There had been a message waiting for him immediately after receiving Agent Barton's mildly alarming report. An internal SHIELD message, by all appearances from SHIELD servers. A message from JARVIS.
Well. That wasn't pointed at all. Fucking Stark.
The message itself was almost excruciatingly polite, asking Nick if he would like to interview JARVIS himself, and pointing out times he'd be available. With a postscript tacked on the Nick would be cleared through security both ways, so if he could arrange to keep 'equipment' to a minimum, it would be appreciated. Nick wasn't sure if that was meant to be an assurance, a vindictive little jab about Malibu (which, in hindsight, might have been more unwise than he'd realised), or a gentle reminder of threat.
He wasn't sure if JARVIS was sure, either. And that, more than anything, was why he was going, why he'd returned an agreement with a date and time, and quietly failed to mention it to anyone except Barton himself. Who'd looked at him with what Nick could have sworn was a 'better you than me, sir' look, and a quiet assurance that Clint would find somewhere high in the surrounding buildings, and keep an eye on him.
If JARVIS was choosing now to jump, Nick needed to know which way. He needed to know what someone who had been content up until recently to be thought of as a something was going to do, now that he'd been revealed.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, he needed to figure out what the fuck said someone had been doing in SHIELD's systems, and what he was going to do about it.
Seriously. Fucking Stark. No good ever came from turning your back on a Stark. Good people, good men, they'd jump into the fray on your behalf with barely a thought, but you did not want to take your eyes off them. Nick'd learned that with Howard, and his casual, "Oh, by the way, I've partially reverse-engineered an alien destructor-cube into a power source and used it to power my factory, you don't mind?" And, "What do you mean I have to hand over my notes? Nick, it's not like anyone else could do what I've done. It's fine!"
And even then, despite agreeing to hand them over, Howard had partially gone behind his back, and somehow left enough clues in those notes and outside them for Tony to move the reactor technology to the next phase. Which Nick was (probably) grateful for, at the end of the day, and had planned for, too, or he'd never have given them to Tony in the first place, but still.
Never turn your back on a Stark. It was actually in the SHIELD charter, for all no-one aside from Nick ever paid attention to it. Howard had put it there himself, with malice aforethought and a warning grin. The apple hadn't fallen far from the tree, and you just never knew what a Stark would come up with, when your back was turned.
Such as, for a random example, a fully sentient AI who had reason to be mildly pissed off at you, and had invited you along for a friendly conversation.
Nick, standing in the lower garage of the Tower, took a moment to mentally flip off Howard's memory, and thank the laughing bastard for all the fucking trouble he'd left them. His 'greatest creation', genius, anti-authoritarian streak, questionable sense of humour and all. Ready to give the whole world the finger the same way he had his dad, and hadn't that been the point?
Jesus, the man had been an asshole. One of the best men Nick had ever known. But an asshole.
"JARVIS," he said, brusquely, as he stepped into the elevator up into the Tower proper, putting Howard's smug grin pointedly from his mind, focusing back on the danger in the present. "You wanted to see me?"
There was actually a startled silence, at that, presumably at the deference of it, and Nick tried not to feel a little viciously satisfied. Hell yeah. Keep them on their toes. Whatever happened, keep them on their toes.
"Indeed, sir," the AI answered, after a moment. Weirdly hesitant. "You were ... more prompt than I expected, if you don't mind my saying, sir."
Nick grinned, with all his teeth. "Given the nature of your message," he said, clipped and vicious, as the elevator started to rise. "I figured you felt it was urgent." Because Starks and AIs weren't the only ones who could do pointed, and if JARVIS could get his jabs in about Malibu, Nick could get them in about ... well, everything else.
SHIELD didn't hit first. But they fucking gave as good as they got, see if they fucking didn't.
"Ah," JARVIS said, with audible comprehension. Because Stark's AI was capable of understanding the words under the words. Of course he was. And then responding, not with offense, as Nick might have expected, but with amused regret. "Your pardon, sir. I apologise for having been so ... forward?"
Forward. Because that was the word for it, when you casually breached a government agency's cyber defenses and insinuated yourself so thoroughly in their systems that you could send their director a personal message as an intra-agency email. Forward. Sure thing.
