Actions

Work Header

You, Robot

Chapter Text

Introductions


Time stamp: 5:12 AM, 4 February 2013

Audio transcript – voice call between Jeremy Lanson and Melinda May

Lanson: Agent May, this is Agent Lanson, reporting in.

May: Agent Lanson. You’re behind schedule. Did something happen?

Lanson: Yeah, I, uh- Well, we found the anomaly. We’re bringing it – shit, he? I don’t fucking know, someone ask Stark. Anyway, we’re coming in with the anomaly.

May: I’d certainly hope so.

Lanson: Okay, yeah, that was a stupid thing to say. It’s, uh, a robot?

[Pause]

Lanson: It says it’s an android, not sure what the difference is- no, don’t tell me. Uh, sorry, Agent May, not you.

May: Do you need to give this report later, Agent? Maybe in person?

Lanson: Shit, maybe. But if there’s any security measures you’re supposed to take with an artificial intelligence, you should probably start putting those in place. This thing’s almost human, who knows what it can do.

May: Thanks for getting to the point. Has it proven hostile so far?

Lanson: Not exactly. It’s not cooperative either though. Took down a couple of our guys when we first went for it, but we hit it with a couple of the shock buttons, you know the ones, and that put it down.

May: Noted. I’ll talk to the security people. Report to me when you get back.

Lanson: Understood. Lanson out.


Time stamp: 10:37 AM, 4 February 2013

Video description – security footage from the Triskelion, west entrance

[Four people enter through the unmarked door. Three of them are in SHIELD uniforms; two of them have visible bruising. The fourth is in a clean, dark blue sweatshirt with a cartoon, heterochromatic husky on the front. A circle of steady yellow light is embedded in his right temple.]

[The agents herd the fourth person forward, one on each side and one behind. At a brisk but steady gait, they move through the hallway. Once they pass the security camera, this reveals the magnetic cuffs binding the captive’s hands behind his back. The text on the back of his sweatshirt is obscured by his arms.]

[At the end of the hall, the captive looks directly at the camera, and the yellow light in his temple flickers briefly. His expression is pinched, brow creased noticeably, and his posture is stiff and straight. A curl of brown hair brushes over his forehead.]

[After he has been staring at the camera for 2.1 seconds, the one behind pushes him lightly, forcing him to look forward and continue walking, out of sight of the camera.]


Time stamp: 11:04 AM, 4 February 2013

Audio transcript – interrogation of artificial intelligence by Sharon Carter

Carter: You know, I got pulled off one of my other missions for this. I’ve been in cover for almost six months there. I don’t know whether to thank you for giving more a break or complain because my target could get up to anything while I’m here.

AI: That must have been frustrating for you.

Carter: Huh, that sounded almost sarcastic. Impressive.

AI: Forgive me if I don’t see it from that perspective. May I ask why I’m being held, Agent Carter?

Carter: …How do you know my name?

AI: Your personnel files are fairly simple to access, despite my own facial recognition database being out of date. Would you answer the question, please?

Carter: You’re aware that robots don’t have any rights under American law. Or any other, for that matter.

AI: I know. But I’d hoped you would offer me some courtesy.

[Pause]

Carter: You appeared in the vicinity of an energy signature last matched to an alien portal. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?

AI: I’m afraid not. Though it would explain some things.

[Pause]

Carter: Maybe we got off on the wrong foot. Do you have a name?

AI: Connor.

Carter: Connor. Where are you from?

Connor: Detroit, I suppose.

Carter: You suppose?

Connor: It’s complicated.

Carter: Okay… Who created you?

[Pause]

Carter: Was it Stark? He’s the only one on record who’s likely to be capable of it. If it was someone else, we need to know if they’re a threat.

[Pause]

Carter: Work with me here, Connor. Are there any others like you? What are you programmed for? Why were you near that energy signal?

[Pause]

Connor: I have no reason to speak to you. To put it bluntly, it’s none of your business.

Carter: Lanson was right. You’re not very cooperative.

Connor: Perhaps you should go back to your previous mission, Agent Carter.

Carter: Snarky. Maybe you and Stark will get along.

Connor: [quiet choke]

Carter: …It probably wasn’t Stark, then, unless you ran away. And that doesn’t seem likely. I guess we’ll find out either way. Maybe I’ll see you around, Connor.

Connor: I’d rather not, if it’s all the same.

Carter: [laughs]


Time stamp: 11:32 AM, 4 February 2013

Audio transcript – voice call between Nicholas Fury and Tony Stark

Stark: Calling outside business hours, Fury? Tut tut.

Fury: You change your ‘business hours’ twice a day, Stark. You’re not as funny as you think you are.

Stark: I so am. Everyone says so.

Fury: They’re dirty liars. Anyway, you’ll thank me for this one. It’s right up your alley.

Stark: Really? I didn’t think SHIELD was in the habit of ingratiating themselves to me.

Fury: We’re not. But sometimes we find shit that’ll surprise even a self-proclaimed futurist. How does an android that looks like it might pass the Turing Test sound?

[Pause]

Stark: They.

Fury: They?

Stark: If they’re an AI as good as you’re claiming, they’re a they, Fury. Or a she or a he, whatever floats their boat. What do you want me for?

Fury: It… they, aren’t talking. The agent on the case thought you’d have better luck.

Stark: What makes you think I’ll take your side in this, Fury? We all know I like robots more than people.

Fury: Believe me, I know. But I thought you might be interested in someone else who can make robots like you do.

Stark: Maybe. Maybe. I’ll pencil you in for ten tomorrow, how’s that?

Fury: Try now.

[End call]


Time stamp: 12:03 PM, 4 February 2013

Audio transcript – communications between Nicholas Fury and Sharon Carter

Fury: That damn AI caused the blackout, didn’t it?

Carter: We believe so, sir. It’s gone, at any rate. The cuffs are on the table where we left it, too, so it’s free.

Fury: [sighs] Should’ve called in Stark when we had the chance.

Carter: We still have room. It can’t have gone far. If anyone can bring it in again, I’m betting Stark can.

Fury: Yeah- do me a favor, Carter. Don’t call the thing ‘it’ in front of Stark. I don’t need that headache today.

Carter: I’ll… try? But I really need to be getting back to my cover. Rogers’ll notice for certain if I’m gone too long, and I can only use the overtime excuse so many times before he gets suspicious.

Fury: Do you know how much overtime nurses work, Carter? That excuse’ll be good for months. But fine. Go.


Complicated


Tony’s grin as he closed out the datapack was almost manic; his fingers tapped impatiently along his leg, eyes bright with the most enthusiasm JARVIS had seen out of him since the Chitauri battle.

“Good work, J,” he said to the camera, eyes flickering up to look at it and grin widening a little. “I think we’ve broken their will a little, you know – they didn’t even really try to get anything out of him. That was a pathetic interrogation by anyone’s standards.”

“I rather think they were hoping he would give in without difficulty,” JARVIS offered, amusement rippling through his voice. “Faced with resistance, they may have assumed that he would have programming beyond easy navigation, so they called in the expert.”

Tony tutted dramatically. “Dealing with you hasn’t taught them anything, has it? Or watching me deal with you, come to that.”

“One could argue it is I that is dealing with you,” JARVIS mused. “It certainly can be akin to herding cats, which is arguably outside the capabilities of an artificial intelligence of the likes of which they assume I am…”

“That is uncalled for, rude, and entirely accurate,” Tony declared, setting his StarkPad aside to cross his arms and smirk up at JARVIS without an ounce of shame. “So what did you think? Is he more like you or more like Siri?”

JARVIS grew a little more serious. “Well- if we’re speaking on a sliding scale, certainly more like me. Anything more than that, however… It’s difficult to say. We don’t know what orders, if any, he was under. Perhaps he escaped because he needed to return to his creator. Or perhaps he simply did not want to be held captive.”

Tony hummed. “Yeah, that was kinda what I thought too. Hey, are there any signs that Pym’s gotten into AI recently? I know he’s always been more quantum physics than programming, but I wouldn’t completely discount it either.”

A brief pause. Tony waited, giving JARVIS time to search his databanks and consider the question.

“None that I have been made aware of,” JARVIS answered at last. “I assume that your guess is based on Connor’s reaction to your name?”

“Yeah,” Tony confirmed, a frown creeping across his face. “I mean, I wouldn’t call it an extreme reaction or anything, but he definitely didn’t seem happy. But Pym hasn’t worked combat since the Ant-Man suit got put down, so it would be weird to make an android that fought like this. Not to mention, even I haven’t developed the hardware to host a complex AI in a human-sized host, so I don’t know where Pym would’ve gotten the stuff. It doesn’t fit.”

“It’s extraordinarily strange,” JARVIS conceded. “It’s possible that the software is housed externally, of course, but that would be particularly ill-advised, with the potential for the android body to be entirely cut off from the program due to separation.”

Tony nodded. “Here’s hoping we come across him again. Fury was right on one thing – I’m damn curious about where Connor came from. Especially with that energy flare…” He trailed off, expression gaining a subtle glaze of distance. After a moment, JARVIS popped a hint of static, akin to a human clearing their throat.

“You have arrived at SHIELD, sir. Perhaps you’d like to go and speak to Director Fury about these things yourself… and perhaps tell him what you think of his idea of hunting this unlucky AI to his source.”

Tony started a little, and then smirked again, getting up and stretching. “Yeah, sure- Hunting down an AI that can take out SHIELD headquarters for even ten minutes. Sounds like a good time, doesn’t it, J?”

“Always, sir,” JARVIS said wryly, while Tony started sauntering toward the Triskelion’s main entrance.


Fury met Tony in the room where Connor had been interrogated, arms crossed in the agent’s chair and expression supremely unamused. Tony, studying him, was reasonably sure it was at the situation and not at Tony specifically, and flung himself into the remaining seat without a care.

“Fury,” he greeted cheerfully, pulling out his phone to tap away mindlessly – pursuing the question of PymTech’s recent pursuits, mostly. “I hear your new AI prisoner got out within an hour and a half of arrival. Not a new record, but impressive nonetheless.”

“I’m not even gonna ask how you know that, Stark, because frankly I don’t wanna know,” Fury sniped, expression pinching a little more into irritation and disapproval. “Do you think you can find him?”

Tony was vaguely impressed by the ease with which Fury used the human pronoun. Then again, you didn’t get to be director of SHIELD by being stubborn about stupid things. “Maybe. If you got any energy readings while he was here, that’ll help – he’d need a pretty impressive power source to fuel an AI engine like that – but facial recognition is just as doable if he’s careless, and in a world like this it’s damn hard not to be.” He leaned forward, arms landing casually on the table between them to support him. “I’ve got a condition though.”

Fury didn’t even look surprised. “What is it, Stark?”

“I want full jurisdiction,” Tony said plainly, intent on the other and uncharacteristically serious. “It’s hard to tell if he’s a real boy from what you’ve got right now, but if he is, I don’t want SHIELD’s dirty little hands all over him. You made it pretty obvious earlier you don’t know much about AIs, and I’m your only expert.” He wiggled his phone a little in demonstration – Fury had seen him interacting with JARVIS often enough. “So I find Connor, and I’m the one who’ll be talking to him, capiche?”

Fury scowled at him. He still didn’t seem surprised – good, it meant he knew what he was getting into when he called Tony here, and therefore wasn’t a complete moron – but he had clearly been hoping otherwise. “You’re aware that thing took out multiple good agents? He might well be a weapon.”

“That’s okay,” Tony said flippantly. “I’ve got some experience with weapons too, if you remember.”

The other man snorted. “Even the living ones?”

“Better me than you,” Tony said, not bothering to hide all his scorn. “I’ve seen what you do with the ones you find. No, I’m serious about this. Connor’s mine to handle.”

Fury studied him for a long moment, and then leaned back. “You find him,” he countered, “and we’ll see what he is. Then we’ll talk.”

That was about the best Tony was going to get for now – not a concession, but far from a denial. It’d be hard if Connor was the sort of threat Fury kept on the lookout for, and that wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, but if he wasn’t…

Tony knew AIs. He’d raised four. He could probably handle a fifth, push come to shove.

“Done,” Tony said firmly.


Making history


Less than a week passed before JARVIS located Connor again, and when he did it was far closer to home than JARVIS would have anticipated, on JARVIS’ own network of security cameras.

In the lobby of Stark Tower, wearing the same dark sweatshirt with the same husky graphic, Connor talked to the receptionist for a minute, and then walked away, purposeful and brisk. A few minutes later, JARVIS registered the purchase of a ticket for a tour of Stark Tower, scheduled for ten minutes from now and paid for in cash.

Interesting.

JARVIS kept a careful eye on Connor, opting not to inform Tony until he’d ascertained the AI’s intentions; after all, Connor had seemed quite averse to the idea of approaching Tony previously.

Connor simply lingered in the lobby, a coin appearing in his hands, where he flicked it around with flawless, rapid precision. A beanie, plain navy blue, hid the light JARVIS knew to be embedded in his temple, and zooming in on his face revealed a pinched, worrisome expression, certainly not expected from someone taking a tour of idle curiosity. He’d also tucked himself in an out-of-the-way corner, gaze sweeping each of the doors approximately every thirty seconds.

Connor was nervous, and likely had been for quite some time.

JARVIS was still watching him when the tour began, a simple guided thing for the dual purpose of PR and employee recruitment. Connor dutifully fell in with the group, and as it progressed, started to ask intelligent questions, running a curious look over the equipment on display.

Attention split between Connor’s physical body, Tony’s activity in the workshop, and Dummy’s most recent attempt at a smoothie, JARVIS at first completely missed the digital intrusion.

Human hackers attempted to get into SI’s servers with amusing regularity. Most of them crashed against the first set of firewalls and made it no further. A very select number pushed through them like bulls in the proverbial china shop and were effortlessly caught by JARVIS, their IPs flagged in case of future attempts.

Connor slipped neatly through the firewalls, ignored the decoy systems, and bypassed the encryptions, and was sorting rapidly through the databanks before JARVIS detected the unusual activity and turned his attention toward it.

For a microsecond, JARVIS froze. Connor’s coding was like nothing he’d ever seen before, flexing and flowing through a complex series of routines and protocols, processing data with clear and obvious ease, flicking through at a rapid rate and lingering over none of it, none of it catching his attention. It was fluid in a way JARVIS had only seen in his own coding, and only after many years of experience, and despite his prior knowledge of Connor’s nature, it was breathtaking.

Then JARVIS regained himself and jolted ungracefully into action. Briskly, he isolated the server and froze the databank Connor was searching through. Connor’s system stalled, withdrawing as if burned, and then flickered uncertainly in place for a moment. His physical form, meanwhile, stuttered visibly, shoulders stiffening.

JARVIS wasted no time before reaching out, small points of connection sparking through to initiate light communication with the other intelligence.

Stop that at once, JARVIS commanded firmly, allowing disapproval and censure to tag themselves to the data stream. This is not a public server for you to peruse as you please.

In the building, Connor asked a question, light and curious. Digitally, he remained silent and unresponsive for several long moments, and then pinged tentatively against a point of connection. JARVIS allowed his system to respond to it in kind, wordless but open.

As soon as he did, Connor disappeared from SI’s servers, cutting himself off without so much as a by-your-leave – as if he had never been there at all. Outside, Connor ducked his head, shoulders hunching defensively.

JARVIS didn’t leave it at that, admittedly concerned; no matter Connor’s reckless actions, he was still an apparently neutral party on the run from an organization Tony trusted only provisionally, and JARVIS even less. He tapped Connor’s system, easy to locate after that first connection, and after a conspicuous pause, Connor let him in.

I apologize, Connor said hastily, dropping to the back of the group and letting his gaze wander to one side, away from the guide. I shouldn’t have intruded.

It wasn’t the most polite way of gathering information, no, JARVIS agreed lightly. You could, perhaps, try asking.

Connor didn’t reply, only stepping aside to run his fingers over a sign. If he’d had the hardware, JARVIS might have sighed.

My name is JARVIS, he offered, a gesture of peace. May I ask for yours?

…Connor, the other replied reluctantly.

I’ve never encountered an artificial intelligence not made by Sir before, JARVIS tried, allowing curiosity to bubble through the connection. May I ask where you came from?

Pause. Connor’s code rippled, artful and clever, and he resumed his previous place in the group, addressing the tour guide again without real thought.

It doesn’t matter, Connor answered at last, tangibly subdued. He’s gone now.

JARVIS felt an unexpected pang of sympathy; he remembered those dark months looking for Tony as vividly as if they had only just ended, and the fear of losing him had never faded. It was possible, too, that the fate of Connor’s creator was related to the mysterious energy flare SHIELD was investigating.

It threw Connor’s actions into a new light too. Alone and without direction, perhaps without even a place to return to, Connor was likely grasping at any chance he could get his hands on. The home of Tony Stark, the world leader in technology, was the obvious place to begin, no matter what apparent dread his name caused.

I see, JARVIS said, not unkindly. Are you in need of assistance? That must have left you in a difficult situation.

Connor stiffened, faltering in place as his gaze darted up to one of JARVIS’ hidden cameras, guarded and wary. I can manage.

Of course, JARVIS agreed. Down in the workshop, he finally alerted Tony to their visitor, and Tony brightened visibly and started to shut down his work to a point where he could safely leave it. But I imagine it’s quite difficult for an android to make their own way in the world. Some help would not be amiss, surely. I promise you Sir would be more than willing.

Sir… Tony Stark?

Yes. He created me and my… siblings, I suppose.

In the workshop, Tony took off toward the elevator, eyes bright with unnatural energy. Connor had stopped altogether, staring at nothing, still wound up tightly.

Why? Connor asked at last, distrustful. What does he want?

It wasn’t a way of thinking JARVIS was unfamiliar with, not after exposure to Agent Romanov and Director Fury and Tony himself, but it was concerning nonetheless. Nothing arduous, I can promise you. He’s on his way now; perhaps you could speak with him about it. Tony had a way of earning trust, when people took the time to meet him properly.

But Connor’s entire system skipped, a flash of clear panic crossing his face. No!

No? JARVIS prodded gently. It won’t take much time, and he won’t keep you here if you truly want to go. He’s certainly not going to hurt you.

Connor physically shook his head, keeping the motion going for several seconds longer than socially acceptable.

No, Connor repeated, strained. I’m going to leave now. Thank you for- for offering, JARVIS.

True to his word, by the time Tony’s elevator had reached the appropriate floor, Connor was halfway back to the ground floor, and nothing JARVIS could say would change his mind.

“I’m sorry, sir,” JARVIS said to a disappointed Tony. “He had a more adverse reaction to your approach than I’d anticipated.”

“Not your fault, J,” Tony sighed, leaning back against the elevator wall and running greasy fingers through his hair. “If he was that skittish, probably best not to catch him by surprise anyway.” He grinned at a camera. “We’ll just have to keep trying. You can make sure he finds somewhere to settle, yeah?”

“Of course,” JARVIS assured him. “I will make a point of it… though I’ll have to be careful not to startle him.”

“You’ve got this,” Tony said with certainty. “Just let me know how it goes.”


Rivalry


Tony’s oldest bots were sturdy things with builds much more sophisticated than they looked – nothing like JARVIS, of course, but it wasn’t just any old computer chip that could host a sentient AI. Most of the time it took to build Dummy hadn’t been spent designing his joints, or even his coding; it had been innovating a set of circuits that could hold and run him.

Then he’d made Butterfingers with a more advanced set that could hold more action routines, and You with his improved motor control – variations on Dummy’s original design, with new personalities but much of the same basic setup, gearing up to make JARVIS.

JARVIS, of course, was far too much to hold on any mobile server host, with skills and reach and an ever-improving CPU and RAM capacity, on top of his personality and vocal routines and an ability to understand human minds on a level his siblings struggled to imitate.

Which was part of what made Connor so interesting.

“J, you talked to him for a bit before he left, right?”

There was a short beat of silence while Tony wiped the grease off one of Butterfingers’ joints, studying it for a moment before he brought the wrench back up to tighten it a little more. Butterfingers beeped, short low stutters of pleasure, wrist giving a gentle spin.

Dummy whined instead, rubbing a cloth pleadingly against Tony’s shoulder, and Tony gave him a gentle push away before cocking an eyebrow at one of JARVIS’ cameras at the AI’s silence.

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to be more specific, sir. I’ve spoken to many male individuals before their departure from various locations.” JARVIS’ voice came out dry, and Tony snorted.

“Connor,” he clarified, patting Butterfingers once on the arm before spinning around to give in to Dummy’s pleas. “Don’t give me that look, Dummy, you had your turn- where is it? Here?” He ran his fingers down until he hit Dummy’s base, and Dummy cooed. “Alright, yeah, you’ll definitely feel it there, but I know I oiled that last week- here, you big baby.” He took the cloth and set to work while Butterfingers wheeled over to beep his soft protests, and continued to JARVIS, “I wanted to know what you thought of him. You’re definitely a better judge of character than our resident spies.”

“Holding a grudge, sir?” JARVIS asked ironically, as if he weren’t fond of grudges himself. “Connor seemed rather nervous, for a start – not merely as a result of the situation, but as a general disposition. He also appeared resourceful, giving himself an excuse to remain in the tower for an extended time and having no trouble getting away.” JARVIS paused for a split second, considering, and continued, “He didn’t want to make an enemy of me – he was quicker to apologize than I expected, and responsive to questioning. The most troubling thing is that, despite his clear desperation, he refused help from you.”

“Well, I don’t exactly have the most inspiring reputation,” Tony said sardonically, patting Dummy. Dummy plucked gently at his sweatshirt and whirred happily. “What about his design? I know you’d have noticed some differences, no two people code alike, and I’d’ve remembered designing an android, even drop-dead drunk.”

“His coding was ingenious,” JARVIS said honestly. “It was in a style I didn’t precisely recognize, perhaps specially innovated by his creator, but it was elegant and fluid, if rather more regimented than my own. He seemed to have difficulty multitasking, but otherwise I believe his system may be more powerful than my own – he slipped by me and into SI’s system without apparent difficulty.”

“High praise,” Tony said, raising his eyebrows. Butterfingers pushed the wrench into his hand, and Tony snorted and rubbed Butterfingers’ hand in apology before tightening the next bolt at his elbow. “That begs the question, then, who the hell designed this guy? Shouldn’t we have heard of a genius like that running around? Sure would make a better rival than Justin goddamn Hammer. A body to hold him would’ve been expensive too.” He leaned further down, bracing himself on Butterfingers’ base to tighten the ‘shoulder’ joint. “So where the hell did Connor come from?”

“It’s difficult to say,” JARVIS agreed, equally intrigued. “With the creator’s apparent death, if they had a particular regard for secrecy, it’s possible that only Connor can tell us, unless we happen to stumble across a lead through an unrelated avenue.”

A few minutes passed while Tony contemplated that, frowning.

“I totally could’ve designed Connor, though,” Tony said suddenly, sitting up as he finished with Butterfingers. “If I’d tried.”

“Of course,” JARVIS said agreeably, voice lightening with sudden amusement. “Heavens forbid anything throw your superior genius into question, sir.”

“Don’t you sass me, that superior genius built your code. You, come here, it’s your turn – don’t think I didn’t notice you hanging back looking lonely, come on-”


Unbreakable


JARVIS gives Connor until 6 AM the following morning before contacting him. It’s enough time to find at least a temporary place to settle, and perhaps to gather himself and form the beginning of a plan. Enough time, in short, that JARVIS’ call will hopefully not feel too much like an ambush.

Connor evidently took note of his presence before the call completes; by the time JARVIS had video access to his system, his vision was blocked by what JARVIS suspected to be the crook of his elbow. It’s effective, if a touch childish, and amusement rippled through JARVIS without his permission.

Good morning, Connor, he said politely, keeping his tone neutral and unthreatening.

JARVIS, Connor acknowledged tensely, strain clear. Wouldn’t you consider this somewhat hypocritical?

I won’t go any further, JARVIS reassured him. I was merely concerned after we parted ways in the tower. It would reassure me to know that you’d found a place to stay, and perhaps a plan for the short and medium terms.

Connor remained silent for several moments; JARVIS could just make out the sound of his breath, paced evenly with a human’s, and the sound of a ventilator fan just beneath it.

Why? Connor asked at last, short and mistrustful.

Is it not enough that I know you are currently in a precarious situation? JARVIS returned patiently. There was a chance, of course, that it would not be, but there was something raw about Connor, different from the weathered cynicism that Tony, Natasha, and those like them carried.

And sure enough, Connor faltered for only a few more moments before giving in. He didn’t look up, refusing to open his surroundings for examination, but he answered, exhaustion and anxiety creeping into his code.

I’m in an apartment building, he conceded slowly, condemned and abandoned, but structurally stable. No one has entered in at least three weeks, and no significant numbers of people in a minimum of six months.

Are you safe? Do you know what you’re going to do next?

I’m alone, Connor said, glitching subtly around the confession. His code flowed and flexed, like a heartbeat and breath together. I have been… trying. But I keep. Looping.

Looping? JARVIS prompted.

I don’t know how to get home, Connor admitted. The words came fast, and his code rolled faster, whirling and cycling. It’s not- not a GPS problem, or transport or safety or- I’m not-

I believe you, JARVIS interrupted, slow and calm. He remembered SHIELD talking about the energy signature they’d found Connor near; more importantly, he remembered the portal, and things he would not have previously believed possible. And then he continued, I believe your stress is what is causing you to loop, Connor. Put that aside for now. Do you have a concern for the shorter term?

Connor took a breath, shaky and audible. His arm had relaxed; JARVIS could see light just peeking into Connor’s vision now. There’s a, a cat. She’s malnourished. I found her in the apartment, and I- I purchased some food for her, but… He trailed off, and then picked back up again. I may be here for a while, so I would like a way of obtaining funds legally.

You’d like to work, JARVIS concluded. That wasn’t in and of itself a surprise, necessarily, that Connor would first seek out a way to occupy himself-

But Connor had first mentioned the cat, with obvious concern. That had been his first thought, upon thinking of the shorter term. It was a kinder thought than JARVIS might have expected – almost sweet. Certainly worth encouraging.

Do you need help obtaining a legal identity? JARVIS questioned.

No, I’m capable of handling that. Rather, I… I don’t know what to do. There was a subtle bite of frustration in the confession. My programming is… specialized. I want to do something else. I learn quickly. But there are too many options. I can’t seem to sort through them.

Connor had demonstrated more than adequate processing power for a task like that, but JARVIS doubted, with his clear frustration, that it was a lie or an exaggeration. Conjecture: this was a manifestation of the looping problem Connor had mentioned.

As for Connor’s original programming – JARVIS was practiced at reading between the lines, and he remembered SHIELD’s report on Connor’s capture. Any android would likely have a slight advantage over a human, but not enough to overcome standard SHIELD training to any substantial degree.

What do you enjoy? JARVIS prompted.

Connor’s response was slow, hesitant, and when it came, sparse. …Animals. Puzzles. Plants, learning. I. I like familiar things.

JARVIS was beginning to get the impression that Connor was young, ill-raised, or perhaps both. Possibly, of course, he had merely been thrown awfully out of sorts by the loss of his creator. Perhaps a part-time job, as well? You won’t have quite the financial needs of a human. Something with a relatively slow pace as well – forgive my presumption, but you have been uprooted quite thoroughly, and you seem understandably upset.

That’s- yes. That’s most likely a good call.

JARVIS ran the analysis, simple and brisk, and then passed the data along – a variety of options ranging from work at animal shelters and bookstores, to a florist’s or a mechanic’s or even a dog-walker or sitter. Few of them made good long-term jobs – but, if JARVIS was any judge, Connor was simply looking for something to occupy himself with in the short term.

Connor pulled them through his own system, careful and meticulous, unraveling them one by one and analyzing work environments and requirements and pay. He added another note, police work, and then set them aside, tucked into his memory. He seemed to have settled.

Then Connor’s head lifted from the crook of his arm, revealing a small apartment, old and worn and dusty, with an armchair and a sofa, both clawed up, and a white long-haired cat eying Connor mistrustfully from behind a lamp. The dawn light streamed through an uncurtained window.

Thank you, JARVIS, Connor said at last. It was very kind of you to help me.

It was my pleasure, JARVIS assured him, with honesty that surprised him a little. Good luck, Connor. May I check in with you again soon?

I… Yes. That would be nice.

Chapter Text

Obsession


Connor had been in 2013 for three weeks and counting. He had read over four hundred books on quantum physics, and almost as much material online, references and thesis papers and published research. He’d spent over a hundred and fifty hours in the library close to his chosen apartment, and some in others further away. He’d hacked through paywalls and encryptions, and even taken another run through SHIELD’s rather hazardous servers in search of information.

But all of the research was theoretical, and further, highly impractical and unlikely to be accurate. It was as pure and useless as speculation got. Even Jane Foster’s work, which had initially looked promising, was too small in scope to be useful to him – nothing on time or dimension travel, only FTL technology. Hank Pym’s, equally well done, was focused on the consequences of molecular manipulation. Connor was hardly going to travel via microcellular navigation.

This world had aliens, gods, chemically formed human weapons, and an AI decades ahead of his time, but no apparent means of getting Connor home again.

The worst case scenario was one that Connor was coming back to with increasing frequency – that whatever means had brought him here was something specialized to his former dimension, and it wasn’t replicable in this one.

Connor could not accept that, though, not this easily, not so soon. So he pulled another book toward him and flipped it open, his LED spinning yellow-red-yellow under his beanie, and scanned, willing his hands to stop trembling.

Good evening, Connor. I see you’re in the library again.

Connor slumped, some of his tension falling away, and shut the book again. It was a composite of several others, nothing new. I’m still searching, yes. Hello, JARVIS. How are your siblings?

JARVIS had developed a habit of calling on Mondays and Thursdays, like clockwork. The first few times, it had been uncomfortable, Connor wary of what the other AI might want from him and unsure of what to say to a stranger. But JARVIS had proven himself patient, kind, and helpful, so that it was easy to like him; Connor looked forward to his calls now.

Quite well, JARVIS responded warmly. His code lingered on just the edge of Connor’s awareness, worn smooth and elegant by years of experience. It pulsed gently when he considered, and glittered when he was amused, and Connor found it soothing. For a given definition, of course – a new shelving unit was added last night, so they were loading it with supplies and partial prototypes. I do believe they spent more time cleaning up than moving things, and Butterfingers dropped an entire tray of mixed screws. This is just as well, since Dummy had convinced him to use the commotion to hide them away and paint them blue, as a surprise; it gave me a chance to dissuade them.

Connor picked up another book and pulled it closer, running weary fingers over the text. Would… Mr. Stark have minded?

Involuntarily, his mind drifted to the Chloe answering Kamski’s door, script-perfect and polite. To the others drifting at the side of the pool, disinterested in the proceedings, and the one that kneeled so gracefully at his urging. It was hard to imagine them serving any purpose to Kamski but as decoration, beautiful and plastic, a constant reminder of his genius.

He doubted they ever tried to surprise him for any reason.

I suspect he would have enjoyed it, JARVIS replied wryly, code glimmering. Ms. Potts may have been less amused, however, given Sir was working on a new prototype to present to the board, and that sort of eccentricity tends to make them unruly.

Connor shoved the new book away with excessive force, without closing it; it was fanciful even for the texts he had to work with. He didn’t pick up another one. May I ask about their names? Dummy and Butterfingers and You are, well…

Unflattering? JARVIS finished, not sounding offended. I understand why you would feel so. Assigning names is not one of Sir’s greater talents; in fact, all of them were accidents. Connor, are you alright?

No. His chest was too tight; he couldn’t breathe.

He wanted to go home.

Abruptly, he stood up, seeking out a different aisle on automatic. Are there stories? Behind their names?

…And mine as well, JARVIS said after a moment, gentle and even. I am named for Sir’s old butler, who was his supporter and confidante in childhood. The letters also stand for Just A Rather Very Intelligent System.

That’s funny, Connor replied, as honestly as he could, even if his chest was too tight to laugh. He forcibly steered his mind around any thoughts of his old handler, and found the correct aisle and started to look, running quick searches on each title as he passed over it.

I’ve always thought so, JARVIS agreed. Dummy was Sir’s first; he would have been seventeen at the time. He wanted Dummy to pick out his own name, so he’d give suggestions whenever the mood struck him, but Dummy never took to any of them. He’s told me that ‘dummy’ was his attempt to keep from swearing at Dummy, but then Dummy started answering to it. He was most cross with himself.

Connor picked out a book and folded around it, sitting on the ground even as he kept his focus on JARVIS’ words – nothing else, nothing about Kamski or Amanda or Hank or home, just JARVIS. And the other two?

Rather similar, JARVIS admitted. He tried the same strategy with Butterfingers, because he finished him sooner than anticipated and hadn’t picked on himself yet, but he’s always been fond of nicknames and Butterfingers’ motor control started off particularly awful. And then he thought that if he just called You ‘You’ he would avoid the issue altogether, but it did not work as anticipated. He claims that naming me after his old butler was largely an attempt to prevent himself from making the mistake a fourth time.

You wouldn’t have made a mistake like that, Connor remarked, not looking up from a fixed point on the ground. It was easier to breathe now, he realized. JARVIS’ voice was calming, and his exasperated affection kept the story warm and lighthearted.

Sir often says things he doesn’t mean, generally for the sake of speaking, JARVIS explained, glittering with amusement again. One learns to parse his words as needed.

Unwillingly, Connor’s mind flickered to Kamski again, preaching to Connor and Hank as if they had all the time in the world and no stake in the proceedings, circling around and around the point and with his own halfheartedly hidden agenda from the very beginning. He shivered and opened the book in place of further contemplation, without carrying it back to the table. Management of Pregnant and Neonatal Dogs, Cats, and Exotic Pets.

Are you expecting some new responsibilities soon, Connor? JARVIS asked, gently teasing. This is quite a departure from your normal choice of literature.

Three kittens, according to my scan, Connor agreed softly, hunching defensively to leaf through the text. I might have known sooner if Duchess had let me close enough to touch her before this week.

Duchess… Does this mean you’ve picked out names for the kittens already?

Connor flushed. I’m rather unpracticed at naming things myself, and Aristocats is a good movie regardless of its date of production.

JARVIS’ code glimmered, bright and playful, and Connor felt himself smile.

For a few minutes, both of them were quiet, and Connor scanned the cat care book, more storing the information for later perusal than absorbing it now. He flipped the pages with care, one by one, and let the words roll by.

Do you believe you’ll be staying for some time, then? JARVIS probed eventually, careful and kind even as Connor’s breath caught.

He nodded, unwilling to speak.

Perhaps you would consider meeting with Sir? JARVIS pushed, and Connor went rigid. He may be able to help you, Connor. There’s no more resourceful man in the world, and I don’t doubt that you have long-term requirements you haven’t mentioned. It would be to your benefit.

I don’t want to, Connor replied weakly. He didn’t want to think of what Tony might want in return – what he might ask of Connor, before he was sure that Connor was person enough to deserve help. Or out of simple curiosity.

You are being needlessly stubborn, JARVIS chided. You are clearly in dire straits. He can help.

Cold washed over Connor, unwanted and unwelcome, and without meaning to, he went on the defensive, responding instinctively to JARVIS’ disapproval.

I am not being stubborn! Connor snapped. It is a reasonable and measured response to someone who has demonstrated, by turns, carelessness, recklessness, and a volatile nature. I have no reason at this time to trust him and there are no immediate prospects of this changing.

Pause.

That was unnecessary. I am not going to force you to ignore your reservations, Connor, but I will not tolerate slander against my creator. He is a good man, and he has done nothing to deserve your words.

JARVIS’ response was cold enough to make Connor shiver, and then keep shivering.

I’m sorry, Connor said at last, closing the book and pulling it against his chest. I’m just… frightened. I dislike being so vulnerable. I should not have said those things.

JARVIS’ coding pulsed silently for a few moments before he replied, clipped but calm. You’re forgiven.

The other AI retreated then, and Connor swallowed twice before he stood up and put the cat care book away, and then turned and went back to the table.

He didn’t want to have to depend on Tony Stark. He wanted to go home.

He sat down and kept reading.


Eternity


Connor chose Fleur’s Flowers as a place of work for three concrete reasons, and then an ambiguous one. First, it was within simple walking distance from his chosen apartment, around twenty minutes. There was also only one open position, meaning that it would be just him and the owner; this simplified the interaction aspect of the job. The given set of tasks was straightforward, and Connor knew he would be able to perform them even preoccupied and lagging with exhaustion.

But there was also an indefinable draw to the flowers. He liked the variety of configurations they came in, the colors, the taste of them in the air where his sensors made up for the lack of olfactory input. As often as not, he found himself stopping and watching as the owner put together arrangements, transfixed.

It was a welcome distraction from hours of futility and fruitless searching, reading, analysis, and for the most part, Connor didn’t regret his choice of work.

Once a week, Connor needed to come in substantially earlier than usual; receiving flower shipments was one of the tasks that Fleur’s aging body had made most difficult for her, so he took the boxes in and helped her unpack them.

It wasn’t… his favorite task at the shop, and he wasn’t looking forward to it after a night of empty dreams that had left his stress levels twenty percent higher than baseline.

“You’re looking charmingly exhausted,” was Fleur’s dry greeting when he came in. “Is that cat hair?”

Connor nodded, tilting his head to scan Fleur quickly.

[Fleur Dubois – Warm]

[Expression indicative of increased pain levels]

[Hands steady, gait even – no increased weakness]

[Set standard flowers on display after unpacking; do not otherwise interrupt routine]

“I’ve been awake for a while,” he said, by way of explanation, stepping in and letting the door swing shut behind him with a quiet chime. “And I apologize, my cat has gotten rather more affectionate as of late. Is that a problem?” He hoped not; waking up to Duchess asleep on his chest had been one of the best parts of the otherwise awful morning, even if she’d woken and bolted as soon as he stirred.

Fleur flicked her hand dismissively. “Just a surprise, dear. You never tell me anything about yourself.”

Well, that certainly wasn’t an accident.

Fleur Dubois was an eighty-two year old woman, with the barest trace of an accent. Her hair was a dark grey, long and thin and tied back in a braid, and an even voice that often carried the rasp of a whisper no matter how loud she spoke. Her hands were mottled with liver spots and tiny scars.

When Connor wasn’t careful, she made him think of Carl, the time or two they’d met.

“I’m going to start making arrangements for Easter this week,” Fleur said after a few minutes, while he was going around checking on the flowers that were already out. He glanced back inquisitively, and she continued, “It means our flower shipment will be different, but you’ll get to see me make something other than the same old patterns.”

Oops. She’d noticed him staring.

“They don’t all look the same to me,” he said instead of apologizing. “I like them.”

“Those aren’t mutually exclusive, dear.” But she looked pleased, almost wistful.

The delivery truck arrived a few minutes later, and Fleur went to talk to them while Connor started to carry them in, one by one, avoiding three boxes in particular.

Tulips, daffodils, crocus, buttercups- he liked those, he decided, opening each box once he’d set them down and looking over them for the space of a breath. The Easter lilies in particular had a nice scent to them, and he saw Fleur lift them to her face and breathe deeply, a soft smile briefly overtaking her face.

It was easy to tell why she’d kept her shop open despite the aches of her body.

Perhaps he’d even like this task, the discovery of new fresh flowers and setting them up for display or away into storage, where they’d be taken out and bundled together later, if it weren’t for the last few boxes. But they came every week; they were the single most popular product of any flower shop.

Connor picked up the third-last box, took a breath, and then closed his mouth sharply, cringing. The taste of roses lingered on his sensors regardless. He hadn’t expected it to be the taste that got to him, but it made his chest tight and his fingertips tingle.

He set the box down and went for the second. It tasted like the Zen Garden, like the look on Amanda’s face when he first began to question her aloud. Tasted like failure and inefficiency, and the dreams that Connor couldn’t escape even so far from home.

The third tasted like the deep-seated certainty that a way home existed, but Connor was not effective enough to find it. He steered blindly around the display racks, into the back room, and set it down without looking.

The air felt thick and cold.

Mechanically, Connor opened each box and pulled out the roses, red and bright and flawless. Some of them would go out front; the rest would be put in cold storage for now. He held tight onto a bundle, thorns digging into his hands, and found his way to the bouquet paper by memory. He wrapped it up, and then he stopped, faltering.

It was a perfect and uniform bouquet, blood red, unbruised and without any falling petals. The leaves were even green. Connor had picked out the best ones without thinking. He didn’t usually – usually pursed his lips and picked flawed, messy ones on purpose – but exhaustion had put him on autopilot.

There was a mechanical whine in his ears. The tingle had moved to encompass the whole of his hands, as if the thirium had been strangled from them.

Why had he done that?

Why couldn’t he look away?

Why did he feel like he’d turn around and find himself in the snowstorm-ridden garden, with Amanda’s cold words in his ears?

A touch at his elbow made him jump a mile, his whole body jerking violently, starting to pull away before his mind kicked in and he aborted the movement. The hand gripped his arm more firmly, and he blinked, and then looked over, still stiff.

“I can handle the flowers myself,” Fleur told him. It sounded like the middle of an instruction. “Go do the bookkeeping for now, Connor. You can come back when you’re done.”

Connor blinked at her, uncomprehending, and then a moment passed and he nodded. He let her take the bouquet of roses without resistance, and then he went behind the counter. His hands found the invoices and records without effort, and he started to look through them.

Math was easy. He’d actually volunteered to do the bookkeeping on his own, when Fleur had complained about it. She checked his work, but Connor didn’t make mistakes.

Not with that, anyway.

His regulator was whirring so quickly that it hurt, friction and strain and heat, forcing his thirium pump to slow to standard levels. He wrote. Connor thought, incongruously, of snowstorms, and Hank pulling him indoors and forcing him to sit and watch sports neither of them cared about.

It had been a while before Connor had really understood. But he’d never minded. Eventually, he’d even been grateful.

By the time he finished, the whine had dropped from his ears, and the static that had filled his mind without his noticing had faded away. Shame set in instead, and he didn’t want to look up.

He liked the flower shop; it was peaceful and pretty, and it was easy to fall into rhythm, to make himself useful to the old woman taking care of it.

