Bucky had only known Anthony Edward Stark for a few hours before he found himself compelled to share a secret that had been eating him alive since he began to once again reclaim the right to his own thoughts and feelings.
The secret was a strange one, something that lay dormant until he caught someone staring at his arm. There was no reason to feel broken by the truth, especially considering all of the legitimately horrible secrets keeping this one company, but invariably guilt and shame make themselves known within his aching chest, battling his convictions, forcing him to choke back the words he wished so desperately to scream in the faces of those who looked but failed to see.
The truth always remained unspoken. It shouldn't matter at all, and he's told himself this, but the idea of saying it out loud terrifies him. He can imagine the widening of Steve's eyes upon hearing the secret, can all too easily visualize the sympathy that would be writ across the features of his (only sometimes familiar) face, impossible to ignore. It was the only way he could imagine Steve reacting, and it would feel like a rejection, a negation of his right to his own thoughts and feelings, so Bucky refused to put himself on the line.
Stark was different though. There was no reason to trust him, there was in fact every reason to feel uncomfortable down in the workshop with him (thoughts of another room brimming with equipment had crowded his mind, thoughts of the chair), but instead Bucky felt as if the ever present tension he carried with him had finally eased up enough for him to just… breathe.
Maybe it was because Stark felt like the future, of how he had imagined shiny, futuristic persons would behave, back when he was a kid and bothered to imagine anything at all. Everything about the man was peculiar, confusing, but sort of in a fantastical way.
For a start, Stark hadn’t reacted like anyone else when meeting Bucky. He’d behaved like an overeager puppy, practically salivating over the arm once it was exposed, his eyes wide and childlike as he whistled in appreciation.
Steve had looked ready to grab Stark by the scruff of his neck and toss him across the room, (how many times had he himself protected Steve in much the same way?) but Bucky had just let out a little bark of laughter, and that was that.
He’d been warned about Tony Stark, prior to their arrival. It had been a sort of rambling explanation, one Steve seemed extremely uncomfortable giving, and it was hard to ignore how often he seemed to contradict himself when trying to describe what was in store for Bucky when he finally met the genius. Tony was either incredibly selfish, self-centered, unreliable and bordering on becoming the next big thing on the super villain circuit, or he was Steve’s good friend; an alarmingly dedicated, brilliant workaholic who didn’t hesitate to put his life on the line for his fellow man.
“I thought he was an Avenger?” Bucky had finally snapped, his patience wearing thin. He hated that Steve was treating him like a Victorian maid. “And gave you all a home?”
“He is.” Steve fidgeted at the elevator, still not hitting the call button. “He did.”
“Do you trust him?”
“Yes,” and there was no hesitation there.
“Well then,” and Bucky jabbed the button to summon the elevator, trying to end the discussion altogether.
“He’s just… Try not to take anything he says personally, is all.”
Just before the doors opened to allow them entrance to the workshop level, Steve had added in a hurried whisper, “Whatever you do, don’t mention Howard.”
Once the awkwardness caused by Stark’s eagerness to play with something shiny and new had been jumped like a hurdle by Bucky’s unexpected laugh, Tony began speaking to the disembodied voice of JARVIS, a running dialogue that Bucky had no hope of following, but found to be hypnotic and reassuring nonetheless.
Finally, after twenty minutes of Tony’s rambling, all done while pulling glowing shapes and schematics out of thin air like a magician, Steve seemed to realize there was no big something coming, nothing for him to defuse. He stopped bristling every time Tony actually bothered to say something to Bucky (“Yeah, I’m not calling you that Barnes, it reminds me of rodeos—totally not my scene—and porn, which, hmm. Yes. See what you’ve done? Now Steve’s giving me the look.”), and began to look bored instead.
At some point shortly after that, Steve had received a summons from Coulson, and had been comfortable enough to excuse himself, even if he had looked over his shoulder several times on the way out, like they would never see each other again. Bucky was secretly (guiltily) happy to have him gone, if only because it allowed Stark to fully immerse himself in his scans and diagnostics, which in turn allowed Bucky to observe.
Tony had filled all of the long silences with loud music and rambling directed at his AI and the various robots surrounding them, not bothering to initiate small talk, which was refreshing. He’d throw out questions periodically (“When’s the last time you had heat sink issues?”) or have Bucky complete tasks (“Open the vents for me?”) as if just remembering he wasn’t alone in the room. For his part, Bucky answered perfunctorily, did as he was instructed.
Mostly, Stark put on a show, one Bucky was happy to sit quietly and appreciate, until finally they were seated opposite each other, Tony cradling the arm, dictating notes to JARVIS as he got up close and personal to examine with his eyes and hands.
Calloused fingers traced along the interior of Bucky’s forearm, from his wrist to the crook of his elbow, a touch that had nothing to do with the work at hand, and everything to do with reverence. For all he knew, Stark had forgotten there was a person attached to the bit of technology he was admiring, but regardless, something in that caress was like the pulling of a trigger.
“Most of the time, the flesh arm feels like the fake." Bucky suddenly had all of Stark’s considerable attention, and was unable to stop himself from continuing. “I like this one better. It... has purpose, a clearly defined function.”
Tony might have blinked at this, but there was no pity, no, “oh, you poor broken thing, what have they made you believe?” look in his eyes. They were just watching him with an intensity that should have been troubling, intelligent brown eyes searching for something.
After a moment, Tony sat up a little straighter on his stool, as if pieces of a puzzle had clicked into place for him, fingers sliding back down the arm to curl loosely around Bucky’s wrist, as if he was reluctant to break physical contact.
“Guessing you’ve never told anyone that, huh?”
Bucky shook his head. “Steve wants me to cut my hair,” was all he said, as if that made sense, somehow explained anything he was thinking, or feeling.
The strangest thing was, though, Stark nodded, his mouth quirked up to one side as if there was a bad taste in his mouth. He looked, somehow, impossibly, as if he knew exactly what Bucky had meant.
“That’s Steve’s shit to deal with, don’t worry about it.” Tony finally let go of his wrist, looking Bucky up and down as if truly seeing him for the first time. Before he spoke again, he made sure Bucky was looking him in the eyes. “Me? I’d never wear sleeves if I had your arm. It’s fucking gorgeous.”
A quiet huff of relieved laughter pushed its way past Bucky’s lips. He watched Stark hop off of the stool and begin pulling images out of the thin air again, the strange intensity of the moment passing.
“Your power source is for shit, though, so we’re gonna have to fix that,” Tony announced, shooting a thousand watt smile at Bucky.
Impossibly, Bucky smiled back.