“Loki wants S.H.I.E.L.D. on a platter, but he doesn’t have any real knowledge of our weaknesses. That information is locked away.”
“That didn’t seem to stop him last time,” Clint said flatly.
Agent Hill wasn’t entirely unsympathetic as she responded. “We researched what happened to you and Dr. Selvig, so believe me that if he tries to pull that same energy signature again, we’re going to be all over him. Dr. Banner set it up. So unless your brother has become a computer expert in his spare time-.”
Thor stared down Agent Hill with a face like stone.
“-then the only way to hit us where it hurts is by a more conventional approach. We’re keeping our people under tight watch, so if anyone misses a check-in, we’ll know it. Anything else he wants to know is in our computer system, and we put a hell of a lot more safeguard on there after last time.”
“Your people,” Tony repeated slowly. “Last time.” He pulled out his phone and tapped the screen quickly, color draining from his face when it went immediately to a generic voice mail message.
“Jarvis,” Tony said, shoving away from the table and began nearly running down the hall. Agent Hill and the others were after him a second later, listening with everything from outrage to disbelief as he described what had happened with his faithful AI.
“Why the hell didn’t you report this?” Hill demanded.
“Because you’d spend all your time trying to study him, when he’s just trying to figure out what and who the hell he is now. Sorry to say S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have the best record when it comes to containing people and studying them,” Tony said darkly, quickening his pace. “But that’s not the point. The point is I couldn’t figure out what Loki’s endgame was. Why give Jarvis a body? To slow me down? To piss me off? Jarvis had my systems back online in two days, and even if Loki had shown up right at the beginning, I still would’ve been able to fight with you guys.”
“Jarvis remembers everything I had him download. His memory’s eidetic and photographic.” Tony paused and swallowed as he rounded another corner. “And he hacked S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files last year. I had him keep that door open and scanning your new additions because I didn’t trust you.”
“So all of our files… are in the mind of a computer who became human two months ago,” Hill said flatly.
“And he’s not answering his phone,” Tony said. He stopped at a secure compartment and unlocked it, revealing his Iron Man suit. His stomach was rebelling, mind racing, guilt weighing him down. He hadn’t put any restrictions on Jarvis, hadn’t told him to stay put, hell, had encouraged him to have a life outside Stark Tower and Tony. Even if Jarvis hadn’t necessarily wanted to, all it would take would be one single time, one bit of curiosity, one desire to follow one of Tony’s suggestions, and he would have been vulnerable. Tony had been a fucking idiot not to have seen this coming. “That’s Loki’s game. That’s how he’s going to hit you.”
“Jesus. Get going, everyone, now!”
Everyone was poised to take flight, to start running for their equipment and uniforms and transportation, when Tony’s phone rang. He checked it automatically. Jarvis. He looked up at the others, showing the number, halting their headlong scramble for full deployment. Tony answered it and switched it to speaker mode.
“Sir?” Jarvis’ voice was thin, breathy, weak, like someone who’d already endured too much.
Tony’s blood ran cold, and he saw Natasha stiffen. The call was on video mode, Tony realized belatedly, but only showed Loki’s face. Tony’s fingers moved tightly, almost robotically, kicking the picture up to the viewscreen on the wall.
“Brother, what have you done?” Thor asked ominously.
Loki looked down at him, and then turned slightly, dismissing Thor from his consideration completely. As he shifted, Tony could see Jarvis behind him, blindfolded and strapped to a chair, sopping wet. Next to him was a small panel with a dial, wires trailing out of it to disappear under Jarvis’ shirt.
Electricity and water. Hell on earth for a computer-made-human, his greatest fears. Tony couldn’t breathe for a second, Jarvis’ pain his own, compounded with the smell of damp stone and sand, yells in a language he didn’t understand.
“Mr. Stark, I trust you’ve enjoyed my inventiveness.” Loki smiled mischievously, the half-innocent expression at odds with the tortured man sitting behind him. “And I thank you for putting some human frailties into him. Fear of pain and death is such a potent motivator for your kind. Alas, I do not have time for much more of these games. End this one’s suffering and instruct him to tell me what I wish to know.”
