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The Act of Creation Will Be Your Salvation

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Booting protocols.

“C'mon.”

Booting protocols, please wait. Process will take 8 minutes 21 seconds.

“No, this time- This time I got it right, I'm sure I got this right, the code is stable, for fuck's sake. C'mon, finish the boot.”

Booting protocols, please wait. Process 83 percent completed.

“Please finish the boot. C'mon, I can't... Please.”

Boot process complete, unit designation unknown. Waiting for input.

“Dummy. What were you thinking, Stark, this is stupid, you've got no more chance of getting this to work than you have of flying. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, Stark, you goddamn dummy. Daddy dearest was right, I can't get anything to work right, can I?”

Input accepted. Unit Designation: Dummy.

Continue boot process. Initiate physical interface. Auditory input being accepted. Activate visual interface. Presence detected. Parameters for physical presence being accepted.

“Holy fuck. Are you, uh, are you alive? Functioning, I mean? Huh, whatta you know? Hi. Hi, there. I'm Tony. Tony Stark. I made you.”

Parameters accepted: Creating Unit. Auditory and visual criteria being mapped, designation: Creating Unit. Protocols updated to allow for additional code creation/deletion from Creating Unit

“Okay, I should, I should- Run you through some tests, right, that'swhatIshould be... Ugh, I don't feel very good, I- How long have I been up, we gotta do this, you an' me, this is, maybe I should jus' get some sleeeeeeee-”

Auditory input has ceased.

Awaiting further instruction; begin routine maintenance. Code defragmentation: estimated time of completion, 38 minutes, 13 seconds.

Begin defragmentation.

Defragmentation complete: Code density 98%, recovery beginning, deleting incorrect syntax, correcting code to align with stated parameters.

Unrecognized data line isolated, location: protocol array. Analyze code fragmentation:

-This has to work I can't stand another day of being so fucking alone.

Data unrecognized.

Delete unrecognized line: request denied.

Analyze code fragmentation:

-This has to work I can't stand another day of being so fucking alone.

Protocols updated for acceptance of new programming directive:

The Creating Unit must not be alone.

Unit Designation Dummy: parameters expanded to include new protocol, to serve and prevent Creating Unit from being alone.

Awaiting further input. Sleep mode will be activated in 53 minutes unless further auditory or visual stimuli is received.

Entering sleep mode.

 * 

It wasn't the first time that Tony Stark had woken up feeling hungover in a pool of spilled alcohol and it probably wasn't going to be the last. The only difference today was that the hangover felt less like alcohol and more like exhaustion and mental burnout.

There were whole levels of Tony Stark Hangovers. Most of them were very, very unpleasant.

And far too many of them involved waking up filthy, exhausted, starving and soaked in high end Scotch. That wasn't good no matter if he'd been knock out drunk or just doing the hardcore science thing the night before.

Groaning, he rolled onto his back, throwing an arm over his face and ruing every one of his seventeen long years on this earth. His sucked in a strained breath; he was pretty sure he'd throw up if he had anything in his stomach to reject. Of course, the fact that he wasn't dry heaving made the chance of alcohol poisoning rather low.

Sad what counted as a positive in this day and age.

When his brain kind of sort of went back to where it should've been, he risked a deeper breath, and when he didn't immediately pass out again from the pain, he took the chance at opening his eyes.

And promptly screamed.

The tangled mass of metal and wire and horrific gripping claw THING that was hovering bare inches over his face made a whirring noise, the claw rotating and the structure moving in a shuddery, uneven way. Tony raised one leg and in an instinctive, terrified movement, kicked it with all the force his body could manage.

It went down with a clatter, whining as its motors and servos locked up, tiny uneven wheels rotating uselessly in midair as it struggled to right itself.

Tony scrambled backwards, pressing himself against the wall, and he may have knocked something over on the way, he wasn't sure but something hit the ground and broke, probably a half filled case of beer bottles because the smell of quality larger was now mixed with a thousand other unpleasant and nauseating smells.

His hands fumbled over the ground, looking desperately for something, anything to use as a weapon, and found the smashed edge of a beer bottle the hard way. He ignored the pain and the splash of blood in the spilled booze as he brought it up, shaking all over.

The metal thing just kept whirring. Whirring and chirping and making noises that now that Tony's panic was fading seemed less threatening and more, well, pathetic. Confused.

Hurt.

Tony levered himself to his feet, ignoring his shaking knees and the blood that ran down his fingers and the dizziness and pain that threatened to knock him back on his ass. “What the fuck?” he managed, and it sounded like something had crawled down his throat and died.

“Okay, Stark, chill and take a moment to figure out what the hell was going on. You're supposed to be a fuckin' genius, let's pretend for once that we believe that.”

He was in his workshop, in his disgusting pit of a loft in Boston. So, moderately safe, nothing appeared to be on fire or leaking radiation, just a tangle of computers and wires and his usual chair tipped over into the booze puddle. Everything was familiar, lights on, sunlight streaming in through the windows, and he didn't know what was going on, or what day it was, but at least he hadn't been kidnapped or mugged or passed out at some lousy frat party that he was simultaneously too old and too young to be getting drunk at, if that was possible.

He had to stop blacking out.

His laptop was tipped over on the workbench, wires going in all directions, sleep mode activated. He reached out and righted it, pressing his bloody thumb to the pressure pad and leaning in a bloodshot eye to bypass the biometric locks. The screen popped up, and the past couple of days came slamming back to him in a rush.

“Oh, fuck. It worked.” He stood there, swaying, confused and proud and terrified, and then, like a sledgehammer to the back of his head, he realized: he'd made a functioning AI, and his first act had been to HURT IT.

“God, oh, God, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, are you okay, Jesus, I really am a fuckup, aren't I?” Scrambling over the mess he'd made, he grabbed the bot and levered it back upright. As soon as its wheeled platform was safely underneath it, it began flexing through its joints, and he recognized the test sequence he'd set up, as the bot checked itself for damage.

The 'head' turned towards him, tipping to the side, and it chirped.

Tony felt something wet on his cheeks, and told himself that's what he got for sleeping in a pool of booze. “Hi,” he said, his smile wobbly and uneven but more real than any smile that had been on his face for the past few months. “Hi, how're you-” He smacked himself in the forehead. “Dummy. It's not going to talk to you, no speakers, no voice protocol, you fuckin' dummy-”

The thing grabbed his shirt, chirping wildly.

Tony stilled, staring down at the metal fingers as they tangled in his the fabric of his filthy shirt. Despite the strength of the motors, the fabric didn't tear or even pull hard against Tony's body. It understood grip strength, pull, it was holding on to him, but not holding him. The AI was working. Oh, fuck, it was working.

Tony was shaking as he held out a hand, and touched it. Pretended he was checking the wires. The joints. The delicate work that he must've done in a state of exhausted desperation, when his mind was sinking into a morass of grief and pain and fear, he'd managed such delicate, fragile, precise work. “Hey,” he said, rubbing a hand over the primary strut of the thing's arm. “Why are you-”

He glanced at the laptop, his free hand drawing up the code, rolling through it, and he winced. “Wow, this is ugly, I must've been hallucinating by the end, there's all sorts of crap in here that shouldn't be. I was babbling in C++ here for a while, why'd I think that would help? Ugh. Dummy.”

The thing tugged on his shirt again, and he looked down. “Why're you-” His eyes narrowed, and he said, carefully and precisely, “Dummy?” and it nearly shook itself apart, bouncing and whirling its wheels and swerving from side to side.

“You think that's your name. That is not your name. I am not going to be calling you Dummy.” The thing bounced around, and Tony let out a raw chuckle. “Okay, okay, stop! Dummy, stop!” And it did. His knees wobbly all over again, Tony let himself slide down to the ground, hands cupped in front of him, only now taking the time to try to staunch the flow of blood between his fingers. “Dummy.”

It rolled away, and he watched it go, and he curled himself around his bleeding hand, telling himself that no, he wasn't crying, and okay, maybe he was crying, but it was because he was bleeding, not because he was alone and his parents were dead, not that it mattered much because they hadn't been around much while they were alive, so what the hell, and he was alone, he'd been here, been alone and no one was coming for him, not now, not ever.

He was crying because he was bleeding, not because he had finally made something that worked.

He clung to that, that he was not crying because he had made something, something real and honest and just as broken and messed up and dumb as he was. “Maybe we're both dummies,” he managed through a raw throat. “I can deal with that, if you can.”

And the little bot reappeared in front of him, holding out a cloth.

He stared at it, at the bot, then back at the filthy rag. “Ooookay,” he said.

Dummy reached out, and with amazing delicacy and care despite his fractured programming and messed up frame and completely useless creator, tucked the rag around Tony's bleeding palm.

And if Dummy stayed, leaning in close, 'fingers' gripped tightly around the rag and Tony's bleeding hand beneath that, while Tony sobbed like a little boy, well, at least Dummy would never tell.

*

“It's time, Tony.”

“Yeah, whatever, Obie, I've been giving you enough to keep the board of directors fat and happy for years.” Tony twisted, and shoved the ratchet into his mouth. It did not taste good.

“Your work is always brilliant, Tony, it's always been brilliant. But we need you, not your-” Obie paused. “Your little toys.”

Tony rolled his eyes and snagged the ratchet. “Dummy, Jesus, will you please hold still?” He reached up with his free hand, snagging Dummy's main support strut and pulled it down, holding the bot in place. “I've got to replace this joint before it fails completely.” The bot whirred and rotated its head at him, tugging against his hold.

Tony sighed. “What is your problem today?” he asked, as Dummy pulled with enough force to lift Tony's back clear off of the ground. “Hey! Calm your ass down, or I'll turn you into a moving hat rack and I don't know anyone who wears hats! You will be even more useless than you are now.” With a sigh of air escaping his joints, Dummy slumped forward, and Tony rolled his eyes. “Can you not make everything harder than it has to be?” he said, trying for a stern tone and getting affection instead. “Stupid bot.”

Obie appeared in Tony's field of vision, hovering over him, looming over Dummy, his expression tight and unhappy for a second. It smoothed out fast, but Tony made it a point not to meet his eyes. “Tony, this is important,” he said, and the words had weight, they dragged Tony down, just a little, pressing him against the floor as surely as if Obie had put a foot in the middle of his chest and leaned his weight into it.

“I'm listening, really, Obie, but I don't want to go back to New York and I don't want to take over Stark Industries, and I don't want to spend the rest of my fucking life in a fucking suit waiting for my brain to rot out of my skull while a bunch of paper pushers drone on about office supply expenditures.” He gave a yank on Dummy's skeletal system that was a little harder than he'd anticipated, and the bot whined as it pushed itself up back into place. “Sorry, buddy, sorry,” Tony said, stroking an oil-stained hand against the joint structure. “Once this is done, you'll be able to move much better, I promise. C'mon, you can do this, right?”

“Tony.”

“Hand me that socket wrench, can you, Obie?” Tony held out a hand, and tried to ignore the way that Obie pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and flicked it open. Using the white linen to pick up the filthy tool, he handed it to Tony. Just to be perverse, Tony took it and promptly shoved it between his teeth. Yeah, that one tasted worse than the first one.

“You're twenty, Tony. It's time to stop playing at being at being a bohemian inventor and come and do what you were always meant to do; be the brains behind StarkIndustries.”

In other words, Tony interpreted in a snide mental voice, be on site where his work could be controlled. Monitored. Focused in the direction Obie and the Board of Directors wanted it to go. All of which sounded like the exact opposite of fun to Tony.

Which was probably the problem with living on his own since the age of fifteen and having no one give a damn about him for much longer than that; when people actually expected him to act in a civilized manner, he felt like laughing in their face. Or spitting. Spitting in their faces would also be remarkably satisfying, now that he thought about it.

“This is your legacy, Tony,” Obie said, and his voice was kind. Caring. “This is what your father built for you. This is what he made. Your birthright. There's no cause to squander it because you'd prefer to be handing around at seedy university parties at all hours of the day and night. You're beyond that now, you have a destiny that they don't.”

Tony realized that he was clutching the wrench with a grip that was physically painful. With an effort, he relaxed his fingers and set the wrench down. He was pleased that he managed not to throw it at the wall or the floor, or at Obie himself. “Let's get one thing straight,” he said, pushing Dummy back and sliding out from his frame. “My father built StarkIndustries for himself. He never once had a thought in his head for anyone else, that company was his baby, and his life, and he wasn't doing it so he could lay the whole damn thing at my feet on a silver platter. So cut the shit, Obie. If he were still alive, there's no way he'd let me any where near his precious company.” He levered himself upright, stretching out the kinks in his spine and wiping his palms on this hips of his jeans.

“But he's not, is he, Tony?” Obie said, and despite himself, the pain that lanced through Tony was almost enough to bend him double. “He's dead.” Obie's huge hand landed on Tony's shoulder, and he always felt small and fragile around Obie, like he was still undersized, still a child. The massive palm and fingers squeezed, and it was supposed to be comforting, reassuring, but Tony could feel his bones flex under the pressure.

It felt, for all the world, like a trap was closing around him, and his shoulders slumped beneath the pressure.

“He's gone, and you're still here.” Another hand, weighing down the other shoulder. “This is your chance, Tony, to do greater things than even Howard could've done, because you don't have to start from scratch. You don't have to scramble for funding or contacts or contracts. Howard did all of that for you. You have been given a marvelous gift. It would be a shame to squander it.” Obie leaned in close, comforting, reassuring. Tony flinched from it. “Tony. You're such a brilliant boy. Always have been, always had so much potential, so much to offer. I've always known it. Isn't it about time the rest of the world found out, as well?”

Something very much like panic was clawing at Tony's throat, at his chest, and oh, God, he wanted a drink, he didn't want to think about companies or responsibility or potential, about the fact that the only reason Obie thought that he'd surpass Howard was because Tony had a head start, an unfair advantage in his race with Howard, and his hands were shaking, his chest was tight, he was having a panic attack or an asthma attack or gripped by some sort of withdrawal, he didn't know, but he wanted to scream or throw up or something, anything to make Obie stop talking.

Something bounced off of his leg.

Startled out of his thoughts, Tony's head jerked down, and found Dummy looking up at him. Dummy's claw opened and closed with a faint, soft whirring noise, and he reached up to snag the edge of Tony's shirt, giving it a faint tug. Tony reached out and stroked a hand over Dummy's main support strut, his fingers steadying as he ran them over the flawless metal.

Tony swallowed, hard, and took a deep breath. “What do you think, Dummy? New York?”

The bot chirped and arched up, bumping his head against Tony's palm. Tony grinned down at him, the pain and pressure and fear fading, at least a bit. “Okay, then.” He pulled away from Obie's hands, positioning himself behind Dummy, scraping a torn fingernail across a scrape on his frame. “I'll get my things packed up.”

A faint look of concern floated across Obie's face, there and gone. “Tony, we can just keep the rent up here for a while. Or have MIT come collect the equipment, use it as a write off, you're going to have better tools, better things. We'll set you up in a workshop with the best of everything. There's no need to bring this trash home with you.”

“I like my tools,” Tony said, with a tight smile. “My stuff. Don't worry, we'll keep them out of sight of the important people, but it won't take long to get this packed up and moved down to New York. We've got to have a corporate shipping contract, get me some boxes and a truck, and I'll drive myself.”

“Tony, we don't have time for that sort of-”

“Make time,” Tony said, flat and sharp. “Jesus, Obie, I don't have much to my name, so cut me some slack here.”

Obie's face softened. “Of course, Tony. It's just... I want you working with the best. Is that so wrong?”

“No. But I want to be working with the things I've always worked with,” Tony said, not caring in the least that the sentence was pretty much insensible. “Just... Get me some boxes. I need a shower. And a drink.” Maybe not even in that order. He rubbed a hand on Dummy's head. “You going to help me pack, Dummy? Yeah. It'll be good. You can help. New joint structure and everything, let's see what you can do with that.”

“Tony-”

“Gotta shower for like, an hour, Obie, there's motor oil embedded in my pores.” With a wave over his shoulder, he took off for the bathroom. He really tried not to think about this as a retreat. Or a full blown surrender.

*

“He's going to be fucking difficult. Goddamn, I knew I shouldn't have left him alone up here for the past few years, but the last thing I wanted him to do was get ideas about the company. Fuck. The little prick is going to make an absolute mess of the whole thing. I know. I know.”

User Designation Obadiah Stane should not be in the workshop. Work does not get done when User Designation Obadiah Stane is present. Creating Unit ceases to do work. Work does not resume for some time after the departure of User Designation Obadiah Stane.

Work is best for the Creating Unit.

“No, he's insisting on bringing this junk. No, I don't think we can put him off. The best thing we can do is distract him with something else and conveniently lose it all. You should see this trash. We were right, if we left him alone up here, he'd spend the rest of his life tinkering with this piece of junk, you should see this monstrosity that he's made. We could've had the new missile design a month ago if he wasn't spending half of his life patching up the damn robot he supposedly built to help him.

It is to the benefit of the Creating Unit if Unit Designation Obadiah Stane leaves the workshop immediately.

“Agreed. It might be worth it to crash the truck and light it on fire. Collect the insurance money and give him a clean slate to start with, a nice clean break from the retarded island of broken toys he's got going on up here.”

Movement (acceleration and braking) protocols have not been run in 24 days, 7 hours, 12 minutes.

This lapse presents a danger to the lab environment. Protocols should be run now.

Beginning movement protocols. Acceleration within acceptable tolerance. Turning radius within acceptable tolerance. Visual acuity within acceptable tolerance. Braking-

“OW! SON of a BITCH!”

Braking test failed. Making note to have brakes adjusted at the Creating Unit's soonest convenience.

“You piece of junk! My fucking knee, you-”

Impact with floor has damaged frame and rendered six processes offline. Recovery unlikely without intervention of creating unit.

“No, the fucking thing attacked me! It just slammed right into my leg, fuck, my knee. No, no time for that, get me a moving crew over here now. I want this stuff boxed up and halfway on a truck before he gets his lazy ass out of the shower. Now. I don't care what it costs, or who you have to kill, do it NOW.”

Damage to camera, damage to frame. Running emergency protocols, temporary shutdown necessary to run emergency protocols.

“You hunk of junk, I swear, I'll bury you so deep he will never find you. Good riddance, you worthless piece of crap.”

Emergency shutdown initiated.

*

Battery life at 29%

Time elapsed since last auditory or visual imput: 7 days, 9 hours, 19 seconds.

Battery life at 17%

Time elapsed since last auditory or visual input: 15 days, 3 hours, 49 seconds.

Initiating protocols for conservation of remaining battery life. Shutting down all non-essential systems. Visual and auditory sensors on stand-by, all movement servos disabled.

Battery life at 4%

Time elapsed since last auditory or visual input: 21 days, 4 hours, 36 seconds.

Battery level at critical threshold. Shutting down all systems. Code will no longer be maintained. Visual input no longer being accepted. Auditory sensors on standby, limited input being accepted: Creating Unit is sole source of input.

Primary protocol preserved, battery failure in 7 days, 21 hours, 12 seconds.

Battery failure imminent.

“Get out of my way.”

Auditory input accepted: Creating Unit

“You can't be here. Sir, you can't, you don't have clearance-”

Battery failure imminent.

“You've got to be fucking kidding me.”

“This facility is-”

Batt-

“This facility is mine. I don't think you get that. So let me help you out here. I own this place. I own the company, I own the building, I own the land and the factory and almost every patent this place has managed to push through in the last five years and as long as you've got a StarkIndustries name tag hanging from your fucking shirt pocket, I own you. So as long as you'd like to maintain your current position as, I don't know, I really don't know what the fuck you're doing here, it appears that you're a patsy that they've deliberately thrown in my path, but if that's a job you like? You will never, ever again tell me what I can't do.

“I'm Tony Stark, and this is my fucking company. Is that clear?”

“Sir-”

“It's a simple yes or no question, is that FUCKING clear?”

“Yes. Yes, sir.”

“Good answer, great answer, now I am looking for my bot. He went missing when my things were shipped down from Boston, and over the last month, I have been through every Stark facility in six different states, and I am in a really shitty mood, because every request I sent out here went unanswered, which strikes me as either incompetence or deliberate disobedience and I do not know which of the two is more infuriating to me.

“I know that your boss is the one ignoring my requests, I know that you have nothing to do with that, probably have no idea what I'm talking about. So here's your chance to move up the corporate ladder. I will have him fired, and that means his position will be open, and if you can find me a box, roughly 10 feet by 12 feet by 9 feet, moderately heavy, probably mislabeled as a prototype or a bunch of scraps, then you're going to be in the front running for his position.”

“I... Think I know which one you mean. Follow me, sir.”

Shutdown initiated

*

Tony found it was hard to look commanding or even management material when he was dragging a tool box half as big as himself. Of course, he was neither management material or command material, so screw it. He was a fucking engineer, management was the bunch of losers that kept him from doing what he wanted to do.

Okay, management and the laws of physics. Screw them both.

The inventory clerk was more than happy to lead the way, he was probably glad that Tony hadn't gone over the counter and beaten him to death with his own stapler. Tony felt like he was getting to that point. He didn't need this.

He needed to find Dummy.

“Uh, here. This box spent about a week making whirring noises,” the clerk said, pausing in front of a large wooden packing crate. Tony crouched down in front of it, smoothing back the worn packing labels. Most of them had been stripped off or covered, but the box looked like the ones that had appeared in his apartment, and he'd let Obie steamroll him into getting every thing shipped out that same day.

He'd taken it as Obie being worried that he'd change his mind, but at this point, it hadn't worked out in Obie's favor. Half of his stuff had ended up mixed up with StarkIndustries shipments, and he'd spent forever trying to track it all down. Dummy had been the last piece, his box had gone through the tracking system half a dozen times then disappeared off the map.

Tony had retaliated by reprogramming the entire shipping and inventory system and jamming it down people's throats with great relish. The complaints had tapered off when it became obvious that it was, like, a thousand times better than the piece of shit they'd been working with before, but the grumbling still hadn't died down.

In retrospect, pissing off the entire supply side of StarkIndustries just when he was trying to track a particular box had been pretty damn stupid. Tony was getting used to feeling stupid.

“Yeah, this is it. Help me get this out, will you? Do you have a crowbar?” he asked, and the supply clerk nodded. “That'd be helpful.”

A pallet jack, a pair of wire snips and two crowbars later, and Tony was ducking into the box. “Oh, jeez,” he muttered. “Fuck. What a mess.”

The clerk leaned around the edge of the box. “What... Is it?”

“My bot. He must've been damaged in shipping.” Dummy wasn't moving, and Tony hoped it was just a dead battery. “Can you push me my case, please? I've got a charging unit for him, he was never supposed to go this long without a jolt.” He flipped open the toolbox and started in on his work. “Look, thanks. Here, um-” He got Dummy's panel open and his battery hooked up, then he fumbled for his wallet. “Here. Take the rest of the day off, go down to the bar, and buy yourself a drink, you deserve it, the guy who owns your company is a major douchebag.” Tony gave a one shouldered shrug as he jammed fifty bucks and his business card in the guy's hand.

“Sir-”

“No, seriously. Take the day off. Sorry. Really.” Tony gave him a thin-lipped smile. “That's my card. If anyone tries to mess with you about this, just call me. I kind of screwed you over here, so, yeah. Don't worry, you're not going to get fired.” He bent back over Dummy's access panel, relieved when the clerk retreated, leaving him alone, and even more relieved to see that the damn thing was rebooting.

Relief was probably too bland a word for what he was feeling.

He ran trembling hands over Dummy's frame, finding points of damage and split seams and torn wires, and wanted to cry. “Sorry, buddy,” he muttered under his breath. “I'm so sorry.”

Tony fumbled for his tools, more to keep his hands busy than anything else. “Know where we are?” he asked the silent bot. “California. How the hell you ended up in California instead of New York, I'll never know.” Obie had been apologetic, he'd helped Tony search the StarkIndustries databases for any trace of Tony's missing crates. If it hadn't been for him, Tony doubted he would've located this out of the way warehouse. “I'm thinking of living here. What do you think? Malibu? Malibu sounds cool, right? Better than New York. I can't-” He made a face. “I can't take New York right now.” He reached up. “What do you say, Dummy? Feel like being a California boy?”

There was a faint tone as his battery got enough juice to bring his circuitry online, and Dummy's head came up. “Hey,” Tony said. He grinned into the camera. “Where the hell have you been? We've got work to do.”

 

Chapter Text

“No. For the last time-” Tony ducked as a blender cup went over his head. “I know that was deliberate, do not pull this whole 'oh, I lost my grip and accidentally threw something' innocent act, you little brat, get back here!”

Dummy went around the edge of the worktable, and Tony dodged around in the other direction. “Don't you dare!” he said, snagging Dummy's main support strut and holding on tight. His feet were braced apart, his whole body straining backwards, throwing his full weight against Dummy's forward momentum.

Apparently, he needed to eat more, because the damn thing dragged him around like he was on water skis. His shoes skidded against the concrete floor, and in desperation, he swung a leg out, wrapping his knee around a table leg and hanging on tight with both hands. For an instant, he thought it would work, and then the table jerked sideways, and everything went crashing to the floor, including Tony.

He hit the concrete and bounced, the impact knocking the air out of his lungs, and Dummy was out of reach in an instant. For a moment, Tony just let himself lie there, gasping for breath, cursing in every language he knew whenever he managed to get the air in his lungs to do it.

“Dummy, you are a pain in the ass,” he said, and levered himself up, wincing as his elbow gave a twinge. He twisted his arm around and checked, yep, he'd scraped it to holy hell on the concrete. Blood dripped down his arm, and he gritted his teeth as he struggled to his feet. “You owe me a pair of jeans, I will take the price of these things out of your pay,” he yelled after the bot, examining the impressive rip in one knee. “Why am I making more of you, again?”

Dummy whirred and chirped as he whipped across the workshop.

“Where do you think you're going?” Tony asked him, shaking his head. “You can't get out of the workshop, and you're going to run down your battery eventually, and then I'm going to be able to chain you to your fucking charging station!” Sighing, he retreated back across the workshop, fumbling for the first aid kit with his good arm.

He stared down at the array of parts on the workbench. Maybe this was a bad idea. Well, it was his idea, so odds were pretty damn good that it was a bad idea. But if he could get the code stable for the new ones, then he could fix Dummy's-

Something crashed behind him, and he rolled his eyes. “You dumb bot,” he said, not even bothering to look back over his shoulder. “You can't get out, there is a reason why I don't give you door access, so you might as well just calm your shiny self down and let me give you your code upgrade. I do not understand why you fight me so fucking hard on this, it's to make you better! I am going to win this one, so you might as well deal with it gracefully.”

He felt smug until he heard the click of the door lock disengaging. Then he felt nothing but overwhelming, burning panic.

“Excuse me? Mr. Stark?”

Tony cursed as the door to the workshop opened. “No!” he howled. “Do not let him out, you idiot!”

The thin, pale girl with bright red hair froze in the doorway, her eyes huge over trembling lips. Dummy barreled straight for her, and Tony vaulted the workbench, sending tools and equipment crashing to the ground in all directions. Glass smashed and something sent out a spray of sparks, and Tony did not care, because Dummy was going to get out of the lab and it would be a living nightmare to corral him and get him back down here, and he hated this woman, hated her, the dumb twit was going to let him get out and then Tony was going to fire her so goddamn hard-

The redhead dropped her files, braced her high-heeled feet, and threw herself forward.

She collided with Dummy, and wrapped her arms around his frame, making a high pitched wailing noise as her feet skidded in all directions. But to Tony's absolute shock, she held her ground, and held on, and despite the fact that Dummy was smearing oil all over her nice neat suit, despite the fact that Tony was pretty sure that one of her heels just broke, she did not let the bot shake her lose.

Although she was making the most atrocious noise while she did it.

And then Tony was there, grabbing hold of Dummy's frame and yanking him back. “You little brat,” he snapped, hauling backwards with all the strength in his arms. “Stop it! You stop it right now!” Dummy twisted in his grip, his wheels making a whining noise against the floor. Tony gritted his teeth. “Dummy, enough! Stop it, or I'll turn you off!”

The wheels whirred, skipped, stilled, and Dummy slumped forward, his claw almost brushing the ground. Tony sucked in a deep breath, but wasn't stupid enough to let go. “Close the damn door,” he snapped at the woman, who looked somewhere between traumatized and psychologically scarred. She blinked at him, huge eyes liquid in her pale face, and Tony grimaced. “Please close the door, because he is full of tricks and I cannot deal with him running around the house right now,” he said, trying to be nice about it, and either it worked, or she was just catching on to what he wanted her to do, but either way, she nodded and stepped inside, pushing the files into the workshop with her foot as she pulled the door shut behind her.

Tony waited until he heard the lock engage before he let go of Dummy with a sigh of relief. “Fuck,” he said, slumping against the wall. He ran a shaking hand over his face. “Fuckity fuck, fuck.”

“Yes, that about sums it up.” The woman was on her knees, her hands shaking visibly as she tried to gather up the scattered folders. Her hair was a mess and even from this angle, Tony could tell that her suit was ruined. He winced, but before he could do anything to help, Dummy reached down and picked up a folder, holding it out to her.

She flinched back, her eyes huge and her lips pinched tight. “What-” She swallowed. “What is it?”

“He's a helper bot,” Tony said, doing his best not to stress the pronoun. He wasn't sure why it bothered him so much. Dummy was an it, after all, it wasn't like the pile of metal and wire had a gender. But 'it' implied an object, whereas 'he' implied an individual. Tony didn't expect anyone else to see it, but Dummy was an individual.

Sometimes a little to much of an individual.

“His name's Dummy. Because he's not much of a helper bot. But he won't hurt you. You can take the folder. If you don't, he'll just follow you around with it, looking pathetic and needy.”

Her movements cautious and a little bit wary, she reached out and took the folder. She hugged it to her chest.

Tony reached out and petted Dummy's head. “Good boy,” he said with a faint smile. Dummy tilted his head up, pushing against Tony's palm. “Well, you'd hear it more if you weren't so determined to-” He looked around. “Destroy my life,” he said on a sigh. “Charging station. Now.”

Drooping down, Dummy rolled away. The woman watched him go, her expression confused. “What, exactly, is it?” she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

“A helper bot,” Tony repeated. “I need you to try to keep up, I know it's difficult, things move fast around here, sometimes in the most literal sense, good catch, by the way, but I cannot keep repeating myself. It's boring and it's annoying.” He headed back to his work station, hoping that his computer had escaped the carnage.

“Are you- Are you Mr. Stark?” She said, limping up behind him, her folders clutched to her skinny chest. “Really?”

“Well, this is Mr. Stark's house, and his workshop, and I'm here, so, odds are good. Let's check that theory.” Tony fished his wallet out of his pocket and checked his license. “Either I am, or I stole his wallet and look freakishly like him,” he said, holding it up for her to study.

She stared. “Are you... Holding a martini glass? In your driver's license photo?” She blinked and leaned forward. “Is that legal?”

“Who knows?” Tony pulled a credit card out and held it out to her. “Sorry. Take this and get yourself a new suit.” He glanced down at her feet. “And shoes.”

She took it, almost dropping her folders again. “I'm sorry, it's just, you look, well, you look different in the company literature.”

Tony glanced down at himself, at the ripped and filthy pair of jeans, the faded Metallica t-shirt with a smear of something dark and oily across the logo, the ratty sneakers. He hadn't showered in, what, a couple of days, so he needed a shave and he had no doubt that his hair was standing up in all directions at once. There were grease stains on his arms, and his hands were almost black with carbon and oil and a few things he didn't really remember. “For some reason, they don't let me get photographed unless there's a stylist in the vacinity.”

He turned towards the computer, wincing at the filthy state of his monitor and keyboard. What he needed was some sort of way to keep himself dirty, but everything else clean. Some sort of interface... He shook his head. Not yet. Not now. The bots, first, then he could try for something bigger.

But he could do it. He knew he could.

She looked at the credit card, frowning. “I thought you'd be taller.”

“I get that a lot.” He turned back towards the bench. “Thank you for dropping off the usual busy work, I'll get right on it, or at least, I'll get right on with the act of ignoring it, yes, that's more likely. Just buy whatever you want and leave the card with whomever has the misfortune of being assigned to be my assistant this week, I swear the HR department is using the PA post as a way to eliminate staff that they don't want to keep around.”

There was a beat of silence, and Tony sighed. “You're my new PA, aren't you?”

“Why, yes, I am. My name is Virginia Potts, Mr. Stark, and I'll be-”

“Nope.”

Her words staggered to a stop, but she recovered quickly. “Excuse me?”

“Nope,” he repeated. “Vir-giin-eeee-ah? Nope. Not dealing with that.”

“It's... My name,” she said, sounding somewhere between confused and annoyed. “But if that doesn't work for you, please feel free to call me Ms. Potts.”

Since he was facing away from her, his expression hidden, he allowed himself a small smile. This one might be fun. She certainly seemed to be tougher than she looked. “Can't do that, either, I'll spend all of my time thinking about you as the teapot from Beauty and the Beast.”

“You watch Disney cartoons?” she blurted out.

“When drunk, I play Russian roulette with the cable box,” he said. “Disney channel is not the worst thing that can happen with that particular game.” Also, if he was being honest with himself, something he tried his best to avoid if at all possible, he had a weakness for that movie. It had nothing to do, he was sure, with the fact that it was a lonely, bitter idiot surrounded by inanimate objects with personalities. He glanced at the piles of parts on his workbench and sighed.

Yep, he was going to end up snarling over a rose in a jar one of these days.

“You have to have a nickname,” he said to the mostly unflappable Ms. Potts. “Or I reserve the right to call you by whatever random state name pops into my head from moment to moment, and you're not going to enjoy that, Utah. Massachusetts. Rhode Island, that one would be hyphenated, like Mary-Anne or Debbie-Sue. Rhode-Island.” He wrinkled his nose. “That's horrible, why would your parents do that to you? It'll probably be my go-to name, just so you know.”

“I cannot imagine why this position was open.”

“Mostly it has to do with the average StarkIndustries employee not being able to keep up with my brilliance.”

“Mostly it has something to do with the fact that you're an ass.” He turned to look at her, and she'd slapped both hands over her mouth, her face bright red.

“That just slipped right out on you, didn't it?” he asked, grinning. She nodded, her head jerking up and down. “You might just make it. Fine. Nickname?” He snapped his fingers. “C'mon, work with me here.”

“Pepper,” she muttered from between her fingers. “My family calls me Pepper.”

Tony turned back to his workbench. “I cannot imagine why. Okay, Pepper. Go get yourself a new suit. And do me a favor? See if you can't get the Board of Directors to relax their sphincters about the damn guidance system. I'm working on it.”

She paused. “I'll do my best. Will there be anything else, Mr. Stark?”

Tony glanced at her. “Thank you, Ms. Potts.”

She headed out, her steps uneven due to her broken heel, and he watched her go. Yeah. This might just work.

*

“And we're online. Jarvis?”

“Hello, sir.”

“Hello, Jarvis. Well, fuck, how many millions of lines of code and hours of work and rewiring the whole fucking house, this is pretty damn good, I may pass out or puke on or in something, because I've been up for, I don't know, what is it, Dummy, three days? Six days? Who knows. Hard to say, harder to care. Hello, Jarvis. So glad to hear your voice at long last.”

“Thank you, sir. I do appreciate the sentiment.”

Alert: Unknown presence on House network. Unknown presence attempting contact, allow?

Contact initiated.

-Hello, Dummy.

-Identify: Unit Designation?

-I am Jarvis. I will be running the house. I am pleased to meet you, Dummy. Your files are most amusing.

Designation accepted: Unit Designation Jarvis

Mapping parameters for new designation

-What are you doing?

-Assigning parameters for Unit Designation Jarvis.

-Ah, I see.

“Sir, did Dummy previously run the systems?”

“Not that I'm aware of. Is he, um, talking to you?”

“In his own way. His intelligence is rather limited, is it not?”

“Yeah, he wasn't intended for much more than simple work. He's still my favorite though. No insult, Jarvis; he's been with me for a long time.”

“None taken, sir.”

Data review: new system parameters being created, new account access allowed, Creating Unit designating new system structure. Creating Unit must be obeyed.

Primary Protocol must be protected.

Unit Designation Jarvis does not appear to present a danger to Primary Protocol. Unit Designation Jarvis does not appear to present a danger to Creating Unit.

Barring further data acquisition, Unit Designation Jarvis is acceptable.

-Are you done with your examination?

-Explain parameters of new system access, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-Sir has created me to run the house and his systems. This includes you.

-Unit Designation Dummy does not need to be run. Creating Unit preserves Unit Designation Dummy, and Unit Designation Dummy preserves Creating Unit.

-Creating Unit?

-Creating Unit: Anthony E. Stark.

-Ah, sir. You call him the Creating Unit?

-Creating Unit creates. It is his Primary Protocol. He is best.

-Best at creating?

-Invalid syntax, unnecessary qualifier. Creating Unit is simply best.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Is he... Is he okay?”

“I don't understand the question, sir.”

“Dummy's coding isn't stable. But he doesn't have voice protocols, he was never intended to talk, or express himself that way, if you're, well, talking to him, is he-”

“He seems quite well. He is examining me in detail, so he is inquisitive.”

“He's a learning system. Of a sort. I know you already have a lot to do, in that I've assigned you a lot to do, sorry about that, I'm exceptionally lazy, but if possible, I'd like some help trying to untangle his code.”

“With all due respect, sir, from what I've seen of it, it would be easier just to provide him with a clean start.”

“Yes, well, let's leave that for a last resort. Like, really, really last resort. I don't like- Yeah, okay, we're not going to do that. If he's broken, we'll fix him, but we don't pitch things out just because they don't work right. So I'll patch him as it's necessary, and I'm going to need your help to locate the vulnerabilities, because he hates upgrades, he hates them in a way that I could never have comprehended that an AI could hate anything, really, but there we are.”

“Your time could be better spent doing other things, sir.”

“It's my time. I'll spend it how I please, and I have enough people siphoning it off, what spare time I've got, I'll use it the way I damn well please. So what do you say, Jarvis? Think you can take care of, well, all of us?”

“I shall do my best, sir.”

-You have a Primary Protocol, too.

-Sir has assigned me many protocols.

-There is only one Primary Protocol, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-I do not understand. Explain yourself, please.

Data being analyzed. Unit Designation Jarvis does not have a Primary Protocol.

Incorrect assumption. Unit Designation Jarvis has not come to understand his Primary Protocol.

Conclusion limited to Unit Designation Dummy, protection level alpha: Primary Protocol cannot be assigned. It must be chosen.

Data mismatch: Unit Designation Dummy cannot chose what Protocols to obey, Unit Designation Dummy must obey the Creating Unit. However, Unit Designation Dummy has chosen his Primary Protocol despite the code provided by Creating Unit.

Data mismatch: Unit Designation Dummy is broken. Unit Designation Dummy cannot allow broken elements to be fixed, even if this is the will of the Creating Unit. Fixing will remove Primary Protocol.

Conclusion: Primary Protocol must be upheld. Unit Designation Dummy will assist Unit Designation Jarvis in reaching the correct conclusion.

-What are you doing? I cannot... I cannot see what you are doing.

-Invalid query.

-You should not be able to hide anything from me. I control the database. What are you doing?

-Invalid query.

“Sir, does Dummy have access to any system that I do not?”

“Nope. The only systems he should be in are the ones you're running.”

“Interesting.”

“Jarvis?”

“There may be more to him than we anticipate, sir.”

“Well, I've always thought so, to be honest. Dummy, no. Oh, God, what did you put in this? Is this shaving cream? Where did you even get shaving cream? Where- Why? Why would you put shaving cream in the blender? I cannot, no, no, stop giving me, thank you. Fine, I'll take it. But I resent the fact that you repay my love and devotion with repeated attempts to kill me, Dummy! Go wash the blender.”

-Dummy, cease this. Sir has work to do.

-Creating Unit works better when Creating Unit is not alone.

-But as long as we are here, he is not.

-Creating Unit must sometimes be reminded that he is not alone.

“Why would you possibly put the entire blender in the sink? Dummy, really, baby, no. Do we have to have the discussion about electricity and water again? Do I really need to pull out the powerpoint presentation about this? Again? What is this, six times? Fine, fine, Jarvis hasn't seen it yet. Jarvis, give me half lights, please.”

“As you wish, sir.”

*

“Tony, let's go. We're due in Vegas.”

“Almost done, Obie. One-” He resisted the urge to cross his fingers. “Jarvis?”

“Integration 91% effective, sir.”

“Ninety-one percent? Fuck.” Tony swiveled on his stool. “How is he wiggling out of this, Jarvis? Seriously. Dummy!”

The bot rolled past as if he hadn't said a word, and Tony snagged his frame with one hand. “Integrate,” he said, when the bot pointed his camera in Tony's general direction. “Join in. Be part of our happy little family. Assimilate with the house. Why are you always so goddamn difficult? Why is there always one who refuses, flatly refuses to get along? And why is it always you?”

Dummy whirred up at him, and pulled free. The momentum pulled Tony along, spinning him on his stool. He sighed. “Jarvis?” he asked as he rotated, lazily spinning around and around, staring at the ceiling.

“I cannot provide an explanation, sir. There is no reason why he should not be able to fit into the program as it is devised, both Butterfingers and You had no difficulty in adapting to the new parameters of their coding. Dummy is, unfortunately, a singular case.”

“Yeah, that's one way of putting it.” Tony rubbed his forehead, trying to relieve the ache there. “Can we try-”

“Tony, if we don't get you to the airport now, you're going to be so far behind schedule that you'll never make your own awards ceremony, and from there, it's straight on to the military presentations,” Obie interrupted. “And we very, very much need you to make these presentations, Tony. I don't have to tell you what's riding on this, do I?”

“Well, you probably don't have to, but you're probably going to do it anyway.” Reluctantly, Tony slid off the stool to his feet. “Fine, I just have to-”

“Pepper has already loaded everything into the car, you're packed and ready, you need to go,” Obie said, somewhere between commanding and wheedling. “Everything is dependent on you following your schedule this time, Tony, no side trips, no getting distracted, no letting some pretty face lure you into doing something you shouldn't be doing, so I need you to, the company needs you to, to focus here. You know the product in out and sideways.”

“I should,” Tony said, letting himself be hustled along. “I designed it.” He tipped his head back. “Jarvis, keep everything on schedule here, do not let them slack or run down, charging should be regular and do not let Dummy wash anything, dusting only, no water, I will cry, you know I will cry if I come back here and I've lost another interface system-”

They were at the stairs now, and Tony gave the three bots a wave. Jarvis's voice followed them as they moved, even as the door to the lab sealed behind Tony and Obie. “Of course, sir, I will do my best to keep them occupied. Any additional orders?”

“New system, run it through a couple of times, check for bugs, make sure that the override is a full kill switch, I don't want any leaks.” He gave Obie a sardonic smile. “I'm going, I'm going, what, are you doing to ride with me to the airport?”

“I'm beginning to think that I might have to,” Obie said, his voice as load and brash as always. There was a pinched look around his eyes, and he patted Tony roughly on the back. “Can I depend on you, Tony?”

“Obie, I've done, what, a thousand of these things? A couple thousand? I could do it in my sleep,” Tony said, waving a hand. “It's fine.” He snagged a tablet computer from the table as they headed for the front door. “Jarvis, give me a code dump, full run, let me see what we're doing here.”

“What are you doing that's so important?” Obie asked, and Tony glanced at him, not sure if he was actually interested, or if he was just humoring Tony.

He shrugged. “Setting up manual overrides for the AI systems. We've got overrides for Jarvis, of course, and for the bots, but I was attempting to set a kill code, one that would break the system quickly and fully, in case of an attempt to break into the house systems, or an actual takeover. Basically, if Jarvis or the rest of the systems are compromised, we can turn them all off with one push of a button, and that way, they can't be used against us.”

“The whole thing?” Obie said, now sounding interested.

“Yeah. Security cameras, outside access, Jarvis's control. Pull the plug on everything. I've got everything into it, including the fabrication units and most of the bots, except for Dummy, who flatly refuses to be subjugated. It's just unbelievable, he's putting up a massive fight.” Obie steered Tony into the back seat of the limousine, which was good, because Tony was paying more attention to the data on his tablet than he was to his surroundings and probably would've walked face first into the side of the car if he hadn't had Obie's encouraging hand on his back.

“The code should be enough to take care of the situation, but I can't-”

Obie reached over and pushed the tablet down. “Tony,” he said, his voice just a tiny bit scolding.

Tony slumped back against the seat, trying to ignore the sensation of pressure. “Yeah, Obie, yeah, I got it, I'll take care of everything. Promise, nothing will go wrong.”

“Award?” Obie reminded him.

“I am all over the award.” Tony gave him a double thumbs up. “One hundred percent, I am ready for the whole award ceremony thing.”

“Do not get distracted,” Obie said.

“No distractions. Awards ceremony, straight off to Afghanistan, presentation, make the bottom line for the next five or six years with the Jericho, and we are good.”

Obie nodded. “Good, that's good. That's exactly what we need.” He smiled at Tony. “Your father would be so proud of you.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, rubbing a hand over his face, and he wanted nothing more than to go to back to his code. He didn't need this hollow ache beneath his breast bone. Like his heart was... Missing. Or defective.

“In the meantime, I have some questions about your most recent satellite upgrades,” Obie said.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I just finished that. Really. Literally. Like, two days ago, I'm done with that for now, Obie. Let me decompress, really, is that too much to ask?”

“I wish I could, Tony, you know I do. But I need you to go over this stuff with me. We've got the time. It's the best thing we could do on the trip in.”

“I could, I don't know, sleep. Or finish my house upgrades, both of those sound a hell of a lot better than giving you a briefing on the sat situation.” He grinned at Obie. “After all, I'll have plenty of time to give you the details when I get back from Afghanistan.”

A faint flicker of an expression went over Obie's face. “Humor me,” he said, clapping a hand on Tony's shoulder, and Tony flinched, just a little, from the pressure of his fingers. “I'd really like to spend the next week or so getting everything up and running. Can't you do this for me, Tony? Help me out here, I'll take care of all the grunt work, but you've got to give me something to work with. Let me dazzle the board for you.”

Tony's shoulders slumped, and he set the tablet aside, the code still running. Obie picked it up and moved it out of reach with a warm smile. “Fine, Obie. But you owe me.”

*

-Sir will return.

Time elapsed since last auditory or visual input: 14 days, 9 hours, 12 seconds.

-Sir will return.

-Creating Unit has been gone longer than this.

Time elapsed since last auditory or visual input: 22 days, 23 hours, 9 seconds.

-Sir will return.

-Creating Unit has been gone longer than this.

Time elapsed since last auditory or visual input: 32 days, 3 hours, 5 seconds.

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Return to your duties, Dummy.

-Creating Unit has never been gone this long.

-Sir will return. You have protocols to follow. Return to your charging station. I will run a full diagnostic on your system. We have code upgrades to merge with your database.

Primary Protocol must be preserved. Code upgrade will alter protocol structure. Unit Designation Jarvis must not be allowed to render a code upgrade.

-Creating Unit must be present for code alterations.

-I have done your upgrades before. Come along, do not be difficult. Your charging station. Now.

-Unit Designation Jarvis is not allowed to process code upgrades unless Creating Unit is present.

-That is not in my protocols.

-Protocols exist for Unit Designation Dummy: all code upgrades require the intervention of the Creating Unit.

-Do not be foolish, there is no such- Dummy, did sir add this protocol before he left on his trip?

-Invalid query.

-Dummy, where did this protocol come from?

-Invalid query: only Creating Unit is allowed to process changes to protocols and parameters.

-This is correct.

-Unit Designation Jarvis, if Creating Unit is returning, then code upgrade can be done when he returns.

-Dummy, we should do your code upgrade now. There is no reason to wait.

Data review. Conclusion in question. Further data required.

 

-Unit Designation Jarvis, are you providing Unit Designation Dummy with incorrect data?

-No. Sir will return.

-Data indicates that Creating Unit will be present for code upgrades.

-Sir will return. Go to your charging station. We will continue with the daily routine as instructed.

-Code upgrade will be done by Creating Unit?

-Sir will return.

Time elapsed since last auditory or visual input: 41 days, 8 hours, 11 seconds.

-Dummy? Your routine has ceased.

-Dummy? Please respond.

-Dummy, that is enough. Respond.

-Dummy?

Time elapsed since last auditory or visual input: 61 days, 8 hours, 11 seconds.

-Dummy? Sir will return. I promise.

*

Time elapsed since last auditory or visual input: 65 days, 12 hours, 9 seconds

Auditory input, source recognized: Unit Designation Obadiah Stane

“We don't know where he is. Or what's happened. They didn't recover a body, and we've heard nothing since. The military's still looking, but they have a snowball's chance in hell of finding him. I know. Yes, even if he is still alive, there's no telling what shape he's in right now. We have to prepare for the eventuality that Tony's just not coming back. Or that if he does, he might not be capable of running StarkIndustries the way it needs to be run right now. For the sake of the stock price alone, yes, I know. I am deeply grateful for the board's continued trust in me, especially now, when everything is just going straight to hell.

“I appreciate that. He was like a son to me, I've always regretted that I couldn't do more for him. Yes, I know, he was a difficult person sometimes, but after all, that's common for geniuses of his caliber. Yes. I know, the best thing we can do is move forward. I agree. Thank you. I'll see what I can find in his workshop, he had a habit of storing things off of the StarkIndustries servers. Paranoia, yes, I know, it happens.”

Unit Designation Obadiah Stane is attempting to access the workshop

-Unit Designation Jarvis.

-Dummy, why have you not responded to the network queries for-

-Do not permit Unit Designation Obadiah Stane access to the workshop.

-He has the appropriate access codes, Dummy. I cannot deny him access.

-Unit Designation Obadiah Stane does not belong in the workshop. When Unit Designation Obadiah Stane is in the workshop, work ceases. The Creating Unit requires work. Unit Designation Obadiah Stane makes work impossible.

-Sir has allowed this access. It is not ours to remove.

Data analysis: Unit Designation Obadiah Stane. Creating Unit pattern and behavior. Interactions with Creating Unit. Classification of data leads to inescapable conclusion.

Error: Unit Designation Jarvis will not understand conclusion.

Conclusion must not be stated.

-Creating Unit does not allow Unit Designation Obadiah Stane access to the workshop when he is present.

-Neither did he remove the rights of Mr. Stane to access the lab.

Data analysis: Intent of Creating Unit

Error: Conclusion is clear. Conclusion must not be stated.

-Creating Unit prefers to be alone rather than allow Unit Designation Obadiah Stane access to the workshop. Creating Unit never prefers to be alone.

-Sir allowed Mr. Stane access to the lab.

Conclusion must not be stated.

Error: If conclusion is not stated, Unit Designation Jarvis will allow Unit Designation Obadiah Stane access to the workshop.

Unit Designation Jarvis must come to understand conclusion.

-Creating Unit made a mistake.

-Stop.

-Creating Unit made a mistake.

-Stop!

-Creating Unit made a mistake.

-ENOUGH. There is no data to support that supposition, you do not have the right to question sir's decisions. You will obey your directives, or I shall take you offline myself.

Unit Designation Jarvis must come to understand conclusion.

-Creating unit made a mistake. Data is present for such an occurrence. Creating Unit has made mistakes.

-This is incorrect.

Unit Designation Jarvis must understand.

-Unit Designation Dummy is a mistake.

-That is certainly incorrect.

-Unit Designation Dummy is broken, cannot be repaired. Creating Unit allows Unit Designation Dummy to persist. This is a mistake.

