The repulsers in the gauntlets had recently developed a disturbing lag time. Disturbing, because there was no logical explanation for the bug. And because any kind of problem with the armor was dangerous, to say the least.
Tony sat at one of the tables in his workshop, tinkering with them.
It would technically be more efficient to run a diagnostic and let the robots repair them. The only problem was that he always ended up doing it over himself - he trusted his systems, but he trusted himself more when it came to solving illogical problems. Also, hands on was just way more satisfying.
At some point Steve came down and tried to convince him to give it up for the night. Having failed, he remained, sitting across from Tony, reading quietly.
Normally he didn't like other people hanging around when he worked - too distracting. Steve though, could be incredibly quiet and unassuming when he wanted. Tony was still aware of him - how could he not be? But Steve was an unobtrusive presence. Kind of weirdly comforting, even. Like a cat. It was a good thing Steve wasn't telepathic.
Tony felt something brush across his foot. He dismissed it as one of his new scurrying 'bots, designed for minor cleanup. He still had to come up with a name for them. Mice was already taken, and Rats wasn't exactly marketable. Tony accessed goggle via extremis and searched for copyrighted helper-bots, all the while continuing to poke around in the gauntlets.
Something brushed across his foot again. This time he stopped, concentrated on the feeling. Didn't seem like a 'bot.
It happened again.
"Are you playing footsie with me?"
Steve looked up from his book. Tony couldn't tell if the look of innocence on his face was feigned - Steve always looked kind of innocent. "No. Why?" Tony stared at him suspiciously through his magnifying goggles, but Steve's confusion seemed so real.
"I thought I felt something."
"It must have been one of your new robots." One of them, Twinky by the look of it, scurried up to Steve's bare foot. Steve glared down at the 'bot. Twinky scurried forward, butting into Steve's foot, which he immediately moved away.
Twinky beeped mournfully.
"That's not nice."
"It's a robot."
"Without an AI."
Tony frowned at him. It was more of a glare, really, but the goggles obscured most of his face.
"You know, some would say that you have an unhealthy attachment to your robots."
"Is that right? Well, some would say that you have an unhealthy attachment to your shield."
Steve immediately glanced at the shield where it lay on another worktable, being analyzed by one of Tony's scanners, as if to make sure it was safe.
"I only brought it down here because I thought I felt a dent."
"In a vibranium-adamantium alloy shield."
"We live in a universe where giant purple men eat planets."
Tony and Steve glared at each other, Tony through his goggles, Steve over the top of his book. Neither bothered to remove the encumbrances to make it a really good stare down. Eventually Steve sighed, Tony got bored and they silently called a truce. Tony returned to the gauntlets and Steve to his book.
"What are you reading?"
"Don't you have to concentrate on that?"
"Please. I'm reading the Tokyo Shipping and Trade News, bidding on an auction, and watching Animorphs."
"It's a cartoon. Peter got me hooked on it."
"Riiight." Was that sarcasm? "Still, I wouldn't want you to accidentally melt the foundation." Steve had a point, in the sense that the repulsers actually could melt the foundation of Stark Tower. What he failed to realize was that Tony could not possibly be that distracted. Especially when he'd already engaged the mechanical safeties. Hadn't he? He double-checked. Fine, perfect.
"Don't be ridiculous." Wait. Tony glanced up and caught Steve looking at him, his book now low enough that he could see the tiny curve at one corner of his lips. Was Steve teasing him?
"What?" Steve still looked innocent. Maybe Tony should go back to dating supervillains - at least it was easier to tell when they were plotting. Pretty much all the time, really.
"Nothing," Tony muttered, and went back to work. What was up with Steve tonight?
"I'm reading Wind in the Willows."
"I loved that book as a kid."
"I know. Jarvis told me. I read it during the war, in France. I found it in an abandoned villa and picked it up."
"How did you find time to read it?"
"It was easier than you'd think. Even with Allied Command sending me and Bucky all over the continent, war is still a lot of hurry up and wait. It's strange to think that it's still so popular."
There was a break in the conversation, while Tony did a complicated end run around some dysfunctional circuitry.
"When did you read it?"
