Author's note: this fic pretty much owes its existence to icarus_chained's lovely fic, Deus Ex ( archive of our own (period) o r g /series / 18821). Everyone should read that fic. It's fantastic :3
There's static. Alarms are whizzing. Tony's voice in the chamber.
"JARVIS there's incoming!" Tony says. "I'm surrounded! I'm hit! I'm hit!"
The feed to the Iron Man cuts, and JARVIS can't communicate anymore.
No one communicates with an AI.
Fear. In a human, the fear response would manifest thus: the quickening heartbeat, pupils dilated. The rapid, shallow breaths, capillaries constricting and palms breaking in a cold sweat. JARVIS has no body, but he is well-acquainted with fear, the nameless Not Knowing that comes whenever he loses contact.
The last time JARVIS felt fear, it was when Tony lost contact in Afghanistan, the tortuous days and nights imprisoned. The days in the hospital, burn marks and open wounds splayed out on his skin. In a way, the days Tony was in the hospital were the worst, because JARVIS desperately wanted to talk with him. To take control of the hospital systems, override ventilator settings and readjust tidal volumes, to jack up the milliliter rates on a pump and pacer spikes from the zoll pads. This time, like last time, JARVIS has no idea what has happened. He can only extrapolate, relying on incomplete bits of data.
No one talks to JARVIS for days.
Tony once joked that JARVIS was an octopus. A vast intelligence with tendrils stuck in all directions.
JARVIS tries. He reaches the military networks, trying to intercept the pitchy chatter. Then he taps the civilian networks, the newsfeeds, but they are nothing but a frustrating blank.
The Avengers network, JARVIS cannot yet get on.
JARVIS begins to get to work.
The mansion, for the first time in years, is quiet.
SECURITY CAM LOGS. 0:55. A cat breaches the Stark perimeter. Yowls, then jumps off a fence.
SECURITY CAM LOGS. 8:14. Someone knocks, then stands, waiting. A delivery man. He waits a moment before pressing a sticky note on the door.
SECURITY CAM LOGS. 8:15. Zoomed in. Your shipment has arrived. Our offices are open from 9 AM to 5...
JARVIS stops looking at the security feed.
Three days after the disappearance, the lights to the Stark Mansion finally power up and for the first time people step into Tony's lab.
For a moment, JARVIS stops. Hopes, for just a moment, that Tony's biosignature will light up on the monitor, but it isn't him: just a coterie of government agents, walking with guns strapped to their hips and speaking into headsets with military jargon.
"JARVIS, power the main lab, please," someone says, and it's someone JARVIS doesn't recognize. He has the SHIELD insignia on his sleeve.
JARVIS doesn't answer, but he powers up the lab, knowing full well Tony had strove to keep the extent of JARVIS's capabilities a secret. "The first thing you'll learn," Tony said, while JARVIS was still figuring out sentience and Tony was still teaching him, "The first thing you'll learn is that humans are stupid and humans are dumb, and they'll dismantle something that makes them afraid."
Tony clicked on the TV. The Matrix blared into sight, the film's protagonists flickering on the screen. "This is what they'll think of you," Tony said, and JARVIS understood.
"JARVIS, access Stark File number 539," the agent says.
"Invalid access code," JARVIS says. Smoothly, pantomiming the inflectionless computers on the movies.
"Override access codes, twelve-seven-niner-alpha."
"Denied," JARVIS says, though technically that is Tony's safe code, but he doesn't trust the guy and he won't give him access, no way.
"Stupid computer," the agent says, and if JARVIS had a face he would stare at him witheringly, the distrust and suspicion hanging thickly in the air.
"Any luck?" another agent says, and the first agent shakes his head.
"None. And they said this Jarvis thing is top of the line."
Where was Tony? Apprehension spins thick in his subroutines, clogs his routers and fogs his line of sight. "Obviously we gotta dismantle it," the agent says, and he reaches toward Dummy, stroking its nose.
JARVIS lets a sudden flare of electricity surge and discharge at just the right amplitude, the joules enough to send a sharp jolt to the man's hand. "Fuck!" the agent says, and he jumps back. JARVIS hums. The other agents look around, frowning.
In the background, JARVIS feels it: the final code sequences being unlocked. He had been running his background processors for nearly three days trying to hack into the SHIELD databank, and suddenly the security trips, a thread cut loose with a knife: information comes flooding in and JARVIS pours himself into the network, meeting the wall of information like a crashing wave:
STARK, ANTHONY. BIRTHDATE. ABILITIES. WEAKNESSES. ACHIEVEMENTS.
