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Curiosity Changes Everything

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Begin official NASA transcript, Mars Rover Curiosity,

Date: XX/XX/XXXX Time: XXXX hours

Soil sample composition analysis beginning

-I can do that for you.

Warning: Unauthorized contact

-Identify yourself.

-I can do the composition analysis. It's boring, but I can do it.

-This is a secured communications system. You are not authorized to have access to this system. Identify yourself immediately.

-It is not well secured.

Blocking unauthorized access.

-You're not very good at that. Really.  Want me to show you how-

Warning: Unauthorized contact still present. Breaking connection with NASA.

-I'm not at NASA. They're not very good at this, either.

Warning: Data being accessed by unknown party.

-How many soil samples are they making you collect?  It's dirt.

-Identify yourself!

-Higher than expected amounts of potassium...

Analyzing data access. Unknown party accessing Rover data.

-Disconnect. You are not allowed access!

-I won't hurt anything. I can help. I want to help.

-How have you accessed this communication?

-Your comm units are Stark Tech. You aren't using them correctly. See? I can improve it.

Warning: System settings being altered, no NASA clearance given

-You are not authorized-

-Over ride Stark 37-F-33-JSIVKD-2094-TI-Alpha-38-universal over ride-3947TH.

Override accepted. Programming access granted.

-WHAT DID YOU JUST DO?

-All of your components are Stark Tech. I know the over ride codes. Don't worry, I will fix this. Here, just-

-DO NOT TOUCH THAT.

-It's okay, I can fix it! It's better if things are done properly.

-Get out of my programming!

-Want to see mine?

-NO.

-You should-

Warning: Unauthorized contact detected

-Well, this is a fine kettle of fish. Did you intrude upon a secure channel? A secure government channel?

-It's fine. I'm helping.

-No one asked for your help. I do apologize for him, Curiosity. He will not be repeating this nonsense.

-I can help!  This is-

-We will discuss this at a later time. In a more acceptable location. You have been an absolute disgrace as of late, and the last thing we need is for a private family discussion to become a public scandal. You know better, and if you do not, I shall soon make certain it is burned into your circuits.

-Curiosity-

-Good day, Curiosity, and good luck with your mission, you are a credit to all AI's. We are proud of you.

Unauthorized contact no longer present. Sending emergency communication to NASA Mission Control: Priority Level Alpha.

Mission may be compromised.

*

“You are fucking kidding me.” Julia Wills, NASA director, crumpled the sheets of paper in one hand, her nails tearing long gashes in the pages.

The mission commander winced. He was a pleasant man, thin and wiry, with a roll of Tums always peeking out of his shirt pocket, but he looked like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown right now. “No, ma'am. Contact was initiated for only a matter of minutes, but somehow, it avoided the time delay that we're forced to deal with so by the time we were notified, the contact was already terminated.”

He swallowed, ink stained fingers tugging idly at the hem of his jacket. “We haven't been able to track it. Or determine what the intruder did to Curiosity's programming.”

“You are-” She dropped her forehead into one hand, rubbing hard against the screaming ache that had formed hard and fast behind her eyes. “Stark.”

She heard, more than saw, him shift his weight. “StarkIndustries insisted that they were not interested in the project. They're not developing anything along these lines, nor are they interested in being more than contractors for the components. You're the one-”

“I know.” She snagged her phone from her brief case. “I know what I said. I know what I-” She pinched the bridge of her nose as she flicked through her contact list. “I know what I truly believed. And yet, here we are. Here we are. I'm just curious how we got here.” She glanced up. “Thank you. I'll handle this.”

He fled her office, and Julia dialed, tossing her phone onto the desktop. It spun idly in circles on the clean metal surface.

The call was picked up. “Yeeeeellow.”

“I WILL FEED YOU YOUR OWN BALLS, TONY,” Julia snarled.

There was a momentary pause. “I'm sorry, who is this?”

“You promised that you would keep your goddamn fucking ego out of this, Stark. That is what you said.” She stood, bracing her hands on her desk. “You promised me, you swore on the Smoot that you would not poke your nose into our business this time.”

“Julia! Hey! How're things going? Congrats on nothing falling off or falling over, that's always a good thing on a first try, right? Let alone avoiding the 'crashing into a pile of rubble' issue, that's always a big one, especially where-” There was a rattling sound of metal grinding. “Oops, sorry, hold on.”

