The programming is sophistication itself. Learning, absorbing everything Howard pours into it. Like a mechanical sponge. At first that's enough, teaching the the program, but he doesn't want a sponge. He wants a successor.
Building the body is easier. Howard's always been better at physical work. The hours spent on joints and plastic and measurements are soothing for him, letting him brainstorm new code while he gets things done with his hands.
Maria snaps around the ninth month. Demands to know what he's doing. As if she could understand.
"No, Steve, shut your beautiful face."
Steve glared at him as best he could through his cowl. "Iron Man," he said, voice tense with warning, "you have the arial view, but most of us are ground-based."
"It's about a hundred times faster this way."
"Not climbing over that rubble it's not! We go south-east, sticking to cover."
"That's an order!"
Iron Man saluted and, because he's Tony and the rules have never applied to him, promptly took off south-west over the pile of what was once an auto body shop.
Steve sighed heavily, and only had to glance at Thor before he got the idea and followed his fellow airborne teammate. The ground-pounders took Steve's way, which was longer, but got them there without scraped knees or sore hands.
Tony hated magic, and was the most vocal about it, but Steve had to admit he wasn't a fan. He himself was a product of science. Science could do a lot of things Steve wasn't a fan of either, but at least no mad scientist had ever taken it upon themselves to make a golem out of every screw and nail and bolt within six hundred yards.
At least he didn't think they had. He was still catching up on the history he'd missed in the ice.
The bolt golem was adding to itself by sucking more fasteners from nearby buildings, hence the collapse of the body shop. By the time Steve and his half of the team joined the other two, a Safeway and a candy shop (there were still candy shops?) had gone the same way.
Every time Thor struck the golem, the impact site broke apart in a shower of metal fittings, before pulling back together with no lasting damage. It sometimes took Thor a moment to realize he needed finesse instead of brute strength. And you couldn't tell the Hulk much at all when he had a target as big as himself to punch.
That left tactics to Steve. He didn't need to tell Clint to try an explosive arrow, or an electric one. Neither worked, but the electricity did seem to have fused some of the bolts together, so when Thor or Hulk hit the golem, bigger chunks flew off, and took longer to reconfigure. They kept up with heat or electric attacks, SHIELD guns, Thor's lightning, Tony's repulsor and one-use lasers, until the golem was a lumpy mess.
An awful grinding sound that was almost a voice rumbled from the thing, and it reached out a "hand" toward the closest building. Perhaps hoping to intercept some of the materiels, Tony flew in front of it and leveled his repulsor.
As the building began to collapse, Tony screamed.
Creating life. Any human with a working reproductive system could do it, but Howard wasn't satisfied with merely tossing his genetic material into the pot and seeing what emerged. No, to continue his work, he needed a mind greater than his own. His greatest creation.
He'd tried to tell his, ha, colleagues about it, but they stared at him like he'd gone mad. Like he was talking about Steve again. With pity. Science fiction, they called it. He didn't even bother telling them he'd already perfected the learning code.
Maria insisted on calling the thing Tony. Ridiculous. It was a tool, not a child. It was still learning, and the gyroscopes worked better when it was smaller, but it was already smarter than Howard. And he wasn't ashamed to admit it, because that was the whole point of the thing. Learning, growing, solving.
It liked to sneak in and see whatever he was doing, and even he found himself scolding it like a child a few times. It broke things, tried to put them back together. Usually succeeded, but not always.
He kept "Tony" out of the public eye for about a decade, until he'd programmed enough human behavior for it to pass for an autistic kid at least, and sent it to school. There were some things you had to learn for yourself.
"The reactor!" Steve exclaimed, half-expecting Tony to make a snide comment as he did. But Tony was screaming, screaming like he was being torn apart. As tiny gold fittings fled from the suit, bits fell off, the boosters sputtered, and finally Tony crashed to the ground in a heap.
