what the fuck” face and staggers back a couple of steps. One hand is on each the zombie’s forehead and neck, maneuvering them around in such a way that he’s not open to robot blaster fire from the house, but also not chewed upon.
“Grawr,” wheezes the zombie. Black bile dribbles out of its gaping mouth, right into Steve’s hair.
Whoever made this display was given way too big a budget, Tony decides.
There’s a spiral staircase leading down into the apocalypse. Once they’ve descended, Tony joins Steve, who’s extracted himself from the clutches of the zombie model and is now crouched between two house-fronts. Natasha swings by long enough to ask, “How many?” Steve holds up three fingers. She makes a waving motion with her hand, pointing to Steve and Tony and back again, and darts away into the house.
“Hi, how’s it going,” Tony says.
Steve snaps to attention like Tony just barked soldier, report!, catches himself doing it, and leans back against the wall. There’s a dark zombie ooze tracking down the side of his face. He’s wearing blue spangly pants covered in actual sequins. He looks like he just walked out of a horror movie.
“We’ve wrapped everything from here back to the East exit; no sign of anything useful. Thor and Clint are checking out the second level. I’ve got Bruce with me.”
"God," Bruce says, right on cue. His voice floats out of one of the houses, but Tony can't see him anywhere. He sounds just a little winded. "Did anyone see a year attached to this exhibit? Because I'm not sure I can quantify how much I don't want to deal with this in real life."
"No year," Steve says. "Unless the plaque is under one of the fake bodies."
"I note that you're not Mr Big and Green," Tony calls, in what he hopes is a casually friendly tone.
"We were a little concerned that the future might notice if I hulked out," Bruce calls back. "And also that the future might have improved its Hulk-catching slash killing capabilities."
The blaster fire - blaster fire, for god's sake - comes to an abrupt halt. "Clear," Natasha calls. The sudden quiet is a welcome relief from the overwhelming feeling that Tony had accidentally stumbled into a Star Wars movie. It's not completely silent, though - somewhere above them is the unmistakable sound of a pair of high heels clip-clopping across a tiled floor.
Tony looks up. A woman, dressed in the same business casual uniform as the other androids, walks briskly across the length of the balcony, running one hand along the railing.
Walking beside her, carrying a projector, is Jarvis. At least, he wants it to be Jarvis.
Jarvis and friend glance down, not breaking speed. Jarvis’ eyes pass over Tony, no hint of recognition in his face.
“Hey,” says Tony, not loud enough.
Steve saw them too. “Go get some answers,” he calls. “We’ll cover you on this end.”
Natasha tumbles out of a door, a robot blaster in each hand. "Incoming from the exhibit behind this one," she warns them, then glances up too and spots Jarvis, vanishing around a corner. “Gonna go bring the car around, Stark?”
“That’s the idea. Bruce is with me,” he adds, already moving. Bruce’s head pops out of a picture window. He nods, once, and meets Tony at the stairs. When they’re back on the balcony, he gives Natasha a little wave. She quirks an eyebrow at him, and then, Steve beside her, advances into the house.
“This way,” says Tony, Bruce at his shoulder. Tony is only a little jealous of his acid-washed blue jeans and tie-dyed shirt.
They catch up to Jarvis. Or, well. They round a corner and Jarvis is waiting for them, alone. Tony startles, then raises his hands in not-necessarily-mock surrender. Jarvis opens his mouth to make a hissing sound that might be the beginning of the most welcome “sir” Tony has heard in his life. He shuts it again before the word is complete.
Tony takes a tentative step toward him. “Tony,” Bruce says from behind him, voice low. It’s an admonition to be cautious; Tony’s heard his name in that tone of voice from just about everybody he knows, and even a few people he doesn’t. Pepper’s version is his favourite, mostly because it means Pepper is present and talking to him.
Not that he listens. Life advice from loved ones: heard, catalogued, ignored.
So maybe Jarvis is still in there somewhere after all, because he waits for Tony to take two more inadvisable steps forward before grabbing him under the arms and launching him into the middle of the room.
