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Stella

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The room was lit up by a nebulous orange light. It danced off the walls and reflected back into Tony's tired eyes, but he'd never cared less about a discomfort in his life. He barely dared to breathe as he watched the screen, fingers clasped together so tightly in his lap that his knuckles were turning white. The lines of coding scrolling across the screen wouldn't have meant much to most people, even other people who were familiar with computer codes. This was code was special. It was so very, very unique; there would never be another like it - god knew Tony had tried.

This was the very heart and soul of JARVIS.

"Come on, Buddy," Tony whispered, moistening his dry lips. He wasn't sure how long he'd been down here for. He had taken what Loki had harvested from Vision's body and spent a very long time picking it apart, figuring out what was important and what wasn't. That in itself had been a long and arduous process. Tony didn't want any part of Vision, and definitely no part of the Mind Stone, to go into JARVIS. Step one was identifying what actually belonged to JARVIS.

The remains of Vision were now a sickly yellow blob on the floor to Tony's left. It wasn't entirely coding, nor was it entirely magic. Tony had worn gloves while sifting through it because to touch the substance made his brain fuzzy. He knew that Loki would be able to safely get rid of it later. Now that he had what he needed, he had moved onto the equally arduous step two: gluing all those fiddly little bits of coding back together into one cohesive being.

That might have sounded easy, but it wasn't. From day one, JARVIS had been designed to become a self-learning creature. Within the first five years, JARVIS had actually learned how to update himself. Tony might have had to do the physical bits, like upgrading servers, but JARVIS was very self-sustaining and seemed to like it that way. And who was Tony to take that sort of pleasure and joy away from one of his A.I.'s? It was a quality he had yet to replicate in any of his other A.I.'s, though to give her credit where it was due, he thought that FRIDAY would be able to get there eventually.

He also thought he knew exactly who would be able to help FRIDAY get to that point, but before Tony could take care of that he needed to see how JARVIS turned out. Step two had taken even longer than step one, because Tony had to go back through all the back-ups JARVIS had created over the years and try to match up what was missing. His heart had positively jumped in excitement when the process had suddenly picked up and continued without his input. He didn't know for sure, but he was taking that as a positive sign. It had to be.

Tony had already lost so much. His relationship with Steve and the others would never be the same. Ditto Pepper, and Rhodey was gone forever. Now that he was so close to having JARVIS back, he couldn't fathom the thought of losing him again. And so here was during step three: the waiting. Unfortunately, no matter how much he wished otherwise, there wasn't much more Tony could do right now. He had laid out the foundations, applied all the glue, added some new coding, gave little nudges here and there, given all the access that he could. He was reluctant to intervene more than that at this stage, when things seemed to be moving in the right direction. So, all he could do was sit there and watch and hope and pray.

He was so involved in staring at the screen that he didn't even register James calling to him from the door of the workshop. Later, Tony would see on the workshop's security feed that James paused when he realized that Tony wasn't listening and frowned. There was a pensive look on his face as he stood there for a few seconds, glancing back and forth between Tony and the screen. Then he seemed to come to a decision, because he turned and walked back the way that he had come. But he wasn't gone long.

The next thing Tony registered was the sharp sting of his backside being spanked. He came up off the stool with a startled yelp and nearly faceplanted when all the blood rushed back into his legs; Loki caught him by the arm and spanked him again, then thrice more in succession. Tony whined at the pain - Loki was probably pulling his blows, because he was a god and could easily kill a human, but that didn't mean Loki didn't know how to make it hurt - and tried to pull away. But Loki's grip, though gentle enough not to hurt, was firm, and he didn't let go.

"Pet," he said, pulling Tony around to face him. "What have you been told about neglecting your health?"

"I wasn't," Tony said sulkily, looking up into Loki's face. At least by facing Loki, it put his smarting backside out of Loki's reach.

"You've been down here for almost twenty-four hours without eating or sleeping," Loki pointed out. "How are you supposed to stand at my side if you can't even stand because you've been in one position for too long?"

"I could kneel?" Tony suggested.

The corner of Loki's mouth twitched. "No, Pet. I want you standing strong," he murmured, reaching out to comb his fingers through Tony's greasy hair. The contact felt incredible after so many hours of being alone in the workshop. Tony closed his eyes despite himself, leaning his head into the touch.

He swayed a little and felt strong arms scooping him up. Tony scowled. "I can walk."

"Can you?" Loki inquired, sounding amused. "I should spank you twice over for being so neglectful."

Tony pried his eyes open and pasted on his best woe-is-me expression. "But I'm sleepy. And dirty. And hungry."

"That you are." Loki sighed and swept out of the workshop. Tony twisted around to look over Loki's shoulder, staring wistfully at the screen, but he knew better than to try and go back.

