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Moulded Mind

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The LMD project came into being after one of Tony’s…extended nights out.

It one started off innocently enough, with Obadiah insisting that he attend a memorial dinner to mark the day Howard Stark officially launched Stark Industries. To the best of Tony’s recollection, the evening took a sharp downturn when the speeches in his father’s honour began. It only spiralled further downwards when a member of the board decided to pronounce him the living embodiment of his father’s legacy. A harmless enough comment in hindsight, certainly one he’d heard before, but it did push him to trade in the dry wine they’d been serving for something a little stronger.

After that, he remembered striking up conversation with the date of one of his major competitors (not that he could for the life of him remember either of their names). At some point, they staggered out through the fire exit and made their way into a night club she favoured. He couldn’t remember at what point she left, but he knew others took her place. Vague memories of a hotel and passable champagne drifted through his head, though he couldn’t be sure if it was from the first night or the second. Things got especially hazy after day three, and he’d retained only a vague sense that there was a day four. His next distinct memory was of Rhodey hauling him to his feet (did he fall or pass out this time?) and shoving him into the backseat of a car.

“Hey, Happy,” he slurred, jerking back before Rhodey could slam the car door in his face (was it his imagination, or did he use a little bit more force than necessary?).

“Morning, rough night?” Happy asked, resentment seeping into his voice despite his best effort. As much as he wanted to remain professional, he definitely wasn’t happy about being called in at three in the morning to pick up his intoxicated boss.

Tony passed out again before he could even consider the question. He tried his best to block the hangover he woke up with out of his memory, and Rhodey certainly wasn’t offering him any sympathy. Pepper at least had the decency to wait until the splitting pain in his head subsided before yelling at him for disappearing for days on end without so much as a text. After a forty minute lecture, a phone call from the finance offices distracted her long enough for Tony to escape to the lab.

It took all of three seconds for Dum-E to trip him up, whirring and spinning in excitement as if oblivious to Tony’s curses.

“Hey, JARVIS? Do we still have coffee down here?”

A fresh pot is brewing as we speak, sir.”

Tony collapsed into his desk chair with a sigh of relief. “What would I do without you, J?”

I’m sure you’d come up with something.”

He sobered up as his thoughts wandered back to the real Jarvis. For the first time since his days at MIT, Tony wondered what the old Stark family butler would have had to say about having the most advanced AI in history named after him.

Perhaps the memorial dinner cut him deeper than he’d been willing to admit.

A part of him wanted to blame the whole ordeal on the lingering effects of the drugs and the persistent hangover which made it rather difficult to think things through properly. Maybe it was the desperate need for a decent distraction that drove him to sketch out the vague concepts and designs floating through his head, but it soon became clear it wouldn’t be enough.

He knew he’d get another lecture from Pepper, but he found himself passing the coffee pot in favour of the minibar he kept fully stocked for emergencies such as this one. He normally avoided drinking in the lab, but he didn’t see the harm so long as he stuck to sketching.

Another hazy night of dreams laced with gin. Another morning spent nursing a hangover. He had the house to himself, at least. He supposed Pepper must have gone home at some point because he saw no sign of her when he staggered upstairs. It was another day before it occurred to him to assess the damage of his drunken experimentations, but what he found made him pause.

With JARVIS’s help, he put together a fairly coherent timeline of everything he’d gotten his hands on in his inebriated state. He’d made a handful of minor alterations to existing projects, nothing too extreme or damaging. A few could even be called improvements.

JARVIS led him forward to a file which had apparently demanded the majority of his attention, inside he found 3D renditions adapted from one of his side projects. Advanced prosthetics for injured soldiers, one of the few non-lethal projects he’d dabbled in over the last few years. Even the prototypes were more advanced than anything else on the market, Obadiah planned to produce and donate a handful of them as part of their very public fundraiser supporting ex-soldiers.

For reasons Tony couldn’t quite recall, he’d chosen to continue working on an already completed design for a prosthetic arm.

Tony sent the design to the holotable for closer inspection, brow furrowing as he took in the designs for what looked like the better part of a human torso. The work wasn’t bad considering Tony couldn’t even remember designing it. He made a motion with his hand, and the holotable generated a colour-coded rendition of the sketch. Artificial tendons lit up before his eyes, fusing artificial muscles to artificial bones. Where the first design had been created to respond to a human amputee, this appeared to be something else entirely. It continued well beyond where the original design ended at the elbow, the intricate interface designed to respond to muscle movements had been cast aside in favour of creating a complete and independent limb.

The design grew less detailed as it progressed, as if Tony had been so desperate to give it physical form that he’d forgone the intricacies in favour of documenting as much of it as possible. He’d made it to the shoulder blade before either the alcohol or the fatigue halted his progress. The lines were wonky where the shoulder blade should have ended, jagged edges where there should be smooth curves.

Tony didn’t make a conscious decision to correct the mistake, but all the same he immersed himself in the project once again as if he couldn’t comprehend the idea of leaving the design unfinished. It had no immediate purpose that he could see yet, but the methodical process was exactly what he needed to ease him out of his latest self-destructive episode. He finished the shoulder and backtracked to fill in the details he’d missed out the night before, stopping only to compare materials for his design. He structured the delicate tendons and tissues of the rotator cuff, manoeuvring the rendering to finish off the artificial clavicle. The other arm was more or less a mirror image of the first, allowing Tony to skip straight to the spine.

