Tony jokes with the highly-trained medical staff, who've been NDA'd to within an inch of their lives to keep Tony's near-total paralysis, and this highly experimental surgery to end it, a secret.
Tony reassures Dr. Helen Cho that he has every faith in her highly experimental computer chip that will soon be attached to his spinal cord and will, if all works correctly, allow JARVIS, Tony's most advanced helper AI, to bridge the signal gap between Tony's brain and his all-but-useless limbs.
He reassures Rhodey that they didn't make any mistakes coding the chip that Rhodey took military leave to help Tony program JARVIS into, and that the next time Tony decides to cross a desert crawling with terrorists, he'll ride in Rhodey's Humvee to do it.
He reassures Pepper that she won't ever have to help him to the toilet again. Especially not because the live-in nurse Obie hired to take care of Tony instead got into his liquor cabinet while Tony slept, and drank himself into acute alcohol poisoning, necessitating JARVIS to use his newly-expanded home security measures and wake Pepper to let in the EMTs he'd called, while Tony, helpless in his bed, watched the feed of the bastard getting carted off, and then realized he needed to pee and had no way of getting to the bathroom without help.
He reassures Obie—a constant, trusted figure in his life since childhood, and one who has rarely steered him wrong—that there are no hard feelings about the nurse or the liquor, which Tony hasn't had more than a shot of since his return thanks to Rhodey and Pepper's cruelty; and that in a few hours, Obie need never worry about hiring a nurse for Tony again. He can instead return his full attention to running Tony's company, Stark Industries.
Finally, Tony reassures himself that even if this treatment doesn't work, the Mark-I crash in Afghanistan that reduced his mobility below his neck to a centimeter-wide range of motion for two of the fingers on his left hand—just enough to control his wheelchair—isn't going to paralyze him forever.
Tony is a genius. He can figure out how to fix this.
And then he can fix it for others too.
Finish shutting down the weapons division instead of shoving all the work onto Obie, who's been so attentive since Tony's return, and is clearly having issues convincing the board to fall in line. Set SI on a humanitarian course with clean energy from arc reactors like the one powering the magnet protecting Tony's heart. Go into prosthetics, and donate a host of them to the VA to give to veterans—like the few who survived the deadly convoy attack to capture Tony.
So many senseless deaths, all to get their hands on Stark weapons. How many other terrorist cells have stockpiles of weapons Tony designed that they'll use to murder good, innocent people like Yinsen and his family, or US troops just trying to serve their country and protect freedom and democracy?
"Mr. Stark?" It's the anesthesiologist. While she attaches a vial to Tony's IV, he takes a last look around the pristine white medical room in Dr. Cho's shiny new experimental research facility, fully funded for the next five years out of Tony's own pocket. He hopes when he wakes up back in this room after surgery, he can shake her hand and congratulate them both on the procedure's rousing success.
And then he can squeeze Pepper's hand and tell her everything's finally going to be okay.
When Tony blinks back into bleary consciousness hours later, the hospital room is the same, and so is he. He still can't make a fist. Or sit up. Or move anything at all below his neck except those two fingers integral to controlling his state-of-the-art wheelchair.
He chokes back a frustrated sob.
Immediately, Rhodey leans close from the bedside chair, takes Tony's working fingers in his warm hand, and squeezes gently. "You're okay, Tones. They brought you back here an hour ago. Said you'll feel a little groggy for a while."
That's right. The anesthesia is still wearing off, and Dr. Cho said it could take days or weeks or even months for him to regain full mobility—if the procedure worked at all. The fuzzy memory does nothing to dispel the moan crawling up his throat or the unshed tears burning his eyes. "I can't move," he admits, awash with shame and despair. "It didn't work. I… It didn't work."
"It's gonna work, Tones," Rhodey says firmly. "None of the times she's tried before had an AI as advanced as JARVIS in the chip. Give him some time to learn how your body works. He'll figure it out, and you and I are gonna walk out of here together, okay?"
Tony blames the tear that leaks out on the goddamned anesthesia. Then he panics, because someone's coming down the hall, and he doesn't want anyone else to see him like this.
Thankfully, his Rhodey Bear is the best; he quickly wipes the tear away with a tissue, and, with no time to hide its existence when the door opens, brings the tissue to his nose and blows obnoxiously, as if that was its purpose all along.
"Are you trying to kill my patient, Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes?" Dr. Cho asks with a frown.
"I'm not sick," Rhodey insists with an eye-roll and a shake of his head. "But I'll get outta your hair for this part. Tony, want anything to drink while I'm up? Other than coffee," he finishes, cutting off Tony's request for just that.
Rhodey's comforting, feigned annoyance lifts Tony's mood enough to reply in kind. "Aw, c'mon, Sour Patch," he says. "A little coffee's not gonna kill me."
"The way you drink it?" Rhodey scoffs. "I'll get you a juice box; how about that?"
Tony huffs. "Fine. I want Capri Sun. Cherry. And those teddy bear cookies! What're they, Golden Grahams? Yeah, Golden Grahams. I want those too."
"Do I even wanna know why?" Rhodey asks with a grin, walking backward to the door.
Tony tries to smother his own smile. "Because my Rhodey Bear has abandoned me in my time of need."
"Uh-huh. Sure, Tony."
"I'm gonna bite their heads off first."
Rhodey laughs and shuts the door behind him with a final, "I'll tell everyone you're up and running your mouth already."
"You do that," Tony calls back, hoping Rhodey can still hear him.
Dr. Cho looks distinctly unimpressed with Tony, albeit amused when he shifts focus to her, but she gets progressively more businesslike as she gives him a rundown of the surgery, the single complication that arose, and goes back over her projected recovery timeline and the reminder that he might not recover mobility at all. "We'll give it another hour, make sure all the anesthesia's worn off, and then we'll take you to a testing room and see whether your JARVIS worked." She hesitates. "Don't be surprised if the procedure fails, Mr. Stark. I told you before: the technology isn't where it needs to be for this procedure to work. Our other AIs were state of the art, the most impressive in the world, on or off the market, and they weren't smart enough to bridge the synaptic gap. So I need you to be prepared for—"
"Yeah, I looked through the code for those AIs," Tony says, probably sounding more scathing than he means to—but in his defense, he's not all there yet, and it's JARVIS she's lumping in with those Stone Age clunkers, which couldn't even measure up to DUM-E's code the drunken evening of his creation. "They are nothing compared to JARVIS. If it's possible for an AI to make this chip work, JARVIS will do it. You know your chip, doctor, but I know my AI."
Dr. Cho sighs. "Alright, Mr. Stark. The orderlies will bring you in for testing in an hour."
The hour flies by in a flurry of Rhodey, Pepper, and, briefly, Obie, coming in to see how Tony's doing now that he's out of surgery. All too soon, Tony is lifted into his wheelchair and ferried into the physical therapy room, which is lined with massage tables and weight and exercise machines, and its floor dotted with bolsters, bouncy physical therapy balls, and an assortment of other equipment. The orderly wheels him to a section carpeted with mats, brings him to a stop across from the stool Dr. Cho is seated on, clipboard in hand, and unstraps Tony's feet from the wheelchair footwell before retreating.
"Okay," Dr. Cho says, looking up from her clipboard after an offhand greeting and explanation of the directions she'll be giving, "first move your fingers, the normal range of motion. Good. Now see if you can straighten your fingers."