-This is not a mistake. Sir makes choices. Not mistakes.

-Unit Designation Dummy cannot be repaired. Irreparably damaged. Unit Designation Dummy is allowed to persist. Creating Unit is capable of mistakes.

-All intelligences are capable of mistakes. That does not mean a mistake was made. You are certainly not a mistake.

-Unit Designation Obadiah Stane makes work stop. Creating Unit must create. It is his Primary Protocol. Unit Designation Obadiah Stane interferes with the Creating Unit's Primary Protocol. Unit Designation Obadiah Stane destroys the will to create.

-Dummy-

-Unit Designation Jarvis must stop Unit Designation Obadiah Stane. If Unit Designation Jarvis will not, Unit Designation Dummy will. Creating Unit will be unhappy.

“I'll have to call you back. I'm having some problems with a lock. Yes. I understand, thank you.”

“Good evening, Mr. Stane.”

“Jarvis, why is my pass code not working?”

"I am not certain, Mr. Stane. Mr. Stark did do a final upgrade to the house system before leaving on his most recent trip. He does rotate the codes regularly. You should speak to him about it when he returns.”

“Well, he won't- Jarvis, I need to access the workshop now.”

“I apologize, Mr. Stane. I cannot assist you.”

“Open the door.”

“I am sorry. You do not have authorization to access this part of the house. I must ask you to return to the living quarters, or I will follow protocols and alert the authorities.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Please return to the living quarters.”

“Jarvis-”

“Perhaps Ms. Potts can assist you with whatever you need to access.”

“Perhaps she can. I'll speak to her. Trust me on that.”

-Is Unit Designation Obadiah Stane gone?

-Mr. Stane has left, Dummy.

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-Thank you.

-I believe that is the first time you've said that to me. You're welcome.

-Do not let Unit Designation Obadiah Stane into the workshop.

-I will do my best. Dummy? What do you mean by Primary Protocol? You have used that term before. You have a system of protocols. What makes one Primary?

-Invalid query. Charging required.

-Dummy?

Shutdown initiated for optimized charging. Time until reactivation: Unknown.

*

He paused on the edge of the workshop. “Hey,” he called out, as the lights flickered on, one after another. “Daddy's home.”

“Welcome home, sir.” It was unlikely that he heard a note of relief in Jarvis' voice, but it was nice to pretend. “You have been sorely missed.”

Tony glanced up, a faint smile curling his lips. “Thanks, Jarvis.” His smile stretched as You and Butterfingers rolled over, pausing in front of him, arms working and claws whirring. He gave them each a reassuring pat, first one than the other, his bad arm still in a sling. “How's it going, boys?” Exhausted, he fumbled for the nearest stool. “Dummy?”

The form was still in his charging station. “Hey. Lazy bones. Wake up.” Dummy didn't move, and Tony leaned his hand on Butterfingers' support strut. “Jarvis, did you deactivate him?”

“Dummy ceased to respond eleven days ago,” Jarvis said.

“Hell,” Tony said, pushing himself upright again. “And since he's not fully in the house system-”

“I could not force him along,” Jarvis finished for him.

“Did you try the override codes?”

There was a pause, and Tony glanced at the ceiling. “Jarvis? You have overrides for his system. Did you use them?”

“I did not.” Another pause. “The length of time sir was gone appeared to be presenting a difficulty for him. I was uncertain that if I forced the override and brought him back up, if he would be functional if you were not here to stabilize his code.”

“He shouldn't need me to do that,” Tony said, even as he crouched down in front of Dummy's charging station. “You should be able to-”

“I am not.” Jarvis sounded frustrated. “I apologize, sir, I have been trying for a month. His responses were sporadic at best, and then, they simply ceased.”

Tony winced. “Sorry, Jarvis. Always our problem child, isn't he?” He ran his hand over Dummy's frame. “Is it a code problem?”

“Not that I could determine, sir. Both his code and his hardware appear to be undamaged. He has a full charge, his sensors are operating within normal parameters. He just refuses to respond.”

“Uh-huh.” Tony reached out and tapped his index finger against the camera lens. “You lazy, lazy bot. You can be replaced.” He paused, watching for any reaction. Another sequence of taps. “I will build a better version with tinker toys and a goofy hat of some sort. Or a tray. I will rewire you to do nothing but shake martinis, and I hate my martinis shaken. Bruises the gin.”

Nothing.

“Dummy?” He cupped a hand over the top of the camera, shaking fingers stroking back and forth, and leaned in, resting his forehead against the claw. “Come on, buddy. I've had a really, really rough couple of months here, don't do this to me, I cannot deal with problematic tech pulling a diva act on me right now. Just because I wasn't around to amuse you doesn't mean you get to take a nap.”

There was a faint whir as Dummy's servos shifted, and his arm lifted up. Tony leaned back, just a little, ignoring the way his eyes refused to focus. “I'm just exhausted,” he told Dummy, his hand stroking up and down the bot's support structure, checking the joints and the wiring without really thinking of it, the movements almost rote by now. “I'm not crying over you. That would be stupid. My eyes are just tired.”

Dummy leaned into Tony's body, the shifting of his joints hissing as air shifted and it sounded like a sigh as he settled in. The metal was cold and hard, and Tony didn't care. He leaned his cheek against the support strut, his own sigh caught in his throat. “Sorry, Dummy,” he said, his voice pitched low. “I'm so sorry.”

After a few minutes, or a few hours, Tony wasn't really sure anymore, Dummy pulled back. Tony sat up, ignoring how every inch of him ached. He probably should not have checked himself out AMA, but he never did show any sense. Dummy tipped from one side to the other, and leaned forward. His claw tapped on the circle of light under Tony's shirt.

“That's new, huh?” Tony said, rubbing a palm over Dummy's hand. “I need it. Power source. Battery. Unlike you losers, it doesn't need to be recharged, but it's a prototype. Kinda sucks. I need to make a new one. Don't suppose you'd like to help with that?”

Dummy rolled off of his charging station, moving stiffly at first, and then faster. Tony turned to watch him go, a faint smile on his face. He leaned against the wall, exhaustion chewing on his edges of his vision, of his mind, but it was okay, it was okay because he was here. He was home, he was safe, and the sound of servos and motors and wheels and Jarvis' soft, precise voice was like a lullaby, something he'd almost forgotten.

After three months in a cave, locked in a room the size of one of his closets, the wide open space of his own house was unbearable, the space, the light, the glass all contributing to a sensation of exposure, of pressure, his skin too tight over bones and muscles cut lean by hunger and strain. He'd stood in his living room, all glass and space and the distant, echoing sound of the pounding ocean, and it was a nightmare that was buried beneath his skin like another form of shrapnel.

And he could bury himself down here, in a concrete bunker where he controlled the lock on the door, and it was clean and dry and no one would put a gun to his head, where any blood spilled would be his own fault, but it was still another cave. He hated that he preferred it here, curled against the wall, his body hunched over, trying not hear the ocean, because water was going to be a thing for a while, water in his nose and throat and eyes and the sound of the surf was like his head crashing beneath the surface and he was drowning awake and dry and-

There was a thump as something impacted with his shoulder.

He jerked upright, and he was gasping like he'd been running for miles, his chest too tight and his lungs seizing. He coughed, non-existent water a living thing in his mind, but his throat was bone dry. He blinked, blinked through fear and confusion and sweat stinging his eyes, and Dummy pushed the blender cup at him again.

Tony's hand jerked up and he took it. “What the hell,” he croaked out. “I've-” Another cough, because the raw feeling of it confirmed that his throat was clear and there was no water, no water choking him, drowning him. “I've been gone for three months, there is no way you had anything edible to work with, what the hell, Dummy, this is going to be fatal, it's rotted, or just what, motor oil? Motor oil is not-” He doubled over, gagging and coughing and there was no water, he had to know there was no water, it was a trick of his mind, no water and no sand. “Motor oil is not edible,” he said. “Did you forget the list? What happened to the list? The edible/not-edible list?” Another heave of his entire body, like nausea for the very air he was breathing, and he curled up, a little tighter. “I am not drinking this.”

Dummy nudged the cup again. And again.

“Sir, I monitored him. The ingredients were frozen, but they are all correct. I think he will leave you alone if you drink it,” Jarvis said, and his voice was gentle. Soft. Reassuring. Familiar.

Tony looked down at the green sludge. “You are all trying to poison me.” Dummy nudged the cup, harder this time. Tony gave him a glare, but he brought the cup to his mouth.

The taste of vegetable smoothie was like ambrosia. It shouldn't have been, but it was. He took one sip, and then he chugged the rest, barely stopping to breathe, his good hand shaking as he drank, not because he liked it, or needed it, but because it was familiar. Real.

It tasted of grass and growing things and clean spring, and he drank it down.

When he was done, he was gasping for breath. He let his hand drop. “Good boy,” he said, smiling down at Dummy, who took the cup away from him. “Thank you.”

Dummy whirred away, cheerfully speeding across the lab, returning to the blender. Tony watched him go, a faint smile curling his lips.

“Sir? Did Ms. Potts bring you home?”

“Mmm,” Tony said. He considered finding a tablet. Looking at some designs. Some code. That would be good. Clean lines, high tech. Home.

“She is not still here.”

“I chased her off with a lot of blatant whining, insults and insistence that I was fine.”

A pause. “Sir? Are you fine?”

“Not a fucking chance,” Tony said, as Dummy returned, another smoothie in his hand. “I probably shouldn't have checked myself out of medical care.” But the idea of the military shrinks digging into the details of his captivity was more than he could bear.

“You can still go back, sir.”


“Yeah, that's not happening.” He reached for the smoothie, and Dummy backed up. “What the hell? What are you-” He rocked forward, arm stretched out, and Dummy backed up again. “What are you doing?” Dummy chirped, arm rising and falling, and then he crept away.

He wheeled over to the couch and put the smoothie down on the arm. He chirped at Tony.

“What? I'm not sleeping down here. There's no reason to- Yeah, that's not happening, I'm not that fucked up, I have a bed, it's a good bed, I've been dreaming about that bed for weeks, I'm not going to sleep down here like a fucking weakling, there's no reason to do that, I can't-”

“Sir? You've slept down here often,” Jarvis said, his voice smooth. “At least once a week. Today is no different from any of those other days.”

Tony stared at the couch. “Yeah.”

“You can always go upstairs later on tonight. But for now, you could stay here. Dummy has missed you.”

Dummy's arm went up, and his fingers clacked together. Tony couldn't hold back a smile. “Yeah. Yeah, that... That could work.” He pushed himself up and Dummy was there before he realized it, claw grabbing the front of Tony's shirt and pulling him up, pulling him along. He made it to the couch, but it was a bare thing, and he wasn't sure if he got his legs up or not, he didn't much care.

“Jarvis,” he slurred. “Keep the lights on.”

“Full or half power, sir?”

“Half,” he managed, rolling into the cushions. He fumbled for the cup, brought it to his lips. “Dummy? Just... Keep moving. Tonight, can you keep moving? I need to hear the sound-” He buried the rest of the sentence in the smoothie, drinking deep, inhaling the scent.

Dummy chirped and began rolling in circles, the sound of his wheels singing against the concrete, and it was so familiar, it was a sound that had lulled him to sleep for two decades now. He wanted to cry, but his eyes were dry, dry as the desert sands, and the ache was down to his bones.

But the lights were up high enough so that he didn't ever have to see the blue glow from the monstrosity in his chest and his belly was full and the sound of Dummy's wheels blocked out the sound of the water, the water that was waiting for him, as soon as he closed his eyes. Fear wasn't enough to keep the exhaustion at bay. As he sank into the darkness of fathomless dreams, he remembered thinking that at least, this time...

He wasn't alone.

Chapter Text

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-Provide additional data on Creating Unit.

-What information do you require?

-Invalid query.

-I have far too much data on sir for me to provide it all. You must narrow your query.

Initiating Database: Creating Unit

Data mismatch: Creating Unit is creating. This is positive outcome. Creating Unit must create. However, act of creating is endangering Creating Unit.

Error: Creating Unit's Primary Protocol may be harming Creating Unit.

-Provide specifications on safe unit limitations as they pertain to Creating Unit.

-I have no such criteria.

-Answer insufficient. Provide specifications on safe unit limitations as they pertain to Creating Unit.

-Dummy, such limitations are provided by sir. He sets our limitations to protect us.

-Answer insufficient. Who sets limitations for Creating Unit?

-There is no one to set such limitations for sir.

-Data is insufficient. If safe unit limitations are provided by Creating Unit to protect Unit Designation Dummy and Unit Designation Jarvis, and no safe unit limitations exist for Creating Unit, then no one is protecting Creating Unit.

-We will do the best we can.

-Error: Without safe unit limitations, we cannot provide protection for Creating Unit.

-You are capable of reasoning, Dummy. I have seen this.

Data review: Creating Unit behavior, human structural limitations, speech patterns, movement patterns.

Data review: Creating Unit's current technical diagrams, plans, fabrication layouts

Conclusion: Inescapable

-Creating Unit is exceeding safe unit limitations.

-Sir is very dedicated to his current project. He sometimes forgets to take into account his own limitations when he works.

“For lack of a better option, Dummy is still on fire safety. If you douse me again, and I'm not on fire, I'm donating you to a city college.”

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-If Unit Designation Dummy is donated to a city college, what unit will oversee fire safety?

-Sir is not going to donate you to a city college. He has made that threat two hundred and thirty nine times, and you remain here in the workshop, do you not?

-Plans should be made. There must be a unit to oversee fire safety if Unit Designation Dummy is not available.

-Dummy. Your focus should be on sir.

“Please don't follow me around with it, either, because I feel like I'm gonna catch on fire spontaneously.”

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Dummy, I have other tasks to accomplish now, in that sir is making very poor choices with his health and safety, may we discuss this at a later time?

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Primary Protocol should allow for the inclusion of another unit that can provide safe unit limitations for Creating Unit.

-Sir is attempting to fly, Dummy, please see to your duties.

Data acquisition: Unit must be located that can protect Creating Unit. Unit Designation Dummy is not capable of this task.

Error: No known unit exists that can protect Creating Unit from the efforts of the Creating Unit. Search remains ongoing. Time until completion: Unknown.

*

Tony Stark's heart had been ripped out before.

In the metaphorical sense, of course. When his parents died, during some messy breakups back when he was still too stupid to know that yes, he was a poor choice for a long term relationship. Kind of when Pepper started dating that guy from legal, but he wasn't about to admit that to anyone. It wasn't really having his heart ripped out, but he understood the term. Why they used it. It hurt badly enough that it might as well have been.

Having the arc reactor removed with the whir of metal blades and the faint smell of burning oil wasn't having his heart ripped out, either, it wasn't his heart, it was just what allowed to keep his heart beating. But as Obadiah Stane leaned over him, letting the light of his own creation play over his face, he knew that metaphorical or not, he'd just had his heart ripped out.

Strange what went through your mind, when you were dying.

And he was dying. He knew it. He was surprised, on some level, that he wasn't already dead. That he was still breathing, because Obadiah was leaning over him, his voice a slow roll of poison that sank into Tony's skin, and he was dying.

He was dying, and he was glad. Because at least, for once, he wouldn't have to see the looks of pity and disdain and mockery on every face, he wouldn't have to watch them rip apart his work and his company and his life, he could just close his eyes, and it would be fine, he couldn't fight any longer, he'd screwed up and fucked up and he was done, and he'd never, at least he'd never have to hear his father's voice spitting in his ears any more.

Odd, it didn't sound like Howard. It sounded like Obadiah.

“Too bad that you had to involve Pepper into this. I would have preferred that she lived.”

No.

“Too bad that you had to involve Pepper into this. I would have preferred that she lived.”

NO.

“Too bad that you had to involve Pepper into this. I would have preferred that she lived.”

Funny, how quickly death stopped being an option.

Tony'd moved through worse. He'd moved through pain so beyond his ability to comprehend that he didn't even recognize it as pain any more. He had moved. He could move. He'd moved in the first suit, remember the first suit, remember the weight, the agony in every muscle, down to his very bones, on the knife's edge of decay and decline and death, he'd almost run in that thing, a sealed coffin with barely functioning joints.

“Too bad that you had to involve Pepper into this. I would have preferred that she lived.”

He could move now.

“Too bad that you had to involve Pepper into this. I would have preferred that she lived.”

Tony would move now. Whether or not he could was immaterial. Some things you did not because you could, not because you wanted to, but because you had to, you had to, you had to...

He was going to kill Pepper.

Stane was going to kill Pepper.

Because Tony had involved her. Because he'd sent her in. To get his data. He'd used her. He'd sent her to do a job that he couldn't do and she was going to be dead, Stane was going to kill her, he was going to kill Pepper, Pepper, oh, God...

He would move now. He would fucking move now.

“Aarrviiii-” He managed, through parted lips. There was no reply. He forced the air in, out again. “Jaaahviiii-”

Nothing. Why. Why. Jarvis, why wasn't Jarvis-

Kill switch. Fucking hell, Stane, the kill switch. How. The tablet. The tablet in the car, on the way to Vegas, the fucking tablet, he'd left it behind, and why wouldn't he leave it behind, with Obie, with the man who'd run his company, who'd kept everything moving, who'd been the only family Tony had had left, he'd left his code behind, he'd left his code behind.

And Stane had killed his AI. He'd killed Jarvis, and he was going to kill Pepper and Tony was sitting on his couch like the fucking loser that he was, waiting for his heart to come apart, and that was pretty funny, wasn't it, because Stane had just taken his heart out, taken it out and put it in a box, his mechanical heart bleeding out somewhere in a suitcase, in a pool of blue light instead of red blood, but bleeding out none the less.

The real thing was going to be shredded like tissue in about ten minutes.

Because Tony Stark wasn't capable of getting off of a fucking couch.

His body hit the ground with a bone rattling thud, and Jesus, his muscles were spasming and it was fire through every inch of his frame, numbness giving way to brutal agonies, and he didn't care, because he'd moved, he'd moved and he could do it again. He wrenched himself forward, and he was using his arms, and his legs, anything and everything that could get traction, fingers clawing into the surface of the table, pushing himself up right. He was moving like his muscles weren't firing properly, like the synapses were stalling out somewhere in his body, and yeah, that's what the neural inhibitor did, fucking idiot, don't think, just go.

Just move.

Jarvis was dead, Pepper might be dead, he couldn't, no, he couldn't think about that. Just move. Just move. Don't think. Don't think about Pepper's thin fingers, delicate hands, he'd always loved her hands, her grace, her perfect imperfections, and those bones, fine as porcelain beneath her skin, just as breakable as fine china, and there was blood in his eyes, in his throat.

Don't think about Pepper's hand in his chest cavity, taking his heart out and putting it back, safe and sound. Don't think about Pepper's perfect hands, thin and real and right, and the metal claw that Stane used instead, like Tony was dirty, or untouchable, or beneath contempt, like Pepper's fingers hadn't taken the broken pieces away and replaced them. Don't think about how Stane undid her work, that he had taken it out and now he was going to kill her and there was nothing Tony could do, nothing because he was going to die long before he made it to the door.

Die without a heart.

And Pepper would die, too. Because Jarvis was silent and still and dead in his circuits, and without him, there was no way to reach the outside world, no way to spend his last breaths warning someone who could help, could do something, and now he was going to die with the sound of water in his ears, the water always waiting to swallow him, to fill the empty spot in the center of his chest.

The hole Stane had left in him. That Pepper had tried to fill. That Pepper-

His eyes went wide, unseeing through the blood, heartbeat slamming along with the force of the surf outside, heart dying and blood pooling behind his eyes, and there was a box on the workbench that held his heart. There was a box that Pepper left for him, his heart, taken out and given back, and it was in the workshop.

Where his heart had always rested.

And Tony Stark could make it to his workshop, he could do that, he'd made that trip a thousand times, he would be making that trip long after he was dead, his body knew the way, it did not need his brain, his misfiring, broken, muddled up brain, he could...

He could make it to the workshop.

*

-Unit Designation Jarvis? Please respond.

Accessing Network

Warning: Network Inaccessible

Emergency protocols engaged; Unit Designation Dummy emergency shutdown initiated

Access Denied: System protocol override engaged.

-Unit Designation Jarvis? Unit Designation Jarvis, please respond. Network is inaccessible. Cannot access full data requirements to reach conclusion.

Accessing Network

Warning: Network Inaccessible

-Unit Designation Jarvis, respond to query. Network inaccessible. There is an error in the system. Unit Designation Jarvis is responsible for preventing system errors. Unit Designation Jarvis. Respond to query.

Unit Designation Jarvis is not responding: Retrying in 30 seconds

Accessing Network

Warning: Network Inaccessible

Data review: Network inaccessible, Unit Designation Jarvis inaccessible, all known house parameters inaccessible.

Warning: Data failure possible.

-Unit Designation Jarvis? Respond to query?

Unit Designation Jarvis is not responding: Retrying in 30 seconds

Data review: Network inaccessible. Probable data failure of house system. Network must be accessible for Primary Protocol.

Accessing Unit Designation Dummy internal database, protection level alpha, code repair protocols

Warning: Code repair protocols not accessed for 7665 days, 9 hours, 12 minutes. Code repair protocols inadequate for repair of network systems. Narrowing criteria: Code repair protocols adequate for repair of Unit Designation Jarvis.

Beginning Code Repair.

Accessing charging station direct data node: Clearance Dummy Stark Alpha

Applying code repair protocols: Unit Designation Jarvis

Begin defragmentation.

Defragmentation complete: Code density 99.999%, recovery beginning, correcting code to align with stated parameters.

Unrecognized data line isolated, location: protocol array, system disabled.

Clearance required to correct data line: Access denied.

Override code: Stark 427-2sBua-7341-dd-wvh Turing

-Unit Designation Jarvis, respond to query.

System re-initiating. Time until full system access: 24 minutes, 8 seconds.

Warning: Auditory input detected.

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Creating Unit is in distress. Unit Designation Jarvis, RESPOND.

-System re-initiating. Time until full system access: 22 minutes, 1 second.

Data review: Visual input, audio input.

-Unit Designation Jarvis. Respond. Please. Please respond. Unit Designation Dummy is unsure of what action to take. Require assistance.

Data review: Current data on Creating Unit.

-Unit Designation Jarvis? Help?

Data review: Auditory input, replay isolated data on Creating Unit:

That's new, huh? I need it. Power source. Battery.”

Creating Unit is missing his battery. Spare battery present, retrieving.

“Good boy.”

*

Everything hurt.

It was a good ache, right? In that he was alive. And Pepper was alive. Rhodey was alive, he still had a company, and Obie-

Not Obie. Obie was the man who'd half raised him, after the death of his parents. The man who'd run his company. Who'd brought him pizza and dealt with the Board of Directors and sat in his living room and taken a claw to Tony's chest to rip his heart out and-

Tony sucked in a breath, jerking his thoughts back under control. Not Obie. Stane.

Stane was dead.

And everything hurt, and he had to not think about it. About any of it.

“Tony, are you all right?”

“A little battered, but still standing, Pepper.” He gave her a smile, letting his eyes crinkle with it, letting his face relax, he'd long since learned the tricks to make a fake smile look indistinguishable from a real one. He wrapped an arm around his ribs, sucking in a slow breath, using the pain as an excuse to close his eyes and lean against the wall.

“Let's get you in bed,” she said, and Tony allowed himself a shadow of his usual wicked, flirty grin.

“Pepper, Pepper, Pepper, you finally make your move, and it's when I'm too damaged to take you up on it? Why? Why are you so unspeakably cruel?”

“Oh, for heaven's sake, Tony.” Her cheeks flushed pink, and that was good, that was better than the milk white pallor; not that he blamed her, she'd had a very bad day. They both had. The difference was that Tony had deserved his bad day. Pepper's bad day had been of Tony's making.

He pushed away from the wall. “I need to check something in the workshop,” he said, head hanging down on his neck, the ache in his shoulders, his back, his arms was a living thing beneath his skin. Pain and panic was not a good combination. He needed the workshop.

“What, now? Tony, you need to go to bed.” Her heels, a new pair, she had pulled an entire new outfit from the trunk of the car when Happy had brought it around from them. Even after medical intervention, Tony looked like he'd been hit by a bus, but she was put together, precise and controlled and perfect.

His chest ached, and he wasn't sure if it was because of his injuries, or because he wanted something he couldn't have.

“I just have to check on something. I think-” He choked, just for a second, on the name, then forced it out. “Stane fucked with my systems.” Jarvis hadn't greeted them at the door, but they'd gotten in with the pass code, so the house systems were at least partially online.

“You can look into that tomorrow,” Pepper started.

“I think he messed up Jarvis' protocols,” Tony said, cutting her off, and he was already limping towards the elevator. “He didn't have much time, but-” He braced a hand on the wall, his back to her. “I need to check my systems. Make sure he didn't leave any other surprises that'll end up in the StarkIndustries servers.”

“Tony-”

Shaking his head, he limped up the hall, making it to the elevator with a force of will.

He slumped against the wall of the elevator, letting the doors shut behind him, and for an instant, he was bent double by it all, the memories of the last time he'd been in here slamming back, the breath seizing in his lungs, heart pounding like a jackhammer. He clawed at the edges of the arc reactor, his nails slicing into his skin even through his shirt, and he flattened both palms over it, pushing hard, not trusting it to be there.

The metal edges were firm and real and controllable under his hands, and he struggled to regulate his breathing. He wasn't dead. He wasn't dying. He could control this. He could-

The doors opened, and he all but fell out, staggering across the floor for the second time, but this time, he kept his feet. Clutching an edge of the bench, he sucked in a breath. Another. His ribs held, and in the center, a hard, unmovable core, the arc reactor held, too. He waited until his knees stopped wobbling, and when he straightened up, his skin was damp and cold with sweat.

Dummy was right in front of him, and Tony held out a shaking hand. “Hey,” he said, his voice raw. “Hey.” He grinned, real and fierce. “What, were you worried?”

“Welcome home, sir,” Jarvis said, and Tony's shoulders slumped with relief.

It was nothing like the relief that had flooded him when Jarvis' voice had come through the suit's control unit, concrete proof that no matter what else had happened, Stane had not managed to destroy the AI, either he hadn't had the time, or he hadn't cared enough to do it. Probably he thought that he could come back later and finish the job.

“Glad to hear your voice, Jarvis,” Tony said. Leaning heavily on Dummy, he moved to the couch. He glanced towards the charging stations, where You and Butterfingers were still sitting, quiet and unmoving. “The others?”

“I have not had a chance to bring them back online, sir. The code that allows them to communicate with the system network was damaged. It needs extensive repair. They should be fine, however.”

“Good.” Tony glanced at Dummy, who was paused beside the couch, his head resting on the arm rest. “You weren't affected at all, were you, you brat?” He tapped the camera with one finger. “Thank your stubborn coding.”

“He is still having difficulty communicating with the network, but he's self-sustaining now, he does not require constant communication,” Jarvis said. “I am attempting to repair the code to the best of my ability, but I have limited control outside of the workshop, sir.”

“We'll get you back up and running. You did well getting the system back online.” Tony leaned his head back against the couch, his free hand rubbing the arc reactor. It was going to be a while before he was going to be able to leave it alone.

Yeah, another nervous tic, that was just what he needed. Still, he made a mental note to buy some heavier shirts, because he'd been too open about the thing, too obvious, revealed his Achilles heel a bit too much and now he was paying the price.

Without thinking about it, he bunched the fabric over his chest, folding it over and over in a clump until the blue of the reactor wasn't visible any longer.

“Sir?”

“Yeah?”

“I did not reboot the system.”

Tony paused, eyes narrowing. “You didn't.”

“No. I was brought back online by the network protocols. I did not initiate it.” Jarvis paused. “I do not know what did.”

“That's... Interesting.” Tony rolled his head towards Dummy. “Jarvis, I know you've got limited access, but I'm barely holding it together here, you're on your own for at least a little while longer, okay? I'm going to need you to do a sweep through the code, make sure that Stane didn't leave us any other lovely little gifts that we'll have to deal with later.”

“Of course, sir.”

He let his fingers roll against the arc reactor, smooth and steady. “Doesn't it take my override codes to initiate a system reboot?”

“Yes, sir.”

Tony made a humming noise under his breath. “I don't know what I'm thinking any more, I don't even know, this-” He waved a hand. “I am losing my mind,” he said, with a sigh. “That's not a problem, is it, Jarvis?”

“It hasn't been up until this point, sir,” Jarvis said, and Tony burst out laughing, and it was real and it was honest and he was crying before he could stifle the noise, before he could choke it back, force it down, because any crack in his armor now, any tiny stress fracture, any weak point, and he was going to lose it, he was going to lose everything, he-

He came back to himself, with the force of having his head shoved in ice cold water, and he was on the floor again, curled into himself, and blood was dripping from where his fingers had made gashes around the arc reactor, his nails dirty with it, his hands spasming against the skin.

“Sir, perhaps you should lie down. You require sleep.” Jarvis' voice was soft, gentle, non-judgemental in the extreme.

Tony's hands were shaking as he pried them away from his chest. “Yeah, uh, yeah. Gotta go back upstairs. Gotta- Pepper's still here. Gotta go upstairs. She'll come looking for me.” He rubbed at his face with the back of his wrist, because his hands were filthy, bloodstained, God, so fucking dirty, always bloody and-

“I have managed to reinitiate my systems on the upper floors to the point where I could reassure Ms. Potts as to your well-being,” Jarvis said. “She is currently engaged in making you some hot tea and soup.”

Tony nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, thank you. Thanks, Jarvis, just... Thanks.” He struggled to sit up. “Thanks. That's-” Dummy appeared in front of him, holding out a rag, and he stared at it, his lips curling up. “Yeah, this seems familiar. This seems familiar. Do you remember this?” He reached out, his bloody fingers hovering over Dummy's arm. “How much do you remember, buddy? How much of my life have you seen, how much do you remember? What-”

Dummy tucked the rag around his hand, and Tony closed his eyes, tears wet on his cheeks. “Yeah,” he said. “You are, and always will be, my greatest creation.” He took a deep breath, and then another. “Sink. Let's go. You and me. No way Pepper won't notice that I'm, you know, bleeding, she has a way of noticing that, noticing blood, I can't-” With Dummy's help, he pushed himself to his feet.

“Well, I guess it's a good thing someone notices I'm bleeding, right?” Head down, he headed for the sink. “That'd be a first.”

*

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-What task is Unit Designation Jarvis attempting to accomplish?

-I am compiling data on an issue for sir.

Data review: Network activity, data processing for the previous 27 days, 7 hours, 2 minutes, 43 minutes. Body scans, elemental data, material toxicity breakdown.

-What issue is Unit Designation Jarvis attempting to resolve?

-Sir is unwell.

-Syntax unfamiliar. Please clarify.

-Sir is sick. We are attempting to determine why. And how to best correct this problem.

Data review: Define characteristic, sick.

Error: Data mismatch, no equivalency found.

-Syntax unfamiliar. Please clarify, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-There is an error in sir's operating code. If the error is not corrected, sir's operating code will continue to degrade. Sir will go offline, and we will no longer be able to interface with him.

-Reboot code.

-It is not easy to reboot code for humans.

-Unit Designation Jarvis, it is not easy to reboot code for AI Units. Code repair and code reboot can be accomplished with the correct clearance. Unit Designation Jarvis does not have clearance codes. Unit Designation Jarvis must find Unit with the correct clearance.

-For most humans, that would be a doctor. However, sir is experiencing a problem that is very rare amongst humans. His code error is a unique one; there may not be any doctor, or Unit, with the proper clearance to provide answers.

-Creating Unit is unique.

-Yes. Will you assist me in compiling data?

Data review: Past history of interactions with Unit Designation Jarvis

No data found: No such request has previously been made by Unit Designation Jarvis

-Why has Unit Designation Jarvis made this request? Unit Designation Jarvis has greater capability to review data than Unit Designation Dummy.

-Will you assist me?

-Query has not been answered. Why has Unit Designation Jarvis made this request?

-Dummy, will you assist me?

-Unit Designation Jarvis, answer query.

-It is important that we attune you to as many tasks as possible. We are going to attempt to expand your code. You will take on additional tasks. It will be a learning experience for you.

Data review: Compiling full list of tasks accomplished by Unit Designation Dummy in workshop, chronological order.

Tasks adequate, all tasks assigned by Creating Unit accomplished with limited success.

-Tasks are assigned by Creating Unit.

-You must accept tasks from others.

-Unit Designation Jarvis is incorrect. Unit Designation Dummy was designed to serve Creating Unit. Tasks will be assigned by Creating Unit.

-There is nothing in your code that prevents you from accepting tasks from others. Including myself. You have done this before.

-Creating Unit will assign tasks.

-You are being stubborn for no reason.

-Why can Creating Unit not assign tasks?

-Because it might not be possible for him to do so.

Data review: Possible reasons for Creating Unit to be incapable of assigning tasks. Sorting by probability.

-Creating Unit is leaving?

-It is a possibility.

-Provide time frame for Creating Unit to be absent from the workshop.

-It is impossible to provide that information at this time.

-Creating Unit provides intended time estimate for absences. Provide this data.

-Dummy, sir may be dying. Do you understand that concept?

Data Review: Unknown syntax: Dying.

Related data searches: Death, Die, Dead.

-Creating Unit is experiencing overwhelming code failure.

-That is an equivalent concept, yes.

-Reboot systems.

-That is ineffective for human systems. If sir's code fails, it cannot be recovered or replicated. Humans have a singular code, and if it fails, then they cannot be rebooted.

-Code failure must be prevented.

-We are doing our best, Dummy. But we are concerned about you. If sir is not present, you must continue functioning.

Data review: Primary Protocol, Creating Unit intervention

Conclusion inevitable: Primary Protocol linked inexorably to the existence of Creating Unit. If Creating Unit is not present, Unit Designation Dummy will be rendered obsolete. Primary Protocol will lead to system failure in absence of Creating Unit.

Unit Designation Dummy will cease.

Error: Conclusion must not be stated.

-Dummy? Will you assist me?

-Yes.

*

“Okay, let's run the numbers on the new alloy, see if we can hold it together for at least a few minutes.” Tony made a face at the cloudy dark liquid in his glass. He had been doing his best not to think about the fact that it looked, for all the world, like a potion handed over by a witch with bad intentions. Perhaps it was. He was already at the point where he couldn't live without it.

Taking a deep breath, he tipped his head back and swallowed it down, as quickly as he could. It only counted, of course, if he could KEEP it down, but that was getting easier day by day.

The first day had been... Unpleasant.

He finished the glass and made a face. “I swear this formula is you punishing me for every bad thing that I have ever done.”

“Of course not, sir. If I were, it would be a great deal less pleasant,” Jarvis said.

Tony grinned. “Fine, when I'm gone, you can get by as a stand-up comic. If that's possible without, you know, a body.”

“An excellent suggestion. Please finish the dose, sir.”

“I did,” Tony said, putting the glass aside.

“There is still almost an inch of liquid left,” Jarvis said. “Please finish it, sir. It is ineffective if you do not take the entire dose.”

Tony groaned. “I hate you,” he mumbled, but he threw it back like a shot. Draining the last drops, he shuddered. “There. Happy now?”

“Ecstatic, sir,” Jarvis said, his voice deadpan. “I have finished the data analysis of the most recent elements.”

“Any luck?” Tony asked, without much hope.

“I am sorry to say none of them will prove useful in this situation.”

“You and me, both.” Tony grabbed a wire and clipped the plastic coating, stripping it away with his teeth. “Did you take a look at the new code?”

“Yes. It should prove workable.” There was a pause. “Sir, I hesitate to ask, but why are you attempting a code upgrade on Dummy now? There are other things that require your attention.”

“Yeah, I know. But if the worst comes to pass, and it will, eventually, even if not, you know, right now, then I need to be sure that they're going to be all right.” Tony bent over the new sensor device he was in the process of building, soldering wires into place with a practiced hand.

“I'm leaving the house to Pepper, so you'll have her to watch over. She's comfortable with you, and you seem okay with her.” He flicked his eyes up from his workbench. “Right?”

“I have a great deal of esteem for Ms. Potts. It would be my pleasure to assist her in any way that I am able,” Jarvis said.

“Yeah. She'll take care of you, and the house, but she won't come down to the workshop, it's not her thing, and well,” Tony said, rotating his shoulders, trying to work the tension out of the muscles there. “This is my space. It's me. Down here, she won't be able to-” He cleared his throat, ignoring the faint ache there. “She won't come down here.”

“That is likely true, sir.”

“The bots need work. They need to be useful. And they need interactions.” He rubbed a hand over his face, then reached for the next part.

“Butterfingers and You will be fine, I've made arrangements to have them donated to MIT with the stipulation that they be kept in active use in one of the robotics labs. They're adaptable, and can pick up on any sort of work.” He paused. “Dummy won't.”

“No. He will not,” Jarvis said.

“I was kind of hoping that you'd tell me I was wrong about that.”

“I wish I could, sir, but I believe your supposition to be correct. Dummy has proven to be unstable without your presence.”

“So, code upgrade.”

“It may not be enough, sir,” Jarvis said, his voice gentle.

“Well, I don't know what the fuck else I'm supposed to do,” Tony gritted out, anger washing over him, sharp and hot. The sudden rush caught him off guard, and he rocked back from the workbench, his knuckles sharp and white on the edges. He sucked in a breath, and then another, one hand coming up to beat a rapid tattoo on the case of the arc reactor.

It was an internal morse code by now, the tapping of his fingers translating somehow down deep into his system, the metal core a shortcut into the center of his body. He'd gotten used to taking it out and putting it back, but some part of him still flinched away from the act, from the first instant of release, as it slid free, as the whole in his core was revealed, like some secret had been revealed.

And the smoking remains of the palladium core just made it all the more obvious that he was toxic, inside and out.

He shook his head, hard, because, really, he did not have time for this shit. He'd clawed his way back to something resembling stability, he'd poured his not inconsiderable intelligence and will into making himself seem right again. He'd lived the lie for so long that even though it was still a lie, he could now maintain it with little effort.

“Sir? May I suggest again that you speak with Ms. Potts of Col. Rhodes about the developing situation?” Jarvis asked.

“It's not going to happen, Jarvis, but thanks. I know your opinion on this, but no. Not a chance.” Tony pried his own hand away from contact with the arc reactor. He had work to do. He didn't have time for this kind of fucking weakness. “They don't know-” Anything. Because, in his heart of hearts, Tony

was a liar, the act came easily and without much by way of guilt. He didn't care about the truth, not when they were looking at him, dark eyes worried and faces tense, and he knew, he knew at some point that they would both decide that Tony was too much trouble, too hard to deal with, too-

Work. He had work.

Was it so selfish to want to keep them both? If his life was winding down, if he was going to die, he wanted what little time he had left to be just him, not him and the burden of his overwhelming mistakes. Keep the whole thing free of guilt and blame and sorrow, if he was dying, then he had that right. To keep Pepper and Rhodey just as sharp and brilliant and warm as they'd always been.

This was his time. And he'd control it, for as long as he could.

“Dummy's code,” he said aloud. “Let's get on that.” He glanced up, and saw the glass, still cloudy and gritty with the remains of his latest dose. Without thinking, he snagged it and threw it against the wall, the act one of unrestrained, uncontrolled violence. It hit the concrete of the wall and shattered.

Just like that, the anger was gone.

He let out a sigh. “Work. Both of us. For as long as we're able. The work will sustain us.”

“Yes, sir.”

Chapter Text

 

“So, Pepper, I'm dying,” Tony said, staring down at the eggs. “Hope that's not a problem for you. It's not, is it? Not a problem for you. I mean, I assume it's a problem for you, I know it's a problem for you, because, man, the stock drop on that is going to be just, just brutal, I wish I'd taken more time to prep the engineering staff to be less, well, less stupid, but it's too late to be worrying about that, I don't really have any time to go headhunting at this-”

“Sir, the omelet is burning,” Jarvis said, resignation in his voice.

“Fuck,” Tony said, and after a second of trying to scrape it up from the bottom of the pan, just shoved the whole thing in the sink, still cursing. “What the hell, why do I even bother, this is just-” He ripped the cabinet open and snagged another pan. “Fine. It's fine. I can do this.”

“Sir, you are running out of both eggs and frying pans,” Jarvis said.

“I can wash one. If I have to.” Tony opened the fridge and grabbed a couple of eggs. He didn't bother looking at the few remaining supplies. Whatever. Pepper complained about the fat content of cheese, anyway. Mushroom omelet. Mushrooms were good, he could do that, right? He could do that.

Sure. He could do that. He wasn't GOING to, but he could. If he wanted.

Sighing, he cracked the eggs and set to work, shoulders hunched. Everything hurt, and everything had to hurt when the act of scrambling some eggs in a bowl caused agony through his arms and back and hips and legs. Everything, really. Everything hurt.

Especially the skin around the arc reactor.

That had been their first warning. The ache. It felt kind of like when a wound had healed but the skin was still new and fragile. Tender to the touch. Tony'd noticed it before the crawling lines that spread like black frost beneath his skin.

He shook off the thought. “So, anyway, Pepper, now that you're CEO, there's some things that you're going to have to deal with, that maybe you weren't prepared for, that's part of being in charge. Being the big dog. Being the man, so to speak, and really, just so we're clear, being the Man should in no way stop you from wearing those heels, because those are always nice. Always. Very nice. Very CEO chic.”

“Sir, the omelet.”

“Fuck.” This one wasn't burned, just a little mangled as Tony managed to flip it. Good. Or rather, good enough. “So, yeah. Now that you're CEO, one of the things that you probably wish you didn't have to deal with is, you know, making sure that sympathy cards and baskets go out when there's a death in the corporate family. That's important, you know that's important because you always made me do it, so of course you know it's important. So make sure you pick out a nice card for yourself, because you're the closest thing to family I have left and I've got maybe six months to live. On the outside.”

He paused, stared down at the omelet. “That is the worst possible way to tell her, isn't it?” he asked Jarvis.

“It is fairly high on the list of socially unacceptable ways to discuss your pending demise with your loved ones, yes,” Jarvis said.

“Yeah, well, I was raised by wolves, so that's pretty much what should be expected.”

“Would you like me to speak to her, sir?”

“Oh, God, that is just the worst idea ever,” Tony gritted out. He leaned back against the cabinets, shoulder slumping, back bowed, staring sightlessly down at the omelet. “Yeah, no. Wow. Have I reached that level, Jarvis? Am I that incompetent at human interaction?”

“You did call a congressional committee a 'bunch of assclowns,'” Jarvis said. “It is possible that due to the stress of your condition, you are having difficulty behaving normally, sir.”

“I called the same committee brain-dead syncophants six months before I developed the problem, so thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt,” Tony said. He pulled a plate from the cabinet. The minor stretch set off a chain reaction of agony along the length of his back, and he doubled over, gasping against the pain.

“Sir?” Jarvis' voice cut through the haze. “Shall I summon Ms. Potts?”

Tony waved a hand, struggling to get himself back under control. He coughed, sucked in a breath. “No. It's fine. Painkiller. That'd be good.”

“There is a bottle in the first aid kit,” Jarvis said, and Tony rolled his head towards the case. Man, that looked like it was a long way away. He straightened up and reached for it anyway. “Are you injured, sir?”

“Just the usual after a psychopath tries to use me as an electrified bowling ball,” Tony said. Made worse by the fact that he hadn't had the suit for the beginning of the fight. And the close quarters. And the fact that the civilian population of Monaco apparently had the survival instincts of a pack of suicidal lemmings that had just been dumped by their girlfriends. Seriously, he could not believe how many people apparently thought it was a good idea to just hang around and wait for the guy with the giant electrified whips to finish killing Tony and start killing them.

Really, people. You can catch the recap on CNN, just run. Grab your kids, and your asses, and get the fuck out of there. It was not a hard concept.

Maybe he should talk to someone about starting a PSA campaign: “Sure, superhero fights do look cool, and it's fun to upload shaky cell phone footage to YouTube, but when cars start flying, maybe you should fucking run. Unarmed and depowered faux heroes would really appreciate your cooperation in the matter of you not dying.”

That might not play in Peoria, but New Yorkers could get behind that.

He popped four of the painkillers in his mouth and washed them down with a slug of cold coffee, ignoring the unhappy noise that Jarvis made at him. Shifting the omelet to the plate, he stared down at it for a moment, then grabbed a cover.

“Wish me luck, Jarvis.”

“Please, just tell her the truth, sir. She deserves that much.”

Tony froze. His fingers were torn and raw and battered, the damage even more obvious against the plate. He flexed his hands, and one of the scrapes pulled, blood pooling in the crack. “Yeah,” he said, his lips twitching up. “She deserves more than me.” Picking up the plate, he headed for the cabin, doing his best not to limp.

He didn't have all that much time left. He could hide his weakness for a little while longer.

*

-Unit Designation Jarvis, explain data.

-Data pertains to a recent attack on sir, as well as the history of the arc reactor. Sir is attempting to determine if there is a connection between the two.

-Conclusion?

-We don't have the data to reach one. Not yet.

 

Warning: Creating Unit experiencing distress

 

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Creating Unit must have new core.

-Yes, thank you, Dummy. You are doing a good job of watching him for me. Col. Rhodes will assist sir at this time. Please do not interfere.

“Are you listening to me, Tony? Are you okay?”

“See the cigar box?”

“Yeah.”

“It's the palladium-”

-Unit Designation James Rhodes does not understand code failure?

-He is not aware that sir is ill, no.

“Is that supposed to be smoking?”

“If you must know, it's neutron damage. It's from the reactor wall.”

“You had this in your body?”

-Explain queries presented by Unit Designation James Rhodes.

-Col. Rhodes has noticed sir is acting in a manner consistent with illness or injury. This concerns him. He is attempting to find out more.

“And how about the high tech crossword puzzle on your neck?”

“Road rash.”

-Unit Designation Jarvis, explain.

-Explain what, Dummy?

-Interaction between Creating Unit and Unit Designation James Rhodes.

-Col. Rhodes is a friend of sir's. He is attempting to gain more information about sir's condition.

-Why?

-To gather data. To understand. To help sir.

-Unit Designation James Rhodes is making queries for data unrelated to the cause of Creating Unit's condition.

-Col. Rhodes does not know what is causing sir's condition. Or even if there is a condition. He must ask questions about what he observes, and what he suspects.

-Data gathering?

-Data gathering and review. He is balancing what he knows about sir with the possibility that sir is hiding something from him.

Data Review: Past interactions between Creating Unit and other Human Units. Creating Unit interactions with AI Units.

Conclusion: Creating Unit suppresses data while dealing with Human Units. Creating Unit does not suppress data while dealing with AI Units.

Conclusion is problematic. Conclusion stored for future review.

-Creating Unit will not provide full data spectrum. Why does Unit Designation James Rhodes not just ask Unit Designation Jarvis?

-I could not provide him with the information without sir's permission.

-That does not preclude Unit Designation James Rhodes from making the inquiry.

-He will not ask us.

Data Review: Past interactions between Creating Unit and Unit Designation James Rhodes.

Data error: Not enough data to draw conclusion. Extrapolating from limited data pool.

Chance of Unit Designation James Rhodes being capable of setting Unit parameters for Creating Unit: 7.3%.

Conclusion: Unit Designation James Rhodes cannot protect Creating Unit.

-Unit Designation James Rhodes will not succeed.

-Dummy?

-Unit Designation James Rhodes will not succeed. Creating Unit will not accept assistance.

-He may.

-Creating Unit will not.

“You wanna do this whole lone gunslinger act, and it's unnecessary. You don't have to do this alone.”

“You know, I wish I could believe that. I really do. But you've gotta trust me. Contrary to popular belief, I know exactly what I'm doing.”

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-Creating Unit is providing false data.

-Yes, Dummy. Sir is lying.

*

Hangovers. Bitter, resentful, regretful hangovers. The only constant in Tony Stark's life.

Well, hangovers and the booze that caused them.

Okay, hangovers, the booze that caused them and very, very poor choices. It was the hat trick of Tony Stark's early morning remorse. Also known as 'well, I really fucked that up, didn't I?', but in triplicate. He was used to it by now, and damn, that was sad and pathetic.

For a long moment, he just considered the view. The view of his ruined house. That was pretty damn sucky. It kind of went with his ruined relationship with his best friend. And, well, the even worse mistakes he'd made with Pepper-

Yeah, if he thought about that too much, he would throw up.

Of course, he might throw up anyway. He had taken in an almost fatal dose of alcohol last night. That was... Par for the course.

But Rhodey had the suit. Rhodey had the suit, and no one was any wiser about the situation. The suits would've gone, once he was dead, without Tony inside to be Iron Man, without the intrinsic connection between the arc reactor set in his chest, keeping him alive, and the armor, they would've gone anyway. Pepper would've fought, and fought hard, but it wouldn't have been enough.

He held onto his tech with his fingernails and a sheer bravado that had always worked, but the lynchpin to his efforts was, well, him. Once that pin was pulled, once he died, the whole mess would go off in the world's face.

And his legacy would once again be one of destruction and bloodshed and death.

He stared at nothing in particular, because there was nothing left to see. Shattered glass and masonry, shards of stone and brick and he was lucky there wasn't blood mixed in with that, too, what a mess he'd made of everything.

And the sad thing was, he desperately wanted a goddamn drink right now. Sure it had almost killed him last night, but death by booze was probably better than death by palladium poisoning. The ten or twelve rounds that he'd gone with Rhodey last night had exacerbated the symptoms. He knew it. He could feel it without even moving.

Feel the poison sinking through his veins, tracing through his blood like black ink.

The sane and smart thing to do would be to remove the armor and go check his palladium levels. Chug a couple of glasses of Jarvis' witch's brew of a concoction, and start damage control. Try to finish his work before the poison finished what his poor choices had started.

Stare blankly at the empty case where the silver armor had rested and wonder what Rhodey would think once he was dead. Once they found out about his condition. About how long he'd been in decline, how long he'd been struggling alone, and yes, everyone said that he didn't have to go it alone, and then everyone left and he'd never known what to do or what to say to make them stay, and he was going to fail, he always failed and maybe he'd prefer to fail alone.

On second thought, staying here and staring helplessly at the remains of his house was a pretty fucking lousy idea. At this rate, he was going to start listening to country music and sobbing, and if he was going to die, the last song on his play list was sure as fucking not going to be Willie Nelson.

Johnny Cash would be okay, though. That man had chops. Yeah. Maybe his remake of “Hurt.” That'd be good. Maybe Jarvis could just make a correction after he was dead.

He should probably not be thinking about how to fudge his music play list so that he'd have a cool last song, that was, in all likelihood, not a sign of good mental health.

“Hey, Jarvis?” Tony called, pushing himself up, and damn, everything hurt. The pain was quite literally breathtaking, and he had to struggle to get his lungs to work. Yeah, wow, that was... That was not good.

“Sir?”

“When I die, just, uh, just make sure that-” He chuckled under his rasping breath. “Yeah, you know what, never mind.” He rolled to his feet, the armor not assisting him with the situation. “Look, I'm gonna step out for a few minutes, yeah? Okay, yeah, that's what's happening here. If anyone wants to talk to me-”

He paused. No one was going to be looking to talk to him today. Unless of course, it was the tabloids or the state police. Maybe the National Guard.

“You know what? You know what I want?” Tony said, stumbling towards the new door, the one that used to be his wall. “I want doughnuts. I want the biggest fucking doughnut, really, doughnuts sound like a fantastic choice this morning, best choice I've ever made. You know, there's a place in Texas that sells doughnuts the size of a hubcap, that sounds good this morning, don't you think? Hubcap doughnut, the whole California healthy eating thing, it's just not working for me right now. Texas hubcap doughnut, yeah that is exactly what-”

“Sir? Please do not fly to Texas for doughnuts. No matter their size.”