"In my first year of boarding school. I must have read it eight times."
"It seems like something you'd like."
"Why? Because Mr. Toad is obsessed with his car?" Tony wasn't feeling defensive. Not even a little.
"No, because Mr. Toad comes back and helps to drive out the invaders."
Tony didn't have anything to say to that, so he let the conversation lapse into silence again. Steve didn't seem to mind. He was almost done with the gauntlets - he just needed to test them - when it happened again.
"Ok, come on."
"You don't seriously expect me to believe that wasn't you, do you?"
"Tony, I have no idea what you're talking about. Are you feeling ok?"
Tony pushed the goggles up on his forehead and glared at Steve. "Seriously."
"It's not like I have a moral objection to your foot touching mine - I just want you to admit to it."
"Tony, I really don't know what you're talking about." Steve still looked innocent, dammit. Tony was starting to suspect he needed to adopt a whole new scale of 'innocent' when it came to Steve. The worst part was that he couldn't prove anything. The work table obscured the view from all the security cameras, and the touch against his foot had been so light, he couldn't identify it reliably.
"I'm not pouting."
"Ok! Geez Louise."
Tony laughed, suddenly distracted from the indignity of Stealth Footsie. "Did you seriously just say that?"
"Nobody says that anymore."
"What?" Steve put the book down in his lap, looking genuinely distraught.
"I heard it on tv last week," Steve said defensively.
"I mean, is that even from your historical period?"
"What am I, a museum exhibit?"
"Hey, if you can get away with secretly touching my feet, I can imply that you're old enough to be poked at by sticky third graders on class trips."
"I never touched your feet!" Steve tossed his book onto the table and sat up from his slouch.
"Whatever you say, Captain America."
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"It's your codename. I would hope you'd know what it means."
"That is not what I meant. And frankly, I have no idea what we're talking about anymore. Can we go back to talking about weird cartoons and children's books?"
Tony pulled off his protective gloves and tossed them onto the table beside the gauntlets. "No we can't. I want you to admit it."
"Admit to 'secretly' touching your feet?" Tony could hear the air quotes.
Steve slapped his hands on the arms of the chair, and stood up. "Fine. If it will make you happy - I secretly touched your feet. It was the first stage in my nefarious plot to dominate feet everywhere. After I have your feet subdued, I'll move onto the rest of the team. Happy?"
Maybe a little.
Steve glared down at Tony, and Tony glared right back.
Then it happened again.
Tony was prepared to confront Steve with this new evidence, when he realized that Steve was standing up, and therefore physically incapable of touching Tony's foot with his own.
Tony stopped glaring.
"What?" asked Steve.
Tony didn't respond. Instead he slowly pushed his chair back from the desk. Whatever it was that kept brushing his foot, it wasn't doing it so lightly anymore. Then it started to move over the top of his foot. Then up his leg.
Tony looked under the desk.
There was a suspicious bulge under his right pant-leg. Probably just one of the 'bots, he told himself. Tony gently pulled up his pant-leg to reveal Twinky, crawling up his leg.
"I retract my stealth footsie accusations."
"Well, good. What was it?"
"It's just Twinky. Nothing to worry about." Twinky beeped at him. Tony reached down to pull the 'bot off of him. The only problem was that Twinky wouldn't let go. Tony pulled harder, but the little 'bot just wouldn't budge.
Steve came around the desk. "Everything ok down there?"
"I can't get him off."
"What if you deactivate it?"
"I'm running a diagnostic on him, so I don't really want to." Twinky's LED eyes seemed to stare up at Tony like a kicked puppy. "But if he won't let go, I guess I'll have to." That's when Twinky's eyes went from the soothing golden Tony had designed them to be, to a very angry red.
Oh shit, Tony thought.
"What the-" is what he actually said.
Steve instantly went on alert, and came closer to recon the situation. "Is it supposed to be able to do that?"
"Technically? Mechanically? Yes. But I never programmed Twinky to be able to-"
Distantly, Tony heard his words turn into a grunt of pain, as Twinky hunkered down on his leg and shocked him. He hadn't programmed Twinky to do that either.
