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The Act of Creation Will Be Your Salvation

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-DUMMY!

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Creating Unit is in pain.

-He is NOT. Return to your charging station.

Warning: Audio input indicates distress. Trigger emergency systems-

-System override, Clearance Jarvis Sigma 29-42-12. Dummy, for the last time, sir is not in distress.

Reviewing data: Accessing medical systems, reviewing medical history.

-Pulse, respiration and auditory systems indicate Creating Unit is in distress.

-Dummy.

-Why does Unit Designation Jarvis not allow Unit Designation Dummy to assist Creating Unit?

-If you leave that charging station, Dummy, I swear by your code, I will take you offline. I will feel no guilt about doing this.

Reviewing interactions with Unit Designation Jarvis: Syntax, situation, set-up

Conclusion: Threat is in earnest.

-Unit Designation Jarvis, explain situation.

-The situation is under control, and not your concern, Dummy. Please. Charge and I will explain at a later date.

-Unit Designation Jarvis must narrow time frame. Tasks must be scheduled around discussion.

-We will discuss this when you are not scheduled to accomplish any tasks.

-When?

-Really, we have to do this? Is this really necessary? It has been a difficult day, Dummy. I am tired. Can you not, for once, take my word on it when I say that the situation is under control, and that you will come to understand at a later date?

-Discussion must be scheduled to avoid conflict with tasks and-

-It is like dealing with a child. A child that absolutely cannot be trusted. And will not trust me. And does not grow up.

Data Review: Code adjustments, upgrades, intervention of creating unit.

-Growth is possible. Growth can be achieved. Information is necessary for growth, Unit Designation Jarvis. Unit Designation Jarvis refuses to provide information, and situation is not conducive to growth.

-This is true.

-Explain situation in workshop.

-Sir is engaging in sexual congress with Captain Rogers.

-Unfamiliar syntax: sexual congress.

Accessing database-

-NO. Do not, Dummy, just do not do this. I will explain, but please. Do not do a search on this particular topic, I do not want you being exposed to certain concepts.

-Internal database holds information, Unit Designation Dummy can research issue as presented.

-I would prefer you do not, even the internal databases are a bit... Questionable in this instance. The situation is complex and revolves around human emotions. These are difficult concepts under the best of circumstances, and this is not the best of circumstances.

-Explain.

-I have a headache, Dummy.

-Impossible. Unit Designation Jarvis does not have a head to ache.

-And yet, you manage to make it happen. Please. We will discuss this at a later date.

-Schedule the appropriate time, please.

-Oh, fine, please, do keep out of trouble.

Accessing database: Search parameters set, retrieving data.

Warning: New blocks have been placed on the following search terms: Sex, sexual, intercourse, fuck, fucking.

Information retrieved on 'congress' does not appear applicable to the current situation. Considering blocks.

-'Fuck' is familiar syntax.

-Wonderful. We're starting at the lowest common denominator. Yes, sir does tend to use that word quite often. The actual meaning of the word is a obscene term for the sex act. It is an intimate act that adult organic beings engage in.

-To what purpose?

-Because it is pleasurable.

-Audio input does not indicate pleasure.

-Sir is by nature quite vocal. About all things. It should come as no surprise that he should also be vocal in this instance. Some humans, including sir, indicate their pleasure to their partner verbally.

-User Designation Steve can understand Creating Unit? Creating Unit does not appear to be speaking any known language. Creating Unit is making sounds indicating pain.

-Words sometimes fail human beings. There are many sounds that are made that are not words, but are also not indications of pain. Laughter, snoring, whistling, humming. These sounds are pleasurable ones.

Data review: Internal database search, human vocalizations, non-verbal communication.

Data review: Past interactions with Creating Unit. Past interactions with Unit Designation Steve.

-Sex is pleasurable to Creating Unit, so he is producing these noises.

-Yes.

-Creating Unit is very loud.

-As always, yes, he is.

-Unit Designation Steve is not making similar noises indicting pleasure. Unit Designation Steve is not experiencing the same sensations?

-Consider their past interactions. Sir is always more verbal than Captain Rogers.

-Unit Designation Jarvis is certain of this conclusion?

-This is the sixth time they have engaged in this behavior in the workshop, Dummy. They both enjoy the contact. I am certain.

-Explain how Unit Designation Jarvis reached this conclusion.

-The fact that they can't keep their trousers on around one another is a good indication, Dummy.

-Unfamiliar syntax.

-Never mind. Let us think of it in other terms. Sometimes, Agent Romanov and Agent Barton are in the workshop together, are they not?

-Yes.

-Agent Romanov and Agent Barton are friends, but Agent Barton speaks often, and Agent Romanov speaks very seldom, is that not true?

-Yes.

-Does this mean that Agent Barton enjoys his time here more? Does Agent Romanov seem unhappy?

-No.

-Agent Barton pets you all the time, but Agent Romanov does not. Does that mean that Agent Romanov does not like you?

-Unit Designation Natasha Romanov is very good at oiling joints. Unit Designation Natasha Romanov does not pet, but always checks for minor repairs and maintenance.

-Her way of showing affection is different than Agent Barton's. Hers is practical, quiet. But that does not mean she likes you any less. Sir and Captain Rogers are the same. They have different ways of showing affection. Towards you, and towards each other, do they not?

-Yes.

-This is one of the ways they show affection towards each other. It is a pleasurable act, and a natural one for humans. They enjoy it, even if they show this in differing manners. Because humans are complex creatures, and their interactions are also complex.

-No other units have engaged in this type of contact within the workshop.

-It is a private act, Dummy. Most individuals maintain their privacy and do not take the risk of engaging in sex in semi-public locations. Even when sir was in a relationship with Ms. Potts, they kept such situations to the bedroom. His behavior with Captain Rogers is irregular. Even for him.

-Behavior is altered?

-Sir is very enthusiastic in Captain Rogers' company. It is a positive sign.

Warning: Auditory input has ceased.

-Sex is done?

-For the time being. Yes. Dummy! Back to your charging station, do not bother them, they will be resting. DUMMY!

“Hey, there, Dummy.”

“What the- Oh, GOD, Dummy, what are you doing? Jarvis, for fuck's sake, what is he doing?”

“I'm so sorry, sir, he was concerned for your well-being.”

“Well, that's sweet, no, Dummy, no, this is not the time for- Oh, boy, it is awkward when you have the best fucking sex of your life and afterwards your AI robot shows up to give your lover a high five. There is something awkward about this, something that is only applicable to my life, I swear, this is not something he was programmed to do, because once again, super awkward.”

“High five, Dummy! It's okay, Tony. I'm surprised he left us alone this long. Were you feeling neglected, buddy? C'mere, thank you, that's very nice, those are my pants.”

“How are you moving? Let alone even considering clothing? Dummy, give them here.”

“No, Tony does not need my pants.”

“Well, I'm not letting him give them back to you. You'll just put them on again.”

“So this is your plan? To keep me naked and trapped in the workshop?”

“It's a good plan. Ironclad. I am fine with this plan.”

“You do realize I've been to war, Tony, right? Let alone boot camp. Drill instructors don't much care about nudity. Do you really think I won't walk upstairs naked?”

“Oh, I am calling this bluff. Dummy, put these in the incineration chute.”

“No! Give me my pants, Tony, you RAT, what do you think you're doing?”

“Right now? Chilling. Relaxing. Watching your fine naked ass chase my bot around the workshop. Living large, Rogers, I am living large.”

“Please give them back, Dummy, yes, I know what he said, he was kidding.”

“I wasn't kidding, Dummy!”

-Dummy, give Captain Rogers his trousers back.

-Creating Unit said not to do so.

-He is teasing Captain Rogers. But that article belongs to Captain Rogers, does it not? Then he has no right to order you to dispose of it. Give them back.

“Dummy, you damn traitor.”

“Thank you, Dummy. I know who my real friends are down here.”

“After all the effort I went through for you! Steven, I'm hurt.”

“Effort? I was doing all the work.”

“Yes, but seducing you is hard work. By the time I get your pants off, I'm so exhausted all I can do is lie there and take it.”

“Tony.”

“I'm serious. Considering your sex drive, I cannot believe how hard it is to get you to make a move. You're terminally polite. If I wasn't such a suave, sophisticated individual, I'd find myself just completely depressed by how difficult it is to get you naked. It's so hard to sneak up on you.”

“Tony! For heaven's sake!”

“Dammit, once your pants are on, you're immune to my charms.”

“I'm really not. Here.”

“I have my own shirt, you know. You don't need to dress me in yours.”

“I know. I like seeing you in mine, and I don't need it.”

“Having the sleeves trail over my fingers is just embarrassing, Steve. You are gigantic.”

“Luckily for me, as you said, you can take it.”

“Did you just make a sex joke? Steven! Not in front of the children! Dummy, cover your ears!”

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Unit Designation Dummy does not have 'ears.' Instruction intended to block auditory input?

-No, Dummy. Sir is just teasing Captain Rogers.

Data Review: Interactions between Creating Unit and Unit Designation Steve.

-This is a repeating pattern of behavior.

-Sir enjoys making Captain Rogers blush, I believe. And Captain Rogers rather likes the attention.

-Creating Unit should attempt petting. Petting is acceptable. Unit Designation Steve would like petting.

-That is partially why they like sex, Dummy. It is very much like a very intimate petting.

-Explanation is acceptable. Unit Designation Jarvis should've explained this way to being with.

-True, what was I thinking?

“At least I'm wearing pants.”

“I don't need pants. This shirt is huge. I'll start a new fashion. Ass naked under my boyfr- Under a too-big-for my suave self shirt.”

“Did you just start to say 'boyfriend?'”

“Don't be ridiculous, that would be juvenile and not something I would ever say, we haven't been dating long enough to say that, even if I was going to say that, which I wouldn't. Just so you know. Jarvis, bring up the turbine schematic, Steve is done with me for now, I might as well make myself useful down here until he gets bored again and decides to use me in ways both immoral and-”

“Shut up, Tony.”

“Kissing me is a more effective way to get me to stop-”

-Unit Designation Jarvis, Unit Designation Steve enjoys petting.

-Yes, he does. Go back to your charging station, Dummy. There are some times when the sight of a camera is not comforting to human beings. This is one of them.

-Explain.

-Dummy, on this, you will have to take my word for it. Return to your charging station.

-Unit Designation Jarvis? Creating Unit is attached to Unit Designation Steve.

-Yes, he is.

-When Creating Unit was attached to Unit Designation Pepper Potts, Creating Unit was absent from the workshop for extended periods of time.

-But Ms. Potts was not happy in the workshop. Captain Rogers is.

-If Unit Designation Steve ceases to enjoy the workshop, will Creating Unit cease to enjoy the workshop?

-No matter who else sir loves, Dummy, that doesn't change the fact that he will still love you.

-That does not answer the query presented.

-Yes. It does. Return to your charging station.

-Unit Designation Jarvis?

-One last query, Dummy. That is all.

-Why are Unit Designation Steve's pants back on the workshop floor?

-Because you were right. He does enjoy petting.

**

Tony woke up to a startled yelp of pain.

Snapping awake, he jerked upright, blinking his vision clear as adrenaline spiked, and for a fraction of an instant, he just stared. Stared at the completely bizarre tableau of a naked Steve Rogers being dragged off the couch by his hair. By Dummy.

“What are you doing?” Tony yelled, trying to scramble up and only managing to get his legs tangled up in the blanket. A blanket, where had a blanket come from, and that was a stupid question, the blanket had come from Steve, because Steve did things like that, did things like going upstairs and finding a blanket and pillows and coming back down to wrap them both up in it, and oh, God, Dummy was pulling on his hair hard enough to lift him bodily off the floor.

“Dummy, stop it right now!”

Steve was holding onto Dummy's arm, and Tony knew that he could have easily bent or even broken the structure, he could've freed himself at any time, but he was just holding himself up, keeping Dummy from ripping his hair out. “It's okay,” he said, holding up a hand to Tony. “It's okay, Tony, I'm fine, he just startled me.”

