The first time they met him, they thought he was just another weird fan.
Thor had just returned to Asgard, but the rest of the Avengers team was there when the blonde teen walked up to Steve and started to shake his hands violently. It was an aftermath of another alien invasion, this time involving elephant-aliens with purple trunk (Tony still didn't want to think too much about it), and they figured he was just another grateful, over-excited civilian.
The teen rambled on as he shook Steve's hands, his words jumbling up until they almost made no sense (Tony even heard "I'm so proud of you" once, and that was only one of the many odd word choices), his blue eyes almost sparkled behind his glasses, and he looked like he was going to burst from sheer excitement.
Tony could imagine Coulson's eyes narrow at the teen with jealousy and laughed at the image.
Steve—the good, exemplary national icon that he was—simply put up his best smile, and before they could think too much about him, the teen was gone. A few minutes later the evacuation team came to pick them up and Clint started whining at Coulson because he was hungry, and hey, Tony was hungry, too; the conversation immediately devolved into whines and complains, and nobody bothered to bring up the teen.
It wasn't like they were going to see him again, anyway.
Except they did see him again. Or at least, Tony did, this time.
The second time they met him, it was during one of the PR events of the Avengers, and they were answering questions from the press when Tony spotted the teen among the crowd.
Correction; Tony spotted the teen's hair among the crowd. It wasn't exactly easy to forget, after all. Now that he thought about it, the teen had a very peculiar hairstyle, one strand of hair stubbornly standing up as if it defied gravity. Tony tapped his chin at that. Did it? That particular strand stood really upright; was it actually physically possible? Tony started making some mental calculations, estimating the dimension and thus the weight of the strands, and the amount of gel it was needed to keep it upright like that—
"—and that is why it was done. Right, Tony?" He suddenly heard Steve say.
Steve's voice derailed Tony's train of thoughts. Tony immediately snapped his head up, only to see all pairs of eyes on him. Well, nothing to panic about. This wasn't the first time Tony zoned out during an important event, and definitely wasn't the first time he had to think on his feet.
Tony remembered hearing about "Hydra" and "research facilities" not long ago, and the words reminded him of their discussion they had with Fury and Hill beforehand, something about the public's privacy with regards to the Stark Tech used to locate Hydra's hidden research facilities.
Bingo. "Rest assured, citizens of America," he said, leaning forward to emphasize his point, "the Stark Industries understands the high regard the public puts on privacy, and we will always put yours before…"
As he continued on, the teen disappeared from the crowd.
Tony learned his name during their third encounter.
It was an aftermath of yet another attack from yet another super villain, this time in the form of a gigantic humanoid robot, courtesy of yours truly Doctor Doom. Bruce was attending a science convention in Phuket, Clint was on a mission in god-knows-where, and Thor still wasn't back from Asgard, so there were only the three of them.
The familiar teen approached them with his ever-present excitement as the SHIELD agents were collecting the remains of the robot for further research, and he was talking animatedly to another teen with white hair and—Tony did a double take—a scarf, despite the fact that temperature hovered in the nineties.
"—see, I told you, Ivan!" Tony heard once they were within his earshot, "their awesomeness just totally owns yourheroes!"
The one being called Ivan turned to them, but it was obvious that he wasn't looking at Tony. At first he thought they were looking at Steve, but as his eyes followed his gaze, he realized Ivan was looking at Natasha.
Natasha noticed this, too. She raised her eyebrow, tilted her head slightly to the side and said, "any problems, gentlemen?"
Ivan was practically beaming. "Nyet, Alfred," he said, and Natasha visibly tensed at the Russian word and accent, "not all of them are yours."
The teen—Alfred—pouted. "Citizenship."
Ivan hummed. "Ancestry."
"She's fighting for America."
"She's fighting for the world," Ivan said, "last time I remember, they were the Earth's Mightiest Heroes, not America's."
It was weird, really, the way they talked about Natasha (and the Avengers, to an extent) as if they weren't there. Tony was quite used to being treated this way, having Pepper talk about him with their clients like he wasn't there, but Natasha was obviously insulted, and before Steve or Tony could stop her, she strode towards the two teens at record speed and swung her leg—
Tony's eyes widened in surprise.
Alfred ducked, and Ivan stepped slightly to his side, putting himself just right out of the reach of her kick. They stayed like that for a while—Natasha's leg in the air, Alfred's head ducked slightly with a blank expression, and Ivan staring at the two with a smile on his face.
