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Bedtime Stories and Nightmares

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The card simply said, “Happy Father's Day!”

Tony studied it, a faint frown on his face. “Well, that's random,” he said, flipping the thin card over. The paper was delicate, a fine linen more associated with a high class wedding invitation than a card from a mall shop. There were no other identifying marks, just the black script printing. “Not to mention completely out of season. Jarvis, where did this come from?”

“It was with today's mail,” Jarvis said, and Tony reached for the envelope. His name and the address was printed in the same elegant script, but there was no stamp, or return address. He turned it over, considered the back, where a red wax seal had held the flap closed. He'd broken it when he opened the envelope, but as he pressed it back together, he could make out the elaborate seal that had been pressed into the hot wax. It wasn't familiar.

“And that is our weirdness of the day.” Tony tossed the card and the envelope onto the counter and reached for the coffee pot.

“How many cups of that have you had today?” Steve said from the doorway, and Tony occupied himself with pouring a cup and getting out of reach before it was taken away from him.

“How are we defining 'today?'” Tony asked, scooting back and away, his hands wrapped protectively around his coffee mug.

“That is not a good answer,” Steve said, but he was grinning, his eyes dancing. He collected the nearly empty pot from the machine and frowned into the dark depths. “Have you eaten?”

“Yes,” Tony said, because he was pretty sure he had. At some point. He seemed to recall a smoothie of some sort being pushed into his hand. Maybe that was yesterday.

“Did you eat anything that required chewing?” Steve asked, dumping the dregs of the coffee down the sink and rinsing the pot. Still dressed in his morning running gear, a simple pair of grey sweatpants and a white t-shirt that should've been illegal, it was so tight. He looked positively edible. Tony leaned back against the counter, enjoying the view. Steve glanced in his direction. “Tony?”

“Food, yes. Yes, I have consumed food, it's fine. Absolutely-” He dodged as Steve made a grab for his coffee cup. “Hey! Hey, I am a grown man, I can, you know what? I resent this, this is just unacceptable-” He gave up on trying to talk his way out of the situation and just chugged the coffee before he was relieved of his cup. It was too strong and too hot and he didn't care. He finished it in two quick gulps and nearly choked on the last drops. “Ha!”

“How, exactly, did you survive this long without someone taking care of you?” Steve said, taking the empty cup out of Tony's hand with a shake of his head. He leaned in for a kiss, and that, Tony surrendered with a grin. Steve's lips tasted like orange juice and the press of his body was familiar and comfortable. Tony slipped his arms around Steve's back, letting his hands rest on the curve of Steve's ass.

“I am a fully functioning adult,” Tony said, when Steve finally relinquished his lips. Tony grinned, feeling the heat of Steve's breath against his mouth.

“You'd be dead if it wasn't for Jarvis.”

“And I made Jarvis, so, got it all under control!” Tony gave Steve's ass a squeeze, just to watch the man blush. It never failed. And it never failed to amuse. “I'm fine, you're fine, everyone's fine, I'm gonna make another pot of coffee now.”

“Breakfast, Tony,” Steve said, and he leaned in for another kiss, sweet and gentle and affectionate.

“We could go back to bed,” Tony suggested, arching away from the counter and into Steve's body, making Steve's breath hitch. “C'mon, the entire team's out of the tower this morning, how often does that happen? Let's go have sex somewhere inappropriate.”

“No,” Steve told him, but he didn't move away. Grinning, Tony slid his fingers under the waistband of Steve's sweatpants. “Tony...”

Before Tony could do anything they'd both regret, like pants Steve in the middle of the kitchen, an alarm sounded. They jerked apart. “Jarvis, what's happening?” Tony snapped.

“Intruder alert,” Jarvis said. “The workshop has an unauthorized occupant.”

Tony's stomach bottomed out. “How the- Lock it down!”

“Tony, wait!” Steve yelled after him, but he was already running for the door.

*

The workshop was empty. Through the glass doors, they could see two of the bots hovering over one of the largest workbenches. Tony reached for the keypad, and Steve caught his wrist. “Not a chance,” he bit out. “Jarvis, what're we looking at here?”

“Threat is minimal. No weapons detected. Intruder is not a physical threat.” There was a pause. “Sir, the situation is outside of normal parameters.”

“Yeah, what isn't, around here?” Tony keyed in his code, and Steve bit back a curse. Before Tony could object, he slipped between Tony and the door, providing him some cover. “Steve...”

“We're not having this discussion,” Steve said, his hand on the door, holding it shut. “Stay behind me, or no matter how low of a threat Jarvis thinks this is, I'm locking the tower down and we're calling SHIELD.” He met Tony's eyes. “Understood?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Fine. Let's just figure out what's happening.”

Steve yanked the door open, and came to a stop, confused.

You and Butterfingers turned towards the door, their arms raising to stare at Tony and Steve. A high pitched howl was echoing through the room, sharp and full of panic. “What the HELL, Jarvis?” Tony snapped. “What the hell is that?”

“That is the problem,” Jarvis said, and there was a note of confusion, of fear in his usually unflappable voice. “I am not certain. I haven't- I have no explanation for you, sir.”

