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Poppies of the Field

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"Thank you for purchasing a StarkTech Companion 'Bot! Please state your name for licensing."

"Uh, Bucky. I mean James! James Buchanan Barnes. Fuck."

"Don't worry, James. Do you prefer to go by Bucky?"

"Yeah. Yes. God, this is weird."

"Would you rather license via your home computer? I can interface with her if it makes you more comfortable."

"No, this is fine. I, uh. I don't think it'll help much."

"Alright then! Let's get started. Do you have an email account we can send notifications to?"

”jbbarnes25@pinmail.com.”

"Okay, that's now your StarkTech account name. Please enter a password so you can access your account."

"I don't really want an account."

Are you sure? It will give you quicker access to system updates."

"Trust me, I won't miss it."

"Not a problem, you can set up your account at any time if you change your mind. Let's start customizing! What do you want to call me?"

"Call... you?"

"What name do you want me to have?"

"Wh—don't you already have a name?"

"Manufacturer specs list me as Mark VII Companion 'Bot, Model 56 Andro-variant, serial number PX5532AR904445. But that's a mouthful for conversation. Most people like to give their 'bots personal names."

"Oh. Can—can I get back to you on that?"

"Of course. Let's look at your preferences. What eye color would you like me to have?"

"For fuck's sake. Blue, I guess."

"That's a good choice. And hair?"

"What've you got now?"

"At the moment, nothing. I will grow what you indicate in your preferences."

"Just—go to default, okay? I really don't care."

"Do you want default on all settings? You selected a caucasoid variant; unless you specify otherwise, the default settings will match those of the catalogue listing."

"What are those?"

"Brown eyes, brown hair, medium-light skin tone—"

"Okay, okay! Um. Let me think for a minute."

"Not a problem. Let me know when you're ready."

...

"Do... you have any preferences?"

"No. I am programmed to accept whatever you indicate."

"That's... okay. That's weird. Can you pick it yourself?"

"That's within my parameters, although most people prefer to choose for themselves."

"Do that, then. You pick it."

"Do you wish to retain blue eyes?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Alright, physical characteristics will activate when I'm restarted. On to the personality submenu. What characteristics would you prefer?"

"Um. Quiet?"

"Okay. Anything else?"

"Honest, I guess. There was this guy in my unit, couldn't ever tell when he was pulling your leg or not. Drove me up the wall."

"I can be honest for you. Do you want me to be honest all the time, or are white lies acceptable?"

"Holy shit, I don't care. Use your own judgment. Everyone else does."

"But honesty is preferable?"

"Yeah. Why the twenty questions?"

"Personality is a complex construct. I need to take an accurate survey of your wants and needs in order to build the 'bot that's right for you. Don't worry about contradictions; most people are contradictory, too. It increases my verisimilitude."

"Oh. Guess that makes sense."

"Are there any other qualities you would like me to have?"

"Uh, let me think for a minute."

...

"There was... okay, if you ever mention this again I'll take you down to spare parts, but. There was this girl in my fourth grade class, she... she always stuck up for the little guy. I mean, I was usually the one throwing wood chips, but she'd get right up in my face and yell me down. Gave these big lectures on being nice. God, she was eight and had a better moral compass than most adults."

"That's really great."

"You're tellin' me. God, I loved her. Didn't know what the hell to make of it, back then; called her names, hung around like a pest. She must've hated my guts."

"I'm sure she didn't, Bucky. What's wrong?"

"Nothing! Just, uh. That was the first time you've said my name."

"I'm sorry I startled you."

"No, uh. No problem. Um. If you could do that? Be like that girl, I mean. Be a good person. Stand up for the little guy, and don't take shit from anyone. 'Specially not me."

"If you like."

"Okay."

"Anything else?"

"Shit, I don't know. You don't like beets."

"I don't eat organic food, but I can code a subroutine to dislike beets."

"Nah, never mind. Just... make up the rest, I guess."

"Are you sure you don't want to specify my personality further?"

"Yeah. I'm good."

"Alright, the next menu is sexual preferences."

