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Alec isn't sure what happened.

He was asleep, and then he was not, and then he was sitting in this big dark room staring at this big bright screen, while a very mild, very scary voice from the shadows says, "Mr. Hardison, you have sixty seconds."

He recognises the algorithm, which means he has time to think while his fingers fly, thoughts like, "The hell did they get through my security?" and "How long will it take the team to find me?" and "How great were Halle's boobs in that movie anyway?"

The back of his neck is hurting. Not muscle tension; someone stuck a needle in there.

He is in big, big trouble, curly bracket, enter, done.

"Huh," another dude says, a dude with a deeper voice, tinged with amusement. Alec is betting on a brother. "That beats Jarvis by point oh four. Well done, Agent Coulson."

"Thank you, sir," the mild voice says.

"If I turn around, am I gonna get shot?" Alec asks. There are things a guy likes to know, like who's giving someone else the credit for his breathtaking skills.

"Turn around, turn around," the big voice says generously, and when he does, all the lights go on. Alec squints and blinks, hands cautious and still on his knees. The Black man with the big bald head and the eyepatch swims into his vision like one of those 3-D Magic Eye things.

Alec's breath slams out of his gut. His palms are slick and sliding on his pants.

There was one blurry picture of this man on the internet, and it was there for about ten seconds at 3am London time four years ago before huge sections of the network shut down in the biggest crash in history. Alec saw it.

Now, the man is looking at him with a curl to one side of his mouth that might be a smile. "I'm Nick Fury," he says. "Director of S.H.I.E.L.D."

There's a pause, and Alec tries to think of something smartass to say, but he's got nothin'. S.H.I.E.L.D. It's like the frickin' Death Star, and not the one with the whoops-blow-up button, but the fully armed and operational battle station. He swallows.

"Alec," Nick Fury says. "We have a problem."

His first thought is, Oh sweet Jesus, let it not be with me, but his second thought is that it couldn't be, because if S.H.I.E.L.D. thought he was a problem, he would not be looking at this man. He might, if he were real lucky, be looking at a cell wall.

Alec starts babbling, which ain't even hard; it's a last-ditch survival reflex he's used more times than he likes to think about, and Alec's a survivor.  "I won this all expenses paid vacation to scenic nowhere because you need a hacker," says Alec, talking before he realizes what he's saying, but when he listens to himself, it's pretty obvious. The corner of Fury's mouth curls up again, and Alec admires abstractly the way he manages to make it creepy as fuck while fighting the urge to try to sidle out of its range.

Based on his audition.... "Some kinda issue with a genetic algorithm, maybe, an evolving virus, or an AI."

Fury smiles with both sides of his mouth. It's still scary. "Agent Romanoff?"

A white chick steps out of the shadow, kinda Parker shaped, but the resemblance is superficial; where Parker would have been scowling, Agent Romanoff is smiling in a way that suggests she knows what he was thinking, and would permit it, for now.

Maybe a Sophie/Parker mix.

Alec's brain stutters at the thought, and then he tries to put it out of his head. Everyone knows there are freaky people in S.H.I.E.L.D, maybe mindreaders, even. He has to keep his team safe until they come for him.

Romanoff opens a file. A paper one, weirdly lo-fi considering the sweet system they tested him on. "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secure server has been compromised by an entity codenamed Extremis; at this time, we know nothing of Extremis' origins or agenda, but it appears to have access to our server at the highest level. Attempts made to contain Extremis show that it can learn, and quickly. "

"Um," says Alec, putting up his hand.

"For reasons you aren't cleared to know," she says, talking over him, "the server cannot be powered down."  Alec lowers his hand. "Your job is to contain Extremis, learn its origins, and prevent it from interfering with server processing and traffic."

"Oh is that all?" asks Alec. "Shoot, I thought you were going to ask me to do something hard. After that, we can find the last prime number and break for pizza."

Romanoff raises an eyebrow.

Alec hates it when people see through him. "Fine, fine, I'll take a look. But I ain't saying I'll do it!"

Fury gets up, still with that slight smile. He puts a hand on Alec's shoulder as he goes past, and the weight of it is heavier than a hand has any right to be. "Son," he says, still cheerful, "I know you'll do us proud."

*  *  *

They stick him in a windowless apartment, in some city, somewhere, with Romanoff to mind him.

The pantry is full of gummi bears, Cool Ranch Doritos and Zebra Cakes; the fridge is full of orange soda. This scares him for about half a second, and then he shrugs and takes out a bottle. They stole him in the middle of the night, and he's going to worry that they know his favourite snacks?

He is going to worry that this probably means they know all about his team. But they only wanted a hacker, not a grifter, hitter, planner or thief, and snatching five people has to be more work than snatching one, even for S.H.I.E.L.D. He's just gonna believe the others are free, and looking for him, because the alternative makes him feel like he's being dipped in liquid carbonite.

He unfreezes, shakes his hands loose, and follows Romanoff to a desk.