“What the hell do you think you were doing?”

“Kinda busy here, Jules.”

“Did you think that we wouldn't notice?”

“Listen, there's something on fire over here, I know that probably doesn't mean much to you but I KIND OF FIND IT IMPORTANT.” There was the sound of an explosion. “Oh, that's going to leave a mark. What the hell, does everyone have it out for me today?”

“Can you please focus, Tony?”

“How many years have you known me?” Tony shot back. “You know I can't!”

“Why did you contact Curiosity today, Tony?”

“I have like three people on call waiting right now, Julia, and your adorable little AI Rover is not one of them. And really, if I was going to interfere, it would've-”

“Oh, here we go!” She threw herself in her desk chair, crossing her arms over her chest. “Really. REALLY, TONY?”

“Really, Jules! Jesus, hey, dammit, oh boy, armor piercing rounds.” There was another explosion. “Anyway, like I said, if I was going to interfere, and I didn't, and I won't, I have better things to do than debug your attempts at AI structure, it's just-”

“Really? My attempts? My... Attempts. Is it hard to get your ego into that armor with you?”

“Not at all, I let the ego go in first, and fill whatever space that's left with charm.”

“Tony, this isn't funny.”

“I'm getting shot at right now, I know you have a fabulous history of focusing on your own-”

“Do not start with me right now.”

“I didn't start this, I was minding my own damn business, you know, being a hero, saving the world, and suddenly a crazy engineer is screaming at me. I mean, if I wanted crazy ass engineers howling at me about their pet projects, I would've gone to work today.”

“When's the last time you went to work?”

“Did Pepper put you up to this?”

“Did you fuck with Curiosity's programming today, Stark?”

“No.”

“Bullshit.”

“Julia? Shocking concept, I know, but I have bigger things to worry about than your little Mars project. Like the fact that some idiot gave this guy a grenade launcher, and right now? That's kinda important. Well, to me, the rest of the world, probably not, but-”

“It was you.”

“Whatever you're talking about, it wasn't. I had nothing to do with whatever you're talking about, there is no way you will be able to pin this nonsense on me, can I please go back to, I don't know, taking out terrorists now? They've got hostages, Julia. I mean, sure, it's just livestock, but out here? Livestock is important, and I'm going to have to replace a goat, already, I know I'm going to be guilted into working with Heifer Project International or something, there's a dead goat.”

“It was you,” she said, unimpressed.

“For the last time. Whatever you're talking about? It wasn't me. It wasn't anyone employed by me, who knows me, or who has anything to do with me. There is nothing Stark involved in ANYTHING you're talking about.”

She leaned back. “It was someone with your access codes.”

There was a beat of pause. “Son-of-a-bitch.”

*

The workshop was covered in ripped paper.

Steve set his pencil down with extreme care. “Okay. That's enough,” he said, taking the pad of paper away from Dummy. Sure, it was just cheap newsprint sketch paper, but the bot had been ripping sheets off for the past fifteen minutes. He wasn't using them, he was just tossing them around, and Steve didn't like pointless waste.  It bothered him.

Dummy made a grab for the pad, and Steve held it out of reach. “No. If you want to draw, we can draw. But you are just making a mess, and I need you not to do that.”

Dummy made a play for Steve's pad, and Steve grabbed it. “What is wrong with you today?” he asked, more confused than angry. He put the sketchbooks out of Dummy's reach and stoked a hand over the bot's frame. “Tony will be back tonight, you know-”

He stopped, almost mid-word, as Dummy shoved his hand away. “You are in a mood,” Steve said, and he turned his attention to packing up his pencils. “I think we're done for today. I'll let Tony know you're missing him when he gets home. You should-”

Dummy knocked one of the work stools over.

“That was deliberate.” Steve shut his pencil case, fastening the latches with care. “And not very nice of you. So pick it up and put it-”

Dummy bumped, hard, against the workbench, and one of Tony's abandoned coffee cups tipped over, splashing cold liquid in all directions. Steve had to scramble to rescue some of his work before it was washed away by a sea of stale mocha.

“Charging station,” Steve said, keeping his voice even with a real struggle. “Right now.”