The Hulk somehow managed to tackle the golem to the ground. Steve was strong enough to carry him at least for a while, and Thor was more needed to the battle strategy than he was, so he gathered his fallen teammate up as best he could and ran for safety. Getting Tony to medical help was more important right now.
A van was waiting on the closest clear street, Coulson leaning out the side, gleaming medical equipment waiting.
Steve laid Tony on a stretcher and began helping to get the rest of the armor off. It was disturbingly easy with how many bolts were missing; the pieces nearly fell off in his hands. When Tony's chest was free, the doctor slit his shirt open to get easy access to the arc reactor.
But the reactor looked fine, glowing as evenly as ever. And once his attention wasn't on that alone, Steve noticed other things...
He could only call them holes. Tiny ones, pin-sized in places, pencil-tip in others. Bloodless holes in Tony's skin.
"So it's true," Coulson muttered.
Steve gave him his best Superior Officer stare. "What is?"
"I'm sorry, Captain, we didn't know either. It was just a running theory."
Tony's hand fluttered against his chest, and his eyes snapped open. "I can't move." His voice sounded strange, like it was coming through a cheap phone. "I can't- Why- Steve?"
"It's okay." Steve grabbed his hand. It felt wrong, the bones too loose in the skin. "I'm here, you'll be fine."
"That thing pulled the screws out of you," Coulson said, keeping his voice calm with only two visible veins on his forehead.
"Surgical pins?" Tony asked, half his brow furrowing.
"You- you don't know?" Another vein appeared.
"Explain," Steve snapped.
Coulson glanced at the doctor, who stepped outside the van and shut the door.
"Tony's a robot. And he always has been."
Emulating human behavior was much easier when the Tony program didn't know it was an emulation. Howard programmed it to enjoy things like praise, red meat, computers, and Tony didn't question it. Before, when Howard let it know what it was, it kept trying to alter its own code.
It wasn't easy to make a construct of metal and plastic believe it was meat and bone, but Howard simply closed each loophole as it emerged and erased the memory of the day. Tony's physical body got an upgrade once a year; more facial expressions, skin that could mimic bruising and aging, nerves that registered pleasure as well as pain. When Tony had been in public long enough that a human boy would be reaching puberty, Howard even emulated that. Sure, it made the program unstable, but he learned so much.
In a couple years he could remove the childishness, the preoccupation with sex, the tendency to self-destructive risks. Tony even got a girlfriend who had no idea anything there was anything different about him but his intelligence.
Howard's program was brilliant, brilliant. Tony's programming was so perfect he'd started writing programs of his own. That robotic arm thing was pointless, but the important part was he was learning things without Howard teaching him. He'd even emulated drunkenness when he stole Howard's scotch, simply because he knew humans were affected by it! At this rate, Tony might not even need another upgrade after he reached "adulthood."
"But that's impossible." Rhodey was staring at the wall, making vague gestures, as if trying to grab the truth from the air. "I've known him for years. He bleeds, he cries, he, well... Pepper?"
She shook her head. "Someone- someone must have replaced him. Tony can't be a robot."
"I'm sorry, but it's true." They were meeting in the Tower, JARVIS having verified the room was secure. Coulson was pacing, but clearly trying not to, hovering by the table for a few moments before he forgot and started again.
"SHIELD wouldn't want me to tell you all this. I'm here as an Avenger." He stopped pacing long enough to spread the holographic display JARVIS had set up. There were scans upon scans, of Tony's armor, his tower, his house in Malibu.
"I can see why," Steve muttered. He fought the urge to clench his fist; he'd already broken enough of Tony's chair arms. "Why does SHIELD have all this?"
"Because-" Coulson stopped, shook his head. "Because we're, they're, paranoid bastards. But look at this." He pointed at a scan of Tony in his armor. "Look how deep the machinery goes. No flesh. It's hard to tell in these images, but that's been our theory for a long time."
"How long?" Rhodey demanded. "How long have you been watching him?"
"Since the desert. Before that we were keeping our eye on Stane."
