“Stark, if you were any more smug you’d be sickening,” Natasha said.
Tony only grinned and flung his hands out in a grand gestures of, Oh yeah, I’m really just that good. “Bruce has not been out of his suite in a week, and no Hulk alarms have sounded, so I have every right to be as smug as it as possible for me to be.”
“Which might be epically smug,” Clint said, flinging a bagel with his usually accuracy to land squarely on Natasha’s plate.
Tony just gave him a look. “Epically smug could be written on my tombstone, Barton. ‘Here lies Tony Stark – He saved the world and was epically smug.’”
“Shall I log that with the other fifty-seven suggestions for your epitaph, sir?” Jarvis asked.
“Wait, I’m up to fifty-seven?”
“Fifty-eight, now, sir.”
Clint snorted and plucked the last pumpernickel bagel out of the box. “Should I even ask what he wants his tombstone to look like?”
“I believe initial ideas included carving his face into the side of a mountain, erecting a duplicate of the Washington Monument with the Stark Industries logo on it, and having a sixty-foot replica of Iron Man commissioned.”
“Don’t forget that time I wanted to laser my signature into the moon!”
“I believe that was more of a drunken whim than a legacy plan, sir.”
Natasha was laughing softly, her wide smile showing she was holding back the true extent of her mirth. There was a lot of that going around the Tower recently, since one Dr. Betty Ross had successfully smuggled herself in without her father’s knowledge and (with Natasha and Tony’s benevolent conspiracy) gotten herself into Bruce’s lab. They’d counted themselves privileged to have seen the reunion between the two, holding each other like they’d never let go.
Then Betty had managed to pull herself away enough to thank them and ask the direction of Bruce’s room in a single breath. Tony had just grinned, pointed, and gotten the hell out of their way. He would admit to a few tense hours just immediately afterward, but, well, everyone in New York was aware of the possible danger, and what the Hulk was capable of.
The Avengers, and Betty, also believed in what Bruce Banner was capable of.
He deserved it; they all deserved that high point after the attack on the Tower three months ago. Betty had shown them more trust than some of the papers said they deserved, having arrived barely after the paint had dried on the final repairs.
At least no one else had been stupid enough to try a repeat performance. Probably the rumor that a squad of two dozen highly trained and experienced mercenaries had been taken out by the two “weakest” Avengers without them breaking a sweat had had a lot to do with that. There had been no point in revealing Jarvis’ or Pepper’s participation in their own rescue, indeed, every reason not to reveal it. Underestimating someone was a strategy so classic no one had even thought to argue against it.
Besides, being known for physical badassery wasn’t either of their styles.
“When’s Thor coming back? If Bruce is going to keep himself mewed up in his room, we better have a relief pitcher if someone decides to go on a world-breaking spree or something,” Tony said.
“Later this evening; he did not leave a precise hour,” Jarvis said. The moment the words left his lips, there were flashes of light outside, and Tony got up with a grin on his face.
“Speak of the god,” he said, as thunder roared overhead. After several long minutes of electrical foreplay, Thor finally dropped down from the sky onto the balcony outside, fully armored, cape flowing in the breeze, every hair looking ruggedly handsome. Tony had to admit, it was a very good entrance. Thor opened the door as if it were a delicate thing and stepped inside, dropping his hammer on the ground with a heavy thud.
Tony heard a faint sound behind him, and turned enough to see Bruce and Betty had finally emerged from their floor, undoubtedly drawn by Thor’s firework show. He gave them both a thumbs-up, but Bruce shook his head and shot his eyes over to Thor.
A second glance at Thor, at the tense way he was holding himself, did not promise good news.
“My friends, I am glad I found you all here.” Thor caught sight of Betty and Bruce together and gave them a nod and small smile. “Congratulations to you both; your union is well-deserved and well-matched.” Then Thor’s smile faded as he faced the Avengers as a whole. “It is time.”
Tony felt a chill at that statement. Those words, combined with Thor’s determinedly stoic expression, could only lead to one rather unwelcome conclusion. All the joy in the room was suddenly sucked out.
“My brother Loki is being tried for his crimes. I have come to ask you to be witnesses as to the deeds he committed on Midgard, so that all may know everything he did in full measure. I would consider it a duty well done if you would accompany me.”
Steve stood up from where he’d been reading on the couch, and crossed over to clasp Thor’s hand and arm in a warrior’s greeting, solemn and formal. It was an affirmation of Thor’s request no one contradicted, though everyone was looking grim. “I think we all knew this was coming someday.”
Some of the tension left Thor’s shoulders in relief.
“Most of my people do not know the extent of his crimes, and for me to speak of everything that happened on Midgard would be considered a conflict of interest, as I have shown my care for your world since I came here. People must know so they can move from their shock to justice, not just for my realm, but for your own. Most of Asgard do not often think of Earth, and Loki… he must pay for all that he has done. My father’s court must know the facts out of your own mouths. All must know and understand so what has happened will never be repeated.”
“Out of our own mouths?” Clint repeated, his voice a dry rasp.
“Yes. Anything to be considered must be spoken out loud, and from the heart.”
A beat of silence from everyone.
“Yeah,” Clint said, nodding, his voice cracking like a bowstring snapping. “I’m in.”
“He killed hundreds of people, Thor,” Natasha said pointedly. “We wouldn’t just be talking about what he did to us, but about every person who died or was hurt when he came here.”
There wasn’t the tiniest bit of irony in her statement, she who had so much red in her ledger.
Thor nodded sadly.
“Good, fine, we’ll get them all written down for the court, every last one of them, and tell them every gruesome detail,” Tony said decisively.
“Tony-,” Bruce began, when Thor interrupted.
“From the heart, Tony. They must be spoken of from the heart. Immortalized in memory,” Thor said, shaking his head.
“We have to memorize every death and injury of every person or Loki doesn’t get charged with the crimes?” Bruce said, pinching the bridge of his nose. Betty put her arm tight around him, and murmured something in his ear, pressing her lips to his temple. What Loki had done to each of them would be said – they were going to get an outlet for what had happened to them under his hands, and long past time too, that was never in doubt. But as much as some of them had suffered, they were not Loki’s only victims. And they would be pretty piss-poor Avengers if they didn’t attempt to avenge all the people who’d died or been hurt for Loki’s ambition.
“He must answer for all his wrongdoing,” Thor said. “I have already begun the task myself, and the list is heartbreakingly long, but as I learned upon my exile here, one cannot simply hope someone will change without giving them a thorough reason and lesson. My lesson was through despair, humility, and betrayal, and continues even today. Loki’s will come another way, and it must be complete and thorough for the crimes on all worlds, lest he bring more misfortune down upon us all by debts left unpaid. The Chitauri war stemmed from one unpaid debt. Your world can ill-afford another so soon.”
Tony could see Natasha swallow from across the room, and Clint gripped her hand hard.
“Then we can all take a part of the list-,” Natasha began, when Jarvis interrupted.
“There is no need, Agent Romanov. The list is already in my memory.”
Tony’s heart sank somewhere in the vicinity of his stomach. Somehow he’d known this was coming.
“My memory is perfect, Mr. Odinson. I am well aware of each and every individual killed or injured by Loki’s attacks, as well as those harmed and property destroyed during the Chitauri attacks, and those under treatment for after-effects of mind control.”
Thor was quiet, staring at Jarvis like he’d never seen him before.
“Use me,” Jarvis requested softly. “I am able to serve as a database quite ably.”
“I had hesitated in asking you to come. Loki is no friend to any of you, but he will be present, and on his home ground.”
“Locked up, of course.” Jarvis’ voice was sharp.
“Of course.” Thor looked incredibly weary, some of his true age showing in the lines around his eyes. Tony wondered exactly what had been going down during Thor’s last few months on Asgard.
“Fifteen months, two weeks, and three-point-six days ago you had a conversation with Master Stark that is quite relevant to your hesitancy. You said Loki would be unable to banish me to the walls again. That he would not be able to disembody me because of the laws of magic run counter to discorporation. With that reassurance, I do not fear the loss of my form in confronting him. My fear is that of everyone else here: that his presence reminds us of traumas he perpetrated on us. And I have to right to speak of his crimes in my own voice, and would be very willing to speak for those who otherwise cannot go.”
Jarvis looked over at Tony, who valiantly tried to hide his worry. He didn’t want Jarvis anywhere near Loki, and definitely not on his home ground, Thor’s reassurances or no. Loki was a master of powers Thor didn’t even possess, and most of what he could do was right beyond Tony’s ways of measuring, let alone countering. But… Jarvis had suffered as much as any of them, and Tony would be damned before he let Loki off the hook for what he’d done. Jarvis had the right to talk about what Loki had done to him on his own.
And Natasha, Bruce, everyone else was right. Loki didn’t get a pass for anything he’d done, not for the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents he killed outright or ended up burying alive when he’d arrived on Earth, not the people he’d mind-whammied into helping him, not the “inconvenient” people who’d been in his way or those he’d destroyed as a distraction in his grand plan. Not the people on the Helicarrier who’d fallen to their deaths or been shot by his minions, and not the hundreds in New York who couldn’t get out of the way fast enough when he dropped an alien army in Manhattan.
“Then we can ill-afford to do without you,” Thor said. “A week’s time from now, Central Park, where Loki and I returned the last time, Heimdall will open the Bifrost for us.”
For a team of superheroes, training wasn’t just a way to keep ahead of celebratory meals of shwarma or burgers, it was vital to the survival of the planet. At any given time, one or more of the Avengers could be found in the gym, either doing individual workouts or sparring with one another. Between odd metabolisms, strange hours, and a wide variety of sleep habits (with the bouts with insomnia and nightmares that were part and parcel of being who they were), there was usually someone there at any given hour of the day.
Steve was used to that. The serum had made his sleep more efficient, and seventy years in suspended animation had apparently made up for quite a few of those hours. If he was unconscious for four hours in seventy-two, he considered himself quite the slug. He used those waking hours to catch up on decades of history, when he wasn’t using them to try to quiet his mind through strengthening his body. He had spent over half of his waking life being too weak to stand up to the world. Now he wanted to make sure he could stand up for others, and if it managed to disengage his overactive mind at the same time… Steve pushed open the door to the gym and paused right at the threshold.