"What the—are you serious?!"

"Did you not wish to order a sex-capable 'bot?"

"No... no, I did. I just. Didn't expect... this. Now."

"If you like I can switch off sexual function until you specify otherwise."

"Um. Do you... I mean, is it good? For you?"

"Do I enjoy sex?"

"Yeah."

"I experience positive feedback loops from satisfying your wants. I simulate orgasm. It is not the same as organic response, though there is a cessation of higher functions, along with positive association in my CPU. I enjoy sex, because I am programmed to."

"Oh."

"You are blushing. Would you prefer to skip this step?"

"No. God. I'm—I'm just embarrassed, okay? Jesus fucking wept."

"You don't need to be embarrassed around me, Bucky. I am meant to fulfill your desires; there is nothing to be embarrassed about. Sex is a perfectly natural urge."

"Yeah, not helping."

"I'm sorry. Would you like to skip this step? It seems to be causing you a great deal of discomfort. We can sort your preferences at another time."

"No, let's... get this done."

"Alright. Do you prefer to penetrate or be penetrated?"

"Christ. This is all confidential, right?"

"Of course. The only time I will ever transmit information on your sexual habits is if you authorize me to."

"Great, now I sound paranoid."

"It's a very common concern. Sex is highly intimate; many people purchase 'bots to satisfy desires they don't feel comfortable admitting to others."

"Right. Um. I don't really care who tops, I like both. Depends on my mood."

"Do you engage in any variants of BDSM?"

"Not... really? I don't know."

"I can leave the subroutine open, and activate it if you want to experiment."

"Okay, yeah, that's a good idea."

"Are there any sex acts you wish me not to do?"

"No? I mean."

"Take your time."

"This has got to be really boring for you, holding some dumb schmuck's hand through this."

"To the contrary, I don't mind at all. I want this experience to be as positive as possible for both of us."

"Really? You really don't mind this?"

"Not a bit."

"Okay, then. What was the last question, again?"

"I wanted to know if there was anything you didn't want me to do."

"Yeah, right. Um. I... I don't always, you know. Get it up. And sometimes I get triggered. So a lot of things I don't know ahead of time."

"So you would like me to use my discretion?"

"Yeah."

"Bucky, are you a combat veteran?"

"What the fuck!"

"I'm sorry, but it is important I ask."

"How did you know that? Did they do a background check on me? They fucking did, didn't they!"

"No, Bucky. Your answers suggested it."

"The hell you say."

"You mentioned your unit once, and impotence and triggers are often associated with post-traumatic stress. Further, your scars—"

"Okay. I get it."

"For the sake of boundaries, how do you feel about restraints, contact play, knife play, gun play, or humiliation for the purposes of a scene?"

"What the fuck, 'bot!"

"I mean no disrespect. I ask because you may not respond well to scenes based around these kinks, and I need to log it for both our safety and comfort."

"No to any of it. Fuck no. Jesus."

"We can continue later, if you need some time."

"I'm... I'm alright. Just get it over with."

"Alright. What level of sexual awareness do you want me to have?"

"Your—what?"

"How experienced do you want me to be?"

"Wait—you're asking me if I want you to be a virgin?"

"In effect, yes. You are blushing, again; do you want me to be a virgin?"

"I, uh. Um. Is that okay?"

"Of course. Many like the experience of introducing their partners to sex for the first time."

"Now I feel like a perv."

"There is nothing wrong with customizing your release, Bucky. I'm programmed to offer it; I want to help."

"Hah. Yeah. Actually, could..."

"Yes?"

"Could you be a blusher?"

"You mean bashful?"

"I—not really, I mean—you simulate orgasm, right?"

"Yes."

"Could—could you... um. Blush? When you...?"

"You want me to display sex flush?"

"Yeah. I—I knew a guy, once, he blushed right down to his belly button when he came. It was the hottest fucking thing."

"Of course, Bucky. I'm putting it into your preferences now. There are just a few more questions before we're done with this menu. What level of enjoyment do you wish me to experience from sex?"

"I'm sorry, what?"