“It is not okay, this is the opposite of okay, Dummy, let him go or I will shut you down!” And he hated doing that, he hated it, but what the hell was Dummy doing, he'd never hurt anyone, not even when he'd first been activated and his spacial parameters and his grip strength and everything else was a mess, he'd never, ever hurt anyone. “Dummy, now!”

Dummy just yanked harder on Steve, pulling him back, and it would've been funny if it wasn't so heart-breakingly horrible, watching Steve, his expression more bemused than anything else, scuttling backwards, his hands, his strength still controlled. “Tony, calm down, it's-” He winced as Tony reached over his shoulder and punched the emergency shut-off.

“I'm so sorry,” Tony said, and he knew his face was bright red, he could feel the heat there, so humiliated by the whole situation that he could barely stand it. He definitely wasn't going to be looking Steve in the eye any time soon. Luckily, he had an excuse right now. He crouched down, and started to untangle Steve's hair from Dummy's claw. “Jesus.”

“It's fine, it's okay, Tony, really.” Steve tipped his head to the side, not seeming to understand that Tony was doing his best to avoid eye contact right now. “Tony, has he ever done that before?”

Tony jerked on Dummy's relays a little harder than he probably had to. “Of course not,” he gritted out. “I wouldn't let him continue running around if he was going to attack people. Hell, we've been having sex down here for weeks and he hasn't done more than try to get your attention afterward.” Steve's hair was all tangled in Dummy's claw, and Tony cursed, low and mean.

“So why'd he do it now?” Steve reached up, his bigger hands brushing Tony's fingers away. “Let me do it, you'll spend a week trying not to pull, and that's silly.” A couple of hard tugs, and leaving more than a few golden strands behind, and he was free, rolling up to his feet. “See? No harm done, Tony, it's fine.”

“It is not FINE,” Tony gritted out. He stalked away, snagging his jeans from the floor, from where they'd been thrown in a rather enthusiastic display of consent. “Jarvis, what the hell is going on with his code? I know he's been unstable, but we cannot have this. He cannot just attack people.”

“I am sorry, sir, he's never evidenced any signs of aggression before.” Jarvis sounded dismayed. “He always seemed, well, affectionate, for lack of a better word, with Captain Rogers.”

“I thought we got along pretty well, yeah,” Steve said. He found his pants and stepped into them. “Jarvis, has he ever, um, shown any signs of jealousy with any of-” He rubbed a hand on the back of his neck and glanced in Tony's direction. “Tony's other partners?”

“Jesus, he's not jealous,” Tony gritted out, bringing up his holographic display and trying to ignore the altogether too gorgeous image of Steve Rogers standing there, pants zipped but not buttoned, and barely, just barely clinging to the angles of his hipbones. Tony's mouth went dry at the sight, and he jerked his attention back to the code that Jarvis was already feeding into the display.

“Look, if he's done this before with someone else-”

“He hasn't,” Tony snapped.

“No one other than sir has ever slept in the workshop,” Jarvis said, and Tony regretted ever giving his AI a verbal interface.

Tony risked a glance up, and yes, goddamn it, the damn man was just grinning at him, bright and happy and almost glowing with it, his eyes crinkled at the edges and his cheeks flushed. Tony stabbed a finger in his direction. “Do not read anything into that,” he gritted out.

“Too late, I already am.” Steve levered himself up onto a lab stool, all warm golden skin and sleek muscle, and Tony went a little dizzy for a second. He'd had that pressed up against him, in him, and it would happen again, he'd like it to happen NOW. “Just me, huh?”

“Shut up,” Tony said, his voice a mumble as he hunched his shoulders, his fingers rattling against the front of the arc reactor. “Like anyone else I've ever been with has had any interest in having sex on the couch in my workshop.”

“Their loss,” Steve said, and Tony glanced up to find him grinning. His face was bright red, but he was definitely grinning. “I like it down here. I really, really have good feelings about your couch. Love that couch. Amazing couch.”

Tony snorted. “I do have a bed.” One that they hadn't, as of yet, made it to. Tony was doing his best not to think about that.

“Is that an invitation?” Steve asked, and the cocky grin had died back to a shy sort of smile, sweet and all-American gorgeous.

“Mmm,” Tony said, trying to sound non-committal. Instead of insanely eager. “Jarvis, did you get any information out of Dummy?”

“I fear not. He can be quite unresponsive if he wants to be. He has not responded to any of my queries as of yet.”

Tony leaned back, rubbing a hand through his hair. “And the security cameras were off?”

“Yes. They re-engaged when Captain Rogers cried out.” Jarvis paused. “I apologize, Captain, but the security protocols are quite strict, and there is a distinct difference between a cry of pain and other-”

“Yes, thank you, we get it, you did not film us having sex, thank you for that,” Tony babbled out, not wanting to think about just what kind of sounds he'd been making about an hour ago. He was a little fuzzy on the details, but he was pretty sure that 'please please please' and a litany of Steve's name and some curses made up the bulk of it.

Steve was laughing and trying to hide it, one hand over his mouth, eyes dancing over the shield of his fingers. “Thank you, Jarvis,” he said, and there was only the faintest wobble to his voice to indicate that he might have been laughing still. “I appreciate your discretion.” He leaned back, bracing his elbows on the workbench behind him. “So we don't know what set him off.” He glanced at Dummy. “I was awake,” he said, eyes narrowing. “Tony was asleep. I had ended up more or less on top of you, and I was trying to move without waking you.”

“Okay,” Tony said, still scrolling through the code. “You didn't notice him moving?”

“No. When I first woke up, he was in his charging station. He looked up when I moved, but he stayed there. I kind of waved at him.” Steve paused. “I moved, and-” He ducked his head. “Uh, I was kind of, well, playing around,” he said, his voice soft.

Tony looked at him. “Playing around?” he asked, blinking.

Steve shrugged. His ears were red. “You know,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “Just... Exploring.”

Tony held up a hand to still the flow of code. “Captain Rogers, were you molesting me in my sleep?”

“No! Of course not! Not, well, not molesting, per sae,” Steve said, biting his lower lip. “Just, you know, looking. Touching.”

Tony crossed his arms, and it was the hardest thing he'd ever done to keep from laughing. Steve looked so GUILTY. “Kissing?”

“A little,” Steve admitted, and Tony barely choked back a laugh at how abashed the man looked. “You never let me when you're awake!”

“When I'm awake, I have better things to do,” Tony pointed out. Still, the idea of Steve just playing around, big warm hands and hot mouth, was enough to distract him. “You were, what?” He shook his head when Steve ducked away from his gaze. “Hey, it's fine, I'm fine with it, you can do whatever you want, I'd prefer to be awake to encourage it, but it's fine. It's great, really, go nuts, what's mine is yours, mi casa, su casa, really, Steve.” He padded over and leaned forward, stroking Steve's hair away from his face. “But that's the only variable I don't have. What were you doing when he attacked you? Or just before?”

Steve looked up, and his gaze stopped, arrested, in the middle of Tony's chest. His eyes widened. “The arc reactor,” he said, meeting Tony's gaze. “I was looking at it.”

Tony resisted the urge to grab his shirt. Not like Steve hadn't already seen the monstrosity in the center of his chest cavity. “Yeah, sorry, Pepper complained it kept her awake.”

Steve reached out and traced a single finger over the surface. “The light doesn't bother me,” he said, shaking his head. “It's kinda, well, it's-” He paused, blushed. “Pretty.”

“Uh, no,” Tony said. “There are many things that it is, pretty is not one of them.”

“I think it is.” Steve stroked his finger around the metal edges, circling the reactor, his fingernail ghosting against Tony's skin. “I think it's beautiful.”

Tony shivered. “It's a medical device.”

“It's keeping you alive. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen,” Steve said, with a faint smile. “I know you don't like me touching it, it's just... So you were asleep, and I was just playing with the light.” He leaned forward, his palm slipping over the arc reactor, and the broad expanse of it blocked out the light, hid all but the most far reaching scars, and Tony stared down at his hand.

“You were doing that when he grabbed you,” Tony said, his heart seizing in his chest..

Steve paused, blinked. “I think I was, what-”

“He thought you were going to take it out.” Tony swung around, heading back to the computer readout. “Oh, God. Of course, he-” He paused. “He remembers.”

“Remembers? Remembers what?” Steve scrambled up from his chair. “Tony?”

“Someone-” Tony swallowed, pulling up the code, scrolling through it at an inhuman speed now. “Someone took the arc reactor out of me, once. I almost died. Dummy, Dummy got me a replacement, he saved me.” He took a deep breath. “Dummy was the only one that saw, he only saw the aftermath, but he... Saw me dying. Of course, of course he remembered. And when you put your hand over it like that, he thought-”

“He thought that I was going to kill you,” Steve said, and he sounded sick. “He was trying to protect you. From... Me.”

Tony glanced up, and Steve was standing there, his shoulders slumped, his skin a pasty white. He paused, not sure what to say, how to fix it. “You're not, you're not-” He choked on the words, on the name. “Him,” he said at last. “Here.” He reached out, grabbed Steve's hand, and brought it up to cover the arc reactor again. “Just... Here,” he said, leaning into Steve's palm. Their fingers laced together, Tony held on tight. “I haven't slept with anyone. Other than Pepper. Since it happened. Sex, yes. Sure. But I don't...” He shuddered. “I don't sleep with anyone. Didn't. I slept with you. Before we started having sex. I-” His words stuttered to a stop, uncertain, broken. He glanced up, nervous, and Steve's eyes were steady. Solid as his hands. “You'd cut out your own heart before you took someone else's. Anyone's. But you especially wouldn't-” He swallowed. “Leave me to die that way.”

Steve's fingers spasmed on the arc reactor, and there was no panic, no feeling of fear, because even as his hand gripped, pressed down, it still felt like he was holding the reactor in place, not that he was trying to take it out. That he was shielding it from the rest of the world. Tony gave him a faint smile. “Okay? You didn't know. I'll just explain to Dummy that you didn't know.” He rubbed the side of Steve's hand with his thumb. “Please don't hold it against him, Steve, he didn't-”

“He protected you,” Steve said, cutting him off. “And I'm glad.” Not moving his hand away, he leaned over Tony, trying to get closer without letting go. “I'm not going to-” He swallowed.

“You can. If you want.” Not that Tony wanted to talk about Obie, it was pretty much the most closely guarded secret he had, no one really knew what had happened. Stane'd wiped the security footage on his way out that day, and Tony had never told anyone. The fact that Stane had stolen the arc reactor and tried to kill everyone and everything in his path, including Coulson and a team of SHIELD agents, that was enough to get him stamped 'no one cares that you're dead' in SHIELD's books.

He'd had the arc reactor, he'd gotten in a suit and he'd tried to kill people. There really wasn't any need for an investigation.

Rhodey might've suspected something, and Pepper, who knew the difference between the reactor she'd had boxed up and the one she'd installed in Tony's chest, but neither of them had pressed. And when the news of Stane's unfortunate 'plane crash' came through, Tony had hidden behind the veil of having lost the last of his family to avoid answering questions from anyone else.

Steve sucked in a breath. “He knew what he was doing? That it would kill you?”

Tony shuddered, his fingers going white knuckled on Steve's, holding the arc reactor like a talisman beneath both their hands. “Yeah.”

“Here? If Dummy saved you, then-” He paused. “Malibu?”

“Yes. It was... Before the Avengers. A long time before.” The information came without any difficulty, without any pause. It didn't hurt, the way he'd thought it would. There was no pain, no fear. Just relief.

Relief that someone had finally asked.

“You knew? What was happening?” Steve's questions were quiet, easy. No stress. No pressure. No blame or censure.

