He woke to an absence in his chest, and the sense that part of him had been cut away. A gaping wound, a … a wrongness. A loss so deep he couldn’t comprehend it, hands scrabbling desperately at his chest, and the bandages there.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” a soft voice interrupted him, but he barely heard, eyes flaring open, levering himself upright (flash of pain, searing, burning air from his lungs, inconsequential). “Stark! Easy, Stark.”
“What have you done to me,” he rasped, turning his eyes desperately to the other man in the … room? Tunnel? Cave? Unimportant, whichever. “What have you done?”
The soft, desperate pity in the man’s eyes was unbearable. A bolt of terror, weighed against the absence Tony felt, a surge of desperation that had him tumbling upright, falling forward. Worn hands caught him, tugging him into a strange chest, and the stranger murmured, with heartbreaking sincerity: “I do not know, Stark.” Eyes creasing, pained knowledge, desperate consolation. “She may not be lost. Separated, not severed. There was no blade. And you did not quite die. She … may not be gone.”
Tony drew a searing breath, heat and pain and stale air, nothing to fill the desperate absence, the agony, inside him. “He,” he whispered, on a staggered note of hysteria. “His name is Jarvis. Was. Was Jarvis.” A hitch, something like a sob. “I can’t feel him.” Only pain, endless, searing pain, cresting through him in waves, and an absence that had no name, and dared not speak one. “He’s not here. I can’t feel him.”
There was a soft, wrenched noise of sympathy, and over the stranger’s shoulder appeared the face of a daemon, the narrow, clever features of an albino mongoose.
“Do not give up hope,” Kinah whispered, directly to him, in shocking breach of taboo. Uncaring. “Do not lose hope,” she said, and Yinsen nodded fierce agreement.
The pain did not ebb, for some days. Tony clung to that. He clung to it, desperately, savagely. Surely, if the pain was not gone, then neither was his daemon. Surely, so long as he still felt the pain of Jarvis’ absence, some remnant of connection, then Jarvis was not lost. Surely. Surely.
Their captors made their demands, in that time. Other pains, different pains. Tony fought them, struggled with them. All the demands in the world mattered not at all, so long as that pain held firm in his chest, so long as that pain still existed. So long as his daemon was not gone, he had reason to live, to fight. He refused them, desperate, furious. As long as Jarvis lived, he would have will for that. As long as his daemon was his, he would not be a slave.
And then … Then. Five days. A week. Then …
“You must not give up,” Yinsen told him, fiercely, perhaps desperately. Yinsen, with his daemon at his shoulder. “Stark. You must not. If it is separation only, then the pains would fade too. You must not surrender. Not yet.”
Tony looked up at him with empty eyes. His hands pressed to a chest that no longer felt a pain, beyond the physical injury. His hands held, empty, to a heart as much so.
He knew the fate of the severed. Everyone did. Shortly, with his daemon gone, he would be nothing but a zombie, nothing but a slave. Why not surrender early, and not have to see himself fall?
Something changed, then, in Yinsen’s eyes. Some determination, some calculation, and despite himself, Tony felt interest, perhaps wariness, spark inside him. Some remnant, of the fascination he would have shared with Jarvis.
“I wonder,” Yinsen mused, watching him, Kinah vibrant and alert at his shoulder. “Have you ever seen the Panserbjorne, Stark? Have you ever seen the armoured bears?”
And something rolled through Tony, a spark, a fury, rejection and calculation all at once, horror at the sacrilege, and yet … Some fierce, grasping desire for vengeance, for payment for his daemon’s loss. Some surging thing, that knew what Yinsen suggested, that understood the heresy of it. That wanted it, regardless.
Had he seen the Panserbjorne. The daemonless bears, who forged their souls instead of sky iron, and made armours from them. Had he … heard of that.
Oh yes. Yes, he had.
The armour had no name. It would not, would never. The armour was not Jarvis, was not his soul, his other half. Would never be. There was an ache in his chest, now, that would never be filled, and all the myths of northern realms would not salve it. The armour had no name.
But it had power. The thing they forged, in place of Tony’s soul. It was powerful. Vengeance made metal, forged for a fallen daemon. Not a soul, perhaps, not ever that, but … a will, yes. A fire, yes. A mind, a rage, a passion, a vengeance. All these things. Not empty. Not distant. A part, in its way, of what Tony was now. Not the slave their captors believed him, the mindless, obedient thing his loss had made him, but something darker, deeper, and more furious. Something … they did not see at all.
That, above all else, would have amused Jarvis. His daemon, his contrast, pretending subservience to Tony’s arrogance, politeness to Tony’s terminal lack of tact, caution to Tony’s recklessness. Jarvis, who at the base of him was still yet Tony, still yet part of him. Jarvis, who called him sir, in mockery of the polite, useful child they had expected him to be. Jarvis, who had taken the form he had, the limbless thing that yet flew, in silent, secret defiance.
Jarvis would have liked this armour, this thing Tony made in echo of him, this power Tony forged to avenge him. Jarvis would have … found it funny.
He would have found Yinsen funny too. In his way.
“You know something funny,” Tony said, once. Watching Yinsen pull himself together, shaken and quaking from their captors’ threats, from the coal that had rested next to his face, and the claws that had dug themselves into Kinah’s soft belly. “You want to know something ironic?” he asked, watching Yinsen hold his daemon close, and soothe her.
