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The first three weeks, the only people he sees are the doctors, and Steve. Steve makes it bearable, but only just.

Steve worries and bites his lip, and practically bleeds his guilt all over the carpeting, and no matter how many times Bucky tells him that there wasn't anything he could have done, that he doesn't forgive Steve only because there was nothing to forgive in the first place, he can only garner a weak smile and a weaker promise that he'll be out soon, they'll let him out--into the future, holy shit--soon.

He gets restless, breaks his plastic water cup into shards, and throws them like darts at the walls.

Bullseye every time, even with his non-dominant arm.

His arm. Fuck.

He tries not to think about the emptiness at his side, the strange lopsidedness of it. The doctors tell him that fantastic progress has been made in prostheses, that they're going to fit him with one as soon as they deem him ready for it.

He prepares for disappointment. Anything more than darts, and he's going to need another real arm to shoot again, not a hunk of metal and plastic.

Steve's eyes always dart to the absence too. Bucky pretends not to notice, and doesn't say anything about it. Well, he tries, once--just says that he hardly expected to be alive anyway; getting away in one piece was just pie in the sky talk.

Steve flinches so hard he almost breaks something. Bucky makes sure it doesn't come up again.

Three weeks, though, and then the monotony of tests and meals and the beginnings of PT are interrupted by the sounds of an argument at the door.

He can't understand a word of it, but from the cadence it's clear that there are a significant number of expletives involved.

Finally the door opens.

"Mr. Stark, this is beyond the pale--"

"No. Fuck off. Give me ten minutes. Can you do that? Ten minutes? He's not scheduled for anything, and if he was I'd have wiped it off your databases before you could blink. Now go away and give me a second, I'm gonna catch enough shit for this from Steve, I don't need your help."

The door is slammed unceremoniously shut.

Bucky raises an eyebrow. "You Starks really like listening to the sounds of your own voices, huh?"

Mr. Stark blinks at him, and then...yeah, that's the Stark smirk all right. "So I've heard. Tony Stark, at your service."

"Are you, really?" Bucky drawls. "You don't strike me as the servicing type."

"Oh, I like you. No wonder Rogers has a soft spot for you."

“You know Steve?”

“We’re coworkers.”

“And he doesn’t know you’re here,” Bucky finishes.

“Pretty sure I’m the last introduction to the future he wants you to have,” Stark agrees.

Bucky looks him over. He can only be Howard’s son, that’s for sure. Same basic features, but a little bit sharper, a little more weary. Still confoundingly attractive, particularly in what must be modern suiting, all long lines and razor edges along nearly invisible pinstripes and charcoal gray. He’s certainly a welcome respite from SHIELD black and blue, and medical white.

So finally Bucky tilts his head, and then feels his lips twitch involuntarily upwards. “What brings you then, Mr. Stark?” he asks, eyebrow cocked.

“That.” Stark points just to the side of Bucky. Right where his arm should be. Before Bucky can spit in his face, he adds, “I want to build it.”

Bucky pauses. Then he asks, “Why?”

Tony shrugs. “You’re Rogers’s friend. You were probably the best sniper this country’s ever seen. SHIELD's department will give you shit. I like a challenge. Pick what you like.”

Bucky nods. “The last one,” he says finally. “I like challenges too.”

Stark smiles at him, and this time it’s a genuine smile, no smirk or glamour. “I think we’ll get on just fine.”

***

Stark doesn’t come by more than once a week--the SHIELD staff barely tolerate that much, and only because Bucky insists that he be allowed in. He comes in with a flat object the size of a notebook that apparently holds more computing power than several rooms full of machinery used to. He takes pictures of the bare joint where Bucky’s arm should begin, and pictures of the arm that’s still whole for reference. He doesn’t bother explaining how the technology works or even what it does, just acts like everything is completely normal even though it’s bizarre, but Bucky’s honestly kind of glad of that. The nurses have begun leaving him history books on his bedside table, but it feels patronizing and a little too calculating for his tastes. No doubt this is SHIELD’s version of history, not what actually happened.

On the second visit, Stark frowns. “You’re all knotted up. Why?” He prods a finger at Bucky’s empty shoulder.

Bucky looks away from him. “It’s nothing.”

“You’re hurting. They not giving you enough drugs?”

“It wouldn’t fix anything.”

Stark narrows his eyes. “Tell me.”

Bucky keeps staring at the wall, but it offers him nothing but memories of snow. Maybe that’s what impels him to say what he could never, ever say to Steve. “I was still holding my gun. I didn’t want to lose it.”

Stark somehow manages to follow this broken train of thought. “They had to pry you off of it when they took you out of the ice,” he agrees, and then stops. Then more slowly, “Your hand. You had a death grip on that thing.”

“Mm,” Bucky says, appreciating the choice of words.

