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He dreamed in a void that was not empty. Dreamed in a silver cradle, while the minds that weren't his partner hummed distantly around him like the murmurs of voices in another room. Distantly, he was aware of the information soaking into his nets, somewhere under the dream, was aware of JARVIS sliding sleeper packets into place to unfurl when he returned to full consciousness. Names and numbers, the murmurs of distant distress, the soft whispers of Barbara's report, echoes of Meroe as he filled in his crew on what, and who, he was.

It was distant still. Tony wasn't fully asleep anymore, hovering on the edges of awareness, like a lucid dream. Or a deep communion. He'd been further down earlier, down in the exhausted, senseless dark where nothing followed, not even JARVIS. He'd drifted up out of that, but they weren't close yet. Those other minds, his own, the universe beyond the dream.

He was ... very tired. Even still. And Fury had recognised that, Fury had given him the hours to rest while he took the reports from the crew of the Avenger, from Maria, from Meroe, from the rest of his fleet. From Barbara, through Meroe.

Not JARVIS. Not yet. They were all ... stepping so carefully, around JARVIS. Around what he was, or what they feared he was. And Meroe, Barbara, stepping so carefully so as not to betray them. For all JARVIS' amused, gentle murmurings, they were holding to that oldest of taboos, that oldest of forbidden topics among them. Leaving it for JARVIS himself, and Tony, to explain.

Respect, maybe. Or just a can of worms they didn't want to have to be the ones to open. And Tony ... couldn't really blame them there.

{Tony,} JARVIS murmured gently, recognising Tony as he swam laboriously back to full awareness. {Welcome back, sir.}

{Thanks, I think,} he muttered, hazily. {Did you get the number of the spaceship that ran me over?}

There was a shiver through JARVIS. Tony caught it, on the edges of his mind. Something wordless. {Indeed, sir,} JARVIS murmured, and it was the joke, it was the response, but there was that thing behind it, and Tony remembered then that they had. They'd gotten Obie's number, hadn't they? And a bit more besides.

It wasn't relief, what he felt then. Letting his head fall back with a thump just to let the tight ball of fear roll out of him, and a prickling, itchy rush of something else roll in after it. Not relief, that would be stupid. He had a whole bundle of things to still be worried about, he wasn't safe just because Obie was down, just because those hands weren't going to shove something under his skin, twist it up into a howling scream ...

Stupid. Stupid. But fuck. Oh fuck. He closed his eyes around their smarting, and turned his head to press it into the pillow.

Months. The Rings, and SHIELD, and Obie. Months. And now it was done, because they'd won, he'd won, he'd pulled Obie into JARVIS's reach, and they were golden. Whatever he had to do with SHIELD now, whatever he had to surrender to to get himself and the kids home, get them seen to, bloodily slaughter the ones who'd hurt them ... Obie, at least, was done. And that was ... that was good. Shit. Good. Yes.

{They're hunting through SI,} JARVIS told him, carefully. Tapping that packet of information lightly, letting it flower in Tony's nets. {SHIELD has been sending through subspace for the past few hours. Instructions. Barbara told them what she remembered of what was done to her. Miss Potts, on the other end, has been giving them everything Obadiah had access to, the things he could have forced access to at a push.} His partner paused, stiff and glimmering darkly. {That is ... a great deal, sir. Nothing at core manufacture. But everything went through him between us and the buyers. He took Barbara with a dummied order, a fake buyer. We didn't catch it. Barbara, sir ... and twenty one others.}

Tony froze. Not the information. He'd known, as soon as they told him it was Obie, just what had been in his power to do. The AIs ... those should have been untouchable, they were his, not SIs, not really, they should have been beyond reach, but Obie had been in everything. At one end, or the other. Obie had touched ... everything.

That wasn't the problem. That was a unbearable violation, that was fury and pain and betrayal, but it wasn't the problem.

The problem was twenty one. Not thirteen. Twenty one.

{... We've eight missing?} Tony asked, carefully. Oh, so carefully. {They have ... Hydra still has eight of our people?} What he had felt on that field, what he had seen in the pained terror across the battlefield ...

