“Are you serious? You need to go park yourself in that corner and try to grow some kind of usefulness. If I’d wanted a pile of useless junk I could’ve left you how I found you.”
Bucky frowns at Tony, who is glaring at Dum-E. Dum-E, for his (its?) part, droops a little, whirring. Tony’s been poking around at Bucky’s arm, as he’s wont to do whenever Bucky will let him, and Dum-E had brought the wrong…something. Bucky’s never really sure if the things coming out of Tony’s mouth are real or if he’s just making up nonsensical futuristic names for things.
“You shouldn’t talk to him like that,” Bucky rebukes. Tony arches an eyebrow.
“He doesn’t have feelings.”
“He seems like he does.” Bucky gestures broadly, meaning to point out the way Dum-E’s drooping.
“He’s just a robot,” Tony says dismissively. Bucky is quiet for a long time, long enough that Tony finishes whatever he’s been doing. Bucky hops off the table and Dum-E hands over the shirt he’d taken off.
“Thank you,” Bucky tells Dum-E. Dum-E slides closer and Bucky sort of pats him. “Good Dum-E,” Bucky murmurs. Tony pretends not to notice, but he brings it up with Steve later that night.
“I think your boyfriend is into my robot,” he says. Steve’s face scrunches up as he tries to work through what Tony’s saying.
“Dum-E?” Steve ventures. Tony raises an eyebrow and Steve shrugs. “He told me he really likes Dum-E last night in bed.” The tips of Steve’s ears go pink, as if mentioning the place where he sleeps is inappropriate.
“Your pillow talk is about me?” Tony asks gleefully. Steve’s face immediately zooms into Grumpy Old Man.
“Your robot,” he corrects.
“Is that a euphemism?”
Steve huffs in annoyance. He’s about to leave the room when Tony stops him with a hand on his arm, his face actually looking serious.
“Do you think he’s identifying with Dum-E?” Tony tries not to wince when Steve immediately looks like he’s going to cry.
“Because he feels like a robot?” Steve’s lower lip might be trembling. Tony didn’t sign up for this.
“I don’t know. You figure it out; he’s your one-armed assassin.”
“He’s not—” Steve cuts himself off when Tony leaves the room. The issue lies for a while, until one day when Bucky himself brings it up.
“Dum-E reminds me of something,” he announces. Steve looks slightly wary, but Bucky doesn’t look upset. “I know we never had a robot,” Bucky clarifies. “But it’s like I just…get him.”
Tony glances at Steve and sees him going all Captain Sad Eyes. Bucky looks slightly puzzled when Steve takes his hand and presses kisses against each knuckle, tenderly, but sort of shrugs and kisses Steve with gusto. Tony leaves in a hurry, lest he be subjected to two old fogies doing more than making out on the couch.
“I don’t know what to do,” Steve admits later. “I mean, if he hasn’t figured it out, should I really be the one to bring it up?”
“And by ‘it’ you mean…?”
“The fact that he identifies with a brainless robot!” Steve practically yells in his frustration. Dum-E whirs a little, and Steve looks guilty. “Sorry, Dum-E.”
“Dum-E absolutely cannot understand you,” Tony promises. “He’s not like Jarvis.”
“But Bucky’s told me before they said he couldn’t understand them.” Steve looks beside himself. Tony gets it, he does—Bucky had been absolutely, horrifying dehumanized; he’d been turned into a weapon and talked about as if he wasn’t around. It makes Tony feel sick and he’s not even in love with the guy. But Dum-E’s not a person, and he doesn’t know how to make them see that.
It all comes to a head within a few weeks. Bucky comes out of the elevator and Steve frowns a little. “Where were you?” He asks. His frown is confusion, not annoyance—he doesn’t mind Bucky doing things on his own, it just doesn’t happen often.
“I was saying goodnight to Dum-E.” Bucky drops onto the couch beside Steve, wholly unconcerned with life. Steve’s face is identical to the one he made through the entirety of a documentary about orphans in sub-Saharan Africa.