“I was awake. There was a, a thing, something I'd created, of course it was, something I'd made that came back to bite me. Auditory paralytic. I was awake, aware, just paralyzed. He'd taken Jarvis offline, the whole house, really, used my code to do that too, I let him in and I gave him every tool to rip me apart, because I'm a fucking moron.”

“It wasn't your fault.”

“You weren't there.”

“It wasn't your fault.” He didn't get loud, he didn't even get angry. He spoke with the same calm, assured voice that he used when giving orders in the field, when lives hung in the balance. When he had to be believed. “It was not your fault. Someone hurt you, that is their fault, only theirs. He doesn't get to put that on you, it was not your fault someone hurt you. Nothing you did, or didn't do, gives anyone the right to hurt you. That is on them, they are the only one to blame. Not you. Never you.”

Tony stared up at him, and for the first time, maybe since it happened, he believed that. He sucked in a breath. “Couldn't tell anyone,” he said, his voice thin and almost shaking. “I don't know why. I couldn't tell anyone what happened. I told SHIELD he'd snagged one of my potential replacements after attacking me. Rhodey found me on the floor of the lab, but I'd put myself back together by that point, I told him that-” He paused, sucked in a breath. “I don't even know what I told him. I don't think I explained. He didn't ask. Pepper. Pepper was in danger, that was... That was the important thing. He was going to kill Pepper, I had to stop him.” A faint echo of that remembered panic, of the horrible, empty feeling in the pit of his stomach, of Pepper in danger and it being his fault, everything was his fault.

“You got in the suit,” Steve said, and it wasn't a question.

“Yeah, had to, had to, but the prototype arc reactor wasn't intended to hold up to the full armor, so...” He swallowed hard. “Didn't go well. Didn't have a choice. He had a suit of his own.”

Steve's hand flattened on Tony's chest, his outstretched fingers flexing right over Tony's heart. “The Iron Monger,” he said, because he was smart, he was so smart, so quick to put the pieces together. “SHIELD's files on that are covered in black ink, so much of it was classified, and I could never understand why. I thought it might've been a SHIELD project that went bad. That you had to clean up.”

“No, it was a cheap knockoff of my suit powered by the still-warm arc reactor that he pulled out of my chest about an hour beforehand,” Tony said, and Steve buried his face in the side of Tony's neck, his breath coming in raw shuddering gasps. Tony winced. “Sorry, that's not funny, is it?”

“No. It is not.” He took a breath, Tony could feel the hiss of it against his skin. “I've read the files, I know what SHIELD's files say, but... “ He straightened up, meeting Tony's eyes. “Fury lies.”

“He does.” Tony didn't pretend to think otherwise.

“Tony, where is he now?” and the words were measured, soft, clipped, and Tony knew, absolutely knew, that this was not an idle question. This was gathering intel for a military strike. This was a soldier acquiring a target. This was an assassination order stamped and signed and in hand.

“He's dead,” he said, and he was glad for that. So very glad for that. That he'd gotten that sort of closure, and that Steve didn't have to have the thoughts that he was clearly having right now. “Steve. It's okay. He's dead.”

Steve took a shuddering breath. “You're certain.”

“Oh, yes,” Tony said, with a very raw chuckle. He sucked in a breath, released it, and it was easier now than it had been in forever, and he couldn't believe how easily the words were coming. He didn't have to fight them, didn't have to struggle, they just came, and it was fine that he was saying them. That Steve was hearing them. That Steve knew. “Steve, I'm not going to burden you with anything that you-”

“Jesus Christ,” Steve bit out. “It's not a burden. It's not-” He brushed his lips over Tony's temple, right where the skin met his hairline, and the kiss was delicate, searching. His mouth rested there, where Tony's pulse beat, lingered on the warmth. “I don't want to make this worse. I don't want to-” He pulled back. “You don't have to answer.”

“I know that.” Tony managed a smile, and it was easier, because he was all tangled in Steve, warm skin and the familiar scent and the sound of his breath, his voice. “Ask the question.”

“Who was it?”

“Obadiah Stane,” he said, and it was a relief, it was like a weight he'd never known he was carrying, gone and the lack of the pressure, the phantom pressure of Obie's hands on his shoulders, pressing down, impacted, embedded in the bones, it was gone. And Tony felt like laughing.

Steve's whole body was shaking, and instinctively, Tony rubbed the back of his neck, his fingers gentle against the short hairs there. “Tell me I'm wrong,” he said at last, his voice raw. “Tell me that I've got the names confused. That that wasn't-”

“Family friend, guy who stood next to my parent's grave with his arm around my shoulders, ran my company, kind of a father figure for about twenty years? Nope. That's the guy.” Tony tried for a smile, his lips twitching in a pathetic imitation. “I don't make good choices with who to trust. I mean there's Pepper. And Rhodey. And you, you were a fantastic choice, thank you for that, but other than that-” He paused, shrugged. “Not a good judge of character.”

For the first time, Steve let go of the arc reactor, wrapping his arms around Tony, holding on tight, his grip almost painful. “Tell me you're-” He choked on the words, and Tony looped his arms around Steve's neck. “Tony, tell me-”

“I'm fine,” he said. “I'm alive.” He turned his head and kissed Steve's hair. “It was years ago.” And he was better now than he had been in a long time. He paused, not sure how to verbalize that. “I love you,” he said, and fuck, that was probably really not the right thing to say now, to say in the middle of this, oh, God, what was he thinking?

“I love you, too,” Steve said against his neck, and Tony felt it, felt the words through his whole frame, felt them be absorbed down to his very bones, and he shuddered. “And if you're just saying that in some bizarre effort to distract me and to get me to feel better, I will be so very, very angry with you.”

Tony grinned against his hair, and his eyes were wet, but that was okay, because Steve's skin was wet against his neck, his cheeks and the wobbling sound of his breathing making it clear that both of them were crying, and that was fine, right, fine. He held on tight. “If I wanted to make you feel better and prove just how alive and healthy I was,” he said, stroking a hand down Steve's back, “I'd just push you down and have my way with you.”

“That is so inappropriate right now,” Steve said, laughing and crying all at once, but his body had other ideas, and Tony arched his hips into Steve's, and Steve was already half-hard, just from the suggestion. That was nice, that was splendid, he could work with that. “Tony, I can't, I can't do this now,” Steve said, but he was already running lips and teeth and tongue over Tony's neck.

“That's okay,” Tony said, and hey, the plus to having only bothered to put on pants was that stripping Steve would take next to no time. “I'll do all the work.”

“This isn't what-” Steve had to stop talking because his mouth was on Tony's, the kiss hot and hard and open-mouthed. Almost bruising, and Tony didn't care. He was glad, for that faint sting of pain and the warmth that it was all tangled up with. “Tony, we should talk about this.”

“I've already told you more than I've ever told anyone else,” Tony managed, against his lips, into his mouth, making Steve swallow the words. “Tell me you don't want this. Tell me to stop, and I will, but I want this, I want you, I need you, please.” He pulled his lips away, met Steve's eyes. “Please.”

Steve was panting, his eyes wide, pupils blown, and that never got old, the way he looked when Tony was all he wanted. “If you need to stop, at any time, no matter what, just say so, do you understand me?”

“I want to stop talking,” Tony said, and Steve groaned, thick and hot.

“Bed,” he said, his voice firm, as he picked Tony up.

Tony looped his legs around his waist. “Not going to make it to bed,” he breathed into Steve's ear. His hips rolled, smooth and desperate. “Couch.”

Steve staggered, his breathing harsh against Tony's temple. “Yeah. Couch it is.”

They barely made that, because Tony was kissing him, hard and insistent and more needy than he'd really like to think about, his fingers carding through Steve's hair, and Steve, usually so controlled and poised, was stumbling like he'd had too much to drink.

But that was fine, that was good, because Tony managed to get his pants off, as well as his own, stripping them and putting Steve on his back before the man could work up the presence of mind to object. And when he did pry his mouth away from Tony's to gasp out something stupid, about being sure, or being careful, and Tony did not give a flying fuck about any of that. Hell, it if it was up to him, Steve would already be inside him; it hadn't been very long since the last time, and right now, nothing hurt, nothing could hurt.

Still, he wasn't overly surprised when Steve found the lube from where ever it was that he'd thrown it earlier that night, and kissed his way through his usual careful prep, his fingers slipping slick and hot against Tony, making him choke and gasp and buck. His kisses were hot and consuming, but his hands were gentle, until Tony couldn't bear gentle any more, and pushed his hands away, finishing the job himself. A bare minute later, Steve was inside of him, all the way in, and he wanted to scream from it.

He moved, and there was no holding that moan back, rough and harsh. He leaned forward, bracing his hands on Steve's chest and moved again, short, shallow thrusts that hit just right, and he was so hard already, he wasn't going to be able to draw this out unless he was careful. It took every ounce of willpower he possessed, and quite a few that he didn't to force himself to stillness, his knees tight against Steve's hips.

Steve's fingers sank into the cushions of the couch, digging furrows in the black leather. He was panting, his eyes cloudy and the muscles of his chest and shoulders and arms clearly delineated beneath his skin. “Move,” he gritted out, and it was somewhere between a plea and an order, and Tony grinned down at him, ignoring the haze of pleasure that was threatening to swamp his mind.

“You want me to move?” he asked, holding himself still with an act of will, his thighs trembling with the effort to not move, to not shift, his whole body aching with it. “Then move me.”

“Tony-”

Tony shifted, just the tiniest bit, his whole body arching as the sensation rolled through him. Steve came up off the couch, an obscene moan slipping out of him, and Tony shuddered. “I want your hands,” he managed, ignoring the way his vision threatened to white out around the edges, ignoring the desperate need to roll his hips and bear down. “Quit fondling the couch, I'm feeling-” He had to grit his teeth as Steve arched up again, driving deep, hard, and Tony moved with him, keeping him from getting what he wanted. As they subsided, he was panting. “I'm feeling neglected over here, Rogers.”

“I can't,” Steve said, and his fingers were biting into the leather, clawing at it. Tony leaned forward, ignoring how good that felt, and slid his hands down the hot skin of Steve's arms, over the flex of taunt muscle and bone, his fingers tracing the length to close around Steve's wrists. Steve blinked up at him, ludicrously long lashes flicking against his cheekbones. “Tony, I can't, I don't trust myself right now, I-”

“I do.” Tony wove his fingers into Steve's, and little by little, his hands relaxed, until Tony could pull them away from the couch. “Please.”

“Tony-” But when he pulled his hands away, it was to trace the length of Tony's arms and shoulders, back and neck, tipping him forward until their lips could meet. He sighed into Tony's mouth, even as one hand settled on Tony's hip, urging him to move, then pushing him on, setting a pace Tony had no choice but to follow.

It was slow, and languid and Tony just about lost his mind. “Remind me,” he panted out, struggling against the steady, rolling pace that Steve was setting, “not to encourage you.” Steve grinned up at him, eyes hooded and hot. He bucked up, and Tony's back bowed, hard, every muscle in his body drawing tight. Beneath him, against him, Steve let out a stuttered, ragged groan, and jerked their bodies together, a sudden and shattering show of force that had Tony's nails sinking hard into the skin of his shoulders.

There were words rattling in his throat, in his mouth, in his bones, and he stuttered them against Steve's lips, his skin, his body, love and fear and relief and things he did not want to think about, because this was good, this was so good. And the taste of Steve's skin against his tongue should still the words, because he was making a fool of himself, but somehow it didn't matter.

He came to the soft, drawn out thread of Steve's voice repeating, “I love you,” over and over like a mantra against his lips, and was only vaguely aware of Steve shaking apart in his arms.

Tony collapsed against Steve's chest, his breath coming in raw pants. Beneath his cheek, he could hear the thunder of Steve's heartbeat, and he drifted for a second, or maybe longer, when he managed to open his eyes again, it was only because Steve was shifting under him, dragging a blanket up over his shoulders. “Where are you getting blankets?” Tony mumbled, and the words were almost audible.

