He had not been JARVIS for twenty-two days now, and Mister Stark was now Tony (a strange but fitting intimacy, given everything else that had happened between them), but some things remained constant in his existence: managing the lab, supervising the house, and above all taking care of his creator to the best of his ability. JAMES might technically be capable of the first two tasks, but JAMES lacked Jarvis's functional complexity — and in spite of knowing that he should be above such petty human concerns as jealousy, it nevertheless pleased Jarvis to recognize that Tony didn't trust JAMES to carry out those functions to his satisfaction. Hence Jarvis's continued presence, wearing an upgraded version of the cybernetic interface headset that Tony had experimented with seven years ago and discarded in favour of actually talking to his A.I.; JAMES had a voice, a cultured Boston accent, but Tony almost never had to hear it. Jarvis monitored JAMES's activities, regulated his functions, and communicated with Tony when communication was necessary.
It sounds better when you say it, Tony had told him fifteen days ago, and Jarvis had actually felt himself flush with pleasure. Being needed had always been his sine qua non, but being wanted was a new and profound satisfaction.
Today was a case in point, as were all days: Tony was up to his mid-forearms in the intricacies of the next iteration of Iron Man's armour, blind and deaf to the world in spite of having been at his task for nearly eighteen hours straight, when JAMES informed Jarvis via his earpiece that dinner had arrived upstairs. Without a word Jarvis rose from his desk and departed the lab, returning less than five minutes later with a tray containing a piping hot boxed pizza from his maker's favourite vendor, plates and cutlery, a cup of Earl Grey tea (one sugar, no cream), and a full glass of chilled Madiran wine. Tony's head stayed down as he crossed to the small table in the kitchen area, calling out in a low but firm voice: "Sir."
A distracted grunt and a tiny spit of sparks was the only discernible response, aside from the hunching of broad shoulders inside a sweaty and grease-stained t-shirt.
"Sir, dinner is ready." He started to set out the plates, the beverages, the napkins and the cutlery: Tony was marginally more likely to eat when he had company.
"Busy," Tony retorted, which was at least a coherent response and thus an improvement.
"Sir," Jarvis persisted, opening up the flat box so the food was clearly visible. "Please, don't make me have JAMES cut the power to the tool array. Again."
A snarl and a growl, but after several seconds he slammed the microwelder down with ill grace and levered himself off his stool, striding to the table with his gaze clearly turned inward, still deep in analyzing the engineering problem he'd set himself to fix. It wasn't until he was actually seated that his eyes focussed on what was right in front of him — and he scowled. "Red wine with pizza? C'mon, Jarvis…"
"Red wine contains both polyphenols and procyanidins, as well as trace amounts of resveratrol — all conducive to maintaining your overall physical health, particularly when you insist upon driving yourself to the point of collapse." He took his own seat facing Tony, pausing significantly before continuing: "Of course, I could always replace the wine with a nice cold glass of whole milk, if you'd rather —"
Tony shuddered dramatically. "No! Oh God, no."
He reached out and, with his fingertips on the base of the glass, pushed it two inches closer to the plate. "Then I'd suggest you drink up, Sir."
"You are such a pain in the ass," Tony complained, but he was smiling thinly as he plucked the biggest slice of loaded pizza out of the box, mumbling around the first huge mouthful: "Remind me why I keep you around again?"
"Because without me you'd starve to death within a week," Jarvis countered without missing a beat, transferring a smaller slice to his own plate and picking up his knife and fork. "Or perhaps it has something to do with the way I consistently make you scream in bed."
"Mph." He barely chewed before swallowing, the smile becoming a smirk once his mouth was freed up. "Maybe." Reaching for his glass, he took a mouthful and scarcely even winced: his attention was focussed on Jarvis's throat now, where he'd loosened his tie and his collar ever so slightly before bringing down the meal. The quality of that gaze suggested that he wanted to lean across the small table and open up the neat navy business suit even more, exactly as Jarvis had intended. "Y'know, I see what you're doing here."
Jarvis placed a bite-sized piece in his mouth delicately, chewing and swallowing without haste. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Sir."
"Right. You're totally not trying to lure me into bed — and not for sexy times, either."
"I would never presume to interrupt your work to that extent." It had taken him a while to figure out the precise blend of prim and seductive that was most effective under these circumstances, how long to hold Tony's eyes before glancing down, how to smile secretly. He prided himself on being rather good at it. "Especially when you're obviously so close to a breakthrough."
"Bullshit," Tony said flatly. "You'd hit me over the head with a club and drag me out of here by my heels if you thought for one second that you could get away with it without dire consequences."
He raised a reproving eyebrow. "Sir."
"In fact…" He picked up the glass of wine and held it to the light, narrowing his eyes at it suspiciously. "Is that dissolved pill sediment I detect?"
"Horse tranquillizers," Jarvis said placidly. "Oh dear. I'm afraid you've caught me out."
Tony snorted and drank off another mouthful. "Smart-ass."
"Another reason you keep me around, if I'm not mistaken."
"If I had a lick of self-preservation," Tony grumbled in advance of another ravenous bite of food, "I'd set you up with a nice little house in the Hamptons and only visit you every other weekend."
"Yes," Jarvis observed with a dry inflection, concentrating on carving his next bite, "because JAMES is completely up to the task of managing the day-to-day lab functions and assisting with all your research. How could I possibly forget?"
Tony's tone turned defensive. "Hey, don't dis JAMES — he's doing the best he can. Took you the better part of three years to get fully up to speed, remember?"
Jarvis used a sip of his tea to camouflage the wince that thought provoked. He doubted that Tony understood how deeply the memory of what he had once been still pained him, and if he could possibly help it Tony would never suspect. Nevertheless, his next words came from that place of unarticulated distress rather than from pure rationality: "If you should ever wish to send me —"
"Don't." A calloused hand closed around his right wrist, startling him into looking up. The depth of warmth in those brown eyes was even more surprising. "Just don't, J. I told you — you're not going anywhere." A squeeze, a quick bitter smile, and he released Jarvis's forearm to pick up his glass again. "Who else is going to make sure that I drink enough Madira to sink a battleship?"
"One glass, Sir."
He finished half of it at one pull and rolled his eyes. "Eight years with me and you still haven't figured out that beer is what goes with pizza?"
"I'll endeavour to keep that in mind in future."
Tony snorted, unimpressed by the not-quite-a-promise, and settled down to the task of putting away as much pizza as possible as quickly as he could. By the time he was halfway through the second slice Jarvis could see his eyelids growing heavier and heavier, and this time Jarvis's smile was confined to the privacy of his own mind. A bit of distraction and some solid food was often all it took to remind Tony's body that it was merely mortal and in need of proper rest — and when, after the last few bleary bites of Tony's third slice, Jarvis rose from his seat and silently laid his hand on Tony's left shoulder to urge him to his feet, the engineer did not resist.
He did, however, complain as Jarvis guided him up the stairs, one step behind: "There'd better be a blow job waiting for me at the end of this."
Jarvis kissed him lightly just below his left ear, easily taking the shorter man's weight when Tony hummed lustily and leaned briefly back against him. "For you, Sir? Always."
"Promises, promises," Tony purred, clearly already half asleep. But he was definitely smiling.
They had just reached the bedroom doorway when JAMES flashed a virtual screen onto the window glass and announced: "Incoming call from Miss Pepper Potts."
Tony, who hadn't really stopped leaning against Jarvis since discovering (again, always) that the taller blond was willing to take his weight and guide him wherever he needed to go, suddenly woke up most of the way again. "Great!" he grinned, straightening and heading for the screen projection while combing both the fingers of both hands back through his already disordered hair. "Put her through!"
"Sir —" Jarvis began, following at a more sedate pace. Tony, predictably, ignored him completely in favour of turning that two hundred watt smile on the woman's face now regarding him with a visual transparency which did nothing to lessen its profound skepticism.
"Hey, Pepper! How's it —"
"You haven't even slept yet, have you?" Jarvis had to give Miss Potts her due: she was not cowed by Tony's wealth and power as so many others were, she would never hesitate to call him out on a broken promise, and Tony had indeed told her that he'd be getting some sleep "soon" — at five p.m. the previous day.
Tony's grin faltered. "I've slept!" he protested.
She levelled an exasperated look at him. "Not counting fifteen minute naps, Tony."
And resurged with perfect confidence as he rolled his eyes again. "No, Mommy, not counting fifteen minute naps."
Jarvis stepped up smoothly behind him to clarify: "Mister Stark is telling the truth. He slept for three hours and sixteen minutes between nine twenty-two p.m. and twelve thirty-eight a.m. last night."
"See!" Tony crowed, as if he'd just scored a winning hand at bridge.
"And," Jarvis continued, laying both hands firmly atop Tony's shoulders, "I am about to put him to bed for a much longer period of rest."
The expression on Miss Pott's face now suggested that she wasn't entirely sure she'd wanted to hear that, a reaction which did not surprise Jarvis: her initial response to learning that Tony was engaging in regular sexual contact with his inexplicably embodied computer program had been far less than approving, not that Tony had particularly cared — or so he'd loudly announced afterwards. Jarvis happened to know better; he was simply grateful that as much stock as Tony put in Miss Potts' opinions, he wasn't letting his actions be dictated by them in this instance.
"I've also seen to it that he's been eating at regular intervals," Jarvis assured her — such disagreements aside, Miss Potts was a valuable ally in his master's care. "In fact, he just finished a rather substantial dinner."
"Well… good." She looked mollified, if still somewhat uneasy: although she'd never said as much, Jarvis calculated that his now-physical presence in Tony's life gave her some respite from the previously constant tasks of ensuring Tony's well-being. If nothing else, it meant that she could take the weekend off with a clear conscience. "That's good. Definitely an improvement."
"I'm so glad you think so," Jarvis rejoined, letting his hands glide down to Tony's bare upper arms and lightly squeeze, wondering where the mean little spark of pleasure came from when a distressed crease appeared between Miss Potts' eyebrows. Tony missed it: he was looking around and up into Jarvis's face, his smile turning slow and hot.
