Little Dernier, their demolitions expert, didn't speak much English, but he always claimed he knew all the words he needed. It was just in how you combined them. Steve used to laugh and quip back at him in French, which he'd picked up from Dernier and various other Resistance soldiers like a mother tongue. Steve had always been sharp, mind racing out ahead of his body, but Bucky suspected the chemical tinkering they'd done to him had something to do with his new facility for languages, his eerily accurate memory.
Most of the time Bucky was glad his best friend could come and fight, glad Steve might live to see thirty now if any of them did. But once in a while he wanted to smash their faces in for taking such risks with an already frail, vulnerable body. They could have killed him, and then where would Bucky be?
Anyway, the point was, Dernier didn't speak much English but he did speak enough to plop down next to Bucky one night, after a battle and the inevitable triage that followed, and say, "I think in Paris we like your kind better."
"Eh?" Bucky asked, huddled around a tin mug of hot soup, rations scrounged from the knapsacks of dead Hydra soldiers.
"I think, in Paris, we like better than America. America, pfft," Dernier said, and Bucky woulda laid a slug on him if he thought Dernier meant anything by it.
"Listen, pal, there is nothing in France we can't get bigger and better in America," he replied, grinning. Then, allowing for error, he added, "Cept maybe croissants."
"Bigger and better," Dernier repeated, slyly. "After the war. You come to Paris. You and the Captain. You meet some of my friends, they will like you," he added, and walked off. Bucky stared after him. Dernier was a funny one.
"You been talking to Dernier lately?" he asked Steve, later that night, curled up in the humid, chilly tent.
"Why, what's he up to?" Steve asked.
"Dunno. He said we should come to Paris after the war."
Steve tilted his head. "Well, can't say I'd mind. Who knows, though? World's at our feet," he added with a grin. "We'll go wherever you like, Buck."
"If we survive."
"None of that talk. Course we will. Can't let the Nazis and Hydra get the best of us."
"You do hate a bully," Bucky said, and Steve nodded and rolled over, tucking his sleep-sack tighter around his shoulders. When Bucky rolled over too, he felt Steve scoot over to press up against him, back to back, warm like a furnace.
Nobody picked on Steve anymore. Steve did the picking, and it was glorious to watch Steve wade into an unfair fight and even the odds. Steve got himself involved in bar fights and ran creeps off women; once he beat up a guy for harassing a prostitute. Only after all other efforts to drive him away had failed, of course.
Bucky could watch Steve fight all day long. And the Commandos saved the story of how the prostitute offered to thank him for times they really wanted to embarrass him.
"Don't get up," Agent Carter said, when Bucky made to stand as she approached. He gave her a wry grimace and gestured at his ankle.
"My shattered body appreciates it," he said, and she smiled as she sat at the little table where he was sulking. The ankle was only twisted, not broken as they'd feared when Steve carried him out of the battle, but he was still under orders to keep off it for two weeks. Which meant he wasn't allowed to go out with the Commandos on mission tomorrow, no matter how he wheedled. Steve had been firm.
"I thought we ought to talk," she said, and she looked -- well, not like Agent Carter. More like Peggy, who Bucky only got to see once in a while, mostly when she was around Steve.
"Sure," he said, setting aside the book Steve had brought him to keep him entertained. "What can I do for you, ma'am?"
She folded her arms on the table, not quite meeting his eye. "I suppose...I've thought about it, you know. And I think...I think I should wish you good luck."
"Well, thanks," he said. "Good luck with what?"
Peggy gave him a dry look he couldn't interpret. When he returned it blankly, she nodded at the corner, where Steve was sleeping on a cot, ignoring the bustle of the map room. He only had an hour before they had to muster out, and Bucky had promised to wake him, but until then he was practically dead to the world. He looked more like the Steve that Bucky remembered, when he slept -- face smooth and oddly frail, fingers twitching, body folded in on itself protectively.
"I don't follow," he said finally. "You know I'm not going out with them this time, right?"
"No, not the mission. I mean...Steve."
"What about him?" Bucky asked, mystified.
"James," she said softly. "You can't possibly be this cruel intentionally."
"Honest, Agent Carter, I'm not. I think maybe we're talking at cross purposes," he said.
"His whole world orbits around you," she said. "Surely you know that."
"No, I don't know as I do," he said.
"I just think...perhaps I'm not for him. Or he's not for me."
Bucky blinked. "But he likes you. Awfully a lot. I mean, if you ain't as fond of him, that's one thing, but that doesn't seem like the case. He'd be happy with you."