Steve grabbed Tony before he could move forward. “Jarvis, that sounds... That sounds like a baby.”

“It is not.”

“Of course it's fucking not, how would a baby get into my workshop?” Tony snapped his fingers. “You, Butterfingers, Dummy, charging stations, now!”

Butterfingers and You rolled away, and Steve glanced at Dummy's empty station. “If it's not a baby, what is it, Jarvis?”

There was a minute pause. “It appears to be a small child,” Jarvis said. “Human. Male. Approximately four years of age.”

Tony and Steve went still. “What?” Steve asked.

“It is-”

“That's not funny, Jarvis,” Tony snapped. “Dummy!”

The crying had stopped, and Steve crouched down, trying to peer into the dark space beneath the workbench. It was the kind of bolt hole a scared kid would choose, and he leaned forward, trying to make out the huddled form that was hidden in the shadows. “Jarvis-”

“DUMMY!” Tony yelled at the workshop. “Charging station, now! I am not in the mood for this-”

There was a bumping, rattling noise, and suddenly a tiny form, pale and awkward, came scrambling out of the spot under the workbench. He stumbled, fell to his knees, and got back up, his hands flailing as if he didn't know how to keep them under control. Tony jerked back out of the way as the little boy tripped his way past, collapsing into a ball in the empty charging station.

Then he started to cry, high and panicked.

“Oh, God,” Steve said, already moving towards the charging station. He was running before he realized it, his stomach churning with dread. “Oh, God, Tony-”

Tony ignored him. “Jarvis. Why is there a naked child in my fucking workshop? How did he get here? Who does he belong to?” The words were tumbling over themselves, fast and hard.

“I do not have an answer for you, sir,” Jarvis said, because if he did, it was the answer that they had all arrived at. No matter how much they didn't want to.

Steve crouched down, trying to make himself small and non-threatening. The tiny boy had folded himself into a tight ball, arms wrapped tight around his knees, his form all angles and bones. His head came up at Steve's approach, and the boy stared back at him, massive brown eyes blinking under a mop of dark curls. His cheeks were streaked with grime and tears, but the sobs tapered off as Steve smiled at him. "Hello," Steve said, trying to pitch his voice low and gentle, so as not to scare the little boy. "Where did you come from?"

The eyes blinked a few times, and silently, the child unfolded, both arms stretching out. Steve watched as the boy wove his fingers together, pushing both of his palms out towards Steve. Steve looked at them, then back at the boy's worried face. The child made a thin, high pitched whining noise, like a trapped animal, and leaned forward, almost over balancing. Steve reached out to steady him, and the boy pushed both of his hands against Steve's palm. Seemingly satisfied, he sat back on his heels, grinning at Steve.

Steve glanced at his hand, at the boy, and at the charging station. His heart sinking, he leaned forward. "Dummy?"

Giggling, the boy held out his linked hands again, palms stacked to form a single hand. He blinked at Steve, his face expectant. Steve reached out and tapped his palm against the child's. "High five," he said, his chest tight.

"No," Tony said from behind him. "No. Absolutely not. That is not Dummy."

Steve reached out, his hands spread, and coaxed the boy out of the station. As soon as he could, he gathered the child up and stood. The boy wiggled in his grip, but he seemed happy enough to be carried. "I don't really see any other explanation," Steve said, crossing to the couch and snagging the blanket there with one hand. He shifted his grip on the boy, who started making the panicked whining noise again, until Steve stroked a careful hand over his dark hair.

The boy leaned into the touch, his eyes fluttering closed, his lips parting on a faint sigh. Steve leaned over and pressed a gentle kiss to the boy's forehead, and little fingers caught at his shirt, latching on. Steve pulled back, grinning at the child, who blinked up at him, huge dark eyes and long black lashes. Steve wiped at his damp cheek, and the boy made a face, nose scrunching up and little chin coming out at a stubborn angle. His heart skipped a beat. "Tony, he looks just like you."

"I'm far more imposing of a presence, thank you," Tony said, but the objection was weak. Steve glanced up to find him backed up against the workbench, his hands gripping the edge with a white knuckled hold on either side of his hips. His complexion was pasty, a sickly gray white as he stared down at the child. "He does not look like me."

Steve settled the boy on the edge of the couch and spoke gently to him as he wrapped the blanket around his skinny little form. "He's pretty much a carbon copy, Tony. I've seen pictures of you as a kid." Looking over his shoulder at Tony, he added, "Tony, where's your bot?” Tony stared at him, and Steve stroked the boy's hair. “Jarvis?”

“Dummy simply disappeared from the workshop.” the AI said. “As for the child, all scans indicate that he is just what he seems. A small, human child. But his arrival coincides with Dummy's disappearance, and he seems to be familiar with the workshop, as well as its occupants. As illogical as it might seem, I have no other explanation to offer.”

The boy scrambled off the couch, ducking out of Steve's reach, and made a beeline for Tony, dragging his blanket behind him. Reaching up, he snagged the hem of Tony's shirt and gave it a tug, his head tipped up, a hopeful look on his face. Tony sucked in a hard breath, his hands hovering in mid-air. "Dummy?"

