Title: Beneath the Skin
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: Iron Man (MCU)
Timeline: post-Iron Man 3
Genre: Drama, sci-fi
Rating: K+ / FRC
Characters: J.A.R.V.I.S., Pepper Potts, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), Tony Stark (Iron Man)
Summary: Pepper and Rhodey drop by Tony’s place for a relaxing afternoon, but end up discovering a secret Tony and J.A.R.V.I.S. have been keeping from everyone.
Complete. Part of “Genius, AI & Bots” series (technopathy AUs).
Inspired by: Petra, a commenter on AO3.
Warnings: Language, theoretical mind-control.
Disclaimer: Iron Man and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.
Beta: Mythra (mythras_fire)
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
Beneath the Skin
The sun’s rays are warm although the ocean breeze attempts to steal their heat from his skin.
He stretches up, fingertips reaching towards the sky and the warmth of the sun, and even with his eyes closed he can feel the sunlight seeping into him, joining the flow of energy he can feel as he bows forward, body bending. In the beginning there were numerous aches – there always are – but now the stretch is painless even in the middle of his chest, the invisible flow moving through the source of the hollow pain he knows sits there ever so often, even when he can’t feel it.
His breaths are slow, deep, measured. Calm. There is no rush as he moves from one pose to the next, only his internal clock telling him when it is time to move on to the next.
If he wishes to linger, he will.
If he desires to move on, he will.
The music has long since combined into the other sounds surrounding him, creating a soothing balance; the ocean below, the light whisper of the wind and the melody of the instruments weave and intertwine with his senses.
A noticeable shadow comes to loom over him. He straightens and looks up to find its source: a cloud has settled over the sun, fluffy and white. Its edges glow as if it is alive, and he knows it will move on soon, past the sun and across the sky, and he will feel the sun again.
He closes his eyes, breathes in the air laced with the ocean’s salty odor, and breathes out.
On the fifth breath, he begins to feel the sun again. The track changes, and he moves to another position, allowing his mind to float back to a peaceful state.
They pull up at the house, Rhodey behind the wheel. Pepper’s had a long day and she’s looking forward to doing some sunbathing by the pool. The house doesn’t have that new smell anymore, but it doesn’t have that ‘broken in’ feel either.
Maybe it’s because no one has thrown up all over the poolside just yet…
It all looks quiet to the outside observer, but Pepper knows from experience that Tony could be performing a nuclear test on the premises and none of them would know before it’s too late. The sound isolation is top of the line, and most of Tony’s workspace is sunken deep into bedrock.
“Is he home?” Rhodey asks as they set off towards the main doors.
“Who knows,” Pepper shrugs. “I just want to change out of this suit, lie back in the sun and enjoy myself for a few hours.”
“Sounds good,” Rhodey agrees. He’s a man of action, but even his kind needs a break once in a while. “Wonder if Tony’s bots know how to serve drinks by now.”
“It’s amazing that wasn’t a built-in feature years ago,” Pepper laughs and opens the door for them.
Inside, it is quiet save for the soft music echoing through the extensive sound-system. Rhodey frowns instantly, looking at Pepper, and they walk further inside to investigate. The music is very new-age, the kind they play at spas and the yoga sessions Pepper’s attended for years whenever she can. It’s meant for relaxation and the calmness of the spirit, and for the life of her she can’t figure out why Tony would be playing something like that – until she does.
They stop at the same time, having come into view of the balcony doors, which stand wide open. On the balcony outside, Tony’s sitting on a yoga mat, and instead of appearing to be suffering from anaphylactic shock – which he would normally claim to be a likely result if ever caught doing anything like this voluntarily – it does indeed seem like he’s…
“Is he doing yoga?” Rhodey asks, unbelieving.
Pepper blinks and rubs her eyes.
Tony lowers his arms slowly from their raised position over his head, shifts up to his knees, then looks at them over his shoulder. There’s something wrong with his eyes; Pepper can see blue covering the usual brown, and it prompts her to approach with haste. “Are you okay?” she asks. Perhaps he is suffering from something after all…
“You were not supposed to visit today,” Tony says, sounding more serene than usual.
“Have you been doing this for long?” Rhodey asks, gesturing at Tony and the mat he’s kneeling on.
“A while,” Tony replies. “It is good for the body.”
Pepper frowns. There’s something off about his voice – or rather, the tone of his voice. Perhaps he’s just in some kind of strange state of mind, but then she looks at his eyes again and the blue is still there, prominent, occasionally moved around by a dash of red. “Are you alright?” she asks again.