Tony felt his stomach drop at the sight before him—the two teenagers just managed to evade Natasha's kick. Even Clint was still having problems doing so, especially when she was pissed, and Clint had been sparring with Natasha for years.
Alfred slowly stepped to his side and turned to her, but Steve was the one who broke the silence.
"Black Widow, please do not assault civilians," he said, and when Natasha didn't react, he pressed, "Natasha."
At the use of her name, Natasha slowly lowered her leg.
"I'm sorry?" Alfred said tentatively, "did I do something wrong?"
Ivan sighed, but he sounded fond. "It's probably the fact that we're talking about them as if they weren't here," he said, before turning to Natasha, "I'm sorry, Alfred here is a bit dense."
Natasha ignored the comment. "You're Russian," she said instead.
"Yes," Ivan said cheerfully.
Natasha looked at him intently. "You're not—" she paused, and then said, her voice so low Tony almost couldn't hear her, "are you like me?"
Ivan casted his eyes downwards. He was still smiling, but the smile didn't quite reach his eyes, and there was a beat before he shook his head morosely. "No."
"Widow, Cap, Iron Man," Coulson's voice suddenly came out of their com, "time for extraction."
"Copy," Steve said, and he motioned them to go to the extraction point, looking apologetically at the two teens, "uhm, guys, we need to…"
"It's okay!" Alfred waved his hand, "don't mind us. We'll be around."
Tony nodded, activated his repulsors and flew, but he wasn't fast enough to miss Ivan's quiet murmur, "Prastite."
Tony couldn't speak much Russian, but even he understood the simple phrase. I'm sorry.
The fourth time the Avengers met Alfred, Tony wasn't there, but Clint told him the full story.
"So, Bruce wanted to learn some shooting today," Clint said after he drowned a glass full of beer, "and thanks to you and that idea involving cats, I was still banned from SHIELD's range, and the Avengers Tower was too far. I know a range a couple of blocks down the road, and I figured, why not? So we went there, and lo and behold, that Alfred kid was there."
Tony snickered at the mention of his cat idea, but didn't say anything, urging Clint to continue his story.
He did. "He was with this—this guy, blond hair, green eyes," his hands motioned a shape on his head, "white beret on his head. He was using this air riffle, and me and Bruce were assigned at the station right beside theirs.
"They didn't seem to notice us at first, and everything was fine until I looked at them." Clint's face suddenly turned serious, and his voice turned into a whisper, "do you know what I saw, Tony?"
Tony involuntarily gulped. "What?"
"That guy almost broke my record!" Clint exclaimed gravely, as if the man had personally violated his entire being. "I've made sure to hold the record score at every single public range in this city, not to be beaten by some random Swiss!"
"Yeah, the guy's obviously from Switzerland," Clint said, shrugging, "I've been there a couple of times for missions, I recognized his Schweizerdeutsch—you know. German spoken by Swiss people."
Tony frowned at the new information. First a Russian, and now a Swiss. Alfred was too young to be an ambassador, and it seemed too far-fetched to consider them online friends…
"So what did you do?" He said instead.
Clint looked at Tony as if the answer was obvious. "I challenged him for a match, of course."
Well, now that explained why Bruce immediately went to his bedroom when they went home just now; Clint was never a silent competitor, and judging from how exhausted Bruce looked, there must have been some shouting matches.
"I won," Clint said proudly before Tony got to ask, "and his name's Alfred F. Jones. I asked."
Tony blinked. "What?"
"Don't tell me you're not a little obsessed with the kid," Clint chuckled, "you, what, spotted him among the crowd, looked him up on government's databases… don't act like you don't know anything about that, Tony, JARVIS is my bro."
"You've never specified anything about not telling anyone, sir," the disembodied voice immediately defended itself.
Tony groaned. "Okay, fine," he said, defeated, "but you have to admit he's interesting."
"Definitely," Clint agreed, "I've met interesting people in my life—I used to live in the fucking circus, for gods' sake—but this Alfred Jones is definitely interesting."
"You think he's a spy?" Tony wanted to joke about it, but it came out much more serious than he intended.
Clint pressed his lips, contemplating it. Eventually he shook his head.
"When you live on the street, you learn to read people," he started. "Alfred's weird, and there's definitely something going on with him. But he's not a hostile."
Tony was skeptical, but the last time Clint made a judgment call, he brought in Natasha. Tony was not about to doubt him anytime soon.
The fifth time, Tony didn't meet him so much that he only walked past him.