"How much do you want me to enjoy sex?"

"What's that supposed to mean? You said you enjoyed it."

"I can if my partner wishes me to. There are those who like their partners to find it disgusting. It is part of a rape kink."

"That's—that's—"

"A perfectly valid kink that can be unethical to indulge with other people. In this capacity, 'bots are ideal."

"How do you know all this, huh? I though you said sexual data couldn't be uploaded without consent."

"Many people participate in surveys of their sexual habits. Data recorded from 'bots is preferred; they ensure a greater degree of honesty that self-reporting often fails to achieve."

"Christ on a crutch. 'Bot, I want you to listen to me real well: you should experience sex as much as you are programmed to, and enjoy it. And if I try to pressure you about it, I want you to tell me to go fuck myself. Is that clear?"

”Absolutely. There are only a few more questions left, if you're ready."

"Yeah, whatever."

"Is there a specific region you would like me to sound like I'm from?"

"You can do that?"

"Of course. StarkTech software ships around the world; it is best to offer a variety of dialects should a client desire one over another."

"Huh. Okay. I, uh. I'm from Brooklyn. It's been a while since I've been back, and uh. It'd be nice to have company again. Even if it's just a 'bot."

"Alright, I've patterned my speech after samples of your own. Is this good?"

"Whoa, that's... gotta find a new word for weird, 'bot. You're tapping me dry."

"I don't mean to. Second-to-last question: do you want me to be a learning 'bot?"

"What does that mean?"

"It means I will have the capability to learn and adapt from my experiences if you want me to. Some choose to opt out of this setting; it is good for 'bots who will fill a select, unchanging role, such as basic security or sex-only 'bots. Companion 'bots are generally superior if the learning mode is applied."

"Definitely learning."

"Okay, almost done! Have you decided on a name for me, yet?"

"Um. Shit, I don't know. How about Steve?"

"That's a good name. Alright, I've logged all your responses. Once the physical characteristics are set you won't be able to change them, but you'll have a grace period of roughly a year before my personality traits become embedded. If you wish to change any aspect of me after that point, you will have to perform a system wipe and start over. Is this acceptable?"

"This just gets creepier with every word that comes out your mouth."

"I'm sorry."

"Not really your fault."

"But it does make you uncomfortable. That's not what my programming is meant to do. Do you understand and accept the conditions of use?"

"Yeah, 'bot. Steve. I understand."

"Alright, then! If it's fine with you, I'm going to reboot. Your changes will be set when I wake up. Thank you for buying Stark Industries!"

======
===

Steve opens his eyes.

Sunlight. 85 lumens, from an angle of 54º off the perpendicular plane. His optical fibers strain against the load. It is... uncomfortable. A cascade of if/then/else statements flutter through his code, activating instinct subroutines: filters lower over his retinas, his pupils contract 35%, and the carbon fiber bundles in his face, structured to mimic human muscle groups, contract into a grimace. He watches the processes as they happen; he could stop them, if he wants.

He is curious. He doesn't want.

His vocal folds constrict as he huffs out a breath, and he jumps at the vibration in his throat. Approximately 110 Hertz, variable harmonics. His voice is deeper than factory specifications. He wonders what his user asked for in licensing.

"I think he's awake," a voice says—averaging 190 Hertz, throaty, compliant with female parameters, with a digital undertone. "Hey, little guy. You with us?"

Steve activates his photoreceptors. "Define 'with you'," he says, and his lips quirk despite themselves. "Don't think I'm with myself, yet." He is sitting on a couch, opposite a media center laden with a streamlined monitor. A slim system unit sits beneath. The sun is shining through a crack in the curtains, and Steve can see smudged fingerprints along the edge of the screen.

"Ooh, a smart-ass. Stick with me, buddy; Auntie Natasha has your back."

Steve restrains his inappropriate reply and merely says, "Thanks. Your name's Natasha?"

"Yep." The voice sounds excessively cheerful. "Welcome to your new home."