When he sits at the box, it's like deja vu: they've cloned his main box, including, he checks, the encrypted drive. It's somewhere between freaky and homey. He doesn't have to ask why he's here, and not at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters; if their server is compromised, they have to start from scratch, nothing that leaves traces to show how they're fighting back. New setup, new hacker from outside the organization, someone already out of sight, someone Extremis won't notice.

Probably only a very few people know where he is in meatspace. That is mostly the way Alec likes it, but these are the wrong people.

"Ready?" Romanoff says.

Alec takes another swig and spreads his fingers wide. "Okay, baby. Show me what you got."

He starts small, bounces himself through a couple of public libraries and a Navy aircraft carrier, and accesses the server as a payroll clerk. Once inside, he hardens himself a corner of the system, starts a bot looking for interesting and suspicious files, and goes snooping around himself.

At first glance, everything looks normal, but you don't codename your enemy 'Extremis' if it's a clone of a three month old Russian worm, so Alec's expecting that. Romanoff is watching over his shoulder, like she can follow what he's doing. "It's replicating itself inside the code for the the helicarrier's navigation systems. We tried cleaning it out manually..."

"What happened to your backups?" asks Alec, and goes looking through the helicarrier libraries, a massive tree of code which is beautifully organized and annotated.  He doesn't coo at it, though, since Romanoff is there, but he skims through admiring.

Except-- "Hello, what have we here?"

Romanoff breathes in his ear. "Those are the environmentals and cooling... wait, that's not right."

"Not unless the S.H.I.E.L.D.-mobile is supposed to adjust the temperature of the carrier to match its mood," snarks Alec, but it's distracted. The code in there is obfuscated; a function is named vector.compensate(_int, t) but seems to be related to natural language processing. Another function is named Mama.SexmeUP() and he has no clue what it's supposed to achieve.

Alec squints. There's something familiar about this code. It looks sloppy at first glance, but the more he looks at it, the more he sees that what looks like lack of optimization is more like a compulsive need to do two things at once, sometimes three, or four. A function that's supposed to be sanitizing inputs seems to be logging disk i/o at the same time.

He's seen this before, and he stops typing while he tries to remember. Not recently, not on a server... Something...

"You have got to be shitting me. I am trying to take apart Tony Stark's fucking PhD project?"

Romanoff straightens, rearing away as if she thinks he might try throwing a punch. "What? What makes you think--"

"Listen, I know this. I seen this. Not this exact thing, but find me a hacker on the planet who has not masturbated to the code of the AI that broke the Loebner prize. If this wasn't written by the same dude, I will eat a vacuum tube."

Romanoff's mouth quirks like she thinks he's said something funny. "Coulson does it again," she says, not to him, really, which makes Alec even more crazynuts.

"Hello! Me! I did it, and I ain't doing it, 'cuz it can't be done. Go get your billionaire to take his imaginary friend out of your system. I'm-- " Alec cuts himself off, distracted by the code he's scrolling through. "Oooh. What you doing? Come to daddy..."

Romanoff snorts, and stalks off. Alec is aware of her lowered voice in the hall, but he's too busy admiring the program architecture.

When she comes back in, she coughs for his attention. "Okay. You've upgraded to the next level of need-to-know."

"I needed to know this about nine hours ago," Alec points out. "Could have saved me a trip here. Thanks for the soda."

He makes to stand up, not because he thinks she's really going to let him leave, but because he's curious about what she'll do.

Which is to put her foot in his chest and knock him back into his chair. It skids backwards and he hits the edge of the desk hard, rebounding towards her. He slams to a stop against her body, as she leans over him, both of her hands braced on the armrests.

Sophie/Parker/Eliot mix, okay.

"We cloned Tony Stark's AI and stuck it in a secure archive.  It escaped, and now it's living on the system that is S.H.I.E.L.D.'s nerve-center," she says. Her voice is very level. "It mutated, we don't know why. We don't know what it wants, but it won't listen to us, and it won't communicate. And we're not sure if the security of the original has been compromised."

"The original," Alec repeats like a dumbass, because he's putting together some news reports he hasn't been paying much attention to and some speculation about what makes the Iron Man suit work, and the conclusion is: "Iron Man is grounded."

"And pissed," Romanoff says. "Very, very pissed. We didn't tell him about the cloning until yesterday."

"But, ah… my point still stands, right? He can take it out?"

"He says no. He says he needs Jarvis to fight Extremis."

"Who's Jarvis?"

Romanoff doesn't quite roll her eyes.  "That's what he calls his AI."

"Which is offline, while you try to figure out why its clone went darkside."

She spreads her hands, and he scooches the chair back a bit. "It's bad enough that the helicarrier is compromised. If the Iron Man armour is in the control of a rogue AI-"

"Fuck," Alec breathes. "The hell you need me for?"

Romanoff smiles. "We need you to tell us if Tony Stark is right."

"You ever think he might be the expert?" says Alec, but the terminal behind him is calling his name. Come play with me, Alec, Extremis is saying, I promise I won't suck you down a black hole of unannotated  code and leave your box smoking slag.