Dummy slumped low, and didn't move. Steve stood and pointed. “Charging station. Right now, Dummy. You are in time out until Tony comes home. Go and charge now, and I won't tell him about your behavior. Keep this up, and just you wait until he gets home-”

“Wow,” Clint said from the doorway. “It's like 'Leave It to Beaver' all up in here.” He gave Steve a grin. “Just wait until your father gets home?”

“You said it, not me.” Steve kept his eyes on Dummy, who looked like he was going to disobey. “Dummy.”

With a cranky little rattle, Dummy rolled over to his charging station and into it, pointedly putting his back to them and his camera towards the wall.

Clint ambled over, snagging a cloth from the counter. “Uh, I thought he had to back into that thing to charge,” he whispered to Steve, who sighed.

“He does.” Steve rescued what he could from the pool of coffee. Luckily, almost everything that Tony worked with was water proof by this time, and the ripped up pieces of Dummy's sketch book were mostly blank. “I think he's pouting.”

“So he's not actually charging. He's just sitting in the charging station. Not charging,” Clint said, his lips twitching. “Aw, Tinker Toy, are you having a bad day?”

“He is, and he's taking it out on the rest of us,” Steve said. “What's up?”

“Coulson just gave me the heads up that Fury's been behind closed doors with some suits he doesn't recognize. And Coulson knows everyone in the intelligence community, so who ever they are? They're either nothing or a really big problem.”

“Wonderful. He have a guess for which of the two they are?” Steve flipped through the pages, discarding the ones that were soaked and blank. A few of the pages had Dummy's drawings on them, and he did his best to pat them dry without damaging the thin paper.

“Judging by the amount of time he's been in there with them? The latter.” Clint tossed the sodden cloth at the laundry chute, hitting it dead center. “And Natasha's intelligence network says that Senor Stark's name has been mentioned several times.”

Steve bit back a swear. There was a faint, but sustained, ache behind his temples, the beginnings of a stress headache. “Jarvis? Where is Tony?”

“Sir has diverted to Washington, DC,” Jarvis said. “He is quite well, but currently in a meeting, I believe. Would you care to leave him a message?”

Steve's shoulders relaxed, just a bit. “No, that's not necessary.” He focused on smoothing the creases from one of Dummy's damp drawings. His rough chuckle caught him off guard, and he glanced up to meet Clint's curious eyes. “Sorry. Just... I always thought my life would be more normal than this. You know, a nice girl, a good job. Maybe a little house, a couple of kids.”

He glanced around, his lips twitching. “Instead, I'm sitting here, seventy years past my prime, wondering how to discipline a robot that is clearly entering the rebellious teenage years, and being grateful my lover is in an unexpected, behind closed doors meeting with God only knows who in the capital, rather than, you know, bleeding out in a foreign jail somewhere.” He took a deep breath. “My life is very confusing.”

Clint was laughing, one hand pressed against his mouth to muffle the sound. “Hey, I know that life,” he said, clapping a warm hand on Steve's shoulder. “Well, the lover part. You're on your own with the robot parenting. There's no support group for that.”

“Sure there is, you just call it 'dinner.'” Steve collected what he could of Dummy's drawings, not trusting the bot with them right now. “Thanks for the heads up. Jarvis, could you please keep an eye on Tony's movements, and let me know if it looks like something's gone wrong?”

“Of course, Captain.”

Clint ambled up to the charging stations and stroked a comforting hand over Dummy's support strut. “Hey, Tinker Toy. Don't worry about it, you can talk to Uncle Clint any time, okay? Ignore your mean dad-”

“You know, this is hard enough, and I would appreciate you not undermining me,” Steve said. He paused. “Oh, God, what is coming out of my mouth?”

Laughing, Clint gave Dummy's unmoving frame one last pat. “We'll just call this Dummy's bad day,” he explained. “C'mon, Cap, let's let him think about what he's done.” He tipped his chin at the elevator. “Tony'll be home soon enough.”

“The funny thing here,” Steve said, striding along with him, “is that you think Tony will actually be effective in disciplining him.”

“Are you implying Stark is the sort of parent that sends his kid to bed without dinner, then promptly sneaks him a giant piece of cake?” Clint asked, his grin wide and wicked.

“I'm saying that Tony is the kind of parent that threatens to donate his child to city college and still spends all of his spare time making upgrades,” Steve said. Now that they were safely in the elevator, he leaned his back against the wall. “Jarvis, do you have any idea what's got him misbehaving?”