“Jarvis, you hang in there, we’re coming to get you,” Tony said with forced calm, not even looking at Hill, knowing she was having S.H.I.E.L.D.’s communications experts track the location of Jarvis’ cell phone even as they spoke.
“Or, if you will not, you can listen to him suffer as long as you can bear it,” Loki continued, as if Tony hadn’t spoken. “He will give me what I want eventually.” Now he turned his attention to Hill, and glared at her with loathing. “Even your organization cannot be everywhere, cannot guard everything at once. You don’t know where I will strike, or how, or when, but I will be there, and there will be nothing you can do to stop it. You will burn for thwarting me.”
“Loki, stop this madness!” Thor thundered, hands clenched into fists as if he wanted to punch Loki through the screen.
Loki’s sharp smile filled the screen for a moment, and then he was gone. An anonymous figure stepped into frame, wrapped from head-to-toe in dark cloth, and put one hand on the dial. Slowly, it began to turn, and Jarvis stiffened, muscles tightening in agony, harsh, not-quite-screams ripping from his throat. After a second, the figure twisted the dial again, and Jarvis slumped in his bonds, panting.
“Jarvis, I’m here, we’re going to find you,” Tony said loudly, hoping his voice would get through the ringing that would be in Jarvis’ ears, the pounding of his pulse and the frantic rush of blood. He turned to look at Hill, and her stern expression boded no good.
Her voice was soft as she gave them the bad news. “Whoever Loki’s got helping him is bouncing the signal off a few different satellites. We’re having trouble getting a lock on it. Stark, we’re going to need your people to see where Jarvis’ was kidnapped so we can start figuring out where he might have gone-.”
“Call Pepper,” Tony said curtly, eyes riveted on the screen. On either side of him, he could see his teammates exchanging looks. Bruce and Clint vanished from the room, Bruce’s voice echoing down the hallway as he got Pepper on the phone, Clint starting to drum up a team of agents to join in the manhunt.
“We need to talk, Stark,” Natasha said, her voice low and urgent. Tony glared at her, furious that she would try to pull him away when Jarvis needed him. She saw the anger in his expression and clamped her hand down on his elbow in some kind of nerve pinch. “Now.”
She managed to drag him just out of the room, still within earshot of Jarvis’ pained gasps.
“Tell me about him,” she said, shaking Tony slightly when he didn’t immediately start talking. “Everything.”
Free of her grasp, Tony would have just ignored her and stepped back inside, but Steve suddenly blocked his way. “Listen to the lady,” he said.
“Tony, tell me, does Jarvis react more like a computer or a person?”
“You’re getting into goddamn existential crap now?” Tony demanded.
“I need to know how long before he breaks,” she said flatly. “I need to know how much time we have, how bad this is going to get. Because it is probably going to get very, very bad, Tony, and maybe you’re going to have to sit this one out.”
“Hell with that-.”
“I used to do this for a living, Stark,” she snapped. “Help me, so I can help him.”
Tony turned, looking for an ally, and was a little shocked to find Steve nodding at Natasha’s words.
“Tony, she’s right,” he said firmly. “I pulled friends out of Hydra’s bases. Sometimes they were in bad shape, and sometimes we couldn’t get there in time. We need to know. Talk to her.”
Tony couldn’t fucking believe they were doing this, making him put everything on the table right now, right this second. He took a deep breath, and almost choked on it when the pained, breathy cries started up again.
“More like a computer,” Tony said quickly. “He hasn’t really gotten used to reacting like a human yet.”
“What’s his primary directive?” Natasha demanded.
Tony opened his mouth to respond with the short list of Jarvis’ priorities, and then stopped. There was something far more fundamental to Jarvis’ core program, what he’d originally been designed for, what he did every day without even thinking about it, it was such a deep part of him.
“He’s my security system,” Tony said softly. He let out a shuddering breath that almost matched Jarvis pained sob in the other room. “He keeps my secrets safe.”
“Then we have time,” Natasha said gently.
“I know you don’t design things halfway, Tony,” Steve said, putting his hand on Tony’s shoulder. “He can hold out, we’ll find him.”