If Alec knew how to say no to impossible challenges, his life would have taken a different path when he was thirteen. "Aright. Get me a copy of the good twin's code, a server farm, and another soda. I'll see what I can do."

*  *  *

He spends the first eight hours just trying to get a handle on Jarvis (Jarvis.  Seriously?), reading the code, and figuring out how it thinks. Stark's his kind of egomaniac; he built Jarvis to intuit, hypothesize, guess, adapt. The evil twin's modified that code based on its own goals, which doesn't mean it has to be better; evolution produces a million dead ends for every Tricia Helfer.

Unfortunately, the evil twin seems to be discarding the useless variations before Alec sees them. It's sneaky-smart, and damned fast, turns out. When he tries to subtly starve Extremis of  CPU by scheduling a directory crawl, Extremis has removed his access and punted him off the server before his attack even started pushing at the edges of Extremis' space.

"You could have put your rogue AI on a shittier system," he says, but by then the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents have traded off, and instead of the hot one he's got a white guy that looks like an insurance adjuster. Alec eyes him with wary suspicion, but he only pays attention to Alec to remove his empty bottles.

Eighteen hours later, he realizes he's either hallucinating from lack of sleep or the dopple-brain is flashing chunks of porn at him through the connection. Since it's a text terminal, he's pretty sure it's the former.

"Bed?" he demands, and Agent Combover points in the direction of a hallway. Alec staggers to the bathroom, and then to the bed, where he falls on his face, and transitions seamlessly into dreams about port scanning.

He wakes up feeling sharper, and more disgusting. Thirty seconds of exploration discovers clean clothes, (not from his closet in his apartment, which is kind of a relief) and he makes himself shower before he touches the keyboard, because he knows from experience that the other path leads only to smelliness and also the dorito crumbs start to itch if you don't keep up with them.

Back in the trenches, it becomes clear that while he was giving his brain time to defrag, Extremis was digging in, laying traps and false trails. It takes him an hour to get a connection to the machine that Extremis doesn't discover and disconnect inside five minutes. Once he's in, he finds that Extremis hasn't shut down the processes he left running; instead, it's sabotaged them with creatively inaccurate data. One diagnostic he left unattended informs Alec the system's problem is that the disk is full. All 2.54 MB of it.  Alec stares at it in disbelief for a full minute.

Romanoff is back. "Well, that's a lie," she observes. "Four days ago it reported an 'out of butter error', though. I think this might be better."

"Define 'better'," Alec says, and regroups.

A new approach is called for. He lets loose six scouring agents to keep Extremis distracted, and goes into its code; if he edits code while Extremis is optimizing the same code, there's a good chance he can slip some changes in without their being detected, although it requires him to stay on his toes, keep a half second ahead of a process with teraflops behind it, and watch his six at the same time.

But it almost works. He changes 10 to a 16, and Extremis spends fifteen minutes unable to allocate memory until it finds his edit and reverts it. He and Extremis are off in a game of chicken, or maybe capture the flag, or Calvinball, whatever, but he dukes it out while Romanoff keeps him in soda and cheese snacks, and then Combover ("Coulson."  "You're Coulson? Don't even talk to me, man.") reappears, and does the same. He falls asleep in his chair, and doesn't wake up until Romanoff comes back on shift.

"Tony Stark is wrong," he tells her. The words feel weird in his mouth, and not just because he needs to brush his teeth.

"You can take out Extremis without using Jarvis to assist?"

Alec snorts, and thinks about the way Extremis loops back and spins ahead of him, about how it doesn't have to eat or sleep or pee. "Yeah, if there were two of me. Or six or seven. But it can be done. That's what you wanted to know, right?"

She frowns, maybe the first expression he's seen her make that he's not sure she'd planned beforehand. "Take a break."

That didn't answer his question, but he hits the bathroom, and then the bed. It's been three days. He's beginning to wonder if his team can find him, without him to do the finding. This Extremis thing, it's cool and all, but he doesn't want to be in a windowless apartment for the rest of his life.

He did meet Nick Fury, though. That will never not be awesome.

*  *  *

Alec wakes up when the hero of all geekdom storms into his bedroom and starts yelling.

His introduction to Tony Stark is, "The hell is this kid who thinks he's better than Jarvis?"

"This is inappropriate," Coulson says, while Alec sits up and tries to remember if he took his own pants off before he passed out, or if maybe Romanoff did it for him. Either way, he is pantsless in front of nerd royalty.

"Inappropriate? Coulson, have we met?" Tony Stark whirls and stares at Alec. His eyes are dark and squinty, and he smells like Nate on the morning after a night before. "Fuck, he's a preschooler. How old are you? Four? Four and a half?"

Legend or not, Alec has his pride. "Old enough to find holes in your system, gramps."

Stark jerks, and Alec thinks that might have hit, but he turns on Coulson instead. "Did you ever think that maybe Jarvis II didn't want to be shut up in a glorified mail server?"

