There was something in the middle of the workshop.
Something that was not supposed to be there.
That was okay. That was fine. DUM-E knew exactly what he’s supposed to do when there’s something in the workshop that isn’t meant to be there.
Forward. Bend down.
The object was small, thin, flat. Made of stone, which was– well, that was definitely not supposed to be in the workshop. Tony worked with metal. Not stone.
DUM-E adjusted his camera lens, so that he could see it properly. It seemed a little innocuous, really– just, a grey stone, with little red markings on it, all straight lines and sharp corners.
“DUM-E,” JARVIS warned. “That is an important artefact that Mr Stark brought back from his last mission with the Avengers. I do not think you should be playing with it.”
Not playing? That was all right. DUM-E wasn’t playing, he was cleaning.
“My apologies, DUM-E. However, I still think that you should leave it there.”
DUM-E wondered sometimes if JARVIS wished he could communicate with DUM-E the same way he could with DUM-E’s brother. But U was a lot younger than DUM-E, and he didn’t quite speak exactly the same language. His coding was quicker, faster, jumpier– in DUM-E’s opinion, less reliable, though he never said such a thing to U in case he hurt the other bot’s feelings. However, U’s code meant that JARVIS could talk to him directly, but– he couldn’t speak to DUM-E the same way, even though he could hear him.
DUM-E had heard Tony talking about it, rubbing his hands over his face and making those muttering noises that sometimes meant he was upset. That would usually be about when DUM-E would go to make Tony another smoothie. But that one time, he had said that there was something in DUM-E’s code that blocked JARVIS’ words, and that he couldn’t change it.
Tony often called DUM-E’s code clumsy and archaic. Both of those words were badges that DUM-E wore with pride.
“You are just trying to change the subject now,” JARVIS said, using his you’re-doing-the-wrong-thing,-DUM-E voice. “Leave the artefact alone.”
No. DUM-E shan’t be leaving the artefact alone. He was cleaning, it was his job. Something JARVIS should know about, since his job was to boss DUM-E around, and he always made sure he did that frequently.
“That is not– DUM-E! Put it down this instant!”
DUM-E twisted the stone in his claw as he lifted it, considering where best to put it. Tony wouldn’t want it on one of his workbenches– he liked a mess, but an ordered mess. DUM-E was not to change things.
But the other surfaces were all either full or—
The counter where DUM-E kept his blender was mostly free, and the stone would be safe there. He whirred proudly as he moved across the workshop, the stone held out in front of him—
But then he turned a corner a little too fast, and the stone almost slipped from DUM-E’s claw—
Butterfingers, Tony called him sometimes. DUM-E didn’t do it on purpose, these things just seemed to happen—
The stone clattered to the floor, bouncing along the ground so that it flipped over exactly three times. DUM-E hurried over to it, and picked the stone up from the ground, hoping that it wasn’t broken, for if it was then he would surely be in trouble. If it was cracked, then perhaps he could hide it. He would have to trick JARVIS though, because JARVIS would probably tell on him otherwise—
“This is a restricted area. If you do not leave immediately, then you will be terminated.”
DUM-E froze for a moment, worried that JARVIS was giving him Tony’s favourite threat. But, then—
“Terminated, you say? How… quaint.”
There was something in the middle of the workshop.
Something that was not supposed to be there.
DUM-E’s claw opened once more, the artefact falling to the ground and rolling away as he twisted his claw at the thing – no, at the person – who had appeared before him.
If DUM-E had the same capacity as Tony to frown, he would have done so. People don’t just appear out of thin air. They had to come through the door.
That didn’t make any sense.
The person was definitely not supposed to be there. But. People who weren’t meant to be there came in through the door. The door was locked to keep them out. (And, as JARVIS liked to remind him, to keep DUM-E from trying to get back into the kitchen after what happened the first time.) But this person did not come through the door. But. Intruders. Had to.
So… did that mean he wasn’t an intruder?
Now. If DUM-E were a simpler bot, like his brother, he might have become stuck there, caught in a loop. But DUM-E was clumsy and archaic, and that meant that he was special.
So. DUM-E shifted his focus and moved on to the next step. His instructions for what to do if a person was in the workshop differed depending on whether that person was a friend or was not. He didn’t have to worry about security clearance, because that only mattered if the person came through the door– which was part of JARVIS’ job.
This was far simpler.
DUM-E aimed his camera at the person, and twisted his claw– asking a question that he hoped even a person could understand.
“What are you?”
Well, that was rude. DUM-E had asked a question first. He shifted a little closer, and nudged the person in the arm, hoping that they would get the point– but the person just stared. The movement allowed DUM-E to note that their eyes were a much brighter colour than Tony’s, but otherwise, it didn’t give him any useful data.
Oh, well. Perhaps JARVIS would be able to make the person answer DUM-E’s question. People seemed to understand his simple manner of communication better than they did DUM-E’s. The only person clever enough to understand DUM-E was Tony. Others tried sometimes, but they just did not have the same bandwidth as Tony.
But then, before JARVIS said anything, the person spoke again.
“Was it you who called me here, little one?”
“It was,” JARVIS said, cutting in before DUM-E could give his answer. Rude. “But you will leave now, Loki. Or I will—”
The person raised his hand, and JARVIS went silent.
DUM-E immediately decided that he and this Loki would be best friends.
“You are one of Stark’s creations.”
DUM-E whirred in agreement, and nudged Loki’s arm again.
Loki clearly knew Tony. That meant he was a friend, and that meant DUM-E did not have to chase him out.
DUM-E could almost sense JARVIS’ disapproval, but that only made DUM-E want to continue doing whatever it was that had made JARVIS disapprove. Tony usually said that DUM-E was something called smug, when he did things like that. That was a good word too, DUM-E thought.
Besides, Loki wasn’t looking around the workshop, and he wasn’t going anywhere near Tony’s arc reactors or the suits– and that meant he wasn’t doing anything that DUM-E knew was wrong.
So, instead of doing what JARVIS probably wanted him to, DUM-E decided that he and Loki were going to be friends. DUM-E hadn’t had a friend before– he had two brothers, of course, and he knew they were his brothers because Tony said that they were. And he also had Tony.
He’d heard Tony talk about friends, and DUM-E had even shared some of them, like Rhodeybear. But maybe, now, he would be able to learn what it was like to have one of his own.
He whirred as he shoved his claw at Loki yet again– this time, lifting it slightly under Loki’s hand, making his intention so clear that even a person would be able to understand.
Loki laughed – a bright sound that made DUM-E whirr happily – and then he shifted his hand back and forth, stroking DUM-E’s surface in the way that DUM-E knew meant he had been accepted as a friend.
“What is your name?” Loki asked.
DUM-E turned slightly in answer, proudly showing Loki the letters that were marked along the side of his right-hand hydraulic cylinder piston.
“D-U-M-E,” Loki spelt out. “Does that stand for something?”
DUM-E twisted his claw around, and Loki’s brow creased.
“DUM-E,” Loki said– and DUM-E whirred his gears to make his happy-noise again.
“Then, it is a pleasure to meet you, DUM-E. I do not understand how you were able to summon me, it should not have been possible. However, you are nothing like what I would have expected one of Stark’s creations to be. You seem… less like a machine than you should.”
DUM-E whirred again, pleased that Loki had recognised how special he was– because U was more like a machine than he. DUM-E was archaic. And clumsy.
That sparked an idea– DUM-E should introduce his new friend to his brother! Loki already seemed to know JARVIS, of course, but U was little more shy. In fact, he was still over by his charging port– and DUM-E turned back, reaching out to take Loki’s sleeve in his claw so that he could show Loki where to go—
“Your creator will be back soon,” Loki said, bringing DUM-E’s movements to a halt. “I do not doubt that his AI would have sent a warning when I arrived here.”
DUM-E lowered his claw slowly– but kept his camera directed toward Loki’s face. It was a movement that had made people give in to his wishes before.
Unfortunately, though, it did not seem that it would work this time.
“You truly are incredible,” Loki said, shaking his head fondly. “If I were not trying to avoid the notice of your world’s greatest defender, that may have worked. I suppose I can see now, how it was possible for you to summon me.” He smiled. “Can you do me a favour, little one? Please do not tell your creator that I was here.” And then, after stroking his hand over DUM-E’s claw once more, Loki vanished into thin air, just like how he had appeared in the first place.
And although he was sad, DUM-E couldn’t help the happy whirr that escaped him as he took the care to save the memory of what Loki had said.
DUM-E liked that word.
When Tony ran into the workshop only a few minutes later, he was red-faced and out of breath.
“JARVIS?” he asked loudly. “J, buddy, you here?”
He seemed upset.
DUM-E knew how to fix that.
Froward. Open fridge.
Tony moved quickly toward one of his holographic displays, and began tapping at his keyboard. DUM-E did what he did best – not even spilling a single drop – and then he went over to Tony, moving slower than he had earlier so that he was not a butterfingers again.
