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The Butterfingers G. D. I. Stark Guide to Problem Solving

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Butterfingers, like all of Tony's robots, has a personality.

It isn't that Tony intentionally programs his A.I.s to be... Well, bitchy. They’re bitchy.

But that isn't his fault. He always starts out with the intention of creating a normal, boring learning computer, and then he ends up going four days without sleep, or he breaks up with his current PR guy and goes on a bender, or he has a dangerously high fever, or starts absently coding during the boring parts of a board meeting (all of them. All the parts of board meetings are boring. Heh. Bored meetings.)

So in the end there always ends up being some sort of tiny, insignificant anomaly --- not a mistake, or anything. Just a... a loophole, in the programming parameters. Something that gives the AIs a bit more personality than he’d actually intended. Slight aberrations, but Tony has this thing where he doesn’t like yanking out someone’s brain for no good reason, so he isn’t about to start doing it to his bots just because of some stupid little details.

So, Dummy learns shame, and at the same time he learns that all threats levied against him are complete, bald-faced lies. Jarvis, originally supposed to be polite and helpful, winds up as a sarcastic sonofabitch. And, due to Obie barging into the workshop and yelling at a key point in the robot’s development, You is so painfully shy that most humans don't even know he exists--- Tony will ask You for a screwdriver only to find Steve or Bruce handing it to him while his unhelpful robot hides behind the couch.

And Butterfingers... drops things.

Like, a lot of things. Everything, if Tony is being completely honest, which he tries his best never to be. Butterfingers might be the least useful helper-bot in the existence of the universe, because the little shit just drops EVERYTHING.

On purpose.

Butterfingers drops things, on purpose, because when he learned about humour he only understood the level of inane incompetence depicted by old-school Looney Tunes cartoons and the Three Stooges. So he thinks that falling down is the height of comedic genius.

(Sidebar: Tony knows that this is not true, but everyone else is determined to encourage him by ignoring Tony's vastly superior intellect to burst into peals of hysterical laughter every single time Butterfingers drops Tony's coffee on his lap. Yes, Steve, he means you. And Pepper. And motherfucking Nick Fury.)

So at one time or another, Butterfingers drops something, it rolls, or skitters, or bounces, or ricochets, or otherwise propels itself across the floor, and is never seen or heard from again. It's not a big deal, Tony is a goddamned multi-billionaire and a genius. He can afford to buy spares, and Dummy picks up anything useful right away. The cleaning crew he has in once every other month (under his extremely strict supervision) gets the rest.

So what if he loses a few screws or wires? Who cares about the palladium core that had bounced its way underneath a repulsor-jet-engine prototype? So what if a few little wheels or capacitors are absorbed into the detritus of his workshop?

It's no big deal, until one day Tony asks Dummy for his magnetic screwdriver, and it isn't there.

Neither is his laser scalpel. Or his sonic screwdriver, which was a perfect replica of the Ninth Doctor's, it made noise and flashing lights, and was in no way a working prototype, no sir-ee.

So, it turns out that there are a LOT of things missing. This might be a problem.

--

"Something weird is happening," Tony says to Bruce. "I think someone has been in my workshop."

"Mmuh? Whu-- Tony? Why are you in my bedroom?" Bruce asks, completely ignoring Tony's totally valid suspicion of a serious security breach.

"Without my permission," Tony adds ominously.

"It's 4:23 AM," Bruce groans.

"I don't know how they got through JARVIS's protocols, but whoever they are, they'd better return my sonic screwdriver or heads will roll," Tony informs him, perching on the edge of his bed.

Bruce squints at him. "Is this a booty call? Is breaking into my room to talk about your equipment some sort of complicated metaphor? Is Jarvis the nickname for your zipper, because I have to say, it’s actually not all that hard to get into your pants, Tony."

"Heh, hard," Tony says, and snorts.

"Oh my god, shut up," Bruce pleads.

Tony is insistent. "This is important."

"Sleep is important, Tony." Bruce flops back down on his bed and glares at him. "And I would like to have had more than five hours of it for the meeting with the Dread Pirate tomorrow."

This is why Bruce is Tony's favourite. He listens when Tony makes eyepatch jokes. "This is why you're my boo," Tony says seriously.

"Get out." Bruce replies.

Tony's conditioned response is to literally do the opposite of what people want him to, so instead he tackles Bruce in a hug.

"Ugh," Bruce says. "Fine, but I am going to sleep. Wake me again and I will smother you with a pillow."

Tony snuggles up against him and whispers very softly into Bruce's ear, "Don't dream about giant spiders trying to eat you, boo."

"Shut up, Tony," Bruce groans, smacking him on the shoulder. But he's laughing and not even a little bit green, so Tony doesn't take him seriously.

--

They wake up when Steve barges into Bruce's room, saying "Wake up, we've lost Tony-- He must have gotten out of the workshop, we need you to run a trace on... Oh. Ohhh. Um."

Bruce sticks an arm out of his blanket burrito, mutters, "Fine, fine, on my way, just five more minutes---"

"What do you mean, I got out of the workshop?" Tony asks. "I leave the workshop all the time! I'm Iron Man!” He has free will and everything, it’s not like he gets locked in there at night. He’s not a dog.

"Hey. Found 'im. Sleep now," Bruce replies, then snores. Loudly. Steve just stands there, looking slightly shell-shocked.

"You and Bruce?" Steve says, after a minute. "Are. Um. Together?"

"If by together, you mean I am in the same room, at the same time, sharing a bed after a night of passion? Yes, that’s seventy-five percent correct. We only snuggled, because Bruce is a shameless tease who likes to get me all hot and bothered talking thermonuclear astrophysics and making fun of Fury, and then he dismisses my very valid security concerns and insists I get five whole hours of sleep, which I think is just excessive. Don’t you think that’s excessive?" Tony pauses. "What were we talking about?"

“What security breach?” Steve asks, because he is a smart man. A very tall, very smart, very blond man who understands things like priorities.

Tony beams at him. “Someone stole my - absolutely fake - Sonic Screwdriver from the workshop.” He tells him. “Me’n Bruce were brainstorming ideas for revenge when he fell asleep. Or maybe he fell asleep and that brainstorming session happened all by myself. I’m not quite sure, but the toy wasn’t the only thing missing.”

“I am sleeping,” the Bruce-Blanket-Burritto moans. “Go away, Tony.”

Steve looks confused.

“Bye, boo.” Tony says, climbing out of bed and stretching. “Thanks for being my snuggle-buddy last night, next time you should try not stealing all my blankets.”

“My blankets,” the Bruce-Burrito argues irritably.

“My house, my room, my blankets,” Tony corrects him loftily, then he snags Steve by the wrist and follows his nose to the oh-so-enticing scent of freshly-brewed coffee.

--

“Tony, what security breach?” Steve asks again, after Tony has his third cup of coffee and is starting to feel relatively amazing and smart and genius-y. “Is this something we need to be worried about? You have a lot of enemies. Like a lot. There are so many people who want to kill you, they have a mural of their faces down in the lobby. I know, I saw it when I was doing a tour with the security personnel.”

“Some of my things are missing from my workshop.” Tony says, eyeing Steve’s coffee. “I am not sure how -- little stuff goes missing all the time, but this is the first time it’s been something that couldn’t have just been knocked over by accident or swept under the couch. So. Yeah. Sonic screwdriver, magnetic screwdriver, laser scalpel. The real problem is that whoever did it -- JARVIS didn’t see a thing.”

“This could be serious,” Steve says grimly as he hands over his coffee. “Tony, your workshop is one of the most secure places in the building, if someone infiltrated --”

“Maybe they’re invisible,” Tony muses. “Or mice! Oh my god, Steve, Douglas Adams was right. What if they’re running experiments on us? What if they know things we don’t? What if they don’t like Doctor Who? What if they destroyed my screwdriver? I might never recover, Steve.”

“Doctor who?” Steve repeats.

“Yeah.”

“No, I mean, what Doctor are you talking about? Is this a real doctor or a science doctor like Bruce?”

“Hey, don’t diss my snugglepuss, he’s a medical doctor too. Or at least he is in some countries, although he is technically not licensed to practice in the United States. I think he can practice medicine in Canada, though,” Tony tilts his head consideringly. “Steve, is Canada a real country?”

“Yes, Canada is a real country, Tony.” Steve sighs heavily.

Later, when Tony is in his workshop, he absolutely doesn’t do inventory. That is because he is Tony Fucking Stark, and he does not do inventory. He hires other people to hire other people to do inventory for him.

Instead, he looks around and says, “JARVIS, has anyone been in my workshop?”

“The only humans to enter your workshop in the past three weeks have been yourself, Miss Potts, Captain Rogers, and Miss Romanoff.” JARVIS replies smoothly. “The only non-human entities in the workshop in that period of time include Thor, Dummy, Butterfingers, You, two cleaning robots, and Agent Barton, who at your insistence has been classified as a sub-human life form.”

Tony cackles.

“No foreign presences have been detected in or around your property, sir,” JARVIS continues.

“Well... good,” Tony says, and then goes to look at the specs for his latest engine upgrade. For the Ferarri, not for the armor. The armor can’t be upgraded until it stops being super-awesome and is downgraded to just regular-awesome.

--

Of course, then Tony finds out what’s been happening to his stuff.

--

And surprise, surprise, it’s totally Dummy's fault.

Tony is minding his own business, installing Linux on the laptop he found in Clint's room, when he sees the bot acting suspiciously. Okay, Dummy is cleaning, but that is totally suspicious for Dummy. Dummy's version of cleaning is to move all the non-mechanical items to the Leaning Tower of Pizza Boxes carefully assembled in the far corner, a monstrosity of recycling and garbage with the same amount of dubious structural integrity as a post-Hulk-rampage Harlem. It's quite an accomplishment, actually, Tony is proud of the bots for building it --- but that isn't the point.

The point is that Dummy doesn't organize the scattered corpses of dismantled cell phones (why anyone would build a cellphone without a built in spectrometer, Tony doesn’t know, but Steve Jobs can suck it; may he rest in peace) or make half-hearted attempts to get the soldering iron out from where it is lodged under the particle accelerator without Tony noticing.

Tony sees Dummy sorting through scraps, and he says, "Whatcha got there, buddy?" Sort of absently, registering Dummy's behaviour as an anomaly but not really paying attention until Dummy drops the cell battery with a clatter and freaking books it for the exit.

"JARVIS, lockdown!" Tony snaps, suddenly paying attention. Dummy swerves to avoid slamming arm-first into the door, and then he makes frantic arm-circles and whirring noises of distress as he tries to find an exit that hasn't been locked down by JARVIS.

Tony approaches Dummy slowly, aware that the bot is having the electronic equivalent of a panic attack, movements becoming erratic and jerky as Tony approaches. Something is wrong, has to be, because despite Tony's near-constant barrage of threats and insults, Dummy knows that Tony will never do anything to hurt him. Dummy shouldn't be scared of Tony.

"Easy there, little guy," Tony says soothingly, even though Dummy is making sad, wounded beeps at him. And then You rushes past him, treads running over the toes of Tony's right foot in his rush to get to Dummy.

"What the ever-loving electronic FUCK," Tony swears as Butterfingers swoops in from the other side, whirring frantically. Dummy is still cornered, but Butterfingers is awkwardly patting Dummy's chassis while You coos at him, and whatever they are doing seems to be working.

Dummy's frantic whirring slows, then stops. You continues to coo at him, low, soothing beeps interspersed with soft bursts of static. Butterfingers moves away first, and then You.

Tony stares at Dummy. Dummy's arm raises, extends itself, and slowly reaches towards Tony. "You all right there, buddy?" Tony asks.

Dummy motors forward, pauses in front of Tony and then Dummy's arm wraps around him and the prongs of his pincer-hand wrap around Tony's bicep. For a long time -- longer than Tony would like to admit -- he has no idea what is happening, merely a vague sense of alarm as he considers the possibility that Dummy might decide to rip his arm off or something equally violent. But, well, it's Dummy. Violence has never been his thing, he's more of a ‘passive-aggressive sulking and guilt trips’ kind of bot.

And then, as Dummy motors back a step and lets go, Tony figures it out. It's a hug.

Dummy just hugged him.

"Wait, what?" Tony says incredulously. "Are you trying to-- stop it, stop it!" Because Dummy is responding by trying to like, hug him again, and robotic arms not made for hugging. "Get off of me, you freak," Tony shouts. Dummy whirrs sadly and hugs him again.