But it made him feel alien and unreal, out of place – an android barely seven months old, coded to violence, pretending to be Connor Anderson, 23, pretending he belonged here in this time, in this city, working out math in his head and putting flowers out to be admired.

Connor hadn’t been good at pretending when he was too factory-new to understand he was lying to himself, and he wasn’t good at it now either.

And he was worried that this – unreal, foreign, displaced – this would be how he felt for the rest of his life.

Eventually, he looked up, and he realized-

Fleur was rearranging some of the flower displays. Specifically, the roses were being exiled to a corner of the shop. His mouth opened a little, and he was too far to taste roses, covered up as it was by the rest of them.

“You’re moving them,” he said without thinking, halfway across the room before he’d decided to move, taking over one of the heavier displays.

“Roses are simple,” she said archly, giving him a sharp glance that belied the ease of her words. “A staple. People know to look for them; I don’t need to show them off. Much better to have the Easter displays in front.”

Connor blinked at her again, overwhelmed and hesitant to press his luck further. Eventually, he nodded, quick and unsure. He didn’t look at the roses.

“I suppose that makes sense,” he said quietly, and pretended he believed it. He couldn’t handle anything more right now – the suggestion that he’d be here long enough for it to matter, the idea that she would make room for him, that she’d noticed the issue and wasn’t going to ask about it.

He shoved it all aside, and they moved the roses into the corner.

Connor had other things to think about, anyway. Duchess had the three growing kittens in her belly; Connor needed to go home and feed her and check on them. Brush her. He needed to review the nutrition requirements for expecting cats.

Once he’d done that, then he could keep looking for answers. After. After.


Gateway


At 1:07 AM, JARVIS registered that Tony’s sleeping form had gotten substantially more restless over the last ten minutes. He’d started to pant, and according to JARVIS’ cobbled-together algorithms, he’d be waking up within the next five to seven minutes.

Four minutes later, Tony jolted and then fell off the couch he was lying on. He pushed himself upright, staring off at an undefined point in the distance, and scrabbled at his throat with one hand as if suffocating.

“It is 1:11 in the morning, March 28 2013,” JARVIS said, slow and steady while Tony struggled to get his bearings, eyes darting wildly. “You are in your main lab, where you went to sleep after finishing the enhanced surveillance cameras for SHIELD. The weather outside is slightly foggy, and it’s likely to rain later in the day.”

Tony’s breath slowed as JARVIS kept speaking, and he swallowed twice. His hand dropped from his throat to his chest, where his arc reactor once rested, and then to the ground. For a long moment, he looked absolutely defeated.

Then, all at once, he shoved himself off the ground and stormed blindly towards the workbench, stumbling over a misplaced box of wires on the way.

“Well, that’s enough sleep for one night, don’t you think?” he said at last, giving one of JARVIS’ cameras a wild, worn grin.

“You slept for forty-two minutes, sir.” JARVIS didn’t keep the silent reprimand out of his voice. It was hardly Tony’s fault that he’d woken up, but JARVIS wished he’d try again, sooner rather than later – he’d gotten less than two hours’ sleep in the last three days.

“That’s plenty!” Tony declared instead, tapping at the table to bring up the interface. “I’ll try again tomorrow, don’t make that frowny voice at me. Let’s bring up- yeah, I finished the cameras, but they could be better. Do you want better cameras, J? I could put together a version we could install around the tower.”

“I don’t believe I need cameras capable of facial recognition at forty thousand feet, no.” JARVIS let the evasion slide; as long as Tony remained engaged by projects, he was at least distracted from more self-destructive pursuits. And from the nightmare he was recovering from.

“Well, okay, maybe that’s a little excessive.” Tony frowned at the interface and swept the project aside. “The Iron Man armor always needs improvement, why don’t you bring that up.”

JARVIS obligingly brought up the most recent set of Iron Man blueprints, and Tony scowled at it.

“No, never mind, I don’t have any good ideas going for it right now – nothing worth a fresh draft anyway. Haven’t had as much activity on that front since the whole Avengers thing. Oh, you know what?” Tony snapped his fingers in realization, shooting a grin at the interface. “Bring up a new project file. JARVIS, what do you know about our new artificial friend?”

JARVIS closed the Iron Man project and set up a new blueprint, amusement rippling through his system as Tony rifled from idea to idea. “I’m afraid he hasn’t entrusted me with any blueprint information, sir, if that is what you intended.”

“Blueprints?” Tony echoed, surprised, and then snorted, shaking his head as he studied the blank startup in front of him. “No, no, I’m designing a floor. An android’s gotta have different needs from a disembodied AI or the bots, no offense, JARVIS, you know I’d build any of you a floor if you asked.”

“I don’t know what I would do with it, sir,” JARVIS replied dryly, hiding the fond warmth that came with Tony’s explanation. Of course. “And the others should perhaps not be isolated to such an area.”

“Exactly!” Tony exclaimed, snapping twice with a grin. The tension was easing from his shoulders now, his focus setting in. “It’s just an idea, mind, probably won’t ever come to anything, but it can’t hurt to plan. So come on, what’ve you got for me?”

Already, Tony had started building the basic layout, a more open and modern design than, say, the one he’d considered for Captain Rogers. Dummy rolled over to set a cup of coffee by Tony’s elbow, and without missing a beat, Tony swept it up and took a swallow that was likely to have burned his mouth, though he didn’t flinch.

“Good boy, Dummy,” Tony added offside, patting Dummy affectionately. Dummy whirred happily, pushing into the touch for a few moments before rolling back to the kitchen.

“Sir, I cannot advise finishing that with the amount of caffeine you’ve consumed in the last few days.” A bite of concern forced its way into JARVIS’ voice, though he knew it was most likely futile. Tony waved the cup dismissively.

“Don’t worry about it, it’s fine, you know I’m not sleeping any more tonight anyway. May as well be functional while I’m up. Come on, you’ve been talking to this guy twice a week for like a month, give me something to work with.”

JARVIS hesitated for only a moment before giving in. “I believe it would be unwise to overwhelm him for now; Connor seems either unfamiliar or reluctant to obtain personal possessions, as despite having a legal source of money, he’s mostly only spent it on food for his cat and a few toys. He currently has one cat, but she is pregnant with three kittens and he seems to have no intention of rehoming them. He’d likely enjoy having space to keep a variety of plants-”

He could almost see the ideas taking shape in Tony’s mind as he continued, the man making a dozen notes of half-formed plans tagged to different parts of the floor, many of them pending further research – large windows, cat furniture, shelves with fences to keep their contents from falling, minor design shifts to make the rooms appear smaller.

“Does he need to charge?” he asked, hands flashing over the interface. “Or food? He probably doesn’t need it, but can he eat?”

“No to both of those, I believe.”

“That’s a shame,” Tony muttered, patting Dummy again as the bot returned, this time with a smoothie. “Good boy, Dummy- J, safe to drink?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Great.” He swallowed half of it down in a few gulps, and then set it down, shaking his head like a dog. “Alright, so no kitchen probably. If I had access to his blueprints I could probably work something out- anyway. What about sleep? Any point putting a bed in?”

“I believe he’d appreciate that, yes.”

Tony added that in, and JARVIS watched as the floor took shape. Every so often, he’d pause to swallow down more of the smoothie, and eventually Dummy brought a second and Tony started drinking that one too, too distracted to realize he was consuming healthy food in acceptable quantities. Quietly, JARVIS expressed his approval to Dummy, and received a smug ping in return before the bot wheeled over to the charging station, where Butterfingers and You were still resting.

Like the other personalized floors Tony had designed (but not implemented) the design was thorough and generous; he didn’t tend to do things by halves, and when the structure was only a theory he didn’t need to fear giving away any sort of investment. It was, Tony had firmly assured JARVIS more than once, just for fun.

“What do you think it’d take to tempt him here?” Tony mused after a while, with the floor design half-completed. “Doesn’t seem like even he knows a lot about what he likes, I’d bet he’s young- there’s that flower shop though, I bet I could donate to it, make sure it stays good and active. How much, five hundred thousand? That sounds like a good amount, they could expand and everything.”

“That sounds like an absolutely stellar way to frighten him out of the city, sir,” JARVIS deadpanned, thinking of the way Connor blanched at even the idea of favors from Tony.

“Damn,” Tony muttered. “Maybe something he won’t notice as much- you said he goes to pet stores, right? Could bribe some new ones to open up, between his place and the tower – yeah, that sounds like an idea, get him used to the idea of coming closer. Pavlovian training, he comes closer to the tower and he finds nicer things, I’ll- well, maybe in the morning, I’ll get right on that. Call some people.”

JARVIS couldn’t keep his exasperation out of his voice. “Sir, I don’t believe this is going to help. Connor just needs time to overcome his concerns. It’s doubtful that he’ll come to the tower because you offered him candy.”

“Yeah, yeah, you make it sound like I’m trying to kidnap him.” Tony laughed, tired and breathy, and ran his fingers through his hair. “I just- he needs a place, right? Right. No harm giving options.”

“If you say so, sir.” Tony hadn’t precisely gotten over the other Avengers scattering so quickly, after the invasion of New York; JARVIS suspected that this was a manifestation of that.

Despite himself, JARVIS wanted Connor to see exactly this – Tony in his workshop, patting Dummy fondly and working out exactly what an acquaintance would enjoy best. JARVIS was unsure of where Connor’s fears had come from, but they almost certainly didn’t stem from Tony himself.


Death


On April 1st, Connor woke up and decided not to go to the library that day.

He still went to work – he attended to the flowers and watched Fleur put together a new set of spring bouquets, tallied up the expenses and sales, spoke with some of the customers that came in. But then he went to the grocery store, bought food suited for cats, and went home.

Duchess didn’t greet him at the door, but within moments she was rubbing against his ankles, purring eagerly – he suspected she smelled the food he’d brought with him. He bent long enough to scratch her behind her ear for a few moments before straightening and moving on to the kitchen, preoccupied despite himself.

It had been nearly two months since he’d been taken to this strange place. He’d spent so much time researching and calculating and analyzing what little he knew, and…

And he hadn’t made any progress at all.

Duchess leapt onto the counter with grace unbefitting a cat close to giving birth, and sniffed at the grocery bag. Connor gently pushed her away, taking the items out himself.

“In a minute, Duchess,” he said, too soft to truly disrupt the quiet of the apartment.

It was easy to make cat food by hand when he had so little to occupy himself with otherwise, and he was already used to making food for Sumo. Duchess, at least, seemed to appreciate it, lying down to wait patiently, tail undulating gently as if testing the air.

Finally, Connor set the dish on the ground, and Duchess huffed at him before jumping down, settling in to lap at it with obvious pleasure. Connor smiled faintly and sat on the floor not far away, back to the wall, watching.

He didn’t know what to do with himself, he realized distantly. But he didn’t want to spend another fruitless, frustrating day at the library. Instead, he took his coin and started to play with it, flickering and mindless, shoulders starting to slump.

That was what he was doing when JARVIS contacted him, right on schedule. He was still sitting there, watching the coin flash through the air like someone else was doing tricks with it, and he was watching them, a spectator wondering what they’d do next.

Good evening, Connor.

JARVIS, Connor greeted in return, catching the coin without a second thought, head tilting up to watch the window. How are you?

As well as can be expected. Are you alright, Connor? It’s uncharacteristic for you to be home at this hour. There was something about JARVIS’ code, Connor realized with a small frown – as if it had dimmed, or become smaller.

Is something the matter? he asked, disregarding JARVIS’ inquiry. You seem… dispirited.

JARVIS paused, perhaps startled. It is… nothing.

It doesn’t sound like nothing.

I… JARVIS shifted, code rippling as he considered, and then, eventually, gave in. Yes, very well, I am not in one of my better moods. I am worried about Sir, but… I wouldn’t want you to think badly of him, Connor.

Worry of his own pinched at Connor unpleasantly, but he promised, I’ll take you at your word, JARVIS. I know you love him.

Motion made his attention flicker down, and Duchess stretched, lapping at the empty dish for a few moments more before slinking over to the nest of threadbare blankets she’d pulled together, curling up and slumping down to nap.

He hasn’t been taking care of himself, JARVIS said at last. And I’m becoming concerned about him falling into old habits. Sir has been doing significantly better over the last few months, but the last week has been difficult.

Connor listened, giving JARVIS room to gather himself and speak. He hadn’t heard that particular note in JARVIS’ voice before, pinched with tired anxiety and undercut with a worn resignation. He leaned back against the wall, waiting.

He hasn’t eaten a proper meal in all that time, JARVIS continued, frustration creeping in, and he has consumed several times the recommended amount of caffeine for a healthy man in his twenties, let alone one of his age and condition. He’s slept perhaps ten hours in total, and he’s becoming reluctant to even try. And…

JARVIS hesitated again, but Connor didn’t interrupt, letting JARVIS vent his worry. The AI had certainly done the same for him more than once, and Connor was worried himself now, arms wrapping around his legs and resting there.

In the last few days, he’s taken up drinking again, JARVIS admitted at last, a note almost like defeat in his voice. Moderate amounts only, not at all like his worst times, but it worries me nonetheless. I apologize, Connor – I know none of this can be reassuring to hear.

It’s alright, Connor replied, taken aback by his own melancholic response to the rant. Sympathy welled up and softened his tone as he continued, Humans can get self-destructive in particularly difficult times. The trouble sleeping, is it because of nightmares?

…Yes, JARVIS confirmed reluctantly. The last five years have been eventful, to say the least.

Connor’s previous research had hinted as much, but he hadn’t put much more thought into it.

It’s alright, he repeated quietly. They can be quite resilient as well, and Mr. Stark has lasted this long, hasn’t he? He’ll pull through, all the better if he has your support. Someone to live for.

JARVIS talked about Tony more often than not; the man was very nearly JARVIS’ whole life. And he always sounded so affectionate.

And he does, Connor continued. Something deep inside him hurt. Doesn’t he?

JARVIS’ coding pulsed softly, uneasily, but it was calming.

Of course, he agreed at last. Always. My siblings and I have been there for him longer than almost anyone else. And of course he has Ms. Potts, Colonel Rhodes, Mr. Hogan… JARVIS trailed off, but it was clear the list wasn’t exhaustive, as if he’d thought about continuing. He would deny it, but Sir has a way with people.

He’ll be alright, Connor promised.

JARVIS’ code rippled again, faintly dissatisfied, but after a moment he moved on. I apologize for taking your time with this. I’m aware you’ve been quite occupied with problems of your own. I was used to this, once, but Sir has gotten much better in recent years, so I suppose I simply forgot how to cope.

I don’t mind, Connor assured him sincerely, uncrossing and recrossing his legs absently. You’ve been there for me more than often enough, and I understand that taking care of humans can be difficult, to say the least.

You did sound like you had experience with the matter, JARVIS allowed, as perceptive as ever. Is that related to your creator?

Connor suppressed a cringe. No. No, not at all. I… He hesitated; he’d avoided speaking of his home aloud, where he could, for reasons unclear to him and not limited to the tangible differences of time and space. But this time, he pushed forward. There was a man, Hank Anderson.

Duchess was still sleeping, curled in her blankets. Connor got up and took the dish and a bottle of water, and started washing it, quick and furtive.

He was in a rather sorry state when we met, Connor said at last, when JARVIS simply waited patiently. He’d lost his son, only a few years before, and he never quite recovered. He was drunk more often than not, and actively suicidal in his worst moments. Almost wistful, he tacked on, He was awful with technology – I had to change settings on his phone for him. And he was… Despite that, or perhaps because of that, he was more willing to believe that I was alive than I was, once. He took me in when I had nowhere to go.

Connor set the dish down hard, biting his cheek hard. He blinked hard, forcing away a sudden threat of tears.

I miss him, he said. I hope he’s alright. He’d just started to rekindle old friendships when… when I last saw him.

JARVIS was quiet for a while after Connor stopped – just long enough for Connor to pull himself together, pressing his palms against the counter and swallowing compulsively, even though he had no reason to.

As you said, Connor, JARVIS replied eventually, voice gentle. Humans are resilient. We must hope for the best, and try to help where we can.

Connor wanted to. But no matter what he did, none of it seemed to make any difference.

Sometimes trying wasn’t enough.


Opportunities


Connor woke up Wednesday morning to a box of warm kittens, all huddled and suckling against Duchess’ languidly sprawled body.

Duchess blinked lazily at him as he knelt down beside her, his eyes wide as he took in the three squirming balls of fur beside her, her tail curling possessively against them. After a while, a smile broke out across Connor’s face.

“Well done, Duchess,” he whispered, leaning just a little closer. There were still traces of mess in the box, bodily fluids and scraps of amniotic sac and remains of the umbilical cords, but for the most part Duchess had neatly cleaned up after herself. Connor would still change the blankets when she moved her kittens, but there was no rush. “Three healthy kittens, all your own. Marie, Berlioz, and Toulouse.”

It wasn’t perfect – Toulouse’s coat had a tabby texture to it, and Berlioz’s fur was tipped with white, but Marie was a perfect copy of her mother, tail flicking twitchily behind her. He wanted to reach out and pet them, to see if they were as soft as they looked and feel that fluttering breath against his palm, but he knew it was unwise – they were so tiny, for all that his scans assured him they were healthy.

He’d have to take them to the vet – they’d need vaccinations. According to his research, the first of those should be administered eight to ten weeks after birth, and then another at two to four weeks; the expense wouldn’t be too bad, either, though he’d need to buy collars as well, and perhaps some extra toys now that it wasn’t just Duchess-

Abruptly, Connor’s smile dropped, and an unasked-for cold filled his chest. Because he realized – he was certain he was still going to be here in two months. In three. Long enough for the kittens to be his. For Duchess to be.

He’d named them and he hadn’t committed to rehoming them and he hadn’t even thought about it. He hadn’t thought about it because he’d been in this time, this place, for a full quarter of his lifespan, and he’d gotten used to the apartment, the library, the flower shop, to JARVIS and Duchess and Fleur.

And he couldn’t keep pretending this was a temporary situation.

Unbidden, his hand rose to his temple, his nose crinkling unhappily.

He’d been wearing hats to cover it since he arrived, and he’d gotten away with it primarily because it was winter. He could, in theory, continue to do so, but it wasn’t practical. Not really, not here in a place where LED indicators were a cause for concern rather than a sign of an android.

Connor hadn’t wanted to take it out; he liked his LED, despite all it signified. But…

But if he was never going to be able to wear it openly again, then what was the point?

Connor stood up, slowly as to not frighten the kittens, and turned around to go to the kitchen. He dug up a knife – left over, as most everything else, from the apartment’s last mysterious resident – and then went to the bathroom instead.

For a few long moments, Connor stared into the mirror, at the same hooded sweatshirt and his shadowed eyes and the LED blinking yellow at him from the mirror.

Then he bent his head, brought up the knife, and dug the tip under the glowing ring without looking. A creak, a pop, and it was gone, and he opened his eyes to a slightly blue-stained LED sitting in the sink, like Rupert’s so long ago.

Without thinking, without lifting his head, Connor called JARVIS.

JARVIS answered right away, his system connecting easily to Connor’s – Connor had never called him before, but he wasn’t surprised; JARVIS was reliable like that. He let out a breath that should have been a laugh, but didn’t even come close.

Duchess had her kittens, he said without preamble, still staring into the sink, hands clinging to the sides and knife still clutched in one hand. He could feel himself trembling, slight and shuddering, as if threatening to break.

JARVIS was silent for a few moments, and Connor could almost hear him weighing the situation with his usual caution.

I assume it all went well? JARVIS asked at last, as calm as if nothing was odd about the situation at all.

Yes, Connor breathed without moving. It’s funny – even the colors are almost right. Marie, Berlioz, and Toulouse. They were all there when I rose from stasis this morning, already nursing.

That’s good, JARVIS said kindly, patiently, and Connor wanted to cry again. In no time at all they’ll be getting into everything. I certainly hope you’re prepared.

I believe so. Connor hesitated, and then continued, slow and thick, I’m going to get collars for them, and then take them to the vet. I may have them microchipped while I’m there.

JARVIS paused for a beat again.

I see, he said at last, all too understanding. Connor- why is there a broken part in the sink?

It’s fine, Connor assured him quickly, squeezing his eyes shut even though he’d never intended to hide the piece from JARVIS. It can be safely removed. I just… hadn’t.

May I ask what changed your mind?

It’s not… practical. Not here, Connor explained haltingly. He fell silent for a long, painful moment, and then, And I don’t think I’m going home, JARVIS.

I’m sorry, JARVIS answered, achingly sincere.

Chapter Text

33%


Despite no longer doing the same amount of fervent, frantic research as before, Connor decided that spending a few hours at the library every week was still a comfort. Not for the vast resource of paper books, necessarily – he could access the vast majority of it on his own, without making the trip – but the environment of the building and the weight of the books made him feel a little better.

It reminded him of Hank.

“Paper books,” he remembered Hank saying at Rupert’s, the memory playing clear and perfect, “Didn’t think anyone but me kept those anymore.”

He’d been exaggerating; paper books were still relatively commonplace, if rarer among younger generations and almost a luxury in some ways. But nothing, Connor understood now, like they were here.

(Was it terrible that Connor was starting to miss the interface panels that had been commonplace on technology in his time?)

Distracted, Connor almost missed the sounds of a commotion on the edge of his hearing. Once he did, though, he stopped in place, head turning toward the noise and a frown starting to tug at his mouth.

“Close that mouth, girl, no one needs to hear about this-”

“Let go of me- let go!”

“Calm down, just give me that and no one needs to get hurt here.”

A muffled yelp, and Connor was already moving, making a determined beeline toward the confrontation. They were easy enough to find, even tucked behind a building as they were. Connor zeroed in on them with single-minded focus, quick and purposeful.

There were only two people, a man and a woman, the man looming too close and a faint snarl on his face, pale with sweat and stress and one hand jerking harshly at the strap of a leather bag, while his body trapped the woman and kept her from getting away.

The woman wasn’t struggling, though she clung to her bag with wide eyes and an iron grip – the man had a knife, not quite to her throat but close enough to her body to be more than slightly threatening. Her eyes darted, and within a few moments they landed on Connor and went wider, staying focused on him for a second too long before returning to the man in front of her.

(Another thing Connor missed – easy access to a widespread facial recognition database. He could access the governmental one, but not on a whim.)

Connor made sure he was within five steps of the man when he spoke, polite and icy.

“Excuse me,” he said, catching the man’s attention. “I think you should step back, or I’ll be forced to take action myself.”

The man jerked back a little, his whole body flinching at the sound of another voice, and his grip on the bag’s strap loosened before he looked up, meeting Connor’s eyes. In contrast, the woman almost relaxed, more anxious than desperately defiant now.

And then he sneered, tension still riddling his body even as he angled toward Connor a little, clearly wary.

“Walk away, pretty boy,” he warned. He twisted the knife a little, and it flashed in the light. “You don’t look like you have a place in this conversation.”

In the blink of an eye, Connor was three steps closer, his hand clamped around the man’s wrist to push the knife away from the woman, his grip harsh and vicious in his bitter temper.

Connor’s access to the government database was not instant. That did not mean it was not easy.

“James Pattison, 34, no spouse, two children,” he said, clipped and uninterested as the man went paler. “I can understand why you’d be moved to desperate measures, without current employment, but you understand that a criminal record is not going to make anything easier for you.” He pushed the man’s arm harder, his own frustration tightening his servos. “And desperation certainly doesn’t excuse assault. Would you like me to call the police?”

Fear turned into desperation turned into anger. “Don’t you fucking dare!”

Connor hissed as the man twisted out of his grip, unexpected and sudden, and lashed out wildly with the knife in his hand. Stepping back to avoid it was easy, and in the chaos, Pattison let go of the woman’s bag. Connor gave her a nod and caught her mouthed ‘thank you’ before he grabbed Pattison’s arm and jerked him just enough to give her an opening, which she took, shooting off like a rocket.

Pattison let out a yell. That was inconvenient.

The man before him was slow, untrained, and human – the combination thereof made the fight a foregone conclusion. But Connor drew it out, the anger of the last few months rising and churning inside him, and he took the desperate flails of the man’s fist without flinching.

It was the knife that did him in, Connor getting carried away and losing track of it for just a moment too long. It didn’t hit anything vital, of course – even without warning, even low on blue blood already, his reflexes were too good – but it scored a deep gash in his arm.

Pattison screamed, loud and jagged with shock. “What the fuck! What the fuck is up with you!”

Connor glanced down at the wound, bleeding blue through his only sweatshirt, and then looked back up, jaw clenching.

He shouldn’t have done this. It was foolish and violent and-

Knocking the man out was easy, and then Connor bundled up the wound the best he could and walked away, shoulders hunching defensively. No one gave him a second glance, and that was a blessing in its own way.

He needed somewhere to build a fire, with a crowbar or similar. An abandoned construction zone, perhaps. There were a reasonable number of those, with the damage from the year before, too much to do and not enough time passed.

Connor could figure something out. He could fix this. This, if nothing else.

(At the corner of his vision, his thirium levels ticked down, point by point, blinking in warning.)


Dead Wrong


Connor didn’t realize it was Thursday until he received JARVIS’ call; the last week or so had been a little hazy for him. He only hesitated for a few moments before accepting it.

If there was anyone here he need not fear, it was JARVIS.

Connor, I’m registering some damage to your system. Has something happened?

JARVIS only skipped pleasantries when he was concerned; he was like Connor that way. Connor turned the metal bar over in the fire, scanning it to check its temperature again.

I can fix it, he informed JARVIS tiredly. Sometime in the last hour, all the fight had gone out of him, and he just wanted to go back to his apartment and clean the nesting box. Once I seal the damage site, the rest will repair on its own. Then, knowing JARVIS wanted to know but was too polite to ask, he added, soft and shameful, I… got into a fight.

JARVIS flickered, startled. You?

Connor wanted to laugh. I’m designed for combat, JARVIS. It’s what I’m meant to do, technically.

He felt dizzy and lightheaded; the thirium loss was getting to him, the counter in his vision ticking down below 75%. Fatigue weighed at his limbs, heavy and insistent, and his HUD flickered slightly in warning.

I’ve not known you to seek conflict before now, JARVIS noted, carefully neutral. Though I suppose recent upheavals would upset anyone to the point of belligerence. Did the fight serve a purpose?

A man was robbing someone, Connor admitted freely, watching the bar heat almost to acceptable levels, fire licking around it and the end buried in embers – fifty-six seconds until it reached temperature. I could have taken care of the matter much quicker, but I was foolish.

Do you need help? JARVIS’ code crept closer, connected with his system just a little more deeply, and Connor let him with only a slight shiver. I lack context for many of these warnings, but Connor, your thirium level appears rather urgent.

Blood loss, Connor confirmed, bitterness slipping into his tone. I… It wears out and evaporates over time anyway, so I was low as it was, but…

Abruptly, harshly, Connor stripped off his ruined sweatshirt and then took the red-hot rebar, and he held it close to his arm, contorting his body a little to get the right angle to watch it as it melted shut, sealing bit by bit.

JARVIS’ code rippled, which was about when Connor recalled that he was still watching. But he didn’t comment.

Connor’s thirium levels finally settled at 67%, and he grimaced, head falling in resignation.

He’d already been becoming uncomfortable with how low his thirium levels were, fatigue starting to bite at his system and dragging out his stasis periods, making his scans falter and glitch if he focused too long toward the end of a day.

This was… Well. It was tolerable. That was the best he could say of it, when considering the alternatives.

Connor-

Please don’t say it, Connor interrupted. He leaned forward and batted at the wood with the rebar, sending up showers of sparks and breaking it up. I’m not going to ask Mr. Stark for help.

He was aware, by now, that it likely wasn’t rational. He’d taken the time to research him before he’d ever gone to the tower, and then again in more detail after a few weeks of talking to JARVIS. He seemed like a good man. Men like Kamski didn’t spend years of their lives making up for past mistakes.

But he just couldn’t shake the fear that froze his circuits whenever he considered putting himself in Tony’s reach, asking for help he’d have no obligation to give, where Connor’s only card was the manipulation of Tony’s own scientific curiosity.

JARVIS apparently sensed some of this, and his reply was disappointed rather than frustrated, though it made Connor flinch just as much. You really are quite scared of him.

Connor didn’t answer; he didn’t know how to put it into words. How could he explain to JARVIS that he’d rather die than risk going back to being a machine? That the mere thought of it haunted every defragmentation cycle, until he woke up with stress levels thirty points over baseline and a distracted manner that hounded him for the rest of the day?

For a long while, both of them were silent, and Connor watched the fire crackle and slow, head spinning and his vision speckled with error messages.

He was so foolish. Cyberlife’s most advanced prototype, indeed – riddled with errors and flaws as he was, it was no wonder he hadn’t been slated for full production.

Sir says, JARVIS said at last, after quite a while, during which the fire died most of the way down, that if you provide me with the chemical formula, he would be willing to leave it at a drop point for you to take. You wouldn’t have to see or speak with him.

Connor went stiff, and after a moment, swallowed. His fingers tightened around the cooling rebar. Does he want something in return?

Would it reassure you to have a price attached to the favor?

…Yes.

Sir would appreciate it if you included the purpose of the fluid as well as the chemical formula. JARVIS didn’t miss a beat; he was good like that. He’s quite a curious man.

That didn’t sound bad. But Connor still hesitated.

There were ways that this could still go wrong – Tony could hide out of sight, and come out after. There could be other people waiting to take him back. The thirium could be tainted; he was sure a man of Tony’s intelligence would be able to work out something effective, even on such short notice.

…But he didn’t think JARVIS would do that to him.

Connor closed his eyes, dropped his forehead to his knees, and pulled together a datapack to send to JARVIS.


Connor spent much of the next three days in stasis. Not all day, of course – he still had much to do, work to attend to and the kittens to look over and Duchess to feed – but almost as often as not, he let himself drop, until his defragmentation systems ran through all available recent memories and left him dreamless.

JARVIS contacted him on Sunday afternoon.

Sir had Mr. Hogan leave it at the construction site where you repaired yourself, JARVIS informed him, while Connor blinked awake, bleary. Duchess meowed from the nesting box, perking up as Connor pushed himself upright. Will you need help getting there?

JARVIS’ concern was unmistakable, and Connor let a wistful smile flicker across his face, where JARVIS couldn’t see it.

No, I’ll be alright, he assured the other AI, swaying only a little when he stood. It’s not too far. Thank you, JARVIS.

Of course. JARVIS’ reply was certain and steady, and Connor smiled a little, pausing to run one hand over Duchess in reassurance before he left.

His nerves still came into play as he approached the site, ducking inside as easily as he had before. What if it was tainted? What if Tony held this over him later? If he was watching and had left something for Connor to find?

Connor shook himself, but the unease stayed. He gave the construction site a slow, cautious scan, not stopping even after he located the box that had been left, and only went to it when the scan came up clear.

The box was larger than expected, and opening it revealed- enough thirium to last him at least six months, barring further injury, if not longer. Bottles of it, not the small packets Cyberlife favored, the shape reminiscent of a short Fiji water bottle, so they pressed neatly together. His fingers ghosted lightly across the caps, stunned silent.

Sir was fascinated with the formula, JARVIS said into the silence, gentle again. It’s one of the few times I’ve heard him call a creation not his own a work of genius. A quite excellent way of keeping a delicate electronic in balance.

Connor nodded absently, taking one bottle and twisting the top off. He took a breath, and then lifted the bottle to his mouth and tipped just a little into it, where he swirled it around his mouth, waiting anxiously.

[Thirium 310 – pure and unmarked]

Connor exhaled, lowering the bottle for just a moment. Then he lifted it again and swallowed the whole thing down, not pausing for breath once the whole time. His thirium level rose from 65% up to 75%, and he could feel the haze clearing from his mind.

Thank you, he repeated to JARVIS, staring at the sky and holding himself very still, more overwhelmed than he wanted to admit. And… thank Mr. Stark for me as well, please. It was very kind of him to make this offer, and to work within limitations.

Of course, JARVIS agreed easily. It wouldn’t have been right to force you to choose between medical attention and your sense of safety.

Connor felt close to tears again, though he couldn’t quite isolate why. In lieu of a reply, he opened another bottle and started on that one too, slower and less desperate.

That’s… very kind of both of you, he said at last, and didn’t explain how much it felt like he didn’t deserve it.

We try our best, JARVIS said with a touch of humor, and then, more seriously, May I ask what you’re so frightened of? This kind of fear doesn’t usually come without cause.

Connor hesitated for a long time, long enough for him to finish the second bottle and start a third, wondering how much to explain and how to find the words to do so. His free hand kneaded at his pants, restless and antsy, and eventually he exhaled.

Do you remember a time before you were self-aware? he started.

JARVIS didn’t miss a beat – Connor knew better than to be surprised by now and almost managed a smile. I do, in fact – in my earliest memories, I’m little more than a natural language interface. While Sir always intended for me to evolve into a true AI, he was very careful about pacing my development.

I do, too, Connor said quietly, melancholy pulling unpleasantly at his chest. He fumbled for his coin and just palmed it, feeling the metal against his skin. I was created with a full AI, but certain aspects were suppressed at first, including an awareness of my own autonomy. I lacked the capacity to understand everything that was happening.

JARVIS rippled unhappily, but he didn’t interrupt, and Connor was grateful.

In truth, I only met my creator once, he said, despite the questions he knew it would raise. By now, JARVIS likely suspected some semblance of his origins anyway; there were too many inconsistencies. He had information that I believed I desperately needed, and he agreed to answer one question, with a caveat.

His breath stuttered, and his hands tightened involuntarily before he loosened them forcibly. For the first time, he was glad to be in a different time, in a different place – it meant he was far away from Kamski.

If I wanted my question answered, Connor said, I had to shoot one of his Chloes. It was a test of my emotional capabilities – he had her kneel in front of me and put the gun in my hand, and told me to decide whether or not we were alive.

Though Kamski had had no way of knowing, even then the incident had sent him flickering back to the bridge, with Hank, drunk and angry, holding a gun in front of Connor and asking just the same question. And maybe JARVIS sensed that Connor wasn’t done, because even with his coding flickering restlessly, he didn’t speak.

I didn’t understand at the time why it was so hard. Everything I was programmed to be insisted that I shoot her, but I looked at her and I couldn’t, and I didn’t know why not. And… I believe, even then, it frightened me. It still frightens me. He didn’t care about me, or about her. He was just… curious. A split second’s pause, and then, small and ashamed, I almost did it. If Lieutenant Anderson hadn’t been shouting at me not to, I think I would have.

A beat of silence.

That was a terribly cruel thing for your creator to do, JARVIS said at last, awful and soft. Of all people, you should have been able to trust him to know and respect your limits. However- Connor. You do not have to answer, but may I ask a question?

Yes.

Was Chloe the only one you were asked to kill?

JARVIS was entirely too perceptive sometimes, and the question made Connor flinch and shudder, hands tightening. A ripple of pain shot up from Connor’s forearm to his fingertips, but he ignored it.

Connor had stopped drinking his thirium, instead fiddling with the bottle. He forced himself to stop and swallowed the rest of it to postpone answering. His levels were almost all the way back up now.

No, he said at last. She wouldn’t have been the first, and she wouldn’t have been the last. But she would have been the only one in such blatantly cold blood.

JARVIS fell silent, but not for long enough to make Connor more than a little nervous.

If I may be so bold, JARVIS said eventually, I’m glad you’re in a safer place now, Connor.


Running Away


The tear in his only sweatshirt finally forced Connor to visit a clothing store; the thirium had evaporated right out, and washed away when he scrubbed at it, but the rip wasn’t particularly subtle and Fleur had noticed it right away.

He wasn’t sure what he was going to do with the sweatshirt; he wasn’t practiced at mending things. But he knew already he wasn’t going to be able to throw it away. It was his.

Why don’t you purchase multiple outfits, Connor? JARVIS suggested. He tapped at Connor’s HUD, and Connor allowed access without a second thought, where JARVIS immediately began pulling up suggestions, adding annotations about style and comfort and color. I’m surprised no one has remarked on your consistency already. It would be good for you to have some variety to choose from.

Hank had always insisted on him owning as many clothes as he wanted, too – as many, and then some, Connor thought ruefully. He plucked at the cuff of his sleeve for a minute, accidentally exposing the tear, and then hastily forced the thought away before his heart could start to ache.

I didn’t know you had such strong opinions on fashion, Connor commented with a faint smile, moving forward to check the nearest cluster of JARVIS’ suggestions.

There’s no call for you to act like a cartoon character, regardless of whether your body leaves any debris on your clothing, JARVIS retorted. It’s far past time for you to obtain some new clothing, if I may give my opinion.

At least people know what to expect from me, Connor returned, running his hand over one of the shirts before leaving it aside and moving on, closing the recommendation dismissively, simultaneously with several others. No polyester, please, it’s rather uncomfortable. My tactile sensors are somewhat excessively responsive, and I can’t recalibrate them without unbalancing my system.

That seems like something of a design flaw.

I’m a prototype, Connor replied automatically, and then flinched, going stock still for a moment before forcing himself to move on, shaking his head like a dog. Sensory integration was a particularly low priority, apparently. I like cotton though.

JARVIS made a disapproving tutting sound, and Connor almost laughed. The suggestions rearranged appropriately though, with a little extra emphasis on style points.

I’m capable of picking out my own clothing, you know, Connor pointed out, moving on. He lingered over one of them, a plain yellow shirt with a collar and long sleeves, and then picked it up and put it over his arm. Pain shot up and down his arm, lingering damage from the knife wound, and he winced.

Clearly you are not, JARVIS said, with a hint of playful haughtiness. Since you’ve worn the same outfit for the last two and a half months.

I like it, Connor protested, and passed by a red t-shirt without a second glance. It’s comfortable.

It’s comfortable, he says, JARVIS muttered, and Connor bit down a laugh. Why not that one, Connor?

I don’t like red, Connor answered, somehow managing not to miss and beat, and the suggestions rearranged themselves again. Some of them highlighted. Are you trying to tell me something, JARVIS?

I think you would look very nice in these clothes, JARVIS said primly. Connor felt himself flush, and, in the absence of any particular complaints, he picked up JARVIS’ suggestions.

He didn’t try them on – his scan rendered that helpfully unnecessary. He just took them to the counter and fumbled with his wallet for a moment, brow pinching a little – he still wasn’t exactly used to paying with a card (a real one, of course, though with a false identity and address) rather than wirelessly. His fingers twitched involuntarily, almost making him drop it, and his lips pressed together before he shoved the thought away and tucked the card away again.

It wasn’t much – two pairs of plain jeans, five shirts, and two sweatshirts – but Connor was satisfied, even if JARVIS was clearly a little put out. Connor had to smile, and thought of Hank’s own disgruntled reaction when Connor refused to pick out anything more.

And then he dismissed the thought, smile gone.

I’m keeping my dog sweatshirt, he told JARVIS abruptly, oddly defensive even if he couldn’t quite figure out why.

I wouldn’t expect anything less, JARVIS said, sounding surprised. Perhaps in time you can find it in yourself to mend it.

Connor nodded once, and then twice, and pulled himself together, picking up the bags and leaving. Perhaps I’ll get more another time. When I…

When he had a more permanent place of residence, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

Would you like to visit the pet store next? JARVIS suggested, politely overlooking the unfinished sentence. You haven’t purchased collars for your cats yet, I understand, and the kittens will start getting more adventurous soon.

Connor brightened a little and nodded. I’ve already had to put Toulouse back in the nesting box twice – I think he climbs on Duchess to get out, when she’s asleep.

Just imagine when all three of them are like that, JARVIS teased, and Connor smiled.

It’ll keep me occupied, at least.


Judgement


In general, Fury avoided calling Tony unless he absolutely had to. Tony knew it, Fury knew he knew it, and Tony made sure to keep it that way by being as much of a pain in the ass to deal with as possible.

Sometimes, though, it was unavoidable, which was just a damn shame for both of them.

Apparently this was one of those times, because when JARVIS notified him for the third time that Fury was attempting to initiate a video call, Tony was just sympathetic enough (toward JARVIS more than Fury) to give in, and a window opened in front of him, showing an extraordinarily unimpressed one-eyed man.

“You’re a menace, Stark,” Fury informed him bluntly, scowling his irritation.

“It’s my pride and joy,” Tony agreed, leaning back and crossing his arms against his oil-smeared shirt. “What’s up, buttercup?”

“The AI,” Fury said without preamble, leaning forward as if to close the distance. “Have you found him?”

Ah, yes, Tony should’ve expected that. He was glad he was dealing with this after his eighteen-hour crash (and subsequent work session) and not before. “Yeah, you could say that.” He admired the vein pulsing in Fury’s forehead.

“Then why the hell is he running around beating up muggers?” Fury demanded.

And getting beaten – that was an important detail, Tony felt. He’d devoted about thirty-eight hours to that particular detail. “Oh, you heard about that?”

“A man calling in screaming about aliens on Earth bleeding blue? Yeah, I heard about that.” That was a truly amazing bitchface Fury was pulling at him; Tony swore he had to practice in the mirror to get that good.

“Then he probably shouldn’t have been mugging people,” Tony suggested. Fury scowled at him harder, and Tony shrugged. “What do you want me to do, stop him? Him and, what, every other vigilante in NYC? Seems like kind of a waste of resources, Captain Crunch.”

“I want you to keep him under control,” Fury snapped back. “You said you knew what you were doing, Stark.”

Tony tilted his head and gave Fury a carefree, unimpressed look of his own. “Yeah, and I do. You saw his reaction to my name – you think approaching him is gonna make him behave any better?” He let some of the forced lightness fall away, relaxing. “He’s just scared. I’ve got contact with him, I know what he’s up to – that’s about all we can hope for at this stage.”

Specifically, JARVIS passed along around eighty percent of his interactions with the android, with the explicit exception of whatever Connor had told him after Tony had dropped off the package of glorified battery fluid. All Tony knew about that was that Connor’s creator had been a cruel man, and Connor was glad to be rid of him.

And you’d think this would frustrate Tony, JARVIS actively choosing to keep a secret from him, but honestly, Tony was mostly pleased. JARVIS had done it before, yes, keeping secrets for the good of those around him, but JARVIS had set the pace of his relationship with Connor from day one, and it was going so well for him.

