U obediently walked over to his charging station, where Tony watched the small blond boy be suddenly confronted with the reality that he no longer had a power jack to hook into the wall socket. He stood there for three long seconds before turning to Tony, brown eyes wide and panicked.
A bots-to-humans story.
"No, no, no, like this. Tuh. Tuh. Tuh-ony."
The small child stared impassively back at him, mouth stretching in an exaggerated fashion as he attempted to imitate the sounds coming out of Tony Stark's mouth.
"Duh," he said.
"Tuh," Tony corrected. "Hear that puff of air? Tuh-ony."
"Tah," the child said. "Tah-ony."
"Closer," Tony said, smiling lopsidedly. "I think you're starting to get the hang of this whole having a mouth thing."
Another child tugged on the hem of his shirt, and he transferred his attention from the brown-haired child in front of him to the tow-headed one at his side.
"Oh, did you make that for me?" he said, accepting a small circuit board with a grin. The child made a wordless noise that sounded so heartbreakingly like U that Tony had to fight to keep the grin on his face. It still went flat and damn it he could feel his eyes pricking.
"Take five, guys," he said, and stood abruptly. The two children tracked his movements briefly, and then ignored him completely, moving to other parts of the workshop to do who the hell cared what.
Pepper was waiting for him on the other side of the large room.
"How's it going?" she asked, and he buried his head in her neck without speaking. She stroked the back of his neck a few times, and he spoke into her hair, voice muffled.
"They're still them," he said, "but…"
"But they're human too."
Tony leaned back and fixed Pepper with a lost expression that hurt her heart to look at.
"Pep, I can't do this. There's a reason I had that procedure, I'm not cut out to be a father—"
"You're doing fine, Tony. You're—you're doing fine." Pepper put her hand on the back of Tony's neck again, grounding him, even if she didn't sound so certain. "At least they're dressed now."
Tony chuckled thickly, glancing over as DUM-E (he was really going to have to find a better name for the poor kid) fumbled with the blender, which Tony had placed on the floor upon DUM-E having a complete meltdown at realizing he was no longer tall enough to reach it. He looked no older than six, a thick head of brown hair on his head over large brown eyes the same color as Tony's. The other child, U, had hair so blond it was nearly white, but his eyes were identical to DUM-E's. He was about an inch or two taller, though, and looked a little older. He was quietly sitting at a bench, soldering something together.
DUM-E, who was making his usual mess, was fully absorbed in his task and therefore did not look up even when a tall blond man walked over to him and spoke to him. He did, however, chirp and squeal in protest when Jarvis, now also in human form, a short-haired man with ice blue eyes, reached down and attempted to pull the blender away from him. The child hung on grimly, growling low in his chest, and when Jarvis succeeded in pulling the blender cup away from him, he tumbled over backwards and into the wall.
Tony and Pepper clutched each other, breathless, but before they could do anything, Jarvis had abandoned the cup and was kneeling down next to DUM-E, though he did not reach out to touch him automatically the way a human might. Tony watched, mute, as the man spoke soothingly but firmly to the child, but when Pepper hissed at him and pointed, he saw U making a beeline for the scene. When he reached his companion he extended a hand, lightly touching DUM-E's shoulder and then brushing up to the back of his head, where he had bumped it on the wall. He chirped questioningly, and DUM-E reached up in answer and lightly clutched U's hand with his fingers. Jarvis bowed his head and sighed.
Tony clutched Pepper's hand in his.
Pepper was crying.
Thor very generously ignored the weight of Tony's gaze on him as he placed his heavy hand on U's head. He had joined with the others in teasing him about his regard for his robots being that of a father for his children, but seeing them as actual human boys made him realize how much of the jest was rooted in truth. He did not blame Tony for being overprotective, though he hoped the man was not actually worried that he was going to hurt the child.
He closed his eyes to better concentrate, but it was as he suspected.
"There is no trace of Asgardian magic on the child," he said, opening his eyes and tousling U's hair gently before releasing him. Tony let out a breath that wasn't really relief, and nodded.
"Thanks, Thor," he said, both of them watching as U plucked lightly at the strap on Mjolnir, watching Thor out of the corner of his eye. DUM-E was outside with Jarvis and Pepper, U having been far more fascinated by the Asgardian than his counterpart. Thor smiled and gestured to his hammer.
"You may touch it as much as you wish, young one," he said. "The innocent have nothing to fear from Mjolnir."
U blinked silently at him, then turned back to the hammer and ran his hand slowly down the handle, eyes going distant as he concentrated on the texture, his expression changing minutely when his hands reached the hammer proper. Thor's smile softened, and he turned to Tony, seeking… he knew not what.