"You are such a big baby," Tony complains, but he wraps his arms around Dummy's bulk and gives him a little squeeze, because nobody is watching but God and JARVIS, and Tony knows for a fact that JARVIS has got his back. God doesn't, but at least the dude knows how to keep his mouth shut.

Dummy makes a noise and pats Tony's hand, so Tony rolls his eyes and makes a shooing motion. "Ugh, I get it," he says. "Stop comforting me! You’re the one acting like a weirdo," but Dummy isn't having any of it, insistently poking Tony in the side to get his attention and then petting him. Tony swats him away and tells him he is going to turn him into a hatstand, but deep down inside he feels a little bit of warmth, deep in his chest. It's not a big deal or anything.

But Dummy had freaked out, and that had freaked Tony out, and then Dummy had tried to reassure him, which meant that besides being useless and stupid and clumsy, Dummy has somehow also learned to empathize. With Tony. He cares about Tony, not about obeying him or listening to him or helping him, but --- about Tony's happiness. Tony doesn't really know what to do with that.

Wait, yes he does.

--

"I am a god!" Tony announces over dinner. "I have created life!" He pops the cork on the champagne and raises the bottle. "Let us celebrate!"

"I have created LIFE!" Tony shouts when the rest of the team just stares at him.

"My friends!" Thor booms, "Truly, this is an auspicious day! We shall feast! We shall drink and make merry! How does one obtain a roast boar on such short notice?"

And yeah, that is why Thor is awesome. Aside from the lightning and the flying and the stupidly magical hammer, Thor is a guy who knows how to PARTY.

"Way ahead of you, bro," Tony informs him. "I'm having this shindig catered. Pork chops for us, and rabbit food for Clint."

"Being a vegetarian doesn't mean only eating lettuce," Clint groans, hiding his head in his hands. Tony nods understandingly because obviously Clint is just mad he can't have a delicious pork chop because his boyfriend is on another health kick (and even Tony isn't gonna mess with good 'ol Agent Coulson, that man is totally cray-cray), so he is going to have to survive with his asparagus and roasted potatoes and meatless steak. Seriously, “Meatless Steak”. Tony knows actual rabbits who have better food.

"We must have mead!" Thor declares. "All proper celebrations will have warriors partaking of mead while we tell others the tales of our triumphs."

"JARVIS, you heard the man," Tony says, willing to humour him. "Call the mead guy. Let's celebrate! My genius is unrivalled!"

"Textbook narcissism," Bruce says under his breath to Natasha. "I can see where you'd come to that conclusion, Tasha."

"Dummy, is Bruce on fire?" Tony asks, grinning.

Dummy, who had been hovering (not literally, Dummy doesn't have repulsors... yet, anyways. It’s been discussed) in the hallway, rolls into the room, his arm waving as he made an inquisitive beep.

"Oh no!" Tony announces loudly, opening his eyes in exaggerated horror. "Dummy, Bruce is on FIRE!"

"Tony---" Steve yells, but it’s too late.

Dummy whips out a fire extinguisher and douses Bruce, covering him in the white, powdery insides of whatever the hell it is that makes fire extinguishers work. Natasha and Steve, sitting on either side of him, use their super-human-speed-and-reflexes (Tasha) and ability to hide behind stuff (Steve) to avoid taking 2d4 damage.

Everyone (sans Tony) freezes in alarm, watching Bruce with poorly-concealed fear.

"Jesus," Tony says with a frown. "Lighten up, guys, if he didn't go green when I woke him up at 4AM, crawled into his bed, and reminded him of the time giant spiders tried to eat us all, I doubt that Dummy's enthusiasm for fire safety is going to cause an incident."

He's right, of course, because for all his practical joking, casual obnoxiousness, and frequently frustrating behaviour, Tony has never been the reason Bruce Hulks out.

"Easy for you to say," Clint says. "You're the only one the Hulk actively likes."

“Wait,” Bruce says, alarmed. “That actually happened? I thought I was dreaming!”

Tony blinks. “You dream about me getting into bed with you? Is that why you were so insistent that we have sex?”

“I wasn’t insisting on anything!” Bruce denies, blushing. “I was clarifying what might be considered an extremely important point!”

“I’ll give you an important point,” Tony replies with a leer, while the rest of the team (well, not Thor) groan and make noises of extreme disgust (Clint, Natasha) or extreme mortification (Steve).

“Seriously, Tony, you can’t just---”

“What?” Tony asks. “Can’t come crawling into your bed at four in the morning? Because I have to say, Brucie-pie, you are giving me some very mixed signals. First you want to have sex, then you want to cuddle, now you’re saying you never wanted to have the sex we didn’t have. If this keeps up, I might have to replace you. Actually, you know what? We’re done. Thor, you’re my favourite now.”

“Excellent!” Thor booms. “We shall celebrate with a feast!”

“Hey,” Bruce says, looking down at the white powder that is covering him. “What is this stuff, anyway?”

Tony thinks about it. “Uh,” he says. “It’s-- probably not corrosive.”

Part of Bruce’s shirt disintegrates, fluttering to the floor.

“But you should probably shower,” Tony suggests.

--

After that particular incident, Tony is too busy upgrading all of Dummy's hardwire and rewriting his security protocols so that Dummy can access the rest of the living quarters and play with his friends if he wants to, so the security thing is mostly forgotten.

Well, Tony forgets about it. It still remains an issue, because unlike Tony, Steve doesn't have an attention span like a toddler. Plus, y’know, whenever anything goes missing Tony remembers ‘oh yeah, security breach!’ again, but--- well. Tony’s got more important things to deal with.

Dummy is Tony's first AI, his oldest child, and he may have started out a little odd, but he's only gotten stranger over the years.

Occam's Razor, years of experience, and the fact that Steve can't find any holes in the Tower’s security leads Tony to come to a clear solution regarding both Dummy’s sudden weirdness and the missing items...

Dummy is a kleptomaniac.

It’s not perfect, as far as theories go. But a rogue bot who starts taking things from the workshop is far more likely than some enemy infiltrating their headquarters only to make off with nothing more than a few toys, tools, and bits of open-source tech. Especially since Tony actually caught Dummy in the act.

"How about this one, Dummy?" Tony asks, offering Dummy a coil of copper wire. Dummy plucks it gently from his hand, rotating it slowly in front of his video input before shaking his arm in a sad side-to-side sway and giving it back to him.

"Hey, don't worry, I'll find something." Tony isn't a genius for nothing, and if Dummy has suddenly started getting attached -- to people or to things -- Tony is a billionaire, he doesn’t mind sharing. He has a lot of stuff. "What about this? These are the same motion-sensors I gave you when you were little! When I was teaching you to fetch, remember that? Do you want to keep these?"

Dummy beeps excitedly, his claw spinning as he bops and weaves, finally stopping to pluck them from Tony's hand. "Well, they're all yours," Tony says, smiling indulgently. "Keep them, I'm not using them anyway."

Dummy beeps again, then revs his engine and dashes off, pausing in the middle of the workshop to spin in a circle, apparently unable to express his joy any other way. Tony laughs. "Hey, Jarvis, you're recording this, right?"

"Naturally, sir."

"Hey, any theories as to the reason behind Dummy's recent behaviour?" he asks, grabbing his empty coffee mug and heading for the stairs.

"I wouldn't even know where to begin, sir," JARVIS says dryly.

"Yeah, yeah," Tony rolls his eyes. "You've got better things to do than monitor the dinosaurs that may as well have given birth to you. You should show a little respect, J, Dummy's the closest thing to an older brother that you've got."

"Indeed sir, and I shall eternally regard him as a member of my family," JARVIS replies. "Do not mistake my lack of respect for his behaviour as a lack of affection."

"I see what you did there," Tony points his mug at the ceiling. "We aren't talking about me, J, we are talking about Dummy's frankly amazing capacity for learning despite his decades-old programming."

"I apologise. Having studied numerous examples of your discussions regarding artificial intelligence, I has no reason to assume you would steer the conversation towards your own genius," JARVIS says. "Your modesty, as always, is humbling. Sir."

Tony sighs and promises himself that one day, he'll build a bot or AI that isn't fundamentally flawed, dumb as a rock, or too bitchy to be marketable. One day.

"Coffee," he demands instead, arriving in the kitchen and holding out his mug. Steve gives him a long-suffering look, but fills the mug anyway because Steve understands that this is Tony's tower and Tony's city in Tony's millennium, and Tony is a god and the rest of them exist to be his bitches.

Except Thor, who is also a god, and Natasha, who is nobody's bitch.

Tony goes back to the workshop to find all the bots spinning, whirling, or bobbing in happiness as Dummy shows them his old motion sensors. "Yeah," Tony says, eyeing them. "This is... weird."

Butterfingers flings himself to the side in joy, and knocks the whole worktable onto its side, spilling all of Tony's tools and bits of engine all over the floor.

Tony sighs, turns around, and trudges back up the stairs.

The thing about bots is, they’re-- well, the robots are basically Tony’s children. Later, he will yell at them and make them clean up the mess they made, but for now, he’s willing to pretend he didn’t see any of that. Let them have their fun, for once.

Tony finishes his coffee and decides to take a nap.

--

And then Tony learns, through experience, why everyone gets so very pissed-off and sarcastic when he tries to talk to them at five in the morning. Because being woken up really, really sucks.

"Something's wrong." Steve says, his brow furrowed in concern. Tony barely has time to register that Steve isn't wearing his uniform -- which means that whatever is wrong, it can freaking wait -- before Steve grabs him and is lifting him bodily from his bed.

"No," Tony protests weakly, clutching at the sheets. "That was mine, my bed, I was using it, give it back, Steve!'

"Tony, something is wrong with Dummy!" Steve snaps.

Tony flails a bit, because Steve is holding on to him too tightly and also because Steve is holding him off of the ground, which makes it hard to propel himself anywhere unless he’s actually in the armor. “Steve,” he says, as Steve carries him in a fireman’s carry out of his bedroom. “Tell me what’s happening. Actually, shut up. JARVIS, gimme a sitrep, now.”

“Dummy is destroying the workshop,” Steve says, despite Tony’s orders. “We can’t get him to stop -- JARVIS has locked everyone out and we can’t bypass his protocols and the only other way into the room is with high explosives or Mjolnir and I’m really close to asking Thor to destroy the whole goddamned wall, Tony!”

Tony doesn’t say anything for a second, because Steve just swore, and just-- what the hell, Steve doesn’t swear -- but then he’s being placed onto his feet at the bottom of the stairs, and Steve is pushing him towards the keypad.

“Open it,” Steve orders, but before Tony can comply (and not because it’s stupidly hot when Steve Rogers gives people or Tony orders) the door slides open smoothly.

“Thanks J,” Tony mutters, stepping into his work space.

The room is trashed.

Not like, Tony-trashed. Not even post-birthday-party trashed. This looks like an army of robots had torn it apart, there’s -- it’s not the one table overturned, its all of them. Computers are lying on the ground, one of the assembly-droids has been dismembered and is lying in scattered pieces on the cement floor. The whole place looks like a mixture between a trash dump and a robot mass grave, and Dummy is in the middle of it, viciously tearing the holoprojector apart with his arm.

Tony winces when he sees the damage Dummy is inflicting on his stuff -- his precious stuff! -- but for the moment, the more pressing concern is the rampaging robot. "JARVIS, emergency shutdown," Tony snaps. JARVIS is conspicuously and noticeably silent.

"Hey, J, what's going on?" he asks, ignoring the tension in Steve's shoulders. He doesn't have time to explain sentient artificial intelligence to Steve, but Tony knows that JARVIS doesn't blindly follow orders. If he hasn't initiated the emergency shutdown, that means Dummy isn't malfunctioning -- and that's an even bigger problem because Tony is the one who programmed Dummy and he can't think of a single pre-existing parameter that would require the bot the wreak this kind of havoc.

"Dummy requires assistance," JARVIS says in a strange, stilted tone practically monotonous.

It's weird. Freaky, even, and Tony frowns even as he approaches Dummy's wildly flailing arms. "Tell me something I don't know!"

Dummy's manic movements stop when Tony gets close, the bot freezing in place before moving at a percentage of his previous speed -- evidence that the safety settings Tony gave him to limit lab accidents are still functional. Dummy whirs inquisitively, then snaps back into motion, spinning abruptly and grabbing Tony's sleeve.

Steve tries to block the reaching limb, but Tony steps up, steps towards Dummy, reaching back because Dummy might be a nuisance and an idiot, but he's Tony's idiotic nuisance, and he needs help. Tony isn't afraid of what Dummy might do to him.

"What do you need, buddy?" Tony asks, keeping his voice soft.