"Would he?" she asked, half-argument, half-hope.
"Steve's not so good with women. Guess that ain't a surprise," he said. "But you won't find a better man. So...I don't know, but I guess if I were you I wouldn't give up for anyone."
She smiled a little at that. "You wouldn't, eh?"
"Well, Sergeant Barnes. I suppose you're a bit of an idiot," she said.
He gave her a cocky smile. "Idiots live longer. God protects fools, and all."
She nodded. "Thank you. This...makes some things clear. I'll see you later, Sergeant."
"Ma'am," he replied, and she left.
Bucky was getting used to being confused by Steve's new pals.
Seventy years and a different lifetime away, he was lying in the blankets of Natasha's bed, still catching his breath a little, when she stretched her arms above her head and said, looking up at the ceiling, "You know, we always have a lot more fun than I expect us to have."
"Hm?" Bucky asked sleepily, watching her breasts rise and fall as she spoke. She glanced at him, and when he gave her a lecherous leer she closed her eyes and shook her head, mock-despairing.
"We're not in love," she said. "Sometimes we don't even like each other."
"Never stopped us."
"That's my point," she replied. "This is fun, James, especially now..."
"Now that I'm human again."
"Now that you have your own self back," she corrected. "You were always human. You just seemed like you were missing something before. You're whole now."
"Maybe," he allowed, but he thought it was a lie. Men like him didn't get to be whole again.
"So I like it, but...don't you want more?"
"I don't know what more would be."
"Don't you want to be with...someone you love? Don't you want more than fighting turning into fucking?"
"Oh, be fair, Natalia," he said, stroking some hair off her face. "Sometimes it's fucking that turns into fighting."
"Either way," she said with a smile. "You should have someone who hasn't, sometimes, tried to kill you before now."
"Well, nobody's perfect." He rolled onto his back. "Do you think people like us get more?"
"People like us," she said flatly.
"Don't play dumb, it's ugly on you," he replied. "We're not good people."
"You were. You are again. I am now. I'm making amends the only way I can, James."
"Why're you bringin' all this up, anyhow? You never say things like that without a motive."
"Well, maybe I'm still a little bad," she said, turning on her side, resting a hand on his chest. "Bruce."
"Ah. The funny scientist with the big bad shadow."
"He asked me out."
Bucky pushed himself up on an elbow, looking down at her. "Yeah?"
She leaned up to kiss him, then fell back among the pillows and blankets. "I've thought about it. But -- I won't leave you if it would hurt you."
"You should. Even if it would. You can't make amends by being unhappy. I oughta know."
"You're a special case."
He rolled his eyes. "In so many ways. Do you like him?"
"A lot. He's...normal. As normal as any of us."
He cupped her face with his left hand, the touch transmitting to him through wires and metal as a series of pressure points, temperature readings, tension scales. "You were a beautiful girl -- "
"I was never a girl."
"You were a beautiful girl," he insisted, "and you are a beautiful woman, an amazing woman. Just because we don't usually get good people doesn't mean we don't deserve them."
"So you do deserve more."
He wanted to explain that it wasn't that he didn't deserve it; it wasn't that he wasn't worthy. Plenty of people oughta be happy to have him, trauma and dark, bloody history and all.
It was just that the kind of person he wanted deserved better. It hurt, the knowledge that he'd probably be alone for however long fate saw fit to keep him around. Didn't make it untrue.
"Go out with your funny scientist," he said, without bitterness or regret. "Be happy."
"What about you?"
"Hey, I was lookin' after myself long before you came around. I'll be fine."
She nodded, pulling him gently back down. "Then you should go free, Bucky Barnes."
"I'll take that under advisement, Natasha Romanoff."
"So," Tony said, tossing Bucky a beer and opening one for himself, setting it down on the workbench. "You're motoring along?"
"Somethin' like that," Bucky replied, popping the cap effortlessly with his prosthetic hand and skimming the bottle cap into the trash at the far end of the workshop. Beer and small talk was a ritual they'd fallen into during the first few weeks, when Tony was constantly rebuilding and rewiring his new arm. Steve had talked Tony into it, and he'd grumbled at first, but it became evident early on that destroying-and-rebuilding was Tony's favorite thing to do anyway. And if they could drink and shoot some shit while they did it, well, Bucky was short on friends and Tony Stark was an excellent friend to have.
"How's the new tactile programming working for you?" Tony said, as Bucky seated himself on a stool and held out his arm.
"Can't complain," Bucky replied.
