Story Info

Title: Ghosts in the Machines

Author: Del Rion

Fandom: Iron Man (MCU)

Era: Takes place right before "The Fervid Defense Protocol"

Genre: Drama, hurt/comfort

Rating: T / FRT

Characters: J.A.R.V.I.S., Pepper Potts, Tony Stark (Iron Man), Tony's bots (DUM-E and U)

Pairing: Pepper/Tony

Summary: After everything that happened with the Mandarin and AIM, Tony attempts to regain a sense of normalcy in his life. It would seem, however, that he and the bots now share a common cause for anxiety: tremors.
Complete. Part of the "Genius, AI & Bots" series.

Written for: My card on Trope Bingo's Round 2 (square: "hurt/comfort")

Warnings: Poorly managed PTSD, a couple profanities. Contains Iron Man 3 spoilers.

Disclaimer: Iron Man, Avengers and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.

Beta: Mythra (mythras-fire)

Feedback: Always welcome ^^

About Ghosts in the Machines: The events of Iron Man 3 are bound to leave their marks on Tony – as well as the bots.

This story quite directly sets up the events of "The Fervid Defense Protocol" (even featuring Mark 43 & 45!), although it isn't necessary to read one story to understand the other.

Chapters and statuses: Below you see the writing process of the story's chapters. If there is no text after the chapter's title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.

Part 1
Part 2

. . .

Part 1

If nothing had been the same since New York – a name Tony still had some difficulty saying or hearing – then most certainly nothing had been the same since the Mandarin. Or, Aldrich Killian. Whatever.

There was also Extremis, and what the implications of Maya Hansen's life's work meant for Tony and Pepper. Mostly Pepper, but Tony had sorted that out to the best of his ability.

That wasn't to say that Extremis had changed nothing for Tony – far from it. Extremis enabled him to take the dreaded, nigh impossible step to get the shrapnel removed from his chest – and with it, the arc reactor.

So, in summary, a lot of things had changed.

It felt like a pit-stop on the road to normalcy when Tony fixed up the bots; to see their familiar forms moving in his peripheral vision, or to hear their sounds of inquiry, joy or protestation.

Reconstructing the bots from the wreckage Tony had pulled from the bottom of the ocean was hard. He could have done a complete remodel, but Tony craved familiarity in the midst of all the changes, and the bots filled that role perfectly.

Tony's private fear – only ever spoken out loud in the presence of J.A.R.V.I.S. – was that the bots wouldn't be the same. He had back-ups of their operating systems and latest modifications, but a nagging doubt kept popping up in the back of his mind; that something might be missing or corrupted.

He wasn't entirely wrong to fear those things, even when the bots came back just as they had been.

The first lesson – and, frankly, the only lesson Tony needed to learn in order to realize that not everything had gone back to normal with the bots –came when a magnitude 4.1 earthquake shook the Stark Industries housing complex where their temporary quarters were: Tony was jolted wide awake, confused, heart pounding madly.

"Sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. said in a quiet tone, perhaps to let Pepper sleep, "are you planning on getting out of bed?"

It was a strangely phrased question, as if J.A.R.V.I.S. were aiming at something the AI was yet to reveal.

"Probably," Tony whispered back. He wasn't gearing towards a panic attack, exactly, but he felt too uneasy to roll over and try to get back to sleep. So, he rolled off the bed, slipped into some clothes that lay close by, and left the bedroom as silently as possible; Pepper needed all the sleep she could get.

"What's up?" Tony asked as he headed for the stairs that led down to his temporary workshop. He didn't for a second think that J.A.R.V.I.S.'s earlier question was without ulterior motives.

"The bots are uneasy, sir," the AI replied. The sound system was crappy – just another thing Tony needed to fix – but this housing option was only temporary – or so Pepper kept telling him. Tony had a feeling she was biding her time before suggesting they move to New York City.

The mere idea sent shivers down his spine and a sensations of something hot and heavy being wedged between his inner organs.

Tony decided he wouldn't ask J.A.R.V.I.S. for a clarification on the bots; he was going down to the shop anyway, so, he would see for himself what 'uneasy' meant in bot language.

Once he arrived, Tony decided it meant the same as in English.

Dummy and You were huddled in a corner, letting out sounds of distress. Not previously unheard of sounds, either, because Mark 42 had picked them up just moments before Tony's Malibu house was washed into the ocean, and suddenly Tony didn't feel so great himself.

That's when another small aftershock shook the building.

Tony may have entertained the idea of telling the bots to stop being idiots, but the sounds the pair let out as tools rattled on the shelves tore at him.

There were no cracks on the floor or the walls; no sounds of explosions. Nevertheless, Tony once again had the feeling that he'd experienced only seconds before gravity and falling mass pulled him to the bottom of the ocean.

In the corner, the bots whined pitifully.

Tony had scrubbed their memory banks to remove unnecessary data from the time of the attack on their home. Perhaps he should have had a heavier hand while doing it – or maybe this fear had corroded too deeply into the bots to be callously removed.

The building shivered again, just slightly; Tony would have missed it if he hadn't been attuned to every little vibration. You let out a shrill cry, and Tony was suddenly moving towards the bots without thinking; it was an instinct, to protect and to comfort; to seek safety in numbers.

Tony had never been a team player, but he had built the bots. They were his responsibility, and he had let them down when their home was torn to pieces.

The bots shifted minutely to accommodate Tony in their corner. As soon as he settled down between their newly reconstructed bodies, the bots moved in again, and Tony reached out for their hands, feeling mechanical parts squeeze his fingers. Up close, he could see You was actually trembling, and he had no idea why the bot was doing that, seeing as it had no physiological need for such a display of fear.

Of course, the answer was painfully simple: You was copying Tony's own responses from over the years. It broke his heart and he held onto the bot tighter – even though You could not tell the difference.

Dummy eventually let go of Tony's hand. Perhaps that was something copied from Tony, too; to fake bravado when he was actually ready to shit his pants. The bot didn't move away from their huddled group, though; Dummy simply moved his arm and settled the claws in Tony's hair, squeezing carefully, tugging on the strands. It didn't hurt, and the end result was weirdly comforting.

No more tremors took place – at least, not strong enough to be felt, even when Tony was waiting for them. The bots didn't move, and Tony wondered if this was how parents felt when their kids fell asleep after a nightmare.

"Sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up – so softly it was almost a whisper.

"Yeah?" Tony whispered back, as if not to wake the bots, which was ridiculous.

"Miss Potts is awake and asking for your whereabouts. Shall I inform her?"

Tony wavered. Pepper would guess he was in the shop, eventually, but it all came down to how J.A.R.V.I.S. would phrase his answer. "Tell her… Tell her that I'm in the shop but leave it at that."

"Very well, sir."


"Yes, sir?"

"Let me know if she's headed this way." What was going on in the shop wasn't embarrassing, but it wasn't something Tony was proud of, either. Pepper worried enough as it was; she didn't need to see another ill reminder of what they had been through.

J.A.R.V.I.S. didn't reply, but Tony knew the AI could read between the lines. Just as J.A.R.V.I.S. had known Tony would come down to check on the bots, regardless of all the grief they gave him.

to be continued…