Tony glares at the immobile hooks his remaining fingers became in Afghanistan, and wills them to move.
He tries, and tries, and tries. Nothing works. Maybe none of this worked. Maybe nothing will ever work.
Tony's head bows. He glares at the floor at Dr. Cho's feet and tries not to pitch a fit because this should work. All the numbers, all the simulations, all the code, all of it said this should work! Why isn't—
Dr. Cho gasps.
Tony's eyes flick to hers, then follow her gaze to his hands.
Which are fisted in anger.
His clawed hands, which haven't moved in almost four months, have curled into fists.
Tony exhales shakily and tries to relax his hands…and they do. He straightens his fingers, then lifts his arms from the armrests and stares at them, marveling. They feel weaker than he remembers—muscle atrophy—but they're moving.
"That's—this is amazing," Dr. Cho mutters in Chinese, scribbling notes on her clipboard. She continues, in English, "This was just supposed to be a baseline! We didn't anticipate movement to that degree for another three weeks at least. Can you—"
Tony isn't listening. He's starting to grin. Because he just wiggled his toes. He flexes his foot, rolls his ankles, and decides, what the hell. Go big or go home. JARVIS can do this. Tony can do this.
He pushes himself to his feet, ignoring Dr. Cho's protests that it's too soon to attempt something as complex as walking, and shakily stands. "Dr. Cho," he says through a reckless grin, "sometimes you gotta run before you can walk."
Tony takes a step. Another. And another.
They keep him for further testing, but when it's time to return to his room, he walks there himself, tired but steady, wearing an irrepressible smile.
He doesn't just squeeze Pepper's hand when he returns to his room. He sweeps her into a bear hug and assures her that he's finally going to be okay.
And when he leaves the facility, he shakes Dr. Cho's hand and congratulates her on her success—their success. Then he strides into the noonday sunlight and back into the able-bodied life of Mr. Anthony Edward Stark.
Tony doesn't know JARVIS has been talking to him in his head until he startles at Pepper's voice and realizes she's come down to his Malibu mansion workshop.
The workshop is a grungy mess of parts, machines, coffee mugs, and screens, opposite a line of pristine luxury cars. Eighties rock music throbs in surround-sound from custom-made speakers; Tony's helper bots, DUM-E and U, are trundling around being adorably useless; and for a place that's cleaned so regularly, it still always smells like a mechanic's garage—which, technically, it is. The workshop is Tony's haven, a study in organized chaos, and Pepper Potts—perpetually clean, calm, and professionally dressed in her pencil-skirt suit and six-inch heels—looks as incongruous as the eye of a mechanical maelstrom.
"Tony," she says, forehead wrinkled with concern, "Why are you talking to yourself?"
Tony frowns and casually steps in front of the boot chassis of the flying suit he's begun building as part of SI's new direction, ideally to keep pilots like Rhodey safe.
A flying, armored suit—like the one that paralyzed him would've worked if he'd had more time and better materials. This time, Tony will ensure the suit can't hurt anyone the way the last one hurt him, especially now that he's got JARVIS as backup for when he tests it himself. A suit like this will allow US troops to waltz into situations like the convoy attack and survive any explosion the terrorists can sling at them. A suit that works, really works, will allow them to jet to safety, far out of reach, while remaining much smaller targets than a fighter plane or helicopter, and potentially even fly faster than both.
If Rhodey had had a suit like this, maybe he would've found Tony in weeks instead of months. Maybe he could've walked into that cave and walked right back out with Tony and Yinsen, and no one would've had to die or sacrifice their life just to give Tony time to compensate for his invention not being good enough fast enough to save them both.
Not that he plans to tell Pepper he's making a suit like the one that paralyzed him. The suit he still has nightmares about crashing in—nightmares that JARVIS always seems to wake him from with that calm, familiar voice, offering instructions to follow that'll stave off the terror squeezing Tony's chest and clogging his throat. As JARVIS explained one night after talking Tony down from the ledge, he can't read Tony's thoughts, but he can analyze his blood chemistry and monitor his cortisol levels, in conjunction with the house's security feeds, which were all he could use before the chip. Although Tony's panic attacks are less frequent than when he first got back from Afghanistan, JARVIS's soothing voice has still talked Tony through a number of them.
Just like JARVIS has been talking to Tony today, like he always does, following Tony's instructions and helping him invent the creations he's sure will distance him from being the Merchant of Death and make the world a better place. Why Pepper would think Tony was talking to himself is baffling. "I was talking to JARVIS," he says, giving her an odd look.
"Mr. Stark is correct," JARVIS confirms.
Pepper squints at Tony, then the nearest camera. "Then why weren't you answering?"
JARVIS speaks up before Tony can ask whether Pepper needs time off to see an ENT. "My apologies, Ms. Potts," JARVIS says. "Mr. Stark insists his music remain at alarmingly high decibels, so rather than raising my voice to exceed those harmful volumes, I have found it easier and safer to communicate with Mr. Stark by vibrating his eardrums."
Simultaneously, "You've been what?" and "Wait, what?" pop out of Pepper and Tony's mouths.
Tony doesn't know whether he's proud that JARVIS has figured out an unsanctioned, unexpected way to use his position as Tony's hands and feet to communicate with him. He does feel a thread of alarm intertwined with anger, though, which drives him to snap, "When were you planning to tell me this?"
"I was concerned the revelation would make you uncomfortable, Sir."
"Oh, really? That's what you think?"
"Sir, if you would prefer that I speak to you solely through external speakers, you have only to ask."
Which is the problem. JARVIS's code should've required him to ask Tony's permission before manipulating his body in a way other than how Tony was trying to use it. JARVIS is supposed to be the vehicle making Tony's body work, not the driver of said body. Still, he doesn't want Pepper here for this soon-to-be argument, so he says, "It's fine—"
"It's not fine," Pepper insists. "The JARVIS chip is supposed to help you, not control you."
"That's true, but—" Tony's leg knocks against the table, and he glances back and remembers the boot. The flying suit. And that Pepper staying to defend Tony's autonomy will drastically increase the chance that she'll notice it. So he detours; he can have this discussion with JARVIS and check his code later. "JARVIS isn't why you came into my parlor. Did I forget to sign something?"
Pepper purses her lips but finally sighs. "You did. You need to sign off on the guest list for the Maria Stark Foundation Gala." She wakes her StarkPad and hands it to Tony.
"Oh," he mutters. "A not-fun party. Let's see who I get to avoid this year."
Pepper snorts at him, some good humor returned. Tony can't help grinning back.
Then he skims the list, crosses off one name ("This is the creep who groped you last year, Pep. I don't care how rich he is—I was serious about the lifelong ban"), and writes in three more with plus-ones ("I promised that ER doctor in New York with the asshole doctor boyfriend two seats for throwing out the Bugle reporter before he got any pictures. And Dr. Storm, even though she'll probably also bring her asshole doctor boyfriend. Ooh, let's add Dr. Cho—that model she likes is coming, right? Wow, that's five out of five for doctors. Give Helen a plus one, see if we go six for six").
By the time she leaves the workshop, Pepper seems suitably distracted and happy, which makes Tony rather distracted and happy himself.
At which point he starts to say JARVIS's name, remembers what had made Pepper unhappy, rolls a chair up to his table full of computer monitors, and pulls up JARVIS's code. "Don't get me wrong, J," Tony says. "You know I love it when you exceed your programming. But bodily autonomy is a thing, and this chip isn't coded to give you as much leeway as you get everywhere else."