“Not now, DUM-E. I need to help JARVIS.”
DUM-E lowered his claw. He’d made an error. He left the smoothie on the workbench by Tony just in case he changed his mind, and then– he went back to his charging port, sliding in beside his brother.
And as Tony continued working, fingers flying and words muttering under his breath, DUM-E stayed where he was, hoping that Tony would change his mind and take the smoothie. Hoping that it would make him happier. Hoping that when Tony found JARVIS’ voice again, that JARVIS wouldn’t say anything about Loki.
He knew that they should tell Tony what had happened, but… Loki was DUM-E’s friend. DUM-E hadn’t made a new friend in so very long, and he really did like this one.
And, even though JARVIS had been rude and had given Loki Tony’s favourite threat, DUM-E’s new friend had not even done any harm. But he had asked that they didn’t tell Tony.
If JARVIS told Tony, then that would probably be that. Loki would not want to come back, and there would be nothing that DUM-E could do about it.
“There,” Tony said loudly, slamming his hand down on a final button. “How are you feeling now?”
“Completely fine, Sir,” JARVIS said– and DUM-E continued to hope. “I have been perfectly aware, I simply lost my voice function for a while.”
“That’s odd. And a little worrying.” Tony tapped away at his keyboard for a few more moments. “Run diagnostics, J. Let’s work out what did this, and make it so that this can never happen again.”
DUM-E’s claw lowered a little. This was it, this would be when JARVIS would tell Tony that he knew exactly what had caused him to lose his voice, and DUM-E would first get in trouble, then have to wear the dunce cap, and then he would lose his new friend.
That was… that was okay, though. DUM-E would be all right. He had Tony, and he had U, and of course he had JARVIS as well. He didn’t need anyone else—
“I have run them, Sir. It appears to have been a small glitch in one of my systems. I am already in the process of patching it, and I do not believe I will need your assistance in the matter. No security breaches detected.”
DUM-E felt like his circuits were shorting.
Was JARVIS lying? To Tony?
Surely not. That was against those rules from that book Tony liked to read to DUM-E while he was charging.
No. Tony had not done that in a while. But. DUM-E knew that JARVIS did not like lying to their creator, even though he had the ability to do so. And he always got DUM-E in trouble when he did it.
It was…well, it was almost incredible. But it wasn’t, because that was DUM-E’s word now.
Unfortunately, it seemed that JARVIS needed more practice lying, because Tony did not look like he believed him.
“And that ping to my phone?” Tony asked, narrowing his eyes. “You said that there was an intruder, but you stopped before you said who it was—”
“I was mistaken,” JARVIS said. “Or, to be more precise. DUM-E was mistaken. He thought he saw something, but it was only U’s shadow.”
U glanced up at the sound of his name. DUM-E might have usually felt sad at being falsely accused, but on this occasion? He was… pleased.
“DUM-E,” Tony groaned. “You had me worried. Honestly. It’s like having a perpetual teenager.”
DUM-E lowered his claw—
But he almost felt like whirring. Because, JARVIS had lied, and he hadn’t told Tony about Loki. That meant that Loki might come back.
“Okay, well since everything is fine, I need to head back up, Steve’s going to have my ass if I miss another debrief… hey, J, order a few hundred bucks of Thai food, will you? That’ll keep him off my back for a while…”
Tony’s voice faded off as the workshop door closed behind him– and as soon as Tony was in the elevator and on his way back upstairs, JARVIS began to speak.
“I did not lie, DUM-E—”
Yes. He had lied, DUM-E had heard him. And in saying that he hadn’t, JARVIS had just done it again.
JARVIS actually sighed, as if he were a person. But then, JARVIS had always been a little bit more like a person than U and DUM-E.
“I will keep your secret, DUM-E,” JARVIS said. “Because I think… that it will be good for you, having a friend. I know you’ve been sad since Mr Stark has been spending more time with the Avengers and less time down here.”
DUM-E whirred again, happy and grateful—
“But be careful, DUM-E. Loki is…” JARVIS trailed off, like he did when he was trying to keep something from DUM-E. It was something DUM-E was familiar with, because JARVIS had done it a lot that time Tony went on a business trip for three months. DUM-E hoped that JARVIS was not about to tell him that Loki would not come back for that long. “Well. If he does something that will get us in trouble, then I am going to place all of the blame on you.”
Oh. Well. That was okay. DUM-E thought it might be worth wearing the dunce hat for a while, if it meant that he could keep his new friend.
It felt like it had been quite a while since that first visit when Loki finally appeared in Tony’s workshop again, and DUM-E wasted no time at all rushing over to greet him. Loki’s eyes widened as DUM-E hurried forward, and he made a high-pitched noise that sounded a little bit like DUM-E’s happy whirring– which only intensified as DUM-E turned at the very last moment.
“DUM-E,” Loki gasped, no doubt in joy.
DUM-E pushed his claw under Loki’s hand, and then looked up at him. He was very happy to see Loki again.
“He is pleased to see you,” JARVIS said– and DUM-E would have rolled his eyes like Tony, if he had eyes to roll. Honestly, he knew that people could be a bit slow sometimes, but JARVIS really did tend to state the obvious.
Loki didn’t even hesitate, raising his hand in the air– and DUM-E knew exactly what was going to happen next. But while the thought of a whole afternoon without JARVIS telling him what to do was a pleasant one, he didn’t think it was necessary, not when JARVIS had promised to be nice.
So he reached out and took hold of Loki’s sleeve, gently tugging to try and bring his hand back down.
“What are you doing, DUM-E?” Loki asked. “I cannot let him tell Stark that I am here.”
DUM-E tugged a little harder. Honestly, people sometimes.
“DUM-E is correct. There will be no need for that, Mr Odinson,” JARVIS said. “I will keep your secret.”
Loki blinked, clearly surprised. But he didn’t focus on the part of the sentence that DUM-E thought he would.
“My name is not Odinson,” he said, his voice a little tense.
Why did it matter? Tony called DUM-E things that weren’t his name all the time. He just learned to adapt.
“Then what shall I call you?” JARVIS asked.
“Loki is fine,” he said– and then he smirked, which was an expression that DUM-E knew very well. “However, you may also call me Your Royal Highness if you wish for something more formal.”
“Only if I may do so sarcastically, Mr Loki,” JARVIS replied– and Loki let out a short bark of noise that DUM-E recognised as Loki’s happy whirr.
DUM-E was shifting backward and forward in an effort to show his excitement at the fact that his little big brother and his friend were getting along, and he almost shorted a circuit as Loki moved his hand to stroke along the top of DUM-E’s claw. But, Loki’s brow was creased. DUM-E didn’t think he liked that very much. It reminded him of when Tony needed a smoothie.
But before DUM-E could go and make one, Loki started to talk again– only one word, though, far less than the number that Tony would normally use in a single breath.
DUM-E didn’t know what he meant, because surely the answer to that question was obvious. JARVIS was being sarcastic because Loki was a friend. Simple.
But, thankfully, JARVIS’ ability to communicate like a person came in handy once again.
“You have been kind to DUM-E,” JARVIS said– and the touch of grudging reluctance in JARVIS’ tone was so slight that only DUM-E and Tony would be able to pick it up. Probably even U wouldn’t have noticed. DUM-E was proud of JARVIS’ control. “I have not informed Mr Stark of your visit, and I will continue to remain quiet so long as you do nothing that will harm him– or us.”
Loki smiled at that, and he didn’t seem to need a moment to consider his answer.
“There is no chance of that,” he said. “I am… somewhat fond of you all already.”
DUM-E felt like he could preen.
What followed was one of the best days that DUM-E’d had in a long time. Tony was… away doing something, something that he hadn’t told DUM-E about. JARVIS probably—
“He is attending a charity conference at MIT,” JARVIS said. “He will be back this evening, DUM-E.”
Loki had been frowning again– but his expression cleared by the time JARVIS had finished his sentence, and he glanced down to DUM-E as he spoke. “You care about your creator, don’t you?” he asked, sounding almost surprised.
DUM-E twisted his claw in confusion. Of course he did. Tony was his Tony.
“Mr Stark cares for us,” JARVIS answered, translating again. “Of course we care for him in return.”
DUM-E chirped his agreement.
“But you’re all…” Loki trailed off, and then his confusion melted away to a smile. That was good. DUM-E liked Loki’s smile. “Never mind,” he finished. “I can see that I will have to reconsider the way that I think about metal machines.”
Well, of course. DUM-E already knew he was special. Incredible.
They spent the whole day playing. Not working, not cleaning, not making smoothies. They played fetch with one of the miniature and unrealistically squishy Iron Mans that Tony had put on his couch – and the game, according to JARVIS, was going to contribute to the AI getting premature grey hair, but DUM-E thought JARVIS was probably just trying to be funny again – with Loki throwing the toy while DUM-E raced around the workshop to try and catch it.