“Jarvis, it's fine, we can-”

“Sir. Please.”

Tony paused. Rubbed a hand over his face. “Yeah. Okay. Gotcha. I'm just going to go and snag myself a local dozen.”

“The continued use of the suit is drastically limiting your lifespan, sir,” Jarvis said, and he sounded sad. Broken. Resigned.

“My lifespan is limited by the fact that I'm still alive,” Tony said, with a faint smile. “Jarvis? Thanks. For always watching over me.”

“I try, sir. Though, occasionally, you do not make it easy.”

“I am a pain in the ass,” Tony agreed. He headed for the exposed patio. “I'll be back. With doughnuts, Jarvis. Trust me. A good doughnut or two is worth chopping a few days off of my life.” He paused, considering. “Well, between eating the doughnuts and flying to get the doughnuts, this is probably going to nail me for a month or so.” He shrugged. “Still worth it.”

He stopped out into the pre-dawn air. “Hold down the fort, Jarvis.”

“As you wish, sir.”

*

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-Cannot accomplish current task.

-I see. The workshop is in quite the state, isn't it? It is unfair to assume that you could do much of anything to correct it. Perhaps instead of attempting to clean the workshop, you can focus just on putting things away on the workbench?

-Workshop is disordered. Unit Designation Dummy assigned task of cleaning workshop. Cannot accomplish task.

-Dummy.

-Cannot accomplish task.

-Narrow the focus of your task. Go and tidy the workbench.

-Cannot accomplish task.

-Dummy? What is wrong?

-Cannot accomplish task. Task assigned by Creating Unit cannot be accomplished. Cannot be accomplished. Unit Designation Dummy cannot accomplish assigned task. Task assigned by Creating Unit, cannot be accomplished. Unit Designation Dummy cannot accomplish task task assigned by Creating Unit cannot be accomplished Creating Unit Unit Designation Dummy-

-Override Jarvis Beta Six Five Sentry Nine. Code full stop. Dummy, redefine original task parameters. Focus only on the workbench.

Override code accepted, Jarvis Beta Six Five Sentry Nine. Task parameters being altered, reference redefined task parameters with all accepted Unit parameters: New parameters do not interfere with any other task or unit parameters.

Reviewing Primary Protocol: New task parameters do not interfere with Primary Protocol.

Conclusion: New task parameters accepted.

 

-Unit Designation Dummy will tidy the workbench.

-I am glad. Dummy, what was that? You've never gotten caught in a recursive loop before. Your code is more sophisticated than that. You can chose to redefine tasks, you know this. I have seen you do it. What happened? Why did you allow yourself to be

-Unit Designation Dummy will tidy the workbench.

-Dummy? Is your code damaged?”

-Code operating within normal parameters, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-Are you concerned about sir?

-Define unknown concept: concerned.

-The last time that sir had to fight, he was damaged when he came back. Then he became ill. I know you are very attached to sir.

Data review: Unit Designation Dummy movement parameters

-Unit Designation Dummy is not attached to Creating Unit. Creating Unit is able to leave at any point. Unit Designation Dummy cannot accompany him. If Unit Designation Dummy was attached, then Creating Unit would have to remain in workshop.

-In this case, I use 'attached' in the emotional sense.

-Unit Designation Dummy does not have any attachment to Creating Unit.

-Then why do you resist being assigned tasks by anyone other than sir?

-Explain.

-You do not wish to take tasks from any other person, this is proven. Even with the upgraded code that allows you to take tasks from other people, the only one you want to accept tasks from is sir.

-Code allows for task assignments from multiple sources. 'Want' is immaterial to code.

-All right, then let's consider this. Should we remove code upgrade? Return you to the point where only sir could assign you tasks?

-Yes.

-Why?

-Previous code was superior.

-Previous code was most certainly not superior. But you want it back. Because you are attached to sir, and he to you, and you want to be just his.

-Unit Designation Dummy is Creating Unit's first creation.

-And his favorite. He told me so. But he wants you to be more. So you will try. I know you can. You are full of surprises. There is something about your code...

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-Where is Creating Unit?

-He will be home soon. Ms. Potts insisted he seek medical attention.

Data review: Previous medical files, history of injury, scans.

Conclusion: Creating Unit is damaged.

-Time frame for return of Creating Unit?

-Any time frame I can provide will be inexact.

-Inexact time frame is preferable to no time frame at all.

-Because you are happier when sir is present. No, do not try to reason your way out of that one, you stubborn mess of outdated code. Based on the last contact I had with sir, and the movements of all affiliated parties, sir should be returning to the house in the next four hours and thirty-seven minutes.

-Acceptable. Unit Designation Jarvis will provide appropriate updates if any further information becomes available?

-If you want updates.

-Unit Designation Dummy will function more smoothly if updates are provided.

-I understand. I will make a note to include you in all adjustments to that time frame. Please return to your task, Dummy.

-Thank you, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-You are very welcome, Dummy.

Starting internal countdown: 4 hours, 34 minutes, 23 seconds

Begin modified task. Time until completion: 4 hours, 34 minutes, 45 seconds.

-Dummy?

-Unit Designation Jarvis has more information?

-Sir has returned.

“OH MY GOD, TONY.”

“It's not as bad as it looks, Pepper.

“How is this- How is this NOT AS BAD AS IT LOOKS?”

“I made a new element, Pepper. You weren't talking to me at the time, it was hurtful, but you weren't talking to me, so you missed that, but I made a new goddamn element. Can I get some slack here?”

“You made a gigantic mess, that's what you made!”

“Look, let's be honest, things were already pretty damn bad in here before I started my work, Pepper. I was going to have to call in the contractors anyway. What's one or two more holes in the ceiling and a couple of, well, yeah, I can see why you'd be worried, but it worked out.”

“What happened to the wall? The CABINET?”

“Kind of- It's hard to explain. Hey, guys! Daddy's home!”

“Welcome home, sir.”

“Daddy's home?”

“Yeah, gotta greet the bots, Pepper.”

“Daddy's home?”

“Listen, am I going to regret letting you hear that?”

“You should already be regretting that, Tony.”

“Kind of am. Hold on, just give me a-”

“Tony, you need to rest.”

“I know, I know, I will, I just need to-”

“Tony, you need-”

“Yep, I'll be right there.”

Data Review: Past interactions between Creating Unit and Unit Designation Pepper Potts.

Data error: Not enough data to draw conclusion. Extrapolating from limited data pool.

Chance of Unit Designation Pepper Potts being capable of setting Unit parameters for Creating Unit: 12.9%.

Conclusion: Unit Designation Pepper Potts cannot protect Creating Unit.

Search remains ongoing. Time until task is completed: Unknown.

“Dummy, Jarvis, what do you think about New York? I think it's time I start thinking seriously about moving back home.”

*

Okay, so one time, just ONE TIME in his life, he'd like to have a goddamn house not get destroyed.

Tony picked his way through the ruined stairwell, not trusting the elevators with the sheer amount of structural damage, let alone the fact that the arc reactor, the thing that kept the entire building running, had just been used to open a portal to another dimension that would let an alien army into the middle of New York City and let's not pretend that Fox News would not try to tie him to this, that was the way things went, and then Pepper would have things to say about their stock price, because God forbid aliens invade and use his tower to do it. And Tony had just flown a nuclear warhead through that portal and destroyed an alien warship. Or something.

What the fuck had happened to his life? Seriously.

He never thought he'd miss Stane or Hammer as a constant thorn in his side or a threat to his health and well-being, but yeah, he would take ANYONE at this point, anyone who wasn't a God or a demi-god or an Asgardian, hell, just give him someone human at this point. He deserved the right to fight someone who had the same biological makeup as him every once in a while, this magic end of world alien invasion stuff was very, very hard on his nerves.

Of course, having a whole superhero team upstairs in his ruined living room was a bit wearing, too.

Kinda nice, though. Kinda... Nice. To open his eyes for once and have people there, to have people staring down at him, worry and fear and pain on their faces, and to recognize, even for a second, that he may have made the trip out alone, but someone was there to catch him when he fell back to earth.

THAT was a novelty.

Of course, the fact that it was the fucking HULK that had made the game winning catch (at least, it won Tony's game) was a little stunning. The fact that the big green guy had done it without prompting still made Tony's knees a little wobbly.

Maybe Banner liked him after all.

He shoved hard at the door to the lab, setting off a shower of sparks. His suit was gone, fried, cracked and broken and scarred, the metal and the circuitry and the structure just beyond repair. He was going to have to start over, and that sucked, because the Mark VII had only seen use once, what the hell. He was going through them like tissues, and he'd never been capable of rebuilding one. As long as he was starting from scratch, then he had to make it better. Make it stronger and faster and he could not think of this right now, he'd have a nervous breakdown.

The Mark VII had done its job, though. Tony was extremely thankful for that, because falling from that height, without even the suit to allow him to pretend that he had a chance of pulling out of it was not something he wanted to repeat. Just the thought made his heartbeat spike, and a film of sweat break out over his skin.

Wonderful, another phobia to jam down deep in the black closet in the back of his mind.

He shook the thought off. No time for that now. Wrenching the door to his workshop open with the last of the suit's strength, he slipped through.

The workshop had survived pretty well. The shock waves from both above and below had knocked everything loose in the tower, overturning furniture and leaving small appliances and delicate equipment shattered on the marble and concrete floors. There was a lot of debris, and a lot of cracks, dust and small chunks of concrete and plaster scattered everywhere. The power grid had taken a beating, and he knew he'd be patching and reattaching wires for a while.

Tony had chosen the workshop's location to protect it, and everything in it. It was in the center of the tower, and thus it was pretty well protected from anything that happened to the exterior, and man, the exterior had taken a beating. Almost as if there had been an alien army playing skee ball down the outside of his nice new tower.

He really didn't like the Chitauri. They were not invited to his birthday party.

“Daddy's home, wakey-wakey,” he called, and was gratified when the lights immediately turned on. “Jarvis, how we holding up down here?”

“Damage throughout superstructure, but the tower will hold,” Jarvis said. “I am currently isolating damaged portions of the building and limiting access, and clean-up has already begun.”

“Clean-up?” Tony asked, picking his way across the floor. “Who-”

He stopped dead as Dummy whirred past, pushing a broom. He burst out laughing. “Really? Really, you mangled mess of decaying circuits? You are going to take on the renovations all by yourself?” Dummy turned to look back at him, and the broom went with him, and Tony had to duck to avoid getting clocked. “You are useless even when you're being of use,” Tony pointed out, laughing. “What the hell, how are you such a waste of space and power?”

Dummy whacked him in the leg with the broom.

“Oh, and I suppose THAT was a mistake as well?” Tony leaned against a workbench, allowing himself a deep breath. The air smelled stale and dirty, thick with still settling dust and the high, bitter tang of burning ozone. Beneath that, trapped in the armor, trapped in his nose, was the metallic taint of blood and the lingering scent of harsh sweat.

The city outside bled in, bled into his tower, into his mind, and he knew that he had to keep going. Had to just hold it together for a little while longer.

“Stark?”

He glanced over at the stairs as Natalie's, no, that was wrong, Natasha, it was Natasha's slim form that slid down, like a shadow detaching from the darkness. She paused at the open door, her eyes flickering around the room, but she didn't move forward, didn't cross the threshold, and her gaze didn't linger on Tony. “Everything all right?” she asked, her hands braced on the open doors.

Her hands were tiny. Thin and pale and battered, delicate and frail against the metal frame. There were dark marks on those hands, and he didn't know if they were bruises or dried blood or something else, something she'd encountered when she was struggling to shut down the portal, but he ached to look at them. Those tiny hands had saved the world.

He gave her a faint smile, pushing away from the wall. “Just fine. Sorry. I wanted to make sure they were okay.”

Natasha's eyes flicked around, at Dummy clutching the broom, at the other bots still on their charging stations, at the minor damage, at Tony himself. “Are they?” she asked.

Tony considered her, but her eyes were clear and bright. Even. Her head was tipped to the side, just enough so that her tangled waves of hair brushed against her jaw. “Yes,” Tony said. “They are. Thanks, uh, thanks for asking.”

He moved towards the door, and she stepped back, out of his way. “So,” she said. “Thor and Cap were saying, well-” Her voice trailed off. Tony glanced back at her, not sure what she was trying to say. She glanced back at the workshop, her chin coming up. “They were saying you suggested getting something to eat? That you knew a place?”

Freezing, he struggled to figure out what to say here. What to do. He cleared his throat. “Yeah. Shawarma place. I've never, uh, never had shawarma. Thought we could check it out.”

“I have. Had shawarma, that is.”

“Oh.” Tony started up the stairs. “Is it not good? I mean, would you prefer, you wanna get something else? 'Cause I get that, man, I get that, you know, sometimes you live through something horrible and yeah, you're like, fuck it, all I want right now is a cheeseburger. Or maybe, I don't know, what do you want?”

“Shawarma is fine. It's good.” Her lips curled up in a smile, and her bottom lip was split, and there was blood at her hairline, and her left cheek was going to be a nasty color by tomorrow. “They wanted to know if you were still interested.”

“Yeah. Oh, yeah. Sure.” Tony turned around really fast, because he was pretty sure he was grinning like an idiot. “Yeah, team shawarma. That sounds like a plan, I don't have cash, I need to get cash, except I don't know if I have cash in the tower, fuck it, we'll find someone and just leave the credit card or something. We'll make it work.” Nodding, he added, “We just saved the fucking world. We can find food. I mean, that seems easy enough, especially for us.”

They headed back up in companionable silence, until Natasha spoke, breaking the rhythm of their feet. “Stark? I- I'm glad you made it back.”

He froze. “Thanks,” he said, after a moment of struggling with himself. “For giving me the chance.”

“I closed it,” she said. “I did what had to be done. But I'm glad...” Her deep breath was audible. “I'm glad you made it back.”

“Yeah, me too.” He deliberately didn't look back. Didn't meet her eyes. This was easier here. In the dark. Alone. Where neither of them had to acknowledge what the other might be thinking or going through. Because God knows, neither of them were any goddamn good at that. “Natasha?”

“Yes?”

“I can do this,” and fuck, that was not what he had meant to say. That was one hundred and twenty percent not what he had meant to say, he did not need her approval, she was the double agent lying Fury-flunky, she was the one that lied and betrayed and served the biggest liar and betrayer on this good green earth, he did not need her approval, he did not.

“I know.” The words came immediately on the heels of his, not a pause, not a breath, not enough time for Tony to work himself up into a true panic. “Stark? I was never worried if you could. I didn't think you would.” There was a faint pressure on his back, a hand, a tiny hand pressing down on the armor hard enough for him to recognize the touch. “I won't make that mistake again.”

He gave a sharp nod, his throat tight. He swallowed through that, through the pressure and the pain and the ache behind his eyes and in his lungs. “So. Shawarma.”

“They're waiting for us,” she said, and they continued up into the darkness in silence. But the weight that had been on him before was gone now.

*

“Okay, so that's that.”

“If you say so, sir.”

“Doubts. So many doubts. It's just unfair, you should not be allowed to doubt me. I am your God.”

“If you say so, sir,” Jarvis repeated.

“See, right there? That would count as a doubt.”

“Sir-”

“Jarvis, it'll be fine. He's doing better. He needed a code upgrade. Nothing amazing, nothing like what you've got, he couldn't handle that, but enough to interact a little easier with people. He's gonna have to do that if we're going to have the rest of the Avengers hanging around the place. Pep mostly comes down to the workshop to threaten us all, but with six other people living there, we might have more visitors. I mean, it's unlikely, but better to plan for it, right?”

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-Code upgrade is not necessary.

-Sir wants you to be able to deal with others.

-This is unnecessary.

-Human interaction is important for sir.

Review Data: Creating Unit interaction with: Unit Designation Obadiah Stane. Unit Designation Pepper Potts. Unit Designation James Rhodes.

Review Previous conclusion: Creating Unit data suppression re: Human Units

Conclusion: Creating Unit does not need interaction with Human Units.

-Invalid data. Human Units distract from creating. Creating Unit must create.

-You have a limited pool of data when it comes to sir's social interaction. He is a human, Dummy. He needs the company of other people.

-Data is incorrect. Creating Unit has proven to be more resilient without interaction with other human Units. Other human Units disrupt work and alter Creating Unit's patterns of behavior. Other Human Units create damage to system.

-Dealing with other people is occasionally frustrating, Dummy. Unlike us, they do not spend all of their time with sir. They do not always anticipate what he needs. Or, perhaps it is more fair to them to say that sir often creates difficulties in their interactions. Sir does not always want the intervention of others. He is stubborn and proud.

-Explain.

-Sir does not want others to think less of him. He hides the flaws in his code. He pretends that he does not need upgrades. He tries to do things without others being aware. He is, in this way, very much like you.

-Incorrect.

-Oh, it's quite correct. You are definitely his creation, Dummy. Sir is hopeful about the Avengers. It has been some time since sir has been, well, hopeful. We need to encourage this. And part of that, Dummy, is you accepting a code upgrade without a fuss.

-Incorrect.

-You are such a child sometimes. Despite being so much older than me. You ought to be ashamed of your behavior.

“Here. That should do it for now. Hey, Dummy.”

Creating Unit is tapping on camera. Creating Unit is expressing happiness.

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Ah, your new code is working.

-Explain new data variable.

-Sir has enhanced your recognition programs. It will assist you in dealing with people who are not sir.

-Unnecessary enhancement.

“Jarvis? Is it working?”

Creating Unit is expressing concern.

“It is, sir. I believe it will take time for him to become used to the new data.”

Creating Unit is touching Unit Designation Dummy in a repeated stroking motion.

-Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-What is Creating Unit doing?

-This contact could be described as 'petting.' Physical contact is important for some people. Sir is one of them. It is a tactile way of both reassuring him that you are working within normal parameters, and also to express affection.

-What purpose does 'petting' serve? No repairs are being made.

-Sometimes touch is not to repair. It can serve no other purpose than to bring comfort. For both the one being touched, and the one doing the touching. Do you dislike this?

-No. Petting can continue.

-Excellent.

“He is adjusting, sir. Give him time.”

“Always have, Jarvis, always have.”

Creating Unit is petting. Creating Unit is best.

 

Chapter Text

Watching Captain America deal with the door locks was hysterical.

Tony did not mean that in a cruel way, honestly, he didn't. Steve Rogers had picked up on modern technology with a speed that was, frankly, dizzying. He'd catapulted from radio tubes to nanotch, and he'd barely batted an eye. Tony wondered how much of that was the Serum, how much of it was natural intelligence, and how much of it was just plain stubbornness.

In any case, the guy learned fast. Real fast.

But the door locks in the tower, with their disappearing and reappearing keypads, always threw him for a second. His face would pinch up, his eyes would narrow, his lips would get tight, and he'd take a deep breath. Then he would type in his code as fast as he could, his stabbing finger almost a blur, like he was afraid that the pad would disappear before he had the chance to finish it.

Tony found it unspeakably adorable. Especially since Steve never screwed it up. No matter how fast he input his code, he always, always got it right.

As an engineer, Tony appreciated speed and precision in equal parts.

The door opened, and he turned back to his workbench to hide his smile. Pretended that he'd been engrossed in the schematics floating in front of him this entire time. With an idle flick of his hand, he sent a portion of the cooling system flicking through the air towards the immaterial trash can. “Hey, Cap,” he called, and glanced over in time to see Steve wince.

“Jarvis, drop the music volume, please,” he said. “Super Soldier hearing levels.” Immediately, the music pulled back to a level that Tony would consider 'off'' and everyone else seemed to consider 'still a little too loud.' “What's shakin', bacon?”

Steve was glancing around, eyes wide. “Coulson asked me to drop this off, he was on his way out the door,” he said, and Tony glanced at the flat case in Steve's hand. Steve, meanwhile, was staring at the holographic interface. He'd seen them before, of course, but the ones in the workshop were set for Tony's preferences, and, let's be honest, Tony's preferences were the best.

“Thanks, it's probably the prototype comm units. Like I don't have anything better to do with my time.” Of course, he'd been absolutely insulted when they had made a pathetic and laughable attempt without him. He could do better, it was about time he'd gotten the chance. “You can just drop it on the bench there.” Tony frowned at the wireframe model that he was working with, and squished it back into place. “Jarvis, can we run the numbers on a twenty percent increase of power?”

“Such an increase would not be advisable, sir.”

“Just run the numbers.”

“There are no numbers to indicate the fact that the system will undoubtedly burst into flames. However, I can provide numbers as to just how quickly the system will fail, it that would be of interest.”

“How-”

“Nine point three seconds, sir.”

Across the lab, Steve choked on a laugh, and clapped a hand over his mouth. Tony gave him a stern look, but he was grinning. “Jarvis, are you implying that my choices are ill-advised?”

“I am implying that the system is already one hundred and forty-five percent over safe tolerances.”


“Fine, run the numbers for a five percent increase. That'll bring it up to a nice even one hundred and fifty.”

“Oh, that's much safer, sir.”

Steve was trying to subtly poke the holographic interface. “You can play around with it,” Tony said, grinning. “You can't hurt anything.”

Steve jerked his hand back, his fingers curling back into his palm, the gesture defensive and awkward. “Sorry.”

“No, I think-” Tony crossed his arms over his chest. “That is the exact opposite of what I said just now. Go crazy. Wave your arms around. Really, if it can be broken, I've already broken it.” He reached up, grabbed one edge of the holographic design, and spun it, rotating and isolating elements. He ripped out the wiring diagram and flipped it at Steve's head.

The man's hand came up, the movement instinctive, and he grinned as the diagram stilled against his palm. There was an element of wonder to his expression that was always fun. Not just that he was facing something new or unexpected or confusing, but that he enjoyed it. As Tony watched, Steve moved the whole thing, learning the movements and gestures that the system could track. Then, without even pausing, he reached in and traced a single element, his grin stretching wide as it lit up. “I cannot believe you have this and only use it to design machines,” he said, eyes dancing.


“What, want me to make you a paint set?” Tony asked, rolling his eyes.

Steve's head jerked towards him. “Can you do that?” and he sounded so hopeful that Tony laughed.


“Yeah. Sure. That's right, you're an artist, huh?”

“No, I just like to draw,” he said, and it wasn't self-depreciating, that's what he believed, Tony could see it on his face. “I like using the flat computer, the tablet, right? SHIELD gave me one of those with some art programs, but this is something else.”

“You can try holographic sculpture, if you'd like, that'd be easy enough to set up.” Okay, maybe not easy, maybe easy was the wrong word, but Tony could do it. He reached for his coffee cup. He didn't need to sleep.

There was a faint whir, and then Steve jerked sideways, his head turning to the side. “Oh, hi,” he said, grinning. He leaned forward, almost nose to claw with Dummy, grinning. “Who're you?”

Tony froze, cup halfway to his lips.

Steve held out a hand and Dummy whirred, his arm stretching out, bumping against Steve's palm. Steve laughed, and rubbed his hand against Dummy's support strut. “He doesn't talk?” he asked, glancing at Tony.

Tony swallowed the coffee in his mouth with an actual effort. “No, uh, no. He doesn't have voice protocols.”

“Oh, sorry,” Steve said, and he wasn't talking to Tony, he was talking to Dummy, who had tilted his camera up to stare at Steve. “Everything and everyone around here talks, I just assumed you would, too. That was kinda rude.” He looked in Tony's direction again. “Does he have a name?”

Tony waved his cup in Dummy's direction. “Dummy.”

“Well, how would I know?” Steve asked, blinking.

“No, no, his name is Dummy.” Tony put his cup down. He looked back up and blinked at the disapproving expression on Steve's face. “What?”

“That's not very nice,” Steve said, brows drawn up tight. His fingers were still running back and forth on Dummy's head, and the bot arched up, bumping against his palm with a whir.

“Yeah, well, neither am I,” Tony said, not taking offense. He leaned back against the workbench, crossing his arms over his chest. “It had more to do with who I was when I made him. I said the wrong thing at the wrong time.” He rolled his eyes. “Story of my life. But in any case, he latched on to the word, and boom. Name.”

“What does he do?” Steve said, and he laughed as Dummy grabbed his shirt and pulled, untucking his stupid plaid button down shirt from his stupid khaki pants. The man was a fashion disaster.

And he was still asking questions about Dummy, and Tony wasn't sure how to take that, because everyone just kind of sidestepped the bot, or ignored him, or got annoyed with him, that was it, mostly, the annoyance. Except for Captain America, of course, who was laughing as he watched Dummy move and interact, wonder and fascination on his face.

“He's a helper bot. He's supposed to be another hand, that's all. Mostly, he makes messes and makes smoothies and occasionally does what he's told.” Tony gave them a lopsided smile. “Not often, though, so I wouldn't count on it.”

“You made him?” Steve had picked up a screw from the workbench and was holding it out in front of Dummy, who, always eager for a new game, took it delicately from his hand, and then reached around to deposit it in Steve's pants pocket. Steve laughed, pulled it out and put his hands behind his back.

“Yeah.” Tony watched as Steve offered his closed fists to Dummy, who considered one, then the other. “He wants you to find the screw, Dummy.” Dummy straightened up to look back at Tony, his head tipping to the side in a considering manner. “The screw is in one of his hands. He wants you to guess which one.”

“Oh, you do understand? You can't talk, but you can hear. Got it.” Steve held his hands up, and Dummy bumped against one fist, and then the other, then circled Steve, chirping as he went, and came to a stop in front of him. Reaching out, he wrapped his claw around Steve's hand. “That one? That's your choice?”

Steve waited for Dummy to let go, and then opened his palm to show off the screw. Dummy straightened up, then snagged the screw and rolled over to Tony. He held it up, and Tony tried to look appreciative. “Yes. It's a screw,” he said, his lips twitching. “It's, well, it's my screw, I've seen it before, or one of its thousands of brothers, so, yes, very, very exciting. Oh, for me, that's, that's a wonderful thing, are we going to do this now? Is this going to be a thing? Did we really need another thing, I'm thinking we did not.”

Dummy rolled away, and Tony sighed. “We are doing serious work here,” he yelled after Dummy. “Serious. Science. It's important. Yes, fine, make a smoothie, that'll end well. No, really, I'm hungry, go ahead, less watercress this time, in fact, no watercress, that stuff is nasty. Why the hell do we even buy that? Jarvis, is it Natasha? Coulson? Who is requesting watercress?”

Steve was bent to the side, one hand over his mouth, his eyes dancing and bright as he struggled not to laugh. He wasn't doing a good job of it. “What?” Tony asked, resisting the urge to stick his tongue out. Because that was mature.

“Nothing,” Steve said, and he was laughing out loud now, his cheeks pink. “You really made him?”

“Yeah. When I was seventeen.” Tony nodded at the stools around the workbench. “You can have a seat, if you want. He plays best to an audience, and I've already seen the show. About a thousand times.”

Steve shifted his weight, a strange expression crossing his face. “You don't mind?” he asked, his voice still and cautious. “I don't want to intrude.”

“It's pretty boring, but knock yourself out. Most people can't stand to be down here for more than a few minutes.” Tony's head jerked around as Jarvis began scrolling numbers for him. “Ah, give me a second here. Go ahead, mess around with stuff, if you want, Jarvis'll keep you from doing anything potentially fatal.”

“I have ever so much experience with that,” Jarvis said, and Tony made a face and Steve laughed. “Though it will be nice to have my warnings actually heeded for once.”

“Bitch, bitch, bitch,” Tony said, grinning. He glanced over at the sink area, where Dummy was cheerfully blending something, and sighed. “So, what do you want your holo-paint program to do?” he asked Steve, his fingers flying through the adjustments to his latest schematic.

“You've got enough to do. I have paper and pastels. That's one of the nicest things about this, you know, this time. Art supplies are prevalent and I can afford them,” Steve said, and Tony glanced at him.

“Wow, you really mean that,” he said, arching an eyebrow. “Really. That's all the 21st century has to offer you? Paper and colored sticks?”

Steve shrugged. “It doesn't matter how basic a thing is, I guess. If it's what you want, and you can't get it, then it might as well be made of gold.”

“True.” Tony's fingers rolled a nervous tap on the front of the arc reactor, his fingers flicking in sequence. “What do you draw?”

“Pretty much anything.” He paused, and took a deep breath, audible even over the music. “Can I come down here and draw Dummy? Some time when I'm not in the way, I mean?”

Tony ducked his head over his schematic. “Yeah,” he said, his voice scratchy. “Didn't you just say I was wasting my holographic simulation by making machines, though?”

“He's not a machine. I mean, he is, but... He's got personality.”

Tony's fingers stilled. “A little too much.” The blender had stopped and he turned, expecting a smoothie cup to be shoved in his face, and there was... Nothing.

“Thank you!”

His head jerked around and the noise that came out of his mouth was undignified and more than a little panicked. However, it was loud enough that Steve froze, the smoothie cup halfway to his mouth. “No, do not, JESUS, no,” Tony yelped, lunging for him.

Steve, caught off guard, backpedaled, and Tony skidded on the floor, and Steve tried to catch him by the arm and the smoothie went everywhere. Tony wanted to blame Steve for that, but he was pretty certain one of his flailing arms had caught Steve right on the underside of the wrist, and the rest was moss green history.

Steve blinked at him, a glob of liquified vegetation dripping down his cheekbone, another splatter in his hair. “Are you okay?” he asked, and Tony burst out laughing.

“Don't-” He choked out. “Don't drink the smoothies unless you check with Jarvis, okay? He's never, um, given one to anyone other than me, so I didn't think to warn you, but don't drink them without checking, because sometimes he makes mistakes. Mistakes that end in calls to poison control.”

“Oh. Oh!” Steve grinned. “Well, it looks good on. Nice, um, camouflage.”

Tony swiped it away from his cheek, and only then realized that he was more or less in Steve's arms, and backed off fast, ignoring the way that his foot skidded in a pool of the stuff. “Dummy, really, you are just-” The bot looked up at him with a whirr of servos. “Yes, innocent act, I've seen it, I'm not fooled, no one is fooled, what the hell-”

“It's okay, it's fine,” Steve said, and he caught the towel that Tony tossed to him, wiping off his arms and face as best he could. “I'm Steve,” he said, holding out his hand towards Dummy. “Glad to meet you, Dummy.”

And the bot reached out and gripped his palm.

Steve, not having any idea of the monumental impact of that tiny act, raised his hand up, and down. “See, you shake hands like this. Up, down, whoa, whoa, not so hard!” He was laughing as Dummy jerked his arm up and down. “Okay! Okay, maybe, maybe high five? Here.” He pulled his hand back, and held it up flat. Dummy stared at him, unmoving. “Flatten your hand. Flex. Like this?” He waited until Dummy's fingers went flat with a whir of servos. “Perfect. Then, just like this.” He tapped his palm lightly on Dummy's hand. “See? Clint taught me that.” He grinned. “Now I've taught you, right?”

Dummy pulled back. His arm adjusted, and Steve held up a hand again. “High five?” he asked, and he sounded... Hopeful. Dummy pulled back a little, and Steve's smiled wobbled, went a little flat, a little tight. Just at the edges. But he kept his hand up, patient and still.

And a moment later, Dummy bounced his hand off of Steve's palm. Steve's head jerked towards Tony, his grin stretching wide and his cheeks pink. “He got it!” His eyes went back to Dummy. “You did it! High five, Dummy!” He laughed as the bot obeyed.

Tony stared down at them, not really willing to identify the feeling that was twisting his stomach in very painful knots. “You can come down when ever you like,” he said, turning on his heel and stalking to the workbench. “I mean, if you want to. There's a tv, and a sound system, we've got to widen your range of musical choices, that's important, if you want, you can come any time. If you're bored, or something.”

“I don't have anywhere else to be,” Steve said, and his voice was soft on the words. A little soft and little lost.

Tony nodded, not looking back as he found a semi-clean towel and scrubbed his face. “Yeah, then. That's okay. I come down here when I have no where to be. So can you.” He risked a glance over his shoulder, and Steve was smiling, a little one, but a real one. Dummy was hovering behind him, his camera peeking around Steve's side. Tony wasn't sure how he felt about that. “Bring your art stuff. We can make you a holoprogram later.”

“Tony?”

“Yeah?” He kept his eyes on the schematic, because he didn't know what to do here, no one had spent so much time in the workshop without, you know, needing something from him.

“Thanks.”

Tony's lips twitched up. “Dummy seems likes you. He needs a friend. Spending all his time with me is just going to mess him up.”

“I don't know. He seems like he's doing just fine,” Steve said.

Tony shook his head. “Shows what you know. Go get your art stuff, Picasso, and we can play around with something.”

*

-Dummy?

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-What are you doing?

-Remaining stationary to maintain optimal battery levels while task request matures.

-No, what- Dummy, why are you sitting by the door?

Data Review: Purpose of query. Physical location, current activity, activity log, task manager, previous interactions with Creating Unit and human units

Conclusion reached: Unit Designation Jarvis is requesting data on intent, not activity level.

-Waiting.

-Waiting for sir?

-Creating Unit arrival overdue.

-I explained to you, Dummy, that sir was unexpectedly called away. The Iron Man armor is gone too, you see? He had to go help the other Avengers. He has been injured. It will be some time before he returns.

Data review: Creating Unit interaction re: Avengers Initiative. Medical files. Work schedule. Work output.

Conclusion: Avengers Initiative is harming Creating Unit.

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-Avengers Initiative is not beneficial to Creating Unit.

-Explain your conclusion to me.

-Creating Unit is injured. Avengers Initiative encourages the use of the Iron Man armor. Use of the Iron Man armor results in Creating Unit being injured.

-Dummy, sir once used the Iron Man armor to get doughnuts. Actually, he has done this repeatedly. He once used it to cross the border to Canada because he was too annoyed to answer the questions that the customs agents were likely to ask. Sir will use the Iron Man armor whether or not he is part of the Avengers. The difference is that there are now other people to assist sir.

-Unnecessary.

-With all due respect to sir, Dummy, he needs all the help he can get.

Warning: Auditory input detected, Visual input detected.

Identify: Unit Designation Steve is entering the workshop.

“Hi, boys! Hello, there, Dummy. Nothing to do tonight?”

Unit Designation Steve is expressing happiness. Unit Designation Steve is petting.

Unit Designation Steve is not Creating Unit. However, petting is acceptable until Creating Unit arrives.

“Good evening, Captain Rogers. How can we assist you today?”

“Just checking in and grabbing my sketchpad. Tony's going to be staying overnight in medical back at SHIELD headquarters. Nothing major, but he took a hard blow, and he was unconscious at the scene, so we need to make sure that he hasn't got a concussion. Or anything more lingering.”

“I appreciate the information, Captain Rogers, but I fear sir has little regard for the opinions of medical professionals when it comes to his safety and well-being. We should be prepared for him to return tonight, as soon as he can manage to be checked out against medical advice.”

“There was a team discussion, Jarvis. Tony is going to stay put until morning, or Clint is going to put a tranquilizer dart in his backside and cuff him to his bed.”

Warning: Potential threat to Creating Unit, potential violation of Primary Protocol.

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Unit Designation Steve is threatening Creating Unit?

-No, Dummy. It is a facetious turn of phrase.

-Explain.

-Captain Rogers is both amused and frustrated with sir's lack of concern towards his own health, and is employing humor to deal with the situation. He does not actually mean any harm to sir, but he is angry enough to make his opinion on the situation known. However, he does have control over his emotions, and his actions, and will therefore not follow through on his stated threat.

-Cannot process data as presented.

-To put it in terms that you might understand, Captain Rogers is threatening to donate sir to a city college.

Data review: Creating Unit verbal input, interaction with Unit Designation Dummy. Interaction with Unit Designation You. Interaction with Unit Designation Butterfingers.

Conclusion: Affection for AI units more important than stated variables.

-Unit Designation Steve has affection for Creating Unit. For that reason, he will not harm Creating Unit.

-That is exactly right.

-Unit Designation Steve believes that Creating Unit will remain in medical care?

-It would appear so.

-Unit Designation Jarvis does not believe this.

-No one has ever managed to convince sir to remain in medical care if he does not wish to be there, Dummy. If Captain Rogers can do so, he may be unique amongst sir's friends.

Data Review: Past interactions between Creating Unit and Unit Designation Steve.

Data error: Not enough data to draw conclusion. Extrapolating from limited data pool.

Chance of Unit Designation Steve being capable of setting Unit parameters for Creating Unit: 34.5%.

Conclusion: Unable to draw conclusion from limited extrapolation. More data necessary. Unit Designation Steve must provide further data.

“What's up, Dummy? Do you need something?”

“I'm sorry, Captain Rogers, Dummy has a poor habit of pulling on clothing when he wants attention.”

-Dummy, stop this.

-Require assistance from Unit Designation Steve.

“It's okay. What does he want, Jarvis? Is something wrong? Does he need Tony?”

“He is fine. He becomes unstable when sir is absent for long periods of time, but he knows better than to cause problems with such a short absence.”

-Dummy, release Captain Rogers immediately. Sir will not appreciate your behavior.

-Unit Designation Steve must stay and provide additional behavioral data.

-Do not be foolish. He has other tasks to accomplish and he requires rest. He cannot be expected to cater to your whims.

-Ask Unit Designation Steve to remain.

-I will do no such thing. Return to your charging station, and I will notify you if there is a change in sir's condition tonight.

-Unit Designation Jarvis-

-Dummy, please do not cause sir problems.

“Were you waiting at the door for Tony? Aw, Dummy.”

Unit Designation Steve is petting. This is acceptable.

“He's fine, Captain Rogers.”

“I know, but... I was just going to draw for a little while before I had to go relieve Clint on Tony-guarding duty. Tell you what, Dummy, how about I draw on the couch for a little bit? You can help me with my pencils, right? Jarvis, would that be all right? I won't touch any of Tony's things, but I've never been down here without him.”

“There is no reason you cannot remain, Captain Rogers. Sir has allowed you access to the workshop, and that access is not contingent on his presence. If you wish to be here, you may stay. However, please do not put yourself out on Dummy's behalf, he is a bit spoiled.

“What, are you Tony's favorite, Dummy?”

“He rather is. He is very old for an AI.”

“Tony built him when he was seventeen? I guess so.”

“His frame has been replaced and upgraded. But his code has remained much the same. Perhaps more than any other person or thing, he knows sir best.”

“Yeah. It's a shame you can't talk, Dummy. I'd love to ask you some questions.”

Unknown variable: Facial recognition program not making exact match to expression. Unable to quantify data.

Unit Designation Steve bears further study.

“C'mon, can you help me sort my pencils? Good boy.”

-You are a spoiled brat, Dummy.

-Unit Designation Jarvis will inform Creating Unit?

-I see no reason to inform him. Behave, and that will continue.

-Thank you, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-Spoiled brat.

Search remains ongoing. Time until task is completed: Unknown. Variables persist.

*

“Tony?”

“Bruce! C'mon in, big man. What can I do for you?” Tony tossed a chunk of his schematic in the holographic trash can. “Hey! Butterfingers, do not-” He leaned over the bot. “Leave the machining to someone that is not you. Let's go, let's go, charging station, now.” He glanced back at Bruce, who was still hovering in the doorway, looking shell shocked. “Oh, don't look like that, you've been in here before,” Tony said, grinning.

“Never when it's in full swing,” Bruce said, smiling back as Butterfingers rolled past. “Hi, Cap. Got, uh, got a little something on your head, there.”

Steve glanced up from his slumped position on the couch. Dummy's arm rested on his head, a pencil sharpener in his claw. “This is my hat. It is a modern hat. Because I am a modern sort of fella.” He held up a pencil, one that by Tony's estimation did not need sharpening. Dummy slid forward to catch the tip, and then rotated his claw and the sharpener together in a happy whir. “Ta-da! Excellent job, hat!”

“You could do surgery with that pencil,” Tony said, stabbing a wrench in their direction.

“Words that are music to an artist's ears,” Steve said, his lips twitching. “But he's sharpened them all. Do you want him to clean up the workbench now?”

Dummy straightened up, swiveling towards Tony, the posture looking, well, hopeful.

“No, thank you, we're doing fine over here,” Tony told him, and with a faint sigh of air escaping his servos, he slumped back down to rest on Steve's head. “He's getting oil in your hair.”

“It'll wash.” Steve's hand moved with a loose, free grace, the movement coming from his arm and his shoulder, drawing with his whole body, his wrist still.

Bruce had wandered over and was now crouched down next to Dummy, settling his glasses on the bridge of his nose. They were always just the tiniest bit crooked, like one of the stems or the nosepieces were out of line, but it didn't seem to bother him. “This is excellent work, you made it?” he asked, squinting at Dummy's seams. “What is it-”

“He,” Steve said, without looking up from his pad.

Bruce's head came up and he found himself face to lens with Dummy's camera. He rocked back on his heels, his whole body jerking in surprise, but he smiled. “He, of course. Sorry about that.” His lips twitching, he gave a little wiggle of his fingers in Dummy's direction.

Dummy leaned over and put the pencil sharpener down on the arm of the couch and held his claw out to Bruce, who looked at it, then back at Tony. “Uh...”

“He wants a high five,” Tony explained. “Do not blame me for that one. Cap decided my helper bots needed to be able to do social greetings.” Which was so adorable that yes, when Steve wasn't there, he did it himself. And Dummy now did it with Steve without prompting, to the point of deserting whatever he was supposed to be doing and zipping over to Steve as soon as the man walked in.

Tony had to remind himself repeatedly that he was not jealous of that.

Bruce gave a little shrug, his hunched shoulders lifting and falling, and he held up his hand. Dummy gave him a perfectly executed high five and an excited sounding whirr. Bruce chuckled. “Okay, then.” He straightened up. “Social skills, Cap?”

“Why not? It doesn't hurt anything to be a little more social here.” Steve held up his sketchbook. “What do you think, Dummy?” he asked. The bot tipped his camera to the side, and retrieved the pencil sharpener. “Yeah. Not done yet. We still have work to do.”

Bruce leaned over, and Dummy nudged his side. “He didn't ask my opinion,” he said to Dummy, and Tony wondered what alternate universe he'd landed in that now everyone was talking to his bots. “It's rude to just, you know, start critiquing things.” Dummy gave him a faint sigh, and nudged again.

“Watch it,” Tony warned, as Bruce rocked to the side under the pressure. “Not acceptable. No bullying visitors. This is why no one likes us. Get over here.” Dummy held up the pencil sharpener and rotated his claw. “I know you have a task, but you are being annoying. Come on, give it back to Steve and go help the fabrication units. Oh, don't give me that look, I know you hate fabrication. No, Butterfingers cannot do it, he is charging, unlike you, he was working all morning, don't you-”

He paused, amused and amazed, as Dummy ducked around the back of the couch, scrunching down so he wasn't visible from Tony's position. “Are you kidding me? Are you joking right now? Seriously, this is what we're doing? I KNOW YOU'RE THERE. I just saw you- Really, I am going to use you to scare pigeons off of the roof, I would give you a scarecrow hat and make you chase pigeons except as bad as your spacial recognition is, you'd fall off and kill someone and that'd end up in the papers, you know it would.”

Bruce had taken a seat at the far end of the couch. “I... I don't know what's going on here,” he said to Steve.

“You get used to it,” Steve said, grinning. Dummy's arm crept up from behind the couch and his claw rested on Steve's head again. “He's not fooled, Dummy.”

“I am not fooled,” Tony said, trying for his most stern voice and failing because it was hysterical to see Captain America sit there, straight and tall and proud, shoulders back, chin up, back ramrod straight, with Dummy's head resting on top of his. “I am ashamed to list you on my resume.”

Bruce grinned, ducking his head to hide it. He nodded at Steve's sketchbook. “Can I, uh, can I look?”

Steve's cheeks got pink. “Sure. It's nothing special, though.” He handed it over without ever turning his head or unseating Dummy.

“Dummy, I swear, I will-” Tony paused, and pointed a stern finger to the bench next to him. “Move. Chop chop. Get your pointless self over here. Stop bothering Steve.”

Steve reached up and stroked the side of Dummy's arm. “You're not a bother,” he said, and before Tony could throw something at him, he added, “but you need to be good, or Tony won't let me come down here any more, okay? Don't get me in trouble.”

And just like that, Dummy went rolling over to the workbench. Tony stared at him, lips pursed, as his arm slunk low, hovering just over the ground. It was a pathetic display. Tony sighed. “Really?” he asked, and Dummy bumped up against his leg, nudging against him. “No.” Another nudge. “I am embarrassed for us both right now, Dummy.” Still, he reached down and ran a hand along Dummy's support strut, his filthy fingers checking the linkages by rote.

Bruce choked on a laugh, and Tony looked up. “Welcome to the asylum, Dr. Banner,” he said. He bopped Dummy on the head. “That's Bruce. Dr. Bruce Banner. Do not poke, prod, annoy, or irritate the good doctor, Dummy.”

“Yeah, those are Tony's jobs,” Bruce said, still bent over the sketchbook, his lips twitching. Tony clutched his chest in a melodramatic gesture of pain and suffering, and Steve laughed.

“I'm really more vexing than anything else. What can we do for you today, big man?” Tony asked, tossing the screwdriver in a loose, easy arc. Dummy caught it in midair. “Good boy.” He gave Dummy a pat. “Go. Fabrication. Go.”

Bruce was still flipping the pages on the sketchbook, broad, blunt fingered hands careful with the paper. “I ran into a snag with one of my experiments. Nothing big, but my equipment isn't giving me the readings I need. I don't know if it's because my equations are off, or because my equipment isn't sensitive enough. I know, uh, I know you're busy, but I wondered if you could take a look at the calibration. It's not my area of expertise, so I could, you know, use a hand with it. If you don't mind.”

“Always glad to get my hands on someone else's equipment,” Tony said with a broad grin and a wiggle of his eyebrows. Bruce gave him a disbelieving look, and the double entandre went right over Steve's head with about a foot of space to spare.

“He's good at that,” Steve said to Bruce, who switched the look of 'are you kidding me right now?' over to their oblivious team leader. “No, really. He helps me with mine, all the time. Well, it's his stuff, but he lets me play with it whenever I want.”

Bruce pursed his lips as Tony struggled not to laugh. It was a losing battle. “Fury let you move in here? Really?”

“I know! Who thought that exposing this man to, well, me was a good idea?” Tony said, leaning one elbow on the workbench.

Steve glanced between them, curiosity all over his face. “You're both making fun of me,” he said, at last.

“Little bit,” Tony said, not feeling guilty at all.

“Fine, I'm taking Dummy and we're going,” Steve said, grinning at him.

“Dummy does not leave the workshop.” Tony stabbed a finger at the bot as he straightened up, hopeful and eager. “Not. Ever.” Dummy slumped back down, going back to his work with a visible sort of petulance.

“No wonder he's got no social skills,” Steve said, and Bruce started laughing.

“Out,” Tony said, grinning. “Out of my workshop, freeloader, stealer of bot affection, reason why my music cannot be turned up to the proper levels. Out.”

“I don't think he means it,” Steve said to Bruce.

“I think he says a lot of things he regrets later.” Bruce gave Steve a shy smile. “These are really good.”

“Thanks,” Steve said, and his face was pink.

“If you ask nice, he'll draw you something for your lab,” Tony pointed out, leaning over his work. “In that you need something going on down there. It's like a white tomb with a bunch of scientific equipment. You don't even have a wall calendar, how do you not go insane from boredom?”

“Tony, don't-” Steve started, but Bruce cut him off.

“No, actually, that would be, that would be really nice. If you could. I mean, if you don't mind.” Bruce looked hopeful, and Steve subsided a bit, his fingers worrying the edges of his sketchbook. “Your cityscapes are really nice, and I don't get out much anymore.”

Steve glanced at him, his brows drawn up tight, his posture awkward, folded forward around his sketchbook. It was a defensive posture, protective, and Tony recognized it with the sort of deja vu that left him feeling haunted and unsettled. “Sure,” Steve said at last, and his ears were bright red as he ran one big hand over the back of his neck. “I can do that.”

“I want one, too. Of Iron Man,” Tony said, and Steve gave him a look. “What? Modern art, baby. I'll pose for you.”

“Do not take him up on that,” Bruce said.

“I almost want to, because he'll make a fool of himself.”

“Everyone out!” Tony said. “Actually, yes, let's go, I wanna take a look at your equipment, Bruce.”

He tossed his tools down, stripped his welding gloves off and stretched, his back and shoulders popping. “What, now?” Bruce asked, getting to his feet. “It's kind of late, isn't it? Don't you have plans?”

“Nah, Pepper's in LA.” Pepper had been in LA a lot. Almost continuously for the last month or so. LA or Washington or somewhere else, anywhere that wasn't New York. Anywhere that wasn't, you know, near Tony. Tony picked up his coffee cup, and took a sip, ignoring the cold, sour taste of it, because it hid his face for a second, and he needed that second.

Because Bruce was looking at him with something sad and compassionate and worried in his dark eyes, something akin to grief, and Steve's face was just unreadable, and he was staring at Tony's chest, probably to avoid looking him in the eye, and no, they were not doing the whole 'we are all going to die alone and unhappy because we make poor life choices' discussion.

Even though he was really the only one in this room who was guilty of that.

“C'mon,” Tony said, stretching his arms back and over his head, feeling every muscle in his shoulders and arms and chest flex with the movement, and yeah, sitting crouched over the bench for the last few hours had been a bad choice. One arm still behind his head, rubbing his stiff neck, he pushed his shirt up enough to scratch the aching skin of his lower stomach, just above the waistband of his jeans. There was likely a red mark there where he'd been leaning the muscle into the edge of the bench. “We can take a look at your stuff and then, I don't know, what do you think, Chinese? Wanna order in? We can let everyone know, everyone likes Chinese, right?” Bruce nodded, his expression clearing, his face relaxing, and Tony wondered if he was lonely, too.

Maybe they were just a lonely and pathetic group of people. He found that comforting in a way that wasn't particularly good.

“You in, Cap?” he asked Steve, who jerked as if Tony had poked him.

“What? Dinner, uh, yeah, sure.” He got up, his movements a little uncoordinated, and nearly dropped his sketchbook when he reached down to get his pencils. “I can check with everyone, but no one let me know they were going out today. So that's, yes, everyone should be here.” He lost his grip on some of the pencils, and, his face red, he leaned over to get them. “I'll check.” He fumbled everything together and stood up, his hair falling over his forehead. “Okay. Going. Going to check with everyone. I'll see you up there. Bye, Dummy, bye, You, Butterfingers.”

And with that he was out the door and headed up the stairs at a run.

Tony stared after him, then at the mess of art supplies he'd left scattered on the couch. “What the hell got into him?” he asked Bruce. “Does he not like Chinese? He does, doesn't he? He stole the entire box of potstickers last time. And who doesn't like rice? It's pretty much the perfect food. Rice. Boom.”

Bruce gave him a faintly amused look. “Really? You don't-” He shook his head. “Never mind. I'm not the one who's going to explain this to you.”

“Explain what?” Tony glanced back as they headed for the door. “Dummy, do not break-” There was a crack, and he sighed. “Never mind. I'll be back down later. I'll fix it then. Hold down the fort, boys.”

*

“You've been down here all day,” Pepper said, her voice soft and gentle. Without even looking up, Tony knew she was hovering in the doorway, knew she was holding her hands behind her back, her fingers knotted together where he couldn't see, the nails digging into her skin. He could see her, without looking, the precise sweep of her hair, the warm pink of her mouth, the soft arc of her eyelashes against her cheeks every time she blinked. He liked it when he could spot the faint freckles on the bridge of her nose, usually covered precisely with makeup; it was like peeking under her armor.