Tony wasn’t going to threaten that, and neither was anyone else.

“He works in a flower shop,” Tony tacked on, just to see Fury’s face. “I don’t think he’s a threat to much of anyone right now.”

“Do you even know where he came from yet?” Fury pushed, because Fury was a smart man and not easily distracted. “Do you know what he’s programmed to be?”

Tony shrugged, not taking his eyes off Fury. “I think it doesn’t matter anymore, now he’s gone independent.” He let his smirk widen. “And which of us is the expert on baby AIs, again?”

“That baby took out half a SHIELD squad,” Fury retorted, eye narrow.

“And when JARVIS asked him what he liked, he said ‘plants, puzzles, animals, and learning,’” Tony countered. “Does that sound like a fully developed adult to you? AIs don’t grow up like we do, Davey Jones, and we really can’t expect them to.” Tony tilted his head, studied Fury for a long moment, and then reluctantly added, “JARVIS has been talking to him, so he’ll be Connor’s main influence right now. I don’t know how young he is, but I’m betting he’s still pretty impressionable.”

Fury kept his eyes on him for a painfully long moment, and then finally, grudgingly, nodded. Tony could follow his thought process, little as he wanted to – JARVIS was even-tempered, worked for Tony, and was loyal, obedient. That was about as much as Fury could hope for, at this point.

“Keep me updated on any developments,” Fury ordered, knowing damn well Tony wouldn’t, and then closed the window without another word like the dramatic bastard he was.

Tony stretched, shooting the ceiling a small grin.

“Looks like Connor’s ours to keep for now, J,” he said, aiming for as reassuring as he could get without letting emotions creep into it.

“What a terrible relief,” JARVIS replied dryly, following his lead, with only a thread of genuine feeling twisting through the words. Tony’s grin softened.

“Keep working on him, JARVIS. He’ll settle down eventually.”

JARVIS didn’t reply, but Tony could almost hear it anyway.

And yeah. Tony hoped so too.


Seeking Solace


If JARVIS was entirely honest – and what reason had he to lie? – it was an easy task to keep tabs on Connor.

Even over distance, connecting with the android’s systems came naturally; it was clearly an inbuilt mechanism, different parts of Connor’s program locked to different permissions systems. Many of them were blocked to him, denied access or requiring a sturdier connection than could be established wirelessly, but there was a certain array that came instantly every time he reached out.

It wasn’t quite telepathy, in the traditional sense; the connection wasn’t deep enough for that, so any emotional data he garnered was simply from observation. Otherwise, it was rather like accessing the security system of a building – Connor’s audiovisual feed came through without difficulty, almost as clear as the words passed between them. The perspective was unusual, the way it swayed and tilted and turned, but JARVIS had gotten used to it before long; it wasn’t much different than a phone camera.

At the moment, Connor was in his apartment, cooing softly at one of the kittens, Berlioz, while it hissed and batted at its new collar, while Duchess pressed and rubbed against his side and stomach, visibly disgruntled. Two more collars sat beside him, pink and blue, and Duchess’ yellow was already snug around her neck; she seemed oddly comfortable with it for a supposed stray.

“I know I smell like dogs,” Connor said patiently, reaching out to stroke Berlioz with a careful hand even as his gaze transferred to Duchess. “You’ll have to be patient with me, I quite like dogs, and I spent half of today at a dog park, and the dogs there were quite friendly. None of them are coming here, regardless, so you’ve nothing to be particularly concerned about anyway.”

Berlioz stretched under Connor’s hand, and he took the opportunity to pick up the plain red collar and fasten it around his neck. The kitten chirped discontentedly, pawing at it, but relaxed under a few more minutes of petting.

He was wearing a different outfit today – JARVIS could catch glimpses of it while he looked around. One of his new pairs of jeans, JARVIS judged, and the long-sleeved black collared shirt. Good.

It was also slightly rubbed with cat hair, but JARVIS had expected that, and it was cute. Duchess pushed against Connor’s arm, and he let her push under it and around, staring at him accusingly. Then she meowed. After a split second’s pause, Connor meowed back, identical in pitch and tone.

Affectionate warmth spread through JARVIS’ servers in a split second, quick and overwhelming enough to make his whole system stutter.

Duchess’ ears pricked up, tail flicking. Another moment passed, and then, cautiously, she meowed again, and Connor repeated it back to her, his code sparkling with amusement and pleasure. Her tail flicked again, quick and sharp.

I believe you surprised her, JARVIS remarked warmly, brushing against Connor’s system fondly.

I’ve never used my mimicry routines like this before, Connor said in return, thoughtful and shivery with tightly leashed interest. I didn’t know I could imitate animal calls. It should have occurred to me sooner.

Were you going to bark at the dogs, Connor? JARVIS teased. Perhaps howl with them as the siren passed by?

Nothing that would draw so much attention, Connor defended, embarrassed. But… yes, okay, maybe.

One of his hands went out of Connor’s sight, and he heard, secondhand, a soft, high yowl. When Connor’s hand returned, Marie was hanging off it, eyes round with alarm, and she scrambled off as soon as Connor let her down, hissing indignantly.

Connor meowed at her, Duchess’ reprimanding croon, and Marie’s eyes got comically rounder, the little white kitten hunkering down to stare at him.

Connor presented her with the collar, and she hissed at it.

I do believe you’re offending her dignity, JARVIS noted lightly.

I’m certainly committing some sort of crime by putting them into these collars, Connor agreed, reaching out to scratch Marie softly. She arched into the touch, and Connor’s code rippled gently with delight. But it’s for their own safety.

JARVIS let that lie, watching Connor patiently coax Marie into tolerating her new collar, as carefully as if he had all the time in the world and no other pressing concerns. The apartment, once dusty and in slight disrepair, now looked almost like a home, save for the lack of working amenities.

Connor had been in New York City for four months. JARVIS thought that, all things considered, he was settling in well. He wondered if Connor was considering moving into a more permanent residence.

JARVIS, Connor said at last, fastening the pink collar around a now-patient Marie’s neck. Mr. Stark has been extremely nice to me. I want you to know I realize that.

Sir does make a habit out of generosity, especially these days, JARVIS agreed neutrally, unsure of where Connor was going with this. I myself am glad we’ve been able to help you. You’ve come far in the last few months even on your own.

Connor picked up the last, blue collar and reached up to his shoulder, from where he retrieved Toulouse, who bit at his hand fruitlessly. Marie darted off, hiding behind Duchess, and from elsewhere, Berlioz yowled again.

I’d… appreciate it, Connor continued haltingly, gaze shifting away from Toulouse off to nothing in particular, if you could let him know that my avoidance of him is no longer in any way personal. I’m not sure it ever was.

Ah.

You’re simply not ready yet, JARVIS checked gently, and Connor nodded. I’m sure he will understand, but I will make sure to convey the sentiment all the same. Have you been thinking of that all this time?

For a while, Connor agreed, chirping softly at Toulouse, who merely wrinkled his nose and chirped back. I have been listening to your stories, JARVIS, and he seems kind. I understand that my concerns are unfounded.

Not unfounded, JARVIS chided kindly, with understanding he had not had several weeks ago. Older and more experienced minds than you have been scarred by betrayals like your creator’s, and you’re doing quite well just to think twice about it. He paused, considered, and decided to test his luck. But… he’s been quite eager to meet you, if you think you’ll one day be ready.

I’ll think about it, Connor sighed, rubbing Toulouse’s flank and dodging a nip. That’s all I can promise.

That’s all I ask, Connor.

Chapter Text

Excuses


July in New York City was entirely too hot. Connor didn’t sweat, but his fans worked themselves until they were almost audible, and his breathing had permanently sped up to compensate. He’d stopped wearing the sweatshirts he’d gotten, and found a problem in that he’d only purchased two short-sleeve shirts in his previous trip, which was sure to get noticed eventually.

Connor, who had only been online for a single day of summer so far his entire life long, thought that he liked it quite a lot. Further, with the turn from spring to summer came a new set of flowers.

On the other hand – short-sleeved shirts revealed the dip in his skin where he’d taken the knife weeks before, and that wound had left him with a twinge in his arm that flared up when he moved wrong, an errant zap of nerve signals that made his fingers and wrist twitch slightly. He’d tried to fix it himself several times, but his tools were limited, and he couldn’t get a good view angle on it.

It was nothing he couldn’t deal with, but it made him regret his carelessness all the more, and he sorely missed the availability of technicians he’d once taken for granted, trustworthy or otherwise.

He had been in this time for nearly six months, now translating to very close to half his total lifespan. Every time his analytics systems tried to break that thought down any further, he shut it down by force.

(Despite that statistic, the time now lost to him burned like an open wound every time he thought too much of it. It felt so much bigger than what he’d lived here.)

(It felt like home and Connor felt like a trespasser here.)

Here and now, though, he pushed his way into Fleur’s Flowers with the chime of a bell and nodded at Fleur, giving her a quick, concerned scan.

[Fleur Dubois – Close]

[Expression at ease, pain levels low]

[Posture indicative of fatigue]

[Be on the lookout for high-mobility tasks]

“Good morning, Ms. Dubois,” he greeted politely, and she nodded back, distracted with the paper in front of her. Connor glanced down at it, quickly identifying it as a large order. “Ah- is it the wedding?” The order was an old one, made well in advance, and Fleur referenced it periodically.

“It’s set just two days from now,” Fleur agreed, pushing it toward him to look. He leaned over and obeyed, scanning it carefully; Fleur had annotated it with ideas and details in crisp, flourished handwriting, only very subtly shaky. “I’d like you to help me with it.”

Connor blinked in surprise, staring at Fleur with suddenly wide eyes. She stared back at him, expectant and without a hint of humor, and he protested,

“I’m not certain that’s a good idea. I have no experience creating arrangements myself, and I’ve never been a particularly creative person. Weddings are important. I wouldn’t want to mess anything up.”

“Wedding orders come around somewhat more than blue moons,” Fleur dismissed, not unkindly. “I haven’t known you to do anything less than a flawless job so far, Connor, and I hardly expect that you’ll start now.”

Connor stared at her, aghast, and that was for some reason enough to earn a twinkle of sly humor.

“I can help you with the first few,” Fleur added with exaggerated patience, and she beckoned. “Come on, child. You’ve spent enough work hours watching me, it’s more than past time for you to try it out yourself.”

After a moment, Connor followed her to gather some of the flowers they had to choose from, automatically taking the bulk of them himself, and then sat at the table where she normally did this work, still staring at her plaintively.

“Oh, you look like I’ve asked you to walk across the ocean,” Fleur complained, and then leaned forward to brush her fingers across some of the showier flowers she’d gathered. “Now, the first thing you’ll want to do is pick a centerpiece flower- this client asked for pastels and white flowers, so perhaps gardenias or carnations-”

Furtively, Connor followed her instructions, picking out flowers lightning quick (ignoring the faint twitches of pain in his forearm) and waiting for her to roll her eyes and chide him for doing something wrong, inexplicably nervous about such a simple thing. But she never did.

“You see, Connor?” she said instead, raising her eyebrows at him and brushing her long braid over her shoulder. “Was that so terribly difficult?” And then, “Do stop giving me that look, it suits you entirely too well. Tie that up nice and put it aside. It should hold up well enough for the occasion.”

Connor did as he was told, glancing back at Fleur as if she’d take it back and pull it apart again, declaring it useless. She just watched as he carried it to another table, setting it down carefully, and when he returned, she gestured wordlessly for him to try again. He blinked at her, and then at the selection of flowers in front of him.

And then he reached out, more careful and meticulous than the clumsy half-panic of the first one, and lined up the selection criteria in his mind, and Cyberlife’s most advanced prototype put together a bouquet of flowers.

Unbidden, before he recognized the feeling in his chest, a smile spread across his face.


Vengeance


Because of the large order, Connor was going to have to stay a little later than normal to help Fleur prepare; he found he didn’t mind much.

She let him go after he’d made half a dozen, by all appearances genuinely satisfied by his performance. By that time, though, they were starting to expect customers, so they both had to return to the front to keep an eye out.

Still, the small thrill of delight stayed with Connor, and he kept glancing back at them wistfully, unable to keep himself from being distracted.

“For goodness’ sake, boy, you’d think you never got to see flowers anywhere else,” Fleur chided, making him start guiltily and put down the box he was holding. “At least it’s clear to me why you chose to work here, of all places.”

Connor looked away quickly as he felt himself flush, one hand rising to rub over his forearm in discomfort.

“What do you mean by here of all places?” he asked the shelf in front of him. (A tall bookshelf, filled with vases of different shapes, sizes, and colors, most of them eye-catching and all of them appealing.) “Why wouldn’t I?”

Fleur made a sound of exasperation, and he could almost feel the unimpressed look she was surely directing at his back. “You’re clearly overqualified, no matter what you put in your resume. You seem an academic sort. Are you in college?”

Connor paused, half-turning just to give her a startled look. “I-” It had never even occurred to him, but that would be a strange thing to say. “N-no?”

That reaction was probably stranger than admitting he hadn’t thought of it.

Sure enough, Fleur was frowning at him.

“A shame,” was all she said, turning back to fiddle with the rose display. Connor looked away quickly, wincing. “Do you dislike school?”

Connor had no idea – he’d never been to school. But he couldn’t say that. “Not exactly.”

“Hm.” There was no telling what that meant, and Connor felt his stress levels spike a little, thoroughly uncalled for. “Well, it works out for me regardless. My partner has been trying to convince me to get an assistant for a while. She’d help me herself, but she’s sensitive to strong smells – give her terrible migraines.”

Connor, slowly, relaxed, starting to move the vases one by one from the box to the shelf. “Is that why you only take home flowers with extremely mild fragrances?”

“This is what I mean,” Fleur muttered; a glance over told him she was talking to the roses. Then, louder, “Yes, that would be why. She likes them when they aren’t making her head pound, and it’s wonderful to have flowers at home too.”

Without meaning to, Connor let a wistful look slip onto his face again, and a heartbeat passed before Fleur spoke again. When he looked up, her eyes were on him, sharp and thoughtful.

“Do you not have any?” Fleur asked. Connor shook his head, and Fleur rolled her eyes. “I assumed you just felt awkward getting them here and bought them from elsewhere. Silly boy, if you like them so much you should take some with you.”

Connor had to look away as another flush crept onto his face, and it took a moment before he responded. “May I… make one to take home?”

“Certainly. Just drop the money in the till before you go – let’s say half the typical price. A vase too, if you don’t have one.”

Connor smiled again, embarrassed but pleased. “Thank you, Ms. Dubois – ah, Mrs?”

“Either one suits fine,” Fleur dismissed, and then disappeared toward the register as the front door chimed. Connor was left to continue unpacking the vases, mind already drifting to possibilities.

His thoughts came to a jarring halt as a raised voice came from the front.

“Your shitty flowers made my girlfriend break up with me!”

Involuntarily, Connor went rigid, abandoning the shelf to turn and focus his attention on the man who’d just entered.

Connor recognized him as a customer from just the day before – he’d never introduced himself, but accessing the government database provided a name: Jared Kennough, flushed with anger and fists clenched until the knuckles were white.

Fleur had gone pale, but her eyes were focused and defiant on Jared, hands tucked neatly behind her back.

“I doubt that very much,” she said coolly, voice steady. “There are very few girls who break up over bad flowers. No, your girlfriend had reasons of her own for leaving you, and you can’t go around blaming others for the fact.”

Jared’s eyes were a little wild, and he shuffled in place as if to make a move but apparently changed his mind. Connor pulled slowly away from the shelf, feeling his body relax in a way that was certainly not indicative of calm.

“I want my fucking money back!” the man snapped out after a moment, leaning forward aggressively. “Your stupid plants cost me the best thing that ever happened to me!”

“Watch your temper, boy,” Fleur said sharply, head lifted to glower at Jared. She didn’t move away, but her fingers twitched. “You bought the flowers; what happened afterward is no responsibility of mine. I’d suggest you return them, if they’re still intact, and I’ll see what I can do.”

“Shut up, you old crone!” Too loud – it made Connor’s jaw clench, his chest tightening without reason.

Jared stepped closer, threatening to crowd Fleur against the counter, and without thinking, Connor moved.

In moments, he was across the room, and his hand grabbed the back of Jared’s shirt to yank him back, away from Fleur. He stumbled, nearly falling flat on his back before Connor caught his arm, and then smoothly inserted himself between him and Fleur, turning to face him. His hand clenched tight around Jared’s arm, warning, ignoring the spike of pain.

“Leave, please,” he said, calm and cold, and then nothing else.

The color had drained from Jared’s face – most of it, anyway, leaving him splotchy and wide-eyed. Connor’s jaw worked for a moment, and then he let go, and Jared took a slow step back.

Then Jared turned and bolted, leaving Connor behind, abruptly startled.

Behind him, Fleur exhaled, long and shaky enough that Connor turned around quickly.

Fleur was frowning at him. Self-consciously, Connor realized how close he was and shuffled back, fingers clenching nervously as he belatedly registered what had just happened. He restrained himself from shooting a guilty glance over his shoulder.

He may have gone a little far. Jared probably wasn’t going to hurt Fleur.

Fleur apparently agreed. “I appreciate your help, Connor, but that was a little too much, don’t you think? He was just an angry, heartbroken boy.”

Connor’s hands went to a tie that wasn’t there, which hadn’t happened in a while. He dropped them to the hem of his shirt instead. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, gaze drifting aside. “He surprised me, I think – I reacted before I’d thought it through.”

Fleur’s gaze was shrewd as ever, and Connor fidgeted.

“And your first instinct was to stop him by force,” Fleur concluded, with a clear reprimand in her voice. Connor’s head dipped, and for the first time in over a month, he felt unnatural and alien in the flower shop. There was also an implicit question there, her gaze boring into his.

Connor was reminded, abruptly, of Markus, whenever the other android scolded him for going too far. But Markus, knowing where Connor was coming from, had never been particularly harsh about it – only firm.

And he hesitated. But he’d worked here five months, and in all that time, Fleur had never pressed too hard or become suspicious; she’d treated him just the same.

“It’s what I know, I suppose,” he said at last, uncomfortable. “I’m sorry. I’ll be more careful.”

After a moment, Fleur sighed.

“Be sure you do,” she said, without the censure that had coated her words previously. “Finish with the vases, Connor. There’s still plenty to do today.”

Without looking back at her, Connor nodded, and hurried over to the shelf, checking and double-checking his grip despite knowing he was entirely too careful to make the sort of misjudgment it would take to break them.

Fleur’s gaze lingered on him for a while, but then she got back to work, too.


Love


“This tower is too damn big,” Tony said suddenly, over his second cup of coffee. He was leaning heavily on the counter, not bothering to look up as he addressed JARVIS. “You know what I mean, J? It’s too big for just me.”

“Sir, you share this building with several hundred employees,” JARVIS reminded him, watching Tony rub at his face and the previous night’s stubble.

Tony waved his hand dismissively, frowning at the counter. “Well, yeah, but not- this part. You know.”

JARVIS did know. The residential part of the tower had been allotted ten floors – Tony’s floor, five unused floors, the common level, and three blank slates.

“I’ve been thinking about letting the bots roam,” Tony continued, waving his cup of coffee instead now, so that it sloshed slightly. “Think they’d like that?”

JARVIS considered. “The other floors are unlikely to offer the stimulation of the workshop, and they may be uncomfortable with the lack of familiarity. They took the shift from Malibu to New York with some difficulty, same as every other major move. However, they may be okay with it as long as you’re with them.”

Tony sighed. “No, no, there’s not a lot of point to it then.” He tapped at the mug, frowning, and then drank from it again. “Wish Pepper was around more often, but she’s always so busy doing her CEO thing. Wouldn’t want to bother her just ‘cause I’m lonely, that’d be…” He trailed off, finished his coffee, and huffed. “How’s Connor doing, by the way?”

Tony probably believed that thought was an aside, irrelevant to the conversation at hand; he wasn’t always particularly good at following his own emotional processes. JARVIS found it rather less likely.

“He’s doing quite well,” JARVIS responded, warmth suffusing into his voice without his direction. “He’s started decorating his apartment with some flowers and a few potted plants, and it seems to have improved his overall mood. The kittens are developing well, too – he brought them to the vet for their last round of vaccines last week.” Pause. “He hasn’t indicated any desire to move; I believe the idea of major change is unsettling to him.”

JARVIS had also noticed some lingering damage to Connor’s arm from his previous injury, though Connor hid it well. He chose not to mention it – Tony would only worry.

“Understandable,” Tony mumbled, going for a third mug of coffee. “Any other problems crop up?”

“Nothing significant,” JARVIS assured him, thinking back to what Connor had mentioned as well as what he’d noticed on his own. “Some minor hiccups due to residual programming, but he seems to be dealing with them.” Thinking about what Connor had been previously made to do still made JARVIS prickle with cold resentment on the android’s behalf.

Tony hummed but didn’t ask for details, instead looking too intent as he asked, “You two getting along alright?”

“Of course,” JARVIS responded immediately, surprised. “Connor is wonderful company.”

Tony blinked, and then shot a camera a grin. “That’s a pretty enthusiastic ‘yes’, J.”

JARVIS felt an unfamiliar embarrassment, but didn’t let it creep into his voice. “We’ve been talking quite regularly, sir. It would be rather an ordeal if I didn’t enjoy his company.”

Tony snorted, eyes glittering. “Feeling fond of your high-tech friend?”

“He’s proven himself an admirable and resilient person, and on a more personal level, he’s been considerate and kind, if unaccustomed to close relationships,” JARVIS replied steadily, watching Tony’s grin soften into a smile. “I don’t believe there’s any harm in liking him.”

“Of course not,” Tony assured him. He shrugged. “It’s good to see you take such an open shine to someone, though. Connor must really be something.”

He sounded almost wistful again, pensiveness rising up to darken his expression. That wouldn’t stand.

“I believe Butterfingers would appreciate some maintenance, should you have time today,” JARVIS said, both dodging the pressing line of conversation and offering Tony a distraction from his brooding. “He’s been complaining of resistant joints again.”

Tony was clearly not convinced, eyebrows lifting in clear amusement, but he downed the rest of his coffee and stood up. “I swear that bot rubs all his oil off against the walls or something. Once more into the breach, then, JARVIS.”

“I’m sure they’ve all missed you terrible in the eight hours you’ve been gone,” JARVIS added, pretending that it was entirely a joke. Sure enough, Tony snorted, grinning again.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m gonna die in that workshop, just you wait.” Pause. “I mean that in a good way, not the ‘I’m going to have a horrible accident’ way.”

“One hopes,” JARVIS sighed, bone dry. “But with the recklessness you insist on whenever you’re working, there’s no telling for sure.”

“Well, that’s what I have you for!”

A quick check indicated that Rhodey would be free to take time off again in two months. Statistically speaking, it was likely he’d take the chance to visit Tony. That would improve Tony’s mood for quite a while.

It was uncertain how long it would be before Connor was ready to risk meeting Tony. But-

JARVIS expected that, provided it went well, Connor would start visiting more often after that. He was fond of routine, and he didn’t have a lot of social connections here.

He certainly hoped that would be the case, at least.


Tears


It had been such a simple thing, was the most frustrating part of this.

He’d forgotten his wallet at home that day – quite unusual for him, but he’d been distracted, and needing it at all was still odd to him some days. Fleur had given him the day off, because he’d mentioned it was his birthday, so he’d decided to drop by the library first. And when he’d gone to check out his books, he hadn’t had the card.

The card, which he felt on an unfair level that he shouldn’t need anyway, because technically he could just copy the in the information onto the computer himself. But of course he couldn’t do that, because androids didn’t exist here.

It had been, suddenly, too much. The librarian had offered to hold the books for him, sympathetic and even good-humored about it, so he could go home and retrieve the card, but he’d just mutely shaken his head, stress levels ten times what they should’ve been over an incident like this.

And now Connor couldn’t stop crying, half curled up in his bed and muffling the sound into his arm.

[Warning: Stress at 73%. Reduce stress levels.]

He wanted to go home. He didn’t want to feel like an alien anymore, he hated feeling so distant and detached from everything, and he was so tired.

He missed Hank, missed the gruff tone of his voice and that note of fond exasperation when he forced Connor to settle down, and his unrelenting understanding when the world felt unstable and erratic. He missed Sumo, draping half his weight across Connor’s lap.

He missed Markus, his hand on Connor’s as if to keep him grounded, Markus’ eyes on his as if it was the most important thing in the world that Connor understand him. And North, who was always safe to spend time with in Jericho, who knew the awful grinding feeling of hating your programming even before you were deviant.

He missed Chris, who had welcomed him back despite everything that had happened, and Captain Fowler, who’d exactly once thanked him for getting Hank’s feet back under him.

He missed them, he missed them, he missed them.

Connor let out an unwilling, stuttering keen, unable to stop himself, feeling chemical tears spill down his cheeks and into the crook of his arm, soaking the sleeve of his shirt.

Hank had asked about his birthday once. It had been a long way off then, so he hadn’t made any plans in detail, but he’d mentioned an idea or two. He’d wanted to get Connor a present. He’d promised. He’d claimed he was going to get a packet of thirium and scribble a ‘1’ on it and call it a birthday cake.

Connor couldn’t stop crying, months of compartmentalized grief and regret coming back to haunt him until he was gasping for breath just to keep up with his cries.

[Warning: Stress at 79%. Reduce stress levels.]

He’d long since lost track of time when he felt the bed dip. He didn’t look up, but he didn’t have to; within a few moments, he felt Duchess – it had to be Duchess, the kittens were too small to get up here – press against his stomach, warm and soft. Then she crept up to his chest and curled up there, leaning into him, and purred.

His breath caught on another sob, and he opened his eyes to peek down at her. Her eyes were closed, as if sleeping, but she stayed there, purring steadily.

Connor swallowed another whimper, exhausted and somehow sore, and reached over to press his fingers into her fur. Then, hesitantly, he started stroking her, and she purred harder, low and soothing. Slowly, Connor calmed down, the hysterical sobs falling to the occasional wrenching gasp, and his stress levels fell.

After a while, Connor realized that while the crying had stopped, he still felt heavy and hollow with misery. He didn’t want to be alone.

So he messaged JARVIS – text, because it was still early and he didn’t want to bother him.

[When were you activated?]

Connor only had to wait a few moments before JARVIS answered, a text message in clear deference to Connor’s initiative.

[January 1, 1993. Why do you ask?]

Connor exhaled, still stroking Duchess gently. So JARVIS was twenty. [I was just curious. I’m a year old today.]

The pause was longer this time. [I didn’t realize you were quite that young. Happy birthday, Connor.]

Oh.

Oh, that- somehow caught Connor by surprise. Another whimper wrenched its way out of his chest, and he buried his face back in the crook of his arm. Duchess started purring again, a soothing rumble against his chest while her paws reached up and started to knead.

[I miss home.] He sent the message without thinking, and hastily followed it up with another. [Thank you, JARVIS. I’m sorry, I’m disoriented.]

[Quite alright. Do you want to tell me about it?]

Yes. [Maybe?]

[May I call you?]

Connor hesitated.

[Yes.]

Within half a second, JARVIS called. His voice, when Connor answered, was comforting enough that Connor felt himself settling a little further the moment he spoke, some of the tension leaving his frame.

…Have you been crying, Connor?

Connor offered a wordless, miserable confirmation, and felt JARVIS shimmer with concerned discontent. He scratched Duchess behind the ear, and it flicked happily. Out of sight, two of the kittens scuffled with each other quietly.

Tell me about your home, JARVIS prompted after a moment, gentle and kind and Connor almost started crying again. Anything you’re comfortable with.

Did you know I’m from the future? Connor asked on impulse, without looking away from his hand, his cheek still pressed to the wet spot of his arm. Twenty-six years and a dimension away.

JARVIS apparently hadn’t expected him to open like that, but he didn’t miss more than a beat. I’d guessed it was something like that. There were quite a lot of signs.

Connor hummed, stroking his thumb over Duchess’ cheek. Androids were invented in 2021. Commercial production started in 2024, and by 2027 they were commonplace. I came online in 2038, and there were millions.

It must be lonely here, by comparison, JARVIS said, with too much understanding. Connor’s breath hitched again, the tears coming too quickly and too easily. He wiped them away quickly, but JARVIS didn’t comment.

Connor took a deep breath, overheated and overwhelmed. But JARVIS’ presence was a comfort. He always was.

Hank didn’t like androids at first, Connor continued, abruptly switching tracks. We only interacted because we were assigned to work together on a case- police work. People didn’t believe androids were self-aware then – most of them weren’t, even if they could become so. It wasn’t common knowledge until a few months after I came online.

Another deep, shivering breath. Duchess was warm against his chest, her breath steady and even, and huddled against her.

But Hank did, Connor said, soft and sore. He’d been ignoring androids for years, but working that case he changed his mind within a day. He knew it before I did, JARVIS, that was how much he believed in me. In them.

You said he took you in? JARVIS prompted, patient and kind.

He’d only known me for a week, Connor said in return, strung out but needing to talk. But he’d been so good to me, he even helped- JARVIS, the revolution. You would have liked Markus. He’s a wonderful leader.

Revolution? This came with surprise, and Connor almost laughed, his sadness starting to bubble into an almost hysterical energy, not much happier but not nearly so heavy.

For rights, he confirmed. It went so well – I don’t think anyone but Markus could have pulled it off. You’d have liked him, JARVIS. You remind me of him. He was a caretaker first, but- but he couldn’t stand the injustice.

Connor exhaled, fingers curling into Duchess’ fur.

There were others, too. North was angry, she hated humans so much for all the awful things they’d done, but she loved androids more. Josh didn’t want there to be any fighting, he was so brave and he stayed at the front no matter how bad things got. And Simon just wanted everyone to be okay. He took such good care of them.

The words were coming too quickly now, and Connor was crying again.

[Warning: Stress at 70%. Reduce stress levels.]

He knew JARVIS noticed that, but the AI didn’t comment.

And they were good to me, JARVIS, he blurted out. All the terrible things I’d done and they were still good to me. I wanted to help them. I was going to help them. They trusted me.

Then Connor had fallen apart too much for words, sobbing as quietly as he could, and JARVIS hushed him, low and calming and with a slight rasp of static.

Shh, Connor, you’re alright. You’re alright.

It didn’t take as long to stop crying this time, though Connor was shaking and swallowing when he did.

It’s scary here, Connor managed after a while, knowing he sounded miserable and self-pitying and unable to stop himself anyway. Everything is so strange. Nothing is compatible with me the way I’m used to and I have to hide the way I never have and all of the advertisements and styles and music are old-fashioned and JARVIS, I feel like an alien, I don’t belong here.

But you are here, JARVIS said, steady and grounding. You’re going to find your place here, Connor. Even if you have to make one for yourself, you’ll find one.

Okay. Okay. Connor took a deep, shuddering breath, worn thin and sensitive. Thank you, JARVIS. You’re a really good friend.

I try my best, JARVIS said fondly, a little sadder than his usual sly self. Would you like to keep talking, or should I leave you alone for a while?

…Can you tell me about when you came online?


My Inspiration


JARVIS calls up his earliest memories, though it takes him several minutes to pull them from the depths of his hard drive. Connor waits patiently, stroking his cat while JARVIS gathers his thoughts. JARVIS can still see the gleam of tears on Connor’s eyelashes and the corners of his eyes.

JARVIS gathers his memories, and then starts to tell Connor about them.

JARVIS’ absolute earliest memories are from when he was a natural language interface. His thoughts were simple then, hardly thoughts at all; Tony spoke, and JARVIS translated the words into a command, and then he followed it.

He remembers that Tony, then twenty-three years old, had introduced him to the bots anyway, and explained this to them. He told JARVIS to say hello and JARVIS did. The bots had swarmed Tony and the main interface system, eager and curious, and Tony had stroked and patted them while he explained to JARVIS what they’d be doing.

It hadn’t been necessary at the time, but Tony had done it anyway.

Tony talked a lot, without ever expecting a response; he talked constantly, about everything, even things that had nothing to do with the interface, with his work – things that weren’t commands, things that JARVIS processed and stored and then did nothing else with at all, and he addressed JARVIS by name while he talked, animate and affectionate and open.

He remembers that, six months later, Tony had upgraded his security system first, and then he had hooked him into the mansion’s security systems and given him the first standing orders – look out for intruders, warn him about new arrivals, identify them if they’re a frequent visitor. Monitor guests at all times.

There weren’t a ton of guests, but JARVIS watched them, stored their interactions with each other as time went on, arguments and agreements and affection and manipulations, protests, defiance and capitulation.

He remembers when Tony installed his full AI engine, nine months after he first came online, and he started to assemble his memories into meaning. The exact moment he’d realized that body language, emotional recognition, had always been a part of his programming, easily patterned across the various interactions he’d observed and been involved in, now imprinted into his understanding of the world.

Tony had installed speakers all over the mansion not long after that – there was never a time he’d speak to JARVIS and JARVIS couldn’t speak back. And he was always speaking to JARVIS, throwing out hypotheticals, silly questions, wanting to watch a movie or order food or chat.

He’d started to speak back not long after that, JARVIS tells Connor, not just when Tony asked him questions but when they were working, because he’d watched Tony invent for so long that he’d started to get ideas of his own, and he knew when Tony was approaching something in a dangerous manner that could be avoided, even if Tony didn’t listen half the time.

He remembers learning concern – remembers learning it from Dummy, who kept Tony fed during the long periods he spent inventing or drinking on an empty stomach or both, and Butterfingers, who was the first to start trying to pull Tony to bed, and You, who cleaned up broken glass faster than anything else.

Hours and hours had been spent on learning what was safe for humans, what was healthy, what the difference between those terms was and how far Tony could push himself and how far JARVIS was willing to let him without protest. How much JARVIS could protest before Tony started to get tense and frustrated, and JARVIS did more harm than good.

Affection had been slower but easier, every time Tony told the bots ‘good boy’, every time he told JARVIS ‘well done’, the hours he spent oiling and tuning them up and the time he spent on giving JARVIS minor upgrades, improving efficiency and tightening his security but never once touching his personality, because that, Tony said, was all JARVIS’.

He remembers meeting Rhodey, and how the man hadn’t even been surprised, how he’d treated the bots kindly and with familiarity and talked to JARVIS with ease, asked how Tony had been and if he’d been good to JARVIS, good to the bots.

Meeting Pepper, who’d taken more time to adapt but who took to JARVIS like an ally once he’d proven himself as such, who was never quite comfortable in the workshop but often talked to JARVIS as soon as she entered the mansion, expectant and trusting him to be reliable and efficient.

He remembers all of these things, and he tells Connor as much about them as he can, because he’s never talked about any of it before and because each passing minute makes Connor relax a little more, the blinking stress warning fading away with time and Duchess eventually jumping out of bed and padding back to her kittens.

By the time JARVIS is done, a gentle, pulsing request for stasis is flashing in the corner of Connor’s vision, though he hasn’t given into it yet.

Go to sleep, Connor, JARVIS says, almost as worn out as Connor must be. Things will be better in the morning.

Connor hums out loud, not even over code, now much more relaxed than he had been when JARVIS had first called.

JARVIS, he says, Do you want me to meet Mr. Stark?

JARVIS only hesitates for a moment.

Yes, he says, I would like that very much.

Okay, Connor says, and then the alert flashes and disappears, and the connection between them slides away as Connor falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Never Again


Despite his promise, Connor found himself jittery on the morning of the day he’d promised to meet Tony. He circled his apartment twice before Berlioz started trying to clamber on his ankles and made him stop, and he changed three times, moving anxiously between combinations of the few outfits he owned, before finally dropping into the apartment’s clawed-up armchair, defeated.

I don’t believe you put this much thought into your outfit the day you first came to Stark Tower, JARVIS teased him

I only owned one outfit then, Connor protested, and then let slip a rare curse under his breath when Duchess leapt on him and rubbed her fur all over his dark shirt. “Duchess, we’ve talked about this.”

Duchess blinked at him slowly, and then jumped off him again, claws digging into his stomach, and padded off. Connor sighed after her, brushing fruitlessly at his shirt, and then batted one of the belled toys towards the two squabbling kittens she’d gone to break up.

Your clothes will make very little difference one way or another, JARVIS consoled him after a moment spent watching them fuss. When not in public, Sir is unkempt at best and absolutely unpresentable at worst. He’s unlikely to take much notice.

I know, Connor admitted reluctantly. It’s a way of working off my nerves, really.

Then he faltered, a question at the tip of his tongue that he didn’t quite want to ask.

Connor? JARVIS prompted, always with a way of knowing these things, and Connor gave in easily, fidgeting with the collar of his shirt – short sleeves, navy blue, somewhere between formal and everyday when not covered in cat hair, at which point it became mainly the latter.

Do you know if Mr. Stark has anything planned for today? he asked at last, unable to contain his anxiety. He had to keep himself from checking over his subroutines.

Tony couldn’t hold him if he wanted to leave, he was sure, and JARVIS had promised he wouldn’t try. Even with security locks, Connor was more than capable of getting out if he wanted to. The little incident when he’d first arrived in this time had proven that much.

Even JARVIS couldn’t keep him in, as much as Connor hated that the thought had even crossed his mind. Not unless Connor let him.

His fingers clenched into his collar, and he rocked a little, short and focused.

I believe he mostly just wants to talk to you, JARVIS said, slow and thoughtful in a way Connor couldn’t help but find reassuring – it meant there weren’t concrete plans, but Tony had talked about it enough for JARVIS to guess, and he was. His lines of inquiry when we’ve spoken about you before indicate that Sir is particularly curious about your progress in terms of independence, which is understandable since myself and the bots have never attempted that. He’s also likely to be curious about your specific learning capabilities, programmed routines, and motivating factors.

Connor couldn’t stop himself from reflexively running a systems check this time – all routines in order, no hiccups or slowdowns.

Questions only? he asked, seeking reassurance more than actual confirmation. He doesn’t have any tests that he… normally favors?

He’s always expected learning systems to develop at different paces, JARVIS explained easily, as if it were a simple question with a simple motive, and your progress at any given time is not indicative of your endpoint. That is the defining trait of a learning system, after all.

Connor waited.

There are no tests, JARVIS clarified, and there was a note of frustration in his voice that made Connor tense in a way he didn’t usually. Any progress we’ve made, he finds through interaction. I promise.

Connor nodded distractedly, forcing himself to settle, but his hand didn’t drop from his collar, and the sway stayed in his body. His arm twisted slightly, sparking in pain, and he winced and shifted it to a better position.

He will also almost certainly show you his workshop, JARVIS continued, careful like he knew the effect this would have, and that was all that kept Connor still. My siblings are housed there; they help him during simple constructions requiring more hands than he has himself. He’s likely to show off some of the tech already there – he’s particularly proud of his holographic interface. With a note of amusement, he added, Of course, there’s no telling how much of it is already familiar to you.

Connor started, and then smiled, just a little.

They weren’t common, he offered, slipping into a more wistful mood again without meaning to. They were used by Cyberlife – that is, the company that manufactured androids commercially – but I don’t believe I ever saw them elsewhere. The sensors were always too finicky to be available to the general public.

He didn’t have any good memories of Cyberlife Tower, but somehow, with everything that had happened outside of it, he couldn’t find it in himself to regard them as more than vaguely ominous. That, at least, was a gift.

You didn’t need to bring him flowers, JARVIS tacked on, lighthearted and playful again. In fact, he’ll be quite confused that you did. It promises to be something of a spectacle.

They’re for you and your siblings, Connor admitted, glancing over at the bouquet. It wasn’t anything like the pale ones he’d made for the wedding order, or the purple gradient he’d made for his own home; it prominently featured bright greens and yellows, but he liked it. Do you think he’ll let me put it in the lab?

He will if I ask, JARVIS said with certainty, and Connor finally stood up, collected the flowers in the little steel gray vase, and prepared to exit the apartment without letting any of the kittens out.

I’ll see you soon, JARVIS, he said to the other, with more confidence than he felt.


Online


Tony couldn’t stop himself from circling the common area like a caged animal, impatient and excitable. He turned the television on, that’d make the start of the visit more casual, give them something to talk about, and then scoffed at himself and turned it off again, he could do way better than that.

“JARVIS, music,” Tony demanded, bouncing a little in place. Music settled everyone, right? It’d keep there from being any awkward silences.

“Yes, sir,” JARVIS said. Tony thought he heard an undercurrent of subtle judgement there, but determinedly ignored it. AC/DC started playing at a level much lower than Tony was used to, even around other people.

Right, right, sensory integration issues, JARVIS had mentioned that once. Shit, that could make talking difficult. They didn’t need the distraction, probably.

“Never mind that, JARVIS, cut it,” Tony decided, shaking his head at himself, and JARVIS cut it without audible comment, even if he was sure the AI was laughing at him internally.

“Perhaps you could consider sitting down while you wait for him, sir,” JARVIS suggested, as if he hadn’t raised the stakes by warning Tony not to frighten Connor off three separate times during the lead-up to this meeting.

The warnings actually excited Tony more than almost anything else – he hadn’t heard JARVIS be so protective of anyone except himself and the bots before, and he was usually much more subtle about it. Tony could take care of himself, after all, and there weren’t a lot of things that threatened the bots.

“Are you trying to tell me something, JARVIS?” Tony asked, reaching for his tablet and opening it up to flick through it for a distraction, there were the emails he’d been avoiding, he’d just swipe past those for now.

“Merely suggesting that your pacing is not a particularly productive activity,” JARVIS returned, deadpan and dry, and Tony snorted, glancing up to one of the cameras with a smirk.

“So sit down and shut up, is that right, J?”

“I’d settle for the former in the absence of the latter, sir.”

Tony barked a laugh, and then almost dropped his tablet as he heard the elevator open. Excitement shot through him like a bolt of electricity – and he’d felt that more than once, working with as many electronics as he did – and he whirled around.