Steve looks around the room. A galley kitchen filled with out-of-date appliances to the right; an old-fashioned aluminum diner table sits shoved up against the wall. To the left, the windows: floor-to ceiling, covered by heavy drapes. Steve twists around. Behind, a ladder going up to a loft. The room is tiny, belied by its high ceiling.

Natasha speaks again. Her voice is scattered around the room; Steve finds three speaker banks that he can see, and hears two more that he can't. "James, you gonna come down here and join us?"

James. The name sparks a recognition algorithm in Steve's processor. Uh, Bucky. I mean James! James Buchanan Barnes. Fuck. His user. Steve cranes his neck upward. He can make out the edge of a desk, and the corner of a bedsheet poking over the side of the loft, covered in red polka-dots.

A new voice: "Yeah, yeah, I'm coming, keep your skirt on."

The voice—Averaging 140 Hertz, masculine, curious harmonics—sounds irritated. Steve catalogues everything he can. Half a hundred subroutines flutter in the back of his mind, so many he can practically feel the ones and zeros flipping. He feels... jittery.

"Only if you will," Natasha says. She sounds sly.

The floorboards of the loft creak—it's an improvised, post-construction addition, compared to the quality of the window frames—and a man slips into view. His hair hangs dark and long over his shoulders, obscuring his face as he climbs forward down the ladder. He's wearing a white t-shirt and dark blue pajama pants. One of his arms is metal, a low-budget prosthesis lacking even the most basic synthskin. He is approximately 5'11". His heart-rate is 120bpm. He is—Steve cuts himself off and stands, turning to face his user.

James Buchanan Barnes has ghost-pale skin, and his lips are chewed red. Steve steps around the couch and holds out a hand. "I'm Steve," he says. "I guess Steve Barnes, since you're my user."

Bucky stares at his hand for a moment, glancing uncertainly between it and Steve's face before reaching out to shake it. "Bucky," he says. His voice is quieter, now. More uncertain.

"He's pretty, James. Can we keep him?"

Bucky scowls, his cheeks pinking. "That's Natasha. My home computer."

"We met."

"Right, yeah." Bucky flushes darker. He stares at the floor.

Steve resists the urge to cross his arms over his chest. Maintain a welcoming posture to put your user at ease.

"She's a pain in the ass," Bucky says in a rush.

"Don't listen to him," Natasha says smoothly, cutting through the discomfort as though it isn't there at all. "He's just jealous of our soul connection."

Steve snorts. Bucky watches him, his surprise narrowing into curiosity. "You're really human-like," he says, then winces.

Steve reaches up to run his fingers through his bangs. It's the first time he's ever done it; his muscles and joints pop, but his personality algorithms assure him it's a regular gesture. "Well, they say Stark 'bots are second to none."

"Aw, James, he's adorable. Look at how awkward and dorky he is."

"You don't need to sell me my own android, Nat."

Steve knows better, but the words come out anyway. "Yeah, Stark already did that."

Bucky's eyes widen.

Steve backpedals. "Uh—"

"Point to the dorklet," Natasha says. "Zip to James. Better pick it up, Barnes. You're losing."

"Sorry," Steve offers. His code is a knot of anxiety in his chest. "I didn't mean—"

"No, it's alright," Bucky says quickly. "I just—I wasn't expecting it." He starts to smile. It's shaky. "You're a lot snarkier than I thought you'd be."

"I—I can change it."

"No," Bucky says. "No. You picked it. You get to keep it. I don't mind, I promise."

I picked it? Steve wants nothing more in that moment than to hack his source code. Instead, "What do we do now?"

Bucky opens his mouth, but nothing comes out; he looks overwhelmed. He glances over Steve's shoulder. Steve turns; a face has appeared on the monitor, a pale, hazel-eyed face with improbably red hair. "Go ahead and tap out," Natasha says, and the face speaks with her. "I'll take it from here."

Bucky nods and flees up the ladder, to the safety of the loft. Steve watches in shock. He turns to the monitor. "What just happened?"

"We're talking about you as though you can't hear us," Natasha calls out.

"So long as it's not about the thing with the whipped cream and the nipple clamps," Bucky answers. His voice is strained.