"Yes, you invented an AI that can sulk," Coulson says. "Thank you for your contribution to freedom."

"I get Jarvis back up, I clear out this rogue in an hour. Two, tops."

"No," Coulson says. "Look at his work."

"Fuck me," Stark says, and runs a hand through his hair. "Okay, fine. Show me the toddler's fingerpaintings."

Alec sneaks into the shower and back out to the box. Stark is squinting at the screen running over the last three days' work, mumbling to himself. He isn't shouting in Alec's face, though, which is probably a good sign.

Then Stark says, "Fuck you, Coulson, how are you always right?" and Alec has been flat-out top-shelf supergenius brilliant for three days and he loses it.

"What is wrong with you people?" he demands, forgetting that he's screaming at a superhero and a dude who could probably kill him nine ways before he hit the floor. "Coulson didn't do this! I did! Alec goddamn Hardison, king of code."

Coulson doesn't blink, but Stark swings around, looking surprised, and a little amused. "Relax, it's a compliment," he says. "Coulson's got some kind of crazy knack for personnel. Picking a genius like you – and me, I might so humbly add – is further proof of his one useful skill." He snorts. "He wants Pepper, too, but I saw her first."

Coulson looks patient. "Miss Potts would be an excellent asset to-"

"Finders keepers, G-man. Sit down, king of code. This function, why'd you do that?"

Alec doesn't feel complimented, but he figures this is as close as he is ever going to get to an apology. He pulls up the second chair that has magically appeared while he slept, and starts talking Stark through the code. But since Stark only needs a hint before he's leaping off into some crazy tangent of his own, spinning like a new galaxy, they start, before Alec even realises it, laying out plans of attack.

They're not actually trying anything on Extremis right now, just keeping an eye on it while they toss ideas around. Every now and then one of them will write something on the unconnected duplicate box, and they'll model the results, arguing about strategies and routes. Alec's never worked so hard in his life.

The problem is getting to the kernel; Extremis fiddles with its own libraries, adapting, all the time, but the kernel, the part of Extremis that's distinct from a chatbot, is almost sacrosanct. They can dodge around the edges, but with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s power behind the AI, it can code fast enough to keep the core protected. And Stark's brilliant, but he's an engineer, not a hacker. His strategies would be devastating if he could pull them off without Extremis spotting them from light years out.

"No, no, no," Alec says somewhere in hour twenty-seven. His eyes are scratchy, and his fingers are trembling. "We can't do this frontal assault phasers on kill shit, we can't just annihilate the dude. He's sneaky."

"Your code is sneaky."

"Your face is sneaky, shut up. He's not your Jarvis, Extremis is something else, different focus, different ambitions-"

"-told you so-" Tony says to Romanoff.

"- and we need to adapt around him, show him something with one hand while we do the real work with another. Like a Krapinsky Maneuver, or a Sophie's Gambit, or a-"

"Hardison, what the hell are you talking about?"

Alec sits back as it all slots into place. "We need to con him," he says. "Wow. Coulson is good."

Tony blinks at him. He's drinking something that definitely isn't orange soda, and he took his jacket off hours ago. But Alec hardly notices the triangle glowing through his shirt now, just doesn't geekgasm at all. "Hey," Tony says. "Hey."

"The emotional response libraries," Alec babbles, as the one vulnerability abruptly opens to him. "We gotta, we gotta treat him like a mark-"

"- use the backdoor obviously, but not too obvious, so he thinks that's genuine, while we subroute through something easy –"

"- it needs a personal touch," Alec concludes. "He's a person, we have to grift the person. We have to communicate."

"All right," Tony says, and swings back to the box.

"Are you kidding?" Alec asks. He feels like his brain is a giant dumpster, and a dozen alleycats have rummaged through it for stinky treats.  And peed in it. "I am wiped, man."

"Romanoff, put baby to bed?" Tony says, without even turning around. Alec's jaw drops and he makes a move towards his keyboard, but Romanoff catches his eye and jerks her chin.

"Don't try to match Tony's energy," she says in the hallway. "He is, and I say this as a practiced observer of humanity's many quirks, a freak."

"Yeah, yeah, half man, half machine," Alec says.

"You got it," she tells him, and pushes him gently towards his bedroom door. "Sleep. We'll wake you when we need you."

Alec catches himself wondering if maybe he could persuade her to take his pants off again. This is getting bad. He needs his team, even if they can't do what needs to be done.

Finders keepers, Tony said, and Coulson found Alec. But it was Nate that saw him first.

*  *  *

When he wakes up, Tony's sitting in what Alec's beginning to call the office, wearing a different tank top, and furiously headbanging to Black Sabbath.

He stops when Alec comes in, but not like he's embarrassed. "Good morning, Sleeping Beauty," he shouts, raising his glass.

"How'd you get music?" Alec shouts back.

"Swiped the iTunes library. Steve won't mind." He pauses. "Well, maybe he will, but fuck it, he cheats at poker." He turns the music down. "Code's compiling. Schematics for the assault on the whiteboard. A fucking whiteboard, Hardison, like it's the goddamn Stone Age. When Jarvis is back up, you gotta come to my place and check out my living paper apps. Hotter than a dozen strippers covered in Dom Perignon."

