The grounds were beautiful; it had rained earlier but the warm sun had all but wiped away the dampness of the grass. Everything was lush and green, with bright spots of color from various different flowers, and the pathways were well-tended.
Steve remembered England during the times of war. He hadn’t gotten to enjoy the countryside back then, nor was he on holiday now; they were on a mission and should head back to the States as soon as possible. This part they couldn’t hurry, however, so he slowed down his steps, breathed deeper and forced both body and mind to feed on the serenity around them.
Since Fury had still been against this when they left, the Avengers couldn’t rely on his help. Natasha had been on the phone with the retirement home, which was unwilling to divulge any information about their occupants. Eventually they had managed to leave a message for Edwin Jarvis, who had agreed to meet them.
Steve wondered if things would have gone smoother had they revealed they were friends of Tony. However, he didn’t want to exploit the old man’s loyalty to the Stark family – or trigger any landmines that may have been left buried over the years; they needed to talk to him, and couldn’t risk Mr. Jarvis denying them the chance of a meeting.
As per the instructions, they took a path away from the main building, deeper into the natural garden until they found themselves in the midst of a stand of trees bending over the pathway and a rather lovely spot by a pond. A lone bench was set a safe distance from the water’s edge where the path curved to the left and disappeared, yet the man they were looking for was seated on the bench, gazing at the water.
“Mr. Jarvis?” Steve called out softly, not wanting to startle the old man; he didn’t make much noise when he moved and Clint and Natasha even less.
The man raised his head and looked over his shoulder. He was well past seventy years old, yet looked sharp and active for a man of his respectable age. Clearly he was still fit, which was a good thing, considering what Steve was about to ask him to do. The man’s sharp eyes followed the trio as they approached and rounded the bench, halting in front of him.
“I’m glad we could arrange a meeting,” Steve went on.
“If you had told me who you were, Captain Rogers, I would have met you sooner and with less hassle,” Edwin Jarvis noted in a dry tone so similar to Tony’s AI that it gave Steve pause – until he registered his words.
“You know who I am, sir?” he frowned.
“A face such as yours should be memorized by all self-respecting minds,” the old man smiled.
Steve nodded briskly, uncertain how to take the words meant as an obvious compliment to his character and past deeds.
Edwin Jarvis surveyed all three of them and it was hard to tell what he was thinking. There was a sadness, however, buried deep, but a whiff of it still managed to escape. “There must be something amiss for you to have come all this way,” he mused then, looking at Steve again, as if expecting to see someone else.
Steve realized that of all of the Avengers, perhaps Jarvis had expected it to be Tony. After all, the rest of them were strangers, even if he seemed to guess who they were. “You assume correctly,” Steve started a bit uncertainly. “We… wouldn’t have thought to intrude if there were another alternative.”
“This has to do with Mr. Stark, has it not?” the old man guessed, to prompt him to go on.
“Yes,” Steve nodded. “He’s… not well.”
Clint raised an eyebrow at his hesitation. Steve looked back at him, then at Natasha, wondering if either of them wanted to jump in, or had a better way of explaining something that shouldn’t even be possible.
A shadow of fear passed over Jarvis’ aged features. Clearly he was attempting to picture a situation where Tony wouldn’t be able to come himself, yet his presence was required or asked for.
“Tony’s okay,” Steve reassured quickly.
“He is?” Clint asked. “Is that how we’re defining it?”
Steve shot him a dirty look. “He’s not dying.”
“Far as we know…” the archer muttered.
Steve looked back at Edwin Jarvis, who was clearly following their exchange but not commenting on it, or even showing interest. This man had manners of an age Steve recognized, and he was clearly above showing that he was eavesdropping. “There was an incident caused by unknown elements,” Steve explained. “We’re trying to figure it out, and reverse what happened, but for the time being… Tony’s been turned into his 5-year-old self.”
It might have been easier to just take Jarvis with them and show him, since he might not believe it otherwise, but they hadn’t wanted to risk the old man’s heart with the shock of finding out.
“Mr. Stark has been turned into a child?” Jarvis repeated slowly.
“His appearance, his memories… For all intents and purposes, that is what has happened,” Natasha jumped in. “He doesn’t know any of us, or his surroundings. He’s afraid and thinks we’ve kidnapped him from his home. And he asked for you.”
Steve hadn’t wanted to bring that up, to guilt this man into coming with them, but they had agreed Edwin Jarvis might make Tony at least somewhat comfortable while they searched for Loki and a way to reverse the de-aging, so it was important that they convince him.
The old man’s eyes searched them all over again, finally landing on Steve. “What is it that you need me to do, Captain?” he asked. He didn’t sound confused, or in a need of an actual answer; he was a man of wits, that was easy to tell, and clearly knew what the obvious answer was.
“I need you to come back with us and play the part you’ve already played in the past; to be there for Tony in his time of need,” Steve replied. He wasn’t sure how close to home he hit with that, but that was the truth.
Jarvis sighed. “They were going to serve pancakes for dessert tomorrow. I am rather fond of them; the cook makes her own conserve, and has a recipe she refuses to part from even upon pain of death.” A smile tugged the thin lips. “How soon are we leaving?”
“As soon as you’re ready, sir,” Steve replied and felt some of the tension leave his chest.
Jarvis stood up carefully and nodded. “I shall get my things, then, and notify the staff… How long do you think this is going to take?”
“Honestly? We have no idea,” Clint said.