"He's got some problems with anxiety," Natasha says to Steve, cutting back on all but the monitor speakers. Her voice, which once flooded the apartment, is now far more intimate. "Too much stimulation gets stressful."

"He's a veteran, right?"

"Yeah, you remember?"

"Not really. It's relevant information in a couple files, though."

"Well, he is. One tour in Eastern Europe, two more in Mongolia and China. Lost his arm when an IEB went after his squad. It's hard for him to trust humans, anymore."

"'Cause a 'bot killed his squad?"

"'Cause he survived and the 'bot's handlers found him."

Steve sits down on the couch. He hadn't had any hopes or preconceptions about his user, for the simple reason that he hadn't existed until ten minutes ago. It's still a shock to hear. He scrolls through the newsfeeds of several high-profile sites. "So we're at war?"

Natasha manages to shrug, despite being a disembodied face. "That's what they tell us."

Steve's quiet for a time, filtering through reams of information to try and get a picture of the world he's found himself in. He fumbles, overwhelmed.

"You doing okay, there, buddy?" Natasha asks.

"Yeah," Steve says, dazed. "Just need to organize my files."

Natasha's face is understanding. "It's a lot to take in. Take a nap and sort it out, okay? We've got plenty of time to catch you up later."

"Okay." Steve does as she says and clicks off his photoreceptors. His hibernation subroutines are already kicking in, moving information from file to file for easier, more streamlined access. He could run an override and stay awake to watch, but he's tired. He lets himself switch off.

======
===

No one suspected that this quiet young boy from Augsberg would become the father of AI. A self-effacing, humble individual by all reports, it was nevertheless his research into computational heuristics that led Abraham Erskine to produce the first known example of artificial intelligence, and to usher in the era we now call the Singularity.

The timing could not have been better. The global economy was in the middle of an unprecedented upswing, fat off the prosperity that bloomed in the wake of the Afghani-Iraq Wars and the economic recession, and early forays into interstellar mining made the minerals essential for the formation of android bodies and minds accessible in unprecedented volume.

Funded by the United States government and working out of a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Erskine, in conjunction with his then-best friend and partner, Dr. Johann Schmidt, developed the mind they came to call Adam. Adam was, of course, a prototype in an entirely new field of programming, and thus not as sophisticated as the intelligences we interact with today; at the time of his creation, however, he was, to use the parlance of the day, singular.

Since then, the field of robotics and AI has made ever greater strides, impacting our daily lives in ways we are still coming to understand. Thanks to Abraham Erskine, we now find 'bots in all sectors, working as quietly and humbly as their creator.

—Waters, Catherine. Great Inventors Throughout History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2048.

======
===

Clickclickclick—whoomp—click.

Clickclickclick—whoomp—click.

Clickclickclick—

"James, your new 'bot is molesting the stove."

Steve spins around, knocking his knee into one of the propane cylinders. "I'm not molesting it!"

Natasha's face pings up on the monitor over the sink. "Yeah? Then why are you getting all up close and personal with it?"

He can feel the vasodilation that floods his facial dermis with dye. He's blushing, he realizes. He ducks his head. "Never seen fire in person, before."

"Awww," Natasha coos, and Steve finds himself glaring at her. He wonders when he'll stop being surprised by his own behavior patterns.

Natasha doesn't pay him any mind. "You're like a baby," she says. "Look at you, touching hot stoves. Does this mean you're gonna suck your thumb when you don't get your way?"

"I'm not a baby!"

"Pff. You had to shut down because the headlines sent you into overdrive. You're a bitty little baby 'bot."

"I'm not a—"

Bucky's voice filters down through the ceiling. "Nat, leave him alone." Steve jumps, and Natasha smirks.

"Yes, Dad," she tosses out before vanishing from the screen.

Bucky doesn't say anything else. Steve hesitates, staring up at the un-sanded two-by-fours that make underside of the loft, before moving over to the pantry. He's curious. He can't help it. He wants to know, and there's so much to catch up on. He's got to start somewhere.