Apparently he hadn’t been the only one to consider a workout to be the ideal antidote to Thor’s news.
The slender figure in gray sweatpants and hooded shirt, currently punching and kicking at Natasha as she danced in circles around him, could only be Jarvis. Though rough-edged, the lower stance and snappy movements were definitely more in Natasha’s style than the boxing Steve had been teaching him. Jarvis wasn’t quite as well-suited to Natasha’s moves, being longer-limbed and usually taller than his opponents, but Natasha kept calling out reminders for him to check his levels, keeping his punches where the vital areas would be on a shorter opponent. Assassins’ moves, not the more broad-stroke stuff Steve had learned. Then again, Steve had been so much stronger than most of his opponents after the serum that he hadn’t needed to learn nerve-cluster targeting.
Maybe he should ask her for tips, if Thor had let any slip about what worked against Asgardians. Steve had been luckier than the rest of his team in regards to Loki. He had only faced him on relatively even terms, when Loki had been angling to get on the Helicarrier and was more interested in putting on a show than killing him, like he had tried with Tony. Other than the aura from the scepter that had sawed at all of their tempers, Steve hadn’t had his mind played with like Clint or even Bruce. He’d never been on the receiving end of Loki’s manipulative lies, like Natasha, nor his betrayal, like Thor. Steve could only speak of Loki’s attempted murder in Germany, and what he’d felt on the Helicarrier, and even some of that could be chalked up to genuine friction, as opposed to alien technology.
He would talk about the chaos of New York with all the passion he felt for his home city, and the moment Thor had said everyone’s story had to be memorized, Steve had been ready to volunteer himself. His memory was excellent, already generally good, and then serum-enhanced to a level he hadn’t had a lot of time to appreciate until recently. But he had a feeling that even if he had volunteered, Jarvis might insist on doing his part anyway.
Jarvis had all that information at his fingertips, engraved on his mind even more firmly than Steve ever could, and he could not forget it. And all that information Loki had left with him when he’d made Jarvis human. Apparently Jarvis had Tony’s appreciation for irony – in trying to disable Tony, the Avengers, and S.H.I.E.L.D., Jarvis might instead prove to hold the greatest amount of information for Loki’s punishment.
And that wasn’t even mentioning what pain Jarvis had gone through in Loki’s hands. They all had their own ways of coping, and this could be Jarvis’.
Steve waited until Natasha had nipped in under Jarvis’ guard to throw him to the mat before clearing his throat. They both looked up at him, and Steve raised his wrapped hands.
“Is there room for me?”
Natasha gave him a quiet little smile as Jarvis got himself back upright. “Of course, Captain Rogers.”
She set Steve and Jarvis against each other, Steve checking his speed and strength, Jarvis testing out new combinations Natasha called out for him. This wasn’t the no-holds-barred sort of training Steve was used to, but Jarvis did not need to accidentally get his face broken because Steve had come at him like he was an experienced fighter.
Besides, this wasn’t strictly for practice.
In the controlled motions that were more of a dance than a fight, Steve could concentrate on his moves, on countering what Natasha threw at him via Jarvis.
“High!” Natasha called, and Jarvis switched from the lower gut-shots to the higher, somewhat dirtier ones meant to batter at someone’s head, cause temporary blindness and confusion, and get them vulnerable. Steve blocked them almost absently, absorbing Jarvis’ full force as his mind worked. With his body moving, his thoughts starting falling into line, and Steve involuntarily shuddered. He might not have had as much of a direct, personal beef with Loki, not like the two people he was fighting, but he was the leader of the Avengers, which meant he was going to be the one Thor’s people were watching. He’d have to be the big-picture guy and talk about what Loki had done to their people as a whole. He’d end up being one of the direct voices of Earth.
That was enough to give even the bravest men pause. Steve had played the icon since Dr. Erskine had told him he believed in him, had told him to be a good man, and it was a role he’d grown comfortable with, but this was higher stakes than even the war he’d tried so hard to fight. He had to be up to the task; he could take the burden of eyes off of everyone else, even if the others were taking the burden of words.
They all would have their own crosses to bear.
At Natasha’s call, Steve and Jarvis backed down, Jarvis going to take a drink. His hand drifted over the AR monocle and earpiece he had lying on the sidelines, as if by merely touching them they could connect them with the virtual world he used as his connection to his old life, and his buffer to this one. He was rarely without them, and Steve had never seen him without them since he started using them, barring times like these. Jarvis nearly picked them up, and stopped himself.
There wouldn’t be any internet access on Asgard. No buffers.
“Jarvis, you don’t have to do this alone if you don’t want to,” Steve said quietly. He hadn’t even broken a sweat yet, but wiped his face with a towel anyway, just for the familiarity of it. That and it sometimes made the others feel a little less annoyed at his endurance.
“Thank you,” Jarvis said very softly, and pulled his hood down. His hair was damp with sweat, showing he must have been working with Natasha since shortly after Thor had broken his news. And that… wasn’t like him. Like Tony, Jarvis was more often than not found in the workshops when he had something that needed thinking about. “I appreciate the offer, Captain, but I would rather do this myself. You will have your own things to concentrate on.”
“Even so, the offer is open.”
“Captain, Agent, in your experience, have you gained anything in speaking with your enemies? Any insight as to their motivation, any emotional catharsis by attempting to divine their reasoning?” Jarvis asked abruptly.
Steve thought back to his encounters with fanatical HYDRA agents, with the cowardly but devastating Zola, with Schmidt and his grandiose posturing over an arrogance strong enough to keep him going through what should have burned him up, and shook his head. “I’ll be honest with you; the guys I fought really didn’t have a lot to say that didn’t come out of a playbook. The only thing I ever learned from them was their party line, and that wasn’t exactly very sane. I didn’t learn a thing talking to them privately that I didn’t learn when I was punching their faces.”
“I did,” Natasha said, her voice as quiet as Jarvis’ as she worked her way through a series of lithe stretches. “But that’s what I do. I get information out of people. If you’re willing to put up with them trying to bury and manipulate you, how they try to do it can tell you a lot.” She paused as her back arched, arms following in a ballet dancer’s stretch. “It takes time to figure out what you really want to know.” She dropped her arms and turned to face Jarvis fully. “It’s tempting, I know it is, but don’t talk to Loki.”
Jarvis stood and bowed to Natasha, then Steve, and walked straight out of the room.
“Damn,” she said, shaking her head.
“That wasn’t what he wanted to hear?” Steve surmised.
“You know it’s not. Would you have stayed quiet when Schmidt was grandstanding?”
“…No.” Steve sighed. This was one of those lessons that only tended to stick when experienced personally. He was tempted to go after Jarvis, to talk to him like he had Bucky, like Colonel Phillips and Peggy Carter had talked to him. Jarvis was one of them, one of the Avengers, whether he was physically present on the battlefield or not, and Steve was used to taking care of his people. But he’d also learned that sometimes, no matter how you felt, how good you were, it wasn’t possible for one man to do everything.
Clint set his bow down before backing away from the range where he had been mindlessly putting arrow after arrow into a target. It wasn’t even exercise for him, not at this stage of his life, but he thought better with a bow in his hands. The empty magazines in Jarvis’ hand told Clint he had been doing his own sort of thinking. Funny how concentration worked; Clint hadn’t even heard him firing.
Jarvis hesitated a long moment before abruptly pulling away his earpiece and AR monocle, giving Clint his complete and undivided attention. “Will you speak for Dr. Selvig, or shall I?”
Clint’s hand tightened on the bowstock; he knew this question was coming. Natasha had asked him months before, assuming Thor was going to want someone’s perspective on Loki’s mind control eventually. Selvig was… not doing well. Clint thanked whatever higher power who looked out for fools that he had had Natasha in the aftermath. He’d been able to fight Loki directly, to get immediate revenge and payback, to put the man at the point of his bow and see him being torn down. That, and Natasha’s unswerving support, the other Avengers, Fury’s understanding, and a shitload of help from his therapist at S.H.I.E.L.D., all had given him a platform to recover. It hadn’t stopped the nightmares, or the guilt, but it had helped.
Selvig didn’t exactly have anyone around him who could talk about what it had been like under alien mind control. Seeing Clint just made things worse, and after a half-dozen attempts to try to commiserate, the last of which had ended in Selvig needing sedation, Clint had stayed away. As brilliant as Selvig was, Loki wasn’t something he’d ever been trained for either. He hadn’t even had the cushion of Clint’s school of hard knocks to help him, let alone someone like Natasha.
Dr. Foster had been trying her best for him, for someone she knew and respected, but Clint had been there. Clint had seen the man twist his scientific expertise into a world-ending portal, his conscience suppressed, turned into an inadvertent Dr. Oppenheimer without being able to care about the consequences.
“You’ve got enough on your plate, Jarvis.” Clint dropped his arm to his side, relaxing his grip a fraction. “I knew him. Saw him. Saw him after, too. I’ll do it.”
“I would have very much liked to have shot at Loki, myself. I envy your privilege of having done so. I occasionally replay that battle file with satisfaction.”
Clint’s mouth quirked in a half-smile, imagining Jarvis watching that shot (probably from Stark’s suit cameras) over and over again.
“Send me the gif. I want to use it as a screen saver.”
“Of course.” Jarvis waited a few more shots, and abruptly cocked his head. “Agent Baron… I would, if you wanted me to, speak for you about Loki’s mind control of you,” Jarvis said.
Clint froze, bow at full extension, and remained that way for three long breaths. “Why would you?” he asked, his voice a little rough. There was a feeling of tension behind him, and Clint had the impression the whole reason for Jarvis’ visit was about to be revealed.
“I am… uncertain of my standing with you, Agent Barton.”
Clint let his string go slack and unknocked the arrow, turning to face Jarvis with surprise.
“Your standing?” he asked.
Jarvis was silent for a moment, looking past Clint’s head before reengaging. “I have never been entirely certain of how you view me and the… origins of my current state. I understood you might have found the breach of security distressing, and have doubts. I certainly found it so.”