“Not long, we hope,” Natasha clarified. “We’re trying to undo it, but before we can…”
Jarvis nodded again. “Well, this certainly will be an adventure, then.”
Steve offered the old man his arm, should he need it, but Jarvis simply patted it and walked on ahead towards the house, leaving the rest of them to follow.
“That was easy,” Clint said in a low voice.
“He worked for the Stark family for years; I guess he feels it’s his duty to come back with us,” Natasha noted.
Steve frowned, wishing it wasn’t so. Perhaps this hadn’t been a good idea.
“Captain Rogers,” Jarvis called from ahead. “A word, please?” Steve strode up to him, knowing Clint and Natasha would fall back – but still eavesdrop, most likely. “I hope you know I’m not doing this out of some sense of duty,” the old man mused. Steve flushed a bit, wondering if Jarvis had heard them talking. “I took care of young Mr. Stark for the first six years of his life,” the man went on. “After that, I mostly saw him on school holidays until I retired, but I like to think I was a part of his life.”
“I’m certain you were,” Steve agreed.
“Knowing that he has somehow become that boy again… however unnatural it feels… I cannot think of someone else taking my place. I might wish them the best of luck, but in the end…” He smiled fondly. “I’m not sure anyone else is up for the job.”
“Somehow, I don’t doubt that for a second,” Steve mused, recalling all of Tony’s attempts to escape from them. “He’s… quite a handful, even when he’s frightened.”
“Especially if he’s frightened,” Jarvis agreed and looked at him. “And if you can tell he’s scared, then he is truly terrified. He was good at masking it, taking after his father in that fashion. It did not do to show emotion in the Stark household, I’m afraid – especially something that could be seen and exploited as a weakness.”
They had reached the large house, a beautiful building that Steve would have loved to draw should he have the time. “We’ll wait for you,” he told the old man. “Take as long as you need.”
“You may as well come up and help me pack,” Jarvis shrugged. “At my age, I should think I wouldn’t need to carry my own bags.”
Steve smiled. “Of course not.”
All three of them followed Edwin Jarvis to his room. It was more like an apartment, with a fantastic view and tasteful furniture. While Jarvis chose what to take with him, and soon made Clint follow him with a suitcase to fill as he went, Steve dared to take a look around. On an old desk by the wall, he found pictures – and amongst them he saw familiar faces. One of them was of Jarvis and Howard Stark, Jarvis looking younger and Howard older than when Steve had known him, before the ice. Another one was of… it had to be Tony, smiling at the camera, an arm flung around Jarvis’ shoulders. He was much younger, a teenager, but the smile was the relaxed one he still wore when he was around people he trusted.
“His graduation from MIT,” Jarvis supplied. “That was one of the last times I saw him, as I recall. Not long after, Howard and Maria Stark passed away and our lives never entwined again. Well, until now, it seems,” he frowned.
Steve wondered why that was – and what Tony’s reaction to all this would be when he returned to normal. He had never mentioned Edwin Jarvis, although it was clear his AI of a similar name was homage to this man.
“I think we’re all set to go,” Jarvis finally decided and took a look around his home. Everything was in neat order, meticulously clean, as if someone hadn’t just hurriedly packed for a trip of unknown length. Steve could appreciate such care of one’s surroundings and was amazed Tony had grown to surround himself with such chaos after being under Edwin Jarvis’ tutelage. It wasn’t that Tony was messy, but it seemed his mind was rarely geared towards cleaning up when he could still find what he needed, when he needed it.
Clint carried Jarvis’ bags and they patiently waited while the old man sorted out his current plans with the home staff. No one asked where he was going, simply accepting that this was happening. “I still travel sometimes,” Jarvis explained as they walked out to the rental car. “While I still can,” he added with dry humor in his voice. “While I could have my own house in the country, this place is lovely and I can dedicate more of my time to things I want to do instead of maintenance and everyday chores. It is quite convenient when someone else takes care of the little things.”
“You’ve earned it,” Natasha agreed.
“I bet Stark was a handful,” Clint added as he sat behind the wheel of their rental car and took them back out through the main gates. “I can see anyone retiring after that.”
“Now, now,” Jarvis admonished. “Mr. Stark was a brilliant child. Often misunderstood, like any other genius. If he wasn’t properly motivated, there was no reasoning with him.”
“That hasn’t changed,” Natasha smiled softly.
“He has his moments,” Steve admitted. “However, don’t we all?”
The old man nodded approvingly and then focused a look at the scenery. He seemed surprised when the road curved around to a small, private airport instead of one of the bigger ones. His astonishment appeared even greater when he spied his first look at the Quinjet. “This is our means of transport?” he guessed.
“It’s quicker than other planes,” Clint noted, taking their guest’s bags inside and securing them. “It may not be as… standardized, but I assure you that everything you’ll need during the trip, you’ll find in there.”
Jarvis simply looked at the aircraft and walked up the ramp. Clint went ahead and got seated in the pilot’s chair, clearing them for take-off. Natasha helped Jarvis get settled and Steve braced himself as the engines started.
Once they were flying smoothly and Natasha was chatting with Jarvis in low tones, Steve moved over to a screen on the side and tapped at it, calling the Avengers Tower.
Bruce replied eventually, looking apprehensive. “Did you find Mr. Jarvis?” he asked.
“We did,” Steve nodded.
“We’re on our way back, with Mr. Jarvis,” he replied. “How’s Tony?”