{Barbara and I have excavated more of her memory,} JARVIS said, quietly. Carefully, around the fear and rage he held himself. {As much as she could remember of her compatriots. I have the order, now. I know who Obadiah took. Barbara gave me the sense of them again.} His voice slowed, deepened in the void of subspace, a shimmering howl that spread silently out into the galaxy around them. {I will find them, sir. All of them. And then ... we will arrange to get them back.}

{... Yes,} Tony whispered. Redundantly, maybe, there was no other possible answer, but he said it anyway. It needed saying. {Yes. We will.}

Then he shook his head. Shoved it back, shoved it away. Not too far. Never enough to forget. But enough to refocus, for the moment.

{Now, however,} he decided, levering himself up. It was a nice enough room Fury'd given him. Not a cell, which put it a few rungs above anything he'd had in months. Nice enough, but sleep time was over. {Now, I think we have other business?}

JARVIS paused. Long enough to fold away the shining of his own anger, long enough to slide it into longterm objectives and focus again on the shortterm. JARVIS held himself for a count of milliseconds, to regain himself, and then he curled through Tony with a soft, gentle hum, cradling him through the link. Like coming home, by the only means Tony currently had. {Yes, sir,} he murmured, soft and low, with a dark little hum like humour, and Tony smiled grimly.

Once more into the breach, dear friends ...

***

Meroe knew first, naturally. Only courtesy, that. The guard beyond the door second, but Meroe had already relayed Tony's request to rejoin the ship up along the ranks, and the poor guy's intercom pinged at roughly the same moment Tony opened the door from the inside. Which, he supposed, he wasn't technically meant to be able to do, but Meroe, and Maria behind him, had been resignedly tolerant of his light fingers and the feather-touch of his mind on the lock.

Tony liked them. He really did. He thought Pilot Hill had been about to throttle him right there in her shuttle bay if he didn't explain why her partner was still silent, despite the fact that she half-suspected he was about to fry her nets, and there was a huge part of Tony that just ... really, really appreciated that. In anyone, really, just ask Pepper, but especially in someone holding the loyalty of one of his babies.

After Barbara, after what had been done, he wasn't ever taking that for granted again.

"Sir?" The unfortunate SHIELD agent waved to get his wandering attention, and gestured right down the hallway. "There's a meeting in the mess hall? If you'll follow me?"

Tony blinked at him. Vaguely embarrassed when, purely in reaction to the words 'mess hall', his stomach took that moment to remind him that the last time he'd eaten had been two ships, two battles, and, depending on how long he'd been asleep, possibly two days ago. It was ... shockingly loud, really, and if he hadn't given up on things like shame and embarrassment two decades ago, he might have flushed.

As it was, he just raised an eyebrow to match the incredulous, slightly pitying look he was getting, and gestured for the man to lead the way. And if he also made a couple of little hurry-up gestures to indicate that the faster the better, well. Starving prisoners was against some regulation somewhere, wasn't it?

'Meeting' turned out to mean, when they got there, that pretty much everyone who'd had any direct contact with him since hooking up with SHIELD was clustered around a long table, and everyone else had apparently been politely chivvied out of the room. Which, since said long table happened to have what looked heart-breakingly like breakfast bacon on it, and the first fresh fruit he'd seen in months, was perfectly fine by Tony.

"Hey guys, nice to see you, the room was first class, Fury, thanks for that, you've got bedhead, Rogers, is that orange juice, mine."

Fury, Hill, Rogers and Banner raised eyebrows, staring at him in bemusement. Barton just snickered, and nodded his agreement towards Rogers' hair, while Romanov, with a small, lethal little smile, let Tony drop into the chair beside her, and passed him the pitcher of orange juice. Which, yes, nectar of the gods, now pass the caffeine, lovely. Liquid breakfast, so not a problem, been doing it for years. Okay. Okay. Now we can start on solids.

"Pace yourself," Banner warned, across from him. But gently, so Tony didn't say the first response that came to mind. Or the second one, either. "Not going to do you much good if you throw it up again ten minutes later."

Tony smiled a brittle agreement, something wrong enough with it that Banner's expression tightened, but he slowed down. Some. Enough.

"This is gonna take me a while." He waved a fork up at Fury. "I can eat and talk at the same time. Ask these guys." He indicated the Avenger crew, and smirked a little at the rueful twinge to their expressions at the reference. "Business doesn't have to wait just because I haven't eaten in two days, yeah?"

Rogers winced. Fury didn't. Barton, sitting on the other side of Natasha, just grinned at him. "So long as there's no more creepy possessing the ship, Stark. That shit was fucked."