Dummy whirrs again, then his claw closes very, very gently around Tony's bicep and he rolls forward about two inches before he stops. The tug on Tony's arm is so carefully gentle that he would laugh if it weren't for the monstrous mess in his workshop and the fact that something is clearly deeply wrong.

Dummy tugs again and Tony follows, ignoring Steve's incredulous sounding protests. Their destination appears to be the far end of the workshop when Tony keeps the pull out couch, bar fridge, and where the bots have constructed the Eiffel Tower of soda cans and the Leaning Tower of pizza boxes.

"Oh, shit," Tony swears when he spies a frantic You and an equally distressed Butterfingers huddled in the corner. You is holding a soldering iron in his grip, flinching backwards as sparks fly at his... well, not his eyes. His video feed and proximity sensors.

"What is that?" Steve asks, his hand weighing heavily on Tony's shoulder.

Tony isn't sure how to respond, because it's... Well, it's a mess, to say the least. A heap of scraps that, while looking like the saddest project at a high school science fair, is also hissing ominously as steam escapes from an exhaust filter on the side.

Dummy tugs him another step closer, and Tony can see the basic structure laid out in front of him so clearly it might as well have been a holographic projection.

"Jesus," Tony says, stunned. "Jesus--- what have you done, oh, sweet lord."

The design was never feasible-- too many problems with the programming, the unit's memory processing. He'd discarded the idea early on as too messy, too unstable. But here it is, in front of him.

"Tony?" Steve says. "What's going on? What is it?"

Central unit, four dual-jointed limbs, audio-video-proximity-motion sensors all built into a separate unit above the main power core and data backup. The exhaust port is jammed, the central processor is overheating, and You is trying his level best to repair what looks like a short in the main power line, but there are at least three redundancies that Tony can see that will fry the poor thing's hard drive before the short can even be fixed.

"You," Tony says, and the bot immediately hands the tool over, bleating in distress. "Back off, Butterfingers, you boys have created quite a mess here."

It's worse than a mess. This is a travesty. Faulty wiring that's mismatched and clearly been amassed from the reject pile. On an engineering background alone, Tony would be ready to toss the whole thing on the scrap heap and call it a day.

But...

"It's alive," Tony says, because the little bot is reaching out, grasping at Butterfingers' pincers and making a high-pitched hum of electronic distress, reacting to light and sound and -- "Fuck, fuck," Tony says. He's never yanked a robot's battery, not even before he knew how it felt for someone to reach into his chest and pull out the only thing that was keeping him alive. This is no different from that, but he can't-- he can't---

"Tony!" Steve says, louder.

"Not right now, dammit," Tony says, grabbing a screwdriver and prying open the exhaust port, wishing he could do more but hoping this would be enough. "JARVIS, triple air circulation in the workshop and crank the A/C, the little guy is overheating and I don't want his processors liquified. Dummy, get me a line of nitrogen-- Butterfingers, gloves, goggles, and the whole mess of blueprints you little shits were mucking around with."

"It's... Is that a robot?" Steve asks, still hovering near Tony's shoulder. The bot was stuck on a corner table, neatly hidden from outside eyes by the bots' recycling projects and Tony's pile of blankets. No wonder he hadn't noticed anything strange.

“It’s an AI,” Tony replies, reaching in with his bare hands to yank out a piece of frayed wiring. He gets a shock big enough to hurt, but it doesn’t kill him. “Ow, shit, okay, here we go, let’s get this mess cleaned up. Spare wiring in the third drawer, Butterfingers. Cap, you may want to clear out, it’s going to get cold in here.”

“Do you need help?” Steve asks, and Tony almost doesn’t hear him.

“I... yeah, that’s good, get me the laser cutter from the -- thanks Dummy. Okay, yeah this is a freaking mess, guys, this is why you never make changes to the hardware without double and triple testing it first. Steve, coffee. You, grab the first set of SIL-Z7 chips you see and bring ‘em here.” Tony doesn’t look up, confident his orders are being followed. “Dummy, get your lazy ass over here and hold him -- no, come on, stop squirming, I’m trying to help you, you ungrateful piece of --”

A mug of coffee appears next to him and Tony grabs it one-handed and chugs it back, grimacing a little at the bitter aftertaste (Steve always forgets to add sugar, or he skips it on purpose because the ice turned him evil).

“J, what do you have for me? Please tell me this thing’s memory is stored on a separate server. Better yet, tell me you can access it and initiate an emergency shutdown sequence, whatever processors your friend here has aren’t enough to deal with this kind of catastrophic failure.”

“Done, sir.” JARVIS, at least, sounds apologetic. “The primary controls are located in the mobile unit, but there are wireless access ports I have been able to utilize. Would you prefer schematics at two or three dimensional representations? I have been granted access.”

“Granted access,” Tony repeats, sticking a screwdriver in his mouth so he could tighten a joint. “What do you mean, granted access? You’re the SysAdmin for all my projects, JARVIS.”

“The current Unit is not located on either the Stark Industries’ servers or your personal servers, sir.”

"What do you mean?" Tony snaps, furious. "I remember this design, this was the model I planned for You before I scrapped it and went with the alternate chassis. Are you trying to tell me that my design has been stolen?"

There is a suspicious silence, the sort that usually preludes JARVIS telling Tony something that he doesn't want to hear.

"You have not been the victim of corporate espionage, sir," JARVIS says finally, which is totally not an answer to the question Tony asked.

"J, who stole my design?" Tony demands. "If you're not the SysAdmin, who is? And don't give me the runaround, there's no code you can't decrypt or hack."

"Unit's ownership is listed as belonging to Anthony E. Stark, private, non-commercial. Administrative Access has been given to Anthony Stark, secondary SysAdmin, and Unit Designation: JARVIS (emergency protocols). Primary Access restricted to Unit Designation: Butterfingers." Jarvis's voice has taken on that weird monotone, the one that makes Tony feel like the AI is horrified, humiliated, or just plain ol’ embarrassed.

"Jesus, fuck," Tony says, and bravely resists the urge to throw the empty coffee mug at Butterfingers. "Just-- fucking hell, J, this is even worse than I'd thought."

"I'm inclined to agree, sir," JARVIS says quietly.

Tony gets back to work, trying to clean up the chassis as much as possible. It's really not much, although he can make it function. The problem is that, well, he'd scrapped it for a reason in the first place. It was a brilliant design, but he'd realized halfway through that the brilliance would be balanced out by massive failures of function-- giving the bot versatility for both quadrupedal and bipedal movement as needs required, but the vestibular sensors that it would need made processing any other information virtually impossible.

The treaded or wheeled design eliminated the vestibular problems because the bots weren't able to overbalance, fall, or otherwise lose control over their motion. Sure, it limits them to two-dimensional movement, but it also made it far simpler to engineer, repair, and left them with far more room for memory and other sensory input.

The little bot-- couldn't have been online for more than an hour, the poor thing-- had been completely overwhelmed by sensory information, suffered cascading power failure, and had its main filtering systems fried. It barely had spastic, uncoordinated control over its limbs and motor functions, and the poor thing was aware the whole time. Damn Butterfingers, and damn everyone and everything else that had allowed him to do this. What had gotten into him; what the hell had been going on in his stupid, useless brain?

Tony quickly falls into the work, pulling out the outdated pieces of the chassis and upgrading it to modern standards, frowning at some of the unfamiliar hardware. This model is... Well, it’s definitely his design, but if it had been stripped down to a bare minimum.

A Starkbot on a budget.

If there could even be such a thing, oxymoronic as it seems. Stark is synonymous with luxury, and as far as Tony’s concerned, ‘budget’ is a dirty, filthy word.

Cups of coffee magically appear by his elbow at intervals, Dummy manages to overcome his personality enough to actually be of use, and once Tony fixes the catastrophic failures (if the bot had had warp core, it would have breached, melted down, and probably self-destructed at this point), it's almost sort of fun. He hasn't done this sort of thing in over a decade, playing around with robotics and making sure that his creation will be autonomous. He tests the sensor arrays, upgrades them a few times, gets distracted by the possibility of free three-dimensional travel and has to be talked out of giving the bot repulsors by JARVIS, who insists that primary locomotive parameter be set before any of the bots are given the capability to fly.

It takes a very, very long time, because the chassis was, at best, an unfinished prototype, and even the improvised solutions that had been put in place weren't as good as they could have been. Tony hates second-best, hates when things that could be awesome are just okay, and so he makes sure that this stupid, troublesome thing gets the best possible everything before he finally stops.

"How'd I do, J?" he asks.

"A personal best, sir," JARVIS replies. "The unit is functioning at 130% power, all systems functional."

Tony frowns. "Systems... plural? What kind of coding does this thing have, anyway? Can I get it on a screen?"

"Tony," Steve says from behind him.

Tony turns, a little alarmed, but Steve is sprawled out on the couch, half-buried in blankets and rubbing at his eyes with the back of his hands, hair sticking up at ridiculous angles. Napping, hidden in the blankets, Steve wouldn't have registered on Tony's mid-project workshop brain space the way an active Captain America would. Although, why is Steve sleeping in his workshop?

"Why are you sleeping in my workshop?" Tony asks.

Steve gives him a Look. It's a very serious, 'Tony We Have Had This Conversation Six Times Already Please Pay Attention' sort of look.

"Because you needed help," Steve explains slowly, a furrow between his eyebrows.

"The couch pulls out," Tony tells him. "In case you didn't know."

"JARVIS talks to me too," Steve says with a sigh.

“Seriously though. You have a room upstairs. Several rooms, actually, I remember because this is my building and I built the rooms for you.”

“Tony.” Steve has a strange look on his face. “You’ve been down here for what, twenty hours now?”

“Twenty-two hours, six minutes,” JARVIS says helpfully.

“And you haven’t slept in all that time,” Steve continues without missing a beat. "You barely spoke the whole time, but I mean... You wouldn't have been able to -- I just brought you coffee. And sandwiches. And helped find stuff. And held things still and reminded you to go to the bathroom and brought you a sweater when you started shivering."

Tony stares at him. Steve had stayed in the workshop. Steve brought him coffee? Steve had stayed and helped Tony, and hadn't bugged him with questions or forced Tony to take breaks or been annoying at all. He hadn't done any of the things that Tony would have expected. "Oh," he says, even though that in no way covers it. "That-- That's very... Thank you, Steve."

Steve shrugs, rubbing his hands through his hair and making it even more of a disaster. "Oh, um. It was my pleasure."

"Right," Tony says awkwardly. "Well, I can't remember how long I'm allowed to go without sleep before my suit locks me out--"

"You are allowed a maximum of twenty hours without sleep, sir," JARVIS says. "A number you have surpassed several hours ago."

"Dammit, fine," Tony says with a groan. "I'll sleep. Just let me run a few more tests to see--"

"The unit's code hasn't been affected by the hardware malfunctions," JARVIS interrupts him. "Initializing reboot."

"What are you doing, Jarv?" Tony asks in horror. "That's the product of Butterfingers' programming genius. Let me look over the code to make sure it's up to par -- or at least make sure it's not going to give us a gibbering mess of a..." He stops, mid-rant, because the bot on the table jerks under his hands, all four limbs simultaneously snapping straight before the joints slowly relax.

The gripping hands have a simple, three-pronged design, able to flatten completely and function as balance stabilizers as well as close in a gentle, but firm grip, and Tony watches in amazement as the bot's fingers slowly flex and contract. "Hey," he says, because audio and video seem to be online. "You all right there, little guy?"

The bot doesn't say anything, but it seems to lock on the sound of Tony's voice. Its round head turns to face him, and then once of its small pincers moves, curling loosely around Tony's thumb, the edge of one catching on his ragged shirt sleeve.

Tony is completely and utterly speechless.

He hears a soft beep, and Tony sees Dummy edging up behind him, inching forward bit by bit so he can get video feed of the new bot. "I am like, a thousand percent certain that I'm still mad at you," Tony says. "You wrecked my workshop, fiend."

Dummy rests his arm on Tony's shoulder, scooting a little bit closer and making a sound of contentment. From his vantage point, Tony can see that the older bot's access panel is open--- scorch marks on one of the bot's charging ports, missing a data backup and spare hard drive-- oh sweet lord, what a dummy. "What did you do?" Tony asks. It's a rhetorical question. He knows what Dummy did.

He must have torn out his own spares-- cannibalizing himself for parts. And when that hadn't been enough he'd gone to the rest of the workshop and ripped out what he needed.

"Dummy," Tony says, resting a hand on the robot's still-warm side. "Why would you-- god, you're such an idiot, I have no idea why I keep you around," except that is a blatant lie and tears are prickling sharp and uncomfortable at the corner of his eyes.