Yinsen looked up at him. Tired, fierce, determined. Kinah, in his hands, as defiant, though so shaken, though still trembling. Kinah, their pale ghost, who spoke to Tony as though he was, in some small way, her own. “What?” they asked him, tiredly, and together.
Tony smiled. Dark and bleak and still, genuinely, amused. “My Jarvis,” he said, softly. “Do you know what he was? His form, I mean?”
They blinked, both of them. Wary, unsure. So careful of him, both of them. Half a man. Though tortured, they at least were still whole. “What was he?” Kinah asked him, and her voice was almost terrible, in its gentleness.
Tony grinned. Small, almost boyish, looking down at her. Yinsen’s mongoose daemon, his saviour’s ghostly soul.
“He was a serpent,” Tony whispered, to the man who’d held Tony’s heart beneath his claws, the small, tired man with a mongoose soul. “My daemon was a snake.”
And at that … at that, just a little, they smiled. Both of them, just for him.
When it came to it, when it came time for his sky-armour to be used at last … He had not meant for them to fall. Yinsen. Kinah. He had … He was a half-man, an empty thing fighting for nothing better than vengeance. If anyone should have fallen … It should not, should never, have been them. An armour forged over a daemon’s grave, an armour forged in Jarvis’ name, should have been enough … God, should have been able to save them.
It … shook something, in him, something he should no longer have had, to see Yinsen smile at him, regardless. To see the man cradle the pale, bloody form of his daemon close, and smile for him.
“He is not dead, Stark,” Yinsen whispered softly, over Kinah’s rattling breaths. “I know this. He is not gone. You …” A hitch, a ragged breath. “You are not done. Not finished. I believe this.”
“... Yinsen,” Tony managed, raggedly. Watching Kinah quake, wanting, desperately, to hold her, and ease her through it. “It … should have been me. Your family …”
They laughed, softly. Yinsen’s eyes crinkling tiredly, shaking his head. Kinah sighing raggedly against his chest. “My family are dead, Stark. They are dead. I … meant to go to them. Always. I … wanted it. We did. We wanted this.”
Tony … For the first time since losing Jarvis, Tony … felt nothing. A clean, silver shock, a ringing emptiness. He hadn’t understood. But …
“You believe he lives?” he asked. Around a sudden crack. “You truly believe he lives?”
Kinah raised her head. She lifted herself from Yinsen’s chest, turned between his stained fingers to look at Tony. To stare at him, and smile, softly, gently. “Go now,” she said, with nothing much left for a voice. “Go find him, yes?”
And Tony, as her head fell back, as Yinsen’s eyes fluttered, nearly closing, leaned close in rage-forged armour, a breath above them, and whispered, so softly: “Thanks. For saving me. Thank you.”
He thought they smiled, then. As the world turned to burning around them, as armour wrought what it had been forged for, as Tony flung himself burning from them. He thought … they might have smiled.
He landed in a crucible, fell from the sky like the iron of a panserbjorne armour. His false soul shattering on impact, empty now that its purpose was done. The armour nothing, now. A shell. If it had ever been anything more.
He could have lain there. With Yinsen gone, with that clever, desperate man and his mongoose soul dead. With the ache in his chest where still, even still, there was no Jarvis. He could have lain there, and let the crucible sear him shut. He could have … surrendered.
Go find him, said the ghost mongoose, her voice soft and precise, her tiny claws digging into his serpent’s soul. Go find him, whispered the last remnant of Kinah.
And Tony, shattered, forged, under the burning sun … Tony got to his feet. And did.
He almost thought them a mirage, at first. The thunder and whop of the choppers, passing over him, the force of them sending him staggering across the dune. He almost thought them a mirage, a delusion, a fantasy of a failing mind. He did not stop for them, didn’t fall. Until …
He would know Rhodey anywhere, would know the shape of him, the walk of him, the lumbering form of Ursula, his black bear daemon, even if he were all the way to dead, and back again. He would … always, anywhere, recognise Rhodey.
And the shape that launched itself clear of Ursula, the silver flash against white-bronze sand, the undulating form that rippled through the seventy meters of air between them …
“Tony,” Jarvis rasped, over and over, coiling his body around him, snapping his head desperately into the hollow place in Tony’s chest, the place that had ached, had been empty, for so damn long. “Tony,” his daemon hissed, and Tony fell. Dropped to his knees, burned hands reaching up, holding desperately tight, digging beneath scales, holding. Tony, wrapped around him, fell.
“Jarvis,” he whispered, crushed. “Buddy, buddy, Jarvis, fuck.”
And then there were arms around him, then Rhodey was there, warm and dependable and a fucking rock, the rock of ages, more a panserbjorne than Tony would ever be, armour or no. Rhodey was there, wrapped around him, making some stupid joke, and Tony could feel Ursula, could feel her as she pressed against Jarvis’ scales, could feel her in the space that had been empty inside him, when he was separate from his daemon. Now that Jarvis was back. He could feel her.
“It seems … we have successfully separated, sir,” Jarvis murmured, low and dry and the kind of amused they only got when they were desperate, and pained, and trying so hard to hide it, to keep it between them, where no-one else could see. “I believe that qualifies us as a witch.”
And Tony laughed, snorted desperately into his daemon’s scales, and whispered back: “It could’ve been worse, buddy. We could have been an armoured bear.”
Almost, almost. They could have been panserbjorne, in an armour only empty.
Now, at least … the armour would be full.