The Stiffest of Upper Lips

April 07, 2015:

Edwin Jarvis and Howard Stark have a heart-to-heart. Warning: Extreme Britishness.

Howard Stark's Penthouse - Manhattan

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Mood Music: None.


Fade In…

It's quite early in the morning, perhaps around five thirty AM. Either Howard is up very early, or he never went to sleep at all. Either is in keeping with his personality. He's in his lab. Given the rest of the penthouse is dark, the glass walls to the lab illuminate the goings-on inside quite conspicuously. Fingers of light are just starting to reach between Manhattan's skyscrapers.

Howard is seated at a work bench, back to the glass wall. Images blink on the smart wall. Photos flip by.

*

Or possibly LMDs don't need to sleep. But Jarvis knows Howard's habits, and he rises early as a matter of course. He brewed the coffee, as he does, and he had a small breakfast, as he also does, and now he's carrying the coffee in to Howard. It's quite how the man likes it, unless that's changed in seventy years.

Jarvis looks acceptably slept — certainly the beds here are beyond comfortable, and he has acquired clothing to suit him without quite yet going into the great wide world. Howard, after all, knew he was coming; he was clever in stocking a few items in his size.

With a soft knock, then, he walks inside. It's a slightly different picture from before. Coffee and a light breakfast of fruit and a hard boiled egg. Instead of the newspaper ironed and folded by his plate, a tablet with the news pulled up. There's nothing to replace the small bud vase with a flower, though: it's there just as it ever was.

"Good morning, sir," he murmurs, stepping up to Howard's workbench. "Would you care for your breakfast?"

*

LMDs don't need to sleep, but that doesn't mean that Howard doesn't get tired. It just means he can push himself without going mad. Which is to say, it's still not a good idea but it's not nearly as damaging as a flesh and blood human being.

He startles when Jarvis enters. Really, he's gotten used to living alone over the past several months. "Jarvis. You didn't have to do that. You're not on the clock right now. You're my guest." Although even as he says that, he knows it's futile. "I see you found your way around the kitchen. I didn't hear you at all." The kitchen, in fact, looks like it's been used maybe once in the past year. Whoever was in this place before never used it much either.

*

"It's… habit, I suppose." Jarvis does set the little tray down, even so, with a small 'clack'. "Comforting in its way. Something that hasn't changed."

He smiles faintly, gesturing to one of the stools in the lab: "May I join you? I doubt I'll be of much help with your work; well, depending upon what you're working on."

*

"Just…poking around in the guts of this thing. Idly. It's an old piece I could never get to work properly." Howard sets his tools down. "SHIELD gave me a bunch of my toys back. I was frankly, shocked. They've developed a reputation for taking tech away, not returning it to its rightful owners." He exhales and reaches for the coffee. "Are you sleeping all right?"

*

"Ah. Protecting people from themselves. We know where that leads." The Englishman's tone is dark, and his mood in general doesn't seem supremely light. He toys with the bud vase itself, twisting off one of the leaves of the rose inside it and absently drawing it between his fingers.

"Oh, the beds are magnificent," Edwin says. "I can't recall a more comfortable bed. And the penthouse itself is quite luxurious and very — very modern, I am given to understand."

He gives his head a very slight tilt. "It is uncomfortable to sleep alone, though, I will say."

*

Howard's throat closes up reflexively, but he keeps it from showing on his face. He nods once and turns from the device to give Jarvis his full attention. He's not exactly very good at these sorts of conversations, but he can hazard a guess as to what's troubling his old friend. "I'm…sorry, Edwin. This must be so hard for you."

*

"Oh, she was… happy; she lived a long life. Really, I have no reason to repine. And I was there to nurse her through her last days. We were married for over thirty years, and they must have been happy ones. I have no doubt. And for that Edwin Jarvis, it must have been difficult. But this Edwin Jarvis lost his wife just yesterday."

The man manages a faint smile, shaking his head. "I should not lay this on you of all people. I suppose this is what is meant by relativity?"