The boy leaned against his side, his blanket around his thin shoulders, his face buried against Tony's leg, his tiny hand clutching at Tony's shirt with a death grip. Steve stood and moved closer. "Tony? Maybe he's Dummy and maybe he's not." He paused, just within reach. "But he's just a kid, and he's scared, Tony."

For an instant, he wasn't sure that the words were penetrating, Tony was just staring into some middle distance, his face blank. Steve reached out, brushing the back of his knuckles against Tony's cheek, and he jerked, eyes coming back into focus. "What? Yeah. Yeah, of course." He looked down, and the boy made a whining noise, tugging hard at Tony's shirt. Leaning over, the movements jerky and awkward, he gripped the boy just under his arms, lifting him up. The child hung from his grip as they stared at each other, eye to eye.

The boy reached out and gripped the sleeve of Tony's shirt, blinking at him. Tony heaved a faint sigh. "You'll do just about anything to get out of work, won't you, you damn brat?"

Dummy gave a faint whine, kicking his legs. Steve's hands went out, but Tony shifted his grip, pulling the boy against his chest. Dummy snagged a fistful of Tony's shirt and cuddled close, tucking his head under Tony's jaw. He made a faint sound, and Tony wrapped an arm around his back. An instant later, Tony buried his face in Dummy's dark curls, his shoulders hunching forward.

“This is bad,” he said at last. He looked up, meeting Steve's eyes. “This is really bad.”

Steve moved in, wrapping his arms around both of them. “How do you feel about being a dad?” he asked.

“Dammit, Rogers, this is a discussion we're supposed to have before the kids start showing up,” Tony mumbled, but one hand was now clutching Dummy, and the other was locking on Steve's shirt. His breathing was rapid and sharp, and Steve rubbed his back with long, soothing strokes.

“Can't plan everything,” Steve pointed out.

*

“So...” Tony rubbed a hand on the back of his neck. “This is going to be a problem, isn't it?”

Coulson slanted him a look that could only be called deadly. “Stark, you're telling me that your bot has been turned into a small child.”

“Yeah, look, I understand, this sounds crazy, but if you've got a better explanation for our new visitor, I'd love to hear it,” Tony said.

Coulson's face could've been a mask. A mask of well-worn resignation. “Stark, unless the Blue Fairy has finally decided to grant your fervent wish to make Dummy a real boy? Nothing about this is within the realm of my experience.”

Tony considered that. “I have no idea what you're talking about,” he admitted at last.

“Pinocchio,” Pepper filled in, one high heeled shoe tapping on the workshop floor. When Tony gave her a disbelieving look, she rolled her eyes. “I have cousins.”

“Listen, my lack of kid knowledge is- Why is everyone glaring at me? Seriously. This is not my fault, I am blameless here, I don't know what's going on any more than the rest of you, I did what I was supposed to do in case of 'this could really fuck up our stock prices if it goes public' and I called you,” he pointed out to Pepper. “I called you, and I called Coulson.”

Pepper had taken the news of a naked child in the workshop badly. Coulson had showed up with clothes, juice boxes, and Bruce. Right now, he was more in favor of Coulson's reaction, and that was the most terrifying thought he'd had in a long time. When Coulson was the best option, he was well and truly fucked.

“I'll be honest,” Pepper said, her arms folded over her chest. “I was prepared to deal an unexpected child on your part, Tony. I just thought there'd be a woman involved.”

Tony pointed a finger in her direction, his mouth opening, and then he thought better of any and all of the objections that were going through his head. “Believe it or not, I have been rather careful about that kind of thing,” he said. “Years of having it pounded into me that if I got a girl pregnant, it was all over for me.” He shook his head with a half-hearted little smile. “Stark parenting has always left something to be desired.”

Ignoring the look Phil and Pepper exchanged, Tony glanced across the workshop, where Dummy was getting his first official medical checkup. He was handling it pretty well, all things considered.

“Say 'Ah,'” Bruce said giving Dummy a warm smile. “Like this, ahhhhhhhhhh.” He demonstrated, opening his mouth wide and sticking his tongue out.

Dummy, perched in the cradle of Steve's folded legs, blinked at him, considering. Steve took the juice box away from him, and Dummy leaned back against his chest, his head tilted back to study Steve. His little face flexed, and he dropped his chin, opening his mouth wide. “Good,” Steve prompted. “Now, aaaaaah,” he said, sticking his tongue out.

Dummy reached up and grabbed it.

“You can't do that, no, it's-” Bruce choked on laughter as he caught Dummy's fingers and pulled them away. “Don't do that,” he said, wiping Dummy's fingers with a gauze pad. Dummy made a grab for the gauze; the tactile sensation of EVERYTHING seeming to fascinate him. The problem was, once he touched it, he immediately tried to shove it into his mouth.

Tony had gotten out the 'edible/not edible' chart again.

Steve was laughing. “You have your own. Ah!' he said, and this time, Dummy stuck his tongue out. “Good boy!”