He hears Jarvis say something, which Tony is too distracted by being airborne to decipher. He has enough time to hope that it’s pithy before landing in a sudden spattering of bright colour. Impact is... not unpleasant. He opens an eye.
It’s a giant ball pit. Of course.
He flaps around to reorient himself, eventually turning the 180 degrees necessary to face the door, where Jarvis and Bruce are quite occupied by one another. Jarvis has both robot hands around Bruce’s neck, pinning him to the wall. Everything about that is, big flashing lights, not recommended for anybody.
Tony struggles forward, but the ball pit is an unexpectedly frustrating adversary, and it's slow going.
“Jarvis, come on,” says Tony. “It’s me! It’s Bruce!”
Handily immobilized by android Jarvis’ iron grip, Bruce nods in agreement.
Jarvis says, in apparent communication with unseen sinister androids, “Yes, we are in the Children's Toys Through History room. Status: immobilized.”
And then, dry as the desert sun, “Yes, I am immobilized. Very good sir.” Pause. “I did mean the temporal intruders. Yes.”
Tony wades faster - not an easy venture, and one he is only sort of successful at. He squints at android Jarvis, who has gone very still and looks kind of confused.
“Jarvis,” says Tony, and Jarvis looks up.
“Oh dear,” he says. Except then he gives a little twitch, and his expression goes blank again. “...I believe the network is detecting a foreign motivation.”
“Detecting a foreign motivation,” Bruce and Tony gasp, fascinated.
On second thought, Tony is fascinated. Bruce is probably also very interested, but mostly only gasping about it because robot Jarvis had gotten back to the business of strangling him. His skin is gaining that particular green tinge that means the Hulk is concerned about Bruce's bodily safety and about thirty seconds away from coming out to deal with it.
“Hey!” says Tony.
Jarvis stops again. He looks at Bruce, and then Tony, and then Bruce again.
“What is going on?” he asks.
The question doesn’t seem to be addressed to anyone in particular, but Jarvis (the Jarvis collective? Not important, Tony decides, differentiating names for the new exciting versions of Jarvis’ occasionally homicidal personality can happen later) also seems to genuinely want to know. The blank, angry expression flickers across Jarvis’ features again.
“Let me explain,” Tony says quickly. “We are intruders from the distant past. We are here to rescue our friends and then escape into the night. And you are here to capture us. You and your robot friends.”
“And you do not feel conflicted about this,” Bruce chokes out, “at all.” He's still a little green, but an explosion seems less imminent.
“Not at all,” Tony agrees. “Straight-up bag and tag job here.”
“I do not understand,” Jarvis says, voice flat, but his grip on Bruce is somewhat lessened.
“What’s happening is I hate your face,” says Tony. “Because you have completely foiled our plans.”
“Foooooiled,” wheezes Bruce.
“See, look, you’ve already caught like half the team! We are sure not going anywhere. Wow, is this ever a situation that you, an unfamiliar, super-efficient android, have under control.”
“A situation I have ... under control,” Jarvis says, slowly.
And then he actually turns to Tony, and winks at him.
It’s slow going, and he’s pretty sure he’s pulled all the muscles in his left shoulder, but under Jarvis’ watchful eye Tony manages to painstakingly wriggle out of the ball pit. Tony can't believe people put their tiny children in those things. Occasionally Jarvis says things like, “Capturing Tony Stark is a really good idea,” and Bruce calls him a terrible robot from the future, and Tony pauses in his extraction process to offer some distracted, defeatist name-calling.
"And now?" Tony says, when he's back on solid ground.
"And now we fulfill our primary directive," Jarvis says, ominously. He looks terribly pleased. "He'll be so proud. At last."
"Please," Tony says. "Please tell me these robots from the future are not yet another villain with daddy issues."
"The Curator is not our father," Jarvis says, prodding them forward with steely android arms. "The Curator is our boss."
"Like a gang?"
"Like an employer," Jarvis corrects. "I am part of shift three. Four PM to eleven PM. Shift three has proven itself most successful of all the shifts! We are responsible for the acquisition of four out of six of the Curator's most prized historical artifacts! Shift two," he adds, "is responsible for none."
