Afterward, Bucky would look back on their first meeting with fondness and a healthy dose of amusement. At the time, though, he’d mostly been confused - and more than a little embarrassed.
Because while Steve may have warned him about the eccentric billionaire that was the Avengers benefactor and consultant, he’d completely failed to mention that said benefactor was a woman - an oversight that had had Bucky putting his foot in his mouth and tasting it for days afterward (mostly in the form of teasing from Steve).
In Steve’s defense, though, it had been just as much Bucky’s fault as his. Bucky hadn’t paid much attention to the media in his early days, and hadn’t bothered really reading up on the team or anything, either, so when Steve had said ‘Tony Stark’, Bucky had just assumed.
The same way he’d looked at the three people who’d walked through the door - an imposing redhead in heels, a bored-looking brunette who dimpled when she saw him and Steve, and a sturdy-looking man wearing a slight glower - locked eyes on the man, and assumed him to be the infamous Tony Stark Steve wouldn’t shut up about.
It was Bucky’s first lesson when it came to Natasha Antonia ‘Toni’ Stark - never assume.
The brunette spoke first. “Ah, you’re here early. Nat said you probably wouldn’t make it until tonight,” she said, raising an eyebrow at Steve.
Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, sorry. Something urgent came up, and we figured the sooner we got here, the better,” he said, biting his lip and glancing over at Bucky. Or, more specifically, Bucky’s busted metal arm.
The woman waved him away. “No, it’s fine, I get it,” she said, then glanced sideways at Bucky. “You going to introduce us, Cap?”
Bucky knew they had to know who he was, because if they knew why Steve was here, there was no way they couldn’t. Still, it was nice to be treated like a human being.
“James Barnes, ma’am.” Bucky said, before Steve could. “Uh, Steve here calls me Bucky, so I don’t see why you can’t. And, uh, I don’t want to sound rude, but this thing is killing me, and the sooner I get it fixed, the better.” He looked over at the man, who’d stepped forward to stand right beside the brunette when Bucky had started speaking.
“Tony Stark?” Bucky asked. He thought the man didn’t look nearly as terrifying as Steve had made him out to be.
Steve made a choked sound from beside Bucky, while the man cocked his head and frowned. “What?” he asked, while the brunette raised her eyebrows, lips twitching, and fixed Steve with a look.
“Er,” Bucky said, feeling like he was missing something. He looked over at Steve for help, and found him covering his mouth, shaking with suppressed laughter.
The brunette seemed to finally take pity on him. “I have the feeling you might be running under some misinformation,” she said, stepping forward and holding out a hand for Bucky to shake.
Bucky took it without thinking, idly noticing that she had callouses - clearly someone who worked with her hands a lot.
“Toni Stark, at your service,” she said, eyes sparkling in amusement as Bucky gaped at her.
“Uh, what?” Bucky said intelligently, while Steve snorted behind him.
“I mean, I can see how you might be confused,” she continued seriously, “Happy -” She motioned to the man behind her, who rolled his eyes and grinned. “- often moonlights as my body-double on particularly busy days, you see.”
Bucky shook his head, feeling his cheeks heat. “I should have known Steve was talking about a dame when he said how scary and intimidating you were,” he grumbled, making Steve sputter and Toni’s eyes widen in delight. “The man can jump into enemy territory without a parachute and battle aliens without blinking an eye, but give him a pretty woman to talk to and he’s terrified.”
Toni’s grin got even bigger. “Pretty? Scary and intimidating?” she shook her head and clucked her tongue. “Why, I don’t know what to do with all of these compliments.” She looked over Bucky’s shoulder at Steve, who Bucky was pleased to see was blushing and shuffling in embarrassment. “Seriously, Steve, what the hell have you been telling him?”
To his credit, Steve didn’t let himself get derailed from the matter at hand, even if he flushed harder. “The truth, mostly. But do you think you can look at Bucky’s arm?”
Toni nodded, still looking amused. “Sure, but only if he lets go of my hand first,” she said, which made Bucky realize that he was still shaking her hand. This time it was his turn to blush.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, dropping her hand like it had burned him. Wanting to find something that would take the attention off of him, he looked over at the other woman that had come in with Toni, then back at the man he’d thought was her.
“Pepper Potts,” the woman said helpfully, smiling kindly. “Ms. Stark’s former assistant, SI’s current CEO, and Toni’s handler for life, I’m afraid. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Barnes.”
“Same,” Bucky replied, feeling a little more at ease. He glanced over at the man - had Ms. Stark called him Happy? - and nodded at him. “Does that make you Iron Man, then?” he asked.
While Steve may have neglected to mention certain details about Toni Stark, he hadn’t spared any about Iron Man, the team’s armored Avenger. Bucky knew the guy was Stark’s bodyguard (though how he could be a good one if he took off to fight supervillains when he was supposed to be, well, bodyguarding, Bucky wasn’t sure) and the man in front of him certainly gave off the same vibe, what with the way he was hovering protectively and glaring menacingly at Bucky.