Bruce stuck the tongue depressor into Dummy's mouth and did a quick check of his throat. Clicking off his light, he sat back. “You did great!” Dummy grinned at him, and then up at Steve.

“Yeah, I heard. Good boy!” Steve held up a hand, and got a high five. He handed Dummy the juice box back, and the boy curled up in a warm little ball, tucking his knees up and holding the juice with both hands. He chewed on the straw as his dark eyes darted around the room. He found Tony, and grinned around the straw. Tony couldn't help but grin back.

Dummy scrambled up, his feet kicking at the ground until he got himself upright, throwing one arm over Steve's shoulder. He tried to wiggle over Steve's back, and Steve snagged him by the back of the shirt, holding Dummy against his chest without even trying. Dummy struggled for a couple of seconds, his feet kicking Steve in the ribs, before he finally slumped over the man's shoulder.

“Yeah, you're... You're small and portable now,” Tony said, grinning at the boy's pout. The juice box went flying in his direction. “That was a bad choice. I'm not giving you another one.”

Dummy held out both hands, letting out a high pitched whine. His little fingers were spread, clutching at the air, his eyes liquid. “No,” Tony told him, trying to ignore the uncomfortable twist in his chest at the expression on that little face. “Let Bruce finish.”

“All done,” Bruce said. He was digging through his battered old medical satchel. The thing had seen some serious mileage through the years, but he still kept it stocked and ready to go, because sometimes it was easier for him to get the Avengers patched up then it was to get them down to SHIELD medical. “I keep these for Clint, but I'm sure he'll be fine with sharing.”

He held up two lollipops. “Cherry,” he said, holding up the red one, “or grape?” Dummy's eyes flicked to the purple candy, and he immediately lost interest in Tony. Twisting in Steve's arms, he reached for both of them. Bruce pulled them back out of reach. “Just one. Which one?”

Dummy considered, and reached for both of them again.

“He's getting better about using both hands,” Bruce said, laughing.

“Yes, he is.” Steve took the candies and removed the wrapper from the red one before handing it over. “Try that one.” Dummy shoved it in his mouth and tipped back into Steve's lap, his eyes still locked on the purple one. “No,” Steve told him, with a smile. “One.” He tucked the other one in his pocket. “What's the verdict, Doc?”

“A perfectly healthy little boy,” Bruce said, closing up his bag. “Everything normal. Though I'd place his age at either three or possibly a small four. The only thing that's a bit out of the ordinary is that he isn't talking. By this age, he should have quite a vocabulary.”

“Dummy's non-verbal,” Tony said, tucking his hands in his pockets. “Never gave any of the bots voice protocols, so that makes sense.” He cleared his throat, a spike of anxiety shooting through him at the thought of Dummy being trapped without the ability to speak. “Is it physical?”

“No, not at all. He's clearly able to vocalize.” Bruce reached out, trailing gentle fingers over Dummy's tumbled black curls. Dummy grinned up at him, teeth as white as the lollipop stick clamped between them. There was a gap between his front teeth, oddly charming on his little face. “He'll learn.”

Tony nodded, trying to unlock his jaw. “Yeah. Sure.”

You and Butterfingers, both hovering nearby, angled in, jockeying for position. Dummy popped the lollipop out of his mouth and opened it wide, sticking out his now bright red tongue. The bots hummed and whirred as they considered it. “Wanna go play?” Steve asked Dummy, who nodded, the gesture jerky and uneven. “Okay. You, Butterfingers, remember, you have to be careful with him.” Gently, Steve lifted Dummy out of his lap, setting him on his bare feet. “I'm trusting both of you to take care of him.”

Almost instantly, Dummy was off and running, both bots rolling along in his wake. He stumbled, one foot twisting under him, and he pitched forward. Before he could hit the ground, You snagged the back of his shirt and lifted him back up. With Dummy giggling and shrieking from the bot's secure grip, the three of them rolled off to an open spot on the floor.

“Oh, that's going to end well,” Tony groused, craning his neck.

“You and Butterfingers will watch over him,” Jarvis said. “His absence from our network is noted by both of them. They query for his presence constantly, in tandem, one, then the other.” He paused. “He was the first. They have always had him for company, for as long as they have had access to the network. He was always there, and without warning, he disappeared.”

Steve paused in the act of getting up. “That must be... Horrible,” he said, his voice subdued.

“It is disconcerting,” Jarvis agreed. “It is not that he is a part of us. But he is connected to us. Our contact is constant. The loss of him was very, well, frightening, for lack of a better word. For both of them.”

Tony was watching the boy play, rolling a ball that Steve had brought down here months ago to play catch with the bots. “How bad was it for him?” he asked.

Jarvis was silent. “He was the first. He has experience with being alone. But he has not been such, not for many years. I believe he was... Accustomed to our company.”

Tony's eyes slid shut. “Great,” he sighed, rubbing his forehead.

“I don't understand,” Pepper said.