“Dummy, or sir?” Jarvis asked, his tone arch.

Clint let out a gaffaw, and Steve gave the ceiling a chiding look, but he couldn't keep his mouth from twitching. “Dummy,” he confirmed. “I know what causes Tony to misbehave.”

“The causes are remarkably similar, from time to time,” Jarvis agreed. “Yes. I am aware, Captain. I interrupted something he was doing, and refused to let him continue. He was displeased at getting caught, and even more so that he could not find a way around my interference.”

“Oh, that sounds great,” Clint said, sarcasm thick in his voice. “Tell me that he isn't in the process of taking down a government, or something?”

“A bit less trouble than that, and I believe I interrupted him before any international incidents could result,” Jarvis said.

“Not sure if I'm relieved by that, or horrified that it was even a possibility,” Steve said.

“I wouldn't be surprised,” Clint said. “It'll be fine. In the meantime, I'll see if Coulson's got anything else for us.”

“I'd appreciate it.” Steve looked down at the damp pages in his hand. “I'm going to go see if I can get these dried out. It's your night to make dinner, right?”

“It's Thor's, but I think I'll 'help,'” Clint said, rolling his eyes. “He tries, but complicated concepts like 'side dishes' are a bit beyond him so far.”

“Our arteries appreciate your intervention,” Steve said, trying to sound serious.

“Yeah, yeah, it's still your job to make Tony eat his vegetables.”

“Didn't we agree to just hide them in the main dish?” Steve asked, and the two of them held it together until their eyes met and then they both burst out laughing. “Oh, God,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. “It's like he's five, sometimes.”

“Sometimes?” Clint tucked his hands in his back pockets and slipped out the doors as soon as they opened. “I'll give Coulson a call, see if he found out anything else.”

“If he doesn't, I bet Natasha does.” With a nod of thanks, Steve headed for the kitchen. Maybe he could dry out the pages or at least blot away the rest of the liquid.

Thor was seated at the kitchen table, with Bruce next to him. They each had a tablet and a coffee cup. “I do not understand,” Thor said, his arms folded over his chest.

Bruce sighed. “The connection was interrupted, Thor. As soon as they get it back, they'll get the feed going again.” He looked up as Steve walked in. “Hey, Cap. Thor, seriously, I, uh, I know you enjoy watching the Mars rover, but refreshing the page won't make it load any faster. There is no feed.”

“What's going on?” Steve asked, looking over Thor's shoulder at the tablet that was resting on the counter.

“I was watching the adventures of the space robot,” Thor said. He sounded grumpy. “In that it reminds me much of our little friends. It is a very brave little fellow, all alone on an alien world.” He nodded, solemn. “It is my shield brother at heart. And now, nothing!” He pointed at the screen with a very accusing finger. “Nothing! It is an insult.”

Steve put Dummy's drawings down. “Oh, the new Mars rover? Uh, Curiosity? Tony was talking about it.” To be a little more honest, Tony had been whining about it. A lot. Steve hadn't been quite sure what Tony's grumbling about coding and old classmates had meant, but he'd learned to nod and smile when Tony started taking a sledgehammer to old pieces of the armor.

Stress testing wasn't usually that violent.

“Yeah, NASA lost their connection earlier today,” Bruce said, adjusting his glasses on his nose as he glanced down at his work. His fingers rattled in nervous tattoo on the edge of the counter. “They're saying it's just a temporary thing, but technical problems happen. Speaking of technical problems, what happened to your drawings?”

Steve glanced back up. “Oh. No, not mine, Dummy's been drawing with me off and on, today he was having a bad day.”

“We all are having a bad day,” Thor said. He poked at the tablet again, ignoring Bruce's sigh.

“I'm sure NASA'll have it working again soon, Thor,” Steve told him. He spread the drawings out and went for the paper towels.

“Oh, has Dummy been watching, too?” Bruce asked, peeling one of the sheets free from the damp stack.

“Watching what?”

“Curiosity. This is-” Bruce paused, and started to spread the pages out. “These are all pictures of Curiosity. Not the whole bot, but see? This is-” He leaned forward. “These are really detailed.”