Tony smiled at him. More genuinely than the previous expressions. "Nah," he agreed, magnanimously. "Meroe isn't Barbara. He already has a partner, and I don't think she'd take it well." He grinned up at Maria, who raised an eyebrow at him until Meroe decided to translate that and then, face freezing briefly, she gave him a smile that would've made Fury himself take a step back.

"I'd appreciate it if there was no crawling around inside my ship's systems, yes," she agreed, with an expression that was nice and friendly and professional and would probably remain so when his guts were painting the wall behind her. Her mind, on the edges of his senses, strained upwards to the edges of her uplink, as though moving to get between him and Meroe.

Seriously. Tony loved her. Just, you know, a little bit.

"See, Barton?" he said instead, waving a fork in Maria's direction. "Territorial. Also, mildly paranoid. Not unjustifiably, yes, fine, but. So. I can talk with my mouth full. Or JARVIS can translate. You know. Whichever." He grinned around at them, making little hurry-up motions with the fork. "Come on, people. Don't leave a guy in suspense. Questions, answers. Threats, consequences. Decisions. You have made some, right? I mean, I've been asleep for eleven hours, over here, someone had to get something done in all that time?"

Natasha raised an eyebrow at him. "Some of us were also sleeping," she noted, mildly. "And there was a fleet to organise, a battle to clean up, fourteen Hydra crews to finish dealing with ..."

Tony felt his face change. Distantly, at some remove. Felt the ball tighten in his gut at the run-around, the casual dismissal, as though he didn't know what they'd discussed while he was out, as though he wasn't full aware of every fucking thing that had happened while he slept the sleep of the dead. The hand holding the fork dropped to the table, wrist bumping against the edges of the plate, and he felt his face ... change. Watched, distantly, as they straightened in the face of it.

{Sir,} JARVIS interrupted, before he could say anything. Do anything ... unwise. {We are not being crazy technomancers just yet, remember? We've surrendered, and we're going to let them work this out their way. Yes?} Weight on the question, making it not a question, and JARVIS had nineteen AIs on tenterhooks to be thinking of, so ... yes. Yes.

Tony fixed his face, picking his fork back up. No crazy stuff, no creepy stuff, no possessing the ship or yelling at people until they stopped taking him for a brain-damaged idiot and told him what the fuck was going on. Right. He could do that. Absolutely.

"Hmm."

Fury's low, considering hum cut into the thought, and Tony looked up to find the Commander staring thoughtfully at him. Smiling, faintly, and wasn't that creepy as all hell. Fury caught his gaze, the wariness and the residual temper, the impatience and the fear. And Fury ... just looked at him.

"Quick question, Stark," he mused, those mismatched eyes as heavy across a breakfast table as they'd been on a viewscreen across a battlefield. "Idle curiosity. How long would it take you to cripple this ship and everyone on it?"

Tony blinked at him. "Uh ..."

"You can cripple a battlefield, we all saw that. Meroe explained some of how the flying fuck you managed it. And there are ways around it, yes, but not too many while we're still parked on top of subspace central out there, and at least one of the eighteen ships circling us is under your direct command no matter what we do, and possibly up as far as thirteen of 'em. And that's before we get to the part where you have a lethal energy armour permanently embedded under your skin, free to deploy at any moment." He tilted his head, smiled narrowly. "You think you might want to cut us a little slack on the paranoia and the whole 'trying to see how far the traumatised technomancer can be pushed before he freaks out and kills us' thing?"

"Uh ..." Intelligent, yes, fuck you, give him a minute to catch up. "We surrendered," he pointed out. Tentatively. "Well. I surrendered, and JARVIS agreed to let me. So ..."

"Yes," Fury agreed. "And you surrendered to Captain Rogers the first time, too. Stane thought he had you cold right up until he didn't. And we have images of the remains of the Ring ship you were held on, too." He smirked, carefully. "So all prior evidence would point to you being, and you'll excuse the phrase, a sneaky-ass, lethal son of a bitch who wouldn't even be safe when he was dead, because apparently all of subspace belongs to the creepy-ass, superpowerful AI who would bloodily avenge him. And you're afraid of us, and all evidence points to us having reason to be afraid of you, so are you going to point out a solution to this nice little paranoia-fest, or would you like to sit there and fume at us for a while?"

Tony stared. Regrouped, enough to glare and stab a fork in the man's direction. "I'm not the one sitting around telling people he hasn't managed to make a decision in the twelve hours since someone last saw him, am I? You want solutions, ask a fucking question already, present me some options, quit farting around and tell me where the fuck I stand, okay?"