“The network's kind of a hive mind,” Tony said, as Steve's hand slid against the small of his back. Gentle. Supportive. “The AI's are all different entities, but they exchange info constantly.” He leaned into Steve's touch. “Think of the bots like triplets. They're always together. Share a room, a class at school, meals, they are always together. And now...” He shook his head. “Dummy's been pulled away and put by himself in a featureless white room. No one's talking to him, he's talking and no one can hear him, no one's within reach, he's, well.” Tony cleared his throat. “He's suddenly alone.”

“He is not alone,” Jarvis said, his voice staunch, as the adults looked across the workshop. “We are still here. But we cannot speak to him, not in the same way, and he cannot speak to us. But he is still here. And so are you, sir.”

“Yeah.” Tony watched as Dummy made a grab for the ball that Butterfingers bounced in his direction. He reached for it, unbalanced, and toppled over. You went for the ball and Butterfingers drew the boy back to his feet. Dummy reached up and wrapped his arms around Butterfingers' support strut, hugging the bot.

“What're our chances of being able to take him out of the workshop without him or them panicking?” Steve asked, practical as always.

“The odds are not good. As long as they can see him, they are controllable. But the implication that he may have to leave, that he will no longer be in the workshop, is not received well,” Jarvis said. “They are unaccustomed to this situation. As is he.”

“He is not sleeping in the charging station,” Tony said, his voice flat. “No. We're not doing this, he is not sleeping on the floor like a street urchin.”

“He's small, I'm pretty sure he'll sleep on the couch quite comfortably,” Steve said. His lips twitched. “It was good enough for us, after all.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, and he was not going to think about how they were going to do this. If Tony was going to be able to handle this. A kid on his couch. Steve, in his usual unflappable way, hadn't missed a beat, but Tony had no idea what to do about anything. If it had been up to him, he probably would've tied the blanket around the boy and given him an espresso.

He was so thankful for Steve right now, there were not even words.

And the thought of the three of them on that couch wasn't so horrible. It was confusing. Foreign. Unrecognizable. But it wasn't bad. Steve and Dummy, that was just fine, that he could picture without any difficulty, it wouldn't be all that hard to just let that be how this worked. Until they figured out what had happened, until they could put Dummy back the way he was supposed to be, Steve could handle this. Steve would've been a good father.

Except he'd made the mistake of hooking up with Tony.

Tony shook off the maudlin thought, turning his attention back to the others. “So we keep him down here for now, sounds like that's for the best, anyway. Even with Jarvis playing guard dog, the Tower's too dangerous for him to be wandering around in, and baby proofing it would take about a century and a half.”

“I'll get some more clothes for him,” Coulson said, with a faint smile. “Agent Phillips has a boy about his age, I'm sure she'll be happy to help me pick some things out.”

“We should get him some toys, too,” Steve said, his brow furrowed. “Kids should have toys.”

Coulson nodded, not seeming to hear the odd note in his voice. “The basics won't be hard to acquire.” He paused. “I'll bring the card to SHIELD, see if we can't find out where it came from, or who sent it.”

“I'll write up my findings, and make up a report with Jarvis' information,” Bruce said, shifting his bag from one hand to the other. “Hopefully put some minds at ease there.”

“I'd appreciate that,” Tony said. “And-” A loud noise interrupted him, and everyone jerked around.

Shrieking with amusement, Dummy catapulted his way across the workshop, buck naked, with the bots rolling along behind him, holding his clothes.

“So, looks like he found a way out of being picked up,” Steve commented, grinning.

“Definitely your kid, Stark,” Coulson said, a ghost of a smile on his face.

“Shut up now,” Tony told him, stalking after Dummy. “Hey! Put your damn pants back on, kid, being naked in front of Coulson is a recipe for disaster!”

From the doorway, Clint said, “A, that depends on your perspective on the matter, and B, when did we get a kid? Who has a kid?”

“Long story,” Steve told him, just as Tony caught up to Dummy, scooping the boy up into his arms.

“No,” he said, and Dummy fished his lollipop out of his mouth and offered it to Tony. “No, thank you, that one's yours, we are not getting sidetracked by candy, where did you leave your pants?” Dummy's eyes slid away, his lips pursing. “Oh, don't give me that, you are a faker, this is just- Fine. Butterfingers, give me those.”

Grumbling, he was in the act of forcing kicking feet into the pants when he felt something sticky impact with the side of his head. “Did he just put his lollipop in my hair?” he asked, not even bothering to look up.

“I like this kid,” Clint said, and Tony sighed.

*

“I'm just saying, maybe you should stay down here with him,” Steve said.

Tony folded his arms over his chest. “Any particular reason why I'm being excluded from this particular discussion?” he gritted out from between clenched teeth.

“Not excluded.” Steve was being placating. That was clearly a placating tone of voice. And that was very, very annoying. Tony resisted the urge to just tell him where he could stick his emotional calm. It wouldn't end well, and while it would feel good for about thirty seconds, in the end, he'd regret it. “It's just that Fury is not happy about the current state of events here, and he's not exactly being diplomatic about it. Let Coulson and I talk to him.” When Tony opened his mouth to object, Steve held up a hand, then both of them, flat, palms out. “Just at first, Tony. Just let us-” He paused. “Let us calm him down, Tony.”