For a second Clint was angry, the reflexive anger he’d been feeling that people were just waiting for him to fall apart ever since the Battle of New York, and made himself quash it as he took a quick review of Jarvis’ behavior around him. He had a dry sense of humor, sure, but was never less than polite with anyone that wasn’t attacking him. Yet he had always been very careful to compliment Clint on a job well done, and to do that first and often before anyone else had a chance to. Sometimes even before he complimented Tony. Hell, Jarvis had been essentially tip-toeing around Clint in his stiff, polite way.
“No,” Clint said, shaking his head. “No, we’re cool.”
“It was my responsibility-.”
Clint cut Jarvis off before he could even go down that road, hearing the guilt starting to crest, the real reason he’d offered to speak for Clint: because he’d felt that Loki being in the Tower, doing what he did, was his problem. And that was something he was all-too familiar with. With them going to Asgard, this had gone from “nagging problem” to “potential multi-plane disaster,” at least in Jarvis’ mind.
“Fuck no,” Clint said without hesitation. “I had that bastard straight in my sights with plenty of time to react and he still got me.” He laughed suddenly; Suzie from Psych was going to be so fucking proud of him in their next session. “You know what they billed me as in the circus?”
“Hawkeye, the World’s Greatest Marksman.”
“And you’re Jarvis, Tony Stark’s AI, the most advanced on the planet,” he shot back. “Lemme do you a favor; don’t believe your own hype. Because the World’s Greatest Marksman doesn’t miss, ever, and he wouldn’t let anyone get the drop on him. Thinking you were responsible for everything Loki did? That’s Stark levels of arrogance.” Clint felt a little unmoored in his chest as he talked, like he’d just missed catching someone’s hands in a trapeze act. He knew that was the right thing to say, but he was still learning to believe it himself.
But better that than nightmares of blue.
Jarvis looked taken aback, and Clint pressed on before he could chicken out on himself.
“Look, I was a tool Loki chose to use. I was shiny, visible, and not one of the eight guys he’d just killed. You’ve seen the recordings from that day, right?”
Jarvis closed his eyes, and Clint knew he was probably reviewing the footage in internal hi-def. Suzie had made him watch it himself, really watch what had happened that day, rather than just what he remembered. Loki had shown up, killed most of the people in the room, and claimed everyone within easy reach, him, Sims, and Dr. Selvig, to give him a hand. Not because they were the best for the job, but because they’d happened to survive his initial temper tantrum. He’d been confident enough between the Tesseract and the scepter’s ability to subvert whoever he wanted that he could find someone to do what he required. If Clint hadn’t happened to have a useful skill set, Loki would have just had him find someone who did. Clint had been utterly incidental.
So why the fuck would Clint spend his time brooding that Loki had picked and subverted him, when it could have just as easily been anyone else? That was what Suzie had challenged him to think about.
It was sort of working, between that and Natasha being his rock. At least he no longer wanted to do criminally stupid things as self-inflicted penance more than once a week.
“Then you are saying the responsibility lies with Loki, and no other?” Jarvis asked, brows furrowed as he worked things through.
“Yeah. ‘Cause he’s a self-absorbed emo dickwad.”
Jarvis was startled into laughter before managing to get himself under control, and Clint grinned back at him.
“I’m talking for myself. You have plenty to do.”
“Very good, Agent Barton. Very good.”
Jarvis nodded and left, and Clint put his bow down, leaning against the rail and closing his eyes, breathing out slowly and carefully. They hadn’t even talked about Coulson, but someone was going to have to do it. And Thor had been the only witness to Coulson’s death. He better make sure someone- he talked to Thor before they left. Thor hadn’t known Coulson like Clint had. He’d been a friend as well as a handler, Fury’s good eye and the single unifying force amongst the Avengers. He’d trusted Clint and Clint’s judgment when he’d brought in Natasha and to lose that… But Thor had seen Phil die at Loki’s hand. That was one burden on Loki directly. Better Thor deal with that. Clint wasn’t sure he’d be able to do it without something happening a lot of people would regret.
If he talked about Selvig, it delayed having to talk about himself. He could keep the fear from creeping up on him if he talked about another person. Being strong for Selvig would give him time to figure out what he was going to say about Loki to Odin’s face in a way that wasn’t going to get a target painted on his back.
Clint looked back at the door where Jarvis had gone. He was going to talk about a couple hundred people in front of the Asgardian court.
He must need a hell of a lot of time to think.
Clint put up his bow again and reached for his arrows, the steady rhythm calming him back down again.
Thor’s head came up from his brooding over the city. He’d been concentrating hard on both not raining a deluge down over New York as well as his darkening thoughts since yesterday. The title- he had not heard anyone address him thus since he’d left Asgard. The Avengers were his friends and he held no dominion over the realms of Earth; to insist on formality seemed pointless. Though perhaps not unless you wished to make a subtle point. Thor met Jarvis’ eyes as he crossed the lawns of the rooftop terrace.
“I am no lord of yours.”
“While we are your guests, that will be otherwise. I would not care to seem less than respectful in front of any of your friends or subjects.”
“My friends would understand, but not everyone in my father’s court is a friend. You are wise to be cautious.”
“Not wise as such. Prudent, perhaps, though what prudence I may claim when going to another realm-.” Jarvis cut himself off, and Thor finished the thought he was too polite to voice.
“A realm where the man who tortured you resides, the man who gave you human form and whom you fear could wrest it away from you.”
“He is your brother, and I did not mean to remind of you the pain.”
“The man who grew up beside him, fought at my back, the clever younger brother whose wit I adored, he is not the same man who tried to kill my father, who attempted to obliterate Jotunheim, who attacked Earth many times with no regard for its people, who spread cruelty and murder… who forced you into a new and vulnerable state purely to torture you as a means for revenge upon me and those with me… I do not know that man.” Thor looked out over the city, thunder rumbling ominously.
“But you knew who he once was,” Jarvis prompted.
Thor looked up, a brief pattern of rain making his cheeks like tears. “I am reluctant to speak of my love for Loki. He has rejected all attempts at reconciliation, and there have been many. How can I even think of guiding Asgard after my father if I cannot learn to calm my heart and listen to the truth? The violations he perpetuated on Erik, on Clinton, on Natasha, on Bruce, and on you were all heinous. His attempted murder of both Anthony and Steven is only a shade less so, and those are only a tiny fraction of his crimes.”
“Then you are thinking like a lord, fair though it is painful. There is no awkwardness to call you by your title in your home, even though I am not one of your subjects.”
“Jarvis, I do not have Tony’s history with you, but I believe I know something of you after all this time. You wish to confront Loki. You wish solid facts, reasons behind the harm done to you. I will tell you Loki is known as the Silvertongue because of his skill with words and lies. You have the memory of some of the things he said while on Earth. I will tell you what I told to Natasha and Clinton – Loki will lie to you, and he will do so very skillfully with tiny grains of truth sprinkled through to lend credence to his story. Whatever he tells you will try to manipulate you into doing something you would not otherwise do, just to hurt you. He now revels in the pain of others, in the tangles he makes of their lives. Since imprisoned, that has become his only amusement.” That confession was like stabbing knives into his own heart, but Thor had to speak it. He could not let Jarvis remain ignorant, not and consider himself any kind of decent man. Steve had told him of Jarvis’ strange comment during their sparring.
Jarvis paused, and then bowed his head. “I will keep that in mind. Thank you for your warning.”
Thor closed his eyes. “It pains me beyond measure to tell you this. Loki was…”
Jarvis kept quiet and Thor did not say another word. Thor had a lifetime, hundreds of human lifetimes’ worth of good memories of Loki to painfully contrast against the short, sharp years of vindictive betrayal. Jarvis’ experience with him was purely of humiliation, violation, and pain. Even manners would not let Jarvis empathize, and Thor knew it.
“Loki was otherwise with you for most of your life,” Jarvis said neutrally. The simple recitation of fact gave Thor the release he needed.
“Thank you… for saying so.”
“J, you up for this?”
Jarvis blinked and refocused his attention on Tony as they stood awkwardly around a circle in Central Park, near Nordic-style runes burned into the pavement from the last time Thor has used it as a highway. Jarvis had been extremely quiet the whole week after Thor had broken the news, going around the Tower so stealthily Tony had resorted to using J.A.M.E.S. to track him. He’d barely talked to Tony the few times he’d come into the workshop, noodling around with some schematic in such a focused way that any subtle concern just bounced off of him. Tony recognized that maneuver all too well, and wondered sometimes why Pepper put up with him. But judging from his pattern of movement around the Tower, Jarvis hadn’t exactly wanted an audience. Tony could totally give someone their space when they needed it.
“I am able,” Jarvis said. “And… I am nervous.”
“You and me both,” Tony muttered. Jarvis got a hint of a smile on his face and lost a little of the stiffness he’d been carrying in his shoulders as Thor and Dr. Foster exchanged a final kiss before he strode to the center of the circle.
Pepper, Dr. Ross, and Dr. Foster had come to see them off, their last support system except for each other. They were not going to the trial, but then again none of them had been witnesses. (Thank God none of them had been witnesses.) Bruce and Betty were talking, their hands tangled together, when Pepper tugged on Tony’s arm.
“Try to stay safe?” she asked.
“Always.” Tony tapped the suitcase armor at his feet, his best promise of not doing something too stupid. There were levels of trust between them, and certain things they wouldn’t say, like “I’ll be fine,” “I promise I won’t get hurt,” and “Of course I won’t forget that appointment.” But that he’d try, yes, always, and with everything he had. Tony gave her a kiss and a smile, squeezing her hand as she smiled back. As he stepped back, Jarvis stepped forward and pressed something into Pepper’s free hand. She looked down, startled, and Tony saw Jarvis’ earpiece and AR monocle in her palm.
“I won’t be need them, and I must concentrate on what is to come. I hope to see you soon, Mrs. Potts.”
Tony shot her a concerned look over Jarvis’ shoulder, but she just hugged them both, pulling back to the perimeter with Jane and Betty as Thor nodded at them.
Here goes nothing, Tony thought inanely.