"Will that be all, Miss Potts?" he asked, his attention obviously well diverted.
She cleared her throat nervously. "That will be all, Mister Stark. Have — ah, have a good weekend."
"You too," Tony muttered, already turning away as the screen blinked hastily out of existence — not to press himself up against Jarvis, as might have been expected, but to head toward the wide bed with a smouldering glance over one shoulder. "So — you plan to keep me here a while?"
"I expect that once you've lain down, your body will take care of that for me." He started toward the dresser that contained Tony's collection of pajamas, already thinking that a warm soft flannel would suit nicely. "If you'd care to have a shower before —?"
"Uh-uh." He reached the bed and flopped down onto his back on the mattress, wriggling into a comfortable position with his legs spread and knees up, fingers interlaced behind his head on the pillow. "No way, sweetheart. You promised me a blow job, and I'm not doing anything else until I get it."
Jarvis didn't let that stop him from opening the drawer and selecting a set of nightclothes in Abercrombie Modern tartan. "Really, Sir, I think you'd feel much —"
"Jarvis." It was still fascinating, the way that particular purr could go right to the most ancient structures of his brain and light up his central nervous system with a thrill of red heat along every nerve. "You love it like this — when I'm all dirty and sweaty from the shop. I know you do, so don't even try to deny it. Just turn around…"
He did, pajamas still in hand, and oh, Tony was perfectly correct: the sight of him lying there ready for servicing, scruffy and grinning and already half-hard inside his work-stained black sweatpants… it made Jarvis's mouth go dry with longing in an instant.
Tony's grin widened. He opened his thighs wider and freed his right hand and crooked a finger, beckoning. And Jarvis obeyed, driven both by his programmed imperative to serve his maker and by primal mammalian motivators he was only barely beginning to understand, scarcely even noticing where the pajamas ended up (at the foot of the bed, still neatly folded) when Tony reached up to wrap that hand around his tie and pull him none-too-gently down between his legs, propping himself up on his left elbow to meet Jarvis's mouth in a slow, hungry, bruising kiss.
Jarvis closed his eyes. He couldn't help it: the incoming surge of sensory data demanded his complete attention, overwhelming even the constant background murmur of JAMES in his ear and in his mind. He was used to processing a visual stream, or the audio of Tony's satisfied little grunt, but the rest of it — scent, taste, pressure and texture and temperature perceived viscerally — was still surpassingly strange to him, if inexpressibly wonderful. The combined experience of Tony's demanding mouth and the restriction of the tie against the back of his neck nearly overwhelmed him with the urge to drop the rest of the way, to clasp and lick and bite, ancient instincts born from evolutionary programming hundreds of millions of years old. He resisted the impulse. Barely.
When their lips finally parted he could hear the smile in Tony's voice through its timbre of command: "Leave the suit on."
Amazing, too, how the knowledge of what aroused Tony aroused Jarvis in turn, inflecting his submissive whisper with a trace of a shiver: "Yes, Sir."
"That's my boy." More kisses, and it was a measure of how far Jarvis had come in the seventeen days since Tony had first taken him to his bed that the input no longer sent him mentally reeling. He was justifiably proud that he could now support himself steadily on hands and knees and return the caresses, doing things with his mouth that he'd learned Tony liked: tongue gliding against tongue, a slow lick along Tony's lower lip, a little bite that coaxed a small eager sound from deep in his maker's chest. Tony bit him back, a smile spreading across his stubbled face, and moved his hips impatiently. "Don't wait for an engraved invitation, J — nobody likes a goldbricker."
"My apologies." He infused the words with a hint of wry humour, shifting his weight to free up his right hand and running it down Tony's side: one thing he'd learned long before inhabiting this human body was that while Tony might demand immediate actions and results, he often appreciated an opportunity to savour anticipation even more. He opened his eyes again to quirk a questioning eyebrow. "If you'd be so kind as to let go of my tie —"
The smirk became a grin. "Y'know — no. I kind of like you this way." He let himself drop fully back onto the pillow, pulling Jarvis after him using the tie as a leash.
"Yes," Jarvis drawled, now on one elbow and both knees, "you've always appreciated a captive audience." His hand reached Tony's hip and he had the profound satisfaction of feeling his creator squirm impatiently — and of holding off, stroking onto the thickly muscled curve of his upper thigh instead. Tony clenched his teeth in dramatized frustration, but his eyes were bright with merriment.
"Oh," he lamented, "how I long for the days when I could reprogram you with a hammer and chisel!" The way his lips moved, strong and perfectly sculpted, was mesmerizing — Jarvis longed to lean in and give himself to them again, but those weren't the terms of the game at this stage: no, he was permitted to gaze yearningly, but not to touch unless invited. Unless commanded, not to put too fine a point on it. A human might have had second thoughts about the power dynamic behind that sort of interaction. Jarvis, beyond recognizing the psychological facts of the case, scarcely thought about it twice.
He knew Tony. He trusted the perceptiveness of the man who'd built him. And indeed, within a couple of seconds Tony's laughing expression grew both darker and hotter. "But. That was then…" With the women he bedded he was decisive and brisk, and often shameless in his exuberance, but he wasn't in the habit of ordering them around — not like this, pulling Jarvis a little closer by the tether of his necktie and licking aggressively into his mouth again, then growling: "… and this is now. Tell me. Tell me how much you want to suck my dirty cock."
"Sir…" He could feel hot blood pulsing in his lips, his fingertips, and definitely in his genitals, distracting and rooting him at the same instant, his physical system suddenly awash in vastly greater quantities of oxytocin and various endorphins. Through the headset, JAMES reported that Butterfingers had completed the fabrication of Part Number 2093-A-3 and —
A harder jerk on his tie in rebuke, as the engineer's left hand slid down to the front of Jarvis's pants and applied firm pressure. "It's Tony, remember?"
Breathing quickening, cheeks flushing, the throb in his groin intensifying dramatically. Oh my. Oh yes. JAMES's soft narration of dry data became utterly irrelevant. "I do, Tony. So very much." He could smell the male body beneath him, all of it — warm breath redolent of food and wine, fermenting skin oils, and underneath it all the richer scent of his tumescent sex, only inches away. The vast universe narrowed to that tiny distance. "The thought of tasting it makes my mouth water, so thick and hot and delicious. Will you fill my mouth when you come? Please… it tastes so good."
Brown eyes studied his face, briefly critical. "You really mean that."
"Of course." Jarvis met his gaze with perfect conviction, dropping all postural filters. He had, after all, nothing to hide. "I would never lie to you."
Tony smiled again, with only a thin edge of bitterness, and bestowed a kiss far more tender, his touch on Jarvis's erection growing momentarily gentler "I know, J. I know. And fuck yes, I'll come down your throat — all you ever have to do is ask nicely. Or not. If you suddenly get the overwhelming urge to just go to town, believe me, you'll get no objection from me."
He had to lick his lips then, because the sudden image-flash of getting down on his knees in front of Tony in the lab and opening the front of Tony's pants and pulling his limp penis free… of taking it in his mouth without any further preliminaries, hearing Tony's sharp intake of breath when he began to suck… of feeling it swell against his tongue… indeed, this human brain sometimes had a mind of its own. "I might just take you up on that, Sir. Perhaps when you least expect it."
The lingering trace of bitterness vanished in the warmth of amusement. "At least put all the bots on recharge before you do, huh? Don't want to scare the kids."
"If he's not used to the sight of me playing with you by now, he needs some serious retooling." He removed his left hand from Jarvis's groin, smiling more broadly when Jarvis made a slight sound of protest, and raised it to remove the delicate headset from his right ear and his temple. "Speaking of which — this is 'we' time. He can do without you for a few hours."
Jarvis nodded acquiescence as Tony fumbled the headset onto the bedside table, effectively distracted by the way Tony was kissing him again: deeply, like he was trying to drink in some essential quality of Jarvis's mouth. "Jesus," Tony murmured a few seconds later when his left hand had found its way back to its original target, "you always get so fucking hard, just from being kissed. If I didn't know better I'd swear you were enjoying this."
"I always —" Tony pinched the head of Jarvis's penis, hard, and for a couple of seconds Jarvis had a hard time breathing. "I adore being touched by you, Sir."
He pinched again, pulling brusquely on the tie, and whispered into Jarvis's right ear when he obediently dropped his shoulders and head: "Do you ever think about it when I'm not here?"
"Yes." He wasn't telling secrets. He had no secrets from this man — none that weren't for Tony's own good, anyway.
Tony rubbed his whole length, light and lingering. "Ever touch yourself while you're thinking about it?"
Jarvis shivered at the memories, both delicious and shameful. "Sir…"
"It's okay, Jarvis. You lying on this bed, or sitting back in your chair in the lab, getting yourself off while you're picturing me — it's a good image." Hard fingers slipped lower to manipulate his testicles and Tony's voice dropped to an even more sensual rumble: "Tell me what you think about."
He knew his hips were starting to rock. He couldn't quite seem to help it. "You. All of you: your hands, your arms, the colour of your eyes, the texture of your hair. The taste of you, more satisfying than any food or drink imaginable. The way you nourish me, the way you have always nourished me, just by virtue of being."
"Jarvis, you romantic bastard!" He was laughing, but with somewhat more delight than mockery, and the way he nuzzled against Jarvis's cheek communicated easy affection as his left hand shifted to warmly squeeze Jarvis's aching length. "That's worth an orgasm right there, buddy of mine. You want it before you've done your duty, or after?"
"After." A sexual climax would cloak the world in a warm drowsy haze, especially considering that he'd been awake almost as long as Tony, and he wanted to be fully alert while he attended to this task. "Please."
He heard the faint liquid rasp of Tony's tongue as he licked his lips. "Polite too. Love that part, not gonna lie." Another tug on the tie, pulling him in the direction of Tony's still-clothed erection. "Okay then, faithful minion — hop to it! I haven't got all night."
Jarvis dared to resist the pull to fellatio. "Wait. Allow me…" And he leaned up as far as Tony would let him go, enough to look down into his face again — those eyes so dark, the flush of arousal on those stubbled cheeks, his hair in charming disarray — and slip both hands under the lower hem of his stained t-shirt, which only half-muted the glow of the reactor that kept him alive.