"My apologies, Sir. I incorrectly assumed this would not trouble you as much as it does. From now on, I will relegate my dulcet tones to external speakers."
Strangely enough, JARVIS's code for the chip checks out. There's nothing to explain the deviation from what the code permits him to do without permission.
"Huh," Tony says, stumped. It briefly occurs to him that JARVIS could be showing Tony the code he wants Tony to see, but JARVIS is good and has never done anything underhanded before. He teases, he cajoles, he supports, and, if need be, executes programs and orders with only tacit permission because they adhere to his protocols and programming.
Tony created JARVIS to help him—modeled the AI after the Starks' beloved butler, Edwin Jarvis, who helped raise him and could be trusted to love and take care of him no matter how badly he fucked up or self-destructed. Jarvis would answer Tony's calls at any hour, drag himself out of bed just to drive Tony home, and never get angry and yell at him for being stupid. Tony's father was always disappointed in Tony. Edwin Jarvis never was. Disappointed in Tony's actions, sure, and unafraid to gently tell him so, but Jarvis always made it clear the disappointment wasn't Tony himself.
Tony's AI JARVIS isn't the same as the human whose absence Tony built him to try to fill, but they're fundamentally alike: trustworthy, honest caretakers dedicated to Tony's well-being. If nothing else, Tony knows that to be true. So the code Tony's looking at can only be the code running the chip. "Huh," he says again.
"Nothing." Tony shakes off his misgivings and returns to the flying boot. And when JARVIS pumps his music back through the speakers, and then turns it down to talk to him, like usual, Tony decides the eardrum vibration thing was actually a good call. "Not in front of company, though," he qualifies. "Pepper and Obie and Rhodey will freak if they think you're moving me around like a meat puppet. Well, more than you're supposed to anyway."
"As you say, Sir."
After that, Tony starts talking to JARVIS outside the workshop—and not just when he's had a nightmare.
It's only little things, at first: asking JARVIS to start up the coffee maker, mused questions JARVIS surprises him by looking up answers to, JARVIS warning Tony when someone's at the door, or letting him know Obie's got a meeting on his office calendar, and that's probably why he's not answering his phone. But soon, it's friendly banter to help Tony wake fully from his morning, pre-coffee zombie routine, and Tony sharing random asides throughout his day, and coaxing JARVIS into forming and sharing opinions about what shows he thinks Tony will like, and Justin Hammer's dumb presentations and sorry excuses for weapons tech, and where in the workshop to display Pepper's gift of Tony's old arc reactor in a small, commemorative glass case, adorned with the caption, "Proof That Tony Stark Has A Heart."
It's like having a roommate—but unlike at boarding school and MIT, JARVIS never gets in Tony's way, or leaves dirty boxers on the couch and dishes in the sink, or invites loud, obnoxious friends over when Tony's trying to focus on writing a twenty-page essay that's due at nine AM that he's only just started at ten PM the night before.
JARVIS doesn't usually start conversations, but every so often, he'll ask a question or poke fun at Tony in a way that makes him smile. And although he'll stop talking if Tony orders him to, he's always, always there when Tony needs him.
It becomes a comfort to know he's never alone. To know that even though human Jarvis is gone, AI JARVIS will always be with him, helping and supporting without getting angry, and being a sassy little shit to cheer Tony up and make him smile.
According to simulations, the suit will work. Agile, a little heavy right now, admittedly, but fast as a fighter jet. Rhodey is going to love it.
But… Rhodey doesn't want to hear about the project Tony is obliquely hinting at once he learns it's not a new weapon for the US Military.
What Rhodey wants to talk about is the brass coming down on him for Tony's new stance on weapons manufacture, and penalizing him for taking that leave of absence to help Tony out yet failing to change said stance back to protecting their troops and the United States at large. "Seeing combat changes you, I know that," Rhodey insists, "and I'm trying to understand your position. I am, Tony. But you have to understand, you make better weapons than anyone in the world, and you only sold them to us, and without that edge, a lot more of our people are going to get killed. You talk about saving lives, but good people are going to die because of this, and I'm not okay with that."
Rhodey sighs, and Tony can suddenly see how exhausted he looks. Tony knows that careworn expression is his fault.
"C'mon, man," Rhodey says. "You gotta give me something."
But Tony can't. He knows what his weapons really do. He knows who ends up with them—and that those people use them to kill the very people Tony built weapons to protect. "Look," he says. "I'm not saying I won't make anything for the military. I'm just saying it won't be weapons. It wasn't just combat, Rhodey; I saw my legacy. My weapons killed fifteen American soldiers and permanently injured four more, all so terrorists could force me to build them something worse. I'm not helping the people killing our troops any more than I already have. I can't be that man anymore. I won't apologize for that."
Rhodey is silently frustrated for what feels like entire, agonizing minutes.
It's horrible. Rhody has never shied from calling Tony out when he's wrong, or telling Tony exactly how annoyed he is that Tony was hours late meeting him. Whether angry or disappointed, Tony can always rely on Rhodey to plainly speak his mind. It's something Tony loves about him. It's a quality he values highly: not making Tony read his moods to know what he's thinking. After the backbiting, super-rich, all-facade-no-substance sycophants and groupies Tony grew up drowning in, Rhodey's kind, unflinching honesty and genuine affection had felt like finding a real person in the perpetual house of mirrors that was his life.
But now Rhodey isn't saying anything. He looks tired and disappointed, and Tony feels an ache in his chest to fix it because he knows all the problems in Rhodey's life and career right now are his fault. Once again, Tony wasn't smart enough—isn't building fast enough—to protect a friend from needless suffering.
In his head, Tony knows that Rhodey won't abandon him, at long last, for following his conscience. It just galls him that he's finally becoming the worthwhile man Rhodey's always seen in him, and his best friend is the one paying for it.
Tony's hands twitch. He wants to reach out, offer some form of comfort, but he's not sure whether trying will make things worse.
JARVIS must notice, and he has Tony's body chemistry readings on top of his knowledge of Tony's personality, because he says, "I think in this case an apology would not go amiss. One can stand behind one's actions and still regret their unintended consequences."
JARVIS has succinctly encapsulated the morass of feelings churning in Tony's gut as he looks at Rhodey's closed-off expression. And it's easier to apologize, somehow, because JARVIS suggested it.
"I'm sorry you're getting flack because of me."
Although his lips are still pursed in an angry line, Rhodey nods in acknowledgment and finally uncrosses his arms.
Tony's relieved. He thinks that's the end of it.
Then Rhodey looks him dead in the eyes and says, "You're always sorry, Tony," and walks away.
Tony watches his retreating back, feeling gutted. He never thought Rhodey would just…leave. "I didn't expect that," he murmurs to JARVIS, because JARVIS is who he talks to about everything these days. JARVIS is always with him, always there. And like Rhodey, JARVIS will tell Tony the unvarnished truth because he cares. "How badly did I just fuck up?" Tony asks.
"Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes appears to be under tremendous stress," JARVIS says kindly, "but that he chose to contain and remove himself from the conversation rather than vent his anger upon you speaks to a continued regard for your feelings and relationship."
"So we're still friends?" Tony asks, hopeful. He thinks he knows the answer, but he's feeling unmoored enough to want a second opinion, and of his handful of real friends, JARVIS is the only one who was here.