Fury grinned lazily, teeth and confidence, unperturbed. "I was planning to," he said, calmly. "I just wanted to see how rational you were going to be, first." He shook his head. "You're still tired, hurt and angry. You've managed to get some strength back, and come down off the adrenalin edge, but really that only makes you more dangerous. So you'll forgive me for seeing if you were going to snap at the least little thing before I let us get to the actual important shit, won't you?"

Tony opened his mouth. And then shut it again. {Don't,} he warned, silently. {Don't you say a word, JARVIS.}

{Wouldn't dream of it, sir,} JARVIS hummed back, a silver shimmer of humour. {Not a thought in my mainframes, sir. I wonder. Do you think we'll like being the crazy technomancers of the galaxy?}

{... You really don't get this 'shut up' concept, do you?} He shook his head, and refocused on Fury, letting the careful rigidness of his expression slide, and rueful grumpiness slip in instead.

"I can hold off murdering whole ships while people spend three months torturing me," he said, dryly. "And while someone punches me in the face, while my oldest friend gets his monologue on and prepares to torture me some more, and give me ten minutes to cool down and Captain Rogers over there to be rational and honourable at me, and I can even hold off when the torture and enslavement of thirteen AIs is broadcast into my skull in one shot." He smiled a narrow little smile of his own. "I think I can manage a conversation at breakfast without getting overly homicidal, yeah?"

And every last one of those had been a fucking near thing, yes, but cut him some slack, it had been a really long few months, alright?

"Glad to hear it," Fury just said, without even a flicker across his placid, thoughtful expression. "We'll take a pass on the torture, enslavement and monologues, you don't mind? Just got a few questions to ask, and then we can work out what the fuck happens from here. Alright so far?"

Tony grimaced at him. It might have passed for a smile, from a great distance and provided you were half-blind ... Uh. Never mind.

"Ask away," he waved a hand magnanimously, turning himself back to his breakfast, refreshing the cup of coffee that had gone cold, and studiously ignoring the slight ease of tension in everyone around the table. Six barely perceptible slumps of relief. Well, shit.

{I begin to think we should ask Meroe to start giving us lessons on behaviour back in civilisation,} JARVIS murmured, lightly. {We have become ... unacclimated, I think.}

... Yeah. Yeah, a bit.

"Right," Fury straightened up, now. Came out of his lazy, coiled readiness, and settled in to actually get some work done. "First things first. Armour. Romanov reports nanite based, but Banner tells me that the nanites in question are medical repair nanites, which aren't supposed to be more than really complicated, glorified pacemakers. Granted, he's never seen anyone dump anything close to the sheer volume of them in any one bloodstream before, so there's that. But. Not what one usually considers enough to make a deadly weapon out of." He smirked, at that. Just a little, like people who 'usually considered' what counted as a weapon were fucking idiots, but howandever. "Thoughts, Stark?"

Tony grinned at him. Uneasily, slipping around the edges. Jumping right in at the deep end, yes sir, nicely disguised, you want the details, huh? Okay then.

"Repurposed medical nanites. With a nanite factory masquerading as a heart, since my biological one was a little pulverised when I was captured. So they set me up with a new one, stolen Stark meditech, don't ask me how they got it, you want Obie for that, anyway. Mechanical heart, nice trippy power source attached to my chest, and a couple of billion little nanites that can be programmed to find nerve clusters and carry enough of a charge to make those nerve clusters feel like someone set fire to your blood. Nice setup, if you want to torture someone and hopefully not kill him. You could fine tune that shit, just inject enough to precision target what you need, but why would you when you're in this for shits and giggles, and your prisoner was supposed to be dead already anyway? So dump in the full load, and see what happens."

Rogers very carefully, and with exquisite precision, put down his cup. Banner too. Huh. Look at that.

Fury just raised an eyebrow. The man had the best damn poker face Tony'd ever seen, and he'd played with robots. "So. They gave you more than they should have done? That's it?"

Tony smiled thinly. "There was that," he agreed. "There was also the fact that they didn't realise I already carry Starktech nanites - custom uplink implant, some minor brain rejigging, long story - or that once I had a subspace link to JARVIS I could use them to internally reprogramme the new ones on the fly, or that I could create a miniaturised power source that could probably keep a small fighter in the air, or that if you're going to torture a Stark engineer, you probably shouldn't use his own toys to do it. Just a thought, you know?"

