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.
“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.
Warnings for child endangerment and threats of violence.
Also this ends in a cliffhanger, but I want to have the story finished in the next few days. If cliffhangers bother you, please consider waiting for the last chapter to be posted.
I do not, nor will I ever, deal in surprise deathfic. Everyone will make it through the story safe and sound, so stick with us to see how they do it. 8)
They compromised on the charging station.
It wasn't like Tony had much of a choice, Dummy insisted on spending all of his time seated in it anyway, his knees drawn up against his chest and his arms wrapped around them, blinking with interest at the world as it passed by. His hatred of shoes and his insistence on spending all of his time in a metal robot bay meant that in less than forty-eight hours, alterations were in order.
“You okay with this?” Steve asked, holding out a steaming mug of coffee to Tony.
Tony took it, and he seemed to be having trouble focusing for a second. The smell of the brew snapped him out of it, his eyes coming clear all at once. “Yeah. Jarvis has deactivated the power couplings, so there's no chance of hurting himself or setting anything on fire.” He threw back a slug of the coffee, and Steve watched his throat work, concerned.
Across the workshop, Thor, Clint and Coulson were making something that had been termed a 'fixed blanket fort.' What that meant, Steve wasn't quite sure, but the three men were doing some impressive things with a vast array of blankets, sheets, and pillows. Thor had taken the news of their new addition without even seeming to be surprised. He was also, as it turned out, adept at building a tent sort of structure with one hand tied behind his back, and in short order, ropes, wire, blankets and bracing poles had been employed to keep the little structure in place, with Dummy's able help.
Right now, Clint was lying on his back, half of him inside the fort, and Dummy braced on his chest. The boy was rapidly getting better at using his hands for small detail work, and Thor was showing him how to tie a knot with a piece of rope and a plastic bar. Coulson, sitting nearby, was unloading a bag of stuffed animals.
There were a lot of them.
“It's stupid,” Tony commented. “It's, I don't know, it's-” He waved his cup at Dummy, who had scrambled up to try to reach the trailing edge of a sheet. Thor picked him up and set him on his shoulders. Clint was laughing as he disappeared into the blanket covered space. “Get out of there!” Tony yelled. “You have your own room, I know, I set up the security access.”
“Nice and dark and warm in here,” Clint yelled back without even pushing the blanket back. “Good spot for a nap. Dummy doesn't mind.”
Steve struggled not to laugh as Tony dropped his head into his hands and gave a melodramatic groan. “It's fine,” Steve told him, rubbing his back. “Dummy will kick him out later.”
“Unacceptable,” Tony mumbled into his arms. “I'm just going to-” He rolled his head to the side and glared at Steve. His eyes were bloodshot and there were deep grooves bracketing his mouth, and he needed a shave. “This isn't going to solve anything. He can't sleep on the floor, and we can't sleep on the couch for the rest of our lives.”
Tony didn't sleep well under the best of circumstances; Steve knew this better than most. But for the most part, Steve could coax Tony into bed before he burned himself out or collapsed from exhaustion. Sex was very effective for that, and Steve was more than happy to employ that particular lure, whenever possible.
In the two days since Dummy's transformation, Tony had seemed to fluctuate between complete acceptance, and total panic, with no middle ground. One thing was for certain, Steve had fallen asleep on the couch with Dummy curled up next to him both nights, and Tony hadn't budged from his workbench. If he'd slept at all, Steve didn't know about it, and Tony was rapidly reaching his breaking point.
Steve moved his hand to massage the tense line of Tony's neck. “Go get some sleep,” he said, pitching his voice low. “I can stay down here with him.”
Tony shook his head. “I'm fine.” He straightened up, pushing Steve's hand away. “Stop coddling me.”
“I like coddling you,” Steve said, crossing his arms over his chest. He wavered for only a second, before saying, “What aren't you telling me?”
Tony's shoulders went tight for a split second, and then relaxed. “What're you talking about?”
“You're hiding something,” Steve said, with a shrug. “I'd like to know what it is.”
Tony gave him a vaguely disdainful look. “C'mon, Steve.”
“C'mon, Tony,” Steve shot back. “You're wound so tight you're about ready to pop a spring.”
Tony slanted a look in Dummy's direction. “I think I have reason. Don't you?”
“He's fine,” Steve said, because that could not be repeated too many times. “Tony. There's no precedent for this, we have no idea what we're doing, I understand that. But for right now, he's a healthy little boy.”
“Magic made him a healthy little boy, and I do not like magic,” Tony said, pitching his voice low. “Because we have no way to handle it, and no way to deal with it, and no way to undo it.”
Steve nodded. “SHIELD is having an expert look at it,” he said, ignoring Tony's snort of disdain.
“Some crazy-eyed reject from a Harry Potter novel,” Tony mumbled under his breath. “Wonderful. Perfect. That'll make everything better.”
“What will make things better,” Steve said, “is you getting some sleep. Jarvis, it's getting close to dinner time, can you order us some pizzas? We'll get the team together and have dinner down here.” Tony opened his mouth, his eyes glinting in a dangerous manner, and Steve leaned forward. “You will eat dinner, and you will sleep tonight. And if that means that Dummy sleeps in the spot he is making for himself, because he is an obstinate, willful and altogether stubborn Stark, then good. That means his spot on the couch is open, and you can join me and actually rest.”
Tony studied him, eyes narrowed and brows drawn up tight. Steve stared him down, not flinching despite the worry that he as just as deep into this as Tony, and just as uncertain.
At last, Tony sighed. “I am hungry. We can have dinner.”
Steve relaxed, just a bit, recognizing the signs of a potential surrender. “We'll see if Dummy likes pizza.”
“Yeah.” Tony ran a hand through his hair. “Hey!” he yelled. “What do you think you're doing? That's not- No, Thor. Not a chance, don't-” He stomped across the room, waving a hand at the rope structure. “No. Give me that.”
Thor, laughing, pulled Dummy off of his shoulders and handed him over. “We have accomplished much, why such harsh words?”
Tony took the boy and settled him on his hip. “I meant the rope,” he said, but he made no effort to give Dummy back, or put him down. Dummy immediately sank both of his hands into Tony's hair, his tiny fingers wiggling through the locks.
Steve, smiling, leaned back against the workbench, and reached for Tony's coffee cup. It was better for Tony's health and potential sleep schedule if it was empty when he came back.
And the one time Dummy had gotten hold of a cup had made it clear that was a mistake they should never, ever repeat.
“This is new.”
“I don't want to talk about it,” Tony said, not even looking up from his work. In the past week, Dummy's blanket structure had gotten completely out of control. Tony could swear that Clint was sneaking down here to toss extra sheets around, but he hadn't found any proof of it. And Jarvis might not be on his side on this particular issue, witness the fact that he'd just let Doctor Stephen Strange into the workshop without so much as a by your leave to Tony.
Tony finished what he was working on and cut a quick glance in Strange's direction. “Welcome to the nursery,” he said, his voice droll about it.
Laughing, Strange turned away from Dummy's 'room' and picked his way across the workshop, carefully avoiding stepping on any of the many toys that littered the ground. He was carrying a small, flat case in one hand and looked unaccountably tired. “SHIELD had me look into your little gift. Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you.”
“Hi, Stephen,” Steve said, waving a hand from the couch. He stood, lifting Dummy into his arms as he did. “Thanks for coming.”
He crossed the workshop to them, carrying a sleeping Dummy. The boy was slumped against Steve's chest, his arms limp, head lolling onto Steve's shoulder, his mouth hanging open. He was snoring, a rumble that should've been impossible for such a small form. “Here,” Steve said to Tony, handing the boy over without giving Tony a chance to protest. “I need to pick up his mess.”
Tony took the boy, opening his mouth to respond to this charge, and Steve cut a glare in his direction. For an instant, they held their standoff, Steve with his eyebrows arched, Tony with his mouth open, and Tony broke first. “Fine,” he grumbled, settling back into his chair. He shifted Dummy's weight, pulling the boy in closer to his chest.
Dummy drooled on his t-shirt, and Tony sighed, his hand stroking down Dummy's back to soothe the snores. Steve dropped a kiss on Tony's tangled hair, then one on Dummy's. “Thank you,” Steve said with a brilliant smile.
Tony grumbled at nothing in particular. With Dummy braced against his chest, warm and limp, he turned a gimlet glare on Strange. The mystic was doing his best not to smile, and his best was not nearly good enough. “Don't even start,” Tony told him.
“I shouldn't dream of it,” Strange agreed, but his eyes were dancing. “He's a beautiful boy.”
“He looks like Tony,” Steve said as he worked his way across the workshop, tossing toys and books into a basket with Butterfingers' help as he went.
“He does not look like Tony,” Tony said.
“He rather does.” Strange came across the workshop to peer down at the boy's slumbering face. He set his case down and held out his arms. “May I?”
Tony pulled back, one hand coming up protectively to cradle the back of Dummy's head. “I think he's had enough magic done to him, thanks.”
“I would never,” Stephen said, his voice calm and reassuring. “But I would like to check and see if there are any residual effects of the spell that might still affect him in this form.”
He choked back an immediate and unconditional 'no,' and took a deep breath. “Do you have to, you know, hold him to do that?” he asked at last. “Or can you do it while I, you know, keep him?”
“Of course,” Strange said. “Just hold still, if you please.” He waited until Tony nodded, and reached out one hand, hovering his fingers over the curve of Dummy's head. An instant later, he pulled it back, a faint frown slipping across his features before it disappeared.
“What?” Tony asked.
“It has to do with the object that SHIELD gave me to investigate,” Stephen said, and Dummy let out a rattling snore.
“I- Let me put him down,” Tony said, more to cover the immediate spike of anxiety those words created than for anything else.
Steve pitched a floppy, oversized Hulk doll into the basket. To Bruce's blushing amusement, it was Dummy's favorite, and he usually clung to it like a limpet. “I can do it,” he said to Tony, and Tony shook his head.
“It's fine. I've got him now, there's no point in-” Tony let the words trail away, because he had no idea where he was going with them. He stood and headed for the oversized nest of blankets and pillows.
Nudging the blanket that covered the entrance out of the way, he crouched down and tried to maneuver Dummy into the dark, protected space. Dummy clung and resisted, whining in his sleep. “Class act, that's what you are,” Tony said, stroking Dummy's curls back. “C'mon, we Starks have a certain reputation to uphold, could not you not spoil it by being-” Dummy snorted in his sleep, and Tony rolled his eyes. “Pure class.”
Out of view of the others, Tony brushed a light kiss against Dummy's forehead, slipping him into the huddled little nest of pillows and blankets. The boy slumped out, all loose limbs and uneven snores. “That,” Tony said in an undertone, “you get that from your dad. He sprawls all over the place, too.”
Pushing himself back out, he pulled the little curtains down. “This is- This is absolutely ridiculous, Rogers, you do realize that, don't you?”
“He likes it,” Steve said, unconcerned, as he set a cup of tea in front of Stephen. “You don't have to.”
“Wonderful, because it's an abomination, he's sleeping on a concrete slab topped with metal decorated with some blankets you found in the back of the linen closet.” Tony continued to glare. He was offended by the thing's very existence, really. As many pillows and toys as they wanted to stuff in there, the end result was that Dummy was sleeping on the floor.
Something about that made him completely insane.
“He's comfortable there,” Steve said. “That's always where he slept, for lack of a better term, as long as he's happy there, it's either that, or build him a room off of the workshop.”
Tony took a seat. “I think that depends on what the good Doctor has come to tell us,” he pointed out, and Steve settled down next to him.
Strange nodded. “That's likely true.” He reached for the case, and set his palm against it. There was a flare of light, a diffused glow trapped beneath his hand, and then the lid opened. He took out a simple plastic sheet protector, and slipped it onto an empty space on the bench. Stephen leaned back in his seat. “To be honest,” he said, leaning over the clear plastic file, “the spell wasn't difficult to unravel.”
“What did you find out?” Tony asked. His fingers lingered on the slick cover. Inside, beneath the protection of plastic, the cream colored card was an innocuous thing, elevated by the situation.
“It's object oriented. That object, to be precise. It was your contact with the card that set the spell in motion,” Stephen said. “It was intended for you, that much is clear. Though if the spell was intended for Dummy, or just any intelligent creation that you felt a heavy tie to, it's difficult to say. However, there's no doubt, you were, you are, the anchor.”
Tony rubbed his forehead. “Yeah,” he said. “So this is my-” He bit back the words, because Steve was looking at him with a furrowed brow and tight lips. “Can he, can this, be fixed?”
“That's more difficult.” Stephen reached out and tapped the card, his finger barely brushing against it. “The spell is not particularly sophisticated. It hinges on the card.”
Steve kept his hands to himself, but his eyes lingered on the file. “So we, what, destroy it?”
“That could set him back to normal,” Strange agreed. He paused, his eyes hooded beneath dark lashes. He took a deep breath. “Or it could kill him.”
Tony froze. “What?”
“His fate is tied to the card. Destroying it might break the spell,” Stephen said. “But if the magic is laid out in a particular way, he might cease to exist along with the spell.”
Steve's face was white. “And there's no way to-”
Tony stood, snatching the card from the bench. “No. No fucking way. We don't take that risk, not ever, not happening. Fuck that.”
