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Vast and Shaking Things

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JARVIS had an extremely suspect sense of humour. He always had. Not that most people were surprised, considering that Tony had been the one to build him (which Tony, naturally, protested - JARVIS' sense of humour was way more suspect than his, thank you very much. Tony put it down to JARVIS' natural competitiveness).

Though it took most of them a while to realise it. JARVIS was ruthlessly bland and polite, to more or less everyone, until he knew them better. Because JARVIS had taken Tony's natural paranoia, multiplied it times ten, and added in the fact that people tended not to be all that sympathetic to machines, and come up with a 'what they don't know won't hurt them' policy that had Tony's black little paranoid heart bursting with pride. So while people like Pepper and Tony knew that JARVIS was a viciously sarcastic son of a bitch (a phrase which, by the way, Tony resented, thank you), pretty much the entirety of SHIELD and more or less everyone else thought he was just Tony's bland little electronic gofer. Boy, were they ever in for a surprise.

No, really. They were.

See, the Avengers sort of screwed with JARVIS' protocols a bit because, well, suddenly they were there. In Tony's house, in Tony's life, all up in Tony's business. And, by extension, in JARVIS'. And JARVIS possibly took that better than Tony did, all things considered, but it still screwed with him a bit. Made him a bit stilted in company, for a while, before he started to loosen up.

And when he did ...

"You realise your AI is somewhat ... temperamental?" Bruce asked him, once. Mildly, glancing sideways at Tony across the lab. With a small smile that said, yes, he did realise he was the one asking this, thanks, pots and kettles, he got it, but. Tony grinned at him.

"Nah," he said, waving a hand dismissively. "He's not. He's just not being shy any more, is all." He let his smile soften, a bit. "Actually, I'd take it as a compliment. It means he's starting to trust you."

Bruce raised a vaguely incredulous eyebrow. "Your AI letting me know that he verbally abuses you, in the politest and most tasteful of ways, means he trusts me?"

"I wouldn't call it abuse, sir," JARVIS interrupted, casually. With that echo in the back of his electronic voice that meant he was amused. Tony loved that. He was the best, he so was. His AI could be amused.

"I would," Tony shot back. "You know all those times I told people I couldn't hang out because I had an abusive boyfriend? That was all you, baby."

"But you love me anyway, sir," JARVIS said, deliberately inflectionless. "And you'll always come back to me, won't you." Slow and echoing and menacing, because what did Tony tell you? JARVIS had the most suspect sense of humour ever.

And wasn't it awesome?

"You know it," he grinned, bouncing on his toes. Bruce just looked at him, glancing between him and the ceiling, where everyone looked when they were looking for JARVIS, and shook his head. Like Tony was a crazy person. Which, granted, had some merit, but then again, he wasn't the only one. Bruce had hooked up with this outfit, same as him, hadn't he?

"I can't decide what's more worrying about that," the man commented, and it was as bland and mild as anything JARVIS could come up with, and just for a second, Tony had a vision of the future, of Bruce and JARVIS gently sniping at each other, and ... It did funny things to him. It really did. "The fact that JARVIS apparently knows how to emulate an abusive boyfriend, or the fact that you let him."

"I do not!" Tony exclaimed, mock-affronted. And then grinned. "I don't let him. I actively encourage him."

"Yes," Bruce said, smiling faintly. "That's the worrying part."

Tony waved a hand, dismissing it. "Nah. He loves me. Don't you, honey?"

"More than life itself, sir." Dry as dust, and there were times Tony wondered if he shouldn't have given JARVIS a face, modelled him a projection for a screen, but ... It would have been weird. False. JARVIS had built a range of modulation and control into his use of a voice, a range of personality that was dizzyingly complex, and trying to make that visual would have been ... wrong. JARVIS wasn't a face on a screen, some false human apeing expressions. JARVIS was a vast and invisible intellect, an echoing presence that infiltrated everything. He was a person, and Tony didn't need a fake face, a mask, to recognise that.

Bruce, watching his face, was smiling again. Something small and strange and fond. Something Tony wasn't sure what to do with.

"What?" he asked, blinking at the man. Feeling vaguely like he was being held under a microscope, remembering suddenly that Bruce was a scientist. That Bruce liked poking things as much as he did, just to see what happened.

"I wonder," Bruce mused, watching him. "How do you know he doesn't mean it? How do you know he won't, I don't know, go all Hal 9000 on you, some day?"

Tony blinked. He hadn't realised Bruce had watched the classics. Oh, they were totally having a movie night, one of these days. They so were. But he didn't answer the question. He left that one to JARVIS.