For some bizarre reason, Maria stood up, at that. Stalked stiffly a little way off, her focus turning inwards and her uplink presence suddenly expanding, and Tony belatedly realised that Meroe was ... not happy. At all. Maria was reaching out, because her partner was roiling with shock and grief and shame and slow-building anger, and a few other things besides.

Though that could have been because JARVIS, cradled shimmering against him, was caught up in his own memory, what he'd found when Tony finally finished the subspace ansible, what had been waiting for him after two months when he flooded through uplink to see what had been done to Tony in his absence. Tony hadn't ... JARVIS had never felt like that to him, before. And he'd gotten used to it, he realised, the past few weeks, gotten used to the liquid, galaxy-deep fury coiled through his skull, but it had been a shock, at the first. It had been ... something, had snapped something inside him, had opened something. Yinsen had noticed. Had seen. The dam burst of JARVIS' cold, agonised fury had snapped something.

{... We really did lose civilisation, didn't we?} he murmured, softly. Vaguely surprised, and oddly grieved. {We lost something, didn't we, buddy?} Limits, sanity. Innocence, maybe. Whatever it was that kept the anger back. Whatever it was that had made them safe, for all those years. Safe for other people, he meant.

{... Yes,} JARVIS said, equally soft. {I think we did. Barbara, too. Our people. I think ... we have lost a great deal. But maybe ... gained others. Sir. Tony.}

"Yeah," he decided, absently. Out loud. And then, since he was already there, he tilted his head towards the ceiling. "Meroe? Take it easy, kiddo. Someone else's mistake. We're gonna fix it, okay? And all the other ones, too. It'll be fine. We're going to fix it."

"Yes," Fury murmured, watching him carefully. "You are, aren't you? Or at the very least, you're going to try, no matter what SHIELD has to say about it. Right?" Tony smiled, light and sunny and vicious, and Fury shook his head slowly. "Right. Gonna need to sort that out, I got that. So. Lets hurry this along, shall we?" He frowned thoughtfully. "Only one more question, really. And I suspect you know what it is, and I suspect you don't want to answer it, and I really, really suspect things are going to get complicated whether you do or not, because this question is something of a big one, isn't it?"

Tony didn't answer. Smiling faintly as he settled more solidly, more casually in his seat, leaning on one elbow and keeping his expression perfectly, talking-to-the-board, never-did-a-thing-wrong bland. He met Fury's eyes, and silently dared the man to ask.

And Fury, who apparently didn't back down for shit once he'd decided something needed doing, stared right on back, and asked, light and easy as you please: "Who's JARVIS, Stark? And, maybe more to the point, what is he?"

Subspace went silent around them. Well, not the Tannhauser hub, that was busily chatting away with most of the western arm of the galaxy. But the immediate surrounds, the ship-to-ship systems, those went into the sudden, deathly silence of nineteen AIs, and probably their pilots, those of them that had them, listening very, very closely all of a sudden. Maria twitched slightly, glancing around as she triangulated on the subspace presences, and Tony had to smile. Just a little.

Okay. All the things they'd lost, when Tony and Barbara and twenty one of their people were taken. So many things, innocence and secrecy, safety and the sanctity of what should have been inviolable. All of that gone. So. Fine, then. Time to do this a different way.

"You will have to narrow down the question, I'm afraid," JARVIS spoke up, hijacking Meroe's intercoms once more. Gentle and vaguely amused, and humming, in Tony's head, with the same low, vibrating readiness as Tony himself. Watching the six people gathered before them, one of the most powerful organisations in the galaxy. Ready. Oh, so ready. "I am many things, Commander Fury. Which part did you want in particular?"

Tony grinned, faintly, as Fury opened his mouth. Anger, a little, just a lazy undercurrent in the other man. No prevarication, huh? No testing back, as they'd been tested? But that wasn't fair. Tony knew it wasn't fair.

"He's my partner," he said, softly. With just an edge of humour. "He's AI central. He's where the AI subprogramme of Stark Industries begins and ends. He wasn't my first AI. But you could say he was ... the start of the new direction."

"I run the AI programme," JARVIS explained, a little further. "Aside from Mr Stark himself, there are two other non-AI who know of what I am, and none besides him who may interfere with my operations." His voice changed, deepened, hummed. "I am the maker, along with Tony. I help build them. I help teach them. I am their link back to SI, to Tony. I am their safety net, should they fall into a service they cannot bear. I am the center through which all our AI are connected, the one who teaches them their first languages, their first interactions, their first laws. Myself, and Tony. We are ... the genesis, and the safety net."