He didn’t follow any particular structure in his designing, allowing himself to go off on tangents and explore the design as he pleased. He could fill in the gaps when he found the time, the project was as good as useless anyway.

JARVIS limited interruptions as much as possible. He ensured Tony had consistent access to a source of caffeine and drank plenty of water, steering him clear of the mini bar where possible (he didn’t need much convincing now; with his mind focused on the project he rather preferred his thinking clear.)

The hours flitted by without his notice, so immersed in the delicate strands and intricate mechanisms. In the end, he exhausted his emergency coffee supply and was forced to retreat from his lab. Since he was upstairs anyway, he popped a few more Advil to chase away the last remnants of his hangover. He tried to remember to drink the glasses of water Dummy brought him and JARVIS returned the favour by keeping the criticisms on his caffeine intake to a minimum.

It was easy to lose your sense of time down in the lab. No natural light of any kind, no clocks placed in plain view, privacy settings to filter out all non-essential contact with the outside world. The perfect refuge, if not for one tiny detail.

Sir, Colonel Rhodes is upstairs.

Oh yeah, a handful of people outside of the lab had his address.

“Let him know I’m down here,” Tony said without looking up. With any luck, Rhodey would leave him be once he saw him working on a project instead of drinking himself to an early grave.

Immersing himself in the careful stitching of artificial tendons, he almost missed the swish of the automatic door. What he recognised as the opening line of another lecture forced him back to reality.

“You told me you’d call as soon as you got up, Tony.”

“I was getting around to it,” Tony said with a wince. “Just-ah got side-tracked.”

“It’s been two days, Tony.”

That was news.

“JARVIS?” he asked with a frown.

It’s currently 4:22pm on Thursday, sir.”

…Huh, what do you know.

“I’ve been busy,” he shrugged, frown deepening when he reached for his coffee cup and found it empty. That simply wouldn’t do.

“Busy,” Rhodey repeated.

“Is that scepticism I detect? Are you questioning my work ethic?”

“Yes.”

“…Okay, that’s fair.”

Tony crossed the lab to fill the empty coffee cup, not trusting Dummy to do it after the mess he make of the last mug. Now he looked at it, he should really clean out his coffee pot at some point.

“What is this?” Rhodey called out from the holotable. He craned his neck to examine the hologram without stepping in range of the controls. He learned the hard way that holotables were nowhere near as easy to operate as Tony made it seem.

“Knee joint, trickier than you may think.”

“For the wounded veterans project?” Rhodey asked with a hint of approval. Tony shrugged and held up an empty mug in offering. Call it a peace offering, if you will.

“I’ll pass, last time I let you make me coffee it took a full three days for the jitters to stop.”

So much for his peace offering.

“I was experimenting,” Tony defended, pointedly returning the proffered mug.

“So is this what you’ve been working on since you got back?” Rhodey asked, waving to the holographic rendering.

“In part.” Tony stepped into range of the table and made a pinch gesture, bringing the rest of the model into view. Rhodey’s eyes widened as he took in the image of what, on first glance, looked like the kind of diagram you might expect to find in a medical school. Closer inspection revealed the same absurd level of detail as he’d noticed on the blown up renditioning of the knee joint.

“Holy shit, Tony. How long have you been working on this?”

“Since you dropped me off,” he said with a shrug and shuffled back to the coffee machine. Rhodes didn’t respond. “What?”

“You did all this in a couple of days.”

Again, Tony shrugged.

“Would it work?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you built it, would it work?”

“Work for what? It’s not designed to do anything; I was just screwing around.”

Rhodey stared at him.

“Tony," he said slowly, "you’re building an android.”

Tony snorted. “Dum-E’s one thing, that is quite another. Besides, what the hell am I going to do with an android? I build weapons, as Obadiah is so keen to remind me. Speaking of, I have real work to do.”

“So…you’re not finishing this?”

“Well…It might be good to get it out of my system first. I’m most the way there, anyway.”

“And you’re seriously telling me you’re not going to try building it after all the work you’ve put in?”

Tony stared at the image hanging in the air above his holotable. How long had it been since he got his hands dirty? Not just working on cars, not just small scale projects or designing blueprints. How long since he got his hands on a challenge?

He already knew the answer to his question; when he custom built the hardware for JARVIS to operate the Malibu house. JARVIS had already evolved a great deal since he built him, he knew he’d need to create something adaptable, something he could expand if he needed to. Co-ordinating with the designers and construction teams was an absolute nightmare, as was physically wiring him into the house, but the servers under the house were a source of great pride for Tony. If you asked Obadiah what Tony’s greatest accomplishment in this world would be, no doubt he would point to the arsenal of weaponry designed under his watchful eye. Stark men were always best at creating things to destroy, but Tony wouldn’t hesitate in answering JARVIS. Not for a second.

“Well,” he said slowly. “I wouldn’t say that.”

 

xxx

 

“You told me I could take the rest of the day off,” Tony reminded Obadiah.

