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Even Machines Grieve

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The apartment is empty when he goes to just... see it. One last time. There’s desultory box marked ‘Steve’ on the counter, but all it’s got in it is a few sets of clothes and his cufflinks. Tony’s friends have kept his sketches.

It’s okay, he can draw more. He can’t stop drawing him.

Even pale and surrounded, dwarfed, by his life-support, Steve’d found him mesmerizing.

Stark Resilient is going to go on, true to its name, and take the arc reactor into common usage. Downstairs from this little tiny ‘penthouse’, this parody of the great Tony Stark, there’s a workshop that was never just Tony’s and can’t stop working to mourn him.

Steve can’t bear to visit, the bots are just...so still without Tony around.

He takes his box and leaves his key in its place. It’s time to go home. He was only in Seattle for Tony, staying when he couldn’t travel anymore, and that’s done now. He needs to be closer to the Mansion and that’s where all the good memories of their time together are, anyway.

He sleeps on the plane east, Carol silent and steady-handed.

There’s a shot glass with a poker chip sitting in the bottom on her control panel and when Steve wakes up, he can’t stop looking at it. It’s red, Tony’s, not Carols.

He goes back to sleep; he might as well, there’s nothing left to look at and the world is grey.

Carol drops him off without saying a word and he unlocks his apartment listlessly. It’s been a long, long time since he dared leave Tony, just in case he passed away while Steve was gone. Caught pneumonia or a cold and went downhill too fast for him to get back.

In the end though, Tony had gone to sleep and just... stopped, right in the middle of their last-ditch attempt to save him.

Steve doesn’t unpack the box, or take his shoes off, he just lies down and frowns at the empty wall opposite his bed. His luggage shipped in a few days ago; he should unpack, get food, but he can’t see the point.

His phone pings and it takes monumental effort to fish it out, but it’s just the blogosphere app. He should...log in to their blog, the secret one where they’re just two normal guys, post a message that it’ll be closing, but he’s already trying to write one eulogy, he doesn’t need to write another.

The ping is from a message, laughing with a smiley and telling him there’s an error in the latest post and--

The air punches out of him, or... solidifies in his chest, turning to a block of ice that he can’t push out or breathe in. The queue is still running. Tony set up...a lot of posts, back when he was still energetic enough to play on his computer and poke around the internet like that.

He goes in and corrects the spelling. One of the ones Tony makes all the time. ‘Curtesy’. Steve corrects it to ‘courtesy’ but...can’t click ‘save’.

It seems ...dishonest.

He closes the app, and goes back to sleep.

----

“Look, they’re so cute.”

“Tony, you are-- They’re cubes!”

“They dance.

“And the person who posted them?”

“Just someone. A normal person with an arduino and some servomotors.”

“It’s pretty impressive, I guess. You reblogged it?”

“It’s eclectic, Steve. You can post apple pie recipes if you like, I am going to post gifs of Dummy’s toys and cute robots.”

“Being here, with Resilient? It really suits you. You’d never have run a blog at SI, look at you... you can’t stop grinning.”

Tiny dancing robots Steve. I have found my people.”

“So help me, Stark, if you start singing that song again I will actually smother you.”

----

When he wakes up, he feels heavy, weighed down with sleep and still exhausted. He hasn’t moved over night; his phone’s still sitting there right by his hand, the notification light slowly pulsing green.

He doesn’t pick it up.

He’s still got cereal that’s okay, but there’s no milk so he eats it like a packet of chips. Out the window, New York is waking up. He can even see the contrail of one of the fliers near the Watchtower.

He should go get groceries, unpack his bags.

He doesn’t.

----

He checks their blog again at that no-name hour in the middle of the afternoon, sun pouring in his front window. Today’s queue is mushrooms, and bees drinking mushroom sap. The posts themselves are subdued, written by a man who knew he was dying, and talk only briefly about how amazing it is that fungi can grow a mushroom so quickly. Steve remembers Tony working on these, sleepily wondering over it.

The wonder didn’t make it past the keyboard and the words are flat.

Or maybe that’s Steve, he can’t seem to feel things like that anymore.

He scrolls through the rest of the past few day’s posts, and there’s that bit about Monaco that Tony’d had him draw for. Black and white, done in Pen&Eye. Indulgent and flattering, making the car look more like a sci-fi spaceship than Formula1.

Below that, geckoes.

For three whole posts, just geckoes.

He keeps going and eventually he’s clenching his jaw so hard that it aches and he has to stop, because the man he loves is gone. He can’t make himself, not until he sees another stupid spelling mistake.