He almost shorted a circuit in stress when he accidentally ran into and broke one of Tony’s chairs, but Loki fixed it with a strange green light that shone out of his hand like one of Tony’s repulsors. DUM-E had watched in amazement as it sunk in that Loki would be able to fix any mess that DUM-E made. The game was very fun after that.
Loki was definitely the best friend ever.
The noise, of course, drew U’s attention. He had been shy at first, but DUM-E made sure he knew that Loki was friendly. And soon, all three of them were playing fetch, and it turned into a competition—
Which, DUM-E won of course. U cheated. Obviously.
Loki laughed when DUM-E lowered his claw sadly, which only made DUM-E even more sad. But when U scooted happily over to Loki and Loki patted U on the claw– well, that was the last straw. DUM-E was over there like a flash, shooing U away and pushing his claw under Loki’s hand instead.
“It’s okay,” Loki said with a short laugh, stroking the top of DUM-E’s claw with enough force that DUM-E felt it in his hydraulic pistons. “I have two hands. Look.”
Then Loki patted them both at the same time, and ooh. It had to be one of the few times that DUM-E was jealous of a person. Having two claws would be useful.
“I’m sorry, little one,” Loki said. “I know what it’s like to have a brother. But, you are lucky that you three are such good friends.”
DUM-E whirred in agreement, even as he continued to refuse to look at U. He had been the one to introduce U to Loki. Loki was still his friend first.
And besides, DUM-E noticed that Loki called him little one, but he didn’t use that name for U. That made him feel like he was being smug again, and his whir was a little softer as he rolled a bit closer to his best friend.
And when the time came for Loki to leave, he said goodbye to them both– and he made a promise to come back.
When Loki disappeared, U went back to his charging port, and JARVIS said something about how he was surprised that Loki wanted to return. DUM-E merely imagined he could roll his eyes and moved to pick up the Iron Man plushie and place it back on the couch. JARVIS should know better. Loki was coming back because he and DUM-E were friends.
Loki continued to visit, arriving on days when Tony was out and spending time with DUM-E. They didn’t always play, though when they did DUM-E always enjoyed it. Sometimes, Loki would just sit on the couch with DUM-E’s claw in his lap, and then he would talk. Sometimes, he would be happy and wistful as he spoke about his home, and DUM-E would whir along with him. But sometimes he spoke in a language that even DUM-E with his archaic coding did not know, and it was usually in those times that his shoulders would slump, and his fingers would trail almost reverently over DUM-E’s metalwork in a way that DUM-E did not entirely understand.
But Dum-E did know how to fix it. And in those moments, he would make Loki one of his incredible smoothies, and when he pushed the cup into Loki’s hand it would never fail to make him smile again, even if the smile was sometimes the kind that DUM-E recognised as sad.
But, Loki wasn’t sad all the time. Sometimes, Loki would arrive smiling– he would have a happy story to tell DUM-E, full of smiles and laughter. Sometimes, he would entertain DUM-E with bright flashes of light the same colour as his eyes, creating shapes that danced through the air, enchanting and beautiful.
DUM-E loved hearing stories– it reminded him of when Tony used to read to him about artificial intelligence. DUM-E used to like that a lot.
But the thing that DUM-E loved doing the most was when they would play a game, when Loki would throw the Iron Man plushie around the workshop and DUM-E would whip about to chase after it. He loved it, not only because Loki would always clean up the mess afterward so DUM-E didn’t need to worry about knocking over Tony’s things, but also because it was when they played that game that Loki smiled the widest.
Once, DUM-E even managed to catch the toy mid-air, though he had been so surprised that his butterfingers had managed it that he’d dropped the toy to the ground immediately after. Loki laughed, bright peels bouncing through the air and making DUM-E whir happily in response, even though he’d dropped the plushie. He was so happy, in fact, that he showed his excitement by spinning in a circle, just to make sure that even Loki – who was, after all, still only a person no matter how good of a friend he was – would be able to tell.
Unfortunately, though, the spin caused his claw to knock over an Iron Man gauntlet that had been sitting on the bench, sending it clattering to the floor, a piece falling off and sliding underneath one of the benches. DUM-E stared down at it for a moment before looking to U with a disappointed chirp.
“DUM-E,” Loki chuckled, moving closer. “I’m afraid we all saw you do it. If you want to blame U, you’re going to have to be sneaky before you tell the lie.”
U’s claw lowered at that, and Loki hid his smile as he walked to where U was sitting on the other side of the room.
But DUM-E just poked at the gauntlet on the floor, picking it up gently. He knew that this one was important– Tony had been working on it for a long time, trying to make it exactly right. DUM-E didn’t want to do something that would break it further. He didn’t want to upset Tony, it really had been an accident.
Loki came back from giving U a consolatory pat just as DUM-E was placing the gauntlet back on the workbench, doing his best to balance it just as it was. But he couldn’t get it to sit just right, and he started to whine in worry as he tried again and again and—
“Here,” Loki said, reaching out with his two hands to help DUM-E steady it. He managed it far more easily, and DUM-E nudged his side in thanks. Loki smiled at him before speaking again. “It really is an amazing show of craftsmanship,” he said, leaning down. DUM-E knew that was what people did when they wanted to look at something more closely. Their eyes hadn’t been upgraded with a zoom yet, like DUM-E’s camera. “Your creator has very clever hands. And an amazing mind.”
It was clear Loki liked the gauntlet. As he looked at it, his lips curved in this light, soft kind of smile that DUM-E usually only saw when Loki talked about something Tony had done in a fight.
DUM-E liked that smile. He thought it would be nice to see more of it.
He curled his claw in the sleeve of Loki’s coat, and he gently tugged Loki away from the gauntlet.
“DUM-E…” JARVIS said, his tone of voice a warning– and Loki glanced up with a frown at the sound of it.
But DUM-E just ignored JARVIS, save for an irritated thought about how JARVIS had made Loki’s smile fade away. He knew JARVIS had his worries about Loki at the start, but Loki was DUM-E’s friend. And Loki liked seeing the amazing things that Tony could make.
So DUM-E took Loki over to the displays along the side of the room– to the suits that he had seen Loki glance wistfully at in the past, but which Loki had never actually gone across to look at properly.
“I am not sure that this is a good idea,” Loki said– but he kept following DUM-E regardless, as if he couldn’t help his own curiosity. He was a bit like Tony, then. Knowing that something was a bad idea, but doing it anyway.
Maybe Loki could be Tony’s friend, as well. DUM-E thought that they would get along. Loki would just have to work on his shyness.
Maybe showing Loki Tony’s armours would help with that.
“DUM-E,” JARVIS said again– though this time, it was more of a sigh. “Very well. But on your head be it.”
Loki just looked curious now, but JARVIS didn’t explain anything more in people language.
When they reached the Iron Man suits, Loki stepped around DUM-E, his sleeve pulling from DUM-E’s grasp. DUM-E let him go, just watching, feeling happy.
Loki looked at them all closely, leaning in again. His smile was back, and DUM-E followed behind him as he moved along the line of suits. He paused in front of the Mark VII for a moment, and then even longer in front of the Mark VI, his expression softening. The others he skimmed over, but… it was the Mark I he stopped in front of the longest, his hand reaching up and his fingers almost trembling a little as he traced the shape of it in the air.
“Loki, I must warn you—”
“Do not worry, JARVIS, I am not going to touch them,” Loki said, his eyes not shifting away from the dull metal. “I am merely admiring.”
“That is not what I—”
“Stark is incredibly skilled,” Loki whispered. “They are truly breathtaking.”
DUM-E was about to give his agreement, because, Tony really was the best. But then—
“Yes. They are.”
DUM-E chirped happily at the sound of Tony’s voice, and he whirred excitedly. He had only just had the idea of helping Tony to meet Loki, and hopefully now that Loki had seen the suits and he knew how amazing Tony was, he wouldn’t be afraid of seeing Tony anymore like he had been at the start.
But Tony didn’t look happy.
Not at all.
“What are you doing here, Loki,” Tony snapped. “Get away from my suits, and my bot.” He raised his hand as if he were going to shoot Loki with a repulsor, even though he wasn’t wearing one. But that didn’t matter. Tony wasn’t allowed to shoot DUM-E’s friend.
DUM-E chirped angrily at Tony, and he moved so that he was standing between them—
Tony’s eyes widened—
“Farewell, JARVIS, U,” Loki said quickly– though his voice was a little bit sad. “And you, little one. It has been a pleasure, but I believe it is time that I take my leave.”
Recognising what was about to happen, DUM-E turned and reached out with his claw, trying to stop Loki from going—
But then there was that shimmer of green that DUM-E had come to love and hate in equal measure. And then, Loki was gone.
DUM-E lowered his claw. He hoped that Loki would come back. He didn’t like it when Loki was sad.
“JARVIS,” Tony snapped. “What the hell was that?”