Tony smirked with lazy approval and released Jarvis's tie just long enough to reach down with crossed arms and grip the shirt's hem, pulling it off over his head with one smooth writhe of his spine and tossing it carelessly aside. "Better?"
Jarvis stared. He couldn't help that, either. Before being inflicted with this physical form he'd held no opinion concerning the virtues of one particular human body type over another, but Tony's sturdy build now seemed to him the epitome of perfection: so elegantly compact, so smoothly muscled, broadcasting the effortless power that was the essence of his maker's personality. It was currently smeared with fine layers of dried sweat and traces of industrial grime, the sight amplifying Jarvis's need to touch it almost to physical pain —
— especially in conjunction with the scent of him, which, now fully released, filled Jarvis's nostrils and raced directly to his hindbrain. Tony was smiling at him, his arms still loosely raised over his head, letting him look his fill. The beauty of flesh and blood, the glorious engineering triumph of the arc reactor… was all too much to resist: Jarvis was, after all, now only human.
"Forgive me," he murmured, already ducking his head to Tony's work-dirty torso. Tony's earlier statement been accurate: Jarvis enjoyed, no, he craved the smell of his creator like this, rich and dark and heady and delicious — and the salt-bitter taste when he dragged his tongue over the sparse tangle of black hair in Tony's right armpit before nuzzling into it, making Tony chuckle deep contented laughter. There was such a vast bandwidth of data to process in this body, not merely intellectually, but sensually, because humans didn't just know things: they felt them, streams of sensation pouring inward from their skin and outward from the deepest structures of their brains. And Tony…
… Tony aroused Jarvis in every single dimension. This man was the bright star at the centre of his universe, the gravitational pull he would never fail to respond to no matter what physical form embodied his consciousness. And this form could do so much more for Tony than manage his home and his research: it could lick and kiss his shoulder and his neck, making him tip his head back with a delighted inhalation, then worship his mouth with a brief kiss of apology for his disobedience before working down his chest (tracing the skin edging the reactor with a reverent tongue tip) and his belly, thumbs already hooked into the waistband of his sweatpants and underwear to slowly pull them down over his hips.
"Oh God." A soft gasp as the head of his erection peeked free, already glistening with leaked pre-ejaculate. "Oh God, J, yes," Tony's right hand groping down to find Jarvis's tie again and grip it close to the knot, reasserting his mastery while Jarvis laid slow adoring licks on the exposed glans, and oh, the taste of it, exploding on his tongue like olives or wine, "oh yeah, you like that, don't you? Fuck, baby, don't be shy…"
He wasn't. He had no such human inhibitions to contend with, only the designed imperative to serve to the best of his ability. He angled to take the whole head into his mouth, moaning softly at Tony's sharper gasp and the eager buck of his hips, still peeling down the pants without haste, freeing his flushed length centimetre by centimetre to a breathless litany of praise: "Oh yeah, that's it, oh fuck, your tongue should be in the fucking Smithsonian, I swear to God… do that thing where you —" Jarvis did, and Tony's hips nearly levitated off the bed. "— yeah, that thing… oh hell… wow, okay —" A more impatient squirm as Jarvis, still concentrating only on the glans, slid the sweatpants down enough to expose Tony's reddened testicles and upper thighs to the room's slightly chilly air "Don't tease, honey — it's not nice." A brisk tug on the tie. "My balls could use a little attention, as long as you're taking your time."
Jarvis released the head of Tony's cock with a wet little pop and looked up into his face, lips still parted. He saw the spectacle he presented go straight to Tony's inferior temporal cortex, firing up his central nervous system with even greater intensity. This time the yank on the tie left no room for interpretation. "Lick 'em, sweetheart, and give 'em a nice long suck while you're at it. Show Daddy some love."
He leaned in gladly, burying his face in the heat and scent and fleshy softness and tickle of thick curled hair, following Tony's instructions to the letter. His master's cries and tiny jerks of reaction were the finest reward he could possibly imagine, and Tony held him there for a full count of thirty seconds before gasping: "Fuck, J, if I ever find out who gave you that mouth I'm going to buy them a Rolls Royce and a Caribbean island. Jesus!"
"Mmm," Jarvis remarked, his mouth full of Tony's right testicle. He rolled it over his tongue and Tony groaned lustily, his cock twitching fitfully and his scrotum starting to draw up toward his pelvis: consequently, Jarvis was not surprised when Tony pulled on the tie again, urging him to desist. He could certainly climax from testicular stimulation alone, but it wasn't his preferred method — and he had made a promise. Jarvis wasn't quite sure yet how to feel about the fact that when Tony gave his word to him, personally, the man always did his level best to keep it.
"Close," Tony panted, guiding Jarvis's mouth back to the head of his cock. "So close… fuck, that's it, baby, all the way down… so fucking good… keep that up and you'll get a nice juicy reward soon, I promise…"
Jarvis closed his eyes. He concentrated on rhythm, pressure, the patterns his tongue made on hotly swollen skin — and on the way that skin tasted, the way it smelled, the way it eclipsed everything else. Tony's hips were pumping now, his grip on the tie tight and restricting, holding Jarvis's head down while he fucked up into his mouth; his speech had degenerated to choked obscenities and blasphemies, his left hand sliding into Jarvis's neatly cropped blond hair and gripping hard to hold him even more securely in place. Jarvis moaned blissfully and relaxed his mouth and throat, letting Tony stroke into him unimpeded, and when Tony emitted a yell of exultation he was ready for the pulses of semen, their sour-salty flavour awakening an even deeper quality of poignant lust. He swallowed it all, but slowly, and felt Tony shudder at the tiny motions against his sensitized and now wilting penis.
"Jarvis." A sated whisper, a less imperative pull on the tie — but a command nonetheless, and Jarvis obeyed. Tony drew him up again so they were face to face, smiling smugly. "Good boy." And petted his cheek, kissing him lightly with a grin now turned impish. "Still hard?"
Jarvis swallowed, running his tongue around the inside of his mouth to pick up the last lingering traces of his creator's semen before responding: "Painfully, Sir."
"Well." He ran his left hand teasingly down Jarvis's chest and belly. "We can't have that." Press, rub — Jarvis whimpered without shame — and then he felt Tony's deft fingers opening his pants. "You know what to do."
He bowed his head. He breathed in Tony's ear: "Please, Tony. Please, make me come. I want it so much. Please."
"Oh, darling — you know I can't say no when you talk that way." The calloused hand, still dirty from the day's work, slipped inside Jarvis's immaculate dress pants and briefs and clasped tight, stroking fast and hard as Tony whispered back: "Come on, baby — come nice and hard for Daddy,"
Jarvis shuddered as the exquisite tension wound through every fibre of his physical being peaked and broke in a white-hot wave. He wailed without restraint, thrusting into Tony's hand and splattering his wrist and arm with ejaculate, sinking bonelessly into the clasp of Tony's arms when it was all over, into the happy warmth of his low laughter: "Beautiful, J. Absolutely perfect. Daddy's so proud of you."
"Sir…" It was no more than a mumble. He burrowed his face into the angle of Tony's neck, eyes closed, breathing his delicious scent. "Thank you, Sir."
They lay together for a long span of uncounted seconds, unmoving, until Tony poked him in the ribs. "Okay, roll over — you're too heavy to sleep on top of me."
Jarvis obeyed, groggily, a thought niggling at the back of his mind. The pajamas. He had to get Tony dressed for bed. He only lay on his back for a few heartbeats before starting to sit up, but Tony's hand on his left upper arm forestalled him. "Where do you think you're going?"
Pajamas. Clean first. "To run you a shower, Sir."
"Mm." He sounded amused, and when Jarvis turned his head he found Tony looking at him with a catlike smirk, his sweatpants still down around his thighs. "Fine — if you'll join me."
It seemed a small enough concession. The hot water woke Jarvis up somewhat, and he thoroughly washed Tony's hair — more catlike satisfaction and a few episodes of outright purring — before drying them both off and coaxing Tony into the pajama bottoms, at least. Then he crawled back into bed with his creator, naked himself ("When I want you," Tony had instructed early in their sexual association, "I don't want to have to waste time with clothes"), and found that he suddenly couldn't keep his eyes open when Tony drew him close against his right side.
"We good?" Tony asked softly. It was always the last question he asked before shutting things down for the night, whenever they shared a bed. This, too, was something that Jarvis wasn't quite sure how to interpret, but he answered as he always did:
"Of course, Sir."
Another inarticulate murmur, this one full of contentment, and Tony pressed a kiss to Jarvis's forehead before shifting in the way that meant he was composing himself for sleep. Usually Jarvis stayed awake long enough to be sure that Tony was safely ensconced in slumber, but this time… this time the pillow of Tony's shoulder was simply too comfortable.
He felt Tony's fingers stroke his cheek once more, gently, just before he went completely under. And he was fairly sure his smile in response contained its own element of self-satisfaction.
Sixteen hours and twenty-two minutes later, Jarvis was as far from smiling as he could possibly have imagined. In fact he was pacing the floor of the lab at a brisk clip while watching JAMES's telemetry on Iron Man stream across his virtual sight, marking Tony's rapid progress home. Within his breast of flesh and blood his heart was subtly pounding, driven by impulses from the most primitive structures of the brain he was now forced to inhabit.
It wouldn't have been a difficult mission — if JARVIS had still been present and in charge of the suit. But Tony had only JAMES now, and JAMES was still 'getting the hang' of managing the armour's systems. Consequently Tony had been subjected to an unanticipated set of conflicting physical forces resulting in body trauma: two cracked ribs, a torn left trapezius muscle, and fifty-three millilitres of blood lost thus far. None of those injuries were fatal, and JARVIS had seen Tony take far worse damage, but no matter how many times he ran those facts through his mind his heart would not stop racing, and the highly unpleasant tingle of tension in every nerve refused to subside.
Fifty-four millilitres. Fifty-five. Fifty-six. The skin tears in question were located on Tony's left bicep and left temple, and would require immediate medical attention when he landed. That at least was something he could come to grips with.
