There were few people who would look at Toni Stark—at her, at her garage, at any place where she worked or slept—and then think, There's a woman who needs more robots. Toni had a lot of robots, and that wasn't even counting Jarvis and the more limited AIs she occasionally built into small appliances.
In fact, the only person who thought Toni Stark needed more robots was Toni Stark. In the past eight weeks, the term android had apparently wandered through Toni's brain, mated with the term army, and was currently being pursued and constructed to the most terrifying possible conclusion. Now she had robots that flew; when she emerged from the garage two or three usually followed her, drifting around their creator in lazy orbits and shocking anyone who came too close.
"Aw, dammit, Toni," Clint said. "What's with the robots?"
She smirked. "Guess they just don't like you, Barton."
"Not just me. They went after Nat the other day when you were out of the building. I had to stop her from pinning the little one to the wall with her second-favorite knife."
"She has favorites? God, that's terrifying," Toni said.
Steve wandered into the kitchen, hair damp from his shower but combed meticulously in place. He frowned suspiciously at Tony's fleet, but when the yellow model with the racing stripes bumped dopily into his chest, he chuckled.
"Hey, there," he said. "You look like you could use a map."
The yellow robot whirred and clicked and bumped dopily into Steve again. It looked, Clint thought, like a spaceship straight out of the old Twilight Zone. It acted like a flying puppy, though; he suspected it didn't do anything useful.
"Other way," Steve added, and nudged the robot around with one finger.
Clint rolled his eyes. "I can't believe Stark has you talking to machines now. What is this, home of the Toaster Whisperers? And why doesn't it shock Cap?"
"Biosignature recognition," Toni said. "Wouldn't do me any good if they shocked him. In fact, new rule: no shocking of anyone with Stark or Rogers DNA. Yeah," she said, and nodded to herself. "Done. Write it down, take a note. Jarvis! You got that?"
"I do indeed, Ms. Stark," Jarvis said.
"Excellent," Toni said, and scooped up her pitcher of disgustingly green smoothie and the dopey yellow bot. The other two monstrosities trailed her out of the room, complaining mightily in their three-tonal scales.
"Well that was perfectly normal," Clint said.
Cap was staring after Toni; Clint knew the guy was more than half in love, but seriously, there was a limit to how much the rest of the team should have to suffer. Toni had been holding herself at a distance from Steve for almost two months now and Steve was starting to drive the rest of them up the wall. Cap might as well have IRON WOMAN IS MY FAVORITE stamped across his forehead—it wouldn't make him any more obvious.
"Do you think something's wrong with Toni?" Steve asked, brow furrowed, all stoic and genuine concern.
"Cap," Clint said earnestly, "I think everything is wrong with Toni."
"But seriously," Clint said, wiping some kind of disgusting fluid off his pants, "seriously, why all the robots?"
Iron Woman stared at him—or at least her helmet turned to face him, for all he knew Toni was staring at Cap's butt with the cameras built into the back of her suit. "I like robots."
"Yeah, I kind of picked up on that," Clint said. "But what do they do?"
Toni's faceplate flipped up and the woman herself squinted at him. "They do what I program them to do, what is this, twenty questions? What do you care?"
"I care!" Clint said, feigning deep offense, although he'd never taken much of an interest in Toni's tinkering before and they both knew it. "What did you program them to do?"
"Uh, well," Toni said, clearly caught off guard. Clint wondered how long he could keep her from noticing that Cap's shirt had been burned clean off by a Brood weapon. "Let's say you have...a cat."
"Yeah," Toni said, "a cat. About, oh, eight or twelve pounds. And it crawls—uh, walks, and it's pretty intelligent. You know, for a cat. But not real big on the self-preservation."
"Okay," Clint said.
"And maybe you want to keep your cat from electrocuting itself," Toni continued.
"You lost me here."
"Sometimes cats stick their paws in electrical sockets. Or, you know, crawl out of windows, or try to take the microwave apart to see how the transistors work. And maybe you don't want that to happen to your cat, of which you are really fond, so you build a couple of robots to keep the cat from accidentally putting batteries in its mouth."
Clint shaded his eyes against the sun. "Are we getting a team pet?"
"Jesus Christ, it's a metaphor," Toni said.
"Does Stark Tower even allow animals?" Clint wondered. "I thought there was something about that in the lease."
