Tony woke up to the faint click of a StarkPhone’s camera app. He grinned, curling back into Steve’s comforting embrace. “Oh, you kinky bastard,” he mumbled, his head still all cotton wool and his body one sustained ache. “If that ends up on the internet, I’ll be so proud of you.”
“Really?” Steve whispered in his ear, his voice husky and warm, a tone that sent a shiver over Tony’s exposed nerve endings. “I was just gonna show Bruce, but if you insist…”
Tony pried his eyes open and stared down at the Hulk plushie in his arms. He groaned, shoving it away. “Delete it. Now, Rogers.”
“I don’t know,” Steve said. He was inordinately cheerful for such an early hour. “You look so sweet, Tony.” He held up the phone, and Tony took a second to appreciate the image of himself, asleep with Hulk’s head tucked under his chin, then he made a grab for it. Laughing, Steve kept it out of reach without any great effort. “Oh, no. No! Not a chance, this one’s mine.”
“Jarvis, hack his phone and-” Steve slapped a hand over Tony’s mouth, muffling his words, and Tony licked his palm.
“You don’t fight fair, you-” Steve snagged him around the waist and twisted, and they both tumbled back onto the couch, and the phone went flying. “No, wait, hey, stop it, you’ll wake-”
Tony froze, and Steve did, too, the two of them locked in mock combat, hands and legs and bodies, and he felt the blood drain from his face. His lips twitched, a macabre little smile. “No, we won’t.” He got a hand free and slipped it around to the back of Steve’s neck. “He’s gone. Or, no, not gone. Back to normal.”
Steve nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I know, it’s just-” He managed a smile, but it was pinched and unnatural, the kind of smile he used to have, back at the beginning, and Tony hated that smile. “I forgot for a minute, that he was gone. Or that we didn’t have to worry about waking him, that’s all. Not gone. Just not sleeping.”
Tony stared up at him. “He’s gone,” he said, because it needed saying. And apparently it did, because Steve flinched like Tony had taken a swing at him. “Steve-”
Steve let him go, pushing back, untangling them and retreating back across the couch. “I know.” He sat down on the edge of the couch, a picture in sky blue pajama pants and a white t-shirt. He buried his head in his hands. “I know, Tony.”
Tony spent some time untangling his legs from the blankets. He risked a glance across the lab, where three bots were standing, neat and precise, in their charging stations. Dummy was as still as his brothers, but a handful of toys remained, propped around his station. “He’s back to normal,” Tony said. “This is the way he should be.” He cleared his throat. “I know you’re disappointed, but-”
Tony glanced in his direction, just in time to see Steve lift his head. The expression on Steve’s face was closed off, pinched. “What?” he asked, his voice soft.
Steve’s eyes closed. “I’m glad he’s-” He swallowed, his throat working with it, and when Tony reached for his hand, Steve jerked it out of reach. “Sorry, I just-” He opened his eyes, meeting Tony’s gaze without flinching. “Don’t get me wrong, don’t think I didn’t- I loved him. Do. Do love him. I loved being able to pick him up, and hold him, and make him laugh, and see him experience things. I wanted to see him leave the tower, I wanted to see him in Central Park, at Coney Island, at Disney World and the Grand Canyon and Paris and-”
He paused. “Mostly, I loved watching you, and him. Loved watching you with him.” His fingers worked, the tendons in the back of his hands drawn taunt beneath his skin. “I couldn’t help Howard. I couldn’t do much for you.” His lips twitched. “I thought there was one Stark boy I could save.”
Tony reached for his hand, stubborn and used to rejection, but this time, Steve let him, let Tony weave their fingers together, let Tony grip hard on the flat of his palm. Tony dragged Steve’s hand up, to his mouth, pressing his lips hard against Steve’s skin.
“I love him, I loved him like that, I love him like this, but-” Steve’s head fell forward, his forehead against Tony’s. “God help me, when he went back to being Dummy, to being his usual self, I was so-” His voice broke. “Glad. Relieved.”
“So was I-” Tony started, and Steve cut him off with brutal efficiency.
“Not like I was. Not like-” His head jerked up, and he stared at Tony, his eyes agonized. “I was glad, Tony. I was so glad.”
Tony stroked his cheek. “Hey, hey,” he said, the words tripping over each other. “Hey. It’s okay. Steve, it’s okay.” He pressed his fingers against Steve’s cheek, his jaw, his lips. “It’s all right.”
