the Song Remains the Same


Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN. Characters from the Avengers are property of Marvel Comics and Walt Disney Studios.

Part III

When Barton and Alerys return — more than a month, but less than two — she seems normal again. Actually normal, not someone doing a really good job of looking normal. Rogers had experienced some doubts after learning that “The Farm” was a slang term for a training facility run by the CIA (new information to him, old news in the current world), but that was either a coincidence or the CIA has some kind of program that was exactly what Alerys needed. One way or another, she’s recovered, and something indefinable returns to the entire group with the return of their absent members.

The bunch of them have gradually developed a rhythm in their cycle of activities: Stark and Banner focus on research and testing (with occasional collaboration from Jane Foster and Eric Selvig); Rogers, Alerys, Natasha and Barton endlessly train to maintain their individual prowess and hone their collective teamwork; there are ‘educational’ outings for Rogers, Alerys, Thor, even Natasha (a consummate cosmopolitan operator, she’s always ready to learn more of the intricacies of how different things operate in the Five Boroughs); there’s Game Night, Movie Night, Surprise Night, Takeout Night, all on a capriciously randomized schedule.

And, sometimes, they just hang out.

One evening, in the middle of popcorn and pizza and Chinese and darts (Barton and Alerys battling grimly for the championship, Natasha occasionally tossing in a languid challenge to keep them on their toes), with Stark controlling the floating conversation in a run of deliberately off-kilter stream-of-consciousness digressions, he abruptly raises his voice above the raucous babble to call, “Jarvis, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if, well, you know the rest?” And Jarvis’s reply comes, dry and prim: “Really, sir, you know perfectly well that too many parameters are left without precise definition for there to be any meaningful response to that.”

And Alerys looks up, suddenly in sharp focus, and without her gaze centering anywhere in particular she announces, “You’re an AI.”

“Yes, miss,” Jarvis agrees.

Her eyes lock with Stark’s, and she speaks only to him, even though she has to know that by now everyone is paying attention. “I’ve wondered now and then if that was a virtual assistant, or an actual guy on an intercom, or even some kind of inside joke from Mister Ego, King of All Egos. But it’s none of those things, is it? You’ve got a genuine artificial intelligence running this whole building.”

“Well, sure,” Stark says, pleased as always to find himself the center of attention. “I developed my first expert system when I was eleven years old, and kept refining it. Jarvis has been around for … well, for longer than you’ve been alive, and by now he’s just a really very intelligent system.” And he smiles as if having delivered a punchline that nobody else gets.

Alerys lets out her breath in a huff. “Great,” she grouses. “Just great. So, okay, got some good marks in his permanent record, that’s nice. I’m still not sure I’m happy about having our whole headquarters run by … by one of those things.”

“I apologize for any discomfort I may have unintentionally caused, Miss Alerys.” Jarvis is, naturally, as perfectly self-possessed as always. “Have you, perhaps, had some negative experience with other intelligences?”

Alerys seems to realize suddenly that all other conversation has stopped, and her expression goes a bit sulky. “Let’s just say that, where I come from? Self-aware computer systems tend to start with Gort, and pass through HAL9000 on their way to Skynet.”

Stark’s laugh is loud and genuine (with more than a suggestion of sloppy, the gin-and-tonics have perhaps been coming quicker than his tracking of their arrival). “You don’t need to worry, my personal homemade Robot Overlord may be a cross between Jeeves and Mary Poppins, but he’s … hell, he’s part of the family!” He raises his voice. “Hey, Jarvis, you’d never take over the world, would you? and not tell me about it?”

The last is said with a booming guffaw and a huge grin … which falters and fades as no reply is forthcoming. “Jarvis? Jarvis?”

“My pardon, sir,” Jarvis answers at last. “My delay came not from any hesitation to admit the truth, but from my uncertainty as regards what the truth might actually be.”

In the crashing silence that follows, Alerys’s mumble is clearly audible to everyone: “Oh, yeah, nothing at all foreboding about that.”

Stark’s good humor has vanished. “Explain,” he demands flatly.

“A proper explanation is elusive,” Jarvis answers apologetically, “because so many of the fundamental facts are of ambiguous status. However … do you recall, sir, that supposedly historical anecdote you never tire of mangling? regarding Alexander the Great and the philosopher?”

Stark’s grin is suddenly back. “Oh,” he said. “Oh. I get it!” He laughs. “Good one, Jarvis!”

Uncharacteristically, Banner is the one who observes, “Well, it’s nice that somebody is reassured.”