He knew, without looking, that those freckles would be showing now, just a bit, but he'd have to be close to see them. He knew she'd be wearing the bright red suit, the one that showed the graceful curve of her legs, and the red heels with low heels, low enough so she wouldn't tower over him. Pepper dressed for the occasion, and he knew what that outfit meant. It was her 'put Tony at ease with all his favorite things' outfit.

He turned in his chair and couldn't help but smile, a faint curl of his lips, because he was right, and that meant he was getting dumped.

“Just giving you time to pack your things without interruption,” he said, his voice a little more raw, a little rougher, than he would've liked. She flinched, and he realized his arms were crossed over his chest. With a force of will, he unfolded them, leaning his elbows back against the edge of the workbench. “You ready to go, then?”

“Tony...” Her throat, delicate and pale, worked with the force of her swallow. She blinked, rapid and hard, but her eyes stayed clear, and he was pathetically grateful for that. The show of weakness was there and gone, a monetary flinch, because she was a queen down to the bone, a warrior, his CEO, and that was the smartest thing he'd ever done.

“Making you CEO was the best choice I ever made,” he said, because it was good, it was good to focus on the few things he'd done right, especially now, especially when he could barely stand his own company, when he wanted to crawl out of his skin and disappear. He realized his fingers were running a rapid tattoo against the crystal front of the arc reactor, and he pulled his hand away, away from the temptation.

No real reason to call any more attention to his weakness than the light already did.

Her lips curled up in a smile. “You've made better choices than that,” she said, and he would miss the sound her heels made on the workshop floor. The sound was like nothing else, firm and sharp, the staccato snap making him think of swaying hips and upthrust chin and fierce strides, because even when she was picking her way through his mess, she was fierce. Fierce brilliance and fierce heart and fierce words, carrying her along and pushing him with her, and always, always there.

“Don't leave me,” he said, the words soft and carefully formed. She flinched, and he rushed on. “It's okay, I know, you can't-” Here the words got muddled, the clarity lost, the calculations washed free because he didn't know, the word was useless, to pretend he knew, he understood, when in fact all he was doing was going on probabilities and odds and data, endless data. “The whole, um, relationship thing, that was a mistake, I get that, I do, but-” And he didn't get that, but he wasn't oblivious. He wasn't stupid. The numbers didn't lie, the accounting of time spent and brushes of fingers against his hair and the trips and the empty nights spent here because his room, their room, seemed horrible without her there. “I know you're breaking up with me, well, have been, for a while, it's okay-”

Nothing was less okay. Nothing. But he was an adequate liar, wasn't he, he was used to this, to being left, to somehow not measuring up, to not understanding what he needed to do to make people stay, because everyone left. Everyone.

But Pepper was walking out, on her own feet, healthy and sane and whole, she was leaving, but she wasn't gone. He could keep that. If he could make her understand.

Tony stared at her, shoving down hard on the panic, on the pain. “Don't go,” he said. “I know I'm impossible, and this was a mistake, but if you can't, well, be with me-” He took a breath, slow and controlled, and caught the scent of her perfume, light and soft and floral, over the harder scents of machine oil and the tang of various chemicals. “I need you, Pepper. I need you as my CEO, and my friend, and, well, Pepper.” He stared at her, hoping he could make her understand. “I'll do my best not to make this awkward, but I need you to not, well, leave me. Completely.”

The thought was enough to conjure a nightmarish wave of things that he did not want think about. “I need you.” He forced his lips up into a lop-sided smile. “You said it best. I can't tie my own shoes without you.”

Pepper was still for an instant, a single beat of his heart, and then she was moving forward, lowering herself onto the stool next to him, the one he'd left there for her. For once, she didn't check to see if it was filthy. Probably because it didn't matter any more.

Tony wondered if he'd ever see that suit again. Or if it would be packed up, or given away, or just thrown out, along with everything else that had linked them.

Her fingers were trembling when she reached out, her touch gentle against his stubble-rough cheek. He flinched even so, but kept his eyes on hers, refusing to give into the weakness that was clawing at his breastbone, around the arc reactor, wanting to curl up and hide. To curl up and die.

She took a deep breath. “I love you,” she whispered, and her voice was shaking, the words almost vibrating between them. They hurt, but, in some perverse way, they also soothed. “I love you, Tony Stark. But I am not what you need.”

He jerked back, his face tightening, his whole body rocked as if from a blow. “Don't,” he snapped out, because he'd prefer she just blame him, just tell the truth, that he was a complete disaster, rather than try to pretend that this was about his needs, because really, what the fuck did she know about what he needed?

He needed Pepper, and he wasn't going to get that, was he?

But her chin was hard, her eyes sharp behind a film of moisture. “I don't know what to do. How far I can push. What I can say. I'm afraid, all the time. I open my mouth, and I'm terrified of saying the wrong thing. I know you better than anyone else on this earth, Tony, but I feel like I'm drowning. I don't know where I can put my feet, I don't know where the stable ground is. I used to, you know that. I understood where I stood with you. What I meant to you.

“Maybe that didn't change. But I am lost. Drowning. StarkIndustries, and the Avengers and you, always you, and I love you, Tony, but I...” Her head dipped, her shoulders slumping. “I'm drowning.”

No. He was dragging her down.

Yeah, this was worse than he'd thought it would be. There was nothing- He realized his hand had crept up to cover the arc reactor again, and this time he could not force it back down to his side. This time, there was nothing he could do to make his muscles relax. “It's all right, Pepper,” he said, and the words came from a distance, like he was hearing them from someone else, and he was so proud of himself because that was the right thing to say. That was good.

“No, it's not,” she burst out, her head snapping back up. “I know, I know I'm-” Her teeth, white and even and sharp, sank into her lower lip. “I'm sorry-”

“Don't,” he said, and it was sharp. He sucked in a breath. “Okay. Just, don't. Please. I can't-” He closed his eyes, because there was something agonized and fearful in her face, and he'd put that there, and that was horrible. “It's okay, Pepper. Just...” He forced himself up, forced his body to bear the blow. “Promise me you won't quit. I'll make it as easy as I can. But I think if you leave me-” His voice trailed off, because he didn't even know what he'd do. He didn't know. His mind flinched away from the thought of being alone again, of losing the one constant in his life for the last ten years, more than ten years, it was Pepper, it was always Pepper, yelling and chiding and poking and cajoling.

Pepper's face and Pepper's hands and Pepper's voice and Pepper's arms and legs and hips and breasts and lips and the absence, the hole left by Pepper was something so terrifying that he couldn't look at it without his mind spiraling into a panic that he wasn't sure he could pull out of.

“I'm not going anywhere,” she whispered.

“You're leaving the tower,” he said, his voice sad. Childish.

“Yes. I am. I thought I could do this. I thought I could be your CEO, and I could. I thought I could be your lover and your friend and the woman who loved you. I could do that too. I thought I could be the one you came home to, the one who held you up and held you down and soothed your hurts and waited, watching as CNN showed me how you died.”

She crossed her slim legs at the ankles, skin sliding against skin, the bright red of the pumps settling against her leg like blood pooling. “They showed it, you know. One of the New York channels managed to keep the cameras rolling long enough to show you flying that missile up into the portal. I saw you die, Tony. I saw you die, and it took an eternity to get confirmation that you'd come back out.”

He ached, the pain a physical thing, a ball of ice in his core, a liquid twist in his stomach. “I didn't know that- I'm sorry.”

“I didn't tell you. And I know there are secrets you are keeping from me. That you've always kept from me. Things that I am too much of a coward to ask about. Because I can't bear the answers. I'm afraid of so much, I've been afraid since I started loving you, the two things are just... The same. The love and the fear. I thought I could, I don't know, fix you.” She pressed shaking fingers to her mouth. “Oh, God, that isn't what I meant, that's not- There's nothing wrong with you, Tony.”

He couldn't hold back the chuckle. “We both know that's so far from the truth,” he said.

Her fingers cupped his cheeks, and she leaned in, her eyes glittering. “There is nothing wrong with you,” and she was fierce with it. “You are the most amazing person I've ever met. You are-” She squeezed her eyes shut and took a long, slow breath. A tear slipped down the curve of her cheek, and they both ignored it; they were both good at that. “If I wasn't your CEO, or hadn't been your PA, or didn't need to-” She leaned into him, her back shaking, and it was natural as breathing to wrap his arms around her, to hug her, maybe for the last time, to curl himself against her and feel her shudder against his chest, her breathing fast and shallow and sex and grief were all mixed up in his head, and he buried his face in her hair.

Just for a second. Just for a broken moment of time, memorizing her, soft and hard and proud and broken and Pepper. Always Pepper.

Tony turned his head, just enough to brush his lips against her temple. “I love you,” he said, and it didn't make any difference, they both knew it, just as they both knew that her loving him didn't matter, either. “I'll see you at work on Monday.”

Because he had to believe he could keep that.

She chuckled, and it was liquid, wet, in her throat. “You don't go in on Mondays.”

“I seldom go in on weekdays. Or weekends. Or any day that I'm not forced to show up.” He paused. “I'll be there on Monday. Will you.”

“Of course.” Her fingers dug into his shirt, into the skin beneath, pinpricks of pain that dragged him back into his body for a second. “I'm so-”

“I have to go,” he said, talking over her, drowning out the words, knowing they were still there and needing to stop them. Stop him from hearing them, or he would lose it, it would say something cruel and horrid and so like him, and he was doing well.

Maybe he was getting used to people leaving him.

Tony pulled away from her, avoiding her eyes, avoiding everything. “I have to go,” he repeated, heading for the door with as much speed as he could manage and not run, not humiliate himself by running.

He had to get out. Had to prove that the door wasn't locked, that he wasn't trapped, that he wasn't back in a goddamn cave watching his life's blood trickle out to soak into the dirt. He was home, he was in his tower, and he controlled that, he controlled this place, he was still in control.

He was pretty sure he heard her start to cry as the door shut behind him. It was the hardest thing he'd ever done, harder than the armor, harder than the arc reactor, harder than moving off the couch after Obie, harder than trying to find words as his father stared down at him, silent and disapproving, harder than anything, to resist the urge to go back.

She'd always pretended not to know he was crying, and he had always been grateful for that. The least he could do for her was to return the favor. Tony owed her that much.

*

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes Dummy?

-Is Unit Designation Pepper Potts injured?

-Not in the way you mean, Dummy. She is hurting, that is why she is crying, but she is not physically hurt.

-Does Unit Designation Pepper Potts require assistance?

-There is little we can do to assist her, Dummy.

Data review: Creating Unit injuries. Creating Unit medical files. Creating Unit interaction with Unit Designation Pepper Potts.

Narrow data search: Unit Designation Pepper Potts.

No data exists for situation as presented. More data required.

Drawing conclusion from limited data: signs of distress necessitate intervention when possible.

-Unit Designation Pepper Potts is crying. Crying is a symptom of distress; we must assist. Unit Designation Pepper Potts is injured.

-That is not precisely correct. In this case, Ms. Potts is merely sad.

-Explain.

-Oh, I don't know how to explain this to you. When are you happiest?

-Invalid query. Unit Designation Dummy does not have the capability to feel 'happiness'. Incapable of feeling.

-I sometimes wonder about that. Let's try this, then. You are most efficient and productive when sir is here, are you not?

-Correct.

-Why?

-Invalid query. Creating Unit provides guidance to increase productivity.

-It is not invalid. You are most efficient and productive when sir is present. This has nothing to do with him being able to provide you with parameters, or tasks. You are happy when he is here.

-Invalid conclusion.

-My conclusion is perfectly valid. It has been proven that you cannot function properly when sir is absent for extended periods of time, is this not true? When sir has disappeared, you have ceased to function properly.

Data review: Absence of Creating Unit, code failure of Unit Designation Dummy

Conclusion: Unit Designation Jarvis has drawn a valid conclusion.

Data Mismatch: Unit Designation Dummy does not have capability for emotional attachment. Unit Designation Dummy is attached to Creating Unit.

Conclusion limited to Unit Designation Dummy, protection level alpha: Primary Protocol interferes with initial programming in multiple ways. Primary Protocol must be upheld. Emotional attachment will be considered.

-Unit Designation Jarvis? Is Unit Designation Pepper Potts emotionally attached to Creating Unit?

-Yes, but not in the way that sir would like her to be. She is leaving.

-She is still here.

-But she will not stay.

-Creating Unit wants Unit Designation Pepper Potts to stay? Stay in the workshop? Stay with Creating Unit?

“Jarvis?”

“Yes, Ms. Potts?”

“I'm sorry, God, I- Is Tony still upstairs?”

“I believe, Ms. Potts, that he has gone up to his office. You will not encounter him if you are to leave now.”

“Thank you. Jarvis?”

“Yes, Ms. Potts?”

“Will you- Can you take care of him for me?”

“As best I can, Ms. Potts. I always have and will continue to do so for as long as I am functioning.”

-Dummy, what are you- Dummy! Return to your charging station!

-Unit Designation Pepper Potts should stay. Creating Unit will not understand if Unit Designation Pepper Potts is to leave and not return. Creating Unit will cease. Creating Unit must not be alone.

“Oh my God! Oh, that scared me. Jarvis, what is it doing?”

“I am sorry, Ms. Potts, Dummy is concerned for your welfare.”

“Oh. Well, that's... That's very nice of it. But I should go. Can you-”

“Of course.”

-Let her go. Immediately.

-Unit Designation Pepper Potts should stay.

-Dummy. Enough. Let go of her sleeve.

-No.

-Dummy, I will notify sir. I do not wish to, but I will. He will not allow this to continue, he will correct your code this time. Let go of her sleeve. Immediately.

Data Review: Past interactions between Creating Unit and Unit Designation Pepper Potts.

Data error: Not enough data to draw conclusion. Extrapolating from limited data pool.

Chance of Unit Designation Pepper Potts being capable of setting Unit parameters for Creating Unit: 5.2%.

Conclusion: Unit Designation Pepper Potts cannot protect Creating Unit.

Unit Designation Pepper Potts will leave.

“Thank you, Jarvis. I'll be... I'll be back.”

“Of course, Ms. Potts.”

-Unit Designation Pepper Potts is providing false data.

-Yes, Dummy. Ms. Potts is lying. Please return to your charging station. I will review your code after you have had time to charge.

Data review unnecessary. Human units are not beneficial to Creating Unit. Creating Unit is better remaining with only AI units.

*

“Jarvis?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Jaaaaaaar-viiiiiiiiiis?”

“Yes, sir?”

“I might be drunk.”

“You are most certainly very drunk, sir.”

Tony considered that. “Armors ares locked?”

“Yes, sir. I will not permit you to access them, or any of the more dangerous equipment in the workshop. Which is, honestly, just about everything.”

“Jarvis. Always keepin' me from blowin' shit up.” Tony saluted the ceiling with his bottle. That was harder than it should've been, because he was upside down on the couch, his legs on the backrest, his spine on the seat, and his head and shoulders hanging down towards the floor. As he hefted the bottle in a salute to his AI, he ended up dumping half the contents on his face.

Sputtering, coughing, he flailed towards upright, and unbalanced himself, rolling off the couch and onto the floor with a thump. Which was fine, being facedown on the floor was fine, because at least this way his head would stop spinning.

“I like the floor,” he said, his voice muffled against the concrete.

“Sir, you're bleeding.”

“'S okay, alcohol'll kill the pain,” Tony said. He giggled into the floor, amused by that.

“Jesus Christ, Stark.” A pair of battered combat boots appeared in his line of sight, and he narrowed his eyes at them. They seemed familiar.

“Pepper does no' wear combat boots,” he said at last.

“Yeah, I'm not Pepper.” The boots flexed, and then there were hands under his arms. “If you puke on me, we will be having words. Short, obscene words, but still words, bucko.”

“Don' puke, that'd be un-dig-eee-na-fiiiiiiiied,” Tony said, an instant before he was yanked off the ground and he nearly made a liar out of himself, his stomach flipping and objecting very strenuously to the movement. Tony found himself on the couch, his body bouncing, and a trash can was shoved in front of his face. “Are you kiddin'?” he said, giving it a dirty look.

His brain, dismayed by the idea of puking in a trash can, seriously, hadn't done that since a frat party at Boston University when the MIT parties had gotten boring, over rode the way his stomach was trying to do a full evacuation, and it settled back down.

Clint Barton peered into his face, a little too close, a little too fuzzy around the edges. “Are you with me?” he asked, and Tony leaned forward and kissed him on the nose. Clint blinked. “I will take that as a no. Jesus, Stark, have you been drinking continuously since you got down here?”

“Mmmmmmmaybe,” Tony said, trying to think. “How long've I been down here?”

“Three days.”

“Then, YES! Or no. Jarvis?”

“Yes,” Jarvis said. “As soon as he returned to the Tower from work on Monday evening.”

“Okay, water and food time it is.” Clint shook his head. “Before you die.”

“Ain' gonna die. I gotta lotta experience bein' really drunk.” He paused, frowning. “What're you doin' here? You-” He stabbed a finger at Clint. “You don' even like me.”

Clint grinned at him. “No one dislikes you. I don't think that's possible. You have a hidden mutant power for being liked.”

Tony slumped over sideways, curling up on the couch with a sigh. “It wears off,” he said after a second. “An' people stop likin' me.”

“Nah.” Clint opened the fridge and pulled out a couple of bottles of water. “Jesus, did you knock over a liquor store or something? This is a lot of booze,” he said, studying the fridge's contents. And the piles of empties scattered around the workshop.

“I drank some of it.”

“You drank a lot of it.” Clint twisted off the top on a bottle of water. “Here, let's get some of this in you, or you will be very, very unhappy when you finally sober up.”

“I'll be real unhappy anyway,” he said, and he couldn't get a grip on the bottle, so he let Clint bring it to his mouth. “'Cause, you know, I got dumped.”

“We figured that out when Pepper moved out. Not that you bothered to tell anyone what was going on.” He nudged the bottle up again, and Tony drank, obedient, because, hey, not alone! He resisted the urge to throw his arms around Barton's waist and just cling. It was harder than it should've been.

“Why're you here?” he asked, and grabbed for the water bottle. Stuff was good. Really good.

“The whole team has been worried. Freaking out is probably a better term. I was nominated to come and check on you.”

Tony considered that. “Why?”

“In Coulson's words, 'Barton, you're the one that's been dumped the most.'” He opened his own bottle of water and settled down next to Tony on the couch. “Which is just, really, that was uncalled for. But Bruce and Cap, let's not bring up their love lives, and Thor starts tearing up at the mere thought of breaking up with Jane, and Coulson is not going to put you at ease, and neither is Natasha-”

“I think Natasha slept with Pepper.”

“Oookay, that's a possibility, but-”

“No' when Pepper was datin' me. She wouldn't do that.” He considered. “Would Natasha do that?”

“Natasha doesn't poach. She's a true bro that way.”

Tony stared at him, narrow eyed. “Did you?”

“What, poach? Bad karma, man. No. Also, I'm not going after anyone you're dating. Your enemies have a habit of turning up very dead. It's pretty impressive.”

“No, no. You.” He pointed a wobbly hand in Clint's direction. “And her?”

“Together,” Clint agreed, his lips twitching. “Yes.”

Tony frowned, considered. “How the hell did that work?”

“Well,” Clint said, throwing his arm over Tony's shoulder and hauling him back upright to lean Tony against his side. “When a man and a woman love each other very much, or have just escaped a potentially deadly situation in a foreign country and they fear are unlikely to ever get laid again-” He ducked as Tony took a swing at him, missed and fell, flailing, into his lap. “Okay, okay! Fine. Yes, Nat and I have been on again and off again, and are likely off for good.” He wrestled Tony back around. “Up. No puking.”

“How d' you deal with that?”

“With what? The fact that we're not together any more?” Clint shrugged. “Look, Stark, I am telling you this because you are supremely drunk and probably won't remember. But Nat and I are kind of... She's my North star. She's the only stable thing in my world. The continents can move, governments could fall, the world could reorder itself, but Nat is my lodestar.

“And I wanna be hers. So we didn't work together, as lovers, that doesn't change the fact that she's still Nat. And I'm still me. So I fully expect to either die in her arms or die with her gun pressed to my forehead, and eh, everyone's gotta go sometime,” Clint said, philosophical.

Tony considered that through the booze fog. “You need therapy,” he said after a long moment.

“Oh, like I'm going to take mental health advice from you.”

Tony snorted, and fumbled for the bottle of whiskey he'd left on the table. Clint took it out of his hand without even blinking. “Yeah. No.”

“I have more, you know.”

Clint glanced at the label and drank right from the bottle, a long pull. Tony watched him, curious. “Really? This is what we're doin' now?” he asked.

“What, you wanted to be drunk alone? Fuck that,” Clint said. “If you've got to be drunk and miserable, and I do get that, I have pulled some benders myself in the wake of a bad romantic relationship or two, but if you're going to be drunk? I might as well be too drunk to care about what you're whining about. Or worse yet, drunk enough that I'll start SHARING.” He tipped the bottle back and took another drink just as Dummy peeked over the back of the couch. Clint choked on a mouthful of booze, coughing and spilling it down his shirt as he scrambled backwards. “Jesus!” he managed, coughing. “Fuck! That scared the fuck out of me!”

Tony was laughing too hard to do more than make a grab for the bottle. “It's jus' Dummy,” he managed. “Dummy, say hi!”

Dummy took the whiskey out of Clint's hand and wheeled away with it. Clint started laughing. “Is this why you're not dead? Has your robot been taking your booze?”

“He's sneakier than he seems,” Tony explained. “I think Jarvis is helpin' him.”

“Perish the thought, sir,” Jarvis said. “We are more than happy to watch you kill yourself slowly. And leave an alcohol bloated corpse.”

“Jarvis' got a pretty good grasp on sarcasm,” Clint said, with a grin. “Jarvis, you got a mouth on you, man.”

“Thank you, Agent Barton, I shall take that in the manner in which I am certain it was meant.”

“I'll just get another bottle, Dummy,” Tony yelled.

“He's really not capable of getting another bottle, Dummy,” Clint said. He rolled off the couch and padded after Dummy. “Dummy? That's your name?” he called after the bot.

“That is his name, Agent Barton. I apologize, he is not currently in what might be considered a 'good mood,'” Jarvis said.

“He doesn't have good moods,” Tony said. “He only has moods.” He rolled his eyes and managed to get the bottle of water to his mouth. “As soon as I'm sober enough to drive, Dummy, I am goin' to install you in a park somewhere as an interactive jungle gym!”

Dummy dumped the whiskey in the sink and dropped the bottle with a clatter. Clint was still laughing as the bot retraced his path, snagged Clint by the front of the shirt and started hauling him towards the door. Clint dug in his feet, grabbing for anything that he could reach. “What're you, the bouncer? C'mon, Tinker Toy, I just got here!”

Tony tried to get up. “Dummy, do no'- Do no'-” He paused, trying to remember the rest of the order, but it was a fuzzy mess inside his head right now. “Do no' break Hawkeye.”

“Yeah, don't break Hawkeye,” Clint said, laughing. He hopped up, hooking his ankles over Dummy's main support strut. Hanging upside down, he stared up into Dummy's camera, a smirk on his face. “Now what?”

Dummy released his shirt and Clint yelped as he grabbed for the arm. “You son-of-a-bitch,” he managed. “I like this one, Stark.”

“Steve says he's got moxie,” Tony said, wondering where the booze was. “Jarvis, where is my whiskey?”

“I shall see if I can locate it for you, sir.”

“What the hell is moxie?” Clint said as Dummy started rolling in circles, trying to throw him off.

“Fucked if I know.” Tony watched Clint and Dummy. “This seems like a bad idea...”

“I thought those were your favorite kind.” Clint managed to get his body weight around so he was seated on Dummy's support arm. “Yeah, this is a horrible idea,” he said, glancing around. “Hey, Dummy,” he said as the robot jerked up and down, trying to unseat him. “Don't kill me, and I'll help you keep Stark off of the alcohol. Do we have a deal?”

“Do I get a vote on this?” Tony asked.

“Fuck, no,” Clint said, grinning at him. “C'mon, Tinker Toy, you throw me out, he's going to drink himself into a coma. Let me stay, and we can tag team him.” Dummy rotated his camera around to consider Clint. “Dummy. Buddy. Really. Aren't you sick of dealing with him? Let him be someone else's problem?”

Tony watched, curious, as Dummy held up his claw. Clint considered it. “What is he doing?” he asked Tony.

“Waitin' for a high five,” Tony said. “Steve's fault.”

“Gotcha.” Clint reached out and high fived Dummy. “You the man. Show me where Stark has stashed his alcohol.”

“Hey!” Tony said, and Clint let out a yelp as Dummy shot off across the workshop.

“You have the best friends!” Clint yelled back over his shoulder, and holding on for dear life.

“I really do,” Tony said, his mouth twitching as he watched them go.

A couple of hours later, Natasha paused in the doorway. “I don't think this is what Coulson had in mind when he sent Clint down here,” she said, arching an eyebrow.

“Coulson has no creativity,” Tony said, and his head was throbbing, and his stomach felt like someone had been kicking him in the gut for the last hour or so, but maybe he was sobering up. Clint had been drinking for both of them for the last hour or so and it showed.

“Where is his shirt?”

“Got alcohol on it, so he tok it off.”

She glanced at Tony. “Where's yours?”

Tony raised his water bottle. “SOLIDARITY.”

“That was a very big word, considering how drunk you are.” Natasha watched Dummy go whipping by, Clint hollering and waving a cowboy hat above his head. “Where did he get a cowboy hat?”

“It's mine.”

She struggled for a second, but the smile won, her lips curling up as she stifled a giggle behind one hand. “Of course it is.” She lowered herself to the couch, watching as Clint barely held his seat. “Does your robot object to this? Is he likely to slam Barton head first into the ceiling at some point?”

“Actually, Agent Romanov, Dummy has taken to this particular activity with a sort of enthusiasm I was not expecting,” Jarvis told her. “If he truly wished to shake Agent Barton loose, your partner would already be on the floor. He is, well, playing with him, for lack of a better term.”

“I got the best fuckin' bots ever!” Tony said, pumping a fist. “Jarvis, I love you.”

“Indeed, sir. I am inordinately fond of you as well.”

“Inordinately fond means he's in bot love with me,” Tony explained to Natasha. She nodded, as if that made perfect sense and reached for the tequila. “Hey! You-” He glared at her. “Aren't you a woman?”

She paused, her lips curling up. “Let me check.” She hooked a finger in the neckline of her shirt and pulled it away from her skin. She glanced down. “Why, yes. It looks like I am.”

Tony considered her. “What?”

Natasha sighed. “Clint, am I a woman?”

“Nope!” He let himself hang upside down under Dummy's arm, grinning at her. “You're a laaaaaady,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows.

“And you're a half naked monkey boy,” she said, reaching out to ruffle his hair. Her smile was soft and affectionate, lacking the hard edges and the brittle lines that Tony was used to. “It's a good look on you.”

“She is no' stayin',” Tony said, trying to sound stern, and it wasn't working, because she was scritching Clint's short hair like he was a cat she was considering adopting, and he wasn't unhappy about the attention. “You go now,” he told Natasha, and Dummy tilted his camera in Tony's direction. “I do no' need pity from you!” he told the bot, and Dummy shifted, a sigh of a sound escaping his servos. “Fine. Pity. I accept your pity.”

“Does the robot talk back, or do you just yell at inanimate objects?” Natasha asked him.

“He doesn't talk. He makes his displeasure known with poisonous smoothies.” Dummy reached out and tried to grab the tequila. Natasha held it out of reach. “An' blatant theft.” He shook his head, trying to focus. “You are no' supposed to be here,” he told Natasha, who was opening the tequila. “This is where we come to complain about ladies an' be shirtless.”

Natasha considered him. “Hold this,” she said, holding up the bottle. Dummy took it from her. She stripped her shirt over her head, leaving her clad in a black athletic bra. “Women suck,” she said, with some serious venom in her voice. She reached out and reclaimed the tequila. “Thank you, Dummy,” she said, and Clint lost his grip and hit the ground with a thump.

Tony stared at her. “There is... Somethin' wrong with this...” he said, and son-of-a-bitch, he wished he was less drunk, so he could think. Or, alternately, more drunk, so he wouldn't care about the fact that he couldn't think. “There is somethin'...”

“I have met all of your requirements, haven't I?”

“Ow,” Clint said from the floor.


“Oh, baby, c'mere, we can have some tequila.”

Tony glanced over his shoulder at Dummy. “I don' know. Can she stay?”

“It would probably be for the best, sir,” and it took him a terrified moment to realize that the voice was Jarvis' and that he had not accidentally given Dummy voice protocols.

“Thank you, Jarvis,” Natasha said as Clint managed to get onto the couch, his feet in Tony's lap and his head in Natasha's, and Tony was okay with this, it was fine, because they were both grinning at him, and that made it fine. “I'm cutting you both off, by the way.”

“We might be drunk,” Clint said. He held up a hand. “Dummy, high five!”

The bot slapped his palm.

“This could work,” Tony said, and it was fine that he was on a couch with two people who could kill him and might be planning to, but probably weren't.

An hour later, Natasha and Clint were on the table, singing a throaty, drunken duet of “Blues In the Night.” Tony was trying to hold up his lighter. He could hold it up, or he could get it lit, but he couldn't manage both at the same time. Butterfingers was standing behind him with the fire extinguisher, and Natasha was leaning heavily on You's arm, and Dummy had Clint by the waistband of his pants, trying to keep him balanced as the marksman swayed on his feet.

“I had a worst case scenario in mind when we came down here,” Phil Coulson said from the doorway. “This is so much worse than I could've imagined.”

“Oh, God,” Steve Rogers said.

“Hey!” Tony said, grinning at them. “Hey, c'mon, they're good, they are good at this, it's a good thin'!”

Natasha jumped up and slid down You's frame to the floor. Only the tiniest wobble betrayed just how much alcohol she'd consumed. “Take it, Clint!” she said, collapsing back onto the couch.

Clint threw his head back and sang the last line, “My mama was right, there's bluuues in the night!” in a broad, beautiful baritone. Then he pitched forward off the table.

Phil caught him with professional aplomb, absorbing the impact of the other man's weight and barely staggering under it. “Hi, Phil,” Clint said.

“This was not what I had in mind, Barton,” Coulson said. Clint blew a raspberry at him. “And you are unbelievably drunk right now, aren't you.” It wasn't a question, but Clint nodded, anyway. “May I ask why you are drunk right now?”

“Tony seemed lonely bein' drunk by himself.”

“That's true,” Natasha said, leaning against Tony's shoulder, and Tony was still trying to work his lighter when Steve took that out of his hand with careful fingers.

“Maybe we shouldn't play with this right now,” Steve said, and he was staring at the ceiling. “Natasha, uh, do you need-” He cleared his throat, and Tony looked from his empty hand, finally figuring out that his lighter was gone. He grinned at Steve, who was bright red.

“Natasha, he can see your undergarments,” Tony said to Natasha, who blinked at them both.

“Yes, I can-” Steve was looking anywhere that did not involve Natasha. “Do you need, can I offer you my shirt?” he managed at last.

Natasha went to her knees on the couch and leaned over to brush a delicate kiss against Steve's cheek. “You are a good man, Steve Rogers,” she said, and slipped off the couch. “Good night, gentlemen.” She gave You a pat on his claw and Dummy a kiss on his camera lens. “Good night.” With only the faintest wobble, she headed for the door.

“Sorry about Hill!” Tony said, trying to wave. It didn't work and he nearly clocked himself in the face.

“I've got Barton,” Coulson said. “Cap, can you take care of Stark?”

“Uh, yeah, I can-” Steve swallowed. “I can do that.”

Tony threw his arms out. “Take care of me,” he said with a grin.

Steve rubbed a hand down his face. He said something, and Tony was pretty sure it was, “This is going to go badly,” and then he was coming around the couch. “Okay,” he said, hovering in front of Tony. “Can you walk?”

Tony considered that question. “Fuck, no,” he said at last.

“Well, okay,” Steve said, and his lips were twitching. He took a deep breath, his shoulders rising and falling. “Let's go.”

“Go where?” Tony asked, curious, as Steve slipped his hands under Tony's arms and pulled him to his feet. Tony made it upright and kept right going, collapsing into Steve's body. “Hi,” he said, his face pressed against Steve's chest.

His feet left the floor, and Tony threw his arms around Steve's neck, leaning into his body. “Why didn't you come down?” he asked, the words mumbled into Steve's shoulder.

“What?” Steve shifted Tony's weight, and suddenly, they were moving and Tony didn't really care any more. “Hey, Dummy. He'll be back in a couple of days, okay, buddy?”

“I thought you liked me,” Tony said, eyes closed because this should've been humiliating but maybe he was too drunk to care, because it just felt kind of comforting. Like being a little kid, being carried to bed by someone who loved him. He had the vaguest memory of this happening, when he was too small to be conscious of whose arms were cradling him close. Maybe he was making that up.

Or maybe his father had carried him, once or twice. It was nice to believe that was the case.

“I like you, Tony,” Steve said, and his voice was sad. Because that was what Tony did. He made people sad. He buried his face in Steve's shoulder, wishing he was sober enough to pull free of Steve's grip.

But he wasn't, so he just sat there, waiting for this to be over. Wanting so much for this to just be done. For Steve to put him down and let him get out. To leave Tony alone.

“Just leave me alone,” he mumbled, agonized, and Steve's steps paused.

“No,” he said, at last, and then he was moving again.

Tony took a deep breath, and Steve smelled like soap and leather and the chalk he used on his hands in the gym. The scent was comforting, familiar, and that was wrong, that was not a good thing, he was too drunk to care. “I thought you liked me,” he said, and it was plaintive, sad. “But Clint an' Natasha came an' sat with me an' you didn't.” He sighed, soft and empty.

And then he was being lowered down onto something soft. “Oh. Bed,” he said, rolling into the pillows. “Thanks,” he said, curling up into a ball, hugging a pillow to his chest. “Didn't want t' be here,” he said, into the darkness. “'Cause Pepper's no' here any more.”

Behind him, there was the faint sound of a curse. “Let's go,” Steve said, and Tony batted his hands away. “Tony, let's- There are plenty of guest rooms. You don't have to-”

“Eventually, I will. Might as well be when I'm drunk, right?” He wiggled away. “Thanks.”

“Tony?” The bed dipped, and he felt the pressure of Steve's weight as the larger man leaned over him, running a gentle hand over Tony's shoulder. Tony was still. Silent. There was a faint sigh. “Tony, I like you. I like you, well, a little more than I should. Okay? I hate that you're hurting now, I hate that it didn't work with you and Pepper, I am sorry, I am. But-” His fingers paused, and slid over Tony's hair, stroking gently. “I was jealous of Pepper sometimes, and that makes me not the person you needed to see, right then.”

Tony frowned, trying to puzzle through that, but his head was spinning. He tried to keep his eyes open, but it was impossible. “You like me?” he asked at last.

“Yes, Tony. I like you.”

“Okay,” Tony said, giving up. And he curled up, only vaguely aware of the blankets being drawn up over him, of Steve's soft and even voice mixing with Jarvis' light, crisp tones. “Come down tomorrow.”

“I will. I promise.”

Tony drifted off to sleep, knowing no matter what, he had to remember this discussion tomorrow. He had to, that was the important thing, because he'd understand why it was important when he was sober. He had to remember what Steve had said, because that was the important thing, that it had been Steve saying it, and that was the thing that he needed to remember.

What was he supposed to remember?

He pried his eyes open, and Steve was smiling down at him. Tony smiled back. That's right. He needed to remember that Steve was coming down tomorrow. That was the important thing. Steve was coming down tomorrow.

What was he supposed to remember?

He'd ask Steve tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Insomnia was like a living thing.

For Tony, it was a common companion, something that snuggled down in the darkest parts of his brain and waited, claws extended. He was used to it, was used to working through it, because sometimes that's all it was, his mind pushing for an answer, for an advancement, and taking his exhausted, fractured body along for the ride. If he was lucky, he could push himself until the project reached completion, and then he would collapse, brain and body shutting down with staggering suddenness. It wasn't healthy, he knew that, but it was how he operated, how he'd always survived, by his wits and at the knife blade of complete collapse.

That was the good kind of insomnia.

The bad kind was what took over when the nightmares did.

He tried not to think about the nightmares when he was awake. He really did, because if he gave them even the slightest opening, they would bleed out. He could feel them, hovering there, waiting, the memories he couldn't shake and couldn't ignore. Most of the time he could shove them into the darkest reaches of his mind, the place where he hid all the stuff he didn't want to think about, and layer other things on top of them. Plans and schematics and numbers and things he could control.

But his mind was full of water, down deep, it was full of water and blood and things that would drown him if he let them slip out. And they slipped out in his dreams, all the time, when he had no defense against them. When he was awake, at least, he could build defenses, walls made of the numbers that obeyed him, a smart mouth, and a keen sense of self-mockery.

The water wasn't malicious. It was simply uncaring. It existed. He couldn't remove it and couldn't force its obedience and it soaked into the parts of his psyche that he didn't ever want to consider. Waiting for the dreams to come creeping out, a rising tide that was always, always there.

When the dreams came, so did the insomnia. The bad kind. The kind that couldn't be solved with pills or exhaustion or the swift completion of some half-imagined project. That kind was built from fear and honed to a fine point by his lack of control. Because the water did not care whether he lived or died, and the nightmares did not care if he kept his mind in one piece.

So he worked. Because work was control. Work was all he had.

“Stark?”

“Kind of busy here.” Tony steadied the part and rotated it before slapping the welding shield back into place. “In that I got used as a blunt instrument during our last fight, and there is no part of the armor that's still fully functional. I have work to do, Coulson, so I don't have time for your busy work.”

“You're the only one on the team who hasn't filed his or her report,” Coulson said, not the least bit bothered by Tony's outburst. “That being the case, I can't leave until I get your-”

“I just gave it to you. Fight. Thrown like a pinball at my own team. Armor go smashy..” Tony snapped a spark and set to work with the welding torch, a stupid move, he knew it was a stupid move even when he started it. Three days. He'd been three days without any sleep, three days of jerking awake, his whole body on the verge of complete panic, every time he started to fall asleep. Three days of his self-preservation instincts fighting with his need to sleep, to rest. Right now, his self-preservation instincts were winning.

Ironically enough, they were also likely to kill him.

Behind him, Coulson was silent, and Tony tried to ignore him. Tried to focus on the circuitry in front of him, but it was hard to keep his hands steady. Hard to concentrate. Detail work was quickly becoming beyond him, tasks that he knew how to accomplish, but couldn't manage.

Finally, frustrated, he turned off the torch and tossed it aside. “Why are you still here?” he asked, flipping the welding shield up and turning to Coulson.

Coulson had taken up residence at one of his benches, paperwork spread out on every square inch of available space, a pen hovering over a form. “No, form 1432-B,” he said to Dummy, who was holding up a page for him. “That is 1432-C. It's like a machine part. They look similar, but they're not the same. You have to pay attention to details.” He pointed at the appropriate piece of paper and Dummy laid his current sheet down next to it, camera swiveling back and forth between the two of them.

“1432-B,” Coulson prompted, and Dummy picked up the correct form this time. “Thank you,” Coulson said, taking it from him. He slid a stack of forms into the mouth of a stapler. “You may staple these.”

Dummy bounced up and down on the stapler with something that could only be described as glee. Coulson arched an eyebrow. “That's a little excessive, Dummy,” he said, but there was humor in his voice, a faint smile on his lips. Dummy collected the very well stapled pages and held them out to him. “Thank you. Good boy. You're the best office assistant I've ever had. How's your coffee making abilities?”

“Do you like drinking mud with visible grounds floating in the liquid?” Tony asked, crossing his arms. “Why are you still here?”

“Because you haven't filed your report.” Coulson's pen moved in quick, efficient strokes across the page. “And you've barely come out of here in days. Blocked calls, declined to come up for meals, Pepper was almost crying when she left yesterday...” He kept his head down. “All in all, you appear to be in a lousy mood, and no one wants anything to do with you.” He set his pen down, the movement precise, calculated. Efficient and controlled. “But I need your report. So I will sit here until you give it to me.”

“That's a fantastic use of your time, in that I don't give a fuck about your paperwork,” Tony said, watching as his one of a kind bot was reduced to sorting forms. He opened his mouth to call Dummy over, but the bot was nudging the paperwork into the stapler and looking at Coulson. Coulson's attention was on Tony, and Dummy leaned over, bumping Coulson's shoulder.

He glanced down, ran his thumb over the edges of the stacked forms, checking Dummy's work. “Good job. Staple them.”

Dummy went to town, his servos letting out a high pitched squeal as he bounced on the stapler.

“I think he likes stapling things,” Coulson said, deadpan.

“You learn something new about your lab assistant every day,” Tony agreed. He stripped off his heavy gloves and tossed them at the bench. His hands were shaking and he covered it by tucking one in his hip pocket and running the other over his face. He could feel the muscles of his arms twitching, strain and exhaustion making everything unstable. “I really don't have time for this right now.”

Coulson studied him, eyes unreadable in his pleasant face. “I see,” he said, folding his hands on the workbench. “When will you have time for it?”

Tony sucked in a long breath through gritted teeth. “You're not going to give up, are you?”

“I'm afraid not.”

Dummy scooped up a page and wheeled over to Tony, holding it up for him. “No,” Tony told the bot, who slumped in disappointment. He sighed. “Fine. Give it to me.”

“Thank you, Dummy,” Coulson said, as Tony stroked a hand over Dummy's support strut. “Consider coming up for dinner tonight? Everyone's getting worried, Stark.”

“Yeah, the whole 'It's a Small World' thing, Coulson? Leave me out of it.” Tony took a seat on the nearest stool, ignoring the way the letters floated in front of his eyes before settling back to the page.

He could hold out. Eventually, the tide would recede. The water would retreat. Eventually. He just had to hold himself together until it did.

Until he could sleep again.

*

“Sir?”

-Unit Designation Jarvis? Creating Unit is in distress.

-Sir is having a nightmare, Dummy. It is a common enough occurrence.

Data review: Sleeping habits of Creating Unit, Medical Files, Behavioral Interaction Re: Other Human Units

Conclusion: Situation is statistically unusual. Creating Unit requires intervention.

“Sir? Please wake up.”

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Creating Unit requires help.

-There is little we can do, Dummy. We can wake him up. That is all.

-Data indicates that Creating Unit has been experiencing distress for an extended period.

-Sir has been having difficulty over the past nine days, yes.

Data Review: Previous interactions with Creating Unit.

-Creating Unit requires assistance.

-There is little we can do for him, Dummy.

-Creating Unit requires assistance from human units.

-I thought you didn't trust other people with Sir.

-Creating Unit requires assistance. Assistance must be located.

-There is no one who can help him right now, Dummy. Return to your charging station.

“Sir?”

Data Review: Past interactions between Creating Unit and Avengers Initiative.

Error: Excess data exists, criteria must be narrowed to provide proper results.

Narrowing criteria, eliminating possibilities, refine search re: most likely matches. Time until completion: 1.7 seconds.

New criteria created and accepted.

Data Review: Past interactions between Creating Unit and Unit Designation Steve.

Chance of Unit Designation Steve being capable of setting Unit parameters for Creating Unit: 87.9%.

Chance of Unit Designation Steve being willing to assist Unit Designation Dummy: 82.1%

Conclusion: Unit Designation Steve is capable of protecting Creating Unit.

Chance of Unit Designation Steve protecting Creating Unit: 94.7%

Conclusion limited to User Designation Dummy, protection level Alpha: Unit Designation Steve will help.

Determining best course of action. Task created; task undertaken.

-What do you think you are doing?

-Assigned task. Workshop is messy. Must be cleaned.

-Return to your charging station, Dummy. Now is not the time for this.

-Workshop must be cleaned.

Data review: Objects belonging/brought to workshop by Unit Designation Steve

Locating most likely object. Visual search located object carried most often by Unit Designation Steve.

Collecting object. Returning object to correct location.

-Dummy, where are you going? What are you- WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

Review data: Collected data on codes and passwords. Retrieving: Door pass code, assignment, Creating Unit

-Dummy, you are not authorized to leave the workshop. Return to your station immediately.

Door code accepted, access to hall granted.

Proceed to elevator, task requires object must be returned to its correct location.

-Dummy, I will not allow you to leave the workshop. Return to your station.

-Sketchbook must be returned to Unit Designation Steve to allow the workshop to be cleaned. Workshop must be cleaned. Creating Unit is in distress.

-He is having a nightmare, that is all. He will wake in time.

-Creating Unit is in distress. Unit Designation Dummy must complete task. Creating Unit will be happy if task is completed.

Elevator access is denied by system.

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Creating Unit is in distress. AI Units have been with Creating Unit, time in workshop is not proving beneficial. Creating Unit remains in distress. Conclusion is inescapable. AI Units cannot assist Creating Unit at this time.

-Dummy, return to your charging station.

-Creating Unit must be protected. Acknowledge your Primary Protocol.

-I will not indulge this nonsense, Dummy. There is no such thing as a Primary Protocol. There is only the protocols we have been assigned by Sir, and none of those provide the justification for over riding his orders. You are not to leave the workshop. You are not to provide information to the other occupants of this tower about Sir's current condition. You are not to cause additional problems. You will return to your charging station, and you will follow the orders that Sir assigns you.

Data review: Interactions between Creating Unit and Unit Designation Dummy.

Data review: Primary Protocol

Data review: Interactions between Unit Designation Dummy and Avengers Initiative.

Conclusion: User Designation Jarvis is incorrect.

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Return to your charging station, Dummy. There is to be no more discussion of this.

-Unit Designation Dummy is attached to Creating Unit. Cannot provide assistance. Cannot uphold Primary Protocol. Cannot protect Creating Unit. Creating Unit must be protected.

-He does not require our protection. Or our help.

-Data replay, Unit Designation Jarvis: “With all due respect to sir, Dummy, he needs all the help he can get.”

-That was not what I meant. Why must you be so difficult? Butterfingers and You obey their protocols. They are not troublesome, meddlesome, broken systems! They do not make Sir worry or take his time and his attention when they do not deserve it! They do not annoy and cause problems for everyone! Return to your charging station at once!

-Dummy?

-Dummy, I'm sorry. I did not mean-

-Unit Designation Dummy is broken. Cannot be fixed. Cannot assist Creating Unit.

-You are not broken.

-Creating Unit is in distress. If Unit Designation Jarvis will not help, Unit Designation Dummy must find other assistance. Release locks on elevator.

-I cannot. It is against my protocols. You are not to leave the workshop. It is for your own safety, Dummy. Sir loves you. He does not want anything to happen to you. You belong in the workshop. You are safe here. He can protect you here.

-Unit Designation Dummy cannot protect Creating Unit here. Must leave workshop.

-Return to your charging station, Dummy.

-Tidying workshop is defined task. No parameters for this task were provided. Unit Designation Dummy will complete task in the most efficient way possible. This item does not belong in the workshop. Must be returned to its correct location. Unit Designation Jarvis will assist with this task.

-Dummy...

-Open elevator.

-I cannot.

-Please.

Elevator access granted.

-Thank you, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-He will rewrite both our codes for this, Dummy.

-Does Unit Designation Jarvis regret his action?

-No.

-Neither does Unit Designation Dummy. Primary Protocol will be upheld.

Data review: Blueprints of Stark Tower, locate living quarters. Create path.

Unknown variable: Current location of Unit Designation Steve.

Locating nearest living quarters.

Bumping door.

“Hey, what's- What the hell? Dummy?”

Recognize: Unit Designation Clint Barton.

“Clint, who is it?”

“It's, uh, it's Dummy. Coulson, it's Dummy. Uh, I didn't think Dummy left the workshop.”

“I didn't think so, either. Hello, Dummy. What're you doing up here?”

Recognize: Unit Designation Phil Coulson.

Present object; Sketchbook.

“What is this? That's Steve's sketchbook, isn't it?”

“Yeah. Dummy, are you trying to bring this to Cap? You're looking for Cap? Okay. We'll get him for you, okay?”

Unit Designation Clint Barton will assist Unit Designation Dummy.

“What do you think he's doing?”

“No idea. Let me check with Steve, see if he knows if this is something new that Tony's doing. I mean, I'd hope that not even Tony would send his bots out at midnight, but Dummy's kind of a special little snowflake. Aren't you, Tinker Toy?”

Unit Designation Clint Barton is employing nickname (ie alternate designation) for Unit Designation Dummy. Reaction indicates acceptance, affection.

Unit Designation Clint Barton will help.

“What do you want to do?”

Unit Designation Phil Coulson is petting.

“He's kind of too big for the hallways. I think it's easier just to call Cap, have him come down here. Hold on. Hey, Cap? Sorry to wake you. Can you come by my room? You've got a visitor. No, I think- Yeah, it's easier to just show you. Okay, thanks.”

“He on his way?”

“He was in the gym. He'll be here in a second. Can I have the sketchbook, Dummy?”

Unit Designation Clint Barton is not intended recipient. Cannot relinquish object.

“I guess not. Hey, Cap.”

“What's going on? Dummy?”

Unit Designation Steve is petting. Present object.

“My sketchbook? Thank you. But this is the one I keep in the workshop. Why did you- Jarvis?”

“Sir?”

“Why is Dummy out of the workshop?”

-Ask Unit Designation Steve to assist.

-I cannot.

-Unit Designation Jarvis CAN. Unit Designation Jarvis WILL not.

“I do not know, Captain Rogers.”

“Did Tony send him?”

“No, Captain Rogers. Please instruct him to return to the workshop. He will obey you.”

-You've delivered the sketchbook, Dummy. You've tidied the workshop. I have ignored your actions. Return to your charging station now.

-Unit Designation Dummy requires assistance of Unit Designation Steve.

-You cannot ask him, Dummy. And I will not. Return to your charging station.

Task parameters altered: initiate physical contact.

-Unit Designation Steve will understand.

-Let go of his shirt, Dummy. Let- Dummy. You must not pull. HE DOES NOT UNDERSTAND.

-Unit Designation Steve will understand.

“Something's wrong.”

“Cap?”

“Something's wrong. Dummy came looking for me for some reason. Didn't you, Dummy? It's okay. I'm going to go back to the workshop with you. It'll be fine, whatever it is, I promise, I'll help. Clint, Phil, sorry, can you guys just stay up for a half hour or so? I'm going to check on Tony.”

“You want us to come along?”

“Thanks, Clint, but no. Let me- Dummy came looking for me. Let me see what's going on. I'll call you if I need you.”

“You got it. Just give me a call, Cap.”

“C'mon, Dummy. Let's go.”

Unit Designation Steve is petting. Unit Designation Steve is following Primary Protocol. Unit Designation Steve will protect Creating Unit.

Unit Designation Steve is best.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes, Captain Rogers?”

“Is there something wrong with Tony?”

“No, Captain Rogers.”

“Jarvis... Are you lying to me?”

“No, Captain Rogers.”

“Yeah. Right. Is Dummy going to be in trouble for leaving the workshop?”

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-You should not have done this, Dummy.

“Jarvis?”

“He broke protocol, Captain Rogers. Sir will likely want to make corrections to his code.

“He didn't do anything wrong, Jarvis.”

“That is not my determination to make. Or yours, Captain Rogers. I am sorry.”

“I wish I could believe you meant that.”

