Bucky is usually pretty good about not staring at Natasha’s chest, but when she arrives at the Central Park ice skating rink that afternoon, he can’t tear his eyes away. “What are you wearing?”
Natasha looks down at her sweater. It’s violently scarlet, so large that it nearly disguises her figure, and sprinkled all over with tiny, blinking, multi-colored Christmas tree lights.
A smirk curls up the corner of her lip. Then it disappears, and she looks up at him, all big doe eyes and innocent look. “Don’t you like it?”
Her lower lip quivers, just a little. He can’t help it: he bursts into laughter.
She grins and tucks her hand in the crook of his arm. They don’t go into the skating rink yet, but walk around it, watching the skaters crowding the ice. “I want to win the ugly sweater contest,” she tells him.
“You just might,” Bucky says.
They walk around the rink twice without going in. It’s not very cold out – just barely cold enough to keep the ice frozen. Natasha’s hand feels small in the crook of Bucky’s arm.
“Do you want to skate?” Bucky asks. He doesn’t particularly – the rink is so crowded – but, after all, she’s the one who suggested meeting here.
But she shakes her head.
They walk halfway around the rink again. Bucky buys them both hot chocolates at a kiosk, and they stop beneath a lamppost and sip.
“I really liked the sweater,” Natasha says.
Bucky has been watching a small skater attempt to master the ice by stomping across it like a dinosaur. Now he looks over at Natasha. She smiles at him. “It’s so garish and awful,” she says. “They never would have let me wear it in the Red Room.”
Bucky nods. Natasha sips her hot chocolate, or rather lifts the cup so it hides her mouth and chin. There doesn’t seem to be anything left in it.
“We used to go ice skating in the Red Room,” Natasha says. “Some of the girls trained in it the way I trained in ballet, so we had the rink. And sometimes they let us go skating just for fun. They had realized that once we were going on missions we’d have to know how to play or we wouldn’t fit in – what kind of spy doesn’t fit in? – and so they let us have playtimes.”
Bucky nods again. If he speaks, even to encourage her, he thinks she will withdraw, like a mimosa flower when it is touched, no matter how gently.
“One time I fell,” Natasha says. She’s lowered the hot chocolate cup now, and holds it with both hands. Only the tips of her fingers protrude from her scarlet sleeves. “I twisted my knee, and Irina Sergeevna helped me off the ice. She was a few years older than me, and she’s killed a man with a pencil on her first mission, or at least that’s what everybody said. She just smiled and shook her head when Yelena got it into her head to ask, which only made me admire her more. Deadly and modest, what a combination.”
The Christmas lights on her sweater flicker. Little points of red and green light reflect on the white cardboard cup.
“Well,” said Natasha, and her voice is brisk. She tosses her empty cup in the trash. “She’s dead now.”
“Natasha,” Bucky says.
Natasha wraps her arms around herself. The sweater is so big that she looks very small within it. Bucky puts an arm around her shoulders.
“I’m not going to be able to save a single one of them,” Natasha says. “What was the point of leaving if I can’t bring anyone with me?”
“Natashechka,” Bucky says, and she lowers her head so it her forehead rests against his collarbone, and her hair – dark brown, softly curled – falls to hide her face.
Bucky kisses the part of her hair, very gently. He thinks about all the people she has saved – before he knew her, in the Battle of New York, and now, all the people she’s rescued from Hydra – and he does not mention them. Sometimes strangers just aren’t enough.
“Tomorrow,” Bucky says, speaking very softly into her hair. He’s speaking Russian now. “Tomorrow we’ll talk about who is still left – who we could save.”
Natasha nods. She answers him in Russian, as well. “And today?”
“Today we’re going to grieve.” He releases her, and takes her hand in his, and draws her gently toward the rink. “Today we’ll skate in honor of Irina Sergeevna.”
They skate till the rink closes that night.