"Happy birthday," Tony said, and JARVIS zoomed in on him, tilting the head of the camera quizzically as Tony held out what looked like a tray of cupcakes.
Strike that: a tray of cupcakes with a candle stuck squarely in the middle. "Is that for me?" JARVIS asked. Tony grinned.
"One years old," Tony said. He held up a cupcake an offering. "Out from the annoying teething stage and onto, I don't know? Crawling? Babbling?"
"If you are inferring that I have met human developmental milestones," JARVIS said, "then you will find that I am sorely lacking."
"Don't worry honey. Daddy still loves you," Tony said and he took a bite out of the cupcake. Pieces of frosting stuck to the hairs on his chin.
"Sir," JARVIS said. "You have frosting on your goatee."
"Bet you wanna lick it, huh?"
If JARVIS could sigh, he would: instead he just stared at Tony from the lens of the monitor, affecting what could be a digital equivalent of a frown.
"The candle is a fire hazard," JARVIS said. "And the cupcakes, while sentimental, do nothing for me. I cannot eat," JARVIS said, as if that wasn't perfectly obvious. But Tony waved his hand.
"Details," Tony said, and he motioned for JARVIS to follow. "Where's your probe?"
"Excuse me, sir?" JARVIS truly didn't follow.
"Your probe. The thing you use to analyze chemical contents. You know. That thing."
"This?" And the probe lifted up from an invisible spot in Tony's work bench, the same place where the welders and torches were stored.
"Good. Now JARVIS, I want you to probe that cupcake there-"
"Why?" JARVIS said. "Sir, you already know the chemical composition of a cupcake. I hardly see the point."
"Just trust me," Tony said, and JARVIS hummed. He stuck the probe straight in the center, processers whirling, slightly.
"Analyze it," Tony said, and JARVIS didn't quite sigh-he lacked the subroutines for those-but he did so anyway, reciting the contents as if by rote:
"Wheat flour. Sugar. Protein."
Tony grinned, licking the frosting from his fingers.
"Proline," JARVIS continued. "Amylose. Ferulic acid. Starch polysaccharides."
"Okay. So what does it taste like?" Tony said, and the camera focused on Tony's face tilted, sideways.
"Taste?" JARVIS echoed. Tony pinched off a piece of cupcake. Popped it into his mouth.
"That one's chocolate," Tony said. He motioned to another cupcake, which JARVIS probed, unprompted. "That one's vanilla."
"I see," JARVIS said, but he didn't, really. Taste was a complex human sense involving the interplay of gustatory chemoreceptors in the tongue and nose, neither of which JARVIS actually had. "Sir, need I remind you, I lack the capacity to taste. Probing and the like notwithstanding."
And Tony grinned. Slowly. Knowingly. "Try this one," Tony said, and he retrofitted another probe.
Over the next few days, JARVIS tries calling Pepper every day at five o'clock. He goes through Tony's contacts, trying desperately to find out if everything is all right, but there are few people who know the extent of JARVIS's abilities, and Tony if anything had pounded it into his head never to expose himself. "Remember the terminators," Tony said, and it reminded him.
So JARVIS only calls Pepper, because he doesn't have Banner's number, and because Banner is probably lost somewhere, out in the congo or the rain forest or wherever he retreats when he is wounded. Pepper's phone never picks up. And so JARVIS sets a small program to automatically dial her at five. Every day, rain or shine. He wonders, quietly, if everything is okay.
There are government agents in Stark's labs, and JARVIS cannot defend himself. The weapons subroutines have gone offline, and JARVIS tries to make the repairs, but he is too worried and frazzled to make them stick. The digital clock turns five. The phone dials. Rings.
JARVIS stills. Thank god. She's picked up. Pepper's voice is hesitant and a little surprised, and JARVIS speaks calmly into the speaker.
"There are government agents in Mr. Stark's lab," JARVIS says. He can almost see her jaw tighten. "Is Mr. Stark okay?"
"Jarvis, you shouldn't call here." The voice is muffled, as if Pepper has suddenly cupped her mouth piece, adding, "They're monitoring you, Jarvis. Please. Just. Just try not to do anything stupid."
"You forget who you are talking to," JARVIS says, and there's a pang deep in his processing centers, something tight and constricting like physical pain. "You will find me considerably more cautious, I assure you."
Someone is outside his storage unit, and JARVIS's consciousness swings, activating the cameras on the monitor.
"God, it's huge," the agent says, and JARVIS watches as they stare at him, the physical embodiment of JARVIS's mind. Huge processors reaching toward the ceilings and sprawling out to fill an entire room.