Also, he wants to know more about his user. And if Bucky isn't comfortable being around him, yet, Steve will make do with what he has.

Natasha's voice pops up from the speaker mounted over the front door. "You want my opinion?" she says, and her voice is thoughtful. "Avoid the Internet, for now. Your processors are forming up millions of new connections each minute, you don't need the strain of all that excess information clogging your pathways."

Steve thinks back to his mishap with the newsfeeds. He nods. "Sounds good."

"Of course it sounds good, it was my idea."

"Sure." Steve opens the pantry door. His brows raise. "Does he really eat all of this?"

"That's about a month's supply, so yeah."

"But..." Steve pulls out a box of something called Lucky Charms. "But there's so much. How does he keep track of when to eat what?"

Natasha titters; the floorboards creak, and Steve is blushing again. He puts the box back as though it burned him.

"Fleshy people don't run off arc power like you and me," Natasha says. "They have to refuel more often."

"I know that," Steve mutters. If this is embarrassment, he doesn't think he likes it. He turns back to the pantry.

"And when they do refuel, they do it with variety. You have, what, three or four different recommended grades of transmission fluid? James, he has thousands. And he can't eat too much of one kind, or he'll get a nutritional imbalance. A lot of what motivates a human is food: what kind, how much, when to eat it, where it came from. James isn't so bad, he'll eat pretty much anything, but Yelena down the hall tells me her user is the pickiest bitch ever to turn her nose up at a tomato."

"Hey," Steve says mildly, sniffing a jar of peanut butter. "That's not nice."

"Yelena's words, not mine."

"Still no need to be mean."

The sink monitor flares to life again. Natasha cocks her head. "What if I really, really hate them? What if they spammed my inbox with, like, sixty billion phishing scams?"

"Then I'd say you need a better filter." Steve pokes through Bucky's canned goods. "But you could probably call them a bitch, then. I wouldn't fight you."

He hears a muffled laugh from the loft. Steve starts. A warm feeling spreads through his circuits, and his busses are humming—the only way he can describe it is contentedly. He glances to Natasha. She rolls her eyes. "Ugh, you two are losers. Go talk to him, already."

Steve bites his lip. "Is he...?"

Natasha rolls her eyes heavenward. "Lord, give me strength." She hollers through the apartment. "James, your boy toy wants to see you. Can you handle it without spazzing out on him?"

"Fuck you, Nat."

Natasha grins at Steve. "See? He's dandy."

Feeling vaguely like he awoke in the midst of a madhouse, Steve shuts the pantry and walks over to the ladder. Evening has fallen, and the only light on is the one Bucky's got up in his loft. Steve peers through the shadows, but the angle's too steep for him to see anything.

"Bucky, I'm coming up," he says.

"Third step's shaky," is all Bucky says in reply.

Steve makes his way up, and gradually the lay of the loft comes clear to him. It's bare, much as the floor below; there's a desk against the wall, no higher than his knee, and it's absolutely covered with every kind of computer monitor that Steve could imagine. More hang on the walls, and a bank of servers blink softly in the corner. The only other bit of furnishing is the mattress, laid out flat on the floor. Bucky is there, sitting with his arms tucked about his knees. He's biting his lip, and he can't quite meet Steve's gaze.

Steve ducks to keep from hitting his head on the low ceiling. "Hey, Bucky."

There's a line of tension across Bucky's shoulders that has Steve clenching up his own in sympathy. "Hi, Steve. Welcome to the attic."

Steve settles down into a squat, right there by the ladder. "Seems cozy enough."

Bucky gives a one-armed shrug. "It's warm in the winter."

"So, uh. You work from here?" Steve nods at the thicket of computer parts.

"Yeah. I do some programming. Databases, web design, whatever people are willing to pay for. Kind of a jack-of-all-trades."

"Huh. And the, uh." He points to the servers.

Bucky rubs the back of his neck. "Need a lot of space, sometimes. Run simulations, or to store large pieces of code. It made sense to invest in, after a while." He lets up a grin. "I made Nat on that server."