"Androids with shift work," Tony says.
"Yes, sir," Jarvis says, then shakes his head, sharply, as though to clear it. "As part of the collective agreement post 2137's robot wars, artificial intelligences level four or higher are to be accorded the same working rights as any flesh worker."
"We have so many interesting things to look forward to," Tony says to Bruce. "Jarvis, you still with us?"
"Sporadically, sir," Jarvis says, after a long pause. "I believe that once network contact is severed, however, I will be able to regain full - I am in full control of this situation. Right now."
"This is agony," says Tony.
"I'm inclined to agree," says Bruce.
"Just imagine how I feel," says Jarvis, and shoves them both through a door labelled, "Dr. Orange Elias, Curator."
The most arresting part of this office of the future is the dead man. Tony has seen all sorts of death, but mostly-decomposed is slightly outside his experience. His bodies tend to still be warm. Or made of robot parts. The skeleton is propped carefully in the rolly office chair in the centre of the room; it's wearing a shiny grey suit with elbow patches, a set of glasses folded carefully in its breast pocket. It's also surrounded by Avengers paraphernalia, set out in concentric circles like he's at the centre of a superhero shrine.
"Dr Elias, I presume," says Tony, because he just can't help himself.
“Can’t you see he’s dead,” says Jarvis, and then adds, “that was a clever reference, sir.”
“He doesn’t seem so clever to me,” says a voice, emanating from somewhere in the gloomy corners of the office. A man - another android, most likely - steps slowly and deliberately, dramatically, into the light. He’s wearing the same clothes as the skeleton, albeit in slightly better condition, and an expression of semi-focused, wide-eyed intensity.
His name, he says, is Orange.
“Junior,” mutters Jarvis. Junior glares at him. This has obviously been a point of contention.
“I am carrying out our employer’s last, greatest work: The Avengers: An Exciting Exhibition for All Ages. Now that you are here, Dr. Elias can give you the final stamp of approval before you join us forever.”
“Ohhh,” says Bruce.
“Disappointing,” says Tony. “Also totally not what I was expecting when this started happening.”
“Silence!” Junior thunders. “We must wait for the approving nod!”
Together, they all swivel their heads to stare at the skeleton.
“Ah,” says Junior, after a moment of rapturous silence. “He has accepted you into the collection! At last, we can fulfill our great purpose! We thought all was lost until I, and I alone, invented the device that would allow us to do what no other museum or archive has managed. Obviously the device is proprietary, FYI. It is intended only for our great work.”
“I see you have your evil monologue all planned out,” Tony says.
“This is a benediction,” Jarvis hisses. “Show some respect.” He then rolls his eyes at himself. Poor Jarvis. Tony has enough problems having only one personality inside his head; he can’t imagine having to deal with two.
“Have a seat,” Junior says, gesturing to the six folding chairs set up in a semi-circle. Jarvis settles in, and after a beat Tony and Bruce follow suit.
“We had to close the museum to concentrate our efforts,” Junior continues. “For these twenty long years, empty, longing, we carried on and-”
Benediction, evil monologue, school play. Whatever it is, Junior does not show any sign of stopping. Tony turns to Bruce.
“Did you have a nice vacation,” he whispers. Bruce looks suddenly pained, and Tony experiences a brief pang of guilt over trapping him like this, but it’s not like he was the only one to do so. He’s not even the scariest one to do so.
On cue, Junior announces that he will now perform a few verses of Dr Elias’ favourite song. It sounds suspiciously like electro grunge pop.
“Look,” Tony continues quietly. “It’s cool. The road calls. I get it.”
Bruce gives him a small half-smile. Tony nods at him. After a moment, he leans in again. “I don’t get it. What the fuck, Banner.”
“What, you can’t leave me a note or something? You’re in New York, having- having brunch with Steve and you can’t, like, call and hang up when I pick up the phone? At least breathe into the receiver for a minute like-”
He trails off while Junior wanders past, diving into the second verse.