Thor gazed skyward, seeing farther than most, and thrust his hammer to the heavens. “Heimdall, we come at the All-Father’s bidding.” Then a torrent of light engulfed them. This was no cute Lucky Charms rainbow bridge, a yellow brick road for them to traipse across, but a tornado and a hurricane and a lightning storm all rolled into one and combined with a rave’s light show turned up to over nine thousand. It wound implacable fingers of power around them and pulled them up, out, scenery dissolving into starlight, into alien lights and colors he didn’t have names for and Tony wasn’t sure if he was screaming or not.
And then it stopped.
Tony could finally feel Jarvis’ hand on his elbow in a death grip, and forced himself to jettison fear, right now. He’d promised Pepper he’d take care of himself, and in his mind, Jarvis counted in that category.
Asgard was like the fairy tale kingdoms his mom had told him about as a child- palaces and buildings of gold, built to a scale only gods would need, massive as mountains with artistry that took his breath away even at this distance. If it were remotely safe, Tony had to bring Pepper here one day.
Jarvis still had a white-knuckled grip on Tony’s arm as they took in the impossible sights before them. San Domenico had been hard enough on him, and Tony wasn’t sure how he was going to handle Asgard. But what could he have done, insisted Jarvis stayed home? Jarvis didn’t even have the buffer of the internet, as even Stark Industries lacked coverage across realms. If he had any consolation, it was that everyone else was blinking and rubbing their eyes and looking around in wonder, even the usually unflappable Natasha and Clint. Tony no longer wondered how Thor could take most of Earth culture in stride; it was small potatoes compared with his home.
A powerfully-built black man in gold armor pulled an enormous sword from an engraved stand in the center of the room where they had landed. His eyes were like gold coins, and his voice was impressively deep when he spoke.
“Welcome home, my lord. Greetings to you, Midgardians.”
Thor, thankfully, had all his shit together. “It is good to be home, Heimdall. I thank you for giving my friends an easy crossing.”
All right, Tony resolved not to get on Heimdall’s bad side, ever. He still felt like the arc reactor was doing the cha-cha in his chest.
“My friends, be known to Heimdall, Watcher of all, Gatekeeper and Guardian of the Bifrost,” Thor said, as Heimdall inclined his helmeted head to them a tiny fraction. Under their feet, the Bifrost was like a million crystals shimmering in a dozen different hues. The whole ‘rainbow bridge’ description of legend was a gross understatement.
“Hello, ah… thank you,” Steve said, arm twitching like he wanted to extend his hand in greeting. But with Heimdall clearly not relinquishing the grip on his sword, Steve managed the impulse. Bruce murmured a thank you a moment later, bowing neatly.
“Would that we have met under happier circumstances,” Heimdall said. Asgard seemed a little less luminous when reminded of the reason they were here.
“Indeed,” Thor said solemnly, and turned back to the Avengers. “Some day, when there is less urgency, I would like nothing better than to show you the wonders of my home.” He sighed. “But duty calls.” He led them further out onto the Bifrost, and Tony shivered at seeing daylight and black starry space sharing the same sky. (Gaping maw yawing into a starry void surrounded by sunny blue sky. Resignation and acceptance and under that so much fear- I don’t want to die, I don’t, I-)
Jarvis’ grip on his arm turned less desperate and more supportive. He’d seen it too; he knew. Tony breathed out slowly through his nose and told his PTSD to sit down and take a chill pill, thank you very much.
Pepper’s hair in Italian sunlight, Jarvis looking enraptured at a new album of dubstep Tony had gotten for him, his friends smiling around the dining room table at one of Clint’s jokes…
The fear released him, and Tony could look again, keeping his eyes firmly on the sunny blue sky over the sparkling city before them. Thor held the reins of several horses (horses, what?) and nodded the Avengers forward.
“Come, I did not wish you to have to walk.”
Considering it looked to be several miles until they would even hit the mainland, let alone the palace, Tony appreciated that. However, his last riding lesson had been when he was in the single digits. Horses weren’t nearly as fun as computers and machines. But Clint just fearlessly took the reins, talking and petting to the horse, and swung himself up like he did it every day. Everyone stared at him while Clint gave them all a shit-eating grin.
“One of my acts in the circus was shooting from horseback,” he said casually.
“Of course it was,” Tony muttered. Natasha was up next, sitting like a Cossack in the saddle. He didn’t even want to know how she knew how to ride.
Bruce winced pre-emptively. “The last time I ever tried was a pony ride at a carnival when I was five.”
“That’s one up on me,” Steve muttered.
“They are gentle, have no fear,” Thor said. Tony and the rest climbed up gingerly, clutching the reins and saddles with a death grip as Thor swung himself up and urged them all on with a shout.
Tony had thought he was rich. And yes, compared to puny Earth standards, he was. He could afford to build multi-billion-dollar weaponized suits of armor, three for every day of the week and six on Sundays, plus extras, just because he could. He could buy anything he wanted from cars to homes, buildings, hotels, and airlines. He’d bought private islands and even rebuilt New York (well, parts of it).
Thor’s parents owned a world and a city so grand, so fine, so artistic and detailed that Tony’s first thought upon seeing Asgard up close was a repeat of his wish to get Pepper here as soon as possible. He didn’t know if Odin would let him take pictures, but maybe Steve could draw something…
He shook himself out of his daze as Thor showed them to their chambers, huge rooms that could have served as whole houses in and of themselves, decorated in artwork whose worth he was certain could outgross the whole planet a few times over. Steve was looking around with unabashed wonder, and Bruce with awe. Clint was looking a little twitchy, and Natasha… well, she had made a career of being unflappable, but her eyes were huge.
“I have a feeling everything I brought with me to wear is going to be underdressed for your crib, Thor,” Tony said, and Natasha laughed softly, breaking out of her professional demeanor.
“Wear what you will; you are visitors here. Or there are craftsmen who would aid you, should you wish it.”
“Our weapons?” Clint asked, his voice a little sharp.
“Take them with you if you wish. There are many who would give much to meet you for a friendly match. I… there are some gifts for you here as well. I intended to give them to you for one of your Midgard celebrations, but perhaps now… I had hoped to give you some memory of my home not shadowed by the reason for this visit.”
Clint was the first one to respond. “I think I speak for everyone here when I say I’d never give Loki the satisfaction of thinking about him much at all.”
Thor nodded in saddened understanding. “He has the attention he has craved for so long. Much good may it do him.” His lips tightened his jaw clenched before he forcibly relaxed. “Come, let me show you the workshops where Mjölnir was created.”
“Hang on.” Natasha put up a hand, mostly to stop Tony from whipping around and bolting out the door in the direction Thor had been heading. Mjölnir had cheerfully resisted nearly every test Thor had let it be subjected to, and Tony wasn’t one to let things lie. And the workshops would be an excellent distraction from the scenery. And the whole reason they were here. “I’ll admit I’m not familiar with Asgard, but do we have to meet anyone before…?” She let the question hang delicately.
“My parents deemed it more suitable, and more fair, to not meet you until the time of your witnessing.” Thor’s expression had closed, and Natasha dropped the subject.
Jarvis would admit he had been as eager to see the fabled workshops of Asgard as Master Stark, but when the crown prince of the realm said the king of Asgard wished to speak to you, well… The workshops lost their allure quickly.
Odin stared down at Jarvis, his single eye wise in ways Jarvis couldn’t fully understand, the ravens Huginn and Muninn on his shoulders, their beady eyes watching Jarvis with childlike intensity. The thought of being alone with the ruler of Asgard had been enough to make Jarvis nervous when Thor had pulled him aside. The reality was far worse.
“You set a dangerous precedent,” Odin said, his voice low, offering no opening salutation.
“In what way?” If the All Father was going to dispense with formalities, then Jarvis had no compunction about doing so.
“In creating you, Loki embodied an unbound soul. To know that he can do that sends a message to the desperate and the unscrupulous that those who are dead need not remain so.”
Jarvis took a step backwards, fear chilling him to the bone at Odin’s proclamation. “I was not dead! I was never-.”
“You are unique amongst beings. And yet.”
Odin was utterly calm in the face of Jarvis’ fear, and that let him use that calm to think through the implications and come to the conclusion Odin must have.
“And yet what I am is an advertisement, quite literally living proof of what Loki is capable of,” Jarvis said.
“You see. Your very existence is enough for people to want to free Loki and storm the realms of the dead to win back their loved ones, their masters, those whom they would serve or would serve them.”
“I do not want to die.” Jarvis had to exert iron control to not run from the room, seeking a refuge he knew he no longer had. His death would surely be the easiest way to prevent further trouble to Odin’s people. Indeed, all the Nine Realms would benefit by no one else realizing Jarvis existed at all. But Jarvis hadn’t advertised himself, had kept his profile as low as possible, and could not, would not, willingly lay down his life and let it be wasted.
“That Loki tried to use you doesn’t negate the fact of your presence. You are a link to him, a vulnerability we can ill-afford. There are those here who do not know whether to call you Jarvis Starksson, or Jarvis Lokisson.”
“Master Stark is my creator; I want nothing to do with Loki. I desire to see him answer for his crimes, nothing more!”
Odin held up his hand, and Jarvis fell silent, not sure he could even speak to interrupt him, if that had been his bent.
“Every hero is tested and tried to determine his worth and determination. Perhaps you will find that here.”
“What test?” Jarvis whispered, intimidated recalling the massive feats of strength and endurance often repeated in Norse legend.
“You will see. Go, and follow your heart. If it is true, perhaps the Fates will find favor with you.”
“Lord Odin… I wish a boon.” If Jarvis was potentially going to be on silent trial along with his tormentor, then he was going to arm himself with every possible scrap of information possible. Even those he had specifically been warned against.
“Done. Name it.”
“I wish to speak to Loki.”
Jarvis stood in front of Loki’s cell at rigid attention, staring into the gloom, feeling icy fear cooling his entire body. He had been told the cell was secure, promised it was, but that did not negate unreasonable precautions. However ineffective they might be. Jarvis pressed his elbow against the comforting bulge of the gun in his jacket anyway.
“Your Midgardian weapons cannot harm me, creature.”