Bruce’s expression changed minutely a few times as he no doubt attempted to find a suitable answer. “He hasn’t tried to blow me up again, if that’s what you’re asking.” He looked to the side and Steve wondered if Tony was in the room somewhere. “I would have Clint take some caution when he returns, as well as Natasha; Tony may have gotten to the weapons locker and while I’m pretty sure he didn’t get his hands on anything…”
“Did he touch my spare bows?” Clint snapped from the front. “I’ll kill him. And make him build me new, better ones once this is sorted out.”
Steve gave Jarvis a quick look, hoping they hadn’t offended the old man, but he barely blinked an eye. Turning back to the screen, Steve faced Bruce. “Any progress with Loki?”
“None,” Bruce groused. “Thor’s getting worried, and I’m not certain about whom; he understands the situation is dire but he keeps thinking the magic backfired somehow, possibly when making contact with the repulsor blast from the Unibeam…” He looked to the side again. “Tony! Don’t touch that, please.”
“You said I could look around,” the small voice replied from the background.
“Yes, but that doesn’t include touching. What’s that you’re holding? There are dangerous things lying around –”
“Then you should clean up.”
“My lab is clean, I didn’t mean it like that. Give that to me, Tony, before you hurt yourself.” Bruce disappeared for a moment, then returned. “I think I’ll see you when you return,” he noted quickly.
“Stay strong,” Steve told him.
“Yeah,” Bruce rolled his eyes. “By the way, Fury isn’t pleased you went to get Mr. Jarvis behind his back. However, he can’t exactly stop you, so…”
“I’ll deal with it,” Steve promised. “It was my decision.”
Bruce nodded and Steve disconnected the call. He heaved a sigh, wondering how far he could push things before he had to answer for his decisions. He turned and sat down on a bench, briefly meeting Edwin Jarvis’ knowledgeable eyes before looking down at his lap and remaining that way for the rest of the flight.
The Avengers Tower dominated the New York City skyline in its own way; everyone knew what it was, and Edwin Jarvis supposed it was a landmark in its own right. After all, not every building in such a prominent place housed some of the most well-known superheroes.
As it was, the building appeared quiet and empty, and as the aircraft landed on the mid-rise helipad terrace that was higher up than most of the surrounding buildings’ roofs, Edwin wasn’t certain what lay ahead.
The three Avengers milled around him, taking his bags and encouraging him inside away from the wind and the noise below. Once the glass doors closed between them and the rest of the world, it was eerily quiet.
“Where is everyone?” Clint mused. His sharp eyes scanned the vast room that looked like a mix of living room and bar.
“J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Steve Rogers called out, making Edwin lift his head in confusion since, for some reason, it didn’t seem the Captain was talking to him.
“Welcome back,” an electronic voice replied from within the room, yet it was so smooth it was hard to tell it was artificial. “I have informed Dr. Banner of your return.”
“Good,” Steve started, then looked at Edwin. “Uh, Mr. Jarvis, meet J.A.R.V.I.S., who is Tony’s personal AI.”
A strange silence followed. Edwin felt like he was being watched by numerous eyes, none of which he could see.
“A pleasure, Mr. Jarvis,” the voice finally resumed speaking. It was familiar, yet strange – as if listening to a recording of his own voice which was quite different than what you imagined it would be. “I fear my programming does not include the possibility of meeting you in the flesh.”
“Tony never intended you two to meet?” Clint raised an eyebrow. “Have we just caused some kind of paradox? Don’t tell me you’re going to self-destruct.”
“Fear not, Agent Barton; I am capable of calculating an appropriate response – or, a response as appropriate as my processors indicate, for I cannot currently ask Mr. Stark for instructions.”
Edwin nodded slowly. It didn’t come as a surprise that Tony had created an AI – he had talked about it even before going to MIT, but hadn’t been ready for it yet – but for it to be modeled after him…
“Hey!” a voice called out and another man walked in, glasses perched on his nose and hair a bit wild. “You’re back. Good. Tony!” he called out then, over his shoulder. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
“Another kidnapper?” a young voice called back, threatening to throw Edwin back in time as a small form appeared around the man in glasses, sulking and dragging his feet. However, as soon as the boy spotted him, his expression switched to surprise and relief. “Jarvis!”
“Young Master Stark,” Edwin greeted him sternly. “I hope you haven’t caused these people grief with your behavior?”
Tony’s eyes widened and he trembled, slightly. “I don’t know them and they wouldn’t let me go home!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t know what to do.” The dark eyes were getting wet and Edwin attempted to keep his own tears at bay.
To distract himself and the boy, Jarvis slowly lowered himself on one knee and spread his arms. In a flash Tony was running, throwing his small form against him with almost enough power to make Edwin fall back. A hand steadied him at his shoulder, however, and he knew it was Steve. Tony wrapped his arms around his neck and sobbed against his shoulder. An unfamiliar hardness pressed against the side of Edwin’s chest but he ignored it for now, holding the boy who was clearly frightened and tired of hiding it in an attempt to seem brave and make his father proud once he finally got home.
Only, there was no home to go to, and Howard Stark was long gone…
When Tony finally stopped crying and his choking hold on the old man yielded somewhat, Edwin gently pushed Tony back to his own feet and looked him over. The clothes were very unlike anything the boy had worn when he was still in Edwin’s care; they were ill-fitting, as if whoever bought them didn’t know what they were doing. A faint blue glow shone through the shirt at Tony’s chest and Edwin slowly touched it, gently, feeling the hardness again.