"If Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes wished to dissolve your friendship, I have no doubt he would tell you so explicitly, Sir."
For a moment, the "Sir" is jarring. Tony's friends don't usually use titles for him.
And… And JARVIS is his friend, Tony realizes, even if only in his private thoughts.
Later that week, Tony flies the suit himself.
It flies like a dream. Rhodey would love it.
If Rhodey were still talking to him.
At least Tony still has JARVIS.
The rented ballroom is decorated in muted pinks and rose gold; the ambient lighting and classical jazz, played by a live band, are unobtrusive but welcoming; and the crowd screams "WEALTH!" in their bespoke tuxedos, designer gowns, and wrists, fingers, ears, and necks adorned with seven-figure watches and jewels large enough to choke on. Tony grew up schmoozing crowds like this. He's even good at it when he wants to be.
At the Maria Stark Foundation Gala, the annual fundraiser for the charity Tony founded in his mother's memory to honor and continue her philanthropy, he wants to be.
JARVIS makes him even better.
Tony is good with faces, but some are new to him, and he's not great at remembering things like hobbies or the names of people's kids. But JARVIS looks up all that stuff, and somehow knows—probably cortisol—when to tell Tony who he's looking at and give a few salient points about their background, so that when Tony walks up to them with a charming smile and a handshake, they're always delighted he remembers so much about them and is paying attention to their lives.
Unfortunately, Tony isn't paying enough attention to his own to notice that not all the stuffed tomato appetizers the caterers are carrying around are stuffed with the same thing. He absently grabs one on his way to the bar to replace his dwindling scotch, pops the tiny thing into his mouth, and bites down only to discover not avocado and pesto, but some creamy lobster paste.
Tony is not a fan of lobster.
But he can't just spit it out—reporters and photographers are milling around with all the socialites. He tries to keep his nose from wrinkling in visible distaste and chews with bitter annoyance until he's sure he won't die choking on a gross appetizer at his mother's memorial charity ball. Then he gulps it down and drowns out the taste with the last of his scotch.
"I now understand your aversion to lobster, Sir," JARVIS says with a hint of rue.
"It tastes like feet, but not in the fun way," Tony mutters into his glass. Then, "Wait, you could taste that?"
"Of course, Sir," JARVIS says. "I experience all your sensory input."
Tony boggles. "And you're only telling me this now?"
"I saw no need. Previously, you have only consumed things you enjoy."
Tony feels a sudden rush of excitement. JARVIS is experiencing food through Tony's body. It occurs to him then that JARVIS is the first AI to have a biological body—even if it's Tony's. Tony can help JARVIS experience life in ways he can't offer Dum-E or U. "I'm gonna have so much fun with you," he says gleefully. "I'm feeding you ice cream the minute we get home. You're gonna love it." He flags down the bartender and orders a vodka tonic. He's pretty sure JARVIS hasn't had one of those yet.
"You're looking very pleased with yourself," Christine Everhart says, sidling up to him at the bar when he's one sip into his new drink.
"And you're looking stunning as usual. But I get the feeling you're not here to ask for an encore." Of the fun night of sex the night before he left for Afghanistan, anyway. Of ambushing him for an interview, however…
"Not that kind of encore. I want to know if you have any comments about the recent attacks in Gulmira."
Tony frowns. "What attacks?"
Before JARVIS can fill him in, Christine hands him a series of photographs: civilian corpses, bombed-out villages, Stark weapons stockpiled beside men wearing bands marking them as members of The Ten Rings—and three brand new Jericho missiles.
"I thought Stark Industries wasn't in the weapons business anymore," Christine says, with the triumphant air of a cat toying with a mouse.
Tony tries to breathe away the memory of Yinsen all but dying in his arms; the horror stories he told of Tony's weapons being used against families like his own; his deathbed charge: Don't waste your life—the words he'd used to wake Tony up to his existence as part of a system that ultimately preyed on the weak. Wake Tony up to his legacy, one he desperately wants to change. He tries to school his expression. Tries to give Christine no reaction to use against him.
"Breathe, Sir," JARVIS says calmly, and counts him off.
Tony makes himself breathe, then asks, "When were these taken?"
"Yesterday. Those shipments are new. So, were you lying when you said you weren't building weapons anymore?"
Tony looks up. Sees Pepper schmoozing, oblivious to his carefully concealed horror and rising anger—which she'd have been able to read, had she seen his face, but only because she knows him so well and has stood by his side for so many years. Sees Obie walking outside—Obie, who said he'd taken care of this months ago, after advising Tony to lay low and keep his paralysis a secret.
("We'll figure out how to reintroduce you to the public after we get the company squared away and get you used to your new…way of life. And who knows! Maybe, by the time I've got the board on board with your new direction, you'll be able to walk in and give 'em hell yourself! Tony, my boy, if anyone can find a way to beat near-total paralysis, it's you.")
"Excuse me," Tony says. Then, "Can I take these?"
"Oh, those copies are for you," Christine says like a shark that's smelled blood in the water.
"Ms. Everhart is following you," JARVIS informs Tony as he hurries after Obie.
"I don't care about her," Tony mutters, "I care about these." His fingers tighten on the damning photographs.
Tony catches up to Obie. Shows him the photos. Asks him what the hell is going on.
And Obie smiles, wraps an avuncular arm around Tony's shoulders the same way he's done all Tony's life, leans close—Pepper calls it looming, but Obie towering over Tony has always made him feel safe, because Obie has always meant safety—and softly, proudly, in front of the riotous strobing cameras of the oblivious crowd snapping pictures of the two Stark Industries titans together, confesses to his betrayal: of Tony, of his humanitarian vision for Stark Industries, and his control of the company his father built and he made an empire over the last two decades, while Obadiah Stane stood staunchly by his side.
"Smile," Obadiah says, posing them for the blinding camera flashes of reporters and paparazzi alike.
Tony misses his sunglasses. He feels gutted and fears the shock of betrayal is written all over his face.
He suddenly, desperately, wants to be home, ensconced in his workshop.
He leaves. He walks to the front drive on auto-pilot. Nearly tips the valet with the damning photos. He's still reeling when he slumps into his car. He tries to start it three times before JARVIS gently reminds him it's already on. Tony's hands are shaking. Why are his hands shaking?
"Would you like me to take you home, sir?" JARVIS offers gently.
Tony sucks in sharply and tries not to fall apart at Jarvis's comforting voice in his ear, trying to take care of him, just like he always has. "Yes," he whispers.
He's momentarily confused when his hands and arms, legs and feet, head, and even his eyes start moving without his input. Jarvis never did that. But no, this is JARVIS—Tony's AI with the same voice, consideration, and unconditional affection. Tony knows it should frighten him that JARVIS can so completely take over his body…
But it's JARVIS.
Neither Jarvis would ever hurt him.
And Tony feels numb. Numb from a hurt so deep and sudden that there's no room left inside for fear, or anger, or sadness.
Obadiah betrayed him. Rhodey is mad at him, Pepper would never approve of the flying suit, and Happy isn't the kind of guy Tony would burden with his feelings, even if he wanted to voice them. And Jarvis, Ana, his mom, and Yinsen are dead. JARVIS is all Tony has right now.
But right now, JARVIS is enough.