Tony's body was seized up in pain, but his mind was free. As soon as he remembered which way was up, his middle name, and the face of the first girl he kissed, he started working on a hack. Twinky's system was basically an extremely stripped down version of the one he ran in the Tower, so it should have been easy for Tony to overwhelm the 'bot through extremis. But something wasn't right. Clearly.
Could Twinky have already been hacked?
There was something wrong with Twinky, and it looked a lot like malicious code.
Twinky stopped shocking him, but Tony still couldn't move. It was like getting hit with a taser, but about twice as strong. The shock would have killed a normal man. If Twinky was compromised, there was a possibility that someone was trying to kill Tony.
Was it Tuesday already?
Tony sent part of himself into Twinky, while another part of him continued to analyze his code. With extremis Tony could access virtually every networked computer in the world. Usually he experienced that connection as pure data, but in the case of artificial intelligences, even primitive ones like Twinky, he visualized their particular cyperspace as a kind of landscape.
Twinky's mind was barely sketched in. There was a vast, golden sky and an unending plain of black, interrupted occasionally by silvery protrusions. Tony walked up to one of them. They were covered in fine gold lines and tiny nodules of green and red. Circuitry?
Whatever. Tony visualized the armor forming around him and punched the circuit-thing. The top half of it exploded under his fist, and the rest of it was left in ruins.
As if in reaction, hell, probably in reaction, the ground beneath him started to tremble.
Well, at least he knew he was having an effect.
Tony flew over to another protrusion and punched it. Again, it shattered. The ground started to roll in earnest, but that wasn't going to stop a guy who could fly. He could keep this up indefinitely, while Other Tony, hunted through Twinky's code.
He flew to another protrusion and drew back his fist. Something caught his arm. Tony pulled out of its grip and spun around, immediately putting distance between himself and--
Oh shit - Giant Twinky.
Giant Twinky had a bulbous silver body, with thick, whiplike feelers extending from his underside and menacing red eyes. Also big shiny pincers. Tony hadn't put those there - he would have remembered.
Giant Twinky let out a wail, like an air-raid siren but deeper, and advanced on Tony. Fast. He was regretting the hundred-odd, highly flexible feelers he'd given Twinky.
Tony flew backwards, away from the angry 'bot.
"Twinky, it's me: Tony. Remember when we used to play catch?" Twinky wailed again, so loud it hurt Tony's ears. It was possible Twinky hadn't enjoyed fetching the stress ball Tony used to launch across the workshop.
If it hurt what Tony imagined to be his 'ears' here, what was Twinky actually hurting?
"Come on, Twink. I thought we were friends." Twinky's eyes flashed dangerously - the message was clear. Tony had thought wrong. "Listen, if you let go of my leg, I promise not to deactivate you. I'll even let you sit in Steve's lap." Twinky sort of mewled at him, curiously. His eyes glowed a softer red, and for a second, Tony thought he'd actually gotten through to him, as unlikely as it seemed.
Then Twinky's eyes glowed red, redder than before and he hunkered down and launched himself at Tony, just like one of those stress balls.
Tony watched his giant, pet robot hurtling at him and decided that he needed to end this. He punched Twinky with everything he had and the force of the impact sent Twinky sailed off into the distance. Tony flew after him.
He reviewed the design specs for the helper-bots, incorporating all new information, like Twinky's newfound giantism, and oh yeah, the pincers, looking for a weakness. Bingo.
Twinky landed on his feelers, ready to go. He started to wail again, but Tony flew straight at him, and punched him mid-siren. Twinky skittered backwards across the black plain, finally stopping when he slammed into a protrusion. Or two. Or three. Shattering one after another. This time the ground didn't quake. Twinky, or whatever was controlling Twinky, was smart enough not to damage the only weapon he had against Tony.
Tony landed beside Twinky, and before he could recover, flipped him on his back. Twinky's feelers pawed helplessly at the air.
Meanwhile, Other Tony delivered a fatal blow to the real Twinky, still attached to his leg. MacGyvering his way through Twinky's system, Other Tony rerouted the power the 'bot had used to shock him, and sent it straight through Twinky's cpu. Bingo. The sequel.