It was one of the high-end parties the Avengers were invited to, and Tony was too busy
ogling appreciating the sight of Steve in a suit when he heard a thick British accent commented, "well, he really is a much better representation of America than you are."
A too loud, too familiar voice whined, "Arthur!"
Tony turned to catch a glimpse of Alfred's stubborn lick of hair. He also vaguely saw a pair of really, really thick eyebrows, but Steve was reaching out for a food across the table and his pants strained against his the curves of his behind and really, Tony couldn't be bothered with Alfred Jones right now.
They didn't see him for a long time after that.
And Tony could live with that, he totally could; hey, he had lived for years without Alfred F. Jones, and it wasn't like he was in love with him or anything, okay, that was just gross. If Alfred decided to stop appearing in Tony's life, then cool, whatever. Whatever.
Except that Tony couldn't, because what most people forgot is that before he was a hero, before he was an avenger, he was an inventor, and inventors live off curiosity. So Tony stayed curious, and before he could stop himself he broke into various governments' databases in search of Alfred F. Jones.
Bruce entered the workshop in the middle of the night, pulling up the sleeves of his coat as he prepared himself to physically drag Tony out of the room.
"Look, Tony, I know we're "bros" and all, but my life is on the line; if I don't get you to sleep right now Pepper is going to skin me alive tomorrow—"
"Jesus," Tony breathed, and his tone stopped Bruce's rant.
When there was no explanation forthcoming, Bruce tried, "Tony?"
"I knew it—" Tony said, more to himself than to Bruce, "I knew there was something wrong with that kid, he just—Jesus Christ."
Bruce blinked. "Tony, are we… are we talking about that Alfred kid?"
"I broke into virtually every government's database there is," Tony quickly explained, his heart pounding loudly in his chest from excitement. "No, that's a lie, because some countries do not have an extensive list of their citizens, and I couldn't access some that are completely offline, but my point still stands."
He swept his hand, and floating blue screens popped up on every flat surface, all showing almost the same thing: an image of Alfred F. Jones, a long list of names, and a blinking red cross at the side.
"I based my search off names, age and physical description, and I asked JARVIS to triple check the search; it's official—no medical records, no certificates, nothing," he finally brought his gaze away from the screen and looked into Bruce's eyes, "Alfred F. Jones does not exist in this world."
The sixth encounter was not a meeting, either. Tony wasn't even sure if it qualified as an encounter at all.
It was just Tony and Clint this time, because they were the ones excited enough to go to every single party the Avengers were invited to. Clint was the one who spotted him walking towards the exit—he was called Hawkeye for a reason—and before they knew it, they half-sprinted, half-running into people towards the exit.
When they reached the door, Alfred was no longer in sight.
Tony immediately turned to the nearest guard. "Did you see where the guy went?"
The guard looked puzzled. "What guy?"
"The guy! Tall, glasses, blonde hair with a strand sticking up weirdly," he motioned around his head, trying to imitate Alfred's weird cowlick.
The guard shook his head, "I'm sorry, sir, but no one had walked out of the hall for the past fifteen minutes."
Something didn't add up. "Fifteen min—we just saw him walking out of the door, like, a few seconds ago!" Clint said indignantly.
The guard just shook his head again, almost apologetically. "I'm really, really sorry, but I have no idea what you are talking about."
He didn't look like he was lying, so Tony just thanked him and dragged Clint back to the party. He proceeded to make fun of Clint's eyesight for the rest of the night, accusing him of seeing hallucinations.
(Later on, Tony would hack the building's security camera, and it would show that indeed, one guy who looked a lot like Alfred had walked out of the hall a few seconds before Tony and Clint did. This just puzzled them even more, because Tony learned early on how to read people and Clint would've been dead if he didn't, and they were both sure that the guard wasn't lying.
Clint also commented on how the guy didn't really look like Alfred—something's off, Tony, can't you see? The hair, and the way he carried himself—but Tony made another comment about hallucinations and Clint quickly shut up.)
It became a game.
One by one, the Avengers, except Thor who was still in Asgard, heard the story about the enigma that is Alfred F. Jones, and they started trying to find out about him through their own means.
Steve asked people around, Bruce did research, Natasha did whatever Natasha always did every time she wanted to find out about something, and Clint began asking favors from some SHIELD agents. Tony continued to hack various databases.
Everyone came back empty handed.
Alfred F. Jones remained a mystery everyone itched to solve.
The seventh encounter (or the sixth, depending on how you look at it), happened like this, according to Clint:
Clint was vaguely aware of someone else taking a seat beside him in the bar. He wanted to look up and greet him, but his head was spinning and he resorted to taking another shot of his beer instead.