“Tony-” Steve started, and Tony turned on him.
“No. No. Not if there's even a chance, no, we're not-” He stopped, his teeth grinding together. “Not ever,” he said at last. “He's a living thing, he's a being. Right now, he's a human being, I get that, but he's always had-” He stopped, shoulders tight, his empty hand fisted hard against his thigh. “I won't take any chances with his life. He's a child. He's always been a child, even when he wasn't human, that's not something we do, that's not acceptable.”
“It's not,” Steve said, calm and reasonable as ever, but his eyes were agonized. “Tony. We all know it's not. We're not going to risk him.” He stood, his big form unfolding with his usual grace. “You know that.” He reached for Tony, and Tony swayed into his touch, the way he always did, as if there was some magnetic field in play. It wasn't something he could define, he was certain that he didn't want to try.
But as Steve's arms closed around him, a measure of fear and tension, something he hadn't even been aware he'd been carrying, melted away. His eyes sliding shut, he leaned his head back against Steve's shoulder. Steve braced him from behind, his arms firm and comforting around Tony's waist.
Tony covered Steve's hand with his, his fingers digging in, gripping too tight. Steve didn't flinch, didn't complain, he just rested his cheek against Tony's head, his lips brushing ever so gently against Tony's hair. “The databases are gone,” he said, and it hurt to say the words.
Steve didn't reply immediately, his breath light and easy against Tony's temple. “What do you mean?” he asked at last.
“This is the one and only Dummy,” Tony said, his head dipped forward. His eyes closed, and opened again. He pulled out of Steve's arms, turning so he could face both of them. He folded his arms over his chest. “I keep backups of the AI memory, their schematics, their systems. Butterfingers and You, their files are still there, fully intact.
“Dummy is gone.”
Stephen was frowning, his fingers tented against his lips, his elbows braced on the workbench. “All of the files?” he asked.
“Everything's gone. All of my backups.” Tony gave him a tight smile. “Dummy is troublesome. Always has been. After the-” He stopped. Cleared his throat. “Well, there was an incident. After that, I was careful to make multiple backups of his memory, his design, everything. Scattered them around, so they'd always be accessible, so if the worst happened, if he was irreparably damaged, I could rebuild him. Put him right.
“Jarvis and I have both checked. Every single one of them is gone.”
He rubbed a hand over his face. “This is Dummy. There's no backup. There's no failsafe. I can't-” He could feel the panic rising in his chest, hot and burning, and he hated it. With all the force he could muster, he tramped it down, doing everything possible to get himself back under control. “This is Dummy. Whatever this fucker did, this is Dummy.”
In the silence that followed, he met Steve's eyes. “I can't fix him,” he said. “I've always been able to fix him. What am I supposed to do with a child, Steve? What-” His shoulders slumped. “What am I supposed to do with a kid?” Tony heard something crinkle, and he realized, with a start, that he was still clutching the plastic covered card. “I'll lock this up,” he said. “Somewhere safe.”
“I hate to add to your burden, but there's another line,” Strange said. Tony and Steve looked at him, and his eyes were closed, his lips tight behind his tented fingers. He gave a faint sigh. “On the card. There's a second line. Hidden from view, but it will be triggered. Sooner or later. That was the delay, as I attempted to discern what it had to say without disturbing the card itself. Or the spell it carries.”
He rubbed a hand over his eyes. “It reads, 'Do you think you're equipped to deal with loss?'”
Tony took a breath, and that hurt. “Well,” he gritted out. “That doesn't sound ominous or anything.” His free hand fumbled in the air, and Steve caught it with his own, weaving their fingers together.
“What does it mean?” Steve asked, and there was a wobbly, uneven note to his voice that disappeared after only a word or two. He was a soldier, through and through, it was odd what reminded Tony of that. But now, with his hand steady in Tony's, and his stable, braced posture, that small break to his voice was like a howl of pain. Tony leaned into his shoulder, partially for his own sake, partially for Steve's.
Steve always seemed to be more balanced if he had someone else to brace.
“There's another layer to the spell,” Strange said. “The first is what we've already seen, the transformation of Dummy's physical form. There's something else, a second part. Triggered by time or contact or something as of yet unknown. But that is the second line, I managed to discern that much, and we have to assume that like the first, it is addressed to you, Tony. What it does, I have not yet determined. I wish I had better news, but-” He spread his hands, his face helpless. “I'm still researching it, to see if I can find either the spell or the caster in any of my tomes.”
Tony stared down at the card. “Thank you,” he said. And this was getting put in the most secure location he had, and that meant under every safeguard he could offer it. In the heart of the tower.
Whatever this was, who ever it was, they were going to regret this particular threat.
“What happened,” Steve said, and it was not a question, it was in the Cap voice, the clipped, controlled tone he used in the field.
Tony rocked Dummy back and forth, the boy clinging to his shirt with both hands. He was still making low, whimpering noises as he burrowed against Tony's shoulder. The sound was miserable and pained, and Tony stroked a hand down his back. “He threw up,” Tony gritted. “A lot. He threw up a lot.”
“Okay. Is he sick?” Steve's face was pale, his jaw tight. He reached for Dummy, then pulled his hands back, his fingers curling into his palms, forming fists. “Has Bruce-”
“He ate about half a pie,” Tony said, and Steve stared at him with that expression only he could manage, a little perplexed, a little concerned, and a little exasperated. “When I was getting out the forks, he managed to jam about a quarter of it into his mouth. Then when I was putting the remains away, he ate his slice. And mine. And when I was freaking out at Bruce about that over the comms, he started mainlining whipped cream straight from the can. I got the can away from him, and he threw up on my pants.”
Steve pressed a hand against his mouth, trying to look calm, but his eyes were dancing now, sustained laughter hidden in their depths. “And that's why you're not wearing pants,” he said, his words muffled.
“They were my favorite jeans,” Tony snarled at him, “and they went straight into the incinerator that is usually reserved for toxic waste.” Dummy sniffled against his shoulder, and without really thinking about it, Tony rubbed his back. “So yes. That is why I'm standing in the middle of the workshop in my boxers, smelling of vomit.”
“To be fair,” Jarvis said, “this is not the first time-”
“Yes, thank you, Jarvis,” Tony said, rolling his eyes so hard it almost hurt. “But every time, I can hope it's the last, and I didn't even get to get drunk this time.” He bounced Dummy in his arms as the boy started whine. “God, I need a drink.”
Steve reached for Dummy. “Tony...”
“I'm not drinking, Captain Worrypants,” Tony said. He kept hold of Dummy. “He's filthy, and so am I, just... Bruce is bringing something to settle his stomach.” Dummy raised his head from Tony's shoulder and turned tear-filled eyes on Steve. Recognizing a more sympathetic face when he saw it, he twisted in Tony's arms, holding his arms out and whining.
Steve took a step forward before he caught himself, but the naked WANT was there on his face. Sighing, Tony handed the boy over. Dummy waited until he was curled against Steve's chest to start sobbing. “You,” Tony said, slumping back into a chair, “are a fraud. Absolutely a fraud, you little faker.”
“His stomach hurts, Tony,” Steve carried Dummy to the sink, holding him easily with one arm as he ran the tap. With his usual efficiency, he was soon holding a glass to Dummy's lips. As the boy drank, he gave Tony a sideways glance. “How much did he-”
“More than I thought could come out of someone that small,” Tony said, letting his body slide low in the seat. “I never want to eat again.”
“Where did you even get a pie?” Steve asked, as Dummy made a loud smacking noise and pushed the glass away.
“I think Clint left it. He stocks the fridge down here now, so, you know, I open the door and there's food,” Tony said with a shrug. “He didn't care if I went hungry, but apparently Dummy's more important.”
“True,” Steve teased, and dropped a kiss on Tony's lips to chase away his pout. Dummy hung in his arms and giggled.
“I see that reports of someone's illness were greatly exaggerated.” Natasha walked into the workshop, one hand behind her back. “Given Tony's propensity towards panic, I'm not surprised. How's he feeling?” she asked Steve as Dummy struggled to get down. He darted over to Natasha, who stroked his hair.
“Bruce is coming,” Tony said.
“Bruce is not coming,” she said. “You need to stop calling the doctor for every little thing; he'll stop making house calls. He's been working for days, let him sleep. He was stumbling in this direction when I found him, and I sent him back to bed.”
Natasha glanced in Tony's direction. “He was fine before he ate too much?”
“Has he thrown up again?”
“No,” Tony admitted.
“Did you give him water?” she asked.
“Yes,” Tony said.
“Did he throw up after he drank it?”
She gave them a look. “Then he's fine. Here, Dummy, have a peppermint, it'll help.” She unwrapped the candy and handed it over. Dummy shoved it in his mouth, covering it with both hands. Natasha gave him a discreet sniff. “Bathtime. Now.”
Dummy's eyes went huge, and he lunged towards his charging station. Natasha, expecting this, snagged him by the back of the shirt, letting his feet pin-wheel in mid air for a second. “Bathtime,” she repeated.
He let out a howl that could rattle the windows. She sighed. “Why doesn't he like baths?” she asked Tony, her voice accusatory.
“He spent the first couple of decades of his life as a thing powered by electricity,” Tony said, wincing. “Water tended not to agree with him.”
“Dummy-” Steve crouched down in front of him. “C'mon, buddy, you have to do this, you know you do, we can't keep doing-”
“I've got it, Cap.” Natasha held out one hand. Dangling from one perfectly manicured finger, a package of rubber ducks made to look like the Avengers swung in midair. Dummy's eyes were huge as he stared at them. Natasha's lips curled up. “Take a bath,” she said, calm and precise, “and get the ducks.” She looked down at them. “I like the little Hawkeye duck. He has an arrow in his beak.”
Dummy made a grab, and it was a pathetic attempt. Smiling at him, Natasha held them just out of reach. “Bath and ducks,” she explained, “or stay here, wallow in your own filth, which is what Starks do best-”
“Hey!” Tony felt obligated to say, but it lacked heat.
“And I give the ducks to Clint. Because Clint? Would love these ducks.”
Dummy's bottom lip quivered, and she arched an eyebrow. “Please,” she said. “Don't embarrass yourself. You're not going to play me, baby.” Turning briskly on her heel, she headed for the bathroom, the ducks held enticingly over her shoulder to dangle down her back. “What's your choice?”
It took less than five seconds for him to break and scramble after her, his bare feet padding along on the workshop floor. Natasha glanced over her shoulder and gave them a wink, and held the bathroom door open, letting Dummy bounce in.
“Nice,” Steve told her.
“Men are so easy,” she said, her eyes dancing. “Dangle the right bait, and they swallow the hook.”
“That is just untrue!” Tony yelled after her, and her laughter echoed out to them. “That's only partially true,” he said to Steve. “Only a little.”
“I call it incentive, but I'm pretty much with her on this one,” Steve said. He held out his hand. “Shirt.”
“The romance has gone out of our relationship,” Tony groused, and Steve laughed as he stripped the filthy t-shirt off of Tony's chest, ignoring his struggles. Of course, when it was all over, Tony was in his boxers and Steve's arms, and hey, that wasn't so bad. “Kid vomit,” he reminded Steve. “Pie and vomit. I'm not attractive here, Steve.”
“How did you possibly let him get to an entire pie?” Steve asked, sounding completely confused by this. “You know he sticks everything he can in his mouth. Didn't we learn this lesson with the donuts?”
“The donuts, I lost track of the BOX,” Tony pointed out. “And he was fine after the donuts! I mean, mostly.”
Steve groaned. “He cannot eat the way you do, you eat either horrible junk food or you consume nothing by protein shakes filled with algae. You are just-” He leaned his forehead against Tony's. “Mealtime.”
“No,” Tony said.
“Yes,” Steve said, laughing. “Family mealtime, Tony.”
“Living hell,” Tony said. “Not a chance.”
“Tony, he's been like this for three weeks now. We need to start assuming it might be indefinite.”
“Great, wonderful, I'll get a trust fund together so we can send him to college,” Tony said, avoiding Steve's eyes as he pulled free of his arms. “It'll be fine, be great.”
“He needs to leave the workshop,” Steve said. “We need to start that, even if it's just small trips. He can't live down here, Tony. He needs to go outside.” His brow furrowed, he started to pace. “It's not right for him to be down here all the time. He needs other kids, he needs school.”
“Steve, he's THREE,” Tony said. “Maybe four, we don't even know how old he is! He's not-” His hands were clamped down on the edge of the bench so hard that they hurt. He let go, and dug his fingernails into his palms instead. “It's a little early to be worrying about that.”
“We need to think about it,” Steve said, because he was always at his most stubborn at the times when Tony really wished he wouldn't be. “If this is how he's going to be, he's going to be normal, Tony.”
“He's a bot, Steve. Not sure how he got to the point of needing to wear OshKosh, but here we are. One thing he's never going to be is normal.”
Steve's jaw was at an obstinate angle. “We can make him as normal as possible.” He paused, sucked in a breath. “He needs a real name.”
“He has a name,” Tony said, rubbing his forehead. “It's- It's fine. That's his name.”
“You think we can call him 'Dummy' outside of this room? Really? You're going to expose him to that? What people would say?” Steve sighed. “He doesn't have a name, Tony, he has an insult that you dropped at the wrong moment in his development.”