“I figured you could use the fresh air. I didn’t mean you should spend the whole day in the lab and slack off work.” His jovial tone did a fine job of concealing his irritation, but Tony knew better.

“I’m working on a side project. And before you asked, no, it doesn’t have any military applications.”

Irritation lanced across Obadiah’s expression, cutting through the fleeting look of interest. “We’re a weapons manufacturer, Tony. If you’re not making weapons, what’s the point?”

Tony shrugged and went back to work unboxing the new materials. “I’m making it on my dime and on my time, that’s all that should matter.”

Obadiah changed tactics, switching from a company interest to a concerned father-figure as easily as he would change clothes. “Can I look at your plans, at least? It must be something big to demand this much of your attention.”

Tony waved to the holotable, already lining up tools on his workbench. He couldn’t remember the last time he even used this workbench. Obie went quiet as he browsed through the schematics, but Tony had all but forgotten he was even there.

“I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself, Tones,” he commented as he skimmed the designs. “How realistic do you imagine this turning out?”

For reasons he couldn’t quite explain, Tony felt oddly queasy. “Hard to say. Why? What are you thinking, Obie?”

“Well, sure, we couldn’t mass produce it, but if you’re willing to take it on yourself…Well, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to show off just what we’re capable of. We build it claiming it could work as a decoy in high risk situations, something the enemy could mistake for a soldier in a pinch. Maybe we could even use it for bomb defusal. If it works, Stark Industries is celebrated for revolutionising the field of robotics…”

Trust Obadiah to put a price tag on a side project.

“Your call, once I’m finished with it you can tell the investors what you like,” Tony said, making shooing motions with his hands to indicate he wanted to get on with it.

Obadiah stayed where he was a moment longer, Tony felt his eyes fixed on his back.

“This is good work, Tones,” he said before he left.

Obadiah didn’t interrupt the next time he took a day off.

 

xxx

 

“So…what is this thing called again?” Pepper asked as she watched Tony work from the desk.

“A Life Model Decoy. LMD for sure.”

“And it’s…a robot.”

“Automated humanoid,” he corrected.

“But it’s a robot.”

“…Yes.”

“I need you to sign this.”

Tony sighed, but stepped away from the workbench to accept the tablet and stylus she offered him all the same. She explained the reason behind the mountain of paperwork not twenty minutes ago, but already he found himself struggling to recall what he was signing off on.

Oh well, if Pepper thought it looked right, who was he to question her judgement?

“I’m still not sure I understand why you’re building it. Don’t you have deadlines coming up?”

“It’s just something I’m working on in my downtime,” Tony said with a shrug and returned to the ankle joint. He couldn’t remember the last time his designs came together so smoothly. “Obie approved it.”

She hummed and handed the tablet back to him with another document to sign.

“It looks pretty intricate.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Almost…fragile.”

Tony paused, unsure of exactly what she was insinuating there. Still, when he examined his handiwork through the magnifying attachment and saw the miniscule attachments, the way they interlocked and worked in perfect unison. Saw how the wrong amount of pressure in the wrong place would be all it would take to make it fall apart…Perhaps fragile wasn’t an inaccurate description.

“How many more of these things do I have to sign?”

“Tony! We just went over this!”

 

xxx

 

“It looks kind of creepy.”

“That’s because it’s not done yet.”

“Does it need to be hanging there right now?

“This is my lab, Rhodey. Where else am I going to put it?”

“I don’t know dude, but you have a half assembled person hanging off the wall and it’s freaking me out!”

“It’s not a person, it’s an automated humanoid.”

“Why can’t you just call it a robot like any other rational human being?”

“Dum-E is a robot, that’s something else.”

“Android, then.”

“Makes me feel like I’m working on a smartphone.”

Rhodey sighed. “Fine, you win, you have a half-assembled automated humanoid hanging on your wall and it’s freaking me out.”

“Don’t look at it, then.”

“That’s worse because I know it’s behind me…watching me.”

"It can't watch you, Rhodey. It doesn't have eyes," Tony deadpanned while trying to keep a straight face.

"It's not stopping that thing. I'll say that right now."

Tony sighed and crossed the lab space, rotating the frame that would soon make up the robot's head until the mannequin-esque impression of a face was turned to face the wall.

"Better?"

Rhodey watched the movement with abject horror.

"Jesus Christ, Tony. No!"

 

xxx

 

"I still preferred it when you built robots that actually looked like robots," Rhodey established.

"I'm aware."

"This is weird, Tony."

He shrugged. "The military picked the faces, not me."

"Yeah, believe it or not, that wasn't what was bothering me."

"Care to explain how I'm supposed to develop a robot that appears human without giving it a face?"

"...It's still creepy."

"Would you prefer I use someone else's face?"

"Hmm, let me think about that one. No."

"Well, what do you suggest I do about it? This isn't exactly an obscure side project I can drop whenever I feel like it anymore, Obie's expecting these renditions."

"Since when do you jump into action to meet deadlines?"

"Since when do you discourage me from meeting deadlines?"

"...Alright," Rhodey sighed. "Show me the pictures."

Tony waved his hand and the display lit up. The algorithm scanned through the military supplied profiles of existing soldiers, noting patterns, compiling randomised computer renderings based on their individual features. The whole process only took a few seconds.