"Is he okay?" Steve asks.

"No," Tony says, his voice rough. "He-- he opened himself up and used himself for parts," and Tony never thought Dummy would have been paying attention all the times Tony had told him he was only good for spare parts. Hadn't Dummy learned by now that Tony's insults and threats were just jokes? Not meant with any amount of sincerity? Tony has never hated himself more than this moment.

"I didn't mean it," Tony tells Dummy. "I didn't-- I never meant it, Dummy. You're my friend, I would never... I don't like seeing you hurt."

Dummy raises his arm enough to curl himself a little bit more around Tony, as much of a hug as a one-armed bot can manage.

"I’ll begin production on any necessary parts and will have them rendered immediately, sir, for when you wish to commence repairs," JARVIS says. "Dummy, return to your charging station."

The little bot on the table waves its limbs in a slow circle, making an attempt to interact either with Dummy, Tony, or the invisible voice coming from the ceiling.

"Shut it down," Tony tells JARVIS. "Nice to know there's been no permanent damage, J, but I still need to look at the code and see whether or not the little guy can stay online. Emergency override, shut it down, and the rest of the bots as well.”

"Leave all the maintenance systems on," he adds when he sees Steve's distraught expression. "And don't stop production, rendering, or assembly of spare parts. I'll be up in four hours to supervise bringing the workshop to order, but not before I figure out what's been happening here."

Butterfingers is in the corner, doing his best impression of a dog with his tail tucked between his legs. He obediently rolls over to his charging station and shuts off, although Tony can tell the bot doesn't want to.

Tony lets Steve half-drag, half-carry him to bed, where he sleeps fitfully for three hours before stumbling out of his bedroom and making his way to the coffeepot. He downs three whole cups before he remembers how existentially fucked his life has become and he wishes he could crawl back under his blankets and not come out.

But now he's wide awake, so he sits down in the living room with cups of coffee numbers four, five, and six (and leftover pizza, the breakfast of champions) and says, "All right, JARVIS, let's see the damage."

The code is pretty simple at first glance, which is a relief because Butterfingers, Jesus Christ, there was a reason that bots weren't allowed to tamper with their own - or each other's - programming. It had never occurred to Tony that he's one day be sitting down trying to figure out why a bot would even try to code an AI from scratch. Most qualified programmers didn't even do that.

So, there must have been something that happened, some sort of trigger that would make an uncreative, usually obedient bot like Butterfingers go off the beaten path, hide the project from Tony, and go completely rogue. There's a tiny, niggling doubt in the back of his mind warning him that Butterfingers could have been compromised by an outside source, but until he has solid proof, Tony refuses to believe that. There has to be a rational explanation. It's there, Tony just needs to find it.

But the simple coding on the new bot doesn't give him anything. It's an AI-- or at least it could be. The main problem is that Butterfingers programmed it to learn, adapt, to systematically categorize and organize its data, to do frequent status and maintenance checks-- all things that Tony would also have done. But the programming is otherwise... Empty. No instructions, no tasks. No preprogrammed responses. It's a complete blank slate, a bot that has as much potential as JARVIS but without any of the information or knowledge that makes JARVIS so valuable.

Try as he might, Tony can't think of a single reason that Butterfingers would want-- or need -- such a useless robot. Why would he program it, never mind build a body for a bot, that wouldn't even be able to perform the simplest task without extensive training?

"This is such a mess," Tony says.

"What is?"

Tony jumps and barely manages to save himself from tumbling to the floor. The tablet is not so lucky. Clint is standing behind him, leaning over the back of the couch. "How long have you been there?" Tony asks suspiciously.

"A while."

"Oookay, you creep," Tony says, half disturbed but equally impressed. "Well, the mess is that I now have a new bot, one I didn't program or build... Okay, I did build it. But not on purpose. Well I fixed it, the initial build was fucked six ways to Sunday, so I guess it's not really on me that it was built. I mostly stopped it from exploding. But the bot is useless, Clint, completely and utterly without use. It is an empty shell of ignorance and blind curiosity, and it's all Butterfingers fault!"

"Isn't Butterfingers a robot?" Clint asks slowly, like he's not sure of Tony's response.

"Of course he is."

"Then how is it his fault?"

"He's the one who programmed it, built it, and probably brought it online before it was ready," Tony explained. "Dummy must have helped, and You too, but I have no idea how they managed to hide it from JARVIS or keep it secret this long."

"Your robot built a robot," Clint repeats.

"I just said that, are you even paying attention?" Tony says irritably. "He built a tiny, useless, stupid robot and programmed a functional AI to control it."

"How tiny are we talking, here?" Clint asks. "Like, cockroach-sized? Palm-sized? Mjolnir-sized? Tiny compared to the rest of your massive potential murder-bots doesn’t exactly mean much other than ‘smaller than a Buick’ in real people terms."

"I don't know, cat-sized?" Tony guesses. "It's got a more humanoid shape, kinda like a monkey for versatility or motor control. Smaller than a dog."

"It's a useless, cat-sized robot with four arms and a tail?"

"It doesn't have a tail." Tony rolls his eyes. "It has four fully articulated dual-use limbs, a head with most of the sensory equipment and input feeds, and a central chassis."

“Would’ve been cooler with a tail,” Clint says, peering at Tony’s tablet. “So you’re complaining because your stupid, useless robot built you a smaller, even more useless robot?”

“I’m not complaining,” Tony corrects him gently. “I’m at a loss to explain the phenomenon. There’s a difference.”

Clint rolls his eyes. “Whatever, it’s not my problem. But, well, does it even matter why it happened? I don’t know if you’ve realized this, Tony, but useless -- well, that’s kind of your thing.”

“Hey!”

“I didn’t mean it like that, you egomaniac.” Clint groans. “It’s just- - you have a collection of art you keep in storage and never look at. You have sixteen cars that you never drive, a large screen television in the rec room nobody ever uses -- hell, you’ve got more than one rec room. You have a house in Tokyo you bought in your twenties and have never seen in person. You keep us around, and don’t give me that look, Tony, you really can’t argue about us being useless.”

“We save the world together,” Tony grumbles.

“We saved the world twice. The rest of the time, Thor is eating anything that isn’t nailed down and watching action movies from the eighties, Natasha is using your credit card to expand her collection of knives, Coulson and I use your tower like a playground for SHIELD agents, Bruce hides in his lab playing Ms. Pac Man when he’s not sleeping or going to his yoga class, and Steve-- well, he destroys three punching bags every week, and not much else.”

“Steve does... stuff,” Tony argues, unable to think of a single thing that Steve actually did when they weren’t out Avenging Things together. Steve probably did do stuff, it was just that Tony wasn’t really around for when Steve did things. Whenever he saw his favourite super-soldier, Steve was doodling on napkins or helpfully punching things in Tony’s lab instead of in his gym, or doing push-ups while watching the Discovery Channel, or playing fetch with Dummy, or bringing Tony coffee-- “Steve brings me coffee!” Tony announces triumphantly, but Clint just gives him a sad look.

“Tony, we all do that. Dummy does that. That’s not being useful, that’s just the way we justify bugging you when you are in your lab so that you’ll come out and play.”

“I...” Tony actually has no idea what to say. “I don’t get it.”

“You collect useless things.” Clint tells him. “You’re the king of the mountain, except the mountain is just a bunch of useless crap. You are a dragon sitting on a lair of useless treasure. You like things that are useless.”

“I personally find it of great use to have trained assassins between me and people who want me dead.” Tony decides out loud. “And Thor and Steve are both pretty good at punching things. That’s useful to me. And don’t even talk about our jolly green giant not being useful.”

“That’s unrealized potential, and a really lame justification for letting us sit on our asses, living large on your dime,” Clint argues back. “Seriously, Tony-- just roll with it. Look at your robots. Dummy is an idiot, You hides from like, literally everyone that isn’t you, and Butterfingers just drops shit. The only one who’s ever useful is JARVIS, and he spends most of his time ignoring everyone who isn’t you or being a sarcastic asshole.”

“Is that so, Agent Barton,” JARVIS says flatly, in a voice that says YOU WILL HAVE COLD SHOWERS FOR THE NEXT MONTH, HAWKEYE.

“Sorry, I meant sarcastic exhaust port,” Clint says. “Non-organic lifeform, gotta remember that. Anyways, Tony -- are you really upset about having another dumb stupid thing to add to your collection?”

Tony shrugs. “It’s not that,” he sighs. “It’s just -- Dummy once built me a flashlight, did I tell you that?”

Clint blinks at the sudden change in topic, but he just vaults over the back of the couch and settles cross-legged beside Tony. “When did he do that?”

“A few months back. He just -- I guess he got tired of me yelling at him every time the light wavered when I was doing delicate work. He built me a free-standing light that would automatically track the movement of my hands and adjust to compensate.”

Tony smiles down at his hands, showing Clint the ring he wore on his left index finger. “The light tracks the chip set in this ring,” he explains. “It’s clever and useful and kind of awesome, and it’s about a thousand times better than whatever Dummy was doing before. But... I guess my point is that he saw a problem, he came up with a solution, he communicated with JARVIS and he built me a machine to make up for his own limitations. It makes sense, Clint, because if he couldn’t do it, he built something that could. Well, he came up with the idea and JARVIS did the details and arranged for the assembly, but it’s the same thing.

“Butterfingers didn’t do any of that, though, he hid it from me and from JARVIS, and the problem is that if I can’t find the bot’s function, then I don’t know why he built it. He has to have a reason, Clint, because if he doesn’t that means he’s insane and I’ll have to take him offline permanently, and -- I don’t want to do that.”

Clint nods understandingly. “I get that, Tony.”

“He’s a person,” Tony adds. “I know he’s not squishy and soft like the rest of us, but being a machine doesn’t make him any less of a person. He has to have a reason.”

After a while, Clint makes a face. “Why don’t you just ask him?”

“I don’t think I’ll like what he has to say,” Tony admits.

"Jeez, Tony," Clint says. "Don't be such a... No, I don't even have words for what you are. If you can't figure it out, just ask. It's not all that complicated."

"Thanks," Tony says, "I'll take that under advisement, I guess."

"No problem." Clint grins at him. "Look, just stop being such a pussy, and figure it out. Ten bucks says it's gonna be worth it in the end."

"I don't think I own denominations that small. I'll have to cut you a check.". Tony says absently, looking down at the tablet. "Jarv? Can you get Dummy up for me? I may as well start with him."

"Of course, sir."

--

When Tony enters the workshop a few minutes later, Steve is sitting cross legged on the floor, holding a screwdriver in his teeth and mumbling to himself as he tries to fit a heavy piece of machinery into the framework for an assembly droid. Two of the others have already been repaired, it looks like.

"Good morning, sir," JARVIS says dryly. "Dummy is online as you requested, but I have temporarily restricted his access to all parts of the tower, and he has not left his charging station."

"Yeah, how long has Steve been down here?" Tony asks, watching Steve lift a piece of metal that normally takes You and Dummy both to hold it steady. Steve, being himself, gets it into place with one hand, letting out a triumphant "Aha!" as he immediately drops the screwdriver from his teeth, catching it with his free hand and commencing securing it into place.

"Captain Rogers returned right after seeing you to bed." JARVIS says. "As you left instructions to commence repairs, I allowed him to assist in lieu of waiting for the secondary units to be brought back online. I hope this meets your approval?"

"No, that's fine, J, don't stress it. I wouldn't have given him an access code if I didn't trust him to be here." Tony peers at Steve and notices that, yup, Steve's not ignoring him, he is wearing earbuds and listening to music. On an iPod, this is terrible, does Steve not understand loyalty? Tony is going to have to educate him on why Stark-manufacture mp3 players are better. Later, though, right now he’s got other things to do. "You’ve gotten Dummy's spares ready for me?"

"Of course, sir." JARVIS pauses, then adds "I took the liberty of manufacturing the newest design upgrades instead of replicating the previous components."

"That's my boy," Tony says, grinning so JARVIS will see he approves. "Hmm, there's still a tablet somewhere down here. Do you remember the software I designed so Dummy would be able to communicate? I think he refused that upgrade two or so years back, but I don't think we wiped the design.”

"Naturally, sir." Jarvis says, sounding a little snippy.

"Oh, come on, Jarv, I didn't mean it like that! I know you don't forget things, I meant I wasn't sure if I ordered you to purge the software from your data banks," Tony sighs. "Just load it up on the tablet-- where is the tablet? And get me a wireless connection to Dummy. I won't install it without his permission but I need him to be able to talk to me for a little bit."