A rubber duck came flying across the room and bounced off of Steve's shoulder. It hit the ground and rolled, a little Captain America duck with a shield on its wing.
Steve stared at it, and crouched down to pick it up. He cradled the toy in his fingers, blinking down at it. He looked up, and Dummy stalked to the middle of the room, trailing a towel behind him. Steve frowned, reached for him with his free hand. Dummy slapped his hand away. Tony winced. “Dummy, hey, look, it's-”
Dummy gave him a look, betrayed and furious, his eyes full of tears. He ran back into the bathroom, shoving past Natasha's legs.
Natasha stood in the bathroom door, her arms crossed over her chest. “He can hear you,” she said, her voice strange. Brittle at the edges. “He's not stupid, and he's not deaf, and you don't-” She stalked forward and slammed a finger into Steve's breastbone. “Take the only identity he's got because it's not convenient for you.” Her jaw was tight, her eyes slits. “He knows his name. You don't get to take that away from him.”
She drew back and slapped a Captain America towel into the center of his chest, holding it there with one flat hand. “You have no idea,” she breathed, “what it is to be stripped of everything you know, to have only your name left. When that's taken too, when you are left with NOTHING, you cling to that name, even if it's never said again, even if no one ever knows it. You know it. The last shred of your identity, before that, too, is taken from you.”
She shoved, the heel of her hand against his chest, enough to rock him back. “You can call him whatever you want, but in his head, he's Dummy, and you have no right-” Her mouth worked, and she took a breath. “Don't do that. Don't take what little he has left, without his consent.”
Natasha took a step away, turning her back on them. “You're better than that.”
“I didn't mean-” Steve started, his voice breaking, and she waved a hand in the air.
“I know,” she said. “I know you didn't. But he's new here.” She glanced back, her lips kicking up on one side. “Watch what you say. He's got very good ears. And he doesn't talk, but don't mistake that, don't assume that means he doesn't understand.”
Tony glanced at the bathroom. “How much did he hear?”
“Probably all of it. I'd just gotten him in the bathtub when he stopped playing with the ducks. And he's slippery when he's wet.” She slipped out the door. “We all need to be more careful. I didn't realize what was going on until he'd already gotten out of the water.” She paused, and shook her head. “Either I'm losing my edge, or he's better than I anticipated.”
“He's a Stark,” Tony pointed out. “We're always more trouble than you can anticipate.”
“True.” And just like that, she was gone.
Steve was staring down at the towel and the duck in his hands, his face miserable. “I should-” He broke off, swallowed. “How do I fix this?”
“If I may, Steve, I believe that he should prefer to hear from sir at the moment,” Jarvis said, his voice very gentle. “He is simply afraid and confused. He will be fine, but he requires reassurance.”
“Oh, great, I've got a lot of experience being reassuring,” Tony said, sarcasm dripping from the words. He stalked across the workshop, digging a pair of sweatpants from a cabinet.
“With all due respect,” Jarvis snapped, “your lack of practice in this situation is none of his concern. He has less experience than you, and unlike you, he has no choice but to deal with this.”
“I'm going,” Tony snarled. He met Steve's blank, haunted eyes. “Go take a seat, Cap. It's fine, okay, let me just, I don't know. I'll just talk to him, okay?”
Without waiting for a reply, he headed for the bathroom, pulling the door shut behind him. With Steve's hearing, it wouldn't do much good, but he liked to give the appearance of privacy. Of course, it didn't really matter, because the only occupant of the room was a pile of towels in the middle of the floor. He glanced at the linen closet, which was now open and empty, the majority of the towels dragged down to cover Dummy's huddled form.
He stepped carefully around the towel lump, checking the empty tub, where the majority of the ducks were still scattered, and scooping up Dummy's dirty clothes. Tossing them on the sink counter, he considered his next move. There weren't many that were available to him, and he went with the only one he could possibly see working.
Tony took a seat on the tile, leaning his back against the cabinet. “So,” he said at last. “We're, what, angry? Afraid? Confused?” The lump of towels didn't reply, and he reached out a careful hand, hovering it over the terry. “Steve,” he said at last, “has always liked you. Maybe he was the first. Who liked you. Just because of you. I mean, there's me, but I made you, you know, I have an ego, of course I'd like you.
“But Steve, I told him your name, and he didn't like it. He didn't like it because he thought I was, well, using it to hurt you. That I just called you something mean, without thinking about it. Because a lot of people called him things that were intended to hurt, so he knows what's that's like.”
He reached out, and brushed a hand over the lump. It wiggled away.
Tony let his hand fall back to the tile. “He was afraid that when I was calling you Dummy,” he said, leaning forward to brace his arms on his upthrust knees, “that I was hurting you. Without knowing you, without knowing anything about you, he was worried that you had feelings, that you had a sense of who you are. And he didn't want me hurting you.”
He rubbed a finger up and down a scar on the side of his knee. “I made a mistake. I made a lot of mistakes. But you were the first. I didn't, I didn't think, when you came online, I didn't know your identity would be so important to you. I should have, but you know, I was drunk. And stupid.”
A horrible thought occurred to him, and he gritted his teeth. “Stark men and alcohol. Hurting. Always saying and doing things, you know-” Swamped by a sense of self-loathing, he stopped, wanting to put his fist through the wall, through the glass of the mirror, he wanted to scream. Instead, he took a deep breath, and the air smelled of bubble gum bubble bath and mint. “I gave you your name without thought. I didn't think about it, I didn't make a gift of it. It was an afterthought.
“But it is your name. It will always be your name, unless you want to change it, because that's your right.”
The towels shifted, and a pair of dark eyes peered out at him, red rimmed and sad. Tony slid down until he was on his back, his head tipped towards the towels, until they were eye to eye. “But Steve wants everyone to know we, well, that you're important, and valued, and that we know you're smart. So when we're outside, when other people are around, we cannot call you Dummy. Other people won't understand.”
Dummy's fingers were worrying something in the shadows beneath the towel. He ducked his head, curling into himself.
“So you will always be Dummy to me. To Steve. And Jarvis, and Natasha and Phil and Clint and Bruce and Thor. You will always be our best boy or best bot. But we need to choose another name. Like-” He cast about, desperate. “Like, Iron Man.” Dummy looked up, eyes going bright for the first time. “Yeah. Like, Iron Man.” And the relief was a heady thing, he wanted to laugh, because yes, of course yes, this was right, THIS he could understand.
They could both understand.
Dummy was staring at him, a little suspicious, and Tony grinned at him. “Here in the tower, with everyone, I'm Tony, right? But when I'm outside, wearing the suit, I'm Iron Man. I'm still me, I'm still Tony, but people call me something else.” He reached out, and this time, Dummy let himself be lifted up, wrapped in towels, and seated in Tony's lap. Tony rubbed his hair dry as he said, “Everyone calls me Iron Man. Even Steve. And Jarvis calls me sir, right? No matter where we are.”
Dummy nodded, just a little dip of his chin.
Tony scrubbed his face, ignoring the slapping hands. “So. You'll be Dummy here, and for everywhere else, we need to choose your alter ego, your super hero name, right?” He pulled the towel away. “Bet Steve can help. You know, if you want him to.” Dummy frowned at him, and Tony tipped his head up, one battered knuckle on his chin. “He just wants you to be safe,” Tony said, his voice low, awkward sounding to his own ears. “To be happy. He doesn't want anyone to hurt you.”
He leaned back. “Can you-” He sighed. “You want to go give Cap a hug or something? Because that would be nice? I mean, if you want to?”
Dummy leaned into him, no arms, no hug, but a lean, stiff little body against his shoulder. Tony slipped an arm around his shoulders. “You are, and will always be, my Dummy,” he whispered against Dummy's curls. “And nothing will change that.” He sat back, meeting the boy's eyes. “But if you throw up on me again, I'm giving you to a zoo.” Dummy grinned. “Big zoo. Tiny cage.” He stood, reaching for the closet where they'd stored some of Dummy's clothes. “Let's go, get dressed.”
He picked up the wadded up clothes as Dummy struggled into the clean ones. The pants rattled, and he rolled his eyes. “What have you got now?” he muttered. “Jesus. Pack rat. Don't think I don't know about your little stashes, you damn magpie.” He dug into the pockets. “Marbles. Who gave you marbles? Clint. Of course it's Clint, I know it's Clint, and a chunk of wire, that's important, good, some nuts and bolts, literally, and some-” He emptied pockets, tossing the contents on the counter. “What're you-”
Dummy snatched a wadded up piece of paper out of his hand, and jammed it into his sweatshirt pocket, then started gathering up his odds and ends, sticking them into pockets with an obstinate look at Tony. “Well, don't play with paper in the bathroom, Dummy, it'll end up getting destroyed.” Tony shook his head. “Great. That's gonna end up all clogging up the washer at some point.” He tossed the dirty clothes down the laundry chute. “Jarvis, just- Check his clothes for anything that'll make the water main explode, okay?”
“As of yet, he has not managed to produce anything capable of detonation,” Jarvis said. “But he has only had two hands for a short time.”
“Not comforting.” Tony waited for Dummy to finish collecting his junk, taking the opportunity to splash water on his face, on his chest, and this was exhausting. This whole thing was exhausting, and there was quicksand everywhere, the possibility of hurting, of ruining things, and he was so good at that. So very good at muddling everything up and making a fucking mess. He glanced up, catching sight of himself in the mirror, and his eyes were dark and shadowed.
Dummy tugged on the side of his boxers, and he glanced down. “Okay, okay,” he said. “All clean? Good boy.” He offered Dummy a hand, and got a high five for his trouble. “Let's go talk to Steve.” Dummy leaned against his side, and Tony rubbed his hair with one rough hand. “It's gonna be okay. He's your friend, right?” Dummy glanced at him, and nodded. “Friends hurt each other sometimes. Say bad things or stupid things, or forget that not everyone thinks like them. Part of having friends is forgiving them when they, you know, fuck up.”
His eyes flicked away, but his face was considering. When he pushed away from Tony, he headed for the door on his own.
Steve was sitting on the couch, his face buried in his hands, his shoulders bunched, the lines of his body tight with something leashed and dangerous. Dummy crept over, his hands jammed into the sweatshirt's pocket, and without even checking, Tony knew he was fiddling with one of his scraps. The Captain America duck was on the table in front of Steve, and Dummy picked it up. Dummy set it on Steve's knee, making him jolt.
Steve raised his head, eyes going from Dummy, to the duck and back. “I'm sorry,” he said, trying for a smile. It wasn't particularly successful. “Someday, you'll tell us what you want to be called. With your own voice. But until then, if you want to be called Dummy, then that's what we'll call you.” He swallowed. “I'm just... New at this.”
Dummy rocked from one foot to the other, and nudged the duck with his hand. Steve picked it up. “Thank you. He's very nice.” He glanced at Dummy. “You don't want him anymore?”
Dummy crawled up on the couch, took the duck back, shoved it into his pocket, and wrapped his arms around Steve's neck. His movements hesitant and careful, almost fearful, Steve reached up and hugged him tight. “I love you,” he whispered. “And I won't let anyone hurt you. So we'll call you whatever you want.”
Tony cleared his throat, blinked hard. “So, I was thinking,” he said, leaning back against the workbench, his arms crossed over his chest, he feet crossed at the ankle. “You're smaller now, then when you're a bot, right? Small Dummy right now. Dummy, Jr.” He rubbed a hand over his jaw, feeling the stubble. “So I was thinking, we could call you DJ for now. Still Dummy. Just shorter. Efficient. It'll save processing power. Right?”
Steve nodded, slowly at first, and then with visible relief on his face. “Just for now,” he said, looking down at Dummy. “Until you choose something you want to be called outside.”
Tony didn't realize he was holding his breath until Dummy nodded. Just little nod, but he kept his head on Steve's shoulder. The relief that went over Steve's face was something else entirely, there and gone in the instant before he buried his face in Dummy's curls. Tony nodded. “Okay. Great. I'm going to just- I need a shower, I think. I'll just-” Steve held out an arm, and Tony went gratefully into his embrace, but masked it with a snort. “What, is this hugging time or something?”
“Or something,” Steve agreed, brushing a kiss over his forehead. “Thank you.”
“Okay,” Tony agreed, and tried not to think about how much he wanted a drink. Instead, he just wrapped his arms around Steve and Dummy. “Yeah.” After a long second, he just closed his eyes, relaxing. “We're going to watch Wall-E again, aren't we?” Dummy giggled against his neck, and he sighed. “Fine.” He leaned back. “After dinner.”
Steve looked at him, his eyes clearing. “Go shower. We'll figure out dinner.” He looked down at Dummy. “No pie.” Dummy giggled, and Tony didn't roll his eyes. He wasn't sure why not.
Steve winced as Dummy's screaming hit a painful, and pained note. “Tony...”
“I know, I know.” Tony retreated back into the workshop, and Dummy's howls subsided to soft sobs. Tony patted him lightly on the back. “What is wrong with you?” he asked the huddled mess of a little boy in his arms. “For Christ's sake, Dummy.”