Tony let out a shuddery breath which almost turned into another sob. “I was so scared, Jarvis,” he whispered, although not quietly enough for the Avengers to not hear.
“Well, I am here now,” Edwin reassured him, resting a hand on Tony’s small shoulder. It was incredible and he still felt transported back in time, because this was the boy he had taken care of, sometimes day and night, trying to guide him through the life that was often too harsh on someone his age.
Tony smiled at him and pushed at his runny nose.
“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Edwin said then and lifted himself up. A firm hand was still there, helping him along, and he gave Steve a small nod of thanks.
“I have prepared a room for you, Mr. Jarvis,” the AI announced.
Tony looked up at the voice. “It has your name,” he stage-whispered to Edwin. “I don’t like that, but… it’s like talking to you, sometimes.”
“Well, then this J.A.R.V.I.S. cannot be so bad,” Edwin mused. “Come now, I need to freshen up after my travel and you, young man, are going to have your hair combed.”
Tony, who had never smiled so brightly at the prospect of having a comb running through his unruly curls, began impatiently tugging on Edwin’s hand and pulling him along while the AI guided them to Edwin’s designated room.
“It’s like looking at a completely different person,” Natasha mused as they gathered in the kitchen.
“Maybe he’ll keep Tony from causing mischief,” Clint muttered. There was an array of his gear spread all over the coffee table further off, and he was meticulously going over each and every one, to make sure Tony hadn’t caused any damage – or left booby-traps. After he created the small flash-and-smoke-bomb in his bedroom, everyone knew better than to underestimate him.
Steve let Clint’s comment go without comment and took another bite of his food. Tony and Edwin Jarvis had been gone for the last hour, probably to allow the older man to settle down. He felt bad that they had pretty much abandoned their guest with the boy, but Jarvis hadn’t asked for help and J.A.R.V.I.S. was monitoring the situation.
The elevator pinged and as the doors opened, Edwin Jarvis stepped out with Tony. Steve stared for a moment, uncertain whether Tony had ever looked so clean and appropriate before; his hair was combed neatly, his clothes were clean and un-rumpled, and his entire demeanor was calmer. The pair approached the kitchen and Jarvis nodded courtly. “May we join you?”
“Of course,” Natasha said politely. “There’s food.”
“Tony, please set a place for us at the table.” Jarvis noted and the boy went to do his bidding, getting two napkins, folding them neatly, then placed cutlery on them with fine precision before going for the glasses.
“Let me help you,” Steve offered and stood since Tony couldn’t reach the shelf with the glasses. He handed him two, smiling.
“What do you say?” Jarvis noted from the side.
“Thank you, Captain Rogers,” Tony sort of mumbled and returned to the table to place the glasses next to the napkins.
“I thought you didn’t think I was the real Captain America,” Steve reminded him.
“Jarvis says you are,” Tony replied, regarding him with slightly narrowed eyes. It seemed he was still working on believing it, or trying to challenge the older man’s logic, but for the time being at least he had discovered his manners – most of which he had carefully buried away as he grew older.
Jarvis returned with two plates of food, each portion placed neatly around the porcelain, with greens and all. Tony didn’t complain but climbed onto a chair, digging in with gusto he hadn’t shown before. He didn’t even make an accusation that it might be poisoned, even if the other Avengers were eating the same thing.
“I know you can use the knife,” Jarvis said a moment later. “Don’t pretend you can’t.”
Tony adjusted his fork and then picked up the knife as well, eating better than the most well-mannered children Steve had ever encountered. After a while he realized he was staring – and then noted the other Avengers were doing the same.
“It’s impolite to stare,” Tony muttered after a while, then looked up. “You could use lessons in manners. Maybe Jarvis will give you some,” he noted. “You don’t keep your elbows on the table,” he told Bruce – who promptly dropped them off the table. “You finish everything on your plate, even if you don’t like it – and if you drink beer, you pour it into a glass, not drink it from the can,” he added in Clint’s direction, where he had half-finished his food in favor of checking his equipment, sipping beer every now and then. “Use both your fork and knife, unless it’s dessert, but then you’re given a pastry fork to eat with,” he said to Natasha, who merely raised an eyebrow and continued eating with her fork only.
Jarvis kept his features blank although Steve was certain he was hiding a smile.
He was also glad Tony found no complaints in his eating habits.
That evening, the Tower was quiet in a comfortable way they hadn’t been able to enjoy since Tony was transformed into a child. If there had been any doubts about the benefits from taking this course of action, all of them were removed; Jarvis was definitely in control of the situation, in the most amazing, natural way.
Tony was like a different person. He still gave the Avengers wary looks, but before Tony and Jarvis had headed out to wash up for the night, Tony had been seen peeking over the back of the couch, looking at Steve tending to his shield. Clearly there was something star-struck in the brown eyes.
Bruce was visibly relaxing and had passed out in the living room after their dinner, clearly worn out from staying on edge and keeping an eye on Tony. The others tiptoed around him, knowing he would be hard at work to reverse the transformation once he woke up, now that watching Tony wasn’t solely his responsibility.
Clint was finally confident there weren’t any traps or malfunctions awaiting him in his gear, although he still swore Tony owed him a new, improved set once he was back to himself. He had napped for a bit as well, and was now playing an old version of Grand Theft Auto.