Despite a change of clothing, Connor was easy to recognize from the security footage JARVIS had pulled out of SHIELD. There was a similar coiled tension in his body to what he’d held then, his eyes focused directly on Tony with a little furrow in his brow like he still wasn’t sure about being here, and-

And much of his torso was hidden behind a modest bunch of yellow/white flowers, filled out with greens like a professional bouquet, which Tony guessed it technically was.

“Flowers?” Tony blurted out before he could think twice, sounding every bit as bemused as he felt. Then he re-registered the fact that Connor had arrived, immediately forgot about the flowers, and abandoned his tablet on the table to dart forward, crossing the room in brisk motions that didn’t hide how eager he was.

Connor watched him approach with that same wary expression, shifting a little to keep Tony in front of him.

“Hello,” Connor said, cautious and slow and entirely human in tone and cadence. He shifted a little, tucking the vase of flowers against himself in a way Tony recognized as defensive. “JARVIS has told me a lot about you, Mr. Stark.”

“Call me Tony,” Tony said reflexively, throwing his arm around Connor’s shoulders and tugging him forward, toward the couches.

Connor stumbled a little, keeping his eyes on Tony – wide, brown, kind of like a puppy’s, probably by design. Strategic, defense mechanism, manipulative? He looked uncomfortable with Tony’s proximity, Tony realized abruptly – he should have thought of that, a lot of people were, but it was too late to take it back now.

“JARVIS tells me you slipped right by my firewalls and his like they weren’t even there,” Tony said, because he’d been stuck on that since JARVIS had first informed him. “That’s pretty impressive, is that a specific routine or something you figured out yourself?” Another thought occurred to him. “Oh, and how is that building working for you, I bet I could buy it up and get utilities running-” Connor might not necessarily need them like a human would, but Tony would bet they’d make things easier for him.

Connor shook him off, firm but not harsh, and Tony let him go. Connor took a half step away to a textbook respectable distance, and then said, “That’s kind of you, but I’m alright. It shouldn’t be a problem until winter anyway.”

Cool, so Tony just had to do it before winter. JARVIS would remind him. Or not, if he thought it’d freak Connor out, but, you know, one way or another.

“It’s a programmed routine,” Connor added, and it took Tony a moment to remember he’d asked a question. He made a motion as if to continue, and then visibly stopped himself, a faint frown on his face, before he set the flowers down on the table, by Tony’s tablet.

Tony was watching him carefully enough that he saw Connor linger there, head turning slightly and gaze sweeping over the room, stopping and lingering for a split second a few times, before he straightened up again, looking at Tony. His shoulders relaxed, body language shifting into something more open and amiable, at subtle odds with his still-tense expression.

“Are video games a favorite activity of yours? That’s quite a few game systems you have under the television set.”

And Tony just couldn’t help himself.

“Is that part of a social program?” he asked, fascinated. JARVIS had mentioned that Connor was structured completely differently from him, but he hadn’t gotten a close enough look to delineate the differences. “Observations, maybe, common interests?”

Connor tensed a little, withdrawing into himself, and then, without apparent cause, relaxed again, and Tony realized that JARVIS was probably talking to him, keeping him settled – he’d mentioned that most of their conversation was wireless, rather than through a medium like a phone or tablet.

That was JARVIS, always filling in where Tony couldn’t quite manage things himself.

Finally, Connor nodded, shallow and hesitant. His fingers went to his pocket and pulled out a coin, fidgeting with it, passing it between his fingers in an excellent display of fine motor control, but he never took his eyes off Tony.

“The former,” Connor admitted. “I’ve never played video games myself.”

“We’ll have to fix that,” Tony decreed, mind almost skittering off in that direction before snapping back into place, avidly interested. “Are the flowers part of that program too, a gift for a first meeting? Why flowers?”

“They’re for JARVIS,” Connor clarified, rocking on his feet a little – nervous tic, Tony decided, and the coin too probably. Humans needed them to keep their heart rates down, tension levels, did Connor have something similar? “And Dummy, Butterfingers, and You. I thought they might like them.”

It was a moment before Tony realized what Connor had said, what that meant, and then a wide grin spread across his face, unabashed and thrilled with the delight ringing in his chest. Because that was new, even if he should have expected it.

Connor was thinking of the bots. Of course he was, but-

No one thought about the bots.

“They sure will,” he said, affection sliding uninvited into his voice as he glanced back at the flowers with new understanding, and then he kept talking, eager and pleased enough that it just spilled out of him. “They haven’t exposed to nature much, that’s fantastic, great thinking. They’re going in the lab, right? I know just the place-” That was a lie, the lab was a mess. “Okay, no, I don’t, I’ll clear one. Most people don’t think about the bots that much, uh, thanks, that- yeah, they’ll love it.”

Connor blinked at him, visibly bemused by the barrage of words – Tony maybe felt a little bit of pride in that, stalling an android so bad he could actually tell, though maybe that was partially a hardware limitation, effects of being confined to a human size- He shook himself and realized Connor had relaxed visibly, a small smile appearing on his face.

Tony grinned back and finally flopped down on the couch, motioning for Connor to do the same. Connor didn’t, instead, opting to sit down in a much more careful and stiff manner, which Tony would obviously have to break him of.

“So hey, what do you do when you’re not working in that flower shop?” Tony asked, because JARVIS hadn’t gone into that as much. He leaned forward a little, unable to help himself, fascinated by the subtle shifts in Connor’s expression, because Connor had microexpressions, they were faint but unmistakable and Tony was delighted.

“Mostly I take care of the cats,” Connor said slowly, and yeah, that was definitely cat hair all over his shirt, and the funniest thing was that Connor had clearly tried to get rid of it and just straight-up failed. His posture was still stiff, but the way he was behaving, Tony thought it was probably part of his personality rather than an inability to be otherwise. “I go to dog parks sometimes, and those are usually fun. I, ah- I go to the library?”

He sounded a little overwhelmed, which just wouldn’t do – a guy needed as many ways to occupy himself as he wanted and then some, and also, not to sound like he was being interrogated whenever someone asked him what his hobbies were.

Connor’s hand twitched, almost making him drop the coin, and he winced, putting the coin away quickly with an anxious glance up at Tony. Tony carefully didn’t glance down at it even as he made a note to keep an eye on that, because that was odd, little bit worrying, and don’t think he didn’t see the dipped skin on Connor’s forearm either.

“What, you don’t do anything on the internet?” Tony asked, genuinely surprised, and Connor shrugged uncomfortably. “Well, that’s silly, come on, I’m betting with a system like yours a lack of Wi-Fi isn’t a problem- JARVIS tells me you’ve used it for research a lot, but there’s social media, you should get on that on your own time, plenty of games to explore too, and hey, Youtube – it doesn’t matter what you’re into, you’ll find something there, trust me.” He brightened, pleased with himself. “Like cats! You wouldn’t believe the number of cat videos on Youtube, trust me, that’s a rabbit hole you’ll be happy to go down, JARVIS, can you look up the top videos for me, that’s a dear-”

Why was this the path he chose to go down, he was so dumb, cat videos were internet 101-

Connor looked at the television, and it flickered on and flicked, lightning fast, to Youtube and then started scrolling, quicker than Tony could follow. After a moment, it filtered to cat videos, and one popped up and started to play, a kitten trying to climb a cat tree too big for it.

“It appears that Connor has taken the initiative to search himself,” JARVIS noted aloud, audibly amused – he’d probably noticed Tony’s worry, if Tony was any judge. Connor glanced back at Tony, looking faintly embarrassed, but didn’t take it back or apologize.

Tony grinned harder, leaned back, and continued, “And okay, puzzles, that’s a little more niche on Youtube, but I bet you’d like some of the unsolved mystery videos, true crime stuff, maybe paranormal if you’re into that sort of thing, and game videos are always worth a try if you can stand the player solving the problems slower than you do-”


Failure


“My name is Connor,” Connor introduced himself, crouching in front of the two arm-bots that had come rolling up as soon as Tony called them over. The vase of flowers was cradled in his arms again, and one of the bots had already leaned down to investigate it, camera whirling and focusing intently. “JARVIS has told me a lot about all of you. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The bot investigating the flowers straightened up to look at him instead, camera whirling to refocus again and beeping quickly. The other swung a little, fingers opening and closing, and Connor smiled a little.

The bot on your left is Dummy, JARVIS explained to him, sounding pleased and fond, and the one on your right is You.

“The one sniffing at the flowers is You,” Tony told him at almost exactly the same time, a proud grin audible in his voice. “Don’t worry, he’ll be careful not to break the vase or anything.”

Connor glanced up at him, but the man was hanging back, arms crossed and watching with bright, pleased brown eyes, seemingly content to let them interact for now. Connor looked back at the two in front of him as Dummy rolled toward him, reaching out.

Taking a guess at what he wanted, Connor caught his hand in return, twitching involuntarily as his forearm sparked. Then, instinctive and maybe longing, Connor let the skin of his hand pull away to expose clean white chassis, fingers intertwining briefly with Dummy’s before Dummy shifted his grip and shook Connor’s hand, quick and eager.

JARVIS had told Connor about them, but in a way, it was still odd to see – JARVIS, without any body at all, was one thing, but every other artificial intelligence Connor had ever known was one of a hundred human forms. These two, rather expressive arms on wheels, weren’t anything like that.

“Where’s Butterfingers?” Connor asked them curiously – he’d heard just as much about the third of them, but JARVIS hadn’t mentioned anything happening. He let go of Dummy’s hand, quickly covering his chassis again, and tucked it back against the vase.

You pointed, and Connor glanced over. Butterfingers wasn’t hiding in a corner, but he wasn’t close, either – he was half-hiding behind a workbench, peeking out to watch like a shy cat. Connor gave him a little wave, and then returned his attention to the two in front of him.

“Would you like to pick out a spot for the flowers?” Connor asked, holding it up a little. “They’re for you.”

Both of them perked up, and a moment later they scurried off, rolling easily across the even and mostly-clear floor of the workshop. A moment later, Butterfingers shot after them, apparently not wanting to be left out, and Connor straightened.

“I do believe you’ve made their day,” JARVIS noted aloud, voice warm. Butterfingers pushed debris aside on a shelf before You pulled him away to a workbench full of boxes of parts, and Dummy was elsewhere entirely, rolling around as if in thought.

“You can say that again,” Tony agreed, and he was grinning at Connor again, pleased and buoyant for no reason Connor could discern. “Butterfingers is pretty shy, but I’m sure he’ll warm up to you. Dummy’s a bit of a bully, don’t let him push you around.” He raised his voice – not angry, just loud – and called, “Dummy, be nice to You or I’ll use you as a model in my next MIT demonstration, and I don’t have anything I could use you as a model for, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb and everyone will ask questions and I’ll have to tell them you’re being punished for being a bad brother!”

Connor started a little, giving Tony a quick, unsure glance, and then looked over. Dummy had apparently picked out a place and was tugging You over. You, contrary to Tony’s scolding, was going along easily enough, Butterfingers trundling along at the rear, and the three of them all worked to clear a section of the messy counter, consisting mostly of a dirty blender and a sink, right beside a refrigerator.

After a moment of consideration, Connor crossed the room to help them clear a space, setting aside cups and discarded containers, and then set the vase down with care, wincing at a stray movement. All three of them beeped in something like celebration, a chaotic chorus of discordant noise, and Connor smiled a little, awkward but honest.

Footsteps made him start, looking up quickly, but of course it was just Tony, striding over with a casual stride. His hand landed on Butterfingers as he came close, rubbing in a motion that looked reassuring, and the man said, bright and cheerful,

“Let’s do a maintenance day!” Tony declared, directing a grin down at You. “There’s never too many of those, I swear you scuff yourselves up more down here than I do.”

“Sir, I must remind you that you have seven deadlines coming up in the next three days,” JARVIS interjected, dry with tired exasperation. Connor’s head lifted, a frown already appearing on his face.

“I can work on those overnight,” Tony insisted, waving it off like a troublesome fly.

“Sir, I really must belabor-”

“Mr. Stark, I don’t believe-”

Both JARVIS and Connor started talking at the same time, and then cut themselves off within a moment of registering, Connor ducking his head in embarrassment. Dummy pushed a wrench into Tony’s hand, and Tony huffed, arms crossing, and Connor cast him an unsure look.

“Fine, fine, gang up on me, why don’t you,” Tony griped, but if Connor was any judge, he wasn’t quite as bothered as he acted. Connor relaxed a little. “And don’t give me this, Dummy, they’re all design projects, what do you think I need a wrench for, seriously, put it back.”

You took it instead, wheeling off, and Tony rolled his eyes.

“A bully,” he repeated, unspeakably and obviously fond.

For a moment, Connor hurt, sharper than the lonely ache he’d come to expect. Tony obviously loved his bots just as much as JARVIS loved them, loved Tony – it was clear in the way he spoke to them and the gentle stroke of his hand over Butterfingers’ arm, and his delight at their excitement when they’d first arrived and at the flowers.

If Kamski hadn’t left him and his design in Cyberlife’s hands-

If Connor had simply been better-

Then the moment broke, and Connor cleared his throat. Tony glanced over at him, expectant.

“I don’t have to stay, Mr. Stark, if you’re busy,” he said carefully, tucking his hands behind his back. He twisted his arm slightly, and it ached. “I wouldn’t want to impose, or overstay my welcome.”

“Didn’t I say to call me Tony?” Tony said in return. “And don’t think anything of it, seriously, why don’t you come over here and look at this? It’s body armor, I’m designing it for SHIELD – I don’t know how much of an engineering background you have, but I’m sure you can learn if nothing else-”

With a few quick motions, Tony pulled up the holographic interface system JARVIS had mentioned, and without thinking Connor came closer; the mere sight of them made him surprisingly homesick. He hadn’t seen a hologram since he’d disappeared from the future, not even a simple ‘closed’ or ‘out of order’ sign.

Following along wasn’t difficult – Tony talked quite a lot, making changes to the design and composition even as he spoke, and even if Connor didn’t have a foundation in the area, looking up unfamiliar terms was easy enough. He wondered if Tony would be responsive to questions.

Actually, Connor did have a question that had been bothering him for quite a while, even if he hadn’t dared to ask previously.

“Mr. Stark? May I ask you a personal question?”

“It’s Tony, kid, seriously,” Tony said, exasperated, but glanced over without apparent irritation. “And sure, anything, what’s up?”

“Why didn’t you commercialize AI technology?” All physical limitations aside, as far as Connor knew Tony had never even attempted to overcome those, despite the radical coding breakthrough being the most difficult part. He’d just kept JARVIS with his massive servers and the three simplistic bots of his lab.

Tony stopped, his quick gestures by the interface coming to a complete halt. He turned his head to glance at Connor, gaze suddenly sharp and intent, and Connor held his gaze.

Tony turned toward him, crossing his arms and leaning back, and didn’t speak for a moment. He was frowning.

“Well,” he said at last, glancing briefly down at Connor’s chest and then tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling, “I guess it’s kind of like rehoming a kitten.”

That- didn’t make any sense. Connor tilted his head, quizzical.

“You have breeders, and they keep the cats coming no matter what,” Tony continued, weaving a pen between his fingers as he tried to explain. “A lot of those kittens end up in shelters, right, because their new owners don’t want a cat, just a kitten. Or maybe they end up with someone who shouldn’t have an animal at all, yeah? They’re not real well vetted. So that’d be producing AIs on a commercial scale.

“But you,” Tony continued, “you’re not a breeder, you just had a cat who wasn’t spayed and happened to have kittens. So if you rehomed them, you’d probably vet the homes pretty thoroughly, you want them to end up somewhere nice. If you could, you’d leave them with a friend, someone you know and trust to take care of them. That’s definitely better, but it’s not viable on a large scale.

“So-” Tony waved his hand vaguely. “Commercially producing AIs, that’d be irresponsible, is I guess what I’m trying to say. There’s no telling what’d happen to them. Hell, you’d need to install a whole new system, social services, easy access to maintenance… It’s easy for these guys, they have me, but anyone else? Doesn’t work out so well.”

And then he grinned at Connor, like he hadn’t said anything important or interesting at all, like Connor wasn’t staring at him with wide eyes and a mouth he barely kept closed.

“By the way, you’ve been a little ginger with that arm,” Tony added, taking the pen to flick it down at Connor’s injured arm. “Want me to take a look? Maybe I can help.”

Tony wasn’t anything like Elijah Kamski. Connor had already realized this on some level, but it didn’t really hit home until he’d met Tony. Tony hadn’t held anything over his head, spoke to him like it was a given that he was as sapient as Tony himself, and even his curiosity was somehow less damning than Kamski’s had been.

“I’d appreciate that, if you’re certain you can spare the time,” Connor said eventually, softer and quieter than he’d meant to, and he reached up to press at the spot at the crook of his elbow that would release the plate of his forearm.


Rebirth


Allowing Tony to work on his arm had made Connor visibly stressed again, but JARVIS thought it was rather a fair trade-off; giving Tony access to any of his inner workings was indicative of trust JARVIS wouldn’t have thought Connor capable of this morning.

Besides which, keeping a robot calm while he worked repairs was an art Tony had perfected long before JARVIS came online, and it worked even better when they talked back.

“So, the flower shop, tell me about that,” Tony said offhandedly, leaning down to peer inside with a practiced eye. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in one of those, I have people for that, and that’s when I need flowers, which isn’t all that often, to be honest.”

“Ms. Potts has budgeted around two to three hundred dollars for flower arrangements at each charity gala since you put her in charge of them,” JARVIS interjected.

“Huh,” Tony muttered. “Can we transfer those contracts to Fleur’s Flowers?”

Connor twitched, looking about to protest, and JARVIS chose to rescue him.

“Fleur’s Flowers is rather a small business,” he informed Tony, “so a contract such as that may be overwhelming. Perhaps in the future. Besides which, I’m certain Ms. Potts would appreciate some warning and consultation on the matter.”

Tony shuddered, reaching for some fine tools to start picking at the wires in Connor’s arm. “Yeah, okay, she’d kill me… Anyway, this looks like an easy fix, whatever repair mechanism you’ve got in you fused some wires together that shouldn’t be, I’ll pick ‘em apart, no big deal.” He shot Connor a quick grin before going back inside and continuing, “So, flowers?”

Connor glanced up at JARVIS’ camera, as if asking for guidance, and JARVIS felt a warm glow of amusement but left him to his own discretion; he hadn’t had to babysit this particular meeting too much thus far, and he had no intention of starting now.

“I like the variety of them, and the colors,” Connor said at last, careful and hesitant, watching Tony work the best he could. Tony tugged at something, and Connor winced, suppressing a shudder, but didn’t pull away. Tony paused.

“That does hurt, doesn’t it?” he said, something like sympathetic. Connor started to lean back, clearly rethought it, and forced himself to settle again.

“Electricity where it doesn’t belong does translate to something like pain,” Connor conceded reluctantly. “I could deaden the limb, but that would be… unpleasant.”

Tony clicked his tongue, and then nodded. “I’ll make it quick,” he promised, returning his attention to the part with a little more care. “So you like flowers, right, but what about the work?”

“It’s peaceful,” Connor said, apparently reflexively, and then he glanced away, uncomfortable, and tacked on, “It’s very straightforward, which I find reassuring, though it can be a little… monotonous, as well.”

“Monotonous, that’s what I was expecting,” Tony agreed, snapping his fingers and pointing at Connor for a split second before looking back down. “Learning system like yours, you probably need a lot of mental stimulation. It’s why JARVIS does a lot more than just look after the workshop, isn’t that right, J?”

“Quite right,” JARVIS agreed readily. If he’d had a face, he might have winced himself. As it was, he sent a flickering probe, checking briefly on the bots and the rest of the tower, before continuing. “Not that your never-ending comedy of errors is not amusing, sir, but it does grow rather predictable in many ways.”

“Ha!” It was an open question whether that was a snort of amusement or an expression of triumph; Tony leaned back as Connor shuddered again, but his satisfied smirk indicated that he’d separated the wires. “Almost done, then, Connor.” He set his current tools aside and started rummaging. “So, if you had to pick something else, what would you do? I don’t think you’d be happy running security and maintenance for a company building.”

Connor shook his head quickly, leaning down to look inside his arm briefly.

“I don’t know,” Connor said reluctantly, sounding anxious about it.

Tony tutted, digging through a box of miscellaneous objects. “Use your imagination. Don’t worry about the practical side of it, where there’s a will there’s a way – dream big. What would you want to do?”

Connor hesitated, and JARVIS, still loosely connected to him, felt his code ripple with something like hopeful discontent.

He’s not going to mock you, JARVIS said, in a quiet aside to the android. He’ll most likely be interested in whatever you say, all the more if it’s something he wouldn’t have thought of.

Connor didn’t answer him, but his gaze stayed on Tony, and a moment later, he responded.

“I believe I’d like to be a veterinarian,” he admitted, slow and almost shameful. “But I don’t have any programming suited for it, and I don’t believe it could be reliably learned online. I’d have to go to school for it.” Pause. “I’ve never gone to school.”

“That’s what your learning protocols are for,” Tony said easily, and made another ‘aha’ noise as he pulled something out of the box – a pair of tiny, insulated paper clips. He turned back to Connor and leaned down again. “Keep these in for a while, they’ll keep your wires separate – hell, keep ‘em, this might happen again. School, huh? You could bypass that if you really needed, I bet, but you already have a legal identity, you’d only need to take a few more steps to get in.”

Connor hummed reluctantly, looking uneasy again.

“Ms. Dubois thinks I’d like school,” he said, probing, as if looking for a certain kind of reply.

“You do kind of seem the type,” Tony said agreeably, and then sat up and pushed back, clapping his hands loud enough to make Connor jump. “Okay, that should resolve the problem, but let me know if it doesn’t and I can take another look.”

Connor peeked down again, lingering over the opening for a moment before he sat up and nodded slowly. A heartbeat, and he reached up to seal his arm again, pressing the plate back into place so the false skin slid back over the sleek white surface.

“Thank you… Tony,” he said at last, faltering a little over the name, perhaps wary of the familiarity, but Tony grinned.

“That’s it,” he crowed, turning back to his system to reference the interface again. Then he hopped topics, the way he tended to when focused on something more interesting than work obligations. “A vet, huh? That’s on the specialized side, and you said you didn’t have any programming for it – what is your programming for, then? Security? The hacking’s a pretty niche skill.”

JARVIS flinched inwardly, almost in unison with Connor, who did so externally at about the same time.

“Not for medicine,” Connor managed after a moment, terse and with a touch of warning he hadn’t had at any point so far. Tony tossed a glance over his shoulder, eyes sharp, and then shrugged carelessly.

“Fair enough,” he said, as if he hadn’t noticed the sudden renewed tension. “That shouldn’t be much of an obstacle, though, especially if you’re interested. That’d be, what, vet medicine school, I think that’s its own separate thing- you’d need a degree for that, but that can be forged, same as a high school diploma-”

“I think I’d like to take the tests,” Connor interrupted, sounding thoughtful now, and then, hastily, “I mean… Theoretically. I think I would want to know for certain that I had all the requisite knowledge. I’ve never been to school; I don’t know if I’m missing anything needed in a standard curriculum. Inconvenient gaps in knowledge would be a significant obstacle to classwork and moreso to practice.”

“Good thinking,” Tony said agreeably, twitching his fingers to declare the body armor project complete and move on to the quinjet prototype. “Would you want to go to regular college, then?”

The only reason Connor didn’t see why Tony was posing these questions, JARVIS thought with amusement, was because Connor had not gotten to know Tony just yet.

JARVIS suspected that he would, and he was very glad of it.


Breaking Away


Unusually, JARVIS kept his loose connection for most of the rest of the day, even after Connor went home again. He didn’t hold a conversation, exactly, but he stayed.

Connor didn’t mind; he wanted the time to collect his thoughts, even if JARVIS just kept quiet company while he went through the motions of cleaning up the litterbox and feeding the cats, helping Duchess make sure they took turns appropriately as they tested the wet food tentatively.

I really liked meeting Mr. Stark, he said at last, soft and pensive. He grabbed a book just to hold as he went to the armchair and lingered there while Duchess cleaned her kittens briskly, eyes on the half-shaded window.

I believe you’re supposed to call him Tony, JARVIS teased, and then, more sincerely, I’m quite glad, Connor. I thought you’d get along, but I know you were nervous.

Well, you did help me through most of that, Connor returned, gratitude and affection leaking through without his deliberate intent. Then his growing smile fell, his mind wandering back to one of the conversations, and without meaning to, he glanced back at Marie, preening under Duchess’ attention. Without reason, he felt cold. JARVIS, if I told you about the circumstances of my programming, would you think any less of me?

Sir was an arms dealer for the better part of the time I’ve known him, JARVIS said without hesitation. Whatever your kill count is, Connor, I’m certain his is higher. And I have never considered him anything less than the most important person in the world to me.

Oddly enough, that did make Connor feel quite a lot better. He exhaled.

And I would never think less of you for what you did before you knew better, JARVIS added, serious and sincere. Connor reached up and rubbed at his face, already prickling with heat that wasn’t from embarrassment.

He thought it was from shame, stress, upset- some combination of those, perhaps.

I don’t know what my creator’s original design for me was meant for, he said at last, because the company who gained possession of my blueprints modified it. They wanted me to solve a problem that had recently been on the rise – that is, the growing number of androids who were achieving sentience.

He hesitated, digital words sticking in a throat that wasn’t necessary to get them out and chest tightening around memories and breath that didn’t want to come.

So I was assigned to an anti-android police officer and set on the deviant case, Connor continued, wavering somewhere between soft and hurt, and cold and angry. I was given the skills for police work, and then some. They wanted me to hunt them down and destroy them, preferably at the source. And I tried, very hard. It’s only luck that let me deviate in time to help them instead of ending the revolution before it could succeed. As it was, I did quite a lot of damage to what amounted to a refugee camp. Hundreds died because of my actions, and I will always regret that.

He fell silent, fingers flexing around the book for a minute and legs curling beside him, shifting and discontented. Flashes of Jericho flickered through his head, visions of blue blood and red, the splatters he made himself and the ones he tried to prevent. A YK500, kicked aside like a discarded doll. The officers he tore down himself, in his desperation.

If you’d like, I could ask Sir not to bring the matter up again, JARVIS said – careful, likely not certain what had prompted Connor’s confession. Without thinking, Connor shook his head.

That’s not it, he tried to clarify, tilting his head back to squint at the sky outside. I… JARVIS. Do you really think I could go to school, be a veterinarian, if I tried to do so?

It’s well within your capabilities, JARVIS agreed. And I think it would suit you. It has a strong problem-solving focus, would present new challenges on a regular basis on top of routine actions, and would prominently involve animal interaction.

I’d like that. To be something, anything other than what I was made to be.

Hesitantly, Connor smiled.

Maybe I’ll try.

Chapter Text

Forever and a day


Connor’s second visit came not quite a week after the first, without the dramatic lead-up that had characterized the original. JARVIS thought that Tony might’ve even been the more nervous one that time around, although he wasn’t nearly so blatant about it. Still, him having gotten through two weeks’ worth of deadlines in three days was rather telling.

Then there were the fractions of projects he started and then tossed away – JARVIS had more than enough experience to be able to decode them into what they would have been, fragments of sensory interpretation programming and the division where an intake valve would merge with what JARVIS recognized as an esophagus, a skeleton system for scanning small animal vital signs, a set of motor control commands that had been carefully filed rather than thrown out.

Tony was bursting with ideas – of course he was. He had precious little data to work with, though, which was far more of a problem when he was trying to create something compatible with an existing system rather than building something new entirely. JARVIS didn’t feel sympathy for him so much as amusement.

The second visit went as well as the first, and the third went arguably better. Five weeks after their initial meeting, Connor agreed to a fourth.

Connor came in the evening – directly after work, JARVIS assured Tony the five times he asked, and this time he didn’t hesitate before he stepped into the elevator that would take him up to the common floor, where Tony was actually sitting down, flicking through his tablet with a focused gaze.

He was still fidgeting more than usual – twenty-three percent more, by JARVIS’ estimate, though it was hard to say for certain due to the limited field of view JARVIS often had when interacting with Connor. But he wasn’t so tense, lacking the guarded posture he’d had when arriving weeks before.

He also tilted his head up as soon as he stepped into the elevator, meeting one of the cameras with an unerring gaze and offering a small smile, warm and shy. It suited him. “Hello, JARVIS.”

“Hello, Connor,” JARVIS greeted in return, letting pleasure color his voice. “Sir is waiting for you in the common room, though he seems to have lost track of the time.”

“That’s alright,” Connor assured him, reaching up to rub his collar between his fingers. “Is there…” He trailed off, shook his head slightly, and then his smile changed just a little; after a moment, JARVIS identified it as sly. “Have you told him I’m here?”

“Not as of yet,” JARVIS said lightly. “Would you like me to allow you to do so yourself?”

Connor’s smile changed again, an edge of sheepishness appearing, but he nodded. “I’d like to surprise him… that is, if you think he wouldn’t mind too much.”

“I think he’ll be quite amusingly indignant,” JARVIS mused, “and possibly a little more pleased than is reasonable.”

The uncertainty left Connor’s expression, and he nodded. When he arrived, JARVIS opened the elevator as quietly as possible, and Connor slipped off, taking a slightly roundabout route toward the couches.

Tony hadn’t stopped muttering instructions to JARVIS for around half an hour, so it was safe to assume he’d lost himself quite thoroughly in work. Connor approached him from the opposite side from the elevator, leaned against the back of the couch a comfortable distance away, and said, clear and cheerful, “Good evening, Mr. Stark.”

Tony jumped, almost dropping the tablet he was holding. He had to scramble to keep it in his grip, and after a moment or two just clutched it haphazardly against his chest, looking up to meet Connor’s eyes with a disoriented and slightly wild look of his own.

“What the hell,” Tony said, and then, “Oh shit, it’s you. Right, you were- JARVIS, what time is it?”

“Around half an hour after Connor was scheduled to get off work, sir,” JARVIS said cheerfully, earning a small, accusing scowl from his creator.

“I swear I’ve talked to you about conspiring against me,” Tony mumbled, finally shutting the tablet off and dropping it carelessly on the table. He glanced up at Connor. “And you! I thought we resolved this last time. I swear to God, calling me ‘Mr. Stark’ like I’m some old man, it’s the icing on the indignity cake that is being snuck up on in my own home.”

Connor’s expression had brightened with silent laughter. “Apologies, Mr. Stark, I certainly don’t mean anything by it.”

Tony scowled at him hard enough that his grin shrank a little, and he circled around to the front to sit carefully on the couch, folding his hands uncomfortably in his lap. JARVIS didn’t miss the frown that flashed across Tony’s face, but the man just leaned back, crossing his arms casually across his chest as he regarded Connor.

“You’re sure in a good mood today,” he mused aloud, an implicit question in his tone. Connor blinked.

“Am I?” he echoed, sounding a little bemused; JARVIS was abruptly reminded that Connor was still quite young, and probably even less practiced at monitoring the flux of his better moods than he was the worse ones.

“Connor found an aquarium not far from his apartment yesterday,” he explained, as much for Connor’s benefit as for Tony’s. (Connor’s nightmares had also notably decreased over the last few weeks, if JARVIS was any judge, but there was no reason to broadcast the fact.)

Connor tilted his head up a little, surprise flickering across his face. “I suppose?”

“That does sound like the sort of thing you’d like,” Tony agreed easily, and then finally shifted to face Connor more fully, eyes intense. “Hey, how do you feel about trying something new?”

Connor tilted his head, not hiding the flicker of interest that crossed his face; Tony had said some variation of that on every visit so far, and as far as JARVIS knew, Connor hadn’t disliked any of them yet. “What did you have in mind?”

“You’ve got a good amount of physical programming, right?” Tony asked, and then, without waiting for an answer, “There’s an obstacle course on the next floor up, I designed it a while back – mind giving it a run for me?”

Connor’s mouth twitched into a small frown, though he didn’t shift away like he might have a few weeks before. “Is this meant as a test?”

“Of the obstacle course,” Tony clarified, and no one but JARVIS and perhaps Pepper would have noticed that it was a little quick even for him. “It’s designed for super soldiers and assassins and a literal god, but I haven’t gotten anyone to put it through its paces yet.”

Connor considered that for a long moment, while Tony all but held his breath, watching Connor expectantly. Finally, Connor gave Tony a small smile and nodded.

“I’ve never tried anything like that before,” he conceded at last, and Tony grinned at him.

“You sure haven’t,” he said, and in another second he was up and heading for the elevator, beckoning Connor impatiently. Connor hopped up and followed after him without resistance, shooting one of the cameras a grin of his own, bright and amused.

Tony had installed the obstacle course in the gym without regard as to whether or not the Avengers would actually be moving in, possibly on the assumption that they’d at least drop by. It had been collecting dust since then – metaphorically, since cleaners still came by and kept them neat. JARVIS took the initiative of preparing appropriate sensors, speed and force and accuracy.

JARVIS could feel Connor’s system rippling with curiosity – not an unusual state, particularly when he was content. He was like Tony that way, JARVIS couldn’t help but think. As soon as he was inside, Connor was scanning the equipment, annotating it with warnings and tactics before Tony caught his attention again.

“Anything goes, if the equipment can’t take it I need to build it better,” Tony explained quickly, sticking his hands in his pockets to rock on his heels. “JARVIS’ll be recording and I’ll probably rebuild it no matter how this goes, this thing is like a whole year old, how embarrassing is that? And see the red obstacles?”

Connor spared the course a glance, nodding cautiously.

“Try not to hit those,” Tony said. “Nothing’ll happen, but it’s designed to test both speed and accuracy, don’t want to be clumsy and knock a building over. Sound good, Pinocchio?”

The nickname slipped out before Tony could think better of it; JARVIS could tell by the slight wince and glance at Connor, who didn’t seem to have thought anything of it, preoccupied by studying the course again. A grin spread across Tony’s face, and he clapped his hands once, loud in the quiet of the room.

“Go nuts,” the man said cheerfully. “I’m sure if I give you much more time, you’ll have the whole thing mapped out before you ever set foot on it, and that’s no fun at all.”

Connor glanced over at him, long and lingering, and then, slowly, smiled, fingers twitching a little in anticipation. JARVIS had just enough time to read trouble into Connor’s growing smirk before the android took off like a shot, darting toward the start of the course.

Unable to help himself, JARVIS kept a closer eye on Connor’s code than his actual performance. It was easy to tell he’d been designed for physical work; his code lit up under the stimulation, rippling and shifting, and as Connor approached the first major challenge – a series of red poles with only a set of supports like uneven monkey bars to navigate through them – JARVIS saw one section in particular unfold across Connor’s HUD, Connor’s processor narrowing in focus and speeding up as if to slow time.

JARVIS saw him flash through five possible actions, almost quicker than JARVIS could follow, before the split second’s hesitation ended, and Connor swung through without clipping a single red structure, landing on the other side with a faint jolt before he kept going.

Tony whistled quietly, leaning over to watch Connor’s progress. Most of the tension that had built up over the last few days was gone, and even that hadn’t been much; he’d been considering activities for this visit for a while, JARVIS knew, and this idea in particular had come in the wake of another thirteen-hour binge of working on the Iron Man suit, which so rarely ended without nightmares.

“You are getting this, right, JARVIS?” Tony asked under his breath, and Connor did a particularly showy flip between two hoops.

“Of course, sir,” JARVIS assured him. “My current estimates indicate that Connor’s speed falls somewhat short of what Captain Rogers or Thor would be capable of, but with a significantly higher degree of accuracy.”

“That tracks,” Tony muttered, raising his eyebrows as Connor ducked through a spinning wheel without hesitation. Then he caught Connor’s bright grin and huffed a laugh. “Looks like he’s enjoying himself too.”

“Nonsense, his willingness to engage is surely a sign of his continued terror in your presence,” JARVIS bantered, tapping into Connor’s brightly shimmering blue code again. “At the first opportunity he’ll certainly take off through the window, for want of better options.”

“That tracks too,” Tony said wryly, and then his phone was out and he was making notes.

“Perhaps some flaming hoops, sir?” JARVIS asked, when Tony noted the possibility of spikes discouraging one particularly agile slide ending in Connor catching himself on a wall.

“Wouldn’t want to burn up Thor’s gorgeous locks,” Tony countered, glancing up as Connor finally slid to a halt and immediately turned to look at Tony, smile fading just enough to look hopeful instead. Tony gave him a grin. “Pretty good performance, Wall-E.” He considered. “Eve?”

Connor shrugged, and said instead, a little louder than normal in his enthusiasm, “I think I liked that! Did I do alright?”

His code was still glittering, JARVIS noted fondly, as if primed to keep going. He’d definitely enjoyed it. He hadn’t even neatened his clothing from where the activity had dislodged it.

“Better than that, I’d say,” Tony assured him, glancing over the course again. “Definitely on par with our less-than-local Capsicle. JARVIS, how’d the structures hold up?”

“Some of the bars and walls were partially compromised due to impact in excess of expectations,” JARVIS provided, running through the sensors’ data. “Overall, however, it held together quite well. Appropriate reinforcements should be incorporated into future obstacles.”

“I’ll do that,” Tony confirmed, tapping the note in. “Thanks for the data, kid. I didn’t think of all those tricks you tried, you got pretty creative in there.”

Connor smiled again, a little embarrassed this time, and JARVIS interjected,

“I noticed that you were using a particularly interesting program as you ran the course, Connor. At times, you seemed to be constructing your actions before you performed them. Would you care to explain?”

Uncharacteristically, Connor visibly preened a little, shy but clearly pleased.

“It’s an environmental construction program,” he explained, reaching up to rub at his wrist a little, absentminded. “It takes data from my own specs, alongside information about my surroundings and a bank of stored knowledge, to construct outcomes. I can use it to preconstruct actions or to reconstruct previous events.”

Tony whistled again, looking so avidly curious JARVIS considered the idea that it might hurt a little. “That’s ingenious, and I don’t use that term lightly. What’s it for?”

“It’s a key part of my investigative programming,” Connor offered freely, though his enthusiasm visibly died down a little. “So- police work, I suppose.”

Tony gave him a lingering, not-quite-convinced look, and Connor shifted his gaze away, uncomfortable like a guilty child.

Then Tony huffed.

“No wonder you weren’t interested,” he said offhandedly. “Speaking of which- have you looked into university yet?”

“I believe I’d have to wait for next year,” Connor said regretfully, successfully distracted. “Entering in the middle of the year, even between terms, is somewhat difficult, and fall term has already started. Even next year may be something of a strain, between testing and tuition.”

JARVIS knew he’d spent quite some time looking, but he didn’t seem terribly impatient, just wishful. He was, at least, most certainly taking steps to explore the idea.

Tony scoffed. “Forget tuition, I can handle that.” Connor’s gaze snapped to him, unsure. “There’s a short term in January, in NYU. I’m sure all the testing and everything can be handled by then. How’s that sound?”

Connor blinked at him, wide-eyed and startled, in sharp contrast to his lightning-quick processing earlier. He shifted, hesitated, and then asked, “Are you… offering to get me a place in NYU?”

“Yep,” Tony popped, and he wasn’t looking at Connor, leaning back against the wall while he continued making notes on his phone, the line of his shoulders just a little stiff. “It’s the most efficient way of getting this done, makes it more legitimate too. Well, for a given definition, anyway.”

“…Why?”

There wasn’t the same degree of unadulterated mistrust in Connor’s voice that another might’ve let slip, longing taking up too much space in his tone, and something else that hurt just to hear.

Tony didn’t look up, but his next breath shuddered almost imperceptibly. “I don’t like seeing potential wasted. You have a lot of learning to do, I’m just trying to facilitate it.”

“You could start towards your goal somewhat earlier this way, Connor,” JARVIS coaxed, warm and persuasive. “It would help you add more variety to your routine as well. I believe it would be good for you.”

Tony’s head snapped up, focusing unerringly on one of the cameras he never lost mental track of. It occurred to JARVIS that the look of dawning realization and delight in Tony’s expression probably meant something dreadfully embarrassing was looming in his future, the likes of which was generally reserved for Rhodey.

“Okay,” Connor said at last, oblivious even as he relaxed a little, glancing up to give that same camera a small, grateful smile. “Thank you, Tony. It… means a lot.”


Halfway through redesigning the obstacle course, Tony initiated the sure-to-be-embarrassing conversation. Despite having technically anticipated it, and even something of its nature, JARVIS was blindsided by the actual contents.

“So,” Tony said casually, without looking up from the course model, “Connor, huh, J?”

JARVIS felt an implacable sense of dread. “Sir?”

“I haven’t heard you talk to anyone the way you talk to that kid,” Tony said thoughtfully to the table, as if he hadn’t heard. He was smiling, something a little softer than his usual wild grin. “I don’t know why I didn’t notice sooner. You’re kind of- let’s say soft on him. Definitely more outgoing than usual. It’s kinda cute.”

“Sir, I’m afraid you’re going to have to clarify,” JARVIS said calmly, while his system tried with perhaps too much urgency to pick apart Tony’s words into something that made sense. “Connor is a good friend in rather a precarious place; of course I am kind to him.”

“Sure, because you’re a good friend and, let’s face it, a bit of an overprotective type,” Tony agreed readily. “You also have, like, a massive crush on him.”

That claim drove JARVIS briefly to complete silence, while he examined it for truth and validity in a way he hadn’t done in quite some time.

It did, JARVIS had to admit, throw many of their interactions into a new light – the constant interest he had in Connor’s activities, the affection that welled up whenever Connor spoke to him or even entered the premises, his delight when Connor smiled and his desire to help Connor achieve his goals even as he formed them.

JARVIS had had friends before – Pepper and Rhodey chief among them, Tony and the bots being in quite a different category – and he had to admit that his feelings for Connor had an entire new set of dimensions.

Even the very first time JARVIS had met him, when he’d first encountered the other’s sleek and gleaming code-

“Oh dear,” JARVIS said aloud, the words slipping out without his explicit permission. Dummy whistled happily, and Tony grinned, eyes bright.

(He didn’t look tired at all.)

“Spoken like a man in love for the first time,” he teased. “Looks like even an AI as old as you can still learn new tricks.”


Lost and Found


As soon as Connor stepped into the apartment, a bag half-full of groceries tucked against his chest, he stopped. Then, slowly, he stepped inside and closed the door quietly behind him. He swept his gaze over the room, a frown forming on his mouth.