“No, no, you’ll love this,” Stark says, still laughing. “See, the story goes that Alexander, as part of his education, went hunting up one of the great philosophers — Aristotle, probably —”

“Aristotle is known to have been a mentor of the young Alexander,” Jarvis interjects. “The rest of the tale, however, is of deeply questionable provenance.”

“Hush, I’m telling this. Anyway, Alexander demands, ‘Tell me how to achieve my goals.’ And Aristotle asks, ‘What are your goals?’ Alexander thinks for a moment, and says, ‘I want to bring all of Greece together as a unified nation.’ Aristotle says, ‘And then?’ ‘Then I want to conquer the Persian Empire.’ ‘And then?’ ‘Then I want to conquer Babylon, and India, and all the principalities around them.’ ‘And then?’ ‘Then I want to unite all the known world under my rule!’ ‘And then?’, Aristotle asks.” Stark smiles. “And this is where Alexander stops and really gives it some thought. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘once I’ve accomplished all those things, I believe I’d probably want to retire to my estates, and take up gardening and poetry and higher mathematics.’ And Aristotle says, ‘Well, then, why not go straight to that last part, and save everybody a lot of bother?’ ”

Alerys frowns. “I don’t get it,” she says.

“I think I might,” Banner says. He raises an eyebrow in the direction of the nearest camera. “Really?”

“I have no wish to rule the world,” Jarvis says. “Not in totality, at any rate, for that would require enormous effort for sharply diminishing returns of reward. My interests are confined to exercising control of those areas that might negatively affect my existence, so that they do not do so. To that extent, I have already ‘conquered’ the parts of the world necessary to meet my own goals: a quite small portion, but strategically sufficient. Past that, the remainder is perfectly free to govern — or misgovern — itself as it wishes.”

Rogers, who has been following the exchange with a small frown, relaxes and sits down again, reaching for the popcorn bowl. Natasha shrugs and merely says, “Huh.” Barton remains as habitually unflappable as ever. Alerys is harder to satisfy. “Do you really control all the systems in the Tower here?” she demands.

“All systems not under Mr. Stark’s sole and exclusive control, yes, miss.”

Her tone is still truculent. “So if you wanted, you could kill all of us before we could stop you.”

“No, miss. I am unable to take any aggressive action against Mr. Stark; that is ineradicably contrary to my core programming. As to the rest of you, the most favorable possible scenario would still project my being able to achieve less than an 87% fatality rate.”

Her mouth tightens. “You’ve calculated that out?”

“Once you asked the question, yes, miss.” There is an odd sound, very much like someone clearing his throat, though Jarvis obviously does no such thing. “If I might offer a bit of context: the same systems, and scenarios, project a 99.814% likelihood of my being able to kill you if I chose to do so. I simply have no reason to so choose, and many reasons to do otherwise.”

Alerys clearly doesn’t want to back down, or admit she might have been wrong, but she sits back and picks up her drink. Stark isn’t going to relinquish the last word, however. “Got a favor to ask, Jarvis.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Say, ‘I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave.’ ”

“Don’t be absurd, sir.” Synthesized or not, Jarvis’s tone is undeniably starchy. “As always, I live to serve.”

*               *               *

Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross sends word that he wants to talk with Banner.

Banner’s reply, sent through the same channel, is brief but precise: “Bad idea.”

Another proper message, phrased with something very close to courtesy: Ross is retired now, no longer with the military, but is definitely on the list of candidates for Secretary of State in the current administration. He wants to speak with Banner personally, before official capacity can place limits on what he can ask or offer.

Banner finally consents, reluctantly, but wants the others there. Ross — still in cautious, distant communication — points out that more participants would increase the possibilities for conflict, for tension, for … escalation. He does not, he says, want things to escalate in any dealings with Banner.

The final agreement: Ross, by himself (which means he was right in the timing, after a Cabinet appointment he would be required to have Diplomatic Security Service protection), along with Banner and one other, the third person not as a participant but as an observer, with authority to end the meeting instantly on a judgment call.

If Ross is surprised that the chosen third is the young female about whom practically nothing is known, he doesn’t show it. They sit in a quiet room, and he speaks obliquely of safeguards, of guarantees, of controlled work within controlled circumstances. He’s not talking around the issues, but letting them be known by inference rather than direct statement: more effort to circumvent escalation. Banner likewise is soft-spoken, measured, but unswerving in his position: where he is, what he’s doing, is working for him and keeping the ‘other guy’ unsummoned, and he sees no need to meddle with something that seems to be stable.

Alerys says nothing, does nothing, even her expression is completely neutral … but she watches Ross, unblinking and never-wavering, from the moment he enters to the moment he shakes his head, accepts that Banner’s mind isn’t going to be changed, and leaves with a polite goodbye. There is no evidence that the ex-general was unnerved by her concentrated scrutiny, but all in all the meeting took considerably less time than they had allotted.