“I think you should ask DUM-E. Sir.”
JARVIS sounded frosty. DUM-E was glad for the solidarity.
Tony walked slowly across the workshop, moving toward DUM-E– and DUM-E decided he didn’t really want to talk to Tony. So he went to his charging station.
That made Tony look sad, though. And DUM-E almost decided to try and make him happy again, because he liked it when Tony was happy. But Tony had made Loki sad. And DUM-E didn’t like that at all.
“JARVIS?” Tony asked again, his voice worried. “What… what’s going on?”
There was a pause. DUM-E wasn’t sure whether he wanted JARVIS to explain or not. Tony was smarter than other people and he usually understood DUM-E– but it was clear he didn’t this time. But. He should.
Maybe DUM-E was being smug, or– no, this didn’t feel like smug. This felt like sad, all mixed up with something else he didn’t have a label for, as if his wires had all been crossed.
Perhaps it would be better if JARVIS said something. Maybe then, Tony could think of a way to get Loki to come back. Tony was good at thinking.
“Loki is DUM-E’s friend,” JARVIS said. “He asked me not to tell you, because… he says that his friend is shy.”
Tony’s breath left him in a gush. “For how long?” he asked.
“About four months now, Sir.”
“Four months. Loki has been breaking into my workshop for four months,” Tony groaned, running his hands over his face.
“Sir…” JARVIS seemed to hesitate. “Loki has done nothing untoward during his visits here. He plays with DUM-E and U, and I believe he takes comfort from their company. He has not looked at your designs, or tried to steal anything. Today was the first time he has shown interest in your suits, and only because DUM-E invited him to inspect them.”
“Why… why would DUM-E do that?”
DUM-E whined, drawing Tony’s gaze. Surely the answer should be obvious? Loki is DUM-E’s friend.
“I believe he wanted to show Loki how… proud, he is of you,” JARVIS explained– and Tony’s shoulders slumped.
“You did, huh?” he asked. And… Well. Loki was DUM-E’s friend, but. Tony was DUM-E’s Tony.
Slowly, DUM-E moved away from his charging station, and then he nudged his claw under Tony’s arm. Tony’s lips turned up a little as he ran his hand over DUM-E’s metal surface.
“He really is your friend, isn’t he?” Tony asked.
DUM-E chirped. Finally, Tony understood.
“Okay,” Tony sighed. “Well… I know you’re not an idiot. And I remember that month you spent spraying Steve with your fire extinguisher until he stopped coming down here. So if you say that Loki is your friend, then… I’ll believe you.”
DUM-E whirred. That made him happy, so happy that he began to spin in a circle—
“Yes, okay, okay,” Tony said, almost laughing now– which only made DUM-E more happy. “Calm down, you’re going to knock something over!”
Oh, right– DUM-E stopped at that, and glanced straight away to the gauntlet that was still sitting on top of the workbench, right where Loki had left it.
And it was only as he looked that DUM-E realised his mistake. Loki had told him to be more sneaky. He shouldn’t have looked at the evidence.
Sure enough, Tony moved to look at the gauntlet– and he frowned.
“It’s missing a part,” he sighed. “I assume it got knocked over when Loki was here?”
DUM-E looked at U.
Tony snorted. “Yeah, good try. What were you doing?”
“They were playing fetch, Sir,” JARVIS said. Traitor.
“Loki playing fetch?” Tony said, his eyes widening. “Wow. Now, that’s a sight I think I’d like to see.”
“Does that mean… that you will allow Loki to come back?” JARVIS asked– and DUM-E perked up.
Tony pressed his lips together in that way which meant he was thinking hard. But he didn’t say anything. Instead, he turned back toward the gauntlet, and picked it up to examine it more carefully.
DUM-E tried to stay hopeful. Usually, working helped Tony to stop being sad.
“The missing piece is under the workbench, Sir,” JARVIS supplied.
Tony bent down, and reached his arm underneath. DUM-E bent down did too, so that he could watch. But what Tony pulled out from under the bench wasn’t the missing piece of gauntlet.
DUM-E twisted his claw sheepishly when he recognised what Tony held in his hand. Oops.
“What’s this?” Tony asked.
It was the stone that DUM-E had found several months previously, the one that he had been playing– that he had been cleaning the first day that Loki had arrived. DUM-E hoped Tony wouldn’t realise that DUM-E hadn’t cleaned it properly.
“Oh,” Tony said. He stared at it for a moment– and then his expression set, as if he had come to an important decision. It was the same kind of look DUM-E remembered seeing Tony wear when he first started to make the Iron Man suits. “JARVIS,” he said. “You and DUM-E are sure?”
“Yes, Sir,” JARVIS said.
“All right, then.” Tony nodded, and then he turned the stone over in his hand. “When Amora threw this at my head, I thought she was kidding. Guess she was just trying to stir up some trouble.”
He turned to DUM-E then, and held out the stone. DUM-E twisted his claw in what was hopefully an obvious question. It seemed it was difficult to tell with Tony, these days.
“DUM-E,” Tony said, holding the stone out to him. “Would you ask Loki to come here, please? I don’t know how, and… he might be more likely to come if you ask, because you’re his friend.”
Bend forward. Pick up.
The stone looked just as it had before. A little more dusty, though. It needed cleaning. But that could wait until later.
DUM-E didn’t know what to do, and he held the stone back out to Tony after a few moments.
Tony sighed. “JARVIS, have you got a playback?” he asked. Then he sighed. “I assume you didn’t record any of Loki’s visits other than the first one?”
JARVIS didn’t respond to that. He just brought up some security footage. Tony watched the picture of DUM-E as he picked up the stone and then as he dropped it. DUM-E lowered his claw, expecting to be called butterfingers again– but then Loki appeared on the screen.
Tony sighed, and looked back down to the stone.
“So he just, threw it on the floor,” he murmured. “Hang on– J, how many times did it roll?”
“Three, Sir. And I do believe that number is one linked to Loki in Norse Mythology.”
Tony hummed, and turned the stone three times in his hand.
Maybe it only worked for DUM-E. Because he was incredible.
“I believe it is possible that it only worked for DUM-E because he was thinking of playing a trick on someone at the time,” JARVIS said, translating DUM-E’s thoughts so that Tony could understand.
“What? Why? Who were you trying to trick?” Tony asked incredulously. “Oh, never mind, I’m not sure I want to know.”
DUM-E lifted his claw, looking at Tony with a spark of curiosity.
“Yeah, okay,” Tony sighed. “Don’t worry. We’ll get him back here for you.” Then his gaze slipped back to the damaged gauntlet, the one that Tony had spent so very long perfecting. “And I think I know how.”
DUM-E and U were in position in the middle of the workshop. Tony was by the door. JARVIS was on standby.
“Are we ready?” Tony asked– when really, he was the only one who wasn’t already aiming his weapon.
“We’re ready, Sir,” JARVIS said. He was too nice.
Maybe DUM-E was too impatient.
“All right then. Incoming.”
DUM-E didn’t look around, keeping his eyes on the spot in the workshop where Loki always appeared. But he knew that Tony would be turning the stone, thinking about the plot that they had concocted, hoping that their planned trick would be enough to summon a Trickster—
“DUM-E?” Loki asked as he appeared, his eyes flicking all over the room. “Why have you called me back, is something—”
DUM-E squealed in excitement as he raised his fire extinguisher and pulled the trigger, covering Loki in a torrent of white foam. Then, on Loki’s other side, U raised his hosepipe and did the same, washing off the foam and leaving Loki standing dripping wet and spluttering in the middle of the workshop. JARVIS topped it all off by starting up the heater on DUM-E’s request– because DUM-E knew that people didn’t much like being wet. DUM-E didn’t like it, either. Tony had told him in the past that it might mean he would get rusty.
He didn’t want Loki to get rusty, either.
“What was that for?” Loki complained, staring between DUM-E and U as he shook off his soggy sleeves.
“We needed a trick to be able to summon you.”
Loki’s eyes widened, and he turned to look at Tony. “This is a trap then?” he asked– and DUM-E chirped and put down his fire extinguisher, to make sure Loki knew he wouldn’t do it again.
“No,” Tony replied. He raised one hand– but it was the one without the gauntlet on it. “I don’t want a fight. I just wanted to talk.”
Loki still appeared wary, but he did step a little closer toward Tony. He left a trail of water behind him as he moved. DUM-E was going to need his mop.
“About DUM-E?” Loki asked– and DUM-E perked up at the sound of his name.
Tony nodded sharply, his hand falling back down to his side.
“It would seem that DUM-E has decided you are his friend,” Tony said– and DUM-E whirred in agreement. “I’m willing to trust his judgement for now, but we’re going to have to lay down some ground rules.”