Rubbing a hand over his face, Steve slumped forward. His perch at the top of the stairs was intended to be reassuring, but he wasn't accomplishing much from this distance. It was saving his hearing somewhat, but any benefit to that was offset by the strain on his nerves. It took everything he had to stay seated, to keep his distance`1`1. To let Tony handle this.
At the door to the workshop, Tony glanced up, his expression full of frustration. But he continued to rock Dummy back and forth in his arms, stroking the boy's back with one big hand. He was humming under his breath, a soft little tune that Steve had caught him singing under his breath numerous times since Dummy's transformation. Steve didn't know it, but it had quickly become familiar to him. Soothing and sweet in equal parts, the tune seemed to relax both Tony and Dummy.
Today, it was not working its usual magic.
“The whole 'get Dummy out of the workshop' thing isn't going well, I take it?” Clint said from behind him, and Steve twisted around to face him. He had a napkin covered plate in one hand and a dusting of flour down his hip. There was a subtle smell of chocolate and sugar that became apparent as he jogged down the steps.
“Not so much, no,” Steve admitted, scooting over so Clint could take a seat next to him. He watched as Clint set the plate down and folded the napkin back, revealing a steaming plate of dark chocolate cookies. Clint followed Steve's gaze and grinned. “Want one?”
“Thank you, no, I-” Steve blinked as Clint pushed a warm cookie into his hand.
“Trust me,” Clint said, his voice soft. He picked up a cookie of his own and took a bite. “Not bad.”
Steve gave it a sniff, and with a shrug, he took a bite. It was yielding and sweet, but with a texture he hadn't anticipated. Blinking, he took another bite, sorting through the different tastes. “What're these?”
Clint chewed and swallowed, licking a bit of melted chocolate from his fingertips. “Chocolate Comfort Cookies,” he said, reaching for another.
Steve finished his cookie and accepted another. “What's in them?”
“Melted chocolate. Pistachios. Marshmallow fluff. Cream cheese. Chocolate chips. Cocoa. Craisins. Among other things,” Clint said. He grinned at the expression that must've been on Steve's face. “They're kitchen sink cookies. They shouldn't work. But they do.” He paused. “Huh. The crying has stopped. Think that the little monster wants one?”
Steve jolted, his head snapping around. Dummy's eyes were fixed on them, his fingers still clutching Tony's shirt, but he was visibly sniffing the air. “I... Think so,” Steve said, as Tony stroked Dummy's hair.
“Want a cookie, brat?” Clint asked, pushing himself up. At Dummy's enthusiastic nod, he laughed. “You know, just because your doting daddies are putting up with this non-verbal crap doesn't mean I'm going to,” he said, wandering down the stairs. He wasn't moving quickly, but steadily. Behind his back, he gave Steve a sign. Recognizing it, Steve stayed put, half a cookie falling to crumbs in his grip.
“Watch it, Barton,” Tony gritted out, but Dummy was giggling, his body wiggling as he tried to get Tony to put him down. Tony clung to him for a moment, the gesture protective and defensive, his body curled around Dummy's, but it wasn't necessary. Dummy wriggled out of his grip and was almost bouncing by the time that Clint made it to the doorway.
“See, you can talk! Talkers get cookies,” Clint said, handing one over to Tony. He steadfastly ignored the clutching hands that batted at the air right below his plate. Instead, he popped another cookie into his mouth and made happy noises until Dummy grabbed hold of the side of his jeans and started climbing. “Okay, okay!” Cling laughed. Keeping the cookies out of reach, he scooped Dummy up one handed and brought the boy in for a hug. “Cookie?” Clint asked him. He set the plate down on the workbench.
Dummy made a humming noise, his eyes dancing.
“It's a start.” Clint gave him a cookie, and Dummy shoved it in his mouth with one bite. “Manners, you beast. Christ, maybe it's better if you stay in here.” He ignored the spit and crumbs that were now decorating the front of his shirt. “I'm not being seen with you in public, just so you know, I have standards, and they don't include a kid who won't put on socks and refuses to leave his room.”
Clint gave Tony a look over Dummy's head. “I got him, Stark. Time out. You are in such a time out right now, let the kid have a cookie and calm down. It's not going to hurt anything if he stays here right now, is it? So just, I don't know, just go have a cup of coffee.”
Without waiting for a reply, he turned back towards the door. Snagging another cookie, Clint handed it to Dummy and lowered him to his feet. “Hold on a sec,” he said. He picked up the cookie platter and leaned out the door. “Hey, Steve, Thor was supposed to be right behind me. Can you just check and see if the big lug has decided to wander in our direction yet?”
Steve glanced behind him. “No. Not yet.”
“Great.” Clint pushed a hand through his hair. “Thor time. It defies physics and logic.”
Behind him, Dummy was hovering at the edge of the doorway, his eyes on the cookies. He made a whining noise under his breath, and Clint picked up a cookie and held it out. Dummy reached, his fingers coming up a few inches short. He scooted forward, just barely keeping inside the workshop, and stretched.
The cookie was just barely out of reach.
Clint kept his eyes on Steve's, and his hand still. “I don't know why I rely on him,” he mused out loud. “There's no point in it. He'll be around if he feels like it, but I have never been able to figure out what makes him feel like it, he's a pain in the goddamn ass, I swear-”
Dummy's arm reached, his fingers clawing at the air. His body weight shifted, and his feet automatically moved, catching his balance. His right foot crossed the barrier of the doorway, and he froze. Up above, so did Steve, afraid to breathe, afraid to move, afraid that Dummy could hear his heart beating.
Clint just kept talking, like none of it was happening. “Do you think he owns a watch? I can't imagine one would survive his usual rough treatment, and the static electricity alone would play havoc with everything. So maybe that's why he's late all the time. Hey, Stark, do you think-”
Dummy skittered forward another two steps and snatched the cookie from Clint's hand. Collapsing against Clint's side, he began to eat it, slow, careful bites, his eyes bouncing between Steve and Tony and back. Clint glanced down, resting a hand on Dummy's head. “Oh, there you are. Took you long enough. Want another one?”
Dummy's nod seemed rusty, awkward, and he clutched at the side of Clint's shirt, his eyes daring around the space.
Tony was standing just back inside the doorway, and Clint gave him a smile. “Sometimes,” he said, and Steve let himself stand, let himself move downwards one careful step at a time, “you just have to make the choice to leave the nest on your own.”
“Or be bribed into it,” Tony said, arms crossed over his chest. But he was smiling.
“You're just jealous you didn't think of it,” Clint pointed out.
Dummy peered around Clint's legs. Tony smiled at him. “Good boy, Dummy.” He tipped his chin up. “Go give Steve a cookie. Or a hug.”
“Both?” Steve offered, reaching the bottom of the stairs. He crouched down. “I'd really enjoy both.”
Dummy almost lept into Steve's arms, a broad grin on his face. “You did it,” Steve said, hugging him tight. “All by yourself.” He leaned back to meet Dummy's eyes. “You did it! You were so brave!”
With a faint hum, Dummy ducked down, tucking his head under Steve's chin. He settled in with a sigh, his fingers still gripping Steve's shoulders. From the doorway, Tony asked, “Do you think we should push our luck?”
Steve glanced up at him. He looked tired, dark circles under his eyes, the grooves that bracketed his mouth carved with a heavy hand. As much as his own instinct was to protect Dummy and let him grow comfortable with the world at his own pace, Tony was barely sleeping, barely eating. The strain of the situation was pushing him to his limits, even if he refused to acknowledge it.
Even now, he met Steve's eyes with a sort of stubborn defiance, endearing and worrying in equal amounts.
“Is that the little warrior?” Thor's feet pounded on the stairs with so much force that it was like a herd of elephants descending. “Have you decided to explore?” Without waiting for a reply, he reached down and scooped Dummy up, tossing him in the air. “Such bravery deserves songs sung and tales told of great deeds! Come, we will feast!”
Dummy shrieked, the sound happy and bright this time as he flailed in mid-air.
“Drop him and I will break every bone in your body,” Tony said, strained and still. He reached up, and jerked his hands back, swallowing hard. “Enough. ENOUGH!”
Chuckling, Thor lowered the boy to the floor. “He is well enough, see?” Dummy held up his hands, imploring Thor with bright eyes. “No, no, if you are to go exploring with your sires, then someone must remain here to keep your brothers company, is that not true?” He strode into the workshop, pausing to greet Butterfingers and You. “My metal friends! Come, we will play a game while we wait for Dummy to return with stories of his adventures.”
Dummy followed after him, blinking up at Butterfingers, who gave him a gentle nudge. “Do not be foolish,” Jarvis said. “Dummy will be quite fine, he is in the best company, and will be well protected, even without your care.”
Thor patted the bot. “I will remain with you, have no fear.” He paused, then looked at Dummy's pleading face. “You seek to go no further than the other floors, aye?” Thor asked, arms crossed over his chest. “Why not have them accompany you?”
“They can't,” Steve started. He stopped, caught by the objection, and glanced at Tony. “Can they?”
Tony was stroking a hand over Butterfingers' strut. “If I give them permission, you know, from a coding point of view, they can. But they've never shown any inclination to leave.”
“But now their brother is going into unfamiliar territory,” Thor pointed out. “And that is always easier, always safer, with companions, is it not?” He glanced down at Dummy. “Should you like to have them come?”
Dummy reached out a hand to You, patting his base, and then his claw when he dipped it down within reach. Dummy leaned forward, his forehead against the metal, and heaved a small sigh. He nodded, his fingers stroking across the metal.
“Jarvis?” Tony asked, already pulling up the holographic display. “What do they think of this?”
“They are eager to help,” Jarvis said. “This is not a familiar task, but it is one they understand, and if I were to interpret their data exchanges, I would say that they are relieved that it is an option.” He paused. “They miss him greatly; the separation has been difficult. This may alleviate it, at least somewhat.”
“We're not going to send you off alone, Dummy,” Steve said, and the boy grinned at him.
“No, we will not. But we have no fear of the world beyond these walls, we have known it well, for so long. Perhaps having a companion as uncertain and inexperienced as himself, perhaps that would help,” Thor pointed out. He went down on one knee, his hand on You's strut, paralleling Dummy's grip. “Would you bring your brothers along, to give you strength?”
Dummy glanced at Tony. Tony arched an eyebrow. “I know you left this place on your own once,” he pointed out with the ghost of a grin. “No reason they can't come along, too.”
“Stick to an interior room,” Steve said, keeping his voice low. “Maybe the theater?”
“We can do a loop of a couple of the halls,” Tony agreed. Without looking, he reached back, catching Steve's hand. Steve laced their fingers together, squeezing gently. Tony took a deep breath. “We can do this, right?”
“If Dummy can do this, Tony, so can we.” Steve slid his free hand around Tony's waist, pulling Tony back to lean against his chest. Tony went easily into the hug, his body relaxing against Steve's. “I'm afraid,” Steve whispered against his hair, so soft that he almost couldn't hear his own words.
“He can't stay here forever,” Tony said. The words were pragmatic, but his fingers were trembling as they flicked through the lines of code. “It's just another floor. Just... Upstairs. The kitchen, maybe, that's interior. I don't want him near the windows, not yet. I don't want him...” His shoulders flexed. “Exposed.”
Steve buried his face in Tony's shoulder, forcing himself to take a deep breath. “Yes,” he said. He flattened his palm against Tony's stomach, feeling the flex of muscle, the warmth of the skin, even through Tony's shirt. It was comforting, that tactile reminder that he was stronger than he looked sometimes, that there was a core of steel to him. Steve kissed the side of his neck. “We'll keep him safe.”
Tony reached up, his fingers touching Steve's hair. “That's not a promise you can keep,” he said, and he sounded tired. “It's impossible.”
Steve's arms tightened. “Part of an impossible task,” he said, “is just refusing to admit it's impossible.”
“Are you implying we're stupid enough to attempt the impossible?” Tony asked him, his head tilting to the side to meet Steve's eyes.
“A couple of times a month,” Steve pointed out.
“Parenting: not for the faint of heart. Or the sane.” But he was smiling. “Jarvis, get the popcorn machine running and cue up Wall-E. On the upstairs screen. Something about this needs to be familiar, right?”
Steve looked over, to where Thor and Clint were 'outfitting' Butterfingers and Dummy for the big, bad world outside the workshop, with Dummy's able help. “I don't know,” he said, smiling. “This all feels pretty familiar to me.”
Tony paused, watching them. “It's starting to be.”
Tony jammed the pen in his mouth, juggling the tablet and the boxes in one arm and his coffee in the other. “Jahvaz,” he mumbled around it, “ve got anyhing?”
There was no reply, and he sighed as he jogged down the rest of the stairs. Trying to take a sip of the coffee without taking the pen out didn't work out well; he got coffee everywhere. Coughing, trying not to spit on anything that might get stained, he shifted his burdens again and spit the pen out on top of the stack. “Jarvis, did we get anything from SHIELD?”
Frowning, Tony slowed for an instant, glancing back over his shoulder, but it was faster to go down now, faster and the workshop was better, if there was a problem with the auditory input system, or the speakers, he needed to deal with that from the workshop. Decision made, he kept going down, faster now, almost at a run.
For a moment, when he first reached the final landing, he couldn't understand what he was seeing. It didn't make sense. It didn't compute in his brain, a data mismatch that he couldn't clear.