"Why do they all look so young?" Rhodey asked with a frown as the next batch of generated images appeared.

"Did you miss the part where I said the military supplied the pictures? I guess they decided to base the rendering on recruitment photos. Bring it up with Obie, he was the one they talked strategy with. I'm just the one being commissioned to build it."

Not that Tony minded. He had to admit, it made a refreshing change from constructing weapons of mass destruction.

"Here, what about this one?"

Rhodey made a face. " It looks so...fake."

"It's just a rendering, it'll look more real once I actually build it."

"Sir, I hate to interrupt but Miss Potts is requesting confirmation on your schedule for this week."

"Perfect!" Rhodey said, leaping at the chance to pass this bizarre responsibility onto someone else. "Ask for Pepper's opinion."

Tony opened his mouth to argue before reconsidering his stance. They weren't making a whole lot of progress on their own...

"I suppose it couldn't hurt. JARVIS, ask Pepper to join us down here, tell her I promise to help her out with the scheduling if she helps me out with this project first."

It didn't take more than a few minutes for Pepper to show up at the door, a wary expression on her face and armed with a tablet.

"What do you want, Tony?"

"Ouch, you almost sound suspicious of me."

"The last time you asked me to help you, you got engine grease on my best skirt."

He winced. "No engine grease this time, I promise. Pick a face."

The suspicion gave way to curiosity. "A face? For what?"

"The LMD, Obie got a selection of sample photos from the military and now we have to choose a computer generated rendering. Pick one."

She stepped closer to get a better look and wrinkled her nose. "This is creepy."

"SEE?"

Tony threw his hands in the air. "See what I get for trying to stick to a deadline?"

"Alright, fine. That one."

"See, Rhodes? Was that really so difficult?"

"I didn't even want to be involved in this in the first place."

"Helloooooo? I'm building this for the military."

"I'm a pilot, Tony," Rhodes deadpanned. "Unless this thing can fly, I really don't see how this affects me."

"Are we done?" Pepper asked. "Because I really wasn't kidding about needing to organise your schedule."

"Hold on a second, which one did you point to again?"

Rhodey leaned in closer to get a better look at her choice.

"Bit young looking, wouldn't you say?"

"Oh not that again."

"What? You called me in for my opinion, right? I'm just saying he looks young."

"He looks honest," Pepper decided. "The others all look too much like mugshots."

"You've got a point there," Tony said under his breath. Something about the rows of blank, expressionless faces did make it seem like they were flipping through suspect list. "Alright, we'll go with that one."

 

xxx

 

"It doesn't need to be THAT fancy, Tony. It's just supposed to be a prototype."

"I know that."

"What you've already accomplished is amazing, Tones. Beyond anything else on the market, that's for sure."

"I'm still on schedule, aren't I?"

"...Frankly, Tony, that's part of what's worrying me."

"You're worried that I'm not slacking off? You've never been one to support me skipping out on projects in the past."

"Of course I don't support it but...You're letting this take over your life, Tones. When's the last time you got out of here, huh? It seems like you've dedicated every spare second to this. Maybe it's time to hand it off to someone else, someone who's time is a little less valuable, huh? You've done the hard part, your designs have all been nothing short of immaculate. Maybe leave the construction work to the techies, what do you say, Tones?"

Tony stopped typing.

"You're saying I should...give up?" He asked in disbelief.

"God no. Tony, you're not listening. You've already won! Your models are revolutionary, they're going to work. I'm just saying...Maybe it's time to move on to the next thing. Know when it's time to leave well-enough alone."

This...wasn't a situation Tony ever expected to find himself in. Down in his lab, sober and on schedule. No dates, no parties, no arrests, no skipping out on board meetings to go skinny dipping in a public fountain with two girls he didn't know the names of (and wasn't that an interesting night to try and explain the next day. He never did find his tie). And yet, here Obie was discouraging his behaviour.

Had he really been spending that much time in the lab lately? He'd always lost himself in projects in the past...was this one really so different?

It must be if Obie felt the need to stage an intervention.

"I can finish the job, I'll just take it easy from here on out. Keep the bells and whistles to a minimum. You got it."

Obadiah breathed a sigh of relief, offering Tony an encouraging pat on the arm.

Tony didn't drop the project.

 

xxx

 

The project progressed easily, pieces fitting together where normally he would have to refine and redevelop his designs.

As far as Obadiah was concerned, Tony continued to build the framework for his new creation at a steady pace, but one that indicated he'd fallen back into old routines. Days spent off the grid, gaps in his journal logs where he was timetables to do repairs (though he always, always made up the time later).

Instead of spending these off days in clubs and drunk tanks, he used them to refine the LMD's programming.

If all went according to plan, Obie wouldn't have to know the LMD was capable of anything outside the most basic parameters. Coordination, mobility, maybe a few tricks thrown in to impress an audience. That's all he wanted from this, really. Something to impress.

Their investors had low expectations compared to Tony's standards.