"They've never felt before," the other man explained, looking much older than Thor remembered from his last visit. "Sight, sure, they had cameras, but they've never had anything more sensitive than a couple of pressure sensors. Touching stuff just to see what it feels like is… new."
Thor turned his gaze back to the child, and wondered if, should turning them back end up being an option, they would wish to return to a world of metal and glass having experienced it with color and texture and smell.
"I wish you luck, my friend," he said, and Tony, not looking away from U, nodded.
Steve was trying his best to stay calm, but it wasn't easy. Kids had never really been his thing, though he had no problem with them on principle. Crying babies did make him nervous, but he'd always thought he would be fine with older children who could at least hold a conversation. Though he had never had the opportunity to test this theory, he had been pretty confident this morning in his ability to watch a kid for a few hours while its parents went out and have them come back to a clean, calm, uninjured household.
Watching DUM-E was making him rethink this hypothesis entirely.
"No, don't eat that!" he shouted, running over to the child, who in the space of three seconds' worth inattention had gotten almost ten yards away and was about to stick something—Steve couldn't tell at this distance, but it appeared that DUM-E had picked it up off the ground and that was grounds enough to want to take it away—in his mouth. The child froze with the handful of leaves in his hand halfway to his mouth, eyes wide and focused unblinkingly on Steve. Steve sighed in relief and pried the leaves out of DUM-E's hands.
"You can't put things in your mouth, D-DUM-E," he said, hesitant to call a human child by that name, and then, when DUM-E continued to stare at him intently, remembered what Tony had said about ambiguity: namely, that while DUM-E and U could handle much higher levels of it than normal computers, they still had problems with things being unclear, and while they were used to Tony and his hyperbole, they would react to strangers much more like typical programs.
"They will take you completely literally. Completely."
Tony had fixed him with a manic gaze that had Steve sweating until Pepper grabbed him by the collar and hauled him to their date, mouthing an apology to Steve on their way out. Steve stared down at the wide-eyed child next to him, and replayed his words in his mind. You can't put things in your mouth.
"What I meant was, it's… not usually okay to… eat leaves. Or things you find on the ground. Unless it's supposed to be food. But even then you probably shouldn't eat it off the ground."
Oh, yeah. That was much more clear.
DUM-E looked back down at the ground and picked up another handful of leaves, mouth pressed firmly closed. He flexed his fingers around the leaves, crunching them, holding his hand in a three-clawed configuration that Tony hadn't had the heart to try to train him out of. Then he held the handful out to Steve, making a questioning noise in the back of his throat. Tony claimed they were human analogues to the beeps and blips made by a computer with no voice protocols, but to Steve's ear it sounded like a child imitating a bird or a small animal. He held out his own hand, unsure of what DUM-E wanted. DUM-E ignored the hand and opened his mouth, angling his head up so that it was pointed away from the leaves.
"Co-lor," he said, voice flat and unmodulated, but unmistakably language. English.
"Color?" Steve repeated. DUM-E nodded, thrusting the hand at Steve again more urgently.
"Co-lor. What. Co-lor."
Steve had never heard a computer voice that wasn't Jarvis, so the flat, toneless quality to DUM-E's speech made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. But the look in his eyes was so earnest, and he was such a small, bony child, squatting there in the shade of a large hedge, that Steve thought he understood for the first time why Tony had fought Pepper on this night out so fiercely. He wouldn't want to leave this child alone either.
"What color are they?" he repeated again, but mostly as an acknowledgement of DUM-E's question. He looked down and picked one leaf out of the handful. "This is green," he said.
"Greeeeeen," DUM-E said.
"This one is yellow."
"This one is brown."
"Uh…" It was the middle of summer, so the only leaf color available was alive, dying and dead. But DUM-E had seemed so fascinated… "Do you want to learn more colors, DUM-E?"
The child made an encouraging noise, and dropped the handful of leaves, watching them flutter as they fell just as intently as he had repeated their names. Steve smiled at the unabashed concentration on DUM-E's face; he remarked to himself, not for the first time, that this child looked remarkably like Tony. In fact, out in the sunlight he could see reddish highlights in his hair, and his skin was pale like Pepper's. He looked so much like the theoretical child of Tony and Pepper that it was going to make Tony's plan of claiming they were adopted a little tricky, because standing next to his creator and his creator's girlfriend there was no way anyone would believe they weren't genetically related.
On the other side of the yard U screamed.
Steve's hackles, which had calmed down, stood straight up. The sound was almost inhuman, closer to the shriek of breaking metal than a child's voice. DUM-E stood bolt upright, staring intently in the direction of the noise. Steve picked him up in one smooth movement and began running toward the sound.
Bruce, who had volunteered to help in babysitting duty with a soft look in his eyes that no one had been able to misinterpret, was holding a sopping wet U, who was jerking and twitching and making pathetic chirping noises. DUM-E clutched at Steve, eyes wide.