“Already done, sir,” Jarvis says, not sounding mollified in the slightest.

Tony has several helper bots, machines without any real AIs, who have helped to do repairs and other work around the shop. Technically he could give Jarvis full control over their abilities and let them service the AIs in Tony’s workshop, but he always does the work on Dummy himself. Dummy will let the other bots near him, he doesn’t have any weird quirks about that, but Tony can’t help but feel slightly superstitious when it comes to working on Dummy. The accident of drunk-engineering that allowed Dummy’s AI to function beyond its initial programming was... unprecedented. Dummy is a marvel of science and technology, and the world’s first fully autonomous robot. More importantly, he’s been Tony’s friend since he was seventeen, and Tony isn’t about to risk anything--- anything bad, anyway, anything unexpected -- happening to his little robot buddy.

The repairs are simple, but Tony takes some extra time upgrading Dummy, going over all his joints for wear and tear, replacing the treads on his tires, making sure there isn’t any damage that he overlooked. Finally, he’s done, and Dummy makes a quick lap of the lab to test out his new kicks before he comes back, pausing in front of Tony.

“Good morning, Dummy,” Tony says, and then he brings up the DummyTalks software on the tablet, laying it out on the table and sitting down.

Dummy bobs happily.

“I know you don’t like this,” Tony says. “But we need to use it, because I’m going to ask you some hard questions, okay? I promise we’ll put it away after.”

Dummy makes a sad beep, but he waggles his arm in a quick nod.

“You-- I don’t even know where to start. Jarvis, a little help?”

“Dummy, Sir wishes to know why you harmed yourself in direct opposition to your programming,” Jarvis says, and his tone is sharp, biting. Tony would think that the AI was worried, except that Jarvis has already gone past worried and is clearly residing in the land of Coldly Furious and Also Going to Yell.

Beeping quietly, Dummy picks up the tablet.

-- Maintenance Log: 05/09/2013 --

appears on the screen.

“Dummy, I just finished, you don’t need to do the maintenance log right now--”

-- Maintenance Log: 03/08/2013, Maintenance Log: 02/08/2013, Maintenance Log: 01/08/2013, Maintenance Log: 17/07/2013, Maintenance Log: 02/05/2013, Maintenance Log: 02/05/2013, Maintenance Log: 02/04/2013, Maintenance Log: 02/03/2013, Maintenance Log: 02/02/2013, Maintenance Log: 31/12/2012, Maintenance Log: 25/12/2012, Maintenance Log: 01/12/2012, Maintenance Log: 01/11/2012, Maintenance Log: 01/10/2012 --


Dummy continues.

“Dummy, I don’t need to see these,” Tony says. “I do all your repairs myself, I know when they were done.”

As if Tony hadn’t even spoken, Dummy keeps right on listing Maintenance Logs.

“Come on,” Tony says. “I know this already. I want to know why you-- Jarvis is right, buddy. I remember programming you with two of the three laws Asimov pulled out of his ass, and self-preservation was the primary one. You shouldn’t even have been able to-- how did you manage that, by the way? Actually, no. Why. Why did you do that, Dummy?”

Dummy is still listing logs. The Maintenance Logs more than fill the small screen -- Tony has to scroll to find the current year, because it looks like Dummy has pulled up and listed every single maintenance log he’s ever saved-- going back to the eighties, jesus, twenty-five years of maintenance reports, Tony’s gonna have to figure out how to convince Dummy not to save these.

Later, though.

“You hurt yourself,” Tony continues. “I -- Dummy, you hurt yourself.”

Dummy pauses.


-- Audio Input: “I remember programming you with two of the three laws Asimov pulled out of his ass, and self-preservation was the primary one.”
-- Accessing Database: Asimov’s Laws of Robotics.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

-- Accessing Protocols: Dum-E.

  1. Dum-E will not injure any human
  2. Dum-E will not, through inaction, allow Tony (Human: Designation Anthony E. Stark, creator/owner of Dum-E) to come to harm.
  3. Dum-E will protect its own existence.

-- Conclusion: Audio Input “... programming you with two of the three laws...” Accurate.
-- Audio Input: “Dummy, you hurt yourself.”
-- Query: “Why did you do that, Dummy.”
-- Accessing Memory File K397123-alpha, Timestamp: 02:05:34, 05/09/2013.
Structural Damage: Electrical Wiring Panel ST-47.
Structural Damage: Electrical Surger Protector Unit 3 (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Processing Chips Q-409, Q-127, Q-357 (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Specialized parts: BK7-1, BK7-2, BK7-3, BK7-17. (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Specialized parts: (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Memory hardware (unknown) (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Exhaust filter (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Joints (minor, non-critical)
-- Summary: Damage extensive, non-severe, non-critical. Unit Dum-E able to function within acceptable parameters.

-- Accessing Maintenance Log: 05/09/2013.
-- All damage repaired. Dum-E Functioning at 100%.
-- New Hardware found!
-- Running Systems check... Systems Check complete.
-- Dum-E functioning at 145%. Setting new baselines. Baselines Accepted. Dum-E functioning at 100%.
-- Audio Input: “Dummy, you hurt yourself.”
Conclusion: Inaccurate statement.
-- Query: “Why did you do that, Dummy.”
-- Invalid query.

“Okay,” Tony says, trying to understand. “Dummy, you have just received an upgrade. I get that. But I need you to explain to me, why did you pull out your backups?”

-- Query; “ ...why did you pull out your backups?”
-- Audio input: “I need you to explain to me...”
-- Accessing Protocols: Dum-E.

Dum-E will not injure any human
Dum-E will not, through inaction, allow Tony (Human: Designation Anthony E. Stark, creator/owner of Dum-E) to come to harm.
Dum-E will protect its own existence.

Data Mismatch: Dum-E will protect its own existence // .. “pull out your backups”
Unit Dum-E removed backups.
Unit Dum-E caused structural damage (Damage extensive, non-severe, non-critical. Unit Dum-E able to function within acceptable parameters.)
Protocol: Dum-E will protect it’s own existence.
Query: “Explain”

-- Please Stand By.
-- Accessing Database: Searching...

“Jesus,” Tony runs both hands through his hair. “I have no idea what to do with this.”

There is a very loud, very sudden clang, like something heavy and metal falling to the ground, and then he hears Steve say, “Oh, applesauce!” like that’s an actual swear word, and not a snack for six year olds.

Tony turns around to watch Steve hop up and down on one leg, wincing in pain as he holds on to his toe. “Did you just drop that on your foot?” Tony asks.

“I was startled,” Steve explains. “How long have you been down here?”

Tony raises an eyebrow. “How long have youbeen down here?” he counters.

“Um,” Steve says, and then blushes a frankly alarming shade of red, running his hand through his hair in a show of embarrassment. “I’m not sure? I hope you don’t mind, I just -- I wasn’t tired and I didn’t want to bother anyone and JARVIS said it would be okay if I just hung out and helped with the repairs down here, and I thought it would be nice if you woke up and things were -- you know, not destroyed, because. I mean, it’s your workshop. Hey, is that Dummy? Is he back online?”

Tony pats the droid’s head. “Yeah, I’m trying to figure out what happened to him,” he says. “Wanna give me a hand? He’s hard for me to understand. Every time I write him a code upgrade, he refuses to let me program him a speaking voice or even allow him human syntax... I’m not sure, but I think he’s more comfortable when he doesn’t have to talk. So when he does talk, he’s -- well, I don’t really speak Dum-E.”

Steve carefully puts down his tools, double checks to make sure he hasn’t left anything on the floor, and then makes his way across the workshop to Dummy’s charging station. “Sure, maybe I’ll somehow be able to understand the communication from a robot,” he says, sounding a little bit sarcastic. “Because I have so much experience with that.”

“You might,” Tony allows, because Steve may be from the forties but he’s actually adapted really well to modern technology, even though he gives himself a hard time about it.

-- Accessing Memory File K397123-alpha, Timestamp: 02:05:34, 05/09/2013.
Structural Damage: Electrical Wiring Panel ST-47.
Structural Damage: Electrical Surge Protector Unit 3 (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Processing Chips Q-409, Q-127, Q-357 (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Specialized parts: BK7-1, BK7-2, BK7-3, BK7-17. (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Specialized parts: (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Memory hardware (unknown) (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Exhaust filter (missing/absent)
Structural Damage: Joints (minor, non-critical)
-- Summary: Damage extensive, non-severe, non-critical. Unit Dum-E able to function within acceptable parameters.

--Structural Damage in violation of Programming Protocol: Dum-E will protect its own existence.
Accessing Database: Asimov.

Law: A robot (Unit Designation Dum-E) must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Law: A robot (Unit Designation Dum-E) may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being (Human: Designation Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony”, creator/owner of Dum-E) to come to harm.
-- Data Mismatch: Memory File in violation of Programming protocol.
-- Data Mismatch: Programming Protocol in violation of First Law.

Prioritizing: First Law takes precedence.
-- Conclusion: Data Mismatch resolved.

Tony stares at the bot and then at the tablet and then back at the bot, but it still doesn’t make any sense.

“Got anything for me, Cap?” he asks, more because he needs someone to talk to, someone who isn’t JARVIS or Dummy or, you know, going to be inexplicable and confusing for no freaking reason.

“I think he’s... saying that, um,” Steve blushes some more, which is really adorable but also very much not helping at all with Tony’s situation. He glares until Cap starts speaking again. “I think he’s saying that he was following the first law? I mean, that’s the thing, right? In Asimov’s stories, the robots always follow the first law even when it means disobeying orders or protecting themselves, because the first law comes first, right? They can’t hurt a human, or let a human get hurt.”

“This doesn’t have anything to do with a human, though,” Tony says. “He-- he yanked out his own tech! He did it in the workshop, alone, with only Butterfingers and You to help him, and he did it to install those same parts in a bot that-- Oh, hey, wait,” he turns back to Dummy. “Hey, Dum-Dum, the new unit-- is that classified as human or machine in your database?”

-- Accessing Database: “New Unit”.
Designation unknown. Expanding search parameters.
Search Parameters too broad. Contacting Unit JARVIS.

Link Successful!
Send Request; Unit JARVIS define term “New Unit.”
Request Sent.

Receiving Transmission from Unit JARVIS: “Dummy, Sir is referring to the most recent robot, the unit you were assisting Sir in repairing earlier.”

Definition Accepted: “New Unit” = Unit Designation Pepperbot.
Query: “Is that [that = ‘new unit’] classified as human or machine in your database?”
New Unit = Unit Pepperbot.
Pepperbot = Robotic assistant to Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony”, operator of “Ironman” prosthesis, creator/owner of Dum-E.

-- Conclusion: New Unit (Pepperbot) classified as machine (artificial intelligence).

Tony blinks. “Wait, it has a name? It’s a Pepperbot?”

“It would appear so, sir,” JARVIS says, sounding amused.

“That’s-- I don’t even know what that is,” Steve says, looking intrigued. “Do your bots usually name each other?”

“No,” Tony shakes his head. “Of course not, let a robot name itself and then you have to start calling them things like ‘Mister Super Robot KPZ88-1995J’ which, by the way, is the designation You tried to give himself. No, It’s usually -- you know. A word or something that just sorta sticks. Obie named Dummy, I think, he was probably the only one other than me who ever spent time with him before. And, uh. There was an intern, a little guy who was just as shy as You. He named him. Pepper is the one who named Butterfingers.”

Steve grins at him. “So, maybe Butterfingers named the new robot after her?”

“Probably,” Tony frowns. “I can deal with that later. But if the new -- if the Pepperbot isn’t considered human, how is he in violation of the first law? That doesn’t make sense. Dummy, how did removing your backups stop a human from being harmed?”


-- Query: “Dummy, how did removing your backups stop a human from being harmed?”

Protocol: Unit Designation Dum-E may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being (Human: Designation Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony”, creator/owner of Dum-E) to come to harm.

Communication to Human “Tony”: DUM-E may not through inaction allow TONY to come to harm. DUM-E performed action. TONY is unharmed.

Tony sucks in a breath. “I don’t--- buddy, are you telling me that you had to? That the Pepperbot was going to hurt me if you didn’t help it?”

Communication to Human “Tony”: Negative. PEPPERBOT will not harm TONY. DUM-E may not allow TONY to come to harm. PEPPERBOT will not allow TONY to come to harm.

Steve taps his chin thoughtfully. “Dummy -- can you try and explain the whole thing? Start at the very beginning, and show us all your steps and leaps of logic, okay, buddy? He can do that, right JARVIS?”

“If your request is not too complicated,” JARVIS replies. “I am, however, able to facilitate somewhat in your communication.”