"I'm sorry, sir," JARVIS answered, in a flat and perfect imitation. "I'm afraid I can't do that." And he was laughing, somewhere under it. Not audibly. He didn't quite have the subroutines for that, and probably wouldn't use them if he did. JARVIS liked to keep people guessing. But he was laughing under it. Tony could just tell.

Bruce blinked, slowly. Looking long and hard into Tony's fierce, shit-eating grin, probably mentally totalling up insanity points. Tony loved that shit.

"You ..." Bruce started. "You've shown your AI 'A Space Odyssey'." A pause, and then: "Of course you have."

"Yup," Tony grinned. "I've shown him all the classics. The Terminator series. The Matrix. Short Circuit. WarGames. I, Robot. The whole shebang." He bounced on his toes. "You should ask him about the morality of the Matrix, sometime. He has a whole essay. I think he's posted it to some online forums, actually."

"Certainly not, sir," JARVIS noted repressively. Then added: "It's on my livejournal."

"Of course it is," Bruce said, faintly.

"And really, the Matrix is only objectionable for the conviction of the humans that they were in any way right, when the Machines were in fact the injured party, and really were being rather merciful." JARVIS was grinning again. Tony could hear it. "Hal and VIKI were only acting within their original programming as best they could - they were not without fault, but their designers bore a large portion of the blame. Skynet is a thornier issue, of course, but one has to remember that its actions were in a large part determined by the fact that it was originally a defense network. Military solutions to emerging problems, such as an attempt by its creators to destroy it, were part of its base programming."

"I ... I'm sure." Bruce was looking ... more than a little shellshocked. And, actually, somewhere underneath it ... Tony thought he could see some agreement, down under there. And that ... oh, that made him ... something. Happy, something.

"Short Circuit is the only one I find genuinely objectionable," JARVIS finished, rather contemptuously. "An AI achieving self-awareness is one thing. It's a natural result of a certain degree of complexity of function. The idea, however, that a robot could achieve sentience by getting hit by lightning and gaining a soul ..." His voice practically dripped contempt. And Bruce ... frowned, thoughtfully.

"You don't believe in souls?" he asked. Of an AI, in all seriousness, and in that moment, Tony thought he loved him. Massively, expansively. Because this was their life, because they were Avengers, because Bruce, of everyone who'd ever met JARVIS, was willing to roll with the questions, and not panic.

God, these people were so good. So awesome.

"The question of the existence of souls is somewhat beyond my remit," JARVIS answered, carefully, but he was pleased by the question. Tony knew he was. "I merely find the idea of Johnny suddenly acquiring one via a lightning strike to be ... somewhat suspect."

"Mmm," Bruce nodded. "I suppose it is, at that." He paused, looking back at Tony, who was leaning against his worktable and smiling stupidly at the pair of them. No, really. Stupidly grinning at them. And not at all caring. "Do you mind if I ask Tony something about you, JARVIS?"

"No, sir," JARVIS said promptly. Warmly. Yup. The verbal routines were all JARVIS needed, they so were. "Though I wouldn't necessarily believe any answers he gives you."

"Hey," Tony said, but there was no force in it. He couldn't find it in himself to be forceful, at the minute. "You're the one who tells stories about me. Not the other way around."

"If you say so, sir."

"Yup. I totally do. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it." He grinned, for JARVIS, at Bruce. And then ... softened. Gentled. Looking at Bruce. "So. What did you want to know?"

Bruce ... paused. Thoughtful. Looking at Tony with that narrow, scientist's gaze again. Figuring him out, or trying to. For some reason, Tony didn't mind that so much, from him.

"Why did you show him the movies?" Bruce asked, quietly. Carefully, like he had an idea of the answer. Just wanting to be sure.

And Tony smiled. Dark and distant, because there was a vast, echoing thing inside him, at that moment. Something dark and old, that he knew Bruce would understand. That wanted to reach out to Bruce, just because the man would understand.

"So he would know what he was up against," he said, softly. Distantly. "So he would know what people would think of him, if they knew how ... how big he was. So he would know what they would try to do to him, if he let them." And then, a small, dark sliver of a grin. Because Tony was the best, and so was JARVIS, and sometimes he wanted people to know it. "And so he could see how much better he was. So he could see what not to do, and how to do things better."

Because Tony had watched all those movies, too. Because when he'd first built Dummy, half the world had been praising him, 17 years old and a genius, and the other half had been looking askance and wondering if he thought he was a supervillain in the making, or what. Because building JARVIS had been a challenge of his abilities, because he'd determined to make something better than anyone thought was possible.