It was the anniversary of the day Barney Barton left Clint bleeding behind a circus tent, and Clint could still remember every moment too vividly he gulped down his beer in a vain attempt to erase it.
No such luck.
"Heard about your brother," the man beside him said, "kind of sucks, don't you think?"
Clint didn't even realize why the man knew about his brother in the first place. Instead, he shrugged weakly and mumbled, "you have no idea."
"I think I know a thing or two about leaving my brother behind," the man said simply. "I did that during a fit of rage long time ago."
At that, Clint lifted his head. Alfred Jones was smiling at him, but his eyes were looking at something else, a memory of something that had happened years ago.
"The circumstances are not quite the same, and I don't think I've done anything wrong, nor would I have done anything differently, but." There was a pause as Alfred closed his eyes, "despite leaving him behind, I still love my brother.
"And I think you should remember that your brother must've felt the same thing."
As the words slowly sunk, Clint thought of Barney's smile, the way he would pat Clint's head affectionately before they went to sleep, the way Barney would protect Clint from the bullies, and something was caught in his throat.
Instead, he said, "why are you here, Alfred?"
Alfred stood up from the stool and squeezed Clint's shoulder. "You've done a lot of things for me, and you've lost a lot of things for me, too. This is the least I can do for you."
The eight time Alfred F. Jones appeared in Tony's life, it was a hostage situation. Tuesday, then.
"Report the situation, Hawkeye," Coulson's voice could be heard in the open com.
"The good news is, these people with guns are just normal people with normal guns, not some crazy scientists or alien super villains," Clint replied almost too cheerfully. "The bad news is, they are people with guns."
If Tony didn't know any better, he would've said that Coulson sighed in exasperation, but now he just sounded fond. "Advance carefully, everyone. Stark, I want you to stay out of this for now."
Valid point, considering Tony didn't bring his Iron Man suit at all. In his defense, they were at a diner, and who the heckrobbed a fucking diner? It was hilarious, like a scene out of Pulp Fiction. Except with superheroes.
Tony would have happily sat back and relax as Clint, Natasha and Steve saved the day, but the two people at the table behind him began to irritate him as they kept crying and whining exaggeratedly.
After five minutes of constant sobbing noise, he turned back.
"Hey, hey, life and death situation, I understand, but can you two calm down for a while?" Tony said.
Now that he was facing them, he could see that they were just teenagers, and twins to boot. They both had a weird strand of curly hair, and Tony was vaguely reminded of Alfred.
"Look, s—shut up, idiot!" One of them said, probably trying to appear tough, the image was betrayed by the tears running down his cheek.
"Fratello!" the other one yelped in a high-pitched tone, "don't be so rude! What if he kills us because we're being rude?"
"Y—you too! Shut up!"
"Ve… I wish Ge—I wish Ludwig was here… to protect us…"
"Don't talk about that idiot! I don't want him to be the last person I think about before I die!" His voice then lowered to almost a whisper, "I wish… Spain…"
Tony blinked. It was a weird conversation, really. It was so weird, Tony didn't even bother to feel insulted from being called an 'idiot'.
"Tony," Natasha suddenly said to the com, "be prepared. Bruce just found out that you happened to be in the diner, and he… well, he hulked out."
As if on cue, one of the walls—Tony couldn't find a more apt word than 'exploded'. There was a flash of green as the debris fell all over the place, and people started to scream and run as the Hulk snatched a long table as if it was just a piece of paper.
"Bruce—" Tony leapt to his feet, running towards the Hulk in an attempt to catch his attention to no avail. He could hear the two brothers started wailing and saw them hug each other animatedly from the corner of his eyes.
Because the universe hated Tony, this instead caught Hulk's attention.
The Hulk spurned into action at the high-pitched wail, grabbed another long table and swung.
"Fuck!" Tony shouted, and he ran to somehow save the two, but it was too late, he couldn't be fast enough fuck fuck fuck—
The table hit the long chair where the twins sat with a loud crack and splintered into two.
Tony fell to his knees. He felt he was going to be sick—the only reason Bruce hadn't been running back to the wilderness, away from large groups of people, was probably the fact that they managed to contain the Hulk. And to think that the Hulk finally took another casualty, in front of Tony's eyes, because of Tony—
When the pieces of woods fell to the side, Tony's heart skipped a beat, but because of a much better reason.