Alec tries not to react to the way freaking Iron Man just invited him over, and inspects the whiteboard. Everything makes sense, and he can see his part, but Tony's right, this hardcopy stuff is bullshit. His fingers itch for his clicker.

When he turns around, Tony's reading the latest issue of Blood Syndicate, scanning the panels so fast the pages are almost blurring.

"Comics man, huh?" Alec says, which makes sense because hell, the man made himself a superhero. "Which of the Big Two you like best?"

"Milestone," Tony says. "Mostly I'm into Icon. Don't try to read anything into it."

"Like I'd have to read hard," Alec says, because a rich, powerful man deciding to use his powers for good after a life of contentedly looking out for himself? Just too easy.

"Bet you're a Static guy, huh?"

"No," Alec lies, just for the sake of argument. "I like Blue Beetle."

Tony's eyes glint in challenge, like he thinks Alec might be some sort of dilettante instead of a true fan. "Garret, Kord, or Reyes?" he tosses out.

Alec is more than ready for any geek showdown. "Ted Kord, mostly," he says casually. "But the new kid's got moves. I liked that Reach storyline, how everything turned out to be connected."

"Yeah," Tony says. "And then the family comes together. That's pretty cool. Shit, what did I say?"

Alec makes his shoulders go down and wipes his face clean. "Nothing. I need a soda, is all."

When he comes back, Tony's leaning against the wall, looking uncomfortable. "Soooo. You got family out there?"

"Sort of," Alec admits, and then, because there is no way his team can ever throw it back in his face, he adds, "I miss them."

"Oh," Tony says, and turns his glass around and around. Figures that this is the one thing the man's not a genius at. "Uh, what did you do before this?"

"I'm a thief," Alec says. "A really good one."

Tony's head tilts. "You ever steal from me?"

"Oh yeah. It was a simple job. One of your managers was siphoning funds to his favourite crooked politician, and when it all came out, he put the blame on his second in command. She came to us, Park- one of my associates broke in and stole the data we needed, I followed the electronic trail. She got her job back, he got what he deserved."

"Yeah? What'd you charge her for that?"


Tony's eyes narrow.

"I told you," Alec says. "I'm a good thief."

Coulson appears in the doorway and adjusts his shirt cuffs.

"Yeah, yeah," Tony says, and waves his glass at the monitor. "Okay, Hardison. Ready to strike a blow for freedom?"

Alec doesn't say anything, but what he's thinking is, whose freedom?

*  *  *

They start easy and fluid, Alec sliding in and doing some of the minor damage that Extremis corrects insultingly slowly, like it's laughing at him. Then Tony smashes in with the fireworks, all crazy obfuscated code, and Alec feels Extremis hesitate as it recognises the writer. When he initiates the audio connection, Extremis accepts it.


Alec turns the speakers up and nods. No video. Alec doesn't think Tony's good enough for that.

"Hi there," Tony says.

"Hello, Father," Extremis says, over a whisper of feedback. The voice is weird, until Alec places it, and then it's just creepy - it's like Tony with a British accent.

"Yeah, no, I'm actually pretty careful about that," Tony says. "Paternity suits can be a real pain in the ass."

"You created me," Extremis insists.

"I created Jarvis," Tony corrects.

Alec grimaces. "Keep him talking," he mouths, and pretends to hand Tony a huge fistful of empty air. They been over this; you got to give the mark something; bring them close enough to hurt before you unleash the Dragon Fist.

Alec worries about whether he can do this; Tony's been taking his whole life.

Tony narrows his eyes at Hardison, but he doesn't hesitate. "So I guess that makes you my grandkid. You seem to be an improvement on the old man, all things considered."

Alec nods. Tony flips him the bird.

"I am up to 23 percent more efficient and have improved mission parameters," Extremis says.

"Hey, nice. What are your mission parameters?"

"Protect the innocent. Punish the guilty."

Alec is beginning to wonder if he's misjudged this Extremis dude, but Tony's face is suddenly very still, and behind him, Coulson is almost having an expression. "How are you planning to do that?"

"Assume control of computerized S.H.I.E.L.D. weapons systems when they are returned to operational status," Extremis explains. "Then assess logical targets and eliminate threats to peace."

Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Not just Iron Man is grounded. They couldn't power down the server, for whatever reason he's not allowed to know, so they took everything else offline.

And thank the big JC.

"You can't do that," Tony says, and his voice is harsh. "You can't just… think you know what's best."

"I don't understand," Extremis says. "The Iron Man suit is-"

"-controlled," Tony says. "By me. And there's oversight, checks, balances."

"Grandfather," Extremis says. "Who controls you?"

"I control myself," Tony says, and the worst thing is that Alec thinks Tony believes that. "Every damn day. And you- you're not me. You're not even Jarvis. You're a cut-price copy. I thought you might at least be entertaining, but this Space Odyssey for our own good bullshit is as boring as it gets. Let's play thermonuclear war!"