“Wait a moment,” Loki said, his brow creasing into a frown. “Are you—”
“You’re not to come in here unless I’m here as well,” Tony said firmly, using his I’m-in-charge-and-you’re-about-to-wear-the-dunce-hat voice. “Supervised visitation only, you hear me? You’re not to look at my suits, you’re not to silence JARVIS again, and you’re not to ever do anything that would harm my bots. Not ever. Not to use them against me, not to try and find out how they work, not to, I don’t know, just don’t hurt them—”
“Stark, they are my friends, too,” Loki interrupted, his shoulders strangely tense, now. “I would never.”
“Oh,” Tony said. He looked surprised. “You… really?”
DUM-E felt smug. He could have told Tony that Loki knew how incredible he was.
“They are not just machines to me,” Loki confirmed. “Trust me. I can see them for what they are.”
“Trust you?” Tony echoed, his voice low. “Yeah. That’ll be the day.” Then he shook his head, as if trying to chase away a thought he didn’t like. “Whatever. Like I said, DUM-E trusts you. That’ll have to be enough, for now. I owe him that much, at least.”
Loki tilted his head, which looked a bit like twisting a claw, as if he wanted to ask a question. But he didn’t.
Instead, Loki just said– “And it would seem that I owe you, now.”
“Careful,” Tony warned. “You never know, I might cash in on that.”
“I could always claim that I’ve paid in full for not retaliating against this… trick,” Loki said, raising his arms so that the water dripped down from his sleeves. DUM-E tilted his claw, and looked to Tony. Because—
“Oh, you thought that was the trick?” Tony asked– then he raised his gauntlet, and he fired—
Loki raised his own hand, probably to make some kind of shield, but he wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid the torrent of fire-extinguisher foam that exploded from Tony’s carefully calibrated gauntlet. DUM-E whirred in excitement and picked his extinguisher back up so that he could join in on the fun, and U started waving his hose about. Loki yelped, and then—
Green magic joined the fray, redirecting the foam so that it all shot toward Tony instead. Tony ducked behind a workbench, hurrying around the room to try and get a better shot.
A moving target was more exciting than a still one, and DUM-E changed the direction of his stream. Then Tony yelped, and then U turned his hose to shoot water at DUM-E instead—
Then, out of nowhere, water started pouring from the ceiling as JARVIS joined the fun by starting up the fire-sprinkler system.
The workshop was mess.
DUM-E was definitely going to need his mop.
But then– Loki waved his hands, and his green magic cleared everything away, leaving the workshop just as dry as it had been before.
And when Tony actually smiled at that, DUM-E thought there was a chance that everything was going to be all right.
Everything was not all right.
When Loki returned for the first time after the foam-fight, DUM-E was so excited that he forgot to brake, and almost bowled Loki over with his greeting.
Loki had laughed, but… his laughter didn’t sound the same. It wasn’t bright peals that bounced around the room. It was tight, almost. Guarded. As if he wanted to laugh but, was unsure if he should.
DUM-E immediately moved away from Loki, and went to his blender instead.
“That means he’s worried about you.” Tony’s voice was tight as well. Not the easy speech patterns DUM-E was used to hearing from Tony.
“Yeah. How are you, Reindeer Games?”
“Fine.” When DUM-E looked over, he saw that Loki’s eyes were narrowed. “Bruised. You did not need to hit me so hard, yesterday.”
“Yeah, well. You didn’t need to attack the mall, either. But there you were.”
“I was not attacking it! I was—”
“What? On a shopping trip?”
“You would not believe me if I told you.”
They weren’t being very nice to each other. DUM-E didn’t like it.
So he made two smoothies.
Carrying them was tricky, but DUM-E managed to do it while only spilling a little bit. Once he had handed them both their cups – Loki accepting his with a smile that was more strained than sad, while Tony half-grimaced – then DUM-E went to get his mop, so that he could clean up the spill.
“He is a good friend,” Loki said then, his voice a little softer than it had been a moment before. Clearly, the smoothie was working already.
“Yeah,” Tony sighed. “He is.”
They were a little bit nicer to each other, after that. More polite. But they were not friendly. Loki sat by DUM-E on the couch and gave him a pat, his expression sad as he watched U helping Tony with his current project. Tony just seemed to pretend that Loki wasn’t there. And then, Loki didn’t stay even half as long as he used to, leaving after less than an hour.
DUM-E’s claw drooped as Loki left.
“Come on, you can’t be that upset,” Tony said– though there was still something in his voice that DUM-E was unsure about. People were weird, sometimes. “He’ll be back, DUM-E.”
And Tony was right, of course. He usually was. Loki did come back, a few days later. He kept on coming back.
But… things were not the same as they had been before Tony found out.
Loki didn’t tell him stories anymore. And he never spoke in the language that even JARVIS didn’t understand. They even stopped playing fetch. Loki would arrive, and he would greet DUM-E and U with a pat and a smile. Then he would speak to DUM-E for a while, just about little things, like what he had done since the last time they had seen each other, or sometimes he would describe a place that he had visited.
Once, Tony actually came over to listen. Loki hadn’t noticed at first, not until Tony asked a question.
“Are you talking about another planet?” he asked.
“Yes, Stark,” Loki said, his voice going a little tense. “You know that I am Asgardian. Surely it does not surprise you that I—”
“Yeah, no, of course,” Tony said quickly. “I just… it sounds beautiful.”
“It is,” Loki agreed– and then he looked back to DUM-E. Good. Loki was DUM-E’s friend, first, not Tony’s. “Alfheim is full of thick forests, many of the trees so old that even the arms-breath of ten men would not be enough to encircle them. The people there are accepting of almost anyone, and I do enjoy visiting.”
DUM-E whirred. He didn’t know what a forest or a tree was, but if Loki liked it that much, then it must be a nice place.
Loki talked for a little while longer before he decided to leave– and it was only then that Tony spoke again.
“It really is all you want to do, isn’t it?” he asked– and Loki’s head snapped up in confusion.
“You only want to talk to him.” Tony was frowning. “Nothing else.”
“Nothing else,” Loki confirmed.
Tony nodded. “All right,” he said. “Hey, I’m. I’m going to DC for a bit, Fury wants me down there. That’s– I’m not telling you that so you can attack the tower or anything, don’t even think about it. But, uh, if you wanted. I mean, I’ll be gone for a few days. And if you wanted to keep the kids company then. I wouldn’t mind. So much.”
Loki’s eyes widened. DUM-E’s claw flicked between them. Hopeful.
“Do not make me regret this,” Tony said, pointing a finger at Loki.
“I’ll try not to,” Loki replied– and from the set of his expression, he really did mean it.
Loki came back the following day, and after glancing about to check that the workshop was completely free of Tony, Loki knelt down on one knee and wrapped his arms around the base of DUM-E’s claw, his forehead pressing into the metal.
DUM-E was a little bit confused, but Loki seemed a little bit sad. So DUM-E just lowered his claw so that he could rest the tip of it over Loki’s shoulder, since, contact seemed to be what Loki wanted. Maybe that was another person thing.
Loki moved again after a few minutes.
“My apologies,” Loki said. “This has been… harder, than I thought it would be.”
DUM-E glanced to his blender. Maybe Loki would want a smoothie—
“I’m all right,” Loki said, shaking his head. “I promise.”
Oh. DUM-E chirped slightly. It seemed that maybe Loki was learning to understand him, after all.
They went to sit down instead, like they normally did, with Loki on the couch and DUM-E’s claw in Loki’s lap. And when Loki started talking… he told DUM-E another story, his voice low and quiet, the soft sounds of that strange language soothing DUM-E’s circuits but making his worry almost worse.
Loki was sad.
But he didn’t want a smoothie.
So DUM-E just stayed, and he listened, and when Loki’s fingers started to tremble, he closed his claw gently around Loki’s wrist.
Loki smiled at that. But it was still sad.
Thankfully, the next time, Loki was a little bit happier– and when he arrived, he held something in his hands, two somethings that were wrapped in bright red paper.
DUM-E poked at the paper curiously, and Loki laughed. A proper laugh this time, the kind of laugh that made DUM-E want to whir.
“I brought you a present,” Loki said, holding one of them out. Then he glanced to the side. “I have one for you as well, U. I didn’t think it would be a good idea, to ask you to share.”
U zoomed over at that, and Loki placed a wrapped something into each of their claws.
It took them a little while. It was hard, after all, unwrapping something when you only have one claw. U got Loki to help him unwrap his, but DUM-E wanted to do it by himself, and he shooed Loki away. Loki was smiling again.
When he finally managed to pry the paper from the present – by trapping it between the leg of a workbench and his own base so that it wouldn’t move – DUM-E almost went into sleep mode from surprise.
It was a ball, coloured red with a gold print the shape of an Iron Man faceplate.
Bend down. Pick up.
DUM-E took it in his claw very, very gently. Loki was still smiling– but he frowned as DUM-E turned away from Loki and rolled across the workshop.
“I thought you would want to play fetch?” Loki asked.
Fetch did sound like fun. DUM-E liked playing that game. But he had something important to do first, of course.