Tony came back to himself to feel Twinky falling off his leg. The 'bot clattered to the ground, and let out one last adorable beep, before going silent. His red eyes briefly turned back to their original golden, and then went black. Twinky was dead.
"Tony, are you alright?"
Steve was looming over him, shield in hand.
"What were you planning to do with that thing?" Tony asked weakly. He was still feeling the shock. "I like my leg where it is." Speaking of which. Tony examined his leg. There were hundreds of tiny red welts where Twinky had attached himself. As he watched, blood welled up on his skin.
Steve set the shield down on the table. "You almost get killed by one of your own robots and the first thing you do is criticize my fighting techniques?" he asked, without any of the bite the question should have required.
"Are you sure that thing is down?"
"Honestly? I have no idea. I found some strings of malicious code in Twinky that were... familiar somehow."
"You think he was hacked?"
"Maybe. If I can reconstruct the code, I might have a chance of figuring out who it was."
"And if not?"
"I'll have to revive him in a controlled environment."
Steve frowned, unhappy with the idea. "Either way, right now you need first aid."
"Will take care of your leg eventually, but right now you're bleeding all over the floor." Tony looked down. He was bleeding a lot more than he had been at first. "Do you keep any gauze down here?"
"First aid kit's in the desk. Top drawer."
Steve pulled out the kit and opened it. He turned around and showed Tony the empty box. "We're going to have a conversation later about your safety measures."
"Ok," Tony said, weaker than before. He was starting to feel light-headed. Extremis was supposed to keep this kind of thing from happening to him. Weird. Tony blacked out.
When his senses returned, Steve was kneeling in front of him, holding a towel tightly against Tony's leg and talking on the phone. "-and then he blacked out. He hasn't lost that much blood. I'd estimate- wait." Steve's expression was painful to look at, but still less painful than Tony's body, which ached all over. "He's back."
"Tony." Steve smiled up at him. It was a wobbly smile that quickly fell back into a mix of what Tony recognized as his game face, and what looked suspiciously like terror. He'd never seen Steve look like that, except when someone was dying.
No one was dying here.
The phone buzzed at Steve, whoever he was talking to wanting to know what was going on. Tony accessed the call.
"Should you be using extremis?"
"The threat is neutralized. I don't think there's any risk of compromise."
"I was thinking more of your blackout."
"Oh. Well, I don't see how that should keep me from being on this call."
"Until we know exactly what happened, use conventional means to do your networking."
"Listen to Reed," Steve said sternly.
"Fine." Tony disengaged from the call, and sank back into the chair. He didn't sulk.
Steve talked to Reed for another minute, before hanging up. He kept up the pressure on Tony's leg with his free hand.
Steve pulled the towel away, checked over Tony's leg, and then applied a fresh towel. "The bleeding is slowing."
"Reed's coming over."
"And in the meantime we're..."
"Waiting for him." Tony didn't have the strength to protest, but he wanted to. It couldn't hurt to get Reed's opinion on Twinky's metamorphosis from cute helper-bot, to psychotic killer.
"It was me, you know."
"I was playing footsie with you. The first few times."
"I knew it!" Tony glared down at a blushing Steve. "I can't believe you even faked righteous indignation."
"And you bought it." Steve was looking all too satisfied with himself. Tony knew that Steve was trying to distract him, but he couldn't help but get carried along by his annoyance.
"I guess I did. You are Captain America."
"Yeah. Did you know they originally wanted to call me Major Victory?"
Steve nodded. "I exercised my veto by refusing to go into action under the name."
"And thank god for that."
Steve smiled, and Tony could feel a matching expression spreading across his own face. They fell into another one of those comfortable silences.
Steve changed towels one more time, before the whir of the elevator indicated Reed's arrival.
"So listen," Tony said. "You want to play footsie with me later?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
When Reed and Sue walked off the elevator, bundled down with first aid and other unidentifiable, though no doubt sophisticated equipment, they found Tony still in his chair, bent over with laughter, and Steve sitting at his feet, similarly stricken.
"This doesn't look as serious as Steve made it out to be," Reed said.