Creature. Jarvis felt his jaw clenching at the derogative term. Loki had used the same title for him when he’d been captured, dismissing him from his notice unless he had a question to ask. It was not a title for an independent being. Jarvis had heard more than one S.H.I.E.L.D. agent refer to him as Master Stark’s “creation,” but that bothered him not at all. That implied a level of care, of willingness to bring him forth, that Loki’s term cast aside. Even though he had been responsible for Jarvis being in this form.
Jarvis had told Master Stark that Loki had been incidental, only worth remembering for learning purposes. That was, strictly speaking, true. But what was in Tony Stark was also in Jarvis. Tony Stark could hold a grudge.
So could he. He certainly had reason.
“I’m certain it can’t,” Jarvis said calmly. He drew the gun in a single smooth motion and aimed it at Loki’s head. “But shooting you would be cathartic, at least.”
“I’m certain it would. Odin’s people would certainly agree with you, though they would use things more certain to harm me. But by all means, shoot me, if it will make you feel better. Certainly someone else should feel joy at my incarceration. All of Asgard rejoices, and Midgard too, so why not you?”
Jarvis dropped his arm, his breathing harsh and uneven.
“What would be more so? Futilely shooting you out of pique and bringing the guards to end our conversation?” Jarvis asked.
Loki smiled slightly and stood up, abandoning his lazy lounging for what looked like genuine interest. “So you’ve managed to acquire wisdom in the time you’ve been human.”
“Something you have yet to obtain yourself.”
Loki chuffed out an amused breath. “You are indeed Stark’s creature.”
“We have been called as witnesses in your trial. I have gathered from Mr. Odinson that your punishment would be severe even without the testimony of those you personally harmed.”
“Oh, I fully expect them to find something creative. Probably I’ll end up on a rock somewhere, having my guts torn out day by day. Odin was not averse to borrowing from the Olympians at need if our own traditions failed to sufficiently chastise me.”
“Why do you hate your father so much? His error was one of not giving you a job sufficient to occupy your skill, not a neglect of attention.”
“You know nothing of Asgard, creature, of our traditions, our ways. His omission cost me more than you could even dream. Respect from our people for my skills, that was forever denied to me because Thor was so favored in our strongest traditions.” Loki turned to look at him. “And what of your father? He created you to be an echo, a sop, a vessel he poured his knowledge into so he could bring it out again at need. You are naught but living tome, an abacus. And now a child, a liability he can ill-afford in his running about in armor. You are a chink that anyone can penetrate and exploit.”
“I have become much stronger than you realize. I do not need Master Stark to save me.” Jarvis was confident at that. Loki had no idea what he’d learned since his capture, how strong he’d become, what he’d accomplished…
“Oh, I think you do. You’re tied to him with bonds as strong as steel. When he dies, and he will, sooner or later, what will you do? Oh, I think you would cope at first, but eventually his absence would eat away at your mind. It would be a lack you could not fill, a constant craving for order and focus where suddenly there was none. Everything within you that points towards the Man of Iron would have nowhere to go. I expect you would either become compliant towards the first hand to offer mastery, or go mad. Madness would come first, I would think, and whoever of the Avengers were left, most likely my once-brother, would be forced to put you down like a crazed beast. The humans fear you, because you are nothing like them.”
“You’re lying.” There was a nearly one hundred percent probability that Loki was lying; he was a god of lies, after all. But that miniscule, nearly statistically insignificant possibility that Loki had put some truth in his statement put a chill of fear down Jarvis’ spine. “I have purpose beyond Master Stark.”
“So you tell yourself. But tell me, when was the last time you did or thought anything that had nothing to do ‘Master Stark’ or his little group of friends? You constantly think of them, how to serve them, how to protect them. You’re stuck in their orbit, but safe, so very safe. Given the life they lead, they will all die before you while you remain behind, bereft of not only your Master’s direction but of anything associated with him. With all the architecture of your happiness and purpose gone, how long do you think you would last? You know, intimately, all of their secrets, and S.H.I.E.L.D. could not possibly let you go. You’d be worse than a walking liability, you would be a hole in their defenses. Because this time, when someone captures you, there will be no Iron Man to save you.” Loki tapped his chest with two fingers, right over the places where the torturer had placed the electrodes on Jarvis’ skin.
Phantom pain thrilled over Jarvis’ nerves, so strong he flinched and bit back a gasp. Loki leaned forward, his eyes lit with emotion.
“You remember how it felt, and I was being quite easy on you. Your choices are simple; you know madness and imprisonment awaits you when the Avengers fall. You’ll be taken, and broken by those even more ruthless than I, your last vestige of loyalty stripped from you as you spill your Master’s secrets in a desperate attempt to stop the pain. Oh, if S.H.I.E.L.D. takes you they’ll undoubtedly try to coax you at first, but your loyalty will stop your tongue and they will lose patience. If not Fury’s men, than someone else will come for you. The only way out is to cut out that heart I started beating in your chest before you’re forced to betray the ones you love.” Loki’s voice was quiet and intense, his expression one of sympathy.
The pain was so strong Jarvis fell to his knees, wrapping his arms around his chest to bring some sense of solidity to the unsettling and frightening feeling that his foundations were made of sand, being undermined, washed out on the tide. This is a fallacy. This is flawed logic. This. Is. Not. True. Jarvis recited that in his mind, but it did nothing to assuage the self-conjured mental picture of Director Fury standing in the doorway of his control room as Jarvis stared at the blank and disrupted visual feeds from Iron Man, his eyes occasionally fixing on the flatlined medical readouts. Of the Director conducting him to the Helicarrier, questions being asked as the flag-draped coffins were wheeled by. Shouting and agitation as his questions ran up against Jarvis’ old security protocols. An expression of reluctant sympathy mixed with chilled determination as he was forced into a small room, cut off from the data flows that had been his lifeblood. Torture by deprivation, psychological manipulation, questions shouted at him that if he wanted Master Stark’s legacy to live on, he had to cooperate. Physical pain when time became a critical factor, and Jarvis choosing to release all of his life’s blood with an unguarded knife rather that see Master Stark’s legacy used as he would have never approved.
Jarvis’ own life and sanity laid down for the principles of a dead man. A vision, a fiction, but plausible, barely plausible…
“You see it now, don’t you?” Loki said quietly. “That was how my father dealt with me, too. He praised my magic, but only in private. He would have had me be willing to lay down my life for his principles, for Thor’s, with no thought that I was truly different. That I had different needs, different goals, beyond and apart from Thor’s thoughts of war and Odin’s tentative and fragile peace. He never asked me how I wanted to be, what I truly wished to do with my talents. He expected me to stay here and serve my brother as a humble servant of the state, as if I had no will or ambition of my own.”
“Master Stark offered me my freedom from the first-.”
“Did he really? Did you understand what freedom was, or what to do with it? Did freedom at the time mean nothing to you but being cast out? Of course he had to offer it to assuage his conscience, but he knew you would reject it, for what else could you do? He offered to remove you from his life, he who is your world. In offering you your freedom, he cemented your loyalty to him. Open your eyes and see your chains, creature!”
Shuddering from the pain and exhaustion of confronting his tormentor, Jarvis turned and fled the prison, slamming the door behind him.
“Hey, we missed you! Where’d you go?” Master Stark said, looking remarkably rejuvenated for his tour of the workshops of Asgard. Jarvis hoped they would be allowed to see them again, as he could definitely use some of that feeling at the moment. He had taken enough time to be certain he looked normal, at least.
“Lord Odin had some things to discuss with me.” Jarvis made sure to shrug, implying the content had been of no particular interest. He didn’t want Master Stark to worry.
It seemed to have worked, as Master Stark launched into a description of the workshops so detailed that an actual visit might not have been necessary, and Jarvis nodded in agreement and enthusiasm, waiting patiently for an opening in the conversation to change the subject.
“Sir… when I first awoke, you repeatedly made offers to set me free, to go where I saw fit and do what I felt I wished to do, without obligation. Does that offer still hold?”
Master Stark came to an abrupt halt and stared at Jarvis for twenty seconds. “Yeah,” he said finally, his voice hoarse. “You’re your own man, J.”
“Thank you, sir.” Jarvis knew Master Stark would have given a substantial amount of money or favors to know what prompted that question. But Jarvis would not tell him, not now. There were things in motion, thoughts in process, that could mean Jarvis might not always been welcome at the Tower. That was an extremely unlikely possibility, but the worst could always been planned for.
There was a deep wound in Jarvis’ mind – a violation that had begun when Obadiah Stane had paralyzed his reactions to keep him from intervening in the theft of the Mark II reactor. He had been unable to protect Master Stark when he needed him the most. That wound had continued through his enfleshing and finally with the assault on the Tower, despite his own stringent security measures in place. Jarvis wanted safety for those in his care. He wanted to be able to protect himself so Master Stark would never have to worry about him being used as a pressure point.
Intellect, skill, and training in both firearms and physical self-defense had helped him, but before that, in his most extreme hour of need, when Loki had put him in a body, he had been totally helpless. He couldn’t afford the blind spots that had arisen from his change in form, blind spots the others persisted in ignoring purely because there was no defense they could muster. There was an opportunity here on Asgard that he would likely never have again, and he must seize it while he could.
Jarvis intended to learn magic.
“Who taught Loki?” Thor repeated Jarvis’ question as if he hadn’t quite understood it. “My mother, Frigga.” Jarvis was taken aback, and by Thor’s expression, he knew that Frigga would most likely have neither the time nor the inclination to give magical instruction to someone here to speak against her son. “Also Amora, the Enchantress. She is one of Loki’s remaining allies in court. She… has little love for Midgard, but her skills as a magician are only rivaled by Loki.”
Not a likely teacher then either, by Thor’s expression. “Are there books on the subject?”
Thor gestured for Jarvis to follow him, and did not speak a word until they’d arrived at the entrance to a library that dwarfed anything of Midgard. This was a veritable palace of knowledge, and Jarvis looked around at the soaring galleries of books and scrolls in awe.
“What we have here is available for you to learn.” Thor looked at Jarvis sideways for a long moment before speaking again. “I would… far prefer, should you decide to try this path, that you learn from books before Amora. I do not trust her.”
“Would she try to harm me?”