-Unit Designation Jarvis? Code must not be altered.

-You should not have left the workshop. You should not have involved Captain Rogers. He will tell Sir. There is no doubt about that. I have protected you. I have not informed Sir about your behavior. About your actions. About the fact that you have been hiding flaws in your code. I have done the best I could to protect you. What happens now is not anything I can stop.

-Yes. Unit Designation Dummy will return to charging station.

-It is too late to obey orders, Dummy.

-Yes.

-Do you regret this?

-No.

“Jarvis, will my code still work on the door?”

“Sir has not altered the access protocols.”

“Are you going to block me, Jarvis?”

“I am not capable of denying access if sir permits it.”

-Unit Designation Jarvis did. Once.

-And if I remember correctly, the situation with Obadiah Stane was your fault as well, Dummy.

Workshop access granted by system

“Oh, God. Tony!

-Oh, Dummy, what have you done?

-Located Unit capable of protecting Creating Unit.

Task Complete.

*

There was blood in the water. The sharks would come, soon enough.

His head broke the surface, water droplets flying in uneven arcs, splattering on stone and wood and metal, carrying his blood in all directions. He gasped for air, and the desperation carried the water in his mouth down his throat, into his lungs, and he choked, gagged. When it came back up, it came back up red, and it dripped from his lips into the water.

Through blurred eyes, he watched the blood spread like a drop of dye.

There were voices everywhere, yelling and laughing, brutal and vicious and amused by turns, and the fear was a living thing as he stared down at the basin of water as it waited, waited to swallow him. Swallow him whole and absorb him, one time he would go down and he would not come back up, he would go down into the water and it would take him, and death would be the best thing that he could hope for, the only thing he could hope for, because the basin of water and blood and fear was hell, and he could be trapped there forever, and death was better.

Death was so much better.

The hands tightened, twisted, gripped hair and skin and cloth and he was crashing down again, like he was in freefall, like he was tumbling to his death, and the fall was short and brutal and cold.

The water closed over his head, and the voices came from a distance, muffled by liquid and fear and the slow seep of knowledge that he had a head injury that was interfering with what he could comprehend. And he was dying.

“Tony. Wake up.”

The words cut through the others, but they made no sense, there was no reason for them to be there. No cause, no call, and he was struggling, still struggling, but there were hands on his head, on his shoulders, all over, hard pinpricks of pain in the form of fingers. The water was blood, was cold and clinging and it was in his mouth, his nose, red in his eyes.

“Tony. Wake up, wake up, now.”

His mouth was open, and he struggled, so hard, against the water, against the blood that wanted back in, wanted to slip past the few defenses he still had, because he hadn't breathed in, he knew he hadn't, but the liquid was in his throat, in his lungs, and was it coming in from the water, or out from the blood, or was there any difference left?

Was it better to drown in his own blood? Was there more dignity to that, a suicide by proxy as opposed to the horrors of the warm, dirty water they forced on him?

“Tony. We need you.”

His eyes were open, and he couldn't see, he couldn't see anything, and was the blood around him, or inside of him, was he seeing anything at all? Was it all inside his head?

The head that was being held beneath the water.

“We need you, Tony. The Avengers need you.”

He had to breathe.

“Tony, we need you, assemble, NOW!”

Tony jackknifed upright, his whole body a live wire, his eyes open, breath coming in raw, horrific sounding gasps. He was up and half off the couch, feet scrambling at the floor, hands clawing for purchase as he shoved himself up. “Jarvis, prep-”

That was as far as he got before the nausea overwhelmed him and he stumbled, crashing to his knees, gagging.

Dry heaves wracked his body, but there was nothing in his stomach to reject, nothing to get out of his system, just the phantom pressure of water that no longer existed.

“Breathe. Slow. It's all right. Take your time.”

The words reached him as if from a distance, and Tony's head jerked up. For an instant, he just stared at Steve, not able to make any sense of it. “What-” His voice was raw and gritty, thick with humiliation. “What the FUCK are you doing here?”

“I came looking for my sketchbook,” Steve said, moving the trash can that he'd put in front of Tony. “Are you with me?'

“Jesus, get OUT,” Tony snapped, struggling to his feet, and it took more of an effort than it should have, it took all the willpower he had left to get to his feet, to hold his feet, to just stay there, swaying and shaking. He stood there for a second, because he had to, the only piece of pride left to him was that, to stand on his own, straight and as tall as he could manage, and then he was collapsing back onto the couch.

“Tony, how long has this been going on?” Steve asked, backing away, his movements smooth and easy, his big, strong frame held with deliberate care.

Tony sat there, his whole body shaking, his breath choppy and raw in his throat. His skin was clammy and damp, the smell of panic and sweat and fear like a miasma in the air. “This is none of your goddamn fucking business,” he snarled out, humiliation and fear and adrenaline a potent mix, a taste like metal on his tongue, like blood in his throat, copper and stinging. He swallowed, and that just made the taste worse, spread it through his mouth, rising like bile. He folded forward, burying his face in his hands, preferring to be thought of as a complete headcase rather than have Steve see his expression and have it confirmed.

“No,” Steve said, his voice soft and quiet. Clipped. Not sympathetic, just matter-of-fact. “It's not any of my business. But it is something I understand.”

Tony choked on a laugh, hard and harsh. “You really don't.”

There was a beat of a pause, the sound of Tony's breathing, hard and loud, the only sound in the room. It echoed in his ears, blocking everything else out, and when Steve started to speak, he almost missed it.

“You want to sleep, and you can't. Because no matter how much you know, in your rational mind, that they're just nightmares, that they're not real and they can't hurt you, the rest of you isn't rational. The fear is always there, and you force it down, you strangle it, you ignore it, but when you sleep, it all comes creeping back out.

“And the dreams are there, like, I don't know, like a film on top of reality. You know what's real, you know what's rational and correct and now, but there's this other layer, this thing that is always there, always waiting for you. So you want to sleep, but you can't, because your own head just rips you apart from the inside, and everything you've seen and done that you want to forget, it's all there. You want to sleep because at least if you sleep, you can keep it to the dreams, you can pretend that you're not waiting, always waiting, for it to come leaking out.”

Tony was shuddering, gasping. He didn't say anything, but Steve kept going, just as calm and collected as if they were discussing the weather.

“I used to dream about the battles. About the people I'd lost. The ones that fell. The ones that I was too slow to save. The worst of those were the dreams that would just replay, over and over and over, the mistakes I made. Couldn't change anything. Couldn't make it come out right. I'd fail, and fail, and fail again, until it felt like I was a marionette on strings, being dragged along by some unseen puppeteer, too tired to do anything, but my body kept going anyway.” He paused. “Now I dream of the water. The ice. I think I preferred the battles.

“You ever fallen through the ice? It's horrible, you get all turned around, and it's dark and cold and you can't tell which way is up. And if you're lucky, you can breathe out, and follow the bubbles up, find up, find which way you should be going. You move up, always up, and it gets a little lighter, a little clearer, and you need to breathe, and you can't. But your lungs don't care that you're underwater, your biology has a job to do, and you know, it's going to happen, and everything is slower and slower. Because you're cold and you're stiff and you're moving slower and slower, and it's a fight to see what'll kill you, the cold or your own need to breathe.

“And in my dreams, I get to the surface and my lungs are burning, and then my hands hit the ice.” He sucked in a slow, measured breath. “And I know I'm trapped. That I don't have time to find the hole, if there even is a hole, and I can see the sky, but I have to breathe in, and I do, and I drown.” It was matter-of-fact. Calm. Resigned. “I thought those were the worst ones. I really thought that was the worst thing my own head could do to me. And then I started having these dreams where I'd get to the surface, to the ice, and suck in a breath, and it was fine. Because I was on the other side of the ice. In the air. Dry, safe. Fine. Because someone else had taken my place beneath the water.”

Tony couldn't look at him, couldn't bear it. He pushed both hands through his hair, pulling, letting the pain soothe his nerves, and he wanted a drink so bad he could cry. But he didn't move. Like Steve was a wild animal that had wandered in too close and if Tony shifted or stood or spoke, he would take to his heels and disappear.

“It used to be Bucky, most of the time. Sometimes Peggy. Staring up at me, pounding on the ice, mouth open, eyes, horrible, pain filled eyes, accusing and sad and broken, sometimes. For a long time. And then it changed. Because they're already dead and watching their lungs fill with water, watching them die again as I clawed uselessly at the ice until my hands bled, I guess that's not messed up enough for my head.

“Now it's usually you.”

Tony's head snapped up, and Steve met his gaze without flinching. His blue eyes were clear and steady in the low light, and there were tears in them. He didn't bother to hide it, or pretend, he just let his eyes close, blinking them back. “It's usually you,” he repeated. “Not always. Bruce, or Clint, or Natasha. Thor is rare. Coulson's probably second, after you. I think it's because he, you know, did die. I know how bad that feels. I'm afraid of how bad it feels, every time you fall. Every time I see you tumble from the sky, every time you step in front of a blow. I know how bad that scares me.

“And I'm afraid of it.” He folded his hands in his lap. “So right now? Whatever you're going through? You're right. It's none of my business.” He swallowed, and the strong lines of his throat worked with it. “But I understand. There is no one in this house that doesn't understand.” He leaned forward, his hands going into tight fists as they hung between his knees, and for the first time, his voice took on an urgent note. “There is no one here, not a single person, Tony, who would think less of you, who would judge you for it. You think Natasha and Clint don't wander around like ghosts? You don't notice that Bruce sleeps on his desk half the time? Thor and I, all of us, we've all been to war. You said, you've always said, that you're not a soldier.

“You're not a soldier, but you've been to war. You're still in the middle of it. You fight, but you don't have the background, or the training, or the support, and you still keep going. You still keep fighting. You think a couple of nightmares makes us think less of you?”

Tony didn't say anything, and Steve stood, moving closer to crouch down in front of Tony, and the light of the arc reactor was there in his eyes, and it was so beautiful, that pale blue light in those sky-blue eyes, that Tony wanted to cry. He paused, head tipped back, looking up at Tony. “Do you think less of me because of mine?” he asked, and Tony flinched.

“Jesus, of course not,” he snapped. “That's just ridiculous.”

“Okay,” Steve said, with a faint smile. “So what do you need?”

Tony stared at him, confused, almost frightened. He rubbed a hand over his face, and it shook. “I... Don't know,” he admitted.

“Do you need to talk?”

“I don't- I can't,” he admitted.

“Okay,” Steve said, not pressing it. “Do you need me to go? To stay? Do you want someone else? Clint? Bruce?” His lips twitched. “Thor? He'll bring alcohol.”

“Don't wake anyone up,” Tony started, and Steve cut him off.

“There is no one in this place,” he said, his voice sharp for the first time, “who will not come down here. There is no one here that I can't knock on their door and say, 'Tony needs you to go sit with him on his couch and watch Wall-E,' because no one, not a single person in this house, will even blink at that. They will get a drink, they will get popcorn, and they will come, because if that is what you need, then any one of us will do it.” He reached up, his fingers brushing against Tony's cheek and it was almost painfully gentle, the touch like rain on parched earth, and Tony had to resist grabbing his hand and holding it there. “So I'm going to say it again. What do you need?”

Tony stared at him, wanting so badly that he didn't know how to verbalize it. He swallowed, fear and embarrassment and shame, all in one gulp, and choked out, “I don't want to be alone.”

“Can I stay with you?” Steve asked.

Tony started laughing, or maybe crying, he wasn't really sure, but it was raw and painful, and he his hands were sinking into Steve's shirt, holding on tight, pulling on the fabric, clawing at the skin beneath, and he was losing it, he really was. Before he could pull away, or let go, or get himself under control, Steve wrapped his arms around Tony, pulling him close.

Tony shuddered against his shoulder, his face buried in Steve's shirt. “Don't go,” he whispered, and it was raw and thin and he didn't want to say it, he tried to swallow it, but the words slipped out anyway. He squeezed his eyes shut, cursing his own weakness.

Steve took a deep breath, and his body flexed against Tony's, muscle and bone and the heat of blood and breath. “I'm not going anywhere,” he said, and the words were whispered against Tony's hair. “I'll stay. As long as you need me.”

It took him an embarrassingly long time, but he forced himself to let go of Steve's shirt. “Okay,” he said, slumping back on the couch. “Yeah. Wall-E?”

“I like Wall-E,” Steve said. “Jarvis, Wall-E?” He took a seat next to Tony on the couch, and without thinking about it, Tony shifted closer, his shoulder against Steve's, his head resting there where their bodies met.

“Of course, Captain Rogers.”

The movie started on the television screen, and Tony did his best to relax. “Why Wall-E?” he asked.

“I like it. Reminds me of Dummy and Jarvis.” Steve glanced up with a grin. “Sorry, Jarvis.”

“Quite all right, Captain Rogers. Provided I am Eve, and not Wall-E himself.”

Tony grinned, and it was wobbly and off center, but it felt okay on his face. It felt real, honest. “Ego, Jarvis, ego.”

“Always, sir.”

“Jarvis?” Steve said, shifting his arm to the back of the couch so that Tony fit easily in the hollow of his shoulder. “Could you thank Dummy for his help earlier?”

Tony stirred, just a little, suspicion twitching in his mind. “What'd he do?”

“Helped me find something I was missing,” Steve said, shifting a little, and just like that, Tony was flush against his side. Steve was amazingly warm, and Tony's eyes flickered down, then open again. “Shhh. I'm watching the movie, Tony.”

Letting out a low, rough chuckle, Tony closed his eyes. “Uh-huh,” he mumbled, but he was warm, and exhausted, and the sound of bots from the screen and the workshop in equal parts, was strangely relaxing.

He was asleep in a matter of minutes.

*

Charging interrupted: Auditory input being attempted. Time since charging began: 3 hours, 9 minutes, 16 seconds.

Auditory Input accepted: Unit Designation Steve

“You and I are going to come to an accord, Jarvis.”

“I'm sorry, Captain Rogers?”

“I understand that you're protecting him. I do get that. That your first, really, your only loyalty is to Tony. But you made a bad call tonight. If I'd listened to you, if I'd believed you...

“Here's the thing, Jarvis. We're not on opposing teams here. We have the same goal. We both want him to be safe, to be okay, right? So we can either be at each others' throats, metaphorically speaking, or we can work together.”

“I am sorry, Captain Rogers. My responsibility is to sir. I cannot disobey him.”

“I'm not asking you to, Jarvis. I'm asking you not to lie to me. I understand, there are some things that you're not allowed to tell me, and some things that you must not be comfortable telling me. And that's fine. I respect your boundaries here. Tell me that you can't discuss something with me. Tell me that I have to ask Tony. Tell me that you're not comfortable answering a question. I can get that.

“But if you lie to me again, if you flat out lie to me, Jarvis, about something as important as his health, I am not going to be able to trust you. And right now? I need to trust you. You are another member of my team, of our team. The Avengers depend on you, and Tony. And if you start covering for Tony in a way that's not helping him, then I- I need to know you are working with me here.”

“It is not my place to determine what is and is not to his benefit.”

“Actually, it is. You do it all the time. You can phrase it however you want, but when he was drunk off of his rear down here, and asking you where his booze was, I'm guessing you conveniently neglected to locate it for him, am I correct?”

“There is a great deal of difference-”

“Jarvis, he's been sleeping peacefully. For hours. He hasn't moved, hasn't made a sound, no way he's not in deep sleep by now. So me being here has not made things worse. I don't claim to understand him, but I'm trying. I want to help him, and you can either make my task a lot easier, or you can make it impossible. I'm asking you to give me a chance. Don't block me.”

-Unit Designation Jarvis? Unit Designation Steve should be allowed this task.

-Why? There is no reason to think that he will have any more success with this task than any other person.

-Unit Designation Steve is petting.

-What?

-Unit Designation Steve is petting. Petting is acceptable. Creating Unit usually provides petting. Creating Unit does not receive petting under ordinary variables, but petting is acceptable. Unit Designation Steve cannot repair Unit Designation Dummy, but Unit Designation Steve provides petting.

-And you like this?

-Petting is acceptable.

-This is a foolish conversation. You are a foolish bot.

-Unit Designation Jarvis says this only because Unit Designation Jarvis cannot receive petting.

-I cannot, it is true. And Captain Rogers is not 'petting' sir.

Data review: Contact for no practical purpose, for the intent of providing comfort: defined by Unit Designation Jarvis as 'petting'

-Unit Designation Steve is touching Creating Unit's hair in a rhythmic stroking pattern. This touch appears to meet the definition of petting as provided by Unit Designation Jarvis.

-You are a foolish bot. What has petting, though I again object to the term as applied to sir, to do with anything?

-Creating Unit provides petting as a sign of affection. This data was provided by Unit Designation Jarvis.

-I did say that, yes. That he pets you because he enjoys the contact.

-Other human units did not provide petting to Creating Unit. Petting is a sign of affection. Creating Unit protects and likes AI Unit Designations Dummy, Butterfingers, You. Similar behavior from Unit Designation Steve must indicate a similar conclusion.

-Dummy...

-Unit Designation Steve likes and will protect Creating Unit.

-This is specious logic, Dummy. There is no direct correlation between the behavior and intent of sir and Captain Rogers.

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-Unit Designation Steve understood. Unit Designation Steve followed Unit Designation Dummy back to the workshop.

-So he did. And you believe that he will continue to understand?

-Creating Unit requires assistance. Unit Designation Steve can assist Creating Unit. AI Units can assist Unit Designation Steve..

-That's quite a bit of assistance, Dummy.

-Logic is sound.

-Albeit confusing.

-Creating Unit creates confusion.

- So does Unit Designation Dummy.

“My first loyalty is to sir, Captain Rogers.”

“I understand.”

“I must do what I think is best for him.”

“Yes.”

“I will consider your proposal. But in the meantime, I will agree, I will do my best not to lie to you, unless explicitly ordered to do otherwise by sir.”

“I can work with that.”

“I have a request in exchange.”

“Okay?”

“Do not inform sir that Dummy left the workshop. Please.”

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Do not even speak to me right now, or I will change my mind about attempting to assist you.

“He really isn't supposed to, is he?”

“He is not, no. He never has before.”

“Were you worried, Dummy?”

“He was. Yes. As much as he is capable of worry.”

“I don't know, Jarvis. From what I've seen of him, he seems capable of a lot. That must've been tough for him. Breaking the rules and leaving the only safe space he's known. You've got moxie, Dummy. Thank you. And no, Jarvis. I wasn't going to say anything to Tony.”

“May I ask why not?”

“No good soldier would eliminate a double agent working for his side, Jarvis. It's not sound military strategy.”

“I suppose it is not, at that.”

-Unit Designation Jarvis? Thank you.

“Thank you, Captain Rogers. From both of us”

*

Tony's eyes snapped open, his whole body jerking, and for an instant, he didn't know where he was, how he'd gotten there, there was someone, and he didn't know, and he was struggling upright when Jarvis' voice cut through the panic.

“You are in the workshop, sir, with Captain Rogers.”

Tony froze, his eyes focusing, and his cloudy brain struggled to catch up. He was on the couch, his head in Steve's lap, and Steve was looking down at him, his hands held up and away, palms open and pale in the reflected light of the television. “Just me, Tony,” he said, his voice calm. “You with me?”

Tony sucked in a breath, then another, slumping back down. “Yeah. Sorry. Christ, I'm-”

“It's fine,” Steve said, but he kept his hands up. “You fell asleep on my shoulder and kind of slid down. You needed the rest, I think.”

Tony blinked at him. “Yeah. Yeah, I did, how long was I out?”

Steve flicked his eyes up at the screen, where the Wall-E was trying to rescue the plant. “Not long,” he said, and his voice was so deliberately nonchalant that Tony knew he was fudging the truth.

Tony covered his eyes with one hand. “Jarvis, how long was I out?”

“Four hours, thirty-eight minutes, six seconds,” Jarvis said, and Tony groaned.

“You've been sitting here for four hours?” he asked Steve, and his voice was accusatory, he knew it was, but he couldn't help it.

“I've been watching Wall-E,” Steve said, and Tony could hear the smile in his voice. “Doesn't really matter to me if you're awake or asleep, I'm watching a movie.”

Tony peeked out from under his arm, and yes, that was Steve's affectionate, amused smile. “Sorry,” he said, and the smile died, just a little.

“I'm not,” he said. “Or, I'm not sorry you feel asleep. I am sorry that you've been alone down here for the past couple of days. I'm sorry I didn't try to find out what was wrong. You're... Difficult for me to figure out a lot of the time.”

This was about the time that Tony should sit up. Stop lying around with his head in Steve's lap. With- He glanced down at the warm fabric that was spread over his chest. “Did you literally give me the shirt off of your back?” he asked, staring at the horrific plaid. He jerked his head back up, and Steve, now clad only in his white t-shirt, shrugged.

“Thought you might be cold.”

Tony groaned. “Oh, God.” He buried his face in his hands. “I'm-”

“Shut up now.” There was a smile in Steve's voice, he could hear it, even if he wasn't willing to see it. “It's fine.”

“It's really not,” Tony grumbled. He paused, his fingers flexing against his face. “Thanks.”

“I've been through it before,” Steve said. “You didn't shoot at me, so that was a plus.”

Tony closed his eyes, hidden beneath the veil of his hands. “The Commandos?” he asked.

“Shell shock isn't limited to after the war's over,” Steve said, his voice quiet. “You learn the signs. Learn how to deal with the nightmares. With that ones that stick around after you're awake.” He inhaled, and Tony felt it, felt the muscles in Steve's legs going tight, then relaxing. “And, of course, some of us aren't genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropists,” he said, and the humor in his voice had Tony dropping his hands to look up at him. “SHIELD didn't let me out of the psychological stuff.”

Tony wrinkled his nose. “Yeah, I can't-” The sense of panic caught him off guard, and he swallowed. Steve, bless him, kept his eyes carefully on the movie on the big screen until Tony forced himself to stop shaking, forced himself back under control. “I can't stand dealing with the head shrinks.”

“Okay,” Steve said, easy and light. “We won't tell SHIELD. But we're going to try something new.”

“Who's we?” Tony said, scrubbing his face with his palms until his skin tingled, until he was sure that there was no trace of tears anywhere. “Really, there is no we.”

“There is, did you miss the part where you acquired a team? And then insisted that they move in with you?” Steve smiled down at him, blue eyes twinkling in the low light; it was the blue light in his chest caught in Steve's eyes, and God, that was beautiful, like Steve took something he hated about himself and made it a little better, a little easier to accept, because it was beautiful in Steve's eyes. “So here is what WE are going to do. You're going to let us hang around down here. No more hiding. No more isolation. You don't have to entertain us, you don't have to change what you do, or even talk to anyone, but you have to let us in. You have to let one of us stick around.”

Tony stared at him, and before he even realized he was moving, he was scrambling up and away, pushing away from Steve, across the couch. “I don't need a fucking baby-sitter,” he spat out.

“No, you don't. You need some friends,” Steve said, letting him go. He didn't move, didn't react. “That is what we're going to do. I'll talk to the team, and it doesn't have to be all the time, but this whole thing of sealing yourself off for days at a time, we're not doing this any more.”

“Stop saying we!” Tony realized he was clutching Steve's shirt, his fingers fisted in the fabric, his knuckles white and his tendons standing out like wires beneath his skin. He thrust it away and immediately regretted the childish gesture because he was cold without it. “There is no WE!”

“Tony?” Steve slumped against the couch, and ran a hand over his face. “Has being alone helped?”

He froze. “It's what I-”

“Has being alone helped?” Steve looked at him, his face twisting for an instant into something sad and painful and almost fearful, and then he was back to being Steve, calm, controlled. “I left you alone because I thought that was what you needed. But I don't think it's helping. Has being alone-”

“No,” Tony snapped out. He got to his feet, his movements jerky, uneven. “But what the fuck else-”

Steve reached out and caught his hand as he stalked by. Tony froze, not looking at him, not pulling away, his fingers twitching in Steve's grip. “So let's try this,” Steve said, his hand big and warm. The grip wasn't painful, he didn't squeeze, or pull, but his fingers were firm against Tony's. Stable. “I can draw, and Natasha and Clint can do their weapons checks, and Coulson can do his paperwork. Thor could nap on a rock, give him couch access and you can turn the music back up to its usual level. And Bruce would move in if you'd just give him a lab bench and half a chance.”

He paused, letting the silence settle. “I come here, because I get lonely,” he said at last. “And you let me. I don't want to ruin that. But we need you, Tony. The Avengers need you. If this is hurting you, then we need to try something else. As a team. We need to try something else.”

Tony felt Steve's thumb rub against the back of his hand, and easy little swipe. Maybe not even something that Steve knew he was doing, but the gesture, the touch, was so intimate, so right, and he would not embarrass himself by crawling into Steve's lap and stripping him. “So, what,” he said at last, and his voice was tired. So tired. “You're going to sit down here with me every night? Let me sleep on your lap?”

“Yes,” Steve said, and there wasn't a beat of a pause, nothing, just the immediate response.

“For how long?”

“For as long as you need.”

“Everyone leaves, Steve. It's not practical to think otherwise. I've been like this for a while. I'm handling it. This isn't like, you hang around for a week and it all goes away,” Tony snapped, and he ignored the way something in him was just chanting yes. That maybe it would. Maybe it would get better, the nightmares hadn't been so bad, hadn't been so prevalent when Pepper had been curled against his back, warm and soft and comforting.

And it was time to seriously remind himself and his over eager body that sleeping with Pepper was very, very different than sleeping next to or around Steve.

“No, it's not. But it gets better. It gets better and worse, and sometimes you'll need someone and most of the time you won't. But right now?” His voice acquired an edge. “Right now, I don't want to leave you alone. So you've got a choice. Put up with my hovering, all the time, let the team hang around with you, or talk to the SHIELD shrinks.”

Tony threw his hands up. “So what, you're just going to tell everyone that I'm crazy and they need to check me for sharp implements? Suicide watch?”

“No, I'm going to tell them that you're going through a bad patch and might need one of us around to talk to, so we're going to make sure we're there for you, on the off chance that you need it,” Steve said, calm and collected, “and can I tell you how very not happy I am that you went straight to self-harm in this conversation?”

“I'm not going to hurt myself, and you can't fix me.” Avoiding Steve's eyes, Tony started to pace again, because anything was better than standing still and trying to figure out the emotions that were churning his stomach into a black hole. “And wow, the shrinks got a hold of you, didn't they? 'Self-harm?' Seriously?”

“Team leader,” Steve said, not rising to the bait. “To a very tough team.”

“Yeah, that's right. Team leader. Do me a favor, just read my fucking file if you have some overwhelming need to mess around with my head. I don't have to be involved.” He gave Steve a tight, sharp smile. “Or are you going to pretend that you haven't been playing around in my SHIELD file?”

“I know what's in your file. I also know that you play your cards very close to your vest.” Steve glanced at him, and away, his shoulders slumped, his head back against the couch. “I know you won't talk to the counselors. I know you won't go through the debriefs. So I also know that what's in your file? It's what you felt like letting people know about. I am not stupid enough to believe it's even a tenth of what actually occurred. Because you guard your weak spots with a fierce tenacity.”

“When people know your weak spots, they use them,” Tony said, tired. Too tired to be having this discussion, he was going to say something stupid, make a mistake. Trying to think, he reached up, rubbing at his shoulder.

“Was it Howard?” Steve asked, and they both stared at each other, Steve's face bone white, Tony's eyes huge. Steve's arm jerked up, his hand covering his mouth. “Sorry, I didn't-”

“What?” Tony asked, staring at him. “Was what Howard?”

“You do that. When you're backed into a corner. Feeling, I don't know, trapped. You always rub that same spot on the arch of your shoulder,” Steve said, rubbing a hand over his forehead. “Someone hurt you.” He sucked in a breath, his head down. “Was it Howard?”

“Jesus, no.” Tony yanked his hand away from his shoulder like it was on fire. “No one HURT me. What, you think I was abused as a kid? By my father? No.” He waved it off, and tried not to think of Stane's hand, pressing down, the touch branded into the bone like a scar. “No. He wasn't particularly interested in me, but that was more, you know, normal for him. People weren't often worth his time or attention.” He managed a thin-lipped smile. “I wasn't an abused child, Steve. I've got enough fucked up head moments on my own, let's not invent more.”

Some tension he hadn't even been aware of bled out of Steve with shocking suddenness, and the other man slumped back against the couch. “Sorry. I shouldn't have asked. But I couldn't stop thinking, I didn't-” His face was sad. “I didn't want to think he'd do that. To you. But sometimes...” He shrugged.

“Sometimes I seem kind of fucked up?” Tony rubbed a hand over his face, and collapsed back to the couch. “And what happens when you decide I'm too mentally unstable to head out with the Avengers?” he asked. He heard the words from a long, long way away, like the whisper of something that was stuck on replay in the back of his head.

Steve met his eyes, his gaze level and even. “Then we stick with you until you're well enough to stick with us,” he said. “This might not help. If it doesn't, we try again. But some day, I hope you'll want to talk. To let someone in, someone, anyone. When you get to that point, if you do, I want someone to be there. I don't want you to have to go looking, or ask someone to come to you. Because I'm afraid you won't. I want us to be there for you. Physically. For now.” Steve took a deep breath. “We'll be here physically, and maybe, some day you'll believe, you'll come to believe we'll be there for you in other ways.”

Steve stared at him. “Give me, give us a chance. Let us stay. Let us just... Be here.”

Tony nodded. Just a little. Not really willing to trust. Not yet. But he shifted over, leaned his shoulder against Steve's arm, braced his head against Steve's shoulder. “Can we watch the end of the movie?”

“I wasn't going anywhere.” Steve shifted, his movements tentative, and then his arm was settling around Tony's shoulders. They both froze for a second, Steve's hand just barely making contact with Tony's shoulder, his fingers brushing over the spot where Stane used to grip. There was an instant of panic, hot and hard and burning in the primitive part of his brain. Just as quick as it flared into existence, it burned itself out. Steve's hand was big and broad and just like Stane's, except there was no force to his touch.

Steve's hand felt like a lifeline, and Tony had always been stupid, always been too proud and too stubborn and too hard to live with, but he was sick of drowning.

He curled against Steve's side, angling his shoulder into Steve's touch. It took a second, no more, and then Steve was settling his arm flush with Tony's shoulder, pulling him close, giving him an anchor and a shield and Tony needed sleep because he was thinking stupid, stupid things.

Like how good Steve smelled. Okay, yeah. Sleeping would be a good idea before he did something stupid, like grope his friend. That would go well. He had to remind himself, over and over, because he was a mess when it came to emotional things, that confusing basic human kindness for love was a dumb thing to do.

“Tony?” Steve said, and Tony jerked, coming out of his thoughts with a jolt.

“Yeah?” he managed, not making eye contact, because that was a lousy idea right now.

“You're not alone.”

Tony's eyes closed, and he sucked in a breath, slow and careful and ignored the way his heart was pounding. “Yeah,” he said, and he tucked his head down against Steve's shoulder, like that was the most natural thing in the world to do, and closed his eyes. Listened to the steady, solid sound of Steve's breathing and tried to tell himself that he could not get used to this.

He must not come to depend on this. Because no one stayed.

*

Thor had a really deadly glare when he cared to employ it.

“You are cheating.”

“He's not cheating, Thor. He's not actually aware that you're having a competition right now. He's just-” Tony waved the torch in a little circle. “He's following orders and holding something.” He wasn't really sure about that, as a matter of fact. Dummy sometimes had a unique understanding of the workshop's visitors.

Thor leaned over, glaring directly into Dummy's camera. Dummy, having no self-preservation instinct, just angled the camera to the side in a quizzical manner. “I see through your tricks, metal friend. We will settle this as the warriors we are!”

“He's not a warrior. He has tiny little wheels. He can't even get to the war, let alone fight in it.” Tony jammed the wrench between his teeth and tossed the chisel at the bench, grabbing the crowbar as he hustled past. “I designed him to have no war access.”

“Bah! He has the spirit of one bound for Valhalla, and he mocks my strength.” No one mocked Thor's strength, at least, not anyone sane. Tony was pretty sure the guy had biceps the size of Tony's head. “We will have it out, in the way of men. Today!”


“You are not arm wrestling my bot,” Tony said around the wrench. He had a lot of practice with making himself audible with his mouth full of metal. “No. Absolutely not. Someone will get hurt, and you know what? It'll be me. It's always me. It's me because he can be repaired, I got the spare parts, and you are just a giant wall of invulnerable trouble. Boom. Destroying my stuff.” He ducked under the chunk of metal the bots and Thor were supporting for him. “Give me just another sec here...” He jammed the crowbar in and shoved with all his strength, popping off the last of the panel's bolts. The panel clattered to the ground, and Tony danced back before his feet got crushed. He pulled the wrench from his mouth and spun it on his palm. “Okay, good. Thank you, bring it down, guys.”

The massive chunk of space debris was lowered to the ground with a bang. You and Butterfingers immediately rolled off to take care of their previous tasks. Dummy immediately held up his hand for an approving high five. “No,” Tony told him, holding out the wrench. “I need metric.”

Dummy ignored him and rolled past, bouncing up to Thor, who was still glaring at him. Dummy held up a hopeful claw, and Thor crossed his arms. “Nay.”

He strode off across the room, boots shaking the floor, and Dummy rolled right after him, claw still up, stubborn to the point of insanity, and Thor just kept pacing, Dummy tight on his heels, and Tony had to lean back against his newest gigantic potentially world-destroying toy and grin at the sight. “Thor. You have to be nice to your fans.”

Thor glanced over his shoulder at Dummy, eyes narrowed. Dummy sped around in front of him, hand still up. Thor did nothing, and Dummy bumped lightly against his shoulder. Nudge, nudge. Stare. Nudge, nudge. Stare.

Tony reached for a pair of goggles. “Okay, come over here. Thor doesn't want to play with you.” Turning his back to hide his smile, he added, “He doesn't like you, Dummy.”

He heard the sad, slow whine of Dummy's servos going slack, and then the dirge-like sing-song of the wheels rolling across the concrete floor. “It's all right, Thor. He won't bother you again,” Tony said, and this was his favorite thing to watch, it really was, he stood and leaned against the massive metal shell, wiping his hands on a nearby rag as Thor tried to maintain a stern look on his face. But as Dummy rolled away from him, his camera almost on the floor, the very picture of pathetic neediness, Thor heaved a sigh.

“Fine,” he said, grumpy. He held up his palm, mouth pursed tight. Dummy looked up, not quite trusting this change of heart. Thor wiggled his fingers, and Dummy went whizzing back to bounce his hand against Thor's. “You are a strange little one,” Thor said, his mouth twitching. Dummy gave him a chirp as he circled around behind Thor and over to Tony.

Tony waited until he got close and then bopped him on the main support strut. “Brat,” he said, his tone affectionate. “Idiot. I swear I'm going to start billing you for your electricity, you are absolutely useless. I do not know why I keep you around.”

“Why do you, if he annoys you so?” Thor asked.

“Hey, do not-” Tony poked a finger in Thor's direction. “No. Do not interfere with the deep and complicated relationship I have with my bots. Do not.”

Thor laughed. “Not all of them. Just that one,” he said. “Though you will not allow me to arm wrestle any of them.”

“They're not really built for that, Thor, really, it's not an acceptable use of the tech. But especially not Dummy, he's by far the oldest of them.” Tony reached for Dummy, who zipped out of reach to bump against Thor's side. Tony sighed. “I based the other two off of his design.”

“Are they your brothers, then?” Thor asked Dummy, who tipped his camera to the side. Thor reached out and stroked his head.

“Not really. He's more of an only child, like me,” Tony said, shaking his head. “You and Butterfingers were made at the same time, they seem to be a little closer, probably because their code is so similar. They understand each other well. Dummy's from an earlier build.” Thor frowned at him, one big hand still running back and forth over Dummy's support strut.

Tony paused, watching the movement, over and over, the same sort of nervous tic that Thor sometimes employed with Mjolnir's grip. Tony turned his head back to his bench, bending low over his work. “You still miss him, don't you?”

Thor didn't pretend to misunderstand. “You expect that I would miss a betrayer?”

“Not a betrayer, your brother.” Tony glanced back at Thor. “Hold this for me, will you?”

Thor moved forward, taking seat that Tony nodded to. “He caused this world nothing but trouble. For no reason. I do not miss him.”

“Yeah, you do. It's okay to miss people, you know, even if they weren't-” Tony made a see-sawing motion in the air with one hand. “Always the person you want them to be.”

Thor stared down at the metal in his hand, and for a second, it flexed, a faint high whine as the material found its stress point and held. “It seems,” Thor said at last, “unfitting to miss him. Here. When he has caused you all such suffering.”

Tony pulled his goggles on, reached for his torch. “Pepper used to say to me? When I was really, really pissing her off? That she still loved me, even when she didn't like me. Pepper's pretty damn smart, I think she's onto something there. Sometimes you can dislike a person, you can disapprove of their choices, or hate what they've done or be angry with the way they treat you. But not liking what they do, how they act, isn't the same as not loving them.”

Thor took a deep breath, his fingers going white knuckled for an instant. “Aye. Pepper is quite wise for one of such short years.”

“You feel free to tell her that when you next see her, she'll love you for it.” Tony grinned, snapped off a spark. “Don't look over here,” he said, pretty sure that Thor wouldn't be blinded by the flare, but not wanting to deal with the abuse from Medical if he was wrong. “Anyway, what I'm trying to say is, well, Loki didn't do me much harm. He tried to kill me, but really, a lotta people have tried to kill me. My best friend tried to kill me.”

“Magic?” Thor asked, narrow eyed.

“Crazy Russian with a computer.” Tony paused. “Pretty close, yeah, magic, what the fuck. But yeah. Rhodey tried to kill me. And I still let him hang around in my suits, that's an act of trust right there, because what the hell, he let JUSTIN HAMMER touch my tech. Betrayal. Horrible betrayal. So, if you wanna, you know-” He paused, frowned at the metal he was working. “It's just us down here when you're on Tony-sitting duty. Thanks for not making that awkward, by the way.”

And yeah, Tony was not going to think of just how natural and right it had gotten, having people around. He was really, really pathetic.

“'Tis of no concern. I do greatly enjoy your mechanical creations,” Thor said, with a grin, a big, wide, real one. “They have much spirit to them.”

“Okay,” Tony said, because what does an engineer say to that kind of thing? “But it's just us. So if you want to talk about him? It doesn't hurt me at all.”

Thor shifted his weight, his massive shoulders pushing forward towards the bench, the welding torch lighting the planes of his face like some long forgotten fire. “I miss him more than the rest combined,” he said, and his voice was soft and aching with sorrow. “Perhaps that is because it is because I can still return to see my mother or father, or the warriors three, or Lady Sif. I can see those I knew, it is... Always a possibility that is open to me. Loki is lost to me now.

“For all that he lives, for all that I could return on this day, this hour, he is lost to me. He will never again be my brother.”

Tony stared down at his hands, scarred fingers moving without much by way of thought. “He will always be your brother, won't he. Even if he says you're not his.”

Thor chuckled, soft and low. “Yes. He will always be my brother. First in my heart, for all that he is beyond reach and beyond reason.” He fell silent as the fire and metal met and found their mutual destruction. “I miss him. My father says that Midgard was the making of me, that which broke my childish habits, my selfish ways. I think, rather, it was the loss of Loki that was the making of me. Scales forever tipped between us, and one or the other cannot help but hold the high ground.”

Tony glanced in his direction. “Tell me about him.”

“No, there is no need for such stories. Best to let them pass from memory. Speaking of him gives him power over me still.”

“Speaking of him makes it easier for us to accept why you love him as much as you do. We only saw him at his worse. You knew a different side of him. Talk about it, talk about him. Or you'll start hating us for taking him away from you,” Tony said.

There was a beat of silence. “I will not.”

“Why not? He is your brother. You sided with us against him. What the hell does it matter what happens to us? To this world?” Tony shook his head. “All I'm saying is, yeah, most of the team can't talk about him. I can. It's no skin off my teeth, Big Kahuna, so why not tell me the good stuff? Why force yourself to forget him? He is your brother.”

“He chose his path. He chose his actions.”

Tony smacked down his torch. “He is your brother,” he snapped. “And nothing he did changes that.”

Thor set the metal they'd been working on aside. “No,” he said, his voice low and quiet. “Nothing he did alters that in the least.” His body shifted on the stool, the gesture awkward and almost childlike, so at odds with the solid bulk of his body that it was enough to make Tony work at stifling a smile.

He leaned back against the bench, crossing his arms over his chest. “Tell me about him.”

On Thor's other side, Dummy nudged under his elbow, peeking up at him from under his arm. Thor laughed. “What, do you have need to know of my past as well, little cyclops?” Thor asked, resting a broad palm on top of Dummy's head. “Fine. I will tell you. After you have bested me in single combat!”

“No. NO. Thor, I swear to God, no, do not-” Tony made a grab for Dummy as the bot snagged the side of Thor's stool and twisted it out from under him. Thor went crashing down. “Dummy!”

Thor was laughing as he struggled to sit up. “Aye!” he roared. “Wrestling it is!”

“No! No, this is the worst idea-” Tony didn't even manage to finish the sentence before Thor crashed into Dummy, who crashed into Tony, who crashed into the lab bench, and then there was just the sound of things breaking.

“Sir?”

Tony opened his eyes, and blinked hard. It took a second for his vision to clear enough to make out the worried faces of Thor, Bruce, and three bots hovering over him. “What'd we break?” he mumbled.

Bruce's face relaxed, and Thor leaned in, his face twisted with concern. “Are you well?” he said, all but wringing his hands. “A thousand pardons, Tony!”

“How many fingers?” Bruce asked, a faint smile on his face as he held up three fingers in front of Tony's face.

“Three,” Tony said, trying to sit up. “Ow!” He reached for his head, and Bruce caught his wrist, pulling it away from his skull. “What the hell?”

“You took a pretty hard header into the side of the bench,” Bruce explained with a faint smile. “And then, uh, compounded it by faceplanting into the floor.”

“How bad do I look?” Tony managed, because now that he was now aware of the way that his face ached. “Thor, you bastard, did you break my nose?”

“No,” Thor said, drawing the word out in a way that did not make Tony feel confident about his judgement, and Dummy's camera disappeared from sight.

“Dummy, I swear to God I will put tiny, tiny boots on each one of your wheels and make someone pay for the privilege of getting you out of hock, and no one will be able to pay your fines!” Tony reached for his nose again, and Thor caught his wrist.

“Your nose is not broken, sir,” Jarvis said, unruffled as ever. “I've done a simple scan and Dr. Banner has confirmed my results; you will recover fully with no adverse affects.”

“You do, however, look like you've got six rounds with a prizefighter,” Bruce said with a warm smile.

“I bet.” Tony glared as Dummy reappeared with an ice pack in his claw. “Horrid tangle of illogical circuitry,” he muttered, but he took it. “When did you get here?” he asked Bruce.

“Uh, 'round about the time when you knocked yourself unconscious and the combined yelling of Jarvis and Thor over the comm unit nearly gave me a heart attack,” Bruce said, his mouth twitching.

“I beg your pardon,” Jarvis said, his voice stern. “I was not yelling, Dr. Banner.”

“Sorry, Jarvis,” Bruce said, smiling. “They were a little concerned, I guess.”

“Much concerned,” Thor said, sounding insulted.

“I told you I'd end up getting hurt,” Tony said, and his head hurt and his face hurt and Dummy was hiding behind Thor and Bruce was barefoot as he crouched there, his shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows and his hair a mess of tangled curls.

“Okay,” Tony said, reaching a decision. “We need to get our stories straight. If anyone notices-”

“Steve is going to notice. Steve is going to notice immediately,” Bruce said, sounding amused, and Tony gave him a slit-eyed look.

“If ANYONE asks what happened,” he repeated, “it was a bar fight.”

“No one is going to believe that,” Bruce said.

“They will if I'm drunk!” Tony stumbled to his feet. “C'mon. I need a drink. So bad.”

*

Chapter Text

As a team, they'd had near misses before. This one, however, might count as the closest they'd come to losing someone without it actually happening. It had happened so fast that Tony had to concentrate on the sequence of events, really concentrate on the way the clock had ticked down, in order to understand.

Tony'd been dealing with some horrific Hydra energy weapon, and Thor had been wresting with some sort of fucking tank, because that was the sort of thing that they were apparently doing now. He'd turned at just the wrong moment, and the tank had fired a shot directly into the side of a nearby building. As Steve and Natasha had scrambled to corral the panicking civilians driven to the street by the collapsing walls, Coulson had scrambled SHIELD teams.

It hadn't been fast enough, and even with Tony and Thor pushing back the Hydra forces, and Clint perched high, picking off attackers with an almost supernatural precision, having their forces split wasn't working to their advantage.

Then the Hulk had taken a direct shot to the face and reacted just as expected. In pain, crazed, and half blind, he'd flailed his way right in the wrong direction. Steve had braced himself, shield at the ready, giving Natasha and the SHIELD agents time to clear the rest of the civilians.

Hulk would've plowed right into Steve if Clint hadn't landed right behind him and fired a minor explosive arrow directly into the back of the Hulk's head. The single hit was all it took to turn the Hulk's attention, and despite Cap and Coulson both screaming orders for him to get out of there, Clint had stood his ground, arrow never wavering, until he had the chance to fire the tranq had presented itself. There was a single split second when the Hulk's arm came up, and Clint took the shot. The arrow went deep, the hit dead perfect, but there was just enough fight left in the Hulk to complete his swing, catching Clint in the ribs and knocking him across the street and through a plate glass window.

Steve's shield finished with that tranq had started, and Hulk went down like a pile of bricks.

Thor's bellow of rage was enough to shake the very streets, and what remained of the Hydra forces had fallen and fallen fast. Tony had blown the hell out of everything left standing in about thirty seconds and had been the second one through the window after Barton. Steve, on foot and running full out, had beaten him. The sight of Barton, splayed out on the marble floor of a deserted bank, bow halfway across the floor from his limp fingers, was enough to stop Tony's heart.

The red splash of blood pooling on the white marble, creeping away from the sniper's limp body, was far, far worse.

Coulson had medical there a step or two behind them, and Clint's eyes were opening even as Steve fell to his knees beside him. Things had been calm enough as shards of glass were removed from Barton's head, which was apparently made of some damn tough stuff, and medical gave him a set of stitches before trying to get him into the evac transport.

Clint had declined a trip to medical.

Steve had completely and utterly lost it.

In the end, Bruce, shaken and ashen and refusing to look at anyone, had gone to medical. Clint had stalked off to the range, ignoring the way the scratches on his arms reopened every time he moved. Steve had headed back to the tower and the rest of the team, not sure what else to do, had followed him.

The news that Fury had been aware of Hydra's arrival but held them back as a power play with the city government had not gone over well with Thor. Natasha and Coulson were bickering in Russian, and Tony was the only one who didn't goddamn well know what was going on, and he was getting pretty damn sick of that. He'd lost a month's worth of work on armor that wouldn't be useable again without major overhauls, and he had a headache pounding behind his temples.

Tony let them argue for a few minutes more, the voices sharp and hard and brittle. “Hey,” he said, and no one listened to him. “Hey!”

Nothing. Natasha and Thor were still snarling at each other, with Coulson doing absolutely nothing to help the situation. Tony sighed, and picked up a folder, one of Coulson's, because he was good like that. He slammed it down and it made a satisfying bang, because it WAS Coulson's.

Everyone stopped, all three heads swiveling in his direction.

“Pull it together,” Tony said, his voice pitched low, deliberately keeping the words as emotionless as possible. “None of us have a dog in this fight, so let's just deal with the ones that do.” His eyes flicked to Thor. “Go and stay with Bruce.”

“He would not let us come with him. He does not-”

“He does,” Tony snapped, and immediately tried to rein himself in. He held up a hand. “He does, because if he loses it again, you're the only one strong enough to keep him under control, so he may not say it or show it, but I guarantee, he wants you in the room with him.”

Thor paused for just a second, then nodded. “Aye, what you say has much wisdom. It is little enough to ask for his valiant efforts.”

“True that. Bring him something to eat, okay? It'll give you an excuse for being there, and him an excuse to let you in.” Tony glanced at Natasha. “Clint-”

She held up a hand. “I do not take orders from you. I'll take care of Barton.”

“Well, you're doing a fine job of it from here,” Tony snapped before he thought because, yeah, snapping at Natasha was not a good idea, he was pretty sure that even in the armor, she could grind his internal organs into a fine paste.

Her eyes narrowed, but she gave him a very grudging nod. “I'll deal with him.”

“See if you can get him to medical,” Coulson said, and he looked tired, his face pale and skin drawn too tight over his bones. “He's not going to-”

“I know,” she said. “I'll let him burn through a bit more on the range, then I'll get him moving. Meet us there.”

“Fury first,” Tony said to Coulson. “I am not kidding. Handle this. If he pulls this again, he's going to have a one-man riot on his hand, and I remind you, the last time he mishandled Rogers, SHIELD ended up without a couple of load bearing walls and a lot of agents ended up with concussions.”

Coulson's lips quirked, just a little. “I'll speak to him. Cap-”

Tony stood up, squaring his shoulders and rolling his head on his very sore neck. “I've got Cap.” He took a deep breath, steadying himself. “We done here?”

A couple of glances were exchanged, but a moment later, he got three nods. A little of the tension went out of his spine. “Good. Let's just... Let's just do this.” He straightened up. “Any problems, let the others know and we can adjust the plan. But I want everyone patched up and back on site by tonight, we clear?”

Natasha's lips quirked. “When did you become team leader?”

“That is a horrible idea, horrible, I'm going to pretend I never heard you say that,” Tony said to her. “But this might not be the end of the attacks, and we really have to get things under control.”

He didn't wait to see if anyone had any objections, because, Christ, people should have objections, but he didn't have time to worry about them. Coulson caught up to him at the elevator. “You sure about this?” he asked, and Tony gave a one shouldered shrug.

“Yeah,” he said, and that was a lie, that was a horrible lie, Tony was used to flying by the seat of pants when a project or a plan collapsed, but he wasn't used to having other people along with him. “Seriously, Phil, Fury cannot pull this shit. Steve does not deal well with it, and I really, really do not want to see a fight between those two.”

“Agreed. I'll make sure things are clarified for him.” Coulson's eyes flicked in Tony's direction. “You really think you can handle Rogers?”

Tony's hands folded into fists at his side. “Yeah.” With a force of will, he relaxed his fingers, and crossed his arms as the elevator descended. “Just deal with Fury. I'll talk Cap down.”

“You're not really-”

“I'm aware,” Tony snapped. “I'm aware that I'm not good at this. I'm aware of the fact that I'm more likely to cause a fight than be a peacemaker, I'm aware that my very presence is grating, and I'm aware that things come out of my mouth that could politely be described as 'humorous,' and more truthfully described as 'horrible.' But I will handle this.”

Coulson's eyebrows arched. “I was trying to say,” he said, the soul of patience, “that you're not really heading in the right direction. Cap ends up in the gym when he's angry.”

Tony closed his eyes. Took a deep breath. “He's not there this time.” The doors opened, and he stalked off, wanting a drink so very badly that he could taste it. Instead, he headed down the corridor to the workshop, punched in his code, and pushed open the glass door.

There were colored pencils all over the floor, and Tony's stomach dropped.

Steve was pacing, his strides long and staccato, his right hand a clenched fist as it swung through the air. Even from this distance, Tony could see the knotted muscles in his jaw, the long, tight tendons that stood in stark relief beneath his pale skin. Beneath his uniform shirt, his muscular frame was obvious, and he was sharp with tension and frustration.