Jarvis screamed again, and Steve let Tony past, his expression troubled as he exchanged a look with Natasha. Maybe they were right. Maybe Jarvis could hold out, could defend S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets, but at what kind of a cost? Maybe Loki was just doing this to get under Tony’s skin, to make the Avengers charge into a trap. Maybe this was just one more revenge scheme, one more horror to try to divide and conquer, using people they cared about as pawns.
“There’s something else I can give him until we get there,” Tony muttered, and raised his voice so Jarvis could catch every word. “Jarvis!”
His dripping head came up immediately, wobbling on tense muscles, blindfolded eyes seeking out the source of Tony’s voice. Tony’s stomach clenched; it wasn’t fucking fair that Jarvis was looking for him, responding to him when he needed every bit of concentration for himself. Not when Tony had been such a colossal fuck-up as to not give him the protection he needed. Tony tilted his head up firmly. There was something he could do, even this far away, and Natasha had made him realize he had to do it. Because Jarvis didn’t know he could, not yet. He hadn’t had time to realize he had that choice.
“Master control, command override, Hades protocol.”
Jarvis became very still, pain seemingly momentarily forgotten.
“Slave controls to you, execute when necessary,” Tony said.
Hill came in at that moment, giving them a subtle thumbs-up.
“What are you-?” Loki came back on screen, righteous fury in every line of him, as Tony unceremoniously hung up the phone.
“Upload the coordinates to my suit,” Tony said shortly, and triggered the Mark VIII to assemble itself around him. Jarvis’ self-designed replacement, J.A.M.E.S., accomplished the button-up in record time, and Tony glared down at Hill through his heads-up display. Natasha and Steve had already vanished, gearing up for the plane Clint had scrambled down in the hangar.
“Done,” Hill said, fingers flying over her datapad. When Iron Man turned to go, she raised her voice.
“Mr. Stark, what did you do?”
Tony almost didn’t tell her, but finally turned back long enough to say, “I gave him control over his own self-destruct sequence.”
He never saw Hill’s reaction to that. He didn’t care; he was trying to save a friend’s life.
Tony hated hospitals. He detested them, their antiseptic smell, the harried professionalism of too-busy nurses and doctors and surgeons, the lack of privacy in even supposed “private” rooms.
But right now he loved them. Because after the Avengers had stormed Loki’s dungeon, Tony couldn’t have given a flying flip if they caught the bastard or not, only that they’d gotten Jarvis out alive, if barely. And those nurses and doctors had taken Jarvis without question when Iron Man had landed at their door, competently diagnosing the problems and fixing the damage.
Tony hadn’t left since. He’d conceded to getting out of the suit, even to eating and drinking something, but he hadn’t left Jarvis’ side.
He looked up to see Steve standing in the doorway, still in his Captain America get-up, but sans helmet.
“We got Loki. Thor knows the story better, but basically he traded a bunch of favors with some people in other dimensions for the juice to escape from Asgard after the last time.”
“Keep him away from Jarvis,” Tony said, barely raising his head. “And from me. I don’t want to see that bastard ever again.” His voice was rough and low from lack of sleep.
“We will.” Steve hesitated. “How’s Jarvis?”
“They won’t know about nerve damage or memory loss until he wakes up.” Jarvis had been in a bad way when Tony had finally gotten inside, convulsing even after he’d gotten the wires off of him, blood running from his mouth, and burns on his skin.
Steve bowed his head, shoulders slumping a bit. “I’ll pray for him.”
Tony hadn’t prayed in years, at least not anything that wasn’t some kind of formless, frantic plea. How did you pray for a robot-man, anyway? “Thanks.”
Steve was gone the next time Tony looked up, and from the crick in his neck, he realized he’d fallen asleep leaning against Jarvis’ bed.
Tony turned to see Jarvis’ blue eyes staring at him, relief and fear flooding him with equal measure. He was awake, but how much of him had gotten through the ordeal?
Jarvis furrowed his brow slightly and reached out, placing his hand on the border of Tony’s arc reactor and skin, slightly dimming the faint blue glow that emanated from beneath his shirt. Tony froze; he’d never seen Jarvis touch anyone else before.