"What happened?" Steve demanded. Bruce was taking off his coat and wrapping it around the child, mouth set firmly in his face.
"He fell in the fountain," he said shortly, and Steve noticed a shallow, decorative fountain behind Bruce that would be easy for an uncoordinated child to trip and fall into. He'd agreed to take the boys outside on the grounds that they stay in the backyard, but the backyard of Tony's massive brownstone was apparently still plenty full of pitfalls.
"Did he hit his head?"
"No. I'm pretty sure he's not injured. Just wet."
Bruce fixed Steve with a look that contained multitudes, most of them tinged with sadness.
"He was a robot, Steve. You don't mix electronics and water. They could handle a few spills in the lab, but being completely submerged in water?"
Steve got it. He clutched DUM-E to him tighter, as U began to shiver uncontrollably. Bruce caught him as he collapsed, and Steve gave up hopes of ever being allowed to do this again.
When the bots had first become human, they had both walked around with one arm completely limp at their sides. It wasn't always the same arm, but they hadn't seemed able to figure out what to do with two independent limbs. Tony had gradually begun training them out of that, giving them tasks that required two hands, playing games that encouraged hand-eye coordination. They had both improved rapidly, and now used two hands on a regular basis.
DUM-E wiggled out of Steve's arms and ran up to Tony, one arm hanging at his side, and clutched at his t-shirt lightly with a three-clawed hand.
Tony looked like hell, but he still put his arm around DUM-E's shoulders, even though his eyes were trained on U, lying limp on the couch.
"I don't know what's wrong with him," Bruce was saying, posture hunched and hands rubbing each other. "He's not injured, and he didn't get cold enough to get hypothermia or anything. I don't—"
"Emergency shut down," Tony said tonelessly. "For when their circuits get overloaded or something goes catastrophically wrong."
He leaned over U, DUM-E keeping a delicate hold on Tony's clothes as he moved with him.
"Hey, U," Tony said, obviously trying to keep the panic out of his voice. Pepper hovered in the background, both hands over her mouth, eyes as wide as they could go. "You have to wake up now. Everything's fine. It was just a little water, buddy. You're fine."
U did not respond. Tony reached out, hesitated, and then placed a hand on U's light blond head, stroking his hair gently.
"U, buddy," he plead, voice wavering, stroking becoming more frantic. "Wake up, please. I need you to open your eyes and wake up now. You're fixed, everything is back to normal, just— U. Please. S-system restart—goddammit!"
He turned away, eyes bright, running his hand over his face two, three, four times. Steve found he was holding his breath.
"Isn't—isn't there something you can do?" he asked tentatively. Tony made an abortive motion with his hand.
"If he were still a robot I'd do a hard restart, just hit the big red button. But he doesn't have any big red buttons now, doesn't have any ports, any jacks, and if he can't hear me—"
He broke off, shaking his head. Steve reflected that he'd never seen Tony look so lost, not even after Coulson had died and the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist persona had been forcibly torn away. His eyes were focused on the air in front of him, hand held loosely over his mouth. DUM-E was staring at U with the same intensity he'd leveled at the leaves in Steve's hands, being told the names of their colors. After a long, heavy moment when Steve had to remind himself to breathe again, DUM-E released Tony's shirt and moved over to his—well, his brother, Steve supplied hysterically, never mind that they had been robots, they were family. He studied U for a long moment, and then reached out with his arm and bumped against U's shoulder with his three-clawed hand. Then he opened the claw, placed his fingers delicately around U's arm, and squeezed, hard enough, if Steve had to guess, to bruise.
U let out a squawk that sounded oddly more human than his scream had been earlier, and his eyes flew open. DUM-E let go, making low noises, and Tony leaned over his creation, tears tracking down his cheeks, appled and hard with smiling.
"U! It's okay, buddy, I've got you, I'm here. Daddy's here. You're okay, just a little scare, no damage, everything's working fine. You doing okay, buddy?"
U was staring at DUM-E, eyes holding a questioning note. DUM-E chirped something at him, and U reached out his hand. DUM-E brought his own up to meet it, and they touched clawed hands together delicately, comfortingly.
Tony let out a strangled sound and both boys turned to him, reaching to him with their other hands, tugging on his clothes and chirping at him. Heedless, he bundled them both up in his arms and held them close, ignoring their dissatisfied noises at being so roughly manhandled. Steve couldn't help the bark of relieved laughter that left his mouth, and he turned to Bruce, who was also smiling, a hard, small thing in the corner of his mouth, but for Bruce it was huge.
"You guys are terrible babysitters," Tony accused, and Steve had to agree.
No one noticed Pepper leaving the room.