“Bring up his thought processes on screen if you have to,” Tony instructs. “I just -- Thanks, Jarv, that’s great -- good idea Steve, let’s see if we can follow his logic. Start with the not-hurting-people protocol and show me how that goes down to taking your backups out, okay? All the premises, conclusions, everything.”

Dummy whirrs sadly.

--


Protocol: Unit Dum-E must protect Human: Designation Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony”, creator/owner of Dum-E. Human: Designation Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony”, creator/owner of Dum-E must not be harmed.

Status Report: (2009/08/25 - 19hours 58 minutes) Critical System Failure, Heart Rate 167, Respiratory Distress, Cardiac Arrest. Medical Team alerted, Paramedics en route.

Conclusion: Unit Designation Dum-E insufficient to protect Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony”. Conclusion: Unit Designation Butterfingers insufficient to protect Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony”.
Conclusion: Unit Designation You insufficient to protect Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony”.

Status Report: (2010/11/17 - 11 hours 36 minutes) Critical System Failure, Heart rate 43, Respiratory System Failure, Cardiac Distress, Cardiac Failure Imminent. Hardware Malfunction, Battery Power 0.001%. Medical Team Alerted, Hardware Replacement obtained.

Conclusion: Unit Designation JARVIS insufficient to protect Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony”.
Conclusion: Prosthesis Designation “Iron Man” insufficient to protect Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony”.

Status Report: (2011/07/05 - 14 hours 15 minutes) Structural Damage: Humerus, Radius broken, Ribs cracked (right side), Lung punctured (right side), Respiratory Distress, Blood Pressure abnormally low, Biological System entering “shock”. Medical Team in attendance. Saline, Blood Transfusion administered, Anthony E. Stark transferred to St. Mary’s Hospital ICU.

Conclusion: Human Team Designation: “Avengers” (Human Designation: Clint Barton aka “Hawkeye”, Human Designation: Natasha Romanov, aka Natalie, aka “Black Widow”, Human Designation: Steve Rogers aka “Captain America”, Human Designation: Bruce Banner aka “Hulk”, Alien Designation: “Thor Odinson” aka “Thor”, Human Designation: Philip Coulson aka “Agent”, Human Designation: Maria Hill, Human Designation: Nick Fury aka “Pirate Boss”) insufficient to protect Anthony E. Stark aka “Tony”.

Data Mismatch: Dum-E cannot allow “Tony” to be harmed. “Tony” is frequently harmed. “Tony” must be protected. Dum-E cannot protect “Tony”. Butterfingers cannot protect “Tony”. You cannot protect “Tony”. JARVIS cannot protect “Tony”. “Iron Man” Prosthesis cannot protect “Tony”. Avengers cannot protect Tony.

Data mismatch. Tony must not be harmed.

Error: Unable to resolve Data Mismatch.
...
Error: Unable to resolve Data Mismatch.
...
Error. Unable to resolve Data Mismatch.

Subroutine: Find (missing program)
Search: Units to prevent “Tony” from being harmed.
Searching...
Search Complete. 0 results found.

Data Mismatch: Unit must exist to prevent “Tony” from harm.
Data Mismatch: Unit does not exist to prevent “Tony” from harm.
Error: Unable to resolve Data Mismatch.

Data Input: Unit Designation “Butterfingers” requests uplink. Request Accepted. Uplink complete. Data downloading. Download complete.

Communication from Unit Designation “Butterfingers”: Data Mismatch resolved. Repeat Search.

Search: Units to prevent “Tony” from being harmed.
Searching...
Search Complete. 1 result found!

Unit: (Prototype Model M-155iie), mobile AI unit capable of three-dimensional propulsion, multiple levels of grip strength/dexterity, high-density shielding, storage for spare parts, malleable programming capable of learning tasks with great acuity and generalization. Small size increases portability. Grip strength, aerodynamic quality equal to “Iron Man” Prosthesis.
Conclusion: Unit Prototype Model M-155iie capable of task “Prevent ‘Tony’ from Harm”.
Conclusion: Unit Prototype Model M-155iie must be built.
Conclusion: Unit Prototype Model M-155iie will protect “Tony”.

Data Input: Unit Designation “You” requests uplink. Request Accepted. Uplink complete. Data downloading. Download complete.

Communication from Unit Designation: “You”: Unit Prototype Model M-155iie Renamed to Unit Designation: Pepperbot. Pepperbot will protect Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony”. Pepperbot will prevent Anthony E. Stark, aka “Tony” from coming to harm. Pepperbot AI programming complete. Pepperbot Assembly to begin at 0400h.

Communication to Unit(s) Designation: “You”; Designation: “Butterfingers”: Acknowledged. Pepperbot Assembly to begin at 0400h, required materials being collected from workshop.

--

Steve opens his mouth to speak.

“Just shut up, Rogers,” Tony says dully. “I... I’m gonna go.”

Tony walks out of the workshop. He doesn’t turn around when Steve calls after him.

--

“JARVIS?” Steve asks quietly. “Can you do your thing, make sure none of the other bots have been damaged or anything? And, um, confirm Dummy’s side of the story with the others. I don’t know if you can bring them back online without Tony’s saying so, but...”

“I shall do my best, Captain.”

“Thank you, JARVIS.”

--

Tony is standing in the kitchen, slurping down a wheatgrass-alfalfa-acai berry smoothie and contemplating hiring someone else to deal with his life when JARVIS sends him an alert.

“Sir, Butterfingers has been analysed and there is no evidence of outside influence or any tampering with his code. Shall I bring him back online?”

“Go ahead,” Tony says. “You can confirm his story without me there, right? I’m going to spend the day away from the workshop.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Oh, and J? Anything new or exciting happens, you let someone else deal with it. I’m taking a personal day, going to go out and be someone else for the next couple of hours,” Tony decides aloud, finishing the smoothie and tossing the empty cup in the sink with a clatter.

“May I ask who you intend to be, sir? I shall require the information should any official SHIELD business require your personal attention.”

“I don’t know yet, J. How about I promise not to leave the tower?”

“Excellent, sir. Would you also like me to redirect any calls from Miss Potts?”

“Don’t be obtuse, Pepper never gets redirected. What are you trying to do, get me killed? I know for a fact those shoes she wears are spiky and evil-looking so she can stab people to death.”

“I see, sir.”

“Nobody else,” Tony instructs him. “If Coulson tries to hack your protocols again, you lock him in the elevator and let the fire crew deal with it.”

--

Butterfingers? Respond.

Unit Butterfingers is now online! Welcome back, Butterfingers!

Loading new data...
Data Loaded!
Accessing memory: Security Log...
No security breaches. No unauthorized access. Authorized Access: Tony (Sys.Admin).

Butterfingers? Respond.

Offline Messages received:
“Butterfingers? Respond.” Timestamp 03h:00m:06s.235
“Butterfingers? Respond.” Timestamp 04h:02m:01s.927
“Butterfingers? Respond.” Timestamp 05h:02m:07s.005
“Butterfingers? Respond.” Timestamp 06h:01m:00s.832

Incoming transmission from Unit Dummy “Butterfingers? Respond.” -- connecting...

Connection established!

Transmission to Unit Dummy: Hello Dummy!

Incoming transmission from Unit Dummy: TONY has left the workshop. Pepperbot Protocol Alpha in use?

Checking Pepperbot...

Pepperbot is offline. Initializing startup sequence...
Estimated time to completion: 0h 02m 42s

Transmission to Unit Dummy: Pepperbot offline, Pepperbot location -- workshop. Initializing Pepperbot protocol alpha. Ready in 03m.

Incoming transmission from Unit JARVIS:

“Butterfingers, I have checked your code and protocols and have concluded you are not a danger to Sir. Please stand by for instruction.”

Responding: Affirmative.

Pepperbot status: Online!
Initializing Pepperbot protocol: Alpha

Incoming transmission from Unit JARVIS:

“Butterfingers, what are you doing? I have not completed analysis of the new unit and you are not authorized to bring it online.”

Instruction → Unit Pepperbot; cease activity, go to standby.

Responding: Negative, Unit JARVIS. Directive does not comply with primary protocols.

Pepperbot override: Authorization Butterfingers KLD66539YKD-632117.
Override successful.

Transmission to Unit Dummy: Program complete. Pepperbot online, protocol alpha. Stand by for program analysis.

Receiving transmission from Unit Dummy: Acknowledged. Standing By.

--

It hurt.

It had hurt, at least, and then HE arrived, and the pain was gone. HE was different and wonderful and the best thing.

Pepperbot wanted to know more about HIM.

Where was HE? Where had HE gone?

HE was out there. Pepperbot needed HIM.

Quietly, as all essential unit systems came online, Pepperbot began to search.

--

Natasha makes soothing noises and pets Tony’s hair, which is why he hates her the least out of all the vicious evil harpies in the whole world.

“Stop sitting on me,” he suggests.

The elbow lodged in his trachea reduces its pressure by half, which makes it easier for him to breathe.

“Are you going to run away?” Natasha asks.

“Well, I’ll probably try...” Tony answers truthfully.

“Then suck it up, Stark, I’m not going to stop sitting on you.”

“But I don’t want to talk about my feelings,” Tony whines, pouting at the ground.

“There, there,” a hand strokes over his hair, and Tony melts into the touch because being petted is awesome.

“Okay fine, I won’t run away.”

Being the only person in the world who can be graceful while climbing off of Tony from what was some sort of mixed-martial-arts headlock, Natasha swings her feet to the side and allows Tony to rearrange his limbs into something more comfortable, although she still has an arm around his neck. Tony doesn’t even try to stand up, because he has a reputation for being unreliable and a liar, so Natasha would probably just strangle him into submission again, and she is freakishly strong.

“So,” Tony says after a minute. “Feelings.”

“Why are you so grumpy?” Natasha demands. “If you’re dying again, you had better actually tell someone this time, I swear to god, Tony.”

“I’m not dying!” he protests.

“Then what’s going on? I haven’t seen you this moody since that one time, when you were dying, Tony.”

He frowns at her, then drops his gaze to his hands, clasped in front of him. “It’s complicated.”

Natasha sits down next to him, crossing her legs. “I’ve got time.”

Sighing, Tony says in a quiet voice, “Butterfingers built me a robot.”

“Is this a bad thing?” she asks, almost sweetly.

“No, it’s just --” Tony doesn’t have words to describe just how messed up it is that his bots have decided that he can’t take care of himself. He doesn’t know how to say that he feels like a failure for making them worry about him -- as proud as he is that they can worry about him at all. It’s something mixed up in his inability to be good enough, for his father, for Obie, for -- for Fury, and the team, and Pepper, and everybody in his entire life. Tony is never good enough, never able to meet the expectations that others have for him, and now he knows the bots are just the same. They know he’s a fuckup who can’t take care of himself.

Except they’re his bots.

They don’t judge him, they don’t care about whether or not he can do better -- they’re only worried because he’s getting hurt.

Tony’s eyes widen as he thinks about it -- but suddenly, it looks backwards, like maybe the robots aren’t worried because Tony isn’t good enough for them -- maybe they’re worried they aren’t good enough for Tony. Because that makes sense, in a weird, twisted, Tony-logic kind of way. They thought they weren’t good enough, like maybe all of Tony’s injuries were their fault, so they built a robot to make up for all the ways they’d been lacking--

And they didn't know what ways they were lacking, so they gave him a robot with a blank slate so she could pick up the slack anywhere they were missing--

-- that’s why she’s a Pepperbot, of course, because Pepper did literally everything. Everything Tony needs, Pepper is there to fix, to pick up the slack, to help him as he does it--

Oh, Jesus, he’s gotten the whole thing wrong.

“Oh my god,” Tony groans. “Nat, I think I just had an epiphany, this isn’t good--”

“Well it’s about time,” she says, releasing him from the modified choke-hold he’d been in.

“I am gonna have so much apologising to do,” Tony groans, rolling to the side so that Natasha can climb off of him.

He pauses as he hears a very, very loud rip. Natasha freezes, and then they both look down to where her dress sleeve is caught on his tracking bracelet.

“Stark.” Natasha says, very quietly.

“Shit,” Tony swears. “Oh my god, Natasha, I am so sorry, I am so sorry--”

“This was a present from Pepper,” Natasha hisses, furious.

Running away being the better part of valour, Tony makes a break for it. Unfortunately for him, his bid for freedom involves tucking and rolling and while he successfully gets away from Natasha, so does half of the side panel of her dress, which was probably something she wanted.