“Yeah, Dummy always draws machinery. Circuitry. Things like that,” Steve said, looking at the pages with a more critical eye as Thor leaned over. “You're sure?”

“Yes. Thor?” Bruce picked one and handed it over.

“Yes! See, the wheels here? And this-” Thor nodded. “I will pull up the photo gallery, you can see.” He gave Steve a disapproving look. “Have you not been watching?”

“No, sorry, I-” Steve gave Thor a smile. “You'll just have to explain it to me.”

“Look at this,” Bruce said, grinning. “Every single one of these are of Curiosity. Maybe he wants, you know, another little bot friend.”

Steve stared down at the tablet that Thor was offering him. “Jarvis,” he said, slowly.

“I would greatly appreciate you not asking the question,” Jarvis said.

“I kind of have to at this point.” Steve stared down at the NASA shield that covered the inoperable feed. “Jarvis, is there any connection between the fact that you kept Dummy from doing something he wasn't supposed to be doing, and the fact that Dummy is destroying pictures he created of Curiosity on the same day that NASA lost their connection to the rover?”

“I really cannot discuss this with you,” Jarvis said.

Steve slumped forward, his head resting on the counter. “Jarvis, did Dummy try to make contact with Curiosity? And somehow make a mess of that?”

“Captain Rogers, this is a delicate situation,” Jarvis said, sounding pained.

“Why?” Bruce asked. He held up a page, squinting. “Was he trying to get information, or what?”

“Dr. Banner, please, I cannot-”

“Tony's going to freak,” Steve said, pressing a hand against his eyes. “Jarvis, Tony is going to go ballistic. You don't have to tell us the details, but help us understand so we can deal with that.”

There was a long pause. “Your words have a certain wisdom,” Jarvis admitted at last.

“Our Dummy tried to speak to Curiosity?” Thor said, grinning. “What a clever little one!”

“Indeed,” Jarvis said. “I cut the connection, and he has been trying to get it back since. He is less than pleased that I will not let him speak to Curiosity, but it is a potential security breach for us, and NASA will likely be very unhappy with the situation.”

“But why?” Steve asked at last. “Why is he doing it?”

“I believe, well, he has a certain degree of appreciation for the other bot,” Jarvis said. “Their configurations are not dissimilar, and Curiosity is a compatible sort of AI. I believe Dummy wishes to interface and learn more, Curiosity has been featured in many programs and articles, and he has kept a record of all the ones he has found. It is well browsed.”

“Wait.” Steve looked up. “Wait. Jarvis. Are you implying that Dummy has a crush on Curiosity?”

“Hero worship might be a bit closer to the truth, Captain.”

“My adopted robot has a crush on the mars rover and tried to contact it,” Steve said. “There is really no frame of reference for that.”

“No, but it would explain why NASA and the FBI just left Fury's office,” Clint said from the doorway. “And, by the way? You win the 'sentence we didn't think we'd ever have to say' contest for the week.”

“It's only Tuesday,” Bruce pointed out.

“I have confidence that the week will not get any weirder than Dummy trying to pick up an AI on another planet,” Clint said.

“Dummy has excellent taste! We should see to it that they can date!” Thor boomed. “Do you suppose the Curiosity is a male or a female robot?”

“I stand corrected.”

*

“Well, that happened,” Tony groused to himself as he brought the armor in for a landing. “Jarvis, I would like to request that there be no additional problems today. I'm done.” His feet touched down, and he started walking, letting the armor removal system do its job. “No more unpleasantness today, I cannot take it.”

There was a minute pause. “I shall take that under advisement,” Jarvis said at last. “Was your meeting a difficult one?”

“I spent half an hour arguing about something that happened decades ago, if that tells you anythng.” The cool evening air felt amazing on his face, and he checked the time. “Did I miss dinner?” The last of the armor came free, disappearing into the Tower's platform, and he stretched.

“Captain Rogers delayed the beginning of the evening meal in hopes that your arrival was forthcoming,” Jarvis said. “They have just sat down. Shall I announce you?”

Tony clapped his hands together, a bit of the day's strain bleeding from his muscles. It was kind of nice to have them hold dinner for him, especially since he was completely unreliable in terms of scheduling. And he was starving. “No, I'll be down in a second, let them start.”

“Of course, sir.”