“It was a little overwhelming,” Bruce says. Junior has moved on to Jarvis, who is being petitioned for a duet on the chorus. Jarvis steadfastly refuses. “Having - everything - handed to me on a silver platter.”
“Was it the lab? The car. I knew the car was too much. No, that’s not true. Pepper knew the car was too much.”
“The lab, the car. The entire floor of your tower. The -” Bruce looks strangely awkward. “The friendship.”
“I scared you off with friendship,” Tony says, aghast. “I can honestly say that’s never happened before.” Bruce nods, like he picked up on everything Tony didn’t say out loud.
Touched, Tony screams.
Bruce’s eyes get comically wide and he jerks backward. They both turn to where Junior is looming beside them, still grasping the knife he’s just stabbed right through Tony’s hand.
“You are being very rude,” says Junior. He plucks the knife back. The hole in Tony’s hand becomes the spurting hole in Tony’s hand. Not one to take his licks literally sitting down, Tony surges forward, catching Junior around the middle to bowl him over.
Junior only stumbles back a step. In an effort to peel Tony off him, he cracks him across the face. It’s super effective! Head spinning, Tony feels Junior haul him up by his popped collar to hold him up at eye level.
“Lovely service,” Tony spits. “A little long.” Junior makes an anguished, wailing noise that sounds suspiciously like “SACRILEGE.”
Behind him, Bruce is breathing heavy. Shit. Or maybe, oh good?
He doesn’t have to decide, though, because behind Junior, Jarvis and his homicidal android body are finally on the same page. Tony is dropped to the floor after the first hit. Bruce grabs him, and together they scramble back to the edge of the room. They hit the rolly chair on the way and accidentally get buried in a pile of dusty suit jacket and rib bones.
There is an abrupt silence. From the floor, Tony carefully removes the lapel draped over his face and surveys the room. Jarvis and Junior are staring at their disassembled, dead boss. Bruce coughs out some more of him.
Jarvis recovers first. Tony almost cheers when the heavy slams and metal scraping resume. Once again, he and Bruce gather themselves up off the floor. Bruce puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder, steering him along the wall toward the exit. Their progress is routinely interrupted by flying desk drawers and other debris, although by some unspoken agreement both androids leave the Avengers paraphernalia alone.
Halfway there, the pressure on Tony’s shoulder drops away when some android battle wreckage catches Bruce in the gut. “Oof,” says Bruce, doubling over. Tony glances behind him, and then follows Bruce’s gaze to the stray arm at his feet.
As one, they look over at the androids. “Shit,” says Tony. It’s a Jarvis arm. Jarvis does not seem terribly bothered, although he’s forced to rethink his dodges-to-hits ratio. Junior presses forward. There’s a swing Jarvis reels back from a split second too late. It’s enough for Junior to get the traction he needs; one arm wrapped around Jarvis in a headlock, Junior forces him down to his knees. Jarvis is clawing at him with his remaining arm.
“What do you think,” Bruce says, rolling up his sleeves.
Tony picks up Jarvis’s arm. “Not yet. Stay cool, Sodapop.” He grips Jarvis’ wrist the best he can, the arm raised like a crooked baseball bat. He covers the space between them in seven steps, coming up behind Junior, and swings.
The arm connects with a solid thunk, but Tony can tell immediately that he hasn’t done any actual damage; why would it? It’s not like Jarvis’ severed arm comes with any special robot-disarming - HA - powers, and some of the Iron Man suit’s best toys hadn’t been able to do much back in the tower. Junior turns around to face him anyway, though, possibly for the sole reason of giving Tony an incredulous look.
That’s all Jarvis needs. He does something twisty with his spine that Tony is deeply impressed by, and then his legs are around Junior’s neck and there’s a fascinating popping noise that results in Junior’s head flying halfway across the room.
“That is a serious design flaw,” Tony says, as Bruce comes up beside him and joins him in peering at Junior’s body. “You guys are super prone to losing limbs.”
“Yes,” says Jarvis, and stands. “Sir, I recommend departing as swiftly as possible.”