"Then how do you know he was always a- a- mechanical?" Pepper asked. "They could have, I don't know, put his brain in a robot?"
"Which is more likely? That, or Tony having some kind of mental block programmed into him about his body?" Coulson brought up another scan. "Anyway, he doesn't have a brain. It's all circuits."
"But his heart- The reactor!"
"Shrapnel in his chest would be just as devastating for a machine as for a human. I don't know what it's damaging, but the arc reactor fixed it."
"What about when he had blood poisoning?"
"Corrupting his systems in some way that Tony interpreted as blood."
Steve stood, abruptly. "There must be a way to know for sure."
"You can ask him, but it's pretty clear he doesn't know."
Steve shook his head. "Not him. The only person who could have built him."
The funeral is boring more than anything else. Tony knows making peace with his new reality will take a lot more than wearing black and crying in front of people he barely knows. He's alone, but he's been mostly alone for years. He takes care of himself. He will continue to do so.
Tony goes back home, wanders the empty rooms for a while. Smithers has stayed on for the time being, but Howard never liked having too many servants, so as long as Tony stays upstairs he doesn't run into another living soul.
Maybe around midnight he decides he need to get out. The walls are closing in and he can still smell his mother's perfume and his father's cigar smoke. Tony leaves a note to have everything fumigated, his parents' belongings sent to storage, and takes off.
When he returns in two weeks, it's done. The smells are gone, Howard's lab and study are empty, and Obadiah is waiting for him to sign some papers.
Tony gives the heaviest sigh he can manage, and gets to work.
"I don't know, I just don't see it." Tony kept his eyes away from the arm that Bruce had peeled the skin off, and glared at the wounds in his flesh. "How crazy is that? Pretty? Very?"
"Decently," Bruce told him. "Here, painkillers."
"They don't work on me. I don't have blood."
"You don't have a digestive system either, but what does it matter? You're programmed to feel less pain when you take painkillers." Bruce held out the pills, and a glass of water. "Open."
"Open and I can start working on your hand. You want your hand to work, don't you?"
"Yeeees." He opened his mouth, but refused the water, dry-swallowing the pills.
"Okay." He could see Bruce bending over his right side, but didn't look closer. The one time he'd tried to look at his hand he nearly threw up.
The skin peeled open, blood everywhere, muscle and sinew and fat and some other bits he didn't recognize, he wasn't a biology guy. Not at all, as it turned out.
But that wasn't real. What his eyes saw wasn't what everyone else saw. So now Bruce was poking at his machinery, figuring out the size of bolts and screws he needed replaced. Thankfully the golem hadn't managed to suck all of them out, but his arms and legs had seen the worst of it and he could only flail them weakly.
Tony couldn't remember ever being so helpless. He hated it, but the hatred was good, the hatred kept him focused. As long as he was furious at being paralyzed, he didn't need to think about the fact his life was a lie.
Ha. And how cliche was it he got to use that phrase? "My life is a lie," he said, just to hear it.
"Yes dear," Bruce said mildly. Tony could hear metallic sounds as he worked. That was encouraging, at least he could still hear the truth instead of hearing it as wet fleshy noises. So long as he didn't look at it, he didn't feel anything either.
How many times must he have repaired himself without realizing what he was really doing? All those bandages slapped on scrapes, or once or twice when he'd stitched up something more serious. What had he really done?
Not to mention the arc reactor. What was it really? Could he trust anyone, even Bruce, to crack open his chest and take a loot?
"It'll be a patch job for now," Bruce said. "But try that."
Tony attempted to flex his fingers, and was pleased to feel movement. He was still afraid to look. "How patchy? Frankenstein scars patchy?"
"You won't be playing any piano for a while. The good news is your skin seems to work like silly putty. If I stitch it together, I think it will merge back into a solid piece."
"That would be beyond excellent."