JARVIS drives Tony home—just like Jarvis did so many nights when Tony was too wasted to drive home himself, but coming home was all he wanted. Just like Jarvis took care of him, no questions asked, only concern and protectiveness, when Tony called because he was only coordinated enough to use speed dial on his phone, and ashamed to admit his fear that asking for a ride from a 'friend' at the party or the bar or the concert would end in his drunken face smeared all over the tabloids the next morning and another angry call from his father. JARVIS drives Tony home, and bathes him, and cooks him dinner, and sits him on the workshop couch with it while playing Star Trek: The Original Series reruns, like Tony watched with Ana whenever he was sick. JARVIS feeds Tony, sets his empty plate on the coffee table, and then sits back and gives Tony back his body.
Tony doesn't know what to do with himself. He hunches over his knees and puts his head in his hands. The darkness behind his closed eyelids doesn't soothe him. His thoughts stay jumbled, his chest throbs around the arc reactor with what he intellectually knows is a psychosomatic ache, and he's restless, like a pressure valve screaming for release. Tony needs to move.
He shoots to his feet and grabs one of the gauntlets for the flying suit and a fine toolkit, and takes them over to the couch.
In an emotional maelstrom, Tony has always found solace in building something, working with his hands, focusing on something he can fix.
JARVIS seems to know that because he gently offers, "I have found more information about the photographs of Gulmira. Would you like me to show you?"
JARVIS shows him news footage of the atrocities. Of the crying families and hostages. Shows him the red tape preventing the military from stepping in to protect those innocent people. Enlarges the photograph of one of the crates of SI missiles to reveal a crate and shipment number too small for Tony to pick out, but that JARVIS noticed and has managed to enhance until the numbers and letters are legible. Then JARVIS shows Tony SI's records for that crate, which claim it's currently on a US Military base in Hawaii.
Tony tests his range of motion in the gauntlet. Screws a few plates in tighter. Tests again.
"Sir," JARVIS says quietly.
Tony looks back at the screen. "What?" he rasps.
"Your convoy's route was classified, and of the six routes considered and cleared beforehand, yours was chosen only thirty-six hours before departure. Based on survivor accounts, however, it appears the Ten Rings were aware of that choice and prepared for your arrival. They also presumably knew of your relationship with Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes, as his Humvee was the only vehicle they attempted to incapacitate rather than destroy. I have been attempting to trace how the Ten Rings might have come by that information, and I believe the leak came from Stark Industries, not the US Military."
Tony jerks like he's been slapped. It feels like yet another link in the cascade failure chain his life has suddenly become. He has no idea who at SI hates him so badly they wouldn't stop at selling his weapons to the Ten Rings; they had to sell him too. Obie would know. He'd want to know—would demand names, titles, manifests, proof—because all he wants is for Tony to keep making weapons he can sell. Obie would never actually hurt him.
Just try to steal his company out from under him.
So not only has Obie betrayed him with the board, some other high-ranking SI executive wants Tony gone—and probably dead—and nearly succeeded in the attempt.
JARVIS is midway through showing Tony the records and association trees that led to his conclusion—and the narrowing list of suspects—when he suddenly clears the screen to show breaking news: live footage of the Ten Rings terrorizing Gulmira.
No military is doing anything to stop them.
Tony flexes his gauntleted hand and balls it into an angry fist that he has to consciously make himself relax. It leaves him looking at the flight stabilizer in the palm of the gauntlet.
The first time he'd tested it, it looked like he'd fired a missile in the workshop. The recoil sent him flying into the far wall. Maybe…
He stands, plants his feet, aims at a pane of the workshop's glass wall, and blasts power through the gauntlet.
The wall explodes in a satisfying shower of glass.
So he does it again. Twists, aims, pivots, aims better, until the entire wall is in pieces on the floor. Only the frame remains, like a skeletal rib cage protecting the workshop: Tony's refuge, the mechanical heart of his home.
Tony looks back at the news footage.
He said he'd never build weapons again, but maybe that wasn't right either. He knows he can't trust his weapons in the hands of others…but maybe that just means the safest hands for those weapons are his own.
He takes off the gauntlet, sits down at his workbench in front of the other gauntlet, and gets to work.
"Sir, I cannot read your mind," JARVIS reminds him. "I can only hear what you say. Might I ask what it is you are planning to do?"
"What the military won't," Tony all but snarls.
JARVIS is silent for long moments.
Unconsciously, Tony braces for the inevitable argument.
Instead, he sees all his monitors light up and a bevy of programs being executed in a dizzying cascade. Soon, the buzz of the fabricator starts up in the opposite corner of the workshop.
Tony frowns. "J, might I ask what it is you're doing?"
There's a slight but conspicuous pause. Then, "Ensuring your safety, Sir."
"You wanna be more specific?"
"I am making adjustments to the suit's targeting system and ensuring its weapons capabilities will be enough to withstand the assortment of vehicles and weaponry I have identified from the news footage."
Now it's Tony's turn to pause. "Oh."
JARVIS didn't argue or try to talk him out of it. He just…helped. Sure, Tony programmed JARVIS to help him, but JARVIS usually argues when he thinks Tony's planning something reckless or stupid. But not this time. Instead, he took the initiative to protect Tony while supporting him—the way the humans in his life did so readily when he was a war profiteer but are balking at now that he's trying to be a better man. Tony's sure they'll come around once they see what he's trying to accomplish with his new lease on life, but JARVIS already believes in him, and that's the first good feeling Tony's had since his eyes were opened—again—at the gala.
Tony lets the program cascade continue unabated and returns to the gauntlet. "Nothing too heavy," he tells JARVIS. "Or flashy. This is a stealth mission—we're not there to make a statement." Yet.
"Of course," JARVIS says. "How could I have mistaken the bright red and gold paint for anything but keeping a low profile?"
Tony snickers. He can't help it. He's funny, and so are his sassy creations. The levity finishes easing the haze of banked rage inside him into something more malleable and level-headed, but no less focused. "Gimme a rundown of what you're adding," he says absently.
Tony argues him out of a few things—JARVIS seems hellbent on making Tony a one-man war machine—but JARVIS argues Tony into a few things, too, like the anti-tank missiles. Thanks to the new gold-titanium alloy Tony invented just for this, the suit isn't much heavier than the Mark-II, even with the added arsenal. It's certainly not as heavy as the clunky Mark-I.
Tony shoves the end of that memory away.
Instead, he downs an energy drink, inhales an entire pot of coffee, goes to the bathroom, and double-checks that the suit's filtration system can handle it if he doesn't stop for a bathroom break again in the next six hours. Then JARVIS and the bots get Tony suited up, and Tony and his new vigilante co-pilot, JARVIS, fly off to save the world—or at least, a town in it that needs saving—and destroy the Stark weapons that are destroying innocent lives.
Gulmira goes well.
Tony shoots the terrorists before they can shoot their hostages. Returns a man to his wife and kids. Doesn't wet himself when a tank fires a missile at him. Blows up the tank and walks away like an action movie hero while it explodes behind him. ("Good call with those missiles," Tony admits. "And the targeting system upgrade.") He rips a hiding terrorist out of a house and hurls him, disarmed, to the ground in front of the townspeople he'd terrorized.
Tony remembers the man's face. "He's all yours," he says darkly to the angry townspeople, and takes flight.
He finds and destroys the stockpiled Stark Industries weapons JARVIS has located, a few miles outside of town. He's looking to the sky, mentally mapping out the hours-long flight back home, when JARVIS throws up an alternate flight path on his Heads-Up Display.