"You didn't even sign a lease, I gave you the damn apartment out of the goodness of my metaphorical heart," Toni said, and then noticed that Steve was trying to use his shield to prevent the gathering reporters from catching sight of bare torso. She smirked and caught Clint's eye, and then they both broke into cackles.
"Hey!" Toni called. "Peak of Human Perfection! Need a little help?"
"Can you give me a lift back to the Tower?" Steve called back over his shoulder.
"I don't know, Cap, they're gonna think you're my kept man if they catch a picture of us like that," Toni said, but she was already in motion, stomping through the debris and powering up her repulsors.
"Toni, please." Steve had apparently missed the memo the rest of the team had gotten, the one about how Toni got starry-eyed and almost agreeable when he was around.
"If you're getting a cat, I want an elephant!" Clint yelled after them. He wasn't sure Toni had heard him over the wind until she flipped him off.
A couple of days later he was sprawled on the couch watching Cake Boss and waiting for Natasha. Toni and Bruce were working at the glass slab of a table in what passed for the dining room, being lab bros—not working on the same project, but they seemed to enjoy sharing the same space when they were doing deep thinking. Clint was a highly trained and dazzlingly skilled secret agent and a part-time superhero; he noticed these things.
Currently Bruce was glaring at his tablet fiercely enough that Clint was starting to worry for it; Toni had her cutting-edge drafting equipment spread across the table's easternmost third and was poking at a hologram. Her tongue was caught between her teeth. Cap probably thought that was sexy. Clint thought it was terrifying. The woman could figure out how to blow up the continent with a piece of gum and three paperclips, because she was a greasy, eccentric MacGyver. Greasy in the literal sense, that was.
Cap showed up like he'd been summoned—Clint muted the TV—and hovered behind Toni, waiting politely for her attention. Toni kept ignoring him; it was impossible to tell if she was being willfully obstinate or if she was that invested in her schematics.
"Do you think that you might need glasses?" Cap said.
"What?" Toni said.
"You were squinting," Cap explained.
"Don't be ridiculous. If I had trouble seeing I'd build myself some new eyeballs. No, Captain, what we've got here is a problem with processing power."
"I...see," Cap said, in a way that made it perfectly clear that he didn't.
"I need more memory," Toni tried.
"?" said Cap's face.
"I'm upgrading my brain," Toni tried.
"...This isn't going to end with you doing surgery on yourself, is it?"
"Not without—" Toni broke off to tap at the hologram. "Not without anesthetic."
"No," Steve said.
"Bruce is not a medical doctor, right Bruce?"
"Ohhhh uh, no, but I—let's just leave me out of this."
"Pepper pulled a magnet out of my chest once," Toni said, as if the argument proved anything.
"No," Steve said.
"Ready to go?" Natasha said. Clint twisted around to look up at her; she was dressed to the nines and looked exactly as gorgeous as she did every day. Two tickets to the ballet were poking out of her evening bag.
"Ready and waiting," he said, and offered her his arm. She took it with a coy, close-lipped smile.
Once they were inside the elevator and she'd straightened his tie, Clint bent his head to her ear.
"Pepper once pulled a magnet out of Toni's chest."
"And?" Nat said.
He grinned at her. "How kinky is that?"
Clint was in such a good mood the next day that he decided to help Cap with his little problem.
"Cap," Clint announced, "I'm going to help you with your little problem."
"What problem is that?"
"Your little Toni Stark problem," he said, and resisted cracking a dick joke only with great effort. Dick jokes would probably make Cap's head explode, and Clint had seen what happened when heads exploded. Not pretty. Brains everywhere.
"She has been acting strange lately." Steve poked at his eggs morosely enough that Clint decided to stick this through to the end. That one Brood attack aside, it'd been a pretty slow month.
"I'm on it," Clint said.
For a tactical genius, Cap could be pretty dumb, probably because he spent all his energy pining after a woman who was also pining after him.
"On the Toni thing," Clint said. "I'll have it figured out in no time."
"Did Fury put you on standby again?"
"No," Clint said.
Steve looked at him.
"Maybe," Clint said.
Clint spent most of the rest of the day trying to tail Toni. Unfortunately, the job didn't require much by way of planning, stealth, or marksmenship. Toni slithered out of bed at eleven, dumped three containers of leftovers and what looked like motor oil (but probably wasn't) into a blender and drank it for breakfast, and then barricaded herself in her garage. She was oblivious to Clint taking up a perch on top of the case holding the Mark V, the Mark VI, and the Hulkbuster exo-frame. She continued to be oblivious for the next eight hours.