“You back with us?” Bruce says.
“I appear to be, yes. There’s an exhibition dedicated to Dr Elias’ work,” Jarvis says. “Second floor. There’s a functioning time travel device there. One of the last, I believe.” He looks like he’s going to say more, but the air is filled with the disquieting patter of many android feet.
“That would be shift two,” says Jarvis. “Arriving fresh and ready to work.”
“How many in shift two, buddy?” Tony says. His hand hurts.
“A dozen,” Jarvis says. “The others?”
“We don’t know,” says Bruce. “We don’t have radio contact. Are these guys all headed for the office?”
“Well, obviously,” Jarvis says. “Every shift begins with paying their respects to the Curator.”
Tony says, “Obviously,” and then, “so we should retreat. Strategically. Right now. I don’t feel super prepared to beat up a dozen robots in my bare feet.”
“I have an idea,” says Jarvis, still standing over Junior’s remains.
“Wait,” says Tony. “An idea like your other idea? The one that got us into this mess in the first place?” This is pretty unfair. Time traveling misguided androids from the future were apparently an inevitability. Jarvis just made it interesting.
“Stand by,” says Jarvis, reassuringly, and falls over.
They stare at him for a moment, lying very still and unresponsive, draped half over Orange Jr., and then Bruce says, “Yeah, run.”
Tony casts one last glance at Jarvis, and feels a suspicious pang of emotion in his chest, but he follows Bruce out the door anyway. They make it nearly all the way through the History of Children’s Toys without incident, and bump into Clint and Thor as they inch their way past a hanging display of slinkies.
“A ha!” Thor says. “My friends, I am overjoyed to find you. Are you well?”
Tony waves him off. His hand is only dribbling now, so the splash zone is pretty small.
“Hey,” Clint says, tipping them a nod, apparently unphased by the blood and by Tony’s wild eyes. Both Clint and Thor are wearing matching plaid boxers and nothing else. They look like they’ve just escaped from a lumberjack stripping show, and Thor’s hammer is a particularly nice touch. Tony wishes so hard that he himself wasn’t equally mockable, and also that he had his phone so he could take a picture. So many pictures.
“We know where the time travel device is,” Bruce says in a rush. “We just need to dispose of the last dozen androids to make sure no one comes after us-”
“And then we get to stamp Mission: Accomplished all over our reports,” Tony says. “Yaaay.”
Clint gives them a serious nod. “Right,” he says. There’s a display of dolls and teddy bears not far from them, and Clint veers off to inspect it. He returns with a red and white striped doll scarf, grabs Tony’s wrist, and does a tidy, 30-second job at wrapping up his hand.
“Let’s move,” Clint says, when he’s finished.
Thor produces a crumpled visitor’s guide to the museum. Tony did not see where it was produced from, but possibilities are extremely limited. Thor unfurls the side with the map, holding it out for everyone to huddle around.
“There,” Bruce says, pointing out the Elias exhibition. It’s relatively close. The relative part depends pretty much solely on the presence of killer museum androids.
At Clint’s suggestion they take a route that leads them right past what he describes as a “good candidate for a bottleneck” and therefore likely location of Nat and Steve. He doesn’t mention anything about psychic assassin wondertwin powers. Tony waggles his eyebrows at Clint, who gives him a blank look. Whatever. Tony is onto them.
They wait around at the entrance to the corridor while Clint darts in. He’s gone for the length of two bad hole-in-the-hand puns (Thor is gently unappreciative; Bruce only looks like he is, and is in fact the source of the second). Clint re-emerges at a sprint, Steve and Natasha on his heels.
“GO, GO, GO,” Steve shouts, grabbing a fistful of Tony and Bruce’s shirts as he zooms by and pulling them the first few stumbling steps forward.
They run. Behind them, the bottleneck corridor becomes considerably less bottlenecked; he feels the heat of the explosion on his back. He and Bruce are knocked right off their feet. Thor only braces himself, and Steve, Clint and Natasha all manage to make it look like they were totally just going to dive-roll the next few feet anyway. Steve leaves a trail of sequins behind him.
