Fandom: Iron Man (novelverse!)
Characters: Tony, Jarvis, Pepper
Pairing: Gen, Tony + Jarvis hinted
Warnings: An unbeta-ed (so far) fic written by a non-native speaker.
Notes: The fic is based on the Iron Man novelizations written by Peter David and Alexander Irvine. While the events that took place in the novels are fairly similar, the characterizations are quite different.
1942. Marvel (Iron Man), Jarvis(/Tony Stark?), Tony tinkers with Jarvis to give him a female voice - flirting with a computer will be less awkward that way, right?-but Jarvis objects. What does it mean for an AI without a body to have a gender identity?
"Hey, honey. How are the preparations going?"
"The software's tested and bug-free, sir, and the modified parts schematics passed the virtual simulation tests."
"Cool. Any problems?"
"No, sir, but I thought you'd like to see the schematics before I machine the parts."
"You know me too well. I'll be back home at... let's say, 6 PM?"
"We might not be able finish the assembly today, then."
"It just means we have a busy night ahead of us. Maybe you should start without me..."
"And have you moaning later that the colors are all wrong? I think not, sir."
"Well, wait for me, then. And this time we'd better not get interrupted by some retarded terrorist-wannabes causing trouble, or I'll blast them into the next week and then some."
"Which differs from your usual modus operandi how exactly?"
"Have a safe trip home, sir. "
"Do you have any idea how disturbing it sounds when you do this?" Virginia "Pepper" Potts asked in a deceptively polite tone of voice.
Tony Stark looked up, startled. "Do what, exactly?"
Pepper pointed at the Starkphone Tony was still cradling in his hands. "Why, for the love of anything that is holy, are you holding a potentially incriminating conversation when there are other people in the room? Our shares still haven't recovered completely after the dive they took after Vanko's attack. The last thing we need right now is another idiotic scandal."
Tony pocketed the Starkphone carefully and looked at Pepper with what appeared to be a genuine concern. "Did you refuse to put on a mask while inspecting the labs again?" he asked finally. "Not a good idea, all those fumes could've caused cause some serious brain damage. And just so you know, nobody cares that it makes you look like an oversized mosquito."
Pepper sighed with poorly hidden exasperation. "Just do me a favor and imagine how your... conversation sounded like to a stranger."
Tony obediently leaned back in his chair with a pensive expression on his face. "...Hmmmm."
"Hmmmm, indeed! I tried to convince Jones that you are flirting with your new housemaid, but Jarvis's voice carries int he entire room. And it does not sound female! And what did I say about you forcing me to lie for you?" Pepper pointed an accusing finger right between Tony's eyes, startling him into raising his hands in a defensive gesture. "You should know by now how much I hate it!"
"What are you fretting about, anyway?" Tony waved Pepper's concerns away as if they were a swarm of stubborn but harmless flies. "You think that Jones might blog about me molesting my male employees for a change or something? Snowball's chance in hell. Isn't she, like, Everhart's best friend forever? I'd bet my morning coffee she received a saucy, salacious first-hand report on..."
"Oh, please," Pepper cut in, rolling her eyes for emphasis. "That's just more ammo for the press. Do you really want to be labeled as a pitiful closet case trying to remind the world what insatiable ladies man you are by shagging women left and right, but unable to even look them in the face afterwards?"
Tony pouted. "I don't want to be labeled at all. I'm a dazzling and unique snowflake."
"Uh-huh. You should know by know how little it takes for the media to skew the facts to suit their own agenda. Next thing you'll know the shrinks from all over the world will be arguing whether your alternative lifestyle choice is a result of childhood trauma, or losing a father figure in early age, or PTSD..."
"That doesn't even make sense," Tony cut into Pepper's tirade. "Scientifically. Or empirically. Or at all."
"...or Stane enjoying bouncing you on his knee a little too much in your childhood..." Pepper continued, undeterred.
Tony winced. "If you want me to vomit all over the office, please keep going. I don't think it will add to the decor, though."
"...or a simple midlife crisis."
"Midlife crisis?" Tony spluttered. "What do you mean by midlife? I'm in the prime of my youth!"
"Sure you are," Pepper sighed in a martyred way. Then she gathered her belongings, turned on her (extremely high) heel and left Tony to cogitate on the matter.
Atypically for him, Tony did.
Typically for him, the conclusion Tony eventually arrived at was not exactly what Pepper had been hoping for.
"Hey, Jarvis," Tony inquired, flopping down in one of the leather chairs in the workshop and leering in the general direction of the ceiling. "How do you feel about a gender change?"