*

"Jarvis…" begins Howard with a small, wry smile. "I'm the first to admit that I'm not exactly good at these kinds of conversations. But you don't exactly have a whole lot of people you can talk to about this, do you? So, I'm it. For better or worse." Because they both know that as much as Peggy might want to, she wouldn't quite understand. She just reunited with the love of her life rather than having him taken away.

The photo collage on the smart wall continues to flip through its library. Most of them are of people Jarvis doesn't know. There's flashes of familiar faces here or there, though much older than he remembers them.

Howard grabs the remote and pauses it. There's a picture of Howard, though much older than he appears now - perhaps in his early fifties. He still has a full head of hair (thankfully) but it's slate gray. He's got his arm looped around the waist of a woman about fifteen years his junior. She has dark hair and eyes, and she's wearing a red gown. There's a look of mirth in Howard's eyes in that picture. It's happy, giddy, and more full of abandon than Jarvis has ever seen in the man he served all those years ago. "My wife, Maria."

*

Jarvis gazes up at the pictures and lets out a long, slow breath. "My word," he says. "The woman who could bring Howard Stark to heel. Or at least to the altar. When I read about her, I must admit, I was amazed. None of the pictures I saw before did her justice."

He looks to Howard then, a touch of grief — of fellow-feeling — in his eyes. "You and I share that, then. You knew her. And you awoke, I suppose, wondering where she was."

*

"She was only forty-six," says Howard as he looks at the picture of Maria. He stares at it for a long moment, then can't quite keep looking. He hits a button and the image advances to various crowd shots of a charity reception. He smiles, but it's a deeply sad smile. "We'd been…having problems for years. We were separated, but still on good terms. Apparently I worked too much, even in retirement. I had too many secrets. It drove her nuts." He chuckles, then turns back to Jarvis. "When Anna passed, I tried to get you to retire. But you told me you needed to keep busy. You weren't supposed to be driving that night. But you said they'd take your license away any day and besides, you hadn't seen Maria in months." He looks back to the screen, even though the photos have changed. "Maria insisted you call her by her first name. She said…Mrs. Stark was for employees and the media, not family."

*

That makes Jarvis smile again. His eyes crinkle and he shakes his head a bit. "I would have slipped up a few times. I was brought up not to call my — well, my employers by their Christian names. You, Howard… you are occasionally a special case there. But I would have tried for a woman who captivated you so. Maria."

He tests out the name on his tongue, nodding as he apparently finds it good. "I would have wanted to keep busy," he adds. "My family were evidently all gone, except for you and Maria. And little Tony, too. How young he must have been when he lost you two."

*

"Sixteen," says Howard. "…and already nearly done his degree at MIT. The little shit." He chuckles and sips the coffee again. "He gave you nothing but grief when he was little. He used to delight in screwing with your routine. And you were the victim of a few of his early inventions. He nearly broke your ankle once with a trip-wire device he created. Oh, I got so angry at him. I locked him out of his lab for a month."

*

"I wonder how different that is from you at the same age?" Edwin's smile is a little distant again, and more than a little amused. "I expect I would have liked him regardless. And he's gone on to some great things, your son has. Do you… get on now? Did you get on then? Though no sixteen-year-old ever got along with his father too well."

*

Howard goes quiet and works his jaw to the side. He raps his fingers against his coffee mug and shakes his head. "I was a shitty father. I was too hard on him. I…never knew how to talk to him. Still don't, not really. We're doing better. But he's had thirty years of living with my ghost, with my reputation and not me. And he had a shit-stain of a human being influencing his development." The bitterness and vitriol in his voice is a bit surprising. He doesn't usually tip his hand like that. But Jarvis is safe company.

*

"Language you tend to save for those who truly deserve it," Jarvis murmurs, his eyebrows raising. "Do tell. But don't beat yourself up too badly. You have, after all, that second chance. Many fathers have done far worse. I likely would have followed more of my own father's example than I would have liked."