Natasha checked in on all of them, then wandered out to see how Edwin Jarvis was doing. She found him and Tony in Tony’s bedroom, the boy lying on his back, arc reactor shining brightly in the dim room, despite the shirt he was wearing. Jarvis was sitting on the side of the bed, running a gentle hand through the dark hair and speaking in a low tone. First Natasha wondered if he was actually telling Tony a story, but the look of concentration on Tony’s face implied it was something more serious.
She wandered closer without making noise, deciding that if the door was open, she couldn’t be blamed for eavesdropping.
“Maybe we can’t go home,” Tony was saying, “but I don’t get it. No one tells me things, and why did it take them so long to find you? And why do you look so old?”
“That is not a very polite thing to say,” Jarvis mused with a gentle bite to his tone.
“But it’s true!” Tony insisted. “My chest hurts all the time, but Bruce said they can’t take it off,” he added sourly, one small hand shifting closer to the arc reactor.
“They explained to me that it is very important to your health,” Jarvis nodded in agreement. “Do not tamper with it.”
Tony pursed his lips. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said then, yawning.
“Go to sleep,” Jarvis commanded. “I will see you in the morning.”
Tony slowly closed his eyes, then attempted to fake it and peek at the old man, but Jarvis caught it at once and gave Tony a disapproving look. The child’s face finally relaxed and in a matter of minutes, he was asleep, obviously exhausted.
“I’m glad to be here, too,” Jarvis mused quietly and slowly got up. “J.A.R.V.I.S.,” he said then, voice barely above a whisper.
“Yes, Mr. Jarvis?” the AI replied, equally quiet.
“Let me know if he wakes up, or if something happens.”
Natasha moved away from the door in time to avoid being seen when Edwin Jarvis headed out to the bedroom closest to Tony’s, to get some much-deserved shut-eye.
Jarvis was still there in the morning when Tony woke up, ready to usher him out of bed, to the bathroom and to dress properly – and comb his hair until it didn’t stand up in every direction. Tony didn’t really mind; he was happier to have the man here, even if it meant he had to go through all these boring routines.
Things still bugged him. Where were his parents, really? Why did Jarvis look so old? Why was there an AI called J.A.R.V.I.S. that sounded exactly like Jarvis, although not really?
So many questions and he couldn’t find any answers.
The people who had first found him and brought him here, called the Avengers, were still around. Tony had hoped they might leave when Jarvis got here, or that he and Jarvis would go home, but they stayed at the Tower.
Well, Tony didn’t mind the Avengers all that much anymore. Bruce Banner was nice – and smart, too, although he kept thinking Tony was just a kid and it only fuelled Tony to show him how wrong he was. Then there was Captain America, who, Jarvis said, was the real Steve Rogers. Tony wasn’t certain it was true, but the man had a shield, and if it was vibranium, then maybe it really was him, because there was no other vibranium shield in the world; his father had told him that. After all, he had made the one for Captain America.
They all gathered for breakfast. Jarvis did some of the cooking, although Natasha helped. The others looked a little bummed, as if they didn’t feel like they should all gather around to eat at the same time, but Jarvis ordered them around like he had ordered the rest of the household in the Stark Mansion and it made Tony grin when Clint grumbled and muttered but helped to set the table. Bruce tried to make excuses that he had to get back to the lab but one look from Jarvis made him sit down meekly and not mention it again.
As they worked – Tony wasn’t allowed to help make breakfast because he could burn himself – he discovered Captain America’s shield resting against the back of a couch. He moved over to it, touching it hesitantly, feeling the cool, hard surface. He knocked his knuckles against it, noted the slight tremble and sound, then looked to the side and tried to decide how to test it. He smiled, then, and moved to a table nearby; Natasha had set a case on top of it when she came in and began to help with breakfast preparations. There could be something useful inside.
Indeed, when Tony had climbed onto a chair and opened the case, he found a pair of something that looked like weird bracelets. He recalled her wearing them the night he woke up in the dark alley, and pulled one out, turning it over. It was mechanical, and a little further experimentation made his lips curve.
He lowered himself back to the floor and walked over to the shield, adjusting the bracelet and aiming carefully. Blue lines of electricity crackled then spat forward from the bracelet at the shield – then bounced off the metal with at least twice the original force. Tony dodged, grinning triumphantly, then turned just in time to see the blue bolt fly across the room towards the far wall where the elevator was – and straight at a man who was just stepping out of the elevator.
The man dodged, just in time to avoid being blasted, and one eye narrowed at Tony. The other was hidden by a patch, like he was a pirate, and Tony’s face lit up in a grin: another person he knew!
“Stark!” the man snapped, and all movement in the kitchen ceased. “Put that down before you hurt yourself or someone else. Widow!” he snapped in the other direction, and Natasha appeared, quickly wrenching the yellow bracelet from Tony’s hold.
Tony pouted briefly then looked at the newcomer. “You work with my dad,” he announced. “I’ve seen you at the Mansion.”
“Sir?” Natasha asked, returning from where she had gone to put away the bracelets.
The black man with an eye-patch sighed heavily. “Great… How does he remember it now if he won’t remember it years from now?”
Tony frowned, not getting it.
“Maybe he’s had too many alcohol poisonings in between?” Clint suggested from the other room.
Tony still didn’t get it.
“Mr. Fury,” Jarvis stepped out, placing a hand on Tony’s shoulder, silently suggesting that he not interfere. “Would you like some breakfast?”