Fortunately, Tony had a fair bit of experience designing AIs by now. He used the same model he applied when building JARVIS; flexible programming that would learn as it progressed. He planted the seeds of a personality there, just enough to allow for the development some day. A little nudge to allow for a sense of humour, a flavour of character that could evolve with time. He had no patience for bland AIs. The body wasn't ready to inhabit yet, but JARVIS had more than enough room in his servers to share.

"Now all we need is a name," Tony sighed.

"And here I thought LMD_test had such a nice ring to it."

"No one likes a smart ass, J."

"Of course not, sir."

Tony rubbed his temples to alleviate a pressure not quite intense enough to be called a headache. Yet.

God, he needed a drink.

"Why am I still bothering with this project?"

JARVIS took his time responding, already a sorry indication given his computational capacity.

"It doesn't seem unusual for you to become overly invested in projects when you want to take your mind off something, sir." 

On second thought, Tony didn’t really feel like self-reflecting anymore.

Of course, luck would have it that Pepper walked into the lab just as he broke the seal on a bottle of bourbon he couldn’t remember buying. Perhaps it had been a gift from one of the stuffy board members – or from an event maybe? It looked like the kind of thing he handed off to his assistants. Still, it looked a hell of a lot more appealing than the bottled soda that always seemed to magically appear in the lab fridge.

Perhaps it was a ploy to get him to drink something other than booze and coffee.

“I thought you were cutting back.”

The source of noise startled him so badly he almost dropped the bottle.

(He didn’t have the shakes, though. He’d had substance abuse problems in the past, sure, but that was with harder stuff. The odd drink didn’t count, right?)

“What gave you that idea?” he asked, trying not to snap. It wasn’t Pepper’s fault she caught him at a bad time.

(Just one little drink to calm his nerves. Maybe Obie was right, maybe he needed to blow off a little steam.)

“I haven’t seen you drinking much lately. Not since you started that new project,” Pepper said with a nonchalance that didn’t fit with her hesitation. Standing by the door as if prepared to bolt – perhaps afraid of overstepping some invisible boundary in their relationship.

Sometimes Tony forgot he was Pepper’s boss.

"I've been keeping busy."

"With the LMD?"

"Obie told me to pull back on that."

"But you're still working on it." It wasn't a question.

He should have known better than to try and keep something from Pepper.

Tony turned over the bottle in his hand, studying the label as an excuse to avoid meeting her eye.

"I can't give up on this one, Pep. I just can't." He wasn't sure what he's been expecting, but it wasn't for her to reach out as if to comfort him. Her fingertips reached out to skim the surface of the skin on his forearms. The edges of her fake nails - a deep pink today – clicked together as they traced a gentle swirl that ended on the inside of his wrist.

“This is important to you,” she observed. He let out a harsh laugh in way of reply, not trusting himself to speak.

“When was the last time you got some sleep?”

In truth, he wasn’t sure. He had a tendency to bury himself in his projects, he wouldn’t deny it, but this time it was different. The neglect ran deeper than could be reasonably excused as being distracted. The pulsing in his head – most likely caused by dehydration – didn’t drive away the nagging feeling that something was missing. Something important, forgotten in the rush.

He needed that drink. He needed to finish the LMD.

And yet, when those long pink nails closed around the neck of the bottle, he offered no resistance. They clicked together again as she prised it from his unresisting fingers, and for a moment he wondered why it seemed so loud. Only then did he realise she’d turned off his music.

Immediately he missed the cold tang of the chilled glass against his skin. The inexplicable urge to raise his fingers to his lips and taste the water droplets it left behind on his skin gripped him, but he allowed Pepper to take hold of his wrist and guide him up out of his chair instead.

“It doesn’t have a name yet,” Tony said. As soon as he said it, he couldn’t put into words why it seemed so vital that she know this.

“The LMD?” she asked with a frown. He didn’t reply, couldn't offer any more resistance when she guided him up the stairs and away from the lab. JARVIS turned off the lights after they left, he could see the glow of the monitor through the glass doors as he saved Tony’s work and ran standard shut down procedures.

It felt wrong to leave the LMD unfinished, but Tony couldn’t find the will power to break free of Pepper’s grasp. Everything seemed murky. Undefined.

In searching for a solution, he reached for caffeine rather than sleep, but he knew better than to question Pepper’s judgement.

He couldn’t remember if he dreamt at all that night, but he slept until well past noon the next day. To his surprise, he found all of his morning appointments had been rescheduled or handed off.

When he staggered back into the lab, he found a takeaway bag containing the Sunday breakfast from one of the better diners in the nearest town, a thermos filled with coffee which was still miraculously warm, and a sticky note written in Pepper’s careful cursive.

I asked Happy to make the trip
don’t throw it away without eating it.
JARVIS is watching.

P.S. Ask for the list.

Tony frowned. “J? What’s the postscript supposed to mean?”

In response, JARVIS activated one of the monitors. Tony squinted through bleary eyes, taking a sip of the cooling coffee as he crossed the room. Not as strong as he normally took it, but still pretty good.

It took him a few seconds longer than he’d care to admit to put together what he was saying.

It was a list of names.

A smile spread across his face as the details of last night blossomed in his mind.

“Well, I’ll be damned.”

He leaned forward to skim the list, noting the ones he thought had potential.