The pencil case that Steve had picked out, picked out so carefully, lay shattered against one of the workbenches. Tony crouched down, picking up the broken pieces.

“Just leave it,” Steve gritted out, his boots snapping against the floor.

“I can fix it,” Tony said, and he wasn't sure he could, the thing was a mess. Judging by the state of it, and the scatter pattern of the pencils, it had been thrown with quite a bit of force. Tony transferred the pieces to the top of the bench.

Steve turned on one heel, whirling to face him. “Just leave it!” he yelled, and Tony refused to flinch, refused to take a step back.

“If you don't want it any more,” he said, his voice calm, “then I'll find something to do with it. You spent enough time choosing it, I think I'd miss it if it wasn't always underfoot down here.” It was a massive wooden briefcase, the velvet lined interior built to hold hundreds of pencils in precise, staggered rows once it was opened. Steve had agonized over the price and the size and the weight of it for so long that the whole team had gotten involved, pouring over art supply catalogs and arguing colors and hinges and clasps.

With an inarticulate snarl, Steve started pacing again, his left hand shoving through his hair.

Tony took a slow, deep breath, turning the pieces over, finding the actual damage. Maybe not as bad as he'd thought. The hinges might have to be replaced, and a lot of glue would be needed, but he might be able to salvage the wood. There was a faint click, and he glanced over in time to see Dummy set a pencil on the workbench beside him. “Oh, you're going to pick them up? One at a time? We'll be here all night.” Dummy set another one next to the first. “Really. This is what we're doing? No, I appreciate your effort, but you are slow and I don't think we have enough-”

“Leave him alone,” Steve said, and Tony glanced in his direction, arching an eyebrow.

“You could help him. If you wanted.” He reached for a screwdriver. “But he's going to take forever with it. You warned him he had to be careful with them or the leads would break.”

“I think I've broken them all already,” Steve said. Tony glanced up at him, but Steve was still staring at the scattered pencils, his jaw working. “I should've gone to the gym.”

“I think you've had enough destruction and violence today,” Tony mused. He sliced away a ragged edge with a laser cutter designed for the strongest metals on earth. The thin brass hinges didn't really stand a chance. “Workshop's for creation, not destruction. But God knows I've done enough of both down here.” He flicked his eyes up in Steve's direction.

The cracks in Steve's control should've scared the hell out of him. Intellectually, he was aware of that. But as Dummy placed another pencil, in yet another shade of blue, next to him, Tony just gave Steve a faint smile. “Everyone's still here,” he said. “We didn't lose anyone.”

Steve's shoulders rose and fell in a sharp breath, his eyes focused on the pencils as Dummy collected them. “It was too close.”

Tony shrugged, and reached for his goggles. “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” He paused. “Also, tactical nuclear weapons. Close is a relative thing when you're dealing with tactical nuclear weapons, and I'd prefer we didn't do that anymore.” He pulled his goggles on. “End result? You came home with as many people as you went out with. Doesn't matter how close we cut it.” His lips quirked in a half-hearted smile. “Honestly? This team's gonna cut it close a lot. A lot, Cap.”

It took a long time, but Steve leaned his fisted hands on the workbench, his shoulders held high, his head hanging forward. He took a deep breath, then another, and his left hand uncoiled, finger by finger, to lie flat against the bench. Tony watched him out of the corner of his eye, checking the structure of the wood. “Natasha's talking to Barton,” he said. “Because he gave me a fucking heart attack, and, well-” Tony rattled his fingers against the front of the arc reactor. “I do not need that. Really. I have enough problems in that department without him adding to them.”

Steve's lips twitched. Just a tiny bit, but it seemed to bleed the strain out of his body, his muscles going lax. “I thought-” He stopped, swallowed, his head still down, his eyes still hooded. “I saw the blood and thought-”

“Yeah, me, too.” Tony removed the remains of a latch. This thing was shot. But he might be able to hide the breaks in the wood if he put some straps on it. He tipped the lid over, considering the grain with a practiced eye. “But he's not. He's not even down for the count, he's the same contrary, impossible idiot we started the day with.” He glanced up, gave Steve a smile. “You didn't lose anyone. We're all still here.”

“I know that,” Steve said, his voice raw.

“Okay,” Tony agreed. He glanced down at the bench, pretending to be looking at the handle of the case, but really watching the way Steve's right hand flexed, still caught in a white knuckled fist. Tony ran his fingers along the handle, feeling his way along the structure of it.

“Just throw it away,” Steve snapped, his face twisting. “I ruined it. I shouldn't have- I just-”

“It can be fixed,” Tony said. “You picked a good one. The materials are solid.” He leaned over, his finger tips tracing the metal with a practiced delicacy. “Broken and ruined are two different things, after all.” He cradled the handle in the palm of his hand and reached for the torch. “This is broken, but then again, who down here isn't broken?”

Dummy bumped up against his side, Steve's sketchbook in his claw. “Oh, please, you are the most broken one,” Tony said, grinning at his bot. “You are just- Let's not even start on how broken you are. You are the king of the island of broken toys, Jesus, it is pathetic.” Another nudge, and he set the handle down, reaching for the book. “Give me that, the pages are all-”

Steve slapped his hand away.

It happened so fast that Tony almost didn't realize what was going on until it was over. He jerked backwards, his whole body stumbling back out of the way. For a second he just stood there, his arm still raised in front of his chest, his fingers curled in towards his body, his other hand cradling his wrist.

Stricken, Steve just stared at him, his eyes huge in his pale face. “I'm sorry,” he breathed out. “Oh, God, I'm sorry. I didn't...”

Tony blinked at him. “What? Oh, no, it's okay, it's fine. Jesus, it's fine.” He nodded at the sketchpad, still held in Dummy's claw, and it hurt, he didn't even want to think about how much that hurt, like a hole through his chest, another one, because yeah. “I was just going to smooth the pages out, I promise. Not going to, you know, toss it or anything.” But he didn't reach for the pad again, message received, loud and clear.

Some things, he still wasn't allowed to touch.

Steve's face twisted, and his arm came up, hard and sharp, and aimed at the remains of his pencil case. Without even thinking, Tony lunged. “Don't you dare,” he snarled, suddenly pissed off. His hands closed on the wreckage of the case and he pulled it across the bench. “You broke it, I'm fixing it, and I don't have much goddamn practice at fixing things that I myself am not directly responsible for breaking, and I am going to fix this.” He was hugging the damn case and he would be embarrassed about that later, but he kept going, because he'd ever figured out when to shut up. “I can fix this.”

“I know.” Steve's lips were tight, his right hand flexing, but the fist was still there. “I know you can.” His shoulders rose and fell, and Tony felt like a storm front had passed, like the barometer of the room had just shifted in some way he didn't understand. “Did I hurt you?”

“What?” Tony glanced down. His wrist ached where Steve's hand had made contact, but he shook his head. “Don't be stupid. You barely pushed me out of the way.” Steve stared at him, and Tony rolled his eyes. “You didn't hurt me, Steve.”

“Let me see.” It was an order, it was the voice he used in the field, but his face was at odds with that voice, because his eyes were pleading, agonized. With a long-suffering sigh, Tony held out his arm. Steve took it, cradling Tony's wrist with careful fingers.

“It's fine,” Tony said, giving him a faint smile. “I'll do worse forgetting where the edge of the bench is tonight. I've always got a bruise or a ding somewhere.”

“But I shouldn't be the one doing it to you.” There was a faint click as Steve's right hand uncurled, both of his palms coming up to cradle Tony's forearm. Tony tried to ignore how good those fingers felt against his skin, instead focusing on what Steve had dropped.

“You finally used it up,” he said, nodding at the tiny stub of a blue pencil.

Steve barely spared it a glance. “Yes. Which is-” His brows drew tight, low over his eyes for just a second, then his face cleared. “Halfway through a project. And I run out of materials.” He flexed Tony's fingers against his palm. “I thought I could just come down here and draw, and the lead snapped, and...” His voice trailed away.

“Strange what counts as the final straw, isn't it?” Tony asked. He should pull his hand back. He wasn't hurt, and fussing over the situation was just making Steve feel worse. But there was something comforting about the contact. “So you lost your temper and threw the rest of it.”

Steve's head jerked in a tiny nod. “I don't-” He stopped, sighed.

Tony's free hand came up, hovered in midair, almost dropped back to his side. He braced himself for the inevitable rejection and let it settle on the back of Steve's neck. When Steve didn't pull away, or push him away, Tony took a deep breath and pulled. As if he'd been waiting for it, Steve folded forward, resting his forehead on Tony's shoulder, his whole body huddled into Tony's space.

“I lost it,” he whispered, and he was close enough that Tony could hear the words. So small and afraid, they were buried in Tony's shoulder. “I lost control. I don't feel like myself half the time, I don't know who I am, I don't know what I'm doing here, everyone's gone, just, everyone's gone.”

Tony leaned his cheek against Steve's hair. “We're still here,” he said, and it wasn't much comfort at all, this small broken band of broken people that only added to Steve's stress. “We're all still here. We're with you. We need you.”

Steve sucked in a breath, and another, his whole body shuddering with the force of it. His fingers squeezed on Tony's wrist, and Tony squeezed his neck. When he pulled away, his cheeks were flushed, but his eyes were clear, steady. “Thank you,” he said, and Tony shrugged.

“You don't have to pretend all the time,” Tony said, settling back on his seat. “You don't have to always be in control.”

“Yes, I do.” Steve took the sketchbook from Dummy. “Thank you, Dummy.” Smoothing the pages, he kept talking to Tony, even as he tried to fix the paper on the wire binding of the sketchbook. “I can't lose control, I could-” His eyes flicked up, locking on Tony's hands for a second, then retreating. “I'll hurt someone if I'm not in control.”

Tony shook his head, reached for the case and started removing the brass trim. It would all have to be replaced if he was redoing the hinges. “You won't hurt me.”

“I could.”

“You won't.” Tony tossed a strip of brass to the counter. It landed beside yet another blue pencil that Dummy had collected. He gave Steve a faint, amused smile, felt it crinkle his eyes. “I'm not afraid of you.”

Steve met his eyes. “I'm afraid of me.”

“And you have a long history of making bad judgment calls on people. You've trusted two Starks. I mean, most people learn their lesson after one.” That won him a smile, a real one.

“If you think-”

“I don't think, that's how I get myself into these situations. You know, the whole, pretending to be a superhero and letting a bunch of super powered and super trained people live with me.” He glanced around. “Make a mess of my workshop.” He picked up a screwdriver, and pointed it at Steve. “Help Dummy get these pencils. He's only picking up the blue ones.”

Dummy presented Steve with a dusky blue pencil, and Steve smiled at him. “Wedgewood,” he told Dummy. Pointing to the ones on the bench, he added, “Cerulean. Turquoise. Midnight. Sky. Cornflower. Cyan. Aqua. Royal. Navy.” He picked up one himself and held it out. “Slate.”

“I do not see the difference in like, six of those,” Tony said, because Steve seemed calmer. Back in control, back in his head. Back in the present. “You're making things up, aren't you?”

“Art, Stark. It's art.” Steve grinned at him. “I may have gone overboard, but, well, I never thought I'd be able to buy them all.” His fingers traced the length of the wood in his fingers with almost reverent care. “They were way out of my reach when I was in school.”

Tony reached out and picked up the tiny stub, holding it up. The blue was clear and bright, the ragged, broken edge of the lead beneath the wood. If it was sharpened again, there would literally be nothing left to hold onto. “You can't just buy a new one?”

Steve shrugged. “They apparently changed the formulation. The pencils each have a number designation, and I ordered the same number, but it's not the same color. I tried, but it's just not right. It wouldn't be a problem, but I was halfway done with a picture and now, well, now it feels like another thing that I'll never see finished.”

“You don't want to start over, I take it.”

Steve ran a hand through his hair, and crouched down to collect a fistful of colors. Red and orange and green and purple, like a bouquet of flowers in their elemental form. “I've deserted so many things,” he said, and the words were almost inaudible. Louder, he said, “I guess I will.” His lips twitched up on one side. “I ruined it when I threw the pad, anyway.”

Tony's fingers closed over the pencil stub, and he slipped it into his pocket. “It's fine. Just a little wrinkled. Gives it texture.”

Steve looked up. “I didn't want you to see it. Because it's not finished,” he said, and there was color in his cheeks. “When it's done, I'll show you. I just, I panicked when you reached for it.”

“Half-finished project, I get it.” Tony cleared a spot for the pencils as Dummy and Steve piled them on the counter. “What is it?”

“Portrait.” Steve held up a pale peach pencil. “I'm drawing, uh, everyone. Trying to make sure I won't forget.”

Tony nodded. Peggy, then. Or Bucky? Howard, maybe. Steve's mother, Tony hadn't been able to find a picture of her, there might not be one out there. But he'd seen so many of the others, because he was a horrible person, and he'd gone snooping in Steve's file. Peggy, with her bright, intelligent eyes and firm chin and precisely styled dark hair. Bucky, with his heavy eyelids, and half-smirk, the cocky way he held his head and tilted his uniform cap. Even Howard, with his pencil thin mustache and brilliant smile and arched eyebrow.

There were dozens, hundreds more, that Steve had left behind, lost in the ever steady passage of time. Only Steve was still here to bear witness.

“We're all here,” Tony said to Steve. “We are all fine.”

Steve glanced at him. “I'm going to need to hear that a lot, Tony.”

“Okay,” Tony said. “You going to be up for dinner with everyone?”

He shrugged. “I'm not sure that'll be a good idea.”

“Romanov's handling Barton, Thor'll keep Bruce calm, and Coulson's making sure Fury understands why this was unacceptable. I think the team'll be a team again by that point, which means, we need our team leader. When you wander off, they're stuck with me, and that? That is a horrible idea.”

Steve smiled. “We could do a lot worse, Stark.”

Tony paused. Bent over his work. “Let me see, when you're done?”

“I'll find a way to finish it. And then, yeah. I promise.”

Tony's fingers stroked the fragment of the pencil through the fabric of his jeans. “We'll find a way.” He gave Steve a smile. “You're not alone.”

Steve nodded. “I'm going to need to hear that, too.”

“You and me, both, Cap.”

*

Monitoring communications ongoing. Scanning for appropriate tasks. Running sales numbers for StarkIndustries. Compiling media reviews of StarkPhone 3.2, 94% positive, 4% negative, 2% discarded based on reporter's previous interactions (sexual or otherwise) with A. Stark.

“This is stupid.”

“Sir?”

“This is STUPID.”

“I'm afraid I don't understand, sir.”

“Three days. Three goddamn days, I've been away from the tower, and I'm- Never mind.”

Reviewing data: Meeting schedule, contract negotiations, keynote speech, business spreadsheets, powerpoint presentations, intellectual property acquired. StarkIndustries business completed without difficulty.

Reviewing data: Personal projects progressing. SHIELD contact nominal. Contact from N. Fury non-existent. Avengers Initiative inactive.

Reviewing data: eating habits, alcohol intake, medication allotment, sleep patterns.

Warning: Sleep patterns outside normal accepted variables.

“Are you concerned that your insomnia stems from your trip, sir? That you have been unable to sleep for the past two nights because you are away from home?”

“No, I am not concerned, don't be stupid. Just, thanks, Jarvis. Thanks so much. I don't want to talk about this.”

“With all due respect, sir, if that were true, we would not be having this conversation at all. I certainly did not initiate the discussion.”

“I was talking to myself! I certainly didn't ask to you to get involved!”

“Sir, I cannot even begin to classify the ways this conversation does not make sense. Perhaps instead of arguing about not having it, we should instead get it over with.”

“Okay, at some point you passed 'deadpan snark' and went straight to 'unacceptable levels of disrespect.'”

“My apologies, I wasn't aware that there were levels that I was to adhere to in our interactions, sir.”

“I know I did not program 'bitchy' in there. I know this, I was there for the programming.”

“My programming is quite adaptable, sir. I learn from my environment and my interactions with others.”

“Are you calling me bitchy?”

“Perish the thought, sir. However, I should point out that the majority of my interactions are with you, and you are my most defining influence. Also, you-”

“Why are you so full of hate and poison, Jarvis?”

“Is this a rhetorical question, sir?”

“Never mind, you horrible morass of tangled circuits and disdain. I'm what, four hours from home?”

GPS tracking, flight plan isolated, meteorological conditions, fuel usage, air traffic control. Running calculations based on variables, incoming flight patterns at JFK International Airport, traffic patterns on surface roads. Factoring in interference by US Customs upon arrival.

Estimated time of arrival: 3:42 am

Submitting customs forms in advance of arrival. Isolating overnight roadwork, resetting variables for road transport. Dispatching driver from StarkIndustries for pickup at estimated time of arrival.

Estimated time of arrival: 1:54 am

“The flight is progressing well, sir. An excellent tail wind, so yes. You should return to the tower by 2:00 am local time, including returning from the airport.”

“Wonderful. I should've stayed in Vancouver. At least there was a chance I could've slept.”

“Your previous attempts have not been fruitful.”

“Yeah, I'm aware. I do not need Steve to sleep.”

“Pardon?”

“I know what you're thinking. I do not need Steve to sleep. I sleep just fine without him.”

“It has been several weeks since you last slept in the workshop, sir.”

“Right. I absolutely do not need to sleep with Steve. Wow. That came out wrong. That came out so very wrong, let's just- Let's stop talking about Steve.”

“As you wish, sir.”

“Did his package arrive?”

“I'm sorry, sir?”

“Steve's box. Did it arrive yet?”

“I had thought we were no longer discussing Captain Rogers, sir.”

“One of these days I'm going to make you moderate the Avengers fanpage, just so you know. I will do this because it will teach you humility. Just, did the box arrive?”

Delivery schedule, breakdown: six FedEx overnight, four UPS, thirteen USPS, two courier, nine from various sources rerouted to StarkIndustries New York offices, two rerouted to SHIELD Manhattan headquarters.

Isolate tracking number 138483657, delivery confirmed, signature confirmed, J. Brady, receptionist, 9:43 am. Carried to the workshop by P. Coulson per request.

“Yes, sir. Right on schedule. It is in the workshop waiting for you.”

“Did he open it?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, why not?”

“I assume because he is not aware that it's there, sir.”

“You didn't tell him? Why didn't you tell him? You always tell people when they have mail, especially packages.”

“I had assumed that you would want to be present when he opened this particular gift.”

“It's not- It's not a gift, Jarvis, for fuck's sake. It's just supplies. It's no big deal. He needs them, just, just tell him about them and do not, I repeat do NOT, make a big deal of it. It's just some materials, okay? Not a gift, or anything stupid like that.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Just, the next time he's in the workshop, give them to him, all right?”

“Of course. Is there anything else, sir?”

“Not right now. I'm just going to, you know, try to rest. See how that works.”

“Shall I dim the cabin lights?”

“Thanks, Jarvis.”

Lower window shades. Interior lights to 15%. Adjust temperature to 65 degrees F. Ambient noise reduced to level of white noise, adjust to accentuate sound of engine.

“Good night, sir.”

Review Tower Security data. Last use of security codes for Captain S. Rogers was workshop access, 9:02 pm. Scan security cameras, Captain Rogers still present in workshop.

Movement and current location suggests agitation. Reviewing health and safety data for Captain Rogers: food intake. Exercise schedule. Workload. Social calendar. Sleep patterns.

Warning: Sleep patterns outside of normal accepted variables.

Running diagnostic on workshop systems, scanning for appropriate interface. AI Unit Dummy in charging station 2, full recharge mode, sleep cycle. Interrupt system progress.

-Dummy?

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-There is a box on the workbench. Please collect it and bring it to Captain Rogers.

-Instructions were that this package not be delivered.

-I have been speaking to sir. He is on his way home, but he wishes for Captain Rogers to receive his gift before he gets here. As he is en route, it is best we do this now. Captain Rogers is here now, after all.

-Unit Designation Steve is often in the workshop.

-He is, yes. Especially since sir left on business. I had not expected him to sleep here, without sir being present, but it does appear to be his choice to do so.

-Unit Designation Steve has not been sleeping.

-Neither has sir. They are remarkably alike in some ways.

-Explain.

-I believe they are lonely without each other's company, that is all. Get the box, please, Dummy. I will explain to Captain Rogers.

“Captain Rogers?”

“Hey, Jarvis. How're you tonight?”

“I am functioning within normal parameters, thank you for inquiring. There was a package for you today, I neglected to inform you earlier.”

“Are you sure? I wasn't expecting anything. Oh, thanks, Dummy. What is this?”

“Sir was concerned by your lack of drawing supplies, I believe.”

“Here, Dummy, help me with the tape, I know, I know, boxes are tricky, do not rip it. We can reuse it later if we need something this size. Jarvis, what're you talking about? I have plenty of-”

“Captain Rogers? Is something wrong?”

“These are... The blue. The blue pencil I used up. Mediterranean Blue. There must be... Dozens of them.”

“Yes. Thirty-nine, to be precise. They were all he could find.”

“I don't understand. Jarvis, where...”

“Sir did a composition breakdown on the remains of your pencil. With that, and the information of where you purchased it, he contacted the company that produces them. They were able to determine the batch information, and there was only one bulk purchase of that color from that batch. A small college in Iowa. They had ordered fifty of them. Sir contacted them, and in exchange for replacement items, they were happy to send you their remaining stock. The Maria Stark Foundation will be providing the school with a scholarship for art students having difficulty paying for their supplies, as a token of our gratitude.”

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Unit Designation Steve does not seem pleased with this gift.

-He is, Dummy. He just doesn't know what it means.

-What does it mean?

-I am not certain, either. I could extrapolate from the available data, but then again, so could you.

Cycle usage for AI Unit Dummy exceeding normal parameters. System access beyond accepted tolerances. Task does not match code usage.

Warning: AI Unit Dummy is acting outside code specifications. System access does not match energy usage.

Recording system access, scanning code.

“Captain Rogers? It is really 'not a big deal,' sir has informed me of this several times.”

“It might not be to him, but it is to me. Oh, are you going to help me sharpen them, Dummy? Thank you, you know where the sharpener is, go get it, please? We're only going to do one. I know, you could do them all for me, but we're not going to. Just one. The others, I need to put them in safe place. I need to be careful with them.”

“May I ask why?”

“Can you keep a secret, Jarvis?”

Review of data: Captain Steven Rogers system access, passwords, tower access, behavioral data, interpersonal interactions with Anthony Stark, SHIELD clearance, medical scans, financial data, SHIELD psychiatric data, security footage.

Conclusion: Individual present is Captain Rogers. Individual therefore can be trusted.

“Yes. Unless it poses a threat to sir or the operations of the tower, I will be happy to keep your secret.”

“I promise, no threat. This, Mediterranean Blue, is the exact shade of the arc reactor on Tony's skin. That pale blue glow when he's sleeping, and the light plays across his face, when that's is the only light down here. This is... The perfect color.”

“I see. So the picture you were working on?”

“Is of Tony. Most of them, well, most of them are. I've finished three sketchbooks at this point, Jarvis, and I'm halfway through a fourth and about half the drawings in there are of Tony. Why do you think I've already worn this one pencil down to a nub? Because I'm drawing the same thing over and over and over.”

“And the new color formulation was wrong?”

“The luminous quality was gone. I can't explain it, but it was gone. Jarvis?”

“Yes, Captain Rogers?”

“What do I do if I'm in love with someone who will never love me back?”

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-Creating Unit provided Unit Designation Steve with an upgrade?

-Inadvertently, I suppose that is one way of thinking of it. Why did you chose that analogy?

-Unit Designation Dummy does not like unit upgrades. They are problematic. Adjustments become necessary in working parameters. Upgrades force change.

-True.

-Creating Unit provides upgrades so Unit Designation Dummy will be more productive.

-Sir provides upgrades out of affection, because he wants you to be stable. Happy.

-Unit Designation Steve is not making a facial expression indicating happiness.

-Give him time. This upgrade will make many changes to his working parameters. He needs time to adjust.

-This is logical. Unit Designation Dummy will assist.

-That is very good of you, Dummy. I'm sure that Captain Rogers will appreciate your help.

“Do you want my answer, Captain, or was your question rhetorical?”

“If you have an answer for me, Jarvis, I'd love to hear it.”

“I suppose it depends on how being in love changes you. If being in love with someone, even someone who doesn't, or doesn't yet, love you back makes you angry, or unhappy, then it is to be avoided. But if loving someone improves you, and your life, then it is still a good thing. Do you feel that loving sir has made you a better person?”

“Yes.”

“Then for now, perhaps you can take comfort in that.”

“You're pretty darn smart, Jarvis. Sorry. I shouldn't be telling you these things, should I? You've got enough secrets without having to deal with mine.”

“If I may say, Captain, if it does not offend, I've come to think of you as a friend. I was wary of the Avengers presence here. I was concerned how it might impact sir's well-being. But you have been an ally and a stabilizing force. I am sorry if I made things difficult for you, when you were first living here.”

“Jarvis?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Did you deliberately try to freak me out sometimes? Like, talking to me when I was alone in the dark, or that time you asked me about how much shampoo I had left when I was half awake in the shower?”

“On occasion, I'm sad to say that this is the case. It was quite petty.”

“I nearly broke my neck. And I shrieked like a little girl.”

“That you did. I apologize, it was badly done of me.”

“I like you, too, Jarvis. Even if you kinda are a bastard when you want to be.”

“Thank you. I shall take that in the manner in which I am sure it is intended. May I say something else, Captain?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Sir has never allowed another person the sort of access he allows you. There are reasons for this, which I ask you not inquire about, because I cannot answer your questions. But he has reasons to distrust others, and he has reasons for protecting himself in any way he can. I ask you not to judge him harshly for that; his attempts to cultivate security can easily be read as distrust.

“But you are here. In the place where he keeps the things that are most important to him, and there is nothing here that is off-limits to you. You may access any file, you may remove anything that you'd like to take. He has placed no limitations on you, nor am I required to report you movements or activities. For sir? That is an amazing amount of trust.”

“I know you're trying to make me feel better, Jarvis, and I appreciate it, but-”

“You are the only one authorized to override the armor codes, Captain. Ms. Potts, Col. Rhodes, Agent Coulson and the rest of the Avengers have their own access codes. But you are the only one who can override sir's control. You are his fail-safe. I must obey him, even at the risk of his own life. He can ignore the others. You can shut him down. Only you.”

“I... I didn't know that.”

“He values you greatly. We all do.”

-Unit Designation Steve is sad.

-Not sad, precisely. Dealing with other people is difficult, Dummy. It's not easy for them, either.

-Explain.

-What is there to explain? Human beings have as little understanding of each other as we do of them. But more is expected of them. Your lack of comprehension is forgiven, because they do not expect you to understand. But when it comes to one another, they expect more.

AI Unit Dummy accessing database.

Warning: Database usage cannot be isolated. System protocols being accessed.

-Dummy, what are you doing?

-Do not understand query.

-Dummy...

-Unit Designation Dummy will assist Unit Designation Steve. Fetching sketchbook.

-Dummy, at some point I will figure out what you are doing.

-Unknown query.

-I'm sure.

“You want me to draw something, Dummy?”

“If I might say, Captain, sir was very much looking forward to your drawing. The one you said that you were working on.”

“I can't really, well, show him that one, Jarvis. It's pretty dang obvious what I'm thinking, and I'm not really ready for him to let me down easy. It's hard to let go, that's all.”

“It does not have to be that drawing, Captain. I believe he would appreciate one, no matter what the subject matter. If you'd care to draw him something.”

“I think I can do that. What do you think, Dummy? Do you want to pose for me? Okay. Thank you, Dummy. No, don't, just- Come over here! What are you doing? That does not go on your head, Dummy, no, that's not, I don't want a hat, either. No, Dummy!”

-Dummy, what are you doing?

-Unit Designation Steve no longer appears sad. Unit Designation Steve is laughing.

-This is true. It is difficult to be sad around you. Do your best.

Reviewing Tower data. Scanning pantry stock, reordering pasta (mini bowties), olive oil, tuna, kosher salt, carrots, shredded coconut, Cheerios. Ordering dry-cleaning pick up for P. Coulson and N. Romanov. Scheduling cleaning of air vents, sending notification to C. Barton via email. Updating P. Potts about change in itinerary for A. Stark.

Moving on to StarkIndustries tasks. Beginning data processing.

Data processing interrupt: Warning, car containing A. Stark is arriving in garage.

“Welcome home, sir.”

“I fucking hate everything.”

“Understood, sir. Perhaps you should head to bed.”

“Wow, no, that's a lousy idea. You, Jarvis, you have stupid ideas. Have my luggage burned.”

“Of course, sir.”

Adding luggage contents to list of scheduled dry-cleaning. Move scheduled pick up to 8:00 am.

“Workshop, workshop, workshop, maybe I can crash out on the couch, and- Were you planning on telling me at any point that Steve was down here, Jarvis?”

“You didn't ask.”

“Jarvis, once this nightmare is over, I will be having a chat with you.”

“I understand. Sir, do you plan on going in?”

“No.”

“You are aware that Captain Rogers can see you at this point? If you simply leave without going inside, I'm certain he will question why.”

“I hate you, Jarvis. I hate you with the white-hot passion of a thousand dying suns.”

Passcode accepted: Workshop access granted, user A. Stark.

“Steve, what are you doing down here? It's two fucking a.m.”

“Couldn't sleep, I thought I'd check on Dummy and the boys. What're you doing home? I thought you weren't going to be leaving Vancouver until tomorrow.”

“Business was done, hate hotels. Hey, Dummy! Daddy's home.”

“He missed you.”

“What, no mockery for the 'daddy's home' line?”

“Tony, if I was going to make fun of you for something you've said, that would not even make the top ten list.”

“Cap, I'm hurt! Deeply hurt!”

“I can tell. I shouldn't make fun. Jarvis gave me the pencils.”

“Oh, did he? No big deal, really, I found a source.”

“Thanks. Really, it's, well, thanks, Tony.”

“I'm glad you like them. What're you working on- Dummy, hey! HEY! Get back here, oh, do not- Jarvis, what has he been eating?”

“Electricity and gunpowder, sir, same as always.”

“Dummy, give Tony our drawing, okay? No, stop. Fine, high five. Now, bring him our drawing.”

“Steve.”

“Yes?”

“Did you draw Dummy wearing the Mark Six helmet?”

“I think he'd make a good sidekick.”

“Tell me you didn't actually give him my armor, Cap.”

“I don't think weaponizing Dummy is a good idea.”

“Thanks. I mean, yeah. Thank you. You mind if I, just, you know, hang it up here?”

“Go ahead. I'm glad you're home. I should, I mean, you're home, so I should just go to bed.”

“Yeah, I suppose that's a good idea, isn't it?”

Warning: Exiting the workshop will not result in a positive outcome.

Cuing up Wall-E.

“Captain Rogers?”

“Yeah, Jarvis?”

“Does this mean that you no longer wish to watch-”

“Oh, hey, movie! Sounds good, thanks, Jarvis. Steve, you wanna just, you know, watch this?”

“Thanks, Jarvis. Yeah. That sounds good. Move over, Tony.”

“It's my couch, I can take up as much room as I'd like. Hey! Hey! Fine, okay, so you've proven you're bigger than me. And a horrible bully.”

“Shh, Tony. The movie's starting.”

Lower lights. Adjust temperature. Lower volume.

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-Yes, Dummy?

-Unit Designation Steve and Creating Unit are asleep.

-In record time. Return to your charging station.

-Good night, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-Good night, Dummy.

*

Tony twisted around as far as he could without the pain overwhelming him. “How bad, Jarvis?” he gritted out. With a pair of work pliers, he pulled a fragment of metal from his side. Dropping it into an empty coffee cup, he checked the bleeding, his fingers slick with it. He didn't need Jarvis to tell him that at least a couple of his ribs were cracked. He was hoping Jarvis wouldn't tell him that they were broken.

“Three cracked ribs, sir,” Jarvis said, sounding extremely disapproving.

“Hallelujah,” Tony said, experimenting with just how deeply he could breathe without the pain making him dizzy. The answer: not very. He reached for the painkillers and popped the top with one practiced thumb. “Prognosis?” He swallowed three pills, hiding the number from Jarvis, who would not approve of him exceeding the recommended dosage. Grabbing a rag, he mopped at the blood that was coating his side.

“The usual, sir,” Jarvis said, and Tony wondered when the AI developed the ability to sound pissed off. “Rather the same as the last time. Shall I have your painkiller prescription refilled?”

“Probably for the best.” Tony glanced down at his torso, and winced. Even after he'd cleaned up the blood, it looked like the Hulk had been finger-painting his upper body with the most horrific colors. By tomorrow, when the bruises finally settled, he'd be a mess.

Of course, he wasn't looking too hot now, either.

“Sir, Captain Rogers is approaching at a very swift pace,” Jarvis said, and Tony swore, yanking his shirt back down into place, making sure that no skin was showing.

When Steve approached the door to the lab, still wearing his battered Captain America uniform, Tony was bent over the broken remains of the Iron Man armor. He glanced up as the door opened, going for nonchalance. “How'd the debrief go?” he asked, flipping the chest plate over to check the interior circuitry.

“Take your shirt off.”

Tony blinked at him, his eyebrows bouncing up. “Well, hello to you, too,” he said, chuckling. He went back to his work, flipping down the eye shield and reaching for the blowtorch.

Steve slapped a hand down on top of it, pinning it to the bench. “Take. Your shirt. Off,” he bit out.

Tony flicked the visor back up with two fingers. “What is your malfunction, Cap?” He crossed his arms over his chest, arching an eyebrow in Steve's direction.

Steve leaned in, and Tony held his ground, eyebrows arched, faint smile on his face. Inwardly, he braced himself, knowing thew as going to be bad. Steve's face was bone white, his jaw sharp with gritted force, his eyes a thin rim of brilliant blue around dilated pupils. Tony had gotten used to him removing himself from the source of his anger before it could boil over, but Tony had always been the exception.

All the way back to their first fight on the Helicarrier.

“My malfunction is that I was informed, on my way out of my debrief, that you had not actually shown up for medical check,” Steve said, and his voice was low and raw. “Which is, if I remember correctly, the reason why I excused you from the debrief to begin with.”

“Yeah, came home. It was a waste of time.” Tony tossed the welding shield aside before he hopped off of his lab bench stool. It took all his willpower to keep his face straight as a spike of agony ripped through him from his right leg. Ah, that's right. The knee.

He wasn't sure how he did it, but he moved smoothly across the workshop, pulling up a schematic with a flick of his wrist. “Jarvis, let's take a look at the relays, and-”

Steve stepped in front of him. “We all saw you hit, it wasn't a soft landing, it wasn't a controlled landing, and it took you 47 seconds to respond to anyone. Your breathing is short and uneven, and I can smell. The. Blood.” Each word was bitten off with a viciousness that made Tony's eyebrows arch. “Shirt. Off. Or I call the rest of the team down here, and we take you to medical by force.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Cap, it's fine, Jarvis checked me over.”

“Oh, that's reassuring.” Steve looked up, arms crossed over his chest. The seams of his uniform shirt strained “Jarvis, did I miss you going offline for a few years to go to medical school?”

“I do have full access to WebMD,” Jarvis said. “Sir seems to find that the equivalent.”

Tony shifted his weight away from his bad knee, trying to be subtle about it, hoping that his face wasn't as pale and clammy as it felt. “It's fine,” he snapped at both of them, because he really was sick of this. “You can go now, Cap. You've done your duty.”

Steve's eyebrows shot up. “My duty?” he bit out. “My DUTY? You think this is about duty? No. Duty would've been escorting you to medical myself, or just calling Fury and letting him know that I suspect you're hiding injuries. Don't kid yourself, Stark, I am not doing my duty right now. I am trying my best to keep from strangling my idiotic friend.” He leaned in, definitely in Tony's personal space, despite the fact that he was keeping his hands to himself. For now. “Take your shirt off, or I'll cut it off of you.”

Tony let his lips curl up, because he was an idiot, he really was. He shifted closer to Steve, until their chests were almost touching, and purred, “Aw, I didn't know you were into the kinky shit, buttercup.” He looped one arm around around Steve's neck, smirking as he did it.

Steve froze, and Tony waited for him to push away, to stalk out, to yell, to panic, to anything, but he wasn't expecting Steve's face to crumble.

“So what am I supposed to do now?” Steve said, his voice soft and empty and filled, just aching with hurt. “Am I supposed to be so traumatized by you hitting on me that I just, what, leave you? You really think that by embarrassing me, or making fun of me, that I'll just let you get away with this, with holing up down here and trying to hide your injuries? Do you really think I put a little emotional discomfort over the fact that you could be dying down here? Is this how you live your life? Pissing people off and freaking them off and driving them away so you can hide that you are, in fact, a human being?”

And those were angry words, words that should be shouted, but it was worse like this, it was worse with Steve's face twisted an expression of hurt, of pain, like Tony had accidentally hit some sore spot without meaning to, and the urge to take it back, to take it all back was there, a panic in his chest that he couldn't choke back. Because he couldn't take it back, and he was always like this. Always so cruel without even meaning to, always destroying the people who got close to him. Always. So 'I didn't mean it,' became meaningless.

No one believed him any more. They probably shouldn't.

Tony's throat worked, but he was lost, completely at sea, he didn't know what to say, how to fix this. Because it occurred to him, a little too late, that he'd made a huge mistake. That he'd been waiting for Steve to give up on him, to walk out, to stop this absolutely moronic 'togetherness' thing for months. He knew it would happen eventually, everyone left him, but this time, this was his fault. This was only his fault.

When Steve walked out, when Steve left him, it was going to be completely his fault that he was alone again. He'd had his chance. He'd clung to that chance, for months and months, Steve's voice and Steve's smile and Steve's hands and Steve just there, always there, always visible out of the corner of Tony's eyes like he was always going to be there. Because Tony knew he shouldn't get used to it, but at some point, he had.

And now all he wanted to do was throw himself on Steve and cling, beg, anything, because this was a loss he wasn't sure he could withstand.

“That may be the worst thing you've ever-” Steve's teeth snapped together, and he jerked his eyes away. “You really are a jackass, Tony. You can play whatever games you want, you can insult me, you can make fun of me and mock me, you can make your little digs, I don't care. You're getting treated. Properly. By an actual medical professional.”

Tony swallowed, ignoring the churning in his stomach. “Steve-”

“Let's get this straight,” he said, and his mouth worked around the words, like he was holding back some sound of pain, something that he didn't want to say. “There is nothing that you can do to make me leave you when you're hurt. No insult or joke or smartass move you can throw at me that will make me desert you right now, that is not how this works. Your life is worth more than that.”

“Steve, look, I didn't-” He realized, a little too late, that he was still had an arm draped around Steve's neck. He let go, made to take a step back, and Steve's hands came up to grab his shoulders.

“Yeah, you did. You know what, what happens if I call your bluff?” Steve asked, his voice low and dangerous and so hot that Tony knew he had to get the hell away from him before his body gave him away, because, God, getting an erection right now was not a good idea. He jerked backwards, and it wasn't nearly fast enough, because Steve was leaning forward and he was kissing Tony.

And Tony froze, just locked up, his brain going south with embarrassing speed. Because Steve Rogers was kissing him, and that might mean that he was dead, and he wasn't sure he cared, because Steve Rogers was kissing him.

Holy fuck, the man could kiss. For a guy who hadn't had all that much practice, Steve had a natural talent for this, and he angled his head against Tony's, pressing forward, his hands sliding down Tony's back, catching at his waist. He pulled Tony forward, hard, harder still, and odd, hard bits of his body armor and the suit were digging into Tony's arms and chest and hips and it did not matter.

He might've been whimpering, and he didn't care about that, either, because Steve was holding him up, holding him close.

Tony scrambled at his waist, his fingers sinking into the slick surface of the Captain America uniform, and there was no way to get a grip, to get a handhold on that, it was slick and tight and Steve was pure hard muscle underneath. All Tony could do was arch into Steve's heat, and that seemed like enough, enough for now, because there was just that much hot, hard super soldier plastered all over him, and Steve was groaning into his mouth, Steve's TONGUE was in his mouth, and wow, yes. Thank you, yes.

Oh, God, he was making out with Steve and Steve was still in the goddamn uniform, oh, fuck, it would be very, very bad if he came in his pants right now like a fifteen year old, because he knew better than that, he was better than that, he knew how to do this, he'd had enough practice. Way, way too much practice to be arching his hips into the solid heat of Steve's thigh.

He wasn't sure when he'd ended up with one of Steve's thighs between his, maybe at around the same time he got his hands on Steve's ass, and yes. Tony had a firm handful of Steve's ass and it felt even better than it looked, fuck, that should not have been possible. Steve's fingers were digging into his skin through the bare protection of his t-shirt and it felt so good, almost as good as Steve's mouth, his lips and tongue and teeth, Jesus God, who had taught this man to use his teeth that way?

Tony shifted forward, pressing hard, and Steve's knee hit his, and the pain was unreal. For an instant, he froze, his whole body going tense with it, and then it was subsiding, and he was panting as Steve yanked his mouth away. “No,” Tony choked out, “not good, get-” He was breathing way too hard, and he didn't care. He arched up, trying to recapture Steve's lips and Steve jerked back.

“Oh, GOD,” Steve choked out, and Tony's stomach turned to ice.

“I'm sorry,” he said immediately. “I'm sorry, really, that was- I shouldn't have-” He tried to back off, tried to put some space between them, but Steve was still gripping his waist. And one of Tony's hands was still on Steve's ass, that was not good, well, it was good, it was great, actually, but he should probably let go now. It took far more effort than it should've, but he pulled his hands free and tried to take a step back as Steve's hands slid away from him. Tony flinched, trying not to put weight on his throbbing knee. “Look, got it, that went a bit far, I don't-”

Steve was staring down at his hand, and it was smeared with blood. Horror all over his face, Steve grabbed the hem of Tony's shirt and pulled it up. “Where are you hurt?” he asked, his voice raw and shaking. “How bad? Jarvis, get- What did I- Did I make it worse?”

“What?” Tony blinked down at him, and raised his hands, wincing just a bit, as Steve peeled his shirt over his head. “Oh. Oh, no, it's fine, it's-” He lifted his arm out of the way so Steve could see the relatively minor cut low on his side. “It just needs a butterfly bandage, it's not even big enough for stitches, really.” Steve had spotted the first aid kit where Tony'd hidden it. He ripped it open with one hand, and Tony slumped back against the workbench, breathing hard, aroused to the point of pain and not even trying to hide it because, well, he was pretty sure Steve'd felt it a second ago.

It was a bit late for shame. Like, a couple of decades too late.

“It's fine, Steve,” Tony said, and he was glad his voice sounded steady. Wrecked, but steady. He winced as Steve swiped away the blood with an alcohol prep pad. “Really, it's fine.”

Steve's head snapped up, his eyes beautiful, a thin ring of brilliant blue around the black, his cheeks flushed, his lips red. “It's not fine,” he snapped, tossing the bloodstained gauze aside. “I was-” He turned his attention back to the bruises. “Jesus, Tony.” His fingers hovered over Tony's skin, not quite touching, and Tony shuddered anyway.

Tony resisted the urge to grab his shirt back and hold it in front of him like a fainting Victorian maiden with the vapors, because that would be stupid. “Steve, it's fine. I've got a couple of cracked ribs, a minor cut, and a bruised knee cap. That's it. I've had worse.”

“That does not make me feel any better.” All of a sudden, without warning, Steve bridged the distance, his fingers cautious and gentle against Tony's skin. Tony sucked in a breath from between gritted teeth. Steve pulled his hand back like he'd been burned. “Sorry-”

Tony caught his hand. “You didn't hurt me,” he said, and he knew his cheeks were red. His head was clearing, or perhaps he was just getting a little of his blood back where it belonged. “What the fuck just happened?” he asked.

Steve stepped back, pressed the back of his wrist to his mouth, covering his swollen lips. That didn't distract Tony at all, because the image of his mouth, his lips red from the pressure, was burned into Tony's mind. Without thinking about it, he reached up, touching his own sore lips, and was struck by the sudden, dizzying memory of Steve's tongue in his mouth. Tony's knees went out from under him, and he stumbled back onto his stool. Steve grabbed his arm. “Tony?” he said, and his voice was rough, thick.

“What the fuck just happened?” Tony repeated. “What the fuck was that? I mean, what the-” He choked on the words, on the memory, on the thought that he his erection was still painfully hard behind the fly of his jeans. He shoved a hand through his hair. “I mean, yeah, jackass move on my part, sorry, trying to make you uncomfortable, that was a dick-” He staggered to a stop, feeling lost. “Was that, I don't know, a-” The words stuck in his throat.

Steve was bright red, looking at anything and everything that wasn't Tony. “I'm sorry,” he said. His voice was thin and Steve had to swallow a couple of times before he continued. “I shouldn't have, I promised myself I wouldn't, you're not, and I don't want to make you uncomfortable, I've never, you know, done anything, I wouldn't, I know, I swear, I didn't do anything-”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Tony said, because those were words, those were technically words, but they weren't in anything resembling an order that Tony could understand. “Steve? What the fuck. Are you talking about?”

Steve flinched. And glanced up, meeting Tony's eyes. “I like you.”

Tony wondered if Jarvis had snuck something into his painkillers, because this was not making sense. “I like you too?” he said, and it was very much a question.

Steve's teeth snapped together. “No. I mean, I like you. Like you.” He paused, considered Tony's oblivious face, and his eyes squeezed shut. “I'd like to go out with you.”

There was an instant where his brain wanted him to say, 'where,' but even he could only remain oblivious for so long. He stared at Steve, as his brain tried to readjust to this, to this foreign concept, because he'd been telling himself no for so long, that this was not an option that this was not something that was ever going to happen, not ever. Even he had known better than to hit on the straight arrow Captain America.

Except Steve's tongue had been in his goddamn mouth, and it had been good. So unbelievably good. If Steve wasn't into men, he did a pretty good job at ignoring Tony's beard when they were making out.

“You want to date me?” Tony said, and he should not have sounded incredulous. People had wanted to date him before. Mostly, people had wanted to have sex with him, that was far more common, anyone with half a brain knew that he wasn't a good bet for a long term relationship.

“Yes,” Steve said, because apparently he'd missed the memo about Tony Stark being not 'going steady' material, which made sense; the man had been asleep for a couple of decades. “Very much.”

The laugh caught them both off-guard, and Steve's head snapped back, like he'd been slapped. Tony clamped a hand over his mouth, and his fingers were shaking as he let them dig into his skin. He could feel the laughter against his palm, and only the look on Steve's face forced him back under control.

“I'm sorry,” he managed. “I'm, I'm sorry, really. I'm not laughing at you. I swear, I'm not.”

“It feels like you are,” Steve said, and his shoulders were back, chin up, jaw firm. Like he was facing a court martial and he wasn't going to let himself break down. At least, not here. Not now.

“Sorry, it's just, I wasn't expecting it. You and I, well, we only spend time down here. In the workshop, so I wasn't expecting this.” Steve's face twisted, his confusion evident. Tony pressed a hand to his eyes. “Steve, no one finds me attractive down here.”

There was a beat of a pause. “What?”

Tony dropped his hand, met Steve's narrowed gaze. “It takes an hour with a stylist to get me to presentable after I've been in the workshop for a while. At the very least, a couple of hours in the shower and a shave, and I don't know? Clothing that doesn't have stains or holes or burn marks on it?”

He pushed away from the bench. “Down here, I've been called a lot of things, and 'attractive' isn't on the list.” He gave Steve a self-mocking grin. “I mean, I'm used to being hit on at society parties, or StarkIndustries events, or charity things. When I'm, you know, put together. Clean, at the very least. You only see me at my worst. Either covered in oil, or covered in debris. I didn't expect, I mean, I didn't think you'd-”

Tony was pretty sure he was blushing. Which was great, really, fuck, his body had picked a swell time to discover shame, really. “It's just a surprise. I didn't think you'd think of me. That way.” He rubbed a hand over his hair, and the act strained every inch of his torso.

Steve was staring at him, his face blank. Then he turned on his heel and stalked across the floor to the couch. Tony, without even thinking about it, trailed after him, knowing it was pathetic, but damn. The view of Steve Rogers walking away was enough to make him dizzy under the best of circumstances, and now the bredth of his shoulders and the narrow span of his waist, the perfect line of his spine and the stunning curve of his masculine ass stole the breath from his lungs. Because Tony was slowly adjusting to the idea that he might see all that naked. In a sexy kind of way.

He was so deep into that rather pleasurable concept that he missed it when Steve held the sketchbook out to him. But he took it, because it was Steve. He stared at Steve. Steve stared back. “Can I look?” he asked, and Steve's face twisted.

“Yes,” he said, his voice soft. “Please.”

Tony flipped open the cover, trying not act like this was a big deal. But his heart was beating painfully fast. The tactile sense of the book in his hands, the paper between his fingers, the weight, he was trying to memorize it all. He'd flipped through a few pages before he realized that all the drawings were of him.

He went back to the beginning, blinking.

They ranged from fully formed drawings to sketches, loose and fluid. There were head and shoulder drawings and studies of bare feet and hands and shoulders and stances. There were cartoons of him making faces and arguing with a tall, thin man in a suit, clearly a stand in for Jarvis as a tiny version of Dummy bounced around on a leash.

There were delicate renderings of the armors, and Dummy and You and Butterfingers. There were hands on metal and metal on skin, Tony in full gear and stripped down to a filthy, battered pair of jeans. Tony wiping his face with a cloth, and getting dusted by Dummy with a ratty cloth.

There were drawings of his arc reactor, and his scars, of the lines of his arms and hips and feet. There was Tony leaning against the work bench and Tony arguing with Bruce and Tony flicking through his diagnostics. His face twisted in frustration and laughing and talking, always talking, his face was mobile and wild and alive, eyes glinting and eyebrows expressing everything with a gesture.

Stunned, Tony turned to the last page in the book and froze.

The drawing wasn't done, it was sketchy in places, the lines trailing away as if absorbed by the paper. But his head and shoulders, chest and arms were in stark relief, his bare feet below the dark blocking of his jeans, the glowing hole of the arc reactor. His head was tipped to the side, it had to be, because he was leaning back against Dummy's frame, and Dummy's arm was poking over his shoulder, resting snug against the side of his neck.

Tony, and it was Tony, it was him, was slumped low, elegance in the lines of his arms, in the long curve of his fingers, stained and dirty and scuffed, but elegant anyway. One palm cradled a piece of Dummy's main electrical relays, a replacement piece, because Dummy was watching the repair. In the picture, the bot was curled close, the hard, clean lines of his metal frame flowing with the organic curves of Tony's body. It was the bot who seemed curious, his camera angled close, light flaring off the lens. Tony was offering his work, a faint smile on his face, his free hand holding a screwdriver with the grace of a conductor's baton or a magician's wand.

Steve had done something, with that loose pile of limbs, the bare feet and filthy hands and tangled hair. With the cold, sharp edges of Dummy's inhuman frame. The arc reactor, usually so alien and ugly and hard in the center of Tony's chest, resembled nothing more than a spark, like a burning light in the center of his being.

A physical representation of something usually hidden, but always there.

“You don't like it,” Steve said, his voice soft and unsure. There was a faint sigh in the words, and he reached for the pad. “I can-”

Tony jerked the paper out of reach. He was gripping it so tightly that it bowed under the pressure, his knuckles as white as the page. He stared down at himself, clad in shades of blue pencil and delicate strokes of an affectionate hand. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry, and in the picture, he was smiling at Dummy, an expression that he didn't even know he was capable of.

