The remote controlled car was awesome. It was a foot long and six inches wide, a hand-painted miniature version of his father’s favorite porsche, the one Tony was never allowed to ride in. Tony fell in love with it at first sight - it was sleek, compact, exorbitantly expensive, and by far the coolest toy he’d ever seen.
He pestered his mother for weeks, talking about it constantly, doodling it over and over again in the margins of his multiplication workbooks.
Remote controlled devices were hardly a new thing in the Stark household; Howard prided himself on being cutting edge, which meant anything in the house that could be mechanized or controlled from across the room was.
Tony, being Tony, started taking those selfsame gadgets apart as soon as he figured out how to operate a screw driver. By the time he was three his parents had come to grips with the fact that their son had an immense physical intelligence and a grasp of how things worked that went beyond language - their reactions were mixed. His father found his son’s budding technological gifts obnoxious - it was hard as hell to keep Tony’s hands off of the VCR, let alone the computer in his office. Maria, on the other hand, lived in fear of her son electrocuting himself by sticking a screwdriver into the toaster. They began locking doors and cabinets and drawers, though it only took Tony a few months to learn how to pick them.
When your son was a mechanical genius, entertaining him could be a challenge - Tony would rather sit in his room and take apart his clock-radio than go outside and play with other children. When Tony asked - and asked, and asked, and asked, and asked, and god, asked for the car, Maria leapt at the chance to give him something age-appropriate and normal to do with his time.
The car was ordered and the five days it took to ship it to Long Island were the longest five days of Tony’s young life; on the day it finally arrived, every adult in the house breathed a sigh of relief. Tony would finally stop talking about the damn car.
Tony tore through the packaging, ripped open the box, slapped in a set of batteries without hesitation and was, in very short order, chasing his remote controlled porsche around the mansion with gusto.
Tony Stark, age five, was not a normal child.
That’s not to say that he never tried his hand at normal things; he didn’t actively try to be different, he just was. He cracked a window in the living room playing with a ball - that was normal, right? One time he convinced their aging chef to play tag in the backyard, which wasn’t quite as normal... and not all that much fun, considering how slow Gary ran. Once he even broke an arm while teaching himself to ride his bicycle; normal, except that he was only teaching himself because his dad was in Tokyo for the week. The trouble with normal mistakes was that when his father found out about them (he always did, even when Tony made himself a sling and pretended for two days that nothing was wrong with his wrist) he was always angry.
(He remembered how Howard frowned at the cracked window and muttered, just cracked it, didn’t you. With an arm like that I’d cross baseball off your list of career options, kiddo. Howard’s motto (well, one of Howard’s mottos, the Motto of the Week changed regularly) was if you’re going to fail, fail big. Little failures are for little men afraid to take big risks.)
So five year old Tony spent his Saturday sketching out ideas for his project. He was too afraid of being laughed at to ask for proper supplies (and he wasn’t allowed to use his soldering iron unsupervised) so superglue would have to do. Fortunately he had so many (unused, boring, pointless) electronic toys that beyond a few simple items he would have all that he needed. He took apart his clock-radio, his newest remote control car, his Evel Knievel Stunt Bike and began breaking them down methodically, dropping screws into piles by size and gauge, carefully cutting plastic and unwinding wires.
If he failed it would be big in concept if not in execution, and Dad would never find out anyway, so it wouldn’t even matter and nobody would laugh at him.
But if it worked... what would his dad say if it worked?
Excited, he started with car, prying off the undercarriage and combining the frame with the frame of his clock radio and working upwards from there.
It turned out that robots (talking or silent) were harder than he’d expected. The lighting in his room wasn’t very good, and the Christmas toolset he’d been given was a children’s version of what he really needed... the pieces made of plastic and easily worn down or snapped in two.
Tony had no idea why his mother thought her incredibly gifted son needed anything other than an honest to god toolset; sooner or later she was going to have to accept that what was appropriate for the average child was never going to be right for Tony.
Worse, the superglue he’d stolen from his father’s desk in lieu of the forbidden soldering iron really was super. It stuck to everything, to his nails and the lacquered wood floor and to the myriad tiny screws he’d set so carefully aside.
That was the most frustrating part of the whole undertaking, really: at age five, boy-genius Tony Stark was a heck of a lot more brilliant than he was physically coordinated. His fingers were small but clumsy, it took too many tries to fasten things in place, he needed tools smaller than the ones at hand... his body couldn’t keep up with his brain, and it was aggravating.
If he’d had access to his dad’s workroom it would have been easy, but his mother was adamant about keeping him away from such “dangerous” machinery. Tony thought he could probably pick the lock - but there were cameras down there, lots of cameras, and it just wasn’t worth it.
In the end, his best effort was something out of Frankenstein - a boxy plastic robot with just enough face to suggest a personality. It had limited motion-sensor capabilities and would ding at him when he picked up the remote - but it certainly wouldn’t be talking any time soon, and Tony couldn’t figure out how to make it move itself.