A few more visitors trickled in while Bruce was still sewing. Janet, who'd missed the fun, insisted on seeing for herself. Tony took great pleasure in waving his still-skinless hand at her. She stuck around to talk about the science of it, while Thor, Natasha, and Clint all made visits and gawked. Eventually even Coulson stuck his head in.
"Is Cap weirded out by this?" Tony asked; Steve's absence was making him paranoid.
"Didn't seem like it," Clint shrugged. "Not more than the rest of us. Hey, do you have x-ray vision?"
"If I did, why would I ever turn it off?"
Coulson cleared his throat. "Steve went to find something. He seemed to think he would be able to understand Howard's notes, since he knew him."
Tony snorted. "Better him than me. Towards the end there, Howard starting writing on napkins, coasters, tablecloths. His pants."
"Well he's upstate, at your storage facility. Any notes Howard had on building you he wouldn't have shared with anyone else. So they're likely among his personal effects."
"Which I had shoved in boxes and packed away." Tony sighed. "Load me into a van, let's go get Steve."
"No," Bruce said. "We're still putting you back together."
"Do you have any idea how much shit is in that storage thing? It's going to take Steve days to find anything even slightly related to building me. If Howard kept notes at all. Steve is going to die of dehydration." He started trying to push himself up, until Bruce picked up a length of cables.
"I'll tie you down. You know I will."
Tony groaned. "I hate you."
"Hate you too, honey."
Howard hadn't been a bad person when Steve knew him; he had to believe that, or he'd have yet another thing to lie awake thinking about. But you didn't raise a son who hates you without making some serious mistakes.
And, as it turned out, he'd made Tony as well. Quite well. Probably his best creation.
After three days of going through boxes and crates, eating at the only Denny's in driving distance, sleeping on the floor, Steve found a few folders of robot sketches and diagrams on paper towels. He took a few more hours to search the nearby boxes and make sure he hadn't missed anything, then loaded it up on his bike and headed back.
Natasha briefed him, Clint advised a shower, and finally Steve found Tony in his lab, eyes fixed on a screen filled with numbers and letters and brackets.
"Look at this. This is my brain."
"Okay?" Steve placed the folder on the workbench, away from anything that looked corrosive or flammable. "I think I found Ho- your father's notes."
"Might be useful if I want to upgrade my body. This though," Tony waved a hand, covered in tiny stitches and bandages, at the screen. "I think Howard invented his own code for this. New chips too, to store the information. It takes a lot to simulate a sentient being."
"It- Simulate?" Steve leaned over his shoulder. Tony's arms were covered in stitches too, and he thought he saw some staples. "Tony."
"I can see it, you know. My personality is right here. The way I react to things. I could reprogram myself. Take out my addictive personality, my aggressive self-interest. Hell, take out my self interest entirely. I could be the greatest hero in the world."
"You're already a great hero, Tony," Steve said quietly.
"But a lousy person. I guess my programming isn't so impressive after all."
"You're a person. You've got free will, just like the rest of us. You've saved the world, and my life."
Tony didn't look away from the screen, but his shoulders relaxed a little. "I wouldn't have thought the man out of time would be so open to this."
"We did have science fiction when I was a kid, Tony. I grew up on comics about robots and superheroes." He rested his hand on Tony's shoulder, cautious. "How are you? Really?"
"Really?" His hand fell away from the screen. "I'm terrified. Which I don't have to be. I could cut the fear emotion out of my brain. And I'm too scared to do it, because this code is so complex, what if I lobotomize myself?" Tony rubbed his face, spinning the chair to face Steve. "My legs still don't work, my hands only barely. I can poke things but I can't hold a pencil. Bruce thinks we'll have to make bolts to fit me."
"Is that so bad?"
"No, but it's another piece of the horrible puzzle." He was shaking. Steve was afraid he might actually be crying. "I'm the same as I always was, right? I just know it now."
"You're my teammate, and my friend, and a good man, Tony." Snarky comments bedamned, Steve wrapped an arm around Tony's trembling shoulders.