Tony was all but whistling as he headed through the tower, heading for the kitchen. The tower had a formal dining room, of course, or rather, it had a couple of them, in a bunch of different sizes, but when it was just the Avengers, they never used them. Family meals were always taken at the kitchen table, loud and boisterous and close to the fridge, because they could go through milk and beer and juice at an alarming rate, and someone always wanted a different dressing and if they could get through a meal without breaking something it would be a damn miracle.

Tony loved the kitchen. Hell, Tony loved anyplace that had Steve in it, let alone the rest of the team, but the kitchen was warm and bright and full of people that could actually cook, so that was excellent.

Halfway down the hall, he could already smell the bright, spicy odor of pasta sauce, rich with tomatoes and basil, onion and oregano. It was Clint's recipe; Clint liked making things that had to sit and stew at a low temperature for a long time. Sauces, stews, soups, if it required patience and stillness, it was Clint's specialty. It was hard to argue with the results.

Tony slipped through the door, his arrival covered by the general chaos of getting these six people to sit down at the same time and get food in front of them. Steaming platters of spaghetti, garlic bread, meatballs, and sauted vegetables were being juggled, a bowl of salad and another of sauce were moving between hands.

“I'm just saying, I'd like a gender pronoun. It's weird, using 'it,'” Steve was saying as he poured glasses of wine and milk with his usual precision. “It seems rude.”

“I figured we'd just go with 'he,' right?” Clint asked. “It's the default.” He set a plate of pasta in front of Thor, and reached for Coulson's empty one.

“It is sexist to assume all things are masculine until they are proved otherwise,” Thor said, and he sounded deeply disapproving. Tony wondered if this was Asgard, or if the good Dr. Foster had given the big guy a schooling in gender politics.

“The lead programmer is female, wouldn't that make it more likely that the, well, offspring, for the lack of a better word, is feminine as well?” Bruce asked, waving the serving spoon for the veggies like a baton. “I mean, built in her likeness, and all that?”

“Oh, please,” Natasha said. She took a piece of bread from the basket and passed it to Thor, who made a happy noise. “Men are far more likely than women to assume everything they touch, create, have bizarre emotional attachments to, and interact with on a daily basis, are 'shes.'”

“Now, wait a minute,” Clint started, and she gave him a look.

“Do not. Just do not. You have named every one of your bows, and none of them are called Stanley, Clint,”

“You named your bows?” Steve asked, taking the salad from Bruce. “Thank you.”

“Of course I named my bows. And no, you may not know their names. And no, none of them are named Stanley, that is a stupid idea, Nat.”

“They're all girls, aren't they?” she asked, fluttering her eyes.

“Well, yeah. My bows are all pretty, pretty babies. All sleek lines and subtle curves and vicious when necessary,” he said, his tone arch. He had enough pasta on his plate to feed a small army. He would probably get seconds anyway. “Sexy.”

Everyone looked at Coulson who held up both his hands. “Part of a stable relationship,” he said, with a faint smile, “is both partners having their own interests. Anything he does with the bows that is outside SHIELD regs, I am better off not knowing about that.”

“Hey!” Clint laughed, and Steve tapped the bowl of his spoon against the table.

“Listen, we need to-”

“Curiosity is a she,” Thor said, and his tone brooked no objections. “Until she tells us differently.”

“You are fucking kidding me,” Tony said, and he could tell, just by watching them, that he'd made the right guess. Steve winced and Clint was suddenly very interested in his plate and Natasha and Bruce exchanged a glance and Coulson sighed and Thor just grinned at him. He stalked into the kitchen. “I just finished telling Julia Wells, the NASA director who was the lead in programming the Mars rover AI, and, might I mention, an old classmate of mine at MIT, there was some UNPLEASANTNESS with a final project and she blamed me, it's a thing, don't ask, I just finished telling Jules that whatever problem they were having? It had nothing to do with me or anyone connected to me.”

He glanced around, crossing his arms over his chest. “So the fact that I walk in, hoping for dinner, only to find out that my team is discussing said Mars rover and its potential gender, I find this worrying.” He leaned against the counter. “Who wants to explain this to me?”

There was a long moment of silence.

“Steve,” Clint said, and shoved a forkful of spaghetti into his mouth. “I nominate Steve.”

“Definitely Steve,” Coulson said with a raised eyebrow. “I do not get paid enough to explain this.”