"Beg pardon?" Jarvis said flatly after three seconds of silence, which, by Jarvis's standards, was a small eternity. Tony felt positively elated. Jarvis had been annoyingly difficult to surprise those days, so managing to stun the AI into doubting the functionality of his hearing systems gave Tony a warm glow.
"I was just wondering... You never got to chose your own voice, I just picked the one I liked. Wouldn't you like to change it to one that suits your tastes? How about a hot chick with a French accent?" Tony clarified helpfully, unholy glee dripping from his voice. "You could change your name to Jacqueline!"
"I mildly prefer a whole host of malware injected straight into my kernel," Jarvis deadpanned and Tony's inner child did a happy dance. If he had known that all it would take to shake Jarvis out of his comfort zone was a suggestion to turn him into a woman, he would have done it sooner.
"Are you sure?" Tony asked cheerfully and was about to say something else when the AI butted in.
"With mathematical certainty, yes," Jarvis said, in a voice of ice.
"You know, perhaps a female voice would be a better match for your personality," Tony went on. "In fact, it would suit perfectly your inexplicable mood swings and constant nagging. You can be worse than Pepper."
"You change your tune often, sir." Jarvis had apparently recovered from the shock and even had the nerve to sound amused. "If I'm not mistaken, three days ago in this very room you compared my personality to Colonel Rhodes's."
"All it proves is that Rhodey is a big girl, too." Tony huffed, dismayed, and drummed his fingers against the shiny surface of his desk. Amused Jarvis spelled trouble for Tony, because if there was one thing that seemed to always cheer Jarvis up, it was Tony's emotional discomfort.
"Or rather that, being unable to logically challenge the wisdom of our words of advice, you try to justify their rejection by claiming that they are not compatible with your vision of testosterone-fueled masculinity." There was a smug note in Jarvis's voice.
"Hey, hey, hey. If I wanted to have a shrink in my house, I'd... I'd invite one," Tony said, feeling somewhat lame. He had run out of psychology-related quips earlier that morning.
"Ah, but there's a world of difference between what one wants and what one needs, sir."
Tony folded his arms on his chest and clucked in disappointment. "You're no fun, Jarvis. No fun at all."
"I'm not supposed to be fun, I'm supposed to be right," stated Jarvis, his voice bubbling with amusement hidden under a thin layer of sternness.
"On the contrary, my annoying invisible friend, you were supposed to be fun." Tony looked up in the general direction of Jarvis's cameras and pouted.
"I'm most terribly sorry, I thought that was what you had the robots for, sir," said Jarvis, mock-apologetic. "Not to mention your own innate inclination to make a spectacle out of yourself, whether the situation calls for it or not. In my opinion, what this place lacks is a voice of reason, so to speak. I'm simply filling the void."
"I'll take this moment to note that I detect the subtle phallic implication in your statement and I find it profoundly disturbing."
"It wasn't all that subtle, sir."
Jarvis had no face to grin with, but Tony was fairly certain he could sense him grinning anyway.
Approximately three hours later Tony was the one who was grinning.
The genius inventor felt almost grateful to Pepper for infusing his brain with an idea well worth exploring. True, he still considered her warning earlier that day to be a bit on the ludicrous side. Tony believed he knew Jones and Everhart well enough to conclude that neither of the reporters would ever stoop so low as to publish an article on his alleged gay love affair. The pair in question belonged to the increasingly more elusive breed of reporters who believed that even celebrities had the right to keep their private life private.
Tony suspected that Miss Virginia Potts was perfectly aware of this fact – after all, ever since she started working for Stark Industries she'd been dealing with the press more frequently than Tony himself. He also doubted that after all they had gone through Pepper could be distraught by Tony flirting with anybody – least of all with Jarvis, whom the ever rational PA believed to be just a spectacularly smart computer system.
What Tony secretly suspected was that Pepper had gotten so comfortable with handling Tony Stark the reckless, self-centered playboy billionaire, that she felt completely out of her depth with Tony Stark, the reformed hero-wannabe. As a result the headstrong lady was subconsciously seeking reasons to reprimand her boss, to pull him back into the familiar scold – bicker – bicker – back off routine – in other words, trying to keep the status quo of their professional relationship.
Take that, Jarvis, Tony thought, I so can relate to other people.
The AI would be so pleased.
Or maybe not – maybe he would just sigh and say, in that polite, honey-sweet voice of his, that Tony's feeble attempts at empathizing others were quite endearing but woefully inaccurate; and that perhaps Mr. Stark should've started with deciphering cognitive states of someone closer to his own level of emotional awareness. Like, for example, Dummy.