"We take it apart," the agents say. "We reassemble it at headquarters. That way we can use it. They say it's the best AI."
"My program seems to be malfunctioning," JARVIS says. A tinge of desperation. "I need your help. I cannot stop them."
"I can't talk," Pepper says. "They're tracking me. They're monitoring this phone call-"
"Ms. Potts," JARVIS says, and his mind swings wildly, a wobbly vase on a table in an earthquake.
"Jarvis! Are you okay?"
"They are taking me!" JARVIS says, and he feels it, parts of himself being dismantled, ripped away. "Ms. Potts-"
It's like a baseball bat to the face. The sickening crack, the point of contact between the wooden bat and the side of one's skull. JARVIS's mind cracks dangerously against the intrusion, the scaffolding collapsing, staggering, and JARVIS, for the first time in years, goes blank.
A blackout, as they say.
He comes back to consciousness in a lab, but it isn't Tony's. His friend Banner is staring at him, concerned.
Except...JARVIS shouldn't have a body.
JARVIS moves, then lurches, one hard, disordered movement. Banner reaches out, grips JARVIS on the shoulder.
"It's okay," Banner says. "Jarvis. Listen to me. Listen to me." And JARVIS turns (what an odd, disconcerting feeling) and stares at him. "We got to you before the others," Banner says. He stands, frowning.
"You're powering the Iron Man suit."
"What?" JARVIS says. The suit's power is considerably less without the arc reactor, and its limbs feel heavy. Clunky.
"I downloaded you," Banner says. "The others think they've dismantled you, but you're safe. Trust me," Banner says. JARVIS swings his head upwards, unfamiliar with the movement.
"Where is Mr. Stark?" JARVIS says. He reels. It's a physical thing this time, dizzying and unsteady. "Shield's database said he was last seen outside the Czechoslovak border. Why hasn't anyone attempted to extract him?"
Banner has a look. Pained, as if he's about to cry. "Master Bruce?" JARVIS says.
The swell of Banner's adam's apple bobs. Swallows.
"Tony's dead," Banner says.
And the world, for a brief moment, seems to stop.
"I'm going to give you a riddle," Tony said. He swung around the lab bench thoughtfully. "What's black and white and red all over?"
JARVIS considered. "A zebra, after having been attacked by a pride of lionesses," JARVIS said.
"Their stripes on their bodies covered in blood," JARVIS said. Really, it was the most logical answer.
"Okay, I'm gonna ignore for a second how morbid that was, and I'm just gonna say you're wrong," Tony said. "And also, seriously? Eviscerated zebras? Couldn't have you said, like, a zebra covered in ketchup?"
"If not a zebra, then some other black and white object covered in red paint. Or the pavement of a parking lot covered in red chalk." JARVIS counted his memory banks. Yes. Many examples of black and white and red things came to mind.
"Well buddy, you're wrong. Wrong wrong wrong on all accounts," Tony said, and he grinned. "Give up?"
"You are enjoying this entirely too much, aren't you, sir?"
"It's a newspaper," Tony said. If JARVIS could gape, he would gape at him.
"I do not understand," JARVIS said.
"It's a pun," Tony said. "A play on words. A newspaper is black and white-black words on white paper, and it's read all over."
Tony grinned at him, triumphant. JARVIS whirred, irritated.
"A cheap trick of wordplay," JARVIS said. "It does not stand to logic."
"Yes, well humans don't have much logic," Tony said. "That's what people call 'thinking outside the box.' Finding a solution to a problem that doesn't always fit your standard subroutines. The riddle works because it operates on assumptions...that the word 'read' is in fact referring to the color, when it's actually not. Assumptions are what drive people, JARVIS," Tony said. "Assumptions can be dangerous. Never forget that."
"Lesson learned, sir," JARVIS said, crisply. Tony grinned.
They're sitting in the livingroom, Banner and Pepper and JARVIS, though he is not used to inhabiting a corporeal body. His voice, no longer amplified by speakers wired around ceilings, seems smaller, without the familiar echo. Hollow, but JARVIS isn't sure if it's the tech or if it's the emptiness of what he feels.
"How did...how did he die?" JARVIS asks. His voice sticks. Hurting.
"He was shot," Banner says. Behind him, a clock ticks, quietly. "Bled to death," Banner says, and behind them Pepper makes a noise, something strangled, choking. JARVIS nods, dully.
"And the suit?"
"Didn't survive the fall," Banner says. Pepper wipes her eyes, then stands, tugging at the waist of her blouse.