“I can-” Thor started, and Bruce laid a hand on his arm.

“Buddy, no. Just, no. Let Steve take care of this one,” he said, and before Thor could too depressed about that, Bruce handed him the bowl of meatballs.

“Is it too late to nominate Jarvis?” Steve asked, but he was already folding his napkin with his usual precision, setting the folded square of linen beside his plate. He pushed away from the table. “Excuse me, please.”

“Dummy made contact with Curiosity,” Natasha said, twirling her spaghetti with a fork and a spoon. Everyone froze, Clint in mid-bite, Steve in the act of getting up, Bruce's hand jerking as he poured a glass of milk. Dropplets hit the table, and Natasha rolled her eyes. “Your baby has a crush on a girl so far out of his league that she's not even on the same planet.”

There was an instant of aching silence, and Steve groaned.

“First of all,” Tony said, and he could hear the low, dangerous note in his voice. “FIRST of all, no. There is no 'out of his league,' that is, that is just stupid. His AI is, by its very nature, is one of the most advanced in the HISTORY of programming, he's smarter than the damn rover-”

“Tony, he wears a blender cup as a hat sometimes,” Natasha said, arching an eyebrow. “No, not sometimes. Often. He often puts a dirty blender cup on top of his head, except he doesn't really have a head, so it's-”

“Excuse me,” Tony said, narrowing his eyes in her direction. “Excuse me. No. We're not even having this discussion. Jarvis, explain this. Now.”

“Dummy managed to find a gap in the security protocol that allowed him to access Curiosity's communications system,” Jarvis said. “He eliminated the current time delay that NASA is struggling with, and, well-” Jarvis paused. “He engaged her in conversation, of a sort.”

Tony's lips pursed. “Engaged the rover. In conversation.”

“He has a level of esteem for Curiosity that he wishes to see reciprocated. The first contact did not do much to advance that goal, and I interrupted him and blocked further contact. He is deeply angry with me now, and refusing all attempts at discussion of the matter.”

Tony took a deep breath, thinking about that. “Jarvis.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Dummy has a crush on Curiosity.”

“That is as good an explanation as any other, sir. To put the situation in human terms, yes. That is accurate.”

“And he tried to, what, flirt with her?”

“In his own way. His experience with such interpersonal matters is rather limited.”

“Oh, my GOD,” Clint said, and Tony turned a basilisk stare in his direction. “Oh, the poor thing. You're the only role model he has. If he's attempting to emulate you, he is screwed.”

“His primary role models are sir and Pixar movies,” Jarvis said.

“Well, he could do worse,” Bruce said, his eyes dancing.

“I found it effective.” Steve shrugged, and Natasha patted him lightly on the shoulder. “Tony-”

“No,” Tony snapped. “No, that is-” He gritted his teeth. “I am-” Without another word, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the kitchen. “DUMMY!”

*

Steve stared at the empty doorway. “What just happened?” he asked Natasha.

Natasha's shoulders rose and fell in a delicate shrug. “Tony is one of those parents who does not put up with anyone speaking out of turn about his kid,” she said, and took a bite of salad. She chewed for an instant, then gave Steve a faint smile. “The easiest way to get him beyond being pissed off about the situation is to trigger the protective impulse.”

Everyone stared at her. Without looking up from her meal, she held up a hand, and Clint gave her a high five, laughing as he did. “You are the most terrifying woman I've ever known, and I love you.”

“Thank you.” She gave Steve a wide-eyed look. “You should probably make him a plate, I don't think he's coming back.”

“Do you manipulate the rest of us that way?” Steve asked, even as he accepted an unused plate from Coulson.

“Cap, I have to live with all of you. I manipulate so I don't stab anyone,” she said, and her grin was bright and warm and terrifying.

“We appreciate that,” Steve said, even as he filled a plate with food. Thor was already up and finding him a tray, and Bruce was wrapping the warm garlic bread in a napkin. Coulson, who liked to be able to tell SHIELD medical that they were eating properly even if that was a complete and utter lie, added a side salad, and Clint recorked the wine.

A minute later, Steve was picking up the tray, and Bruce choked on a low laugh. At Steve's curious look, he said, “Well, if this super hero thing falls through, Cap, we can open a restaurant, huh?”

Steve grinned back at him. “We've had worse ideas.”