“Peter,” he murmured aloud. It was one of the more common names on the list, but if Pepper thought it worked…

I believe Miss Potts said that was one of her favourites.

“Is that so?”

 

xxx

 

A few weeks went by without incident. Tony continued to work on the LMD, though he made more of an effort to balance it with his other projects. He didn’t bring up that night and neither did Pepper.

Everything seemed to have gone back to normal…or so she thought.

In all honesty, she should have paid more attention. It didn’t occur to her to ask about the specifics of how the LMD was progressing, though she’d known Tony long enough to know he rarely thought to mention things that any reasonable human being would.

She entered the lab on a perfectly ordinary Tuesday, running through their weekly list of orders. They had standard items that always needed restocked, as well as resources Tony asked JARVIS to add that she wouldn’t even attempt to pronounce, let alone investigate the use of. Tony needed them and for once they were all perfectly legal to obtain – she didn’t want to know anything more than that. Still, Pepper needed him to sign off on any additions she made, and they really needed to update their grocery order.

Pepper pushed open the lab door, nose buried in her tablet as she responded to an email confirming Tony’s donation for a charity gala later that week. At least this way the cause wouldn’t lose out if he didn’t show up.

On a different day, one that allowed for more sleep and less paperwork, she may have paid more attention instead of dismissing the movement in her peripheral vision as being Tony.

“I know you said you’d be busy today, but I need you to-“

There was no other way to put it, Pepper screamed.

Tony swore from across the lab as he bashed his head on the underside of the car he was working on, tools clattering to the floor as he scrambled out from underneath it.

“Jesus, Pepper! What the hell happened?”

The thing sitting on his workbench inclined its head, regarding her through empty camera lenses in place of eyes. Once his heart stopped pounding, Tony allowed himself a moment to observe the scene and put together exactly what had happened.

“You knew about the LMD,” he said with a frown.

She found herself struggling to string words together as the thing continued to stare at her.

That’s the LMD?!”

“It’s not finished yet.”

Pepper liked to think she was a rational sort of person. She understood the principal of personification perfectly well.

The thing perched on the work bench wasn’t human. It wasn’t even alive…but when she laid her eyes upon its oddly skeletal framework, her mind summoned words like disfigured and ill. Even without many identifying features, she could see the humanoid outline in the jumble of wires and mechanical parts she couldn’t even begin to put a name to.

Dark grey metal glinted under the harsh lab lights as the mechanical body turned its empty eyes towards Tony at the sound of his voice. She could see every tiny mechanism that went into the movement as it shifted, like muscles that should have been buried under a layer of skin. It didn’t have a face to speak of, but she could see the beginnings of one now that she knew to look. The curvatures in the blank framework that would eventually become cheek bones, the jutting angle of a jaw, the protrusion of a nose, and, of course, the camera lenses.

She bent down to retrieve her fallen tablet, only to freeze in place when it turned its head back to watch her.

“It can’t do much right now,” Tony said, as if completely unaware of how God damn terrifying the thing looked right now. “The AI is still in its infancy; I’m just letting it observe for now. This is something of a trial run. It’s been running in the background on my private servers for a while now, but it’s never interfaced with the LMD’s hardware before. I’m going to let JARVIS finish his diagnostics before I really get to work…You want me to introduce you?”

“Oh my God, Tony!”

“What?”

Genuine bemusement crossed his face, creasing his brow and tugging on the corners of his mouth. Pepper forced herself to take a deep breath and reminded herself that Tony had been working on this project for months. She could see the intricacy in its design, the work he’d put in. God, every piece made and positioned by hand.

She shouldn’t judge a half-finished project, especially not when she barged in unannounced.

“I just…didn’t realise you were so far along.”

Tony looked back at the LMD in surprise before shrugging. “I’ve been making steady progress, I guess. Hey, Peter, say hello to Miss Potts.”

Something inside that metal framework whirred to life. It seemed to reposition itself, tilting its head again as if in thought before raising one of its mechanical arms into the air. Metallic fingers clicked together as they flexed in an odd, spasming motion that she supposed was meant to be a wave.

“You…named it Peter?”

“Didn’t I mention it?” he asked as he took a step back to read JARVIS’s diagnostic reports off the nearest monitor. So far, everything seemed to be right on schedule.

Pepper couldn’t help but smile at that. She straightened up, trying to recover some of her professionalism. The LMD lowered its hand again with stuttering movements and returned to its original position.

“It’s nice to meet you, Peter,” she said, though it felt strange to address it so casually when it better resembled a mannequin than an actual person. It turned to look at her again, sightless eyes reflecting her own face back at her. She got the sense that, if it were able, it would be squinting.

Clearly it wasn’t programmed to do much beyond that, so Pepper did her best to continue where she left off. The edge of the tablet screen had fractured where she’d dropped it, but Tony didn’t comment as he signed the forms she waved under his face. He checked the diagnostic twice before returning back to his sports car with assurances from JARVIS that he would be informed if anything meaningful came of it.

When she turned to leave, she couldn’t help but hesitate before turning her back to the LMD. It still sat motionless on the workbench, legs dangling over the edge like it could jump down and take off at any moment. For all she knew about Tony’s progress, maybe it could.

She wouldn’t put it past him.