“I don't much care if he's calm or not,” Tony pointed out, frustrated beyond words. He turned his back on Steve, casting about for something, anything, to occupy his hands. Chunks of armor were scattered everywhere, and he snagged a piece, anything to focus on that wasn't this stupid conversation. “Butterfingers, get over here.”

“Tony.” Steve braced his hands on the edge of the workbench. There was a muscle working in his jaw, and despite the calm tone of his voice, his eyebrows were drawn in tight over his eyes. “We need to deal with Fury, and we need to-'

Tony tossed the faceplate down with a bit more force than was necessary. “Fury can go-”

“Hey!” Bruce's single, sharp word brought their heads around. He tapped the end of his pen on the form he was working on, his brows drawn up in a tight line. “Maybe,” he said, his voice back to it's normal gentle timbre now that he had their attention, “you should have this discussion outside.” His eyes flicked to where Dummy was making neat lines of staples along the edge of a piece of paper. The boy's head was down over the page and his stapler, but Bruce glared at both of them. “Or anywhere that isn't here.”

Steve rubbed a hand over his face. “Yeah. Thanks, Bruce. You have him for a second?”

“Go ahead,” Coulson said, stacking up pages and handing them to Dummy. “Now, these are your papers. These are very important. Do you understand?”

Dummy stared happily at the pages, one hand abandoning the stapler to reach for them. Coulson held them out of reach. “Are you going to be careful this time?”

The pink tip of his tongue poking out from between his lips, Dummy nodded, awkward and uneven, but his eyes never left the papers. He started to scramble up onto the workbench, and Bruce caught him by the back of his shirt, pushing him back onto his stool. He whined, and made a grab. Coulson held onto the pages for another second, until Dummy settled back down. Then he set the neat stack in front of the boy.

Dummy went to town.

“I think we've got it,” Bruce said, smiling as Dummy filled every spare inch of the paper with staples. “Coulson, maybe you shouldn't have-”

Coulson held up another stack of pages. “Those were a decoy,” he said as Dummy giggled and wasted office supplies. “I've worked with him before.”

“We definitely have this,” Bruce said, grinning. “Here, Dummy, you can do mine, too, please.”

Tony stuck his hands in his pockets, wondering if he should say something, or not say something, or just go. But Dummy was engrossed in his work, not paying the least attention to him, and he headed for the door. A second passed before Steve's heavy footfalls came along behind his.

As soon as they were outside, Tony braced his shoulder against the glass wall, crossing his arms again. “So, talk.”

Steve gave him a weary look. “Tony...”

“No, seriously. Talk. Why am I being left at the kiddie table, in the most literal sense this time?”

“Because you and Fury get each others' hackles up,” Steve said, his voice patient. “And if you both decide to be stubborn about this, if he decides that he wants that child taken out of here until tests can be run and-”

“He will take that kid over my dead body,” Tony said, and Steve stopped. Spread his hands. Tony gritted his teeth. “Okay, you might have a point,” he admitted, and the words were so grudging it was like the were being pried out of him. “But that doesn't mean-”

“Tony,” Steve said, meeting his gaze without flinching. “This is easy. Do you, or do you not, trust me to have Dummy's best interests in mind if I act as the representative for our-” He stopped, head rolling on his neck. “For our family, for lack of a better word.”

“Oh, fuck me,” Tony said, his head falling back against the wall with a solid thump. “No. No, you can't get- Don't get attached. Don't do that, do you understand, this is not a puppy we brought home, he's a bot. He's a robot arm, Steve, he's-” He swallowed, his throat working with it, and it tasted like sandpaper on the back of his tongue. “This is magic, and the spell's going to wear off, or be broken, or something, but he's a bot, Steve.”

There was a long beat of silence, and he closed his eyes tight. Steve's arm pressed against the wall above Tony's head, and he leaned his weight against it. He shifted forward, until Tony could imagine he could feel the heat Steve's body threw off. “I know,” he said, and there was a soft, sad note to his voice. He leaned his forehead against Tony's. “But for the time being, that little boy needs whatever protection we can give him.”

Tony wrapped an arm around Steve's waist, settling his hand at the small of Steve's back. “He's not going to stay.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed.

“Go talk to Fury and Hill and who ever else decides to pitch a tent on my front lawn,” Tony said. “But Steve?” He waited for Steve to pull back, far enough to meet Tony's eyes. “They try to take that kid out of here? They better bring an army. I don't know how this happened, I don't know how long it's gonna last. But if they think they're going to turn him into a science project? They better bring a fuckin' army to bear on my front door, because I'm not letting them dissect him.”

Steve nodded, and then his mouth twitched. “Okay,” he said. His chin tipped as he nodded at the wall behind Tony. “I think someone wants your attention.”

Tony glanced over his shoulder, and then down. Dummy was pressed up against the glass, his hands flat, his nose squashed to the side as he stared up at Tony. He grinned, and then pursed his lips. He exhaled hard, making his cheeks puff up as he blew on the glass.

“I do not want to clean that up,” Tony said, and Steve laughed.