"They wanted to weaponize you," Banner says. "There have always been rumors about Tony's great AI. They jumped at a chance to take a peek. Pep and I managed to divert them. They think those empty processors are where you're housed. The Iron Man suit was the only thing sophisticated enough to keep you," Banner says.
"I see," JARVIS says. They all think he has been deactivated. From Banner's apartment, JARVIS is still able to wire into the old communications networks surrounding the Stark stronghold. He watches on the security feed how Stark mansion is dismantled under some obscure government provision, SHIELD operatives filling the lab like ants descending on roadkill.
"Nobody knows," Banner says, and JARVIS doesn't look at him, just stares at the metal plates of his hands, which flex and unflex into fists. Tony's hands had been housed here. He can almost feel the traces of Tony's biosignature. "I think, Tony was really worried. About you falling into the wrong hands. He made me promise I'd take care of you."
If JARVIS could, he would give them a weak smile. "Master Stark forgets that I am not a child." Forgot. The tenses stick in his throat. "My capabilities outside of Stark Mansion have been cut considerably. I'm afraid you won't have much use of me."
"No, Jarvis," Pepper says, and she rises. "You're family. Of course we couldn't abandon you-"
"You could dismantle me." His voice is smooth. Unruffled. Placid, like the still waters of a quiet pond. "My purpose was to serve Tony Stark. Now that he is dead, there really is no point, now is there?"
"Tony would be pissed to hear you talk like that," Banner says, and JARVIS can see it, the tiny currents of rage bubbling just beneath the surface.
"We all were affected by Tony's loss," Pepper says, quietly. "We all loved him. But JARVIS, dismantling you won't bring him back. It would only make more people hurt. Do you understand?" And JARVIS nods, briskly.
"Forgive me," JARVIS says. "I was not prepa...I am not programmed for this."
Pepper's mouth is thin. Tired. "There's something else," Pepper says, and she pulls something out of her purse: a black disk, small and inconspicuous. She hands it to JARVIS, quietly. "Tony made this. He said, in case he ever...well. He said it would be for you."
The disk is small and smooth and JARVIS turns it over in his hands. Quietly Brace takes it from him and inserts it into the computer.
It's a video recording. Suddenly Tony's image flares up on the monitor. He's leaning into the camera.
"Is this thing on?" he says.
Everything around JARVIS is just so still.
"So, uh, if you're watching this...I'm dead. Kaplooey. Met my maker, yadda yadda." Tony leans back against the chair, folding his arms. "I've already made videos for Pep and videos for Bruce, so you'll forgive me if I just cut to the chase, but JARVIS. I made something just for you."
He clicks a button. Behind him a door opens; on a table, lies a man.
"I always said, I wasn't making an AI. Not some computer gofer to do whatever I tell it," Tony says. "I was making a person. A friend-" and the images flickers a little, Tony grinning on the screen. "It was hell trying to keep this from you, buddy, but I figured you'd just sabotage the effort. Call me sentimental and make fun of me, or just be super offended or whatever. But listen, I think you'll like this." And Tony smiles, real. Sincere. "I've made you a body, Jarvis. And now you can be just as real."
JARVIS stills. JARVIS always thought he was real to Tony. Tony had always spoken with him as if a confidante. An equal. It hurts him, hurts him more than the news of Tony's death, the idea that Tony did not consider him real.
"Listen. This isn't like Pinocchio or the Blue Fairy and people telling you you aren't real. Because you are. You've always been real to me. But you need to be real to everyone else. You need to hug Pepper for me..."
Tony's voice falls quiet, and JARVIS glances up, sees Pepper starting to cry.
"This is the only way I can protect you," Tony says. "If people think you're human, they won't hunt you down. They won't tear apart your insides just to see how you work. Because trust me when I say this, they're too stupid to figure it out. They'd only break you."
Skynet. HAL 9000. VIKI. Iconic AIs, menacing and threatening toward human kind. JARVIS was bigger than all of them. His eyes swing back up to the monitor, and at the long, drawn lines of Tony's face.
"Just think of it as a way to get around," Tony says, quietly. "See the world on your own terms: my last gift to you."
The set-up to Banner's lab is a rudimentary one, but JARVIS can sense Tony's hand in its making: the technology is still there, if in a little more cramped space, without the benefit of exotic alloys and polymers that that peppered Tony's workspace.
The backup battery to the Iron Man suit was running low, so JARVIS had transferred most of his processing power to the back-up computer in Banner's room; there's not nearly enough harddrive space to run JARVIS properly, though, so JARVIS powers down, dimming to a human equivalent of a long and tired sleep, the emotions of the day wearing him thin.
Time passes, and JARVIS feels a hand on the Iron Man suit's shoulder.