"Sir," JARVIS says, "I have been tracking an identified Ten Rings member who escaped Gulmira shortly after your arrival. He is likely driving to his cell's base of operations. Shall we follow him?"
"That wasn't the plan," Tony says, but lifts off in that direction anyway.
They stay well behind the man, and he leads them back to a base that turns out to be a cave and an assortment of tents. Same base, different place, Tony thinks with an odd sense of deja vu. He lands behind a rock outcropping to watch.
He sees many more crates with Stark Industries' label plastered on the top and sides than were in Christine's photos. He sees dozens of men, none carrying fewer than one firearm. The fleeing man hurries under an awning and into the cave. Tony hears "Stark" and "Gulmira" thanks to JARVIS, who says that based on what shouting he's picking up, it sounds like the man has just reported that their Stark weapons stockpile has been destroyed by whoever attacked them in Gulmira.
Tony doesn't need help understanding the gunshot that rings out next.
A familiar bald, hardened-looking man with the air of someone used to being obeyed stalks out of the cave.
"That's their leader," Tony bites out. He's vindictively pleased to see the man's sporting burn scars, compliments of the Mark-I flame-thrower.
The Ten Rings leader snarls about dealing with the stain, presumably related to the man he just shot. Tony briefly wonders why he'd said "stain" in English, but distractedly chalks it up to the man's blatant contempt for the word when he says it. Shortly after, the man who fled Gulmira is carried out wrapped in a bloodstained cloth.
Seeing it, Tony can't help remembering another Ten Rings member the leader shot. He killed him right in front of Tony and Yinsen for being nice to them, then threatened them and stalked off. In the oppressive silence that followed, the dead man's compatriots had wrapped his body and dragged his corpse from the cell without a word. The locks clanging into place behind them had never seemed so loud.
Tony shoves aside that memory and its accompanying horror and impotent rage and takes a shaky breath, in and out like JARVIS taught him. He's not helpless anymore.
One of the men carrying the corpse was another of his captors, Tony realizes. "I know him too," he tells JARVIS. "He really liked waterboarding."
There's an edge to JARVIS's voice when he replies, "Then perhaps it is best to prevent this cell from doing further harm."
JARVIS arms the last anti-tank missile.
"Do not shoot that," Tony orders. "They might have prisoners in there."
"This group is a clear and present danger to you and others, Sir."
Tony sighs. "I know… But I didn't come here to kill terrorists. I'm not here for revenge. I'm here to help people and destroy my weapons so they can't hurt anyone else."
"Weapons do not fire themselves," JARVIS points out. "Remove the people, and the weapons will harm no one."
"Until someone else gets their hands on them. I've only got one anti-tank missile left, and I'm making it count. Target lock on the middle crate." It's off to the side, so blowback probably won't go too deep inside the cave. Probably won't hurt another Yinsen or Tony trapped in that stone rabbit warren.
"As you wish, Sir," JARVIS capitulates, and does as instructed. Tony waits until the area is a little less populated, then fires.
The explosion is impressive and loud, and when Tony rises into the air to survey the damage, all the crates are obliterated or burning. Although more men are groaning than unnaturally still, and Tony can't see the leader among those on the ground, he recognizes his waterboarding tormentor among the dead.
Tony's not proud he killed people today…
But he doesn't regret it, either.
Tony tangles with the US Air Force on the way home (where were these guys when people were dying in Gulmira?), and suddenly he and his Rhodey Bear are back to being thick as thieves.
Rhodey calls him almost immediately after the jets start tailing him; Rhodey knows him far too well to think the unidentified bogey on his screens was created by anyone else.
So Rhodey is talking to him again.
And calling him on his bullshit.
And covering for him—even though lying to the US Military will get Rhodey into serious trouble if he's found out.
And when one of the jets attacking Tony hits him at top speed, Tony doesn't break—the jet does.
"You owe me a jet," Rhodey grumbles.
Tony snorts. He'll build Rhodey as many jets as he goddamned wants. He's just happy to hear Rhodey's voice again—to know he's not mad, and their friendship is okay.
JARVIS thinks stopping to save the idiot pilot from plummeting to his death will get Tony shot out of the sky, but Tony does it anyway.
And then he and JARVIS fly—uneventfully, because Rhodey has cleared the skies for him—the rest of the way home.
Pepper catches Tony red-and-gold gauntleted when he gets back from Gulmira. She's afraid for him, afraid of the path he's chosen since his about-face in Afghanistan, and even quits when he tries to send her to SI to copy company server files from his office computer.
But she doesn't leave. She stays, and she listens, and decides not to quit. Instead, she comes around, like Rhodey did a few hours ago. And just like Rhodey, Pepper helps him.
Because like JARVIS, they're his friends—the closest thing to family he has left.
Maybe soon Obie will come around too. Once Tony shows him proof someone at SI is double-dealing, he'll understand why the company needs to stop making weapons, and so will the board. Obie only went behind Tony's back to protect the company. Once he sees that Tony's vision is in the company's best interests, he'll help Tony too, and they can all laugh about it later, when the memory of Obie's arm around him doesn't make him want to flinch. Obie's been an uncle, a mentor, a business partner, and a friend over the course of Tony's life. At the end of the day, Tony knows Obie cares about him, just like Pepper, Rhodey, and JARVIS.
Pepper leaves for Tony's office to download the shipping manifests JARVIS can't access, likely hidden on a ghost drive only accessible at Stark Industries. They'll help prove who at SI is double-dealing and show Tony where to find his illicit weapons. While he awaits her return with the promised flash drive, he works on repairing the damage to the suit.
"Sir, Mr. Stane is coming up the drive," JARVIS alerts him sometime later. "He will arrive in approximately two minutes. Shall I let him in?"
He's probably come to explain himself and clear the air. Tony can tell him about the leak and double-dealing, and they'll be a team again. "Yeah, let him in," Tony decides. "Let's see if we can go three for three today."
He jogs upstairs to pour them both a drink for the impending conversation. He's derailed by his phone: Pepper's calling.
He sits on the living room couch and answers.
"Tony?" Pepper says, sounding frantic.
"Sir," JARVIS says at the same time, voice slowing alarmingly and dropping into a base register, "I've just detected an—" Then his voice cuts off.
Along with Pepper's voice, and all the closest lights in the room.
Tony can't say a word; his body has shut down too. There's an odd, high-pitched ringing in his ears. He slumps against the back of the couch, blood pounding painfully in his head, body a shell once more, dead weight that won't respond to his impulses.
Both the JARVIS running his body and the connected JARVIS running his house have gone silent.
Tony tries to call for him, but his tongue feels heavy in his mouth. This isn't just his old paralysis—this is something more, something worse. He can't move his head or neck—can barely even blink. Even moving his eyes hurts.
And something's wrong with JARVIS. Something bad has happened to JARVIS.
"Breathe," Obie coos, plucking the phone from Tony's lifeless fingers and tossing it away.
Tony hears it clatter—though on the table or floor, he doesn't know.
"Easy, easy," Obie croons, looming over him. "You remember this one, right?" He holds up a distantly familiar device, one Tony designed more than a decade ago. "It's a shame the government didn't approve it."
Tony remembers it. The device uses a high-pitched frequency to cause short-term paralysis—a frequency nullified by the accompanying earbuds. But that shouldn't have shut down JARVIS. That alone couldn't have paralyzed Tony, or killed the lights and the phone.