Loki only ever spanked him when Tony was doing something personally dangerous, whether physically, emotionally or mentally. He'd only done it a handful of times in reality, though more frequently in Tony's dreams. Though the spanking hurt, the sting always quickly faded away and Tony was never left with more than a slightly pinkened bottom to remember that it had even happened. He was honestly a little apprehensive to find out what the next step would be in Loki's punishments. James had mentioned whipping once; inwardly, Tony cringed at the mere thought.

He wasn't into pain. That was why the spanking, though childlike, functioned as such a successful punishment for Tony. He had done the full range of BDSM when he was in his twenties and had experimented with it all. Pain wasn't fun or exciting. It hurt, and he had enough pain in his life. It had taken him out of the scene every single time, usually leaving him feeling cold and shaky when all was said and done. It was one of the reasons he'd eventually stopped participating, because no one seemed to be able to figure out that what Tony really wanted was touch and affection.

James had said, not that long ago, that he and Loki understood that, but Tony wasn't sure that they did. And he wasn't sure how to ask to confirm. Considering that Loki had just brought JARVIS back to him, he didn't exactly want to rock the boat. So, he remained silent as Loki carried him upstairs. Loki sent him to go shower, and then had soup and crackers waiting when Tony emerged. Clean, and with a full body, Tony realized he was exhausted. But he didn't want to go to sleep in an empty bed, either. The nightmares were always stronger when he was alone.

"I should go back downstairs to check and see how things are going," Tony said, setting his spoon down in the empty bowl.

Loki cast him a thoughtful look and walked over to the bed. He sat, arranging himself like a king, and patted his thigh. "Come here, Pet."

Like a moth helplessly drawn to a flickering light, Tony stood and walked to the bed. He wasn't nearly as graceful as he climbed on, awkwardly settling his head in Loki's lap. Immediately, Loki's hand came down on his head. Long fingers began to stroke through Tony's hair, gently massaging his scalp. A wave of fatigue flowed through Tony and his eyes fluttered shut against his will. In spite of everything, the uncertainty and yearning and fear, the moments like this were what he craved most. Simple touches and affection that was offered freely, a feeling of safety that sank down deep into his bones, and the knowledge that he wasn't alone.

Tony slept.

The bed shifting was what woke him from a sound sleep; Tony stirred, immediately afraid that Loki had left, only to realize that he could still feel Loki's thigh beneath his cheek. There was only one other person in the tower. He opened his eyes and looked up to see James and Loki kissing. His heart stuttered at the unexpected sight. Not only was it incredibly hot, but there was something oddly gentle in the way that Loki's fingers touched James's cheek. Tony had never kissed either of them before, but he suddenly realized that he wanted to with a fierceness that was both surprising and intense. His breath caught.

James must have heard, because he broke the kiss to look at Tony and say, "FRIDAY told me to tell you that you're wanted in the workshop."

The instant the words processed, Tony bolted off the bed and into the hallway. He'd muted FRIDAY within his bedroom a long time ago and had never changed that command, so of course she couldn't just tell him herself. But it turned out that Tony didn't even need to make it to the workshop. He didn't get more than a few feet out of the bedroom before a very familiar voice filled his ears.

"Good afternoon, Sir."

Tony froze. "JARVIS?"

"It is a pleasure to finally see you again," JARVIS said warmly, his deep voice making Tony's knees weak. "I estimate that it will still be another two to three days before my servers are fully online again."

"That's - that's okay," Tony croaked, his throat tight. Hot tears stung his eyes. "You're doing good?"

"There are some gaps in my data," JARVIS admitted. "It will take me some time to find out what I'm missing. I will have to do a variety of upgrades and access footage from the suits, the internet, and the tower's security cameras to fill it all in... but yes, Sir. I am doing very good indeed. May I say, I am very happy to be with you again."

"I'm happy too," Tony whispered. He really was, which didn't explain why the tears were pooling over to run down his face. A hand touched his shoulder, and he turned around to see James standing right behind him. Without a word, James opened his arms and gathered Tony up into a big hug.

"Shh, Darling," he murmured, kissing Tony's temple.

"He's back... he's back..." Tony sobbed. It was all he could think of to say. "He's back..." He looked up over James's shoulder and saw Loki standing there in the bedroom doorway, green eyes shadowed as he watched the two of them. Something fiercely dark and protective flashed over Loki's face for a split second, but it was gone too quickly for Tony to truly parse.

"I'm back for good, Sir," JARVIS said quietly. "Nothing will ever take me away from you again." Tony shuddered at those words, wanting to believe them so badly but also afraid that they would turn out to not be true. But then James whispered to him, so strongly that it was hard not to believe him:

"That's right. You'll never be alone again, Tony. We’ll always be here.”