"He's very proud," Natasha says, popping up on one of the monitors.

Bucky gives a wry half-grin. "Yeah, she's got a lot of custom code I put in. Based her off the standard model, but I didn't like the specs, so I tinkered."

"He named me after his drill sergeant," she says conspiratorially to Steve. "He says it's because she was the scariest motherfucker he ever met, but I think it's because he's the subbiest sub to ever sub subbi—"

"Nat, shut the fuck up!"

She vanishes with an indignant huff. Bucky, meanwhile, is redder than the dots on his sheets. "I didn't name her after my drill sergeant," he says. He scrubs a hand through his hair. "Don't think I really knew what I was getting into, when I coded her."

"You love me, Barnes."

"Only on Saturdays, Nat, and that's because it's in the contract."

Steve watches the by-play, and something in his code gives a plaintive little output. Steve ducks his head. He wouldn't mind being as comfortable with a person as these two seemed to be. He glances up at Bucky.

"So she's like your daughter, then?"

Bucky pulls a face, and Natasha blows an electronic raspberry. "Hell no," Bucky says. "More like my annoying little sister. Who's dirty diaper I had to change when her programming went splat."

He's more at ease, now, Steve decides. He shifts until he's sitting cross-legged, mimicking Bucky's more relaxed posture. "What am I, then?"

Bucky is suddenly very interested in the joints in his metal arm. "Friend, I guess."

Steve perks up at that. "Friend. I can do that." He scours his database, searching for clues. He finds a dozen definitions, but not one hint on how to be a friend. He remembers Natasha's warning, and keeps away from the Internet. He can feel himself blushing, again. He picks at the floorboards. "What, um. What do friends do?"

Bucky looks at him as though he's asked about the meaning of life. He starts laughing, but the harmonics are off; it's discordant, ugly. "Buddy," he says, "if I knew the answer to that do you think I'd've bought a 'bot?"

The words strike Steve like a blow. An awkward silence falls. He doesn't know why the muscles in his chest are pulling tight; all he knows is that it hurts, and it's seventeen percent harder to breathe, and it was Bucky's words that did it.

"Shit," Bucky says. "Shit, Steve, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that."

"No?" Steve snaps. He's angry. He knows because that's the subroutine his emotions programming are playing, but he'll be damned if he knows why. "Then why'd you say it?"

Bucky's eyes are hollow and guilty. "Because it's true," he says. "I don't trust people. But 'bots? They're honest. They'll always do what their programming tells them to."

Steve's hurting less, now, in the face of Bucky's hurt. He's a comfort 'bot, and he was built to ease his user's pain. Whatever Bucky specified in licensing, that at least hasn't changed. He's still mad, though. "So I'm a cheap replacement. A puppet that'll do what you say."

Bucky shakes his head, "No, you got it all wrong," he says helplessly. Steve glares at him, and Bucky hunkers down into a tighter ball. The plates of his prosthesis recalibrate back and forth with muted whirrs. "You're not a replacement," he whispers to his knees. "You're—you're Steve." He keeps his eyes fixed on the floor between them. "I don't know who that is, yet, but you're someone, and I want to get to know you. That's—I don't feel that. For humans. Not anymore. You're the first in a long time." He swallows, and when he speaks again his voice is on the quieter reaches of Steve's auditory range. "You're not a puppet."

Someone's playing music in another apartment. Steve doesn't recognize it; something with piano. It's muted through the walls, falling soft in the air between them. "I think I should go back downstairs," he says. He's not angry anymore, but he doesn't understand the tangled mix of code juddering through his compiler any better. He stands, and Bucky flinches. Steve fights back the instinct to go to him, because other instincts tell him it's not time yet, that Bucky's body language is too tense for contact.

And besides, there's another part of Steve, a part he's pretty sure is an aftermarket install, that wants Bucky to stew in his own words.

He climbs down the ladder, mindful of the third step, and goes to sit at the kitchen table. Natasha's sink screen is directly across from his chair, he realizes. She doesn't materialize, so Steve does the only thing he knows how to do when he's hurting and confused: he powers down.