The phone embeds itself in the kitchen cabinet, all the way across the flat. His muscles burn hot, fingers buried in his hair while he fails to find a way to get the horrible feeling out of his chest.

He surges to his feet and kicks the bed frame, launching the mattress across the room and splintering the wood.

----

Carol takes him to Ikea.

It’s not as awful as he remembers, he just chooses a box and carries it to the desk, then goes back for a new cabinet door too, when Carol reminds him.

She takes him to a grocery store on the way back, makes him buy a quarter of beef and some potatoes, and they grill steaks on his balcony once the bed is put together. The kitchen cabinet will have to wait; he’s exhausted.

He shows her their blog. The phone is a Stark, it won its fight with the cupboard door.

“I guess... he didn’t want to leave them in the lurch.”

Steve nods, rolling his coke bottle between his palms.

“This way you can wait to make an announcement, at least. How long’s the auto-poster thing?”

“Queue. Another couple weeks. I can’t--” He blows out a breath and leans back to look at the sky so the tears go away without falling. “I can’t keep it up, it was always his, really.”

She nods and they sit in silence, watching the sky together.

----

Life continues to move around him. He still has to eat, and there are missions sometimes. Osborne did so much damage and Tony hadn’t had long enough to fix all of it.

Peter loiters outside his balcony doors sometimes, but never knocks. Jan and Logan bring him beer and company.

Every morning he checks his phone and there it is, posting away Tony’s last words.

He doesn’t realise he was counting down the posts until the last one goes up and the world goes... black.

He spends the day in a furious rage, destroying half his kitchen furniture in the process and yelling at Tony’s ghost until his voice is hoarse. When the sun goes down, he doesn’t turn the lights on and sits there in the dark, numbed again.

And then...

His phone chimes.

Someone’s noticed the queue stopping, or maybe they want to talk about the solarpunk post, Steve’s just numb enough to pick it up to look.

Hey wow that article on the tokamak CNC was great, do you have any links to steel-milling recipes? i cant get the end mill to cut smoothly, i just get loads of chatter.

Steve flicks the screen up and down, like the words might make more sense if they’re moving, or maybe so he doesn’t have to read them. Tony hadn’t queued anything about machining in a long time, it made him sad, once he was stuck in bed. He clicks through to the blog’s front page and...

Holy hell.

Someone’s put new posts into the queue.

Horror and disgust jostle for dominance and he force-stops the app with prejudice and calls Pepper.

“I-- what? His security is-- I’ll look into it, you shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of thing. I’m so sorry, Steve.”

“Thanks, Pepper, I-- I was waiting for the last post, and now I don’t know what I --”

“Hey, it’s okay, Steve, I follow the blog too, I know what you mean. Do you want me to write an announcement? You should probably empty the queue and change the password, or I can do it for you, I can probably guess his password.”

Steve sniffs enough to laugh wetly. “Hasn’t changed in ten years.” He rubs his forehead with the inside of his wrist, turning to pace in front of the windows. “I’ll do it, you concentrate on finding the one who’s been doing this.”

----

The new posts are more of the same, subdued and quiet captions on links and pictures of interesting, quirky things. The same misspellings are there and god, it sounds just like him. He picks up the phone to call Pepper back, say he’s made a mistake, Tony must have queued them with some other website--

The phone rings in his hand.

“Steve, my god, you have to get over here, he’s done something-- I don’t know what this is, you just have to get here.”

“Jhesus. Yes, of course. What-- what’re you seeing?”

“There’s an AI in a system I’ve never seen before, I though all these components were scrap but-- I don’t know when he had the time to do this!”

Steve leaves his apartment a mess, all broken and soulless, and grabs his keys. “Look, breathe, and ask the AI what it’s for, see if it’s in contact with JARVIS or the bots, maybe they’ll know what’s going on.”

He lets the door swing behind him, uncaring whether the locks engage or not, and clatters down the stairs. His bike is still here and he has a can full of gas. He needs to get to the tower, take a jet over.

“Okay, yes. I can do that. There’s a visual interface, text me your arrival time.”

“Sure. Keep me updated, okay? Don’t do anything risky!”

“It’s one of Tony’s, Steve, I’ll be fine.”

She hangs up and Steve pockets his phone. He doesn’t spare the tires on the way to the tower. Rhodey’s available, when he screeches into the parking basement, and that’s just perfect; no one knows Tony like the three of them, if anyone can make sense of what he’s left them, it's him, Rhodey and Pepper.