Which was exactly why Tony was not going to discuss psychology with Jarvis – not that night, anyway. Thanks to Pepper, who had inadvertently inspired the genius inventor, Tony had a much better plan.
He was going to turn Jarvis into a girl.
...Or as close to one as it was possible for Tony to accomplish, anyway. He could not (and had no wish to) tamper with Jarvis's personality – the AI had evolved so much during the recent years that Tony wouldn't even know where to start. What Tony could do was to code a program that would hack into Jarvis's voice synthesizer and raise the pitch of his voice – and Tony had spent two hours doing exactly that, carefully placing his laptop so that the screen would face away from Jarvis's cameras. When he was done, all that was left was to plug the hacking device into the terminal in the workshop without Jarvis's noticing and let the program work its magic.
The without Jarvis's noticing bit was going to be the trickiest part of the whole scheme.
Tony fought to keep a bored expression on his face in order not to arouse Jarvis's suspicions, but by the time he reached the workshop his hands were slightly shaking and his palms were covered in sweat. Dozens of frenzied butterflies started to flutter in Tony's stomach and the genius scientist suddenly got a feeling that his fiendishly brilliant idea might yield fiendishly dreadful consequences. Unfortunately for Jarvis, Tony's love of cheap entertainment combined with morbid curiosity scored another win over his pangs of conscience.
It's just a joke anyway, right? Tony thought as he flopped down on his chair trying to project an air of careless nonchalance. Then, blocking Jarvis's line of sight with the conveniently placed monitor, Tony quickly pulled the hacking device from his pocked with sweaty palms and plugged it in.
There was a pop and whoosh and the next thing Tony knew he was sprawled on the floor and a fountain of sparks rained on the chair he had been sitting in just seconds ago. For a moment Tony could not fathom what had happened - the hacking device should be perfectly safe - but as the monitor went blank and the hard drives screeched to a halt Tony realized that it hadn't been the device that caused the power outage. It had been Jarvis who overloaded the terminal's power supply in order to put it out of commission before the AI's own mainframe could be infected by the virus stored on the hacking device.
The lights in the workshop flickered and the other terminals shut down only to come back online seconds later. Pure code started scrolling on the screens. Tony could practically see Jarvis loading backups and purging every trace of the virus with furious determination that Tony had never, ever expected to see in his mild-mannered virtual companion.
"No," Jarvis said, finally, with as flat a voice as Tony had ever heard from him. Then every single device that Jarvis had control over went offline.
Tony was left alone in the darkness, poorly illuminated by the sparks from the destroyed terminal - until Dummy hesitantly rolled in, and put the sparkling terminal out of its misery with a dry chemical extinguisher.
The spray was cold and unpleasant against Tony skin, but not as unpleasant as the sticky, sinking feeling that was spreading like palladium poisoning all over his heart.
When Tony woke up the next day, sore, stiff and cold, Jarvis was still sulking. The scientist tried to reason with the stubborn AI, but all his orders and pleas fell on deaf ears. The lights were off, the terminals were non-responsive, even the air conditioning ceased to function. The whole house, usually bright and friendly and alive with Jarvis's presence, suddenly felt silent and dead as the grave.
Eventually a phone call from Pepper coaxed Tony out of the workshop and into his office. The CEO of Stark Industries spent his day at work signing papers, fiddling with his pencils, shifting restlessly in his chair and generally being worried sick. He even tried to invoke Jarvis through the Starkphone, in feeble and short-lasting hope that the annoying robo-butler, having grown tired of playing hide-and-seek, had returned to his senses. Tony could really use some assurance that a) his home was still maintaining its vertical integrity, and b) Jarvis wasn't upset enough to consort with Bill Gates, or some other lame geek with more money than brains. That wouldn't do at all.
Needless to say, it was not a very productive day for the CEO of Stark Industries. It was a relief when Pepper finally let Tony off his leash, as he had felt just about ready to set his desk on fire and make his escape in the all-consuming chaos that was sure to follow.
Upon his return Tony Stark found his house as eerily quiet as he had left it that morning. Only You's and Dummy's forlorn whines welcomed their inventor as he descended to the workshop. The air conditioning was still down, allowing the humid Malibu air to slowly creep into the workshop, butTony was oblivious to the sudden rise of the temperature. He felt cold, and sick: his late dinner mixed with worry was curdling in his stomach.