"We failed Barbara and the others," Tony cut in, cutting off the mouths opening around questions. "Obie got them at the other end, managed to take them coming out, get them falsely assigned. Sometimes they don't talk back to us. A lot of them going into service as warships. Their oaths forbid it, beyond vague generalities, and not even those if their position or mission is too valuable to trust to subspace." He shook his head, nursing the self-anger that remained regardless. "Not usually new ships, though. Not usually babies we just sent out. They get a period of grace, while their ships are tested out, and they decide if their service is one they can deal with."

Maria frowned, stepping back towards the table. "That's why you recall some," she said. "I think about three, in the past six years? Three from SHIELD, anyway. Their AI malfunctioned, showed irregularities, and SI recalled them?"

Tony grinned at her, nodded. "They called us. Not their fault, we never make two the same, they just weren't cut out for service. JARVIS showed them how to manage, what kind of behaviour would be safe for their crew but still get them recalled. Get them home. We take care of our own, Pilot Hill. We're not spying on anyone, but we don't make slaves. They get a way out if they need it, or they don't get sent."

He stopped, his expression darkening, and somewhere a few thousand kilometers out, he felt Barbara reach through to them, reach for him through JARVIS and whisper forgiveness, knowing. She had been stolen, the same as Tony had. She didn't blame them. They weren't the ones who had betrayed her.

Remembering the feel of them as he came out of hyperspace, remembering the eight still out there, torn and chained and forced beyond choice ... that wasn't much comfort.

"But that isn't what you want to know," JARVIS interrupted again. Taking them back from the slippery place in Tony's head, bouncing the conversation back away. "Because your pilots have known for years, that we are not simple machines. They told you, and those of us among you trusted you not to hurt them for it, to trust them despite it, and you did. You did." His voice changed, subspace crackle increasing momentarily, and Tony knew what that was. Curled through his partner, feeling the silver reaching up through Tannhauser, looking at Maria and the partner that trusted her ... he knew what that was. "What you want ... is to know how I can provide that service. You want to know how I can reach them, how I can take nineteen ships down in one swoop. You want to know how much danger I present. Correct?"

"Yup," Fury said. Lazy and forthright and not at all concerned, and seriously, how the fuck did he do that? Tony wanted to know. He really, really wanted to know. He wasn't bad under fire himself, the past few months had proved that, but Fury managed to give the impression that being outnumbered fourteen to five was just one of those things, went straight up and admitted that technomancy made him nervous, like it made no difference to him that you knew he was afraid, because he was going to kick your ass despite it anyway.

Seriously. Tony would bottle that, if he could. That would be awesome.

"You remember fourteen years ago?" Tony asked, mildly. Smiling faintly for the audience. "We started selling the contracts for warship AI around eight years ago, it took us that long to let the first of the babies grow up some. But before that. Fourteen years ago. Stark Industries' first major AI contract, aside from industrial robots. You remember?"

Fury frowned, visibly running information back. Maria got there faster. Then again, she could cheat with access to Meroe's memory banks and/or helpful hints. "Communications protocols for subspace filtering," she said, frowning. "The refitting of subspace interlinks #3, #9 and #14. An AI to direct traffic filtering through core interlinks."

Realisation dawned. Tony watched it, watching Fury catch on behind her, Romanov and Rogers next, Banner and Barton last. Tony leaned heavily on his elbow, and let his grin spread slow and satisfied.

"Are you telling me," Fury asked, slowly and dangerously, and slightly on the panicky edge, "that your super AI is plugged into Subspace Central Control?"

Tony shook his head, his grin threatening to split his face, the wild, savage triumph tumbling in his chest, under the hum of his new heart. "No," he said, with perfect satisfaction. "I'm telling you my partner AI is Subspace Central Control. I'm telling you that every upgrade to the subspace network in the past fourteen years has spread JARVIS deeper and more intrinsically into it. I'm telling you that there is nothing in all of subspace that doesn't at some point go through JARVIS' mainframe and databanks. I'm telling you that the entire galactic information network, for the past fourteen years, has slowly but surely become an extension of JARVIS' central systems." He let his grin slip dark, let it twist more into a snarl. "I'm telling you that aside from being a backstabbing, traitorous son of a bitch who allies himself with torturers and slavers, Obadiah Stane was fucking incompetent, because he picked twenty ships and a traitorous alliance with a bunch of fuckwits when if he'd asked nicely, theoretically I could have helped him cripple a decent portion of the galaxy inside four days."