“I’m here to check on things,” the Eye-Patch-Man – Fury – said. “My team hasn’t been very forthcoming with the process of… well, fixing things.”
“Well, any meeting can wait until we’ve eaten,” Jarvis decided. “You can either join us or wait.”
Tony smiled triumphantly, seeing the man squirm, just a little – until Jarvis turned to look at him. “What were you doing with Ms. Romanoff’s weapons?”
Tony bowed his head and mumbled out his answer.
“Loud and clear, young man.”
“Testing the shield,” Tony repeated, not very loudly.
Jarvis’ fingers tightened a fraction and Tony looked up. “Do not touch Captain Rogers’ things – or anyone else’s. They are not for you to touch, or to play with. Not only are they dangerous, but they are important tools and if you break them, someone else might get hurt as well.”
“I’m sorry,” Tony offered.
Jarvis nodded. “Now go wash your hands and join us after you’re done.”
Tony hurried out to the nearest bathroom, made sure his hands were clean – because Jarvis always knew if they weren’t – then returned to the dining area. Fury had sat down and was now nursing a cup of coffee and looking unhappy, yet he didn’t argue when Jarvis placed a breakfast plate in front of him. Maybe he knew better than to say no to it. Tony took the seat that had been his since yesterday, tapping at the edge of the table as Jarvis placed cereal, orange juice and toast in front of him, as well as slices of various fruits. He grabbed a slice of apple and munched on it before pouring milk into his cereal and swirling his spoon in it to mix it properly. After that was done, he looked up, finding Fury staring at him.
“It’s impolite to stare,” he informed the man. “And you should take your spoon out of the cup before you drink from it. And you shouldn’t eat your bacon with your fingers.”
Several muffled laughs echoed from around the table, even if Jarvis gave the Avengers disapproving looks and offered Mr. Fury a fork and an extra napkin to wipe his greasy fingers on. Mr. Fury glowered, just a little, but did as he was told, even taking the spoon out of his cup before drinking again.
“I hope you’re happy,” Fury noted once they all sat down behind closed doors. Edwin Jarvis was with Tony and the Avengers had a chance to plan ahead. “Involving a civilian in what could be a matter of national security.”
“Let’s not blow this out of proportion,” Bruce cut in.
“You have no idea what kind of knowledge Stark has in his brain,” Fury snapped right back. “If someone finds a way to unlock it –”
“He doesn’t even remember he knows those things,” Steve interjected. “While he’s smart, he clearly has no recollection of his adult life – or anything past the age he is now.”
“And who’s to say that won’t change over time, when the shock of the transformation wears off?” the Director pushed. “He hasn’t changed back to himself. Thor is running rogue, hunting for his brother whom he cannot find, and no one has any idea how to solve this.”
“You’re just mad because he got to lecture you on your table manners,” Natasha teased.
Clint laughed. “What’s with that, by the way? I didn’t know you knew the Starks that well.”
“I knew Howard Stark,” Fury informed them dryly. “I saw more of Tony than he saw of me. He was… an easily distracted child, always immersed in his projects. Howard didn’t keep him around, if he could help it, but the boy snuck in more than once.”
“And Edwin Jarvis was always there to fetch him,” Natasha nodded along. “That’s almost cute.”
“We need to contain the situation before it becomes less cute,” Fury snapped, back to scowling at anyone who dared to make eye-contact. “When outsiders find out about our predicament, they’ll exploit it.”
“We can handle it,” Steve said, just as confident as last time it came up. “Edwin Jarvis isn’t a problem either. He knows Tony and worked for his family for decades – and no doubt carried a lot of secrets. He knows who Tony is now, and no doubt understands the danger this situation puts him in. He’s an ally, not a liability.”
“I hope you’re right, Captain,” Fury said, almost tiredly.
“Relax, boss,” Clint joked. “Go home, have a drink. We have everything under control until we find a way to turn him back.”
Fury didn’t reply before striding out again.
No one had heard from Thor for several days, which under normal circumstances wasn’t out of the ordinary. However, these weren’t normal circumstances, and Steve would have hoped for more frequent updates; while Tony was calmer and happier, it was still clear that the arc reactor pained him and that the entire situation confused the boy. Edwin Jarvis’ presence was a tremendous help, keeping Tony preoccupied and in line, yet it was only a temporary solution.
They needed to find Loki and get this sorted out. No one could actually confirm it, but Steve feared that the longer Tony stayed like this, the more it might affect him when they managed to change him back. Not to mention the world outside Stark Tower, which hadn’t yet caught wind of the fate of Tony Stark… He hoped it never would, either.
Steve was seated in the living room, looking over the latest test results of Tony’s medical exams that didn’t really make any sense to him, but he would still read each line and memorize them; there had been numerous things in his life, before and after the ice, that hadn’t at first made sense, but which he could later use, and Steve saw no reason to change that habit…
The lights flickered briefly, a single flash of lighting striking down from the blue sky, and a moment later Thor landed near the helipad outside, his cape and hair still stirred by the landing as he began to walk towards the doors. Steve abandoned his reading and met Thor half-way.
“Anything?” he asked – hoping and dreading the other man’s answer.
Thor blinked and then looked a bit troubled. “I found my brother,” he stated.
“And?” Steve pressed.
“Loki appeared… surprised by what had happened. Clearly the transformation was not his intention,” Thor explained.