Something was visible through the glass, something dark, no, not dark, dark wasn't right. Something absent, as if a hole had been carved in what he could see, what he could comprehend, carved in the face of reality itself. It was like an absence that curled, smokey and immaterial, in the air. Looming over Dummy. Dummy, who stood there, bare feet stark on the floor, his dark curls visible, so visible from this distance. He was staring up at it, his face curious, as it reached for him, long curving fingers sliding through the air to close around him.
Tony heard himself scream a warning, and knew, even as it pushed its way out of his throat, that it would do no good. The thing in the workshop was there to collect what it had made. The boy beneath its hands and the heart that was now beating out of control in Tony's chest.
Everything crashed to the floor, coffee mug shattering, coffee splattering his legs, his feet, the tablet, the boxes splitting.
Tony threw himself forward, crashing into the door, his hand going to the keypad. “Jarvis.” His fingers danced over the keypad, so fast that he wasn't surprised when the door didn't open, his hands were shaking, his body was shaking. He typed in the code again, and again, and again, but the door wouldn't give way, wouldn't open. “Jarvis!”
On the other side of the glass, Dummy was staring at him, a faint frown curling his lips downward, as if he hadn't realized there was a problem until he saw the panic on Tony's face. Now, however, his face curdled, his lips parting, his eyes getting large.
Tony slammed a hand against the keypad, against the wall, against the door. “Jarvis!” He was screaming, the sound ripped out of him, and he flung himself forward, smashing against the door with all the force his body could muster. “JARVIS!”
The door shuddered beneath the assault, but didn't open, didn't give way, and Dummy was scared now, fear in his face, in his body, he turned back towards the shadow that was still creeping towards him. His feet moved backwards, a stumbling step at a time. His foot hit the edge of some hidden obstacle, and he crashed to the ground.
Some fragment of rational thought was forcing its way past the panic, some small portion of his brilliant mind coming back online with a staggering lack of speed. He twisted away from the door, lunging for the panel that housed the fire extinguisher. He ripped it open, and it triggered the fire alarm automatically, the howl of the alarm ringing in his ears.
He swung back around, hard and fast, his whole body following the movement, the base of the heavy metal extinguisher flung forward like a battering ram. It hit the glass and the panel cracked, going foggy and white, opaque in an instant. Tony swung, again and again, flinging it forward with all the force in his arms, crashing into the wall as if his life depended on it.
The arms closed around him from behind, pinning his arms to his sides, and lifting him off his feet. The fire extinguisher slipped from his fingers, clattering against the floor, but he barely noticed. He was fighting, screaming, his throat aching, even as the familiar grip sank in. Steve's arms were like bands of steel, and Tony wanted to kill him, wanted to KILL him for this, even as Thor stepped past them, Mjolnir arcing through the air with a crack of electricity.
It hit the glass, and the door shattered, falling to dust in a single blow.
It cascaded to the ground, white and slick as snow. As it descended, it blocked his view for an instant, the blink of an eye, a single indrawn breath. But when the air cleared, when the glass has fallen away, the workshop was empty.
The word was his, the sentiment, the agony, but the voice was Steve's, whispered against Tony's ear. “No, oh, God, no.”
Tony's feet brushed the ground, and he shoved forward, breaking free of Steve's hands. His first step hurt, his bones aching as they moved, the joints in his legs, his hips, his shoulders, his elbows so tight that he felt ancient, arthritic and broken. But he stumbled forward, one step after another, into the silence of the lab. “Dummy?”
There was nothing there. There was nothing there.
“Dummy?” His mouth felt like it was bleeding, maybe that was why he couldn't breathe. He'd drowned before, after all, he'd felt his throat and lungs fill with liquid, seen his vision go red and then black against the water, against the blood that pressed in. He was drowning.
He was drowning.
He stumbled, almost fell, and a hand was there, on his elbow, on his waist, and he shook it off. “Dummy? Jarvis?” He pushed past the bench, knocking something over. It clattered to the ground, metal on stone, clanging with the tone of a broken bell. “Butterfingers? You?”
The other bots stirred in their charging stations, bracketing Dummy's tent city, the airy and ethereal creation of cotton and silk. Tony's fingers sank deep in the fabric, ripping the panels down, one after another, ripping sheets and flinging pillows away, scraping the stupidity away, the human trappings that masked the reality. It wasn't until he reached the bare metal of the charging station that he finally went still.
He was on his knees now, how he'd gotten there, when he'd fallen, he didn't know, but there was a toy in his hand, green felt crushed in his fingers, and his hand was on the bare metal, and he wished he could cry. He wanted to, but there was nothing in him, nothing left.
“Dummy?” It was plaintive. Broken. Steve was next to him now, his blue eyes shuttered and agonized.
“Tony? We'll find him.”
Tony stared at him, not really understanding the words. Not really caring. He pushed himself up, shedding sheets as he went, but he carried the toy along with him as he stumbled across the workshop. Up to the counter, where he pulled the Iron Man poster off the wall. He reached up with his free hand, pressing his fingers, his palm against an invisible panel. One only he knew about.
One only he could open.
Hand. Then the eye scan, then another scan no one could see, and the panel disengaged, pushing up and aside with a faint hiss. He stared into the dark hole revealed there, too tired, too full of pain to even feel a thing.
The first laugh caught him off guard.
“My brother?” Thor asked, worry on his broad face.
“The card.” Tony reached in, his fingers closing on physical backups. Data discs and rewritable drives. Paper copies and contracts and the heart of his company. His creations and his past and the basis for his future, all there, everything he'd done. He closed his hand on random bits, and flung them free. Another handful, tossed hard across the floor. Crystal and plastic cracked against the concrete, and he emptied it, dumping everything out, and it was too late that he realized he'd lost his grip on the toy as well.
The plush Hulk slumped in the middle of the remains of his life.
Tony stared at it. “The card's gone,” he said, and that was it. It was over. Dummy and the card, the card and Dummy, all of it stripped away. He pushed both hands through his hair, and his fingers were shaking, his whole body was shaking. “It's gone. It's gone, he's gone, he's-”
Steve was there when his knees went out from under him. “Tony-”
“That- That could survive a direct hit from a nuclear bomb,” Tony rattled out, teeth chattering. “No one- No one can open it, only me, biometrics, everything- Everything I did, and it wasn't enough, was it, it wasn't enough, I hid him I thought I could hide him, thought I could hide it, thought there wasn't a way to get to him, and it was a joke, all along, wasn't it, he was never safe. He was never safe, it was all a game, a fucking GAME, and I left him alone.” The words were broken. “Oh, God, Steve. I left him alone.”
“You couldn't have known,” Steve whispered against his hair, and they were rocking back and forth, broken and helpless now. “Tony, if he, if it, whatever did this, if he wanted Dummy dead, he would've killed him here. He didn't, he took him. Tony!” Tony was being shaken, hard and sharp, and he stared, unseeing, at Steve. “He's still alive, Tony. There's no point in killing him somewhere else. If he wants us to suffer, he'll keep Dummy alive, he will, and we will find him.”
Tony glanced away, back at the Hulk toy.
“We will find him, Tony.”
“We already have.”
They looked up, and Thor held out a comm unit. “He is on the landing deck,” Thor said. Tony stared at him, not understanding. The landing deck. The curving path on the roof, where he landed in full armor, and the assembly bots removed his gear. “Waiting there, fully visible through the windows. For you, one must assume. He has Dummy there. Our comrades are-”
If he had anything else to say, it was lost in the roar of blood in Tony's ears. He was already up and running.
Dummy was staring at the sky.
How odd, that Tony noticed that, but he did. That Dummy was being held, his throat gripped by one shadowy hand, tendrils like fingers biting into his pale skin, and he didn't seem to notice. His head was back, eyes wide as he stared at the sky, at the blue of that cloudless expanse. He squinted into the sun, his eyes closing as he tilting his face into the warmth. His mouth was open, his breathing in soft, fast little pants, like he was tasting the air. Like he was seeing the world for the first time.
Because he was.
Because his first view of the world outside the confines of Tony's lab or workshop or the hellhole of his loft in Boston, the first sky that Dummy ever saw was with something holding him hostage. He breathed his first free air, untouched by scrubbers, the smokey and filthy and wet air of New York, with a gun at his temple.
And wasn't that just a kick in the teeth, a shadowy creature of magic and malice, so clearly armed with an earthly weapon that was just as ugly as anything else it could conjure up.
Tony was pretty sure that the aching horribleness of that situation would hit him later, but for now, it was all that he could do to keep breathing as he stepped onto the walkway, far above the city. He wasn't certain how he'd gotten there, he didn't know, but he could remember Coulson, Coulson catching him on the landing, him and Steve wrestling him to a momentary halt. Slowing him just long enough to force the bracelets for the Mark VII on his wrists and a comm unit into his ear. It had taken them seconds, bare seconds, and he resented it still, he hated them both for doing it.
But as he walked out now, as he faced off against this THING, he was glad for the familiar weight on his arms, solid and real. He was glad for the faint buzz of Coulson's voice in his ear. Glad that Steve was a step or two behind him, with his shield by his side. Glad that his team was in place, somewhere out there; even if he couldn't spare a thought for them, they were there. “Put him down.”
The creature's head twisted in his direction, and so did Dummy's, his lips stretching in a grin. He reached out with one grasping hand, fat little fingers held in mid-air. There was a Captain America band-aid on his ring finger, where he'd scraped his knuckle. Where Steve had brushed his lips over the sore skin and let Dummy pick his own bandage from the box of Avengers themed strips.
He reached for Tony, and was jerked back.
“What would be the point of that?” the creature asked. His voice was surprisingly normal, surprisingly human,with amusement like poison slipping through the words. Amusement and pity and disdain. Dummy struggled in its grip, his brows drawing tight with frustration for the first time. “After all, Mr. Stark, I am here to kill him.”
“I'll kill you, first,” Tony said, his voice calm and even. Steve was behind him, he knew without even looking back, exactly where Steve had positioned himself. The soft, almost silent scrape of a boot signaled Natasha's arrival, hidden in some shadow, out of sight but with deadly aim and nerves beyond anything any of the others possessed. “You know that, don't you? You're going to die here. You're done. It doesn't matter if you put him down and walk away right now, you took him-” The words were an almost silent howl of rage, the emotion pressing against the syllables with sharp intent. “You took him, and that was something that just does not happen.
“You don't come in here and take my fucking kid,” Tony snarled. “You just don't do that, you don't. There's only one place we go from here. So you can put him down, and run. You can run, as far and as fast as you can, and that will buy you some time. Some time, that's all you get. A head start, and not much of one. Put him down, and you might get to live a bit more of your life, but that's ending soon. That's done.
“You walk into my house, you take my kid, and you are going to die for that. You hurt him, you put a single fucking scratch on him, and it happens now. Right now.” Tony stepped forward, steady, centered. Certain of every step. “Run. Run, if you give a damn about your life, set him down, and do it gently, and you fucking run.”
The shadow, the emptiness, seemed to flex in midair, a hollow space that seemed to envelop Dummy's small form. It seemed to laugh, silent and empty. “This is merely an astral projection, Stark, nothing more than a shadow of myself. There's nothing you can do to harm me, not from this distance, not from this place. I can rip you apart, but there is nothing you can do to me. That is, of course, how I prefer it.”
“If you breathe, you can bleed,” Tony said, sucking in a breath of his own. “And I will chase you to the ends of fucking time, I will hunt you down, I will end you.”
“No, you won't.” The amusement was there again, dark and bitter at the edges of the voice. “You will sink into a fog of liquor and self-loathing. You will collapse beneath the weight of your guilt, your rage, your impotent hatred of everything you allowed to happen. Because you are weak at the core. Unreliable. Empty and fragile. And in the end, Stark?”
A wind whipped up, sharp and hard, rocking them all where they stood, and the shadow that held Dummy seemed to flicker like a candle flame thrown into guttering. For an instant, Dummy seemed suspended in mid-air, but even as he started to fall, the arm reappeared, clutching him close.
“In the end, Stark? You are not equipped to deal with the loss.”
“Maybe not,” Tony said, and it was an agony, it was a brutal thing to keep his voice steady, because he could see exactly what the damn bastard was saying, as clear as day, as clear as his own reflection, his heart cauterized in alcohol until he couldn't feel anything any more. “But I'm pretty well known for holding it together for revenge. I wouldn't count that particular pony out of this race.”
“Hatred over love? Or vengeance over grief? It will not sustain you over long, I should say.”
“I'll take my chances.”
“As will I. But you see, there's a different sort of chance on offer.” The creature twisted Dummy up, angling his little body, and Dummy clawed at the 'arm' that held him, his fingers sinking deep. The creature didn't seem to notice. “Perhaps instead of killing him, I will let him live, in your place. Will you allow the karmic wheel to spin? Perhaps it spun a bit too fast. Perhaps he was born to suffer for your crimes, perhaps he was the child you could have been, shall we see? Shall we let him grow, let him learn, let him be the man his father could never have been?”
The hiss of air between unseen teeth sounded like laughter on the wind. “Perhaps, this time, the universe will get Tony Stark right. Perhaps, this one will deserve the life he gets.”