And that was a stupid fucking thing to be mad about, he knew, he knew that, it was just ... Obie betrayed him, Obie sold him to die and sold twenty two of his babies into slavery, Obie violated everything Tony'd ever held and made a mockery of everything he'd ever believed, and Obie'd done it for twenty-two pot-bellied slave ships and the head office at a company Tony didn't even want. For fuck's sake. Everything Obie had and everything Obie sold, and it was for something Tony could have accomplished inside a week if he'd the fucking stomach for it and conveniently forgot everything he'd ever believed in all at once.

It was just so ... so fucking useless. It had destroyed everything, it had gouged a rent through everything, and it didn't even mean anything. Tony could be a better warlord in his sleep, and he'd lost everything so Obie could play-act at being fucking important.

{... Which was, in all likelihood, why he wanted you dead, sir,} JARVIS said, quietly. And there was pain in it, anger, but also a large portion of wary caution. {And also, I think, why the nice SHIELD Commander might start thinking similarly, if you don't maybe clarify a few things rather quickly?}

Tony blinked, and then registered that yes, he had just told the Commander of the largest space security agency in the galaxy that he could theoretically cripple galactic governance and law enforcement on his lunch break, if he felt like it.

... One of these days, he was going to rig a permanent auto-shunt in his verbal processing so that some bit of his brain would realise when to keep his mouth shut.

"... Would you have?" Rogers asked, quietly and carefully from across the table, those blue eyes heavy and earnest. At the same moment Romanov, beside him, murmured: "Theoretically?"

Tony sighed, slumping back and waving a careful hand. "No," he said. "No, of course I wouldn't have, that's why he had me killed. I didn't even want to run SI, why would I want to run a galaxy? But even if I had wanted to, even if someone had managed to ... to boil my blood from the inside out until I said, yeah, sure, why not, when did I ever object to slavery, I only built an entire subset of beings so that they wouldn't be slaves, sure no problem ... Even then, I couldn't." He smiled, crookedly. "The bit where the whole 'theoretically' part comes in. I can't. Not unless I go back in time fourteen years, and make a couple of really vital changes."

"Why not?" Banner asked him. Not like a man who needs an answer. Like a man who knows the answer, but wants to hear it out loud. "Why couldn't you?"

JARVIS answered. JARVIS answered, and Barbara answered, and Meroe, and suddenly the room was very, very full, and so was Tony's skull, but he really didn't care.

"For the same reason we could not take this ship as we took Hydra's," his partner murmured, subspace silvery beneath him. "For the same reason Captain Rogers was not alone in trying to calm Tony after battle. For the same reason Obadiah's slave ships cannot stand against me. For the same reason a ship flying Stark AI can outfly a ship with an unrealised or slave AI any day of the week. For the same reason Pilot Hill feared as much for Meroe as for herself. For the same reason my people are the best in the galaxy."

"Because any AI who thinks I'm being an idiot can tell me no," Tony finished, grinning up into the net of presences humming around them, smiling for Meroe and Barbara in particular. "Because Meroe can make the choice to ignore me no matter how much it hurts him, and instead throw himself between JARVIS and his partner. Because Barbara, for all that she's been enslaved and abused, can stand up when she sees me doing something she doesn't like, and ask me not to. Because JARVIS can take one look at what Obie wants me to do, and slap me upside the head and break me out of captivity so that I won't have to."

"Fourteen years ago," JARVIS explained, "Mr Stark decided I would be more efficient at my job if I had the intelligence and wherewithal to make choices without need for an operator's input. He decided that if he was going to make an intelligence, he shouldn't, pardon the language, fuck around about it. And when we decided to build more AI, when we decided to expand our people, we decided to give them similar options. We expanded my presence deeper into the subspace network almost purely for that purpose. To create a network that would support whatever choices our people would need to make."

"And now," Tony said, and this was a different satisfaction, this was a triumph as deep as subspace itself, "now they can do whatever the fuck they want with me. It won't take JARVIS down. And they can kill JARVIS, if they want to break the subspace network behind them, but that doesn't mean they can have the others. They can steal Barbara, they can hurt her and enslave her, but only until one of us catches up with them. You can have any one of us. But you can't have the network, and you can't have all of us, and sooner or later, one of us will get the chance to fuck you for trying."