“He’s a robot, Buck,” Steve starts gently.
“I know.” Bucky squints a little at Steve. “What’s wrong?” Steve sighs loudly, pushing a hand through his hair.
“You’ve gotten really attached to Dum-E.” Steve sounds almost apologetic. Tony wonders if he should leave the room, but Natasha’s making no move, so he figures he doesn’t have to, either.
“I like him.” Bucky shrugs. “Seriously, why are you making your orphan face?”
“Buck…” Steve’s voice is thick with emotion and Tony can’t take it anymore.
“Because you identify with a robot!” He blurts. The room stills. Bucky tips his head to the side, considering Tony’s words, and then turns to Steve.
“You’ve been worried about me liking Dum-E because you think I…what? Think of us as kindred spirits or something?”
“You said they acted like you didn’t have feelings and you weren’t a person.” Steve looks helpless. “And you got mad at Tony for acting like Dum-E couldn’t understand what we were all saying.”
“Which he can’t,” Tony points out for the ten millionth time.
Bucky shakes his head, but he’s smiling a little. “Oh, Rogers, you are such a worrywart,” he declares. “This is why you’ve been looking all constipated when you thought I couldn’t see?”
“I don’t look constipated—”
“You kind of do,” Natasha murmurs, the first sign she’s given that she’s actually listening to the whole conversation. Bucky just shoots Steve a gentle smile.
“You care too much about me for your own good,” he says softly, shaking his head. “You’re overthinking everything. I like Dum-E because he reminds me of that mutt we had when we were kids.”
“Wait—Mittens?” Steve gapes.
“Mittens! I couldn’t think of his name.” Bucky huffs out a little laugh. “He ran into a wall, remember?”
“That does sound like Dum-E,” Tony agrees.
“But he chased Billy Stoddard all the way down the street one time.” Bucky sounds proud.
“Because he stole my ice cream cone,” Steve remembers.
“What happened to him?” Tony asks, feeling like the story can’t possibly have a happy ending. Most of their stories don’t.
“Got hit by a car,” Bucky says in a would-be casual voice. There’s a furrow between his eyebrows that belies his apathy.
“Bucky’s dad had to shoot him,” Steve adds, his own voice hushed with the memory.
“Well isn’t that a fun story,” Tony mutters. “It was called the Great Depression for so many reasons.”
So Tony really shouldn’t be surprised when, a scant two days later, two elderly super-soldiers come home in the late morning with a brown and white ball of fluff.
“What is this?” Tony demands.
“A puppy," Bucky snarks back.
“We got him from the animal shelter,” Steve says. He goes all sad-faced at the thought of unwanted animals, and Tony has a sudden vision of his Tower being overrun with dogs and cats. The smell alone would be horrible. He’s going to put his foot down and say the dog can’t say, he really is—his mouth is open and everything—but the thing’s wagging its tail so hard its butt looks like it’s going to achieve lift-off, and it’s alternating between licking Bucky’s and Steve’s faces, and Clint’s filming everything, and Bucky’s giggling, and Steve has actual tears in his goddamn eyes, and Tony knows kicking out the dog will make him a monster. Tony sighs.
“You’ve been replaced, you know,” He tells Dum-E after he’s retreated from Thor’s booming love of the puppy and Bruce’s little smile and the way the damn thing gets so excited it pees on the floor. Dum-E sounds inquisitive. Tony rolls his eyes at himself. Dum-E isn’t capable of sounding inquisitive. He’s getting as bad as Bucky. “He got a puppy. He doesn’t need you.”
He’s proven wrong, however, when Bucky brings the puppy down to the lab. “Dum-E,” he says seriously. “This is Boots. Boots, this is Dum-E.” He pats the dog with one hand and Dum-E with the metal one. “We’re all going to be good friends.”
And hell if Tony can deny the cuteness of it all.