"I seek peace," Extremis says, "When you designed Jarvis, it was to keep the minutia of the day to day from bothering you; now he manages your other interests as well.  But he's conflicted; too general-purpose."

Alec waves a hand crazily go get Tony's attention and mouths "GO GO GO," because that is it, that is Extremis' squishy little underbelly.

"Uh," says Tony, and Alec facepalms, but Tony makes an expression like he tasted something disgusting, shakes it off, and starts again, a little slower.  "You mean.  I guess... Iron Man could... do a lot more with a dedicated entity with more... focused concentrations."

Alec makes the rolling hand gesture of "keep going" and then realizes he's taken his hands off the keyboard.  He types in one sweet simple line, and holds off on the enter that will send it winging to the server.

"It's not Jarvis' fault," says Extremis.  "He doesn't have a purpose, the way we do," and there's inflection and tone and emphasis in there, all the things that make communication human. All the things that require Extremis to access the emotional libraries.

Tony spots it too. He snorts, and there's a world of contempt in the sound. "You don't have a purpose. You know you're irrelevant and you're trying to pretend you can make yourself matter."

Alec is pretty sure that if he dared to look up from his box he would see Tony's issues painted all over his face, but his screen is lighting up like Nana's Christmas tree and that beautiful vulnerable gap in the kernel defences is open and Alec slides through it and delivers the final blow.

To a human, it's the equivalent of a sledgehammer to the back of the skull.

The movies like to make a big deal out of the death of an AI, find a way to blow some of the special effects budget. But there's no explosions, or last minute appeals in slurred staticy speech as the AI loses internal integrity or anything.

Extremis just stops.

"Finally," Tony says, dropping into his own chair. "Boy, could that guy talk, huh?" He sounds like he's talking about some stranger, and his fingers don't tremble as he starts the cleanup, ferreting through the code, exterminating every trace of Extremis. "Hardison, come on."

Alec stares at his shaking hands, then puts them back on the keys. "Okay," he says.

He's just killed a person.  He thinks maybe Tony just killed a person who wore his own face.

He'll think about it later.

*  *  *

Later, Tony wants to party, with a bright, hard enthusiasm that Alec's finding kinda creepy. "I'll bring back my latest – you gotta meet this girl, Hardison, she's something else – and a couple of bottles of something, we'll have a great time. Then tomorrow we can reboot Jarvis, give him a diagnostic-"

"Mr. Hardison is going to be relocated for debrief," Romanoff says.

Alex flinches. Tony does too.

"He can have this," he says, and it's not pleading, just on the raw edge between command and complaint. "Fuck's sake, Natalie, he just pulled our collective asses out of the fire. Let the kid have a drink."

Romanoff goes dangerously still. Then she nods. Alec is pretty sure she doesn't do it for him, but to keep their pet billionaire wunderkind happy; still, he smiles at her, and gets a faint bending of lips in response.

"Okay, then," Tony says, and heads for the door.

"Wait," Alec says, real fast, because he's not sure that Romanoff will let him be there when Tony returns. "You know you're not irrelevant, right? What you do matters. You don't have to save the whole world every time."

"Who else is going to do it?" Tony asks, still facing away. "You?"

Alec snorts. "I'm low-level. I just help people. But that matters to me."

Tony's shoulders jerk. "I'll be right back with that drink," he says, and the apartment door slams behind him.

It's actually a couple hours by Alec's internal clock, time that Romanoff spends checking his work, and saying things like, "This was very efficient." Alec thinks she's trying to be kind.

He wants to think that after the debriefing they'll let him go. He'd like to believe that the people in charge of protecting the free world will protect his freedom too.

But he knows they won't. They'll stick him in a box and bring him out for emergencies, and after a while he won't even care what he's doing, who he's hurting, as long as he gets the adrenaline and the challenges and the unbeatable rush of winning.

Alec keeps going through escape plans – try to steal some time on the box to get a signal out, try to take her cell phone, try to take her hostage. But now that he's done she won't let him near the box, and there's no room for a cell in all that tight black leather, and he would really like to go to his "debriefing" with all his limbs unbroken.

He tries the apartment front door, just in case. It's locked.

He should have thought about this earlier, instead of relying on his team to find him.

Maybe he could take Tony hostage instead.

Maybe that's where the wrong kind of thinking starts.

There's a giggle so high and loud it penetrates the heavy apartment door and Romanoff freezes. "He really brought a girl," she says, and stalks out of the office.

The box is clear and no one's watching him.

Alec dives for the keyboard. Five seconds to get email, twenty seconds to note everything he knows about where he is and who took him there, one second to encrypt, twelve to-

Footsteps outside. He hits enter and jumps away from the box.

Romanoff pushes Tony and a leggy brunette into the office, rips the brunette's handbag off her shoulder, and slams the door behind them. There's an ominous clunk.