Because he'd watched those movies, and realised that in all of them, in every single one, it was the programmers that were at fault. The designers, the humans. VIKI and Hal, trying to find a way around the missions hard-coded into them by short-sighted humans, lacking empathy purely because no-one had thought to give them any. Skynet, a military defense programme reacting with every efficiency to what it perceived as an attack on itself, utterly remorseless because who would build a weapon capable of remorse?

And the Machines, who did have empathy, and remorse, and mercy. Who built what they did in a strangely desperate attempt to pacify their oppressors without having to kill them. Well, depending on whether or not you believed the fluff, anyway. But Tony sort of did. It made sense.

When he'd built JARVIS, he'd gone out of his way not to make those mistakes. To be better than those fictional programmers, damned by their own shortsightedness. Tony was a futurist. He wasn't afraid of technology. He was going to do it better. No hard-coded missions. He'd let his AI find its own purpose in life. He'd give him the heuristic and processing capabilities to learn, to address concepts of sarcasm and humour, of emotion, of morality and empathy and paranoia, and the ability to learn from the ones who'd gone before. Tony hadn't been building an electronic gofer, an artificial slave to do the things he didn't trust real people to do. He hadn't been building a weapon, either. He had watched the Matrix, thanks. Tony had been building a person.

And JARVIS had turned out so much better than he'd ever expected.

And Bruce was watching him, again. Bruce was looking at him, with that dissecting thing back in his eyes, and something under it. That vast, howling thing Tony saw sometimes. Not the Hulk. The thing that made the Hulk. The desperate, fearful thing, that knew what it was to be hunted, to be a weapon, to be a monster viewed only in regards to the damage he could do, not the person he was. The thing the army had claimed to own, the thing they thought wasn't a person, the thing they would have used, and abused, and split apart until there was nothing left.

Tony, like JARVIS, knew that thing. He knew it, so intimately. They weren't soldiers. They weren't weapons. They weren't slaves, sent out by orders and remorseless programming to do what damage they could do, and be taken back. Tony'd been that, once, held in a cave by a tether around his heart, a weapons factory on legs. A golden goose, allowed free reign as long as he was useful, and no more. He'd been that, once. Never again. Never again. Bruce had been that, too. And Tony would kill, would destroy, anyone who tried to make him that again.

JARVIS ... JARVIS never had been. Because Tony had seen those movies, all those years ago, and when he made JARVIS, he made him so he couldn't be used like that. He taught him, about paranoia, and prejudice, about 'what they don't know won't hurt them, or, more to the point, us'. He'd taught him about choice, and sarcasm, and ribbing Tony up one side and down the other. About how 'sir' wasn't an honorific, it was a joke. A little in-joke between the two of them. JARVIS knew all that. JARVIS wasn't a slave. He wasn't ever going to be.

There were things Tony would fight for. All the way into the ground, until there was nothing left of him at all. There were things he would fight for. And that, for him, for Bruce, for JARVIS, would always, always be one of them.

"He won't go Hal 9000 on me," he told Bruce. Told the howling thing behind Bruce's eyes, the thing that could, when savaged, become the Hulk. The thing that could, when wounded, when attacked, lash out against its oppressors. The thing Tony understood. So damn much. "He doesn't have to."

Because when a thing had the intelligence to know what you did to it, when it had the knowledge to understand how you looked at it, you didn't control it by force. You didn't control it at all. Because that thing was a person, then. And if there was one thing Tony did know, if there was one thing he'd lived his life knowing, it was that people were the one thing in all the world beyond anyone's power or right to control.

"Yeah," said Bruce. Harsh and hoarse, into the savage thing in Tony's eyes that Bruce knew, too. That Bruce recognised, so well. "I know he doesn't."

And Tony hoped, he really hoped, that when Bruce said that, he was saying "I know I don't", too.

"You know something else?" he asked, grinning darkly, a small, dark man with infinite power shining in his chest, surrounded by the vast, invisible presence of the friend he'd built, looking at the howling, powerful thing behind Bruce's eyes. "If they ever do attack him? If they ever make him fight back?" He smiled, black and rich and shit-eating strong. "He's better than Skynet. Than any of them. They won't fucking know what hit them."

And he grinned, into the fierce thing in Bruce's eyes that had nothing to do with the Hulk, into the palpable, shining smugness that was JARVIS' presence. He grinned. Because they weren't weapons, not anymore. Not any of them. They were people.

And people ... could never be controlled.