It was kind of funny to watch her work, at least for the first hour or so. Toni didn't know how to sit still, which was hilarious to someone who had long ago trained himself out of anything but absolute stillness; she twitched and swore and cajoled her computers, and sometimes she praised herself to high heaven, and her hands were always moving, drawing in the air or scribbling notes on a tablet or banging one piece of metal against another. She wandered over to a car mid-afternoon and banged on that for a while, and then she got distracted halfway through taking apart the engine and wandered over to bang on the armor, and then after a couple hours of that she pulled herself away from the armor with obvious reluctance and went to bang on the Quinjet wing that was hoisted a couple of feet off the floor.
Maybe Natasha could torture the problem out of her. That would save Clint a lot of effort.
In fact, Clint observed only two points where Toni deviated from the usual Stark strangeness. First, she had nothing to drink all day except her noxious blended brews and water. No coffee, no motor oil, no nothing.
Second, she strapped a pair of speakers to her midsection.
Clint wasn't really sure if this counted or not; Toni didn't usually strap speakers to herself, but the speakers were blaring the greatest hits of cock rock and that at least was normal. Maybe her hearing had finally degenerated to the point that she had to feel the vibrations through her body?
Clint mulled over the water and the speakers during his evening workout. After he'd showered, he tracked down Steve—not hard, since Cap was in the gym Clint had just vacated—and stood in front of him at parade rest. Serious face for serious conversation; Natasha would approve.
"I think I know what's wrong with Toni," Clint announced, and then paused for dramatic effect.
Steve dropped a barbell. The floor didn't so much as chip, thank you Stark patents. "What? Is she okay?"
"She's fine," Clint said. "Or at least only her normal baseline level of not-fine. The problem with Toni is that she's..."
"That she's what?"
"That she's...sober," Clint said.
Cap stared at him.
"It explains so much, right?"
"You know what," Cap said, "I think I'll go talk to her myself."
Carol Danvers was in their kitchen the next morning.
"This isn't a passive-aggressive message from Fury, is it?"
"No hidden agenda, I promise," Carol told him. "I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd see what Toni was doing with the Quinjet. If you guys need a pilot, you deserve the best, and I am the best."
"You've been seduced by technology too, huh," Clint said. "It's like a plague."
"Toni does have pretty toys," Carol said. Her plate was filled with mostly bacon. There was maybe a piece of toast hidden at the bottom, but Clint wouldn't lay money on it.
"And pretty boys," Natasha said. "On that subject, has Cap been acting off this morning?"
"Haven't seen him," Clint said, but Carol chewed on a strip of bacon and looked thoughtful.
"He sniffed me this morning," she finally said. "Like Wolverine."
Clint heaved a sigh. "Loki must have gotten to the water mains again, because I swear—" He swallowed the end of that sentence when Cap himself stormed into the room. In the face of an irate national icon, Clint tried to fold himself inconspicuously into the open refrigerator; he apparently succeeded in making himself a smaller target, because Cap locked onto Carol.
"You smell like smoke," he said.
"I smell like the airfield," Carol said dryly.
Cap's eyes narrowed. "And did you smoke at the airfield?"
"Not my vice of choice, Captain."
"Good," Cap said, and then seized her cup of coffee and dumped it into the sink. Carol's jaw dropped. Clint was on the side of dumbstruck himself, especially when Cap starting rifling through the cupboards and tossing every caffeinated or alcoholic beverage the Avengers had assembled in the trash. When he finished, he took the bag from the trashcan, knotted the top, and passed the whole thing off to one of Toni's repulsor-powered robots—the yellow one, who took the bag in one claw and flew away chattering.
"No more coffee until August," Cap said, and left.
The audience took three minutes to recover itself. Carol stared into her empty coffee mug with an expression of pure grief, Natasha shook herself and set down the butter knife, and Clint unfolded himself from behind the fridge door.
"That," Carol said, "was actually rude. You don't think he's a Skrull, do you?"
Natasha would've rolled her eyes if the gesture hadn't been repulsively inelegent. "Not a Skrull, just an impending father."
Carol dropped her mug.
"I don't think it's fair that they get to have a baby and a cat," Clint said.