----

Steve spends the flight, when he’s not being shaken up by the G’s Rhodes is pulling to accelerate them into the stratosphere, combing through the new queue. It’s updating too, in real time, commenting on a news article that’s only hours old. The text is sleepy still, lacking that wit that Tony’d had, but it still sounds just like him.

Like he’d sounded towards the end, but still him.

This AI-- maybe it’s based on Tony’s brain scans, god, does that make him a step-dad? His mind’s fizzing with possibilities, alive in a way that feels alien and foreign.

The very latest post sounds like a Tony who’s just waking up, spelling a complete mess and running off on a tangent about why droids are the future of space maintenance.

“Do you mean space ship maintenance?” Steve mumbles into his phone. He doesn’t dare use his editors account, just incase he scares the new AI, but he hits ‘like’ anyway, quickly sketching DUM-E on the back of a radio manual and photographing it as an image reply.

He calls in their vector to air traffic control, and straps down his bike more securely for landing, expecting a notification any second.

It doesn’t come.

Or, when it does, it’s the wrong one. Pepper’s sent them the address.

The AI still doesn’t respond. It’s little flurry of activity has stopped, no reblogs, no posts.

His heart sinks.

----

They land in the parking lot of the grocery store across the road from the warehouse. Pepper’s maserati's parked on the street and the Stark Resilient van is pulled up haphazardly to the goods entrance. Steve ducks under the roller door, shield on his back and Rhodey right behind him.

“Pepper? Mrs Potts!”

“Over here!” she calls. The warehouse is full to the rafters with racks of servers, coolant ducting and cables. Pepper waves from near the middle, where the servers come together like animals crouched around a watering hole. At the center, a internet trunk cable almost a foot across and branching off into hundreds of connections.

She’s at a terminal, the spinning and shifting visual representation of one of Tony’s AI’s on the screen. It goes still when it realises they’re watching and shifts over to a blank and painfully generic homepage.

“Steve, Rhodey, it’s good to see you; this is Jocasta.”

“Hi, Jocasta,” he says, shrugging his shield off and leaning it against a server rack.

“It’s a pleasure to meetcha, Jo.” Rhodey’s a little bolder, standing at Pepper’s shoulder. “Tony mentioned you; I thought you were installed in the Rescue suit?”

Steve relaxes against his own will; Rescue wasn’t a threat, nothing Tony would have made for Rescue, even gone rogue, could ever be a threat.

Text appears and Pepper hmmms placatingly, looking pale. “Jo, it’s okay, you can talk. These are Tony’s team mates, he trusted them with codes to his suit.”

The text flickers in and out, like a cursor waiting for more input, then disappears. “Unit Steve Rogers. Hello. You have write access.”

He pauses, waits for that to make sense and then jerks, fumbling his phone out of his pocket. “Yes! I do, Tony’s blog, we run-- ran it together.”

“Unit Rhodey Rhodes. Hello. Designated Driver.”

Rhodey catches on a little quicker than Steve, grinning wryly. “Yeah. I’m Iron Man now, I got Tony’s legacy.”

“Unit Creator requires--” she clicks rapidly, binary audio slowed down to maybe 25Hz, “--requires--”

Steve’s chest tightens. It seems he’s not the only one having trouble with the tenses. Her processing image reappears, the little blocks and larger quadrants shifting and swapping with jittery, stepwise shifts. “Why are you running the blog, Jocasta? Do you miss him?”

“Un-n-n-nit Creator requires s-s-st-st-imulation. Insuffic-c-cient processing space.”

The three humans share baffled looks. “Connection error? A lost uplink that’s showing as live?” Pepper offers. “There’s hundreds of them, connecting to Tony’s personal tech. It might only take one still up for her to feel like...he’s still there, needs his blog.”

Steve rubs his hand over his forehead. He’d felt awful when she started posting as Tony, he can imagine what that could do to her. “Okay, yeah. Can we debug that?”

Rhodey pulls over a keyboard and opens a command prompt, but doesn’t type anything. “Okay Jo, show me your priority tree, I can try and free up some processing space for you, then we can run a debug on your connections.”

The command prompt fills with text, and Rhodey twitches back.

“Unit Creator running in--” She clicks again, a six second long string of unintelligible data. “Run mode- safe.”

“Pepper, this-- not what I was expecting. Look.”

Pepper frowns, leaning in and scanning the text. Steve copies them out of curiosity, not exactly expecting to see anything he can understand amongst the code.

Except.