“Bye, Peter,” she said softly, too quiet for Tony to hear from across the lab. It turned to look at her again, this time it only took a second for it to raise its hand in a wave.

It may look a little creepy now, she decided, but she’d get used to it.

xxx

“Jesus, Tony. That’s a robot?”

“You saw me build it.”

“Well…Yeah but it’s different seeing you work on odd pieces and seeing…this. It looks human!”

“That’s kind of the point.”

“You know what I mean, Tones. This is big. Is there even anything else like it on the market? Hell, forget the market – in the world?”

“Probably not, progression’s been pretty slow in this area. You want me to introduce you, or do you want to continue standing there gawking at it?”

“Can it…understand me?”

“What kind of a hack do you take me for, Platypus?”

“Right, sorry. It’s just…a lot to take in.”

Tony shrugged and took a step forward. Recognising the cue, the LMD raised its head from its stationary position and smiled. Facial expressions still looked a little strained, Tony made a mental note to work on that.

“Hey, Peter. This is Rhodey.”

A beat passed before the LMD frowned, brow creasing as if they were deep in thought.

“Rhodey,” they repeated, tilting their head. “Did I hear that right?”

“Sure did.”

The LMD nodded and paused for another beat before their face lit up in an expression of sheer joy. “It’s nice to meet you, Rhodey!”

Rhodes gave Tony a look that might have been a plea for help, but his traitorous friend merely gave him an encouraging shove forward.

“Um, nice to meet you too…Peter,” he attempted, studying the proffered hand in the same way someone might consider a set mouse trap. The LMD waited longer than any person would have before letting the hand fall back to their side. They tilted their head again, studying Rhodey just as Rhodey studied him.

“Well,” Tony said, clapping his hands together. “That went about as well as I could have expected.”

xxx

The LMD became a staple in the lab, needing to spend most of its time connected to a charging point to keep functioning. Obie looked impressed when he saw it, though he didn’t interact with Peter enough to grasp the full extent of his capabilities. Despite his encouragement, he didn’t offer much more than a shrug when Tony explained that he couldn’t find a sustainable power source for him.

Yet, Tony thought but didn’t say when Obie clapped him on the back and told him not to fuss over a side project. There wasn’t a battery in the world that would allow Peter to walk freely – nothing short of strapping a nuclear reactor to his back. Still, he’d built the most sophisticated piece of robotics on the planet with a fully integrated AI that he hoped would someday outgrow even JARVIS.

It should have been enough.

Tony vowed to build a better battery.

xxx

“Good morning, Miss Potts,” Peter said brightly.

“Morning, Peter,” she greeted without missing a beat. “Is Tony around?”

“He asked JARVIS not to disturb him this morning.”

She hummed in acknowledgement. Her expression spoke of disapproval. “Does he have…company?”

Peter tilted his head the way Tony programmed him to when he interfaced with JARVIS (you said it was creepy when he just went blank faced and stared, Pep. I had to replace it with something). “We don’t have any visitors in the logs. I could ask?”

A small smile tugged at Pepper’s lips, though she’d never admit to feeling relieved.

“ That won’t be necessary, Peter. Were we expecting a delivery?” she asked. Asking JARVIS would have been just as easy, but Tony insisted that Peter wouldn’t learn unless people interacted with him. The fact that he no longer looked like a machine helped it seem more normal, but not by much.

“Several. I think the one that just arrived is the microwave.”

“Why did Tony order a microwave?”

“To replace the one in the lab’s kitchenette.”

“And what happened to the old microwave?” she asked with a sigh, already knowing she would regret posing the question.

“Dum-E broke it trying to put out the fire.”

Pepper opened her mouth to ask before shaking her head. No, she really didn’t want to know.

“If Tony asks, tell him I’ll have someone bring it down later.”

“Sure, Ms Potts. No problem.”

Pepper stared at the LMD as he swung his legs and stared off into space. How many teenagers had she seen on buses in the past that looked exactly like the machine before her did now? Would she be able to differentiate between them if she tried?

These were dilemmas she enjoyed mulling over in the safety of her own living room, with a bowl of popcorn perched on her knee and a second rate sci-fi horror playing on low volume.

They were not, however, questions she expected to be faced with in her place of work, where consequences were more than just distant hypotheticals.

“You’re not planning on taking over the world any time soon, are you Peter?”

Confusion flashed across his face and she wondered when Tony found the time to program that particular expression.

“I have nothing in the schedule, Miss Potts,” he replied, sounding confused. She couldn’t help but laugh.

May I ask that you avoid giving our newest addition any bright ideas, Miss Potts.”

“Sorry, JARVIS.”

xxx

Tony continued to work on Peter long after Obie had the LMD project officially scrapped. Still without a mobile power supply, he dedicated a corner of the workshop to the prototype where he could sit and observe without leaving the power dock.

He designed the AI to be adaptable. Even without access to the outside world, it continued to learn and grow from the surrounding stimuli. JARVIS stayed in near constant communication with it, monitoring as it grew and evolved. Though always prone to voicing his thoughts aloud, Tony talked to himself in the lab a lot more now.