“No. No, it’s not.” Steve pulled back, not out of Tony’s reach, but away from his hands. “I was afraid. All the time. All the time, I just, I didn’t know how to cope with it.”
“You did better than I did,” Tony pointed out, his voice with a hitch of wry humor to it. “He knew you were the one to go to, that was obvious to everyone. It’s-”
“I could cope with him,” Steve said. “It was everything else I couldn’t cope with.” He rubbed his hands over his face, hard and sharp. “Tony, I wanted him to see the world, to go to the beach and the mountains and museums and eat ice cream in the park while an orchestra played. I wanted him to walk to school with one of us holding his hand, I wanted to figure out when his birthday was, and let him pick the Christmas tree, and I wanted all of it.” He stared at nothing, his eyes unfocused. “ And every step we took towards bringing him out of this room, I could feel everything just spiraling out of control. I was so scared.”
His throat worked, his breathing shallow and fast. “I had nightmares. Of what could happen to him, of how he could be hurt and how we could lose him.
“All night. Every night. I dreamed of him. I dreamed of-” He shook his head. “How do people cope? How do people have children, and love them, and deal with the things that could happen?” There was an urgent, almost hysterical edge to his voice. “I couldn’t handle what they’d do. The people that would come for him. SHIELD, and the government, and every single person and creature and organization that wants to bring us down.
“What right did I have, having a kid?” he whispered. “When I couldn’t possibly keep him safe. How could I want him, knowing that we could never answer the questions. Where did he come from, what is he? How long before the tabloids found out about him, the government, the world?”
Steve looked at Tony, and his eyes were wet. “I was glad, when he went back to being Dummy, because I didn’t know how to handle it. Any of it. I was glad.” His eyes overflowed, and he clapped a hand over his face, over his eyes, his teeth gritted, his jaw working. “God help me. I love him, and I loved him more when he could smile up at me with such perfect trust, and I didn’t know how to deserve it.”
He whispered, “I couldn’t have kept him safe.”
Tony took a deep breath, ignoring the way his throat ached with something he didn’t want to classify. “But you would’ve loved him, with all your heart,” he said at last. “And he always would’ve known that.”
“And it wouldn’t have mattered if someone-” Steve choked on the words. “It doesn’t matter!”
“It’s the only thing that mattered,” Tony said. “It’s the only thing that does matter.” He fumbled for something, anything, to occupy his hands. The Hulk plushie had a ripped seam, a loose bit by his shoulder, probably caused when Dummy had been swinging the poor thing by its arm. Tony fingered the edge, where the thread had pulled loose, and wondered how hard it would be to learn to sew. “Coulson probably knows how to sew, right?” he asked, and realized too late what a non sequitor that was.
“Probably,” Steve said, because he was used to Tony. He was used to the stupid things that Tony said sometimes, and they made him smile. The way he was smiling now.
Tony took a deep breath. He moved forward, his hands hanging between his knees, the soft toy clutched in his fingers. “I wanted him,” he said at last. “From the moment he, uh, the moment he appeared, I wanted him.” He glanced up at Steve, a quick flick of his head, and that was all he could bear. “I wanted him. I just never thought I could keep him. The reality of it, the reality of any of it, none of that mattered. I’m a Stark. We’re good at ignoring reality. And, you know, supplanting our own.”
He wiggled Hulk’s arm, and stood. “Know what else Starks are good at, Rogers? Starks are good at saying, fuck it. Fuck it, fuck everything, fuck you.”
“Obscene but pretty much correct,” Steve said, and Tony laughed.
“No, no, I mean…” He glanced back. “I want this, and fuck anyone who tells me I can’t have it.” He waved a hand in Steve’s direction. “Take, uh, you for example. I shouldn’t have done this, shouldn’t have gotten involved with you, you deserve better. You deserve a family, and a life, and a lot of things you’re not going to have because you’re too busy convincing Fury not to fire me. As in, fire me into space.” He waved a hand, and his chin was up, spine straight, pride carrying him where humiliation should’ve made this impossible. “But I’m a Stark, and that was the one thing that was drilled into me, all along, the one thing I got from my father? Is that if I want something, then fuck everyone who tells me I can’t have it.”
Steve considered that. “Just so we’re clear, that’s a part of the Stark doctrine that’s not going to passed down any more.”
“Why? It’s damn useful,” Tony said, his lips quirking up at the corner. He stopped at the workbench, and fumbled through the things there. “But I wanted you. And I wanted the suit,” he said, flicking a thumb over his shoulder at the armors as he propped a hip on a stool. “The team, even when Fury told me I wasn’t on the approved list, fuck him, really, what the fuck was that all about?”