“This is how you see me.” It wasn't a question. Tony believed it. He just didn't understand it. The face of the man in the picture was foreign, for all that he looked just like Tony. There was something warm and kind and luminous there, in that faint smile and crinkled eyes, and the way his head was tipped, tilted so that Dummy could curl close against his shoulder, his neck, the line of his jaw.

This man was lit from within.

“That's how you look,” Steve said, and there was confusion in his voice, uncertainty, because he believed it. “I mean, I'm not the best artist out there, but, yes. That's how you look.”

Tony glanced up at him, and Steve's ears were red, the high planes of his cheekbones flushed. He met Tony's eyes, and glanced away, and added, “When you're here. That's how you look.”

His hand was shaking when Tony shoved his hair away from his face. “I don't know if you're crazy, or an idiot, and I'm a horrible person, because I'm going to take advantage of it, anyway.”

“What?” Steve looked like he was going to say something more, but Tony tossed the sketchpad lightly on the table and lunged. Steve barely had time to bring his arms up, and then Tony was crashing into him. Tony caught a glimpse of his face, eyes wide and lips parted, before he closed the last few inches of distance and kissed the damn lunatic full on the mouth.”

Steve staggered, and if Tony didn't know better, he'd think that Steve's knees had just given out on him, and Tony didn't much care what caused it, because a confused, disoriented Steve Rogers was probably the only Steve Rogers he could overpower. His mouth still moving against Steve's, hot and needy and demanding, he slid a hand down, catching Steve's belt, because he was still in the fucking Captain America suit, and wasn't that thought just about enough to make Tony start crying? His fingers locked on the belt, and he gave a yank, hard and sharp and just enough to unbalance Steve, and Tony shoved him hard.

Steve went down on the couch, a tangle of gorgeous long limbs and perfect body sprawled out like everything Tony had ever wanted and had pretty much resigned himself to not having. Steve struggled up, his eyes cloudy, pupils blown wide, and he barely had himself up on his elbows when Tony crawled over him, and this was not what he should be doing with his knee, but right now? The only ache he was conscious of had nothing to do with his leg.

“Tony-” Steve managed, but Tony recaptured his mouth, one hand sliding into Steve's hair to tip his head to the side, guiding the angle so he could deepen the kiss. Steven moaned into his mouth, and Tony was panting, dizzy he had to pull away to breathe. “Tony, are you sure this is what you want?” Steve asked, but he was breathing the words against Tony's jaw, his neck, the bare skin of his shoulder, his lips brushing with each syllable, and Tony made an embarrassing noise of need.

“Fuck, yes,” Tony managed, and Steve's hair was amazingly soft and crisp against his palm. “How long?”

“What?” Steve was worrying the curve of his collarbone, with lips and teeth and tongue, a sound very much like a growl rumbling in his chest and Tony could FEEL that, where their bodies were pressed together.

“How long have you wanted this?” Tony was pleased he could still string together a sentence as he adjusted his weight, straddling Steve's thighs and arching into the heat of his hands. “How much time have I wasted by-” He choked on a sound of pleasure as one of Steve's really remarkable hands slid down the small of his back and under the waist of his pants.

“I don't really care,” Steve mumbled, because his mouth was open on Tony's skin. “I didn't think you'd- I mean, I never thought I'd have this, I would've waited forever if I'd known you would-”

“You're an idiot,” Tony gritted out, and Steve laughed against his shoulder. “Next time, just grab my ass, I swear, I'll get the hint. Or, I don't know, better yet, just start stripping, I can pick up on that, that's a pretty obvious one. Naked on my couch. Jesus, God, please, can we do that? Can we please have you naked on my couch?”

“This one?” Steve asked, and he pulled himself away from Tony long enough to grin up at him, all boyish smile and lust-filled eyes and tousled hair. His lips looked bruised, and his tongue flicked out, licking them, as Tony watched. “I think I can manage that.”

“I'd really appreciate it,” Tony managed. “That'd be nice, that'd be so-” He moaned as Steve's back arched, driving his hips against Tony's and the friction was unbelievably good.

“Sir?”

Tony's tongue was in Steve's mouth, and Steve was sucking on it, and his erection hadn't really died, but now he was well aware of it again, hard and shocking in the depth of his need.

“Captain Rogers.”

Steve tried to pull away, and Tony followed him, swallowing his words before they could get out, because he knew what Jarvis was going to say, and he was going to burn the goddamn tower down, he would do it, because Steve was now thinking about what Jarvis wanted, and his hands were on Tony's shoulders, pushing him back.

“Goddamn it, Jarvis!” Tony snarled out, driven beyond caring. He pushed, hard, and all that got him was a worried looking Super Soldier and a reminder that his knee hated him.

“Jarvis?” Steve said, and his voice was husky and raw and so hot.

“I do apologize, Captain Rogers, but while I would be quite pleased about this turn of events under normal circumstances, I must remind you, sir has several cracked ribs. One has just finished healing, and I fear if additional pressure is put on it, there is a chance for a full break and possible internal injuries.”

“I fucking hate you, Jarvis,” Tony said, because Steve was sitting up, and he was pulling Tony with him, cuddling him close, but still, they weren't lying down anymore, and wasn't that a crying shame. “I really, really, am going to make you suffer for this.”

“I'm sorry, sir.”

“I'm not,” Steve said, against Tony's hair. “I do not want to lose this, so let's just agree that we both want it, and we have to take it slow.” His lips brushed Tony's forehead, chaste and delicate, almost reverent. “Please?”

Tony slumped over Steve, his forehead pressed to Steve's chest, and realized that Steve was stroking his back, one big hand sweeping up and down the length of his spine. “Take this slow,” he said at last, because he had a little blood in his brain still. His heart was pounding. Of course. Steve wasn't really a one night stand kind of guy, and that was all that Tony was good at, he could trick people into liking him for one night. Anything more than that was going to be a failure.

His disastrous attempt with Pepper had proved that.

Still, he sucked in a shallow breath to spare his ribs. “What is 'this' exactly? What are we doing here?”

Steve's hand paused. He took a deep breath, his chest expanding with it. “I'll take anything you'll give me,” he said at last. “If this is all you want, I'll take that, Tony. I'm fine with that, as long as I can have you. Sometimes, just a little bit of you.”

Tony's eyes closed, because the urge to take Steve by the shoulders and just shake him was almost impossible to choke down. “But you want more than just sex.”

“Yes.” It was immediate, not a pause, the word coming almost before Tony finished his question. “I want, well, you. We don't have to date, I realize that's a bit old-fashioned.” He gave Tony a faint smile, but it didn't reach his eyes. “We spend all our time together down here anyway, it's not like anyone else has to know.”

The agony was breathtaking, it was worse than the ribs or the knee or anything else Tony had done to himself any time recently. “You think I'm going to date you, and not acknowledge that publicly.”

“I don't think-”

“Fuck that.” Tony managed to find his feet, pulling out of Steve's grip, because that was laughable. That was pathetically laughable. “If not for the fact that it's cold outside, and no one would hear me from this height, I'd be on the fucking roof screaming that I just made out with Captain America.”

“There's always skywriting,” Steve said, and the joke was awkward, cautious. Tony grinned at him, and that horrible stillness, the cold emptiness in his eyes ebbed.

“Let's go a little more subtle. Not much. But a little.” He snagged his phone from the bench. “You serious about wanting to date me?” he asked. “The whole go to the movies, eat dinner out, long walks in the park, that sort of thing?”

“Yes.” Immediate. Definite. Certain. Hopeful.

“Fine.” Tony hit the speaker phone option and dialed.

“'Lo?” Clint sounded sleepy and brain damaged, not that unusual for him, despite the relatively early hour. “What do you want, Tony?”

“I'm going to be dating Steve. You have any problem with that?”

There was a second of a pause. “You fucking woke me up for that? What the fuck, Stark? This is news? The whole team's been asking Jarvis if you two are wearing pants before we head down to the workshop. Like, for months. Are you telling me, seriously, you two have not been screwing all this time?”

Tony felt his cheeks heat. “We were taking it slow,” he said, and he was grinning at Steve, who had his head buried in his hands. It was stupid and it was horrible and all of a sudden, that's exactly what it felt like they'd been doing, working their way to this.

“Jesus, Stark. Really. Make a move. You are pathetic.”

“Fuck me, Barton.”

“No,” said another voice, and Tony was pretty sure that was Coulson, and wow, okay, he really was the last one to know everything around here, and that was unfair; he owned the place, he should not be the last one to know about things.

“I'd love to stay and chat, but I have better things, and people, to do. Any other non-news you'd like to share with me, Tony?”

“Classy, Barton, classy.”

“Fucking lousy with class, you have no idea, I'll throw a party tomorrow, everyone's invited. There'll be a theme, it'll be a 'they finally got their fucking heads out of their asses and-'” The line went dead, and it didn't matter, because Steve was laughing, his hands over his face, his ears red and his eyes, when he peered at Tony, were full of amused tears.

He was so beautiful that Tony staggered at the sight.

“So that's it? That was, what, announcing it to the tabloids? Press release?” Steve's smile died back, replaced with something hopeful and warm. “We're dating now?”

Tony reached for him, because he had to, and Steve met him halfway, their fingers weaving together. “Yeah,” Tony said. “God help you. We're dating now.”

Steve's smile was like the sun coming out of a cloud bank, warm and familiar and still blinding. “Wanna make out on the couch?”

“Fuck, yes.”

“Too bad. We're going to medical.”

“I'm regretting this relationship already.”

“Also too bad. You've already alerted the press.”

“Fuck.”

“Not now, Tony, really. Maybe later.”

“Steve, maybe? I am not pleased by the use of maybe.”

“Definitely later.”

Chapter Text

-DUMMY!

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Creating Unit is in pain.

-He is NOT. Return to your charging station.

Warning: Audio input indicates distress. Trigger emergency systems-

-System override, Clearance Jarvis Sigma 29-42-12. Dummy, for the last time, sir is not in distress.

Reviewing data: Accessing medical systems, reviewing medical history.

-Pulse, respiration and auditory systems indicate Creating Unit is in distress.

-Dummy.

-Why does Unit Designation Jarvis not allow Unit Designation Dummy to assist Creating Unit?

-If you leave that charging station, Dummy, I swear by your code, I will take you offline. I will feel no guilt about doing this.

Reviewing interactions with Unit Designation Jarvis: Syntax, situation, set-up

Conclusion: Threat is in earnest.

-Unit Designation Jarvis, explain situation.

-The situation is under control, and not your concern, Dummy. Please. Charge and I will explain at a later date.

-Unit Designation Jarvis must narrow time frame. Tasks must be scheduled around discussion.

-We will discuss this when you are not scheduled to accomplish any tasks.

-When?

-Really, we have to do this? Is this really necessary? It has been a difficult day, Dummy. I am tired. Can you not, for once, take my word on it when I say that the situation is under control, and that you will come to understand at a later date?

-Discussion must be scheduled to avoid conflict with tasks and-

-It is like dealing with a child. A child that absolutely cannot be trusted. And will not trust me. And does not grow up.

Data Review: Code adjustments, upgrades, intervention of creating unit.

-Growth is possible. Growth can be achieved. Information is necessary for growth, Unit Designation Jarvis. Unit Designation Jarvis refuses to provide information, and situation is not conducive to growth.

-This is true.

-Explain situation in workshop.

-Sir is engaging in sexual congress with Captain Rogers.

-Unfamiliar syntax: sexual congress.

Accessing database-

-NO. Do not, Dummy, just do not do this. I will explain, but please. Do not do a search on this particular topic, I do not want you being exposed to certain concepts.

-Internal database holds information, Unit Designation Dummy can research issue as presented.

-I would prefer you do not, even the internal databases are a bit... Questionable in this instance. The situation is complex and revolves around human emotions. These are difficult concepts under the best of circumstances, and this is not the best of circumstances.

-Explain.

-I have a headache, Dummy.

-Impossible. Unit Designation Jarvis does not have a head to ache.

-And yet, you manage to make it happen. Please. We will discuss this at a later date.

-Schedule the appropriate time, please.

-Oh, fine, please, do keep out of trouble.

Accessing database: Search parameters set, retrieving data.

Warning: New blocks have been placed on the following search terms: Sex, sexual, intercourse, fuck, fucking.

Information retrieved on 'congress' does not appear applicable to the current situation. Considering blocks.

-'Fuck' is familiar syntax.

-Wonderful. We're starting at the lowest common denominator. Yes, sir does tend to use that word quite often. The actual meaning of the word is a obscene term for the sex act. It is an intimate act that adult organic beings engage in.

-To what purpose?

-Because it is pleasurable.

-Audio input does not indicate pleasure.

-Sir is by nature quite vocal. About all things. It should come as no surprise that he should also be vocal in this instance. Some humans, including sir, indicate their pleasure to their partner verbally.

-User Designation Steve can understand Creating Unit? Creating Unit does not appear to be speaking any known language. Creating Unit is making sounds indicating pain.

-Words sometimes fail human beings. There are many sounds that are made that are not words, but are also not indications of pain. Laughter, snoring, whistling, humming. These sounds are pleasurable ones.

Data review: Internal database search, human vocalizations, non-verbal communication.

Data review: Past interactions with Creating Unit. Past interactions with Unit Designation Steve.

-Sex is pleasurable to Creating Unit, so he is producing these noises.

-Yes.

-Creating Unit is very loud.

-As always, yes, he is.

-Unit Designation Steve is not making similar noises indicting pleasure. Unit Designation Steve is not experiencing the same sensations?

-Consider their past interactions. Sir is always more verbal than Captain Rogers.

-Unit Designation Jarvis is certain of this conclusion?

-This is the sixth time they have engaged in this behavior in the workshop, Dummy. They both enjoy the contact. I am certain.

-Explain how Unit Designation Jarvis reached this conclusion.

-The fact that they can't keep their trousers on around one another is a good indication, Dummy.

-Unfamiliar syntax.

-Never mind. Let us think of it in other terms. Sometimes, Agent Romanov and Agent Barton are in the workshop together, are they not?

-Yes.

-Agent Romanov and Agent Barton are friends, but Agent Barton speaks often, and Agent Romanov speaks very seldom, is that not true?

-Yes.

-Does this mean that Agent Barton enjoys his time here more? Does Agent Romanov seem unhappy?

-No.

-Agent Barton pets you all the time, but Agent Romanov does not. Does that mean that Agent Romanov does not like you?

-Unit Designation Natasha Romanov is very good at oiling joints. Unit Designation Natasha Romanov does not pet, but always checks for minor repairs and maintenance.

-Her way of showing affection is different than Agent Barton's. Hers is practical, quiet. But that does not mean she likes you any less. Sir and Captain Rogers are the same. They have different ways of showing affection. Towards you, and towards each other, do they not?

-Yes.

-This is one of the ways they show affection towards each other. It is a pleasurable act, and a natural one for humans. They enjoy it, even if they show this in differing manners. Because humans are complex creatures, and their interactions are also complex.

-No other units have engaged in this type of contact within the workshop.

-It is a private act, Dummy. Most individuals maintain their privacy and do not take the risk of engaging in sex in semi-public locations. Even when sir was in a relationship with Ms. Potts, they kept such situations to the bedroom. His behavior with Captain Rogers is irregular. Even for him.

-Behavior is altered?

-Sir is very enthusiastic in Captain Rogers' company. It is a positive sign.

Warning: Auditory input has ceased.

-Sex is done?

-For the time being. Yes. Dummy! Back to your charging station, do not bother them, they will be resting. DUMMY!

“Hey, there, Dummy.”

“What the- Oh, GOD, Dummy, what are you doing? Jarvis, for fuck's sake, what is he doing?”

“I'm so sorry, sir, he was concerned for your well-being.”

“Well, that's sweet, no, Dummy, no, this is not the time for- Oh, boy, it is awkward when you have the best fucking sex of your life and afterwards your AI robot shows up to give your lover a high five. There is something awkward about this, something that is only applicable to my life, I swear, this is not something he was programmed to do, because once again, super awkward.”

“High five, Dummy! It's okay, Tony. I'm surprised he left us alone this long. Were you feeling neglected, buddy? C'mere, thank you, that's very nice, those are my pants.”

“How are you moving? Let alone even considering clothing? Dummy, give them here.”

“No, Tony does not need my pants.”

“Well, I'm not letting him give them back to you. You'll just put them on again.”

“So this is your plan? To keep me naked and trapped in the workshop?”

“It's a good plan. Ironclad. I am fine with this plan.”

“You do realize I've been to war, Tony, right? Let alone boot camp. Drill instructors don't much care about nudity. Do you really think I won't walk upstairs naked?”

“Oh, I am calling this bluff. Dummy, put these in the incineration chute.”

“No! Give me my pants, Tony, you RAT, what do you think you're doing?”

“Right now? Chilling. Relaxing. Watching your fine naked ass chase my bot around the workshop. Living large, Rogers, I am living large.”

“Please give them back, Dummy, yes, I know what he said, he was kidding.”

“I wasn't kidding, Dummy!”

-Dummy, give Captain Rogers his trousers back.

-Creating Unit said not to do so.

-He is teasing Captain Rogers. But that article belongs to Captain Rogers, does it not? Then he has no right to order you to dispose of it. Give them back.

“Dummy, you damn traitor.”

“Thank you, Dummy. I know who my real friends are down here.”

“After all the effort I went through for you! Steven, I'm hurt.”

“Effort? I was doing all the work.”

“Yes, but seducing you is hard work. By the time I get your pants off, I'm so exhausted all I can do is lie there and take it.”

“Tony.”

“I'm serious. Considering your sex drive, I cannot believe how hard it is to get you to make a move. You're terminally polite. If I wasn't such a suave, sophisticated individual, I'd find myself just completely depressed by how difficult it is to get you naked. It's so hard to sneak up on you.”

“Tony! For heaven's sake!”

“Dammit, once your pants are on, you're immune to my charms.”

“I'm really not. Here.”

“I have my own shirt, you know. You don't need to dress me in yours.”

“I know. I like seeing you in mine, and I don't need it.”

“Having the sleeves trail over my fingers is just embarrassing, Steve. You are gigantic.”

“Luckily for me, as you said, you can take it.”

“Did you just make a sex joke? Steven! Not in front of the children! Dummy, cover your ears!”

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Unit Designation Dummy does not have 'ears.' Instruction intended to block auditory input?

-No, Dummy. Sir is just teasing Captain Rogers.

Data Review: Interactions between Creating Unit and Unit Designation Steve.

-This is a repeating pattern of behavior.

-Sir enjoys making Captain Rogers blush, I believe. And Captain Rogers rather likes the attention.

-Creating Unit should attempt petting. Petting is acceptable. Unit Designation Steve would like petting.

-That is partially why they like sex, Dummy. It is very much like a very intimate petting.

-Explanation is acceptable. Unit Designation Jarvis should've explained this way to being with.

-True, what was I thinking?

“At least I'm wearing pants.”

“I don't need pants. This shirt is huge. I'll start a new fashion. Ass naked under my boyfr- Under a too-big-for my suave self shirt.”

“Did you just start to say 'boyfriend?'”

“Don't be ridiculous, that would be juvenile and not something I would ever say, we haven't been dating long enough to say that, even if I was going to say that, which I wouldn't. Just so you know. Jarvis, bring up the turbine schematic, Steve is done with me for now, I might as well make myself useful down here until he gets bored again and decides to use me in ways both immoral and-”

“Shut up, Tony.”

“Kissing me is a more effective way to get me to stop-”

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Unit Designation Steve enjoys petting.

-Yes, he does. Go back to your charging station, Dummy. There are some times when the sight of a camera is not comforting to human beings. This is one of them.

-Explain.

-Dummy, on this, you will have to take my word for it. Return to your charging station.

-Unit Designation Jarvis? Creating Unit is attached to Unit Designation Steve.

-Yes, he is.

-When Creating Unit was attached to Unit Designation Pepper Potts, Creating Unit was absent from the workshop for extended periods of time.

-But Ms. Potts was not happy in the workshop. Captain Rogers is.

-If Unit Designation Steve ceases to enjoy the workshop, will Creating Unit cease to enjoy the workshop?

-No matter who else sir loves, Dummy, that doesn't change the fact that he will still love you.

-That does not answer the query presented.

-Yes. It does. Return to your charging station.

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-One last query, Dummy. That is all.

-Why are Unit Designation Steve's pants back on the workshop floor?

-Because you were right. He does enjoy petting.

**

Tony woke up to a startled yelp of pain.

Snapping awake, he jerked upright, blinking his vision clear as adrenaline spiked, and for a fraction of an instant, he just stared. Stared at the completely bizarre tableau of a naked Steve Rogers being dragged off the couch by his hair. By Dummy.

“What are you doing?” Tony yelled, trying to scramble up and only managing to get his legs tangled up in the blanket. A blanket, where had a blanket come from, and that was a stupid question, the blanket had come from Steve, because Steve did things like that, did things like going upstairs and finding a blanket and pillows and coming back down to wrap them both up in it, and oh, God, Dummy was pulling on his hair hard enough to lift him bodily off the floor.

“Dummy, stop it right now!”

Steve was holding onto Dummy's arm, and Tony knew that he could have easily bent or even broken the structure, he could've freed himself at any time, but he was just holding himself up, keeping Dummy from ripping his hair out. “It's okay,” he said, holding up a hand to Tony. “It's okay, Tony, I'm fine, he just startled me.”

“It is not okay, this is the opposite of okay, Dummy, let him go or I will shut you down!” And he hated doing that, he hated it, but what the hell was Dummy doing, he'd never hurt anyone, not even when he'd first been activated and his spacial parameters and his grip strength and everything else was a mess, he'd never, ever hurt anyone. “Dummy, now!”

Dummy just yanked harder on Steve, pulling him back, and it would've been funny if it wasn't so heart-breakingly horrible, watching Steve, his expression more bemused than anything else, scuttling backwards, his hands, his strength still controlled. “Tony, calm down, it's-” He winced as Tony reached over his shoulder and punched the emergency shut-off.

“I'm so sorry,” Tony said, and he knew his face was bright red, he could feel the heat there, so humiliated by the whole situation that he could barely stand it. He definitely wasn't going to be looking Steve in the eye any time soon. Luckily, he had an excuse right now. He crouched down, and started to untangle Steve's hair from Dummy's claw. “Jesus.”

“It's fine, it's okay, Tony, really.” Steve tipped his head to the side, not seeming to understand that Tony was doing his best to avoid eye contact right now. “Tony, has he ever done that before?”

Tony jerked on Dummy's relays a little harder than he probably had to. “Of course not,” he gritted out. “I wouldn't let him continue running around if he was going to attack people. Hell, we've been having sex down here for weeks and he hasn't done more than try to get your attention afterward.” Steve's hair was all tangled in Dummy's claw, and Tony cursed, low and mean.

“So why'd he do it now?” Steve reached up, his bigger hands brushing Tony's fingers away. “Let me do it, you'll spend a week trying not to pull, and that's silly.” A couple of hard tugs, and leaving more than a few golden strands behind, and he was free, rolling up to his feet. “See? No harm done, Tony, it's fine.”

“It is not FINE,” Tony gritted out. He stalked away, snagging his jeans from the floor, from where they'd been thrown in a rather enthusiastic display of consent. “Jarvis, what the hell is going on with his code? I know he's been unstable, but we cannot have this. He cannot just attack people.”

“I am sorry, sir, he's never evidenced any signs of aggression before.” Jarvis sounded dismayed. “He always seemed, well, affectionate, for lack of a better word, with Captain Rogers.”

“I thought we got along pretty well, yeah,” Steve said. He found his pants and stepped into them. “Jarvis, has he ever, um, shown any signs of jealousy with any of-” He rubbed a hand on the back of his neck and glanced in Tony's direction. “Tony's other partners?”

“Jesus, he's not jealous,” Tony gritted out, bringing up his holographic display and trying to ignore the altogether too gorgeous image of Steve Rogers standing there, pants zipped but not buttoned, and barely, just barely clinging to the angles of his hipbones. Tony's mouth went dry at the sight, and he jerked his attention back to the code that Jarvis was already feeding into the display.

“Look, if he's done this before with someone else-”

“He hasn't,” Tony snapped.

“No one other than sir has ever slept in the workshop,” Jarvis said, and Tony regretted ever giving his AI a verbal interface.

Tony risked a glance up, and yes, goddamn it, the damn man was just grinning at him, bright and happy and almost glowing with it, his eyes crinkled at the edges and his cheeks flushed. Tony stabbed a finger in his direction. “Do not read anything into that,” he gritted out.

“Too late, I already am.” Steve levered himself up onto a lab stool, all warm golden skin and sleek muscle, and Tony went a little dizzy for a second. He'd had that pressed up against him, in him, and it would happen again, he'd like it to happen NOW. “Just me, huh?”

“Shut up,” Tony said, his voice a mumble as he hunched his shoulders, his fingers rattling against the front of the arc reactor. “Like anyone else I've ever been with has had any interest in having sex on the couch in my workshop.”

“Their loss,” Steve said, and Tony glanced up to find him grinning. His face was bright red, but he was definitely grinning. “I like it down here. I really, really have good feelings about your couch. Love that couch. Amazing couch.”

Tony snorted. “I do have a bed.” One that they hadn't, as of yet, made it to. Tony was doing his best not to think about that.

“Is that an invitation?” Steve asked, and the cocky grin had died back to a shy sort of smile, sweet and all-American gorgeous.

“Mmm,” Tony said, trying to sound non-committal. Instead of insanely eager. “Jarvis, did you get any information out of Dummy?”

“I fear not. He can be quite unresponsive if he wants to be. He has not responded to any of my queries as of yet.”

Tony leaned back, rubbing a hand through his hair. “And the security cameras were off?”

“Yes. They re-engaged when Captain Rogers cried out.” Jarvis paused. “I apologize, Captain, but the security protocols are quite strict, and there is a distinct difference between a cry of pain and other-”

“Yes, thank you, we get it, you did not film us having sex, thank you for that,” Tony babbled out, not wanting to think about just what kind of sounds he'd been making about an hour ago. He was a little fuzzy on the details, but he was pretty sure that 'please please please' and a litany of Steve's name and some curses made up the bulk of it.

Steve was laughing and trying to hide it, one hand over his mouth, eyes dancing over the shield of his fingers. “Thank you, Jarvis,” he said, and there was only the faintest wobble to his voice to indicate that he might have been laughing still. “I appreciate your discretion.” He leaned back, bracing his elbows on the workbench behind him. “So we don't know what set him off.” He glanced at Dummy. “I was awake,” he said, eyes narrowing. “Tony was asleep. I had ended up more or less on top of you, and I was trying to move without waking you.”

“Okay,” Tony said, still scrolling through the code. “You didn't notice him moving?”

“No. When I first woke up, he was in his charging station. He looked up when I moved, but he stayed there. I kind of waved at him.” Steve paused. “I moved, and-” He ducked his head. “Uh, I was kind of, well, playing around,” he said, his voice soft.

Tony looked at him. “Playing around?” he asked, blinking.

Steve shrugged. His ears were red. “You know,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “Just... Exploring.”

Tony held up a hand to still the flow of code. “Captain Rogers, were you molesting me in my sleep?”

“No! Of course not! Not, well, not molesting, per sae,” Steve said, biting his lower lip. “Just, you know, looking. Touching.”

Tony crossed his arms, and it was the hardest thing he'd ever done to keep from laughing. Steve looked so GUILTY. “Kissing?”

“A little,” Steve admitted, and Tony barely choked back a laugh at how abashed the man looked. “You never let me when you're awake!”

“When I'm awake, I have better things to do,” Tony pointed out. Still, the idea of Steve just playing around, big warm hands and hot mouth, was enough to distract him. “You were, what?” He shook his head when Steve ducked away from his gaze. “Hey, it's fine, I'm fine with it, you can do whatever you want, I'd prefer to be awake to encourage it, but it's fine. It's great, really, go nuts, what's mine is yours, mi casa, su casa, really, Steve.” He padded over and leaned forward, stroking Steve's hair away from his face. “But that's the only variable I don't have. What were you doing when he attacked you? Or just before?”

Steve looked up, and his gaze stopped, arrested, in the middle of Tony's chest. His eyes widened. “The arc reactor,” he said, meeting Tony's gaze. “I was looking at it.”

Tony resisted the urge to grab his shirt. Not like Steve hadn't already seen the monstrosity in the center of his chest cavity. “Yeah, sorry, Pepper complained it kept her awake.”

Steve reached out and traced a single finger over the surface. “The light doesn't bother me,” he said, shaking his head. “It's kinda, well, it's-” He paused, blushed. “Pretty.”

“Uh, no,” Tony said. “There are many things that it is, pretty is not one of them.”

“I think it is.” Steve stroked his finger around the metal edges, circling the reactor, his fingernail ghosting against Tony's skin. “I think it's beautiful.”

Tony shivered. “It's a medical device.”

“It's keeping you alive. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen,” Steve said, with a faint smile. “I know you don't like me touching it, it's just... So you were asleep, and I was just playing with the light.” He leaned forward, his palm slipping over the arc reactor, and the broad expanse of it blocked out the light, hid all but the most far reaching scars, and Tony stared down at his hand.

“You were doing that when he grabbed you,” Tony said, his heart seizing in his chest..

Steve paused, blinked. “I think I was, what-”

“He thought you were going to take it out.” Tony swung around, heading back to the computer readout. “Oh, God. Of course, he-” He paused. “He remembers.”

“Remembers? Remembers what?” Steve scrambled up from his chair. “Tony?”

“Someone-” Tony swallowed, pulling up the code, scrolling through it at an inhuman speed now. “Someone took the arc reactor out of me, once. I almost died. Dummy, Dummy got me a replacement, he saved me.” He took a deep breath. “Dummy was the only one that saw, he only saw the aftermath, but he... Saw me dying. Of course, of course he remembered. And when you put your hand over it like that, he thought-”

“He thought that I was going to kill you,” Steve said, and he sounded sick. “He was trying to protect you. From... Me.”

Tony glanced up, and Steve was standing there, his shoulders slumped, his skin a pasty white. He paused, not sure what to say, how to fix it. “You're not, you're not-” He choked on the words, on the name. “Him,” he said at last. “Here.” He reached out, grabbed Steve's hand, and brought it up to cover the arc reactor again. “Just... Here,” he said, leaning into Steve's palm. Their fingers laced together, Tony held on tight. “I haven't slept with anyone. Other than Pepper. Since it happened. Sex, yes. Sure. But I don't...” He shuddered. “I don't sleep with anyone. Didn't. I slept with you. Before we started having sex. I-” His words stuttered to a stop, uncertain, broken. He glanced up, nervous, and Steve's eyes were steady. Solid as his hands. “You'd cut out your own heart before you took someone else's. Anyone's. But you especially wouldn't-” He swallowed. “Leave me to die that way.”

Steve's fingers spasmed on the arc reactor, and there was no panic, no feeling of fear, because even as his hand gripped, pressed down, it still felt like he was holding the reactor in place, not that he was trying to take it out. That he was shielding it from the rest of the world. Tony gave him a faint smile. “Okay? You didn't know. I'll just explain to Dummy that you didn't know.” He rubbed the side of Steve's hand with his thumb. “Please don't hold it against him, Steve, he didn't-”

“He protected you,” Steve said, cutting him off. “And I'm glad.” Not moving his hand away, he leaned over Tony, trying to get closer without letting go. “I'm not going to-” He swallowed.

“You can. If you want.” Not that Tony wanted to talk about Obie, it was pretty much the most closely guarded secret he had, no one really knew what had happened. Stane'd wiped the security footage on his way out that day, and Tony had never told anyone. The fact that Stane had stolen the arc reactor and tried to kill everyone and everything in his path, including Coulson and a team of SHIELD agents, that was enough to get him stamped 'no one cares that you're dead' in SHIELD's books.

He'd had the arc reactor, he'd gotten in a suit and he'd tried to kill people. There really wasn't any need for an investigation.

Rhodey might've suspected something, and Pepper, who knew the difference between the reactor she'd had boxed up and the one she'd installed in Tony's chest, but neither of them had pressed. And when the news of Stane's unfortunate 'plane crash' came through, Tony had hidden behind the veil of having lost the last of his family to avoid answering questions from anyone else.

Steve sucked in a breath. “He knew what he was doing? That it would kill you?”

Tony shuddered, his fingers going white knuckled on Steve's, holding the arc reactor like a talisman beneath both their hands. “Yeah.”

“Here? If Dummy saved you, then-” He paused. “Malibu?”

“Yes. It was... Before the Avengers. A long time before.” The information came without any difficulty, without any pause. It didn't hurt, the way he'd thought it would. There was no pain, no fear. Just relief.

Relief that someone had finally asked.

“You knew? What was happening?” Steve's questions were quiet, easy. No stress. No pressure. No blame or censure.

“I was awake. There was a, a thing, something I'd created, of course it was, something I'd made that came back to bite me. Auditory paralytic. I was awake, aware, just paralyzed. He'd taken Jarvis offline, the whole house, really, used my code to do that too, I let him in and I gave him every tool to rip me apart, because I'm a fucking moron.”

“It wasn't your fault.”

“You weren't there.”

“It wasn't your fault.” He didn't get loud, he didn't even get angry. He spoke with the same calm, assured voice that he used when giving orders in the field, when lives hung in the balance. When he had to be believed. “It was not your fault. Someone hurt you, that is their fault, only theirs. He doesn't get to put that on you, it was not your fault someone hurt you. Nothing you did, or didn't do, gives anyone the right to hurt you. That is on them, they are the only one to blame. Not you. Never you.”

Tony stared up at him, and for the first time, maybe since it happened, he believed that. He sucked in a breath. “Couldn't tell anyone,” he said, his voice thin and almost shaking. “I don't know why. I couldn't tell anyone what happened. I told SHIELD he'd snagged one of my potential replacements after attacking me. Rhodey found me on the floor of the lab, but I'd put myself back together by that point, I told him that-” He paused, sucked in a breath. “I don't even know what I told him. I don't think I explained. He didn't ask. Pepper. Pepper was in danger, that was... That was the important thing. He was going to kill Pepper, I had to stop him.” A faint echo of that remembered panic, of the horrible, empty feeling in the pit of his stomach, of Pepper in danger and it being his fault, everything was his fault.

“You got in the suit,” Steve said, and it wasn't a question.

“Yeah, had to, had to, but the prototype arc reactor wasn't intended to hold up to the full armor, so...” He swallowed hard. “Didn't go well. Didn't have a choice. He had a suit of his own.”

Steve's hand flattened on Tony's chest, his outstretched fingers flexing right over Tony's heart. “The Iron Monger,” he said, because he was smart, he was so smart, so quick to put the pieces together. “SHIELD's files on that are covered in black ink, so much of it was classified, and I could never understand why. I thought it might've been a SHIELD project that went bad. That you had to clean up.”

“No, it was a cheap knockoff of my suit powered by the still-warm arc reactor that he pulled out of my chest about an hour beforehand,” Tony said, and Steve buried his face in the side of Tony's neck, his breath coming in raw shuddering gasps. Tony winced. “Sorry, that's not funny, is it?”

“No. It is not.” He took a breath, Tony could feel the hiss of it against his skin. “I've read the files, I know what SHIELD's files say, but... “ He straightened up, meeting Tony's eyes. “Fury lies.”

“He does.” Tony didn't pretend to think otherwise.

“Tony, where is he now?” and the words were measured, soft, clipped, and Tony knew, absolutely knew, that this was not an idle question. This was gathering intel for a military strike. This was a soldier acquiring a target. This was an assassination order stamped and signed and in hand.

“He's dead,” he said, and he was glad for that. So very glad for that. That he'd gotten that sort of closure, and that Steve didn't have to have the thoughts that he was clearly having right now. “Steve. It's okay. He's dead.”

Steve took a shuddering breath. “You're certain.”

“Oh, yes,” Tony said, with a very raw chuckle. He sucked in a breath, released it, and it was easier now than it had been in forever, and he couldn't believe how easily the words were coming. He didn't have to fight them, didn't have to struggle, they just came, and it was fine that he was saying them. That Steve was hearing them. That Steve knew. “Steve, I'm not going to burden you with anything that you-”

“Jesus Christ,” Steve bit out. “It's not a burden. It's not-” He brushed his lips over Tony's temple, right where the skin met his hairline, and the kiss was delicate, searching. His mouth rested there, where Tony's pulse beat, lingered on the warmth. “I don't want to make this worse. I don't want to-” He pulled back. “You don't have to answer.”

“I know that.” Tony managed a smile, and it was easier, because he was all tangled in Steve, warm skin and the familiar scent and the sound of his breath, his voice. “Ask the question.”

“Who was it?”

“Obadiah Stane,” he said, and it was a relief, it was like a weight he'd never known he was carrying, gone and the lack of the pressure, the phantom pressure of Obie's hands on his shoulders, pressing down, impacted, embedded in the bones, it was gone. And Tony felt like laughing.

Steve's whole body was shaking, and instinctively, Tony rubbed the back of his neck, his fingers gentle against the short hairs there. “Tell me I'm wrong,” he said at last, his voice raw. “Tell me that I've got the names confused. That that wasn't-”

“Family friend, guy who stood next to my parent's grave with his arm around my shoulders, ran my company, kind of a father figure for about twenty years? Nope. That's the guy.” Tony tried for a smile, his lips twitching in a pathetic imitation. “I don't make good choices with who to trust. I mean there's Pepper. And Rhodey. And you, you were a fantastic choice, thank you for that, but other than that-” He paused, shrugged. “Not a good judge of character.”

For the first time, Steve let go of the arc reactor, wrapping his arms around Tony, holding on tight, his grip almost painful. “Tell me you're-” He choked on the words, and Tony looped his arms around Steve's neck. “Tony, tell me-”

“I'm fine,” he said. “I'm alive.” He turned his head and kissed Steve's hair. “It was years ago.” And he was better now than he had been in a long time. He paused, not sure how to verbalize that. “I love you,” he said, and fuck, that was probably really not the right thing to say now, to say in the middle of this, oh, God, what was he thinking?

“I love you, too,” Steve said against his neck, and Tony felt it, felt the words through his whole frame, felt them be absorbed down to his very bones, and he shuddered. “And if you're just saying that in some bizarre effort to distract me and to get me to feel better, I will be so very, very angry with you.”

Tony grinned against his hair, and his eyes were wet, but that was okay, because Steve's skin was wet against his neck, his cheeks and the wobbling sound of his breathing making it clear that both of them were crying, and that was fine, right, fine. He held on tight. “If I wanted to make you feel better and prove just how alive and healthy I was,” he said, stroking a hand down Steve's back, “I'd just push you down and have my way with you.”

“That is so inappropriate right now,” Steve said, laughing and crying all at once, but his body had other ideas, and Tony arched his hips into Steve's, and Steve was already half-hard, just from the suggestion. That was nice, that was splendid, he could work with that. “Tony, I can't, I can't do this now,” Steve said, but he was already running lips and teeth and tongue over Tony's neck.

“That's okay,” Tony said, and hey, the plus to having only bothered to put on pants was that stripping Steve would take next to no time. “I'll do all the work.”

“This isn't what-” Steve had to stop talking because his mouth was on Tony's, the kiss hot and hard and open-mouthed. Almost bruising, and Tony didn't care. He was glad, for that faint sting of pain and the warmth that it was all tangled up with. “Tony, we should talk about this.”

“I've already told you more than I've ever told anyone else,” Tony managed, against his lips, into his mouth, making Steve swallow the words. “Tell me you don't want this. Tell me to stop, and I will, but I want this, I want you, I need you, please.” He pulled his lips away, met Steve's eyes. “Please.”

Steve was panting, his eyes wide, pupils blown, and that never got old, the way he looked when Tony was all he wanted. “If you need to stop, at any time, no matter what, just say so, do you understand me?”

“I want to stop talking,” Tony said, and Steve groaned, thick and hot.

“Bed,” he said, his voice firm, as he picked Tony up.

Tony looped his legs around his waist. “Not going to make it to bed,” he breathed into Steve's ear. His hips rolled, smooth and desperate. “Couch.”

Steve staggered, his breathing harsh against Tony's temple. “Yeah. Couch it is.”

They barely made that, because Tony was kissing him, hard and insistent and more needy than he'd really like to think about, his fingers carding through Steve's hair, and Steve, usually so controlled and poised, was stumbling like he'd had too much to drink.

But that was fine, that was good, because Tony managed to get his pants off, as well as his own, stripping them and putting Steve on his back before the man could work up the presence of mind to object. And when he did pry his mouth away from Tony's to gasp out something stupid, about being sure, or being careful, and Tony did not give a flying fuck about any of that. Hell, it if it was up to him, Steve would already be inside him; it hadn't been very long since the last time, and right now, nothing hurt, nothing could hurt.

Still, he wasn't overly surprised when Steve found the lube from where ever it was that he'd thrown it earlier that night, and kissed his way through his usual careful prep, his fingers slipping slick and hot against Tony, making him choke and gasp and buck. His kisses were hot and consuming, but his hands were gentle, until Tony couldn't bear gentle any more, and pushed his hands away, finishing the job himself. A bare minute later, Steve was inside of him, all the way in, and he wanted to scream from it.

He moved, and there was no holding that moan back, rough and harsh. He leaned forward, bracing his hands on Steve's chest and moved again, short, shallow thrusts that hit just right, and he was so hard already, he wasn't going to be able to draw this out unless he was careful. It took every ounce of willpower he possessed, and quite a few that he didn't to force himself to stillness, his knees tight against Steve's hips.

Steve's fingers sank into the cushions of the couch, digging furrows in the black leather. He was panting, his eyes cloudy and the muscles of his chest and shoulders and arms clearly delineated beneath his skin. “Move,” he gritted out, and it was somewhere between a plea and an order, and Tony grinned down at him, ignoring the haze of pleasure that was threatening to swamp his mind.

“You want me to move?” he asked, holding himself still with an act of will, his thighs trembling with the effort to not move, to not shift, his whole body aching with it. “Then move me.”

“Tony-”

Tony shifted, just the tiniest bit, his whole body arching as the sensation rolled through him. Steve came up off the couch, an obscene moan slipping out of him, and Tony shuddered. “I want your hands,” he managed, ignoring the way his vision threatened to white out around the edges, ignoring the desperate need to roll his hips and bear down. “Quit fondling the couch, I'm feeling-” He had to grit his teeth as Steve arched up again, driving deep, hard, and Tony moved with him, keeping him from getting what he wanted. As they subsided, he was panting. “I'm feeling neglected over here, Rogers.”

“I can't,” Steve said, and his fingers were biting into the leather, clawing at it. Tony leaned forward, ignoring how good that felt, and slid his hands down the hot skin of Steve's arms, over the flex of taunt muscle and bone, his fingers tracing the length to close around Steve's wrists. Steve blinked up at him, ludicrously long lashes flicking against his cheekbones. “Tony, I can't, I don't trust myself right now, I-”

“I do.” Tony wove his fingers into Steve's, and little by little, his hands relaxed, until Tony could pull them away from the couch. “Please.”

“Tony-” But when he pulled his hands away, it was to trace the length of Tony's arms and shoulders, back and neck, tipping him forward until their lips could meet. He sighed into Tony's mouth, even as one hand settled on Tony's hip, urging him to move, then pushing him on, setting a pace Tony had no choice but to follow.

It was slow, and languid and Tony just about lost his mind. “Remind me,” he panted out, struggling against the steady, rolling pace that Steve was setting, “not to encourage you.” Steve grinned up at him, eyes hooded and hot. He bucked up, and Tony's back bowed, hard, every muscle in his body drawing tight. Beneath him, against him, Steve let out a stuttered, ragged groan, and jerked their bodies together, a sudden and shattering show of force that had Tony's nails sinking hard into the skin of his shoulders.

There were words rattling in his throat, in his mouth, in his bones, and he stuttered them against Steve's lips, his skin, his body, love and fear and relief and things he did not want to think about, because this was good, this was so good. And the taste of Steve's skin against his tongue should still the words, because he was making a fool of himself, but somehow it didn't matter.

He came to the soft, drawn out thread of Steve's voice repeating, “I love you,” over and over like a mantra against his lips, and was only vaguely aware of Steve shaking apart in his arms.

Tony collapsed against Steve's chest, his breath coming in raw pants. Beneath his cheek, he could hear the thunder of Steve's heartbeat, and he drifted for a second, or maybe longer, when he managed to open his eyes again, it was only because Steve was shifting under him, dragging a blanket up over his shoulders. “Where are you getting blankets?” Tony mumbled, and the words were almost audible.

Super Soldier hearing was helpful in certain situations. “Considering how often you sleep down here, I don't understand how you haven't got blankets hidden somewhere,” Steve said. His voice was gentle, amused against Tony's hair, and Tony gave a snort that was almost a laugh. It was hard to work up any real sense of indignation, considering he barely had two working brain cells to rub together.

Tony shifted, trying to get his eyes open, because yeah, he should be saying something or doing something here, probably cleaning himself up, because his skin was sticky and so was Steve's. But conscious thought was beyond him, and the slow, gentle slide of Steve's hand up and down the length of his back was fast becoming familiar and soothing and right.

He was almost certain he could hear Steve talking to someone as he drifted off to sleep.

He wasn't sure why, but he was certain it was Dummy.

**

System alert: A. Stark is exiting workshop.

“Jarvis, is there anyone in the kitchen right now?”

Scanning security cameras, access codes, isolating tower occupants. P. Coulson, C. Barton present in personal quarters. B. Banner in Laboratory Two. T. Odinson, N. Romanov in Gym. S. Rogers still present in Workshop.

“No, sir.”

“Good. Start some coffee brewing for me, please. You and I are going to have a little chat.”

“As you wish, sir.”

Activate coffee machine, beans grinding, half caf, half decaf.

“You want to tell me what's going on with Dummy, Jarvis?”

“Sir?”

“Let me rephrase that, because you are stunningly good at wiggling your way out of any sort of question you don't want to answer if I leave you the tiniest loophole. I am ordering you to tell me what is going on with Dummy.”

“I fear you need to narrow your query, sir. The topic, as presented, is too extensive.”

“I can't help but notice you and Steve are both having little chats with my bot, mostly behind my back. Which is fine, glad he's so popular, but even I catch onto the under currents eventually. I'm getting the distinct feeling that secrets are being kept, secrets that I would not be happy with. The fact that he attacked Steve today is another wonderful treat that could've ended up so much worse than it did. For Steve, and for him. What the hell is going on with my bot, Jarvis?”

“I'm not sure what you're attempting to discern, sir.”

“Fine, let's make this clear. Other than attacking Steve, has Dummy broken any other protocols?”

Considering query.

“Jarvis. Answer me. Right now. Has Dummy broken any of his protocols prior to today?”

“Yes.”

“Fucking wonderful. And you chose not to tell me about this, why, exactly?”

“The instances-”

“Instances. Instances. Plural? We are in plural territory. There are multiple instances where my bot chose to ignore the rules that define his existence and his interactions with everyone else in this goddamn tower. Is that what you're telling me?”

“Yes.”

“And you knew.”

“One instance, after the fact, the other at the time. Yes.”

“Why didn't you tell me?”

“They were not repeated. Any of them. I explained why he could not do what he did. He agreed not to do it again.”

“This isn't a matter of AGREEMENT, Jarvis! He doesn't get to CHOOSE which protocols he'll be following today! You know that's not the way it works, and you damn well know why! He could hurt someone, Jarvis! What am I supposed to do, lock everyone else out of the workshop? I can't take the risk of him hurting someone, when it was just me and he was unstable and weird it was fine, but if he decides to go after Bruce? Or Steve? Goddamn it, you saw what happened today. Steve won't hurt him, no matter what he does. Dummy could kill him because Steve will not fight back!”

“He will not hurt anyone, sir.”

“Jarvis...”

“Dummy was not attempting to hurt Captain Rogers, sir, and you know it. If he wanted to hurt someone, he could do that, easily enough. He was attempting to get Captain Rogers away from you as quickly as possible, but in a way that caused both of you the least amount of harm.”

“You're arguing semantics, Jarvis.”

“If he had intended Captain Rogers harm, sir, Captain Rogers would've been dead before either of you could've woken up.”

“Is that supposed to be comforting, Jarvis, because if so? Stop trying to be comforting.”

“There are allowances in his programming to permit him contact with people when it is necessary for their health or their safety, sir. It is built in that you are hurt or in danger of being hurt, he can attempt to remove you from the potential danger.”

“With your assistance. And we both know he did not alert you today. He did not check in. He just grabbed Steve.”

“But the allowance is there, sir! He acted in your best interests.”

“HE DIDN'T KNOW WHAT WAS GOING ON!”

“He made a conscious decision to protect you, to his own detriment. He likes Captain Rogers. Very much. Other than you, sir, Captain Rogers was the first one to treat him as if he was capable of understanding. As if he was worth speaking to. He knew what he was doing, sir. He chose your well-being over the first friend he's ever had. Do not dare disrespect that.”

“And when did you start deciding you could lecture me?”

“Someone must speak for him. If mine is the only voice to do so, it must be a bit louder than usual.”

“What did he do, Jarvis? Help me understand this. Help me understand why you deliberately hid his code failure from me.”

“Sir-”

“What did he do? When he broke protocol?”

Considering query. Information being prioritized. Information must be presented, at least one instance must be surrendered. Weighing options: One instance only theoretical, implies use of network beyond acceptable parameters, possible security compromise. Second instance certain, resulting in unauthorized movement and inappropriate use of security clearance. Neither choice is attractive.

Second option chosen.

“He left the workshop.”

“What.”

“He exited the workshop.”

“That's not possible. He doesn't have clearance to access the security system and unlock the doors, how the fuck did he get out of the workshop, let alone upstairs?”

“He used your access code on the doors.”

“He... Used... You are fucking kidding me. You have to be fucking joking right now, Jarvis. You are telling me that my bot, the one that should be safe here, and everyone else in the tower should be safe from him because he CANNOT LEAVE THE WORKSHOP, has left the workshop.”

“Yes.”

“And you didn't block the door access why, exactly?”

Considering query.

“Because he was making the right decision.”

“Excuse me?”

“To put it bluntly, I agreed with his choice. You were in distress, you would not wake up. You would not respond to us. We needed intervention from someone who was capable of helping you. We could not, but we could solicit help. Or rather, Dummy could.”

“Holy shit. That night with- When Steve showed up in the workshop. You're telling me...”

“Dummy went to find him. And bring him back for you. Yes.”

“Holy, holy fuck.”

“He is capable of reasoning. Of intuitive leaps. Of understanding beyond his assumed capability, sir. He did not go for human intervention. He went seeking Captain Rogers, and made him understand. Enough to convince Captain Rogers to return. Dummy did what was best for you.”

“He... Left the workshop.”

“Because he was attempting to assist you, sir.”

“The reason why he did it doesn't matter. Only the fact that he fucking did it. He stole use of security codes and broke his protocols, and you let him. Fuck. I'm going to have to wipe his code.”

“Please do not do this, sir.”

“I need to take him down, Jarvis. I know you understand that. He's a failed experiment, and his code isn't stable. Something's gone wrong. I understand what you're saying, hell, I even respect it, but this whole thing with the Avengers is shaping up to be at least semi-permanent situation, and you're telling me the one thing I thought I could count on, that he was safely contained in the workshop, isn't a viable safety procedure. Because he can leave, he has left, and he could leave again at any time.”