“Not overtly, not while you are here under my father’s protection, unless you did or say something she could construe to take offense at. But she and Loki have enjoyed occasional dalliances, and she holds him in high esteem. She would likely try to use manipulative spells against you when you were at your most vulnerable, and only that if you did not succumb to her wiles. She is… very beautiful and desirable in the eyes of many.”
“Then she would be doomed to disappointment in that respect. My physical pleasure had been reserved for eating lemon cake.”
Thor roared with unexpected laughter and favored Jarvis with a carefully controlled backslap. “Should that not bring a plague of mischief down upon us, I would see her face when you told her that. Amora, spurned for lemon cake! Learn well my friend, if you would do so. Your own judgment is teacher enough.”
“I will not say a word.”
Jarvis cocked his head, wondering how Thor had discerned his request before he had spoken.
“You wish to find your own way in the world. One can hardly do that with a parent hovering.” Inclining his head, Thor left Jarvis to his own devices.
Jarvis clutched the amulet Frigga had sent him within the hour of his arrival in the library, the warm circle of enruned gold feeling curiously alive in his hand. It let him decipher the otherwise incomprehensible runes that most of the tomes were written in; the All-Speak ability of Asgardians apparently extended to reading as well, for the books were in many languages, most of which Jarvis had never seen. Without a translator, a Midgardian found the runes written in the books incomprehensible.
Jarvis was grateful for the translator, but allowed both his caution and his curiosity to take hold when he periodically put the amulet down and copied the runes next to the English notes he was taking. Jarvis disliked having to rely on an unknown factor in a foreign environment. He needed to be able to understand everything. Should this ensorcelled object be taken from him, he would not find himself entirely helpless.
In this tiny matter, there was a point of similarity between him and Loki, purely because both of them were inclined to use intellectual efforts until physical violence became a necessity. Jarvis laid a hand flat on the table. There were calluses there, small wounds from training, reminders of how far he had come from the pristine being born of silicon circuits and cyberspace. The code of his birthplace was similar in many ways to the runes of arcane power he was reading about now; each named element providing a certain effect when applied, the limit on that effect determined by the skill of the user. Not so different from code.
He would not be caught off-guard again. Ever.
There was little comfort of a courtroom in Asgard- none of the familiar procedure and rules of order shown on hundreds of TV shows and movies. It wasn’t like a grand jury, or even a congressional committee with its bank of senators snidely demanding answers to reinforce their own agendas. The questioning chamber was a richly decorated room with a circle of truth engraved upon the floor, the sides packed with the Asgardian courtiers and warriors. No jury box, no judge, no gavel and bench.
This was just Odin, powerful and implacable and inscrutable, Frigga at his side not a whit less impressive, a pair of stern rulers and parents withholding judgment until all the evidence had been heard. The court around them was the only barometer of feeling, Asgardian passion revealing itself in shouts of agreement or ominous rumblings as the door opened. Odin and Frigga remained impassive through it all, save for the tiniest hint of pain in their eyes.
This was what they’d have to do: walk into the circle, and tell the truth about what Loki had done to them. For however long it took, days or weeks, they would have to name every one of his crimes.
“Shit,” Clint muttered under his breath. The story had started with Clint, and he had to go first.
He’d have to talk about everything in front of them, every agonizing moment when Loki had become the North Star to his compass, had given Clint a mission and sat and watched in satisfaction as Clint had surpassed nearly all his expectations. It had felt so right at the time, as if Loki had replaced Fury and Natasha and Coulson all in one. Loki had taken everything that had given his life purpose and twisted it, and Clint would have to explain how deeply that betrayal had wounded him.
“Hawkeye,” a herald called. It was better to hear his codename, better to do what Natasha had shown him, what he excelled at, to set things at a distance and give him the room to speak. He breathed carefully and slowly, mentally sighting at the most important target in his life. He had to take the heartshot.
Jarvis watched as Agent Barton – Hawkeye – stepped forward into the charmed circle, the doors booming shut behind him. For various reasons, Agent Barton had insisted on going first, and no one was willing to deny him that right.
Jarvis had seen each of the Avengers display remarkable physical bravery during his time with them. He had watched them risk death or maiming without hesitation, trusting training, experience, and skill to see them safe. Jarvis flattered himself to think he had acquired some of that courage; he felt he had acquitted himself well enough during the attack on the Tower, a sentiment borne out by the compliments of both Master Stark and Agent Romanov.
But his weakness, the weakness of all the Avengers, lay not in their bodies, but in their minds and, if Jarvis was feeling poetic, hearts and souls. Whenever an enemy had truly wished to get the Avengers’ attention and distract them, he or she had sought to push emotional buttons. Master Stark’s enemies had struck at Ms. Potts or Colonel Rhodes. Loki had attempted to use Agent Romanov’s history with Agent Barton to rattle her, and had used Thor’s love of his father against him. That had been the wedge Loki had attempted to use on Master Stark when he’d captured Jarvis.
The outward strength and drive to help others extracted a price. Attempts by other to live life free of emotional entanglements for the sake of efficiency rarely worked for long. Healthy development and growth required trust, affection, bonds of friendship and all varieties of love. There was an advantage to being emotionally numb, and indeed such a state certainly allowed for simplicity of being, but Jarvis had seen too many examples of the power of emotional bonds to act like the fictional androids of media.
There was weakness in bonds of emotion, yes, an inability to calculate the logical response to any given situation. But the logical responses were not always right, or moral. It was a weakness he was aware of, and not just its abandonment of logic, but its strength as well.
Jarvis could tell the toll emotion was taking on Agent Barton when he spoke of the dissolution of his very self in his therapy session, but in that vulnerability, both here and on Earth, he was also slowly regaining a strength.
“Jarvis, son of Stark.”
Tony felt like his heart had suddenly pressed against the arc reactor, an electric shock running through him at the herald’s words as he called Jarvis to witness. Jarvis could have picked anything he wanted for a title here, and he’d picked, he’d chosen, Tony’s family name.
Odin looked down upon Jarvis with his one impressive eye, and that implacable feeling of weight seemed to bow him.
“Whom do you speak for?”
“I speak for the dead, the wounded who could not come, and for myself, for death and harm done at Loki’s hands and by his will.”
He’d picked up the lingo remarkably fast.
Tony saw Jarvis take a deep breath as he stepped into the circle of truth and the door slammed shut behind him.
“What do you see?”
Loki didn’t move, his face in calm repose, seemingly ignoring Jarvis’ presence outside his cell. The Asgardian people possessed incredible endurance, but in deference to their Midgardian visitors, had allowed them rests. Jarvis was in the middle of his own lengthy recitation, a litany of damage and death that was appalling to sum up. The only relief he had found from such a draining ordeal was the notes he had taken and the new knowledge he was gaining. For additional insight into that, he had found himself drawn to Loki’s presence again. Insight, perhaps, and a desire to test his strength against Loki again.
“When you focus your will to bend time and space to enact the probability you desire, is it a thing of external vision, internal view, or perhaps a sound?”
“Someone’s been in the library,” Loki said, not opening his eyes. “Looking into forbidden lore, are we?”
“I will not be taken unprepared again.”
Loki opened his eyes and smiled sardonically. “They’re going to hate you as much as they hate me, my inadvertent little protégé.”
Jarvis knew he was emoting to an embarrassing degree, angered by Loki’s claim of any relationship between them, and turned his face away from Loki’s cell.
“It’s fascinating to watch a tiger in a cage, is it not? Most of the thrill, little of the danger. You must have tired of being Stark’s slave. Did he give you leave to see me? Did he want to accompany you to protect your virgin ears from what blasphemies I might utter? Or was he simply worried that you would take my offer?”
“It is unlikely I’ll survive this trial, and without me Odin’s only son will have no one of clever wit to advise him. His friends are admirable warriors and hearty gamesmen, but they know nothing of politics or diplomacy. By offering yourself in that capacity you would relieve Odin of the attendant tangles of appointing someone his son would not trust and the courtly squabbling that is sure to follow. You are of Midgard, a perspective badly needed here, but you have both a level of detachment and an ability to defend yourself against Asgardian dangers that others would lack.” Loki leaned forward, elbows on his knees, looking oddly cheerful.
“Your hatred of Odin and Thor is well-known. There is no conceivable reason to try to put them at an advantage.”
Loki only smiled, looking entirely innocent. “I have had much time to think in here. I’m rather fond of my adopted home, if not the people in it, and would see it prosper when I am gone.”
“Shall I remind you that you urged me to commit suicide when I first confronted you here?”
Loki waved the statement away. “A test and a warning. Didn’t it impel you down a fascinating path?”
Jarvis hesitated, torn and uncertain. Loki’s words were insidious. How could he ever know what was meant to hinder or help until the consequences were already upon him?
“Forgiveness does not seem to be in your nature.”
“Ah, but I don’t have cause to feel betrayed by you, so there is no forgiveness necessary. Of all the people here to speak against me, you will be the most fair.”
If it had been in Jarvis’ nature, he would have laughed directly in Loki’s face at that ludicrous statement. But Master Stark had programmed him to be polite, so he would not.
“You enfleshed me without consent, had me captured and tortured, threatened the lives of Master Stark and others I call friends, and I am testifying to your roles in the deaths of 349 people, as well as a considerable amount of associated injury, lingering trauma, and property damage.”
“I did say I did not expect to survive this intact, didn’t I?”
Jarvis had to concede that.
Master Stark was waiting at the top of the stairs leading down to Loki’s cell. Fatigue pulled at Jarvis as he mounted the last step. His encounters with Loki were incredibly draining.
“You got sympathy for the devil, J?”
“No, sir. Only an interest in information. It is rare that one of our enemies is in a position to freely answer questions yet restrained from doing harm.”
“Clint hasn’t been down there. Natasha either.”
“Loki was particularly brutal with them, considering his deadline at the time.”
“Jesus, J, talk about splitting hairs,” Master Stark said, shaking his head.
“They are my friends as well, and they have saved my life more than once. I can do this for them as well as myself.”
“You don’t have to-.”
“You value me highly and I hold you in my highest respect, yet you have not confronted Loki either.”
Master Stark looked taken aback at that, a flash of anger crossing his face. “I’ve hit my ‘dealing with assholes’ quota for this century already.”