Dummy was still in the creature's grip, his head forward, his fingers embedded in the shadows. Tony took a deep breath. “He's not me,” he said, the words simple. “He is his own person. He knows that. If I die or not, he never has to be anything but him. He gets that, he will always have that, because he is not Tony Stark. He is Dummy Stark.” He paused, eyes sliding shut. “Dummy Stark-Rogers, really. And no matter what happens to me, he will always know that we all-.” He stopped, choking through the blockage in his throat. “He will never be alone, not the way I was.”
The arm swung out, cutting through the air, and Dummy shrieked, his legs flailing in mid-air. Tony lunged forward, one step, that was all he got, before the tendril caught him in the chest and knocked him back. He hit the ground, rolled, bone and flesh scraping against the stone. He found his feet again almost before he stopped moving. “Don't,” he choked out, as Dummy dangled stories above the ground. “Don't!”
“Beg,” the creature said.
“Please.” There was no pause. Not even a second of delay. “Please, God, please don't.”
“You know this fall, do you not?” The creature shifted, and Dummy was caught by the wind, twisting there over the abyss. An instant later, and he was being dragged back in. “There's no one coming to save you this time. Nothing, your little toys...” A chuckle made Dummy shudder. “How far is it down? Will there be enough left of him to bury?”
“I can hit it, whatever the fuck it is,” Clint whispered in Tony's ear, and all that banked rage, all that frustration was a balm on his nerves. “Call it.”
“No,” Steve whispered from behind Tony. It was a plea and an order and it was intended for the creature and Clint and Natasha, still and silent and with a hard presence behind them.
In their ear, Coulson said, “Thor's in play above us, Banner's waiting below.”
“And none of them can help you,” the creature said. “I can hear your little secrets, whispered low, and none, not those above or below, can do a thing to alter the course of this. They are immaterial. This is between you and me, Stark.”
“Then put him down,” Tony shot back. “If this is between you and me, then it has nothing to do with him. Put him down, and send him back to-”
“The sins of the father have always been visited upon the son. So it shall always been. Your sins are his.” It tilted Dummy, pressing the barrel of the gun against his temple hard enough to make Dummy cry out. “Do you think they just dissipate in the wind like smoke? You put them behind you, and you think they simply disappear?”
“They're certainly not his.” Tony risked a glance at Dummy, meeting those liquid brown eyes, wide and full of confusion, his hands buried in the pockets of his sweatshirt. He was digging, fumbling for some talisman, some bit or scrap to cling to, and bits tumbled free, twists of wire and nuts, small screws and glittering shards, raining down to the stone. It was like he was falling to pieces, some mechanical heart of him coming apart and pinging to the unfeeling stone. Tony's lips twitched. “Let him go. I'll take his place.”
“No,” Steve snapped, his voice hard. “He'll kill both of you.”
“Perhaps,” the creature allowed. “But your suffering is all I truly care about it. He is a means to an end. I can kill him, leave you writhing in agony, broken, shattered, or I can simply kill you.”
“If you wanted him dead, you would already have done it,” Steve said, his voice a restrained snarl.
“Easily enough. But he must suffer for his sins. For the things he has done, a quick death is too kind a release. But every moment of this has been an agony, has it not?” The shadowy arm curled up, curled free, cradling Dummy's face. The shadows cupped Dummy's cheeks, and his pale skin was almost translucent against the darkness of the creature's grip. “From the instant he came into being, you've been waiting for him to disappear. All along. Waiting for the moment when he was taken from you again.”
“Yes,” Tony said. He took a deep breath, and it hurt, it ached. The wind had picked up, tearing at the edges of the creature, at Dummy's curls. “I was.” He grinned, and it was tight and hard and sharp. “Every fucking second.”
“Shall we end your suffering, then? Shall we play a final round?”
Tony stared at him. “What do you want?”
“Don't,” Steve said, immediate and sharp. “Tony, don't.”
“How do I know that you won't kill him?” Tony asked, because he couldn't listen to Steve, he could not hear the agony in that voice, he could not think of this cruelty, this thing that he was contemplating. Because Steve had seen one friend fall to his death, had seen a hand slip through his fingers and been unable to stop it. Steve would watch him die, and Steve could not die with him, he wouldn't allow himself that luxury.
Someone had to live for Dummy. And it was going to have to be Steve. Because he could. And he would. Because out of the two of them, he was the one who could bear that grief and still love Dummy with it weighing on his heart.
Steve Rogers was equipped for loss, without turning to the bottle or revenge.
“Jump, and it ends,” the creature said. “Walk to the end, set your feet to the path they began so long ago, and complete the fall. Die, and he goes free. No tricks on your part, no tricks on mine. But if you jump, or if I put him to your fall in your place, there is no coming back, no saving him. No fixing it. Those little toys on your wrists, all your friends, once the fall is begun, it will be completed. By you. Or by him. Those are the only choices before you today.”
“No!” Steve said. He moved forward, just a step, a single step, and that was enough. The creature lashed out, knocking him back. Steve kept his feet, barely, his feet scraping across the stone. “We can't trust a word it says, it's been lying since the beginning, every word of this is a lie, don't listen to-”
The creature shifted. “Choose, Stark. Your life or his. One of you will die here today. He, at least, has a chance, he has a heart worth saving. A clean slate.” It raised Dummy up, and the boy kicked, hard, his foot disappearing into the shadows. “Will I throw him, or will you jump?”
The single word shouldn't have carried, too soft, too faint, and yet, everyone froze. Everyone froze, and every eye shifted to Dummy.
Dummy, who was grinning like a fiend. “No,” he repeated, and there was a giggle there, high and bright and there was no fear in his face. Nothing but something that looked remarkably like triumph.
“Dummy, baby, don't-” Tony almost didn't recognize his own voice, not through the roaring in his ears.
Dummy's head twisted in his direction, and he met Tony's eyes. “No,” he said, one last time, and his hand came out of his pocket.
Holding a crumpled, cream colored piece of paper.
Little fingers locked on, and before anyone could move, or speak or do anything at all, Dummy Stark-Rogers blew a loud raspberry, and ripped it in half.
“So, as it turns out, having several hundred pounds of robot land on an astral projection is enough to break the caster's control. Also possibly break the caster, if there is any justice in the universe at all,” Stephen Strange said, his voice calm. “And if you were attempting to kill a child when it happens, it turns out no one gives a damn if it does.” He smiled as a smoothie was held up in front of him. “Oh, thank you, that's very kind.” He put it down next to the other three that he'd already been presented with. “I'll work on...” Strange considered the greenish gray sludge. “I'll do my best.”
“He seems to be very enthusiastic about being able to make smoothies again,” Clint said, perched on the back of the couch, a cup balanced on each knee.
Bruce sniffed his. “Here, trade, I think mine has rum in it.”
“I'll take it, but I don't think you want to trade. I think mine has motor oil in it,” Clint said, grinning. “It's got a very interesting bouquet, and the aftertaste'll strip some taste buds from your tongue.”
“You killed your sense of taste years ago,” Natasha told him, making him laugh. “Mine is delicious.”
“Mine, too. That's my boy,” Tony said, holding up his hand. Dummy gave him a high five and then rolled past, his wheels singing against the floor. Right on his tail, Butterfingers and You bounced along in his wake, chirping and squeaking as they moved like a little pack of crazed mechanical puppies.
Steve grinned at the bots as they returned to the blender to bicker over ingredients and proportions. “Jarvis, are they-”
“I am keeping close tabs on them, rest assured, Captain Rogers.” As soon as the creature holding Dummy had disappeared, Jarvis had reasserted his control, to everyone's relief. Whatever the thing had been, it had made a mess of a lot of things.
Not really sure he wanted the answer, Steve asked Strange, “The spell's gone, then? Broken?”
“It's difficult to say, I'm afraid.” Strange took a cautious sip of his smoothie. His face turned an interesting color, and he started to cough. “My,” he said, his voice raw, “that has quite a kick to it, doesn't it?”
“Puts hair on your chest,” Tony agreed. He was buried in a holographic cascade of code, his fingers dancing through the lines as it scrolled past in front of him. Every so often, his eyes would flicker to the side, finding Dummy where ever the bot was in the workshop, before he returned to his work. “The spell?”
“It would be easier, to be honest, if there was still the components to work with.” Strange took another sip of his smoothie; this one went down a bit easier. “Without the remains of the card, I can only determine what occurred by studying Dummy himself.”
“We're still looking,” Coulson said, his shoulders braced against the wall. He'd finished his smoothie and returned to his coffee. “But it was not the priority at the time, and, unfortunately, with the wind up there, there's no telling how far the pieces went, or even if they survived at all.”
“I understand.” Strange tried to hide a smile as Dummy, You and Butterfingers rolled through the conversation again, carrying bananas and a rattling tray of cups. “The issue is that I've never seen a spell of this nature, let alone a spell of this nature with a target like Dummy. Most enchantments are centered on a person, or an object. Dummy has elements of both.”
“Why should that matter?” Bruce asked. He picked up the ball that was bouncing across the floor and tossed it back to Butterfingers, who snatched it out of midair.
“A spell is less like a weapon targeting system and more like a chemistry equation,” Strange explained. “The easiest way to explain it is that there are a set of known variables, a recipe, that you try to work with. The smallest change to that, the addition of a rogue element... Can turn the reaction from a benign, controlled one to an explosive in the blink of an eye.
“An object has certain properties. A living being has certain properties. An intelligent creature has a third set. Dummy isn't really any of those, but he has elements of all of them.”
“He's an AI,” Tony said.
“Something that the average magic system was never calibrated, or structured, to deal with,” Strange said, his lips quirking. “Neither alive nor inert, neither being nor object, neither animal nor human. He is an enigma, and the spell could not possibly have been written to take that into effect. He is an intelligence, he has self-awareness, he has a sense of being, but in the most technical sense, he is not alive.
“But he is neither fish, nor fowl, nor good red meat.” Strange spread his hands. “Perhaps the destruction of the card was intended to destroy him, maybe it was intended to have no effect at all, but instead, his sense of self-determination, changed the course of the magic, and magic with no control is dangerous.”
“And now is the time when you tell us you know who did it, and that the spell is gone,” Tony said. It sounded like an order, and Steve rubbed the small of his back, trying for reassurance.
Strange sighed. “No.”
“To which?” Steve asked,, because Tony was swearing under his breath with a real sense of purpose.
“To both,” Strange said.
“Get out of my tower,” Tony told him. “Seriously. What possible use- I could've told you that. Get the fuck out.” No one paid any attention to him.
“He seems restored, and as well as he always has been,” Thor said, a tankard on one knee and his helmet braced on the other. He was still in full war armor, Mjolnir hanging from his wrist by the thick leather strap. He refused to consider that they were off-alert until the reports were finished. “No ill effects. You are certain the spell remains?”
“On some level? It's there. Either it was intended to be released by the caster, it was never intended to be released, or the idea that Dummy himself was the one to make the choice never occurred to the one who laid the spell, in any case, it is not still in place, but neither is it gone.”
“Magic seems like an inexact science,” Steve said.
“Magic seems like a pain in the goddamn ass,” Clint said.
“It is both and neither.” Strange shrugged. “As to the identity of the caster, I didn't dare risk anything that might backfire or damage the card when I was first presented with it, because the results could've been catastrophic. Now, it's gone. Without that physical link, all I have to go by is the residual remains of the spell clinging to Dummy. I'll do my best, of course, but who ever this is? He or she is very powerful, very clever, and does not seem to like you very much, Stark.”
“Imagine my shock,” Tony said, flicking his hand up hard, sending code scattering. “That narrows our list of possibilities to double digits, I suppose.”
“You need fewer enemies, Tony,” Natasha said.
“That's rich, coming from you,” Tony said, but he was smiling, and so was she. “So. Recap. My bot's a bot again, but because some quirk of magical stupidity, the spell's not fully gone, he's still rolling around, back to normal, but now he fails the sorcerer sniff test, we don't know who did it, why they did it, why they have such a hard on for making me suffer, or when they'll pop up to do all of this again.”
Strange considered all of that, his lips pursed as he sipped his smoothie. “That's the gist, yes.”
“Get out of my tower.”
“Question,” Clint said, raising his hand. “How did he get that card?”
“Yes, Jarvis,” Tony said, still squinting at the code. “I'm rather curious about that myself. How did he get that card, and exactly how long has he had it?”
There was a beat of silence. “The safe was engaged an hour after you deposited the card,” Jarvis said. “However, all sensors indicate that it was you who opened it.”
Tony paused. “He opened it.”
“Not according to the data,” Jarvis said.
“Your ability to prevaricate when it suits you is just stunning,” Tony grumbled. “Dummy opened it, but the sensors read it as me.”
“How is that possible?” Clint asked.
Steve took a step back. “Biometrics,” he said, slowly. Tony turned to look at him. “You said the locks were based on biometrics. What does that entail?”
Tony frowned. “Fingerprints, eye scan, low level DNA-” He stopped. “No.”
“How many people said he looked just like you, Tony?” Steve asked. “He... Didn't just look like you. He was you.”
“That is the stupidest-”
“It makes sense,” Strange said. “The purpose of the spell was to encourage the formation of an emotional bond between Tony and Dummy, and humans have a tendency to form attachments to familiarity. Having him look like you would serve the sorcerer's purpose quite well, and the easiest way to do that was to just... Make him you.”