"No headaches or phantom pain?"
"Any hardware problems?"
Bucky shook his head. "I'm getting a little touchy around the joint, though."
"Hm?" Tony ducked his head and studied the place where his metal arm sat in the fixture on his shoulder. "Looks all right."
"I know. It's probably all..." Bucky pointed at his head and whistled, the universal symbol for little bit crazy. "I keep thinking the metal's going to grind down on the bone."
"Christ. Did that ever happen?"
"Once, back when they were workin' out how to make it function."
"Yeah, a little," Bucky said vaguely. He'd blacked out when it happened. It wasn't something he was eager to repeat.
"It won't happen. I'm better than that. But I know what you're saying. Here, this'll help," Tony said, shoving his own wheeled stool halfway across the room and tapping out a sequence on a keyboard. "I'm sending you the imaging of the joint so you can see the margin between metal and bone. I can send you updates as we go, should convince you it's safe. Also, yes, you're a little crazy, but you fit right in," he added, grinning as he walked his stool back.
"Great. Maybe now I'll stop pulling my punches with Steve when we spar," Bucky said. "Thanks."
"Oh, is that the reason?" Tony asked, eyebrow rising.
"Well, I suppose we'll see," Bucky replied. "Anything else for me?"
Tony opened a panel just in front of the arm's elbow-joint and plugged a cord in. "Just running the diagnostic. We'd be happy for you, you know."
"Nice to hear."
"If you said something, I mean."
"If I said what, exactly?" Bucky asked. Tony looked up at him, cocking his head.
"You really don't know, do you?" he asked.
"Maybe not. Listen, I know you grew up in Repressionville and the Soviets weren't exactly concerned with your delicate feelings, but this is the twenty-first century. We are working hard, some of us anyway, to ensure that where you stick your dick is your business."
Bucky blinked at him. "Well, that's...opaque."
"What I'm saying is, every single one of us sees the way you and Steve are around each other. We thought you were actually aware of it but I'm nothing if not good with people and clearly you aren't. So, here, have it straight: you two were born for each other and I was elected to make sure you finally figure that out."
"Elected," Bucky repeated.
"We had a little conference regarding it. I think they probably thought you wouldn't punch the guy in control of your left arm."
"Yeah? Control this, partner," Bucky said, throwing him the bird with his prosthetic fingers. Clint had taught him about the bird.
"Classy. Returning to the point, thank you," Tony continued, studying some readouts on the arm, "Steve Rogers. He's in love with you. And I'm pretty sure, we as a team are pretty sure, that the feeling's mutual. You need to say something to him, because that guy? Not so smooth when it comes to romance."
"He never was," Bucky murmured.
"We're not like that," he said automatically, because that was the default. Even if Steve...felt that way, it was hardly a romance for the ages, was it?
"Why not?" Tony asked, looking honestly curious.
Bucky straightened a little, eyes drifting away from Tony. He felt like he was behind the scope of a rifle, suddenly -- like the world had narrowed to one little circle of light, expanding and coalescing. Things clicked into place in the same satisfying, right way they did when he found his target.
Because he might not deserve Steve, but Steve...he deserved the world. He deserved to be happy and Steve was so often so sad. And if it was true, if Steve was lonely, Bucky was supposed to make sure he wasn't. He wanted to. He'd always wanted to. And he'd fooled himself thinking it was anything less.
Damn, he'd fooled himself his whole life.
"There we go," he distantly heard Tony say. He sounded smug.
"Is it true?" he asked, looking back at Tony.
"You're sure about him?"
"He's not exactly a mystery of the ages," Tony drawled. "Yes. I'm very sure. We wouldn't have had Stevecon '13 if we weren't sure."
"You're right," Bucky said, standing up. "I should -- say something to him -- we should -- "
"Ah! Hey!" Tony cried, as Bucky tried to move away, hampered by the cord still stuck in his arm. "It's been a century, it'll wait ten minutes for the diagnostic to -- "
"Sorry, Stark," Bucky said, tugging the cord out of his arm. "I'll be back!" he called, running out of the workshop. "I'll come back later!"
"I had a whole speech about -- well, goddammit, use a condom!" Tony yelled after him.
Steve was in the gym when Bucky found him, throwing the shield around with Thor. Natalia -- Natasha -- was climbing the high, fake-rock wall on one end of the gym, and Clint was sitting at the top of it, using a crossbow to bounce soft-headed bolts off the shield.