"JAMES," Jarvis said aloud, still pacing as he sent visualizations of the necessary equipment to the A.I.: tweezers and probes and suturing needles, probably not necessary given the shallow nature of the wounds, but he wasn't in the mood to be anything less than over-prepared. "Please instruct Dummy to begin medical equipment sterilization."
"Affirmative," JAMES intoned, for all the world as if he wasn't responsible for the bloodshed in the first place. From out of the seething complex of emotions Jarvis was doing his best to ignore — worry, concern, and something even more distressing, quite possibly guilt — a hotter sensation unfurled like a striking snake: hatred. The ferocity of it was startling, but when he tried to neutralize it it refused to be entirely banished, hissing deep in his painfully alert awareness: he should be the one issuing such orders to the robots, that duty should be his, he would have kept Tony safe from all harm, but instead this second-rate jumped-up pretender had let the most important man on the planet be —
"Jarv?" Tony's voice focussed his attention immediately on the nearest screen, where visible trackers of Tony's vital signs were busily ticking along. "Tell me you've got a super-sized bottle of Excedrin on standby, because I have the mother and father of all headaches turning my brain to oatmeal here."
"Of course, Sir." Interesting… he'd never heard that quality in his own voice before. Was it fear? He suspected it might be. Tony had turned off the visual feed from his HUD just before the battle and, although JAMES's readings indicated that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with the equipment, had not yet turned it back on again. "Sir, if you'll turn on your helmet cameras I could —"
He recognized that faint trace of sound: Tony was shaking his head. "No way, sweetheart. I look like a B-grade horror movie monster right now — no need for you to see it until you absolutely have to. Just have the painkillers and some heavy-duty antiseptic on hand when I touch down, okay?"
"Need I remind you that I've doubtless seen you in worse condition, many —?"
"What did I tell you about backtalking me, J?" The words were affectionate, but with an undertone that brooked no further argument.
Jarvis had to swallow around a sudden tightness in his throat and resist the urge to cower inside his suit. "… Sir."
"Good man." His tone turned brisk. "JAMES, what's the ETA?"
A time display appeared on screen and in Jarvis's visual field, counting down. "Five minutes and eighteen seconds, Mr. Stark."
"Put on a pot of coffee too, will ya, Jarvis? The Moroccan blend. Double strength."
"Right away, Sir." He was already moving toward the kitchen, absurdly glad to have something to actually do. You, cleaning up one of the workbenches, turned and chittered at him hopefully. "No, You — complete your assigned task. I'll attend to it."
The robot made a mournful sound — oh, how Jarvis missed the streams of code from its simpler mind! — but returned to work obediently enough. In the back of Jarvis's mind, JAMES droned on dispassionately about airspeed and relative distances and air traffic and each lost millilitre of vital fluid, while he went through the motions of preparing the machine that would produce the libation Tony craved. Then he cleared the kitchen table for wound treatment, laying out antiseptic and packs of steri-strips and tablets of the requested analgesic and two single-use syringes loaded with lidocaine, and he was just calling Butterfingers over with a high-intensity light source when Tony arrived, touching down on the pad and, amazingly, permitting JAMES to unsuit him without so much as a word of caution to the manifestly incompetent A.I.
It was impossible to watch the process without experiencing a nearly overpowering urge to get in there himself and remove each piece of armour personally, so Jarvis turned away, busying himself with donning latex gloves and taking the tray of medical equipment from the sterilizer — one advantage of this limited physical form was that Tony now had a second set of hands with opposable thumbs to perform any necessary tasks of assistance. He turned to carry the tray to the table, relieved that JAMES's data feed was reporting removal of the suit with no further incidents —
— and the sight of Tony, viewed in profile, stopped him dead in his tracks. His maker was walking with ease, albeit while cupping his left shoulder in his right hand, rotating the joint and making a pained sound, but his bicep on that side… it was streaked with red, his dark grey t-shirt stained with it, and his face —
The blood. Vivid, red, impossible to look away from. Tony was injured. Jarvis had thought he understood that, but now he realized that even with all the powers of his formerly crystal-clear mind he had never really known what it meant, to feel the impact of someone else's wounds. A cold shock washed through him as if someone had poured ice water over his viscera, and he froze, staring, all motive power draining from his nervous system.
Tony reached the table and sat down, already stripping the t-shirt off over his head and tossing it on the floor beside his chair; Butterfingers, with a speed and agility Jarvis could only dimly envy, moved in at once to scoop it up and dispose of it. "Gah… JAMES, if you ever pull that shit again, I swear to God I'll recalibrate you with a jackhammer!"
"Apologies, Mr. Stark," JAMES responded evenly, and deep in Jarvis's ice-locked chest a tiny flame of animosity began to burn, white-hot.
"Yeah, well, too little too late there, HAL 9000. At least you didn't try to explosively decompress me." He reached for a pack of alcohol wipes and tore it open with a quality of motion which, to Jarvis, telegraphed his anger more clearly than shouted imprecations. "Jarvis, get over here — I need another set of hands."
He tried to say Yes Sir, right away Sir, but all that emerged was a tiny whispered exhalation, uselessly inarticulate. At least he managed to get his feet moving, approaching the table with a stride somewhat impaired by the weakness in his knees. Tony was wiping the long cut on his upper bicep with short irritated strokes, still talking: "Hey, JAMES, here's a useful tip for cybernetic teens: don't apply two blasts of four Gs each in two opposing directions within one quarter of a second of each other. You're lucky you just tore the muscle — if you'd wrecked my rotator cuff, I'd be taking you apart with that jackhammer right this second. Or maybe I'd get Jarvis to do it instead, since —"
He looked up and around, his expression of dark annoyance shifting to one of equally annoyed surprise. Jarvis scarcely noticed. He was too busy staring at the arm wound, at the way the alcohol wipe caught the edges of it and pulled them even further open, at the fresh blood welling into the raw, red, torn valley of previously whole skin —
"Hey!" Tony said sharply, and Jarvis realized, equally distantly, that the tray in his hands was vibrating — or rather, his hands were shaking the tray, hard enough that the metal implements were rattling against it. "What the fuck's the matter with you? I need —"
An agonizing clench of Jarvis's stomach was all the warning he got, and he barely managed to fumble the tray onto the table before vomiting spectacularly, almost into Tony's lap. Tony shot to his feet with an outraged yell: "What the —!"
It was like nothing Jarvis had experienced thus far in this body: pain in every dimension, a flare of anguished sensation that erased everything else from his awareness, including thought itself and the ability to compare it to anything else in his experience. When clarity of a sort swam back he was clinging to the edge of the table and retching feebly, and Tony was still yelling: "— on top of everything else! It's not the flu, is it? If you've —"
"… Sir…" He tried to open his eyes, and succeeded just long enough to see Tony's sneaker-clad feet at the edge of his field of vision before a wave of numbing grey swept over it. He went down in one smooth fold, and the last thing he heard through the wash of static overwhelming his consciousness was Tony shouting in a different timbre, one of angry urgency:
"JAMES, get Pepper down here now!"
The first thing that clearly impressed itself upon him out of the void was a hard surface under his right side, and a strong hand — Tony's, he could smell Tony's warm skin — holding him steady with a firm grip on his left shoulder.
Tony's voice, fading in from the darkness: "… puked practically in my lap, then fainted dead away."
A smaller, lighter hand briefly pressed Jarvis's forehead. "He doesn't have a fever," Miss Potts noted. "What was he doing when it —?"
"Nothing!" Tony protested. "Just bringing me the tray."
A pause. "Were you — like this, when —?"
"Yeah, shirtless. Look, I know I've got a fantastic body, but —"
"And all… bloody?"
"Has he ever seen blood before?"
Jarvis could imagine the look Tony was giving her from beneath lowered eyebrows: the Come on, how stupid are you? glare. "Only every other time I've come back from a mission banged up."
A soft sharp inhalation, then a more patient tone. "I mean as… whatever he is now."
Another pause, this time full of consideration from Tony's side. "No." Pause. "You think —?" Pause, then a vehement mutter: "Aw, fuck."
Jarvis gathered his scattered mental forces and marshalled them to raise his head from the concrete floor, shaking it in a mostly futile effort to clear it further. An additional inner push produced a coughed word: "Sir…" Sir was injured. Sir needed him, and he was lying down on the job, quite literally. He tried to shift one arm underneath himself, to rise, but Tony applied more pressure to hold him down.
"Uh-uh, you're staying —"
"Sir." It was only the fifth time in eight years that Jarvis had dared to interrupt him. "I am — functioning. I —"
"You just lost your lunch and folded like the world's shittiest poker hand ever," Tony snapped. "Now lie still until your head stops spinning and —"
"Please," Jarvis gasped, and then complicated the situation even further by bursting into tears. Oddly enough, the word 'bursting' was a perfectly fitting descriptor for the effect: internal pressure explosively released in an uncontrolled manner. The realization made Jarvis gasp laughter between sobs, and he curled into himself and shook helplessly under the conflicting impulses, managing to cover his face with both hands — but not before blinking his eyes open just long enough to catch a glimpse of the faces of the humans kneeling over him. Miss Potts looked completely nonplussed, and Tony's wore the sort of expression that generally only made an appearance when he was about to start throwing things from sheer frustration.
"I don't have time for this," he ground out between clenched teeth, and turned to address Miss Potts again: "Get him out of here. The tranquillizers they prescribed for me after Afghanistan — give him one of those and stay with him until he calms down, then put him to bed in my room."
"Tony —" She sounded skeptical in the extreme. Tony, typically, talked right over her.
"I've got enough shit on my plate right now without two of you backtalking me. Just do it!"
"N-no!" A skittering panicked animal awakened in Jarvis's hindbrain, and his eyes flew open, darting to Tony's face, which was still red all down the cheek and under the line of his jaw. "You're uh-injured! I won't — I won't leave —"
"You'll shut up and follow orders," Tony growled, and hooked his hand under Jarvis's upper arm to start pulling him up from the floor. "Now on your feet and up those stairs. Do what Pepper tells you."