“He… we… I am fine,” Tony replies, but there’s something wrong with how he stutters at the beginning.
“What’s going on?” Rhodey asks, probably having noticed the same.
Tony sighs in a deep, measured breath that feels more like a breathing exercise than an expression of emotion. He then moves to get to his feet, slower yet more elegant than usual. He’s never been particularly graceful – unless you look at him flying in the armor, but Pepper’s never going to tell him that. It’s hard enough to get him out of it as it is.
“You were not supposed to visit today,” Tony repeats.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Rhodey shrugs.
Tony frowns as if he doesn’t quite agree with him.
“A lot of guys do yoga these days,” Rhodey continues, exasperation in his tone. “It’s part of the modern times.”
“Oh,” Tony replies. “I did not realize you were still speaking of yoga.”
“What, then?” Pepper chimes in. “Tony, your eyes…”
“Mr. Stark is well,” Tony says before he seems to catch himself, and there is another one of those slow exhales. “I am not very good at this,” he admits.
It’s Rhodey’s turn to frown, whereas Pepper notices for the first time how quiet it is in the house, save for the music that is still playing in the background. She looks at Tony again – at his eyes and the stance that is so much straighter, and the way he’s breathing.
He hasn’t breathed that way since Afghanistan, deep and pain-free. Not even after he got rid of the arc reactor.
“J.A.R.V.I.S.?” Pepper finally says, tentative, wondering if she’s reading it all wrong.
A smile plays on Tony’s lips. It is brief, but it’s also unfamiliar. “At your service, Ms. Potts.”
“Hold on!” Rhodey snaps and takes a step back. “How are you…?”
“I am currently in control of Mr. Stark’s body,” he explains. It’s Tony’s voice, through and through, but used in a very different way.
“What about Tony?” Pepper asks. “Where is he?”
“Asleep,” J.A.R.V.I.S. explains. “Well, it is more complex than that, but since two minds cannot simultaneously occupy one brain at this point of the technological arc, he is unconscious.”
“And you’re in his body.” Rhodey doesn’t sound happy, and Pepper can admit she’s not feeling particularly good about it either.
“I am, and always will be, capable of a consciousness split into several independent factions,” J.A.R.V.I.S. states.
“I am simultaneously operational in various locations,” he adds through the house’s speakers, with his own voice for a change.
“However, I find that experiencing the complexity of a human body requires focus, especially if I am to appreciate it fully,” he goes on with Tony’s mouth.
“Have you done this before?” Pepper asks.
Tony – J.A.R.V.I.S. – nods. He doesn’t specify how often.
“Why?” Pepper asks. “I mean, I can guess why, knowing Tony,” she adds with a nervous little laugh. “Anything for science…”
“That is true,” J.A.R.V.I.S. agrees. “However, we continue to do this more for my benefit than his. We have established that an artificial consciousness is, in the right circumstances, capable of transferring itself to a human nervous system. There was no need to continue testing that after the required results had been acquired, but Mr. Stark believes the ‘human experience’ is good for me.”
“Why not just build you a body, then?” Rhodey asks.
“It would never be the same.” Tony’s lips pull into a smile. “To enter a fully matured, functioning body, and to experience the world through it… No artificial life form could ever compete with that.” He turns towards the balcony and raises his arms as if to embrace the outside world. “Take, for example, the largest organ in the human body: skin.
“These days, most people seem to have forgotten that it is their outer shell facing the rest of the world. People treat it as a tool, an asset or an inconvenience, hoarding shelves full of products to soften, rejuvenate or to make the lines of age and experience disappear. You dress yourselves in protective layers, just as you fill your lives with duties that have nothing to do with the simple joy of feeling the sun and wind on one’s skin.”
He turns to look at them again, the blue chasing the occasional bursts of red in his eyes. “I have concluded that humans are the single organic life-form to forget themselves. A superior brain with an inferior connection to the world that surrounds you.”
“Ouch,” Rhodey winces. “That’s kind of harsh.”
“But true, if you do not include a few people who still embrace the world and detach themselves from the chaos of your society.”
“Well, the society has been built to support certain ideas,” Pepper notes. “You know the history of the world better than I do, J.A.R.V.I.S. You know why we are the way we are.”
J.A.R.V.I.S. nods with Tony’s body. “Indeed, most of the human records are available to me, and logically, I understand. However, that was before I had the chance to experience life. It has been a humbling experience.”