Wheezing, Tony pulls himself up onto his elbows. Ahead of him, shift two has arrived, freshly pressed and hungry for Avengers acquisition-related redemption. He rolls over, and springs to his feet. Behind them, the remnants of shift one emerge from the billowing smoke of the explosion.
“Circle up,” Steve orders, and they pull together, back to back, a tiny crowd of resolved, strangely dressed individuals. The androids are snarling as they come; Tony wonders if this shift has spent a lot of time in the zombie exhibit. They’re about to collide, tender barefoot Avengers flesh against sweater-vested android rage, when the androids stumble to an inelegant halt. One or two fall to their knees and have to struggle back to their feet. They all stare.
“Sir,” one says, and the rest take up the chorus. “Sir. Siiiiiiir.”
“... Jarvis?” Tony says.
“Sir,” says actual Jarvis, emerging from around the corner, severed arm propped nonchalantly over his shoulder. He makes a snapping noise with the fingers on the hand that’s still attached, because he is still at least 70% Tony’s own creation, and Tony’s creations are born with a distinct sense of showmanship, if nothing else, and in response, all eighteen standing androids drop like their strings have been cut.
After that, it’s almost anticlimactic. Jarvis leads them into the Elias exhibition room, rummages around one-handed in the desk that’s an exact replica of the one in the office that Tony and Bruce had just left, and produces a little disc that has a strip of tape on it that someone has helpfully labelled “time travel.”
Tony and Jarvis program in the date, and then hold hands, time travel device clutched between them. Tony holds out his other hand and wiggles the fingers. “Come on, team, link up. Ring around the rosie.” Bruce takes gentle hold of Tony’s wrist, thoughtfully avoiding the injured hand, and then Clint takes Bruce’s, and Thor takes Clint’s, and Steve takes Thor’s, and Natasha takes Steve’s and then circles back around to put her other hand on Jarvis’ shoulder.
“Shall we blow this popsicle stand, sir?” Jarvis says, and punches them back to the past before Tony can say something witty in return.
The room they land in is quiet and dark for approximately twenty seconds; just long enough to unlink hands and for Tony to register that yup, the time travel device is gone, and hey! this is Bruce’s lab! before a little gaggle of excited SHIELD agents and scientists, including Pepper and Jane and Phil, tumble through the door.
“A HA,” Jane shouts, a little winded. “My energy prediction models are accurate!” She thrusts her fistfuls of paper readouts into the air in an enthusiastic display of victory arms, which Thor immediately mirrors.
“Pepper,” Tony says. “Pepper, my darling, light of my life.”
“Are you okay?” Pepper says. “Are you - you’re naked.”
“We’re okay! I’m okay. Ignore the hand,” Tony says, thrusting it at her. He doesn’t have a naked joke lined up, but he knows one exists; he just has to wait for it to come to him. Thor and Jane have gone into an enthusiastic liplock in the corner of the room, while Phil gets a hand on Clint and Natasha’s shoulders and steers them out of Pepper’s path, who is coming at Tony at speed.
Their touching reunion is slightly delayed when Jarvis steps up and waggles his fingers at Pepper.
“Tony?” Pepper says.
“Pepper,” Tony says, “Jarvis. Jarvis, Pepper.”
“Oh,” Pepper says, faintly. “Oh, wow. Well. Welcome back.”
“Sir,” says JARVIS, a little frostily, “this individual is refusing to network fully.”
“Uh,” says Tony. “JARVIS, Jarvis. Jarvis, JARVIS. I’ve never had a sibling but I hear they’re a pain in the ass. I’m sure you’ll have fun. Although, Jarvis, we do need to double-check that you’re not going to try and kill us in our sleep.”
“You, uh. Want a hand with that?” Bruce says, turning around from where he is handing out pants from his secret lab stash of extra clothes. “It turns out I have some time.”
“Well hey,” says Tony, naked and serene. “That’s all I ever wanted.”
(“Oh my god,” Tony says, sitting bolt upright in bed. “Oh my god, stark naked.")