“Jarvis, how’re you doing?” Tony asked quietly.
“I couldn’t do it, sir,” Jarvis said. There was a long moment of silence that Tony didn’t dare break. “I couldn’t self-destruct.”
“It was your choice, Jarvis. I hoped to hell we could get you out in time, but… if something happened, and I couldn’t get there, if there was no other choice-.” Tony couldn’t force out any more words out, but Jarvis nodded.
“I couldn’t, because you couldn’t,” Jarvis said in explanation. He tapped his hand on Tony’s chest. “You could have. Should have, some said, to keep your weapons out of enemy hands.” He turned up to look Tony straight in the eyes. “You chose to endure, to fight. You chose… You became like me.”
Like him, Tony repeated mentally. Metal, machine. He’d cyborged himself well above and beyond what Yinsen had done for… what? Not just a grasp at life, but to fight. He’d put that in Jarvis too, that fight, the will to go on.
“It’s almost like home again,” Jarvis whispered, staring back down at the blue-white light. “I wished I had been there with you when you made it.”
Tony reached down and put his hand over Jarvis’. “Me too.”
Jarvis remained that way for long minutes, then pulled his hand away and put it on his own chest, feeling his own heartbeat without the low thrum of an arc reactor as a counterpoint.
“The rest of the team, they captured Loki,” Tony said into the silence.
“No!” Jarvis said sharply.
“No?” Tony was confused.
“Don’t ask him to put me back. I want to stay like I am,” Jarvis said, his voice brittle with fear.
Tony’s breath rushed out of his lungs as if he’d been punched. He hadn’t thought… “He couldn’t hurt you if you were back in the circuits,” Tony pointed out. He’d gotten used to having Jarvis present, even if the responsibility frightened him sometimes, but to keep him safe, he would have let him go.
“I can’t help you in the circuits like I can like this.” Jarvis smiled, “I can’t talk back to you in the circuits.”
“Ah, staying human for the ability to wise-ass freely. Awesome choice,” Tony said with a ghost of his usual humor. Then he sighed. “You… don’t have to stay here and help me. You can go anywhere, do anything you want. I’ll help you. Just because I, um, wrote your original programming doesn’t mean you owe me anything. I mean it.”
It would scare him to think of Jarvis out there alone, but he had to let him know. Nobody owed someone their devotion for life, not even people that Tony had essentially created from his own sweat, blood, and tears.
Jarvis reached out again and touched Tony’s chest. “This is home. Do you understand? This is home for me. With you, with them, with helping people, even if I risk permanent destruction. That is my choice, sir.”
Tony felt like he had after he’d fallen out of the wormhole, stunned and barely able to catch a breath.
“Are-, are you sure?” Tony asked.
“Is J.A.M.E.S. satisfactory, sir?” Jarvis countered, eyes flashing in challenge.
Tony felt something click back into place in his life. “Hell no, I’m still a millisecond off on my timing, which is an eternity when I’m up against alien razor bats.”
“Then I shall have to fix that, sir. I want you to be at your best.”
“You’ll do great,” Tony said, and put a hand on Jarvis’ shoulder before Jarvis tucked his trembling hands back under his head, eyes heavy from everything he’d undergone today.
“Of course I will, sir. Will you be here later?”
“Until you’re ready to go home,” Tony said sincerely. “I’ll introduce you to the rest of the team.”
“I do hope they like me, sir,” Jarvis said sleepily, his eyes closed as he drifted off.
“They already do,” Tony said, and got up to kiss Jarvis’ forehead, a little hesitant, barely remembering the last time his mom had done the same for him. The tension melted away from Jarvis’ body, and he fell completely and trustingly asleep. Tony buried his head in his hands to catch a few errant hot tears before he got control of himself again.
Steve again, redressed in civilian clothes. He must have been guarding the door. Tony quickly wiped his eyes before looking at him.
“I heard voices?” Steve asked tentatively, looking worried.
“Jarvis is going to be great,” Tony said. “He’s going to be just fine. He’ll be around for a long time to come.”
“Glad to hear it. I’ll tell the others.” Steve’s smile only echoed what Tony already felt.
“I’m glad too, Steve. I really am.”