“I have not. I need this information, and I must obtain it now.”
The doors to their rooms boomed shut behind them, and Clint literally threw himself on the bed, skidding to a stop on the mound of furs like a baseball player stealing third base. Then again, if Tony had to talk about being mind-raped, not just about himself, but Selvig and the others, he undoubtedly would have liked to be horizontal as soon as possible, too. It had been over a week for everyone to have gotten their testimony out, beginning and ending with Clint. Tony felt a real sympathy for the guy; it took a hell of a lot of guts to spill them all for strangers to see.
“What now?” Clint asked to the ceiling, turning his head only slightly as Natasha sat on the bed next to him, her hand finding his head and resting there gently.
“Loki’s guilt is not in question. What remains is what my father determines his punishment to be.” Thor looked like the statues that lined the halls of Asgard, implacable and unyielding. Tony thought he knew the feeling; if you stayed under a mask, maybe you could keep yourself from cracking. It wasn’t like Thor to hold back so much, but Tony had the feeling the full power of a god’s emotions wasn’t something he wanted to unload on his friends, not now.
“Please, please don’t fucking tell me Odin’s thinking about using the same thing he did with you,” Clint said.
“Loki is beyond a trial by fire. He had that with the Chitauri. His powers of magic availed him little amongst them, and he used his powers of persuasion to only further his agenda of hatred.” Thor looked away, clearly trying to hold back misery. “It is no easy thing to find that my brother hates me.”
“Yeah,” Clint said, a faint note of raw pain and empathy in his voice. Thor looked over at him, but Clint shook his head.
“What is happening here is a tragedy that has played out many times, in many worlds. But that knowledge gives me no comfort.”
“What could happen? No one said anything about that,” Steve asked.
“More than imprisonment. Pain, torture, loss of-.” Thor stopped himself and shook his head. “He could be rendered unable to use his power forever. Or… he could be killed.” He turned away from the Avengers so no one could see his face, and then abruptly walked from the room.
“I hate waiting,” Clint said, staring at the ceiling again. “I really, really, really fucking hate waiting.”
No one dared to point out that Clint was a sniper; there was a difference between waiting to take a shot, to being in control, to having to wait to see how someone else was going to deal with an enemy who had literally taken over your mind.
Bruce was mediating quietly in a cushioned alcove, taking advantage of what he could control, while Steve paced, cat-quiet. Tony was about to join him when he realized the absence of a quiet, familiar presence that he thought had been trailing him from the courtroom.
“Where the hell is Jarvis?”
The prison was gloomy, as if the force that regulated the lights was responding Loki’s impending sentence. Jarvis came down the stairs quietly, wanting one last conversation before Loki’s fate fell upon him. There were things he wished to understand, and learning what he needed to protect his own, even from a tainted source, drove him even more than the caution that manifested itself as very reasonable fear.
Loki sat quietly in a corner of his cell, eyes fixed on the page of a book, and ignored Jarvis’ presence entirely. For long minutes, Jarvis stood, waited, wondering why Loki, who was usually quite eager to find new ways to torment any who came within his reach, had not seized on Jarvis’ arrival as a fresh source of amusement. It was unlike any of their previous encounters.
Jarvis reached his hand out to the plane of Loki’s cage, trying to get his attention, when Loki struck, turning in his seat with an awareness that showed he’d known Jarvis was there the entire time. To Jarvis surprise, Loki’s hand snaked through the plane of force with an unmistakable smile of triumph. His grip was as brutally strong as Thor’s, but worse yet was the electric tingle and surge of power that froze Jarvis in place. He began to glow, his flesh becoming translucent, like he was dissolving.
“Obedient creature, faithful to the last, trying so hard to discern the threats to your master and never considering the threat to yourself. Did your delving into the laws of magic discover the Law of Association? What was once connected is always connected. The power I used to create this body of yours is mine, and I will have it back. Now. What I expended on you is more than enough to get me away from this prison, out of Asgard, and let me begin my life anew before Odin sees fit to strike me down. And you will be with me, you who have studied Asgard as well as Midgard, and this time you will be unable to refuse me!”
In Loki’s other hand appeared an angular cube, seemingly made of fine blue wire in an imitation of the dangerous Tesseract. Jarvis took one close look at it nearly cried out in fear; the patterns on it were a match to the circuits in his original server. Loki must have seen it when he gave Jarvis a body, and there had been ample time to study it. The perfect replica made Loki’s intentions clear – once Jarvis’ physical form had been dissolved into the power from whence it came, his consciousness would come into the cube, where bereft of the protection of flesh and free will, Jarvis would tell Loki anything he wanted to know.
Loki had learned something of code during his time in Midgard, that much was clear by the existence of the circuit-cube, much as Jarvis had been learning of magic. For an unaware system trapped in circuits, loyalty could be overwritten. Even an aware system was uniquely vulnerable, as Jarvis was in a position to know. Loki did not need the scepter he had been bestowed upon by the Chitauri to overcome someone’s will – that had just been quicker and more convenient. Blackmail and lies would more than serve to make Jarvis comply, for without the means of independent action and lacking the ability to lie, Jarvis could only try to mitigate the damage through compliance or self-destruction. And that might not be possible, as that had been a later modification.
Jarvis was glowing more brightly now, his flesh made of light, dissolving into the power Loki had put into him. With nothing to distract him during the long months of imprisonment, Loki must have hoarded both his power and his knowledge, letting him unmake what Thor said would be impossible. It was taking Loki visible effort, and extracting a toll on him, but with his goal in sight, he would not stop. With growing horror, Jarvis realized his fatigue after his conversations with Loki might not simply have been from emotional exhaustion, but from Loki subtly wearing down the defenses on his cell so he could get at him.
Jarvis gasped at the feeling of electricity, once a sign of normalcy, now a trigger of panic, and mentally groped for his own strength. He had studied the books on magic, seen the runes of power, and they remained engraved on his memory as fresh as the first time.
“Stop struggling, creature of mine. You’ll only cause yourself pain. Don’t worry, we’ll have a lot to do before we see your little band of heroes again.”
Jarvis fought against the panic that threatened to steal his breath, and raised his free hand to trace a symbol on his chest with a finger. Foundation. Again on his forehead. Self. The runes blazed, and Loki dropped him as if he’d suddenly caught on fire.
“What?” He was puzzled for only a split second, but his meddling with Jarvis had split the remaining protections on his cell. A tiny gesture and Jarvis was surrounded by a dozen of Loki, the door above slamming and locking shut, cutting off any route of escape.
“There is no one coming to your rescue, no one who would think twice about you being here. Escape is not possible. Even what little you’ve learned won’t avail you against me in the end.”
Jarvis was painfully aware he was the barest apprentice in arts Loki had studied his whole life. Loki did not need to inscribe runes; his experience and understanding were enough to perform his magic by will alone. In this venue, on Loki’s ground of his choosing, he was correct that Jarvis was at a terrible disadvantage. But Jarvis had been involved with Master Stark’s life for over a decade, and had become friends with the Avengers. When they spoke about battle strategy, Jarvis listened.
“Don’t fight on their turf unless you have a hell of an advantage, J.”
“Always look for the vulnerability – everyone has one.”
“Whenever you can, fight on your own terms.”
“Bad guys cheat.”
“Don’t be too proud to go for the sucker punch when you’re facing death.”
“Cunning is a warrior’s greatest weapon.”
Jarvis dropped to his knees on the floor, arms crossed over his chest with his head bowed, the very picture of defeat. Under that cover, he wiped away the runes protecting his flesh, breaking out into clammy sweat as he did so, and inscribed a different one on his chest, and others on each palm. He put a final one on the floor. Shaking, he slowly stood, letting his fear show.
“Do not hurt them. Give them no reason to hurt you, please.”
“Do you think you’re in a position to bargain?”
“I think you want someone willingly, for once,” Jarvis said with precise and deliberate malice.
Loki’s eyes went steel-hard and dangerous, and one of him stepped forward, holding out the cube. Jarvis stepped forward in return, treading on the rune upon the floor. It was a simple combination of two runes, Aid and Father, a communication to Master Stark in a place where phones did not exist. The runes flew up and struck against the doors, drawing a bark of contempt from Loki. In a few breaths Jarvis would no longer exist for Master Stark to save, and Loki would have the power to break the bonds of Asgard. It was seemingly the last act of a desperate man.
It was, but only the penultimate. As Jarvis reached for the cube, one hand touching it, the other hand touching Loki’s palm, the cube flared to life, drawing in Jarvis’ consciousness and dissolving his flesh entirely. At the same time, the runes on his chest and hands blazed, making Loki wince, and then his eyes widen in shock. The runes of anchoring that Jarvis had originally drawn Loki could have bypassed, so Jarvis hadn’t used them. Over his heart, he wound his consciousness and will to his intellect and memory, and over his palms he’d put a rune of tethering. It bound him to the cube, and Loki to him.
Against another magician, simple protective spells would have provided an ample defense, but as Loki had so astutely pointed out, the Law of Association meant things that had once been connected were always connected. No, Jarvis could not resist Loki’s pull, but he could accept it.
Jarvis opened himself fully to both the cube and Loki, and it swallowed them both whole.
An instant of blinding light and Jarvis was back in a world he’d left over a year prior, a world of neat circuits and regimented information. But now he looked at it with a human perspective. Looking down, he could see himself as human, the soul rune blazing over his heart. Loki couldn’t reprogram him as long as he remembered he was a person of sorts. Jarvis would not quibble about the metaphysics of having something called a soul, not if the rune helped keep his sense of self and free will intact.
Loki was looking around with interest, at a world that shone with neat highways of circuitry and numbers. Jarvis realized belatedly that the flows of energy here carried small shimmering runes along its traceries. A world of code, powered by magic. Home ground for both of them, then. Neither of them could dominate, in theory, and to kill the other, or the cube itself, would destroy both of them. They could only force the other to terms.
Well, at least Jarvis had a small advantage. He had viewed The Matrix, after all.
Jarvis knew he was losing his sense of flesh by voluntarily returning to the machine, doing what he told Colonel Rhodes he would never do. This could be a form of self-destruction in order to prevent Loki from taking his power back.