An odd little cadre, so like and so unlike the Commandos, but at the moment all Bucky could see was Steve. Twisting through the air like a circus acrobat, diving to catch the shield and return it before he hit the ground, rolling to his feet like he used to do in the war...
"Hey, Buck!" Steve called, pushing himself to his feet, face lighting up. "You get your tune-up from Stark already?"
His breath caught in his throat, and he swallowed convulsively. What came out, instead of an answer, was a cough.
He noticed, with the sharp attentiveness of terror, that Natasha had reached the top of the wall and that she and Clint were disappearing into an access hatch. Thor, looking between them, caught the shield, set it aside gently, and left through the door to the locker room. Steve glanced at Thor's receding back, confused.
"What's up?" he asked, stripping the tape off his hands and tossing it aside. "How's your arm?"
"It's fine," Bucky managed, not straying from the safety of the doorway.
"Buck, you look like you've seen a ghost. Not that I'd put it outside of possibility, these days," Steve added, visibly going for levity. Bucky swallowed again. "Hey, pal, are you sure you're all right?"
"Stark said," Bucky blurted, and then fell silent.
"Aw, am I gonna have to go beat some manners into him? You know he's full of hot air," Steve replied. "What'd he say?"
Bucky stumbled forward a few steps and Steve caught him, hand on his bicep, warming the metal.
"Bucky, what's wrong?" he asked, and for the first time ever, Bucky saw what Dernier and Peggy and maybe even Natasha had been saying. There was concern in his face, yes, but also a hidden fondness which couldn't be explained away, not even by all they'd been through together.
"Can I kiss you?" he asked.
Steve leaned back, startled. "What?"
"You wouldn't sock me or -- I mean..." Bucky drew a deep breath, frozen by all the alternatives he could think of, wondering why he'd been so all-fired to take this chance.
"Say it again," Steve said softly.
"Cap -- "
"Bucky, say it again."
"Can I kiss you?" he asked, the words blurring together. Steve's head dropped, but he raised his other hand to grip Bucky's right arm.
"Oh, thank God," he breathed. "I thought I was gonna have to say something and I'm really bad at that stuff, Bucky, you know I never -- "
Bucky reached up and grabbed his shirt, tugging him close. Steve went lightly, like he was still three hundred pounds of attitude in a ninety pound body. Their faces sort of mashed together absurdly, and it was probably the worst kiss Bucky had ever had. Except for how it was also sort of the best.
When he let go, Steve's shirt was wrinkled and his mouth was red and wet. Bucky looked at him, wide blue eyes and stupidly square jaw and well-behaved hair and just started to laugh.
"I am the biggest, dumbest fuck who ever breathed," he gasped into Steve's shirt, and he felt Steve's chest vibrate with laughter. "Steve, why d'you even bother with such an almighty idiot, if I weren't me I'd tell you how much better you could do than a one-armed moron -- "
"Hey, now, that's my best friend you're talkin' about. I oughta brain you," Steve replied, one hand coming up to rest on Bucky's head.
"Tony said you'd never say anything," Bucky said.
"Well, I'll send him flowers or something," Steve replied.
"I ain't -- I'm different, you know."
"We're both different. I stuck by your sorry butt this long," Steve replied, gently pushing him back so he could look down at him. He let go of Bucky's arm and pressed his thumb gently to his chin. "I'm so gone for you it's not even funny, Buck."
"You never said."
"It wasn't safe, back then. Anyway, neither did you."
"I didn't know."
"You didn't?" Steve asked. "I thought you just...I thought you weren't...I'd'a been happy with what I could get. I'd'a been happy as long as you were around. Are you sure -- "
"Oh, I'm more'n sure," Bucky answered. "Are you?"
"I've been sure for ninety years," Steve replied. He looked up and around. "Maybe we could. Uh. Be sure, somewhere more private? We could get some dinner, or...well, it's two in the afternoon, so...so...."
Bucky watched him flail, fascinated and charmed.
"Bucky, help me," Steve said desperately. "I'm bad at this."
He laughed and kissed Steve again, and this time it was definitely the best kiss.
"Trust me," he said. "They had a meeting. Nobody's gonna bother us for a long time."
"Oh -- oh," Steve answered. "They had a meeting?"
"Apparently your helplessness and my stupidity demanded it," Bucky said.
"Still, the gym...I mean, people have to work out here..."
Bucky twined his metal hand in Steve's warm one, beaming.
"How about you buy me a Coke, soldier?" he asked.
Steve nodded. "Okay. All right."
"And then we'll make up for those ninety years or so," Bucky said, and Steve smiled like he could light the world with it.