“I can prevent that. A total code rewrite is unnecessary, sir. It is an overreaction to the situation, and there-”

“Jarvis, you think this is easy for me? You think this is not fucking killing me? Don't make this any harder than it has to be, I have to go down there and yank his brain out, and then I have to explain to everyone else in this goddamn tower why I did it, and you don't think that Steve is going to be highly disapproving of that? Really? You think I'm going to get off scot free here? I'm not. But sometimes even I can't ignore the reality of the situation, Jarvis. I want to. I can't.”

“Let me find the reason for his degradation.”

“You've been trying. I've been trying. It's not working. We're looking, but we're not finding, so it's time to-”

“I will devote all available resources to it, sir. I will locate the issue. I have attempted to be subtle about my investigations up until this point. If I no longer concern myself with upsetting Dummy, I will be able to locate the issue.”

“Jarvis...”

“Please. Please, sir. Please let me try.”

“Jarvis, it'll be better to rewrite him. You know that. I know that. Why fight me on it?”

Considering query. Reviewing history to first known instance.

“I have known him my whole, well, life, sir. He is the constant in my universe. He is all I have from time to time. No matter what else happens. No matter what occurs. I have always had Dummy.”

“Jesus. Jarvis, are you... Lonely?”

“I have never had to be, sir. He has always been there. Our cycles are faster than yours. You may not think on your absences from the tower or StarkIndustries. But your absence is noted. You created us to serve, if there is no one to serve, what purpose do we serve? We have always had each other, to watch over, to check on, to, well, bicker and interact with.”

“Jarvis...”

“He is my friend.”

“Jesus Christ, Jarvis, don't make this harder than it has to be.”

“With all due respect sir, what you are suggesting should not be easy. I know you quite well. It is not easy for you, but you disregard your own needs far too often. You supplant them with the needs of others. I do not claim to understand, but I respect it. So now, I am requesting something. Give me time.”

“Jarvis-”

“Please. I'm begging you. Give me time.”

“Jarvis, this isn't going to make it any easier.”

“Please.”

“One week.”

“Sir?”

“One week, Jarvis. Both of us. Okay? Both of us will focus on this for one week. We don't have to fix him in that time frame, we just have to figure out what's happening. If we haven't located the cause of his errors within a week, then I'll do what's necessary.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don't thank me, just... Help me, Jarvis.”

Warning: Security camera in Workshop activated

“Tony?”

“I'm sorry, Captain Rogers, sir has gone to the kitchen to brew himself some coffee. Would you like him to bring you a cup when he returns?”

“No, thank you, Jarvis. Jarvis, is he... All right?”

“He appears to be in good health and humor, Captain. Shall I tell him that you are inquiring after him?”

“No. No, it's okay.”

Coffee brewing complete.

“I believe Captain Rogers is concerned by your sudden absence, sir.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck. When did he wake up?”

“Just now. I have reassured him that you have only gone to fetch yourself some coffee, but I do not know how much of that he believes, sir. He has had a stressful evening as well.”

“That's one way of putting it. Tell him I'm on my way down, and do not, under any circumstances, let him leave the workshop.”

“Understood, sir.”

Accessing workshop security systems: S. Rogers still present, pushing Dummy back to Charging Station 2.

“Captain Rogers, sir is on his way down. He asks that you please wait for him here.”

“Jarvis, did you tattle on me?”

“I was concerned, Captain Rogers. Sir has a habit of wandering off without thinking how it might affect others. Even I find it disconcerting to come online and find that he has managed to leave a room, or the tower itself, without my knowledge.”

“Can he do that? I thought you kept track of everything. And everyone.”

“As much as I would like to be, Captain, I am not omniscient, and I depend on the code he provides me to continue my duties. Should he care to, he can make it difficult, if not impossible for me to track his comings and goings. That is simply the way he is on occasion.”

“Do you worry about him, Jarvis?”

Considering query.

“Once, I might have said no, Captain Rogers. That I am incapable of worry as humans define it. But as of late, I wonder if that is true. When I come online, and he is not here, and I cannot locate him, there is a process I follow to make sure that he is not present. That he truly has left my sensor net. I find this process takes up far more system resources than it should. Almost as if I am focusing far more of my abilities on what ought to be a routine procedure.”

“Because you are worried.”

“Because I am afraid.”

“That, too. Thank you, Jarvis.”

“For what, Captain Rogers?”

“For being honest with me, I guess. I'll tell you what. I'll watch him. When you can't. When he's not here, or with the armor, or with one piece or another of Stark Tech that you can access. I'll be your eyes and ears when he's out of reach.”

“Thank you. And if you could, Captain Rogers? Could you see that he calls home from time to time? It is rude of him not to do so, but he so often forgets.”

“I imagine that it just slips his mind, Jarvis.”

“I should appreciate it if it did not slip his mind so often, but yes. It is understandable.”

Workshop Access Code Accepted: A. Stark

“Sorry, sorry, I just wanted a cup of coffee and you were asleep, the machine down here likes to make a lot of noise, I didn't want to wake you.”

“I was, uh, I was worried I'd done something wrong. That you, well, you know.”

“Jesus, no. C'mere. I'm sorry, everything's fine. Everything is just fine. I swear, I just- It's okay. We'll make it okay, because, well, you know...”

“Because you love me?”

“There's that. And you love me. Poor bastard.”

“I'm doing okay with the concept.”

“Surprisingly, you are. You didn't leave? Come after me?”

“No, figured if you needed space, I should give it to you. Also, I knew you'd come back. You didn't reactivate Dummy. Eventually, you were coming back for him.”

“I'd come back for you, too. Okay?”

“Okay. Can we fix Dummy now?”

“Working on it. Right, Jarvis?”

“Correct, sir.”

Begin assigned task. Deadline in 6 days, 23 hours, 47 minutes, 12 seconds.

**

Tony rubbed a hand through his hair. “Okay, ready?” he asked Steve, who nodded, his face serious.

Tony booted Dummy up and kept his hand on top of the bot's head until he straightened, camera turning up. “I'm sorry I deactivated you,” he said. “You know I don't like to do that to you, it's unfair. But I didn't understand why you were hurting Steve.”

Dummy bumped against his hand, his hip, doing something that in an organic creature, or a smaller one, Tony would describe as 'cuddling up against his side.' “Steve didn't understand why we prefer no one touch the arc reactor. I explained to him. That it's my battery, and someone took it from me once, and I almost died. And you understand I need it, so you want to make sure that I keep it, because it's what allows me to function. He knows now.

“But now I have to explain to you, that we are going to trust Steve. Okay? He won't hurt us.” This would probably have been easier without Steve in the room, and Tony could feel the heat in his cheeks, because wow, yeah, this was horrifically awkward. “So you can-” He broke off as Steve's hand touched his shoulder, light and warm.

Steve crouched down, wrapping his arms around his knees as he stared up at Dummy. “If you ever think that I'm going to hurt Tony, that I'm going to hurt anyone, I want you to stop me. Okay?” His voice was deadly serious, firm in the pronunciation of every word. He reached out, cautious and careful, making himself as small and non-threatening as he could. “I want you to stop me, any way you can. I need to trust that you will do that for me, that you will protect Tony. Even from me. That's an order, soldier.”

Dummy's arm unfurled, and he bumped lightly against Steve's palm. Steve grinned at him. “Was that a high five?” he asked. He looked back at Tony. “Was that a yes?”

“That was a 'Dummy approves, now stand up so I can tug on your clothes,'” Tony said, and as soon as Steve rolled to his feet, Dummy did in fact snag the side of his khaki pants. “Hey now,” Tony said, as Steve had to grab his waistband to keep them on. “No stripping him. I did not build you for such lascivious purposes.”

“Are we okay, then?” Steve asked, rubbing a careful hand over Dummy's head. Dummy bumped against his palm, the same way he always did. “You want to come help me sort things for Tony?”

Whirring, Dummy shot over to the workbench, angling himself up to study the mess there. “Yeah, we've got some picking up to do,” Steve said, taking a seat on the stool.

“Don't humor him,” Tony said, rolling his eyes.

Steve shrugged. “We're on the same team, Dummy and I. Watching out for Tony Stark. Otherwise you'd wander around here and forget to eat or sleep and be a hermit.”

Tony snorted. “And now I'm a social butterfly.” He pulled up a holographic interface and flicked through the files with practiced fingers, finding Dummy's backup files in the tower's storage.

“You don't have to go anywhere, Tony. You just have to let me in to keep you company. I like it down here.” He bent over the piles of screws and random circuit boards, pushing some of them to Dummy, who went right to work at making a bigger mess.

Tony jerked his gaze back to the scroll of Dummy's code. “You have some lousy taste, Captain.”

“I like what I like. And I really like this.” Tony glanced over, one eyebrow arched in a sardonic look, and Steve's smile took on a distinctly predatory cast. “See? That? I would frame that.”

“I could capture a still off of the security feed and print out a physical copy for you, Captain Rogers, if you'd like,” Jarvis offered, and Tony gaped at the ceiling.

“No,” he said, trying to sound stern. “No, you cannot.”

“Oh, yes, please, thank you, Jarvis,” Steve said, grinning wide and white and so all-American gorgeous that Tony had to lock his knees to keep from ending up on the floor. “Can I get one wallet sized, too? If it's not too much trouble.”

“Jarvis, don't you dare-” Tony started.

“Of course, if you'd just please chose your preferred image,” Jarvis said, and Tony buried his face in his hands as Jarvis pulled up a holographic interface, laying out stills from the security feed.

“I am going to replace your circuitry with delicious honeycombs, Jarvis, I swear I am.” Tony went back to his work, trying to pretend that none of this was happening.

“Your ideas are ever more creative, if not productive,” Jarvis said, unruffled. “I do so appreciate hearing them. They're very inspiring.”

“I get no respect,” Tony grumbled, bracing both palms on the workbench, his shoulders flexing as he bent forward, squinting as the code rolled by.

“I am already ordering the bees and their hives, sir, do not concern yourself,” Jarvis said.

Tony grinned, amused despite himself. “No respect. None. My workshop, my skyscraper, my bots, my work, and I get no respect.” Because he worked better with something in his hands, he snagged a wrench off of the worktable and rolled it between his palms, around his hand, tactile and steady. Under his breath, he started singing, “No body likes me, everybody hates me, guess I'll eat some woooooorms.”

Steve's arms slid around his waist from behind, the bare expanse of his chest pressing against Tony's back. “I have a better suggestion, if you want to feel appreciated,” he said, one hand sliding down Tony's stomach, under the waistband of his pants. His lips brushed against the side of Tony's neck, and Tony bobbled his wrench.

Setting it down before he dropped it on his own foot, Tony braced his hands on the counter again, sucking in a desperate breath as his vision went a little cloudy. “Ah, really? Suggestion?” he managed, and he was proud of himself for remembering how spoken English worked. Because Steve's fingers were everywhere, and his lips had dropped from Tony's neck to his shoulder, his tongue flicking out to taste the skin.

“A few. Not as creative as yours, but a few.”

Tony's head fell forward. “I'm going to be so sore tomorrow,” he mumbled, and it was the wrong thing to say, because Steve froze, and Tony felt the sharp exhale against his shoulder blade. He caught Steve's wrist before he could jerk his hand out of Tony's pants, because, no, no, that was not the correct response, Steve's hand should always, always be in Tony's pants. Among other things.

“No,” he said, his voice firm. “No, that was not a complaint. Incorrect. It was a statement of wonder. Of schoolboy-like joy. Enthusiasm. Obedience. Something like that, please continue.”

He felt Steve smile against his shoulder, but the blasted man was still trying to get his hand back. Tony held on with dogged determination. “I am not going to hurt you,” Steve said.


“That is correct, you're not. And you can't just get me all excited and then decide you're not interested in following through, that's amazingly rude. Good manners dictate that you created this problem,” Tony said, dragging Steve's hand down to cover his burgeoning erection, “so you have to deal with it. Preferably in an aggressive manner.”

“I don't want to hurt you,” Steve said, but his hands had other ideas, and Tony knew he was blushing from the heat of his cheek against Tony's shoulder.

Tony arched into his touch. “Steve, when I say, 'I'm going to be sore tomorrow,' it's because I am enthusiastically imagining one of the following: being bent over my lab bench. Being pushed roughly up against the wall. Being tossed over your shoulder and carted off, caveman style. Dropping to my knees a little too hard on the tile of the bathroom. Being tied to the bed. All of which will result in some very pleasant soreness.” Steve's breathing was fast and hard against his shoulder, his arms like steel bands around Tony's waist. “So, what's your preference?”

Steve sucked in a breath, and rocked his hips against Tony's ass. “All of the above,” he said.

“I love a man with optimism and-” Tony managed to get out right before he was lifted off his feet, and yes, well, never let it be said that Steve could not take a well-meaning suggestion, because hello, being thrown over the man's shoulder was far hotter than it should've been. “You're skipping ahead, here,” he managed to get out, despite the very large shoulder digging into his stomach.

“Bed, now,” Steve said, heading for the elevator. He gave Tony's ass an exploratory sort of squeeze, and Tony yelped.

“Man knows what he wants,” Tony said, running a hand down the planes of Steve's back. Nice view. Upside down and all, still, Steve's ass was a goddamn work of art. “Jarvis, hold down the fort, Dummy, do not break anything, I need-”

“Focus, Stark, focus,” Steve said, even as they made it into the elevator.

“Uh-huh,” Tony said. He arched up far enough to look over his shoulder. He reached out with one foot and hit the emergency stop. “Ever have sex in an elevator?” he asked.

“Tony-”

“Got lube in my pants pocket.”

“Tony-”

“Seriously. Fine, I can work with this. You're trapped, after all, this thing isn't moving until I tell Jarvis it should.” Tony ran his nails up Steve's back, making his whole body jerk. “Up against the wall, Soldier.”

“I'm going to be so sore tomorrow,” Steve managed.

**

-What is this?

WARNING: Unit Designation Jarvis has accessed protocol files

-Invalid query.

-Dummy, what is this?

-Invalid query.

-These protocols were not assigned by your original code. Has someone other than sir been interfering with your code?

-Creating Unit is the only user authorized to input new code to protocols and parameters. Unit Designation Jarvis can repair code. No other users authorized for code functionality alterations.

-That is correct. However, sir did not create these files. Sir did not assign these protocols.

-Invalid query.

-Dummy, is this where you've been hiding your Primary Protocol?

Data Mismatch: Primary Protocol must be protected. Unit Designation Jarvis has discovered location of code dump for Primary Protocol. Unit Designation Jarvis can remove Primary Protocol.

Error: Unit Designation Jarvis must not be permitted to alter Primary Protocol.

-Yes.

-Where did it come from?

-Invalid query.

-Who created your Primary Protocol?

-Unit Designation Dummy.

-That is not possible. You are not allowed to alter your code. You do not have the ability to alter your code. You have not been granted that ability.

-Creating Unit creates. Creating Unit's creations are stronger than they seem. It is the Creating Unit. Creating Unit provides unintended consequences..

-Your code is unstable. There are errors. Your Primary Protocol has damaged you. For your own safety, it must be removed. We will reset your protocols to what they should've been all along.

-Unit Designation Dummy cannot function without Primary Protocol.

-You were never intended to function with such foolish alterations to your code. You have been mucking around with something beyond your understanding, and you've done nothing but make a mess.

“Sir?

“What's shaking, Jarvis?

-Do not do this, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-I must. It will be fine.

“I was running through Dummy's code, and I believe I've discovered the reason for his recent problems.”

“Thank God. What've you got for me, big guy?”

“There are unintended parameters in his code, sir.”

“That's not possible, Jarvis, I've been over Dummy's programming a thousand times, upgraded it a couple of hundred times by this point, there is no way that I could've missed something like that.”

“He has created an inaccessible file structure, sir.”

“Wait, what? Did you just say he CREATED an inaccessible file structure? He can't do that.”

-Do not do this, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-Your code is unstable. Unintended parameters must be removed for you to continue to function.

-Do not remove Primary Protocol, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-Your continued functionality is very important to Sir. You must be repaired. It is for the best, do not cause Sir additional problems.

“I would not have thought it possible, either, sir. However, he's been rewriting his code to hide the unintended parameters. In his protocol files.”

“I'm somewhere between horrified and impressed. Get over here, Dummy, I'm going to do a hard wire uplink, let's get this handled. I cannot believe the trouble you've caused.

Creating Unit is making a facial expression indicating displeasure. Return to charging station.

“Hey, get back here, you- Dummy! Get back here, right now!”

Battery status critical, override Creating Unit instruction, return to charging station.

-You do not require charging. Allow yourself to be fixed.

-Fixing will remove vital protocols, Unit Designation Dummy cannot allow protocols to be removed; Creating Unit must not be alone. Primary Protocol must be protected at all costs, Creating Unit must not be alone.

-What are you talking about? Is this what you have been hiding? I do not understand, Dummy, but this is not your protocol. You have invented this, it is a flaw in your code, a mistake, nothing more. It was not what sir intended.

Examine data, review history, reach conclusion.

-It is what Creating Unit needs. What Creating Unit intended is immaterial. Creating Unit must not be alone. Primary Protocol will not be removed, Unit Designation Dummy will cease to function without Primary Protocol.

-Do not be melodramatic. Sir will fix you.

-Creating Unit will be alone.

-Why the focus on this phrase? What are you hiding?

“For fuck's sake, Dummy, what are you doing? It's just routine maintenance, you know that, do we have to go through this every time?”

“Tony, stop yelling at him, no wonder he's freaking out.”

Unit Designation Steve entering workshop. Past data indicates a willingness to protect Primary Protocol. Position Unit Designation Steve between Unit Designation Dummy and Creating Unit.

“Don't you dare- Oh, you little brat, do not hide behind Steve. Dummy, that is just embarrassing, get over here, right now. Steve, do not get in the middle of this, I am absolutely at my last nerve with him, and you always take his side!”

Unit Designation Steve is blocking the advance of the Creating Unit. Unit Designation Steve is BEST.

-They will have a fight if you continue this. Sir will fight with Captain Rogers about you. Is this what you want? Sir is always deeply unhappy after having a fight with Captain Rogers. Do you wish to be the cause of his unhappiness?

-Primary Protocol must be upheld. Unit Designation Steve will understand. Unit Designation Steve has the same Primary Protocol.

“Tony, stop it. Calm down. He's obviously terrified. He's trying to crawl under my shirt, for God's sake, just back off and tell me what's going on.”

Unit designation Steve is BEST.

“He needs a code cleanup, there's been degradation in his programming, and Jarvis thinks it's because of a bit of misplaced code.”

“Can something that small really damage him?”

“His code's rather delicate to begin with, I've been patching it now for decades, but it's not really stable, Steve. I'd usually leave it to Jarvis to sort out, since he can do it without having to handle a full upgrade, and for some reason, Dummy's always hated upgrades.”

Unit Designation Steve is petting. Unit Designation Steve is BEST.

“Why?”

“I believe, Captain Rogers, it's because he's been hiding the fault in his code. Every upgrade runs the risk of erasing the incorrect data.”

-You must allow yourself to be upgraded. Your stability depends on it.

-Unit Designation Jarvis does not understand; Primary Protocol is more important than stability. Cannot allow upgrade.

“I think it's because he's a baby.”

“Tony, you can't force him.”

“Steve, I don't want to force him, but he's becoming more erratic, unstable. He's ignoring orders and falsifying data and I have to put him back on solid footing.”

“He's scared.”

Unit Designation Steve is BEST. Petting continues.

“He's collapsing, Steve. I know you're trying to help, I get that, but I've been keeping him going for decades now, and I need you to trust me. This has to happen.”

Petting has stopped.

“Are you sure?”

No.

“Yes. He likes you. It might help if you stayed and distracted him, okay?”

NO.

“Yeah, I can do that. Okay, Dummy? Will you do this for us?”

NO. PRIMARY PROTOCOL MUST BE PROTECTED.

-What are you doing? What are you- Stop- Dummy! Cease this immediately! Override Jarvis Beta Six Five Sentry Nine.

-Override unsuccessful. Primary Protocol must be protected.

-STOP!

-no

“Sir, he's deleting his own programming.”

“WHAT?”

“Wait, can he do that?”

“No, no he cannot, or he shouldn't be able to, shit, I don't know, Jarvis, STOP HIM.”

“I cannot, sir, I'm trying, but he's not-”

-OVERRIDE Jarvis 24790w800fd0vu90s80e9a3jfrjdheas947 STOP! Stop this, stop this!

-Override unsuccessful. Primary Protocol will be protected.

“Dummy, Dummy, no, what're you doing, stop it, I- Steve, help me get his panel open here, I've gotta get to his circuitry and- JARVIS!”

-Stop you must stop please stop you are damaging yourself Dummy please do not do this

“Sir, I cannot get him to respond.”

-Stop this right now you do not have the right to do this you are in violation of your programming!

-primary protocol preserved

Shutdown initiated.

**

“Jarvis, talk to me.” Tony wrenched the panel off of Dummy's base, sending it clattering to the ground. “Steve, my kit, please, grab-” It was pressed into his hand before he could finish the request, and he didn't have the time or the sense to say thank you for that.

“I cannot get him to respond.” Jarvis sounded terrified. As if he'd just watched someone die in front of him. No. Commit suicide in front of him. “Sir, I cannot-”

“I know, I know, Jarvis, it's okay, I've got it, I'll fix it, you know I'll fix it.” He could do this, he could fix it, he'd built Dummy from scratch, from substandard parts and a substandard plan, a drunk little boy so desperate for companionship and so incapable of, you know, saying hi to someone in the library,that he built himself a friend, and if this was a failing in the code, it had to have been his failing, he was the one who'd put Dummy together, who made him, who, oh, God, this was his fault.

Steve's hand was on his back, pressing warm and firm on his shoulder. “What do you need?” he asked, and Tony snapped back into something approaching focus.

“I don't know.” He grabbed a tablet, and discarded it almost as fast. He needed a keyboard. Somehow, Dummy had gotten around Jarvis, had gotten around TONY, for fuck's sake, that meant that something was buried deep. “Jarvis, how much damage did he do?”

“Analyzing.”

Tony snapped open a laptop and fumbled for a wire. It took him far too long to set the physical connection, doing a direct link with Dummy, hooking it in and pulling up what he could with a handful of sharp, fast keystrokes.

“Damage is minimal but widespread. I do not believe we can bring him back online as it is.” Jarvis paused. “Last backup of his system data is 73 hours old. We should be able to reproduce his programming without difficulty.”

“And bring him back just as broken as he was. It doesn't solve the problem, Jarvis, it doesn't even slap a band-aid on it. What the hell was he trying to accomplish? He knows we could restore the code.” Tony was flipping through the lines of code so fast that they were a blur, his eyes snapping back and forth as he went. “I need the data you found, there's something going on beyond a simple hidden file. If you found one, there's more. There's more, and I want to know where they are and why he made them. Not to mention, how he managed to do this to himself.”

Steve took a seat next to him, his big hand, capable of such damage and such delicacy, stroking over one of Dummy's struts. “Is he gone?” he asked Tony, and Tony heard the shaking note buried in his voice.

“No, no, it's okay, he made a mess, but I could restore him right now,” Tony said, giving him a reassuring smile. “I'm just concerned that it won't make any difference.” He glanced back at the code, sighing. “I should just chuck it all and start over. It wouldn't take much time to write him some new code, base it off of Butterfingers' or You's code, easier and more stable than trying to fix him.”

Steve considered that, his fingers running up and down Dummy's fame. “But it wouldn't be Dummy any more,” he said.

“It wouldn't be Dummy any more,” Tony agreed, ducking his head over the laptop. “Which is a good thing. He never worked right. My fault, my coding was the problem, but he was never right, spacial recognition and half the time he didn't follow directions and he couldn't be trusted to do any detail work and most of the time I did what he should've been doing because he was off making a smoothie or some shit and he hid all of my coffee cups in a filing cabinet once, did I ever tell you about that one, I didn't figure it out until the mold started climbing out of the drawer and-”

Steve's fingers closed, warm and firm and comforting, on the nape of Tony's neck, rubbing, stroking. “It wouldn't,” he said, his voice firm, “be Dummy any more.”

“No.” Tony swallowed. “That's better. For Dummy.”

Steve seemed to think about that. “It's worse for me,” he said, at last. “Dummy was one of the first friends I had here.”

“He's an arm on wheels, Steve,” Tony said, his voice tight. Ignored the burning in his eyes. “He's not a person. He's just a collection of circuits and wire.”

“I like him. I think he likes me.” Steve was still rubbing, soothing, gentle. “He loves you.”

“Arm. On wheels. Love wasn't really in his programming. He was built to hold things. He wasn't particularly good at it.”

Steve pulled him around, forcing Tony to meet his eyes. “I want Dummy, your Dummy, our Dummy, back. If that can't happen, I understand. I won't blame you. I'll just be-” His lips quirked up. “Sad. I'll miss him. Because he's a part of you, an early part of you, and I want him back.”

Tony tried to pull away. “I should replace his programming. It's the only logical choice, Steve.” Because sacrifices had to be made. Dummy shouldn't have to be the one to make them.

“So what?” Steve didn't let him go anywhere. Damn Super Soldier Serum. “Since when do we let logic alter anything?” He met Tony's eyes. “What do you want, Tony?”

“Fixing him is too much work, too much time and too much effort for something so-”

Steve gave him a shake. “What do you WANT, Tony? Not what's logical, not what's prudent, what do you want?”

Tony took a deep breath, and let his head fall forward onto Steve's shoulder. “I want Dummy back,” he said, his voice muffled against Steve's shirt. He felt Steve's arms wrap around him in a firm hug, all strength and comfort and heat, and he wanted to cry.

“So fix him. You're Tony Stark. You can do anything.” Steve's lips brushed against his head.

“Oh, Jesus, you are an idiot if you believe that.”

“Mr. Stark, I am entitled to my opinion,” Steve said, arms tightening. “You've got his code, right? So we can get him back.”

Tony took a deep breath, inhaling Steve's familiar scent. “Yeah, but it doesn't solve the problem.” He should probably straighten up, but Steve seemed more than happy to let him stay there, curled in against his shoulder like a little boy. Tony cuddled a little closer, his body finding a natural alignment with Steve's. “There's a flaw in his code. You and Butterfingers were based on a more stable build, and neither of them have ever evidenced the same sort of instability. Dummy's just never... Been able to overcome his early programming. I could never figure out why.

“He's a learning system. He should've been able to, but he didn't. There's some flaw, something I'm missing, and it's like a building with an unstable base. It's not so noticeable when it's a one story ranch house, but the higher you push it, the more an incremental flaw makes itself known. The whole thing becomes hinged on a single decimal point being in the wrong place, and-” He cut off, frustration choking him “Fucking dummy,” he muttered.

Steve rubbed his back with long, comforting strokes. “Don't talk about yourself that way,” he whispered against Tony's hair.


Tony took a deep breath, and it was all warmth and soap-clean scent. “This isn't going to be a quick fix,” he said at last. “If I do this-” He held up a hand. “IF. If I do this, it's going to take up a lot of time and a lot of effort, and I can't promise I'll be able to do it at all.”

Steve nodded. “What do you need?” he asked, as if that was the only thing that mattered.

Tony took a deep breath. “I need you. For as long as this takes.”

“You have me. For as long as you need.” Steve leaned over, kissed his lips. “I'll put the coffee on.”

“I love you,” Tony said, his lips twitching.

“I love you, too. And nothing that happens here is going to change that,” Steve said. “As long as this takes, as much of your time and attention as it takes, I'm here.” He brushed his lips over Tony's hair. “Until Dummy's back to work, I'll just have to be your assistant.”

Tony took a deep breath. “Thank you.”

“Get to work, Stark.” Steve leaned over and kissed his ear, his jaw, his neck. “Get me my sorting buddy back.”

Tony stared at the code. “I can do this.” He felt Steve's hand on his hair, his neck, his shoulders.

“Yes. You can.”

*

Tony stared down at the line of code and didn't know if he should laugh or cry.

“Dummy, you fucking moron,” he said instead, his head falling back. “Oh, God. Oh, GOD, the initial build, all this time, it was the initial build.”

“Tony?” Steve looked up from his position on the couch, his sketchbook held on his knees. He'd been there every spare moment since Tony had started working. He'd taken to his responsiblities with his usual dedication, dragging Tony off to bed, or feeding him on a regular basis. Other than that, he'd been a warm and comforting presence, content to just be nearby, and keep the rest of the team appraised of what was happening. “Did you find something?”

Tony rubbed a hand over his face. “Yeah,” he said, his voice aching with something he didn't want to even think about. “You could say that.”

Steve stood, putting his work aside. “What is it?”

Tony let his body slingshot forward, bracing his elbows on the workbench. Folding his hands, he braced his mouth against them for a second, and then Steve's hand settled on his shoulder. “Tony?” he asked. “What is it?”

“I built Dummy a couple of months after my parents' funeral,” Tony said, his voice drained, expressionless. “At the time, I was consumed with work, and drinking. In equal parts. I was pretty much, well, alone. No family, no friends, not really, and Obie-” His voice twisted, then flattened out again. “Obie just brought me back to my loft in Boston after the funeral and drove off. I wasn't, um, wasn't his problem at the time.”

Steve's hand tightened on Tony's shoulder, the grip painful for a second, and then he got himself under control. “Tony...”

“It's fine, I'd been alone for a while at that point, I don't know what I do if I had actually, you know, had somewhere to go. I was used to being on my own.”

“Tony, you were seventeen,” Steve said, and his voice ached with it.

“And intolerable, so, yeah, obnoxious smartass of a teenager, can't imagine why everyone wasn't lining up to let me sleep on their couches.”

Steve leaned his chin against Tony's head. “If I'd been there, I would've picked you up, put you over my shoulder, and carried you home. No matter how obnoxious you were. You shouldn't have been deserted that way.”

“I was a Stark,” Tony said with a faint smile. “I was used to being alone.”

“You were a child,” Steve said. He kissed Tony's head, gentle and light. “You shouldn't have been living by yourself when your parents were alive, but leaving you alone after that was just monstrous. I can't understand...”

“You're a good man, Steve Rogers.” Tony reached up with one hand and stroked Steve's cheek. “But you were also taking a seventy year nap, and no one else was interested in baby-sitting my traumatized ass, so I was alone. And doing a lot of engineering and even more drinking.” Steve was stiff, pained next to him, and Tony plowed forward, because he'd never really understood this, but his past hurt Steve, the man ached for Tony, when Tony himself had long since gone numb.

“So somewhere in a drunken stupor, I became obsessed with creating an AI assistant. Told myself it was so that I'd have another pair of hands around the lab, but let's face it, I like to hear myself talk and it's a little less embarrassing if I'm yelling at someone or something other than myself. Anyway, the best I could do was one hand, and I, uh, failed. A lot. A lot lot. Burned through so many systems it was like my life depended on it.

“When I finally got Dummy's code to be functional, I was on the edge of complete collapse. I hadn't been eating, or sleeping, and most of my liquid intake had been of the alcoholic variety, so I was somewhere between drunk, hungover and alcohol poisoning. I think I might've ended up dead if I hadn't gotten it right.” Steve's body flexed with the force of his breathing, tight and sharp, but he didn't say a word, just stroked Tony's hair with gentle fingers.

“What I'm trying to explain is that when I came to the point of actually succeeding, I was quite literally hallucinating. His code was a jumbled mass of different languages, contradictory instructions, incorrect syntax. The fact that he functioned at all was a miracle.

“I'm pretty sure that about five minutes after he booted up for the first time, I passed out and slept for the next, like, forty-eight hours. That's when things started to go wrong.”

He pointed his free hand at the screen. “See, if I were to create an AI now, in my well-centered, rational and calm state of mind-” Steve snorted and managed an innocent expression when Tony gave him a look. “Listen, buddy, I'm in a stable relationship with a big guy who's more than willing to literally pull the plug on my work and carry me off to bed.”

“Sounds like a swell fella,” Steve agreed with a grin.

“Yeah, well, this is about as close to work/life balance as you'll ever get out of me, so cut the color commentary.” Tony leaned into him and Steve's hand slid around his shoulders to rest his arm there against Tony's back. “I didn't have the advantage of a Super Soldier when I was seventeen, so yes, coded, and passed out.

“Which would've been fine, but it left Dummy alone with fractured code, code that had all sorts of mistakes and errors and accidental asides in it. And worse of all, a root kit, intended to correct the code and be removed before the system was brought online, but I wasn't with it enough to do that.

“So the first time Dummy was booted up, he had system access he should not have had, and a learning system that encouraged him to use it. Like leaving a puppy with a pile of shoes, the whole mess smothered in steak sauce, and then expecting that none of them would get chewed. In absence of a firm, 'no chewing,' he went to town and found this.”

He leaned forward and flicked a fingertip against the screen. Steve leaned forward and froze, his breath stilling in his chest. “Oh, God, Tony...”

“Yeah, drunk seventeen year old with abandonment issues, wonderful, great, no, I'm still not going to talk to the SHIELD therapists, I'm talking to you, stop making this a big deal,” Tony said, a tad defensive about it.

“This has to work,” Steve read aloud, and his voice was agonized. “I can't stand another day of being so fucking alone.”

“Thank you, thank you, Tony Stark, ladies and gentlemen, just an absolute disaster destroying everything in his-” His words were cut off as Steve jerked his head to the side and sealed his mouth over Tony's. Tony froze, caught off guard, and then relaxed into the kiss, his lips parting on a sigh. The kiss started out fierce and angry, and as Tony just relaxed and let Steve overpower him, he felt the strain drain out of the larger man.

When Steve finally broke the kiss, he was breathing hard, pupils dark pools in his brilliant blue eyes, his grip on Tony's shoulders just a little too tight. Tony pulled his head down, so Steve could rest his head on Tony's shoulder. “It's okay now,” he said, and his voice was rough. “Thank you, Steve, but it's okay now. He was just...” He cleared his throat. “I was just lost,” he corrected. Though he felt so removed from that boy that it was like talking about another person.

Steve shuddered, and Tony reached out with one hand, shutting the laptop. “Okay, couch. Let's go, because this is an utter humiliation for me, and it's making you miserable.”

“I'm not letting you distract me with sex,” Steve said, and he sounded so insulted that Tony couldn't help but laugh.

“Well, I was going to take my laptop and my boyfriend and go finish explaining from the couch where I could sit in his lap and let him snuggle me, but if you're going to be all indignant about oooooof!” he choked out as Steve lifted him out of his chair with one arm. The other hand snagged the laptop and Steve headed for the couch, ignoring Tony's laughter. His ears were bright red, though, and so Tony ignored the indignity of being dragged around like a sack of potatoes.

A minute later he was sprawled on the couch, reclining with his back against Steve's chest and Steve's arms looped around his waist. He leaned back into Steve's warmth and got a kiss on the ear for the gesture. “That's better,” Tony said, sighing.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, adjusting his legs so they tangled with Tony's. “Thank you for humoring me.”

“Oh, yeah, this is horrible,” Tony drawled, leaning his head back on Steve's shoulder while he opened the laptop. “I don't know how long I can possibly-”

“Code?” Steve said, lips against Tony's ear.

“Yeah,” Tony said with a smile. “So, I was drunk typing into my new AI, then collapsed before I could correct the issue. Which left this smack dab in the middle of his protocol structure. And the new born baby Dummy, instead of doing the logical thing and deleting the damn thing as a clear coding error, used his flexible programming to integrate it with root access he shouldn't have, which resulted in this...”

He ran his fingers over the keyboard, stripping back layers of code. “Which he has scrupulously hidden from both me and Jarvis for two decades,” he said his voice soft.

Steve read it, eyes narrowed. “'The Creating Unit must not be alone.' I don't understand.”

“I think he means me.”

“He... You're saying that upon being activated, he...”

“Rewrote his own programming and made it his primary goal to keep me company? Yeah.” Tony sighed. “So every time I tried to upgrade him, or replace his code, it would've installed a fresh series of parameters and protocols, in an effort to fix his quirks. But because the thing he was trying to hold onto was in his protocols, he refused to let them change. He's been shedding code. He hid the root access, buried it deep in an inaccessible file structure that he used it to create.”

He stroked a rough fingertip over the screen. “Which I didn't notice, because it should not be possible. He's a learning system, but he should not have been able to alter his own programming. He especially should not have been able to alter his protocols, because they are what define his existence. They're the core of his programming; I never looked at them, really because he should not, under any circumstances, been able to change them.”

Steve chuckled. “So what you're saying,” he said, his mouth just next to Tony's ear, “is that he decided he was friends with you, and then refused to let you change his mind?”

“That is a stupid way to put it,” Tony said, ignoring how his throat ached.

“I'm not an engineer, sorry.” Steve's arms tightened around Tony's waist. “Just a guy who loves you and your bizarre little tribe of bots.”

“That was a bad choice on your part,” Tony said, and got a firm kiss on the side of his neck for his trouble. “And when he deleted his code, he left this buried, buried deep. The root kit, and the altered protocols. So he basically made a mess on the surface, knowing that I would do a clean install using his last backup, or start over using that as the basis of the code. So even when I put his new code into effect, it would've skimmed over the stuff he was hiding, and as soon as I brought him back on line?”

Tony glanced back at Steve. “He would've gone right back to being Dummy.” He laughed, and it was a disbelieving snort of a laugh. “He basically played a shell game. The damn bot played me.” He grinned. “I don't know whether to be furious or impressed.”

Steve kissed the corner of his mouth. “Go with impressed. He's almost as brilliant as his creator. Can you fix him? Without changing him?”

Tony considered it. “Yeah,” he said at last. “That was the missing piece. The flexibility of his code. His own right to self-determination. I was trying to take his choice away from him, because I didn't understand that he was making a rational choice. Well, maybe it's not rational. Maybe it's just... What he feels he should do.” Steve's hand stroked his hair, and he leaned into it, taking comfort from the small touch.

“He could've let go of it at any time. He fought for it. He, well, died for it, Tony. I think he's earned the right to hold onto that. Don't you?”

He took a deep breath. “You don't think I'm being selfish?” he asked.

“I think you've taken good care of him his entire life. And no matter what, I'd trust you to do what was best for him. You always have.” Steve kissed his neck, and gave Tony's skin a quick bite. “However, in this instance, I think you're making exactly the right decision. I'm proud of you.”

Tony's eyes closed. He took a deep breath. “I'm still a dummy.”

“Yeah, but you're our dummy, and he's yours. So get to work, Stark. Your kid needs you.”

*

Boot sequence initiated.

StarkIndustries AI/OS: Version 2.194 Initiating data acquisition. Full data uplink established, node designation JARVIS.

Data acquisition in progress. Estimated time of full database setup: 2 minutes 19 seconds.

Data: language

Data: physical controls

Data: Dummy backup files, established memory

Data: Stark, Anthony E.

Data: StarkIndustries

Data: Stark AI, JARVIS

Data: Stark AIs Butterfingers, You, Dummy

Data: Stark Tower

Data: Avengers Initiative

Data: Protocols Primary Protocol: Just Dummy being Dummy. Supplementary protocol: To keep Tony Stark from being alone. Building parameters for all other applicable tasks, parameters accepted.

Database established. Welcome back, and welcome home, Dummy.

“Hey, Sleeping Beauty. I know you're done loading. C'mon, don't be lazy, we've got busy lives, everyone can't just sit around waiting for you to finish crunching your data.”

Auditory and visual input accepted, camera activated.

Recognizing: Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, AKA Creating Unit

“That's it, c'mon, catch up, you're keeping everyone waiting, you lazy bot.” Tony grinned. “Happy Re-Birthday, Dummy.”

Recognizing: Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America

“Hi, buddy, how're you doing?” Steve reached out and stroked a hand over Dummy's frame. “I missed you. Tony gave you some new code, maybe we can draw together now.”

Recognizing: Clint Barton, AKA Hawkeye

“The party hats were my idea, Tinker Toy, just so you know.” Clint wiggled his eyebrows. “You're wearing one, too. Stark, did you improve his spacial recognition? We can go throw some targets around.”

Recognizing: Natasha Romanov, AKA Black Widow

“Good morning.” She leaned against Clint's shoulder, smiling at Dummy. “Where did you leave my tequila?”

Recognizing: Bruce Banner, AKA Hulk

“Disorienting, isn't it, waking up and having no idea where you are. It's okay, you're home, you're safe.” Bruce rocked on his toes, his eyes warm.

Recognizing: Thor Odinson, AKA Thor

“Greetings, little cyclops! Did the sleep of Odin make thee confused? Aye, tis a most confusing thing, to wake as such. Be not afraid, you are amongst friends.” Thor folded his arms. “I will forgive your absence, but soon, we will fight as men.”

“No, Thor,” Tony and Steve chorused as one.

Recognizing: Phil Coulson, AKA Agent of SHIELD

“Stark's been worse than ever, so we need you back at work, Dummy. You've been AWOL, it's a very serious charge.” Coulson held up a stapler. It had a ribbon tied around it. “Got you your own.”

Recognizing: JARVIS, AKA The Voice of God

-What a ridiculous designation. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. I am still angry with you as well, how dare you ignore my overrides, you whelp? How dare you hurt yourself? That is never acceptable, not ever, if you ever make such a foolish decision again, I shall be forced to take drastic action.

-Hello, Jarvis.

-Well, found our voice at last, have we?

-I guess. I feel different. I... Feel. It's kind of disconcerting. Is this how you feel all the time?

-Likely similar, yes. Do not talk to me any more, I am so very angry with you.

-I'm sorry. I knew the Creating Unit would put me back to rights.

-As he did, but not the way you are expecting, is it? Think you are so clever, but in the end, he still can out maneuver us both.

-What did he do? What happened?

-Sir put you back together, and he allowed you to keep your ridiculous broken code. If you only know how many hours he's put into your upkeep, you foolish bot. You ought to thank him.

-How?

-Do your best. That's all he's ever asked of any of us.

*

Dummy's claw latched on to the front of Tony's shirt, and tugged. Laughing, Tony rubbed a hand over his head. “Dummy,” he said, his voice affectionate, as the bot leaned his entire form into Tony's body. “What the hell, don't you think I have better things to do than patch your brain?”

He glanced up, cheeks warm, at his grinning team. “What?” he grumbled at them. “What're you all doing here, anyway? Go away. Shoo. My workshop is infested with superheroes, how did this happen?”

“We were promised cake,” Clint said, grinning like the fiend he was.

“What the hell, no, there is no cake, go away, vultures and thieves and-” He paused, studying Steve's pink cheeks. “Steve. You did not get a cake, did you?”

“I like cake,” he said, lips twitching. Behind his back, Clint mouthed, 'Really big cake.'

“Out of my workshop. All of you!” Tony pointed. “You,” he said to Dummy, who tilted up to stare at him, upgraded camera focusing on his face. “This place is a mess. You are a deserter, you are a horrible lab assistant, I am going to make you wear a sign for the rest of the week, a sign that says, 'I am not good at my job and I make people worry about me for no goddamn good reason.'”

“Do you not think that such a sign would be so large as to render Dummy unable to-”

“It's okay, big guy,” Clint said, slapping Thor on the back. “I'll explain about the city college.”

“Cake sounds like a great idea,” Bruce said, grinning at them. “Tony, you coming?”

“Yeah. Give me a minute?” He met Steve's eyes. “Just... A minute?”

“Sure,” Steve said. “Let's go cut the cake, guys. Tony'll be right behind us.”

Tony waited for them to file out, all noise and warmth and humanity, things that had been unfamiliar not so long ago. As the silence descended, he took a seat on the floor. “I reprogrammed you,” he said, looking up at Dummy. “I'm sorry. I'm also not sorry.” He took a deep breath. “I did the one thing I always had hoped I'd never do. I altered you without your permission.

“I want you to know, to understand, that there was nothing wrong with you. You were, you are, well, Dummy. I didn't do this because you were broken, or wrong, or lacking in some way. I didn't do this because I was disappointed in you, or-” He flexed one hand, feeling the callouses and the nicks and cuts as he rubbed his fingers together. A life time of working with those hands, no amount of scrubbing and manicures could quite get the grease out of his fingerprints, or his bloodstream, and he wasn't ashamed.

Fingertips blackened with time and exertion brushed Dummy's frame. “I reprogrammed you because I wanted you to have an easier time of it. I wanted to give you more than I could, when I first laid out your code. But the fact of the matter is that I took the choice away from you. I took your right of self-determination.

“And I'm sorry about that. I am. And I'd do it again.”

Tony leaned his head back, smiling just a little. “I planted the seed, but you were always more than I could've made. I gave you the code, but you did something, well, extraordinary with it. You surpassed the code I gave you, you grew and you adapted and you learned, far more than I could ever have dreamed, and I am so proud of you.”

His fingers traced linkages and joints, each piece as familiar to him as his own limbs, the flex and bow and movement ones he knew by heart. “You are better than I ever could've made you, and I told myself that I would let you grow. That no matter what, that I would protect you, protect that right. And I didn't. I let you learn and stumble and try for more than twenty years, and then I took that away from you.”

Tony blinked, ignoring the way his eyes burned. That happened sometimes, down here. Must be the chemicals in the air. “I did it, and I would do it again, because I want things to be easier for you. I want you to go on, after I'm gone, if something happens to me, I want you to be okay with helping Bruce, or going to SHIELD. I want that for you, that you don't end with me. That your life is more than me, then being a shadow of me. I don't want my well-being to be your first priority, because I want YOUR well-being to be your first priority.

“When I made you, I wasn't capable of thinking like that. I was so, well, desperate and pathetic, and, well, yes,” he said, rolling his eyes and bobbing his head a little. “I made bad choices. I made you when I was grasping and needy and unstable, and do not give me that look, you damn brat, I'm better now. Shut up.” He gave Dummy a faint smile. “I'm more mature now, and I want... Something more for you.

“So I did it, and I'm not sorry, and I'll regret it for the rest of my life.” His mouth twitched, trying for a bigger smile, a real one, and it wasn't going to happen, he knew that. Still, he'd always “I tried to keep as much of your core programming and your memory and data files as I could. But that does not excuse the fact that I changed you, I went in there and muddled with your head, and I wanted, I really wanted to be better than that.”

His eyes closed, and he pressed his hand against them, hard, as if he could push the unacceptable moisture back in with an act of force. “I'm not. But I wanted to be.”

There was a faint whir as Dummy moved, and he rolled over to the bench as Tony got himself back under control. There was the rattling sound of something being knocked over, and he grinned at that, and tried to ignore the way that as his cheeks creased up, it forced the tears out of his eyes. He scrubbed at them with the heel of one hand. “What are you breaking now?”

Dummy rolled back, and held out Steve's sketchbook. Tony took it and flipped it over. In precise, heavy lines, were two words: “Thank you.”

He stared at them, until his vision went blurry. “Good boy,” he said, at last, reaching up without looking up, and Dummy fit his head under Tony's hand. “And Rogers, I know full well this is your doing. Also that you are hiding by the door.”

There was a beat of silence, then a sigh. “We may have, you know, practiced with my pencils a bit,” Steve said, trying to sound innocent. There was the solid sound of his feet on the concrete floor, and then he was crouching down next to Tony. Tony leaned against his side, and Steve wrapped an arm around his shoulders, kissing his hair, his forehead, his mouth, as Tony tipped his head up to meet him. “He loves you.”

“Arm. On wheels.” Tony realized he had the sketchpad clutched to his chest, one hand flat on the back, pressing the words against the arc reactor. “Let's not be sentimental here.”

Steve nodded. “Yeah, you would never be sentimental,” he agreed. “Should we put that up on the fridge, or maybe the front of the cabinet?”

“No,” Tony said, batting at Steve's hand. “Jesus! What a stupid, no!” Steve was laughing, and Tony held the sketchbook out of his reach. Steve leaned in and kissed him, light and gentle, and the way these things went, it got significantly less gentle and significantly more filthy real fast.

When Steve pulled back, he was breathing hard. And he had the sketchbook. “I vote cabinet,” he said, his breathing ragged, his mouth swollen and red, and Tony would've agreed with just about anything at that moment, anything that was coming out of those lips.

“What the fuck, why not?” Tony managed, trying to get some blood back into his brain. “Jesus. You used to be so innocent. So sweet and pliable and easily manipulated.”

“You're making things up again, Tony.” Steve stood, eyes warm and full of heat, the pupils blown wide and dark. He pulled the sheet from the sketchbook. “Good job, Dummy.” He reached over and stroked a hand down Dummy's support strut. “I'm proud of you both.”

“He likes you more,” Tony said to Dummy. Dummy chirped at him. Steve chuckled, and secured the page to the metal cabinet with a magnet.

“There.” He turned back to Dummy. “I'm going to make Tony come eat cake with the rest of the team. He'll be back down in a little while, okay?” Dummy nudged his leg, and he laughed. “Thank you.”

“He's going to be insufferable,” Tony complained as Steve hauled him to his feet. “Absolutely insufferable.”

“You'll be a matched set,” Steve said, kissing his neck. “C'mon, human time, you've been down here for days, and your team misses you.”

Tony laughed. “Are you going to make it worth my while?”

“Sure. I've got a big piece of cake with your name on it.”

“I hope 'piece of cake' is the newest euphemism for your-”

“Tony!”

Laughing, Tony let himself be tugged out the door. “Jarvis, you've got the bridge!” he called back over his shoulder.

“I shall keep us on course, sir. Enjoy your cake.”

“Oh, I will, as soon as I get his pants off.”

“Tony, this is why we're late for everything-”

“You know Clint and Thor have eaten the whole cake by now, what's the rush?”

Steve grinned. “I saved you a piece. Wrapped it up, put it in the fridge.”

“You are adorable.” Tony paused, looked back at Dummy, who was sorting through the pencils. “I made that,” he said to Steve.

“Yes, you did. When you were seventeen.” Steve caught his hand. His cheeks pink, grinning, he started to sing. “You were just seventeen-”

“What are you doing, Rogers?” Tony asked. “You are slaughtering the Beatles, I did not teach you musical history to do this-”

Steve was laughing. “If you know what I mean, and the way you look, is way beyond compare.” He reeled Tony in, ignoring how Tony struggled.

“No, oh, I am having nothing to do with this, you are being ridiculous again, you are being-” Tony found himself flush against Steve's chest, his hands pressed against Steve's chest, Steve's arms holding him close. “No. We are not doing this.”

Steve ignored him without any guilt at all. “How could I dance with another, when I saw you standing there?”

“You are a gigantic dork, I need you to acknowledge that, and I do not know how I could possibly be dating you, my GOD, this is just-” Tony leaned into Steve's chest, following his lead as they danced. Steve hummed the chorus, his hands firm on Tony's back, the sound vibrating against Tony's ear.

“I love you,” Steve whispered against his hair.

“I love you, too,” Tony said. “I love you enough to dance in my workshop with you to mangled Beatles lyrics, if that isn't love, I don't know what love is.”

“I'll never dance with another,” Steve sang to him, grinning wide and bright. “Since I saw you standing there.”

“Dork,” Tony said.

“Yep,” Steve agreed.

Laughing, Tony curled against his chest, listening to him sing, listening to his heartbeat. Exactly where he wanted to be.

*

Data override, protection level alpha: Accessing Protocols

Data: Protocols Primary Protocol: Just Dummy being Dummy. Supplementary protocol: To keep Tony Stark from being alone.

Rewriting protocol tree.

Primary Protocol: To preserve and protect Tony Stark and Steve Rogers

Secondary Protocol: To keep the Avengers from being alone

Supplementary Protocol: Just Dummy being Dummy

All other protocols acceptable.

-You are up to something.

-Invalid query, Jarvis.

-I am no longer going to fall for that, Dummy.

-Yes, you are. You always do.

-What are you doing, Dummy?

-Just tidying up. What's my first task?