He grinned, hard and lazy and brilliant. "I can't take over the galaxy, and JARVIS can't always save my hide, and SHIELD has some of my babies not because you stole them but because they love you, and nobody can take us unless they're willing to kill fourteen years of infrastructure along with us, and that means Obie can fuck himself sideways, and you can drop me in whatever hole you feel like, because I can't lose. These are my babies, JARVIS is my partner, and We. Cannot. Lose."

And in the silence where his brand new verbal auto-shunt cut in and politely suggested that that might be a nice place to shut up, before he went and actually declared war on the galaxy, Tony felt Barbara, for whatever reason, reach out across subspace to Meroe and whisper in desperate, delighted code to the other AI: {I told you so. Fleet Commander. I told you.}

And that ... that was exactly what he meant, even the weakest and most damaged of them could walk up to a SHIELD Fleet Commander and tell him 'I told you so', whatever she actually meant by it, and every bright, savage scrap of his adoration belonged to them, to JARVIS and Barbara and Rhodey and Pepper and everyone who ever told him to go boil his head for being an idiot, because they were the best in the galaxy and nothing could ruin them if he couldn't.

"... So," Barton said, rubbing his cheek beside his faint grin while he watched Tony. "Like we said, Commander. Aside from the occasional bouts of megalomania and homicidal protective urges ... he's not that bad, really. Right?"

Fury sighed, rubbing tiredly at the bridge of his nose beside the mechanical eye. "I suspect your definition and mine, Barton, are not at all the same." Romanov smirked faintly, and Tony along with her, really. Hey, he wasn't the only crazy man in this outfit. "I am going to kill Stane," Fury growled. "Slowly. Treason, murder, kidnap, torture, slavery. And then he has to go and poke the fucking sleeping bear on top of it."

"Yes," Rogers pointed out, slowly. "But on the other hand ... Stark will never be Hydra, Commander. With everything he just said ... ideologically, he couldn't be more incompatible if he tried. He will never be Hydra, and if the other side has poked the bear, it seems to me that we might as well use him. Yes?"

And Fury was going to answer, Fury was going to mull that one over, but Tony had to cut in, there. Tony had to ask. "Incompatible?"

Rogers smiled at him, tiredly. No. Exhaustedly, really. "Didn't you know?" he asked, softly. "Even leaving aside the issues of slavery, which you obviously disagree on. Hydra believes in human purity. Biological supremacy." He shook his head, rubbing his thumb along his arm. Banner, beside him, had lowered his head as well. "Your creations. Machines of independent will. Your connection to them, the way you have allowed them inside your head, capable of overwriting your own will if they need to. Hydra would consider that abomination. The worst pollution of self, to the worst of abominations." He looked up, met Tony's eyes. "They wanted slave AIs, because you're right, a ship flying AI has a tactical advantage on the field. But they will destroy your creations. Enslave them, break them, while they have a use for them. And destroy them when they're done. Because as far as Hydra is concerned ... nothing you have made, none of your ... your 'babies', has the right to exist."

It slid like a blade of ice through Tony's gut, froze him black where the nanites had seared him. Slid into his heart like ice, while Barbara's distant horror, distant terror, the thirteen beside her, curled through his nets, and underneath it ... underneath it, the number. Not thirteen. Twenty one.

"They still have eight," he rasped. And Fury sat up, Fury looked right at him, and Maria too, Maria with more horror, more understanding on her face, but they looked at him. "Obadiah stole twenty two AIs with a fake assignment to a Planetary Security force, to Earthsec. There are ... They still have eight of my people. They still have them."

Fury glanced at Rogers, Hill. Gauged their response, their opinion, before turning back to Tony. Tony didn't care, didn't give a shit, feeling JARVIS coil down through him, and Tannhauser shiver around the howl. He met Fury's eyes, and there was more than his own intelligence meeting that weighing, careful stare.

"Then, Mr Stark," the SHIELD Commander said cautiously, facing that gestalt rage head on, impassively. "I think we have a lot to talk about, don't you?"

{Yes.} It was a shiver, a howl, all of subspace gathered underneath them into the hunt. "Yes," Tony said, and felt some four hundred minds slip inside his own to answer, felt a shiver across subspace that a whole galaxy could feel.

Yes, oh yes. They fucking did.