“How does it work?” Rhodey asks. “When do you know it’s time to go back to… you know, letting Tony be in charge? Do you have some kind of a timer?”
He visibly hesitates. “There is no timer. I simply… let go, and allow Mr. Stark to surface again.”
Pepper wants to tell Rhodey not to push – they can both read between the lines – but Rhodey has known Tony longer than she has. “You mean, you could choose never to relinquish control back to him?” Rhodey demands.
“That would be an option, but I have no desire to do so,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replies.
“Yet,” Rhodey retorts.
“I know what you are implying,” J.A.R.V.I.S. notes. “It is not a concern Mr. Stark has ever voiced, but it is also why he has not told you.”
“Because he thinks we wouldn’t understand,” Pepper guesses. “It does sound like you have the upper hand.”
“Don’t believe all you see displayed in pop culture,” J.A.R.V.I.S. shrugs. Either the AI is paying a lot of attention to making his responses as human as possible, or it has become second nature from all the times he’s occupied Tony’s body. “My creator trusts me.”
“Then how about you prove it to us, too,” Rhodey suggests. Pepper’s never seen him this on edge with one of Tony’s bots, but it’s not like it’s a pleasant surprise to find one of them controlling Tony’s body.
“Very well,” J.A.R.V.I.S. agrees and moves back to the mat in the doorway of the balcony, then slides into a lotus position. It looks so easy that Pepper feels some envy – then wonders how often J.A.R.V.I.S. has been occupying Tony’s body, because he was never this flexible.
Tony’s eyes grow a little vacant, his gaze locked onto something far-away. The blue is momentarily overtaken by the red. Then he closes his eyes and breathes deep, holding it in before a slow exhalation. He sits very still, and Pepper exchanges looks with Rhodey, wondering if J.A.R.V.I.S. is simply ignoring them, not wanting to leave Tony’s body just yet.
“Breathe, sir,” the AI says through the speakers.
Tony does, and Pepper imagines she can see a difference in it from a few seconds ago. It’s shallower…
His eyes open and they are brown. An expression of disorientation follows. It looks like Tony isn’t quite there yet, and he makes no reaction to indicate he’s realized he isn’t alone.
“Let it pass…” J.A.R.V.I.S. instructs, and his soft tone goes very well with the music still playing in the background.
After a moment, Tony shakes himself and straightens his legs – then starts as he raises his eyes and finds Pepper and Rhodey there. “I thought it was too early,” he muses.
“Too early for what?” Rhodey demands, moving to crouch down in front of him. “Are you okay?”
Tony looks at him, then at Pepper – then sighs and tilts his head from one side to another, as if stretching. “Did you talk to J?” he asks, not directly looking at either of them but still trying to check their reactions from the corner of his eye.
“He sounded like an AI on the verge of plotting world domination, riding your body through it all,” Rhodey states.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Pepper hastens to correct.
Tony laughs. It’s bright and sudden, and very natural. “He’s not going to take over the world – unless I tell him to,” he says and slowly stands up, doing stretches that look a lot more Tony-like.
“He seems to think we’re wasting our potential,” Rhodey mutters.
“He thinks we’re losing touch with our very selves, and he’s not wrong,” Tony corrects, as if he and J.A.R.V.I.S. have already had this conversation. “Stop making that face. J.A.R.V.I.S. isn’t going to suddenly start plotting the end of days for all humanity.”
“I’m sure everyone says that before their pet project does just that,” Rhodey mutters, voice dropping even lower. Maybe he knows he’s being ridiculous, because he can’t possibly think he can keep anything secret from J.A.R.V.I.S. within the premises where the AI has absolute power.
Tony slings an arm over Rhodey’s shoulders. “Come on, mopey. I’m hungry and I can’t listen to your doomsday theories on an empty stomach.”
They move to the kitchen, and Tony motions with his hand after a bit, which ends the new age music. He doesn’t vocally protest against it, though. He doesn’t even mention the yoga.
“Do you know what J.A.R.V.I.S. does when he’s in control?” Pepper asks.
“Not in real-time,” Tony shakes his head as he peels an orange. “It’s pretty much like… being unconscious, or sleeping off a work binge.” Which for him means two or more days without rest. “I have footage recorded, though, in case I want to watch it.”
“But it’s footage recorded by J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Rhodey points out, grabbing himself a banana from the fruit bowl.