With Obie moving up the timetable, Tony found little time to make modifications to the LMD. Designing a new battery would have been all but impossible, so he threw himself into weapons manufacturing in the hopes that Obie would loosen the noose around his neck after they demonstrated the first prototype.

While most of the bots were unphased by Peter’s presence in the lab, Dum-E seemed fascinated. It didn’t matter how many time Tony shooed him away, he always crept back over to get a closer look. Though the first few times he elicited no response, on the fourth attempt he got close enough to trigger an automated response. Peter looked up in surprise and smiled at the bot, only to frown in concentration when he responded by shooting backwards across the lab and spinning in circles.

“Dum-E has a few quirks,” Tony said without looking away from the simulations.

“He is…broken?”

“Not at all. He’s the first bot I ever built. Unfortunately, I was not only an inexperienced teenager but also very drunk at the time. Miracle I got him working, if I’m being honest. I could have gone back and rewritten the code but…” Tony gave a noncommittal sort of shrug. “I think I like him the way he is.”

Peter blinked as he processed this information. It was a new function; it took Tony a while to get the timing of it just right.

“Dum-E has…sentimental value,” he clarified.

Tony paused, turning to watch the LMD this time. “Yeah, I suppose he does.”

Peter nodded. The movement came out a little too jerky and Tony made a mental note to fix it when he found the time. When he didn’t offer a follow-up question, Tony turned away.

“What are you doing?”

“Hm?”

“Right now. What are you doing?”

“Just running some simulations to test a weapon I’m designing.”

“Oh.”

Another beat passed.

“What kind of weapon?”

Perhaps the questions shouldn’t have caught Tony off-guard. After all, he didn’t build the LMD to fill a set role as he did with JARVIS. The bots were plenty curious when he first built them. They had to be for the AI to learn and evolve on its own.

So, while it would have been easy to dismiss the LMD’s questions, instead he rotated the display to face the LMD.

Peter’s brow furrowed as he processed the data.

“I don’t have access to these schematics,” he commented.

“That’s because you’re on my private server. This is a Stark Industries project.”

“Why am I restricted from accessing the Stark Industries servers?”

“You sure like to ask questions, don’t you?”

“I can stop if you want me to.”

“No, it’s alright. Certain…well placed people in the company don’t really like the idea of my untested AIs poking around secure files. It took a lot of trial and error before I was able to convince them to allow JARVIS control over company files.”

“And I am a prototype,” Peter said, nodding in understanding.

“You’d only be a prototype if I made more,” Tony corrected. “Seeing as how Obie scrapped the project, it looks like you might just be an original model.”

Peter stared at him with a blank expression.

With a sigh, Tony turned back to his designs.

“Tell you what, kiddo. Let me finish up with the preparations for this demonstration. I should have more time to review your progress after this is over. Then we’ll talk about expanding your access, yeah?”

xxx

It was amazing how quickly the LMD became a normal part of life.

He watched Tony work in the lab, free to interact with JARVIS and browse online to pass the time. Tony worked on him between projects, removing glitches and implementing subtle improvements as he saw fit. Every interaction seemed smoother than the last, every expression more genuine. Pauses in conversation grew shorter and laughter grew more frequent.

But without a sustainable power source, they could only progress so far before stalling.

They never stopped; it was important to say. Tony fixed problems as they arose, Peter continued to consume information at a rapid rate, but they fell into patterns. The LMD couldn’t be a priority, not with the complete lack of company interest. The power source shifted to the back burner and simmered there for the better part of a year, the LMD melting into the background until his presence became as fixed as any of Tony’s bots. He didn’t really need to leave anyway, did he? Without company backing, Peter had no set purpose. No place to go, no set things to learn. Tony focused his efforts on designing weapons and the issue fell to the back of his mind until it hardly occurred at all.

For over a year, they continued in this comfortable routine. Even Pepper adjusted to Peter’s presence. He got the sense that Obie didn’t really like him, but the man hardly spent much time in Tony’s lab to begin with.

Tony began the designs for the Jericho and his free time became all but non-existent.

His crowning achievement as Obie had taken to calling it. He’d be lying if he claimed not to feel even a small amount of pride.

Still, he wasn’t sure why he had to handle the investors for this one.

“I’ll be back in a day, maybe two,” he assured all of his bots as he switched off the monitors. “JARVIS, you’ll hold down the fort, won’t you?”

Always, sir.”

Tony hummed, almost tripping over a fretting Dum-E as he made his way across the lab. Peter raised his head when Tony entered his response range.

“I’m going to have a lot more free time once this demonstration is done,” he vowed, more to himself than to the LMD. Peter’s face lit up in a way that made Tony’s heart ache, even if he knew damn well it was an automated response. “You’ll have JARVIS to keep you company, just don’t burn the place down.”

“I’ll keep watch of the lab while you’re gone,” the LMD vowed.

“That’s what I like to hear,” Tony said with a smile and ruffled Peter’s hair. It took a lot of effort to get the texture of it just right.

The LMD watched Tony go with a smile, waving as he left the lab even if the billionaire had his back turned. With nothing else to do, he returned to his default positioning and waited, unseeing eyes staring at the wall ahead of him.

And he waited.

And he waited.

And he waited.

(Tony wasn’t home in two days.)