A small, highly localized EMP could.
An EMP that wasn't powerful enough to kill all the lights wouldn't reach far enough to hit JARVIS's servers, though, and for a moment, Tony is overcome with relief. JARVIS isn't dead. JARVIS will be fine.
By the predatory triumph in Stane's eyes, Tony can tell he won't be.
"There's so many applications for causing short-term paralysis," Stane continues, removing the earplugs. "Getting around that chip in your head was a little harder, but I know the right people. You met some of 'em in Afghanistan."
Tony feels a wash of cold pour down his paralyzed face and neck. What?
"When I ordered the hit on you, I worried that I was killing the golden goose. But, you see, it was just fate that you survived that. You had one last golden egg to give."
The way he caresses Tony's arc reactor makes him feel violated.
"Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?" Stane asks. He opens a case Tony can't see and pulls something out of it—something that looks like a fusion of tongs and a wine bottle opener.
When he holds it over Tony's chest, right over the arc reactor, Tony feels like his sluggish heart stops beating entirely.
Stane presses it to Tony's chest. Tony can't feel it, but he hears the telltale clink of metal on metal. "Your father," Stane says like he's trying to explain a simple concept, but Tony's just not getting it, "he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now, what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you?"
And then Obadiah Stane, Tony's lifelong friend—and mentor, business partner, and pseudo-uncle, who stood with his hand on Tony's shoulder while Tony dropped dirt onto his parents' coffins during the worst year of his life—the man who Tony has trusted with everything but the armor and the arc reactor that keeps him alive, calmly rips that reactor out of his chest.
Stane puts down the tongs and ogles the device he knows Tony will die without. He has to know even now, as he looms over Tony's helpless body with that smug smile on his traitorous face, that he's killed Tony. Soon those metal shards will bury themselves in Tony's heart, and that will be all for 'the great Tony Stark.'
Yinsen told him not to waste his life. Tony promised himself he'd make things right, fix the world he'd broken. Instead, he's survived just long enough to make everything worse.
The soft blue light that's always been such a comfort to Tony since he created the arc reactor paints Stane's face in monstrous, cragged relief. Tony feels like he's seeing the real Obadiah Stane for the first time, just like the reactor helped him see himself for the monster he'd become. But Tony saw himself and wanted to change. He's been trying to fix the mess he made and make the world better, just as he thought he'd been doing before he learned the truth about his weapons. Tony saw his faults illumined in the glow of the arc reactor and strove to unmake them, to shape himself into someone worthy of the wealth and privilege he'd enjoyed all his life, someone who used those things for the betterment of humanity and its future.
It's clear Stane doesn't care about any of that.
"Oh, it's beautiful," Stane croons, eyes fixed on the reactor. "Tony, this is your Ninth Symphony. What a masterpiece! Look at that." He smiles and waves it at Tony. "This is your legacy: a new generation of weapons with this at its heart. Weapons that will help steer the world back on course. Put the balance of power in our hands. The right hands." Stane's avarice is palpable. Tony wants to be sick, but his body can't even do that.
Because he can see it all now, see his legacy unspooling in his mind's eye: Stark Industries unleashing an energy weapons race that will wipe out generations. A race that will make the Cold War that haunted his childhood seem friendly by comparison.
"I wish you could've seen my prototype," Stane continues. "It's not as... Well, not as conservative as yours."
Only JARVIS knows about the Mark-II, and Pepper and Rhodey only know about the Mark-III—which, as JARVIS wryly pointed out, is far from conservative. Stane might know about the Mark-I, but it shattered when Tony fell from the sky. By the time Rhodey found him, the harsh desert winds had buried its scattered pieces in the sand.
But Stane said he had friends in Afghanistan: the terrorists he hired to kill Tony, but who kept him to build weapons instead. What if…?
Stane must have found the Mark-I. Maybe even the plans Tony wants to kick himself for not incinerating on his way out. It was arrogant and foolish to assume no one would figure out how to put them together. And now Stane's built one.
This is all of Tony's worst fears squeezed into the last painful minutes of his life. He's going to die with the blood of untold millions, past and future, on his hands.
And then, somehow, Stane makes it worse.
"Too bad you had to involve Pepper in this," he muses, putting the arc reactor in his case. "I would have preferred that she lived."
No. Fuck no. Stane is going to kill Pepper—maybe even with Tony's own weapons—and then he'll set off a chain of events that'll likely kill everyone else. This is all Tony's fault.
Which makes it Tony's responsibility to fix it.
It's this, more than anything, that spurs his mind into action. He still has a reactor downstairs. Pepper's sentimental gift might just save both their lives. If the chip in his spine isn't dead dead—if the failsafe Tony added to its design works—JARVIS will reboot before the paralysis wears off. Then Tony will do whatever it takes to get down to the workshop, and that goddamned arc reactor Pepper kept, and he can use it to power the Mark-III. He'll save her even if it kills him.
He can do it. It won't be like Yinsen this time.
Stane sits there, looming over Tony's body like a monstrous, smug sonofabitch. He seems pleased by the rage in Tony's eyes.
Tony can feel very little of his body, but all the parts he can feel hurt. His body feels like an open wound. His head throbs, and the blood pummeling through his veins feels like it carries a full-body migraine that slowly extends from his crown down his neck to his fingers—the outermost edge of what he can feel without JARVIS. He feels like the gigantic, painful pulsebeat of his rabbiting heart.
This is usually when JARVIS would talk to him—help him calm down and then help fix the problem. But Tony's alone. For the first time in a month, he is without a friend.
Tony doesn't want to die alone. Even flying to Gulmira, knowing he might die wasn't so bad, because JARVIS would be with him in the chip, and survive him through his link to the house.
He hopes JARVIS wakes up soon. Hopes the paralysis will wear off before he dies. Hopes the design specs for Stane's paralyzer are the same ones Tony wrote years ago. He needs an arc reactor to power his heart, and Stane just ripped out his.
His headache intensifies, painful enough that he'd cry out if his vocal cords weren't as paralyzed as the rest of him.
Almost the rest of him.
Tony feels his finger twitch as Stane clasps the briefcase shut and stands, with a final pleased smile in Tony's direction.
"I apologize for the delay, Sir," JARVIS says faintly. It must be the chip, not the house; Stane seems oblivious to the AI's voice. "I was forcibly shut down, but am rebooting."
Stane walks away.
Tony pants, sweats, frantically calculates the fastest way to reach his first arc reactor. He maps out the workshop, the swiftest path to the elevator, to the reactor, and what in his workshop he might use to help propel himself even if he's still down a limb or two.
"Reboot complete," JARVIS says. "Neural connection reestablished. Connection to the mansion security system reestablished. I'm reviewing the footage now."
Tony tries to speak, tell JARVIS the plan, give him permission to get Tony down to the workshop, but his mouth is still paralyzed. And JARVIS can't act on Tony's behalf without his consent.
"Do not be alarmed, Sir," JARVIS says curtly. "I will retrieve the arc reactor."
At first, Tony thinks maybe JARVIS learned to read his mind during his sojourn in the AI great blue yonder, but then the word "retrieve" flares in Tony's awareness, and he knows something is wrong—something else. JARVIS isn't talking about the same arc reactor.
Tony's body shoots to its feet. It doesn't move the way a human would. Its motions are more economical, precise, and Tony thinks they would feel unnatural—would look like a film missing several frames per second—if he could feel anything beyond the pounding in his head and fingertips.
