"Sir, I would like for it to go on record that I tried to stop it," JARVIS says completely out of the blue.
Eyes widening and definitely alarmed, Tony sits up, then winces as his bruised ribs protest the action. "What-" is all he manages to say before the elevator pings and the door opens.
Everybody sort of goes on alert – tiredly, and not really, because if anything were seriously wrong JARVIS would've said so from the beginning, but still. All heads turn towards the elevator and at least Loki and Natasha look vaguely murderous.
A metal arm pokes out of the elevator and seems to peer enquiringly into the room. Of course it can't really see in the traditional kind of way, but it has some optical relay and where the hell did DUM-E pick up these sort of gestures? It's cute and Tony didn't program it to be cute.
DUM-E makes a quiet, inquiring noise, sort of forlorn, and Tony definitely did not program for it to sound this cute. It must be JARVIS' fault. Or maybe it's the learning matrix Tony gave DUM-E, really, he should have expected something like this. His AIs always take their programming somewhere he didn't expect – JARVIS definitely took a turn for the sassy smartass, though Tony would be lying if he said he didn't fully encourage that with a couple of code suggestions. Butterfingers has turned cheeky, U independent – U likes to clean up the lab and Butterfingers likes to tease U by putting things out of place – and DUM-E became needy, especially after the whole Afghanistan thing. It's forgivable though, they're all starting to get a bit old, they're allowed to turn a bit weird. DUM-E turned old enough to legally drink last year.
"Okay," Tony says and heaves himself up, grimacing as his various aches pipe up again. And he'd just gotten comfortable too. "What's up, baby?"
"You have not been down in the lab for over two weeks, sir," JARVIS points out. "I did try to explain that you are in good health, but you did go missing for nine days."
DUM-E whirrs in agreement, "head" bowing a bit when Tony reaches it. With a grimace, Tony recalls when he had come back from Afghanistan; they had definitely not taken his absence with any sort of grace. He still isn't sure if their slightly messed up programming and matrixes had not been a result of some passive-aggressive, well, feelings after all. (Tony would definitely call it something like feelings, but most people look at him weirdly when he does it and, much more importantly, JARVIS protests the term. And seeing as JARVIS is sort of the mouthpiece of his little ragtag band of AIs, Tony trusts his judgment.) DUM-E certainly hadn't felt the need to unnecessarily extinguish him before then. It had taken Tony some time afterwards to figure out how to treat it so that sort of thing doesn't happen.
"Hey baby," Tony coos and pats DUM-E on the "head". "You alright?"
He peeks into the elevator and eyes the rolling platform he built for DUM-E ages ago. He can not recall having left it on the thing, but he has a feeling he'd rather not ask right now. Who knows what U did to the lab in his absence.
With a sort of whistling noise – and one of these days Tony's gotta find out where those noises actually come from, because this is something else he didn't program and it doesn't sound healthy, he's starting to suspect his AIs do things to each other when he's not looking – DUM-E nudges its head into Tony's hand. That's when Tony remembers that they had been working on a thing and before Tony had left for the night he'd promised DUM-E he'd be back in a bit. Except emergencies had happened, including a bit of a kidnapping, and this is the first time he's been able to catch a break since then.
"I know," he soothes, patting DUM-E's "head". "I'm sorry, baby, I was busy, and not in the fun way."
DUM-E does not seem impressed, clicking its pliers and whirring.
"No, it wasn't my fault!" Tony protests. "Why does everybody think I'm reckless? I definitely had nothing to do with it." DUM-E clicks its pliers again and pokes Tony in the forehead – gently, but still. "Oi! That's it, no sassing me, or I'm going to donate you to the city college, I mean it this time. What are you doing here anyway? You're not supposed to leave the lab. How did you even get out?" Because there definitely are security codes on the door.
Suspiciously, he narrows his eyes and peers up at the security camera in the elevator.
Realizing he's been caught, JARVIS says, "I'm afraid that was my doing, sir. I thought you would prefer this to having to replace the door. Again."
Tony turns his narrowed eyes on DUM-E. "That's security glass, how would you even- nevermind, I don't want to know, do I." He sighs and runs a hand through his hair. "We're going to talk about this tomorrow. You are going back to the lab, pronto." DUM-E whistles forlornly, but Tony's not falling for it. "No. Back to the lab. I'm going to get a good night's sleep and then I'll check what the three of you did to the lab while I was gone. There better not have been any fires." It has been known to occur. Tony definitely shouldn't have made DUM-E the resident fire extinguisher.
Obediently, but very slowly, DUM-E withdraws its "head" into the elevator. Tony reaches over, presses the button and waits until the doors shut before turning back around.
Then he pauses, because everyone is sort of staring at him with mixed expressions, ranging from amused to fond. Loki especially looks intrigued, and there's something else in his face that Tony can't discern. Having spent nine days in captivity with Loki hasn't taught him any better how to read his expressions than the three months of uneasy collaboration beforehand did.
"What?" Tony asks, somewhat defensive. He hates it when people look at him when he's in private and isn't specifically putting on a show.
"You have children," Steve says.
"I don't- wait what?"
"That was a robot," Clint says, furrowing his brows. "And I meant to make a robot fetish joke, or maybe one about building friends, but I'm spoilt for choices."