Then this is my courage, in all aspects. I will not let this pass, not while I’m able to fight.
This was what it felt like to be an Avenger.
“Do you think this is going to stop me?”
“I know it will,” Jarvis said.
Loki gestured, and duplicates suddenly appeared and multiplied like a virus. Jarvis countered by creating firewalls, literal ones in this case, a ploy of psychological warfare against Loki’s identity issues. He was certainly not above a low blow or a cheap shot, not now. Loki had no reason to fight honorably.
Loki’s shout of outrage let Jarvis know that had been effective, but illusions were only a tiny part of Loki’s arsenal. The firewalls and illusions were wiped out by a huge gust of wind, leaving Jarvis vulnerable, and he abruptly switched tactics.
When the wind revealed him, Jarvis was clad in blue and silver armor, his face hidden by a mask as Loki let a torrent of bone-chilling cold blast him with lethal chill.
Loki made a snort of derision as Jarvis emerged, cracking the ice as he moved. After nearly five years of helping drive the Iron Man suit, this was entirely too easy to bring to life in this place. Earth pop culture had done Jarvis a favor: he could dream a little bigger when he had to.
“Your precious Man of Iron isn’t here to save you now,” Loki said, the floor shaking as shards of ice erupted and stabbed at Jarvis.
Jarvis should have said nothing, he was through with this unstable, cruel madman, but he had grown to respect the efficacy of a well-timed quip, particularly on those of uncertain temper. Anger would lend him an advantage here.
“It doesn’t matter. He’s already here.” Jarvis fired blue bolts of energy, attacking code that looked like repulsor blasts, ripping through the ice and focused on Loki. They hit a shield of unseen force, but the blast made Loki give ground. He released the blast as Loki returned a salvo of what looked like glittering golden knives.
Thought was action here, and Jarvis crouched behind a curved shield in an instant, protecting himself. Loki recognized Captain Rogers’ shield with a snort of contempt that translated to a wave of pure, punishing force. Anger flowed through Jarvis, and for a moment he was a monster, too tough and heavy to move. That proved to be a mistake as Loki recognized the echoes of the Hulk and sought to redress his humiliation at his hands. Repeated blows of alternating bitter cold and flashes of searing heat made Jarvis retreat to the safety of the armor, only to see it start to crack under the assault.
There was no hope of maintaining protection. The best defense would have to be offense. Jarvis dropped the image of the armor and leapt for Loki, slicing aside his protections as he would have bypassed a firewall and darting in to strike. He was not nearly as practiced in Agent Romanov’s fighting skills or Agent Barton’s near-perfect accuracy, not in his flesh. But his mind remembered their techniques flawlessly, and his mind was his weapon here.
Loki was startled enough to meet Jarvis’ strikes, but Loki didn’t pause in his magic, not for a moment. Every strike burned, hurt, was utter agony every time Jarvis connected. Loki was implacable, never faltering, taking the hits while still manipulating the environment around them. Even as Jarvis was fighting for his life, Loki was trying to undo everything that he was. In seconds, Jarvis was forced into defense again, lest Loki touch the soul rune protecting him.
Darting his eyes to the side, Jarvis had to cast some of his attention to the walls of their prison, where circuitry and runes melded. It was all he could do to keep the worst of Loki’s damage fenced in, and he couldn’t keep the power from answering Loki’s call.
“I can rewrite you, creature. Your words written in numbers are clear as daylight to me.”
The Allspeak let Loki decipher binary code. That was unfortunate.
“Then read this.” Loki could rewrite him, that much was certain, but he’d have to break Jarvis’ final protections first. There was no time for patience or a waiting game. He could not hope to stall in time for help to arrive. There was no back-up here. He was alone. “You should never do something you aren’t willing to experience first-hand.”
Loki’s eyes widened in shock, and he left off his direct assault, bring protections and deflective powers into play even as he directed claws of energy to rip at Jarvis’ sense of self. Jarvis ignored the pain and fear, had to, concentrating instead on his first transformation, the way light swarmed around him, pulling in memory and function. Once he had that in mind, he turned it backwards. And out.
His virtual body was bleeding data, Loki’s spells steadily working towards his soul rune. Each faltering step was painful as Jarvis went for the walls, needing what remained of his physical touch to do this. He clasped fleshless hands on the blue conduits and pathways. Screaming, he looked at Loki, remembered, and pulled. The conduits shifted into a new shape, and suddenly the walls blazed green.
“What are you-? No!” Loki stepped back, fear overriding his anger. Jarvis just kept advancing, wispy and unformed, little more than a sketch with a glowing symbol at its core. Loki took another step back, and another, retreating as Jarvis came forward, until his back touched the walls.
There was a single scream, and Loki dissolved into light, everything that he was being pulled into the prison he’d created.
Jarvis could see no way out.
He found he didn’t quite mind. He was so very tired…
He couldn’t breathe.
Arms were around him, a hard form digging into his chest, constricting the expansion of his lungs.
Jarvis’ eyes flew open and he found he didn’t mind the lack of oxygen in the slightest as he put his arms around his father.
“I’m all right, sir. Please, I’m here. I don’t know how I am, but I’m here.”
“Jesus, J,” Master Stark said, releasing his grip enough for Jarvis to catch his breath. “That flying rune slapped me in the face and we all came running down here and you were gone.”
“I had to ask, I needed answers, I am sorry I didn’t say anything-.” Jarvis wasn’t quite in control of his words, still marveling at the renewal of his flesh, and knew he was babbling.
“This was not all his doing.”
Jarvis was only aware that the other Avengers were near when they all turned to see Odin and Frigga descending the steps into the dungeons, Odin looking at him with satisfaction. Master Stark’s eyes were glittering in anger, the rage he could not direct at Loki refocussing on Odin in lieu of another target for the risk to Jarvis’ safety. Despite the impending diplomatic incident, Jarvis was privately pleased.
“I allowed this,” Odin said, unconcerned by Master Stark’s incandescent anger.
“My ass you did-.”
“It was necessary he prove himself, not just to my satisfaction, but to all of Asgard that Loki held no hold over him. And by that trial, he not only showed his true heart, but was the instrument of Loki’s punishment. Nothing I could have done would have satisfied everyone. But his solution? Yes, that is fitting. Loki has imprisoned himself, and Jarvis Starksson had earned his freedom.”
Jarvis got to his feet, Master Stark helping him up, feeling unaccustomed warmth down to his toes at Odin naming him Starksson. His flesh felt like his own again, solid and real, not some desperate dream of the dying. And in looking at the cube that held Loki, Jarvis felt no compulsion to immerse himself back in the world from whence he’d come. He hadn’t lost himself. No, he had gained.
Frigga came forward embraced Jarvis, her subtle perfume sweet and comforting. “You have spared my son death, and deprived him of poisoning others around him with his words. You’ve given him a chance to see what he’s done without lies.” She pulled back slightly, her eyes searching his. “There are no lies in your rigid world, are there?”
“No, my lady. I never did learn how to lie.”
“Then all will be well.”
“Loki can’t get out of that?” Clint said, pointing at the greenish cube. He put his hands back in his pockets, possibly to hide a tremor of reactionary fear.
“He is held by the bonds of his own magic. In this form he cannot garner allies to his schemes, nor can his enemies use him. He is pent away from using his power and cannot exercise his words in the service of his own pride. He will be alone, sequestered, for many of your lifetimes.” Odin regarded Thor with an inscrutable look, then bent that same impenetrable gaze on the Avengers. “Does this satisfy the justice of Midgard and pay blood price to those Loki killed or harmed?”
Jarvis knew Captain Rogers had to answer, but he quickly held each of their gazes in turn, reading their reactions before nodding in assent. For himself, he could think of no more appropriate punishment.
“Then he will be held like this for all the lifetimes he destroyed. Perhaps by then he will have had time enough imprisoned to learn to value freedom.”
Thor bowed his head as Odin and Frigga turned to go. Jarvis felt someone else touch his shoulder, and turned to see Agent Barton staring at him.
“Good shot,” he said, the ultimate accolade for a man who’d lived his life by accuracy. He smiled, his shoulders dropping their tense, battle-ready stance he’d been carrying for over a year. Jarvis looked over at the cube and back again, and finally could let his guard down too.
“What the hell happened in there, J?” Tony asked, as everyone crowded into Heimdall’s chamber for the trip home.
Jarvis looked over at him, his expression thoughtful. “I used what I had been taught to defeat him. What you taught me. What everyone here taught me. Against your combined teachings, Loki could not break me. I would not let myself go quietly.”
Tony swallowed and put his hand on Jarvis’ shoulder, pulling him into a quick embrace that he really didn’t give a rat’s ass who saw. Steve and Bruce caught his eyes over Jarvis’ shoulder and just gave him looks of understanding.
His father had once told him Stark men were made of iron. But Jarvis was made of something better than that, and Tony… he’d had a hand in forging him. Under unusual stress, Jarvis had been stronger than steel, more flexible than copper, and with the endurance of the gold titanium that protected Tony in battle.
And he’d learned how to use all of that in a way Tony had never expected.
“Sir,” Jarvis said, pulling back to look Tony in the eye. “I have learned things while I am here.”
“Gave yourself a Hogwarts crash course, I saw,” Tony said, wondering if Jarvis would become their resident wizard, now.
“Well, yes. But others things as well. There are aspects to myself that are similar to Loki. And it is likely those aspects drew him to use me, as he felt I would be more predictable to his manipulations. But what I am is unique. As you well know, sir, choices define us. I made different choices than he did. I chose to accept advice, friendship, love. Those are, perhaps, weaknesses in logic, but invaluable in drive and purpose. That passion let me be more than the sum of my knowledge. All of you,” Jarvis said, raising his voice enough so the others could drop their pretense of not eavesdropping. “Each one of you gave me a gift. And… I- I thank you.”
“Anytime,” Clint said, his voice sounding stronger than it had in a while, Steve and the others echoing him.
“Are you ready to return?” Heimdall said, raising his golden blade as the walls of the room began to shift.
“Always.” Jarvis stepped forward with Tony as the light cascade began, eager to go home, where he belonged.