Happy puffed out his chest and raised himself to his full height, but Toni snorted and waved her hand before he could speak.
“Who, Happy? Nah, he’s my head of security,” she said, laughing, while Happy deflated.
“You never let me have any fun, Boss,” he grumbled. “I could be Iron Man, if I wanted.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Toni snickered, then smirked at Bucky. “You’ve probably made his week - it’s not every day he gets mistaken for two of Stark Industries’ most famous faces.”
Bucky bit his lip, not quite sure what to say, and feeling relieved when Steve spoke up to ask, “Is Iron Man here right now?”
Toni shrugged and waved her hand. “Eh, he’s around. Probably taking a break - he was flying around all day yesterday, I guess you saw.”
Steve nodded. “Those bio-terrorists. That’s actually what I wanted to talk to him about. I haven’t read his report, but I’d rather hear it first-hand from him, if I can.”
Toni shrugged again. “I’ll pass it along, but it might be a while. The suit took some hits I need to repair, and I’ll probably need him in the workshop. But, more importantly-” She clapped and rubbed her hands together eagerly, then winked at Bucky. “Let’s say we get you down to the workshop and see what makes this baby tick, eh?”
Perhaps it was the casual, flippant way she spoke to him, without walking on eggshells like everyone else did, that put him at ease. Maybe it was the way she’d prioritized his problem without making a big deal about it, either. Or, hell, maybe it was the wink, and the way her mouth twitched up at the corner when she did it.
Whatever it was, it made Bucky feel a little spark of warmth, and he found himself doing something he hadn’t done in almost seventy years - winking back.
“Never on the first date, Ms. Stark,” he said, smirking, a little thrill going through him at the flash of pleased surprise on her face. Steve gaped at him, looking somewhere between scandalized and proud.
“Oooh, I’m definitely keeping you,” Toni said, stepping forward and patting Bucky’s shoulder appreciatively. “No one else rises to my bait, anymore.”
“That’s because we don’t want to encourage you,” Ms. Potts said, raising one unimpressed eyebrow.
“Do you see what I have to work with? Killjoys, all around,” Toni sighed, shaking her head sadly. She then stepped back and waved towards the elevator with a flourish. “Shall we?” she asked, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.
Bucky smirked and offered her his elbow. “Lead the way.”
Despite Toni - and Steve’s - teasing, Bucky would maintain that his little identity faux pas with Toni had gone much better than when he met Iron Man.
For one, he hadn’t attacked Toni.
To be fair, though, he’d never seen anything quite like the Iron Man armor, and in the wake of the nightmare he’d just had and shadows of the roof at night, it had looked rather sinister.
“Jesus Christ!” the robotic figure yelped as the knife Bucky had thrown glanced off of him with a loud clink. “What the hell are you -”
Bucky didn’t give the - thing - a chance to regroup, and aimed a punch to its chest, using his right arm since his left still wasn’t in full working order. The thing caught his arm, swearing, so Bucky swung his left anyway, damaged arm be damned.
The thing spun out of his reach and shoved him away, then held both of its arms up in the universal sign of surrender. “Whoa whoa whoa, watch where you’re swinging that thing!” it shouted. “It’s still broken, remember?!”
Bucky stopped and narrowed his eyes. “How did you -”
“Look, I think there’s been some kind of misunderstanding,” the thing said quickly, and took a step backwards towards the door. “I’m sorry if I, uh, alarmed you, but usually nobody is up here, and I wasn’t expecting - you know what? I’m gonna go get Cap. He’ll explain things better, and you look like you could use -”
“No Steve,” Bucky blurted, then winced at how panicked his voice sounded. “I mean, I don’t need, uh…” He swallowed and composed himself, then scrutinized the figure better, a sinking feeling in his stomach. “You’re Iron Man, aren’t you?” he asked, forcing his posture to relax.
Iron Man dropped his arms. “The one and only,” he replied, and gave Bucky a lazy, two-fingered salute. “Sorry for the scare. Wasn’t expecting you up here.”
Bucky shook his head, and tried to focus on his breathing. “No, it’s fine, I -” Deep breaths. In and out. “I thought, I thought you were… I dunno -”
“A bad guy?” Iron Man supplied, nodding knowingly. “Relax, it happens. No harm, no foul, better safe than sorry and all that.” He cocked his head sideways, as though considering something, then said, “You sure you don’t want me to get Cap? It’s not a big deal. JARVIS can just give him a message, even.”
“No,” Bucky snapped quickly, then shook his head and forced himself to relax again. “I - sorry. But please, no. I just… I needed some air, and he’s asleep now, anyway.”