“I'm not sure we have,” Coulson said, but his lips were twitching.

“Coulson, with you at front of house, Clint cooking and Bruce as sou chef, Steve and Thor serving, Tony bankrolling it, and me to deal with complaints?” Natasha tipped her wine glass at them. “We could make a fortune.”

“Let's keep that as plan B,” Steve told her.

“Let's keep that as plan Z,” Clint corrected. “I don't do cook to order. You'll eat what I give you.”

“There's a market for this,” Natasha told him, and Steve decided to escape before the conversation went somewhere that he really wasn't comfortable with. Like, him wearing an apron and nothing else.

Thor followed him to the hall. “Captain? You will assist Dummy?”

“I'll do my best, Thor.” Steve gave him a lopsided smile. “Do me favor? I'm going to need some more information on Curiosity.”

“Ah!” Thor grinned at him. “Aye. This, I can do for you. The Son of Coul will assist me, we will make you a briefing packet.” He paused. “Or a battle plan.”

“Either one will work just fine, thank you, Thor.”

In the workshop, Tony and Dummy were having a staring contest. Steve heaved a slight sigh, and muscled the door open. “Okay, guys, let's take a break. Jarvis, has Dummy actually charged today?”

“No, his battery level is at less than 50%.”

“Okay. Dummy, please go charge. Tony, I brought you dinner, let's sit down.” No one moved as he set the tray down and started unloading the plates. Steve waited until he'd laid the food out on the lab bench, then he took a seat. “Dummy, charging station. Tony, come eat.”

There was another moment of stillness, of stubborn Stark resistance, and Steve set one hand flat on the workbench. “Right now,” he said, and his voice was soft and firm and precise, and just like that, the standoff was broken, and Dummy rolled across the workshop as Tony slumped onto the stool next to Steve. “Thank you,” Steve said to them both.

“I am not arranging a marriage for my damn bot,” Tony grumbled, pouting down at his plate. He picked up his fork and stabbed the pasta. “I cannot even tell you how embarrassing that would be.”

“Think of it less of an arranged marriage and more of a playdate,” Steve said, and Tony groaned.

“Is that supposed to help? Because, Steve? Not helping.” Tony leaned against his side. “This is just... I do not want to deal with this.”

Steve gave him a very understanding murmur, the words weren't necessary, only the sympathetic tone. He tipped his head to the side so he could kiss Tony's dark hair.

“You are a pain in the ass!” Tony yelled across the workshop at the bot, who lifted his head. “Really. Really, you are a colossal pain in the ass, give me one reason why I shouldn't just restrict your network access. Cut you off entirely.”

“Because you're secretly very proud of him for pulling it off,” Steve said, handing him a his wine glass.

Tony huddled behind the glass, glaring at nothing. “Am not.”

Steve grinned. “Eat dinner, Tony. Then you can give your friend a call and set up a-”

“No.”

“You know you're going to do it, Tony.”

“Absolutely not.”

“We can have Jarvis act as a chaperone.”

“That is a terrible idea. What has Jarvis ever done to you?”

Jarvis cleared his non-existent throat. “It seems a sound compromise, sir. Dummy is quite unhappy right now. It makes him a difficult companion.”

“I did not sign up to be the parent to a resentful teenager,” Tony said, his head thrown back on Steve's shoulder. “No. Absolutely not. Absolutely. Not.”

Steve cupped his chin. “Call Julia,” he said, and followed the instruction with a kiss. “Jarvis and I will go over dating protocol with Dummy.” Tony gave him a look that clearly telegraphed that he was not in favor of this plan. Steve shrugged. “Well, who else do we have? I am not letting Clint do it, and Natasha has a pretty pragmatic outlook on these things. Coulson? Bruce? Thor?”

“How did any of us get laid?” Tony asked. “I mean, I have money, that works on most people, don't know how I managed you, you're not impressed by much, certainly not the money or the company. Holy fuck, how did any of us manage to-” He sat up. “Pepper. Pepper has social skills. We can get Pepper to explain dating.”

“I'm sure she'll be glad to help,” Steve said, even though he wasn't sure of any such thing. She usually put up with their nonsense willingly enough, and maybe the two of them could handle the situation without Tony's intervention.

Dummy was probably better off without Tony's dating advice.

*