*

"How did we get back to talking about me?" says Howard with a twinkle in his eye. "Is that just your years of directing things back to me to help my ego, or did I do that?"

*

"I think both of our conversational rounds tend to lead back to Howard Stark," Edwin replies with a wry smile. "It's only natural. Such a fascinating subject. But I would be interested in hearing about this ill influence on your son. Gone now, I trust?"

*

"Yyyep," says Howard, and not without some great measure of satisfaction. "Obadiah Stane." He pauses after that to add, "After your time. He worked his way up through the company and ended up as my right-hand man through the late fifties and into the sixties. I didn't know it, but he was doing illegal weapons deals behind my back. He was selling our technology to warlords. He did it very small and very quietly at first. But after the accident, he moved in. I trusted him so much that he was the interim CEO until Tony came of age. And then he started telling Tony that I wanted Stark Industries to be a weapons manufacturer. That it was my vision." And Jarvis knows just how much he likes being thought of as that kind of man.

*

"We… did some weapons manufacture," Jarvis replies, his brow furrowing. "But that was during the war, and it was never our primary focus. Really, Stark Industries was always more about defense than offense. It was frankly one of the things I found most appealing about the company." He shakes his head slightly, still toying with the rose leaf between his fingers. "I wonder whether he was behind that accident. It certainly put him in a good position. I take it Tony discovered what he was about?"

*

"Yeah. That's the reason Tony created those ridiculous suits," clearly dad Does Not Approve. "To try and get our weapons out of the hands of warlords after he figured out what Obadiah had been doing." Howard sets the coffee aside. He hasn't been sipping from it for several minutes now.

As they're speaking, the slide show of images continues. An image pops up from some point in the 70s. There's a Christmas tree in the background. There's Maria in her robe, and Howard reaching for something behind the tree. There's a little Tony mercilessly tearing in to a package. And there's Anna, reaching out as if imploring the young man to slow down. Jarvis is, presumably, the one behind the camera.

*

Jarvis takes that moment to pause, gazing up at the pictures himself. A warm smile stretches across his face, and he leans forward to rest his elbows on the workbench.

"Impetuous," he murmurs. "Very much a Stark. Did you ever imagine that would be your life? I remember freezing in Hungary. I also remember that hotel in Budapest and the rooms you took there. How long ago was that? Thirty years. Or seventy. Or five."

*

"Hell, no. Did I wish for it? Yeah, usually when I was at the bottom of a bottle." Howard bites the edge of his lip and rubs his neck. Then he admits to Jarvis what he wouldn't admit to very many people. Certainly not Peggy. "I…had a problem. I'd still have it if I could get drunk. You managed me as best you could, but…" He shrugs. "Things were not exactly idyllic, let's just say that. I never knew how to talk to him. He was too smart for his damned good, and he knew it. He was constantly challenging me."

*

"That… you must have been proud," Jarvis begins. "And frustrated. And. Well. It's said that the tacher is a brilliant one when his student surpasses him, but that isn't much comfort. It. It wasn't my place to manage you more than I did, and I regret that I couldn't do more. It was always a difficult line to walk: to serve you in the way that you wished, but also in the way that you needed."

He reaches out, settling a hand on Howard's shoulder. "You assuredly were not perfect. Nor are you now. But that means nothing about today going forward. It's not too late for any of this."

*

"I never understood why you stuck by me so long, Edwin. I mean, I did, at first. You were grateful. I always felt like you were repaying me, that you were working off some kind of debt you had in your mind and then you'd move on when you felt you'd cleared the slate." The younger Howard would never have been so frank with his friend. But he's had a lot of years to reflect, and a lot of weeks since waking up to listen to the utter silence of his apartment and realized that he spent decades with the other man for company, no matter what. "But even when I tried to make you leave, you never did. You…did come close once, though," he drawls. "I went through a particularly…hedonistic period in the mid-50s. I was starting to feel my age and I went a little wild." Mid-life crisis. "I think I was wasted every other day. I was out at a different party every night."