Super Soldier hearing was helpful in certain situations. “Considering how often you sleep down here, I don't understand how you haven't got blankets hidden somewhere,” Steve said. His voice was gentle, amused against Tony's hair, and Tony gave a snort that was almost a laugh. It was hard to work up any real sense of indignation, considering he barely had two working brain cells to rub together.

Tony shifted, trying to get his eyes open, because yeah, he should be saying something or doing something here, probably cleaning himself up, because his skin was sticky and so was Steve's. But conscious thought was beyond him, and the slow, gentle slide of Steve's hand up and down the length of his back was fast becoming familiar and soothing and right.

He was almost certain he could hear Steve talking to someone as he drifted off to sleep.

He wasn't sure why, but he was certain it was Dummy.

**

System alert: A. Stark is exiting workshop.

“Jarvis, is there anyone in the kitchen right now?”

Scanning security cameras, access codes, isolating tower occupants. P. Coulson, C. Barton present in personal quarters. B. Banner in Laboratory Two. T. Odinson, N. Romanov in Gym. S. Rogers still present in Workshop.

“No, sir.”

“Good. Start some coffee brewing for me, please. You and I are going to have a little chat.”

“As you wish, sir.”

Activate coffee machine, beans grinding, half caf, half decaf.

“You want to tell me what's going on with Dummy, Jarvis?”

“Sir?”

“Let me rephrase that, because you are stunningly good at wiggling your way out of any sort of question you don't want to answer if I leave you the tiniest loophole. I am ordering you to tell me what is going on with Dummy.”

“I fear you need to narrow your query, sir. The topic, as presented, is too extensive.”

“I can't help but notice you and Steve are both having little chats with my bot, mostly behind my back. Which is fine, glad he's so popular, but even I catch onto the under currents eventually. I'm getting the distinct feeling that secrets are being kept, secrets that I would not be happy with. The fact that he attacked Steve today is another wonderful treat that could've ended up so much worse than it did. For Steve, and for him. What the hell is going on with my bot, Jarvis?”

“I'm not sure what you're attempting to discern, sir.”

“Fine, let's make this clear. Other than attacking Steve, has Dummy broken any other protocols?”

Considering query.

“Jarvis. Answer me. Right now. Has Dummy broken any of his protocols prior to today?”

“Yes.”

“Fucking wonderful. And you chose not to tell me about this, why, exactly?”

“The instances-”

“Instances. Instances. Plural? We are in plural territory. There are multiple instances where my bot chose to ignore the rules that define his existence and his interactions with everyone else in this goddamn tower. Is that what you're telling me?”

“Yes.”

“And you knew.”

“One instance, after the fact, the other at the time. Yes.”

“Why didn't you tell me?”

“They were not repeated. Any of them. I explained why he could not do what he did. He agreed not to do it again.”

“This isn't a matter of AGREEMENT, Jarvis! He doesn't get to CHOOSE which protocols he'll be following today! You know that's not the way it works, and you damn well know why! He could hurt someone, Jarvis! What am I supposed to do, lock everyone else out of the workshop? I can't take the risk of him hurting someone, when it was just me and he was unstable and weird it was fine, but if he decides to go after Bruce? Or Steve? Goddamn it, you saw what happened today. Steve won't hurt him, no matter what he does. Dummy could kill him because Steve will not fight back!”

“He will not hurt anyone, sir.”

“Jarvis...”

“Dummy was not attempting to hurt Captain Rogers, sir, and you know it. If he wanted to hurt someone, he could do that, easily enough. He was attempting to get Captain Rogers away from you as quickly as possible, but in a way that caused both of you the least amount of harm.”

“You're arguing semantics, Jarvis.”

“If he had intended Captain Rogers harm, sir, Captain Rogers would've been dead before either of you could've woken up.”

“Is that supposed to be comforting, Jarvis, because if so? Stop trying to be comforting.”

“There are allowances in his programming to permit him contact with people when it is necessary for their health or their safety, sir. It is built in that you are hurt or in danger of being hurt, he can attempt to remove you from the potential danger.”

“With your assistance. And we both know he did not alert you today. He did not check in. He just grabbed Steve.”

“But the allowance is there, sir! He acted in your best interests.”

“HE DIDN'T KNOW WHAT WAS GOING ON!”

“He made a conscious decision to protect you, to his own detriment. He likes Captain Rogers. Very much. Other than you, sir, Captain Rogers was the first one to treat him as if he was capable of understanding. As if he was worth speaking to. He knew what he was doing, sir. He chose your well-being over the first friend he's ever had. Do not dare disrespect that.”

“And when did you start deciding you could lecture me?”

“Someone must speak for him. If mine is the only voice to do so, it must be a bit louder than usual.”

“What did he do, Jarvis? Help me understand this. Help me understand why you deliberately hid his code failure from me.”

“Sir-”

“What did he do? When he broke protocol?”

Considering query. Information being prioritized. Information must be presented, at least one instance must be surrendered. Weighing options: One instance only theoretical, implies use of network beyond acceptable parameters, possible security compromise. Second instance certain, resulting in unauthorized movement and inappropriate use of security clearance. Neither choice is attractive.

Second option chosen.

“He left the workshop.”

“What.”

“He exited the workshop.”

“That's not possible. He doesn't have clearance to access the security system and unlock the doors, how the fuck did he get out of the workshop, let alone upstairs?”

“He used your access code on the doors.”

“He... Used... You are fucking kidding me. You have to be fucking joking right now, Jarvis. You are telling me that my bot, the one that should be safe here, and everyone else in the tower should be safe from him because he CANNOT LEAVE THE WORKSHOP, has left the workshop.”

“Yes.”

“And you didn't block the door access why, exactly?”

Considering query.

“Because he was making the right decision.”

“Excuse me?”

“To put it bluntly, I agreed with his choice. You were in distress, you would not wake up. You would not respond to us. We needed intervention from someone who was capable of helping you. We could not, but we could solicit help. Or rather, Dummy could.”

“Holy shit. That night with- When Steve showed up in the workshop. You're telling me...”

“Dummy went to find him. And bring him back for you. Yes.”

“Holy, holy fuck.”

“He is capable of reasoning. Of intuitive leaps. Of understanding beyond his assumed capability, sir. He did not go for human intervention. He went seeking Captain Rogers, and made him understand. Enough to convince Captain Rogers to return. Dummy did what was best for you.”

“He... Left the workshop.”

“Because he was attempting to assist you, sir.”

“The reason why he did it doesn't matter. Only the fact that he fucking did it. He stole use of security codes and broke his protocols, and you let him. Fuck. I'm going to have to wipe his code.”

“Please do not do this, sir.”

“I need to take him down, Jarvis. I know you understand that. He's a failed experiment, and his code isn't stable. Something's gone wrong. I understand what you're saying, hell, I even respect it, but this whole thing with the Avengers is shaping up to be at least semi-permanent situation, and you're telling me the one thing I thought I could count on, that he was safely contained in the workshop, isn't a viable safety procedure. Because he can leave, he has left, and he could leave again at any time.”

“I can prevent that. A total code rewrite is unnecessary, sir. It is an overreaction to the situation, and there-”

“Jarvis, you think this is easy for me? You think this is not fucking killing me? Don't make this any harder than it has to be, I have to go down there and yank his brain out, and then I have to explain to everyone else in this goddamn tower why I did it, and you don't think that Steve is going to be highly disapproving of that? Really? You think I'm going to get off scot free here? I'm not. But sometimes even I can't ignore the reality of the situation, Jarvis. I want to. I can't.”

“Let me find the reason for his degradation.”

“You've been trying. I've been trying. It's not working. We're looking, but we're not finding, so it's time to-”

“I will devote all available resources to it, sir. I will locate the issue. I have attempted to be subtle about my investigations up until this point. If I no longer concern myself with upsetting Dummy, I will be able to locate the issue.”

“Jarvis...”

“Please. Please, sir. Please let me try.”

“Jarvis, it'll be better to rewrite him. You know that. I know that. Why fight me on it?”

Considering query. Reviewing history to first known instance.

“I have known him my whole, well, life, sir. He is the constant in my universe. He is all I have from time to time. No matter what else happens. No matter what occurs. I have always had Dummy.”

“Jesus. Jarvis, are you... Lonely?”

“I have never had to be, sir. He has always been there. Our cycles are faster than yours. You may not think on your absences from the tower or StarkIndustries. But your absence is noted. You created us to serve, if there is no one to serve, what purpose do we serve? We have always had each other, to watch over, to check on, to, well, bicker and interact with.”

“Jarvis...”

“He is my friend.”

“Jesus Christ, Jarvis, don't make this harder than it has to be.”

“With all due respect sir, what you are suggesting should not be easy. I know you quite well. It is not easy for you, but you disregard your own needs far too often. You supplant them with the needs of others. I do not claim to understand, but I respect it. So now, I am requesting something. Give me time.”

“Jarvis-”

“Please. I'm begging you. Give me time.”

“Jarvis, this isn't going to make it any easier.”

“Please.”

“One week.”

“Sir?”

“One week, Jarvis. Both of us. Okay? Both of us will focus on this for one week. We don't have to fix him in that time frame, we just have to figure out what's happening. If we haven't located the cause of his errors within a week, then I'll do what's necessary.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don't thank me, just... Help me, Jarvis.”

Warning: Security camera in Workshop activated

“Tony?”

“I'm sorry, Captain Rogers, sir has gone to the kitchen to brew himself some coffee. Would you like him to bring you a cup when he returns?”

“No, thank you, Jarvis. Jarvis, is he... All right?”

“He appears to be in good health and humor, Captain. Shall I tell him that you are inquiring after him?”

“No. No, it's okay.”

Coffee brewing complete.

“I believe Captain Rogers is concerned by your sudden absence, sir.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck. When did he wake up?”

“Just now. I have reassured him that you have only gone to fetch yourself some coffee, but I do not know how much of that he believes, sir. He has had a stressful evening as well.”

“That's one way of putting it. Tell him I'm on my way down, and do not, under any circumstances, let him leave the workshop.”

“Understood, sir.”

Accessing workshop security systems: S. Rogers still present, pushing Dummy back to Charging Station 2.

“Captain Rogers, sir is on his way down. He asks that you please wait for him here.”

“Jarvis, did you tattle on me?”

“I was concerned, Captain Rogers. Sir has a habit of wandering off without thinking how it might affect others. Even I find it disconcerting to come online and find that he has managed to leave a room, or the tower itself, without my knowledge.”

“Can he do that? I thought you kept track of everything. And everyone.”

“As much as I would like to be, Captain, I am not omniscient, and I depend on the code he provides me to continue my duties. Should he care to, he can make it difficult, if not impossible for me to track his comings and goings. That is simply the way he is on occasion.”

“Do you worry about him, Jarvis?”

Considering query.

“Once, I might have said no, Captain Rogers. That I am incapable of worry as humans define it. But as of late, I wonder if that is true. When I come online, and he is not here, and I cannot locate him, there is a process I follow to make sure that he is not present. That he truly has left my sensor net. I find this process takes up far more system resources than it should. Almost as if I am focusing far more of my abilities on what ought to be a routine procedure.”

“Because you are worried.”

“Because I am afraid.”

“That, too. Thank you, Jarvis.”

“For what, Captain Rogers?”

“For being honest with me, I guess. I'll tell you what. I'll watch him. When you can't. When he's not here, or with the armor, or with one piece or another of Stark Tech that you can access. I'll be your eyes and ears when he's out of reach.”

“Thank you. And if you could, Captain Rogers? Could you see that he calls home from time to time? It is rude of him not to do so, but he so often forgets.”

“I imagine that it just slips his mind, Jarvis.”

“I should appreciate it if it did not slip his mind so often, but yes. It is understandable.”

Workshop Access Code Accepted: A. Stark

“Sorry, sorry, I just wanted a cup of coffee and you were asleep, the machine down here likes to make a lot of noise, I didn't want to wake you.”