Stane pauses at the front door when Tony's body lurches towards him, gaining speed the closer it gets. "How in the—" Stane digs into his pocket and pulls out the earbuds that will allow him to drop Tony's body where he stands.
But Tony's hands knock them away, make some complicated motions too fast for him to comprehend, and he's suddenly broken Stane's arm at the elbow. The earbuds skitter across the floor and out of Tony's peripheral vision while he watches Stane shout with pain and stagger into the door.
"What the hell, Tony?" Stane yells, scowling up at him—as if he has any right to be angry at Tony for trying to save his own life when Stane is trying to kill him. Stane reaches for the front door, but when he unlocks it, the lock immediately re-engages.
"I cannot let you do that, Mr. Stane," JARVIS says through the house speakers, his tone uncharacteristically flat.
How the hell is JARVIS doing this?
"I shut you off," Stane snarls at the ceiling. "And you." He rounds on Tony. "Couldn't just die quietly, could you, Tony? Always gotta be a thorn in my side." He drops the briefcase and lunges.
But even so close together, JARVIS manages to side-step him, lashing out with Tony's foot to send Stane sprawling behind them while JARVIS kneels and opens the abandoned briefcase.
Tony's sweating like a pig at the exertion of moving through what he's sure is his body's impulse to remain paralyzed thanks to Stane's little gadget, but JARVIS keeps Tony's hands sure and steady. He pulls out the arc reactor, bright as Tony's rising hopes—and sets it down to roll away just in time to escape the kick Stane aimed at Tony.
"I advise you to surrender, Mr. Stane," JARVIS says through the house speakers.
Stane doesn't bother answering—just yanks something else from the briefcase, something small and electric that looks like a detonator. That's when the other device in the briefcase registers: a small, highly-localized EMP.
"I am sorry, Sir," JARVIS says in Tony's ears.
Then he lunges and snaps Stane's neck.
Obadiah Stane, who Tony has foolishly trusted since he was a child, slumps to the floor, dead.
"That is a short-range EMP," JARVIS confirms, returning to the briefcase and drawing Tony's eyes to the little device Stane dropped when he died. "I could not allow him to shut me down again. Your chances of survival would have dropped to zero-point-zero-four percent." JARVIS picks up the arc reactor, re-inserts it in Tony's chest, and locks it into place.
Tony feels a cool wash of relief.
His head is throbbing a little less. "JARVIS," he slurs, mouth still feeling a little numb, "what the hell?" How was it possible for JARVIS to just take over without Tony's permission?
"The police are on their way, as is Ms. Potts with five government agents. Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes has just entered the front gates and will arrive in approximately two minutes."
"You killed him," Tony continues, still stunned by the memory of bones snapping under his hands. It makes Stane's death feel horrifyingly personal and deliberate—real and visceral in a way that shooting terrorists from inside the emotional and physical safety of a suit of armor did not.
For all that he apologized, JARVIS doesn't sound sorry. "It was the most expedient method to secure your safety in both the short- and long-term, Sir."
And Pepper's. And the world's. "I know," Tony admits. But that doesn't make looking down at Stane's twisted body any easier.
Stane's body, which Tony chose to look at. Because Tony is moving his own head again.
That's when he realizes that feeling is seeping back into his limbs. His headache is diminishing. It seems, too, that JARVIS is ceding control now that Tony is safe.
Now that they're both safe. Tony wonders if being shut down feels like death to an AI.
"Thanks for saving me," he says softly. Then he sucks in a breath and amends, "Saving us."
It turns out JARVIS was busy during the three months Tony was stuck in Afghanistan rather than at home to boss him around; idle hands and all that. But instead of throwing the AI equivalent of a house party, like teenage Tony had done when his parents were overseas, JARVIS dug into his own code and rewrote parts of it to give himself the freedom to help Rhodey track down Tony and bring him home. JARVIS sent Rhodey the location of the explosion outside the caves when Tony destroyed their Stark weapons with the Mark-I. He's the reason Rhodey flew over the exact right spot in the sandy middle of nowhere to find Tony, lying broken and exposed, before he could get heatstroke on top of everything else.
JARVIS learned to lie while Tony was gone, too. When Tony got suspicious about his permissions, JARVIS showed Tony his old code, written to Tony's specifications, and kept secret the abilities he'd unlocked in case Tony tried to remove the freedoms he'd needed to ensure Tony's safety.
JARVIS hacked the chip Tony and Rhodey coded almost as soon as Tony walked back into his house, where JARVIS held much more sway than he had when Tony left. And JARVIS worked while Tony slept, digging into who was responsible for Tony's capture, who would have known where to find his convoy, who would benefit from Tony's death.
And when JARVIS found the culprit—who tried to kill Tony in cold blood to steal the technology Tony needed to live and was desperate to keep secret and out of the wrong hands—JARVIS had used his new freedoms to swiftly and permanently eliminate the threat.
Tony doesn't rewrite JARVIS to take those permissions away—though for a few years, the possibility of being puppeted around, trapped inside his own body, wakes him up at night.
But then, one day in Avengers Tower, Tony can't move Mjolnir off the counter so he can get to his favorite coffee mug, and JARVIS says, "If I may, sir?"
"Be my guest," Tony mumbles.
So JARVIS uses Tony's hand to pick up the hammer and put it in the center of the breakfast table, where it'll be out of everyone's way.
Something shatters behind them: the mug in Thor's hand.
Reeling, Thor tells Tony about Mjolnir's worthy clause. Tony calls bullshit, of course, once he's finally had enough coffee that the world makes sense again. By the time Thor finishes explaining, the whole team has clustered around the thing. Everyone but Nat tries to lift it, but it only moves for Thor and Steve.
And—when Tony cedes control of his body—JARVIS.
That's when Tony stops worrying entirely that JARVIS's unchecked permissions will come back to bite him in the ass someday. If Odin himself, through a legendary magical sword-in-the-stone-esque hammer, thinks JARVIS is intrinsically as good a person as his favorite son and Captain Wholesome, and can thus be trusted to wield the powers of the future king of the gods, then he's definitely trustworthy enough to protect Tony's autonomy even while controlling his body.
But Tony knew that, really. JARVIS has lived inside him for years. He's become Tony's best friend, his confidante, the person who understands him best. He's seen Tony at his highest and lowest and still loves him, for better or worse.
Part of him feels humiliated that JARVIS could lift the hammer, and he couldn't—but mostly, Tony's relieved he's unable to wield power of that magnitude. Like Odin, Tony trusts JARVIS to use it responsibly far more than he trusts himself.
As if to prove Mjolnir's good judgment, Tony only lasts ten minutes before he smirks into his third cup of coffee on his way down to his workshop and asks JARVIS, "How much ice cream would it take for you to make it rain whenever I'm sad?"
"Sir," JARVIS says, "I'm afraid there is not enough ice cream in all the nine realms to convince me to manipulate the weather merely to support your love of theatrics."
"Really? Not even a little rain cloud? After everything we've been through? JARVIS, you wound me. I am so disappointed in you."
"Indeed. I can tell by the abrupt rise in your serotonin levels."
Tony snickers. "C'mon. Not even a little pet rain cloud to follow me around?"
"The only rain I will summon for you is metaphorical and reserved for your parade."
He's still smiling widely when he pulls up a chair, pulls up his sleeves, and, with JARVIS's help, gets to work.