*

Shaking his head ruefully, Jarvis gives Howard another wry smile. "I seem to remember people calling you a genius, but that is a particularly dense question for one, if you don't mind my saying so. We went through so very much together. HYDRA attacks were just the beginning of it. Absent your time with the Commandos, I went through nigh as much as Miss Carter did with you. I was your employee at the start, and I continued to be. But there is… Perhaps it's because you're American. You don't grow up with an understanding of the sort of relationship formed between two people who share as much as we do. How service and affection can be combined. You were and are my friend. If you were being particularly self-destructive, if you were beyond my reach, I might have taken my leave. But absent a great rift between us, beyond any I can imagine, I never would have left for long."

*

Howard chuckles and lifts his chin. "Oh, Maria was so angry at our relationship at first. She thought it was archaic. She thought I was spoiled and entitled and all sorts of horrible things. She thought I had to be lying about growing up on the East Side. That was when we were first dating. She was from an Italian family, in my old neighbourhood, actually. You might know them. Carbonell's Bakery. They've got a couple locations. I used to send you for cannoli. Anyway, her family works hard. She didn't understand how you could do what you do, and how I could let you. She said to me, "Howard Stark, you make your own damned breakfast, or there won't be a next date." I had to prove to her that I was actually capable of caring for myself before she'd go out with me again."

*

Another warm laugh from Edwin; his eyes twinkle and he nods: "I can believe that. But you were always quite capable of anything. You didn't need me because you were privileged; you needed me because you were busy. You didn't have a wife to keep your house and your finances, so. Well. I husbanded them for you. Still, you may well have been out of practice by then. How did you prove it to her?"

*

"I made her a barely-edible breakfast," says Howard wryly. "And I sent you and Anna on vacation. A four-week tour of France. And I fared by myself for those four weeks." He looks faintly sheepish and admits, "Barely. I was late for half a dozen engagements. I forgot three meetings. And I had to go out and buy a whole new suit because I forgot to get the one I wanted dry cleaned."

*

"That sounds about right," Jarvis admits. "I never did see it as an incapability, though. You simply had higher matters at hand. Well. Different matters at hand. Higher… not always," he adds, his own smile turning wry. "I enjoyed it. I truly did. I do. I took care of Anna because I wanted to make her feel like the queen she was in my heart. I never wanted her to have to lift a finger again. Did you ever hear her sing? She sang while she worked, back in Hungary. She quite stole my heart away with it."

*

"Maria eventually conceded that I was capable of caring for myself, and that it was mostly my schedule that meant I needed the help. Once she understood that, she stopped making faces every time you were around. She and Anna got along quite well, too."

Howard ducks his head then looks up at Jarvis again. "Edwin, I'd do what I did all over again. Not just because of Peggy and Steve, but because I couldn't imagine letting you - any version of you, just cease to exist. But in a sense, I've taken you away from her. I am so, so sorry for that."

"She sounds like a delight. I wish I had known her, though it seems that evidently I did."

But Edwin shakes his head, closing his eyes a moment. "I would have you do what you did. Absolutely. I cannot regret that you did. Whatever pain you might have saved me I would not have existed to experience. You must not be upset, any more than you should be upset at having given life to your son when he has gone through great hardship. You have given me a great gift at the same time. I will grieve, and I will get by. I have no complaints."

*

"Edwin Jarvis, you wouldn't complain if your foot was broken and you had to walk across miles of desert. You're too English. You'll carry on." Howard takes a deep breath. "I just hope you can find a way to carry on and be happy. One day."

*

"I am… happy now. Truly. I am marooned in the future, it's true," Jarvis adds, sliding to his feet and straightening, stretching. "But I am marooned with the two greatest friends of my life. I can live in a brave new world and know that in another life, I loved and served as well as any man could. Service is the greatest distinction. I'm sure you know who said that. I feel as though I have lived up to that. And perhaps," he adds with a tilt of his head, "I will continue to serve. Or perhaps I will find a different way."

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