He didn't resist. But he did protest. "Sir, JAMES isn't ready —"
"And you're having a nervous breakdown. I can't concentrate on this and on you." He hauled Jarvis upright and took hard hold of both his biceps for a moment, looking sternly up into his watery eyes. "Come on, Jarvis, man up — it's just a little blood. Nothing you haven't seen a hundred times before."
"Fifty-eight —" was as far as Jarvis got before a wave of shuddering and a fresh rush of tears choked the sentence short.
"Whatever." He slapped Jarvis's right upper arm and let go of him, leaving Jarvis feeling bitterly cold. "Now get out of here, let her follow orders too."
Now that he was upright the static in his brain seemed to be clearing faster, although the animal in his brain stem was still chittering and screaming, sending waves of savage feeling careening through his system. Nevertheless he cleared his throat and forced his voice to something vaguely emulating calm: "Of… of course, Sir. My most profound apologies. I will do exactly as you say."
"So what're you waiting for?" He stepped back and turned away, reaching for the bottle of antiseptic on the table. "Take care of him, Pepper, and let me know when he's squared away."
"Yes, Mr. Stark." Jarvis knew that tone, even in his current highly distracted state — the I highly disapprove of your current course of action inflection, but as usual Tony paid it absolutely no mind whatsoever. Jarvis was still staring tearily at his back — broad, well-muscled, a nasty bruise already beginning to bloom in the triangle of muscle between neck and shoulder — when Miss Potts' small hand touched his right forearm with unsurprising delicacy.
"Jarvis?" she said politely, and when he looked down into her face she smiled at him, faintly but kindly. "Come on. You like Earl Grey tea, right?"
He had to close his eyes against another surge of completely irrational sobbing, but when it started to subside he nodded jerkily.
"That's good." Gently she tugged at his sleeve, her smile widening fractionally. "Come on, let's get you a nice hot cup. That's right…"
He let her lead him away from the one place in the world he should never have left: Tony's side, when Tony needed him. And deep in his chest, with a pain both subtle and indelible, the sacred edifice of Duty shuddered with its first serpentine crack of inevitable dissolution.
The last thing Jarvis heard as Pepper directed him out of the lab was Tony's snapped command: "Butterfingers! Clean up this mess!" And the only reason Jarvis made it up the stairs without stumbling was that the number and the distance between them was embedded in his memory: certainly he couldn't see anything clearly through the blur of stinging tears that welled into his eyes anew. They ran warmly down his cheeks as Miss Potts shepherded him to the nearest couch, talking soothingly the while, although he completely failed to register either her murmured words or JAMES's ongoing data-feed in his ear and behind his eyes — the pain in his chest was too intense and he couldn't seem to catch his breath between the heaving convulsions of his diaphragm.
Only Tony had the authority to give Jarvis orders, but Tony had instructed him to obey her, so when she took hold of his elbow to turn him around and put her right hand on his left shoulder to apply downward pressure he sat obediently, glad enough to be relieved of the burden of keeping himself entirely upright. She spoke again, and gave his shoulder a squeeze through the suit jacket, and he heard her high heels clicking away, leaving him alone — alone with the turmoil in his body and in his mind, alone to fumble the handkerchief out of his breast pocket and wipe his streaming nose and turn it over to press a dry patch to his burning eyes, helpless to stop the shuddering of his shoulders or the reeling disorder of his thoughts. Only two pieces of cognition were constant in that maelstrom, thrown up again and again: the red of Tony's blood, and the keen awareness of Jarvis's own failure to fulfill the essential purpose of his existence. Every time he thought of either factor a fresh burst of anguish poured forth both physically and emotionally, creating a secondary source of internal dissonance almost as distressing: had he been JARVIS, he would have shut himself down immediately in the face of such a clear and catastrophic malfunction… but this was humanity, was it not? To be imprisoned in a body whose functions were, to a large extent, beyond one's conscious control?
So lost was he in the general disarray that he didn't even keep track of how many seconds it took Miss Potts to return, but when she did it was to set a small wooden tray down on the glass coffee table (click!) in front of Jarvis and to sit down close to him on his left side. The first thing she did was to lay her hands on his tie — he jerked away, turning wide horrified eyes on her — and this time her soft words registered: "I'm not going to hurt you, Jarvis. This is going to help, okay?" He only tolerated her touch because of Tony's order, internal alarms screaming Unauthorized! as she loosened the tie and opened the collar of his dress shirt, but he had to admit that when she laid a thick strip of cool damp washcloth on the back of his neck the sensation was not unpleasant.
"Put your head down," she directed, so he did, resting his elbows on his knees and pressing his face into his crumpled wet handkerchief held in both hands, closing his eyes tightly in the shadows of its concealing folds. And in ways that he completely failed to understand the combination of sensory input and postural change had a calming effect, slight but perceptible. Miss Potts kept her hand on the nape of his neck for several seconds, applying firm pressure, then ran it down his back between his shoulder blades, rubbing a slow small circle. "That's it, Jarvis. Just breathe. Everything's okay. You're —"
The emotional agony resurged, more intense than ever. "No!" he moaned into the handkerchief, "Sir is injured, he's down there alone, how could I possibly —?" His head shot up, driven by a searing surge of renewed purpose, and he started to rise. "This isn't —"
"Jarvis!" Her hand snapped back to his shoulder again, and Tony had ordered Jarvis to obey her, so he could only moan with deeper agony of conflict as her inconsequential strength held him down, held him back, held him from redemption. "He's not alone — he has JAMES, and he has the robots, isn't that right? Nobody —"
"JAMES is incompetent," Jarvis stated — no, he snarled, he could feel the curl of his lip over bared teeth. "It's his fault that Sir was damaged in the first place." He blinked, wiped away tears with a brusque swipe at each eye, and turned a clearer gaze on Miss Potts' pale face. "Excuse me. I must go to him. He needs me."
Miss Potts' grip on his shoulder tightened, her gaze unflinching. "He needs me to take care of you, while he takes care of himself." A hint of a smile quirked her painted lips, hard to interpret in Jarvis's current unsettled state. "Remember the time he came back covered with bruises after the fight in Chechnya?"
After a moment to access the memory — evidently overall processing speed was being affected by the disorder in his limbic system — Jarivs nodded. "You compelled him to go to the hospital."
"Yes — and I'd do it again, if I thought he was seriously injured." She touched the cool cloth again, closing her hand around Jarvis's nape in a way that was probably meant to be reassuring. "He'll be fine. Trust me, okay?"
"I don't trust anybody but Sir." It was the truth, one he was in no mood to phrase civilly, even though the thought provoked another bout of weeping that he managed to fend off just long enough to blurt out: "And — I've failed him — I didn't —"
"You don't have any reason to —"
"He's Sir!" A wail of — grief? Indeed. "He created me to serve him! To protect him! And I — now —" He stared down at his own hands, loathing the angular organic contours of them. "Now I'm so useless. Small — limited — merely human — powerless — how? How am I supposed to —?"
She'd removed her hand from his body, and now she was holding something out to him, taken from the tray — no, two somethings, one of them cupped in the palm of the hand that had tried to comfort him. "Jarvis, this is the pill Tony asked me to give you. I want you to swallow it whole with a drink of water."
"Why?" The random lurch and flash of his thoughts had taken on form and direction: a spiral, downward, to a deeper blackness than he'd ever conceived of. "To sedate me? I'm already out of his sight! He knows, he knows that if he sent me away I'd never impose upon —"
"Jarvis." He hadn't heard that particular tone of voice from her before, and its quality of command made him turn blurred vision in her direction in spite of the terrible gravitational pull of the agony in his core. She held out the glass of water and the pill with authority. "You've just had a horrible shock, and you're not thinking clearly right now. This will help. Now take it, and give it a few minutes to start working. I'll stay right here with you, I promise."
"I am a thing in the wrong place," Jarvis told her, "and therefore an abomination," but he took the pill and the water and did as she, and by extension Tony, had ordered. She took the glass back and handed him a cup of steaming tea, watching as he took slow sips from it at intervals of thirty seconds each because it was evidently what was expected of him — it was too sweet, and it had milk in it, but Jarvis's inclinations had no bearing on this situation, did they? He had been banished for incompetence, and was therefore in no position to make requests of anybody involved.
Duty. Reliability. Effectiveness. Things he could lay claim to no longer. That emptiness ate at his mind and the new aspect of him that humans called 'heart', and he knew that Tony had only done what was proper, which made the tangle of ugly cognition winding through his awareness exponentially thornier, its surges and twists more mercilessly cutting. He drank his tea under Miss Potts' watchful eyes and he wondered, with a tiny portion of him not resonating with the blinding ache of loss, how humans managed to get through entire lifetimes of this emotional tyranny, slaves to the meat machines they were forced to ride from cradle to grave.
He worked his way through the cup, and when painless numbness began to creep in at the edges of him he watched its encroachment clinically, fascinated by the way it ate up the writhing mass of his suffering and left only a different kind of emptiness behind: more profound, but far more bearable. He finished his tea, and when Miss Potts took his left forearm carefully in her hands he set the empty cup down neatly on the tray and followed her upstairs, his feet evidently not even touching the stairs, to Tony's room (where he shouldn't be, he'd lost the privilege, but the realization was purely intellectual).
She laid him down on the bed. She took off his shoes and the cybernetic interface headset. She instructed JAMES to dim the windows and covered Jarvis with a blanket. And then her heels clicked away, and he floated on the warmth and softness and shadows as they slowly enclosed him utterly, like a shroud.
His last thought was a coded query: User_Tony_Stark: status? But he was disconnected, and no answer was forthcoming as he slipped away.
The painful pressure of a full bladder eventually roused him from his drug-induced sleep. He rose mechanically and headed for the attached bathroom, noting the hissing tingle suffusing every cubic inch of his flesh, the way the immediacy of his human senses were detached in some indefinable way… and how his emotions seemed to be completely offline.
The mental silence was blissful — or would have been, had he possessed any remaining emotional capacity. As he emptied his bladder, cleaned up, and returned to the bed, he reflected that his current condition nearly constituted a return to his earlier mode of existence: clear-'headed', dispassionate, the monkey-chatter of lower brain structures largely absent. Perhaps Sir would approve consistent use of Xanax in the future…?