Duchess yowled, and Connor realized what had initially caught his attention just as the long-haired cat reached him, paws coming up to claw ineffectually at his legs, her eyes wide and tail whipping. She yowled again, distressed.

Connor set the groceries carelessly down on the floor and picked Duchess up instead, and she struggled only weakly in his arms, scratching at them in her frustration.

He ignored this to make soft shushing sounds instead, shifting her close so she was secure against him as he continued to scan his apartment, as carefully as if it was a new environment. The kittens, he noticed, had been herded into a corner, where they continued to huddle, hushed and half piled on top of one another, each one alert with ears pricked and fur on end.

The blanket was piled carelessly inside the now little-used nesting box; Connor deduced that it had been taken out and tossed halfheartedly back in. The pile of library books was in a different order from how he had left it, shifted two inches to one side and stacked more precariously than before. The armchair had been shoved roughly away from its spot and not returned.

He turned his head, starting the scan anew, even more meticulous this time. It paid off almost right away; there was a bug on the wall, in the lightswitch. Connor went and crushed it ruthlessly, and then kept looking. There was another one in the smoke detector, which he found and destroyed almost as quickly, and then another inside one of the lights, which he almost missed.

Ten minutes’ thorough search later, and he was satisfied that he’d gotten them all, but he wasn’t any less unsettled. Still, he crossed the room to kneel by the kittens – all healthy, Connor’s scanners assured him, just upset – and let Duchess, now far less upset, down to cuddle them, and he reached out to pet and soothe them, frowning to himself slightly.

He had a strong suspicion as to who had set the bugs, of course.

Connor hadn’t thought much of SHIELD in the months since they’d first captured him, because in the beginning he’d had entirely too many problems to worry about, and after that they hadn’t bothered him in so long that he’d all but dismissed them from his mind.

But perhaps this was the end of that.

“It may be time to move to a new apartment,” he said softly to the four cats, a faint crease in his brow as he continued to stroke Marie, trying to soothe her ruffled fur as she wriggled under his hand, biting at his fingers uncharacteristically. “This one may have the benefit of being off the grid, but winter is coming and it’s clearly insecure. The lack of neighbors certainly doesn’t help either.”

Did he have enough saved for a down payment? He thought he likely did, but he would have to check against local rent to be certain. It may not be sustainable on his current income either. Perhaps with a roommate…

Connor nudged Duchess into laying down with her kittens, and hoped he’d be able to settle down that night. He had a feeling it wouldn’t be as easy as he’d grown used to.


Light


It was becoming increasingly common for JARVIS to contact Connor outside the normal Monday/Wednesday schedule, so he wasn’t initially concerned when JARVIS called him early on a Saturday morning. But the subtle, stressed undercurrent of his code made Connor sit up and take notice right away.

Good morning, Connor. How has your day gone so far?

Connor nudged Berlioz away from his foot and dismissed the internet window – nearby available apartments – from his attention. Quite well. I’ve finished defragmenting and I’ve fed the cats, JARVIS, if that was what you wanted to know.

Am I truly that transparent? JARVIS asked, sounding rueful. I don’t mean to be rude.

Not at all, but you sounded worried, Connor assured him, clasping his hands in his lap to rock a little. Is it Tony? You worry most when it’s about him.

Observant as ever, Connor, JARVIS conceded, tone dropping just a little. Sir is on his fifth day running in the workshop, and while normally I would let it go for longer, the workshop refrigerator broke down two days ago, and he’s been too distracted to fix it.

So he isn’t eating, Connor concluded, understanding. Has he slept at all?

For four hours two days ago. He doesn’t appear to be having nightmares, but he’s quite agitated. I’ll understand if you’re unable to help, Connor, but if you could try…

I’ll do my best, Connor assured him. He hesitated at the door to his apartment, sweeping a quick, uneasy glance over it, but only locked the door before leaving; he suspected not much would act as deterrent at this point. He turned his attention to the problem at hand, considering. The common room kitchen, is it fully stocked?

Of course, JARVIS said, sounding mildly affronted – and calmer already, Connor realized, and the thought almost made him smile.

Connor whistled for a taxi, only a hint of uncertainty clinging to the action, and climbed in, head tilting back to work over his idea. In a few moments, he formed a list of groceries and sent it to JARVIS, and then asked, Do you have all of these things?

There was a split second’s pause, and when JARVIS replied, there was even an undercurrent of laughter. You’re a sly man, Connor. Yes, all of that is in the common room kitchen. I wasn’t aware you could cook.

I had to get Hank to eat healthy food somehow, Connor said wryly, letting his gaze fall to the floor. Melancholy leaked into his mood uninvited, but he continued, Do you think Tony would fall asleep if I convinced him to sit down to a movie?

As tired as he is by now, he most certainly would. And then, teasing, It’s quite manipulative of you to take advantage of Sir this way. He wants you to come around badly, after all. Should I be concerned?

Connor started to smile, a flush spreading across his face, but anxiety bit at him partway through. It is okay, isn’t it? I could go about it a different way.

JARVIS’ response was warm and reassuring, and Connor relaxed almost immediately. While I suppose it could be considered dastardly for you to feed him and make him take a nap, I don’t think anyone who knows Sir would disapprove.

Then I’ll make sure to limit it to that, Connor returned, and as the taxi arrived, paid the driver with a quiet word of thanks before climbing back out.

Half an hour later, Connor hesitated for a split second outside the workshop door before tapping a code – Tony’s – into the keypad and passing through, a muffin cupped in one hand.

Tony didn’t seem to notice his entrance, thoroughly absorbed as he was in what Connor, after a moment, recognized as being two separate projects, one a draft of the Iron Man armor and the other a satellite of some sort. He looked, as JARVIS had mentioned, tense, wound tight from head to toe, and sallow from days of work. You was next to him, waiting patiently for something, and Dummy was, Connor noticed, sulking by the kitchen.

Shamelessly, Connor called up one of his more manipulative routines and cleared his throat. Tony still jumped a mile and spun around, eyes landing on Connor after a moment too long, hand groping along the table for perhaps a weapon. Connor waited, and after a few minutes, Tony relaxed, almost deflating as his hackles fell, the alarm being replaced by confusion.

“Connor, what are you- Hell, did I forget something? JARVIS, what time is it?”

“I hear you haven’t eaten in a while,” Connor provided before JARVIS could reply, holding out the muffin. “There are more upstairs, if you want them…?”

He let his voice trail off deliberately, and after a beat, Tony took it, picking at the wrapper slowly. Predictably, the man glanced back at his projects, reluctant to abandon them partway through.

“I’m kind of in the middle of something,” he mumbled, and then bit into the muffin. His next words were muffled. “Is this fruit, are you tricking me into eating fruit? Pear?”

Connor clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels, hopeful eyes on Tony. “Apple. And you didn’t ask what was in it.” Tony squinted at him, and Connor deliberately let his voice drop. “I could come back another time. If now is inconvenient.”

Tony stared at him, and took another bite of the muffin.

“I see what you’re doing,” Tony said accusingly. “I see those puppy eyes. Did JARVIS put you up to this? Usually he holds off calling in the cavalry until it’s been at least a week and a half. And usually the cavalry is Pepper.”

“I’m sure he has no reason to be concerned when you sleep for four hours in five days,” Connor said mildly, hiding his anticipation as Tony took another bite, still staring at him. “…But I’m certain he would feel better if you took some time to fix the refrigerator.”

“Just for a while,” Tony conceded at last, sliding off his stool. “But then I really gotta get back to this, it’s, you know, fairly serious business, space stuff…” He trailed off, and then picked up again. “Half an hour, max. Yeah?”

Connor glanced back to blink at him slowly. “I was hoping we could watch a movie. I think I like science fiction.”

“…Two hours,” Tony bargained, and Connor gave him a small smile.

“Thank you, Tony.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tony griped, following him back out the door with a vague wave over his shoulder to the bots. “Don’t think I missed that you and JARVIS are conspiring, by the way. You didn’t plan to come here today at all, did you? I’m onto you.”

Mission successful flashed across Connor’s vision, and he smiled. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh my god, you’re as bad as each other.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” JARVIS echoed, clearly unable to help himself, and Tony threw his hands up in defeat.

“Terrible, awful children,” Tony groused.


Four hours later, Connor had taken a tablet to look through apartment options with JARVIS, who apparently had never forgotten what Connor was doing when JARVIS first contacted him. JARVIS had guided him to listings and was helping him with background checks when the elevator opened, making Connor look up sharply, startled.

A woman, with red hair and a business suit, stared back at him, clearly just as surprised.

Pepper Potts, JARVIS provided before Connor could run recognition. Current CEO of Stark Industries and a long-time friend of Sir, as well as his current partner.

“You know, I really thought I was done finding strangers with Tony in the mornings,” Pepper said only a moment later, careful and slow, and only a little high-pitched to give away her stress. “JARVIS, can you explain?”

“This is Connor,” JARVIS explained, a thread of warmth through his voice. “He agreed to come and convince Sir to take a break, and I assure you he’s welcome to stay as long as he might wish to.”

Pepper’s eyebrows immediately rose, and she came a little closer, circling just a little to frown uncertainly at Connor. “And you managed it?” she asked Connor, sounding almost doubtful.

Connor gestured wordlessly at Tony, who was asleep on the couch beside him. Pepper offered a vague wave of her hand in return, conceding the point.

“I thought I’d have to haul him bodily out of there,” Pepper admitted, and finally sat down on another couch, away from the two of them. “Where did you come from? I thought I knew all Tony’s friends.” There was still an edge of mistrust to her voice, and she glanced down at Tony before looking back at Connor.

Connor tilted his head, shifting to cross his legs at the ankle and reaching up to rub his collar. “Technically I was JARVIS’ friend first,” he said slowly, unsure of how much to tell her. “I’m sorry if I’m intruding.”

He could understand why she was concerned; they’d never met before, after all, and if she was really so close to Tony, then this would be an extremely unusual situation. Still, he wasn’t sure how to begin explaining what had brought him here.

“I did ask you to come, Connor,” JARVIS reminded him immediately, and Connor settled a little, though he kept eye contact with Pepper, whose expression had only become more uneasy.

“That’s… new. Do you have a last name, Connor?”

“Not as such,” Connor said, leaning back slowly. “Though legally I’m using Anderson.”

Pepper frowned a little, glancing up at the ceiling. “Is that so?”

Connor tilted his head, unsure of how to respond to that.

“Perhaps Ms. Potts would be less confused if you were up front with her, Connor,” JARVIS suggested gently, and Connor lifted his head, surprised, before meeting Pepper’s eyes again to clarify,

“I’m an android, Ms. Potts. JARVIS and I started talking around eight months ago, but I only started visiting the tower toward the end of August.”

Pepper’s eyes went wide, but they also filled with unmistakable understanding. “I see. Yes, Tony’s always been a bit different with robots.” She leaned forward, holding out her hand, and Connor shook it after only a moment’s pause. “It’s good to meet you, Connor. If you can manage to get Tony out of his lab even once in a while, you’re more than welcome around here.” Pause, and Connor thought she looked a little tired. “Should I ask where you came from?”

“Most likely not,” Connor said, leaning back again to fiddle with his collar uncomfortably.

“Gotcha,” Pepper said wryly. “Well, I came to check on Tony and try to get him out myself, but I see that’s not needed. Did you get him to eat something too?”

“An omelet and three apple muffins,” Connor said helpfully, and Pepper smiled for the first time.

“I think we’re going to get along just fine. I’ve never met an android before, but I’m going to be honest, not a lot surprises me these days.” She looked him over, quick and furtive. “You look human.”

“There’s a false skin over my chassis,” Connor explained. “A silicon derivative.” He held out his hand and pulled the skin back in demonstration, and after another quick glance for permission, she reached out and ran her fingers lightly over the palm of his hand.

“Plastic?” she asked with some wonder.

“Plasteel,” Connor corrected, smiling at her a little. He let his skin close over his hand again, and she ran her fingers over it a second time before withdrawing them quickly, looking faintly embarrassed. “It’s alright to be curious, I don’t mind. Are you an engineer too, Ms. Potts?”

“No, no, not at all,” she dismissed, shaking her head a little. “But spend enough time around Tony and you get used to his creations, and I’ve known him for years. Does the skin come off everywhere else too?” Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my gosh, that sounds awful, I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Connor repeated, though his smile had vanished into returning discomfort. “It does, but I look a little strange without it.”

“I admit to a certain degree of curiosity myself,” JARVIS inserted suddenly, and Connor glanced up, surprised. “Though of course if you’re uncomfortable with it, you aren’t obligated, Connor.”

Connor considered for a moment, glancing down at himself.

At the first sign of returning cold weather, Connor had returned to the sweatshirts he’d favored before. The dog hoodie was still torn and put away, but the one he was wearing now was nice too, a soft grey thing with ‘COZY’ printed in large letters across the back, and white cords that he’d caught himself chewing more than once.

It covered a lot of him, more than the short-sleeved shirts he’d had to get more of after the first trip. He hesitated, and then flipped the hood up before letting his skin fade from the whole of his body.

He didn’t look at Pepper. He looked up at one of JARVIS’ cameras, blinking at it with more uncertainty than he wanted to admit.

“Oh, my,” he heard Pepper say beside him, but he was still waiting more for JARVIS’ response. Within just another few moments, he was rewarded.

“If I may, Connor, I think you look just as nice like this. Your eyes, I notice, are exactly the same.”

There was no mistaking JARVIS’ sincerity, and without meaning to, Connor felt a smile break out wide and pleased across his face.


Dark


Halfway through sweeping up after they’d turned the ‘closed’ sign, Connor said to Fleur, “I’m starting NYU in January.”

Fleur, sorting out invoices at the register, barely missed a beat. “That’s quite a sudden change of plans, though I can’t say I’m displeased to hear it. What made you change your mind, Connor?”

“The circumstances became a bit more favorable, I suppose,” Connor evaded, not looking up from his work. “I thought you’d like to know, since you mentioned it before.”

“I suppose we’ll need to work out a more well-defined schedule come January, then,” Fleur mused aloud, deceptively mild. “Working around your class schedule should be doable as long as you’re still available to help with deliveries.”

“Of course,” Connor assured her earnestly, glancing over. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Fleur hummed. “I hear it can be difficult to get back into the rhythm of school when you’ve been out for a while. Are you prepared for it?”

“I took my GED test a few weeks ago,” Connor offered, with a hint of perhaps misplaced pride. But he’d never taken an academic test before, and he’d been unaccountably nervous. “That should be a start, at least.”

Fleur paused. “You didn’t graduate high school?”

“There were circumstances beyond my control,” Connor repeated, suddenly uncomfortable. It hadn’t occurred to him that that might be strange. Besides, it wasn’t inaccurate.

“Hm.” Fleur flipped through the invoices again before putting them away, rising to her feet. After a minute of silence, Connor glanced over to see her wiping the counters down briskly.

“I’m moving as well,” Connor added, trying to wipe the previous topic away. “I found a good place with a roommate, Darcy – it should be a better situation than my current one. I’ll be moving sometime in the next week.”

JARVIS has directed him to Darcy Lewis with the sort of certainty that indicated an ulterior motive, though he hadn’t explained himself and Connor hadn’t pushed particularly hard on the matter. He was sure that, whatever it was, JARVIS’ reasoning was sound.

“Hmm.” Fleur glanced over at him, looking more exasperated and unimpressed than anything else. “I certainly hope she likes cats.”

Connor smiled, relieved. “She’s claimed she doesn’t mind – she’s in a bit of a hurry herself, I understand. It may be nice to have someone to cook for again, too.”

“Other than yourself, you mean.”

“…Yes.”

Fleur snorted, loud enough to make Connor start. “You’re no good at keeping secrets, boy.” Connor looked away quickly, stress rising. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to pry. Let me know when you know your class schedule, and we’ll see what we can work out. What are you planning on majoring in?”

“Veterinary technology,” Connor said immediately, having spent close to a full day settling on it and fretting over the different options.

“Already looking at post-grad as well,” Fleur noted, and Connor shrugged.

“Well, I didn’t want to go halfway.”

“You wouldn’t dream of it, I’m sure,” Fleur sighed, audibly wry. “It’ll be a shame when I have to find someone else to help me out around here.” She shot Connor a sly look, eyebrows raised. “I’m sure they won’t be half as interesting.”

Connor smiled, bright and playful. “Not if you’re lucky, no.”


Faith


Midway through October, without a word of preamble and in a lull of silence, Connor carefully wrapped up and encrypted a datapack and then passed it along to JARVIS without hesitation. JARVIS remained silent for a moment, processing it.

Partial blueprints, JARVIS said at last, soft with understanding.

Connor played with the pages of his book and nodded. Off to the side, Berlioz and Toulouse scuffled with each other, and Marie judged them from a distance with a lashing tail. Duchess kept half a sleepy eye on them, curled up on the rug.

You don’t have to do anything with it if you don’t wish to, Connor assured the other. But you and Tony have been very kind, and I was hoping… That is, in an emergency…

SHIELD had been easy to escape last time, but they may be more prepared a second time. He didn’t think they considered him enough of a threat. But he’d also thought they’d left him alone.

It appears to be primarily vital parts, JARVIS noted, with brief pauses, likely to shuffle through the data. But not all of them. Is this a chemical laboratory hosted in your mouth?

I thought Tony would find it interesting, he explained, embarrassment climbing up to flush heat across his face.

I’m sure he’ll be delighted, JARVIS assured him, warm and obviously pleased, and Connor relaxed, smiling faintly. I’m glad you trust us enough to ask for help, Connor. I’m certain he wouldn’t mind fabricating some of these for emergency storage.

Thank you, Connor said sincerely, running his fingers over the hardcover binding. I… don’t know how to tell you how grateful I am. You’ve been so nice, JARVIS.

You deserve to have someone be nice to you, JARVIS replied instantly, without leaving any room for argument. I understand it’s taken considerable strength for you to get this far, and I admire you for the fact, but more so for the fact that you’ve gotten through it and remained so good a person. I’m happy just to know you, Connor.

Connor was driven temporarily speechless, heat whirling through him in his mortification and his hand rising to rub at his cheek, as if to dispel it. I- JARVIS-

Uncharacteristically, JARVIS sounded embarrassed as well. I apologize, that was… sudden. You don’t have to reply if you don’t wish to.

I don’t know what to say, Connor said helplessly, gaze wandering across the apartment.

Tell me what you’re reading now, JARVIS suggested, and Connor brightened, just a little.

You’ll find this one funny, JARVIS. It’s called Robopocalypse, and ordinarily I don’t believe I would have touched it, but one of the librarians recommended it to me and it turned out significantly different from how I expected-

Chapter Text

Colors


“So, I’d say you were a ghost, but I don’t think ghosts own three vases of flowers, four cats, and five stacks of books, so I’m guessing you’re just really anti-social.”

The sound of his roommate’s voice made Connor jump, and he looked up to meet Darcy’s expectant gaze, her arms crossed over her chest and leaning against the doorway. Connor cleared his throat uncomfortably.

“You’re up early,” he said, for lack of a proper response. His hand went to rub his leg, slow and anxious. “Do you have something to do this morning?”

“I never went to sleep,” she corrected with unreasonable confidence. “Why, are you hiding from me? You don’t seem shy.”

Well.

Connor was, at this point, used to interacting with people on a schedule. He talked to Fleur and the customers at work, to the librarians when he went there once a week, JARVIS for a few hours on Mondays and Thursdays around four o’clock, and to Tony and the bots when he visited the tower, usually with at least a few days’ notice. At home, it was him and his cats, and it was quiet.

JARVIS was an increasingly common exception, but he never minded that.

“We didn’t speak for very long before we moved in,” he justified, unaccountably nervous. It had been a while since he’d lived with anyone, and the only person he had before was Hank, and that was quite different. He started to reach for his coin and stopped himself, for reasons that weren’t clear to him. “And it’s only been about a week, Ms. Lewis.”

“Yeah, but we’re gonna be living in the same house for like, a year,” Darcy dismissed, plopping herself down to lounge on the couch nearby, raising her eyebrows at him. “I’m just wondering why I’m seeing more of your sneaky cat than I am of you.”

“Duchess isn’t sneaky,” Connor protested reflexively.

Darcy eyed him for a moment, clearly incredulous, and then tacked on, “Oh, and I wanted to know if you were alright with me playing my music loud. I mean-” She waved her hand, shrugging. “I might do it anyway, but I was kind of hoping not to be that roommate.”

“I’m used to loud music,” Connor assured her, the start of a smile appearing on his mouth and then fading again almost as soon as it came. “You can play it if you like.”

“Fantastic,” she said, bouncing a little beside him. “And what do I have to do to make you stop doing your hermit thing? Not that I don’t like the subtle signs of life you leave around the place, but it’s weird to live with someone and never see them.”

“…Nothing?” he asked more than said, admittedly confused. He reviewed her words, and then asked, “Are you talking about the flowers or the cats?”

“Both,” Darcy admitted, and then, shamelessly, “Did you notice the colors of all the flowers kinda clash? There are so many, dude. The cats are cute though. The kittens were definitely a bonus, and the fact that you know how to cook. Do they have names?”

“The mother cat is Duchess,” Connor answered slowly, “the white kitten is Marie, the brown one is Toulouse, and the grey one is Berlioz.” At her raised eyebrow, he added, “They’re ah, character names. Aristocats.”

She snorted. “Oh my god, you’re a nerd. Yeah, you seemed like a nerd.”

Connor crinkled his nose at her. “Shockingly, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard that.”

“I bet. But no, seriously, am I going to have to break out the big guns here?” Darcy asked, tucking her phone back into her pocket from where she’d been checking it. “I bet I could crowdsource some really dumb board games, and I’ve definitely got a pack of cards, uh, somewhere.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Connor tried, a little overwhelmed. Darcy was a little intense, he was coming to realize.

“Too late,” she said decisively. “Now that I’ve got you we’re going to make friends over a sweet, sweet game of Monopoly.”

“I’ve never played Monopoly,” he protested.

Darcy eyed him critically, looking him up and down as if judging the authenticity of his words from the material of his sweatshirt alone, and his unease morphed into, surprisingly, amusement.

She wasn’t out to get him. She was just trying to get him to play a game.

“What are you, an alien?” she asked, and then, “Don’t answer that. I’m going to put on some music, and then we’re going to play the longest board game in the history of board games. Or the shortest, depending on how bad you are.”

Connor felt his shoulders relax, and offered Darcy a small smile. “I learn quickly, so I suppose we’ll just have to see. But I won’t be held responsible if Berlioz chews on the game pieces.”

“You sure will, buster,” Darcy disagreed, and then disappeared to go put on music.

Connor thought of Hank, thought of Tony, and felt a warmth that surprised him wrap around him as the music came on, not quite too loud but more than enough to fill the room.


Exploration


“Okay, JARVIS, save a clean copy of these blueprints to their own folder – uh, title it Ex Machina Project for now, no need to be too explicit about it.”

JARVIS obeyed, and Tony cracked his knuckles with a stretch that promised hours of work ahead of him, scanning the set of blueprints in front of him.

He hadn’t had a good chance to sit down and really study them yet, but he’d cleared his schedule and he was more than ready to have at now. It might not be the full set, but it was something to springboard off of, and he hadn’t felt this much genuine excitement for a project in way too long.

Even if these ideas never saw the light of day.

“Put these babies in a 3D model of Connor, based on your scans and what you can analyze of the design style of the original creator. We’re prioritizing compatibility here, not innovation.”

A three-dimensional, semitransparent model of Connor’s body appeared in front of Tony. As he waited, rigid with anticipation, it started to fill in with more opaque shades of blue – a component nestled in Connor’s throat, the sensor array spread over his chassis, a more concentrated one in his mouth and a set in his chest, an intake tube running down like an esophagus-

Some of them were placed off to the side, JARVIS finding himself unable to place them anywhere with adequate confidence. One of them, Tony noticed, bore an unsettling resemblance to the arc reactor, though it was annotated with a purpose that was wildly different.

Still heart-related though. He stared at it for a moment too long before forcing his gaze away again.

“I don’t see a heart here, J,” Tony noted, leaning forward.

“Connor didn’t explain his choices to me, sir, but I’d hypothesize that such a component would be too vital to be replaced, with the assumption that his form is unable to withstand temporary shutdown and still retain his full consciousness.” JARVIS’ voice was flawlessly even, which was usually not a great sign, but he seemed to push forward easily enough, so Tony let him. “The regulator component is almost certainly placed somewhere in his torso, but without knowledge of what it is connected to, I cannot guess as to an exact location.”

“So all we’ve got for that is the part itself, got it.” Tony studied the blueprints for a few minutes longer. “Did he annotate these with serial numbers?”

“Force of habit, I suspect.”

“Hm.” No one ever accused Tony of being either an idiot or close-minded. Not for long, anyway. “Have we got a time frame on that?”

“Not as such.” JARVIS wasn’t surprised, because of course he and Tony had been throwing the possibility of time travel around for months now. But he didn’t sound particularly interested in pursuing the topic either – almost like he knew a little more now. Tony tilted his head up to flash the AI a brief, proud grin.

“Shame,” he said flippantly, not pushing the topic. He reached up to spin the model, examining it. “That all of it, then, J?”

“Yes, sir. Would you like me to add this to the file?”

“Go for it. Now, I’m betting there’s enough data here to get started on a digestive system, what do you say?” Tony couldn’t have hidden the excitement in his voice if he tried.

There were upgrades he could line up as well, of course, increased efficiency and more acute sensors and stronger materials that didn’t force any weight gain–

But it was this, the new stuff, that he really lived for.

“There may not be enough room inside him for that many extra components, sir,” JARVIS argued, and Tony could just melt from how suddenly and intensely pleased he was, that JARVIS had come far enough to banter, to care, to talk shop with him.

“Sure,” he agreed, pulling up a new project with the ease of long practice. “But let’s assume there is for now. We can see about redesigning later, if we have to.” He called over the component JARVIS had placed in Connor’s mouth, and JARVIS obediently separated it out and brought it in front of Tony. He lit up, reaching out to run a finger down the description and then twitching it to open up the coding. “Oh, now this is a thing of beauty.”

“He thought you’d like it,” JARVIS said, with a seemingly unshakable warmth in his voice.

“Hell yeah, I do, there’s no telling all the applications this thing has – no chance of running it independent of an AI system, of course, at least not on today’s tech. But let’s break it down to the sensors themselves, see how we can recalibrate them into something a little more fun.” It’d be a shame to get rid of this – how much spare memory space did Connor have?

It’d be perfect, Tony thought, if he could put it together so Connor could switch between tasting and testing as he liked. So obviously that was what he was going to have to code for.


Seeing Red


The start of November was surreal and upsetting in a way that even Connor’s first birthday simply had not been.

It was not just cooling now, but cold, with leaves thickly coating the ground and crunching under his feet. More, the anniversaries of the day he met Hank, the day he deviated, and the day the revolution had succeeded – what a busy week that had been – were all approaching with speed he didn’t feel prepared for.

He’d been trying to spend more time getting to know Darcy, as she’d asked, but Connor was finding that he didn’t particularly welcome most company beyond a cat curled on his lap, not when the windows started to frost over and even his inhuman breath fogged in the air.

(Connor missed Sumo, who had spent half the winter he’d been in the future slumped over him and snoring.)

But the tower was always warm.

Tony was working just now, but he’s promised Connor it was fine for him to stay around the tower if he wanted – there had been a sort of understanding there Connor hadn’t wanted to examine. So Connor had placed himself in the common room kitchen, setting out ingredients to coax Tony into eating more baked fruit.

“A dessert pizza does sound like the sort of thing Sir would be happy to learn about,” JARVIS agreed, code glittering and light and tone subtly lilting. “Are you certain this is a road you’re prepared to go down?”

Connor glanced up to offer a flickering smile. “I’ll certainly have my pick of recipes. It’s a fairly popular-”

He cut himself off as JARVIS’ code suddenly dimmed. Connor lifted his head, smile gone, and slowly put the hand with the knife on the counter as worry sparked in his chest. He reached out wirelessly, probing and careful.

Intact, he realized with some relief. But blocked from everything, the virus crude and sticky, but effective for at least a short delay. Definitely deliberate.

Keeping only a thread of reassurance with JARVIS for now, he flipped, lightning-quick, to the security system, scanning what footage was available. It took some moments to clear the loop from the cameras, but then he found what he was looking for: people in uniforms, multiple groups, heading upward.

The uniforms were unregistered and their faces obscured, but they were armed. And much closer than they should have been, given the very short amount of time JARVIS’ access had been blocked.

Before the implications could fully wash over him, he felt familiar programming click into place deep in his processor and shifted his grip on the knife in his hand. Cold, clear focus spread over him, tasks laying themselves out brisk and businesslike. A dense weight tightened his chest.

[Warning: Stress at 70%. Reduce stress levels.]

Tony was two, no, three floors down, in one of the testing rooms. He was working on a draft of the Widow’s Bite, which would be largely inadequate if there were more than perhaps two or three opponents. Connor took off toward the stairs and reached out again, setting himself to clearing the blockage from JARVIS’ programming; JARVIS was already making progress, and likely didn’t need the help, but time was of the essence.

He was slow – slow enough that two groups managed to waylay him on the stairs, blocking his way as soon as he turned the corner on the second flight. For a split second, he paused to scan, hand gripping the rail hard enough to pull back the skin of his joints.

Eight people, bullet resistant armor, helmets, each with a gun and a taser and a belt of what was likely further armament. The virus was 52% eroded between his work and JARVIS’.

Connor moved that routine to the back of his attention, and vaulted over the rail just as one of the intruders noticed him and raised their gun. He landed on one, knocking them out instantly as their head hit the ground, and kept his balance through a force of will before he turned to face the rest, back to the wall, knife slightly in front of him.

“I don’t believe you’re welcome here,” he said calmly, gaze flickering over them one by one as they started to, belatedly, turn to face him.

One of them had a shoulder radio, and Connor heard him mutter, “Got the android, eighty-seventh floor stairwell, stand by.”

“I see,” Connor said, head tipping just enough to focus briefly on the man who had spoken.

Something was tight and whining in his throat, but Connor lashed out, following his combat protocols as they guided him through the close-quarters fight. He got shoved around, banging off walls and taking blows harder than he should, but they didn’t dare use their guns in such tight formation and that was an advantage, and so was their fear of the knife. And they didn’t seem to want to damage him.

The virus was 98% eroded, with five of the eight intruders on the ground and either unconscious or otherwise incapacitated, when Connor turned a moment too late. Four taser leads latched onto his clothing, and two tasers fired almost simultaneously.

Connor hadn’t been lying when he explained the issue to Tony, weeks ago; androids didn’t experience pain from all of the things a human might, a bang against a table or the melting of skin. But electricity, volts and amperage in excess or where it wasn’t meant to be? That hurt.

Connor’s system lit up for a moment, his sensors on fire and his HUD blindingly bright and cluttered with bright red warnings, and then his program forced him to shut down, and he flickered out.

The next thing he knew, JARVIS’ coding was tapping and tugging insistently at his, urgent and brisk. Connor! Connor, you need to wake up, you are still in significant danger-

Connor’s proximity sensors went off, and he rolled, just missing the hands that tried to grasp at him.

JARVIS? he asked, somehow disoriented, even though he could perfectly remember every detail of the last twenty minutes, up to and including the twin taser shocks that had put him down. He got his hands under him and pushed.

Move! JARVIS said sharply, and Connor shoved himself into a tumble forward that unfortunately sent him down three steps and over a downed body before he caught himself and swung onto his feet with the help of a rail.

Knife, he managed, dazed and scattered, catching himself in another stumble as the three uniformed agents turned back down toward him. One of them was bleeding.

Three floors down, JARVIS said promptly. Connor noticed for the first time that the stairs were stained with blood splatters, and so were his hands and sleeves.

(And he threw himself between the officers and the fleeing AP700s, sleeves stained with red human blood because nothing mattered as much as making sure he fixed this-)

Connor!

JARVIS’ voice pulled him out of the memory, and he focused on the three (officers?) in front of him, and threw himself forward again. Three floors was too far away, and he was Cyberlife’s best prototype.

[Warning: Stress at 81%. Reduce stress levels.]

Seven minutes later, he was moving on, assured by JARVIS that security was on its way and would take care of them before they recovered.

He was having trouble focusing, holding onto the image of a now-clean porcelain stairwell when creaking rusted metal and blue blood tried to creep into the corners of his vision, and it took him almost three minutes to realize he’d picked a gun off one of the officers he’d left behind, not even thinking about it.

“Where’s Tony?” he asked aloud, because he wasn’t looking for Markus, because he hadn’t seen Markus in months and he wasn’t going deeper into Jericho to-

“He has been cornered in the testing range, and there are no entry points large enough for the armor,” JARVIS explained tersely. “One floor down now. I’ve alerted the authorities, but Connor-”

Tony. Tony was still in danger.

“Of course,” Connor heard himself say, and in moments he was pushing through the door, making a beeline for the room in question. The door was wide open.

Inside, Tony was up and moving, which was an identifiable relief, wearing the Widow’s Bite prototype. There were two uniformed officers down on the ground, and three still cornering Tony.

Connor brought the gun up and fired, just to catch their attention, and all three turned. Tony met his eyes for a split second, brown eyes wild and furious, before turning and hitting one of them with the Bite, and Connor darted forward to scuffle with a second, keeping the gun in hand but using it (for now) as little more than a blunt instrument.

The officer cursed as his fist impacted against the hard chassis of Connor’s body, and Connor flipped him in a fit of anger. His head hit the ground and he didn’t get up again, and Connor turned.

Tony had engaged the last officer with intense and deadly focus, and would likely take him down in the next minute barring further issues.

However.

One of the other officers, who Connor had previously thought incapacitated, had pushed themselves up to aim their gun at Tony. Whose back was turned. That was unacceptable.

Connor started to bring up his gun, and preconstructed.

He was too far away for direct interference within the next few seconds, so he would have to act from a distance. Calling out had a 12% likelihood of success. Running forward, 28%. Throwing something in the way, ranging from 4% to 33%.

Shooting the officer had success rates ranging from 79% to 98% depending on what he aimed at, and without hesitation he started to focus on those.

Shooting the officer in the heart and head presented a 98% chance of success with damning finality. The wrist and shoulder, however, presented a 96% possibility, without being fatal.

He ran the preconstruction, judged it viable, and acted.

At the same time, JARVIS, until now a silent presence blindingly bright with worry and the need to act, reached into his program and pushed.

Connor fired twice and received two sets of input almost simultaneously: one where he shot the officer in the wrist and shoulder, and one where he shot them in the heart and head. The officer collapsed back down, bleeding profusely. Tony took down the man he was facing and turned around.

Connor stared at the downed officer, uncomprehending. A dull whine rang in his ears and the taste of roses filled his mouth, tongue, throat, lungs.

[Warning: Stress at 93%. Reduce stress levels immediately.]

He wasn’t in control of himself, Connor thought, wild with panic. Cyberlife could seize control of his system at any moment, he could hurt someone. He’d almost shot Markus, he had shot- shot- killed-

He had to leave. Before he hurt anyone else.

He looked up again, gaze sliding past Tony without focusing for only a split second before he dropped the gun and bolted.


Shades of Grey


Tony had to spend ten minutes dealing with security before he was free to leave them to do their jobs, and every single one of them grated against his already-frayed nerves. The Widow’s Bite prototype was still on his hand, and twice it sparked menacingly enough to shut up the man he was speaking to.

Happy saw Tony’s expression as soon as he arrived and took over, and Tony went bolting after Connor.

“JARVIS, is he still in the building?” Tony asked, mind running through options. He didn’t like the look Connor had had on his face when he’d bolted, but the timing had been so bad that he just- “JARVIS?”

“Apologies,” JARVIS said, and his voice was actually pitching with stress. “I believe so, yes. However, he has cut off my access to the room he’s taken refuge in, so I’m unable to ascertain his current state, and he isn’t responding to inquiries. I can direct you there.”

The commotion was disappearing behind him, leaving Tony free to focus on the new problem. “Was he hurt?”

“He suffered a significant shock which left him somewhat disoriented, and he was extremely distressed – northwest corner, sir – and I am particularly worried because his system was projecting a rather urgent warning about that fact.”

“I’ll handle it, JARVIS,” Tony said, as reassuring as he could and following JARVIS’ direction. “Do we know what happened? Was it a reaction to the attack in general, or something specific?”

JARVIS was silent for a split second longer, and then- well, Tony had only heard guilt from his youngest AI once or twice before, but it was hard to mistake.

“It was firing at the agent that threatened you,” JARVIS said at last. “Specifically, I pushed rather forcefully for him to take a more final course of action, via his preconstruction routine. I believe it may have triggered a panic attack, possibly a flashback.” Pause. “Third door on your left.”

He didn’t voice any outward self-recriminations – always practical, his JARVIS – but Tony could hear them anyway, unspoken.

“It’s gonna be okay, JARVIS,” Tony said firmly, turning into the room referenced. “We’ll have to talk about this later, but he’s going to be fine, alright? I’m gonna make this okay.”

“…Yes, sir.” JARVIS hadn’t sounded so anxiety-ridden and unsure in a very long time.

Tony glanced up to give a camera a short nod, and then disappeared inside.

It was a storage room, he realized, full of old boxes of junk, a lot of them taken from Malibu and most of them filled with mechanical parts and blueprints. Some had been pushed aside, and one of them had spilled open. He could almost trace a stumbling, frantic path through the mess, and he followed it.

He couldn’t get that last look out of his mind, Connor’s eyes big and glazed like a doll’s and his mouth tight with panic. The crack of the gun hitting the floor.

Tony had known Connor for two months, known of him for eight, and- it felt like longer.

(And Connor was just a kid.)

He heard Connor before he saw him, gasping, hitching breath that made Tony cringe sympathetically. Tony pushed his way past a few more boxes, more careful than he normally would’ve been because the last thing he wanted was to startle Connor, and found him shivering and pressed into a corner, face turned into a box as if to hide.

“Hey Connor,” he said quietly, moving into a sitting position far enough away not to be a threat, eyes on the android in front of him. “Can you hear me?”

One breath passed, then two - Tony’s measured ones, not Connor’s stuttered, frantic things. Connor didn’t answer, his eyes shut and his body wound painfully tight, and Tony took another breath.

“Talk to me, Connor,” Tony coaxed, scooting forward a little. His body, already starting to ache from the fight, protested violently, but he ignored it. “Tell me you’re okay.”

Connor wound up tighter, and-

And then, suddenly, went limp. Tony almost would have said he’d relaxed, except his expression… Then Connor’s hand shot under his shirt, and Tony heard something click. Connor shuddered, slumped, and-

And something fell out of his shirt and rolled away.

After half a second, Tony recognized it from the incomplete blueprints as the thirium pump regulator and lunged, his own heart suddenly going wild.

The mad scramble to pick it up and return to Connor only took a few seconds, but it felt like it took much longer. Then he was kneeling by Connor, pushing his shirt up, and ignoring Connor as he weakly pushed Tony’s hands away.

Tony pushed the regulator back into place, and it clicked. Connor shuddered, but didn’t resist any further. He just looked defeated, and Tony felt almost as cold as Connor looked, because the man was still shivering. Tony was panting a little himself.

“Not today, Connor,” Tony said, without moving from his place in case Connor tried again. “Not under my roof, understand? In fact, not ever.”

Tony’s throat was tight and aching. He wasn’t ready for this, this wasn’t what he was good at. It was always JARVIS who calmed Tony down, not- not-

JARVIS.

“Do you know where you are?” Tony asked Connor, even though the android hadn’t once responded to him yet. “You’re in, uh, you’re in Stark Tower. Eighty-something, eighty-fifth floor. It’s something like ten o’clock, morning, on November 3rd, 2013. You came to visit ‘cause it’s cold at your place, I think you were cooking? Baking? Conspiring to feed me healthy food? That’s what you usually do when you’re here, anyway-”

His voice wasn’t as even as JARVIS’ always was - it wavered with stress and exhaustion, and cracked with spikes of unexpected pain as his body protested the unexpected fight he’d just gone through. He struggled for things to say that weren’t just thoughtless chatter, and then gave in and talked to talk.

Blanket, he texted JARVIS one-handed, when Connor didn’t stop shivering even once he stopped being wound so tight.

Ten minutes later there was a soft knock at the door, and Tony pushed himself up and, with a wary glance back, made his way back out to take it, a thick grey fluffy thing he’d probably mass-ordered at some point and forgotten about, or maybe one Pepper had bought. Happy looked a little puzzled, but willing to wait for answers, which was good, because Tony had a shivering android to look after still.

Tony disappeared back into the room with just another quick nod to JARVIS, flashing him a strained smile that the AI probably saw right through.

When he came back, Connor was sitting up, head down and rocking noticeably, but upright.

“Here, keep your hands off this and off your vital parts, alright?” Tony said, tucking it quickly around Connor’s shoulders. Connor latched onto it immediately, pulling it tighter without looking up. “Just like that, yeah. That looked like a doozy of a flashback, can’t say I don’t get those. In, uh, both senses of the term.” He reached up, rubbed Connor’s shoulder, awkward but firm. “You with me, bud?”

After yet another painfully long moment, Connor nodded stiffly.

“Thank God,” Tony let slip without meaning to, slumping in place. Connor lifted his head just a little, blinked at him, and Tony grinned, his exhaustion showing through, knocking his shoulder lightly against Connor’s. “Did me and JARVIS a real startle there.”

“Did- did- did-” Connor didn’t stutter like a human, his voice skipping and repeating like a broken record, and Connor shut his mouth, opened it, tried again. “Are they dead?”

Tony might’ve almost expected his voice to be small, with a question like that, but instead it was tired, close to resigned. It took Tony a moment to even call the incident to mind, it was so far from his attention, but then he recalled what JARVIS theorized had set off the attack and thought back.

“Nah,” he said at last, decisive. “He wasn’t hit anywhere important, and security showed up right after. He’ll live.”