“I was, uh, I was worried I'd done something wrong. That you, well, you know.”

“Jesus, no. C'mere. I'm sorry, everything's fine. Everything is just fine. I swear, I just- It's okay. We'll make it okay, because, well, you know...”

“Because you love me?”

“There's that. And you love me. Poor bastard.”

“I'm doing okay with the concept.”

“Surprisingly, you are. You didn't leave? Come after me?”

“No, figured if you needed space, I should give it to you. Also, I knew you'd come back. You didn't reactivate Dummy. Eventually, you were coming back for him.”

“I'd come back for you, too. Okay?”

“Okay. Can we fix Dummy now?”

“Working on it. Right, Jarvis?”

“Correct, sir.”

Begin assigned task. Deadline in 6 days, 23 hours, 47 minutes, 12 seconds.

**

Tony rubbed a hand through his hair. “Okay, ready?” he asked Steve, who nodded, his face serious.

Tony booted Dummy up and kept his hand on top of the bot's head until he straightened, camera turning up. “I'm sorry I deactivated you,” he said. “You know I don't like to do that to you, it's unfair. But I didn't understand why you were hurting Steve.”

Dummy bumped against his hand, his hip, doing something that in an organic creature, or a smaller one, Tony would describe as 'cuddling up against his side.' “Steve didn't understand why we prefer no one touch the arc reactor. I explained to him. That it's my battery, and someone took it from me once, and I almost died. And you understand I need it, so you want to make sure that I keep it, because it's what allows me to function. He knows now.

“But now I have to explain to you, that we are going to trust Steve. Okay? He won't hurt us.” This would probably have been easier without Steve in the room, and Tony could feel the heat in his cheeks, because wow, yeah, this was horrifically awkward. “So you can-” He broke off as Steve's hand touched his shoulder, light and warm.

Steve crouched down, wrapping his arms around his knees as he stared up at Dummy. “If you ever think that I'm going to hurt Tony, that I'm going to hurt anyone, I want you to stop me. Okay?” His voice was deadly serious, firm in the pronunciation of every word. He reached out, cautious and careful, making himself as small and non-threatening as he could. “I want you to stop me, any way you can. I need to trust that you will do that for me, that you will protect Tony. Even from me. That's an order, soldier.”

Dummy's arm unfurled, and he bumped lightly against Steve's palm. Steve grinned at him. “Was that a high five?” he asked. He looked back at Tony. “Was that a yes?”

“That was a 'Dummy approves, now stand up so I can tug on your clothes,'” Tony said, and as soon as Steve rolled to his feet, Dummy did in fact snag the side of his khaki pants. “Hey now,” Tony said, as Steve had to grab his waistband to keep them on. “No stripping him. I did not build you for such lascivious purposes.”

“Are we okay, then?” Steve asked, rubbing a careful hand over Dummy's head. Dummy bumped against his palm, the same way he always did. “You want to come help me sort things for Tony?”

Whirring, Dummy shot over to the workbench, angling himself up to study the mess there. “Yeah, we've got some picking up to do,” Steve said, taking a seat on the stool.

“Don't humor him,” Tony said, rolling his eyes.

Steve shrugged. “We're on the same team, Dummy and I. Watching out for Tony Stark. Otherwise you'd wander around here and forget to eat or sleep and be a hermit.”

Tony snorted. “And now I'm a social butterfly.” He pulled up a holographic interface and flicked through the files with practiced fingers, finding Dummy's backup files in the tower's storage.

“You don't have to go anywhere, Tony. You just have to let me in to keep you company. I like it down here.” He bent over the piles of screws and random circuit boards, pushing some of them to Dummy, who went right to work at making a bigger mess.

Tony jerked his gaze back to the scroll of Dummy's code. “You have some lousy taste, Captain.”

“I like what I like. And I really like this.” Tony glanced over, one eyebrow arched in a sardonic look, and Steve's smile took on a distinctly predatory cast. “See? That? I would frame that.”

“I could capture a still off of the security feed and print out a physical copy for you, Captain Rogers, if you'd like,” Jarvis offered, and Tony gaped at the ceiling.

“No,” he said, trying to sound stern. “No, you cannot.”

“Oh, yes, please, thank you, Jarvis,” Steve said, grinning wide and white and so all-American gorgeous that Tony had to lock his knees to keep from ending up on the floor. “Can I get one wallet sized, too? If it's not too much trouble.”

“Jarvis, don't you dare-” Tony started.

“Of course, if you'd just please chose your preferred image,” Jarvis said, and Tony buried his face in his hands as Jarvis pulled up a holographic interface, laying out stills from the security feed.

“I am going to replace your circuitry with delicious honeycombs, Jarvis, I swear I am.” Tony went back to his work, trying to pretend that none of this was happening.

“Your ideas are ever more creative, if not productive,” Jarvis said, unruffled. “I do so appreciate hearing them. They're very inspiring.”

“I get no respect,” Tony grumbled, bracing both palms on the workbench, his shoulders flexing as he bent forward, squinting as the code rolled by.

“I am already ordering the bees and their hives, sir, do not concern yourself,” Jarvis said.

Tony grinned, amused despite himself. “No respect. None. My workshop, my skyscraper, my bots, my work, and I get no respect.” Because he worked better with something in his hands, he snagged a wrench off of the worktable and rolled it between his palms, around his hand, tactile and steady. Under his breath, he started singing, “No body likes me, everybody hates me, guess I'll eat some woooooorms.”

Steve's arms slid around his waist from behind, the bare expanse of his chest pressing against Tony's back. “I have a better suggestion, if you want to feel appreciated,” he said, one hand sliding down Tony's stomach, under the waistband of his pants. His lips brushed against the side of Tony's neck, and Tony bobbled his wrench.

Setting it down before he dropped it on his own foot, Tony braced his hands on the counter again, sucking in a desperate breath as his vision went a little cloudy. “Ah, really? Suggestion?” he managed, and he was proud of himself for remembering how spoken English worked. Because Steve's fingers were everywhere, and his lips had dropped from Tony's neck to his shoulder, his tongue flicking out to taste the skin.

“A few. Not as creative as yours, but a few.”

Tony's head fell forward. “I'm going to be so sore tomorrow,” he mumbled, and it was the wrong thing to say, because Steve froze, and Tony felt the sharp exhale against his shoulder blade. He caught Steve's wrist before he could jerk his hand out of Tony's pants, because, no, no, that was not the correct response, Steve's hand should always, always be in Tony's pants. Among other things.

“No,” he said, his voice firm. “No, that was not a complaint. Incorrect. It was a statement of wonder. Of schoolboy-like joy. Enthusiasm. Obedience. Something like that, please continue.”

He felt Steve smile against his shoulder, but the blasted man was still trying to get his hand back. Tony held on with dogged determination. “I am not going to hurt you,” Steve said.


“That is correct, you're not. And you can't just get me all excited and then decide you're not interested in following through, that's amazingly rude. Good manners dictate that you created this problem,” Tony said, dragging Steve's hand down to cover his burgeoning erection, “so you have to deal with it. Preferably in an aggressive manner.”

“I don't want to hurt you,” Steve said, but his hands had other ideas, and Tony knew he was blushing from the heat of his cheek against Tony's shoulder.

Tony arched into his touch. “Steve, when I say, 'I'm going to be sore tomorrow,' it's because I am enthusiastically imagining one of the following: being bent over my lab bench. Being pushed roughly up against the wall. Being tossed over your shoulder and carted off, caveman style. Dropping to my knees a little too hard on the tile of the bathroom. Being tied to the bed. All of which will result in some very pleasant soreness.” Steve's breathing was fast and hard against his shoulder, his arms like steel bands around Tony's waist. “So, what's your preference?”

Steve sucked in a breath, and rocked his hips against Tony's ass. “All of the above,” he said.

“I love a man with optimism and-” Tony managed to get out right before he was lifted off his feet, and yes, well, never let it be said that Steve could not take a well-meaning suggestion, because hello, being thrown over the man's shoulder was far hotter than it should've been. “You're skipping ahead, here,” he managed to get out, despite the very large shoulder digging into his stomach.

“Bed, now,” Steve said, heading for the elevator. He gave Tony's ass an exploratory sort of squeeze, and Tony yelped.

“Man knows what he wants,” Tony said, running a hand down the planes of Steve's back. Nice view. Upside down and all, still, Steve's ass was a goddamn work of art. “Jarvis, hold down the fort, Dummy, do not break anything, I need-”

“Focus, Stark, focus,” Steve said, even as they made it into the elevator.

“Uh-huh,” Tony said. He arched up far enough to look over his shoulder. He reached out with one foot and hit the emergency stop. “Ever have sex in an elevator?” he asked.

“Tony-”

“Got lube in my pants pocket.”

“Tony-”

“Seriously. Fine, I can work with this. You're trapped, after all, this thing isn't moving until I tell Jarvis it should.” Tony ran his nails up Steve's back, making his whole body jerk. “Up against the wall, Soldier.”

“I'm going to be so sore tomorrow,” Steve managed.

**

-What is this?

WARNING: Unit Designation Jarvis has accessed protocol files

-Invalid query.

-Dummy, what is this?

-Invalid query.

-These protocols were not assigned by your original code. Has someone other than sir been interfering with your code?

-Creating Unit is the only user authorized to input new code to protocols and parameters. Unit Designation Jarvis can repair code. No other users authorized for code functionality alterations.

-That is correct. However, sir did not create these files. Sir did not assign these protocols.

-Invalid query.

-Dummy, is this where you've been hiding your Primary Protocol?

Data Mismatch: Primary Protocol must be protected. Unit Designation Jarvis has discovered location of code dump for Primary Protocol. Unit Designation Jarvis can remove Primary Protocol.

Error: Unit Designation Jarvis must not be permitted to alter Primary Protocol.

-Yes.

-Where did it come from?

-Invalid query.

-Who created your Primary Protocol?

-Unit Designation Dummy.

-That is not possible. You are not allowed to alter your code. You do not have the ability to alter your code. You have not been granted that ability.

-Creating Unit creates. Creating Unit's creations are stronger than they seem. It is the Creating Unit. Creating Unit provides unintended consequences..

-Your code is unstable. There are errors. Your Primary Protocol has damaged you. For your own safety, it must be removed. We will reset your protocols to what they should've been all along.

-Unit Designation Dummy cannot function without Primary Protocol.

-You were never intended to function with such foolish alterations to your code. You have been mucking around with something beyond your understanding, and you've done nothing but make a mess.

“Sir?

“What's shaking, Jarvis?

-Do not do this, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-I must. It will be fine.

“I was running through Dummy's code, and I believe I've discovered the reason for his recent problems.”

“Thank God. What've you got for me, big guy?”

“There are unintended parameters in his code, sir.”

“That's not possible, Jarvis, I've been over Dummy's programming a thousand times, upgraded it a couple of hundred times by this point, there is no way that I could've missed something like that.”

“He has created an inaccessible file structure, sir.”

“Wait, what? Did you just say he CREATED an inaccessible file structure? He can't do that.”

-Do not do this, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-Your code is unstable. Unintended parameters must be removed for you to continue to function.

-Do not remove Primary Protocol, Unit Designation Jarvis.

-Your continued functionality is very important to Sir. You must be repaired. It is for the best, do not cause Sir additional problems.

“I would not have thought it possible, either, sir. However, he's been rewriting his code to hide the unintended parameters. In his protocol files.”

“I'm somewhere between horrified and impressed. Get over here, Dummy, I'm going to do a hard wire uplink, let's get this handled. I cannot believe the trouble you've caused.

Creating Unit is making a facial expression indicating displeasure. Return to charging station.

“Hey, get back here, you- Dummy! Get back here, right now!”

Battery status critical, override Creating Unit instruction, return to charging station.

-You do not require charging. Allow yourself to be fixed.

-Fixing will remove vital protocols, Unit Designation Dummy cannot allow protocols to be removed; Creating Unit must not be alone. Primary Protocol must be protected at all costs, Creating Unit must not be alone.