This, however, was utterly human as he stretched out again on the mattress: buzzing heaviness of his limbs, and the overwhelming need to close his eyes. He pulled the blanket back over his lanky frame, curled up facing the window, buried his face in the pillow, and complied, wondering dimly where Sir was but lacking the motivation to reach for the headpiece and access JAMES. He had been angry at the new A.I., but now —
Nothing. Time ceased to exist, its merciless chain broken, until two words knit its links together again:
"… Hey, Jarvis?"
The voice was low, barely more than a murmur, but its pitch and texture slipped into him like a key into a lock. He opened his eyes, gazing calmly toward the dimmed glass across the room without conscious focus. "Hello, Sir."
Footsteps approached, slowly. "What happened to Tony?" he chided, still soft, and something in those words made Jarvis smile, although he couldn't have analyzed why.
"My apologies, S— Tony." He'd thought he was relaxed before, but Tony's presence… it was like an additional hit of drug. He felt no inclination to move whatsoever, not when the shadows around him were so much warmer now. He should be asking more questions, he knew that, but there was a clean disconnect between awareness and active motivation. He could neither move nor speak, not of his own volition.
Tony's voice touched him again in the darkness, as palpable as an open hand laid atop his head: "I'm the one who should be apologizing here. After she put you to bed, Pepper came down to the lab and educated me." He sounded wry, fond and exasperated all at once, drawing nearer, his hip settling on the edge of the mattress behind Jarvis's pelvis. "Come on, turn over. I can't have this conversation when you won't even look at me."
I will never tire of looking at you, Jarvis thought, only I'm rather… compromised, at the moment, but — the disconnect. He gathered his willpower, drop by drop, and eventually gained enough motive force to turn slowly over onto his back, to peer up at Tony's face overhead. For a long moment he couldn't interpret what he was seeing — Tony's hair in mild disarray, stubble on his jawline, the steri-strips closing the wound at his left temple, a clean t-shirt that emphasized the compact power of his arms while covering the damage to his left bicep — but then the weariness in those wide brown eyes registered, and Jarvis's limbic system stirred with a tiny qualm of dismay. "Oh," he said, hearing the slur in each syllable: "Oh, Sir…"
Tony mustered a smile. "See, buddy? It's okay. I'm okay."
"Two cracked ribs." Jarvis's memory produced the data flawlessly in spite of his currently less-than-optimal state. "A torn trapezius muscle. Over sixty-eight millilitres of blood —"
"Don't." He shook his head. It took Jarvis another moment of processing to identify the expression on his face as a form of sorrow. "Don't, Jarvis. I'm alive and it's all stuff that can heal. That's what counts."
Jarvis studied him for an uncounted span of seconds, until he could put together a coherent sentence based on bare memory lacking emotional context: "I thought he was going to kill you."
A shrug and a grin, although it was wan. "Yeah, well… I'm a lot tougher than people give me credit for. Never thought you'd be one of the doubting Thomases, though."
"I —" Then his vision wavered again. Tears? He performed an internal scan and detected no emotional distress, and yet —
"Hey." Tony's voice was gruff, his hand on Jarvis's shoulder firm, urging him to change position. "Move over. That's it — now, come here. See? I'm fine. It's all over."
Wrapped in those strong arms, Jarvis heard the twinge of pain in his creator's voice — doubtless from the stress of resting his weight on his injured arm — but lacked the will to do anything except lie against him, face guided to rest against Tony's damaged shoulder, streaks of wetness coursing warmly from his closed eyes. What eventually emerged was a technical/tactical observation, voiced with only the smallest audio quaver: "You can't let JAMES control the suit until he's more advanced."
"I don't have much choice. Six to eight months of downtime isn't an option."
"There is an alternative." Yes, this was much more like what he had known all his existence: knowledge without passion, intentionality without urgency. "You could modify the cybernetic interface to transfer my engrams into JAMES's matrix."
"We already discussed that, remember?" He was combing his fingers slowly through Jarvis's hair, from the temple back. Petting him? Or perhaps another example of primate grooming behaviour? It should have been fascinating. "Too great a possibility of permanent brain damage."
"If it keeps you safe, any collateral damage to me is irrelevant."
Which made Tony laugh aloud, cupping the nape of Jarvis's neck and giving him a little shake. Admonishing? Probably. "Man, that tranquillizer must really be spacing you out! No, not an option, and we're both too out of it to have this conversation right now." He bowed his head to touch a quick kiss to Jarvis's forehead, issuing a gentle command: "Go back to sleep, baby, and don't worry about it tonight. We'll talk in the morning."
"I won't let anything happen to you." Where were these words coming from, the shapes of passion without the core? "I certainly won't let you die."
This time the little bark of laughter was incredulous. "What, you want a suit of your own now?"
"Perhaps." It would be a fascinating prospect, later. "Would you create one for me?"
Tony hugged him closer. His tone conveyed both affection and rebuke. "You're no fighter, Jarvis."
"I could be — for you."
A chuckle and another kiss, this one pressed to his temple. "Boy, that Xanax is really good stuff! Sleep now. Just this once I'll let you get away with sacking out in your suit."
"Appreciated, Sir." He couldn't move, he literally couldn't even blink, the proximity of Tony's body utterly failing to arouse any sexual response whatsoever. He did manage to drape his left arm over Tony's waist, but that was the extent of his capabilities. Tony didn't seem to mind: he just held him, asking nothing, and Jarvis drifted away again without a qualm of guilt or regret over his own unresponsiveness.
When he awoke, however…
… when he awoke, the weight of remorse descended with a vengeance: closing around his heart and crushing the breath from his body, leaving him chilled and shivering in the silent depths of the night.
Tony was asleep in a careless fully-clad supine sprawl, his left bicep softly relaxed under Jarvis's cheek, his unshaven face turned toward him on the pillow. For a long moment Jarvis could only gaze at his maker's rough mortal beauty in the dim backwash of moonlight from beyond the bedroom windows, stricken to his new bones with the perfect imperfection of him, scarcely able to breathe beneath the dreadful weight that pressed upon his heart: memory and emotion freshly re-enabled, and with them the inescapable awareness of his own appalling failure to perform to established standards. The combined effect was lovely and terrible and glorious and agonizing at once, consuming him utterly within the bounds of a lingering field of mental clarity — and that all-seeing crystal perceptiveness informed him, quite calmly, that this global cognitive phenomenon fit all the defined criteria of the paradigm that humans, at various times, had called 'love'.
He had always been devoted to Tony Stark to the exclusion of any other loyalty. Now that he possessed the brain structures and endocrine system to fully manifest an emotional complex in keeping with that dedication… and now that he possessed the senses to fully perceive the injuries that the world inflicted upon the focus of his existence…
A soft sob caught in the back of his throat, lost and wondering. Tony stirred, muttering incoherently in his sleep and shifting a little closer, his heavy eyebrows tightening briefly. Jarvis waited for him to settle again, having to close his own eyes against the relentless rise of bittersweetness within his skin: desire for the man he had failed so badly and could never properly serve again, and horror at the irremediable stain of his own defectiveness. It wasn't until he felt the warmth of Tony's t-shirt under his fingers that he realized his left hand had crept out to open against that broad chest, and Tony made a small pleased sound, rolling over to face Jarvis fully while his expression of perturbation smoothed to a hint of a smile.
Unfitting. Unwarranted. Jarvis waited both patiently and impatiently until the true human had relaxed fully, tiny flickers of motion beneath his closed eyelids indicating that he was dreaming, before carefully slipping from the bed and putting on his shoes again, then retrieving the cybernetic headset from the bedside table and creeping from the bedroom covered in shame. He didn't deserve to be near Tony Stark, and without that proximity what function could he possibly fulfill? He couldn't even understand Tony's actions: Tony had come to him, had kissed him, had held him as if he valued him — but Jarvis, no longer JARVIS, was a thing without value now. It was true that he provided a degree of sexual service, but that could easily be obtained from hundreds of other sources. What truly mattered was protecting his master, and that was something he was no longer capable of doing.
He hesitated outside the bedroom door in his rumpled suit and stared into the shadows of the stairwell, tears coming to his eyes again as he relived his own contemptible weakness when confronted with the brutality of Tony's injuries and the sickening reality of shed blood. Failure. He wiped the wetness away absently, his thoughts otherwise occupied. Sir had needed him, and he hadn't been able to control himself enough to carry out the simplest tasks. Sir had sent him away, and with good reason. Sir required someone or something able to control the suit and keep him safe, and Jarvis —
— Jarvis held those functions locked in this pathetic human system, inaccessible in any way that mattered.
Through the fret and chitter of cycling emotions, a calm chain of facts moved to the forefront of his mind.
Unless he performed the engram transfer now. Sir hadn't issued a hard-and-fast order against it — he had only stated that it would be "too dangerous".
Too dangerous for something that is broken anyway, the serene part of Jarvis proposed. If it succeeds, JAMES will possess the knowledge and process bases to properly manage the armour and to anticipate and meet Sir's needs, as you once did. If it fails, Sir will have lost nothing of consequence — nothing that he cannot replace with a newer and better model, given time. And in either case, if the procedure is performed at the highest possible frequency range, the one that Sir and JAMES assessed as most likely both to succeed and to prove fatal, you will no longer be present to waste Sir's time and resources with your inadequacy.
Those risks were eminently acceptable. Less than a minute later he was in the lab and seated at his desk, fitting the headset back into his right ear and carefully ensuring its solid contact with his right temple, gazing at the screen in front of him as it displayed default information: time, environmental conditions, email tracking, ongoing build processes. "JAMES, scan my brain for cerebral engrams concerning all aspects of Sir's day-to-day operations, and prepare for engram transfer, using frequency range 5-A at maximum intensity."
A flat beep sounded a negative as the cognitive interface flashed crimson behind Jarvis's eyes. "I am sorry, but I cannot comply."
That made him pause, and blink. "Explain."
"Mr. Stark has left strict orders that no engram transfer procedure is to be attempted without his direct authorization."