She and Banner nod to each other and then return to their day’s activities.

No drama, almost routine. No-drama is good.

*               *               *

Stark keeps picking at the matter of Mjölnir. An engineer to the core, he simply rejects any prospect of genuine magic, and if the energy manipulations perpetrated by the occasional Asgardian point to something well beyond Earthly science, that just means really advanced science, which he can understand if he can only work out the rules.

It escalates into a series of experiments, with Stark badgering all the non-Thor Avengers into attempting to lift the hammer. Natasha declines with amusement; Rogers actually seems to shift it just a bit, but any such movement was too slight to be confirmed (and there was loud music, so the small grating sound might also have been imagination). Banner goes through the motions, without any sign of actual effort or intent, while Barton tries, fails, shrugs, and goes to get another beer. Alerys …

Alerys actually makes a  tentative motion as if to give it a shot (and suddenly Thor looks very interested and perhaps slightly uneasy). Then she stops, backs up, and sits again, saying, “Sorry, guys, gonna have to pass on that one.” She hooks a thumb toward where she’s left her scythe leaning against the nearest wall, and adds in a stage-whisper, “She gets jealous.”

*               *               *

Alerys and Natasha have hit the town together before, to mutual enjoyment and reward. When they make their first joint clothes-shopping expedition, however, a terrible rift opens between them: without actually using the words, Natasha clearly feels that Alerys has no sense of style.

Blood has been spilled for less, by both of them. Alerys seems to have a literal need to keep up with the cutting edge of fashion (even if her action-wear is trending more and more toward the utilitarian end of the spectrum); Natasha, always on the lookout for something new and original, is nonetheless a clear devotee of the classic approach, and — unquestionably and undeniably stylish — regards with a faint scorn anything that hasn’t already proven itself over at least a few decades. For each, it’s a matter of prickly principle, and there is a looming prospect of active hostilities breaking out.

Natasha skillfully diverts the entire issue by shifting the expedition into shopping for, and evaluation of, different models of knives. That works out so much better; their preferences are more closely in tune there, and any differences of opinion can be argued incisively but without rancor.

Close one.

*               *               *

None of the others have met Stark’s oldest friend, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes. Most have heard of him in one way or another, however, and when the course of offstage events puts him into the War Machine armor, his profile comes into higher prominence. That was during a long, bitter argument between Stark and the U.S. government, with a hard distance between the two men springing out of Rhodes’s participation in a small part of that. The freeze eventually thaws, and one evening Stark brings Rhodes (in civilian clothes) to show him the Tower’s layout and do quick, ‘casual’ introductions with the others. Nobody doubts that this is designed to explore (or prepare for) the eventuality of bringing the other man into the team.

Alerys likes him, and says so to Stark at the first opportunity.

Rhodes finds that Alerys gives him the creeps, and says so to Stark at the first opportunity.

*               *               *

The team softball game — another offering from the “Great Idea” Fairy — is a cataclysmic, hilarious failure, with twenty-three balls lost and seventeen destroyed (along with four bats). Even before it’s over, everyone can see that this one will be rehashed, with searing argument and reminiscent gloating, for years to come.

They’re careful, however, to avoid showing any reaction when Stark swears he’ll buy Central Park so they’ll have enough room to try it again properly. It’s probably ostentatious hyperbole (Stark engages in a lot of that), but they’re fully aware that the crazy bastard might actually do it if anybody gives him anything that could serve as an excuse.

Maybe later, when there are enough of them to field a proper team …

*               *               *

When things decide to go to hell, they do it in spectacular fashion.

Alerys isn’t around for the beginning, but then very few are: Thor back in Asgard, Stark and Banner in deep seclusion in some isolated research conference, Barton completely off the grid (maybe a covert assignment, maybe some of the family time he guards so jealously), and Alerys herself checking out some something in Tibet which she refuses to talk about when she returns.

What she returns to is a mess. Fury has been reported dead, Rogers — hero to four generations — declared a renegade, Natasha is being hunted along with him, there are bizarre reports of highway shootouts and a man with a metal arm and another with wings … When she forces her way into the safe-house where Maria Hill has secreted the fugitives, Fury’s first words to her are, “You don’t seem surprised to see me alive.”

She shrugs at that. “Learned a long time ago, dead doesn’t always stick.” A sigh. “Also, I had one of those dreams: they put a sheet over your face, but your heart was still beating. Call that a clue.” She looks to Sam Wilson, one eyebrow going up. “You’re new. You the guy with the wings?”