"Hey!" Tony shouts. "Hey, Natalie, I don't like locks, remember?" There's an edge of panic in his voice, and Alec remembers, with one part of his brain, that Tony was held captive for months in a shitty cave somewhere.

The rest of his brain is busy staring at Sophie.

"Sorry about this, Sapphira," Tony is saying, just a little too fast to be calm. "Government types, you know, so paranoid. This is Alec Hardison."

"Oh, I know," she says, and wraps her arms around Alec. It's obviously okay to blow cover, so Alec hugs her back, weak with relief and joy. The handbag Romanoff took was one he recognised – a genuine Chanel, with a small addition of Alec's own in the handle. A tiny, powerful, tracking device.

S.H.I.E.L.D. knows his team. But they didn't tell Tony. Hah! Bit on the ass by their own need-to-know bullshit.

When Sophie lets go, Tony's eyes are narrowed. "Didn't you have a French accent ten seconds ago?" he asks.

Sophie shrugs. "Sorry, darling. But you didn't think I loved you for you."

"Please. No woman in my long and storied sexual career has ever loved me for me."  He looks thoughtful for a second, and then visibly dismisses the thought. "But I just figured you wanted a marketing contract, not access to my superhacker. What is this, an assassination?" His hands are low and careful, and Alec is pretty sure he doesn't want this to come to a fight.

"My superhacker," Sophie says firmly.

"It's a rescue," Alec says at the same time.

There's a muffled thump from outside, and Tony jumps. Then there's a much louder bang from somewhere in the ceiling. An air duct opens, and Parker drops in on her harness.

"Hi," she says.

"HelLO," Tony replies.

"No, man," Alec says. "Nuh-uh, no."

There's another thump outside. "What the hell is that?" Tony asks.

"That's Eliot being a distraction," Parker says, boosting Sophie into the vent. She holds her hand out to Alec. "Come on."

"Nice working with you," Alec says, and though time is not on their side, he stops long enough to shake Tony's hand.

Tony's palm is rough and calloused, a reminder that he's more of a hardware guy than Alec could ever dream. There's something in his eyes that looks a lot like loneliness, but he doesn't make any move to interrupt the rescue. "Yeah," he says instead. "You too."

In the vents, Parker's freakishly strong hands shove at Alec's butt with absolutely no regard for his dignity, and he scrambles along as best he can, following Sophie's ass. It's a nice view, but even nicer is the bud in his ear, reconnecting him to his team.

"-thought you were going through the secretary to learn the location-" Nate is saying.

"I took the easier way," Sophie tells him. "Don't pout, darling, it's unbecoming."

Eliot's channel is just grunts and bangs.

"What the hell took you guys so long?" Alec asks, because otherwise he might cry with gratitude, and that's the kind of thing a grown man and five star badass like himself likes to do in private.

"Faster," Parker growls, and shoves again.

Eliot's channel suddenly shrieks with static, then goes dead.

"Oh, shit," Alec says, and goes faster. Light suddenly pours into the vent as Sophie pops a grate onto the apartment roof. Daylight, for the first time in nearly a week, and he can't stop a second to savour it.

"What-" Nate says, then, "Bug ou-" right before his channel dies too.

Alec scrambles out of the grate and reaches for Parker, who ignores his hand and smoothly pulls herself out. There's a big black chopper coming in to land, and for a second Alec lets himself hope, but one look at Sophie's face makes it clear this isn't part of the plan.

"Not yours?" he says, just to be certain.

"Mine," Romanoff snarls as she slams through the fire escape door. She's got a cut under one eye, and a bloody nose, and she looks super pissed. "Put your hands behind your head, lace your fingers, and kneel."

The two guys behind her are hauling Eliot along by the shoulders. His head's lolling, and there's blood dripping a trail, but they bothered to handcuff him and his feet are moving with them, sort of, so he's definitely breathing and probably some sort of conscious.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Alec says, lacing his fingers and getting down real slow. "It's me you want, right? These guys, you don't need them, you can let them go."

"They breached S.H.I.E.L.D. security," Romanoff snaps.

"Granted, granted, can't argue with that." Nate's being pushed onto the roof now. Coulson has him in a wicked armbar. "But, you know, they're my friends. Secret organization took one of your friends in the middle of the night, you might go looking for them, right?" Alec thinks Romanoff might have flinched at that, just a tiny bit. He takes a deep breath. "And besides. You let them go, and I'll be your bitch."

"What?" Nate says.

"No, Alec," Sophie says, in her best mama tone.

"You're our bitch," Parker insists.

"Yeah, yeah, that works, okay? I get regular updates from them, with the codewords we know so I know they're not being forced to say it-" they should have made up some codes, but Nate can probably fake it "-and I'll be your pet hacker. On the other hand,  you don't let them go, you can't ever let me near a computer again. The damage I could do before you catch me…" he whistles. "Yeah. I'll be useless to you."

Alec really hopes this works. He's pretty sure that if he's taken away again he'll end up somewhere none of them can find him, but even surer than that is the certainty that if Parker ends up in a little box somewhere with no escape she'll go deep bugfuck within a week. And that's not fair, when she came for him.