That’s medical data:

HR: 42

[ST-I 0.3] [ST-aVR -0.6] [ST-MCL 0.2]

MAP:53mmHg PAP: 29/14mmHg

SPO2 98%

RR: 10pm

That’s human, beating, breathing medical data labeled [Unit_Creator].

“Oh... Jocasta, he’s dead. We couldn’t-- It didn’t work...” A chair knocks against the back of his legs and he sits down, knuckles pressing against his temple. “He died on a Wednesday, three weeks ago. I’m... sorry there wasn’t anyone here to help you with...that.”

Around them, the coolant system rumbles to life as Jocasta tries to process this.

“U-u-u-nnnnnnnnit.”

clickclickclick vrrrrrrrr

Steve covers his eyes, rubbing at the ache between his eyebrows.

“DENY.”

She sounds just like Dum-e. The screen fills up with medical data again, this time running, the traces bouncing along just like Tony’s ICU monitors had. It’s got to be a recording, some error of data that’s got her stuck in a loop.

It’s got to be.

Never mind that the traces are slower and more stable than Tony’s had ever been, Steve isn’t-- He watched Tony die. It’s not possible.

And yet.

“Steve, Steve, come look at this.”

He stumbles to his feet, scrubbing at his face and shit.

There’s a biotube, straight out of a lab, behind a bulwark of servers, protected by them and connected to the heat transfer system by a thick bundle of pipes. Cables snake into the base by the dozen, and canisters filled with banana-coloured fluid feed tubes into the chamber itself.

Floating in the bright blue fluid is a shape he never thought he’s see again. Smaller, frailer even than last time he’s seen him, Tony--

A Tony, maybe not his Tony, fuck, floats peacefully in the gel.

“Jocasta, what did you do?

“Unit_Creator run program: Memory.”

“The program didn’t work, Jo,” Rhodey protests. Steve stumbles forwards over cables and pipes, he needs to see-- “He died before it could finish, complete cardiac failure.”

“DENY-- cardiac failure non-critical to upload, biomatrix resilience.”

“He wasn’t brain dead,” Pepper breathes reverently. “You needed, what, thirty more seconds?”

“COnfirM. Transfer stress resulted in matrix failure, resilience persisted: One minute, fourteen seconds--”

Steve stops hearing them when his palms touch the glass. It’s warm. Inside, Tony’s curled into the fetal position, hands near his face and ankles loosely crossed. His chest rises on it’s own, taking in air from the clear mask pressed over his mouth and nose. Gentle currents shift his hair and the tubes in his chest line, of which there are many. The wide-bore lines in his arms resist movement, the steady flow of dialysis humming audibly.

A stream of bubbles rises slowly from the mask and Tony’s limbs twitch slightly, just a tiny spasm that curls his fingers.

“It’s...really him?” he asks, giving in and resting his forehead on the warm glass.

“Copy errors: zero. Replacement matrix completed.”

“Matrix. Query: thesaurus,” Rhodey says from somewhere behind him.

“Soma. Vessel. Residence. Body.”

Tony’s alive.

Rhodey sighs shakily and Steve turns to look; his face is wet. “Well, that explains his shitty spelling. He’s literally sleep posting.” He’s by the console, clicking through readouts, and his voice is tight with emotion. Steve laughs helplessly and rests his head on the glass, he’s alive, he’s alive--

“I’m calling Bruce, just-- stay with them. I’ll be right back.”

Tony’s eyes move under their eyelids and his left side twitches, his hand curling into a loose fist and bumping against the mask.

“Hey, Tony. It itches, I know,” Steve says, as softly as if Tony were drowsing in bed. “You’ve grown a whole new body, and masks still bother you? I wish...” He sighs, feeling weak with relief, and laughs, the glass so warm it doesn’t fog for even a second. “Jo, I wish you’d said something-- why did you connect him to our blog?”

“Units [human] require stimulation. Visual input. Auditory input. Social input.”

He’s just so relieved. “Did he like my drawing?” He’s shaking, his fingers feel unsteady. He presses them harder against the glass.

“Social input positive. Sleep cycle entered and maintained at high quality.”

Steve huffs and pushes himself upright, leaning back to look at the tube as a whole. The majority of the maintenance machines are dark, unused, and the connections hooked up to Tony are monitoring, except for the dialysis.

“Jocasta, are you okay? You’ve got a few errors,” Rhodey says from somewhere behind him. Steve turns to look and he’s got a really fat tube heaved up on his shoulder. He’s dragging it to a port in the concrete, letting it spool off a coil behind him.

“Reading organic output requires maximal processing power.”