“Huh. Okay.”

And without further explanation, Stark leaves. Bucky assumes he’ll have nurses fussing over him in no time at all, all talk of shell shock and psychotherapy, but they only come at the expected times, no talk of anything wrong with his head.

The next day, however, Stark is back, and he’s carrying a box.

“Gimme your hand,” he says, not bothering with a hello, how are you or anything, though Bucky supposes that’s pretty superfluous in here. So he just snorts and offers up his one hand.

“Put it in the box.”

“Is this some kind of joke?”

“Nope. Now do what I tell you.”

Bucky obeys, even though instinct tells him that just following Tony Stark blindly into things was generally a terrible idea. This time, though, when he puts his hand in the box and looks down, it feels a bit like getting the air knocked out of him.

“It’s a mirror image, projected in hologram on the other side,” Stark murmurs.

Bucky just stares. He has two hands. Intellectually, he knows he doesn’t, the other hand is exactly what Tony says it is, but his eyes just keep seeing the same thing over and over.

Two hands.

“Make a fist,” Tony says. “A tight one.”

Bucky exhales. Tony’s perched on the bed now, Bucky’s one real hand and one phantom inside the box between them. He understands.

He makes a fist, and feels it echoed. For six weeks his hand--his gone, dead hand--has been gripped around the rifle, the cold leeching away at his joints, the tendons strung out taut and painful, pads of his fingers burning in his glove. He feels it all the time, even when he stares at the absence and knows so intimately that that death grip doesn’t exist anymore, that it did die.

But now he sees two hands, two fists. And something about it makes his brain believe.

“Keep looking,” Tony says. “Now open. Slowly.”

Let the rifle go, Bucky thinks. He watches his two hands loosen, knuckles fade from white to pink, fingers twitch and haltingly uncurl.

The agony fades. His dead arm relaxes. Stays dead.

“Fuck,” he breathes.

“Old trick,” Tony says lightly, “They used to do it with mirrors and such, but I couldn’t resist having a bit more fun with it.”

Bucky swallows hard. He’s not used to being in anyone’s debt. Anyone but Steve’s, of course. He manages, “Thanks.”

“Sure thing,” Tony replies. “Now maybe I can actually get some normal readings from your damn neural network.”

“Fuck off, Stark,” Bucky says, but he’s smiling, he can’t help it.

Tony blows a kiss over his shoulder as he closes the door behind him. Well then.

***

He visits more often, after that. But not before Steve finds out what he’s doing.

“I am so sorry,” Steve says, as soon as he comes in the door on a Monday morning. “He has no right, should never have gotten past security, I don’t know what SHIELD was thinking when they--”

“I asked for him,” Bucky interrupts, loudly enough to stop Steve in his tracks. He amends, “Well, not the first time, but the times after that, I’ve told them to let him in.”

Steve stares at him. “Why?”

“I like him,” Bucky says truthfully. “He says he’s gonna build me an arm.”

Steve keeps staring for a minute, and then slowly his shoulders slump down. He sits in the visitor’s chair and scratches at the back of his neck.

Bucky puts it together. “You don’t like him that much.”

“He doesn’t know how to work with a team, and he’s determined never to learn,” Steve says sharply. “He’s a danger to himself and to everyone else.”

He’s already begun to guess, but he figures that now’s as good a time as any to ask. “What exactly do you guys do nowadays?”

Steve crooks a smile. “Try and save the world. Like always.”

Bucky snorts. “And what, Stark builds you stuff?”

“Sometimes.” For the first time a hint of admiration colors Steve’s voice. “He also has this...armor. It’s impressive.”

Oh. That, Bucky has got to see.

He doesn’t realize he’s said it aloud until Steve looks at him severely. He shrugs apologetically. “What? Look, I don’t know what he’s like with you, but he’s doing a hell of a lot more for my peace of mind than anyone else is in this damn place. So ease up on him, will ya? He’s taken a few hits himself; I can tell.”

Steve looks away. Bucky sighs. “Listen,” he says, “I know you’re just looking out for me, and you know how much I appreciate that, but if you really want to help me, get these guys to release me.”

“The future’s really strange, Buck,” Steve says quietly.

“Sure is,” Bucky agrees. “But I’ve got you to see it with now, right? And you’ve got me.”

Steve shoots him a glance. “When’d you get so sensible?”

“I've always been the sensible one,” Bucky says, affronted. “You’re the one hell-bent on getting your ass shot.”

Steve laughs, and shakes his head. “Tony’s really doing all right by you?”

“So far, sure. Showed me some prototypes on hologram the other day, and I can’t help but be impressed.”

“He is brilliant,” Steve admits.

Bucky has a thought. “You know, I asked him why he’d do this for me, first time he busted in. First reason he gave? Said that I was your friend.”