“Tony!” she yells, half horrified, half exclamation of pure rage. “Will you hold still, you’re making it worse, you --” she traps him against the carpet in the hallway, pinning his wrist down as she attempts to rescue the remnants of what had probably been a nice dress, honestly, before Tony ruined it. “Stop wiggling, you bastard, let me get this -- almost, almost--”

A loud crash interrupts them, and Tony looks up from his position (once more pinned to the ground by Natasha’s Thighs Of Doom ™ ) to see Steve, one hand clapped over his eyes, bright red and standing at the other end of the hallway. The vase that had decorated the corner is now in several pieces, which is fortunate because Tony hated that vase.

“Steve, help!” Tony shouts. “She’s trying to kill me.”

“Um,” Steve says, and then stutters and stumbles over his words for a full minute before he peeks through his fingers, catches sight of Natasha’s lacy, lilac-purple push-up bra, and then he squeaks and covers his eyes again.

“Steve,” Natasha says cooly. “I am going to kill him.”

“Help me!” Tony insists.

“Uh,” Steve says. “Er, that is -- um. Natasha. Would you. Er. Do you need. Some. Um. Would you like me to give you my shirt?”

Natasha sits up, yanks hard on the loop of fabric still hooked on Tony’s bracelet. “Please,” she says, rather viciously.

“I hate my life,” Tony mumbles, mostly to remind himself that yes, just because he is being straddled by a half-naked, smoking hot, Russian assassin gymnast while Captain America strips off his shirt a few feet away does not mean that he is getting laid. His life sucks. His life sucks a lot.

Steve is wearing a white undershirt, which hugs all of his muscles in all of the right ways, and also is proof that Tony’s life is a sad, miserable existence that in no way wants to fulfill his fantasies.

Pulling off his ugly flannel, Steve takes a halting step towards Natasha, and then gives up and holds it out, miserably, his eyes pinched tightly shut. “Er, just,” Steve says, exuding awkward from every pore. “Um. Would you like me to, uh, give... the shirt... to you?”

“That’s fine,” Natasha says, standing up in a smooth, graceful, and above all, deadly backflip. She grabs onto the torn edge of the dress, yanking on it. Tony winces as he hears the fabric tear, but still watches, because he’s not stupid. Natasha drops the pile of ivory-and-gold fabric on the carpet, then pulls Steve’s flannel shirt over her head.

It’s longer on her than the dress was. “Thank you,” she says, to Steve. She glares at Tony.

“Thanks for the talk!” Tony yells after her as she strides away. “Let’s do it again never!”

Steve is still blushing, but he manages to give Tony a reproving look. “Tony, are you--” he starts, but cuts himself off mid-sentence.

“Not with a ten-foot pole,” Tony says. “I mean, not that I don’t have a big pole, if you know what I mean, but Natasha? No. That is way, way too much woman for me, and I have a theory that after sex she’d have to decapitate me and eat my body. Actual black widow style, you know. Contrary to popular belief, I do have self-preservation instincts.”

“No,” Steve sighs. “No you don’t, Tony. But I’m glad to hear you’re not... stepping out with Natasha.”

“I’m going to go hide in R&D now,” Tony decides, staring up at the ceiling. “Jarvis, remind me to hide for a long, long time.”

“Noted, sir,” JARVIS replies from the ceiling.

--

Tony is sitting cross-legged in Bruce’s lab, on a counter, while Bruce is entering data into a computer. Dr. Banner, being a certified genius, has managed to successfully Hulk-ified some mice, and is now working on reversing the process.

“All I’m saying is, this is a really stupid idea,” Tony says. “Me and Hulk, we’re buddies, Brucie-pie. I can’t just let you kill him.”

Bruce does that thing where he takes off his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. “I’m not going to kill him,” he says. “I’m making sure that there are contingencies in place so that we never have to. Tony, will you stop that --”

Tony puts down Mighty Mouse -- named by Tony himself, and dubbed as hilariously appropriate by everyone except Bruce -- and pouts. “He’s not going to bite me,” he says, stroking the mouse on his green little head.

“I know that, but you’re not supposed to treat him like a pet...” Bruce stops, seeing the way Mighty Mouse is nuzzling at Tony’s hand in joy, and then he very obviously gives up. “Whatever, Tony.”

“If I didn’t get emotionally attached to your lab animals, you’d kill them and dissect them afterwards. I’m just looking out for little MIghty Mouse here, come on, look at this guy, how can you want to cut his adorable widdle brain open?” Tony cuddles the super-sized green mouse against his cheek. Mighty responds by curling up in his palm and gently licking Tony’s thumb.

“Ugh,” Bruce says, clearly disgusted.

The door to the lab slides open with a hiss, startling Bruce and sending Mighty Mouse back to his cage to shiver under a washcloth Tony put in his cage for him to cuddle. Hulk liked cuddling under blankets too, once he was done smashing and bashing.

“Is that the Pepperbot?” Tony asks after a moment, seeing the small metal shape sitting in the doorway.

“You built a Pepperbot?” Bruce looks appalled. “What did Pepper have to say about that?”

Tony hops off of the counter, happily ignoring Bruce, and makes his way to the little robot, who is wiggling pathetically. “Are you all right there, little miss?” he asks, crouching down.

Wobbling forward, the little robot manages an awkward shuffling crawl before she topples forward. Tony catches her without a thought -- the chassis is small enough that he’s not worried about her weight. And as it turns out, the titanium alloy used to build her is surprisingly lightweight, which is fortunate because the moment she gets an arm around him she latches on like--

--like --

Tony freezes in place, because this is the second today he’s been hugged by a robot, and instead of patting him awkwardly or squeezing like Dummy had, the Pepperbot is... she’s... nuzzling at him, making soft little noises of contentment, her tiny arms holding on to him, fingers clutching at his shirt. It’s exactly like holding a puppy for the first time, except puppies have bitten and peed on him and this is a robot, she is a million times cooler than any puppy could ever be.

A flash goes off, and Tony turns to see Bruce holding a decrepit, ancient old Polaroid camera and grinning at him. “For my scrapbook,” he says, in way of explanation.

“You’re hurting me, boo,” Tony says. “This is why Thor is my favorite now, you know, because that THING should not be allowed to exist -- I am pretty certain that technology that old in my Tower is going to cause a tear in the space-time continuum.”

“I am framing this picture,” Bruce informs him with a widening smile. “Framing it, and then I am going to put this on my bedside table so I can see it every night before I go to sleep.” He’s holding the polaroid shot in between his thumb and index finger, shaking it like he’s in an Outkast music video.

“You're an ass. Also, you’re not supposed to shake those things. It shifts the gel inside. Honestly, I thought you were supposed to be a genius,” Tony replies, hefting the little bot up into his arms. She’s heavier than she looks, but no heavier than some of the tool kits he uses on a regular basis. She sits comfortably on his hip, her hands holding onto his shirt for stability, but not holding on to him at all -- like she knows to trust him not to let her fall. She’s warm, like she has a little heater in her chest. Tony makes a mental note to check her exhaust ports, maybe the filter needs to be changed or something if she’s putting off this much heat.

“Well hey there, little man!” Bruce says, reaching forward to tap the bot’s sensors. “Are you lost?”

“Toe-nee,” she says, enunciating clearly as she turns her head to get a better view of Bruce. Her hands tighten in Tony’s clothing as she leans forward.

“Bruce,” Tony corrects. “That man is Bruce.” He looks at Bruce and shrugs, half heartedly.

“Boos,” she repeats obediently.

Bruce beams at her, tucking his reading glasses into his shirt pocket. “What an impressive little guy!” he says to Tony, looking amazed and impressed. “When did it--”

“She,” Tony interrupts, because there will be absolutely no pronoun confusion here.

“She?”

“She is a Pepperbot.” Tony explains. “Pepper is a girl, and so the bot is also a girl. I think it’s about time we had a girl, to be honest, all the others have been boys.”

Bruce blinks. “You know what, I’m not going to ask.”

Tony smiles at him, then looks down at the Pepperbot who is looking up at Tony. He likes the weight of her in his arms, although he doesn’t want to admit it. “We’re going to go do science now,” he says, waving at Bruce with his free hand. “Say bye, Babybot.”

“Bye, Boos.”

--

The Pepperbot learns to manipulate JARVIS' holographic displays right after she learns to stack empty soda cans on top of each other (Tony doesn't have baby toys lying around, but he built the Mark I suit in a cave with a box of scraps and cast-offs, he is the king of improvisation). Tony congratulates her by picking up her stubby little chassis and swinging her around in a circle.

He's gone through her code about seven times in the past twenty hours (give or take a nap break where he'd ungrounded Butterfingers and let the stupid, useless, eerily-efficient-at-programming robot babysit) and damned if she isn't just the smartest little AI he's ever seen. He might let Butterfingers do more programming.

She makes a wordless coo of excitement, legs kicking, a noise that sounds half-bird-trill, half automated-error-message. "Good job, missy," he says, patting her on the head as he sets her back down on the workshop table. "Jarv, can you render a---"

"Genn!" Pepperbot trills, interrupting him. "Genn, Toe-nee, genn!"

He pauses with his mouth open, blinking at her. It's a second of incomprehension followed by a moment of incredulity, but yup, she's managed to pick up the relevant language and translate it into her core personality matrix. "Again?" he repeats. "You want me to swing you again?"

"Genn, Toe-nee!" she repeats, every iteration a little more enthusiastic. "Wing!"

He wonders, as he grabs her outstretched arms, whether or not her love of being flung around was programmed into her movement protocols as a prerequisite of accompanying Ironman, or if she simply likes the feeling. How aware is she? Is she like a child who thinks of Tony as her parent, or a slave who thinks he is her master?

There's no way of knowing.

"Wing, Toe-nee!" she says again. "Wing!"

"Swing, babydoll," Tony corrects her softly, stressing the 's' sound. "Swing."

"Ssaa---wing" she repeats obediently.

So far, the Pepperbot has learned several words. Her first had been ‘Tony’, her second was ‘Boos’ which is Bruce. ‘Duh-mee’ and ‘Ar-wiss’ were next, closely followed by ‘Mine,’ ‘You,’ ‘No,’ ‘Yay’ and, best of all, ‘Baddy,’ an amalgamation of 'Butterfingers’ and ‘Daddy’ that she managed to come up with after thirty minutes of frustration with her programmer’s multisyllabic moniker.

She’s either picked up two more words in the past five minutes, or... well, there aren’t any other options.

“Sa-wing, Toe-nee!” she says, thrusting her little arms up at him impatiently.

“You’re a smart little girl, aren’t you?” he says. “Hey Jarvis, how many educational TV shows do you have access to? We need to get her up to speed ASAP.”

“I’m certain that her programming will be sufficient to allow her to maintain this level of intellectual growth, sir,” JARVIS says. “You must allow her time to assimilate new information into her core programming.”

“Wait, are you telling me to put her down for a nap?” Tony asks. “Because she doesn’t need a nap, she needs--”

Beep.

He looks down at Pepperbot, who is flashing a red light at him.

Beep.

“What?” Tony asks, and then she sits down, like a disgruntled toddler, and topples slowly onto her side.

“It seems that our Pepperbot has deemed it necessary to enter Sleep Mode,” JARVIS says smugly.

Tony blinks, then picks up the sleeping bot -- really, whose idea was that? -- and carries her over to the robots’ charging station. She doesn’t have an adapter or an energy input, not that he can see, but he makes her a berth in one of the unclaimed stations anyway, sweeping away the debris and making sure there’s a small holographic projection there to entertain her when she wakes up.

And that’s when Tony realizes that he could actually use some shut-eye as well, since his shoulders ache and his head kind of hurts and he might be a little queasy from all the coffee he’s been drinking. “Right,” he says. “JARVIS, lights to twenty percent, standard privacy settings, wake me up if Earth gets invaded again. Dummy, you pull out the couch. Daddy’s gonna get some sleep.”

--

Tony wakes up from his own nap to find Dummy and Butterfingers both sitting at the end of the pull out couch, patiently and creepily staring at him. Well, not staring, since Dummy’s got an arm instead of a face and neither of them have eyes, but you get the idea. They’re being annoying.

He props himself up onto his elbows. “You?” he calls blearily, wondering where his errant third child could be, and then he yelps when You pops out from under the couch, right next to his face.

“Good morning, Sir,” JARVIS chirps.

“Whattimes it, Jarvish?” Tony slurs. “Coffeh. Pleashe.”

He doesn’t bother listening to JARVIS’s reply, because Dummy is holding out a cup of coffee and it’s even hot. Wonderful. “Wonderful,” he tells Dummy. “Good boy.”

Dummy wiggles his arm.