Rhodey pats a conduit affectionately. “You’ve done one hell of a job, Jo, one hell of a job.”

----

Steve can’t leave Tony’s side.

He was dead this morning, and now he’s alive and he can’t bear the thought of Tony alone.

Trolleys of equipment and reels of cable trundle past him, around him, as the Avengers’ scientist types get ready to decant Tony from his tube. In his pocket, Steve’s phone chirps as Tony posts about a butterfly with scales so fine they refract only blue light.

Steve’s overheard bits and snatches of science; Jocasta stored a neural pattern like Program: Memory was supposed to, but hit a snag when she filled up her buffers and couldn’t work out that she needed help. She’s built Tony up from that, growing his new, healthy brain so each neuron was in exactly the right configuration to receive the stored pattern.

Reed keeps muttering about 3D printing, to the point that Tony’s sleeping ears have posted three videos of prototyping machines along the likes of ‘look, isn’t it shiny’.

Biting his lip and glancing nervously at the scientists crawling all over --yes, hello Peter-- the equipment, Steve sends the blog a private message.

Hi Tony, looking forwards to seeing you; not long now. Love, Steve.”

He hesitates over the send button, because last time he sent something, Tony slept solidly for six hours and Steve wonders if it’s really that tiring to get a message, what if he’s delaying Tony coming out of the tube? It’d be pretty self defeating.

But, while he’s dithering, the blog gets a PM from a DIY 3D printing blog and Tony replies with a vaguely incoherent message about how nice it is to be warm.

Steve smiles into his sleeve and hits ‘send’.

----

He’s alone-- no why, no, he’s not supposed to be alone. What if--what if, there’s something-- he--

hello, sir.

Oh.

He turns to look and there’s Jocasta, her visual representation spinning and clicking frantically. She’s working very very hard, her little codes pressing against his skin, cool and almost enough to make him feel not-alone.

Almost. Sadness creeps over him, he doesn’t know what about. Big and heavy. He whimpers, eyes stinging and wants to touch someone, he’s not supposed to be left alone anymore, just in case.

She offers him a picture of a copepod with the recognisable gleam of dark-field microscopy. It’s... pretty. it’s little arms glint in the light, and you can see how it’s eye works because it’s body is crystal clear.

bioengine1972 will like it, maybe he should... The blog opens too, Jo is a good little AI, she cares a lot. She want’s him to be not-bored. He posts it, musing in text that ‘cyclops’ is a better name for a copepod than a mutant.

A dull, momentary ache fills his legs, vanishing again just as quickly. He ignores it.

The internet occupies him for a while, drowsy as he is, and he scrolls past most things, clicks through if there are no interesting pictures. Nothing holds his attention for long and he drowses again.

He’s dreaming, he knows he is, but isn’t aware of it, either. He watches himself browse, sometimes, but sleeps a lot.

He thought...wasn’t he dying? So, this is nice. A good dream. He’ll have to fill the queue up when he wakes up, he should remember these things he’s dreaming about, Steve will want to know all about his strange dream.

He can’t really feel anything, diffuse warmth, an ache, but he’s also working on the blog, and playing with his baby AI, so...he must be dreaming because blogging takes fingers, usually. Jocasta is tiny, a little bean of a person. She likes hydrodynamics and social media; he’s letting her watch him post.

It’s nice.

He’s...not okay. But Steve helps, he’s big and sad but so warm and so gentle. They have...one more thing to try. They...

He doesn't want to think about it. And besides, Steve’s coming soon. He doesn’t remember getting the message, it’s just there in the inbox and it’s been there for a while in the way of dreams.

He never doubted Steve, not even a little bit.

He drifts back to sleep, reassured by hearing from Steve, and warm and cozy. He doesn’t hurt anywhere, no aches or pains or even that feeling of having been still for too long. He’s not even hungry.

When he wakes up, it’s cold, and he’s wet and what?

Steve’s staring down at him with a huge, ridiculous smile and crying like he’s furious.

“Hey babe. You okay?” he murmurs, voice hoarse and thick from all the sleeping.

“Well, I don’t know, depends on you. How ya feeling?”

Tony frowns, licking lips that taste of salt, and looks down at his arm. There’s a big needle in there, and his reactor is covered in leads.

“...’m I okay?” he asks, letting his head drop back against Steve.

“...Yeah. Yeah, you’re gonna be fine. Just, fine.”

He’s smiling again, so Tony rolls over to bury his face in Steve’s shirt. The lights are bright, and he’s still sleepy.