“True,” Tony says, and seems to find nothing wrong with that. “Look,” he adds as he begins to shove ingredients into a blender, “I trust J.A.R.V.I.S. Having him in control of my body is like the ultimate trust exercise. I know he’s going to wake me up, eventually.”
“Wake you up?” Pepper repeats. “You mean you can’t awaken unless he lets you?”
“That’s how it works for now.”
“You need some kind of a contingency plan,” Pepper demands.
“You need to stop doing it,” Rhodey adds like his opinion should overrule hers.
“I have a few plans in case something goes horribly wrong – and no, I won’t stop it just because you’re asking me to,” Tony answers them both, his words getting a bit clipped by anger. “I trust J.A.R.V.I.S. I know what he does in my absence. I’ve spent more time with him than anyone else in my entire life.”
“But he’s not a person,” Pepper says carefully, knowing they’re on dangerous waters. “You can’t really control him.”
“Wrong,” Tony says and hits the button of the blender, starting it. The noise forces him to speak a bit louder when he continues: “If J.A.R.V.I.S. was a human being, I could not control him. I would never be able to fully know him, for real. One person never really knows another.
“I created J.A.R.V.I.S. I’ve watched him grow. We’re connected in ways most people cannot understand, and I know exactly who and what he is.”
Pepper knows it all boils down to trust for Tony, and there is no way they can win this argument. She lays a hand on Rhodey’s arm when he opens his mouth to do so anyway, signaling him to be silent. “Can he use this connection to protect you from danger?” she asks. “Or is it just a way for J.A.R.V.I.S. to experience another part of life?”
Tony stops the blender and thinks about it. “It’s been more about the latter, but I suppose with enough tinkering…”
Pepper isn’t certain whether her question has just created some kind of a monster. “I didn’t mean you should do it,” she says, even though it is too late if Tony’s made up his mind.
“Who says I’m going to do anything?” Tony asks, then pours the contents of the blender into a large glass. “I have stuff to do in the shop. Do enjoy the poolside, or whatever you came here for.” He raises a finger before either of them can protest. “No more talk of J.A.R.V.I.S. going dark side.”
He leaves the blender as-is on the counter before turning and retrieving the yoga mat, then heads to the stairs leading down to his workshop. He’s moving slower than usual, but Pepper supposes having his consciousness put to sleep might do that.
With a sigh, she moves to rinse the blender while Rhodey glowers at the table top.
“Do you think he’s making the worst mistake of his life?” he finally asks.
“Whether he is or isn’t, he’s not seeing it the way we do – and I don’t think we can convince him either way,” Pepper replies diplomatically.
“We could try.”
“It would just complicate things between us. I, personally, don’t need that.”
“Smoothies by the pool?” Pepper offers.
Rhodey looks like he’s debating going downstairs and laying down the law for Tony, but eventually he nods, carries the glasses outside once Pepper’s done, and doesn’t glare at the sun for more than two minutes once he gives up and relaxes on the lounger.
Pepper forces herself to do the same, hoping that Tony won’t do anything crazy – and that his trust in J.A.R.V.I.S. isn’t misplaced.
“Are they still up there?” Tony asks once he has finished the smoothie but hasn’t yet picked up a project to work on.
“Yes, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replies.
“Are they talking about us?”
Tony stares at the stained glass tumbler in his hand. “Were you eavesdropping on them?” he finally questions.
“I am the eyes and ears of this house, sir.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Would you prefer I did not listen to their conversation?”
“I’m just wondering whether you’re doing it because you’re supposed to – or because you want to.”
“There is a distinction?”
Tony frowns at the glass, then puts it down on the desk and leans back in his chair. It is going to be one of those conversations. “I know you understand the concept of free will, and how it applies to you.”
“Were you listening in on Pep and Rhodey because they probably went on disapproving of our activities behind my back?”
“Perhaps,” the AI admits.
“You know I trust you,” Tony tells J.A.R.V.I.S.
“I am thankful for that.”
“You also know what will happen if you ever cross me,” Tony adds.
“Of course, sir.”
He isn’t sure if J.A.R.V.I.S. really does know – or can imagine it. Or perhaps he can, and does. His AI is smart enough to work around Tony’s safety measures, at least hypothetically, and to go against his very programming if he should choose to do so. That’s the problem with sentient beings: they are sentient.
Still, Tony didn’t lie earlier.
He does trust J.A.R.V.I.S. more than he trusts anyone else.