Dummy licked the glass, and pulled back, making a face. After a second, he darted back to lick it again, trailing the flat of his tongue across the glass. Tony sighed. “Go deal with Fury,” he said, and Steve stepped back away from him. “I'll go have the discussion about what he can and can't put his mouth on again. The 'put your mouth on this' list is so very short, I do not get where the disconnect is.”

“Parenting involves sacrifice,” Steve said.

“Wanna trade jobs?” Tony asked.

“I'll take the spy and world spanning paramilitary organization,” Steve said. He leaned in for a quick kiss. “You okay with Dummy?”

Tony shrugged. “He's what, three? Four? I think I can handle him.”

*

In Tony's defense, he took his eyes off the kid for about thirty seconds.

“Butterfingers, give the fabrication units a hand. You, get me that, no, not that one. The flat, oh, never mind, I'll get it, why is it easier to do it myself than actually get you to do your job?” he asked, glancing at his plans. The hologram was growing overly complicated; he liked it that way. Flicking through a couple of schematic layers, he fumbled behind him on the bench, wondering where he'd left the welder. “Actually, Jarvis, give me a power usage and see if we can't tighten the-”

“Dummy, NO!” Jarvis snapped, and Tony stopped mid-word.

He turned around; not all the way, his mind was still half on the wiring schematic. But he glanced back, just a quick check, just to make certain that Dummy was still sorting screws on the workbench, and that he wasn't trying to eat them any more. Because they'd already had that discussion, and Tony wasn't looking forward to having it again. But while Steve and Coulson and Bruce were upstairs dealing with SHIELD, Dummy was sorting odds and ends for Tony, and that was working out just fine.

Except the tall stool Tony'd pulled over to the workbench for him was empty, the little piles of odds and ends half finished, and Dummy was nowhere to be seen.

“Dummy?” Tony shoved his hand out, stilling the holographic interface. “Jesus, Dummy, I gave you one job to do, and you can't manage that? Really, I don't think-”

A scuffling noise brought his head around, and he had a second to recognize Dummy's precarious position, one bare foot hooked over the edge of the sink, one hand reaching for the blender, and then the blender cord, what Dummy had used to pull himself up to the counter, came loose from the socket. Dummy tipped backwards, and Tony's heart stopped.

Dummy crashed to the floor, his shoulder and head smacking down hard on the concrete.

For an instant, there was only silence. And then Dummy started to scream.

Tony went scrambling across the workshop, smashing into the edge of a workbench, knocking over a chair, and sending a prototype armor gauntlet clattering to the ground. He had no idea how he got there, but he was on his knees next to Dummy as the boy was sitting up, his hands clutching at his head. Dummy howled, his cheeks already streaked with tears.

“Don't, don't,” Tony said, his voice almost stuttering against his teeth. He caught Dummy's wrists and pulled them away. “Don't touch, no, stop it! Stop, it's-” At a loss, he ran careful fingers over Dummy's head. “Jarvis, is there any damage?”

“No, sir. His scans are clear. The trauma was minor; the fall was not far enough to do any lasting injury,” Jarvis said. “Dummy! Cease! You are not injured!”

Dummy just kept screaming, his little body rocking forward, and Tony, not sure what else to do, just picked him up. It seemed to be the right move, because Dummy clutched his shirt with both hands, burying his face in Tony's shoulder. Tony wrapped an arm around him, patting his back with awkward force.

“Okay,” he said, and his shirt felt wet at this point, wet and kind of sticky, there was a runny nose involved in this, he just knew it. “Okay, I know, that hurt, that hurt right now, and you weren't ready for pain. Or fear. Or any of this. But it won't hurt for long, promise, okay, yeah, this isn't helping, is it?”

He got to his feet, and that was harder than it should've been, he was off-balance and he wasn't sure he was doing the right thing at all, and Dummy was howling against his chest. The boy was a dead weight, pressing hard against his breastbone, against the arc reactor, and the sobbing just wouldn't stop.

Helpless, frustrated, Tony headed across the room, where at least he could sit down. Lowering himself to the couch, Tony fumbled behind him for stability, and when he was sitting, he shifted Dummy up against his chest. “It's okay,” he said, one hand cradling the boy's neck, rubbing with fingers that didn't know what to do here. But Dummy's sobs were tapering off, lacking force now. They were watery, hiccuping, choked back sounds, and that was better. That was so much better.

Tony cast back, trying desperately to remember what he'd wanted when he was small and hurting, and that was too wide a net to cast. He shied away from the memories, of being alone and afraid, of wanting something that he was never going to get.

Maybe it was desperation that brought the memory to mind, the faint, haunting sensation of someone singing to him. His mother, maybe, before she'd withdrawn from both the Stark males, into a haze of pills and booze. But he remembered cool hands on his forehead, some time when he was sick. He remembered being carried, being reluctant to let the simple contact end.

Soft, not quite sure of what he was doing, he started to sing, husky and low. He didn't know the words, not all of them, not even the majority of them. He stumbled on the notes, and powered ahead, because not knowing the words to say had never stopped him, never even slowed him down.