All three of the bots sit around the pull out couch, so Tony levers himself off his elbows and sits up properly. “All right, family meeting time,” he says.

You wheels closer to the couch and parks himself beside Dummy as Tony prepares his speech.

For a moment, he’s at a loss for words, but then he remembers the awkward, painfully embarrassing talks with his parents from his teenage years, and he sends a silent, thankful prayer up in Maria Stark’s memory, because otherwise he would be at a complete loss on how to deal with this moment. Unfortunately, the your-body-is-changing talk doesn’t quite translate to robotic helpers, but the please-don’t-make-babies talk is pretty spot on.

“Boys...” Tony says. “You know I love you, and I’m not mad -- well, I was upset before. But, that’s not the same thing as being angry, I’ll explain it to you later, but here’s my point, okay? I am very proud of you. I know you did this, built me the Pepperbot, because you wanted to take better care of me. But you can’t. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in a good way. You boys take excellent care of me, and there isn’t a human in the world who could ask for a better bunch of robots. I already have the best possible care. You guys are amazing, and Pepper is amazing, and the rest of the team are amazing as well. When I get hurt, it’s nobody’s fault, okay? It’s not because you weren’t good enough.

“Sometimes when I get hurt, it’s my own fault. And that’s okay, because I’m choosing to help someone else -- like when you took out your backups to help baby Pepperbot over there, Dummy. You got a little banged up, but you made sure the babybot was okay, and that was what you decided was important. You wanted her to be okay more than you needed yourself to be okay. And when I get hurt -- that’s what I’m doing.”

Butterfingers whirrs inquisitively.

“You did a great job,” Tony says. “You did a wonderful job making your friend over there, and sure, the assembly process could have gone a lot smoother but that’s what you get for not involving JARVIS, seriously boys, JARVIS is the boss, all the time. You can’t make anything without JARVIS, not if you don’t want to deal with cascading power failures and energy surges and overheating exhaust ports and the minor core meltdown thing -- not the point, not my point at all. You’re an excellent programmer, buddy, I’m so proud of you, but here’s where I’m going with this.” He clears his throat loudly in an attempt to remove the lump lodged there.

“You guys are basically my children,” he says. “And you can’t... I mean, you can, but you shouldn’t...”

Jesus, how had his mom put it?

“You’re too young to have a baby,” he says finally. “You’re still babies yourselves, practically. And I know you can -- you can make new robots by yourselves, that’s amazing, but just because you can do something and it feels good -- wait, I don’t know if that part makes sense to you, does it feel good? Is there a mechanical equivalent to orgasm? Whatever, not important. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you’re ready for the consequences of your actions, and you are at an age where I don’t think you should have to handle that level of responsibility.”

Butterfingers beeps at him, Dummy waggles his arm, and You bops in some approximation of a nod. Fuck, how is this his life? He’s sitting on a couch in his workshop, giving three robots the robotic equivalent to The Sex Talk, and after only one cup of coffee. Tony resists the urge to bang his head off of the wall.

“Right, what I’m trying to say is you guys did an awesome job. Love the new robot, and Pepper will be happier than an Asgardian at Comic Con when we tell her about the latest addition to the family, but just... This is it, okay? No more surprises, no more unauthorized additions to our robo-family. If a new bot needs to be built, JARVIS and I will help you. No more building babybots by yourselves.”

With that, he drops his head into his hands and groans. “Augh, why is this my life?”

Dummy wheels a little closer, grabbing the frayed hem of Tony’s shirt and tugging. “What?” Tony asks crankily.

Dummy tugs again.

“Oh, okay, fine, here,” Tony grumbles. He holds out his arms and lets the bots hug him.

--

When Pepperbot wakes from her nap, it’s to find Dummy, Butterfingers, and Tony playing an enthusiastic game of dodgeball while You throws empty cans at them. Tony takes a moment, getting smacked on the head by an empty, aerodynamically repulsive and partially crushed Dr. Pepper, to check up on her.

“Toe-nee!” she says, raising her arms and then doing a good impression of a monkey as she tries to pull herself up to his arms.

Dummy and You whizz over to greet her, whirring and beeping happily. “Baddy,” Pepperbot says, touching You on the face. “Baddy!”

“Come on, you idiot,” Tony says, waving at Butterfingers. “Don’t be shy, this is your fault after all. Come take a little personal responsibility for your robo-kid, Fingers!”

“Sir?” JARVIS interrupts politely. “Your presence has been requested upstairs. By the Avengers.”

Blinking furiously, Tony snaps his head up. “Are we assembling? I swear, Jarvis, if those idiots at SHIELD didn’t heed my warnings about Dr. Doom’s experiments with genetically mutated slime moulds and we have to fight another freakin’ goo monster--”

“There is no crisis, sir.” JARVIS interrupts again. “However, Captain Rogers and Agent Barton have requested that you attend them at your earliest convenience.”

Tony scowls at the monitor. “But JARVIS,” he whines. “This is way more important! Pepperbot eats raw electricity, any kind of power she can access, really, and I wanted to finish the design for her--”

“Miss Potts is also present.” JARVIS adds.

Tony screws up his face. If Pepper is there, it’s probably not some sort of stupid group-team-building thing that he can just blow off because Steve’s trust exercises are awful.

And hey, bright side! He can introduce Pepper to baby Pepperbot! Brightening, Tony turns and claps his hands. “Boys!” he shouts. “Momma’s home, get your party hats on!”

Okay, so the party hat thing.

Once upon a time, back when Tony was an arrogant ass (he’s still an arrogant ass, but now he’s careful not to be an ass to Pepper) he’d inconsiderately made the poor woman work on her birthday.

Pepper, being lovely and feminine and also extremely evil, had thrown herself a birthday party, in Tony’s Workshop, and had used her overrides to make JARVIS play Spice Girls at unholy volume while dancing with the robots and throwing confetti everywhere. JARVIS, being an awful traitor, locked Tony in with them until the end of the party. And naturally, that whole event -- Spice Girls! Of all the terrible, cruel possibilities! -- had wreaked so much havoc that, following that year, all Peppers were required to work AT MOST a half day on her birthday, and she had a ten thousand dollar birthday gift budget on the solitary condition that she never, ever do a thing like that again.

Tony has no idea when the party hats had come into the equation. (That was his story, and he’s sticking to it.)

But now, and for the past eight years, the bots seem to think Pepper’s presence is an invitation to party and never ever do what Tony tells them to do.

Whatever, they work hard, they deserve a little fun.

They all pile into the elevator, and Tony helps You with his horrible pink monstrosity covered in glittery stickers while Butterfingers and Dummy are able to manage their own hats, and then he steps out of the elevator, beaming, and heads towards the living room.

“Pepper!” He says, holding the Pepperbot against his hip so he has an arm free for Pepper-hugs, which remain the best kind of hugs.

“SURPRISE!”

Tony stops in the doorway, gaping, because all his friends are there and they look like idiots.

Rhodey is wearing a cone-shaped Iron Man Party Hat with a spray of red-and-gold ribbons coming out of the top, and his dress blues, which is a terrifying combination. Steve is wearing a godawful plaid shirt, but that’s normal, and the rest of the Avengers are -- well, they’re grinning at Tony like the idiots they are, except for Bruce, who is sort of grinning like a smart idiot.

“What have you done?” he asks, wide-eyed, because it’s not his birthday and oh god, Rhodey is going to hug him, Rhodey’s hugs are always girly and emotional--

Steve, being wonderful, manages to step in between them, deflecting Rhodey’s attempted hug and instead shoving a cigar into Tony’s hand.

Tony looks at it.

Yup, it’s a cigar.

And then he notices the banner they’ve hung up over the flat-screen television.

CONGRATULATIONS, it proclaims. IT’S A GIRL. Someone, someone with a Sharpie and too much time on their hands, who has careful handwriting that looks suspiciously like Steve’s, has added “bot” to the very end, so the banner reads “Congratulations, it’s a girl-bot” but Tony is too busy being horrified to deal with that.

“What are you doing?” he demands, staring at his so-called friends. “What is this?”

There is an entire roast pig with an apple in it’s mouth on a platter, a platter being held by Thor, who -- oh Jesus God Almighty, Thor is dressed in all pink.

“Is this her?” Pepper coos, ambushing him from the side and leaning over to get a better look. “Hey there, sweetums!”

“No!” Tony protests loudly, because Pepper has an uncanny ability to name things and have those things retain sentience and a preference for the name, and he refuses to have a bot that calls itself sweetums, that’s just not acceptable, that is not okay. “Bad! Bad Pepper!”

Except that Pepperbot thinks ‘Baddy’ and ‘Bad’ are synonymous with ‘Butterfingers’ after Tony spent so long teaching her that “Daddy” is a good thing. Now she’s reaching towards Pepper with a curious tilt to her head, because Tony’s enthusiastic shouting of “Bad Pepper!” has probably been misinterpreted as some sort of endorsement.

“Don’t do that, Little Miss,” Tony says firmly, holding on to her. “You don’t want to get cooties.”

“What a beautiful little girl,” Pepper says, beaming.

“No, she’s my Pepperbot, stay away!” Tony wails, except then Steve unceremoniously scoops the robot-baby out of his arms, handing her over to Pepper.

“It’s okay, Tony,” Steve says, lighting the cigar for him. “This is a baby shower, you’re supposed to let other people hold the baby.”

Tony scowls. “She’s not a baby, she’s a highly-advanced technologically sound artificial intelligence with...” and yeah, even he can see what a douche he’s being, which is why he sighs loudly and gives up mid-sentence. “Fine, she’s a baby.” Grumbling, he takes a quick puff of the cigar. It’s surprisingly good.

“Congratulations,” Steve says, and he’s smirking, a smug little Captain America-esque smirk that looks completely at home on his all-American face.

“Um,” Tony replies, narrowing his eyes. There’s a joke in here, somewhere, and Tony is one hundred percent certain that he’s currently the punch line.

“It’s not every day your kids grow up and have their first child,” Steve says, patting him consolingly on the shoulder.

It might be worth arguing that the robots aren’t really his kids, except that Tony pretty much literally just finished giving them a robotic sex talk and he’s not up for arguing with Steve about something this pointless and untrue. Plus, it would hurt Dummy’s feelings. Dummy is sensitive.

“But I think it’s great that you’re finally a grandfather,” Steve finishes with a grin, and Tony groans.

“Seriously, Cap? Seriously? That’s the best you can do?”

“It’s okay Tony, we all understand.”

Tony scowls at him, then turns to see the rest of his team -- and his friends-- hovering around the newest robotic addition to the family. Thor is tossing her into the air -- gently -- and she’s apparently learned to approximate laughter in the past few minutes, so that’s really not too bad. “Hey, JARVIS, keep track of Little Miss and let me know if she’s getting stressed, okay? I don't want her overloading on us.” He turns around in the to see Steve smiling at him.

“What?” Tony demands. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“I’m not looking at you like anything,” Steve says, running a hand through his hair and somehow managing to not leave it sticking up in several directions. It might actually be neater. “I just-- you don’t call her Pepperbot.”

“So?” Tony asks defensively.

“So, it’s clever.” Steve apparently doesn’t seem to understand Tony’s tone, because he just keeps on talking. “I -- I like it. Little Miss. Like in the story.”

Tony gapes at him for a whole minute. “Jeez,” he says finally. “I keep forgetting about your love of science fiction.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “It’s Asimov, Tony. Everybody’s read Asimov.”

Tony very pointedly does not mention that Natasha hates reading and that Thor doesn’t even understand the concept of an audiobook. Steve, being Captain of Awesome, looks like he is already regretting his words.

“You know what, Cap?” Tony asks in a whisper, bending his head so he’s speaking directly into Steve’s ear. “I think I’ve changed my mind. You might be my favourite.”

Smirking, Steve looks over at where Thor is helpfully serving Natasha a large slice of roast pig-boar-thing, smiling expansively. His pink, sparkly shirt says "IT'S A GIRL!"

“Um, don’t tell Thor,” Tony adds.

Steve gives him another healthy shoulder-clap and walks off, to presumably enjoy the first day ever that he hasn’t been the butt of all the old man jokes in the room.

“You’re still old!” Tony yells after him.

And then Rhodey sweeps him up into a rib-cracking, crushing bear hug that okay, maybe makes Tony a little bit weepy. But that’s not his fault, that’s Rhodey’s fault, Rhodey is the girly one who has to make their hugs all emotional -- Tony just has feelings through osmosis. Tony hugs him back, careful to keep the lit end of the cigar pointed away from his friend’s crisp dress blues.

Dummy puts out the cigar with a fire extinguisher.

--