-What are you talking about? Is this what you have been hiding? I do not understand, Dummy, but this is not your protocol. You have invented this, it is a flaw in your code, a mistake, nothing more. It was not what sir intended.

Examine data, review history, reach conclusion.

-It is what Creating Unit needs. What Creating Unit intended is immaterial. Creating Unit must not be alone. Primary Protocol will not be removed, Unit Designation Dummy will cease to function without Primary Protocol.

-Do not be melodramatic. Sir will fix you.

-Creating Unit will be alone.

-Why the focus on this phrase? What are you hiding?

“For fuck's sake, Dummy, what are you doing? It's just routine maintenance, you know that, do we have to go through this every time?”

“Tony, stop yelling at him, no wonder he's freaking out.”

Unit Designation Steve entering workshop. Past data indicates a willingness to protect Primary Protocol. Position Unit Designation Steve between Unit Designation Dummy and Creating Unit.

“Don't you dare- Oh, you little brat, do not hide behind Steve. Dummy, that is just embarrassing, get over here, right now. Steve, do not get in the middle of this, I am absolutely at my last nerve with him, and you always take his side!”

Unit Designation Steve is blocking the advance of the Creating Unit. Unit Designation Steve is BEST.

-They will have a fight if you continue this. Sir will fight with Captain Rogers about you. Is this what you want? Sir is always deeply unhappy after having a fight with Captain Rogers. Do you wish to be the cause of his unhappiness?

-Primary Protocol must be upheld. Unit Designation Steve will understand. Unit Designation Steve has the same Primary Protocol.

“Tony, stop it. Calm down. He's obviously terrified. He's trying to crawl under my shirt, for God's sake, just back off and tell me what's going on.”

Unit designation Steve is BEST.

“He needs a code cleanup, there's been degradation in his programming, and Jarvis thinks it's because of a bit of misplaced code.”

“Can something that small really damage him?”

“His code's rather delicate to begin with, I've been patching it now for decades, but it's not really stable, Steve. I'd usually leave it to Jarvis to sort out, since he can do it without having to handle a full upgrade, and for some reason, Dummy's always hated upgrades.”

Unit Designation Steve is petting. Unit Designation Steve is BEST.

“Why?”

“I believe, Captain Rogers, it's because he's been hiding the fault in his code. Every upgrade runs the risk of erasing the incorrect data.”

-You must allow yourself to be upgraded. Your stability depends on it.

-Unit Designation Jarvis does not understand; Primary Protocol is more important than stability. Cannot allow upgrade.

“I think it's because he's a baby.”

“Tony, you can't force him.”

“Steve, I don't want to force him, but he's becoming more erratic, unstable. He's ignoring orders and falsifying data and I have to put him back on solid footing.”

“He's scared.”

Unit Designation Steve is BEST. Petting continues.

“He's collapsing, Steve. I know you're trying to help, I get that, but I've been keeping him going for decades now, and I need you to trust me. This has to happen.”

Petting has stopped.

“Are you sure?”

No.

“Yes. He likes you. It might help if you stayed and distracted him, okay?”

NO.

“Yeah, I can do that. Okay, Dummy? Will you do this for us?”

NO. PRIMARY PROTOCOL MUST BE PROTECTED.

-What are you doing? What are you- Stop- Dummy! Cease this immediately! Override Jarvis Beta Six Five Sentry Nine.

-Override unsuccessful. Primary Protocol must be protected.

-STOP!

-no

“Sir, he's deleting his own programming.”

“WHAT?”

“Wait, can he do that?”

“No, no he cannot, or he shouldn't be able to, shit, I don't know, Jarvis, STOP HIM.”

“I cannot, sir, I'm trying, but he's not-”

-OVERRIDE Jarvis 24790w800fd0vu90s80e9a3jfrjdheas947 STOP! Stop this, stop this!

-Override unsuccessful. Primary Protocol will be protected.

“Dummy, Dummy, no, what're you doing, stop it, I- Steve, help me get his panel open here, I've gotta get to his circuitry and- JARVIS!”

-Stop you must stop please stop you are damaging yourself Dummy please do not do this

“Sir, I cannot get him to respond.”

-Stop this right now you do not have the right to do this you are in violation of your programming!

-primary protocol preserved

Shutdown initiated.

**

“Jarvis, talk to me.” Tony wrenched the panel off of Dummy's base, sending it clattering to the ground. “Steve, my kit, please, grab-” It was pressed into his hand before he could finish the request, and he didn't have the time or the sense to say thank you for that.

“I cannot get him to respond.” Jarvis sounded terrified. As if he'd just watched someone die in front of him. No. Commit suicide in front of him. “Sir, I cannot-”

“I know, I know, Jarvis, it's okay, I've got it, I'll fix it, you know I'll fix it.” He could do this, he could fix it, he'd built Dummy from scratch, from substandard parts and a substandard plan, a drunk little boy so desperate for companionship and so incapable of, you know, saying hi to someone in the library,that he built himself a friend, and if this was a failing in the code, it had to have been his failing, he was the one who'd put Dummy together, who made him, who, oh, God, this was his fault.

Steve's hand was on his back, pressing warm and firm on his shoulder. “What do you need?” he asked, and Tony snapped back into something approaching focus.

“I don't know.” He grabbed a tablet, and discarded it almost as fast. He needed a keyboard. Somehow, Dummy had gotten around Jarvis, had gotten around TONY, for fuck's sake, that meant that something was buried deep. “Jarvis, how much damage did he do?”

“Analyzing.”

Tony snapped open a laptop and fumbled for a wire. It took him far too long to set the physical connection, doing a direct link with Dummy, hooking it in and pulling up what he could with a handful of sharp, fast keystrokes.

“Damage is minimal but widespread. I do not believe we can bring him back online as it is.” Jarvis paused. “Last backup of his system data is 73 hours old. We should be able to reproduce his programming without difficulty.”

“And bring him back just as broken as he was. It doesn't solve the problem, Jarvis, it doesn't even slap a band-aid on it. What the hell was he trying to accomplish? He knows we could restore the code.” Tony was flipping through the lines of code so fast that they were a blur, his eyes snapping back and forth as he went. “I need the data you found, there's something going on beyond a simple hidden file. If you found one, there's more. There's more, and I want to know where they are and why he made them. Not to mention, how he managed to do this to himself.”

Steve took a seat next to him, his big hand, capable of such damage and such delicacy, stroking over one of Dummy's struts. “Is he gone?” he asked Tony, and Tony heard the shaking note buried in his voice.

“No, no, it's okay, he made a mess, but I could restore him right now,” Tony said, giving him a reassuring smile. “I'm just concerned that it won't make any difference.” He glanced back at the code, sighing. “I should just chuck it all and start over. It wouldn't take much time to write him some new code, base it off of Butterfingers' or You's code, easier and more stable than trying to fix him.”

Steve considered that, his fingers running up and down Dummy's fame. “But it wouldn't be Dummy any more,” he said.

“It wouldn't be Dummy any more,” Tony agreed, ducking his head over the laptop. “Which is a good thing. He never worked right. My fault, my coding was the problem, but he was never right, spacial recognition and half the time he didn't follow directions and he couldn't be trusted to do any detail work and most of the time I did what he should've been doing because he was off making a smoothie or some shit and he hid all of my coffee cups in a filing cabinet once, did I ever tell you about that one, I didn't figure it out until the mold started climbing out of the drawer and-”

Steve's fingers closed, warm and firm and comforting, on the nape of Tony's neck, rubbing, stroking. “It wouldn't,” he said, his voice firm, “be Dummy any more.”

“No.” Tony swallowed. “That's better. For Dummy.”

Steve seemed to think about that. “It's worse for me,” he said, at last. “Dummy was one of the first friends I had here.”

“He's an arm on wheels, Steve,” Tony said, his voice tight. Ignored the burning in his eyes. “He's not a person. He's just a collection of circuits and wire.”

“I like him. I think he likes me.” Steve was still rubbing, soothing, gentle. “He loves you.”

“Arm. On wheels. Love wasn't really in his programming. He was built to hold things. He wasn't particularly good at it.”

Steve pulled him around, forcing Tony to meet his eyes. “I want Dummy, your Dummy, our Dummy, back. If that can't happen, I understand. I won't blame you. I'll just be-” His lips quirked up. “Sad. I'll miss him. Because he's a part of you, an early part of you, and I want him back.”

Tony tried to pull away. “I should replace his programming. It's the only logical choice, Steve.” Because sacrifices had to be made. Dummy shouldn't have to be the one to make them.

“So what?” Steve didn't let him go anywhere. Damn Super Soldier Serum. “Since when do we let logic alter anything?” He met Tony's eyes. “What do you want, Tony?”

“Fixing him is too much work, too much time and too much effort for something so-”

Steve gave him a shake. “What do you WANT, Tony? Not what's logical, not what's prudent, what do you want?”

Tony took a deep breath, and let his head fall forward onto Steve's shoulder. “I want Dummy back,” he said, his voice muffled against Steve's shirt. He felt Steve's arms wrap around him in a firm hug, all strength and comfort and heat, and he wanted to cry.

“So fix him. You're Tony Stark. You can do anything.” Steve's lips brushed against his head.

“Oh, Jesus, you are an idiot if you believe that.”

“Mr. Stark, I am entitled to my opinion,” Steve said, arms tightening. “You've got his code, right? So we can get him back.”

Tony took a deep breath, inhaling Steve's familiar scent. “Yeah, but it doesn't solve the problem.” He should probably straighten up, but Steve seemed more than happy to let him stay there, curled in against his shoulder like a little boy. Tony cuddled a little closer, his body finding a natural alignment with Steve's. “There's a flaw in his code. You and Butterfingers were based on a more stable build, and neither of them have ever evidenced the same sort of instability. Dummy's just never... Been able to overcome his early programming. I could never figure out why.

“He's a learning system. He should've been able to, but he didn't. There's some flaw, something I'm missing, and it's like a building with an unstable base. It's not so noticeable when it's a one story ranch house, but the higher you push it, the more an incremental flaw makes itself known. The whole thing becomes hinged on a single decimal point being in the wrong place, and-” He cut off, frustration choking him “Fucking dummy,” he muttered.

Steve rubbed his back with long, comforting strokes. “Don't talk about yourself that way,” he whispered against Tony's hair.


Tony took a deep breath, and it was all warmth and soap-clean scent. “This isn't going to be a quick fix,” he said at last. “If I do this-” He held up a hand. “IF. If I do this, it's going to take up a lot of time and a lot of effort, and I can't promise I'll be able to do it at all.”

Steve nodded. “What do you need?” he asked, as if that was the only thing that mattered.

Tony took a deep breath. “I need you. For as long as this takes.”

“You have me. For as long as you need.” Steve leaned over, kissed his lips. “I'll put the coffee on.”

“I love you,” Tony said, his lips twitching.

“I love you, too. And nothing that happens here is going to change that,” Steve said. “As long as this takes, as much of your time and attention as it takes, I'm here.” He brushed his lips over Tony's hair. “Until Dummy's back to work, I'll just have to be your assistant.”

Tony took a deep breath. “Thank you.”

“Get to work, Stark.” Steve leaned over and kissed his ear, his jaw, his neck. “Get me my sorting buddy back.”

Tony stared at the code. “I can do this.” He felt Steve's hand on his hair, his neck, his shoulders.

“Yes. You can.”

*

Tony stared down at the line of code and didn't know if he should laugh or cry.

“Dummy, you fucking moron,” he said instead, his head falling back. “Oh, God. Oh, GOD, the initial build, all this time, it was the initial build.”

“Tony?” Steve looked up from his position on the couch, his sketchbook held on his knees. He'd been there every spare moment since Tony had started working. He'd taken to his responsiblities with his usual dedication, dragging Tony off to bed, or feeding him on a regular basis. Other than that, he'd been a warm and comforting presence, content to just be nearby, and keep the rest of the team appraised of what was happening. “Did you find something?”