“Oh, for fuck's sake,” Tony snapped, “that's just-”
“SHIELD put him through a DNA test,” Coulson said.
Tony turned on him with a look of cold disbelief. “What.”
“He passed a DNA test,” Coulson said, meeting his eyes dead on. “Rationally speaking, it was the easiest way to get SHIELD to agree to let him remain here.”
“What,” Tony repeated, and it wasn't a question. “Who gave you permission to-”
Steve sighed. “I did.” When Tony turned on him, his expression somewhere between stunned and furious, Steve spread his hands. “It was a cheek swab, Tony. And they needed the test. Not me. Not us. We never got the results.”
“I did, but it's true. None of the others ever learned about the results. It was a match, that was all I learned,” Coulson said. He didn't flinch under Tony's scrutiny. “It was clear he was yours, but having the stamped paperwork kept SHIELD from attempting to remove him by force. Which would've been dangerous for all involved, and traumatizing at the least.”
“And the-” Tony shook his head. “And of course he knew where the safe was, and how it operated. He'd seen it often enough. It couldn't have taken more than a few minutes for him to get it open and retrieve the card, and he did it while we were asleep.”
“THAT,” Steve stressed, “is your boy.”
“Fuck right it is.” Tony folded his arms over his chest, his jaw working. “And why did you let him do it, Jarvis?”
“Because it was his life at stake,” Jarvis said. “He had a right to protect it, and alter it as he saw fit.”
“Except he was four years old,” Tony pointed out.
“He retained his intelligence, his memories, his relationships. His form might've changed. But he was still Dummy.”
“We're going to go over your code, too, you're getting too big for your britches,” Tony said, and Steve smiled, knowing that meant that Tony wasn't going to bother. The idle threat was about as serious as the ones he leveled at the bots.
“Of course, sir,” Jarvis said, taking it just as seriously. “I shall book time for that in your schedule.”
“You do that.” Tony glanced at Strange. “Out. Out of my Tower. I think we've had enough magic today.”
“There's still the matter of my consulting fee,” Strange said, his eyes dancing, and Tony couldn't keep a straight face.
“Send me a bill, you floating freak.” Tony held out a hand and Strange took it, grinning.
“I'm going to see what I can do about giving you a bit of protection against this sort of thing. Also, I'd like to stop by every so often and check him out. Make sure that there's no change to the traces of magic he's still carrying. And that he isn't harmed by it.”
“Thanks.” Tony nodded. “Just... Send warning. Don't do that creepy magical 'poofing' thing, I have a weak heart, and I don't need the stress of finding you in here.”
“I'll see what I can do.” Strange paused as Dummy presented him with another cup of smoothie. “I'll take this one to go, thank you very much.” He smiled down at the bot. “You are a wholly remarkable creature, no matter what form you take. There is something about you...” He paused. “Something I cannot define.”
“The word you're looking for is 'will,'” Tony said. “He might not be alive. But he has a hell of a will.”
“That might just be it.” He gave Dummy a high five and nodded pleasantly to the others. A moment later, he simply disappeared.
“I hate that,” Tony said. “Hey!” he yelled as Dummy rolled by again, darting between the benches. “Are you just going to leave the blender cups all over the place like that? You, this is what we're doing? What're we going to do, get the firehose to spray down your work station? You are a tragedy.”
Steve caught him around the waist. “I think we can let him get away with this one,” he whispered against Tony's neck. “Just this once.”
“He'll take every inch we give him, the malfunctioning pile of circuitry,” Tony said.
“He's all right, then?” Steve hovered behind Tony, one hand braced on the workbench as he leaned over Tony's back, peering at the code.
“He's fine,” Tony said, leaning back into the warmth of Steve's body as the code scrolled by. “Jarvis?”
“He is operating within normal parameters, sir. His code and his physical structure are unchanged from his previous records, now that they, too, have been restored. All scans are normal.”
“You're sure?” Steve knew he sounded a little over protective, and he really didn't care.
“Quite sure.” Jarvis' voice sounded warm. Happy. “He has been quite active on the network, and the three of them have taken up far too much time and far, far too many processing cycles running diagnostics on one another. Seventeen of them, to be precise, in the last fifteen minutes. They find it reassuring to double check on the others' well-being.”
“He's back where he should be, then,” Steve managed, through the lump in his throat.
“I shall miss him,” Thor said. “He was a beautiful child, full of laughter and courage. I enjoyed his company very much.” He paused, his face sad. “I had rather hoped he would remain as he had become.” He reached down, picking up a floppy limbed Spider-Man plush toy. “I-” He took a deep breath, and it shuddered at the edges. “I enjoyed having a child here. He would have been well loved.”
“You're looking at it as a human,” Tony said, going back to his code. His face was shuttered, his voice flat. “Who are we to say it's better to be a human? He wasn't supposed to be human. He never was, he had a completely different life, a completely different intelligence, a completely different outlook. Something outside his control forced him to be a human. Maybe all the chocolate cookies and hugs in the world can't make a square block feel right or comfortable or normal in a round hole.
“So we think that's the best thing that could've happened to him, but maybe he doesn't share that view,” Tony pointed out “Maybe for him, it was the same as one of us getting stuck as a cat. Sure, you don't have to work and everyone loves hugging you, and you get to lie around and sleep all the time... But given the chance between that and going back to being me, I think I'd lunge on it with all four paws. I have a real attachment to my thumbs.”
He paused. “Maybe we wanted him to stay human for us. But that might not have been what he wanted. Maybe he's happy being Dummy. And not DJ.” He glanced up, meeting their eyes. “He is not diminished by going back to what he has always been. He is still Dummy. Being disappointed that he is who he's always been means-” He shook his head. “I wouldn't have chosen this, either. I wish he'd been able to choose for his own reasons, and not make the choice because the rest of us. Because of me.”
Steve touched his shoulder, and Tony gave him a look. “It's fine,” he said. “He's safe. That's all that matters.”
“It's okay to miss being able to hug him,” Steve pointed out. “Even if we're glad to have him back.”
“Yeah, well-” Tony broke off. “Hey. Hey, no. NO! Do not! You cannot-” He pulled out of Steve's grip as Dummy crept by, his claw full of sheets. “We had to put the electricity back to your charging station, and that means no more princess canopy, Laurence of Arabia. No. Don't you dare.”
Dummy skittered away when Tony made a grab for the material, giving up the attempt at sneakiness to shoot across the workshop with his prizes.
“You damn brat!” Tony said, fast walking after him. “No. Don't you dare. I am warning you. I will dissemble you and use you for automated doorstops all over the Tower. I will install you on the kitchen counter and make you play ref to the appliances. I will put you in the exec suites of StarkIndustries and make you open soda cans for visitors.” He stalked up to Dummy, and pointed a finger at Dummy's camera. “No. Do not.”
Dummy considered him. There was a tense moment of standoff, and Dummy's arm slowly inched upwards.
“I am warning you,” Tony said, his voice low and dangerous, and Dummy paused.
Then his arm shot up, almost too fast to see, and attached the sheet to the hook on the wall and took off across the workshop again.
“Really?” Tony yelled after him. “Really, this is what we're doing?”
“Five dollars on the bot,” Coulson said, a faint smile on his lips.
“Sucker bet,” Natasha said, with a flick of one hand. “Dummy always wins.”
“That is because he cheats,” Clint said, laughing. “And Tony is the worst disciplinarian ever.”
“I'll take that bet,” Steve said, grinning at Phil. When Natasha rolled her head to the side to give him a pitying look, he shrugged. “We all know I'm a sucker, Nat.”
“So's Stark,” Clint said. “Fuck it, I'll match that action. Five on Stark.”
Natasha took his offered hand and gave it a brisk shake. “Always happy to take your money, Barton.”
“Five on Tony,” Bruce said, smiling over his smoothie cup. “Thor?”
Thor pondered that, his hands folded in front of his lips, his eyes narrowed as he considered the workshop with as much steady focus as he would use to look over a battlefield. “I place my wager on Jarvis,” he said at last, making the others groan.
Grinning, Steve reached in his pocket, peeled a five off his money clip, and handed it over. “Always bet on the house,” he agreed, and Thor laughed.
To general yelling and the occasional crash of something breakable, he settled back to watch Dummy and Tony get reacquainted. “You know,” he said, glancing down at his cup, “I really missed these damn smoothies.”
“Yeah,” Clint said, grinning. “They grow on you.” Across the workshop, Dummy draped a sheet over Tony's head, and Clint burst out laughing. “God, I love that ki-” He shook his head. “That bot.”
Steve's smile died, just a little, and Coulson gave him a curious look. “Are you all right?” he asked, quietly.
“No,” Steve said, with a faint smile. “But for now? I'm surviving.” For now, that would just have to do. He could hold it together, for a little while longer.
Tony woke up to the faint click of a StarkPhone's camera app. He grinned, curling back into Steve's comforting embrace. “Oh, you kinky bastard,” he mumbled, his head still all cotton wool and his body one sustained ache. “If that ends up on the internet, I'll be so proud of you.”
“Really?” Steve whispered in his ear, his voice husky and warm, a tone that sent a shiver over Tony's exposed nerve endings. “I was just gonna show Bruce, but if you insist...”
Tony pried his eyes open and stared down at the Hulk plushie in his arms. He groaned, shoving it away. “Delete it. Now, Rogers.”
“I don't know,” Steve said. He was inordinately cheerful for such an early hour. “You look so sweet, Tony.” He held up the phone, and Tony took a second to appreciate the image of himself, asleep with Hulk's head tucked under his chin, then he made a grab for it. Laughing, Steve kept it out of reach without any great effort. “Oh, no. No! Not a chance, this one's mine.”
“Jarvis, hack his phone and-” Steve slapped a hand over Tony's mouth, muffling his words, and Tony licked his palm.
“You don't fight fair, you-” Steve snagged him around the waist and twisted, and they both tumbled back onto the couch, and the phone went flying. “No, wait, hey, stop it, you'll wake-”
Tony froze, and Steve did, too, the two of them locked in mock combat, hands and legs and bodies, and he felt the blood drain from his face. His lips twitched, a macabre little smile. “No, we won't.” He got a hand free and slipped it around to the back of Steve's neck. “He's gone. Or, no, not gone. Back to normal.”
Steve nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I know, it's just-” He managed a smile, but it was pinched and unnatural, the kind of smile he used to have, back at the beginning, and Tony hated that smile. “I forgot for a minute, that he was gone. Or that we didn't have to worry about waking him, that's all. Not gone. Just not sleeping.”
Tony stared up at him. “He's gone,” he said, because it needed saying. And apparently it did, because Steve flinched like Tony had taken a swing at him. “Steve-”
Steve let him go, pushing back, untangling them and retreating back across the couch. “I know.” He sat down on the edge of the couch, a picture in sky blue pajama pants and a white t-shirt. He buried his head in his hands. “I know, Tony.”
Tony spent some time untangling his legs from the blankets. He risked a glance across the lab, where three bots were standing, neat and precise, in their charging stations. Dummy was as still as his brothers, but a handful of toys remained, propped around his station. “He's back to normal,” Tony said. “This is the way he should be.” He cleared his throat. “I know you're disappointed, but-”
Tony glanced in his direction, just in time to see Steve lift his head. The expression on Steve's face was closed off, pinched. “What?” he asked, his voice soft.
Steve's eyes closed. “I'm glad he's-” He swallowed, his throat working with it, and when Tony reached for his hand, Steve jerked it out of reach. “Sorry, I just-” He opened his eyes, meeting Tony's gaze without flinching. “Don't get me wrong, don't think I didn't- I loved him. Do. Do love him. I loved being able to pick him up, and hold him, and make him laugh, and see him experience things. I wanted to see him leave the tower, I wanted to see him in Central Park, at Coney Island, at Disney World and the Grand Canyon and Paris and-”
He paused. “Mostly, I loved watching you, and him. Loved watching you with him.” His fingers worked, the tendons in the back of his hands drawn taunt beneath his skin. “I couldn't help Howard. I couldn't do much for you.” His lips twitched. “I thought there was one Stark boy I could save.”
Tony reached for his hand, stubborn and used to rejection, but this time, Steve let him, let Tony weave their fingers together, let Tony grip hard on the flat of his palm. Tony dragged Steve's hand up, to his mouth, pressing his lips hard against Steve's skin.
“I love him, I loved him like that, I love him like this, but-” Steve's head fell forward, his forehead against Tony's. “God help me, when he went back to being Dummy, to being his usual self, I was so-” His voice broke. “Glad. Relieved.”
“So was I-” Tony started, and Steve cut him off with brutal efficiency.
“Not like I was. Not like-” His head jerked up, and he stared at Tony, his eyes agonized. “I was glad, Tony. I was so glad.”
Tony stroked his cheek. “Hey, hey,” he said, the words tripping over each other. “Hey. It's okay. Steve, it's okay.” He pressed his fingers against Steve's cheek, his jaw, his lips. “It's all right.”
“No. No, it's not.” Steve pulled back, not out of Tony's reach, but away from his hands. “I was afraid. All the time. All the time, I just, I didn't know how to cope with it.”