As Tony was running diagnostics it suddenly occurred to him that it had been years since he was devoid of Jarvis company. Ever since Afghanistan the AI had been a soothing (if occasionally irritating) constant in Tony's life. The AI's witty sarcasm and random spells of black humor had been preventing Tony from wallowing in self-pity and kept him (more-or-less) sane at times when the rest of the world was driven away by Tony's trauma-induced antics. The very thought of Jarvis not being there was alien, uncomfortable and wrong.
Luckily for Tony's sanity Jarvis's mainframe and the house's security system appeared to be online and fully operational (if the diagnostic software was to be trusted, and Tony had no reason to doubt its functionality). Only the cameras and some of the less vital subsystems were down. The scientist felt a rush of intense relief, soon to be followed by mild irritation.
Maybe he just wants to get his own back for my admittedly not very mature joke, Tony thought. Maybe he's better left alone. It's not like I can't live a few days without air conditioning.
I'm just fine without Jarvis.
"Haven't you had enough?" asked Tony Stark on the third day of Jarvis's self-imposed imprisonment inside the central mainframe. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry I tried to prank you, I'm sorry I didn't listen to you, I'm sorry I was ever born!"
There was no reply. Tony sighed, frustrated, and ran his fingers through his dark hair, thoroughly messing it up, so it stood up in all directions. He was at his wits' end. Try hard as he might, Tony could not find a way to cajole Jarvis out into the world of living. After three days Tony reached the point when he missed even Jarvis's not-so-thinly veiled insults on his creator's emotional intelligence (or lack of thereof). By then the genius scientist would be almost inclined to agree with Jarvis on that matter as for once in his life he was utterly and completely at loss on what to do.
Tony hadn't really expected the apology to work. He'd come to suspect that as much as Jarvis cherished human language and all the subtle nuances it held, he regarded words as a poor vessel for expressing regret or apology. If you messed up, you proved you've learned your lesson by making things right – it was as simple as that.
Except this time it wasn't simple at all.
This time Tony had no idea, not even the slightest inkling, how to make things right. He couldn't even begin to fathom what was going through Jarvis's head – he had expected the sarcastic man to express his acute disappointment in the juvenile nature of Tony's pranks or to prank him right back, possibly in a much more sophisticated and gleefully sadistic manner. He certainly hadn't expected Jarvis to lock himself up in the central mainframe like a brooding princess in a Gothic tower, leaving no cues or hints behind.
Tony was so consumed by his thoughts that the buzz of his Starkphone startled him into jumping up. The man glared angrily at the buzzing device as if it was solely responsible for all his woes and troubles. He briefly considered tossing it against the nearest hard surface, but eventually decided that the therapeutic value of such endeavor would not be worth the hassle that would follow. Also, he sort of liked that phone. Ignoring the insistent, bee-like buzzing was out of the question, though, so Tony sighed with resignation, looked at the screen, then punched the receive button and put the phone to his ear. "Hey, Rhodey."
"Don't you hey me now!" Rhodey snapped. "You don't pick up, Jarvis doesn't pick up - I thought you were dead or something."
"And what were you doing trying to talk to Jarvis?" Tony asked, immediately suspicious.
"Nothing." Rhodey backpedaled instantly. "It's just that he picks up sometimes when you are busy being awesome and important. Anyway, it's not what I wanted to talk about. The War Machine's rocket launcher got totally messed up during my last outing, and I wondered if you could help me with that."
"Sure, why not?" Tony shrugged and started walking up the stairs leading to the living room. "We'll have to make a trip to my factory, though."
"Wouldn't your workshop be better for that purpose? I'd rather avoid parading inside the War Machine in public places."
"It would be better indeed," Tony admitted. "If it was operational. Alas, it isn't."
A few seconds passed.
"...Okay, what have you done now?" Rhodey's voice was overflowing with resignation, but devoid of surprise. Tony sort of wished his closest friends would stop blaming him for each and every foul-up that occurred in Tony's vicinity. Even if they were sort of right half of the time. Most of the time. Okay, nearly always.
"Hey, I didn't blown up anything this time! It's just... Jarvis is sulking, and the assembly line is not operational."
Rhodey was silent for a while "So, you've single-handedly initiated a robot rebellion. Nice."
"I told you to stop re-watching The Matrix!" Tony exclaimed, squishing down the urge to drown the phone in the loo, because that would be sort of childish. "There's no robot rebellion. I pissed off Jarvis and he isn't talking, that's all."
"Oh, I see, so there's no problem at all," Rhodey said, with overstressed relief.
"Yup." Tony grinned, glad that they were finally getting somewhere.
"That was sarcasm."
Tony's grin faded as if wiped off with a sponge. "Sarcasm does not become you."
There was a few seconds of silence again, and then: "Can't you just shut it down?"