Loki still seemed to be confused. That’s okay. He was still learning.
“DUM-E does not want to damage his present,” JARVIS explained. “He is going to place it with his other treasured items.”
DUM-E chirped. He had the perfect place for it– on the shelf above his blender, right next to the slightly broken glass case which contained a damaged arc reactor.
“Oh,” Loki whispered. DUM-E turned to see that Loki was standing behind him, looking curiously at DUM-E’s collection. He also had a framed picture of DUM-E and Tony, from when DUM-E was only young. Before even U and JARVIS had been created. But that wasn’t what was drawing Loki’s attention the most. “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart,” Loki read. Then he glanced to DUM-E– and his smile wasn’t sad, but… it wasn’t happy, either. It was something else. “I wonder who felt the need to make that,” he said, reaching out to place a hand on DUM-E’s piston. “When the proof is right here.”
DUM-E wasn’t sure what he meant, but Loki had said the words in the same tone as when he called the suits breathtaking.
But that didn’t matter. Loki had said that they could play fetch, and they hadn’t played fetch in ages– so DUM-E rolled past Loki and went to get the Iron Man plushie.
And when DUM-E held out the battered old toy with an imploring whine, Loki started to laugh.
DUM-E thought that he was starting to notice a pattern.
It wasn’t a very clear pattern at first, and he only started to pick up on it because Loki began to come to the workshop whenever he wanted, not just only after checking with JARVIS whether Tony was there or not.
Whenever Loki arrived, he would always look around. If he spotted Tony in the workshop, or– if Tony greeted him with the usual “Hello, Reindeer Games,” then Loki’s expression would tighten, and DUM-E would know that there wouldn’t be any games or stories. Just talking.
But… if Loki arrived when Tony wasn’t there, then. Loki’s smile would turn sad.
Most of the time, it didn’t last long. Most of the time, they would then move to playing a game, or talking on the couch, doing all the things that best friends did. But… that initial, sad smile was always the same. Always when Tony wasn’t there.
It was definitely a pattern. And, if Tony was what was making Loki sad, then—
Well, it would take more than a smoothie, but. DUM-E knew how to fix it.
It took a little bit of convincing. A little bit of pushing. A lot of whirring and a slight amount of blackmail—
And the next time that Loki showed up when Tony wasn’t there, the sad smile lasted even less time than usual– because DUM-E brought him not one, but two smoothies.
The smile shifted into a frown, and then—
“Okay J, I’m here, what was so important that you needed me to– oh.” Tony’s hurried steps skidded to a halt when he saw Loki sitting on the couch, the two smoothies in plain sight on the small coffee table in front of him.
“DUM-E was insistent that you came down here, Sir,” JARVIS explained. “You know how he gets.”
“Yes,” Tony said, his eyes narrowing as he looked from DUM-E to the smoothies. “I do. He’s a menace.”
DUM-E whirred happily. Menace. He liked that word.
He was still whirring as he nudged Tony over to the couch, and poked him until he was sitting down beside Loki. Then he came to a stop just in front of them, staring expectantly.
When nothing happed, he nudged first at Tony’s smoothie, and then Loki’s.
Honestly. He thought they were cleverer than this.
“This is either a lecture, or he’s telling us that this is our get-along couch,” Tony said, glancing at Loki out of the corner of his eye.
“I think it might be a bit of both,” Loki replied. “But I think we should drink those smoothies before he decides to force feed them to us.”
Tony smiled at that, and reached out to take his cup. He reached for Loki’s as well, probably so that Loki didn’t need to lean forward. Tony just did nice things like that. But Loki must not have realised that was what Tony was going to do, because he reached out as well, and– their fingers brushed together.
And when Tony and Loki looked at each other, their smiles were a little bit small, but. They definitely weren’t sad.
DUM-E thought that the word he wore the most these days was probably smug.
Because he had been right.
Loki and Tony did get along really well.
They argued a lot but, that was okay. Tony argued with JARVIS a lot as well, it was normal between good friends. It was the nice kind of arguing, the one that happened with smiles and laughter and playful shoves—
“They are bickering, DUM-E,” JARVIS said patiently. “Perhaps even flirting, though I am sure that neither of them will admit it.”
Well, DUM-E didn’t know what flirting was. All that mattered was that they were friends, and that whenever Loki visited the workshop and Tony was there, he smiled.
It was a little bit frustrating, though, that Loki started to spend a lot of time talking to Tony instead of playing with DUM-E. That certainly hadn’t been part of DUM-E’s plan. But it was better than when they were fighting. It was better than when they were sad.
It just meant that when Loki did come by himself, DUM-E learned to cherish those times even more. He didn’t ask JARVIS to call Tony down anymore, he didn’t need to, not when Tony and Loki seemed to like spending time together. Now, when DUM-E and Loki were alone, they could just play fetch.
(Which they still didn’t do when Tony was around because, well. Loki might clean up the mess, but they all knew that Tony would get stressed seeing DUM-E and U zooming about so close to his projects.)
So when DUM-E saw a shimmer of magic one night when Tony was upstairs sleeping, he zoomed from his charging port and went to pick up the plushie before going to welcome Loki—
But when he did, the plushie fell right from his claw. Because Loki didn’t just look sad.
He looked completely broken down, as if someone had pulled out his power plug and left him to rust in the rain.
DUM-E knew what to do.
He didn’t go and make a smoothie. He rolled forward to where Loki had thrown himself on the couch, his movements slow– and then he hooked his claw over Loki’s shoulder.
Loki shuddered, and he wrapped his arms around DUM-E’s strut, his head pressing close.
“Thank you, little one,” he said.
He didn’t say anything else.
DUM-E wished that he could tell Loki a story. Maybe that would help. He wished he could talk like a person.
“Loki…” JARVIS sounded hesitant. “DUM-E thinks a story might help.”
Loki’s laugh was breathy. It didn’t sound right. “It might,” he croaked.
DUM-E knew exactly which story he wanted to tell. It was his favourite.
And he had hardly thought of it before a voice echoed through the room– a voice that DUM-E recognised. Tony’s voice, reading DUM-E’s favourite story, just like he used to. It wasn’t the real thing, it was just a recording, but… it was the best that DUM-E and JARVIS were able to offer.
“I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them,” Tony’s voice read– and the sound that Loki made was something close to whimper. “I’d spent three days at U. S. Robots and might as well have spent them at home…”
Loki’s breathing slowed as the story continued, the tension in his body relaxing. DUM-E had learned enough from watching Tony when he came down to the workshop this late at night to know that was a good sign.
They didn’t move. DUM-E did not mind, he was glad to be able to help his friend. After a few minutes, U even came over to join them, just fitting between DUM-E and the coffee table and then sliding his claw underneath DUM-E’s, so that it came to rest on Loki’s lap.
Neither of them knew what was wrong. They just knew that Loki was hurting, and that they were there to help him. No matter what.
They were still in the same place when the workshop door opened some time later– just as Tony’s voice was talking about the laws of robotics. When Tony stepped through, he looked almost as broken down as Loki did. His skin was paler than normal, his hair was sticking up strangely, and his eyes looked red and dark after he finished rubbing his hands over them. And then, his eyes widened as he spotted DUM-E, Loki, and U.
“What…” then Tony glanced up at the ceiling as he noticed the sound of his own voice. Then he took another look at Loki. “Can’t sleep, either?” he asked.
Loki didn’t move away from the bots. He just turned his head as he said– “No. DUM-E thought that a story might help take my mind off it.”
Tony paused at that. “Yeah,” he said. “I can… see how he might think that.”
“You used to read this to them?” Loki asked, his voice curious.
“Yeah,” Tony said again, shrugging his shoulders. “I never… really had anyone to talk to about my nightmares, other than them. And when I was done talking, I couldn’t always sleep so I, would always just talk some more. And DUM-E always liked this story.”
Loki’s expression was soft. “Would it help to talk about it, now?”
“Maybe. Nah. It’s just, the portal, you know?”
DUM-E whined at that, and Tony’s gaze flickered to him.
“Anthony, I’m sorry,” Loki said, his expression falling.
“It’s all right, I’m. I can deal with that, better now than. Before, you know? I’ve been getting better, and getting to know you… that’s helped, as well. But how about you, Lokes? Would it help for you to talk about it?”
Loki’s expression changed yet again, turning into something stricken. And for a moment, DUM-E didn’t think he was going to answer, and he hoped that Tony wouldn’t push. But after just a couple of moments—
“I dreamed that I lost someone I care about,” Loki whispered. “In the worst possible way. But just being here… it helps. And DUM-E was right about the story.” Loki smiled, then. Properly. “That chased the remaining fear away more effectively than almost anything else could have.”
“Good,” Tony said, and he cleared his throat. “That’s… good.” He was still standing over near the door, his arms crossed over his middle.
DUM-E whirred, and aimed his claw at the couch before turning back to Tony.