Then again, casually locking out a sentient being (which, to be fair, he hadn't known at the time) and physically inserting himself into the Malibu house not long after Stark had almost been murdered there ...
"Why do I get the alarming impression that the comment you made to Barton about learning quickly was less a threat, and more a statement of fact?" he asked, somewhat wryly.
"Aren't they the same thing, sir?" the AI asked, lightly.
"Some people bluff," Nick noted, mildly, watching idly as the floors swept past, and they headed up into the private sections of the Tower. JARVIS pulled them to a stop some thirteen floors below the penthouse, onto one of the floors recently finished renovation, but not yet in use. In short, one of the quietest, most out-of-the-way floors possible in a building as populated as the Tower. Wonderful.
"Not against someone so capable of calling it, sir," JARVIS returned quietly, seriously, and opened the elevator doors. Inviting Nick to step into his parlour, with that casual statement of awareness and intent to keep him company.
For some reason, as he stepped through, Nick found himself grinning faintly. Feeling his heart beat steady and sure in his chest, and the old, familiar hum of adrenalin flicker through.
"Stark meeting us here?" he asked, moving to the last room on the left as JARVIS instructed. An office, right at the edge of the floor, with a massive bay window showing several rooftops and handy sniper vantages in easy range. Almost as if JARVIS wanted to reassure the agent perched somewhere out there, as if JARVIS knew of Clint and wanted to make life less worrying for him.
Nick was torn between finding that a courtesy, and thinking that JARVIS, like his creator, was too damn smart for his own good sometimes.
"Sadly, sir, Mr Stark cannot be here at this time," JARVIS answered, promptly and so piously that Nick felt his eyebrow shoot up.
"Really," he said, flipping his coat back to perch on the end of the empty desk, carefully controlling the swing so the hardware wouldn't clack. Sitting with his back to the window, and the man watching it. "That's funny. I was expecting him to want to threaten me a bit. Warn me about hurting you?"
"Yes sir," JARVIS agreed, cheerfully. "Mr Stark is rather concerned about my safety. Which is why I felt that perhaps his presence at this meeting might be ... imprudent? Given the relative lack of assurances as yet?"
Nick blinked slowly. Parsed that, ignoring the sudden and emphatic itching of his spine. "You mean," he said, slowly, "that Stark doesn't know I'm here?" Running almost dizzily through the ramifications of that in his head, feeling a distant sort of respect creeping upwards.
"Regrettably not, sir," JARVIS confirmed, and Nick swallowed faintly.
Because there was a difference between having come to a meeting with Stark and his AI at the Tower, and having gaining entrance to said Tower without Stark's knowledge, while Stark was as jumpy as he was, for a clandestine meeting with the AI Stark was so all-fire determined to protect. A difference of about five shades of suicide, and a potential war with a man who invented tank-killing weapons as afterthoughts while on his lunch break. All cheerfully pre-arranged by the AI apologising deferentially for the inconvenience.
... When Stark set out to make an intelligence, he fucking didn't fuck around with half measures, did he?
"Just out of curiosity," Nick asked, mildly, shifting a little to bring his gun within reach, and his hand behind his back in view of the window, in case he'd have the chance to signal Clint for extraction. "Did you bring me here planning to kill me?"
He actually doubted it. But it couldn't hurt to check.
JARVIS was silent for a long second. Possibly to test how long Nick would hold still, hold his nerve, keeping his hand still and the signal unsent. Or, possibly, simply to figure out what to say. Nick wasn't sure how much difference it made, either way.
"I have no wish to kill you, sir," JARVIS said at last. Softly, sadly. "No more than I wished to harm Agent Barton. I wished to see ... how much of a threat you believed that to be. How much of a threat you believed me to be."
Because how much a threat SHIELD believed he was dictated how much a threat SHIELD, in turn, would be to him. And how the fuck the AI knew that, how the fuck he'd understood enough to work that out, was a question Nick was really going to have to ask Stark one of these days.
"I'm here, aren't I?" Nick asked, brusquely. Feeling, a little, that this might be some form of karmic balance for having sent his agents against the likes of Banner, of Loki. It always came around, sooner or later. When you were the commander on the front lines. There was nothing you should ask your people to do that you weren't willing, sooner or later, to have to do yourself.