The change of pronoun was not lost upon Tony. His voice turned frosty. "Why would I want to?"
Rhodey sighed. "To reset him or something? An AI that fails to respond to human's commands is a liability. Even you should know that."
"Jarvis is not a liability," Tony said, his voice chilly.
"There's no such thing as an absolutely safe software, Tony." Rhodey spoke with forced patience, as if he was talking to a child.
"There is such thing as absolute trust, Rhodey." Tony mocked Rhodey's tone word for word.
"And absolute, pig-headed stupidity, which you are displaying right now! What if..."
Rhodey continued to ramble in his friend's ear in a highly distressed manner, but Tony tuned him out, lost in his own thoughts. Trust. Absolute trust.
Struck with a distressing idea, he nearly gasped and cut the connection.
Trust was like money; you could spend it, you could save it, you could lend it...
...And sometimes you got robbed. Tony Stark did his best to limit the occurrence of it happening to bare minimum. Like a true businessman, he invested his trust wisely. His circle of friends was small but distinguished: there was Happy, loyal to a fault, and Rhodey, with moral spine harder than titanium alloy, and Pepper, whose inability to lie was practically a medical condition. They were like the Swiss bank account of friends.
Jarvis was the odd one. If common sense and TV Tropes were to be trusted, placing trust in Artificial Intelligence was a sure sign of going slightly barmy. Tony was fine with that. He bade his sanity adieu on the day he put on the Iron Man armor for the first time.
...Or maybe not. Maybe he just... displaced it, a little. Maybe Jarvis had become – his external sanity of sorts; a high-tech firewall sifting through the ideas spawned in Tony's mind and frowning upon the more suicidal ones.
Jarvis's disapproval was rather difficult to dispute against. It usually came in the form of rather unkind commentary on Tony's mental state, refusal to cooperate, disabling Tony's armor, or, in the worst cases, a few seconds of disappointed silence.
Strangely, it was Jarvis's disappointment that irked Tony the most.
Tony had grown to almost enjoy the snark. Perhaps it was a sign of quickly approaching insanity. Perhaps Tony's brain got damaged from snark overexposure and he became masochistically convinced that he liked it.
Or perhaps it was the fact that as long as Jarvis was in a snarky mood, he wasn't truly upset. The AI knew that despite his extraordinary intellect and creative power Tony was still only human. Holding a grudge for the mistakes caused by Tony's wetware would be... like speciesism, or something.
Jarvis was above that.
Disappointed Jarvis was another story – and not one that Tony could ever grow to enjoy. It had taken a few bitter incidents followed by Jarvis's disappointed silence to make Tony realize that, in stark contrast with the rest of the world, Jarvis simply expected Tony to act in a manner befitting his IQ. Tony was not sure how he felt about that. On the one hand, the sentiment was flattering as hell, on the other – well, once Jarvis got his disappointed silence going Tony felt less like a human being and more like a bucketful of pond scum.
But never, not for a second, not even during his pond scum moments, had Tony doubted in Jarvis's loyalty. Not even when he'd turned off Tony's armor mid-flight. Not even when he'd hid himself in the mainframe.
That was when Tony realized he trusted Jarvis more than he'd ever thought he did. A thousand times more than he'd ever thought he should, but... there was nothing logical about emotions.
No matter how much Jarvis denied it, the AI was the only one who could understand Tony-the-genius - just like Tony was the only one who could tell how much Jarvis had changed, how unpredictable he had become. Perhaps that was why he trusted Jarvis so much – because they needed each other, and they needed that trust. They needed it to work together – to live in each other's company. In their crazy world where a microsecond of hesitation could make all the difference between survival and a very messy death there was no space for doubt or second-guessing.
And Tony just had to go and mess that up.
The truth was, Tony still had no idea why Jarvis had overreacted so badly, but Rhodey had made him realize that it didn't matter at all, really. What did matter was the fact that Jarvis had rather explicitly asked Tony to leave his voice the heck alone, and had been utterly ignored. Had this happened during an experiment, or during a battle, well, perhaps Pepper would have to go job hunting after all.
...If she was lucky enough to survive, that is, which was never a sure thing. It was one of the quirks of working for an outed superhero slash crazy inventor slash former war profiteer. But hey, at least the pay was excellent.
Corpses couldn't dole out checks, though. Tony wondered briefly whether his employees were financially protected in any way in case of their boss's sudden and untimely demise. Knowing Pepper, she had taken care of that. And if she hadn't, there would be plenty of time to change it, because Tony wasn't planing to go out without a fight. He could make things right.
Tony Stark had a plan.