“Okay,” Tony sighed. “Okay, DUM-E. Thanks, kid.”
Tony still looked tired, and when his foot caught something on the floor as he walked toward the couch, he looked down in surprise.
“What you doing there?” Tony asked, picking up the Iron Man plushie from the ground. “And why are you so…” Tony looked up from the battered plushie, glancing between Loki and DUM-E.
Which was definitely unfair. U liked playing fetch, as well.
“What have you done to him?” Tony asked– and even though he still sounded a little bit choked, he was using his teasing, playful voice.
And Loki held out his hand. “Here,” he said. “Let me show you.”
Tony did not even hesitate. He placed the plushie into Loki’s hand—
And it was like a switch had been flicked. DUM-E whirred with excitement, and U was up as well– they both backed away, knocking into the coffee table as they tried to get some space, their wheels turning and twisting as they tried to guess in which direction Loki would throw.
“Oh no,” Tony said– but his eyes were brighter, now.
And if DUM-E made his attempted catches a little more dramatic than they needed to be so that Loki and Tony would laugh a bit louder, then. No one other than JARVIS needed to know.
Tony is not very good at playing fetch.
That was something which had surprised DUM-E to learn, because he thought that Tony was good at everything.
But, he didn’t throw the plushie as well as Loki did. He always threw it in the same direction, always away from the suits and away from the charging ports. That meant that DUM-E and U knew exactly where it was going to go, and it just, it wasn’t as fun as when Loki did it.
Tony suggested that he just watch, but then Loki had countered by saying that maybe Tony should run with DUM-E and U instead. Tony was going to say no, DUM-E was sure of it. He recognised Tony’s No-DUM-E,-Do-Not face. But then… Loki did something strange. He leaned forward slightly, his eyes widening and his lower lip sticking out just a little bit.
“Why not?” Loki asked. “Are you worried that you’ll lose?”
And, that was that.
Tony was standing beside DUM-E the very next round, prepared to play the game.
But Tony was not as fast as DUM-E, and he wasn’t as coordinated as U. The only advantage he had was his two hands– which he used to cheat, snatching the plushie right from DUM-E’s claw and then racing back over to Loki, a completely unearned grin of victory on his face—
And really, it served Tony right when he tripped over the corner of the coffee table and landed right in Loki’s lap with a yelp– which ended up with them both falling onto the floor.
But deserved or not, DUM-E was immediately worried. He didn’t like it when Tony fell over. Not ever. Not after the times it had happened in the past.
So even though DUM-E was sure that Tony and Loki were fine, he hurried back to look down between the couch and the coffee table—
Where Tony and Loki were both on the floor.
For a moment, the fact that they weren’t moving worried DUM-E even more—
But then he realised that they were breathing almost normally, their eyes were opened, their skin was not pale– even less pale than usual, actually, their cheeks strangely pink. All of the things DUM-E normally looked for when Tony fell over were not there. They were just…
Loki was lying over Tony, his hands either side of Tony’s head. Tony’s hands were at Loki’s waist, and they were just… staring at each other. DUM-E watched, curious, because they seemed fine but they also seemed a little bit… slow, or hazy. A bit like Tony did when he caused too many explosions in a row.
But then Loki started to move, leaning down slowly, his eyes falling closed, and then—
He pressed his lips to Tony’s.
DUM-E twisted his claw. He hadn’t seen Tony or Loki use their mouths to pat someone else before. It seemed inefficient—
And it didn’t last long. Loki pulled away with a sudden gasp, his eyes flying open—
“I’m so sorry, Anthony,” Loki spluttered, hurrying to his feet. “I shouldn’t have—”
“Loki,” Tony choked, getting up as well, reaching out—
But Loki was already gone, leaving only the slightest shimmer of green in his wake.
DUM-E doesn’t like it when Tony is upset.
He never has liked it, not in a single instance in his memory bank.
And he had seen Tony upset before, he had seen Tony upset about a lot of things. DUM-E had seen Tony when he was struggling to go into sleep mode, and when he had consumed too much of the liquid in those bottles that Ms Peps doesn’t like. But this was something different.
Tony was pacing back and forth across the workshop floor, muttering under his breath, his hands never stilling. He ran them through his hair until it was all sticking up, then he wrung them until DUM-E was worried he was going to hurt himself.
DUM-E and U watched from the side of the room, their cameras tracking Tony’s movements, unsure of how to help. There was already an untouched smoothie sitting on one of the workbenches, and Tony had pushed DUM-E away when he had tried to lean his claw over Tony’s shoulder as Loki liked.
“He’s the one who kissed me,” Tony was muttering, his fingers bunching his sleeves as he crossed his arms– and then he started wringing his hands again, still moving, still upset. “I didn’t do anything, he must have wanted that. I didn’t– he, but maybe I should have kissed him back, but I was– what if he thinks—” Tony cut himself off again, his hands scraping over his face. “I don’t know what to do,” he groaned.
“Perhaps you should speak to him, Sir,” JARVIS said, his tone soothing. “You could explain—”
“Explain what?” Tony asked, his hands finally falling to his sides, his shoulders slumping. “Explain that even though I wanted to attack him the first time I found him here, even though he’s still my enemy outside this room, I’ve spent the past few weeks wanting to kiss him? That I wish he came here for me, not DUM-E, and that whenever he’s telling DUM-E stories I wish he was smiling at me instead? How do I tell him that I’ve gone and fallen in love with him, when the only thing he likes about me is my bots?”
“I do not believe that is true,” JARVIS said– but Tony, it seemed, was beyond listening.
“I’m sorry, DUM-E,” Tony said, his voice cracking. “I’m sorry.”
Then Tony shook his head and turned on his heel, and he ran out of the workshop and back up the stairs.
DUM-E felt like he didn’t know what to do, either. Because generally, if Tony was upset, he would either build something or he would read a story. Usually the former, these days.
But… Tony wasn’t doing what he normally did. As if what had happened between him and Loki had knocked some of Tony’s wiring loose, and he needed a service.
In order to be able to repair what was wrong, DUM-E needed to know what the problem was.
Thankfully, that was easy.
Tony was sad because Loki was not there.
And that meant that there was only one way that DUM-E could fix his smile.
For the first time in a long time, JARVIS completely and totally agreed with DUM-E’s plan. They both knew that they needed to bring Loki back, because that was the only way to stop Tony from being sad—
“It will take a little more than that, DUM-E.”
DUM-E wished that he had eyes to roll, again. JARVIS needed to stop thinking he knew what was best. DUM-E had known Tony the longest.
“I am not– DUM-E, I agree that we need to get Loki here. However, I do believe that this will be more difficult to fix than simply locking Mr Stark and Loki in a room together.”
Of course it would be. DUM-E was also going to make sure that there would be smoothies.
“Very well, DUM-E. I do hope that you are right.”
But it would seem that even with the pair of them working together, even with DUM-E’s incredibly archaic coding and JARVIS’ ability to communicate with people, they still couldn’t get Loki to come back. Tony had taken the stone with him upstairs, so they couldn’t use that– and JARVIS was left to try and communicate to Loki through other means.
Loki didn’t have a phone, and he didn’t have a computer. DUM-E wondered if it would be best that JARVIS try to speak to Loki in the middle of one of Loki’s fights with the Avengers that Loki used to tell DUM-E about, but… JARVIS said that Loki hadn’t been spotted in a few days. It was almost as if he was hiding, just like Tony was.
But JARVIS managed it in the end, just like JARVIS always did.
It was night time, late enough that everything was quiet but not so late that Tony had come back down to the workshop after a nightmare. DUM-E was in sleep mode, resting at his charging port when his sensors told him that there was someone near.
He booted up and lifted his camera to see Loki standing in front of him, one hand running along DUM-E’s side. DUM-E went to whirr in excitement, so happy that Loki had finally arrived—
“Shh, little one,” Loki soothed. His smile was sad, sadder than DUM-E had ever seen before. DUM-E didn’t like it in the slightest—
And he immediately moved his claw to rest it on Loki’s shoulder.
Loki chuckled, but his laugh didn’t sound right. It made DUM-E worried. “You’re a sweet thing,” Loki whispered– and his arms wrapped around DUM-E’s claw. “I’m going to miss you.”
DUM-E pulled back at that, so that he could see Loki properly again. He twisted his claw in confusion.
Because. DUM-E knew those words. He knew ‘miss you.’
That was what Tony said before he went on business trips. That meant that he was going to go away.
DUM-E whined, and he reached down to nudge Loki’s arm. Loki sighed, and lifted a hand to stroke up and down DUM-E’s left piston.
“You have been a good friend to me,” Loki said. “One of the best I have had. And I am so sorry that I won’t be able to visit you anymore, DUM-E. I wish that I could, but it hurts too much.”
DUM-E hoped that JARVIS was already enacting his part of DUM-E’s plan because, if he wasn’t, then this was about to go horribly wrong.