“Self-preservation,” Steve said, as if he’d put thought into that.
“Probably.” Tony flipped around on his stool, poking a finger in Steve’s direction. “But rational or not, logical or not, because fuck it, I fly around in a armor powered by the reactor imbedded in my chest that keeps a bunch of shrapnel from shredding my heart, so being rational or logical has very little to do with my life, now that I think about it-”
“Tony!” Steve said, and it was okay, because he was smiling, he didn’t look like he was in pain any longer, and that was perfect, that was what Tony needed.
“The thing is,” Tony said, slapping the plushie down on the workbench, “I never thought about having kids. Because that was a horrible idea, a horrible plan, no, I wasn’t ever going to do that, and I knew it. I was never going to have a child, Steve.” He held up the plushie and reached for the first aid kit that Steve had installed on the wall in easy reach. “But then, all of a sudden, I had one.
“And I wanted him.” He shrugged. “Too much to realize you didn’t.”
He heard Steve get up. “I wanted him,” he said, sliding his arms around Tony’s waist from behind. Leaning into Tony’s back, he pressed a kiss to his shoulder. “I wanted him very much. I was just-”
“Practical as always.” Tony reached back and flicked the tip of Steve’s nose with a single finger. “I know. I never…” He leaned back and let Steve hug him tight. “You loved him more than me.”
“No, I didn’t. Who measures love?” Steve kissed his ear, and Tony turned his head so he could get Steve’s next kiss on his cheek. “There’s no scale for that, no unit of measurement. And you’re practical.”
“I don’t need to be. I have you.” He turned his attention back to the first aid kit, dumping stuff out. “I have you.” He found the thick black thread and sterile needle that was intended for stitching up wounds. “You can teach me to sew this up, right?”
Steve reached for the plushie. “I can do it, Tony.”
“I know you can. But I’d like to see if I can.” Tony turned on his stool, bringing himself face to face with Steve, and gave him a faint smile. He took the toy back, his fingers careful. “Teach me.”
Steve studied him. “I wanted him, Tony.”
“And I trusted you to protect him.” Tony’s lips twitched. “Because no matter what, Steve? He never would’ve doubted that he had you in his corner. He never would’ve doubted you loved him.”
“I’m glad he’s safe.”
“And I love him, no matter what form he’s in.” Tony held up the thick thread. “Teach me how to fix this.”
Steve studied him. “Teach me the song you sang to him. It sounded familiar. But I couldn’t make out the words.”
Tony grinned. “I guess it is old enough that you might’ve heard it. And you couldn’t make out the words because I didn’t, uh, I didn’t know the words. I had to look them up.” Steve looked at him, expectant, and Tony groaned. “You’re going to make me sing?”
“Yeah, I am. Of course, you can have Coulson show you how to thread a needle…”
Tony shook his head. Clearing his throat, ignoring the sense of embarrassment, he started, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are gray. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.” He stopped, studying the thread in his fingers.
Steve’s hands covered his. “I miss him already,” Steve said, and Tony slipped into his arms.
The hug was too tight, too hard, too much, it bent his bones, it bruised, and he was so grateful for it. “I love you,” he whispered against Steve’s skin, and Steve’s arms only got tighter.
“I love you, too.” Steve let him go, and brushed a kiss against Tony’s lips. “C’mon. One last night on the couch, okay? I’m not… Ready to give up on this. Not yet.”
Tony let Steve tug him along, away from the workbench and back to the comfort of the couch. Curled together, he hummed as Steve showed him a simple whip stitch. It took them too long to repair a ripped seam, but when it was done, Tony just closed his eyes and told himself that neither one of them had any reason to cry.
It really didn’t work.
He didn’t remember falling asleep, but he must’ve done it, because when his eyes opened again, Dummy was hovering over the couch, his head tipped to the side. “Hey,” Tony said, reaching up to pat the bot on his support strut. “Did you come looking for your favorite toy?” He tipped his head to the side, and Steve shifted behind him, exhaling in a long gust. “It’s around here somewhere.”
Tony shifted in Steve’s arms, fumbling around for the Hulk plushie. His hand closed on the little overstuffed arm, and he pulled up. “Here you go. I fixed him, good as new. Don’t use him to hit Clint any more, or he’ll end up ripped again.”