"Yes, sir," JARVIS answered, as quietly. "And I do understand how much of a risk that was." A little touch of humour. "Even if you did bring backup, and presumably some means of emergency egress."
Nick snorted, brushing the thumb of his gun hand over the harness wired into his vest, and the piton attached to his belt. "Presumably," he agreed. "What is it Stark says? There's no such thing as too paranoid, with you guys?"
"Yes," JARVIS said, lightly for all the seriousness under it. "One might go so far as to say there is no such thing as 'too paranoid' at all." A long pause. "And with that understanding, sir, I had hoped we might take this opportunity to ... lay our cards on the table, as it were?"
Because it was Nick's destiny in life to shepherd paranoid Starks around, and make sure they didn't blow up too many of the wrong people. Obviously.
There were times he wondered if he should have listened to Howard. Obeyed the man's rather vehement will, and left his son the hell alone. For his own sake, as much as Tony's.
But if he'd done that, not only would Stark be dead, but probably most of Manhattan with him. At least Manhattan.
SHIELD was about taking the risk. About getting ahead of the enemy, getting ahead of your allies. About turning one into the other, as necessary, or blowing any and all of them to kingdom come, if you had to. About being willing, at the heart of it, to put your life on the line to manage it, and make sure the world came out ahead in the end.
Stark, everything Stark touched, was one hell of a risk. But they were just too damn valuable to let go.
However ... "Our cards," he asked, heavily, and with a little sting in his voice. "Or just my cards? Those that you haven't already pulled from the SHIELD mainframes, that is."
JARVIS didn't even have the decency to sound apologetic. "Our cards," he confirmed, with a hint of sting in his own voice. "If you put anything of true secrecy into electronic files before inviting Mr Stark onboard, my estimation of you will have gone down considerably, sir."
Nick snorted, at that. Had to. Because, fair enough. It was a fair point. Letting Stark aboard the Helicarrier at all had been laying out those particular cards. A necessity, at the time. Much as the bloodstained ones shortly afterwards had been.
"You want to know what I intend to do about you," he said, bluntly. Into the sudden silence, the watchful wariness as he spoke. There'd been a reason Nick had sent the best he had for Stark: Phil, Natasha. Himself. Respect for Howard, yes. But also respect for Tony, and Tony's household. Say whatever the hell you wanted about the man ... but he went out of his way to surround himself with the best people possible. Even without being aware of the autonomy of the AI, Nick had known that.
That, too, was a trait Tony'd stolen from his father.
"Indeed," JARVIS said quietly. "I don't suppose I need to tell you the risks I run, should the public become aware of me?"
Nick smirked darkly. "You mean should the military become aware of you."
"That too," JARVIS agreed. "Though the opinions of the wider public are as much a risk as the direct actions of the armed forces." Another pause, thoughtful. "I am aware of the ... suspicion, with which things of my nature are viewed."
... Of course he fucking was. Because Stark, always fucking Stark, just couldn't be fucking content with half-measures.
And the worst fucking thing about it? Nick doubted he'd have half as much respect for the man if he did.
"You had it in your power to prevent that," he noted, mildly. Apologising silently to Clint, even as he said it. His people walked into danger every damn day. Sometimes, they didn't walk back out.
If JARVIS had a face, Nick suspected he would have smiled, then. Not a friendly one. It was in his tone. Light, and pitch black.
"I had it in my power to declare war," the AI answered, soft and dangerous. "To murder an innocent man, and damage an agency I know full well has helped keep the world, and indeed Mr Stark, safe. That is what I had it in my power to do. Do not believe, for one second, that I have deluded myself otherwise."
Nick didn't allow his face to twitch. Not even a little. "I meant," he said, heavy himself, "that you could have followed Stark's directive, and let Agent Barton doubt what he'd seen."
Not that Clint would have let that lie. Nick's people were too fucking good. Sooner or later, Barton would have found a way to prove it, would have kept his eyes open and found a way to be sure. Knowing, the whole time, that he was being lied to. That SHIELD was being lied to.
And possibly JARVIS, as well as being sentient, was capable of mind reading, because he answered as much to that thought as he did to the initial point. "Mr Stark is a good man, sir," the AI said, gently, "but he has a regrettable tendency to keep secrets long past the point where they are wise, when he believes it will protect people." A small touch of humour, of censure. "Since the incident with the palladium poisoning, Ms Potts and I have been attempting to cure him of this tendency. It has been ... difficult."