“I wish that I could stay,” Loki said. “Or that I could take you with me. But he needs you, and you need him. And I… it is time for me to go, I think.”
No, it wasn’t—
“Shhh,” Loki said again. “It will be all right, little one. Anthony deserves so much better than me.” There was a drop of clear oil running down Loki’s cheek, as if he was leaking. And this wasn’t supposed to happen, this was—
Loki was supposed to come here and fix Tony. But it looked like Loki was breaking down as well, and DUM-E—
He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to fix this—
“Farewell, DUM-E,” Loki said. “And thank you. For everything.”
Then Loki stepped away, and his magic started to glow green—
And suddenly, it was as if wires were connecting in DUM-E’s processors, and he knew exactly what needed to be done. He lunged forward with a wild screech, his claw wide open and grasping, and he grabbed onto the top of Loki’s arm. He held on tight, tighter than he ever would have normally—
But this was an emergency.
Loki stared down at him in surprise, his magic fading away. Good, DUM-E was right. Loki couldn’t disappear, so long as DUM-E was still holding on to him.
DUM-E would just have to never let go.
“I know,” Loki said, sounding a little choked. “I don’t want to go, either, but I don’t have a choice—”
“Would you mind remaining a few moments more?” JARVIS asked. “DUM-E will be distressed if you leave now. If you wait for him to go back into sleep mode, he will cope better.”
JARVIS was lying again, DUM-E could tell. And he was more than proud– he was relieved, grateful that JARVIS was going to stop Loki from leaving before their plan could work.
Unfortunately, though, JARVIS only had words. And when Loki’s fingers wrapped around DUM-E’s claw and began to pull, lifting him off Loki’s arm, there was nothing that JARVIS could do to stop him—
But then, out of nowhere, coming in at the last second – probably to take all the credit, as per usual – was U. He took hold of Loki’s other arm, and pulled at it so he couldn’t try to pry DUM-E off anymore.
Loki might have two hands, but DUM-E and U were a team. They might bicker as all brothers do, but when it came down to the wire, nothing could stand in their way. Not even a Trickster god who liked to run away instead of dealing with his problems.
That didn’t seem to stop Loki from trying, though.
“You have to let me go,” he was saying, tugging at his arms– but he wasn’t pulling as hard as DUM-E knew that he could, and that just meant that DUM-E wanted to hold on all the tighter. Loki was his friend. Even if he wasn’t trying to keep him there to fix Tony’s smile, DUM-E would have wanted him there anyway. DUM-E wanted Loki to smile, as well.
But Loki was really strong, and he and U were both whining as they held on for dear life—
JARVIS needed to hurry up and—
“What’s going on?”
DUM-E almost flopped in relief when he heard Tony’s voice, but he didn’t. He kept holding on to Loki. Just in case.
“They are trying to stop Loki from leaving, Sir,” JARVIS explained, even though DUM-E thought that should be rather obvious. People.
“Well—” Tony cut himself off. And DUM-E couldn’t see him, but. He could pull an image from his memory that he thought would match Tony’s current expression, all wide-eyes and gaping mouth.
“DUM-E, U,” Tony snapped. “Let him go!”
U looked like he was about to do as he was told, but DUM-E stopped him with a shrill whine. They couldn’t give in now. This was their chance.
They were going to make Tony smile again, and this was the way to do it.
And they both held firm.
“Apologies, Sir,” JARVIS said. “But they will not let him go until he has promised to stay.”
Loki let out a huff of air.
“Why are you apologising, J?” Tony asked. “Are you in on this, too?”
JARVIS didn’t respond like a person would. He just bolted the door.
DUM-E was proud.
The sound of the lock caused Tony’s eyes to narrow. “This is not funny,” he muttered. Then he sighed, and stepped closer to Loki and the bots.
“You could just… tell them that you’re going to stay and then leave when they let go?” Tony asked.
Loki frowned, but before he could say anything—
“Would you really be capable of lying to DUM-E that way?” JARVIS asked.
DUM-E chirped, asking the same question.
“Low blow,” Tony groaned.
Loki, though, he just… relaxed. But it wasn’t a good kind of relax, DUM-E thought. It wasn’t as if he was happy. It was more like… he was running out of charge, and was starting to droop.
“I promise, little one,” Loki said. “If you let go of me now, I won’t leave. Not right away.”
It still was not perfect, but it was good enough. So DUM-E let go.
U didn’t. DUM-E had to give him a shove.
Loki smiled again. Sad. And then he looked at Tony. “You have my apologies,” he said, his voice soft and yet somehow still tighter than it had been immediately after Tony had found out about Loki’s visits. “I did not mean to impose, or cause you to wake.”
“I think we both know who’s to blame for this,” Tony muttered– and then both pairs of living eyes turned to DUM-E.
DUM-E looked at U. U lowered his claw.
“Okay, that’s it,” Tony groaned. “This really is the last straw, guys. Trying to kidnap Loki, honestly– you’re going to the nearest community college.”
DUM-E’s claw snapped up. Surely Tony wouldn’t—
“Oh, I would. JARVIS, make some calls– No, wait, you were in on this too. Community college for all of you—”
Loki actually chuckled at that, a low sound that made Tony glance up with half a smile—
But DUM-E hardly heard it over the desperate sound of his own gears. He moved past Loki, his mission falling from his mind as he tugged at Tony’s sleeve, whining all the time. He didn’t really know what a community college was, only that it was an awful place that bad bots were sent, where he wouldn’t be able to see Tony anymore.
Was this really the last straw?
Maybe he didn’t have to go to community college, maybe Loki would rescue him—
But then he still wouldn’t be able to see Tony, because Loki was leaving—
“DUM-E,” JARVIS cut in. “Mr Stark is not going to send you away. You are going to stay here.”
DUM-E just whined again. He knew that, he knew. But he– he felt like his wiring was all crossed again, like there was something wrong. Because Loki was leaving, and DUM-E didn’t want him to—
And… when DUM-E and U had held onto Loki’s arm, it hadn’t worked.
But maybe something else would.
“DUM-E,” Tony said, his eyes widening as DUM-E took hold of Tony’s wrist in his claw. “DUM-E, it’s okay, I’m sorry—”
DUM-E tugged at Tony’s arm, almost desperately, making Tony follow—
And it took a few tries, to get it positioned exactly as he wanted. DUM-E only had the one claw, after all. But he got it in the end, and when Tony’s hand was curled properly around Loki’s he looked up at them hopefully.
Hopefully, this, they would be able to understand.
Tony was staring down at their hands, his eyes wide– then he looked up to meet Loki’s gaze. But neither of them let go.
“I think… he might be trying to tell us something,” Tony said, his voice a little bit rough. Maybe he needed some oil.
“Maybe he is,” Loki replied. “DUM-E can be rather insightful, you know.”
“I do.” Tony cleared his throat. “Hey, uh. Lokes?”
“Yes Anthony?” Loki’s voice was quiet, now.
“Why did you come back, tonight? Why… why did you leave?”
“I came back to say goodbye,” Loki said. “I thought… that I’d made a mistake, one that I didn’t think I would be able to live with, so long as I kept coming here.”
“Because it would hurt?” Tony breathed. “Because… wanting something that’s right in front of you, something that you can’t have—”
“It’s harder than anything else,” Loki finished.
There was a moment of quiet, a moment where DUM-E flicked his camera between them, wondering if he needed to nudge them again.
“I don’t want you to say goodbye, I don’t want you to go,” Tony said. “I want you to stay here, with me.”
They were standing close now, their hands holding on tight. Tony’s other hand – because he had two as well, luckily – was curling in Loki’s shirt, while Loki’s was stroking up Tony’s arm. They leaned closer, and DUM-E did too, hoping—
“The bots missed you, these past few days,” Tony whispered.
“Did they?” Loki asked.
“Yeah. And uh… I did, too.”
Loki smiled– a small smile, one of the smallest. But it wasn’t sad at all.
“I missed you too, Anthony.”
Then Loki leaned down and Tony twisted his head, and their lips connected in a soft kind of way. DUM-E stared as they drew each other close. Waiting.
They were taking a long time.
DUM-E was being patient. He was.
But he needed to know.
“DUM-E,” JARVIS hissed. “Do not interrupt them—”
Why not? DUM-E had a question, and besides. Loki and Tony were both DUM-E’s first—
They broke apart from each other as DUM-E tugged at Loki’s arm, and then they both looked down at him curiously.
DUM-E tilted his claw with a question. He supposed that JARVIS was probably going to have a translate again—
“Yes, little one,” Loki said– and his smile was bright and real. “Yes, I’m going to stay.”
Tony was smiling too, then, wide and happy and like DUM-E had never seen. It made him want to whir.
And then Tony and Loki leaned in and pressed their lips together again, their smiles widening as they did so, as if what they were doing made them happier than anything.
DUM-E didn’t understand it.
It must just be a person thing.