Dummy took the toy from him with his usual delicacy, whirring back across the workshop. Tony watched him go, grinning as the bot set the toy down and began rearranging the ones already on the charging station. Shaking his head, Tony curled back into the comforting warmth of Steve’s body, tucking his head in under Steve’s chin, because he liked the feeling of Steve’s heartbeat beneath his ear. He closed his eyes, letting the exhaustion and stress bleed out of him.
The tug on his blanket brought his eyes open again.
Dummy’s head angled down towards the couch, and he rocked back and forth, shifting his weight with a whine of his wheels. Tony arched an eyebrow at him. “Sorry, buddy,” he said with a faint smile. “You’re too big to sleep on the couch now.”
Unswayed by that logic, Dummy reached for the blanket, and Tony shoved his claw away, the movement gentle. “This is what happens,” Tony said, with a lopsided smile. “You have a kid, and you pour your heart into keeping him safe, raising him right, next thing you know, he’s too big to hold, and you missed your chance.”
Dummy snagged the blanket and tugged.
“You stubborn hunk of demented tin,” Tony said, tugging back. But Dummy was stubborn and with a sigh, he let go. Dummy immediately dragged the blanket over himself and scrunched his frame down, resting his head on the edge of the couch, next to Tony’s knee. Reluctant to pull away from Steve’s arms, Tony still reached down and flipped the blanket forward over the bot’s camera. “Fine. Stay there. I spend the whole time when you’re a kid trying to keep you from sleeping in your charging station, and now that you’re sized for your charging station, and need it to function, NOW you want to sleep on the couch.”
Tony shook his head. “You are a just an embarrassment, Dummy. For God’s sake.” Still, he couldn’t help but shift his position, just far enough so that he could reach out and stroke his fingers over the blanket covered lump that was his first bot.
“I’m glad you’re you,” he said, his voice very soft, almost inaudible. “Whatever form you might be. I’m glad you’re still here. I’m-” He smiled, and closed his eyes. “I just- I thought you’d have a choice,” Tony said. “Stupid, huh? I thought, of all of us…” His eyes burned, and he squeezed the shut, as tight as he could manage. He rubbed his hand over Dummy’s arm, back and forth. The contact almost muscle memory by this point, natural as breathing. “None of us got much of a choice of the things that happened to us. I thought, I really hoped…”
With a sigh, he pulled his hand back, folding himself back into the warmth of Steve’s body. It was comforting, the steady, even rise and fall of Steve’s chest, the sound of his heart beating. “That you’d get to choose. That you could make your way in this world despite what someone did to you. I just wanted you to be the Dummy you choose to be, not the one you had to be to survive, not the one you had to make to save us, to save yourself. The one you wanted to be.”
Tony threw an arm over his eyes. “Stupid, huh?”
He stilled, his heart jumping into overdrive in an instant. Resisting the urge to drop his arm, to open his eyes, he took a shuddering breath, then another. “Dummy?” he whispered.
A faint giggle, and then a solid weight landed on his midsection, driving the breath out of him. Startled, Tony grabbed for the back of the couch, his eyes going wide. The mound of blankets on his stomach kicked and rolled, and then, settled down with another giggle.
Reaching out, his fingers shaking, Tony pushed the blankets back, just far enough to uncover a nest of dark curls and big, warm brown eyes. “Why is it,” Tony whispered, “that you never quite manage to do what you’re supposed to do?
Dummy bit his lower lip, one hand reaching out. One little finger pressed on the tip of Tony’s nose, and he grinned. His eyes went over Tony’s head, and he held out a hand, fingers spread, smile just getting wider and wider. Tony wasn’t surprised when Steve shifted behind him, catching Dummy’s hand in his much larger one. “Do us a favor, buddy,” he said, his voice rough, “and don’t change back up here, okay? You gain a little weight when you do.”
“No,” Dummy agreed, and wiggled up, arms out with a pleading whine. Tony wrapped an arm around him and dragged him back down to curl against his side. As if that solved everything, Dummy cuddled down with a yawn, dragging a blanket back over him.
“You,” Tony said, as Steve hugged them both close, “are an absolute tragedy.” With a shake of his head, he leaned forward and brushed a kiss onto Dummy’s curls. “Like all of the Stark boys.”
“But well loved,” Steve whispered in his ear. “Tony?”
“You call Pepper, I’ll call Coulson.”
Tony chuckled, even as he hugged Dummy tight. ”I’ll call them both, you call Strange. Let’s just get up early, make pancakes, and let them all figure it out for themselves when they walk into the kitchen.”
"Be good, Tony." Steve’s lips brushed against his temple. "After all, we’ve got a kid to think about now."