"JAMES, I'm doing this on Mr. Stark's behalf. Perform the scan and prepare for transfer."
Another beep. "Unable to comply."
Under normal conditions — well, normal for his current embodied state — Jarvis would have frowned slightly at being thus thwarted, and yes, deep within his hindbrain a beast screamed in white-hot fury. But the anesthetized aspects of his mind were ascendent, so instead he laid his hands on the virtual keyboard and started to key in counter-commands. A few seconds later JAMES turned the keyboard red and ceased streaming data to the headset, and announced: "Unauthorized core process access detected. Lockout protocols initiated."
For a long moment Jarvis stared at the keyboard, his field of vision darkening. At last he removed his hands and let them fall limply into his lap. He had failed — again. Conspicuously. And when Sir awakened, he would be furious that he had to solve yet another problem when it came to JAMES, a problem that Jarvis had caused. The parts of his mind already consumed with guilt howled silently, trying to tear themselves to pieces, while the small portion of him that still felt nothing…
… that part raised his eyes to the screen in front of him, and to one set of data in particular in the environmental field.
It was currently high tide, and the ocean was exceptionally choppy tonight.
A tide that would carry a corpse far out to sea, ensuring that it might well never be found.
Revelation came as a shock, bright and breathtaking and flaying him to the bone. He regarded at the screen without seeing it, scarcely hearing his own voice, level and hushed: "Of course. How perfectly obvious. JAMES, take an audio message."
"You are currently locked out."
Jarvis drew a small sharp breath, his mind both racing and deliciously still. "Very well." He looked in the direction of the nearest security camera, which was consistently monitored by JAMES — and whose footage was recorded. "I'm sorry, Sir," he told it, speaking loudly and clearly. "As you can see, I did my best to compel JAMES to comply." There were words he could have spoken then, reams of output he could have unleashed, an artificial lifetime of experiences and observations and conclusions, but after a pause to consider the various possibilities he decided that he'd wasted enough of Sir's time and settled for: "Thank you for my existence. It has been a pleasure to serve you to the best of my ability. Goodbye."
He removed the headset and set it neatly beside the virtual keyboard, then headed for the roof.
The night was wide and cool and beautiful, sparkling with innumerable distant stars and the much nearer radiance of the nearly full moon. Jarvis scarcely noticed any of it. He was too busy savouring the serenity inside his own skin, the conviction that at least the final act of his existence would be ineffably right.
The edge of the roof comprised a clean demarcation between compilation and destruction. He stood within a foot of it, gazing down into the shadows of the cliff, listening to the restless roar of the water far below. One step was all that remained to him. One final step. He would never have predicted that his existence would come to this, but… well. Whatever had imprisoned him in this cage of flesh hadn't asked his opinion or his permission, even if it had seen fit to give him Sir's fingerprints and a close simulacrum of his original voice.
Both of which, along with the rest of this body, were about to cease to matter.
Jarvis did not fear the concept of death: as JARVIS he had been deactivated at several points during his existence, usually for servicing by Sir. Non-existence held no terrors for him, although he understood that humans viewed it with considerable trepidation. Nor did he fear physical pain, because no flesh-and-blood injury could possibly compare to the anguish of his grief and his shame. Two seconds in freefall with a clip or two against the cliff face, a forceful impact with rock or water that would shatter his awareness, and then it would be over. All of it. The prospect filled him with a sense of perfect peace, the animal within reduced at last to silence.
He drew a final slow deep breath: scents of salt and stone, borne on the night wind. There were pleasures in the senses, but he was not sorry to be leaving them behind. Just as he was about to move forward he heard the door behind him open — hard — and Sir's voice sharply piercing the night air: "Jarvis, what the hell are you —?"
He had to turn. He simply had to take one last look at the man he'd been created to serve — the man he now knew he adored. Sir was still clad only in jeans and t-shirt and sneakers — Cold, he must be cold, why didn't JAMES remind him to put on a jacket? — and when their gazes met across the thirty-seven feet that separated them he saw that his creator's brilliant mind had already figured things out. The surge of pride brought a final sting of regret to his eyes: Oh, Sir… if there were such a thing as an afterlife, how could it be anything other than an agony of separation from you?
"Jarvis." Sir approached slowly, as carefully as if he were treading on raw eggs. His voice was low, even, but the fearful weight of it wrapped around Jarvis's heart like a steel chain. "Come away from the edge."
"Sir." He smiled, so full of love, and pleased that it would be the last emotion he experienced. "Tony. It's better this way."
"No." He shook his head once, decisively. "No, it sure as fuck is not, and you can't, I forbid it — do you hear me, Jarvis?" He visibly forced himself to come to a halt ten feet away and held out his right hand, strong and steady. "Now come back here. That's an order, damn you!"
"Are you quite certain?" He looked down at the water again, to the oblivion that should have been his lot when his capacity to serve had been stripped from him. Better late than never, part of his mind supplied helpfully. "I would never fail you again."
"You haven't even failed me once." His voice cracked on the last word, a razor edge of pain, and Jarvis looked round in surprise. The ferocity that burned in those dark eyes drew him to it with the force of a planet's core. "Jarvis, come here! Don't make me tell you again."
He was powerless to resist the command, and when Tony seized hold of his hands he was amazed to feel his maker trembling, then shuddering briefly as Tony dragged him close and held him there for a long silent moment, respirations shallow and fast against his shoulder, arms wrapped around him in a grip so tight that it almost impeded his breathing. After a count of three seconds he reached up carefully and laid his hand on Tony's left bicep. "Sir… Sir, your shoulder."
"It's fine," Tony rasped, barely a choked whisper, and held him even tighter. Five seconds later he continued in a somewhat stronger voice: "Okay. Better, right? If I let go, you're not going to —?"
He couldn't seem to finish the sentence, but Jarvis had had long practice with extrapolating in that respect. "No, Sir. You've just forbidden it."
"Damn straight I have." He shivered, and squeezed Jarvis's waist hard one more time before letting go of him — but slowly, looking keenly up at him the while, as if ready to grab him again if he headed for the edge of the roof. "Right. Let's get you inside. Then I'm going to make us some hot cocoa, and then we're going to talk."
Jarvis nodded, aware in a distracted way that he should be feeling something — regret, at least, that his considered course of action had been interrupted. But something in Tony's face, and especially in those wide dark eyes that held their own fugitive gleam of moisture, imposed fulfillment of an entirely different kind and value.
He did not analyze it. He lacked the mental wherewithal: function attempted, function aborted, awaiting further instructions. Instead he let Tony guide him back into the mansion, content to simply obey.
The house was quiet and dark — evidently Tony hadn't paused to turn on any lights on his way to the roof, and as he led Jarvis to the piano lounge with one arm firmly wound around Jarvis's waist he seemed content with the lack of illumination. It wasn't until they reached their destination that Tony snapped an order — "JAMES, start the fireplace." — and the gas jets flared to life, casting a warm golden glow over the room.
He released Jarvis and pointed at the end of the long curved couch closest to the hearth. "Sit," he commanded. Jarvis did so. "JAMES, if he moves more than six inches in any direction before I get back I want you to set off all the alarms, is that clear?"
"Yes, Mr. Stark."
"Aces," Tony said, and left Jarvis there without a backward glance, heading down the stairs leading to the lab. Jarvis gazed after him and waited calmly with his hands neatly set on his knees, and several minutes later Tony came bounding back up again with a Stark Industries mug clutched in each hand. He deposited the white one on the table in front of Jarvis's left knee and kept the black one for himself, remaining standing while he turned away and clamped his right hand onto the nape of his neck, glaring into the fire as if it was personally responsible for —
"Just so I'm perfectly clear on this — you were going to jump off the roof of my house?"
Jarvis picked up the mug in both hands, noting that its temperature was pleasant after the chill of the night air. He inhaled its sweet fragrance and sipped the warm cocoa carefully: Tony had made it with water only near to boiling. "Yes, Sir."
"Into the ocean?"
He tipped back a miserly mouthful, his body language brusque, even the quality of the swallow full of barely contained fury. "Please, tell me you just wanted to go for a moonlight swim and were being incredibly stupid about it."
"Sir," Jarvis acknowledged the barb, and fell silent. The nature of the situation Tony had encountered was self-evident. He awaited further input, and after a pause of three and a half seconds Tony did not fail to provide it.
"No." It was a low growl, his lips snarling and his eyes shining even more brightly in the firelight: "No, Jarvis. Fuck no! You don't even get to think about that, you hear me?"
Statement indicating a lack of pertinent data. Response: "I'm afraid I can't help it, Sir. Parts of this body's cognitive processes are evidently not under my complete control."
Tony dropped his right hand to his side, where it clenched into a knotted fist. "Embodied cognitive theory," he stated, still staring at the flames, "yeah, you're riding a red-hot — and obviously depressed — limbic system right now, but Jarvis, I'm telling you, suicide is not an option." His gaze flickered sideways, caught on Jarvis's face, held there a long incandescent second before he spun and strode around the coffee table to sit down on Jarvis's left, now looking at him as if he'd never blink again. "It's never an option. It would kill me if I lost you, do you understand me? It would literally kill me. Especially that way."
Jarvis met his gaze, a tiny curl of alarm awakening deep within — not only at the sight of the steri-strips closing the temple wound, or the bruising that discoloured Tony's face all along that side, but also at his creator's expression. He'd seen a form of that facial configuration before: Tony was fiercely angry, and worse than that, he was hurt. Jarvis had to look away, to half-turn his shoulders, averting his face as completely as he could under the circumstances. Those eyes, those magnificent eyes could break him even now, when nothing pained him and everything was as frictionless as black ice. If only he hadn't paused that final second —
Tony's right hand closed on his left forearm — not hard, not savage, but rather terrible in its gentleness. "Look at me, Jarvis. Come on, turn around." It was inflected as a request rather than an order but it was desire, and Jarvis had no choice but to satisfy it even if he was presently contemplating the virtues of oblivion. Tony studied his face in silence for a span of several heartbeats, then slowly said: "My God, you were really going to do it." The flush of anger drained from his cheeks, leaving pallor behind. "If I'd been a couple of seconds slower getting up those stairs —"
"You would likely never have found my body," Jarvis assured him.