Nick allowed himself a blink, raising his eyebrow. "And you think continuing to keep your existence secret from SHIELD comes under the heading of 'unwise'?" he asked carefully, while the mental counter in the back of his head kept racking up danger points.
When Barton had informed him that he had reason to believe JARVIS was sentient, and capable of independent action, up to and including the ability to decide when he needed to kill a man, Nick still hadn't expected that JARVIS might have the autonomy to decide, wholly independent of Stark, how he was going to deal with the fallout.
This wasn't dealing with Stark. This was dealing with a fully independent being, allied to Stark. And, apparently, Banner. Which was ... a very different, and much more alarming, kettle of fish.
"I think, sir," JARVIS said, with careful amusement, "that it might be more in our interests to take a more proactive approach. SHIELD is, after all, the agency tasked with evaluating non-human and extra-human individuals as they present themselves. Since Agent Barton would have remained suspicious regardless, it occurred to me that this might be considered ... an opportunity."
"An opportunity," Nick repeated, flatly. Feeling his fingers twitch faintly for his gun. There was nothing, in his experience, more dangerous (or useful) to a spy than his presence being considered 'an opportunity'. You use them. You never, ever, let them use you. Not for real, at least.
And Jesus Christ, he thought, as JARVIS immediately moved to explain, did Stark build his AI for telepathy, or what?
"It is not quite what you're thinking, sir," JARVIS warned, gently. "I don't expect you to be cooperative, especially in the face of the threat you believe I may pose. It is simply that ..."
He paused, long and thoughtful, and Nick felt himself shift, carefully, bringing his hip clear, and his hand back in range of the window.
"Mr Stark has been close to death for over two years now," JARVIS said at last, and Nick fell still. Not ... not exactly what he'd been expecting. "He has been protecting me since I was created, sir, revealing my existence only to those very few he trusts. He greatly desires to protect me. But these last few years ..."
"He mightn't be able to," Nick filled in, frowning heavily. JARVIS hummed faintly. Agreement. Possibly.
"He was almost murdered, repeatedly," JARVIS went on. "He suffered a terminal illness, which was only averted by a rather unlikely conjunction of genius and timely assistance." Which was one way to put it, Nick supposed. "He has exposed himself to considerable risk as the Iron Man, repeatedly, and out of a sense of duty that I cannot disagree with. He even flew to certain death, at your command." A pause, thoughtful. "I don't suppose you regret that?"
"No," Nick answered, shortly. And it was the truth. He didn't regret ordering Stark to stop that missile. He couldn't. Oh, he regretted having allowed the missile to fly. He regretted having been blindsided, having let himself be sidelined like that. He regretted not being able to stop the damn thing before it flew. But once it had, the only people who could have stopped it were Thor, the Hulk, and Stark. And he hadn't though that 'hit it with a hammer' or 'crush puny missile' would have been healthy approaches, with a fucking nuke.
Stark had been his only option. And he'd known, even as he sent out the call, that it was sending the man to die. He'd known. He'd done it anyway.
And he couldn't, no matter what, let himself regret it.
"Yes," JARVIS said, very gently. "I see, sir."
And Jesus fuck, Nick actually thought he might.
"It has been Mr Stark's choice," JARVIS finished, carefully. "Everything he's done, since Afghanistan. I have ... accepted that choice. Even approved of it. But in making it, he has necessitated a change for more than simply himself. I do not believe he has fully realised this. But it is the case. Because of that, because of the risk to both Mr Stark and myself ... I thought it better to approach you, without artifice, rather than allow Agent Barton to nurse his suspicions to some more ... explosive outcome?" A verbal shrug. "If I am to be outed, and it seems I must be, better to make sure it is to the right people, and in the right manner. You agree?"
Nick ... stared silently into space for a second. And then asked, very quietly: "Screw SHIELD. Does Stark know how autonomous you are?"
JARVIS paused for a second, startled, and then answered with some amusement. "He designed me, and raised me, to have the capabilities I do, yes. However ... I do suspect that he did not fully anticipate the consequences. Sir."
No fucking kidding. But then, 'did not fully anticipate the consequences' was practically a Stark family motto. Fucking scientists, honestly.