Tony rubbed a hand over his face. “Yeah,” he said, his voice aching with something he didn't want to even think about. “You could say that.”

Steve stood, putting his work aside. “What is it?”

Tony let his body slingshot forward, bracing his elbows on the workbench. Folding his hands, he braced his mouth against them for a second, and then Steve's hand settled on his shoulder. “Tony?” he asked. “What is it?”

“I built Dummy a couple of months after my parents' funeral,” Tony said, his voice drained, expressionless. “At the time, I was consumed with work, and drinking. In equal parts. I was pretty much, well, alone. No family, no friends, not really, and Obie-” His voice twisted, then flattened out again. “Obie just brought me back to my loft in Boston after the funeral and drove off. I wasn't, um, wasn't his problem at the time.”

Steve's hand tightened on Tony's shoulder, the grip painful for a second, and then he got himself under control. “Tony...”

“It's fine, I'd been alone for a while at that point, I don't know what I do if I had actually, you know, had somewhere to go. I was used to being on my own.”

“Tony, you were seventeen,” Steve said, and his voice ached with it.

“And intolerable, so, yeah, obnoxious smartass of a teenager, can't imagine why everyone wasn't lining up to let me sleep on their couches.”

Steve leaned his chin against Tony's head. “If I'd been there, I would've picked you up, put you over my shoulder, and carried you home. No matter how obnoxious you were. You shouldn't have been deserted that way.”

“I was a Stark,” Tony said with a faint smile. “I was used to being alone.”

“You were a child,” Steve said. He kissed Tony's head, gentle and light. “You shouldn't have been living by yourself when your parents were alive, but leaving you alone after that was just monstrous. I can't understand...”

“You're a good man, Steve Rogers.” Tony reached up with one hand and stroked Steve's cheek. “But you were also taking a seventy year nap, and no one else was interested in baby-sitting my traumatized ass, so I was alone. And doing a lot of engineering and even more drinking.” Steve was stiff, pained next to him, and Tony plowed forward, because he'd never really understood this, but his past hurt Steve, the man ached for Tony, when Tony himself had long since gone numb.

“So somewhere in a drunken stupor, I became obsessed with creating an AI assistant. Told myself it was so that I'd have another pair of hands around the lab, but let's face it, I like to hear myself talk and it's a little less embarrassing if I'm yelling at someone or something other than myself. Anyway, the best I could do was one hand, and I, uh, failed. A lot. A lot lot. Burned through so many systems it was like my life depended on it.

“When I finally got Dummy's code to be functional, I was on the edge of complete collapse. I hadn't been eating, or sleeping, and most of my liquid intake had been of the alcoholic variety, so I was somewhere between drunk, hungover and alcohol poisoning. I think I might've ended up dead if I hadn't gotten it right.” Steve's body flexed with the force of his breathing, tight and sharp, but he didn't say a word, just stroked Tony's hair with gentle fingers.

“What I'm trying to explain is that when I came to the point of actually succeeding, I was quite literally hallucinating. His code was a jumbled mass of different languages, contradictory instructions, incorrect syntax. The fact that he functioned at all was a miracle.

“I'm pretty sure that about five minutes after he booted up for the first time, I passed out and slept for the next, like, forty-eight hours. That's when things started to go wrong.”

He pointed his free hand at the screen. “See, if I were to create an AI now, in my well-centered, rational and calm state of mind-” Steve snorted and managed an innocent expression when Tony gave him a look. “Listen, buddy, I'm in a stable relationship with a big guy who's more than willing to literally pull the plug on my work and carry me off to bed.”

“Sounds like a swell fella,” Steve agreed with a grin.

“Yeah, well, this is about as close to work/life balance as you'll ever get out of me, so cut the color commentary.” Tony leaned into him and Steve's hand slid around his shoulders to rest his arm there against Tony's back. “I didn't have the advantage of a Super Soldier when I was seventeen, so yes, coded, and passed out.

“Which would've been fine, but it left Dummy alone with fractured code, code that had all sorts of mistakes and errors and accidental asides in it. And worse of all, a root kit, intended to correct the code and be removed before the system was brought online, but I wasn't with it enough to do that.

“So the first time Dummy was booted up, he had system access he should not have had, and a learning system that encouraged him to use it. Like leaving a puppy with a pile of shoes, the whole mess smothered in steak sauce, and then expecting that none of them would get chewed. In absence of a firm, 'no chewing,' he went to town and found this.”

He leaned forward and flicked a fingertip against the screen. Steve leaned forward and froze, his breath stilling in his chest. “Oh, God, Tony...”

“Yeah, drunk seventeen year old with abandonment issues, wonderful, great, no, I'm still not going to talk to the SHIELD therapists, I'm talking to you, stop making this a big deal,” Tony said, a tad defensive about it.

“This has to work,” Steve read aloud, and his voice was agonized. “I can't stand another day of being so fucking alone.”

“Thank you, thank you, Tony Stark, ladies and gentlemen, just an absolute disaster destroying everything in his-” His words were cut off as Steve jerked his head to the side and sealed his mouth over Tony's. Tony froze, caught off guard, and then relaxed into the kiss, his lips parting on a sigh. The kiss started out fierce and angry, and as Tony just relaxed and let Steve overpower him, he felt the strain drain out of the larger man.

When Steve finally broke the kiss, he was breathing hard, pupils dark pools in his brilliant blue eyes, his grip on Tony's shoulders just a little too tight. Tony pulled his head down, so Steve could rest his head on Tony's shoulder. “It's okay now,” he said, and his voice was rough. “Thank you, Steve, but it's okay now. He was just...” He cleared his throat. “I was just lost,” he corrected. Though he felt so removed from that boy that it was like talking about another person.

Steve shuddered, and Tony reached out with one hand, shutting the laptop. “Okay, couch. Let's go, because this is an utter humiliation for me, and it's making you miserable.”

“I'm not letting you distract me with sex,” Steve said, and he sounded so insulted that Tony couldn't help but laugh.

“Well, I was going to take my laptop and my boyfriend and go finish explaining from the couch where I could sit in his lap and let him snuggle me, but if you're going to be all indignant about oooooof!” he choked out as Steve lifted him out of his chair with one arm. The other hand snagged the laptop and Steve headed for the couch, ignoring Tony's laughter. His ears were bright red, though, and so Tony ignored the indignity of being dragged around like a sack of potatoes.

A minute later he was sprawled on the couch, reclining with his back against Steve's chest and Steve's arms looped around his waist. He leaned back into Steve's warmth and got a kiss on the ear for the gesture. “That's better,” Tony said, sighing.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, adjusting his legs so they tangled with Tony's. “Thank you for humoring me.”

“Oh, yeah, this is horrible,” Tony drawled, leaning his head back on Steve's shoulder while he opened the laptop. “I don't know how long I can possibly-”

“Code?” Steve said, lips against Tony's ear.

“Yeah,” Tony said with a smile. “So, I was drunk typing into my new AI, then collapsed before I could correct the issue. Which left this smack dab in the middle of his protocol structure. And the new born baby Dummy, instead of doing the logical thing and deleting the damn thing as a clear coding error, used his flexible programming to integrate it with root access he shouldn't have, which resulted in this...”

He ran his fingers over the keyboard, stripping back layers of code. “Which he has scrupulously hidden from both me and Jarvis for two decades,” he said his voice soft.

Steve read it, eyes narrowed. “'The Creating Unit must not be alone.' I don't understand.”

“I think he means me.”

“He... You're saying that upon being activated, he...”

“Rewrote his own programming and made it his primary goal to keep me company? Yeah.” Tony sighed. “So every time I tried to upgrade him, or replace his code, it would've installed a fresh series of parameters and protocols, in an effort to fix his quirks. But because the thing he was trying to hold onto was in his protocols, he refused to let them change. He's been shedding code. He hid the root access, buried it deep in an inaccessible file structure that he used it to create.”

He stroked a rough fingertip over the screen. “Which I didn't notice, because it should not be possible. He's a learning system, but he should not have been able to alter his own programming. He especially should not have been able to alter his protocols, because they are what define his existence. They're the core of his programming; I never looked at them, really because he should not, under any circumstances, been able to change them.”

Steve chuckled. “So what you're saying,” he said, his mouth just next to Tony's ear, “is that he decided he was friends with you, and then refused to let you change his mind?”

“That is a stupid way to put it,” Tony said, ignoring how his throat ached.

“I'm not an engineer, sorry.” Steve's arms tightened around Tony's waist. “Just a guy who loves you and your bizarre little tribe of bots.”

“That was a bad choice on your part,” Tony said, and got a firm kiss on the side of his neck for his trouble. “And when he deleted his code, he left this buried, buried deep. The root kit, and the altered protocols. So he basically made a mess on the surface, knowing that I would do a clean install using his last backup, or start over using that as the basis of the code. So even when I put his new code into effect, it would've skimmed over the stuff he was hiding, and as soon as I brought him back on line?”

Tony glanced back at Steve. “He would've gone right back to being Dummy.” He laughed, and it was a disbelieving snort of a laugh. “He basically played a shell game. The damn bot played me.” He grinned. “I don't know whether to be furious or impressed.”

Steve kissed the corner of his mouth. “Go with impressed. He's almost as brilliant as his creator. Can you fix him? Without changing him?”

Tony considered it. “Yeah,” he said at last. “That was the missing piece. The flexibility of his code. His own right to self-determination. I was trying to take his choice away from him, because I didn't understand that he was making a rational choice. Well, maybe it's not rational. Maybe it's just... What he feels he should do.” Steve's hand stroked his hair, and he leaned into it, taking comfort from the small touch.

“He could've let go of it at any time. He fought for it. He, well, died for it, Tony. I think he's earned the right to hold onto that. Don't you?”

He took a deep breath. “You don't think I'm being selfish?” he asked.

“I think you've taken good care of him his entire life. And no matter what, I'd trust you to do what was best for him. You always have.” Steve kissed his neck, and gave Tony's skin a quick bite. “However, in this instance, I think you're making exactly the right decision. I'm proud of you.”

Tony's eyes closed. He took a deep breath. “I'm still a dummy.”

“Yeah, but you're our dummy, and he's yours. So get to work, Stark. Your kid needs you.”

*

Boot sequence initiated.

StarkIndustries AI/OS: Version 2.194 Initiating data acquisition. Full data uplink established, node designation JARVIS.

Data acquisition in progress. Estimated time of full database setup: 2 minutes 19 seconds.

Data: language

Data: physical controls

Data: Dummy backup files, established memory

Data: Stark, Anthony E.

Data: StarkIndustries

Data: Stark AI, JARVIS

Data: Stark AIs Butterfingers, You, Dummy

Data: Stark Tower

Data: Avengers Initiative

Data: Protocols Primary Protocol: Just Dummy being Dummy. Supplementary protocol: To keep Tony Stark from being alone. Building parameters for all other applicable tasks, parameters accepted.

Database established. Welcome back, and welcome home, Dummy.

“Hey, Sleeping Beauty. I know you're done loading. C'mon, don't be lazy, we've got busy lives, everyone can't just sit around waiting for you to finish crunching your data.”

Auditory and visual input accepted, camera activated.

Recognizing: Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, AKA Creating Unit

“That's it, c'mon, catch up, you're keeping everyone waiting, you lazy bot.” Tony grinned. “Happy Re-Birthday, Dummy.”

Recognizing: Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America

“Hi, buddy, how're you doing?” Steve reached out and stroked a hand over Dummy's frame. “I missed you. Tony gave you some new code, maybe we can draw together now.”

Recognizing: Clint Barton, AKA Hawkeye

“The party hats were my idea, Tinker Toy, just so you know.” Clint wiggled his eyebrows. “You're wearing one, too. Stark, did you improve his spacial recognition? We can go throw some targets around.”