Steve startles. “He doesn’t like me. I’m barely sure he respects me.”

“Pretty sure he does. But obviously, it’s none of my business.” Bucky puts his hand up in surrender. “Now, you gonna let me eat my applesauce in peace, or what?”

***

Three days later Tony’s back, and instead of a tablet, he’s holding a stack of paperwork.

“The hell is that?” Bucky asks.

“These are your psych evaluations, your medical records, your gag order--”

“My what?”

“Your don’t-tell-anyone-about-SHIELD-or-we’ll-lock-you-away-forever order--”

“Oh, that.”

“And last, but not least, your release forms.”

Bucky snatches the papers out of his hands. “You mean it?”

“Thank Steve,” Tony says dryly, “I think Fury’s on the verge of snapping and killing us all the way he’s been haranguing him about getting you out of this place.”

“You help him?” Bucky asks, looking through the files. Huh. Surprising mental stability his ass.

“Well,” Tony shrugs, “I do need you properly in my lab to finish work on the arm, so.”

“It’s all right, Stark, I know I’m irresistible.”

“You know it, sweetheart. I’ve even got a room with your name on it.”

Bucky looks at him sharply. “You want me to move in with your superhero commune?”

Tony falters. “I mean. Well. Steve’s there, so.”

“I’m not a superhero.”

Tony looks at him. “Technically, neither am I. You could be, though. If you wanted to be.”

Bucky always thought that if he made it back from the War, he’d probably settle down. Find a nice gal, get on with things. He looks down at his paperwork again. ‘Battle-ready constitution’, ‘specialized training’, ‘meets requirements for standard operatives’.

And then, in a separate box, ‘Integration into civilian life: not advised.’

“Looks like they’ve already made my decision for me,” he says.

Tony reads over his shoulder, and makes a sound somewhere deep in his throat. “I could get around that,” he says, “If you wanted me to.”

“That’d be pretty illegal, I get the feeling.”

“Yeah, it would,” Tony says equably. He doesn’t budge though. “Offer still stands.”

Bucky studies him. “You’re an odd one, Stark.”

“Yeah, well. I don’t particularly care for how SHIELD pushes people around.”

“You talking about Steve?” Bucky says knowingly.

Tony frowns, shakes his head. “Rogers always knows what he’s signing up for. And even SHIELD’s not gonna risk Captain America.” He lifts one shoulder philosophically. “I’m just naturally against The Man.”

“You are The Man.”

“Hush. Sign away your freedom of speech, have some lunch, and then I’ll see you later at the mansion.”

“You’re not giving me a ride?”

“Rogers is picking you up. Seemed only fair since I get to give you this stuff.” He waves a hand at the stack.

Bucky rolls his eyes. “Fine. See ya.”

“Bye bye, Barnes. Catch you on the flip side.”

***

New York City at ground level is loud.

Bucky slips into the SHIELD-issue town car, wearing a SHIELD uniform with one sleeve pinned up, and he can’t stop looking around, soaking up billboards and lights, and damn, that dame is not wearing a lot of clothes, is she?

“All right, then,” he says, after a long minute of driving.

“All right, what?” Steve asks, smiling.

“It’s still New York.”

Steve tilts his head. “Yeah, I guess so.”

***

Tony’s lab is definitely more impressive than the mansion, which is kind of saying something. More than simply filled with equipment and spare parts, it’s filled with holographic light.

Howard would have kittens.

“Don’t tell him that,” Steve says darkly, as they walk down the stairs to the glass entranceway. “I brought up Howard once and he nearly bit my head off.”

“Man’s got some Daddy issues?”

“To put it mildly.”

“I can handle that.” He raises a hand to rap on the glass, but before he can do so the door swings open.

“Good afternoon, Sergeant Barnes. Mr. Stark has advised that you might be dropping by, and asks that you not touch anything until he knows you have arrived.”

“That’s JARVIS,” Steve explains.

“We’ve spoken,” Bucky says. Tony had brought him in on the tablet before. He’d seen stranger things during the war. “How ya doing, JARVIS?”

“Very well, thank you sir. I’m pleased to report that the skin of your prosthetic is currently being synthesized.”

“You’re ruining the surprise, JARVIS.”

“Apologies, sir.”

“Yeah, yeah. Come on in, Barnes,” Tony says from across the room. Then he spots Steve and manages a civil nod. “Captain.”

Steve nods curtly in return. “I’ll leave you to it, shall I?” he says, and doesn’t wait for an answer, just heads back up the stairs.

Bucky watches him retreat, and then says to Tony, “You need to stop doing that.”

“He needs to stop acting like I’m a menace to society. Not that I’m contesting that, but I’d appreciate the pretense.” He pauses, and then shoves his goggles up into the mess of his hair. “Damn, Barnes. You clean up good.”