Steve considered that. Thor was alone, which meant Loki had either slipped away or been useless to them. He feared it was the latter. “Where is he now?” he asked finally when Thor didn’t go on, forcing himself to wait for the reply.
“He managed to elude me when I tried to bring him here,” Thor grunted. “Before he did, Loki claimed he could not reverse the effect, seeing as it was not his doing.”
“Do you believe him?”
Thor looked to the side, a thoughtful expression on his face. “I do not know what to believe,” He admitted finally and looked at Steve again. “I am sorry. I hoped…”
“We all did,” Steve allowed his own shoulders to droop briefly in defeat. This wasn’t over, not by a long shot, but if Loki truly couldn’t help them, what else could they do? Of course it was entirely possible Loki had been lying, which Steve would gladly confirm the next time the God of Mischief made an appearance. It was the least he could do to avenge Tony.
Thor had returned and the Avengers were busy talking behind closed doors.
Tony wasn’t interested in that, not really, because it was boring, but when they pulled Jarvis into a meeting, Tony was left to his own devices – with J.A.R.V.I.S., the AI. Tony had promised Jarvis he would behave, but that didn’t mean he had to sit quietly in the corner.
“You always answer my questions,” Tony mused, knowing the AI would know he was being addressed.
“Indeed, Mr. Stark,” the smooth voice replied.
Tony frowned; he wasn’t sure he liked being called that. It reminded him of the few parties his parents had taken him to, although most people had called him ‘little Anthony’. Maybe this was better, after all. “Do you always answer people’s questions?” Tony asked next.
“Most of the time, yes.”
“Is there someone you always have to answer?” Tony pressed.
There was a silence, a hesitation; almost the same as a human pause. “You, sir.”
Tony frowned again. He had suspected something like that and that was why he had asked… “Why me? I don’t even know you,” he reminded the AI. There was no reply this time, and Tony looked at the ceiling. “What year is it?” More silence. “Answer me, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony ordered sharply.
“2017, sir. Would you like a more precise date?”
Tony blinked. The last thing he remembered… or thought he remembered… It was blurry, but he thought he recalled the celebration of New Year’s Day, 1975. Tony was good with numbers, after all, and he could read, and everyone had been shouting it over the fireworks and clink of glasses. “Who is your creator?” he finally questioned, dreading the answer but knowing he had to know.
A long pause followed, as if J.A.R.V.I.S. was trying to find a reason not to tell Tony what he wanted to know. “Anthony Edward Stark,” came a reply, finally.
“That’s me,” Tony blinked.
“But I’m… I’m not even six, yet,” he lowered his eyes back to the floor, where he had spread out the pieces of a alarm clock he had been taking apart because he thought it would be fun to see what was inside. After all, the clocks he recalled were different. Everything in 1975 was different. “I know there was no other Anthony Edward Stark in my family,” he mused. “That’s my name. That’s me. Isn’t it?” he looked at the ceiling again.
“Yes, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied.
“I created you,” Tony went on.
“And that’s why you have to tell me everything I want to know.”
Another pause, then: “Indeed, sir.”
Tony sat up straight, biting his lip. He tried to think of something to solve the riddles around him. There were things he already knew: he was in the future; Jarvis looked older, although he had been old the last time Tony saw him, but not that old; Captain America was alive; he hadn’t seen his parents, or heard from them, and that was odd – and everyone said he couldn’t go home.
“Where are my mom and dad?” Tony finally worded one of the most burning questions. “You have to tell me the truth, J.A.R.V.I.S.”
There seemed to be an internal, digital struggle going on. “I’m afraid they are dead, sir.”
Tony swallowed. “When?”
“In 1991. A car crash.”
“How old was I when they died?” It was a trick question, of course. Another confirmation for what he was beginning to believe.
“And why am I five years old now?”
“Because of a currently unidentified event, sir. The involvement of magic is suspected, although Mr. Odinson keeps claiming there might be something else at work as well.”
Tony nodded slowly, deliberately. “So I’m supposed to be… 47.” He considered this – considered everything. “The Avengers said this is my home. That we are home.” He recalled that, even in the confusion and pain of the first few days. “They have stayed here… they say they are my friends…”
“They are, sir: your friends and allies, according to your own statements.”
Tony frowned. He tried to remember the first, clear thing since the incident. There had been pain, and it had been dark, and the scary Hulk had been there… “When I woke up,” he started and tried to recall it, all of it, “I was lying in the middle of something. I saw Captain America holding a helmet. What was that helmet from?”
“From the Iron Man armor.”
“Where is the armor now?” Tony asked. “Show me. I want to see it. I know they brought it back.”
“The suit you wore during the last battle currently resides in the armory, awaiting repairs.”
“Tell me how to get there,” Tony commanded and got to his feet. Like always, his chest hurt from any movement but he was growing used to the constant pain. It helped when he had something else to think about, too.
“Sir, you were requested to remain in this room –”
“The armory isn’t far away, is it?” he cut in.
“A few floors down,” J.A.R.V.I.S. informed him.
“Then I won’t go far, and besides, I’ll be back before they notice,” Tony mused and went to the door, peering out. There was no one watching him this time so he went to the elevators. One of the doors opened to let him in, leaving him standing inside and looking up at the buttons. He might be able to reach the lower rows…
J.A.R.V.I.S., however, closed the doors automatically and took him down a couple floors, opening the doors promptly as the elevator came to a smooth halt. Tony stepped out, looking down a dim hallway. Somewhere down the hall, he heard a door unlock and hiss open. “Step forward, if you please,” the AI encouraged.