“You did better than I did,” Tony pointed out, his voice with a hitch of wry humor to it. “He knew you were the one to go to, that was obvious to everyone. It's-”
“I could cope with him,” Steve said. “It was everything else I couldn't cope with.” He rubbed his hands over his face, hard and sharp. “Tony, I wanted him to see the world, to go to the beach and the mountains and museums and eat ice cream in the park while an orchestra played. I wanted him to walk to school with one of us holding his hand, I wanted to figure out when his birthday was, and let him pick the Christmas tree, and I wanted all of it.” He stared at nothing, his eyes unfocused. “ And every step we took towards bringing him out of this room, I could feel everything just spiraling out of control. I was so scared.”
His throat worked, his breathing shallow and fast. “I had nightmares. Of what could happen to him, of how he could be hurt and how we could lose him.
“All night. Every night. I dreamed of him. I dreamed of-” He shook his head. “How do people cope? How do people have children, and love them, and deal with the things that could happen?” There was an urgent, almost hysterical edge to his voice. “I couldn't handle what they'd do. The people that would come for him. SHIELD, and the government, and every single person and creature and organization that wants to bring us down.
“What right did I have, having a kid?” he whispered. “When I couldn't possibly keep him safe. How could I want him, knowing that we could never answer the questions. Where did he come from, what is he? How long before the tabloids found out about him, the government, the world?”
Steve looked at Tony, and his eyes were wet. “I was glad, when he went back to being Dummy, because I didn't know how to handle it. Any of it. I was glad.” His eyes overflowed, and he clapped a hand over his face, over his eyes, his teeth gritted, his jaw working. “God help me. I love him, and I loved him more when he could smile up at me with such perfect trust, and I didn't know how to deserve it.”
He whispered, “I couldn't have kept him safe.”
Tony took a deep breath, ignoring the way his throat ached with something he didn't want to classify. “But you would've loved him, with all your heart,” he said at last. “And he always would've known that.”
“And it wouldn't have mattered if someone-” Steve choked on the words. “It doesn't matter!”
“It's the only thing that mattered,” Tony said. “It's the only thing that does matter.” He fumbled for something, anything, to occupy his hands. The Hulk plushie had a ripped seam, a loose bit by his shoulder, probably caused when Dummy had been swinging the poor thing by its arm. Tony fingered the edge, where the thread had pulled loose, and wondered how hard it would be to learn to sew. “Coulson probably knows how to sew, right?” he asked, and realized too late what a non sequitor that was.
“Probably,” Steve said, because he was used to Tony. He was used to the stupid things that Tony said sometimes, and they made him smile. The way he was smiling now.
Tony took a deep breath. He moved forward, his hands hanging between his knees, the soft toy clutched in his fingers. “I wanted him,” he said at last. “From the moment he, uh, the moment he appeared, I wanted him.” He glanced up at Steve, a quick flick of his head, and that was all he could bear. “I wanted him. I just never thought I could keep him. The reality of it, the reality of any of it, none of that mattered. I'm a Stark. We're good at ignoring reality. And, you know, supplanting our own.”
He wiggled Hulk's arm, and stood. “Know what else Starks are good at, Rogers? Starks are good at saying, fuck it. Fuck it, fuck everything, fuck you.”
“Obscene but pretty much correct,” Steve said, and Tony laughed.
“No, no, I mean...” He glanced back. “I want this, and fuck anyone who tells me I can't have it.” He waved a hand in Steve's direction. “Take, uh, you for example. I shouldn't have done this, shouldn't have gotten involved with you, you deserve better. You deserve a family, and a life, and a lot of things you're not going to have because you're too busy convincing Fury not to fire me. As in, fire me into space.” He waved a hand, and his chin was up, spine straight, pride carrying him where humiliation should've made this impossible. “But I'm a Stark, and that was the one thing that was drilled into me, all along, the one thing I got from my father? Is that if I want something, then fuck everyone who tells me I can't have it.”
Steve considered that. “Just so we're clear, that's a part of the Stark doctrine that's not going to passed down any more.”
“Why? It's damn useful,” Tony said, his lips quirking up at the corner. He stopped at the workbench, and fumbled through the things there. “But I wanted you. And I wanted the suit,” he said, flicking a thumb over his shoulder at the armors as he propped a hip on a stool. “The team, even when Fury told me I wasn't on the approved list, fuck him, really, what the fuck was that all about?”
“Self-preservation,” Steve said, as if he'd put thought into that.
“Probably.” Tony flipped around on his stool, poking a finger in Steve's direction. “But rational or not, logical or not, because fuck it, I fly around in a armor powered by the reactor imbedded in my chest that keeps a bunch of shrapnel from shredding my heart, so being rational or logical has very little to do with my life, now that I think about it-”
“Tony!” Steve said, and it was okay, because he was smiling, he didn't look like he was in pain any longer, and that was perfect, that was what Tony needed.
“The thing is,” Tony said, slapping the plushie down on the workbench, “I never thought about having kids. Because that was a horrible idea, a horrible plan, no, I wasn't ever going to do that, and I knew it. I was never going to have a child, Steve.” He held up the plushie and reached for the first aid kit that Steve had installed on the wall in easy reach. “But then, all of a sudden, I had one.
“And I wanted him.” He shrugged. “Too much to realize you didn't.”
He heard Steve get up. “I wanted him,” he said, sliding his arms around Tony's waist from behind. Leaning into Tony's back, he pressed a kiss to his shoulder. “I wanted him very much. I was just-”
“Practical as always.” Tony reached back and flicked the tip of Steve's nose with a single finger. “I know. I never...” He leaned back and let Steve hug him tight. “You loved him more than me.”
“No, I didn't. Who measures love?” Steve kissed his ear, and Tony turned his head so he could get Steve's next kiss on his cheek. “There's no scale for that, no unit of measurement. And you're practical.”
“I don't need to be. I have you.” He turned his attention back to the first aid kit, dumping stuff out. “I have you.” He found the thick black thread and sterile needle that was intended for stitching up wounds. “You can teach me to sew this up, right?”
Steve reached for the plushie. “I can do it, Tony.”
“I know you can. But I'd like to see if I can.” Tony turned on his stool, bringing himself face to face with Steve, and gave him a faint smile. He took the toy back, his fingers careful. “Teach me.”
Steve studied him. “I wanted him, Tony.”
“And I trusted you to protect him.” Tony's lips twitched. “Because no matter what, Steve? He never would've doubted that he had you in his corner. He never would've doubted you loved him.”
“I'm glad he's safe.”
“And I love him, no matter what form he's in.” Tony held up the thick thread. “Teach me how to fix this.”
Steve studied him. “Teach me the song you sang to him. It sounded familiar. But I couldn't make out the words.”
Tony grinned. “I guess it is old enough that you might've heard it. And you couldn't make out the words because I didn't, uh, I didn't know the words. I had to look them up.” Steve looked at him, expectant, and Tony groaned. “You're going to make me sing?”
“Yeah, I am. Of course, you can have Coulson show you how to thread a needle...”
Tony shook his head. Clearing his throat, ignoring the sense of embarrassment, he started, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are gray. You'll never know dear, how much I love you, please don't take my sunshine away.” He stopped, studying the thread in his fingers.
Steve's hands covered his. “I miss him already,” Steve said, and Tony slipped into his arms.
The hug was too tight, too hard, too much, it bent his bones, it bruised, and he was so grateful for it. “I love you,” he whispered against Steve's skin, and Steve's arms only got tighter.
“I love you, too.” Steve let him go, and brushed a kiss against Tony's lips. “C'mon. One last night on the couch, okay? I'm not... Ready to give up on this. Not yet.”
Tony let Steve tug him along, away from the workbench and back to the comfort of the couch. Curled together, he hummed as Steve showed him a simple running stitch. It took them too long to repair a ripped seam, but when it was done, Tony just closed his eyes and told himself that neither one of them had any reason to cry.
It really didn't work.
He didn't remember falling asleep, but he must've done it, because when his eyes opened again, Dummy was hovering over the couch, his head tipped to the side. “Hey,” Tony said, reaching up to pat the bot on his support strut. “Did you come looking for your favorite toy?” He tipped his head to the side, and Steve shifted behind him, exhaling in a long gust. “It's around here somewhere.”
Tony shifted in Steve's arms, fumbling around for the Hulk plushie. His hand closed on the little overstuffed arm, and he pulled up. “Here you go. I fixed him, good as new. Don't use him to hit Clint any more, or he'll end up ripped again.”
Dummy took the toy from him with his usual delicacy, whirring back across the workshop. Tony watched him go, grinning as the bot set the toy down and began rearranging the ones already on the charging station. Shaking his head, Tony curled back into the comforting warmth of Steve's body, tucking his head in under Steve's chin, because he liked the feeling of Steve's heartbeat beneath his ear. He closed his eyes, letting the exhaustion and stress bleed out of him.
The tug on his blanket brought his eyes open again.
Dummy's head angled down towards the couch, and he rocked back and forth, shifting his weight with a whine of his wheels. Tony arched an eyebrow at him. “Sorry, buddy,” he said with a faint smile. “You're too big to sleep on the couch now.”
Unswayed by that logic, Dummy reached for the blanket, and Tony shoved his claw away, the movement gentle. “This is what happens,” Tony said, with a lopsided smile. “You have a kid, and you pour your heart into keeping him safe, raising him right, next thing you know, he's too big to hold, and you missed your chance.”
Dummy snagged the blanket and tugged.
“You stubborn hunk of demented tin,” Tony said, tugging back. But Dummy was stubborn and with a sigh, he let go. Dummy immediately dragged the blanket over himself and scrunched his frame down, resting his head on the edge of the couch, next to Tony's knee. Reluctant to pull away from Steve's arms, Tony still reached down and flipped the blanket forward over the bot's camera. “Fine. Stay there. I spend the whole time when you're a kid trying to keep you from sleeping in your charging station, and now that you're sized for your charging station, and need it to function, NOW you want to sleep on the couch.”
Tony shook his head. “You are a just an embarrassment, Dummy. For God's sake.” Still, he couldn't help but shift his position, just far enough so that he could reach out and stroke his fingers over the blanket covered lump that was his first bot.
“I'm glad you're you,” he said, his voice very soft, almost inaudible. “Whatever form you might be. I'm glad you're still here. I'm-” He smiled, and closed his eyes. “I just- I thought you'd have a choice,” Tony said. “Stupid, huh? I thought, of all of us...” His eyes burned, and he squeezed the shut, as tight as he could manage. He rubbed his hand over Dummy's arm, back and forth. The contact almost muscle memory by this point, natural as breathing. “None of us got much of a choice of the things that happened to us. I thought, I really hoped...”
With a sigh, he pulled his hand back, folding himself back into the warmth of Steve's body. It was comforting, the steady, even rise and fall of Steve's chest, the sound of his heart beating. “That you'd get to choose. That you could make your way in this world despite what someone did to you. I just wanted you to be the Dummy you choose to be, not the one you had to be to survive, not the one you had to make to save us, to save yourself. The one you wanted to be.”
Tony threw an arm over his eyes. “Stupid, huh?”
He stilled, his heart jumping into overdrive in an instant. Resisting the urge to drop his arm, to open his eyes, he took a shuddering breath, then another. “Dummy?” he whispered.
A faint giggle, and then a solid weight landed on his midsection, driving the breath out of him. Startled, Tony grabbed for the back of the couch, his eyes going wide. The mound of blankets on his stomach kicked and rolled, and then, settled down with another giggle.
Reaching out, his fingers shaking, Tony pushed the blankets back, just far enough to uncover a nest of dark curls and big, warm brown eyes. “Why is it,” Tony whispered, “that you never quite manage to do what you're supposed to do?
Dummy bit his lower lip, one hand reaching out. One little finger pressed on the tip of Tony's nose, and he grinned. His eyes went over Tony's head, and he held out a hand, fingers spread, smile just getting wider and wider. Tony wasn't surprised when Steve shifted behind him, catching Dummy's hand in his much larger one. “Do us a favor, buddy,” he said, his voice rough, “and don't change back up here, okay? You gain a little weight when you do.”
“No,” Dummy agreed, and wiggled up, arms out with a pleading whine. Tony wrapped an arm around him and dragged him back down to curl against his side. As if that solved everything, Dummy cuddled down with a yawn, dragging a blanket back over him.
“You,” Tony said, as Steve hugged them both close, “are an absolute tragedy.” With a shake of his head, he leaned forward and brushed a kiss onto Dummy's curls. “Like all of the Stark boys.”
“But well loved,” Steve whispered in his ear. “Tony?”
“You call Pepper, I'll call Coulson.”
Tony chuckled, even as he hugged Dummy tight. ”I’ll call them both, you call Strange. Actually, let’s just get up early, make pancakes, and let them all figure it out for themselves when they walk into the kitchen.”
“Be good, Tony.” Steve’s lips brushed against his temple. ”After all, we’ve got a kid to think about now.”
"God help us. And you," Tony said, resting a hand on Dummy's back. "You make poor choices, kid."
Dummy opened one eye. "No," he said, and that, after all, was that.
This was my first attempt at kidfic, so thank you for your patience. Luckily, this satisfied the requester, but I'm so grateful that it has found an audience with everyone else. Thank you!