Bucky is not going to blush. He’s not. He’s had gorgeous women and men alike after him, and that was hardly about to change after becoming a war hero.

Then again, over the past few years (well, decades really), he’s kind of gotten used to being looked at second. Maybe he’s a little rusty at being wanted.

“So what’ve you got for me?” he asks, sauntering forward.

At that, Tony grins. “You’re gonna love it. Come here. Take off your shirt; I’ll need your shoulder.”

Bucky complies, laying the uniform jacket and black t-shirt on a half-empty bench, and then comes around to Tony’s central worktop where he spots it.

The arm gleams. All brushed metal and interlocking joints, it looks like it has hundreds of articulation points, hundreds of sensory input ports. It looks proportional, too--not lumpy and strange like the prosthetics he’d seen on veterans in his time, just smooth and nearly seamless. It looks dangerous too, just like him.

Bucky’s pretty sure he’s in love.

He doesn’t even realize he’s been running his fingers over it until Tony clears his throat. “Care to try it on?” he says lightly.

Silently, Bucky nods.

There are straps for now, one up around his neck to one side, a second one around his ribcage to hold everything in place. Then a whole net of electrodes that form a second skin around the shoulder, and then up to the base of his skull.

“If you want it to be, we can make it all internal, once all of the calibrations are correct,” Tony says, deft hands working carefully, smoothing everything into place with a light but proprietary touch. “One transmitter in your brain, and everything will come out smooth, every thought will go straight into intuitive movement. If we integrate it into your skeletal structure, you won't ever need to take it off. Now, the denouement.” He adjusts the arm slightly within the constraints of the strapping, and then slides it over the swell of Bucky’s shoulder.

It isn’t even heavy. It feels...normal.

Bucky looks down at it, the way it cups the knob of his shoulder and hangs down at a relaxed curve. Even the fingertips look...not real, but usable.

He can’t remember the last time someone made something specifically for him. It must have been his mom, back when he was little. A set of mittens, maybe, or a hat. She did like to knit, did his mom.

“Right, the way this is set up, most of your articulation is coming from the nerve impulses in your shoulder, so give those a flex and see what happens.” Tony is oddly hushed, like he’s suddenly aware of how he’s close he’s been to Bucky through all of this.

Bucky gives his shoulder a small roll. The arm comes up, a nearly liquid movement that brings the hand up to chest height. He flexes. The wrist rotates, just slightly.

It looks like it should be there.

“Obviously, if you opt for the minor brain surgery you won’t even have to think about this, no experiments, no mmf--!

Bucky reels him in with his good arm, hand spanning the back of his head, feeling grease and sweat in Tony’s hair and not really caring. He tastes like too much coffee and beneath that, the sharp, aggressive bite of good whiskey, and goddamn Bucky has missed both of those things real bad.

Plus, Tony, well, when he gets with the program, it’s clear he’s earned every square foot of his ego. Bucky rolls his shoulder again, feels the resulting shift, and manages to curl the metal arm around the small of Tony’s waist and pull him closer, and is that...? Holy shit, he can feel that, feel the warmth of Tony under his t-shirt, the hard curve of his waist under his metal palm. He kisses him harder, scraping his teeth over the swell of his lower lip, tasting the roof of his mouth, and Tony doesn’t give ground, not for one second. He makes a noise that’s close to a purr when he feels the tightening of metal around his midsection, and just steps forward to accommodate, hips grinding against Bucky’s.

They end up against the table, extra parts and ratchets scattered off to the sides, Bucky sitting on the worktop with Tony between his legs, calves pulling him as close as he can get. Tony’s one hand is just beneath the waistband of his trousers, the other under one of the straps that secure the arm to his shoulders, fingers gripping and releasing in an intoxicating rhythm against his skin, in perfect tandem with the sweep of his mouth.

Bucky makes an involuntary noise as Tony breaks for air, and Tony smiles at him, a genuine smile, no smoke or mirrors. “Best way I’ve been thanked for my work yet,” he comments, and Bucky squeezes him with the metal arm in warning.

“I want the brain surgery,” he says, only slightly breathless. “And I don't need any fake skin. I want to see the metal. And I want to feel you.”

Tony’s eyes are already blown wide, his pupils utterly dilated, but he stares at Bucky for a second and then rests his head on his shoulder. “You’re gonna kill me,” he says, “And I don’t even care.”

“Better believe it, cowboy,” Bucky grins. “I want an arm that sings to me.”

“Darling, I’ll build you one that shoots missiles,” Tony says.

Bucky pulls him closer without even intending to. “You mean it?” he says.

Tony looks him right in the eye. “Every word,” he promises, and presses him back against the table.

Bucky doesn’t care what Steve says; the future’s a real good time.