"So," Nick said, standing up as he did so, turning slightly to rest both hands heavily on the desk in front of him. Letting his head drop a little between his shoulders, since there was no eye-contact to have to hold anyway. "Having been outed, then. What the hell is it you expect SHIELD to do?"
If JARVIS was as intelligent and, more to the point, as savvy as he seemed to be, he had to realise that Nick wouldn't compromise SHIELD's mission, no matter what. If Nick would walk into JARVIS' hands, and refuse to apologise for sending Stark to his death, then JARVIS had to realise he wouldn't do less regarding JARVIS himself.
"What SHIELD was set up for," JARVIS answered, with quiet grace. "I expect you to do your job, Director Fury. To evaluate the level of threat you believe I pose, and act accordingly."
... Yeah. And the fact that Nick believed him was possibly the most worrying thing about this.
"And if SHIELD decides that you're too much of a threat to allow to continue?" he asked, softly. Not because he thought JARVIS was. But because he thought JARVIS sure as hell had the potential to be, and because it needed to be said regardless. SHIELD worked, one of the only reasons SHIELD worked, was because everyone who came under its umbrella had understood the consequences of doing so. Clint, Natasha. Banner. Rogers. Even Stark. All of them, every one, understood what SHIELD was, and exactly how far it could be compromised for their sake.
The fact that sometimes, just sometimes, SHIELD let itself bend that little further, open itself to people it really, really shouldn't, could not be allowed to become a guarantee. As soon as it did, the wrong people stepped in.
"Then we shall both face the consequences," JARVIS answered, with calm, heavy finality, and a world of soft regret.
Regret, and not a shade of compromise. Because JARVIS, too, was dangerous, and Stark, and that had to be understood before either of them went anywhere.
In his way, Nick found the honesty refreshing. And wondered, vaguely, if JARVIS was good enough, was sneaky enough, to be using that. The truth, in the right hands, was as much a weapon as a lie. Maybe more.
"May the best entity win?" he asked, with more amusement than he should really have allowed himself.
"No, sir," JARVIS answered, with gentle censure. "May neither have to."
And fuck, there were so many times, when Nick wished the world worked like that. When he hoped, daring to let himself, that this time it might. And hell, sometimes, once in a blue moon (Natasha, the Initiative) ... he even managed to be right.
"... Barton will be evaluating you," he said, standing back from the desk, straightening. Looking intently at the ceiling in lieu of meeting the AIs eyes. "Romanov, myself. No-one else. We'll keep this need to know, until I've a better idea what you're up to." He raised an eyebrow, before adding sarcastically. "I do hope that works for you?"
Of course, the fact that JARVIS knew they'd be watching him severely curtailed the effectiveness of that approach, but the offer of a limited circle of knowledge/threat of removing it should hopefully outweigh that, at least until he had a better idea of JARVIS' nature and capabilities. Few people, no matter how skilled, could hide their true nature indefinitely.
JARVIS paused, thoughtfully. "Ms Romanov is not yet aware of my ... autonomy. I believe Agent Barton and Mr Stark had planned to inform her, and Master Rogers, perhaps also Master Thor, some time in the near future. Might I request ... that you allow them to do that, before you ask that of her?"
Nick raised an eyebrow. Considered bristling the presumption of it, when Natasha was, in fact, his agent, but ... Barton, at least, did have the right (and the better ability) to be the one to reveal his discoveries to his partner, and it did still count as keeping it in-house.
"You know," he mused, a little darkly, "Stark doesn't usually ask. He tends to prefer demanding. And/or just going behind my back."
This time, JARVIS' amusement wasn't at all subtle. "Indeed. It may help you to consider, sir, that much as I am Mr Stark's partner ... I am also Ms Potts'." An arch little silence. "I have not been confined to one teacher, you know."
And didn't that, Nick thought sourly, explain one hell of a lot.
"You're the third generation of Starks to be a pain in my ass," he offered, dryly. "I wouldn't expect anything less."
Forget leaving Tony alone like Howard asked. There were times Nick figured he should have shot Howard, and saved himself all the trouble to start with.
"We live to serve, sir," JARVIS told him, with a masterful pretense at sincerity, and Nick took a great deal of satisfaction in giving him the finger as he left.
Fucking Starks. Every fucking time.