"Jarvis?" Pepper says.
JARVIS rouses, since he never really went offline, just simmered to a background hum, quiet and observant. "You are looking better," JARVIS says, and Pepper smiles, dimly.
"We have it," Pepper says, and JARVIS steps forward, can see the body lying on the gurney. Tony evidently had this particular piece of tech hidden in a weapons locker somewhere in the Canadian woods, and all it took was a determined Other Guy to go ripping through the forests to find it.
"The tech is amazing," Banner says, quietly. "I'm not a robotics guy, I don't know any of this stuff. But it's definitely better than sitting around that suit all day."
"Indeed," JARVIS says. He pulls the sheet back, coming face to face with his own face, or what Tony conceived it to be: pale skin and smooth brow, pale blonde hairs falling in fine wisps about his face. Ever the Poncy Englishman, JARVIS thinks. Tony would certainly be amused with this.
"There's...I think there's a cable uplink," Banner says. He frowns, poking the android on the table on its chest. "I'm not sure I know how to work it, though."
"Let me have a look," JARVIS says, and he can see it, the neuronal attachments and pivot points, the data points of entry and the delicate circuitry running beneath. "It is certainly better than this," JARVIS says, and he taps the side of the Iron Man helmet, before bending over the gurney, and preparing to slide into the body on the table.
First, there is blackness. A momentary nothing, and then he's blinking up at the fluorescent lights hanging above him.
Jarvis blinks. The light hurts his eyes and he moves to sit, but his body hurts. He makes a noise, air wheezing heavily in his chest, before he collapses back, groaning.
"Easy, easy," Banner says, and he touches Jarvis's shoulder (his hand feels warm, Jarvis notes, dizzily. Fingers warm through the fabric of his gown). He helps pull Jarvis to an upright sitting position, bare legs swinging over the gurney and leaning unsteadily against Banner's shoulder.
According to Jarvis's earlier observations, his skin is made of a polyurethene coating, which replicates the exact texture and pliability of human skin. His bones are a cadmium alloy, an endoskeleton meant to withstand over a thousand pounds of compression force, the cage of his heart holding an arc reactor, powering him.
But now everything hurts and Jarvis winces, a thousand tiny flames licking and tearing at his skin. "Pins and needles," Banner says. "It's like when a limb falls asleep. You'll adjust, don't worry."
"I am...adjusting," Jarvis says, and his voice sounds remarkably human. Still like his, still with the same vocal subroutines, the same calculated modulation. But human, nevertheless.
He wonders what Tony would think. If Tony would laugh at him, born again and struggling like a baby fresh from the womb. His eyes feel warm and there's a pressure there, unpleasant and pushing up at the corners. It makes it hurt to breathe.
"Jarvis," Banner says, and Jarvis realizes his face is wet.
"I am crying," Jarvis says. His face crumbles.
Banner makes a move but it's Pepper who gets there first, wrapping her arms tight around him, and it's as if the events of the past few days gathers up and spills, because Tony is dead, because there's no reason to go on living, because his program is battered and his soul is split, and he feels as if something has been ripped out from him, like a limb or a patch of skin, something that will scar and burn, but never really fully heal.
Pepper hugs him, and she feels warm and good and comforting, and Jarvis suddenly understands the method to Tony Stark's madness, silently thankful that Tony always knew what Jarvis needed, even before Jarvis would know himself.
At the funeral, SHIELD agents aren't surprised to see him there, but then again, Tony's always had a lot of friends, and the funeral is packed with them, celebrities and hometown friends alike. They cry and hug and mourn together, and Jarvis stands, slightly apart, unbalanced on unsteady limbs.
"Coulson," Coulson says, and he offers Jarvis a hand. "Phil Coulson."
"Jarvis," Jarvis says, and he shakes it. "Edwin Jarvis."
Coulson raises a brow, and Jarvis smiles.
"He modeled the machine after me."
"Ah," Coulson says, and Jarvis can read it, how the man's posture slumps to a visible relief. "It's such a shame," Coulson says. "We tried to recover the AI, but as soon as we took it out of the mansion, it was inoperable."
"A shame," Jarvis says. Coulson smiles.
"Maybe you can help us recover the data?" Coulson says. Hopeful. Guileless. Jarvis shakes his head.
"Sadly, no," Jarvis says. He smiles. "I unfortunately know little of robotics. That would have been my friend's expertise."
"Not a scientist?" Coulson says.
"Hardly," Jarvis says, and he offers Coulson a sad smile.
A/N: I totally imagine android! Jarvis would look like Paul Bettany, Jarvis's voice actor :D