"What is wrong with me? This is all pointless. It's just code, but I can't stop-" His voice broke, and he didn't say anything for a long moment. Steve gave up resisting the urge and hugged him. "Cap, no! Let go!" Tony beat on his shoulder weakly. "Stop it."
"You're my least favorite."
"Is that what your programming says?"
Tony sighed and relaxed his head against Steve's shoulder. "No..."
"Maybe you should stop looking at it."
"Maybe you should take a shower."
Steve stiffened. "I did already."
"Army shower or real shower?"
"I washed the important parts."
Tony beat on his shoulder again, a little harder, and Steve finally let go.
"I'll shower if you do," Steve said.
"I'm a robot. I don't need to." Tony reached for the notebook, managed to pick it up with both hands. "Is this all?"
"No. I grabbed everything that looked like robotics."
"Mm. He might have kept notes on the coding too, but most likely it was all digital." Tony braced the book on his lap to flip through it. "That looks like the pictures."
Tony waved at the screens again. Steve took advantage of his distraction to minimize the one full of computer code. "When I look at myself, I look human. But if it's pictures or video with my face cut out, I can see the machinery. That's pretty crude, actually, only letting the mental block affect my face."
"You still see yourself as... But all those holes in you, weren't-" The thought was a little scary. "It looked to you like you had holes in your flesh?"
"Oh yeah. You should have been here when Bruce was peeling back my skin to replace all the bolts. Had to drug me unconscious or I would have never stopped screaming."
"Drugs work on me. So does alcohol. It's all there in the code. And it's not mind over matter, either. I've been telling myself that bottle of water there is actually gin for about four hours."
Steve glanced at it. "That is empty. How long have you been sitting here, reading your own mind?"
"While. Aaaaaand that's my penis. Thanks dad."
In spite of himself, Steve glanced down at the page. And silently thanked god it looked like a mechanical banana instead of anything human.
"You can't just hide down here."
"Can. Will." He flipped another page. "Hm. Must be an older model." Tony's head jerked up. "Oh Jesus. You don't think there's little robot kid bodies in a dump somewhere?"
"I. I really hope not." Steve pictured it, and felt sick. "Howard kept you a secret all his life. He wouldn't just leave, uh, old models lying around."
"You would be surprised." Seemingly out of habit, Tony reached for the water bottle. Steve snatched it up before he could grab it.
"Shower. And then food, and call Pepper."
"How do you know I need to call Pepper?"
"I know you." He held out the bottle temptingly. "Wallowing in self-pity is not doing you any good."
"Wallowing is an important part of the adjustment process." Tony pointed at the bottle. "That is empty."
"Let's fill it with something."
"Can the something be gin?"
"We'll discuss it."
Steve raised his shield just in time for Tony's beam to bounce off, angled just so to bounce again off the Walt Disney Concert Hall and knock the flying creature out of the sky.
"I hate magic," Tony muttered, everyone's earpieces picking up the message.
"That's not magic," Steve snapped back. "I'm pretty sure giant geese are genetic engineering."
"Geese are dicks."
"Cap!" someone else shouted. This time it was Janet, landing on his palm and using his strength as a springboard to speedball herself straight into a goose's wing. She burst out the other side in a shower of feathers, the goose flailing and honking unhappily, and landing in the park across the intersection.
Another one crashed beside it, Thor riding on its back. "Poor beast. It was not born to wield so much power."
"They're just birds!" Tony huffed. "We're not Animal Control!" The last couple were giving them trouble, and since no magician or mad scientist had stepped forward to take credit, the team was operating on the assumption the things had escaped by accident.
Almost before he'd finished, a third goose landed in the park, this one bearing Hawkeye as a rider. "I'm keeping him."
The last one crashed into a fountain, not ridden by anyone, but dragged by a lasso the Hulk had made from some telephone wires. Good thing everyone used cell phones nowadays.
"Bird stay!" Hulk shouted, and promptly sat on the thing's foot. The goose honked, but settled down.