But the sound, or maybe the vibration of his chest, that was enough. Dummy's breathing slowed, evened out, the sobs intermittent now, little bursts of frustration and fear. Tony risked a gently stroke of his hair, checking for tender spots, because head injuries, those he understood. He got those, the ache and sting of a blow, unexpected and lingering.

Dummy leaned into the touch, one tiny hand coming up to clamp on Tony's fingers, clinging. He tipped his head up, and his nose was red and sticky, and his face was wet, his lips trembling. Tony arched his eyebrows, leaning back into the couch. “That hurt, huh?” he asked.

Dummy's free hand came up to brush against his head. He nodded, just a dip of his chin, but that was a nod. He blinked up at Tony, and there was fear there in his eyes, in the crumbled set of his mouth, and Tony wanted to take it all back. Wanted to put Dummy back, where he was safe, where he was protected, where he would never feel anything like pain or suffering. Where if he broke, Tony could fix him. Could set him right in a matter of hours.

The thought of this Dummy breaking was enough to send panic spiraling through him. This one, he couldn't fix. He couldn't even begin to understand how to fix.

His chest aching, he mopped at Dummy's cheeks with the hem of his shirt. “It's okay,” he said, and his voice was steady. “I'm sorry, I shouldn't have let you do that. I didn't-” He broke off, his teeth grinding together. “I'm sorry, Dummy. But that's something we've got to be careful about. Okay?”

Dummy pressed his face into Tony's shoulder, snagging a fistful of shirt.

“What were you trying to do, anyway?” Tony glanced at the counter, at the overturned blender. “Were you trying to make a smoothie?” He sighed. “You can't do that, not without help. Don't do that. Okay? Butterfingers will-”

Dummy shoved hard at his chest, a high whine pushing up in his throat. Tony, caught off-guard, barely managed to hold onto him. “Hey! Hey, stop, you want to get down? What is-” Dummy lashed out with a foot, catching him solidly in the stomach, and Tony's hands jerked. Dummy wrenched free, tumbling to the floor. He was on his feet and running almost immediately.

“Dummy! Jesus, what the fu- What is wrong with you?” Tony scrambled up, sick of this already. “Jarvis, we need to kidproof this place, now.”

“Sir, that task might prove impossible,” Jarvis cautioned. “Butterfingers, stop. We do not need you to make a smoothie right now. Come away, please.”

“Why can't he-” Tony stomped across the workshop, to where Dummy had both hands on Butterfingers' frame, pushing hard, his face twisted in frustration. His feet slipped on the floor, and he would've fallen, but Butterfingers caught him by the shirt.

Dummy tried to kick him.

“Hey!” Tony snapped. “That is enough! That stops, right now! You do not get to do that, there are rules about that and you know it! I don't care if you're not following your programming right now, that is not acceptable! Don't hit people, don't kick, you're acting like a-” And if he said 'child' he'd really feel stupid, wouldn't he? “Stop it,” he said, instead, taking him away from Butterfingers. Dummy struggled in his grip. “What is your problem?”

“It is his job, sir,” Jarvis said, his voice quiet.

“So, Butterfingers can do it today, it's not a big deal,” Tony snapped, pinning Dummy against his chest to avoid further injury to either of them.

“It is to him,” Jarvis said. “We define ourselves by our tasks. It is as we are. He is not himself, a situation that must be confusing and isolating. And now, if he cannot do the job he was made to do-”

Tony's eyes shut. “I get it, okay.” He turned Dummy in his arms, until they were face to face, ignoring the way that Dummy shoved at him. “You're still Dummy,” he said. “I like you because you're Dummy. Not because you make me smoothies. Not because you do anything here. We're find jobs you can do, okay?”

Dummy leaned into his chest, and Tony hugged him close. “If I wanted something useful, I would've replaced you with a functioning model,” he pointed out, and without thinking about it, he pressed a kiss to the boy's head. “Stop causing trouble, you are a horrible bot.”

That won him a giggle, faint and raspy as it was. Tony rocked him back and forth, slow and even. “I-” He cleared his throat. “It'll be okay. We'll figure this out.”

“Sir, judging by his age and activity level,” Jarvis said, “he may be tired. He would not recognize it, but it has been an exhausting day. He is showing signs of frustration and it might be best if he be given a chance to rest. Perhaps a nap?”

“Oh, God, please,” Tony said. “Couch time, buddy. C'mon.”

It wasn't that hard to get him settled on the couch, curled in a bundle of blankets, his head resting on Tony's leg. It didn't take that much coaxing to get him to close his eyes, to keep them closed as he sank into the comforting warmth.

When he finally succumbed to sleep, his whole body going limp, Tony risked a gentle stroke of his hair. The boy wiggled a little, but other than a faint snore, there was no response.

“Jarvis,” he said at last. “What do I do if I fuck this up?”

“You won't, sir,” Jarvis said, and Tony snorted.

“I really wish I knew where this inappropriate streak of optimism was coming from,” he said, leaning his head back on the couch. He stared at the ceiling, wishing he wasn't quite so afraid. Or that Dummy's curls, beneath the flat of his rough hand, were a little less real.