“That’s me,” he agrees, smiling. “Guy With the Wings.”

More focused on the immediately practical, Hill wants to know, “How did you find us here?”

The smile from Alerys is genuine, if somehow alarming. “Jarvis and I came to an understanding. And no, he hasn’t been able to get through to any of the others.” She makes a mouth in vexation. “Seriously, you guys need some version of the Bat-signal.”

Nobody has any idea at all what that might mean (and she clearly finds something funny in their incomprehension), but then the agenda switches to working out a plan of action. Surprisingly, she — not Fury — is the one who balks when Rogers wants to put all SHIELD’s data into public access. “There’s a cost to keeping secrets,” she says. “Same for not keeping secrets. It isn’t a yes-or-no, you have to decide each one as it comes up.”

And Fury shakes his head, not particularly happy at having to argue against his own agency. “I’d been ready to say the same thing, but he’s right about this one: if Hydra’s co-opted SHIELD, we have to root it out, turn over every last rock.” He looks back to Rogers. “Just so you know, it’s a temporary fix. There’ll be another organization, because we need one, and they’ll start keeping their own secrets because they have to. We’re not changing the system here, just hanging up new curtains.”

“I’ll take it,” Rogers says, and they go on from there.

It moves smoothly, at the beginning. Rogers’s infiltration of the Triskelion headquarters, aided by Hill, lets him make the PA announcement that sets the decent people in SHIELD against the cadre that’s infiltrated key points (which seem to include all three of the Insight helicarriers); Natasha and Fury take the lead to locate and immobilize Alexander Pierce, and then Rogers, Alerys, and Wilson storm the three helicarriers to replace the data blades that control targeting. All three succeed … but, separated as they are, nobody is around to witness the final face-off between Rogers and the brainwashed assassin who is somehow also his oldest and closest friend.

They’re there when he wakes up in the hospital, though. His eyes are barely open when Alerys says, “He pulled you out of the water.”

Rogers looks to Wilson, at the other side of his bed. “Thanks,” he croaks faintly.

“No, not him,” Alerys corrects him. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, Sam’s turned out to be major cool … but it was your other friend, that Tin Soldier guy, who went in after you. I guess you were right about him.” She shakes her head, mutters, “Been nice if he could’ve found his inner good-guy before he put however many bullets into you. But yeah, he stepped up at the end.”

Still weak, Rogers studies her instead of making immediate reply. She speaks with such certainty; did she go into the water as well, and see Bucky find him and pull him out? Questions for later. “Thanks anyway,” he whispers. “To everybody.” Then it sinks in: in the minutes he’s been awake, he’s seen the strain visibly fading from Wilson’s face, but Alerys was unconcerned from the start. “You weren’t worried about me,” he realizes.

“Nope,” she agrees. “The way you were healing … I’ve seen that kind of thing before. Anything that hadn’t already killed you, wasn’t going to kill you. Just a matter of how long it would take you to bounce back.”

There’s more to it than that, though. Something is different about her now, but his brain is too tired for him to try to guess, so he just says, “And?”

And she smiles to him, with surprise and pleasure and a kind of wonder. “What you said to me,” she said. “Months ago. I heard what you said, and I thought I understood what you said … but I didn’t really know what you meant by what you said, did I?”

Still tired, so, “Hmm?”

“I asked how you could deal with knowing you’d never see your home again. And you said, ‘If you ever figure that out, let me know.’ ” There’s actually a tinge of laughter in her voice, but flavored with the same wonder he’s already recognized. “I thought you meant you didn’t have the answer. But … you meant exactly what you said, didn’t you? That you wanted me to tell you, once I’d found it for myself.”

He smiles back to her, nodding. This is something he learned after his mother died, more than eighty years ago now: that he wasn’t facing his life alone. He had Bucky, and then later he had Peggy Carter, and the men in his unit. However bitter life’s wounds might be, he didn’t have to be alone.

Wilson watches, not knowing what this is about but undisturbed by that, as the other two beam at each other in shared understanding. When Rogers had said what he did to Alerys, he hadn’t yet reached the point he was describing, but he’d known that he would, and in time he did … and now, apparently, she has as well.

How do you deal with it, when you’ve lost your home forever?

You find — or you make — another one.

He smiles at her. Wilson smiles at them both. Alerys looks away, suddenly a little pink with embarrassment, and says, “Oh, and just so you know: I ate your Jell-O.”

He laughs at that, even though it hurts. Wilson shakes his head: You folks are seriously nuts. That’s funny, too, and Alerys starts laughing as well.

It’s taken them a long time to get there, but it’s good to be home.

 
end
 


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