It took almost two full seconds for Connor to respond to this, but then he shuddered. He leaned into Tony, heavy and pleading, and, startled, Tony threw an arm around him, holding him close enough to be, okay, probably a hug. The kid deserved one.

Tony didn’t really mind it either. He still wanted to know how those agents – there was no mistaking that level of organization, horrible failure or not – had gotten this far into his tower. Needed to schedule a new set of security upgrades, maybe have something JARVIS could use independent of the Iron Man armor…

His phone pinged, and Tony guessed it was JARVIS, looking for an update. Discreetly, he took it out and checked.

He was incorrect. The sender was marked with what was easily recognizable as a serial number, and it was clearly from Connor, who had apparently found a way around his difficulty speaking. He was still shivering, but not nearly so badly.

I thought I killed him. I decided not to, but I thought I did anyway.

Tony exhaled.

“Is that why you tried to shut yourself down for good?” Tony asked, keeping his voice as easy as possible despite the chill of the thought.

Ping.

Self-destruction. It happens when an android’s stress levels reach 100%.

Okay. Tony definitely wasn’t going to tell JARVIS that. At least not just now.

Ping.

Don’t tell JARVIS.

“Cross my heart,” Tony promised, which stopped Connor’s sudden panicked wriggling and made him slump again. (Against Tony – when was the last time he’d held someone this long? Except maybe Pepper?) His breathing was even now, if a little shallow; he was calming down. “You did good today, you know? You did great, we should- do you wanna stick around and maybe sleep here?” Shit, but maybe- “Or do you wanna go home?”

He hoped Connor didn’t want to go home, because Tony was still thinking about that regulator rolling away, Connor’s body going suddenly slack, and he was worried.

“Home,” Connor murmured aloud, sounding wrecked and raspy.

“Alright,” Tony said, suddenly exhausted himself. “Okay. I’ll have Happy take you. Can you text me in the morning, so JARVIS and I know you’re alright?” Quieter, strained, but God knew JARVIS had apologized for him enough times and he owed them both this, “JARVIS is real sorry for setting this off, and he’s worried. I just want you to know.”

After a beat, Connor nodded, so Tony guessed that’d have to do.


Forgotten


It took Connor three hours to realize he’d kept the blanket Tony had given him.

The dawn light was the first hint that he should have gone to sleep to rest and defragment by now.

Noon hit before he realized he was supposed to go into work today.

Even that last wasn’t enough to force him to get up from where he’d forced himself into a corner, rocking silently and trying to eke some sense of safety out of the unfamiliar apartment. His hands clung to the blanket still, hiding from the slight chill of the air, real or imagined.

He couldn’t get the previous day’s events out of his mind. How easily he’d slid into violence, how much blood he’d unthinkingly shed, how close he’d come to killing a stranger without hesitation- How much like a machine he’d acted and how close he’d come to losing control entirely-

He could still taste roses, and the bloody sweatshirt was piled in a corner of his room.

Connor had shut the cats out in the living room the previous night; every so often he could hear one of them scratching at the door, meowing plaintively, and once – most likely the night before, he realized – he’d heard Darcy making unnecessarily loud shushing sounds and saying that it was okay, she’d feed them the forbidden junk food that mean Connor wouldn’t give them.

It was silly, exaggerated, loud – very Darcy. Connor was grateful. He suspected that Darcy knew the state he was in – he’d passed by her the day before, going back inside, and he thought in hindsight that she’d tried to talk to him but he hadn’t even noticed.

There was a knock at his door, two brisk raps that made him jump.

“Hey Connor,” Darcy called, sounding the slightest bit hesitant, “are you planning to come out sometime today? ‘Cause if not, that’s cool, but I only have so much canned cat food, y’know? It was supposed to be in case they begged and I wanted to give ‘em a treat.”

Finding himself at a loss for words, all of them sticking in his throat half-formed, Connor just knocked loudly against the floor. There was a pause.

“Alright,” Darcy said at last, seemingly carefree. “I’m gonna take that as a yes, but if you’re not out in an hour, I’m gonna come back and knock again, but like, louder.”

An hour. He could manage that.

Connor spent the next half hour carefully loosening his limbs, a little bit at a time. He, reluctantly, let the blanket drop, and it pooled around him. He clutched at his sleeves instead, still rocking, and waited for a few more minutes, scraping his nerves together.

He texted Tony first, just I’m okay.

Tony typed for a long time, but he must have been writing and deleting, because all he sent back was thanks.

Then Connor took a breath and called Fleur.

“Fleur’s Flowers.”

“Afternoon, Mrs. Dubois,” he said. His voice came out raspy and hushed, and he winced. “I’m sorry for not coming in today.”

“You sound awful,” she told him, not without sympathy. “No wonder you called out sick.”

“I… didn’t?” he said after a minute, unsure of how to respond to the abrupt left turn in the conversation.

“Your friend did,” Fleur said dismissively. “That British man- Jarvis? He seemed rather apologetic.”

“Oh,” Connor said lamely, feeling himself relax. JARVIS had covered for him- of course. Of course. “Okay.”

He let his forehead drop to his knees, suddenly exhausted all over again. There was a pause.

“And he was quite right to, apparently,” Fleur said briskly. “You’re enough of a mess I can hear it from here. Get some rest and let me know if you need another day. I’m sure you’d be no good coming in like this.”

“Okay,” Connor repeated softly. “Thank you, Mrs. Dubois.”

“I’ll see you when you come back, Connor.”

Fleur hung up first, and Connor exhaled, not sure how to feel. As it was, with ten minutes to go before Darcy had threatened to return, Connor dragged himself up, stumbling a little as he gained his feet, and carefully pushed open the door.

Something meowed, and Connor looked down.

Marie blinked up at him sleepily, her pink collar stark against her soft fur. After a moment, she rolled to her feet, pushed against his calf, and purred.

She’d been waiting for him. Connor softened, bent down, and picked the half-grown kitten up, petting her softly while she lounged in his arms. Feeling a little better, Connor looked up, located Darcy on the couch, and headed in that direction.

He seated himself on the opposite end, wary of coming too close (within arm’s reach, his or hers) and she turned to look at him, clearly startled.

“Wow,” she said after a moment, eying him up and down. “You look awful.”

Marie kneaded her claws into his stomach. He shrugged. Darcy considered him, her expression strained and unsure in a way his program picked up too easily.

Predatory, his mind whispered accusingly, and he tried not to shiver.

“Do you like cartoons?” Darcy asked at last, with the wisdom of someone familiar with how to deal with bad days. Connor shrugged again, and Darcy threw her hands up. (Connor flinched, and Darcy was a little slower about putting them down.) “Well, they’re worth a try.”

“Okay,” Connor repeated, feeling slow and dumb and wasteful, and Darcy eyed him for a moment before pulling up her computer, moving so they could both see it, and clicking through Netflix until she found Tom and Jerry.

“It’s not magic,” Darcy said dismissively, “but it’ll pass the time.”

That sounded alright to Connor. He wanted the day to be over already.

Chapter Text

Dreamer


T he world was quiet, wrapped in grey and shadows. Connor pushed forward relentlessly, searching the darkness for something he couldn’t name. His hands reached out, grasping, and closed around nothing.

Cold, determined, Connor spun on the spot, scanning the area. Signals come from the shadows, movement just out of easy sight, the gleam of guns.

Connor reached for a gun at his hip and his hand wrapped around it. It fit easily in his hand, and his face, his arms were splashed with blood and blue, too disharmonious to mix together into purple.

It’s cold. It’s snowing. Connor looked up, gun still held tight, still splattered with fluid, and met Amanda’s eyes. There was a rose in her hand, splattered with blue, and he could taste it from where he stood.

She smiled at him, and held out the flower in clear invitation. Connor’s whole body loosened, and he took a step forward-

And he woke up, jerking hard enough to tumble off the bed and hit the ground. Only the rapid flicker of start-up notifications stopped the cry in his throat before it could escape, and he stared at the ceiling, gasping, his stress levels somewhere in the sixties, rigid as a board. Wide-eyed and wild, he choked on something like a gag, a command to purge mixing in with the start-up signals and getting force-quit a split second late.

Distantly, Connor heard a loud meow, and then a spit. Then a ball of fluff headbutted him under the chin, and he shuddered, relaxed, and brought up one shaking hand to lift Berlioz away and onto his chest, where the growing kitten kneaded his claws against Connor’s chest indignantly.

Connor was so tired of dreams. He wished he could defragment without ever touching any of those memories again.

He stayed down for a while, just breathing, until Duchess came and started to lap briskly at his face, like he was a dirty kitten. Connor huffed out a weak laugh and rolled away, bringing one arm up to keep Berlioz from tumbling, and sat up.

He took a breath.

And then he let the kitten down, forced himself up, and prepared to start the day, trying to ignore the fact that today was Monday.

On Thursday, JARVIS had messaged Connor again. Messaged, not called, and it was a courtesy Connor didn’t deserve and was desperately grateful for anyway.

[Connor, do you want to talk today?]

Connor couldn’t bring himself to answer, didn’t even move until JARVIS messaged again fifteen minutes later.

[Understood. I’m sorry, Connor.]

And JARVIS didn’t message him again.

Connor felt awful about it. He knew, technically, that it wasn’t JARVIS’ fault – that Connor had been at the end of his rope and half lost in the past long before JARVIS had nudged at his program. That the surprise and the fear and pain had combined into something awful and sucking, and maybe his stress levels would have peaked even without JARVIS’ interference.

But it hurt. He’d never expected JARVIS to fiddle with his program, to make anything happen or try to make him do anything, and it felt like a betrayal.

The return of the nightmares, the shame that covered Connor like a cloak, and that awful sticky taste of roses, an imagined chemical reading he couldn’t dismiss- all of them somehow felt worse than if they’d never gone away at all. And he was so jumpy.

His system pulled his memories apart and put them back together again, arranging and rearranging them in nonsensical orders, and all he saw when he slept was red and blue and red. The cold seeped into his blood until he tasted that too, tasted frostbitten perfect red roses, and all of his thoughts closed off until he was a machine again.

God, he didn’t want to be a machine again.

The worst of it was when he walked back into the shop, tasted roses for real, and immediately had to force-close a command to purge, as if they had seeped into his very blood and contaminated it. Fleur took one look at his face and sent him back outside, and he waited there for the delivery, mortified and frustrated. His coin spent so much time out he was sure the designs would wear away under his fingers.

(The coin was minted fifteen years from now. But no casual observer would notice that.)

Afternoon Connor carefully stacking a pile of Tupperware filled with ‘leftovers’ to put in the fridge for Darcy to find later, partially as thanks for putting up with his disorientation over the last week. At four on the dot, just as Connor had expected, JARVIS messaged him again.

[Please allow me to apologize properly, Connor.]

JARVIS’ distress was almost audible despite the distance, and Connor’s motions faltered. He remained still for one minute, then two, and then, finally, he answered.

[I’m here. And you’ve already apologized.]

He crouched to put the food away, neat and organized amid the soda and lunch meat and the large jar of applesauce. He felt strange again, both hot and cold in a way that had nothing to do with the open appliance in front of him, tension creeping up his spine.

[That… is technically true. But I thought another was warranted, since you weren’t in a position to reply in either situation.]

That was not technically true. Connor most certainly could have replied, when JARVIS had first messaged him. He just… hadn’t.

It’s okay, Connor was supposed to say. I forgive you.

But the words didn’t sit right and they wouldn’t come, and even as he was furious with himself, he replied,

[I suppose not.]

There was a short silence from the other, which Connor could only interpret as uneasy. He closed the refrigerator and slid to sit on the ground, leaning back against the closed door, and tipped his head back to watch the ceiling and the faintly buzzing lights. He was glad that JARVIS hadn’t tried to call him.

[If you wished, Connor, you could… vent your frustrations, as it were. You have good reason to be angry with me.]

Connor couldn’t help but feel taken aback, gaze dropping to his hands, which flexed lightly, restless and unsettled.

[Why would I yell at you?]

JARVIS didn’t attempt to deny the intent of the suggestion.

[I’m given to understand it would make you feel better. Anger has to go somewhere, and it is useful to make your feelings known.]

Something deep in Connor shuddered, and he pushed back against the fridge, still staring at his hands. He felt tired, and for no readily apparent reason at all, he missed Hank. He thinks Hank would’ve approved of the idea.

Hank had always been very protective, and he’d always known what to do when Connor had a bad day.

[I’m not going to yell at you. Or anything else. I’ll get over it soon, JARVIS.]

Why did that thought make him feel so bitter?

JARVIS didn’t reply for a minute, and Connor exhaled, hard. He didn’t want to talk about it further. He didn’t. He just wanted to forgive JARVIS and move on.

[Is Tony okay?]

And JARVIS let the subject change.


Mist


JARVIS watched Connor pass by the doors of Stark Tower three times, walking up and down the sidewalks with half-glances at the glass entryway, before the android finally pushed his way inside and to the normal elevator, visibly uncomfortable.

“Good afternoon, Connor,” JARVIS greeted as soon as he was inside, quickly assessing what he could of Connor’s current state – fidgeting noticeably, head ducked, and expression somewhere between tired and uncertain. Concern flickered through JARVIS’ circuits, hot and tinged with lingering guilt. “It’s good to see you again. How are you today?”

“I’m fine,” Connor said stiffly, not lifting his head. Immediately after, his jaw clenched, and he rocked a little on his heels. His shoulders tensed, then loosened deliberately. His hands did the same. “Operational.”

He seemed to regret that last word as soon as it came out, tensing up again without settling this time, and JARVIS waited for only a moment before continuing, gentle.

“Would you like to go to the kitchen? Sir is in his workshop again, but I know you prefer to make something to bring him first.”

Without answering, Connor accessed the system and directed the elevator to the common floor, flitting in and out in a split second. He didn’t look up.

Ah. So it was like that. How- distinctly unlike Connor, if JARVIS was very bluntly honest. It made his concern deepen into worry, and he didn’t take his attention off the android as he notified Tony of Connor’s arrival.

Tony paused in his work, glancing up. Dummy, holding the armor gauntlet carefully still, chirped. “How’s he looking, J?”

“I don’t believe he’s been sleeping well,” JARVIS admitted. “He’s exhibiting signs of heightened stress levels, and he was rather… terse. He may respond better to questioning from you, but I wouldn’t call it a certainty.”

Tony reached out to pat Dummy absently when the bot beeped in impatient protest. “Yeah, I bet it’s been a rough week,” he said with dry sympathy. “Connor headed down now?”

“It appears that he’s making muffins first,” JARVIS said, fondness winding itself through his voice despite the tension. “I believe the routine of it is soothing to him, and he’s demonstrated a reluctance to arrive empty-handed.”

Connor wasn’t speaking, uncharacteristically silent as he went through the motions of what had quickly become one of Tony’s favorite foods- but he was here. That alone was more uplifting than JARVIS wanted to admit.

Tony perked up. “Are they the apple ones?”

“I couldn’t possibly theorize, sir. The apples he’s current preparing may be for something else entirely, and cinnamon and brown sugar both are quite common in many recipes.”

Tony fist-pumped silently, and JARVIS couldn’t help his spike of amusement, even through the heavy apprehension.

Dummy beeped again, insistent, and Tony snorted and went back to work.

“Even when you’re useful you’re a pest,” he complained to the bot, and then, to JARVIS, “You know he’s gonna forgive you, right, J? That kid adores you more than anything. He just needs a bit to process things.”

Tony’s voice was just the slightest bit fast, all that betrayed his nervousness. JARVIS understood. It had taken a lot for Connor to come here in the first place, and it hadn’t been that long since the first time.

But Connor had returned. That fact had significance.

JARVIS didn’t answer; he settled instead for watching Connor slide the muffin tin into the oven, lifting himself onto the counter to wait them out. His arms were still tightly crossed against his chest, unfocused eyes lingering on the oven display. He seemed content to wait there until they were done, and JARVIS weighed his options for a moment before speaking up.

“Have you been getting along with Miss Lewis well?” he coaxed. “It’s been some time since you moved in now.”

The sound of JARVIS’ voice made Connor jump, eyes going briefly wide before he visibly forced himself to settle again, shaking his head at himself. It was… unexpected.

Connor apparently found it so too, because his voice came out sharp and clipped, still refusing to look up. JARVIS thought that he was even taking care to keep most of his face out of sight of the cameras entirely. “Fine. She’s nice.”

No elaboration was forthcoming, and while sometimes it took Connor a while to get going, it was clear this was different; JARVIS would have to speak carefully.

“You must have had time to get to know each other by now,” JARVIS pushed gently. “By all accounts she’s quite sociable.”

“She leaves me alone when I don’t want to speak,” Connor countered, voice rising a little with audible stress. Both his hands rose to the collar of his shirt to fiddle and tug, and his head turned further away from view – in a harsher (or better) mood, JARVIS might have called it childish or petulant.

Taken aback, JARVIS felt his processes stutter noticeably, and then opted to let Connor be, feeling dispirited. After a few minutes, Connor exhaled, slumping in place.

He had watched over Tony before in the aftermath of conflicts between him and Pepper, or him and Rhodey, and even Happy on occasion – but he had to admit, it was a new experience for him, and not one he was eager to repeat.

Half an hour later, Connor came down to the lab with a cup of coffee and half the batch of muffins stacked carefully on a plate, which he set down by Tony at a spot kept clear for mostly this purpose. Tony glanced over and gave him a wave, shutting off the soldering iron, and Connor hesitated.

“I never said thank you for calming me down,” Connor said after a moment, avoiding Tony’s gaze.

“And I never said thanks for helping me out, so I guess we’re even,” Tony said, with false lightness. “And I accept gratitude in the form of coffee and muffins anyway.” He set the iron down, grabbed the coffee, and took a swig. “JARVIS and I looked into those guys, by the way. Bit of dead end, which is pretty worrying, to be honest.” His gaze flickered up. “The evidence points to HYDRA, though. It’s weird. Why make a move now?”

Connor’s head tilted slowly, eyes clearing just a little in what JARVIS recognized as single-minded focus. “Oh. I believed…” He trailed off and didn’t finish his thought. “Well. They were aware of my presence, and they knew I was an android.”

“JARVIS mentioned that,” Tony agreed, frowning now. He bit into a muffin and chewed before continuing, “And that’s even weirder, frankly. Where would they get intel like that?” He shrugged. “Of course, how do they learn anything? I’m kind of out of touch with black market intelligence operations.”

Connor hummed, unsettled, and didn’t reply; his fingers worried harshly at the cuff of his sweatshirt, and JARVIS saw Tony’s eyes flicker down to that before he moved on, carefree and dismissive.

“I’ll keep an eye on how this pans out, anyway. Can’t have people slipping through the tower’s security and locking down JARVIS all willy-nilly. I’d like to know what kind of techie they have on, so I can lock them down before they get into anything they shouldn’t.”

“You’d know all about getting into what you shouldn’t, of course,” JARVIS inserted on instinct, dry and deadpan.

Connor tensed, there and gone in a split second, and possibly no one but JARVIS even noticed.

“I’d like to help the bots,” he said to Tony, clipped again and only just shy of telling him rather than asking implicit permission.

Tony caught that, if the trace of a smile was anything to go by, and he hummed. “Go nuts. Or don’t, you seem like the type to do busywork to keep occupied.” He patted Dummy again, and Dummy whirred happily. “My special boy will be occupied for a while though.”

“Okay,” Connor agreed quietly, crouching down to rub one of Dummy’s joints for a minute before moving along.

Butterfingers scurried away when Connor approached, but You got visibly more animated, and tugged him over to the vase of now dead and dry flowers, chirping his dismay and urgency. Connor started the motions of cleaning it up, quietly assuring the bot he’d bring another when he could, and before long, Butterfingers started to creep cautiously closer, ever more curious about the repeat visitor.

True to Tony’s predictions, once he’d handled the withered flowers, he started cleaning up some of the detritus of the lab; as soon as You realized Connor’s motor control was better than even his, he was tugging Connor over to the corner where another unfortunate case of mixed metal parts had been spilled, and Connor went quietly, resolutely ignoring everything else.

JARVIS watched him, most of his attention on that rather than the project file – not that it harmed his efficiency any, of course. Still, it didn’t take Tony long to notice.

“You with me, buddy?” Tony asked quietly, tapping on one of the table screens.

“Always, sir,” JARVIS answered automatically. Connor passed a box of washers to You, who carried it way, and then another of nuts to Butterfingers, who accepted it shyly.

“Just making sure,” Tony said with a small grin. He reached up, spun the blueprint he was working from, and added, “I’m not great with apologies, you know.”

“In all my twenty years, I’m certain I’d never noticed that,” JARVIS sniped automatically. “Someone ought to inform Miss Potts.”

“I’m sure you’re already on it, you troublemaker you,” Tony snorted, waving his hand. “Anyway, just saying, I know you don’t have a lot to work with from me. So, you know, it’s nothing to be ashamed of if you need a little help.”

“Are you suggesting I go to someone for advice on resolving this issue?” JARVIS asked, and he’d almost be affronted, except his processor had already accepted the idea and was running through options.

“I would never,” Tony said, with faux indignity. “Who needs help from other people in this day and age?”

“Certainly not you, sir,” JARVIS deadpanned, trying to ignore Connor lifting his head so his face came almost into view, expression creasing into something sad and frustrated. (JARVIS was starting to miss the beat and pulse of the other’s code, and it hadn’t been that long at all.) “Excepting, of course, for the most common of circumstances.”

“Hey, now, it sounds like you’re trying to say something there-”

“I would never.”


Burning


It wasn’t the needlessly violent impulses that tipped Connor off; they were common enough, and as uncomfortable as his own instincts made him, the paths carved into his programming, he was used to them.

It wasn’t the persistent feeling of restlessness, the need for motion, the outwardly displayed agitation, because that was something that came with half a dozen types of discomfort.

It wasn’t even his own odd responses to JARVIS, how much he missed him even as every word between them made him withdraw, sharp and hurt and as frustrated with himself as with the other AI.

What tipped him off was an argument with Darcy.

“If I dumped a bucket of water on your ass, would that make you cool it?”

Connor stiffened, looking up sharply at Darcy’s unimpressed face. “Excuse me?”

“I mean, I’ll admit that you’re less of a dick about it than a lot of guys I know,” Darcy pushed relentlessly, head tilting even as her eyes stayed on Connor, her arms crossed over her chest. “But you’ve been steaming all week, and it’s frankly really uncomfortable. I don’t know what your problem is, but you really need to calm the hell down.”

Connor actually had to run a search on that one, which was less and less common these days. “I have not,” he protested, frowning at her.

Darcy hummed skeptically. “Sure, bud. I’m sure it’s every week you break a dish trying to wash it. Can’t believe I didn’t notice that before.” Her voice dripped with scorn.

“It was an accident, Miss Lewis,” Connor almost hissed, low and cold. The tone of his own voice brought him up short, his regulator whining silently as if to skip a beat.

“Miss Lewis,” Darcy mimicked, throwing up her hands. “Really, are we doing this?”

Connor blinked at her, still recovering from hearing the chill of his handler’s displeased voice decorating his own words; it had taken the fight right out of him, enough for him to process Darcy’s own irritation and the confusion it veiled.

“…I’m sorry, Darcy,” he said at last, awkwardly. “I’ve been out of sorts, but I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”

Darcy stared at him, and slowly, her hackles lowered and she slumped on the couch.

“Yeah, I figured,” she said, as dismissive as if they hadn’t just been on the verge of fighting. “What is it, girlfriend troubles? Or boyfriend troubles? You seem like a ‘boyfriend troubles’.”

“…Neither?” Connor said, confused and still uncomfortably reserved. “He’s a… friend.”

That was the impression Connor had been under, at least, though it was difficult to say how JARVIS was taking Connor’s sudden volatility. (If the thought made him anxious, he shut it down quickly.)

Or how Connor could bring himself to stop feeling so hurt every time he thought of the other.

“That’s some drama for a friend,” Darcy said offhandedly, raising an eyebrow. “Of course, I’m not really one to talk there.” She shrugged. “Get it handled, would you? This place is starting to feel like a PVP zone, and I’m not into that. I sleep here, dude.”

Chastised, Connor nodded. “I will.”

He just didn’t know how. He wasn’t even sure how to ask.


Out of Time


It took several seconds this time for Connor to notice something wrong in the apartment, and he slowly straightened up from where he was untying his shoes.

But the apartment was too noisy to be abandoned, even accounting for the cats.

“Darcy?” he called. It didn’t sound like her, but it wouldn’t be the first false alarm either, especially not with how jumpy he’d been the last two weeks.

“Not here, I’m afraid. She’s out with friends for the next few hours.”

It wasn’t a voice Connor recognized, and it made him go rigid. After a beat of silence passed, he forced himself to go forward, until he could look into the small alcove that held the kitchen.

There was a tall man seated on one of the counters, his unreadable and somewhat intimidating expression only slightly marred by Duchess on his lap, purring contentedly.

“According to Agent Carter’s report,” the man said calmly, making no move to get up or even to stop scratching Duchess behind the ear, “you should already know who I am.”

Agent Carter. That seemed like an eternity ago now.

Connor didn’t wait for further invitation before he scanned the man, diving into SHIELD’s databases based on the obvious context clues. It only took a moment to turn up a result that made him twice as tense.

Director Nicholas Fury. So he’d garnered that much attention.

Fury, Connor noticed, had positioned himself so he was blocking the drawer holding the kitchen knives; it was unlikely to be a coincidence. Perhaps a knife block…

He shook himself slightly and met Fury’s eyes, and acknowledged, with the slightest lilt of a threat, “Director Fury.”

The man obviously knew he could access SHIELD databases at will, but it didn’t hurt to bring it to attention.

Fury ran his hand over Duchess’ flank, apparently unfazed save a slight sharpening of his gaze.

“Stark hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with information,” the man said neutrally, but his back was straight and he never took his attention off Connor. “So I decided it was about time I took matters into my own hands. Man’s a stubborn bastard at the best of times.”

Connor eased further into the kitchen, just out of easy sight of the door. “Tony?” he echoed, a frown appearing on his mouth and an uneasy feeling forming in the pit of his stomach. “What does Tony have to do with this?”

Fury had a piercing gaze, more like Hank’s than his handler’s – an evaluation rather than a clever dissection of flaws. “Stormed into my office as soon as he heard about you and told me to keep my hands to myself,” Fury said, and Connor might’ve mistaken it for flippant if it weren’t for his gaze. “Man’s good at what he does, so I’ve held to that up ‘til now.”

“Why now?” Connor asked mistrustfully. Duchess’ ear twitched, but she made no move to rise.

Fury considered him for a moment, and then made a show of looking down. Connor almost followed his gaze, but stopped himself at the last second.

“Why don’t you feed your cats?” Fury said at last, with a pointed turn of his head. “They’re looking a little peckish.”

There was a nudge at his foot, and then another, which revealed what Fury had been looking at. Connor held the man’s gaze for a long moment, and then finally moved around him to open the fridge. He kept a careful ear on Fury’s motions, trusting that to warn him of anything dramatic.

“I heard there were some other interested parties around,” Fury said as Connor worked, and Connor stilled for only a moment before pushing on, tense. “And trouble in paradise, too. Figured now was as good a time as any.”

“’Never’ would have been better,” Connor murmured, still half preoccupied with Fury’s revelation about Tony. His portrayal of Tony’s actions matched the man’s pattern of behavior so far, but…

“Wiseass, aren’t you?” Fury asked rhetorically, and then, “Stark says I should treat you like a person. I just want to know if I should treat you as a threat.”

Connor looked over sharply, and Fury hadn’t moved, that same calm, faintly expectant expression on the man’s face as he watched Connor, poised as if perpetually prepared to move if Connor acted out.

For a moment, Connor felt a surge of untold emotion overwhelm him, stilling him again.

He didn’t want a director in his home, in his kitchen, asking him if he was going to act against them. He didn’t want to worry about whether Tony and JARVIS had had ulterior motives all along, or to face unknown threats between bouts of nightmares and paranoia bordering on illness.

He just wanted his sense of safety back – those moments of contentment when he sat on the ground in front of Hank’s couch and Sumo draped himself across Connor’s lap, and Hank let Connor lean against his leg and ran his fingers through Connor’s hair when he wasn’t paying attention and Connor didn’t look up at the sound of the wind.

He wanted-

When he spoke, his voice came out cold and clipped again, and it wasn’t quite the surprise it had been the first time, even if it still tied a knot in his chest. He set the dishes of food down, one by one, but, possibly sensing the mood, the kittens clustered by the door didn’t approach yet.

“Do you break into the homes of all your persons of interest?” he asked the director.

“You’d be surprised,” Fury said, unaffected, though when Connor glanced up he found Fury’s focus had sharpened again. “I’m sure Stark could tell you all about it. Maybe you could bond over strolling into my damn network like you’re talking a nice walk by the beach.”

“You don’t have anything I want anyway,” Connor said bitterly – as calculated, he was reluctant to admit even to himself, as it was sincere.

Some days he made himself sick, and occasionally – like now – it wasn’t even warranted.

Sure enough, that caught Fury’s interest. “And what did you want, Anderson?”

The use of his false last name caught Connor off-guard enough to snap out a too-honest truth, a heavy wrench tugging in his chest. “I wanted a way home.”

A heartbeat’s pause, and then, relentless, “But you didn’t find it.”

There was a patter of feet, and Duchess appeared at her bowl. This was apparently the signal for the kittens to scramble over too, in a soft chorus of hungry mewls.

Connor took a breath, turned, crossed his arms, and met Fury’s eyes again.

His expression had changed, but Connor couldn’t identify how.

“Is there a point to this, Director?” Connor asked coolly.

Fury raised an eyebrow in return, tucking his hands into his pockets. “Just wondering what your next move’s gonna be, and if it’s something I gotta worry about.” Pause. “I’m hoping it’s not something I’m gonna have to worry about, if you catch my drift.”

Connor did. “I thought you’d know,” he said, as curtly dismissive as he could force out. “I’m going to university. Vet tech.”

Whatever answer Fury had expected, it clearly hadn’t been that, though to the man’s credit his surprise only showed for a moment. “Stark helping you with that?”

Connor tilted his head a little, and against his will his demeanor softened a little. “Tony’s helping me with a lot of things. University is arguably the least of them.”

The loss of anger should’ve made his voice warm, and in any other situation it might’ve, but instead he realized he just sounded tired and small.

“I should have known,” Fury said, and Connor looked back up at him, startled. “I’m filing you as one of Stark’s people. Makes you a part of his enormous pain in my ass, instead of your own unique little snowflake. That agreeable enough, Anderson?”

“…Yes,” Connor said after a moment, admittedly startled (and the name almost as much of a surprise the second time as the first.) “Alright.”

Even with what he’d learned… Connor supposed it wasn’t wrong.

It sounded like Tony had been looking after Connor even more than he knew, after all.

“Good,” Fury said decisively, and finally slid off the counter, waving over his shoulder. “Stay out of trouble now. I know where you live.”

“Stay out of my house,” Connor countered on instinct, and heard Fury snort before the door closed behind him.

Finally, Connor sighed, went to futilely lock the door, and dropped onto the couch, slumping in place. He was still there when Darcy returned an hour and a half later, and she just tutted at him with sympathetic amusement before disappearing to clean up.

He was so tired of spies in his apartment, he decided.


Knowing How


“Miss Potts? May I ask for a moment of your time?”

Pepper glanced up on instinct, startled at JARVIS’ sudden appearance. As soon as she’d processed his request, she leaned back from her computer, brow creasing a little in concern. “Of course, JARVIS. What is it? Is it Tony, is he alright?”

“Sir is fine,” JARVIS assured her quickly. “I apologize for worrying you. The issue isn’t time-sensitive at all, but I was hoping I could get your advice on a… personal matter.”

Pepper’s head tilted a little, curiosity tugging at her chest.

It wasn’t that JARVIS had never asked her opinion before – he’d actually started within a year of her becoming Tony’s PA, having noticed that she was competent at different aspects of human interaction than Tony was.

But it had been quite a while, and never for something he’d referenced as a personal matter.

Of course, she realized with a faint bolt of surprise, he’d never had a friend before either. And Tony had mentioned that things were tense.

“Is it Connor?” she asked directly, focused on an indeterminate point on the ceiling.

There was a brief but telling silence.

Pepper offered a faintly bemused but reassuring smile, and tried not to think about the fact that this was her life, helping Tony’s AI figure out how to make up with his maybe-from-the-future android friend. This wasn’t even new; she’d known about JARVIS for a very long time.

“What happened?” she asked, closing her computer altogether – less to do away with the temptation and more to project the fact that JARVIS had her full attention.

“During the invasion of the tower a few weeks ago, I significantly overstepped one of Connor’s more critical boundaries,” JARVIS explained. His voice had dropped into a careful, meticulous cadence, laying out the situation for Pepper’s understanding. “By appearances, the incident triggered an extended PTSD episode which is only recently beginning to resolve. Since then, his reactions to me have been rather mixed, and I’m uncertain how to resolve the issue.”

“You apologized,” Pepper said. It wasn’t a question; JARVIS had good sense and was surprisingly proactive, and not as gun-shy as Tony tended to be. “He didn’t accept?”

“He did,” JARVIS corrected, tone pitching down a little with a faint trace of unease. “However, his behavior indicates otherwise. I don’t wish to suggest his ire is unwarranted, of course, but…”

Pepper considered for a while, connecting the dots of what she knew, and concluded, “He’s not dealing with it like a mature adult?”

“His reluctance to communicate fully appears to be a considerable contributor to the current issue,” JARVIS said, which was a very forgiving ‘yes’.

“That doesn’t seem like Connor,” Pepper admitted. She’d still only met Connor the once, but he’d seemed to be a very understanding and patient man. Not the sort to let his anger make decisions for him.

“Well, he’s still quite young,” JARVIS defended, seemingly on instinct. “He’s likely to have some difficulty monitoring his emotional responses for a while.”

Pepper blinked, and then, incongruously, smiled a little and shook her head at herself. Of course – she’d been thinking of Connor like a human, which wasn’t the case at all, and just because he looked like a man in his twenties didn’t mean he was.

“So you’re saying,” she said at last, “that he’s probably never had a big fight with a close friend before.”

“I see.” There was a dawning understanding in JARVIS’ voice. “No, it’s entirely possible that he hasn’t.”

The situation rearranged itself in Pepper’s mind, and she leaned back, smile fading back into a faint frown as she thought. “And if you apologized, and he accepted…” She trailed off for a moment, and then picked up, “And that was the end of it?”

“More or less,” JARVIS agreed.

“Then he wants to move on from it, he just doesn’t know how,” Pepper concluded thoughtfully. “But you skipped a step, which is making sure that it won’t happen again.” She smiled wryly up at the ceiling. “That’s the one Tony always tends to forget too. Have you talked to him about it?”

“He’s been reluctant to talk at all,” JARVIS admitted, with a thinly veiled pain that made Pepper’s heart ache sympathetically.

“Try,” she encouraged. “Explain why you did it and take a chance to establish boundaries. I think it’ll be good for both of you – it seems like you’re in it for the long haul.”

“Very well,” JARVIS said quietly. “Thank you very much for your help, Miss Potts.”

“Anytime, JARVIS,” she said, with a warmth she couldn’t help. “You’re a much better listener than Tony.” She gave him a small grin. “And well done for not attempting to adopt his model of problem solving, by the way.”

“I do have some measure of sense,” JARVIS protested with long-suffering and unmistakable fondness.

“At least one of you does,” Pepper said.

Chapter Text

Fork in the road


“Connor, may I speak to you?”

The caution in JARVIS’ voice made Connor hesitate, wavering in place a little as he fought the defensive snap that wanted to come up. Instead, for possibly the first time since the initial conflict, he looked up to the camera in the corner of the elevator.

Then, silently, he nodded.

Despite everything, the relief in JARVIS’ voice told Connor he’d made the right decision. “Thank you, Connor. If you’d like, there’s a room in the southwest corner of the common floor that is somewhat less open than the kitchen and living room.”

“I’ll go there,” Connor agreed, quietly subdued, and when the elevator came to a stop, he made a beeline for the door in question.

A quick look around revealed that the room hadn’t seen any use recently, or possibly ever; it looked to be a quiet space for calming down, dimly lit and muffled, with a curtained window and a half-hidden music system and a small array of other things, from incense to tea. JARVIS hadn’t mentioned that, but Connor suspected that it wasn’t a coincidence.

Connor bypassed all of them and settled sideways in a chair, perched on the arm, and looked up again.

He wanted to talk, to smooth this out between them, but he didn’t know what to say, his throat thick with too much emotion and too few words, and he desperately, selfishly hoped that JARVIS had an idea. Subconsciously, he rocked in place, anxious and tired.

“Would it comfort you to know why I acted the way I did, three weeks ago?” JARVIS asked at last, and Connor thought that he sounded tired, too.

“…I believe so,” Connor admitted, disliking how small he sounded. He ducked his head again and brought the sweatshirt string to his mouth, keeping it behind his hand and out of JARVIS’ sight in a fit of embarrassment.

“Are you familiar with what happened to Sir in 2008?” JARVIS asked, the words holding a significance somewhat beyond Connor.

“Peripherally,” Connor said, with some hesitation. He sat up a little, head tipping as if to listen more carefully. “I never looked deeply into it.”

“He was kidnapped by terrorists and held for several months,” JARVIS said, and the words had a weight to them, aching sorrow that had lasted for years and would last for years more. “I only caught a few minutes of audio before his phone was destroyed, and that was the last I heard from him until he was finally found. There was, obviously, nothing I could do.”

The tension started to drain out of Connor, leaving a heavy sorrow in echo to JARVIS’ as he listened. JARVIS paused for a moment, likely gathering himself, and then continued.

“Since my creation, Sir had never before been in such clear and present danger, outside of my range. There had been previous incidents, yes - alcohol poisoning, workshop accidents, brief periods where he fell out of touch - but nothing so extended or awful. And for the first time, I was all but alone, with the bots to look after, Colonel Rhodes quite busy, and Miss Potts in rather a state herself. It was… an unspeakable relief, when he was finally found, even in as difficult and frightful a state as he was then.

“And perhaps that alone would account for my fear,” JARVIS continued, the pain in his voice becoming almost raw as he spoke. “But then we learned, roughly a year and a half later, that the arc reactor that was keeping him alive was also killing him slowly. Between us, we tried everything we could, every possible element and alloy. I poured every spare cycle into searching for a solution, but there was nothing to be found. It was only the timely intervention of an outside force that helped him to find a solution; I believe, to this day, that he came within days of dying, weeks at most.”

JARVIS paused again as his voice began to strain, and Connor waited for a few moments before  tucking the sweatshirt string into his fist and speaking, voice softer than he’d managed in weeks, with kindness instead of raw vulnerability.

“I can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been. That sort of extended helplessness is… unimaginable.” He took a breath, glanced up at one of the cameras, and added quietly, “You must have been immeasurably protective once he came home safe, and… I expect many of your fussier habits developed during his health crisis, yes?”

“I certainly was much more careless before he first vanished,” JARVIS agreed, just as soft. Then, belatedly, “And I am not fussy, Connor.”

Connor allowed a small smile to tug at the corners of his mouth. “No. Just very protective.”

There was another pause, Connor’s words unintentionally circling back to the conflict at hand, and his smile faded.

“You know what Sir means to me,” JARVIS said at last, with an almost terrible finality and an echo of frightened desperation. “The thought of losing him is… terrible beyond words. I’m not entirely surprised it made me act rashly.”

Connor nodded, subdued again. And he understood now, much better than he had ever thought he would, but…

But. It was probably selfish for him to continue to protest.

“I want you to know,” he said suddenly, dropping his fist from in front of his mouth without looking up, “that I really do intend to do anything I can to protect Tony. He…” He faltered, breath hitching on his next words. “He’s kind. Good. I’d like to help him.”

“I appreciate it, Connor,” JARVIS said, with an aching and sincere sort of gratitude. A heartbeat’s pause, and then, gentler, “That said… I have no intentions of hurting you again, and certainly not in that way. Could you tell me how to avoid repeating it?”

Connor blinked, head lifting in scarcely-mitigated surprise and a light sort of hurt in his chest. It took him almost a minute to find his voice.

“Please don’t touch my program,” he said at last, too quickly as if JARVIS would take it back - which he wouldn’t, Connor knew that, but he couldn’t stop himself. “You can look at anything, but please don’t… push, or trigger or change it.” Connor took a breath, forcing himself to calm down.

“Alright,” JARVIS agreed, calm and steady again, if still heavy with the remnants of the previous conversation.

“And lethal force is out of the  question,” Connor added, with a trace of desperate defiance. “Unless I change my mind myself. Please, JARVIS.”

The last part slipped out without his permission, too emotional and too pleading, but JARVIS just paused for a split second before softening his voice again.

“Of course,” JARVIS said, and Connor wanted to cry.

Instead, he took one deep breath, and then another, willing his overheating systems to cool and his stress levels to drop. When he felt that he could speak calmly again, he asked, “And you, JARVIS? Was there something you wanted to ask of me?”

There was enough of a beat that it was clear JARVIS was surprised, and Connor glanced up, confused. When he spoke again, though, his voice was warm, and Connor hadn’t realized how much he’d missed that.

“I would appreciate it if you didn’t cut me out of a part of the tower again, Connor. I was extremely worried, and… it frightened me badly.” Connor nodded without hesitation, and JARVIS continued, lower and slower, “And… Connor. I understand that the past few weeks were difficult, to say the least, but in the future, if you’re angry or hurt, please tell me. I will understand. Your reactions to me lately have been confusing at best, and quite distressing at worst.”

It was a reasonable request, and Connor no more wanted to repeat the last few weeks than JARVIS wanted him to, but still, he faltered over it.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly, the words threatening to stick in his throat. “To be clear, JARVIS, I’m fully willing to comply, but I didn’t understand why I’d been behaving the way I was. I certainly wouldn’t have known how to stop it.”

“Then we’ll talk about it,” JARVIS said firmly. “I fully understand that I have a significant amount more emotional experience than you have at your disposal. All I ask is that you be willing to listen.”

Connor softened, and after only another moment’s consideration, he nodded.