As far as friends went the little guy was pretty sub-par.
It wasn’t nearly as nice as the remote controlled car had been in the first place... but then it had been special-ordered from the United Kingdom and was barely ever played with.
At last Tony reached an unhappy conclusion - robots weren’t meant to be built by five year olds; at least, not by five year olds who could understand their own limited capability and resorted to throwing toy screwdrivers into walls in fits of frustrated pique. If he wanted to get serious about robotics it was going to take more than a judicious use of superglue and repeat readings of such age-inappropriate classics as I, Robot. It would also require developing actual motor skills, something that went beyond simple brains and into the realm of human developmental patterns. It wasn’t something he could cheat, or skip, or rush - even at five Tony hated things like that.
Also, he’d probably need a computer - and that was another one of those things he wasn’t allowed to play with unsupervised.
Sometimes (most of the time, really) Tony hated being so self-aware. He hated that he even knew what that phrase meant. He hated that while his parents knew his test scores and comprehension levels they didn’t seem to realize what they meant, and alternately treated him like a child or a fully-grown adult instead of understanding that he was stuck somewhere in between and that it was awful.
Staring at the slightly dented shell of his (shockingly advanced for a child, but not advanced enough for Tony) robot, Tony pushed his lips together in a thin line.
It wasn’t a failure, exactly, but it wasn’t a success, either. His little 10-inch-by-six-inch attempt at advanced robotics was still too tiny to meet Howard’s approval.
Sighing, Tony stripped the axles off the defective machine and began rebuilding the toys he’d cannibalized. After separating out the clock-radio guts from the remote-controlled car guts from the stung bike guts, he painstakingly went about reassembling them both.
The clock-radio was easy; Tony had broken it down and reassembled it at least three times within the first day he’d owned it, a day spent sprawled out on his bed with an absurdly advanced technical text and a dictionary laying next to him. He adjusted it, tuned it appropriately, and set it back on the desk with barely a thought.
The remote controlled car was the hardest thing to reconstruct. Tony could remember exactly where each piece belonged, but actually getting them there was significantly more difficult than he’d expected. There were springy shocks involved, and the tension of them made it difficult to force the other pieces back into their places on the frame. When one popped out and snapped him in the cheek, and he spent a few minutes blinking back tears and biting his lip.
Worst of all, several key elements of his defective robot-friend had required copious amounts of superglue to cement together and no longer fit into the remote controlled vehicle’s casing. Worse than failing to build a talking robot was failing to rebuild something he’d taken apart - something expensive that should have been easy and wasn’t.
Tony sat back, momentarily defeated, and began to calculate a plan.
Fifteen minutes later there was a yelp and a shriek in the mansion’s main stairwell, followed by a crash! and clatter of scattering plastic pieces. Tony (sure his father would guess that he was lying if his tumble was not utterly convincing) banged his elbow on the stairs as he slipped down and was half-slumped on the bottom step, holding his arm and working up a set of tears that were only half faked.
The remote controlled car hit the main floor on a corner and absolutely exploded, pieces flying every which way. This was premeditated, of course - Tony had loosened half the screws and dropped it just so. Even better, the plastic casing had actually cracked, splitting the bright red R/C toy nearly in half.
Now Tony began to cry. By the time Maria whipped around the corner, her dark hair plaited and coiled atop her head Tony had already reached the undignified choked-for-breath stage of his tears. He reached for her automatically and let her scoop him into her arms and cradle his head against her smooth, cool neck.
He loved the way his mother smelled - sweet and a little spicy. She didn’t even mind that he was dripping tears (and worse) all over her shoulder, or that he was really too big to be held comfortably anymore.
Oh, he loved his mother.
“Oh, honey, what happened?” Maria cooed, pressing her nose into his hair.
“I-“ sniff “I slipped on the stairs and I-“ snuffle “My arm... I hit m-my, I hit my arm and I br-br-broke my ca-aaa-aaar...”
If the wailing and tears were really the product of a miniature inventor’s creative frustration, Maria Stark didn’t need to know. “Oh honey, we can get you a new car, don’t worry a bit about the car, should we have James look at your elbow? Here, let me see sweetie, let’s get a glass of water and have James look it over.”
The arm was fine ("Not broken again, is it? Thank God," Howard observed from the doorway to the kitchen) and the maid swept up the shattered R/C car and nobody said a word about the superglue under his nails. Less than an hour later Tony nursed a cup of milk as his mother read from a designer catalog and Gary, the chef, prepared their supper - a normal evening at the Stark household.
The next day Tony went methodically through every cabinet in the house and made a mental list of solvents capable of removing super glue; three short weeks later the car was replaced. It took only seven hours for Tony to master breaking it down to its base components and rebuilding it perfectly.
He didn’t try his hand at another robot until he was 9.