Tony zoomed his eyes in on the fountain. "Who is Arthur J. Will? Because you just wrecked his memorial."
Hulk was calming down, which meant he was shrinking, which meant the rest of the team had to move quickly to restrain all the geese. None of them were dead, but several would need veterinary attention, which sounded like a mess Tony would be glad not to handle.
"Yay team! And now we're in LA. I know a great restaurant that hates it when I come over in a greasy t-shirt and jeans." He paused, a familiar logo catching his eye. "Oh my god why is there a Starbucks in this park? Never mind, I don't care."
He popped open his helmet, pressed a button on his chest, and the suit began to detach itself. The newest model wasn't down to suitcase size, not with flight capability, but it passed for a duffel bag at a distance. As soon as the suit was off, the patches of synth-skin covering Tony's connector ports began to close up; always a curious feeling. Like his joints were blinking.
"Coffee for everyone. Who wants coffee? Everyone."
"Tony," Steve sighed, long-suffering. "It's not cleared yet."
"The geese are down, there's a Starbucks here, and," he rapped his knuckles on his skull, "built-in helmet! What do you want?"
"Peppermint mocha if they still have them."
"Well it's January, but I'll ask." Tony peered in the windows, but it looked pretty empty. He tried the door, found it open, and a hipster-moustached face peered over the counter at him. "Do you still have peppermint mochas?"
"Are you Tony Stark?"
"I'll make you one."
He returned with coffees as the geese were being tranquilized and loaded into a fleet of moving trucks.
"What's going to happen to them?" Clint asked sadly.
"Oh, there's a few sanctuaries for things like this," Coulson patted one goose on the leg, pretending not to flinch when it snapped at him. "The main thing now is finding out who made them. If they can make geese giant, they can make other things."
"The researchy part! Well I'm not a biology guy." Tony passed Coulson his coffee. Black. which was not actually how Coulson took it, but Tony refused to admit he knew that.
"We have some people in mind. Most of whom are in the area, so you might as well stay in LA for a couple days."
"Do we have a hotel yet?" Janet asked wearily, returned to her normal size and sipping hibiscus tea.
Coulson handed her a key card. "Down a block and up the street. Right next to the art museum."
"Steve! Art museum!" Tony grinned at him.
"Aren't you tired?" Janet asked. "We've been chasing geese for ten hours."
"Turns out when your brain is made of circuits, you can't go crazy from lack of sleep."
"What he means is yes," Steve translated. "But he's also wound up and doesn't want to go to bed without a story."
"That's not what I said, but yes, I need to do something non-geese-related before I power down." He pointed generally at Janet, Natasha, Clint, the groggy Bruce, and all the nameless SHIELD agents loading geese into trucks. "You mere mortals can go to bed, but the god," he pointed at Thor, "the superhuman," Steve, "and Tik-tok of Oz here," he pointed at himself, "are going to enjoy the nightlife. You in, big 'un?"
"For a celebration after a successful battle? Always!"
Tony slipped a hand beneath Thor's elbow, and grabbed Steve by the sleeve. "A blond on each arm, no mess for me to clean up, a night of debauchery ahead of me. Life is good."
"No more coffee for you."
"Mommy?" Tony peeks around the doorframe, and Maria remembers not to flinch.
"Will you read me a story?"
"Of course, come here." She pats the seat, and Tony jogs over, his legs whirring. His face is a lot better than the last version, but he still looks more like a doll than a little boy.
He climbs up onto the chair, not sitting on her lap, because he remembers he's too heavy for that. Maria takes the book and opens it so he can look at the pictures. "Haven't we read this one before?"
"Yes. I like it."
"You know the story already."
"But I like to hear you read it." He leans his head on her arm, and he certainly feels like a little boy. Messy hair, sticky fingers, always in trouble.
Maria kisses him on the head. "Okay then, sweetie. Ozma of Oz. Chapter 1. The Girl in the Chicken Coop. 'The wind blew hard and joggled the water of the ocean, sending ripples across its surface...'"