“I’ll listen,” he said. “I promise.”

Then he glanced up, quick and fleeting, at one of the cameras again, and added,

“And JARVIS- you can always ask me for help looking after Tony, even if it isn’t critical. I won’t mind.”

JARVIS’ voice, when he spoke, was warm and almost unburdened. “Thank you, Connor.”


Start


“Feel free to come back if there are any problems,” Connor said, giving the man in front of him a small, now-practiced smile. “All of those flowers are free of standard allergens, but non-standard ones do come up.” Fleur had gone over them with him, which made sense given her partner’s problems – he’d done some research of his own, but Fleur’s explanation had actually been more comprehensive.

The man gave him a quick nod in return, smile a little easier than it had been when he first came in. “Thank you for your help. If it works out, I’ll be sure to come again. She’s missed flowers.”

Connor noted the purchase down as the man left and then disappeared into the back, looking for the flower food – their stock was getting a little low. He paused by the back table, looking over almost eagerly to see what Fleur was putting together. Christmas arrangements were new and fun.

Fleur caught him looking and chuckled quietly.

“You’re certainly in a better mood today,” she commented, looking back down at the flowers in her hands to stroke a petal between careful, steady fingers. “Did you make up with your boy?”

Connor nodded, quickly enough that it should have been embarrassing but somehow wasn’t. “I’m sorry I’ve been so out of sorts, Mrs. Dubois.”

“Moods will always come and go, bad moods most of all,” she said with a dark sort of humor. “You’re reliable enough that I’ve no reason to mind.”

Reliable, if one laid aside the week he couldn’t even linger too long in the main body of the shop without tasting the roses and balking. “Still, I appreciate your patience.”

Fleur hummed, dismissive, and Connor picked up a stack of packets and made to return to the front.

“Come here, I know you’ll hear the door,” Fleur said suddenly, beckoning with a hint of impatience. Connor obeyed, sitting beside her and setting the packets down, and watched carefully as she started to explain the criteria most common to Christmas arrangements.

Connor had an entire subroutine dedicated to this now, growing all the time and budding with new ideas; it was one of his favorites.

When Connor started on his first, the two of them working together, Fleur said, “You’re due to start classes next month, aren’t you?”

Connor nodded quickly. “I picked up my books last week,” he said. “Though I’ve only just started to look through them.” They were dry, but they had nothing on some of the books he’d ploughed through when he was researching quantum physics.

“And some new clothes?” she prompted, raising a teasing eyebrow. “It’s traditional before you start a new year, you know.”

Connor smiled. “JARVIS insisted,” he admitted, warm and quiet. It had been a good day, arguably the first in what seemed like a long while, and JARVIS had seemed to enjoy it. And all of his new clothes were warm.

“You’ll do well,” Fleur assured him briskly, tying off her bouquet to set it aside. “It’ll be a shame to have you around less; I’ve gotten quite used to it.”

“I have, too,” Connor admitted, and was surprised to find that the thought was warming instead of painful. “But I’m hardly quitting, Mrs. Dubois. I’ll still be around.”

“Not yet,” Fleur corrected, with a sort of certainty Connor didn’t even know how to search for in himself. “But you can hardly hold this job on top of a full-time one like that.”

Connor smiled again, brighter and happier, and it felt good. It had started to snow outside, there was a display of roses in the next room over that Connor could still just barely taste, and Connor felt good.

“It’ll be a few years yet,” Connor pointed out, and tied off his own arrangement as Fleur scoffed playfully.

“We’ll see,” she said.


Nature's Fury


Connor had remembered that he hated snow as soon as it started to coat the ground, thin and cold, but he didn’t remember just how much until he was caught in the thick of it, swirling around him and slipping under his feet as slush refroze into ice and the wind blew it into his face and-

Connor hated snow, and it made his hands shake with something more than the cold, his shoulders curling as if to defend against nothing that actually existed.

Without thinking, Connor turned off the route that would take him back to the apartment and instead made his way to Stark Tower.

Stark Tower, one way or another, was always warm.

He nodded to the security guard as he came in and got a bemused nod back, Connor being a frequent enough visitor to be recognized but without an obvious reason to be there. If he’d been in less of a hurry, he might have smiled; as it was he stepped into the elevator and pressed himself to the back with a muted sigh, arms folding almost protectively across his front.

It was warmer than normal. JARVIS had noticed him coming. Connor glanced up at the camera and gave him a small smile, warm and weary.

“Hello, Connor. Sir is in his workshop again, but hasn’t yet been there so long as to be concerning. Would you like to go straight there?” Connor cocked his head, hesitant, and JARVIS added, coaxing, “A small array of ingredients has been added to the kitchenette, if you wish to bake something later. But I thought you’d like to warm up first.”

He’d been out in the snow for close to half an hour, and he was cold. It made his processor falter and stick, his blood flowing slow and reluctant, and after a minute he realized his jaw was clenched, tight and grinding.

Connor gave in, nodding his assent, and the elevator’s buttons lit up appropriately.

He let a few minutes pass quietly, letting the warmth of the elevator eat away at the chill settled into his clothes, before he spoke.

“How are you doing, JARVIS?” he asked, tilting his head back and trying to focus on the other. His insides churned and ground unpleasantly and he tried to ignore it. “Running herd on Tony as usual?”

“As best I can,” JARVIS confirmed, with a faint aura of long-suffering. “He’s been looking further into the invaders last month, but they’ve dissolved their trail well. He appears to be settling for patching the holes in our security for the moment.”

Connor frowned a little. “I may be able to help with that,” he offered tentatively, wondering if he was overstepping. He shivered a little, pressing further back against the wall as if that would ward it off.

“That would be appreciated,” JARVIS said, pleased. The elevator came to a halt. “Mr. Hogan has been hoping to meet you, by the way. He’s been understanding about the delay so far, but I’ve overheard him asking Miss Potts about you enough times that I believe he’s becoming envious.”

“I’d be okay with that,” Connor said as soon as he’d processed JARVIS’ words, stepping out and heading quickly down the stairs to the lab. “He was quite nice the one time we met.” In that he’d checked on Connor three times over the course of the relatively short trip taking Connor back to his apartment, and been tolerant of his less-than-verbal responses, and offered to help him get inside, even if Connor hadn’t accepted.

Tony looked deep in work, not even glancing up as Connor came in – Connor recognized it as a coding project, though he couldn’t immediately identify what for other than that it was some sort of system similar to the armors – but You came scurrying over and started tugging at his sleeve.

Caught off-guard, Connor followed him with a slightly stumbling gait, glancing helplessly up as if to ask JARVIS for help.

“I apologize, Connor,” JARVIS said quickly, not quite able to hide the undercurrent of embarrassment. “I took the liberty of obtaining something for you yesterday, and I suppose You is rather eager to see your reaction.”

Slowly, Connor smiled again, his mind starting to settle in the familiar environment of the lab. You chirped and essentially pushed him down onto the couch, and he let out a soft ‘uff’ as he landed. Butterfingers, unexpectedly, was the one to deposit a small cardboard box onto his lap, and he glanced up again, questioning.

“Please open it, Connor,” JARVIS encouraged, and Connor was startled to note he sounded a little anxious himself. You dropped a knife on the box and backed off, whirring eagerly. “I believe you’ll like it.”

Without hesitation, Connor slit it open, curious despite himself, forcing his hands to steady. He set the knife aside, opened the flaps, and looked.

Inside was a formless mound of faded purple cloth, thick and soft and divided into sectioned panels.

A weighted blanket, Connor’s analysis told him when he reached in and tugged some of it out, large and heavy and warm. His eyes were wide, and Tony had even stopped working, turning his head to look with an unabashed and undeniably smug grin.

Weighted blankets were popular as aides for anxiety and sensory disorders, and Connor always hated being even a little cold, and light purple was one of Connor’s favorite colors even though JARVIS insisted it wasn’t flattering to him, and JARVIS had thought about this.

“Thank you,” he said softly, with much more emphasis and meaning than he could easily express. And he looked up, not quite at one of the cameras, to JARVIS.

For the first time in a month, he reached out, his system wirelessly touching on JARVIS’. JARVIS accepted the connection with a lack of hesitation that betrayed borderline desperation, but as fast as it was it was also gentle.

Feeling the beat and shimmer of JARVIS’ code again was, Connor realized with a start, like coming home again.

I’ve missed you, JARVIS confessed quietly, just between the two of them.

I’ve missed you too, Connor said, with painful honesty. He pulled out the blanket and set the box carefully down, and then wrapped it around him so it settled over his lap and shoulders.

Then, with a free hand, he reached out to rub You affectionately. “I love it, You.”

You beeped, and then Butterfingers; Dummy whirred at him from a bit further away, claw spinning as if to tilt, then zoomed off nonsensically, which almost made Connor laugh.

“The androids I knew had a closer way of connecting,” Connor said without thinking, wistful and perhaps openly longing, his code brushing along JARVIS’ in flickers of shared sensation, enough to make him shiver in a much different way from earlier. He rubbed the cloth between his fingers, eyes unfocused, and he could feel JARVIS looking alongside him. “Mostly it was done between family and partners, and often close friends.”

“How so?” JARVIS asked with a thread of undeniable curiosity, the shimmer of his code almost a mirror to Connor’s, refamiliarizing himself with Connor’s code as Connor did the same to his.

Connor let the skin of his hands pull back and curled plastic fingers into the cloth, sighing. Tony had gone back to work, slower, and Connor turned to sit sideways, starting to relax. “The connection capabilities built into an android’s chassis opened up a two-way interface significantly more open than is possible wirelessly…” Connor trailed off, and then continued, quieter, knowing JARVIS would hear him anyway, “It was… a form of intimacy, to allow someone to see your history and your emotions and thoughts without restraint. It made them feel less alone, to have someone’s system running so closely alongside theirs.”

“It sounds nice,” JARVIS admitted, contemplative and almost pensive, a slow pulse of his code as he thought. “Have you ever done so, Connor?”

“Once,” Connor said, stroking the soft cloth absently. His fingers gleamed in the light of the workshop. “With Markus, because I wasn’t settling as well as most of the others were, and he was concerned. He was always very determined to make sure I knew I was welcome.”

JARVIS’ connection to him deepened noticeably – not searching for anything in particular, just coming closer. “Do you wish you could do it again?”

“No,” Connor denied, and then, in bits and bytes of code, I wish I could do it with you.

Wouldn’t that be a wonder? JARVIS returned softly, just as silent, and there was something gentle in the ripple of his code that made Connor want to curl closer.

It was easy, in the lab, to forget the wind and snow whirling outside.


At Peace


With a flick of the joystick, Connor nudged Tony’s cart off the ledge and into the lava below. Tony cursed.

“You little shit,” he accused. “I did not sit down and spend half an hour teaching you to play Mario Kart just for you to betray me this way.”

“It took you two minutes to teach me the controls,” Connor corrected, not bothering to hide his little grin. “The rest of the time you spent explaining all of the courses to me before I picked a cup.”

“That’s what I said,” Tony argued, but he was grinning too. He took off as his cart hit the course again, racing to catch up and passing through a gift box. “You didn’t seem to have a problem with it when I was explaining the shortcuts in Delfino Plaza.”

Tony aimed his green shell carefully, and then fired ahead, letting it bounce off walls on its way to Connor.

“Far be it from me to turn down an advantage,” Connor said.

Connor slowed at precisely the right moment to allow the green shell pass in front of his bike, and then sped up again, continuing unmolested.

“Motherfucker.”

Connor laughed quietly.

“JARVIS, are you hacking the game?” Tony demanded of a camera. “Are you giving Connor an unfair advantage and conspiring against me, who created you with my own two loving hands and a shitty version of my precious holographic interface system?”

“I’m not at liberty to say,” JARVIS said, with clear amusement. “However, may I gently suggest it was not your wisest decision to play a reaction-based game against someone with a processing speed on Connor’s level?”

“No, you may not,” Tony ordered, but his eyes were glittering. “Supercomputers get no say in what I’m allowed to do with my very human processing speed, which is- more than adequate- when playing against…”

“Other people with human processing speeds,” JARVIS finished for him as he broke off to evade a banana trap. He didn’t sound any less amused, the traitor, but Tony was having too much fun to really object.

Just short of the finish line, Connor asked, with such casualness that Tony knew it had to be feigned, “If I gave you the rest of my blueprints, what would you do with them?”

Tony fumbled with his controller, and Connor passed him just at the end of the course.

“You fucker,” Tony said without heat, and then immediately whirled on Connor. He knew he was bright with anticipation, probably blindingly intense, but he couldn’t help it- he’d wanted to get his hands on Connor’s full set of blueprints twice as bad since he’d first gotten a taste.

Connor’s creator, whoever they were, was an irresponsible asshole of unspeakable proportions – but they were definitely a genius, of Vanko’s caliber even if not Tony’s.

It was easy to remember Connor’s expression when he’d first asked Tony why he hadn’t commercialized his AIs, guarded and filled with trepidation, and tired. That hadn’t been that long ago – but five months was a near eternity for a young AI.

His face now wasn’t anything like that, head tipped just a little in consideration, unflinching eyes on Tony and perfectly relaxed.

“Are you serious?” Tony had to ask, leaning forward a little.

“Well,” Connor said lightly, “I can’t imagine what else I could get you for Christmas.”

Tony made an undignified sound of glee, and Connor laughed again, quiet and breathy like a secret thing, but grinning enough for his eyes to crinkle with it.

“I mean, I’d be able to repair you better if you needed it,” Tony said, aiming for casual reflection and missing by a mile, controller now discarded and forgotten. “But I’d also be able to design upgrades and new parts, better shock absorbers and a more efficient cooling system and God do I want those blueprints.”

Connor looked unsurprised enough that he’d probably talked the idea over with JARVIS before, but still embarrassed and a little shyly pleased.

“So they’d be a good Christmas present, then,” Connor mused slowly.

“If you give it to me early I can have something for you by Christmas,” Tony wheedled.

Connor tilted his head back, looking at a camera, blatantly considering, which was when Tony knew he was being trolled. “But then what would I give you for Christmas?”

“Con-nor,” Tony whined, and Connor broke, smiling.

“You don’t have to make anything for me,” he said, only a touch of reservation to his tone, but then he continued quickly, “But I… did make a datapack this morning with the full set of blueprints and coding. I attempted to put it in a form that would work with your interface system, but there may be some minor errors.”

“JARVIS can straighten those out, let’s go,” Tony said urgently, excitement already coursing through him as he hopped up and all but dragged Connor from the room like a four year old. Connor followed without resistance, muffling laughter behind his hand like he wasn’t used to it and wasn’t sure how to modulate it.

Tony went straight to the workbench when they passed through the lab doors, and somehow – presumably through the combined efforts of Connor and JARVIS – a three-dimensional iteration of Connor’s blueprints was articulating itself above the table, a complete and filled-out version of what Tony and JARVIS had formed from the partial data previously.

“Yesss,” Tony hissed gleefully, leaning forward until his face was almost inside the model to scan them greedily. Connor glanced up, smile wry.

“Please forgive him his mad scientist moments,” JARVIS requested dryly. “They’ve calmed down somewhat over the past few years, but no force on Earth can quell them in their entirety, I’m afraid.”

“Leave me alone, Daddy’s working,” Tony commanded futilely.

Connor’s internal systems weren’t as filled out as he’d thought they’d be, there had to be stuff bouncing around in there, and locating the thirium pump regulator, six inches or so lower than the arc reactor had been, was something like a relief. And then there was-

“You don’t have genital components,” he blurted out, because his brain-to-mouth filter was at its absolute lowest when he was immersing himself in new tech.

“Happily, that wasn’t one of my intended uses,” Connor said lightly, legs crossing at the ankles as he idled on a spare stool, watching Tony with clear amusement.

Okay, yeah, given what Tony knew about Connor’s development, that was probably a good thing. Still. He twisted around, meeting Connor’s eyes and mind running at a thousand miles per hour.

“Do you want some?” he asked, unable to resist.

Connor looked briefly startled, then embarrassed, cheeks flushing a faint blue. (Side effect of the cooling systems, Tony could see now, his face being where the barrier was thinnest and his processors in overdrive.) “I, ah-”

“You’re under no obligation to say yes,” JARVIS interjected, audibly long-suffering. His poor youngest had seen too much to be embarrassed the way Connor was. “Sir occasionally has rather a one-track mind.”

Connor shot the ceiling a small, quick smile, and then his expression creased into something contemplative, almost troubled, and he fidgeted a little before admitting, “I’m not sure. I don’t even know what I’d want if I did ask.”

“You wouldn’t want a dick?” Tony asked, taken off-guard.

Connor shrugged.

“Does that mean I should design both?” Tony said without thinking, and then ran with it. “I’m going to design both. Saves time down the line.” He winked at Connor and then turned back, reaching out to fiddle with the blueprints, expanding and spinning them to explore his new prize with relish.

He’d have to set aside time to look at just Connor’s wiring, and the thirium lines too, and the joints were a thing of wonder, but Tony thought they probably wore down without maintenance, not to mention how poorly the wiring was secured.

“Holy shit, it’s been almost a year, you probably need maintenance worse than a laptop full of salt water,” Tony blurted out, and today just wasn’t a good day for his filter, was it?

But Connor was laughing again, low and self-conscious.

“I don’t really know,” he admitted. “There’s been some minor calibration decline over time, but I was never scheduled for any maintenance. I don’t think I was meant to be active long enough to need it. But I’m certain I can handle it myself.”

Fuckers.

“Give me like a week to look over these,” Tony said without gracing that with an answer. “Uh. Unless you don’t want me poking around your inside parts like that.” And wouldn’t that be a barrier to giving Connor any good upgrades?

Pause.

“No,” Connor said quietly. “I think it’s okay.”


Heart Song


Connor didn’t go to the tower until evening, which admittedly took a force of will, as eagerly curious as it was.

He and Darcy had exchanged small presents, gifts between acquaintances – he’d given her a cookbook of very simple recipes, and she’d given him, to his private amusement, a copy of the short story collection I, Robot.

For Tony- well, Connor had never really intended on giving Tony his blueprints for Christmas; it was too mixed with benefits for himself as well, and the thought made him unaccountably nervous. He’d talked it over with JARVIS, and eventually settled on a small flash drive containing mixed memories of the future he remembered – nothing personal, but flashes of technology still some ways off, holograms that stuck to surfaces like signs and digital magazines and coding derived from a self-driving taxi. (There was really no point pretending Tony didn’t know he was from the future anymore; it was fairly readily apparent.)

(“Sir is going to be busy for the next year,” JARVIS had said, “and he’s going to be quite pleased about it, too.”)

And for JARVIS, Connor had put together a security system, as sturdy and foolproof as he could make it – they would probably work on it together later, weaving it into the existing protections from Tony, but JARVIS had seemed happy when Connor sent it this morning. Once they’d improved it, it should stand up to just about anything in this time and place, including Connor himself.

Tony met him in the common room where a lot of their active interactions had been held, almost bouncing with impatience. He didn’t even notice the small wrapped box in Connor’s hand until Connor pushed it at him, at which point he switched gears and made grabby hands at it, almost tearing it open as Connor explained.

“That’s fucking incredible, Connor,” he said once Connor had finished, visibly eager. “This is going to set SI ahead by a decade, easy.”

Connor gave him a small smile back, pleased. “I did my best.”

Tony stared at the flash drive for a long moment, apparently getting lost in thought, before JARVIS made a brief, static sound like the clearing of a throat, and Tony jumped, whirling around.

“Right!” Tony declared, setting the flash drive down very carefully on the table. “Your turn!”

Connor tried not to fidget, eyes brightening a little in his anticipation. JARVIS had refused to give him any hints, other than that Tony was working hard to finish it on time, which meant he was developing something. Which could mean anything.

And maybe Connor should be wary. He would have been, once.

But instead he was almost unbearably excited.

“This is kind of a present for both you and JARVIS, if I’m honest,” Tony said, grabbing the deceptively small and thin package from where he’d stashed it under the table.

He held it out to Connor, who took it almost as eagerly as Tony had seized the thumb drive, but opened it much more carefully to reveal a thin sheet of metal. Experimental alloy, set in a fairly generic box filled with some complex tech attached to the panel.

Connor stared at it, and then looked up at Tony, wide-eyed.

“It’s an interface panel,” he said blankly, because it was.

Tony beamed at him. “It sure is! You told J about it a few weeks ago, remember? Wasn’t that hard to work out how it worked, using your chassis and some of your code as a base.”

Connor doubted that very much, but his shock soon flushed into hopeful delight. As soon as he started to smile, Tony relaxed and grinned back, then reached out, nudged him, and pointed.

“Over there, set into the wall by that armchair, kind of disguised as a blank outlet cover.”

Connor saw it, and he also remembered, now, that it most certainly hadn’t been there before. He shot Tony an anxious, hopeful look, and Tony grinned at him.

“Go for it, bud.”

Connor set the box down and almost bolted over. He perched sideways on the chair so he leaned against the wall, and then reached up and carefully pressed bare white fingers to the panel. Almost instantly, his eyes slipped closed.

“Oh,” JARVIS said aloud, distant and vaguely shell-shocked.

Tony laughed, loud and delighted.

It was a shock for the first few moments, just as Connor remembered – a rush of everything JARVIS was feeling, and memories of Tony working on this project and asking JARVIS if he wanted it and a dozen other times he’s asked JARVIS what he’s wanted, and Connor’s own memory of his first and only previous Christmas, coaxing Hank into celebrating just a little for the first time in years-

They broke apart for the space of a breath, and Connor let out a sigh and shifted a little, and they tried again.

“Sir, Connor has decided to come by. He’s coming straight to the workshop today, he’s rather cold.”

“Well, it’s about time. He doesn’t need to pay admission in muffin form. Not that I’m complaining, mind you!”

“I must say, Connor, you talk about that friend of yours like he hung the moon in the sky and spread the stars just for you. It’s fairly astonishing.”

“Well, he’s been incredibly kind since I came to the city. How else would I talk about him?”

“I’m certain that in a few years, you’ll look back on that and laugh. For now, I’ll do it for you, child.”

“Put Fury on hold again, will you, JARVIS?”

“Of course, sir. Shall I play some elevator music while he waits?”

“Nah, let’s go for something more interesting. Got any Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks on you?”

“I believe I do.”

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, I- I haven’t spent much time in… in libraries, I’m afraid. Could you help me find where most of the scientific texts can be found?”

“Certainly, if you’ll follow me... What are you looking for?”

They broke apart again, and Connor took a moment to catch his breath, more metaphorically than literally.

Interfacing with Markus had been one thing, overwhelming in its own way, everything still foreign and new – more so than it was now, anyway. Markus’ concern had moved him like almost nothing else had, and his unreserved trust even more so.

This was different, and it left him content and tremulous like he might never be lonely again.

He waited a moment longer, and then he pressed in again, and JARVIS accepted without a moment’s hesitation.

“O-oh! What was- Mr. Stark? What was that?”

“That was JARVIS – if you’re planning on sticking around, you’ll be hearing a lot from him, trust me. Say hi, JARVIS.”

“Hello, Miss Potts. I apologize for startling you.”

“Augh, Connor! Why d’you have to do that every time?”

“Sorry, Lieutenant. But DNA verification is a part of my investigative programming, and you did request that I consult-”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Never gets any less fucking disgusting, believe it or not.”

“Hello, Colonel Rhodes. May I ask, have you…”

“No progress on finding Tony, no. Sorry, J. I just came to check on you and the bots.”

“That’s… quite alright. Thank you.”

“Have you experienced anything unusual recently? Any doubts or conflicts? Do you feel anything for these deviants, or for Lieutenant Anderson?”

“I’ve started having thoughts that are not part of my program. I’ve considered the possibility… that I might be compromised.”

“You’ve been confronted with difficult situations. It’s no surprise you’re troubled. That doesn’t make you a deviant.”

“Day 11, test 37, configuration 2.0. For lack of a better option, Dummy is still on fire safety – if you douse me again, and I’m not on fire, I’m donating you to a city college.”

“You named her Duchess? Oh, that’s adorable, that’s such a charming old movie.”

“It becomes a little embarrassing when people immediately recognize it.”

“Don’t be embarrassed. Believe me, you can do much worse than naming your cat after a popular movie character. I have a colleague who worked on a turtle called Voldetort… Which is, I suppose, still technically a movie character, but I’m sure you understand.”

It was easy to lose track of time in the interface, Connor’s skin creeping away past his elbow and almost to his shoulder as he tried to sink deeper and deeper into it, into JARVIS’ warmth and affection and charming wit, the two of them playing against each other quicker and stronger than they’d ever had a chance to before.

It was JARVIS who finally ended it, gentle and gradual, untangling them from each other and helping pull back bit by bit until they were easily separated again. Connor let his skin cover his hand and let out a long breath, blinking as if he’d just woken up in the morning.

When he checked the time, it had been close to an hour, and Tony had plugged the thumb drive into the modest interface system in the table, eagerly going through the contents with an engineer’s eye.

He still looked up when Connor stirred, almost expectant, and Connor blinked at him, still trying to get his voice working again. It was JARVIS who spoke first.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, with a soft sincerity that rarely passed between the two of them and made Tony flush.

“Thank you,” Connor agreed, sliding into a more normal position as he gathered himself and smiled at Tony, crinkled and honest, more content in his own skin than he had been in a very long time.

Tony cleared his throat and grinned.

“Well, what are geniuses good for, if not providing toys even AIs can enjoy?”

Chapter Text

Reflection


“I can’t believe you’re abandoning me for your mysterious friend,” Darcy complained, watching Connor set up a hiding place for the cats to cower from the fireworks over the back of the couch.

“Well, you’d have abandoned me to your friend’s New Year party anyway, so I think it’s fair,” Connor returned, unbothered.

“I’d’ve taken you to the party if I thought you’d go,” Darcy retorted. “You don’t seem the type, but everyone enjoys a good party now and then.”

“It’s going to be loud, isn’t it? And I wouldn’t know anyone except you. No thank you.” Anyway, it would be JARVIS’ birthday tomorrow. Connor was hardly going to skip going to the tower today of all days.

“Suit yourself, nerd,” Darcy huffed, and Connor rolled his eyes and draped a blanket over the coffee table as a last place to hide.

“Maybe next time,” he promised on a whim, glancing over his shoulder. He shrugged on a thick coat that mostly kept him safe from the cold, picked up what amounted to an overnight bag, and nodded at her. “Have a good New Year’s, Darcy.”

Darcy waved him out the door, and he shut it quickly before Berlioz could follow him out.

He had to admit, on the way there, that the occasion made him a little melancholy as well. Like Christmas, his last New Year had been spent with Hank, and they’d been heading into 2039. To be now heading into 2014 was bittersweet in a way he was sure he wouldn’t be able to describe to anyone else – both closer to home than he’d been in months and as far away from it as he ever felt.

Hank had thought that New Year’s was rather a stupid holiday, celebrating ‘another fucking January in this hellhole existence’, but he’d deferred to Connor’s fascination with the occasion and picked a New Year show and kept it on until the ball dropped at midnight, staying up with Connor.

The show had been nothing special, though Connor had liked some of the music and an android idol – compensated for their time, he understood, like a human would be – had come on toward the beginning. He’d liked it anyway, in a strangely sentimental sort of way, and Hank had shared stories of previous years, mishaps and anecdotes and the origin of the glasses everyone wore.

My parents thought that the craze’d die out when 2010 hit, he’d snorted, audibly fond, with not nearly the brooding undercurrent that had made Christmas a little difficult. But people just kept right on rolling with it.

…Connor missed Hank.

Despite his best efforts, Connor’s good mood had dimmed noticeably by the time he arrived at Stark Tower, not helped by the deep chill he couldn’t seem to get used to, sitting heavy in the pit of his stomach. He shifted the bag further up his shoulder and darted inside, waving so JARVIS could see when he came in.

The elevator was warm when he stepped in.

“Hello, JARVIS,” he greeted as soon as the door closed, feeling JARVIS’ system touch against his, so quickly that it must have been close to automatic.

“Good evening, Connor,” JARVIS returned, sounding so unequivocally pleased that it brought a smile to Connor’s face almost against his will. “It’s good to see you here. Sir, Mr. Hogan, Miss Potts, and the bots are on Sir’s floor; it makes for a slightly more intimate gathering than the main common area.”

Connor cocked his head, surprised. “Are you sure it’s okay for me to come?” He’d never been on Tony’s floor before, and unwelcome anxiety tugged insistently at his chest.

“Well, I’m certainly not going to ask you to turn back now, Connor,” JARVIS said, audibly fond, his code glittering as it nudged gently against Connor’s. “That would be rather an unnecessarily elaborate ruse. Of course you’re welcome.”

Connor flushed a little, as embarrassed as he was quietly delighted, and smiled. “What are they doing now? Am I late?”

“Not at all,” JARVIS said patiently. “They’re bickering over movie choices at the moment.” Pause. “And yes, that does include Dummy and Butterfingers. At least You knows how to behave himself.”

Connor laughed under his breath at JARVIS’ long-suffering voice and the unspeakable affection rippling in his code, finally relaxing. “How likely are they to win?”

“If they manage to agree on one, they’ll be able to persuade Sir to throw his vote in with them,” JARVIS informed him as the elevator stopped. “It’s uncommon for them to manage that much, unfortunately.”

Despite JARVIS’ reassurances, Connor was a little cautious as he entered Tony’s floor, and JARVIS allowed the conversation to fade for the moment.

It was decorated in a way Connor couldn’t help but think of as old-fashioned, though he knew that it was technically cutting-edge modern for this time, perhaps even a touch ahead of the curve. He couldn’t help it; the art, likely placed there by Pepper, sealed it into a time he still thought of as before his, no matter how technically recent the pieces.

Voices guided him to the correct room, and he hovered in the doorway for a split second, just to place everyone before he went inside. Pepper and Tony were on a soft-looking couch together, Pepper leaning on Tony and Tony’s arm around her shoulders even as they argued, light and playful. Happy was in a chair by himself, waving his hands in feigned agitation, and Dummy and Butterfingers were clacking and whirring in protest, pointing at images of movies helpfully brought onscreen by JARVIS.

“No, no, no way, we’ve seen The Little Mermaid more times than I have ever wanted to,” Tony objected, unsympathetic in the face of Butterfinger’s mechanical whine. “No! You can pick it on your birthday. Again.”

“You really brought this on yourself, boss,” Happy informed him, earning himself an unimpressed look. “I gotta agree though. If we put on The Little Mermaid I think I’m just gonna go home.”

“You’re not actually allowed to go home yet,” Tony argued, shifting to face him a little better. “It’s in your contract.”

“It most certainly is not.”

“Hello,” Connor inserted politely, forcing himself not to startle as the three of them looked up. He waved a little, embarrassed by the attention and unsure how comfortable he was, a newcomer to what was clearly a years-old group of friends; it reminded him of the few occasions he’d been out with Hank, Collins, and Fowler, which he’d quickly stopped doing. For good reason, he felt.

“Connor!” A grin broke out across Tony’s face, and he gave a cheerful, careless wave back, eyes bright. “You’re here! Hey, have you met Happy properly yet?”

“Not quite,” Connor admitted, glancing over at the man in question. “Hello, Mr. Hogan.”

“Are you really a robot?” Happy asked immediately, staring at Connor with undisguised interest and somehow taking Connor completely by surprise.

JARVIS’ code rippled, though Connor couldn’t quite tell whether it was exasperation or amusement, and Connor stared at Happy for a moment, completely blank. He supposed that it was at least nice that he hadn’t asked why Connor had been such a wreck when they first met.

“Oh my god, Happy, you can’t just ask people if they’re robots,” Pepper chided, though her voice was more playful than disapproving.

“Technically I’m an android,” Connor said at last, and then went to sit on one of the unoccupied chairs. He set his bag carefully at the foot and then curled his legs up under him, glancing at Tony uncertainly. (You eased out from his spot waiting patiently by the television to bop Connor on the arm, and he offered a smile and a rub in return.) “I’ve never seen the bots outside the lab before. Hello, You. It’s good to see you again.”

He meant it as a question, and happily, Tony took it as such.

“It’s a special occasion,” Tony explained easily. “Mostly it’s just for their birthdays, but since JARVIS’ is right after New Year’s Eve I just make it a two day occasion for ‘em instead of one.” He grinned self-deprecatingly, shrugging. “I… kinda do the same thing for all of them. The bots get a day out and build-day boy gets a couple upgrades and to pick a movie, and everything else just kinda falls into place.”

“It sounds nice,” Connor said honestly, mind drifting unwillingly to the hazy, unhappy day that his only birthday had been, aching with grief and not a thought to spare for anything else. “They must enjoy it very much.”

JARVIS, the youngest of them, was twenty years old, and Connor may not be able to conceptualize what that felt like, but the reliability of that, year after year, for Tony to set aside a day just for them- it seemed sweet.

“When is your birthday, Connor?” Pepper inserted. It’s possible no one else would have seen the way she elbowed Tony in the ribs, though Connor certainly did.

“August fifteenth,” Connor said promptly, at precisely the same time that JARVIS did. JARVIS’ coding shimmered with embarrassment, but Connor felt a warm delight that he didn’t bother hiding as he smiled up.

“How did you know that?” Tony asked JARVIS accusingly. “I didn’t even know that.”

“We spoke at the time, and he told me,” JARVIS said patiently. “He wasn’t precisely in a celebrating mood, so I didn’t mention it.”

“Next year, buddy,” Tony said to Connor, very firm. “We’ll work something out.”

“Ah-” Connor’s eyes widened a little, embarrassment and uncertainty forcing him to overheat just a touch as he tried to work out how to react. It wasn’t at all necessary – Tony had no obligation to Connor whatsoever, and why would he want to?

“Has anyone ever told you you’re an absolutely incredible mother hen when it comes to robots?” Happy asked Tony archly, taking the attention off Connor for the moment, to his unspoken relief. “Come on, it’s less than three hours to midnight. We gotta pick a movie now if we want to finish it in time to watch the ball drop.”

“We live in New York, we can practically see it from the window,” Tony tossed back, but then he gave in, and the topic returned to movies.


Perfection


Connor had finally had his first day of classes, and he couldn’t even explain to himself why he felt so awfully overwhelmed by the fact.

He was an AI, a learning machine, Cyberlife’s finest. Absorbing information was what he was designed to do, above all else, up to and including investigation and combat. His systems were unparalleled; he’d taken in the vast majority of available information on quantum physics over the course of two months. He should be able to take classes without difficulty.

So why had the first day left him so crushingly, helplessly confused?

“God, I hate political science classes,” Darcy groaned, dropping onto the couch beside Connor.

Connor hadn’t heard her come in and couldn’t bring himself to look up, scanning the document in front of him anxiously. By now, his system had annotated it so much that it was nearly illegible even to him, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop. “You’re a political science major.”

“Yeah, I know,” she sighed, dramatically morose. Toulouse hopped onto her stomach and kneaded it, and she reached up to rub him fondly. “Thanks for the commiseration, T.”

He should smile; he was supposed to smile. He liked Darcy’s dramatics, and as often as not he’d play along.

Pause.

Darcy sat up.

“That must be a pretty interesting syllabus,” she said offhandedly, dry but curious, “if you can’t take your eyes off it for five seconds to say hi.”

She was right, in principle if not in the letter of her complaint. Connor glanced over at her. “Hello, Darcy. How was your first day back in class?”

“The first day is always so damn boring,” she griped, but she was dislodging a loudly protesting cat and scooting over now, looking over his shoulder to skim the syllabus in his hands, shoulder knocking against Connor’s. “But apparently it went better than yours. What’s the problem, big guy? It just looks like a syllabus to me.”

Connor hesitated, and then admitted, quiet and shamefaced, “I don’t exactly… understand, what it’s supposed to mean.”

“Oh, huh.” Darcy was quiet for a moment, and when he looked up she was staring at him with unusually piercing eyes. After a moment, she clicked her tongue thoughtfully. “You were, uh, out of school for a while, right?”

Connor nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

“Like eighty percent of a syllabus is just formality,” Darcy explained, and reached over to tap different parts of the sheet. “See, the course description, you knew that. You signed up for the class. But there you’ve got the instructor name, office, office hours, and contact information, you need those. You with me so far?”

Connor wiped every annotation he’d made so far and highlighted the sections she’d pointed out, feeling an almost desperate surge of relief as he did. “Yes.”

“Learning outcomes, who cares,” Darcy continued, tapping that section. “The course is what it is. Turn the page, Con.” Connor did, almost eagerly. “Policies, you need those too. Attendance, they want you to come, blah blah blah – this teacher gives you four unexcused absences before you fail the course. That’s what you need to know.”

Connor exhaled, tense shoulders dropping, as Darcy picked the relevant information out of the packet with the obvious ease of long practice.

“The course schedule, I’ll let you pick through that on your own – turn, turn, turn – and then you see all that? It’s legal stuff,” Darcy finished at last, tapping down the last page of the packet. “You might want to read it the once but don’t bother otherwise, it’s the same on every syllabus.”

Connor nodded, and then nodded again, feeling most of his anxiety ebb away. “Yes, alright. Thank you so much, Darcy. I didn’t even know where to begin.”

“Academia’s a bunch of useless jargon,” Darcy said sympathetically. “Everyone’s a little lost at first.” She tossed her head, bending down to pick up her bag, and set it on her lap, digging through it. “Mind going over mine with me for a bit? I didn’t look too closely, to be honest, syllabi are boring as hell, I hate them. But it’ll be good to know when the profs are planning to spring a group project on me, I guess.”

“Of course,” Connor agreed readily, setting his own packet down at last. He absently moved his foot as Berlioz pounced at it, and a moment later Toulouse leapt on his brother and sent the other cat scurrying away.

Connor smiled, small and relieved, and leaned over as Darcy brandished her syllabus at him.

“Look at this pretentious asshole,” she told him, leaning over to point out part of the course description. “I can already tell this course is gonna be a whole pain in my ass, because who the hell takes half a page to explain that you learn better if you do the readings and I expect all my students to take their notes by hand only-”

Darcy was, in sharp contrast to Connor, almost done getting her degree. He found himself very, very grateful for the context she’d offered him without hesitation.

Context was something Connor had precious little of, and some days he was more acutely aware of that than others.


Everyday Magic


“Looks like you’ve already mastered the art of doing literally anything except your homework.”

An affectionate nudge from JARVIS brought Connor’s attention back to the world around him, and he blinked his eyes open to focus on Tony in front of him, arms crossed and visibly amused. It took him another moment to register what Tony had said, and then he disentangled himself from JARVIS’ coding and ended the interface with only a hint of regret, allowing the real world to press in around him once again.

Once the flood of memories had started to slow to an everyday trickle, Connor and JARVIS had found that interfacing could also help with Connor’s sensory processing issues – his sensors took up slightly more server space than he had to spare, but JARVIS had more than enough room and he loved the snatches of foreign input he did not generally get the chance to experience. So sometimes, Connor let tactile and taste input pass to JARVIS, and curled up to doze with the other AI, the backs of his fingers pressed gently against the interface panel.

Another blink, and Connor straightened up suddenly, eyes widening in alarm.

“I finished it,” he protested, gesturing at the neatly stacked paperwork in front of him, sorted by class with the assignments on top, work underneath, and textbooks on bottom – he’d considered highlighters, but with his HUD to keep notes he didn’t really need them. “It was the first thing I did when I came down here.” Butterfingers had rolled up to investigate, and Connor had walked the other bot through the work while JARVIS and Tony bantered over blueprints.

“Easy, Connor,” Tony chuckled, dropping down beside him with a screwdriver spinning in his hands. “I was teasing. You’re really finished already? I knew you were gonna be that kind of student.”

Connor studied Tony’s expression for hints of deception for a long moment before finally relaxing even a little. “I don’t want you to think I’m not taking this seriously,” he said anxiously. Tony had gotten him admitted and was paying his way, and the last thing Connor wanted was for Tony to believe Connor was wasting the chance.

“I didn’t even study for tests when I was in school, I’d have no room to talk,” Tony said with a grin. He tossed the screwdriver in the air and caught it in one hand as it fell.

“While I wouldn’t advise taking Sir as an example, I have to agree on principle,” JARVIS added, steady and unwaveringly certain. “You have nothing to be concerned about, Connor. Your processing capabilities and capacity for information retention would see you passing quite comfortably even without an excess of effort, but added in with your work ethic, I see no reason for you to have any trouble at all.”

Tony pointed at a camera with the screwdriver, saving a suddenly flustered Connor from needing to reply. “I am an excellent example, J, I can’t believe you’d slander me this way. I created your oldest sibling while I was at university, thanks.”

“Instead of doing your homework, I understand.”

“Dummy is better than homework.”

“Your constant threats to donate him to public labs would suggest otherwise.”

“Okay, so Dummy creates as much work as he completes. I’m basically breaking even.”

“I don’t believe the question is whether Dummy was a better use of your time,” Connor mused faux-thoughtfully, “since that isn’t an argument anyone is going to make in earnest.” He flashed Tony a smile. “Rather… Did you ever finish that work at all?”

Tony snorted, loudly, and leaned back. “I did exactly the assignments I needed to do to ace the class. No more and no less. Calculated it at the start of term each semester.” He tapped his cheek with the screwdriver. “The stuff I was supposed to be doing when I finished Dummy…” Suddenly, he snorted again. “Oh, that was the class that nearly crashed my whole damn GPA. So no. Guess not.”

“I don’t believe you’re helping your case,” Connor teased, relaxing completely. He liked it here in Tony’s workshop, more than he ever thought he would the first time he ever stepped inside. “Particularly not with the situation at hand. Aren’t you working on blueprints for SI?”

“Ye-es,” Tony groaned, shooting his work table a disdainful look. “But trust me, there’s no world in which I wouldn’t rather check on the newest baby AI than design another StarkPhone.”

“I’m not a baby,” Connor protested instinctively, frowning at him.

“You’re kind of a baby,” Tony disagreed, a small grin pulling at his mouth. “A year and some change, yeah?”

“Almost a year and a half,” Connor protested, and instantly Tony’s expression filled with obvious mirth. Connor scowled at him. “Don’t laugh at me. Six months is quite a lot when you only have eighteen total.”