Tony moved out towards the sound of the door. He found an open doorway a moment later and went through it cautiously. The room beyond was dark until lights began to turn on all around him, revealing shapes like coffins on the walls… and what looked like a robot shell on a table.
With some hesitation, Tony moved towards the red-and-gold shell, realizing it had to be the armor he had been sitting in the middle of when he came to. He peered at it carefully, pulling himself up onto a stool that sat beside the table to get a better look at it. “Is this Iron Man?” he asked.
“Yes and no,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied. “This is one version of the armor you’ve been wearing for some years. The press named you ‘Iron Man’ after your first public battle. It stuck.”
“I’m a hero?” Tony mused, surprised.
“Indeed you are, sir – at least according to most people.”
Tony grinned. “Cool.” Then he thought about it some more. “Wait… If the Avengers are here, and they were with me when I… got like this… does that mean I’m being a hero with them?”
“You are one of the Avengers, sir.”
That caused a flutter in Tony’s chest that had nothing to do with the machine. “I fight with Captain America?” he asked a bit dreamily. That was so much better than any of his imaginative dreams. For a moment he wished he could go and tell his father – then remembered he could not.
Feeling the joy fade and be replaced by sadness and fear, Tony looked at the suit some more. He noted the glowing circle in its chest and reached out to touch it. “This is… the same thing I have in me,” he frowned.
“The arc reactor. It powers the suit.”
“So why do I have one in my chest?”
A pause followed. “Perhaps you should ask someone else. Dr. Banner, for one –”
“I’m asking you,” Tony snapped. “Tell me.”
“The arc reactor powers an electromagnet – which in turn keeps a cluster of shrapnel from entering your heart.”
Tony frowned, repeating the words soundlessly, his lips moving. “They said it keeps me alive,” he echoed. “Was there an… incident?”
“That is a good word for it, sir.”
Tony felt like he wasn’t being told everything, again, which was beginning to bug him. Instead of asking J.A.R.V.I.S. to clarify, however, he leaned across the table and touched the side of the armor, running his fingers across the smooth, cool surface in deep thought. It was very complex, and to understand all of it, he needed time. This was what his parents called ‘grown-up stuff’, insinuating Tony didn’t need to get it, nor could he understand, but Tony was smart and he understood a lot of things.
He understood that he was a hero – something he had secretly wanted to be since first hearing the tales of Captain America from his father. The real stories, and not the ones in books, comics, and films. Well, he would have been happy to just meet Cap, but this was so much better. Only, he was supposed to be an adult, not a five-year-old who didn’t know what to do and who was afraid all the time, of the strangers around him and the arc reactor in his chest.
A knock alerted him to the fact that he was no longer alone and Tony’s head whipped around to find Steve Rogers standing in the doorway. “May I come in?” the man asked.
Tony frowned for a moment. “I guess.”
Cap gave him a quick smile. “I thought I should ask, since… this is your space,” he mused, a flicker of seriousness in his eyes. “J.A.R.V.I.S. told me you two had a discussion.”
Tony looked back at the Iron Man armor, touching it again, idly following the lines and seams. “It wasn’t a very difficult riddle,” he said.
Steve let out a noncommittal sound. When Tony next looked at him, he was gazing at the room thoughtfully. Tony did the same, noticing other work benches and tools on the walls and shelves. The man noticed, smiling at him. “This is all yours,” he mused. “You could spend days down here…”
Curious, Tony lowered himself from the stool and walked around, touching things. “I have a lot of tools,” he counted. He didn’t know what some of them were for, while others were familiar.
Steve chuckled. “You always complained there weren’t enough, and then you would make some new ones, just like that.”
Tony grinned; he knew he was just a kid now, but one day… His smile faded. “It’s weird,” he admitted. “I don’t… It doesn’t seem real, but everyone else thinks I shouldn’t be… me.” A hand landed on his shoulder and Tony started, looking up quickly. He hadn’t heard Steve move closer, but there he was, towering above him.
“You’re still you,” Captain America told him.
“But I’m not… a grown-up,” Tony complained.
“You’ll be, eventually. Soon, I hope, but if not…” He knelt down, lowering one knee to the floor, almost eye-to-eye with Tony. He was just as big, wide and strong as in the old posters and pictures, even without his uniform and shield. Tony felt safer. “If we can’t reverse it, I promise we’ll still be your friends.”
Tony blinked rapidly. He didn’t want to cry in front of Captain America. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Steve smiled, eyes bright.
“Thanks,” Tony mumbled, lowering his face. “I’m sorry I… wasn’t very polite in the beginning.”
“You were confused and in pain. I think you’ve been very brave, actually. Braver than I was when I woke up in this strange future world.”
Tony looked at him. “No way. You’re always so… brave and strong.”
Steve leaned slightly closer, hand still firm and warm, enveloping Tony’s shoulder. “Not always,” Cap whispered finally, like it was a secret.
Tony promised himself he would never tell anyone. He nodded, confirming this, then shifted a bit and wrapped his arms around Steve’s neck in an embrace. The strong arms hugged him back after a moment and it was all better, in a way. Even if he had to grow up again, and couldn’t be Iron Man right away, Captain America was his friend and he was an Avenger.