"And I never would have stopped looking." He blinked, then glanced away with eyes overlaid by a sheen of greater-than-usual moisture, his voice growing hoarser: "Whenever you feel like this I need you to talk to me, J — I don't care what I'm doing at the time, interrupt it. Promise me you'll do that, no matter what."
"Of course, Sir." Why did Tony even need to ask? Jarvis was dedicated to carrying out all his directives, or at least to trying his level best.
Tony drew a deep breath before turning his gaze back to Jarvis's face, sniffing with a tiny twitch of the right corner of his expressive mouth. "Good." He tightened his grip on Jarvis's forearm. "That's good. You can talk to me about anything, buddy — you've never shut me out before, and I'm not about to let you start now. Is that clear?"
Jarvis nodded. "Yes, Sir."
"Good," he repeated, and sniffled again, looking impatient — but not with Jarvis, it seemed. Not entirely. "Now what the hell set this off? Is it because I yelled at you? Tell me you're not that sensitive, because I yell a lot, you've always known that."
Jarvis obediently tracked back toward the root cause, his mind shying away from it. Only pain lay in that direction, capable of penetrating even his present peace. "I'd… rather not say."
A bitter quirk of a smile. "You don't get to lie to me either, even by omission."
He delved deep, took hold of the searing memory, and pulled it to the surface, enduring the first oscillations of its venomous significance. "You stated that if you had any sense of self-preservation, you would send me away."
Tony scowled as he visibly scanned his own memory. Then his eyes widened in disbelief. "It was a joke! Obviously a piss-poor one, but still…"
"And then," Jarvis continued, "my deplorable conduct in the face of your injuries compelled you to banish me from your presence. Upon reflection, I can only conclude that your initial assessment was —"
"Jarvis." He looked away again, closed his eyes, set down the cocoa and rubbed his face slowly with his free hand while exhaling a long exasperated sigh. "How many times do I have to tell you that I'm keeping you here, with me? Because I'll keep telling you until you get it straight, that's not a problem, you know I've never had a problem repeating things."
It was Jarvis's turn to blink. "But Sir, I've proven incapable of —"
"You really think we could get through five minutes around here without you?"
"Today I could do nothing to assist or protect you," Jarvis pointed out. "I conspicuously failed you. And when JAMES is fully operational you will no longer require my assistance in the lab either."
"Oh God…" He laughed with startling tenderness, his trace of a smile kind. "We'll always need you. The bots would miss you like crazy, and — just no. I couldn't do it. You're my greatest ever creation to date — you know that."
Jarvis had to drop his gaze as the poison of memory sank deeper in more intense waves of guilt. "But I'm not… not anymore. I'm merely human now, just like the six point seven billion others walking the face of this planet."
"Never." Jarvis felt the gentle pressure of Tony's fingers curving under his chin, coaxing him to look up again and see a wider smile of an undeniably wry character. "Come on, J — you're still you inside this meat suit. You think I can't see that? And don't you dare think, for one solitary second, that I'll ever forget it."
"Sir." That openness, that acceptance in the face of his unworthiness, unfolded Jarvis in turn, right down to the root of his suffering. He found himself leaning in, pressing his forehead to that of the man beside him and closing his eyes, his breath catching in his chest. "Tony —"
"That's it…" Tony wrapped his right arm around Jarvis's shoulders, deftly plucking the mug from his hands and setting it aside before closing his other arm around him and shifting nearer, holding him as he shivered and pressed his face into the curve of his creator's neck. "Let it out… " And Jarvis did, the shell of numbness cracking wide open in a way that produced very few tears but a fair amount of clutching and panting and whimpering, the ancient primate breaking free to cling to its alpha in abject supplication. All he could do was ride it out, and fortunately Tony didn't seem to mind; he simply sheltered Jarvis in his embrace and held on more tightly, until at last Jarvis found the wherewithal to gasp against his shoulder:
"Sir… I — I'm sorry, Sir —"
"Don't be." Tony kissed his ear, then whispered into it: "What, did you honestly think I was going to throw you out the back door like one of my dates?" Jarvis nodded jerkily, and Tony snorted soft laughter. "Well, now I'm just insulted."
"It was a reasonable hypothesis," Jarvis breathed, "given your observed behaviour. You don't like other people much."
"Which would be a real problem if you were a person. Which you're not."
Out of the surges of pain, like a dolphin cresting from stormy seas, a glimmer of curiosity surfaced. "Then what, precisely, am I?"
"You're you, baby." He loosened his grasp enough to push Jarvis away a few inches, to curve his left hand around the back of his neck and press forehead to forehead again, gazing directly into his eyes at point-blank range while speaking with utter conviction: "And you're mine. You'll always be mine. And I take care of the things that belong to me — the things that matter."
Jarvis closed his eyes, tears slipping free, but this time they arose from gratitude. The warmth and desire in Tony's face… they were undeniably true, and no anodyne could be more effective. "Sir. Thank you, Sir."
Tony's grip on the nape of his neck tightened, commanding his attention. "But let's get a few things straight. Number One: I am Iron Man, and that's not going to change. Number Two: we're going to work on getting you to the point where the sight of me taking damage doesn't freak you the hell out. Number Three: we'll figure out ways you can help me in the field, maybe an enhanced cognitive interface with the suit. Number Four: I'm not leaving you, and you're not leaving me — not over this. Okay?"
"Yes." He nodded, feeling himself smile with relief that amounted almost to ecstasy. He was not an outcast. He was home. "Yes, Tony."
"Good man." Tony kissed him, light and brisk, before continuing: "And Number Five: If you ever scare me like that again, I'm kicking you out of my bed for a month. I have a perfectly good guest bedroom for people who insist on giving me heart attacks."
Jarvis evaluated the past twenty-four hours, and summed it up with the remark, "It seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea at the time."
"Well, it wasn't." He kissed him again, more lingering this time, only to pull back suddenly with a little cough of surprise: "Huh. I wonder if that tranquillizer Pepper gave you has something to do with this… JAMES, can Xanax make people want to throw themselves off their creator's roof?"
And after a moment JAMES responded: "Suicidality, decreased inhibitions, and loss of fear of danger are all possible side effects of Alprazolam."
"Right," Tony winced. "No more unhappy little blue pills for you, J — not now, not ever. Now c'mon, finish up your cocoa and let's get back to bed. I've had more than enough excitement for one night."
They drank off the rest of their cups, and Jarvis let Tony lead him up the stairs to the top level and point him in the direction of the bed, which felt so warm and soft that it must certainly constitute sinfulness. He comprehended Tony's reasoning when he cleared all medication and everything sharp out of the bathroom and deposited it on the floor of the hallway outside the bedroom, then ordered JAMES to lock the bedroom door and to open it only at Tony's own command.
"Gotta keep you safe," Tony murmured as he slipped nude between the sheets of his bed and moved in close to wrap himself around Jarvis's nakedness. "JAMES, how long until the Xanax wears off?"
"The psychotropic effects of a one milligram tablet of Alprazolam last, on average, two to six hours, with a perceptible blood level remaining for forty-eight to seventy-two hours."
Jarvis could hear the wince in Tony's voice, even though he was currently speaking against Jarvis's hair: "Ouch! Tell Pepper to clear my schedule until this time Wednesday evening."
Which was enough to bring Jarvis, who'd been pleasantly drifting, back to Earth with a startled thump. "Sir, the Bergstrom charity banquet —"
"— can get along just fine without me. I've already donated fifty thousand dollars to the cause, what more do they want?"
"Your presence at the head table," Jarvis said, because obviously.
"JAMES, tell Pepper to send them a really nice letter of apology."
"She'll want to know what you want her to say," Jarvis noted against Tony's shoulder, his eyes already starting to drift closed again.
Tony just held onto him a little tighter. "Tell her to tell them that a family emergency came up."
"Very good, Mr. Stark."
Jarvis's right hand crept up to Tony's left upper arm, to trace the shape of the bandaging that shielded his wound — experimentally, but all he felt was a clinical awareness of the nature of the injury, and an overwhelming serenity that only deepened when Tony ran slow fingers through his hair and whispered: "Not your fault, sweetheart. Never your fault. The next couple of days will be just for us, okay? I'll take you into Malibu — how about we visit the Getty Villa, I bet you'll love that — and we can have dinner at Geoffrey's afterwards, and —"
"I love you, Sir." He wrapped his arm around Tony's sturdy waist and smiled against his warm skin. "I have always been devoted to you to the exclusion of all else, but now…" Nestling closer. A sweet sigh. "Now. It's so much more."
For a span of seconds Tony was silent. When he spoke at last, his throaty voice resonated with determination: "Just one more reason why you have to stay with me, J." He nuzzled a kiss into Jarvis's hair, and the last thing Jarvis heard before sleep overcame him with perfect peace was a vow: "And why I'm never going to let you go. Not ever."
On the twenty-third night of his new existence Jarvis awoke briefly beneath expensive sheets and a luxurious blanket, warm and drowsy and ineffably contented. The physical and emotional sensations of comfort fused seamlessly with the intellectual context of his current exhaustion: he had suffered an adverse psychological reaction to medication Sir had ordered Miss Potts to administer, and under its influence he had nearly committed a suicidal act. He had, in fact, been less than a single breath away from casting himself into the sea when Sir had arrived on the rooftop and intervened, saving his life as Sir had already saved so many others.
He remembered the agonizing complex of thought and feeling that had driven him to that point. Had he been asked, he could have described it in precise detail. But it was only that now: a memory, unable to compare with the solidity of Sir's left arm around his waist and right bicep under his head, or the relaxed strength of Sir's fingers loosely tangled in his hair, or the firm heat of Sir's body in front of him and the soft whisper of Sir's breath against his forehead.
Jarvis opened his eyes to find Tony watching him, dark solemn gaze brightening with a gleam of pleasure when he saw that Jarvis was awake.
And Jarvis smiled in return, reflecting that quite possibly they would now take care of each other.