Alfred F. Jones was standing in front of the twins, shielding them from the table, and he didn't look like he felt anything, much less got hurt. When he saw Tony, he smiled and waved.
"What are you—" but before Tony could finish his question, the Hulk roared. Tony gulped—the lives of everyone in the diner were at stake, so he swallowed his question and ran to calm the Hulk down.
When the chaos ended and the burglars were chained and brought to the jail, Alfred F. Jones was no longer in sight.
Tony kicked a flipped chair out of frustration. (And winced at the pain, but heck if he was going to admit that.)
The ninth time was not a proper meeting, again.
Tony was in one of the multitudes of office buildings he visited that day (he didn't want to go, of course, but Pepper said "responsibilities, Tony," and "important meetings, Tony," before proceeding to spew a dozen names and numbers that seemed important so Tony went on with it).
He was trudging past a conference room when he heard a loud noise coming from one of them, and he couldn't help peeking into it.
He paused in shock.
There was Alfred, standing in the middle of the room with his hand pointing at a badly-drawn robot on the board. He was talking loudly, but his voice was still drowned by the bickering voices of the two men at the table, one with very thick eyebrows and the other with hair that reminded Tony of Thor's—impeccably smooth and glowing. Ivan was there, too, sitting at the side of the table and smiling, but there seemed to be an ominous aura coming from him, and the Asian man beside him slowly inched away from him.
Tony didn't know how to process this.
Fortunately—or unfortunately—he didn't need to, as he felt Pepper physically drag him away from the door and started lecturing him on privacy and punctuality.
Tony groaned and willed the sight away from his mind.
The third time wasn't the charm, but the tenth was.
It shouldn't have been a surprise that Thor was the one who solved the mystery.
"It's been long since we last parted, my dear friend!" Thor, who had just returned from Asgard, exclaimed at the sight of Alfred. He pulled the teen into a hug with a large grin, and Alfred grinned back at him.
Everyone was slack-jawed in surprise.
"Thor," Tony pointed at the Norse god, and at Alfred, and back at Thor, "how—why—how did you—"
"Oh, I see that you have known each other!" Thor turned to the Avengers, one arm still around Alfred's shoulder in a brotherly hug, as if they were long-term acquaintances. And maybe they were. Tony calculated a high probability of an incoming headache.
"Everyone," Thor announced, "this is my friend. I met him several hundred years ago when he was still a small boy."
Definitely a headache.
"Thor! I told you it was a secret," Alfred hissed, but he didn't seem really concerned.
"I know it is," Thor simply shrugged, "and I trust that my comrades are noble enough to keep it."
Alfred smiled softly at that. "Glad to know you finally meet the right people on Midgard."
"Okay, wonderful, splendid, a touching reunion, I shed a tear," Tony couldn't help interrupting, "but would you mind giving some explanation for your statement, buddy?"
Thor opened his mouth to explain, but Alfred motioned him to stop. He then smiled at the group.
"Arthur is so going to kill me for this…" he grumbled, and then said more clearly, "well, since the cat's out of the bag, nice to meet you all, I'm Alfred F. Jones," he said with a small bow and wink, "otherwise known as the United States of America."
There was a long pause.
"What," Clint said to the ensuing silence.
It took them another couple of seconds before the words finally sunk in and Tony said, "what the actual fuck."
"Alfred," Bruce tried, brows furrowing. "what do you mean?"
"Well, uhm, how do you put it?" Alfred tapped his chin, "let me see, France tried to explain it to me once—oh, yeah, it's something like a ship?"
"A ship?" Steve said.
"A ship," Alfred nodded, beaming, "the government is the mast, the citizens are the wind, and they are swimming on the sea of time. So if the mast is standing straight and a good wind is blowing, the ship goes forward.
"I've met Mr. Barnes, Cap. I've met Mr. Stark senior, too. I met Thor hundreds of years before when he visited Midgard, and I'll probably meet Odin again. I've met a lot of people who were part of me, and who are, and I'll meet a lot more people. After all, as long as there's someone who can fix the ship, you can keep using it forever, right?"
Tony had nothing to say to that.
Apparently neither did anyone else, because nobody stopped Alfred when he waved them a goodbye. Tony's eyes simply followed him as he fell into step with the Russian teen—Ivan, wasn't it? or should it be Russia instead?—until they disapperaed into a corner.
There were so many things Tony wanted to say and many more he wanted to ask, but even he knew some things didn't need an answer. Alfred F. Jones was a mystery, and even though Thor solved a part of it, he remained to be one.
Maybe he was supposed to be.
They never saw him again.