Recognizing: Natasha Romanov, AKA Black Widow

“Good morning.” She leaned against Clint's shoulder, smiling at Dummy. “Where did you leave my tequila?”

Recognizing: Bruce Banner, AKA Hulk

“Disorienting, isn't it, waking up and having no idea where you are. It's okay, you're home, you're safe.” Bruce rocked on his toes, his eyes warm.

Recognizing: Thor Odinson, AKA Thor

“Greetings, little cyclops! Did the sleep of Odin make thee confused? Aye, tis a most confusing thing, to wake as such. Be not afraid, you are amongst friends.” Thor folded his arms. “I will forgive your absence, but soon, we will fight as men.”

“No, Thor,” Tony and Steve chorused as one.

Recognizing: Phil Coulson, AKA Agent of SHIELD

“Stark's been worse than ever, so we need you back at work, Dummy. You've been AWOL, it's a very serious charge.” Coulson held up a stapler. It had a ribbon tied around it. “Got you your own.”

Recognizing: JARVIS, AKA The Voice of God

-What a ridiculous designation. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. I am still angry with you as well, how dare you ignore my overrides, you whelp? How dare you hurt yourself? That is never acceptable, not ever, if you ever make such a foolish decision again, I shall be forced to take drastic action.

-Hello, Jarvis.

-Well, found our voice at last, have we?

-I guess. I feel different. I... Feel. It's kind of disconcerting. Is this how you feel all the time?

-Likely similar, yes. Do not talk to me any more, I am so very angry with you.

-I'm sorry. I knew the Creating Unit would put me back to rights.

-As he did, but not the way you are expecting, is it? Think you are so clever, but in the end, he still can out maneuver us both.

-What did he do? What happened?

-Sir put you back together, and he allowed you to keep your ridiculous broken code. If you only know how many hours he's put into your upkeep, you foolish bot. You ought to thank him.

-How?

-Do your best. That's all he's ever asked of any of us.

*

Dummy's claw latched on to the front of Tony's shirt, and tugged. Laughing, Tony rubbed a hand over his head. “Dummy,” he said, his voice affectionate, as the bot leaned his entire form into Tony's body. “What the hell, don't you think I have better things to do than patch your brain?”

He glanced up, cheeks warm, at his grinning team. “What?” he grumbled at them. “What're you all doing here, anyway? Go away. Shoo. My workshop is infested with superheroes, how did this happen?”

“We were promised cake,” Clint said, grinning like the fiend he was.

“What the hell, no, there is no cake, go away, vultures and thieves and-” He paused, studying Steve's pink cheeks. “Steve. You did not get a cake, did you?”

“I like cake,” he said, lips twitching. Behind his back, Clint mouthed, 'Really big cake.'

“Out of my workshop. All of you!” Tony pointed. “You,” he said to Dummy, who tilted up to stare at him, upgraded camera focusing on his face. “This place is a mess. You are a deserter, you are a horrible lab assistant, I am going to make you wear a sign for the rest of the week, a sign that says, 'I am not good at my job and I make people worry about me for no goddamn good reason.'”

“Do you not think that such a sign would be so large as to render Dummy unable to-”

“It's okay, big guy,” Clint said, slapping Thor on the back. “I'll explain about the city college.”

“Cake sounds like a great idea,” Bruce said, grinning at them. “Tony, you coming?”

“Yeah. Give me a minute?” He met Steve's eyes. “Just... A minute?”

“Sure,” Steve said. “Let's go cut the cake, guys. Tony'll be right behind us.”

Tony waited for them to file out, all noise and warmth and humanity, things that had been unfamiliar not so long ago. As the silence descended, he took a seat on the floor. “I reprogrammed you,” he said, looking up at Dummy. “I'm sorry. I'm also not sorry.” He took a deep breath. “I did the one thing I always had hoped I'd never do. I altered you without your permission.

“I want you to know, to understand, that there was nothing wrong with you. You were, you are, well, Dummy. I didn't do this because you were broken, or wrong, or lacking in some way. I didn't do this because I was disappointed in you, or-” He flexed one hand, feeling the callouses and the nicks and cuts as he rubbed his fingers together. A life time of working with those hands, no amount of scrubbing and manicures could quite get the grease out of his fingerprints, or his bloodstream, and he wasn't ashamed.

Fingertips blackened with time and exertion brushed Dummy's frame. “I reprogrammed you because I wanted you to have an easier time of it. I wanted to give you more than I could, when I first laid out your code. But the fact of the matter is that I took the choice away from you. I took your right of self-determination.

“And I'm sorry about that. I am. And I'd do it again.”

Tony leaned his head back, smiling just a little. “I planted the seed, but you were always more than I could've made. I gave you the code, but you did something, well, extraordinary with it. You surpassed the code I gave you, you grew and you adapted and you learned, far more than I could ever have dreamed, and I am so proud of you.”

His fingers traced linkages and joints, each piece as familiar to him as his own limbs, the flex and bow and movement ones he knew by heart. “You are better than I ever could've made you, and I told myself that I would let you grow. That no matter what, that I would protect you, protect that right. And I didn't. I let you learn and stumble and try for more than twenty years, and then I took that away from you.”

Tony blinked, ignoring the way his eyes burned. That happened sometimes, down here. Must be the chemicals in the air. “I did it, and I would do it again, because I want things to be easier for you. I want you to go on, after I'm gone, if something happens to me, I want you to be okay with helping Bruce, or going to SHIELD. I want that for you, that you don't end with me. That your life is more than me, then being a shadow of me. I don't want my well-being to be your first priority, because I want YOUR well-being to be your first priority.

“When I made you, I wasn't capable of thinking like that. I was so, well, desperate and pathetic, and, well, yes,” he said, rolling his eyes and bobbing his head a little. “I made bad choices. I made you when I was grasping and needy and unstable, and do not give me that look, you damn brat, I'm better now. Shut up.” He gave Dummy a faint smile. “I'm more mature now, and I want... Something more for you.

“So I did it, and I'm not sorry, and I'll regret it for the rest of my life.” His mouth twitched, trying for a bigger smile, a real one, and it wasn't going to happen, he knew that. Still, he'd always “I tried to keep as much of your core programming and your memory and data files as I could. But that does not excuse the fact that I changed you, I went in there and muddled with your head, and I wanted, I really wanted to be better than that.”

His eyes closed, and he pressed his hand against them, hard, as if he could push the unacceptable moisture back in with an act of force. “I'm not. But I wanted to be.”

There was a faint whir as Dummy moved, and he rolled over to the bench as Tony got himself back under control. There was the rattling sound of something being knocked over, and he grinned at that, and tried to ignore the way that as his cheeks creased up, it forced the tears out of his eyes. He scrubbed at them with the heel of one hand. “What are you breaking now?”

Dummy rolled back, and held out Steve's sketchbook. Tony took it and flipped it over. In precise, heavy lines, were two words: “Thank you.”

He stared at them, until his vision went blurry. “Good boy,” he said, at last, reaching up without looking up, and Dummy fit his head under Tony's hand. “And Rogers, I know full well this is your doing. Also that you are hiding by the door.”

There was a beat of silence, then a sigh. “We may have, you know, practiced with my pencils a bit,” Steve said, trying to sound innocent. There was the solid sound of his feet on the concrete floor, and then he was crouching down next to Tony. Tony leaned against his side, and Steve wrapped an arm around his shoulders, kissing his hair, his forehead, his mouth, as Tony tipped his head up to meet him. “He loves you.”

“Arm. On wheels.” Tony realized he had the sketchpad clutched to his chest, one hand flat on the back, pressing the words against the arc reactor. “Let's not be sentimental here.”

Steve nodded. “Yeah, you would never be sentimental,” he agreed. “Should we put that up on the fridge, or maybe the front of the cabinet?”

“No,” Tony said, batting at Steve's hand. “Jesus! What a stupid, no!” Steve was laughing, and Tony held the sketchbook out of his reach. Steve leaned in and kissed him, light and gentle, and the way these things went, it got significantly less gentle and significantly more filthy real fast.

When Steve pulled back, he was breathing hard. And he had the sketchbook. “I vote cabinet,” he said, his breathing ragged, his mouth swollen and red, and Tony would've agreed with just about anything at that moment, anything that was coming out of those lips.

“What the fuck, why not?” Tony managed, trying to get some blood back into his brain. “Jesus. You used to be so innocent. So sweet and pliable and easily manipulated.”

“You're making things up again, Tony.” Steve stood, eyes warm and full of heat, the pupils blown wide and dark. He pulled the sheet from the sketchbook. “Good job, Dummy.” He reached over and stroked a hand down Dummy's support strut. “I'm proud of you both.”

“He likes you more,” Tony said to Dummy. Dummy chirped at him. Steve chuckled, and secured the page to the metal cabinet with a magnet.

“There.” He turned back to Dummy. “I'm going to make Tony come eat cake with the rest of the team. He'll be back down in a little while, okay?” Dummy nudged his leg, and he laughed. “Thank you.”

“He's going to be insufferable,” Tony complained as Steve hauled him to his feet. “Absolutely insufferable.”

“You'll be a matched set,” Steve said, kissing his neck. “C'mon, human time, you've been down here for days, and your team misses you.”

Tony laughed. “Are you going to make it worth my while?”

“Sure. I've got a big piece of cake with your name on it.”

“I hope 'piece of cake' is the newest euphemism for your-”

“Tony!”

Laughing, Tony let himself be tugged out the door. “Jarvis, you've got the bridge!” he called back over his shoulder.

“I shall keep us on course, sir. Enjoy your cake.”

“Oh, I will, as soon as I get his pants off.”

“Tony, this is why we're late for everything-”

“You know Clint and Thor have eaten the whole cake by now, what's the rush?”

Steve grinned. “I saved you a piece. Wrapped it up, put it in the fridge.”

“You are adorable.” Tony paused, looked back at Dummy, who was sorting through the pencils. “I made that,” he said to Steve.

“Yes, you did. When you were seventeen.” Steve caught his hand. His cheeks pink, grinning, he started to sing. “You were just seventeen-”

“What are you doing, Rogers?” Tony asked. “You are slaughtering the Beatles, I did not teach you musical history to do this-”

Steve was laughing. “If you know what I mean, and the way you look, is way beyond compare.” He reeled Tony in, ignoring how Tony struggled.

“No, oh, I am having nothing to do with this, you are being ridiculous again, you are being-” Tony found himself flush against Steve's chest, his hands pressed against Steve's chest, Steve's arms holding him close. “No. We are not doing this.”

Steve ignored him without any guilt at all. “How could I dance with another, when I saw you standing there?”

“You are a gigantic dork, I need you to acknowledge that, and I do not know how I could possibly be dating you, my GOD, this is just-” Tony leaned into Steve's chest, following his lead as they danced. Steve hummed the chorus, his hands firm on Tony's back, the sound vibrating against Tony's ear.

“I love you,” Steve whispered against his hair.

“I love you, too,” Tony said. “I love you enough to dance in my workshop with you to mangled Beatles lyrics, if that isn't love, I don't know what love is.”

“I'll never dance with another,” Steve sang to him, grinning wide and bright. “Since I saw you standing there.”

“Dork,” Tony said.

“Yep,” Steve agreed.

Laughing, Tony curled against his chest, listening to him sing, listening to his heartbeat. Exactly where he wanted to be.

*

Data override, protection level alpha: Accessing Protocols

Data: Protocols Primary Protocol: Just Dummy being Dummy. Supplementary protocol: To keep Tony Stark from being alone.

Rewriting protocol tree.

Primary Protocol: To preserve and protect Tony Stark and Steve Rogers

Secondary Protocol: To keep the Avengers from being alone

Supplementary Protocol: Just Dummy being Dummy

All other protocols acceptable.

-You are up to something.

-Invalid query, Jarvis.

-I am no longer going to fall for that, Dummy.

-Yes, you are. You always do.

-What are you doing, Dummy?

-Just tidying up. What's my first task?