Title: The Hugging Tutelage
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: Iron Man (MCU)
Timeline: February 14, 1987
Genre: Family, fluff
Rating: K+ / FRC
Characters: Tony Stark, Tony’s bots (DUM-E and U)
Summary: It’s Valentine’s Day on the MIT campus and the bots are about to learn a new lesson from Tony.
Complete. Part of “Genius, AI & Bots” series.
Written for: My card on Cotton Candy Bingo’s round 2 (square: “hugs”)
Warnings: Light references to father-son resentment and dysfunctional family values.
Disclaimer: Iron Man and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau and Paramount Pictures. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.
Beta: Mythra (mythras_fire)
Feedback: The bots like it! (Tony, also, because it can be seen as product development and evaluation…)
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
The Hugging Tutelage
MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
It was a Saturday afternoon on a typical winter day. The campus would have been relatively quiet if not for the fact that it was Valentine’s Day, and that caused a bit more activity both indoors and outdoors than Tony wanted to partake in. That was why he was in the robotics lab, tinkering away, counting the hours until it would be safe to emerge.
Tony had nothing against Valentine’s Day, of course, and he wouldn’t have had any problems getting a few Valentines of his own, but being several years younger than the other students made him a bit of an oddity.
‘Cute but too young’ got thrown around a lot – at least until enough alcohol entered the picture and Tony’s age stopped being such a problem for everyone.
On most days the age difference didn’t even bother him that much, seeing as it got him in places he otherwise may not have gotten access to; a cheeky teen was a favorite of most women on campus, Tony had noticed, although it was something ‘sweet’ and ‘cuddly’ rather than actual romance.
This year, Tony had decided he might as well hang out with the guys – or in his case, with the bots.
The lab he was using was situated partially below the ground, the top windows towards the lawn spreading outside. Through there, feet could be seen moving back and forth – or if one looked further out, there was a whole lot more going on in the snow-covered yard than just feet.
For the past fifteen minutes, the bots had been craning their arms to look outside, twisting and turning whenever someone moved nearby, a few times hitting each other and drawing Tony’s attention from the string of code he was working on.
“What are you looking at?” he asked at length and got up, joining the bots at the wall. He had to stand on his tiptoes on top of a box to see outside – an annoying reminder that he wasn’t only younger than everyone else, but also shorter. Tony refused to take that as an impediment, hand-waving away the insulting suggestions for ‘corrective surgery’ some people offered to him as condolence. Stark men didn’t require corrective surgeries of any kind, his father would say. So, the problem was the rest of the world being too tall, and besides, size – or lack thereof – would be to Tony’s advantage, blindsiding every opponent who decided to look down at him like he was out of his league.
Tony was yet to meet a league where he wasn’t competent to win.
Once he could see outside – after placing one foot on Dummy’s frame and boosting himself the extra few inches – he spotted people running around, giggling and laughing. It was some kind of Valentine’s ritual, for sure, because kissing a person one second and then trying to shove snow inside their jacket the next was highly illogical. No wonder the bots were so confused.
Of course, there was also a whole lot of hugging going on, friendly chatter, and calls for others to join in ringing out from across the yard. When then groups grew in numbers, there was even more hugging – then a friendly snow-fight. There was also a disgusting amount of pink the girls were wearing, which Tony decided would make him go blind.
He dropped down to the floor, tapping at the bots to pay attention. The two robots followed him, turning their arms away from the window, peering at him instead.
“They set a poor example,” Tony noted. “Valentine’s Day is a goofy time where everyone’s either over-friendly or over-miserable. No middle-ground.”
The bots tilted their arms, letting out questioning sounds – then rolled around and right back to the window.
Tony sighed. “What, you want dates now, too?”
You let out a strange sound and then, very awkwardly, bent his arm towards Dummy and tried to curl around the other bot’s arm. Whether or not they were about to wrestle, Tony didn’t know, especially when Dummy attempted to mimic the motion and they were literally seconds away from getting entangled by a few of their wires.
“Stop that,” Tony went to referee, carefully untangling the bots – then happened to glance outside, seeing a rather happy-looking couple embracing right outside the window.
Suddenly the strange robotic embrace wasn’t so strange after all.
After safely unhooking the bots, Tony evaluated the situation from the beginning. He had built the bots’ AI to learn and to explore, to mimic his own actions and thus become perfect helpers. Well, in theory. So far, the lessons were poorly executed on the bots’ part, but Tony refused to call them failures.
You made another inquiring sound, his claw opening and closing at the end of his arm, the camera-eyes tracking Tony’s every movement. Tony was still working on teaching them the small gestures – the kind people often took for granted unless they came face to face with a person incapable of reading faces. The bots were a lot like that, not getting the hint more often than not, but Tony knew he had to be patient because there was no biological way for them to just know what he wanted them to know; they had to learn.
Today, apparently, the lesson had to do with proximity and expressing one’s feelings physically.
“It’s called hugging,” he told the bots. “It’s… a greeting or a form of comfort – or intimacy.”
Both bots listened but quite possibly didn’t understand. Tony talked a lot since they learned from it, their vocabulary growing every day, but this was a territory he hadn’t focused on because frankly, he hadn’t built the bots for hugging.
Only… he had recently begun to realize that perhaps the bots represented more than just a science project and an innovation to implement on future projects.
“Basically, you just put your arms around another person,” he explained, because those kinds of directions the bots could follow. Well, almost: “You have only one arm, so it would be a bit awkward,” Tony noted, then looked between the bots. “You have one arm each, though, which makes two, so…”
The bots shifted forward, measuring the distance, and Tony decided to go with it, moving closer to them as well.
“What you need to remember is to not squeeze too hard; that hurts and it isn’t comforting or nice at all,” he added, familiar with the pressure the bots could inflict, sometimes accidentally. They were machines, incapable of knowing just how hard to press or push or pull, but weren’t those kind of things a learning curve for humans as well?
Tony couldn’t remember, but the bots were already moving their arms behind him – You bending around his left upper arm while Dummy went over his right shoulder. It was very weird and made Tony feel a little crowded, but with soft sounds that had to be some kind of agreement from the bots, the arms settled clumsily at his back, surprisingly gentle and not hurting at all, and Tony wrapped his arms around the metal-coated arms in return, even though the bots could not feel it.
He briefly wondered if he had locked the lab door, seeing as he wasn’t sure he wanted anyone to walk in and see this. Not that he couldn’t bullshit that person into believing it was some kind of dual motoric exercise…
After a few seconds Tony decided that although he may not have built the bots for hugging, they were rather good at it – good enough that Tony regretfully let go when they drew back, Dummy bumping against the side of his head as he withdrew.
Rubbing the sore spot, Tony cleared his throat – then realized his embarrassment didn’t matter because the bots weren’t human and that was why he might be spending many more Valentine’s Days in their company instead of someone of the flesh-and-blood variety.
The bots, seeing nothing wrong with the situation, congratulated each other on their new accomplishment with their version of a high-five: by bumping their claws together with a sharp cling.
Tony chuckled and went back to his coding, adding a new line to remind himself to simulate understanding for the human desire for proximity in the new AI he was working on. The bots would learn all they needed to, he was sure of it, but if he included certain key components in the framework of the next AI, the learning process might be far more fluent.
Not that he had ever minded hands-on experimentation.