Iron Man cocked his head again. “He won’t mind you waking him,” he said cautiously.
“Yeah, but he’ll worry,” Bucky grumbled bitterly, and pressed his arms against his stomach.
“Ah,” Iron Man replied, nodding sagely, and making Bucky wish he could actually see his expression. “Yeah, he does that. World-class mother hen, Cap is, but I guess you’d know that better than anyone.”
Bucky snorted in spite of himself. “Damn hypocrite, is what he is,” he grumbled, surprised when that earned him a sharp, staticky laugh.
“Shame he doesn’t see it,” Iron Man agreed, then stepped closer. “So, you come up here to get away from Captain Worry-wort, or to enjoy the view?” he asked, moving his arm to encompass the area.
“Little of both, I guess,” Bucky mumbled, looking down at the city. “Couldn’t… couldn’t sleep,” he admitted, still holding his arms against his middle.
“Me, neither,” Iron Man murmured quietly, lifting a hand to rub at the glowing circle in his chest. He then coughed, and nodded towards Bucky. “I didn’t damage your arm any further, did I?” he asked, indicating Bucky’s arm.
“No, not really,” Bucky replied after a little start, looking down at his left hand and clenching it into a loose fist. All of the fingers moved but one, which was better than before Toni had worked on it. Plus, it no longer hurt. “And it wouldn’t have been your fault if you did,” he added, then frowned as something occurred to him. “Wait - how do you know it’s broken?”
The armor shifted again. “Oh, uh, Ms. Stark told me about it,” Iron Man said, in a tone Bucky couldn’t read. “Uh, not that she was gossiping about you or anything, but I saw some of her specs in the workshop earlier, and…”
“Oh. That, that makes sense,” Bucky said, before deciding to seize upon the subject change and asking, “You work with Ms. Stark a lot, then?”
Iron Man huffed. “You could say that,” he said, sounding amused, for some reason. “I mean, she’s the one who does all the armor repairs, and I assist her in the workshop sometimes. I kind of have to spend a lot of time with her, being her bodyguard, and all.”
Bucky felt himself flush, embarrassed that he’d already forgotten. “Oh, yeah. I suppose you do,” he mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. “Must be interesting. I gotta say, I only understood every fourth or fifth word she was saying earlier, when she was tryin’a fix my arm, but it was interesting.”
“She can be a bit much for most people,” Iron Man ventured, shifting his weight in a whir of servos.
“I like it,” Bucky said, perhaps a bit more sharply than he intended. “It takes my mind off of, well,” He indicated his mostly useless arm. “And it’s nice to have someone talk to me like an actual person, instead of some fragile, porcelain doll that’ll crack the first time someone says somethin’ wrong.”
Iron Man chuckled humorlessly. “Well, I can tell you right now, Ms. Stark isn’t seeing a doll when she looks at you,” he huffed, waving his arm at Bucky.
When Bucky cocked his head at him in confusion, Iron Man made a strange noise, which Bucky belatedly realized was a distorted snort. “You expect me to believe a good-looking guy like you was in her presence and she didn’t pay you a single compliment?” he asked skeptically.
Bucky couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh, uh, yeah,” he admitted, his face warming a little. “She do that a lot, then? Flirt with any half-decent lookin’ fella in her presence?”
“Only the hot ones,” Iron Man teased, which made something in Bucky’s chest loosen. It had been a long time since somebody other than Steve had teased him about anything, let alone a dame or fella flirting with him. “And ladies, too. But listen to yourself, ‘half-decent looking’… did they not have mirrors in whatever hidey-hole Cap had you in?”
Bucky found himself grinning. Oddly enough, the comment didn’t make him feel nearly as self-conscious as it might have coming from someone else. “Hey, I’ll have you know that modesty is a very attractive feature,” he said, smirking and watching as the Iron Man’s shoulders shook with laughter.
“Bullshit,” Iron Man chortled, and poked Bucky’s shoulder. “Trust me, from one charming asshole to another - you got it, you might as well own it.”
“That’s pretty presumptuous, considerin’ I don’t know what you look like,” Bucky drawled without thinking, then winced to himself when he realized how flirty that probably sounded.
Iron Man didn’t seem to mind, though, and made that weird crackly snort sound again.
“Ah, see, but that adds to my air of mystery,” he said, nodding solemnly. “And I never said how I looked - I said I was a charming asshole.”
“I won’t argue with you there,” Bucky snickered. “Though I don’t know how I feel about you pegging me down so fast.”
Iron Man waved his hand. “It’s always nice to find a kindred spirit,” he said, and though there was amusement in his tone, Bucky picked up a note of sincerity as well.
“Yeah, it really is,” Bucky agreed, and held out his hand.
And though Bucky wouldn’t realize it until much later, that handshake became the start of the first friendship he’d made by himself in nearly seventy years.