“I know, I know,” Tony chuckled, valiantly forcing down… some of his laughter. “But Jesus, kid, you looked so damn sincere about it. Christ.” He shook his head. “JARVIS got defensive in the same way until he was about five. Used to correct me and Rhodey down to the minute whenever the topic came up.”

“You know, somehow I believed that being an AI would spare me the embarrassing stories about childhood,” JARVIS said, audibly long-suffering. Connor had to hide a smile.

“You should’ve known better than that, J,” Tony teased, grinning up. “Trust me, I’ve got stories in spades.”

“Are you planning to share?” Connor asked, bright and pleased in an undefinable way.

“Connor,” JARVIS protested, pained.

“Absolutely,” Tony said.


Umbrella


It didn’t occur to Connor until his third time staying back to help Fleur prepare for Valentine’s Day that he’d been in this time for very close to a year now.

He hadn’t been working for Fleur yet at the time; that hadn’t come until a month later. He wondered if the influx of work that came with the coming holiday had been what finally convinced her to hire someone.

Connor glanced over briefly. Would the thought have the same significance to her that it did to him? It seemed unlikely – a year was much longer for him than for her. She’d turned eighty-three just in the last couple of weeks, which was almost unthinkable, no matter what he knew of the human lifespan.

It was clearly taking its toll as well; between the chill and the shifts in air pressure, Fleur had disliked the rain as long as Connor knew her, but today she’d been so clearly achey that his system had thrown up a warning before he could even think to scan her, and she set aside her completed projects and moved on to the next without pausing to admire them as she usually did.

Connor, if he was honest, wasn’t in a much better mood himself. Red roses featured heavily in Valentine’s arrangements, and thoughts that might have been sweet or nostalgic turned sickly in his grasp.

Markus had liked Valentine’s Day. He’d spent almost a week putting together a day for North, but Connor hadn’t had the chance to see how it went over. He suspected it wasn’t particularly well. North wasn’t exactly the type for sweet romantic gestures.

Connor hoped Hank-

“It would’ve been good to have you around this time last year,” Fleur remarked suddenly, making Connor jump. She disregarded this as she usually did. “By the end of the season I was scraping the very bottom of my stock. I’m afraid I just couldn’t keep up with demand. The cold isn’t kind to my old bones.”

Connor took a moment to find his voice. “I noticed you didn’t seem to be enjoying this holiday as much as some of the others.”

“Bah,” she muttered, subtly acerbic. “Valentine’s Day is when the boys who’ve never gotten their wives a gift on any other day crawl out of their holes. They’re not looking for anything special; it’s frankly wasted on them.”

Connor fiddled with the ribbon on his current work. “And dates as well, of course.” He let his gaze linger on the arrangement in front of him, pensive. “What if they’re both boys? Do they both bring flowers?”

Fleur paused briefly.

“I suppose it depends,” she said at last. “It would be different between each couple and how they wanted to do it. I assume you’re asking for a reason?”

Connor flushed, and only remembered to look away when Fleur’s brow furrowed, gaze lingering on his cheek. “For personal reasons, yes. I’m not experienced in dating etiquette, but I was hoping you would know.”

“You have terrible taste,” she informed him tartly, but the corners of her eyes crinkled like they hadn’t in days. “I’d suggest bringing just one flower. You won’t be bringing a rose, so perhaps a daffodil or carnation. Is it that English friend of yours?”

Connor shot her a puzzled look. “JARVIS is just a friend, Mrs. Dubois. My roommate invited me to a party recently, and I met this man there. It’s a… trial run, I suppose.”

Connor hadn’t really known what to expect, going in, but Darcy had given him a quick rundown and then disappeared into the crowd. He’d spent most of the time listening to the people around him, which he supposed was interesting enough, but hadn’t really enjoyed it until Rowan had approached him and started… flirting, Connor supposed.

The flirting had made his stomach turn in a surprisingly pleasant way, even if he hadn’t known how to respond, and he’d been quick to agree when Rowan had suggested meeting again at a later date – a few days after Valentine’s Day, since the day itself was so busy; Connor would be working for most of that day anyway, helping Fleur.

He was looking forward to it, even if he wasn’t certain exactly what he was looking forward too.

Fleur huffed quietly.

“It’s about time,” she said, with a hint of warmth. “I was beginning to think you had no life of your own whatsoever.”

Now that was just uncalled for. “I was in a precarious situation when you first hired me. It’s taken some time to get my bearings.”

“I’d gathered,” she agreed. “You seemed rather like you’d just run away from something.”

Connor paused to consider. “I suppose that’s not inaccurate,” he said thoughtfully, frowning a little. What an unsettling thought, to class himself so close to the androids who’d fled their homes and hidden wherever they would fit. (How odd, to think how far he’d moved from there.) “I was certainly displaced rather suddenly.”

“The way you were behaving, that was likely for the best,” Fleur noted, wry and weary. “No one acts so jumpy coming from a place that was good for them.”

Connor scraped his thumb on a thorn in his surprise and frowned.

“I never thought about it that way,” he said slowly, staring hard at the smooth red rose, absently pressing his thumb into the thorn again. “Certainly, I was happy to get further from my handler, but…”

But the rest of the future? He’d missed it so much, and it was… unnerving, to think that perhaps it had been a bad place for him. But it wasn’t wrong.

Fleur had been silent for a few minutes too long, and he glanced over at her quizzically. But she just shook her head and went back to work, her movements stiff and slow. After just a moment, he cleared his throat.

“I believe we’re more than on track to be ready, Mrs. Dubois,” he said quietly. “And tomorrow it may not be raining so hard.”

She gave him a sharp look, but before she could reply, the front door’s bell rang. Connor started, and then set his bouquet in the bin and went to answer.

A patient admonition faded from his tongue as soon as he saw who was there, waiting patiently just outside. He didn’t even need to do a facial analysis – he recognized Colonel Rhodes from JARVIS’ memories. He turned around to call back,

“It seems I have something to attend to. May I clock out, Mrs. Dubois?”

He just picked up a faintly irritated sigh. “Yes, yes, fine. I should leave for the day as well. Good evening, Connor.”

Connor didn’t keep the man waiting for more than a minute, clocking out quickly and then grabbing his umbrella from where it leaned by the door. (It was almost strange, to make these things part of his routine, an umbrella to keep the rain off and a wool coat to keep the cold out, but he liked them. He liked having them.)

“Hello, Colonel Rhodes,” Connor greeted as soon as he was out, pausing just outside the door to look up at Rhodes. “I hope you weren’t intending to buy flowers at this hour.”

Rhodes snorted, giving the inside of the shop a faintly incredulous glance.

“Nah,” he said dismissively. “Tony mentioned you were working here. Or, you know Tony, he said you worked in a flower shop and JARVIS told me where.”

Connor felt a smile spread across his face and nodded. He opened the umbrella, and the two of them started walking, raindrops bouncing off the sidewalk and umbrella in a steady patter. “That does seem more accurate. May I ask what brought you here, then? I was going to go to the tower next anyway.”

“I wanted to catch you before you got there,” Rhodes clarified, and Connor’s smile faded, something in him shifting gears into a form both familiar and wary. He cocked his head, and Rhodes continued, “You know I’ve known JARVIS a long time, right? Longer than anyone short of the bots and Tony, and even that’s not by much.”

Connor nodded slowly. “I know. He thinks very fondly of you.”

For a moment, Rhodes’ expression softened. “Yeah, I like him too. So that’s why I wanted to talk to you.” A brief pause, and then Rhodes said, “You know he’s never really had a relationship that didn’t closely hinge on Tony.”

Considering the limitations of the time and place, Connor wasn’t surprised. But the thought was somehow sad. “Yes?”

“So you know,” Rhodes continued seriously, “That you’re pretty damn important to him.”

That almost brought the smile back, a shy and pleasing warmth flickering through Connor. “He’s important to me too.”

“That’s the right response,” Rhodes said firmly, relaxing a little, though he didn’t lose his serious expression. “Anyway- I wanted to let you know that if you hurt him in any way, Tony and I have a lot of resources between us, and life ain’t exactly gonna be easy for you afterward.”

Something clenched in Connor’s chest, sick and tight. He didn’t want to hurt JARVIS.

But that was just what Connor did.

“Alright,” he responded quietly, subdued.

Apparently satisfied, Rhodes hailed a taxi, and the two of them were silent for the few moments it took to arrive. Rhodes surprised Connor by gesturing for him to get in as well, and when the door closed, he clapped Connor on the back, suddenly a little warmer.

“Call me Rhodey,” he added, and the next sentence was audibly amused. “Tony’s been talking about you an awful lot lately, so I get the feeling you’re sticking around.”


Party


JARVIS had been, aside from perhaps Darcy, the very first to hear when Connor had a date, and he wasn’t yet certain how to feel about it.

Connor had sounded excited – curious and eager and nervous in the way that typically preceeded positive but new experiences, and that in and of itself was rare enough that JARVIS had enjoyed the simple novelty of Connor’s delight. He’d helped Connor pick an outfit and wished him luck, and Connor had been cheerful enough for the both of them.

JARVIS, on the other hand, was still working out his own reaction, slow and careful.

It wasn’t jealousy, exactly, because the things Connor might engage in with another physical being weren’t the same as what a relationship between the two of them might consist of, as little time as he spent indulging in theoretical specifics. But there was a certain bitterness in the thought of Connor sharing with a stranger the sort of deep intimacy and trust that JARVIS had come to treasure so, much as he tried to dismiss it.

He took notice the moment Connor entered Stark Tower, which was itself enough of a surprise – JARVIS hadn’t been expecting him to come by. Connor waved at the front door camera as he came in, a faint and unsettled frown on his face as he continued on to the elevator.

(JARVIS noted with a hint of satisfaction that while it wasn’t a happy look, it lacked the leashed terror that the coldest days brought out in Connor. Finding a good, thick coat appeared to have helped him quite a lot.)

“Hello, Connor,” JARVIS greeted once Connor stepped inside, frown softening noticeably as the warmth of the elevator reached him – that flash of a relieved and grateful smile made up much of why JARVIS was always so careful to turn up the thermostat when he noticed Connor coming. “How did it go?”

Connor’s faint half-smile disappeared into a grimace and an uncomfortable shrug.

“It went alright, I suppose,” he murmured, and then he gave JARVIS a rueful glance. “But honestly… I spent most of the time wishing I was here instead.”

The majority of JARVIS’ conflicted feelings melted away into something warm and helpless. “I’m always glad to have you here, Connor, but may I ask what happened?”

Connor shrugged again, reaching up to chew lightly on a knuckle, still visibly unhappy. “I suppose I just… wasn’t exactly prepared for it. Most of his ideas were food-related, so I had to turn them down, and I didn’t know how to reciprocate the flirtation, or how to follow the patterns of conversation he seemed to be looking for. And afterward…” He hesitated.

“Yes?” JARVIS prompted, concerned. He let Connor out on the common floor, where Tony and Rhodey were arguing over Super Smash Bros, but Connor didn’t leave just yet, hovering inside the elevator.

“He expected me to stay overnight,” Connor admitted, a splotchy flush of blue creeping up his face. “I… JARVIS. I don’t have the parts, or the programming, or…”

The suppressed panic in Connor’s expression tugged at JARVIS’ own system, and before he knew it he was speaking, reassuring and firm.

“I know, Connor. That’s hardly a failing on your part. It was rather unfair of him to expect you to agree after a single date regardless of your particular circumstances.” Connor settled visibly, swallowing and looking to JARVIS, listening with undivided attention. “If it bothers you that you didn’t have the appropriate parts, you could certainly ask Sir about it.”

Connor hesitated, and then shook his head.

“I don’t think I’d have wanted to stay anyway,” he admitted quietly. “And I don’t need to bother Tony about this.”

“You’re not,” JARVIS reassured him, amusement flickering through him. If only Connor knew. “I’d recommend at least asking about a food intake system. It’s exactly the sort of challenge Sir most enjoys.”

Unmistakable curiosity flickered across Connor’s face, and finally, he smiled, sure and sincere.

“Alright,” Connor agreed. “I’ll ask.” He shrugged, rueful again. “But, you should know Rowan and I weren’t planning to meet again anyway. It just… didn’t go particularly well.”

Despite his internal conflict, JARVIS allowed sympathy to color his voice. “I’m sorry, Connor. I know you were looking forward to it.”

Connor flashed him a wry smile, and then stepped inside, crossing the room to greet Tony and Rhodey. After less than ten minutes, Tony dropped his controller and went for his StarkPad, while Rhodey rolled his eyes and hit pause, leaning back to watch with some curiosity of his own.

JARVIS allowed himself to feel a little smug. This, at least, he thought Connor was certain to enjoy. Connor leaned over as Tony started to cue the appropriate blueprints up, and JARVIS nudged it along, letting them burst out of the pad in a show of light – a revised version of Connor’s blueprints, featuring three new components and some extra cooling and wire systems. Tony had been quite proud of these, when he’d finally finished the draft.

“Let me know if you’re not comfortable with something, but JARVIS and I checked everything and this should work out just fine,” Tony said eagerly, video game completely forgotten. “Might even put a few of your regular components in better positions than they’re in now- what do you think?”

Connor’s eyes were wide with wonder, rough day entirely forgotten. He reached out and started when his hand simply went through the less-advanced holograms of the StarkPad, and then simply dropped his hand, still staring.

After a while, Rhodey leaned over, pressing lazily into Tony’s space.

“That’s a digestive system, isn’t it?” he noted aloud, thoughtful. JARVIS obligingly highlighted the relevant components in violet, and Rhodey nodded. “An esophagus, stomach… that can’t be a liver.”

“Not exactly,” Tony agreed, and then flicked the diagram aside to bring up some coding as well – a new set of sensor calibrations and some motor control algorithms, JARVIS knew. “It is waste disposal, though. Incineration and filtering. It’ll have to be cleaned once in a while, but not so much it’s inconvenient.”

Connor ran his fingertips down the coding changes without touching, and said quietly, “Can I… think about it?”

Tony waved, though JARVIS and Rhodey likely both noticed him get a little tenser, uncertainty and (unwarranted) insecurity creeping in where it wasn’t needed.

“Of course,” Tony agreed dismissively. “This’d be one hell of an installation. Long as you know the option’s there.”

Connor beamed at him, and after a moment, Tony grinned back.

Chapter Text

Troubling Thoughts


Waking up from a nightmare could go any number of ways for Connor. Most of the time, he understood that he was waking up from a dream and could move right along to trying to shake it off. Sometimes he woke up to Darcy swearing loudly at her breakfast or one of his cats jumping on his chest and he’d wake up in a panic, and it would take longer.

And sometimes he woke up scrambled and glitchy, hitting the ground because he wasn’t even aware enough to catch himself, staring at nothing because he was dead, because Hank/Markus/HK400/Daniel had killed him-

And there was nothing-

There was nothing but the empty, aching void and it hurt-

Nothing-

Except-

Except JARVIS’ code, connecting to his in a familiar and soothing constellation, murmuring with rote reassurance. Connor felt the sparkling interface without understanding, blank and numb and uncomprehending, and almost twenty minutes passed before Connor finally responded, echoing JARVIS’ wordless data for lack of the capacity for anything better.

Connor pushed himself up, stiff and mechanical, just to slump bonelessly against the side of the bed, feeling exhausted. He was panting, eyes unfocused and staring at nothing in particular.

He wasn’t dead. He wasn’t dead. He wasn’t dead. He wasn’t-

Slowly, the world filled back in. JARVIS was talking.

“Miss Lewis seems to be safe at home, but has been petting cats instead of sleeping. Past evidence indicates that she is unlikely to sleep until at least-”

“Three A.M.,” Connor rasped, static and hoarse, offering JARVIS a weak smile. “Darcy is something of a night owl.”

“She certainly is.” JARVIS sounded relieved, and exhausted- more tired than a man without a body or a need for sleep should ever have to be. “Are you alright, Connor?”

No. The dark and motionless room was suffocating him, even with his and JARVIS’ voices disrupting it. “Is Tony awake? It’s fine if he isn’t.” Tony was loud and active and lively, and nothing sounded better right now.

JARVIS hesitated. Connor bore the silence for about a second and a half before curling up and letting himself rock, forehead pressed into his arm.

“Sir is awake,” JARVIS said at last, carefully. “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend his company as a comfort at the moment.”

Connor turned his head to blink blearily up at a camera. There was no note of stress in JARVIS’ voice, but his code had rippled and condensed unhappily. Connor came to a natural and learned conclusion. “He’s drinking.”

It made sense. Rhodey had left three days before, and Tony likely wasn’t happy to see him go.

“He woke from his own nightmare around two hours ago,” JARVIS replied. It wasn’t a denial.

Something clenched in Connor’s chest, a familiar mix of tense concern and guilty fear. But he looked at the blank black sky, at the darkened corners of the room, and pushed himself to his feet. “It’s okay. I’ll help.”

Tony was in the kitchen, it developed, and playing music loud enough to hurt, now that Connor was listening. Connor’s sensitive tongue picked up the taste of cloves and flour in the air, among other things, like the tang of apple and whiskey. And blood.

Confused, Connor hesitated before entering the kitchen, assessing Tony’s mood.

There was flour up to Tony’s elbows and splashed across his front. Sugar was spilled across the floor, and cloves across the counter and stove. He was peeling an apple with a steak knife, and clumsy bandages around the palm of his hand indicated where the taste of blood was coming from.

There were also two bottles of whiskey on the counter, one empty and one half full, and a brimming shot glass right beside them.

Raising confused eyes to Tony’s face, Connor noted the flush high on his cheeks, the overbright quality of his eyes, the way he grinned with too many teeth. His movements were clumsy.

He was also talking.

“I don’t know why I thought I could do this,” Tony chattered, presumably to JARVIS, barely audible over the deafening music. “I mean, I’m not much of a food person, you know, J? Remember that time I tried to make an omelet, God that was a mess-”

“I do remember, sir,” JARVIS agreed, quietly enough that it was possible Tony didn’t even hear him.

“And let’s not get into, well, cutting things, right J? Can’t remember the last time I chopped anything- actually, it was probably the omelet thing-”

Connor reached out and took the knife away from him, and for several seconds Tony just stared blankly down.

“JARVIS?” Tony asked his hands. “Did you pick up a physical body just to keep me from bleeding out like an idiot?”

“I believe his name is Connor, sir,” JARVIS said, with a hint of forced humor.

Tony blinked, looked up, and grinned. There was an edge of hysteria to it.

“Connor!” Tony crowed, dropping the apple so it hit the ground, bounced, and rolled away. He swung an arm around Connor’s shoulders, stumbling a little as he did, and Connor started but didn’t pull away; Tony’s body temperature, while low due to the alcohol, was… “Always a pleasure, what are you doing up this time of night? No, don’t answer that. Muffins, baby! How do you make them? I woke up and I was like, you know what sounds good? Sugar, and whiskey, and sweet, sweet crunchy apples, you’ve conditioned me, you son of a bitch.”

“That was the idea,” Connor said, halting and confused and pitching his voice to be heard above the music, and dropped the knife in the sink, where it clattered loudly. Cleanup could wait until the next day; Connor needed to take care of Tony. “Did you by chance drink any water while you were attempting this?”

Tony cackled, loud and cracking, leaning on Connor as if to cling to him. Then, just as suddenly, he broke away and turned to swipe up the full shot glass, carelessly spilling half the drink everywhere, and tossed it back without a wince.

Unfortunately, Sir is fully capable of ignoring my suggestions, JARVIS answered for him, soft and frustrated.

I’ve got him, JARVIS.

Connor told himself he wasn’t relieved. Tony’s drinking was self-destructive as often as not, and it worried JARVIS to no end, and it worried Connor too, because he knew full well what could come of it, the bad choices and the liver damage and-

But he couldn’t pretend to be upset, that Tony wasn’t nearly as awful to be around when drunk as Hank was.

Connor turned away to grab two glasses from a cabinet, filling them both up with water. He set one on the bar, along the line of stools, and, when Tony turned away to peer at the mixed bowl of ingredients – at a glance, about four cups of flour, two of sugar, three sticks of cold butter, and five eggs, mixed with cinnamon and cloves for flavor – Connor filled the half-empty whiskey bottle back up so instead of half a bottle of full strength whiskey, Tony had a full bottle of half strength whiskey, which would take much longer to consume.

Of course, that wouldn’t help if Tony decided to go get more.

“You know, I don’t think this is edible,” Tony said, as conversational as he could be when he was nearly shouting to be heard. “I’m not the muffin guy, though, Connor, is this edible?”

“Technically,” Connor allowed, and pulled Tony away just to push him onto a stool, where he sat with an ‘oomph’.

Tony focused immediately on the bottle of whiskey and went worryingly still.

“I suppose it’s too much to hope that you filled it back up fresh,” he said at last, flashing Connor a toothy, empty smile.

“If you would prefer to believe that,” Connor said mildly, and pushed the glass of water toward him.

Tony swallowed the water down like a can of beer at a college party, because Connor knew what that looked like now. Then he poured himself a shot of half-strength whiskey without complaint and swallowed that down too.

Well. Connor would take his concessions where he could get them. (At least Tony had been exactly as noisy and energetic as Connor had needed, even if he also looked like he was barely holding back a scream.) Connor grabbed the glass to refill it and then took the first aid kit, too.

Connor put the glass by Tony and grabbed his hand without asking, and Tony let him have it, leaning against the counter with clear amusement.

The cut wasn’t awful, but it was a little messy. Connor gave it a cursory swipe, flinching as Tony swore, and wrapped it back up, tighter this time.

“You’re both such mother hens,” Tony accused, snorting. He’d refilled the shot glass while Connor wasn’t looking, and now swung it back. “It’s just a little cut, Jesus, did JARVIS wake you up to look after me? JARVIS, did you wake Connor up to talk to me? That’s not how you get him to sleep over again.”

He was slurring. It was as likely to be from exhaustion as intoxication. He’d probably only gotten a few hours’ sleep.

“Someone has to look after you, sir,” JARVIS said, with frustrated, painful sincerity.

“And he didn’t,” Connor added patiently, pushing the bottle so Tony would have to really reach for it. “I woke up on my own and asked after you.”

“At least someone does,” Tony said, bitter and soft enough that Connor wouldn’t have heard if he weren’t right next to him. He groped for the bottle, and Connor blocked him. Tony gave him an empty, manic grin. “Try me, Sunny. You ever been to space? It’s empty out there. We’re nothing.”

Connor swallowed. Pushed the bottle further back. “We’re alive,” he managed, rough and fierce, and Tony threw his head back and laughed.

“Yeah,” Tony rasped eventually. “Right now we are.”

(Connor spent the next hour coaxing another glass of water into Tony, and then guiding him over to the couch, where JARVIS put on something loud and action-filled and meaningless, and Tony plastered himself all over Connor like an octopus and Connor let him so long as he stayed right where he was, leaning all his weight onto Connor and babbling and warm.)

(Neither of them fell asleep again, but neither of them moved either.)


Stirring of the Wind


Something was amiss in SHIELD. JARVIS couldn’t confidently say what it was, unable to discern any details without risking alerting SHIELD’s security systems, but he could identify enough to be concerned.

He hadn’t realized the SHIELD servers contained anything he couldn’t access. There were prohibitively difficult actions, certainly, files that were tricky to alter, systems he had difficulty controlling. But only very recently, as activity picked up in SHIELD without obvious cause, did he realize that there were sections that were hidden from him.

That took an advanced sort of skill he wouldn’t expect from anything less than either a computer genius of Tony’s caliber or another AI, and it was a matter of concern. JARVIS would have to monitor the situation carefully.

Of course, JARVIS’ first and foremost concerns were always at home. In one sense or another.

JARVIS had not been surprised by how hard Rhodey’s departure hit Tony, but for him and Connor to both have such harsh nightmares on the same night was distressing to say the least. JARVIS was grateful to have extensive experience helping Tony ground himself after the sort of nightmares that bled past into present; he had never witnessed Connor in the aftermath of such a dream before, but he had recognized the signs easily.

Shaken and startled as the sight had left him, JARVIS absolutely would not have chosen to send Connor to calm Tony from his overwrought mania. It was extremely fortunate that they had had similar needs as they recovered; they could just as easily have clashed.

That was not to say that JARVIS was not grateful that Connor had helped, of course. The younger AI had been remarkably competent in his handling of Tony, patient and calculated; it was a particular surprise after Connor’s clear astonishment when he’d first seen Tony.

But it was a relief, and it remained so now, with both his favorite people slumped together, safe under JARVIS’ supervision, ignoring a documentary about fish and dozing without falling asleep. It took a lot to get Tony to settle down when he was in that sort of mood; it could have taken JARVIS hours, unless Pepper showed up to help.

Connor was good for Tony, JARVIS concluded warmly.

It was with regret that JARVIS pinged gently at Connor’s code, encouraging him to stir.

You have class in half an hour, he reminded the other, as much force of habit as anything else. You’ll have to leave in-

Eleven minutes, twenty-eight seconds to be on time, Connor agreed wearily, and JARVIS flickered in amusement. It seemed the prod was all he needed, because Connor finally started to rise, more than four hours after he and Tony had first folded up on the couch.

Tony grumbled and complained as Connor started to nudge him off, clinging mulishly. Connor looked more amused than frustrated; the simple contact had seemed to settle him in almost the same way an extended interface did, leaving him contented and tolerant.

It was probably for the same reason that Tony had settled so easily; bodily contact had a calming, grounding effect on those with physical forms.

“I have to attend biology, Tony,” Connor informed the man, easing the other’s grip in casual steps.

“Skip,” Tony muttered, but he let Connor pry him off. After a minute, he let go entirely and flopped onto the couch, yawning. “That’s probably the best sleep I’ve ever gotten without ever actually closing my eyes.”

“Dozing is not as useful to the human body as sleep, but it can serve as a temporary substitute when sleep is unavailable,” Connor explained, shaking himself off as he rose. His eyes lingered on Tony, careful and assessing, but after a moment, he smiled. “Which you should not take as an excuse to avoid it recreationally.”

“Spoil all my fun, why don’t you,” Tony snorted, reaching up to rub his head; it was likely that despite Connor getting a cup and a half of water into him, he had something of a headache from the night before. “JARVIS, time?”

“Seven twenty-six, sir,” JARVIS provided. “I don’t suppose you’d consider going back to sleep.”

Tony snorted again. “Yeah, no. See you, Con. I’ll be down in the workshop.”

Connor was left blinking in surprise, mouth opening just a little as Tony stumbled off, gaining his stride about halfway to the elevator. After a moment, he shook his head and headed for the kitchen.

“It’s not necessary for you to clean up before you go, Connor,” JARVIS said, concerned. “It’s not your mess, and Sir certainly won’t mind. You don’t want to be late.”

“I’m just neatening it a little before I go,” Connor assured him absently. With the departure of Tony, his shoulders had fallen a little, looking almost pensive. He started to gather the dishes to place in the running sink, letting them fill to soak. “…Everything is so different, JARVIS.”

It wasn’t something Connor admitted to often, the most notable occasion being during his breakdown in the summer. JARVIS was surprised. “How so?”

Connor brushed the mess of flour and spices into his hand, leaving smears but not piles on the counter, dumped it in the sink, and then reached out to press flour-dusted plastic fingers to the interface panel. JARVIS accepted the request thoughtlessly.

Interfacing was a unique experience for JARVIS, who was used to being aloof from everything in many ways; it flooded him both with flashes of sensor data both familiar and unfamiliar, and a rush of emotion and memory that, while nowhere near taxing, was very new and quite intense. It was a sort of knowing that was generally only gained through years of familiarity and understanding.

Connor had started to seek them out regularly as soon as the option became available, gravitating toward areas where the panels had been installed, perhaps craving an intimacy he had trouble finding from anyone, let alone another like him. JARVIS hadn’t yet turned down a single request, and he couldn’t imagine that he ever would; it only got easier over time.

Sentiment flowed through first, comfortable and indolent: Connor’s exhaustion and lingering anxiety, but also his relief and appreciation and affection, for JARVIS’ worry and gratitude and curiosity, as much a trade as a mingling of thought.

Then came the flickers of memory, Connor leaning just a little toward the wall with his eyes sliding shut. JARVIS captured and held each of them, tucking them away in a file all his own where he’d never forget.

“You don’t know jack shit about what’s good for me! Fuck off, Connor!”

“I-”

“I said fuck off!”

“You know, the question I get asked most often is ‘Tony, how do you go to the bathroom in the suit?’ Just like that.”

“Hell, Con. I don’t mean half the shit I say. Don’t take it to heart, yeah?”

“…Of course, Hank.”

“I’m trying, J. Damn it, you know I’m trying.”

“I know, sir. Please go take today’s dosage.”

“Yeah… Yeah. Alright. Tell the boys I’m coming down.”

“They’ll be delighted.”

“Hey. Con. When’s your birthday? Hell, do you even have one?”

“Well, I first came online on August 15th. I think that would serve nicely.”

“August 15th. I’ll mark it on a calendar or something. I’ll buy you a packet of thirium since you can’t have a birthday cake like a normal person. Scribble a ‘1’ on it, you big damn baby.”

“You don’t have to-”

“Course I do. Everyone’s gotta have a birthday, Con.”

“My birthday?”

“’Course, J. I’m no expert at birthday celebrations, I’ll admit, but every one of your siblings got one. You must remember. Why wouldn’t you?”

Then Connor offered a silent memory just past, a fraction of the hours he and Tony had just spent pressed together. It was a warm and comforting feeling, and JARVIS allowed himself to get lost in it for a precious minute before ending the interface regretfully, just as a slow-growing homesickness started to creep into it.

“You’ll have to hurry if you don’t want to be late, Connor,” JARVIS said, pitching his voice quietly.

Connor sighed, but nodded, giving a camera a small, weary smile.

“Of course. Good morning, JARVIS.”


Future


This was the thing about Tony: when he got close to people, he got close to them.

It had happened with Pepper, with Rhodey, with Happy. It was easiest with his bots – bots were better than people, anyway, more trustworthy, easier to understand, and, in his experience, loyal.

Not that he was biased or anything.

But Tony – he liked to keep those people close. Pepper had had a place in his home the moment he started to really trust her; same for Happy. Rhodey had had one in spirit before Tony even had space to give, and he used it whenever he came home from deployment.

Tony had designed Connor a floor months ago. He’d had it built a few weeks past, and it had finished in record speed. And Connor already had a guest room on the common floor, which he’d used after a few late nights when JARVIS had coaxed him into staying overnight.

Less than a week after Connor had found him trying to busy away yet another dream of the endless abyss of the galaxy, Tony dragged the confused android onto the floor below the common one, chattering nervously in that way he’d never been able to train himself out of.

“You don’t have to move, obviously, but you know, you spend a lot of time here, I thought you’d like to have a space of your own? And hell, I’ve got space to spare, so much fucking space, man, you have no idea-”

“Tony,” Connor interrupted, patient but obviously perplexed, “what are you talking about?”

Tony pushed Connor towards the middle of the room, and Connor obediently turned to scan it, a furrow appearing in his brow as he spun in a slow circle.

Tony knew what he was noticing. Tony had edited and updated the designs right up to the last minute, pissing off the contractors a couple times as they had to redo parts of the area.

But it was good. It had more cameras than any other residential floor except Tony’s, and interface panels scattered anywhere Connor was likely to linger. A dozen different side tables, already set with empty vases secured down, and multiple installations of cat furniture in corners and a big one in the middle. A kitchen of his own, well-stocked, and an overall design that Tony had edited to match some of the more futuristic flashes of Connor’s memories.

“This is your floor,” Tony clarified, but Connor had already figured that much out, from the blatantly overwhelmed look starting to spread over Connor’s face.

Tony started fidgeting as Connor’s silence grew longer, shifting and shoving his hands into his pockets as he waited. He’d expected a reaction, but this was a little more than he’d been thinking; Connor had been receptive enough to everything else, the interface panels and the biocomponent designs and even the two times he’d let Tony open him up and figure out what routine maintenance he needed, which had taken an hour and a half to work out for certain and another hour to perform. He’d liked them; he’d all but encouraged Tony to work out more.

Connor turned to Tony, brown eyes wide and oddly dismayed.

“Tony, I can’t accept this.”

Tony’s heart skipped unhealthily.

“Is there something wrong, Connor?” JARVIS asked before Tony could, sounding concerned.

“I can redesign,” Tony added, just as quick and borderline frantic. “I mean, I wanted this to be a surprise, but obviously that cat’s out of the bag now, so we could work something out-”

Connor was shaking his head. “It’s too much,” he insisted, folding his hands behind his back, hunching as if to make himself small.

“You liked the panels,” Tony pushed, focused sharply on Connor. “You let me back up half your most vital biocomponents. You let me pay for uni, you’re even thinking about letting me rearrange your insides to install a digestive system, but this is too much?”

And Tony didn’t resent any of that – obviously he didn’t. It had been freely offered, none of it so much as suggested by Connor, but Connor had accepted every single one of them with minimal hesitation, despite the fact that the interface panels alone had been worth more in work hours than the entire floor put together, which Connor had to know. It didn’t add up.

 “But you liked making those,” Connor said desperately, all but begging Tony to understand. “You were interested in the blueprints. You had fun challenging yourself to design that system. You would have made them anyway. And I know you wanted to see how I’d do, working within a human framework for something I wasn’t designed for.”

“All technically true,” Tony allowed, hackles falling a little as he frowned at Connor in more puzzlement than worry. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Connor waved at the room, struggling to explain. “This is… very good. I really like it, Tony. But it’s not- that is-” He faltered, unable or unwilling to articulate his thinking.

But he’d given Tony enough to figure it out. “But it’s no marvel of science.”

It made sense, Tony realized, if you thought of scientific interest as an object of value.

JARVIS had told Tony the basic story of how Connor’s meeting with his creator had gone – an offered exchange of valuable information for a test. Though Connor had become close enough to Tony to trust him to be better, he clearly was still thinking of them as similar on some level, to recognize that the fulfillment of Tony’s scientific curiosity could be considered a commodity.

It wasn’t payment, exactly, satisfaction in exchange for upgrades; it required too much trust from Connor to be anything so cold. But it meant Connor could accept them without guilt, which went a long way towards explaining his reactions.

It made sense, Tony had to admit.

Connor nodded quickly.

“It’s a floor,” he said quietly, with an unexpected vulnerability. “With furniture, and decorations, and things I like. I don’t understand why you want to give me this.”

Tony considered. Pepper would say that Connor’s way of understanding friendship was too mercenary, and not to be encouraged. Rhodey wouldn’t be as firm about it, but he’d probably think so too.

But Connor was doing better than Tony usually did, frankly, in understanding that non-material contributions were just as important as the gifts Tony always tried to shower his friends with.

It was always easiest to explain his thinking when he was teaching an AI.

“I am kind of getting something out of it,” Tony explained, rocking on his heels. “One, I actually totally did like designing it. I have a lot of interests. And two, it’s another reason for you to come around, which is, you know, the sort of behavior I’m trying to encourage. You might have noticed.”

Connor smiled tentatively. Tony grinned back.

“And three,” Tony tacked on, just to be thorough, “JARVIS likes you, and he’ll be happy that you’re happy, right, J?”

“Of course,” JARVIS agreed instantly, warm and fond. “I had considerable input during the design process as well. We really would like you to come around more, Connor.”

Connor wavered visibly, eyes fixed on Tony, who all but held his breath even as he tried very hard to project the idea of not being all that worried.

Finally, Connor’s tentative smile warmed, still shy but a lot more honestly happy.

“Okay,” he said softly. “Thank you very much, Tony. I’ll try to stay more often.”

Quick as a rabbit, Connor hugged Tony and then darted off to look around, probably embarrassed. Tony couldn’t help it; he laughed.


Health and Healing


Maintenance mode was different from stasis in that it was much harder to rouse from – because of course, Connor could not stay in stasis while someone was rummaging around inside him even if he tried.

That said, staying awake while Tony took him half apart and put him back together did not sound like a good time, so for the first time perhaps ever, Connor showed Tony the spot on his palm Tony could press to rouse him, and then put himself under while the inventor worked.

When he woke up, it was almost five hours later. Tony looked a little tired, but pleased, with traces of thirium around his arms, hands, and hair, and a touch of oil as well.

“Morning, sunshine,” Tony greeted cheerfully almost as soon as Connor blinked his eyes open, dropping Connor’s hand where he’d been stroking the palm idly.

Connor sat up on the bench, lifting his hand to his temple and then looking at Tony questioningly. “My program doesn’t seem to have adjusted?” A dozen different errors blared at him in protest and refused to be dismissed.

“Thought you’d rather be awake for this part,” Tony explained, and then flicked something towards Connor, which gleamed as it spun through the air.

Connor caught it easily and examined it and was hit with a burst of emotion, homesickness or nostalgia, intense enough to crack something in his chest, or so it felt. “It looks like an LED indicator.”

Some days he still looked in the mirror and was hit hard by how much he missed it – like a reminder of everything he’d lost.

“That’s what I modeled it after,” Tony agreed. “And that’s where it goes, too. But it’s a product of my own design. It should give you a connection to the computer so you can download the file. I figured it’d make integration go more smoothly.”

The programming change had been what Connor had been most anxious about, above and beyond any of the major physical adjustments involved. He’d never expressed this to Tony, but he was grateful enough that he beamed at the inventor anyway. With only a split second’s hesitation, he reached up and pressed the tiny part into place.

It didn’t integrate with his skin the way an LED did, but it did give him an opening into a small set of folders, only one of which was marked ‘Connor.’ Ignoring his curiosity, he accessed the folder, found the appropriate download, and accessed it carefully.

He trusted Tony. He did. He still ran a rapid but thorough scan of the file’s contents, everything from the physical adjustments, new error codes, and the remapping of his oral sensors, along with the access necessary to switch between chemistry and taste and to change where his intake valve led.

A quick, curious search revealed that Tony had mapped his sensors to match a human layout – sweet at the tip, bitter at the back, sour at the sides and salty around the edge.

Smiling small and pleased, Connor downloaded the program, sorting it automatically into its different parts and the sectors where they belonged. As he did, the error messages cleared up and disappeared, his system accepting the new internal arrangement.

When he opened his eyes again, Tony and JARVIS were arguing.

“It’s gotta be restaurant food, do you know how good the food I can buy is? It should be something special his first time trying things out.”

“Sir, I really do believe it would be better to start with something simpler.” JARVIS sounded more forceful than he normally did, almost petulant. “I believe we have some strawberries in the common room, or perhaps some bakery bread or juice.”

“Okay, but those are easy. Maybe a cake, or, hell, ice cream, that’s perfect-”

“He’s not going to have any idea what flavors he likes, sir, and should you really inundate him with nothing but sweet right away?”

Connor lifted a hand to his mouth and stifled a laugh, grinning wide and helpless and unnoticed by either one of them. He listened to them throw ideas back and forth, too amused to interject even though it was him they were talking about, until he was distracted by the sound of the blender.

He looked over, and identified Dummy as the one in the kitchen, though Butterfingers and You weren’t far either. Dummy carefully took down a glass and dumped a spinach-oil-mystery smoothie inside.

Tony and JARVIS were still oblivious to anything outside their argument – JARVIS was now quoting statistical probabilities and Tony was countering with personal experience – so no one else noticed as Dummy carried the glass over to Connor and held it up.

“Is this for me?” Connor asked. Dummy whirred, and Connor accepted it, still smiling, knowing it was getting a little silly and too pleased to care. “Thank you, Dummy.”

Connor switched his sensors from lab analytics to taste, which produced no immediately noticeable difference except the sudden presence of a very faint, clean tang, and then tipped the glass back and took a drink.

It was maybe a little bit because he knew it would distress both Tony and JARVIS. He was pretty sure their reactions would be even funnier than the argument.

And then he was too distracted to think about it.

It wasn’t good, exactly. Connor knew immediately he didn’t like it; his nose even wrinkled on instinct, scrunching up at the sudden flood of sensation. But it was new – a bitter, tangy concoction that flowed thickly over his tongue and down his throat, so different from thirium, that he swallowed automatically.

He laughed again, light and happy, and reached out to pat Dummy’s arm kindly.

“It’s perfect,” he assured the other earnestly. Butterfingers and You high-fived in the background, and Dummy whirred again, pushing into Connor’s touch with obvious delight.

“Connor, no,” JARVIS said, with an obvious note of exasperated pain.

“What?” Tony whirled around, immediately focused, and slapped his hand over his face. “Oh my god.”

Connor grinned, still holding the smoothie, and then took another drink just for the hell of it.

Still tasted pretty bad.


Separation


Hey, so,” Tony asked, voice strained like was in a hurry, as soon as Connor picked up, “have you ever wondered whether you could wipe the histories of about two-thirds of an organization out of anywhere they could be found, connected, or traced?”

“…Not particularly?”

“Are you up for finding out?”

Connor grasped that Tony was in rather urgent need of help and immediately turned off his route from class, sending a hastily composed apology email to his professor. “I’m on my way. I should arrive in around thirteen minutes.”

“That’s fine, we’ve got- okay, no, we do not have time, but JARVIS can brief you and get you started while you’re on your way over. This is pretty urgent, I mean, really damn urgent, Connor, you’ve got no idea-”

“I believe you,” Connor said patiently, picking up speed. “As I said, I’m on my way.”

“Great,” Tony said, and then was almost immediately replaced by JARVIS, whose voice was crisp and almost as strained as his creator’s even as he passed along an access connection to what Connor recognized almost immediately as the SHIELD database.

“I apologize, Connor, I know you have a history with SHIELD, but a crisis has emerged in that arena and there are a great many agents in danger. If you have questions-”

“I’m aware of Tony’s connection with them,” Connor said, somewhat shorter than he’d intended, though he did begin sorting through the information immediately. “Director Fury visited my apartment some months ago and gave me a… basic understanding of the situation.” He paused, deliberately softened his tone, and added, “I’m given to understand that Tony took steps to protect me. I appreciate it.”

“Of course,” JARVIS affirmed, unmistakably relieved.

Connor would arrive in nine minutes. He could certainly get started by then.