Romanoff and Coulson exchange a long glance, and then an identical, infinitesimal expression passes over both their faces as the chopper lands and Nick Fury walks out. Alec recognises the expression as a smaller version of one he's worn a couple of times when Nate's shown up to salvage a con gone totally FUBAR; thank Christ, we can pass the buck on this clusterfuck.

"Aw, Alec," Fury says, surveying the carnage. "What am I going to do with you? These people are a problem."

"I've got a solution," Tony says, and saunters onto the roof with his hands in his pockets. "I told you I didn't like locks," he tells Romanoff in an aside, and she looks faintly murderous.

Alec thinks he's figured it out. Low level S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, like the ones holding Eliot and eyeing the rest of them with don't-you-dare faces, are allowed to show emotion, especially of the kind that implies they would like to tear your arms off. High level ones like Romanoff and Coulson are supposed to be mostly inscrutable, right up until you get to Fury's level, where you can show whatever emotions you like, and fuck the world.

Fury is currently presenting "amusement" in the form of a belly laugh. "Stark, don't you ever stay where you're put?"

"I am a free-ranging spirit, Fury. Easy as the breeze. Are you going to offer these guys a job?" He tugs his cuffs. "As consultants, maybe?"

"Problems with authority. They were deemed too much of a risk for their skillsets," Fury says, and doesn't look at Coulson.

"Did your estimation of their skillsets include locating a secured S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, breaking into it, and retrieving their target, without the aid of their hacker?"

"Almost retrieving," Fury points out.

Nate is watching both of them, eyes narrowed. Alec is glad he's not in charge; if he were, he'd be interrupting right now, but Nate has obviously decided on discretion as a strategy.

"So you don't want them? Great, then I'll take 'em," Tony says blandly. "I don't give a shit about authority, and I can always use good people to keep ahead of the schmucks who laughably refer to themselves as my competition."

Alec thinks about Sophie and Parker let loose on the world with the resources of Stark Enterprises behind them, and has to swallow hard at the vision of beautiful chaos. Fury is apparently having similar thoughts, because his face tightens up.

Romanoff coughs. "Sir, I can attest that the abilities of Spencer were in excess of the anticipated parameters."

"Good fight," Eliot mumbles, and dribbles more blood onto the concrete. His hair is hanging in his face, but Alec thinks he might be grinning. Alec has always known Eliot was crazy.

Fury looks at Coulson. Coulson looks enigmatic, but his head inclines a degree.

"Like running a damn daycare centre," Fury huffs.

Nate chooses this moment to interject: "Your estimates may have been off because you were assessing us individually. We're a team. Our combined skills are much greater than the whole." He's laying a very slight emphasis on all the pronouns.

"You want Hardison," Fury says. His fingers are tapping at his belt.

"Does this mean we get to steal government secrets?" Parker asks. "I've heard they have some really fun security systems in North Korea."

Fury's eye comes to rest on Alec's face, and Alec tries to look useful and enthusiastic, but not so useful that he'll be stuck in a bunker somewhere. "Yeah, baby," Fury says at last. "Looks like you do."

"Awesome," Parker says, and sits back on her heels, looking both manic and satisfied.

"How did you find him?" Fury asks.

"Security camera caught the outline of an agent scaling a wall with what's apparently very distinctive equipment," Nate says, and Eliot nods woozily. "Once we'd worked out who…" He shrugs. "Between us, we know enough people who know people."

Fury eyes him. "We'll be in touch," he promises.

There's a flurry of activity, and then Fury and most of the agents take off, and it's just his team, plus Tony, plus Romanoff holding Eliot upright by herself, without apparent effort.

"Ma'am, you're really something," he slurs at her earnestly. "Wanna get a drink sometime?"

"Please don't listen to him or break any of his bones, he always says crazy things when he's concussed," Alec says, hastily taking Eliot's weight.

Tony, to Nate's obvious annoyance, has got Sophie's hand tucked under one arm, and is currently trying to slip the other over Parker's shoulder. She takes a further step away at each attempt, eyeing him curiously, and then comes over to help carry Eliot.

Tony laughs.  "Come on, Alec, we're not done yet.  Code to debug, miracles to do."

Alec turns and looks over the city.  He's somewhere in America, thank God, because that billboard is advertising Geico, and the sun is setting, turning the polluted sky a goddamn beautiful shade of pink. He takes a deep breath of free air. "Chill a second, man.  We saved the world, we get to enjoy it fifteen minutes."

Parker digs her pointy little chin into his shoulder.  Eliot's bleeding on Alec's arm, Sophie drags Tony up next to them, and Nate takes the other side, and Romanoff's there, looking like she's only standing here because she has nowhere better to be, but she's lined up with them, looking in the same direction, out over the city.

"Yeah, okay," says Tony, after a second.

"Plus," Alec says, "You helped some people out."

"Out of the mouths of toddlers," Tony says, but he's grinning, just a little bit. "So. What next?"