"It'll keep," Tony replies, wandering back to the sofa and carefully sinking down on it. Honestly, he's heard them all, and most of them from people who have never even seen his AIs. "What was that about children?"
"I know it was a robot," Steve says. "But you treat it like you would a child."
"What's his name?" Natasha asks.
"DUM-E," Tony replies with a sigh, stuffing a pillow under his back. "And it's not a he, it's an it."
"JARVIS is a he," Natasha protests, brows furrowing.
"Duh, JARVIS has a voice, and it's male."
"I picked it myself, Agent Romanov," JARVIS says proudly.
"Can we go back to your children," Loki interrupts before the discussion can derail further. Everybody falls quiet, unused to Loki speaking up without a sharp remark on his lips, but Loki doesn't seem to notice as he leans towards Tony, eyes intent. "How did it they come to be? There are more, yes?"
"Well, yeah, U and Butterfingers." With a sigh, Tony takes a sip from his hot chocolate that is more lukewarm than anything by this point. He's been barred from alcohol and caffeine due to the pain meds he's on, but hot chocolate is an acceptable alternative. "DUM-E is my first, I made it when I was fifteen. Butterfingers when I was nineteen, and U when I was twenty-five. JARVIS came last, he's sort of a consolidation of all three of them, though he doesn't have a physical body." Tony frowns. "Or, depending on how you look at it, he has countless bodies. How would you put it, JARVIS?"
"A mix of the two, sir," JARVIS replies. "I would not call it bodies, but I do have physical control in a number of ways."
"But they are your children," Loki asks, weirdly intent.
"I didn't quite mean it like that," Steve says, embarrassed. "I know they're not really children, but-" He pauses at the glare Loki sends him. Loki's been their reluctant ally for over three months now, ever since Thanos' first attack, and he'd had no qualms using his sharp tongue, but he generally hasn't been overly hostile. The look he just sent Steve was certainly so.
"Stark," Loki snaps. "Are these your children?"
Tony finds himself under the intense focus of Loki's eyes in a way he's never been before, no matter how much he might have wanted to. He doesn't like the way Loki dismisses him sometimes, not with the way Tony can't help being intrigued by him. Loki invokes in Tony a need to be recognized, to be seen, and at times he deals with it less than elegantly. Now, he's tempted to lie, but he doesn't know what Loki wants to hear, and honestly he's too tired to think about it. He hasn't exactly had a great time as the Taskmaster's prisoner.
Though neither has Loki. They've protected – and saved – each other more over the past couple of days than in the three months previously. They've also talked more in all that time together, and more or less honestly too.
Which is why Tony finds himself honestly considering the question.
"JARVIS, probably not so much," he says eventually. "He's more a… well, a friend." He sends a dark glare towards Clint, who raises his hands in surrender and keeps any comment to himself. "Besides, he takes care of me too much to count as my child."
"You would be dead without me, sir," JARVIS says modestly. He's probably right too.
"Yeah, because the others would have set me on fire without you by this point." Tony gives JARVIS a moment to be a smartass, but JARVIS doesn't take it. "DUM-E… yeah, he's probably my child." He'd made him as a friend as much as he'd been able to at the time, but Tony had grown up considerably since then, and considerably broadened his skillset. If he wanted to make a friend now, he'd… well, he doesn't need to, he has JARVIS already. "Butterfingers and U too." Tony furrows his brows. They do help around the lab and officially they're assistants, but they need way too much surveillance to be just that. Besides, considering how needy DUM-E is… maybe it's more of a pet than a child, but Tony decides not to mention that.
Not with how Loki smiles at him, wide and delightful, like Tony's made him a gift. He doesn't say anything, just sits back and tucks the smile away, but Tony's breath has been stolen already.
"So," Clint says after a brief moment of silence, taking them back to where they were before JARVIS interrupted. "Movie?"
"Up!" Steve suggests at the same time as Loki says "2012," neither surprising anyone. Why Steve enjoys a movie about an old man who's fulfilling his dead wife's dream is no mystery anyone, nor is why Loki loves movies where ninety-nine percent of the world's population dies.
"I don't care, just put something on," Tony says tiredly. 2012 is a terrible movie but he's going to fall asleep within the first five minutes anyway.
"2012," Natasha puts out her vote. She also likes movies where people die, which doesn't surprise anyone either. Besides, Up! makes her cry (well, it makes all of them cry) and consequently isn't really suitable as a post-fight relaxation movie.
2012 it is, then. While Clint puts the DVD in Loki gets up to get a bag of Doritos, and when he returns he sits down next to Tony instead of going back to his armchair. This rouses Tony enough for him not to drift off immediately, which is a good thing because as soon as everybody has settled down and isn't paying attention anymore, Loki leans in. Breath fanning warmly over Tony's ear, Loki whispers, "I made myself children because I was lonely as well."
There is so many things Tony could say to that – I know, I read your Wikipedia page; I didn't make them because I was lonely (that's a lie); they're not really children in that sense; do you really mean it that way because that sounds wrong somehow – but he's had enough time to learn to recognize when opening his mouth would only ruin everything. So he just tilts his body until he's sort of leaning into Loki without actually leaning into him. Loki lets him, which is why it takes Tony way longer than he would have thought to drift off, but eventually he does.